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March Violets

March Violets (Bernard Gunther, #1)March Violets by Philip Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Bernie Gunther series recounts the adventures and cases of one Bernard “Bernie” Gunther, private detective, State Policeman, SS police officer, and on into the postwar era. March Violets is the first volume of the Bernie Gunther series and the Berlin Noir trilogy– apparently the author, Phillip Kerr, wrote the first three in roughly quick succession and then wrote some other things and the fan base started clamoring for more Bernie. There are now a dozen of them. Bernie Gunther is an interesting type, although not exactly a unique one in fiction. He is a basically moral individual, working as a private investigator, roughly 38 years of age, a widower, and a former State Policeman. In some respects, a classic noir archetype. In others, he is quite unique. You see, this novel is set in late 1930s Nazi Germany, on the eve of the Berlin Olympiad. Bernie is called in to help a powerful industrialist, Hermann Six, solve a robbery and murder of his daughter and son-in-law. As the case unfolds, gradually Bernie discovers more and more layers to the secret, some of which go to the highest circles of power in Nazi Germany.

I got hooked on this book and read it in record time, because it was a mix of familiar and unfamiliar, a rewiring of the classic detective with a heart of gold set in the midst of one of the most evil regimes in history. One feature of Kerr’s prose is that he liberally sprinkles his novels with real historical characters and authentic sounding fictional ones. He also doesn’t write novels in a sequence. One is set before the war, another during, another after the war.. but later ones will jump all over the time period. As a die-hard history fanatic, I appreciated the appearance of Goering, Himmler and Heydrich in the story, and the backdrop of the Olympiad. I found March Violets to be very engaging and a real page turner. I rapidly polished of the Berlin Noir trilogy and am taking a break before reading more– I don’t want to overdose.

I would not hesitate to recommend the entire Berlin Noir trilogy, for starters.

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V. Schwab’s A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC, reviewed

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Man, I really wanted to like this book. It has all the elements that I’m usually game to read from cover to cover instantly– a touch of magical realism, set in vaguely familiar proto-steampunky, parallel universes, evil guys, good guys, cynical guys. A plucky heroine from the bad side of town, with a heart of gold. The setting is this sort of mystical micro-universe where there are four known variants of existence– Grey London, Red London, White London, and a fourth, vanished Black London. Grey London (of course) is the London we all know from THIS world, the one in Britain, at the time of George III. Magic is almost unknown there. Red London, a much funner place where magic flourishes, a good dynasty reigns over a country that is not-England (although London stays London in all of them). White London is a harsh place where two descendants of Vikings(?) rule by murder and coercion. Black London was destroyed in a magical cataclysm that sealed the worlds off from one another– it is apparently the place where magic is sentient, seeking more power by devouring human hosts. I think? There are only two individuals that can transverse the boundaries of the Londons– they are the ‘Antari’, depicted with one solid black eye and one normal eye. The Red London Anatari is Kell, who spends his time as an errand boy for the Red London Royalty, and smuggling artifacts from various Londons. In addition, he is the property of the Royal Family, and adopted brother to the Red London Prince (Rye). Of course, Kell is considered a bit of a rogue but responsible enough to be riding heard on his womanizing brother Rye. Rye is a familiar trope in fantasy, a rogue and a wastrel (they say, we don’t see much of it) who is growing into the role of the future king who will one day have to take life seriously and blah blah blah. The other Antari is Holland, from White London (of whom, more later) Kell, the adopted Red Antari, is on a mission to White London (a nasty place with the Bad People in it) and he gets hoodwinked/set up/made a fall guy to pick up a package that turns out to have a half of a stone token from mythical (destroyed) Black London. He gets ambushed in Red London, flees to Grey London, and runs afoul of the OTHER Antari, the decidedly nastier Holland. Holland is apparently behind a conspiracy(?) to dominate? control? the other Londons, to open them up to conquest by proxy by White London, using the Wild Magic amulet (the Black Stone from Black London, which is a super magic weapon).
While Kell is hiding from Holland in Grey London, he encounters the other POV character, Lila Bard. Lila is yet another fantasy/steampunk trope, the plucky but lovable guttersnipe who dresses like a man and has the heart for adventure. She is a pickpocket, a cutpurse, and a girl makin’ it on the mean streets of almost-victorian London (George III is on the throne, yet they have revolvers in common use? Whaaaaah?) Anyway, she’s tough.. the author reinforces how tough as nails and bitter she is. Page after page. Awkward dialogue after awkward dialogue. We get it. Kell and Lila make an awkward alliance to bring the stone back to Black London where it will be safe, adventures transpire, lots of people get killed willy-nilly, and the vast extent of the betrayal of, well, you know, the bad guys, becomes clear. Except it doesn’t. There were two things that bothered me about this book. I like the basic concept just fine, I love the parallel Londons idea.. but man, the execution was clumsier than a new born chick running a marathon. The dialogue was very hackneyed in places. I think if I had a nickel for how many times I read “Lila.. (dramatic pause)… RUN!” .. well, I’d have a mess o’ nickels. And the motivation! What the heck? WHY do the bad guys do what they do? WHY? Sure, Holland is evil and twisted, but we never know what he thinks, he’s just a creepy ciper. And the mega bad guy.. he’s a monologing psycho from the old school, but what the hell made him so angry at Kell? Wasn’t Kell useful to everyone who wanted to talk or trade between worlds, just a while ago? Aren’t there only TWO of these guys? Why be angry at him? Why try to kill him?  Just because you have an evil plan? So the Big Big Bad is hard to understand, therefore their motivations are murky and the plot and denouement kind are kind of a big muddle.

