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Tossing in a couple more for consideration.

First up is Bonnet Brigades: American Women and the Civil War by Mary Elizabeth Massey [1966]. I read this one as another historiographal study. I wanted to see how attitudes have changed (or not) since the 1960s. Overall, I can recommend this collection of essays as it does contain quite a bit of quality analysis for women's history, but that does come with a slight caveat. The work is a product of historical research from another era and suffers from some of the assumptions about sex and race that have received much further study in the intervening years. So while the work is still quite insightful, it does have some issues with its own biases.

The second is The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For by David McCullough [2017]. I once had the honor of hearing Mr. McCullough speak when he was invited to the small university where I used to teach. He was an engaging speaker, and I consider myself lucky to have attended his presentation. So when I ran across a compiled collection of various speeches he has given over the years (ranging from 1989 to 2016), I snagged the book without hesitation. With addresses to graduating classes, a naturalization ceremony for immigrants, to dedications to historical buildings and events, he covers quite a range of topics, but always comes back to the history of the nation and the ideals previous generations have striven, fought and died for. McCullough is an ardent optimist which sets him at some odds with my pessimistic and cynical mindset. However, reading quality and informed optimism was quite a nice change of pace form dealing with all of the political and social issues that clog up the news nowadays. I can definitely recommend this one.

*Looks over at bookshelf* Well, only about 60 more books to go. . . . . .

Been reading "The Book of the New Sun" by Gene Wolfe. I've finished the first book/part, "Shadow of the Torturer" so far and it's intriguing. The fact it's initially presented as being a fantasy/medieval setting but it doesn't take long before they characters drop off hand references to space exploration and such concepts as electromagnetism, revealing it's actually set in the far future(far enough that space travel was a thing that happened long ago and apparently is no longer viable). Also, apparently the moon now has forests on it, enough to appear green to the naked eye, and the main character has a hard time imagining the moon ever being grey. Also, apparently there are Massive Lovecraftian Nightmares living in the oceans in their time because why not.

The main character starts off as a member of the guild of Torturers before eventually being outcast from it(for allowing a "client" the means to kill herself before her appointed time). The fact the protagonist is both a torturer and an executioner(apparently the guild is responsible for both functions) is an interesting one, but also how the guild is treated as a profession, albeit one everyone apparently hates when they aren't flocking to see executions firsthand. It's explicitly mentioned, when a rich client asks if she can pay off her torturers for a smaller punishment, she's told "We are given explicit orders for every client. We follow them to the letter, no more and no less". Apparently at some point he becomes ruler, since he's narrating the story as the past and at least one point mentions "Before I took the throne".

An interesting book in it's worldbuilding and how it's all very oblique how it does so. Interested to see where this is going over the next few books.

Star Trek: Legacies: Purgatory's Key (3/5)

This dragged on with me reading it far longer than I meant it to. Y'know those other reviews I did? They were done while still reading this. So to be honest, I can't really appraise it properly given the huge gaps in-between reading it. But overall, it's fine. It's average. It's standard Star Trek TOS fare. Stuff I bought for $1.05 at a library book sale, so not exactly wasted money, but still, "meh" at the end of the day.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic: The Journal of the Two Sisters (3/5)

So like the MLP comcis I read, this was obtained to help me with writing a MLP multi-chapter. However, that didn't turn out the way I expected. Ergo, I'm actually going to give this two sets of reviews in a sense - one judging the book entirely by its own merits, the other as to how things turned out.

So, let's start with something. This is half sourcebook, half stuff. So the first half of this review is going to have to be further divided to accomodate that this is actually two books in one. The first is a literal journal of Celestia and Luna from their crowning as rulers of Equestria to...well, the end of the journal. Okay, seriously, you could have at least gone as far as Luna becoming Nightmare Moon, but nup, it takes an arbitrary point and ends. Still, everything up to that point is decent, or at least as decent as a book in this format for a primarily chidlren audience can be. Yes, I've read sourcebooks for various franchises before, but while this does fit the paradigm, in that it's in-universe character writing providing worldbuilding, there's only so much depth it can go into. Now, that's not to say this is bad - it does provide some decent worldbuilding for the early days of Equestria, and the politics (such as they are) that developed at the time - but it can only go into so much depth. Also, this isn't really the fault of the book per se, but in its context, Celestia is portrayed as the down to earth one, while Luna is the adventurous one. Yet in season 9, it's the other way round.

So, what's the other half of this book? Diary entries from the Mane 6 and supporting characters tying into events during season 4. Now, in fairness, this arguably ties in with the first half of the book in that it details the sisters finding the Tree of Harmony, seeing the three marks (sun, moon, star), and Star Swirl telling them that the one whom the star corresponds to is an individual that the sisters will meet later. If you coulnd't put together upon reading this that this is foreshadowing of Twilight Sparkle, then congratulations, I've got property on the moon that I can sell to you. But before you go, let me tell you that the second half makes no connection between this. I'm not complaining that the book doesn't spell out that Twilight's very existence is practically pre-ordained, I'm complaining that in the context of this volume, it's never really acknowledged by the characters themselves. Like, I dunno, imagine Return of the Jedi where Leia being Luke's sister is only established by Obi-Wan and Yoda talking together. The viewer becomes aware of this fact, but the fact never becomes relevant to the narrative itself. This is kind of a simialr situation. And look, maybe the show did bring it up (I can't remember), but if you're going to foreshadow stuff, at least follow through. Or better yet, commit your book to more worldbuilding not diary entries that serve no real purpose aside from "hey, this is what character X was thinking after episode Y." None of it is relevatory, it's just, at best, extra character development, and even then, building off pre-existing development.

So, that's how this book functions on its own. Decent, but it tries to do two things, and both are left wanting at the end of the day. But before the day ends, I'm going to move into some self-indulgence. I got this book because of the MLP story I was writing, and I needed clarification on certain elements of canon. Suffice to say, the canon's been clarified. In fact, it's been clarified so well that I can no longer post the story, or at least, I can't post it without breaking canon entirely. I'm not talking about tweeks made to the story, I'm saying that the story literally cannot occur in any sense in its present form. And not only that, but another story I wrote ages ago in the setting can no longer be included in personal canon because the worldbuilding in the book invalidates the story completely. I mean, this isn't unheard of - I've written plenty of stuff thati's been invalidated over time - but this is the only time I can think of where two works of fine have been invalidated simultaniously. And you may be saying "come on, it's fanfic, it was never canon to begin with," and that's absolutely true, but since fanfic is all I can hope to ever achieve at this point, then, yes, it does hit. Hits hard. Hardly a real problem in a world with so many, but, well, whatever. None of this is the book's fault of course, but ultimately I'm going to have to scrap the story and decide what to do with its corpse.

