Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Something has gone drastically wrong aboard the generation ship Matilda .  Centuries after it left the uninhabitable Earth, the ship seems no closer to its destination, if there is in fact a destination at all.  Society has become stratified, with the darker-skinned humans confined to the lower decks, called “Tarlanders”, and treated like servants at best and often like animals.   Those on the higher decks justify this with their religion, which puts straight white men above all others, who are sinners.

An Unkindness of Ghosts

Aster is one of the few medics available to those below decks.  She’s something of a genius, and has been allowed to study under/assist the ship’s most esteemed doctor, the Surgeon.  (She knows him as Theo.)  That doesn’t excuse her from backbreaking work in the field decks under the whip-wielding overseers, though.

Recently, the Matilda has been suffering a series of blackouts for the first time in a quarter-century.  Lieutenant, Theo’s cruel uncle and de facto ruler of the ship, has decided that the lower deck people are somehow overloading the power and cut the heat to that part of the ship to “conserve energy.”  The oppressed are suffering, and Aster has been called to amputate a child’s gangrenous foot.

After this gruesome task, Aster returns to her secret botanarium where she grows medicinal plants and performs scientific experiments.  Her childhood friend and confidante Giselle is there and being contrary as usual.  More surprisingly, the Surgeon arrives.  Theo needs some of Aster’s special steroids for his post-polio pain symptoms, and also her help.  The Sovereign Nicolaeus, official ruler of the ship’s people, is dying of a mysterious illness, something Theo has never seen before.

Not having any great love for the ship’s government, Aster turns Theo’s request down.  But then Giselle reveals that she’s been reading the journals of Aster’s long-missing mother Lune, and cracked some of the code they were in–Lune had the same symptoms as Nicolaeus during the last series of blackouts, twenty-five years ago.  Is there a connection?

Aster is a protagonist very different from most I’ve read, being gender ambiguous (but using female pronouns) and having some form of neurodivergence.  The latter is both a strength and a weakness for Aster; it gives her insights that others might miss, but also makes understanding subtleties of language difficult for her to parse.   Metaphors are hard for Aster to grasp, thus her failure to notice that the anomalies in Lune’s journal entries were deliberate.

Most of the book is told in tight third-person following Aster, with three first-person chapters where other characters inform the reader of things Aster is unaware of or not present for.

The storyline largely consists of Aster reacting to other people’s actions; until near the end her few attempts at being proactive backfire.   Theo (who has many secrets) and especially Giselle (never stable, but having gotten worse after much abuse) are far more active, but are mostly off-page doing their things.  The vile Lieutenant seems to relish making life more complicated, deluded by his self-justified mindset.

Matilda‘s society is a pretty clear metaphor for the American South during slavery and Jim Crow (mixed together as needed) and this can come across as heavy-handed from time to time.  We get very little background on how it turned out this way, although one bit of history suggests the social stratification was there from the beginning.

Content notice:  rough language, implied rape, physical and mental abuse, and torture.

The conclusion drastically changes things; there is room for a sequel, but the society will not be the same.

Overall, a mixed bag.  An interesting protagonist and unfolding of events, but often heavy-handed and some key elements seem to be there simply to create the desired metaphor.

Note:  I got this book through PageHabit, so my copy has author annotations on Post-it notes inserted throughout.  This was an interesting extra dimension, but my financial circumstances make it unlikely I’ll order from this vendor again in the near future.

 

 

Book Review: Season of Marvels: Viking Tales

Book Review: Season of Marvels: Viking Tales by Deb Houdek Rule

This is a collection of four speculative fiction short stories on the general theme of “Vikings” from the small label press Variations On a Theme.

Season of Marvels: Viking Tales

“Viking -Trojan War” is an after-action report about 8th Century Viking raiders suddenly materializing on the USC campus due to the Temporal Physics department getting a bit careless.  The narrative voice is apparently one of the college administrators, and sudden bits of informality suggest that this is the draft version of his or her report rather than the final one.  Lightly humorous.

