Friday, June 30, 2017

Lady Mechanika by Joe Benitez

Lady Mechanika
by Joe Benitez

Lady Mechanika is a steampunk adventure comic set in an alternate history Victorian England, first published in 2015 by Aspen MLT. Aspen MLT was founded in 2003 by comic book artist Michael Turner, it's lead comic is Fathom, which I may or may not review one day. The comic itself however is creator owned under Benitez Productions. As for Mr. Benitez himself, he is an American comic writer and artist born on May 21, 1971. He's mostly worked for Top Cow Comics, but has also done work for DC Comics. In addition to Lady Mechanika, he was the co-creator of Weapon Zero (a science fiction superhero comic) and the creator of the Wraithborn comic, which is urban fantasy originally published by DC Comics but now by Mr. Benitez in a redux form; but let's focus on the comic we're here to review shall we?

Lady Mechanika is a cyborg with amnesia. She was found in a cellar surrounded by dead bodies with no memories of anything that happened before. Through a series of utterly unexplored and only vaguely referenced events in this graphic novel, she managed to make a name for herself as an adventurer, private detective, and problem solver. The character has a distinctive style of dress that was very inspired by Kate “Kato” Lambert, a British ex-pat to the US, who is a fairly successful fashion designer and model with a heavy steampunk bent. Ms. Lambert started designing outfits with a Neo-Victorian and Post Apocalypse style in 2004 and founded her own company in 2007. I do need to warn any readers that if you look the lady up, not all of her pictures are safe for work so please keep that in mind. The comic itself however is fairly smut free. You might think I'm being pretty sparse when talking about the character herself and that's because... There's not much tell. To be blunt we don't get to know Lady Mechanika very well in this story. I know she's lacking memories of her creation and is very driven to correct that. She has a friendship of sorts with a man named Lewis who invents things for her to use on her jobs but I don't know why they're friends or how the relationship developed. It's all left a mystery in favor of pushing the adventure. Let's talk about that.

When a young lady dies after exiting a train that has just arrived at Mechanika City (we'll come back to this) that's a tragic mystery. Especially when no one knows who she is or when she got on the train. Throw on top of this that she was clad in rags and looks like she had fought off several attackers and it's a matter for the police. Add on that her arms were mechanical claws that she clearly wasn't born with and that gets Lady Mechanika's attention. This sends her on an investigation to track down the young lady's origin and find who did this to her and why. This means raiding the Ministry of Health (which seems to perform its function in a manner straight from Orwell's nightmares) for the body, to hunting down clues in a Gypsy circus and of course a confrontation on a giant airship (this is steampunk after all and in steampunk you never apologize for a giant airship... Nor should you.). This leads us to meeting a cast of characters that... We end up learning more about then we do our title character (YES THIS BOTHERS ME!), whether it be Gitano, the member of the circus who joins her quest or the Lady Katherine De Winter, Countess of St. Germains and bearer of the 7th key of the inner collective (no, we don't get to find out what this means), an evil redhead that has a history with our main character and likely served as a mentor at one point but this is referred to only in an oblique manner and a few others I won't mention to prevent spoilers.

The art is very good in this comic, despite a heavy preference for dark colors in a lot of scenes, there's enough variety in shading and colors that I never had trouble telling what was going on. There's also little chance of getting characters mixed up, which has happened to me on some independent comics, Mr. Benitez makes sure that each character has distinct visual characteristics that set them apart. The action is also very well captured, which can be a problem in a static medium like a comic book. So whatever problems the comic has it's not the art or the character design (although I think Lady Mechanika could stand to look less like a playboy model who got lost). Additionally the dialogue is fairly workmanlike, Lady Mechanika speaks in a light Victorian style voice, enough that I am reminded that she is not a modern character and that I never feel that she's a transplant from the 21st century. The same goes for the other characters, who are also given distinct verbal cues, so I never mix them up. My main problem is that the plot goes so damn fast that I still struggle to come up with ways to describe the title character of the book beyond a one sentence archetype, the same goes for Lewis her back up character. I've made this complaint before and I'll make it again, slow down on the plot so I can actually met and get to know the characters. I think part of the problem is I picked up volume I of Lady Mechanika expecting something of an origin story of sorts and Mr. Benitez has decided to skip that and just start Media Res (which is a fancy way of saying in the middle of the action). You can certainly start that way if you like but then it becomes even more vital for you to slow down and focus on the characters for a moment or five. We also have enough mystery to fill an oil tanker thrown at us but no answers, which is honestly frustrating, because a complete story (and I maintain a graphic novel should tell us a complete story) should provide some answers. Now you don't have to answer every mystery but you should answer some. I should also touch on the setting which is very contained to Mechanika City with a lot of suggestions that the technology we see on display (Cyborgs! Flying cars! Giant airships!) are all neatly contained in one city in the British Empire. If that's the actual case I would be very disappointed. If you're going to suggest massive changes to history, you should commit to it instead of trying to put them in a box. The kind of technology on display here would have modern nations devoting large chunks of their GDP to crash programs to try to replicate it. In the 1880s? All manner of nonsense would take place simply to figure out how to build their own fortress airships.

