Cascade Point and other Stories book review

Cascade Point and other Stories
by Timothy Zahn
405 pages
Published by Bluejay Books (1986)
ISBN 0-312-94041-6

Since I am working my way through Timothy Zahn’s back catalogue, when I saw this short story collection containing “Cascade Point”, the novella for which Zahn won the Hugo, I knew I needed to check it out.

Like my previous review of J. G. Ballard’s short fiction, each short story has its own mini-review, along with a mini-score out of five stars. I’ll conclude with my overall impressions of the collection.

This book can be bought used, or you can find another, more recent ebook that contains several of the same stories.


 The Berlin Wall  Pudelek (Marcin Szala) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

The Berlin Wall

Pudelek (Marcin Szala) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

The Giftie Gie Us ****

A post-apocalyptic tale from the end of the Cold War, with the title inspired by Robert Burns’ poem "To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church". This was a serious throwback for me, with the final conflagration being a nuclear war over oil. The other thing that surprised with with vivid memories was a reference to the strength and permanence of the Berlin Wall. When I was a kid, those tropes were commonplace, but now they are dated enough to shock me.

Each story in this collection has a short afterword written by Zahn, and here he mentions that this was his first run in with the First Law of Science Fiction: there are no truly “new” ideas. Zahn’s trick in this story is nearly the same as “Anasazi”, a short story by Dean Ing published at nearly the same time. It also ends up being the same as Tim Powers’ much later Three Days to Never.

Which I don’t think matters much, and neither does Zahn, since he says this was also his introduction to the Second Law of Science Fiction: it is what you do with an idea that matters. I think Zahn wrote a believable story here about finding love, and common humanity, in the midst of disability and ruin. I’ve said before that I enjoy Zahn’s moral realism. This is an early example of just that.


 A moonscape by Chesley Bonestell

A moonscape by Chesley Bonestell

The Dreamsender **

This one was even more of a throwback than “The Giftie Gie Us”. With its setting, the Moon, and antagonists, mostly deadly serious military men, “The Dreamsender” felt like a 1950s juvenile. This was only Zahn’s second story he sold, so he can be forgiven for trying out different styles to see what fit.

One of the weakest stories in the collection, but still fun.


 Evaporating black holes were theorized by Stephen Hawking in 1974

Evaporating black holes were theorized by Stephen Hawking in 1974

The Energy Crisis of 2215 ***

This is the closest thing to hard sci fi I have come across in Zahn’s work. His afterword says this story came out of a series of lectures at the University of Illinois in 1979. In the novels I am familiar with, Zahn typically wears his education in physics lightly. Here, it comes to the forefront, providing a wealth of technical details about a power plant that uses a captured black hole as a power source.

I also liked the way in which Zahn subverted the trope of the anti-science politician here. Jerry Pournelle used to complain frequently about Senator Bill Proxmire, who campaigned against the kind of pie-in-the-sky projects that Jerry liked. I think Jerry even used to write unflattering caricatures of Senator Proxmire in his books. Zahn takes a more Machiavellian approach here, which is a minor theme of many works in this collection.


 CRISPR technique  J LEVIN W [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

CRISPR technique

J LEVIN W [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Return to the Fold ****

With the recent revelation that a researcher in China used the CRISPR technique to genetically engineer human children, this story could have been written yesterday. This is a fantastic exploration of what it would feel like to be a human engineered for a purpose by other men.

…what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. – C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

Tied up in this naked exercise of power are genuine moral dilemmas about the sacrifices necessary for as grand a project as interstellar trade. I appreciate his approach to character motivation here, which feels like “let’s see what person would do in this situation”. Characters panic, make mistakes, connive, save face, and repent. Not bad for 37 pages.


The Shadows of Evening ***

This one blurs the line between sci fi and fantasy. The setup is clearly sci fi, with a crashed colony ship, but the mysterious shadow that grows upon any bit of refined metal or mechanism more complicated than a lever feels like magic. The people of Vesper managed to survive this massive handicap, and even learned to fight back, developing a mental technique that could disperse the shadow temporarily. A guild of Shadow Warriors is formed to allow a modest level of technological development by mastering the difficult technique.

Things go on this way for generations, until a new, easier technique is developed. The Shadow Warrior guild is not impressed, used to challenges from frauds and charlatans. Except this time, the Disciples of Light are actually on to something.

Change is hard, especially when it destroys your livelihood. The real action here is psychological, in the reactions of Turek, the grizzled veteran of many years struggle against the shadows, when someone comes up and takes it all away from him.


Not Always to the Strong ***

A previously unpublished followup to “The Shadows of Evening”. The Disciples of Light have unleashed a technological revolution on Vesper, but technological revolutions easily turn into political ones when technology is used to make new and better weapons.

Zahn spends some time looking at the unintended consequences of sudden flood of technology, and also at the character of the now marginalized men who sacrificed to give their fellow men a better life than they otherwise would have had.

In the afterword, Zahn expresses some regret he never got a chance to expand on this storyline. I would have liked that too, as a reflection of technological development and human choices, this could have been an interesting twist on the usual kind of rising from the ashes story you get in post-apocalyptic fiction.


The Challenge *****

This is videogame fiction a loooong time before there was videogame fiction. Zahn says as much in the afterword. The story itself was fun, but even more fun is seeing what Zahn guessed right and what he didn’t.

Good guesses:

  • Online videogames supporting the more mundane activities of the Internet through advertising

  • Multiple screens with heads up displays

  • Competitive level building

Not so good:

  • The interface is all text! You have to type out your actions like Zork. This would be really interesting to see if it existed now. I expect you could get really fast with practice, but this is so different from either joystick or mouse and keyboard control.

  • The numbers of people involved are so small. The most popular game in the world only has a few thousand fans. I can’t see how the ad budget works out. Nick Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier and Pop Kult Warlord reflect how big games could get as entertainment.

I enjoyed this one a lot. A prescient guess about the future, with a little bit about the consequences of electronic entertainment thrown in.


The Cassandra ****

A sci fi tale of social ostracism, disability, and sacrifice. In the afterword, Zahn notes this is one of the few tragic stories he has written. I had also noticed Zahn’s preference for the upbeat, but I think this one comes off well.

One of the best parts of this story is the working class supporting character who ends up training the outcast Alban to work in a commercial kitchen when he can’t find any other work. That guy feels just like people I have met in real life, which is my usual standard for good characterization.


Dragon Pax *****

I think this is plausibly a precursor to the Heir to Empire books. Zahn takes a hard, Machiavellian look at war, politics, and survival. And it’s got dragons. It asks much the same question as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, what would you give up to ensure that ordinary people can enjoy the fruits of order and prosperity? This story makes what would be a Straussian reading of the events in question, if you weren’t in on the secret.

I almost said there aren’t any real benevolent dictators, but then I remembered Lee Kuan Yew, who at least demonstrates that the concept isn’t purely a fantasy of Plato. At the very least, it doesn’t work out well often. But often enough, you can find examples of some hard bastard who did some good. Which explains the popularity of the argument, “yeah, but he’s our bastard”.


Job Inaction ***

Sci fi writers sometimes come up with interesting ideas about technocratic solutions to social problems, and this is a competitor to universal basic income, with a 1980s flavor. Zahn tried hard to come up with something that would work, even though he wouldn’t like it.


Teamwork **

Another throwback story, this one reminded me quite a bit of Ballard’s collection, except it has a happy ending. A psychological story with a thin veneer of 1950s era B-movies. I didn’t really find much of interest here, but this clearly isn’t where Zahn invested his storytelling long-term.


