Friday, May 7, 2021

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World By Andrew Lawler

 Why Did the Chicken Cross the World

By Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler is an American Journalist and author was born in Norfolk Virginia on May 25th, 1961. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating in 1983 with a B.A in Interdisciplinary Studies. He landed his first reporting job just days before the explosion of Challenger in 1986 and spent the next 15 years or so as a science reporter in Washington. After that, he spent a year as a Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT and founded the New England Bureau of Science. His articles have appeared in the Smithsonian, National Geographic, Audubon, New York Times, and Washington Post. In addition, he has written two books with a third book set to be released in November of 2021. Today we are reviewing his first book, Why Did the Chicken Cross the world published in 2014 with a reprinting in 2016.

Chicken is the cornerstone source of protein in the modern world, the average Chinese citizen will eat over 22 pounds of chicken meat this year and the average American will eat 4 times that (Honestly we eat way the hell too much meat generally.). In the United States, the chicken is the most commonly eaten meat, surpassing beef in the last decade, and you likely ate chicken if not today at least a day or so ago before reading this. Nor is the United States alone in its appetite, Mexico is the world's single greatest consumer of chicken eggs, importing 20,000 tons of eggs in 2019 alone. There are an estimated 26 billion chickens alive on the planet right now (With an extremely high turnover rate.). Making them the most numerous bird and one of the most numerous vertebrates on the planet, or at least on land (Given plummeting fish stocks, probably don’t need that qualifier. {given that the Bristlemouth fish is numbered in the trillions by most sources… We need the qualifier} Fair.). The modern chicken is used for everything from food production to vaccine creation to helping health experts guard us against West Nile Virus. Which begs a question, where are all these chickens? I mean think about it, there are only 400 million or so cats on the planet but I'm willing to bet my mostly American audience has seen a lot more cats in their lives than chickens. Never mind dogs at 900 million or even rats, who we are often locked in a battle to remove from our lives. Beyond that, I'm sure most of you can remember the last time you saw a cow from your car as you drove past a farm with a horse or three. At 25 billion chickens, with over 9 billion of them living in the US alone, shouldn't we be drowning in these birds? For that matter, where did this bird even come from? Has our relationship always been like this? How is it even in the deepest, reddest part of the Bible belt I picked up the evolutionary history of animals like the horse, pig, cow, and dog but I can't even remember a vague discussion of the chicken? These are some of the questions that we grapple with in this book as Mr. Lawler attempts to trace the creation of the chicken from a wild jungle fowl to a product of American Scientific Farming and Capitalism without restraint (But he’s being redundant.). To our relationship to it as a spiritual symbol and divine herald to barely considered but often eaten meat dish.

Lawler traces the chicken to Southeast Asia using a combination of archaeological, genetic, and biological evidence (Honestly, it isn’t that hard.  They’re the same species, recognizably so, as a wild bird you can still find hanging around.  At least for their species and place or origin.  Time of domestication is harder. {Actually!  There was a huge amount of argument as a number of biologists favored other species, I think it’s settled now but the book is 7 years old.} Likely one of the other closely related species?). Now archaeological evidence is difficult because chicken bones are unlikely to survive long enough to become such evidence. However, there is a bunch of other evidence, based on carving and other art, as well as primary written accounts. For example, we know that the Egyptians considered the chicken a foreign animal in the Bronze age with written accounts of chickens being brought over from Babylon and Mesopotamia as gifts for the Pharaoh. For that matter, the Greeks would call the Chicken the Persian bird and often use it as a mocking symbol of the Persian Empire. Tracing the bird from Babylon, we find it was called the royal bird during the Akkadian Empire and was associated with a lot of goddesses. Like almost all of them, it was also considered a creature of light due to its crowing at dawn, symbolically banishing the darkness of night (Okay, that’s kinda cool). With that we're sent further east, where the history of the Chicken in India is rather mysterious, this is because a lot of the early Indian civilizations like the Happara and Mohenjo-Daro civilizations left behind records but we can't read them. In fact, when it comes to the repeating symbols that we find in both cities we're not even 100% sure that they're a writing system. Some of those symbols sure look chicken-like though. Through the magic of genetics and fragmentary archaeological evidence, we can follow the Chicken back to Vietnam and its most likely ancestor the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus.  The domestic chicken is Gallus gallus domesticus.  If you’ve ever wondered what wild roosters look like, the chicken minstrel in Disney’s Robin Hood.  He’s a straight-up Red Jungle Fowl.). We also learn that the Red Jungle Fowl has interbred so much with its domestic counterpart that's in danger of genetic extinction. However, due to a group of American Farmers who have maintained pure strain Jungle Red Fowl for decades, it may be possible to reseed the population (It wouldn’t take much, to be honest.  Even interbred, there aren’t that many genetic differences. {The geneticist and biologists who specialize in these birds disagree, apparently the mutation that separates the two is a big deal, the pure bred Red Jungle Fowl for example is so skittish that even being picked up a handler it’s known for years can cause a stroke or a heart attack (Woah, that’s impressive.  I stand corrected.)}. It's here also we learn that we might not have even eaten the damn birds for the first 1000 years of their domestication! Birds were mostly kept for religious reasons, to keep down pests, for their eggs (Hens lay at least an egg a day when they’re well-fed, can be left to forage or be fed scraps.  That’s way more useful than the meat to a pre-industrial society.), as pets (They are wonderful animals and do make pretty good pets.), or even as fighting animals. That said eating the chicken didn't become really common until the Roman period, but the Romans made up for that by loving roasted chicken and exporting chickens as food animals to every corner of the Empire. It's at this point the book focuses on how the chicken became a staple part of the diet of basically the whole world. 

