Empire of Bones Book Review

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

I was provided a review copy courtesy of the author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Takeover: Part 2 Book Review

Takeover: Part 2 cover art By  Tommaso Renieri

Takeover: Part 2 cover art By Tommaso Renieri

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

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

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

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

Mission planning with Big Nee’s outfit

Mission planning with Big Nee’s outfit

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

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Galaxy’s Edge season 1:
Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review
Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review
Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review
Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review
Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review
Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review
Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review
Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review
Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7 Book Review
Message for the Dead: Galaxy's Edge #8 Book Review
Retribution: Galaxy’s Edge #9 Book Review

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

Takeover: Part 1 Book Review

Dungeon Samurai Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Cheah Kit Sun

Hollow City: Song of Karma book 1

The Blackcollar Book Review

I love the delightfully cheesy style of scifi covers

I love the delightfully cheesy style of scifi covers

The Blackcollar
by Timothy Zahn
DAW Books (1983)
272 pages
ISBN 0-87997-843-0

While I must have read the Thrawn trilogy dozens of times, I never once dared to pick up any of the other books by Timothy Zahn I saw at the library. Would that I had! Now that I have started to dive into Zahn's back catalogue, I am getting an idea of what his preferred style is. Military [ish] scifi with a heavy dose of intrigue. You never know who anyone really is, or who they are really working for, until the end.

The Blackcollar was published in 1983, but I can detect similarities with The Icarus Hunt, from 1999. The Icarus Hunt was more of a whodunit in space, whereas The Blackcollar is mostly an adventure story with a military theme. I can also see how Zahn worked these kind of ideas into his Thrawn books and Starcraft: Evolution. Each of these books features a military campaign of some import with the fictional universe, but the real action lies in figuring out who wants what and why, and seeing how the characters respond to the wilderness of mirrors they find themselves in.

In this book, Earth has been long since conquered by the Ryquil, an aggressive and warlike species that prefer to rule through local proxies. The Ryquil use loyalty conditioning to ensure that their human collaborators cannot betray them, although there are some hints that Jesuitical cleverness about what constitutes "betrayal", exactly, may allow for some leeway in those who are sufficient motivated.

Allen Caine, our young protagonist, receives a mission from the Resistance on Earth to go find a hidden record on the world of Plinry. That record, encrypted into a rather mundane manifest, contains the location of hidden weapons that will alter the balance of power within occupied human space.

While searching for the record, or any signs of an underground on Plinry, which has been cut off from Earth for nearly thirty years, Caine stumbles on a few elite commandos, the Blackcollars, who have been hiding their light under a bushel since the Ryquil used a devastating orbital bombardment to reduce the defense of Plinry, killing three-quarters of the population in the process. 

During the lopsided war against the Ryquil, the humans developed drugs and training that would allow for a human fighter to have a more equal chance against the bigger, faster, and stronger Ryquil. The result of that program were the Blackcollars. Zahn's commandos are ninjas by another name, backed up with enhanced reflexes and laser-ablative armor.

Sometimes the tactics of the Blackcollars stretch my credulity a bit. This is an early book, but it seemed silly to me when two of the highly-trained and drug-enhanced Blackcollars sacrifice themselves to shoot down six patrol ships with shoulder-fired missiles. Couldn't they have just used more launchers, and destroyed the aircraft without the loss of soldiers whose experience and enhancements were irreplaceable? At the very least, we could have used some color text about how the missile launchers were actually more difficult to come by than the soldiers themselves, which doesn't fit the rest of the story.

Zahn seems on much firmer ground when it comes to devising complicated schemes of betrayal and counter-betrayal. I seriously didn't know who was on what side until the end, and there is at least the possibility that some of that may change in future volumes. While the Blackcollars' tactics offend my logistical sensibilities, their over-the-top natures match up with the adventure genre pretty well. No swordsman bests Solomon Kane or Conan either. I really enjoyed The Blackcollars, and I look forward to the two sequels. 

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LinkFest 2016-03-18

We've Been Measuring Inequality Wrong

Lots of people forget that US tax and welfare policy is actually pretty progressive, in the fiscal sense. So you need to account for transfer payments to properly assess inequality.

You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

If the United States is to continue to serve as the global security utility, then this would be the kind of Navy we would need. If we aren't going to do that, then something else would be possible.

