bloodygranuaile: (carmilla)
After last weekend's adventure in shutting down fascism I was reminded that I have a big old stack of World War II-related books on the TBR Shelf o' Doom, and after a bit of waffling about which one to pick up first, I decided on Norman Ohler's Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, which was translated into English earlier this year.
I knew sort of vaguely that modern militaries (and not-so-modern militaries) have a long and not-frequently-talked about history of experimenting with performance-enhancing substances for maximum soldiering, and that much of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries were awash in un- or under-regulated drugs that we now consider to be OMG VERY HARD DRUGS. The most recent episode of Sawbones, which discusses the opioid epidemic, talks about the development of various opiates and opioids, a shocking number of which were developed for the purpose of being less addictive ways to wean people off of the earlier drugs. It's fairly well known at this point that Freud was on ALL THE COCAINE and if you kick around in Weird History enough you've probably heard that Bayer got its start making aspirin, which you can still buy over-the-counter in any pharmacy, and heroin, which, not so much anymore.
Weimar Germany was known to be full of drugs of the recreational variety, because of the economy imploding and fun stuff like that, and Berlin in particular was known as a center of culture and decadently out-of-control nightlife. In response to all this decadence and what they saw as cultural decay and all that stuff, the Nazi regime set itself up as being very anti-drug. Hitler moralized at people about how he was a vegetarian and didn't smoke or drink coffee or alcohol. Basically, they were big on the idea of bodily purity, which should probably make people stop and think twice about any modern "health" fads that appear to be going on a bit too hard about bodily purity, even though the "Hitler was a vegetarian" thing is pretty much the go-to example for Godwin's Law.
But the Nazis weren't big on bodily purity so that everyone could sleep soundly eight hours a day and enjoy a leisurely and wholesome work-life balance. They wanted people to be able to PERFORM and to SHOW THE WORLD the UNPARALLELED VIGOR AND VITALITY OF THE ARYAN RACE and some other stuff that I can't help but imagine being only in all-caps from both its zealousness and from being in German. Also they were trying to take over half the world which is not a restful endeavor. To that end, while drugs were bad, medicine was clearly very important, as were vitamins and supplements and other things that basically mean "drugs, but healthy." Stop me if this sounds familiar at all.
Anyway, Five-Hour Energy hadn't been invented yet, but what had been invented was SEVENTEEN-HOUR ENERGY, otherwise known as Pervitin, otherwise known as methamphetamine. Pervitin was first synthesized in 1938 by the Temmler pharmaceutical company, which still exists (side note: It's really appalling how many brands you run across reading about Nazi Germany that still exist. Especially all the drug companies). After a few really half-assed medical experiments that showed that Pervitin use made medical students REALLY AWAKE for a long period of time but not any focused or smarter (and actually less focused), the doctor working on it had the bright idea that it'd be really good for soldiers, who have to keep going for a long time but don't need to be geniuses, I guess. Thus was Pervitin dispensed in massive quantities to the Wehrmacht, where it was apparently instrumental in keeping them up long enough to drive tanks through the supposedly impassable mountains in the Ardennes and invade France, and was supposedly also instrumental in helping them Blitz through France all the way to Dunkirk, whereupon they inexplicably stopped. As the war dragged on, the drugs got harder and the side effects got worse — Pervitin is apparently a bad thing to be on when you're trying to invade Russia in the snow (even considering that you're clearly not using your good-judgment faculties in the first place if you're even trying to do such a thing); by the very end of the war, the Nazis were doing things like drugging up 15-year-old Hitlerjugend fanatics on cocaine chewing gum, stuffing them in tiny submarines, and pointing them vaguely in the direction of the Thames. This did not work out well, and Ohler's descriptions of the fates awaiting these untrained submarine recruits constitutes the only time I've ever reacted to a report of violence against Nazis with anything other than uncomplicated glee. Stuffing drugged-up children into shoddily made submarines that they've got no idea how to navigate is some fucked-up Nazi bullshit even if the children in question are also Nazis.
Guess what else is fucked up? When the Navy was moving on from Pervitin and trying to develop even harder drugs — terrifying combinations of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and oxycodone — to find out what were the most effective combinations, they tested them out on concentration camp inmates on the shoe-walking track at Sachsenhausen.
A good third of Blitzed is given over to discussion of Hitler's personal drug regimen, developed and overseen by his sycophantic, greedy, and not especially medically ethical personal physician, Herr Doktor Theodor Morell. Morell was basically an opportunist quack who sold whatever was fashionable to fashionable people in Berlin, and wound up treating Hitler for some sort of stomach problem, and got him hooked on a whole experimental regimen of quack nonsense that ranged from benign stuff like chamomile, through a whole range of dodgy animal extracts and hormones and stuff, all the way through to methamphetamine injections. Toward the end, Morell got Hitler hooked on Eukodal, a type of oxycodone. Unsurprisingly, becoming a giant junkie did not do anything to make Hitler and less of a craptastic tactician, and the descriptions of him shooting up in a bunker while all his grand military plans go to shit around him and fighting with anyone who knows what they're talking about are kind of satisfying.
