Greek vs Roman

The problem with including bonus short stories at the back of books is that you can clearly see where in the timeline they take place and then they act as complete and total spoilers.  The Heroes of Olympus: The Mark of Athena also includes “The Staff of Serapis” at the end.  That would be the first meeting of Annabeth Chase and Sadie Kane.  The boys had an adventure, now the girls get one.  Of course that means this entire book is about Annabeth in one way or another.

In the main story, things are getting very messy.  We’ve had our exchange of leaders with Jason in The Lost Hero and Percy in The Son of Neptune and now Hera/Juno has made absolutely certain that both camps are aware of the others existence.  We also know who the seven of the prophecy are – the main characters from those two books.  Plus Annabeth.

A big problem right now is not just the overall silence from the gods, but the fact that the gods are currently having difficulties between their two facets.  There’s the scene everyone wanted to see – Jason and Percy going at each other – and meeting Dionysus.  Except at that moment he’s Bacchus and yells at Percy for thinking about him in Greek.  Also I love that calling him “the wine dude” continues to be an ongoing inside joke for the series.

For some gods, such as Venus/Aphrodite, there’s no functional difference between their two roles and they’re having no noticeable difficulties.  And those gods which are purely one or the other are fine of course.  But the gods which are vastly different between the two cultures find things…difficult.

Athena is not Minerva.

Minerva’s a goddess of arts and crafts.  She’s gentle, a true maiden in the same way as Artemis (and Artemis could be read as asexual), and has nothing to do with war.  Athena is Zeus’ strategist and general, and though she’s not so much into sex, she’s definitely into romance.  Her children are born of a meeting of the minds, and while they don’t come out as adults, they’re still born from her mind as she came from Zeus’ head.  Suffice to say, Athena got shafted when the Romans turned her into Minerva.

And so she gives Annabeth a special quest in addition to the prophesized one.  To go to Rome, following the Mark of Athena, and to avenge her mother.  Athena’s not incredibly clear on that point, but it’s clear she has Issues With Rome and Annabeth is out of favor unless she can resolve them.

But let’s go back to a much more interesting point for me than the middle book of a series I’ve read before.  Let’s talk about asexual goddesses.  Now, there is absolutely nothing explicit in any of these books to verify this reading, but asexuality is a wide spectrum and both Artemis and Athena could place themselves on it if they chose.

Artemis would be like me, an aromantic asexual.  She is completely uninterested in sex and does not permit it to her followers either.  And, as we see in a later volume of this world, she does not permit her Hunters to have romantic relationships either.  That’s not to say that Artemis disapproves of sex or romance, just that her Hunters are forbidden to partake so long as they serve her.  Which is fair.  You don’t see a lot of old demigods in these books, but a number do survive their teenage years and move onto adulthood, “retiring” from hero work.  (The average age of characters, questers, and heroes is a totally different topic that I see no need to touch on at this point in time.)

Athena, in contrast to Artemis, is interested in romance.  I’d tentatively guess heteroromantic, but that’s only because Annabeth is literally the only fleshed-out child of Athena I’ve seen in these books.  So I don’t know if any of her half-siblings has two mothers, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be possible, especially because there’s no physical act of procreation.  Regardless, all implications for demigods seem to be that they were made the old-fashioned way, aside from the children of Athena.

Anyway, in the case of both goddesses their celibacy can be seen as a choice.  We don’t get into godly heads (except when SOMEONE gets cast out into mortal form in later books) so I have no idea what either thinks about that decision.  But the fact that the gods are four or five thousand years old and neither of these two has shown any interest in sex argues to me that they’re asexual.  And Rick Riordan clearly has no problems with nonheteronormative characters or homosexual relationships, so it could very well be.  On the other hand, it’s possible that asexuality isn’t played up because it simply isn’t as visible as other orientations.  It’s hard to give weight to something if you’re not thinking in those terms, and I can’t hold it against people if they’ve never really heard of it.

As for The Mark of Athena, it’s not my favorite book.  I don’t especially care for Annabeth as a viewpoint character and while I do like Percy, he’s got some issues in this one.  Similar to why I have issues with Harry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Which makes sense, given that the boys are 16 and 15 respectively.  As you may recall, I like to nickname the latter Harry Potter and the Book of Angst, because there’s so many times I just want to whack the kid.

Then, as mentioned earlier, there’s “The Staff of Serapis” at the back.  It’s a better teamup in some ways than the boys had, and also more of a danger.  The stories that make up Demigods & Magicians are a set that tell a complete tale, so it’s no surprise that “The Staff of Serapis” is building and expanding on “The Son of Sobek”.  My biggest complaint is that “The Staff of Serapis” clearly takes place after the entire Heroes of Olympus series…and therefore negates the cliffhanger ending of The Mark of Athena.  And a lot of the tension in the next two books.  But, I’m not a marketing official.  Just a reader who wishes people would put a little more thought into their work.

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Finding the Magic

In many ways The Son of Neptune is The Lightning Thief all over again.  Percy Jackson vanished, probably the same time as Jason Grace, and had his memories blocked by the queen of the gods.  Hera, Juno, whichever you prefer.  Percy got the standard Roman treatment after that – arrive at Wolf House to meet Lupa and her pack, run with them for a while, then go find Camp Jupiter.  The difference is that, unlike the first book, Percy’s not ignorant, he just can’t remember.  He knows how to fight and use his powers, he just doesn’t remember where he’s from, what he’s done, or any person in his life besides Annabeth.  And even then all he’s got is bits and pieces of her.

Still, there’s some good reasons why the Roman and Greek demigods have no official knowledge of each other before The Heroes of Olympus.  It was said outright in The Lost Hero too.  As above, so below.  The American Civil War was more than just the North and South fighting.  It’s why the gods decided to put a continent between the two camps.

