Book Review: The Clockwork Dynasty, by Daniel H. Wilson

Tell me if you’ve read this one before.

A young woman, inspired by the stories her grandfather told her in her childhood, (as well as the mysterious relic he leaves to her), devotes her life to studying a particularly strange and esoteric period of history. Soon enough, she’s drawn into a shadowy conspiracy-world run by mysterious immortals who have influenced the course of history in their shadow-war, ancient beings forced to consume each others’ power to survive.

But instead of fancy vampires or katana-toting Scotsmen, the immortals are robots.

That’s Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty in a nutshell.

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You know, it’s probably a good thing the edition I read didn’t have that Ernest Cline quote on the cover. 

I’m being a bit pithy, yes– but that doesn’t mean this is a bad book. I mean, robots are freakin’ rad, after all.

The Clockwork Dynasty touches on a bunch of the standard ‘immortals among us’ tropes (including the ‘centuries old immortal in a child’s body’ thing), as well as just a bunch of robot ones as well, from the legend of the golem to Terminator. It’s Urban Fantasy with a sci-fi veneer, though not quite crunchy enough to really be labeled ‘Urban Sci-Fi.’ Which should totally be a thing, now that I think of it. Alien P.I’s! But I digress. Also I suppose you could technically call The Clockwork Dynasty steampunk (what, with the gears and all) but it’s really more clockpunk, but that’s just me quibbling over stuff.

Wilson is a deft writer, and he keeps the plot rolling along with tons of action scenes and cliffhangers. The Clockwork Dynasty is The Clockwork Dynasty alternates between time periods– and viewpoint characters. Half the book is written from the perspective of June Stefanov in the present day, while the other half follows Peter, a sentient clockwork automaton constructed for the court of Peter the Great. Soon enough, their stories intertwine, secrets are revealed, conspiracies emerge, and so on. And as an added bonus, since a lot of the major characters are robots, Wilson has a lot of fun in smashing them up, having their delicate clockwork systems get mangled and smashed in all kinds of elaborate ways. It’s like an 80’s cartoon, in which it doesn’t matter who dies, because they’re just machines!

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Surely, this won’t traumatize any children at all!

But yeah. The Clockwork Dynasty is an entertaining enough read, even if it’s trope-tastic. Though now that I think of it, it would’ve been nice if June got some more time to shine. She’s written as curious, and as a problem-solver, which are really neat character traits. It’s just that, a lot of the time, she doesn’t get the chance to do anything with those traits, as the fighting immortal-robots kind of steal the spotlight. Like, the big climax centers on June stealing the MacGuffin while nobody’s looking– but at the same time, she just kind of … takes it, instead of doing something clever and engineer-ish. Peter, meanwhile, is your typical generic honorable immortal warrior dude, trying to figure out who fight for/what to believe in. He’s not boring per-se, but it’s more of the standard tropes. At least there’s not anything of a romance between June and Peter, so that’s a plus.

Even if Wilson wears his influences on his sleeve, there are just enough original ideas in The Clockwork Century to prevent it from being a stale rehash of any number of other stories. It’s a solid enough little adventure, if not something that will change your life. So if you’re in the mood for some rock-’em sock-’em robot action, go ahead and give The Clockwork Dynasty a read.

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Book Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

For the record, it’s important to distinguish Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera from Jack Vance’s Space Opera. I guess copyright can run out on titles, or I guess it’s just hard to trademark genre names, or whatever. In any case, I’d heard a lot of good thing about Valente’s Space Opera, and here we are!

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The premise is simple– and absurd. As hundreds of years ago, after the conclusion of a horrible, genocidal galactic war, all the sentient species of the universe started a project to ensure such a thing would never happen again. Naturally, they decided on a music festival– every species sends their best musical acts, because what better way to prove you have a soul by bearing said soul on stage through song and dance? It’s explicitly Eurovision: IN SPAAAACE.

Oh, and there’s also a rule that whenever a new species is discovered, they have to send an act themselves– and if said act places in last place? Well, obviously that species isn’t actually sentient, and is no doubt a threat to the galaxy, and should summarily be wiped out.

Enter humanity.

Of course, the joke is, the space aliens in Space Opera kind of have terrible taste in music. As their short-list for human acts that they’d want includes Courtney Love, Yoko Ono, and the Insane Clown Posse. But when all of them are unavailable, the last act on the list is Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, a washed up glam-rock trio. Except the frontman’s a has-been, the drummer’s dead, and the guy who actually knew how to play guitar has sold out to become a session musician. And yet, the fate of humanity rests on the shoulders of two (explicitly brown, explicitly queer) burnouts.

Hijinks ensue.

Reading Space Opera is like picking a page out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at random while Ziggy Stardust plays in the background. Valente explicitly makes shout-outs to Adams and Bowie in the author’s notes at the back of the book, so this is entirely intentional. This said, a lot of the humor can come off as trying a little bit too hard. Like, I kind of started to roll my eyes when the cutsey time-travelling red panda showed up.

Decibel Jones (and therefore Space Opera) has something of a credo: “Life is fucked up and beautiful.” It’s both an indictment of modern society as well as a celebration of the transcendental power of music. It’s just that I couldn’t help but think that this very same message was told a lot better in Grady Hendrix’s We Sold Our Souls.

