Book Review: Swords and Saddles by Jack Campbell (four stars)

Book Review: Swords and Saddles by Jack Campbell (four stars)

An anthology of three unrelated Campbell/Hemry stories.

“Greeting death with smiles.”

“The Rift” retells the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa as science fiction. (1964 movie Zulu) Excellent. If only for this story, read this. How do we get the idea we can communicate with aliens when we can not communicate among ourselves? Indeed. Campbell/Hemry also skewers academic orthodoxy as an impediment to learning … and survival. (Campbell demonstrates he knows nothing about milk cattle.)

“The orthodox, prevailing view in my field is that myths and religions are just window-dressing, not really fundamental to world-views and not regarded by cultures as serious explanations for how the universe works.” “Where did anyone get that idea?”

“Swords and Saddles” another variation of the lost army unit story. Been done—and done better—many times.

“We’re not in Kansas, that’s for certain.”

 “Failure to Obey” is weakest. Trial drama, not a favorite. Tie-in to other Paul Sinclair stories, which I haven’t read. Opens with a little setup action, then shifts to the court room. Yawn. In a classic court martial scene that rivals the best in American literature, Paul has to work behind the scenes to save Ivan’s military career,” from the blurb is a blatant lie to suck in fans of Sinclair.

“In the final analysis we need to ask ourselves what we want defending us – machines which kill without hesitation on order, or humans who sometimes hesitate, sometimes think, sometimes decide that the order they’ve received may be unlawful, may be wrong.”

Book Review: Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan (five stars)

Book Review: Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan, Ellen Klages (five stars)

“Do you believe everything your Mama tells you?” “Not by half. But she did raise me to have respect for the traditions other folks hold store in.” 

Outstanding mix of history, art, consciousness, and a touch of fantasy. Florida’s massive freshwater springs and the adjacent tourist lodge serve as the backdrop for a series of related stories about residents. Hollywood, invasive species, and human rights contribute to the mix.

“The thin cotton of her dress sticking to her back, damp as if she was laundering it from the inside out.” “so hot and heavy with pride that he might have burned through the boards and dropped into the river hissing and steaming.” “Wasn’t really a whisper, more like a breath with a thought inside it.”

Duncan voices sparkling turns of phrase to describe the setting and people. Dialects are emphasized for a reason.

‘“Sorry, suh. I didn’ mean nothin’ by it.” Daniel had gone to the A&M for two years … but he could sure talk field-hand mushmouth when he had to.’

Book Review: The Unveiling of Polly Forrest by Charlotte Whitney (four stars)

Book Review: The Unveiling of Polly Forrest: A Mystery by Charlotte Whitney (four stars)

‘I thought a small town was bad. Well, living on a farm was a hundred times worse. Everyone made the excuse they were looking out for one another, but really they were meddling types, Sarah being among the worst.’ 

Excellent, enjoyable historical fiction. Deeply rendered picture of rural Michigan life during the Great Depression. Deeply flawed but wholesome trio of protagonists—often each other’s primary antagonist—creates realism and tension. Three unreliable narrators, one who knows it.

‘Farm life was tediously uncreative, and ending up with such a cruel monster was antithetical to anything I’d ever desired.’ 

Complex, realistic characters. Ordained minister who views the Bible as only a guideline; self-righteous control freak; and the princess of her own fantasy. All seven deadly sins woven into a mélange of mistrust, pain, and eventual growth. Each grows; one changes.

‘Once again, Polly was in the spotlight, but I was the one suffering. This went way back.’ 

Modern vocabulary (logistics, militias, context, dominant, and toxic), often by a woman barely out of high school, disrupts the reader’s willing suspension of unbelief.

‘Why would God bring me to this place of utter euphoria and then dump me to wallow in my sins?’

Turn of events at the climax was well foreshadowed. On-the-nose narrative occasionally explains too much, connecting the dots for the reader and diminishing the fun.

“So that’s it? Is there more to tell me?” “Isn’t that enough? I’ve lied to my mother, sister, and brother-in-law. I’ve lied to you and [redacted]. I may have been harboring [redacted].”

