Book Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford.

Everybody loves the Mongols.

Well, except for the millions of people they killed and/or conquered, but still. The Mongol Empire was one of those stretches of history I was vaguely familiar with, in that I knew a bunch of guys on horses conquered a whole bunch of stuff, but I was a little short on details.

And, looking to fix that, I read a book!

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I heard about Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World in passing, and finally decided to track down a copy. It is, as one would expect, about the life and empire of Genghis Khan. While the “great man” theory of history has a lot of unfortunate implications, there’s no arguing that Genghis Khan left an indellible mark on history. I mean, he went from a poor, illiterate peasant to to the greatest conqueror in history– just add some dragons and wizards, and you’ve got yourself a fantasy novel.

Weatherford starts the book detailing Genghis’ early life, based on a document known as The Secret History of the Mongols. To be honest, this part’s a little slow. On the one hand, it’s interesting to see where Genghis came from … but on the other, The Secret History of the Mongols is really the only source Weatherford has for Genghis’ early life, so I’m honestly not sure how accurate the account could be. Weatherford touches on this in passing, but for the most part he takes The Secret History of the Mongols as fact, especially given the thorough detail that’s given about certain places in Mongolia.

Things pick up (and sources become more diverse) as the Mongols start building an empire– and this is where we really see Weatherford’s thesis take off. Basically, the Mongol Empire was the first “modern” state: it had a separation of church and state, it made extensive use of trade and propaganda, and encouraged the development and use of new technologies. The Mongols were a pragmatic people, and so they pretty much cherry-picked the most useful bits of culture and technology from people they conquered. The Mongol empire was responsible for inventions that would go on to become cornerstones of the modern world: gunpowder, the printing press, and even playing cards. In turn, Weatherford posits that the Renaissance was less a rediscovery of ancient Greek thought, and more the transplanting of Mongol-based technology and ideas to Europe.

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Another Mongol accomplishment: this joke.

And, yes, the Mongols did kill a whole bunch of people, and enslaved many, many more. It’s kind of a weird thing to look at from a modern perspective. On the one hand, the Mongols encouraged tales of their terrifying exploits (see the mention of propaganda above), but on the other hand, they did raze several cities. Sometimes they had it coming (protip: never kill a Mongol’s messenger) and sometimes … not so much.

And in one of those twists of fate, the source of the Mongol Empire’s strength ultimately led to its downfall. Trade and mobility was key to the Empire’s prosperity … which allowed the black plague to spread like wildfire. The resulting devastation broke the Mongol Empire into a bunch of isolated little kingdoms, and so we don’t speak Mongolian today. Whoo?

Weatherford does a good job detailing the rise and fall of the Mongols in an entertaining and approachable way. I learned a great deal about Mongolia– and really about world history in general. It’s well worth a read for anyone with an interest in world history, so go ahead and check it out!

Book Review: Paul S. Kemp’s A Discourse in Steel.

As you’ve probably noticed by now, I’ve got a terrible weakness for the dollar paperback bin. More often than not, it’s the literary equivalent of MST3K, in which you can stumble across strange and forgotten old books, ripe with all kinds of crazy insanity.

And sometimes, you find something that’s, you know. Good.

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A Discourse in Steel is kind of cheating, as I bought it for TWO dollars instead of one– even still, it was on the clearance shelf at the bookstore, so there you go. I vaguely remembered reading about the series on Tor.com awhile back, and so I figured I’d give it a shot. And I’m really, really glad I did.

Don’t let the generic ‘two dudes standing around’ cover fool you. In a better world, A Discourse in Steel would have a cover by Frazetta, showing those two dudes killing a bunch of bad guys, possibly with a scantily clad maiden or two in the background. Because A Discourse in Steel is pretty much the definition of the Swords & Sorcery subgenre. Given that Swords & Sorcery is one of my favorite subgenres (one that doesn’t get much attention these days, to be honest), this book was right up my alley.

A Discourse in Steel is the second in Kemp’s Egil & Nix series– but that honestly doesn’t make too much of a difference, as I was able to jump right in. It doesn’t hurt that the Egil & Nix series is basically Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser fanfiction– which I mean in the best possible way, in this case. Egil is a big brawny barbarian dude, and Nix is the short, sneaky dude who knows a little bit of magic. Together, they dig around for ancient and cursed treasures, fight various bad guys, and otherwise get into trouble, bantering the whole while. A Discourse in Steel pretty much runs down a checklist of Swords & Sorcery tropes, and it’s absolutely wonderful for it. There’s an evil Thieves Guild that Egil & Nix run afoul of, ancient ruins to be delved into, and even an ancient, slumbering race of snake-men sorcerers. And, in true Swords & Sorcery fashion, it’s all wrapped up with a melancholy (though still fitting) ending.

