On My Mind – Going Home – 9/17/2018

“So Long As The Memory Of Certain Beloved Friends Lives In My Heart, I Shall Say That Life Is Good”

Helen Keller

I wasn’t able to post this weekend for the very best of reasons.  I spent the weekend in Austin, TX – Home of my Heart – for a weekend with 3 of my oldest and dearest friends and their spouses.  I like to joke that I left Texas in 1987 when I finished Law School and I’ve been trying to find a way back ever since.  One way or another, I’ve managed to get back for at least a weekend almost every year.

There are plenty of reasons to return – The University, the chance to see the Horns play, the love that I have for the city and it’s food and it’s music and it’s amazing, unique atmosphere – but the thing that truly brings me back are the friendships.  I’m not going to write much tonight – just share a few pictures.

These guys have been with me – one way or another – since I was 19 years old.

Every single one of us married so far above our heads that none of us can really understand how we managed to pull it off.

I do sometimes pity Thomas Wolfe – there’s never been a time in my life when I didn’t feel like I could make make my way back home.

I hope I never live so long that the sight of that Tower lit up for a win doesn’t make me break out in a big, stupid grin.

Plenty of season to go but that was one very sweet win – Hook ‘Em Horns!

Guys – thanks for one helluva weekend and thanks to you girls for putting up with our ebullient but – hopefully – adorable behavior.  It’s been a long, strange trip but you guys have made every mile worthwhile.  I pray that I’m not the last to go because I want you guys there at the end with Sue, helping her to laugh by telling all the stupid stories about the times we’ve had together and the memories we still have a chance to make.

In Hoc Signo Vinces!

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On The Shelf – Big Books – The Constitution Of The United States – 9/9/2018

 

For my Big Books series, I thought this would be a pretty decent place to start – particularly in an election year.  I strongly believe that every person in this country should have a copy of the Constitution and I’ve had one in my library for years – every since my time in Law School.

There are few things more frustrating or disappointing to me than to hear fellow Americans talk about the U.S. Constitution or make assertions about their Constitutional rights when it’s obvious by what they say that they’ve never actually read the document.

The U.S. Constitution is not a lengthy document but it is the foundation upon which this country was and continues to be built.  It deserves a place in any American’s Library and it demands to be read.  Not only do I have a copy, I’ve purchased and gifted copies to both of my children in hopes that they’ll someday read it and understand it as well.  I’d strongly recommend it to all.

Oh…and I wouldn’t stop there.  If you have the appetite, this neat little series of books also includes:

The Declaration Of Independence

 

The Bill Of Rights

 

The Articles Of Confederation

 

The Gettysburg Address

 

The Emancipation Proclamation

 

George Washington’s Farewell Address

 

George Washington’s Rules Of Civility & Decent Behavior

 

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense

 

Benjamin Franklin’s Book Of Virtues

 

They’re all important and interesting but the two that are truly critical are The Constitution and The Bill Of Rights.  Please buy them and read them.  It doesn’t actually take much time and they represent your birthright as Americans.

Posted in On The Shelf | 7 Comments

On The Shelf – Big Books – 9/9/2018

I’ve been blogging now for about 9 months – my first post was published on 12/9/2017 – and I’ve enjoyed every single minute of the time I’ve put into this little site.  It’s given me the chance – after so many years – to finally write again outside the boundaries of memoranda, email and PowerPoint.  It’s also helped me to double down on passions that have been with me all my life and that have defined me – reading and books.

My only challenge – one that is always lurking in the back of my mind – is the limited amount of time – between job and family and friends – I have to pursue this hobby.  I can usually carve out time to post on the weekends but I’ve been limited in my ability to do so by the amount of reading I can do during the week.  If life allowed, I’d be posting every day but that’s just not been possible.  The way I’ve approached this blog, my ability to write is limited by the time I have to read – a mutually reinforcing frustration.

