Military science fiction is as old as science fiction itself. If we include alternate history under that umbrella of science fiction, there are altern...moreMilitary science fiction is as old as science fiction itself. If we include alternate history under that umbrella of science fiction, there are alternate histories 2000 years old, with Roman writers musing how Alexander the Great might have fared had he lived to turn his attention to Italy. H.G. Wells wrote novels such as The War in the Air and stories like “The Land Ironclads,” the latter a bit of speculative fiction that would precede the invention of the tank by 20 years. In the 1980’s, Jerry Pournelle created nine volumes of war story anthologies, the There Will be War series.
Still, Military SF does not immediate come to everyone’s mind as being their cup of tea, and there are those who have never thought to pick up any Militray SF title. To quote the old sit-in song: “War, what is it good for?” Providing an interesting framework for a particular class of SF, that’s what. In a 21st century of IEDs and drones, of asymmetrical warfare and PTSD concerns, Military SF is as relevant as ever, if not even more so. In an age where the effects of war are very unevenly distributed, understanding war through the lens of SF is important and relevant.
With those ideas in mind, Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak have combined forces to create War Stories, a crowdfunded anthology of Military SF. Liptak has an MA in Military History while Gates has extensive editorial experience. Together they make an excellent team, and together they have brought a fine collection of writers to explore military science fiction for the modern age.
One of the strongest aspects to the anthology is the breadth of topics and authors on display here. A military SF anthology would be easy to fill with the “usual suspects” who write in the subgenre on a regular basis, and some of the names in the anthology certainly fit that profile. However, the editors have taken a lot of care and effort in making this not only a balanced anthology in terms of gender and diversity, but including authors you might not immediately expect to write Military SF, such as Ken Liu, Yoon Ha Lee and Susan Jane Bigelow. This is one of the abiding strengths of the collection and help make the anthology relevant and interesting to a wider audience. The stories in this anthology have a strong focus on the protagonists and the costs and consequences of war. Some of the stories provide a lot of the glossy technological intricacy of war, true, but its the people and their stories that make the stories in War Stories truly excellent.
Some of the story highlights of the collection for me include the folowing:
Linda Nagata has been carving out a new act in her SF writing career with military SF such as The Red: First Light. In “Light and Shadow” she continues to refine her Military SF credentials and skills. “Light and Shadow” features a conflict between duty and the dangers of a technology that makes you a better soldier, at a cost to one’s own soul. In “Warhosts,” Yoon Ha Lee brings us a delightfully unusual and otherwordly perspective to a very formalized sort of war, with alien biology and alien psychology rendered in beautiful and well-crafted miniature. T.C McCarthy’s “Black Butterflies” is a bitter, unflinching story about the survivor of an interstellar battle, the guilt that a loser in a conflict carries, and the costs he must bear when the consequences of that battle come home. Karin Lowachee’s penultimate story in the collection (“Enemy States”) is all about the social aspect of the war and takes us through a civilian’s relationship with a soldier. The emotional beats as we see the ups, downs, highs and heartbreaks of Jake’s relationship with his soldier lover, Tuvi, moved me to tears. I really think this story should have been the closer to the anthology. Given the diversity of the collection, and the authors involved, anyone remotely interested in the topic of military science fiction who wasn’t a backer of the project should see about getting themselves a copy.(less)
Soul of Fire is the second in Laura Anne Gilman’s Portals duology, following Heart of Briar. In that previous volume, Janet, discovering her lover has...moreSoul of Fire is the second in Laura Anne Gilman’s Portals duology, following Heart of Briar. In that previous volume, Janet, discovering her lover has been kidnapped by elves, forges an unlikely alliance with supernatural creatures to find a way into elfland and, in the best traditions of Tam Lin, win him back.
This accomplished, there still remains a greater threat--why have the elves been so active, and with a time limit on a truce running out, can Janet and her friends find a way to keep them from their voracious predations on humanity? And can they even figure out *why* the elves have stepped up their hunger to take mortals back with them?
Some of the characters feel less well used than what I would like, but its a more than satisfactory conclusion to the duology. The novel worked extremely well for me as an airplane read, an excellent diversion and diversement in the harried life of airplane travel. Gilman’s work transported me to a whole different set of problems and characters for a while, and kept my mind off of the chaos around me. That counts for a lot.
There is no giant magic reset button at the end of the story, though, and Gilman takes some care in looking at, and deconstructing some of the tropes of urban fantasy and romance alike in finishing off the two book series. Every time I read a Laura Anne Gilman novel, I get the sense that I haven’t read enough Laura Anne Gilman novels. Soul of Fire continues that tradition.(less)
With superior power, technology, and a will to conquer, an empire uses that technological advantage to reach out and dominate/subjugate much of the wo...moreWith superior power, technology, and a will to conquer, an empire uses that technological advantage to reach out and dominate/subjugate much of the world. The wealth of the world is plundered and bent to the service and the coffers of that empire. No dominance lasts forever, however, and the subjugated peoples learn how to fight back, to drive the invaders out of their lands, to regain independence. More so, as the wheel turns and the empire falls into eclipse and collapse, the formerly subjugated find that they have the geopolitical upper hand over their former colonial masters.
This sounds awfully like the history of our world from the 19th century heyday of European Colonialism to the ‘rise of the rest’ and the relative decline of Western power happening right now, doesn’t it?
City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett’s first turn into secondary world fiction, tackles these concerns in a secondary world context.city-of-stairs
Bulikov, the eponymous City of Stairs, was once the center of a global empire. With the power of the Gods behind them, they once strode the world like a colossus. Resistance, while endemic in their conquered territories, was futile until a way was found to do the unthinkable: kill the Gods. In the wake of deicide and the resulting devastation known as The Blink, Bulikov and the rest of the Continent has fallen into collapse and ruin. In the meantime, Ghaladesh, formerly under the boot of Bulikov, has risen to world power, to the point where the colonized now find themselves in a superior position over their former masters.
The death of a professor studying the legacy of the fallen colonial power brings Shara Trivani to Bulikov. Ostensibly, she is there as a new cultural ambassador — a junior diplomat post at best — and there to see to the remains of her friend’s death. The truth of why Shara is there, who and what she really is, and what she will find in Bulikov is much more complicated.
Although there is a panoply of interesting characters to be found in City of Stairs, especially the clear breakout character, Sigurd, it is Bennett’s heroine who is the character tentpole of the narrative. The character’s layers and depth are deeply plumbed throughout the story. As our primary point of view (and frankly the best and most well written of the POVs in the novel), Shara is an intensely interesting and opinionated character. Bennett expertly filters Bulikov and the strangeness of the city and her situation through her perspective. The spy pretending to be a junior diplomat is hardly a new trope, but Bennett pulls it off admirably.
The novel’s themes are as well crafted and as interesting as elements of the character, the setting, the plot and the conflict. The uses and nature of history, its manufacture, its polishing and alteration, and its denial. Post-colonialism, and the legacies of the past, and present of Empire and geopolitical dominance, when a power imbalance changes radically. If science fiction novels often use the future to speak of the present, fantasy novels often use the past, or forms of the past, to speak of the here and now. In the changing landscape of the world around us, Bennett’s novel speaks to our 21st century world.
A compilation of blog posts from 2006 and 2011, 50 Roman Mistresses is about 50 of the more memorable members of the fairer sex in Ancient Rome. Writt...moreA compilation of blog posts from 2006 and 2011, 50 Roman Mistresses is about 50 of the more memorable members of the fairer sex in Ancient Rome. Written by Tansy Rayner Roberts, who knows a bit about Ancient Rome ( :cough: Classics PHD :cough), the essays digging into what we know about the women who have carved themselves into the male and masculine-dominated history of Ancient Rome. In such a society, for a woman to be remembered and memorable takes is quite a feat, and Roberts uses her examples to illustrate what we know about women at various points in the history of the Empire.
“Mistress” in the title does not refer to solely unmarried lovers of men, but rather Roman women in general. There are a lot of mothers, as you might imagine, and while the story of the Julio-Claudians was familiar with me, I had not heard of the story of, for example, the mother of the rabble-rousing Gracchi brothers. (Think of them as the John and Bobby Kennedys of their day. A mother capable of herding them is, by definition, a strong woman).
The conversational style of the essays make these works less of dry historical rigour and more of the sort of conversations that Roberts might have with you over a drink in a bar...or perhaps while relaxing in the frigidarium after taking the warm baths. The essays go down easy, and the conversational tone slip the history in without you even noticing it. Even the most inclusive Roman histories by men neglect the women that fill the other half of Rome, and this set of essays is a wonderfully useful and interesting corrective. Even beyond the more outwardly scheming (:cough Livia :cough:) women in Roman history, their influence is palpable, if but noticed and highlighted, and Roberts accomplishes that nicely.
My only disappointment is that Roberts stops her catalogue of Roman women in the 3rd Century A.D, before women like Queen Zenobia, Galla Placidia and of course Byzantine Empresses like Theodora make their mark. Perhaps a sequel, one day, will. add to this formidable list of Roman women with them.(less)
Traitor’s Blade, by Sebastien de Castell, contains some of the virtues of Musketeer fiction. High paced action and adventure rule the first portion of...moreTraitor’s Blade, by Sebastien de Castell, contains some of the virtues of Musketeer fiction. High paced action and adventure rule the first portion of the story of a disgraced set of swordsman of justice for a King who has been killed, replaced by a set of squabbling Dukes who would rather rule their petty little fiefdoms with an iron fist rather than offer justice. Falcio and his companions have become outlaws, swords for hire, dreaming of better days. The first act also shows us how Falcio got on his path in the first place.
The book misses, however, a good bet with a very questionable structure choice. Midway through the book, the action focuses on Falcio, alone, and someone he has sworn to protect. The novel completely abandons the fresh banter and interplay that is one of the best things about Musketeer fiction, and replaces it with a base-under-siege sort of storyline. I felt cheated by this. When I read Musketeer fiction, I want fast paced action and adventure. As said above, Traitor’s Blade has those in spades. I also though want that Musketeer dynamic, and Traitor’s Blade takes that away from me, the reader and replaces it with something lesser. Similarly, the movie The Musketeer, often having D'Artagnan go solo, completely gets this wrong as well.
However, ‘fridging’ a female character to provide motivation to the protagonist to go on his life path is more than just lazy writing, its a perpetuation of a very tired and sexist trope. There were any number of ways to get Falcio to meet the king and resurrect the Greatcoats. To do it this way helped set the book on the wrong foot for me early on, and the book never recovered. There is also a brief encounter between Falcio and another female character in that second act that was frankly offensive to me.
The denouement of the book is a muddled mess as well. The already murky motivations of the antagonists compounds with a lot of coincidence and hand waving. Worse, while the first part of the book reveled in swordplay, and the second, while questionable structurally, at least provided some action beats, the third act has the wheels go off entirely. A crucial fight scene in the end of the book is not described at all. The big battle at the end is a wet firecracker. The book feels like an imperfect but entertaining first act, and then loses its way as soon as Falcio goes off on his own.(less)