Sunday, March 18, 2018

Riordan Retrospective: The Red Pyramid

Welcome once again to my Riordan Retrospective. For those of you just joining the fun, this is my look back at the works of Rick Riordan.  That means we're taking a look at Percy Jackson, its sequel series and its spin-off series. This is less of a formal review, and more of a look back, along with my thoughts and observations.  Last time, we looked back at The Last Olympian, and finished our look back at Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  

Today, I am proud to announce that we're are officially starting our look back at The Kane Chronicles. As such, we're going back to the one that started it all, and taking a look back at The Red Pyramid,The Kane Chronicles book 1. As per usual, we're starting off with a quick summary.

Carter and Sadie Kane are brother and sister, but have hardly ever seen each other.  Carter travels with their dad around the world on archaeological digs, while Sadie lives in London with their maternal grandparents.  Carter and Mr. Kane are visiting Sadie for Christmas vacation, and the trio go on a trip to the British Museum...and Mr. Kane is imprisoned in a sarcophagus of golden light, after blowing up the Rosetta Stone.  

Before long, the siblings discover a number of shocking revelations: the Egyptian gods are both real and active in the modern world, their parents are members of an ancient society of Egyptian magicians called The House of Life, and their dad is being held hostage by the god Set.  Oh, and they've only got five days to make sure Set doesn't take over the world.  Carter and Sadie are in for a whirlwind adventure of gods, monsters and magic.  

I've been a fan of Egyptian Mythology for a long time.  In fact, I was a fan of Egyptian Mythology even before I got into Classical Mythology.  So, you can imagine that I was really excited back when The Kane Chronicles was first announced.  Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed that Riordan mostly shied away from the animal-headedness of many of the Egyptian gods; that was one of the things always made them so cool to me.  Still, I'm overall reasonably happy with how he portrayed the gods.

Well, if I'm being honest, it's a bit more complicated than that.  Let me state up front, I don't thing Riordan necessarily did a bad job with the gods.  As per usual, his knowledge of the myths is second to none.  It's just...well, I've written stories of my own that involve Egyptian gods, so they're kind of like old friends to me.  As such, sometimes it feels weird how Riordan interprets the gods in the modern world.  For example, Thoth is an absent-minded professor.  Nothing bad there in and of itself, just not how I would have written him.  Thought, admittedly, Riordan's Thoth has started to grow on me over the years.  Like I said, nothing inherently bad, just my own bit of weirdness and biases. 

A common criticism the series gets is that the characters are a bit too similar to Percy Jackson characters.  I suppose that's true to an extent.  Carter and Annabeth do have somewhat similarly brainy personalities, but they have enough differences to keep things interesting.  People always say that Sadie is similar to Percy, but I just don't see it.  She just comes across as a bit too bitchy to really be remotely similar to Percy.  Speaking of Sadie, at times it felt like Riordan was trying to make her edgy and rebellious, but had to keep things family friendly, and couldn't go as far as he wanted to. 

I suppose that's why she says "God!" so much.  And yeah, God singular.  One of the things I always liked about Percy Jackson was how Riordan adapted to swearing and exclamation to the polytheistic setting, so I was rather disappointed that The Kane Chronicles didn't follow suit, at least for the first two books.  Sadie does also say bloody a lot, but that might have been Riordan slipping up.  For those who don't get it, in British English, using bloody as an exclamation is considered minor swearing, akin to saying shit or damn.  Then again, we all remember that scene in The Titan's Curse at the dam snack bar, so who knows. 

I do thing that The Kane Chronicles differs from Percy Jackson in scope and feel.  Percy Jackson takes place almost exclusively in America, baring a few bits in the Bermuda Triangle.  The Kane Chronicles, by contrast, has much more of a globe trekking feel to it.  Granted, much of The Red Pyramid still primarily takes place in America, but we also get scenes set in Britain, France and Egypt.  It does help that, thanks to magic, the characters can teleport across the world at a moment's notice.  Another thing is that you get just as much Ancient Egyptian history as mythology.  Rather than being children of the gods, Carter and Sadie, as well as pretty much everyone else in the House of Life, are descended from the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.  Specifically, they're descended from Narmer on their dad's side, and Ramses the Great on their mom's side.  Fun fact, the House of Life was an actual institution that existed during Ancient Egypt. 