Some of that no doubt comes from personal bias– I’ve got more heavy metal in my library than I do Eurovision singles (though I should probably get a Lordi album at some point). Though beyond that, We Sold Our Souls just comes off as a deeper read. Even though it’s heavy metal horror vs. glam-rock sci-fi, We Sold Our Souls has a deeper connection to music itself– not just metal, but blues, country, even gospel. In contrast, Space Opera mostly talks about music in a gonzo alien mashup sense, and is pretty dismissive of anything that’s not glam enough. Mostly the alien music acts are there so Valente can make puns. Good puns, mind you, but still.

Likewise, the protagonist of We Sold Our Souls is a lot more active, going on a revenge quest– where Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes (well, Absolute Zero, since there’s just the one guy) just kind of get swept up into things and muddle along. They fret and argue and panic a lot, but they don’t really do anything. Which … again, I suppose mirrors characters like Arthur Dent or Rincewind, but it’s still a bit dull.

But.

Complain as I may, Space Opera still hits really hard when it wants to. It’s a grand tale of regret and beauty and showing all of that on stage (preferably while dressed in a bright pink sequin-lined wedding gown). The raw, painfully earnest, yet still wonderful ending wraps everything up in a grand finale that even moved a cynic like me. It’s not about the music, it’s about the feeling.

So yeah. Space Opera is a bit derivative, a bit rambling … and yet somehow it all comes together in the end. While I wouldn’t put Space Opera on a list of all-time-greatest Sci-Fi novels, it’s still different enough to be a nice change of pace. So if you’re in the mood for something weird and quirky and shamelessly silly, give it a read.

Then brace yourself for something brutal and go read We Sold Our Souls next.

Book Review: Jade War, by Fonda Lee

Fonda Lee’s Jade City was one of the best books I read in 2018. It hooked me so much that the sequel, Jade War, is handily in the “buy it new in hardback as soon as it comes out” category. And, having devoured the book, now I get to tell you about it!

Jade War, like Jade City, is a fantasy novel centered on the island nation of Kekon– vaguely analogous to post WWII Hong Kong and/or Singapore. Kekon is unique in the world in that it’s the only source of jade– a powerful, magical mineral that can grant wuxia-esque superpowers to those with the training and bloodline to use it. Jade is mostly exclusive to the Green Bone Clans: organized crime families that pretty much run Kekon. Think The Godfather as directed by Tsui Hark, and you’re not far off.

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Jade War continues telling the story of the Kauls– scions and leaders of the No-Peak Clan. There’s Hilo, the head of the organization, thrust into the role after the death of his brother. There’s Shae, Hilo’s sister and right-hand woman, managing the business aspects of the No-Peak Clan’s affairs, and Anden, something of a black sheep of the family who winds up getting sent abroad to not-London. Of course, Jade War is an intricately plotted novel that takes place over the course of years, featuring a whole bunch of other viewpoint characters, but the Kauls are really the heart and soul of the book. Lee does an exceptional job with her characters, making them compellingly empathetic … only to have them turn around and do something awful and/or violent, since, y’know. Crime family. Or in turn have something awful and/or violent happen to them for the same reasons.

I’m not saying Fonda Lee cackled in sadistic glee as she wrote some of these scenes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she did.

In addition to the excellent characterization, Lee also does a heck of a job at worldbuilding as well. Jade War extends its scope beyond Kekon, with action taking place in not-London as well as not-Indonesia. Lee creates at least half a dozen different cultures, each with their own slang, religions, and even sports– but at the same time Jade War never gets bogged down in “let me show you how I did my homework” exposition. It all comes naturally, which allows Lee to focus more on themes about immigration and identity and super-kicking mobsters through walls.

Ironically enough, Jade War doesn’t delve into … well, war. Even though there’s a Korean-war-equivalent proxy war between the world’s two major superpowers (both sides using jade-powered commandos, no less! Honestly there’s a novel to be written there if Lee ever feels like writing a spinoff) it takes place far from Kekon, and so is mostly just there to drive the actions of Hilo and Shae and so on. The broader scope and more focus on underworld politics is less punchy and kung-fu-movie-esque than Jade City, even if Lee does shake things up with the occasional duel. It’s telling that one of the major climaxes of Jade War isn’t a climactic fight, but rather a simple meeting between Shae and the head of the enemy clan.

So yeah. I’m not quite sure how well Jade War works as a standalone novel. Lee does a good job of making sure things don’t get too bogged down, and keeps the plot moving forward –but at the same time, jumping in at the second novel won’t give the reader any sense of emotional connection to the Kauls, which in turn blunts the melodrama. With that in mind, I’d have to recommend that the potential reader go read Jade City first, and then follow it up with Jade War. You won’t regret it.

Or, well, maybe you’ll regret it once you realize the conclusion to the trilogy, Jade Legacy is at least a year out from now, and find yourself having to wait to see how things play out.

There are worse problems to have.

Book Review: Paper: Paging Through History, by Mark Kurlansky.

Holy smokes, it’s the weekend already?

