Last week’s review was of a techno-thriller video game tie-in novel. This week’s review is of a techno-thriller video game tie-in novel. By thunder, I hope I’m not turning into one of those people who only reads one type of book. Hopefully, this review will prove interesting enough to justify it.

I should tell you up front: this is going to be long. Brace yourselves accordingly. I’m going Full Berthold on this one.

First, we need a bit of grounding in the universe of Metal Gear, which I’m guessing most of my readers have never heard of, and it may strike the uninitiated as a bit weird. So let me provide some background: as the “2” in the title suggests, this story is a sequel. The original Metal Gear Solid is about a commando named Solid Snake, who infiltrates a military installation in Alaska called Shadow Moses Island, where an elite terrorist unit has taken hostages and captured a huge walking battle tank equipped with nuclear missiles called “Metal Gear Rex.”

Well, long story short, Solid Snake ultimately defeats the terrorists, led by his cloned twin brother Liquid Snake, and destroys Metal Gear Rex. This summary doesn’t even begin to do the story justice, but a proper synopsis would take forever, and it’s not even what we’re discussing today. By the way, here’s your warning that I’m going to spoil MGS 2 in this review. The game came out in 2001, so I feel comfortable discussing every aspect of the plot.

Sons of Liberty begins with Solid Snake infiltrating a huge tanker on the Hudson River, in search of a new Metal Gear prototype. He’s assisted by Hal “Otacon” Emmerich, a scientist who worked on the original Metal Gear, whom Snake rescued during the events of MGS 1.

In short order, the tanker is seized by Russian commandoes, working with Revolver Ocelot, the lone terrorist to survive Shadow Moses. In what has become a hallmark of this series, complicated betrayals occur in rapid succession, and the tanker is sunk to the bottom of the river, seemingly with Snake aboard.

Two years later, a huge cleanup facility called “The Big Shell” has been created on the site to contain the environmental disaster. And–are you sensing a pattern here?–it’s been captured by a terrorist unit called “Dead Cell,” which has taken hostages, including the President of the United States, and is threatening to detonate a nuclear device. A new operative from Snake’s unit FOXHOUND, codenamed “Raiden,” is sent to defeat the terrorists and rescue the president.

I remember when this game came out, even though I didn’t play it, that this was a huge controversy. Fans were outraged that they were playing as the androgynous, awkward rookie Raiden instead of the grizzled, tough, high-testosterone action hero Solid Snake. Even reading the story in novel form, it’s still jarring to go from the stoic confidence of Snake to the amateurish bravado of Raiden. (By the way, the pronunciation of “Raiden” rhymes with the name of the 46th President of the United States, and not with “maiden” as I initially thought.)

Raiden is guided on his mission through communications with his commanding officer, a Colonel, and, bizarrely, Raiden’s girlfriend Rose, who insists on calling him “Jack.” This is also in keeping with MGS 1, where Snake was guided by a number of officers and intelligence analysts. But whereas they formed a coherent unit, the dynamic with Raiden, the Colonel, and Rose just feels… odd.

Speaking of odd things, the Dead Cell terrorists make the villains from the 1960s Batman series seem subtle and understated. They include a woman named Fortune, who is apparently immortal and only wishes to die, an obese explosives expert called… wait for it… “Fatman,” who wants to become notorious as the maddest bomber in history, and finally, an actual vampire.

While things are initially presented as realistic, and as in a Tom Clancy novel, great care is taken to ensure that the weapons and other military technologies feel authentic, the whole Big Shell is teeming with the surreal and the bizarre. It doesn’t take long for Raiden to start feeling like he’s living in a waking nightmare.

Adding to the strangeness, Snake and Otacon also show up to help him, despite the fact that Raiden has been told Snake is either (a) dead or (b) the leader of the terrorist group. This is a running theme in the story: everyone is lying all the time. Raiden is constantly being deceived by every person he talks to. Poor guy; at some point you have to feel sorry for him.

Remember when I said the universe of Metal Gear may strike you as weird? Guess what, ladies and gents: I haven’t gotten to the weird part yet!

Raiden eventually finds the President, who explains that the Big Shell is camouflage for a new Metal Gear, codenamed Arsenal Gear, being built under the water. POTUS had been hoping to seize control of Arsenal for himself, to use it as leverage against a group known as [ominous music plays] “The Patriots.”