You see after the Empire fell, the chicken itself fell out of favor. There were just other birds that people preferred. At least in Europe, the preferences of Africa and Asia aren't really discussed at this point. The book takes us through how the chicken was present in the middle ages and mostly kept for its eggs with people preferring the meat of pheasant and other game birds over chicken (A live chicken will feed the family for years.  A dead one...once.  Also, fun linguistic side note for you English speakers.  Ever wondered why we have separate words for the animal and the meat, for things other than chicken?  Well, words like beef, pork, and venison are derived from the French, while the word for Cow, Pig, and Deer are derivations from the original Old-English and thus Germanic languages.  This happened because after the Norman Conquest, the people who raised the animals used their words for them, while the people who ate them used their own.  Chickens are the same word because the people raising them were the people eating their eggs and sometimes them.  Probably also why historical records specify a preference for game birds.  The nobility did the writing, and the peasants got executed if they hunted the pheasants.  The peasants almost certainly ate their chickens when they got long in the beak. {I’m not saying they didn’t eat chickens but records were kept of even what the peasants ate and the peasants had a marked preference for waterfowl and other types of birds over the chicken, in fact in large parts of Europe there were more ducks kept than chickens.  Chickens mostly show up as fighting animals in the records, as every culture who keeps them has a sport of rooster fighting}).  Things changed when we hit the Victorian Era and the first big so-called “hen crazes” started with wealthy British folks collecting exotic chicken breeds from Asia and other places and cross-breeding them with the goal of creating a better bird (They did this with everything.  Dogs, pigeons, rats…). Charles Darwin was even able to use this as evidence for his emerging theory of natural selection. It's not until after the civil war that “hen crazes” start spilling over to the United States, which is where we switch gears and focus on the history of the bird in the US because it's in the US that the chicken's modern situation came about.

The chicken was not a big part of our colonial diet, folks often preferred game birds, turkeys, and waterfowl to chickens (Again, the eggs.  And their usefulness for pest control…). On top of that men were encouraged to focus their energies on larger livestock, especially cattle and pigs. There was one group of people who were encouraged to spend a lot of energy in rising and maintaining chickens, however. Slaves. The south became the main source of chicken meat and eggs in the United States with almost the entire production under the control of enslaved African Americans. In fact, owners encouraged this mostly by letting enslaved African Americans keep all the profits from chicken meat and egg sales, but also refusing to buy chicken from other groups which pushed poor whites completely out of the industry until after the civil war (Huh.  Neat.). Now European recipes usually called for roasting or baking the chicken but no one shared these recipes with the African Americans who didn't have the time for them anyway. That said the west African people of the time had domesticated chickens for centuries before Europeans showed up and they had their own traditions on how you cook a chicken. They fried those birds in oil (And that is where that stereotype comes from.). This would spread like wildfire pushing out most European traditions in the US until our chicken cooking traditions were mostly from the continent of Africa, or to be specific Nigeria and the Yoruba people. However, the chicken was distinctly 3rd place on American plates at best until the single most fundamental event in modern history, World War II. With the government rationing beef and pork and encouraging chicken, big business got involved and pushed out the African Americans and women who had controlled the market until this point (Because of course, it did.  Can’t let them have anything when there is a profit to be made, after all.). In the 1950s, in the spirit of scientific farming, scientists were rallied to create the bird of tomorrow. A massive breasted bird that can grow to full size in under 3 months, convert 2 pounds of feed into a pound of meat and endure the hellish state of factory farms just long enough to be killed (Poor birds.  Normal chickens can still fly…{fuck some of those birds can barely stand!})

Interestingly enough, the factory farm industry wasn’t willing to let him into the farms themselves (There’s a shock!). In fact, Mr. Lawler makes a point of just how much work is put in to keep people out and prevent people from thinking about what is going on in these factory farms. Now you don't have to be a PETA member to find what we do now horrific or to find this little tidbit incredibly shady (No.  No you don’t.  And yes, factory farms are terrible for the chickens.  They are also terrible for the farmers.  See, the way Tyson and the like work is that they own the birds and they contract out to “independent” farmers.  Farmers who have to buy their birds, and put up with constantly changing requirements and low per-bird contract rates, which means they are stuck in a massive debt trap with no control over their own business.  To the point where they are punished for trying to not be assholes to the birds, and get black-listed if they speak out.  Fun fact, by the way, the factory farms create a literal shit ton of effluent that pollutes rivers and drinking water supplies, but they are not covered by...basically any clean water regulations thanks to lobbying.). It turns out that due to lobbying by companies like Tyson Foods, factory-farmed chickens are exempt from almost every animal cruelty law that usually governs the treatment of livestock (And this, kids, is what we Marxists talk about when we talk about the Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie, or when liberals talk about regulatory capture.  The people who actually raise the chickens don’t want this, but they’re in a debt trap.). Look I'm no Vegan but this? This is concerning. Thankfully there are dozens of movements made up of hundreds of thousands of Americans and more beyond our shores working to provide alternatives; from the backyard Chicken movement to producers working to convince the restaurant industry to go with a slightly more expensive chicken that is raised more ethically and tastes better than factory farm breeds, which are also pretty bland so low bar to clear here. Whether they'll matter in the grand scheme of things is something time will tell.

