Book Review: The Invisible Library

Book Review: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

One good way to introduce a new fictional character or world is to start off with a short adventure where the character gets to show off their competency and special abilities.  Usually this is at most loosely connected to the main plot which will show up after the mission is complete, being there to establish a baseline for the character’s normal behavior.  Thus when we first meet Irene, she’s infiltrating a Harry Potterish school of magic as the cleaning lady to steal a book.

The Invisible Library

Irene (a codename) is an acquisitions agent for the Invisible Library, a mysterious organization that collects rare and unique books from parallel Earths.  Her title of “Junior Librarian” is somewhat misleading; she was born to two Librarians and made frequent visits there in her youth (and you do not age while in the Library) so she has years more of experience than she looks like.  Also, she suffered a career setback about a decade ago that made her look incompetent and gets her underestimated.

Irene’s primary advantage besides her vast knowledge base (particularly in the field of books) is the Language.  Only those bound to the Library can use this paranatural ability; if Irene knows the right words to use, she can cause objects to do her bidding.  There are some severe limitations on what she can do with the Language, and using it tends to blow her cover, so Irene hesitates to solve her problems this way.

Upon returning to the Library from the first chapter mission, Irene has no chance to rest before being sent out on another case, this time with trainee Kai in tow.  Kai is impossibly handsome and has several secrets, some more obvious than others.

They’re sent off to a world that has vampires, zeppelins, the Fair Folk and Great Detectives.  It’s normally off-limits due to high Chaos contamination, so the Grimm variant they’re after must be important.  The local Library agent explains that the book went missing after the previous owner’s murder, presumably at the hands of notorious cat burglar Belphegor.

Complications soon heap upon each other.  Irene must work out which of the people involved is the real threat.  Is it Kai, who really does have too many secrets?  The deadly thief Belphegor?  Silver, the Fae ambassador of Liechtenstein?  The mad science-oriented Iron Brotherhood?  Rival Librarian Bradamant?  Earl Peregrine Vale, noted detective?  The renegade codenamed Alberich?  Or is it the Library itself?  And just where is that book?

This is a fast-paced adventure story with some neat worldbuilding and mostly likable characters.  The Language, chaos-spawned magic, draconic powers and technology all have their own strengths and weaknesses.  There’s some “meta” stuff as well; a chaos-contaminated world tends to have things happen as they would in fiction rather than in “real life” with plenty of coincidences and narrative tropes.

There is one clanger of a scene in which Kai pressures Irene to have sex with him and has difficulty taking “no” for an answer.  It’s meant to show that 1) Kai isn’t quite as familiar with modern customs as he lets on and 2) Irene has had plenty of sex, thank you, but not with the person her colleagues think she did.  There could have been other ways of showing these things.

There’s also the thing where everyone including Irene has a mysterious backstory, but we never get more than hints for most of them.

Primarily for folks who like the mashup of steampunk and fantasy.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

 

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows by Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin

The universe is vast, and intelligent life has arisen on many worlds.  Over millennia, these different lifeforms have spread out from their points of origin and met each other.  Sometimes, these meetings have led to friendly interaction, sometimes they have ended in interspecies war.  No one remembers precisely when, or who did it, but an artificial habitable environment was created to serve as a meeting place for diplomats.  Each new species has added on to that space station to create Point Central, our last, best hope for peace.

Ambassador of the Shadows

Now at last it is Earth’s turn to preside over the Council in the Hall of Screens, and the new ambassador from that planet has big plans.  Plans so big, he needs to be guarded by top spatio-temporal agents Valerian and Laureline.

Valerian and Laureline is a French comic book series originally published from 1967 to 2010, very popular in European comics, and an influence on the look and feel of the movie The Fifth Element.  A new live-action movie version is coming out this summer, so I thought I’d check in on the source material.

The future Earth civilization, Galaxity, is based on time travel technology, which their space travel utilizes for faster than light speed.  This technology is dangerous in the wrong hands, thus the need for special time/space agents.

Valerian is a native of the 28th Century, and initially is quite respectful of authority, and does not question his orders, even when they seem ethically dubious.  That said, he is a good-hearted fellow who does the right thing as he sees it when the chips are down.  While in Middle Ages France, he recruited Laureline as a guide, and she proved so effective that he brought her home with him as an agent.

While Laureline is a fast learner who quickly adjusts to her new surroundings, she has an outsider’s view of them.  A fiery redhead, Laureline is impulsive and suspicious of authority figures, especially when their behavior is fishy.  (She initially was scheduled to be a “girl of the week” but was so well-received by the audience that she became the co-star.)