In the meantime, the sourcebook is okay, but only if you're a die-hard fan.

Shadow Captain - Alastair Reynolds

Sequel to "Revenger". This is set in the vastly distant future (>1 million years). Humanity is still stuck in the solar system. All the planets have long since been disassembled and turned into millions of smaller habitats, of which ~20,000 are now inhabited. Hundreds and hundreds of civilisations has risen and fallen; many humans live by sifting through the abandoned habitats for wondrous tech of the past. Currency are "quoins", mysterious technological objects from the past, and may harbour an important secret.

Sisters Arafura and Adana Ness find themselves in control of a starship and faced with mysteries to solve - what is the nature of quoins, and what keeps making human civilisations rise and fall? But more immediately, they need to deal with the traumas they have been through and their uncertain relationship, restock their ship, and the enemies out hunting them...

Alastair Reynolds mostly made his name from big, high concept space opera, but these books feel like more intimate, smaller scale adventures based around a team you get to know and love, so it's a bit of a departure from normal. Alastair Reynolds basically doesn't write bad books - on the other hand, this isn't in my view one of his best, either.

I just finished the Legend of Deathwalker by David Gemmell. This book has pretty much led to my final conclusion about that man. He writes amazing worlds with compelling stories, but he is a bad character writer. Women are like peak 80s fantasy writing. They exist to just fall in love with various people and do so completely frivolously. Rarely do they get a role involved with action. The protagonists, who so far have both been men, are the most Gary Sue characters I've read. Most of them have no real flaws and are better than everyone else for some reason. It makes some sense for the series's first protagonist, Waylander. He's been an assassin for dozens of years. Druss on the other hand was a lumberjack and somehow became best fighter in the world overnight.

I do plan on finishing the series though. The world-building is too good not to and I already bought all the books.

A Time Of Blood - John Gwynne

Second book in a sequel series to whatever his first series was called. Honestly, it's borderline a re-write of hte first series, but I guess the first one worked out well and sold lots of copies. It's one of these multi-strand stories with the lead characters being Drem, a young man from the wilds finding out about his prestigious bloodline and becoming a hero; Bleda, prince of a steppe tribe becoming hero; and Riv, a woman with a mysterious past learning to be a warrior and beoming a hero, in a triple smack in the face of biludngsroman. Yawn.

Basically, the "good guys" in all his books are dull as you'd expect, and incredibly stupid. The bad guys run rings around them again and again, and yet will lose in the end because, y'know, heroes are going to hero and all. It's often a little bit credibility stretching. I don't like the cartoon virtue of the goodies and - to be fair - the bad humans are not entirely bad, but... the "not quite good guys" - the Ben-Elim - are obviously problematic, and a bunch of arseholes. But the bad guys (the Kadoshim) are so obviously utterly vile, I cannot really credit how they get anyone to support them. I mean, they are pretty much literally devils. I feel stuff happens for reasons of convenience to the story, rather than because it makes much sense. The good guys have scouts, implicitly really good ones, and then seem to be unable to scout effectively. Why is it the guys in charge of the rabid and uncontrollable hordes of mutants are able to suck the people with well ordered armies into traps and rash attacks? How come the good guys, busy searching across the lands for their bad guy enemies and driving them to the ends of the world, somehow fail to notice them building massive fuck-off armies? How come after an army routs, literally no-one gets back to base before the enemy to say "Well, shit, we're in trouble, guys" because of course the trap works so conveniently perfectly.

I don't know. It's easy enough to read, but I kind of find it all really, really annoying.

Elfgore:
The protagonists, who so far have both been men, are the most Gary Sue characters I've read..

That is unfair.

From what I know of the late David Gemmell and if I remember rightly, his heroes are inspired by his stepfather. His biological father disappeared from the picture very early on, leaving him and his mother in very difficult circumstances. His stepfather was I believe a tough guy who stood absolutely no messing, but also a decent man who was very supportive of the two of them. Gemmell was brought up in a very rough environment and had a lot of life experience of violent men - and consequently that's much of what his books are about too.

Agema:

Elfgore:
The protagonists, who so far have both been men, are the most Gary Sue characters I've read..

That is unfair.

From what I know of the late David Gemmell and if I remember rightly, his heroes are inspired by his stepfather. His biological father disappeared from the picture very early on, leaving him and his mother in very difficult circumstances. His stepfather was I believe a tough guy who stood absolutely no messing, but also a decent man who was very supportive of the two of them. Gemmell was brought up in a very rough environment and had a lot of life experience of violent men - and consequently that's much of what his books are about too.

You've literally just described the two previous protagonists, with one minor exception. Why on earth are they either that much better in fighting than other people and also literally born better? I believe your statement 100%. His first book Legend was based on his own experience battling cancer. Also, all of his stories have had the theme of the main character taking someone under their wing and influencing them.

It is context, but it still doesn't change they're pretty Gary Stu characters in my eyes. The flaws he includes in them don't feel like actual flaws, instead their "cool" flaws. Druss wishes to stay home with his wife, but gods damnit the lust for battle flows through his veins!

Elfgore:

It is context, but it still doesn't change they're pretty Gary Stu characters in my eyes. The flaws he includes in them don't feel like actual flaws, instead their "cool" flaws. Druss wishes to stay home with his wife, but gods damnit the lust for battle flows through his veins!

But "M/Gary Sue" is a pejorative term to denote immature fantasy fulfillment by the author. I think that's very different from an author writing a character that is a paragon of admirable traits (which are not necessarily the author's own) - even excessively so. Many fantasy heroes are after all absurd caricatures of honour and decency whose only shortcomings are righeous anger and naivety - both of which are almost pseudo-flaws because they actually represent just how darned decent the hero is.

Gears of War: Ascendance (3/5)

This being the first Gears novel not authored by Karen Traviss, I find that I can't review it without discussing Traviss's legacy on the Gears universe.