Now some of you may be asking why bother delving into all this historical or biological stuff about chickens of all things! Well, first of all, context matters, some of our biggest failures as a society or individuals are often linked to our inability to grasp that. Second of all, how can we really understand where we are if we have no idea where we've been? How can we see where we're going? Also, there is nothing more basic to society than what it eats. The history of your food is just as much the history of you (Literally, in a Ship of Theseus kind of way.), which is why learning about the history of the animals and plants you eat is something that can be incredibly helpful to understanding missing parts of history or cultural information. For that matter to stand up on my Anthropologist soapbox, perhaps to my editor's dismay because he's heard this so often, everything is a cultural artifact, everything, and your food and how you prepare it tells us a lot about your culture (No dismay.  It’s true.). I've often joked that I can tell you a lot about a culture just by looking at their booze, food, and weapons. I stand by that and Mr. Lawler's work makes me feel justified in doing so. Mr. Lawler's does a good job of informing us of the general history of chicken with a large number of amusing anecdotes while showing us the long westward march of the chicken as well as its journey from a bird mostly kept for religious rituals to the center of our diet, while at the same it the bird itself is increasingly exiled from our presence as a living animal and we increasingly come into contact with it as only a prepackaged commodity. That said, the organization of the book is rough and there are times where Lawler can't seem to decide if he's heading west or east, or if he wants to discuss the history of the bird and its cultural significance or the modern problem of factory farms and the state of opposition to it. I'm not saying the book can't do both but you should try to maintain a consistent direction from chapter to chapter is my advice. Still, I can excuse that because this is a book that informs you while also provoking you to start asking questions and that's invaluable. Why Did the Chicken Cross the World By Andrew Lawler gets an A- and a recommendation from me. Go check it out.

I do hope you enjoyed this weeks review, which was chosen by our ever-wise patrons! For just a dollar a month they get to decide what book I read next, discuss theme months and vote on future topics. If you would like to join their wise ranks consider dropping by and signing up. Next week is another book they selected, Salt, a world history. Until then, stay safe and of course, Keep Reading.

Red Text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen

Black Text is your reviewer Garvin Anders

Friday, April 30, 2021

A Dance of Cloaks By David Dalglish

 A Dance of Cloaks

By David Dalglish

David Dalglish was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (My God…) on April 2nd, 1984. His family moved to the town of Purdy Missouri when he was four years old and he spent the rest of his childhood in Missouri (The poor soul). According to Mr. Dalglish, the pivotal moment that sent him down the path of becoming a writer is when a creative writing teacher in high school got them into the computer lab every day of the week under the rule that they spend the time writing something, anything. I got to admit that's a lot different than my experience with creative writing (He had a good teacher then.). Mr. Dalglish would go on to polish his writing in college, describing it as meeting real writers who could write circles around him. He graduated with a degree in Mathematics from Missouri Southern State University in 2006. It took four years before he was able to self-publish his first novel Weight of the Blood, the first book in the half-orc series, in 2010. Since then he has been amazingly prolific. Self Publishing over 15 novels and traditionally publishing another 12 through Orbit and 47North (which is an Amazon imprint to be fair). Most of his work is focused on his fantasy world of Dezrel, a young world that was recently created and because of that much of its history is still driven by a falling out between two of its gods. A Dance of Cloaks is one of those novels, being the first in the Shadowdance series. It was first developed as Mr. Daglish tried to give one of his characters, Haern the Watcher a backstory (When you create one life, you also create an entire universe.  A modification of an old Jewish saying…) and was independently published. However, he was approached by Orbit and given a chance to republish the book through them. Some of you might be asking why bother? Well, the simple fact is that most books stores won't carry independently published authors. On top of that lot of folks will base their buying habits on what they see in a bookstore as opposed to online. So getting even part of your library traditionally published helps build name recognition and increases the chances of someone buying your independently published work. Additionally, this let Mr. Dalglish rewrite the book to address parts that bothered him and even better, be paid for it and since he's now a married man with three daughters.  Getting paid to do what you want is great, doing that and feeding your family is even better. We'll be taking a look at the version published by Orbit in 2013.

