Book Review: Kingdom Hearts II by Alexa Ray Correia

Boss Fight Books‘ “Season 3” continues, with Kingdom Hearts II. For those who haven’t been paying attention, Boss Fight Books specializes in publishing little volumes that explore various ideas about video games. Each book centers on a different game, and is written by a different author– they’re basically the 33 1/3rd of the video game set. I got a ‘season pass’ to their kickstarter awhile ago, and so every couple of months I get a PDF of their latest release. Kingdom Hearts II officially drops on the 27th, so consider this a sneak preview! Or something.

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One of the biggest challenges a Boss Fight Books author faces is writing about a game that the reader might not have played. Sometimes the games are so ubiquitous that it doesn’t matter, in the case of, say, Mario Bros 2 or Mario Bros 3. Sometimes, the game’s obscurity is entirely the point, in the case of Soft & Cuddly. Or sometimes … I guess you just had to be there. See, I’ve never played a Kingdom Hearts game. In fact, my only real experience with the franchise is listening to MC Chris’ hilariously NSFW rant on the subject.

(Sidenote: Boss Fight Books should totally do a book on Resident Evil 4).

In any case, if you’ve had even less contact with Kingdom Hearts than I have, let me sum stuff up for you. The Kingdom Hearts games are a series of role playing games spawned from a team up between Squaresoft (the guys who make Final Fantasy), and Disney (you already know them). What results is the likes of Donald Duck and Goofy rubbing shoulders (and crossing blades) with pointy haired dudes with names like Cloud Strife and Squall Leonheart. Added to the mix is a bunch of original characters with key-shaped swords, along with a bafflingly convoluted mythology spanning over eight interconnected games, most of which are prequels and retcons.

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Mickey Goes LARPing … wait, shit, I’d actually watch that cartoon. 

Alexa Ray Correia loves these games.

(Sidenote: As far as I know, Alexa Ray Correia isn’t related to noted gun fetishist and Sad Puppies originator, Larry Correia, so that’s a plus).

Honestly, I think the problem with Kingdom Hearts II is that Correia loves the game too damn much. On the one hand, she has a deep personal connection to the series (complete with emotion filled memories of playing the game with her little brothers), and I respect that. On the other, Correia’s love of the game often gets in the way of addressing its flaws. For example, Correia does admit the game’s opening (discussed by MC Chris in the video above) is kind of terrible and futile, but she tries to make an unconvincing argument that this is a good thing because it’s supposed to help you appreciate the rest of the game, or something. There’s none of the affectionate snark and genuine introspection that we get from other Boss Fight Books entries. It probably doesn’t help that, early on, Correia compares the Kingdom Hearts series to YA novels … a particular subgenre I don’t particularly care for.

Kingdom Hearts II is about Kingdom Hearts. It seems like an obvious statement, but it’s still worth noting. Instead of using the game to branch out into discussions about, say, media franchise crossovers, or Disney’s unstoppable domination of pop culture, or even fandom (seriously, there’s a lot of weird Kingdom Hearts shit on deviantart), Correia instead explains the convoluted minutiae of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, often citing prequels or pack-in books or whatever. For example:

“Xehanort recruited six others to experiment with him. When Ansem the Wise saw the danger in the research they were conducting, he abandoned them. Xehanort continued to experiment with his five followers and recording his findings under Ansem teh Wise’s name. He eventually discovered the nature of the Heartless and opened an ethereal door, breaking down the barriers between the Realm of Darkness and the Realm of Light. Shortly after this, King Mickey Arrived– and the presence of this tiny ruler snapped something in Xehanort. He abandoned his body, separating into the Heartless Ansem, Seeker of Darkness, and the Nobody Xemnas. According to Nomura, the formation of Organization XIII proper began at this time, when the remaining five disciplines [sic] willingly abandoned their hearts to follow Xemnas. “(pg 45-46)

Seriously, I read superhero comics, and I still need a chart to figure out half of what’s supposed to be going on.

And again, I can appreciate Correia’s fannish enthusiasm, but a lot of her points read like something from a Freshman philosophy class: light and darkness can’t exist without each other, friendship can be hard, and hey maybe it’d be nice if there were women in this game that weren’t damsels. As I read Kingdom Hearts II, I kept on thinking about vaguely related points that Correia failed to address.

For example, she devotes a whole chapter to Mickey Mouse as King of the Universe, pretty much … but she doesn’t touch on the history of the character, or the tendency of classic cartoon characters to be ‘cast’ in different roles. I mean, sure, Mickey as a King Arthur analogue can be interesting, but Correia doesn’t mention how he’s played a steamboat captain or a musketeer or any number of other roles over the decades. At least she mentions the whole Sorcerer’s Apprentice bit from Fantasia, but again, that’s something directly referenced in a Kingdom Hearts game.

Kingdom Hearts II is a quick read– though part of that might come from the fact that I tended to skim over the more continuity-heavy digressions Correia goes on. I wonder if I would have enjoyed the book more if I’d actually played the game … but even if I did, it feels like Correia spends a lot of page time on stuff I’d already know.

Most damingly, Kingdom Hearts II doesn’t make me want to play a Kingdom Hearts game. Corriea’s chapter on the boring futility of the game’s first couple of hours makes me want to just go play Metal Slug instead.

But hey, maybe I’m just not the target audience. I always liked Bugs Bunny better.

Half a Book Review: Eric Flint’s Worlds

Eric Flint is an author I’ve enjoyed in the past, but haven’t read in a long time. Back when I was in high school, I absolutely devoured his collaborations with Dave Freer– Rats, Bats, and Vats being a wonderfully mayhem-filled sci-fi adventure, and The Philosophical Strangler was an even crazier fantasy. And so, when I stumbled across a Worlds, a collection of short stories and novellas by Flint, I snatched that right up (where it sat on my to-read pile for a couple years, but still).

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The thing is, at the very beginning of the collection, Flint notes how he’s more of a novelist than a short-story writer. Which is fine– everyone’s got their specialties. So instead of cooking up a brand new setting for each one, Flint just decided to play around in stuff that had already been established. Sometimes it was his own work, such as the 1632 series, and sometimes others, like David Weber’s Honor Harrington universe. Does it still count as fanfic if it’s permitted and published?

Thing is, while I’ve read a couple Honor Harrington novels, I’m not very familiar with 1632 or the Belasarius series … so I wound up skipping like half the stuff in Worlds. ’cause seriously, the book’s like 600 pages long. I guess you could consider this half a review– or maybe just a couple of mini-reviews, seeing as of how the stories aren’t connected, or whatever.

The typical Baen author tends to be on the right-ish side of the political spectrum. This can range from “I read some Ayn Rand once” to out and out “THE MUSLIMS WILL OUTBREED US AND IMPOSE SHARIA LAW AND STEAL OUR LITTLE GIRLS FOR THEIR HAREMS.” I wish I was making that last part up.

There are, however, exceptions. Eric Flint is waaaaay on the left. As in “Member of the Socialist Workers Party.” Probably makes writing conferences pretty interesting. Thankfully, Flint never delves into political screeds over the course of Worlds— though there is a pretty steady undercurrent of class struggle through Flint’s work. This usually takes the form of incompetent nobility/bureaucrats being shitty to the working-class protagonists. Even still, Flint’s more interested in whacky adventures than lecturing on Marx.

That sense of adventure is most evident in “Genie out of the Bottle,” a prequel to Rats, Bats, and Vats. This particular series is a Mil-SF comedy in which a colony planet is being invaded by horrible alien bugs … so the colonists use their genetic labs to create genetically enhanced, talking rats and bats in order to fight them. Oh, and the ‘vats’ are tank-bred cloned humans who are also an oppressed underclass, so they get sent off to fight too. Like I said, Flint’s a big lefty.

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Oh, and it’s also worth noting that the rats had the collected works of William Shakespeare (along with some Gilbert & Sullivan to taste) downloaded into their brains for language purposes … and naturally the rats gravitate to (and name themselves after) the low comic characters. More Falstaff than Hamlet.

Like I said, this is a silly book.

Anyway, “Genie out of Bottle” is a novella bout Fitz, a “Shareholder” (basically human nobility) who winds up framed for attempted murder, and so he enlists as a grunt in the army to escape. And, of course, training and fighting alongside the vats lets him move past his class prejudices, etc.

The thing is, Fitz goes from a bit of an idiot to ‘competent Mil-SF officer’ in like, record time. ’cause the first thing he does when he gets his first shore leave is to go visit the woman who tried to frame him. It … doesn’t end well. Though the ensuing chaos (and arrest, and trial) at least get him to finally dump the gal, so there’s that. Even still, by the time he’s given his own squad to fight the bugs, Fitz proves himself to be a brilliant (or at least competent) officer. Then again, the pompus Shareholders kind of set a low bar. Fitz goes on to have some military-ish adventures, picks up some gnarly looking scars, and … kind of falls in love with a rat named Ariel? I’m not sure if Flint was trying to go for a romantic angle or a bickering sibling thing or what, but it’s … odd. “Genie out of the Bottle” is still a fun little adventure, though, and it’s got me wondering if I still have a copy of Rats, Bats, & Vats laying around somewhere, so I suppose it did it’s job there.

Unfortunately, the tie-ins to The Philosophical Strangler weren’t nearly as enjoyable. The Philosophical Strangler is set in Flint’s “Joe’s World” series (which consists of all of two novels, but still)– silly fantasy comedy. REALLY silly. “There is a character named Schrodinger’s Cat (who is not actually a cat)” silly. Think Discworld, only without the brilliant ruminations on human nature hiding below the surface. And again, comparing Flint to Pratchett is terribly unfair, but I bet they would’ve gotten along swimmingly if they ever met.

The problem with the Joe’s World segments is that the first one is straight-up the first chapter of The Philosophical Strangler, and the second one is a bizarre, nigh-nonsensical bit in which a bunch of characters (only a fraction of whom I could remember from The Philosophical Strangler) go to the Realm of Words, at which point a bunch of cheesy jokes are made, and then the story just sort of … ends. I guess it’s supposed to lead into some stuff in one of the actual Joe’s World books, maybe? At least Flint seemed to have fun writing the story– there’s a particularly shameless pun about italics that got me laughing out loud, so there’s that.

Finally (though it’s actually about mid-way through the book), Flint plays around in somebody else’s sandbox with “From the Highlands.” Instead of being “ships of the line IN SPAAACE,” like the main Weber novels, Flint goes for more espionage and stuff. The plot is fairly straightforward– some bad guys (a combination of Space-French Revolutionaries and Space-Slavers) kidnap a Space-British-Officer’s daughter as part of their eeeevil plot. Only the thing is, Space-British (well, I think he’s technically Space-Scottish?) is an Olympic level bodybuilder and martial artist in addition to being something of a spy, so it pretty much turns into “Taken, IN SPAAACE.”

“From the Highlands” definitely has one of the more amusing characters I’ve seen before. See, the 14 year old girl who gets kidnapped is also an expert martial artist (having trained since she was like 6) and quotes Von Clausewitz’s On War to herself from time to time. Because, y’know, teenage girls love military history, right? (My apologies to any teenaged black-belt historian girls who may be reading this blog). Oh, and the girl also kills three space-hobos with her kung fu– but it’s okay, because the space-hobos were trying to kidnap and rape her.

I guess Flint was just going with the ‘style’ of the Honorverse, in which the good guys are super good, and the bad guys are not only mustache-twirlingly evil, but also fairly incompetent. Thankfully, things never get explicit– though nowadays I look at the ‘rape as drama’ trope fairly askance. The Space-Slavers are pretty resoundingly awful as well– no doubt serving as a reason for the Space-Brits and Space-French to team up in a later Honor Harrington book or something. “From the Highlands” ties into the Honorverse somewhat– Flint mentions in a little author’s note at the beginning that his story actually inspired Weber to bring in the Space-Slavers into the main series as antagonists a lot earlier, so there’s that.

There’s still a good couple hundred pages of Worlds I haven’t read yet, on account of not being familiar with the respective series they’re based on. If I get ambitious and start reading a bunch more Baen books, I might even return to Worlds once I’m familiar with the Belasarius series or whatever. But that’s probably not gonna be for awhile yet.

Book Review: George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

So there’s this TV show you might have heard of, Game of Thrones. Y’know, the one on HBO about boobs. And dragons too, I guess.

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And an obligatory Sean Bean death!

Not to sound like a nerd-hipster or anything, but I read the first Game of Thrones book well before it was a TV show. Not knowing what the heck it was about, I went in pretty much blind5175zn2t7el, so Martin threw me for a loop with all the grimness and politicking in what I thought would be just another generic fantasy novel.

The grimdark tone, not to mention my growing aversion to long-running fantasy series (at least to long-running fantasy series that I haven’t started reading already) kind of put me off of Game of Thrones– though every now and again I’ll read spoilers on Wikipedia to see just what the heck’s going on in Westeros.

And, in my Wiki-delving, I stumbled across another related work: Martin’s “Dunk and Egg” series. Still set in Westeros, the Dunk and Egg novellas are set decades before the events of A Song of Ice & Fire. I figured they would be more approachable and less gritty than the main books– and, well, I was half right.

The Dunk and Egg novellas, collected in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, center around Ser Duncan the Tall, a wandering, landless knight, and his squire, Egg. Egg is also a disguised Tagaryen prince, because continuity. Together, they roam around Westeros, getting into the requisite trouble that comes to protagonist characters.

Dunk is large, honorable, and just a little bit dim. In another author’s hands, he’d be an unstoppable killing machine, but Martin doesn’t go for the pulpy swords & sorcery approach. Dunk is strong and tough, sure, but more often than not he’s the underdog going up against better trained and equipped opponents. Egg is a little more straightforward: he’s spunky and clever and a little bit snooty, as one would expect a young princeling to be.

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I’ll let you figure out which one is which.

While the Dunk & Egg stories aren’t quite as brutal as the main Game of Thrones books, that doesn’t mean they’re all sunshine and rainbows. Death, war, and melancholy (or maybe just misery) are all woven through the novellas. It doesn’t get too gratuitous, but it’s still there. Oh, and don’t forget a steady supply of sneering, arrogant noblemen to be assholes to everyone. Of course, Dunk is an upstanding and honorable man who actually survives, so I guess that makes the book more optimistic by default.

A lot of fantasy writers have specialties. Tolkien wove mythology and invented languages for his books. Sanderson makes up precisely calibrated magic systems like something out of a video game. Martin specializes in feudal politics. On the one hand, I can appreciate the work Martin put into cooking up all these various houses and giving them reasons to hate each other. On the other hand, it can be a bit of a pain to keep track of who is who when a lot of the players have ridiculously similar names. In brothers, no less. So there’s Daemon and Daeron or Aeron, Aemon, and Aegon … or maybe it’s just that Tagaryens have terrible naming conventions. I’m sure a reader who’s more into the main Game of Thrones series than I am would be able to pull a ton of enjoyment from a peek into the history of Westeros.

The three stories that make up A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms were written years apart– but collected in one volume, they come off as a little formulaic. They all feature a lot of discussion about House history, and a recent civil war (as well as the makings of a new one). The climaxes of all three stories feature Trial by Combat (Westeros doesn’t have the best legal system, of course), and by the end Dunk and Egg hit the road again in classic itinerant hero fashion. The stories can get a bit repetitive individually, as well, when Martin drives home little points and discussions over and over and over again. But Dunk’s supposed to be kind of thick in the head, so maybe that’s just part of his character or something.

These little quibbles aside, I devoured A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms in just a couple days of reading, finding excuses to go and stick my nose back between the covers. So there’s that. And as an added little bonus, the collection I read has a bunch of illustrations as well, which is fun (and possibly something they used to pad out the word count). While it wasn’t quite the bit of pulpy fluff I was expecting, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms was an enjoyable enough read. I’ll definitely check out any further Dunk & Egg stories Martin writes in the future, though I may have to wait awhile before he finishes up the main series first. Ah well.

Book Review: Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes

Another road trip, another audiobook!

I haven’t read a Crichton book in years and years, but I still have a bit of nostalgia for his work. As a dinosaur-obsessed little kid, I read Jurassic Park maybe a little too soon than I should have– it was one of the first books I ever read that used the word “fuck.” Add in a bit of gore (I particularly remember the bit about Nedry getting his intestines ripped out by a dilophosaurus), and you’ve got a mind-blowing read for a nerdy and awkward sixth grader.

And so, when I stumbled across Pirate Latitudes, I went all for it. I mean, who doesn’t love a good swashed buckle?

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The book’s even been optioned for a movie. I hope it’s rated– wait, no, I’m not gonna make that joke. 

Pirate Latitudes centers around Captain Charles Hunter, a privateer (not a pirate, no-sir) as he plans a raid to capture Spanish treasure galleon in the 17th century Caribbean. To this end, he takes on a motley bunch of cutthroats with nicknames like The Jew (the explosives expert), The Moor (the muscle), and Les Yeux, (the lookout). Les Yeux is probably the most interesting of the lot: she’s a woman who dresses and lives like a man in order to get pirate riches and stuff. Which actually happened from time to time, so that’s … kind of historical, right?

Speaking of historicity, Pirate Latitudes is … okay. I’m not an expert on 17th century Jamaica, so I can’t quibble over locations or dates or anything. Though what I can complain about is a bit where Crichton describes a powder magazine in a Spanish fortress lit by unattended torches. Because open flames in an explosives warehouse is such a good idea.

Pirate Latitudes progresses in a fairly episodic manner, as Hunter as his crew sail from one misadventure to another. There are captures and escapes and explosions and hurricanes and broadsides and a glowing kraken and cannibals and buried treasure and a sadistic, coco-chewing Spanish officer. Taken on their own, each interlude is entertaining enough, but they feel erratic and disconnected from each other. Oh, and since this is Crichton, things get fairly gory from time to time– lots of brains are blown out with flintlock pistols, and coco-Spaniard tortures a man to death by making rats eat his face. I’d forgotten how gritty and gruesome Crichton’s stuff could be sometimes.

As I learned later, Pirate Latitudes was a manuscript of Crichton’s published posthumously. I guess I can’t fault Crichton’s family and/or HarperCollins for putting The Pirate Latitudes out there– I’m sure someone said ‘oh hey, people love those Johnny Depp movies, let’s make ALL THE MONEY!’ Or, well, some of the money, because who reads anymore?

So there’s a reason Crichton never published Pirate Latitudes in his lifetime. It’s not a crappy book per-se, it’s just underdeveloped, unfinished. There’s the disconnect between the episodic adventures, for one– it gives the book a weird sort of pacing. It probably doesn’t help that Hunter kills coco-Spaniard like halfway through the book, leaving it bereft of a proper villain. On top of that, Crichton brings in a bunch of other characters … and promptly forgets about them. The most glaring example being the 15 year old convict girl who’s deported to Jamaica when she’s accused of witchcraft. The book makes it seem like she’s going to be a major character (stowed away on Hunter’s ship disguised as a cabin boy, perhaps?) but Crichton pretty much forgets about her after a skeevy sex scene. The word ‘pudenda’ is used. Gross.

To be honest, Pirate Latitudes is pretty bad to women, all around. Admittedly, the 1600’s weren’t exactly a good time to be a woman. Still, the women of Pirate Latitudes are mostly there to be victimized in one way or another. Even Les Yeux comes off badly, as she’s consistently the most terrified of Hunter’s crew by whatever new madness they run into. The worst offender is the shrewish English Lady Hunter rescues from coco-Spaniard’s dungeons. She’s shrill and ignorant and complains a lot, and … that’s it. I kept waiting for some big revelation to reveal further depths to her character, to give her more agency … but nope. She’s just a damsel. The unpolished nature of Pirate Latitudes doesn’t serve Lady Whatsherface very well, either. At one point, a couple of Hunter’s crewmen try to throw her overboard because they think she’s a witch. Hunter yells and swears at them to stop, and so Lady Whatsherface is allowed to safely hole up in her cabin once more … whereupon she immediately starts lighting candles and carves a pentagram into the floor. Because she’s a little bit of a witch, you see.

This is never brought up again.

The audiobook version of Pirate Latitudes is decent enough– John Bedford Lloyd does a good job of narrating, though sometimes the various European accents come off as slightly ridiculous. Which may just be a choice on his part, but I digress. 

So yeah. Crichton had some good ideas with Pirate Latitudes, but the book honestly should have gone through a couple more drafts before it was published. Heck, just off the top of my head, I can think of some easy ways to improve it and make it more coherent, but it’s a little late now. Pirate Latitudes is the first of Crichton’s books to be published posthumously, but not the last– another one, Micro, is about mad scientists with shrink rays, and one called Dragon’s Teeth just came out, touching on the Bone Wars. The reviews of that one aren’t looking very promising either, but … dinosaurs and cowboys are cool, right?

Might wait ’til that one hits the clearance rack too.

Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

The dude in the red shirt dies first.

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Aim for the guy who’s not in the opening credits!

It’s a joke as old as Star Trek, that has ingrained itself in pop culture. It’s always good for a cheap gag, either through a character referencing it, or maybe a little bit of black humor when you need to off some expendable extras to up the stakes.

But can you base a whole novel on it?

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John Scalzi thought so. I have to admit, I was a little bit leery of the book at first. It starts out pretty much as you’d expect: there’s a starship called the Intrepid, there are away teams, and there are lots and lots of gruesome fatalities. Scalzi is particularly good at that last part, bringing over some of the grit and horror from stuff like Old Man’s War to a cheesier Sci-fi setting, which makes it all the more jarring.

If Scalzi left it at that, Redshirts would be amusing, but hardly anything new (much less Hugo-worthy). Thankfully, Scalzi soon moves past the cheap gags (mostly), and starts playing around with the ideas behind the setting. The crewmen and women of the Intrepid are very much aware of their ship’s ridiculously high fatality rate, and so they do everything they can to avoid the captain and other officers at whatever cost. Things get even stranger (and more metatextual) when the crew start thinking about the ‘rules’ of the setting. Star Trek is referenced. The term “The Narrative” is used. And things go off the rails from there. I’d rather not go into the details, on account of spoilers, so I’ll just say that I’m sure Scalzi had a great time writing the book.

Redshirts isn’t a perfect novel (but what is?) The main story is solid and entertaining, but the last third of the book consists of three codas– basically, short stories to act as epilogues and tie up some loose plot ends. Not to mention they pad out the word count, but hey, Scalzi’s got a contract to fufill. The first of these was my favorite, since it dealt with writing (again, in a rather metatextual way), and the third had a lot of heart to it. On the other hand, the second one (written in second person– i.e. “You look at yourself in the mirror”) fell flat.

These flaws, however, are minor– if nothing else, the central Redshirts novella is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in science fiction, particularly the kind of sci-fi that winds up on TV. It’s a comedy– but like the best comedies, it’s got genuine heart behind it. Redshirts deals with fear and loss and more than a little existential dread– but hilariously so.

And hey, it won a Hugo in 2012, so that makes it kinda literary, right?

Book Review: James Lovegrove’s Redlaw.

And once again, it’s time for a trip to THE BOX!

James Lovegrove’s Redlaw stood out from most of the other random entries in THE BOX, in that it’s an actual ‘modern’ novel, as opposed to random Sci-fi/fantasy cranked out in the 80’s or whatever.

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Redlaw makes you think it’s an Urban Fantasy novel– what, with the modern day setting and vampires and all … but that’s not quite right. Instead, the book draws more from 70’s and 80’s cop flicks … albeit with a slightly fang-y tilt. But perhaps I should explain.

Redlaw is named after its protagonist, John Redlaw, a vampire cop. Or, uh, a cop who watches over vampires, as opposed to being a vampire himself. It’s important to note these things in Urban Fantasy books, you know. Redlaw is tough and ornery and should be played by Rutger Hauer in the unlikely event Redlaw ever gets made into a movie. Redlaw distinguishes himself from the standard ‘maverick cop’ archetype in that he’s a devout Anglican– albeit one who’s going through a crisis of faith after the death of his partner. Because, again, maverick cop.

Anyway, in the world of Redlaw, vampires (or ‘sunless’ in the book’s parlance) are a legitimate problem, kept in check by the Sunless Housing and Disclosure Executive. SHADE, for short, because everyone loves a snappy acronym. Naturally, Redlaw and his buds are known as ‘shadies,’ ’cause why not? It’s their job to keep vampires in line, armed with holy water hand grenades and ashwood-tipped bullets– the latter being fired from special pistols called Cindermakers. It’s cheesy, but I can’t help but love novel twists on vampire-hunting equipment.

At first, I thought Lovegrove was going to go for an interesting tack, with vampires as a stand-in for Eastern European immigrants. I mean, they’re all coming from Transylvania, and have names like Grigori and stuff, right? There’s interesting ideas to be had with that.

But.

The problem is, most of the vampires in the book are portrayed as desperate, depraved, and a naked threat to proper society. Hell, more often than not, whenever Redlaw or whoever investigates a vampire nest, the filth and “spoor” is emphasized … which makes me wonder how the hell a vampire poops, which in turn makes me realize I really don’t want the answer to that question. Which in turn makes me wonder why the heck the English government is going through so much trouble to protect something that’s a legitimate threat (personally, I’m of the ‘stake ’em all’ school of thought). Redlaw was published in 2011, but in this post-Brexit era we live in, I kind of have to look at it askance.

It doesn’t help that one of Redlaw’s minor antagonists is a Muslim SHADE agent who constantly is an asshole to Redlaw, and keeps on grumbling about how it’s heretical that his commanding officer is a woman, and so on. Or maybe I was just hoping for a more nuanced novel, in which a motley grouping of Christians and Muslims and maybe a Rabbi or something all teamed up to fight a horde of bloodthirsty undead. Instead, Lovegrove’s tone is more akin to old-fashioned British misanthropy, taking snarky digs at everybody. For example, the vampire-rights group is called ‘People for the Ethical Treatment of Sunless’– PETS, for short, and Lovegrove never passes up an opportunity to note how gothy and laced-out they all are. It kind of reminded me of Judge Dredd, just with vampires instead of mutants.

After some riots in the vampire district, Redlaw finds himself teaming up with a sexy super-vampire “shtriga” by the name of Illyria, and together they uncover a conspiracy involving pharmaceutical oligarchs and a coke-snorting, hooker-addicted politician, and I’m afraid I’m making it sound more interesting than it actually is.

See, Redlaw never quite gels as a novel, because Redlaw doesn’t quite gel as a character. Oh, sure, he’s grim and gritty and gets the job done … but his investigation of the whole conspiracy never quite ‘clicks.’ There are some fun action sequences, sure, but Redlaw and Illyria just sort of flail from one action sequence to another without much in the way of investigation. On top of that, the eeeeevil conspiracy … actually kind of has a good point. I mean, sure, they kill a bunch of people getting to it, and a lot of it is a ‘get rich quick’ kind of scheme, but the fundamental idea behind their plan is actually a good one, and proooobably could have been accomplished without all the blackmail and murder and so on. But where’s the fun in that?

Again, the core problem with Redlaw is its vampires. I’m fine with them being dangerous monsters instead of sparkly magic boyfriends, but the specific ‘illegal immigrant’ vibe gives Redlaw an … unfortunate context in this day and age. Then again, the original Dracula had a broad xenophobic streak, what, with that mustached foreigner coming to corrupt proper Englishwomen and all. This said, Lovegrove had enough interesting ideas in the book detailing just how society would deal with vampires to make me curious about his other work. I’d be willing to give one of his other books ago … if nothing else, to see if the snarky conservatism of Redlaw was a fluke or not.

Then again, there may be a reason I found Redlaw in a bulk box.

Audiobook Review: Assegai, by Wilbur Smith

A few weeks ago, I went on a long-ass road trip … which means it’s time for an audiobook review! Unfortunately the audiobook went a little longer than I anticipated, so I haven’t had the chance to finish it (and write a review) ’til now!

Audiobooks are kind of odd– while services like audible provide tons and tons of reading (er, listening) material, there are still a lot of books that never get converted to an audiobook format. Likewise, of those books that DO get recorded, it seems that a great many of them are a bit outside of my typical schlocky sci-fi wheelhouse. Or, well, at least the ones that wind up on the clearance rack at Half Price Books typically are.

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I disagree with King’s quote there, but what can you do.

Which brings us to Wilbur Smith’s Assegai: an interesting bit of historical fiction/Men’s Adventure/Pulp. Plus, it was under ten bucks at HPB, so that’s a start. I didn’t know it at the time, but Assegai is one of the later books in Smith’s loosely interconnected series about Africa.

Simon Vance does a good job reading (narrating?) the Assegai audiobook, cycling through a frankly challenging number of accents: English, American, German, African, Afrikaans, and probably a few more I’m forgetting.

If you’re feeling charitable, you could describe Assegai as a Bildungsroman– it centers around Leon Courtney (who apparently is related to the protagonists of some other Smith novels), a young officer in the King’s African Rifles. Leon is, of course, ruggedly square-jawed, a master horseman, a crack shot, and a whiz at languages– pretty much Harry Flashman without all the womanizing and cowardice. Assegai follows Leon from his adventures in the King’s African Rifles, to his career as a Big Game Hunter, and his exploits as a spy in the days leading up to WWI.

As one could expect from a book set in early 20th century British Africa, Assegai is super, super colonialist. On the one hand, Smith is actually from Africa, and his books were banned in apartheid-era South Africa, so I guess that’s a point in his favor? Even still, there’s a definite sense of ‘oh, the British ruling big chunks of the world was the best thing ever, wasn’t it?’ Leon’s Masai sidekick/blood brother Manyoro is all too happy to do whatever Leon says– as is pretty much any other non-white character in the book. And that’s before you get into Manyoro’s mother, a witch doctor who gives out actual no-shit prophecies as the plot demands. She’s a literal magical negro. So, uh, yeah.

And then there’s also the whole thing where Leon loves Africa so much that he has to show it by … shooting pretty much the entire cast of The Lion King. Though Smith goes out of his way to contrast ‘good’ hunting (you know, one shot, one kill … for trophies) vs. ‘bad’ hunting (killing for killing’s sake, using more than one bullet, etc).

A heaping dose of imperialism is pretty much to be expected in a book like this … but what took me off guard was how ridiculously Freudian the book is. I mean, in the first chapter, Leon is chased around by a bunch of rebellious tribesmen, who are led by an evil witch doctor who literally wants to cut Leon’s nuts off.

(Sidenote: once Leon and Manyoro make their heroic escape, said ball-hungry witch doctor is never mentioned again).

I could write that off as standard pulpy sadism … until a chapter or two later, in which the old (of the terrible age of 29) widow Leon lost his virginity to gives him one of her dead husband’s guns. Yep. And, it’s with this big-ass elephant rifle that Leon goes on to become a Big Game Hunter. I wrote this off as a fluke … until the sadomasochistic, luger-toting German Princess shows up. Oh, and she also might be an actual satanist, too. It’s … weird.

In any case, Leon finally meets a nice girl– who happens to be the mistress of an Evil German Count, straight out of Central Casting. Seriously, dude has a dueling scar, a metal hand, and a no-shit zeppelin. Which, well, is fun in the ridiculously pulpy sense, but I get the feeling Smith’s kiiiind of trying to play it straight so it’s more ‘legitimate.’ Seriously, I kind of wish Smith had abandoned any pretense of historical accuracy and added some talking gorillas or something.

All and all, Assegai is entertaining, and just crazy enough to make me go ‘wait what?’ every now and again, so Smith gets points for that. Even still, the book drags a little in places– Smith easily could have cut a couple of chapters here and there without losing much. I mean, I kind of accidentally skipped the penultimate disc, and I barely even noticed (and even then I was able to figure out enough of the plot to figure out what was going on). That’s … probably not a good sign. On the other hand, I might give some of Wilbur Smith’s other books a try, so long as I find them in the clearance rack or something.

Book Review: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

I’ve been busy the last few weeks– which is good! But I also haven’t had as much time as I’d like to read, which is bad. But hey, I rarely get as much time as I’d like to read, so that’s the usual. But I’m like mid-way through a couple of books right now, so stay tuned, and I may have a barrage of various reviews before long. Woo!

And for now, Asimov!
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So yeah. The Caves of Steel is the second of Asimov’s robot series (the first being, I, Robot, of course). But … the thing is, while the book features robots, it’s not really about robots. Instead, The Caves of Steel is a straight-up detective story … only one of the detectives is a robot.

The first thing that struck me about The Caves of Steel is how it’s basically a buddy cop story. Which, given this book came out in 1954, makes me wonder how old the whole buddy cop trope is. (Wikipedia tells me one of the precursors was Kurosawa’s film Stray Dog, but I wouldn’t be surprised it goes older than that).

Anyway, The Caves of Steel follows Elijah “Lije” Baley, a plainclothes future-cop, who gets paired up with R. Daneel Olivaw– the R is for robot, natch. Together, they fight crime! … kind of. Lije and Olivaw get paired up to investigate the murder of Olivaw’s creator … and, uh. It’s not as interesting as it sounds, unfortunately.

Asimov was ridiculously prolific– so just by law of averages, it makes sense that not every book is gonna be a winner. And, uh, Caves of Steel has some problems. For one, it doesn’t quite work as a detective story, as Lije and Olivaw don’t do much … detecting. Or, well, technically they do, but instead of doing the standard stuff like interviewing suspects and poking around crime scenes. Instead, the two of them spend a lot of their time spinning their proverbial wheels, debating and deducting through logic. Which, admittedly, is kind of Asimov’s ‘thing.’ But works like I, Robot or even the Foundation novels are chopped up into neat little chunks. As one continuous story, The Caves of Steel kind of drags.

It doesn’t help that The Caves of Steel has kind of a ramshackle setting. See, the title refers to the Cities that all of Earth’s humanity lives in. In a desire for ‘efficiency,’ the Earth’s population has been relocated to enormous sealed-in megalopolises. They’re frankly horribly dystopian, to the point where having a washbasin in your apartment is something of a luxury, and so much as looking out a window is enough to get you labeled as a “medievalist.” There’s a lot of potential in such a claustrophobic setting, but Asimov never really runs with it. People within the book just take things “as is.” While there’s a little bit of unrest about the situation, it never goes anywhere. I guess it could be seen as anti-communist, maybe? Of course, the biggest thing that struck me was that humanity had retreated into homogenized Cities because they’d reached the unsustainable number of … eight billion. Considering there’s something around 7.5 billion people alive today, I guess we should start getting used to eating vat grown yeast-cake.

Though there’s a throwaway mention of video-piping systems as a replacement for individual libraries, which I guess could be seen as a prediction of the dozens of streaming TV services we have today?

It is expected, of course, for old-timey Science Fiction novels to have gaps in their predictions. That’s just the nature of the genre. What’s a little more annoying, however, is Lije himself. He’s pretty much your standard Asimov protagonist: a chain-smoking curmudgeon. The thing is, while he’s logical, Lije simply isn’t as brilliant as other Asimov protagonists. For example, Lije spends a good chapter and a half of accusing Olivaw not to be an actual robot, to the point he calls in a robotics expert from Washington … only for Olivaw to open up his access panels to reveal his inner robo-bits to prove he’s not a human pretending to be robotic for whatever reason. Oh, and to boot, Lije’s got a broad streak of 50’s style sexism, to the point where he mansplains the meaning of his wife’s name to his wife. Which she gets really mad at him about, to be fair, but still. Guy’s kind of a dick.

Also, sidenote: the Second Law of Robotics states that a robot must obey orders given to it by a human (except where that would conflict with the First Law). Which … seems like a pretty crappy feature on a robot detective. This isn’t even addressed in the book! I mean, it’d be terribly inconvenient (or convenient, depending on which side of the law you’re on). Maybe it comes up later in the series?

So yeah. All and all, The Caves of Steel isn’t twisty enough to be an exciting detective story, and it’s not visionary enough to really stand out as a classic of Sci-fi literature. All and all, it could have done with more punching and/or more robots … but that’s something I can say about a lot of books, to be honest.

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.