It’s led me to find ways to post that aren’t linked to my ability to finish books.  I’ve added a category for movies and television called On The Screen and posted on topics as varied as “Altered Carbon”, “Chocolat” and “Avengers:  Infinity War” and “Tag”.  I’ve worked on my “Principiis” posts – allowing me to write on influences that have always been important to me but that I haven’t always taken the time to step back and examine in depth, I’ve added a Scribbles category in order to post creative work and I’ve used the On My Mind category to explore, from time to time, current and relevant topics.

That’s all helped me to remain productive but I’m also thinking about new ways to create the chance to write and I have an idea that I’d like to try.  I’m a collector as well as a reader of books.  I’ve been building a collection for almost 30 years and – for the 1st time in my life – I have the luxury of dedicating a single room in this old house to shelving and displaying that collection.  I posted some images of that room in this Book Nooks post several months ago:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-my-mind-book-nooks-6-30-2018/

This is likely an old man’s sentiment but I can’t even begin to tell  you how satisfying it is to have a room that I can retreat to, coffee or scotch in hand, and just read – surrounded by all the books that have been important enough to me over the years that I’ve wanted to buy hard cover editions and hold them close.

So…as a collector, I’m going to start a series of On The Shelf posts called Big Books – short posts that take only a few moments to write – which spotlight what, for me, are the biggest, most important books in my collection and why.  It’ll give me a way to put up a quick post, talk about something important to me and that’s not tied to the progress I’m making with my reading.  No idea how this will work out but – as always – I’d welcome any comments or feedback – both positive and negative.

Cheers,

Brian

Posted in On The Shelf | 8 Comments

On My Mind – Principiis – What Counts – 9/9/2018

What Counts

“It is not the critic who counts, nor the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short up short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

Theodore F. Roosevelt

This is the 4th of my 6 pillars and – as I’ve done with every prior post – I’ll link back to prior entrants:

This is the post that started the series:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-my-mind-principiis-7-28-2018/

I followed that with a post on my 1st Pillar, “IF” by Rudyard Kipling:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-my-mind-principiis-if-7-28-2018/

Next came a post on my 2nd Pillar, “Life A Good Life” by Marcus Aurelius:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-my-mind-principiis-live-a-good-life-7-31-2018/

Most recently, I added a post on my 3rd Pillar, “Six Mistakes Of Man” by Cicero:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-my-mind-six-mistakes-of-man-8-4-2018/

I don’t remember how I came across the “What Counts” quote but – to be honest – it would be hard for anyone who spends time reading about the history of the U.S. not to.  The quote is from a speech Roosevelt delivered on April 23, 1910 in Paris – originally titled “Citizenship In A Republic” but which later came to be know as “The Man In The Arena” speech.  The quote above has been the most durable extract but there were other memorable moments and here’s one:

“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer.  A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not … of superiority but of weakness.”

Roosevelt was speaking to the responsibilities associated with citizenship in a free society and it remains very relevant today within that context.  For me, it is every bit as relevant personally and that relevance is what has always given it a place in my six Pillars.

It speaks to two of the weaknesses I’ve always struggled with – both professionally and personally:  1) the tendency to worry too much about what other people think of me and 2) the fear of failure.  As I’ve aged and gained experienced, it’s been a very helpful reminder of just how damaging those two weaknesses can be.  In so doing, it’s helped me come to terms with and – more often than not – wrestle these two challenges to the ground.

Worrying too much about other peoples’ opinions was a defining challenge for me as a young man and one that’s taken me years to address.  From the day I started Primary School until sometime in my 30’s, I spent far too much time managing my interactions with others based on overblown concerns for the impression my words and actions might generate.  I can’t claim to have been unaware of the impact this weakness was having with respect to my decisions, my conversations and my actions – I was – I simply hadn’t developed the confidence and sense of self required to move past that very small calculation to a point where I was thinking, speaking and acting more on the basis of what I knew to be right.  I was one of those who would spend less time listening during a conversation and more time worrying about what I could / should say to favorably impact other’s perceptions.