Karen Traviss is a...controversial author, shall we say. For me personally and from what I can tell, a lot of people as well. In Halo and Star Wars at least, she had a tendancy to come and do her own thing, regardless of how well the 'thing' fit. This was true in Gears, but it was less egregious here because like it or not, if there's a single individual responsible for fleshing out Gears of War as a universe, it's Traviss. It's possible that some direction came from Epic, but considering how sparse the lore was prior to her novels, I actually don't think it was there lurking all along. So on one hand, when Traviss did her thing, it was very much HER thing, to the point that certain elements were fleshed out that the games barely touched upon, and characters acted differently in the books. So, on one hand, there's a sense of disconnect between Traviss's novels and the Gears of War games. On the other, I can't deny that whatever gripes I had with said novels, the setting as it is now couldn't exist without them. Traviss ultimately did here what she did with Halo and Star Wars, but the difference is that when she started writing for those universes, they were established. Gears of War? Not so much.

The reason I bring this up is because Ascendance is the polar opposite of this approach, and while not necessarily because of that (correlation isn't necessarily causation), it's still the weakest Gears novel I've read. Because on one hand, everything in Ascendance is much truer to the games, in terms of character personalities, in terms of tone, in terms of politics (or the lack of them - Traviss's Gears novels were highly political), in terms of action (small groups fighting the Swarm rather than larger engagements), in terms of plotting (the lack of flashbacks). Yet Ascendance is simply less interesting than its predecessors because everything it does is served to bridge the gap between Gears 4 and 5, and playing Gears 5 right now, it's a gap that doesn't need briding. Everything in Gears 5 so far has been explained, and doesn't need EU to cover it. Which is a good thing, don't get me wrong, but it gives Ascendance little reason to exist. I found myself bored a lot of the time, because I have little interest in reading action scenes, but a lot of this book encompasses that. And outside that, it feels like we're in a loop of the same issues coming up, being dismised, then coming up again. What we're left with is bog standard tie-in fiction.

Ascendance touches on a question in regards to shared universe fiction, as to what's more important - being true to the universe, or being good on its own merits. These things aren't mutually exclusive, but if they were, the first four novels chose the latter approach, this chooses the former approach. Ascendance is entitled to do so, but at the end of the day, I'm left with a "meh" novel that doesn't serve as a bridge between Gears 4 and 5 (or at least a needed one), nor compelling reading in its own right.

My Little Pony: The Movie Prequel (4/5)

So, I can from a setting where monsters are torn apart with chainsaws to a setting where the magic of friendship is a literal force. Makes sense, right? Also makes sense that I'm reading to a prequel to a movie I've never seen.

Right?

Well, whatever. The graphic novel's good, but not great, and a lot of that has to do with how it's contrained by its setting. What I mean by this is that if one examines what the Storm King is doing (conquering and destroying kingdoms and empires, leaving the people destitute after bombarding them with an airfleet), and that we're dealing with humanoid characters for the most part (i.e. creatures that can use swords and spears, and wear armour to boot), then you have the potential for something dark. But this is MLP, and while the comics can (and have) get away with stuff that the cartoon couldn't, it still can't avoid its roots. And, look, maybe I'm looking for "dark and gritty" stuff in a show whose primary audience is girls aged 6-12, but I can't help but make the connection, and note that other series have still managed to get around certain taboos (e.g. death). But that aside, how does the comic fare on its own terms?

Well, like I said, good, but not great. It's actually got an interesting storytelling method in that we see one continuous story from four different sequential POVs, with some looping back. As in, Character A will see points A to G. Character B will see Points E to J. Character C will see Points H to P, and so on. If anyone's seen 'Wonder,' it uses a similar technique. And in that, it works. Also, in of itself, there's a good sense of worldbuilding in a sense that we're seeing an entire continent outside Equestria (Abyssnia), and with its landscapes and peoples, it feels distinct from the de facto Equestrian landscapes. However, there's two notable issues here. First, is that it can get into "twee" territory, what with Capper being betrayed by his friend, and the Storm King's monologue of not needing friends, and...ugh. Fine, I get it, friendship is magic, move on. Second of all, Celeano. As stated, I haven't seen the movie, but I have seen clips, and it's hard to reconcile the version of Celeano here with what I see in the film. Here, she's cautious, always looking out for her crew, always willing to go for the sure thing over the risky thing. And you may say "but Hawki, the entire point of Celeano and co. is that they're depressed due to being pressed into the Storm King's service." To which I say "yes, but if the 'Time to Be Awesome' sequence is meant to restore them to their true selves, why are their "true selves" not like they are in the comic prior to being press ganged?"

Also Tempest Shadow is treading on Radiant Dawn's hooves in the "woe is me" department. Go figure.

So, again, the comic's good, but not great. Still, after Ascendance, it was a decent diversion.

Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils - James Lovegrove

Third and concluding entry in Lovegrove's Sherlock Holmes / Cthulhu mythos mash-up. (You can tell Sherlock came clearly out of copyright recently from the mass of copycat works.) Sherlock Holmes has in fact spent his decades combatting otherworldly threats to the human race. Those normal Sherlock Holmes stories? They're just artful disguises Watson has put on the real investigations. It's 1910 - Holmes is old but still surpringly sprightly, despite the drain on his health and sanity facing terrifying and mind-warping horrors from eldritch dimensions. But there's time for one last mission... There's a mass slaughter of members of the Diogenes club and a spate of abductions on the Sussex coast. Can Sherlock Holmes work out what the link is, and what terrifying threat the Great Old Ones are to bring to planet Earth?

Lovegrove is not the greatest author in the world, but he's pretty playful, capable of a nice sense of humour and good at keeping a story rolling along. He manages to mimic the style of Conan Doyle to some extent. I like the amusing attempt to present it as fact: that there was a real James Watson who corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft out of shared experience with the abnormal, and that the supposedly real life James Lovegrove has ended up with the texts partly on the pretext of being a distant relative of Lovecraft (some sort of joint German ancestry, their surnames having diverged in Anglicisation).

You don't really need to the previous two. And honestly, I couldn't say I'd be in any hurry to, either, unless the idea of a Cthlulhu / Holmes mash-up does interest you. But hey, it's fun enough.

