Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History by James Morone

Looking over my posts on this blog, I’ve noticed that I’ve done a ton of fiction & fantasy books. Don’t misunderstand, I like fiction & fantasy books. It’s just that spreading my wings is a good thing, so I’ve started reading more historical books and such recently, something I’ve gotten away from for no good reason.

Hellfire Nation is a book that at first was intimidating to me because of its size; this is a doorstopper, but given the weighty subject matter it’s not surprising. What’s nice is that Morone’s writing is very readable and easy to enjoy; he makes what might otherwise be a heavy or daunting book quite interesting. I’m also a fan of books that examine some unusual facet of society or culture that isn’t often examined, or isn’t examined in great detail (for example, a book I want to review soon is about the social habits of the rich vs. that of animals).

As the title states, the idea of sin has been a popular weapon to be used to demonize the “other side”, as seen during the Witch Trials, the censorship of Comstock, Prohibition, white slavery and other “moral outrages” right up to the modern era, and is a proud tradition fully embraced and applied to politics and social media today by both parties, though I’ll freely admit to being a loyal Democrat and feel that the extreme right today is much more blatant and brutal in their use of this technique. However, this is not a political blog (though I have and am considering creating one) and so I will leave it at that in this review.

In essence Morone discusses the origins of American exceptionalism from a moral standpoint; he quotes and uses as a main theme and underlying idea Puritan John Winthrop’s statement that America should be a “city on a hill”, and the recurring idea in American history of “us” vs. “them,” whether it’s immigrants, slaves, city and country people, or religious and political groups.

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested to the tangled path and sometimes dark  shadow religion has cast on the history and culture of the United States. This country was, of course, founded by people wishing the freedom to practice their beliefs in their own way. Of course, the depressing fact that some of them instantly turned around and proceeded to condemn and persecute both the natives that were already here and people who followed other paths such as the Quakers (who were in fact tortured by some early settlers to “encourage them to change) or chose to split off into other schools of thought.

Abortion,  the debate over “God” on our money and the Pledge of Allegiance are just some of the legacy of Sin in America and our reaction and fear of it as a label or brand to be used against the world or each other. The clear path Morone shows to the present day is intriguing and provides real food for thought; obvious when you truly see the religious roots of much of the conflict and debate present in U.S. political thought that has influenced both our foreign and domestic policy since the beginning of the nation.

After The Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

On my last review, I looked at a book with a superhero as the main character, and talked about the sometimes-negative reputation comic books have developed as movie studios have started pumping out superhero films.

This one looks at the “world of heroes” concept from another angle, and one that would make a good film or TV show as well (if it hasn’t already). That’s the viewpoint of the “normal” human among the powered people, and what that means as far as professional and personal relationships.

The main character is Celia West, daughter of Captain Olympus and Spark, the top two heroes in the world. As such, she carries around a name and connection that haven’t made things easy for her in any facet of her life. Not to mention she has been kidnapped so often that its’ almost routine and not really a cause for alarm anymore. This part is admittedly slightly reminiscent of Megamind on first glance, but Vaughn gives it more depth since you’re seeing it from the position of the kidnapped.

After this opening section and introduction of the cast the story really gets rolling. The Destructor, the nastiest supervillain around, is on trial for his various crimes, and Celia has been assigned to the prosecution. The problem is, he knows who she is, and he’s never been one to go down without a fight. Crime is breaking out all over the city as the trial goes on, but Celia isn’t sure he’s the culprit. They have a history together, and combined with her overbearing super-parents, a lot of drama ensues.

Vaughn also introduces some interesting wrinkles to the standard superhero universe that I liked, and the relationships between people seem pretty honest and realistic (for a given value of realistic of people with family issues and heat vision).

In all, I feel that Ms. Vaughn did a fine job with this story. Some of the secondary characters and the wider world might have been sketched out more strongly, but those are relatively minor quibbles, and for the most part everything flows well. I’d be interested in visiting this world again, certainly.

