League of Dragons, by Naomi Novik

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I’m surprised to find that I’ve only reviewed one other book in this series in any depth.

 

As that review mentions, I’m definitely a fan of the Temeraire series. But more to the point, I think that League of Dragons is an excellent finish to this series. Better than many of the preceding books, which is difficult. Better than some of the really good preceding books, which is even harder.

In many ways, this book shows Novik doing exactly the opposite of what Stirling so loves; she somehow manages to cut out all the slow bits of the novel while keeping all the pieces that are important to the story. But that’s wrong, because it’s not like this is a non-stop action adventure. This takes plenty of time to devote itself to social intricacies, diplomatic considerations and the like… but Novik knows what matters, and she takes out everything else. She has a narrow focus on the heart of this story, and she has honed it until it delivers exactly that. Yes, there’s a little extra around the edges, but only enough fat to let you enjoy the flavor without overpowering the piece itself.

I want to stress, from personal experience, just how hard it is to do that. I can only imagine how much material must lie on the cutting room floor. There have to be scenes, long and involved scenes, which simply didn’t end up necessary to telling this story in the best way. The clarity and relative brevity of this story speak volumes about the discipline shown by Novik (and presumably her editor) in making this book, and I think I’ll return to this book to appreciate this for some time to come.

Funny. I’ve hit this point in the review, the one where I could start delving into further intricacies to tell you about particular bits of goodness, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s enough that this is a good series about dragons. That it is also a story about a British man in the early 1800’s who learns that, maybe, more people are people than he had realized is (exceptionally good) gravy. The fact that it somehow encompasses adventure and social intrigue and feels like period fiction in the best possible way only makes it better.

If you haven’t read the series yet, you have a great deal to look forward to. Except that book about Australia, which is unfortunately rather sluggish but let’s not talk about that. Go ahead and enjoy.

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Story Snippet: The Sequel to Rum Luck, pt 1

Today I have the beginning to a sequel for you, a continuation of the story I started in Rum Luck (rough draft of that story can be found here).  If you like Andre and Jerome, you’re in for a treat.  It does end rather abruptly, but there’ll probably be more soon.  Read on, and enjoy!

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Lion’s Blood, by Steven Barnes

I wish I’d heard of this book years ago. I think it’s incredibly important, and I wish that it weren’t.  Why?

It is so easy, as a white man, to think that you understand troubles that others face, to think that you have read and spoken enough about a given issue to feel like you know more or less what’s going on, and why people feel and think the ways that they do.  In many cases, you have to actively search out conflicting points of view and other narratives in order to prove otherwise, and why would you bother doing that when you don’t know about them in the first place?  Why bother when you think that you’ve already got a good grasp on things?

In Lion’s Blood, Steven Barnes takes a fundamentally simple concept and uses it to explore a number of things… it’s quite simply a good and fun (if painful at times) book.  But the reason that I think it’s important and wish that it weren’t is that it confronts head on that feeling of complacent surety, the comfort of thinking that you know enough about historical (and modern) problems and don’t have to look deeper to examine your own place, your own implicit beliefs.

Lion’s Blood posits a world in which Africa rose to prominence, rather than Europe.  A world in which the slaves working the fields of the New World are white, taken from their tribal villages to work the fields of rich Muslim landowners.  Steven Barnes tells a familiar tale here, with a narrative that feels comfortably close to our expectations, but it’s one in which all the cultural and ethnic trappings have been inverted from our standard expectations.  And somehow that inversion was enough to shake me out of my “ah yes, this story again” complacency.  Better yet, it drove home yet again the violence done to people through the institution of slavery, and (I think) might help to wake some up to the systematic oppression which slavery engenders in a society.  And, of course, it tells an excellent story, one well worth reading.

Look.  I don’t want to ruin this book for you, so I’ll put it like this: this book is sad, tragic, and uplifting; this book is a marvelous adventure story; this book reminds you of why our current society is so screwed up in so many ways, as we deal with the toxic legacies and variably covert attempts to continue the oppressive power struggle at the heart of slavery. I’m deeply impressed.  I want my own alternate history to be as good as this book is.

P.s. I found Lion’s Blood on this recommended list of books by writers of color.  I intend to go back and find more to read, and would suggest that you do the same.

Short Story: Rum Luck

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Rum Luck: Bad luck, esp. in a certain circumstance or series of events

This one came about through an odd (actually, pretty typical) series of circumstances: I was starting another story and realized partway through that I really needed to know what came before it.  Like its predecessors, this takes place in a fantastical alternate history setting, with geography (and some place-names) much like our world’s.  And again, this is a fairly rough draft.  Other stories in the same setting can be found here, here, here, and here.  Enjoy responsibly.

*     *     *

The night air was fresh and clean, carrying the scents of salt and the sweet tropical grasses that grew along the beaches here.  It wafted up from the shore, dancing across the slopes of the hills and tickling the back of Jerome’s neck as he and Andre drove their wagon along the well-traveled path.  Stars dotted the sky above them, and a rising moon left a glimmering trail on the water to their right.  Andre’s lantern cast enough light on the trail ahead for the horses, both of whom had traversed this path many times before.  The hefty dwarf smiled up at Jerome, his teeth gleaming as they caught the moonlight.

“You know, Jerome, sometimes,” Andre gave a happy sigh, “sometimes this really isn’t so bad at all.”  His free hand swept to encompass the hillsides around them, the trail, the sea, and the rising moon.  He glanced behind them at the bed of the wagon, eyeing the casks which he’d so carefully secured.  They sloshed as the wagon creaked and rattled.  From where Andre sat, Jerome’s answering grin was silhouetted against the rising moon.