With that said, A Darker Shade of Magic did have some great, although not exactly original ideas, with the Red-Gray-White-Black London setting, the various flavors of magic, the Antari (all two of them) and how it all kind of lurched to an ending eventually. V.E. Schwab isn’t what I would consider a great literary stylist but I’m sure this series (and it will be a series, I checked) will go down well with the Young Adult crowd. For me, it started out well but became a bit of a chore to get through, so I’ll give it 3 stars.

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RED COUNTRY, by Joe Abercrombie, a blessedly short review

Red CountryRed Country by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read my first Joe Abercrombie book, The Heroes, back in 2012. My reaction was as follows:

My first reaction to THE HEROES was “Oh great, another one of those middlin’ fantasy pseudo iron age novels, with noble savages against corrupt civilized foes and blah blah blah”. I can’t help it. I worked in a bookstore for much of my early life and you get a feel for this kind of mush. By chapter 3, I was asking myself “Who IS this Joe Abercrombie fellow, and why haven’t I read everything he’s written yet?” I am currently working on that goal.

I’ve kept that promise! Three years later and I have the First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold under my belt, and I possess a greatly expanded world view of the First Law universe of Joe Abercrombie. So I was pumped to see the re-emergence of Logen Nine-Fingers (although his name is never mentioned, check me if I’m wrong!) in his latest* First Law book Red Country. Minor spoiler here– Logen survived the dive out Bethod’s castle window and wandered away from the North, where he inexplicably settled down with an unnamed woman to be her ranch hand/stepfather of her children. Geography is purposefully vague in Abercrombie novels, which is why you see few if any maps in his books. Logen settled in the “Near Country” which appears to be on the edge of Starrickland and just this side of the “Far Country”. Under the guise of “Lamb”, he has become a father to his step-children, Roe, Pitt and especially Shy South, a half-breed of sorts. Point of explanation: the local version of American Indians are called “Ghosts” in this world and are blonde or red-headed. Shy’s mother apparently had one for a husband or “companion” at some point in her past– her mother is deceased at the start of the story.

After the characters of Lamb and Shy are introduced at a local store haggling over supplies, tragedy ensues and the other children are kidnapped and a farmhand on the farm is murdered. At this point the story goes into full on SEARCHERS mode. If you are stumped at the reference, the Searchers is the classic 1956 Western starring John Wayne in arguably his greatest role, Ethan Edwards. Edwards is a grim faced Civil War veteran that relentlessly pursues the kidnappers of his niece. Abercrombie borrows from this structure with both hands, casting Lamb as Edwards and Shy South as a foul-mouthed, somewhat obnoxious version of Martin Pawley (seriously.. see the Searchers if you never have, it’s excellent.. and kind of a shocker for John Wayne fans).

Lamb and Shy track some of the kidnappers to a border town, where a fracas ensues that results in the emergence of the long buried “Bloody Nine” character.. the berserk inner demon that sometimes possesses Logen in a fight. In the brutal ensuing slaughter they learn enough to find out whom they are pursuing and what direction they need to go in. They also catch the attention of Dab Sweet, famous old time frontiersman with his laconic companion, Crying Rock, a Ghost woman.
Lamb and Shy happen to be going the same direction as Dab Sweet, so they sign on to a “Fellowship” (wagon train) and accompany them in a journey to the Far Country.

So the plot becomes something between the old 50s TV show Wagon Train and the old 50s movie The Searchers, complete with Indian Raids, bad weather, dust and assorted trials and tribulations, many of them deadly. In parallel with Shy and Lamb’s narrative (told through Shy’s eyes) is the story of Temple, a feckless type who might have been a very minor character in previous stories (I can’t recall), but now has ended up playing a far grander role as the notary and lawyer for infamous mercenary Niccomo Costca as his company also travels into the Far Country, employed by the Inquisition to find rebel strongholds. Temple is the other POV character (aside from the usual character asides, which Abercrombie delights in). He is stricken with conscience as Costca’s men commit atrocity after atrocity, and finally has enough.  The understated redemption of Temple’s character is handled well.  Abercrombie doesn’t make him a perfect hero during the course of the story– he just becomes a better person.  That rang true for me.