The Final Report on the Lifeline Experiment *****

A moral thought experiment along the lines of his later Soulminder, itself a collection of short stories expanded to novel length. This explores the debate over whether fetuses are human, using the world’s only verified telepath as the investigator. I found Zahn’s story subtle and provocative, which is not where you really expect these things to end up.


Cascade Point *****

I can see why they put “Cascade Point” at the end. I probably would have been tempted to stop reading after I got here, because this was really good. Zahn deserved the Hugo for this. I also think his success here established [or reinforced?] his style, because “Cascade Point” feels like the Timothy Zahn I know and love. Most authors have a style, and this collection was fun to read precisely because I got to see Zahn trying on different styles early in his career. This one is clearly the best fit.

The story and characters are both familiar, and yet unexpected. Zahn’s characters are fully fleshed out, which is remarkable in so short a work. This could have been a novel, but being longer wouldn’t actually make it better [which is how I feel about Ender’s Game too, but Card went ahead and made it a novel anyways].

Zahn’s idea for faster-than-light travel here is more interesting than just about any that I have ever come across. Probably this is because we both have an education in physics, but I find his topological method of transforming a rotation into linear motion to be absolutely fascinating.

To then find a way to work in not only the convenient psychiatric patient subplot, but also the more interesting character development the ship’s crew undergoes as they claw their way back from the abyss is why Zahn has now been writing books for a living for almost forty years.


Ben’s final verdict *****

I am glad I picked this volume up. I got to see a different side of Timothy Zahn, as he explored different ways of telling stories. I also got to see the story that first made him famous, and justly so in my opinion. As a fan, I love this book, and I think any other fan of Zahn probably will too.

The blurb in the back of one of the most recent Zahn books I read said he is the author of nearly 100 short stories and novellas. I have my work cut out for me.


The Path of the Martyrs Book Review

 Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732  By Charles de Steuben - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363367

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732

By Charles de Steuben - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363367

The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, The Battle of Tours and the Birth of Europe
by Ed West
Kindle Edition, 496 pages
Published June 26, 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07F2M73XV

How could I not review a history book that starts off with the Battle of Tours? I only picked Charles de Steuben’s painting of the battle for my site banner.

West has written the kind of book I would give to a teen-aged boy that I think would end up being quite interested in history for its own sake, but needs an introduction to the subject that is neither stuffy nor boring. Perhaps the young man in question has heard bits and pieces of the chansons de geste through popular culture, perhaps knows of Beowulf or the Song of Roland, and is curious to know what really happened.

Quite a bit happened in the seventh and eighth centuries in France, and most of what did happen is not only epochal, but rather exciting, scandalous even. This is the spirit that West captures in his book. In order to capture the breath and scale of what was going on in the world, West does make some detours in both time and space. While this makes the narrative skip around a bit, I think the context it provides is crucial in understanding, for example, exactly why it was so surprising that the unlettered Franks stopped the advance of the Umayyad Caliphate in 732.

 Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak  By Bernhard Rode - Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5780989

Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak

By Bernhard Rode - Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5780989

West also has the time point out less romantic facts like it was the Catholic Basques who killed Roland, Lord of the Breton marches in Roncesvalles, rather than the Muslims, and to highlight the rather unecumenical stance of St. Boniface when he chopped down Donar’s Oak. We get to see history, not legend nor hagiography here.

I read this on Kindle, and I found the footnotes were well-implemented, but I did find a number of typos. This sort of thing seems to be common in short little ebooks of this type, and the meaning is always clear from context, so it doesn’t bother me much. Ed West’s short little history book is pithy, irreverent, and above all, fun. I think you could spend 99 cents in many worse ways.

My other book reviews

Retribution: Galaxy's Edge Book 9 Review

Retribution: Galaxy's Edge #9
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 496 pages
Published October 29th 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07GNGLDWM

I threatened to write an elaborate thinkpiece on this book, and since no-one talked me off the cliff, here it is. I think I’m going to go full spoiler here, because I doubt I need to talk anyone into reading the 9th book in a series I’ve been recommending for a year. If you haven’t read the book, don’t read on unless you want me to ruin the ending for you.


The end has come.

In Message for the Dead, I thought the end was upon the galaxy, but Goth Sullus used his connection to the Crux to stem the tide, vanquishing the murderous and hateful Cybar and binding them to his will. Alas, it turns out that his victory was to be short-lived, and he would not succeed at building an Empire to last a thousand years. At the very moment of his triumph, his dreams turned to ashes in his mouth, and his power deserted him.

Unfortunately, despite his advanced age, Goth Sullus forgot to heed the advice of the venerable 100 Tips for Evil Overlords #22, “do not consume an energy field bigger than your head, no matter how much power is at stake”. [on a side note, I see that the author of the evil overlord list’s last name is Anspach. Coincidence?]

Of course, I am kidding. Goth Sullus pretty clearly knows most of these things. Sullus did not make any cartoonish mistakes. He was just undone by his moral failings, as nemesis follows hubris. It would be easy to condemn Sullus as a monster, which he is, but he is also genuinely a great man. Thus his end, when it comes, is all the more tragic.

I wish to focus here on Sullus, in part because I am fascinated by his character, but also because in retrospect, the entirety of the first nine books of the Galaxy’s Edge series turns upon Goth Sullus and his actions. Even the Battle of Kublar was but the preamble [with the collusion of X] to his campaign to bring justice to the galaxy.

If we now turn to the events of Retribution, one of the key threads is the final temptation of Goth Sullus. In Message for the Dead, the dread secret of the Cybar was heavily hinted, but here in Retribution, the truth is laid bare: the Cybar are but manifestations of demons and devils seeking to invade and despoil the galaxy.

 I would have thought Casper’s service in the Savage Wars, and his time on the lighthuggers, would have better prepared him for this

I would have thought Casper’s service in the Savage Wars, and his time on the lighthuggers, would have better prepared him for this

Blinded as he is by pride and ambition, Sullus cannot see this. Even though preventing this was why Sullus went seeking power! As surprising as this may seem, given his history, the temptation of Goth Sullus proceeds in a plausible fashion. Like the target of the apprentice devil Screwtape, the ultimate masters of the Cybar proceed from flattery, to practical advice, to offers of service, to demands of fealty. Reading this, I thought it felt about right. The whisperings of temptation do sound like this. From my own small experience, this felt real.

 No death-bed conversion for Sullus

No death-bed conversion for Sullus

I had hoped for redemption for Sullus. In the end, he had spent far too long indulging his fantasies of power and revenge to act in time. Goth Sullus was vain-glorious and prideful, easy pickings for the masters of deceit. Casper might have resisted, but that persona was long diminished by the time he had completed his transformation into Sullus. Once he [Sullus] realized his danger, he [Casper] was too far gone to resist effectively. Virtue is simply what we habitually do, and for Sullus, his habits betrayed him in the end. When Wraith walked up and put a bullet in his head, it was the best thing that could have happened to him at that point. We can perhaps nonetheless hope that his final resistance will count in his favor at the final judgment.

 Last Judgment  By Stefan Lochner - Postcard, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=153939

Last Judgment

By Stefan Lochner - Postcard, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=153939

The end of Goth Sullus brings a fitting end to the first season of Galaxy’s Edge. Most everyone who deserved a bullet has gotten one. Order, of a sort, has been restored to the galaxy. Things will never be as they were, but life will go on.

There are just enough loose threads left for the authors to spin up another round of books, but I felt satisfied at the end of this. Each book in the series had its own feel, its own good moments, and then in the end it all came together cleanly. This was a hell of a good read, and I hope everyone else enjoyed the ride as much as I did.

