Thursday, 9 December 2010

Lucy’s Blade (John Lambshead)

Lucy’s Blade
-John Lambshead

I have mixed feelings about this book.

The plot will not be unexpected to anyone familiar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To summarise, a magical ritual involving John Dee and Sir Francis Walsingham goes spectacularly wrong and accidentally binds his niece, Lucy, to a demon. (Well, kind of a demon.) Lucy finds herself taking on responsibilities that good women were not expected to perform in Elizabethan England, such as fighting demons and a rogue sorceress. There’s a merry cast of clerks, old sea dogs (including a dashing ship’s Captain who made my teeth clench) and the Queen herself, target of an assassination plot.

There is a great deal to love in this book. The time period is well-described, along with the treatment of women in England, which while superior to modern-day Saudi Arabia was still barbaric, not least because Elizabeth was more than capable of ruling the entire country. There are few slips, although one does wonder how many changes might have occurred in history if magic – as was implied – was actually real all along. Of course, with the exact nature of Lilith as defined in the book, magic might not be the right word.

There is also a great deal to be annoyed about. Lucy doesn’t set out to overthrow the sexist and downright irrational barriers, or, for that matter, to use what she’s given to change the world. Granted medical knowledge far superior to anything in that time, among other things, she doesn’t attempt to introduce changes, such as fresh fruit to tackle scurvy. I’m sure her handsome Captain would be delighted to have such a boon! The flashbacks and the intersections with modern-day Britain are just annoying. The main body of the plot stands well on its own.

And then…just what was the overall plot? I expected Lucy standing in defence of the Queen, not…well, that would be spoiling it.

Let’s just say that this book had considerable promise, but fails to quite live up to it. It’s not a bad read, but really needed a rewrite.

One Second After (William R. Forstchen)

One Second After
-William R. Forstchen

One Second After was recommended to me by a person who read my The Living Will Envy The Dead and is set in a small American town, moments after terrorists (or perhaps the Chinese) detonate a nuke high overhead, causing an EMP that sends the United States back a hundred years. Vast amounts of electrical equipment stop working, cars come to a screeching halt, computers are rendered useless…in short, and it’s the end of the world as we know it. (I think that he overstates the sheer totality of the effects quite badly, but I can work with it.) People who are familiar with Dies the Fire and some of Stirling’s other works will not find much to surprise them in this book.

The story revolves around a main character (John Matherson) who is/was a former army officer who moved to the town to take care of his dying wife and bring up his two daughters. His wife died before the book opens, leaving him a single parent although he does have the help of his wife’s mother. He finds himself at the heart of the town’s response to the crisis and struggles to sort out what they have to do to survive.

It’s not pretty (and not just because John is curiously ineffectual at times.) The modern-day cities have far more people than they can handle, forcing them to expel people or be torn apart by massive food riots. Smaller towns declare martial law and try to keep back hordes of refugees who are convinced that the farmers have food they need. John’s daughter, who is a diabetic, needs insulin and the stocks run out…his other daughter, whose boyfriend seems to abandon his family and move in with his girlfriend, runs out of birth control supplies and gets pregnant. Forstchen doesn’t hesitate to keep hitting them with tragedy after tragedy. They are forced to discuss possibilities like deliberately starving some people to save others, or looting survivalists to feed the rest of the town, or…they actually come up with some quite neat solutions to their problems.

(One I rather liked was an announcement that anyone who wanted a ration card had to have his home and property searched to ensure that they were not concealing food.)

They also discover just how selfish some people can be. A nearby larger town has enough food to feed them all for quite some time, yet the town leaders are driving out refugees to make their stock last longer, trying to force the hero’s town to take lots of people. (They refuse.) Druggies attack an old folks home and take drugs – when captured, they scream for a lawyer. The hero kills them publicly and makes a moving speech about it. There are some moments of genuine amusement and some of pain. The hero sees thousands of people who need help, but helping even a handful of them would exhaust their merger supplies quickly.

And then there’s the traditional attack from fanatic cannibals. My main gripe is that this starts and ends very quickly towards the end of the book. It really needed more build-up and suchlike before the war actually began. As it is, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on – which, given that the hero is the CO of the defenders, rather worrying. Forstchen spends more time dwelling on the agonies than the adventure.

The post-war world is odd, to say the least. The US is effectively destroyed. Parts of it are ruled by religious fanatics like the ones John destroyed. Iran and North Korea got blasted. China has a large presence in the western USA…which makes little sense. The Chinese Navy couldn’t stand up to the USN and most of the USN escaped the pulse. They could easily move a few subs into the area and sink all the Chinese transports until they get the idea. I’d have expected a Mexican intrusion, although the Mexicans probably got hit by the pulse as well. I’d have liked to see more of the post-war world.

