2013 Reading Highlights

Finally, following up on my movie and music highlights, for me 2013 was also a great one for reading. Notes on these and many more books are in my 2013 reading log.

Short Stories

I generally read most of the short stories posted on Tor.com; some highlights from this year:

Non-Fiction

History books had a surprisingly great year:

beevorThe Second World War. Beevor. This book is almost overwhelming, but in the end does a comparatively comprehenisve, emotive job of capturing what World War II meant on the ground, particularly for women and civilians. It also gets credit for appropriately shifting much of the focus away from the US and UK.

godwroughtWhat Hath God Wrought. Howe. Almost certainly the best history book I’ve ever read. It captures both the sweep and the telling details and personalities of the period, while also being imminently relatable to the modern day. Even setting aside its staging for the Civil War, Howe provides tremendous background to understanding huge pieces of modern America, such as the current Republican party and its policies.

Fiction Novels

Apparently I read a lot of science fiction… Notables for 2013!

mechaniqueMechanique.

By Valentine. This is a beautiful steampunk story about a traveling circus. Valentine’s short story Terrain is actually on the list above as well, and what they share is a real depth of characterization, original elements, and being sci-fi/fantasy/steampunk without forcing the issue. Mechanique takes it a step further be being really impressive stylistically. I could see many people being turned off by its poetic, lyrical style, extremely loose storytelling, weird punctuation, and extended asides, but I thought it was incredible in both presentation and characters.

betrayerBetrayer.

By Dembski-Bowden. You almost certainly need to be into Warhammer 40,000 in one way or another to appreciate this novel. But within that milieu it’s excellent, probably the best in the Horus Heresy series, and that has a number of good, somewhat deeper tales. Betrayer does an amazing job of taking a historical plot with known outcomes, a bunch of previously boring & flat characters, and making it all really compelling.

Red Mars. Blue Mars. Green Mars.

By Robinson. This trilogy is hard to read. I almost put it down at a number of points, and skipped massive swaths of pages. In general I am definitely not on the Robinson hype train. Here he spends an insane amount of time detailing the geological processes and features at work. But the whole work is incredibly detailed, well thought out, and does have serious characterizations that make it worthwhile. Despite being literally and metaphorically being buried in rock in both the story and text, a whole bunch of them still manage to stand out brightly as people, with complex interactions and motivations. If you want to read an in-depth historical account of the colonization of Mars and the fascinating people involved, decades before it might even begin to happen, these are your books.

mars

cloudatlasCloud Atlas.

By Mitchell. Perhaps due to being a programmer, I was not as blown away as many reviewers by the simple recursive structure of the text, but it is an elegantly constructed piece of art. The handoffs are subtle and work nicely. More importantly, several of the six sections are incredible, and the rest are solid. The early 20th century Belgian components are amazing in terms of feel and characterization. The Sonmi sections are very excellent as well, really capturing a near future with a completely different though very plausable world, and a great character and their development. Highly recommended. Don’t watch the movie first; I watched it afterward and was not only disappointed, but feel it would ruin much of the suspense.

King Rat. Perdido Street Station. The Scar. Railsea. The City and the City.

By Miéville. Having only read two of his books previously, I went on a serious Miéville tear this summer. All of these are excellent. The Scar and Perdido Street Station are related but don’t really depend on each other. The latter gets all the press and has a stronger morality quandary as a closing central thread, but I thought the former a better story, and definitely more taut. They’re both equally as deep though and have as strong characters. Scar carries a classic south seas nautical pirate adventure feel with fantastical elements, while Perdido brings those elements to European continental political revolution intrigue.

mieville

King Rat is an earlier effort and that shows the comparatively somewhat short length and relative simplicity, but neither is by any means a bad thing. The book’s been overshadowed by his later successes, but King Rat is a standout in the somewhat crowded modern-fantasy-London genre. As with many of Miéville’s book, the styling and language is unique and excellent.

railseaRailsea is essentially what you get if you take Moby Dick, cut out all the rampant unnecessary bloat, and place it into a completely landlocked steampunk world. The ending’s a bit weak and overt, but the opening sections introducing the world and characters are just plain fun storytelling. Great young adult adventure tale.

cityandthecityThe City and the City was particularly meaningful for me having spent last summer in Prague. It is essentially a modern fantasy novelization of a personification of the Eastern Europe/Western Europe border, and has a great noir feel with fantastical elements.

Altered Carbon. Broken Angels. Woken Furies. Th1rte3n. Market Forces.

By Morgan. These are all related, and should be read in chronological order of publication (as listed here).