Thern is a man with problems. A legendary assassin and possibly one of the best killers in the world, he's settled in the city of Veldaren with his sons and taken over the criminal underworld. You would think all he has to do is relax and let the money come in but that's not enough for Thern. In fact, that's the central issue with this character, nothing is enough for him. A guild/gang of devoted thieves and killers carrying out his every order? Not enough he has to rule all crime in the city. Actually, break every gang/guild to his will and rule the underworld of Veldaren supreme? Not enough he has to confront the powerful merchant families of the city and even the King and break them to his will. A pair of sons willing to follow his orders and generally looking up to him? Not enough. He needs a son that is a pure and perfect killer with no attachments beyond doing Thern's will (What the fuck?  This isn’t a guy with problems.  This guy IS the problem.{I mean… Yes?}). Even after Thern has become dust. I can't help but feel that Thern is either so terrified of everything and everyone around him that he can only deal with the world by trying to control everything completely through a combination of brutality and reward or the hole in his soul is so deep and profound that he is just unable to have relationships that don't revolve around fear and submission (He’s a sociopath.  He views other people as objects to be used.  Either that or a narcissist, but the two are...very close.{Can he be both?} Yes, it can be both.). Even with his own sons. This is established in the prologue when Thern out of a combination of pride, fear, and need to dominate everything around him not only starts a war with the Trifect (we'll get back to them) but has his younger son murder his eldest son (What the actual hell?  Okay this is… wow.  Um. This is a really abusive dynamic, just gonna come out and say it.). Why? Because his eldest son made a mistake that left Thern in a vulnerable position and almost got him killed (So the solution is to kill him, and traumatize the other one?! {Well, I mean killing and traumatizing people is what got him here…} Yes to but to a certain extent that is business.  This is his kid.). So Thern has his eight-year-old son kill his seventeen-year-old brother and proceeds to spend five years locked in a violent street war with the economic elite of the city while sidelining the government and convincing the organized religions to take a backseat (And they just… let him do this? {After a lot of killing and traumatizing}). Thern is the guy who drives a lot of the plot in that he's the one setting up and maintaining this whole insane situation through a combination of his skills, leadership, and out-of-control fear and pride. He's also our main antagonist (Oh good!  Not the protagonist!). Who is our main protagonist you ask? Why Aaron, the boy who we're introduced to as cold bloodily killing his older brother of course! (Oh this poor boy…)

Aaron is about 13 at this point and whatever energy Thern has not uselessly spent turning the city of Veldaren into a bloody battlefield has gone into making him the perfect killing machine. However, Thern has also worked very hard to socially and emotionally isolate Aaron, making sure the boy has no friends, no mentors besides himself, and a very pared-down understanding of the human experience (Killing his brother is the sort of transgression that will tend to isolate him from the rest of humanity.  Warlords who recruit child-soldiers use a similar tactic.  Make them do something horrible like murder a baby or gang-rape someone so they feel like they can never go back to being a person.  {This isn’t just done to child soldiers, terror groups will do this with adult recruits to} Holy fuck.  Where are the combat social workers!? {We’re in the not really middle ages, they haven’t been invented yet}). So a young man just entering the turbulent period of puberty has the skills to murder entire squads of armed men and underdeveloped communication and social skills. Which you know, is something that isn't terrifying at all to anyone with a drop of sanity! Thankfully Aaron channels his rebellion into wanting to do things like finding out what having friends is like, having his first crush, learning just who the heck the main god of his culture is and how to perform the actual act of prayer... (I… I want to reach through the fourth wall and hug this kid.) And also constructing an entirely separate personality and identity to aid in his rebellion against his father the world-renowned assassin. Despite his casualness when it comes to the act of murder, Aaron is touchingly innocent and wanting so hard to explore what life could be that it's hard not to react to that and that’s reinforced by the fact that Thern's own advisers go behind his back to give Aaron the moments of humanity and connection that he's desperately searching for. Such as Kayla, who is Aaron's first crush and despite being terrified out of her mind works hard to give Aaron space to be a person (I want to hug her too.). This is going to become a problem when Aaron does something unforgivable though, refusing to kill on his father's orders.

On the other side, we also have Alyssa Maynard of the Trifect. The Trifect is an alliance of the three richest and most powerful merchant families in the kingdom, their power outstrips most noble houses and they are wealthier than kings, or they were. Thern’s psychotically unrelenting war of murder, theft, and terrorism has drained the coffers of the Trifect as profits are lost or poured into increasingly byzantine security procedures and ever-growing armies of mercenaries. Thern wants the Trifect to accept his leadership in much the same way as the gangs and guilds of the underworld do. The Trifect wants to kill Thern and everyone who ever followed him to teach the thieves of Veldaren their place. Alyssa is her father's only child and as such has become a part of this and other struggles caused by this. As she returns to the city of Veldaren, from being fostered in the outer parts of the kingdom, she becomes a game piece in a power game between her father and a family of nobles looking to cut away chunks of the Maynard holdings. These nobles are emboldened by what they see as the Trifect's failure to deal with mere bandits and have encouraged Alyssa to underestimate Thern and the others (A lethal mistake…). She also becomes the center of religious struggle between two competing sects of the outlawed god Karnak (Wow.  That’s a lot for one person to handle.  This world is fucked.). Now, Mr. Dalglish doesn't get too deep into the weeds but from what's presented in the book, Karnak is a god of merciless order and brutal control, who also seems to dabble in objectivism by declaring altruism at best a delusion (Kill this God.  Right now.). Karnak is opposed by the god Ashhur, who according to the characters in the book is everything good and noble about humanity even if we constantly fail to live up to that. Shockingly (Not shockingly.) no one powerful has much time for Ashhur and despite the fact that the very worship of Karnak is illegal we see both Thern and Alyssa's father go to the priest of Karnak for help pretty quickly when they need it to control their wayward children (Because of course they fucking do.). Alyssa has to figure out how to deal with the man she thought she loved and how to create an alliance with the Faceless, a breakaway sect of Karnak, while also struggling with her father's attempt to force her into a mold of what he believes his daughter should be.