Earth’s ambassador initially emphasizes the “ass”, but that quickly becomes moot, as both he and Valerian are abducted by mysterious parties immediately upon arrival at Point Central.  Laureline must track them down through the labyrinthine construction and clashing cultures of the diplomatic station.  Comic relief is provided by a cowardly protocol officer Laureline dragoons into service as her sidekick.

The story becomes something of a shaggy dog when things going on in the background make the heroes’ actions irrelevant in the big picture, but this volume is important to the continuity because it introduces two recurring elements.  The Grumpy Transmuter from Bluxte is an astonishingly rare animal that can create copies of any item it ingests; since it’s a tiny animal with a small mouth, it’s limited to things like gems and pharmaceuticals.  Since the galactic community has no common currency, it’s like a portable cash machine and becomes Laureline’s pet.  Also, the Shingouz, greedy information brokers who will dispense helpful data in exchange for large payments.  Laureline becomes one of their favorite customers and they frequently appear in later stories.

The art is good, with the setting allowing the artist to go wild with interesting alien designs.  I’m not a fan of the coloring, though, which is often garish and inconsistent.  In particular, the humans often have bright orange skin.

There’s some violence, but it’s non-lethal, and one scene takes place in an alien brothel where we see some scantily-clad aliens (including Laureline in a disguise.)  Say a PG-13 rating.

Recommended to fans of science fiction adventure and/or French comics.

The City of Shifting Waters

And now a special bonus review of The City of Shifting Waters, which is as of 5/13/17 available for free download on Kindle.  This is an earlier adventure, when Laureline was still a new partner for Valerian.  A mad scientist named Xombul has escaped confinement and used a one-way device to travel to New York City in 1986.

Time voyages to that era are forbidden as global disaster, including melting of the polar ice caps, wiped out the existing civilizations, and there’s a blank spot three centuries long in the history books.  It’s not clear what Xombul is up to, but he must be stopped, so Valerian is sent back.

The secret time portal in the Statue of Liberty becomes inoperable shortly after Valerian arrives when the statue collapses, and the agent is pressed into service by a gang looting the flooded city.  While Valerian does manage to find a clue as to what Xombul is doing, he can’t do much with it.

Until Laureline shows up.  When Valerian didn’t report back in, she went to the time portal in Brazil and worked her way up to New York.  Reunited, the time agents make a deal with the leader of the looters, Sun Rae.  Since there are no historical records of this period, one petty warlord or another makes no difference but allowing Xombul to take over would change the future unpredictably.  They’ll let Sun Rae keep any 1980s science Xombul has gathered in exchange for his help against the intruder.

Turns out Xombul has big plans indeed, and intends to spread his “benevolent” rule over all of space-time!  Will our heroes (and their not so heroic ally) be able to stop him before the future vanishes?

The faces are a bit more cartoony in this volume; perhaps the artist hadn’t quite settled his style yet.  Valerian also comes off a bit more sexist, with some stupid remarks.

Thankfully, even in this cartoonier style, Sun Rae (who’s presumably African-American) doesn’t look too much like a racist stereotype.  When he’s first introduced, we learn he was a flutist before the Great Disaster, and he’s pretty sharp, instantly grasping the advantages of having scientific knowledge once he’s alerted to the idea.  He also doesn’t go out of his way to be evil despite his ruthlessness.

Xombul’s a bit more of a stereotype, given to explaining his brilliant plans to his enemies before disposing of them, and wanting to try out new cool gadgets on human subjects before they’ve been completely tested.  His captive slightly saner scientist, Schroeder, is clearly based on Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor but is better at social skills.

The writing isn’t quite up to the peak of the series, but is pulpy good fun.

Here’s a trailer for the movie!

Book Review: The Killing Moon

Book Review: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

The city of Gujaareh worships Hananja, the goddess of dreams.  Their entire culture is centered around the power of narcomancy to draw magical power from dreams to heal and perform other wonders.  The most powerful of these “humors” is dreamblood, which is only produced by a person’s final dream.  Thus a small group of holy men called the Gatherers are dispatched to bring gentle death to the aged and incurable–and sometimes those that would threaten the peace of the city.

The Killing Moon

Ehiru is considered the most skilled of the Gatherers, in much demand to bring surcease to the suffering.  But his most recent Gathering has gone horribly wrong.  He has condemned a man to eternal nightmare, and threatened his own sanity.  Why, Ehiru is even seeing what looks like a Reaper, a mythical corruption of the Gatherers that has not existed for centuries.