My other book reviews

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review
Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review
Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review
Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review
Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review
Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review
Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review
Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review
Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7 Book Review
Message for the Dead: Galaxy's Edge #8 Book Review
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review


Builders and Breakers book review

Builders and Breakers
by Steve Light
Kindle edition,40 pages
Published by Candlewick Press (October 9, 2018)
ISBN 978-0763698720

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

This one was a sleeper hit in my house. I read it for bedtime once or twice when I first got my review copy, but the six-year-old and four-year-old never asked for it again. That is the metric I use most of the time for children’s books, so I set this one aside for a bit.

Then, the nearly-two-year-old started asking for this. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, he is big into trucks and construction right now. Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site is another current favorite.

71r6+OtwvKL.jpg

I think he also likes the narrative device of the two children looking for their father at the construction site, which runs in parallel to the text, a story told almost entirely in pictures. He gleefully shouts “DAD!” when we get to the page where the children finally catch up to their father with his forgotten lunch.

For my own part, I enjoy Steve Light’s fanciful drawings. He has a note in the book where he admits to a fascination with classical, Gothic, and Art Deco architecture. This results in a style of illustrated buildings that is only loosely grounded in any project that has ever seen the light of day, but is quite striking.

This is the kind of book that has enough going on to keep me from going crazy when I read it twice in a row every night for weeks on end. Thanks Steve.

My other book reviews

Pop Kult Warlord Book Review

 Heavy is the head that wears the crown….

Heavy is the head that wears the crown….

Pop Kult Warlord: Soda Pop Soldier Book 2
by Nick Cole
Kindle edition, 318 pages
Published November 4th, 2018 by Castalia House
ASIN B07K6SRSLW

A man with decisions to make. Choices that weigh heavily on him. Heavy is the brow that wears the crown, someone once said.

I may be weird, but I found the opening chapter of Pop Kult Warlord riveting. I think I might actually watch the SuperBowl of videogames, if it existed as described. John Saxon, by now known only by his online alias PerfectQuestion, is competing in the world championship of online videogames in Havana. The game in question, WarWorld, is the ideal combination of FPS and MMO. You can LARP as a Colonial Marine in game, only communicating in scraps of dialogue from Aliens, or you can go pro like PQ did, and focus entirely on being better at putting digital bullets into digital heads than the other guy or girl in exchange for corporate sponsorship, fame, and fortune.

PerfectQuestion is a top-tier competitor, and he is in demand as a digital mercenary. In a world where e-sports pulls in billions in ad revenue, the world’s most popular and recognizable player can write his own ticket. Unfortunately for him, he is starting to feel like he is too old to be playing videogames all night, and longing for a simpler, more fulfilling life.

I’ve played a lot of videogames in my day, so I know what he means. I like videogames a lot, and I write about that frequently on my blog, but I would never trade videogames for my career and my family. The hours I’ve invested in gaming have tapered quite a bit over the years, in a natural progression of family involvement. John Saxon, alias PerfectQuestion, is on the outside looking in, and starting to wonder if the grass isn’t really greener in suburbia.

Unfortunately for him, fate has other plans. When his agent shows up with a truly sweet offer, PQ lacks any of the mundane grounding of a wife, kids, or a mortgage to effectively question whether a deal that is too-good-to-be-true really is. So he finds himself on a plane to Calistan, the Islamic Protectorate of Orange County. Once there, PQ quickly finds himself in over his head, and hilarity ensues.

Like some of my other favorite authors living [Tim Powers] and dead [Jerry Pournelle], Cole uses his favorite places in Southern California to add verisimilitude to Pop Kult Warlord. Even after the Meltdown, the rogue-AI apocalypse from the prequel CTRL ALT Revolt!, the denizens of Orange County remain much as they are now, a mishmash of different cultures jammed into some of the nicest real estate in America.

When he isn’t doing the bidding of Rashid, the Sultan’s son, PQ gets to see both the beauty and the squalor of Calistan. He can enjoy the gulls and the waves off of Rashid’s private island, drive fancy sports cars, tour slums and barrios, witness summary executions, you know, the usual. He even gets to fall for a doe-eyed Mexican beauty, who may or may not be involved with the Aztec Liberation Front [or is that Liberation Front of Azteca?]

tumblr_inline_o85q4mgqPu1r09uvv_250.gif

The Sultan has long suppressed Catholicism in his domain, but I was rather pleased to see that when PQ does finally meet up with an underground priest, he is in fact a faithful Catholic. Even in extremis, he counsels the Mexican terrorists to repent and follow the Gospel [which doesn’t rule out armed resurrection per se].

All of the intrigue and duplicity PerfectQuestion has found himself embroiled in comes to a head, and then to a fairly satisfying conclusion. I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers, since this book really is hot off the presses, but for the most part, those who live by the sword, die by the sword. In a grand sense, justice is done, but the price is often severe. Some bear that price more than others.

Finally, I should comment on the book’s structure. This is the third book I have read in as many weeks that employs a parallel structure to tell a more complicated story than a simple narrative would allow. I don’t know whether that is a mere coincidence, or just the hot stuff for authors right now, but in this case I felt like it worked out fairly well. I wasn’t surprised when I saw how it all fit together in the end, and I liked how it tied into the last volume in the series, while pointing ahead to possible future works.

PerfectQuestion isn’t getting a white picket fence anytime soon, but I look forward to his next adventure.

My other book reviews

Other books by Nick Cole

Soda Pop Soldier book review

Other books by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review
Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review
Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review
Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review
Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review
Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review
Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review
Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review
Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7 Book Review
Message for the Dead: Galaxy's Edge #8 Book Review
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review

Thrawn: Alliances Book Review

 Old School Star Wars by Timothy Zahn

Old School Star Wars by Timothy Zahn


Thrawn: Alliances
by Timothy Zahn
Del Rey (2018)
350 pages
ISBN 978-0-525-48048-8

This book was a breath of fresh air for me. Timothy Zahn has written something that feels like an old-school Star Wars adventure in the new Star Wars canon. The Star Wars novels written since Disney nuked the Extended Universe have ranged from the merely competent to downright awful, with a few excursions into active hostility towards the fanbase. So far, other than Zahn’s reboot of Thrawn, none have been fun.

This book was a lot of fun.

It might even be better than Thrawn, although that book was trying to do something very different than this one, which makes the comparison difficult. The last book in Thrawn’s story was a political thriller. This one is simple adventure, although Zahn made an interesting choice to tell two stories, widely separated in time, but unified in setting and protagonists.

The settings Zahn chose map onto The Clone Wars and Rebels respectively. We thus have one foot in the sunset of the Republic, and another in the dawn of the Empire. This book makes the most sense seen within the context of those cartoons, which are among my favorites of the Disney era.

We also lack the window into Thrawn’s mind the previous book provided, other than some brief observations on body language. Instead, we get to see into Vader’s head. I didn’t mind the shift in emphasis, because Zahn was able to deftly explain the way Vader sees himself. Years ago, I remember reading a fan theory that Obi-wan’s betrayal, the shock of accidentally killing his wife, and the process of being made into Vader caused a psychotic break in Anakin’s mind. Vader remembers being Anakin, but it was like it all happened to someone else. And precisely because of how horrible those experiences were, and his own complicity in how it all turned out, Vader doesn’t have much interest in introspection regarding his former life.

I don’t know who wrote that fan theory, or even where I read it, but they nailed it.

Zahn also gets to have a bit of fun with fan-service. Dave Filoni’s Rebels took a clever Thrawn gambit from the original trilogy of books, the Marg Sabl, and returned it to the canon by having Ahsoka Tano, Anakin’s padawan in The Clone Wars, invent it. In Alliances, Zahn brings it full circle by having Anakin teach it to Thrawn.