Raiden asks who the Patriots are, and the President explains:

“The power controlling this country… Politics, the military, the economy – they control it all. They even choose who becomes President…

The Space Defense, income tax reduction and the National Missile Defense (NMD) programs -– every policy that’s been credited to me was actually done according to their instructions.”

“Wait a second. Space Defense was initiated by Congress!”

“That’s what the Patriots want the country to believe… It’s all a show. ‘Democracy’ is just a filler for textbooks!”

The President then outlines the Patriots’ intentions for Arsenal Gear:

“Arsenal Gear is more than just a military tool. It is a means to preserve the world as it is… The Arsenal plans include a system to digitally manage the flow of information, making it possible to shape the ‘truth’ for their own purposes. In short, the Arsenal system is the key to their supremacy.” 

“The key?” 

“Yes, the ‘GW’ system. Short for George Washington. GW is the Patriots’ trump card… once operational, it will be a completely new form of power for the Patriots to wield.” 

The President explains he was going to bargain with the Patriots, but he was overruled by his predecessor, who is now the leader of the terrorists and is also yet another clone of the Snake brothers: this one named Solidus Snake, and he intends to seize Arsenal for himself and defeat the Patriots.

The President tells Raiden to find Emma Emmerich, Otacon’s sister, who is somewhere in the Big Shell, and who has created a computer virus that can destroy the GW system. Then he gets killed by Revolver Ocelot, leaving Raiden more befuddled than before.

Anyway, Raiden works with Solid Snake (not Solidus, who is seemingly the bad guy, remember) and eventually they find Emma and upload the virus. Unfortunately, at that point Raiden gets abandoned by Snake and a mysterious cyborg ninja, and captured by the terrorists.

I feel like I need to pause to catch my breath. I bet you do, too. You know, there’s an old webcomic that graphically shows the narrative structure of famous movies. You can see it here. Some of these are pretty involved, but can you even imagine what a graph like this for Metal Gear would look like? I’m not sure two dimensions is sufficient to render it. And let me be clear, I’m giving you just the bare-bones outline here. MGS is famous for deep dives into the backstories of even secondary characters. There are a couple in this one, Peter Stillman and Olga Gurlukovich, whom I haven’t even discussed but who are actually some of the most interesting people in the story.

By the way, this is where I should probably mention that, although the novel I’m reviewing here is by Raymond Benson, who is a respected author of spy thrillers, including some James Bond books, the fact is he largely just transcribed the dialogue and added some minimal description. When it comes to the labyrinthine plot of this thing, “one man deserves the credit, one man deserves the blame,” and Hideo Kojima is his name.

Kojima is, in my opinion, the ideal person to write techno-thrillers. He’s clearly obsessed with American action movies, references to which abound throughout his games, but at the same time he brings a very different perspective to the topic of American military technology, being as how he’s Japanese.

All right, have you got your second wind? Good, because it’s time to delve into the last act of Metal Gear Solid 2, and it is not merely a doozy, but, if I may be so bold, a real humdinger. The disturbing personal revelations and insane plot twists come thick and fast at this point.

Raiden is freed from a torture chamber that mimics a facility where Solid Snake was captured in MGS 1. Then he learns that the entire operation has been designed by the Patriots to replicate the Shadow Moses incident, in order to demonstrate that with proper psychological conditioning, anyone can be molded into a tough-as-nails super-soldier like Solid Snake. Not only that, but it is also revealed that Raiden was once a child soldier in an army under Solidus Snake’s command, although he repressed the memories.

(Say what you want about Solidus, but the guy has quite a CV: from fighting a civil war in Liberia to leading a terrorist organization, with a brief stint as U.S. President in between.)

Finally, Raiden discovers that the Colonel and Rose, with whom he’s been communicating throughout the mission, are actually merely AI constructs, generated from his own memories and expectations via the GW system. And since the system is now infected with a computer virus, the AI is beginning to talk nonsense to him, as in this (in)famous message from the Colonel:

I hear it’s amazing when the famous purple stuffed worm in flap-jaw space with the tuning fork does a raw blink on Hara-Kiri Rock. I need scissors! 61!

Has anybody gotten ChatGPT to say this yet?

But, there’s no time for Raiden to grapple with all this now, because Solidus Snake and Ocelot are busy betraying each other while raising the Arsenal Gear from beneath the water and crashing it into downtown Manhattan. The book diverges a little from the game here: there’s no animation of the huge fortress crashing into the skyline in-game, because it was cut at the last minute. Remember, this came out in late 2001, so I bet you can guess why. But Benson does give a little description of the horror and devastation.

