Tuesday, April 30, 2019

War of the Wolf

War of the Wolf
pub. 2018 Bernard Cornwell
333 pages

Uhtred of Bebbanburg is called a priest-killer, a chief of devils. And yet when a distressed and scarred monk came to his gates and begged that he send help to Mercia, beset by civil war, the old warlord answered the call.  He once swore to protect a young man, then the son of his beloved friend Aetheflaed, Queen of Mercia. That young man is now an accomplished young prince, one of such potential that he might help realize King Alfred's dream: one England,  with one law, and one God.  That is a future Uhtred  does not want, for his own home is in the last pagan kingdom,  Northumbria -- the last to resist Edward, Anglorum Saxonum Rex.    And yet Uhtred is a man of oaths, and so true to his word he rides forth to rescue a man who one day by be his undoing.  When he arrives, however, he finds that the man,  though besieged by rebels,  is in no dire straights, and the monk who begged for his help is not what he seemed. Someone has lured Uhtred of Bebbanberg from his forbidding castle, but for what reason?  Although his pursuit of developments gives him greater reason to fear for the future than ever -- Edward is plainly dying, and his sons are all ambitious men who want to prove  and engorge themselves by attacking  Northumbria --  that kingdom has a more pressing enemy,   one who has already manipulated Uhtred and whose sorcerer draws men to his banner even as it frightensthose he stands against.  Though Uhtred can resist him with wiles and might, as he has taken countless enemies before, the aging war-prince also knows that fate is inexorable.   He can foil men, but not the gods.

The Saxon Stories are probably my favorite series of historical fiction to read, although after the first half-dozen the plots have gotten a little tiresome:  medieval Saxon politics punctuated with epic battles. It's great, but...people being as they are, even a diet of constant steak would grow tiresome.   In War of the Wolf, we appear to be approaching the endgame, as the poet who appeared early in the series putting Uhtred's life into verse appears here again,  complete with some borrowed Saxon poetry. Although Uhtred has an immediate enemy -- a young savage with a ferocious warband and a lust for power --  the political developments of this book also hint that the 'final battle' will be the defense of Northumbria against the south.   What made Uhtred so interesting from the start was that he was a Saxon princeling raised by the Danes, who much preferred the company of the latter but was compelled to fight against them to realize his dream of reclaiming his family land.  Uhtred in his youth was constantly torn between  his Christian countrymen of blood, and his Danish and Norse countrymen of heart. Old Uhtred has been a partially tamed wolf: one who is wild, but mostly cooperates with the king. If push comes to shove, however,  and Christian England invades Northumbria, it's almost certain that  the wolf will run wild again. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

So it goes

This weekend has seen me reach the end of Red Dead Redemption II. I have never been as moved by the ending of a game, or by a videogame protagonist. The sheer depth of this game -- so much so that its credits rolled for thirty minutes, and I was happy to watch because of the glimmers of story that continued to be revealed throughout --  puts it in a class by itself, in my opinion.   No videogame, and precious few actual movies, have had character drama this good.   I bought a PS4 just to play the game, and I don't regret it a second. I look forward to continuing to explore this amazing world Rockstar created, but now that the first flush is over -- time to go back to reading!

Thursday, April 18, 2019


This has been a dismally slow Read of England, between a history book more dense than I'd expected, and the fact that I have been utterly absorbed in the world of Red Dead Redemption since mid-March, and when I say utterly I do mean it. I've listened to no podcasts, no audiobooks, and I have played almost nothing else.  And..I've read two books. Although I expect to be finished with To Rule the Waves  by this evening,  I thought I'd share some photos from in-game.

A favorite random moment of mine:  I was in the middle of some mischief when two bounty hunters rode past, lecturing their captive about his misdeeds while I crouched mid-loot in my mask.  Very awkward. 

RDR2 is an open-world game set in 1899, in a time of transition;  the west is being broken and civilized, but there are more than a few stubborn diehards to keep the dream of a free life alive. The player belongs to a close-knit community of such rebels, who begin the game hiding in the mountains from some debacle. Before long the winter is over and the story really begins, with the caravan of men, women, and at least one child making their way into a comfortable camp in the woods southwest of the great plains.  Although the immediate surroundings are very reminiscent of old west landscapes, there's much more to the game's world than that -- and from the very beginning, almost all of it is open. In my first week of playing the game I had traveled far and wide, exploring roads that let me into swamplands,  rugged dark forests,  mountain communities where the only road is a trail barely wide enough to ride a horse down, and still more. 