Holy smokes, it’s August already?

So yeah. Had a busy last couple of weeks– did some traveling, and brought back an unseasonal head cold as a souvenir. But I’m back, and mostly over the cold– and the good news is, I’ve got a backlog of books to review now. There are worse problems to have, right?

In any case, after being disappointed by The Emperor’s Blades, I was in the mood for something different, which had me poking around the Non Fiction & History sections of the library, which eventually brought me to Mark Kurlansky’s Paper: Paging Through History. Kurlansky has written a variety of books on a variety of subjects– Paper is along the lines of other books he’s written like Cod, Salt, and Milk! I’ll let you figure out what those books are about respectively.

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Ironically, I read Paper in e-book form, because that’s the world we live in these days.

Still, Paper is a pretty interesting read, detailing the history of paper. Kurlansky follows the invention of paper in ancient China, and its subsequent spread along the Silk Road, and then to the world beyond– though it did take about a thousand years from when paper showed up in the Middle East for it to be finally adopted by Europeans– but they’re kind of backwards like that. In fact, Paper opens with an anecdote from a monk complaining about how making paper from rags is obviously a sign of the Islamic world’s decadence.

Paper is ubiquitous in modern society– and there’s a reason for it. As a technology, paper is intricately tied to both religion and government. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all known as “people of the book,” for good reason. And in Buddhism, copying sutras or religious texts is a form of prayer, which led to the development of early woodblock printing.

Paper also has a chapter about Pre-Columbian papermaking, which is really interesting as it’s something I had absolutely no idea about. Independent of contact with China, paper (or at least a paper-like equivalent– there’s a bit of quibbling about the process) was invented in South America, and civilizations like the Aztecs were literate societies with their own books … all but a handful of which were burned by the Spanish in a feat of horrifying thoroughness.

So yeah, Paper is a solid history about a surprisingly complicated subject, covering thousands of years of history from the initial invention of paper to the development of wood-pulp paper in the 19th and 20th centuries. This said, there are times when Kurlansky gets a little too thorough, giving lots of easy-to-forget names and dates of just who started a paper mill and/or a printing press in which town in the 17th century, or whatever. Which, well, if you’ve got to write a research paper, fine, but Paper reads a little more as a pop-history. Furthermore, there are a couple of gaps in Paper as well. For example, Kurlansky focuses on the ‘proper’ uses of paper for writing, printing, or art, but fails to mention other developments. Like, y’know, toilet paper. Or, in a note that’s less likely to make my inner sixth grader snicker, Kurlansky does mention how wood-pulp paper made paper cheaper than ever before– but he doesn’t talk about the development of cheap & disposable entertainment like pulp magazines, comic books, and pocket-sized paperback novels. Which honestly is a tiny quibble in the grand scheme of things, but it still strikes me as an oversight, especially when Kurlansky spends several pages detailing the spread of Dutch papermaking or whatever.

While dry in places, Paper is definitely worth a read. It’s really interesting to learn about the history of a technology we take for granted nowadays, and Kurlansky lays the facts out in a (mostly) compelling manner. So go ahead and give it a read! Dead-tree or ebook version, take your pick.

Book Review: The Emperor’s Blades, by Brian Staveley

For over half a century, fantasy authors have been cribbing from Tolkien. Fancy elves, wily wizards, big scary dark lords, and maybe an artifact or two of unimaginable power. But these days, in the 21st century, things are different!

These days, fantasy authors are cribbing off George R.R. Martin instead.

I mean … okay, sure. Martin didn’t invent concepts like betrayal, feudal politics, lurking ancient evils, or fantasy characters who are allowed to say “fuck,” but at about the time The Emperor’s Blades featured a big, imposing chair called the Iron Unhewn Throne, I just had to say “really?”

So yeah. Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades is Tor’s ebook of the month, and … uh, I guess I’m kind of glad I got it for free, at least. I went in pretty much blind, and so at the beginning I didn’t know what to expect. And to be fair, Staveley has some legitimately interesting ideas spattered throughout … but at the same time, a lot of stuff feels a bit too on the nose. I mean, all The Emperor’s Blades is really missing is the dragons, incest, and a dwarf.

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The Emperor’s Blades centers on three viewpoint characters, the three children of the recently-deceased Emperor. There’s Kaden, who’s being trained by pseudo-bhuddist monks of the “Blank God,” Valyn, who’s basically in Fantasy-Navy-SEAL training, and Adare, the Emperor’s only daughter who’s been appointed as the Minster of Finance back at the capitol. Each of them goes through their own suffering and training and so on (though Adare less than the other two– more on that later), and try to discover the eeeeevil plot that’s afoot and avoid assassination themselves.

If I had to sum up The Emperor’s Blades in a word, it’d be “sadistic.” Between the two of them, Kaden and Valyn get beaten, poisoned, buried alive, half-drowned, run to exhaustion, and otherwise abused in almost every way you can think of. Admittedly, part of this is from the one going through aesetic training, and the other getting turned into a ninja commando, but a lot of it still comes off as kind of gratuitous. This said, I’m kind of hesitant to call The Emperor’s Blades “grimdark.” Don’t get me wrong, there’s gore and murder and suffering aplenty. Buuuuuut, it’s just kind of … there. In contrast, something like The Poppy War or The Black Company have a narrative purpose for all the horror, whereas a lot of stuff in The Emperor’s Blades feels like it’s grim and gritty “because that’s what Martin would do.”