Overall, while the subject matter is fascinating, the book is organized a little weird — it feels more like several long articles smooshed together than one cohesive work — and it's certainly not a masterpiece of prose styling. I don't know how much of that has to do with the translation and what's because the author isn't a historian and sometimes creative writers trying to write history works really well (see: China Mieville's October) but sometimes it just means they try to get fancy when it doesn't need to be fancy. There are a lot of really bad drug puns that I want to like better than I do; perhaps they work better in German.
Like a lot of nonfiction books that take a specific angle or look at events through the lens of a highly specific topic, Blitzed runs the risk of overstating its case by virtue of it being the only case it's dedicated to stating. Ohler takes pains to point out that being a raging junkie does nothing to absolve Hitler of culpability for his actions, his horrific prejudices, and his inability to see other people as important or real. But it definitely gets a bit "THE THIRD REICH RAN ENTIRELY ON DRUGS" a bit at times and it was probably not as all-encompassing as it sounds. But it's definitely an interesting subject, and I'm sure it'll be an interesting load of information to have floating around in my brain when I read other stuff on Nazi Germany from now on. (I'm also really tempted to rewatch Downfall...)
In conclusion, drugs are bad and always punch Nazis, 'K?
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
 For my politics books club we decided on some light summer reading for June: Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, which explores the creation and expansion of different fascist movements for the purpose of arriving at a working sense of what fascism is based on how it has historically worked, rather than what its adherents said about it. 
As someone who got probably a pretty decent overview of both World Wars in high school by contemporary standards but has supplemented it with additional self-teaching in an extremely haphazard and piecemeal fashion (I like to read about very specific historical events like a single intelligence mission at a time), I felt like I had enough base-level knowledge to follow this without having to Google too many things, but it was also enormously helpful to have the subject set out in such an orderly manner. Paxton looks at different “stages” of fascism, of which only Mussolini’s and Hitler’s reigns both qualify as unambiguously fascist (rather than regular ol’ authoritarian) and went through all the stages he lists. 
I was expecting it to be a bit denser because some of the reviews I’d checked out said it was a bit dry, but while it doesn’t read in the novelesque way that some history books of more limited scope of subject manage to pull off these days, I really didn’t find it too dense or academic at all. It commits the occasional bit of academese, like “fascisms,” but it’s always quite clear what he’s getting at and overall I found it to be quite clear and straightforward. If you’re interested in the subject—which you should be, because otherwise why are you reading this book?—it should pull you along quite well; the prose style and the overall organization of the book just set everything out in a very plain and straightforward way. The content is terrifying without being either coy or gratuitously graphic. 
The book was written in 2004, and… well, I’d be quite interested in hearing Paxton’s take on current events. (ETA: I am a dumbass; he wrote an article about in in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine that I have just not gotten around to reading yet because I am a twit.) A lot of what he talks about regarding the early stages of fascism—it’s ideological incoherence, its poaching of grievances from the left, its roots in socialism and syndicalism even as it immediately became viciously anti-socialist, its alliances with conservative elites who thought they could use its energy for their own ends—sounds uneasily familiar to anyone following modern politics. But there are a lot of movements and regimes that are often called fascist and that may be sort of fascist in some ways but not in others. Paxton gives us a good rundown of unsuccessful fascist movements and of not-properly-fascist authoritarian regimes (I was perhaps inappropriately delighted at the section dedicated to the Perón regime in Argentina and the conclusion that it was not fascist, despite Perón’s ties to Mussolini. Musical theater is a helluva drug, apparently). 
This book doesn’t talk a huge amount about propaganda per se, which is something I would usually be disappointed with since propaganda is my favorite, but it does talk a lot about the appropriation of symbols, emotional manipulation, the slippery relationship between fascism and making any sort of coherent sense, and its anti-intellectualism, all of which is much fun, although it’s a bit terrifying to look at the legacy this kind of intellectual nihilism has left on mass politics in more recent years. It’s also terrifying when Paxton talks not about the internal properties of fascism itself but also about the political space that allows it to develop.
Though the book is short and is about 25% footnotes, I think we could end up having a very long book group discussion on this, especially if I come up with enough really good questions. It’s not for three weeks though so I’ll have to review it again when we get closer—and I’m really looking forward to doing so. 
Oh, and the book also contains a “bibliographic essay,” which basically is just a lifetime’s worth of book recommendations. Damn you, Paxton. Now I’ve got a TBR list I couldn’t hope to get through even if I turned into one of those doofy Stephanie Meyers vampires that never needs to sleep.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

