Friday, September 29, 2017

Forests of the Night By S Andrew Swann

Forests of the Night
By S Andrew Swann

Mr. Swann was actually born Mr. Steven Swiniarski; he adopted the moniker S Andrew Swann as a pen name. He spent all of his adult life in the Greater Cleveland Area (which explains to me why his first book is set in a barely working dystopia {It could be worse.  It could be Detroit!}) where he lives with his wife and works a day job as a Database manager. He’s written 25 novels with the first being the work we are reviewing today! Forests of the Night was published in 1993 and is a fine example of Bio Punk. Now a good number of you may rightly be asking ‘just what in the name of all that's Holy is Bio Punk, you manic genius?’. Well Biopunk is an outgrowth of Cyberpunk, for those of you are new (Welcome! Glad to have you!{Hi!}) Cyberpunk is a genre of science fiction that is usually set in the near future and is focused on an examination of new technologies like the internet, virtual reality, and the the increasing digitization of our society(*sniffs*I smell the 1980s and early 1990s. Oh no.  I caught a whiff of the cocaine.). It pairs this with a society that is breaking down and falling into a dystopian nightmare where the super rich and their servants live in luxury with their whims catered to by that technology and everyone lives in their trash. Most Cyberpunks aren't that extreme but the idea is to examine how technology doesn't necessarily make everyone's life easier or improve society. Bio punk takes many of the themes and stories of Cyberpunk but instead of examining information technology likes to examine biological technology. Things like cloning, genetic engineering and so on.

Mr. Swann's book was released close enough to the 80s to be affected by the common ideas of fiction at the time and his efforts at subverting them leads to a book that... Strangely echoes modern anxieties. The Pan Asian War ripped across Asia in the biggest bloodbath in history and our side lost. Japan and India were subjected to nuclear bombardment by the People's Republic of China, who went on to occupy them. The United States remains a great power by the skin of it's collective teeth but whether or not we'll keep that status is open to question. It is not helped by the fact that reactionary political party has risen to power demanding that the federal government be cut back to the mythical ‘drown in a bathtub’ size (this last part seems odd to me, we have lost a war and our allies are in chains and your reaction is to demand tax cuts for corporations and cuts to government services?). However those forces haven't won yet and the US federal government is still able and in many cases willing to enforce its will on the corporations that operate in it's borders. The corporations however wield influence through campaign contributions and lobbying, just like today. Meanwhile, new minorities have arisen due to government's turning to genetic engineering for super soldiers. Franks, genetically created humans and Moreau's, people who were created by blending together the genetic traits of animals and humans. While due to a Constitutional Amendment, Moreau's have all the legal rights and standings of natural born humans, in fact they are heavily discriminated against. Forced to live in ghettos and systematically denied education and employment and subjected to a police force that acts more like a hostile occupying army then a police force (why does this sound familiar? {If this description is accurate, the author is A) not being subtle, and B) is...well not prescient because what is true now was true in 1993 but no one cared}). Not that long ago the situation exploded into a series of riots that were put down with military action and now as the United States stands with largest population of free Moreau's in the world, it also stands on the knife edge of social violence.

Into this comes our nudist detective (hey clothes are a pain when you have fur), who is also an 8ft tiger, with a pair of thumbs, a troubled past and a bad attitude, Nohar Rajasthan. He's got a couple of rules: always finish the job, get paid, stay away from murder cases, and never take a job from a human (or pink as Moreau's refer to us). As far as Nohar is concerned nothing good comes from messing around in human business, but like all private eyes in their first story, he's dead broke and the client a genetically engineered Frank from abroad (or is he?) who offers him more money than he's ever had at once... His better judgment is drowned out by not only a strong desire to be able to pay all his bills at once but his curiosity . Nohar has been hired to investigate the murder of a human, Daryl Johnson the campaign manager of the 12th district Congressmen Joseph Binder, a member of the reactionary party who is now running for Senate. The good Congressmen is pressuring the police to sweep the investigation under the rug and Nohar's employer, a major contributor to the campaign, would like to know why and is willing to pay for the knowledge.

This investigation pulls Nohar into the deep end real fast as he finds himself targeted by both the local and federal police for his investigation but also by the Moreau Rat gang the Zipperheads, or Zipheads as most call them. Nohar finds himself pulled into a political conspiracy and into racial street violence at the same time. As the connections between the company paying for the investigation and the Binder campaign are found to be more numerous, deeper, and stretching out into places that seem nonsensical, Nohar becomes a target for people that want him to just walk away. He has to connect the dots and and figure out just what is going on before the body counts gets too high or he ends up as part of it. That said Nohar isn't completely without allies or weapons of his own. His foster father, Manny the Mongoose works with the police as a morgue assistant (At least he’s not a vulture or hyena…) and the guy they call in to handle Moreau bodies. I gotta be honest I really like the relationship here. Mr. Swann does a good example of showing us a relationship between two people who honestly care about each other but also have a lot of history between the two of them, not all of it good history either. This is complicated by the fact that much of the bad in that history isn't either of their fault but is the result of actions by Nohar's biological father and Nohar's own efforts to understand his biological father. Manny clearly wants to keep Nohar safe and whole, while Nohar is struggling to prove that he can be his own man and finish the path he's chosen for himself. Speaking of Nohar let's talk about him.

