Having a PhD probably sounds pretty glamorous, right? You think of a PhD as a scientist in a lab making amazing discoveries, or maybe, if they’re in humanities or social sciences, as someone sitting comfortably in a nice room full of books, poring over the Great Texts of their field.
Yeah, well; if Campus Confidential is any guide, that’s not quite how it works. The protagonist, Dr. Rowena Halley, can barely manage to scrape by after landing a one-semester job teaching Russian at a university in New Jersey. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, Rowena is named after the character in Ivanhoe. And her Marine brother, although he goes by John, is named for the titular character of that novel.)
On top of navigating all the challenges of starting a new job in a strange city, dealing with faculty politics, and the constant nuisances caused by university bureaucracy, Dr. Halley finds herself caught up in trying to help her students, many of whom are still affected by the recent suicide of a popular student in the Russian program.
This suicide is part of the mystery at the heart of the plot. The book is after all a thriller, which involves drug-dealing, mafia, and all sorts of shady goings-on that we would normally never think of associating with an institution of higher learning.
But for all the thriller elements, I don’t think of this book as a mystery in the normal sense. Because the core of the book isn’t just in finding out how the plot unfolds, but in seeing these characters interact in the context of an often hypocritical, almost always absurd university whose administrators espouse noble beliefs, but all too often betray them by their actions.
The real charm of the book is in little details, like the way Dr. Halley has to start teaching classes before her official employment starts, due to some arcane rule of Human Resources, or the way the unctuous Department Chair tries to use a simple conversation with Dr. Halley to ingratiate himself to the Provost. Like Geoffrey Cooper’s novels, this book is not just a good thriller, but a window into the politics of academia.
And then there are the characters. They all feel well-rounded and believable. Even the “villains” are human beings. All of them are revealed to have flaws–sometimes very, very bad flaws–but there are no cardboard cut-outs here. They are all fully-realized people. Even the most minor characters have backstories and personalities.
This is more than just a mystery story; it’s an astutely-observed depiction of modern academic life. I recommend it highly, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one.
I have to start this review with some context: I started reading this book shortly after doing some beta reading for a friend of mine. The book I was beta reading was an extremely dark, harrowing story about terrorism. While it’s a great story, it was nice to be able to turn from that world (not to mention real life news) into this book, which is a sweet, uplifting romance.
Not that there aren’t serious moments in Second Chance Romance. The female lead, Melanie Harper, has a major tragedy in her past. Trying to forget it, she’s immersed herself in her work as a divorce attorney in Washington D.C., but has come to the small town of Sweet Gum, Virginia to convince her Aunt Phoebe to abandon her little diner and move to D.C.
While there, Melanie has a car accident and is rescued by Jackson Daughtry, a single father raising his young daughter, Rebecca, after his wife left him.
After Melanie recovers from her accident, Phoebe suffers a stroke, rendering her unable to run her business, and forcing Melanie and Jackson to work together to keep the diner running. At first, the big-city lawyer and the small-town paramedic clash, but soon–it’s a romance, after all–they begin to develop feelings for each other.
Not that it’s smooth sailing even then. Jackson and Melanie still disagree over her plan to close the diner and move her aunt to D.C. And to make matters even more difficult, Jackson’s ex-wife shows up again.
I should mention that this is a Love Inspired book, which is an imprint that publishes Christian fiction. So there are a few references to characters praying and facing struggles with their faith throughout the book. It never comes across as strident or preachy, however; and largely seemed right for the characters.
All in all, it’s a very sweet story. There are no big surprises or shocking twists, and there shouldn’t be in a book like this. It’s a feel-good book. And while it’s not the sort of thing I often read, it’s quite enjoyable. There is a place in every art form for both the Rockwell-esque and the Goya-esque. Though my own tastes skew towards the latter, I can still respect the former.
This is a perfect book for anyone who wants to enjoy a light and uplifting romance in a pleasant small-town atmosphere.
Starship Troopers is a famous book, with a profound influence on modern science fiction. It’s one of the earliest known appearances of powered armor in fiction, elements of its setting can be seen in countless other science-fiction works about humans battling alien insects, and it was the basis for a cult-classic movie franchise.
