Pawn (Sibyl’s War #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review — The Fantasy Hive

Blurb: Nicole Lee’s life is going nowhere. No family, no money, and stuck in a relationship with a thug named Bungie. But, after one of Bungie’s “deals” goes south, he and Nicole are whisked away by a mysterious moth-like humanoid to a strange ship called the Fyrantha. Once aboard, life on the ship seems too good […]

Pawn (Sibyl’s War #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review — The Fantasy Hive

Augustus by John Williams: The Will to Power (Part 1 of 2)

John Williams witholds the inner voice of the eponymous Augustus, born Gaius Octavius, until the very last. The first Roman Emperor remains among the most enigmatic figures in history, and Williams, too, keeps him at a hand’s length, his motives obscure even as the author’s other characters scrutinize Octavian’s every move.

And what characters they are! Nearly all of them based on real historical figures, rendered to life with daunting skill. But a few of these figures are Octavian’s three closest friends: Marcus Agrippa, Salvidenus Rufus, and the patron of the arts (and, judging by the emperor’s words, a bad poet in his own right), Maecenas.

But I am getting ahead of myself. This essay is the first of two planned out, aimed to celebrate a monumental work of historic and literary fiction, a work both intelligent and empathic, concerned with “the ambivalence between the public necessity and the private want or need” that Williams himself identifies as the conflict at the heart of the novel. This first essay examines Book 1 of Augustus, which follows Octavius Caesar’s ascension to power, his navigating the treacherous waters of a chaotic Rome in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination. His begins as a pursuit of justiceagainst his uncle’s assassins — or is it vengeance, or even a mere casus belli for the ambition of a young man?

Despite this, it’s not long before Octavian is forced to save one of his uncle’s assassins, Decimus, also one of Julius’ proteges. Here, then, is the first glimpse at the central conflict of Augustus. When Decimus, saved by the intervention of Octavius sends word to him in the hopes of conversation, Octavius Caesar’s response is telling:

I did not come to save Decimus; therefore, I will not accept his gratitude. I came to save the state; and I will accept its thanks. Nor will I speak to the murderer of my father, nor look upon his face. He may go in safety by the authority of the Senate, not by my own.

Augustus, Vintage edition, 60.

You see, then, how public necessity forces the young Caesar places public need before want; though whether it’s due to respect for the state, or to increase his own political capital during a time when doing so is of utmost necessity, is anybody’s guess.

The first part of the novel concludes after Octavian’s victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium. Success drips blood, failure gushes it. This is not something Octavius Caesar is unconscious of: “We knew that we had won the world; but there were no songs of victory that night, nor joy among any of us.” (140) So writes Marcus Agrippa in Williams’ fictionalized Memoirs of the very same, upon his recollection of that final contest between Octavius and Mark Anthony. The battle seals the latter’s face; Anthony kills himself not long after.

The paragraph quoted above is telling for the price of Augustus’s ascension. There is no end to the spilling of Roman blood in what was, in essence, the last chapter in a lengthy Roman civil war that saw its beginnings before even Julius Caesar’s star had risen. Many of the actors early on in Book 1 are driven by the notion of restoring the Republic to its former glory; Williams captures the political entanglements and atmosphere of the Eternal City through the letters of Cicero.

NYRB’s Editor at Large, Daniel Mendelsohn, describes Williams’ voice as “capturing both the wit and preening of Cicero”. Here, then, is one example of that wit, this time from a fictional letter penned by Maecenas:

We had heard the witticism that Cicero made: “We shall do the boy honor, we shall do him praise, and we shall do him in.” But I think that even Octavius did not expect the Senate and Cicero to offer so blatant and contemptuous a dismissal. Poor Cicero . . . . Despite the trouble he cause us and the harm that he indended, we were always rather fond of him.

61

This early actor in the political landscape of Book 1 does not last long, however, for a simple reason:

…the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; the the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the chall to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder.

62-63

Indeed, these early actors fall away from prominence as the novel moves inexorably onward. Even though many of the Republican faction survive to play a role in Book 2, the factional conflicts are overshadowed between Octavian and Mark Anthony’s own conflict. One of them is beloved by the people, the other has the loyalty of many of Julius’ own legions; both driven by the will to power.

