The Book Thread - October 2013

The Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell. I read these six books, but I feel like I was sold a lemon. Take a story about ships getting from here to there, compose it of the same thing happening again and again, and it gets quite tedious (for me). I haven’t read so much go-nowhere sci-fi since I worked my way through the Earl Dumarest books several years back. The Dumarest books felt somewhat more imaginative.

Yes, it used what people claim to be “realistic space travel” in terms of relativity, but how many space battles about “ship Cannon Fodder X turn 10 degrees widdershins” can you read before it all gets tired and confusing. The characters were stupid, and I don’t just mean stupidly written. They were actually stupid, and occasionally did extremely stupid things seemingly to hit certain plot points. Even John Scalzi’s IMO terrible novels are better than this. To some degree the characters reminded of the characters in red shirts, doomed to play a nonsensical role and do nonsensical things in order to make a revealed storyline play out.

361 by Donald E. Westlake. I’ve got a large backlog of Hard Case Crime to work through, but stalled on it because I hit a few duds. Standard guy suffers tragedy, guy seeks revenge, guy learns things weren’t as they seemed… etc. This was surprisingly refreshing, and I enjoyed it a lot.

I tried The Lost Fleet and couldn’t get over the writing quality (or rather, lack thereof). Good to know I didn’t miss much.

Glad you liked them and your review is spot on. One thing about the Byzantine horse archers that Ludwick points out is that they could never the quality of their steppe inspirations. It reminded me of a point Dan Carlin makes about the Frankish knights how there was a cultural quality about them that couldn’t be copied.

I also found it interesting that the quality of the Byzantine armies was very much dependent on the economic health of the empire. The implications seemed to be that as the Byzantine empire contracted it’s ability to rebuild itself was lessened. Making non-military tools that much more important. I was struck by how often religious conversion and fortuitous alliances with the enemies of the enemies seemed to stave off full defeat.

Yes, he mentions that the true steppe nomads were basically born in the saddle, they learned riding & archery from a young age and remained in continuous training. It’s amazing that Byzantine soldiers could approximate them as closely as they apparently did, although they also hired actual steppe people and the exact numerical relationship between those and native horse archers isn’t clear.

I also found it interesting that the quality of the Byzantine armies was very much dependent on the economic health of the empire. The implications seemed to be that as the Byzantine empire contracted it’s ability to rebuild itself was lessened. Making non-military tools that much more important. I was struck by how often religious conversion and fortuitous alliances with the enemies of the enemies seemed to stave off full defeat.

The armies Luttwak describes must have been amazingly expensive to train and outfit. The empire’s fragile power seems to have relied to a high degree on being an international religious and trade center, with all the influence and revenues that brings. Byzantium’s ultimate decline coincided with the rise of the European Catholic states. The relative loss of importance may have played as much a role there as rampaging crusaders and Ottomans.

With the empire in a decline instead of growth period, there simply wasn’t time, manpower, or capability to instill drill and excessive training, a facet which at its height the Byzantines excelled as well as their early Roman counterparts. The training period itself was extensive, a lot longer than I would have thought. Following the plague years or during the times of the great invasions of the 7th century, such training programs were simply not possible.

— Alan

The final Thomas Covenant book - The Last Dark.

Yikes, why.

— Alan

Oh, it’s out already? Excellent, I just thought I’m really feeling too well and should get more depressed!

Haw! I’ve been reading and enjoying this series for over 30 years.

Our tastes differ as I enjoy both this series and the author.

I am a bit puzzled as to why it took you 6 books to decide you did not like them. Did you read them back to back? If so, I can see the battles getting repetitive…

That surprised me as well. I downloaded the sample for the first book from Amazon and that was enough to convince me I didn’t want to read it, let alone another 5 books.

Of course, I did slog through the first Thomas Covenant trilogy, and in hindsight I don’t know why. I should have given up at the end of the first book at the very latest.

I’m working on two books right now: The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons and Lucifer’s Hammer by Niven and Pournelle.