I don’t like revealing much more of the plot– suffice to say they all intersect, travelling into the Far Country, and many things of great import happen, introducing new characters and re-introducing us to a surprising number of older ones, including Caul Shivers and Glamma Golden. The plot resolves to everyone’s satisfaction, although not without a great cost as some of the older characters are killed off.

You might have picked up on the thinly disguised Western theme. Yup, it IS that obvious. I can’t say as I was put off by it.. the First Law universe has the same gritty feel to it as a Western so it wasn’t a thematic stretch for Abercrombie.

Overall it was a great read, and I tore through it like I tear through the author’s work usually. My only complaint was the constant forced jabs between Shy South and Dab Sweet– just to prove they respect each other. It seemed forced. My other complaint was the constant philosophizing the older characters do during the course of the book. Every other page, one of the oldsters makes some cryptic comment about time catching up to him, there being nobody around to inject levity into the conversation except, perhaps, Temple. THis is a standard trope of Joe Abercrombie.. prosing on about time catching up with a character, how his knees hurt on cold mornings, and how there is no glory in war. We’ve read this before. Despite that minor nit I found myself enjoying this book very much. Perhaps not as much as THE HEROES but it’s a book that a fantasy fan will tear through in point-blimfark.

* I have not read the most current trilogy that Joe Abercrombie is currently working on (starting with HALF A KING) but I believe it doesn’t take place in the First Law world. I hope Joe continues to transport us to that setting.

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The Empire of Man series, by Weber and Ringo, so far…

We Few (Empire of Man, #4)We Few by David Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have just finished the Empire of Man/Prince Roger series (so far), from book 2 March UpCountry to book 4 We Few. This is my second attempt at a David Weber series– the first being the Safehold series, which created such a poor opinion that I abandoned it mid-read. I know that SF fans seem to enjoy Honor Harrington and I admit I haven’t read any of those. I probably should have started there. Anyway, with the metaphorical bad taste in my mouth after Safehold I tried the March To the Sea (#2 in the Empire of Man series) since, well, the library had it in and it looked interesting. I’m very glad I did! This is more or less a review of the series (less the first book, the events of which I picked up from the rest of the easily enough).

March to the Sea (Empire of Man, #2) by David Weber

March to the Sea is the 2nd novel in the story of Prince Roger and his entourage of bodyguards and staff after they crashlanded on Marduke, a backwater planet in Imperial Space. Roger realizes they are in a wilderness on a hostile planet with only one spaceport that is very likely in hostile hands (after collusion with a competing empire, the Saints, is proven). The Prince and company will have to seize the spaceport and commandeer a ship to escape from Marduke. Unfortunately it’s on the OTHER side of the planet, and they will have to march their across a wilderness of various tribes and cultures of the Mardukans, a giant race of four armed natives. Along the way they face two barbarian hordes– in the first book and in the second. They encounter civilized Marducan cities once over the mountains (of the first book) and train them in the art of warfare– initially with pikes and then with rudimentary rifles.

March to the Stars (Empire of Man, #3) by David Weber

In March to the Stars, Roger and his diminishing company of bodyguards use their alliance with a rudimentary industrial city state (Quern’s Cove) to create a small fleet of ships capable of sailing across the ocean to the continent with the spaceport (and dealing with the ship-killing giant sea creatures on the way). On the far continent they encounter a cannibal cult, mountain tribes, settle a war and take on the star port. At this point Roger discovers a coup has taken place back on Earth and that he has been framed as the architect behind it.

We Few (Empire of Man, #4) by David Weber

In We Few, the now few survivors of the story (so far) are left to travel back to Old Earth and establish a counter-coup. This story is more political/social then the previous two (at least) and features a whiz bang of a space battle (very well written) towards the end, when the authors jump between various POV characters on both sides during the long engagement. There is much left undone at the end of the We Few and I suspect strongly there will be more novels in this series.

The Empire of Man series (so far) is a great read– full of adventure, sympathetic characters and interesting settings. As novels, they are far from perfect– I’ve noticed Weber stating/restating/re-re-stating expository bits again and again before, and he does that here as well, but this time, the trend is tempered by his collaboration with Ringo. Many plot points seem added in to fill out space and move things along. The core theme of the stories is redemption– redeeming Roger, who starts off as a spoiled bratty prince with little experience in the real world and turning him into a tough-as-nails, decisive leader. Along the way the authors get a little preachy from time to time and some of the dialogue is a tad stilted.. hell, even corny in places. But that’s just fine. They make up for it with big ideas, big battle scenes and evil villains galore. The human relationships depicted in the series are less well written– Roger seems to engender fanatical devotion (and love) in almost every sympathetic character he meets, which is mighty convenient for the story most of the time. Roger’s transformation into a steely-eyed hero with phenomenal enhanced reflexes and combat skills helps, too.

These are minor quibbles. I’d definitely read the next book in the Empire of Man when it hits the street– it’s been a while since I’ve read a good space opera, and the Empire of Man series delivers in spades.