Riding back into St. Denis with a perfect alligator skin in the midst of a thunderstorm

 The game's weather system, and the constantly changing lighting effects, allow for still more experiences: the bayou is  a very different place at night, or when there's a thunderstorm rolling through. The game's cargo system allows players to store clothing on their horse, so if needed they can don a heavy overcoat when headed into mountain country, or strip down to just a shirt while moving through the bayou. The landscape changes with the weather; snow falls, puddles develop in wagon-wheel ruts.  I have not yet stopped goggling at the clear imprint made by a rolling wagon, or footprints, or a bloody trail left in the snow by a stricken animal.

Took a ram on my way to track a legendary bison, and had to admire the snow effects. 

While the weather goes a long way to making the world of RDR2 feel alive,   its inhabitants do most of that work themselves. The landscape is full, and I mean full, of animal life, creatures great and small.   The variety of birds is staggering, as is the number of small mammals -- and then there are the big ones, like deer,  boars, elk, bears, cougars, etc.  Hunting is a big part of the game, as  one legal way of generating money the player badly needs at the beginning; it also provides food in abundance, and clothing later on.  As the player moves through the landscape,  he meets other travelers -- some friendly, some not.  Others are out fishing, panning for gold, hunting,  etc -- and many present opportunities to the player.  These often present the player with a simple choice, to help or to ignore, but opportunities often have unexpected consequences.  A woman  pleading for help may be in distress....or she may be a lure to lead you into an alley to be ambushed.


 The player is not the only resident of these lands capable of getting up to mischief:   there are other gangs who operate in different areas of the map who will ambush unsuspecting travelers, and if they are resisted -- as I did, with dynamite and a sawed-off  --   they develop a special hatred toward the player and will deliberately target them.  It didn't take me long to start traveling with my sawed-off at the ready, and with a wary eye casing the road ahead, looking for spots where I might get ambushed.  I often went off-road to avoid areas with a hill or  large rocks beside the road,  and when I needed to travel across a high-risk area like a covered bridge, I did so at full gallop ready to rain shot on anyone.   Other travelers are likewise cautious, and if you follow too closely they will draw on you. 

And then there's the story,  as the player witnesses slow disintegration of a nomadic community, brought on by both the forces that oppose them (a very dedicated Pinkerton agent), the self-destructive lifestyle a few of the members live, and the fact that their leader is astonishingly bad at judgment calls. I'm approaching the end of the story, the final chapter,  and suspect I may be a little bummed when I get there. Even afterwards, however,  I think this will be a game that becomes a persistent part of my leisure, a world I enjoy spending time in -- like Lost Heaven (Mafia) or Vice City.   It is by far the most visually stunning and content-rich game I've ever tried.

Friday, April 12, 2019

American Gun

 American Gun
© 2013 Chris Kyle
336 pages

Think of English history, and longbows, tall ships, and shieldwalls may come to mind; think of France, and perhaps the image is knights charging across an open field. But American history, from the colonies onward, has been written in guns. Hunting frontiersmen became rebels, created a nation, expanded its borders far and wide, and protected itself from enemies within and without. In American Gun, a much-lauded Navy SEAL reviews the history of ten firearms which have an outsized role in American history. Beginning with the long rifles of the colonial militia and wrapping up with the M-16 that began to be used two hundred years later, Kyle's personable history mixes technical and political history; each chapter delves into the background of the firearm, the circumstances that prompted it to be designed and the path it took to be accepted. These are not all military weapons; the Colt that graces the cover of the book and the Winchester 1873 rifle were pervasive in the late 19th century as settlers filled and civilized the west, and a pistol associated strongly with the police appears in the latter half of the book. The ten guns are mostly rifles and pistols, with the Tommygun being an outlier; there are no shotguns. I read this chiefly because I thought it was such an interesting angle to view American history from, and quite appropriate. I was especially glad to read histories of pieces I have a fondness for, the Colt 1911 and the M1 Garand. There's a lot of fascinating trivia in here; I'd long regarded the scenes of Lincoln firing Spencer repeating rifles on the White House lawn as fanciful, but apparently he was quite the shooting enthusiast. 