Many other factions are working for their own ends in this book as well, there's the King and his main advisor who are mainly fighting to be relevant in their own capital (I...  Jesus fucking christ.  That’s monarchy for you.  It’s almost like sortition would be a better means of selecting rulers and leaders than heredity.{To do the editor’s job, sortition is selecting people at random to fill government posts}). Which is a bad sign if you're a king I think (Yes.  Because you are sane.). Their main way of doing this is trying to put an end to Thern's war on the Trifect but so far it hasn't gone well with Thern managing to kill several members of the royal family as a way of convincing the government to stay back (Who the fuck is this king?  Nigel Thornberry?). With the new King finally reaching his age of majority though, all bets are off. There's also the temple of Ashhur. Thern initially bribed the high priest, but increasingly the priests under him are not happy with sitting on their hands while people are being butchered right in front of them and they're told not to use their divine powers to help (Kill the high priest.  Simple fucking solution.{killing your high priest is frowned upon} Well he’s obviously fallen from grace!). Just in case this pile-up doesn't have enough moving parts, there are also thief guilds who are less than happy with being dragooned into being soldiers in a five-year street war and Thern's grip is being threatened from within and without.

Mr. Dalglish has done an incredible job setting up a metaphorical pool of gasoline made up of competing interests and desires that just need a match. Well, as any writer will tell you every good story will provide that match and here it comes in the event of the Kensgold, when all the families of the Trifect come together to plot and plan and throw a huge wild party that shows off their wealth and power. As you can imagine this is an irresistible target for... Everyone. (Yes.  I can imagine it so readily, that if I were in their position I never would have held the gathering that way!). As all the competing interests and characters collide, you can be sure that no one is walking away unscathed. Mr. Dalglish spends over 350 pages of this book building the climax and he does not hesitate to take off the breaks and let the train jump the track, which is honestly what you have to do here when you get such a collision of opposing plans and factions. I won't spoil anything. I'll just say that the climax of this book does not disappoint.

That said, the book isn't perfect. I was often left feeling that the King and his adviser didn't really perform much of a function (Insert commentary on monarchism here). They're not connected to much of anything besides Thern, and are off to the side. We get the same feeling with the priest of Ashhur, where one chapter makes a big deal about the priest coming off the sidelines but they don't really play too much of a role in the climax. So I was left asking why we spent even as little time as we did with them. I did find the decisions that Mr. Dalglish made regarding Alyssa and Aaron interesting because they played counter to my exceptions. To try and avoid too many spoilers I was expecting a lot more cross-over between the two storylines than what I got. To be honest, despite Aaron being the protagonist of the book and his character arc being the main one, he's not the center of the plot nor is he what ties everyone together. Instead, it's Thern, our antagonist, who's not only the narrative core of the book but the main element tying everyone together. You could almost read this as a story of his fall from power and glory due to his obsessions and fear, but not quite. This puts the book in this odd state where the protagonist only matters for half the storylines and the antagonist is the center of the plot but the arc of the plot isn't about him, it's about the protagonist's growth and development away from him. It's an interesting experiment in writing but it honestly feels kind of awkward to me. Still, the characterization and the action is well done and while I've seen the story of the son who must grow past his father before, this version had enough interesting twists and turns to keep me interested. So A Dance of Cloaks by David Dalglish gets a B- from me.

I hope you enjoyed this week's review. If you did, consider joining us at where for a dollar a month you get a vote on upcoming reviews, theme months and more.  Higher tiers get additional bonuses.  Next week as chosen by our ever-wise patrons will be Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? By Andrew Lawler.  Until then, please stay safe and as always Keep Reading. 

Red Text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen
Black Text is your reviewer Garvin Anders

Friday, April 23, 2021

Monsteress Vol V: Warchild By Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

 Monsteress Vol V: Warchild

By Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

“I am the Halfwolf and my word is Law”

When I realized I had a free week in April, I decided to grab Volume V of Monstress and catch up with the series. If you missed my review of Volume IV just a few weeks back, Monstress is a comic written by American-born author Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Japanese-born artist Sana Takeda, I speak more about these talented women in the 1st review (way back in March 2017!). Published by Image Comics, which was founded in 1992, and in less than 30 years has fought its way up from a small start-up to the third-largest comic book publisher in North America (possibly the world but wherever I search market share of the entire world I only get data for North America and I'm pretty sure Marvel isn't dominating 40% of the Asian market, for example). It's known for publishing creator-owned content such as The Walking Dead, Spawn, Saga, and Invincible.

Now I went into the world in the last review so we'll just do a quick refresher, it's an Asian-inspired, matriarchal, fantasy world. There are among the sapient races: Cats, Immortals, Arcanics, and Humans. Immortals are basically humanoid animals that are incredibly powerful and practically immortal. Arcanics are descendants of the children of Immortal and human relationships. As such, they inherited magic and various animal features from their Immortal ancestors. Humans on the flip side have no inherent magic but are the only race that seems capable of industrialization, although Arcanics are fairly skilled in technology themselves. That said some human women can develop psychic abilities and one of those women founded a religion on that, and the discovery that using the bones and other remains of Arcanics would grant magic to humanity. As you can imagine this became a wedge issue. That religion, the Cumaea, destroyed all its competitors, reduced human government to a puppet state, and preaching human supremacy waged a terrible genocidal war on the various Immortal ruled, Arcanic inhabited states they share the world with (I could comment on Imperialism here, but am spoiled for choice.). They failed, and the war effort collapsed when a massive weapon took out the main Federation Army. However, now not even twenty years later the Cumaea is ready for round two (Genocide Boogalloo), but they're not the only people who've been getting ready for a rematch. In this volume, the world tumbles over the edge into an even greater war than the last one but there are still those who hope to grab the edge on the way down and pull themselves out of the abyss.

