Thursday, May 31, 2012

Flashman in the Great Game Chapter 8

A lot of Flashman in the Great Game reads more like conventional historical fiction than the irreverent romps we’ve come to expect from Harry Flashman. Chapter 8 is no exception. It covers the siege of Cawnpore and does it pretty straightly.

Harry twisted his ankle on the way into Cawnpore and in a turn of unFlashmanlike behaviour he digs in with everyone else and tries to do his duty. He even comments on it. Ordinarily the slightest injury gives Harry the excuse to take to his bed, and complain loudly about it. Admittedly everyone in Cawnpore was in such dire straits that this was impossible, but he doesn’t even whine about it. He doesn’t take the opportunity to even flirt with pretty young Bella Blair. He does consider going native and making a break for it, but reasons that if he’s caught by the pandies it’ll be worse than what he’s going through in Cawnpore.

He does meet up with East, and somehow manages to make it look like East lit out on him on the way out of Russia, and did the dirty on him. In some ways he did, but Flashman makes it sound a lot worse than it was, and effectively ruins East’s reputation.

East comes to him and apologises and admits that his actions were partly driven by what Harry did to Valla (see Flashman at the Charge), because he was smitten by her. Harry refuses his apology, tells him that he is not forgiven and shatters any illusions he may have had about Valla by letting young Scud know exactly what the nature of his relationship with the Cossack’s beautiful daughter was. I felt kind of wrong about that. I couldn’t stand Tom Brown. I tend to side with Harry on that. Okay he went over the top with Brown, but seriously the little snot was annoying. East I kind of liked, he wasn’t Harry’s sort at all, but he wasn’t a bad bloke. He didn’t deserve what Harry did to him.

The defenders are broken by a mutineers charge and lay waiting for the inevitable doom.  

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Blackout by Mira Grant

Blackout is the 3rd and final book of Mira Grant’s zombie apocalypse Newsflesh trilogy.

WARNING: there are going to be serious spoilers for the first two books in the trilogy Feed and Deadline. If you don’t want to be spoiled for those then stop reading right here, and read them before coming back. We are now entering Spoilerland.

Blackout picks up pretty closely following the end of Deadline, and the shocking coda for that book is resolved in the first chapter. Blackout continues the fight of brother and sister blogger team Georgia and Shaun Mason and their team at The After End Times to expose conspiracies and bring down governments in the process. Old friends return: the unflappable Anglo Indian Newsie Mahir Gowda, the trigger happy Irwin Rebecca ‘Becks’ Atherton, super rich Fictional Maggie Garcia and the dedicated Alaric Kwong. As with the last book they’re all with Shaun at the lab of the trilogy’s mad scientist Dr Shannon Abby, trying to find out just what hell happened when Florida was hit by a team of zombie infected mosquitoes.

You will notice I mentioned Georgia Mason. How can this be you ask? George contracted the Kellis Amberlee virus at the end of Feed, began to amplify, and was shot dead by her adoptive brother Shaun. The coda at the end of Deadline suggested that George may return. She does sort of. Is she dead? Yes and no. You’ll have to read the book to find out what that actually means.

Mira Grant employed a slightly different narrative technique for Blackout. In Feed the story was 1st person from George’s point of view. In Deadline it was Shaun. Blackout is also told in 1st person, but it’s broken into chapters featuring both Shaun and Georgia. Shaun and George really aren’t a lot different. I’ve said before that they’re largely one person inhabiting two bodies. So the narrative works when they’re apart, when they collide and are working together Mira keeps the two person PoV narrative going, but entitles each chapter either Shaun or George. Just as well, because at times I did have to flick to the start of the chapter to work out just who was talking. This technique also necessitates a bit of double handling, but to the author’s credit she has managed to keep it to a minimum, and it doesn’t affect the flow of the story too much.

I felt Deadline suffered from two problems. One is fixed in Blackout, the other remained. The first problem was readers were given too much of ‘this is what happened last episode’. Mira Grant has worked on that, and while some exposition about the events in Deadline is necessary, especially to bring George up to speed as she was absent for that book, it’s not overdone and the reader doesn’t feel the need to just skip ahead, while thinking ‘Yeah, I know all this, I read Feed.’ The second issue for me was Shaun’s regular reiteration of ‘yes, my dead sister talks to me, and I talk back, but I’m not totally crazy.’ This returns, it continues even after Shaun and George’s paths converge. It needs to be said, but not as much or as often as it is.

Feed completely blew me away, and it remains one of the best things I’ve read in the past few years. I was less enthusiastic about Deadline, although it was one of the better books I read in 2011. Blackout is a thrill ride, even when there’s not that much happening. I loved the excursion to see the mysterious forger the Monkey. I liked seeing old friends from the previous two books return, not just the bloggers. I adored the super exclusive swanky hotel the Agora, and I seriously want to stay there. At times it does come in handy to have a girl who’s parents are multi billionaires on staff.

Blackout is not without it’s problems, but they are minor and do not detract from the book’s sheer sense of scary fun. It is a fitting end to the trilogy, and it does actually end properly. Mira Grant sees to that and ties everything up in a neat bow. If you’ve been following the story you’ll wind up reading the last page of Blackout feeling thoroughly satisfied. I would recommend reading the last few chapters of Deadline at least before starting Blackout just to familiarise yourself with what happened, because there were a couple of bits early on where I was ‘when did that happen?’ Newsflesh: the zombie apocalypse trilogy for people who don’t normally read zombie apocalypse fiction.   

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Lost Continent by C.J Cutcliffe Hyne

The last of the H’s, boy they’ve taken me a while to get through!

My enjoyment of C.J Cutcliffe Hyne’s classic The Lost Continent may have been spoiled by my own preconceptions of it. Due to the similarity of the titles I got it confused with Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. I haven’t read The Lost World, but I did see and enjoy the 2001 TV movie. The way the book started also wrong footed me into believing it was going to be more about a search for Atlantis, rather than what it actually is.

