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

Cobra book review

Cobra
by Timothy Zahn
236 pages
Published by Baen (2015)
ASIN B00XLTZTIK

When I read the cover blurb for this book, I expected something like the Blackcollar series: military sci-fi about super soldiers, cyborgs in this case instead of pharmaceutically enhanced ninjas. That impression is completely wrong. While there are some battle scenes in this book, that isn’t really the focus. This isn’t really military sci-fi at all, but rather speculative fiction about politics using super soldiers as a thought experiment.

This is the second book I’ve read recently that looks at the problem of how a society would change if people appeared within it who were faster, stronger, and generally more dangerous than the norm. The first, Heroes Fall, was in the superhero genre. The reaction of that society to superhumans in their midst is mostly adulation, with a few generally ignored naysayers. The corruption of society is subtle and slow, underneath the public fanfare.

For the Dominion of Man, the seventy-world setting of Cobra, their cyborg super soldiers were created [perhaps in a bit of a panic] to help win a war, without much thought for what would come afterward. Men with unusual strength, automated reflexes, and lasers built into their fingertips are not universally loved once demobilized, especially when accidents and misunderstandings that escalate into things far worse start to occur.

Don’t poke the cyborg, even if he  is  a drifter

Don’t poke the cyborg, even if he is a drifter

I was reminded of David Morell’s First Blood, a novel that really captured the struggles of Vietnam veterans to find a place back home, or the ending of The Hurt Locker, when Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. James stands bewildered by the endless varieties of breakfast cereal in a supermarket. Men who did everything their government and society asked of them come home to find that they no longer have a home to return to.

The bulk of the book is taken up with the search for an acceptable political solution to the problems the Cobras pose to their society. Officially, the Cobras are war heroes. In the public eye, they are mostly objects of fear and loathing. Unofficially, the Central Committee that runs the Dominion considers them a threat; bored and frustrated former soldiers that have more in common with each other than their fellow citizens can become agents of revolution.

While we are treated to brief interludes within the halls of power on the planet Asgard, we mostly see this play out through the eyes of Jonny Moreau, a bright young man who volunteered to go off to war, and found that he was changed forever by the experience. We follow Moreau from young adulthood, when he volunteers for service, into middle age, when he brokers a deal to preserve hard won freedoms and privileges for his fellow Cobras at immense personal cost. I gather there are a number of sequels that follow from this book, as Zahn explores the further implications of Jonny Moreau’s actions at the end of this book.

Since this is hard sci-fi, many of the problems the Cobras face, both in battle and life, stem from the physical consequences of their modifications. During the bootcamp section of the book, the Cobra trainees spend time learning how to pick up unusually heavy things without tearing their ligaments or giving themselves subdermal hematomas. Their bones have been strengthened, and their strength and speed supplemented by servo motors, but the rest of their bodies remain much as they always were.

First and foremost, they are men, and they want the same things as anyone else: a job, a family, a home. Unfortunately, most other people don’t want them around. In a memorable incident in his home town after Jonny comes marching home, a couple of young punks hassle him in a local entertainment center, and then swerve their car towards him when they seem him walking on the street later. Jonny’s programmed combat reflexes take over [literally, COBRA means computerized body reflex armament], he shoots out the tires of the kids’ car and they both die in the resulting crash.

The reason this all happens is that the computer implanted in the brain cannot be removed with causing brain damage, and the finger lasers cannot be removed without amputation, and that was a price the Central Committee was unwilling to pay [or unwilling to be seen to be willing to pay]. Although, I did wonder why they didn’t do something about the power source, which was implanted in the chest, and thus much easier to get to. Much of the other equipment Jonny carried into war was successfully removed, but none of it other than the strengthened bones would work without power. I do remember reading about how much heavier their bodies got, so maybe it was seen as too much of a burden to leave them with limbs too heavy to lift. Perhaps this could have been explored a bit more.

The Central Committee itself is interesting, insofar as it really is an Inner Party. The Central Committee almost functions as a character, one analogous to Lathe in the Blackcollar novels or Thrawn in Heir to the Empire, powerful and far-seeing, capable of predicting its opponents and laying traps. It is also quite good at governing, since the Dominion of Man seems quite peaceful and prosperous. Except, in this case, everything that happens is because the Central Committee made a mistake in even allowing the Cobras to be created. Over the many years depicted in the novel, we see the Central Committee continue to dominate, but also to make critical mistakes at times. I enjoyed how Zahn took a central idea in his style and inverted it, making the the clever and powerful Central Committee the antagonist.

I also liked the broad sweep of the novel, covering several decades in the life of Jonny Moreau. Since the kind of things Zahn wants to explore in this novel take a long time to work themselves out, nothing shorter than a generation would have been adequate. Looking through the blurbs for the many sequels, we will continue to follow the Moreau family as the implications of Jonny’s solution work themselves out over the generations to follow. Overall, this was an interesting novel, and I’m curious to see where Zahn decided to take the society he created in the conclusion of this book.