But I did pull it off just in time for book club, by which I mean I was reading the last twenty pages or so at book club.

This is the BSpec book club, and we read Ken Liu's Grace of Kings, which had been on The List for a while. It's a political/military epic fantasy, drawing on pseudo-medieval Chinese myth and history rather than pseudo-medieval European myth and history. I do kind of wish I'd read it closer to when it first came out, though, if only because it's really hard right now to get invested in the collapse of fictional empires when the real-world empire I live in is actually for reals collapsing right around me. Also the real world one has more spies. Like, there are some spies in Grace of Kings, but the news is like ALL SPIES lately.

Anyway. The short version of the plot is that a bunch of squabbling kingdoms have been forcibly united under an oppressive Emperor for about a generation. When the Emperor dies, his young son becomes Emperor, but the kid is deliberately spoiled and kept away from governing so his aides can jockey for power. Against this backdrop, a popular uprising against the Empire starts, which eventually becomes a whole bunch of different factions reclaiming their own lands (sound familiar?). The two biggest players in this struggle who emerge are Kuni Garu, a jovial trickster type, and Mata Zyndu, a preternaturally tall and strong scion of a deposed royal family who is fearsomely unbeatable in battle and super uptight. He's basically a Terminator. Despite being polar opposites, they team up to become the rebellion's power couple for a while, but eventually fall out over something stupid that Mata is too rigid-minded to ever patch up properly. In the background of all this, a pantheon of gods all designate certain characters their pawns and try to influence the situation so "their" favorite mortals can "win."

We discussed our nitpicks at book club--such as that the female characters were memorable but there were a limited number of them; meanwhile, the overwhelming number of male characters with often-similar names meant I got a lot of them except the two leads mixed up--but overall this was a pretty solid example of the type of book it is, with a lot of factionalism and strategy and death and fighting. Some elements of the worldbuilding were a little inconsistent or episodic--like, at one point there were mechanical giant whale submarines, but then they were done being used so there just... weren't any more whale submarines. You can't just do this to a girl--if your book is gonna have giant whale submarines at all, it's gotta give us a LOT of giant whale submarines. They are too awesome to be a minor throwaway plot point.