The book was originally published in 1900 and had some success due to the interest in Victorian society about the legend of Atlantis. Like many books of its kind it begins with a couple of adventurers; one an archaeologist, finding evidence of some lost civilisation on a mountain in the Canary Islands.  The narrator is sent the story as translated by the archaeologist that they discovered.

The documents they found were an account of the destruction of Atlantis (the lost continent of the title) written by a scholar, priest and warrior by the name of Deucalion.

I was probably a bit grumpy with the book, because once it got into Deucalion’s story I realised it wasn’t what I had been expecting, and it also failed to hold my interest. I suspect this is also partly because the book was written and published in the late 19th/early 20thcentury, and I’ve read and seen works since that have improved upon what Cutcliffe Hyne did here. I find that to be a bit of an issue with the older works on the list. They often do seem to have been improved upon, and don’t always stack up well against what has come since the original kicked off the ideas.

It’s a fairly tedious description of an Egyptian and Greek influenced society, and there’s also some nonsense about Deucalion having ruled over a kingdom in Yucatan (I guess that’s an attempt to explain the presence of the ziggurats and Egyptian influenced architecture and customs in Central and South America), they later mention the ‘tin islands’, which is how Deucalion escapes the destruction, I assume this is the Canary Islands, as that’s where the translator found the account.

It’s rather hard to warm to any of the characters, they all have significant flaws and Deucalion comes across as a fairly unsympathetic protagonist. He’s arrogant and chauvinistic, he’s also narrow minded and intolerant. He makes a really boring narrator, too. Everything comes across very dryly and fails to inspire any real feelings for him or the characters. By the end I was actually rather glad Atlantis sank into the sea.

Unfortunately The Lost Continent didn’t do it for me. For other tales of lost worlds or civilisations you could try Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth or The Mysterious Island. There’s a lost civilisation in H. Rider Haggard’s She and the work that reminded me most of The Lost Continent, although I enjoyed it far more, was Wilbur Smith’s The Sunbird which is set both now, following an archaeologist uncovering a lost Carthaginian civilisation, and then with the story of the civilisations head priest mirroring that of the archaeologist.       

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Warning: there will be significant spoilers for The Lies of Locke Lamora in this review. If you haven’t read The Lies of Locke Lamora, first of all why not? And secondly you definitely should before reading the review, besides it’s a really great book and you won’t regret it.

In one way I was fortunate that I was a little late to The Lies of Locke Lamora party, it meant that when I finished it, the sequel Red Seas Under Red Skies was already out, so no waiting, which is always nice to a committed fantophile.

After I’d read Red Seas Under Red Skies I saw a poster advertising it which said how did you top The Lies of Locke Lamora? The answer was easy, just add pirates! Put simply that’s an excellent review of Red Seas Under Red Skies, but it really doesn’t do it justice, nor is it entirely accurate.

My expectations were high, because I’m not at all ashamed to say that The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of my favourite books ever. I didn’t think Red Seas Under Red Skies could top it, and to be totally honest it doesn’t, well not for me, anyway. Don’t get me wrong here, it’s still a great book, it’s head and shoulders above many other things out there, and it’s a good deal better than a lot of sequels as well. It’s a Scott Lynch tale of the Gentleman Bastards, so there’s action, violence, profanity and tragedy. It is at times also uproariously funny.

The story picks up a couple of years after the end of The Lies of Locke Lamora. Locke and Jean have left Camorr and are in the midst of pulling another job in the not so far away kingdom of Tal Verrar. The con involves the owner of a decadent gambling establishment with the wonderfully alliterative name of the Sinspire. The owner; a dapper chap by the name of Requin was a little too like Capa Barsavi for my liking, but I did like his bodyguard/lover; a ruthless scarred lady with a mechanical hand (shades of steampunk there) called Selendri. The intervening time is filled in by means of the interludes, which return from the first book after a fashion, I always liked the tales of ‘little Locke’ that were in the first book, but many found them a little intrusive. That’s one thing Red Seas Under Red Skies has over it’s predecessor, the interludes aren’t quite as self indulgent or as unnecessary as they were in the opening book, that was never my opinion, but it’s something I have seen others say, maybe they were used to the style by the second book.

Things are bubbling along quite nicely until the secondary storyline; the one with the pirates, comes into play. I enjoyed it, it was a great swashbuckler, the superstition about never putting to sea without a cat onboard was at times very funny, but the whole thing just seemed to be an unnecessary complication. It gave Jean a girlfriend, there were lots of swordfights and nautical talk. It brought back memories of Pirates of the Caribbean (the films, not the ride), but most of the time I had this nagging thought of what about the Sinspire and the Requin job?

The book does return to that and like in The Lies of Locke Lamora, Jean and Locke, Locke especially, are revealed to be not half as clever as they think they are, and are pretty neatly outsmarted by their mark.

Frustratingly it does end on a cliffhanger, with Locke condemned to a seemingly certain slow death by poison. There is a 3rd book; The Republic of Thieves, but your guess is as good as mine as to when it will be published, as the author has been beset by personal problems almost since the publication of Red Seas Under Red Skies.

As I said it’s a damn good book, but it could have been edited a little more tightly. I think of two particular sections which could have been cut and not caused undue suffering. They seem to exist because the author felt they were good idea at the time. The Salon Corbeau section would have made a good short story and could have even been expanded into a novella, but it felt a little out of place here, and to my way of thinking the exchange between Locke and Jean and a dim witted, but opportunistic thief served no useful purpose, and wasn’t even all that funny.  The other thing that the book lacked was Camorr. I’ve regularly said that Camorr was like this extra bonus character in The Lies of Locke Lamora, and whilst Tal Verrar is an interesting place it doesn’t have Camorr’s soul, nor does it make the same connection with the reader. With the Sinspire storyline, the occasional side excursion, the pursuit of the Bondsmages (oh yeah they’re not at all happy about what Locke and Jean did to the Falconer in The Lies of Locke Lamora) and the pirate storyline, it just seems like there’s a little too much going on.

