Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I Read Books: Irons in the Fire

You know how it is. The Dark Lord oppresses the kingdom until the One True Heir comes forward and defeats him and there is much rejoicing, except for everyone who has had friends or family killed, or who has had their homes destroyed and now has to work for room and board or who is starving and ill.

But then in the sequel, a new Dark Lord arises, or the old one returns and again there is fighting and disease and magical firestorms. And at the end, rather than try and reconcile with their enemies and bring them into society, they're driven into the mountains, or under the ground, or across the sea and shunned. Dark Ones they're called. Evil. Orcs.

And no one ever asks if maybe the problem isn't that evil kings are bad, but that all kings are bad. The problem isn't the dark ones, but the ones who say they're better than us - the true heirs.

Anyway, Juliet E McKenna is asking some of those questions in Irons in the Fire. Lascar, known from her previous novels as fertile ground for mercenaries and spies has been wracked by war since the fall of the old empire 20 generations ago. Since then the Dukes have been competing to become High King. Worse still, one of them managed it briefly, before it all fell apart again, so they know it can be done. So the wars go on and as always it's the commoners who suffer.

Then a group of exiles, or maybe emigres is a better word, come up with a plan to end the wars. If all the ex-pats they stop sending money home and instead pay the mercenaries not to fight, the Dukes will have to stop the conflict. This won't work, but is enough for an intelligencer to put them in contact with others, who improve the plan; if they combine that with what is essentially a general strike perhaps that will do it?

As they work through the problems it becomes clear; at every step the problem is the Dukes. So rather than paying mercenaries not to fight perhaps they need to be targeted better...

Mckenna's world has always been Early-Modern-Without-Gunpowder rather than Medieval*. With printing and widespread literacy, a rising merchant class and peasants leaving the farms to seek fortune in the cities it's clearly ripe for revolution. There's even a new kind of magic that doesn't rely on being mageborn; anyone can learn it! How very democratic.

If I have a problem with the plot it's this: I can't figure out how they're financing the revolution. I know how they're supposed to be doing it - with ex-pat money diverted from being sent home. But it doesn't make sense. Up until the moment they reveal themselves, striking at the northernmost Duchy, they've kept what's going on very quiet. So how did they convince people to hand over the cash?

"We have a plan to end conflict back in Lascar."

"Sounds good! Can I help?"

"Sure! Rather than send home the money to support your family you can give it to us to stop the fighting!"

"How will you stop the fighting?"

"I can't tell you. But it'll really work!"

"If it's alright with you I'll pass."

Apart from that the book is pretty good. There's a lot of sneaking around and plotting and changing plans and recruiting, as might be expected. And of course we end just as the revolution kicks off and the 5 remaining Dukes realise what's going on. The story continues in Blood in the Water and concludes with Banners in the Wind. Yes it's a fantasy trilogy. We wouldn't want to be too revolutionary now, would we?

Read this: If you want to read some fantasy with plenty of intrigue and logistics and no true heirs.
Don't read this: If you don't read fat fantasy trilogies.
Note: Although I have read 9 other Juliet E McKenna books, I have not read the sequels to this one.

* In the lands of the old Tormalin Empire, anyway. Other parts of the world are weirder.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Fish of the Day

Me: What kind of fish is it?
Dad: Pollock
Me: Hey, if you don't want to tell me just say so. No need to be rude.

I'm betting Jackson Pollock got really bored with people making fish puns about his work.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I Read Books: The Lost Fleet Sextology

In which I begin to review my backlog of books. I note that 1. this is space opera, so if you are uninterested in this sub-genre, feel free to leave; and 2. a sextology is not the same as a sexology.

The Lost Fleet is a 6 book long space opera series by Jack Campbell. The protagonist is Captain John "Black Jack" Geary, who disappeared a hundred years ago while making a heroic rearguard action against the Syndic fleet. Frozen after his ship was destroyed, he is picked up by an Alliance fleet making a deep strike into Syndic territory in an effort to end the century-long war. However it is a trap, and when the Admiral is killed Geary, as senior captain, finds himself in command of a fleet that is lost behind enemy lines...