Of course, Raiden and Solidus are both still alive and standing in the wreckage. Solidus explains that he has done all this to try and liberate humanity from the digital censorship regime the Patriots are about to impose. And then Raiden gets another call from the Colonel and Rose.

This is the moment that made me decide I had to review this book. Not for nothing has this scene been called by some “the most profound moment in gaming history.” And for this reason, I’m going to ask that you watch the clip as it appears in the game. I don’t consider this “cheating,” because all this dialogue appears verbatim in the book, but I do feel the voice acting and sound effects add something here. This is quite simply required viewing. I promise, it’s worth thirteen minutes of your time:

In 2001, most of the buzz around MGS 2 was the outrage about Raiden replacing Snake. And if it wasn’t that, it was that the story was too damned strange and bizarre. I mean, I glossed over some of the weirder stuff, like a guy who is possessed by a dead man because he had an arm transplant from him, or the really creepy incestuous backstory involving Otacon and Emma. And did I mention the vampire also does flamenco dancing?

And so this moment at the climax, about AI controlling the flow of digital information to manipulate human thought, just seemed like yet more incomprehensible techno-babble in 2001.

But as the years have turned into decades and life has gone on in these United States, people have started to reevaluate this scene. Some of these lines, as they say, “hit different” now:

“Trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness… all this junk data, preserved in an unfiltered state, growing at an alarming rate.”

And even more pointedly:

“The untested truths, spun by different interests, continue to churn and accumulate in the sandbox of political correctness and value systems. Everyone withdraws into their own small gated communities, afraid of a larger forum. They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever truth suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large. The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh. No one is invalidated, but nobody is right.”

To say nothing of the suggestion of inhuman intelligences gradually gaining control of society. Of all the fascinating lines in this dialogue, the one that intrigues me most is probably the one at the beginning:

To begin with, we’re not what you’d call ‘human.’ Over the past two hundred years, a kind of consciousness formed layer by layer in the crucible of the White House. It’s not unlike the way life started in the oceans four billion years ago.” 

Okay, hold up. In-universe, the events of Metal Gear Solid 2 were supposed to take place in 2009. Two hundred years before that puts us in the Madison administration. I don’t think even Kojima is prepared to claim there were AI supercomputers then, so what does this line mean?

Well, if you think about it, a government is actually a bit like an artificial intelligence. It is a series of processes, aimed at administering a population. Theoretically speaking, government as a process could be carried on with no independent thought at all, merely the “correct” application of laws and rules.

But when you put it that way, doesn’t it all sound rather inhuman? Well, there’s a reason Thomas Hobbes named his famous book on government after a legendary sea monster. Even before the computer age, there was a recognition that “the State” was something different than just a bunch of folks getting together to talk.

“The Colonel” then elaborates:

“We are formless. We are the very discipline and morality that Americans invoke so often. How can anyone hope to eliminate us? As long as this nation exists, so will we.”

The Metal Gear wiki helpfully tells us that:

“This description was similar to the Japanese philosophical concept of kokutai or civic soul, which is derived from the mytho-political past of Japan, in which the Japanese emperor is held to be a direct genetic descendant of the sun goddess Amaretsu. This living presence of the soul of a nation has no precise analogue in Western culture, the closest match in American political language being ‘patriotic spirit’.”

Perhaps. But I think we’re all familiar with the idea of a national soul, a figure embodying the fabric of the country. What are Uncle Sam or John Bull, if not the soul of their respective nations? Does it matter that these characters don’t actually exist? In a way, if everyone believes in them, or rather what they represent, don’t they kind of exist? Then again, isn’t that pretty much what O’Brien tells Winston regarding Big Brother at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four? Hm.

See, there is certainly a lot to take in here. I mean to say, game dialogue came a long way since “our princess is in another castle,” what?

Inevitably, it all leads to a final fight with Solidus, which Raiden wins, and then Solid Snake gives a schmaltzy speech about how you are what you choose to be, your decisions make you who you are, and so on. I admit, everything after the last chat with the Colonel seems perfunctory to me.

Then again, how could it be otherwise? There are whole books’ worth of ideas in that scene. (If you want to read one, I recommend The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore. And if you want a deep dive into Metal Gear Solid 2, I recommend this video.)

As a final note, I want to say I’m glad they did this novelization, because the story on its own is interesting enough to be worthwhile for non-gamers. In fact, I’d argue it’s a better story than it is a game. I actually own a copy of the special edition, Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, which I got for ninety-nine cents at a used game store that has since been demolished. I’ve never been able to make it very far in the game.