The Egyptian gods have a different feel to them than the Greek gods of Percy Jackson.  They feel, at times, a bit more raw and primeval.  So, let's talk about the concept of hosting.  It took my a while to wrap my head around how works, but I think I've finally figured out an explanation.  An Egyptian god manifesting in the human world without being hosted by something would be like a human stepping onto the Moon without a spacesuit.  The gods need things to help anchor them to the mortal world.  It doesn't have to be humans, it can be anything from a building to a car.  In the latter case, it doubles as a rather literal example of deus ex machina.  They also tend to prefer humans who have Blood of the Pharaohs.   

Now let's get a bit more serious and talk about race, specifically, Carter and Sadie's race.  Their father is black American and their mother is white British.  Carter is looks more black, while Sadie looks more white, to the point that people often don't realize that they're siblings.  This isn't as crazy as it sounds; there's actually quite a few cases of mixed race siblings where each sibling tends to favor one parent's race over the other.  This actually doesn't come up all that much, and never gets preachy.  

This ties into another point: what race were the Ancient Egyptians?  Egypt sits at the crossroads of three continents, so you do get a good mix of peoples.  Overall, though, not all that different from the modern-day Egyptians; meaning similar to the Arabs and other Middle Eastern peoples.  Genetic analysis of mummies has pretty much confirmed this theory.  In fairness, Egypt has several black dynasties during the reign of the Nubians, and we have the very Egyptian Zia Rashid as Carter's eventual love interest as prominent character to provide some balance on the racial front.  Unlike a certain other series, it never dips into "We Wuz Kangz" territory, but I'm getting a head of myself.  We'll get to Magnus Chase in our due time.

When I first read this series, I was sure that Iskander, the Chief Lecter of the House of Life, was going to turn out to be Alexander the Great.  Iskander is the Arabic form of the name Alexander, and it is mentioned that he's been around since the Ptolemaic Dynasty.  Sadly, it turns out that I was wrong, and all of the above were red herrings.  Then again, Alexander the Great claimed to be a son of Zeus, so that would have opened a whole new can of worms.  Also, the Chief Lecter is the second in command, and the one who runs the House of Life when the pharaoh isn't around. 

In other events, I'm quite happy with how Set was portrayed.  It's set-up (hahaha, I said set!) to make it look like yet another poorly researched story where Set is portrayed as the Ancient Egyptian Satan, which isn't even close to being true.  Then the story subverts it all by revealing that Set is being manipulated by the true villain of the series: Apophis.  Set has always had a bit of a bad reputation even since ancient times.  You can blame it on the time the Hyksos people invaded Egypt.  Set was their favorite god, so the Egyptians began to associate Set with foreign invaders.  Over time, he got increasingly conflated with Apophis; which is ironic, because Set helped Ra battle Apophis every night.  

I liked how the series was able to reconcile mythology and science.  As Bast explains it, two things can be true in different ways.  Chairs exist, but so does the idea of chairs.  The sun can exist as a physical star, but Ra and his solar barge can exist as the embodiment of humanity's hopes and dreams about the sun.  Also, like The Demigod Files before it, The Red Pyramid confirms that Rick Riordan exists as a character in the Riordanverse.  The Kane Chronicles are explained to be based on a series of audio recording given to Riordan from the Kane siblings.  It also turns out that not every famous person was a demigod.  Some, like Elvis, were members of the House of Life.   

On the flip side, I thought that Riordan could have handled the religious implications better.  For example, Uncle Amos is very adamant that the House of Life doesn't worship the gods...except that what he describes is pretty much worship in all but name.  This is particularly odd, as there's a scene in Battle of the Labyrinth where Percy prays to Apollo and Artemis for good luck, and he's prayed to Poseidon plenty of times.  Even more bafflingly, it's confirmed that Moses existed in the Riordanverse, and was apparently the only magician who ever bet the House of Life in a magic contest.  

Now, there's a couple reasons for why this might be.  One, Riordan himself is a Christian of some stripe; my guess is Episcopalian based on how he used to work for an Episcopalian summer camp.  On the other hand, he did eventually more comfortable incorporating aspects of pagan religion into his books as time went on, so maybe that wasn't it.  More likely, he was fearing backlash from the Religious Right, and other such groups.  Remember, The Red Pyramid was published back when the whole "Harry Potter Leads Kids to Satanism" hubbub was still fresh in everyone's memory.  As such, Riordan might have wanted to avoid similar controversy. 

