Whoops, two and a half months since the last of these? Well, I suppose I did lose about half of that to wall to wall Olympics, holiday and Paralympics.
I didn't actually carry on with Defying Doomsday, the anthology about disabled people in doomsday scenarios I mentioned I was reading next in the last one of these. That's not a reflection on the book, I read the Amazon kindle sampler, bought it to read while away, but didn't actually restart it - it would be doing it a disservice to say I didn't finish it, it's much more I didn't start it. I do plan to return to it when I'm in the right mood for that kind of fiction.
Anno Dracula, Kim Newman
I've been meaning to read this for years, and it was going cheap in the Amazon autumn sale.
Events did not happen as Bram Stoker imagined, Doctor Van Helsing failed, and his head decorates a pike outside Buckingham Palace, for Count Dracula's ultimate aim was no less than the seduction of Queen Victoria, and the undead now rule Victorian London, with Dracula as Lord Protector and his Carpathian Guard impaling dissidents in the streets. But a killer, Silver-Knife, is roaming the East End, gutting poor new-dead whores on Whitechapel's streets, and the newly vampiric establishment is quite clear that something must be done. That odd pillar of the establishment, the Diogenes Club, is on the case, in the person of Charles Beauregard, a man clearly cut from precisely the same bolt of cloth as Richard Hannay.
As Charles delves into the hunt for Silver-Knife (Sherlock Holmes, like Bram Stoker, being interned in the Devil's Dyke concentration camp and therefore unavailable), he finds aid in the most curious of places, including a meeting with not one, but a whole committee of criminal genii in a Limehouse sewer. Providing him with his entreé into the seamier side of London is Geneviève Sandrine de l'Isle Dieudonné, who was a vampire when Dracula was still a babe in arms (and who Kim Newman assures us is not quite the same Geneviève Sandrine du Pointe du Lac Dieudonné as featured in Jack Yeovil's* Warhammer novels). Geneviève has been passing her time helping at the Toynbee Institute, a Victorian social initiative, though one increasingly becoming indistinguishable from a hospital as it tries to care for the newly dead, many of whom do not long survive being of Dracula's flawed bloodline (Geneviève is not, a point she's rather superior about). The Toynbee's plight is not helped by its increasingly distracted director, Jack Seward, who lives in fear of joining Van Helsing outside the Palace, while mourning his lost love, Lucy Westenra.
Meanwhile, another of Van Helsing's coterie, Art Holmwood, has done rather better for himself and as the newly-dead Lord Godalming is now gopher to the very not newly-dead Prime Minister, Lord Ruthven. When he isn't sniffing around Charles' fiancee, the oh-so-prickly Pamela.
And then the Dear Boss letter arrives, and the killer gains a new sobriquet, Jack the Ripper.
Jack the Ripper with vampires, in fact with a walk-on part for just about every literary vampire Kim Newman could think of, and he's an expert on the subject. And with plenty of non-vampires as well, from Mycroft Holmes of the Diogenes Club, to real people such as Florence Stoker and Oscar Wilde (vampirised) and fictional ones ranging from Danny Dravot (The Man Who Would be King) to Soames Forsyte (the Forsyte Saga) and both Doctors Jekyll and Moreau. There's an extensive Afterword and Newman admits even he isn't sure how many real and fictional characters he managed to squeeze in.
It's a self-indulgent romp, but an incredibly readable one, and there's a far deeper game afoot than first appears. And the moment I finished it I downloaded The Bloody Red Baron, which picks up the tale in the Great War (Biggles as a vampire!)
*aka Kim Newman
The Peshawar Lancers, S M Stirling
This literally fell off the bookshelf into my hand (I'd bumped it) and I ended up thoroughly enjoying re-reading it. It's another one of Stirling's alternate histories where the world gets devastated, but in this case it's a fairly conventional comet strike rather than a change in the laws of physics and odd goings-on at Rhode Island. The comet strikes in the mid-1880s, triggering a nuclear winter across the Northern Hemisphere, followed by famine across the bits of it not already devastated by tsunamis. St Disraeli, warned of the reality he's facing as British PM by a coterie of scientists, oversees the evacuation of as much of British civilization to India as he can before Eurasia inevitably succumbs to cannibal hordes (Stirling does like his post-apocalyptic cannibal hordes).
Roll on a hundred and forty years or so and the Angrezi (English) Raj is the world superpower, with its airships and railways and even a few motorcars driven by Stirling-cycle engines. The British have assimilated into India as another martial caste, and high society is an odd mix of Victorian militant Christianity and high-caste Hinduism. On the borders of the Raj are it's rivals, the Caliphate, the Empire of Nippon (now including China) and the hellhole that is Russia, where the state religion is cannibalism and worship of Tchernebog, the Peacock Angel, destroyer of all - quite literally a death cult. The only other world power is French North Africa, loosely allied with the Raj by way of common enmity with the Caliphate and common European heritage.
