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Friday, 25 December 2015

The War Fighting Manuals by Den Patrick

My fiance and I are rather fond of Forbidden Planet and try and pop in whenever we're up in London together. Since we have little in the way of impulse control though, that usually ends with us weighed down with more than we really intended to walk away with. Hence where this trio of books comes in. A set of books that combine Sun Tzu's Art of War with classic fantasy tropes was a prospect too enticing to pass up on.

Perceptive readers will notice that I have grouped the Orcs War Fighting Manual, the Elves War Fighting Manual and the Dwarves War Fighting Manual into one review. The reason behind this is that structurally they are practically identical, so there seemed little point in reviewing each one individually. They are presented as the translations of Orcish, Elven and Dwarven texts on military strategy and philosophy by a human anthropologist. They all cover subjects such as weaponry, armour and formations, as well as having one chapter focusing on a particular cultural aspect of warfare: for the Orcs this is the role of the shaman, while the Elves have a chapter focusing on magic and the Dwarves get a section dedicated to siege tactics.
I'm in two minds about these books. On the one hand, they are pretty predictable when it comes to creating a feel for how these cultures present themselves. Orcs are aggressive and generally not too bright. Elves are beautiful and cultured, but supremely arrogant. Dwarves are incredibly self-reliant and stubborn. Humans are seen as rather pathetic by all three. Really, it doesn't tread much in the way of new ground when it comes to characterisation. On the other hand, it covered this material with a surprising amount of humour and depth for such short books. The trio is as much an exercise in world-building as it is a look at military tactics within a fantasy setting. There is history about where grudges between races originated from, a surprising amount of information on the non-corporeal beings that threaten all three races and hints about a potential bigger threat that could further endanger all three races. I'm kind of surprised that these books aren't part of a bigger series, as there's a lot that you could build on. It's really quite impressive, even if you only get a fraction of whatever preparation must have gone on before putting pen to paper.

A bit on the predictable side when it comes to how the races are characterised, but surprisingly detailed in its world-building considering the limited focus. Something I'd recommend to fantasy fans who also have an interest in military strategy. Might perhaps be good background reading for a gamesmaster looking to run a game in a traditional fantasy setting as there's a fair bit of decent background and plot hooks that could be easily expanded on. 3.5/5

Next review: Last Dance With Valentino by Daisy Waugh

Signing off,

Monday, 21 December 2015

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

After the unpleasant slog that was The Decameron, I needed something that was pretty much guaranteed to entertain. And for me, that took the form of Welcome to Night Vale, the novel spin-off of the podcast of the same name. I've been listening to the podcast for a couple of years now and have even seen one of the live shows when it came to London, so when my fiance decided to lend me his copy of the new novel, I could hardly say no.

Welcome to Night Vale takes place in a sleepy American desert town, where supernatural occurrences and government conspiracies are commonplace and often feature on the local community radio. While the podcast focuses largely on the host of the local radio station, Cecil Palmer, and his close friends and family, the book takes a different tack and focuses on two of Night Vale's citizens. Firstly, there is Jackie Fierro, the proprietor of the local pawnshop whose rigid routine is interrupted when a mysterious man in a tan jacket, carrying a deerskin suitcase, gives her a piece of paper with the words "KING CITY" written on it. She goes to add it to her wares, but finds that the paper won't leave her hand, no matter what she does to try and destroy it. Secondly, there is Diane Crayton, a parent who is struggling to raise her teenage shapeshifting son by herself, when his biological father starts popping up around town and she tries desperately to prevent the two meeting. The two stories quickly intertwine in a narrative where every element is important.
As I thought, this was a great change after the unpleasantness that was medieval misogyny. An installment of my favourite podcast, with two strong and complex women protagonists, and a wonderful feeling of inclusiveness. It was everything the doctor ordered really. I will say that this is the sort of book that you will either love or hate. If you've ever listened to the podcast, then you'll know which end of the scale you fall on. If you already like the series, then you'll like the novel because the novel's tone and voice carries really strongly through both formats. If you're not so keen, maybe give it a miss. As for those who haven't listened to the series thus far, the novel doesn't seem like a bad place to start. Obviously, it helps to have at least a passing knowledge of Welcome to Night Vale, as it references events that happened previously in the series, such as the incident where wheat and wheat by-products turned into snakes. But the actual level of prior knowledge needed is more or less minimal. As long as you act like a good Night Vale citizen would and just sort of run with it, then the novel flows really well and makes as much sense as anything Night Vale does. Just don't try and make sense of how time is supposed to work there, because it doesn't.

