Booknotes – Science Fiction & Fantasy

I’ve recently finished reading one of the best fantasy series I’ve come across lately: Jon Skovron’s Empire of the Storms trilogy.

skovronStarting with Hope and Red, it tells the story of two people, a girl who grows up to be a fearsome warrior and a boy who becomes a thief. However, what could easily have become a cliché-ridden ‘team becoming couple’-story develops into a much more exciting thing. The books are set in an interesting world, namely an Empire made up of islands in a vast ocean. This alone is great, as I love nautical fantasy (and I have to admit that this was the reason I got the book in the first place). But if I came for the ships, I stayed for the characters: Skovron introduces a plethora of compelling and complex characters. Each of them has his or her own motivation and, most importantly of all, they all change and develop as things happen to them. Best of all, the changes within the characters actually drive the story and define the stakes – which, in a way, become higher than in most other fantasy novels. Highly recommended!

220px-the_lost_fleet_dauntlessI also finished another series, the reading of which was a sort of guilty pleasure. I’m talking about Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet. Clocking in at eleven volumes, this military sci-fi soap opera had a strange pull – as soon as I finished a volume, I wanted to read the next one. It’s not that the books are especially gripping per se, and several times when I was halfway through one I decided that this would be the last. However, Campbell has what could be called an economical way of storytelling: there is lots of repetition, but in the end there are just enough new developments that I became curious how the overall plot would work out. And, for being military sci-fi, it is refreshingly free from the trashy right-wing ideology often found in this genre. Recommended if you like space battles mixed with a dose of exploration and romance.

artarcanaFor Christmas, I got myself the new history of Dungeons & Dragons, Art and Arcana: A Visual History. This is a huge coffee-table book full of spectacular artwork from all editions of D&D. The accompanying text was co-authored by Jon Peterson, who is the authority on the history of role-playing games. What I like about Art and Arcanais that it not only covers Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and the coming-into-being of D&D – something that has already been the subject of several books – but that it delves deeply into the evolution of the game through different editions and settings. If you are a fan of D&D, give yourself a treat and get this book!

blAs I write this, I’m halfway through Nicholas Eames’ Bloody Rose, the sequel to his fabulous Kings of the Wyld. I started with some trepidation, as I really loved the first book, but was unsure how sustainable the analogy between fantasy adventurers and rock bands would be. However, Eames manages to weave an engaging story around Fable, the band led by Rose, the daughter of one of the lead characters of the first book. Again, there are great characters and as the story develops, we get a much more nuanced perspective on the world, especially on the monsters that hitherto served only as the backdrop and cannon fodder for the exploits of the bands. And now some really wild things happened and how will they get out of this and sorry I have to get back to the book…

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Booknotes – Historical Books

One of the things that keep me running with ACW is the fact that there are so many good books on the subject. Not only is the quality of academic research very high, many of the books are also eminently readable.

TomblinOne of those is Barbara Brooks Tomblin’s Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy. While there is substantial research on African-American soldiers, sailors have for a long time been neglected. Tomblin provides a comprehensive overview on the activities of African-Americans in relation to the Navy’s war effort. Her decision to not just deal with the 18.000 black sailors that served the Union during the Civil War, but also to include the wider context, is very rewarding. She deals with the Navy’s contraband camps, with informants and pilots as well as all sorts of informal help provided by slaves and escaped slaves. It is really fascinating to see how the Navy’s policy towards African-American fugitives developed in the field. One case in point is Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, who had ties to rich Southern families and had started the war as a defender of slavery. However, when confronted with the realities of slavery, he changed his mind: “God forgive me – I have seen nothing that has disgusted me more than the wretched physical wants of these poor people, who earn all the gold spent by their masters at Sarasota and in Europe”.

In turn, African-Americans soon realised that the Navy offered them sanctuary and protection, and they help Union operations whenever they could. Tomblin’s book is full of incidents showing the determination and bravery of African-American spies and informants, pilots and sailors – and many of those incidents would make great scenarios for Sharp Practice.

donelsonTimothy B. Smith is an author I discovered when researching the Battle of Fort Donelson for my Altar of Freedom project. I’ve since read both his books on Grants operations to clear the Mississippi. Grant Invades Tennessee. The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson deals not only with the fights for those two forts, but also with the wider context of the operations. It’s a very well written book that is characterised by a clear narrative, stringent analysis and a masterful use of source material. Smith managed to get into the details of tactical manoeuvres without being confusing or boring, and he at the same time never loses view of the big picture. And if you thought that political generals were a problem of the Union, the cringeworthy actions of Confederate Generals Pillow and Floyd will show you that stupidity, self-importance and sheer incompetence could also be found in the Southern armies.

shiloSmith’s Shilo. Conquer or Perish continues the story by describing what was then the largest battle in American history, with a number of casualties that came as a shock to the public and dispelled any lingering romantic notions of war. Again, he masterfully managed to make sense of a confusing battle fought as many separate encounters. He argues that the terrain shaped much of what was happening and also argues that the Union was not as surprised as it was made out to be in later accounts. 