“The Last Ship” is set in Greenland during the 15th Century, after the supply ships from Norway stopped coming.  A shepherd sings an old song from the pagan times, and one last ship arrives.  Did she call it, or was the ship doomed to begin with, and the survivor less monster than alien?

“Season of Marvels” is closer to the fantasy side.  Kieran, Irish slave of Einar the Earless, wants his freedom.  And in this Icelandic winter where marvels and dark magic are on the rise, he might be able to get it.

“Borealis”, on the other hand, is more inclined to science fiction.  An orphan boy who forms a bond with a cat (possibly psychic in nature) is drafted by a secret organization.  That organization drops him without a briefing on a planet with a Norse-like culture that’s been stagnating for centuries.   Culture shock ensues.

This last story has the most potential to be turned into a full novel, or even a series, as Brock deals with Chimaera and its mysterious goals.

They’re all decent stories, with four very different moods.  The paperback is perhaps a bit overpriced for the size, but I see the Kindle version is inexpensive, or free if you already have Kindle Unlimited.

Consider this one if you like Viking-themed stories, or as a gift for someone who does.

Manga Review: The Ancient Magus’ Bride Vol. 1

Manga Review: The Ancient Magus’ Bride Vol. 1 by Kore Yamazaki

Chise Hatori has had a rough life.   Her father ran off with her little brother, her mother committed suicide (probably), and her ability to see magical creatures got her bullied and abandoned.  She was on the verge of suicide when Chise was approached by a black market auctioneer who explained that she was actually special, and valuable under the right circumstances.  He convinced her to allow him to sell her into slavery.

The Ancient Magus' Bride Vol. 1

It’s probably fortunate that the high bidder is Elias Ainsworth, a not quite human mage from Britain.  He removes Chise’s chains and whisks her to his home to become Elias’ apprentice.  Oh, and eventually his bride.

This shounen (boys’) fantasy manga is now getting an anime adaptation, and has been generally well-received.

Elias explains some, but not all, of what’s going on.  Chise is what mages call a sleigh beggy, a powerful natural mage that attracts other supernatural beings.   Children with magical talent have become rare in the modern world, especially as many of their possible progenitors were slain in “the last great war”, but sleigh beggy are one in a generation.  Elias is anxious to teach her how to control her powers.

Chise also meets some Ariels, who are of the Fair Folk.  They don’t like the term “fairies”, perhaps “neighbors” is a good word?   They can be helpful, but also very dangerous as their idea of “help” is not always what humans would think of that way.

In the next chapter, Chise meets Silky.  She’s a “neighbor” who acts as Elias’ housekeeper, and does not speak.  As well, Elias takes Chise to meet Angelica, an artificer specializing in magical jewelry.  Angelica explains some of the basic rules of magic, and notes the difference between mages (who bend the world’s energy to their will) and alchemists (who use a more scientific approach.)

Then Simon Cullum shows up.  He works for “the Church” though it’s unclear if that means Catholic or Anglican.  Simon is supposed to be keeping watch on Elias, but is hands-off in exchange for the mage taking care of magical matters that the Church should not be handling.

First off, there’s an ancient dragon dying in Iceland, the last known dragon sanctuary.  A bit sad, but not the tragedy you might have expected.

Then it’s off to Ulthar, where it is a crime to kill a cat.  (See also H.P. Lovecraft on this subject.)  Long ago, a resident was driven to despair and broke this law, killing many cats in cruel ways.  He was…dealt with.  But his unclean spirit still remains, and has grown dangerous again.

Elias’ magic is not suited to the task of banishing the spirit, but Chise’s might be.  Untrained, this will be her first true test.  But before Chise can begin the ritual, she’s ambushed by a mysterious pair that have other motives, and a grudge against Elias!

This early part of the story is heavy on the sense of wonder as Chise learns more about the world of magic and her own potential, but maintains an undercurrent of menace.  Even the friendliest of “neighbors” can lead you astray.  It’s clear that Elias has a past that has not always been on the straight and narrow.

And many questions are raised.  Why did Chise’s father abandon her?  Are any of her relatives still alive?  If her gifts are so powerful, why did no one contact her until now?  What, precisely, is Elias, with his animal skull head?  Why does the Church have a watch on him?  (Some of these, at least, will get answered.)

