Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Devil's Assassin

The Devil's Assassin
© 2015 Paul Fraser Collard
336 pages

Jack was filled with the madness. He could feel it searing through his veins. It resonated deep in his soul, every fibre of his being tingling with the insanity of galloping against an enemy horde. The regiment raced forward, their voices roaring out as the men unleashed the cheer saved for this moment. The last yards flashed past and the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry charged into action.

Following the events of The Maharajah’s General,,  in which Jack Lark’s false identity was exposed but the parties involved silenced by  war, Lark is now a freewheeling rogue, keeping his distance from those who’d recognize him and pretending to be an officer on leave, free to enjoy the pleasures of cities like Bombay.   Though away from the fighting, Jack can’t escape his deceit,  and when he’s cornered and kidnapped by a man working for a secretive British intelligence officer known as the Devil,    his career takes an interesting turn. 

It’s the eve of battle in Central Asia. The once free city of Herat has been suddenly occupied by the Shah of Persia,  in violation  of a treaty and destabilizing the balance of power  between the Empire,   Persia, and Russia in the region.   The army is being organized to go forth and show the flag,  hoping the Shah will withdraw, but what few know is that there’s a leak: someone is keeping the Persians informed  of English troop movements, and the level of fine detail means they’re in the camp itself.    Rooting out rival spies is just the work for the Devil, who drafts Jack and threatens to expose him as a fraud if he doesn’t cooperate.   Despite his acquired talent for deceit, Jack is more at home on the battlefield than he is fishing for information in cloak and dagger affairs.  

The Devil’s Assassin is both a spy novel and a war novel, and largely successful on both ends.  The running battle between the British Expeditionary Force and the Persians takes up most of the middle, as the forces engage and break off. It’s purely a cavalry affair, too, spurred on by the British need to rout the Persians before they build up their strength in the area.  Although the Devil  recruited Lark on his talent for disguise and pretense,   a gift for subterfuge doesn’t necessarily make a good counterintelligence agent – as the Devil learns when Lark runs off on the first rumor he hears and nearly beats a man to death, so disrupting the investigation to no good effect that he and the Devil are both told to leave finding the spy or the spy ring up to naval intelligence.     I’d pinned the spy fairly early on, or thought I did: there’s a little twist where the great reveal proves to still be leaving part of the story in the shadow, so while I was far closer to the target than Lark,   I wasn’t quite there.     

Looking ahead I see Lark has found himself in the midst of the Great Mutiny, the American Civil War, and...the....Wild....West?   Obviously I’ll continue to follow!  

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Maharajah's General

The Maharajah's General
© 2013 Paul Fraser Collard
339 pages

In The Scarlet Thief, an ambitious but impoverished redcoat saw a way for himself out of the gutter when the officer he served as an orderly became deathly ill on a sea voyage to Crimea.  Assuming the officer’s name and position, Lark launched himself from the ranks – and found that becoming a leader of men was far more different than mocking officers from the ranks, even aside from the challenges of polite society.  But when Lark arrives in Crimea, he finds that news of his ‘demise’ has preceded him. A pat explanation may put  away suspicion for the moment, but the charade is bound to unravel, and when it does the soldier wrestling with his conscience will find himself wrestling with his loyalties, too.   Can he find a way back into the good graces of the army he loves, but which despises him – or will he find glory by serving an  a foreign king, one who resists the increasing British control of India?  

The original novel based on Lark’s fraud saw him thrown into the Battle of the Alma, where he floundered before finally finding his way. Here, the kingdom involved, and the sustained siege and battle at the end, are fictitious, albeit loosely based on the India mutiny of 1857 and meant perhaps as a prelude to them.  Combat peppers the novels, as even before the British and the defiant maharajah meet in battle,  Lark encounters brigands in the wilderness. The finale certainly commands attention, but more unexpectedly interesting was Lark continually wrestling with himself:  he doesn’t like living a lie, even though it’s a fairly harmless one. He is a good officer in a fight,  proving himself to men on both sides of the line:  even those who want him dead admired his skill with a sword. (His skills on a horse...not so much.)  But that acclaim is part of the problem, as Lark wonders if he’s good for anything other than killing.  He can win glory in battle, but a life? 

The Maharjah’s General proved far more interesting than I’d expected, and it ends with Lark in an unexpected position. I’ll have to try The Devil’s Assassin to see where this path takes him.  Although there are certain elements of the plot that are...implausible (like a man with no horseback experience being appointed as commander of the lancers on the strength of his performance during an ambush), but Lark is an unusual character, and he combined with the setting and Collard's writing override occasional quirks. 

The Scarlet Thief, Paul Fraser Collard
The Sharpe in India books, Bernard Cornwell. The link is to a list of British Historical Fiction; all the India books are under the Age of Discovery and Early Empire category.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019


© 2019 Phillp Kerr
384 pages

At the height of Weimar decadence, young Bernie Gunther is invited to join the Murder Commission. It’s a step up from Vice, and the department needs every watchful eye and quick wit it can get:  the city’s prostitutes and disabled veterans are both being methodically hunted and shot.   With the usual avenues of  investigation producing nothing,  Bernie takes to the streets as a legless victim of the Somme, hoping  he’ll hear words from a little closer to the ground – and from sources who wouldn’t go near the police.    Although this is the last Bernie Gunther novel (his creator having passed just over a year ago),  it’s also a prequel of a kind:  this Bernie still carries  a lot of  bruised, youthful naitive with him: he’s not the cool, jaded detective of the forties and fifties,  and it’s this case that will make him a little more weary of the world. 

