The Skull Throne - A Goodreads Review


Posted on : 7/10/2015 12:00:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , ,

The Skull Throne (Demon Cycle, #4)The Skull Throne by Peter V. Brett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On my scale, a 5 star book is one that I would consider buying for someone else to read.

This is another great installment in Mr. Brett's "Demon Cycle" series of books.  It is frequently difficult for the middle books of a series to maintain a high level of interest in the reader.  It can be difficult to manufacture meaningful incremental plot points that service the larger plot.

Mr. Brett easily manages to continue to present unique perspectives on the story with a steady succession of plot points that engage and entertain.

This book and this series should be featured in every book award competition in the coming year.  This is award worthy fiction.

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Ressurection: A Zombie Novel - A Goodreads Review


Posted on : 7/09/2015 12:00:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , ,

Resurrection: A Zombie NovelResurrection: A Zombie Novel by Michael J. Totten

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have been a huge fan of Michael Totten's writing on the Middle East for years.  He has a deft ability to present a complete vision of the subject matter at hand.  He also has a great sense of narrative in developing a theme.

I was expecting that to translate into his fictional writing as well.  While this was a reasonably entertaining read, it just didn't hold my attention very well.  Something was missing in the plot as it seemed to play on all the usual tropes.

On my scale, a three star book is one I enjoyed reading once, but if I give you my hard copy, I don't want it back as I'm not likely to read it again.

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Knight's Shadow - A Goodreads review


Posted on : 7/08/2015 12:00:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , ,

Knight's Shadow (Greatcoats, #2)Knight's Shadow by Sebastien de Castell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An outstanding read.  Another clear 5 star book from Sebastien de Castell!

Just go read it.

In my book, a 5 star book is one that I would be willing to buy for others to read.

This book picks up where book one left off.

The magistrates have discovered the dead King's daughter; his heir.  We discover that he may actually have more than one heir.

The King's mother has been working behind the scenes to build a new force of fighters to oppose the Dukes who are now ruthlessly ruling their lands unconstrained by a King/Queen and their magistrates.

We learn a bit more about the politics between the Dukes.  They apparently only cooperate when it is to their advantage.

We also learn a bit more about the knights that serve the Dukes.  The knights and the magistrates are the two competing forces.  Where the magistrates serve the law, the knights follow a code where it is honorable to enforce the whims of their respective Duke.

The Dukes discover that the dead King's vision of government constrained by law has some merit.

Like book 1, this book's reflections on the theme of limited government are common sense.  Like book 1, the end provoked another significant emotional response.

This book is time and money well spent.  Go get a copy.

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Traitor's Blade - A Goodreads Review


Posted on : 7/07/2015 12:00:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , ,

Traitor's Blade (Greatcoats, #1)Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a great read!  Just go read it.

An outstanding first book.

In my world, 5 stars means that I'd be willing to buy a copy and give it away.

A fantastic book about three judges/magistrates that travel the land ensuring that everyone obeys the law.  The prospect of limited power naturally draws the ire of the Dukes that hold most of the power.

To ensure that the law is obeyed, the King has trained and equipped these magistrates to be able to personally enforce the law.

At the start of the book, the King is already dead.  He was killed by the armies of the Dukes.  What unfolds is the story of how the King as an unlikely heir became King and how the magistrates because magistrates.

Also unfolding is the King's quests that he gave to every magistrate before he surrendered to the Dukes.

I find the premise of the book to be fascinating in that it reflects some very common sense notions about government and the law.  The King, while he lived, had a small government that was only strong in the areas where it was able to be strong.  There is also the theme of ensuring that no one is every above the law.

The ending provoked a very strong reaction from me.  I cannot recommend this book enough.

Hopefully, this series will live up to the expectations of this first book.  We should expect this book to be on the short list for every award.

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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - A Goodreads Review


Posted on : 7/06/2015 12:00:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , , ,

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance, #1)The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" by N.K. Jemisin was a great read.  I gave it a solid 4 star rating.

In my book, 4 stars means that if I lend you a physical copy of the book, then I expect to get it back so I can read it again in the future.

The book has as a central premise that one of the universe's three gods has been forced into service for one group of humans.  There are also a handful of lesser godlings that were created by the three gods that have also been forced into serving the same group of humans.