Despite The Kane Chronicles taking place in the same universe as Percy Jackson, we don't really get much in the way of crossovers.  The closest is when Uncle Amos looks to the Empire State Building and remarks that Manhattan has other gods, and other problems.  Well, we don't get much crossover in the main series.  Hopefully, will get its act together and we'll be able to discuss Demigods and Magicians at some point.  

Speaking of, let's take a moment to talk about the audiobook.  It features two narrators; Kevin R. Free narrates Carter's chapters, while Katherine Kellgren narrates Sadie's chapters.  This was my first encounter with Kevin R. Free, and he certainly does a good job.  So imagine my surprise when I encountered him again as the voice of Kevin from Welcome to Night Vale.  It was kind of surreal, since first and foremost, he'll always be Carter Kane to me.  

Now we have to get a little bit sad.  Earlier this year, Katherine Kellgren lost her long battle with cancer and passed away.  She narrated numerous audiobooks over the years, and was a much beloved narrator, but to me she'll always be Sadie Kane.  Was her narrator not always perfect, and sometimes a bit annoying?  Perhaps, but she always gave it her best shot, and whoever replaces her will have some awfully big shoes to fill.  

I'm not a big can of the new cover.  Aesthetically, it just feel like a big step backwards.  Even the new logo looks like a step backwards.  We see Carter and Sadie standing behind the Brooklyn Bridge, with a the Red Pyramid looming in the background.  Also, there's a statue of either Amun or Khnum, despit neither of them appearing in The Red Pyramid.  What else can I say?  The new cover sucks, let's move onto the older and better cover. 

We see Carter and Sadie standing in front of Brooklyn House, seat of the 21st Nome, while magical hieroglyphs float around them.  Nomes were administrative divisions used in Ancient Egypt, and are still used by the House of Life to divide their territory across the world.  There are 360 in total, with the First Nome, the House of Life's headquarters, being based in Egypt.  

Well, I think that should do it for now.  Join me again next time when we begin our look back at The Heroes of Olympus by taking a look back at The Lost Hero.  I hope to see you all next time.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Alt-Hist File: PodCastle

I know it's been a while, but I'm finally back with a new edition of The Alt-Hist File. This time, we're taking a look at the third member of the Escape Artists family: PodCastle. PodCastle bring it's listeners stories from across the fantasy genre week after week. Over the years, PodCastle has been hosted by many talented individuals including (but not limited to) Anna Schwind, Anne Leckie, Graeme Dunlop, Rachael K. Jones, Jen R. Albert, Khaalidah Muhammed-Ali, and Setsu Uzume. The hauntingly beautiful theme music is provided by the band Shiva in Exile.

However, there is one host who still casts a large shadow over the PodCastle team. During his time as host and editor, Dave Thompson helped to define PodCastle. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that, for a while, he pretty much was PodCastle. He catch phrase "aaaaand welcome back" is still very much in use. Dave's impact is still felt in everything that PodCastle continues to do, and I think, will continue to be felt for years to come.

I want to also take a moment to thank the many hard working behind the scenes people who make PodCastle possible. So, with all of this having been said, sit back and relax because it's story time...

"The Calendar of Saints" by Kat Howard
Narrated by Amal El-Mothar
Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

This story has multiple departures from our history.  First, Ignatius of Loyola founded a religious order known as the Sacred Blades. Whenever there is a dispute in Catholic doctrine the two debating sides will supply their own duelists, the aforementioned as Sacred Swords, and whoever wins is considered the one in the right (it is believed that God will guide the victor's hand). It also appears that Catholic history is considerably different than our world. There are several saints of science such as Galileo Galilei and Tycho Brahe. Also, God is referred to as a women and the Church is more gender egalitarian than in our world.

The story focuses on a Sacred Blade named Jeanne. Though she doesn't exactly believe in God, Jeanne does believe in the Truth and the rules of the Sacred Blades. Jeanne has been chosen to wield the sword of Ignatius himself, and she'll need it more than ever for a duel that could decide the future of the Catholic Church.

When I first saw the word saints I admittedly wasn't sure this was going to be the story for me. I'm happy, however, to report I couldn't have been more wrong. The glimpses we get of the alternate history of this Catholic Church are tantalizing, and ever so often we get little fact files on different saints to really help flesh out the world. As for the narration, Amal did an excellent job bringing the story to life and capturing all of the emotions present in the story.