The slavery thing is icky, though Elias and Chise’s relationship quickly drops those terms for “apprentice” and “bride.”  The latter might also be rather icky, depending on what that actually means in a mage relationship.

There’s also bits of humor, such as Elias crafting his “human” disguise after Simon as he was under the impression that man was handsome.  (Chise finds the face “sketchy.”)   The overall art style is good, and Elias manages to be expressive despite his immobile features.

Chise is rather passive in these chapters, more concerned with being safe than expressing her own opinion, but does show flashes of personality.  She can be rather blunt when need be.

Elias seems pleasant most of the time, but exhibits a lack of understanding of human society and emotions from time to time.

This is a promising beginning which should work well for young adult fantasy fans.

Book Review: The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution

Book Review: The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution by Richard Beeman

After the last book I reviewed, I felt I needed something a bit more intellectually challenging to recharge my brain cells.  Thus this volume, which contains not just the annotated text of the United States Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence, selections from the Federalist Papers, and a short history of how these things came about.

The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution

The troubles started in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, which England won, but at high cost, and the British government was broke.  Parliament decided that as the American colonists had gained the most with the new lands taken from the French, they should be willing to help pay for them with raised taxes and trade restrictions.

Unlike the West Indies (where Alexander Hamilton was from), the Continental colonies had not yet been able to buy seats in Parliament to represent their interests; and they’d thought that their successful help in the war would have changed that.  So it was like a teenager who’s helped Dad with a big project and is expecting more autonomy as a result being told, “No, son, money’s tight, so I’m cutting your allowance and you  can’t hang out with your friends at the mall any more.”

The colonists considered themselves loyal subjects of the British Crown and therefore deserving of all the rights and privileges of free Englishmen.  Parliament and the British government considered the colonists wayward children to be taken in hand.  When the colonials protested against “taxation without representation”, the children were backtalking their rightful elders, and the proper response was to put them back in their place.

Part of the issue was that the British Constitution was “unwritten”, cobbled together from documents like the Magna Carta, court decisions, and acts of Parliament.  Thus it was vulnerable to being altered at any time the government felt they could get away with it.  Such as in this situation.  After all, the colonists had no representation in Parliament, and thus no voice to speak for them.  What were they going to do, declare independence?

Feelings and actions escalated on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  Still mostly loyal British subjects, the colonists kept trying to find diplomatic solutions even as protests escalated and started breaking out into violence.  The British government reacted by cracking down even harder, and demanding obedience, not negotiation.

By the time the Continental Congress, comprised of delegates from the various American colonies, convened, the Colonies were already in a state of rebellion, with British troops on the ground fighting them.  Faced with this reality, they decided that it was time for a Declaration of Independence, explaining to the world why they were rebelling.  The reasons listed are one-sided–the colonists were no longer trying to be fair-minded or conciliatory.

Of course, once you’ve declared independence (huzzah!) you then have to govern yourself (drat!)  The thirteen colonies had learned the perils of too-centralized government that didn’t understand local issues.  But without the unifying tie of British rule, the colonies were like thirteen small countries that had very different priorities.  Some had large populations, while others were tiny.  Some had already begun industrializing, while others had agriculture as their main economic activity.  And the sticking point that caused the most argument, slavery.

While some forms of slavery had been legal in all the colonies during the preceding centuries, by the mid-Eighteenth Century, economic changes and philosophical/religious movements turned against the practice, especially in the Northeastern colonies, some of which had actually banned owning people as property!  Meanwhile, the Southern colonies had made their economic system and culture highly dependent on chattel slavery, and particularly on enslaving people of African descent.  And they had their own religious movements to promote the idea.

With all those disagreements in mind, the Articles of Confederation for the newly independent United States of America were more like guidelines than rules, and gave responsibilities to the central government without the power or funds to actually do those things.  It didn’t work at all well.