I found the Valyn chapters to be my favorite– mostly ’cause a fantasy ninja commando who’s aerially inserted into combat zones via enormous bird of prey is a really cool idea. That, and his ragtag squad of misfits (because of course there’s a ragtag squad of misfits) is probably the closest to a ‘traditional’ Fantasy adventuring party. Though this is also tempered by the fact that Valyn is a fucking idiot who keeps on blundering into things when he should know better. Hm.

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There is, of course, a map.

Now, Staveley has created an interesting enough world, and he’s pretty good at writing fights and other feats of derring-do. The problem is, the plot ultimately becomes pretty predictable. Like, that smarmy prep-kid guy who’s a dick to Valyn at assassin-academy? Guess what? He’s really just a huge dick, and is the bad guy after all! Oh, and the mysterious and secretive sniper-girl also at the academy? Turns out she’s not so bad! And so on, and so forth. I found myself routinely predicting major plot points as the book went on. Because again, there’s a general feel of “that’s what Martin would do.”

You can tell I’m really mad at a book when I start talking about SPOILERS. So, uh, Spoilers.

See, again returning to Valyn (since his chapters are the most interesting), there’s the matter of Valyn’s partner/best friend/love interest at stabby-Hogwarts. She’s clever and stubborn and fun to read and about a few chapters in I realized: “oh no this woman is doomed.” And, sure enough, said character gets tortured to death off-camera, about halfway through the novel. Because the best way to give your protagonist REVENGE MOTIVATION is to murder his love interest. Textbook Girlfriend-In-A-Refrigerator. Which is another of those points I had to ask “Really?”

Now, the killing of one character, however likeable, usually isn’t enough to sour me on a book. It’s just that the rest of The Emperor’s Blades has a … weird thing about women. (“because it’s what Martin would do!”). Most notably, just about every female character of note in the book is like, so hot you guys. Breasts are described notably in most descriptions of any woman in The Emperor’s Blades, because that’s what’s important about them, I guess? If you were feeling really charitable, one could argue that most of the book is written for from the perspective of a hormonal teenage boy, so of course that’s what he’d notice …

But.

Remember when I mentioned The Emperor’s Blades is about three siblings? By page count alone, Kaden and Valyn get most of the attention in the book, while their sister, Adare, just kind of … muddles along. Like, there could be some interesting stuff about the politics of the capital city … but instead, we get more stuff about Kaden hauling rocks and getting philosophy lessons. Yeeeah.

So yeah. The Emperor’s Blades is … okay. Marginally okay. If you’re up for reading some Martin-esque adventure (that’s not as good as Martin’s actual work), you might enjoy it. However, the vague misogyny and predictable plotting are both really notable red flags. The Emperor’s Blades is the first of a trilogy, because of course it is, but I don’t see myself tracking them down anytime soon.

Book Review: An Ancient Peace, by Tanya Huff

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again. Sometimes you just want to read a book with a spaceship on the cover. And hey, Tanya Huff’s An Ancient Peace fits the bill! (Helps that the library had it, too). And better yet, I read the previous book a few years back.

While it says “Peacekeepers #1” on the cover, An Ancient Peace is actually Huff’s sixth novel about Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr. Kerr’s a (retired) Space Marine– the Semper Fi kind, not the “For the Emperor” kind, and is thusly your typical hard-assed mil-SF/space opera protagonist. Over the course of the previous five novels, Kerr fought her way through all kinds of horrible situations (including Space-Roarke’s Drift in the first one), and wound up uncovering an alien conspiracy and stopping a galaxy-spanning war that had already killed millions.

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The Combat Tanktop is the future’s most advanced form of armor, apparently.

Kerr’s basically Commander Shepard, only as an NCO (not to mention the first Torin Kerr novel came out seven years before the first Mass Effect game). Though it’s worth noting Huff kind of subverts a lot of the typical mil-SF tropes. As while Kerr is certainly a badass, she’s best known for her main priority in any mission: bringing her people back alive. Protection, instead of destruction, and all that.

An Ancient Peace is something of a soft reboot, as it follows Kerr’s post-marine career. With a small, ragtag crew of her former squadmates (along with two civilians: Kerr’s space-pilot boyfriend as well as an ex-criminal hacker space elf), Torin Kerr works for Military Intelligence, doing the kind of plausibly deniable stuff that the Space Marine Corps can’t do directly. After kicking the crap out of a “Human’s (sic) First” space-KKK meeting, Kerr and her crew are contracted to track down somebody dealing in ancient alien artifacts, who may be searching for a cache of ancient WMD’s on an abandoned cemetery-planet. Typical space opera stuff. But since we can, let’s see how it does in MIL-SCI-FI BINGO!

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I may have missed a box or two, but still. More space opera than mil-SF, if you ask me. 

