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“I’ve been trying to get through this damn book again.” Ardee slapped at a heavy volume lying open, face down, on a chair.

“The Fall of the Master Maker,” muttered Glokta. “That rubbish? All magic and valour, no? I couldn’t get through the first one.”

“I sympathise. I’m onto the third and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards. I get them mixed up with one another. It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map I swear I’ll kill myself.”

Oh Joe Abercrombie – you kidder!

This concluding chapter to the fantasy series The First Law does an excellent job of refusing to compromise the intent of its author. From the initial entry The Blade Itself Abercrombie has tweaked the noses of fantasy literature. I have been following this series from the beginning of my blog and I must admit reading back over the reviews, by the second title Before They Are Hanged, the joke was wearing a bit thin for me. However, by Last Argument of Kings the energy has definitely returned and the story comes to an ending both fulfilling and devastating.

There are no easy answers in this fantasy and this is something I really admire about the books.

Glokta remains the favourite character from the bunch, returning to his homeland now fatally compromised by the events in the siege of Dagoska. For a man whose justification for his actions in the service of his king, torturing and murdering suspects as a member of the Inquisition, rest upon a certainty that he is in the right given his suffering at the hands of the enemy Gurkish this is a maddening dilemma. If he now too is guilty of treason, how is he any different than his victims? Logen returns from a failed quest still unredeemed, desperately hoping he can become a better man. Realizing he has no choice he returns to the North, where most of his former friends believed he is long dead. In truth they had hoped The Bloody Nine had finally died, known for his propensity for killing friends and enemies in the midst of a bloodlust. Jezal returns from that same quest as Logen welcomed back as a hero. Wishing only to have the chance to live  a normal life, following a humiliating experience outside of Adua, instead the manipulative mage Bayaz is positioning him to fill a very special role in the kingdom.

War has come. The Gurkish have finally invaded the mainland. A rebellion against the lords has been stirred up. Bethod’s armies in the North are occupying Colonel West’s forces, which are desperately needed at home. Our heroes between them must beg, borrow and steal the means of winning an uncertain peace.

Where this book excels is in its frustration of the fantasy novel trope of a final conflict resolving all plot threads. Instead here Abecrombie makes it clear that these events are part of a recurring pattern. The real conflict is between those, like Bayaz, who recognize this, and those who feel that an end is something worth sacrificing for.

This is a very entertaining and clever narrative and Abercrombie deserves all the praise for fashioning an unromantic fantasy series. This is great fun.

Last Argument of Kings

“Do you like to read books, Bran?” Jojen asked him.

“Some books. I like the fighting stories. My sister Sansa likes the kissing stories, but those are stupid.”

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only once. The singers of the forest had no books. No ink, no parchment, no written language. Instead they had the trees, and the weirwoods above all. When they died, they went into the woods, into leaf and limb and root, and the trees remembered. All their songs and spells, their histories and prayers, everything they knew about this world.”

This review has been a long time coming. I complained often to friends that I could barely remember A Feast of Crows, the last book in this series which was published over six years ago. I trusted in George R.R. Martin‘s abilities as a writer to suck me back into the action, given that the plots and backdrops to A Song of Ice and Fire are so impressively constructed.

Interestingly in A Dance With Dragons Martin resolves the split he introduced in previous volumes, with successive books focusing on a specific selection of characters and then the opposing points of view of others being presented in the next. Here we follow up on Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon Snow for the initial half of the book, but afterwards we catch up with Arya Stark and Cersei Lannister among others. Having resolved his arbitrary divide between the North and South geographical locations of these characters in order to split the material, the action finally begins to move forward.

But oh this is a long, hard read.