Another one for the non-fiction stack: Sons of the Wilderness: John and William Conner by Charles N. Thompson [1988]
This particular dual biography had some rather odd origins. Essentially, a family descendant of one of the Conner brothers decided to research her family history, but she died before she could publish. Her widower husband, as a labor of love, finished her work and published back in 1937. The Conner Prairie Historical Association chose to reprint the book in 1988 as part of their restoration of the old Conner residence in Noblesville, Indiana (a town the brothers helped establish).

The work does have a couple of glaring issues that any reader should definitely keep in mind while reading it. First off, it is a family research project and such works tend to gloss over anything unpleasant in the family history that could make the family look bad. I don't think that happened too much here, but the portraits painted of the brothers is certainly one that is highly complimentary nonetheless. Secondly, the work was researched and compiled by people who were born in the 1800s and the racial baggage concerning Native Americans is certainly on full display. Even when being complimentary towards the various Amerindian nations, the base assumption is that they are just a couple of steps above animals and the word "savages" get tossed around quite a bit. Thirdly, some of the sources of information drawn upon are family stories handed down through the generations without any solid evidence to back it up. However, Thompson was very good about highlighting any familial source with that issue and plainly stating when there was no corroborating evidence.

But, while keeping those things in mind, the book does provide a great deal of information under the gloss of racism and family pride. If nothing else, it gives a pretty good description of just how convoluted the situation on the American frontier was before the 1840s. Also, while the work may hold a strong racist element against the Amerindian peoples, the work does show some sympathy and openly points out when the indigenous were getting treated severely and unfairly, even while it cheers on the acquisition of native land by the United States.

All in all, a very interesting read and I recommend it to any history buffs lurking our there.

So, did a bunch of comic reading:

StarCraft II: This Sacred Land (3/5)

Sonic the Hedgehog: Volume 4: Infection (4/5)

Sonic the Hedgehog Annual 2019 (3/5)

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic: Spirit of the Forest (3/5)

Halo: Rise of Atriox (3/5)

Cage of Souls - Adrian Tchaikovsky

"Cage of Souls" is one of Tchaikovsky's (presumably) standalone novels - and by and large his standalone novels are very good ("Children of Time" won the 2016 Arthur C. Clark award). It would fit in the 'dying earth' class of SF - the far future where a much diminished humanity clings on to the fading world in apathy, decadence, and gradual decline. There remains one last human habitation left, the city of Shadrapar, living by scavenging through the detritus of former, greater ages. Surrounded by a hostile jungle, toxic sea and encroaching desert, with no will but to stay within the reach of a great weapon built to defend the city.

Our protagonist is Stefan Advarni, a scholar sent for imprisonment on a brutal island in the jungle for subversive activities, and here is Stefan's largely unhappy tale of survival. Stefan is not at all heroic. He's very human, really. On the bright side he is largely well-intentioned, intelligent and honourable, offset by also being distinctly naive, selfish weak, and cowardly. He bumbles his way through the book quite haplessly, getting out of peril in large part by luck, but also by scraping together what positives he has to make things work. He is exactly the sort of person you would expect the harsh prison island to eat alive, but he does learn and toughen up, and some of his slightly pompous preconceptions get pricked. We meet his friends and enemies - themselves like Stefan interesting characters with their own pros and cons. There is a major change to the world occurring through the book, but Stefan is not driving this wider fate of the world (he's too unimportant and ineffectual for that), he's spectating it with occasionally minor relevance dipping in and out of unfolding events.

I think this is one of those books I appreciated maybe more than I liked it. Honestly, I sort of struggled a bit to get through it, but I can't help but feel, on completion, it's a really damn good SF story.

Foundryside - Robert Jackson Bennett

The new series starts in the city of Tevanne, dominated by four merchant families that have discovered the art of "scriving" - magic by another word - which is based on localised re-writing of reality, such as convincing an object that gravity is pulling from a different direction. Into this situation we find Sancia, an escaped slave and thief who has an unusual power to sense the nature of objects around her. She is asked to carry out a high-risk mission for a big reward - obviously things don't go entirely to plan - and from this she is sucked into machinations far greater than she could have imagined.

I did not like this as much as Bennett's previous trilogy - the characters seem a little more cliched and dull, and I'm not totally sure it worked for me the way that scrived objects seem to essentially "talk" and finding loopholes in their programming seems to be about "convincing" them to work differently. But otherwise it's a fairly taut and neat fantasy romp (surprisingly gory in places) that presses the right buttons to keep you reading.

StarCraft: Survivours (3/5)

Survivours is the third Dark Horse StarCraft series, continuing the trend of SC series starting with "S." Unfortunately, like Scavengers, it also continues the trend of simply being "okay," and having an unsatisfying ending. Now, if a series continues off from it that could change, but I didn't cut Scavengers any slack here, I'm not going to do differently for Survivours.

That said, of the two, Survivours does come out slightly on top, though when you get down to it, the plots are still similar. As in, in the first, Caleb learnt he had got into bed with some unsavoury people. Here, he's still 'in bed' with a psychopathic protoss and has to toe the line while at Spearpoint, making friends and all that while also undermining the Umojan Protectorate in the process. So while that's slightly more engaging reading, it's still the same motif of coercion. Also, the ending aside, which leaves a lot of unanswered questions, there's still gripes I have with the plot. As in, Shadow Guards arrive in the second issue, but are all dispatched by the end of the third issue (little payoff for the buildup). Also, the UP weapon has enough power to destroy a protoss mothership. I mean, what? Also, the CalebxIda 'thing'...look, it's not the worst thing in the world, but it feels forced.

So, at the end of the day, it's fine. Just fine. Still, as far as Dark Horse's StarCraft run goes, I'd rank Soldiers as the best so far. It had the simplest plot, sure, but it didn't end with any kind of cliffhanger, nor were there any major leaps of logic.

I have three for today. An odd assortment this time around.

First up is A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837 by Paul E. Johnson [1978/2004]. The dual publishing dates comes from the fact that the original study was done in 1978, but the copy I have is from the 25th anniversary print in 2004. This particular printing has the advantage of the author's preface for the new edition where he helpfully discusses the reasoning behind his study and what he feels he did incorrectly back then. Essentially, Johnson attempted to use quantifiable evidence to discern any patterns in the development of the religious revivals in the early 1800s in Rochester, New York. Who was involved, how their lives intersected with the realities of the day and so on. Not for everybody, I know, but still fascinating stuff and I do recommend it for the history buffs out there.