Red Seas Under Red Skies is well worth reading, but it isn’t quite the experience The Lies of Locke Lamora was. Fingers and toes crossed that The Republic of Thieves isn’t too far away.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Flashman in the Great Game Chapter 7

A lot of chapter 7 of Flashman in the Great Game is more of the same from the previous chapter.

Jhansi did not escape the conflagration that was engulfing India at the time. The first half of the chapter is given over to descriptions of the atrocities in Jhansi. They’re very similar to those Flashman has seen elsewhere in the country. The main difference with this one is that Flashman didn’t see it first hand, but has to settle for Ilderim’s lurid commentary, told in his lyrical middle ages Arabic. A point of interest was that Fraser chose to lay the blame for what actually did happen in Jhansi squarely at the feet of the Rani. In actual history she always protested her innocence in these matters, there is considerable doubt about her innocence, and obviously Fraser sides with that camp.

Due to his attachment to Lakshmibai and his encounter with her Harry says that what Ilderim is telling him can’t be true. Ilderim puts Harry’s reluctance to believe down to his infatuation with the Rani. What he doesn’t understand is why Flashman is besotted with Lakshmibai when she’s one of Harry’s many conquests and he doesn’t feel that way about all of them. This brings up two points. My belief is that of all the many women Harry has encountered and bedded he only really had feelings of love for three of them. Elspeth of course, Lola Montez and Lakshmibai. Takes Away Clouds Woman may also qualify, but it’s hard to tell with her.  That feeling is why he can’t believe Lakshmibai would preside over the sort of massacre, which included women and children, that Ilderim tells him about. The other point is that I think it’s highly unlikely Harry ever slept with the Rani. He was very drunk that night and she was veiled for much of it. Even he says she moved like a nautch dancer, and I think that’s what she was. A lady Lakshimbai hired to impersonate her and make it easy for her assassins to take care of the British diplomat she saw as a threat. Harry would however go to his grave believing he shared a night of passion with Lakshimbai herself.

Harry, Ilderim and the big Pathan’s men decide to go to Cawnpore to join the British garrison there fighting against the mutiny. On the way they encounter a group of irregulars. They’re composed of former civilian British clerks and businessmen and a handful of loyal Sikhs. They’ve banded together for the express purpose of hunting down and killing mutineers. They initially think Harry’s an enemy, and dressed and looking the way he is, along with the company he’s keeping, little wonder. He’s only able to escape becoming one of their victims by remembering the first name of the son of one of the band, whom he was named as the godfather of in Flashman, young Flashman O’Toole, that was a nice little touch, putting that in.

It’s rather disturbing to see the relish with which these civilized men pursue their vengeance. Understandable, but still disturbing. They’re attacked when not far from Cawnpore and only the courage and strength of Ilderim Khan saves Harry’s life. Once safe behind British lines Harry is offered that most genteel of British customs; nuts or a cigar as a rifle is thrust into his hands. Flashman looks down the line, and wonders if he’s not dreaming, because not too far from him is Harry ‘Scud’ East.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Princess Knight Part 1 by Osamu Tezuka

Osamu Tezuka's somewhat ground breaking work; Princess Knight, was a bit of an excursion down memory lane for me.

My original introduction to the concept was as a cartoon. I don't remember it being in black and white, but considering that I watched it as a very young kid (I can't have been over 5 or 6) and we didn't have colour TV until I was at least 7 I must have watched it in B&W whether it was actually colourised or not. Judging by the dates it was made and going on a lot of other Japanese cartoons of the time such as Gigantor it probably wasn't coloured.

I always liked the show, it was loud and bright and silly and loads of fun. I could only vaguely remember it, but the concept was basically; a pretty and spirited young princess pretends to be a boy and has adventures, she also had an odd little assistant, who tended to hinder her as much as he helped, and was intended as comedy relief.

I wasn't even aware that they'd ever published as a manga until I saw the first volume in a bookstore a few months ago. I don't read a lot of manga. My main problem with it is that it's generally in black and white, and I like my comics to be coloured, unless they're things like Cerebus. It sounds like a really silly bias, but it's not the only reason. A lot of manga is really full on with the action, it's written and drawn very cinematically. I find there's too much going on and it makes my eyes spin and my head hurt.

The idea behind Princess Knight is, for it's time, quite revolutionary. Before Princess Sapphire of Goldland is born a mischievous angel by the name of Tink gives a scheduled to be born baby a blue heart which makes it a boy, before his mischief can be uncovered God gives the baby a red heart, which makes her a girl.

The duality isn't really that bad a thing for the kingdom of Goldland. Their laws say that the kingship can only pass to a male heir. If the King and Queen of Goldland can't produce a male heir, then the throne will pass to the completely unsuitable son of the evil Duke Duralumin. So that although Sapphire is born a girl, her blue heart means that they can quite successfully pass her off as a boy until they can find a way around their ridiculous law. As punishment for his part in the mess Tink is sent to Earth to watch over Sapphire.

Most of the action takes place after Sapphire turns 15. She's spent her life being raised and behaving as a boy, while knowing she's a girl. Duke Duralumin and his henchman Sir Nylon have spent most of that 15 years trying to prove that Sapphire is female, not male, and put Duralumin's useless son Plastic on the throne.

Things really get interesting for Sapphire when the handsome Prince of Silverland comes to Goldland for a tournament and falls for Sapphire in her guise of a 'flaxen haired maiden', and competes with her boy persona for superiority of arms. The King dies by accident, Sapphire is unmasked and along with her mother and Tink becomes a wanted fugitive.

From this point on Sapphire's life is a whirlwind. An evil sorceress wants her girl heart, the Prince of Silverland is pursuing the 'flaxen haired maiden', while continuing to fight with Prince Sapphire, and then the pirates led by the dashing Blood get involved.

It's confusing and funny, it has moments of high tragedy and low farce. Osamu Tezuka writes the whole thing with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. It's actually a delight from start to finish. It's great because there's a second part that immediately follows this.