To be honest I don't regard this as a great start for the series but I do remain hopeful of improvement. While I do feel Mr. Benitez has made mistakes, most of them are rather common mistakes that writers starting out make. I mean for example, Mr. Sejic made a number of writing mistakes in Ravine but then came back and gave us Death Vigil. I think there's promise in Lady Mechanika's character, I really like the setting, what little I've seen anyways but I'm concerned with pacing of the plot and how many questions remain unanswered. Because of this I'm going to have to give Lady Mechanika a C-. Hopefully when I get to volume II, it will earn a higher grade. Next week, we're gonna feel blue, with the Blue Beetle.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

Gang Leader for a Day
by Sudhir Venkatesh

Dr. Venkatesh was born in 1966 in Chennai, India. When he was a child his parents immigrated to California. Dr. Venkatesh grew up in suburbia and graduated from the University of California with a B.A in mathematics in 1988 and headed out to the University of Chicago to get a degree in sociology (this may seem a bit of mismatch to some of you but sociology is very statistics driven field in a lot of ways so this actually meshes pretty well). He was lucky enough to work with Dr. William Julius Wilson, who was and remains powerfully influential in the fields of African American studies, sociology and the debate of race vs class. I mean let me put it this way: when I was studying for my Anthropology degree I stayed away from North America and focused on other continents, mostly preferring Asia but my long suffering advisor did throw me into classes on Africa and South America. That said... I've heard of Dr. Wilson and for that matter if you've watched the second season of the Wire, you've seen work directly influenced by him (I would love to have enemies react to my appearance the same way Omar's enemies react to his... as long as I could avoid poor Omar's fate but I'm off topic). Now I'm gonna admit I was sharpening knives to go after the subtitle of the book, which grandiosely declares him to be a rogue Sociologist, but since the author himself has repeatedly disavowed the title and claimed it was the invention of Penguin's press marketing department... I'm gonna give him a pass. On this issue anyway.

In the 1990s, Dr. Venkatesh was a struggling grad student looking to make it big and impress his adviser. So he decided to skip a lot of paperwork and just running into the bad neighborhoods of Chicago and start interviewing poor black people with a set of survey questionnaires.[note from the editor: Holy Mother of… he didn’t even get IRB approval?  Any human research, even surveys, requires IRB approval.  WTF?!  How the hell did he not get drummed out of the program?] (Simple editor! His initial survey's had approval but not for the neighborhood he went into, afterwards, he didn't ask.). If you think this went badly for him, you are correct and should get yourself a cookie. Dr. Venkatesh found himself held hostage by a street gang (the Black Kings) overnight, forced to hang out in a drafty project stairwell; the now-defunct Robert Taylor Homes. He was suspected of being a spy for a Hispanic gang and escaped a beating due to a couple facts, first of all he had shown up looking like a reject from a grateful dead concert. Second even the most committed gangbanger spy of the 90s would never think to show up with a clipboard and a set of stapled together papers asking questions like “How does it feel to be black and poor?” I'm white as printer paper and from Oklahoma and even I know that's a dumb question. Lucky for him he was rescued by the gang leader, who for the purposes of this book is named JT (we'll come back to him). Well to be fair, he didn't just start there, in fact he got his start talking to old black men who hung out in the parks, that's when he got the idea that the world they lived in was very different from his. By talking to these elder gentlemen, he got a peek into the differences between the way middle class suburbanites and the urban poor saw the world. He also got a look at how the racial divide shapes those differences and was guided through this process by a group of interesting people, I'm going to talk about some of the community leaders and the role they played here.

First is JT himself, the gang leader who was going to play the role of Dr. Venkatesh's main informant (this is actually an anthropological term, it means someone who provides you information and access to a local community) and gateway into the community. JT was an interesting figure to me, here's a guy who had actually gotten out of the projects and came back, a college graduate who quit his job when he was frustrated in seeing his white co-workers promoted ahead of him, even if he was better at the job then they were. I can sympathize with that, I've seen stuff like that happen and it's a garbage way to run a business. JT decided he would have better career opportunities and more respect from others and for himself if he went back home, joined a gang and started selling crack. I would like everyone to stop and think about that sentence for a little bit. To be fair JT is rather successful, rising to leadership and working to get into the upper ranks of the gang. Dr. Venkatesh shows a look at JT as someone who operates as a combination of a manager for a business and infantry commander in an occupied city with competing militias. With a lot of the decisions that eerily remind me of decisions that had to made by different young Americans in far off places. This isn't the only thing that disturbs me about the book but I do have to note that I wonder how much Dr. Venkatesh is down playing the JT's role in the violence that pervaded that community. JT is often shown trying to keep violence from happening or if he is being violent, using it in a disciplinary manner. I have to admit though this might be my own prejudices towards what a leader of an armed band of crack dealers would act like shining through.