Second on the list is The Great Dying: Cosmic Catastrophe, Dinosaurs and the Theory of Evolution by Kenneth J. Hsu [1986]. A history of the scientific thought process originating with Darwin and his views of how natural selection worked, up through the 20th century and how those ideas intersected with the development of tectonic theory, the growing realization that an asteroid struck the earth at the end of the Cretaceous, and the growing body of evidence and theories about just what that event could have done to the chemistry of the world's oceans and probable nature of the great extinction event that followed. For me, the work was very interesting because my own understanding of those events was formed in the years after the science was hashed out. Finding out about the various philosophies that existed and how they permeated scientific research was fascinating to me. Hsu states that the work is his way of proving that Darwin's idea of "survival of the fittest" isn't really science but a tautology that needed to be jettisoned because that idea had led (and sadly continues to lead) to very bad ideas about race and the relative worth of various cultures/groups. While I can agree with Hsu on most of his points, I do have a few quibbles about some of his ideas, but nothing that undermines his final conclusions. Merely nits that got picked. Again, I can recommend this one both for the science nerds as well as the history nerds out there.

Finally, I went back into the fiction pile and read Vallista by Steven Brust [2017]. The latest of the Vlad Taltos series, this book follows the adventure of my favorite assassin as he discovers that a young (maybe) entity(?) named Devera is trapped in a strange building that makes no sense and he needs to discover how she is trapped, why it has happened and how to free her. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that he's trapped there too, so he does need to get out as well. For anyone who hasn't read Steven Brust, I really enjoy his work and have most of his books in my library. Seriously, give him a shot, I think a lot of people would like him. This particular book is less an action/adventure fantasy and more of a murder-mystery in which we get to listen in as the detective hunts for the clues on what is going on, why things are happening the way they are and are given the clues at the same pace as the protagonist. Highly, highly recommend.

I recently finished Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It is an extremely broadstrokes work on the cultural evolution of our branch of the human species (he begins the book at the development of the human species group, and maintains a running distinction throughout between "Sapiens", us, and "human", which includes the Neanderthals, Erectus, and the like). It touches on history, biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, religion, and more. As I said, broadstrokes.

Any work attempting to cover an academic question so broadly in a single book is gonna be weak on its particular points, when confronted by anybody well educated in any of the many subjects it brings up. The reason that people don't try to tackle this sort of thing is because it's so huge, so naturally the book is weak under intense scrutiny. The value of the book is in the broad strokes, the ideas it presents, the thought it provokes.

The overall thrust of the author's argument is that Sapiens' triumph over inter-species competition (including with other human species) is its cognitive breakthrough in discovering a method for breaking the biological limit on the number of people an individual can maintain intimate knowledge and relationships with: shared belief in fictions. Examples given of these cooperative fictions that bind society are religion, corporations, states, laws, and human rights. They exist only in the minds of those who believe in them cooperatively (an atheist viewpoint disregarding "natural law"). Without shared belief in fictions, the size that tribes of homo sapiens are able to attain is limited by one's ability to know the abilities and trustworthiness of their fellows, and it is shown in studies that the number of people that Sapiens are able to know that well is roughly similar to maximum chimpanzee troop size (around 100-130). By believing in shared values, Sapiens are able to maintain networks of trust beyond the ability of our biology to keep in track.

From there, the book takes a long drive through history to talk about the development of different types of beliefs and their impact on social organization and well-being. In essence, the development of human culture, up to the present day and with speculations on how direct genetic and cybernetic augmentation in the near future will affect that development.

The author has an provocative and inflammatory tone throughout. He tries to make up for broad arguments with digs at Christianity, Islam, capitalism, communism, human rights, and most other highly successful aspects of culture (in this context, "successful" meaning "widest adoption") to make sure he can piss off the broadest number of people possible. I think the point is to try to force you to confront the cultural fictives you yourself believe in. It is somewhat successful in that regard, at the cost of some eyerolling and point stretching.

If you have an interest in history or anthropology, I'd consider this an entry level yet comprehensive book on a postmodernist view on the grand development of our species. Despite my gripes with the author's methods and some of his point-stretching, it has provided me a whole lot to think about. It is a very interesting book, and I think it'll be a good launching point for my further delvings into history and the social sciences (subjects I'm trying to educate myself on, while my actual college education focuses on far more applied scientific and technical subjects). Can't wholeheartedly recommend it without warning that you're going to have to apply your own filter for the author's biases.

Dalisclock:
Been reading "The Book of the New Sun" by Gene Wolfe.

I read Shadow of the Torturer a couple of years ago. I've got the other books in the series as well. They're the fiction books I most want to read, but SotT was also the heaviest piece of fiction I've ever tried to read (but not the most opaque, which is a title that goes to Ulysses). I don't have the mental energy for it while I'm studying in grad school. Someday I'll get around to them. I've read some of Gene Wolfe's short fiction, and he seems to be by far the author who most consistently puts out interesting, layered, and intelligent writing.

Edit:

davidmc1158:
I have three for today. An odd assortment this time around.

I wanted to let you know that I've gone back through the thread, and wishlisted several books you've recommended which interested me (Politics of Piracy, Forgotten Heroes, Nature's Metropolis, don't remember if you were the one who recommended Merchant, Solider, Sage). Keep them coming. Especially if they're world history; growing up with Western history, I mostly feel as if I have enough of it to last me until a little later in life, and am interested in delving into Chinese, Indian, and African history when I get through my current waiting library (probably won't be for another couple of years at my rate...).

Mage Bane - Stephen Aryan

Concluding part of whatever name this trilogy goes by. Mages have been persecuted to the edges of society, but there's a rogue god on the loose threatening to (inadvertantly, I guess) wreak havoc with reality. Our plucky band of mages must both work on rehabilitating their kind and also join in an alliance with gods determined to put down this upstart.

This is totally bread and butter fantasy fare and none the worse for it, competently done. Nothing much else to say, really.

SupahEwok:

Dalisclock:
Been reading "The Book of the New Sun" by Gene Wolfe.