Similarly, fear of failure used to be a constant companion for me as a young man – always hanging off my back – forcing me to think more about the downsides and than the upsides of any situation, decision or commitment.  It wasn’t rational – though I was all too willing to couch it within the rubric of perfectionism – something which has, to me, come to represent a warning sign or red flag when dealing with others.  It was an insidious weakness in that it always counseled against reasonable risk and led to closing doors instead of opening them.  Again, this wasn’t rational – it was simply a case of not learning soon enough in life to believe in my capabilities and my strengths and to approach life as an absolutist game where mistakes and failures were forever.

Don’t get me wrong – these weaknesses didn’t define me – there were plenty of times where I was able to beat them back and take chances or find the stregnth required to act and speak in principled ways.  More importantly, the good news is that over time – life and all I’ve done has managed to beat most of this out of me – giving me the perspective I’ve needed to minimize and manage both weaknesses.  I’ve learned that while it’s important to understand what people think of you, it can never be treated as an over-riding consideration.  I’ve learned that the first step is to understand who you are and what you believe.  Once you’ve established that solid foundation, you should understand the opinions and feelings and prejudices of those around you and use them constructively as you speak with them, interact with them, work with them in order to more effectively influence them.  Similarly, the longer you live and the more you fail – and you always will – you come to learn that failure is a necessary and unavoidable aspect of a life well lived.  Introspective failure allows you to learn, helps you become stronger, encourages you to believe in the ability to fail forward and it teaches you that the important question is not “what if I fail” but “what’s next if I do” or “how can I do this better”.

That brings me to the importance of this Pillar and why it’s always with me.  Life provides context and strength and growth but it never banishes weaknesses.  They’re always there and always willing to re-assert themselves.  If you truly know yourself and you do possess a reasonable measure of introspection, you’ll always be conscious of that risk.  Having “What Counts” always with me serves as a reminder of what I’ve learned the hard way, allows me to recognize when I’m at risk of allowing these weaknesses to affect me, to smile at them, put them in perspective and move forward in a better and more satisfying way.

Posted in On My Mind | 2 Comments

On The Nightstand – The Colour Of Magic – 9/9/2018

“Do Or Do Not.  There Is No Try”

Yoda

This one is about a promise kept – more or less – and it’s going to be a short one – more a cry for help than a review.

I noticed over a month ago that The Bookworm Drinketh, one of my favorite bloggers, was recruiting people for some kind of DiscWorld read-a-thon.  Without really paying any attention to the rules, I offered to jump in.  Don’t ask me how I made it this far without reading ANY Terry Pratchett.  Most likely, I just missed the chance to begin the books when he started writing and by the time I came to realize that a LOT of people like these stories a whole LOT, too many books had been written and I just didn’t know where or how to start.  All I can say is…better late than never and thanks to Bookworm for finally getting me there.

I’ve seen several bloggers comment that this is not one of the better DiscWorld books and that it can probably be skipped but I’m glad I started at the beginning.  I enjoyed all the silliness in this one, which leaves me hopeful with respect to future volumes – any book that can skewer Lovecraft, Conan, Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, Lord of the Rings and the insurance industry in one short volume is worth my time.  I’ve already purchased “The Light Fantastic” and I’ll be getting ’round to it shortly.

My one request – and it’s to Bookworm – hoping  you’ll see this post:  other than actually reading the books, can you remind me what I actually promised to do?  I’m pretty sure I was supposed to submit comments but I’m not sure where or how.  I also think I’m late in finishing but hope I merit a bit of flexibility based on good intentions.

Either way – this was good fun and I’m grateful to have found a whole new series that I can explore and enjoy over time.  That’s a precious gift.

Posted in On The Nightstand | 3 Comments

On The Screen – Tag – 9/8/2018

“It Is One Of The Blessings Of Old Friends That You Can Be Stupid With Them”

Ralph Wald Emerson

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

George Bernard Shaw

It never ceases to amaze me how things – so very often – seem to happen for a reason.  Sue and I stayed in last night.  It had been a busy week – trying to pack 5 days of work into 4 – and I was feeling a little under the weather.  After dinner, we wound up on the couch with a cup of coffee and decided to browse through our Xfinity choices.  For no pre-determined reason whatsoever, we chose “Tag” and settled in with the most minimal of expectations.