Our Protagonist Maika Halfwolf has been struggling with a traumatic past as a captive of the Cumaea during the last war, and an overlapping set of family secrets that reveal increasingly awful truths about her ancestors, parents, and herself. There's also the little fact that she is carrying around Zinn, an elder creature of immense power and even worse hunger. She's managed to assembly a motley band around her, such as the fox girl Kippa, who serves as an adopted daughter and an Arcanic noble who is fated to kill her... Maybe (That’s gonna put a strain on any relationship…{Eh, Maika is a strain all by herself}). Maika has found herself in the fortress city of Ravenna, which is the first target of the Cumaea commanded fortress city. Ms. Liu also shows us why humanity is able to do so well in wars against magically powered Immortals and their servants here because Ravenna? Has basically been abandoned to its fate. The Garrison commander and city officials all seized airships told the local people that behind the walls was the safest place for them to be, and ran for their lives (They must all be hunted down and killed.). I can only hope such utter and rank betrayal of their duty and citizens is punished in volume VI because it's not addressed here. Ravenna meanwhile is falling apart, the committee of its remaining officers are unable to keep order on the walls or the streets. Its gates are choked with crowds of refugee farmers demanding to be allowed into the one place every human gun is going to be pointed at, while the city itself is filled with people increasingly willing to pay any price for a fast ride out of town. I'm going to take a moment here, and just say if you're caught in a warzone, run. Don't try to get into a fortress or military base because that's where the fighting is going to go. Because the biggest target of any invading force is going to be the strong points of defense, that's where most of the bombs will fall. Trust me (He’s right.). Maika, intent on preventing something even worse than this war from happening is frankly willing to keep moving but between Kippa's oath to her fellow fox refugees, and Corvus the Dusk noble whose sister is a healer in the city and refuses to leave... Her feet have been nailed to the floor and she is going to be forced to take part in the battle. So much the worse for everyone else because Maika will only fight this war on her terms and anyone who tries to stop her isn't going to survive long enough to regret the mistake.

Meanwhile, the Federation is cracking, the navy is openly mutinying against the war and the government is reaching out for a peace settlement. Maika's aunt, the warlord of the Court of the Dawn has married the spymistress of the Court of the Dusk to form a block to rally the Arcanics into a single unified force. The Cumaea itself is reeling from a body blow as its capital and greatest fortress was bombed by an explosive powerful enough to decimate the city (Good). Meanwhile, Maika is going head-to-head with a veteran commander of the Federation Army, a ruthless and savage woman whose willingness to expend her troops to achieve her objective is only exceeded by her intelligence and willingness to lead from the front(Well at least she has that going for her.). This is all bad enough but hidden parts of Zinn's past are resurfacing in his memories and Maika is going to have to deal with that before too long. Maika continues to mature throughout all of this as she makes difficult and brutal choices trying to hold the fortress while outnumbered and outgunned, because it's the only way she's going to prevent a massacre, but it also means she's going to have to add a hell of people to her body count to do it.

If you're looking for a gallant tale of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds, this isn't gonna be it. This is a horrible, dirty brutal rat fight of a story with dirtier political maneuverings being played out in the background. This is a story of war as experienced by people who are caught between a genocidal war machine and an uncaring elite out to protect their positions and power.  Ms. Liu gives us a story of the horrors of war, and the individual acts of heroism and sacrifice that take place within it are often just coins to be spent or traded by the powerful for all too often fleeting strategic advantage (And a dubious cause, typically.).Ms. Takeda's art remains beautiful even as it depicts horrors and savagery, her preference for dark colors works perfectly for this subject matter if you ask me but then I think she might be the best comic artist or just artist of this generation. It's also showing us that while Maika is as savage and unrelenting as any of them, she's at least trying to save lives because if Ravenna falls, that genocidal war machine will have a free road into the heartland of the very people they want to turn into nothing but fuel. While she didn't want this responsibility, having accepted it, she'll throw everything she has into it and she'll stop this war machine or die trying. Monstress Volume V Warchild by Majorie Liu and Sana Takeda gets an A.

I hope you enjoyed this review. If you would like a vote on upcoming reviews, themes, and other events that take place in this review series, you should join us at where a dollar a month gets you a voice. Next week A Dance of Cloaks by David Dalglish, until then stay safe and keep reading! 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Thief By Matthew Colville


By Matthew Colville

Matthew Colville is an American game designer, editor, Youtuber, and most importantly for us, writer. Among the things he has written is the Vox Machina Origins Volume I comic, a Dungeons and Dragons supplement called Strongholds and Followers (which I honestly love), and a pair of novels called Priest and Thief. I reviewed Priest, the first book in this series, last year in September and I encourage everyone to go and read the book. You should also read the review of course. Quick warning, I will spoiler the hell out of Priest in the material below so if you haven't read the book and intend to, you should stop here. Don't say I didn't warn you.

