The Green And The Gray by Timothy Zahn

I’ve read more than a few “franchise” books, by which I mean stories where an author writes a story within an existing universe, such as Diane Duane’s Spider-man books (very good) or Warhammer 40K stories. I always wonder how much of a help or hinderance the existing framework is for the authors; after all, it probably does some of the creative heavy lifting, but it constrains the possible stories by having someone looking over your shoulder more than usual, both  from the fans of that universe and its caretakers.

Timothy Zahn is likely best known for his Thrawn trilogy set in the Star Wars universe. I rather enjoyed them, and based on the strength of those stories picked up this book. I was cautiously hopeful as I hadn’t read very much of his other work aside from the Star Wars novels, and I was curious to see how Mr. Zahn would set about creating a brand-new world. I can happily say that he did not disappoint.

The story opens in New York City, with a couple walking home from a play. Roger and Caroline Whittier are people with deep personal issues, constantly at odds due to their different personalities and approaches to everything: he is more analytical and avoids confrontation, she more emotional and willing to speak up for the underdog. This tense situation is broken up by the sudden intrusion of an armed man who hustles them into an alley and makes an odd request: that they take with them a young girl named Melantha who is lying unconscious on the ground. Out of compassion, the Whittiers’ agree, and thusly are drawn into an ancient conflict.

As the title states, the two parts of the trouble are groups known as the Greens and Grays. Both have strange and advanced technology and a bitter hatred of each other, with few qualms about using them in public, or against outsiders to their conflict. Unfortunately, the police are soon drawn into the “secret war”, bringing more attention to their problems. Melantha is important to both sides, and they will stop at nothing to secure her from the Whittiers.’

Roger & Caroline, as mentioned, are involved with their own disintegrating relationship, and the introduction of a strange young girl at first puts a heavy strain on their lives. However, her presence and the pressure from both sides draws them to defend her and to solve a war. The police are soon involved as well, and seeing their response to the escalating conflict adds more intrigue and tension to the story.

There are a lot of characters in this story, and they are all given some care. Interestingly, we never see the action or from the POV of either a Green or Gray, only the humans. However, the different culture and approach of each side is well explained, as is their types of technology and gifts. The Green, as their name suggests, are more connected to nature, while the Gray are more acclimated to an urban environment.

Zahn does an excellent job in fleshing out his protagonists and their inner voices. In the beginning the frustrations of Roger and Caroline towards each other are distinctly uncomfortable and made the story slightly difficult to read. As it went on I was happy to see that they were growing closer, making their interactions more pleasant, and in fact I looked forward to seeing how the next twist or obstacle would bring them closer together. It’s done in a very natural and organic way, as opposed to the fire-forged relationships seen in other books and movies. You get a sense of what drew them to each other in the first place and how this harrowing situation realistically makes them understand each other in a fresh way.

All in all it was an excellent story and certainly encouraged me to seek out other books by Zahn, as well as hope for a return visit to this universe. It has a lot of possibilities to explore.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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Confederates In The Attic by Tony Horwitz

Even though I live not far from Gettysburg, the Civil War was never that interesting a subject to my mind. This book has definitely changed that opinion by pointing out the causes and effects of the War Between The States to the modern memory and response to that conflict, from reenactors to the various organizations who remember  and honor their ancestors who fought in the war.

Mr. Horwitz examines this subject with both humor and insight, approaching everyone with respect and attempting to see their points of view without disguising his own feelings about their own. This allows him to gain the trust and voice of a wide range of people in his travels across both the South and the years between the War and today.

It opens with his interviews with a group of Civil War enthusiasts, especially a particular group who approach the activity with an aim toward absolute authenticity, even going as far as losing weight to an alarming degree, careful recreation of uniforms down to the proper coloring agents and grime, and going without bathing for an extended period. These guys are interested in the War as a period of upheaval and trying to recapture the same feelings and experiences as their ancestors.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of a  very dedicated subculture, especially since there’s so much information about the day-to-day lives of people in that time period that they have a lot of information to consult, as opposed to people who reenact being, say, Roman soldiers. The Civil War guys don’t extend their passion to the larger issues of the conflict aside from making disparaging remarks about “damn Yankees.” The mystique in their minds is for the War itself, without seeing it as a rallying point or pining for the “good old days” apart from trying to have the same experiences as the average soldier.

The same can’t be said of other people Horowitz encounters on his travels. Their idea of the Civil War is as a Lost Cause, a mythical conflict or Holy War where the South was overwhelmed but not defeated, and will one day rise again, and the place of Southern generals is in a pantheon of noble heroes (a dark cousin of the legend of the sleeping champion such as King Arthur or Frederick in England and Germany), which sees the War as a case where the South’s superior military skill and passion were beaten by sheer numbers and industrial force. This is wedded to both religious feeling and racism, given slavery’s place as the economic and moral cause of the war.

The individuals Horwitz meets along the way include the Last Confederate Widow, the owner of the Tara movie set of Gone With the Wind members of the Daughters of the Confederacy. Along the way, he also visits the site of Andersonville prison camp, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Fitzgerald, Georgia (a town founded for Civil War veterans and populated by descendants of both sides.

Horwitz asks penetrating questions without being confrontational, and is honest about his place as a Northerner and a passionate student of the conflict itself. While he clearly disagrees with the ideas set forth by some of the people he meets who espouse the War as a more-than-historical event where the wrong side lost, he also tries to explain their motivations and backstories in a comprehensive way, as opposed to lazily painting them as the villains or caricatured “yokels”. For example, the question of how to advertise the Civil War for tourists without offending locals. Do you put a statue of Arthur Ashe along the same street as the generals of the South, many of whom were slaveholders? If you put him on a separate street, that’s another unfortunate message.

A flip side is the culture and ideas of people who celebrate the pre-War time as the “good old days” and slam Reconstruction and the current view of the South as lies and misinformation. The racism here is subtle in some places but heavily wedded to a semi-religious veneration of both the notable figures of the War and people who have lost their lives as “heroes,” such as Michael Westerman, a young man killed In Kentucky (which never joined the Confederacy) by black youths allegedly for having a Confederate battle flag on his truck. In the book he is gradually made a figurehead and example of a fallen soldier for the right to fly that flag and celebrate “white rights.”

There are several more people interviewed in the book, encompassing a wide variety of ideas and viewpoints, and their words are better read than repeated by me. I’d encourage anyone with an interest in history, civil rights, or past and present cultural clashes to read this book. It tackles a sensitive topic with both a writer’s clear-eyed analysis, humor and the passion of an amateur historian.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.