Book Review: Siege 13

Book Review: Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

During World War Two, Hungary was one of the Axis powers, with its own fascists led by the Arrow Cross Party.  At first this seemed like a good idea, as Hungary gained back territories it had lost after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  But late in the war, it became obvious that they were on the losing side.  The Hungarian government tried to broker a separate armistice with the Soviet Union, only to have their country occupied by the Germans.  As a result, they were forced to fight to the bitter end.

Siege 13

In late December of 1944 through February of 1945, the Soviet Army encircled the city of Budapest and besieged the troops and civilians within.  It is that siege that gives us the title of this book, which contains thirteen short stories all of which tie into that event in some way, even if the characters are living in the Hungarian diaspora community in Toronto.

“The Atlas of B. Görbe” is about a struggling writer in New York City who turns to an older author of children’s books for assistance in finding his way.

“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945” is set within the siege itself as the zookeepers come to realize they might not be able to keep themselves alive, let alone their charges, and the extreme steps one of the keepers takes.

“Sailor’s Mouth” takes place in Romania, where a man has come to adopt a child of Hungarian heritage.  He may have become misled by his carnal urges.  One of the themes in this story is “The Museum of Failed Escapes” that Judit, the woman the man is seeing, tells him about.

“The Restoration of the Villa Where Tíbor Kálmán Once Lived” concerns a deserter who joins the Communist occupation after the war.  He takes over the home of a man who used to provide people with false papers to escape the Axis, and betrays their names to the Soviets one by one.  But he gets the distinct feeling the villa  is rejecting him…this one won an O. Henry award.

“The Beautician” is about a college student preparing his thesis paper.  He finds a possible topic in the dark past of the manager of the club for Hungarian exiles in Toronto.  But is that something he really wants to make known?

“Days of Orphans and Strangers” follows up on the Kálmán family mentioned in “Restoration.”  One of them has been talking in his sleep, but not in the language you’d expect.

“Rosewood Queens” concerns the narrator’s relationship with her father’s lover, a collector of chess pieces (but never full sets.)

“The Encirclement” is about a lecturer on the topic of the Budapest siege, who finds himself with a persistent blind heckler who presents a different version of events.  The details are too close to be fake, but that’s not the way the lecturer remembers it.  I thought this story was the best in the book.

“The Society of Friends” features a long-standing love triangle among three Hungarian emigres.  It reminded me a bit of the movie Grumpy Old Men.  It shares a character with “Beautician.”

“The Miracles of Saint Marx” concerns a secret police officer’s search for a dissident who spreads tales of miraculous events.  It becomes personal when one of those stories is about her.  Also very good.

“The Selected Mug Shots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” is about a boy who handcrafts trading cards featuring what he says are Hungarian assassins.  It seems to be all his imagination, until the narrator finds a book on the same topic years later…  This story includes slurs against people with mental disabilities as a plot point, getting the boys in deep trouble.

“The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto” is another tale of the Kálmán family.  Ghosts are seen in two cities as separated members of the family miss each other.

“The Homemade Doomsday Machine” finishes the volume with a genius child who seeks the destruction of society and the Nazi atomic scientist who shares that interest.  Has perhaps the happiest ending in the book.  Has a character that seems too eager to diagnose the child as autistic, especially as she has no psychological or medical training.

Most of the stories are bittersweet, with a few downer endings.  I found the writing competent but not compelling on average.

There are frequent mentions of rape, and suicide comes up a time or two. While the travails of the Jewish and Romani people in Hungary are mentioned, the emphasis is on ethnic Hungarians.  There’s some period sexism and a number of the female characters express dislike of the patriarchal Hungarian family culture.  Due to the heavy themes, I’d recommend this for college age and up.

Overall, I am glad I got the chance to read this.  Books on the Hungarian experience are uncommon, and I discovered much I did not know.  Recommended for other people wanting to broaden their experience.

 

Book Review: Space Captain/The Mad Metropolis

Book Review: Space Captain by Murray Leinster/The Mad Metropolis by Philip E. High

This is another of the Ace Doubles–two short science fiction books in one volume, printed upside down from one another.  In general, these are a good deal.  A readable copy won’t set you back more than a brand new paperback in most used bookstores.