In Priest, the main character of our series, Heden, a man riding the ragged edge between the full blast of PTSD breakdown and functionality, was sent into the Ye Olde Enchanted Woode to find a knightly order known as the Green (I didn’t edit that review but Oh Boy…). He was sent because the commander of the Green died under strange circumstances and in addition to that the Knights stood as having broken their oaths. Heden's job was to find out what happened, and if possible conduct a ritual of redemption and cleansing for the knights. He was sent because Ye Olde Enchanted Woode is a death trap of ancient magic left over from prehistoric times, monsters, and various nonhuman groups who regarded any human as an invader to be slain, and he was one of maybe six people who could survive long enough to do the job. Heden did survive but pretty much no one else did, including over a 1000 innocent people who trusted in the Knights to protect them (Ouch…). So to put it bluntly, Heden failed, the Knights died, the order died with them; and a whole town was destroyed to the last man, woman, and child because of it. Worse, it is all but certain that such was the desired goal of the people who sent Heden on the mission the whole time. One of them being the Bishop of the Church of the god Cavall. I should note real quick that this is a monotheistic world but Cavall interacts with the world through his Saints: people who were once mortal but because of actions in their lives were granted divine power after their deaths. Instead of being broken by his failure, however, Heden has learned from it, grown from it. In a way, he's been almost reforged by it and now he's a man on a mission. To find out why the Bishop set him up to fail and extract punishment if necessary, but first, he's got a bit of an issue that needs clearing up.

In Priest, Heden was also sent to kill a girl named Vanora. Vanora was a whore, who suffered from fits that could be a sign of epilepsy or something like it or could also be a sign of demonic possession. This isn't superstition either, in this world people who are possessed by an unclean spirit suffer fits that are perfect replicas of epileptic fits. So that nice boy on the street who falls over and twitches could just have a disorder, or his body and mind could be slowly being overtaken by a malign being who will use it to murder, torture, or worse, anyone it can get a hold of before being put down. As a result of this, pretty much anyone who has a fit is killed, often by drowning or worse ways, as demons can have powers that have to be overwhelmed (Oh sweet mother… Um, so yeah, be very careful with head injuries too!  Do they at least make exceptions for head injuries?{No idea}). Heden, however, tripped over a treatment that would work on anyone who wasn't demon-possessed and Vanora is the first person it's ever worked on. That's not the issue though, see the problem isn't that Vanora was having fits, or that she was a whore. It's that she was the personal toy of a crime boss known as the Count, leader of one of the three criminal guilds in the city. As if that wasn't enough, the Count is an unrestrained sadist and was training Vanora to be able to stand up to higher and higher levels of pain so he could have an incredibly long weekend torturing her to death (Ah, someone who needs to die very messily...). Until he decided that she wasn't working out and he could use her illness to have her killed. Thankfully, this is something that Mr. Colville tells rather than shows, having Heden work it out and discuss it with Vanora.  There are, after all, things we don't need to have described in graphic detail I think (Yes, can we maybe not?  Like, I write some fucked up shit but I don’t show the fucked up.  I describe the reaction to it because I am not writing to titillate people who need to be in a glass box.).  Since everyone knew Vanora was doomed, no one was especially careful about information discipline around her and now Vanora is out, cured, and carrying the kind of information that could destroy a third of organized crime in the city (HAHAHAHAHA!  Always maintain opsec, you fools!  I learned that the hard way!  SAY NOTHING FRIGID! {*smirks*}). So the Count wants her back. Heden however did not go through all the trouble of saving someone to throw their life away. Vanora for her part isn't content to be an object to be fought over and is struggling to move past her own past and decide what she wants for her own life. But she is certain she wants her own life and not to die under the Count's knife (It’s a start!  And she does deserve to have her own damned life!). So now Heden has to deal with the Count before he can attend to his main business with the Bishop. Isn't it annoying when your to-do list gets away from you? (Yes.  Yes it is.)

That isn't the only thing Heden has to do, see his failure in the forest has led him to confront a lot of his past life and he realizes that he has mending of fences to do. So Heden is also working to make restitution to the people in his life that he's harmed through past actions and failures, realizing it's not healthy to writhe in your own guilt and regret but forgiveness both from yourself and others requires you to at least attempt to admit, address and readdress what you've done to yourself and others (This is very Jewish.  You’re not allowed to ask forgiveness from God until you’ve tried to make amends to the people you’ve harmed.). He's gonna need every rebuilt friendship he can get through, as the Count has weaponized forbidden magic and escalated everything in a war to unify the crime world under his iron rule, and then who knows what happens? (How the hell does a sexual sadist like that recruit goons? {1: He keeps that shit under wraps 2: He has a lot of money in a feudal society 3: He kills people for saying no.  He’s a very silver or lead kind of boss}) Of course, the Count and his right-hand man, an assassin with history and a grudge against Heden named Garth, are making their plans believing they're confronting an isolated, half-broken man. It's never a good time when you're so off base on the nature of your enemy, no matter how many resources or people you have to throw at them (I believe Tzun Tsu had some things to say about that.). That said Heden is still outnumbered and considering that Garth is a better fighter than him, might be outgunned. So no one is gonna have a good time in the old city of Celkirk.

In a lesser role is also the swordsmen Teagan, a gay man who became an adventurer and has become a city watchman because he wanted something safer and more stable as he settles down with his husband, a baker (Aawwwwww!). Teagan might be the greatest swordsman who ever lived but he's utterly unwilling to take risks. In a way, I get why, while the social stigma against homosexuality in Matt's world doesn't seem as big as say... 1950s America or modern-day Saudi Arabia, it's still there and Teagan has faced rejection and scorn because of his orientation and he's finally happy (You know what?  Yeah.   I don’t blame him.  If, after everything I’ve been through, I ever find happiness with another person, I’m not throwing it away easily either.).  So any decision that he makes that takes him out of the bounds of polite society could destroy that fragile island of happiness (I could talk about the concept of Queer Time…{Not familiar with that one?} Long story short, because of The Shit we deal with, between figuring ourselves out, and dealing with society, the normal sequence of growing up gets disrupted.  The kind of Stupid Relationship Decisions a straight person makes in their teens?  Queer people often make them later in life because they never had the opportunity to make them as teens.  That kind of thing.). But how much is your happiness worth if people you respect, people who are trying to do good have to pay for it in misery? Priest also introduced us to the character of Aimsley Pinwhistle, a polder or halfling/hobbit as most readers of fantasy would call him. Aimsley is also a thief and assassin, holding a position in the underworld known as the fixer, a sort of troubleshooter who sits outside the usual hierarchy of one of the guilds to ensure that there are always options available. Aimsley is good at his job and has been at it for years. He's almost as miserable a wreck of a person as Heden was in the last book (Not surprising.). Aimsley becomes a major character in Thief as the novel turns on his decisions in a lot of ways. Will he ignore the fact that the Count is going beyond the depravity and savagery of your usual crime boss? (Is being the sort of sexual sadist who trains a sex worker for slow execution normal in this universe? {Given what we see of the other 2?  No.  I mean they’re not nice people, but they’re focused on money and avoiding the law, they don’t get jollies off of being cruel but they’re also criminals})  Ignore his mounting guilt and despair at the work that is increasingly disgusting to him and driving him deeper and deeper into a bottle until he might never crawl out? Or will he ignore his growing respect and fondness for Heden and his own desire to claw back some self-respect and agency over his own damn life for a change? There's also the wrinkle that even if Aimsely can decide what he wants, will anyone forgive him for what he's already done?

This brings us to the theme of the book in my opinion, as much of the book is an exploration of forgiveness; both of what it means to forgive yourself and being forgiven by others. Now, forgiveness is definitely a celebrated but rarely practiced virtue in our culture. It's also a virtue that is fetishized and deeply misunderstood and Mr. Colville seems to grasp that rather well. Forgiveness might not need to be earned but if you really want to be forgiven, you need to show that you understand what you did was wrong and in most cases, you need to show you understand why it was wrong. This is one of the reasons why you have to ask for forgiveness in Christianity, you have to display knowledge that you did something wrong and you grasp that (Religious diversion.  I’m actually really disconcerted by the concept of asking a third party to forgive the wrongs one has committed against another person.  I feel like it absolves the person of the need to at least attempt to make amends and grapple with what they did to another person.  Christianity broadly considers that good, but not necessary.{Christianity also believes that when you sin you have offended God so he’s not considered a 3rd party} Yes, but the problem is, it takes the emphasis off the… Temporal.  Being Redeemed is important, making amends is de facto de-emphasized. {Given that Christianity argues that we all focus too much on the Temporal…}). Beyond that, if you're honest in your desire for forgiveness you'll seek to provide some form of redress for your actions (We call this a Mitzvah.). Which at the very least means changing your behavior for the better and providing some sort of closure or restitution for the people you've wronged. Nor does forgiveness mean that the consequences of your action go away, you still have to live with those and how you live with those consequences will determine a lot about people's willingness to forgive and trust you going forward. This isn't a magic spell that happens all at once either but is an involved process that will require effort and sometimes pain. It also requires that you let go of guilt in favor of growth. This is hard and most people prefer guilt which gives you the self-satisfaction of punishing yourself so you can feel a bit superior to people who don't feel guilt and is low effort enough for most people in the bargain! Now, forgiveness isn't the appropriate reaction to every wrongdoing of course. Sometimes a crime boss has to be hunted down and killed to keep him from hurting other people. But forgiveness given to yourself and to others who are willing to ask for it and work for it is a powerful thing. Is it more powerful than dark magic and an order of assassins? Well, you'll just have to see.

Thief didn't have the things in Priest that annoyed me, but it's not a perfect book either. The first 100 pages involve Vanora trying to take command of her own life and Heden running about mending his fences instead of advancing the plot which gives it a kind of disconnected and wandering feel from the rest of the book and from Priest. There are also conversations between characters that I feel just recover ground that is already covered in the novel. The book is also in need of an editor as there are several typos and flat-out mistakes. All of these keep me from giving the book an A but what pushes it forward is a combination of great intrigue and character work that manages to reinforce the plot and keep it moving at a pretty decent clip. The punchy and unrepentantly savage fight scenes also help, I'll admit. Mr. Colville also keeps peeling back the world-building, slowly dropping dribs and drabs as if peeling an onion made out of gold. Honestly, I liked Thief more than I liked Priest, although to be fair I liked Priest quite a bit. Thief by Matthew Colville gets a B+ from me, as I enjoy Mr. Colville's willingness to grapple with the themes he's chosen and I find his world and characters very interesting. I'm really hopeful that Fighter, the 3rd book, gets written soon although given that it's been 7 years I'm not sure I should hold on to hope here. Then again given what I've already seen happen maybe we'll get lucky.

I hope you enjoyed this week's review. This was voted for by our ever-wise patrons, for a dollar a month you can to can vote for reviews, have a voice, and a vote on theme months, like last year's celebrated Fangsgiving. If that sounds interesting to you join us at where the poll for May is still wide open! Next week however we're returning to Monsteress with Volume V and then we'll finish the month with A Dance of Cloaks by David Dalglish.  Until then, stay safe and Keep Reading!

Red Text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen

Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders