The history of Istanbul by Thomas Madden is as gripping and entertaining as Game of Thrones


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How do you compress the 2700-year history of a city (and empire) into 450 pages without losing any of the drama or human stories nor reducing it into a dry listing of events and dates? Thomas F. Madden, the 56-year-old American historian shows you how with his extraordinary 2016 publication, Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World. Mr. Madden is the Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University and has been known for years as a specialist on the Crusades, so it seems only fitting that he write this history of the city that was the focal point of the war between Christian and Muslim armies for centuries.

I have always been fascinated by Istanbul/ Constantinople – its breath-taking architecture, its unique geographic position between Asia & Europe, the fiction it has inspired such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and even its cuisine including the Baklava and Turkish delight. I’ve not yet had a chance to visit this iconic city, so to prepare myself for a future journey (and perhaps to compensate for not having visited it before it became like any other modern world city), I searched for a comprehensive yet compact history of Constantinople which brought me to Mr. Madden’s recent publication.

By the time I finished the book, I was convinced that much of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones must have been inspired by people, events and settings from this city’s history! Even the Unsullied, the slave-soldiers of Astapor sound a lot like the elite Janissaries of the Ottoman ruler.

The book starts off with the founding of the city in 667 BC as Byzantion, a north-eastern trading outpost of the Greek city-state of Megara (now a small town about 40 km west of Athens). The outpost was about 600 km from Megara as the crow flies and the voyage by ship would have taken the Megarans across the Aegean Sea, through the narrow Dardanelles strait, past Gallipoli peninsula into the Sea of Marmara before arriving at the Bosporus straits. The Bosporus linked through to the Black Sea and was the key source for goods and grain from Central Asia. The control of this key trade route eventually made Byzantion the most powerful city in the world for close to two millennia.

It’s easy to think of this sea route as a straightforward journey when viewed on Google maps today, but I was amazed at how these ancient seafarers could have discovered this particular route from among all the hundreds of other possible combinations they could have taken on the open seas!

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From this point, the book takes us through the many rulers and dynasties which shaped the destiny of this city which became the seat of the Greek (Byzantion), Roman (Constantinople) and Ottoman (Istanbul) empires before emerging as the modern, secular city it is today.

There are many fascinating characters who have played a role in the city’s history. As in Game of Thrones, one realizes how the ambition, courage or foolhardiness of a single individual can influence the fate of empires and millions of subjects. This is a story of intrigue, betrayal, blindings (a common way of dealing with a rival to the throne was to gouge his eyes out), beheadings, massacres, pillage and destruction. But also a story of the creation of incredible artefacts and architecture, much of which have been destroyed over time and many of which have survived till today.

In particular, the individuals whose stories have stayed in my memory are:

Constantine I “the Great”: By AD 285, the Roman empire had grown so vast that it was divided into two halves, with the Western empire governed from Rome and the Eastern empire based in Byzantion, which had been “liberated” from Greek rule in 196 BC. This was the time when a new religion called Christianity had taken hold among the poor and downtrodden. After an initial period of peaceful co-existence, Christianity came under fire and was outlawed in AD 302 leading to large scale persecution of Christians. But then a new Western emperor came to power in AD 312 called Constantine. During an earlier military campaign, he had a vision that his victory would be assured by Jesus Christ and after coming to power he formally converted to Christianity. This led to the stoppage of the persecution and the elevation of Christianity as a religion of the emperor. In AD 324, Constantine defeated the Eastern emperor, unified the Roman empire and chose to live on in the East rather than return to Rome. He rebuilt and expanded Byzantion, renaming it as Constantinople. It became – along with Rome – the heart of the Christian world for the next thousand years.

Justinian and Theodora: In AD 532, Emperor Justinian was on the verge of being overthrown by a rival faction in what is now referred to as the Nika revolt. There were violent riots between the two factions for nearly a week with nearly half the city being burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed. Justinian and his advisors were on the verge of fleeing the city when his wife Theodora made an impassioned plea to stay and fight. Theodora came from humble beginnings; her father was a bear trainer at the famous Hippodrome which held chariot races of the sort shown in Ben-Hur. She then worked as an actress and a prostitute (the two professions were interchangeable in those days) before coming to the attention of Justinian while he was heir to the throne. It was this former prostitute turned empress who prevailed on the ruling elite to resist the rebellion. Inspired by her words and spirit, Justinian did so and went on to rule Constantinople with Theodora for several more years, building aqueducts, bridges and churches including the famous Hagia Sophia.

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Andronikos Komnenos: Perhaps one of the most colourful of the Byzantine rulers, Andronikos was supposedly a handsome and striking personality, a general and statesman who lived a charmed life of debauchery, seduction and intrigue. He rose to the Byzantine throne in 1183 at the advanced age of 65. His rule was marked by murders, massacres and terror. He was eventually overthrown and handed over to furious mobs who tortured him publicly for several days; his right hand was cut off, his teeth and hair pulled out, one of his eyes gouged out, animal dung and boiling water thrown on his face. Finally, he was hung by his feet between two pillars and two soldiers competed to see whose sword would penetrate his body most deeply!

Alexsios IV Angelos: The machinations of Alexios IV to reclaim the Byzantine throne on behalf of his deposed and blinded father Isaac II resulted in four different emperors on the throne from July 1203 to April 1204. In a ridiculous turn of events, the Fourth Crusade which was organized to reconquer Jerusalem from the Muslims ended up sacking, looting and destroying Constantinople, the capital of the 2nd largest Christian empire! These events would lead to the eventual weakening of the Byzantine empire and 250 years later it would fall to the armies of 21-year-old Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in May 1453.

Suleiman the Magnificent and Hurrem Sultan: In the 1530s, Sultan Suleiman (the great-grandson of Mehmed) sent shockwaves through the empire by marrying his Ukranian concubine Roxelana (later named Hurrem, “the cheerful one”). Previous Sultans never married, but fathered children from the many women in their harem, rarely sleeping with the same woman twice (there was a strong preference for virgins). However Suleiman became captivated by Hurrem and the two became true soulmates, effectively ruling the empire together for two decades. This was the Golden Age of the Ottoman empire, which saw the reform of education, taxation and criminal law. Suleiman’s brilliant architect Mimar Sinan supervised the construction of nearly 500 buildings, including the famous Blue Mosque and the even more impressive Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, one of the greatest achievements of Islamic architecture. Hurram’s partnership with Suleiman led to the 130-year period known as the Sultanate of Women, during which the wives and mothers of sultans exerted considerable political influence in the running of the empire.

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Incidentally, it was a failed invasion of Vienna by Suleiman during 1529-32 that convinced Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire not to burn Martin Luther at the stake as he needed the help of the Protestant leaders against the Ottoman threat. Thus the Protestant Reformation thrived and was saved from being snuffed out.

Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’: The father of modern day Turkey, Ataturk was an Army commander who went on to become the 1st President of Turkey, abolishing the caliphate in 1924 and bringing to an end 2500 years of empire in Byzantion/ Constantinople/ Istanbul. Mustafa Kemal was responsible for establishing Turkey as a modern secular nation, adopting the Western calendar and the Roman script to re-integrate the nation into the global economy after decades of decline, recognizing and celebrating the pre-Islamic history of the city including conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum.

And so, I came to the end of this fascinating book which has got me even more excited about visiting this city one day soon. The complexity of Istanbul is perhaps best represented through this 16th century illustration of the city by Danish renaissance painter Melchior Lorck.

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Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is a thrilling trip through time


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I’ve just finished reading my 26th Stephen King book, 11.22.63; I read my first – It – in 1988. I’ve read more of his stories than I have of any other author, with Isaac Asimov next at 18.

Stephen King doesn’t give the reader any easy rides. His protagonists go through pain. Lots of it. There are lots of lead characters in popular culture who get hurt, like Indiana Jones and John McClane; but those guys mainly experience physical pain and they are still strong enough to bounce back in the next action scene a few minutes later. King’s characters on the other hand, keep hurting for a long time because the pain is physical, emotional and psychological. Like in real life. I think this is the real reason he is classified as a horror author, because we know that life’s realities can be more horrifying than any ghost, monster or supernatural phenomenon.

11.22.63 falls into the scifi spectrum of Stephen King stories, like Under the Dome. In 2011, a small town high school teacher Jake Epping is invited by long-time acquaintance Al Templeton to his house, where he learns that Templeton has been using a secret time portal to travel back in time; the portal opens into a specific day in 1958. Templeton extracts from Epping a promise that he will go back and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a pivotal moment in American history which Templeton believes led to America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War and many other ills the world has suffered since. Epping agrees, goes through the portal and then travels down south to Texas where he has to get through the next 5 years, find Lee Harvey Oswald and prevent the foul deed. In the hands of any other author, this would have become a typical suspense thriller, but King is interested as much in the journey as the destination and takes us on a tour of America in the late 50s and early 60s, a nation that has gone past the post-war baby boom and is now dealing with urban decay and social cynicism. Along the way, Epping meets some memorable characters, falls in love, gets into some heart-stopping dangerous situations and eventually faces his destiny as the man who has the power to change the course of history.

One key plot mechanic used – kind of like the opposite of a deus ex machina (apparently the term is ‘diabolus ex machina’) – is that the past does everything possible to prevent its course from being changed. And so, Epping has to battle all sorts of people and incidents that pop up, like Murphy’s Law, to stop him from getting to Oswald before he fires that gun. And afterwards, Epping finds out that even if you do manage to change the course of events, Time has a way of taking revenge.

This is a fascinating story that stays in the memory well after the last page has been turned. I would love to watch the mini-series featuring James Franco as Jake Epping, which premiered on Hulu earlier this year and see if it does justice to King’s writing. If it weren’t for the fact that King writes horror/ fantasy/ scifi, he would certainly have been celebrated as one of America’s great modern writers of fiction.

Which is worse? Living in a radioactive airship or inside a giant bio-engineered lizard?


I recently read two very different scifi books, with a similar theme – people living part or all of their lives on the move, inside an unusual, cramped and unpleasant form of transportation. Both stories are set about 250 years in the future on a post-apocalyptic Earth operating under militarized society.

First, let me talk about James Barclay’s Heart of Granite. The book begins with this quote from fictional scientist Dr. David Wong – “History will record that the discovery of alien technology and DNA on asteroid X34-102-401 brought us to a predictable catastrophe. Governments perverted our greatest gift to synthesise vehicles of destruction. Global conflict was inevitable.”

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The story takes place during the mid-23rd century in the midst of a world war involving three major global powers – United Europe (UE), Middle East & Africa (the Mid-Afs or Mafs) and Latin America (the Sambas). All three parties use alien DNA technology for their weapons.

Our hero, Max Halloran is a maverick pilot (think Tom Cruise in Top Gun), fighting on the side of United Europe. Operating under the call sign ‘Hal-X’ he flies with the Inferno squadron. So far, so normal. Except that he flies an artificially grown dragon (called a Drake), synthesized from alien DNA and terrestrial lizard DNA. The drakes have a pouch which the pilot climbs into. It then fills with fluid to protect the pilot from g-forces and also neurally connects him/ her to the drake’s brain so that it can be controlled by thought. The drakes, pilots and a few thousand other military combatants are transported inside the body cavity of a kilometer long giant lizard (called a Behemoth), which lumbers along the devastated battlefield on 30-odd pairs of legs. The Behemoth inside which Max and his crew are based is the eponymous Heart of Granite (or HoG for short). The military also uses other genetically modified lizards as troop carriers (Komodos), ground assault vehicles with missile launchers (Geckos), support carriers (Iguanas) and high speed patrol vehicles (Basilisks), some of which are also transported aboard the giant Behemoths.

Heart of Granite plays out like a standard pulp fiction military thriller. There are spectacular air battles, heartless superior officers, rivalry between hotheaded pilots, plus the usual mix of sex, drugs and alcohol.

But what made the book special for me was the description of life aboard the HoG, which operates like a typical military base. The author goes into tremendous detail about the internal structures of the Behemoth. There’s the main bridge inside the head cavity with its large screen monitors and sophisticated communication equipment; the flight deck from which the drakes are launched – a giant ramp opens out under the Behemoth’s tail from which they take off; the hidden passageways and rooms occupied by black marketeers and drug peddlers; the giant brain of the Behemoth which can be accessed in the case of an emergency to reset the electrical, mechanical and biological systems. Some parts of the Behemoth are particularly smelly or occasionally leak body fluid through cracks in the flesh, which then pool on the floor in a squelchy mess. It’s anything but glamorous, but the men and women aboard the HoG take it all in their stride as they fight for their nation and for glory. There’s also a somewhat convoluted plotline involving a government and military conspiracy, which Max gets sucked into. Eventually, he has to save himself, his friends and the HoG, while evading the higher-ups in the military who are trying to silence him.

 

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The second book I read was Nicholas Sansbury Smith’s Hell Divers. About 250 years after World War III turned the surface of the earth into a radioactive wasteland, all that remains of humanity is a population of less than a thousand people, who live aboard two helium airships – the Hive and the Ares.  Once upon a time, there were dozens of such airships, but now only these two survive. The rest fell to the poisoned earth one by one, as their ageing nuclear systems failed or the ships were struck by giant bolts of lightning from the perpetual mega-storms which circle the planet. Generation after generation of airship captains circle the globe, looking in vain for a single spot on the planet which is not radioactive, where they can touch down and start a normal life. Meanwhile, over more than two centuries, they have learned how to survive inside the airship, with plants grown inside farms, systems constantly patched up and repaired, living in cramped quarters with stinking toilets, everything recycled and citizens suffering from cancer due to the leaking radiation from the on-board nuclear reactors.

The protagonist of this book is Xavier Rodriguez, or X for short. X is a Hell Diver, an elite member of the military on board the Hive. They specialize in doing parachute drops into ruined cities, looking for precious spare parts or other pieces of technology which are required to keep the ships functioning and airborne. The author starts off by telling us that the average life expectancy of a Hell Diver is 15 jumps, but X is about to do his 96th. Beating the statistical odds comes with a price – most of X’s Hell Diver friends have perished over the years, his own wife has recently died and X keeps himself going by drowning himself in alcohol.

In this story, the airship Ares attempts a desperate retrieval mission for a large cache of critical nuclear reactor parts. The ship chooses to go to Hades (Chicago of old earth) which was the HQ of the company that built these airships and is rumoured to have a warehouse filled with pristine spare parts. Unfortunately, Hades is racked by the most violent thunderstorms on the planet and no airship’s Hell Diver team has ever returned from a dive there. Not surprisingly, the Ares is badly damaged and sends out an SOS; Captain Ash of the Hive decides to respond, her conscience winning out against the advice of her subordinates. She turns to her most experienced Hell Diver and it’s up to X and his crew to save the day. Most of them survive the jump against all odds, but once on the surface, they discover that Hades is overrun by a host of mutated creatures which are able to survive in the radiation. It becomes a desperate race against time to find the cache of parts, escape the marauding creatures and get back to the ship before it too falls victim to the brutal weather above the ruined city.

There are a couple of subplots which lift the story above standard military scifi fare. One involves the orphaned and traumatized son of X’s deceased colleague who now comes under his care. Just as the boy warms up to X’s attempts to build a rapport, he has to deal with the possibility that X will not return from his dive into Hades. The other subplot involves a group of citizens who are fed up with the squalid conditions on the lower decks of the Hive and decide to start a rebellion at the same time that the ship enters the perilous skies above Hades.

I’m not a particularly fast reader, but I managed to finish each of these books in less than four hours, which is an indication of how quickly-paced both stories are and how easy it is to digest the conversational language of both authors, in spite of lots of technical details thrown in.

Sorcerers of Majipoor: world building on the scale of Lord of the Rings


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Robert Silverberg’s award winning 1980 novel Lord Valentine’s Castle introduced scifi fans to the world of Majipoor, a giant planet settled by humans and other alien races for thousands of years. Since then, the prolific Mr. Silverberg (now 81 years old) has published 6 more novels and countless short stories and novelettes revisiting Majipoor at different points of time across its history, the latest being the short story collection Tales of Majipoor, published in 2013.