Sunandi is the Voice of Kisua, an ambassador from that ancient land to Gujaareh.  She is suspicious of the magic that pervades the entire city; to her euthanasia and assassination are evil.  Sunandi is investigating the sudden death of her predecessor (and foster father) Kiran.  Is the Sunset Prince of Gujaareh up to something even more sinister than she expected?

Nijiri is a faithful follower of Hananja, whose long loyalty and training are rewarded when he becomes a Gatherer-Apprentice under the tutelage of Ehiru, his personal hero.  However, this is not an auspicious time to become a Gatherer, and Nijiri may end up having to do the unthinkable to remain true to his vows.

This fantasy novel is the first in the Dreamblood series by N.K. Jemisin, who recently won a Hugo Award for her book The Fifth Season.  The geographical setting and other details are evocative of Ancient Egypt, but this is very much not Egypt, or even Earth, as is quickly made clear by the existence of the Dreaming Moon.  Ms. Jemisin’s introductory note mentions that one of the difficulties was coming up with names that sounded right, but didn’t mean anything in Egyptian.

Many of the cultural details revolve around Gujaareh’s unique form of magic; for example, the equivalent of temple prostitutes don’t have sex with the worshipers, but instead guide them into erotic dreams from which healing “dreamseed” can be extracted.  The Gatherers are central to this story; they have great power and special training, but must devote themselves to self-control–losing that control makes them vulnerable to becoming Reapers.  Unfortunately, someone has found a way to pervert the system and use it for their own purposes.  Peace is the will of Hananja, but whose definition of “peace” will it be?

There’s quite a bit of world-building, and it’s nice to see a fantasy setting based in ancient African civilizations.  It’s also quite pleasant that it’s not “good vs. evil” as such, either.  Gujaareh’s use of magic does a lot of good for its citizens, but Kisua’s worries about the ethical problems of narcomancy and the dangers of collecting dreamblood are not unjustified.  Is denying a painless death to someone who cannot be cured of their constant pain who might live on for years yet unable to move worth holding to a principle?  But if you allow this “good death”, who is there to stop all deaths that serve Hananja from being declared “good?”

Some of the characters fell a little flat for me, and a map would have been nice at a couple of points to make it clearer why certain journeys had to be made in a specific way.  On the other hand, there’s a glossary, and in the paperback edition I read, there’s an “interview” of the author by the author that explains a great deal of the reasoning behind details of the setting.

Overall, this is an excellent book, well worth searching out if you’re looking for something different in your fantasy worlds.

Comic Book Review: Superman Adventures Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Superman Adventures Volume 1 edited by Mike McAvennie

After the success of the Batman animated series of the 1990s, the DC Animated Universe became a “universe” with the release of the Superman animated show that shared the same continuity.  While perhaps not quite as brilliant as its predecessor, the Superman animated series was still very good and depicted the characters well.

Superman Adventures Volume 1

So naturally, there was a comic book tie-in series as well.  Paul Dini (who’d worked on the TV show) and Scott McCloud wrote issues, with various pencillers and inker Terry Austin imitating the show’s artstyle.  In this first volume, we primarily see sequels to television episodes.

Some standout stories:  Issue 2 has “Superman’s Girlfriend” who is not Lois Lane, but an ordinary woman who allows a joke to roll out of control because she initially likes the attention.  Which is fine until she’s held hostage by Metallo, the man with the Kryptonite heart.  Issue 5 has the return of Livewire, an electrically-powered woman who’d been created for the TV show.  This time she’s striking a blow against the patriarchy by banning men from all electronic media.  Somehow.  It’s a bit heavy-handed, but allows Lois and a female TV reporter to bond a bit–it’s the first time the latter has been allowed to be the primary reporter on real news stories.

#7&8 is a two-parter in which two Kryptonian criminals get access to size-changing technology.  It’s most interesting for spotlighting police officer “Dangerous” Dan Turpin (a  Jack Kirby creation who was made to look even more like his creator after Kirby died) and his refusal to back down against impossible odds, despite his utter lack of superpowers.  And Issue 9 features a teenager who has two heroes, Superman and Lex Luthor.  We see some depth from Luthor in this one, as he does seem to care about the boy, even as his greed ensures that the teenager will lose faith in him.

These are kid-friendly stories (#10 even has a kid help Clark Kent solve a mystery) with enough depth for adult fans to enjoy.  There’s a certain amount of fantasy violence, and some people die in the backstory, but the worst that happens to anyone in the present day is a trip to the hospital.

The art style may take some getting used to for those who never saw the show, but is clear and effective.