Prepare To Die by Paul Tobin

There are those who decry the recent upsurge in comic books as the basis for TV shows and movies, seeing them as “kiddie stuff”, too simplistic for a good foundation or simply being uninterested in comics in general. I’m a geek from way back, and I love debating them, but I am not going to do that here-at least not when it comes to two of these arguments. Anyone who gives their kid a (good)comic is only doing the child a favor in my opinion, and everyone is entitled to their opinion.

No, what I take issue with is the suggestion that comics aren’t “deep” enough to anchor a good story. Are some of the concepts pretty cut-and-dried? Yes. Are some of the most well-known characters not the most complex, at first glance? I’d agree to that in a heartbeat. Super-powers are not automatically a handicap or detriment to writing an interesting story. Indeed, it can provide even more fertile soil for amazing stories, or more tools for crafting an intriguing world.

A case in point is Prepare To Die by Paul Tobin, a book I picked up on a whim and found hard to put down. I’ll admit the comic-book-y cover and plot description drew me to it at first glance, but it was the story that drew me in and kept me reading.

The main character is Steve Clarke, the hero known as Reaver. He’s superstrong, supertough, and each punch can literally take off a man’s life. He is hailed as a hero, yet feared for his gifts, which leaves him in an odd place of being met with awe rather than love by most normal humans. As the story begins he’s headed to the hometown he hasn’t seen in years following a threat from his arch-enemy Octagon: he has two weeks to put his effects in order before he dies. It’s a simple idea, on the face of it, and of course ties into the supervillian cliche in the title.

But there’s a lot more to it, of course. During the story we learn Steve’s origin story, how being a hero has changed his life, and what he misses through being more than human. It’s ground that of course has been covered in other places with other characters, but Tobin keeps it fresh by giving Steve a very down-to-earth voice and clearly painting the world and the superfolks in it. He creates several distinct people with personalities and powers without making them seem like obvious exports of other heroes, which is no easy task.

The story itself is fairly straightforward, but no less fun. Some parts are depressing, some very funny, some surprisingly raunchy without being over the top. If I had to sum up the whole story in a single phrase I’d call it “light but strong.” I’d be interested in reading more stories from Mr. Tobin, especially  that Spirit Guide of his, since I’ve been looking for it for years, and it’s been recommended by several leading scientists..

BlackRabbit’s #CBR5 Review #18: The Leviathan Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld

I’ll always admit to being a sucker for a pretty cover, and the pictures on the front of Leviathan grabbed me right off. Then I started reading. Five pages in, I bought it, took it home, and spent the rest of the night finishing it. The next chance I got, I purchased the next two from Amazon.

The central conceit is clear and attractive: The world is filled with two rival philosophies and technologies: the Clanker countries of Germany and Austro-Hungary with their walkers and mechanized war machines, versus Darwinist Britain and their allies’ genetically engineered “beasties”, such as whale/jellyfish airships and parrot/lizard messengers. Other nations have their own mix of the two systems depending on their alliance. Battlesuits vs. weird science!

Leviathan’s story revolves around two central characters of opposite background and loyalties. One is Alex, the son and heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After his father, the Emperor Ferdinand, is murdered, Alex is forced to go into hiding with a single battered mech and a few retainers. On the other side is Deryn Sharp, a young girl who wants nothing more than to serve on one of Britain’s flying battleships, and so disguises herself as a boy named Dylan. Through a series of events the two bump into each other, and then the real fun begins.
Alex is focused and too conscious of his responsibility and vulnerable status as the possible ruler of a nation at war, while Dylan is having the time of her life learning about working on a living war machine and the amazing weapons of the Darwinists while keeping her secret safe.

The second book, Behemoth, follows their adventure to the officially neutral Ottoman Empire, who the English are trying to woo over to their side from Clanker influence. However, things go badly when the Alex and Dylan are separated on dangerous adventures and a nosy American reporter gets involved. The seeds of revolution are sown, and the world inches closer to war. Afterwards, the crew and Alex are told their next stop will be Russia and the Far East on an important trip that may end the war, and “Dylan” discovers that her feelings for Alex may be deeper than she expected, but that he can never return them given his royal class.