Space Captain

Space Captain is the story of Captain Trent, a starship captain from a line of captains that extends all the way back to when they sailed ships of wood on the oceans of Earth.   Trent is hired to captain the Yarrow, a smallish cargo ship, into the Pleiads, a region of space so infested with pirates that even the pirates are complaining.

Faster than light travel is possible, but not FTL communication, and while in “overdrive” the only communication possible is detecting other overdrives.  A more powerful drive can blow out a lesser one, and the pirates have the most powerful drives in the sector.  Thus the situation is similar to the 17th Century age of piracy.  However, the Yarrow has a new edge, a device created by its engineer that should blow out another ship’s overdrive regardless of how powerful it is, without endangering the ship it’s on.

In its first test, the device fails; but Trent’s superior captaining allows him to temporarily drive the pirates away from a passenger vessel.  That vessel has aboard, among other things, the daughter of a planetary president.  Trent puts in motion an elaborate scheme to both salvage the passenger ship and capture some of the pirates.

While Trent’s plan succeeds, the ruthlessness of the pirate gang soon complicates matters, and the space captain must track the outlaws to their lair–and will that blasted device ever work right?

This is not one of Mr. Leinster’s better works.  Captain Trent is stoic and calculating, and somewhat awkward in social situations, and that’s about all the personality we see.  He’s more an archetype of ship captain than an actual person.  Most of the other characters come off similarly.  McHinny the engineer is the most distinctive, being an obsessed, egotistical inventor.

Marian Hale is a pure damsel in distress type, and the entirety of the romantic subplot is Trent being attracted to her because…she’s the only woman in the story with a speaking part.  She’s barely in the book.

The space as an ocean metaphor is overworked.  One peculiar technology moment is needing to take photographs of the ship’s viewscreen with a separate camera, then make photocopies from those, rather than oh say using a screencap and sending it directly to the printer.

Overall, the action is dry, a series of events that follow one another.

The Mad Metropolis

The Mad Metropolis opens with ordinary laborer Stephen Cook being locked out of a bar at night.  Which doesn’t sound so bad, except that in 24th Century Free City Two, being outside in the dark is a death sentence.  “Psychos” haunt the streets looking for human prey, and the Nonpol patrols are scarcely more compassionate.

It soon becomes evident that Mr. Cook, is not as ordinary as he believes himself to be.  For one thing, while he’s been operating at the mental level of a low-normal serf, Cook is actually a potential super-genius.  And he has other qualities, as yet unknown, that make him a danger to the government’s plans, and thus the attempt to have him die in a “tragic accident.”  Cook soon throws his lot in with the Oracles, one of the city’s factions, but even they do not know the full extent of the troubles to come.

Free City Two (formerly London) is an eerie place, where everything is disguised by hypnotic projections that fool all five senses (and even mechanical ones!)   There’s a chilling scene where Cook forces himself to see what the city actually looks like, and how badly designed and dilapidated it truly is.  And its society is just as rotten as its surroundings.  Cook is shocked to his core about halfway through when he sees a human child for the first time.

The government has a plan; creating a global computer network that can assist them in keeping order.  Turning it on, however, only creates more problems, as can be guessed by the fact that the main computer immediately dubs itself “Mother.”  Mother soon has to deal with the erudite Oracles, the mercenary Nonpol, the criminal Syndicates, all of whom have their own ideas of what needs to be done.

Stephen Cook, of course, is the true key to the future, if he can figure out why those mental blocks were put in all those years ago.  He makes a more interesting protagonist than Captain Trent, spending the first part of the story trying to survive against the odds, without the information that would explain why people want him dead.  And even when he unlocks his full potential, Cook still has room to realize that he needs to change his path.

The supporting characters get moments in the spotlight, giving us a bit of their personalities and motivations even when Cook is not present.  Jan Tremaine, a female Oracle, is the love interest, and even though the romance is perfunctory, it develops decently within the narrative, and she has her own personality.

The action is exciting, with a strong sense of danger.  One interesting technology bit is the equivalent of the modern police car onboard computer that can access data from headquarters and vice-versa.

This isn’t the best Ace Double I’ve read, but has points of interest for the fan of older science fiction.

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