The Two of Swords: Part Seventeen

December 13, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

swords17The Two of Swords: Part Seventeen by K.J. Parker


Parker does some remarkable things in his fiction. Case in point: With Part Seventeen, he begins the story in media res, even though it’s smack in the middle of a larger story. He also manages to pick up the story right after Part Sixteen, in that we know what’s happened to Telamon to bring her to this situation, and we know why. It’s a testament to his characterization and plotting skills that he can drop the reader right into the middle of the action and know that his readers won’t get lost.

The story continues with the saga of Telamon and Oida, and I noticed with this chapter that Parker is no longer titling the chapters after the cards in the deck. Now, the chapters are simply “One” and “Two”. My guess is these two most recent parts will be part of the third book in the later print publication, and since the major players in the story have been introduced by now (and are now finding themselves all up in each others’ stories), there’s no need to maintain that convention. Luckily, I’ve kept a list of the chapter names and characters of each so I can try to puzzle out how this story will end.

Musen, the tall thief from chapter two (and twelve, I see from my notes), also makes an appearance, as does Saevus, the slaver who last (maybe first?) appeared in the last chapter. It feels like all the random threads Parker has used up to this point are starting to come together in a weave, and it’s an intriguing one. Finishing out this series encourages me to finally get around to reading all of Parker’s fiction, so I suppose I’ll add that to the list of reading projects I have ahead of me. At least I’ll stay busy.

Started: September 12, 2017
Finished: September 13, 2017


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Forever Peace

October 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

peaceForever Peace by Joe Haldeman


Much has been made of this book not being a sequel to The Forever War. Despite its similar title, and despite it appearing in omnibus editions with that book and Forever Free, it exists in its own universe, and covers themes not touched on in The Forever War. The only connection I could find was a town called Mandellaville, but that’s more an Easter egg than an actual connection.

The story is about Julian Class, a soldier in the US army fighting a war in South America. This is a future war, where the soldiers are locked in to battle suits, which in turn control battle suits out on the field. The good news for such a setup is that when a suit in battle is damaged or destroyed, its pilot survives (usually); the bad news is that it creates dependencies and other psychological effects on the soldiers.

The first half of the book is largely a rehash of the themes and details from The Forever War, showing life as a soldier in a future army. With the second half, the true story begins, forcing me to readjust what I was getting from the story. What precedes this shift is necessary, but it makes the novel feel like two stories: a war story; and a futuristic thriller.

Haldeman shifts between first and third person sections in this book (there are no chapters, only section breaks), which struck me as off. Some of those sections allow for a viewpoint other than Julian’s, but most of them could be told from his point of view without much change, and I wonder why the author chose to write the story this way. Even for the sections written outside of his viewpoint could have been included in the first person, since the story references the future in vague ways, suggesting the story is written as a reminiscence of Julian’s. It makes the story feel like Haldeman sat down with an idea and started writing just to see where it would go.

The story is thoughtful, and the second half shows that the author can write plot-centric stories as well as military stories, but it feels schizophrenic. I enjoyed it enough to give it three stars, and I would recommend it, but with some hesitation. It’s good, but not OHMYGOSH good.

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The Forever War

October 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

foreverThe Forever War by Joe Haldeman


This is my first time reading The Forever War, which surprises me. A few years back, I embarked on a classic science fiction reading project (Dune, Foundation, some Alfred Bester, etc.), and Haldeman didn’t come up at all, despite this being considered a classic of military science fiction. It wasn’t until I read John Scalzi’s Old Man War that I knew about Haldeman’s book.

Interestingly, Scalzi wrote the introduction to the edition I read and revealed that when he wrote Old Man’s War, he hadn’t read The Forever War, which surprises me. OMW feels so much like Scalzi’s take on the book that it seemed impossible that he wasn’t drawing inspiration from it. OMW hits some of the same beats and notes, sometimes at the same tempo, that without that introduction, I would never have believed it.

Much has been written about The Forever War, but it’s a science fiction novel about war in outer space against an unknown enemy. Haldeman writes about the effects time dilation at faster-than-light travel has on people, partly to illustrate how alien home life can be for real soldiers returning from their own tours. It’s no secret that The Forever War was Haldeman’s way of writing about his own experience in the Vietnam War, but even if much hadn’t been made of it already, readers would pick up on it easily.

The story is a little complicated, due to how it portrays some military habits, and how it portrays the main character, William Mandella. It was published in 1974, so it’s important to view some of the story as a product of its time, but it’s hard to tell if Haldeman is using satire to prove a point, or if he’s reflecting his own feelings on certain subjects. In one notable scene he casually mentions that the female soldiers in the war are required to be available for sex, and it’s hard to tell if it’s commentary or wish fulfillment. It comes across as sexist, but is it intended to? What’s the commentary, if there’s supposed to be any?

It’s also hard to tell what Haldeman is saying about homosexuality in the story. Mandella comes across as homophobic, though the story isn’t overtly so. It doesn’t speak out against it, but neither does it support it. The story presents it as a choice (in an overpopulated future, homosexuality is recommended as a form of birth control), and it also shows Mandella having a hard time accepting it of his own mother. Her story is also complicated, since at the time in the story when she takes a female companion, it’s not required to be homosexual. The government encourages it, but doesn’t offer any kind of incentive for choosing to be so. She’s presented as old enough not to worry about birth control, so why make that choice? It suggests that she was a closeted lesbian when Will was younger, and the changes in attitude allowed her to come out, but it’s not stated explicitly, when several other points Haldeman is making are clearer.

