Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700
320 pages, including index
published in 2013
A lot of history books about war and warfare, even when they look at the impact war had on wider society, on the civilians and soldiers caught up in it, are remarkably clinical and dry about the violence it brings with it. Not so Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700. Before it’s good and well started, you get the first grizly massacre to process, no horrid detail spared, all the better to prepare you for the rest of the book. This is not an easy read, not your average military history wankfest, this is a book with a message and that message is that war in Early Modern/Renaissance Europe was hell, a total war where nobody cared if you lived or died.
That period from roughly 1450 to 1700 was one in which a military revolution took place, with Europe emerging from feudalism and war as a noble pursuit for knights and aristocrats giving way to mass warfare by any means necessary. It was a revolution brought about through the introduction of gundpower weapons making possible new ways of making war, as well as the growing strength of the emerging European nation-states. Add to that increasing religious schism and you have a recipe for warfare on an apocalyptic scale and Martines is not afraid to show what that meant on the ground, for the people caught up in the war.
Nine books read this month, which began strongly but petered out a bit as a couple of tough books slowed me down.
Schitterende Wereld — Mel Hartman
A disappointing collection of sf short stories based on an interesting concept: twelve stories based on the work of six world famous scientists.
Broken Homes — Ben Aaronovitch
Fourth in a series about a hapless London police officer being caught up in its magical underworld.
Styx — Bavo Dhooge
A bent cop in Oostende returns from the death as a zombie to bring a serial killer to justice
Ter Ziele — Esther Scherpenisse
Sometimes Death has pity for a dying person and brings them to its palace….
A History of the Vandals — Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen
A decent introduction to the history of the Vandals, one of the few such actually available in English.
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance — Lois McMaster Bujold
The latest so far in the Vorkosigan saga, now starring Miles cousin, that idiot Ivan.
Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700 — Lauro Martines
A distressing look at warfare in Early Modern Europe.
Who Fears Death — Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor’s first adult novel, a harrowing coming of age tale & quest story.
Het Laatste Verhaal — Guido Eekhaut
In the near future republic of Flanders, two street outcasts team up with a Japanese woman from an alternate world who has a sword that can cut through time and space…
The Dark Colony
published in 2014
James Nicoll is a longtime science fan active on Usenet and Livejournal, who has been working as an internal reviewer for various publishers. As that work started to dry up earlier this year, he started doing sponsored reviews, where people (but not authors) can buy reviews of books they’re interested in, suspect James would like, or at least would have an enjoyable reaction to. I’ve known James for a long time and he’s one of the people I absolutely trust their taste in books of, so I pay attention when he says something he’s worth reading. Which is exactly what he did with Richard Penn’s The Dark Colony and since it was cheap on *m*z*n, I bought it.
Now there was a risk with this. At times James’ fondness for exactly the kind of setting The Dark Colony provides — near future, the real Solar System, no magical rocket propulsion to let people pootle around it in hours or even days, no cheating — can blind him to some of the other qualities (or lack thereof) of a book. Fortunately however, in this case, the book’s appeal exists beyond its setting. Basically, this is a police procedural: it starts with the discovery of a body floating around in the the giant free fall hangar of Terpsichore Station. What’s remarkable is that it’s the body of a stranger to the Terpsichore colony, which only has a few hundred people living in the station and the asteroid itself. It’s up to constable Lisa Johansen to find out where the stranger comes from and in the process she finds herself unravelling a huge conspiracy in the heart of her community and beyond. Yes, this is not just a police procedural, it’s a gloomy Scandinavian one…
So yesterday I went to the Blind Book Date at the American Book Center. This was an idea that their sf book buyer Tiemen Zwaan had come up with, an extension of his own experiments in selling books wrapped in brown paper with only crypic clues to reveal their identity. Now it was our turn to both baffle our fellow readers and crack their own codes. It made me realise one thing: I’m woefully under read.
I’d expected only sf or fantasy books would be represented, but in fact there was a wide spread of books, both fiction and non-fiction being offered by the 17-18 or so participants. Some of the clues were obvious, some obvious with hindsight, some had me racking my brains trying to remember what book this had to be, while some were brilliant but impossible to guess, like the book shown above. The woman who brought the book on the left had actually hidden her clues in the wrapping paper itself. Clever but perhaps too clever and it was only because somebody else brought the same book with more conventional clues, that people were able to guess which book it was…
As for my book, the clues I brought were:
- Secret History
- Kim Philby
- Cold War Magic
- Mount Ararat
Can you tell what book it is?
Incidently, the smartypants at Making Light have been hosting their own blind book date party, not just writing cryptic clues, but writing them in the style of a different author, which is far too clever by half.
published in 2013
Peter Grant was a normal copper until he noticed he could talk to dead people in Rivers of London/Midnight Riot. Now he’s part of the Folly, the Metropolitian Police’s special unit for magic, which apart from him consists of one elderly but backwards aging survivor of the glory days of British wizardry before the war, as well as his colleague Lesley May, Toby the dog and Molly, the folly’s housekeeper of indefinitive species, currently experimenting with cooking from one of Jamie Oliver’s recipe books, to mixed results.