Recommended for young Superman fans, and Nineties kids with nostalgia.

Book Review: The Infinite Arena

Book Review: The Infinite Arena edited by Terry Carr

Science fiction, in a way, is a very broad genre, that can easily contain stories of other genres within itself.  Thus space westerns, fantastic romance, star war novels and so forth.   In this case, we have a sample of sports stories set in science fiction terms.

The Infinite Arena

Lead batter in the lineup is “Joy in Mudville” by Poul Anderson & Gordon Dickson.  It’s a Hoka story as the imaginative aliens that look like sentient teddy bears have taken up the sport of baseball.  As is their wont, they have assumed the identities of fictional ballplayers of Earth, including the Mighty Casey, their best batter.  Unfortunately, their latest opponents, the Sarenn Snakes, are masters of psychological warfare.  Alexander Jones, the ambassador from Earth, must summon one of his rarely-appreciated talents to save the day.  It’s all very silly.

“Bullard Reflects” by Malcolm Jameson begins with the Space Patrol celebrating the Jovian armistice with athletic contests, including the sport of Dazzle Dart, played with flashlights and mirrors.  But it turns out not all the Jovians are honoring the armistice, and Captain Bullard’s Pollux is sent to track down diehards who’ve taken over an experimental weapons testing station.  Things look dark for the Patrol when they are ambushed and disarmed, but Bullard figures out a way to make the situation a Dazzle Dart game…to the death!  A fine bit of pulp writing, but Mr. Jameson piles the awesomeness of his heroes a shade high.  Not only are they the fleet champions in Dazzle Dart, but are best at all the other athletic contests too, and the Pollux is the only ship in condition to fly when the crisis arises as all the others slacked off when peace was declared.

“The Body Builders” by Keith Laumer posits a future in which most people who can afford it store their physical bodies away and use humaniform robots by telepresence.  Dueling has become a frequent occurrence thanks to the more or less disposable extra bodies, and the protagonist is a professional gladiator.  Which is all well and good until he’s tricked into a duel in his weak “pretty boy” body used for dates, as opposed to the monstrosity he uses for combat.   He sees no way out except to tarnish his honor temporarily in an effort to get to his backup bodies, but is eventually forced to resort to his original organic form–if this one dies, it’s curtains!  Some of the celebrities name-dropped as body models are now obscure, which may make reading the story a chore for the young.

“The Great Kladnar Race” by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett has Earthlings stuck on a backwater planet try to create some excitement by organizing a race of the local beasts of burden.   The twist ending is one that could have been thwarted easily if any of the Earthlings had bothered to ask the natives relevant questions.

“Mr. Meek Plays Polo” by Clifford D. Simak involves space polo.  Don’t know how that’s played?  Neither does Mr. Meek, a retired bookkeeper now touring the Solar System in the spaceship it took him a lifetime to save up for.  But he did see a game once, which is more than anyone else in the rowdy frontier of Saturn’s rings has to their credit.  So when the radioactive moss harvesters are talked into a game by a social worker trying to civilize them, Mr. Meek is drafted as a coach for one team, and eventually a replacement player.

As you might guess from his name, Mr. Meek is a timid fellow who tries to explain the reality of the situation, but no one is listening until he is so riled up that he bets his ship on the contest.  (Apparently, he keeps getting into this sort of situation.)  Oh, and there’s an infestation of metal-eating bugs to deal with; that can’t be good.  Things sort themselves out in the end.

“Sunjammer” by Arthur C. Clarke is more “hard” SF than most of the other stories, as solar yachts use the pressure of sunlight to have a race from Earth orbit to the Moon.  One of the ships is manned by the inventor of solar sails, after decades of work finally able to compete; but this will be his last chance.  Soon, solar flares will make it too dangerous to yacht, and he’ll be too old for the sport by the time it’s safe again.  This one has a bittersweet ending.

“Run to Sunlight” by George R.R. Martin is comparatively light considering his reputation.  A spaceport’s amateur football league is thrown into chaos when a team of heavy-worlders apply to play.  The government doesn’t want the coordinator of the league to reject the application as they’re trying to keep a peace treaty going, and this is an obvious propaganda moment.  But the aliens prove to have major advantages in the sport, and the war may start again if they can prove how weak the Earthling really are.  Good use of strategizing and using strengths and weaknesses, but true victory goes to the person with their priorities straight.

I liked the Laumer and Clarke stories best.  The stories were written from the 1940s to the 1970s, so there are none that feature female athletes, and the few women that do appear are largely useless in plot terms.  (The Laumer story has the protagonist choosing between a young woman who hates artificial bodies but genuinely likes his personality and a flashier woman who wants to get married for a five-year trial period so she doesn’t have to work anymore.)