Nohar is as befits a private detective in a punk setting, an intelligent and cynical person with a complicated past that has left him an outsider in Moreau society while his genetic heritage has made him an outsider in human society. Nohar isn't just distrustful of human authorities figures, he's often borderline contemptuous of his fellow Moreau's. He doesn't hesitate to point out their self destructive tendencies or how those tendencies are egged on by human authorities to justify their bigotry. Despite his distrust of human government, he is able to have human friends (Wow, we have seen this before.  Do the other Moreaus call him him an Uncle Tomcat?). For example the human hacker Bobby that he works with, who also happens to be a childhood friend. He is also able to connect with Stephanie Weir, an assistant to the murdered Mr. Johnson who is either the witness that will help him figure everything out or the target that gets him killed protecting her. While Nohar may be cynical and has problem making friends, he isn't dismissive of other people's lives and we see this as he rescues Angel, a rabbit Moreau, the last survivor of a gang wiped out by the Zipperheads. I can't talk too much about Angel without unleashing spoilers but suffice to say, what she brings to the table is an interesting piece of the puzzle. Nohar's isolation stems more from him not being to confront his personal problems but preferring to focus on... Anything else. I can't get to down on Nohar for that. It's a very human personality flaw shared by a lot of people.

I enjoyed this book as you might have guessed. Nohar is a flawed but good protagonist who retains a moral compass and a desire to at least try and make the world slightly better. Although like most of us he would like to get paid while doing so. The mystery is an interesting one that is gradually revealed through Nohar doing the classic detective work of talking to people, tracking down witnesses and leads and at times engaging in good, old fashioned violence. The action in this book is well presented, while Nohar is allowed to be the kind of terrifying force that an 8 foot tall tiger man with fangs and claws capable of tearing people apart (human senator:”I just see weapons in our schools”) should be; he’s not an untouchable avatar of war here, his injuries and mistakes mount up and take a toll on him. This gives the action a sense of realism and helps ground it a bit. Which is a good thing when a lot of your book is battles between rat gangsters and tiger private detectives. The villains, mostly personified in an Afghan hound assassin named Hassan who manages to be terrifying despite my mental picture of him being utterly ridiculous, have an interesting motivation that makes sense. It's also one that you will not guess in the first chapter of the book but is well enough foreshadowed that it doesn't feel like it comes out of left field, which is always appreciated. The rats on the other hand don't really feel that menacing until the last part of the book, but I think that's because for 2/3rds of the book we're literally reading about small groups of rats trying to threaten and intimidate a bloody Tiger! I mean... Thing's that just aren't happening (Criminals are often dumb?  Do they breed like rats?  That might explain why they are so blaize about their casualties.{Well, Nohar says that the Latin American governments went with rats specifically because of their fast breeding times so, yes.}).

I do want to talk about the Moreau's before I give my grade on the book though. I have to be honest and say I really don't see humanity using genetic engineering to create sapient races of laborers and soldiers. Robots are cheaper and don't have to be sapient, which means they can't rebel, can't unionize, or start thinking they deserve things like paid vacations, coffee breaks, civil rights... You know all the little things that some employers dream of not having to give to their labor force. Frankly if I found out we were, I would be willing to go really far in stopping it from happening. We shouldn't create another species or 50 just to foist off our wars on. For that matter we shouldn't create a sapient race--biological or mechanical--until we know damn well what we want to accomplish from such a feat, how we're going to provide for such a race, and that we can behave in a manner that won't end up shaming our descendants when they read about it in the history books. When it comes to triumphs of science like this, we should asks ourselves not just if we can do something but if we should do something and if we're ready for the responsibility that it entails. That said Mr. Swann does a good job of showing us some of the consequences of not thinking ahead on things like this and holding up a mirror to our society to consider in some ways. I find myself giving S Andrew Swann's Forests of Night a B+. It definitely left me wanting to see more of that world and you should give it a look as well.

Next time, we hit some lighter fare with yes... Another Log Horizon novel! Keep reading!  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen, whose comments how up in the red.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Star Justice: Eye of the Tiger Michael-Scott Earle

Star Justice: Eye of the Tiger
Michael-Scott Earle

Michael Scott Earle was first introduced to fantasy and science fiction in the late 1980s, claiming the Palladium RPG Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other strangeness as his first influence.  He would branch out to a variety of other tabletop games when he reached high school and found other table top gamers.  Afterward he headed to college and while he was originally aiming at a degree in the performance arts, he switched over to finance and got an MBA.  Getting a job in accounting, he worked his way up the corporate ranks until he was director of sales. He liked the job but was away from his family, traveling on average 40 hours a week.  Upon reading Name of the Wind, he decided he could write a novel just as good but in his own words “it would be for adults, with lots of bad ass violence and detailed sex.”  I include the quote because, I admit,  I find it puzzling because if there's one thing the fantasy and science fiction genre aren't lacking, it's violence.  I mean even authors who prefer to write for younger readers include a heap of it in their stories, C.S. Lewis had a bunch of violence in his stories for Pete's sake.  As for sex, well, I'll admit that fantasy had a bit of a prudish phase, which is famously blamed on J.R.R Tolkien but... Seriously have you seen A Song of Ice and Fire, aka Game of Thrones?  Even that series is not as groundbreaking as you might think as you'll find that sex scenes and rather detailed one's are all over the place and have been for awhile.  Sex was firmly brought back into fantasy at least a decade before I was born (not sure it ever left science fiction) but I should move on before I devolve into slapping someone with a copy of “Kushiel's Dart” or something.  Mr. Earle started publishing in February of 2016 and has since published over 22 books (keep this in mind I'm coming back to this) and founded his own publishing company.  His first book The Destroyer, a dark fantasy is free on Amazon, I'm reviewing his science fiction work instead.