Broken Homes is the fourth novel in the Rivers of London series. There has been a mini boom in London based fantasy these past few years and Aaronovitch isn’t the only one either who has his protagonist working for the Met. There’s a sort of inevitability about the idea. London with its long history and dominant presence in the psyche of not just Britain, but arguably the world, just fits as a nexus of magic in a way that say Amsterdam wouldn’t. Of course the Met would have its own magical police force, some hangover from Victorian times, staffed with aging public schoolboys, into which the thoroughly modern London figure of police constable Peter Grant fits awkwardly. That tension between the gentlemanly tradition of magic and modern policing is part of the charm of the series.
A History of the Vandals
Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen
360 pages, including index
published in 2012
Of all the Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire, the Vandals have the worst reputation for reasons that have little to do with what they actually did. Mostly this is of course due to the simple fact that they lent their name to vandalism, coined in the wake of the French Revolution to describe the destruction of religious artworks by revolutionairies by equating it to the infamous sack of Rome in 455 CE, which in itself had already been exagerrated by pro-Roman historians for various political reasons. The Vandals then have never had an even break, always been the bogeyman to an Europe much more inclined to identify itself with the grandeur of Rome than with the ‘barbarians’ that ended its reign.
This attitude perhaps explains why books about the Vandals are rare in English, with A History of the Vandals being the first general history of them in English. Then again it could also be because unlike the Franks or Lombards or Goths, the Vandals had their largest impact outside of Europe, in the empire they created in North Africa and hence can’t be used as semi-mythical ancestor tribe for a modern European nation. This, as well as the fact that for a century they were the most successfull of the ‘barbarian’ successor states to the Roman Empire could also explain why they and not those Goths or Huns were used and abused as the villains in the Fall of the Roman Empire.
With Podkaybe of Mars, does not end well:
Unlike Elsie, Jackie, or Peewee, poor Podkayne is cut off at the knees before her adventure begins. Podkayne can dream of commanding a space ship but she can never see that dream realized because her narrative purpose is to serve as a doleful lesson to readers. This is where misplaced female ambition can lead! Well, if not Podkayne’s misplaced ambition, then her mother’s. Where the classic Heinlein juveniles are about boys reaching for the stars, Podkayne of Mars is a hectoring lecture, telling women to stay in their place.
To be fair, it’s not just Podkayne of Mars James has problems with, as shown by the list of the other reviews, below. It’s abundantly clear that many of the problematic opinions Heinlein had in his later books towards the proper role of women, sex, incest and consent were not a product of his medical troubles nor a new development, but present already in his juveniles. For somebody lauded for being so forward looking, he sure is wedded to gender models already becoming obsolete at time of writing. With rare exceptions, women are there to be mothers or wives and while his heroes may often be overshadowed by their female companions, they still need to be satisfied with these roles once the story is over.
- Rocket Ship Galileo (1947):
“Depraved indifference” and “the uncle who used his relatives as living meat shields” are going to be book-ends for this series of reviews.
- Space Cadet (1948):
It’s entirely possible that Matt is part of a terrible machine and too naïve to realize but at least, unlike my memory of Starship Troopers, the Patrol has ambitions of being lawful good.
- Red Planet (1949):
By this point in his career, Heinlein was still sticking with the “girls are ick and moms are a drag” model; there’s a genially patronizing treatment of the female inability to handle math in a discussion of the air plants that made me idly wonder what that character’s throat would sound like if his wife stuck a knife in it in mid-sneer.
- Farmer in the Sky (1950):
It’s pretty clear to me that George’s Plan A was to ditch Bill on Earth so George could secretly marry Molly and emigrate to Ganymede; given the difficulty of communicating with Earth, it’s possible Bill might not have found out about George’s new family for years, if ever.
- Between Planets (1951):
I’ve never particularly noticed it before but there are parallels between the plot of this and the plot of Lord of Rings; Don is stuck with a ring of great importance and what he needs to do to save the day is get rid of it under the right circumstances.
- The Rolling Stones (1952):
Heinlein paid lip service to the idea that women could be professionals but all that had to stop as soon as he married one of them, even if it meant poverty for the Heinlein family.
- Starman Jones (1953):
This book stands out as possibly the first young adult novel I ever encountered that featured pretty transparent references to johns being rolled by prostitutes.
- The Star Beast: (1954)
Of all the Heinlein Girls in Charge, The Star Beast’s Betty Sorenson is the girl most in charge and in Mr. Kiku we find an extremely uncommon figure for SF, a sympathetic career bureaucrat.