Recommended to fans of “strange sports” stories and fans of particular authors who haven’t seen these stories before.  Check interlibrary loan or the finer used book stores.

Book Review: Hokas Pokas!

Book Review: Hokas Pokas! by Poul Anderson & Gordon R. Dickson

The Hoka of the planet Toka are the galaxy’s best live-action roleplayers.  Given a story they find interesting, the teddy-bear-looking aliens will take on the characters as their own personalities.  And they especially love Earth stories.  Thus it is that they have entire subcultures based around Sherlock Holmes, or the pop culture version of Napoleon or the Lord of the Rings novels.  Alexander Jones, Ambassador Plenipotentiary of the Interbeing League, has his hands full trying to keep the Hoka safe until they’re considered advanced enough to join galactic civilization.

Hokas Pokas

The Hoka stories are comedic science fiction; some of the funniest ever written.  This volume contains three of those stories.

“Full Pack (Hokas Wild)” gives Alexander Jones’ wife, Tanni, a rare day in the limelight.  While her husband is away, Tanni goes to investigate a downed starcraft, along with her young son Alex Jr.  It’s in the Hoka version of India, which is based more on Rudyard Kipling books than on the Mahabhrata.  The mission is complicated when her Hoka escort overnight switches from a British military regiment to a wolf pack from The Jungle Book.  Yet those who are familiar with the book rather than the Disney movie may catch on to the twist more quickly than Tanni does.

“The Napoleon Crime” explains where Alexander Jones was during the previous story, on Earth negotiating for an upgrade in the Hokas’ status.  But back on Toka, someone or something has been twisting the Hoka games, and the planet is on the brink of having actual wars.  With the aid of the heavyworld free trader Brob, Alex must return to Toka unannounced and go undercover as Horatio Hornblower to head off a deadly reenactment of the Napoleonic Wars.

Star Prince Charlie moves the setting to the world of New Lemuria, and the archipelago kingdom of Talyina.  This feudal society has been contacted by the Interbeing League, which hopes to eventually bring the Lemurians up to galactic standards with the minimum of outside interference.  Talyina is visited by young Charles Edward Stuart and his Hoka tutor, taking a vacation from the cargo ship of Charlie’s father.

There’s trouble in Talyina, though.  The current king is a usurper and tyrant, and the people grumble.  One drunken night for the tutor and a local warrior later, a prophecy about a destined prince and the tradition of the Young Pretender cast Mr. Stuart in the role of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the Hoka is now his Highland Scots retainer, Hector MacGregor.  A local lord is pushing Charlie to fulfill the prophecy, and due to the League rules, the boy can’t just have technologically advanced guards come get him.

The prophecy begins to come true, with a little “help”, and the people rally behind their alien prince.  But as events sweep Charlie along, he comes to realize that overthrowing one tyrant may only lead to a worse one taking the throne.  For the sake of Talyina, he must become the hero they deserve, if not the one they think he is.

This is actually a short novel, written for the young adult market.  It’s very much a boys’ adventure in the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson, with rather more humor.  (All the chapter titles are literary references, for example.)  Charlie moves in a world of men; women are mentioned from time to time, but none are important to the plot, and I cannot remember Charlie ever having a conversation with one.  He does, however, learn not to look down on people just because they’re less educated or technologically advanced.  The bittersweet ending demonstrates how much he’s grown as Charlie chooses to do the right thing rather than the easy thing.

There’s some college papers waiting to be written about colonialism and cultural appropriation in the Hoka stories–much of the humor derives from the latter being turned on its head, and the League tries to avoid the worst effects of the former, but those things are worth considering.

While the first two parts are not specifically written for young adults, they should be okay for junior high students on up.  Some references are likely to go over the heads of younger readers, which makes this a good choice for re-reading later.   Highly recommended to fans of science fiction humor.

 

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey

One of the great things about reading history books is learning about obscure people whose lives illuminate a corner of time.  In school history classes, the emphasis tends to be on larger stories, a few “great men” (possibly a woman or two) and lots of dates to memorize.  But a book that focuses on just one minor figure can tell you a lot about the time and place they lived in.