I read Shadow of the Torturer a couple of years ago. I've got the other books in the series as well. They're the fiction books I most want to read, but SotT was also the heaviest piece of fiction I've ever tried to read (but not the most opaque, which is a title that goes to Ulysses). I don't have the mental energy for it while I'm studying in grad school. Someday I'll get around to them. I've read some of Gene Wolfe's short fiction, and he seems to be by far the author who most consistently puts out interesting, layered, and intelligent writing.

It is a bit of a read, I'll grant you that. I'm reading a chapter or two a day(and luckily the chapters are fairly reasonable in length) but it does tend to throw stuff at you a lot and assume you understand the context(it's mentioned a number of time how the dead are weighted down and tossed in the river but still doesn't explain why they do this). There's also a couple points where the narrator just drops a plot point without any real lead up beforehand or explaining his reasoning and you're just expected to go with it. Which leads to the conclusion either he's not disclosing certain details that lead him to make that conclusion(Kinda like how Sherlock Holmes made conclusions based off details the reader couldn't know) or he's completely mistaken and doesn't want to admit it. Unreliable Narrator is definitely in play here.

There'a also the weirdness how it's clearly set in the far future and a lot of the weirder shit is explained to be advanced tech, except there's certain things that still comes across as legit magic.

Re-read "Heart of Steel" + "Tethered", book 2 and 2.5 of the Iron Seas series by Meljean Brooks.

Much better than "Iron Duke", as it has the same worldbuilding (steampunk magic), but the author doesn't constantly blather on about how rape is really romantic or whatever.

The Hive (3/5)

This is the second installment in the Second Formic War trilogy. You might recall awhile ago that I reviewed The Swarm, the first installment in said trilogy. When I did so, I ranked it as being among the best Enderverse novels. This however, I rank as being among the weakest. Which is kind of odd, because The Hive doesn't really do anything differently from The Swarm. It's effectively more of the same. However, having read said book, there's a number of shortcomings I feel can explain why I was less enamoured with this book than its predecessor (apart from familiarity breeding cotnempt I suppose):

-Throughout the book, we're constantly reminded that the war against the formics is going very poorly for the IF. However, we don't actually see much of that. We're told, rather than shown it, with the protagonists mostly being far away from the fighting bar a few exceptions where we see the action up close and personal. Again, this isn't really a bad thing. The Swarm didn't do much close quarters combat, and the Enderverse has never really been based around action. In Ender's Game, the final battle is Ender simply giving orders to a fleet from Eros. However, I think the constant barrage of bad news within the book kind of got me to drown it out. I already know what the ending is, because this is a prequel, and how that ending will come about, plus what will happen in the hundred years between this trilogy and the events of Ender's Game. Is "prequelitis" a word? Cause this book may have it.

-There's a core plot point (or at least theme) that the IF is beset by incompetent commanders, while a number of individuals on Earth want to pursue political/personal gain over all else. Now, this isn't too bad a plot point, but it's a tired one, and rammed home a lot. Also, maybe I'm idealistic, but if humanity was faced with alien invasion, one that would presumably result in human extinction if it succeeded, I think most people, even those in power, would put the survival of the human race over personal gain. Yes yes, I know, climate change, but the formics are a tangible threat that can be defeated in tangible ways (guns, bombs, bullets). Thing is, there's arguably an in-universe precedent for this, considering that the IF is a new space force, and if you're drafting 'grounders' from Earth's armed forces to fight in a new environment, then not everyone's going to be up to snuff, but still, it hammers it home.

-National stereotypes are a thing. Now, they've arguably always been a thing, but here...well, let's see. The Russians want control of the Hegemony. Ukko Jukes wants an American as hegemon because America is just so damn awesome (there could be intended self-deprication here, but if so, it's damn subtle). Also, Somali space pirates. They're a thing. They were a thing in the past book, and they're a thing here, and of course they're brutal fuckers who have multiple women, who raid, space stations which they call New Somalia, and ugh. I mean, look. The setting's always had an emphasis on nationality, which remains a thing throughout much of its in-universe history, but these are stereotypes, and tired stereotypes at that. Which is odd, because when you consider the First/Second Formic War trilogy material up to this point, it's actually been pretty good with the nationality thing. The characters come from a diverse range of nationalities/ethnicites, but that never felt like the be all and end all of their characters. So when you get Somali space pirates, it feels out of sync with the rest of the book, but again, feels very, very tired. Or I dunno, maybe Somali pirates will still be a thing in the year 2118, and this book predicted the future.

-Not really an issue, but y'know in prequels how there's sometimes a tendency to name drop, or have stuff that only fans will recognise? Like, if I wrote a Star Wars prequel set thousands of years before the films, and name dropped a character after a period of time as being "Bob Skywalker?' Yeah. That thing. This book knows it's a prequel to Ender's Game, and as we get closer and closer to the book's events, we start to see the beginnings of Battle School, of the toon armies, and towards the end, Eros is dropped as a bombshell. Now, this works. Mostly. What doesn't work however, is when Ukko and Lem discuss the Third Invasion. As in, invading the formics' homeworld, foreshadowing the events of Ender's Game. This is kind of bizzare, because they're discussing an invasion using technology that doesn't even exist yet, against a world that they don't know the location of, in the midst of a war that they'll very likely lose. Lem, as if voicing the "huh?" reaction of the reader, points this out, and all Ukko can say is that he lacks vision. I mean, again, "huh?"

-There's a fair bit of filler in the novel, or at least what feels like filler. I suspect that this might be due to it being the second book in a trilogy, and therefore in a space where it needs to pad things. A lot of conversations go on way longer than they feel they need to, and a times, there aren't even conversations. For instance, there's a point where a character has to decide between Option A and Option B. The stakes are high. Fair enough. Only this is a period of self-reflection that takes up almost the entirety of a chapter, the only 'covnersation' being with his shipboard computer.

That aside, the strengths of the novel remain from the previous one, in that the characters remain engaging, the writing is good (filler aside), and it does have its space mechanics down pretty good, or at least I assume so. As in, accounting for transmission time, G-forces, fuel consumption, etc. Also, it conveys that the Sol system is really, REALLY big in a setting where FTL travel doesn't exist yet, and even then, space is still big. Also three-dimensional, as the IF and formics engage 'above' and 'below' the Sol system as opposed to a more traditional 2D war among planet rotations. But still, I didn't like this book as much as the last one. Might be because it has noticable flaws, while its strengths were already established in the previous novel. But it's a damn sight better than Children of the Fleet, and hopefully I'll be able to get the third book in the trilogy when it comes out.