Those books got me interested in Grant’s early career, so I also read The Battle of Belmont. Grant Strikes South by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr. Belmont was Grant’s first battle and a rather small affair. Unfortunately, Hughes has difficulties conveying the importance of the engagement, and when halfway into it I caught myself asking if this battle really needs a whole book. In the hands of a better author, it might have been an engaging volume, but unfortunately it falls short of the standard I’m used to by now.belmont

Still, all three books make for a fascinating glimpse into the personality of Ulysses S. Grant. As Hughes writes, “he made mistakes and took risks and got away with it”. In all three battles, he was more or less surprised by Confederate actions, but still managed to turn something that could have been a disaster into an orderly retreat (at Belmont) or even a victory (Shilo). It seems that he has learned that the battle’s not over until it’s over and that tenacity can win or at least save the day. This is best encapsulated in the famous encounter between Sherman and Grant after the first day at Shilo. Sherman initially wanted to suggest a retreat, but when he saw Grant calmly smoking a cigar in the rain, he became embarrassed and just said: “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” To which Grant replied: “Yes, lick ’em to-morrow, though.”

Currently Reading

For our Gettysburg Battle Day, I read a couple of books on the battle. One of them was Edwin B. Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign. A Study in Command from 1968.

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This is, in some ways, a book that shows its age. Published eight years before John Keegan revolutionized military history by writing about the experiences of the common soldiers in The Face of Battle, Coddington firmly concentrates on the higher levels of command and on the decisions of the commanders. He is also quite judgemental, voicing his opinion about who made which mistake and how it could have been avoided. However, it still is a very good and rewarding reading. Coddington presents a clear narrative, making it easy to follow the action and his analytical approach helps to clarify many decisions.

The one thing that impressed me most however, was the ending, specifically the last sentence of the book. Usually, you expect from an ending a wrapping up of the whole narrative, a closure that gives the whole thing a meaning and makes you feel that something has been achieved. He describes how General Warren, after Lee had crossed the Potomac back into Virginia, sent a message to the War Department ordering maps of the Shenandoah Valley. And then he ends with the sentence: “And so the war went on.” No closure, no wrapping-up or bestowing meaning – instead the sobering, even bleak reminder that Gettysburg, something that today is remembered as a highly significant turning-point, at the time was just one episode in a war that was far from over.

CoddingtonAAF

Ronald S. Coddington’s African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album is a very different book. It presents 77 photographs of African-American soldiers from Coddington’s own collection. Each image is accompanied by a short biography of the soldier depicted. This is quite an achievement all by itself, as it is not easy to get biographical information about men who, in many cases, had been illiterate slaves who left no written evidence by themselves. One of the great things about this approach is that it puts the individuals, their choices and their actions into the foreground. This provides a much-needed contrast to the stereotypical description of African-Americans even by well-meaning white officers like Thomas Higginson. All the variety can’t, of course, conceal the common experiences. Most of the men were scarred by slavery and the war and few grew old. But one of the saddest thing was their treatment after Reconstruction: time and again, you read how in the late 1870s and 1880s, when white suprematist groups crawled back out of their holes after Union occupational forces had left the South, African-Americans were driven from political offices and terrorized, many of them ending in an abject state of poverty.

McGinty

Touching on the subject of African-American experience, Brian McGinty’s The Rest I Will Kill is a short and dramatic retelling of an astonishing event that happened early in the war: In July 1861, a U.S. ship was captured by a Confederate raider. The prize crew wanted to sail the ship to Savannah, where it would be sold off. The ship had a free black cook named William Tillman, whom they planned to sell into slavery. What happened next took them by surprise, though: Tillman, aided only by a German sailor named William Stedding, overpowered the prize crew and single-handedly sailed the ship back to New York. At the time, Tillman became a celebrity and was hailed as a hero in the Northern press. The book is an easy read, telling an exciting story while also providing background on the political situation as well as on the biographies of the people involved. It clearly shows the desperation, but also the courage African-Americans showed in the face of a regime that treated them as chattel.