Let me start with this – I don’t know how the movie was reviewed and I have no idea how it did at the box office.  I don’t care.  We both wound up really, really enjoying the show.  It’s a superb cast – I’ve always liked Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms and Jon Hamm and Hannibal Buress has long been one of my favorite comedians.  The actresses – particularly Isla Fisher and Leslie Bibb – were superb and managed to provide some of the movie’s most memorable moments (I’m still chuckling to myself – thinking about Isla Fisher wanting to water board one of Jeremy Renner’s employees AND her line – “suck my tiny ginger b*lls” – I enjoyed her in the same way I enjoyed Marissa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny”).

It’s relaxed, slow burn funny – the humor coming from both the insane idea of 5 grown men stepping away from their normal lives for a month every year to play a kid’s game like tag (this is actually based on a true story that was reported in the Wall Street Journal – front page above the fold) and from watching how the men transform so effortlessly into these blended adolescent adults who throw themselves into the game without reservation or any care or concern for what those around them might think.  Both of us found it to be fun and funny and totally uplifting and went to bed thankful that we’d stumbled into it.  I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a quiet and happy home movie night.

One suggestion – do NOT turn this movie off until you’ve seen the credits.  I mentioned that this is a true story and they actually end with clips of all the old guys actually playing the game over the years.  I honestly think that may have been my favorite part of the movie and it also helped make a personal connection for me – likely one of the things that made the movie such a joy.  It reminded me that I’ll be headed to Austin soon to spend the weekend with 3 of my oldest and very best friends – watching the Horns play, drinking and eating way too much and spending hours telling all the same stupid stories and all the same atrocious lies.  It’s something that I’ve done – in one way or another – almost every year since 1987.

I don’t know how others feel but I’ve always been pretty selective about the way I use the word friend.  I’m surrounded by many, many people whose company I enjoy and whose presence in my life I’m grateful for – but I have very small group of people that I refer to as friends.  To me friendship, is a product of years of shared experience – often shared challenge – shared trust based on the confidence that the person in question has seen you not at your best but at your worst and still values you – loyalty tempered by a willingness to let you know when you’re acting like a fool AND have your back until you step off the ledge – a connection that can survive years of separation and allow you to effortlessly slip right back into a relationship that feels as comfortable as an old shoe.  Of the very small number of people in my life I can say those things about, almost all of them have two things in common – The University Of Texas and Sigma Chi:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So…Travis, Kevin, David…I can’t wait to see you guys.  I’m hoping to get the Horns a win but – if we lose – seeing you guys again will be more than enough.  I can’t wait to see your wives again and catch up on everything that’s happened over the course of the last year – know how your work is going and how the kids are doing .  I’m looking forward to telling all the same, stupid, 35 year old stories and laughing at all the same old stupid jokes.  It’s within the realm of possibility that I’ll drink too much.  Please make sure – as you’ve always done – that I don’t act like an idiot in public or that I don’t stumble into the pool and drown.

Hook ‘Em and In Hoc!

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On The Nightstand – Stiger’s Tigers – 9/8/2018

Apologies in advance but I’m going to over-write a bit with this post and most of it isn’t going to be relevant to the book.  I took a chance on this one and I feel the need to explain why I picked it – particularly given the fact that it’s not a title which most would have thought to buy and read.

Anyone who follows the blog knows that my primary genre is Science Fiction & Fantasy.  I probably give it 70% of my total reading time.  I do have a second love, however, and that’s history – particularly classical history – something that started when I read Gibbon’s “The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire” in High School.  I’ve spent a lot of time over the years digging into Greek and Roman history and I’ve put together a pretty decent collection of some great work.  I’ve posted pictures from my Library before but I have a dedicated bookshelf in the Office just for my classical history titles:

For anyone who’s interested in these topics, I’d highly recommend the three titles by Peter Green (one of my old College Professors) – “The Greco-Persian Wars”, “Alexander Of Macedon” and “From Alexander To Actium” – as a great overview of Greek History from the rise of Athens to the Roman conquest of the Grecian city states – it’s a great starting point and the books are actually very easy reads.  If you’re interested in learning more about Roman military history and the history of the Legions that served the Empire, I’d recommend a truly beautiful book called “Legions Of Rome”.  Not only does it chronicle the military history of both the Republic and the Empire – it also provides a pretty detailed TOE for a standard legion AND details the history of every Legion that was ever put into the field.  It’s a book that deserves a place in the library of anyone with an interest in Rome.

Needless to say, when I see a title that brings these two loves together, it’s an easy decision to give it a try.  I’ve read several speculative fiction / alternate histories of Rome and my favorite – by far – is Thomas Harlan’s 4 volume “The Oath Of Empire” consisting of “The Shadow Of Ararat”, “The Gate Of Fire”, “The Storm Of Heaven” and “The Dark Lord”.  I read these about 15 years ago and remember them as exceptional reads that I’d enthusiastically recommend to anyone.

Amazon offered up “Stiger’s Tigers” at the same time that it suggested “Hammers On Bone” and I made a bit of an impulse buy.  It’s Volume #1 of a series called “Chronicles Of An Imperial Legionary Officer”.  Here’s why it caught my eye and made it onto the nightstand when I have so much other stuff I really want to read:

  • Fantasy / Speculative Fiction:  Check
  • Roman Alternate History:  Check
  • Military / Legionary Focus:  Check
  • Winner of the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Bronze Award for Fantasy:  Check
  • Strong Reviews On Amazon:  Check

Low risk buy for someone with my profile – right?

All the normally satisfying tropes were there for this type of novel:  notoriously harsh but effective and dutiful servant of the Empire arrives to take command of an undisciplined, ineffective unit – duplicitous, political appointee senior officers – inexperienced but well meaning junior officers – tough and capable NCOs – break them down and build them up training sequence – a fragging attempt that Stiger foils and then turns into an esprit building event – and a series of engagements that escalate in criticality.  On top of this, throw in an Elven Ranger and a Paladin cleric right out of D&D and you have a mix of elements that might have led to something enjoyable.

Sadly, the whole thing never really got off the ground.  The quality of the writing was average – stilted and tortured in places.  The tropes – really dependable components of this type of story – were poorly executed – instead of satisfying, they were mundane and boring.  The addition of the fantasy elements felt like a bolt on, weren’t used to good effect, and were probably more of a distraction than anything else.  Also frustrating for me with respect to a book that teased thematic linkages to Rome and her Legions was the fact that the Author never made much of an attempt to embed the structure and terminology of either into his book.  Seriously…how hard would it have been to use some of the actual Legionary terminology to describe rank structure and / or kit.  I’m sure it’s just me but it felt like the author left an easy and relate-able element lying on the table. I’m not sure if he didn’t do his research or if he just decided that doing so would only appeal to history nerds like me – far too small an audience.  For whatever reason, it left me feeling let down.

Short to long – this one was average, unremarkable and represents two days of reading time that I wish I could get back.  Honestly, I probably should have known better so shame on me.  Needless to say, I won’t be buying any of the rest of the books in this series.

Posted in On The Nightstand | 3 Comments

On The Nightstand – Hammers On Bone – 9/3/2018

**Spoilers – Kinda**

I’ll start by admitting that this represents kind of a weird detour.  Right now, I have stacks of highly reviewed, well received books just waiting to be read.  My TBR list is a joke right now – it represents more of a retirement project these days than it does any realistic reading plan.

Nevertheless, I’m taking a digital walk-about on Amazon yesterday, right after finishing a post on “Ravencry” by Ed McDonald, and this under the radar title catches my eye.  Maybe it was the odd cover art…maybe it was the price at $3.99…most likely it was the Lovecraftian element.  I’m a sucker for all things Lovecraft and it doesn’t take much to convince me to download a new title.  Since the beginning of the year, I’ve read six books based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu’s Mythos:

  • “The Ballad Of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle
  • “Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff
  • “Carter & Lovecraft” and “After The End Of The World” by Jonathan L. Howard
  • “Sherlock Holmes And The Shadwell Shadows” and “Sherlock Holmes And The Miskatonic Monstrosities” by James Lovegrove

All great reads that I’d highly recommend if you enjoy a good Lovecraftian themed story.

Short to long – I hit the Kindle Buy Now button and opened it up.  It’s a novella coming in at about 100+ pages and it’s a quick, easy, pretty entertaining read.

It’s a quirky story.  The author doesn’t waste any time on developing his character – by the end of the book, you still don’t really know who or what John Persons actually is – only that he’s a Lovecraftian monster in his own right – possibly the last Yithian left on Earth.  There’s no real world building – the story is set in modern day London and takes place in a working class neighborhood.  The language is a bit odd – set in the U.K. – but Persons uses terms like “dame” and “skirt” to describe women – leaving you feeling like Mike Hammer might be lurking somewhere in the shadows.  There are no higher causes – John Persons is just doing a job and is not worried about the evidence of larger problems that come to light during his investigation – though in the final chapter, he does make it a point to remind himself that he did “we did good” – the “we” being both the Lovecraftian monster that speaks to us throughout the story and the human body he animates.  There’s really no one to root for here – the two young boys that have hired John to kill their step father – also possessed by a monster – are really only using him as bait to draw out said step father / monster.  In fact, they eventually wind up selling themselves to Shub-Niggurath – one of the Lovecraftian Old Ones – to guarantee their protection.  It’s a dark, nasty story.

Having said that, I really enjoyed it – enough to buy all three of Cassandra Khaw’s novellas – another John Persons story called “A Song For Quiet” – and her two Rupert Wong books – “Cannibal Chef” and “Rupert Wong And The Ends Of The Earth”.  Khaw’s fresh and interesting and I’m very interested in seeing where she goes with her writing.

Posted in On The Nightstand | 2 Comments

On The Nightstand – Ravencry – 9/2/2018

“To Everyone Who Thinks Writing A Sequel Should Be Easy Because You’ve Already Created The Universe:  Bwa Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha! Heh. No.”

John Scalzi

This has been a good year for Grimdark.  A fair amount of my reading time has gone into the new entrants in this sub-genre and I’ve honestly only scratched the surface with respect to the 2018 releases.  I’ve read and reviewed R.F. Kuang’s “The Poppy War’ – which most seemed to really enjoy but which I found to be mediocre at best.  I read and reviewed Cameron Johnson’s “The Traitor God” and “The Grey Bastards” by Jonathan French – two really good books that I truly enjoyed but tagged with the “Missed It By That Much” Maxwell Smart quote for a few minor things that I called out in my reviews.  I read and reviewed “The Wolf” by Leo Carew – another book that I truly enjoyed and would have ranked higher than either “The Traitor God” or “The Grey Bastards” if I assigned rankings.  As good as most of those books were, however, my personal favorite – by far – was “Blackwing” by Ed McDonald – reviewed here:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-the-nightstand-blackwing-ravens-mark-6-17-2018/

and here:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-the-nightstand-blackwing-ravenmark-epilogue-6-18-18/

The reviews will give you an feel for how much I enjoyed this book – one of my favorites to date for 2018.  It therefore goes without saying that I was very eager to receive and read “Ravencry” – Book Two in the Series.  I picked this one up as soon as I finished The Wounded Land Trilogy and jumped in hoping for the same magic I’d found in the first book.  It never came.  It wasn’t a bad book – not by any means – I enjoyed it.  I still really love the world that McDonald has created, his protagonist continues to fascinate me and McDonald sets himself up for what looks to be a very interesting third volume.  Unfortunately, this one just didn’t explode in the same beautiful way that “Blackwing” did for me.

What happened?  Too many little things:

  • The writing wasn’t nearly as evocative and impactful.  The writing in Blackwing just dragged me along – it created some very visceral images and the protagonist’s observations on the world in which he lived and the people he interacted with were compelling.  The writing here felt a bit flat and I’m very sad to say that I wound up skimming at times.
  • The plot and pacing weren’t nearly as crisp and the book started slow.  I wasn’t able to put Blackwing down – reading that book was like rolling down a hill – it grabbed my interest immediately and the story just kept accelerating – never giving me a reason or a chance or any desire to stop or pause.  It was much harder for me to engage here and it took me far longer to finish that it should have.
  • There were a few parts of the book that just left me shaking my head – when the protagonist headed into the final battle in a mechanized set of plate armor and a phos-powered gatling gun – I honestly just stopped paying attention.  At that point, all I wanted to do was get to the end.

“Ravencry” was only published 11 months after “Blackwing” and I couldn’t help but think that McDonald didn’t take the time he should have on this one.  With “Blackwing”, it felt like McDonald had put everything he had into that book – obsessed over every single word and sentence.  Reading “Ravencry”, it felt like McDonald was grinding out a necessary but annoying Epilogue in order to deal with the consequences of an ugly but unavoidable decision the protagonist had made in “Blackwing” AND build the bridge to a critical third volume.

Please don’t get me wrong – this wasn’t a bad book – it was actually pretty good.  I enjoyed it every bit as much as “The Traitor God” and “The Grey Bastards”.  I’m still on board and I can’t wait for the third volume in the series.  McDonald creates some truly memorable, often uncomfortable moments during the story and his protagonist is every bit as hard – often unlike-ably so – and fascinating as he was in “Blackwing”.  It’s just that he gave me one of the better books I’ve read in quite a while with “Blackwing”.  I wanted more from “Ravencry” and I didn’t get it.  “Blackwing” was filet mignon while “Ravencry” was flank steak.

Posted in On The Nightstand | 2 Comments

On The Nightstand – The Wounded Kingdom – 8/26/2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Show Me A Hero And I’ll Write You A Tragedy”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

**Here There Be Spoilers**

I found these via a review of the third book – “King Of Assasins” – on one of the many blogs I follow – either Bookwraith’s or FanFiAddict’s – apologies for not remembering which – but I can recommend both of them to any Science Fiction and Fantasy fans out there.  These two gentlemen have guided me to quite a few really enjoyable reads over the course of the last 6 months.  If you’re not following them, you should.  The review of the third book was positive and left me interested in the series as a whole so I downloaded all three and spent the last week reading straight through.

I finished yesterday and, as I was thinking about what I was going to write, the quote above came to mind – and not for the reason you might think.  Anyone who’s read these books might think I’m referring to the way the series ended – I’m not.  I actually found the conclusion to be both satisfying and, in many ways, redeeming.  The quote actually resonated because I did find the hero in these three books to be a tragic one – tragically frustrating – and I’ll get to why in a bit.

I should start by saying that I did really enjoy all three books – I wouldn’t have continued through the series if I hadn’t – and I find it hard to say which I preferred – they were all solid and entertaining.  The overall premise was a good one, I enjoyed getting to know the world Barker has built – the idea of the Dead Gods, Festival, the juxtaposition of Assassin and Heartblade and the characters – particularly the characters.  Interestingly enough, the characters that most appealed to me were the secondaries – Merela (Girton’s Master), Aydor, Nywulf, Celot, Nimue, Crast, Gusteffa, Heamus, Neander, Tinia Speaks-Not, Rufra (Girton’s King and only true friend).  I found them all – at least some aspects of them – to be fascinating.  It’s impossible not to put Merela at the center of any affection you develop for these stories – she’s the calm, sane, center of every storm and she is – in the oddest way – the most caring parent you could ever hope to find.  The way in which the author transitions Aydor from hated, contemptible, bumbling villain to lovable, admirable, bumbling hero and friend is incredibly satisfying.  Nywulf is hero personified and is the hardest death in these three books full of death.  Tinia Speaks-Not, despite playing only a brief role in the third book is instantly likable.  The way Rufra grows from naive, idealist to capable, weary, experienced reformer king is extremely well done.  For me, it was these characters that carried the narrative through three volumes.

The protagonist – Girton – is another matter altogether.  He drove me nuts – from Book One straight through Book Three.  He’s emotional, quick to anger, barely in control of himself and always jumping to conclusions despite the very best advice from all of those around him.  He’s the one character in the books that manages to grow and mature the least – if at all – over the course of the three books.  Had Girton taken the time to reflect on his own preconceptions and prejudices and listened to those around him offering sound advice – Merela, Aydor, Nywulf, Rufra – fewer mistakes would have been made, multiple tragedies would have been averted and Rufra would have had a quicker and far easier climb to the High Kingship.

By way of example – from the second book – “Blood Of Assassins” – Girton’s decision to challenge and ultimately kill Karrick – the head of the Landsmen – in order to defend the herb seller who had been accused of sorcery and who would likely have identified both Girton and Areth as practitioners – was a pivotal point in the series.  Girton was advised repeatedly and vociferously by Merela, Aydor, Nywulf, Rufra AND Karrick – not to go down this path and yet he arrogantly chose to do so based on an assumption that Karrick had committed a murder in an earlier portion of the book.  As a result, he killed an innocent and relatively honorable man even after being cautioned repeatedly by numerous friends that he’d not conclusively proven the man’s guilt.  He also allowed a fanatic who hated Rufra and Girton to assume leadership of the Landsmen – ensuring that they would ally themselves with Rufra’s adversaries throughout the remainder of the story.

It’s easy to justify Girton’s decision as necessary to protect both himself and Areth from a similar charge of sorcery.  I couldn’t help but think, however, that an easier path presented itself – one that a clever and capable assassin would have seen immediately.  Heartless though it might have been, Girton should simply have killed the herb seller before the Landsmen had the opportunity to torture and interrogate her.  Girton had, by this time, traveled the assassin’s path for decades and had killed so many.  This would have been a small mercy for the herb seller, it would have allowed him to honor the command he’d received from Rufra and the advice he’d received from his friends and it would have resulted in an easier and less painful future for Rufra.  Most importantly, it would have shown some small measure of growth and maturation as a character.

This sad episode actually highlights another problem I had with Girton.  These books are, in part, a mystery.  Running through the three book narrative are multiple open questions that Girton is charged to answer – why was Neander collecting and protecting boys and girls with a potential to perform sorcery, who murdered Arnst and who is the spy and assassin present first in Mariyadoc and then embedded in Rufra’s court.  Frustratingly, Girton spends the better part of three books either failing to answer these questions or coming to incorrect conclusions.  Ultimately, it’s Merela – his Master – who unravels the mystery at the heart of the 1st book – “Age Of Assassins”.  Girton spends the second book coming to all the wrong conclusions regarding the murder of Arnst – causing chaos along the way and, as a result, almost clearing a path for two separate assassination attempts against Rufra – both of which he foils at the very last minute.  While Girton does finally identify the assassin / spy responsible for so much pain over the course of the three books, he does it only in the final chapters due to an off hand comment from Neander – information that should never have been that hard to obtain.  Short to long – this boy is not the Detective that I would want assigned to my case.

When you combine Girton’s impulsiveness and self-centered nature with the sheer amount of time he spends being wrong about so many things over the course of three books, I couldn’t help but wonder why either Merela or Rufra continued to tolerate him.  The longer I read – the further I progressed through the story – the more I began to feel that Girton was half the problem.  I would have finished the third book with a profoundly negative view of the character were it NOT FOR ONE THING.  In the final chapter of the third book, years after the events that gave Rufra the High Kingship, it’s revealed that Girton makes an exceptionally difficult, truly selfless decision which saves Rufra and his reign while dooming him to life as a hermit and exile.  For me, that final chapter finally gave me something about Girton to truly admire – it delivered the redemption he so desperately needed.

I’ll say again – I did really enjoy these books.  They’re a very worthy read.  I just wish Girton had been an easier hero to stomach.

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