Stryker's War Book Review

What use is the valor of brave men in the service of evil goals? Stryker’s War is the most gut-wrenching book in the Order of Centurion series so far because it takes a good hard look at the reality that not everything that can get a soldier killed is worth dying for.

STRYKER’S WAR: ORDER OF THE CENTURION #3 BY JOSH HAYES WITH JASON ANSPACH AND NICK COLE KINDLE EDITION, 198 PAGES TO BE RELEASED NOVEMBER 26, 2019 BY GALAXY'S EDGE ASIN B07X1ZL2MG

STRYKER’S WAR: ORDER OF THE CENTURION #3
BY JOSH HAYES WITH JASON ANSPACH AND NICK COLE
KINDLE EDITION, 198 PAGES
TO BE RELEASED NOVEMBER 26, 2019 BY GALAXY'S EDGE
ASIN B07X1ZL2MG

Dear Mom and Dad,

If you are reading this, I’m not coming home.

The opening lines of each chapter of Stryker’s War are the words of a dead man. A man who clearly believed in the view of war in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, which files war under love of neighbor. The letter writer saw his service in the Legion as a noble pursuit, ordered to the common good, the tranquillitas ordinis, the well-ordered peace. It is not enough that there is an absence of conflict. You must also see that justice be done.

Unfortunately, the Galactic Republic isn’t really in the business of dispensing justice any more.

They are still in the business of delivering a smack down to anyone who dares to defy them, which the Legion is willing and capable of supplying. Curiously, the House of Reason, and its appointed officers, do not take the Roman model of solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. With increasing political control of the Legion, it would be easy to crush their enemies and see them driven before them, but this isn’t what we see.

The Legion is a calling and the day I signed up, I gave my life to that calling.

I would guess the reason is two-fold: a numerous and well-equipped Legion is a more dangerous Legion, including to the House of Reason. Maybe worse, in their eyes, is that a visibly successful Legion would have greater political legitimacy. This is likely a simple matter of not enabling a likely enemy. But also, it seems that the House of Reason feels that war must be a little wicked, because it costs money.

With this two-fold reason to never really give the Legion what it wants, even as the House of Reason needs it to take care of its problems, we come to the world of Gestor. Unwilling to commit more than a platoon to fix a security problem at a valuable mining operation, everything quickly spirals out of control into one of the most epic charlie foxtrots I have ever seen.

Every Legionnaire that died felt like I lost a friend. I wanted to scream at the stupid point who wouldn’t call in close air support even to save himself. Rage boiled up against the fools who sent so many men to die because they didn’t want to show up in force. My heart broke for the insurgents too, who just wanted their fair share of the profits of their own mine, and who were getting cheated not just by the Republic, but by their underworld contacts as well.

Now I can see why so many were willing to join up with Goth Sullus, and how even the loyal remnant was willing to invoke Article 19 and go to war against the Republic. This is intolerable. Yet, this much, and worse, was tolerated nonetheless.

There are some bad people in the galaxy, and sometimes they need to be taught a lesson. The Legion teaches that lesson well.

I might have finally met my match, but don’t want you to be sad. I stood with my brothers against evil and fought for those who couldn’t.

I only hope I made you proud.

Until the day finally came when good men could stand it no longer.

I was provided a copy of this ebook by the publisher for free.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Galaxy’s Edge season 1:
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
Retribution: Galaxy’s Edge #9 Book Review

Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations:
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review

Takeover
Takeover: Part 1 Book Review
Takeover: Part 2 Book Review

Order of the Centurion
Order of the Centurion #1 book review
Iron Wolves: Order of the Centurion #2 book review

Iron Wolves: Order of the Centurion Book 2 Review

In Iron Wolves, we get to see a part of the Legion inhabited by men less high-minded than Cohen Chhun or Subs, the Dark Ops legionnaire from Order of the Centurion. Men on the borderline of control. Men interested in chasing skirts. Men who might have trouble adjusting to civilian life again, if they live that long.

Iron Wolves: Order of the Centurion #2 by Jonathan Yanez with Jason Anspach and Nick Cole Kindle Edition, 198 pages Published March 5, 2019 by Galaxy's Edge ASIN B07MV1H51G

Iron Wolves: Order of the Centurion #2
by Jonathan Yanez with Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 198 pages
Published March 5, 2019 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07MV1H51G

Sergeant Sam Samson [who knows, maybe back on lost Earth, his distant ancestors were from Iceland] can KTF with the best of them, but he gets a little too enthusiastic about it. Since this isn’t exactly what the Legion is looking for in a recruitment holo, Sam has been promoted to Sergeant and busted back down more times than he would probably like to think about. I get the impression that if Sam ever gets out of the Legion alive, he is going to find civilian life bewildering, at best.

Yet, Sam isn’t a heartless monster who’ll coolly [or heatedly] pull the trigger on anyone he is ordered to, or someone who looks at him funny. His problem is a lack of control, not a lack of a conscience. Sam Samson is not a nice guy, but he does at least try to be good, even if he frequently fails. Guys like him can find a place in the military sometimes, which can put that impulsiveness to use in the field. I bet Sam would be a nightmare on barracks duty though.

Going back 95 years to Beau Geste, or alternatively in the more modern They Shall Not Grow Old, men like Sam have been seen as the foundation of the armed forces. Whether in the conscript armies of the early twentieth century, or the volunteer services we have now in the Anglosphere, men like Sam, crass but loyal, with no real home outside of military life, have been the solid core. They provide the cultural continuity that makes an army work.

But to be a Legionnaire in the waning days of the Galactic Republic is to find your loyalty tested. I take Iron Wolves, like all of the Galaxy’s Edge books, to be a reflection on the lived experience of the men who served. In this book, the central question is: how do you know when following orders is not the right thing to do? When it comes down to it, to whom are you truly loyal?

A persistent problem over time with militaries with strong esprit-de-corps is that the men tend to be loyal to each other, and their commanders, far more than their political masters. In the United States, the strong tradition of civilian control of the military is intended to counter precisely this tendency. At Galaxy’s Edge, the points, appointed officers, are likewise intended to subvert this, for the Legion was intended from the beginning to be inward-looking.

An interesting wrinkle is that professional soldiers like Sam often find themselves growing fond of the peoples and places where they are stationed. They can find a home in many ways more welcoming than their own. Thus when the politicians no longer see benefit in these remote places, and cynically withdraw support, it is not just abstract honor that is offended, but a very real love of place and a sense of belonging. The very things that make men fight.

What Sam Samson and the rest of the Iron Wolves do in response to political cynicism is simply what they do best: kill the other guy before he kills you and let the chips fall where they may. This was the first Order of the Centurion book primarily written by someone other than Jason and Nick, and so far I pleased with how their experiment is turning out.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Galaxy’s Edge season 1:
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
Retribution: Galaxy’s Edge #9 Book Review

Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations:
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review

Takeover
Takeover: Part 1 Book Review
Takeover: Part 2 Book Review

Order of the Centurion
Order of the Centurion #1 book review

Gemini Warrior Book Review

Matthew White and Jason McCrae are oddly similar. Other than being five years apart in age, they could be twins. Living in Serenity City, they easily could have never crossed paths with one another. Except that a mysterious woman needs test subjects who are as similar as possible to one another….

Gemini Warrior: Gemini Man book 1 by J. D. Cowan Published by Silver Empire (2019)

Gemini Warrior: Gemini Man book 1
by J. D. Cowan
Published by Silver Empire (2019)

Once they pass the “test”, Matthew and Jason find themselves trapped in another world, prisoners of their erstwhile employer. And she is only just getting started with making them do things they don’t want to do. Fortunately for them, passing that test means they have possession of an artifact of great power, the Gemini Bracelets.

Castor and Pollux are not amused by your shenanigans

Castor and Pollux are not amused by your shenanigans

Every volume in the Heroes Unleashed series has been very different. Gemini Warrior surprised me by being an isekai, although since I follow the author’s blog, I feel like I shouldn’t have been. Cowan often writes of adventure stories, and isekai in particular. Also, I should say that his series of posts on the history of science fiction as a genre has been an inspiration to my book reviews, changing how I see everything.

In line with Cowan’s argument that the heart of adventure fiction is wonder, Gemini Warrior is a pulpy, desperate quest, where Matthew and Jason try to escape the world of Tyndarus, master their powers, and defeat the wicked. Along the way they might have to learn how to trust one another, narrowly escape death, and somehow find time to get romantically involved.

What it isn’t is a thinkpiece about Tyndarian society, or the character of Matthew and Jason. The other two volumes I’ve reviewed in the Heroes Unleashed universe are like that, and I think they are done well, but I appreciate that Cowan can write a story in a different mode in the same universe, and make it fun.

An only mildly inaccurate portrayal of the object of power in Tyndarus

An only mildly inaccurate portrayal of the object of power in Tyndarus

We do get to see what Tyndarus is like. I am fascinated by the religion of the inhabitants of Tyndarus, its sacramental character, and the frankly Eucharistic object of power that Matthew and Jason contest with the woman who brought them to this world. It is not that there isn’t a great backstory, it just takes a back seat to the immediate problem that lizard men and evil sorcerers are trying kill them.

We also experience the character of our protagonists. If anything, Matthew and Jason are fairly typical young men, in that they are vaguely disappointing by not amounting to much or doing anything worthwhile with their lives. They are both callow youths, unremarkable except for the mysterious similarity that got them into this mess in the first place.