Captain Athelstane King of the Peshawar Lancers, just back to the Punjab from a campaign in Afghanistan, is an officer in the pure Kipling mode, literally born to serve and incapable of being anything other than ruggedly heroic. Then someone tries to kill him, while at the same time another group tries to kill his physicist twin sister Cassandra serveral hundred miles away, and King finds himself, and his family, caught up in the Great Game. King is quickly brought up to speed by Warburton, a Political Officer (i.e. spy) and friend of his deceased father. It turns out the Russians have been trying to kill off Athelstane's family for several generations. Warburton doesn't have a clue why, but he does have a suspicion how they keep getting close, and he'll be branded doolally* if he tries to tell anyone. The nightmare that was survival in Russia post-holocaust produced a small bloodline of women, the True Dreamers, able to sense multiple parallel worlds, and to use that to select the actions that will lead to success. And now the Okhrana, the Russian intelligence service, who the True Dreamers serve, want to kill Athelstane, and Cassandra, and maybe they won't stop there.
So, like any manly-thewed Kiplingesque officer, Athelstane and his Havildar (sergeant) Narayan Singh, together with Ibrahim Khan, an Afghan bandit they pick up along the way, head off undercover to try and figure things out, while their mother finagles Cassandra the safest nest she can find her -- at the heart of the Imperial Court, as tutor to the tempestuously teenaged Princess Sita, currently being courted by Vicomte Henri de Vascogne on behalf of the French Dauphin, and which brings her into the orbit of the dynamically noble Crown Prince Charles. Meanwhile the dastardly Count Ignatieff, agent of the Okhrana, aided by his True Dreamer, Yasmini, is still out to kill the Kings, just like he did their father, and his ultimate aim goes much, much further, being nothing less than the extinction of the human race (like I said, death cult).
It's a great, rip-roaring, swashbuckling adventure in the Kiplingesque Kim/Gunga Din/North West Frontier sense, with desperate fights with Thugs and with Ninja, fist fights on trains and sword-fights on top of airships, and the cavalry riding to the rescue, What impresses me most is the way Stirling has caught that upper-class Anglo-Indian sense of noblesse oblige and duty to the Raj. You could drop Athelstane King into North West Frontier (Cinemascope, 1959) in place of Kenneth More's Captain Scott and he'd be utterly at home. Of course that means it's also caught that sense of Imperial manifest destiny, and an upper class that has slotted quite comfortably into the Indian caste system, but it does do a relatively decent job of making Narayan Singh and Ibrahim Khan just as much heroes as is Athelstane King.
*from Deolali, the asylum for people of quality in the original Raj
Throne of Jade, Naomi Novik
I initially read this when it was released, but idly picked it up off the shelf recently and ended up reading it from start to finish in a single sitting.
Think of Patrick O Brian's Aubrey and Maturin series, but with Stephen Maturin a dragon instead of a doctor. In the first book, Captain
Jack Aubrey Will Laurence of the Reliant seized a French frigate carrying the egg of a Chinese Celestial Dragon, impressed (in the McCaffrey sense) the dragonling when it hatched, named it Temeraire and was subsequently transferred much against his will to the Aerial Corps, whence Temeraire proved decisive in defeating Napoleon's aerial invasion.
Only now the Chinese want their dragon back. And as the British don't dare push them further into the French camp, Laurence is under intense pressure to give up Temeraire, whatever he, or Temeraire, think of the matter. Ordered to China, they set sail on a massive dragon transport, effectively a sail-powered aircraft carrier for dragons. From the UK to China is a long voyage under sail and there are ongoing tensions between Temeraire's crew and the Navy (particularly as certain aspects of the Corps are a closely held secret) and between the British and the Chinese delegation, which includes a Chinese prince much inclined to stand on his precedence.
Aubrey and Maturin seems very much a concious model as the transport plods its slow way around the African coast - there are encounters with the French, encounters with sea monsters, encounters with storms, encounters with Chinese cuisine, and superstition among the crew obscuring a real conspiracy. Novik does a good job of illustrating the slow speed of nautical travel in the age of sail, and her exploration of how dragons would affect war at sea is really rather good.
And then they finally arrive in China and the politicking kicks into high gear, but that almost fades into insignificance, because the Chinese have a completely different system for managing their dragons than the Europeans, one in which the dragons are much more equal partners. And if it is surprising for Laurence, it is a stunning revelation for Temeraire.
On re-reading you can see that this was the book where Novik really started to shape Temeraire as an agent of change, after a fairly conventionally plotted first book, but it went so far off our timeline in the next volume that I never did finish the series - which is probably more a matter of my tastes than the quality of the writing.
The Moscow Option, David Downing
I know I wrote a review of this somewhere recently, but I'm damned if I can find it! As I don't think it was here....