Another community leader is Ms. Bailey, the building president and de facto civilian leader of the local community. Her own power is shored up by her access to the legal government and ability to arrange services for the tenants, which she supplements by taking bribes and providing additional goods and services, often paid for with those bribes. Another is her ability to make arrangements with the small businesses in the area. The relationship between JT and Ms. Bailey is fairly interesting one; while JT clearly has superior force at his command, he still pays her bribes to let him operate in the building. Part of this is that this lets JT claim that his gang is actually a helpful force in the community by paying for things like back to school shoes and supplies for the children. Another is that in many ways Ms. Bailey represents the woman tenants in the building. This study took place after the Clinton Welfare reforms, which had a ruinous effect on family life in this community. If you were married and living with your spouse, it was possible that you wouldn't qualify for rent aide or food stamps. However even if your husband had a job, it wouldn't be enough to pay the rent and get food. So the husbands and fathers were forced to make themselves into ghosts to preserve their families homes and in their absence a stabilizing force in their community disappeared. I talked about this a bit in my review on the Elephant Don and a lot of the same logic applies here. Ms. Bailey's options and the options of the women living in the building to control and contain the young men who often join the gang are very limited and leads to many of the young men running fairly rampant.

The last leader I would like to talk about is C-Note, who is the de facto leader of the squatters (although he doesn't really exercise a lot of power, more like control over who can work near the building). He's the weakest in terms of power but can provide a lot of services. Many of the squatters provide a number of services like car repair and doing minor home repairs and such on the cheap. Additionally Ms. Bailey can press them into service as a militia in case of an emergency, a situation which again reminds me of another place and time. C-Note is often squeezed by Ms. Bailey and JT for money and services and being an old man past his physical prime has little choice in the matter. Still without him and the squatters life actually becomes a lot harder for the people of the community.

There are those who hail Dr. Venkatesh's methods as revolutionary (mostly publishing agents, I should note that Dr. Venkatesh has not done so). I am not among them, frankly if I had written the subtitle, it would been “Sociologist student stumbles into Anthropology, does questionable job.” Seriously what Dr. Venkatesh is doing in this book is basic Anthropology work, called ethnography where an Anthropologist goes out to a foreign community and gathers information on how it operates, what it believes in, how it's member relate to one another, as well as who is in charge and why. We even have a name for the method he almost used Participant Observation, I should note that most traditional practicers would argue that if Dr. Venkatesh wanted to do that he should lived in the community full time. Dr. Venkatesh violates a number of rules for this type of research as well. For example he lies to the people he's studying, usually by omission to avoid confrontations but lying nonetheless. This is frankly a problem when you do this kind of research, because often you're better educated, wealthier and have better government connections. He takes sides in community disputes, often by accident because he doesn't really know what he's doing. He lies to his advisers because he's afraid they'll cut short his research. Additionally Dr. Venkatesh allows his research to be used by the people in charge (Ms. Bailey and JT) against the people he got it from. When doing a full study on how the tenants and the squatters make money, he provides the information to the both above, who proceed to use this information to shake people down and demand higher pay outs to avoid legal trouble or gang violence. He claims in the book he had no idea this would happen, which I suppose is possible but shows him to be painfully naive. Most of these aren't acts of malice or a desire to screw people over but are done because Dr. Venkatesh wasn't trained for this and because he didn't tell his advisers and professors the full scale of what he was doing, nor realized he needed to be trained for this. So I'm not suggesting Dr. Venkatesh is a terrible person, but I am suggesting that a long list of mistakes were made in this research project.

That said, I do commend Dr. Venkatesh for being honest about his mistakes, even if he spends a bit of time trying to excuse them. It's hard for me to throw too many stones at him, because when I was in my early 20s, I was in another poverty stricken place making terrible decision often on bad intelligence while trying to do the right thing...Despite not always being entirely sure what that was. So I suppose I get it. This book disturbs me not just because of the sheer amount of rookie mistakes outlined above, but how much the projects remind me of some of the realities of the occupation. That fellow Americans would be forced to live under a corrupt, haphazard government and turn to illegal armed forces for security, forces that also prey upon them is frankly shameful. It is a problem that also remains for many Americans and I don't honestly see a solution for it coming on the horizon. This problem lingers because we refuse to grapple with it beyond the most superficial ways and it will continue to linger until we do resolve to confront it. Despite how this book bothers me, if you are looking for a book to provide you some of the basics of how poverty impacts people and shapes the choices available, or how communities who lack a government that can provide security and basic services behaves, interacts and solves conflicts, this is actually a fairly good book. It's not an academic resource, having been written for popular consumption, so I would keep that in mind. Dr. Venkatesh does not cite the work of many Anthropologists and Sociologists who came before him in this book but since this isn't a scholarly work I suppose I won't hit him too harshly for that. However, this book is also an example of rather terrible field work in a lot of ways, where Dr. Venkatesh gets his data through sheer luck and persistence as much as anything else. I'm giving Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh a C+ because of that. Some of you will find it to be B material quite easily but I'm one reviewing this. That said, it was miles better to read then Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (that's right! I said it!), which is the book we had to read for our classes, so it has that going for it!

Next week, I'm feeling the need to turn back to graphic novels, so Lady Mechanika is up. Keep Reading!  