The book is told in first person by Juan “Johnny” Rico, a soldier in the Mobile Infantry. It begins with Rico and his platoon attacking an enemy planet, then flashes back to when Rico joined the military, over the objections of his father.
Rico details all the details of basic training, as the drill sergeants mold the recruits into a fighting force. Occasionally, he flashes further back to his high school class in “History and Moral Philosophy,” taught by a retired officer, Lt. Colonel Dubois.
Throughout the book, Rico reflects on Dubois’ lectures. And why is that? Well, we’ll talk about that later.
Eventually, Rico graduates and joins the war against the bugs. His mother is killed by a bug attack on Buenos Aires, a devastating attack which mobilizes Terran forces against the bugs, and Rico soon ships out to attack Klendathu as part of the formidable unit “Rasczak’s Roughnecks.”
Ultimately, Rico becomes an officer and, after another daring raid to capture a “brain bug,” becomes an officer and commander of “Rico’s Roughnecks.”
There really isn’t that much sci-fi stuff in the book. Apart from a few episodes of high-tech infantry attacks against the bugs at the beginning and the end, you’d barely notice the book is set in the future. It’s mostly about military basic training. My father was in the army and trained at West Point, and the descriptions don’t seem much different from the stories he’s told me.
So why did Heinlein even bother setting it in the future, if we’re only going to get a few pages of power-armored spacemen fighting overgrown bugs and lots and lots of “history and moral philosophy”?
Heinlein was a fervent anti-communist, and it is widely believed that he chose insects for the antagonists because they represented a collectivist society taken to an extreme. The bugs care nothing for individuals; indeed, they frequently are willing to sacrifice hundreds of “workers” in order to kill just a few humans. The centrally-coordinated, anti-individualist bug society is meant to represent communism in its most extreme form.
Here is where things get strange. Much of the book is dedicated to showing Rico and his comrades being molded into a cohesive fighting unit–a hierarchical structure where soldiers follow orders from their superiors unquestioningly, the chain of command is respected, and if necessary, soldiers sacrifice themselves to defend society.
Doesn’t that sound awfully… I don’t know… collectivist to you? It does to me. But now I’m confused. Rico and his men are the good guys, and the bugs are the bad guys, and both are collectivist. I’m not saying they’re the same, but it’s a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind as far as I can see. What’s going on here, Heinlein? Make up your mind if we’re supposed to be for collectivism or against it!
Well, there’s more to this story. But first, it occurs to me I’d better apologize to new readers coming to this as part of Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. You probably are used to normal, sane people who review a book by talking about the plot, the characters, and saying what they did and didn’t like. (For a long list of VSFM posts, written by competent and focused reviewers unlike yours truly, see here.) I have a tendency to write long, rambling reviews that go off on tangents, and I daresay this particular book only encourages me. If you want the TL;DR version, it’s this: I didn’t especially like the book as a novel–I found it too didactic, with not enough actual plot to liven it up. That said, it is interesting, and worth reading nevertheless. But to find out why I think it’s interesting, I’m afraid you’ll have to be subjected to more of my idiosyncratic review style…
Check out the Wikipedia page on Starship Troopers. You’ll see in the contents a section called “Allegations of fascism.” You can read the section if you want, although it really tells you nothing beyond what the title conveys–the fact that some people alleged the book was promoting fascism.
That’s a serious allegation! And maybe it’s the answer to our question. After all, 20th-century fascism was another totalitarian ideology that competed with communism. And when I say “competed” I mean “fought bloody wars against.” Between them, these two ideologies are responsible for death and destruction on a mind-numbing scale.
But you’ll notice I specifically mentioned 20th-century fascism, as formulated by Mussolini. But that was more of a darker take on the nationalism of Garibaldi, wedded to some concepts borrowed from 20th century socialism. We must dig deeper still.
The name “fascism” comes from the fasces, a symbol of wooden rods bound together, which shows up in all sorts of surprising places across the globe. The fasces symbolized power in Ancient Rome, and if there’s one tradition Heinlein seems to be modeling his futuristic society on, it’s the values of the Roman Republic.
It’s time to talk about Lt. Col. Dubois, as promised. Here he is replying to a student who has just said that “violence never solves anything”:
“I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that… Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.”
