Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Martin J. Dougherty

The Arthurian mythos is a familiar one to just about everyone in some form or another.  But unless you’re a scholar of the subject, you might not know where all the pieces came from and how they got put together.  This “coffee table” book gives an overview of basic information about King Arthur and his knights.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

This generously illustrated tome begins with a look at what we know of early British history, and historical figures that might have inspired the tales of Arthur, even if no actual King Arthur ever existed.

Then it moves on to the major sources of the Arthurian stories.  The first written account we still have is that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Arthur is just one in  a line of probably fictional rulers.  The book also covers the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (who was big on graphic violence and courtly love), the Grail Quest (heavy on the preachiness and religious allegory), and of course Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which pulled material together from multiple sources and added some of his own touches.

A final chapter touches on modern retellings of the Arthur cycle, from Mark Twain’s satirical proto-science fiction work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, through the musical Camelot to the recent television series Merlin.  The author also talks a bit about what might be called tertiary Arthuriana, where a character could say, “this bell was enchanted by Merlin” with no other references to King Arthur, yet the audience will immediately know what’s being talked about.

This book is for the layman, and should be suitable for tweens on up.  (Parents of younger readers might want to discuss the theme of marital infidelity that comes up in the relationship of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, as well as other places in the Arthurian cycle, not least Arthur’s own birth.)  There is an index, but no bibliography, so serious scholars will want something more advanced to work with.

The author also talks a bit about the enduring appeal of King Arthur and his stories.  Heroic knights and chivalry, a struggle of good against evil, a kingdom where right is more important than might, even if it is doomed to fall and be followed by a darker age.  “A moment so bright it will be seen on the far side of that darkness.”

This book would make a good gift for the casual fan of things King Arthur, especially bright teenagers.  Did they like the recent movie?

Book Review: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail

Book Review: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail by Marcus Rediker

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Outlaws of the Atlantic

During the Age of Sail, the deep ocean sailing ship was one of the most advanced technological wonders of its time.  But such a complex device required many workers to keep it running smoothly and keep it from collapsing in times of danger.  So there rose the class of people known as the common seaman; sailors who were essential to the ship as a group, but entirely replaceable as individuals.

Often ill-used, to the point that they often compared themselves to slaves, sailors developed their own subcultures and began “resistance from below”; most notably creating the “strike” when an entire harbor’s sailors struck  (took down) the sails of the ships they were on and refused to work until they got better conditions.  Sailors became both the creators of and spreaders of rebellion against the cruel social order of their day.

Mr. Rediker is a professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh, and this is a collection of short pieces he’s written on the general theme of “resistance from below” as it relates to the Atlantic Ocean in the Age of Sail.  He talks a lot about “antinomianism” (the idea that one is primarily saved by faith, rather than obedience to law), and “hydrarchy” (rule by the sea, often connoting rule of the lowly many as opposed to the official hierarchy).

The book begins with an examination of “the sailor’s yarn” and how it was used to spread information both useful and dubious, influencing Western literature among other things.  It moves on to the stories of two men that demonstrate that history also includes ordinary workers and castaways.

In an essay on pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy 1650-1730, emphasis is laid upon the efforts of pirates to democratize their ships; pirate captains were limited in authority, unlike merchant or military captains whose word was law, and whose punishments were untempered.  This indeed was one of the reasons pirates found favor in popular culture; for all that they were criminals, they also had a kind of freedom seldom seen at the time.

There’s another essay on how “motley” (multi-ethnic) crews of sailors helped spread the ideas that led to the American Revolution; though the wealthy stepped in to keep the Revolution from going too far towards mob rule as they saw it.

There is a chapter on slave rebellions aboard the ships carrying them to the New World, usually doomed, and a separate chapter for the case of the Amistad, which turned out much better than could have been hoped.  The latter chapter looks at how conflating the Amistad freedom fighters with pirates helped influence American attittudes towards the men from Sierra Leone.

There are several black and white illustrations, copious endnotes and an index.

This book very much feels like an introduction to the theme of rebellion in Atlantic Ocean history, and as such I would recommend it to the casual student looking for a quick read on various aspects of the subject.  Professor Rediker’s other books appear to go into much more depth on the individual subjects involved, such as slave ships and piracy.  Based on his work here, those should also be interesting.

If these sound like topics you’d be interested in, check your lending library system to see if they’ve got this book in stock.

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.

Book Review: Justicariat

Book Review: Justicariat by Nathan Bolduc

In an alternate history, the newly-formed United Nations created an extra-national force called the Justicariat.  Its members, the Justicars, hunt down and kill those they believe to be criminals, not bound by any authority or law higher than themselves.  They have absolute immunity from local laws or regulations, though many will cooperate with/commandeer local law enforcement when it is convenient for them.