Mandella’s travel from one star system to another allows him to see these changes from day to day when in fact decades are passing outside of his time in battle. When Haldeman has him encounter gay troops for the first time, he presents them stereotypically effeminate, which is unfortunate. Later, the troops are presented without stereotypes, but his first thought when he takes command of his own all-gay platoon, his first thought is “They looked normal enough.” I think Haldeman is taking an inclusive approach to presenting homosexuality, but it feels more complicated because of how he portrays them through Mandella’s eyes.

Yes, a lot of the themes are satirical, and the views on sexuality should be viewed through that lens, as well as through that of the time they were written, but there’s a perspective of the author’s that bleeds through and feels wrong. It’s not just the symbolism of “the country changed so much while I was at war, and now I can’t cope”; it’s how Haldeman portrays it all that makes it feel like he doesn’t understand it at all.

I tracked down a copy of “A Separate War”, a novella Haldeman wrote in the 1990s to tell the story of Marygay, William’s lover and fellow soldier, who is separated from him when they’re given command of their own platoons. I can see readers wanting to know what happened driving the demand for the story, but I didn’t see that the novella added anything to the story to be necessary. The first several pages recap a lot of what we knew from The Forever War, and the battle that Marygay sees isn’t much different from what William sees. The only difference is that when Marygay is presented with an all-gay platoon, she dives into it herself, where William adamantly resists it. Near the end of The Forever War, one of the gay men in Mandella’s platoon decides to “go hetero” in the far future, since it’s apparently something that can be turned on and off. Again, I’m not sure if Haldeman is attempting to make a statement about sexuality here, but it’s unclear, and the stereotypes he uses further muddle the point.

I like the story, and I like the characters, but how I feel about a lot of the points Haldeman makes is complicated. I’d still recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it (especially to anyone who enjoys Robert Heinlein), but I’d be sure to offer caveats that some parts of the story feel dated. At the very least, the story encourages discussion, but it’s also a story that presents the futility of war through believable, sympathetic characters. It has a deserved reputation as a classic.

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Jedi Trial

July 22, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

trialJedi Trial by David Sherman and Dan Cragg


I’ve never heard of the authors of this book, despite their having written a popular series called Starfist. After reading the book, though, I can see why; this is a straight-up military novel, a genre for which I have little appreciation. I don’t understand much of the terminology, and the stories always seem to be more about tactics and lines of command than anything else. Jedi Trial follows that trend, and despite it featuring Anakin for a large part of the story, it just doesn’t do much for me.

The novel is set on the planet Praesitlyn, which is the location of the Republic’s intergalactic communication center. The center is the heart and brain of the Clone Wars, and when a faction take it over, it’s up to a couple of infantry factions –along with the help of Anakin and another Jedi and their clone troops — to take it back.

The characterization in this book is the weakest I’ve seen in the Expanded Universe so far. The authors capture the camaraderie of the troops, and focus attention on the importance of commanders being willing to do whatever they ask their troops to do (and, conversely, showing how poor a commander can be when he isn’t willing to do so), but individual characters are coarsely drawn. Even Anakin and Palpatine feel like shells, filled with the character traits that have been defined in the larger series. When sacrifices are made (this is war, so they’re definitely there), they feel shallow and meaningless, since we have no connection to the characters.

Also, the authors choose to have Anakin make a “sacrifice” near the end of the novel. We get the full impact of it — his loss, his fellow soldiers mourning and honoring him, etc. — but anyone reading the book knows that it’s false. Even though the book came out in 2004, a year before Revenge of the Sith, anyone familiar with, say, The Empire Strikes Back would know that Anakin wasn’t really dead. It felt like an odd insertion into the story, especially when the authors had brought in other characters who could just as easily have served as a sacrifice.

Interestingly, especially for a novel subtitled “A Clone Wars Novel”, very few clones are actually featured in the book. The authors seem to want to present a standard infantry, a mixture of personalities, races, and, at least in the case of Star Wars, species. It was out of place, especially for a story that, honestly, just doesn’t feel very significant.

I’ve always felt like military fiction is very conservative, and there were aspects of the story that reinforced that feeling. There’s a lot of masculinity thrown about, even among the handful of female troops, and at one point, the authors reinforce gender stereotypes between the male and female troops. The one main female troop in the story is capable, but by the end of the story, she seems to have been there just to serve as a love interest for a male trooper. It was disappointing, since I first saw the inclusion of female troopers as a progressive move on the authors’ parts. I don’t dislike military science fiction as a rule; John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War falls under that umbrella, but the series also has realized characters and meaningful moments.

The story is very no-nonsense, with the events continually leading the story forward, without much subtlety or nuance. It’s fast-paced (as it should be; the authors spend their time on plot instead of, say, character or theme), and it’s engaging enough, but it’s just not that interesting. It doesn’t help that when a character dies at the start of the third act, it reads more like a history lesson than an emotional scene. It happens to drive another character forward. Like I said, the story has little subtlety.

I can see fans of standard military fiction liking this book, but honestly, I don’t see those kinds of fans having much to do with Star WarsJedi Trial isn’t poorly written, but the story just isn’t that good; it doesn’t have much resonance at all. So far, it’s the strangest anomaly in the entire EU.

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