I’ve been waiting for this book since I read the first book in Stephenson’s Byzantium series back in 2018. And was it ever worth the wait. After setting the stage in The Porta Aurea, with the rise of the Emperor Isaac, Stephenson has events play out in dramatic fashion. It may seem odd to describe a historical fiction book as a political thriller, but at times that’s almost what this feels like. It’s that fast-paced and exciting.

Once again, the book is told from the perspective of Anna Dalassena, wife of John Comnenus, Emperor Isaac’s brother. The initial optimism they feel at Isaac donning the purple subsides quickly as they realize the extent of the mess he’s inherited. Misfortune follows misfortune, and soon Isaac is unable to serve, presenting John with an opportunity to reign.

This is a key episode in the book that I want to focus on, because John is presented with an opportunity to take power and turns it down. Anna resents this more than a little, not least because John’s refusal allows the contemptible Constantine Ducas to be installed as Emperor, with the help of the scheming bureaucrat Michael Psellus.

On the one hand, it’s hard to argue with John’s honest assessment that he would not be a very good emperor. He’s a decent, hard-working, well-meaning guy, but not ambitious or particularly suited to thinking on a grand scale. You’ve got to applaud him for knowing his own limits, and for not being easily goaded into taking power, which has well-known corrupting tendencies.

On the other hand, though… Anna makes the valid point that while John probably wouldn’t be a great emperor, it’s hard to imagine he could be worse than Constantine Ducas, a longtime enemy of Anna’s family as well as a generally horrible person. Given that John’s refusal to take his brother’s place results in Ducas taking the throne, there is a strong argument to be made that a sense of duty should have compelled John to take power, if only to prevent it from falling into the hands of someone even less suited to it.

Much has been written about the nobility of refusing power, and no doubt there is something to that; but there is also a sense in which taking power can be a sacrifice, which must be made to prevent worse abuses. After all, someone has to rule the Byzantine Empire. Is it better if it’s ruled by a stolid if unimaginative soldier, father, and husband, or a ruthless, abusive maniac? Something to ponder.

In any case, Ducas rules for a time, but eventually he dies and is replaced with his son, the Emperor Michael, who is only a teenager and in no way ready to assume the duties of Emperor. Thanks to Anna’s clever gamesmanship and political maneuvering, an extremely capable soldier named Romanus Diogenes rules as “co-emperor” and leads many successful campaigns against the Turks, who are continually harassing the edges of the Empire.

Romanus Diogenes is a brave and honest man who is, unfortunately, a bit too naive about the realities of politics. Once again, Psellus and another Ducas, (John, Constantine’s brother) conspire against him to reassert their power.

The whole book is a gripping tale of political intrigue, shifting alliances, backstabbing and maneuvering for power.  I’d call it Machiavellian, except Machiavelli wouldn’t be born for a few centuries yet, so that seems inappropriate. But I think that gives you a good idea of what I mean.

Through it all, Anna is a likable and interesting narrator. She, and other women, may not often have held direct power during this period, but they had all sorts of ways of influencing events behind the scenes.

I’m really impressed by how vivid Stephenson makes everything feel. Too often, when I read historical fiction, I feel like I’m just watching cardboard cutouts go through prearranged motions to arrive at a foregone conclusion.  Not with this book. It all felt immediate and real.

And one more word about that sneaky character Michael Psellus. He’s such an archetypal figure; the amoral administrator who somehow survives every regime change, largely because he knows where all the bodies are buried. He makes me think of Talleyrand, or, for fans of Brit-coms, Sir Humphrey Appleby. There’s no doubt he’s a snake, and yet I have a grudging sort of admiration for his persistence and resilience.

Psellus, by the way, was a real person and in fact wrote a book, from which comes much of our knowledge about the Byzantine empire during this period. I have not read his whole book. (Stephenson has, though, and she has written about Psellus on her blog, which you should read after you read her book.) But I have read the parts of it which correspond to the events in Imperial Passions.

Naturally, Psellus paints a very different picture of events than that described above. But then, he would, wouldn’t he?

Which telling should we trust, Stephenson’s or Psellus’s? Ah, well, my friends; that’s the fun of history, isn’t it? There are names and dates that we can all study and memorize, but beyond that, it’s really all about interpretation to weave a compelling story out of all these dry facts.

One thing I can say with certainty is that Stephenson has woven a masterful tale in her latest book, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

If you’re like me, you know C.S. Lewis mainly as “that guy who wrote the Narnia books.” Most people probably remember them fondly from childhood. I was unusual (what else is new?) in that I really didn’t care for them. I was about nine years old and I couldn’t stand The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I thought it was just weird. My dad agreed with me; I remember him saying that the author of these books “must have been on drugs.” (My dad has never been a big fan of the fantasy genre.)

But I was interested to learn recently that Lewis had also written science fiction. That Hideous Strength is the third book in his “Space Trilogy,” but in the foreword Lewis promises that it can be read without reading the other two books. I have chosen to test this assertion, for reasons which I hope will become apparent.

And, of course, this is Vintage Science Fiction Month! What a perfect excuse to review a relatively obscure book by a relatively famous author. I hope that if nothing else it piques your curiosity. If you’re new to this site, please forgive my rather long-winded reviewing style; I tend to go on at length about books that I find interesting. And I’m afraid I’m usually unable to refrain from discussing plot spoilers. Normally I don’t feel so bad about that, since I’m reviewing older, classic books, but since you may not have read this one before, please be forewarned that I’ll be giving away the ending.

That Hideous Strength follows a couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. Mark is a fellow at Bracton College in Edgestow, England. He has been busy with college business, and Jane has a sense that she and her husband are drifting apart, as he spends nearly all his time on his work. Jane is also troubled by strange dreams, such as a vision of the disembodied head of a recently-guillotined criminal named Alcasan.