The first three of these are explicitly a trilogy. Altered Carbon is incredibly good cyber-bio-noir that pokes at some really good, serious ideas about the future. Broken Angels and Woken Furies aren’t quite as strong, but they’re both very good science fiction featuring some great settings. More importantly, especially toward the end they start to develop more refinement to the Takeshi Kovacs lead character, lending some introspection to the body-swapping ultimate mercenary-slash-detective. It’s almost offputting that there are major revelations made which seemingly have no later effect, but that actually makes sense and puts another light onto both the character and the world: As he and many other people slip through the decades, what does it really matter?

takeshi

The other two books Morgan denies as being follow-ups, but they’re much better off interpreted as set in the far past of the Carbon trilogy’s 26th century. Th1rte3n, titled Black Man in Europe, is set somewhere in a future just slightly distant from us and is just strong through and through: Great plot, settings, mystery, sci-fi, and characters. It opens with a classic but well done sci fi spaceship horror mystery and rolls on from there. The commingling of Martian and South American exploitation is excellent and thought provoking. Beyond that, the alternate UK and US titles are no coincidence and quite telling; the story gets pretty hard at racism, exclusion, and genetic modification.

Market Forces is the most uneven of this whole sequence. Set in the very near future it has a basically ridiculous premise straight out of some ’80s SEGA game: Lawyers and businessmen compete for contracts in highly ritualized vehicular freeway combat… I almost had to put it down. Once you get past that though, it’s actually a great profile of the descent of a character, and by the end doesn’t actually seem as outrageous as when it started. There’s a lot here about violence, economics, and the thin difference between.

thirteen

Morgan’s covers are somehow indeed uniformly terrible, even across all regional prints, except maybe Th1rte3n, but these are all good books. If you had to pick two, go for Altered Carbon and Th1rte3n. I’ve actually been waiting for months to write them up here and recommend them, they’re that good, provided you have any interest in science fiction whatsoever.

Book Review: Beevor’s ‘The Second World War’

beevorEarly this year I picked up Antony Beevor’s 2012 history book The Second World War on the recommendation of Ta-Nahesi Coates (here and here), and recently I finally read it.  The book is actually somewhat complex to evaluate.  Most reviews (NY Times, Guardian, etc.) seem to have been positive but not super excited about the effort.  At first I agreed but now feel it to be an excellent book within its audience, goals, and necessary limitations.  It is certainly by far the best single-volume history of the entire war that I have encountered.

Audience

The first tough question to evaluate is who exactly is the audience for this book?  I found it to be a fast read but at almost 800 pages (excluding bibliography) it is probably a significant commitment for many people.  Beyond that, it is mired in details of dates, titles, numbers, troop dispositions, and so on.  Not getting bogged down in these while also not missing important notes or losing track of the overall thread and continuity could be challenging for younger or less experienced readers.  Similarly, those only marginally interested in the topic could potentially be turned off by its sheer length and the volume of nuts & bolts minutia.

From a different angle, those who are very interested and have read a lot about the second world war may at times be a bit confused about what they’re supposed to get out of the text.  Surprisingly given the many decades between the event and now, Beevor does actually present a number of new revelations that have only recently entered public knowledge.  But the overall text is very light on analysis and motivations, and the basic detailed history already well covered in innumerable texts and documentaries, so for those well versed in the topic it’s not always immediately clear for what or whom the book is intended.

Ground History

Eventually though I came to understand the book as a detailed ground history across the entire scope of WW2.  At that it is impressively detailed yet readable.  If you want to get or ensure you have a comprehensive feel for the military movements across all of the half dozen or so major fronts in the war, this is the text you want.  In this way it’s useful for both those unfamiliar with the topic, and those who want to cement their knowledge.  Beevor himself notes that he wrote the book because, having written several other books about particular battles and topics, he thought his own knowledge was patchy.  As one example for me, though broadly familiar with the fighting and politics in China, the overall picture and the specifics of the intense jockeying for post war positioning between the Nationalists and the Communists is much more clear now.

