Every so often, someone will declare that the latest sci-fi franchise is “The Next Star Wars!” Depending on who it’s coming from, this can be done either as marketing shorthand, or sometimes from outright fannish enthusiasm. Of course, such arguments are ultimately moot, as Star Wars will be the ‘next’ Star Wars for as long as Disney keeps on cranking out sequels and spinoffs. Which Disney will do as long as they keep making money. Which means forever, pretty much.
But I digress.
It takes more than just some spaceships and laser guns to be ‘The Next Star Wars,’ though. No, what you need … is an expanded universe. Which is what brings us to Mass Effect: Ascension.
So, disclaimer. I love the Mass Effect series. Or, uh, parts of the Mass Effect series. The first game is nigh unplayable due to sloppy controls and that stupid moon-jeep, and the less said about the ending of the third, the better. The chunks in the middle, though, are freaking great.
And so, when I stumbled across Drew Karpyshyn’s Mass Effect: Ascension in the dollar bin, I scooped that right up. Now, just about anybody (and I mean anybody) can seemingly write ‘official’ fanfiction for a given franchise these days. I know I’ve read far too many Star Wars EU novels for my own good. But, what got me really interested in Mass Effect: Ascension was the fact that it was written by Drew Karpyshyn– one of the lead writers of the Mass Effect games. So that makes it more canonical (and therefore better), doesn’t it?
Mass Effect: Ascension is the second of Karpyshyn’s Mass Effect novels– the first was a prequel to the first game, detailing the background of Saren, the first Mass Effect’s main villain. In turn, Mass Effect: Ascension takes place in the gap between the first and second games, and details … uh … some stuff? It centers around Kahlee Sanders, a scientist working at the Jon Grissom Academy– a school for brilliant children, including ‘biotics’– Mass Effect’s pseudoscience version of space-wizards. So Space-Hogwarts, essentially. It’s worth noting you actually get to visit the Academy and meet Kahlee Sanders in Mass Effect 3, so that’s kind of neat, right?
Anyway, the plot revolves around one of Kahlee’s students, a girl named Gillian. Gillian kind of has a ‘Hollywood Autism’ thing going on, in that she’s shy and withdrawn and doesn’t speak much– but she’s also really good at a particular skill. Which, in this case, happens to be telekinetic space-magic. Kay. Problem is, Gillian’s super-space-magic is somehow the result of experimentation by a Human-Supremacist conspiracy called Cerberus. And when the Illusive Man, Cerberus’ head honcho, decides he wants Gillian back, things start going south from there.
Mass Effect: Ascension was released in 2008, while the second Mass Effect game hit in 2010. Cerberus plays a major role in ME2, and ostensibly Mass Effect: Ascension was supposed to set them up … but, well, apart from a couple of exposition-heavy pages early on, there’s not too much to flesh Cerberus out other than ‘these guys are jerks.’ Which … kind of goes into their in-game characterization, but not in a good way? Basically, Cerberus is a supposedly ultra-powerful, planet-spanning conspiracy that has a real inconvenient habit of cooking up mad science projects that summarily turn around and rebel against them. Which could be a really fun mad-scientisty take on things, it’s just that Karpyshyn and everyone else at Bioware wants us to take Cerberus seriously.
I kind of get the impression that Karpyshyn saved all the good stuff for the actual video games. Sanders and the other characters of Mass Effect: Ascension come off as a little generic. What’s worse, though, is that large chunks of the book don’t feel very Mass Effect-y. The games are full of weird alien races to meet and cool locations to explore, but Mass Effect: Ascension doesn’t use this to its full advantage. Things finally pick up about 200 pages in, when Sanders and Gillian and co. wind up visiting the Migrant Fleet– the home of the planetless Quarian race. It’s actually a really neat look into Quarian culture– but it’s also too little, too late. On top of that, the book doesn’t have the kind of action-adventure shootiness one would expect from a book based on an action game.