Will Sapphire choose Blood or the Prince of Silverland? Will she kill the sorceress and break the spell that has turned her mother to stone? Will Tink ever get back to Heaven. Will Sapphire keep both or hearts or give one of them up?

I'm really looking forward to reading Part 2. Be great to see the animated series to make a come back in the modern era either as a series or even a full length feature. The world may not have been ready for it in the 60's, it is now.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Red Seas Under Red Skies Read along week 5

All good things must come to an end, and so it is with the Little Red Reviewers read along of Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastards series. There are seven books planned, but as yet only the first two have been published, so this will be the last set of questions. The final set of questions are from Lynn of Lynn's Book Blog. If you haven't finished the book I recommend doing so before reading as there will be spoilers.

1.    Oh my god, such a lot going on I thought the showdown between the Poison Orchid and the Sovereign was brilliantly written and they were holding their own until Utgar and his nasty device turned up.  Well a lot of you had kind of predicted it, and I suppose we’d been let off too easy so far in terms of deaths of well-liked characters  – but come on,  did you expect something like that?  And how on earth will Jean ever recover?

No, it blew me away. I didn't see that coming. I don't know what I thought would happen, after all it's a Lynch book so it can't possibly end happily, that's just crazy talk, that is, but I kind of hoped it would. Jean is tougher and harder than Locke in a lot of ways and I'm more confident that he'll recover and move on more than I would be if positions had been reversed.

2.       The deceit, the betrayal, first Rodanov and then Colvard.  Even now I’m not entirely sure I understand Colvard – Rodanov was never keen on the oath but Colvard seemed okay with it all and yet in this final deceit she was more devious than Rodanov – what do you think was her motive?

I don't know that they really need a strong motive. They're pirates. Killing and deceiving is a way of life. It would probably be more surprising if there hadn't been another double cross.

3.       Merrain – such a puzzle, no real answer, the mysterious tattoo, the determination to kill everyone to keep her identity and that of her master a secret.  Does anybody have any ideas where she’s from and what she’s up to exactly and who the hell is she working for??

Merrain is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. I have no more idea about her now than I did at the start of the book. I think (hope) she'll pop up again in another book and we'll find out more about her and what she is, who she's working for, if anyone. I said all along she's running her own game, it's just what it is that we don't know.

4.       Finally we get to the point of the GB’s latest scheme, all that elaborate planning for two years, fancy chairs, gambling, dust covered cards, abseiling lessons – all for one gigantic bluff. I loved the diversionary tactic here but having finally reached the end of the story and, more to the point, the end result – do you think the GB’s are as clever as they think they are?

I don't know that both the GB's really think they're the smartest guys in the room. Locke definitely does, but Jean is slightly more modest and level headed. To answer the question, no Locke is not as smart as he thinks he is, no one could be.

5.       I must admit that I liked Requin and Selendri – particularly at the end – I don’t think Requin will go after Locke and Jean, he was even sort of cool and composed about it all, in fact he came across as a bit pleased with himself because he had the last laugh.  Plenty of good characters this time which did you enjoy reading most about this time?

They're a bit of a double act. They read better together than solo. I liked and loathed each of them for different reasons and in about the same measure. If pushed I tended to prefer Selendri, she was original. Requin was too much like Barsavi for mine. If asked who I liked most in the entire book it's Zamira, her I really loved. If she had died instead of Ezri I would have been devastated. I really hope Locke and Jean run across her again in the cycle.

6.       Finally, a triple barrel question, I know I shouldn’t ask this BUT, on reflection do you have a favourite between LoLL or RSURS??  And why?  Are you going to pick up Republic of Thieves?  And, where do you think Lynch will take us to next??

For me it's always Lies. I love Lies, it's one of my favourite books ever. Why? It's just so totally cool. It's all so fresh and new, and it has that amazing setting of Camorr. Red Seas is a good book, head and shoulders above a lot of what comes out, but it's rather fragmented. There's just a bit too much going on. It's almost like it's two separate books or stories jammed into one and they don't quite hang together as well as they could.
Am I going to pick up Republic of Thieves? Is the sky blue, is grass green? Of course I'm going to pick up Republic of Thieves! I've been waiting for Republic of Thieves ever since I first finished Red Seas Under Red Skies. If you go to Scott Lynch's website, there's a couple of goodies there, at least I think they're still there. One is the prologue to Republic of Thieves, where you get to meet a certain young lady for the very first time. There was the opening chapter to the book floating around for a while. I read it at the old Gentleman Bastards fansite:, but I'm not sure if the site is still active. A search may uncover the chapter. It's a beauty so if you get the opportunity to read it I recommend doing so. Fingers and toes crossed that we see Republic of Thieves sooner rather than later.

The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham

The King’s Blood is the second book in Daniel Abraham’s planned five book series The Dagger and the Coin, the follow up to last year’s opener The Dragon’s Path.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dragon’s Path (it even ended up on my top 5 books of 2011) and eagerly awaited the release of The King’s Blood. Fortunately because I read The Dragon’s Path relatively late in the year the wait for The King’s Blood was rather short. Does it live up to the promise shown in The Dragon’s Path? Oh hell yes!

It follows the same 5 PoV characters as were introduced in The Dragon’s Path: ambitious young banker Cithrin Bel Sarcour, cynical, world weary mercenary captain Marcus Wester, the scholar turned political powerbroker Geder Palliako, the king maker Dawson Kalliam  and Dawson’s intelligent wife Clara. There are also a couple of chapters from the priest masquerading as the leader of a group of travelling players; Master Kit.