This is of course standard for an adventure story of this sort, but at the same time everything is set up just so, such that subsequent volumes will give us new wonders, and new adventures. By pulpy, I do not mean the opposite of well-crafted. I am also interested to see where Cowan takes the story, since Matthew and Jason don’t seem to be Primes. Maybe everything will all make sense later, but insofar as they were granted powers by an artifact, they seem quite different than Primes, who just wake up one day different than they were before.

Overall, I enjoyed Gemini Warriors. I am happy to see books of this style written, and I look forward to seeing where the adventure takes us next!

I received a free copy of this book via Booksprout.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books in the Heroes Unleashed series

by Morgon Newquist
Heroes Fall: Serenity City book 1

by Cheah Kit Sun
Hollow City: Song of Karma book 1

Order of the Centurion Book Review

…the general said, his voice subdued and low, speaking for just the two of them to hear, “on behalf of a thankful galaxy, I award to you, in the place of your son, the highest honor the Legion can bestow: the Order of the Centurion."

Cover art by  Fabian Saravia

Cover art by Fabian Saravia

Order of the Centurion: Order of the Centurion #1
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 314 pages
Published September 21st 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07H6J551T

The Order of the Centurion series is set in Nick Cole and Jason Anspach’s Galaxy’s Edge universe. Other than this first volume, each one is also written with another author or authors, giving us a glimpse not only into other times and places, but differing ways of telling a story around a common theme:

SmartSelect_20190721-124552_Amazon Kindle.jpg

The Order of the Centurion is the highest award that can be bestowed upon an individual serving in, or with, the Legion. When such an individual displays exceptional valor in action against an enemy force, and uncommon loyalty and devotion to the Legion and its legionnaires, refusing to abandon post, mission, or brothers, even unto death, the Legion dutifully recognizes such courage with this award.

Order of the Centurion is set many years before Legionnaire, but it serves to bring us full circle in a way, by showing us both how the Legion was brought low by political interference, and also showing us the value of good men who meekly serve something greater than themselves.

The truth of it is, I understand a bit how Lieutenant Washam feels as one of the first appointed officers in the Legion. While he seems in many ways like a Legionnaire, he is in practice always on the outside looking in. No matter what uniform he wears, or what his rank is, he is not one of them.

The fanbase for the Galaxy’s Edge series is heavily weighted toward veterans of military service. Legionnaire in particular seems like the novelization of the Afghanistan experience, and the series as a whole is frequently praised by veterans as a faithful representation of their lived experience. In addition to the shared jokes of barracks life, and the myriad annoyances of living under a hierarchy of leaders who may or may not have been promoted based on their ability to lead and inspire the rough men who guard us while we sleep, one of the key elements of bonding among combat veterans is their shared experience of exhilaration, terror, and random death. At the same time, this separates them from those of us who quite simply have no idea what this is like.

Unlike me, Wash undergoes a baptism of fire that will haunt him forever. Like me, however, Wash is conscious of a barrier of separation between him and the soldiers that he loves and respects. What makes Wash such an admirable man is that his response to scorn and disbelief is to redouble his own efforts, to make the best of himself and his chosen path that he can, no matter what anyone else thinks.

I’ve said before that the real heroes are often dead, which is why the Order of the Centurion is awarded posthumously 98.4% of the time. However, not every hero dies a glorious death. Sometimes, they just toil away in obscurity, wondering why they are the ones who lived.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Galaxy’s Edge season 1:
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
Retribution: Galaxy’s Edge #9 Book Review

Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations:
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review

Takeover
Takeover: Part 1 Book Review
Takeover: Part 2 Book Review

Veil of Shadows Book Review

An old old idea in fantastical fiction is that it might be possible to enhance, or even replace, parts of the human body, giving the subject greater power. Since this often produces an unsettling, or even disturbing result by deviating from the natural appearance and abilities of a typical human being, it also raises the fear that doing such a thing calls into question the human nature of the person so enhanced.

Veil of Shadows: Empire of Bones Saga Volume 2
by Terry Mixon
Yowling Cat Press (April 20, 2019)
ISBN 978-1947376021 [Volume 1-3 omnibus edition]

I was provided a review copy courtesy of the author.

Adam Jensen is not entirely happy with the direction of his life

Adam Jensen is not entirely happy with the direction of his life

When the mode of the story is one of tragedy, that is often exactly what happens. This, however, is not a tragedy, but rather a romance, by which I mean a sequence of marvelous adventures. Often, in an adventure story, our hero is markedly superior to other men. Faster on the draw, stronger, more clever, more beautiful than their foes. In an otherwise mundane universe, cybernetic enhancements can give a character something very much like superpowers.

An undesired transformation of this sort is a way that we can introduce an element of pathos to the hero’s story, without completely losing what makes an adventure story exciting and wondrous. I think you can dial this element up or down, and end up with stories that feel different even though they are exploring the same concepts. The circumstances of a character’s involuntary transformation shape their character and their place in the universe.

You can go for something only one step removed from horror, as in the Stroggification sequence from Quake 4. Kelsey’s experience in book 1 isn’t far off from this.

The stroggification sequence from Quake 4 matches up well with Kelsey’s experience in book 1

The stroggification sequence from Quake 4 matches up well with Kelsey’s experience in book 1

Or you can go for something a bit more subtle, like the self-inflicted anguish of Will Smith’s Del Spooner, who is only a monster in his own mind. Since her outward appearance is unchanged, thanks to the medical technology of her society, Kelsey does not have to deal with shock and rejection just because she walked into a room.

Rather, her struggles are those of a victim of a crime. Grief and loss as she tries to cope with the knowledge of what happened to her, plus an entirely reasonable fear that she might hurt someone by accident, as the rescue interrupted the implantation procedure. Her psychological feeling of a loss of control is shadowed by a very physical lack as well.

But, since this is an adventure, Kelsey doesn’t wallow in self-pity like Detective Spooner, but rather deals with her trauma in roughly the same way that Teddy Roosevelt dealt with the death of his mother and first wife: by never leaving herself a quiet moment to think about it. Fortunately for her, the opportunity to pay back her attackers comes quickly.

To heighten the tension, Kelsey and her half-brother Jared, commander of their ill-fated expedition, are drawn into local politics as well. A coup is imminent among their new allies, because why waste a good crisis when you can consolidate your position?

As the series progresses, we learn more and more of what the pre-Fall Empire of Man was like, and the magnitude of the disaster that befell it. This is of course part of the fun, and I like the pacing of revelations in Mixon’s work. A good backstory makes an enjoyable work even more interesting for me, and we get to learn about the world at the same time that Jared and Kelsey do.

The second volume has time for quite a lot of action, since the stage was set so well in book 1. Each new discovery broadens the universe, and the scope of what can be seen and done. Since the scene has been set, now I can look forward to seeing Kelsey drive her enemies before her.

Conan-Best-in-Life.jpg

Empire of Bones Book Review


Empire of Bones Saga Volume 1
by Terry Mixon
Yowling Cat Press (April 20, 2019)
ISBN 978-1947376021 [Volume 1-3 omnibus edition]

I was provided a review copy courtesy of the author.

Empire of Bones is a future history space opera with a military scifi feel. I think all of those things are important descriptors, because it sets the stage for what kind of book this is trying to be. If you are interested in that, this book will be a lot of fun.

So what kind of book is this? Primarily, it is an adventure story, the kind of thing J. D. Cowan usefully described as “exploring new lands, peoples, and possibilities”. The primary fun is seeing what is around the next corner. But there are a lot of different ways to approach this kind of story, so let’s look further.

We, and the protagonists, find ourselves in our own far future, which is why I call it a future history. A future history, and its close cousin alternative history, look at how the world might be if you assume a certain pivotal event occurs. The primary difference is whether that event is in the past, or the future. The preeminent example of this in my mind is Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s CoDominium, and the greatest book set in that universe is the Mote in God’s Eye, which which this book shares common themes. The Terran Empire, a galaxy-spanning civilization, came to a terrible end nearly five hundred years prior to this novel, except the Imperial heir escaped to a remote world to refound the dynasty. Now, that world is reaching out to the stars again.

In addition to the second foundation of the Empire of Man, another element that Empire of Bones shares with Mote is a naval emphasis. There is a grand old tradition of naval adventure novels, with Master and Commander being an example, which military scifi novels of this type tends to draw upon. The convention has become that space navies follow the tradition of oceanic navies, with different authors picking different national traditions to draw upon in order to flesh out shipboard routine.

An interesting difference here is that Niven and Pournelle based their navy on the age of sail. In the CoDominium, it takes weeks to traverse between Alderson points within a system, making travel times long for a journey of any distance. For Empire of Bones, the drive technology is far more powerful, resulting in travel times over similar distances of mere days. In addition to altering the political dynamic by making it possible for the universe to effectively be smaller, it makes ship combat very different, like battleships that move like fighter aircraft. Well, fighter craft with a hell of a lot of momentum.

It is also a space opera, which means that our hero and heroine are legendary figures in the making. We can expect them to get into trouble and then barely escape, using pluck, wits, and any sweet Old Empire technology they manage to scrounge up. I also think space opera is dominant in the mix, which means that we are not primarily going to be getting a careful look at how history might unfold if you follow Toynbee’s model of history, which is the back story of Mote. You also aren’t going to get detailed logistics or the kind of fussy battle planning which means the Captain never leads the away party.