 Another super popular character that arose from the margins of Star Wars

Another super popular character that arose from the margins of Star Wars

Zahn resurrects the Noghri commandos here, who were the nemesis that brought justice upon Thrawn’s hubris in the original story arc. It isn’t at all clear what might happen this time, since Thrawn’s new origin story shifted his personality subtly. Padmé also makes an appearance here, and I feel like Alliances does her justice. Since Zahn also created one of the most popular female Star Wars characters, Mara Jade [whom I suspect of being based on his wife], I’m not surprised that he can write Padmé convincingly.

Of course, Zahn needs to pay his dues as well. One of the worlds in the book is Batuu, and the city upon it Black Spire Outpost, which is the name of one of the attractions under construction at the Galaxy’s Edge theme park at Disneyland. Zahn works hard to find a way to tell an interesting story while still putting in the requisite product placement and nods to other products in Disney’s Star Wars portfolio.

It probably helps that this isn’t the first time he’s tried.

Zahn has written this book before, Outbound Flight. I read it in 2016, and so far, it has been the only Zahn book I’ve given a tepid review. I felt it was just too hard for Zahn to try to reconcile his early 1990s inventions for the course of the Star Wars universe post-Return of the Jedi with the later prequels. This was Zahn’s opportunity to reboot that story, where Anakin Skywalker met Thrawn out beyond known space, and he made the best of it.

I would say that this is hearkening back to the Star Wars that could have been, the road that was not taken, but Timothy Zahn and Ron Howard and Dave Filoni and Gareth Edwards make me think there is an active resistance to the identitarian overreach of The Last Jedi.

This isn’t just the Star Wars that was, in the old Extended Universe, it is the Star Wars that is.

My other book reviews

Thrawn

Other books by Timothy Zahn

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review

Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Starcraft: Evolution

The Backlash Mission Book Review

The Backlash Mission: The Blackcollar series book 2
by Timothy Zahn
Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (October 16, 2012)
352 pages
ASIN B0094ANS2E

The second book in the Blackcollar series picks up several years after the conclusion to the previous volume. The Blackcollars of Plinry have wrestled concessions from the conquerors of Earth that allow them to continue to train guerrilla fighters and operate a small space fleet.

With the possibility of re-establishing contact between the human worlds, now there is an actual glimmer of hope that the disparate resistance movements might organize into something greater, rather than simply trying to survive as long as possible.

Our young POV character, Allen Caine, has graduated from his guerrilla training on Plinry, but he lacks the supernatural reflexes and strength of the true Blackcollars, because no one on Plinry has access to Backlash, the drug that transforms their bodies into living weapons. He convinces his superiors to let him lead a mission to Earth in the hopes of finding the drug or its formula.

Of course, once on Earth, we get to see the Blackcollars in action again. The tactical doctrine of the Blackcollars, or at the least the group from Plinry seems to be equal parts Sun Tzu and GRU. Blackcollars never face an enemy where he is strong, and focus on controlling the flow of battle by understanding the motives and patterns of behavior of their opponents.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In addition to psychological insight, the Blackcollars use a combination of compartmentalization, misinformation, provocation, and wheels-within-wheels style planning to pull victories from seemingly impossible odds.

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

― Sun tzu, The Art of War

Of all of this, is is really only the last item that I find somewhat implausible. Other fictional commanders, such as Colonel Falkenberg, make use of deception as well, but Falkenberg would scoff at the complicated plans Lathe relies upon. It seems like there are too many ways for things to go wrong, but Lathe’s plans always seem to work out perfectly. I would have liked to see some improvisation on the fly, but I admit it is kind of fun to see how it all comes together in the end.

That aside, I rather enjoyed this sequel. We got further development of the world and its history, and I feel like Zahn tightened up his intrigue a bit, although sometimes I was a bit baffled by the arguments between the two human collaborators assigned to hunt down the Blackcollars. They were of course quite successfully bamboozled by Lathe’s wilderness of mirrors, but even in those terms sometimes the discussion didn’t seem to make sense.

I consider that a pretty minor flaw in an otherwise very enjoyable work.

My other book reviews

The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review

Other books by Timothy Zahn

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review

Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Thrawn

Starcraft: Evolution

Solo: A Star Wars Story Movie Review

 An attempt to rehabilitate a reluctant hero

An attempt to rehabilitate a reluctant hero

Solo: A Star Wars Story 
Director Ron Howard 
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, and Donald Glover
Writers Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan

I finally watched Han Solo’s origin story. I really liked it. I saw it as an attempt to rehabilitate the reluctant hero Han of the original Star Wars.

I don’t say that lightly. The poor box office for Solo was widely interpreted as a failure of a Star Wars movie starring a white man, but there is a counter-narrative that the failure of Solo was really a delayed reaction to the identitarian overreach of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

 In a cruel twist of fate, it turned out that Hilary’s avatar lost too.

In a cruel twist of fate, it turned out that Hilary’s avatar lost too.

With my Straussian hat on, I’m starting to lean towards the latter interpretation. Aside from Chuck Wendig’s lackluster novels, the recent entries in the new Disney Star Wars canon have been subtly reactionary while checking all of the proper boxes. Rogue One was a carefully crafted homage to the original Star Wars that was in fact more Star Wars than Star Wars. It filled in the plot holes of the original movie, while also honoring it. On the other hand, it was the love story of a father for his daughter, full of regrets for the life of hardship he had bequeathed to her. On the gripping hand, it was also about the unsentimental hard-asses the Rebellion was full of in order to win.

Star Wars Rebels turned into the way Disney rehabilitated the most popular character in the Extended Universe. A character who is as unforgiving as any Roman general.

 Thrawn is where justice meets mercy and crushes it unsentimentally

Thrawn is where justice meets mercy and crushes it unsentimentally

Solo is the least woke Star Wars movie of this decade. Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra is a tragic hero, compromised by her own cooperation in evil. L3-37, the droid revolutionary, is played for laughs, Lando is a cheater. Only Han [and Chewie, neglected hero of the Rebellion] comes out well.

In part, that is because he is still young and naive. I can see a plausible character arc, in which Han, as he gets more experienced and more jaded, finally finds out that cowardice and betrayal really does pay off, à la Woody Harrelson’s Beckett. Which isn’t quite what happened in Episode Seven, which involved a remarkable feat of self-sacrificial love, but is close enough in spirit to generate hard feelings in fans.

To be fair, Harrison Ford wanted out, so they wrote him an out. I can just imagine a different way to play it all out, since I was deep into the Extended Universe from the beginning. This is not the EU, but I think Ron Howard and the Kasdans, father and son, did pretty well, given what they had to work with.

I’m sorry Solo didn’t do that well at the box office, I think it deserves a second look [or a first] from Star Wars fans who feel betrayed. Also, props to whomever retconned in the West End Games attempt to make sense of the twelve parsecs line. I always kind of liked that explanation.

My other movie reviews

Goodnight, Anne Book Review

Goodnight, Anne: Inspired by Anne of Green Gables
by Kallie George (Author), Genevieve Godbout (Illustrator)
40 pages
Published by Holt, Reinhart and Winston (1978)
ISBN 978-1770499263

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

First published in 1908, L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables has come into the public domain in the United States and Canada, which means we can have delightful little derivative works like this one, Goodnight, Anne.

Kallie George and Geneviève Godbout have distilled Anne Shirley into a series of rhymes and colored pencil drawings. My wife says this image of Anne and Marilla looking at the Snow Queen tree embodies them both perfectly:

 Anne and Marilla respectively gaze upon and fret toward the Snow Queen

Anne and Marilla respectively gaze upon and fret toward the Snow Queen

Very sweet, and clearly captures the spirit of the original. My kids haven’t heard or read Anne of Green Gables, so they don’t ask for this one much, but my wife adores it.

