Welcome!

sleeping-cover-lr

Sleeping With Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy, a collection of my reviews and nonfiction, is being published by the good people at Aqueduct Press this summer.

If you’re looking for my columns for Tor.com, you’ll find them here. If you like my work, you can support me on Patreon here.

I now offer editorial services: you can find them here, or by clicking on the link in the header that says “Editing Services.”

WELLINGTON’S ENGINEERS: MILITARY ENGINEERING IN THE PENINSULAR WAR 1808-1814 by Mark S. Thompson

WELLINGTON’S ENGINEERS book cover.

 

Mark S. Thompson, Wellington’s Engineers: Military Engineering in the Peninsular War 1808-1814. Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley Yorks., 2015.

The Peninsular War refers to the campaigns in Portugal and Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. (The most prominent generals involved in this conflict were the English general Sir Arthur Wellesley — better known by his later title as Duke of Wellington — and the French Marshal-of-the-Empire Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult. The Spanish and Portuguese military personalities of this period have been less well-remembered by history.) I’ve been vaguely interested in this theatre of the Napoleonic Wars since my childhood fascination with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, and I’m always interested in historical logistics — the difficulties of transport, the technologies of moving large numbers of people and large amounts of material in a period before the invention of the internal-combustion engine and a modern road system — so I decided to give this book a shot.

Unfortunately, contrary to the implication of its subtitle — Military Engineering in the Peninsular WarWellington’s Engineers is far more concerned with the engineers themselves, their personalities, and their political conflicts among themselves and with the military leadership, than with the logistics and details of the engineering challenges which they faced in the course of their duties. That’s not to say that Thompson doesn’t talk about engineering. He does. But he talks about engineering in terms of who went where, and when they went, and what they built there, and how many guns were employed in the course of a siege, and why the sieges were lifted, rather than talking about actual engineering details. What’s involved in digging a trench in a 19th-century siege? What sort of thing is a Napoleonic redoubt or a gun battery? How do you set a mine, or blow up a bridge, or build and maintain a pontoon bridge? These things are sadly not covered in any detail, although Thompson does offer a brief appendix on pontoon bridges, and one on the education of the Royal Engineers in the British Army of the time.

I will confess to a little disappointment.

Wellington’s Engineers: Military Engineering in the Peninsular War 1808-1814 discusses the employment of Royal Engineers during the Peninsular War chronologically. It comprises nine chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion: seven of the chapters deal with one year of the war, while one chapter (chapter three) discusses the lines of Torres Vedras and the defence of Portugal in greater detail and the final chapter (chapter nine) takes the narrative of events from 1813 to 1814, out of the Iberian Peninsula, and into France itself. Thompson does a good job in general of keeping timelines straight and bringing documentary evidence clearly into the narrative, as well as letting the letters humanise the subjects of this history.

But. (You knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?) Thompson’s really not a great writer. His sentences are at times strained, his narrative has no energy or sense of personality (well, apart from a prosingly dull one), and he has no sense of pacing or tension. At times he confuses the right word for the almost right one, and he has very little interest in discussing anything thematically — or at least, thematically in such a way that I can tell there’s a theme. And the little tables he uses to illustrate siege timelines are annoyingly confusing.

If you have a particular interest in the Royal Engineers as individuals during the Peninsular War, or a timeline and discussion of what sort of engineering works took place, this is a decent book. If you’re interested in the relationships between senior engineers and the military leadership, then it’s actually quite good. If you want something that looks in detail at the technology and techniques of military engineering in this period, though?

This is not that book.

 


This post is brought to you courtesy of my excellent backers at Patreon. If you enjoy my work, please consider supporting me there.

DISHONORED 2: First Mission Reactions (A Long Day in Dunwall)

  

This is not a review. Well, not exactly.

I’ve had Dishonored 2 for a couple of months — more like four, actually — but I only recently cracked the box and loaded it up. I enjoyed Dishonored‘s worldbuilding, design, and (for the most part) storyline, and I’ve had a weakness for stealth-murder (or stealth-sneaky) games for a very long time.

My main issues with Dishonored were the lack of options with regard to the protagonist’s gender, and its lack of a realistic diversity (everyone was white) given that it took place in a port city.

Dishonored 2?

So far, Dishonored 2 is everything I loved about Dishonored with so very many fewer of the issues I had with it. I am DELIGHTED that one of the protagonist options is Emily Kaldwin, Empress of Dunwall — who apparently spends her limited time away from empress-ing learning the skills of stealth assassin-ing from Corvo Attano, her father and chief bodyguard. (Everybody needs a hobby.) Emily, alas, is not a very fortunate empress: fifteen years to the day after her mother’s assassination, a coup (backed by magic) unseats her from her throne. (At this point, you can choose to play as either Corvo or Emily — Corvo is BORING. Of course I went with Emily.)