We do get pitched battles, unknown enemies of unusual viciousness, melodrama, and romance. Space Opera. For example, our female protagonist, Kelsey Bandar, spare heir to the Terran Empire, is ostensibly on board the ship as the understudy to a more experienced diplomat.

As it turns out due to an unfortunate series of events, Kelsey ends up with approximately the same negotiating skills as Korben Dallas.

If you want scifi that is more on the speculative end, or military scifi that strongly focuses on realism [you send middies to die on away missions], then you may not find what you are looking for here. If you like seeing bad guys blown up and exploring and reconquering worlds that humanity lost, then this is probably for you.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Takeover: Part 2 Book Review

Takeover: Part 2 cover art By  Tommaso Renieri

Takeover: Part 2 cover art By Tommaso Renieri

Takeover: Part 2
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Published 2018 by Galaxy's Edge Press

In Part 1 of Takeover, Bravo Team leader Carter was lamenting his life choices as he humped dead koobs into the back of a truck. Like a lotta guys in his position, he assumed the good money he was going to get to KTF in some backwater was going to a help a marriage strained by constant deployments in the Legion. Only problem is, his part of the op is less kicking in doors and more cleaning up bodies left behind by someone else. Plus, the money was never really the problem before. It was being gone, which isn’t really different now.

Except now Carter and Bravo Team are finally getting their chance. In Part 2 of Takeover, the mysterious Big Nee orders his mercenaries to assault a Zhee temple in the Kublar desert. What are the Zhee doing on Kublar? I’m sure the koobs want to know as much as we do. Which isn’t the only mystery at hand: who is Big Nee, and what is his plan?

We at least get some satisfaction, but Cole and Anspach give us as many mysteries here as they resolve. It wouldn’t be fair of me to reveal what. So we’ll turn to the action in the book, which reminds me a bit of Rainbow Six, if only Clancy had wanted to show us what mission planning looks like when you don’t include your team leads.

Mission planning with Big Nee’s outfit

Mission planning with Big Nee’s outfit

After I finished Part 2, I went back and read Part 1 again. I was pleased to see how Anspach and Cole had set us up in Part 1, including little things that looked like filler content to flesh out a scene, but in fact turned out to be hints. This is the kind of thing that keeps me coming back to the Galaxy’s Edge series: attention to detail plus a keen sense for what is fun to read. I am looking forward to Part 3, and seeing what else I missed the first couple of times.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Galaxy’s Edge season 1:
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
Retribution: Galaxy’s Edge #9 Book Review

Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations:
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review

Takeover
Takeover: Part 1 Book Review

Dungeon Samurai Book Review

Dungeon Samurai Volume 1: Kamikaze
by Cheah Kit Sun
Published May 28, 2019

Dungeon Samurai is an isekai dungeon-crawler built on the principle that “amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics”.

Depending on where you are coming from, that might be a lot to unpack, so let’s go through it. Isekai is the Japanese name for the kind of story where the characters are transported to another world, often gaining miraculous or magical powers in the process. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a notable example. This is an old kind of story even in Western adventure fiction, but it is realllly popular in Japan, which is probably why the Japanese name stuck.

A dungeon-crawler is any kind of story that focuses on the exploration of a monster-filled labyrinth. Role-playing games, whether tabletop or videogame, are the dominant form. You might think this would make Dungeon Samurai a LitRPG, but Cheah says he set out to make an anti-LitRPG, and I think he succeeded. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Finally, Dungeon Samurai ends up being a nice companion to another one of my recent obsessions, the blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, which looks at pop culture depictions of historical battles. A notable recent series looks at the siege of Gondor in both Peter Jackson’s movie and J. R. R. Tolkien’s book. As Devereaux notes, a big problem for any army is how to get your soldiers and their stuff to the place they need to be, at the right time, with enough food and water to get done whatever needs to get done. And hopefully get them out again.

Logistics are one of the things that makes Dungeon Samurai a compelling read for me. An expedition into the eponymous dungeon must be supplied with food, water, sources of light, and all manner of equipment. Soldiers must be trained to use their kit, and how to work with one another in the dark and cramped labyrinth. A whole society provides the many specialized functions you need to support such an effort.

Finally, I like the way Cheah approached his pretty clearly videogame inspired work. Games provided ideas, but not mechanics. No one has hit points or a GUI. People have abilities, but it feels more like a fantasy world where the rules are different, than picking a command from a menu. If you are going to find inspiration from videogames, and other books I have liked have done so, then this way seems better to me.

I was sorry this book was over so quickly. I am looking forward to seeing whether Yamada Yuuki can defeat the akuma and find a way back to his own world. If you can accept the premise, this is a pretty fun book, with a core of serious thought as to what this kind of a world would be like.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Cheah Kit Sun

Hollow City: Song of Karma book 1

Takeover: Part 1 Book Review

Cover art for Takeover: Part 1 by  Tommaso Renieri

Cover art for Takeover: Part 1 by Tommaso Renieri

Takeover: Part 1
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Published 2018 by Galaxy's Edge Press

Takeover brings us back to where it all began, the dusty world of Kublar. Except now, after Chhun’s victory over Goth Sullus on Utopion, everything is different. In the years since the Battle of Kublar, the Kublarens have been integrated into the galactic economy, built up glittering cities, and even acquired a Zhee refugee problem. All of this was sponsored and shepherded by the Republic. There is just the little problem that the Republic doesn’t exist anymore.

The Chinese word for crisis isn’t actually comprised of danger and opportunity, but it makes for a good story. Breaking up the Republic means that ambition plus good luck can make you a king in some out-of-the-way corner of the galaxy. Unfortunately, lots of other people have the same idea, so potential potentates need rough men with guns to guard them while they sleep.

Which makes for interesting times on Kublar. The power vacuum created by the fall of the Republic allows men of wealth and power to set up personal fiefdoms in the quest for more power, and more money. Which is where our two POV characters, Carter and Bowie, come in.

By Tomchen1989 - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32046344

By Tomchen1989 - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32046344

Carter is an ex-legionnaire, hired out to the highest bidder in a desperate attempt to keep his marriage together and his kids in a good school. The money is good, but working for shady characters in far-flung places puts even more strain on family life than a regular deployment does. At least when you work for the government, everyone can pretend what you are doing is legit.

In our world, the forever war in Iraq and Afghanistan produced lots of guys just like Carter. Their primary skills are in killing people and breaking stuff, and if they are really honest with themselves, they kinda miss being deployed, even though it is hell on your marriage, and you miss all the stuff your kids are doing.

Bowie, on the other hand, strikes me as much less of a team player than Carter. While Bowie has useful skills, he is just a little too focused on looking out for # 1. You want him on your side, but not necessarily on your team. Which is probably just fine with him.

I can’t think of any real-world analogues of Bowie, but he did strike me as being a bit like Agent 47.

Hitman: Sniper Challenge  by  PatrickBrown

Hitman: Sniper Challenge

by PatrickBrown

While Kublar seemed a lot like Afghanistan in Legionnaire, this doesn’t really seem like the model in Takeover. Excepting their strategic rock deposits, there isn’t actually much economic opportunity in Afghanistan today. Nobody other than the locals is much interested in fighting over it. What Kublar reminds me most of is China around the turn of the twentieth century.

This is also known as the Warlord Era. After the fall of the Qing dynasty, and a failed attempt to unify China as a Republic under Yuan Shikai. There was danger and opportunity aplenty, with intrigue, battles, fortunes made and lost as China rapidly modernized after the sclerotic Qing dynasty was overthrown. This is the China of the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a brief period where anything could happen, and foreign influences mingled freely with local tradition.

Takeover is a bit of an experiment, a serial sold only on GalacticOutlaws.com. Part 2 is already out, and I’ll likely review that one too shortly. The price is right, only a couple of bucks for a short story with a lot of punch, done in a style similar to Nick and Jason’s previous work together. I hope this experiment works out, because I would really like more of this.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Galaxy’s Edge season 1:
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
Retribution: Galaxy’s Edge #9 Book Review

Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations:
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review



Radioactive Evolution Book Review

Over the top, but less goofy than some LitRPG covers

Over the top, but less goofy than some LitRPG covers

Radioactive Evolution: A Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic Adventure
by Richard Hummel
Hummel Books (November 15, 2018)
ASIN B07KLMTZBW

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from bookpublicityservices.com

Richard Hummel’s Radioactive Evolution is now the third or fourth variant [depending on what counts] on the relatively new LitRPG category that I have reviewed. Hummel himself identifies the book as Gamelit, adventure fiction influenced by videogames. In this case, the game-like element is the omnipresence of nanites within the humans and animals who inhabit the radioactive and depopulated Earth.

Due to a chance encounter with a dragon egg in the ruins of New York City and a perhaps foolish bit of self-experimentation, Jared Cartwright discovers that the nanites can be collected from the world by killing animals [and presumably people] and then directed to produce targeted changes in his body and mind, allowing him to “level up” in a sense. I envision the process much like Scott Pilgrim collecting coins from his fallen foes.

Scott Pilgrim collecting nanites, I mean coins, from his fallen foes

Scott Pilgrim collecting nanites, I mean coins, from his fallen foes

There are even “boss fights”, which is exactly how Jared describes his encounter with a giant mutated rat after killing dozens of rodents of merely unusual size. This was fairly early in the book, and it bogged me down some. I’ve found that I don’t particularly care much for the typical LitRPG or Gamelit conceits. I am relatively more willing to tolerate this kind of thing in the trapped in the game style of book, such as Paul Bellow’s Hack. In this case, where it is just a way of describing a feature of the fictional world, I tend to find it breaks the suspension of disbelief a bit, but I think this tends to be an idiosyncratic and personal thing.