For a book of this size and something that has the scope of a genuine fantasy epic there’s not a lot of action or world building, although he has created 12 non human races, but I don’t feel it’s all that necessary. Characterisation is Abraham’s strength, and that’s obvious in the cast at play here. They feel and act real. Their actions make sense, they speak in ways befitting their station in life and you come to care for them. My two favourites are Cithrin and Marcus. The interaction between Marcus and his Tragul second in command; Yardem, was a real highlight for me. Those bantering exchanges were a joy to read. I tend to like Geder as well, but for entirely different reasons, the man is a monster, but he’s so delightfully complex that it’s fascinating to watch his character unfold. He’s also responsible for what I felt was one of the book’s real shocking moments. I think I like Cithrin because of what she does and how she does it. So often in a fantasy world authors forget the reality of any functioning society, and that’s commerce, being a banker by upbringing and having to operate nefariously because of her age, Cithrin is right in the middle of that. I can only think of two other books that have covered this part of an invented world so well. One is Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and to a lesser extent it’s followup Red Seas Under Red Skies, and Raymond E. Feist’s Rise of a Merchant Prince, which for mine is the best of his Midkemia books outside of Magician.

The story of The King’s Blood picks up largely where The Dragon’s Path left off. Cithrin’s deception has been uncovered and she chafes under the restrictions of the officious clerk the bank has put in charge of her.  Marcus commands his company and as he always has, puts it’s services completely at Cithrin’s disposal. Geder has been appointed Prince Aster’s guardian and has power he is not at all equipped to handle, not to mention being completely under the influence of the mysterious priests he’s brought back to Camnipol with him after his journey of discovery in The Dragon’s Path. Dawson is still planning how to increase Antea’s power and influence and position his family better. Clara tries to hold her family together, while making deals and assisting her husband in every way possible.

One small criticism I have is the same as the first book, full use does not seem be made of the non human races. They look different, but they have the same language and largely the same cultures, which seems odd to me. There are indications that the differences will become more pronounced as the series progresses, though.

The 5 PoV's are largely separate for good chunk of the book until later in it when most of the major players come together and begin to impact on each other’s lives. Abraham’s style is gentle, but compulsively readable and he’s put together a cast of characters you want to read about. The Dagger and the Coin is rather classic epic fantasy, and with these opening two books it’s becoming one of my favourites. Abraham doesn’t do the big cliffhanger at the end of the books as such, but that doesn’t make me any less impatient for book 3; The Spider’s War

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Flashman in the Great Game Chapter 6

If the chapters in the Flashman books had titles chapter 6 of Flashman in the Great Game could very well be entitled Everything Turns to Shit.

Flashman knows immediately on arriving back at the British officers camp that something is wrong. He sends his female companion, one of Mason's relatives back to the house and goes to check out the jail, which is where he believes the trouble will be. Depending on how back the situation is he has every intention of getting out as quickly as he can, going somewhere he can safely reveal himself as a British officer and get on the first boat back to England.

While trying to get through the town he sees a mob literally tear apart a British officer and knows that he probably won't get out of this as easily as he would like. The notes indicate that this was one of the first British officers killed by the rebelling locals. Going to the jail is out, if anyone there recognises him as one of Mason's servants they'll tag him as a British sympathiser and kill him.

Flashman heads back to the houses. The scenes that greet him are right out of one of the circles of Hell. This is where the mutineers hit hardest. They killed indiscriminately, men, women, children, even their own if they thought they were working for the British.

Flashman goes to the veterinarians house and finds the vet, a soldier called Tommy and a dead woman, who seemed to have been named Mary. The two men panic and don't recognise Harry. There's a brief struggle from which Flashman is lucky to get away alive, and as it is he receives a nasty facial wound.

This incident decides him to go back to Mason's house, because Mason has a revolver in a drawer in his office, and that could come in very useful. Another hellish scene greets him. The lady with whom he had spent a delightful afternoon has been beheaded and the strict Scottish woman who used to advise him on how to manage the servants has been pinned to the wall by a tulwar. Harry takes the revolver, loads it, and leaves the house as angry as he has ever been in his life.

On the way out he meets a drunken mutineer who boasts of murdering the 6 year old daughter of the saddlemaster. Flashman knows the girl, and he liked her. He shoots the mutineer in the groin and leaves him there to die in pain.

What follows is a mad delirious journey through a strife ridden countryside. He has a fever dream that features Arnold and Charity Spring. These two men seem to be in more of Harry's fever dreams than any other figures, and I think it indicates just how much they terrified him. I'm not sure why Arnold, but he really does put the wind up Harry. John Charity Spring was a psychotic lunatic, so that doesn't surprise. He does find out that the entire country has gone to hell and is now being ruled by someone who has seized their chance and named themselves King.

Harry has to get out of the country, but where can he go? At some stage his disguise is going to fail and then he's as good as dead. The idea comes to him that Jhansi was well run and Lakshmibai wouldn't have given up her rule easily. Besides Ilderim had promised to wait for him and keep an eye out at a temple nearby.

Ilderim and his men are there as promised, although it looks like they've been in fighting as well, Ilderim's arm is in a sling. That's when the Pathan delivers the bad news, all the British are dead. Jhansi has become the same sort of hell hole as the rest of the country.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Red Seas Under Red Skies - Read along week 4

In the 4th week of the Red Seas Under Red Skies read along the questions are provided by nrlymrtl from Dark Cargo

1) I was much relieved when Jean and Locke made up, which started with Locke's gesture of a cup full of honesty with Cpt. Drakasha. Do you think that was hard for Locke? Or was he using this bit of honesty like any other weapon in his arsenal to get what he wants in the end?

Although Locke lies as easily as most of us breathe I think this time he was genuine. He does respect Drakasha, and they're kindred spirits of a sort. She's a thief of a different kind and life has kicked her around every bit as much as it has Locke. I don't think being honest comes easily to him, but he is truthful with someone he has gauged as being worthy of respect. That may be why Sabetha rankles so much, he was honest with her and then he felt she betrayed him by running off. Dying to find out the full story behind her departure from Camorr.
2) The Parlor Passage: We still don't know Locke's true name, but whatever was in that mist does. What do you think it is? 

I have no idea of what Locke's real name is, but I think it contains hints of his parentage. Readers don't know who is father is, and I believe there will be a major shock when that is revealed. Having very few people know his real name gives Locke leverage that he otherwise wouldn't have in certain situations.
3) There was an interesting section of the book that started about where Locke assisted Drakasha in selling the Red Messenger; he put on the persona of Leocanto Kosta and used the alias Tavras Callas and then Drakasha was still thinking of him as Ravelle..... Did using all those various aliases in such a short amount of time have your mind spinning a little? Do you think Lynch did this on purpose to give the reader a sense of Locke's mind? 