Well, that’s that. If you want a mind-bending techno-thriller, see if you can get yourself a copy of this. If it all just made your head hurt, well, I can understand that, too. In any case…“sayonara, kid! Have a nice day.”

This is an amazing book, I’ll just say it right up front. It’s a clever blend; part fable, part post-apocalypse, part fantasy, it tells the story of Anastasia, a rabbit who is un-warrened–that is exiled from her home–and left to be “Glorified” by the “Blessed Ones”. Which is the way the rabbit religion describes being killed by predators. The rabbit religion is a pacifistic one, which views a rabbit’s purpose in the world as food for larger animals.

But Anastasia decides to fight back. After a chance encounter with a fox ends with her stabbing it with a sharp stick, she realizes that perhaps rabbits need not be helpless prey animals. And as her legend begins to grow, more rabbits, mice, and other animals flock to her side, slowly building a coalition that fights back against the foxes, coyotes, and wolves.

The world-building is phenomenal. The reason why there are no humans in this world is explained gradually, through little hints glimpsed once in a while through the eyes of animals. The rabbits study the writings of the “Dead Gods,” as a way of understanding the world, largely through scholars known as Readers and Rememberers. They also interpret the meaning of the rabbit scriptures, which include the word of the supreme being “Dah,” and indeed, one part of the plot hinges on the interpretation of a particular passage.

This is what I loved best about the book: the philosophical issues it explores. Nature vs. technology, the right of self-defense, and the ethics of killing are all explored in great detail here, and don’t think for a moment that because the characters are woodland creatures the philosophy loses any of its punch. In the grand tradition of Aesop, St. John has used non-human characters to explore big questions of meaning and morality.

But at the same time, the characters never feel like mere puppets. They are all carefully crafted and engaging. I especially enjoyed Wendy, the floppy-eared and savage rabbit heretic, and Bricabrac, the cunning rat who helps the bunnies forge their arsenal.

I know, some of you are like, “A book about talking animals? Heck no!” But… I encourage you to give it a chance. As of this writing, it’s free, so you’ve got nothing to lose. And what awaits you is a book that makes you think about old ideas in new ways.

Finally, I rarely do this, but I’m just gonna say it: I got this book after I saw an ad on Goodreads and thought “That looks like something Lydia Schoch might like.” But of course, I had to read it first to make sure, before I recommended it to her. Having read it, I feel even more strongly she’d like it.

This is a mystery about a detective tracking down a clown who is scheduled to perform at a local boy’s birthday party. The clown, who is also the boy’s uncle, has suddenly vanished with no explanation, and the boy hires Detective McKeever to find him.

Of course, Detective McKeever is only 8 years old, so this makes it hard for her to conduct an investigation. But she’s resourceful and plucky and, like any kid, doesn’t know any better. So, naturally, she finds herself involved in all sorts of comic misadventures, from infiltrating clown meetings to spying on cheating air hockey players. It’s full of all the zaniness we’ve come to expect from Shatzer’s books.

What really makes the story work is McKeever’s seriousness and her annoyance at the refusal of adults to ever take her seriously, which as often as not she turns to her advantage. It’s a fun story that captures how the world seems to a kid.

Remember McGorgol and Hockney at the Guano Island Hotel? That book was a fun take-off on mystery tropes with bird detectives. There’s something similar going on here, with kids acting out the roles of a noir mystery. Having incongruous characters enacting a familiar set of tropes is a good recipe for comedy, and Shatzer, master of humor that he is, uses it well.

Devoted Shatzer fans, of which I am one, and hopefully I’ve managed to persuade a few more, will no doubt enjoy this latest addition to his body of work.

How many people today know who Kingsley Amis was? He is, or at least was, widely considered one of the greatest English novelists, but you rarely hear him mentioned much these days. Probably most readers know him only as Martin’s father.

Besides being a novelist, Amis was also a big fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, and he wrote this book as a defense of 007’s adventures against a variety of literary critics. In it, he goes through the entirety of Fleming’s Bond books, analyzing different aspects in each chapter: Bond himself, his allies, his love interests, his enemies, and so on.

I admit it; I’m a sucker for this sort of thing. There’s just nothing like reading what what one superstar thought of another. Like reading Napoleon’s commentaries on Caesar, learning what the great English comic novelist thought of the great English thriller novelist is just unpassupable.