Goliath opens with the airship Leviathan flying over the steppes of Russia en route to pick up a passenger who it is rumored may hold the key to stopping the war. After discovering an area of terrible devastation, Alex and Dylan meet the mystery man: Nikola Tesla, who says he has built a weapon capable of destroying any city on earth at his command. The two protagonists are torn: Alex sees it as a way to end possible bloodshed, while “Mr” Dylan Sharp is less sure. After a stop off in Japan where Teslas’ machine shows its amazing power, they are ordered to neutral America (Clanker North, Darwinist South) where he will build a full-scale model of his new machine under the watchful eye of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. However, after arriving they receive word that the Germans are determined to stop Tesla’s machine from being built at any cost…

I really enjoyed this series. I’ll confess when I started reading and recognized that they were YA books I was a trifle hesitant, since I’d pushed myself through the first Twilight book to considerable mental distress. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Westerfeld never talks down to his audience, and his characters are clean and complex. Dylan/Deryn and Alex are equal stars of the books, with Alex’s tactical skills and aristocratic training nicely balancing her fearlessness and keen observations. She’s never made to be less competent or intelligent, and the friendship between them grows very naturally, as do their reactions to each new revelation and crisis. The amazing illustrations by Keith Thompson are a treat in and of themselves and give a fun “penny dreadful” feeling to the story.

The weirdness of the world around them is likewise smoothly introduced through their eyes, and the danger of being involved in a world at war isn’t minimized because of the youth of the protagonists. Of course, you know neither one will be killed, but you’re on the edge of your seat regardless. The way their relationship grows and matures throughout the trilogy is likewise well handled, and the inevitable “discovery” of Deryn’s true nature is handled in a fresh way.

There’s plenty of action too, and I really enjoyed the descriptions of the various beasties and machines. I’ve never had a great interest in technology and so would likely be a Darwinist if I had the choice. All in all this series is extremely well written and entertaining for readers of any age.

BlackRabbit’s #CBR5 Review #17: Shades of Gray by Jasper Fforde

First off, if you’re looking for that sex-bondage book, this ain’t it. I know, I also had to double-check the title when someone suggested it. I wonder if Mr. Fforde received any messages from people who made the same mistake. As with any book I review, if or when I get my hands on the next one I’ll review that one as well, and link it up to this. Shades of Gray also has some of the best cover art I’ve ever seen.

The story revolves around a world named Chromatacia and a character named Eddie Russett. In this world (or nation; Fforde never really shows how large this country might be) worth and social status are measured by your color perception. Grays can only see monochrome and are menials, and the progression up the ladder goes all the way up to the Reds. What you can see also determines who you can and can’t marry. For example, a Green and a Red could never be a legal couple, and marriages are planned based on the color perception of any offspring; marrying for love without considering the chromatic consequences is seen as a sure path to familial destruction. There was an event, Something That Happened, and the world was changed from whatever it was before, to the color system dystopia implemented by a man named Munsell.

Russert is sent to the remote town of East Carmine to perform a chair census as punishment for a practical joke, and therein meets a variety of strange characters, such as The Apocryphal Man, who is ignored by law since history is illegal, and Jane, a Gray who has a cute nose and will punch you if you mention it. The ironclad social levels and arrangements, at first whimsical and odd, are later discovered by Eddie to have a darker hue, and he must fight against everything everyone know is right to prove the true-blue truth. And possibly to avoid being killed by vicious swans.

It’s much in the same style as Fforde’s other stories and series: funny, weird, and deftly created. He has a gift for building a world in just a few descriptions, leaving your mind to fill in the blanks. Fforde doesn’t linger on the strangeness of the worlds he makes, instead the reader allows the continuous layers of oddity to wash over them until it all seems natural and at the same time each one is a fresh revelation.

The plot is carefully laid out in a complex society, and I wasn’t surprised when I found out it was the first in a series-such an entrenched and strange world couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be upended in the space of one novel. The characters are likewise sparingly described, but you don’t care. They’re still good, and keep the plot moving along briskly.