The fact that this story could make someone like me, never the biggest fan of religion, care about its characters and hang on its every word shows Kat's skill as an author. A unique take on alternate religious history that I very much recommend.

"Biographical notes to A Discourse on the Nature of Causality with Air-Planes" by Benjamin Rosenbaum
Narrated by Graeme Dunlop
Originally published in All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories

Our story takes place in a world where India, China, Gabon, Japan and Malaysia are the dominate world powers, North America is balkanized and airships are the only means of air travel.  Our protagonist, Benjamin Rosenbaum, has been commissioned by a wealthy Rajah to write an alternate history story set in a world where something other than airships is used for air travel.  Benjamin, however, soon finds himself caught in an assignation plot against the Rajah and must rise to the occasion.

If ever there was a story that needed a sequel it was this. India as the dominate world power?  Jesus considered an avatar of Vishnu?  An Irish-Iroquois hybrid nation?  There's so many details about this world that are just begging to be elaborated on and that I'm desperate to know more about. I liked how we get shown little hints at the impact India had on Western culture, like how people with otherwise Western names sometimes have Sri in front of their names. The Eastern cultural dominance is also apparent in the philosophical discussions throughout the story.  If you're only experience is with Western Philosophy it can be a little confusing, but not too much so.

There's certain narrators who are always associated with certain stories to some people. For me, Graeme will always be Conan the Barbarian, but he still did a very good job narrating this story. Words fail to properly convey the sense of awe and wonder this story provided me with.

A swashbuckling alternate history that leaves you hungry for more.

"Wane" by Elizabeth Bear
Narrated by Marguerite Kenner and Alasdair Stuart
Originally published in Interzone #203

This story is set in the same world as Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam series.  In this world, Native Americans were able to mostly repel European colonization thanks to the use of magic.  By the 19th century the European settlements, huddled along the coastline, have yet to gain their independence; and obviously New York is still called New Amsterdam.

I've been interested in the New Amsterdam series for quite some time, and I was very eager to give this story a try. I can honestly say this story was...meh. That's not to say I thought this story was bad, but I didn't quite care for it either. As stated before, this story had a really interesting setting, and a surviving Aztec Empire is always a bonus. As for the story itself, well it didn't quite capture my attention.

Let's talk about the narrators. Marguerite did an excellent job voicing her characters, but as for Alasdair...I find myself questioning if he was the best choice for this story. When he's paired with the right story Alasdair can work absolute wonders. Here, however, he kind of dropped the ball. There were a lot of characters Alasdair needed to make sound distinct, but they all sounded so similar I had trouble keeping track of who was who.

This might not exactly be my cup of tea, but maybe you'll enjoy it. I'll say it's at least worth checking out.

"Nor the Moonlight" by Andrew Penn Romine
Narrated by Cheyenne Wright
Originally published in Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales of the Roaring 20s

Set in a dieselpunk 1920s Paris, this is the story of two lovers dealing with the effects of the First World War.  Several former soldiers are seeking treatment for the wounds they received in the war. Many have found hope in the surgeries of Pablo Picasso. He claims that his surgeries will make the wounded whole once again, but his patents are often turned into bizarre and gruesome living sculptures.

Andrew captured the cynical and disjointed style of the great writers of the 20s, such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, perfectly. Cheyenne did as excellent job of conveying that feeling as well. I liked how even though the story featured a gay romance at its center it wasn't treated any differently than a heterosexual romance. That's how you do diversity well; you treat your minority characters no different than your majority characters, and don't draw attention to their status as minorities. I know I said that this is a dieselpunk story, but the descriptions of Picasso's surgeries does add in a few biopunk elements as well. Speaking of which, if you pay attention you can probably pick out a few references to Picasso's paintings in his surgeries.

It's dark, cynical and haunting. Definitely worth checking out.

"The Osteomancer's Son" by Greg van Eekhout
Narrated by Ben Phillips
Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction

Some of you are probably familiar with Greg van Eekhout though his novel California Bones. This is the story which inspired that novel. Magic in this world, known as Osteomancy, involves drawing power from the bones of prehistoric and mythic creatures. This can be accomplished a number of ways, but is most effective when the bones are eaten. After this the Osteomancer takes on an aspect of the creature. Of course, if you eat a fellow Osteomancer's bones you get all of their accumulated powers.