Part of the issue for me was that while the first books had these conflicting points of view on the series of events – which was a nice approach – the latest in the series have been see-sawing back and forth along a fictional timeline. It is quite confusing. Another issue is that either I am wearing rose-tinted glasses as far as my recollection of these previous entries in A Song of Ice and Fire, or Martin’s writing is a lot more miserabilist. For starters there is the unremitting torture and humiliation of the character Theon Greyjoy, who has gone from a ward of the Stark family (in effect a well-treated hostage), to the abused catspaw of the bloodthirsty Ramsay Snow. The chapters that relate to Reek – the name Theon is forced to adopt – are very disturbing and difficult to read. Then there is our favourite anti-hero Tyrion, traumatised by having murdered his own father and on the run to the East. Mutilated and half-demented, the quick-witted dwarf is a long way from the cynical yet oddly decent character he was first introduced as. Then there is Daenerys whose efforts at running a kingdom have left her at the mercy of competing power factions and untrustworthy advisors.

It is a credit to Martin that I feel so invested in this story, but it took me quite a while to finish it. The picture being painted here of the ‘game of thrones’ that threatens to swallow whole continents in war and destruction is vast. Increasingly however I am coming to understand why historical epics so often gloss over the scope and realities of conflict, instead introducing a sometimes insipid plot involving a small selection of characters caught in the middle of these events. Martin is trying to encompass every facet of the plot that he has unraveled, but it feels overwhelming. The taste of grit from the brutal and short lives of these people never leaves, which increases the feeling of an uphill battle to get to the last page. The sequence involving the army of Stannis Baratheon, snowed under and starving, was especially grim and the book ends with their fates seemingly sealed.

It is not all misery though. I was happy to see Davos the Onion Knight return to the book and am very excited to see Liam Cunningham play him in the second season of Game of Thrones (as discussed here on my Blue Jumper podcast). It was also great to get some story progression on Cersei and Arya, two of my favourite characters in the series in fact.

Overall though this is a troublesome read. I’m enjoying Joe Abercrombie a lot more at the moment, it is sad to say.

The book of war, the one we’ve been writing since one ape slapped another, was completely useless in this situation. We had to write a new one from scratch.

I reread Brooks’ follow up to the Zombie Survival Guide just as news broke that Glasgow had been converted into downtown zombie besieged Philadelphia for the Brad Pitt film adaptation. That earlier book featured a series of tongue-in-cheek survival techniques for dealing with the imminent time of the undead rising to feed upon the flesh of the living. If you go into a bookstore you’ll like as not find the Guide in the humour section. But the interesting section in the book was its latter half when Brooks introduced a series of short ‘histories’ featuring zombies tropes being applied to a number of unfamiliar settings. My favourite was the zombies in the French Foreign Legion narrative.

For World War Z Brooks revealed that the zombie apocalypse has already happened and following years of hardship humanity is slowly rebuilding itself. This time the storytelling device is that our narrator is a bureaucrat traveling around the world assembling a report on the outbreak of the mysterious disease that caused the ghouls and how it led to the breakdown of civilized society.

The one and one interviews between the narrator and the individuals he meets allows Brooks to introduce a series of contrasting genres into the monotonous zombie horror format. There are military exercises, home invasions, scientific inquiries, political satire – World War Z becomes a wide-ranging critique of many aspects of contemporary culture.

With brain-munching on the side.

Given the variation between the interviews, the tone shifts drastically from ‘objective’ reportage, to comedy, tragedy – even psychological suspense. There has been much comment over the years in relation to the celebrity cameos hidden in the text, from an apathetic Paris Hilton, to Howard Dean and even Nelson Mandela. There is even something blackly comical about Brooks pitching that the only event that could lead the political parties of the United States to unite is the near annihilation of the human race. As such this functions in the best tradition of post-George Romero zombie horror, happy to indulge in both gore and allegory.

There is no plot as such in this book. Rather this is a fictional history of the events that follow the outbreak of World War Z. Brooks was apparently inspired by the documented history of the second world war. Despite this the book is genuinely powerful, avoiding the calculated phrasing of the official report it will come to create. Indeed the narrator frequently alludes to how the official account will exclude much of the personal detail included here. That is possibly the smartest aspect of the book, how it balances the immensity of the horror unleashed with the ‘official version of events’. Compare this to Seeing by José Saramago, the sequel to Blindness, where we discover the government has completely buried the spontaneous lose of sight of an entire city’s population. Ultimately the characters introduced by Brooks are left to deal with the sights they have witnessed and the tragedies they have experienced alone.

This is an instant horror classic, which rises above its brain-dead peers.