The novels deal mainly with the ruling triumvirate of the planet – the Coronal (equivalent to a king), the Pontifex (the head of the bureaucracy, a post into which the ruling Coronal moves upon the death of the previous Pontifex) and the Lady of Sleep (the keeper of morals, a post occupied by the mother/ aunt of the reigning Coronal). Majipoor is a ‘backwater planet’ which has limited contact with Earth. The original human settlers were technologically advanced and were able to tame the planet and its aboriginal inhabitants – the Piurivar – in the early part of the planet’s history. In those early centuries of colonization, the human settlers built great engineering marvels. One of these is the Coronal’s castle, built on top of Castle Mount, the tallest mountain on the planet with springtime weather maintained right to the top using force fields and atmosphere generators. There is also the sprawling underground city called Labyrinth which houses the Pontifex and the entire bureaucracy. Other alien races have since then migrated to Majipoor and become an integral part of the human-dominated society. Interestingly, due to the scarcity of metals on the planet, whatever advanced technology exists on Majipoor (genetically modified draft animals, floater cars and energy guns) is the stuff that’s survived or maintained from the original colonist tech. Since then, Majipoor has settled into an agricultural economy supporting a pastoral society.

This means that the Majipoor stories have more in common with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings fantasy books than the scifi stories of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. In the Majipoor novels, Robert Silverberg has unleashed his world building skills and the sheer amount of detail that pops up in the novels is astonishing. Tolkien likewise had worked for many years to create an extensive historical, geographical and linguistic backdrop to the world of Middle Earth before he embarked upon the task of writing the actual stories of hobbits, elves and the One Ring.

I had read Silverberg’s first Majipoor trilogy – Lord Valentine’s Castle, Majipoor Chronicles and Valentine Pontifex – in the late 90s. The trilogy centred around the character of Valentine and his journey from becoming the Coronal till his succession to the position of Pontifex.

Now, more than 15 years later, I am thoroughly enjoying revisiting this world with the first book of another Majipoor trilogy featuring the books Sorcerers of Majipoor, Lord Prestimion and King of Dreams. These are set thousands of years before the Valentine trilogy and tell the story of Prestimion and his journey to becoming Coronal of Majipoor.

And so, I am in awe all over again of Silverberg’s amazing world building skills and am re-experiencing the sheer joy of reading about this gigantic planet, its flora, fauna and peoples. I have a mental picture of Silverberg sitting down with large sheets of paper and writing out the names of each of the 50 cities (Amblemorn, Dundilmir, Castlethorn, Gimkandale, Vugel, Muldemar…) that dot the slopes of Castle Mount or the names of rivers, lakes, flowers, trees (simbajinder, dyumbataro, mengak, havilbove, jujuga, halatinga), birds, animals and minerals which are mentioned as part of the narrative.

For example, in the Sorcerers of Majipoor there is a page and a half devoted to the description of the dyumbataro tree – how it’s branches uniquely grow from a mass of aerial roots and how the humble fisherfolk living around Lake Roghoiz are able to shape these to build a platform for their houses; how the houses are built from translucent sheets of a glossy mineral cut from the sides of nearby cliffs and the evening sunlight strikes this material to create a sight of extraordinary beauty along the shores of the lake. This scene is a small part of a chapter which covers a journey by the main characters down the River Glayge aboard a riverboat named Termagent, passing the village of Makroposopos, famous for the skill of its weavers, arriving at the impressive Stangard Falls, then onwards past the river towns of Jerrik, Ganbole, Sattinor and Vrove with the cities of Nimivan, Threiz, Hydasp, Davanampiya, Mitripond, Storp visible along the way…

You get the picture!

Many online reader reviews have criticized Sorcerers of Majipoor for its slow pacing and lack of plot progression. That’s something one has to be prepared for when reading the Majipoor books. The whole point of the book is the enjoyment of the world rather than the thrill of a page turner.

Even so, there is a plot in this book, not just descriptions of cities and trees! It is a story of political intrigue played out against the backdrop of old-fashioned jousting games, royal balls, lavish feasts, the above-mentioned river trip and much more. The central character here is Prince Prestimion, who is heir presumptive to the Coronal’s throne but has the crown snatched away from him on the eve of the coronation through the machinations of others. He now has to sort out who are friends, foes and fence-sitters as he attempts to overthrow the usurper. His three closest friends – the noblemen Duke Svor, Septach Melayn and Gialaurys – remind me of the Three Musketeers, each with their own personalities, which get fleshed out over the course of the novel.