St. George cooks the dragon

St. George cooks the dragon

The second obstacle to enjoyment for me was Jared’s recruitment by the Matriarch of Dragons in an ancient war against humans. In the history she mentally communicates to him the humans who took the dragons’ side were considered traitors. Well, yeah, that is what the word means. In the third chapter, where this all goes down, all we get is the dragon’s side of it, and it isn’t even clear at this point that the humans weren’t justified in exterminating the dragons. Given the abilities of the dragons in the book, it must have been a hell of a lot of work to do it. Later in the book, we get some hints that the eventual destination of this isn’t actually Jared and the dragons against humanity, but that is exactly how it is presented in the beginning.

I rooted for this guy in  Avatar

I rooted for this guy in Avatar

Fortunately, I found that the book picked up a bit once we moved past Jared’s initial encounter with the dragon egg and him learning about his new abilities. The part of the book that followed was more conventionally post-apocalyptic, with Jared learning to navigate the complexity of a world where alliances are made of desperation and fear, much like his contract with the dragons [which was made under duress, clearly acceptable to dragonkind, but not the norm for humans].

This part of the book was pretty clearly inspired by videogames as well, but more as a theme than a mechanic, which is an improvement in my opinion. Jared gets to explore, establish a base of operations, and meet a love interest, which are the basic kinds of things you do in many RPGs. The things that happen seem more like the natural consequence of choices that Jared or other characters make, rather than, well, I need to grind some EXP by killing some rats.

Since the second act is so much stronger than the the first, I have some hope that this series will turn out well, but I think that the rest of this series is a pass for me. If you like the more explicit videogame elements, and there is a market segment that clearly does, then this is a middle of the road adventure story you may enjoy.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic Book Review

Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic
by Matt McCarthy, MD
Avery (May 21, 2019)
ISBN 0735217505

I received a free copy of this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.

Superbugs is a fascinating book, and I’m glad I had the chance to review it. This book is a window into the management, and hopefully curing, of difficult antibiotic-resistant infections from the point-of-view of a physician who sees the worst the world has to offer. McCarthy wrote it in a chatty, personable, and slightly ADD style that probably makes it more accessible. This is a difficult thing to get right with a work of popular science, which I take this book to be.

There is an infamous rule of thumb that including one mathematical formula in your book will reduce your readers by half. Each additional formula continues the process of exponential decay. McCarthy has clearly decided to maximize his potential readership by avoiding mathematical formulae, or worse, skeletal formulae of organic molecules.

Dalbavancin, public domain  By Hbf878 - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73536309

Dalbavancin, public domain

By Hbf878 - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73536309

However, while he doesn’t show them, he talks about them a lot. If you know what is going on, you can either envision the diagrams or look them up, but organic chemistry isn’t needed to tell the stories that McCarthy wants to tell.

The first story is McCarthy’s work with Allergan on the antibiotic dalbavancin, and his journey to learn how to write a protocol for a clinical trial and gain consent from often frightened and bewildered patients who show up in Emergency Rooms with methicillin-resistant Staph Aureus infections. His meandering style allows him to digress into the second story, which is a capsule history of the development of antibiotics, and the sometimes checkered history of human experimentation in medicine.

Sir Alexander Fleming, looking rather intense for the photographer  By Official photographer - http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//32/media-32192/large.jpgThis is photograph TR 1468 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24436974

Sir Alexander Fleming, looking rather intense for the photographer

By Official photographer - http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//32/media-32192/large.jpgThis is photograph TR 1468 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24436974

His history of antibiotic development includes well-known figures like Alexander Fleming, and the overlooked, like Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Brown, who developed nystatin, the first antifungal drug.

Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Brown  By Smithsonian Institution - Flickr: Elizabeth Lee Hazen (1888-1975) and Rachel Brown (1898-1980), No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18386483

Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Brown

By Smithsonian Institution - Flickr: Elizabeth Lee Hazen (1888-1975) and Rachel Brown (1898-1980), No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18386483

The book is probably worth it just for this well-done short summary of the powerhouses of modern pharmaceuticals [and more evidence for my theory that the greatest period of technological advancement in the twentieth century was between 1920-1950]

By the early 1950s, ninety percent of the prescriptions filled by patients were for drugs that had not even existed in 1938. pg 101 [citing Miracle Cure by William Rosen 2017]

However, you also get a good look at how medicine is practiced in the United States today, from the practitioner’s point-of-view. Physicians need to manage conflicts of interest, like the portion of McCarthy’s salary that is paid by Allergan and other corporations, patients that are bound and determined to pursue courses of treatment that the evidence doesn’t support, and the sheer soul-crushing burden of seeing so much suffering day-in and day-out.

We Americans expect our doctors to be superhuman: to work without rest, to diagnose without fail, and resist the siren call of wealth. Doctors receive enormous deference for our unrealistic expectations, but a subtext of McCarthy’s book is the toll this takes on our often genuinely selfless and dedicated physicians. Who do in fact accept honoraria and speaking fees from pharmaceutical companies and miss their children while they work long hours.

Another interesting aspect of American medical practice is its insularity. Nearly every reference in McCarthy’s book is from a medical journal, which is the mental world of most physicians. However, medicine might progress faster if physicians were to be a little bit more widely read. For example, McCarthy devotes a fair bit of space to the research of Vincent Fischetti, who isolates enzymes from bacteriophages. But phage therapy was a thing before antibiotics were invented, and was largely forgotten in the initial enthusiasm for antibiotics. Phages and adjacent technologies would be a useful adjunct to antibiotics, but medicine, meaning mostly expert physician opinion, has been pointedly disinterested for seventy years or more. I appreciate that McCarthy is trying to do something about that, but reading and citing mostly medical journals is only going to perpetuate the attitude that pushed useful therapies aside because it wasn’t the hot new thing, or because it came from the wrong field.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. I think McCarthy did a fine job making the history of antibiotics accessible, and was remarkably honest about himself and his field, frankly admitting the challenges physicians face today. This book could have been dry, but it wasn’t, so I am willing to embrace the rapid alternation between the present and the past. McCarthy made this style work. One can learn a lot about the world, past and present, from this book.

In a final note, there is a short letter tucked in my review copy that public results for McCarthy’s dalba study are expected on or around May 21st, just under a week from the publication of this review. I hope everything went well, because I like having options when the bacteria evolve faster than us.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Clock's Watch Book Review

Clock’s Watch
by Michael Reyes, cover art by MV, interior art by Sean Bova, Jay Campbell, and MV
Mycelium Press (January 5, 2018)

I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into here, as this was a sale that popped up on Twitter.

It turns out, I liked this collection of vignettes about Jerry Clock, the lone guardian of Coney Island against the demons and chthonic entities that attempt to enter the realms of men through it. To start, we don’t know much about Clock, other than that he wears a coonskin cap and no one can see him. Not just because he’s really short, a Little Person, but because there is something about him that most people just don’t notice anymore.

Which probably makes his job easier, since he can skulk around the boardwalk or get drunk on the beach without anyone asking impertinent questions like: why are you following that guy? or what are you doing with that crossbow and giant knife!?!

We see a fair bit of Jerry and his work through the eyes of the unfortunates who get caught up in the schemes of some unspeakable monster from the deep that needs a host to complete a summoning ritual, or some such. The details tend to vary here, since Clock’s Watch isn’t an exercise in elaborate world-building, but rather a pastiche of fantasy and horror and scifi villains that are consistently thwarted by a foul-mouthed dwarf who gets drunk and stabs things.

I’m a born Westerner, so I don’t know much about Coney Island or its environs, but I can detect the kind of passionate love of place that I enjoy in other authors’ work. So while I don’t know the place in the same way a local might, I could at least tell that Reyes wanted to tell fun stories set in a place he loved, even if [or because] it was a little weird.

This isn’t a book that takes itself too seriously, and was a lot of fun to read. I’m looking forward to volume II, and seeing what other kinds of trouble Clock finds himself in.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Hollow City Book Review

Hollow City: Book of Karma book 1
by Cheah Kit Sun
Published by Silver Empire (2019)

Hollow City is the second book in the Heroes Unleashed universe I have reviewed. I picked up this copy on my own, so you can’t blame the author for my opinions.

My opinion is: I like this book. Adam Song is a fascinating character, and I’ll delve into why at some length. Adam’s interests and profession also make this book a kind of gun pr0n, which is fun for me since I am also interested in firearms. Finally, I am enjoying the Heroes Unleashed take on superheroes, which doesn’t make them mundane, but at least routine. Not everyone has super powers, but you better take the possibility into account when making any kind of serious plan.

I doubt this review would pass a strict spoiler policy, but I’ll try to keep it under control. Consider yourself warned.

Let’s get into why I find Adam so interesting. Adam Song is a cop. Not just any cop, but a member of the elite Special Tactics and Rescue team. He is a doorkicker, a life-taker, and a heart-breaker. Well, probably not the last, now that I think about it. In so far as Adam has killed an average of one person a year in the course of his duties with the Hollow City Police Department, he definitely qualifies as a life-taker. But he lacks the dark triad traits that make murderers and terrorists the recipients of gushing fan mail in prison. If anyone’s heart is going to be broken, it is probably Adam’s.