World War Z

Mat looked each of the five men in the eyes, nodded, and started toward the tent flap, but paused beside Talmanes’s chair. Mat cleared his throat, then half mumbled, “You secretly harbor a love of painting, and you wish you could escape this life of death you’ve committed yourself to. You came through Trustair on your way south, rather than taking a more direct route, because you love the mountains. You’re hoping to hear word of your younger brother, whom you haven’t seen in years, and who disappeared on a hunting trip in southern Andor. You have a very tortured past. Read page four.”

Mat hurried on, pushing his way out into the shaded noon, though he did catch a glimpse of Talmanes rolling his eyes. Burn the man! There was good drama in those pages!

Generally speaking I select a quote from the early section of a book, illustrating  a particularly descriptive event that captures the overall style of the book. For this latest entry in Robert Jordan‘s long-running The Wheel of Time saga I made an exception. Having passed away after a long illness in 2007 many fans assumed the series itself would remain unfinished. Then word was received that Brandon Sanderson had been chosen to complete the books. I will explain below why I chose the quote, but let me add, as I mentioned in my review of Sanderson’s Mistborn series linked to above, that I began reading Robert Jordan a long time ago.

In fact it occurs to me that I only continue to read this series because I need to know how it ends, after spending most of my early adolescence pouring over the series.

As such, a quick note on The Wheel of Time itself. Initially starting out as a fantasy novel in the Tolkien-mode, with three young men from a village being hunted by the evil forces of a satanic presence known as The Dark One, the series developed by giving greater focus to court intrigue and war. Rand al’Thor, Perrin Aybara and Mat Cauthon are all ta’veren, which relates to the mystical underpinning of the books, each of them capable of influencing what is referred to as The Pattern, the fabric of creation itself. Not only is Rand the most powerful of the three ta’veren, he is also the reincarnation of an enemy of The Dark One named The Dragon. Certain men and women in Jordan’s fantasy universe, like Rand, have magical powers, relating to two counterbalancing sources known as saidin and saidar.

As he has accepted the role of Dragon Reborn, Rand has been declared a messiah by some and a force of chaos by others. For the majority of the series he has been attempting to unite the various kingdoms to fight against The Dark One, who is destined to be freed in an event known as Tarmon Gai’don, the Last Battle.  Enemy agents, referred to as Darkfriends, monsters and religious bigots have hunted and harried Rand throughout, as well as conspiring to prevent the kingdoms from joining forces.

Sanderson ably maintains the tone of Jordan’s previous novels and concludes a number of subplots that had been dangling for some time. Rand’s grasp on sanity is becoming increasingly perilous, which he has been forced to acknowledge to some of his allies. Perrin and Mat are finding themselves pulled by the Pattern against their will to join their childhood friend as the date of the Last Battle approaches. The Aes Sedai, an order of women who practice saidar, are forced to defend their base of Tar Valon from a foreign invasion. The speed of events has certainly picked up considerably in this book.

However, I chose the above quote because that is one of the few moments when I feel Sanderson’s voice entering the writing. For the most part he imitates Jordan, who sadly had increasingly begun to rely on tiresome clichés and stock situations. There is a very slight critical tone to the proceedings, as Sanderson clears out the accumulated plot-dross of nineteen years.

The Wheel of Time has been mocked for its depiction of the battle between the sexes, its repetitive prose and inflationary cast, but I am going to finish this series despite my embarrassment at having read it for so long! The devoted fanbase has waited a long time and while the occasional rock album raised a chuckle - take a bow Blind Guardian – the Last Battle is long overdue.

Wait,  today is the Rapture? Dammit!!

The crowds in St. Peter’s Square parted as the Prod Bigot Incompetents rushed the IRA Jesuit.

Father Ryan O’Brian was almost taken by surprise as the howling bluenoses came charging through the crowd, decked in Rangers strips and King Billy tattoos. Not a sight you saw every day in Vatican City.

“Aw, not youse lot again,” he sighed, producing a heat-seeking surface to surface missile launcher and a Stanley knife from under his cassock.

BAM!