The problem with Mass Effect: Ascension (and likely with most other ME tie-in stuff) is that the best part of the Mass Effect franchise … is you. One of the strengths of the Mass Effect series is the ability to customize your character, Commander Shepard. Not just in appearance or character class, but in behavior. You can be a super-goody space savior, or a snarky anti-hero, or even a more nuanced combination of both. As Shepard tears around the galaxy shooting robots and romancing blue space babes, the decisions you make carry over to the next game, and the game after that. No two playthroughs are the same. Characters– or entire races can die depending on the choices you make. Which is great for a series of video games, but not so much for an Expanded Universe. Though I will take this opportunity to mention that the only real Mass Effect canon is my playthrough, starring Paragon Soldier Femshep. Also this canon stops right before that stupid Reaper hologram kid shows up in the ending of the third game.
I went into Mass Effect: Ascension hoping for rollicking space opera adventure and snappy dialogue. What I got was … not that. It’s a shame, really, as the novel format has the potential to delve into stuff that would never make it in the games, due to budget or marketing or whatever. Instead, the requisite distancing from the ‘actual’ Mass Effect plot and characters makes the book a lot weaker. Mass Effect: Ascension takes too long to get to the cool bits that make Mass Effect, well, Mass Effect. Removing those elements just leaves a generic sci-fi adventure that frankly isn’t that compelling. But hey, crappy tie-in novels are just a sign of being a “real” franchise anyway, right? Bring on the action figures and lunchboxes!
Seriously, a Garrus lunchbox would be rad.
So the last few books I’ve read haven’t impressed me that much. And, sure, it can be fun to read books of questionable quality, kind of like a literary version of MST3K. But, as things go, one can only take so much schlock for so long before needing to come up for air.
Terry Pratchett to the rescue!
So yeah, in case you don’t read ‘genre’ fiction (in which case– why are you reading this blog?), Terry Pratchett is one of the premiere satirists of modern day literature. It’s just that he writes a lot of books about dwarves and trolls and stuff. But even then, Pratchett uses the fantastical setting of Discworld to talk about modern society to great effect. His writing isn’t just funny– it’s at parts heartwarming, heartbreaking, and all around brilliant. There’s a reason he was knighted, after all.
Raising Steam is Pratchett’s penultimate novel, 40th(!) in the Discworld series. Thankfully, Pratchett never was one to get bogged down in continuity, so you don’t have to read the 39 books before it to know what the hell is going on. This said, it does help to read at least a few directly related books to get a feel for the major characters and what they’re doing. (Off the top of my head, I’d say Going Postal, Thud!, and Snuff are the big ones to be familiar with, though really it’s hard to go wrong with Pratchett in general).
The fun thing about Discworld is that, while it started as a general pastiche of fantasy tropes, Pratchett soon veered off and started doing his own thing, introducing modern(ish) technology like movies, the printing press, telegraphs (well, Semaphores, but still), and even Rock & Roll. And so, Ankh-Morpork, the central city of the setting, began to evolve into a kooky mirror of London, or any other major world city.
In Raising Steam, Pratchett brings trains to Discworld. A brilliant young inventor figures out how to harness the power of steam, and then it falls on Moist von Lipwig, a fast-talking con man who’s employed by the city (again, go read Going Postal) to organize it and shape the railway into something productive. It helps that Moist is my favorite Discworld character, so I was predisposed to like Raising Steam from the start.
Of course, things are never easy for poor Moist– for even as he’s working on the railroad, an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist faction of dwarves is rising up in opposition to anything that resembles ‘progress.’ Eventually, Moist has got to build a railway that stretches all the way across Discworld in order to put the rightful Low King back in power. Don’t let the vaguely dramatic synopsis fool you– this is still a Discworld novel, so it’s still going to be pretty whacky.
It’s funny– Raising Steam revolves around steam power, but it’s not at all steampunk. There are no gears on top hats or nods to an idealized British empire, even if a few characters probably wear goggles at some point (for entirely practical reasons). Instead, Raising Steam is more interested in the magic of actual technology– which is to say, trains. The steam locomotive had a huge impact on the course of history, and Pratchett leans full into that, covering everything from commuter suburbs to changes in the price of fish to the rise of trainspotting culture.
It’s not just about trains, either. Pratchett emphasizes the ‘melting pot’ nature of Ankh-Morpork at every turn, contrasting it with the fundamentalism of the grags– that faction of ultraconservative dwarves. Furthermore, Raising Steam heavily features goblins (who were introduced in Snuff, I believe) as a new immigrant community within Ankh-Morpork. And sure, they have some weird customs and smell a little funny (everyone smells funny in Ankh-Morpork), but they’re clever and hardworking and otherwise a boon to the city. Pratchett doesn’t belabor the point too heavily, but it’s definitely a message to take to heart in the reactionary and xenophobic times we live in. Pratchett died in 2015, before the Brexit vote, but there’s no question as to which side he would’ve supported.
All of this said, Raising Steam isn’t a perfect book. Quite simply, it takes a hundred pages or so to really build up steam (I will not apologize for that joke). Furthermore, there are a couple of passages, especially in the beginning of the book, that don’t quite have the same old Pratchett ‘zing’ that his best works do. In particular, some of the characterizations feel just slightly off. Lord Vetinari, Ank-Morpork’s Machiavellian (but exceedingly pragmatic) tyrant suffers from this in particular, as he’s given a couple of bits of dialogue that end in exclamation points … which goes completely against the cool, collected, and vaguely Christopher Lee-ish characterization he’s had over a couple dozen books or so.
Another of Rasing Steam‘s weaknesses, and really a weakness of a lot of Pratchett’s writing, is the lack of a good villain. At every turn, the grags are shown as bloodthirsty, callous, mean-spirited and short sighted … but hardly ever competent. This is entirely intentional, as Pratchett naturally has a low opinion of bigotry in any form. Still, whenever the grags come into conflict with Moist or any of the book’s other protagonists, they’re summarily trounced and humiliated without too much effort, which drains a little tension from the book. I think one of the reasons Discworld books rarely have great or memorable villains is that Pratchett lets his heroes get the kind of snarkiness and style that’s usually reserved for antagonists. I mean, shoot, Lord Vetinari could easily be the arch villain of a different series, so long as you filed the serial numbers off (and maybe made him a little less competent so he didn’t murder the heroes right off the bat).
Pratchett’s not at the top of his game in Raising Steam— but honestly, the worst I can say about it is that it’s not as good as the stuff he was writing at his peak (Thud! or Night Watch come to mind for examples of his best books, though I’m sure there are a bunch more I’m missing). It’s a little sad that it’s one of the last Pratchett novels … but on the other hand, there are still dozens of Pratchett’s works I haven’t read yet, so at least there’s that!
But yeah. If you’re a Discworld fan, Raising Steam is well worth a read. Of course, if you’re a Discworld fan, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that anyway.
And now, for something completely different.
Fafner: Dead Aggressor is a “Light Novel.” — basically, Japanese YA, an evolution of the pulps. I picked up the translated version Fafner: Dead Aggressor on a whim at a convention some years ago. I’m not too familiar with the anime it’s based on, but I’m always a sucker for giant robots. It’s worth noting that the novel is based on the anime series, rather than the other way around. I haven’t watched said anime, either, so I’ve got no idea how different the two adaptations are.
The book (and anime) centers around a teenager named Kazuki, who learns he’s been secretly conditioned through hypnosis to pilot a giant robot in order to defend humanity from genocidal alien invaders. As you do. There’s some overcomplicated justification about how only teenager’s minds are flexible enough to merge their brains with their giant robots, because again, anime. Or Light Novel. Whatever.
While reading, Fafner: Dead Aggressor, I couldn’t help but go down a checklist of mecha-anime tropes. Amnesiac teenage protagonist? Check. Sad-eyed anemic love interest girl? Check. Smarmy jerkass dude who the protagonist is weirdly obsessed with and thus becomes slashfic fodder? Check. Heck, the term “fighting spirit” is used on like the first page.
Mind you, tropes aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Really, you could argue that, by reading like the first couple episodes of an anime show, the book does exactly what it sets out to do. And heck, there’s at least one pretty sweet giant robot fight in the middle of the book: what would be the ‘second episode,’ I guess. Kazuki’s mecha, (or ‘Fafner,’ cause they’re going for a vaguely Norse theme with their names) is kinda cool, and uses ‘blade mines’– read: exploding knives. An author would have to try very, very hard to make me not like exploding giant robot knife fights, and thankfully Ubukata does not disappoint on that end. I might have preferred if there were MORE exploding giant robot knife fights, but I can say that about almost every book I’ve ever read.
This said, Fafner: Dead Aggressor isn’t high literature. The prose gets a little awkward from time to time, as I’m sure a lot is lost in translation. Even still, there are some pretty interesting ideas underneath the teenage angst and giant robot fights. Kazuki and his friends live on an isolated island (that turns out to be a hidden refuge from the killer aliens), and the whole sense of rural, day-to-day boredom actually has a lot of potential for storytelling.
Unfortunately, there never was a second Fafner light novel, so the first book mostly sets a bunch of stuff up that doesn’t get resolved, and ends. It’s kind of like a TV show being canceled after the first couple of episodes. Although, poking around YouTube shows me Funimation has the whole series available to watch for free, so … well, maybe I’ll get around to checking it out next time I’m in the mood for some teenage angst and robot fights.
Happens more often than you’d think.
As many an after school special has taught us, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
But what about the author photo on the inside of the cover?
I really shouldn’t throw stones, being an awkward nerd myself (which reminds me, I could use a haircut). But on the other hand, I will never pass up an opportunity to post that S.M. Stirling photo, ’cause it’s freaking hilarious. It’s his ‘my book about spaceships and lasers is serious business’ expression that gets me more than anything.
But I guess we should actually talk about the Stirling book I read, huh?
The Ship Avenged is the sequel to The City Who Fought, a novel Stirling co-wrote with famed author Anne McCaffrey. I reviewed The City Who Fought awhile ago, and found it to be a rather … interesting book. Namely, while a lot of the action and sci-fi stuff was well done, the relationships and interactions between the characters were pretty cringeworthy. And that’s before you get into the rapey Nazi Space Pirate Drow antagonists.
Now, the interesting thing is, The Ship Avenged was written by Stirling alone. One of the biggest questions I asked about The City Who Fought was which author wrote which sections. So I figured reading The Ship Avenged might provide some clues to that. Which it did! Just not nearly in the way I expected.
The Ship Avenged centers on the scrappy-kid character from The City Who Fought, only she’s ten years older now and has her own spaceship for space opera adventures. It’s also worth noting that said protagonist is named Joat– an acronym for “Jack of All Trades.” Why she didn’t just call herself Jack, I couldn’t say. In any case, I guess Joat was Stirling’s favorite character from The City Who Fought, because the rest of the earlier book’s cast are mentioned only a couple of times, and don’t get any screen time of their own.
Instead, Joat gets caught up with some dude named Bros Sperin, who is like Space James Bond or something? He might’ve been mentioned in the earlier book but I don’t remember him. Anyway, Sperin ‘recruits’ (read: blackmails) Joat to go do some spy stuff for him on a space-pirate planet, which is honestly making it sound a bit cooler than it comes off. Oh, and Joat gets sent to scope out a space-mobster who coincidentally happens to be the evil uncle who sold her into slavery when she was seven. Oops.
Meanwhile, there’s also some business about the vengeful Space Nazi Drow Pirate bad guys from the first novel developing a weird biological weapon to use against the good guy planets. Of course, this plan fails terribly because the good guys also have an alien scientist named Seg on their side. Seg’s been studying the biological weapon on their side, and so he promptly immunizes everyone before bad stuff can happen. Plot-convenient as this is, Seg turned out to be my favorite character in the book. He’s a literally four-eyed alien nerd who invites himself along on Bros Sperin’s mission because he’s read too many spy novels. Fun stuff!
In any case, there are a lot of differences between The Ship Avenged and The City Who Fought. For one, the whole brain/brawn gimmick in which a terminally ill person is hooked up to a computer network to run a ship or a space station with the help of a physically capable ‘brawn’ assistant is completely absent. There’s a little business with Joat and her ship’s fussy AI, but that’s pretty standard sci-fi stuff.
What was most surprising was the fact that The Ship Avenged was a lot less problematic than The City Who Fought. I mean, sure, there’s some vaguely iffy stuff in that older men keep hitting on Joat, and the Nazi Space Pirate Drow themselves are all kinds of weird. Because not only are they dark-skinned and inherently violent, but they also breed faster than ‘normal’ humans, and … yeeeah. But they don’t actually rape anybody over the course of the book, so that’s something? (A low bar, I know). In fact, there’s a sub-plot in which the nicest of the Space Drow and one of his prisoners fall in love and escape from the Bad Guy fleet. This … is covered in all of about two chapters. It’s just ‘oh hey I don’t want to torture-murder you’ in one chapter, and then, after about a hundred pages of Joat tooling around space, we return to Bad Guy fleet where they’re like ‘we are so in love! Let’s run away!’
This romantic subplot (or lack therof) is indicative of The Ship Avenged as a whole. The book comes off as undercooked– it reads like Stirling’s not sure if he wants to write a swashbuckling space opera, a star-crossed romance, or a taut space-espionage thriller.
The Ship Avenged is a middling-to-decent sci-fi adventure, but I’m still glad I read it. Seeing as of how the book is devoid of its prequel’s weirdo “Nice Guy” relationship dynamics, I presume that some of The City Who Fought‘s most questionable elements were from McCaffrey, and not Stirling. It’s certainly the opposite of my hypothesis when I started reading the book, and something I’m gonna have to keep in mind the next time I get the urge to read a Pern novel or something.
If you love Brandon Sanderson, you’ll love The Way of Kings.
Thing is, I don’t love Brandon Sanderson.
Sanderson is a hit or miss author for me– and maybe it’s just my luck, but I seem to be hitting the misses more often than not. Maybe I just haven’t gotten over Steelheart, because goddamn that is a terrible book. But, Tor.com was giving away a free ebook of The Way of Kings back in, like, March, and I figured ‘why the heck not?’ And while I tend to prefer dead-tree versions of books, I’m glad I nabbed the ebook of The Way of Kings, because it’s one of those fat fantasy novels that can easily be repurposed as a booster seat or something if you really needed it to.
In any case, while the ‘standard’ bit of Map Fantasy is set in some analogue to old-tymey Europe, I have to give Sanderson some credit for opting for a rather alien setting that feels more like something out of a sci-fi novel. Like his Mistborn books, The Way of Kings is set in a blasted, inhospitable wasteland that kind of makes me wonder what part of Utah he lived in as a kid.
Based both on the weirdo planet and the weirdo alien cultures that inhabit it, this book is absolutely stuffed with fantasy nonsense vocabulary: chull, cremling, gemheart, shardblade, fabrial, safehand … it’s enough to make your spellchecker cringe. And on top of that, the book has even more Very Important Capitalizations: Desolation, Thrill, Calling, Lashing, and probably a dozen more I’m forgetting. The worst of the lot is the made-up word ‘spren.’ On its own, it’s a fine enough term for various little pixie-things that zip around because this is a fantasy novel. So there are windspren, firespren, even deathspren … that’s fine. But early on, Sanderson drops the term ‘anticipationspren’ and I honestly couldn’t take the rest of the book seriously after that. Your tolerance for weirdo fantasy nonsense is definitely going to influence how you enjoy the book.
It’s hard to pithily sum up the plot of The Way of Kings. This is both because it’s a book with a lot of stuff going on … and yet not too much happens at all. At least, that’s what it felt like after reading through a thousand or so pages. The Way of Kings is a sprawling Epic Fantasy (a Map Fantasy, even), that follows about a half dozen viewpoint characters (with a couple of others thrown in to pad out the word count/worldbuilding) from time to time. And while they each have their own plotlines to follow, The Way of Kings really suffers from “first in a series-itis,” in which the whole damn thing feels more like a prologue to get everyone where they need to be to get the actual plot underway. Sanderson’s got ten(!) of these books planned out– and, well, I guess he started getting ideas when they tapped him to finish the Wheel of Time series.
The biggest problem with The Way of Kings is that some of the viewpoint characters are far, far more interesting than others. Or, perhaps more specifically, Sanderson and I have pretty much opposite views of who the book should be about. Namely, one of the viewpoint characters is a young woman by the name of Shallan, who sets out to apprentice herself to a heretical Princess-Academic in order to steal a magic widget from said Princess-Academic. Books and crime? Sign me up! And, sure, Shallan has a tendency to be too ‘clever’– a lot of her quips come off as a little contrived, but nobody’s perfect.
Sanderson proceeds to ignore Shallan for like, 75 percent of the book. Instead, we get far too many pages devoted to a dude named Kaladin, a guy who’s had a shitty life and is so angsty about it you don’t even know you guys. On the one hand, I understand starting a character at rock bottom, so they have someplace to grow and aspire to. On the other, Kaladin’s background (laboriously detailed in far too many flashbacks) is just one awful thing happening to him after another, mostly for no reason. Seriously, Matt Murdock’s got it made compared to this guy. By the time the novel gets underway, Kaladin is a slave, relegated to expressly be cannon fodder.
… at which point, Kaladin’s response is basically ‘well, I’m just gonna do this job so well that I won’t die!’ or … something. Which … is kind of a crappy thing for your protagonist to be doing. I mean, sure, somebody like Conan’s been captured and chained to a galley all the damn time. But does Conan ever say ‘well, I guess I should just row really hard?’ Hell no. Within a chapter– two, at the most, Conan’s up and leading a mutiny and then sailing around to hang out with a bunch of half-naked chicks in a Frazetta painting. And that’s why Conan is awesome.
Be like Conan. Not like Kaladin.
Still, because Kaladin is Designated Protagonist, he inexplicably manifests some magic superpowers of destiny, complete with a windspren sidekick named
Navi Syl. And hell, it’s pretty telling that Kaladin’s first thought upon discovering his new magic isn’t “oh hey how can I use this to escape and/or get revenge on all the assholes trying to kill me” but rather “OH NO I AM SO CURSED AND SAD.”
Speaking of magic, The Way of Kings has got at least two (probably three?) different magic systems. It’s all meticulously put together (Sanderson includes charts at the back of the book, which I summarily didn’t read), and yet all of it feels very, very videogamey. For one, there are a couple of characters in the book who wear what’s basically Magic Power Armor, waving around Giant Magical Lightsabers. There’s also a school of magic that lets you play around with gravity and run on ceilings and stuff, which is the straight up gimmick from an old NES game called Metal Storm. (Not saying Sanderson stole the idea or anything, but it’s the first thing that came to mind). And all the magic is powered by gems acting as magic ‘batteries’ that you certainly wouldn’t pick up off of dropped enemies in the middle of a battle, oh no.
To be fair, Sanderson is very good at writing action scenes, so those times when we see the Magic Power Armor Knights going all Dynasty Warriors in a battle, it’s pretty neat. But again, this isn’t the focus of the book, because Kaladin has a destiny or some nonsense.
It doesn’t help that the cultures in The Way of Kings … don’t make a lot of sense. For example, the Alethi, the main Empire/Kingdom/People/Whatever in the book, are … ridiculously arbitrary in their culture. For example, in Alethi-land (if not everywhere in the novel), only women are allowed/expected to read or write … or do art, or science, or … well, seems pretty limiting. Especially if all your army officers have to bring their wives with them on campaign to do the paperwork. Or super especially if you can’t freakin’ read and yet you need to find women you trust in order to communicate back & forth with secret spy messages and stuff (this is an actual thing that happens in the book).
The Way of Kings also features a caste system (another Sanderson standby), which I couldn’t help but look at askance. Basically, Alethi society is divided between ‘lighteyes’ and ‘darkeyes’– the darker your eye color, the lower you are on the proverbial totem pole. And yes, real-world racism is just as stupid and arbitrary, I get it. There’s a place in fantasy fiction to explore real world issues … buuuuut I’m not sure if Sanderson is the guy to do it.
It doesn’t help that the main nameless bad guys of the setting, the Parshendi, are typically described as dark-skinned. And, uh, there’s a distinct difference between the ‘tribal’ Parshendi who are fierce and warlike and literally grow carapace armor from their skin, and the ‘domesticated’ Parshmen who are ‘naturally subservient.’ Oh, and (spoiler alert), it’s revealed at the end of the novel that the Parshendi/Parshmen are descended from the Big Evil Horde that nearly killed the world thousands of years earlier … and, uh, yeah. I’d like to give Sanderson the benefit of the doubt here, but turning around and going ‘it’s not weird if you keep reading until the end of a ten book series!’ is hardly much of a defense.