The college business that Mark is involved with has to do with a scientific outfit called the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E., which is in the process of purchasing land from Bracton College. N.I.C.E. is a prestigious and powerful body of scientists, and Mark is delighted when a colleague recommends him for a job there. Mark eagerly goes to the N.I.C.E. headquarters in Belbury.

Meanwhile, Jane goes to a town called St. Anne’s seeking treatment for her dreams. However, she is told that her dreams are in fact visions of real events, and that she is a seer. The people at St. Anne’s are a mysterious and mystical bunch, whose chief is a man called “Mr. Fisher-King” and who has a wound in his foot.

This is a reference to the Fisher King of Arthurian legend. The whole St. Anne’s group is very much associated with the legends of King Arthur and his court. Mr. Fisher-King, whose real name turns out to be “Ransom,” is himself the “Pendragon,” which, if you are familiar with Arthurian legend, effectively means belonging to the family of King Arthur.

I, by the way, am not really familiar with Arthurian legend, but I got something of a crash course in it by reading this book. Lewis was a professor of Medieval Literature, so I guess he’s a good source.

Anyway, if you think that’s weird, wait until you find out what’s happening at Belbury. In addition to the office political jockeying that will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about academia, the N.I.C.E. has its own private police force, headed up by Major Fairy Hardcastle. We have to pause to talk about Miss Hardcastle.

On the one hand, she’s clearly meant to represent a type of “modern” woman that Lewis dislikes. She smokes, she swears, and she even <gasp!> sits with her legs uncrossed. I think just by telling us these facts, Lewis felt he had adequately communicated that she is a Bad Woman.

So, not a whole lot of feminism going on here. On the other hand, I have to give Lewis some credit because she’s probably my favorite character in the whole thing. I don’t mean she’s likable. Not at all. She’s unquestionably a villain, as shown by the sadistic pleasure she takes in tormenting captives brought in by the N.I.C.E. police. But she’s memorable. It’s the same way Darth Vader isn’t a good guy, but who could deny he’s the most iconic character to come out of Star Wars?

“The Fairy,” as she is sometimes called, also has most of the best lines. Like this, when she’s ordering Mark to write newspaper articles to polish N.I.C.E.’s image, and he wonders if they’re to appear in the Right or the Left-wing papers:

“‘Both, honey, both,’ said Miss Hardcastle. ‘Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the N.I.C.E. is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us–to refute the enemy slanders. Of course we’re non-political. The real power always is.'”

She has a coarse, slangy way of speaking that, again, I think Lewis meant to show how evil she is, but this makes her scenes some of the most vibrant, especially the way Hardcastle’s bluntness contrasts with Mr. Wither, the Deputy Director of N.I.C.E., who speaks in a mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy fashion, always trying to avoid committing himself too far to anything.

To get back to the synopsis, Mark gradually realizes that he is being manipulated and coerced into staying at N.I.C.E. This is not difficult, as Mark is not a steadfast or resolute type, and his cravenness makes him easy for them to play upon.

The book bounces back and forth between Jane at St. Anne’s, where Ransom and his assistants are interpreting her visions to discover what their enemies are doing, and Belbury, where the scientists of N.I.C.E. are shown engaging in increasingly depraved practices as part of their plot to conquer the world.

Ultimately, it comes out that both groups are attempting to capture the re-awakened wizard Merlin. The land that N.I.C.E. was buying at the beginning of the book housed his resting place where, (rather like Cthulhu), he has lain in a state of suspended animation, waiting until the time is right to rise again. That time comes about halfway through the book, and from there, the rival groups are fighting to recruit him.

This is where I question what Lewis said about it not being necessary to read the other books in the series. The story gets seriously bizarre at this point, bringing up stuff that Ransom did on other planets, and something called “eldila” that are basically angels and devils. Also, there’s a bear named Mr. Bultitude. I hadn’t thought about it for decades, but after reading the third act of this, what my father jokingly suggested about Lewis’s use of drugs seemed quite plausible.

The ending is a mess. Merlin works his magic during a banquet scene at Belbury that feels incongruously comical. It’s not quite Gussie Fink-Nottle at the Market Snodsbury prize-giving, but it’s close. And while that works in a light comedy, here it’s just… odd. It feels unsatisfying and anti-climactic. I guess the best way to say it is that Merlin is very deus ex machina.

And speaking of Deus Ex… well, before that, here’s a bit of dialogue from some N.I.C.E. personnel:

“And so,” said Straik, “the lessons you learned at your mother’s knee return. God will have power to give eternal reward and eternal punishment.”
“God?” said Mark. “How does He come into it? I don’t believe in God.”
“But, my friend,” said Filostrato, “does it follow that because there was no God in the past there will be no God also in the future?”
“Don’t you see,” said Straik, “that we are offering you the unspeakable glory of being present at the creation of God Almighty? Here, in this house, you shall meet the first sketch of the real God. It is a man–or a being made by man–who will finally ascend the throne of the universe. And rule forever.”

And here’s the last line of the intro to the 2000 video game, Deus Ex:

We’ve had to endure much you and I, but soon, there will be order again. A new age! Aquinas spoke of the mythical city on the hill; soon that city will be a reality, and we will be crowned its kings. Or better than kings… Gods!

This isn’t just some freak coincidence, either. Both That Hideous Strength and Deus Ex are about evil, quasi-mystical conspiracies by shadowy organizations of madmen bent on achieving superhuman powers.

More fun facts: Deus Ex includes multiple passages from G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday. A contemporary reviewer for the Manchester Evening News wrote that

“In general outline, and to some extent in atmosphere, [That Hideous Strength] rather resembles G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Man Who Was Thursday.’ Mr. Lewis probably owes something to Chesterton as a writer, and certainly shares his horror of modern machine civilisation (the title of the book, by the way, is taken from a poem about the Tower of Babel) and his reliance on the “eternal verities” of the Christian Church, as against scientific materialism or nihilism.”