Stephanie, early on in my blog-writing career, tried to convince me not to use any swear-words in these reviews. I have a foul mouth sometimes, so it was tough. This book, however, this book almost defeated me. It has more cursing per square inch than a pub showing Monday night football.

The plot, such as it is, is concerned with the millennia long history of conflict between the Church and the State. We meet Jesus and his disciples in a scene reminiscent of Cyrus addressing the gangs in Walter Hill’s The Warriors. The Apostles are in fact a revolutionary brotherhood of peace and love and Jesus has returned to them to rap about eternal life. Of course then Saul shows up and ruins everything, deciding following the massacre to follow the letter of Christ’s teachings if not the spirit and found the monolithic Holy Roman Empire. We then cut to Henry VIII, speaking along with his courtiers in a thick Glasgow accent, breaking from Rome and sparking the present-day conflict.

Father Ryan O’Brian is at the centre of the conflict, a wiley assassin who specialises in playing one side against the other. The Pope presides over a corrupt cabal of deviants who are attempting to undermine the Queen of England. She, in turn, is a foul-mouthed monster, whose three sons are plotting to murder her in order to acquire the throne.  O’Brian is not able playing his cards close to his chest in these colossal conflict, he appears to be unkillable. God literally loves him too much.

Scatology rules the day in this book, building to an appropriately literal apocalypse, but the moment I decided I was actually having fun was when the author inserted an ad for defunct publisher Attack! Books into the book itself! I found an interview with editor Steven Wells outlining the approach behind these hyper-pulp novels. The scene with the unnamed Queen, face smeared in baked beans (….I guess it’s a fetish) laughing herself into hysterics while reading various titles from the imprint such as Tits-Out Teenage Totty, Satan! Satan! Satan! and Ebola 3000, followed by a postal address for any prospective new readers to order their own copies.

Now that’s funny.

Yes the language is rotten to the core. I am sure your average person on the street will be offended by Udo’s descriptions of venal priests, idiot princes and a psychotic Queen. He intersperses chapters with a series of extracts from conspiracy theories regarding the death of the Princess of Wales, the ties between the Royal Family and Nazism and in turn Hitler taking inspiration from the structure of the Jesuit order. The overt message of the book is that these two institutions cannot be trusted, built as they are on a history of conquest and war.

Oh and Jesus was a socialist.

Desjani looked intrigued, checking the orders herself. “You’re sort of tacking the old Five Five onto the bottom edge of Five Four.”

Right.”

With the Seventh Battleship Division sticking below the edge of the old Five Four?” She smiled again. “I can’t wait to see it.”

As long as we’re not talking about the likes of the literature of Holocaust denial, or of paedophilic samizdats presenting Josef Fritzl as the heroic victim of an immoral and corrupt state, then there really is no such thing as a guilty pleasure where the enjoyment of a work of fiction is concerned. We know this. Certainly there’s nothing in the slightest that’s immoral about Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet, an apparently never-ending series of novels concerning the attempts of “a rag-tag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest” for home, as Patrick Macgee’s opening voice-over for the first series of Battlestar Galactica used to put it. In truth, these books are marked by a deliberate and principled tone which might be thought to reflect the self-restraint of a patrician cynic and his compassionate misanthropy, and Mr Campbell’s epic seems obviously meant as a cautionary tale against the tendency of human beings to fail to heed the lessons of the past, or, indeed, those of the present day either. In that, The Lost Fleet is a profoundly conservative text in terms of the need to respect authority and retain the tested values of the past, but it’s written in such a way as to also deplore such recent examples of backsliding from the principles of Western civil society such as torture, the brutalization of civilians, and the general abandonment of respect for the human rights of supposed opponents.

Beyond the central and incorruptibly heroic character of Captain “Black Jack” Geary himself, who’s both unconvincingly irresistible to women and quite incapable of slipping up in his campaign against the dastardly Syndics, the Lost Fleet is almost exclusively peopled by thinly-drawn moral idiots. This is didactic fiction of the most well-meaning and clumsy fashion. On one side, anti-democratic and glory-obsessed ship’s Captains who’d like to see Black Jack return to Earth as their tyrant, and, on the other, anti-democratic and glory-obsessed ship’s captains who’d like to dethrone our hero because, quite frankly, he keeps winning battles while denying them their chances of individual acclaim. For the military of this far future is enraptured by an individualistic fighting ethos more in keeping with Captain Bluntschli than poor noble, sensible Captain Geary, and most everyone in The Lost Fleet is at best ethically and practically short-sighted, and, at worst, some combination of mad, corrupt, confused or stupid.