In a way, I felt a kinship with Amis right off the bat. He’s writing to defend his preferred entertainment from critics’ charges that they are not serious, or in some sense artistically illegitimate. I have often been in this same position vis-à-vis video games.

Amis is out to prove there is more depth and complexity to Fleming’s novels than one would think at first, and with his light touch and plenty of witty footnotes, he makes his case. Seriously, this book is worth reading for his footnotes alone, as when he makes passing reference to Catherine Earnshaw and then adds a note saying, “just to save you looking, she’s the heroine of Wuthering Heights.”

Even better is when Amis takes pains to establish points about Bond’s character: such as that he has to train intensively for certain missions, or that while he is certainly a crack shot, his marksmanship is inferior to the marksmanship trainer. Amis is defending Bond against charges of being too good; of being what in modern lingo we call a “Mary Sue.” The language is different, but the concept is the same.

Where it gets really interesting is when we get to the social commentary aspects of 007. For example, the chapters on Bond’s treatment of women. These chapters are simply incredible. I can’t even quote from them. Let it suffice to say, I don’t think Amis’s defense is successful. But why not? Is it because Bond the character is a chauvinist? Is it because Fleming the author was a chauvinist? Or is it because Amis himself was? Or is it all three?

Honestly, it’s really hard to tell. And note that just because I think Amis’s thinking in this chapter is misguided does not at all mean I don’t think it’s worth reading. It’s absolutely worth reading. Indeed, literary critics are often at their most valuable when they are wrong.

Speaking of wrongness, in passing, Amis gives his opinion on the Bond films:

“Sean Connery’s total wrongness for the film part of Bond is nowhere better demonstrated than [in his lack of aristocratic bearing.] Mr Connery could put up a show as a Scottish businessman all right, but a Scottish baronet never.”

Wonder what he’d have made of Daniel Craig?

If you can’t tell, I like Amis’s style, if not always his opinions. He writes in a light-hearted, breezy way, as if you’ve just sat down next to him after he’s had a few drinks and asked him “So, Kingsley, what do you think of James Bond anyhow?” Sure, his takes can be rambling and he often will drop obscure references to things that are only tangentially related… but do you seriously think I am going to knock anyone for that?

But the real reason to read this book is for Amis’s tips to writers. The guy is considered one of the great English novelists for a reason. Here he is talking about the many excellent meals Bond dines upon:

More than anything in fiction, the detailed descriptions of meals generates a sympathetic warmth, a close and ready feeling of identification with the people doing the eating and drinking. All those gigantic feasts in Dickens achieve this triumphantly: we’re never more there, in the story with the characters, than when the roast goose and the plum pudding are going down. The trick is still effective when–as here with Bond–conviviality is miles away.

As someone who is generally bored by writing descriptions of anything, but especially of food, I have to believe he’s on to something here. I am forced to look at myself in the mirror and ask, “Have you, Berthold, sold as many books as Fleming and Dickens have just since they have been dead?” And the answer comes back a resounding “no.” In my next book, I will include “six page descriptions of every last meal.”

Oh, yes; Amis launches some brutal assaults on the minimalist school of description that I tend to favor:

We suspend our disbelief in SPECTRE and its designs while we’re believing heartily in Petacchi’s earlier history, in his surrender to the Allies in World War II with his Focke-Wulf 200, one of the few of its type in the Italian air force (not just ‘with his plane’), and its load of the latest German pressure mines charged with the new Hexogen explosive (not just ‘a new type of mine’).

I feel attacked. 

At the end of the book, Amis includes a table that briefly summarizes each Bond book with the following categories:

TitlePlacesGirlVillainVillain’s ProjectVillain’s EmployerMinor VillainsBond’s FriendsHighlightsRemarks

Maybe it’s just because I make Excel tables for a living, but this struck me as an interesting way of breaking down the elements of a story. Then again, if a series can be easily categorized like this, doesn’t that mean it’s a bit formulaic? And in these days, doesn’t this kind of systematic approach seem like it could lead to writers making a career of entering new data under these headers and letting an AI do the rest?

At this point, you might be asking, do you need to be a James Bond fan to enjoy this book? Well, I don’t really consider myself a Bond fan, and I’ve only read two Bond books, (Casino Royale and Moonraker) but I enjoyed it. Just as a work of criticism, or as an instruction manual for writers, it’s fascinating to read. 

Now that I’ve got you all pumped up about how fantastic it is, I must deliver the bad news: it’s really rare. You can get a physical copy on Amazon, but it costs big bucks. Much as I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t pay the prices they’re asking for it. I got lucky, and was able to get a copy from a library. This is partly why I transcribed those bits quoted above; they’re the most critical parts for writers.