This Review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, June 16, 2017

Greek Key By KG Spangler

Greek Key
By KG Spangler

Greek Key is the 4th novel by Ms. Spangler and like the last three it is part of her own expanded universe from the web comic “A Girl and Her Fed”. As such I should start this review with a bit of a spoiler warning. If you've only read the Rachel Peng novels, this book carries many spoilers for what's going on. You know those secrets that Rachel's boss keeps from her? They're front and center in this book and massively part of the plot. So if you want to avoid finding out before Rachel does, you might want to skip this book (or at least this review) and go to Brute Force. That said if you've been reading A Girl and Her Fed, you're already in the know as it were and you have nothing to worry about. Now that I've covered that, let's get into the book.
Let me start with Hope Blackwell. Hope Blackwell is millionaire martial artist who discovered a secret government conspiracy when she realized she was under surveillance by a government agent who also happened to be a cyborg. Hope was aided by the fact that she is close personal friends with Benjamin Franklin, who is also a ghost. Said government agent, Patrick Mulcahy ended up teaming up with her to bust the conspiracy wide open and eventually went public with the whole damn thing. For more details, read the webcomic or prior reviews of the other novels. Hope is a woman with a lot of gifts, she's a great fighter, psychic (although she's terrible at it), a good friend, and studying to become a doctor. She also has a great many flaws, she has a foul mouth with a temper almost has bad and tends to prefer fast easy solutions. She also has a terrible attention span, in fact after checking for word of god, I confirmed that she does in fact have ADHD. Which makes this less of a character flaw in my mind and more of a disability you could say as calling it a flaw doesn't seem right to me. Ms. Spangler tries to reflect this in her writing by giving Hope a very different voice from Rachel Peng. Peng is methodical, focused and disciplined, she dislikes violence and while she's no wallflower, she isn't a full blown extrovert either. Hope throws herself from topic to topic, her narration is full of asides and observations, Ms. Spangler keeps this from getting out of control or detracting from the story by making a lot of those asides (the ones that don't directly serve the plot) footnotes, so you can completely skip them if you like. This is actually very clever and helps capture Hope fully without derailing the story into a incoherent wreck. I'm also tickled to see footnotes being used in a novel for mass consumption in 2017 when back in 1997 one of my English teachers firmly told me that footnotes were dead and never coming back outside of really dense academic papers. Let that be a lesson kids, listen to your teachers but realize there's going to have to be a point where you throw their pronouncements to the way side and make your own damn calls, just be prepared to live and die on those calls. Anyways back to the review.

Joining her on this story is Mike, also a terrible psychic but a terrifyingly good martial artist. Hope is something of a statistical anonymity in that she developed her psychic powers through genetic mutation. Mike on the other hand comes from a long line of psychics who have organized themselves into families with wealth, power, and influence coming from their gifts. Many of the families have withdrawn from the rest of humanity and there is more than a little feeling of their abilities make them better than the average schmuck. Mike decided that was bullshit and ran away from home when he was twelve and then worked his way up to becoming a master of aikido with his own studio in Los Vegas (it's a young city, not a lot of ghosts you see). Frankly Mike is bloody amazing but infuriating. He has worked very hard at not developing his psychic powers and not learning anything about them. Now his decision to not develop his God given abilities is his own, I disagree with it but it's his right to decide what do with his inborn talents, but being ignorant about them is down right dangerous and could get someone hurt. I'm of the opinion if you have a talent or a possession that could hurt someone it is absolutely your responsibility to know everything you can about it to ensure it's safe use or it's safe lack of use. I won't tell y'all how to run your lives folks but I will insist that you do not endanger the neighbors. There's also the issue that Mike is as self righteous as his family members and at some point I would like to see his face get ground into it. I say that despite liking Mike, because whatever his flaws he is honestly trying to be a good and helpful person. In this case he goes to Greece with Hope leaving behind his own life with little warning to help her guard herself (Hope really doesn't need protection honestly) and provide a second opinion on things (which Hope often needs).

Along with Mike and Hope is Speedy, who is a male Queensland Koala Bear. An overly ambitious scientist genetically (and surgically, since you'll note Koala's have no vocal cords) modified Speedy to make him intelligent. Speedy killed him when he realized the scientist was planning on dissecting him to see what improvements could be made on the next model. Speedy is a genius, an expert code breaker and a complete and total asshole. A lot of this is Speedy lacking the social instincts that a human would have because he's a fucking Koala! Part of it is the rather rough life he led until Patrick found him (leading to an intense bond of loyalty between the two of them). The rest of it is Speedy is simply an asshole who enjoys jerking people around. Hope is able to keep him in line with the fact that she can kill a small bull with her bare hands so a Koala wouldn't even slow her down and Speedy knows her impulse control is bad enough to make it a possibility; and you thought you had complicated friendships, right?

