Book Review: A Clash of Kings

Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review contains spoilers for the previous book A Game of Thrones; if you haven’t read that one yet, check out the review here.

A Clash of Kings

Westeros has too many kings.  In the south, the King on the Iron Throne is Joffrey Baratheon, heir to the late King Robert.  He is a beardless boy, and cruel, and there are those who say he is not Robert’s trueborn son.  Still, he has the support of Queen Mother Cersei, Robert’s widow, and her powerful Lannister clan.

To the east is the King of the Narrow Sea, Stannis Baratheon, middle brother of Robert.  He is the one who instigated the rumors of his nephew’s illegitimacy, which would make him the rightful heir, and has a strong navy.  He is a hard man who has few friends, and has taken up with a foreign god.

To the west, his younger brother Renly is the King in Highgarden.  While Joffrey and Stannis yet live, Renly’s claim to the throne is tenuous at best.  However, Renly is a man who makes friends easily, and has the support of most of the southern lords who are not directly connected to the Lannisters.

The King in the North is Robb Stark, son of the former King’s Hand Ned.  He is barely older than Joffrey, but far more accomplished in strategy and battle, and has the support of the northern lords.  He may have too much of his father’s tendency to do the right thing rather than the wise thing, and grows weary of his mother Catelyn’s counsel.

Further north is Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, who is rallying the free wildling people for a journey south, as the Others begin to stir.

In the far west islands, Balon Greyjoy is styled King of Salt and Rock.  He has long chafed under the rule of landsmen, and intends to pay the “iron price” for such seaports as he can seize while Westeros is in chaos.

And far to the East, Danerys Targaryen is the last known descendant of the previous rulers of Westeros, and thus the rightful queen of that line.  But she has another, perhaps more important title now:  Mother of Dragons!

Perhaps this might be a good time for Westeros to switch to representative democracy.

This is the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, and source material for the Game of Thrones TV series.  It’s a thick book, with lots of events, though the tight third person narration means that many of those events take place “off-stage.”  Even the battle of King’s Landing, which gets a lot of detail, requires a key moment to be given in an after action report as none of the viewpoint characters are there.

So, let’s look at the viewpoint characters.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is dead (told you there’d be spoilers) and we still don’t get chapters for Robb or Rickon.  But the rest of the Stark family is represented.

Catelyn Stark (nee Tully) initially is with King Robb’s forces until he makes her ambassador to Renly.  She tries to mediate between him and Stannis, as their rival claims endanger them both.  It does not go well, and she is forced to retreat with one of Renly’s bodyguards, the female knight Brienne.

Jon Snow has joined a Night Guard expedition beyond the wall to learn Mance Rayder’s intentions and if necessary stop him.  There are dark doings afoot, both those of ordinary men and of the supernatural.

Sansa Stark remains a hostage of the royal family in King’s Landing.  She’s trying to retain what shreds of her optimism and belief in chivalry she can, but the story seems intent on crushing every last bit of her naivete.

Arya Stark has managed to escape the royal city disguised as a boy named Arry, only the first of several name changes.  She experiences the war from the perspective of the “smallfolk” who have no choice but to obey whichever master currently holds sway or be killed.  Her sections include a really cool character, but naming them would be a huge spoiler.

And Bran Stark learns that his body may be crippled, but he has powers of his own.  Also, being the eight-year-old lord of Winterfell castle is not as much fun as you might have thought, especially when enemies come knocking.

Meanwhile, Tyrion Lannister continues to be his family’s viewpoint character.  He’s appointed acting King’s Hand while his father Tywin deals with the military aspects of the multi-sided war.  His short stature is no handicap in a job that primarily involves making and carrying out plans, and Tyrion has more success than any other viewpoint character.  But because he took the post just as the ill effects of the war hit King’s Landing, he’s despised by the citizens.  And his relatives aren’t making things any easier!

Further afield, Dani is trying to parlay her baby dragons and handful of followers into a force that will retake Westeros for the Targaryen line.  This is the plotline with the most overt magical elements, including a trippy sequence where Dani gets a great deal of symbolic information that she can’t use because she has no context for it.  Apparently, dragons enhance magic merely by existing, but most magic is used in unpleasant ways so that’s not a good thing.