Adam also has a secret. He is a Prime, the Heroes Unleashed version of a superhero. His powers are precisely what elevated him to the STAR unit. At the beginning of Hollow City, Adam has been a cop for six years, but a member of STAR for only eighteen months. Which just happens to coincide with the time since he gained his powers. This is because STAR, like Detroit SWAT, specializes in no-knock raids. But in Hollow City, unlike Detroit, the guy on the other side might have superpowers too, so HCPD makes sure to even the odds by having a Prime on the entry team. In that capacity, he goes by his codename Amp, and wears a mask when he is working.

Knock knock.

Knock knock.

Many men in Adam’s position would probably be insufferably arrogant, but Adam strikes me as a quiet, unassuming type. In part, this is a matter of self-protection, since his public persona would be liable to reprisals if his enemies knew where he lived, but also I get the feeling Adam would have acted the same way in public if there were no danger. His primary motivation is not fame or money, but duty.

His dutifulness is the prime hinge of his character, and the source of the two major conflicts Adam experiences in the book. In each case, he feels duty-bound to do two-incompatible things. In a sense, his life [and this book] is a quest to reconcile these moral imperatives.

First, Adam is first-generation Chinese immigrant. His parents brought him to America when he was thirteen, by way of Singapore and Hong Kong. He was old enough to remember his previous life, but also young enough to imprint on his new home. His parents have definite ideas about what constitutes honest employment, and neither his previous job [Marine] nor his current job [Cop], meet that definition. In the straightforward expectation of his culture, duty would require him to follow his parent’s wishes, and work in the family business.

Aaron and I were outsiders. Always had been, always were. In Singapore, primary schoolers made fun of our funny accents and weird speech patterns. In Halo City high schoolers did the same. Everywhere we went, the old rules no longer applied. We had to learn quickly, adapt even faster.

Aaron kept his head down, submerged himself into the local Chinese community, and followed in Father’s footsteps. I almost did the same, until I saw my first USMC recruiting advertisement. In the Marines, I saw a way to become a man. I wanted to prove that I was an American, more American than everyone else.

In America, duty primarily means service to the nation, rather than the family. So when Adam decides that he wants to be a good American, he does the thing that is expected of him as an American. He travels to distant lands, meets interesting people, and kills them.

This decision flows into his second conflict, which is secondary to his character, but primary to the plot. After Adam gets out of the Marines, his duty to the nation fulfilled, he naturally flows down to the next lower level of loyalty, and joins the Halo City Police Department. In America, the basic motto of any police department is To Protect and to Serve. It just happens that Adam is really really good at protecting the public by shooting bad guys in the face.

Which is exactly what he is hired to do once he becomes a Prime. Adam’s history with the HCPD prior to the STAR unit is a bit less explored in the book, but we do know that Adam was the trigger puller in more than one OIS [officer involved shooting] before he joined the high risk STAR unit. It is possible that this was overlooked in the overwhelming need to put an already employed Prime officer into the high risk STAR unit, but I suspect it is more likely that this was seen as a feature and not a bug.

At least until he became a political liability by killing an admittedly dangerous man [a Prime with the ability to shoot anything he pointed at] who was also the son of a gangster in the process of crossing the line between crime lord and pillar of the community. When Adam was in the Marines, this was his job, full stop. You killed anyone who was dangerous, and you did so in a way that maximized your odds of coming home at the end of the day. This is uncomplicated when you can identify your targets as enemy combatants, and potentially explosive then they are American citizens who are innocent until proven guilty.

In this way, Adam serves as the personification of the militarization of the police in the United States. The actual military is famously forbidden from engaging in police activities by the Posse Comitatus Act, but there is a creeping influence which can probably be measured by looking the kind of uniforms police officers wear, as can be seen by the image above of a no-knock raid training exercise. The fear is that the distinction between accused or suspected criminals and open enemies of the state is being erased.

There is also a positive sense, insofar as the militarization of the police has coincided with a professionalization of the police. Cops used to do pretty much any damn thing they felt like. Now, there is at least a standard to which they are expected to adhere. At the best, this means less chance of death for both the cop and the perp, insofar as options are sought that seek to maximize that outcome.

Adam Song occupies the ground precisely where that question comes into play. A question that is interesting to me is where does the line lie for police work as opposed to war? When is it acceptable to kill a man who might be a danger to public order? Or who is definitely dangerous, but not currently in the act of shooting his victims? For a soldier, that question is relatively simple. You act with maximum force at the first opportunity. For a police officer, the answer is always NO, you cannot kill except when your life or the life of another is directly at risk, or at least that is the moral and legal presumption in our society. What makes this hard is that a lot of former soldiers eventually find themselves in service as cops. Men just like Adam Song.

For Adam Song, what makes a strait-laced cop go rogue is the feeling of betrayal when your superiors throw you to the wolves for doing precisely what they hired you to do. Adam’s job, as Amp, the HCPD Prime, is to serve the warrants on dangerous Primes that would otherwise simply kill all of the arresting officers and then disappear.

This gets even more complicated when your job is to arrest the bad guys that are widely known to be bad, but who of course enjoy the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. When you mix in Halo City’s high-diversity, low-trust environment, along with a dash of corruption, you get a lot of guys like Adam, who start to feel that the military way has its attractions. Adam clearly loves his city, but he also feels like there are good guys, and bad guys, and he isn’t particularly interested in watching the bad guys take advantage of a system that was designed for a high-trust environment.

Since I happened to read Hollow City at about the same time I read Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series, I was struck by the differing trajectories the main characters in these books take. Jack Morgan starts as an outlaw, and over the course of the series eventually is reconciled to polite society. Adam Song starts out as a respected member of the community, and ends up becoming exactly what his detractors call him: a rogue cop, a vigilante, and a criminal defendant.

However, in many respects, what each of them do isn’t actually that different. Jack mostly tries to avoid killing, but his symbiont Draycos, the K’da warrior-poet who possesses the rights of judge, jury, and executioner in one person, kills a man in the first book because Draycos seems him commit a murder. This can only loosely be called defense of another, since the man was threatening Jack, but the book makes it clear that Draycos is like a monster of legend, as much greater in combat power than a human as a powerful Prime like Amp is. Also, Jack’s AI guardian, Uncle Virge, does lots of killing, it is just the kind where he shoots down other ships to protect Jack.

Once I realized that, my whole opinion of the weight of the Dragonback series started to shift. There are some real similarities, but also some real differences with Adam Song’s Halo City. Jack Morgan’s universe is a lot further down the path of societal dissolution that Halo City is only starting to tread. Is Adam’s vigilantism worth it if it prevents open slavery and corporations hiring mercenaries to fight literal turf battles over their commercial interests?

Even if we temporarily ignore the question of how probable the odds of success are for Adam’s attempt to stave off further dissolution, this is a worthy question. In the moral and legal framework of the United States, which is clearly the setting of Halo City, which I take to be an analogue of Los Angeles, Adam is pretty clearly beyond the pale. However, the reason I bring in Zahn’s more speculative universe here is that other arrangements that still seem just are imaginable.

Adam is pretty clearly doing what he finds to be his duty, in the circumstances he finds himself. We might judge that he has nonetheless crossed a line that should not be crossed, even if the results are otherwise just. That tension is exactly what makes this book fascinating. I don’t know what Cheah has in mind for Adam after this, but I would like to find out.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books in the Heroes Unleashed series

by Morgon Newquist

Heroes Fall: Serenity City book 1

Dragon and Liberator Book Review

Dragon and Liberator: Dragonback book 6
by Timothy Zahn
368 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018) in a set with volumes 4 and 5
ASIN B079N6ZHPG

The time has come for Jack and Draycos to fulfill their destiny, or die trying. The K’da/Shontine refugee fleet has nearly completed its two years of faster-than-light travel, fleeing across the void between adjacent spiral arms of the galaxy. Despite all of their efforts, their enemies have assembled an attack force at the rendezvous point for the refugee fleet.

The time has also come for answers. Who are the K’da, and where did they come from? Why are their enemies willing to pursue them beyond the edge of the world? Who is Alison Kayna, and whom does she work for? What exactly is the connection between Jack and Draycos, and and why do they ‘nick’?

By now, we also have many answers. We learned in the last volume that Jack’s parents were Judge-Paladins, the circuit judges of the Orion Arm, empowered to hear cases and dispense justice anywhere they might find themselves. While we don’t learn precisely what the limits of their power or jurisdiction are, we do know that are granted ships of unusual power, speed, and armament, such as the one Virgil Morgan stole from Jack’s parents.

I found Zahn’s description of the badges of authority of a Judge-Paladin fascinating: their distinctive hats were a combination of a biretta and a tricorn hat. As a Catholic convert, and a reader of First Things magazine, that seems like a not entirely accidental combination. If someone were to boldly create a symbol of the late twentieth century project to marry orthodox Catholicism to the American Dream, this would be it.