Overall, I quite enjoyed the book. One thing that did nag at me is that the characters kept telling each other how stupid some people could be. A college that didn’t have a ROTC training program for kids, or people who think that the end of technology makes the world much better. I quite agree with Forstchen that such people deserve everything they get in a post-holocaust world, but he repeats this point time and time again, including lines about how stupid they all were to have ignored the threat. Rather less importantly, the book needed a good editor. There were quite a few grammar errors in the text.

Maybe not an instant classic, but it stands up well compared to DTF.

At least its not as hopeless.

Secret Invasion

Secret Invasion

What if they held a secret invasion and no one came?

Marvel, to give it its due, is generally better at producing massive crossover events than DC. DC’s stories are always more dependent on making you buy spin-offs and tie-in events than Marvels, forcing you to either buy more comics or miss out parts of the story. The reason I don’t like Infinitive Crisis and Final Crisis is because the story is too dependent on the tie-ins and it’s difficult to get some idea of everything that’s going on. Civil War and World War Hulk, by contrast, managed to keep a coherent storyline and most of the tie-ins could be read or not, as you liked.

But Secret Invasion is little more than a vast disappointment.

Regular readers were introduced to the concept of the Skulls (shape-changing aliens from outer space) infiltrating the Marvel universe a few years ago, shaping the universe to weaken the heroes in preparation for a massive invasion. They started the Civil War (although at least they avoided making Tony Stark a skull), shattered the Avengers and laid the groundwork for the invasion. When a handful of Skulls were discovered, Tony Stark (Iron Man) started to try to prepare for the invasion, but it was too late. The Skulls were on their way.

So far, so good.

SWORD detects a Skull ship entering Earth’s atmosphere and Stark sends the Mighty Avengers to investigate, encountering the New Avengers, their on-the-run former allies, in the Savage Land. The ship opens, revealing heroes from a kinder, gentler era, while the Skulls put their plan into operation. The world communications and defence networks go down. SWORD is taken out. Prisons are busted open. A mighty fleet of skull ships attack New York City. The new heroes are revealed to be skulls. The real heroes return to New York. They fight the skulls and beat them. That’s it. Oh, and the Wasp dies as well.

Bah, Humbug.

It took eight issues and a day, comic book time, to end the invasion. I am not impressed. The skulls were an overwhelming threat, but now…now, they were just swept aside. There are so many problems with this series that it’s hard to believe that the early promise was swept aside to be replaced with this. There was so much promise here, but now it just looks as if the universe has been rebooted yet again.

Questions: why weren't the originals (the people the skulls replaced) simply killed? Why didn’t the ship that crashed in the Savage Land have a mighty bomb onboard? Why did the Wasp die? What happened to the President and the rest of the world’s governments? Where was the military? All that lead-up and that’s all that Nick Fury did?


Conclusion; good artwork, great lead-up, poor storytelling and flawed execution. It was nice to see Maria Hill having such a good role for once, and the new Captain Britain series is well worth a read, but everything else…meh. Next time, Marvel, get Warren Ellis to write it.

Terror Terror Terror: The Solution to Muslim Terror (Anon)

Terror Terror Terror: The Solution to Muslim Terror

One of the downsides of my departure from AH.COM and the sheer volume of shit pushed out by my detractors about me is that I get emails from people who have views that make John Ringo and Tom Kratman look far-left. One of them – mentioning no names here – mentioned a rather odd book entitled Terror Terror Terror, written by a collaborative group under the name of V. Igilante. (Very cute, I don’t think.) The book’s own blurb says that this book was an email internet collaboration by over 60 authors and editors. The authors have a wide range of backgrounds and had a great time sharing and collaborating with each other.

It is complete and utter tripe.

The basic idea is simple. A moderate Muslim believes that Islam is in danger from radical Muslim terrorists, who want to impose their beliefs, not only on their own societies, but also on the entire world. He assembles a group of American and Russian terrorists to terrorize the terrorists, which they do by crashing a plane into Mecca and blowing up an entire city in Iran. Somehow, this convinces most terrorist leaders to stop fighting…what?

The book had, I will agree, an interesting core concept. The problem was that it fell apart quickly, because the book was very badly edited. We are treated to several discourses on the roots of Islamic terror – not always particularly accurate ones either – and too much attention is paid to details that are simply unimportant to the story. It also ignores other issues. Bombing Mecca would almost certainly trigger riots right across the world; bombing Iran would certainly cause suspicions that the US had provided the nuke, or even carried out the bombing raid itself.

And terrorists don’t break that easily. The root causes of what the book describes as ‘Muslim terror’ aren’t so easy to deal with. OBL and his fellow terrorists don’t give a shit about anything, but their own power; they will quite happily shit over their religion to win, kill their own people, commit vile acts and atrocities…let us not forget that the people who have suffered the most at the hands of AQ have been their so-called fellow Muslims.

There is much serious food for thought in this book, but it really needed a better editor and someone with a sense of perspective. It also needed less of the ‘all Muslims are bastards,’ particularly when one of the main characters was a Muslim.

No Expenses Spared (Robert Winnett & Gordon Rayner)

No Expenses Spared
-Robert Winnett & Gordon Rayner

Why do we pay taxes again?

It is one of the ironies of Britain that despite frequent complaints about bad government from all sides of the political spectrum, the UK is actually reasonably well-governed. Certainly, there are exceptions and balls-ups aplenty, but by and large Britain is a far nicer place to live than…say, pretty much anywhere outside the First World. Just ask those nice protesters who throng through our major cities every time something happens outside Britain’s control – if they lived in Iran, or Zimbabwe, they would be dead.

And then the whole expenses scandal broke.

The elected leaders of the country – the MPs – receive a certain amount of money as a spending allowance. The idea was that poorer MPs would require assistance from public funds to handle their role. (Politics is an expensive business.) The whole problem was that the system suffered from incredibly limited oversight and it was almost tailor-made for abuse, and it was abused. The story presented by The Daily Telegraph was almost beyond belief. MPs were claiming expenses for almost anything you could imagine and defrauding the taxpayer of millions of pounds.

No Expenses Spared starts with a nod to Labour’s botched Freedom of Information Act – watered down to make it surprisingly hard to use – and the handful of campaigners who tried to learn the innermost secrets of MPs finances. Their successes were comparatively limited until a whistleblower – his name remains unknown – sent the Telegraph a CD containing the innermost details of expenses, implicating almost all of the Honourable Members, including Gordon Brown. The agonies the newspaper went through as it checked the data, worried constantly about legal repression and injunctions that might have buried the story, are depicted before the newspaper finally ran with the story. It was a bombshell.

Over the next few weeks and months, the British population was treated to discovery after discovery, from the criminal to the absurd. (One MP claimed a phantom mortgage, another claimed for a duck house and a third claimed for female sanitary supplies.) It may have started with Labour, yet all of the major parties were rapidly implicated. The Tories may have been the party of the wealthy, yet they had many MPs just as obnoxious as Labour MPs. The only party that seemed to be spared was the BNP!

There are villains aplenty in this book, starting with the Speaker, who was forced to resign, the Prime Minister and hundreds of MPs who seemed to have lost all touch with reality. There were a handful of MPs who were ‘saints’ with surprisingly clean hands. Gordon Brown had lost control so badly that his leadership was seriously challenged and had a prospective candidate come forward, he might have been voted out of the Labour party. His Cabinet seemed to be in a state of permanent disintegration ever since the scandal broke. MPs were walking around shell-shocked, wondering who would be the next to incur the public’s anger.

[The former Speaker was then shamefully granted a peerage and allowed to take a seat in the House of Lords.]

The major politician who came out of it best was unquestionably David Cameron. He reacted with speed, decisiveness and ruthlessness, coming down hard on any Tory MPs who were caught red-handed. (Cameron’s claims made boring reading.) Tory MPs would face a ‘Star Chamber’ in addition to the normal tests and any who refused would be expelled from the Party. It was, as some commenters remarked, the moment when Cameron first showed that he had PM potential. A number of Tory MPs were caught and decided that they would not stand for re-election, or left at once.

The book reads, at times, like a fantasy novel. The claims are just unbelievable. Shahid Malik, the UK's first Muslim to be a Government Minister, accused the newspaper of being racist, in printing a picture of him beside an image of a man who looked (just slightly) like Bin Laden. The man was actually a rather questionable businessman who was implicitly involved in Malik’s activities and Malik’s attempts at legal action went nowhere. Malik, while one of the villains of the piece, was luckier than most. He was allowed to rejoin the government after being whitewashed (hah) and cleared by a second inquiry into his conduct.

And yet he was far from the worst. What about the wealthy-as-Midas Tory who ordered a Duck House? The MPs who kept altering their second homes to claim expenses for needless repairs? The MPs who allowed their relatives to work in their offices, or live in their homes without rent, or…the list goes on and on. It’s sickening.

I tend to dislike books published immediately after – or even during – an event. They tend to lack the perspective of more balanced works, yet No Expenses Spared is surprisingly well-balanced and focused. The authors are clearly more at home in the newsroom than writing factual manuscripts, but the book – after a slightly clumsy start – gets going with a roar. It is, and remains, a very through review of the whole affair – at least until the book was published!

I would advise every Briton, of every political stripe, to read this book before the next election in 2010. Not only is it good reading, but it is of vital political importance to the British political landscape. The rot at the core of the House of Commons threatens the very heart of British democracy. No major Party escaped the taint.

Read it and pray.