However, as a book that came out in 2015, rather than something that graced the pages of Weird Tales back in the 40’s, A Discourse in Steel does well in subtly distancing itself from its inspirational material. For one, Kemp populates the book with a rather interesting supporting cast. Most Swords & Sorcery works center around just one or two central heroes who roam around and get into trouble. Conan, Elric, and, of course, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser were all the center of their particular series. In contrast, Egil and Nix are surrounded by a bunch of characters who could easily carry their own series– be it the pair of psychic sisters that get Egil & Nix into trouble to begin with, or their mysterious and intimidatingly tattooed bartender, or even the talking skeleton key Nix buys off of a wizard. Okay, so maybe the talking key couldn’t support a book of his own, but it’s still a fun bit.

Another thing that Kemp does well is ‘updating’ Swords & Sorcery for a modern audience. Don’t get me wrong, A Discourse in Steel is still a rollicking adventure full of swordfights and monsters and what have you. It’s just that Kemp manages all of this without the racism and sexism that pervaded the old pulp magazines. Admittedly “hey, it’s not racist!” isn’t high praise by any means, but still. Maybe I just got a little too burned from the last Fafhrd & Grey Mouser book I read. Yeesh.

This isn’t to say the book is wholly sanitized. For one, Egil & Nix run a tavern/brothel known as … the Slick Tunnel. I’m not sure if that kind of single entendre is something that should make me wince or laugh for its brazenness. Kemp also uses made up swear words, to … varying effect. Instead of “shit,” they say “shite.” Instead of “fuck” they say “fak.” And instead of “asshole” they say … “bunghole.” Which, seeing as of how I grew up in the 90’s, my mind went to the obvious place …

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Pretty sure this isn’t how Kemp wants us to visualize Egil & Nix. 

Still, despite these minor flaws, I absolutely loved A Discourse in Steel, and consistently kept looking forward to turning the page to see what happened to Egil & Nix next. It’s a straightforward, entertaining bit of fantasy adventure that knows exactly what it wants to do, and does it very well. Kemp’s written a bunch of other stuff (including a bunch of Star Wars novels that may or may not be canonical anymore), but the thing that catches my interest is the fact that there’s two more Egil & Nix novels I haven’t read yet. And with any luck, maybe he’ll crank out some more.

Book Review: George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman at the Charge

Books are kind of like food.

Instead of ‘styles’ like Italian or Chinese, you’ve got genres like mystery or romance. And, like food, some books are better for you than others. A lot of the cheap sci-fi paperbacks are more or less the equivalent of greasy fast food– cheap and fun, but probably not something you should be consuming exclusively. Other books are like health food– they’re ostensibly ‘good’ for you, but ultimately dry and unfulfilling. (I don’t have a high opinion of ‘literary’ fiction, if you haven’t noticed).

But sometimes, you luck out and stumble across something that’s ‘good’ for you, but also turns out to be delicious– which brings us to George MacDonald Fraser.

Fraser’s one of my favorite authors, and his Flashman novels are my favorite series of his. I’ve actually read all the Flashman novels before– but they’re fun enough to go back to every now and again. Coincidentally, the last Flashman novel I read (and reviewed) was the one that directly comes AFTER this one, but I digress.

In any case, the Flashman series center around one Harry Paget Flashman, famed hero of Victorian England! Of course, Flashy is also a bully, a rake, and inveterate coward, so getting thrown into heroics is the very last thing he’d like. Which is what makes it so entertaining when he’s inevitably thrown into the biggest military fiascoes of the 19th century.

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Specifically, Flashman at the Charge centers around Flashman’s exploits during the Crimean war. The first half of the book centers around how Flashy gets dragged into the Battle of Baclava, where he invariably winds up as part of the Charge of the Light Brigade. (Yes, the “Into the valley of death / rode the six hundred” one).

But before that, Flashy also participates in less famous (but more successful) actions during the battle, such as the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, and the Thin Red Line. Both the campaigns and the famous people Flashman meets are meticulously researched– there are even footnotes at the back of the book, so that way you know it’s educational!

The battle only takes up the first part of the book, however. After somehow surviving the Charge of the Light Brigade, Flashman is captured by the Russians and taken far from the front. After a little bit of the obligatory womanizing and chaos, he escapes captivity and falls in with Yakub Beg, a central Asian king (well, he’s not quite a king at the time of the novel but still), and helps him stop a Russian advance into India. Basically Rambo III with a cowardly Englishman.

All of this is written from Flashman’s point of view, as he’s writing down his memoirs. He looks at things with a droll and often hilarious perspective. And again, it’s worth noting that Flashman is a horrible person– he’s often racist, and lusts after nearly every woman he meets –but the thing is, all of this is intentional on Fraser’s part, and Flashman himself is the first to tell the reader of his (many) flaws. The juxtaposition between such a cowardly ‘hero’ and a traditional Victorian-era adventurer is the key conceit that makes the series so interesting.

Flashman at the Charge is a fun book, and well worth a read for anyone with a passing interest in history. It’s fiction, sure, but well researched enough that you still might learn something. Best of both worlds!

Book Review: Peter Clines’ Ex-Purgatory

Zombies vs. Superheroes.

It’s a heck of a high concept idea, but one that Peter Clines has gotten a lot of mileage out of. Ex-Purgatory is the fourth of his “Ex-Heroes” series, chronicling the adventures of some off-brand Avengers as they try to protect a small outpost of survivors in L.A.

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The previous book, Ex-Communication, started to take things into more superheroic territory, with the addition of an out and out magical supervillain at the core of things. Ex-Purgatory takes this a step further, not by adding more comic-book esque characters, but by using a comic-book storyline.

Y’see, at the beginning of Ex-Purgatory, we meet George– just a normal, boring janitor, living a normal, boring life, free of superheroics or zombie apocalypses. Normal, that is, except for the weird dreams he’s having where he flies and wears a costume, or the occasional hallucinations of shambling zombies trying to eat him (with little success, on account of his unbreakable skin).

To be honest, I’ve never really liked “our hero is trapped in a world where they’re not a hero” episodes. Batman’s done it, Superman’s done it, Buffy’s done it … it’s pretty much obligatory, after awhile. The problem is, while this allows the story to focus on a character’s civilian identity … it also separates the narrative from the superheroics and action that are the reason you’re watching (or reading, or whatever) in the first place. This kind of counts for double in Ex-Purgatory, as we lose track of both the heroic action AND the post apocalyptic rebuilding of civilization.

Of course, it’d be a boring book if George STAYED in janitor-world all this time– and thankfully, he doesn’t. Soon enough he rejoins the other ‘civilian’ versions of his super-team, and they work together to figure out and escape the mind-control prison they’ve been dragged into. Superbrawling ensues. Things especially pick up towards the end of the novel, in which we get a classic ‘two of our heroes are forced to fight!’ scene. Kind of. It’s complicated.

So yeah. Ex-Purgatory is enjoyable enough … even though it’s not my favorite of Clines’ Ex-Heroes series. It’s not bad– it’s just that the plot is based on a trope I’m not too fond of, and one that takes a little too much time to get to the interesting bits. This said, there’s a twist or two towards the end that genuinely did surprise me, so Clines gets credit for that. Also, I can’t fault Clines for using this as an opportunity to explore aspects of his characters that wouldn’t quite work in the standard post-apocalyptic setting.

To be honest, I wouldn’t suggest Ex-Purgatory to someone who hasn’t read Clines’ earlier books in the series, first. And even then, you might be able to skip over it, as the reviews I’m finding about the next book in the series, Ex-Isle, look to be a bit more promising. But hey, Ex-Purgatory wasn’t bad enough (or splatterpunk gruesome enough) to make me wanna vomit, so … well, I guess it’s a good thing I can’t make that joke now.

Cyberpunk Sneak Preview! Ghost in the Shell

In the last couple of years, we’ve been getting a lot of live-action movies based on anime (which are in turn based on manga, but whatever). There’s a whole trilogy of Ruroni Kenshin movies, a couple of Attack on Titan flicks, Netflix is doing Death Note …

And I just saw a sneak preview of Ghost in the Shell. Lucky me? I watched the original animated movie back when anime still came on VHS, and I’m vaguely aware of the various TV shows spawned by the franchise, but I’m not familiar enough with it all to get really nerdy and nitpicky, which is probably a good thing.

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This movie, Ninja Scroll, and Akira were pretty much the only anime tapes allowed in the US until about 1997. 

Right off the bat, I’m well aware of the “whitewashing” controversy over casting Scarlett Johannson as The Major. Though to the film’s credit, it actually makes this a plot point: The Major is a human brain (the “ghost”) put into an android body (the “shell”). It makes sense that one could make said android body look like anything … so why wouldn’t you opt for the Johannson route? Unless you prefer blondes or something, but I digress.

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Ghost in the Shell is basically Robocop without the satire. Y’see, once The Major gets put in her robot body, she’s then recruited/drafted into “Section 9,” a special task force devoted to fighting “cyber crime.” Section 9 is run by The Chief, who inexplicably speaks in Japanese even though nobody else does. On the other hand, The Chief is also played by Beat Fucking Takeshi, so he gets a pass on that, I guess. Soon enough, Section 9 picks up the case of somebody murdering scientists from the megacorp that built The Major’s robot body. And, of course, The Major then discovers a bunch of dark secrets and wonders about what it means to be really human. Also she shoots a whole bunch of bad guys.

Those gunfights really are the best parts of the movie. Ghost in the Shell is unabashedly an action flick (albeit one with philosophical baggage). A lot of stuff is taken straight from the slam-bang action of the manga and anime, and tons of special effects work is put to good use. There’s even a spider-tank, which is one of the better mecha I’ve seen in a movie lately.

Things also get a little gratuitous, if in a PG-13 kinda way, in that The Major has chameleon-like skin that lets her turn invisible. So naturally she has to strip down to Barbie-Doll-Blank nakedness several times throughout the movie. Then again, I’m pretty sure a lot of that comes from Masamune Shirow himself, so … points for hewing close to the source material?

I caught Ghost in the Shell in 2D– and honestly, it’s one of the few flicks I can think f that I rather would have seen in 3D. The cyberpunk setting and occasional trippy ‘we’re in cyberspace!’ bits no doubt make for a really cool 3D experience. This said, the visuals don’t always land– for the most part, the movie just slaps a bunch of CGI holograms over aerial shots of Hong Kong, so you don’t get the real crazy mashup feel of other cyberpunk flicks like Blade Runner or even Johnny Mnemonic.

Really though, the complaints about the visuals are entirely minor, once you compare them to the script. More often than not, Ghost in the Shell‘s dialogue is awkward and clunky. There are some genuinely interesting ideas and character interactions buried in there, but most of it feels dumbed down and overexplained. On top of that, one of the movie’s villains does a heel-face turn towards the end … and nobody really brings up just how many people the dude killed and tortured, but hey.

All and all, Ghost in the Shell isn’t a bad flick … but it’s not going to blow you away, either. I guess it at least gets some credit for playing around with various ideas on memory and identity and transhumanism and stuff … though on the other hand, I think I might just have to check out the actual anime sometime in order to see those ideas explored in a halfway subtle manner.

Still, if you’re a die-hard Scarlett Johannson fan, or a die-hard cyberpunk fan, or both, Ghost in the Shell might be exactly the kind of movie you want to see. Even if you might wanna save a few bucks and catch a matinee showing.

I Can’t Believe it’s not Baen: Rick Shelley’s Lieutenant Colonel

Hey look, it’s time to dip back into THE BOX! Because there’s nothing like getting a book at random for basically 34 cents. Today’s offering? Rick Shelley’s Lieutenant Colonel.

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“Did I leave the gas on?” 

If you didn’t figure it out from the title, or the cover, Lieutenant Colonel is Military Sci-Fi (Mil-SF for short), a genre devoted to chronicling how and why people are gonna shoot at each other in the future. And, also unsurprisingly, Lieutenant Colonel is the fifth book in Shelley’s “DMC” series, with each earlier book having sequential titles like Lieutenant, then Major, then Captain, and so on. Not exactly creative, but what can you do.

In any case, this series centers around a dude named Lon Nolan as he works his way up through the ranks in the Dirigent Mercenary Corps (from which we get the “DMC” acronym). Lon is your typical officer– professional, honorable, and … kind of boring. Dude makes Honor Harrington seem like Hamlet. Wait, no, that’s not a good analogy, ’cause Harrington gets shit done. But I digress.

Anyway, Lieutenant Colonel opens with Lon wrapping up a covert mission on Earth. Which may have been what he was up to in Major? This is what I get for hopping into a series at random. In any case, as Lon started musing over the state of Earth in the first couple of chapters, the red flags began to go up. Y’see, in the future of the DMC series, Earth’s government is terribly corrupt, with the teeming masses kept in overcrowded cities and kept in line through “handouts.” It’s a very … Republican view of a dystopia, I have to say.

In contrast, there’s the planet Dirigent, a place that’s supposedly resource-poor (even though life there seems pretty pleasant?), so the only things they have to offer interstellar trade are their corps of bad-ass mercenaries and a thriving munitions industry. Oh, and Dirigent’s civil government is the same as their military one, in that the head of state is the General, who’s elected by a “Council of Colonels.” And, of course, all of this is presented as a Good Thing.

Now, Mil-SF isn’t a necessarily right-wing genre. Writers like John Scalzi or Ann Lieke are proof of that. This said, it seems like Mil-SF does tend to draw a large number of more conservative writers. It makes sense, given how the U.S. Military skews to the right of the political spectrum.

Thankfully, Lieutenant Colonel doesn’t delve into super preachiness. Though it did inspire me to create MIL-SF BINGO! Just print this off next time you read about space-soldiers shooting space-lasers at space-commies, and check off the boxes as you go along!

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Aaaaanyway. Once Lon gets off Earth and back to Planet-PMC, he’s promoted to, well, Lieutenant Colonel, and put in charge of a battalion of 800 men. And before long, his battalion gets hired to defend some frontier mining planet (that Lon fought on years before, natch) against some raiders sent by an evil Earth corporation.

The rest of the book is taken up by Lon moving platoons and companies around frontier planet to fight the raiders. It’s perfectly serviceable space-adventuring, but the action never really ‘pops’ as it does in the best Mil-SF books. Really, the biggest thing that holds the book back is the lack of a proper villain. The raiders attacking frontier-mining-planet are terribly generic, to the point where not a single one is named. On top of that, they almost always fight to the death (until they’re ordered to surrender in the last chapter). Oh, and they’ve all been poisoned with special nanotechnology that makes them impossible to treat with standard medical tech in case they’re captured. They’re fanatics … but we never see why they’re so fanatical. Then again, I guess this is better than just making them, like, Space Taliban or something, but still.

The entire book takes place from Lon’s POV, so I understand the limitations there– even still, it would’ve been nice to put a face on the bad guys, or even give them a commander who could taunt Lon or maybe even do the ‘worthy opponent’ thing or something to make it more interesting. Lieutenant Colonel lacks any sense of context– again, this is the fifth book in the series, but it would be nice if the bad guys had noticeable goals or personalities beyond ‘let’s steal stuff.’ Heck, even what they’re stealing isn’t very interesting– it’s just ‘mineral ore.’ Not special warp crystals needed to power FTL travel, not strange alien artifacts of a lost civilization, not even, like, space-gold. It seems like a whole lot of expense and trouble (not to mention the frankly horrific 50% casualty rate) to get a bunch of nickel. I mean, if I were an exec at Evil Earth SpaceCorp, I’d start wondering ‘oh hey, what if we spent all the money on armed goons on, like, asteroid mining instead? Y’know, where nobody will shoot at us?’

Towards the end, Lieutenant Colonel comes close to rising above its video-gamey approach to shooting bad guys. Lon’s a family man, for one, and so he has occasional nightmares and reservations about his son (Lon Jr, natch) enlisting in the Space-Mercenaries and going off to get himself killed. And then there’s a rather gruesome bit in which a soldier recounts desperately trying to save his friend who got most of his lower half blown off. This brief bit is one of the few parts of the book where genuine “war is hell” sentiment shines through. It would’ve been nice if Shelley worked in some more moments like this throughout the book, to temper the whole “mercenaries are cool!” vibe.

So yeah. Lieutenant Commander thankfully never veers off into a crazy libertarian screed … but at the same time, it doesn’t really click as a rollicking adventure, either. But hey, considering it’s a book I pretty much just read at random, I suppose I could do worse.

Book Review: Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross.

I wouldn’t say Charles Stross is one of my favorite authors, but he’s written enough good stuff that it tends to draw my attention. And so, while perusing the shelves at the library, I decided to give Neptune’s Brood a read. And y’know what? I’m pretty glad I did.

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Neptune’s Brood is technically a sequel to Stross’ earlier novel, Saturn’s Children. I say technically because it’s set thousands upon thousands of years after Saturn’s Children, without any characters or major plot threads from the first book coming through. Still, the universe of Neptune’s Brood is built on the same foundation– after the extinction of mankind, sentient robots take over and build a new society of their own. Of course, this being the far future, these aren’t clanky “Danger Will Robinson!” robots– but rather super-advanced beings made up of nano-technology “cells” (referred to as “mechanocytes”), which they can alter at will (though not without effort) in order to deal with hostile environments such as deep space vacuum, hostile exoplanets, and so on.

The novel centers on a young (ish) android, Krina Alizond-114, as she makes her way to a water planet (populated by robo-mermaids and sentient cyber-squids), in search of her disappeared sister … as well as a great treasure that holds a terrible secret. So, on the surface, it’s pretty standard stuff. But, of course, it wouldn’t be a Stross novel without some kind of weirdness built in, and Neptune’s Brood certainly delivers. Namely, it’s a space opera … about economics.

It’s more interesting than it sounds, I swear.

In a typical space opera, characters zip around the galaxy from planet to planet without much trouble at all, and only the barest nods to little things like ‘physics.’ Neptune’s Brood stays well away from this problem, and in fact, embraces it. In the world of Neptune’s Brood, interstellar travel is possible … only it takes a long, long time. Centuries. Millennia. Of course, having a crew of robots who can put themselves into stasis, or even be downloaded into new bodies upon arrival makes this slightly more feasible. On the other hand, interstellar travel and colonization is also ludicrously expensive … which is where Slow Money comes in.

One of the central conceits of Neptune’s Brood is the deliniation between Fast Money and Slow Money. Fast Money is something you’re already familiar with– it’s the cash in your wallet, or in your bank account. Slow Money is different– it’s a special sort of tender established for trade in between interstellar colonies, light years apart. One Slow Dollar is worth something around ten million Fast Dollars, so that kind of stuff is kind of a big deal. It’s a really fun idea, one that kind of reminded me of Issac Asimov’s psychohistory in that it’s a new future technology based on something other than circuit boards and atomic energy.

