The Thin Red Line in Hindsight

The Thin Red Line by Julian Spilsbury

The Thin Red Line by Julian Spilsbury is an excellent account of the Crimean War from the British point of view, but it is far from a ‘decisive account’ as some reviewers like to call it.  The book draws from letters and personal accounts of a number of British soldiers, sailors, and officers to tell the story of the Crimean War through the eyes of those who fought it, and Spilsbury does a masterful job of weaving these accounts together into a coherent narrative and filling in the gaps – This book is very well written, and is one of those books that are simply a pleasure to read.

The book opens with a quote from Tsar Nicholas I to the British ambassador in 1853, concerning the ‘Eastern question’ – ‘We have on our hands a sick man’ says the Tsar, ‘A very sick man; it will be a great misfortune if one of these days he should slip away from us, especially before all the necessary arrangements are made.’ – The ‘sick man’ is of course the Ottoman Empire, and the Thin Red Line follows what is essentially the beginning of that ‘great misfortune.’  We start by seeing an Army hastily pulled together out of British Mediterranean and Home Garrisons – This army, poorly organized, under-supplied in everywhere it matters and plagued by bad luck, will be the British force in the Crimea. Although the soldiers sail out of England in great cheer and spirits, which they maintain through the war in face of great military blunders, a Russian winter, and constant under-supply in the typically British stiff-upper-lip fashion, they encounter their first bout of bad luck almost as soon as they disembark in Turkey, with fierce bouts of Cholera thinning their ranks while the army sits stagnant in indecision. We then follow the allied landing at the aptly named ‘Calamita bay’ (Literally Calamity bay – The British army, at the time, was exceptionally genre blind), and their march south along the Black Sea coast towards Sebastopol.

Then comes the first of the British battles of the Crimean war, the Alma (Not to be confused with the Alamo!) – And this is where The Thin Red Line really shines. Spilsbury draws accounts of the battle from almost every regiment and goes to great lengths to give a clear picture from all viewpoints – That of the rank-and-file British soldier marching in line, through the officers that lead their regiments, to Lord Raglan himself, and his seemingly indifferent coolness under fire. It is a truly brilliant account of the battle, a standard Spilsbury maintains and surpasses with each battlefield account in the book.  Later, we are to read about the battle of Balaklava and the two most iconic actions of the war – ‘The Thin Red Line’, where a regiment of Scottish Highlanders face a Cossack cavalry charge in two-deep formation, and rout them under a hail of shot; and the ill-fated ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ where British cavalry charge through the North Valley on a misunderstood, vague order, and into a crossfire between three Russian artillery positions and all its supporting infantry. We are also treated to an excellent account of the battle of Inkerman, where the Russian army attempts to break the allied siege by threatening it’s supply from the coast, and of course a horrific account of final assault on Sebastopol that decides the outcome of the war.

I can find only one complaint with this book, and that is how narrow its scope is.  First of all, it is very anglocentric; Spilsbury has found excellent accounts to draw on, no doubt, but they are all British in origin and this creates a very lopsided account of the war. I should have liked to read about the French in their battles, or read accounts from the Russians concerning the defense of Sebastopol and the conditions behind its walls (Though I suppose I have Tolstoy’s Sebastopol sketches for that!), Or even Turkish accounts of the first and last battles of the war. Spilsbury was quick to explain French, Russian and Turkish action where it influenced the British, but where it does not they are given only a passing sentence or reference.  We read about the failed British assault on the Great Redan, with all its horrors, but the first we read of the French assault on the Malakoff is a British soldier noting the tricolore flying above it. We read of the British sentries on Mt. Inkermann, but where are the Russian accounts? Much is made of the Minié Rifles, a new weapon issued to the British that lends them a decisive edge against the Russians, but what do Russian soldiers and officers have to say about charging in their columns against the hailstorm of shot that is a British Minié Line?