Wow! Whatever they’re teaching in that Moral Philosophy class, it probably ain’t pacifism, is it? No wonder it got Rico so excited to join up, even over his father’s objections.
Well, that and another reason. Sorry if I buried the lede here, but in the society of Starship Troopers, you only become a full citizen by serving in the military. In other words, you have to complete basic training and fulfill a term of service in order to be able to vote. And why is this? Dubois explains:
“There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free’… This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears…
The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion . . . and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”
The goal of Heinlein’s society is cultivating civic virtue. (Much like the fasces, the words “civic” and “virtue” both come from Latin.) The idea is that people who have paid a heavy price to wield authority will use it judiciously and wisely. Thus, restricting citizenship only to those willing to fight and die in the defense of society.
Is this fascism, as we understand it today?
Not quite, I don’t think. I don’t believe a society governed by the votes of military veterans is inherently fascist. That said, you can see the potential for it to turn into something a lot like fascism. The Freikorps weren’t all Nazis, by any means, but you can see how easily the former can produce the latter.
Of course, a society in which only military veterans can vote will be much more militaristic than one where everyone can vote. That goes without saying. And militarism, while possibly not the most collectivist society imaginable, is certainly not friendly to ultra-individualism either.
To an ultra-individualist, anything that’s less individualistic than their own ideals looks like some form of creeping collectivism, whether fascist or communist or whatever. Judged by the standards of 2020s America, 1930s America looks pretty collectivist. For example: a huge national service program in which people perform manual labor sounds pretty weird to us, but FDR pulled it off with some good results.
There are some problems–such as alien bug attacks and highly contagious viruses–which require collective action to solve. A certain amount of civic virtue is needed to meet such emergencies, which is why the society Heinlein envisioned is so militaristic.
That is, what we see of it, which admittedly isn’t much. Actually, one of my problems with the book is the lack of description of the wider world outside the Mobile Infantry. Rico’s father does some sort of business, but other than that, details about the economy are vague. Even the government itself is unclear. Veterans vote, but what do they vote on? Do they vote directly for policies, or for representative candidates? Who, in short, is driving this bus?
Starship Troopers isn’t the sort of pulse-pounding action-adventure novel its name suggests. Actually, it’s a philosophical novel about society and government. Given that, it would have been nice to see a bit more of both. But it’s also intended as a tribute to, as Heinlein puts it, “the bloody infantry, the doughboy, the duckfoot, the foot soldier who goes where the enemy is and takes them on in person.”
And certainly, anyone who does a job requiring discipline and sacrifice is deserving of praise. DuBois’ speech above relates to something I’ve been musing about lately: in wealthy societies, where options for entertainment and leisure abound, people easily can forget about the dignity and respect afforded to those who do the hard jobs that keep society running. But it is, and always will be, noble to forgo pleasure to do something good. And the more opportunities for pleasure there are, the nobler forgoing them will be.
“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?
…We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
“Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” There’s a political rallying cry for you! Sadly, there is always the danger that “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” will be competing with it…
Anyway, Starship Troopers is definitely a worthwhile book, not only for its status as a hugely influential work of science-fiction, but also as an insight into the mindset of the Cold War.
This is the sequel to The Gossamer Globe, which I reviewed here. It’s a fantastic book, and I’ll keep the plot synopsis to a minimum because I would not want to spoil the first book. Gossamer Power follows Lucia, Kailani, Ms. Battenbox, Jevan and other characters from Globe, as well as introducing some terrific new ones, including the handsome Sebastian, who is irresistibly fascinating to almost everyone, and a character known simply as “Glorious Leader” or to use his full name, “Oh Great Glorious Leader.”
All the things I loved about the first book are present here as well: the humor, the sword-fighting, the political intrigue. I was worried this installment wouldn’t live up to the high bar set by the first, but I enjoyed this one almost as much. I say “almost” because this one ends on a cliffhanger, so it doesn’t have a totally satisfying ending. Tonally, it’s definitely The Empire Strikes Back to Gossamer Globe’s A New Hope.
So much of what makes these books wonderful are the little things, as in when, on having traveled by airship to his native land, the Glorious Leader shows Jevan and Lucia the flying carriages of his home, commenting that the people who clamored for them had no “regard for the fact that an airship is, essentially, a flying carriage. They already existed.” And indeed, how many times have you heard people talk about not having flying cars when in fact that’s basically what an airplane is?