So, what I’m saying is, whoever owns the rights to this should put the thing on Kindle. Re-release it when they make a new Bond film or something like that.

This book is about a young woman named Emily Tinker, who is hired to teach English Literature at Merlinfirth Academy. Merlinfirth is a boarding school, isolated, with odd traditions and customs, inclusion four different houses into which students are sorted (Gryllenbar, Rowlingstone, Hathaloath and Syliname), and a number of peculiar students, none more so than Ariana Tolliver, who is always getting involved in weird and dangerous adventures.

On one level, this book shares a theme with several of Bertocci’s other books: it’s about a young woman who feels adrift. She’s been working in retail and service jobs, never getting a chance to put her knowledge of the Western Canon to use. Until now, when she begins teaching with earnest zeal, only to discover the students at Merlinfirth are more interested in practicing magic than in learning the finer points of literary symbolism.

On another level, it’s also a commentary on the state of modern education. Merlinfirth is facing pressures to modernize as much as any school, and its older staff feel the threat to their traditions. Also there’s some deal with a dark wizard who threatens the school. But you probably expected that much.

There is another layer, of course, which is that it’s a parody. I think it’s pretty obvious what it’s parodying from what I’ve said already. Probably it’s best if you’ve read some of that popular series to get all the references, spoofs, satires, and other such elements. For good or for ill, I think most people have done this.

Here’s the thing, though: this is more than a takeoff of a popular cultural phenomenon. Because now we get to the final and most important aspect of the story: it’s about Miss Tinker’s love of language, and her efforts to help her students discover the value that words and literature have.

Bertocci’s style, and this book especially, is highly reminiscent of Wilde. I think it’s pretty much how old Oscar would take on modern books: with wit, playful use of language, and some keen insights into human nature.

If you follow me on the rapidly-collapsing but still oddly fascinating behavioral experiment once known as Twitter, you may know that I have a proclivity to complain that modern entertainment is being drowned in endless sequels, prequels and reboots.

Here’s what I may not have made clear: I don’t hate derivative works. One author taking the works of another and building upon them is an old tradition, and one that has produced some fantastic stories. Every author is influenced by others. Why, Wilde himself was known to borrow from others: The Importance of Being Earnest was heavily inspired by W.S. Gilbert’s play Engaged, so much so that the Victorians probably would have called it a reboot, if they’d had the concept of rebooting.

The healthy way to capitalize on a fashion is to tell a story with the same trappings as whatever is popular, but add innovations that make it stand out as your own. The unhealthy way is to keep doing the same damn thing again and again with only trivial variations.

Bertocci has done the former. He has used the common form of the YA wizarding adventure to tell his own tale of the value of language and stories.

This is a steampunk adventure-comedy about a group of geniuses, The Hogalum Society. When their founder and namesake, Dr. Yngve Hogalum, dies suddenly, one of the society’s members, Phineas Magnetron, takes it upon himself to make a daring, perhaps even mad, effort to restore Dr. Hogalum to life.

The book is written in a verbose, overly-ornate style that is a deliberate parody of Victorian prose. It takes place in 1877, albeit an alternate 1877 with many counterfactual technologies.

A few times, the author succeeded a little too well at mimicking the wordy style of the day, to the extent that I sort of wishes he’d get to the point more quickly. I got used to this eventually, and by the end found the narrator’s sesquipedalian tendencies rather entertaining.

The book is a quick 30 minute read that serves as an intro to the world of the Hogalums. I happened to stumble across it while searching for retrofuturistic books, and while it’s really an alternate history as opposed to actually retrofuturistic, I nevertheless enjoyed it very much.

Even more than the book itself, I liked the afterword where the author explains all the historical references and deliberate anachronisms. Things that sounded like impossibilities as I read them (a 20-chamber revolver???) turned out to be based in fact. I always learn something from these “stories behind the story.”

All in all, this is a very entertaining story for anyone who likes humorous steampunk adventures.

In this, the year of our Ford 115, limitless entertainment can be summoned for us at the push of a button. We live in an era where shows, films, games, and musical performances surround us constantly. If that’s still not enough, advanced computer technology will soon allow us to create our own customized artistic experiences on a whim. Want to see photos of Star Wars as a Spaghetti Western? It’s not quite ready to produce the full film version yet, but that day will come…

Yet, for everything we have in entertainment, we lack in imagination. Indeed, there is a very clear trade-off of imaginary power being made here. When you ask the A.I. to show you a new interpretation of Star Wars, you are literally outsourcing your imagination to a machine. Isn’t that a little scary?