Indeed, a major focus of the book is how the scientists at Belbury, mad with power, are trying to create a new, scientifically efficient world. For example, they see World War II as an excellent blueprint to follow:

“[E]very advance in industry and agriculture reduces the number of work-people who are required. A large, unintelligent population is now becoming a deadweight. The real importance of scientific war is that scientists have to be reserved. It was not the great technocrats of Koenigsberg or Moscow who supplied the casualties in the siege of Stalingrad: it was the superstitious Bavarian peasants and low-grade Russian agricultural workers.” 

And their schemes aren’t confined to massive wars of annihilation. They’re out to remake every aspect of life. As one of them says, even the trees are going to have to go:

“At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently, we find a chemical substitute. And then, why *any* natural trees? I foresee nothing but the *art* tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.”
“Do you mean,” put in a man called Gould, “that we are to have no vegetation at all?”
“Exactly. You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet.”
“I wonder what the birds will make of it.”
“I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.”
“It sounds,” said Mark. “like abolishing pretty well all organic life.”
“And why not? It is simple hygiene. Listen, my friends. If you pick up some rotten thing and find this organic life crawling over it, do you not say, ‘Oh, the horrid thing. It is alive,’ and then drop it?”

Like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis clearly loved the folkish and organic, and hated the mechanical and the industrial. Speaking of Tolkien, there are also references in the book to “Numinor,” which, Lewis mentions in the foreword, will be discussed further in a forthcoming manuscript by Tolkien. (Does anyone know if that ever got published? ;))

The Manchester Evening News reviewer, though generally favorable about the book, agrees with me on the ending, writing:

The book ends in a way that is so preposterous that it does not even succeed in being horrible in spite of much bloodshed.

Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win.

Even this kind of understates it, in my opinion. The book would have been more satisfying if God Himself appeared and said, “I condemn all you evildoers of Belbury to eternal Hellfire.” That might have been predictable, but it would feel less random and bizarre than all this rigmarole about Merlin.

I remember reading once that Frank Herbert said of his novel Dune that the book had many layers, such that the reader could re-read it multiple times and each time find a different layer to follow. I think the same could be said of That Hideous Strength. There are at least three different threads to it:

  • Mark and Jane trying to save their failing marriage.
  • N.I.C.E.’s conspiracy to create a scientistic dystopia.
  • Whatever this stuff about Merlin is.

The first two layers fit together nicely. The third feels like it’s part of some other book and clumsily tacked on.

I’m serious, there are parts of this book where I have no idea what is even happening. Some of the visions Jane has towards the end are just too bizarre, and I have trouble understanding what they’re supposed to mean. There’s clearly some sort of symbolism going on, but it’s over my head.

On a more basic level, I just didn’t feel that Mark had grown enough over the course of the story to deserve Jane. Yes, he kind of redeems himself, in that he’s not the complete wimp he was at the beginning, but he’s still far from a truly brave or heroic character.

Actually, maybe that’s what the book is really lacking: an actual hero; someone who counter-balances the gleeful villainy of Miss Hardcastle & coMerlin isn’t one; he’s just a plot device. Ransom is implied to be heroic, but he never really does anything; just gives speeches. Mark is right out. Jane seems like she could be heroic, but she never gets much of a chance. The most heroic character is Mr. Bultitude. Yes, that’s right: the bear.

The result is that the ultimate victory never feels earned. The show just goes on until the climax, when everyone transforms into who they’re supposed to be, like a bloody harlequinade.

I’ve been withholding some information from you, though. Our reviewer from the Manchester Evening News is not just some random critic. He’s George Orwell, of Nineteen Eighty-Four fame. The review was written in 1945, when Orwell had just begun work on what would become the quintessential dystopian novel. I wonder if That Hideous Strength influenced him at all. Some of the interrogation scenes reminded me of the Ministry of Love scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Actually, I guess the use of the acronym N.I.C.E. to describe the malevolent organization is itself what would come to be called an “Orwellian” phrase.

It’s surprising to me how positive Orwell’s review is, and how many similarities there are between Nineteen Eighty-Four and That Hideous Strength. After all, Lewis was a Christian conservative and Orwell was an atheist socialist. But clearly, both of them must have seen some of the same trends in the world they lived in. Namely, the rise of what James Burnham called “the managerial class.”

On balance, I’m with Orwell that the book would have been stronger if the supernatural element were toned down. I wouldn’t be in favor of removing it entirely, but I’d have liked it better as a subtle thing, lurking in the background.

Still, there are some effective occult horror scenes in here. Like this description of the art that is used to gradually indoctrinate people into the inner-circle of N.I.C.E:

There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skillfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could almost feel the hair; indeed you could not avoid feeling it however hard you tried.

Isn’t that creepy? I like this much better than if it had just been a scene of something mindlessly horrific. It’s just a touch off, and so it sticks with you more.

Okay, now we come to the big question, which I’ve been putting off as long as I can: is this book any good or not?

Well… it’s a mixed bag. A seriously mixed bag. Apart from the supernatural stuff and Arthurian legendry that just doesn’t fit with the rest, there are also some really slow stretches. There were parts that were just one committee meeting after another. This is probably an accurate depiction of an academic institute, but it doesn’t make it any more entertaining to read.

But then there are other things that seem strikingly fresh. Indeed, some scenes hit harder than most modern dystopias do. Also, while he seems like he wandered in from Narnia, I really do like some of the parts about Mr. Bultitude. Lewis tries to write him as a truly non-human character, with a whole way of perceiving the world that is unlike our own, but with which the reader can still empathize. I liked that.