The Majipoor novels are not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you enjoy losing yourself in imaginary worlds, then start off with Lord Valentine’s Castle and work your way through the two trilogies. You may want to keep a notebook and pen handy though, to keep track of all the characters and places!

Of Great Houses, Power Crystals and the ability to speak ‘cat’


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Jim Butcher is an American best-selling author, best known for his long-running Dresden Files series of contemporary fantasy/ mystery novels. He’s written one book a year for the past 15 years and they keep popping up whenever I browse Amazon for best-selling books in scifi/ fantasy. I haven’t read a single one as I have no interest in the sub-genre, but I’ve always wished to read one of his books, as surely someone with so much success must be a good writer.

Well, my wish has now been fulfilled because Mr. Butcher has started on a steampunk series and the first entry The Aeronaut’s Windlass was published a few months ago.

Steampunk is one of my favourite scifi sub-genres – a type of alternate history set in Victorian or pre-Victorian times, but with advanced mechanical automation and technology.

There are also steampunk novels that are not set in our world, like Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World which is set on a Mars of the far future where some societies are operating at steampunk tech level. The Aeronaut’s Windlass is similarly set in an unnamed world where instead of nations, we have spires that tower for miles over a misty surface.

The story centres on two warring spires, Spire Albion and Spire Aurora. Albion, as the name suggests is an analog of Great Britain and Aurora stands in for Spain. Spire Albion’s society is identical to that of feudal Britain. Members of high society belong to any number of Great Houses with their own pecking order, Houses Lancaster and Astor being among the richest and most powerful. The Spire is ruled by a Spirearch, the current ruler being His Majesty Addison Orson Magnus Jeremiah Albion.

So far, so normal. Now come the interesting bits.

While gunpowder was the source of power in our world, it’s crystals in this world. Giant crystals tethered inside airships help them levitate and create a protective force field called a shroud. Smaller crystals are used to power ‘light cannons’ on the ships and even smaller ones placed in hand gauntlets allow the wearer to fire blasts of energy in battle. The crystals are grown over several years and are very precious. A destroyed or damaged crystal means a tangible reduction in the Spire’s firepower until a new one of similar size is ready for use.

Another interesting element is that meat is grown in vats and there are ‘vatteries’ all over the spire to provide food for the populace.

Now it gets weirder. Cats occupy a very special place in Spire society. They are very few in number, are as intelligent as the humans and have organized themselves into Clans, some of which are aligned with the Great Houses. Since the cats are generally aloof and arrogant, they are not particularly liked by the general public. A very select group of humans have the ability to speak Cat and are therefore held in very high regard by the Cat Clans but are treated with some degree of hostility and distrust by other people.

While this sort of plot element could easily push a story into the realm of farce, Mr. Butcher keeps it all very straight-faced. When fantasy and scifi authors build imaginary worlds, they run the risk of going into excruciating detail and boring the reader to death, or keeping it too superficial and therefore straining credibility. I’ve only read a quarter of the book so far, but I like the way the layers of this world are being peeled away in every chapter; it’s the sort of journey of discovery I enjoy when reading a book.

The characters are a mixed bag. The humans are rather stereotypical – feisty noblewomen, spoilt rich noblemen, heroic rich noblemen, brave and dedicated ship captains.

Fortunately, the cats make things interesting. Well actually, there’s only one that’s appeared so far. I became an immediate fan of Rowl, the heir apparent of House Silent Paws. He suffers no fools and fiercely protects his ward, the human Bridget, who comes from one of the poorer Houses, Tagwynn (Rowl lovingly calls her ‘Littlemouse’). Bridget and the impetuous Gwendolyn from House Lancaster are both in training at the Spirearch’s Guard, the elite force that defends Spire Albion from Auroran attack. The two ladies become good friends and have to deal with the usual mix of friendships and rivalries that emerge in these situations (think of Top Gun or The Officer and a Gentleman).