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Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome, a short review

Caesar's Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar's Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of RomeCaesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome by Stephen Dando-Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Caesar’s Legion is a short history, primarily focusing on the entire life of the Tenth Legion (aka Legio X Equestris) which was created by Julius Caesar in 61 BC when he was the Governor of Hispania Ulterior. Already immersed in a rivalry with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (aka Pompey the Great), it wasn’t enough for him to inherit Legions 7,8, and 9 from Pompey– he wanted a unit that would bear his own mark and be loyal to him. Dando-Collins traces the story of the Legions exploits, from the early campaigns in modern-day Portugal, to the Gallic Wars, to the Civil Wars, the assassination of Julius Caesar and its aftermath, and inclusion into the new Imperial Army of Augustus and later Emperors of Rome. Dando-Collins’s work is largely unknown to me; I suspect he got most of the facts right (based on the leading historians of the day that have come down to us). His writing style is adventuresome and dramatic, which fits well with his body of work, which appear to be mostly light historical books written for a young adult audience.

I enjoyed Mr. Dando-Collins’ specific focus on individual military units. Obviously the focus is on the Legio X Equestris, but there are many other fellow travelling Legions in the book that reappear in the narrative constantly. The Legions raised in Hispania (Pompey’s 7-9, Caesar’s 10 and later units) appear to have been highly prized by Roman military commanders and deserving of their reputations of ferocity, boldness and toughness. Mr. Dando-Collins has written books on other Roman military units (Nero’s 14th Legion, Caesar’s Sixth Legion, and the Third Gallica), which, if they follow the pattern of this book, I’d certainly be interested in reading.

I certainly enjoy the author’s style– it’s chatty, focuses on the human moments that we can all relate to, and he does not shy away from the unpleasant topics. Directly after the epic Battle of Pharsala, where Caesar defeated Pompey, the much valued Spanish Legions all lapsed into mutiny over pay, retirement and the non-payment of bonuses, causing the entire Caesarian army to grow mutinous by their example. This is a fact that Caesar himself never mentions in his history books. There’s a lot of interesting detail in Caesar’s Legion; not just about the wide scope of history but also about the day to day life of a common Roman soldier. If you are an uncompromising history enthusiast who insists on original sources for any book on an ancient subject, you might not like it.  I enjoyed it– it’s certainly not on the level of, say, Adrian Goldsworthy, but I’d read this author again.

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Horns, by Joe Hill (a short review)

HornsHorns by Joe Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Horns is my first Joe Hill book completed (I tried NOS4R2 as an audio book a while back but ran out of time and gave up at checking it out again, so it doesn’t count). Horns is the story of one Ignatius “Ig” Parrish, lovelorn victim of a horrible crime where the love of his life is cruelly and casually raped and strangled to death, and he is blamed for it. Although his actions aren’t specifically stated as a cause of his ensuing problems, when Ig drunkenly smashes the religious figures set out for his girlfriend’s memory after a candlelight prayer vigil, he wakes up the next day with horns. As in the devil kind. Small at first, then larger and and larger as the course of time passes in the book. Ig notices something strange right off the mark. When people encounter the horns, they have a hard time seeing them– as if there is a strong influence on them to forget about them and look elsewhere. Also, when people encounter the Horns, they feel compelled to tell Ig things. Nasty things.. their inner monologue suddenly becomes external. Ig starts to encounter a phenomenon.. people are telling him their dark desires so they can get Ig to “give permission” to do bad things. Initially repulsed, Ig sees the practical side of his newfound power of compulsion, and uses it to help solve his girlfriend’s murder. I won’t give up any more of the plot here, as I’m already treading on spoiler territory.

Suffice to say the murderer is no great surprise, in fact, the book telegraphs it pretty early. The rest of the story unfolds around what Ig can possibly do with that information to extract some measure of justice from the situation. It’s an interesting and sometimes quite funny narrative. I liked the very subtle ending and the notion that Ig may have “fixed things” after all, but there is a lot of that imagery-vs-reality language going on in Ig’s portion of the story. Viewpoints shift between main characters from time to time and the narrative bounces between flashbacks, points of view and sometimes allegorical imagery. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Horns is a fun (not profound) read, and Mr. Hill definitely inherited the storyteller’s gift from his father.

I did catch the movie based on the book on NETFLIX; I can’t recommend it. The story is greatly changed, the killer actually LESS telegraphed and entirely unexplained or hinted at, which made his revelation jarring. Still, if you haven’t read the book you might be amused!


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ORCS and ORCS: BAD BLOOD by Stan Nicholls… revisiting my childhood

Orcs (Orcs: First Blood, #1-3)Orcs by Stan Nicholls
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Orcs and Orcs: Bad Blood

Orcs (Orcs  First Blood, #1-3) by Stan Nicholls

Orcs  Bad Blood by Stan Nicholls

These books are oddly nostalgic of the kind of fantasy I read when I was 14, and for that reason, I enjoyed it, for the most part. The novel is part of a longer series which apparently is bundled together in various collections, so you will find them under a variety of names. I read ORCS (the Origin story) and ORCS: BAD BLOOD, which follows up some years after the first story.