Percy stands out far more in contrast to the Romans than Jason did to the Greeks.  After all, the Greek fighting style is very individualized, though people can work together if they choose.  The Romans fight as a legion, together, and someone who disdains that is somewhat obvious.  And then there’s the callbacks to some of Percy’s earlier adventures…

I do like a good origin story, a tale of discovery and revelation.  It doesn’t have to be an origin story – The Son of Neptune is Percy’s sixth book and the tenth in this world – but because it follows so many of the tropes it feels like one.

The Son of Neptune is the second half of the setup for The Heroes of Olympus.  We needed to see both sides of the coin of Greco-Roman demigods before we could actually begin the Great Prophecy of Seven and head to Europe.  But because this is the first time we’ve ever seen Camp Jupiter, it gets as much focus as Camp Half-Blood did back in The Lightning Thief.

When I decided I needed to reread this series, there were two books that stuck out as being absolutely necessary.  Those were The Lightning Thief and The Son of Neptune.  And I’m pretty sure these are my favorites.  Oh sure, there’s great parts in all of the books, some amazing revelations to come and fulfilling climaxes, but in general I do prefer origins and discoveries.  That’s not to say I dislike climaxes or don’t want a satisfying end to the story, but the magic is strongest when it’s all new and shiny.  Kind of like the Harry Potter movies.  I love to watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where everything is new and magical.  That’s not to say I don’t like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, just that it feels much more like a typical teen action movie and not nearly as special.

It’s hard for me to find more to talk about with this book.  With series I like, I have less and less to say the deeper I get simply because I don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone.  And with books I like, unless something particularly noteworthy occurs to me, all I want to do is compliment it, give a vague outline, and then tell you to read it.

So I guess I’ll leave it at that and start on the next volume.

Mountains of Mythology

Percy Jackson’s third adventure brings us back to Camp Half Blood less than a year after the second.  Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Titan’s Curse takes place during the winter break, although snow is not a huge factor.  Must be nice.  Anyway, here we first meet the Hunters of Artemis, a band of young women sworn to the goddess of the hunt.  They’ve also sworn off all romance and in return are granted immortality.  Also Percy’s mom has started dating.

The Titan’s Curse is the midpoint of this set of books.  In case you hadn’t realized, yes, this is building up to an actual war and with the General seen on the field in this volume, that’s made abundantly clear.  Of course, not everything is ready yet.  In many ways, this book is another way to kill time before the next big part of the plot.  More setup, more education, etc.

There are some very good reasons why these middle books never come to mind when I contemplate rereading the series.  Oh sure, I do remember the major plot points, but these aren’t truly satisfying reads.  The Lightning Thief has the advantage of being the introductory book for the entire series.  The Last Olympian is the climax, though of course I’m not there yet.  And everything in between those two is…not as interesting.  In fact, they evoke much of the same feeling as Through Fiery Trials did, that the books are there to keep time and let the reader know the most important events between the two books we actually care about.

Frankly, I could have skipped these middle books and been fine, but they’re short enough that it’s not a huge imposition to actually read them.  I mean, yes, I could use that same time to get books out of my Pile, but Percy Jackson is what I’m most interested in reading right now, so I might as well get him out of my system before I go back to contemplating what I should read for the first time.

Book four is Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Battle of the Labyrinth and now we’re gettng into the opening skirmishes of the war.  The main focus though is the Labyrinth.  You know the one.  Daedalus built it for King Minos to conceal the Minotaur in.  But this Labyrinth is far more than that.  The maze is ever-growing, ever-changing, and stretches all over the world.  It can get you from one place to another…if you’re able to survive and navigate your way through.  It’s entrances are everywhere, and that includes Camp Half-Blood.

That’s why Luke intends to use the Labyrinth to attack the camp directly, circumventing its protections and patrols.

Here we also see the climax of Grover’s storyline with the search for Pan, god of the Wild.  And Nico di Angelo is back as an actual character you don’t want to punch every few seconds.

The Battle of the Labyrinth is the prelude to the big war that’s been built up and discussed over the course of the series.  It’s the old conflict between the gods and the Titans, but it’s also far more than that.  Anyone and everyone who’s been less than pleased over the past four thousand years suddenly has an opportunity to make their voice heard by swearing their sword to one side or the other.  There’s a lot of immortals out there, as well as minor gods, who feel slighted in some way.  Of course there’s also those who will be loyal to the current order.  And because it’s been so long, many of the would-be fighters are not what they once were.

If The Sea of Monsters and The Titan’s Curse were middle volumes that continue the story but don’t really add a great deal, The Battle of the Labyrinth is the signal that things are about to get very, very serious and intense.  I mean, there will still be comedy to be found here and there, but the stakes are high and Rick Riordan does not always pull his punches.  Sure there are ways for people to come back from the dead, and there are ways to interact with people who stay dead.  But death in these books is very real and is treated with all the gravity it deserves.  One of the traditions of Camp Half-Blood is that, while questers are away, their cabin mates (or volunteers if they have none) create burial shrouds from them.  Then the returning questers burn their shrouds.

The Battle of the Labyrinth is the first time our protagonist Percy Jackson sees those shrouds used for actual bodies.  It’s a somber moment, and also reminds the reader that this series is building up to a full-fledged war.  These people are only the first casualties.  There will be more.  After all, the next book is the war itself.

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Last Olympian is the final book in the quintet.  It’s the epic, climactic war between the Titans and the gods and, of course, our heroes are right in the thick of things.  Rick Riordan does his damnedest to tear our hearts out with some of the deaths (yes, there’s quite a number although far more are nameless extras than key characters), but that’s par for the course.  After all, stakes are meaningless if there are no consequences.