My other book reviews

The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard Book Review

The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard
by J. G. Ballard; Introduction by Anthony Burgess
312 pages
Published by Holt, Reinhart and Winston (1978)
ISBN 0-03-045661-4

I am a great lover of scifi short story collections, and this volume of J. G. Ballard’s work, lent to me by a co-worker, is no exception. There are some top-notch stories in here, spanning just over twenty years of Ballard’s career. In the past when I have reviewed collections of short stories, I have usually featured a few really notable ones, and discussed the general theme of the work.

This time, I want to try the technique of giving each short story its own mini-review, along with a mini-score out of five stars. I’ve seen it done to good effect in other reviews, and it seems like fun. I also plan to discuss the general themes of the collection.


The Concentration City ***

One of the reasons I like reading old scifi is that because it ages so rapidly, you can get a better feel for the obsessions of the past. “The Concentration City” has a too obvious textual link with the then still new Nazi concentration camps, but a more subtle one with overpopulation. There is just one problem….

The eponymous city is huge. A county of the enclosed, multi-level city represents a thousand floors, one hundred thousand cubic miles, and a population of thirty million people. Each county is grouped with 249 others to form sectors, and 1500 sectors form a Local Union.

Concentration_City.jpg

Let’s look at that math. Each county is a thousand levels, so each floor must be 100 square miles. That is about the same as a medium size American city, like Sacramento. If you assume roughly even distribution of those 30 million people, you get 30,000 people per floor….

Sacramento currently has almost 500,000 people in it, and I don’t know anyone who finds it oppressively dense. An order of magnitude less people would make it positively rural by almost anyone’s standards. I think Ballard was going for something like the feel of Alex Proyas’ 1998 movie Dark City, a movie also about an inescapable prison city, but just had no quantitative sense at all.

The city as a whole makes better sense as a crushing mass of humanity. 30 million people per county times 250 counties per sector times 1500 sectors per local union gives you 11 trilliion 250 billion people. And we see several local unions in the text! That is a number that can boggle the mind! It clearly seems to have boggled Ballard.

The story is strong on atmosphere, but weak in details. The huge numbers probably worked to inspire the right feeling in Ballard’s readers, so I suppose I can’t fault him for that stylistic sense, I just like it when an author tries hard to get the little things right even when most people won’t notice. It is like a carpenter who makes the lines straight on the backside where no one can see, the mark of a true craftsman.

 A visualization of a level, if you packed all 30 million into it

A visualization of a level, if you packed all 30 million into it

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Manhole 69 **

The flavor text in this tale of a psychological/surgical experiment gone wrong is heavily Freudian. Sixty years later, it looks kind of stupid, given how far Freud’s reputation has fallen, but I have to imagine the flavor text of a contemporary book would look just as ridiculous in 2078.
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Chronopolis *****

I love this one. At his best, Ballard had an impressive imagination that encompassed the good and the bad of both the thesis and the antithesis at once. Chronopolis is the ruin of a once great city that was overthrown in a revolution against the tyranny of precisely-scripted efficiency.

There is a bit more sloppiness about population density here, but what really struck me is that just before the protagonist is arrested for the forbidden practice of time-keeping, he restores the chimes of the bell tower of Chronopolis, and the muddled masses who mill about aimlessly start using the chimes to order their days again.

The city truly was tyrannical and inhumane in its time-keeping. It was also much more productive, supporting ten times as many people in far greater luxury. Being punctual is the epitome of quotidian, but it is easy to underestimate how valuable it truly is.

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The Voices of Time ***

This was the first story in this collection that brought me up short. Ballard’s wikipedia entry describes his work as provocative and transgressive, and this is all of that in spades. “The Voices of Time” combines the mid-century English novel’s characteristic despair with post-apocalyptic dystopia.

We see a return of the themes from “Manhole 69”, but done far better; dubious scientific experiments attempting to literally excise the need for sleep from the human brain, badly suppressed erotic desires, and a pervasive sense of decline.

I’ve written a few posts recently about superversive science fiction. Superversive scifi attempts to create a sense of wonder and hope in the reader. The neologism is coined in opposition to subversive scifi, which seems to be aptly represented by Ballard. This story is hella edgy, and even though-provoking, but this isn’t the kind of scifi that inspires nerds to create stuff. This is the kind that inspires them to cut to feel.

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Deep End ***

“Deep End” is a fantastic example of the kind of scifi that inspired the environmental movement. It also features an almost heroic protagonist, grimly determined to pay homage to a dying world, but also a bit cracked in the head.

The feel of this story is nearly Stoic in its unblinking acceptance of Fate, but not really interested in the cultivation of virtue that Stoicism entails.

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The Overloaded Man ****

This story nails the feelings of alienation and ennui that accompanied the huge material successes of the mid-twentieth century. It also perceptively describes the dangers of mystical experience. Unlocking your psyche isn’t necessarily a good idea.

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Billennium ***

Another overpopulation tale, but this one is subversive of the genre insofar as the protagonist ends up a capitalist in the end. Concern for overpopulation was a big thing in the middle of the twentieth century, but it largely got shoved down the memory hole at the beginning of the twenty-first, even though there are roughly twice as many people now as there were then. The rate of growth has slowed, but that likely isn’t the only reason. In part, I also think that those of us alive today simply don’t remember the world that existed before. Jerry Pournelle once pined for the America that had a population of 125 million people, which he thought was too many at the time. I can’t imagine my country with 200 million people not there.

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The Garden of Time *****

Another Stoical tale of the calm acceptance of a horrible fate, with the suggestion of some preventable tragedy in the unwritten past. The garden, an oasis of beauty, will inevitably be overrun by the masses of the unwashed. Count Axel and his beautiful wife are the only inhabitants of the villa within the garden.

Each day, they watch the surging horde approach the villa. Each day, the count spends of the substance of the garden to delay the inevitable, until at last, nothing remains.

I have a hard time imagining that I am on board with the idea Ballard was getting at here, but this is an achingly beautiful story.
————————————————————

Thirteen for Centaurus ****

Fallout-4-Lore-History-Vaults-Vault-Tec-101.jpg

This is the Fallout short story, reminiscent of the sick experiments the Vault Corporation conducted on its customers. In real life, the best examples came later than the fictional 1950s of the Fallout series. The Stanford Prison Experiment, fraudulent from the start, was in 1971. “Thirteen for Centaurus” was written in 1962, earning Ballard some points for prescience, but losing some for missing the likely perpetrators. The military-industrial-complex didn’t run most of the shitty science of the mid-twentieth century. They just featherbedded the Cold War.

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The Subliminal Man ***

A haunting extrapolation of the finding in economics that the most efficient economies in the world replace their equipment most frequently. I was pretty surprised when I found this out some number of years ago, but now that I work in manufacturing I can see how it works.

Unfortunately, it is also pretty obvious that doing faster and faster it just because it is supposedly more “efficient” would be counter-productive. An interesting conceit for a story, but too clever by half.

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The Cage of Sand ****

Unlike most of these short stories, “The Cage of Sand” was markedly improved by its ending. The premise was kind of stupid to me as physicist: eastern Florida had been turned into a facsimile of the Martian desert because we kept dumping Martian sand there to balance out the stuff we shipped to Mars in order to preserve the Earth’s orbital distance from the Sun. This was compounded by a plot device of dead astronauts in orbit, entombed in their space capsules, because they missed their one and only chance to rendezvous with an orbital platform.

Since my parents got me SimEarth on the Mac LC, I knew that there was no plausible way the fractional change in orbit from moving a few million tons of stuff to Mars would matter, due to the remarkable homeostasis of the Earth. But I already knew that Ballard wasn’t a details guy for the science stuff.