That said, the intrigue is really good, and it's got some interesting meditations on power, morality, the limitations of militarism, and all that sort of stuff that's necessary to make the gods' chess game have more meaning than just a chess game. I'm not as enthused about the sequel as I'd hoped I'd be, though, but that might be partly because I've decided to dedicate the next two years to reading about Nazis. It's really not Ken Liu's fault--anyone writing political fantasy has just had their job made infinitely harder by the vagaries of reality.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
For the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising, a lot of new books on the subject are being published. One major set of new releases I saw pretty much all over Ireland when I was there was a series of biographies called 16 Lives, the lives in question being the sixteen leaders of the Easter Rising who were executed in its aftermath. I was tempted to buy all sixteen, but a) that would have been expensive and b) trying to get them all home on the plane would have been awful, especially considering how much other stuff I bought. So I settled for just getting the one on Padraic Pearse -- simply titled 16 Lives: Patrick Pearse, because for some reason they thought the English name was better -- by Ruan O'Donnell.
The book is both well sourced and written in a straightforward, accessible style, but I still bounced off it a bit more than I was expecting to, which was disappointing. I pretty much only have one gripe with the book, but it's a pretty significant one, in that it's "the structure of the entire book." I wanted more material on the development of Pearse's life and career before all the Rising stuff that has been so amply covered elsewhere. My favorite sections of the book were the first two chapters, one on "The Young Pearse" and one on "Republican Politics" that covered the establishment of his career, but after that it slowed down for me a lot -- there are three chapters on the planning and the events leading up to Easter Monday, then a chapter on Easter Week and a chapter on its aftermath, then it ends. The aftermath chapter is gruesomely interesting, but I definitely felt like the story that was being told had far too much middle and not enough setup.
That said, the picture of Pearse that develops in the book is fascinating and human -- committedly idealistic but with a strong pragmatic streak; progressive but devoutly Catholic; a future-oriented man with a strong (if hilariously romanticized) sense of Ireland's history. Buried under the shmaltzy Edwardian dramatics of his writing, there even lurks an occasional sense of humor. He also managed the trick of being highly accomplished in a number of different fields, all of which manage to come together into seeming like one big project. He must have been a very, very interesting person to actually meet.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
When I was in high school I went through a period of studying pirates very intensely and buying a lot of shirts from PirateMod, back when they actually used to ship me the shirts I bought. (Long story, ask me about it sometime.) One of the best books I read during this period was David Cordingly's classic book Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. It was an excellent resource and an excellent read, so you can imagine how excited I was to find out that Cordingly had also written a book called Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways and Sailors' Wives.

After actually reading it, I'm much more ambivalent. The book is short, but it covers a lot of ground, and sometimes it strays into territory that seemed kind of off-topic at the expense of giving us more details on the stuff that was on-topic. I didn't mind that the whole book wasn't entirely about female sailors; the discussions of the lives of women whose lives were shaped by the sea anyway were still pretty fascinating. The book opens with a  look into the lives of the dock prostitutes in the U.S. and Britain who served predominantly naval clientele, and there are other sections that focus on how sailors' marriages worked and on communities like Nantucket, where the women ran nearly everything on land because most of the adult male population was gone at any given time. Unfortunately, there were also some chapters that were just about male sailors who slept with a lot of ladies, which is not the same thing as being chapters about the ladies, especially considering the complete lack of the women's perspective given. I would have preferred a lot more detail about the female sailors, female pirates, and female lighthouse-keepers whom we do know about. This would require a wider focus than just the 18th and 19th century British and American maritime history that Cordingly specializes in, which I would have been totally fine with.

The result is that the most promising part of the book for me is the section in the afterword/acknowledgements where he explains how he came to the decisions in scope and focus that he made: The original plan of focusing exclusively on female sailors in a wider time frame would have resulted in too much overlap with another book called Female Tars by Suzanne Stark, about women in the Royal Navy. Looks like I'll have to go read that one next!