That leads directly to the first place the book really excels.  It covers the whole war.  From an American perspective this makes it a particularly useful text.  All of the early movements in Czechoslovakia and Poland, the critical nature and immense scope of the Eastern Front, to the Italian and African campaigns, to the overlooked but long-term incredibly important China and Southeast Asian theaters, everything’s covered.  This isn’t a typical American history in which the war is largely fought and won over 4 days (e.g., Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima).  The Battle of Britain, for example, gets a reasonable but notably succinct summary, which makes much sense upon reflection:  That conflict’s extremely well covered elsewhere and, though immensely important, actually very simple and straightforward in the basics.  In contrast, a tremendous number of pages is spent on the sprawling, complex, and ultimately world defining Eastern Front, a theater that has little detailed recognition and understanding among western audiences.  As another personal example, though relatively very aware of the scope of Soviet and German losses, and the sheer brutality of that conflict in particular, the book adds a layer of general understanding to the overall sweep and movement of the war.  It also clarifies a number of details, e.g., the final Soviet and US run-in to Berlin, a relatively small but ultimately very consequential period of time of which it turns out I did not understand the basic mechanics well at all.

Map from the text of a late war overarching Soviet push.

Map from the text of a late war overarching Soviet push.

To the point about brutality, that’s where the book really excels.  It’s important to recognize and understand that the text comes from classical, traditional military histories of major conflicts.  Though the coverage is reasonable for the book’s purposes, Beevor only tangentially discusses the politics, economics, and scientific enterprises that are the real heart of the issue in the war.  If you’re looking directly for analysis, contextual understanding, and long term consequences, as I was going in, this is not that text.  It starts from a focus on armies and generals and combat and stays focused on that kind of ground level details of the war.

But Second World War goes well beyond that class of ultimately unenlightening typical military narrative in being very comprehensive about what it means to be a “detailed ground history across the entire scope of WW2.”  There is extensive discussion about the suffering of individual soldiers and the conditions they fought under.  More importantly, despite the book’s military history origins, Beevor places equal focus on the devastating, incomprehensible levels of civilian suffering, elevating the text well above most generic WW2 histories.  Both abstract issues and numbers as well as a wide array of personal letters and diaries are used to document that aspect of the war as extensively as the military maneuvers.  It documents well topics like the courses of both Nazi and Soviet genocide; unbelievable losses of life to famine in China and Southeast Asia; and the awful, unrelenting destruction and poverty of the churned middle ground between Russia and Germany.

The book also puts special attention to the near universal suffering and persecution of women on all fronts.  To a large extent this is not a revelation to any who have read about or are otherwise familiar with events like the Rape of Nanking, or, indeed, has thought at all about the likely consequences of an extended, to-the-death, wide scale war, particularly one with heavy racial and nationalist undertones.  But this is a topic still under-discussed and poorly recognized, e.g., among all the pop fans of WW2 enabling the thriving history-entertainment industry.  Beevor also pushes that understanding into all theaters and forces the unavoidable conclusion that this is not an issue of ad hoc atrocities or confined to just one region.  The text makes clear both the overwhelming extent and horrifying nature of female suffering across the entire worldwide conflict, as well as its execution as a systematic, condoned, even organized undertaking.

Chinese refugees in Chungking, wrecked capital of the Nationalists.

Chinese refugees in Chungking, wrecked capital of the Nationalists.

Details and Revelations

As has been widely publicized in other reviews, the book does work to raise popular awareness of a number of relatively new revelations.  Some of these include:

  • A somewhat notable assassination of a Vichy French official, not previously understood to be organized by the British and US intelligence services.
  • The treatment of Soviet women by the Soviet army itself, the uncovering of which I believe comes largely came from Beevor’s own work for his more focused book Stalingrad.
  • Most talked about, the overwhelming effect of starvation on Japanese forces—60% of all casualties—and the consequent systematized, rampant cannibalism among its armies.  This has only recently been captured by Japanese historians after being suppressed by the Allies in order to not traumatize families of POWs at home.

Just given the breadth of the material, the book necessarily has to make concessions to brevity.  Many reviews have noted that compared to Beevor’s previous books there is less emphasis on personal accoutings.  Still though, I think there is a good amount of that, with many of the scenes, particularly of refugee and other civilian suffering, told through diaries and letters.

Similarly, in many ways the book relies a fair bit on extensive knowledge of the war.  For example, there’s a line in a meeting with Churchill about Stalin’s blue pencil that has no resonance without knowing his original role as an editor.  As a more important example, I’m not sure the book adequately relates the technical limitations forcing the Allies’ unescorted bomber tactics in Europe until the development of the Mustang fighter with its combination of range and capability.

One of the most important engineering efforts ever...  Still not as powerful as Stalin's blue pencil.

One of the most important engineering efforts ever… Still not as powerful as Stalin’s blue pencil.

