Monday, January 2, 2017

For a Change, Let's Talk About Actual Books (Part 21)

I guess it's not really "a change" if we've done it 20 other times already, is it?  Oh well, it's still worth looking at the non-ponyfic I'm currently in the middle of.  Especially since post-Christmas (and thus, post book-presents) is primo reading time!  My literary habits for your perusal and judgement, below the break.

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

What it is:  The story of a reluctant draftee in a 1000-year intersteller war against an advanced alien race, and how he deals with the psychological rigors both of justifying killing creatures in order to "gain" a lifeless rock, and (because of time dilation) returning home to a world he doesn't recognize, with norms he can barely understand.

How I'm liking it so far:  An unabashed Vietnam War allegory, The Forever War is one of those "important" books that I've never gotten around to reading... until now!  I must say, as I near the end of the book, that I'm impressed.  Haldeman really captures the human side of war, and the toll it takes on those who fight it.  Moreover, he wraps it all in a well-realized hard(well, hard-ish)-sci-fi setting, and keeps his allegory story-relevant and setting-appropriate--no mean feat when it's as pervasively front-and-center as is the case here.

Recommendation:  This is a genre classic (it won the Hugo, the Locus and the Nebula awards), and it's easy to see why.  This is no lighthearted space opera, but if you're looking for a bleak but important work of science fiction, The Forever War is a must-read.

Traditional Irish Fairy Tales, by James Stephens

What it is:  A collection of Irish legends, sagas, and folklore.

How I'm liking it so far:  A mix of pagan and post-Christian stories, the stories in this set vary greatly in tone and... well, "the moral and ethical grounding of their time as reflected in their style" isn't a word we have in the English language, but it'd be useful right about now if we did.  What doesn't vary is Stephens' voice, which is dry and reserved in a way I quite enjoyed.  These stories aren't presented in a fully academic format, but they are closer to that than most modern adaptations (these were first published in 1920), and the presentation here is more to my taste in any case.

Recommendation:  A bit slow-paced, this collection might not appeal to readers looking for something high-engagement or "modern" in its writing style.  But with that said, it's an excellent introduction to a few traditional Gaelic heroes and their legendary travails.

An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, by Shashi Tharoor

What it is:  A history of the British colonization/occupation of India, aimed specifically at refuting the idea that there was anything benevolent or moral about the military and civilian atrocities committed by Britain.

How I'm liking it so far:  Before I started reading this book, I don't think I would have described British colonialism in India as "benevolent," but I certainly thought of it as much less brutal and more humane than, say, the French colonialism in Southeast Asia, or Belgian in Africa.  Tharoor directly attacks the idea that British actions were either a civilizing or a moderating influence, and he doesn't lack for evidence; this book reads like a list of atrocities (ranging from humanitarian to fiscal to purely ethical), all meticulously documented.  It's frankly overwhelming--but that's its intention.

Recommendation:  Anyone whose picture of British colonialism is heavily colored by Kipling (as mine is) should read this book, if only to help disabuse any misperceptions which that perspective might allow to fester.  Anyone whose immediate reaction to my summary is to think "okay, but..." should also pick this book up, as it directly addresses and refutes all of the common apologetics.  Just don't read this story if you don't want to be numbed and appalled in equal measure.

Seven-Point Star, by G.S. Taylor

What it is:  In an alternate history where the Central Powers won WWI thanks to their development and research of magical powers, a professional thief finds that a failed heist thrusts her into the center of techno-magical war of intrigue.

How I'm liking it so far:  The debut book by the author (better known in ponyfic circles as Jawjoe), this is a story I've only just started.  Even at this early juncture, though, it seems to have many of the hallmarks which I associate with him as an author: self-aware use of common tropes, a fug of cynicism which envelops characters and setting alike, biting sarcasm, and a tendency to use the authorial soapbox to its fullest.  So far, I find I'm liking the mix quite well--the "cynicism" thing in particular plays much better in an original setting than it sometimes did in Equestria.  There's a bit more "take that" in some of the AU developments than I felt was strictly necessary, but that's my only substantive complaint at this point, and the mix of humor (again, mostly in the form of sarcasm) and intrigue has me expecting good things going forward.

Recommendation:  If you like plots-within-plots and fiction with a bit of bite, this would be a good choice.  At three bucks, it'd also be a good, inexpensive purchase if you feel like supporting a (former) ponyfic author.  You know, if that's the sort of thing that matters to you.


  1. I feel kind of dumb that I never signal boosted Jawjoe's novel while he was giving it away. Not, from what it sounds, that I needed to, but that's the kind of thing I usually do. D: Ah well, I'll read it eventually.

  2. It's fun to see pony authors work outside the fandom. I'd like to read more of that, but then, I'd like to read more in general. Still, I don't think I've been disappointed by it so far (out of a small sample size). Consider this one supported (and maybe even read, I like the premise and agree some of what Jawjoe does is likely to work better in a different setting).

  3. Only book I'm reading at the moment is Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster. He has some incredibly annoying writing quirks, and the dialogue's pretty bad (swap the names out and I'd have never guessed the main characters were supposed to be Luke and Leia), but the underlying story's pretty enjoyable. Definitely good fodder for a D&D or Traveller campaign

    Also, I hate how droid names are written phonetically in every piece of Star Wars literature, EU or not

  4. Since my treatments, I've managed to read a reasonable amount, but I can't say I'd been enjoying it all that much. Then I borrowed the first of the Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell and demolished books 1–4 in just a couple of weeks. His writing has a few quirks that irritate me, but as a retired navy officer, he writes the interpersonal conflicts and political struggles of managing a fleet of starships stuck behind enemy lines extremely well.

    Now I'm twiddling my thumbs and hoping books 5 and 6 turn up before I start chewing on furniture out of frustration.

  5. I've been reading some Dashiell Hammet books: Red Harvest (which was the inspiration for Yojimbo, and A Fistful of Dollars, and pretty much every "lone anti-hero walks into a war between feuding criminal organizations, plays every side against the others, and tears them all down in the end" story every), and two collections of other stories about The Continental Op.

    Hammett's a freaking master of terse, economical, and understated prose. And everything with the Continental Op is a great study in how to tell a compelling story with a protagonist (and narrator, even) with no personal life, almost zero personality, and whatever character depth he has, he actively hides from nearly everyone.

  6. I always find books about British imperial awfulness difficult, since a) I am British, and b) my grandpa, whom I loved dearly, worked for the dying Colonial Service at the end of Empire. (In 1960s Africa, rather than pre-war India, but still.)

    I do try to read some for exactly those reasons, though this one doesn't seem to have a UK publisher. I think it's what will be published over here in March, as Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, but I don't know whether it'll be edited for a UK audience. I'll look out for it, anyway.