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End Game ***

This one was completely unexpected. I didn’t need to be told that the Soviet Union was a tyranny the likes of which the world had never seen, but perhaps Ballard’s audience did in 1963. Clearly, Ballard had no sympathy for the Soviets in this tale of guilt, innocence, and power.

————————————————————

The Drowned Giant ****

At first, I was inclined to dismiss this uncanny tale of a overly large body washed up on shore, on account of Chesterton’s notion that mere physical size ought not to impress us. But then upon reflection, I realized Ballard was trying to criticize failing to see another’s humanity because of physical differences.

One point of contention I would take with Ballard is that he says the common people were more easily convinced that the bones left behind in the bay were merely a giant whale, than his professorial interlocutor. I don’t believe that for a second. Folk memory works just fine, you need to be highly educated to disbelieve your lying eyes.

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The Terminal Beach **

As a child of the 1980s, I have struggled to understand the obsessions of my immediate predecessors with the Cold War. The Cold War still existed when I was a child, but it had obviously [to me] lost its sting. The apocalypticism of earlier generations regarding nuclear war often seemed disproportionate to me, and this story is all of that in spades.

Since it is also couched in now tainted Freudian terms, I find “The Terminal Beach” completely ridiculous. It doesn’t help that I have seen the same idea done far better by another author. You can get an interesting story out of the identification of sex and death, but Freud and Ballard alike didn’t manage to contribute anything interesting to the conversation.

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The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D ***

I’m curious to know if Ballard had some reason for hating the Chanel family, given his antagonist here. This is about the point in the collection where I started to wonder if I would finish. Many of these short stories are challenging, rather than enjoyable, but the ability of Ballard to tell an interesting story while riding his hobby-horses seems to have tapered off with time.

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The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race *

This is the point where I started to question Ballard’s sanity. I think it was not actual mental illness, but rather a calculated pose. Whether that makes this better or worse, I am not sure.

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The Atrocity Exhibition *

In a way, this may be the ultimate Ballard story in this collection. Apparently he called the technique a “condensed novel”. My opinion of the short, choppy paragraphs with no transitions is that is just an unenjoyable as James Joyce, but at least shorter.

We get Freud, eros, thanatos, an attempt to make a literary device of weird mathematics, and painfully avant-garde style.

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Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy *

Just about the only thing Freud ever talked about that seems to have stood the test of time is projection. As such, one wonders about Ballard’s obsession with Jackie O. But he’s dead now, so it is probably all sorted out.

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Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan *

Ronald Reagan inspired an impressive amount of vitriol from the writers of his day.

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Ben’s final verdict ***

There are some truly great stories in here. There are also some truly bizarre ones, that seem to lack the kind of enduring value that might excuse their sins against propriety. I am not sorry that I read this volume, but I doubt I would ever return to it. As Ballard aged, he seemed to get lost in his edginess and simply sought shock-value above all else. Some of these works are genuinely challenging, but few of them are fun. I’m not really surprised that Ballard doesn’t appear on the NPR list of 100 best science fiction books, voted on by fans. There is nothing here to be a fan of.

My other book reviews

Hack: A LitRPG Novel Book Review

 This cover is ridiculous. But, I suppose lots of scifi/fantasy book covers are.

This cover is ridiculous. But, I suppose lots of scifi/fantasy book covers are.

Hack: A LitRPG Novel
by Paul Bellow
348 pages
Published by LitRPG Reads (April 29, 2018)
ASIN B07CRWBPZJ

I had seen this book pop up through Amazon's recommendations several times. I hadn't been willing to take a chance on it. The cover is ridiculous. Yes, I know that pretty much every scifi/fantasy book published in the last 100 years has a ridiculous cover, but I went ahead and judged the book by its cover anyway.

I did give it a chance when Nick Cole, author of Soda Pop Soldier and co-author of the Galaxy's Edge series recommended it to me. And it was free. The first hit always is.

I messaged Nick immediately after I started reading the book, because I was already hooked. This book was just plain fun. I went in with pretty low expectations. I had heard of LitRPG before, and arguably, some books I've really liked fall into this category, it was a pretty hard sell for me. A book about kids playing a videogame? Hard pass.

Which is a funny thing to say, since I'm probably close to the target audience for this kind of thing. Both a reader of scifi and a videogamer. Fan of self-published indie works. If I'm not it, I don't know who is. But I'm also kind of picky. I've had about a 50% rate of liking new series and authors I've tried out in 2018. Paul Bellow's Hack made the cut. 

Now, to the book! Eric, our teenage protagonist, desperately wants to play the virtual reality MMORPG his dad works on. He is desperate for two reasons. First, he is paraplegic; access to the fully immersive game will give him freedom of a kind he craves. Second, his best friend Sarah agreed to help him hack into the game, and he hasn't seen her as much recently as he would like to. The problem is, Sarah invited her boyfriend Josh along.

This is a simple setup, and it gives us quite a bit of energy to help keep the plot moving along, and ample opportunities for drama, misunderstandings, jealousy, and what have you. And, of course, the game is much more than it first appears. Secrets and conspiracies abound. Oh, and you can't log out. Eric's dad wasn't just being a jerk about not letting his son play the game.

As for the videogame RPG elements that make this genre what it is, such as character selection, leveling, experience points and whatnot, I find it to be a harmless conceit. The characters are kids. They grew up playing videogames, and now they are in a super immersive videogame, so they act accordingly. I suppose it won't be to everyone's taste, but we now live in a world in which you can find a book written to match just about any taste.

If you have tastes like mine, and you are looking for an entertaining read, then Hack is worth a look. But I'm still laughing about the cover.

My other book reviews

Phone Call with a Fish Book Review

Phone Call with a Fish
by Silvia Vecchini, illustrated by Sualzo
48 pages
Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (September 5, 2018)
ISBN 978-0802855107

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Phone Call with a Fish is a delightful book about a little boy who doesn't talk, and a little girl who is curious about what it is like to be him. We never really learn why he doesn't speak, but it really doesn't matter why. It is enough that he is different than everyone else.

The young girl ponders what it would be like to never speak in school. His mom says he is very shy, but he talks at home, so the little girl tries to do what he does. She watches him stare out the window at school, and the way he interacts with his classmates.

Her curiosity is very sweet, the little girl manages to empathize with the silent boy even though others around her have little interest in understanding him. She finally connects with him via the eponymous phone call with a fish at the science museum. 

I enjoyed this book immensely, and I appreciate the lessons that can be taught to my children. Highly recommended.

My other book reviews

 

Dear Earthling: Cosmic Correspondent Book Review

Dear Earthling: Cosmic Corrrespondent
by Pen Avey
114 pages
Published by Common Deer Press (December 3, 2018)
ISBN 978-1-988761-26-8

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Pen Avey's Dear Earthling: Cosmic Correspondent missed the mark for me. I suppose it had to happen eventually. I've been getting a lot of great review books for kids, but you can't like everything.

Partly, this book is just aimed at older kids than mine. Ages 8-11 says the included bookmark. My wife said this is the kind of book a ten-year old would probably like reading, so that checks out. Unfortunately for me, my oldest is six. However, I also find the style of the book rather obnoxious. Even if my son were ten, I might not be real happy about him reading this book. I certainly did not like reading it to him. Probably because it is pitched a little too hard at what ten-year old boys find funny. Fart jokes mostly. 

As I find the book déclassé, I am unwilling to excuse the derivative nature of most of it. I like pastiche, but only in the service of greater ends. I will not be returning to this book at bedtime. If your taste in children's books is different than mine, your mileage my vary.