The two most boring characters are the captain and the XO of an Albion merchant ship called the Predator – Messrs. Grimm and Creedy. I literally cannot sit through any part of the book when the two of them are together on the ship. Grimm is serious, Creedy is earnest and it’s just impossible to describe how boring it is when two such men speak to each other, even in the heat of battle. I hope to God the heroic guy on the cover of the book doesn’t turn out to be Grimm. That would crush me.

Keeping the cats company on the interesting end of the scale are the etherealists (sort of like wizards). One of them, Efferus Effrenus Ferus is hilarious; think Dumbledore on weed…lots of weed.

At the quarter-way point in the book, things are just warming up. There are some mysterious and dangerous creatures living in the hidden depths of the spires. There are a few people who are called warriorborn, who Rowl refers to as ‘half souls’. I am looking forward to the reveals on these as the story progresses, provided I can get past the boring Grimm-Creedy bits!

The Aeronaut’s Windlass was a 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards Nominee in the Fantasy category. The second book The Olympian Affair is likely to be released in early 2017.

Milkweed Triptych: Supermen and wizards fight WW2 in amazing scifi trilogy


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In his books The Joyful Science (1882) and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put forward the concept of the Übermensch, which would have a far-reaching impact on literature, science and politics. When Nietzsche’s works were translated into English, the word became ‘Overman’ or ‘Superman’; George Bernard Shaw was inspired to write a 1903 play Man and Superman, based on the concept. In 1933, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel published a comic book with a bald telepathic villain that they named Superman; later they figured it would be a better idea to make Superman the good guy. Nietzsche’s character Zarathustra suggested that humanity should set itself a goal of physiological advancement, to strive to become Übermensch, rather than to allow itself to ‘fall’ into a life of comfort and security, devoid of risks.

Half a century later, the Nazis wholeheartedly adopted the idea, fit it into their ‘master race’ plan and even embarked on some horrific experiments to try and create their own supermen.

Now, imagine the consequences if the experiments had worked.

In Ian Tregillis’ debut novel Bitter Seeds (2010), a brilliant but unhinged German doctor decides to try and build supermen (and women). In 1920 while the German countryside is devastated by poverty and starvation, he starts offering bed and board to orphaned or unwanted children at his farmhouse. He then experiments on them, trying to find the parts of the brain that he believes can allow humans to tap into higher order physical abilities, such as telekinesis, levitation, pyrokinesis, telepathy and precognition. Behind the farmhouse, a makeshift cemetary appears and grows, the result of failed experiments. The doctor discovers that when specific parts of the brain are excited by electric current, it does indeed allow certain subjects to tap into their Willenskräfte (willpower) and exhibit superhuman powers. Over the next decade, his half-dozen ‘children’, powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries strapped to their waists, hone their skills (mainly through coercion and punishment). The mad doctor comes to the attention of the Nazis, who become his patrons and thus the Gotterelektrongruppe (“divine electricity unit”) is formed as a independent unit within the SS.

Soon after the start of WW2, the German army with this superhuman unit at its leading edge, scythes through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forest. Suddenly we see a very different history unfold across Europe with the British army completely decimated at Dunkirk in May 1940. Britain is on the verge of losing the war.

Meanwhile, a British secret service agent named Raybould Marsh, while on a mission to Europe comes into possession of some fragments of film and photographs that show the supermen in training exercises. Coupled with the news from the front, the British realize that they are up against something otherworldly. By sheer chance, Marsh recalls a conversation with a friend from his Oxford days who had alluded to secret cults and ancient texts; apparently, there are a very small group of people in Britain who can speak an ancient language to call upon and request favors from inter-dimensional beings called Eidolons. Before long, the secret service have pressed these ‘warlocks’ into national service, forming a ‘black ops unit’ code-named Milkweed which uses the Eidolons to protect England, mainly by playing with the weather, but also some other extraordinary acts. However, the Eidolons are not easily controlled and their ‘asking price’ (which is live human blood) goes up each time the Milkweed warlocks request for some help.

And so the story progresses, at breakneck speed across two more books The Coldest War and Necessary Evil. Marsh and his Milkweed colleagues are pitted against their superhuman enemies while trying to control the otherworldly Eidolons. One of the German superhumans, a clairvoyant named Gretel emerges as their most dangerous adversary; how can you defeat someone who can see the futures…all possible futures?