The most frustrating thing is, even though The Way of Kings has a lot of flaws, it’s still got a lot going for it. There are a handful of events and revelations towards the end of the book that are legitimately interesting, and a handful of characters that are genuinely compelling. But even then, there are multiple occasions when Sanderson could have taken a more complicated, interesting route … but doesn’t. In one egregious example, the moustache-twirlingly evil dude who seems like he’s going to be that bastard ‘on your side’ … turns out to be just moustache-twirlingly evil. Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal, etc.
Really, The Way of Kings is a book with a lot of big worldbuilding ideas behind it … but Sanderson gets so caught up in this strange, alien world that he doesn’t pay enough attention to the people in it. Or, hell, even for all its worldbuilding, a lot of the book’s logistics don’t make sense. I mean, one of the expressly mentioned uses of gem-magic is to transmogrify matter– to the point where food can be straight up created out of rocks. Given how important agriculture is to human society, this is huge, but Sanderson doesn’t touch on the potential implications. I’m not saying he has to give us a full farmer’s almanac of rock-cultivation or whatever, but it’s just a prime example of Sanderson’s tendency to obsess over his favorite cool bits without paying much attention to the rest.
Certain genres have ‘default’ settings. Noir stories are set in grimy, rainy cities. Space Operas take place (unsurprisingly) in space. Agatha Christie style ‘cozy’ murder mysteries often take place in fancy country estates. And the default Fantasy setting is often a vaguely medieval pastiche that owes more to the local renaissance fair than any actual historical period.
With this in mind, Marella Sands’ Serpent & Storm easily stood out. It’s set in the city of Teotihuacan, a Central American city state that was the largest New World settlement of its era, and arguably one of the biggest cities in the entire world. You could compare it to Ancient Rome, an empire that arose around vaguely the same time period. This setting is the strongest point of Serpent & Stone, as Sands does a great job of portraying Teotihuacan as a bustling metropolitan city, complete with merchants’ guilds, prostitutes, sporting events, and even tour guides.
Unfortunately, one can’t make a novel work on its setting alone, no matter how meticulously researched. Serpent & Storm is actually a sequel to an earlier book called Sky Knife. Both books center around a Mayan priest by the name of, well, Sky Knife. I haven’t read the first one, but in Serpent & Stone he’s sent to Teotihuacan in order to work out a trade agreement between the two city states. But, within a few chapters of arriving in Teotihuacan, Sky Knife sees their king suddenly drop dead, and it falls on him to find out just who killed him, and why.
One issue I had with Serpent & Storm was that Sky Knife … was kind of a dull character. He spends a good chunk of the novel being scandalized about how Teotihuacans live (sex outside of marriage? GASP!) which … on the one hand is a straightforward enough way to highlight what life and culture in an ancient mesoamerican city might have been like. On the other, this is one of Sky Knife’s major character traits, which gets old really quick. Honestly, Sky Knife is kind of dull– he’s not particularly smart or clever, and his other main trait is his faith in his god Itzamna. Which, again, makes sense for a priest, but it doesn’t make for a compelling character.
Serpent & Storm is listed as ‘Tor Historical Fiction’ on the spine logo, which honestly is a damn lie. Oh sure, it’s set in an actual historical period … but any sense of this is soon forgotten once Sky Knife starts throwing spells around. Because he can do that. He’s even got a magical obsidian dagger called the Hand of God. Sky Knife is basically a D&D style cleric, to the point where he even casts a 1st level ‘Light’ spell while exploring a creepy catacomb. Maybe I should’ve known better (especially since I like Tor books), but at the same time I was a bit blindsided by this. The fact that the back cover blurb tries to sell the book as a murder mystery rather than an ancient world fantasy doesn’t help much, either. And I guess the marketing copy isn’t exactly Sands’ fault.
The thing is, I think Serpent & Storm would have benefited from either excising the magic completely … or just really leaning into it and making it even crazier. As it is, Sands tries to walk a middle line between the two, and it doesn’t quite click either way. I mean, hell, this is a book that features a skinless zombie trying to strangle people with its own intestines, but still tries to play things straight after the occasional detour into splatterpunk horror.