The book also has a very strong focus on the combats of the Crimean War –  Spilsbury follows the Alma, Balaklava, Inkerman and the siege bombardments and assaults in great depth, drawing from the accounts of Soldiers across the battlefield through different regiments and ranks.  It is very interesting to read through the battles, and we are witness to some Heroic and seemingly superhuman deeds. However, beyond battles this account is found to be lacking. Spilsbury only touches briefly on the logistical and Medical problems faced by the British army. He looks briefly at the effects of the Russian winter and Cholera outbreaks on the men, but I can’t help but feel his account of all this would do better with more detail and discussion. Florence Nightingale, arguably the most famous name of the Crimean War, is mentioned only once or twice in passing – while she is responsible for revolutionizing the British medical service and giving birth to the Medical staff corps. To his credit, Spilsbury does acknowledge this nearer to the end of the book in a discussion on the aftermath of the war, but I would have liked to read more of Nightingale’s struggle and efforts, as well as a number of other aspects of the war not discussed in depth here.

Overall, the Thin Red Line is an excellent book – though I feel its subtitle should be altered slightly to read; ‘An Eyewitness History of British Combats in the Crimean War.’ I found this book while exploring a military hobby store one afternoon, and am very glad of my purchase – It is superbly written, and contains brilliant insight into the British military actions of the war.  It comes from me highly recommended to anyone interested in military history – But: Someone interested in the politics of the war; the Medical or Logistic side of the war; or the war from the Russian, French or Turkish perspective, would do better to look somewhere else for a more fitting account. Nonetheless; What the Thin Red Line does, it does extraordinarily well.

The Thin Red Line – Robert Gibb, 1881

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The Rise of the Iron Moon in Hindsight

Cover art Via Goodreads.com

I think The Rise of the Iron Moon by Stephen Hunt was intended to be a sci-fi pulp adventure novel, but for the first half of book I had no real idea what was going on and by the time it became clear it was nothing more than cliches, dues ex machina and technobabble.  I found myself wanting to finish it as fast as possible – not because I was enjoying it, but because I wanted to read something else.

According to the rear cover of the book, the story follows Purity Drake – last of her royal bloodline – who finds herself on the run after accidentally escaping a parliamentary prison.  She becomes embroiled in a war between the Kingdom of Jackals and the mysterious ‘Army of Shadows.’ By ‘embroiled’ I , of course, mean she becomes a side character with no meaningful dialogue or character development until half way through where she becomes a Dues ex machina dispenser with no meaningful dialogue or character development.

I must admit it started interestingly enough with Purity’s escape, but I couldn’t help but feel cheated when all the excitement and set up of the first chapter was quickly washed away and ignored.  You’d think a highly prized political prisoner killing a guard and escaping would have some kind of reaction from the powers that be, but apparently Purity changing her clothes was enough to throw her enemies off her scent so none of it ever needed be mentioned again.

After series choppy and dissatisfying character introductions that can only be described as a ‘Maelstrom’ , the story begins to settle and decides to follow Molly Templar, an author of ‘Celestial fiction’ and her friends Commodore Black and Coppertracks. (Coppertracks, a robot, is ironically the most developed and interesting character in the book.) We follow Molly as she attempts to stop the destruction of her world by sailing across the celestial voids to the Army of Shadows home world in  search for the ultimate weapon that will allow them to crawl from the war victorious.

Meanwhile, back on earth, Purity Drake discovers she has some dialogue and, also, has the power to ‘rewrite the equations of matter’ with her Dues ex machina sword the ‘maths-blade’ and a convoluted technobabble explanation about how everything is a ‘mathematical construct’ and that Purity can bend reality by ‘rewriting the equations that underlay the world’ as if they lived in the matrix.  With her new Dues ex machina, Purity decides to take the fight to the enemy.

So our heroines advance towards their respective goals and play out their individual plans, and finally come face –to-face with the main antagonists who claim to be the ‘ultimate form of human evolution.’ Then there is some exposition about Evolution that reads like it was written by the Creationist propaganda department, and some plot reveals about time travel that create far more paradoxes and questions than it answers.