I recognise this world. If the characters are so broadly drawn as to be indistinguishable from their own ignorance, well, their ignorance is at least familiar. I’m certainly not ashamed to be consuming a product with such a world-view. And in a book that’s so obviously aimed at readers who love to lose themselves in the details of how hundreds of very big and very powerful spaceships can blow each other up, and in the context of a recognisably modern-day military structure transposed to a distant tomorrow, it’s also refreshing to note that political authority is here portrayed as being by necessity superior to that of any futuristic MacArthur’s, worthy or not.

But there’s little room that’s been made in these novels for anything but space battles and the broadest politics of the fleet, and each book’s plot is soon revealed to be an over-familiar and yet rather strangely relaxing variation upon that of its predecessors. The Lost Fleet, trapped behind the lines of the Syndics and desperate to return home after a disastrous defeat, will arrive at a new enemy star system, argue among themselves about who should be in charge, learn a new lesson about how to fight as a team under the leadership of the good and decent Captain, and then head off in the direction of another such situation. The formula is never substantially challenged, and the focus of the text never concerns itself with the lot or inner life of anyone who isn’t wearing a Captain’s uniform or carrying a politician’s brief. And, similarly, each book contains pretty much exactly the same minor notes to accompany the great and very long depictions of battle and grousing senior officers; Captain Geary indulges modestly in sex and the stiffest of philosophical debates with the perplexing and very loud Co-President Rione; Captain Geary sits in his captain’s chair and guides several hundred ships in their missions; Captain Geory gathers hints as to the existence of a secret and menacing alien race; Captain Geary attempts to convince the Syndics that their mortal enemies are jolly good chaps really; Captain Geary tries to remind his women and men about the forgotten decencies of his long-dead era; the same cards fall in almost precisely the same order every time.

There’s something about this repetition which makes the many unconvincing aspects of the future of the Lost Fleet less distracting than it might otherwise be. It’s as if the form of the books has been designed to encourage us not to linger anywhere on the page, as if pausing in our skimming would be to defeat the purpose of the text in the first place. And so, the sheer implausibility of a legendary Captain freed from a hundred year’s suspended animation who’s immediately able to command a host of spacegoing warships in a superior fashion to their own crewfolk is actually quite easy to disregard. By the time the daftness of each daft premise becomes obvious, the reader has already learned not to pay too much attention to the strangely critically-applauded “realism” of these tales. If the politics of the future appear confused, as they are with the Syndics, a North Korean-like totalitarian state with relatively autonomous and affluent corporations, or if the much-praised realism of the space battles is undermined by the presence of get-out-of-jail-free cards such as jump gates, inertial dampners and an unconvincing lack of human/AI interfaces, well, we can just skip that aspect of the story and move on to another sequence which we can, similarly and in its turn, leap-frog our way across too.

Racing dreamily through the text is a process only encouraged by the fact that little on the human scale counts for anything much in these Lost Fleet novels at all. Even the extremes of wartime experience, the maiming and murdering of thousands of crew-members of the Alliance’s ships, always occur at a celestial distance and to a spectacularly deadening degree. The focus of the books is instead always upon the smallest core of cast members, who, untouched by suffering beyond angst and safely protected in the fleet’s flagship, watch on as this cruiser and that space station are bombarded and destroyed. As a reflection of the reality of war for the elite of the officer class in a technological era, it’s a choice on Mr Campbell’s part that’s hard to argue with. But as a way of helping the reader care about these terrible events, it’s problematical, because it reduces a book about war to the status of a tale about a man watching a war progress on a desk console.