And of course, Fairy Hardcastle. Everyone should read this just for the Fairy alone. Of course, if that actually happens and she becomes popular enough, the next thing we know, she’ll be getting her own spinoff prequel movie series starring Emma Stone. Oh, well; it’s just a chance we’ll have to take.

Like a lot of old sci-fi books, this didn’t strike me as an outstanding book, and at times it’s slow moving and old-fashioned. But also like a lot of old sci-fi books, it does contain plenty of interesting ideas for the reader to chew on. I can understand both why someone might love this book and why they might hate it, but either way, I think it’s worth reading.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Before I actually review the book, I have to share the story of how I found out about it. Recently, Peter Martuneac introduced me to the book website Shepherd. While reading about Shepherd and its founder, Ben Fox, I came across this interview Fox did with Phil Halton, which led me to poking around Halton’s site, which is how I discovered this book.

I’m telling you this story to illustrate (1) that Shepherd is cool and you should use it and (2) how I find books, which is generally to read a lot of authors’ blogs and pick the ones I stumble across.

But okay, so what is the book about? It’s a novel set in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation. It follows a mullah who runs a madrassa in a remote and rural part of the country. The mullah struggles to instruct his students in Islam all while defending them, and the residents of the nearby village, from marauding bandits and brutal warlords who continually terrorize them.

The Mullah is a fascinating character: intelligent, wise, but also very harsh, and strictly adhering to the fundamental precepts of his religion. At times he seems quite sympathetic, at other times downright heartless; but no matter what, it’s hard to doubt his conviction.

Some of his students are dutiful and faithful, others are impulsive and reckless. But of course, one feels for all of them, growing up as they are in this brutal and war-torn environment.

This book is incredibly dark, and while it is a novel, there can be little doubt that events similar to those described took place, which makes it all the harder to read. It is gritty, unsparingly realistic, and disturbing. And at the same time, Halton’s prose is beautiful and haunting, which makes it all the more unsettling.

It’s not an easy or comfortable read, but it does give a westerner such as myself a great deal of insight into the recent history of Afghanistan, and how it came to be the way it is. Halton has also written a non-fiction history of the country, which I am considering reading as well.

This Shall Be a House of Peace is an unforgettable look at a region and a culture which, despite having been a focus of American geopolitical power for two decades, many of us know very little about.

[Audio version of this review available here.]

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Happy New Year’s Eve! Once again, I decided to devote the last Friday of the year to a recap of all the book reviews I wrote in the past twelve months.

In January I reviewed Cliff Hays’s Aamrgan, a mind-bending work of philosophy. Then for vintage science-fiction month, I took on another book heavy on philosophy, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Then came a work by one of my favorite newly-discovered authors, C. Litka’s A Summer in Amber. The month finished up with J. Guenther’s dystopian A True Map of the City.

February I decided to go heavy on romance for Valentine’s Day, starting with Jill Weatherholt’s charming Second Chance Romance. Next up was Penelope’s Pleasure by Deborah Villegas. Taking a break from love stories, I also reviewed Doggerel, Sue Vincent’s collection of canine poetry, and Geoffrey Cooper’s medical thriller Bad Medicine. Then it was more romance with E.M Foner’s sci-fi rom-com Date Night on Union Station. After that came the first in Tammie Painter’s fantasy-comedy Cassie Black series, The Undead Mr. Tenpenny. I wrapped up the month with Geoff Lawson’s Boer war romance Forgiven and Peter Martuneac’s zombie dystopia His Name Was Zach.

March had to be Mars month, and I started it off with Litka’s wonderful Martian novella Keiree, followed by Ian Miller’s hard sci-fi novel of a Martian colony, Red Gold. Then came Jackie Hunter’s Lost in the Red Hills of Mars and Jodi Bowersox’s madcap comedy Mars Madness.

April started off with a venture farther from Earth with Jeremy L Jones’s sci-fi adventure Ruins of Empire: Saturnius Mons and then I turned my attention to H.R.R. Gorman’s magnificent, fantastical dystopian techno-thriller American Chimera. I followed that up with Vesa Turpeinen’s modern Western Bounty Hunter Stex and then the second installment in the Cassie Black trilogy, The Uncanny Raven Winston. I finished up with Sid Stark’s academic mystery Campus Confidential and for Walpurgis night reviewed my favorite Lovecraft story, The Haunter of the Dark.

Lovecraftianism continued into May with R. Walter Dutton’s Book of the Elder Wisdom, and then it was on to Richard Pastore’s comedic retelling of Greek myth, Perseus Kills His Grandfather. After that, I finished up the Cassie Black series with The Untangled Cassie Black and then made a return to sci-fi with Henry Vogel’s Fortune’s Fool.

June began with Lindy Moone’s The Harbinger of Gloom Street and Bill Fitts’s cozy campus mystery He Needed Killing. After that, it was time for another Litka book, Beneath the Lanterns, a romantic fantasy adventure, and Abby: Alone, the short prequel to the His Name Was Zach series.

July began with Alex Cross’s fantasy short story The Teddy Bear’s War and then one of my most eagerly anticipated reads of the year, Mark Paxson’s literary YA novel, The Dime. After that, the sci-fi spaceship adventure Fire Ant by Jonathan Brazee and The Fall of Alla Xul by Andrew Rakich finished up the month.

For August, I went back into Tom Williams’s Napoleonic spy adventure with Burke and the Bedouin. Next came a pair of literary fiction works: Zoe Keithley’s collection of poignant short stories 3/Chicago and Kevin Brennan’s Occasional SoulmatesI rounded out August with a return to Peter Martuneac’s zombie dystopia with Her Name Was Abby.

September was time another Litka book, the short sci-fi tale A Night on Isvalar. Then I reviewed Elizabeth Gauffreau’s literary historical novel Telling Sonny, Zachary Shatzer’s hilarious comedy The Goose Finder and finished off with the mystical and mysterious space opera The Dream God by Brendan M.P. Heard.