(Er...not quite Read of England material, but when I learned of the book I immediately wanted to read it.  The first chapter is all about England, though..it's just that Englishmen are being shot at...)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Time Traveler's Guide to Restoration Britain

Having previously guided readers through the Medieval and Elizabethan eras, Ian Mortimer now welcomes intrepid travelers to the Age of Restoration. The tyrant Oliver Cromwell is dead, and with him went his grim police-state 'republic' and the armed doctrine of puritanism.  Long live the King, the Church, and debauchery!  The return of music, theaters, and lecherous kings isn't the only thing to celebrate;  England's merchant ships are traveling the world and increasing the amount of interesting foods and items to buy by the year, and the razor's edge clarity of science is now being honed.  The country is being re-made by the year; in London's case, literally, because the Great Fire destroyed much of its medieval core and warranted a partial redesign.  This is a transitional age;  more and more people are living in cities, enough that the countryside is developing appeal as a break from the city, and traveling purely for leisure through rural areas develops.  This is still not an age modern travelers would be wholly at ease, in, however;   religious opinions are dangerous to express if they differ too much from Anglican orthodoxy (Quakers and Catholics be warned!),   gentlemen will duel at the drop of a hat, and severed heads on pikes are still civic decor. Here Mortimer revives the tour-guide delivery of the original guide to Medieval England,   detailing the different kinds of lodging and foods to expect,  points of interest, and how to avoid being arrested.   As ever, I thoroughly enjoy this visit with Mortimer.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Scarlet Thief

The Scarlet Thief 
© 2013 Paul Fraser Collard
352 pages

Captain Arthur Sloames stepped off the boat with a terrible secret.  He wore on his shoulders the coat of a dead man.  When his transport left England, he was but Jack Lark -- a crushed and anxious common soldier whose ambition had led him to become an officer's aide. That officer perished of fever en route to a new command, however, and seizing on the opportunity Lark has assumed the man's identity.  It's not as if he can do worse than the stuffed shirts leading the army now, after all -- but faced against Russian cossacks and massed artillery, Lark soon realizes being the man who gives the orders is never so simple.   As mobs of uniformed men are thrown into battle against one another, Lark is doubly challenged: first,   to survive the brutal opening of the Crimean war, doing right  by his men; and to maintain his charade surrounded by officers who are not nearly as dimwitted as they appear from a distance.

Imagine the frantic action of a Bernard Cornwell novel, but with the humor drastically downplayed; that's the general feeling here, as Fraser is just as good at thrusting readers into the heart of battle and keeping the pages flying by.  The working-class character suddenly turned officer is very reminiscent of Sharpe's backstory, though Lark's promotion is one of stolen valor -- or rather, borrowed, because Lark may pose as an officer but he's a courageous soldier  who doesn't shy from leading his men from the front.  What he leads them into is not always advisable, but it wouldn't be a novel without disasters to test characters and learn from.   There are enemies both foreign and domestic; there are the Russians, of course, but Lark is also dogged by an old enemy who has inexplicably turned up in Crimea as well.

What will make Jack Lark stand out, I think, is not so much his similarities to Sharpe, but how very different his story will become.  The novels to come take Lark to India, Persia, and beyond, with roles beyond the battlefield.  I'm  especially intriuged by the idea of an English soldier fighting for the Shah.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Read of England, 2019!

Ah, dear readers, it’s that time again – April, a wonderful month of warm sunshine and cool breezes, and with them both a dream of another land. It’s READ OF ENGLAND time once again, a monthlong dive into English literature and English history.   I’m fully prepared this year, with a tin of loose leaf Earl Grey and some imported cookies - er, ‘biscuits’ -- from England. And I’ve got books, of course, loads of books. 

 What’s on the menu?
 The Vicar of Wakefield, a classics club entry.    
 To Rule the Waves: How the Royal Navy Shaped the Modern World 
A Time Traveler's Guide to Restoration England, Ian Mortimer 
Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America 
The Decline and Fall of Rome, Volume I, Edward Gibbon.  This one is primarily a classics club entry,  but I can get away with it in April because Gibbon has such a reputation as a master of English prose. 
 The Scarlet Thief, Paul Fraser Callard.  Crimean war historical fiction, I  think; I purchased this one a few years ago during a sale .
Ten Cities That Made an Empire,   a most interesting-sounding take on the British empire that focuses on colonial cities as hubs of commerce that made the Empire so successful at its peak.   This one I'm...not sure about. The Postal service claims they delivered it, but there's no trace of it.  

That's...a lot of history, and  Gibbon will take time enough it's likely I won't get through everything. Still, I'm really looking forward to it!