This small group of humans in turn uses the divine power at their disposal to dominate the rest of the nations of the planet; hence the hundred thousand kingdoms in the book's title.  It appears that they use this divine power sparingly, preferring instead to act through a sort of massive parliament that gives some measure of representation to each nation.

The division of divine power harkens back to morality in the early days of Dungeon & Dragons in gaming.  D&D began with the idea that being good equated to being lawful.  Similarly, being evil equated to being chaotic.  Neutral was in between as one might expect.

Later editions of D&D introduce the concept of being "chaotic good" and "lawful evil".

The one area where the rulers do lavish a bit of divine power is in the construction and maintenance of their castle/city that is located in the sky.  Ms. Jemisin had a very complete vision of such a city and shares it with the reader in loving detail.

The thumbnail sketch of the plot is that there was a war.  The now ruling group of humans aided one of the gods in the war.  As a result, another of the gods was killed....or so we think...and the rest were subjugated and sentenced to serve the humans that had been so helpful.

The daughter of the king falls in love with someone from one of the outlying nations.  Apparently such things are rare but do occur on the fringes of the noble family.  It was unheard of for someone so close to ruling to divert away from ruling.

The daughter leaves to marry and live in the remote nation.  She in turn has a daughter who ends up leading the remote nation.  Throughout her existence, this granddaughter has only known that her people suffer because her mother left the capitol to be with her father.  An embargo of sorts was placed against her homeland.  She presumes that the embargo was the will of her grandfather.

Eventually, she is called to the capitol.  She is recognized as a member of the royal family and declared to be one of three family members who will become the next monarch after her grandfather's impending death.  The other two candidates are an aunt and an uncle.  As you might imagine, there are some politics involved in just about everything that happens after that point.

Ms. Jemisin tells an intriguing and entertaining tale in a fully developed fantasy world that is imaginative and largely functional.

If this review has raised your interest, then please go borrow or buy this book and enjoy the read.  Nothing that follows will enhance that experience.  There aren't any spoilers, but I'm using the spoiler space just to save folks the trouble.

What follows is tangentially related to the Hugo kerfuffles that have been growing recently.  You have been warned.

There is one defect to the plot.  It isn't fatal, but it is there.

WaPo - Predicatable Bias


Posted on : 7/05/2015 11:50:00 AM | By : Dann | In : ,

Welcome back to LaaC - formerly Dann's Dain Bramage - formerly where I used to write on a regular basis.  Hopefully, this is a trend away from "formerly".

We have a couple Kindle's in the house.  One of them has an app from the Washington Post.  They very wisely offer the first few months of reading for free to get you hooked.  Then they ask for $1 for six months and then $4 a month thereafter.  Thus far, it appears to be just their current stories.  I haven't found a way look for past stories.  But I'm working on it.

I had resisted paying anything to the WaPo.  Their leftist bias shows up far too frequently.  However, I have enjoyed a lot of their non-biased reporting.  So we ponied up the buck to start paying for content.

And what do we get on day #1?  Predictable drivel.

The first story is on the kerfuffle in Texas over the coming military exercises.  For the record, I think the concern is misplaced.  Mr. Obama isn't running a stealth offensive against Texas or any other state.  Even if he were, the military wouldn't go along with it.

Also for the record and as the story suggests, a least part of the problem is that there are still folks that don't trust Mr. Obama based on the color of his skin.  That's a problem that the folks in the GOP are going to have to solve.  But is not the primary problem.  Not by a long short.

From the story:

Inside, county Chairman Albert Ellison pulled out a yellow legal pad on which he had handwritten page after page of reasons why many Texans distrust President Obama, including the fact that, “in the minds of some, he was raised by communists and mentored by terrorists.”

I would add that his formative years included inculcation in an anti-colonialist perspective.  Mr. Obama seems to not understand the importance of American strength (economic, diplomatic, and military) on the world political stage in liberating billions of people from oppressive regimes and/or lifting them out of poverty.  Our advocacy of individual liberty has had a tremendously positive influence in the world.  Based on his words and his works, I don't think he appreciates of the positive influence America has had in the last 100 years.

From the story:

Obama “doesn’t take national threats seriously enough,” Ellison said, ticking off Obama’s policies toward Russia, Iran, Cuba and the Islamic State, as well as illegal immigration across the U.S. southern border and the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya.