Star Justice EoT, set in the far future where humanity has settled at least part of the galaxy, is the escape attempt of Adam a former Jupitian Marine (Can’t even get Jovian right), Yakuza enforcer, and genetic experiment; and Eve the telepathic, telekinetic, immortal vampire who spent 3 generations in a tube waiting for Adam to come along and break her out (a telepath who is telekinetic cannot escape the damn tube?  Really?).  Together they must escape the corporation dominated planet they are stuck on by stealing the super top secret prototype starship that Eve knows about because she can read minds.  This is somewhat complicated by the fact that the corporation knows who they are, is offering a massive bounty for their heads, and is pretty sure they have to go through corporate holdings to escape.  All Adam and Eve have going for them are their superpowers, willingness to mow down any mook who gets in their way and the help of super hacker Z, who they picked up on the way.  Let me take a bit to discuss each the characters individually.

Adam (who has no last name given because... Reasons) was a super badass Marine in the Jupiter Marine Corps until he deserted to join the Yakuza, but wait!  He only joined the Yaks because the heartless commanding officers of the JMC wouldn't let him resign to care for his little sister who was stricken with cancer! I gotta note that I am dissatisfied with this, because it looks like Mr. Earle couldn’t  commit to what kind of character Adam was.  So we get “Yes, he joined a group known for selling drugs and people but only because of a sick little sister!”  Adam is captured and jailed for crimes he totally did commit and thrown into a privately owned prison, who sells him off to a mysterious secret outfit who subjects him to brutal, sadistic (because there no other kind in this book) genetic experiments turning him into an even more super bad ass weretiger with the regenerative powers of Wolverine and super senses that are honestly kinda par for the course for these situations.  Outside of his origin and his powers... There's really not much more to Adam.  He's super stoic and justifiably angry but at the same time I'm really left questioning his origin.  Even in the bad old days of the late 1800s and 1900s there were options for troops with sick family members who needed medical bills paid (never mind that in an increasingly long list of modern nations that wouldn't even come up), today there are more options and you can even make your parents military dependents if they meet the qualifications, which gives them access to government subsidized medical care.  Since Adam volunteered for military service, that means that there's a certain level of care and treatment that has to go into enlisted personnel to keep the military life attractive enough to keep troops in.  Because frankly if you treat them like shit, they can just leave after their contract is up and often find money elsewhere.  Especially if corporations are looking for triggermen to police entire planets and overthrow governments!    Moving on, Adam is kinda two dimensional in other ways, he has no hobbies or other interests besides murder, bragging that even in the Marines instead of enjoying his liberty time, he was constantly practicing his killing skills.  I've complained about this before especially in my review of Master Sergeant by Mel Odom.  We don't act this way guys.  We're people, not meat killing machines.  The blunt fact is that if we don't blow off steam in our down time and have outside interests, the vast overwhelming majority of us go insane.  Plus there's only so much training you can do in a stretch before you actually just start hurting yourself, diminishing returns is a thing. For the Love of God, please, please give your uber badass of doom some outside interests and hobbies!  Music!  Art! Dance!  Stamps! I don't care! (Get back to the book Frigid.  I am the only one allowed to indulge in off-topic ramblings.)

Right moving on, Adam also suffers from not displaying a lot of character traits beyond being a badass and being stoic.  We're told he's honorable (because honorable people always join organized crime!) repeatedly but we never see him in a position where breaking his word would be all that beneficial (Technically he violated his oath to the Jovian military/government when he deserted… so not that honorable.  Oh wait, sick little sister the Jovian military wouldn’t let him care for… eh, they broke their obligations first.  Carry on.).  I mean sure he could double cross the telepathic blood drinking immortal who freed him but why trust the corporation he would have to turn her into not to enslave him?  Not to mention he doesn't speak the local language anyways.  He dislikes feeling feelings but he struggles with feeling possessive and jealous of anyone Eve pays attention to.  Now to Adam's credit, he realizes these feelings aren't good ones or justified and tries his best to keep a handle on them.  Also I do have to give points for Adam and Eve actually talking out this problem like adults!  There's no fake drama from silly relationship stuff here; of course the book only takes place over a couple of days or so, so there's not a lot of time for a relationship to organically develop.  Adam also tends to speak in a pseudo military speech that grates on me a bit because it doesn't feel real just forced.  For example Adam never says yes, or yeah, or you bet.  He always, always says confirmed even when it just makes things awkward and leaves me wondering if the extra mass for his weretiger form comes from a giant stick rammed up his rear but now I'm just being picky.

Eve isn't much better, she states that she was in the tube long enough that the grandson of the man who caught her had grown up to adulthood and taken over studying her.  During that whole time she read everyone's mind and when they brought by people who were important harvested a legion of secrets from them.  Yet somehow she was not able to use the fact that she can read minds and communicate telepathically to escape a tube!  I mean the security system is impressive and full of guns and robots of death but... Look loyal readers, I'm pretty sure if I stuck any of y'all into such a situation and gave you 3 whole lifetimes to figure out an escape plan, you could do better then “I will wait for a passing stoic, tormented weretiger to sweep me off my feet and do my bidding.”.  Eve's escape was sheer luck; she had no way of knowing that Adam would be sent by the mysterious organization that ruthlessly altered him and that she could destroy the means they were using to keep him prisoner (I mean what if instead of a collar they had injected him with something?).  That said, she swiftly becomes the driving force of the plot as it's her decision to escape with Adam when he shows up, she directs him every step of the way and it's her plan they use to make their escape from the planet.  Despite this Eve keeps insisting that Adam is in charge, which is honestly strange to me but maybe she just wants to be sure Adam will keep throwing himself between her and all the bullets (I mean, if I were a strangely inept vampire psionicist, who suddenly finds a stoic tormented weretiger who is unaccountably obsessed with me, I might well use that obsession to make my escape...oh wait.  If I were that calculating I wouldn’t be inept and would have escaped decades ago.  Maybe she just doesn’t know what she wants out of the relationship?).  Beyond her powers, beauty and immortality we really don't know much else about her.  Which is less of a problem since this story is suppose to be about Adam... Although there are points where I'm wondering why isn't it about Eve?  