The Last Olympian is a culmination, with many disaparate storylines, plots, and elements coming together in a cohesive whole that wraps everything up.  Oh sure, there’s room for more (and dear gods is there more to come), but even if Riordan hadn’t continued writing in this world it still would have been fine.  I think that’s an art form that is lacking in a lot of media today, especially movies.  Too many times people let their greed sucker them into making unnecessary sequels and expanding stories that just aren’t that detailed into more movies than are actually needed.  It’s a disservice to the stories they’re trying to tell.  And yes, there’s authors like Michelle West who wrote a duology, set out to write a second duology and ended up with a sextet, then set out to write a second sextet and is now finishing it up as an octet.  Or Paolini’s Inheritance trilogy ending up as a quartet.  I suppose I could also bring up Douglas Adams’ trilogy…but I can’t properly judge that one since I haven’t read it.  I will always be entertained by the five-book series still being called a trilogy.

My point is that I appreciate Riordan laying out his story to be a certain number of books and sticking to it.  Everything meshes and ties well together.  Foreshadowing starts in the first book and extends beyond the length of this specific series.  There’s no abrupt inserts to confuse a reader, no deus ex machina out of left field.  I can’t tell you how annoying I find such things when it’s clear the author decided to integrate a completely new concept into a series, despite the fact that no foundation existed previously.  (Looking at you, Anne Rice.)  And talking about what a good conclusion The Last Olympian is seems all I can do without offering spoilers for it or any of its predecessors.  I know a lot of people have read these books, but there’s always the chance of encountering someone who hasn’t for one reason or another, and they deserve the chance to be surprised like I was when I first devoured the story.

I was in college when Percy Jackson & The Olympians hit theaters.  And I opted to see it then because it didn’t look like a total waste of money.  I can be a sucker for mediocre fantasy action movies, just like with books.  And…I didn’t think it was that bad.  A perfectly good popcorn flick.  I’ve seen far worse.  But it was definitely good enough to make me curious about the books.  I knew they existed, but there are so many reasons why I don’t just pick up every kids or young adult book that looks like a fantasy – I can get burned so easily that way.  I had a friend who loved them though, and she’d been horribly disappointed by the adaptation.  I borrowed her books to read them, though I could only get the first four at the time.

Need I say that I was hooked?  Oh sure, I could see where they went wrong with the movie the instant I read The Lightning Thief.  But, since I saw the movie before I read the book, I’ll never completely hate it.  And, like I said, I knew even before I read the book that the movie wasn’t great, so it’s not like that much changed.  I just gained a much better appreciation for the source material.

It’s crazy to think how long ago that was now.  Nine years is a long time, and a lot can change.  I didn’t buy the books until almost a year later, when I had a seasonal job at Borders during what ended up being their very last holiday season.  I was able to save some money by buying the box set for the first three, but the last two were new enough that the publisher hadn’t created a complete box set yet and I had to buy them separately.  It was still some time before I started my habit of reading the newest entry from the library only after the last one could be purchased in paperback.  Still before I bought the Kane Chronicles – used, unlike Percy Jackson’s encounters.

It’s weird to think that even though I never touched Rick Riordan’s work until my senior year of college, it’s now been a part of my life for nearly a decade.  And not as some series that I read new and have maybe touched once since then, but one I’ve continually revisited, and not just because new entries keep being published.  As of this writing, I own seventeen novels set in this universe and six supplemental volumes.  There’s a seventh in my Pile and an eighth that I sort of own.  That is to say, Demigods & Magicians collects the three stories where Percy and Annabeth meet Carter and Sadie Kane, but I have those shorts tucked away in the backs of three of my novels, so I see no point in purchasing an additional copy of each.  Oh sure, there might be other bonus content in the book, but I don’t actually care about puzzles, games, or even cardboard cutouts.  It’s the story I’m after.  (Also, yes, I have already checked out Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Ship of the Dead and The Trials of Apollo: The Burning Maze from the library before.  They’ll be available in paperback later this year and will be added to my collection then.)  But that’s a lot of books, more than some of the other authors I’ve been collecting for twice as long, if not longer.  Sure, Riordan’s never going to compare to Andre Norton, Tanya Huff, or Mercedes Lackey when it comes to taking up shelf space.  But the man’s not done yet and it’ll be interesting to see where this world goes.

Anyway, moving on to my next read for the day, “The Son of Sobek”, the first Demigods & Magicians story.  My copy happens to be lurking at the back of The Kane Chronicles: The Serpent’s Shadow, the climax of that three volume series.  Which is kind of disappointing.  I mean, with kids books you do generally expect the main character to survive, but there’s a difference between this presumption and an advertisement for Carter Kane teaming up with Percy Jackson following the events of the book.  It just takes some of the magic out of it.

The story itself goes pretty much how you expect a teamup to go.  The two meet, fight each other, then decide the crocodile is more important, defeat it, and realize they don’t make a half bad team.  There’s not a lot of information exchanged, but it’s better than ntohing.  I mean, they’re boys, and media tells us that boys will be boys.  Which means they tend to think with their fists or their dicks or both before their brains.  Still, it’s not a bad start to the Egyptian/Greek adventure set.

Today’s last book starts a new chapter.  The Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero is where Rick Riordan says “yes, I am fully aware that the Greek gods are also the Roman gods under other names.  Did you think I’d forgotten that when building my universe?”  The writing style also changes from Percy’s first person narrative to a third persion split view.  The main characters are Leo Valdez, son of Hephaestus, Piper McLean, daughter of Aphrodite, and Jason Grace, son of Jupiter.  Each chapter is prefaced with the viewpoint character’s name, and that’s also what’s seen at the top of each page with the number, instead of the book title or author’s name.  A simple but effective way to keep track easily.  And yes, I am quite serious when I say that Jason is not a son of Zeus.

The Lost Hero opens with Jason waking up in the back of a bus, holding hands with Piper.  Not that he has any idea who she is, he barely even remembers his own name.  And yet, he knows quite a bit.  He can identify monsters and gods as well as any demigod, although he defaults to the Roman terminology instead of Greek.  There were some references to Rome in Percy Jackson & The Olympians, but not many.  When Chiron infiltrated Percy’s school at in The Lightning Thief, he did so as a Latin teacher.  Although part of that is because you’re not going to find many grade schools that actually teach Ancient Greek.  Still, the Roman aspects of things were generally glossed over in Percy’s hearing.