The book is full of little moments like this. Ms. Battenbox isn’t in it much, which is kind of a pity, since she was one of my favorites from the first book, but her keen mind for strategy and her biting wit are still in evidence during her few scenes. At one point, she remarks, “There are many state secrets this sham government will never know about… How stupid are you commoners to think you could imprison me in it?”
In addition to being a bawdy, swashbuckling adventure, Gossamer Power, like its predecessor, is also a clever satire, touching on everything from the “Internet of Things” to the modern surveillance state. Like any good fantasy, for all its outlandish elements, there are some things that really ring true.
It’s a worthy sequel, and I can’t wait for the next one!
This short story is a modern tale of un-dead horror. I won’t spoil exactly what type of monster is involved, but readers will probably be able to guess. There’s a clever twist on some classic mythology that enables three high school kids to do battle with an ancient evil.
There are elements of dark comedy as well as horror. And despite its brevity, Abbott gives us more than enough info to care about the characters, and even weaves in a sort of redemptive arc for one of them.
The text is supplemented with excellent illustrations by Kate Whitmore that provide a face to go with the name for several characters.
This is darker and gorier than Abbott’s other short story, Harvest, but both of them are very good in their own ways. There are plenty of references to classic horror stories and films in this one that fans of the genre will surely appreciate. All in all, a great short story for the Halloween season.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a short story, originally published in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. “Geoffrey Crayon” being a pseudonym of Washington Iriving.
It tells the story of Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher in a region of New York known as Tarrytown in the early 19th-century. He is—if I may cut through the florid 19th-century lingo—kind of a jerk. He’s mean to his students, unless he sees an opportunity of mooching free meals off their mothers or flirting with their older sisters.
Eventually, Ichabod’s fancy is caught by Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of the wealthy Baltus Van Tassel. One thingthat’s interesting is that Ichabod seems to be interested in her largely for a wealth—whether he has affection or even mere lust for her seems beside the point.
But another of Katrina’s suitors, the large, vigorous, Brom Bones (actually Brom Van Brunt, but his nickname is Brom Bones) does not take kindly to the girl he’d been wooing spending all her time with the awkward schoolmaster.
These are the three main characters, and they’re all kind of humorously unlikable. Ichabod is a selfish moocher, Katrina is a vapid tease, and Brom is what we would today call a jock frat boy. The main body of the story is more like a sit-com than a ghost story.
The ghost aspect comes from the setting—Tarrytown, a sleepy, dreamy village in the Hudson valley where, Irving tells us:
“…population, manners, and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved. They are like those little nooks of still water which border a rapid stream where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current.”
In other words, it’s a place that seems removed from modernity—modernity, in this case, being 1820. Even when Irving wrote the story, “Sleepy Hollow” was hearkening back to an earlier era. No doubt he was targeting those 1790s kids who felt nostalgic for their childhood.
Anyway, things culminate with Ichabod going to a large harvest party at the sprawling Van Tassel farm, where folks swap ghost stories, such as the one about “The woman in white that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow.” And finally, of course, the region’s most popular legend: the story of a ghostly Hessian soldier who, having lost his head to a cannonball in the war, rides forth each night in search of a replacement.
Ichabod, who is a devoted reader of Cotton Mather, is much troubled by such tales. He leaves the party in a state of agitation, and our narrator suggests that perhaps Katrina has dumped him, although this is ambiguous. At any rate, Ichabod is riding home alone, feeling rather miserable when he encounters a huge, headless rider mounted upon a black horse.
Furiously, Ichabod urges his own horse towards the old church bridge, which, according to a story of the horseman related by Brom Bones, the horseman will not cross. Ichabod successfully manages to cross the bridge and turns just in time to see the horseman hurling his head at him.
Yes, that’s right—his head. The horseman carries his severed head with him on his saddle. And this is where the story becomes a bit ambiguous because the next day, as the townsfolk investigate Ichabod’s sudden disappearance, they do not find a head at the old church bridge, but do find the shattered remains of a pumpkin.