With her father transformed into a statue and her friend the guard captain cut down in front of her, you-as-Emily must escape the palace, make your way across the city, and set out on a quest to identify and bring down your enemies. First, though, you need to make your way to the harbour, where there’s a ship whose captain might prove to be an ally…

This first mission is called “A Long Day in Dunwall,” and yes. It is. Especially if you’re trying to get the complete stealth and no-killing achievements. But it’s visually stunning, and Emily comes across, in those occasional moments when she has something to say, as a much more complex and snarkier character than Corvo ever seemed in the course of Dishonored. Creeping up behind soldiers from the shadows, I felt much more intensely invested in Emily’s inner world and her (understandable) desire for revenge. Traitors! I should just stab them.

Dunwall_in_Dishonored_2

But then you reach the harbour, where the ship Dreadful Wale [sic] awaits you. Its captain is one Meagan Foster, and I was… really pretty happy to see that the first ally you encounter is a black female ship captain with one arm. She seems like a badass. 

As far as I’m concerned, Dishonored 2 is already doing better on several fronts than its predecessor. It’s prettier! Its characters are more interesting, and have more character! And it’s much better at not being all about the men.

I’m looking forward to starting mission #2…


This post is brought to you courtesy of my excellent backers at Patreon. If you enjoy my work, please consider supporting me there.

Sleeps With Monsters: Wonder, Incident, and Family

A new post over at Tor.com:

The Adventure of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward is a brisk novella from Aqueduct Press’s “Conversation Pieces” line. It’s… I’m missing at least half of the references, because it draws deeply from the well of 19th and early 20th century speculative literature. In that much, it reminds me no small part of Penny Dreadful. It has the same gleeful delight in its own references, the same playfully gothic geekery.

Sleeps With Monsters: The Power of Community in HIDDEN FIGURES

A new post over at Tor.com:

Long after the rest of the world, I’ve finally managed to see Hidden Figures.

As a film, it deserves its accolades. Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Taraji P. Henson deliver extraordinarily powerful performances, ably framed by Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner. It follows some of the conventions of a biopic, but manages to marry biopic with the pacing of an action film for a smooth, elegant and taut narrative that combines to tell a triumphant story about science, courage, and perseverance. And it is beautifully shot.

SEVEN SURRENDERS by Ada Palmer

A new review over at Tor.com:

I called Ada Palmer’s debut Too Like The Lightning “devastatingly accomplished… an arch and playful narrative,” when I reviewed it last summer. Too Like The Lightning was one part of a whole, the first half of a narrative that I expected Seven Surrenders would complete—and back then I said I couldn’t imagine that Palmer would “fail to stick the dismount.”

Breakfast on an ill-omened morning: a text-based adventure

You discover the milk is dead only after you’ve made your porridge with it

– abandon the porridge with curdled milk

In the fridge, there is
a protein bar
cheddar cheese
apple juice.

– open the cheddar cheese

The cheddar cheese smells like feet. Two different colours of mold decorate its surface. Eat the cheddar cheese?

– no

In the fridge, there is
a protein bar
cheddar cheese
apple juice.

– open the apple juice.

The apple juice fizzes slightly as it opens. Drink the apple juice?

– yes

The apple juice is fizzy. The apple juice has become cider. The cider is tasty, but it is not a morning drink. Continue drinking the apple juice?

– no

In the fridge, there is

a protein bar
cheddar cheese
apple juice.

– open the protein bar.

It is a mint chocolate flavoured protein bar. There is nothing wrong with it, except that it is a protein bar. Eat the protein bar?

– yes

The protein bar is breakfast.

Sleeps With Monsters: Desert Planets and Biker Mercenaries

A new column over at Tor.com:

Friends, I bring you good news. Do you find your lives lacking in excitement? Does your reading lack outcast mercenary biker gangs led by one-eyed sorcerers, racing across the trackless deserts of a company-owned mining planet to stick it to The Man and make a profit? Do you feel that science fiction has an insufficiency of (a) weird planets and (b) trains and (c) witchy powers caused by exposure to weird planets? Do you think that science fiction needs more labour organising alongside its daring capers, prison/lab cell breakouts, explosions, subversive political activity, and people with strange powers?

THE DJINN FALLS IN LOVE, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

A new review over at Tor.com:

I really enjoyed this anthology. It is—here’s that word again—gorgeous. Its individual stories are mostly really good, and it has a strong sense of itself as a whole. This thematic coherence adds an extra element to the anthology as a whole: not just the individual stories, but their arrangement and relation to each other, have something to say.