And now for something completely different, as they say. I’ve also read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy lately, but most of it left me rather disappointed. I have to say that I’m wholeheartedly sick of the whole ‘dark and gritty’ thing. Not only is this a childish view on life (it’s laughable how people think it is ‘realistic’), it’s also full of rather disturbing torture porn – seriously, what is it with those people and sexualized violence?

Eames

Fortunately, I hit upon some real gems. The first pleasant surprise was Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld. Imagine a classical D&D-like fantasy world where adventuring parties are treated like 80s rock bands. This is basically the analogy Eames bases his story upon and to my surprise, it worked really really well. It’s the well-known story of an old hero and the effort to, one last time, get the band together. It seems Eames couldn’t decide if he wanted to write a funny book or a tragic one, but both facets actually work equally well. Of course it’s overdone and sometimes corny and a bit of a lad’s story, but hey, so’s glam rock! Certainly the most captivating, most original and most fun fantasy novel I’ve read for a long time.

Chambers

 

For science-fiction, the same is true for Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I know I’m late to the party with this one – I’ve seen it before, but I was always a bit apprehensive as I usually enjoy action-oriented sci-fi. Now I finally started reading it and wow, it’s good. There is almost no shooty stuff, but the story is still captivating and exciting. A lot of original ideas and about as far away from dark and gritty as you can get. It’s a feel-good novel about community and tolerance and living together despite being different. Highly recommended!

Review: Class Wargames

In 1977, the French artist, political activist and founder of the Situationist International, Guy Debord, published a game called The Game of War. The game was a derivative of chess insofar as it was played on a checkered board and managed without a random element. However, in setting the game in a specific period, namely horse-and-musket, and including a whole set of differentiated troop types, Debord incorporated elements of the then-popular board wargames. Nevertheless, the success of the game failed to materialize and while the political theories of Debord have influenced generations of leftist activists, his wargame has been sneered upon or ignored.

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The aim of the group Class Wargames and the book at hand – which, at the core, is a report of the group’s activities – is to explore what this game meant for Debord and what wargaming in general could mean for contemporary political activism. Class Wargames is a collective of leftist artists, academics and activists, many of them old-time wargamers like Richard Barbrook and Mark Copplestone. Since 2007, they stage wargames in galleries and at art festivals. Apart from Debord’s game, they have played a miniature wargame by Chris Peers set in the Russian Revolution, a couple of specially developed scenarios for Command&Colors: Napoleonics and games of H.G. Wells’ classic Little Wars.

The book is a sort of companion to these activities: It provides a history of Guy Debord’s Game of War and of the political left’s tradition of wargaming, it presents the story of Class Wargame’s own activities, it gives historical background to the battles fought and finally develops a theory of the function of wargaming for leftist politics.

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Class Wargames in action.

So what’s in there for the hobbyist wargamer? Readers interested in the history of wargaming will be fascinated to learn that there is a veritable tradition of leftist wargaming and of games and toy soldiers in art galleries, ranging from the early 20th century avant-garde to the 1960s penchant for performances and pop culture. The historical background to the games is interesting, albeit it won’t present much new to the historically keen gamer.

Where the book shines is in its numerous reflections. Barbrook continually explores the meaning of the games the group stages and draws attention to the narratives they produce. For example, in 2008 they staged a Russian Revolution game at the very place where an important moment of the Revolution happened, namely the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg. Using miniatures by Mark Copplestone, Reds vs. Reds presented a critical rereading of what has become the official Russian version of this history. Games such as this, Barbrook argues, can show that historical developments we take for granted were once fiercely disputed. Similarly, the Command & Colors scenario for the Haitian Revolution sheds light on an episode of the Napoleonic Wars that is often neglected. By making the insurgent slaves the heroes of the game’s story, it challenges our perspective on history.

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C&C: Napoleonics in the Haitian Revolution.

Even though I wouldn’t subscribe to all the theoretical analyses brought forward, I enjoyed the plethora of ideas and references. In fact, the only criticism I have is that Barbrook perhaps packs too much into the book’s 330 pages as I sometimes felt like losing the thread. On the other hand, the varied content also makes for fascinating discoveries. And it is never a dry read, as Barbrook succeeds in combining the thrill of intellectual curiosity with the joy of playing a wargame. Highly recommended if you fancy something out of the box.

This review was first published in Miniature Wargames with Battlegames 382.
A digital version of the book is available for free on the Class Wargames homepage.