Our protagonist Daniel is the son of a well known black market Osteomancer. California is an independent nation and is ruled in the iron fist of a dictator known as the Hierarch and he's taken Daniel's daughter hostage.

This story really spoke to the paleontology nerd in me, and I loved how the La Brea Tar Pits played such a central role to the story.  I also liked how the powers generated by eating bones aren't always what you think they might be. For example, eating kraken spine apparently grants the power to summon lightning. It was a nice touch that the bones of Osteomancers are said to be brown, the color of bones in tar. Daniel's relationship with his father came across and complex and nuanced; overall very well written on Greg's part.

As far as narration goes I think Ben did a spot on job. This story does a good job of standing on its own merits, but I'm intrigued, and I'm definitely going to check out California Bones at some point.

I've been hooked by this story and you will too.

"On Bookstores, Burners and Origami" by Jason D. Wittman
Narrated by Brian Rollins
Originally published at

This story takes place in a world where the Civil War dragged on slightly longer than in our world, but still ended in a Union victory. A media mogul named Tobias Hornbee contributed lots of money to the rebuilding effort, and was able to use this to launch a presidential campaign.  Most people focus more on his help rebuilding than on the fact that he holds a near monopoly on the nation's printing presses. President Hornbee has been trying to suppress most literature on the grounds that it doesn't conform to his ideas of optimism.

Several booksellers have been subversively selling banned books in defiance of Hornbee. Hitomi, our protagonist and an immigrant from Japan to Minneapolis, is involved in such an operation. Besides the President, the booksellers also face Burners, a movement to destroy all written works. Fortunately, Edgar Allen Poe has recently come out of hiding to help the bookseller cause.

This story has steampunk elements to it such as airships and pneumatic tubes, but on the whole I'd classify this as more of a Gaslamp Fantasy. Now as far as the narration goes, while I think that overall Brian did a very good job, I find myself questioning why a story with a female protagonist would have a male narrator. PodCastle has always had a wide selection of narrators so the choice struck me as a bit odd.

As for the story itself, overall I found it very enjoyable, though I'm not sure I exactly buy Edgar Allen Poe being a Confederate sympathizer. I liked the way that Jason presented the booksellers and the Burners as ultimately having the same goal, but just very different methods of achieving it.  For that matter, I liked how the Burners were depicted sympathetically and as misguided rather than truly evil. It was also nice to see a somewhat steampunk story with such a diverse cast as this had.

All in all an excellent Gaslamp Fantasy. I say give it a shot.

"Titanic!" by Lavie Tidhar
Narrated by Ian Stuart
Originally published in Apex Magazine

Dr. Jekyll is on the run from the authorities.  They haven't discovered his dark secret yet, but it won't be long, so he's decided to journey to America aboard the Titanic. The ship, however, is going have a fateful run-in with a kaiju, the most famous kaiju of them all in fact.

Okay, in case you haven't figured it out, this story is basically Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde meet Godzilla while on the Titanic. There really isn't much to say about this story except that it was a lot of fun. Ian did an excellent job narrating, and if you're a fan of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen this story should appeal to you. For that matter, this story will probably appeal to most people.

It goes without saying that I heartily recommend this one.

"Enginesong (A Rondeau)" by Nathaniel Lee
Narrated by Bob Eccles
Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

This story is set in the Old West where trains have gained sentience, grown legs and walked away. With so many town dependent on the trains for survival it isn't long before a posse is assembled to capture the trains. Yet our protagonist Bose begins to wonder, if a train can walk like a man, can a man haul like a train?

On the surface the story sounds like it has no right to work, but it absolutely does. I guess that just show's Nathaniel's skill as a writer, and yes, this is the same Nathaniel Lee who is assistant editor of Escape Pod. The central theme of this story is about change and making sacrifices for a great good. The story as a whole does an excellent job of presenting these themes, and the final lines are especially memorable and haunting. Bob Eccles' narration perfectly captured the emotional depth of this story.

For a Weird Western that packs an emotional punch, checkout this story.