‘Twas not always thus. It used to be that people relied on these things called “books” for entertainment. With a book, your task is to use your imagination to complete the ideas suggested by the author’s words. It’s similar to a computer program compiling, actually. In a sense, every book is a collaboration; the author gives us the basic furnishings, but it’s up to us as readers to finish it.

Which is not to minimize the importance of the author. Quite the contrary. Whereas, say, the director of a film has the power to manage every frame, every line, every sound, to inspire a specific reaction in the audience, (and we all know the stereotype of the tyrannical micromanaging film director) an author’s job is much tougher. What is not written is as important as what is. An author has to know what to state baldly, and what to only imply. An author has to know exactly what to tell the reader.

Which brings me at last to the subject of today’s review: Gold of the Jaguar, the third installment in Peter Martuneac’s Ethan Chase series.

Gold of the Jaguar takes us on an adventure in the jungles of South America, far away from the ease of modern life. It invites us to imagine lost treasure, ancient temples, and mysterious islands guarded by eerie predators that keep watch from the trees.

And Martuneac, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, knows what details to give to immerse you in the adventure. The combat scenes feel vivid and immediate, the equipment, ancient and modern, is so real you feel like you can touch it, and the occasional flashbacks to earlier epochs give the setting a sense of history.

Beyond that, though, this book also deals with themes of recovering from addiction, abuse, reconciliation and healing. In that respect, it feels closer to Martuneac’s zombie apocalypse series, His Name Was Zach. While this is still a light adventure compared with the ultra-dark tone of those books, this one has some emotional weight to it.

Bringing all this back around to the point I made at the beginning: why, in 2023, should you read the Ethan Chase series, out of all the various forms of fiction competing for your attention? Well, I say the answer is because it’s sincere. I don’t care if it makes me sound like Linus in the pumpkin patch; there’s nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see. It’s an adventure story, with heroes and villains and a lot of heart.

It is not the product of a focus group at some multinational entertainment megacorp, or a famous brand-name author who long since farmed the actual writing out to nameless drudges, or an A.I. piecing together bland assemblages of words to produce simulacra of stories.

No, it’s just a tale that one man wanted to tell, and he did it, and reading it is like coming along with him on a great adventure. Let his imagination team up with yours, and be swept away in a rollicking yarn of lost treasure, danger, and exploration.

Last year, Lydia Schoch and I made an agreement that January 31 would be “Second Halloween.” Accordingly, I’m observing the day by reviewing a book appropriate for that spooky season.

And look at that cover. How, I ask you, could I possibly not read a book with that cover? Even though it is the sixth book in Boyack’s “Hat” series, and I have not read any of the others, I simply could not resist.

Fortunately, Boyack writes such that you don’t have to read the others to understand it. Maybe a few references went over my head, but I could follow it well enough. It tells the story of a musician named Lizzie, her magical talking hat, and a friend of theirs who has been revivified Frankenstein-style and needs to find medicine to stay alive.

But, finding the medicine means finding the doctor who restored him, and he has fallen into the clutches of the titular monster, the sinister-looking entity pictured above.

The book is fast-paced and action-packed. Lizzie and her friends must mow down waves of pumpkinheaded zombies to reach the Rambler in time. There are also moments of downtime when they gather clues by listening to a paranormal late-night radio show along the lines of Coast-to-Coast AM. As you can imagine, I loved these parts of the story.

This is a fun and enjoyable read for Halloween. Or, in this case, Second Halloween. Which is going to be a thing, by golly! What better way to liven up this dreary time of year?

You want vintage sci-fi? You don’t get much more vintage than this, a book written sometime in the 2nd century.

Of course, whether it’s really sci-fi is debatable. “Science” as a concept was very different then. So, while the story does indeed include elements such as a war between the armies of the Moon and those of the Sun, fighting over the contested territory of Venus, it’s not really using space travel in the way we might think of it.

It’s not hard sci-fi. No one will confuse it with Andy Weir’s books. So let’s compromise and call it more of a Space Opera. Still, it has battles with giant spiders fighting over the moon. I say it counts for our purposes.

Then again, I’m not the one whose opinion matters here. That would be up to the showrunners behind Vintage Sci-Fi Month. Obviously, I can only hope that they agree that this fits the bill, despite its lack of the modern scientific mindset.