Dalisclock:

There'a also the weirdness how it's clearly set in the far future and a lot of the weirder shit is explained to be advanced tech, except there's certain things that still comes across as legit magic.

The Book of the New Sun is from the Dying Earth subgenre of SF, and this is not unusual.

There are two approximate rationales for magic in the subgenre - one the Clark notion that some of the advanced tech still left is now so far advanced it basically is magic. (Somewhere in Jack Vance's genre-eponymous Dying Earth series, it is stated that mathematics/science was once so advanced it led to magic, and that magicians could still learn and utilise that powers even if no-one understood any more how they were discovered.) In others, the suggestion is that the universe is so old and decrepit that the laws of reality themselves are breaking down.

I find Gene Wolfe's books demanding to read, too. There's a lot of complexity and detail and you have to concentrate throughout, unlike most SF authors where you could skim or miss every second line and still have a decent idea what's going on.

Asita:
The Count of Monte Cristo (unabridged) I really enjoyed this one. Dumas might go into a little too much detail when describing the settings, but even so the story always feels like it's moving forward, and it's fun to see how the chain of cause and effect play out, to see the schemers planting ideas in receptive minds, to see emotion get the better of the characters, anticipating the inevitable fruition of plans and revelations. It was very enjoyable.

Yes, I enjoyed it as well. I felt like it kind of dragged at the end, though. Too many instances of people moaning on and on about their wretchedness and terrible fates in quick succession. Morrel, Mercedes, and Donglar all go on and on and it becomes tedious. Especially Morrel because it's obvious Valentine isn't dead, because that poison that makes you seem dead is a plot device so overused I can spot it a mile away. Probably doesn't help that the guy reading the book started to really overact in the last couple dozen chapters.

Also Donglar's end was kind of disappointing. It wasn't as subtly worked as the others. He was just captured by some bandits and starved by them. No delicious irony of walking into a trap of his own making, like it would have been with the Cavalcanti marriage. It's just so common and boring. It kind of seemed like Dumas realized Donglar hadn't been punished enough and tacked on some bandit abuse with a loose connecting theme of starvation. If the count was willing to be so direct he could have simply had all 3 be abducted by bandits and saved a decade of planning.

Oh and what the heck Edmond!? That bit with Morrel Sr. nearly killing himself! What if Julie had been two seconds late and Morrel had blown his brains out? That would have been a good way to repay the only person to show kindness to his dying father. I really don't see why there was any need to push the guy to his absolute breaking point except out of some sadistic perversion.

On the whole I thought it was really good. Now I have to watch the movie again and see what a pale imitation it is of this monstrously long book. And maybe get around to watching Gankutsuou since I saw an episode or two a couple years ago.
Edit: Saw the 2002 movie and, oh man. That wasn't an adaptation of a book, that was an adaptation of a synopsis of a book, and not a very faithful one at that. There is only an extremely tenuous relationship between the events of the movie and the events of the book. The names are the same (actually quite a few were changed), he gets imprisoned, gets some treasure, and gets some revenge. Those were the extent of the similarities between the book and the movie. Every detail about those aspects were changed and the plot on the whole bears no resemblance. It's like comparing a crayon drawing of the Mona Lisa to the actual painting.

Hmmm, what do I read now... If it were a little closer to December I might go with a Christmas Carol.

Will Save the Galaxy for Food

Well crap. That was supposed to last me for November, but I ended up getting really into it and finishing it in two days. Yahtzee is actually a fairly good novel writer surprisingly. This is the third I've read and actually might be my favorite. Some of the characters were kind of flat and Warden was just boring and unfun and never got the comeuppance I felt she deserved, but I really liked the main character who's real name I don't remember, if it was ever actually mentioned. The action scenes were really good and gave a great feeling of Jack just frantically scraping by with the skin of his teeth. I felt the book was really well paced and flowed from location to location really well and the ever deepening mess Jack was getting into kept me enthralled.

A couple very minor nitpicks that just kind of bothered me. One, 1/3 of a millimeter isn't actually very precise. Modern machining regularly has tolerances of less than 0.02 mm. And two, snooker tables are actually really heavy. They are huge and have a big sheet of slate in them, there's no way Jack would have been able to knock one over onto it's side without some serious leverage.

Guess I'll have to do the sequel now.

American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road by Nick Bilton.

This was recomended to me by someone in relation to the research I had been doing about the Ross Ulbricht trial and specific pre-trial motions the judge had made. The book was very approachable, and could be read by someone who had followed Silk Road since its inception or someone who doesn't really understand what bitcoin is.

The approach is a narrative one, going from defining events in Ross's life and how he crafted one of the largest electronic drug empires. Since this was done on cyberspace, the author has a great wealth of chatlogs to go over. I also appreciated the fact that it shifted perspectives from the agents at various agencies hunting Ross and Ross himself. I was on the edge of my seat when it came to the climax of the story, even though I already knew the results.

I also appreciated the exploration of philosophical concepts that motivated Ross, since I used to be something of a libertarian myself. While I think the book makes an excellent case that the American war on drugs has been a failure, I think it also subtly presents a case that Ross's idea of just legalizing all drugs isn't the solution either. And that Ross, motivated by his ego and his belief that he was right, was willing to go to lengths that most people would never consider.

In short, it's a fantastic read, and I would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, or the potential for crytocurrency.

Oops, wrong thread

Another one for the non-fiction pile. This time around it's The Devil's Anvil: The Assault on Peleliu by James H. Hallas [1994].
Peleliu is one island of the Palaus island chain in the south Pacific. During World War II, it was decided that at least a few of the islands in that chain needed to be seized in order to protect the American fleet's flank as it moved in towards the Philippine Islands. Predicted to be a short, but tough, campaign, the fighting drug on for months against an entrenched Japanese force that had spent 6 months developing the cave system of Peleliu and fortifying the place with the operational intention of causing as many casualties as possible.

This was a hard book to read, not because of the book itself, but because of its subject matter and the way Hallas honestly described the conditions for the troops involved. The available sources meant that most of the spotlight was going to be on the Americans, obviously, but Hallas does include the Japanese viewpoint where possible. Unfortunately for the historian, one of the last orders given by Colonel Nakagawa (head of the Japanese forces on Peleliu) was to burn all official army records before he and his top aid committed suicide. As such, only fragmentary evidence remains for the Japanese perspective.