Besides, our heroes have more important things to worry about.  Some would be worried about Percy’s disappearance more than Jason’s abrupt appearance.  But the thing is, after the last time the gods and the Titans warred, that was only the start.  And now the giants are rising again and their patron is, well, nobody you want to mess with.  Not if you have any kind of choice.

Many of the characters from past books are present here, or at least have mentions or cameos, but the focus is, as I said, Jason, Leo, and Piper.  It seems they’re three of the seven halfbloods from the new Great Prophecy, and since the last Great Prophecy is the one that directly tied in to the climax of the war…you can imagine the stakes probably won’t be any lower here.

But that’s a story for another book.

On My Mind

I like musicals.  I’ve seen a lot.  There’s a theater, the Marriott, that only puts on musicals and my parents had season tickets for many years.  And they’d bring their kids to the shows that they felt were appropriate or, as we got older, that we showed interest in.  Plus shows downtown, though that was less often given the prices.  I’ve got a hefty collection of Playbills and I even have official Playbill binders to put them in.  The last one was added just a week and a half ago.  I saw the advertisement months ago on Facebook and there was no question at all – I had to see it.  My friend agreed.

We saw The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical.

It was only in town for a week and I’ve been listening to the soundtrack on repeat since the show and the more I listened the more I couldn’t get the idea out of my head of how much I wanted to reread the series, especially the first book of Percy Jackson and the Olympians and the second book of Heroes of Olympus.  I could go for just those volumes, but it goes against my grain to just skip around like that.  Besides, it’s been a while since I touched any of these.  And it’s not like the oldest books are that long.

So, here I am, having finished rereading Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.  And I have to say, I am thoroughly impressed.  I knew that the musical was far truer to the book than the movie had been (from personal experience I tell you you can only truly enjoy the movie if you’ve never read the books) but I didn’t expect it to be so close.  Oh sure, they cut a lot of scenes short, especially ones that couldn’t be shown well onstage with a minimal set, but that’s only to be expected.  And they changed a poodle to a squirrel.  Probably a good choice.  But they still referenced many of the cut scenes.  And a lot of what they did keep were details I hadn’t remembered being in the book until I actually reread it.  Hell, they even lifted a lot of the dialogue, including the opening line.  I knew there was a lot of love that went into making this musical; I just didn’t realize how much until now.

Another interesting aspect of seeing this book brought to life is that a lot of the disillusionment, discontent, and sarcasm came through loud and clear in a way they didn’t always through text.  Which makes later plot points make a whole lot more sense…

Long story short, if you have the chance to see the musical, take it.  It’s no instant classic like Wicked or Hamilton, but it’s a lot of fun all the same.  and even if the songs weren’t as instantly memorable, they definitely do get stuck in your head.  Or at least stuck in mine, even before dint of repetition.

But let’s talk about the actual book now.  For those who didn’t know, The Lightning Thief is Rick Riordan’s first book featuring Percy Jackson.  He is, though he didn’t know it, a demigod.  And he’s been accused of stealing Zeus’ master lightning bolt.  All he knows is that his life has been turned upside down, his beloved mom is gone, and monsters are attacking him.  But he’s got a couple good friends who might just be able to help him stay in one piece while he quests to find and return the lightning bolt.

This is the book where Rick Riordan’s pantheon universe began, showing how the Greek gods (in this case) are a part of the modern world, although most of us aren’t even remotely aware of it.  But that doesn’t make this fact any less true, and it’s quite a pain for those with the heritage and perception to have to deal with it on its own terms.  They call it the Mist, the force that keeps mere mortals from perceiving reality as it truly is.  What I observe though, is that kids books or not, these are modern classics about people who could be real with a fantastical twist.

The shortest book in the whole series is Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Sea of Monsters.  Percy returns to Camp Half-Blood to discover it under siege and only one thing can save it: the Golden Fleece.  The only problem is…it’s not his quest this time. And there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.  The underlying difficulties Percy discovered in The Lightning Thief have only grown stronger in the intervening year and mean to destroy everything he knows and loves, given time.

But that’s for the future.  This book is mostly about sailing around a sea filled with monstrous creatures of myth and legend and trying to get back before the camp is completely overrun.  It’s, well, a second book.  It has a simple goal, no real twists, and exists mostly to further the existing plots and set up a few new wrinkles.  It’s perfectly fine, but there’s just not much to it.  Like I said, it’s a skinny bugger, even compared to its series mates.

Tune in tomorrow for more of Percy Jackson.

Library Life

In the corner of the dealer’s room of most of the conventions I’ve been to is Larry’s Books.  Sadly the man himself passed away a couple years ago, but I’ve seen his wife twice since then, still selling books.  They don’t let you pay with a credit card unless the purchase is at least $30 (or is it $35?  I forget).  So sometimes I need to find another book (or two) to hit that limit.  It’s not always a challenge, especially if it’s only Friday night and the best selection is still available.  (They generally don’t bring that many copies of each book.)

So last Windycon when I was picking up classics like Life of the Party: the Realities of an RPG’er and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for Beginning Readers, it just so happened that they didn’t quite hit that minimum.  I glanced around, hoping for something else to attract my attention and my eye fell upon a rather bold spine.  The title certainly seemed up my alley, and I’d had a good response to the editor before.  Yes, I picked up an anthology.  Ex Libris: Stories of Librarians, Libraries & Lore.

The editor is Paula Guran, the woman who helped futher my understanding of the sword & sorcery subgenre in Swords Against Darkness.  This book is not nearly as thick as that one, for all the number of stories is the same at twenty-three.  And, of course, I do love me a book about books.  Which is why I’ve been mentally comparing Ex Libris to Shelf Life throughout the whole read.  After all, both books exist to celebrate a love of books.  Even if one does it through libraries and the other through bookstores.