So much for the “science” aspect. Now for the fiction. Despite the name, the author admits early on that it’s all made it up. It is, he says, in the tradition of “the poets, historians and philosophers of old, who have written much that smacks of miracles and fables.”

The story is a parody of famous Ancient Greek myths, including, of course, the works of Homer. Which is probably why the book is full of fantastic and bizarre things; it seems Lucian was trying to conjure the most insane and impossible ideas he could. For example, he tells us that the denizens of the moon “carry their children in the calf of the leg instead of the belly… it seems to me that the term ‘belly of the leg’ came to us Greeks from there.”

Okay, so probably this joke made sense in the original Greek. Unfortunately, I can’t read Greek. But my mother can. So I asked her about it, and she didn’t know either. 🤷

The tone of the whole thing reminds me a lot of Mark Twain, when he was poking fun at supernatural and fantasy tropes.  There are a lot of references to Homer, as well as Herodotus, Aristophanes, and so on; mostly making fun of how outlandish the mythology is.

Despite its age, this book feels surprisingly fresh. Obviously, a lot of credit has to go to the translator in a case like this, and Harmon’s translation makes for a fun, breezy read that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Oh, and also there is a brief mention of something called “Pumpkin pirates”; that is, pirates who sail around in hollowed-out pumpkins. Given that pumpkins are not native to Greece, and Lucian couldn’t have known about them, it seems likely that these are actually melons. (Interestingly, the Greek word for melon is apparently the root of the word “pumpkin”.)

As you might imagine, given my own tastes, I love the idea of pumpkin pirates. This book is worth reading just for that concept.

The story of why I read this book begins with a tweet. The author asked what people thought of the cover.

I have to say, I don’t love the cover. Not that it’s bad; because it isn’t. Rather, it just looks like every other cover out there. I feel like a lot of books have faces on the cover, and small wonder, because the eye is instinctively drawn to human faces. The problem is, book marketers have learned this.

But I was impressed that the author was even asking about this. And so I decided, why not pick the book up and give it a try?

I didn’t expect to like it. Early on, it felt like the sort of book I’d put aside and not re-open, as it begins by introducing us to the rather irritating Isabella Jaramillo, a rich, famous, and altogether spoiled professional time traveler. She has the world at her fingertips, and yet she’s rude, angry, and greedy.

But something made me keep going. I got interested as Isabella’s equally unlikable husband decided to strand her in the past as an act of revenge. Isabella started having to make her own way in a world totally alien to her.

The characters of the medieval town to which she is exiled all felt extremely real, too. The characters were well-written and nuanced, and none of them felt flat or clichéd. I felt like I could understand and sympathize with them, even the antagonists. They are a different people, shaped by the harshness of the time and place they were born into, but still complicated and human. And slowly, Isabella starts to be shaped by it, too.

Then the book shifted back to the future and the time-traveler organization, where Isabella’s father Alfredo is frantically trying to find out what’s become of his daughter. But he too has a murky past, and slowly it becomes clear that there are many conflicting agendas at play. The past, or perhaps I should say the pasts, begin to catch up with the powerful men who play at being Gods.

McTiernan displays a wonderful skill at knowing just when to switch from what plot thread to another, keeping the reader hooked on every development, waiting to see what happened next. In other words, by the time I was a third of the way in, the book had totally won me over, and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.

In last week’s book review, I mentioned the harshness of life as a medieval peasant, contrasted with the ease of our modern age. Well, this book demonstrates exactly that, as Isabella is forced to cast aside all the privileges and luxuries she once enjoyed and survive in brutal and unforgiving circumstances.

So often, when I read books about the past, they make one of two errors: either they make the past just like the present, only with the thinnest veneer of Middle Ages clichés ill-concealing a modern sensibility, or else they paint the past as miserable and unenlightened, a world of nothing but ignorant stock-characters.

I’m happy to report this book avoids both pitfalls. The people of the past feel real; both in terms of being different from ourselves in terms of values and beliefs, while at the same time having a core of humanity that makes them relatable.

The book is both science-fiction and historical fiction; both an alternate future with some dystopian elements as well a good old-fashioned adventure/romance. It’s also brimming with interesting religious themes, though I’m probably the wrong person to analyze those.

I started off thinking I’d hate this book and wouldn’t finish it, and by the end, I loved it and couldn’t wait to see what happens next. It does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, so you should know that not all the questions it raises will be answered in this volume, but it’s still a fantastic story.