Strange saints.

Everything I know about Saint Ijanel comes from Frances Weller’s 1978 book, Saint Ijanel: A Forgotten Holy Woman of Early Christianity. I think she’s kind of fascinating, so I want to share her with you.

 

The first mention of Saint Ijanel comes from a late sixth century ostracon from Edessa, shortly before the Muslim conquest. Her name in the Greek alphabet is rendered   Ιδζανηλη, and we find here didomai tei osioei Idzanelei, “I give to holy Ijanel” – but what’s given isn’t specified.

 

Ijanel’s name obviously derives from Armenian. It’s form of the Armenian verb to arise, and it seems possible that Ijanel the saint is a composite figure, around whom several stories — some plausible, some occurring in the lives of other saints — accreted over the course of time. While there are occasional mentions of Ijanel — in Greek as Aghia Idzanela or Izanele or Idzaneleia — as asides in other manuscripts, or once as a church in Armenian records, she is far from well known.

 

The earliest literary mention of Ijanel comes from a 9th century collection of sayings, the Apophthegmata of Armenian Saints. (Where we’re also informed in an aside that fragments from the spear of her martyrdom are miraculous relics, whose efficacy the author has seen with his own eyes.) By the 10th century it is clear her popularity is increasing, with an anonymous Greek hagiography, the Life of Saint Ijanel, in Byzantine circulation. This survives in substantial fragments, including an epitome translated into Arabic, and includes an invocation similar to the Irish litany of Saint Patrick:

 

“Holy Saint Ijanel, let me arise and go forth by day without hindrance. Holy Saint Ijanel, let me arise and go forth by night without fear. Let me rise up into battle with good courage. In peace, let me arise into wisdom and understanding. Let me rise up against tyranny with justice in my heart. Let me rise up in the morning. Let me rise up at noon. Let me rise up at the going-down of the sun. Holy Saint Ijanel, guard me and guide me until the last day, when all shall arise into glory.”

 

The author of this Life of Saint Ijanel mentions an “Emperor Constans” contemporary with Ijanel, but otherwise has — as far as can be told from the fragmentary text — very little concern with chronology. (And even this mention of Constans is not much help, since there were at least three emperors by that name.) In some ways, this hagiographical life is extremely subversive. Ijanel is – unusually for holy women – not a holy virgin, but a married woman who follows her husband to war, where she has a miraculous encounter with the angel Gabriel and receives a call to spread the gospel among the women “of the land of the unbelievers.”

 

The surviving text does not preserve what happened to her husband, but several stories — an encounter with an amorous nobleman in which Ijanel is miraculously saved when she calls on God and he “caused the land to rise up against him;” a village that Ijanel convinces to convert by miraculously causing a church to be raised overnight; another village where Ijanel is preserved from being burned alive because she calls on God to cause the waters of the nearby river to rise up, and they do; an encounter with a king who oppresses his people with heavy taxation in which Ijanel’s prayers cause “the stones of his chamber to rise up around him” — are preserved in entertaining detail. So too is a story of Ijanel healing a woman with broken legs, who got up and walked.

 

Confusingly, the Arabic manuscript epitome of the Life preserves a different account of her martyrdom to the Greek text. In the Greek text, Ijanel is faced with an unbelieving king who commands her death by impalement; in the Arabic epitome, she is — bizarrely — suspended by hooks from the walls of a city, but rescued by the apparition of an angel, who causes her to be bodily translated into heaven.

 

There also exists a short 12th-century Armenian Life, which includes elements of the Greek one, but returns to the spear mentioned in the Apophthegmata for Ijanel’s martyrdom. Or rather, spears: pierced clean through by one, she rises up and continues to engage in theological debate with the king who means to murder her. Pierced by a second, she gets up again and keeps talking. Only when she’s run through with a third spear does the king finally succeed in making her stop. The writer adds, in what may be a humorous aside playing on the Armenian derivation of Ijanel’s name, that those who wish to rise up (arise, get up, raise things up) should pray to Ijanel to aid them.

 

After the Turkish conquest of Byzantium, evidence for the continuing veneration of Ijanel disappears. Apart from one intriguing snippet, a footnote to her story: in 1773, a French traveller in Turkey, a doctor and naturalist by the name of Alexandre De La Boutière, recorded that he stayed in a small Christian village in Ottoman Armenia, where he was shown the relics of a saint in a gold-chased lead casket: the fingerbones of Saint Ijanel, which were said to have miraculous healing powers and also to move on the anniversary of her martyrdom, which De La Boutière said his hosts told him was the same as the Feast of the Dormition of Mary.