Some of these choices though come directly on the book’s focus on the ground, and are reasonable once you’re in line with that approach.  For example, there’s an interesting paragraph or so about driving in the London blackout, and the thousands of pedestrians killed by vehicular accidents in its early months.  In contrast, the massive, world-changing Manhattan Project appears almost out of nowhere only when the Enola Gay finally takes off on its fateful mission, with just a few references beforehand as it came up in conferences among the Allied leaders.

To me, among the more notable non-ground details Second World War does make within its comparatively limited focus on the leadership and behind-the-scenes politics, are those about Roosevelt.  Beevor paints a clear picture of his anti-Imperialist leanings, capturing how that defined US priorities, frustrated Churchill, and would have resulted in an immensely different world view had he lived longer.  For example, it discusses in passing references how he was staunchly against the French resuming occupation of Indochina (Vietnam) after the war.  Though it’s hard to predict how that would change history, clearly it would do some immensely.  In a related vein, it is also made clear just how poorly Roosevelt understood or cared about post-war implications, how fixated on them Churchill was—often in strongly Imperialist tones—and how masterfully Stalin and Mao Zedong out-maneuvered both of them at that shadow conflict.

"We're getting played, arent't we?  Hilarious!"

“We’re getting played, arent’t we? Hilarious!”

Maps & Endnotes

As a minor note, the first half or so could use a few more maps and diagrams, but I attribute that to Beevor being English and assuming more familiarity with European geography than I, and presumably most Americans, possess.  By the time things get really hairy and entangled in the second half of the war, much of it in the less familiar eastern Europe and Pacific, there are notably more diagrams complementing the text.

On another minor note, the book employs extensive endnotes rather than footnotes.  I assume this was done to make the book seem more pop history and accessible to people flipping through in a bookstore.  It’s very unfortunate however as it leaves you constantly wondering “Who said that?” and “Where is he getting that from?” for both quotes and newer revelations, giving the book just a slight feel of unscholarlyness and speculation that it doesn’t deserve.

Summary

All in all, I highly recommend Beevor’s The Second World War, contingent on being clear or what the book is trying to do and who it’s for.  It’s not a light history, and probably requires either a fair amount of motivation or an experienced reader; e.g., I have mixed feelings about recommended it for typical high schoolers.  Little time is spent on politics, economics, context, or consequences.  Similarly, there is little analysis or direct relation to modern events.  Beevor himself is careful in interviews to proscribe against the popular inclination of politicians and pundits to draw untrue and misleading parallels to WW2.  But the book is very good for those with a limited understanding of the basic mechanics and movement of the war, or those who want to ensure their understanding.

Beyond that, the book is excellent at is portraying the “truth” on the ground.  Most notably, it is faithful to and evenly balanced across the entire scope of the war—from the Pacific to the Eastern to the Western fronts—as well as both the military and civilian effects, particularly for women.  The scope and abstract numbers almost prevent a felt understanding, but there is enough detail and personal accounts to ensure a tangible picture of the colossal scale of human suffering entailed.

Ultimately that presentation is worthwhile in its own right, and enables the kind of thought and analysis from which the book largely shies away.  For example, through much of the text the US and English come off fairly well in ethical terms, with most of the atrocities, particularly mass rapes,  enacted by the Japanese, Germans, Soviets, and French.  Especially at the end though there are disappointing lapses by US forces in the occupation of Japan.  Combined with the deep picture from the rest of the text of the relatively limited contact up to that point between US forces and civilians, particularly non-Europeans, it is difficult to not then take that behavior as near-universal and those two Allies’ comparatively clean records coincidental rather than actually exceptional.

That is exactly the sort of observation a good raw history should support.  Second World War largely refrains from imposing its own conclusions, but does enable that kind of thinking across a number of topics: Civilian suffering, modern total war, justification for the atomic bombings, post-war geopolitical consequences, and so on.  For that I highly recommend it.

Hiroshima.

Hiroshima.

Book Review: Betrayer

betrayer-coverContinuing my Horus Heresy kick, over the weekend I read Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden.  I  was a little hesitant to grab this book but did so because it comes up on a number of best-of-series lists, not all of which are reliable (too much focus on action).  Turns out though Betrayer is very much possibly the best 40k/30k novel I’ve read, and certainly among the top.  Part of this I attribute to Dembski-Bowden apparently being an actual player of the game, something I don’t get from a number of the authors.  Not that it’s necessary, but it might bring an extra level of love to the work.

There are no spoilers in these thoughts.