Our Man in Charleston

This volume concerns Robert Bunch, who was the British consul in Charleston, South Carolina from 1853-63.  For our younger readers, a consul is a diplomatic official that handles the interests of a country and its citizens in an area of a foreign land less important than the capital, which is covered by an ambassador or minister plenipotentiary.  The big issue when Mr. Bunch arrived in town was the Negro Seaman Act.  In South Carolina and several other states of the southern United States, if a ship landing in a port had free black people in the crew, those crew members would be imprisoned for the duration of the ship’s stay.   That meant those crew members couldn’t do the work necessary to get the ship ready to leave, as well as suffering the privations of prison.  What was more, the ship’s captain was charged for the expense of imprisoning his crew, and if he couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, his ship and cargo would be seized by the government, and the crew members enslaved to pay the debt!

Since Great Britain had freed its slaves in the West Indies in the 1830s, and any British merchant captain operating in the West Indies hired locally, this meant that British citizens were being imprisoned, ran the risk of being enslaved and having their business prospects dampened.   Her Majesty’s Government was not well pleased.  On the other hand, the previous consul had been indiscreet about saying so, and was too forthcoming about the evils of slavery, so had been forced to leave town in theoretical disgrace.   Mr. Bunch would have to be more discreet.

Meanwhile, South Carolina and its fellow Southern states were facing their own economic crisis.   Their biggest crop was cotton, and their method of producing it demanded a steady supply of slaves.  Back when the U.S. Constitution had been signed, it had been agreed to stop importing slaves from other countries (especially African ones) after 1808 as by that point, domestic production should be sufficient.  They hadn’t realized just how heavily cotton would take off.  Worse, the Northern “free” states were expanding their territory and economies faster than the slave states, and getting more disgruntled with slavery by the year.   So the Southerners wanted to guarantee their right to have slaves forever, expand into places like Cuba and Mexico to increase their territorial power, and re institute the slave trade.

The British government was not thrilled with any of those plans, but they were well aware that their textile industry depended heavily on Southern U.S. cotton, which at the time had no viable substitute.  So Mr. Bunch’s instructions were to be as subtle as possible about opposing such things.

What emerges is a remarkably sympathetic account of the two-faced behavior required of diplomats.  In his interactions with the South Carolinians, Mr. Bunch was pleasant and friendly and non-committal, slowly working behind the scenes to accomplish British goals (it took several years, but the Negro Seaman Act was repealed.)   But in his diplomatic correspondence and secret messages to his superiors, Bunch revealed his true horror about the practice of slavery and his belief that the people around him had gone insane in a fundamental way.

(Lest Northerners get too smug, most of the ships practicing illegal slave trading with Cuba and Central America at the time were built and funded by people in New York City, using their American flags to bluff their way past British anti-slavery patrols.)

When the American Civil War came, Mr. Bunch was the only competent British consul in the Confederacy.  He was required to carry out secret diplomatic missions to try to get the Confederate government to pledge not to revive the slave trade–without ever making a solid promise to have Great Britain recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.   Meanwhile, his dispatches were part of the reason the United Kingdom held off on recognizing the CSA, despite the foreign policy blunders of U.S,. Secretary of State William Seward, who seemed ready to provoke war with Britain if that’s what it took to show the Union would not be intimidated.

Mr. Seward was also completely taken in by Mr. Bunch’s smiling facade, and decided he was in cahoots with the rebels, pulling his diplomatic credentials.  When Mr. Bunch was evacuated from Charleston by a British ship in 1863, the South Carolina newspapers hailed him as a friend of the South.

The book comes with a center section of photographs, an extensive bibliography by subject (the book was vastly helped by Bunch’s diplomatic correspondence now being declassified), endnotes, acknowledgements and index.

Some thoughts:  this book is very clear about the way the South Carolinians’ dependence on slavery and their doubling down on it being the only ethical mode of life led them in a death spiral that could only result in economic destruction, even if the Civil War had not come about.  Make no mistake; at least for the elite of Charleston, the secession was all about keeping and expanding slavery (though their diplomats in European countries quickly resorted to all the other explanations you’ve heard, because slavery was a hard sell.)

Also, the peek behind the curtains of diplomacy makes me wonder what our own diplomats are up to around the world, and other countries’ diplomats are up to here.  How much double-dealing is acceptable in a good cause?  How can we ever be sure what an ambassador is really thinking?  Was that really the best treaty we could get, or is something entirely different going on behind the scenes?

Highly recommended for American Civil War buffs, history fans and those who want to know more about how diplomacy works.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.  No other compensation was involved.

Book Review: Analog 1.

Book Review: Analog 1 edited by John W. Campbell

Astounding Science Fiction was one of the most influential science fiction magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s.   But long-time editor John W. Campbell had felt for years that the title did not reflect the more mature, “hard” science fiction he preferred to run.  So in 1960, he finally got permission to transition the magazine over a period of months to Analog Science Fact and Fiction.

Analog 1

This volume is a collection of stories from that first year of Analog and as such is a time capsule of the science fiction genre at that moment.  The opening editorial is perhaps a little hubristic, claiming that “mainstream literature” is just a subset of science fiction.  Mr. Campbell touts the fun of science fiction being the way it allows the mind to stretch and struggle with new concepts.  Then we begin the eight feature stories.

“Monument” by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. concerns a planet that is a tropical paradise, inhabited by primitive, peaceful humanoids.   A lone spaceman stumbles on the place, and lives out his life in peace…until near his death, he realizes that inevitably more humans will come, and given the history of tropical paradises on Earth, this will result in disaster for the natives.  He comes up with a plan.   Some time later, galactic civilization indeed comes calling.  All unfolds as O’Brien had foreseen–greedy developers, broken treaties, military men with their hands tied by regulations.  The people of Langri have the Plan, but will it come off in time?

This is the longest piece in the volume, being a full-fledged novella.   The critique of colonialism is pointed enough to sting a bit.   The greedy capitalist who doesn’t really hate the natives, but doesn’t understand that their interests should come ahead of his own, and so does them dirt, is the major villain of the piece.  He’ll be quite willing to employ the locals as maids and laborers in the hotels he’s building, once they’re properly put in their place.   He’s blind to the way he’s being outmaneuvered, and even the sympathetic military men don’t quite grok what the natives are really up to.

“The Plague” by Teddy Keller is set in the then present day.  The obscure Pentagon office of Protection from Germ Warfare had the previous officer retire a few weeks ago, and his replacement is tied up in red tape somewhere.  So when a plague breaks out, Sergeant Major Andrew McCloud and Corporal Bettijean Baker are the spearhead of the effort to stop it, despite the military brass trying to interfere.  A general is running interference, but if they don’t figure out why this illness has such a weird pattern of attack quickly, some new officer will be found to start all over.

The vector of spread is a clever one, and I have seen it in at least one other short story.  Younger readers might not catch on until it is spelled out for them, as customs and technology have changed since 1960.   There’s a whiff of the period’s sexism in regards to how grown women in the military are referred to as “girls.”

“Remember the Alamo!” by T.R. Fehrenbach is a time travel tale.  A scholar has gone back to observe the Battle of the Alamo, infiltrating the small garrison to get the full details.  Mr. Ord doesn’t quite grasp that the differences piling up between the history he knows and the events he is experiencing aren’t just trivialities he can dismiss.  The end result is telegraphed because we see the thoughts of those around Ord, and what they’re not telling him, since he should already know it.

“The Hunch” by Christopher Anvil features scout ship pilot James Connely, who is informed that two scout ships have vanished in a certain sector, despite having the latest equipment.  So his ship is being refitted with even newer equipment.  Equipment he has no chance to test before being launched into that same sector. As it happens, his hunch that one of these devices is actually responsible for the disappearance of the other ships is correct.  But which one of these newfangled gadgets is it?  This story is heavy on the sarcastic humor.

“Barnacle Bull” by Winston P. Sanders is a rarity, in that the protagonists are a Norwegian space crew in the “near future” flying the Hellik Olav in an attempt to find a safe way through the asteroid belt.  They discover why none of the other ships ever reported back.  Space barnacles.  This is one of those stories where the problem is in fact its own solution, looked at a different way.

“Join Our Gang?” by Sterling E Lanier concerns a galactic civilization attempting to convince a newly discovered planet to join them.  Sadly, the aliens are refusing, so it is time to apply pressure.  Turns out that invasive species are an Earth specialty.  Not exactly a happy ending to this one, more of a “that’s just the way it goes.”

“Sleight of Wit” by Gordon R. Dickson stars another scout, Hank Shallo lands on the same planet, in almost the spot as, the first alien scout humanity has ever met.  The alien’s ship is heavily armed, while Hank’s has no conventional weaponry.  But as he warns the alien, Hank is in possession of the universe’s most deadly weapon, one that cannot be detected or stopped.  Or is he bluffing?  Does the alien dare find out for sure?

“Prologue to an Analogue” by Leigh Richmond is the sole non-“hard” SF story in the volume.  We’re back in the present day, as an advertising campaign featuring “witches” proves successful in unexpected ways.  For younger readers, I should mention that many television programs used to be wholly owned by a particular advertiser, so a cleaning product company hosting its own nightly newscast wouldn’t have been considered unusual.   The story is also tied heavily to the politics of 1960, with tensions between the USA, the Soviet Union and Red China important to the way the plot unfolds.  The actual mechanism of the events is never explained.  Psionics?  The will of God?  Actual witches?  Who knows?  A rather frustrating tale, as intended.

These aren’t all-time classic stories, a couple are very dated, but are pretty good representatives of the magazine’s content.  It’s been reprinted a few times, and some of the other covers are better–check your local library or used book store.

 

 

Book Review: An Accidental Abduction

Book Review: An Accidental Abduction by Roderick Cyr

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

An Accidental Abduction

Katy Byrd is from small-town Minnesota, and seeking a deeper relationship with Jesus and her Christian faith.  She accompanies her father on a (“non-denominational” but later specified as evangelical) mission trip to Morocco to help out a struggling local church community.  She get separated from her group and is kidnapped by terrorists.

Azir Ahmed was turned on to radicalized Islam in college, and has joined AQIM.  Despite his admiration for some of their goals, he’s really not down with the terrorism part of being in a terrorist organization, and is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their violent actions.  When a foolish AQIM hanger-on kidnaps an American, Azir is assigned to guard the prisoner until the organization can figure out to capitalize on the situation.

While this book was self-published, the subject matter and treatment indicate that it’s meant for the Christian young adult market.  The writer for this market faces difficulties beyond the normal ones facing a YA writer, since certain topics are off limits or required to be presented in a specified way–without, one hopes, turning off or boring the young readers who are the target market.  Not everyone can handle this balance.  I regret to say that this is not a very good book.

The positive:  The basic plot idea is a good one; I like that the abduction is not planned, but a bungle by someone who only has a job in AQIM because his big-shot cousin was required to take him in.

I like that it’s not an “insta-conversion” story with the Sinner’s Prayer and an altar call, and a minor atheist character is not depicted as a sneering villain.  And if you wish, you can read it as non-supernatural, with the placebo effect of prayer, and some amazing coincidences.

Less good:  This book desperately needs an editor.  The  prose is clunky, there are spellchecker typos, and there is a lot of extra verbiage dedicated to telling, not showing.  This is especially evident in the first chapter, which is a prime example of what TV Tropes calls “character shilling.”  A secondary character spends most of the chapter extolling the virtues of the main character in order to impress the reader as to why they should like Katy.  (Pro tip: starting by listing all the superlative qualities your heroine lacks does not make it not character shilling.)

It takes about a third of the book to get to the main plotline, and the early chapters feel padded.  For example, there’s an attempt to build suspense with an untrustworthy-looking bus driver that goes absolutely nowhere–there’s not even a sigh of relief that he turns out not to be untrustworthy.

There’s also a weird political digression where the president of the United States is depicted as not being willing to help Katy because her father might possibly have voted against him in the last election, and only publicly identifying as Christian for political purposes.  The book is very careful not to mention the president’s name or skin color, but since the story is set in 2015, the odds are slim it’s Joe Biden.  (Shades of the “secret Muslim” canard.)

It’s also kind of weird that a cute white girl being kidnapped by terrorists somehow doesn’t cause a feeding frenzy by the American media–in real life, the parents would have been constantly harassed by opportunistic reporters and paparazzi.   Here, only the local media are interested, and then only after Katy is partially rescued.

Fatal:  Azir, a fervent Muslim, is gobsmacked by the concept of a merciful god that forgives sin.  He’s never heard of such a thing before!   This would seem to indicate that he has never read the Koran, the first verse of which describes God as merciful, and which goes on to describe God’s mercifulness and forgiveness of sins several times.  Nor has he ever seen a list of the ninety-nine names of God, which include “the Merciful.”

Slightly less untenable is the treatment of Allah and the Christian God as two separate entities; from the Muslim point of view, they’re the same being, the Christians are just worshiping Him wrong.  This should be even more evident as Azir and Katy are conversing in French,   In that language, the word for both “God” and “Allah” is “Dieu.”

It’s also notable that Katy, who’s been spending her spare time studying the Bible, seems never to have read Job or Ecclesiastes, with their perspectives on the problem of suffering.  Another odd bit is when her pastor uses his Christmas sermon to talk about how Jesus’ birth should influence lives in the present day, and this is treated as unusual, when it’s a standard pastoral topic that comes up every Christmas in most churches.

(There’s also a bit of gender essentialism when it’s just assumed that men going on a mission trip will be doing construction work while the women cook and clean, without checking to see if their skill sets lend themselves to that.)

So, no, I cannot recommend this book.  It needs a total rewrite with a good editor to bring out the good book that is buried in there.

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