“I told you this would be a good job.”  Jerome risked a glance at Andre, looking away from the team for a moment.  Andre snorted in response, and Jerome chuckled.  Trying to keep a straight face, he continued, “And have I ever led you astray before?”  The two of them burst out laughing.  They laughed so long and so hard that Andre was soon wiping tears from the corners of his eyes.

“Never!”  Andre lied with a guffaw.  The two of them burst into a new round of laughter.

Jerome took the reins in one hand for long enough to wipe his now wet cheeks.  “Well!  I’m glad we’re in agreement then!”  He chuckled some more for the next few minutes, watching the bends in the path as it took them down the shoreside route.  It was several miles from the sugar mill and distillery where they’d picked up their load to the town where they’d been hired to deliver it, and in weather such as they had tonight it was a true pleasure to travel.

“I still don’t see why that man wanted you to do the delivery instead of whatever drivers he normally uses.”  Andre returned to their earlier debate, though he sounded far more goodnatured than he had while they were arguing over it in the bar.

“He said his usual drivers were sick or something.”  Jerome peered ahead at the dimly lit path.  He slowed the horses a little further, glancing to either side.  “Play that light across those rocks, will you?  I don’t like the looks of them.”  Jerome nodded as Andre complied, then added with a grin, “And besides, he said it was a pleasure to be doing business with me again!”

“Pffffft.”  Andre made his opinion of that idea clear.  He shook his head, running his free hand through his beard as the wagon rattled slowly towards the rocks that he’d illuminated.  “He just said that so he could screw us with lower pay than he’d usually give, and all of it at the end of the job too.”

Jerome winced a little.  He allowed as to how that might be true, though he wasn’t likely to agree with Andre out loud.  Certainly not just now.  He looked over the rocks again, largish things that lay to either side of the trail, and had a sudden flash of memory that helped him place why he felt so uncomfortable.  “You know,” he began, “I’ve been ambushed near stones like these before—,” and then he saw the figures rising from either side of the road, guns in hand, while a small log was heaved into place across the path from the lower slope to his right.  Jerome gently brought the wagon to a stop.

“Have you now,” Andre muttered darkly as he raised his hands.  “I never would have guessed.”

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Maelstrom, by Taylor Anderson

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Having just finished reading Maelstrom, I’m officially downgrading this series from “potentially profoundly interesting” to “some variety of popcorn lit.”  You know, the stuff that you’ll compulsively eat without thinking too hard about it: sometimes it’s exactly what you’re looking for, but more often it’s just there and you don’t bother to stop yourself.  This series is alt-history tech-bootstrapping military fiction with a very particular set of idealized social dynamics, and as of now it doesn’t look like it will stretch beyond that.  I’m not saying that it’s bad; popcorn lit is definitionally good enough that I’ll pick it up and breeze through it simply for the pleasure of reading it, provided I’m in the right mood.  But it also hasn’t lived up to my hopes of offering more introspection on any of its various conflicts, or breaking further from its genre precedents in an interesting fashion.

I should note that it’s hard for most novels to make it past my popcorn lit category, and the category itself encompasses an almost unhelpfully wide spread of books; furthermore, I can’t pretend to be better than that myself, as I doubt any of my own short stories would qualify as anything but popcorn lit.

I won’t say that the series can’t ever be anything but popcorn lit.  Some of the future books may deliver answers to the niggling contentions I’m sharing with you here.  But thus far my hopes for what I’ll call “deeper” material have not been met.  Specifically, I want Anderson to go deeper into examining the cultural conflicts inherent between the Americans and their various allies, and I especially want him to include the perspective of Lemurians who truly don’t have specified gender roles or gender/sex expectations.  It seems like he’s introduced the Lemurians (the cat-/lemur-like creatures with whom the Americans allied in the first book) as being without specific gender roles, but when we’re treated to the perspective of a Lemurian there are a number of basic social operating assumptions that appear to be based in a society more similar to our own, one which certainly embraces a number of implicitly gender- or sex-based values.  If Anderson wants to write the human perspectives in his book with those value assumptions in place, that’s ok by me, even if I don’t like it.  But much like my love for and disappointment with the use of Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, I find it frustrating that Anderson should introduce an ostensibly gender- and sex- blind culture and then not do them the justice of writing from a gender- and sex-blind perspective.  I have to give Taylor Anderson credit for trying, and it seems like he might not be aware of how he’s failing to deliver here, but that doesn’t make it un-frustrating.

More after the break.

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1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, by Eric Flint and Charles Gannon

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This scene doesn’t happen, but doesn’t it look nice?

My review has been delayed by other distractions, but I read most of 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies before it actually came out.  You see, I’m infatuated with the 1632 universe.  I think that’s at least in part because the series offers a far more optimistic take on the world than most of the other fiction that I read.  If you already know that you don’t like the series, I doubt this book will change your mind… but if you do like them, you’ll want to take a look.  I’m not totally sold on it, and yet I still love it.

What do I mean by that?  Well, this book is a clear sequel to the Baltic War storyline, but it also incorporates at least two other storylines into the mix, with other elements thrown in from the rich milieu which has developed in the rest of the 163X stories.  It’s clearly intended to start a new set of storylines, several of which seem like they deserve their own books, or at least their own short stories.  I can see why they tried to fit so much into this book, but I feel like they ended up trying for too much and then ended up without quite enough to satisfy me with each of the individual stories.

But maybe the piecemeal way in which I read the book has done it a disservice.  I got early partial copies as soon as they became available and, like the literary glutton that I am, devoured each morsel as quickly as I could.  Like I said, it’s an infatuation.  While I doubt I’ll be able to restrain myself from reading new 163X books as fast as I can, I resolve to start over from the beginning next time once the whole book becomes available.  I’ll probably re-read 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies some time soon to see just how much of my impressions came from the disjointed nature of my reading.

Now then, how about my thoughts on the material itself?

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