Justicariat

Two North American Justicars, Brian Galan and Noriko Tachibana, are assigned to a multi-jurisdiction operation when it’s learned an international syndicate has acquired what appears to be a doomsday weapon.   Shortly after they arrive on the remote island, the mission goes south, and it’s unclear just how many enemies the Justicars actually have.

In the early part of the novel, we see both Justicar Galan and Justicar Tachibana on more typical operations, Galan tracking down a cop killer in Detroit, and Tachibana dealing with a mob boss in Las Vegas.  Both of these end with considerable collateral deaths, although only Tachibana receives a mild reprimand; Galan faces no repercussions for straight up murdering a police officer for daring to punch him.  We are assured that the Justicars themselves deal with Justicars who have gone wrong.

I’d expect there to be more suspicion of the Justicariat among the general population, but they seem to be generally admired, and the problem of potential corruption from their legal immunity is handwaved with intensive and selective training.

This is closest to the “military SF” subgenre, I think, with lots of loving description of weapons, emphasis on tactics, and stuff blowing up.  There’s lots of action in here, with a climax out of a James Bond movie.

Sadly, little is done with the alternate history aspect of the story–there do seem to be more serial killers and terrorists than in our timeline, or perhaps the regular governments have left them to be taken care of by the Justicars since they don’t have to care about human rights or actual proof.  I was reminded of Judge Dredd and how it’s made clear in that series that the Judges are part of the problem as well as the makeshift solution.

Torture is indulged in by both villains and nominal good guys, and rape is mentioned but does not happen on screen.  Several people die in horrible ways beyond just violence.   It’s mentioned more than once that mercy is a weakness, and forcibly demonstrated.

To be honest, the Justicariat creeps me out, so I wasn’t as sympathetic to the main characters as I suspect I was supposed to be.  It’s a battle of very dark grey vs. absolute black.

From  a writing aspect, there are multiple viewpoints (none from the bad guy side), and there’s a fair amount of redundancy between the characters’ accounts and dwelling on minutia–I think this novel could have been a good ten percent shorter with nothing of importance lost.

Still, if you are looking for science fiction action starring people who don’t have to deal with pettifogging regulations when  they eliminate criminal scum, you could do worse.  The end has a strong sequel hook, and that book is in the works.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Six

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Six by Makoto Yukimura

To recap if you haven’t read the previous reviews:  It is the age of Vikings.  After the murder of Thorfinn’s father, he dedicated his life to revenge on the man who did it.  That didn’t end as he had hoped, and Thorfinn is now a slave on the estate of wealthy farmer Ketil.  He and fellow slave Einar have been told that they can buy their freedom by clearing and planting enough farmland.  Thorfinn has come to the realization that violence is not a way of life he can in good conscience continue, and wants to try out a new path of peace.

Vinland Saga Book Six

In this volume, Einar and Thorfinn are within sight of their goal of buying their freedom, but a new danger is afoot.  Gardar, a slave at a nearby farm, has escaped, killing his master and that man’s family.  A fearsome warrior, Gardar also just happens to be the husband of Arnheid, Ketil’s sex slave.   They were unaware how close they were, but now their paths cross.  Thorfinn and Einar, who has fallen in love with Arnheid, must make hard decisions when Snake and the other mercenaries hunt Gardar down.

Meanwhile, King Canute returns to Denmark to attend the deathbed of his brother, King Harald.  The young king will become the ruler of both England and the Danelands, but the budget is stretched tight–he needs to squeeze some more wealth out of his Danish subjects to support the occupying army in Britain.  Opportunity arises when Ketil and his sons come to pay homage to the new king.  One of the sons, Olmar, is a vain fool who wants to be a great warrior, but is unable to defeat a dead pig.  It’s easy to trick him into “defending his honor” in a way that can be labeled treason.

The art and writing remain excellent; in the endpapers, Mr. Kitamura mentions that it takes four times as much work to do the backgrounds as it does to draw the people, since he wants the scenery to look as authentic as possible.  He also talks about the long-term plan of the story–an action series set in a violent time where the hero renounces killing; how does that work, especially if the writer doesn’t cheat?

Despite Thorfinn’s newfound ethical stance, there is a lot of violence in this volume, some quite graphic.  There’s also discussion of rape, though none of it happens in this particular part of the story.  This is still a Mature Readers seinen (men’s) manga.

Although there are some light moments, the overall mood of this volume is tragic, as the characters’ actions and goals trap them within their wyrd (fate); their pride or honor or love preventing them from stepping aside from doomed pathways.  Olmar and his brother Thorgil are by no means sympathetic people (and their father Ketil, we are reminded, is a slaveowner and rapist) but it’s still painful to see them fall into the king’s trap.

There’s an interesting parallel between Thorfinn and Canute; both of them are haunted (literally?  who knows?) by the men they hated.  Thorfinn’s mentor and archenemy Askeladd wants Thorfinn to succeed in rising above the path of murder,  while Canute’s father Sweyn Forkbeard seems amused as his son uses ever more morally dubious methods to steer the kingdom, despite his lofty goals.  Or both men could just be hallucinating.