My other book reviews

Juniper Hollow: Fox and Raccoon Book Review

 Tom Nook wants his money, I mean, Fox and Raccoon are really cute!

Tom Nook wants his money, I mean, Fox and Raccoon are really cute!

Fox and Raccoon: Juniper Hollow
by Lesley-Anne Green
Published by Tundra Books (June 19, 2018)
ISBN 978-1101917961

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program.

This is a book about giving and friendship, done in a rather fetching felt diorama style. Fox and Raccoon are best friends, and on a day when Fox is too busy to spend time with Raccoon, he chooses to help her be a little less busy.

This book's style reminds me a bit of the Animal Crossing franchise from Nintendo, except the animals are cute instead of annoying. This is because in Animal Crossing they are always asking you to do things they could clearly do themselves, unlike Raccoon, who offers up to help when he sees something needs to be done.

Everyone in Juniper Hollow is similarly generous. The sense of community in Juniper Hollow is so real that I wish I lived there. However, this particular book didn't grab my kids quite as strongly as some other children's books I've reviewed recently, so despite it's cuteness, I'll have to dock one star for being more interesting to adults than children.

My other book reviews

Fox and Raccoon (Juniper Hollow)
By Lesley-Anne Green

Ghostwater Book Review

Ghostwater: Cradle Book 5
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (May 31, 2018)
ASIN B07DFWZP9C

I bought this book the day it came out, but I ended up circling back around and re-reading the other four books in the series, then reading this one again, before I felt ready to review it. The first time I got to the end of Ghostwater, I felt like a lot of things that had been set up back in Unsouled had been at least partially fulfilled, so I decided to go back and check.

Upon completing the cycle again, I have now verified that initial vague impression to be correct. I won't spoil the fun, but I appreciate a few lines in the early books better now. As a coming-of-age type story, it was quite satisfying to look back and see how far Lindon had truly come.

Orthos nodded as though he'd expected nothing different. “Once, you were weak. That boy is long dead, but his Remnant still haunts you.” He turned to drink from the Life Well. “Your weakness, Lindon, is thinking you are weaker than you are.”

I will also steal a line I saw in one of the first day Amazon reviews: this book is like an RPG dungeon crawl. I have to think this was entirely intentional. Any kid who grew up playing Final Fantasy or Dungeon Warrior will immediately grok what is going on here. With the help of luck, a powerful patron or two, and a hell of a lot of grinding, Lindon has leveled up far beyond his wildest dreams. But there is still a long way to go. 

In Ghostwater, we finally get to see some details of the vision Suriel showed Lindon in Unsouled when she saved his life and set him on his quest. In a technique that I greatly admire, Wight can answer questions raised in earlier volumes, and simultaneously manage to create even deeper questions by means of the same revelation. We still don't know what Eithan truly wants, or what he is truly capable of, but my estimation of his power and knowledge only grows with each volume. Lindon, unschooled and green as he is, repeatedly defeats sacred artists several levels higher than him. I shudder to think what Eithan could do if he truly pulled out all the stops. 

I am also glad to see that Eithan knows how to properly launch a secret technique:

lipstick.gif

The Traveler's Gate Chronicles Book Review

The Traveler's Gate Chronicles
by Will Wight
Hidden Gnome Publishing (June 8, 2015)
394 pages
ASIN: B00Z92K3PG

I love short story collections. I love them because you can really get to the meat of a story without the overhead of a novel. I like novels, I read a lot of them, but I find many of my favorite authors by means of short stories. Take Tim Powers for example. Jimmy Akin published Powers' short story "Through and Through" in 2006, and I was immediately hooked. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of the late Jerry Pournelle's There Will Be War! series too, I own all ten volumes of it. I've explored the works of many of the authors who contributed to those collections, and I am better read for it.

Where the short story format shines is in letting us traverse the depth and breath of Simon's world, without needing to build characters, construct narratives, or even introduce the grand concept. While I think this book could serve as an excellent introduction to Simon's world, the Unnamed World, it served even better as a digestif.

For example, we get to see the Territories outside of the point of view of Simon's grand tale of vengeance and awakening. I didn't really appreciate that people lived and worked in the Territories! Even for people who were not themselves Travelers, the Territories could be mundane [you can get used to anything]. 

On the other hand, we also get the backstory of several important characters, including Valin himself. Seeing Valin as a mere man, before Valinhall existed, explained so much. Valinhall was aptly named.

In this case, I didn't read The Traveler's Gate Chronicles until after I had finished the rest of the Traveler's Gate trilogy, but this themed collection set in each of the nine Territories was written so beautifully, and answered so many questions I didn't know I had, that I almost wish I had read it first. Wight deftly wove in little bits that I hardly remembered from the novels into an exploration of the world he created for Simon, son of Kalman.

Something I hadn't appreciated about Simon's world until I read Chronicles is the way color tells you hidden details about characters. I was reminded of an article I read years ago, sent by my friend Tom, about the visual storytelling of Pacific Rim. Visual storytelling in movies is simply how things are done. del Toro, in particular, is obsessed with color. But to do this in a book.

Mako1.PNG
Mak02.PNG

In Wight's world, each Territory, and its corresponding virtue, is color-coded. Violet is the color of honesty and openness. Orange is the color of loyalty, red the color of dominance and rule, blue of mercy. What truly surprised me, and this colors my review of City of Light, is that those virtues are often not precisely what you, or even the Travelers of a Territory, might think. The color that matches the prime virtue of a Territory is often different than the dominant hue you see there, or in its Travelers' habitual dress and presentation. 

However, this is not simply a matter of balancing yin and yang, counteracting dominance with self-sacrifice, but the more active discernment of the golden mean. A self-consciously self-sacrificing leader is often the most oppressive one of all.

My other book reviews



City of Light Book Review

City of Light
by Will Wight
Hidden Gnome Publishing (April 9, 2014)
394 pages
ASIN: B00JL6JMR6

In City of Light, Will Wight finishes what he started. I admire his focus, there are clearly more stories in this world that can be told. But Simon has completed the hero's journey, and the cycle is now complete. Which also means that Simon has become a man, and the nature of the problems he faces will be different in the future. Thus, Wight has ended the story at the place where the story should be ended. And for that, I salute him.

 We who about to die salute you!

We who about to die salute you!

We also see a great many pieces fall into place [though not all!], explaining why Elysia and Ragnarus are warring with one another, and why the Incarnations were trapped within the bloody trees of Ragnarus. And why the rebel city of Enosh was trying to free them. 

In the end, it turns out that many of the fateful decisions made had some justice behind them. But justice is not the problem. Everyone has had more justice than they can handle. What this world needs is redemption and forgiveness.

Surprisingly, in a world gone mad with power and thirst for vengeance, there is redemption to be had. In the end, it comes down to strength of character. By strength of character, what I really mean is virtue, in the Aristotelian-Thomist sense of what you habitually do. With a few surprises thrown in, for unusual acts of will. I couldn't ask for a better ending to an already fine series. Highly recommended.


Spoilers below.

My policy in most book reviews is to avoid spoilers if possible. My definition of a spoiler is arbitrary and whimsical, so caveat lector. I think this is a reasonable thing to do, although sometimes it means I can't discuss the things in a book I find most interesting.

In this case, the spoiler is about the nature of Incarnations, and the specific fate of Indirial, after he incarnates. As Wight's artfully chosen name indicates, an Incarnation is their Territory in the flesh. The wild aggressiveness of Endross. The fiery justice of Naraka. The haughty dominion of Ragnarus. We also learn that Incarnations spin out of control when outside of their Territories, but that Incarnations inside their Territories are much more like the humans they used to be.