The last character present in this story is Z.  Z is a pretty, blonde, super hacker (because ugly girls aren't allowed in this story!), who is hired by Adam to hack the corporation's personal files so they can find someone to kidnap.  When she’s inevitable double crossed by the non-Adam people she foolishly trusted she is forced to throw in with Adam and Eve and pray to her heathen gods that they can actually get her off the planet.  Z is the one person in the story with a bit of a personality even if it is expressed mostly in her howling in terror when she realizes she's stuck with a weretiger and a vampire and being hunted by an army or complaining at a number of super dangerous or just degrading things she has to do to make this plan work.  Normally she would be annoying but at this point I was glad to have someone who reacted like a human being.  Plus she was plotting to use the money Adam was paying her to buy a pet cat so she can't be completely terrible.  Another bit of realism in this story that I actually liked is that Z used a lot of social hacking as opposed to muttering about double encrypted firewalls.  There's one scene where she literally calls up a member of the enemy tech support scene and sweet talks him into giving her a password into the system.  Which is kind of how this stuff works and why you should always force your callers to follow security procedures.  

The action in this book is rather predictable and honestly gets a bit samey as you reach the end of the book.  Adam mows down wave after wave of faceless enemy soldiers who honestly aren't very good at their jobs nor seemingly possessed of a strong desire to live.  For that matter despite this being in the far flung future, technology doesn't seem to have changed much outside of a very specific areas like FTL spaceships and the ability to turn people into magic were-tigers.  Beyond that people are still using rifles, shotguns and grenades against men with body armor. There are more advanced weapons but they're not very present in the plot.  Although remote pilot drones do show up for a couple of action scenes to provide an enemy that actually gives Adam trouble.   The book moves quickly and cleanly but without any time to pause and take a breath we're not left a lot to give us any attachment to the characters; nor did I feel any suspense or investment in the stakes.  That said there are realistic moments in the book and parts that are handled well enough that I feel like Mr. Earle was honestly trying to tell a good story but was either to rushed to give it the time it needed to be told (which is very possible since he's pumped out something like 2 books a month) or wrote it many years ago (sitting on a pile of rejected books is fairly normal for a lot of writers and when you get big enough, people will often pay you for those books, so choose your own adventure here).  That said, there's not enough work done to develop the characters and the conflict is rather devoid of tension so I feel like I read someone's first draft instead of a finished book.  This is reinforced by the ending in which the book just kinda stops.  So I find myself giving Star Justice Eye of the Tiger by Michael-Scott Earle D+.  I didn't expect to give this book an A grade by any means but I do wish I could grade it higher.  That said I am hopeful that Mr. Earle will improve with time.  

Next week, we're going to review another book with a Tiger main character, join us for Forests of Night!  Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Man Without a Face by Marcus Wolf

The Man Without a Face
by Marcus Wolf

The propaganda battles of the Cold War were conducted in a moral vocabulary that hid the real technological and military substance of the conflict.” Man Without a Face page 266

The Cold War was a period from 1947 to 1991 when the United States with it's clients and allies faced off against the Soviet Union and its clients and allies in a series of conflicts meant to determine not only which nation would become the single most powerful nation in the world but which ideology the emerging global system be founded on. My first hand experiences are from childhood, I wasn't even 12 years old when the USSR fell. My earliest most enduring memory is being about 6 or 7 years old, walking into the living room and seeing my Father watch a news report of a Summit, where Gorbachev made a joke about the US being the great naval power not the USSR. It was at that point that due to my unceasing prodding my poor Father had to explain the Cold War and the concept of nuclear exchange. At first I saw it as an episode of my GI Joe cartoons writ large; dastardly Soviets lurking to ambush valiant Americans who stood tall and ready behind their defenses. My Father was quick to explain that the Soviets had no desire for a war either. That paradox bothered me; how can you be in danger of a war if no one wants to fight, I asked. With no good answers, I didn't sleep well that night. My second memory is of the wall falling down and my Father letting me stay up late to watch it on the news. I was older at the time, but not yet out of grade school but I was excited. As far I was concerned this was the fall of an evil empire and a victory for freedom. Markus Wolf, a man who had devoted his whole life to the communist party and to socialism saw it differently.

The book is an autobiography and as such covers Mr. Wolf's early life as well. Ethnically a Jew, Mr. Wolf was born in Hechingen, Germany in 1923. His parents were Friederich and Else Wolf, both were open and vocal members of the local communist party. So when Hitler swept into power in 1933, the writing was on the wall. The family soon fled to the Soviet Union where Mr. Wolf would grow to adulthood. His father was a doctor and was often away on business,  or conducting affairs that resulted in a small brood of half brothers and sisters. It's here that I notice something that becomes a theme in Mr. Wolf's work. While he admits to his father's behavior, he seeks within the book to soften it, painting his father as a great romantic adventurer who simply could not help himself. It's a behavior that is repeated not just for his father but for the communist party, for the Soviet Union, and the German Democratic Republic. He will admit to the faults and ill behaviors but at the same time try to paint it all in the best light possible attempting to convince the writers that yes, these things happened and they were bad but they were done with the best of intentions. There are two major exceptions to this pattern of defense and they're Stalin and himself. Mr. Wolf grew to adulthood in the Soviet Union in the very midst of the Stalinist purges and admits to the fact that being a teenager he didn't grasp the full implications of what was going on around him. He does show that it had a terrible effect on his parents, with both of them jumping in terror anytime a knock on the door came in the evening hours and his father finding excuses not to be in Russia to avoid being swept up. Soon however came a peril that he could understand and could not ignore: the Nazi Army invading Russia.