Faced with the possibility that this alliance would fall apart, a Constitutional Convention was formed, supposedly just to amend the Articles.  But it was hijacked by delegates who wanted to create a whole new written Constitution with a central government that was strong enough to do necessary things, but bound by checks and balances to prevent tyranny.

Many, many compromises later, including some shameful concessions to slavery, a Constitution was made, and proposed to the States.  Notably, an enumerated Bill of Rights of the citizens was not included, for two reasons.  First, what would become known as the Federalists feared that if some rights were enumerated in the Constitution, that would block un-enumerated rights from being extrapolated.  (See, for example, the arguments for and against women having a right to make decisions about their own reproductive systems.)  And second, everyone realized that it would take more months of arguing to agree on a Bill of Rights, and the delegates were already sick of each other.

Instead, it was promised that a series of amendments to provide a bill of rights would be the first business of the new United States Congress, to be voted on by the states.

What we now call the Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay as both propaganda to convince the States to adopt the Constitution, and to explain their interpretations of how the Constitution worked.  For example, judicial review by the Supreme Court of the constitutionality of acts of Congress wasn’t spelled out in the Constitution, but Hamilton argued that it would be part of their natural function.  (And in Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court agreed.)

Once Congress convened under the new United States Constitution, the amendments we now call the Bill of Rights were indeed a top priority.  More amendments have come along since, each with its own consequences and controversies.

The annotations by Richard Beeman, a professor of history and Constitutional scholar, explain in plainer language what each part of the Constitution is about, and why they’re important.  He also discusses the controversies and alternative interpretations that have arisen over the years.

After the main history section, Mr. Beeman discusses various important Supreme Court cases that have altered the interpretation of the Constitution.  (He admits that other cases could have been included.)

The book ends with suggested further reading on the various subjects presented–after all, you don’t want to take just one scholar’s opinion on these important matters.  There is no index or endnotes.

This is a good condensed and portable edition that will be valuable any time you need to know what the Constitution and related documents actually says.  All American citizens should have a copy of the Constitution handy, so I highly recommend having a book like this, if not necessarily this book,  on your shelf.

And now, let’s have a video of someone reading the Declaration of Independence out loud.

Comic Book Review: Alexander Hamilton

Comic Book Review: Alexander Hamilton written by Jonathan Hennessey, art by Justin Greenwood.

Alexander Hamilton (1757?-1804) was born in the West Indies, immigrated to the mainland American colonies in his teens, fought in the American Revolution, and served as the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington.  He was killed in a duel with the then-Vice President, Aaron Burr.  Controversial during his lifetime, Hamilton was eventually honored by being placed on the ten-dollar bill, and has recently had a musical based on his life become a Broadway hit.

Alexander Hamilton

That musical has done much to revive interest in Alexander Hamilton, and there have been a number of books about him published in the last couple of years.  This volume is a graphic novel biography.  It takes advantage of that format by opening with a quotation about the dangers of liberty, and introducing the visual motif of Adam and the Serpent, here portrayed by Benjamin Franklin’s segmented colonies.

While the use of the visual format was good overall, the actual art often is not up to par.  It’s often hard to tell that a particular person is supposed to be the same person from a few pages before without the captions, and the artist often draws faces with misaligned eyes.  (I will admit that less than stellar art is a tradition in biographical comics.)

It’s a “warts and all” biography, which goes into some detail about Hamilton’s extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds.  (Which we know more about than some Founding Fathers’ affairs because Mr. Hamilton overshared information in an attempt to prove himself innocent of fiscal wrongdoing at the Treasury.)

The book goes into some detail about how Hamilton’s childhood in poverty and difficult family circumstances, and the political climate of the time, may have influenced his views on things like slavery (personally opposed, but willing to compromise), centralized government with a strong executive, and fiscal policy.  It’s worth remembering that the Founding Fathers often disagreed (sometimes violently) about the right direction for the young United States, and the interpretation of the Constitution.

There’s an index, but most of the supplementary material has been outsourced to a website.  This is a good choice for people whose curiosity on the subject of Mr. Hamilton was aroused by the musical, but aren’t ready to tackle an 800 page formal biography.  It should be suitable for junior high readers on up, but parents of younger readers should be available for discussions on the more difficult topics raised, such as slavery, marital infidelity and class struggle.  Check your local library!