But, even on the outside, who you used to be matters. When Valin is the Valinhall Incarnation, he fights everyone he sees on the way to kill the King of Damasca. His actions embody the nature of Valinhall, except that he has lost all of his inhibitions about those weaker than himself. Indirial, on the other hand, is quite different. His power and deadliness is the same, but the first thing Indirial does as an Incarnation, in fact the reason he Incarnates, is save his wife and daughter even though it means losing a fight. Indirial, as Incarnation, still thinks the same thoughts as Valin as Incarnation, but his habits push him to do things slightly differently. 

The Indirial who saved Simon because he couldn't bear to see a child die, saves his daughter at the cost of losing a fight to the Ragnarus Incarnation. Valin would have never done that. Thus we see that while the urges of Incarnations are powerful, they do not completely consume the man or woman within.


The Crimson Vault Book Review

The Crimson Vault
by Will Wight
Hidden Gnome Publishing (August 27, 2013)
386 pages
ASIN: B00EV12PH0

The Crimson Vault starts with the same scene that initiates Simon's hero's journey in House of Blades, from the point of view of one of the other participants. If anything, this initial tragedy is even more gripping, now that we know something of who Simon is. Not only that, but we now get to see something of the character of Indirial, the Valinhall Traveler who chose to save Simon's life on that rainy day.

I was moved by the very human reason that spurred Indirial to intervene: Indirial was a father, and he didn't want to see a child die if he could help it. I did not expect this, in House of Blades, Indirial was mostly a looming figure, painted in shades of black [no, really, he always wears black]. With this one detail, Wight started to flesh him out into a real character. There really are few comic book villains or heroes in the Traveler's Gate trilogy. Almost everyone has a reasonable motivation somewhere along the line. Simon, son of Kalman, is moderately introspective, but neither talkative nor gifted in seeing into other men's souls. Thus, Simon does not often stop to inquire why the people he is bludgeoning or stabbing would do the things that they do.

Fortunately for us, there are a number of other characters in the book more interested in these things, and more adept at drawing them out, so we get to see a remarkable amount of moral complexity. We also see conniving, backstabbing, greed for power, and pride in ample measures. Then there are miscommunications, judgments made from partial information, and motives that while otherwise just, simply work at cross-purposes with what someone else wants.

When evil is done, it is not uncommonly because inflamed passions, or personality defects combined with a surfeit of power, run away with someone. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of injustice in the world, some of it of venerable antiquity, which provides lots of opportunities for further evil to be done in the name of vengeance. 

Simon's world doesn't really lack for justice. There is a whole Territory devoted to it in fact. Unfortunately, the unflinching attitude of Narakan Travelers illustrates what happens when any one good is pursued without regard for the others, swollen to madness in isolation. Every Territory is like that: an embodiment of a virtue that has gone so far in a quest for perfection that you literally cannot see any of the other virtues from where you find yourself. Every Territory is isolated from the others.

What it all calls for is something like we get in the long-lost tenth Territory, Elysium, a harmonious whole of the other nine Territories and their corresponding virtues. In practice, it seems not to work out so well. I am not surprised.

The reason for this is that courage is not the mid-point or balance between cowardice and rashness. Rather, it is the golden mean, or the third way, or the synthesis of the other two. All of the Territories tend to just embody their respective virtues turned up to 11.

spinal-tap-11-590x330.jpg

This excess of virtue is bad enough on its own, but when you mix them all up together without anything to put them in order, bad things happen. What will put them in order is not some kind of blend of everything turned up as far as it goes, which is Elysium, but phronesis [φρόνησῐς], the art of practical wisdom. Interestingly, Aristotle associated this virtue in particular with politics, and we see that the one Territory that has tried to put some kind of order to the world is Ragnarus, the territory of power, domination, and rule.

Of course, they screw it up too, because Ragnarus is just domination turned up to 11. The ruling dynasty even practices a kind of post-natal embryo selection like the Ottomans did on their heirs to find the best successor. But at least in principle, this is where harmony could come from. But in order to do that, the Ragnarus dynasty would have to learn to let the other things in the world be what they are.

My other book reviews

House of Blades: Traveler's Gate Book 1 Review

Other books by Will Wight

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4 Review

House of Blades Book Review

House of Blades
by Will Wight
Hidden Gnome Publishing (June 1, 2013)
294 pages
ASIN: B00D52X58Y

Another gem from Will Wight, whose book Unsouled I was pointed toward by a friend earlier this year. House of Blades is another juvenile novel, by which I mean a story about a boy learning to be a man that is mildly didactic, and not unduly graphic about either violence or sex. Realism about either violence or sex that imparts caution and understanding without sparking prurient interest earns bonus points.

If I had to liken this book to another, purely on a Gestalt insight, it would be like The Name of Wind, if it were less rambling and self-indulgent. However, there really is a lot that is rather unlike Patrick Rothfuss' well-known book, so let's get into that.

One of the things I love most about Wight's work is his pacing. Mysteries abound in his works, layered deeply from the very first. Yet, you are always learning something new. I am happy that Wight was able to keep the same basic kind of story in the two series I have now read, yet they are different enough in setting and characters to be worth reading in sequence. The Traveler's Gate series has a pan-European, almost D&D type setting, although it kind of feels like the Japanese take you get on European fantasy in Berserk.

 Definitely not Simon, son of Kalman

Definitely not Simon, son of Kalman

 Also not Simon, but he has a bigass sword too

Also not Simon, but he has a bigass sword too

While Simon is the character of greatest interest to me, this book does actually benefit from having multiple point-of-view characters. Simon's frenemies, Alin and Leah, are different enough from him that seeing things through their eyes on occasion gives the story more depth. While Simon is destined for great things, he obviously also knows nothing about the wider world, or exactly why the world he lives in is in the mess it is in. I look forward to discovering those things myself.

Simon's journey of self-discovery is also part of my enjoyment of the book, because this is the kind of book I would like to point my children towards as they gain the ability to read for themselves. Struggle and doubt, followed by accomplishment [shepherded by well-meaning hardasses] is the kind of thing they should be prepared for.

My other book reviews

Other books by Will Wight

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4 Review

Tollins: Explosive Tales for Children Book Review

 Tollins

Tollins

Tollins: Explosive Tales for Children
by Conn Iggulden and illustrated by Lizzy Duncan
HarperCollins (2009)
175 pages
ISBN 987-0-06-173098-6

I previously knew Conn Iggulden from his work, The Dangerous Book for Boys, soon to be an Amazon Original series. Since I rather enjoyed that book, I picked this one up on sight. I wasn't disappointed.

In collaboration with illustrator Lizzy Duncan, Iggulden has created a rather charming children's book that is a not-so-secretly a paean to science and the industrial revolution, in a very English way. I enjoy the dry, subtly sarcastic humor Iggulden uses to describe the Tollins, and their home of Chorleywood.

I opened up the book in the store and I read the opening paragraph:

Tollins, you see, are not fairies. Though they both have wings, fairies are delicate creatures and much smaller. When he was young, Sparkler accidentally broke one and had to shove it behind a bush before his friends noticed.

And I immediately started snickering. Paging through the first chapter, I quickly found more bon mots like this. My kids wanted to know what was so funny, so I had to sit down and start reading it to my 6-year-old and 3-year-old. My 6-year-old especially loves this book. The mixture of humor, adventure, and romance is just right for him.

Lizzy Duncan's illustrations really make this book work. Her work is expressive and in perfect counterpoint to the text. I enjoyed Sparkler and Wing's joy, consternation, and determination written on their faces. And of course, the super pathetic Tollins in jars.

 Link is apparently making fireworks

Link is apparently making fireworks

This is a fine work that I look forward to reading many, many times to my children. I'll probably pick up the sequels as well.

My other book reviews