Mr. Wolf would spend the war serving in the radio arm of the Soviet Union, while his brother Konrad (who would later become a celebrated movie director in the USSR and Warsaw Pact) fought in the infantry. Mr. Wolf was clearly very proud of his brother and treasured his own efforts in World War II and had hopes of being allowed to become an aeronautical engineer. Instead he was ordered to become a spy for the Communist Party and did so without question. It's here that I encounter one of my major disconnects with Mr. Wolf. I understand obeying orders, I was in the Marines after all, but I cannot for the life of me grasp allowing a bureaucracy to so completely order my life. (Editors note: I kinda get it.  He was raised as a communist from the cradle.) For Markus Wolf it was as simple as the fact that's what the Party wanted so that was what he was gonna do. While he does briefly discuss some regret that he never got to design airplanes like he wanted, he also seems to think he did the right thing in submitting to the dictates of far away men in far away places.

After the war, he and other German exiles were installed as the new elite class of the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, which would become the German Democratic Republic. The GDR (Editors note: in German it would be die Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR.  Make all the dance party jokes you want, but I speak german and will insist on the proper name at least once.  I’ll just be over here singing some of the East German children’s songs I learned in university like Der Volkspolizist.{I would like to remind everyone I am not responsible for my editor}) was the front line state between the NATO powers and the Warsaw Pact and as such Markus Wolf was expected to build a functioning spy system within the Federal Republic of Germany (Editors note: That would be the FRG as abbreviated in English, in German it would be the Bundesrepublik Deutschland or BRD) while preventing NATO from doing the same in his own nation. He has to do this while many of the Germans he finds himself set over resent him and the Red Army.  Despite not having desired to be a spy, he threw himself into the work, focusing on Western Germany with a laser like intensity. Such a focus did give him a number of advantages, despite their divisions Germans remained well... German. It is much easier to slip an agent into a nation that speaks the same language as he does and in the 1950s at least the culture of the two nations had not diverged much. One method was to use the names of Germans who had died but whose deaths weren't reported to Federal authorities to slip in East Germans as long term moles, a work that had mixed results honestly. Mr. Wolf admits that his greatest successes came from two groups: western defectors who agreed to feed him information out of ideological idealism (Editors note:After the war there were plenty of communists in the BRD.  The German Social Democratic Party managed to politically outmaneuver them with the assistance of the western allies.  As a result it was pretty easy to recruit disillusioned West German communists.  Social Democrats are also, well, another socialist offshoot, and thus pretty easy for Communists to penetrate or convert.  I say that being one myself.  We obviously did the same thing with non-communists in the East.) and people who were for lack of a better term seduced into the cause. The first group were often men who believed that in sharing information they were either ensuring peace or serving the cause of a united Germany. I have to admit from my own point of view that seems naive, feeding information to governments that are militarily opposed to yours is as likely to get your fellow citizens killed as protect them. Of course the people you're giving information to won't say that, they say whatever is needed to keep you giving them information! At the same time, I have to admit that I have repeatedly stated my belief that it was both sides possessing nuclear weapons that prevented world war III from happening. Without that, I still do firmly believe as soon as one side or the other believed they could win, they would have attacked and then we would have burnt down the European continent for a 3rd time in a single century and I don't believe the Europeans (on either side) or us Americans would have benefited.

As for the second group, there appears to have been a number of false starts. Mr. Wolf details how at the urging of his Soviet superiors he began to use sex and romance as a weapon against the west. First in clumsy attempts in setting up honeypot brothels to blackmail visiting westerners (he very firmly states that this was direct idea from a KGB agent, to me it's almost funny how prissy he is on this) which were very hit or miss. Then progressing to to his much more successful tactic, the one that made him famous. The Romeo Spies. Mr. Wolf realized during his efforts to infiltrate the west that there was a demographic that he could tap. At the time (1960s) secretary work was done entirely by women, the hours were long, the perks were crap and the pay was meh. With a lack of free time these women also found themselves suffering from lackluster social lives and as a result lacking in romance. Mr. Wolf recruited men who deeply believed in the communist party and the gospel of the coming socialist utopia, trained them in field work and set them forth to find, meet, and seduce these women into the service of the GDR. While he didn't invent the tactic, he did get some good use out of it and was able to reap a bounty of secrets. What's interesting to me is his repeated insistence that the romantic feelings kindled between spies and secretaries was in fact genuine and he points to more than a few of them becoming long lasting marriages. It's interesting to note that while he was wildly successful in many of his operations in West Germany, he was less so in operations to penetrate the United States. In fact when attempting the same Romeo tactics on American girls in the 1980s (again under Soviet pressure) the operations failed due to cultural differences between the States and Germany at the time. This seems to tie back to a fact that I run into repeatedly, for all the long decades that we contested each other across continents and ocean... The Communist world never really understood American society or it's culture. Mr Wolf was not without his own losses which he covers very candidly and bluntly, fully admitting fault in areas where he could have done better. Additionally while he does discuss different agents, he only names agents who are already known. Other sources and agents who were never discovered by the west he stubbornly refuses to name. I have to admit I respect that.