Biretta  By MK777 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4733523

Biretta

By MK777 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4733523

Tricorne hat  By Unknown - LACMA Image Library. Photograph LACMA.Derivative work: PKM (talk), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14854853

Tricorne hat

By Unknown - LACMA Image Library. Photograph LACMA.Derivative work: PKM (talk), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14854853

While I’ve had some doubts about Zahn, I have absolutely nothing to make me think that Zahn is a secret disciple of Fr. Neuhaus. Nonetheless, this is a striking example of cultural convergence. I might dismiss it as a coincidence if it weren’t for the uncanny resemblance of Draycos’ ethics of war to the police model of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

An interesting wrinkle in this theory is that book 6 is where the gloves come off. Up til now, Draycos has avoided intentional killing, except for book 1, where he executed a man who had killed a random passerby in an attempt to coerce Jack into helping with Arthur Neverlin’s grand conspiracy. Now that time is short, and the fate of his people hangs upon a precipice, Draycos is quicker to kill, and he even resorts to the use of the Death, the dreaded weapon of the Valahgua, smuggled into the Orion Arm to finish the fleeing refugees.

I saw a comment in another review that seems pertinent here. I hadn’t particularly noticed, but book 1 was a bit of a departure from Zahn’s usual style, and even a bit over the top in how the story and even the terminology was simplified. Now that we are down to book 6, I feel like Zahn has gotten more comfortable with the juvenile novel thing, and relaxed back into something that feels more normal for him.

Which is a good thing, insofar as Zahn skillfully wraps up all of his plot threads and hints from the previous five volumes into a hell of a conclusion. This is an excellent series, with some interesting ideas and especially well done character development. I encourage you to pick these books up.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Timothy Zahn

New Thrawn series:
Thrawn
Thrawn: Alliances

Quadrail series:
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

Original Thrawn Trilogy:
Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

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

Dragonback series:
Dragon and Thief
Dragon and Soldier
Dragon and Slave
Dragon and Herdsman
Dragon and Judge

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

Dragon and Judge Book Review

Dragon and Judge: Dragonback book 5
by Timothy Zahn
320 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018) in a set with volumes 4 and 6
ASIN B079N6ZHPG

Finally, five volumes in, we find out what really happened to Jack’s parents, and who they really were. I’ve been waiting a long time for this revelation, and it is just as good as I expected.

Virgil Morgan and Obi-wan share a point of view

Virgil Morgan and Obi-wan share a point of view

It wasn’t hard to suspect that Virgil Morgan wasn’t telling the complete truth about Jack’s parents, but on the other hand he did pretty well by Jack, even as he used him in his cons and trained him in an ethos of radical self-sufficiency. On the gripping hand, we also start to see that Jack and Draycos’ meeting on Iota Klestis was not mere happenstance, but rather a providential act that would ensure that justice can be done for everyone.

Justice is a key theme of the Dragonback series. Draycos needs justice for his harried and beleaguered people, fleeing from genocidal war. Jack wants justice for himself, to start anew after being conscripted into a life of crime by his benefactor. Jack needs justice because the unscrupulous are only too willing to try to take advantage of his checkered past to enlist him in dubious schemes. Justice is clearly in short supply in the Orion Arm.

Another key theme is birthright. Draycos and Jack are each special because of who they are. The key dramatic element in Dragon and Judge is, who is Jack? Where did he come from? Who are his parents, really? We don’t have to wonder much about Draycos, who is after all a dragon and a warrior, although some surprises are yet in store. Jack is an orphan, an archetype of import, and together they have a destiny to fulfill.

In Dragon and Judge, we also have a storyline involving Alison Kayna, Jack’s compatriot from book 2, and Taneem, a phooka turned K’da by bonding with Alison. With the mystery of Jack’s parents cleared up, we have a new mystery to ponder in Alison. We don’t truly know who she is or who she is working for. While we consider this, we also get to see Zahn explore her character. Everything Alison does is of necessity duplicitous, since she is observing Jack at the behest of an unknown party, but her charade is eased by what appears to be genuine agreement with Jack and Draycos’ mission to save the K’da refugee fleet.

Earnest and naive Taneem serves as a foil for Alison, as Zahn gently probes the moral dilemma of doing what is right versus maintaining your cover. Since this is a juvenile, we aren’t going to see Alison faced with an atrocity. That would have been an interesting setup with Draycos’ unyielding sense of right and wrong, but this isn’t that kind of a book. While the stakes are dramatically high, this is the PG version.

All of the pieces are now in place for the dramatic conclusion. Let us see how Zahn wraps it all up.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Timothy Zahn

New Thrawn series:
Thrawn
Thrawn: Alliances

Quadrail series:
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

Original Thrawn Trilogy:
Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

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

Dragonback series:
Dragon and Thief
Dragon and Soldier
Dragon and Slave
Dragon and Herdsman

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

Dragon and Slave Book Review

Dragon and Slave: Dragonback book 3
by Timothy Zahn
287 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018)
ASIN B079JGH1PJ

As it turns out, fourteen-year-old boys do not often make good plans. Jack Morgan has better helpers than most teenagers, but Uncle Virge is a computer and Draycos is transdimensional symbiont who is new to the Orion Arm, so Jack is effectively in charge, no matter how bad of an idea that may be.

In three volumes so far, none of his plans have worked out well, but then again, plans never survive contact with the enemy, and Jack has a lot of enemies. In fact, in order to help Draycos, he keeps seeking them out. Fortunately, Jack has unusual skills developed during an unusual life, plus two companions who will do their best to protect him.

Which he needs, now that he has sold himself into slavery in order to infiltrate his newest target. Like all of Jack’s plans, this is not just crazy enough to work, it is just plain crazy. However, we do get to learn some interesting things, such as the fact that the human worlds are sufficiently put off by open slavery to staff their local embassy with anti-slavery activists, but also not bothered enough to go William Wilberforce on the planet Brum-a-dum and interdict their spaceport.

William Wilberforce  By John Rising - (Original text: Wilberforce House, Hull Museum, Hull City Council)originally uploaded on en.wikipedia by Agendum (talk · contribs) at 23 April 2008, 22:38. Filename was Wilberforce john rising.jpg., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7354415

William Wilberforce

By John Rising - (Original text: Wilberforce House, Hull Museum, Hull City Council)originally uploaded on en.wikipedia by Agendum (talk · contribs) at 23 April 2008, 22:38. Filename was Wilberforce john rising.jpg., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7354415

Now we have an idea of why the Orion Arm is such a seedy place. The powers that do exist lack either the will or capability of enforcing their laws, and petty warlords have stepped into the gaps. We also get to learn the origin story of the K’da. A heroic myth of servitude and rebellion, passed down through the generations. It fits well with Draycos’ self-perception.

Here, we also get the first hints of something unexpected coming from the fortuitous meeting of Jack and Draycos in that ruined ship. Each of them is changing the other, but not in the sense of Heraclitus, but something more remarkable, with its full import not yet visible.

Much like the Quadrail series, on the surface, the Dragonback series seems simple, and each volume follows in a track laid down by its predecessor. But once you see the pattern, you realize that each successive story isn’t following exactly the same path, each one is expanding on what came before, building on it to end up in a place you wouldn’t expect.

Spiral power

Spiral power

Dragon and Soldier Book Review

Dragon and Soldier: Dragonback book 2
by Timothy Zahn
244 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018)
ASIN B079JKBDCN

Dragon and Soldier follows the same pattern as Dragon and Thief, the first volume in the Dragonback series. Jack and Draycos get into sticky situations, and then scrape by on Jack’s thievery, Draycos’ bravery, and sheer pluck. In the first volume, Draycos helped clear Jack’s name of a crime he did not commit, and in return, Jack now feels honor bound to help Draycos find the organization responsible for shooting down the K’da’s ship and killing all of his shipmates.

Since the only lead they have is the make of the fighters that downed Draycos’ ship, and the dragon’s hunch that pirates would have been less professional while a planetary defense force would have had more ships, Jack decides to infiltrate one of the Orion Arm’s many mercenary groups in order to steal their intelligence on their rivals.

With this plan set in motion, we get a chance to see how seedy the Orion Arm really is. Virgil took pains to inculcate a me-first attitude in Jack after his parents died, and here we start to get an idea of why. In the first book, Jack’s prime antagonist was the Braxton Universis corporation. It isn’t too hard to see huge corporations as wicked, but in the Dragonback universe, even the little corporations are heartless too.

The mechanism that Jack uses to infiltrate the Whinyard’s Edge mercenary organization is their practice of indenturing teenagers as cannon fodder. In theory, Internos, the confederation of the human worlds, opposes this. In practice, the individual worlds do as they like as long as the money is good. The money is apparently very, very good.

Whinyard’s Edge isn’t interested in providing much training to their new recruits, but fortunately for Jack, Draycos is the inheritor of a [very] proud martial tradition, and he can make up for some of the shortcomings in Jack’s accelerated short course in soldiering. Jack also gets a few pointers from a female recruit, Alison Kayna, who is set up to be an ally, an enemy, a love interest, or maybe all three somewhere down the line.

This was a pretty good adventure. Jack and Draycos learn how to work together, and we get a good setup for the continuation of the series, even if neither Jack nor Draycos can catch a break. I look forward to seeing more of their world.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Timothy Zahn

New Thrawn series:
Thrawn
Thrawn: Alliances

Quadrail series:
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

Original Thrawn Trilogy:
Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

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

Dragonback series:
Dragon and Thief

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

Underlord Book Review

Underlord: Cradle Book 6
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (March 1, 2019)
ASIN B07NJ3B6HN

If you have been following along with the Cradle series, you will have a pretty good idea of what to expect by now. Our young protagonist, Wei Shi Lindon Arelius, will have adventures, face insurmountable odds, and advance his Path. Wight has got a good thing going here, and he sticks to what works. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: these books are just fun. But I want to stop a moment and look at why it works. Indulge me.