The writing itself was more often confusing than not, and I remember having to re-read passages numerous times to understand what was going. I’m also sure I spotted dialogue that had the wrong names attached, but there is no real way to be sure. The book was filled with technobabble and psudoscience to the point where it was downright annoying – Don’t get me wrong, I never fault a book for failing to explain things scientifically. I read Fantasy, after all – but if scientific words and concepts are going to be used they should be employed properly.

Overall, The Rise of the Iron Moon is a mess of a book. The Plot is convoluted and confusing at worst, bland and clichéd at best. The writing is no better, filled with run-on sentences and confusing metaphors. Next time someone tells me Self-published books are all bad because there is no quality control, I’m going to have them read this.

1Q84 In Hindsight

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1984 by George Orwell is one of my all-time favorite books.

That’s why when I saw the title ‘1Q84’ while browsing the book store I was more than a little interested. 1Q84 is a novel by famous Japanese Author Haruki Murakami and “as the title suggests, a mind-bending ode to George Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four. (The number 9 in Japanese is pronounced like the letter Q)”

Imagine my disappointment, then, when 1Q84 had absolutely nothing to do with Orwell or 1984, besides a few throwaway references. Heck, my own novel has more in common with 1984 – both heavily feature the theme of propaganda.

But despite my disappointment in this regard (I was hoping for a 1984-in-tokyo – We were always at war with Oceana.) I guess I can’t really fault the book for that; it might have still been interesting despite its misleading title and blurb.  Might have been.

I was not aware so little could happen in 300 pages. In total, 1Q84 is a monolithic 900 pages, split into three books – I have only read the first one. The story (if you can call it that) follows Aomame, an assassin who hunts down and kills wife-beaters and child-rapists with a modified ice pick so small it leaves no trace of the murder. Or, that’s what we are told – In the 308 pages of book 1, only once does Aomame do anything remotely interesting. In the second chapter she sneaks into a hotel dressed as a member of staff come to check the air conditioner – There, she assassinates a businessman. This was early in the book, and mislead me into thinking there was an interesting plot, but the rest of the chapters about on Aomame focus on either her history ( which is told and re-told, without even adding more detail the second, third and fourth time) or her sex life. Murakami goes into great detail about Aomame’s preference in men – middle aged, balding and slightly plump (by coincidence, I’m sure, that’s what Murakami himself looks like) – and we Follow Aomame and her young friend, Ayumi, though the nightlife of Tokyo as they search for sex partners and have ‘rumpus sex feasts.’

But 1Q84 is about two characters, their story told though alternating chapters. The Second one is only slightly more interesting. Tengo is middle-aged writer living alone and working on his first novel when he becomes involved in a literary conspiracy. He is approached by his editor and asked to re-write a remarkable novel written by a 17 year old girl (Who has a nicely shaped chest, which is mentioned so much you’d think it was important). The core story of this 17-year-olf girl’s novel is brilliant, or so we are told, but the writing style is horrendous. All Tengo has to do is re-write it so it can win a contest and be sold. After some (a few chapters) debate Tengo accepts and is soon stuck elbow-deep in the conspiracy with his editor and Fuka-Eri, the 17-year-old dyslexic writer of ‘Air Chrysalis” (with a nicely shaped chest.) Oh, before I forget (I can’t forget, it’s featured every second chapter) we also read about Tengo’s sex life, and how his ‘older girlfriend’ gets very jealous.