The world of the ORCS series is classic Basic Dungeons and Dragons, circa 1980s. An Orc band, led by gruff Stryke, is in the service of one classic evil Queen Jenesta. They are sent on a mission that initially succeeds but later encounters disaster, which causes the band to abruptly leave Jenesta’s service in search of the big boojum that has been stolen. A quest ensues, to get the 5 boojums (actually they are called instrumentalities). These are scattered all over the landscape in the keeping of various fantasy archetypes– I counte d Orcs, Goblins, Centaurs, Neirads, Merfolk, Brownies, Dragons, Elves, Trolls, and Dwarves in the first novel, and Zombies and animated Vampire Skeletons in the second.

All this stuff would be a delightful romp indeed, were the writing a bit above the juvenile level. The characters are stereotypes– from the evil sexually sadistic queen, to the manly soldierly Stryke, the sarcastic Coella, the Bluff and Stupid Haskir, the mystical Aelfred, and the Pugnacious Jupp the Dwarf, who has problems of his own being a dwarf in an orc band. The dialogue is exquisitely repetitious and unoriginal– author Nicholls goes back to the trough again and again to the same dialogue to bookend scenes. For instance, if I had a dollar for every time racist dwarf-hatin’ Haskir picks a fight with angry Dwarf Jupp, only to be broken up by a loud “SHUT IT!” from Stryke, well.. I’d have a lot of dollars.

With all that said… I know, I know.. I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I found myself liking these orcs. They, at least, are realized well. They are intelligent (enough), possess a sense of honor, love to fight, but aren’t stupid about it. They aren’t creatures of evil, rather a decent enough bunch who have been enslaved into service to previously mentioned evil Queen. Humans, in contrast, come off as mostly evil, stupid and fanatical. Which was kind of refreshing!

In summary– ehhhh this series isn’t exactly a classic and will be largely forgettable, but isn’t without enjoyable spots. If you want a decent popcorn read that probably should be labelled a “Young Adult” fiction, you might like Orcs.

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Review: COMING HOME by Jack McDevitt

Coming Home (Alex Benedict, #7)Coming Home by Jack McDevitt   (Alex Benedict #7)-

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve said many times (often, in reviews on Goodreads.com) that a day with a bad McDevitt novel beats a day with no McDevitt novel whatsoever. The last two or three Alex Benedict novels haven’t been bad, exactly, but they have struck me as increasingly repetitive. COMING HOME follows closely on the heels of FIREBIRD, and the two share plot elements, particularly about the disappearing ships plot thread. The standard McDevitt plot structure is in play here (see my Firebird review for a rehash of it all), so there are no great surprises.

COMING HOME is probably the first novel where I’ve actually sort of egged on the author to get past the expected twists and turns of the standard plot structure and get to the meat of it all– when a mysterious white skimmer shows up to shoot up Chase and Alex at one point in the story, I found myself saying “Yeah, right, we all know they are going to get past that.. so move on why don’t you?”

I won’t reveal much about the plot, except to say that the big McGuffin this time is a mysterious long-lost cache of Earth artifacts, from the early days of space exploration. This gives McDevitt a chance to write a novel set on Earth in the far future, after severe climatic change and political/social evolution has had its effect. As the artifacts being sought are largely from the 20th and 21st century, we get to see the past from the perspective of someone searching for knowledge we take for granted as readers. It’s an interesting literary device– for instance, we learn that in the far future, only a relative handful of Shakespeare’s plays survive intact. Coming Home is also the most self-referential of the novels so far, as it features Chase Kolpath discovering the life of Priscilla Hutchens, the star of the other big McDevitt series. Hutch lived millenia before Kolpath, it turns out. A nice Easter Egg. For the first time, as well, Chase mentions writing her memoirs in the real time narrative so we experience Alex’s reaction to them.

Fair Warning, SPOILER ahead. The other great reveal, the one we have been building up to since Firebird, was the rescue of Alex’s Uncle Gabe from the hyperspatial rift his passenger liner fell into 20 years previous. When it actually happens, it’s kind of a non-event. For such an influential character throughout the series, Gabe kind of comes off as a non-starter. He’ll need fleshing out in later books.

SUMMARY: Coming Home wasn’t my favorite of the Alex Benedict series of novels. It was solid and workmanlike, but the repetitiveness is starting to become increasingly obvious with every novel and that is starting to affect my enjoyment of them.

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Napoleon’s Wars: A Review

Napoleon's Wars: An International History, 1803-1815Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 by Charles J. Esdaile
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charles Esdaile’s Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 provides an interesting perspective on the cataclysmic events during the first decade and a half of the 19th century. The focus of the book is, of course, Napoleonic History. It is not, however, a minute examination of his military campaigns beyond a broad brush recounting of the results of battles. Instead, Esdaile examines the political, economic, technological and sociological changes that occurred in Europe that brought a collection of frequently squabbling dynasties (often far more interested in their own localized geopolitical issues) to the point where they could unite simultaneously to overthrow Bonaparte by 1814, and again in 1815. Although Esdaile is clearly no great fan of Napoleon, he is still very objective in his analysis of the Emperor’s driving ambition and his motivation– to be the de facto ruler of Europe by conquest. Napoleon was less driven by political credo than by ruthless realities– he was in turns a Corsican Revolutionary, a Jacobin, a Republican, and finally an Emperor, cheerfully discarding one mask for the next.

Napoleon’s Wars tells most of its story as a treatment of the geopolitics of the era, and most importantly, provides the reader with a decent analysis of the main players in the diplomatic dance of the early 19th century. Much has been written about France and Great Britain during this time period; much less so about Spain, Germany, Prussia, Austria, Russia and Turkey. The great strength of Napoleon’s Wars is the portraits of the other rulers and their localized concerns– and how Napoleon successfully played them off against each other for so long.

I would certainly recommend this book for anyone who is a fan of Napoleonic history, but especially for history fans who are more interested in the political and diplomatic developments during the years of warfare.

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In Progress: Waterloo; a new history of the Battle and its Armies, by Gordon Corrigan

Waterloo: A New HistoryWaterloo: A New History by Gordon Corrigan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This wonderfully chatty, iconoclastic look at the great Waterloo battle is worth a read. The author, Gordon Corrigon, gazes at both the French and Allied side with a somewhat sardonic eye. The resultant prose is humorous, informative and quite interesting. Waterloo is a battle I have read many treatments on– books, articles, and even wargames. I appreciate an author who can bring a new point of view to this familiar ground.

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VOID MOON by Michael Connelly reviewed

Void MoonVoid Moon by Michael Connelly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Void Moon is a unique novel in that shared universe written by Michael Connelly that contains an aging Harry Bosch, Los Angeles homicide detective, Mickey Haller, defense attorney, and Terry McCaleb, former FBI agent. This novel features Cassidy “Cassie” Black, a professional burglar and ex-con who is laboring under the burden of her tragic past. What makes Void Moon unique in the Bosch-verse is the main character is not on right side of the law. Cassie is an expert in stealthy entry operations and the hopefully painless removal of cash and worldly goods from unsuspecting ‘marks’.. mostly in the city of Las Vegas, Nevada. Most of Cassie’s criminal career is in the past, however, and only obliquely referred to in mental dialogue and flashbacks from various characters. We see Cassie at the start of the novel in an attempt to at living the straight life– she’s selling Porsches to Hollywood elite and meeting with her parole agent regularly. A series of events pushes Cassie to give the old life one more try– which results in an escalating tide of bad fortune, chaos, and lots and lots of violence. I won’t give too much of this away, mild spoilers at best here. Let’s just say the heist she is hired to execute did not go as anticipated, and interested parties put Jack Karsch on the case. Karsch is the other great POV character in Void Moon and in many respects he is the polar opposite of Cassie– cold, calculating and psychopathic when he needs to be. I enjoyed Connelly’s interpretation of Karsch. The reader gets the impression that he’s a rather shady private investigator working for organized crime, but the point really gets hammered home when he casually dispenses with a critical witness that links Cassie to the crime he is investigating.. and buries him in the desert. Apparently he’s done this a lot over the years. The plot was constructed well.. a little slow in the beginning as we soak in the major players and what they mean to each other as well as what the events around a tragedy in Cassie’s past means to the story as a whole. That’s the only criticism I have of VOID MOON. Much of how the story develops revolves around the events of how she lost the love of her life (and fellow master burglar), Max Freeling, in a tragic event 7 years in the past, before she was sent to prison as an accomplice. Yet we see very little of it for all its importance.

Like every Connelly novel, apparently, Cassie inhabits the Bosch-Haller-McCaleb world of Los Angeles somewhere, and she is referenced in other works as the literary equivalent of a walk-on- because Connelly is cute that way. I don’t think we’ll see a lot more of Cassie Black, which is kind of a shame. She’s a very engaging character and one of the more interesting females Connelly has written. He doesn’t give her a lot of room to maneuver at the end of the novel so it would interesting how she would re-engage in the Bosch-universe.

Overall, not the best Connelly novel, but far from the worst and better than a lot of other crime thrillers. I liked VOID MOON and would recommend it to Bosch fans or fans of Crime dramas that feature criminals. The technical descriptions of the burglar’s trade was very well written.

Michael Connelly’s website

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PS: I just caught the first episode of the BOSCH streaming video series on Amazon over the weekend.  It’s based on CITY OF BONES (first Bosch book I ever read) and very much worth a viewing.  Titus Welliver is an excellent Bosch.  Recommended.