- Tunnel in the Sky (1955):
Since the majority of Americans didn’t come to see mixed race marriages as acceptable until the mid-1990s, forty years after this book was written, that minor bit of business was pretty daring on Heinlein’s part.
- Time for the Stars (1956):
Given that telepathy completely breaks relativity, I don’t know that it makes any sense to discuss whether the way he telepathic communication is affected by relativistic star-flight is realistic.
- Citizen of the Galaxy (1957):
Purchased on an apparent whim by the beggar Baslim the Cripple, Thorby is rescued from a life of exploitation and abuse for one as the acolyte and adopted son of a man who is far more than he appears.
- Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958):
For me, the highlight of the book is young Peewee Reisfeld, twelve years old — almost — and willing to take on an alien invasion single-handed if she has to. Peewee might be the finest example of Heinlein’s girls in charge. Peewee is smarter than Kip, she is just as brave, she manages to escape (temporarily) from the wormfaces before she ever meets Kip, something she keeps up through the book, and she saves Kip on a number of occasions.
- Starship Troopers (1959):
The book opens as Juan Rico nerves himself to murder alien civilians, “Skinnies”, as he calls them. Heavily armed and armoured, Rico and his human confederates rampage through the Skinny city, destroying infrastructure and leaving a trail of bodies behind him (including what may be a substantial fraction of the congregation of a church).
Does this mean these books aren’t worth reading? Not entirely; certainly the best of the bunch like Citizen of the Galaxy have charms that make their flaws easier to overlook, but the overwhelming sexism does sour a lot of the fun in these.
If you like these reviews, you can commission your own review from James.
A Night in the Lonesome October
published in 1993
A Night in the Lonesome October took me all of October to read, not because it was such a long or difficult book, but because I read each chapter on the day it took place. This has been an ancient tradition in online fandom, or at least it was when I was hanging around rec.arts.sf.written in the late nineties (and I see Andrew Wheeler at least remembers this tradition too). It’s an interesting way to read a novel you’d otherwise read in a day or so. It also constituted my (semi) annual allowed read of a new Zelazny novel; I ration my reading of a “new” Zelazny as he’s one of my favourite authors and the supply is after all limited.
A Night in the Lonesome October in fact is the last solo novel he completed before his death two years later. Sadly to say, it’s also one of his few late novels that’s any good, unlike say his collaborations with Robert Sheckley. Like so many other grandmasters Zelazny had declined somewhat in his later years, for a variety of reasons, but A Night in the Lonesome October was a return to form. Witty, well written and with the characteristic inventiveness of Zelazny’s best work; it’s no wonder it became a cult favourite.
Ethan of Athos
Lois McMaster Bujold
published in 1986
Ethan of Athos is the third published book in Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and the third published in 1986. Whereas Shards of Honor told the story of how Miles Vorkosigan’s parents met and The Warrior’s Apprentice showed his first adventure, this is a spinoff not featuring any of the main characters in the series. In fact, at first it barely seems to take place in the same universe.
It all starts on the all male planet of Athos (named after the all-male Greek monastry on mount Athos, natch) where Ethan’s greatest worry is how to take his relationship a stage further and get his boyfriend to be more responsible. His dayjob is as a obstetrician. On a planet full of men natural child birth is of course impossible so uterine replicators using female gene cultures taken along by the original colonists are used instead. Recently these cultures have started to deteriorate however, showing their age and new cultures have been ordered from Jackson’s Whole. Unfortunately, once they show up, these turn out to be unusable thrash. Despite their desire to remain cut off from the rest of the Galaxy, the people of Athos have no choice but to send somebody out into the darkness, somebody pure who can handle the temptations of women, somebody like, well, Ethan.
The Killing Moon & The Shadowed Sun
N. K. Jemisin
published in 2012
Have you ever reached that point where you’ve read twothirds of a fantasy trilogy, quite like the writer but don’t want to read the last novel because it would mean rereading the first two? Yeah, that happened to me with N. K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy, so instead I read her new series, The Dreamblood duology. Both The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun were published in 2012 and can be read as standalones, though you’ll miss a lot of the background if you only read The Shadowed Sun.
One of my ongoing frustrations with fantasy in general is how few novels take their inspiration from anything but medieval Europe. Medievaloid worlds as filtered through Tolkien and his imitators — where you can find pipe smoking peasants eating potoes with their turkey but few people of colour –are a dime a dozen, but books with Egypt as a source of worldbuilding are rare. In fact, The Dreamblood duology is the first series I can remember reading with Egypt as the inspiration for its setting, polytheism, annual flooding river surrounded by desert, powersharing between the priesthood and nominal god-king and all. What’s more, Jemisin was also inspired by Egypt’s historical relationship with Kush, the kingdom to the south of it in what’s now Sudan, who shared its culture and at times actually ruled it. In short, this is one fantasy in which pale Northern European heroes are in short supply.