Again, characteristically of Fforde, he has a host of various humorous and interesting references, such as the name Munsell itself, the various town and people’s names as colors, and the idea that the place you are sent before you “move on” being the Green Room. The nonsense is never wasted either, such as the fear of swans and the rationing of spoons. Each little tidbit builds the world even deeper and adds color to it. Or perhaps shades of meaning.

BlackRabbit’s #CBR5 Review #15: Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove

One of the most interesting questions is “What if?” It’s one that has spawned millions of stories and ideas, be they DC comics’ Elseworlds or theological arguments. Harry Turtledove (who has gained the title “The Master of Alternate History”) is a very well-known author who has made a career out of exploring this question in a variety of ways as it relates to turning points or possibilities in world history, such as the South winning the civil war, or aliens invade in the middle of WWII.

Ruled Britannia is about one of those places-the invasion of England by Spain and the Armada in order to overthrow Elizabeth I. In our reality the force was destroyed and dispersed by the English, with more than a third of the 151 ships never returned to Spain. The victory was acclaimed by the English as their greatest since Agincourt.

In this world, however, the professional soldiers of the Spanish Empire made it ashore and soon have a tight grip on England, though Scotland and Wales are not mentioned and Irish troops are brought in to help keep the peace, counting on their antipathy for the English. The Catholic faith is forced upon the people upon pain of “the question” by the English Inquisition, and it is worth your life to even mention the imprisoned queen.

One of the citizens paying careful lip service to the superiority of Spanish rule is a playwright named William Shakespeare. He is, like everyone else, just trying to get by, providing folks with laughter and chills by way of his comedies and dramas such as The Prince of Denmark and Love’s Labors Won. However, his skill with words are soon requested for a bigger and much more significant task-to stir his fellow citizens to rise up and throw off the nine-year dominion of the invaders by asking the question “To be free, or not to be free?”

Not much is known about Shakespeare’s personality, so he’s an excellent blank slate for a man with an eye for the everyday detail of his world, and connections with a wide spectrum of people. Indeed, it’s his modest fame as a playwright that makes him a subject of interest for the Inquisition and the Spanish, not to mention his friendship with the brilliant and unabashedly scandalous homosexual playwright Kit Marlowe (who once supposedly said that “Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest [unchaste]” and that “the Angel Gabriel was bawd [pimp] to the Holy Ghost”), and who is unsurprisingly not popular with the theocratic Spanish intelligence services, both for his preferences and for his possible connection to anti-Spanish factions.

It should come as no surprise that a book from a veteran writer is clean and flowing, but here the dialogue especially shines. It is sometimes a little hard to follow until you get into the rhythm of iambic pentameter. There are a lot of sneaky quotes from Shakespeare’s work, as well as other plays (and spotting them, even slightly altered, is half the fun). The many puns and the clever wordplay make any scene with Shakespeare and his friends a real pleasure to read.

The story and the conflict are gripping, with the political and religious forces swirling about, personified on the one hand by the ruthless and shadowy ringleaders of the English liberty movement, and on the other by the (real life) Spanish soldier and playwright Lope de Vega, who is interested in the theatre, but also a zealous servant of Queen Isabelle and assigned to uncover any traitors among the actors. He’s so likeable and roguish that it’s easy to forget that he’d sadly condemn Shakespeare to torture if evidence of heresy was uncovered.

The other characters, such as Shakespeare’s fellow players Richard Burbage and the clown Will Kemp (also historical characters, as are most everyone mentioned) are also quite well written. Turtledove does a fine job of likewise painting the world to such a fragrant degree that I winced every time a chamber pot was emptied out a window to splash on the street below.

On the face of it, play-writing isn’t an activity that has a lot of excitement attached to it, but Turtledove manages to fill every page with suspense and intrigue, and the ending feels satisfying, and I even felt that a good snapshot was given of a period and conflict in history that does feel plausible, or at least possible. And of course one of the most important questions when reviewing any book by so prolific an author: What if I read more of his work? That would be a better world, indeed.