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..