They are all in Greece to find out something very important. Just who built the Antikythera Mechanism and were they alive when they did it? See the Ghost of Ben Franklin is worried that if a Greek Ghost, say of Archimedes, built the machine and it gets discovered by living people, then the universe might... implode (I love that these reviews let me type sentences like this for the record). Sadly Patrick and our favorite Cyborgs cannot leave the country so it's up to Hope to head over to the sunny Mediterranean during her spring break and see if she can whistle up a ghost or five to explain just what is going on. There are problems with that: first, Hope can't see non-American Ghosts, so they'll have to basically try to play guessing games. Second, Speedy's the only person in the group who speaks Greek, both modern and Ancient dialects (just remember all of this stuff happened 2,500 years ago, think about how much the language you speak is different from your parents and... Yeah). Third, none of their ghosts can help them while they're in Greece. Fourth and this is a kicker folkers, they got the attention of a powerful Greek ghost alright, it's Helen of Tr... Sparta! She prefers to be called Helen of Sparta and I would recommend indulging the lady here. She wants Hope to do her a favor, she ain't gonna take no for an answer and she's gonna start beaming her life story into Hope's skull if that's what it takes. This is a journey that's gonna led them from Athens to Rhodes to islands in the middle of nowhere in the sunny sea. Meanwhile they also have to deal with hired goons, who really cannot take a hint, a hired archaeologist/treasure hunter/tomb robber... Who cannot take a hint and his cousin the lady black market treasure hunter... Who also cannot take a hint. It's not a very relaxing vacation.

On top of this Hope is also having to hide her connections to the afterlife as she and Mike are committed to keeping a secret on the logic that they don't have the right to spill the beans. I'll admit I have trouble following their logic, when they declare they don't have the right to the tell the truth. Which honestly sounds ass backwards to me, basically they're declaring that a lie must be maintained and Mike's position is the lie must be maintained at all costs. Now, I'll admit I'm not going to throw too many rocks here, because... Imagine tomorrow that the existence of an afterlife is proven, verifiable fact. Even putting religion on a shelf (HA!) here... How many changes do you think that would cause? Would you want to be the person who pulled that trigger? I'm not sure honestly that I'm brave enough to do it but here's the thing. Everyone has the right to tell the truth. The truth is what everyone is entitled to, now I'll grant that often the truth isn't what we want to know. There are times when a lie is more pleasing or may even be better for our well being. I'm not saying you should never tell someone a lie, just be aware that when you do... You're hiding something that the other person most likely has a right to (there are exceptions to this obviously, there are parts of your private life you have every right to keep private for example and if you need to lie to do it so be it but I'm speaking in very general terms here). I suppose this is nitpicky of me since, I'm not sure I disagree with the characters actions in hiding the afterlife and ghosts from the living. I just disagree with their reasoning. Some of you may suggest I'm splitting hairs and I'll remind you that I've decided of my own free will to review books for almost three years now. A certain amount of hair splitting should be expected!

All of that said, I continue to be impressed with Ms. Spangler's ability to use the written word. The story communicates Hope's lack of focus without damaging the plot. The interplay between the characters show a committed friendship between combative and strong will people without going over the line and making it look like they hate each other. The action is well written and really does communicate a sense of chaos while clearly showing what is going on. There are some writers who try to use martial art sounding names which leads to “He attacked with Floating Mountains Snow but was blocked by Grazing Hare Naps!” thankfully Ms. Spangler does no such thing here. As side note here to any aspiring writer, just describe what the character is doing and leave the fancy names to anime, alright? You're writing to help me form a mental picture of the fight. The dialogue is fun and the book as always is full of interesting ideas and facts on top of it's plot. I'm giving Greek Key by KG Spangler an -A. Go read it, have fun.

Next week, Gang Leader for a Day, keep reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, June 9, 2017

Sweet Silver Blues By Glen Cook

Sweet Silver Blues
By Glen Cook

Glen Cook was born New York City, year of our Lord 1944. He started writing in grade school (primary school for my English readers) and by the time he hit high school he was donating articles to the school paper. He had to step away from writing for a bit as he served a hitch in the navy (he spent part of that time interestingly enough with a Marine Force Recon Unit, but rotated out before they shipped off to Vietnam) and worked his way through college. However when he picked up a job at a GM plant that really didn't require to much mental effort from him, he picked it right back up. His first book The Black Company was published in 1984, a military fantasy work that would be listed as an influence by Steven Eriksen (writer of the Malazan series) and George RR Martin (if you need me to tell you, then please email me, you're gonna need a guided tour of the fantasy genre). Mr. Cook made a splash by injecting a dose of gritty, raw realism into his fantasy. His characters acted and sounded like real people who got hungry, tired, and every now and again just really needed to take a piss. He followed up the Black Company with an experiment, which is remarkable in and of itself as lot of fantasy publishing companies weren't terribly keen on experimenting with the genre. Of course I suppose when you open with something like the Black Company, they tend to let you have a little bit more rope. Additionally, fantasy itself was still experiencing a lot of changes with works from people like Michael Moorcock being as influential on new writers as Tolkien in a lot of ways. This specific experiment however, was the combining of noir detective stories with a fantasy setting. A combination that has grown popular in later years especially in the realm of urban fantasy (those are fantasy stories set in the modern “real world” for the most part). Sweet Silver Blues however sets itself in a full blown fantasy world but brings noir style characters and outlooks to the setting.

