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

City of Light Book Review

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

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

We who about to die salute you!

We who about to die salute you!

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

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

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


Spoilers below.

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

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

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

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


The Crimson Vault Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spinal-tap-11-590x330.jpg

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

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

My other book reviews

House of Blades: Traveler's Gate Book 1 Review

Other books by Will Wight

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4 Review

House of Blades Book Review

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

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

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

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

Definitely not Simon, son of Kalman

Definitely not Simon, son of Kalman

Also not Simon, but he has a bigass sword too

Also not Simon, but he has a bigass sword too

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

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

My other book reviews

Other books by Will Wight

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4 Review

Skysworn Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My other book reviews

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Blackflame Book Review

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

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

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

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

Spiral power

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

My other book reviews

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Soulsmith Book Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition, 286 pages
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (September 26, 2016)
ASIN B01M09PWJQ

I saw a line in another review that I'm going to steal: these books are like candy. I just can't stop reading them. Although I worry the implication of the phrase may be unfair to Wight; while fast and fun reads, the Cradle series has been anything but empty calories.

 
Ruth Benedict  By World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c14649, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1276865

Ruth Benedict

By World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c14649, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1276865

In Soulsmith, we pick up right where we left off at the end of Unsouled, Wei Shi Lindon is desperately fleeing the vengeance of the Heaven's Glory School, whom Lindon has robbed blind and shamed by killing one of its highest ranked members. Out in the wilderness beyond the Sacred Valley, adventure awaits. The fun lies in learning about the world at the same time, and mostly in the same way that Lindon does.

While this is fantasy, and thus not really an attempt to present some insight about the world in the context of an adventure story, there are nonetheless interesting elements of the world Wight has built. For the most part, fantasy relies upon historical examples of human societies to provide building blocks which are then reshuffled as needed to create the fantasy world intended without straining credulity too much.

A critical part of the culture of the world of Cradle is shame. I'm using the word in the same sense as Ruth Benedict did in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin. Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism. A man is shamed either by being openly ridiculed and rejected or by fantasying to himself that he has been made ridiculous. In either case, it is a potent sanction. But it requires an audience or at least a man’s fantasy of an audience. Guilt does not. In a nation where honor means living up to one’s own picture of oneself, a man may suffer from guilt though no man knows of his misdeed and a man’s feeling of guilt may actually be relieved by confessing his sin.

Benedict, 1946, p. 223

 

The sacred artists of Cradle live within an honor code of vengeance and shame, like many real-world human societies, both past and present. Justice is mostly of the vigilante variety, with your blood relations the only people you can really trust.

Another building block of the culture of Cradle is the natural hierarchy that results from the ranks of sacred artists. I call it a natural hierarchy because the ranks seem to be natural kinds. There really is something qualitatively different about an Iron artist compared to a Copper, and between all the other ranks as well. Unlike many such theories in our world, whether social, racial, occupational, or what have you, there is an essence of Ironness that underlies the social distinction.

However, those essences are also very meritocratic. Ranks are earned, through hard work and discipline, and above all, through competition. When you put all these things together, a shame culture with a social hierarchy built on real distinctions of ability and power, and the need to compete not only for social distinctions, but for power itself, you get unending war.

This last bit is perhaps the most interesting to me. Lindon's home in the Sacred Valley has the same shame culture as the world outside, but the power levels to be found within are far lower. Perhaps in compensation, it is also a far less brutal place to live. Not only is life easier there, but there are valuable materials and items available there. I'm genuinely curious why someone hasn't rolled in from the wilds outside and taken everything, because it would be easy.

I'm hoping this turns into a plot point later. It would be genuinely interesting to see why the most pleasant place we have seen so far that is also the most undeveloped in terms of sacred arts hasn't been sacked and looted. As for the rest of the world, it must be something very much like Hobbes' state of nature, although we haven't yet been to the Blackflame empire, purported bastion of civilization. I suppose we shall see.

I'm pretty happy I picked up Soulsmith, and I'm looking forward to volume 3.

My other book reviews

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Unsouled Book Review

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition, 292 pages
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (June 13, 2016)
ASIN B01H1CYBS6

As of today, February 24th, 2018, Will Wight's Unsouled is free on Amazon as an ebook. You should go get it right now. 

Did you get it? Good. This was a really, really fun book, and I can't believe Wight is just giving it away. Well, I guess I can, because I'm having a hard time not immediately buying the other three books in the series. I suppose they call this kind of thing a YA novel now, but I still think of them as juvenile novels, following Heinlein's classic formulation: a protagonist on the cusp of growing up, no sex scenes, a lot of details about magic/technology/etc., and some mildly didactic life lessons.

This book was marked as martial arts by Amazon, which I suppose it is. Unsouled has the same faux-Asian flair as Avatar: The Last Airbender. The last time I reviewed a novel with a martial arts theme was nine years ago, so I wasn't quite sure what I was getting myself into. As it turns out, I liked Unsouled quite a bit.

Unsouled is a fantasy book with a hint of Clarke's Third Law about it's system of magic/martial arts/self-improvement. For me, a large part of the fun of this kind of book is seeing how the author puts together his system. Wight's system, based on madra, vital energy, is as good as any I've seen. Internally consistent enough to make sense without breaking the suspension of disbelief, and still esoteric enough to make it feel like you gotta really work at mastering it.

The other thing that is really fun about a book like this is the way we get to see Lindon grow up. YA novels, coming of age, juveniles, whatever you want to call them, are a part of the great chain of becoming for many a young woman or man. I read many of them myself, and I suspect they helped me along the way. To the extent such books can help inculcate even a small measure of perseverance or self-reliance or the willingness to try just a little harder, then they have served their purpose well.

I enjoyed this book, and I would gladly give it to any of my own children for a bit of entertainment with a side of self-improvement. Highly recommended.

My other book reviews