Really enjoying both.

I read them back to back and the battles got a little repetitive for me, but I didn’t fatigue on them. I can see why the long journey and meticulous tactical details might not subjectively be another reader’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed the series even though I feel Campbell could have covered the same ground in fewer than nine books.

I’m just finishing up the newest (The Lost Stars: Perilous Shield) and despite my initial doubts when I started its predecessor, I’ve begun to enjoy the latest series just as much as if not a little more than the previous two.

His characters aren’t deep and I dislike some of the male-female dynamics in the first two series, but overall I think it’s pretty good stuff.

I’m actually in the middle of Tarnished Knight now.

Finished the audiobook version of American Elsewhere while biking in this morning. I don’t… think… I really liked it that much, but I did enjoy it enough to finish it.

It’s tough for me to quantify my feelings on it. Part of it was that I felt the author was trying (and failing) to channel some virtual Stephen King in many places, and the misfires took me out of the narrative. Part of it was that although the audiobook narrator was good with voices, the production values weren’t all that great – it was painfully apparent that the guy was turning pages (causing annoying pauses or missed inflection) rather than reading from scrolling text. But I think the main thing was the lack of any decent character growth. The main character kind of coasts through the book while stuff happens around her, and her final bit of “clever” action just doesn’t feel earned.

I did like the world-building and the semi-Lovecraftian creatures. I liked how you weren’t really sure who the good and bad guys in the story were for a good part of the book. But at the end of the day, for a “horror” book it just wasn’t that scary; for a sci-fi book there weren’t too many cool ideas; and for an adventure there wasn’t too much excitement.

I finished American Elsewhere last weekend and was going to post about it but you articulated my own assessment better than I could have. The only thing I’d add is, the first third or so of the book reads much better than the second two (I thought).

Why isn’t everyone reading The Republic Of Thieves? Okay, I realise the last one was utter pants, but come on!

Well, I wasn’t aware that it was out, for one thing. For another thing, it’s priced above what I consider acceptable for ebooks. (I realize it’s still a savings from hardcover, but the only context in which I have ever purchased hardcovers is for <$8 at a used bookstore.)

What I have been reading instead are the three latest Shadow Unit ebook compilations (11-13). For those not familiar with Shadow Unit, it’s a webfiction series (by assorted but published authors, like Emma Bull and Will Shetterly) about a classified task force operating under the aegis of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. They’re profilers too, but they deal with “anomalous” crimes. The conceit is that there is, in this setting, a disorder that they refer to as “the anomaly” that takes people’s traumas, amplifies them, gives them a psychological need to inflict pain (and ideally, kill), and equips them to do this by manifesting some sort of superhuman ability (in addition to greater than normal strength and durability) related to their idiosyncratic personal mythology, at the cost of a hugely amped metabolism and calorie burn rate that can cause them to literally starve to death from overuse of their powers. The sufferers are referred to as “gammas”. There are also two known manifestations of the anomaly in forms that are not actively homicidal. These “betas” are on the task force.

There’s a lot to like - the agents are all very real, well rounded characters (they’ve even been given Livejournals), the mysteries surrounding the anomaly are compelling and just enough new information comes to light to feel like there’s a solid, as yet unrevealed backstory to it, the cases are imaginative, insightful and devastating, and no punches are pulled. Oh, and the whole thing is free, if you’re okay with reading it on the web and doing a bit of clicking around:

Personally I like to buy their ebook compilations since they’re all of $3 a pop; everything’s conveniently pulled together, e-reader friendly and chronologically organized; and I really want this to be a viable continuing project for the authors involved. (There’s also a donate button on the website.)

Donaldson is a superb writer in every respect but heart and soul. He makes you think in every chapter: okay, this is when it will all make some kind of moral sense, this is when the childish or evil protagonist will finally grow up, and this is when the senseless sacrifice of all these good and sympathetic supporting characters will be justified. And then it doesn’t happen, and you feel stupid.

Man, I don’t know about that.