The theme of space-economics (and space-capitalism, and space-fraud, and so on) runs throughout the book. Not only in Krina’s outlook on things, but in just how stuff works. For example, Krina soon falls in with the dashing Count (as in accountant) Rudi Crimson, a dashing space-pirate/freelance insurance underwriter. Oh, and Rudi looks like a giant bat, though that doesn’t have much to do with anything.

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Unless Stross is a big Ratbat fan. I mean, there’s not very many bat-robot accountants out there …

So yeah, if you haven’t figured it out, this is a weird book.

It’s a good kind of weird, though, and I dare say that Neptune’s Brood is my favorite Stross novel of the stuff I’ve read so far. It’s a bit more coherent than Saturn’s Children, and the economics angle is more approachable than the British spy novel references and coding talk in the Laundry novels. For me, at least. Your mileage may vary.

This isn’t to say the book’s without flaws (however minor). The biggest thing is that Stross has a tendency to “cheat” when it comes to first person perspective, in that he’ll work in little passages here and there in which we see events unfolding that Krina could have no possible idea about. Then again, it’s mentioned that Krina’s writing a report after the fact, so I gueeeess you can let it slide. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s a quirk of Stross’ that I’ve noticed before.

On top of that, the ending is a bit rushed, if not abrupt. It seems to build up to a big climax, and then, uh … stops. On the one hand, it makes sense in context (Krina’s an accountant, not a combatant), but on the other, it would’ve been nice to see Stross fire things up a bit. As it is, it feels like Stross almost ran out of steam towards the end … but even with this complaint, the rest of the book makes up for it.

All and all, Neptune’s Brood is a fun romp of a novel, and a good place to start reading Stross, if you haven’t before– and also if you have a high tolerance for transhumanist craziness.

Book Review: The Devil Wives of Li Fong, by E. Hoffman Price

Sometimes, a title just jumps out at you.

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Cover like that, I just had to pick it up.

E. Hoffman Price (1898-1988) was a heck of a guy– he was a contemporary of Howard and Lovecraft, cranking out hundreds of short stories for the pulps. The funny thing is, Price is the sort of guy who would’ve made a great pulp hero himself. He was a West Point graduate who served in WWI– and on top of that, he was a champion fencer, boxer, and marksman. Like any proper pulp explorer, Price had a real sense of adventure and curiosity– things that both come out in The Devil Wives of Li Fong.

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A rare picture of E. Hoffman Price not kicking somebody’s ass. 

The Devil Wives of Li Fong is fantasy– more specifically, it’s Chinese fantasy, set at some point centuries ago. There is a passing mention of the Yellow Turban Rebellion, which would put it at least sometime past the fall of the Han dynasty … which is something I only really know about from playing Dynasty Warriors. But I digress. The important part is, this novel comes from a place of genuine respect and knowledge about Chinese culture and history– it’d be easy for a lesser author to write stuff that comes off as hackneyed and racist, but Price really knows his stuff. This is all reflected in the book’s details about various foods and festivals– as well as Chinese religions such as Taoism and Buddhism. Many characters repeatedly refer to the I Ching: The Book of Change, a book of Chinese divination. Kind of like the Chinese equivalent to a Tarot deck (even though the Book of Change was invented centuries beforehand).

The Devil Wives of Li Fong is about, well, a poor herbalist’s apprentice named Li Fong, and the two beautiful women he falls in with. Technically, that title is a little innacurate. Li Fong only has one wife, Mei Ling, and takes her sister, Meilan, on as a concubine. Though both sisters are snake-devil-women in human form, so there’s that.

While they’re snake demons, Mei Ling and Meilan aren’t evil or malicious. They just want to become fully human. To do so, they decide they need to attach themselves to a human man, and … well, wouldn’t you know, Li Fong fits the bill. Honestly, if the book wasn’t published in 1978, I would’ve thought Price watched too much harem anime.

Li Fong’s marital (or extramarital, in the case of Meilan) bliss doesn’t last for long, as soon they have to deal with a pair of greedy and corrupt Taoist wizards, as well as an overzealous Buddhist abbot who wants to expose the snake-devil-ladies for what they are. Flashy magic battles and such ensue.

The Devil Wives of Li Fong isn’t a perfect book– to be honest, the plot is a little meandering, as the various antagonists of the novel try (and fail) to extort and/or banish the snake-ladies over and over again. It’s kind of episodic, but with most of the episodes retreading the same ground without really blossoming into something crazier. Personally, I would’ve liked it if the book had more kung fu, but I can say that about nearly every book I’ve ever read. Despite these little complaints, Price’s writing is still light and clever enough that it still remains an entertaining read.

The Chinese fantasy setting reminded me of Hughart’s Bridge of Birds. Price doesn’t reach Hughart’s levels of hilarity or melancholy … but that’s alright, since that’s a really high bar to set. Seriously, Hughart’s pushing Pratchett level. Early Pratchett, at least.