It can be hard to keep track of all the various aliases Locke and Jean use, and I think we've only seen a few of them. I didn't see it as being something Lynch did to try and show how scattered Locke's mind is, although that's a good point, it's more continuity to me. False facing or changing his name is just something Locke does naturally.
4) That was a sweet little kiss between Cpt. Zamira and Cpt. Jaffrim at the end of the Captains' Council. Do you think they have some history, or is it just innocent flirting that's been going on for some time? 

It's highly likely that at one stage Zaimra and Jaffrim hooked up, after all she still has needs to fill. Maybe he's the children's father. It shows her as just as human as the rest of her crew.
5) Jean and Ezri. Cue dove-cooing and little winged hearts with sparkles. Do you think Jean will stay with the Poison Orchid or that Ezri will leave her ship to pal around with Jean and Locke? 

I KNOW what happens here, but when I first read it I wasn't sure. The only successful resolution to me was for Ezri to leave the Orchid to run with Locke and Jean, because Locke isn't going to stay with the ship and if Locke doesn't stay Jean won't.
6) What is Utgar up to? What are his motivations? 

Almost impossible for me to answer this without spoiling something. The first time I thought Utgar may have been on some secret business for Zamira or he was a plant from Stragos.
7) So last week we hashed over that Merrain killed some of Stragos's guards on Windward Rock. But when Jean and Locke visit him, he doesn't mention it. What is up with that? 

The reason I don't think Stragos mentioned what Merrain did was that he doesn't know. Merrain's playing a whole other game, at least that's what I believe.
8) This week's section left us where the book began - Jean pointing a crossbow at Locke's throat. Do you think Jean knows who sent these crossbowers? Is he on their side? Is it a clever ploy to get him and Locke out of this predicament? Did you find it excruciatingly hard to stop here?

Again I know how it plays out, so don't want to spoil anything. My hat is off to anyone who did stop there, because I couldn't.

The Conan Chronicles by Robert E. Howard

I’d never actually read any of Robert E. Howard’s Conan work. I knew about the character, everyone does these days, but most of my knowledge came from some random issues of the Marvel comics, the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, and the ravings of a school friend who avidly read second hand books about the character, although I suspect they weren’t collections of Howard’s original stories (mostly for Weird Tales), but the work of other authors who took over the character after his creator’s death. I did read the occasional s&s novel, I was rather partial to John Jakes Brak the Barbarian books, but that may have been because I was 10 years old at the time I read them. I’ve never been hugely into the sword & sorcery genre, but I was pleased when Howard’s name cropped up on the list, because he’s one of those authors I always wanted to read, but never got the time before being distracted by something new and shiny.

The collection I read is actually the first volume of Howard’s Conan work, before the character became King of Aquilonia, but it’s still a very good grounding and a good enough sampling of Howard and the character. It’s a collection of short stories that were mostly published in Weird Tales, and it has a few fragments and drafts, which I assume never made it into the pages of the pulp magazines.

The opening story doesn’t even feature the ‘iron thewed Cimmerian’, it’s an essay about the history of Hypborean Age, how it came about and the environment that nurtured people like Conan. I found it odd that he wasn’t even mentioned, when a few other conquerors and heroes of the age were, and one would think Conan would have at least been of some interest due to what he went on to do and he was the King of Aquilonia for a time.

The stories are very much what we know as standard sword & sorcery fare. I can see how they would have worked in serialised forms in the pulps, reading through them is less satisfying. After the first two or three they become very similar. Some evil creature or ruler threatens a city or population, in comes Conan, destroys anyone or anything that gets between him and his goal, flexes his impressive muscles a few times to win the admiration of whatever interchangeable female is there, then strides off into the sunset. Despite the overuse of the formula they are well written, and you have to keep in mind when they were written, which explains some of the attitudes and language, and it’s far less offensive and prevalent than I’ve seen from some of Howard’s contemporaries. Conan also becomes more and more superhuman as the stories progress. By the end of the chronicles he was about ready to take Superman out without breaking a sweat. He seemed to be able to take on largely any magic or creature with his physical strength, which rather negated the use of it in the first place.

I would have liked to see Conan get a regular partner or sidekick, generally whoever he met, and was helped out by him or helped him with his goal, got either killed off or didn’t appear in the next story. I was particularly partial to former slave girl Natala, who it was definitely hinted at having a history with Conan prior to the adventure they both featured in, but didn’t appear in the next story. It is possible that Conan was so much larger than life that he simply overwhelmed any other characters in the stories.

Readers today do owe Robert E. Howard and Conan a debt, though. He and his best known character are largely responsible for the still popular sword & sorcery genre. Later authors have certainly taken it, twisted it around and improved on it, but it may not have existed at all, but for Robert E. Howard. Considering that he really only wrote Conan material for the final 4 years of his life, before tragically taking his own life at age 30, his output is astonishing. The Conan Chronicles is a thick volume at over 500 pages and the second part of it is just as large.

There are plenty of places to go if The Conan Chronicles gives you a taste for this sort of writing. The Cimmerian’s stories were continued by a number of authors; Poul Anderson, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Jordan (of Wheel of Time fame) and Harry Turtledove, are just some of the names who have worked on Conan material. There’s a whole slew of Conan inspired works, aside from the Brak books by John Jakes that I mentioned earlier, Howard was largely responsible for the creation of an entire genre. I’d also recommend the first 25 issues of Dave Sim’s graphic novel Cerebus the Aardvark, I believe the collection is entitled Cerebus. Dave Sim was a huge fan of the work of writer Roy Thomas and especially artist Barry Windsor Smith on the original Conan comic and the graphic novel was originally conceived as kind of an homage to them. The storyline of the first issue is largely reminiscent of one of the first Conan stories; The Tower of the Elephant.   