Garrett is a lot of things, a ladies man, a war veteran, habitable over drinker and private investigator. Setting up shop in the city of TunFaire, Garrett is who you turn to when you want a mystery solved quietly. As long as you're willing to pay for it. Loosely (very loosely) based on Archie Goodwin from the Nero Wolfe series (there's another character who is based on Nero Wolfe, but as I said loosely), Archie in that book series worked for Nero Wolfe, an investigator who hated leaving home, so he had Archie do all the clue gather and what not. Garrett differs in that he's self employed and operates a lot more independently. Garrett in this book comes off as a cynic who would really like to be an idealist but has simply dealt with to many people for that to be possible. That said there's a refreshing lack of condemnation for most characters from Garrett. Oh there are some utter assholes that Garrett calls out but you don't see a lot of Garrett getting on his high horse.  He knows his faults and is mostly tired of people pretending that they don't have theirs, but is also willing to give them all the credit they've earned. It's a very fair way to look at things. Of course Garrett doesn't let any of this get in the way of doing his job, he is after all here to get paid.

Garrett has never figured how to live without beer and food but he has figured out if you're good at something, don't do it for free. TunFaire is the capital city of the kingdom of Karenta, which is ruled by a band of sorcerers who are at war with another band of sorcerers who rule the next country over (Venageta). They're fighting over a region of the world known as the Cantard, a blasted, wild wasteland which happens to hold most of the world's known silver reserve. Along with hostile Centaur tribes, vampire nests, and packs of carnivorous unicorns with their own trained hunting dogs (that's right unicorns who want to kill and eat you and have trained dogs to hunt you). This is worth waging a long unending war because magic is fueled by precious metals like silver. So, I suppose you could say Karenta and Venageta are having their own little oil war. Thankfully Mr. Cook doesn't beat us over the head with this but the war the constant drain of resources and the strain it puts on society are constantly in the background and show up in the very fabric of Karenta. For example all male citizens are required to serve 5 years in the military, be it the army, navy or the marines. Garrett being brave, strong, loyal and perhaps not all that bright at the time, went for the Marine Corps. His buddy Denny Tate, a dwarf with a touch of elvish blood, served in the cavalry. Denny managed to pick up some plunder when his regiment hit an enemy pay caravan, he then without anyone knowing except an old girlfriend and his army buddies turned that bit of plunder into a rather large fortune. Which he never really got to enjoy as he fell off his horse, split his skull open and died (odd way to go for a cavalry man if you ask me but nobody did).

Garrett isn't hired to investigate Denny's death as everyone is pretty sure it was an accident, given that it happened in broad daylight with a lot of witness. No, Garrett isn't that lucky. Instead Garrett has been hired to hunt down the woman that Denny left his fortune to, the said ex-girlfriend. The said, married, ex-girlfriend (as she got married after Denny left). The said, married, ex-girlfriend that Garrett had a fling with when he was stationed in her hometown before she met Denny. The married ex-girlfriend who has disappeared into the Cantard. Which means Garrett has to whistle up a crew, travel to the girl's old hometown and try and hunt her down in a warzone infested with enemy soldiers, screaming monsters, angry natives, and vampires. Additionally, Denny's old army buddies would rather he pass on the job, see they figure if they just grab some of Denny's letters and keep writing, they can fool the lady into keeping this money making plan going for at least another year or two and they're willing to get violent to do it. On top of that, he's got to deal with the fact that Denny's little sister Rose, is willing to move heaven and earth to keep him from doing it. Because if he fails, she gets all that money. It's a sucker's job, the kind most people would run screaming from and most of the rest won't come back from but Garrett's gonna do it anyways. Not for the amazingly high fee (although that's part of it). Not just because Denny was a friend and a fellow vet (although that's one of the reasons). Not just because he wants to help an old girlfriend (although that's on the list as well) but for himself because he wants to set this to rest and not have it gnawing at the back of his head. Garrett might not be his own worst enemy but he should certainly list himself on a top ten arch foes list.

Garrett's not alone in this job however, with him he's bringing a half dark elf named Morley Dotes, a pair of half giant, half trolls with their little brother; and to top that off, he's getting advice from a dead guy. Let's take a look at this crew. Morley has a number of unattractive traits if we're gonna be honest: he's quick to kill requiring Garrett to hold him back a few times, and he really enjoys sleeping with other people's wives and is one of those vegetarians who heckles you about enjoying a good ham sandwich (look living to 125 on cattail roots just doesn't sound worth it). Now before anyone gets excited, there's nothing wrong with you being a vegetarian, there is something wrong with you demanding I be one. I won't pick on you for your diet and you won't pick on me for mine alright? All of that said, Morley is very dependable in this book, willing to follow Garrett into the worst of places on the barest of plans. I’ve got to admire that level of friendship because frankly Morley could have cut and run pretty much at any point and likely made it somewhere where he could live comfortably. Plus his back and forth with Garrett is pretty damn funny. I honestly like their relationship, Garrett's a bit of a questionable guy himself but having Morley around helps highlight his good points and makes his flaws more comedy than tragic. Plus having a friendship as one of the core relationships of your book keeps the tone from getting to dark. That doesn't mean that Morley doesn't have his own goals mind you, just that his friendship can be counted on here. The Grolls don't have much character here beyond hit things and laugh but they're dumb muscle. The dead guy? Well he ain't human, literally. He's a member of the Loghyr race, who hang around after they die. The Dead Guy is a genius however and provides Garrett with clues and ideas on how to operate out there in the big bad world, which makes a bit of a call out to Nero Wolfe himself. He doesn't play a major part in this book honestly beyond the beginning but like I said does provide some valuable information for Garrett.