For fans of the original podcast, Welcome to Night Vale is an absolute no-brainer. It's like an episode of the podcast, but more in-depth, and it gives us a look into the lives of some of the more minor characters introduced in series. The focus on minor characters also makes it a good point for newcomers to the Welcome to Night Vale series, as it requires little in terms of background knowledge. Honestly, you can probably tell if this novel's not for you just by reading the blurb or listening to one of the podcast episodes. I loved it. 4.5/5

Next review: A trio of reviews - Orcs War Fighting Manual, Elves War Fighting Manual & Dwarves War Fighting Manual by Den Patrick

Signing off,

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

When I was at university, one of my first year courses was an introduction to medieval Italian literature through the means of the works of the three writers whose work would most influence what would become standard Italian: Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio. At the time, I devoured the poetry of Dante and Petrarch with relative ease, but simply didn't have the time to read through the entirety of The Decameron, so only read the stories set to us as homework. Having more time to spend reading now, I decided that I would actually sit down and read through it as much for completeness' sake.

The Decameron is an interesting book structurally. The book starts by following a group of ten Florentines as they leave Florence to take refuge from the Black Death in the countryside. In an attempt to keep themselves amused, they decide to tell stories to one another. These stories continue for ten days, with one story apiece, until they decide to head back to Florence. On the majority of the days, the stories will revolve around a particular theme, one example being a set of love affairs that end tragically. It's a structure that almost makes the book worth it, simply because frame narratives don't tend to be all that common.
I don't think that I can recommend The Decameron for anything beyond its historical value, because there were so many times that I considered putting the book down because of its subject matter. I went into it knowing that there would be dissonance between my values as a modern, very liberal reader and the values of the medieval writer, but most of the time I've found that it's stuff that you can sort of ignore or understand within its historical context. In this case though, I couldn't help but feel really uncomfortable, because the level of misogyny in some of these stories is truly remarkable, depicting a level of cruelty towards women that I haven't seen in even other texts of the time. Several examples spring readily to mind. A woman who won't cheat on her husband is tricked into thinking that he's having an affair, suffers rape through fraud and is then blackmailed until she agrees to continue the affair. Another is savaged about the face and neck by a wolf because she didn't heed a warning that her husband gave after having a nightmare about just such an event. And one final example, one woman is left naked in the open at the height of summer without shelter or water, to the point that her skin is cracked and openly bleeding. All of these are presented as being her just desserts for their behaviour. Quite honestly, I was expecting that there would be the whole thing of condemning women if they aren't virtuous whilst simultaneously whining that they won't sleep with the male protagonist simply because they're already married to someone else, but this level of sheer animosity was something else. It got to the point that it honestly felt like Boccaccio was vicariously living out a revenge fantasy on some poor woman who spurned his advances, and that is not something that I would recommend to anyone. Sure, there are a few stories that I might recommend, like the story of Lisabetta and her pot of basil, or the stories featuring Saladin, but they get overshadowed entirely by the entries that are so obviously and violently anti-women.

I might recommend this if you're interested in the time period or if you're looking to compare Boccaccio's work with that of Dante or Petrarch, but even then only with caution. Some of the stories contained within are so deeply resentful and bitter towards women that I had trouble finishing the book at times. It's one of the only books that I have considered burning passages from, and that's positively sacrilegious for me. 1/5

Next review: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Signing off,