"The Hooves and Hovel of Abdel Jameela" by Saladin Ahmed
Narrated by Rajan Khanna
Originally published in Clockwork Phoenix 2 and collected in Engraved on the Eye 

Set during the Golden Age of Islam, or thereabout, this story follows a physicker who has received a call for aid by a hermit named Abdel Jameela. He has fallen in love and married a ghoul, which in this case refers to a human-goat hybrid creature of sorts. He wishes to move to the country of his wife's people, but to do that he must become part goat, and he'll need the professor's help.

This is another of those stories whose summary sounds crazy, but I swear that it works. One of the things I like about Saladin's writing is that he asks a lot of though questions about issues of faith and spirituality without pretending to know the answers. I liked that the professor was cool, rational minded and asked for evidence before agreeing to help Abdel. At the same time, I could sense the conflict the professor felt when confronted with Abdel's wife. Here is something that shouldn't exist, and that legends describe as evil, but appears not to be any worse than a typical human.

On that note, I liked how ghouls were presented as morally no worse than humans or any other race of creatures. I guess Abdul and his wife go to show that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. As for Rajan's narration, well, I think you can guess by now that I thought he did a great job. I also thought that effects accompanying the wife's speaking added a perfect supernatural feeling.

If you're looking for a good spiritual noir then give this story a shot.

"Card Sharp" by Rajan Khanna
Narrated by Wilson Fowlie
Originally published in Way of the Wizard 

I've got another Weird Western for you. This one follows a young man named Quentin who has been trained to be a Card Sharp. Card Sharps are people who draw magic from decks of playing cards, but each Card Sharp only gets one deck in their entire life, so they must choose their cards wisely. Quentin's going to need all the magical help he can get because he's on a mission to avenge his father's death.

This story had some great worldbuilding. I loved how the card's suits corresponds to different kinds of magic and their number corresponds to strength. The plot of a son getting revenge against the man who killed his father and married his mother gave this story a bit of Wild West Hamlet feel, and that's not a bad thing. Without giving too much away, though, I can assure you this story has a happier ending than Hamlet. It is always a joy to hear a story narrated by Wilson Fowlie, and he did a great job here as well.

Another Weird Western I reckon you'll like.

"Maxwell's Demon" by Ken Liu
Narrated by Aki Gibbons
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

You didn't really think I wasn't going to find a Ken Liu story for this list did you?  This story follows Takako Yamashiro, a woman sentenced to the Japanese interment camps during World War II. Fortunately, she's been given the chance to get out of the camps and work as a spy to infiltrate a secret Japanese military program. Said program turns out to be an attempt to use the spirits of the dead to create perpetual energy machines, and it's up to Takako, a spirit medium, to to spot that from happening.

Wars are rarely completely black and white, and World War II was no exception. While not anywhere near as bad as the Nazi concentration camps, the Internment Camps were certainly not one of the better moments in American history. Ken did an excellent job depicting the attitudes and mentality of the era, and the sense of injustice felt by Japanese-Americans. Aki did a perfect job of delivering the emotional punch this story packs.

As with most Ken Liu stories I got to learn something new.  In this case I learned about the traditional cultures of Okinawa as well as the Maxwell's Demon thought experiment.  Without giving too much away I can say that the ending is tragic, but also with a bit of hope as well. Wouldn't have expected any less from a Ken Liu story.

Do I really need to say how much I recommend this story?

"After October" by Ben Burgis
Narrated by Eric Luke
Originally published in GigaNotoSaurus

This story follows the Soviet Union from the beginning of the October Revolution to the height of the Stalin regime. It also tells the coming of age story of a young revolutionary named Fyodka. He's been trained in the magic of Old Russia since he was young, but he has abandoned that in favor of joining the revolution. Fyodka's uncle Grigor has been trying to research a way to magically defeat death. The question is, which of them will truly bring revolution to the world?

Like I said before, this is the coming of age story not just for Fyodka, but for Russia as a whole.  We see them go from wide-eyed optimism at the begin of the revolution to deep cynicism and despair under Stalin. I'd like to add that if you're looking for an epic Zombies vs. Soviets showdown then I'm sorry to say you'll probably be disappointed.  Having said that, this story is nonetheless an excellent depiction of the early years if the Soviet Union.

This story really give me a new perspective of the harshness of the Stalin regime. That's not to say I necessarily think Leon Trotsky would have been better, but the story really conveyed the sense of shattered dreams felt by the Soviets. Here were a people who threw off the chains of oppression and dreamed of bringing liberation to other nations; yet now these same people soon witnessed their nation crumbling at the seems.