 

There you go.

THE SILK ROADS: A NEW HISTORY OF THE WORLD by Peter Frankopan

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.
(Bloomsbury, 2015, HC,  ISBN: 978-1408839973, 656pp.)
No one has leapt to offer suggestions for me to review this month. (Understandable: it’s February, and February is a grim month at the best of times.) So you’ll just have to put up with me taking a ramble through what interests me, and offering you a reaction to Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.
I’m calling this a reaction rather than a review, because I’ve stopped 180 pages into this 500+ giant hardcover brick in order to gather my thoughts about what I expected from The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, and what it turns out it actually provides.
The Silk Roads is a universal history, or at least is trying to be one. It begins with Achaemenid Persia and continues up to the most recent American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have not read this far: by page 180 Frankopan has just about dealt with the Frankish sack of Constantinople in the early 1200s CE and moved on to Genghis Khan. That means, of course, that fewer than 200 pages have been devoted to eighteen centuries of history, leaving more than 300 pages for the more recent eight.
From a history that references Central Asia with its title — “Silk Road” is a term coined by a 19th century German traveller and geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, and popularised by the Swedish explorer (and admirer of the Third Reich) Sven Hedin in a 1938 book — one expects a certain focus on Central Asia, a book that centres the sweep of the continent from Dunhuang and the Jade Gates to China in the east to the Dardanelles in the west. A book about the enduring influence of Merv and Samarkand, Bukhara and Balkh, Khiva and Karakorum, Baghdad and Beijing: the interchange between the Hellenistic kingdoms of Central Asia and the spread of Buddhism, the effect of Central Asian sciences and traditions on the early Islamic caliphate, and some history of the Tang Chinese and the development of China, and how Central Asia spoke to East Asia and South-East Asia.
You would, perhaps, expect a book that acknowledges that between late third/early fourth century CE and the sixteenth century CE (post-Columbus and de Gama, when Europe’s serious colonial imperialism began), Europe was a backwater. Essentially, in terms of major intellectual and political developments, there’s a millennium where Europe’s at best a poor, isolated, inward-looking country cousin — with the exception of Muslim Spain.
But instead of focusing on the history of the world as it might look from the point of view of, say, Merv or the ports of the Persian Gulf, The Silk Roads recapitulates a familiar (and familiarly Eurocentric) vision of history. Frankopan spends more paragraphs on early Christianity’s church councils than the entire context and history of Zoroastrianism, and more time on the life and conquests of Alexander than all of Tang China. The medieval crusading period is mostly dealt with from the perspective of Christian individuals — far fewer Islamic rulers and their responses to the conflicts of that period are spoken of than Christian ones.
It’s just… this is not a new history, okay guys, this is the same old history and not a particularly illuminating version. I read S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age From The Arab Conquest To Tamerlane last year, and I was deeply impressed by his command of Central Asian sources, his ability to draw connections, his explanatory early history of Central Asia, and the way in which, despite focusing on a limited period, he wrote a history of intellectuals and scientific development that was, because of the connections, truly global. Starr’s achievement shows up Frankopan’s shallow engagement with non-Eurocentric histories and contexts for at least the first eighteen centuries of his history.
Before I throw up my hands and expectorate invective for my conclusion, I’m going to quote a paragraph from this book that added insult to injury — or perhaps injury on top of insult on top of insult, I’m not quite sure.
This is the second paragraph of the first page of the chapter entitled “The Slave Road.”
“The Rus’ were careful with their prisoners: ‘they treat the slaves well and dress them suitably, because for them they are an article of trade,’ noted one contemporary. Slaves were transported along the river systems — remaining chained while the rapids were negotiated. Beautiful women were particularly highly prized, sold on to merchants in Khazaria and Volga Bulgaria who would then take them further south – though not before their captors had sexual intercourse with them one last time.” (Frankopan, 2015, 117.)
And then he just — moves on, without contextualising any of this from a social history point of view, to talking about slavery as vital to Viking and Rus’ economies. No comment on what “treat[ing] the slaves well” might mean to the slaves themselves, no pointing out that transporting people in chains while negotiating rapids might not actually be treating them all that well, and no acknowledgement that having sexual intercourse with enslaved women is rape. You can say rape in a history book, Peter Frankopan! (And you can stop pretending that slaughtering the inhabitants of cities is just good business sense for conquerors, while you’re at it.) (And you can rephrase that whole paragraph to something less full of slavery apologia and rape culture assumptions, as well.)
So, basically. My reaction to these 180 pages is one part WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST READ to three parts WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU BORING ME WITH THIS BULLSHIT.
Disrecommend.
This post brought to you by the support of my backers at Patreon. If you enjoy my work, you too can support it here!