Which brings us to the elephant in the review. As the 2nd highest officer in the Stasi, Mr. Wolf was a member of an elite group of people leading a state that was often harshly repressive of it's own citizens. Mr. Wolf is consistent in this book in trying to avoid any personal responsibility for the excesses of the GDR specifically and the Warsaw Pact in general and makes it clear that he still believes in the cause of his youth. Which is where he loses me. I find it next to impossible to believe that a man that high up the chain was as unaware of the abuses going on as he portrays himself to be. There's also the manner of his complaints about GDR agents being tried by Western courts, but I would have to ask if anyone seriously believes for a moment if the shoe had been on the other foot if any mercy would have been shown? Mr. Wolf also portrays himself as increasingly aware of the problems within his government and society but refusing to do anything about it besides sit at his desk and secretly hope for a reformer to come forth from the aether to solve socialism's problems. This honestly makes the book something of an object lesson as well, because Mr. Wolf and others allowed themselves to be cowed by their leaders and not push for reforms... Their nations and governments rotted out from under them. It may be an unpopular position in Russia and other nations from what I'm told but in the end the US and NATO won, not because of our technological superiority, not because of superiority of arms or spies, or media lies, or because of any inherent greater virtue in the western peoples but because we had the better economic and political system. Our system was not only more efficient and gave more freedom to it's inhabitants but was better at reforming itself and adapting to changing times. That's something we need to remember however, that it was our ability to reform our governments and societies that gave us a critical advantage. If we seek to hold those same governments and societies in unchanging and unadapting forms then we commit the same mistakes that Moscow committed.

My frustrations with Mr. Wolf aside this is very informative book if on a very narrow subject matter. If you have no interest in the spy game or in Cold War politics, you'll find it boring. Mr. Wolf is adapt in weaving his personal life among his stories of running spies, and plotting the shadowy battles for influence and information that shaped the Cold War. It can also serve as a very telling lesson on what chasing utopia can lead to. Mr. Wolf and his generation began with the the best of intentions and at every step because they knew they were creating a utopia, they refused to consider any protest or opposing viewpoint. Their refusal led to them instead of creating a utopia creating a prison of a nation and a society that collapsed because it's own people decided they didn't want anything to do with it anymore. Still I would only recommend this book to people who have general idea of what happened in the Cold War and why, otherwise they'll quickly find themselves lost in the events of the book and unable to grasp the context. As Mr. Wolf tends to assume that his readers have at least the basics of German politics and Cold War history down. I give Man Without a Face by Markus Wolf a B+.

Next time, can a book about Full Grown Mutant Army Tigers promising sex and violence be any good? Join me as I find out next week as we review STAR JUSTICE! Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Wayward I: String Theory By Jim Zub, Art by Steve Cummings

Wayward I: String Theory
By Jim Zub, Art by Steve Cummings

Wayward is an urban fantasy comic created by Jim Zub and Steve Cummings. Jim Zub is a Canadian comic writer, artist and art instructor who currently lives in Toronto. He has worked for Marvel and DC as well as creating this series for Image comics. In addition he has done work for companies such as Hasbro, Capcom, the Cartoon network, and Bandai Namco. He is also a program coordinator for Seneca college's animation program. Steve Cummings is an American born veteran artist who got his start for DC comics and since then has done work on comics for well... Everyone from Marvel and DC, to IDW, Kenzer & Company and, Devil's Due Publishing among others. He also created a manga, Pantheon High for Tokyopop. They both came together for Wayward, often billed as a modern day Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which I gotta admit makes me feel old, as I didn't think Buffy stopped running that long ago), Wayward started it's run in 2014 with the first graphic novel being published in March of 2015. It is still going.

Wayward takes place in modern Tokyo Japan. Perhaps I should say instead a modern Tokyo Japan if it's shadows and dark places were seething with mythical monsters who all seem to be on the edge of exploding into daylight and laying waste to the modern world. Modern humanity is, for some reason, completely ignorant of this host of predators lurking on it's very doorstep and blissfully goes about its everyday business unaware of could happen at any moment. Well, as unaware as anyone can be in this age where everyone is painfully aware that modern life could be destroyed in a matter of hours, but you get the gist. Into this comes our main character, a 15 year old girl name Rori Lane, half Irish, half Japanese, all teenager. Her parents marriage broke down some years ago and she stayed in Ireland with her father, while her mother went back to Japan. We're told this is because Rori's Mother, Sanae didn't want to disrupt her schooling by dragging her across the world to a country with a completely different school system and language. Which to be fair is completely reasonable and also totally not the reason that Sanae wants to keep her daughter as far away from Japan as humanly possible. Unfortunately Rori's relationship with her father breaks down completely and she comes flying across the planet.

Once in Japan Rori discovers that she has the magic ability to see patterns, usually in the form of red string (which is a reference to Japanese folklore, traditional belief being those who are meant to be married or become lovers are tied together by red string woven by the gods). This sight leads her to meet other people with their own magical powers, such as Ayane, a cat-girl who really likes fighting monsters and strawberry milk. She also has a problem focusing, often wandering away from the group in mid conservation, which I can only imagine is infuriating. There's also Shirai Tomohiro, a young man who's been cursed. He can no longer eat or drink and now must hunt down and devour spirits to stay alive. As you can imagine this makes him incredibly cranky. To be fair if I couldn't get the simple pleasures of a good stiff drink or a nice sandwich I would be a bit grumpy as well. While there's not enough time to really focus on any of the characters the book does a good job of showing us how frightened Shirai is of his condition and how that fear expresses itself in aggression and anger. The last member of our troupe is Nikaido, a young, withdrawn, homeless boy who seems to have the power to calm everyone down, or blow everything around him up. Together they resolve to get to the bottom of the weird stuff plaguing their lives and if that means killing a bunch of monsters... Well so much the worse for the monsters.