With so few characters ever interacting with Captain Geary on any level beyond the giving and taking of orders, the Lost Fleet is reduced to a great convoy of ghosts. Thinly depicted Captains are summoned up now and then for plot purposes, but they never exist beyond the brief functions which they’ve been created to serve, and the reader can so easily picture them vanishing into thin air as soon as Black Jack turns his gaze elsewhere. Mr Campbell’s writing succeeds in delivering the details of his plot, but there’s no trace of individuality and character in his prose. Entire books can pass mechanically before the reader’s eyes without the flat consistency of Mr Campbell’s prose being violated by the presence of a single purposefully memorable phrase of any sort. His is writing which is utterly endearing in the lack of authorial ambition that it displays, and for all that it might be praised for a lack of pretension, it can also be damned for its lack of any quality that isn’t connected with the orderly progression of events from A to B and back to A again.

And yet, regrettably, there are moments when careless editing has allowed certain melodramatic and pseudo-poetical lines to remain in the text, a fact which destroys the flat consistency of what’s being read as well as shocking the reader into noticing how awful the writing can in places be. It’s a truth that might be illustrated with an example from “Courageous” of President Rione’s part in a private conversation with Captain Geary;

“The ancients thought the stars were gods, John Geary. So do we, though in a very different way. But we’re not so different from the ancients, who lived but a blink of an eye ago in the sight of this universe and spent their lives trying to understand why they were here and what they were supposed to do with the gifts of their lives. I try never to forget that.”

I feel confident that we might agree that this is ferociously bad writing, grandiose, stiff and quite unbelievable even as an example of a career politician’s private conversation. (Rione would surely need the lungs of a horse to get through that third sentence without beginning to collapse for air.) But it’s so typical of the books that these moments of great meaningfulness carry little that’s essential to the plot, and so they can be left behind in search of the beginning of the next space battle. Yet, the reader is advised not to race onwards and away from the purple serious-mindedness of the conversations between Rione and Geary in particular without first scanning for any heartfelt lines worth treasuring. My favourite of these conveniently follows on directly from the quote above;

“He nodded, wondering once again at the woman inside Victoria Rione.”

If only that were an acknowledgement that the Co-President was actually sharing the inside of her body with another woman, as the genre would surely allow.

Yet if The Lost Fleet clearly doesn’t work as anything other than the most reliably wooden of genre fiction, it’s certainly a well-constructed, sincere and decent-hearted example of it. And so, the reason for my feeling somewhat ashamed of being half-way through the fourth of this seemingly never-ending re-mix of the same over-familiar elements is nothing to do the books themselves. They’re not sold as high literature, they make no claims for their own poetic virtues, and they’re not designed for anyone who’s not already seriously predisposed towards “military science fiction”. They’re respectful, populist and humane. No, my shame is directed, of course, at myself, and at the fact that I’m somewhat hesitant to admit to the business of reading my way through The Lost Fleet. As I write this, with the last of the light of a English Sunday afternoon in March slanting through the window behind me, and with a blackbird starting up its twilight song, The Lost Fleet feels as if it’s got no part in my life at all, and it’s as if reading these pedestrian epics would be a serious waste of the relatively limited book-reading time that I have left to me.

It’s not that I’ve any time for the Bloomsbury stance on what is and what isn’t art, and I no more believe under typical circumstances that what we read reflects our soul and our moral worth than I accept the premise that Jeanette Winterson shouldn’t be constantly mocked for her ignorance, arrogance and pretension. It’s just that there’s so little time and so much to get done, and it’s hard at 5.30 in the afternoon to justify a standing order for each new volume of The Lost Fleet.

But when it’s gone midnight, and as I crawl as surreptitiously as I can in beside the long-since-sleeping Splendid Wife, and with just ten minutes or so to go before I too pass out beside her, The Lost Fleet will be the most appropriate read that I can imagine. Utterly undemanding in its content, I need never worry about finding precisely where I left off the night before. It just doesn’t matter at all. Wherever I am, Black Jack will be eternally tragic, misunderstood, potent and entirely wonderful. (He’s every shy boy’s dream of sexual potency; a man who can win women without ever having to woo them through nought but his gentle soul and military prowess.) The fleet will be at terrible risk, Captain Desjani will adore Black Jack and defend his back against all-comers, the battleship captains will loathe him, the Syndics will be closing, and I’ll briefly if sleepy-headedly be a boy again. Spaceships will blink out of jump points, scanners will identify enemy targets, relativistic effects will complicate communications, and while little will make much sense to my clouding mind, the genre conventions of a dozen spaceship TV shows and a childhood spent reading little but Sci-Fi will step in to carry the sense of the story forward for me.