The story is deliberately vague after that—while Ichabod is never seen again in Tarrytown, some say he simply moved, and is alive and well in another part of the country. Brom Bones—who, we are told, marries Katrina, looks “exceedingly knowing” whenever anyone brings up the subject of Ichabod, suggesting that perhaps the notorious prankster had simply disguised himself as a headless horsemen, seeking to frighten off his rival.
Of course, the more superstitious residents of the town believe that Crane became a victim of the ghostly Hessian. And after all, since we already have strong reason to think Ichabod was spurned by Katrina at the party, why would Brom have even needed to pull such an elaborate stunt? (Unless he was just adding injury to insult, which would be exactly the kind of move we might expect from Brom.)
This brings me back to what I think is the most curious thing about this story: it plays out like a romantic comedy—or more accurately, one of those anti-romantic comedies where all the characters seem self-absorbed, and the comedy results from the interplay of their attempts to get what they want. In fact, if you take away all the supernatural elements and think of it in modern terms, it’s basically a mean-spirited high-school comedy, where the rich cheerleader and the superstar quarterback screw over the know-it-all nerd.
Which seems like the sort of thing that might actually happen, and indeed almost makes me wonder if the eponymous “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” isn’t the thing about the headless ghost at all, but rather the legend of a love triangle that ended in a bizarre prank. In other words, it seems almost like the sort of thing that could have actually happened. Apparently, Irving did know people named “Ichabod Crane” and “Katrina Van Tassel.” Real-life Ichabod Crane was a captain in the army, not a schoolteacher, but real-life Katrina seems to have been more or less like the character in the story, which again makes me wonder how much of this was based on real events or gossip Irving picked up.
But obviously, it’s the ghost aspect that has made this story famous. And is it ever famous! It’s one of the first and most iconic pieces of post-revolution American literature, and has been adapted many, many times. (More about that later this month.) There are places all over the country named “Sleepy Hollow.” Ichabod and the ghostly Hessian are commemorated on postage stamps and in statuary. Most people know the story even though they never read the original. It’s the quintessential American ghost story.
October is my favorite month, and Halloween is my favorite holiday. If you’re like me, you probably want some good books to read for the season. Here are a few recommendations.
Harvest: A Short Story from the Pumpkin Patchby Jason H. Abbott. This is a fun short story, a little bit spooky and a little bit sweet, about a couple of characters who find they have a lot in common. Here’s my full review.
TheWitch Under the Mountain, by Audrey N. Allison. A father tells his young daughters a bedtime story about an evil witch that proves to be more than just a legend. Fun for all ages, and great artwork too. My full review is here.
The Bone Curse, by Carrie Rubin. The first in Rubin’s Benjamin Oris series, this book is a supernatural medical thriller that forces its protagonist to question whether the horrors he encounters have a rational explanation, or stem from a centuries-old Vodou curse. Serious horror–Stephen King fans will love it. Full review here.
The Almost-Apocalypse of Apple Valley, by Phillip McCollum. Another one for Stephen King fans, this book combines ’80s nostalgia with supernatural horror, as four kids must confront a horrible evil plaguing their town. I’ve not done a full review of this book, but here’s my mini-review: It’s very good.
Jersey Ghost Stories by Erren Michaels and Noah Goats. A collection of ghost legends from the island of Jersey. Some are creepy, some are gruesome, some are poignant, and all are haunting. My full review.
The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey Driscoll. Book 1 in Driscoll’s splendid reimagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West character, this book tells the story of a scientist obsessed with revivifying the dead, as told by his less gifted, but more moral friend. My full review.
The Raven and Other Tales by Joy V. Spicer. A collection of short stories, some of which are re-imaginings of classic tales and poems. Haunting and evocative–perfect for Autumn. My full review is here and Lydia Schoch’s is here.
If you have other suggestions, please let me know. Happy October! Keep the home jack-o’-lanterns burning.
Reviewing a sequel is always difficult, because the deeper I get into a series, the more spoilers from previous books there are that I have to be careful not to reveal in summarizing the plot of the latest installment. I won’t dwell too much on plot elements here. Let it suffice to say that Capt. Robbin Nikalishin is sufficiently recovered from the trauma in his past that he embarks on a new chapter in his life, but one that brings with it new challenges.