The first new viewpoint character is Theon Grayjoy, who appeared as a minor player in the first book.  He is at last released from his hostage status with the Starks so that King Robb can offer an alliance with Balon, Theon’s father.  Theon has a lot of resentment against his foster family, and is planning to betray them as soon as it’s convenient.  Balon, on the other hand, has no interest in an alliance in the first place–worse, he distrusts Theon because the young man has been too long away from their pirate island.  And indeed, Theon does very poorly trying to navigate between the differing ideas of correct behavior of the Northmen and the Ironmen.

Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight, is completely new.  He’s a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis Baratheon for services rendered, while also being punished for his crimes.  Thus Davos is one of the few men totally loyal to the would-be king while not having any illusions about his character.  Ser Davos speaks truth to power, which does not bode well for his longevity.

This volume is full of signs and portents, beginning with a red comet that a number of characters think is relevant to them…but they can’t all be right.  Several other clues are disregarded due to prejudice or past experience.

Content issues: Rape continues to be the go-to “gritty realism” thing in this volume; none of the viewpoint characters are raped this time, but it is frequently threatened.  Incest gets an increased emphasis, once played for comedy!  Lots of violence of course, torture is mentioned more than once, and frequent cruel and pointless deaths  And of course salty language.

There are some really cool moments and the general quality of the writing is high.  On the other hand, the survival rate of likable characters is low (and unlikable characters are only somewhat longer-lived) so this tends to be a depressing book.

Recommended if you liked the first book or the TV series.

Now, let’s have the TV show opening credits!

 

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: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: A Far Sunset

Book Review: A Far Sunset by Edmund Cooper

Paul Marlowe is apparently the last survivor of the Gloria Mundi, a starship commissioned by the United States of Europe to explore the Altair star system. The fifth planet of Altair turned out to be inhabitable and inhabited by humanoid aliens, but the crew of the Gloria Mundi vanished in clumps. Marlowe and the remaining members were captured by the native Bayani, and while they were held, the ship self-destructed as a security measure.

A Far Sunset

Now known as Poul Mer Lo, the stranded Earthman must find a way to survive in an alien civilization, and find a new purpose in life. He has many ideas he could use to uplift the primitive Bayani, but his attempt to introduce the wheel results in 137 deaths, and Enka Ne, the god-king who has tolerated Poul Mer Lo’s presence, is soon to pass on.

Paul Marlowe must gamble everything he has left on an expedition to the Temple of the White Darkness, seat of the god Oruri. Are the secrets there worth the cost?

This 1967 novel posits the use of cryogenic suspension to make starships viable by 2012 (and also to treat mental illness!) The Americans and Russians (_not_ the Soviet Union, despite naming their ship the Red October) launch their own expeditions, which are irrelevant except for spurring the USE to put together the Gloria Mundi. Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands each contribute a married couple to the crew; psychologist Paul marries medical doctor Ann as an arrangement so they’ll be eligible. Hilariously, the wedding is broadcast on Eurovision.

During their waking times on the twenty-year voyage, Paul and Ann get along okay, but Paul never falls in love with her. That, and his belief that he is now a widower, means that Poul Mer Lo doesn’t feel terribly guilty about availing himself of the services of Mylai Tui, a former temple prostitute assigned by Enka Ne to be his servant. For her part, Mylai Tui mentions more than once how impressed she is with her master’s large thanu, and wants to bear his child to prove her worthiness.

The narrative smacks more than a little of colonialism, with the cultured Englishman stranded among dark-skinned natives who desperately need uplifting by his superior technological and cultural knowledge. He even assumes a position of power in their government by the end. By comparison, the sexism is downright subtle; Mylai Tui’s character arc is far more about “native servant worships English master” than about “woman is subservient to man.”

The highlight of the book is the perilous voyage to the Temple of the White Darkness, and Marlowe’s meeting with Oruri. It turns out Earth is not the first planet to send expeditions to Altair Five, and reading between the lines, the destruction of Atlantis might have been the best thing that ever happened to the human race. This section is exciting and full of wonder.

While the book is not badly written, it’s not well written enough to overcome the colonialist attitudes embedded in the narrative; I would not recommend it except to someone who’s studying pro-colonialist literature in speculative fiction.

 

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Ogami Itto was once a samurai warrior of high rank, the official executioner for the shogunate.  He had a lovely wife and new son; life was good.  But another clan was ambitious, and framed Ogami for treason.  Under sentence of execution and with his wife murdered, Ogami asked his infant son to make a choice between merciful death and life on the run. now Ogami is a ronin, and an assassin for hire.  If you need someone dead, and you can find them, you can hire the Lone Wolf assassin who travels with his cub.

Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

This classic manga series was popular enough to spawn a series of live-action movies, a television series and several spin-off manga.  It was also influential outside of Japan, notably influencing the art and storytelling style of Frank Miller (who provided the cover for this omnibus edition.)  As such, it was one of the first manga series to be translated for the emerging American market, using the expensive and painstaking “double-flipping” method to make it read left to right.

This volume contains the first three volumes of the Japanese version, and these stories are very episodic, focusing on an difficult assassination, a particular facet of feudal Japanese life, or a philosophical point.  It is not until several stories in that anyone recognizes Ogami for who he is, and even longer before even a partial explanation of his past.

Ogami is a stoic character who works hard not to give away his emotions; his tenderness towards Daigoro is almost entirely seen in his actions, not his face.  This does not prevent him from placing his son in danger if it will help with an assassination plan.  Daigoro himself is one of the most ambiguous characters I’ve ever read.  He seems most of the time to act like the small child he is, but in other instances is far too mature for his age, even allowing for the massive trauma Daigoro has undergone in his short life.  It makes him kind of creepy to be honest.

The art is dynamic and varied, able to handle both exciting battles and calm scenes of nature.  There’s a fair amount of reused faces, which with the episodic stories make the manga feel like a television series with a limited pool of guest star actors.

As expected from a samurai revenge story, there is plenty of violence and death; not all of Ogami’s assassination targets are evil people deserving of death.  In particular in this volume, one target is a Buddhist priest who must die for political reasons–he teaches Ogami how to attain mu (“emptiness”) which allows the assassin to strike without projecting sakki  (“killing intent”).  This becomes an important part of Ogami’s personal sword style going forward.

There is also quite a bit of female nudity, and at least one rape/murder scene.  Ogami himself is decent to the women he meets, but feudal Japanese society is not a good place for them.

Because of its influence on the subgenre of samurai manga, this series is well worth reading and rereading.  Recommended for fans of this sort of thing.

Book Review: Behind the Forgotten Front, a WWII Novel

Book Review: Behind the Forgotten Front, a WWII Novel by Barbara Hawkins

Like many red-blooded American men after Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant Harry Flynn joined the Army to fight the enemy directly.  But the Army has a lot of jobs to fill, and his excellent handwriting gets Harry posted as a supply officer in a backwater post in India.  The Japanese have taken Burma (now Myanmar), cutting China off from supply by the other Allies.  Therefore, a road must be built from India through Burma to China.  Or at least that’s what the brass think should be done.  Harry is unconvinced–this road seems to be killing more Americans than the Japanese ever did.

Behind the Forgotten Front, A WWII Novel

The CBI theater of World War Two is relatively obscure in American media compared to the European struggle against the Nazis or the Pacific campaign.  So this historical novel was a good change of pace, shedding light on an area I am unfamiliar with.

In the early part of this story, Lt. Flynn is cynical about his superiors, bored with his humdrum duties, and willing to take dangerous steps to fight against what he sees as a doomed strategy.  About a third of the way through, Harry is reassigned as the supply officer for Merrill’s Marauders, a combat unit sent well into enemy lines to take out certain targets that will make it easier to build and use the road.  Then he sees plenty of action!

Probably the best parts of the novel are the descriptions of things that happened in real life, taken from the author’s research (there’s a reading list in the back.)  I’m a sucker for the gritty details of long marches and miserable weather.

Harry is not a particularly likable person, though he gets over his period-authentic racism pretty quickly.  (He’s smart enough to realize it’s a bad idea to antagonize the “Negro” troops, while a designated bad guy isn’t.)  He does some things that put people in unnecessary danger, and probably kills at least one innocent bystander when a sabotage plan goes awry.  Some flashbacks establish where he got his sour attitude from, but don’t justify his actions.

There’s some salty language (perhaps not enough given the setting) and discussion of the factors that lead some women into prostitution.  Lots of violence, of course, with vivid description of the smells.

One character is built up as important in the first part of the novel, then vanishes with a “whatever happened to?” at the end; many other characters have on-page deaths.

The Kindle version I downloaded has a number of spellchecker typos, most commonly “lightening” for “lightning”–it’s an older copy so these might have been fixed by now.

Recommended for readers who want to know a bit more about a relatively obscure part of WWII, and aren’t up for reading straight-up military history (because that can get pretty dry.)