My other book reviews

Thrawn
Thrawn: Alliances

Other books by Timothy Zahn

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

Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

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

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

Serenity City: Heroes Fall Book Review

The Rampage – The Rage of Achilles  Artist:  Andy Duggan

The Rampage – The Rage of Achilles

Artist: Andy Duggan

Heroes Fall: A Heroes Unleashed Novel
by Morgon Newquist
Published by Silver Empire (2018)

I received a free copy of this book via Booksprout. Thanks to the author, Morgon Newquist, for reaching out on Twitter. I’m always happy to review new stuff.

As soon as I finished the first chapter, I was hooked. If this chapter didn’t start life as a short story, I think it could easily have stood alone, and been a damn fine piece of work. Each character comes to life in a few short pages, and the stage is set for everything that follows from the unexplained tragedy of the Rampage. I wept a little bit when I read it the first time, and then I wept again when I read it again at the end, now knowing why.

The question this book asks is: what is the greatest weakness of a superhero?

Achilles’ Heel  No machine-readable author provided. Tasoskessaris assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Achilles’ Heel

No machine-readable author provided. Tasoskessaris assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

One might guess from the eponymous Achilles, the disgraced hero who nearly destroyed the city he was supposed to protect, that each and every superhero has their characteristic weakness, a secret that can be used to defeat them. While this is true, it isn’t as interesting as the realization that heroes [and villains] share our fallen human nature, no matter their powers, and are just as prone to vanity, foolishness, and moral turpitude.

A man who cannot control his passions is forever weak, no matter how much he can lift.

This sets the stage for Newquist’s world-building, which is about the kind of society that would emerge when powers can get you fame, influence, or money, but no one has been granted unusual wisdom or exceptionally good judgment beyond human ken.

In Serenity City, being a superhero is much like being an Instagram personality: a pretty facade hiding a winner-take-all mad dash for endorsements where appearance rules all. Into this cutthroat and remorseless world steps Victoria Westerdale, our young heroine and POV character. She is young, but not young enough not to be disillusioned by the phoniness and media-whoring of the hero business.

This cover shot of Victoria makes me think there must be a “ Boyfriends of Serenity City ” Instagram account that pokes fun at the guy who took the picture when Victoria posed after beating all those guys up.  Cover art by Kasia Suplecka and Steve Beaulieu

This cover shot of Victoria makes me think there must be a “Boyfriends of Serenity City” Instagram account that pokes fun at the guy who took the picture when Victoria posed after beating all those guys up.

Cover art by Kasia Suplecka and Steve Beaulieu

As the story progresses, we learn just how deeply Victoria was wounded by that world, and why she fled from her chance at fame and fortune for a walk up flat in the bad part of town and the night shift at a seedy convenience store. Nearly twenty years after Achilles fought his former friend and colleague Pendragon, devastating the city, Victoria finds herself drawn into all of the unanswered questions that lingered from that terrible day. Her inability to let this mystery go is in part because the answers give her the ability to finally stop running away from her own past.

Heroes Fall is the first novel in a shared universe, funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The other four authors are J.D. Cowan, Kai Wai Cheah, Jon Mollison, and Richard Watts. I’ve previously reviewed a short story by Kai Wai Cheah, so I’m likely to give at least the initial five novels a read. Given how much I enjoyed Heroes Fall, I am looking forward to Newquist’s sequels as well.

My other book reviews

Cascade Point and other Stories book review

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

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

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

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


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

The Berlin Wall

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

The Giftie Gie Us ****

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

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

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


A moonscape by Chesley Bonestell

A moonscape by Chesley Bonestell

The Dreamsender **

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

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


Evaporating black holes were theorized by Stephen Hawking in 1974

Evaporating black holes were theorized by Stephen Hawking in 1974

The Energy Crisis of 2215 ***

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

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


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

CRISPR technique

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

Return to the Fold ****

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

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

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


The Shadows of Evening ***

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

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

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


Not Always to the Strong ***

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

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

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


The Challenge *****

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

Good guesses:

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

  • Multiple screens with heads up displays

  • Competitive level building

Not so good:

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

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

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


The Cassandra ****

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

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


Dragon Pax *****

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

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


Job Inaction ***

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


Teamwork **

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


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

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


Cascade Point *****

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

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

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

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


Ben’s final verdict *****

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

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


The Path of the Martyrs Book Review

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

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak

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

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

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

My other book reviews

Retribution: Galaxy's Edge Book 9 Review

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

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


The end has come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No death-bed conversion for Sullus

No death-bed conversion for Sullus

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

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

Last Judgment

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

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

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

My other book reviews

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


Builders and Breakers book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My other book reviews

Pop Kult Warlord Book Review

Heavy is the head that wears the crown….

Heavy is the head that wears the crown….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My other book reviews

Other books by Nick Cole

Soda Pop Soldier book review

Other books by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach

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