Full disclosure: Whitney’s literary agent provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky (five stars)

Book Review: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky (five stars)

‘This is nothing but a tower, and I am nothing but a scientist of sufficiently advanced technology, which is to say a magician.’ 

Arthur C. Clarke-ian take on St. George and the Dragon. Tchaikovsky tells the same story twice: once from the point of view of a very old, tired scientist (second class), and once from the POV of a young, impressionable princess. One filters everything through the lens of science; the other through the lenses of fantasy. Well done.

“You promised my family, long ago. Are the vows of a sorcerer nothing?” ‘I let myself behave in a remarkably unprofessional manner some time ago and here it is, back to bite me.’ 

Tchaikovsky grounds his parallel tales by flashing back and forth between the protagonists, adding their bewilderment at the words and thoughts of the other. Nice cover art.

‘No point studying the culture if it gets hold of our stuff and suddenly leaps out of barbarism and into the space age, after all. Where’s the fun in that?’ 

It’s also a sendup of certain Prime Directive series. I’m tempted to down grade almost every other contemporary science fiction/fantasy tale recently read because others do so poorly what Tchaikovsky does excellently. Do read this story.

‘Myths miss out all the sordid realities and preserve only What we wish we’d done, rather than How we actually did it.’ 

Book Review: By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey (four stars)

Book Review: By the Sword (Kerowyn’s Tale) (Heralds of Valdemar #4) by Mercedes Lackey (four stars)

‘What if they tell me to go back? What if they don’t want me? What if—’
“What kept you?” 

3.5 stars. Cute, but formulaic. Great, if you like Lackey’s Valdemar series formula, like many of us. Kerowyn suffers many reverses, but the reader never feels her threatened. Good inner dialogue.

‘From there his tirade went into extreme sexual and scatological detail as to the habits and probable ancestry of his charges. Kero leaned … listening in astonished admiration. His language was colorful, original, and quite entertaining.’ 

Excellent handling of cursing and sex, which shouldn’t be notable but is because so many contemporary writers confuse graphic with realistic.

‘She led her mare into the copse, right up to the water-side, and tethered her in a tiny clearing right next to the creek.’ 

Rough. Reads like a first draft. Many grammatical, typographic, and proofreading errors. Some may be attributed to OCR conversion to digital text. ‘door was halfway ajar’, ‘You take to much on yourself, it doesn’t interfere. So far it hasn‘r.’

“Deciding that someone’s serious just because they’ve had a bloody song written about them is a pretty poor way to make judgment calls, if you ask me.” 

Book Review: War Lord (The Last Kingdom #13) by Bernard Cornwell (five stars)

Book Review: War Lord (The Last Kingdom #13) by Bernard Cornwell (five stars)

“Why,” I asked, “am I always fighting for the wrong side?” “Even you can’t escape fate, Lord Uhtred. You must do God’s work whether you wish it or not.” 

A fitting close to Cornwell’s thirteen volume saga of Uhtred and the birth of England. Climaxes with a detailed description of Brunanburh, the most important battle in English history prior to 1066.

‘So many dead. They were the ghosts of Bebbanburg, drifting through the smoke-sifted night to fill me with remorse.’ 

Cornwell at his best. He is a master of weaving a fiction person into the history of a time to at once bring the history alive and to give an everyman point of view deep into the events and culture of that day. He boasts direct descent of the historic Uhtred the Bold, who lived a hundred years after his fictional namesake. (Do read the historical notes)

‘I might never know what would happen, might never know whether Constantine sought revenge, or whether Anlaf would bring his fleet across the sea, or whether my son could hold Bebbanburg against all that the world could throw against it.’ 

Book Review: Ike the Soldier by Merle Miller (three stars)

Book Review: Ike the Soldier by Merle Miller (three stars)

‘He went to a lot of trouble to appear average, to seem ordinary, to appear guileless. And he fooled most people most of the time, including most of his biographers.’

Published posthumously in 1987, Miller squeezed 600 pages squeezed into 1200. Pages of trivia, gossip, and speculation. Lots of quotable epigrams and original source material. Enough intimate insights to give the reader a deep understanding of Ike. However, given Miller’s Plain Speaking controversy and all the questionable quotes from impossible-to-trace sources, how are readers to separate be fact and fiction?

‘Omar Bradley later said, “Ike liked people and it is awfully hard for them not to like him in return.”’

Starts smartly with Ike’s years at West Point, then backtracks to a detailed biography of his entire family almost back to the Flood. No bit of trivia or controversy is too minute to earn a place, including advertising taglines from businesses cited.

‘He did not do much to interfere with the freewheeling reign of Joseph R. McCarthy.’

Miller gets verifiable facts wrong. For example, David A NicholsIke and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy, reveals that Ike covertly torpedoed McCarthy while never mentioning his name. (Miller had his own very public issues with McCarthy.)

“I want every American unit not actually in the front line to see this [Nazi concentration camp, Ohrdruf]. We are told that the American soldier does not know what at he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.” (D. D. Eisenhower)

Presumably, most of Miller’s material in meticulously researched and documented. His style was “warts and all” minutia, but even a one percent fabrication rate becomes tens of pages of error. How is the reader to known what to believe?

Eisenhower was “the wistful exponent of a simpler and lost America.”

Book Review: Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell (three stars)

Book Review: Sword of Kings (The Last Kingdom #12) by Bernard Cornwell (three stars)

“War seemed cleaner then.” “No, we were younger then, that’s all.” 

A competent addition to Cornwell’s lengthy historical fiction about transforming Wessex into England. Good, clean Dark Ages fun. New readers advised to start at The Last Kingdom.

“Why would I kill them?” I asked.
“They’re enemies.”
“They’re helpless enemies,” I said, “and I don’t kill the helpless.”
“And what about the priests you killed?”
I wanted to kill [him] at that moment. “Anger leads to savagery and to stupidity.” 

Honestly, disappointing. Formulaic. Poor Uhtred has outlived his friends and his enemies, but not his usefulness. Uber bad guy manipulated by evil superiors. Everything that can go wrong does, until it doesn’t. (One to go: War Lord)

Wars are not only won on the battlefield, but in the practice yard of fortresses. 

Book Review: The Stars, Like Dust (Galactic Empire #1) by Isaac Asimov (four stars)

Book Review: The Stars, Like Dust (Galactic Empire #1) by Isaac Asimov (four stars)

“The stars, like dust, encircle me/ In living mists of light;/ And all of space I seem to see/ In one vast burst of sight.” 

One of the first novels by an eventual master of modern science fiction. Written in 1950. Much better than many reviews would have you believe.

All young fools who get their notions of interstellar intrigue from the video spy thrillers are easily handled. 

Reflects a time as foreign to contemporary readers as science fiction set centuries into the future. A cool MacGuffin.

“The room glared with dials, a hundred thousand eyes,” “The second hand moved,” “Gravity was high so near the ship’s hull.”

Asimov commits fewer science gaffs than many more modern writers. Read his after word. Written before the invention of integrated circuits (and all the technology requiring them), before the first artificial satellites, and before the social and cultural revolutions of the last seventy years.

“There’s more to life than a home planet, Tedor. It’s been our great shortcoming in the past centuries that we’ve been unable to recognize that fact. All planets are our home planets.” 

Book Review: The Praise Singer by Mary Renault (four stars)

Book Review: The Praise Singer by Mary Renault (four stars)

“Anything can happen to anyone; I saw that in Ionia. Men born in riches have ended up washing a Persian’s floors.” 

Historical fiction. Building on what little is known about sixth century BC Greece, Renault builds a sympathetic and engaging tale. Tells it as it should have been.

“He praised my ode. He was the first to mention the lines that I had liked best myself. (There is praise, after all, which makes one wonder what one did wrong, to have caught the fancy of such a fool.)” 

Best read digitally with hot links, unless the reader is very familiar with ancient Greek geography, persons, and terminology. Other readers may find themselves adrift. Lyrical turns of the phrase.

It is bitter to lose a friend to evil, before one loses him to death.