Characters

Here that love’s paid off because he’s done the totally unexpected: Made the World Eaters, Angron, and especially Khârn possibly the most fascinating characters in the entire series.  My hesitation about the book was precisely because by the 40th century they never come across as particularly interesting.  Mindless killing machines, they do what they say—Kill!  Maim!  Burn!—and little else.  Their action sequences are boring, and they have basically no characterization to speak of.  Their appearance also raises a lot of uncomfortable questions, like how could such a bloodthirsty, disorganized fighting unit actually function?

The answer is barely.  This novel really explores in flashback and discussion the degradation of the legion and how costly their every minor victory has become.  A number of the characters spend a fair amount of time trying to come to grips with how precisely they can keep fighting when their extreme lack of discipline leaves them exposed and vulnerable any number of ways.  The action and training scenes demonstrate this well and between that, the characters’ discussions, and a healthy dose of the Warp, it’s an interesting progression that renders the 40k world more plausible (well, within the universe’s basic assumptions).

More importantly, Angron makes a good run here to be the most tragic of the Heresy characters.  That’s a big claim to make given Horus, but the novel makes it pretty credible.  My favorite though is Khârn.  He’s fascinating, and realizing that in the first couple pages is basically mind blowing given that I’d previously never found him particularly interesting.  He has a band of friends, many of them with their own solid characterizations—especially Argel Tal of the Word Bearers—and he has doubts, so many doubts.  Khârn’s so compelling, I’m almost motivated right now to go model up some Chaos Marine champion to represent him (I’m only 50/50 on his actual model).  Khârn’s depth and wisdom come across so well, it only highlights his glee and fury in battle.  The first, brief appearance of his catchphrase at a desperate moment is chilling: Kill, maim, burn.  Betrayer manages to make all of these utter villains extremely sympathetic and then next chapter they’re turning your stomach as they torture and murder with abandon, an excellent feat of writing.

Also excellently done, for the book that had every possibility of being the least humanized and the most purely testosterone driven given its very male lead legions and characters, there are a number of solid women characters.  In particular, Captain Sarrin of the Conqueror has a lot of pages and comes across strongly.  She’s key in manufacturing one of the standout scenes mentioned below, has a number of welcome interactions with her friend Khârn in the heat of battle, and it’s actually really cool to read with what glee and skill she goes about fighting the Imperialists.  In the grimdark future there is war and blood for everyone, not just men.

Fight!

As discussed regarding Know No Fear, 40k and especially the Heresy series has a ton of potential depth to it, and it’s the more character-study oriented novels that are the best.  All too often though they devolve into purely extended action sequences, as that novel does.  Here though a perfect balance is struck.  The action and character studies are so interwoven throughout the text, and often set within each other, that Betrayer never becomes a drawn out, boring slugfest, nor does it ever slow down and become purely dialog and thought with no chainswords or powerfists.  In terms of the technical execution of the plot and characters, the text’s arrangement is really well done.

Great Scenes

On top of all the overall excellence, the novel has a large number of great scenes.  Just a few of the most memorable, holding back the details:

  • Lorgar’s desperate battle to retrieve Angron, and the latter’s desperate struggle to then save the former.  This is the best primarch battle scene I can recall.  Forget inhumanly fast sword strikes and mega-punches.  There are goddamn vehicles being thrown like toys, and it’s not the least cheesy.
  • The legion’s censure of Delvarus after the battle of Armatura.  This opens with a great tense hangar bay standoff, once that captures that might alone is not always right, then pages later comes back with a darkly beautiful scene of fraternity, regret, and forgiveness.
  • Lhorke’s remembrance of Khârn and Argel Tal in the gladiator pits.  It’s a touching view of two soul brothers, ultimate warriors not yet mindless death machines, and has a rare touch of fun and mirth among a life of constant war.
  • Lorgar and Angron discussing the latter’s pre-heresy fight with Russ.  It has a sadness and quiet to it that’s heartfelt, with Lorgar pained because Angron doesn’t understand, and Angron pained because he does but can’t, shackled and crippled by his past.

Summary

Basically, go read it.  A fair bit of Heresy background and 40k foreknowledge is required to really appreciate everything.  Even having read a bunch and knowing a lot of 40k lore, even I wish just a little that I had read more of the Heresy series before reading this to catch all the references and character history.  But it’s got depth and action to spare so this is a minor concern.  Betrayer is an awesome novel that every 40k fan should really appreciate.

Kill. Maim. Burn.

Kill. Maim. Burn.

Update: Total sidenote, if the Khan model looked more like this conversion I’d be all about it.  The official model though is just a little to goofy and busy looking.  By absolutely no means the worst of the older GW sculpts, but after this read I really hope he gets an update or Forge World model sometime to be a bit more serious and dramatic.