Each of them, however, is possessed by very different qualities. Anthony is a soldier; a man whose own fortunes are built in the shadow of Julius Caesar. Followin Caesar’s detah, he viewed himself as the rightful heir of the power wielded by his former leader; but Anthony lacks the qualities of an administrator, as history teaches us when he took the position of Administrator of Italy in 47 B.C.; some of Anthony’s blunders are referenced by Williams on p. 51: “[Antonius] had defied the constitution once by entering the city with his armed forces…”

Further, Anthony is hardly a master tactician. Upon allying himself with Cleopatra and campaigning for her, he makes a fool of himself. Proof is to be found in the fictionalized report of Epimachos, High Priest of Heliopolist to Cleopatra: “[Antonius] fights more bravely than prudence should allow, and endures privations and hardships which would destroy the most seasoned common soldier. But he is no general, and the campaign has been a disaster.” (123)

Octavian, meanwhile, is that exceedingly rare mixture of scholar and skilled politician. Look towards the comparison between him and Cicero: “[Cicero] acted out of enthusiasm, vanity, and conviction. We had learned early that we could not afford those luxuries; we moved, when we had to move, out of calculation, policy and necessity. [My italics]” (62) These are good qualities in a statesman.

Octavian has the wherewithal to surround himself with capable men; though one of his friends, Salvidenus Rufus, betrays him in a moment of doubt, he leans both on Maecenas and on Agrippa; one a talented political operator, the other — a strategos of great skill. Anthony, by contrast, allows himself to be manipulated by Cleopatra, a pawn to aid the Egyptian ruler’s ambition of a Greko-Egyptian line to overshadow Rome itself. A pawn that loses even the loyalty of many of the soldiers in his sworn Roman legions, forced now to stand against fellow Romans for the defense of barbarians (as the Romans viewed the Egyptians and their kingdom).

One man proved victorious, the other was vanquished. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, August 19, marks the 2006th anniversary since Augustus’s death. Join me next month, on the anniversary of Octavian’s birth on September 22, for the second part of my analysis of John Williams’ Augustus: “In Times of Peace”.

Humankind Open Dev (Weekend #01) — First Impressions

What’s this?! Gaming content on the Fantasy Hive? I know what you’re thinking, dear Reader — the powers that be must be mad to give me such autonomy! That’s right, we at the Hive enjoy all things fantastical and creative, and so it’s my great pleasure to bring you all some game coverage starting with […]

Humankind Open Dev (Weekend #01) — First Impressions

And here’s the video itself:

Check it out!

Saturday Star Wars: Obi-Wan and Anakin by Charles Soule — Graphic Novel Review

Welcome back, dear Reader, to the most glorious feature of all – Saturday Star Wars! If you somehow missed the last entry in my series of love letters to Star Wars, worry not – here’s your link!

A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

Obi-Wan and Anakin by Charles Soule, Marco Checchetto and Andres Mossa

The ten years before the Clone Wars are a period only outlined by a throwaway line of dialogue or two in the movies — and as such, I expect they’ll make for plenty of one-shot stories such as this one, told in comics and novels – something I’m all for, as long as the stories themselves are entertaining.

Charles Soule is one of my three favourite authors working on Star Wars stories right now, along with Timothy Zahn and Claudia Grey. He has a love for the lore of the galaxy that runs deep, as deep as the knowledge he taps into in small pieces of dialogue that might fly by you without a second thought:

The Plo Koon line here, for example

The premise: Obi-Wan and Anakin have been sent to respond to a distress call on a planet ruined by internal strife, uninhabitable safe for the tallest mountain peaks. The twist? There’s a bit of a steampunk vibe to the two sides of this planet-endangering conflict.

I love how often our characters end up derelict on some backwards planet – didn’t the same thing happen to Maul in my last Sunday Star Wars column?

A pair of locals are introduced early on, signifying one side of the conflict — that I don’t remember their names might tell you something of the kind of impression they make, or it might tell you that I’m a forgetful old wamp rat.

Either way, I do remember the personalities of both, as well as that of their foe, a man by the name of…what’s his name, again?–a most lovely bald man with lovely face tattoos…

Obi-Wan and Anakin’s relationship is deconstructed in a way that will at once reveal the resentment of the Jedi Knight for having to take care of this boy:

The volume shows the depth of Obi-Wan’s commitment to his padawan, as well, in a short conversation with master Yoda in the very last few pages, which leaves no doubt as to the sacrifices Obi is willing to make to honour his oath to Qui-Gon, and to perform his duty to Anakin.

On the flipside of the coin is Anakin’s awe and downright idealization of Kenobi. Whatever resentment he might feel towards his master later on at the beginning and during the Clone Wars has not yet manifested itself; the young padawan recognizes that Obi-Wan is the very best exemplar of the Jedi Order, and for good reason — as the ending of this comic book will remind us.