The fun thing about An Ancient Peace, as well as the rest of the books that came before it, is in the worldbuilding. Huff populates her books with dozens of strange and different alien species, and then mixes them all together in various strange and interesting ways. There’s the di’Takayans, sexy, pheromone-emitting space elves, or the Krai, a race of super-omnivorous space-apes, and so on. Though one of the real kickers here is that Huff makes it a point to avoid alien monocultures, highlighting different religions or cultural differences between individual aliens. This really comes out in the first half of the novel or so, in which Kerr and her crew poke around an alien planet in search of clues with which to track the black-market antiquity-dealers.

One of the major themes of Huff’s Kerr novels is that of violence– just who’s capable of it, and who isn’t. See, the only reason the “Younger Races” of Humans, di’Takayans, and Krai were recruited into Galactic Society as a whole was because the Elder Races were no longer psychologically capable of violence. It’s not the first time “humans are the warrior race guys” has been used in Sci-Fi, and it won’t be the last, either. However, Huff still makes the idea her own. In An Ancient Peace, Huff makes it a point to examine not what it’s like to be a space-soldier, but rather, a space-veteran. Kerr has to attend court-ordered therapy sessions between missions, gets dirty looks from aliens that don’t know what war is like, and so on. It’s definitely a fresh take on the genre, especially compared to a lot of “space-war will make you into a SPACE-MAN!” mil-SF that’s out there. (Looking at you, Baen). This said, Huff never goes into political diatribe territory– An Ancient Peace is still just a space adventure at heart.

This said, I … kind of wish there was more space adventuring. Or at least a bigger variety of it. I mean, the first part of the book with the investigation bit is pretty cool. But then after that, things are just a bit too straightforward. Kerr & Co. go to the tomb world, poke around in a trap-filled labyrinth, butt heads with the bad guys who’ve been hired to steal space-WMD’s, fight some alien-zombies, and … that’s about it. It just feels kind of … dungeon-crawly, I guess. It would’ve been nice to have some more strange locations to fight through, or even to have some big twist at the end to shake things up. Heck, Kerr even made it off a planet full of ancient weapons without blowing the whole cache up, which seems like the obvious space opera thing to do. I mean, it’s not like anyone was living there anyway …

Still, this is just a minor quibble– and possibly one that may be remedied in the next two books in the series. Which, it’s worth noting, are also at the local library, so I’ll probably get around to reading them eventually. An Ancient Peace works well enough as an entry point in the series, to boot, so that’s nice. You shouldn’t be TOO lost if you jump in with this one.

Because, again, sometimes you’re just in the mood to read something with a spaceship on the cover.

Book Review: Flashman’s Lady, by George MacDonald Fraser

Sometimes, when I want to feel literary (and I don’t want to get depressed by Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Spanish fatalism) I go back to George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. They’re honestly brilliant pieces of work: thoroughly researched, deliciously written, and absolutely entertaining. And, y’know, I’ve got several of them already on the bookshelf, so there we go.

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Flashman’s Lady is the sixth of the Flashman novels– though chronologically, it’s the third? Or, well, it takes place during the multi-year gap in events of Royal Flash, which makes it like Flashman 2.5 or something, but that’s using Kingdom Hearts numbering.

In any case, Flashman’s Lady is fairly straightforward, in which noted coward (and bully, and womanizer, and …) Harry Flashman recounts his misadventures from 1842 to 1845. The novel starts with ol’ Flashy making a name for himself playing amateur cricket– but when scandal (invariably) strikes, he’s forced to leave the country on a voyage to the East Indies. After a brief stay in Singapore, Flashman’s lovely-but-ditzy wife Elspeth (the titular Lady of the title, naturally) is kidnapped by a pirate king. Further misadventures ensue. Though in a fun little conceit, certain chapters of Flashman’s Lady have parts of Elspeth’s diary interspersed, offering her own (usually hilariously clueless) views on the mayhem.

While Flashman’s Lady is just as meticulously researched as the rest of Fraser’s novels, the subject matter is a bit different. Namely, the historical events Harry blunders through are far less famous than the Crimean War from Flashman at the Charge, or even the Sepoy Mutiny from Flashman in the Great Game. This said, a lot of the historical figures that Flashy crosses paths with are of the ‘too wild to be fiction’ category. There’s James Brooke of Sarawak, the “White Raja,” an English adventurer and pirate-hunter who was awarded his own kingdom (one that lasted for the better part of a century) for his efforts. Or Ranavalona I, the merciless queen of Madagascar who’s said to have killed half of her population through various wars, purges, and generally working them to death. Which … well, Flashman’s Lady was written in the 70’s by an English author, so there’s probably more than a little unpacking to do here in regards to the historical record. Though Ranavalona I is still a polarizing and controversial figure today, so … yeah.

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Which brings me to the biggest issue about Flashman’s Lady– or any of the Flashman novels, for that matter. As a decorated army officer of the Victorian era, Harry Flashman is literally the poster-boy for British imperialism. Which is to say he’s a sexist, racist asshole– and is the first to admit as such. On the one hand, by making Flashman an utter bastard, Fraser is able to parody and skewer the Victorian fiction he’s based on. On the other hand, Flashman often describes African and Asian people with the sort of hateful vocabulary that I’m not about to quote here. So really, your mileage may vary.