For a new look at Soviet history I recommend this story.

"The Gorgon" by Clark Ashton Smith
Narrated by Norm Sherman
Originally Published in Weird Tales 

This story is set in Victorian London and follows and man who is going to see a friend who is an art collector. The art collector has a collection of statues depicting people from all eras of time; everything from Ancient Greece to the present. The statues have an uncannily lifelike quality to them, and he art collectors claims to have discovered doorways that lead to the past. So then what's the true origin of the statues?

Just in case it wasn't immediately obvious, the art collector used the doorways to go back to Ancient Greece, stole Medusa's severed head, and used it to turn his unwitting victims into stone statues. Overall, this story has a very Gothic/Lovecraftian.  Some might argue that it would be more at home over on Pseudopod, but I think it fits more than well for PodCastle. It's a very good story if you're looking for something to get you in the Halloween mood; which is fitting, as this was produced as a Halloween episode. It has time travel and Greek Mythology, so I knew I was going to love it right from the start.   

As per usual, Norm did an excellent job with the narration. A story of gorgons and time travel that's great for Halloween, or any time of the year.  You won't want to miss out on this one.

"The Dauphin’s Metaphysics" by Eric Schwitzgebel 
Narrated by Tatiana Grey
Originally Published in Unlikely Story

This story is set in a world where Imperial China not only never fell, but also managed to successfully modernize and become a world power. The story follows a academic named Fu Hao. She has spent her life raising through the ranks of the imperial academy, and now she has her big break. The young dauphin has charged the imperial scholars for finding a way transfer his mind into a new body. Fu Hao thinks, but what will be the consequences of a truly immortal ruler?

For centuries, humanity has sought a way to cheat death and live forever. On of the earliest attempts at this was commissioned by China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, who thought that mercury held the answer he sought. As you can well imagine, it didn't quite work as he planned.  I wonder if this was an inspiration for Eric when he wrote this story. I will say that the Dauphin came across as considerably nicer than Shihuangdi.  So, just what would a truly immortal ruler be like? On the one hand, they would be able to live to see their long-term projects to fruition. On the other hand, I can't help but wonder if all the power would go to the ruler’s head at some point. Seems like society would potentially stagnate, with no new blood coming to power, and implementing new ideas. If nothing else, this story provides fertile food for thought.

One thing I found interesting is that the Chinese royals all had very French sounding titles. Does that mean France still has a monarchy in this word, and perhaps has a bigger role on the world stage? Could be a nod to how Japan appropriated several German terms when reforming its government during the Meiji Era. Fun fact, Eric has admitted that almost all of the characters are named after important figures in Chinese History.

In terms of narration, I thought that Tatiana did a great job. A great story that is sure to have you thinking for days. I recommend it.

"Thirteen Bullets" by Laurence Raphael Brothers
Narrated by Austin Malone
A PodCastle Original

This story is set during the days of the Wild West. It follows the No-Good Kid. He was on his way from Albuquerque, New Mexico for a meet up at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. However, the stagecoach driver he hired has taken him on a detour to the estate of a wealthy baron. Ah, but not just any baron, for this is the estate of Baron Samedi, the voodoo loa of death. The Kid will need all of his wits if he's going to survive his stay at Baron Samedi's estate.

There a lot of untapped potential within Voodoo Mythology, and I am happy to see that this story was able to utilize that rich material. There are several references to Voodoo Mythology throughout the story. For example, when the No-Good Kid first arrives at the estate, he is offered a rum that has several spicy peppers in it. In Voodoo Mythology, this is Baron Samedi's drink of choice. It is quite an enjoyable story, but I don't have much more to add on this one.

I will, however, say that Laurence did an excellent job with the narration. A Wild West/Voodoo mashup that you won't want to miss. I say give it a try.

"Gone Daddy Gone" by Josh Rountree
Narrated by Dave Thompson
Originally Published in Lone Star Stories

Dig. This story follows a surfer daddy-o named Moon Doggie. On a perfect day in 1950-something, while out surfing, he met his wife Priscilla. Prissy is one of the thunderbirds in charge making sure new days keep coming. He stole her feather jacket, so she had to be his wife, but she would have come along anyway. Then, one day, she goes missing. Prissy says that it's time for the 1950s to come to an end, but Doggie wants to keep his perfect day. So, Doggie sets out on a road trip to find Priscilla, and meets some seriously cool cats along the way.