This series has slowed production, and the next volume isn’t due out until December 2015, so savor this installment.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The title is pretty self-explanatory; this book is about the location of the worst mass murders of the 1930s and 1940s; the part of Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  Starting with the 1933 deliberate starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviet government, policies of mass murder were followed by both countries.

Bloodlands

While there were also massive casualties from World War Two, this book focuses on those policies that were deliberately designed to kill as many people as possible whether this was necessary for military purposes or not.  After the starvation of the Ukrainians, Stalin created the Great Terror, designed to remove anyone in the western part of the Soviet Union  who might have loyalties to things other than Communism, or might be able to lead a resistance.

The Nazis got a later start, but kicked their murder into high gear when they allied with the Soviet Union to invade Poland.  Both sides started slaughtering the locals, the Soviets as an extension of the Great Terror, the Nazis because Hitler wanted the area cleared of all non-Germans (but especially Jews) so that it could be colonized as the Americans did to the Wild West.

Then Hitler decided to go to war with Stalin, invading the rest of Poland, and points east to Moscow.  Naturally, the murder of anyone who wasn’t a German or immediately useful to the Germans came with them.   When Russia turned out to be harder to defeat than planned, the Nazis decided to ramp up killing Jews as an actual war aim–if they couldn’t actually win, they were at least going to take the Jews of Eastern Europe with them.

As the Soviet Union advanced towards the end of the war, they were no gentler than they had been before, and those caught between the two dictatorships suffered for it.

The book goes on to describe the post-war “ethnic cleansings”, where millions of people were moved across new borders to match their “nationality”, which only killed people incidentally.  Then it delves into Stalin’s efforts to rewrite history and make World War Two the Great Patriotic War when the forces of imperialism attacked the heroic Soviet Union, and only the Communists (especially the Russians) fought back.  Yes, some Jews were killed, but only as an incidental side effect to them being Soviet citizens.

There even seemed to be a movement by Stalin towards the end of his life to justify a new Great Terror against Soviet Jews–cut short by him dying.

This is all horrific material, and some readers may find it too strong to stomach.  Along with the mass murder, there’s torture and rape.  Nevertheless, it’s an important book with relevance to many modern topics, including the current state of affairs in the Ukraine.

The author believes that it’s not so much a matter of whether Hitler or Stalin was a worse mass murderer.  The Bloodlands were caused by both of them, separately and working to encourage each other.  Even the Western Allies are culpable to the degree they chose to overlook what Stalin was doing and had done, because Nazi Germany needed stopping.  The phenomenon must be studied and understood so that we can avoid it ever happening again.

The danger is not that we might be the victims, but that under the wrong circumstances, we might become the perpetrators.

The book contains multiple maps, an extensive bibliography, end notes and index, and an abstract that summarizes the main points of the book for the “too long, didn’t read” crowd.

Book Review: The Year of Three Kings 1483

Book Review: The Year of Three Kings 1483 by Giles St. Aubyn

This history of the eventful year 1483 (and surrounding events) in England was written for the five hundredth anniversary in 1983.  The three kings in question are Edward IV, Edward V and of course, Richard III, formerly the Duke of Gloucester.   1483 ushered in the final act of the War of the Roses, a series of succession crises about the throne of England.

The Year of Three Kings 1483

Richard is the most famous of these kings, his actions to take the crown being controversial even in his own time.  The public may be most familiar with his depiction in William Shakespeare’s play Richard the Third.   That play was heavily based on a negative portrayal by Sir Thomas More in his history of the period.  There have since been revisionist versions of Richard’s life, both negative and positive.

This book seeks to sort through the primary sources for the actual facts available, and examine what probably really happened.  It comes with a dramatis personae, numerous family tree diagrams, some black and white photographs, extensive end notes, a limited bibliography (only those works directly cited in the volume) and an index.

While the author attempts to be even-handed, he is not above editorial comment, showing disapproval of certain historical personages.  He also is somewhat dismissive of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (a novel in which a hospitalized detective applies himself to the historical mystery of whether Richard murdered his nephews) as part of a trend by “women” to favor unduly positive views of Richard.

There’s also 15th Century sexism on display in several of the direct quotes from the sources of the time.

The author’s conclusion seems to be that while Richard III was not the villain painted in the Tudor propaganda, he was no innocent either.  He did some very good things for the people, but only in the service of claiming and keeping the throne.  The disastrous circumstances caused by the murky succession and various dubious favoritism moments by kings before him made Richard’s power grab vital to his self-defense.  But he may not have planned to go so far as he did.

This is a good starting point for those interested in this period of history, but the serious student will want to supplement it with other scholarly biographies and histories of Richard and the other people involved.

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