And work it does. When Underlord released on March 1st, 2019, it rose at least as high as #5 on Amazon’s Kindle store, and maybe higher. Wight doesn’t run any sort of amazing social media campaign, his books mostly sell by word of mouth and through the praises of reviews like this one. His release schedule helps, you don’t have to wait years in between installments. But I think this is good evidence that Wight gives his readers what they want. What they [I] want is a good story, and Wight does that.

Fresh off of reading J. D. Cowan’s multi-part review of Sam J. Lundwell's Science Fiction: An Illustrated History, I have a new appreciation for just how good the Cradle series is, and new gratitude to Will Wight for writing the things I like to read. In particular, I learned something about just what it is I like about stories like this. Lindon needed insight into himself in order to advance, and in much the same way I needed insight in what makes a story good in order to be able to understand my own tastes.

One of the things I learned from Cowan’s review is that science fiction isn’t really a genre. In fact, debates about what is or isn’t science fiction tend to get bogged down, because the usual definitions don’t cut nature at the joints. By analogy, what is usually called fantasy isn’t a genre either. Cowan proposes instead that science fiction, fantasy, and horror are all subgenres of adventure fiction, which is meant to evoke the emotion of wonder in the reader.

Wonder is a trait from adventure fiction and its subgenres fantasy and horror. It is the adventure of exploring new lands, peoples, and possibilities.

This was the insight that I needed, because now I can understand what I like, and what I don’t. There is an irreducible element of personal taste in all of our entertainment, but I learned that adventure fiction is the kind that I like to read, precisely because the emotion of wonder is what I am after. There are lots of books labeled as sci fi or fantasy that I don’t like, but this is because genre, the emotion meant to be evoked, has been confused with milieu, or setting.

In the sense that I mean the term, setting a story in the future doesn’t make it science fiction. Swords and dragons don’t make a book fantasy either. If the emotion the author is trying to invoke in me is despair or rage, I don’t really want to read that book, no matter what trappings it has. I finally understand why Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was a romance. He was connecting his work with an older tradition, not inventing a new one.

Wight’s books work for me because he is taking me on an adventure! I see the remarkable world of Cradle: Iteration 110 though Lindon’s eyes, and I get to see him grow up as he learns about the marvelous world in which he finds himself. The speculative fiction element is subdued, but not wholly absent. The focus here is on Lindon and his journey, rather than exactly what kind of society you would get if we lived in a simulation and cheat codes were enabled. There is just enough thought given to the structure and sociology to make it plausible. Everything else is about fun.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Will Wight

Cradle Series:

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4 Review

Ghostwater: Cradle Book 5 Review


Traveler’s Gate series:

House of Blades: Traveler's Gate Book 1 Review

The Crimson Vault: Traveler's Gate Book 2 Review

City of Light: Traveler's Gate Book 3 Review

Traveler's Gate Chronicles Book Review

Dragon and Thief Book Review

Dragon and Thief: Dragonback book 1
by Timothy Zahn
231 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018)
ASIN B079JC54C8

The Dragonback series is a what they now call a YA [Young Adult] series, but I still like the older designation of a juvenile novel, since I grew up with it, and also because a lot of what is branded as YA seems like utter crap. Here is what Jerry Pournelle had to say in 2011 about juveniles:

I followed Robert Heinlein’s rules on ‘juveniles’ when I wrote it: no sex scenes, and as Robert used to say, a juvenile has young protagonists and you can put in more science and explanations of what’s going on in juvenile works; which is to say it’s a good story, and has always appealed to adults as well as to the 10 – 15 year olds it was sort of written for.

I like re-posting Jerry’s re-iteration of Heinlein’s definition because I find that my appreciation for a well-done juvenile novel only grows with time. I am of course influenced by having small children that I want to share stories with, but I also just like this kind of story, and I have for a long time. Something that is truly only fit for children cannot really be a juvenile novel in this sense, because the author needs to craft something as interesting to adults as to teenagers. A good juvenile is also mildly didactic, which fits well in the general hard sci fi mold. In this case, Zahn’s juvenile series is less about some useful aspect of science than about a young man learning what it means to be a good man after growing up as the orphan apprentice of a con man and a thief.

The hook which sets this series in motion is our young protagonist, Jack Morgan, stumbling across the wreckage of an unfamiliar starship. Within, he finds a lone survivor, desperate and near death. That survivor is dying precisely because he is alone. The K’Da are interdimensional symbionts. Draycos can push himself into three-dimensional space for brief periods, but in order to rest he must allow himself to relax by becoming two-dimensional on the surface of a compatible host. Unfortunately, his host, and all the other crew of his ship, were killed either in battle or in the subsequent crash.

Lacking recourse, Draycos gambles his life upon the possibility that Jack may provide the sanctuary he needs. Gathering his failing strength, he jumps! Zahn will likely have a lot of fun working out the implications of what this means over the next five novels in this series, but for now, Jack Morgan has gained an impressive tattoo/traveling companion with fierce claws and a strong sense of justice.

After this unlikely meeting, Jack and Draycos find that their lives are entwined in more ways than either initially suspects. Jack, despite [or because of?] his past life of crime, is hiding on this desolate planet because he has been unjustly accused of a crime. Draycos and his former crewmates were there seeking a new home, refugees of the losing side of an interstellar war. Somehow, this all hangs together, and part of the fun is finding out how and why.

Jack and Draycos immediately find themselves in each other’s debt, for Jack saves Draycos from dimensional dissolution, and Draycos returns the favor by saving Jack from the mercenary soldier prowling about the crashed ship looking for survivors, or witnesses. Fear and necessity bind them together initially, but the rest of the book, and presumably the following books in the series, are about Jack and Draycos learning about one another while trying to unravel the mystery in which they find themselves entangled.

The structure of Dragon and Thief is primarily a caper, as Jack uses his apprenticeship in crime to good advantage. This makes the novel rather fun, as we get to see Jack and Draycos bluff and scam their way through various adventures. However, Draycos himself makes for an interesting contrast, because his rather grand sense of honor is a continual foil for Jack’s primarily self-serving survival skills.

Jack is simultaneously fascinated and annoyed by Draycos, who like a knight of old, is fierce in battle, but he will not press an unfair advantage or abandon a fallen enemy in distress. Draycos, for his part, is occasionally appalled by Jack’s instincts, but mostly sees their fortuitous meeting as an opportunity to set Jack back on the straight and narrow in recompense for saving his life.

The interplay between them, mediated by the ship’s AI which houses the memory of the con man who raised Jack, is what raises this from an entertaining caper novel to a disquisition in very very applied ethics. The stakes in the story are dramatically high, but the basic questions are more fundamental: do you help someone because you expect recompense, or simply because it is the right thing to do? Do you defend yourself with maximum ruthlessness and force, because your enemies will not deign to extend you the same consideration, or do you seek the minimum of force which will allow you some measure of safety? Who can you really trust? And what hidden agendas lie behind offers of help and good intentions?

Since this is a juvenile novel, and not a work of historical fiction or political intrigue, these questions receive relatively straight forward answers. Which is in my opinion appropriate for the intended audience. At some point, harder questions and harder answers need to be proposed and given, but the result will be better built upon a foundation like this. It is far too easy to drift into nihilism otherwise.

I really liked this book, and I recommend it to fans of adventure fiction and juvenile novels in the Heinlein mold. You can pick the first three of six volumes up on Amazon right now for $2.99 USD, which is a great deal. I’ve got reviews coming of volumes two and three, so don’t fret.

My other book reviews

Other books by Timothy Zahn

New Thrawn series:
Thrawn
Thrawn: Alliances

Quadrail series:
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

Original Thrawn Trilogy:
Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

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

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

The Best of C. L. Moore Book Review

The Best of C. L. Moore
by C. L. Moore
452 pages
Published by Diversion Books (September 22, 2015)
ASIN B07H15QVLC

Catherine Lucille Moore  By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34553491

Catherine Lucille Moore

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34553491

I had heard of Catherine Lucille Moore, but this was my first exposure to her work. I saw this collection of her short stories come on sale on Amazon, so I decided to give it a try.

In my typical fashion for a short story collection, I’ll do a short review of each story, and then look at the collection as a whole.


Shambleau *****

Not only is this story my introduction to Moore’s work in general, it is my introduction to one of her most famous characters, Northwest Smith. N.W., as his partner-in-crime Yarol calls him, is very much the anti-hero. I call him an anti-hero insofar as he doesn’t particularly demonstrate the chivalry of other nearly contemporaneous characters like the Geste brothers. However, I think you could almost as accurately call him a hero, if the hero you have in mind is someone like Odysseus.

Northwest Smith is a pirate and a smuggler, a desperado of renown. Like Odysseus, he is cast adrift from his home. He definitely shoots first and then neglects to ask any questions. He is happy to lie to your face and then rob you blind. He is not, however, a force of random destruction, he just is wholly out for himself. In the pre-Christian moral universe of the Homeric Greeks, N. W. would have fit right in. However, he does not actually live in that moral universe, but in one whose foundation is Christianity, which is a thematic element we will return to later.

In addition, the story itself is a re-working of Greek legend, but with an eldritch horror element that feels quite natural here. Greek myth itself doesn’t have the existential dread of living in a universe that contains many things older than, more powerful than, and also indifferent at best to man, but it readily compatible with it. The Greek Gods were anthropomorphic, but often cruel and indifferent. However, the real monsters do not even rise to that level.