Taylor’s world-building continues to be first-rate—I particularly enjoyed her depiction of the Martian colony and the delightful term she uses for the Red Planet’s settlers: “humartians.” The sprawling world is rich with plenty of detail and a huge cast of supporting characters.
There are more philosophical asides in this book than in earlier installments—commentary from the narrator on the protagonist’s highly questionable and emotional decision-making. This is more of a romance than the previous ones. Maybe “romance” isn’t quite the term—it’s a true biographical novel, as the subtitle implies. As I was reading it, I realized that in many ways it’s a throwback to an older style of novel: the long, winding sort of tale popular in the Victorian era. Except, of course, set in the 28th century.
There’s a hint of spirituality woven in, too—as in one scene where Nikalishin and a character by the name of Fedaylia High Feather speak with a priest—or “prayst,” as he is called in the Eirish dialect. It’s a powerful scene, and reveals a lot about the characters. I won’t say much about Fedaylia High Feather. How can you resist wanting to meet a character with a name like that for yourself, eh? But I will say this: I think it’s interesting that we are informed she was born on April 30, a date which followers of this blog may recognize as the semi-obscure holiday of Walpurgis night, a sort of Spring equivalent of Halloween. And Nikalishin, of course, was born on Halloween itself. Whether the author had this in mind when choosing these dates, I don’t know, but I thought it was interesting.
As previously, Nikalishin’s pathetic inability to form normal relationships with women continues to be a problem for him, and made me want to shout “Oh, grow up, man!” And to be clear, this is a criticism of the character, not of the writing.Taylor succeeds quite well in crafting a careful portrait of Nikalishin’s extremely irregular psychology.
I would love to talk at length about all these peculiarities of Nikalishin’s, as well many other things, but the fact is, more people need to read these books first, and I won’t risk spoiling them for others by discussing details here, when there is a very real chance this may be the first time some readers learn of their existence. The world of The Man Who Found Birds Among The Starsis one that more science fiction lovers need to discover for themselves.
I hardly know where to begin with this review. There’s so much I love about this book, from its well thought-out and detailed futuristic world-building, to its treatment of how the history of present-day Earth is reconstructed in the distant future, to the way it blends political intrigue, action, romance and just a dash of humor into an effective story.
The novel follows the crew of ESS Springbok, a powerful military spaceship. The Springbok becomes entangled in an battle precipitated by a powerful politician’s son. From there, the crew takes on a group of rough but honorable space marines, and sees more than their share of ground and space combat as they fight through more conflicts created by the political machinations of scheming politicians and bureaucrats.
The characters are great. There’s the honorable Captain Evander McCray of the Springbok and his lover, the lethal super-spy Aja Coopersmith. The villains are eminently hate-able, and there are other characters who are neither all good nor all bad. Captain Chahine, who commands a huge ship that battles the Springbok, was a particular favorite of mine.
There are also some great references to history sprinkled throughout. Captain McCray’s interest in piecing together Earth’s history starts out as just an amusing bit of comic relief, but it ultimately becomes key to the climactic battle sequence when, inspired by Hannibal’s use of elephants, he…
Ah, no; I can’t spoil it. Because it’s brilliant. An ingenious bit of world-building that becomes important to the plot, that’s all I’ll say.
I do quibble with the number of times that secondary female characters are forced to suffer at the hands of the villains. Female characters who exist just to let baddies prove their badness is a bit of a pet peeve of mine; although I can hardly argue with its effectiveness in making readers hate the villains.
Apart from that, this is basically a perfect book for me. It came recommended by Audrey Driscoll, and as with Lorinda Taylor’s Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars series, I’m so grateful to her for bringing it to my attention. It’s another wonderful example of how to do sci-fi, using an imaginary futuristic world both as a vehicle for exploring deep ideas about society and human nature as well as envisioning new technologies. And it does all that while still telling a gripping story with memorable characters.
If you like sci-fi, especially military sci-fi—and I know many people who read this blog do—you have to read this book. It’s a gem of the genre, pure and simple.
Now, I have a question only an economist would ask. And the fact that I’m even asking this question is a testament to the world-building here.