Sweet Silver Blues is an interesting look back into the past, while I'm not sure if it's the first book to mix noir story lines and characters with fantasy elements, it's certainly a very early example of it. The book is gritty, with characters who are flawed but not hateful or disguising. The humanity of the characters is used to give them clay feet but doesn't drag them through the muck either. Which is frankly an improvement on several modern examples, as there are those who believe that characters with any unalloyed good points or virtues must be hunted down and erased. If you like a story where the characters feel real but there are still plenty of laughs and awesome moments or if you like a mystery story that doesn't revolve around a murder you'll like this. Mr. Cook builds a settings that has questions of racism, corruption and the question of when it is right to go to war and lets you examine those issues by looking at the impact on the characters in the story. Which is a great and subtle way to do it. I had fun with this story and I think you will to. That said the story does end up feeling a bit rushed towards to the end and I wish the journey back had been given a bit more attention. I'm giving Sweet Silver Blues by Mr. Glen Cook a B+.

Next week we take a look at KG Splanger's book Greek Key. Keep reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Grand Central Area By Rye E Spoor

Grand Central Area
By Rye E Spoor

Rye Erik Spoor was born in Omaha Nebraska in 1962, both of his parents were teachers. He has lived in a wide variety of places and managed to nail degrees in a surprising amount of subjects. As you might guess his prior occupations are also all over the place (everything from burger flipping to production management has been listed). He currently lives with his wife Katherine, who he married in 1995 and has had four children with. Mr. Spoor was also what we call an early adopter of the internet, oddly enough. Like most of us he wrote for fun and entertainment for most of his life and even co wrote fan fiction with his wife (Saint Seiya fan fiction, which honestly is a series I haven't seen), which is posted on some dark corner of the internet. It's interesting to note that according to Mr. Spoor, it's due to his wife's influence that he can focus on characters. Mr. Spoor is also a mighty fan of old science fiction series such as Skylark (which I missed coming up) and the Lensmen (Kinnison for President!), this is important because not only are series like the two above heavy influences on the book we're reviewing, they're the reason he become a published writer in the first place. This all starts with an internet flame war you see. A flame war between Mr. Spoor and Eric Flint. Mr. Flint is a professional writer known these days primarily for his 1632 series (which I'm not discussing in-review sorry). Back then he had been put in charge of a reissuing of James Scmitz's stories and was misquoted stirring up a lot of opposition, some of it led by Mr. Spoor. This being the internet, Mr. Flint was soon involved and strangely enough, instead of the argument dissolving into a screaming flamefest... It turned into a rational discussion and led to peace (I should note that no one recommends trying this as a method of breaking into publishing, you're just as likely to get yourself locked out). From this point Mr. Flint and Mr. Spoor developed a friendship, which led to Mr. Flint finding out about Mr. Spoor's writing and finding out he liked it and recommended it to Jim Baen, the owner of Baen books and here we are today...

That said Grand Central Arena isn't his first book, just the first I've read and damn if it ain't interesting. The set up goes like this: in the not quite so far but not that soon future Humanity has worked out the majority of it's crap. The creation of Artificial Intelligence and nanomachine driven 3D printing along with the final perfection of fusion power has solved the material needs of humanity. With the cheap power that fusion provided (I assume with better batteries as well honestly because our power storage technology is kinda meh) humanity was able to expand all across the solar system. No one goes hungry, no one lacks for health care, living space, or opportunities to develop their skills and talents. Genetic modification is easy and relatively painless, so there are many avenues of self expression through body modification or you can enhance yourself to meet the challenges of a new environment or job if you get truly bored. Most boring labor is done by robots (super roombas have finally seized complete control of janitor duties) meaning people can focus on jobs they would actually want to do, as opposed to have to do or starve to death (and to be blunt we arrange things that way currently because there is no way enough people would volunteer to be janitors or trashmen or what have you actually keep things running). With nothing material to fight over and enough space for everyone to live comfortably, along with virtual realities to help provide an outlet for people... Things have grown super peaceful for humanity. There's barely a government, money is generated by getting people interested in what you're doing and donating “interest vectors” which gives you more access to energy and materials. Basically... Imagine a bunch of modern techie anarchists wrote star trek, only with no FTL or aliens (or Eclipse Phase without the manic AI's and oppressive governments for those who need a geekier reference).

Speaking of the lack of FTL, there's a gentleman who working on solving that, named Simon Sandrisson. Simon is a super-genius who has already upturned the realm of physics by proving that there's an Universal Frame of Reference.I asked a few physics buddies about this and their response was “Imagine someone just proved that there is a God and he's watching the universe, because that's basically what would have just happened.” Simon isn't content with making mathematical discoveries that have a profound scientific and theological implications however. He wants the Holy Grail, he wants to go Faster Than Light and thinks this can help him do it. Being a responsible lad, he used unmanned probes with his FTL engine first. There's a problem with this... They keep not coming back. He tried sending probes with AI pilots, when they come back... They show they were off the whole time. So he decides what he needs to do is set up a manned mission, to lead it he recruits the best damn pilot in the whole Solar System, our main character Ariane Austin. Ariane is a professional space race pilot, which means she flies at brain melting speeds through the void of space in a single pilot ship through obstacle courses that would turn fighter pilot's hair gray (well, their flight surgeon's hair at least). When offered the chance to make history she goes for it and helps Simon recruit a crew of men and women willing to go where no man has gone before and it's a doozy.