This said, Flashman’s Lady is a hilarious, entertaining novel– and one that’s halfway educational, to boot. While I read it some many years ago, I’m glad I came back to Flashman’s Lady, as I’d kind of forgotten about most of the plot and the jokes, so things came together for a fresh experience. It’s a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure full of pirate battles and narrow escapes and so on, and the separation from better known historical battles gives Fraser plenty of room to play around.

I’m not sure if I’d recommend Flashman’s Lady as their first Flashman novel (something like Royal Flash or Flashman at the Charge would probably be better), but it wouldn’t be a bad call for their second or third.

I mean, it’s got pirates in it.

Book Review: Malicious Intent, by Michael A. Stackpole

I felt like reading a dollar paperback about big stompy robots, and I remember Michael A. Stackpole wrote a bunch of Star Wars novels that weren’t terrible (at least, 8th grader me didn’t think they were terrible?) and … here we are.

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Malicious Intent is Stackpole’s tenth(!) Battletech novel, of the 14(!) he’s written for the franchise over the years. Which, well, wikipedia-ing tells me that there are over a hundred Battletech novels out there, so … yeah. It’s a surprisingly deep setting … that I know next to nothing about. See, Battletech is one of those franchises I’m aware of, but I’m not really into. Like, sure, I’ve played a couple of the video games, and I did play a bunch of missions in Houston’s Battletech center (which is still around!) back in the day, and I vaguely remember the short-lived cartoon … but that’s about it.

Thing is, Battletech has a surprisingly deep setting for a tabletop wargame, with dozens of various factions and characters and such to keep track of, over a centuries-long timeline, spread out across the galaxy. It’s kind of like Warhammer 40k in that respect, only with less spikey bitz involved.

As such, Malicious Intent jumps right into things, relying on knowledge of various characters and events from previous Stackpole novels. Which … would have been nice to know going in. The book really doesn’t work very well as a standalone novel, sadly. Which just got confusing, as Malicious Intent is never referred to as “Book 2 of the Big Stompy Robot Trilogy!” or whatever, so I was going in blind. Malicious Intent assumes the reader is already a Battletech fan, and assumes you already know the difference between a Clan Mech and an Inner Sphere mech or whatever. Which, I … uh … don’t. I imagine the experience is kinda like reading a Star Wars novel without knowing what an X-wing looks like, or what a Jedi is. Then again, Star Wars has a much broader cultural reach than Battletech.

But all that doesn’t matter, we’re just here for the stompity robots, right? And … there’s some of that. Just … not enough of it. See, Malicious Intent focuses a lot on high level politics– a lot of who is invading which planet, and why. Which is … okay, I guess? It’s like, if the average game of Battletech plays out between a handful of mechs on a battlefield, then most of Malicious Intent is about the proverbial players thinking up excuses for their dudes to fight. Strategy vs. Tactics, as it were. Stackpole at least manages to make things somewhat interesting, even if some of the peripheral characters tended to blend together.

The funny thing is, there are a couple of plot threads within Malicious Intent that could have easily supported their own book. Like, there’s some business about a guy from one of The Clans (eugenics-loving totalitarian proud-warrior-race guys) fighting his way up the ladder and rebuilding his Clan after a disastrous defeat … that gets kind of ignored and sidelined about halfway through the novel. Likewise, there’s also a subplot about a mech-army officer without any combat experience getting stuck with a crew of losers and rejects, only to whip them into shape to oppose a Clan invasion with hit and run guerrilla tactics … but Stackpole only touches on this every third chapter or so, ’cause there are a lot of other playing pieces to move around the proverbial board.

Honestly, I can’t really recommend Malicious Intent as anybody’s first Battletech novel. It’s written well enough, but there’s just too much backstory to keep track of, and Stackpole tosses out a couple of bits of exposition to keep the reader up to date … but, well, there just wasn’t enough giant robot mayhem for a book with that kind of cover.

There are a couple of fun bits at the end of the book, however. For one, there’s a couple pages of pictures of the various mechs featured in the book. Which, uh, I kind of wish I’d thought to look ahead before I kept trying to figure out what a Goshawk-class mech is supposed to look like.

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Yes, that robot is called a “Penetrator.” Yes, I have the sense of humor of a 12 year old.

Even more fun, however, is the advertisements at the back– including one for the “Virtual World” Battletech simulators. And on top of that, there’s even a cut-out survey to send in to FASA!

… something tells me I probably won’t win that weekly drawing.

And man, now after all this robot talk, I’m even more impatient for that Lancer rulebook I kickstarted to come in. But that’ll be another blog post entirely!

Lancer cover

Seriously you guys this game is gonna be so rad. 

Book Review: The Caped Crusade, by Glen Weldon

Everybody loves Batman.

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At least … everyone loves a Batman. And that’s the rub, really, as Batman is one of those characters who has been rebooted and re-interpreted over and over again in his 80 years of existence. In The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, Glen Weldon breaks down each incarnation of The Bat, from his Shadow-ripoff beginnings in 1939, all the way to Ben Affleck’s portrayal in those crappy Zach Snyder movies. Weldon dives deep, touching on most major milestones for Bruce Wayne, including all of those famous Batman stories that keep on getting collected in trade paperback: The Dark Knight Returns, A Death in the Family, The Killing Joke, and so on.