The citizens of the Egalitarian Stars of Elysium use the barter system. Supposedly, this makes them more advanced than the primitive Madkhal, who use fiat currency. We’re to believe that nanites and additive manufacturing eliminate the need for currency in such a developed civilization.
Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination, but I have trouble buying this. (No pun intended.) If their manufacturing capabilities are really so good as that, then they haven’t made fiat currency obsolete, they’ve made trade obsolete. Either people have items of different worth for trading, or they don’t. If they do, than they need a reliable medium of exchange and store of value to express it. If they don’t, then they don’t need to trade. If you and I both have the ability to produce for ourselves everything that we need, we have no reason to trade with each other. Tell me if I’m wrong about this.
Again, it’s a credit to how invested I became in this universe that I was even thinking about this issue. So don’t let it stop you from buying—or, for that matter, bartering for—this fantastic book.
I normally review modern novels and short stories. This was written in the 14th century, and it’s describing events in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It’s not really a novel, and definitely not a short story. It’s more along the lines of something like the Iliad–a combination of historical account and mythology.
And of course, it was originally written in Chinese. In fact, it’s one of the most famous works of ancient Chinese literature. I read the 1925 translation by Charles Brewitt-Taylor. There are more recent translations, but I deliberately chose an older one because a translator can’t help coloring his translation with his own impressions.
Brewitt-Taylor was an Englishman, and his translation shows a rather Victorian sensibility. So this is looking at a historical-mythopoetic account of ancient China through the lens of an early 20th century Briton. What better way to view one past empire than through the eyes of another?
The book is vast and sprawling, covering numerous battles, political intrigues and other events. The core characters are Liu Bei and his brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Brothers by sworn oath rather than blood, the trio participate in countless battles and grand historical struggles.
Liu Bei is the closest thing to a hero in the story–wise, capable and humble, he usually manages to extricate himself and his brothers from a variety of dangers.
There are shifting alliances and Machiavellian intrigues on every page. (Can I say “Machiavellian” when the events depicted predate Machiavelli by about 1400 years? Discuss.) Also, huge battles and reports of troop movements that are pretty hard to follow for one as ill-trained on Chinese geography as I am. I have at least read Sun Tzu, who is referenced briefly here.
Also, note that the word “romance” in the title is being used in the classic sense, of a medieval legend. Think the stories of King Arthur. Because it’s almost completely devoid of romance in the sense we think of it today. Marriages are arranged strictly for political purposes, and wives and concubines are treated as property.
Of all the hundreds of characters, I believe there are three women who have actual lines of dialogue. These are all rendered in weirdly submissive third-person terms: e.g. a character will refer to herself as “thy unworthy handmaid.” It’s pretty shocking to a modern sensibility. But I suppose everything about life in ancient times would be.
The central theme of the book is the struggle for power. Constantly, nobles and generals are scheming for ways to take power, and to hold it once they’ve got it.
The exception to this is Liu Bei. Despite being supremely capable, he remains humble and unassuming. One would almost say unambitious, and yet he continually rises, by virtue of his ability to positions of command which he hardly thinks himself worthy.
As depicted in the legend, Liu Bei essentially embodies the Confucian concept:
“The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.”
This is sometimes paraphrased as, “To set the nation in order, first set ourselves in order.”
The real Liu Bei of course is somewhat more complex than the character of legend, although he still seems well-regarded by history.
That said, the most fun parts are the translator’s renderings of the condemnations heaped upon Liu Bei’s enemy, the villainous minister Cao Cao. For instance:
“Thus Cao Cao is the depraved bantling of a monstrous excrescence, devoid of all virtue in himself, ferocious and cunning, delighting in disorder and reveling in public calamity.”
The version of the book that I have includes the Chinese Hanzi next to the English translation. For fun, I tried looking up the words in the quote above with this miraculous site, to see if it would render Brewitt-Taylor’s translation back into Chinese in anything like the same characters. But the translation didn’t seem to match up with what I was seeing. Even with the hint, via Wikipedia, that this: 曹操 is “Cao Cao,” I still struggled to match what I read on the page with the translation.
However, learning Chinese is not necessary to use this book as a window into a fascinating period in history–several periods, in fact. Given its massive length, it will probably be a while before I tackle Volume 2, but I’m glad I read this one.