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?]

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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.
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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.

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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:

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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

Message for the Dead Book Review

 Message for the Dead

Message for the Dead

Message for the Dead: Galaxy's Edge #8
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 496 pages
Published April 25th 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07C33BB7D

In a tweet storm last month, I threatened to write an essay about the millennialism of the lighthuggers portrayed in Imperator when I had a chance. As it turns out, the end of the world came and found me before I was ready. Let my unreadiness serve as a warning to the others. Tempus fugit. Memento mori.

 Tempus fugit. Memento mori.

Tempus fugit. Memento mori.

In many ways, this is a book of endings. An end to scheming. An end to corruption. An end to freedom. An end to life. The progression from the first to the last is the essence of the Faustian bargain. We trust more in our own power than in the power of God. We insist that our will be done.

 Isildur's moment of doom

Isildur's moment of doom

 Griffith about to make Isildur's mistake

Griffith about to make Isildur's mistake

For Goth Sullus, the vice that makes his fall possible is justice. Yes, justice. I am not fool enough to call good evil just to make a point. However, it is precisely by means of a thirst for justice, for vengeance!, that evil enters the soul of the man known as Goth Sullus. [I admit that I suspect envy played a part as well, but we shall see] Yes, the galaxy is a dumpster fire. And Sullus insists that justice be done, though the heavens fall. His justice is swollen to madness in isolation from all else that is good and holy.

Yet, there is still hope. That hope is a slim hope, desperate even. Yet for all our weakness and foolishness, we have not been left to face the monsters alone. Although, it damn well feels like it. What it feels like, is the end of the world.

As I said, this is a book of endings. Yet, this is a specific type of ending. Not every apocalypse is created alike you see. This is only an introductory apocalypse. In an introductory apocalypse, the wicked system of the world is swept away. The world will then be united under the rule of the saints. During that time, things will be as they should be. However, the great enemy has merely been bound, not destroyed. At the end of the eponymous millennium, a revolt will occur, in which the cosmos will be consumed. That is a terminal apocalypse. Simply the end.

Now, clearly, something is amiss in the schema I have just described. While Goth Sullus certainly sees himself as worthy, I have my doubts. We also don't really know what role Aeson Keel, or Ravi, or Prisma Maydoon will serve in the end. We don't even really know what happened to Reina, although I have some dark suspicions. 

Without the ability to see into the hearts of men [or whatever Ravi is], we cannot really know what is to come. It is only by their fruits that we shall know them. Yet despite the bitter fruits that have fallen from Goth Sullus, I have hope for him too.

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

The Magician's Secret Book Review

 The Red Baron - Manfred von Richthofen  By C. J. von Dühren - Willi Sanke postcard #503 (cropped). Immediate source: The Wartenberg Trust, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18314105

The Red Baron - Manfred von Richthofen

By C. J. von Dühren - Willi Sanke postcard #503 (cropped). Immediate source: The Wartenberg Trust, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18314105

The Magician's Secret
by Stuart Hyman (author) and Joe Bluhm (illustrator)
Tundra Books (April 3, 2018)
$17.99 hardcover; 40 pages
ISBN 978-1770498945

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

This is a very sweet book, about the adventures a little boy has with his grandfather, who is always filling his head with wild stories. 

Since any good children's book must appeal to the parents as much as the kids, I appreciate that the adventures the little boy has with this grandfather are the same kinds of things I enjoyed as a child: dinosaurs, King Tut, and the Red Baron. I also appreciate that Charlie's dad warns him against putting too much stock in Grandpa's tall tales. At some point, your children must learn that the world outside [hopefully outside] is a horrible place, and it will eat them alive, if they let it. You ideally want to ease them into that.

On the other hand, only a monster would deny their children beautiful stories and make-believe.

On the gripping hand, beautiful stories and make-believe are a part of what strengthens us to withstand the ordinary and extraordinary vicissitudes of life, and I feel like Charlie's grandpa knows that. Dragons exist. And they can be killed.

My other book reviews

The Magician's Secret
By Zachary Hyman

Skysworn Book Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition, 257 pages
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (September 30, 2017)
ASIN B0762YQ2H8

And so we come to the end. For now. Will Wight's website says work on the next installment in the Cradle series will start after the summer of 2018. Thus, it is appropriate that a number of plot threads from the first three volumes get wrapped up here. 

Lindon finally faces Jai Chen, his nemesis. Yerin achieves a final solution with her unwelcome guest. Someone finally catches up with Eithan. It is a time of endings.