My description of the setting reads like the pitch for a mediocre sci-fi Tv show, in which "Buck" Rogers "Black Jack" Geary introduces the 25th century to such things as rock and roll, unlikely fighter manoeuvres and sexism. But that's not what's going on here.

Geary is a hero to the Alliance fleet. However, like all dead heroes, he's used as an example to justify things he did not and does not subscribe to. He's remembered for his the courage of his last charge, when to him this was a manoeuvre of desperation and even failure. The long apprenticeship required to learn to control a fleet over relativistic distances combined with the heavy casualties in the early part of the war have left both the Syndic and Alliance fleets with a "doctrine" of mass charges and individual action on the part of captains. As might be imagined, this has led to a war of attrition.

Worse still, the war of attrition has lead to widespread atrocities in an attempt to break the deadlock. Geary* ends these, which leads one of the more perceptive officers to say
It seems so obvious, really. Deplorable practices adopted during the last century were repeatedly declared necessary if regrettable in order to end the war. Oddly enough we've yet to win. You'd think somebody would have asked before this why the regrettable but necessary measures haven't actually produced the promised results. Not until you came along and started us really thinking about it instead of just accepting it.

As also might be expected the economic, human and political cost of the war has strained the stability of both the Alliance and the Syndics. As well as having to fight the Syndics, Geary faces opposition from within the fleet from those who think his tactics are dishonourable, those with political ambitions that will be derailed if legendary hero Geary returns. He also finds himself the target of a faction who believe that he should be made dictator, and, awkwardly, won't take no for an answer. All of this, before the mystery of the cause of the war and the destructive capability of the hypernet gates begin to be revealed...

The books never stray very far from their Military SF/ Space Opera roots, but they are very competent and pretty intelligent. For all the talk of "honor" the Alliance Fleet is much more like modern navies rather than the loosely Napoleonic-era fleets (IN SPACE!) popular at the moment, which is refreshing. The point of view is exclusively from Geary, who simultaneously has to have modern situations explained to him, while explaining his old school tactics and strategies to other characters. The set up is very like Xenophon's Anabasis; the end though is closer to de Bello Civilli, or maybe Cincinnatus****.

I have the American editions, which have covers of Geary in Space Armour, often standing on moons and planets. Geary never wears anything but regular uniform** and doesn't leave his flagship, the Dauntless*** during the first five books. The recent UK editions have ships in orbit with a moody face (presumably Geary's) in the background, which reflect the text better, although the ships are described as sharklike, which isn't quite the vibe I get from the pictures. Anyway, the books are all named after ships in the fleet and are:

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless (Geary is daunted, but never despairing)
The Lost Fleet: Fearless (Geary is not actually fearless)
The Lost Fleet: Courageous (No arguments here)
The Lost Fleet: Valiant (Again, fine)
The Lost Fleet: Relentless (Ironically Geary actually dithers a little in this book)
The Lost Fleet: Victorious (Spoilers!)

Read this: For smart, well written Mil-SF/Space Opera that has relevance to current concerns, without being heavy-handed about parallels.
Don't read this: If you're not interested in spacecraft blowing up.
Be warned: That it is, of course, a love story.

* I don't think it too much of an assumption to suggest that Geary's position is also Campbell's (the author is a former US Naval officer).
** Actually, there are some scenes when he's in the nip, but we'll gloss over those.
*** The Alliance has ocasionally discussed naming ships after planets or people, but no one could agree on who got named, which is just as well as otherwise Geary would inevitably have found himself onboard the John Geary which would be embarassing as Honor Harrington found out.
**** Cincinnatus is of particular interest to Americans who consider George Washington to have been inspired by him in giving up his powers once the crisis of the American Revolution was over.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Conversation of the Yesterday

Mum: I see you're having fun.
Me: Fun? If it was fun we could get a small child to do it.
Me (Deep Voice): Stop scrubbing that pan. It's clean!
Me (Squeaky Voice): Awwwww no.
Me (Deep Voice): Stop it! Go and play on your Wii.
Me (Squeaky Voice): Do I haavvee too?

Frankly I should probably stop talking to myself while washing up. In other news polenta is pretty tasty for cheesy-buttery slop.