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Yamada “Decapitator” Asaemon is the o-tameshiyaku, sword-tester for the shogun and official executioner of criminals.  It’s not a pretty job, but at least he has one in Edo-era Japan, during a time of peace.  Without wars to fight, many of the samurai vassals are on tiny stipends, while ronin without lords can at least get paying jobs if they’re willing to be a bit flexible in their ethics.  The merchant class is getting richer, while the underclass of urban poor swells and rural farmers are oppressed by their petty lords.  The social conditions breed crime, so there is always plenty of work for Yamada.

Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

This seinen (young men’s) manga series is by the creators of Lone Wolf and Cub, and shares many of the themes and settings.   Unlike that earlier work, however, there does not seem to be an overarching plotline.  The stories are episodic, and most could take place in any order.  Two stories do, however, guest star young cop Sakane Kasajiro, an expert with his hooked chain.  Yamada helps him discover new ways of using his weapon to protect lives.

Yamada takes a grim satisfaction at being expert at his craft, able to decapitate the condemned with a single stroke and thus minimize their pain.  He was raised from early childhood to succeed his father as executioner, and has chosen to remain single to avoid condemning his children to the same path.  (One story in this volume has him briefly reconsider, but it is not to be.)  Yamada seems happiest when he can bring small moments of joy into a person’s life, and is often sought out for sage advice.

The first story in the volume has Yamada challenged for the post of sword tester by Tsukuya Bakushuu, a poverty-stricken and largely self-trained swordsman.  They participate in a contest of suemonogiri, precision cutting.  Tsukuya loses, but cannot accept this result.  It ends in tragedy.  To be honest, at least half the stories here end in tragedy, not surprising, given Yamada’s job.

The closing story is particularly hard to stomach.  O-Toyo murders the woman her lover abandoned him for, and mortally wounds the cheater.  However, it’s a slow death wound, and he could live up to four months with good treatment.  Her execution will be in three months, and O-Toyo wants to outlive the man out of pure spite.  As it happens, there’s one way for a woman to get her execution delayed–getting pregnant.  Now, how is that going to happen when she’s locked in a women’s prison?  Yes, the story is going there.  There are other examples of female nudity and rape in these stories, but this is the most brutal.  And then the ending comes, and it is even more brutal.  Even Yamada is shaken.

Also outstanding is the story “Tougane Yajirou”, about an elderly police officer whose use of force is considered excessive even by the standards of the time, and who is much more interested in catching criminals than in preventing crime.  Yamada disapproves, but there is a story behind the old man’s cruel behavior.

Koike and Kojma do a masterful job of depicting a world that is both very familiar in its everyday life, and alien in its way of thinking.  This omnibus edition combines three of the Japanese volumes, and is presented in the expensive and time-consuming fully-flipped format, so it reads left to right.

Recommended for mature readers who enjoyed Lone Wolf and Cub or are otherwise fans of samurai action.

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Introduction by Lizzy Attree

The Caine Prize is awarded to a short story written by an African author (which primarily means one born in Africa–all the authors in this volume are from Sub-Saharan Africa), published in English in the last five years and submitted for consideration.  This volume contains the five stories that were shortlisted for the prize in 2013, plus twelve more written at a workshop sponsored by the Caine Prize.

A Memory This Size

The collection leads off with the 2013 winner, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin.  A group of Nigerian immigrants attend a tent revival in Texas.  A great faith healer is scheduled to appear, but will there be a miracle tonight, and what form will it take?  I found this to be rather a blah story, but I am not one of the judges for the contest and don’t know what criteria they based the decision on.  Nigerians dominate this volume, with four of the five shortlisted stories and several of the workshop ones as well.

Three of the five shortlisted stories have a heavy Africa-America connection, to the point that Chinelo Okparanta’s story is actually titled “America.”  A schoolteacher who wishes to join her lover there uses the Gulf oil spill as a wedge to try to convince the immigration people to give her a green card.   There’s an interesting ending in which the protagonist remembers hearing a folktale similar to ‘Jack the Giant-Killer” except that it stops short of the “ever after” with no explanation of what happens past a certain point.

The title story, “A Memory This Size” by Elnathan John concerns a man mourning for his brother, who died years ago, and yet he cannot let go.

There are common themes in these stories, most of which are “slice of life” tales:  government corruption, marital infidelity and environmental destruction.