As much as I’ve enjoyed Kerr’s Gunther novels, I stopped reading them four years ago on the grounds that they were far too depressing.    Gunther’s report from his case in The Lady of Zagreb, for instance, was so gruesome that even Goebbels was unnerved by it.  Metropolis, despite its scalpings and cold-blooded murders, is not quite as morbid as the rest – although it’s definitely shaking for young Bernie, whose sub rosa inquiries take him into a bar popular with some of the most depraved souls in Berlin – and that’s saying something, given that Weimar Berlin  has become popular for the kind of sex tourism that now favors Thailand.    And yet there’s light in the darkness, as  Gunther finds a reason for climbing out of the bottle (he drinks like a Raymond Chandler lead at the beginning).

Like most of Kerr’s novels, Metropolis is not a piece to comfort the soul with warm fuzzies. It’s often disturbing, but the dark humor is here, too, and Kerr’s skillful pen makes even the grim go down sweet.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Top Ten Favorite History Reads

My PC was in the shop this past Tuesday (trying to figure out why a new graphics card wasn't working -- turns out the card itself is defective), so I missed the "Books from Your Favorite Genre" list done on Top Ten Tuesday.    

1. The Airman's War, Albert Marrin. Marrin's WW2 trilogy made the war came alive for me,  especially The Airman's War. (Read ~2001)

2. A Man on the Moon,  Andrews Chaikan. The definitive Apollo history.    (Read 2012)

3. On the Shoulders of Giants, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser (Read 2008)
A series chronicling the growth of science from the ancient Greeks until the present day, 

4. The Horse in the City, Clay Shane and Joel Tarr   (Read 2015)

5. Living DowntownThe History of Residential Hotels in America, Paul Groth (Read 2014)

6. With Wings Like Eagles: The Battle of Britain, Michael Korda (Read 2011)

7. 1491: Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, Charles Mann

8. Persian Fire: The First World Empire, Tom Holland (Read 2009)
Holland's history of the Persian empire (Achaemenid period)  also explores its culture. I found the religious background of Achamenid Persia most fascinating.

9. The Age of Faith, Will Durant (Read 2011)
The Age of Faith was the biggest  of Durant's volumes in his Story of Civilization, taking readers through not only medieval Europe, but Sasanian-era Persia and the early Islamic period.    I certainly wouldn't have predicted this volume to be my favorite, but so it is.

10. Life in a Medieval City, Frances and Joseph Gies.  (Read...2003, 2004?)
The Gies did many works about medieval culture, but this volume was the first I ever encountered, and remains the most memorable for me.  Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, one of their works focusing on science and technology in the medieval period,  fundamentally changed the way I thought about the era.  George R. R. Martin also drew on Life in a Medieval City for his books.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Roswell reboot...initial impressions

I just discovered that there's a new Roswell -- or rather, a show called Roswell, New Mexico, which is loosely based on Melinda Metz'  Roswell High and has no connection to the old CW show beyond also being produced by CW.      Obviously, I had to try it, given how much I loved the original book series in middle school, and my affection for the later tv show.  I was largely surprised by the show, and not in good ways.

 The main premise is the same (three aliens' lifelong secret is threatened when Liz is shot and Max is compelled by his love for her to heal her), but in this show it happens during a ten-year high school reunion.   Liz is apparently the only character who left town, and those who remain are in very strange spots given their characters in the previous mediums -- most notably Alex Manes,  who appears as a USAF airman, despite his well established animosity toward the military.   The one nice change is that Liz Parker has been restored to Liz Ortecho, complete with the tragic dead sister.    

Although I'd hoped to enjoy the reboot show more than I did, its tone is fairly obnoxious: in an effort to make itself more relevant,  the writers chose to throw in reference after reference to Trump, the wall, and immigration.  I'm sure the people of Roswell, New Mexico appreciate being tarred as obsessive racists by CW.  Liz' restoration has seemingly only happened not to be more faithful to the books (there are no other similarities) , but to  smack the viewer around and poison what could be an entertaining and nostalgia-inducing show with the vile poision of politics.  Immediately in the first episode there's gratuitous near-sex and forced romantic relationships between characters who have never had an ounce of chemistry before.  Isabel is apparently culpable in the death of Liz's sister  and two children, to boot!