None of this is to say 1Q84 is an Erotic novel – it’s not. While we read a lot about the characters sex lives any of the actual sex is left unexplained or IKEA Erotica. It’s just that Murakami has some determination to explain anything and everything as long it has no direct relevance to the plot (and if it does, it is skimmed over as quickly as possible). I know what kind of Pajamas Tengo wears (and what they smell like after Fuka-Eri has been wearing them,) and I know the finer details of Aomame’s diet and how she stays healthy and avoids constipation. I know about the Gilyaks, the natives of a small Russian island who don’t walk on roads. I know this because Tengo spends a chapter reading to Fuka-eri about them, while she sleeps in his bed in his pajamas, while her nicely shaped chest is mentioned every paragraph. It is exactly as creepy as it sounds. Despite never having heard the thing, I know more about Janacek’s Sinfonietta then a classical music professor.  1Q84 reads like an attempt to break free from writers block, where the writer just gushes anything and everything from their mind with no real plot, point or purpose above ‘writing something.’ I think most writers have done it when they are feeling a little writers block, but it’s not usually published.

Despite all this criticism, 1Q84 has some interesting things in it. There is a communist revolutionary organization lurking in the shadows; A religious cult with more secrecy than North Korea; the (very drawn out) promise that Aomame may undertake another assassination (when she gets out of the clubbing scene, it could be a few hundred pages yet,) some magical ‘Little people’ who are apparently very wise and remain mostly hidden, and a joint US/USSR project to build a functioning base on the moon, not to mention the fact there are two moons. But I do suspect those last two were thrown in just to prove to the reader the book isn’t set in the real 1984, and Murakami probably has no intention of following them through. But then, it doesn’t appear Murakami has any intention of following anything though in this novel.  I must admit, I am a little intrigued to find out more about the revolutionary organization and the cult, but I’m not willing to wade through another 600 pages of Murakami delving into excruciating detail about everything that comes to mind and the sex lives of his characters. I think I’ll give the Wikipedia page a whirl. Or maybe I’ll just go read 1984 again – At least the fact Julia and Winston had a sex life meant something.


In Bleed Country In Hindsight

The first time I picked up In Bleed Country, I had no idea what to expect.  I have never really been ‘into’ horror novels – My first and last attempt at one was Clive Barker’s ‘The Hellbound Heart’ at the age of 8, and while that was an … interesting experience, the genre never grew on me. ( I wonder if I still have that book around, actually…) But none the less, after meeting Brian at Legendfire I decided I’d take a look at his work. I was originally going to get ‘Petty Like a God,’ but he recommended I read his latest novel ‘In Bleed Country.’

And I’m glad he did.

In Bleed Country is one of the more memorable books I read last year (and, Perhaps, ever) especially due to its villainous side. The villains are simply wonderful. Excuse me for a minute while I rant on this, but I don’t think I have ever encountered villains as fun and enjoyable to read about as the Armada Of Sensation. Not only are they a well written, complex bunch of characters who change as and grow as the story progresses, but they are a pure joy to read about. I wish more of the book was in their POV, and I found myself grinning throughout their scenes and hoping for  more whenever the protagonists took the spotlight. Honestly, they are absolutely everything an antagonist should be.

That’s not to say the protagonists were lacking at all – Reality is quite the opposite. Brian has a talent for creating interesting and enjoyable characters, and in this regard he far surpasses much of that I read in print. I just have a soft-spot for villains, and good ones are hard to come by these days.

The novel concerns Jeff Palmer, a young man who becomes a part of Bleed Country after a car accident. We follow him as he delves into the mystery of Bleed Country and his power as an Agent of bleed country, all while fighting to defend it from the Armada Of Sensation and cast of other antagonists with their own personal goals, all crossing each other’s paths. One very interesting aspect of In Bleed Country is the fact Brian shows us what the other characters are up to, instead of sticking rigidly to the POV of a single protagonist. It allows him to follow multiple plot threads at once and, perhaps most deliciously, allows us to see what the antagonists are doing through their own eyes. It’s a good implementation of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule of writing, and pulled off fantastically.