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

Book Review: One Night in Sixes

Book Review: One Night in Sixes by Arianne “Tex” Thompson

Island Town used to be known as Sixes, when the Eadan Confederacy controlled this area.  But a decade or so back, the indigenous peoples pushed the Confederacy across the river.  Now Island Town is on the border, with only a handful of the old inhabitants providing continuity.  Like many border towns, the former Sixes is a mix of various peoples with different customs and languages, who cooperate or clash in many ways.

One Night in Sixes

Sil Halfwick knows nothing of conditions in Island Town–not even its new name.  The sickly displaced Northerner was hoping to sell some horses at the County Fair to show his business acumen and earn enough money to move back East.  That didn’t work out, so he gets the hare-brained idea to go across the border to Sixes, where horses are scarce.  He drags along mixed-race ranch hand Appaloosa Elim, who Sil is nominally in charge of, but considers himself Sil’s babysitter.

Elim has good reason to worry.  Across the border, “mules” such as himself are regarded with extreme suspicion due to the belief they carry disease. And if that wasn’t enough, certain people in Island Town have cause to be on the outlook for someone like Elim.

Sil is oblivious to all this.  He samples the local nightlife and becomes involved in high-stakes gambling.  He seems to win big, but a series of coincidences and petty cruelties result in a man being dead in the morning.  Now the two outsiders are in deep, deep trouble.  And it looks like neither Sil’s fast talking nor Elim’s steadfast endurance is going to get them out of it.

This Western-flavored fantasy is the first in the “Children of the Drought” series.  Despite many similarities, this is not Earth as we know it.  The various kinds of humans have supernatural talents, and some of the people in Sixes aren’t strictly speaking human.  The “white” people speak Ardish, which is not quite English, while the trade language is the not-exactly Spanish tongue Marin.  (There’s a glossary and list of characters in the back.  The latter is mildly spoilery.)

One of the big differences is that it’s much harder for mixed-race people to “pass”, as instead of melding features, they wind up with vitiligo-like mottled skin.  Elim has a very conspicuous eye-patch marking.

The story is told in tight third-person, with switches in viewpoint character revealing new information and making motivations clearer.  We see that much of the tragedy in the story comes from people’s biases blinding them to the good intentions or full humanity of others.

In addition to Sil and Elim, we hear the thoughts of:

Twoblood, the other mixed-race person in town.  She’s Second Man (effectively sheriff) and feels the need to be seen to enforce the law rigorously  to offset the suspicion against her because of her ancestry.

Fours, the livery owner who is not what he seems and has conflicting loyalties.  As a result, Fours has to work against his personal agenda from time to time.

Dia, the only Afriti (black person) in town.  She’s a grave  bride of the Penitent religion (roughly Catholic nun) and wants to give mercy where she can, but the wickedness in Island Town often thwarts her.

And Vuchak, a member of the a’Krah tribe (followers of Crow) who works in the local den of sin.  He’s poor-tempered, even with his partner Weisei (who’s a trifle addlepated.)  Vuchak takes his tribe’s honor very seriously, and doesn’t like compromises.

There’s quite a bit of world-building and examination of culture clash.  The book ends as several characters leave Sixes/Island Town for a long journey that will presumably be the focus of the next book, but there are indications that those who died in this book will still have an effect.

There’s some rough language, and discussion  of slavery.  (Sil claims Elim is a slave at one point, but Elim’s situation is more complicated than that.)  The fantastic racism may strike some readers as too close to real racism for comfort.

I found this book well-written and look forward to the next volume.

Book Review: The Rebels

Book Review: The Rebels by John Jakes

Philip Kent, nee Phillipe Charboneau, would much rather be at home, caring for his pregnant wife Anne.  But after he was forced to kill his murderous half-brother in self-defense, Philip has gone all in for the cause of the rebels against British rule.  Thus it is that on June 17, 1775, Philip finds himself on Breed’s Hill near Boston, waiting for the order to fire on the advancing Redcoats.  Too soon, Philip will discover that the price of liberty is steep indeed.