As for the plot on Carnelion IV, I’ll not say too much other than…it was okay. The story is at its best when Anakin and Obi-Wan interact, and the adventure-of-the-week type story is more a backdrop than a breathtaking story that shifts my way of thinking. One action sequence in particular made me giggle:

Lightsabers are great with bullets, everyone!

Let’s spend a few moments to discuss the other key relationship in this graphic novel.

Surprising none but the newest readers of my scribbles, I enjoyed Chancellor Palpatine’s skillful manipulation of Anakin in a section that shows ol’ Palpy working to earn Anakin’s trust and admiration in ways fine tuned to take full advantage of the young Jedi padawn’s naive and limited experiences of the galaxy.

Here Palpatine is impressed.
Here Palpatine and Mace discuss the virtue of friendship, harmony and throwing people off windows.

Stepping away from geeky humour, my favourite sequences are on Coruscant, whether they’re between Yoda and Obi-Wan, a few short panels between Anakin and other padawans, or

Soule so well captures Palpatine’s sly, cunning nature. The Chancellor manipulates a young Anakin in just the right way, playing to his idealism, making of himself a champion of justice, while eroding his trust in a flawed, broken democratic apparatus. What’s best about it is, Palpatine doesn’t even have to lie; he shows Anakin the rot within the Republic, and his inability to do anything to remedy it on this occasion. By the end of this volume, Anakin is eating out of Palpatine’s hand, and the bond between the two has the strong foundation on which Palpatine’s plan hinges on.

The score for this one is 4 stars out of 5. I enjoyed this story, though the conflict between the factions of Carnelion IV was nothing new, the relationships between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and Anakin and Palpatine, were well-explored and offered a layered view of some of my favourite lightsaber-wielding characters.

And lest I forget, the art was quite excellent — though Obi-Wan looks somewhat older than I’d have liked.

I also loved this alternate cover by Skottie Young, which is as glorious as any Skottie Young alternate cover for Marvel I have seen.

Skottie Young being the Skottiest, Youngest, Coolest Artist Ever!

A few lingering questions:

This girl is flirting Annie up, and yet he doesn’t turn around and leave the Jedi Order to live happily ever after with her?!
How cool is this cover?!

Sentence Writing #01: Conjunctions and Subordination

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This series of posts owes a lot to, and borrows from, June Casagrande’s book on sentence style, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.

After scribbling, “Subordinating conjunctions can make your writing a living hell,” cursing this whole blogging thing for being so time-consuming, and coming away from it with a diminished sense of self, I felt exhausted.

What’s wrong with this sentence? What is it about it that doesn’t sound quite right? Why, it’s the subordinating conjunction! If we want to get more technical about it, it’s the role that the subordinating conjunction defines between an independent clause and any number of dependent clauses. In the example above, that role is problematic. The subordinating conjunction after creates upside-down subordination — meaning that the sentence takes a boring piece of information like I felt exhausted, and treats it as if it is the most notable event stated over there. In terms of grammar, the more important information is overshadowed by what is boring and everyday – my feeling tired. The more interesting actions are “relegated to a lower grammatical status,” as Casagrande puts it.

Subordinating conjunctions are a dime a dozen, and include although, as, because, before,if, since, than, though, unless, until, when, and while. (Casagrande, Chapter 2). These all have the same inherent capability as after — they grammatically signal the reader’s mind that all that stuff in the subordinating clause — it’s secondary, it’s something to get through before the main point comes in hot.

Let’s try for a few more sentences which showcase this issue, shall we?

Until Mishka can see the spaceship, sneak into it and become the star system’s most daring stowaway, her lone purpose in life is to sit around.

In the sentence above, the subordinating conjunction is until. There’s a whole story in the three subordinate clauses in the sentence above, and yet all of them are relegated as side-points to the fascinating action of…sitting around. Is that what the French call joie de vivre? Probably not–but it showcases the problem this blog post digs into, and how carelessness in the use of subordinating conjunctions can lead to sloppy writing. Let’s try another one:

Since you killed my pet rat, I’m a bit miffed.

This one can be good or bad, depending on what the author is trying to accomplish , what he’s attempting to bring to the reader’s attention. Was the author trying to make the point that the addressee killed the speaker’s pet rat? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then the author hasn’t done a good job of it. If, however, the author was trying to underline the unusual reaction of the speaker, then, I would argue, he’s succeeded.

…Rat onna stick, anyone?

Image courtesy of the Discworld Emporium.

Place in your main clause the information you want to engage the reader with first and foremost. Don’t allow yourself the indolence of placing unimportant details on a pedestal, while stuffing the dependent clauses full of interesting information.