In any case, mythic China is a setting that’s ripe for exploration … that not many writers seem to do. That Price was doing such a thing back in 1978 is even more impressive. All and all, I enjoyed The Devil Wives of Li Fong, and would easily recommend it to anybody in the mood for a fun and fluffy bit of adventure that’s set somewhere other than Ye Olde Tolkien-Ripoff Fantasyland.

And as a bonus, I’ve got a new pulp author to read up on, which is always fun.

Book Review: Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell must have a great agent.

Because really, it’s a ballsy thing to go up to a publisher and go “so, uh, the author I’m representing just wrote six hundred pages of Harry Potter slashfic. Wanna publish it?”

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Author photo, courtesy of Kill Six Billion Demons. You should all be reading it, by the way.

Makes me wonder if I should get ahold of Rowell’s agent to see if anybody wants to buy 60,000 words of Mass Effect/My Little Pony fanfic or something. Or I may just settle for writing GI Joe fanfic for Amazon instead.

Rowell’s work is more than a little outside of my typical wheelhouse. I mean, none of her books have dragons or spaceships on the cover. What gives? But, out of curiosity, I read Fangirl awhile back. It was a pretty standard and fluffy coming of age romance story, only the gimmick was the protagonist, Cath, dealt with her issues by writing novel-length fanfiction. Harry Potter fanfic, basically, just with the serial numbers filed off.

Carry On is that fanfic.

Kind of.

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I’ve been meaning to read Carry On for awhile now, just for the metatextual angle alone. I mean, it’s fanfiction of a series that only exists in the world of another novel. It’s fanfic, free of canon– kind of like a reflection without a mirror, or something similarly zen.

In various interviews and blog posts around the time of Carry On‘s release, Rowell backed away from the fanfic thing a bit, declaring Carry On to be its own story. Which, at times, it is. Even still, the novel couldn’t exist without Harry Potter– or Harry Potter fanfic.

Carry On centers around a magical orphan with a great destiny by the name of Harry Potter Simon Snow. Since his eleventh birthday, he’s gone to a magic boarding school called Hogwarts Watford, where he gets into various magical adventures with his brilliant friend Hermione Penny and his girlfriend Ginny Agatha.

(Ron doesn’t get a bootleg doppleganger so I guess Rowell just doesn’t like him).

The problem is, in addition to the various magical mysteries to be unraveled and the occasional monster trying to kill him, Simon must also deal with his villainous-but-sexy arch-nemesis, Draco Malfoy Tyrannus Basilton Pitch. “Baz” for short. Oh, and Baz is also a vampire but one of those bullshit ones who walks around during the day and only feeds off animals. At least he doesn’t sparkle in sunlight, so there’s that? And, y’know, since Simon and Baz are sworn enemies who have tried to kill each other a couple of times, this obviously means they’re in love and they should really make out.

I’ll admit, I’m being a bit pithy and unfair.

On the one hand, I realized long ago that “shipping” is just a game various fandoms play with their characters. I mean, heck, I was downright floored when Korrasami became canon, but that’s just ’cause everything’s better with kung fu lesbians. On the other hand, I’m something of an originalist when I geek out about something, so I at least require the barest hint of subtext to validate a particular fannish tangent. To use The Force Awakens as an example, I can totally see Poe Dameron and Finn being a thing, though I’d be up in arms if somebody started going on about, like, Kylo Ren and Snap Wexley being secretly stupidly in love with each other or something. Or really shipping Kylo Ren with anybody because he’s an intentionally awful character.

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Snap Wexley is also played by the dude from Big Ass Spider, which makes him the greatest Star Wars background character.

So yeah. I’m not a fan of the Harry/Draco thing that’s so prevalent in HP fandom.

Then again, I don’t really read much fanfic to begin with (apart from tie-in novels of debatable quality) so I fully recognize that a good chunk of Carry On isn’t “for me.” Which is why it took me awhile to read this book. It’s written in a very fanficcy style (present tense, with shifting POV chapters), and a lot of words are devoted to goopy angst and stuff. Hell, there’s an entire chapter devoted to Simon & Baz’s first kiss, if that tells you anything. I’m not a fan of “Chosen One” characters, and I’m really not a fan of smarmy bad boy vampires in tight pants, so the first third or so of the novel is kind of a slog.

But.

Rowell isn’t just writing a gay fanfic romance– the whole of Carry On really is a response to the Harry Potter series … and some of its shortfalls. There’s the inclusion of queer characters, for one– not just in the central couple, but also in some passing references to at least one lesbian relationship between some background characters. Additionally, Rowell also makes it a point to include characters of color (Penny, aka Not-Hermione, is half-Indian-British). Most interesting, however, is the magic system Rowell lays out. In Carry On, spells are based on common turns of phrase or cliches– everything from nursery rhymes to Queen lyrics to Star Wars quotes. This is really fun, as it intrinsically ties the magical world to the mundane one, which was always one of the biggest disconnects in the Harry Potter books. Though I kind of wonder what would happen if someone tried a spell called “I’m Batman” or something.

Furthermore, Rowell does a great job with characterization, fleshing out both sides of the book’s conflict. In particular, Baz’s family of Not-Malfoys are portrayed with actual sympathy, instead of just being a bunch of evil dudes in black robes. This said, they’re still snobby magical bigots who are way too concerned about ‘breeding,’ which they’re never really called out on. Still, on more than one occasion (especially at the start of the book), I found myself wishing that Carry On centered around some of the side characters like Hermione Penny, or Baz’s punk-as-fuck aunt (who is Not-Bellatrix Lestrange, maybe?).

So yeah. Despite the goopy slashy romance, Carry On still works really well. Good fanfic isn’t an oxymoron, it’s just rare. There are a bunch of ways to approach Carry On. As a fictional fanfic to a series that doesn’t exist, there’s no canon to compare it to– I’m sure Baz & Simon don’t hook up in the “actual” Simon Snow books. Makes me kind of want to track down a copy of Fangirl again in order to compare the brief passages mentioned there. As a completely original work, Carry On has some fun ideas about magic and how a secret wizard world could operate … but again, I think Rowell’s ideas in the book really become more interesting once you look at them as a response and reflection of Harry Potter fandom.

So yeah. If you’re the kind of person who read (or perhaps even wrote? I won’t judge. Much) a bunch of embarrassing fanfic in your youth, Carry On is worth a read.

Book Review: David Smay’s Swordfishtrombones (which is about Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones)

Oh hey, I still have a blog!

I’ve just been busy lately, so I haven’t been able to read as much as I’d like. On top of that, one of the books I am reading is both really long, and not as engrossing as I’d like, so that’s kind of stalled me a bit. More on that one in … whenever I get around to reading it.

But! I just finished a book that was both short and interesting, so woo! That boo41xbvzuuh4l-_sy344_bo1204203200_k in question is David Smay’s Swordfishtrombones. I’ve covered 33 1/3rd books before– basically, each volume of theirs concentrates on one particular album by one particular artist, and explores the history and ideas behind it. And, as you could expect, Swordfishtrombones is about Tom Waits’ 1983 album Swordfishtrombones.

Tom Waits is an institution these days, and rightly so. However, Swordfishtrombones was a turning point for Waits, the album where he really cut loose to do whatever the hell he wanted, and thusly became the Tom Waits we know today. At least, that’s Smay’s argument throughout the book. He makes a compelling case, bringing in little tidbits and anecdotes concerning Waits’ life. In particular, Smay keeps returning to the unique relationship between Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan, who he married shortly before starting his work on Swordfishtrombones. It’s a fascinating story– though one Smay has to paint in rather broad strokes, given how reclusive Waits can often be about his personal life.

Swordfishtrombones is far more straightforward, far more focused than the last 33 1/3rd book I read, Flood. Smay doesn’t try to tie Swordfishtrombones to any larger subcultures– it is, ultimately, a book about Tom Waits. But then again, given how deep Waits’ music can go (quite literally, in the case of a song like “Underground”), this serves as a rich topic to explore. Smay’s book is peppered with fascinating facts, anecdotes, and half-truths. These cover everything from Waits’ obsession with dwarves (the actual little-people kind, not the Tolkien-ones with axes), to polka bands covering “In the Neighborhood,” and a dozen other random tangents besides.

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Smay manages to write in a dreamy, surrealist way that’s evocative of Waits without becoming imitative. This turns out to be Swordfishtrombones‘ greatest strength, the thing that really distinguishes it from just another musician biography. Really, the tone of Swordfishtrombones can be summed up in a passage early on.

FACT: Tom Waits was born September 8, 1683, during the siege preceding the Battle of Vienna– on the very day that Turkish sappersbreached the Nieder Wall but four days before King Sobieski led the glorious charge of the Polish Hussars and drove the Turks from the field, forever blunting the Ottoman Empire’s ambitions in the West and preserving Christendom. (It is important to clarify that Tom Waits was not born during the better known 1529 Siege of Vienna. That would make him 487 years old today! This confusion stems from the popular depiction of the Siege of Vienna in Robert E. Howard’s short story “The Shadow of the Vulture,” which introduced the character Red Sonja, leter to be adapted into the Conan comics continuity and portrayed onscreen by Brigitte Nielsen, who went on to toy with Flavor Flav’s affections in Season Three of The Surreal Life, but relevant here because Sylvester Stallone is Brigette’s ex-husband.)

This is on page six.

The whole book isn’t written in such a dreamy tone, but Smay delves into it a couple of times just to spice things up. All and all, Swordfishtrombones is worth the read for any Tom Waits fan.