I have the fifth volume of The Lost Fleet waiting beside my bed and the sixth on order from Amazon too. It’s not that these books will be used to send me off to sleep, but rather that they’re good and decent and kind and undemanding companions as I decline into an unconsciousness which was already rolling towards me in the first place. And even the titles themselves might inspire the most comforting of slumbers if recited over and over again in order of publication; Dauntless, Fearless, Courageous, Valiant, Relentless, Victorious…….

Colin Smith ,

TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComic


My journal is filled with illustrations and photographs – and yes, even postcards – of places I have been. But let me make one thing clear. I never traveled back in time for fun. I never meant to anything bad. All I ever wanted to do was learn from the past and share what I learned with everyone I could. But most of all, the main reasons I continue with time travel is to find my parents who disappeared so long ago.

Lori over at The Next Best Book Club has proposed a very interesting initiative. She is gathering together book bloggers to create a network dedicated to indie books and self-published writers. It is a very good project, so go and have a look.  Shortly afterwards I got an email from today’s author Scott Cardinal, along with a pdf of the novel, which he co-wrote with his cousin Marc Newman, who apparently teaches history in period costume!

This is quite a telling statement, as The Adventures of Justin Tyme (subtitle Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America Volume 1) features a village dedicated to maintaining the lifestyle and conduct of late nineteenth century peasant life in America. It is evident that Cardinal and Newman truly believe that greater attention should be paid to the historical past and they make a good case for such an imaginative project for a community (despite this being a work of fiction….with Native American mysticism and time travel, but I’m getting to that).

Justin Tyme parents have been planning to move to family to work with relatives in the experimental commune of Asheville, North Carolina. Before their final departure from New York, exchanging all the modern amenities of city life for hemp clothing and horse-travel, Justin’s mother and father vanish. Left distraught, the teenage boy has no idea where they might have disappeared to. Knowing that his parents were involved in doing secret work for the government, there is a good chance that they could be anywhere in the world.

Justin’s aunt and uncle bring him with them to Asheville as originally planned. The novelty of the small town serves to distract him from his recent loss and shortly after arriving he makes two new friends, Jett and Catrin, who explain to him what the purpose of the township is:

Basically, they felt most schools at the time – and even today – made no effort whatsoever to prepare students for the real world, but merely taught them basic information and made sure they could read and write. That just was not enough. That has never been enough. So our curriculum herehas always been, and always will be, quite different from your normal everyday school. In other words, we really learn great stuff here!

However, one resident of the community seems not to approve of its benevolent intent – Professor Woolkins, who has been entertaining corporate types looking to buy the land and convert it into a tourist attraction. His history lessons on the use of child labour in America during the industrial revolution are also disturbingly critical of the notion of protection laws for minors and he has an unusual collection of artifacts in surprisingly good condition.

This is where the time travel comes in. I do not want to give away too much, but given the title, yes our young hero does discover a method of journeying back through American history and even meets Mother Jones. There is also references to alien visitations, the aforementioned Native American mysticism – the tribe in question here is the Cherokee – but what grabbed my attention here was something far more interesting.

This is ostensibly a work of educational fiction, but it also represents a stout defence of trade unionism and a critique of how society exploits children. Unfortunately while child labour laws were passed in the United States, the depravity and miserable conditions witnessed by young Justin in 1903 persist today. In countries like India and China, and many other places too for that matter, companies in pursuit of high profits continue to use children to do tiring and dangerous work.

For this aspect of Cardinal and Newman’s novel I feel I must applaud them. This is not only an enlightening piece of children’s fiction – and how often do we hear that – but it is also a welcome critical voice against rampant profiteering, at a time when such methods are once again seen as the norm.

Fun, informative and surprisingly impassioned.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

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