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Flashman in the Great Game - Chapter 5

Chapter 5 is a bit of a departure for Harry as a character. I don’t think he’s ever spent this long in disguise without someone knowing who he really is. He’s masqueraded as all sorts over the years and used various aliases, but I can’t count things like Beauchamp Comber in Flash for Freedom and Flashman and the Redskins, because that’s essentially Harry Flashman with another name. Makarram Khan is an alias for sure, but Harry is pretending to be an Afghani tribesman, not an Englishman with a different name.  

While Harry can look and speak like am Afghani tribesman, he can’t simply drop the training of years or prevent himself from reacting to hearing English. He is accepted as a recruit, but even the recruiters notice little things like the way he stands and reacts and know that he’s got some military experience. He almost outs himself when he passes a game of cricket and on reflex picks up the ball and almost throws it back as he was taught to at Rugby before making it look unnatural, and even then one of the officers remarks on his ability.

Before long he comes to the notice of one of the colonels, who offers him a position as major domo in his house. Harry knows that sooner or later he’s going to slip up in the barracks and things are getting hot there as well, with rumours about the cartridges the men use being greased with either beef fat (against the Hindu religion) or pig fat (the Muslims), most of the men are either Hindu or Muslim. Harry can’t be sure of this, but he has suspicions that this is part of the Russian’s plans. It’s got Ignatieff written all over it.

He doesn’t actually mind being Duff Mason’s major domo, in fact he really enjoys it. Partly because he’s around his equals (British officers) most of the time, partly because he can relax a little his slip ups won’t be so noticeable, and largely because he has a position of authority and complete impunity to smack the servants around.  That’s what he enjoys. One of the mem sahibs even tells him that her father used to have the servants flogged every other day as a matter of course, just to make sure that they were on their toes. They wonder why the Indians rebelled too. Harry imagines that he would have enjoyed being the butler in a large household, or a gentlemen’s gentleman. He may have felt it rather romantic at the time, but I can’t imagine him being satisfied if that were his lot in life, he’s just not suited to it. He probably would have found himself in the wrong bed at some stage and been dismissed in any case.

Eventually push comes to shove and the new cartridges arrive. Every man in the squad, bar 5, one of which is Harry as Makarram Khan refuse them on religious grounds. Flashman said it’s insane, because the cartridges weren’t even greased they were waxed, and it’s not even really necessary to bit them open, the recommended method is to rip them open with the fingers. The entire regiment, aside from the 5 that did as they were ordered, is found guilty of insubordination and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour. That may have still not put the match to the powder keg if the British commanding officer hadn’t insisted on a punishment parade, which heaped insult on injury, and the Indian soldiers were a proud people. There’s also talk of a name; Pandy, one of the first Indian soldiers to mutiny, he was hung for his actions and his name would become synonymous with the mutineers, who were known as ‘pandies’.

There’s a lot of talk about the officers families, their wives and children, and even if you haven’t read the book before you know what’s coming and that it won’t be pleasant. I’m actually almost reluctant to read the next chapter, because it is gruesome.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Red Seas Under Red Skies - Read Along Week 3

Welcome the third week of Little Red Reviewer's read along of Red Seas Under Red Skies. This week's questions come from Ashley at SF Signal. So what do I think this time around as we get right into the meat of this story?

1. Locke and Jean's ability to find themselves at the center of a serious mess seems unparalleled. At this point, do you think that Stragos will get the return he expects on his investment in them?

I'm sure Stragos will get some sort of return from Locke and Jean, whether or not it's what he expects is another matter altogether. Locke and Jean despise people like Stragos and they hate being MADE to do anything. They'll find a way to double cross him, no matter what.
2. Merrain's activities after our boys leave Windward Rock are interesting. What do you think her plans are?

Merrain is a really interesting character. Does anyone else ship her and Selendri? Sorry, that just slipped out. I can just see those two teaming up and creating havoc. I don't think she's dissimilar from Sabetha, well what we know about her. As to what game she's playing, I've got nothing.
3. Does anyone know why having cats aboard the ship is so important?

It's a cool sea going superstition that was in this book. Sailors are notoriously superstitious both in the real world and in this book. Cats bring luck, plus they kill the rats that get aboard ships. Because of this book I associate cats with ships.
4. The word "mutiny" creates a lot of mental pictures. Were you surprised? Why or why not?

Not really. Okay I have read the book before, but I could see it coming a mile off, particularly when their guide died.
5. Ah, the Poison Orchid. So many surprises there, not the least of which were the captain's children. Did you find the young children a natural part of the story?

The kids are a plot device, they give Drakasha a softer side, otherwise she's all hard edges. They're pretty cute too, and I enjoy the interaction between them and the rest of the crew, especially Locke, who is a big kid himself really and seems to long for a proper familial relationship, probably because he never had one until he came to Chains.
6. Jean is developing more and more as a character as we get further in to the book. Ezri makes the comment to him that "Out here, the past is a currency, Jerome. Sometimes it's the only one we have." I think several interesting possibilities are coming into play regarding Jean and Ezri. What about you?

Oh yes, I adored Jean and Ezri together and how they bounced off each other. 
7. As we close down this week's reading, the Thorn of Camorr is back! I love it, even with all the conflict.  Several things from their Camorri background have come back up. Do you think we will see more Camorri characters?

I don't believe any more ghosts from Camorr will pop up. Red Seas Under Red Skies is very much it's own book and is as self contained as The Lies of Locke Lamora was, for that reason you don't want too many Camorr memories. It's a little like when they cast George Lazenby as James Bond and kept referencing Sean Connery's turn as the famous spy. Lazenby failed in part because he was never able to get out from under that shadow. If Lynch keeps referencing Camorr he'd be doing the same thing to Locke and Jean.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Mirage by Matt Ruff

I probably never would have been interested in Matt Ruff's alternate history The Mirage if it hadn't been for a mention on Cory Doctorow's Boing Boing. It sounded interesting, so I had a look and bought a copy when I saw it.