And really, Serpent & Storm isn’t much of a mystery, either. Sky Knife blunders around a bit, talks to some people, finds a conspiracy, and so on … but the ultimate conclusion isn’t satisfying. It doesn’t help that the big final reveal hinges on the culprit being really stupid, either. I’m just saying, if you conspicuously used a feather from your fancy skirt to summon a giant serpent monster, maybe you shouldn’t wear that fancy skirt (now missing a feather) in front of anybody. Just saying.
It probably says something about Serpent & Storm that it features a kaiju-sized flying serpent at one point, and it still comes off as kind of boring. Sigh.
So yeah. Maybe I just didn’t know what to expect, but Serpent & Storm didn’t really impress me. Which is a shame, because it has a really cool, really well researched setting. It’d just be a lot stronger novel if Sands made up her mind whether to write a mystery, or a gonzo fantasy featuring skinless strangler zombies and enormous snake monsters.
Seriously, that cover art would’ve been awesome.
Food history is a fascinating subject. No matter where you are in the world, or when you are in the course of human history, you’ve gotta eat. It’s one of those universal things that’s absolutely ripe for study– and something I’ve touched on briefly before.
I first heard about Jane Zeigelman and Andrew Coe’s A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Depression on NPR– which probably tells you just how boring I am sometimes. And, when I stumbled across the book at the local library, I thought I’d give it a go. Not only do I love food history, but I read enough pulp and noir that I figured I might as well learn what all those private detectives and femme fatales would eat between cases.
A Square Meal covers American food for pretty much the first half of the 20th century. Even if it weren’t for the whole ‘depression’ thing, it’d be a time of great change for American food. (Zeigelman and Coe make the point that every time period is one of great change for American food, but still). Not only was there an influx of immigration, but around the start of the 20th century there was a surge in processed, pre prepared foods (canned, refrigerated, or frozen) along with the dawning science of nutrition– which in turn led to various health fads and trend diets, because humans are predictable like that.
With newly discovered nutrition facts in mind, multiple government agencies soon set to work during the great depression to make sure millions of Americans weren’t just fed, but also fed “properly.” Which led in some ‘interesting’ directions, as one could expect. For one, taste was one of the last things nutritionists and charity workers were worried about– the line of thought was that if the handout food actually tasted, y’know, good, people would be inspired to stay poor.
Period racism was also a major factor at play, ranging from black sharecroppers simply not getting enough food from the local government aid agencies, to individual aid agents deciding how much food a family would get based on their ethnicity. So an Italian family was expected to subsist on canned tomatoes and pasta, while a black laborer was given a chicken every now and again in order to ‘keep his strength up.’
Really, when you ask “what did people eat during the great depression?” The answer usually is “not enough.” It’s one of those terrible ironies that a country as productive as the United States cranked out literal tons of meat and produce– which then was wasted and thrown away because it simply cost the farmers too much to ship or process it. Later government programs would start buying up this surplus and distributing it, but it wasn’t a perfect process.
A lot of the points brought up in A Square Meal are still resonant today. Various fad diets and nutrition studies are pretty much a fact of modern life, for one. Additionally, a lot of Republican arguments against government charity are strikingly familiar to arguments made to this very day. Some things never change, I guess.
Politics aside, A Square Meal is full of fascinating little tidbits about American food culture. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, was a notoriously terrible cook/menu planner, to the point where other politicians and officials would fill up at home before big White House dinners. Or, in another amusing point, the convenience of corner delicatessens was decried by some as being a plague on society, due to the moral and nutritional superiority of home-cooked food. Really, you could write a whole book about the Industrial Revolution in the Kitchen, and its effect on society, and I’m sure someone (or probably several someones) already has.
So yeah. A Square Meal is a neat viewpoint into a tumultuous time in American history, and well worth a read for anybody with an interest in the period and/or food history. It’s even got a couple of recipes scattered about, in case you really, really wanted to find out what, say, pea & liver loaf tastes like. I think I’ll hold off on that, myself.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 blind, 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.
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.