Book Review: Valley Forge by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Valley Forge by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

(Four Stars)

“His presence alone stopped the retreat,” the marquis [de Lafayette] recalled in his memoirs. “His graceful bearing on horseback, his calm and deportment … were all calculated to inspire the highest degree of enthusiasm. I thought then as now that I had never beheld so superb a man.”

Another look at the founding of the United States. While the title implies a focus on the winter of the Revolution’s discontent, the text covers the whole war–in fact, most of the life of George Washington. Because, make no mistake, while there were many other stories involved in our founding, the central and critical role was played by the enigmatic planter from Virginia.

“He apologized to Lafayette for the threadbare clothing and substandard armaments of his troops. Without hesitation the Frenchman replied that he had come to the United States [sic] to learn from the Americans, and not to teach. Washington never forgot the moment.”

Unlike the better histories this one depends on heavily secondary sources. It’s a short cut, but it risks Continue reading

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Book Review: The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal

(Four Stars)

“Because I’m a professional, I actually made it to the gravity toilet in the centrifugal ring before I threw up.”

Hard science fiction with a heart. Kowal melds hard physics and space flight procedures with realistic conflicts of identity and personality. Even better than The Calculating Stars. She never lets the reader forget that this tale is set in the 50s and 60s, not the 60s and 70s. Huge, but often subtle difference.

“This’ll be the only time that Apartheid works in our favor.” At my puzzled glance, she shrugged. “You don’t know? We’re on the separate-but-equal ship.”

Many appropriate SF similes and metaphors. “Like the difference between a slide rule and a kitten.” “As if we were trying to make an ablative grief shield of our bodies.”

“What’s going to kill us next?”

Lots of quibbles, but only to the hardcore hard SF fans; they rarely detract from the story. One, a violation of Newton’s first Law of Motion, was probably committed Continue reading

Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

(Four Stars)

“I’m never quite so gleeful as when I am doing something labeled as an ‘ought not.’” Elizebeth Friedman

History is often stranger–and more wonderful–than fiction. This tale supports that thesis. Elizebeth Friedman and her husband William invented modern cryptography and in the process helped win two world wars and put many criminals in jail. That they got little credit is par for the course.

“The whole deciphering business is based on what we call the mechanics of language. There are certain fixed ways in which language operates, so to speak; and by studying the known elements and making certain assumptions, one can arrive at a result that usually does the trick.” Elizebeth Friedman “She could break a code in a language she could not speak, but Continue reading

Book Review: Assassin’s Price by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Assassin’s Price (Imager Portfolio #11) by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

(Four Stars)

“If we cannot change the times, then it may be that the only way to survive and prosper is to change ourselves.”

Excellent addition to the imager stories. A protagonist who isn’t an imager. Nice change. To tell this story in first person, Modesitt couldn’t have chosen better. Have no fear, imagers abound, but it’s refreshing to see them from the point of view of someone outside that tiny circle.

“Everyone has some meaningful choices,” returned Chelia. “The fewer you have, the more important they are.”

Our earnest young hero tries to make the best of a terrible situation, which only get worse as time goes on. Luckily, he has the same attitude toward Continue reading

Book Review: Treachery’s Tools by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Treachery’s Tools (Imager Portfolio #10) by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

(Four Stars)

“There’s not much difference between arrogance and stupidity. Arrogance, though, is the brother of treachery.”

This is weird. Ten novels deep into the series, and this story is the best of the bunch. Good world building and plot development, despite Modesitt constraining himself (and the reader) to a single protagonist’s point of view. What set this story apart is redemption. Yes, in every previous story the good guys were good and the baddies bad and no one ever changes. Here, someone does. With a side of self-sacrifice.

“I don’t want you to think I was that stupid.” “At age ten, we were all stupid.” “You weren’t.” “I was stupid when I was far older than ten.”

Good foreshadowing, misdirection by supporting characters. Modesitt shows his hand because Continue reading

Book Review: Madness in Solidar by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Madness in Solidar (Imager Portfolio #9) by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

(Three Stars)

“No matter what he did to try to improve matters, no one was happy. In fact, most of those involved just got angry and angrier.”

This new set of tales splits the time difference between the two previous series of imager stories. The new protagonist is indistinguishable in voice and actions than Rhenntyl and Quaetyl, which will be fine with most readers. The factions are pretty much the same, with everyone blind to everyone else’s needs and willing to believe and do the most outrageous things for their side.

“The problem with great power, the Maitre said, is that, to be believed, it must be exercised. If it is not exercised, people forget its greatness, but when it is exercised, they complain that Continue reading

Book Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal

(Four Stars)

“Yes, I wanted to change the public perception about women and our ability to be astronauts, but I had not wanted to be a pinup girl for spaceflight.”

Excellent alternate history about a large meteor strike on the United States in 1952. Recasts the space race as one of survival, not politics. Plenty of techno-babble for the hard SF fan, but focuses on people as they clearly might have been. Some may quibble with the environmental timeline, but Kowal presents supporting arguments.

“I can tell these are your friends, because they’re excited about taking tests.”

Excellent, relevant cultural cues, from the names of politicians and celebrities to products and pop culture–like “Watch Mister Wizard.” A nod towards Hidden Figures.

“That’s what politics is. Stories.” “And the story that they want to tell doesn’t include black people?”

Addressed America as it was in the 1950s: not the fairy tale of WASP suburbia. Kowal’s characters are Jewish, black, Chinese, and of course women. Intimate scenes between protagonist and her husband border on soft porn–aren’t, but your mileage may vary.

“Why are people stupid?” “Hormones. And if men are going to be led by them I’m happy to do my part.”

Stetson Parker starts as a weakly-written, two-dimensional antagonist, but grows in depth and believability as the story develops.

“That’s what we did. We survived. And we remembered.”

Book Review: Rex Regis by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Rex Regis (Imager Portfolio #8) by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

(Three Stars)

“A fool has many choices, a wise man far fewer.”

Another rousing fantasy in the imaging world. The final story of the Quaeryt thread.

“Quaeryt Rytersyn … you may be the most powerful imager ever and a hand of Erion, but you are an idiot!”

Well done. The usual quibbles about slow pace, repetition and poor editing, but it’s great fun to read. Probably even better on audio.

“Only the Nameless is infallible. The rest of us must do the best we can.” And Sometimes I wonder about just how infallible the Nameless is, thought Quaryt, if there even Continue reading

Book Review: Antiagon Fire by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Antiagon Fire (Imager Portfolio #7) by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

(Three Stars)

“The worst acts are often justified by the best of reasons.”

Another rousing tale on the imager world. Much repetition of action and angst from previous stories.

“What else can we do but accept what we cannot change?”

Laced with aphorisms which give the tome a sense of wisdom. Many are restatements of well-known adages. Book of Rholan is a boring, intrusive injection of sermonizing.

“What is force? What’s the difference between persuasion and force?” “You know very well, dearest. So does every woman.” “There sometimes is a narrow line….” “Only men think it’s narrow.”

The preceding is perhaps the best dialogue between Continue reading

Book Review: “The Guile” by Ian McDonald (Four Stars)

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Book Review: “The Guile” by Ian McDonald

(Four Stars)

“We want wonder in the world; things we can’t explain. We want to be fooled, even though we know there’s no such thing as magic.”

Refreshing short story about who we really are. Lots of magic terminology. Spoiled only slightly by too much explaining at the end. As he said, we don’t want to know how the trick was done; sometimes we’d rather not know there was a trick.

“Make the audience walk as far as possible from the trick to the effect.”