Ruff has used an interesting, and I suppose somewhat controversial premise for the book. It largely centres around the September 11 attacks in 2001, but with one very significant twist. The attacks take place on the 9 of November and it is Christian fundamentalists from a fractured America who fly planes into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, the Arab Defence Ministry in Riyadh, and a fourth was aimed at Mecca, but was brought down by passengers before the hijackers could hit their intended target.

In this world the United Arab States are a strong world power, with their capital in the bustling metropolis of Baghdad and the US is a fractured country under the heel of a long serving and corrupt dictator, who is probably suffering from senility, leaving the country to his equally corrupt and inept assistants.

Matt Ruff has very cleverly and skillfully described how the world could be so different, picking out the turning points, of which September 11, 2001, is most definitely one. The world building in this is excellent and it's a superlative piece of alternate history. The Mirage successfully combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, political satire and contemporary thriller within it's pages. One small quibble I have is that the author has largely ignored China and Russia within his world. I know the book is mostly about the aftermath of the attacks on the UAS, and the aftermath, as well as US Arab relations, but Russia and China are still world powers, so should get more coverage. Even Israel, which now appears to be based in East Germany, gets more of a mention. I also would have liked to see more of the super Mossad agent Sinbad than we actually got, too. He was a very cool character.

The story really follows three Homeland Security agents: Mustafa, Samir and Amal. It creates three very different, believable characters with excellent back stories and makes them into people that the reader gives a damn about. Mustafa has never gotten over losing one of his wives in the November 9 attacks (he had 2, but he's largely estranged from the second one). Samir hides a personal secret that if discovered could ruin the life he's built for himself on every level. Amal is the daughter of a prominent politician and she's always trying to prove herself to her mother and live up to the memory of her heroic father, who was murdered in the line of duty.

It looks like a pretty standard alternate history with some clever ideas until the trio take in a terror suspect, who under questioning, makes the claim that they are living in a false world. It's a mirage. In the world he comes from the US is the dominant world power and the Arab States are squabbling backwaters who are only important because of the oil on their soil. In his world it was Muslim terrorists who flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Centres in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

It would be easy to dismiss the claims as the ravings of a committed lunatic, but deeper investigation reveals validity to the story, and as they dig deeper Mustafa, Samir and Amal find themselves in a mystery that reaches into their world's seamy underbelly and extends to the top levels of government. In trying to find a way out of this mess the three will be taken way out of their comfort zones and be stretched to their very limits before uncovering the shocking truth.

It does help to enjoy The Mirage if you have interest in current affairs and politics both before and after the events of September 11, 2001. Many of the key players in this real life soap opera appear, quite often in different capacities to those from which we know and remember them. Saddam Hussein and his murderous offspring, Osama Bin Laden, Donald Rumsfeld and even Muammar Gaddafi.

The Mirage is highly recommended and well worth taking the time to have a look at. If you enjoyed Robert Harris' Fatherland, then you would also really like reading The Mirage.

Flashman in the Great Game Chapter 4

Chapter 4 of Flashman in the Great Game is a long one and a lot happens in terms of developing the story.

Most of it concerns Flashman and the Rani Lakshmibai. The two take a liking to one another, although Harry says it is mostly lust on his part (unsurprising) he does come to like the woman, although he can see through her hypocrisy when she sermonises about how her people were better off under local rule without British interference. He does allow the British have made mistakes, but has trouble swallowing her comments about how she treats the poor better than they do when she's wearing a pair of sandals that would cost a common labourer or clerk a years wages.

Harry paints an appealing picture of the Raj in 1856 in Jhansi. It does sound idyllic and even Flashman is, like his countrymen, lulled into a false sense of security. Given their lifestyle it is not surprising. I think Fraser also wrote it this way to make what later happens even more shocking. Flashman alludes to it and any student of history knows what's coming, but it was still a clever move by the author.

Flashman also meets up with an old friend. Ilderim Khan is serving at Jhansi. Readers will remember that Flashman was made the Afghan tribesman's blood brother when Ilderim was 16 years old in Flashman. I like Ilderim as a character, I even did in Flashman, and he's fleshed out a lot more here, and is even more likeable in this; a larger role, as an older more experienced man, even if he is a tad gung ho and bloodthirsty.

Harry, as always, thinks Lakshmibai is every bit as eager to hop into bed with him as he is with her. At times the character's ego and arrogance is breathtaking in it's depth. So when he and Ilderim get drunk one night and a messenger comes alluding to having been sent by the Rani off Flashman goes to an illicit tryst.

He never sees the woman's face, she's wearing a veil, and she moves like a nautch dancer, which she probably was. Harry will always be convinced that it was Lakshmibai, but there is significant doubt on that point. Remember the afterglow Harry mentions some of his other women, including one called Takes Away Clouds Woman, who readers have not met. Things like this often make me wonder how far ahead Fraser planned all this. Flashman in the Great Game is book 5, and Takes Away Clouds Woman doesn't appear until book 7, which didn't come out for another 2 or 3 years.

Harry is attacked by assassins while still recovering from his hang over and the affects of his energetic love making. His life is saved by Ilderim and a couple of his badmashes, who followed Harry believing something may have been afoot. The assassins turn out to be members of the local thugee cult. Under torture one of them also makes mention of Ignatieff. so Harry knows he's in trouble, but he can't simply go home.

Ilderim suggests that he go native, pretend to be a local by the name of Makarram Khan. Ilderim knows that no one else will lay claim to the name, because he killed the bearer of it. George MacDonald Fraser in his brilliant notes at the back does say that Makarram Khan was a real person and it is conceivable that he could have died in an engagement with Ilderim and his tribe. Once Harry's established his cover he can then serve as a local soldier. It sounds insane, and it probably is, but if anyone call pull this off it's Harry Flashman.

One thing that does irritate me a little about this book is the extensive footnoting. Fraser chose to use a lot of local terms to describe things and people, and he explains them in little footnotes down the bottom. They tend to distract from the reading, but that may because I've read the books so many times I know what the words all mean.