October is my favorite month, being Halloween month, and accordingly I reviewed various horror books. First up was Tom Williams’s tale of battling magicians, Dark Magic, followed by Seth Tucker’s homage to Victorian horror, Richard Rex and the Succubus of Whitechapel and M.D. Parker’s blend of military sci-fi and horror URP-113. I took a brief break to review Victor Godinez’s new techno-thriller The Doormen before returning to horror with Roberta Eaton Cheadle’s tale of a vengeful spirit, A Ghost and His Gold. I was delighted to cap the month off with Carrie Rubin’s latest Ben Oris book, The Bone Elixir, a perfect modern day Gothic story, complete with a haunted hotel and a demonic conspiracy.

November is not my favorite month, being not Halloween month, but it was eased by the light comedy of the fun-for-all-ages mystery McGorgol and Hockney at the Guano Island Hotel by Audrey Noah. I finished the “His Name Was Zach” series with Their Names Were Many, and then Geoffrey Cooper’s latest thriller, Ill Intent. That was followed up by another hilarious novella from Zachary Shatzer, The Story of John Warbly and the Crabcakes, America’s Favorite Band. I finished up with the epic fantasy by Rob J. Hayes, Never Die.

For December, I took the always dangerous step of reading a Star Wars book. It’s dangerous because nothing causes me to carry on at length quite like Star Wars. But I enjoyed Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando: Hard Contact. That was followed by the excellent ghost story The Last Photograph of John Buckley by T.J. Brown and the hilarious parody of romance novels, 9 Lovers for Emily Spankhammer, co-authored by Brown and Kaleesha Williams. Then I read Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel Casino Royale and for Christmas reviewed the light-hearted holiday fantasy The Witch of the North Pole by Snow Eden.

And that, my friends, brings us to the present moment. You know, I got the idea for this whole review-a-week thing back in late 2019, and thought I’d give it a try in 2020. I frankly never expected I would do it for this long or have this much fun. It’s proven to be a great way not only to discover new books, but also to meet other writers and readers. Thanks to everyone who has stopped by the blog this year. All the best wishes to you for the new year.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to my fellow authors at Writers Supporting Writers, Mark, Audrey, Chuck, Lucinda, and Richard, with whom it has been my privilege to have many excellent discussions about writing this past year. Here’s to many more in 2022!

Concept art for Knights of the Old Republic II

Do I really need to do another KotOR II post, you ask? I’ve written about it, I’ve made videos about it, I’ve tweeted about it. Surely by now I’ve said everything I need to say about it?

No, I still haven’t. Something about it always eludes me when I try to write about it. The game is special to me, in a way that I find difficult to fully articulate. You’ll notice the title says 15 years, even though KotOR II was released 17 years ago. That’s because I first played it on Christmas Eve 2006, which still feels like yesterday, and it is slightly terrifying to realize it is almost half my life ago.

No other game, no other work of fiction, echoes in my head the way this one does, especially on dark winter evenings when I feel like a 16-year-old kid again, pondering the meaning of the Jedi Exile’s story.

There’s no perfect way to play the game. Every playthrough will involve some sacrifice. I’d argue the least satisfying way to play it as a bloodthirsty, unrepentantly dark side Exile, but even that makes a degree of sense. The horrors the Exile has witnessed could easily render them a twisted monster.

My preferred style is to play the Exile early as a cynical and bitter ex-Jedi, who over the course of the game gradually comes to understand the quest to find the lost Jedi as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for redemption. The tremendous spiritual gulf between the person who coldly ordered  the use of the Mass Shadow Generator at Malachor V and the person who is capable of fighting to save Telos from Darth Nihilus, to redeem Visas Marr and Colonel Tobin, is a fascinating character study, and it’s this spiritual journey that I think makes for the most compelling interpretation of the story.

Does this say something about me? I don’t know; maybe so, although I think in this instance it’s just my preference for a narrative where the protagonist changes compared to one where they don’t.

Besides, despite the fact that it’s a role-playing game, and the character whose role I am playing is the Exile, the Exile is not the character with whom I most empathize. No, that would be Atris; the historian who delves into realms of esoteric lore because she is incapable of letting go of the past. Like everyone in KotOR II, Atris is haunted by the events of the war; not by what she did, but what she did not do, and the nagging thought that the Exile was willing to take a risk that she never would.

That burning resentment, which she masks as loyalty to the Jedi code, fuels her, and ultimately leads her astray from the Jedi teachings. And Kreia observes that Atris views the Exile as her “champion,” saying to the Exile “you were all that she could not be.” Note that this is exactly the relationship of the player to the player character in a video game. The avatar represents the person we wish we were.

If you play KotOR II “right,” you are forced to ask some questions about yourself. Like the Exile in the cave on Koribann, you “revisit the dark moments of your past.” Everything in KotOR II is about redemption and regret, about reliving moments of failure, of weakness. To paraphrase Kreia, “you find yourself… or you find yourself lacking.”

So many lines in KotOR II echo in my mind: “It is all that is unsaid upon which tragedies are built,” or the Exile’s line to Darth Sion, that Kreia chose them because they “could turn away from it.” (“It” being the Force. Among other things, KotOR II is about turning away from power.)

Anyway, back to Atris. Atris who, despite her flaws, is not an irredeemable monster, and for me, one of the most powerful scenes in the game is when the Exile acknowledges their own role in making Atris what she is.

Atris replies with three sentences that are very important. The first is “save Telos,” which is just a comment on the immediate threat: Telos is under attack by the Sith.

The second is “save the galaxy,” which is Atris’s recognition of the fact that unless the Sith are defeated at Telos, they will scour the galaxy. In other words, this battle is also the key moment in the entire shadow war of Sith vs. Jedi.