Putin Got Exactly What he Wanted in Syria

One of the best comments I ever saw on Putin was "he has a weak hand geopolitically, but he plays it well." Nowhere can you see this better than Syria.

The Power of Mental Models: How Flight 32 Avoided Disaster

There was an interesting discussion about driverless cars on Steve Sailer's blog. One of the questions Steve asked was, "Have corporate jets’ autopilots improved to the point where most executives are willing to fly with just one pilot?" My input was that autopilots are already that good, but we elect to have human beings as backups for the machines. For part of the reason why, the linked Lifehacker article is pretty illuminating. The autopilot isn't any better than the scenarios and logic programmed into it. This is why I am unimpressed when a computer beats a human at a game; the game has predictable rules, and it is really just a bunch of people using a computer as their instrument to beat another person at those rules. For anything less constrained than chess or go, we are not yet so good at telling the machine what it will do. An autopilot is probably faster and more consistent than any human pilot in expected conditions, but every once in a while doing what the computer tells you would mean death. For skilled pilots, the crossover point where this occurs is probably pretty different than for the average automobile driver, who is far less capable. 

Live, Die, Repeat Movie and Book Review

Directed by Doug Liman

Written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterwork, and Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, and Bill Paxton

All You Need is Kill

by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Haikasoru 2009

$7.99; 203 pages

ISBN 978-421560878


Continue?This is one story with three titles. The original Japanese light novel is All You Need is Kill. The theatrical release starring Tom Cruise was called Edge of Tomorrow, and the version released on DVD, Blue-ray, and streaming was Live, Die, Repeat.

My interest in the movie was initially piqued because of the D-Day inspired trailer, and because I had greatly enjoyed Tom Cruise's competent performance in his previous sci-fi movie, Oblivion. I didn't get a chance to see the movie in theatres, so I picked it up on Blu-ray when it came out.

By that time, the title of the movie had changed. The re-branding of the movie with the tagline from the theatrical release did not dampen my enjoyment of what turned out to be a war movie blended with the essence of almost all videogames: infinite lives. It is really the combination that makes this movie interesting. Matching up with the trailer, this is a grunt's eye view of war. Confusion, regret, and death barely kept in check with black humor. The idea that war is hell has been done better elsewhere; what is really horrifying is the idea that you have to live out that last, awful day of your life, over, and over, and over.

At least, until you figure out that death is never final [although it is inevitable], and you can do whatever you want with no repercussions. Much like Bill Murray's cynical weatherman in Groundhog Day, Cruise's dilettantish REMF Major Cage travels through disbelief to despair to acceptance to something like grace. Dying seems to have been the best thing that ever happened to Major Cage. Cruise does a good everyman performance, saying and doing the things most of us fear we would do if trapped in a horrible situation, but ultimately turning into something like the best version of himself after getting unlimited chances to rectify all his mistakes.

The movie was well-done, the central conceit turned out to be thought-provoking [at least for me], and I found the characterization plausible. Not bad for a movie that seemed to be inspired by videogames. It has long been true that all movies based on videogames are bad. It is also true that most videogames based on movies are bad. The kinds of stories you tell in the two forms of entertainment differ markedly, particularly in that videogames are supposed to be repetitive. If the hero fails in his quest, you just respawn and try again. Finding a way to turn this into an interesting narrative was quite an achievement. Even more so, when I discovered the movie was based on a light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

Thus, it is even more remarkable that this game mechanic turned story mechanism survived the transition to the screen, because novels and movies also are forced to tell their stories in different ways. To successfully blend the novel and the videogame, and to then successfully adapt that to the kind of story that Hollywood does best, deserves praise.

Despite pulling in as much money as blockbuster movies do, videogames have almost no effect on the wider society. This has been changing, slowly. Wreck-It Ralph is the best videogame movie ever made, but to say that risks damning the movie with faint praise. I'm starting to see more videogame references in other kinds of media, but perhaps this is just a Kuhnian revolution where all the old guard are dying off, and the new content producers just find videogames a natural part of their life.

Perhaps another reason for all this is popular entertainment is converging in on a common point. Many big movies now have a novelization [sometimes a new one is created even when it was based on a novel!], and if it is an action or sci-fi movie, also a videogame tie-in. If you can market some toys and other merchandise too, all the better. From a production point of view, it makes sense to tell stories in a way that makes it easier to generate all that valuable ancillary content.