Scope creep issues aside, Cordingly is a solid writer and a reliable historian, and the material he's working with here is quite colorful. The book provides an interesting and easily digestible look at each of the many and varied topics it touches upon, and I'm happy to have read it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
One of the best literary discoveries I made this year was Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, of which the first volume, Ancillary Justice, was the first book I read in 2015, after it had won nearly every award in science fiction for 2014. Ancillary Sword I read sometime midyear, and the third volume Ancillary Mercy, was just published this fall.
Ancillary Mercy was a spectacular finale to the series. Breq has sooort of the same goal that she had in Ancillary Justice — to shoot Anaander Mianaai with a Presger gun, against dreadful odds — but things have gotten bigger and more complicated since then, not like it wasn't complicated to start with. Formerly more of a lone wolf, Breq is a Fleet Captain now, with a crew and a ship dependent upon her, and she's deeply enmeshed in the unstable petty politics of Athoek Station, where her ship is docked. Other complications include the arrival of Presger Translator Zeiat (we're pretty sure she's Zeiat because Presger Translator Dlique is dead, so she can't be Dlique) and an unregistered human living in the slums of Athoek Station who might be an ancillary to an ancient, long-lost ship from before Anaander Mianaai took over the Radch, apparently still hiding in its ghost system on the other side of the gate.
One theme that had been running constantly through the books that's really pushed to its limits in this one is the idea of who counts as real people. The Radch have a very self-absorbed notion of "civilization," where to be "civilized" is to be Radch, and therefore anyone who's not Radch can be murdered with impunity as lowly savages up until they become Radchaai — at which point they are entitled to all the benefits of the Radchaai state, on the condition they follow its rules and leave any other sort of identity completely behind them. This doesn't always pan out in practice, of course. The Presger — the powerful, ineffable aliens that are the only creatures the Radchaai are really afraid of — have a similar delineation between Significant Beings and insignificant ones, with Significance being enforced by strict treaties. The Radchaai have managed to get humans a treaty designating them Significant; AIs such as ships, stations, and ancillaries are still considered tools rather than independent, civilized, or Significant races by anybody — except, perhaps, themselves. And Breq has been doing a pretty convincing human impression for several hundred pages now. If the trilogy weren't so long, it would make an excellent, excellent addition to the Aliens and Others in Science Fiction course I took at Clark, which I will freely admit shaped a lot of my thinking on what "literary" work (discussion of what "literary" means to be had at another time) speculative fiction does. Stories that look closely at the relationships between artificial intelligence and humanity have always been my favorite type of science fiction anyway; I like cyborgs better than aliens.
I also like tea, although not as much as the Radchaai like tea, but all the same I very much enjoy the role of tea in these books, and they make me want to own more fancy tea paraphernalia. Fancy tea sets are frequently used as status symbols, and status is extremely important in Radchaai society. One especially fancy tea service becomes quite integral to the plot after it is tragically shattered by a spoiled brat near the end of Ancillary Sword, as it provides important clues to one of the many knotty political mysteries Breq is trying to untangle.
This series has been targeted by assorted reactionary types for being too political, as if any halfway decently written political drama isn't going to be freaking political, or indeed, any decently written story at all. And it is true that the villains and heroes in this work are not determined by whether they are wearing white hats or black hats, but by their actual actions and beliefs. There are some plotlines featuring actions taken and beliefs expressed that do relate to certain hot topics in modern civilization, such as Lieutenant Seivarden's slow, painful journey toward becoming less of a classist assbag, and Anaander Mianaai's questionable views on how to handle peaceful citizen protest. Personally I think these are handled stellarly they're certainly relevant to modern issues, but they are very much a part of the world of the Radch after all, while the world of the Radch seems strange initially, people are people and we kind of do the same basic sorts of stupid shit in a lot of our societies and they are integral and organic parts of the story Leckie is telling. And honestly, it's these sort of little human details people being whiny and emotional and status-conscious and petty and materialistic and flipping their shit about tea that fills out these sorts of big epic space dramas with their talking ships and nearly-magical weapons and farcically incomprehensible aliens and makes them feel real and rich and relevant.
I think this is never more relevant than with the Presger, who are so completely and terrifyingly outside of human norms that the Presger Translators they send (who seem to be . . . constructed, somehow, like they were grown and programmed in a lab) generally come off as farcical in addition to their being some confusion over which one is Translator Dlique and which one is Translator Zeiat, Translator Zeiat's favorite drink is fish sauce, no matter how many times the humans try to explain that fish sauce is a condiment which, occasionally, makes it tempting to forget that they are actually terrifying. All their weirdness makes total sense somehow, to them, and they're the ones with the sufficiently-advanced-so-as-to-be-indistinguishable-from-magic guns. It's creepy as hell. But it is also still hilarious.
Actually, much of the book is hilarious; it might be a bit much if it weren't. But for a spaceship, Breq is pretty witty in a deadpan sort of way.
I'm a bit sad that there will be no more of this series, although I think it did wrap up in a very satisfying way. Perhaps I should go back and read it again rather than pining for more; I'm sure there's some things I missed the first time around.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I seem to be getting back into the swing of this whole "book clubs" thing! For my writing group's book club, I just finished reading Kameron Hurley's debut novel, God's War, the first book in her "Bel Dame Apocrypha" series, which appears to be at . . . three books? Four books? A trilogy with a companion novel? Idunno.
Our heroine—or possibly anti-heroine; it's difficult to tell since this is one of those "everybody sucks, but in different ways" sorts of stories—is Nyx, a bel dame, which is a sort of government assassin who mostly is supposed to cut off the heads of "contaminated" soldiers and draft dodgers. This is serious business, because Nyx's world is embroiled in a centuries-long ongoing holy war between her country of Nasheen and its neighboring Chenja, and in Nasheen, the entire Nasheenian male populace is drafted. As a result, women do basically everything else, although a lot of them go to the front, too. (In Chenja, it works a little differently, but most of the men are still drafted.) The world they live on has been laboriously terraformed by magicians to be habitable, but is still an inhospitable desert planet in which bugs are the main power source for most things—from cars to medicine to magic—and biological weapons are common in the war. Overall, the worldbuilding is highly original, very earthy, and extremely gross.
Nyx, through a series of bad life choices, winds up stripped of her bel dame license and running a bounty-hunting operation with a ragtag team of international misfits, which consists of Rhys, a pious Chenjan political refugee and magician of mediocre talent; Khos, a big blond Vikingesque shapeshifter dude who left his strictly sex-segregated homeland of Mhoria because he was too heterosexual to cope (somehow this isn't stupid); Taite, an asylum-seeker from the shapeshifter-hating country of Ras Tieg who isn't properly inoculated and whose pregnant older sister isn't, either; and Anneke, who is I think actually Nasheenian and who is sort of the mechanically handy one and is super into weapons.
Nyx gets issued a note (i.e., a bounty-hunting assignment) by no less illustrious a person than the Queen herself, which is unusual, because the Queen ordinarily does not give notes to disreputable bounty hunters and indeed seems to be attempting to actively circumvent the bel dames, who are supposed to be the government's assassins. The note will pay enough for Nyx and her entire team to peacefully retire, if it doesn't get them all killed. Obviously, that's going to be a BIG "if."
The assignment is to bring in an alien who has gone missing—possibly kidnapped, more likely she ditched the other aliens she came to the planet with and went into hiding—and who, supposedly, could end the war. How, it is not known, but obviously this is kind of a big deal, because if she could end the war in favor of Nasheen then she could also end it in favor of Chenja.
Since the bug tech/magic in this world is quite advanced and biopunky, Nyx and co. are able to sustain a pretty hefty amount of getting shot, tortured, beaten, sunburned, starved, cut up, and generally damaged before they will die, and in certain cases, even death isn't the end—we learn that Nyx has already been resuscitated once before the book's main story even starts. This mission (and Nyx's life in general) is brutal. The actual body count is high—assassins gotta assassinate somehow, after all—but Nyx also goes through organs and limbs like they're going out of style, and all the immigrants on her crew seem to get beaten up, cavity searched, and tossed into boxing rings on the regs. It's the grittiest thing I've read since I listened to that podcast about medieval bread (it had actual grit in it so it wore people's teeth down and gave them abscesses).
I'm also impressed that there's number of tropes in here that could have been crappy if they'd been written by a less skilled or more bitter writer. Nasheen is run entirely by women, with the entire male gender being sidelined to the role of cannon fodder, and it's neither a feminist utopia nor the sort of whiny simplistic oppression-reversal story that has plagued so many decades of sci-fi, but a real-feeling, high-stakes look into the unsustainable human cost of constant warfare. I think one way the book gets avoids having any of these tropes come off badly is that there's such a variety of them—the overarching "shared" culture on the planet is largely technological, plus sectarian violence around what is technically supposed to be the same religion. Outside of that, each country structures its society and its oppressions radically differently, and none of them come off looking particularly good. It's Khos, the giant Viking dog-man who left his homeland because he liked sleeping with women too much, who has the most astute observation in the entire book: All these societies, in their different ways, lack balance, and this lack of balance—these systems of control, separation, and lack of respect—that cut people apart from each other are all really like cutting out a part of yourself, which is why everything on Bugpunk Desert Planet is so endlessly messed up.
This is a high-octane, high-context, action-packed work of grim, cynical, desert-flavored grimdark. It would make an absolutely killer HBO show, and I'm very much looking forward to the book club discussion.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Occasionally, I pick up books in odd places.

It's not necessarily odd that I got a book from my Dad--he's not a huge reader (we think he's dyslexic) but he does read--but it's a bit odd that I got this book from my dad, since he rarely reads fiction. In fact, the last time my Dad really bothered to read fiction, he tells me, is when he was working in London shortly before I was born, and for a while had to work the graveyard shift so he could be on the same time frame as his colleagues on the U.S. eastern seaboard. This is how, when Dad was cleaning his house out last year, I ended up with his rather yellowed mass market paperbacks of Walter Macken's historical fiction trilogy about "the dark periods in Irish history," which isn't very specific if you know much about Irish history. The three dark periods covered in the trilogy are the Cromwellian conquest, the Famine, and the War of Independence/Civil War (in Irish history, those two wars happened right on top of each other). One famous dark period not represented in this trilogy is the Troubles, because these books are older than I am, and the Troubles were still going on around the time my Dad was working in the U.K., at least according to the stories he tells of being Randomly Selected for extra scrutiny every time he got on a plane out of there, being a young 6'4'' ginger man with a name like "Fitzgerald." (I think being Randomly Selected back then was not as invasive as getting Randomly Selected is now though.)

Anyway, I digress. So far I've only read the first book in the trilogy, the Cromwellian one, titled Seek the Fair Land, a reference to the main characters' quest to flee the ever-encroaching Puritan English and eke out a more-or-less independent existence in the mountains of Connacht.

Our protagonist is Dominick McMahon, a merchant in the city of Drogheda, a bit north of Dublin. (If I recall correctly, he was originally from Ulster and displaced sometime during the Plantation or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Dominick really can't catch a break.) When Drogheda is razed and his wife dies in the attack, Dominick takes his daughter Mary Anne, his son Peter--now mute as the result of a head injury sustained in the invasion--and the kindly priest Sebastian and flees west, on the advice of a big Gaelic warrior named Murdoc who he'd saved and befriended in another invasion of Drogheda a few years earlier, when the Gaelic Irish took the city from an earlier wave of English.

The book takes place over several years, during which a specific antagonist appears: Coote, who is made Governor of Galway City. Coote is fanatically supportive of Cromwell's goals of either converting or exterminating the Irish, using a combination of political promises, economic pressure, and sheer brutality to subdue all resistance from a people he sees as being heathens and therefore basically not human. His job is to be Cromwell's arm in Galway, and his characterization is basically that he is, indeed, Cromwell's arm in Connacht, which is more characterization than you'd expect. The Cromwellian invasion was pretty fucked up. Coote was a real person who eventually died of smallpox in Dublin, but this version of him is better because Murdoc stabs him in Galway City, which is quite satisfying for the reader, after spending 200 pages reading about people being starved and tortured and hanged and imprisoned and sold to the sugar plantations in Barbados (something like 40% of the Irish population was killed or displaced during the Eleven Years' War, so there was quite an ugly variety of things that could happen to them).