And then she says the most important thing of all:

“Save yourself.”

I take this to mean that Atris realizes, possibly even before the Exile has, that they can be redeemed in this moment. That the battle of Telos, a planet ravaged by war, and struggling since the Exile’s destruction of Peragus, is the moment when the Exile can finally atone for Malachor V. Like Kreia says early on, the Exile is the battlefield. The terrible galaxy-shattering religious war has been waged in the Exile’s soul, culminating in this fateful hour.

Like all the really great epics, the secret of KotOR II is that, for all its vast scale, it is a very personal story. Everyone, I think, has something in their life that they regret, or that they would like a chance to do over again. That’s what KotOR II is about, and that’s the subtle beauty of its choice and consequence system: play it as a dark-sider, and it feels hollow and meaningless. Play it as a light-sider, and it’s a hopeful story of redemption.

I’ve gone on enough, I suppose. My words alone can’t convince you of what this game means to me, and maybe it truly is a case of “right place, right time.” Maybe it wouldn’t have struck me quite the same way if I’d played it earlier in my life, or later. But I hope I can least convince you of this much: that Art, supreme, powerful, meaningful Art, capable of moving someone on a very deep level, can come in all sorts of forms.

I guess it’s easy for people to read all this and wonder how I can care about a game so much, and to point to everything it inherits from the silly traditions of pulp sci-fi, like laser battles and speeder races and women in metal bikinis dancing for space slugs. (Though these last two elements, it must be noted, are optional.) “It’s just a game,” they might say, shaking their heads. Well, yes; it is, after all, just a game. But art is always “just” art.

There is a school of thought in criticism which seems to implicitly believe that History is over, that all the truly great art has already been made, that the canons of world art and literature are complete, and anything new must be inferior.

Needless to say, I don’t believe that. Like KotOR II itself when it was released, the artistic canons of the world are in a highly glitchy, unpolished state; fascinating but still in need of work, and creators of today still have as much capacity to make things that speak to the human soul as their predecessors did. There are great works yet to be made, just as the Exile is a “veteran of a war yet to come.” To see them needs an expansion of our minds, and a willingness to look in unlikely places. Like the lost Jedi, Art may not be found where you expect, but in those humble, unassuming places no one even bothers to look.

Which brings me to the last point I want to make: KotOR II‘s overarching plot is about finding the lost Jedi. But what’s under-appreciated is that “the lost Jedi” are not who you think they are. The lost Jedi are not Masters Vrook, Zez-Kai Ell, Kavar and Vash, the old leadership of the collapsing order that splintered during the Mandalorian wars, and that failed to understand the teachings of Kreia.

Along the journey to find these old Jedi, the Exile meets people scarred by the wars, fighting as best they can to survive in a galaxy decaying into chaos: Mira, Atton, Bao-Dur, Brianna, and Mical, all of whom the Exile can instruct in the ways of the Force. And Kreia reveals at the end of the game:

They were the lost Jedi, you know. The true Jedi, upon which the future will be built. They simply needed a leader, and a teacher.

The light side ending of KotOR II captures it all: the symbolic passing of the torch from Kreia to her greatest pupil, the Jedi who learned to survive without the Force, and atoned for the horrific violence of the Mandalorian wars, and planted the seeds that will eventually heal the galaxy.

Viewed this way, the ending is an optimistic, if bittersweet, story of renewal. From the bleak ruins of a war-torn galaxy, something new can come, once the old order has finally collapsed. Kreia’s death at Malachor (“Rest now, Kreia. Your time in this place is over.”) symbolizes the end of one era and the birth of another. It is fundamentally a story about taking responsibility for the past and creating “something that will carry your people’s memory into the future,” as Kreia tells Mandalore. It is the cyclical cosmic epic of birth, growth, decay, death, and rebirth.

As I think most of you know, Halloween is by far my favorite holiday. But even I can go for a good Christmas tale. So naturally, a Christmas book that brings a witch into the picture is going to get my attention.

This book tells the story of Cinnamon Mercy Claus, who unexpectedly finds herself journeying to the North Pole for the holiday season. There she meets her grandparents: Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus themselves.

This would be a shocking enough discovery on its own, but she next learns that her grandmother is a witch and that she wants a divorce from the jolly old elf, who has been taking all her Christmas magic for granted. She angrily leaves her bewildered granddaughter in charge of handling all the arrangements for delivering toys to all the children of the world.

This is a lot to take in for Cinnamon, who is more comfortable working in the world of spreadsheets and number-crunching than of magic, but, with the help of the elves, she throws herself into the task.

The book is a lot like those made-for-TV Christmas movies that they broadcast this time of year. Which are not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but I happen to enjoy them. Yes, they can be predictable and sometimes overly-sentimental, but hey, what are the holidays about if not the comfort of something cozy and familiar? It is true that most of the time I prefer darker varieties of fiction, but when December comes round, there’s nothing wrong with little light trifles.

And that’s exactly what this book is; a fast-paced bit of Christmas-themed fun. Read it while eating some gingerbread cookies or something, preferably by a fireplace or under some decorative lights, and you’ll surely be filled with the Yuletide spirit.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

To my shame, I’ve let my list of indie book reviews get hopelessly out of date. The reason for this is it has to be manually updated every time I have a new book review. This isn’t the most time-consuming thing in the world, but I try to post a new review almost every week, and the time it takes to update adds up. (One might argue that I am just lazy, and perhaps this is true. But I prefer to think of it this way: the less time I have to spend updating the site is more time I can spend reading books.)

But, I think I may now have a solution. The solution is Query Loops, and it should, if it works properly, allow me to automate updating the page, so every time I post new review, it will immediately be added to the list in the appropriate genre without me having to do anything.