Like Swords Against DarknessEx Libris is a collection of previously published works instead of stories written specifically for this anthology.  This is rather obvious when you consider that this book came out in 2017 and features a story by Ray Bradbury.  The surprise is that Bradbury’s is not the oldest contribution, having been originally published in 1996.  Most stories are from the past ten years though, and about half of the authors are new to me.

Which makes it all the more hilarious to find that the very first story in the book is the only one I’ve read before.  Not that I objected to revisiting Ellen Klages’ “In the House of the Seven Librarians” because it is a good story.  I just find it quite amusing to open a book and recognize the first story right off the bat.

The contents of Ex Libris range from fantasy to science fiction, feature a variety of settings and protagonists, and can be anything from comforting to horrifying.  There’s not a single tale here I disliked or would avoid rereading.  Each and every story touched some kind of chord within me as a reader, and that’s no small thing.  Oh sure, some are predictable, some fall into tropes, and I have to wonder why two of them reference Asterix comics, but that’s beside the point.  The point is that this is a very good anthology.  And I may have to make sure my librarian friends (I have a lot of librarian friends and not a one of them works at a library I visit) keep this in mind for their own future reading.

I could go through and talk about the stories, but there’s twenty-three and that’s quite a lot to even do a single sentence about each.  I could stick to the “highlights” but frankly, there are so few stories that wouldn’t get highlighted that it wouldn’t be fair and then I’d end up doing them all anyway.  It’s official, Paula Guran is an editor I need to find more of.  I’ve been as impressed or moreso with her work as I have been with Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling and Esther M. Friesner.  (Friesner is one of the contributors here too.)  I just think Ex Libris is a great encapsulation of the many types of library stories that can be told, and told well.

As a contrast to Safehold, this was definitely a good choice as something completely different.  I’m not sure what I’ll choose to follow it up, but I’m thinking another thick volume.  There’s a storm watch on and the odds seem good for at least half a foot of snow.  Which is as good a reason as any to stay home and read.  Still, we’ll see what happens next.  There’s a fair jumble of stuff in my Pile and who knows what kind of mood I’ll be in tomorrow.

Keeping Time

The new Safehold book, Through Fiery Trials, has been an interesting study as much as a read.  There’s a lot going on, as always, and in so many ways.  At the Sign of Triumph saw the end of the war that had dominated the series to that point, which is why I will consider those nine books a single arc.  Through Fiery Trials, in contrast, feels like a breather.  A book that ties up some loose ends from the previous entries, sets up some storylines for future volumes, but mostly is there to occupy time.  David Weber felt there were enough important events to fill a book before the next major installment, and I suppose he wasn’t wrong.

Several books ago, Paityr Wylsynn, the Intendent of Charis and only Scheulerite priest in the inner circle, revealed a promise that had been made to his family.  Presumably from the Archangel Scheuler himself, there was a promise of return a thousand years later.  Because Safehold’s calendar was restarted after the War of the Fallen – when Shan-Wei was murdered and Kau-yung took his revenge on Langhorne – our protagonists have calculated that a thousand years after the Day of Creation would be Year of God 915.  At the Sign of Triumph ended in 899, so there’s definitely room to go.  And yes, Through Fiery Trials takes us up into 916.

Whereas all the previous books, excepting the opening bits of Off Armageddon Reef, have covered roughly a year, this new entry does in fact cover more than fifteen.  Which is something of a welcome change, given how microscopic Weber’s focus could seem at times.  There was a scene in the ninth book where he showed two infantry troopers slogging across a field of mud and I couldn’t help but relate to how I felt slogging through several of the books in this series.

Of course, part of the more varied focus is likely because Charis is not involved in a single war throughout this book.  I mean, technically I guess Desnair (or was it Delferahk?) and Charis are still at war, but that’s because the nation in question is not important enough to warrant actually signing a treaty.  The two main regions of violence here are the Harchong Empire and Siddarmark.  The first was a predicted problem before given that the Harchonegese have been living off the backs of their serfs for centuries, and turning a couple million serfs into an effective army may lead to social issues.  The second is that the Sword of Scheuler operation of Zhaspar Clyntan’s has had several ongoing effects that help no one, and there were several setbacks in Siddarmark.

Frankly, neither of those are huge focuses.  After all, our primary characters and the inner circle are so rarely involved.  Instead, they’ve spent the course of this book having babies.  Lots of them.  And getting married.  Oh, and Weber has also been keeping time by informing us of important deaths that have happened.  Given how many of them happen in the first five years, I at first suspected a plot against our protagonists by taking out so many of their allies.  But then I realized that heart attacks are a common excuse when Weber doesn’t want them to have horrible or debilitating deaths, or cancer.  Sorry, do I sound bitter?

Anyway, let’s move on to one of my bigger issues with the book: editing.  That’s right, I’ve caught a number of errors, several of which are fairly major.  And the first one is right after the introduction.  For those unfamiliar with a Safeholdian novel’s layout, it is separated out into months, which helps a reader understand the logistics involved with the scale and just the fact that it’s not possible to travel or even send news across a planet that quickly.  Each of these sections is opened with a largely blank page featuring the month above “Year of God” and the number of the year.  So when the very first section is marked as “November: Year of God 890”, we’re going to have a problem.  See, At the Sign of Triumph ended in February 899.  And the main portion of Off Armageddon Reef opened in May 890.  And anyone who’s been reading the series would know the conversation starting At the Sign of Triumph was impossible in 890 for so very many reasons.  Seriously, there were five words on that page – four and a number – and you made a typo on the number which is one of the two most important pieces of information shown.  That is…pathetic.

Nor was that the only typo.  Just the first, and one of the worst signs I could have seen.  The second major one – I’m overlooking a couple others such as a missing space between two words and the like – I found on page 392.  It’s a paragraph where Weber waxes eloquently about how many residents of North Harchong have died since the region went to hell in a handbasket.  He’s listing out province names and Tiegelkamp shows up three times in this one paragraph.  Except that the third time it’s spelled Tiegelcamp.  To me, this stands out quite boldly simply because of the repetition.  I found a similar error, again with a proper noun, in a much later paragraph.  And again, this says nothing of those which I consider less obvious.