The Rebels

Far to the south in Virginia, young wastrel Judson Fletcher dissipates himself with strong drink and other men’s wives.  Denied the woman he truly loves, and disgusted with the system of slavery that gave his family wealth but too weak to stand up against it, Judson dreams of the West, but does not have the courage to go.

Neither man knows it, but destiny will entwine the fates of these rebels who never meet.

In the mid-1970s, America’s mood was pretty glum.  We’d lost the Vietnam War, Watergate had done a hatchet job on trust in the federal government, and the economy was not doing at all well.  But we did have an important anniversary coming up, the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, generally treated as the birthday of the United States.  Two hundred years of freedom (more or less) was something to celebrate, and thoughts turned more and more to that period in our history as 1976 drew near.

One of the most successful tie-ins to the Bicentennial was this series of books, “The Kent Chronicles”, a sweeping saga of one family’s fortunes during the first century or so of the United States of America.  Extensively researched and well-outlined (the family tree in this volume indicates which family members appear in volumes that hadn’t been published yet), the series was well received, and at one point John Jakes had three volumes of the series on the New York Times bestseller list at once.

The story is told in tight third-person from the viewpoints of the two men (except for a brief section where Anne Kent is the viewpoint character.)  Philip and Judson both meet many historically famous people while never quite making it into the history books themselves.

Philip serves the Continental Army in several important battles and behind the scenes actions.  (It helps that he’s close friends with the Marquis de Lafayette.)  A series of hard knocks musters him out before the British surrender, but some wise investments by Anne allow him to start his own printing business.

Judson acts as a substitute delegate to the Continental Congress for his ailing brother Donald, even helping to craft the Declaration of Independence.  Unfortunately, his alcoholism and inability to keep it in his pants rob Judson of the chance to sign the document.  He then has an even worse failure of character before his last chance at redemption comes up.  His old friend George Rogers Clark needs men for a expedition in the West.  Beset by some of the worst luck a man can have, will Judson arrive in time?

There’s plenty of exciting action, but it’s interspersed with lengthy sections where Mr. Jakes catches the reader up on events our protagonists weren’t there for, but read about in the papers.  This is historical fiction with an emphasis on history.

There’s the expected period racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.  Violence abounds, and a couple of characters commit suicide just off-screen.  I had forgotten since I read the book as a teen just how much rape there is too.

Rereading this book after forty years, it’s pretty clear that the enormous popularity of the series was at least partially because they were the right books at the right time.  They’re very much a product of the Seventies, made for 1970s America.  That said, a blast of nostalgia every so often doesn’t hurt.

And now, a video about the Declaration of Independence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrSeCYSnj5Y

Book Review: A Storm of Swords

Book Review: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first two volumes in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

A Storm of Swords

The Battle of King’s Landing is over, and the forces loyal to King Joffrey are triumphant.  But the War of Five Kings rages on, with no part of Westeros left untouched.  Lord Tywin Lannister returns to power as the King’s Hand after many years and his iron grip is soon felt both by the people of the land and his own family.

The various factions scheme and negotiate and betray, but all of this may soon be pointless as the Others gain strength and seek to slay all who live.

This is the third and largest volume so far in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series.  In a foreword, the author explains that the chapters from different points of view do not immediately follow each other chronologically.  Indeed, the first few chapters of A Storm of Swords take place before the last few chapters of A Clash of Kings, catching us up on some characters who were not at the Battle of King’s Landing.

The members of the Stark family remain a plurality of the viewpoint chapters, but other folks are catching up.

Catelyn Stark takes a calculated risk in freeing Jaime Lannister to exchange for her daughters, which angers some of her son’s bannermen.  Thus she has little room to talk when King Robb himself makes a major diplomatic faux pas.  (Robb still doesn’t get a viewpoint chapter.)  With their alliance falling apart, will the King in the North be able to mend fences before his enemies regroup?