Sakurazaka's novel fits into that paradigm in a very Japanese way. Light novels, as the name implies, are disposable popular entertainment marketed to young adults. Popular light novels are illustrated or animated, serving as the farm team for content generation in the Japanese market. This one was popular enough to be optioned by Hollywood, and it gives us a good case study for how different media and different markets produce subtle differences.

The basic story in the novel is much the same as the movie. Unstoppable alien monsters. A hopeless war. Mechanized infantry are the last hope for humanity. A soldier trapped endlessly in a fight against unstoppable hordes. Sakurazaka's book was very traditional military sci-fi. Lots of salt of the earth soldiering, and no visibility to the grand schemes of the brass. Unlike Cruise's Major Cage, Sakurazaka'a protagonist was a plain old grunt, Private Kiriya, fresh out of boot. Even in translation, the book is very Japanese. The idioms, the expectations of the soldiers, even the kinds of women they dream about, different from an American, or even a western novel of the same type.

Also, the ending is different. My editorial policy is to discuss the ending of any story without warning, but here is your spoiler warning regardless. While I think the ending has much of the same spirit in the American movie as in the Japanese book, the critical difference is that the book goes for the tragic ending while the movie goes for the happy one. What they have in common is that each ending upends the idea of infinite lives in a videogame, where the enemies keep doing the same thing over and over while you learn more and more, and posits an enemy that has exactly the same experience you do, and learns with every iteration.

The whole thing almost ends up where it began, with everything coming down to one climactic battle, much like it would in a world were you couldn't rewind time back to before you died. The crucial difference between book and movie is how this all plays out for the protagonist and his friends. Up until the very end, I liked the book better than the movie. It was harder sci-fi, with better military know-how and better science. But at the end, Hollywood demonstrated why it makes so much money worldwide. They know the human heart better, and that made all the difference.

Tragedy has its place, but it takes greater strength of character to insist that it really will turn out well in the end.

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My other movie reviews

Boots on the Ground Book Review

The Fight to Liberate Afghanistan from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. 2001-2002
by Dick Camp
$30.00; 320 pages

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

Boots on the Ground, as the subtitle indicates, only covers events until 2002. The book does briefly cover events in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion until 2001, to provide some background. While the material is natively interesting, the book is not. You need to work pretty hard to make war in Afghanistan boring, but Camp definitely succeeded. 

The one thing I took away from Boots on the Ground is the US clearly learned from the mistakes of the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Soviets failed to engage the locals or properly control territory, and they paid heavily for it. What remains to be seen is whether the ultimate result will be any different.

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A while back I had a post on the quote:

surprise is an event that occurs in the mind of an enemy commander

This week, Jerry Pournelle wrote in to tell me:

Message: The maxim that surprise is an event that occurs in the mind of an enemy commander comes from the chapter SURPRISE in The Strategy of Technology by Stefan Possony and Jerry Pournelle


Thanks for the update! The Strategy of Technology is a book co-authored by the late Stefan Possony, Francis X. Kane (uncredited at the time of publication) and Pournelle. Here is an except from the preface, available at the link above:

STRATEGY OF TECHNOLOGY was a textbook in the Service Academies for several years, and off and on has been a textbook in the Air and National Defense War Colleges. We have reason to believe that its arguments were useful in bringing about adoption of a high tech strategy for the US Armed Forces. That such a strategy was adopted is self evident from the victory in Iraq and the collapse of the Soviet empire. How much was due to this book can be debated, but we can at least claim that this book explains the principles of technological strategy.

If you are interested, head over to Jerry Pournelle's website for a read. You can get a PDF copy by becoming a subscriber on his site, and become a patron of the arts to boot!

Remember Dien Bien Phu

Dale Shewalter often remarked on the epic battle the French waged at Dien Bien Phu. At that time, all I knew was the French had lost. What I only appreciated later, was how they almost won. A brief read, but well worth your time.