There are a couple of stories that move into the “magical realism” camp (that is, fantasy, but not called that so critics can treat it as actual literature.)  The better one is “Howl” by Rotimi Babatunde, about a dog named Jack who may or may not have the extraordinary powers the villagers think, but is certainly not a normal dog.  “Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile” by Stanley Onjezani Kenani, however, has the best title in this volume.  That story is about a fishing village threatened by oil developers, and the sacrifice one man makes to save their way of life.

I also enjoyed “Stuck” by Davina Kawuma, told in a series of emails by a young woman who is tempted to have an affair.  One final email changes everything.

My least favorite story was “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist.  This tale of a man who returns to Sierra Leone after many years in America, thinking he will be a big man thanks to his money, was too predictable and made me cringe rather than care.

That said, I am glad I took the chance to read this book and learn what some African writers are doing.  There are thirteen volumes of Caine Prize stories published; check your inter-library loan system for any one of them.

I should also mention that there is some disturbing subject matter, and would best suited for college age and up.

Book Review: The Marsco Dissident

Book Review: The Marsco Dissident by James A. Zarzana

It’s a Marsco world.

The Marsco Dissident

Much has changed by the last years of the 21st Century.  The rot started to set in with the Abandonment Policy (euphemized as “Divestiture”) where countries with prosperous sections and not-so-prosperous bits split off the not-prosperous sectors as “another country now, not our responsibility” and shoved any citizens they didn’t want to keep for whatever reason into the new Unincorporated Zones.  (It’s implied that even the United States did this on an unofficial basis.)  The new rich countries became the Continental Powers, while the castoffs became PRIMS.

Meanwhile, an IT startup ambitiously named “Marsco” grew into a cross between Microsoft, the Union and Pacific, and United Fruit Company.  Yes, it did eventually get to Mars, and its innovative finger disc cybernetic implants became the new status symbol.  As part of its philanthropic aims, it became the primary benefactor of PRIMS, providing food rations, some medical care, etc.

A Luddite movement also grew, primarily among the PRIMS who found themselves shut out of the modern world, starving and ridden with cure-resistant diseases.  It also found favor among some in the CP, and even associates of Marsco itself.

Eventually, the Continental Powers decided that Marsco was too powerful, and tried to nationalize it.  This was a huge mistake as the megacorporation had designed all their computers, had its own armed forces and the advantage of operating from space.  They even got PRIM armies on their side.  If that wasn’t enough, the more violent strains of the Luddites took advantage of the chaos to destroy or infect any high technology they could reach.

Now, Marsco rules what’s left of Earth’s population, just as a temporary measure until the locals can get back on their feet.  Except that it’s been a generation, and Marsco control doesn’t seem to be going away, and the Unincorporated Areas aren’t getting any better.  Certain people are beginning to realize that Marsco isn’t the solution anymore, it’s the problem….

This book is the first in a series planned for four volumes, the “Marsco Saga.”  It’s serious about the “saga” part; months or years often pass between segments of the story and I suspect by the end we’ll be reading about the grandchildren of the current characters.  It’s been a while since I’ve read a science fiction book that fits more into the “future history” subgenre than action.

The dissident of the title is Dr. Walter Miller, formerly one of Marsco’s most brilliant engineers, but now on an extended sabbatical  on his independent farm/research facility in what used to be the Sacramento Valley.  The first few chapters concern a visit to him by his daughter, Professor Tessa Miller, who teaches at a Marsco academy.  Her journey across Sac City to his grange has some interesting world-building, but then there’s no sign of a plot for a while.

Abruptly, we switch to a shuttle in the asteroid belt, and an entirely different set of characters for several chapters.  Not all of the crew or passengers manage to survive the sudden emergence of plot.

And then, it’s months later in a different part of the asteroid belt, and an Independent colony views the arrival of a mysterious Marsco deep-space craft with justifiable suspicion.  This part introduces another of our protagonists, Lieutenant Anthony “Zot” Grizzoti is one of the crew of the Gagarin, and Tessa’s ex.  He’s a specialist in hibernation technology, and knows things he can’t reveal.

Some time later, we’re in the SoAm Continental Zone, as Father Stephen Cavanaugh goes to the camp of the Nexus, the most violent of the Luddite factions, in order to retrieve two boys they’d lured away from his school for PRIMS.  A former student of his, Pete Rivers, is one of the Marsco Security personnel that escorts the priest to the area, but from there Cavanaugh must proceed on his own.   This is the tensest part of the book and could stand on its own as a novella.

With most of the characters now introduced, the story moves forward.