I get as excited about upcoming releases as the next person.  I did preorder Through Fiery Trials and while it might not have been quite as far in advance as others, I still did it.  But I would be happy to wait another few months if it meant that the book got one last readthrough to catch as many of those little errors as possible.  This is from Tor Books and it reflects poorly on everyone from the editor to the publisher when typos make it into the final product.

Given my reflections comparing Safehold to Dread Empire, I’ve been seriously considering dropping the series after these ten books.  Certainly I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to reread it from beginning to end.  Although I should be able to use Through Fiery Trials as a new jumping on point.  Because I cannot, absolutely refuse to give up on the series after that conclusion.  It only took six pages.  But oh dear gods, David Weber, you and your cliffhanger epilogues!  What am I to do with this?  Is it going to be another two years before I find out what happens next?  This has definitely put the cat among the birds and I simply have to know.  Not immediately, of course, but there is no way I won’t be preordering the next entry.

Perspective

November 2016 was a slog for this blog.  The new Safehold book from David Weber, At the Sign of Triumph, was released that month and I did what I always did; reread the series from the start.  It was utterly exhausting in a way I hadn’t really experienced before, and not just books four and eight.  The whole month was somewhat miserable as I struggled to make it through books that, lengthwise, should have taken me half as long as they did.

I haven’t touched that series in over two years.  But…there’s a new book out.

I made the call this time to only reread At the Sign of Triumph.  It was, after all, the climax which Weber had been building up for a decade, and I’d only read it the one time previously.  There’s so many things in my to read Pile that I didn’t want to make myself miserable rereading the entire series again.  I figured that, since I have a good memory for books, I should be okay.

Well, I was less okay than I thought, but for very good reasons.  Let’s start off by explaining the series for those who don’t know or have forgotten in two years.  Safehold is another planet.  It is, to the best of our knowledge, humanity’s last planet after a war with the aliens known as Gbaba.  Previously destroyed colonies seem to have been hunted down by their emissions, so Safehold’s culture was designed to be a stagnant, pre-Industrial one with plenty of food, decent medical care, and no betraying emissions.

But…humanity is a race of fighters.  We don’t like to back down and give up.  So a robotic body known as a Personality Integrated Cybernetic Avatar wakes up seven hundred fifty years later to start propelling humanity forward again.  However, there’s a big obstacle in the way and it’s called the Church of God Awaiting.  It virtually rules the planet from the background, and the Strictures were laid in place to prevent industrialization.  So the PICA, now calling itself Merlin Athrawes, needs to find ways around those Strictures, break the Church’s hold on the planet, and get back to the stars.

When I say we’re dealing with a planet, I mean exactly that.  It’s not as widely settled as our own – not yet – but its politics are just as detailed, especially when dealing with religion.  So the vast majority of this series has been a war between the Church and an island kingdom called Charis where some of the original settlers remembered a little document called the Declaration of Independence, which has influenced their culture.

At the Sign of Triumph is the end of that war.  And that is such a relief.  Now, I’ve called parts of the series a slog before.  For years even.  But it wasn’t until I read Glen Cook’s Dread Empire series that I truly understood what Weber’s been doing wrong.  I’ve always known he was a military nut.  I’ve known that he loves naval warfare – to the point that I cannot read his Honor Harrington series because I read Safehold first.  (Honor Harrington is essentially 18th century naval battles in space, from what I saw in On Basilisk Station.)  I’d previously compared Safehold to Elizabeth Haydon’s Symphony of Ages, because the maybe four hundred pages of The Hollow Queen contains the War of Ages.  All of it.  As compared to Weber’s books, many of which are roughly twice as long.  I said it was because Haydon doesn’t like writing about war and Weber does, and that’s probably still true.

What I’ve learned is that David Weber has a hard-on for war.  There is so much gratuitous description that it really is pornography.  A battle, a smallish battle, will be set up, with viewpoints on both sides, someone begins the attack, the battle is joined, the Charisians come up with some infernal new weapon or technique, the opponent is appalled or disgusted or resignedly impressed, people die, cut to the aftermath.  And it’s pages and pages of this.  Throughout the book.  I suppose it’s neat to watch the series slowly progress from 18th century battles all the way up to World War II, but I am not that much a student of military history.  I can barely remember the different types of rifles once they’re all breechloaders, and I certainly couldn’t tell you what their real world equivalents are.

I don’t take issue with showing battles, or even with showing how bloody and awful they can be.  But when I compare Safehold to the tight, sparse narrative Cook told…it’s clear which one I’d rather read.  And again, this has barely touched on the other problem of having to keep track of an entire planet’s worth of politics.  There are so very many characters and yes, rereading the whole series would give me a better idea who the minor players are, but in the end, they’re not actually worth it.  Sure, I’ll remember Sailys Trahskhat who was a baseball player back in Off Armageddon Reef and is now a comissioned officer in the Siddarmarkian army, but I’ve also read the first book roughly ten times over the years.

As a note, At the Sign of Triumph was running late for publication two years ago, so there are some typos to be found and no cast of characters.  Considering that book eight, Hell’s Foundations Quiver, features one hundred eleven pages of characters, plus a glossary…that’s no small thing to exclude for time’s sake.  And don’t get me started on the number of maps, or lack thereof in a particular book.  That’s a different rant entirely.

I’d say my perspective on Safehold is vastly changed by reading a different and older brand of military fiction, and I know it’s had an effect on rereading this book.  The real question is how it will affect me as I dive into Weber’s new brick.  But…there’s a whole host of other questions, starting with how much time has passed between the end of At the Sign of Triumph and the beginning of Through Fiery Trials?

I’m off to find that out.