I'm not sure what it is, exactly, that reminds me of the four last things in Skysworn, but it does. There has been an apocalyptic element in the background all along, but this is the first time it comes to the forefront. Maybe it is Lindon's first real brush with death, with his own mortality. Or the Naru clan, with their angelic wings. Or maybe it is just the eldritch horrors that we finally meet face-to-face.

 The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell  By Hans Memling - http://mng.gda.pl/zbiory/sztuka-dawna/hans-memling/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1455943

The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell

By Hans Memling - http://mng.gda.pl/zbiory/sztuka-dawna/hans-memling/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1455943

This fifteenth century triptych of the Last Judgment is oddly evocative of Skysworn for me, given that it in general the Cradle series has an Eastern vibe to it. Perhaps it is St. Michael in the middle, weighing souls, reminiscent of Suriel and Ozriel saving people from chaos. Or the glowing sword behind Christ's head. Or the fact that Christ is sitting on a rainbow. I could see a high level sacred artist doing something like that.

For all of the pan-Asian flair of the Cradle series, it has some of the aesthetics of Christian apocalyptic art. Of course, the apocalypse is not unique to Christianity. It is something like a human universal. Probably for the reason that the world does occasionally look like it is going to end.

But this is not the end for Lindon and his friends. Not yet anyway. He still has a long way to go before he meets his destiny.

My other book reviews

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Blackflame Book Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition, 370 pages
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (April 30, 2017)
ASIN B0716GZ8QX

One of the things I like best about the Cradle series is the pace. There are secrets to be discovered, but you don't need to wait forever to find out. Take Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn as a counter-example. Sanderson is slowly building up his Cosmere, a shared universe in which all his books somehow hang together. But hell, you don't even find some things out until you get to the Alloy of the Law series, books written more than three years later. And even then, Sanderson drips out his little hints, slowly, slowly.

I'm only three books into Wight's Cradle series, and I already know the backstory of the inhabited worlds and I have an idea of where Lindon is going to end up, and new information comes at a fast and furious pace, quickly linking up with things already established. And we aren't even three years into the whole series. I liked Sanderson's books, but this is just so much more satisfying. For example, Blackflame actually did address the question I raised in my review of Soulsmith: why hasn't someone invaded and pillaged the Sacred Valley of Lindon's birth? We don't get a complete answer, but we did get something.

“We could…go west,” she suggested hopefully. He started to tell her no, but hesitated. She was referring to a legend. In the mountains to the west of the Desolate Wilds, there was supposed to be a hidden valley that occasionally emerged to trade with the outside. The inhabitants were weak, but protected by a curse.
 
 Spiral power

Spiral power

Much like Cole and Anspach's Galaxy's Edge series, the amount of Wight's world we can see gets bigger and bigger as we go along. The structure of everything is the same, but also simultaneously new and exciting.

As Lindon gains new abilities, he [and we] gain new insight as well. Things that were previously seen through a glass darkly suddenly snap into focus

 

In my review of Soulsmith, I said that the ranks of sacred artists on Cradle were something like natural kinds. There really do seem to be differences in kind, and not just in degree. Yet, part of the arc of Lindon's life itself is that isn't the whole story. Lindon, unsouled and unworthy, achieves things no one in his home would have thought possible even for the best of them, let alone poor Lindon. 

Orthos gingerly stretched out a leg, wincing at the pain. “Humans make every stage into a legend. A Lowgold is just a Jade with teeth. The only difference between Jade and Gold is a mountain of power.”

This pattern continues to repeat itself once Lindon escapes the Sacred Valley, and he is repeatedly discounted by his social betters, even as he vaults past them in power. As is typical for this kind of a book, Lindon himself is special, and he receives help, of a sort, from his patron Eithan, who sees Lindon as he is, rather than as he appears. 

What we don't yet know, is the depth of the games that Eithan is playing. In Soulsmith, Eithan takes Lindon and Yerin under his wing. Here in Blackflame, Eithan adopts them into his family, and his plans. What those plans truly are, we do not know. But there are hints that Eithan knows far more than he lets on, perhaps even is more than he lets on.

Yet even Homer nods. Eithan's games are high stakes. Eithan does everything he can to cheat, to better the odds in his favor, but things still sometimes go awry. The final battle of Blackflame was genuinely exciting to read, tense and gripping. I was actually surprised at how it all turned out, so I won't ruin it for you. You should go see for yourself.

My other book reviews

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review