“Shambleau” uses the venerable conceit that old stories often contain a gem of truth. Stories in this vein treat their subjects as not at all metaphorical. With suspension of disbelief, such a story can be strange and frightening because you can imagine it to be mostly true. Many of my favorite authors have recycled myth and history to great effect, and Moore does an excellent job here. Even more remarkable, since this was her first commercial sale. “Shambleau” is one of the stories almost everyone talks about when speaking of C. L. Moore’s work, and I think it a remarkable piece. I can see why Moore had such a long career and so much influence on other authors.


Black Thirst ***

Whereas “Shambleau” had a touch of eldritch horror, “Black Thirst” is quite simply Lovecraftian. This is the second Northwest Smith tale, and in typical planetary romance fashion, it is set on a young and torrid Venus, whereas “Shambleau” was set on an old and dusty Mars.

This story gave off a pretty strong Tim Powers vibe for me. Powers’ early novel, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, in particular. The antagonist of “Black Thirst”, the Alendar, has a likeness to Powers’ Norton Jaybush. Most of Powers’ protagonists are nothing like Northwest Smith however.

Unfortunately, while this possible connection is intriguing to me, I started to lose steam on the collection here. “Black Thirst” is very much in the vein of Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. I liked the John Carter stories well enough, but not enough to read again, so I found more of the same unispiring. Not even the Lovecraftian element was good enough, since it was more of a mood than a repetition of Lovecraft’s peculiar way with words.


Mantorok – The Corpse God

Mantorok – The Corpse God

The Bright Illusion **

“The Bright Illusion” is the weakest story in this collection. I might actually have given up here, but I am glad that I did not. My best description of this is Lovecraft in spaaaace! It features a human coerced into serving as an agent in a titanic battle between two beings so great in power and majesty they are worshiped as gods, although they are nothing of the sort.

Except, this story ends on a curiously hopeful note, which in the hands of lesser author would have been merely schmaltzy. We get “Love conquers all” mixed up with “There are fates worse than death”, but I am most fascinated by the way in which this is used to illustrate the fundamental inadequacy of the victor of the titanic battle of the “gods”, who is forced to admit that the worst it can actually do is kill you.

This is curiously not like Lovecraft, and piqued my interest despite the overall weakness of the story compared to the rest.


This is the most perfect image I could find of Jirel.

This is the most perfect image I could find of Jirel.

Black Kiss *****

“Black Kiss” was the story that rescued the whole collection for me. It helped that I stumbled upon a recently written blog post, Fandom: An Illustrative History (Part I: Origins and Tales From the Crypt). This blog post illuminated Moore’s work in particular, and my love of science fiction in general.

The blog post has a lot of sci-fi inside baseball that need not detain us here, but this part stuck out to me:

The Gothic is the beating bloody heart in any good traditional romance story and is what gives it the universal core so needed in fiction. White against black. Dark against Light. Hero against Villain. Eternal Life against Endless Death. Temptation against Virtue. It goes beyond the surface into weighty themes of the Ultimate, God, and True Justice. The knowledge of a battle between forces beyond both parties at play that haunt the scenery and the overall world behind the story. It underpins every action and decision, and the thought that salvation or damnation is a stone throw away is the most nail-biting experience of them all. Now those are stakes, and they were an integral part of all fiction until the second half of the 20th century where the worst thing that can happen to you is that a monster might kill you in the dark where you can't see it.

The term romance, as used here and in my own musings above, echos the sense in which J. R. R. Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was a romance, by which he, and I, means a story of heroism and adventure and wonder. This was a development of the earlier chanson de geste, such as the Song of Roland. Not a bodice-ripper, although you might actually be confused if you search of images of Jirel of Joiry. I picked the one image I found that matched the story best.

The moral universe of Jirel is explicitly a Christian one. Defeated, and in extremis, Jirel seeks the possibility of a weapon beyond mortal ken in the bowels of her castle. She has previously explored the forbidden passage with her chaplain, but now she disregards his entirely sensible advice to turn back and she descends into a strikingly imagined Hell to exact vengeance. Jirel reaches a point where she can progress no further without discarding the Crucifix she wears about her neck. She proceeds.

I have no idea what Moore’s beliefs, or personal life, were really like. But at the distance of 85 years, what struck me was she simply assumed her readers would understand the peril in which Jirel was placing herself. If you don’t think there are fates worse than death, this story won’t make any sense at all. The stakes are not death, but damnation.

Jirel finds that which she seeks in that mysterious tunnel under her castle. But what we seek, and what we really want, often aren’t truly the same things. Moore’s denouement is so characteristically feminine that I don’t know how to properly do it justice, other than to say that the image I selected for this short story is simply perfect, and all the others are irrelevant cheesecake.

I am also almost certain that Tim Powers lifted parts of this story into his works, particularly The Drawing of the Dark. There is a scene in “Black Kiss” with a spiral tunnel that Jirel transits, and Powers wrote of a spiral staircase under a brewery in Vienna that his protagonist descended to seek power, claustrophobically close. Once I saw the similarity here, I couldn’t unsee it in other places too.


A Tryst in Time ***

A time travel/reincarnation/love story. I was impressed with how well Moore blended the masculine adventure elements with star-crossed lovers. Not exactly my thing, but well-imagined.


Science laboratory, The University of Iowa, 1930s   Rights Information: There are no known copyright restrictions on this image. The digital file is owned by the University of Iowa Libraries, which is making it freely available with the request that the Libraries be credited as its source.    More information about this image:  digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ictcs/id/7358

Science laboratory, The University of Iowa, 1930s

Rights Information: There are no known copyright restrictions on this image. The digital file is owned by the University of Iowa Libraries, which is making it freely available with the request that the Libraries be credited as its source.

More information about this image: digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ictcs/id/7358

Greater than Gods ****

This short story feels to me like something written much later, for example Ballard’s work, with its elements of science run amok and managerial expertise turning into despotism. On the other hand, Heinlein’s first published story came out the same year as this, 1939, and Heinlein’s work is often similar to “Greater than Gods”.

Due to an accident in converging time streams, a scientist finds himself thrust upon the horns of a dilemma. In one future, his choice of a wife means that a pacifist, matriarchal, and quite stagnant society will occur. There is no more war, but no more technology or drive either, and that society’s grip on prosperity is slowly slipping away. In the other future, the other woman he is considering proposing to will bear him a son, who will beget a long line of sons who will dominate the Earth, and far, far beyond. This society is militaristic and regimented, but also capable of genuinely great things.

At this distance in time, I am fascinated by the dilemma Moore gives us. Today, no one could possibly propose this as a genuine dilemma in literature. I don’t think it could be done, because even I feel like maybe the peaceful but incompetent society is clearly better. However, the story makes no sense at all if you cannot truly feel that heroic deeds and exploring the universe and inventing new things are genuinely good things, which counterbalance the very very topical jingoism of this late 1930s tale.

Also, Moore superficially presents us with the thought that future history depends on whether each woman bears a daughter or a son first, but on another level, what really matters is the character of the mother, and what kind of child that union will create. I won’t spoil the choice the man makes in the end, which is what makes this story really transcendent.


Mary and Eve    by Sister Grace Remington OCSO

Mary and Eve

by Sister Grace Remington OCSO

Fruit of Knowledge *****

A dramatic retelling of the Fall of Man and the Temptation of Eve. Of Biblical stories, the sin of Adam and Eve retains popular currency even now, while other stories have begun to fade from our memories.

”Fruit of Knowledge” is perhaps a typical expression of the West in the twentieth century, insofar as the sin that truly separates Man from God is not simply disobedience, but sexual desire. On the other hand, if this story had been written today, Adam would have had sex with Lilith, not simply spoken to her and enjoyed her company for a brief time before the creation of Eve.

Like “Jirel of Joiry”, “Fruit of Knowledge” is set within a Christian moral universe. Moore sets the Fall shortly after the rebellion of Lucifer, an act which does not appear in the Hebrew tradition, but is instead from the Revelation to John. Also, there are hints that the Fall of Man was in some sense a happy accident, an event that was allowed to happen, because a greater destiny was in store. This is a speculation that goes back to Augustine of Hippo, so far as I know.

Finally, the children of Lilith, referenced by Moore here, were used by Tim Powers in his novels The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves.


No Woman Born *****

Moore explicitly links this to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, through the dialogue of her characters. This is a tale of the creation of a monster by means of good intentions, and also truly terrifying to me.


Daemon ****

I think I can trace this short story to two Tim Powers novels. First, the setting, Atlantic sailing in the age of the buccaneers tinged with Vudun, is much like On Stranger Tides, the book that was optioned for Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Next, The Drawing of the Dark, Powers’ contribution to the Arthurian legend, which hinges upon the titanic change in the world wrought by the first Christmas.

No, three, because the influence of the Grait God Pan, who was the center of Powers’ Earthquake Weather.

This was a fantastic little story, from near the end of Moore’s career. Poignant and well-crafted, with acute psychological insight. Not as striking as “Shambleau”, but far better written.


Vintage Season ***

A sad tale of time-traveling voyeurism, but a well-executed one.


Ben’s final verdict *****

I almost gave up on this collection, but I am glad I didn’t. Moore wrote some great stories, of a kind I don’t think you can find anymore. I can’t find any interviews or essays where Powers talks about Moore, but after reading this, I have a hard time imagining he didn’t read her works and find inspiration in them. Highly recommended.

My other book reviews