The book is not entirely without its flaws, however.  It was composed of two shorter works that have been merged together, and while for the most part this is done well and without any visible scars, but it is noticeable. Don’t get me wrong; In Bleed Country is a single novel, but the Second ‘half’ seems a little rushed compared to the first, and while it is still enjoyable in its own right, I would have liked to see the two parts more entwined.  This is grasping at straws, really, and I can’t find any serious complaint with this book.

Overall I loved In Bleed Country – It drove me into the night with bloodshot eyes more than once, and I can still remember staying in the classroom after school because I didn’t want to shut off the computer to stop reading. (And subsequently, I can remember walking home in the rain. It seems reality got the last laugh.) If you are a horror fan (or not, remember I wasn’t) then give it a try. Even if you don’t fancy it, at least you can say you survived a trip to Bleed Country.

Since I read the book, Brian has released a new special edition through Dark Red Press that includes some extra illustrations by the man himself, and three short stories set around the novel’s universe.  I don’t have that version, so I can’t pass comment on those. I really hope one of them is about the Armada Of Sensation.

You can find In Bleed Country at…

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Goodreads

And of course, the Dark Red Press website.

Brian’s Personal blog can be found here.

Thanks for reading, be sure to tell me what you think if you purchase the book.

Are you a Horror fan? What are your experiences with the Horror genre? Let me know in the comments section!

Boneshaker in Hindsight.

I like Steampunk.

In fact, Steampunk is my favorite genre. I also really like zombies. (Odd considering Treasonists involves neither.) So when I picked up ‘Boneshaker’ by Cherie Priest, a ‘Steampunk-zombie-airship adventure’, I was really excited. A little jealous I hadn’t done it first, but excited.

Unfortunately, it was a big letdown. The main characters are flat and I never really ‘connected’ with them or cared about them, which is a shame because if they were fleshed out some more it could have led to a very touching ending. The plot itself was largely fate driven, with characters flopping around until the antagonist was introduced in the last third of the book.  The plot starts off with Zeke’s quest to prove his father’s innocence and ‘rewrite history,’ but that gets lost somewhere in all the floundering around and it turns into a simple ‘overthrow the bad-guy’ plot. I guess I can’t talk, considering that’s what Treasonists is, but I think I’ve done it better.  The characters themselves don’t ever contribute to the plot (besides to get it rolling at the start), and just followed other characters. Even at the end of the book, they don’t do anything that couldn’t be achieved by a nice painting hung on the wall. During the climax, a large-scale battle breaks out. However, we only hear about it because the POV characters never take part. I think, at the very least, Priest should have head-hopped to a side character’s POV so we could take part in the action, as it felt a little like watching an action movie from the POV of someone sleeping in another room.  I honestly think the book would have been much better if it were about the side characters and their tensions with Dr. Minnericht.  There is a good book here, It’s just about the wrong people.

I think Priest could have done better if she fleshed the world a little more, developed the characters and strengthened the plot. Which doesn’t really leave much, does it? I honestly think she relied on the concept of the book (which is awesome, a quarantined city teeming with Rotters , scavengers and a tyrannical mad scientist) and forgot she needed to develop anything for it to work. I feel bad for saying that, because I know a lot of work probably went into the book – it just doesn’t seem like that.

Don’t let this spoil your views on Cherie, though. I’ve also read Dreadnought which was a an exciting novel, once it got started. It did take a while to get started. But it’s better in every way – better plot, better characters, and better zombies. That makes sense, considering it is a sequel (in the sense it’s set chronologically after Boneshaker and in the same world, and written after Boneshaker. They are entirely stand-alone.) I would recommend Dreadnought to any Steampunk fans, or zombie fans, or train fans. But unfortunately I can’t say the same about Boneshaker. I’ll admit I’m looking forward to reading the next one, Ganymede (And Clementine if I can get my hands on a copy), and if that has the same leap in quality as Boneshaker-to-Dreadnought has, it could well become one of my favorite books, especially considering its premise. I mean, who doesn’t love sky pirates?

But then, I said something very similar about Boneshaker a few weeks ago.