 Although I'm open to trying episode two,  I strongly doubt I'll buy the entire series. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon
© 2002 Richard K. Morgan
416 pages

Takeshi Kovacs,  soldier-turned-commando-turned rogue,  is rudely awakened with a job.  Imprisoned for two hundred years, he’s now being offered the chance of parole if he can solve a murder.  Or should it be attempted murder? The victim’s head was blown off, but being rich,  a backup copy of his consciousness was simply downloaded into a waiting clone.    You can do that in the future, you know: your consciousness is stored on a chip within your neck, and if you die...well, if you’ve the means your friends or family  can just copy your consciousness into any available body. (There’s likely to be quite a few, since people imprisoned go into digital storage, their bodies rented out.)    Kovacs’ patron is an exceedingly long-lived and unthinkably rich fellow who wants to find out who killed him, and why they tried to mock it up like a suicide.  Although Kovacs has never been to Earth before,  between his past service in the interstellar military and his training, he’s more than prepared to learn what he needs and solve the mystery.   As cynical as he is, however, Kovacs is about to enter a story grimier than he could have imagined.

I’ve been in a science fiction mood as of late, and recently watched Altered Carbon on Netflix in its entirety.  Finding and reading the original novel was an obvious followup, although the  background of Tak  and of the chief antagonist vary quite a bit between the mediums.  What hasn’t changed is the main plot and premise:  in this future, human civilization is interplanetary,  but the few who need to  travel between  settled worlds  do so by transferring their consciousness to a body-for-hire (a "sleeve") there. Tak is an expert in sleeve-switching, having done it professionally and usually with a dose of psychotropics that inhance intelligence, creativity,  etc.   A manufactured killer, Tak has enormous incentive to figure out what  who tried to kill his patron -- especially when he narrowly escapes being killed by a squad of  hitmen at his hotel. They knew him by name, despite the fact he's never been on planet and has been on ice for quite some time.

Although Tak's personality is not exactly winsome, he does have allies, chiefly a cop who keeps showing up. Kristin Ortega has her own reasons for shadowing Tak: he doesn't know it, but he's wearing the body of her boyfriend,  imprisoned on suspicion of being a bent cop. Together they explore a story and a world saturated in sex and violence.   It turns out that when you live for century after century,  there's really no limit to how depraved you can get. Frankly, it makes for disgusting reading at times, and I continued with the show and the book only because the premise  was and continues to be...well, absorbing.  The chip integrated into the neck -- the cortical stack -- doesn't just allow for immortality for those with the means and the desire. It allows people to spend time in virtual realities -- sometimes against their will, as those being interrogated know. The cortical stack expands the human potential for experience: not only can people explore different bodies, but drugs can be fine-tuned for their specific metabolism.  All this available pleasure creates an atmosphere of jadedness, however, not of contentment, and the sad restlessness that permeates the world here is not all that unfamiliar. The detective story, when it's not submerged in blood, sex, and sadism, is genuinely interesting --  even considering that I'd already experience the story.   The antagonist has a special connection to Tak in the Netflix series which makes their interactions with Tak all the more tragic in the endgame, but that relationship is absent here, and...well, it makes things less intense.

Despite the frequent...unpleasantness, I imagine Altered Carbon  will be one of those books I can't forget about at the end of the year. I don't think I'll be continue in the series, though  -- the sex and violence are too detailed for my tastes.

German title, just because it looks cool:

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Kill Decision

Kill Decision
© 2012 Daniel Suarez
512 pages

Seemingly every day people within the United States are killed,  destroyed in apparent bomb attacks.  The victims have no obvious connections, but they are not random – nor were they bomb victims.  A new generation of cheap, lethal drones are waging an undeclared war on American soil, and no one knows who is behind them.    Enter Linda McKinney, a  young American scientist,  whose study of weaver ants in Africa was interrupted when she was kidnapped, shortly before her cabin was incinerated.    McKinney hasn’t been abducted by terrorists, however:  she is the last hope of a black ops organization hunting for the drones’ controllers.  The few leads they have indicate that the same people who stole software allowing for the drones’ facial recognition software also copied McKinney’s research into swarm intelligence.   

Kill Decision
is a horse of a different color from Suarez’ other works: although still a mix of technothriller and science fiction,   there’s far less speculation here than in Change Agent and Freedom. Frankly,   the plot of Kill Decision seems like the sort of thing that could happen this afternoon.  I’ll admit to not being up to date on the latest drone technology, but given the current status of facial recognition technology,   machine intelligence, and the price of consumer electronics....the premise of Kill Decision is speculative only in the “What if this did happen” sense, and not the “What if this could happen” sense.      The novel follows the un-named group investigating the drone attacks as their efforts to get to the root of the problem only increase in the planned-for campaign being ramped up,  leading to  a prolonged action sequence where the chasee- and chaser swap places several times, with brief interludes between the bloody chaos.  

Although drones aren’t a particular interest of mine, Kill Decision succeeded in keeping my attention, in part because the drones’ behavior strongly mimics that of...weaver ants, complete with using chemical compounds for swarm communication.  The drones of Kill Decision have total autonomy behind their prescribed targets,  evaluating and taking care of unexpected threats on the fly. The drones combine the innate horror of swarm insects with the cold dread of being hunted most effectively,  especially when the team encounters the base of operations.  

Although I hadn't intended to read Suarez' remaining works, both of are beyond the near-future subgenre I most prefer,  having read so much of him recently has me itching to give one of them a try, if only to experience more of the author!

Drone, Mike Maden