Titles Various

There’s nothing like starting the weekend with a bit of light reading.  And snow, which Chicagoland has been notably deficient in thus far this winter, but that’s besides the point.  Still, there’s nothing like curling up in the warmth with a book on a cold day.

Besides, I may have forgotten about the weather as I returned to the world of Blue Exorcist.  With the new volume in hand, I read 19-21 today and oh my are things getting intense.  19 and 20, as you may recall, are breather volumes.  We see the wedding at Myoddha and the Christmas/birthday party.  Also Lewin Light, aka Lightning and Suguro’s (Bon’s) master has been investigating some old and dark secrets.

It’s at the end of volume 20 that things take a turn for the intense, leaving readers gaping and demanding to know what happens next.  And 21 answers…maybe two of those questions.  At best.  The world turned upside down in this new book and I’m left with more questions than answers.  Oh sure, there’s been the big ones from the start such as where the Okumura brothers came from, how it is that they’re Satan’s sons, etc.  But those questions weren’t brought into the forefront very much as we settled into a semi-school manga about kids growing and learning.

Now Kazue Kato has pulled the rug out from under the readers and shit’s getting real.  You can’t trust anyone it seems and I just…I really don’t want to spoil things for anyone.  Spoiling a good book to someone who may just pick it up is one of the worst crimes in my world.  So I’ll just say that it’s going to be a very long time until September anytime I think on what happened here in the last couple volumes of Blue Exorcist.

While I was out this morning, before the snow had started, I had an errand that took me near Half Price Books.  And what sort of self-respecting bookworm would I be if I didn’t pop my head in?  I didn’t find much, nothing that I was really looking for, but I did suppose there was one book I should pick up if they had it.  Which they did.  And that is Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar.

It turns out this is the middle of the three books, and Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger is actually the third, published six years after this one.  I guess it makes sense – here’s where I find out why the school was closed at the beginning of the other book.  And where the cow in Miss Zarves classroom came from.

Not having read this as a child, I can tell you Wayside School is Falling Down ended up being my least favorite of the books.  Even so, there’s elements I liked.  I kind of adore Kathy’s version of “London Bridge,” one of the lyrics ending up as the book title.  I also love any children’s song that uses the phrase “blood and gore.”  Because I’m a twisted person like that.

As someone who’s always enjoyed Miss Zarves and the nonexistent nineteenth story, I love that there are three chapter 19s in this book.  Of course, the chapter after that is 20, 21, & 22 – about the three Erics.

I don’t know, I guess part of what irks me about this book is that it feels more connected to the real world than the others.  There’s a computer in one story.  A reference to Charlotte’s Web.  One of the kids in the class gets a tattoo.  Which is something I seriously question because these kids have got to be somewhere between ages 6 and 9.  I also dislike the new illustrations.

But there’s a dead rat with a line of dialogue and that was funny.

I’ve got mixed feelings.  There’s no nostalgia to rescue Wayside School is Falling Down, but there’s still elements I liked about it.  It’ll just never stand up to my childhood memories of the other two.

So, before the snow started really coming down I went over to the library where my hold on The Superior Spider-Man: Superior Venom had finally come in.  So of course I had to read both that and the following volume, Goblin Nation, as well today.  These are the last two volumes of this particular arc and it’s interesting.  We see Doc Ock continuing to lose control of the narrative, Venom is actually Agent Venom and his human identity is none other than Flash Thompson.  Also apparently Flash’s real name is Eugene…why do so many characters hate that name?  (Looking at you, Tangled.)

Anyway, Doc Ock is getting the full Spiderman experience.  Everything spirals out of control, your enemies are at the gates, and they know exactly who you are.  It’s actually rather hilarious – Ock had been determined to show the world that he was a better Spiderman than Peter Parker and by the end of his run he’s doing more reacting and less planning, just as Peter would.  And not because of any lingering reactions from Peter’s personality, just being pulled in too many directions at once and some of them tug at his heartstrings.

I think my tolerance for Ock as Spiderman is distinctly lower than Peter.  That superiority complex is not something I enjoy and I can only take it in smaller doses.  There’s just too many times when I want to slap the man silly.  I mean, yeah, Peter is one of the most emo superheroes ever created, but that’s a little different.  But yes, it can be just as annoying.  At least Peter is a smart mouth and usually has some good lines while he’s moping around.  But that’s because he usually has good lines for anything and everything.

Still, Goblin Nation had a good conclusion to this saga as well as payoff for all the buildup Osoborn’s been getting throughout the series.  On a storytelling level I have no complaints.  I think I’m glad I didn’t need to spend money to read this.  On the other hand, I think I’ll continue with the new Superior Spider-Man comic series for a little bit and see where it goes.  And I may have to track down at least parts of the Spider-geddon event they had to figure out what exactly happened with Ock.  Maybe I’ll go over to the comic shop tomorrow.  The snow will be over by then, and I can return my library books on the way.

Of course the question now is…what to read next?  There’s several options, but there is one big question.  And that question is am I read for more military fiction?  It won’t be from Glen Cook this time…

An End to Dread

Twenty-four years is a long time.  It’s long enough for a child to be conceived, birthed, and graduate college.  Long enough to encompass six presidential elections and twelve Olympic Games.

It’s also the span between the publications of An Ill Fate Marshalling and A Path to Coldness of Heart.  Not the largest gap I’ve seen and featured on this blog, but still notable.  And I can only imagine what it must have been like for fans of the series in the eighties, to have to wait two dozen years for the finale.  As I’ve said before, I’ve waited twelve years myself for a promised book to be released.  I’ve no idea if this was promised at the time or not, but I’d guess it was planned.  There’s too much left undone at the end of An Ill Fate Marshalling for it to be the last book in the series.

I should mention that this is the oddest gap I’ve seen.  Again, I don’t know what was said back then, but all the other books released decades later were sequels to standalone novels.  Except for Bard’s Oath, but that was a bit different.  I was able to keep track of it for a few years through Joanne Bertin’s website, and I got the feeling that life just kept throwing speed bumps in front of its publication.