Review: Johannes Cabal the Detective

The Detective (Johannes Cabal, #2)The Detective by Jonathan L. Howard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve grown to really enjoy the Cabal series. The humor is droll, some of the social commentary is rather arch, but the overall narrative is of splendid adventure. The central figure, Johannes Cabal, is a necromancer in a world where necromancy is hardly an honorable profession. Indeed, Cabal’s inner monologue and side observations indicate he has had to remain one step ahead of a Noose/Guillotine/Firing Squad throughout his career, though no specifics are revealed by the series’ author, Jonathan Howard. Mr. Howard is a writer of considerable talent, with an innate ability to set a scene and construct gems of dialogue.

If you have read the first novel, you will note that #2, The Detective, takes place a decent amount of time after the events of the first novel, where Cabal was forced to collect 100 souls (by none other than the devil himself) in return for his soul. Perhaps a year or more later, in fact. Cabal is on the continent… somewhere. We’ll circle back to the setting. His attempt to burgle a rare text on necromancy lands him on the wrong side of a sadistic Balkan count’s graces.

The Cabal novels appear to be taking place in an alternative Edwardian to early 20th century era, before the Great War robbed life of any niceties. There are recognizable countries like England and Italy, and Balkan style fictional states with names made up out of whole cloth (Merkavia) to borrowed from other works (Graustark). No maps exist of the Cabalverse that I know of.

Cabal departs the fictional Balkan state (Merkavia) by hiding aboard a Zeppelin traveling North. The Zeppelin is packed with relief supplies for a Northern neighbor going through a drought. Or is it? A murder happens, and the story shifts to “Locked Room Mystery” mode. I won’t reveal any spoilers about the plot henceforth, but it does roll trippingly along from there and resolves itself in grand style– with gunshots, crashing airships, duels and a demonic entity from the past.

Johannes Cabal the Detective is a splendid read and it sets up Number 3 nicely. Highly recommended as a few nights’ diversion.

Johannes Cabal on DeviantArt.

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Quick Review: Flashman and the Angel of the Lord

Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (The Flashman Papers, #10)Flashman and the Angel of the Lord by George MacDonald Fraser

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full Disclosure: This is a re-read, or more technically a re-listen, of a Flashman book I have already read. I have read all of the real (non-revisionist) Flashman papers in book form at some point in my life and think highly of them. Still, after not reading one for a decade or more one gets the urge to revisit old haunts. Besides, it was in-stock as a loaner in the local library system. The version I listened to was not the Audible version featuring Timothy West as a narrator, rather, it was the Random House Audio version featuring David Case.

Mild spoilers follow.

The story is classic Flashman. He is at the end of his Indian Mutiny adventures outlined in FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME, and waiting to get on a the packet for home, when an unpleasant domestic situation (of course), leads to him leaving India precipitously, where he ends up in South Africa at the tender mercies of John Charity Spring, the insane slaver, sea-captain and disgraced Oxford Don from FLASH FOR FREEDOM! As you can guess, things go haywire. What Flashman story wouldn’t? He ends up in Baltimore, enmeshed in various plots and schemes hatched up by abolitionists, pro-Southern secessionists, and reluctantly, the U.S. Government. It wouldn’t do to give too much away, just to say that Flashy is blackmailed into participating in the Harper’s Ferry schemes of one John Brown, Sr. in his crazy bid to free all the slaves in the American South. We all know how that one ended. What makes the narrative interesting and highly enjoyable is Fraser’s portrayal of all the secret societies and characters looming around this incident, and his surprisingly sympathetic portrait of John Brown, whom Flashy seems to have some affection for.

If you read my reviews, you’ve read my review of Flashman and the Dragon. I love this series, I make no bones about that. Re-reading the Flashman series is a worthy endeavor, and in general they hold up well. I rate this particular less higher than others for some of the sheer implausible jumps in logic that are taken to further the plot. Flashman seems to be ensnared rather easily every step of the way to Harper’s Ferry, and that doesn’t seem like him at all. Still, the notes are fantastic as usual, the historical material very engaging, and what can I say.. it’s a Flashman novel, and that means a fun time.

It’s not fair to mark DOWN for an audio review, but listening to David Case attempt American accents is at time hilarious, and other times wince-inducing. I suggest getting the Audible version with Timothy West narrating. He sounds like an upper class Briton attempting an American accent.. not that growly, mush-mouthed staccato served up by Mr. Case.

Other than the Random House audio, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Flashman and the Angel of the Lord. Bring the Jubilee!

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Short Review: The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

The Steel Remains (A Land Fit for Heroes, #1)The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Steel Remains is a book I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while.. it’s been staring at me on my Ipad for about a year without me cracking it open. I’ve been a fan of Joe Abercrombie for about three years now, and his gritty, realistic hardboiled fantasy introduced in the First Law trilogy, so I was hoping for a new series similar to that one. Richard Morgan is an author that I’m familiar with, having read Altered Carbon and tried to start Market Forces for a Goodreads book club but failed miserably. I like Richard Morgan’s style, too, and discovered he is quite capable of lending his sparse, hard boiled prose style to an epic fantasy setting. How well does he execute this transposition? Well, it’s a mixed bag, really. The Steel Remains takes place in a world that is recovering from a cataclysmic war with some Reptilian race that featured Lizardmen and apparently dragons. I liked that the story starts at least 15 years after the big “Epic Event”.. imagine a Lord of the Rings novel taking place 20 years after the One Ring was destroyed. The story is told through the primary POV characters Ringel, Archeth and Egon, all of whom were heroes of the previous war. Egon (Dragonbane) is a doughty Viking-like northman who has become to urbanized for the tribe he has returned to after the wars. Archeth (Lady kir-Archeth Indamaninarmal) is your elf-standin from the Elf-Standins in this novel, the Kiriath, who have “departed these lands” after the end of the last big war (does that sound familiar, Tolkien fans?). And the PRIMARY focus of the plot is on one Ringil Eskiath, the tough as nails warrior type and anti-hero who did something big and impressive at a place called Gallows Gap during the big war. Right up front, it’s clear, Ringil is gay, and that’s a huge driver in his character. Ringil lives in a world that isn’t very live and let live about homosexuality. Much of his plot line is influenced by societal rejection of Ringil, and society’s grudging respect for his battlefield prowess. The plot was a lot of stuff we’ve seen before in fantasy.. an ancient race called the Dwenda returning to reclaim their world. The Kiriath, their ancient enemies, have long departed these shores. Predictions of dark lords rising, etc. Morgan really amps up scenes to “Noir up” his fantasy, including explicit gay sex scenes told in explicit detail and a very modern argot that I found more off-putting than any sexual references. The casual use of “Fuck” and “Yeah” and other linguistic 20th century speech nuggets took me out of the setting.. frequently. Not a terrible sin. After all, Joe Abercrombie can sling the F-bomb on occasion too, and I love his work.

In general, the plot is decent enough, and I won’t dispute that Morgan is a good writer in the SF genre, at least. The Steel Remains reminded me of a SF novel full of genre archtypes putting on a fantasy costume. Mysterious demigods or demons. Hardbitten heroes.. we’ve kind of seen this before. Maybe Morgan intent was to play with the genre a little and experiment. I liked it enough to try more in this series, but it’s nowhere near as good as Joe Abercrombie’s novels. I’ll give it a solid mezzo-mezzo.

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The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven, a review

The Draco TavernThe Draco Tavern by Larry Niven
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Draco Tavern is Larry Niven’s version of the “Space Bar” trope of science fiction. The main star is the setting; a nexus where alien species of a startling variety come together to interact and tell stories, and short stories ensue. The Space Bar isn’t startlingly original as a literary idea; Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon and Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille, and earlier, Tales From The White Hart could lay claim to exploring the concept before the publication of The Draco Tavern, though Larry Niven has been writing these stories in the Tavern setting for quite a while.

Perhaps the core concept isn’t original, but unlike those other collections, Niven has invested a lot of creativity and thought about the setting and universe surrounding the Draco Tavern, and he really seems to be having fun with the alien species in particular. Almost every one of the short stories centers around the humans (often just the bartender/narrator, Rick Schuman) encountering some nugget of truth about life by interacting with a race of beings that does something entirely differently and is shocked or amused with homo sapiens and their quirky ways. It’s a good theme; and the deeper theme of acceptance and good natured hospitality instead of xenophobia is a timely one these days.

Stories in the Collection:

“The Subject is Closed”
“Grammar Lesson”
“Assimilating Our Culture, That’s What They’re Doing”
“The Schumann Computer”
“The Green Marauder”
“The Real Thing”
“War Movie”
“Table Manners”
“One Night at the Draco Tavern”
“The Heights”
“The Wisdom of Demons”
“Smut Talk”
“Ssoroghod’s People”
“The Missing Mass”
“The Convergence of the Old Mind”
“The Death Addict”
“Storm Front”
“The Slow Ones”
“Cruel and Unusual”
“The Ones Who Stay Home”
“Breeding Maze”
“Losing Mars”
“Playground Earth”

Of these I rather liked The Wisdom of Demons, The Green Marauder (which posits the existence of a predecessor to humanity that lived on the pre-oxygen Earth), and The Schuman Computer (where the narrator builds a super computer that grows so powerful it gets bored with helping humanity…)

In summary, The Draco Tavern isn’t Niven’s greatest work, and maybe not even his best collection of short stories. I liked his milieu quite a bit and found the alien overlords (the bemused, 11 feet tall “Chirpsithra”, which look like kind of like willowy lobsters) very entertainingly written. This collection isn’t Ringworld, or even close, but it is worth a read for Niven fans. I found the stories a bit abrupt and even a little preachy at times. The reader is often left in a position to draw his own conclusions as the story abruptly ends. That can be a little jarring from time to time.

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