The Caped Crusade isn’t just a history book, either, as Weldon ties the rise of Batman into the rise of nerd culture in general. Basically, for as long as there has been Batman, there have been nerds complaining about Batman– whether it’s pushback against the 1960’s live action show, or complaining about Michael Keaton starring in the Tim Burton Batman movies, or even, again, about the general crappiness of Zach Snyder’s DC flicks.

batman origin

Weldon’s other main tack in The Caped Crusade to illustrate how Batman cyclically goes from dark to goofy to dark again over the years– we’re on about the third turn of the cycle so far. And it seems the cycle’s going a lot faster, too, as there’s only five years between Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) to the goofy-as-hell (and also super fun) Lego Batman from 2017. Unfortunately, The Caped Crusade was published in 2016– which is a pity, as I’d love to see Weldon’s take on Lego Batman. At least the edition I read had an afterforward where Weldon rips into Zach Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman, which is pretty interesting. And justified, to boot.

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While Weldon’s love of Batman is evident on every page, The Caped Crusade is quick to criticize as well. For one, Weldon highlights Bob Kane as something of a hack at every opportunity. And, well, he’s justified in doing so, considering Kane made a career out of getting better artwork and ideas from Bill Finger and several other artists besides. Furthermore, the portrait of nerddom that Weldon paints is hardly a flattering one, as evidenced by directly quoting complaints about Batman from various fanzines, and later the internet. In particular, Harry Knowles, of Ain’t it Cool News, doesn’t come off very well. (Then again, I hear that dude’s an asshole anyway, so I digress).

It’s not all “nerds are the worst,” however, as Weldon also touches on the broadening appeal of Batman, and even briefly talks about cosplay, fanfic, and all that other fun nerdy stuff that the internet makes possible.

darknight returns

Funnily enough, my main criticism of The Caped Crusade is … well, it’s too MUCH Batman. See, with Batman as pretty much the flagship character of DC comics these days, the various Batman comic books have been super influential on the rest of the DC comics franchise. For example, Weldon mentions Harley Quinn in passing a few times, but neglects to mention how a one-off joke from Batman: The Animated Series became popular enough to be DC’s second most recognizable female character. Likewise, characters like the Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown Batgirls are ignored entirely. Or, while Weldon does mention that Kate Kane returned to comic pages as Batwoman in 2006, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mention that the new Batwoman was written to be a lesbian. Which … may seem to be a tiny nitpicky thing, but between Seduction of the Innocent and Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, the gayness of Batman comes up over and over again throughout The Caped Crusade.

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Weldon also makes it a point to highlight Batman: The Animated Series as the best incarnation of the character, and he’s not wrong.

So yeah. Am I nitpicking? Maybe a little bit. Gotta keep my nerd-cred with quibbling over minutiae, I guess. Still, to look at Batman in the context of just … Batman, it’s interesting, but I still think there’s wasted potential in ignoring Batman’s wider influence on other superhero franchises– both on DC books, and on other “Batman with the serial numbers filed off” adaptations. Then again, if Weldon went down every rabbit-hole (Bat-cave?) the book would be twice as long … which, well, I’d be happy to read more about Batman, but again, I’m a nerd.

BOOK REVIEW: Laurell K. Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures

Guilty Pleasures is arguably one of the most accurately titled novels ever written.

Confession time: back when I was a kid, before I got into The Dresden Files, before I even knew the term “Urban Fantasy” was A Thing, I read Anita Blake novels. It was roughly around the same time I stumbled across White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse RPG, as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It also helped that I could get the books for free when my uncle periodically culled his bookshelves. On top of that, the books are set in my hometown of St. Louis, so bonus, right? But, as Laurell K. Hamilton steadily focused more and more on the “sexy” bits, I gave up on them nigh on a decade and a half ago.

Yet, as I browsed through the Overdrive app, I stumbled across Guilty Pleasures, the first book of the series, and I got … curious. Nostalgic, even. And so I figured I’d see how well the first book, written well before the series’ turn towards the porny, holds up.

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The 1993 cover …

And … uh, yeah.

GP 2002

vs. the 2002 cover. Notice a difference? 

For those who haven’t read the series before, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake novels are the prototypical urban fantasy/paranormal romance series. They center on Anita Blake, freelance necromancer (“animator” is the fancy term for it) and vampire hunter. Over the course of twenty six(!) books, Anita shoots a lot of creepy monsters with silver bullets, and is lusted after by dozens of very, very pretty men with long hair and great abs.