Jon Snow infiltrates the Northern Wildlings as he was ordered, in order to learn what Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, is up to.  Like many spies before him, Jon learns that the Free Folk are people not so different from those he has loved and sworn to protect, despite their odd customs and desire to invade his homeland.  It is a bitter pill to swallow, but realizing that you know nothing is the beginning of wisdom.

Sansa Stark, trapped at King Joffrey’s court, continues to be a political pawn, valued primarily as a possible claim on the lands surrounding Winterfell, and if rebuilt, the castle itself.  She’s forced into a political marriage which she will need all her courtesy and will to survive.  The wolf may be caged, but she has not forgotten how to wait.

Arya Stark may have escaped the ill-omened castle Harrenhal, but the land is still torn by war, and one thing after another delays her reunion with her mother.  Among other events, Arya falls in with the Bannerless Brotherhood.  Once the enforcers of the king’s law, a change in government has made them outlaws who steal from the rich to give to the poor.  (For certain values of “rich” and “poor.”)  Arya may need to cash in a certain favor if she is to survive on her own terms.

Bran Stark, presumed dead after the fall of Winterfell, is headed north with the faithful Hodor and the Reeds.  (He has parted company with Rickon, who still gets no chapters.)   His link with direwolf Summer continues to grow, and he learns new facets of his powers.

Tyrion Lannister, badly wounded by an assassination attempt during the Battle of King’s Landing, finds himself fallen from power.  His father Lord Tywin grudgingly admits that Tyrion did a decent job as King’s Hand, but is soon back to treating his little person son like dirt, including saddling Tyrion with a cruel arranged marriage.  Queen Cersei and her son King Joffrey also take every opportunity to mock and belittle their relative.  How much can one man take before he snaps?

Daenerys Targaryen has come to realize that while being the Mother of Dragons is way cool, her reptilian wards are not yet big enough to win Westeros for her alone.  She needs an army, but where to get one?  Dani’s also finding that celibacy is becoming a harder stance to hold than when she was newly widowed.  Ser Jorah Mormont loves her, but the queen doesn’t love him that way back.

We don’t get any chapters from Theon Greyjoy’s perspective this time, though he is reportedly still alive and in possession of at least some of his skin.

Davos Seaworth, on the other hand, managed to survive the burning of the Blackwater, and returns to the service of King Stannis Baratheon.  The King of the Narrow Sea has been listening to the counsel of the Red Priestess Melisandre, and is prepared to sacrifice his nephew Edric Storm if that’s what it takes to gain enough power to rule Westeros.  Davos makes what is perhaps the smartest choices in the book when he realizes that Melisandre may be reading her prophetic visions backwards.

New to the list of point of view characters is Jaime Lannister, known as the Kingslayer.  Released in the custody of the female knight Brienne in order to get back to King’s Landing in exchange for the Stark daughters, Jaime must cross a hostile land with almost every hand against him.  We learn the reason he became the Kingslayer, and Jaime has to face up to how his past misdeeds have helped put Westeros in the mess it’s in.  Like Arya Stark, Jaime just keeps getting delayed on his journey until it is perhaps too late.

Finally, we follow Jon Snow’s less combat-effective friend Samwell Tarly, a steward for the Night Watch.  While Jon goes off on his secret mission, Sam assists the other Black Brothers in their scouting mission beyond the Wall.  The Others are deadly, but what may finish off the Night Watch might be treachery in their own ranks.

This is the book that really cemented the series’ reputation for having anyone die at any time, and kills off major and minor characters left and right.  (One character who seemed like they were going to be very important in the second volume dies offhand in a single sentence here.)  But that comes with a caveat that anyone who is only reported as dead may in fact be alive, and being dead doesn’t mean not making any more appearances.

The big theme of the book is marriage; there are multiple weddings, none of which turn out particularly well.  There’s also several songs that recur throughout, most notably the bawdy “The Bear and the Maiden” and “The Rains of Castamere”, which has more sinister connotations.

Parts of the book do become a slog as there are multiple characters trying to get from one place to another and not getting there over and over.  A couple of the Stark family just miss meeting each other, and some plot twists are gratuitously cruel.  (As are some actions taken by the characters.) A few of the mysteries in the first two volumes are solved, for what it is worth.