So, here is a revamped version of the indie book review page that uses Query Loops. Note that the link at the top of the blog still takes you to the old page. I want to give people a chance to check this out and give feedback before I put a link on the front page.

Now, I’ll admit, this is still not perfect. In particular, because the Query Loop block only displays the “Featured Image” for each post, the cover images are different sizes. Yes, this is annoying, and if I get the time, I’ll try to go back and replace the images with ones that are the same size. But probably not at WordPress’s suggested size of 1200 x 675, which in my opinion is huge.

Still, on balance, this is way nicer than having to manually update. So, please check it out, and let me know what you think, or if you see any problems/issues etc.

The first thing I had to do before reading this book was try to forget everything I previously knew about James Bond. It’s not easy. Even if you’ve never seen a Bond movie, you probably have absorbed some things about him from pop culture references. I’ve seen most of the films, so I had to consciously purge all memories of Bond-related media I had seen before reading this

Because this is the first Bond book, the one that started it all, and it seemed best to try to view it through fresh eyes as much as possible. Fleming’s original character is a cold, efficient secret agent, and his mission is to defeat the communist operative Le Chiffre at baccarat in order to disgrace him in the eyes of The Party.

The first half of the book involves long and fairly complicated descriptions of baccarat, as well as some other casino games. Also, many of the terms are French, and Fleming assumes that his readers would be familiar with the language. Probably they were, because his intended audience was well-educated, not savages such as myself.

“He made a high banco at chemin-de-fer whenever he heard one offered. If he lost, he would ‘suivi‘ once and not chase it further if he lost the second time.” 

Uh… ‘kay? To be fair, some of these terms get explained later on in the book. Vesper Lynd, Bond’s assistant on this mission, serves as much as a plot device to have this stuff explained as she does a love interest.

At first, I found it a little dull, but after a while I got absorbed in the high-stakes game. Fleming did a good job building the tension and making the reader sweat right along with Bond.

And so, from the blank slate I’d consciously developed, the character of Bond as Fleming saw him starts to come into focus. It’s funny to think now that the name is so iconic that Fleming’s reason for naming him “James Bond” was because it seemed to him such an uninteresting and ordinary name.

As for his looks, Vesper compares him to Hoagy Carmichael, who I had never heard of before, although Bond himself doesn’t see it. Myself, I started picturing someone on the order of Basil Rathbone: not bad-looking, but not terribly remarkable either.

Maybe it’s because Bond evokes another iconic English hero whom Rathbone did portray: Sherlock Holmes. He surveys everything with a calm detachment, and largely avoids falling prey to emotional entanglement. Or so he tells himself. But, during the first of those signature 007 car chases, his actions betray him. Sure, he may say to himself the woman he’s racing to save means nothing to him, but he is driving 120 miles per hour at night to catch up with her kidnappers.

In the end of course, it’s not just Bond’s actions that betray him. This is a spy thriller after all, and at the end of it, Bond is even more of a heartless, misogynistic, unsentimental S.O.B. than he was at the beginning.

Okay, I lied. I didn’t actually erase all my preconceived notions about Bond before reading this. But I promise, I did my best to forget about Connery, Craig and everyone in between. Who I kept in mind was Patrick Dalzel-Job, a British intelligence officer who served under Fleming’s command during World War II, and whose memoir, From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy, I recently read.

Dalzel-Job is thought to have been Fleming’s inspiration for the character of Bond. Although his service seems to have been, if anything, way more exciting than Fleming’s fiction. Dalzel-Job’s memoir records no glamorous casinos, expensive meals, or fancy cars, and quite a lot of hiding out night after night on the coast of Norway, spying on the activities of the Kriegsmarine.

On the other hand, Dalzel-Job does describe reassigning himself after the war without consulting his superior officer, in order to be closer to the woman he would eventually marry. Such roguish defiance of his superiors may have been in Fleming’s mind when he was crafting his fictional spy.

Anyway, I know I’m supposed to be reviewing Casino Royale, but I really do have to recommend From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy to anyone who enjoys reading about history. Dalzel-Job gives a clear, well-written and extremely humble account of his heroic actions during the war. Truth is stranger than fiction, they say, and some of his real-life adventures are more breathtaking than any Bond story.

But, back to Casino Royale. The last quarter of the book makes no sense. I won’t spoil it, but in essence, a bunch of suspicious stuff is going on, and Bond is blithely ignoring it. It’s totally out of character for him based on how he behaved in the first part of the book, where he was meticulously paranoid about security measures, and proud of it. Then at the end he’s reckless about obvious threats, and the only reason for this seems to be that he needed to be to make the plot work.

I didn’t care for the ending at all, which was too bad, because I really liked the rest of it. It’s well-paced, interesting, and Bond was a good character… until he wasn’t.

To me, the book really should have ended with a fascinating conversation between Bond and his colleague, Mathis, where Bond is waxing philosophical about his profession:

“Today we are fighting communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of conservatism we have today would have been damn near called communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”

Can you imagine any of the cinematic incarnations of Bond saying that? I can’t.

Even better is Mathis’s parting advice to Bond:

“Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.”

This was my favorite chapter in the book, and really made the characters feel much more real and interesting. And then Fleming had to go and make a mess of it at the end!

Oh, well. It was still a good book and I’m glad I read it. All told, I’d say I enjoyed it more than the majority of the Bond movies I’ve seen, including the 2006 adaptation of this very story. Even if you don’t like the Bond franchise generally, it’s still worth giving the book a try if you like thrillers.

All right, that’s the end of the book review. What follows is just me going off on one of my hobbyhorses. Don’t feel like you have to read it unless you are interested in minutiae.

At one point, Bond is described as arming himself with “a very flat .25 Beretta automatic with a skeleton grip,” which he checks by removing “the clip.”