To wrap this up, let’s try for one sentence that makes good use of subordinating conjunctions:

Although he was bone-dry tired, Filip took great pride in taking the time to explore the exciting world of subordinating conjunctions.

Thanks for reading!

The Lessons Never Learned (The War Eternal #02) by Rob J. Hayes – Book Review

The second act of a fantasy trilogy is the one a series lives or dies by. A first impression is important, but following up on the promises the opening of a series makes…well, many a novel has faltered there. The Lessons Never Learned, however, does an admirable job of following up on the threads first […]

The Lessons Never Learned (The War Eternal #02) by Rob J. Hayes – Book Review

Saturday Star Wars: Kanan The Last Padawan – Graphic Novel Review

I read this on the recommendation of a dear friend.

The first volume of Kanan, The Last Padawan is another excellent, heartbreaking story of the Jedi Purge and its consequences on those few padawans that made it through the cracks after Palpatine’s Order 66.

The first issue presents a very classic Clone Wars era story, with Kanan – his real name Caleb – fighting alongside Jedi master, Depa Billaba. I found the character of Billaba captured some of the finest in Jedi philosophy – her questioning the way the Jedi were forced into the command structure of the Republic’s army spoke to me of the underlying tension many of the wisest Jedi felt about their role in the Clone Wars. It reminds me of an older conflict in the universe, the Mandalorian Wars as spoken about in the video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II.

The character of Caleb Dune earned my sympathies time and again, in his fight to survive and leave his old self behind, forced to change for survival’s sake. It’s difficult to lose everything the way he does, to suddenly have every belief and creed you’ve held your entire life a threat to your life.

But onto lighter aspects of this first volume – the smuggler Janus Kasmir, the separatist general, I loved everything about both these supporting characters. Especially Kasmir, he had that “rogue with a heart of gold” nailed! *Spoilers* It was painful, though, seeing Caleb break with both of them, feeling he had to keep them safe by breaking the bond between him and them. */Spoilers* Such a funny thing, bonds – we define ourselves by them, but we often seek to break with them when we feel the need for change. Kanan wanted a break away from who he was – he saw that as his only way to survival; and so he did. It’s a small tragedy, but a tragedy nonetheless.

There’s an element that doesn’t quite make sense, now that I’ve thought on it – the two clones, former friends of Caleb and Billaba, doggedly chase the Jedi Padawan without any apparent oversight from Imperial authorities. I’ll chalk this up to the transition period between Republic and Empire but it’s still a crack in what is otherwise excellent storytelling.

I enjoyed Kanan – I loved the art by Pepe Larraz, and writer Greg Weisman does a very good job telling a fine Star Wars story, which offers plenty of context to one of Rebels‘ most likable cast members. My recommendation? If you’re looking for an action-packed story with plenty of fun elements, you can’t go wrong with this. My score for it is 4.25 stars. I will be reading Volume 02 soon!

Month in Review: February 2020 at the Reliquary

Greetings, Reader! Join me once more as I reminisce about the last month at the Grimoire Reliquary! I’ve read wonderful books, I’ve read good novellas, I even read a couple of forgettable but I regret that not at all – few things offer as many teaching moments to the aspiring writer as mediocrity does! But I’m not here to talk about the bad, I’m here to sing the praises of the exceptionally good with…

MY FAVOURITE FANTASY NOVEL READ OF FEBRUARY

Just so happens to be Rob J. Hayes’ Along the Razor’s Edge, which releases at the end of March. I think it’s a remarkable novel whose control over voice is prodigious. What’s more, the fun Rob has with foreshadowing makes for fantastic build-up, which I have every faith the next two installments in The War Eternal will honour in full.

Further, in the words of a wise guy:

The novel is an intelligent work about the costs of perseverance fuelled by the basest human emotions. As thrilling as this first chapter in Eskara’s tale is, it offers caution too. Though anger keeps her alive – that’s no great spoiler, I think, as the older Eskara’s narration is immediately evident – the urge to lash out at those around her costs our protagonist immeasurably much.  

But don’t take my word for it, read the review in full!

MY FAVOURITE SCI-FI READ OF THE MONTH

Roger Zelazny, you brilliant man of brilliance, you, with your platonic fancies and interests in gods and science and wonders big and small. I love you. I ever tell you that? Well, I do, there’s no denying it. There’s something about this one, something that sparkles and glitters in the sun.