The battle for Peleliu was brutal, lasted from September through November 1944, and the casualty rates compare statistically with the far more famous battles on Io Jima and Okinawa. However, very few people knew about it because the push into the Philippines, the bombing of the main Japanese islands and the mainland battles in Europe pushed the battle out of the limelight. To add insult to injury, it quickly became apparent in the following months, that the Palaus Islands could have been completely skipped as the naval and air assets which could have made the islands dangerous had already been wiped out before the attack by ground forces. Hallas felt that the campaign, and especially the Marines and Army soldiers that fought there, deserved more recognition for what they went through and the price they paid to finally seize the island.

As a final note, the last 33 Japanese stragglers on the island didn't surrender until April of 1947. They didn't know the war had ended, they had just come to the end of their endurance for holding up in the caves with the group "torn by suspicion and dissension."

I do recommend the book, but be warned that the depictions of battle fatigue, combat, and the resulting casualties are pretty harsh.

I decided to take a break from Gemmell and move onto a type of fantasy novels I've not seen before. Novels from the perspective of the "bad" guys. I tried Grunts by Mary Gentle. The concept of orcs being cursed by modern weaponry to become U.S. Marines sounds hilarious on paper and it is, until the novel just ties itself up. It builds these Orc Marines to be badasses and just kind of stamps it into the ground in a few pages. I'm sure that's the point, but it murdered the pacing. By book two, it was just so off the rails I'd lost interest. The plot went missing and I don't think it was coming back. The use of "vast" to describe an orc woman's boobs though will forever remain with me.

After dropping that I moved onto to Stan Nicholls's Orc series. It's more grounded in traditional fantasy, with a nice little twist on the stereotypical orc roles in fantasy and how they aren't so different from the other generic fantasy races in this world. So far I'm really enjoying it. The idea of following elite Orc commandos works really well and the main cast has a good dynamic. My only complaints are the world-building and the other POV character. The world-building is fucked in terms of scale. I cannot for the life of me make sense of the map and if nations actually exist or areas are just "territory" of certain races. The other POV character, the evil overlord is a powerful mage. Magic seems to be fueled by life. She being a woman means for some reason she always needs to murder people in a sexual climax to get magical energy. The line "she unstrapped the bloodied unicorn horn dildo" made me put the book down for a spell. That's just stupid. I'm hoping for something here to be a twist. So far, this evil mage woman is just the same boring old hot mage woman who likes blood and sex.

Elfgore:
It builds these Orc Marines to be badasses and just kind of stamps it into the ground in a few pages.

Xenos being marines?

Heresy!

The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45 by Stephen E. Ambrose [2001]
Continuing my excursion into WWII books, I tackled this one. While the title claims the work is about all of the B-24 crews in the European theater, the books is really a biography of George McGovern, whom Ambrose interviewed extensively. Ambrose does extend his writing to include some biographical information on McGovern's flight crew and a few select others, but the spotlight is most definitely on McGovern himself.

While I do recommend the book, I feel the obligation to warn anyone wanting to read it (and really any other biography written by Ambrose), that the author tends to fall into hero worship when writing about people he admires. He tends to overly glorify and gives the impression of abandoning historical objectivity in favor of the people he's writing about. Honestly, he really does do a very good job of researching the subject matter and being honest, but he does wear his biases openly.

In the work, Ambrose does an excellent job detailing the problems faced by the bomber crews, their perceptions of the war and the other services the Army Air Forces worked with. The shortcomings and strengths of the B-24 bomber are explained very well, and the limitations and utility of the strategic bombing campaign are analyzed. A very interesting look into a particular facet of the war.

Snapshot (3/5)

Fun fact, I actually thought this was in the Legion series, since the titular Snapshot technology is reminiscent, if not outright lifted from the first Legion book. Still, from what I can tell, this book is in its own setting.

So, what is the setting? Well, in what's obstensibly an alternate reality, a technology called Snapshot exists that allows an entire city to be recreated in a subterannean complex in a single day. Kind of like the holodeck from Star Trek. It can only be done for so long, both from the moment of creation, and the window of creation (as in, you can't re-recreate the city from a year ago, only a few days/weeks at most). It's used by police officers to observe crimes in the Snapshot and thus pin the suspects in real life. However, they can't interfere too much because it might cause Deviations, where things in the Snapshot occur that definitely didn't in the real world. If too many Deviations occur, the Snapshot can't be used as evidence.

It's honestly a pretty good premise. However, the two cops investigating the crime, which leads to a bigger crime/conspriacy...aren't engaging. It's basically your usual cop cliches, and Snapshot or otherwise, the serial killer they end up tracking is pretty generic. As in, the serial killer IRL thinks that the real world is a Snapshot and he can thus act with impunity (so, think Inception), but his motives and actions are bog standard. There's a twist at the end that you can see coming (well, I did), but there's a twist within the twist that I didn't, so, good job there. But at the end of the day, it's a case where an intriguing premise is let down by the characters exploring that premise. It also serves as further proof that I'm less a Sanderson fan, and more just a Mistborn fan.

Read a bunch of stuff:

Overwatch: Valkyrie (3/5)

Mass Effect: Discovery (4/5)

Mass Effect: Homeworlds (4/5)

Aliens: Dead Orbit (3/5)

Aliens: Dust to Dust (3/5)

Don't have time to review each of them, but general criteria - the Mass Effect comics were better than the Aliens ones because, among other things, they're far more character-centric, and tie-in to the core storyline. The Aliens ones, while the artwork is pretty neat, are far weaker because we're dealing with redshirts, and there's only so many times that the plot of "xenomorphs appear, shit hits the fan" can be written before it gets old, and it got old long ago. I don't know if it's because writers can't or won't do more with the setting, but that's the price you pay for a franchise that's setting driven (Aliens) vs. one that's narrative driven (Mass Effect).

Also, Overwatch: Valkyrie. Ironically, of the three Overwatch novellas released so far, it's the most character-centric of the three, and yet, the weakest of them. Problem is that for all the stuff it deals with in regards to Mercy's character and backstory, it doesn't really tell me anything that wasn't already established.

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