They find themselves in Grand Central Arena, an artificial creation of an ancient race no one has ever seen, whose technological abilities were so damn advanced that it looks like magic to characters who lived their entire lives with replicators and easy space travel. The GCA is a scale model of the universe, each star system is represented by a sphere usually about 20,0000 kilometers across. Inside the sphere is a scale model of the star system in question. The outside of a sphere is usually a habitable environment with a breathable atmosphere. It is possible to fly from sphere to sphere. In fact a number of aliens make it a point to settle spheres as colonies. For you see the GCA not only solves the whole FTL thing, but also provided an answer to Fermi's paradox. Fermi's paradox, thought of by Enrico Fermi, one of the great physicist of the 20th century, to express a simple question: according to biology and physics there should be other planets with life on them, given the observed age of the universe, there should be planets where life developed before us. So given all these facts... Where the hell is everyone? The answer in this series is they're all bopping about the GCA. These spheres aren't floating about unconnected in the ether, they're connected to the Grand Central Arena itself. It's a marketplace, a diplomatic meeting place, a gladiatorial arena all in one. It's practically Babylon 5 if it was built by the first ones. I mention technology that looked like magic? This place creates personalized life support for each individual, by which I mean this. Imagine you and three aliens meet in a room. You need a oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere at around a single g for comfort, however one of your alien buddies needs 3 times that gravity and a methane based atmosphere, another one needs about .75 g's and a chlorine atmosphere and a third one can breath oxygen but requires a much wetter environment to keep her skin from drying out. In the GCA you can all meet in that single room without any specialized life support equipment because it converts the atmosphere as it hits you and is constantly adjusting the effect of gravity to your comfort on an individual level. Yes, just make this clear, you could be standing a foot away from someone and they'll be experiencing three times the gravity and breathing poison as you and you won't feel a damn thing! On top of this, the GCA is capable of changing basic laws of nature, nuclear events won't happen in the GCA. No nuclear bombs, no nuclear power plants, all fission and fusion just goes inert. This is an issue because the FTL ship is powered by a fusion reactor! So now our characters have to figure out how to buy enough power to turn their FTL engine on and get back home. Luckily there's a thriving market in selling energy, they just gotta figure out how to make the trade.

It's not all sunshine and magic however, the builders of the GCA have disappeared millions of years ago leaving it inhabited by aliens who do not understand the technology that built it and are not unified in purpose (the GCA is so damn old that sapient species have evolved within it's environment). The aliens are divided into factions, some are friendly, some are neutral, some are secretive and others are downright hostile. They all have their own goals and objectives and are interested in getting humanity to further them. The GCA has laws that it enforces via environmental control (get too stroppy in a public place and you'll find yourself being smashed under 3 times your normal gravity for example) and a group of public enforcers who act as police and judge. Araine finds herself by the virtue of being the captain of the first human ship to breach the FTL barrier as the defacto leader of humanity in the GCA. This is an issue because the factions and alien species solve their problems via challenges, which can be anything from competitive puzzle solving to fights to the death. With Humanity being the first new species to emerge into the GCA on it's own power in over 5000 years, they attracted a lot of attention and everyone has their own ideas about what humanity should be doing. Araine has to protect her crew and protect our unknowing species while building up enough credit to get everyone back home. Oh, she also has to avoid not dying while being pulled into a factional fight between aliens with powers we can't understand who’ve taken a personal interest in her. But hey if the job was easy, everyone would want to be Captain.

As you might guess, I really enjoyed Grand Central Arena. It helps that all the human characters were reasonable adults and that Mr. Spoor avoided any silly drama for the sake of drama. For example Simon and another character Marc Duquesne (who is a Skylark reference and I'll stop here for the sake of spoilers) both have a thing for Ariane. There's no high school back stabbing or underhandedness here though, they both make their interest known like adults and both manage to work together as professionals agreeing that making sure everyone gets home alive is more important than getting laid. Ariane for her part makes her own feelings known clear and doesn't jerk anyone around, nor does she let this shit get in the way of her job. Frankly I approve of this. Additionally the factions were all fairly interesting if basic, I didn't go to in depth into them here to avoid spoilers but I found the way Mr. Spoor balanced them to be interesting. I also loved the aliens, the majority of them were non-mammalian and nowhere near humanoid but not strange enough to be unrelatable That all said, this is pure 21st century pulp sci-fi of the highest quality. If you don't like pulp, if you're be put off by people monkeying about with the laws of science and what not... Then you're gonna hate this book. That said if you like some two fisted, thrilling heroics with exotic locations, strange new exciting people and the whole universe being flipped upside down? This is your book. This book was fun and interesting and I couldn't stop reading it. I'm giving Grand Central Arena by Ryk E Spoor a B+
Next week, it's time Glen Cook got some space on this review series, we gonna look at Sweet Silver Blues. Keep reading!  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.