As ridiculous as this story line may seem to a casual reader, Mr. Tregillis has such command over his language that the entire narrative becomes utterly believable. His descriptions of places and situations are vivid, almost tactile. And the characterizations are deep and realistic – other than Gretel and the mad doctor who are purely evil and beyond redemption, the other key characters are drawn in shades of grey; Marsh and his acquaintances exhibit equal measures of love, jealousy, naiveté, stupidity, panic and thoughtlessness. Every action has its consequences, which come back to haunt them hours, months or years later. The narrative spans several years, into a very different Cold War. Ultimately, all the loose ends are tied up by the end of the third book, but everyone has paid a price and as often is the case, the most heroic people are also the ones who have suffered the most and whose brave exploits remain a secret from the general public. It’s also refreshing to read a scifi story where the US plays absolutely no part!

This is an altogether engrossing and compelling scifi thriller, which will appeal to fans of alternate history, military fiction and mystery thrillers.

A little bit of information about Ian Tregillis. He has a PhD in physics and works at the Los Alamo s National Laboratory in New Mexico, the home of the Manhattan Project and one of only two institutions where classified nuclear weapons research has been conducted in the US. In 2005, he attended the famous Clarion Workshop, a 6-week long annual workshop for aspiring scifi and fantasy writers, conducted each year by a who’s who of established authors of the genre. Five years later, Tregillis published Bitter Seeds, completed its two sequels in the next three years. He is now considered part of the growing band of scifi/ fantasy authors based in New Mexico, whose most famous member is George R.R. Martin, but also consists of other well known authors like John Scalzi, Ty Franck & Daniel Abraham (who publish as James S.A. Corey) and S.M. Stirling.

I am now looking forward to reading Ian Tregillis’ latest book The Mechanical which is the first book of his new trilogy titled The Alchemy Wars.

Pierce Brown’s Red Rising fails to impress


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Having reached the half-way point of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, I have to say I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. The book has been on the several critics’ ‘must read’ lists and has also fared well with readers on Goodreads and Amazon after it was published 12 months ago.

The building blocks of the story sound familiar: a teenage protagonist, a dystopian future society with a ruling class and a downtrodden worker class, plenty of suffering, violence and death. The book clearly caters to the same audience that made bestsellers out of The Hunger Games, Divergent, Wool and Maze Runner series. On the surface, even Harry Potter is built around the same standard Bildungsroman novel structure. With stories as derivative as these, there is not much that the writer can offer in terms of originality, so all one can hope for are appealing characters and fast-paced action, delivered through elegant writing. This is exactly what the Harry Potter books have in superabundance and therefore distinguishes them from all the other pretenders. Sadly, none of these characteristics exist at any level of significance in Pierce Brown’s book.

I must credit Mr. Brown for trying to create a distinct dialect of English for a Mars-based futuristic society, but with the entire story being told in the first person by the protagonist Darrow, it makes for very difficult reading. Strike one for elegant writing.

When it comes to the characters, of course it is normal to have a one or two irritating characters for the protagonist to deal with…who usually become staunch allies later on in the books. Think of Hermione in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or much further back to The White Mountains, a wonderful dystopian YA novel from 1967 (before the term Young Adult existed) where thirteen-year-old Will is forced to go on the run with his hated cousin Henry – in both cases, the irritating companion soon becomes a trusted companion. In Red Rising however, all of Darrow’s allies are focused on using him as a tool to overthrow the ruling class Golds, so friendship and likeability really don’t enter the equation. Strike two for appealing characters.

And as for pace, there is indeed a lot happening, but mostly it just seems tedious rather than breathless. For example, there are pages devoted to the excruciating physical modifications Darrow must undergo in order to infiltrate the Gold society. After a while, I just couldn’t be bothered and felt like skipping paragraphs so I could get to the part where he actually does some infiltrating. Strike three for fast-paced action.

So, I am just going to grind through this book somehow and will not bother to read the sequel Golden Son which has just been released. I am facing similar issues trying to read the much touted Rick Yancey YA novel The 5th Wave. With both these books jumping on to the Hollywood production line, one hopes that the movie rises above the limitations of the books, much as Lionsgate has done with The Hunger Games franchise.