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.

 


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VISITOR by C.J. Cherryh

A new review up at Tor.com!


So, I have started a new job. I will not be telling you anything about it, except that it is my first ever proper office job, and working office hours is going to be a… difficult transition, let’s say. I expect to be rather scarce in these parts until I acclimate to Mornings and Being Awake All Day again. (I haven’t done this kind of thing five days a week since I was in school. That’s a decade ago.)

THE MASKED CITY by Genevieve Cogman

The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

ISBN 978-1-4472-5625-0, Tor UK, MMPB, 358pp, UK£7.99. November 2015.

 

The Masked City is the sequel to Genevieve Cogman’s well-received debut The Invisible Library. It is not High Literature.

 High Literature was never this fun.

 Gonzo. Bonkers. Batshit. These are the words that immediately leap to mind when contemplating The Masked City. It’s incredibly, unapologetically pulp: so valiantly determined to have fun, commit property damage, and trade witty banter while engaging in high-stakes peril on the top of, for example, moving magical trains, that it’s impossible not to be utterly charmed by its sheer energy, by its delight in digging out all the genre tropes and the kitchen sink too, and mashing them up together in a delicious stew —

Mmm, stew. My metaphor might have got away from me there. Where was I? Right. The Masked City.

 Irene is a Librarian, an employee of an interdimensional Library. The Library. The Library helps stabilise the multiverse. (Being a library, it does so through collecting books. Or, at least, the Librarians collect books for it.) Across the multiverse, alternate Earths can have magic or technology, or both, or neither: they can be high in order (dragons prefer order) or high in chaos (spread by Fae), or somewhere in between. After the events of The Invisible Library, Irene found herself the Resident Librarian in the Victorianesque London of just such an in-between world, with Kai, a youthful dragon-in-human-form, for an apprentice, a friend in Vale — a Sherlock Holmesian Great Detective — and an occasional adversary in the form of Lord Silver, the most powerful of the local Fae.

 But there are factions and plots afoot. Kai is kidnapped — and it’s quite difficult to kidnap even a young dragon — and Irene’s investigation of how (and by whom, and where they’ve taken him) keeps getting interrupted by someone else’s werewolf thugs. It soon becomes clear that this is a plot by Lord Guantes, an old arch-rival of Lord Silver, and his Lady. They’ve taken Kai to a high-chaos world and intend to auction him off to other powerful Fae, in an attempt to start a war between the dragons and the Fae, and raise themselves up the ranks to Most Powerful in the tumult.

 Irene’s going to get Kai back. If she can. Without orders — or permission — from her superiors in the Library. With Lord Silver — unreliable at the best of times — as her only ally, she has to infiltrate a high-chaos world and rescue Kai from an all-but-impenetrable prison, all the while avoiding the attention of Lord Guantes and the Fae rulers of this alternate.

 And that may be harder than it seems. Because Fae are creatures of story, and in the higher chaos worlds that are the natural habitat of the more powerful of their kind, coincidence warps to form narrative patterns. Is Irene the hero of her own story, the comic relief in another, or the villain in Lord Guantes’ play? In a 1700s-esque Venice where it’s always Carnival and never Lent, where masked black-clad agents of the Council of Ten haunt every shadow, Irene has to be on top of her game if she’s going to escape with her skin, and Kai’s, intact.

 There is so much to like here. The madcap pace of Irene’s rush from caper to caper! The group of young and ambitious Fae she falls in with while undercover, all of whom with complaints about their own patrons and their own ideas about their roles in the unfolding dramas! Arguments about Fae etiquette, which is batshit and hilarious. Zayanna, whom Irene gets drunk as a distraction and who keeps lamenting the fact that she never gets to seduce any heroes — and then makes Irene promise to let her try to seduce her, later. The way in which Cogman has such obvious affection for so much genre furniture, but not so much affection that it gets in the way of breaking convention when that would be more fun.

 The Masked City has a great and pleasing energy. It’s one of the most purely entertaining novels I’ve read this year. I can’t think about it without grinning. It made me very happy, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants a really fun batshit pulpy fantastic ride.

 Good book. A+. Would book again. The world needs more like it.

 


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Books in brief: more books I didn’t finish

Melinda Snodgrass, The Edge of Reason. Tor, 2014. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

I wanted to read this — and its two sequels, The Edge of Ruin and The Edge of Dawn — for Sleeps With Monsters. The prose is strong, the characterisation interesting (one of the main characters is a bisexual cop)… and halfway through I realised I had absolutely no tolerance for the worldbuilding. It turns out I have as little patience for “all religion is a front for the forces of evil!” as I have for “atheism is a tool of the devil!”

It sort of sticks in my teeth.

Alex Marshall, A Crown for Cold Silver. Orbit, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

I wanted to like this. I know a bunch of people who really enjoyed it. But I appear to have something of an ongoing argument with epic fantasy — I appear to need it not be grim, or to not have very many POV characters in order to enjoy it. I got to about page 100. And then I had to admit to myself that I couldn’t give a shit what happened to anyone mentioned in the text: I either sincerely disliked them, found them tedious, or both.

Like Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, I think this will be a good book — even an important one — for people who aren’t me. But at least this year, it’s really not my cup of tea.

C.T. Adams’ THE EXILE (Patreon Review)

The Exile by C.T. Adams Tor US, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

C.T. Adams is one-half of prolific urban-fantasy duo C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, who have also written in tandem as Cat Adams. The Exile is, apparently, C.T. Adams’ first solo novel, and an oddball of a novel it is: it opens looking like a fairly straight variant of urban fantasy, and gradually takes on more of the shape of a portal fantasy. The world on the other side of the portal is called “Faerie,” and — let’s be honest — it’s a spot on the bland and generic side.

Brianna Hai is a moderately successful shopowner in a North American city. She sells curios, magical and otherwise, with the assistance of her employee and friend David. She’s also the daughter of King Leu of Faerie and his late human lover. Brianna’s mother was exiled from Faerie for sealing the veil between the human and fae worlds so that the natives of Faerie can only cross with the help of a human. Brianna has no intentions of returning to her father’s court, where most of her siblings and half the court nobility would be happy to see her dead. But unbeknownst to her, there are forces mobilising in Faerie and the human world against her father, and King Leu has received a prophecy concerning his impending death. When enemies from Faerie raid Brianna’s apartment, she — accompanied by her friend and protector Pug, a gargoyle; David; and David’s cop brother Nick, who has only just learned of the existence of magic — pursues them back to her father’s realm, and ends up right in the middle of a court full of traitors and people who see her human friends as potential toys.

And in conclusion, all hell breaks loose and Faerie goes to war. The Exile is, it seems, only the first novel of a series.

If you don’t mind a certain amount of narrative carelessness, a multiplicity of point-of-view characters to a degree more usually seen in 700-page epic fantasies than in 320-page not-quite-urban-fantasies, and a jarring spot of racism/narrative validation of police violence, The Exile is an undemandingly readable piece of fiction. But should we settle for “undemandingly readable”? I cannot muster more enthusiasm: while the characterisation does succeed in reaching beyond mere bland types, the ways in which the narrative fails to take advantage of its potential undermines my enjoyment to no small extent. The reader has no sense of the conflict and the stakes for which the factions in Faerie are competing until too late — and how closely this conflict will affect Brianna likewise remains opaque until very late. And how this Faerie-driven conflict fits in with the potential threats to Brianna in the human world is hinted at, but never made clear. Nick comes into contact with her because his bosses suspect her of being the mastermind of some unspecified criminal enterprise, but this plot thread is dropped, only to be dragged back up again at the close of play, when Brianna’s position has undergone sufficient change of state that one imagines criminal charges will be the least of her worries.

As for Nick himself… well, what is the point of Nick? He’s one of the (many) point-of-view characters, and seems to be being set up as a romantic interest for Brianna. He’s the good cop who kills a black fourteen-year-old in a justified shooting,* and Exposition Man who needs all of Faerie explained to him. Nick is a combination of boring and annoying.

The more I think about The Exile, it strikes me, the less I like it. It can’t quite make up its mind what kind of book it wants to be — and for all its numerous point of view characters, it gives no space at all to the antagonists who become vitally important in the final 80 pages. The reader never sees who they really are or what they really want, and in consequence they’re a blank space filled up with cliché evil. They have no motivations beyond evil and ambition — none, at least, that the reader is permitted to see.

That’s a pity, because I wanted to be able to recommend this book. But I can’t.

*In a gratuitous section of the novel — what does that even add to the narrative except racism and police violence?


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For those interested in accounting and full disclosure, what follows is a summary of Patreon support and income to date.

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Books in brief: King, Balogh, Lindsey, Asaro, Merciel, Zettel, Simone, Clulow, and Herrin

Laurie R. King, To Play The Fool and With Child. Picador, 2014 editions.

The second and third installment in King’s Kate Martinelli series. The interesting thing about these novels, I realised as I read her standalone books – discussed next paragraph – is how much more King is interested in character, in suffering, in relationships, than she is in the intellectual puzzle of whodunnit. Crime might be the frame, but it’s not the focus. Which makes these novels fairly powerful examinations of emotions and relationships and characters.

Laurie R. King, A Darker Place, Folly, and Keeping Watch. Various publishers, various years.

These are King’s standalone contemporary novels – though Folly and Keeping Watch are loosely connected – and it’s here where I noticed her concern with character rather than mystery most strongly. A Darker Place ends on an unfinished note, but it’s a study of one woman’s guilt and obsessions and drive, a drive that leads her into danger again and again; Folly is concerned with one woman’s struggle to rebuild her self and her life while struggling with a heavy burden of grief and mental illness – she’s a mother, a grandmother, an artist: her sickness places heavy burdens upon her relationships but doesn’t, ultimately, define her – while Keeping Watch is about how one man’s experiences in Vietnam (and his addiction to adrenaline) shaped his entire life. They are brilliant, fascinating novels, and well worth reading.