Early winter 1941, and as the German front nears Moscow, Hitler flies out to assess the situation, But before he can issue revised orders, which in our time line will turn the thrust north towards Leningrad, his aircraft crashes and Der Fuhrer is left in a coma, leaving the German High Command free to prosecute the war as they see fit. Papilio Acta Est
They do rather well, but are still subject to that old military saw that only an idiot invades Russia, especially in Winter. Also covered are the campaign in North Africa, and the war in the Pacific. The coverage of the Russian campaign is solid, I didn't see any obvious weaknesses, but it's not one of the areas of military history I've a deep knowledge of. The Desert Campaign - actually a dual thrust with a northern arm coming down through the Caucuses towards Persia - I wasn't quite so convinced by. The book does a really good job of showing how knife-edge balanced the entire campaign was, with victory dependent on supply, but Rommel's initial triumph seems a little too easy. The campaign in the Pacific I have real problems with, the reasoning that sees the Japanese realise their codes have been broken and avoid the Battle of Midway is sound, but the option they come up with to replace it is, well, absurd. The Imperial Japanese Navy under Admiral Yamamoto was bold, but it was not so ludicruously self confident as to commit both the battle AND carrier fleets to a battle off Panama. There's either a deliberate ignoring of Japanese doctrine here, or a failure to understand it.
Despite the criticism it's a good read, but an annoying one. This actually first appeared in the 1990s when the military alternate history genre had its peak, with The Hitler Options, Disaster at D-Day and so on. I didn't notice it back then, but this is a recent reprint in e-book form, and it's patently obvious it was produced from an OCR scan of the original edition. I can understand why that might be done, but if you do it that way it's pretty important you have someone who knows the subject, or at least has a copy of the original, doing a line-editing pass to correct the OCR. I'm fairly confident Hitler did not have a general called Jodi (Jodl), nor did the Luftwaffe have an aircraft called the Mel-10 (Me 110, and should actually be Bf 110). There are OCR errors on almost literally every page, which made for a teeth-grinding read. At least I got it cheap.
The British Battleship, Norman Friedman
Technically I haven't finished this yet, I'm about 75% of the way through. It's a design history of the British battleship since the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, it's 400+ pages of A4 small print and I've been reading it since early September. It is incredibly information dense and I keep having to put it aside when my head starts swimming. But if the Royal Navy is your thing then this is essential reading, Friedman having dug deep into the archives to write this. I already have his volume on Cruisers and the second one on Destroyers, and annoyingly his footnote habit has gotten out of control again. I thought he'd tamed it, but we're back to up to 8 pages of footnotes on a chapter, at the back of the book, and they're even more information dense than the main body of text. 120 footnotes in a chapter? Seriously? It makes the book physically a pain to read.
But for all the complaints, it's invaluable, I've found myself reforming my opinions of much accepted wisdom. It points out Dreadnought was even more revolutionary for her engines than her guns, puts the final nail in Beatty's "there's something wrong with our bloody ships today" line at Jutland (more like "there's something wrong with my fleet orders that have made my captains discard every safety precaution built into their magazines, and after the war I'm going to use my position as First Sea Lord to make sure that stays buried"), and the famed loss of HMS Hood to 'weak' battecruiser armour at the Battle of the Denmark Strait turns out to be the loss of the best, indeed most revolutionary, armoured ship in the world in 1920, and still better armoured than most of our battleships in 1940).
Rebuilding the Royal Navy: Warship Design Since 1945, David K Brown and George Moore
Fascinating, and arguably essential reading if the post-WWII Royal Navy is one of your interests. Full of the background detail that allows you to understand why the ships of the RN were designed and built the way they were. And this is the period where DKB was one of our senior Naval Architects, so we are in many cases privileged to hear the view of the man on the inside, who was actually there when the decisions were taken, or making them himself. It was amusing to read about his two decade fight to get even an experimental installation of a transom flap on a frigate (basically a hydrodynamic trick to make ships go faster - though no one understands how it works), simultaneously with finding out from other sources that a transom-flap is now going to be part of the mid-life update on the Type 23 frigates. The inexorable progression of technological development, and the need to keep pace, or fight to keep pace, is rather a theme here.
The authors divided the chapters between themselves, and for some reason I preferred the chapters where DKB was the primary author, rather than those were George Moore was, never mind that Moore gets to cover the immediate post-war period I'm most interested in. I can't actually pin down why that is, and they note that they each reworked the other's chapters, but I definitely found that I didn't feel George Moore's chapters quite matched what I expected from reading DKB's 'Warrior to Dreadnought', 'Grand Fleet' and 'Nelson to Vanguard', while DKB's did. It may be simply a matter of style, and the bulk of the book is DKB's work, but there was just that little niggle.
The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman
A couple I've picked up recently: Storm and Desire, which is roughly a first contact situation involving some interesting characters in a far future setting - I've not quite worked out where this is going yet, but it's interesting enough to stick with, and White Noise, which is a post-apocaplyptic tale with a teenaged experimental subject (with large, white, fluffy tail) fleeing from the secret wilderness experimental site where he grew up/woke up moments ahead of the terrorists who killed everyone he'd ever known and forced to seek shelter in the big city, where mutants like him are shot on sight (definite manga influence here, one of the characters wears a top saying "I Glomp Bishonen" - and does). Meanwhile Strong Female Protagonist has been quite stunning in recent months, and Wilde Life has been almost equally good - incidentally both have strong fandoms on their respective fora. In other comics I follow, Footloose has put itself on hiatus, but the authors have picked straight up with the related Black Market Magic, and Spinnerette is doing the same, picking up with White Heron, possibly the first ever South Korean set superhero web comic (spun out of the origin story of Spinnerette's Mecha Maid).
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