Murdoc and Sebastian essentially represent two different and often conflicting ideals of native Irish manhood, with Murdoc being the paganistic, man-of-the-land brehon warrior sort and Sebastian embodying the importance of Catholic identity as a basis for Irish identity. Dominick spends much of his emotional and mental energy navigating between the two and their equally strong, if often opposing, convictions, wrestling with despair, self-doubt, self-interest, compassion, hatred, and all the other emotions that those of us whose sense of self is somehow damaged or underdeveloped have to deal with. (Most of his physical energy, obviously, goes into fighting, hiding, tracking, hunting, digging graves, and rescuing people).

This book was written in the mid-twentieth century and bears some of the stylistic flaws of genre fiction in the time before word processors, namely, clunky sentences that really could have used a few more rounds of line editing; relatively flat female characters with limited roles who could have used a few more rounds of beta-reading by a female beta reader; and an annoying affinity for using the word "rape" when discussing ravages of towns, cities, the land, and other things that are places rather than people.

As far as my limited research will allow, the historical aspects of this book seem pretty accurate, at least in terms of places and dates and people and things that happened in the war. Culturally, I dunno! One thing that I noticed that I am now really intrigued about is that this book still portrays a fairly sharp distinction between Gaelic Irish (Os and Macs) and the Anglo-Normal families as late as 1650, whereas I had thought they had pretty well assimilated by then ("more Irish than the Irish themselves and all that.) But it turns out that may have been exaggerated later for nationalism reasons (although as a Fitz I want to be like NO DEFINITELY THEY'RE IRISH!) (Note: Wikipedia calls the Fitzgeralds a "notable Hiberno-Norman family" and lists Hiberno-Normans as distinct from both Normans and Gaelic Irish) and it was really the Protestant suppression the beginning of which this book chronicles that led to the "Old English" becoming considered actually regular Irish people.

Um, anyway. If you like lots of history nerdery and you want some Game of Thrones-level violent fuckery but only 200 pages of it instead of 2 million, you could do worse than following Dominick on his starving-in-the-mountains adventures.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The thing for me about military sci-fi that is a large part of why I don’t read/watch a lot of it is that I feel like a lazy asshole sitting around consuming it when all the characters are busting their asses all the time. This was a big problem for me when I was watching Battlestar Galactica; I used to try and see how long I could hold certain karate stances during episodes or I’d just feel bad about myself. I ran into a similar problem when I began reading Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill on the bus, which is why I read most of it in two sessions on an exercise bike at the gym. Results: book is pretty good, also my legs hurt.

All You Need is Kill takes place in a future where alien robots filled with nanobots, called Mimics, are trying to xenoform the earth to a weird toxic wasteland, and are thus in a perpetual war with humans, who liked the earth the way it was. The best weapon the humans have are these big Iron-Man-suit kind of systems called Jackets. The book is told from the point of view of Keiji Kiriya, a fresh recruit to the Japanese wing of what has become essentially an international army. After dying horribly in his first battle, Keiji gets stuck in a time loop, reliving the 30 hours before his death over and over again. He has no idea why, and the only person who might know or be able to help him get out of it is an American Special Ops soldier named Rita Vrataski, colloquially known as the Full Metal Bitch.

This book has its “of course it is” moments but overall it’s a fun, fast-paced read. The English translation gives it a gruff, straightforward, military style. It’s short, and split into four long chapters that are further split into numbered scenes that keep track of the time loops. It’s got gritty grimdark war-is-hell kind of stuff all over the place, not in a way that I found particularly moving but enough that it didn’t seem to be taking war lightly. It’s got a very cinematic quality that’s definitely begging to be made into a graphic novel or a movie; I’m not sure if Edge of Tomorrow is actually that movie, since apparently they whitewashed the characters and moved it to Europe, which I’m guessing means they also wiped the role of Japanese technology in modern civilization.  Bad job, Hollywood.

I hope I will be able to formulate more and better thoughts on this before (and, most likely, during) the book club meeting for this on Thursday, but I didn’t want to put off writing a review until then even though it would probably have more to say.


bloodygranuaile: (Default)

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