This is apparently a Beretta M418. There is an interesting behind-the-scenes story about how Bond ultimately swapped it out for his signature Walther PPK, but what I’m interested in is the use of this word “clip.” In this context, it sounds like he’s talking about a magazine, not a clip. Peter Martuneac (who, incidentally, I have to thank for recommending Casino Royale to me) has written a post about distinguishing the two. But Fleming was a navy officer, so I’m reluctant to automatically assume he was ignorant of the difference. Perhaps it’s a difference between British and American lingo? Or am I missing something, and it really is a clip? This picture of the 418 shows a pretty definite  magazine, though.

Anyway… well, if you read all this nit-picking and found it interesting, perhaps you’ll also enjoy this clip (pun intended) that I stumbled across while researching this. While it might be too big for a spy to carry discreetly, I think it’s worth noting that a few years later, a .44 magnum revolver would become an iconic cinematic weapon in its own right.

[Audio version of this review available below. This video is dedicated to the memory of all the French words I slaughtered trying to pronounce them when making it.]

The great comic novelist and book lover Noah Goats once told me, “Books lead on to books, and sometimes in strange ways. They all seem to be connected somehow.” This is a good example. After reading T.J. Brown’s excellent ghost story The Last Photograph of John Buckley, I looked to see what else he had written. And the first thing that grabbed my eye was the image you see at the right.

Well, I mean, how could I resist?

As the cover suggests, this is a raunchy, bawdy comedy. Emily Spankhammer is a young, widowed Southern Belle who runs a beaver farm. And in case you are wondering if that leads to many, many Are You Being Served?-style double-entendres, why, yes, yes it does. It is that kind of book, and I’m not ashamed to say it made me laugh.

In her quest to find love, Emily is aided by her spirit guide, a wisecracking pink unicorn named Sparkle. Despite his appearance, Sparkle is, shall we say, anything but pure or nice. As he explains to Emily, he has been forced by the Ancient Greek Gods into the role of spirit guide after his decadent hedonism indirectly led to the destruction of Atlantis.

I’m not doing it justice. Let me quote Sparkle verbatim:

“This is the realm of gods and monsters, you silly woman. They don’t have moral codes in that place. If you’d spent more time watching sword-and-sandal movies, you’d know that. This is the domain of passion, of jealousy, of revenge, blood feuds, and raging hormones.”

Sparkle and Emily’s relationship is a turbulent one. Actually, all her relationships are turbulent, whether it’s with a mechanic whose home is filled with fake owls, a circus ringmaster, or a Scottish Highlander. Are you getting a sense now of what a wild story this is?

The long and short of it is, it’s a hilarious, madcap adventure. It reminded me a little of Richard Pastore’s The Devil and the Wolf and a little of Lindy Moone’s Hyperlink From HellIt’s not a coincidence that the best comparisons I can think of are indie books. This is what makes reading indie books so rewarding: these are the kind of unusual stories that publishers are too risk-averse to take a chance on, but are an absolute delight to read.

Now, I’ll admit that some readers might not see the appeal in it. If you don’t like raunchy humor, then it isn’t for you. But if you’re in the mood for a zany, somewhat off-color, fast-paced take-off of romance novels, you should give this one a try.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

“But Berthold, this is one of those made-for-TV Christmas movies!”

“I know, but what can I say? I enjoy them. Some are better than others, and this is one of the best.”

“But last year you said the same thing about Christmas Crush, and one of your friends saw it on your recommendation and thought it was terrible!”

“Well, Christmas Crush does have a very millennial sense of humor to it, which I think may not be for everyone. The jokes in it come from the awkward conversations and ironic coincidences. Not everyone’s cup of tea. I should have mentioned that.”

“Okay, fine. So, why do you think this movie is so good?”

“It really comes down to the relationship between the protagonists. Jessie Temple is a tough, no-nonsense cop assigned to protect witness Dean Cupo until he can testify. She’s not just waiting around for a prince to sweep her off her feet like many of the female characters in these kinds of movies. She and Dean do a lot of verbal sparring at first, which makes sense, but then gradually they bond over little things, like a shared love of old horror movies.”

“It’s still sounds cheesy to me.”

“Well, yeah; and I’d be lying if I said it’s not. But, it’s a holiday movie. You don’t go watching a Christmas movie in the hopes that you’ll discover some sort of edgy, avant-garde experimental film. You watch it because you want to see a cozily familiar drama performed by likable characters. See my comments about pantomime in the Christmas Crush review.”

“No, I don’t think I will. Can’t you stay on topic?”

“Sure. Most Christmas movies are just too saccharine for my taste. Nothing whatsoever happens. It’s like, ‘Oh, I fell in love with the Prince of Monte Carlo! Oh, but there was some trivial misunderstanding and now we broke up! Oh, but now it turns out we cleared it up and we’ll get married!’ It’s all so vapid.”

“Uh huh.”

“Whereas a movie like A Christmas Witness has some real plot to it. How many Hallmark Christmas movies end with armed standoffs? I mean, yes, you know how the journey’s going to end, but at least you feel like you went somewhere.”


“I get that you’re skeptical, and I respect that. And I’m not saying, ‘Oh, man this movie is great! It should win all the Academy Awards! Go home, Lawrence of Arabia, we have a new cinematic classic!’ I’m not saying that.”

“That’s good.”

“It’s just that it’s pleasant holiday entertainment. When I sit down to watch a Christmas movie, I really don’t want my expectations subverted, or to get a dark, hardboiled mystery, full of mistrust and morally ambiguous characters. But nor do I want something so sugary-sweet that it makes my teeth hurt. This movie gets the balance just right for me.”

“I see. Well, I can’t say you’ve convinced me, but maybe some of those people out there will feel differently about what you’ve said. Thank you for your time.”