Lord of Light is an epic contained in just under a three-hundred page novel. Its ideas are grand and ambitious, as much in the vein of fantasy as in science fiction, the basic structure of much of the novel borrowed from the creation myth of Buddhist lore (heavily based on reality but mythologised after two and a half millennia), the aforementioned Sam taking on the role of prince Siddhartha Gautama. But Sam is not a man to only wear a single hat – his identities throughout the seven chapters of the book are many and the role of destroyer comes as easy to him as that of ascetic philosopher. Whether he believes in what he preaches or not is besides the point.   

And here’s my full review of LORD OF LIGHT.

A PAIR OF FUN SCI-FI NOVELLAS

I enjoyed Binti, despite it suffering of a serious structural flaw, a plot hole the size of the Vatican. I wish, badly, this weren’t the case but it is what it is. I am curious to read the second installment, even so. My review you can find here.

Murderbot was fun, and it didn’t shy away from serious questions, either. That one got a four-star score from me and I cannot wait to read more about the likable misanthrope!

A BOOK TOUR REVIEW OF KINGSHOLD

…Which, while ultimately a read with a number of pleasant elements, suffered from some serious issues in terms of pacing and overwriting. A book in sore need of two additional rounds of editing. Fair’s fair, though! I loved the humour most of all, and several other elements showed real promise!

PLENTY OF STAR WARS TALK!

I talked about the Ahsoka Novel! I talked about talking about Star Wars on a podcast! You can find more about both of them here!

I talked about why the CLONE WARS IS SO GOSH-DARN GOOD!

I talked about how the recently-announced HIGH REPUBLIC imprint has my blood boiling with excitement!!!

I don’t have a Star Wars problem. You have a Star Wars problem.

I READ SOME MORE MURAKAMI!

…And felt promptly colourless after. Good times, good times.

A REVIEW OF A GAME!

I love reviewing games. It’s how I excuse spending hours playing them. Some mental gymnastics going on there, as you can plainly see. The video is here:

Hopes and Dreams of March

I was hoping to finish A LITTLE HATRED by Joe Abercrombie – and guess what, after four hours of intense sweating and NO BLINKING WHATSOEVER, I did! Care to wager a guess what my favourite fantasy read of March is?

Other than that, I would love to keep up with one – ONE – regular column on my blog, the Saturday/Sunday Star Wars series! Ah, ’tis free to dream.

Thanks for reading! Looking forward for another month of fun content and emotional torture through empathetic reading!

Prosper’s Demon by K. J. Parker – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu!

Published by: Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Genre: Fantasy, Historical, Dark
Pages: 112 (according to Goodreads)
Format: Novella, e-book
Review Copy:  Provided by NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Release Date: January 28th, 2020

At long last, I’ve gotten my hands on a work by K. J. Parker, an author very well regarded in the wider fantasy community. Judging by the quality of Prosper’s Demon, I have to wonder – what the hell took me so long?

Written in the first person, this novella tells of the trials and tribulations of an unnamed exorcist in a world very like our own during the early Renaissance. Our protagonist is not a nice guy. He is devious, cunning and unscrupulous, a man who shows no qualms when it comes to inflicting pain to his fellow human beings. A vile man, written excellently and with an undercurrent of gallows humour that colours everything in the world around him – this worked very well for me.

The world this exorcist inhabits is one filled with cruelty, pain and Them, an awful lot of Them, demons who possess humans and seem capable of inducing in them extreme states – these creatures can only be seen by a chosen few born with the ability to recognize them, and this ability is as much a gift as a curse…as the protagonist will prove to you, reader.

You have to learn to think like Them, they told me when I was just starting out in the business; only, don’t get too good at it. They say that to all the students, and none of us really understand what it means at the time. In and out of each other’s heads, like neighbors in a small, friendly village, which is exactly what we aren’t. Or to put it another way, it doesn’t do to get too familiar.

The reason Prosper’s Demon won me over, though, has to do with it not being your average exorcist/demon game of cat and mouse. Rather, it’s the structure of the story, the fact that a lot of it is built around conversations between the protagonist and the eponymous Prosper, a Leonardo da Vinci-esque genius of unparalleled scientific intellect. A lot is done right in those dialogues, obfuscating the truth, confusing the reader and making the outcome of the story questionable at all times.

Some of it, too, has to do with bronzeworking and the casting of statues – and I was struck by how well researched these sections were, by the veracity of complex processes as they were described.

If, like me, you’ve never before read the work of K. J. Parker, Prosper’s Demon is an excellent place to start, short but none the poorer in ideas for it. My score? 5/5!

Oh, and the cover? Gorgeous, sets up just the right tone for this strange tale.