Rori finds herself the leader despite thinking herself completely unsuited for the task, due the fact that everyone else is even worse at it. Ayane, while meaning well is kinda all over the place and is not very good at explaining things. Shirai has to much fear and anger boiling over to lead a group and has no idea how, and Nikaido isn't really in this book long enough to be a leader. Not that Rori doesn't have problems of her own. She's a redhead who up til now has had Japanese as a second language trying to be a Japanese high school student, and dealing with a Mother who is all too absent. She also has deeper and darker problems that her newly emerging powers and distant relationship with her Mother aren't helping and the book hints broadly that that distance is for her own good on top of everything else.

I say hint because this book raises a lot of questions and introduces a lot of characters but beyond Rori and Shirai, we don't actually get to know these characters in any real depth. In fact when the big bad shows up towards the end of the book to completely throw Rori's life into freefall... I have no idea who he is, what he wants or why he's the bad guy other than the violence he visits on Rori and her family (which honestly is enough for me to mark him in the bad guy spot). The plot moves quickly and cleanly but does rely more than a little on Rori's utterly unexplained and unlearned powers. This is marginally balanced out by Rori being almost as frustrated by this as I am and when I hit the end of the book, I still have no clue what is happening and why, but then neither does Rori. I gotta be honest and say this is a problem for me. Because I'm still not sure what this series is about, what the central conflict is, or even what the stakes are. I do know the bad guys want Rori dead, which is bad and the story has had us spend enough time with her that I don't want to see her dead. On the flip side half of the characters in this book have little to no time spent on their characterization. I know Ayane is linked somehow to stray cats but not how or why. I have no idea what is going on with Nikaido and no idea what anyone except Rori wants. So I don't feel like I've read volume I of a series. I feel I've read a bloody prologue. The art on the other hand is nice, it has clean lines and uses contrasting colors very well. The girls look like teenage girls instead of super models in their late 20s and the male and female characters are distinct from each other even discounting their different hair colors and styles. Which is a plus as certain artists (you know who you are! YOU KNOW!) have a tendency to reuse faces.

That said, the book doesn't really tell us a complete story as much as tell us that there's going to be a story. This is like... If a New Hope ended when Luke came back to the farm and saw what the stormtroopers had done to his family. I think this is one of those divisions between comic book industry and myself. The comic book industry wants me to buy each issue monthly and I want them to tell complete stories in their graphic novels. Gripes aside, the 2 characters we got to meet in the book are interesting and the settings not terribly just not anything new. Wayward Vol: 1 by Jim Zub gets a C, sadly breaking our streak of high grades but such is life.

Next week, the Memoirs of an East German spy! The Man without a face! Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Grace of Kings By Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings
By Ken Liu

Ken Liu was born in 1976 in the city of Lanzhou, China but moved to America when he was 11. His parents took him to Palo Alto, California but later settled in Waterford, Connecticut. He attended university getting his Bachelor's in English from Harvard College and then receiving a Doctorate of Jurisprudence from Harvard Law School. He published his short story The Paper Menagerie in 2011 and it was widely celebrated becoming the first fiction to win the Nebula, the Hugo, and the World Fantasy Award. He followed up with a number of short stories and translating Chinese works of science fiction for Western audiences such as the 3 Body Problem. His first novel The Grace of Kings was released in 2015, published by Saga Press which is a relatively new imprint from Simon & Schuster (which was founded in 1924), but as we can see it hit the ground running. The Grace of Kings was a finalist for the Nebula award and receive the Locus award for best first novel. So let's take a look at it, shall we?

The Grace of Kings take place in the Dara Island chain, while the people of the Dara islands share a language and a common culture, they were traditionally divided into seven kingdoms called the Tiro states. In the last generation before the beginning of our story however, the Tiro state of Xana having discovered the secret of lighter than air flight; united the islands and the all the peoples within it under it's rule. The nobility of the Tiro states was deposed and replaced by the appointed Xana officials of the Empire. Local measures and coins were replaced by the Xana decreed ones. Books were burned and teachings banned, except the ones favored by the Xana Empire. The Empire of Xana is ruled by Emperor Mapidere who has ruled for decades but despite the mountains of gold he has spent and the legions of doctors, magicians and seers he has assembled... Death is coming for him and as the architect of the empire approaches death's door a new generation of young men and women are growing up.  A generation who remembers the fathers and mothers slain by the armies of Xana; a generation that remembers brothers disappearing into the corvee labor gangs of the Empire who never returned; who have not only had to pay crushing taxes but bribe after bribe to greedy officials. They live under a legal system where the punishment for being late is the same as the punishment for rebellion.

With the death of the Emperor Mapidere and the assassination of the crown prince due to palace intrigue leading to the elevation of his youngest son, the empire--lacking any leadership--grows more corrupt and decadent. As the child Emperor is encouraged by his regent and servants to ignore governing, the Xana elites increase the already crushing burden on the common folk. With the whole empire simmering with discontent and the leadership asleep at the wheel, it's here that a spark is finally lit. Someone is late and they know that there is no clemency to be had, or excuse that will be accepted. Someone is late and the punishment for lateness is the same as rebellion. So rebellion it is and that spark is all the Dara islands needed to explode. The conquered Tiro states raise up their banners one more time in rebellion overrunning the isolated garrisons of the Xana soldiers. Exiled nobles and their children emerge to grab for their inheritances, while ambitious and gifted commoners leap into the Chaos to see what they can wring from it. It's here that our two main characters come to the fore. Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu are two young men who have grown up in the Empire but have little cause to love it, they're drastically different people but it's their shared cause and their relationship that will bring about a turning point in their world. So let's take a look at them.