As always, there is plenty of gory violence, some sex, attempted rape of major characters and off-camera rape of minor characters, and great steaming heaps of rough language.  Torture takes place off-stage as well.  But if you weren’t warned by the first two volumes, there’s not much I can say.

There’s some nifty world-building, and a handful of great scenes.  Primarily recommended to people who liked the earlier books in the series.

And now, a song!

Book Review: Jefferson’s America

Book Review: Jefferson’s America by Julie M. Fenster

In 1803, many people in the fledgling United States expected a Louisiana War, as the Spanish had forbidden American shipping from passing down the Mississippi and through the port of New Orleans.  That didn’t happen, as the Spanish were induced to yield the Louisiana Territory to their allies the French.  France’s then-leader, Emperor Napoleon, said he would “never relinquish” the territory.  But when European troubles drew his attention, the French offered to sell Louisiana to the Americans for a cool fifteen million dollars.

Jefferson's America

President Thomas Jefferson got the U.S. to pay the money, but other than the important ports of New Orleans and St. Louis, it wasn’t clear what all was included in  the Louisiana Purchase.  Someone had to be sent out posthaste to learn river routes through the territory, and apply some scientific curiosity to what might be found there.  And so he chose the men of Jefferson.

This book is primarily about six men who led expeditions into the West, and the outcomes of those adventures.  Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson’s personal secretary and a man who suffered bouts of depression. William Clark, younger brother of a Revolutionary War hero who had been cast aside by his country.  William Dunbar, slaveholder and scientist.  George Hunter, a chemist bent on making his fortune.  Thomas Freeman, one of the surveyors that laid out Washington, D,C,  And Zebulon Pike, an United States Army lieutenant who was intrepid beyond all reason.

It’s emphasized that other than Lewis, most of these men were not Jefferson’s first choices.  Many better trained people simply didn’t want to risk their lives on perilous journeys, or couldn’t get away from previous commitments.

Of course, they are not the only people covered in this history text.  We also meet the legendary Sacajawea, without whom Lewis & Clark might well not have made it past the Shoshone.  Aaron Burr, who you may remember from that recent musical.  Blackbird of the Omaha, whose dinner invitations you should find a way to politely refuse.  And many others.

The story is primarily chronological, and skips back and forth between expeditions happening at the same time.  But it’s not all “this happened, then that happened.”  There is room for a certain amount of editorial opinion, and oddball moments.  The book begins with a visit to New Orleans in 1820 by John James Audubon, who was later to gain fame painting birds.  At the time, he was seeking wealthy patrons who needed their portraits done, to fund his passion.  He met one of the famous Jeffersonian explorers, who alas had not aged well.

While the book is matter-of-fact about the issue of slavery, including some of the worst consequences of the system, it very carefully does not mention Jefferson’s own slaves, even when talking about his time at Monticello.  I have to wonder if the author felt she’d have to put in another chapter just to explain President Jefferson’s complicated relationship with slavery and felt it best to avoid the issue.

The treatment of Native Americans is more directly dealt with, as they occupied parts of the lands the explorers were moving through.  There’s quite a bit of politics involved, both between tribes, and their relationships with the various nations who wanted their goods or land.  Zebulon Pike is mentioned as having noticed that the introduction of strong liquor as a trade good was distorting tribal life.

There are many direct quotes from letters and journals, and these are sourced in the extensive endnotes.  There’s also a bibliography and index, several maps, and a thin section of illustrations in the center.

The age of Jeffersonian exploration lasted only a few years, but established the workability of scientific expeditions into the wilderness, rather than just cash and land grabs.  It’s briefly mentioned that unlike the slapdash American expeditions, the Spanish science explorers under Carlos III were well-trained and equipped for their journeys–it’s just that they’d never gotten around to the Louisiana Territory.  (I would like to read more about those expeditions, please.)

I found this book a pleasure to read, and recommend it for senior high students on up (there’s some frank talk about sex) who are interested in this period of history.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume through Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, more about Sacajawea:

 

Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

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