“What he views as alarming instead is conservatism,” Ellison said, alleging that the Obama administration has used the Internal Revenue Service to attack the Tea Party and other conservative groups, been hostile to gun owners, issued what conservatives consider an illegal executive order to avoid deporting illegal immigrants, and “been complicit in stirring riots” in racially charged situations in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.
Again, for the record, Benghazi probably was not all that some folks think it was.  There was certainly a measure of incompetence involved, but there was also the fact that, contrary to some opinions, the U.S. does not exercise infinite control in every nation around the world.

The problem in the above has to do with illegal executive orders halting the deportations of illegal immigrants.  It isn't just "conservative groups" that have a problem with those orders.  So do the courts.  Perhaps the reporter that wrote this story should read more.

Administration lawyers lied in court. The technical term is perjury.  The only reason they aren't in jail is that our courts offer lawyers very collegial treatment.

The second article was on gun ownership in Japan.  The article describes a highly regulated activity that coincides with Japan's history as well as the character of Japanese culture.  It works for them and that is fine.

The problem...from the article:

In Japan, shooting is not something you do to let off steam. People don’t go to their local ranges in T-shirts and jeans to unload a few rounds into an Osama bin Laden target.
In which the author identifies herself as a hoplophobe with little experience with gun ranges in America.  Are there Osama bin Laden targets?  Of course.  Do people wear t-shirts and jeans?  Of course.  However, the article suggests that gun ranges are loaded with people burning ammo to "let off steam".  She suggests a lack of concern with marksmanship.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  People that shoot guns are obsessed with marksmanship.  An author that owned a gun and actually experienced life at a few gun ranges would know that and would accurately convey American gun culture.

Such cavalier misreporting by the media is frustrating.

Starship Troopers - A Summary


Posted on : 5/21/2015 10:27:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , ,

Finally done.  Over at John Scalzi's Whatever, there is a discussion that wandered into questions about Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  Part of the discussion was a question about how the government of that book came into being.  The answer isn't terribly long, but several aspects of the book need some introduction.

There are few thematic elements to understand.

1)  The government in SST was not "the military".  It was veterans of military service and other life risking government service.  Active military (and other government services) were banned from voting until they had completed their service.  That means the generals couldn't vote until they retired.  Only veterans of the military (and veterans of other government services) were eligible to vote and run for office.

2)  It wasn't just military service that made one eligible to vote.  There were other services that also involved a lesser degree of risk to one's life.  They all involved being subjected to harassment and general irritation by government agents (who as part of the various services, also couldn't vote until their term was completed or they retired).

3)  Anyone could volunteer.  Even someone that was a quadriplegic could volunteer for one of the services testing harsh environment survival gear.  In doing so they placed themselves at modest risk of injury or death, placed themselves subject to the caprices of superior officers, and demonstrated their willingness to accept responsibility of dying for the polity before acquiring the political authority of being able to vote as voting included the power/authority of killing citizens.

4)  SST presents the risky government service requirement for the franchise as a sort of poll tax.  The point is made that various other sorts of requirements had been tried.  (i.e. only landowners, only one race, only men, only people above a certain age)

5)  One of the big themes of SST is the balance between responsibility and authority.  He suggests that anytime someone is made responsible for something without being given an equal amount of authority (or vice versa) that bad governance is the inevitable result.  He also suggests that the same thing is true at the individual level.

A couple of modern examples:

In Wisconsin, there is a bill in their legislature that would mandate that the government prevent SNAP funds from being used to purchase certain foods.  The objective being to have those funds used to purchase the most amount of food (emphasizing beef/chicken over "luxury" foods like lobster) and to have that food be healthy (i.e. fresh veggies over potato chips).

In New York City, the government has enacted regulations banning the sales of "super sized" soft drinks due to concerns about excess soda consumption causing ill health conditions that would eventually be the responsibility of the city government.

In both cases, as the government is responsible for providing certain benefits, they are seeking the authority to ensure that those benefits are used properly.

Conversely, as the citizens receiving those benefits have the authority to compel their neighbors to fund those benefits via taxes, shouldn't they also have the responsibility to live in a manner that uses those benefits wisely?

None of the above should be taken as an endorsement one way or the other.  I'm just trying to convey the themes from SST accurately.

As suggested in #3 above, the political system was developed to maintain a balance between the extreme responsibility (dying for the polity) and the extreme authority (voting for policies that might kill someone).

6) It is asserted that civic behavior and/or civilized behavior has to be taught.  This feeds back into the responsibility/authority theme as people at one point abandon their responsibility to teach their children to behave appropriately.

There are extended discussions about how civic/civilized behavior concerned for a population larger than the local family/clan level is much harder to learn.  It is suggested that the society has developed a set of ethics that satisfies large and disparate groups of humans.  It is suggested that a similar set of ethics for dealing with aliens is being developed as well.

6A) Towards the objective of reinforcing civic/civilized behavior, corporal punishment...primarily used for most lesser offenses.  Punishments are conducted in public.  The general idea is that other animals...are pain averse.  Thus the caning provides a motivation to learn from past mistakes.

6B)  Capital punishment is the only punishment for serious offenses.  The "logic" being that a person that knowingly commits such an offense is a long term threat and needs to be eliminated.  A person that is "out of their mind" is similarly killed because if they were ever cured, then they wouldn't be able to live with themselves knowing how much they had hurt others.

7)  Nothing in the book suggests any sort of the various regimes that I have seen attributed to the book.  There appears to be some level of independent business ownership.  (The protagonist's father owns a business and was upset about some government regulation early on.)  There appears to be some level of social spending; whether it was more than we have now, less, or about the same isn't really covered.  It is entirely possible that some sort quasi socialist system is developed by these veterans of endured service.

Now why the heck am I writing all this?  Another guest, Lurkertype, over at Whatever asked the following.

Regarding Starship Troopers: how the heck did the military get all-powerful in the first place? Was it before or after Stalin’s Bugs attacked? And if before… then how the hell did that happen?!

The development of the fictional polity in SST occurred over a long period of time.  It is explained early on that western democracies eventually failed because extensive social programs gave individual citizens the authority to make demands on their fellow citizens without also requiring that they conduct themselves in a responsible manner.  This is coupled with a criminal system that didn't punish criminals and instead simply housed them for some period of time.  This may be criticized as being "soft on crime", but in keeping with the themes discussed above, the book suggests that such a system failed to create enough inconvenience/discomfort/pain for the guilty to associate their punishment as resulting from their deviant behavior.

The analogy of house training puppies is used in the book.

Due to the twin issues of social programs without responsibility and a criminal system that did not teach criminals to avoid similar behaviors in the future, society lost any sort of moral position to establish and maintain a government.  Governments crumbled.  Gangs of youths roamed and ruled the streets.

During the same period of time, a war is fought with China.  China wins and keeps our POWs.  The POWs either are released eventually or escape and most come home via other paths.

As society crumbles, these veterans begin to take charge of local governments.  They find that some of their fellow veterans are committing crimes.  As some of those crimes are serious enough to warrant the death penalty, these veterans decide that if a veteran is going to hang, then only veterans will have a role in handing down that sentence.  From that basic premise, the society builds a system of governance where only veterans of some sort of risky service will be allowed to vote, create, and enforce the law.

In the intervening years, military service isn't really all that hazardous.  While anyone can apply for "federal service", not that many do apply.  The franchise is widely perceived as being less valuable compared with other pursuits.

In fact, the Bug War begins while the protagonist is in boot camp and other training.  The human worlds are essentially at peace when he enters federal service.  The bugs attack and start the war while he is in training.  The "veterans only" government has been successfully in place for some time before he was born.

My comments.  While there are lots of plot points to discuss, there are a couple of spots that I want to cover.

The first is why this unusual system of government continues to exist in the book.  The justification is pretty slim and amounts to little more than "it exists because it works, if it didn't work something else would have replaced it".  That is just a bit hand waving.  It isn't really an explanation.

As a veteran, I recognize that veterans are on average generally better educated on governmental issues than the average non-veteran.  But veterans as individuals can believe in some pretty wonky things.  And of course, some veterans end up being criminals after they get out.

I have more than a little trouble believing that veterans of military service would provide a guaranteed better system of governance than that created by any other select group.

The second issue is capital punishment.  While it is embraced in the book, the book was written well before DNA testing, advanced forensics, and investigative journalism were able to demonstrate that many people on death row really were as innocent as they claimed.  I believe that Robert Heinlein was intelligent enough that he would have recanted his support for capital punishment in the face of so many outright innocent people being released from prison years....decades....after being originally sentenced.

I do find Starship Troopers to be a thought provoking tome that is worthy of anyone's time.  It isn't a guidebook for setting up a new polity.  But it does present some unique perspectives about the relationship between an individual and the larger society.