The best part of the book is the world-building.  Mr. Zarzana has done a lot of research, and worked out the details of the Marsco world.  The book comes with a glossary (there are some mild spoilers in this section) due to all the specialized terminology and future slang.  While some of the steps to reach this setting are dubious, it all hangs together well enough once it’s there.

However, a lot of the information is delivered in professorial lectures (Dr. Zarzana himself is a professor of English), which can get tedious.  A little fun is had with the delivery by having a precocious child do some of the lectures to show off to adults.  But too often, it comes across as “As you know, Bob….”

Many of the more interesting characters are in the book too little and some of them won’t be returning later.  I found the Tessa/Zot romance bits tepid and was irritated every time it came up.

The primary active villain, Colonel Hawkins, is planning to avenge the Continental Powers’ defeat and is working with others who want to change the balance of power, and haven’t realized just how obsessed he is.

Marsco has a lot of classism (Marsco associates on top, Sids (people who trade with Marsco) in the middle, and PRIMS on the bottom and treated as barely human), but little racism–one of the associates suddenly breaking out racist slurs shocks his colleagues and is taken as an indicator of his actual age.  Casual racism is more common among the Earth-bound.

There’s a lot of talk about rape, (including a possibly fake story about mind control rape) and a couple of attempted rapes onscreen .  Prostitution is rife in the non-Marsco areas. There’s bursts of violence, some of it dire.

This book is self-published, and the latter half starts having spellchecker typos (“site” for “sight” several times) which suggests that with books this size, the proofreader should take the job in smaller chunks.

Overall…it’s a decent beginning, but not really satisfying on its own.  A lot will depend on the next part expanding on the themes and subplots satisfactorily.  Consider this if you like detailed world-building.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy from the author for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was involved or requested.

Manga Review: Die Wergelder 1

Manga Review: Die Wergelder by Hiroaki Samura

There’s something weird going on with the isolated island of Ishikunagajima.  A decade ago, it was a  poverty-stricken backwater inhabited mostly by fishermen and their families.  Now it’s a thriving red-light district, despite being a five hour boat trip from Japan.  It seems that someone has plowed a lot of money into making sure there are plenty of brothels there.  More money than they could possibly be raking in from the tourists.

Die Wergelder 1

The mystery of Ishikunagajima is drawing in an assortment of criminals and shady people.  Two loosely-connected yakuza gangs, a German pharmaceutical concern, a blonde sniper named Träne, a Chinese assassin named Jie Mao and a homeless woman named Shinobu who hasn’t been to her home island in  years, and others, are converging on the remote rock in the sea.   What’s really going on in Ishikunagajima, and will anyone survive finding out?

This is the new series from Hiroaki Samura, creator of Blade of the Immortal.  According to the interview in the back of Volume 1 (which collects the first two volumes of the Japanese edition), this series is a homage to the violent and erotic “Pinky Violence” movies of the 1970s.  And make no mistake, we’re getting plenty of violence and sex.  In the first chapter alone, there’s nudity, some disturbing sex, a woman giving birth, and a man being killed in a particularly horrific way.  As you might expect, in later chapters there’s rape and torture.

This is not a story with heroes so far; there are only evil people, amoral people, and those seeking revenge.  “Wergelder”, we are told, is the price one must pay for murdering someone, and at least one character is determined to collect wergelder no matter what.  That said, many of the characters are interesting; they have varying motivations and lines they don’t want to cross.  Shinobu is as close to being an innocent as the story allows for.  She’s been content to survive on only the pettiest of crimes, until a yakuza thug steals from his bosses and offers to take her with him someplace nice.  They’re both caught within two days, and the boss offers her a deal–help him find out what goes on with Ishikunajima and she can live.

Träne used to be an innocent, but very bad things happened in her backstory that have left her obsessed with revenge.  She will do just about anything to achieve that goal, including co-opting Shinobu and the yakuza into her plans to infiltrate the remote island of mystery.  But precisely who is using whom remains in question.

Ro, the minor yakuza thug Shinobu initially runs off with, becomes something of the comic relief as he swiftly accepts that he’s a supporting character in this story–as long as he’s not being tortured or killed, he’s up for whatever.

The first few chapters are a bit disjointed as they set up the various pieces; we don’t really get a lot of the main plot points until after the first scenes at Ishikunajima.

Again, this seinen manga earns a “Mature Readers” warning, so be advised.  Recommended for fans of “Pinky Violence” films and the creator’s previous series.

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