All of these elements are present in Guilty Pleasures, though not quite as defined as they’d become in the later books. For example, Jean-Claude, the oh-so-pretty vampire in a poofy shirt who becomes Anita’s lover (well, one of them) in later books isn’t a huge presence– he shows up to be a “romantic” kind of creepo, but then spends the latter half of the book locked up in a coffin. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The thing about Guilty Pleasures is that the plot … is kind nonsense. For example, in the world of the book, vampires are “out,” having recently revealed themselves to the general public. Hamilton touches on a couple of interesting bits that could come from this, most notably a vampire church promising eternal life … but she never quite delves into the “out of the shadows” idea that later Urban Fantasy writers have played around with. It doesn’t help that her vampires are all shitty and petty and kind of dumb. For example, the plot of Guilty Pleasures kicks off with the local vampire lord trying to hire Anita on to investigate some murdered vampires … but when she turns them down, they immediately blackmail her, knock her out, and throw her in a dungeon with a ravenous wererat who threatens to fuck and/or eat her. This … does not strike me as the most compelling way to get someone to help you.

And on top of that, Jean-Claude (who is the woooorst) also applies his vampiric “mark” to Blake (without her consent, natch), which gives her some power but also binds them together and makes them dream about each other and generally get really horny sometimes. Yeeeah. Which leads me to realize that the whole “magical bond” trope is just a really, really lazy storytelling device. I mean, writing relationships is hard, right? Why not handwave away all that messiness with some magical bullshit? It’s basically the “prophesied hero of destiny” thing, just with more boning involved. Though the “oh no, you are so magic and sexy, I can’t control myself!” thing probably appeals to some people’s kinks, so … yeah?

I’m trying to be charitable, I really am. I realize that some books are just Not For Me. You want to read about a lady in leather pants with a sexy vampire boyfriend? Go for it. It’s just that a lot of the “romantic” stuff in Guilty Pleasures really … isn’t. It’s just skeevy and gross, and Hamilton doesn’t have the gumption to just say “fuck it, I just wanna write some porn” just yet. Which … well, I guess that’s something positive to be said about the later books, at least?

And the thing is, Jean-Claude isn’t even the main love interest of the book. Instead, Blake spends most of the novel paired off with Philip, a vampire-junkie blood-doll stripper (who is is very pretty and has great abs and long hair). Phillip is even worse than Jean-Claude, as he alternates between making clumsy passes at Anita, and being a whimpering, traumatized damsel to rescue and/or comfort. If you drink a few beers and squint, you could look at this as a gender-reversal of the “soiled dove” archetype from old noir novels, but I honestly think Hamilton wanted to just put more pretty mans in there.

Still, all of this takes place over the first third or so of the book, in which Blake doesn’t really do much of anything other than get kicked around. Which is a shame, as one of the things a more compelling Urban Fantasy book does is have fun right off the bat– show the protagonist being cool and powerful, or at least clever and snarky. Anita snarks … a little bit? But it never quite lands.

It doesn’t help that Anita Blake, as a character, is no fun. At least in the first book she isn’t. She doesn’t drink, she doesn’t dance, and she is surprisingly prudish for someone whose job takes her into vampire BDSM clubs on a regular basis. Like, hell, there’s a bit where Anita reacts to another woman flirting with her with the same level of revulsion (if not moreso) than vampires threatening to drink her blood. The term “thighs like beached whales” is used. Yeeeah. I kind of get the feeling that Hamilton had a really bad time at a kink party, and hasn’t forgotten about it since. It’s that particular scandalous-but-not-too-scandalous vibe that seems to be targeted at people who only have the vaguest idea of how kinky stuff actually, er, works. (See also: Fifty Shades of Gray). It all feels rather … repressed.

The frustrating thing is, there are tiny hints here and there of a more interesting book that isn’t about people trying to magic-bone the protagonist. Once Blake gets away from all the pretentious and bitchy vampires and actually starts investigating stuff, the book gets kinda fun. She shakes down witnesses, investigates crime scenes, hits up a sleazy dive bar– all the classics. And when she finally gears up to go kill some goddamn vampires with a silver-loaded shotgun, it’s pretty damn gratifying.

Sidenote: Anita could have saved a lot of trouble if she’d just loaded up to go vampire hunting the morning after the vampires started threatening to kill her. It’s funny, as she spends the whole book fretting over whether she should tell Edward (a more interesting vampire hunter who actually Gets Shit Done) where the vampire-lord is hiding … until that’s what she actually does and they go kill all the bad guys.

But yeah, it’s these little bits of halfway interesting action and investigation that make the Anita Blake books interesting … but there just isn’t enough of it. I wanna say that Guilty Pleasures wasn’t the first one I read– which is probably for the best, as even idiot-kid-me probably would’ve given up on that one. Even the St. Louis setting is kind of odd– for one, there’s a whole lot of vampire kink-clubs that aren’t in the real STL, obviously. (And even if there were vampire kink-clubs in town, they’d be on the East Side). The real kicker is that the city itself doesn’t get much in the way of description or flavor … but things get a lot more specific and detailed the further Blake goes into suburbia. Which, well, shows where Hamilton was living in 1993, I guess?

I don’t see myself returning to Anita Blake anytime soon. I just read this one as an exercise in curiosity and nostalgia– theoretically, there might be one or two solid books in the series to catch my attention, but I’m afraid it’ll just boil down to more “romance” with poofy-shirted men with very dubious concepts of little things like ‘consent.’

But hey, that’s what makes them monsters, I guess?

Some folks are into that.