THE NUNS OF SANT’AMBROGIO: THE TRUE STORY OF A CONVENT SCANDAL by Hubert Wolf

Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent Scandal. Vintage, 2015. Translated from the German by Ruth Martin.

I first heard of this book via Lady Business, where it was spoken of in very complimentary terms. I can confirm that it is extremely solid history writing, clear and thorough and immensely readable: the kind of history where you keep reading in order to find out just what happened next.

Wolf deals with a particular convent scandal, one that took place in the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome and was investigated as a result of a complaint made by the German Catholic Princess Katarina von Hohenzollern to the Holy Office for the Doctrine of the Faith (the office of the Inquisition). Katarina had entered the convent as a postulant and then a novice (after two marriages and a previous unsuccessful attempt to become a nun in a different convent) and came to believe that she was being poisoned by the sisters of Sant’Ambrogio, as a result of her opposition to certain practices she believed were entirely improper.

Wolf draws on several archival sources, including the Inquisition’s own files and the testimony of the witnesses and defendants in the case, to illuminate the life of the Hohenzollern princess, the convent, the other nuns, Church politics, and the case itself. False saints, poisonings, political manoeuvring in the Jesuit order, the curia, and the papacy, Solicitatio by priests in confession, sexual assault of novices, female sodomy: this is history mixed with true crime, and Wolf lays it all out in fascinating detail.

Including a good deal of detail on how the Inquisition actually investigated the charges laid before it, which is fascinating in its own right.

THE SNIPER’S KISS by Justine Saracen

Justine Saracen, The Sniper’s Kiss. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

A romance novel involving women who love women set during WWII. A Russian-speaking American clerk in the Lend-Lease programme and a Russian soldier, later a sniper, encounter each other first during international meetings about the Lend-Lease programme. Later, the American clerk gets into trouble investigating corruption on the Russian end of the Lend-Lease problem and ends up at the front, where she disguises herself as a dead Russian sniper and partners with the live Russian sniper. Saracen has done her research: the WWII setting feels believable. The characters are reasonably well-rounded, the relationships make sense in context, and the writing is better than tolerable. As F/F romances go, it’s definitely in the top 10%, particularly for historical ones.

(I always feel sad judging F/F on these particular merits. But in any given month where I look at six or eight F/F books from Netgalley and at best only half of them are even readable, they are certainly the merits.)

Crusader Kings II: Queen of Oman

I recently started a new game of CRUSADER KINGS II, and since I’ve been enjoying Django Wexler’s write-up of his, I thought I’d do my own.

But unlike Django, I’m a cheating cheater who cheats.

Meet Karima Jamalid, a Levantine Karaite Shaykhah in the lower Arabian peninsula. There are no Levantine Karaites in the Arabian peninsula, you say! I say, I CHEATED.

203770_20170208202914_1

Thanks to the Ruler Designer Unlocked mod, Karima is a Strong Genius, Brawny and Shrewd, a Sayyid, poet gardener scholar mystic and so on, the healthiest woman on earth and so fertile that she only has to look at a man to fall pregnant.

Case in point: Shaykhah Karima of Dhofar produced a daughter almost exactly nine months after her first marriage:

203770_20170208204956_1

I also cheated my way into 50000 troops and a few thousand bits of gold. Just to get Karima started.

Karima is a vassal of the Azd Umanid Emirate, so her first cunning plan is to start a faction to weaken her liege’s power.

203770_20170208205055_1

Our second daughter is a genius. That’s useful!

203770_20170208213948_1

A bout of Slow Fever shortly after her second daughter’s birth results in Karima’s court physician cutting out her eye. It works! Cure! Now she’s one-eyed and badass… and still very fertile.

Several years pass. Karima forges a claim on Jask, on the other side of the Persian Gulf, and adds it to her desmesne. She has many children by many different fathers – some of whom she even married.

203770_20170208233607_1

Karima eventually declares independence, and after her former liege dies, claims another county, this time on the very tip of the Arabian peninsula.

203770_20170209000905_1

She gives Jask to her eldest daughter’s husband, and institutes elective monarchy, nominating her genius daughter Nastaran as her heir. A claim on Berbera and two quick Holy Wars later, Emira Karima is sitting pretty on a pretty piece of real estate.

203770_20170209021757_1

It’s stressful being a ruler. Next step, conquer the Arwadids and swear fealty to Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid caliph, to stop him gobbling us up…