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.

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

Books are kind of like food.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Peter Clines’ Ex-Purgatory

Zombies vs. Superheroes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyberpunk Sneak Preview! Ghost in the Shell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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