Mata Zyndu is the last scion of a mighty house of noble heroes for the Kingdom of Cocru. Raised by his uncle Phin on a diet of exercise, tales of the great past, and hatred of the Xana Empire who stole his birthright and murdered his family. Mata looks and sounds like he just walked out of those heroic sagas himself. He's over seven feet tall, his eyes are doubled pupiled, he is stronger and faster than any other man alive and the single most powerful killing machine on two legs you will ever meet in this story. Mata lives and breaths a rigidly defined system of honor in a personal world so starkly black and white that I half expect a Silver Age Comic book hero to stop by and tell him about the exciting new invention called the color gray. Mata doesn't compromise, he doesn't relent, he doesn't feel fear, he utterly believes in his own righteousness and in the righteousness and worthiness of his cause. He's bound and determined to destroy the Xana Empire, take back his rightful title as Duke and Marshal of Cocru, and murder anyone who gets in his way. There's not much more to say about Mata, he's a fairly straightforward guy. If Mata sounds utterly terrifying to you, then you're getting the right idea. Mata hits the world of Dara like a hurricane made of blades and angry hatred.

Kuni Gara meanwhile was born in a common family and was a bright charming young man, but utterly lazy. As such he basically wasted his gifts as a petty gambler and gangster with a heart of gold until he ran into the beautiful and intelligent merchant's daughter Jia. She's a skilled herbalist and budding chemist and it's for the sake of love that Kuni pulls himself together and gets a good government job so he can be an acceptable husband. He ends up getting put in charge of a jail and having to march drafted corvee laborers to their final destination. We get a good sense of Kuni's innate character here as we see him constantly working to soften and humanize the system, refusing to abuse his position or the people put in his charge. This kinda puts him in an awkward situation when he refuses to shackle his laborers for the night and half of them desert. He's already late and has half the guys he should be delivering. The punishment for both is the same as rebelling and by now you should know how this goes. Kuni is not only cunning and charming but very flexible, willing to not only defend the bravery of women when both the troops of his opponent and taunt each other by calling each other women but willing to listen to the thoughts and ideas of his wife (and other women) and take them seriously. One of his biggest strengths is his willingness to listen to other people and consider what they have to say. Mata is a hero right out of legend willing and perhaps even able to confront entire armies all by himself but Kuni is the guy who can build of team of people and use all their talents to the greatest effect.

Kuni and Mata aren't moving alone though this world, there's a host of antagonist and supporting protagonist characters. One of the reasons I enjoyed this book is that Dr. Liu gives these characters their own motivations and goals and shows them working towards those goals.  I’m left with the impression of a real world full of people all working towards different ends, instead of a world of spectators watching the protagonists.  We have Luan Zya, the son of a noble clan of seers and oracles in the Tiro state of Haan. When his family is wiped by the invading Xana army it starts him on a journey that would be worth a book all on it's own and Mr. Liu takes the time to show us that journey. This is also true for Gin Mazoti, who may be my favorite character in the story; an orphan who decides to fight all the way to the top. I won't spoil Gin's story but it's a fun one as well. Not every story is fun because we also have tragic characters, for example Kindo Marana, the tax collector of the Xana Empire turned into it's chief marshal and tasked with putting down the rebellion or else. Kindo isn't a bad man, nor can I really call him a villain but his natural loyalty to his home state and the empire it's built pits him against the rising tide of history.  There's also Goran Pira, who does what he does out of grief and rage and history will never know. I can also point to Princess Kikomi of the state of Amu, who really just wanted a good life but is trapped by her position and beauty to play a role she would have never chosen for herself.  Speaking of, I do want to touch on how he treats his female characters.  He provides a wide variety of women of different interests and personalities, who all different goals and ideals and then gives them the chance to realize those goals.  He also has them all trying different methods to reach those goals and the result is women who are just as driven, varied and intelligent as the men in this story.

For that matter the gods of Dara are drawn into the rebellion and despite themselves find themselves taking sides against one another. I found this part of the story interesting as the gods will repeatedly intervene in ways large and small to try and move mortals around like game pieces but as often as they succeed they are thwarted as mortals are harder to move then you might think. The underhanded moves of the gods are often foiled by small things such as stubborn decency, or willful pride. It's a somewhat modern and traditional view of divinity wrapped up in that they can be so much more powerful than human beings but still utterly helpless to change the course of events. Dr. Liu avoids demonizing any of his characters even the divine ones, showing that most of them have motives that they believe justify their actions and will result in a better world. I suppose you could consider it a warning about ends and means there.

This story has a lot of elements running through it but Ken Liu manages to keep them all flowing and running together in harmony. That's an incredible accomplishment. At the core of the book are a couple of things, first off is the relationship between Mata and Kuni and how the changes in that relationship mean changes for the whole of the Dara Islands. Second is the effect power both in it's presence and absence has on people and relationships. Because it's power in both senses, that puts pressure on Mata and Kuni's relationship to each other and the people around them. It strains their relationships with their loved ones. It transforms their relationships with their friends and it changes their relationships with themselves and the world as their very personalities are changed under that unrelenting and ever present pressure. In lots of ways this book is a tragedy, as good men and women on all sides fight for dreams and hopes that only some of them can realize and pay costs much higher than they ever would have thought possible. Characters are brought to realize that their place in history will be determined by forces out their control, which is something that is true for a vast majority of us I think. Another thing I liked was how Dr. Liu wove a number of references and winks to East Asian history and mythology in the story. A number of you clever readers likely have noticed me reference them in this very review.

I really enjoyed The Grace of Kings, it's epic but takes the time to give space to even small scale characters, tragic but able to allow for triumphs creating a bittersweet tone over all for the work. The battles are well written in sweeping style and the interactions between the characters manage to feel organic and realistic even as their relationships go through dramatic changes. This was the first book of Ken Liu's I've read but I'm very sure it won't be the last. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys books with an epic scope but wants to see more character work. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu gets an A.

Next week Wayward Volume One String Theory. After that we look at the Cold war with Man Without a Face. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen