Book Review: 1632, by Eric Flint

I think I’ve finally gotten my head around this ‘ebook’ thing.

Don’t get me wrong– whenever possible, I prefer a legit physical copy of a book. Buuuut, sometimes it’s inconvenient to carry around a fat paperback in your back pocket, especially when it’s become socially acceptable to stare at your phone when you don’t have anything better to do.

Amusingly enough, Baen Books was something ahead of the game in this regard, in that they established the Baen Free Library back in 1999. Makes sense for a sci-fi publisher to be ahead of the game, I guess. And, seeing as of how Tor’s ebook of the month club is, well, only monthly, I figured I’d poke around.

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Which is what brings us to Eric Flint’s 1632. It’s the first in Flint’s “Ring of Fire” series, which is something of a cornerstone of Baen Books. There’s a good dozen novels in the series, and probably three times as many short stories, written by a whole gaggle of authors. It’s equivalent to Weber’s “Honorverse,” in that a bunch of Baen writers play around in that particular sandbox. I’d been aware of the series for awhile, so when I saw the first book for free, I went ahead and gave it a go.

So buckle up, ’cause this shit is bananas.

Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire (no relation to the Johnny Cash song) series centers on the West Virginian town of Grantville. Due to the sort of timey-wimey shenanigans usually reserved for an episode of Dr. Who (or possibly Legends of Tomorrow, ’cause that’s my favorite show on television these days), Grantville, and the surrounding 3-mile radius sphere of territory, gets inexplicably time-warped into southern Germany, right in the middle of the 30 Years War. Right to the year 1632, to be precise, which is where the title comes from.

Lucky for everybody in Grantville, they’ve got a lot going for them. They’ve got all that 20th century know how, of course– not to mention a working power plant, an abandoned coal mine, and enough guns and ammo to conquer a sizable chunk of Europe.

That last part is the most believable thing about the novel, come to think of it.

So yeah. If you have a couple of beers and squint, 1632 is basically a post apocalyptic novel, as it centers on a bunch of people rebuilding civilization after being suddenly cut off from the rest of the world. Only instead of hordes of zombies, you’ve got blocks of pikemen. Instead of biker gang raiders, you’ve got marauding Croat cavalry, and so on. But don’t worry! The citizens of Grantville are more than ready to Second Amendment the hell out of the many (many) foes they wind up facing. A lot of the encounters proceed as follows:

SOME 17th CENTURY MERCENARY ASSHOLE: “Rar! Time to steal all the horses and rape all the women!”

SOMEBODY FROM GRANTVILLE: “Yeah, nope.” *rifle noises*

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Groovy.

Eric Flint’s 1632 is basically the “This is my BOOMSTICK!” monologue from Army of Darkness extended to novel length. But even with Grantville’s superior firepower, 1632 is a surprisingly optimistic book. The characters don’t dwell on their situation for very long, and immediately start organizing (thanks to the leadership of local Union President Mike Stearns) to defend themselves and build a new nation in the middle of 17th century Germany. Because while all the firepower is really nice, Grantville’s real advantages are its 20th century knowledge and can-do attitude. This said, Flint’s optimism can come off as occasionally naive. For example, Grantville must be the healthiest town in West Virginia, as of everyone who gets zapped back in time, not a one needs anything like insulin, chemotherapy, or dialysis– which is convenient, considering a hospital wasn’t among the buildings in the 3-mile radius. Furthermore, apparently nobody in Grantville smokes, because nobody complains about the lack of cigarettes (though I suppose it wouldn’t be out of the question to have a few tobacco plants somewhere in West Virginia), and the lack of coffee isn’t mentioned ’til about 3/4ths of the way through the book– right when Grantville is setting up trade routes with Turkey to get the stuff.

A lot of the optimism comes from Flint’s position as Baen’s token lefty. The dude was a socialist before it was cool. Flint lays this on pretty thick: from the first page, there’s a lot of ‘union forever!’ stuff, complete with a strawman conservative banker who’s just there to shake his fist at Mike Stearns and the United Mine Workers of America. Furthermore, Flint takes a distinctly anti-imperialist stance with Grantville, Stearns and the other characters make it a point to welcome the peasant refugees who soon come streaming in, teaching and helping the immigrants so they can build Grantville up further. It’s a noble sentiment, one that seems all the more poignant given the current political climate (not to mention the Republican party’s obsession with coal).

The funny thing is, while Flint hammers hard on how awesome unions are, a lot of 1632’s other themes are surprisingly conservative. There’s a definite anti-elitist undercurrent to the books, in which the blue-collar workin’ men (and women) of Grantville have nothing but scorn for poncy noblemen or fat-cat bankers. Heck, the whole time-warp thing that kicks off the whole book is explained as the byproduct of an alien modern art instillation (no, really). It’s a similar undercurrent to what I’ve seen in a lot of mil-SF books, except it’s coming from UMWA members, rather than space-marines or whatever.

Furthermore, Flint also has a fairly conservative take on romance. There’s a definite focus on marriage in 1632, even if couples are allowed to have a little hanky-panky so long as they get hitched before long. The book even starts with a wedding, and has several more peppered throughout. It’s all very Norman Rockwell.

I did roll my eyes just a little bit at the wish-fufillment character of Jeff, a chubby D&D nerd who becomes a hero and winds up marrying a gorgeous German peasant girl named Gretchen. Flint then spends a whole chapter on their wedding night– it’s not explicit, but the flowery language he uses almost makes it worse. Plus, Flint just keeps on and on and on … I’m not gonna say Flint has a thing for tall blondes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

The appeal of 1632 and its sequels is the same as that of an empire-builder video game, like Civilization. Especially the kind of game where, by cheating playing really well, you’ve built up your tech tree so you’ve got tanks rolling over the computer’s pikemen. Plus, the setting (along with the bunches of characters) makes it ripe for other writers to go in and play around in Flint’s sandbox. Heck, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about potential stories to explore myself. Like, did Grantville have a video rental place? Or what would happen if some kid introduced Super Nintendo to 17th century Germany? Or hell, for a more socially conscious take, are there any gay people in Grantville? I mean, it’s hard enough being gay in rural America, but if you’re thrown back to a time period in which homosexuality is a capital crime … There’s a lot of stuff to play with here.

So yeah, while 1632 has its flaws, it’s still written well enough to keep me reading. I’m a bit curious about the sequels, but I don’t think I’m gonna do a deep-dive into the full series. Yet.

Might snag another one if Baen’s giving it away for free, though.

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Book Review: Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues, by Tan See Kam

So!

Where 33 1/3 does deep dives into albums, and Boss Fight Books does deep fights into video games, The New Hong Kong Cinema goes into … well, The New Hong Kong Cinema, or Hong Kong New Wave. It’s basically a term to describe Hong Kong movies made between the economic boom of the 1980’s and the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997. Just learning about this term alone was worth it, as some of my favorite kung fu movies come from this period, so I was vaguely familiar with the ouvre, if not the general term. Learning things is fun!

In any case, Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues is about, well, Tsui Hark’s 1986 film, Peking Opera Blues. Here, have a trailer.

It’s an obscure movie, one that’s never recieved a ‘proper’ U.S. release. I’m only familiar with it ’cause I watched it for a class on Chinese Cinema I once took in college. (Sidenote: this was the best class I took in college). Then, some years later, I stumbled across a Chinese DVD of Peking Opera Blues at a sci-fi convention, and then some years after that, I discovered this book on Amazon, and here we are.

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Peking Opera Blues is a wonderful mash-up of a movie– it’s basically a historical action-movie farce, set in 1913 Peking. The movie has some of the most tightly shot acrobatics and physical I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s not just the dexterity of the performers, as you’d get in a Jackie Chan flick, but also the dexterity of the director as Tsui Hark uses perspective and camera angles to play with just who can see what at any given time. It’s hard to describe just how well this is done via text, so if you can track down a copy (or if you can speak Cantonese– there’s an unsubtitled version on Youtube), Peking Opera Blues is well worth a watch.

The film (if you can find a copy) is enjoyable enough on its own merits, but Tan See Kam provides valuable context and analysis that the average western viewer (read: me) would have no idea about. In the book, Kam analyzes Peking Opera Blues through several different schools of criticism, ranging from a shot by shot, second by second breakdown of the movie, to analysis that looks at Peking Opera Blues in a historical context, examining both the time period in which it’s set, as well as the time period in which Peking Opera Blues was made.

My one critisim is that Kam never touches on queer theory in her analysis of Peking Opera Blues. She briefly mentions the practice of male actors playing female roles (and being taken as concubines by powerful men), but doesn’t go any further than that. Which is kind of a shame, as Peking Opera Blues (at least from a western perspective), is super gay. There’s the business with cross-dressing and performance, of course, but it goes deeper than that. This is most notable in Brigette Lin’s character, Tsao Wan, who dresses like a man, and outright says she uses her androgyny as a way to confuse people. There’s also the bedroom farce scene in which four of the five main characters wind up sleeping in the same bed, so one could toss some poly themes in there as well. Or maybe I’m just too eager for more media including kung fu lesbians, so I’m reading too much into it. Who knows?

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Everyone’s gay for Brigitte (Lin)

In any case, I found Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues to be a valuable, fascinating read. However, if you haven’t actually seen Peking Opera Blues, you probably won’t get nearly as much out of the book. It’s a work of straight-up Film Criticism, with all the dry academic jargon it entails. In the rare event that you have seen Peking Opera Blues, and you are interested in a deep-dive into an obscure movie from over thirty years ago, Kam’s book is a must-read.

Plus, there are a whole bunch of other books in the New Hong Kong Cinema series. I’ll see if I can get a copy of their book on The Killer sometime.

Book Review: Jo Walton’s The Prize in the Game

While I don’t exclusively stock my library from what I find in the dollar paperback bin, I still take entirely too much enjoyment in scrounging up random paperbacks for a dollar or less. Typically, it’s keeping a keen eye on the clearance shelf at Half Price Books, or lucking out at a thrift store– but today’s dollar paperback is even more fun, as I found it at Dollar General, of all places. Not exactly the first name you think of when it comes to literature, but hey, overstock is overstock, I guess. And, well, I bought a book there (even if it’s sat on my to-read shelf for quite some time).

If anything, The Prize in the Game has one big thing going for it, in that it’s written by Jo Walton. I read Walton’s Tooth And Claw (a Victorian-ish pastiche full of love and scandal and inheritance and what have you– only with all the characters as bloodthirsty dragons), and loved it enough that I figured I’d give just about anything by Walton a chance. And here we are!

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The Prize in the Game is a fantasy novel, with a setting heavily based on pre-Christian Ireland. Which in of itself is fun, as the book never comes off like a ‘standard D&D fantasy’ where a bunch of elves and dwarves meet in a tavern to go fight Ye Olde Dark Lord. Instead, The Prize in the Game gets a bit more complex.

The book centers on a handful of teenagers, each one a potential heir to various kingdoms. The lot of them grow up together as they’re fostered in one particular Kingdom– but then, inevitably, things go sour as their respective parents begin to bicker and move towards war, inevitably using their children as pawns. So it’s a mix of teenage drama and high-fantasy politicking: Game of Thrones 90210, if you will. Just, y’know, without the dwarves and incest. The tone and setting are kind of reminiscent of an 80’s fantasy novel by the likes of Marion Zimmer Bradley or Ellen Kushner– only The Prize in the Game was published in 2002. Go fig.

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You know it’s obscure when you can’t find a good pic of the cover on google, so you have to take one yourself. (Note: I am not claiming this is a good picture).

Walton jumps right into things, without so much as a family tree or even a map at the beginning of the book. Which makes things a little hard to get into at the beginning, especially since a lot of the characters (and places) have very similar names. For example, one of the central characters is named Conal, who is the nephew of Conary, but it’s worth noting that Connat is a rival kingdom, and … yeah. The Prize in the Game is a prequel to some of her other novels (The King’s Peace and The King’s Name), but one doesn’t have to be familiar with them to enjoy The Prize in the Game. At least, I haven’t read either of those books, and I got my head around things eventually.

Once it gets going, The Prize in the Game turns out to be a surprisingly engrossing novel. The teen romances and political scheming are a fun combination, and the Not-Irish setting is pretty neat, with its unique customs and rites and so on.

This said, The Prize in the Game isn’t a perfect book. For one, the setting is … odd. Like, characters will go about their business as perfectly normal (well, normal-ish) people … and then, about a third or so into the book, a literal goddess shows up and starts throwing around curses. And then at the end things get even crazier with a deus ex machina of an ending. This is a deliberate choice– Walton is going for something of a mythological vibe, in which gods come by and mess with puny mortals.

On top of that, a lot of key events take place off-camera, so to speak, meaning that the reader has to pay attention to know exactly what’s going on. It’s nothing insurmountable, and Walton doesn’t play around with the narrative structure too much. Really, between that and the occasional appearance of a pagan god, The Prize in the Game reminded me of an old Greek tragedy, in which a lot of the really juicy bits take place offstage. Which isn’t to say that the book doesn’t have any adventures or battles and so on, it’s just that they’re not the main focus. This said, the book has a happy ending that’s also kind of a cliffhanger, which came off as a bit frustrating.

Still, complain as I might, The Prize in the Game is a fun enough read, and has me curious enough that I might track down the other books in the series. Of course, given I rather like Walton to begin with, I was probably going to do that anyway.

Book Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaneimi

“You get what you pay for,” as the saying goes … but at the same time I’ve found a free book can sometimes be a lot more interesting than one from the dollar bin. I’ve always had a weakness for super-cheap used paperbacks, but for every lost classic you find, there are at least three other books that were consigned to the dollar bin for a very good reason. On the other hand, Tor.com‘s “Ebook of the month” thing is a pretty good way to read the first volume of whatever series they’re promoting.

Which brings us to The Quantum Thief.

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And man, this is a weird book. I’d even go so far as to compare it to New Weird, even though I tend to think of that as more of a fantasy term. Rajaneimi’s Oubliette, a city on Mars, vaguely reminded me of China Mieville’s New Crozubon: dense, alien, and confusing … albeit a lot cleaner.

Rajaneimi throws the reader into the deep end right off the bat, bandying around weirdo terms like q-dot, gogol, and gevulot, to name a few. While other authors sprinkle in Fantasy Nonsense Vocabulary just so they have flavorful synonyms for ‘magic sword’ or whatever (looking at you, Brandon Sanderson), Rajaneimi goes far beyond something so trivial. Rajaneimi has to use a lot of made-up words, as they address concepts that quite simply don’t exist in the real world. Gevulot, for example, is a word that refers to the Oubliette’s system of memory-based privacy– basically, people will forget you if you don’t want them to remember you (and if they haven’t cracked the encryption on your gevulot). It’s kind of like privacy filters on your facebook account, only for real life, to oversimplify things. And that’s before one gets into the various factions, the most understandable of which is a hyper-advanced MMO guild that’s built upon quantum technology.

One of the reasons the world (or, well, the solar system) of The Quantum Thief is so out there and alien is because it’s explicitly from a post-singularity, post-scarcity setting, where mankind has reached a sort of immortality through uploading minds into computers and robots and vat-grown bodies and pretty much anything else that you can think of (including, in one early instance, a dress. It makes sense in context, honest). Now, in a lot of transhumanist sci-fi, advances like this are treated as the keys to a utopia (see: The Culture, for example). But in The Quantum Thief, such technology only gives people more ways to be awful to each other. One could argue that Rajaneimi portrays a more realistic vision of far-future humanity in this way– or at least it provides for a conflict-rich setting.

And so, when humanity has moved past the need for physical commodities, things that can’t be replicated become central. Namely, memory (as mentioned earlier), and time. It’s even to the point where Time is used as currency in the Oubliette– no doubt inspired by old cliche of “time is money.” Rajaneimi has a lot of fun with this, even going so far as to coin the term ‘millennianaire,’ which is entirely too delicious of a portmanteau.

Underneath all the transhumanism and the multilple viewpoints, The Quantum Thief is still a crazy space opera adventure. It centers on Jean le Flambeur, a gentleman thief in the model of Arsene Lupin. There’s a femme fatale who breaks him out of jail, a conspiracy Jean gets drafted into, terrible secrets to uncover, a team of masked vigilantes, and even a plucky young detective. The combination of familiar character types in an unfamiliar setting is a fun choice. However, the book has constantly shifting POV and it’s all written in the present tense, so it’s “I walk to the bar and bought a beer” instead of “I walked to the store and bought a beer.” It’s not my favorite style of writing, but you get used to it eventually.

Really, The Quantum Thief has got a little bit of everything: thought-provoking sci-fi ideas, a deep and thought out setting, fun characters, and a rollicking adventure to tie it all together. There’s two more in the series, and I look forward to reading them at some point.

Might even pay money for them. Go figure.

Book Review: The Lovers, by Philip Jose Farmer

Philip Jose Farmer is another of those classic sci-fi authors who I’ve read before, but not for a long time. I recall stumbling across the Riverworld series back in high school, but I haven’t gotten too much into his stuff since. That is, until I found one of his books for a dollar at a used book fair.

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The Lovers is Farmer’s first published novella, from 1952. That’s not the edition I nabbed– instead, it was included in a 2005 collection of Farmer’s work titled Strange Relations. Put out by Baen Books, this anthology collects The Lovers, another short novel called Flesh, as well as a collection of short stories titled Strange Relations, because why not get a little recursive here?

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Though I gotta say, that’s downright conservative for a Baen cover. It’s not nearly as shiny as it could be. Even still, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t want anyone to see me reading it at the airport. (Hardbacks take up a bit too much room for easy carrying anyway).

The Lovers is credited (at least by wikipedia) in being the first novel to really address sex in science fiction. Which, y’know, you can probably figure out from the title and the cover there. The funny thing is, while The Lovers is certainly ABOUT sex, it’s not particularly, er, sexy. At least not by 21st century standards. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Lovers centers on a linguist (I’m not going to call him cunning) by the name of Hal Yarrow. Hal’s got it fairly rough, as he lives in a horrible totalitarian theocracy that’s arisen from the ashes of a post WWIII Earth. Every aspect of Hal’s life is controlled by the “Sturch” (a portmanteau of State + Church) that runs on a frankly baffling theology that somehow involves time travel and alternate realities and how anything bad that happens to you is actually your fault for allowing an alternate reality to come to pass. So, uh, I guess it’s like The Secret only with more whips and funny hats.

Hal gets a break, however, as he’s chosen to go on a mission to another planet. Dun dun dunnn. See, his linguistic skills are needed so he can translate the language of the planet’s indigenous bug-people, called Wogs. Which … is just one of those reminders that this book was written in the 50’s, back when people were super racist. Though the Sturch folks are supposed to be assholes, so that’s … kind of a choice on Farmer’s part?

In any case, Hal lands on the alien planet and gets to work, making friends with a bug-man professor by the name of Fobo. But then, he also meets Jeanette, a super-hot human woman who’s inexplicably running around on the bug planet. Oh, and she’s Space-French, too, because why not. Hal immediately falls in love with the mysterious woman, and manages to get himself an apartment in Bug-city where he can hide Jeanette (and also where they can bang a lot). But, of course, Hal has to make sure he keeps Jeanette hidden from his paranoid Sturch superiors. It’s like Farmer read Orwell’s 1984, and said “you know what this book needs? Space boobs.”

Jeanette proceeds to turn into a model of 1950’s femininity: she loves cooking for Hal, and sewing pretty dresses for herself. Which makes me wonder where she picked up those skills while she was running around in the wilderness, but eh.

Their happiness is not to last, however– first, Hal’s loathsome Sturch-supervisor starts sniffing around. This thankfully doesn’t last long, as he eventually gets sprayed in the face with acid then eaten alive by some predatory space-monsters. As you do. A little while later, Hal’s superiors start thinking him suspicious because he hasn’t grown a beard (another of the Sturch’s inexplicable rules), and start snooping around– only to discover him once Jeanette has fallen ill.

And that’s when things get really weird.

Spoilers for a book that’s been out for over half a century to follow, in case that sort of thing is important to you.

So the thing with the Sturch dudes is resolved easily enough, as Fobo and the other bug-aliens were able to see through the Earthmen’s evil plan to wipe out their species through biological warfare. The bugs went ahead and dug a tunnel beneath the Earth ship and filled it with gunpowder, exploding it when the Earthmen started being overtly evil. But that’s not the real twist.

The real twist is that Jeanette was never human at all! Y’see, she’s from a strange, all female alien species that evolved to mimic humans for reproductive purposes. Which is a fair enough concept, but then Farmer devotes a chapter and a half to laying out how said species works, with little quirks like photo-receptive nerves that allow them to lay an image of the ‘father’s face onto their spawn-children, which in turn means they have to have the lights on in order to reach orgasm. Oh, and drinking alcohol makes them functionally immortal, to boot. ‘Cause why not?

Unfortunately, another one of the sexy-mimic-alien traits is that they die in childbirth, which is what happens to poor Jeanette (off camera, even), once Hal gets her pregnant. I’m reminded of old queer romances that weren’t allowed to have happy endings. Hal & Jeannette’s ‘daughters’ survive, however, and the bug-aliens are happy to let Hal stay on their planet, as he was the only decent human of the lot. The end.

And, uh, yeah. That’s about it. Honestly, The Lovers isn’t super explicit. I’m sure it was scandalous by 1950’s standards, but yeah. Really, it reads less like a romance and more like a tale of somebody raised in a super-conservative religious home, going out in the world for the first time to be tempted by booze and sex and all that other fun stuff. But again, as I mentioned before, this is all by 1950’s standards, so Hal & Jeanette’s relationship comes off as weirdly idealized and domestic. The Lovers made quite a stir when it was published (it even got Farmer a Hugo for Best New Author), but it’s downright tame in comparison to other sexy-sci-fi that would come later. Apparently, Flesh is a much more explicit book, so it’ll be interesting to see how it compares to The Lovers.

Just, uh, later. Think I’m gonna read something without a naked space lady on the cover first.

Book Review: The Candlemass Road, by George MacDonald Fraser

Ostensibly, summer is a time for beach reading … except, uh, I don’t like the beach all that much, and I’ve been busy with a bunch of other stuff (read: I just started playing Super Mario RPG on my SNES classic). So, again, I haven’t been reading as much as I like, or as much as I should.

But hey, something is better than nothing, right? There are certain authors who I like to return to after a slump, something to kickstart my lurve of reading again. Hence, I cracked open George MacDonald Fraser’s The Candlemass Road.

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The Candlemass Road isn’t a Flashman novel, but it is a historical novel, set along the Scotch/English border of the Elizabethan era. The Marches were a tumultuous place in a tumultuous period of history, where blood feuds and raiding were the order of the day. It’s basically the Wild West, only with more haggis.

The book is narrated by one Fr. Luis Guevara, a Portuguese priest who has somehow wound up in the employ of the Dacres, one of the noble families along the border. When the old Lord Dacre dies, it falls on his Granddaughter, Lady Margaret Dacre, to return home from Court at London, in order to claim her ancestral seat. And, of course, once Lady Dacre returns, some Scottish raiders start making trouble, and she’s left with nobody but Fr. Guevara and a handful of family servants to oppose them.

Lucky thing is, there’s a scoundrel in the basement by the name of Archie Noble. An outlaw, Noble’s been locked up in the Dacre’s basement for stealing bread (though that’s honestly the least of his crimes). And so, Lady Dacre issues him a deal: if Noble fights off the marauding Scotch raiders, he doesn’t hang. Pretty straightforward, right?

Noble proceeds to do so (spoiler alert?) aaaaaand that’s about it (even if there’s a bit of tragic twist at the end). The plot is fairly straightforward, and The Candlemass Road is a fairly short book (the term “novella” comes to mind). The plot’s aaaaaalmost like the first half of one of those historical romance novels: what, with the foggy moors and unmarried heiresses and dashing rakes and what have you.

The thing is, The Candlemass Road is not at all told like a swashbuckling romance. In fact, Fraser makes it a point to highlight the grittiness of the era. For example, when it comes to the climactic battle between Noble and the Scottish reavers, Fraser resolves the fight itself fairly quickly, and then devotes several more pages showing the rather grisly way the peasants execute the defeated bandits.

Fraser’s meticulous research comes to the fore, even if The Candlemass Road has a far smaller scope than any given Flashman novel. Instead, Fraser does his best to mimic the viewpoint and vocabulary of an Elizabethan-era priest. It’s a tale that’s well told, though in the end I think I would have liked to see the whole thing developed more. Which leads to something of a paradox, as if Fraser wrote in a twistier plot, The Candlemass Road wouldn’t be what it is.

While I enjoyed The Candlemass Road, I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anybody unless they have a specific interest in 17th century Scotland, or in George MacDonald Fraser’s other work. It’s not a bad read, by any means, it’s just kind of short and undeveloped. Which makes sense, given Fraser wrote it as a lark due to his research for The Steel Bonnets, which is a non-fiction book about the same place & time period.

Might pick that one up later.

Book Review: Steve Alten’s Meg

I’ve been slacking.

Still am, really. It probably didn’t help that, while on a trip, I accidentally left my copy of Christopher Stascheff’s A Wizard in Absentia on the plane after only getting about halfway through it. The fact that I’m not too terribly torn up about this should probably say something about the quality of the book. Plus, the in-flight movie thingie had Johnny Dangerously, of all movies, so I wound up watching that based on the sole fact that Weird Al did the theme song. Michael Keaton was a bonus.

It occurs to me that if I want to keep reading a book a week, maybe I should read, y’know … good books? Books that I’ll want to keep going back to?

BUT TODAY IS NOT THAT DAY.

Instead, we’ve got a find from a big used book-fair thingie I hit up a few weeks ago: Steve Alten’s Meg. I … may have read this book way back when I was a dumb teenager, but I forget. Certain details are vaguely familiar, but that might’ve been from me reading hte wikipedia article at some point.

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This book, for the record, is not about Meg Ryan, nor is it about the girl in the beanie from Family Guy. Instead, Meg is short for “Megalodon,” a prehistoric shark. Basically a Great White that’s scaled up to 60 feet long, with a set of jaws you could drive a Fiat through. They went extinct millions of years ago– at least, in the real world. Instead, in Meg, some Megalodons have been living hidden away in the deepest depths of the Marianas trench. When a deep-sea science expedition goes poking around down there, they wind up dragging an angry Megalodon up with them through rather contrived circumstances– at which point the Big Ass Shark starts swimming around the Pacific, gobbling down whatever it can.

Lucky for the world, square-jawed sub-pilot turned marine paleontologist Jason Taylor is here to save us! There’s some backstory about how Jason saw a Megalodon on a previous dive, years earlier, and panicked as a result, and so he spent the next few years studying prehistoric sharks to see if one could live to the modern day– but who the hell cares about that? We’re here for the shark mayhem.

And while it takes a little while to get there, Meg delivers, with plenty of gore. It’s not quite as gruesome as a ‘true’ horror novel might be, but I imagine part of that comes from the fact that there are only so many ways to write about people (and sometimes whales– the Meg eats a lot of whales) getting chomped on by a super-shark. Though the book does open with a Meg eating a Tyrannosaurus Rex, which is pretty great.

One thing that struck me about Meg is that the titular monster-shark kinda has fish-ADD or something. In that it seems every time the Megalodon is chomping on something or somebody, someone else will do something stupid to attract its attention, at which point the Meg will abandon its previous prey (even if it’s larger, and already dead– like I said, lotta dead whales here) to go scarf down some random surfer or something.

Oh, and another random note: I think Alten has something of a grudge against news media. Mostly ’cause square jawed sub pilot/marine paleontologist Jason Taylor has a shrew of a wife who’s a local newscaster. Who is sleeping with Jason’s millionaire best friend. You can guess what happens to her when she tries to get exclusive footage of the Megalodon. And then, later, a bunch of news helicopters crash into each other while trying to get away from the rampaging shark in a scene that’s honestly pretty stupid, but at the same time wonderfully full of mayhem.

Meg is not a good book. It delivers on shark madness, sure, but there really isn’t much to it beyond that. Really, the thing that most struck me about Meg is how utterly mercenary it is. I’m fairly certain Alten sat down in front of his word processor one day and said ‘hey, people love Spielberg movies, right? So all I have to do is mash up Jaws with Jurassic Park!’ And, uh, I guess it worked? So I guess if I wanna make them big movie adaptation bucks, I should write about a two-fisted archeologist who makes friends with a candy-loving alien.

Heck, in the acknowledgments section at the beginning of the book, Alten thanks his agent and editors … as well as the various Hollywood execs who wound up buying the movie rights. Movie rights that only now, twenty years later, have resulted in a movie. Starring Jason Statham, presumably as square-jawed square jawed sub pilot/marine paleontologist Jason Taylor. And to be fair, the trailer looks pretty sweet, in a stupid shark movie sorta way.

 

And, huh– looks like the Meg movie is another of those big US/Chinese joint action movies, which … well, I’m not gonna say that makes the movie dumber, but it’s not gonna make it particularly, uh, good.

Still, I can’t help but think the movie execs who scooped up the movie rights to Meg got a raw deal. Mostly ’cause there are a bajillion crappy shark-mayhem movies out that didn’t need a novel written about them first (or, to watch some of them, the presence of writers at all). Just searching for ‘shark’ on IMDB brings up dozens of titles like: Atomic Shark, Swamp Shark, Ice Shark, Sand Shark, Mega Shark, Sharktopus (a personal favorite, just for the theme song), Ghost Shark, Sharknado, and … Megalodon. From 2004.

 

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Oops.

 

Apparently Alten wrote a bunch more Meg novels, which … well, I may track one down out of curiosity, but we’ll see. I’m honestly more interested in the ad for Raptor Red at the back of the book– I’m pretty sure I read that book at least two or three times as a dino-loving kid, but I’m kind of curious about taking another look at it some years later.

Book Review: David Gemmell’s Druss the Legend

Once again, I’ve been slacking! Been working with the whole ‘book a week’ goal, which I’m … well, a little ways behind, but the year’s yet young, so I should hopefully be able to catch up before too terribly long. Should have a few more book reviews coming in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

But enough whining– onto the review! This time around, I read David Gemmell’s Druss the Legend. Published in 1994, the book is a prequel to Gemmell’s earlier book, Legend (No connection to I Am Legend, or that Legend movie where Tim Curry plays Satan). Legend was a huge hit when it was published, and has been something of a minor classic in the Fantasy genre ever since. I mean, heck, they’ve even got a Gemmell award named in his memory, so that’s a thing.

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Dammit, it’s a PREQUEL! Which is a term that may not have been invented in 1994.

Unsurprisingly, Druss the Legend is about a dude named Druss, who becomes a legend. In the first Legend, Druss is already an old man who’s already had his rise to glory and fall from grace. In turn, Druss the Legend details Druss’ origin story. It’s honestly pretty simple– Druss would have lived his life in happy obscurity as a simple woodcutter, until the Obligatory Bandit Raider Guys burn down his village and kidnap his wife. And so, Druss takes up his grandfather’s haunted battleaxe, and fights his way across seven levels of danger, including the Ice Castle, the Jungle Castle, and … okay, it’s not QUITE on the level of a SNES game, but it’s close. (Though now that I think of it, I’ve played at least two SNES games with deeper plots than this book, but I’m a terrible nerd-hipster).

Oh, and the last chunk of the book involves Druss fighting in Fantasy-Thermopylae, complete with the Evil Emperor(tm)’s elite guard named “The Immortals.” Though it’s worth noting that Druss the Legend was published in 1994, and Frank Miller’s 300 didn’t come out til 1998. Just saying.

While the plot is shallow, that doesn’t mean it’s not fun (again, like a SNES game). If nothing else, Gemmell is great at writing fight scenes, and Druss the Legend has a LOT of them. Druss is constantly, consistently unstoppable in battle– and he’s got to chop up tons of dudes in like every other chapter. Though Druss doesn’t do all the work (just most of it). Along the way he crosses paths with a Ranger (complete with dual wielding!), a Bard, a Rogue, a Mysterious Priest, and they’re pretty much just a Wizard short of taking on The Tomb of Horrors.

Druss himself reads like a combination of various Swords & Sorcery icons. He’s brawny and charismatic and unstoppable in battle like Conan, but he’s also got a haunted weapon a-la Elric of Melunborne. Which, if you’re in the mood for reading about a big dude chopping up bad guys with an axe, is great! Though if you’re looking for something deeper than that … well, you might want to pick a book that doesn’t have cover art that looks like it could’ve come from a Manowar album.

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Additionally, Gemmell’s writing here is … serviceable, though littered with cliches. Not just in the various characters, but also in the phrasing itself. Hell, there’s one part in the book where Gemmell drops “if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride” and “fortune makes for strange bedfellows” ON THE SAME PAGE. It’s lazy writing, to be honest.

Ultimately, Druss the Legend has a very specific audience. It’s written for folks who just want to read about a giant barbarian dude killing all the bad guys, or folks who read Legend and in turn want to read about Druss’ origins (which involved killing all the bad guys). So I guess you’re kind of double-dipping, there. It’s not a bad book, by any means, but it’s not a particularly good one, either. Though now I might go back and read the original Legend at some point … so long as I can find a copy for cheap at a used bookstore or something.

Book Review: Jack Vance’s Space Opera

Sometimes, I get Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe mixed up.

Which I imagine will draw cries of indignation from just a few of you, while the rest go ‘huh?’ Though to be fair, they both have a similar, almost dreamy kind of style (though now that I think of it Wolfe is a little more surreal than Vance, at least from the tiny bit I’ve read of both).

Nowadays, Vance’s biggest claim to fame can be his influence on Dungeons & Dragons, of all things. Y’see, where the Thief class was lifted directly from Leiber’s Grey Mouser, the original magic system of D&D where magic users ‘memorize’ a spell in the morning and then ‘lose’ it once it’s used is directly taken from Vance’s Dying Earth series, down to certain spell names like prismatic spray.

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With this in mind (plus the ‘oh, I haven’t read much of this classic author’ thing), I nabbed Vance’s Space Opera at the used bookstore. Gotta love the brazenness of the title– that’s just like naming your book Paranormal Romance or Swords and Socrery or directly after some other sub-genre.

Of course, the gag is, Vance Space Opera is a literal title, as it centers on an opera company … IN SPAAAACE. Though as a sidenote, Vance’s Space Opera should not be confused with the recent release of Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera, which is basically about Eurovision … IN SPAAAACE.

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Might track this down eventually …

Anyway.

The fun thing about Vance’s Space Opera is that it touches on a lot of space opera tropes. There are ancient & ruined civilizations, strange aliens, lost planets, and so on. It’s just that instead of focusing on a dashing space-captain, Space Opera views all of these things through the lens of a touring opera company. Vance even gets into some ‘deeper’ ideas, such as describing chord progression as a scientific constant that any civilized creature could appreciate (which turns out not to be the case, but it’s still a fun sci-fi idea).

Space Opera opens with an alien opera troupe coming to Earth and taking the theatrical world by storm. For one night, at least, as they disappear after just one performance. And so, in order to find out the truth behind this, a ludicrously wealthy aristocrat by the name of Dame Isabel (who should be played by like Maggie Smith or maybe Judi Dench in the extremely unlikely case this book is ever made into a movie) decides to fund an opera tour to the stars in order to find the truth of the aliens’ home planet, Rlaru.

It doesn’t go well.

Space Opera is a silly, episodic little adventure. Every few chapters Dame Isabel and her crew touch down on a new planet, and find themselves with new problems. Strange aliens that can’t comprehend human culture. A Space-Australia prison planet full of prisoners who want to escape. An untrustworthy space-captain. A mysterious siren of a stowaway. And, horror of horrors, a spaceship crew that starts a jug band.

I’m fairly certain Vance cranked out Space Opera based solely on the title, but damn if he didn’t do a good job of it. It’s a goofy, fun little farce that’s not afraid to take potshots at both ‘high culture’ (sci-fi still being somewhat looked down on in comparison to ‘dramatic’ literature, even today) as well as various sci-fi tropes. I’m not super familiar with the operatic canon, but I imagine Vance tucked some great jokes in there for those folks who are that just went over my head. Even still, there was a little throwaway gag about the St. Louis Browns that had me laughing out loud.

Really, I think the most surprising part about Space Opera is how light it is, compared to a lot of the other Jack Vance work I’ve read. Which is hardly a bad thing, mind you– if you’re in the mood for something quirky and different that still has spaceships in it, Space Opera is definitely worth nabbing if you can find a copy.

Book Review: The Ninja, by Eric Van Lustbader

Here we go.

My buddy Jeremy (of A Brew to a Kill), is pretty much the best friend a guy could ask for. As we were hanging out a few weeks ago, and he hits me with “I got you a present from the thrift store.” Dude’s got mad Goodwill skills– he once gave me boxed G1 Galvatron he found at a Goodwill for six bucks(!) for Christmas. And, once again, Jeremy delivered. Check it.

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25 cents well spent.

And he gave me a fancy beer, too! And it wasn’t even my birthday!

So yeah. If you’ve been paying attention, you should know that a book like this is quite relevant to my interests. And why not? Ninjas are freakin’ sweet, and there aren’t enough ninja novels out there. What makes Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja more interesting, however, is that it was released in 1980. This puts it well before the TMNT (1984), the famous Frank Miller run on Daredevil that brought us Elektra and The Hand (1981), or even the classic Cannon film Enter the Ninja, starring the great Sho Kosugi (1981). According to my intarweb research (read: wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt), The Ninja was released in April 1980– while the Chuck Norris flick The Octogon (which can be seen as one of the first films to really feature the Hollywood Ninja) didn’t come out ’til August of the same year.

Of course, ninjas feature prominently in the 1967 Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, and also in James Clavell’s Shogun novel (which got turned into a miniseries), but Van Lustbader’s The Ninja is arguably the first spark to ignite the ninja craze of the 1980’s.

I have a vague theory that the Hollywood obsession with ninjas is somehow connected to the zeitgeist of the time, in that there was a vague idea that the booming Japanese economy was going to result in Japan literally buying out America. Which … didn’t happen, but hey, people were doing a lot of cocaine back then. Of course, to follow this economic anxiety theory, we should be flooded with wuxia flicks on account of everyone being afraid China’s gonna buy us out, buuuuuut it doesn’t quite work out that neatly. Which is a shame, as I dig me some wuxia flicks.

But I’m rambling. Let’s get back to the book.

The Ninja is about a dude named Nicholas Linnear, who is, spoiler alert, a ninja. Described as “Half Oriental, Half Caucasian” (he’s actually a quarter Chinese, a quarter Japanese, and half British-Jew), Nick is apparently the only dude in all of New York who’s lived in both Japan and the US, as Van Lustbader makes a big deal about how he has a unique view into both Eastern and Western culture. It’s to the point where, after Nick quits his generic advertising job within the first few pages of the book, he’s randomy offered a lecturer’s position at a local college for their “Oriental Studies” program. Yeeeeah.

The whole college lecturer thread is soon forgotten once Nick meets a woman named Justine, and the two commence to boning right away. But, this happiness is not to last, as there’s another ninja (from Nick’s past, of course) who starts running around New York City throwing shurikens into people, and soon enough there’s a whole convoluted plot going on with Justine’s father being the target of ninja assassination and so on. And, since only a ninja can stop a ninja, it falls on Nick to swordfight the bad guy.

When you get down to it, The Ninja is basically a horror novel along the lines of something Grady Hendrix would write about. Only instead of a vampire or a haunted tank or whatever, the monster is … well, a ninja. The Ninja is a very 80’s novel, with tons of lurid sex and gore. Pretty much every female character that’s around for more than three pages is defined by her sexuality. Justine’s a masochist who’s read too much de Sade, Nick’s ex-girlfriend Yukio from his days in Japan is a raging nymphomaniac. The real ‘winner,’ however, is Justine’s sister Gelda, a pill-popping, hard-drinking nihilist who sidelines as a lesbian hooker to movie stars just for kicks. Oh, and Gelda was raped by her father as a kid, too. Hell, even the evil ninja is a depraved, heroin-smoking pedophile who drugged and raped Nick back in Japan.

This was not what I was expecting from a book called The Ninja, let me tell you. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t discover this book back when I was a kid first getting into TMNT.

Kinky sex and sword-murder aside, The Ninja doesn’t really deliver on the promise of ninja mayhem until the last chapter or so, in which Evil Bisexual Heroin Ninja goes up against a bunch of cops before having his final showdown with Nick. Until then, the book’s like 400 pages of various subplots, including:

Various flashbacks to Nick’s childhood in Japan

Something about Nick inheriting a magic emerald necklace?

A gritty police detective investigating the ninja murders (and calling Nick in as a consultant).

A medical examiner who was a medic in WWII reminiscing about how he was captured by a ninja during the Pacific campaign

Various musings about differences in Eastern and Western thought, with how “mysterious” Japan is.

Van Lustbader spices things up ever 50 pages or so with either a kinky sex scene or Evil Bisexual Heroin Ninja murdering somebody … but even then the bad guy’s plot doesn’t make much sense. Supposedly he’s targeting Justine’s asshole millionaire father, but he doesn’t get around to going after him ’til the end of the book. Which … I guess makes it vaguely equivalent to a really crappy 80’s ninja movie that doesn’t get interesting until the last 15 minutes or so?

As a novel, The Ninja feels unfocused, and never really reaches the heights of WTF mayhem that the best ninja flicks reach. Still, it’s interesting to see Van Lustbader trotting out various tropes that would become hallmarks of the ninja genre, such as the idea of a westerner trained in ninjitsu for whatever reason. Still, I’m glad that the various ninja movies (and video games, and cartoons, and so on) I hoovered up as a kid (and still do today) focused more on the swords and throwing stars rather than the heroin and magic necklaces.

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Honestly, you’d probably be better off just watching some Sho Kosugi movies instead of reading this book.

Oh, and it looks like Van Lustbader wrote a whole bunch of sequels to The Ninja, which … well, I may have to track them down now, just to see how ridiculously sleazy they get. It’s good to have goals, I guess?