The delay does mean I have to ask how the writing compares between the original series and the concluding novel.  A lot of authors’ styles change over the years, which can make revisiting old works awkward.  And Glen Cook is no stranger to change.  That doesn’t make this a bad book.  But I’ve been saying from the start that the Dread Empire books are dense reads that take me far longer than other books of comparable length.  In contrast, A Path to Coldness of Heart went as quickly as any normal book.  Which is a little disappointing in some ways, but a relief in others.  If it had been in Cook’s old style I probably wouldn’t have finished it tonight.

Yes, I did have other inklings besides the way the page count climbed so quickly when I bothered to check.  There are many scenes here that probably would have been cut in the eighties because they don’t had a significant amount to the overall story.  I found myself thinking how much tighter and sparse Cook’s writing had been two decades prior.  Again, this is no complaint about the last book.  I have no problems with books that I whisk through in a day.  It’s just a major contrast to the rest of the series.

And yes, this is the conclusion.  I knew that ahead of time because I checked on isfdb.org to make sure I was putting my accumulated volumes into the correct order.  There’s the collection I still need to acquire, but I don’t even know where “Soldier of an Empire Unacquainted With Defeat” fits into the timeline.  Probably because I didn’t know or care about the timeline when I first read it.  I will revisit that sometime this year.

I do appreciate that Cook must have known what his readers were fantasizing about because the big confab I was half hoping for really does happen.  The character who dropped off the face of the earth at the end of A Cruel Wind reappears and there’s a remarkable number of characters who are supposedly dead, or as good as, or might as well be.  It gets a little confusing sometimes, but in a good way.

And yet, the ending does leave room for a little bit more.  I don’t know if that’s been explored in any of the short fiction, but I have no problems with Cook leaving himself a bit of room.  All the books he’s written have been quite interlinked, so while the world itself does have an extensive history he could explore, I’m not so certain that he would choose to go elsewhere on the timeline.

Of course I liked the book.  But the ending did leave me a little unsatisfied, mostly because there’s no denoument.  The climax finishes one page before the end of the book, leaving no time to show the reader that everyone lived happily ever after.  I mean, we know that’s not actually practical – this book has made it a point to prove that happily ever after isn’t – but it would be nice to see the characters settling back into some semblance of normalcy.  Or establishing new lives, independent of who they were expected to be before.  That was something I did like about Green Lantern: Wrath of the First Lantern.  The event ended with some nice little shots of where the main characters ended up, years later.  You can also argue that conclusion was retconned in one or more ways just in the next event, but that’s beside the point.  The point is that I feel a little robbed by the entire series ending rather suddenly.

All in all, I’m glad I found the Dread Empire.  These books are a type I’ve read for years and yet a kind that I’ve never really read before.  Given that I’ve stopped rereading as heavily as I used to, I really do value the novelty of finding something new worth rereading.

But I still, really and truly, despise those eighties schlock covers.

Less Empire, More Headache

Two truisms came to mind as I read through An Ill Fate Marshalling.  The first is “there’s no fool like an old fool” and the second being “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  But before we get into that, let’s start by setting the scene.

Most of An Ill Fate Marshalling takes place concurrently with Reap the East Wind.  However where the latter focused mostly on Ethrian and Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i, with hints of Nepanthe, the former is almost exclusively looking at Bragi Ragnarson.  Which is not wholly surprising, considering that he’s been a key character in every single book to date, even if the book’s focus was elsewhere.  Of the main characters from the prequels, he’s the only one still around and active.

But he’s not young.  At a guess, he’s up around fifty now and while he’s still fit and active, a lot has changed mentally over the years.  He spends much of the book at war with himself, torn between the caution that tends to mark older characters and the recklessness that’s seen in the young.  Or we could just say both are of older characters, because there are those who take more risks as they age simply because they can’t find any other excitement in life.

To be fair, Bragi has plenty of excitement.  Also intrigue and plots and doom.  Kavelin is barely holding it together and Ragnarson keeps playing increasingly long odds.  His luck is absolutely phenomenal – possibly due to his mother’s witch blood – but the people are less and less willing to stand for it.  Hence the old fool.

There’s other changes going on across the continent.  Down in the desert, El Murid’s forces are stirring for the first time in years on a large scale.  Part of that is because the Shinsan general in the region provoked them, but another part is because El Murid’s daughter, his preferred heir from back in the day, has come home and is taking charge.  And in many ways the situation is reminiscent of when her father was first building his power.  And then there’s the Duke of Greyfells in Itaskia, still a thorn on everyone’s side.  Even though I’m pretty sure it’s not the same Duke from the earlier books.  Pretty sure that one died at some point in A Cruel Wind.

An Ill Fate Marshalling, combined with Reap the East Wind, reminds me a lot of The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I remember reading that for the first time – after I had seen the first movie – and being surprised to find that it’s actually two books.  One follows Merry and Pippin, the other Frodo and Sam.  And because that’s the order the two were in, I really had to force myself to read the second half of the book because I just didn’t find it anywhere near as interesting as the first portion.

I really hated watching Bragi Ragnarson make a fool of himself, so An Ill Fate Marshalling was not the most pleasant reading experience.  There was still plenty to distract me of course, and this doesn’t make it a bad book.  I just wanted to shove Bragi’s face in all the mistakes he was making so that he could be less stupid about them.

The other reason to draw a comparison with The Two Towers is that An Ill Fate Marshalling distinctly felt like the middle book of a trilogy.  I don’t remember if October’s Baby felt like that when I read it, but I suspect that I didn’t perceive it as such simply because I was reading the omnibus straight through.  I’m not even certain I can easily remember the divisions between the books without looking them up.  I treat omnibi as single books except when I choose to only read one or two sections, and thus tend not to think of their contents in the same way as individual volumes.

There is one book left.  Or at least, one novel.  And the last volume I have of Dread Empire at this time.  I can’t wait.