Mary Balogh, One Night For Love, A Summer To Remember, The Proposal, The Escape, and The Arrangement. Ebooks.

Formulaic historical romance. Diverting, but not really engrossing. Did not hit nearly enough of my narrative kinks.

Catherine Asaro, Undercity. Baen, 2014. Review ecopy courtesy of the publisher.

Read for review for Tor.com. My strongest feeling about this book is “meh.” It’s good enough, it does what it sets out to do, but it’s not stylish or innovative or particularly gripping. It has not enough flare and joie de vivre. I found it hard to say much about it in my review.

Sarah Zettel, Palace of Spies. Harcourt Brace & Co., 2013.

Read for inclusion in SWM column. An excellent and intelligent YA novel. Much recommended.

Liane Merciel, Dragon Age: Last Flight. Tor, 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

By far the best written of the Dragon Age tie-ins to date: it manages to tell a full and complete story without feeling like someone’s write-up of their roleplaying campaign, and does it smoothly. Interesting characters, solid BOOM. Would read more in this setting by this author.

Gail Simone et al, Legends of Red Sonja. Dynamite, 2014.

I said of Gail Simone’s first Red Sonja volume that it reminded me in the best possible way of Xena: Warrior Princess. Legends, a compilation collecting efforts from Simone and a variety of other authors, including Kelly Sue DeConnick, Tamora Pierce, and Marjorie M. Liu, feels very much like it too – without Xena’s levels of whimsical ridiculousness, but still. I really enjoyed this, and recommend it very much.

Erin Lindsey, The Bloodbound. Ace, 2014.

Red for inclusion in SWM column. Meh. Tone and concerns remind me a little of Mercedes Lackey or Tamora Pierce, though without their particular brand of… didactic feminism is not quite the term I need, but it may be close. Armies, threats to nations, heroine bodyguarding king. Briefly diverting, but not exactly compellingly great.

nonfiction

Adam Clulow, The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter With Tokugawa Japan. Columbia University Press, 2014.

A fascinating and immensely readable account of how the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) was stymied in its attempts to treat the Tokugawa Bakufu like the other nations and kingdoms the VOC succeeded in dominating in South East Asia. The VOC ended up, in fact, using the rhetoric of a vassal of the shogun, and being called upon to perform the duties of a vassal. It’s far from my period, but it feels like solid research – although I’d have preferred more emphasis on how the Japanese conceived of the Dutch.

Judith Herrin, Margins and Metropolis: Authority Across The Byzantine Empire. Princeton University Press, 2013.

A collection of essays on various aspects of Byzantine authority from across Herrin’s long career. Interesting stuff.

Anthony Riches’ Empire series: Sexist narrative patterns

Anthony Riches, Wounds of Honour, Arrows of Fury, Fortress of Spears, The Leopard Sword, The Wolf’s Gold and The Eagle’s Vengeance.

Discussion of narrative pattern of sexual violence follows.

Feeling low and brainless, I read through all of these in a single night and day. They are, to use a term of art vouchsafed to me, “Roman bollocks,” set during the reign of Commodus, the son and successor of Marcus Aurelius (the Commodus of whom Dio gives us such a lovely picture beheading ostriches in the arena). A young Roman man of good family takes service with an auxiliary cohort in Britain under an assumed name because his family has been condemned for treason, rapidly becomes a centurion, hack slash march curse shield-bash male homosociality. Details of military equipment and the political landscape are well-researched; details of the Roman social world and the Roman mindset, rather less so: Riches has imported the mindset of a more gleefully brutal modern infantry regiment into Roman clothing. (Hack, slash, march, curse, march.)

An interesting pattern emerges over the course of six books. Riches has chosen to deal with a primarily masculine world, that of the Roman army on campaign, but in Wounds of Honour he introduces Felicia, a Roman married woman of good family with medical training who will be the Only Notable Named Woman for three books. (And one of Damn Few for the next three.) Not only does Felicia take up with a centurion after her first husband dies, she doesn’t even bring a female servant with her, or acquire one. Most of her time on screen is spent being menaced by rape, only to be rescued at the last moment – at least once, and sometimes more often, in each book.

In book four, The Leopard Sword, Riches introduces a second notable named woman, Annia. Guess her profession. Go on. I’ll wait.

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Patricia Briggs, NIGHT BROKEN

Reviewed over at Tor.com. I’m late linking to it. Again.

Night Broken is the eighth instalment in Patricia Briggs’ popular Mercy Thompson urban fantasy series, after 2013’s Frost Burned. Readers familiar with Briggs’ series already know whether or not they are interested in reading this one: it follows faithfully in the footsteps of its predecessors, delivering a tidy urban fantasy adventure featuring the regular cast.