Marcel Bigeard, who died on June 18 [2010] at the age of 94, was a paragon of a new type of professional warrior that arose during the Cold War. For while the United States and the Soviet Union (and their many allies) built large-scale militaries for an eventual hot war, what came instead were proxy wars in places like Vietnam and the Congo. These did not require the technology-laden and discipline-heavy units prepared to fight in the Fulda Gap, but instead small, mobile units of soldiers dedicated to an intense operational tempo. And they required resourceful officers, able to adapt the methods of guerrillas and willing to lead by example. Bigeard, who rose from the ranks to four-star general, was such a soldier: emphasizing physical fitness and endurance, preferring to live rough with his men, and a master of the topography of battlegrounds. He refused to carry a weapon into combat, feeling his job was to lead not to fight.

Bigeard thrived in the dirty war (guerre sale) of the postcolonial era, amassing an extraordinary combat record at the head of paratroop units he trained to fight in his image and helping to develop the most successful counter-insurgency strategies of the postwar era. Yet his obituaries this summer were dominated by a continuing dispute within France over the use of torture during the Battle of Algiers in 1957—action sanctioned by the French government of the day. Such is the fate of even the greatest warriors in the West’s post-military popular culture. Nations are no longer grateful to “The Glorious Dead,” and soldiers are no longer heroes. Yet this does not change the fact that Bigeard can be spoken of in the same breadth as men like Leonidas, John Chard, and Anthony McAuliffe: leaders whom soldiers followed to the extremes of endurance. What Bigeard and the rest of the “para mafia” did at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu should be remembered in the way that the 300 Spartans’ defense of the Hot Gates has stirred boys’ dreams for 2,500 years. Few do so remember it, but among their number are the American generals who have been prosecuting our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu passed from history into legend almost the moment it ended in the early hours of May 8, 1954. Popular conception is that colonialism’s days in Indochina were numbered, and there was nothing French soldiers could have done to arrest the forces of history. The Indochina War that ebbed and flowed after 1945 tends to be presented as either a small episode in the story of postwar Asian nationalism or the opening act of a long war that ended in 1976. These are handy tales for textbook writers and newspaper columnists, but the facts don’t support them. Even a cursory study shows that Dien Bien Phu was a viable military gamble and one that the French came close to winning. Indochina might just as easily have been another Malaya as a precursor to U.S. failure in Vietnam. As so often when political issues are intertwined with military, hindsight is blind.


Surprise is an event that occurs in the mind of an enemy commander

Someone came by today looking for the quote, "surprise is an event that occurs in the mind of an enemy commander." It wasn't anywhere on this site, but I came across this quote in Jerry Pournelle's Prince of Mercenaries, pg 299 in the Baen Books paperback edition.

It was one of Colonel Falkenberg's maxims, but it clearly not original to him. Unfortunately I do not know where it might be from.


Military Wisdom

 There is a four-fold division of military officers along two axes: active or lazy, brilliant or stupid. I found Jerry Pournelle's description striking, so I will quote him:

Understand you are talking about officers, meaning that they are all presumed to be about IQ 120 or above, so "stupid" doesn't mean drooling idiots.

Officers are either active or lazy, and brilliant or stupid. That makes four classes. Intelligent and lazy is the commander. They are smart enough to see when things need doing, but lazy enough not to run the troops to death making changes just because they can see some kind of need. Brilliant and active is the Chief of Staff and various staff officers who will agitate to do things. Stupid and lazy are the line officers, and they run things. Stupid and Active need to be weeded out. Fast. You can't trust them with troops and you can't put them in intelligence, and you can't keep them around for anything else because they get hare brained schemes and rush out to put them in effect.

This bit of military wisdom has been around since the days of Clausewitz. There is an excellent discussion in Joseph Maxwell Cameron, The Anatomy of Military Merit, if you can find a copy. It has long been out of print, which is a crying shame. I have long been tempted to have it scanned in or typed and publish a copy myself, but of course I have no right to do that. I never met Col. Cameron or his heirs.

There is probably some applicability to business here as well, but the analogy is not perfect. The military is not like a business, and it was a mistake when McNamara tried to run it as one. I remember a discussion I had with an acquaintance about whether an MBA could be a good officer. I thought not, at least partially because I have an engineer's disdain for mere business, but also because a good officer focuses on victory, morale, and moral responsibility, while a modern American businessman focuses on profit, efficiency, and market share. There are definitely parallels, but these things are not the same.

Both commissioned and non-commissioned officers in the United States military are generally college-educated, with Masters degrees not uncommon. Psychology, history, and languages are among the most popular degrees. As far as I know, business is not commonly pursued on the government's dime.  The soldiers at least seem to support my supposition.