Okay, I won't do the whole review in 1950s surfer lingo. In many ways, this story feels like a meditation on the nature of nostalgia and change. When we recall the past, we often tend to count the hits and ignore the misses. Similarly, the future can be scary and uncertain, but it also brings new opportunities and possibilities. That's not just me being philosophical; studies have shown that's there's never been a point in human history where it was better to be alive than the present. Those same studies also indicate that the future is projected to keep getting better. I think that, when you take it as a whole, the modern world's gets more right than it gets wrong.

I liked the way the thunderbirds were combined with the legend of the selkies. The road trip aspect, along with the meditative quality, kind of gave the story an American Gods vibe. Some people might like this story to be expanded into a novel, but personally, I think that's it's perfect just the way it is.

Do I even have to say that Dave did a stellar job with the narration? I really think you cats are gonna dig this story, daddy-o.

"Makeisha In Time" by Rachael K. Jones
Narrated by K. Tempest Bradford
Originally Published in Crossed Genres #20

This story follows a woman named Makeisha who can travel through time and space, though not always at will. She has lived hundreds of lifetimes, ruled dozens of kingdoms and gone on numerous adventures. Despite it all, she finds that history and historians have failed to record her exploits, and this makes her very unhappy.

Now, I know that doesn't sound like much, but it's...even worse than it sounds. Often times, whenever people discus historical revisionism, they tend to focus exclusively on the far-right. In my experience, the far-left if just as guilt of such things. For example, you've got people on the far-right who like to claim that there were no black people in pre-modern Europe, and this is not correct. However, the far-left likes to claim that pre-modern was a melting pot of diversity and multiculturalism, and this is also not correct. As with most things, the truth is in the center. In major port cities, like Constantinople, you would see people from many different place; however, if you lived in a more rural area, you're going to see much more homogeneity of peoples.

It has also been my experience that whenever someone, of any political persuasion, claims they want history taught more objectively, they really mean they want history taught so that it reflects their biases and prejudices. In many ways, this story is what would happen if the "We Wuz Kangz" meme got turned into a short story.

This story wears its political agenda on its sleeve, much to its detriment. Such a shame, it had potential to be a really fun and interesting story. What is particularly frustrating is that I know for a fact that Rachael is capable of doing far better. She has written some of my absolute favorite short stories, and you will get to meet them sooner or later over on The Audio File. As the old saying goes, nothing is sadder than wasted potential. Also, word of advice, never cite the blog MedievalPOC as a serious source. That blog is filled to the brim with blatant lies and deliberate misinformation. No profession historian worth their salt takes it seriously.

A regrettable example of politics smothering a potentially interesting story, with a side of historical revisionism. Don't waste your time with this terrible story.

"Narrative of a Beast's Life" by Cat Rambo
Narrated by Paul Jenkins
Originally Published in Realms of Fantasy

This story takes place in a fantasy world not too dissimilar to our world during the 18th century. It chronicles the life of a centaur who has been captured and sold into bondage to work on a plantation. I know that doesn't sound very exciting, but this story is well worth your time.

This story isn't historical fantasy or alternate history per se, but it is close enough for my purposes. Some of you might question why this story was even written if it parallels our own history so closely. I, however, think that it serves a purpose. This story brings the slave narrative to readers who normally would not read historical accounts or historical fiction relating to such events. By giving it to them in a more familiar form, such as fantasy, the story makes itself easer to digest for potential reluctant readers. If nothing else, it is still a reasonably entertaining story.

In terms of narration, I thought that Paul did an excellent job. A fantasy twist on the slave narrative. I recommend it.

"The Ghost Years" by Nghi Vo
Narrated by Tatiana Gomberg
A PodCastle Original

This story takes place in a dieselpunk Vietnam, possibly in the 1930s or 1940s, it's never made quite clear. The story follows a woman named Cho Doan. Vietnam has been engaged in a defensive war against China, but she tries her best to take it in stride. Then a general arrives at her family's home to inform them at her brother has died. There's just one problem: Cho Doan doesn't have a brother. Everyone insists that this mysterious brother has always existed, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Is Cho Doan losing her mind, or is there something more sinister at work here?

This is one of those stories that you'll probably be thinking about for a bit. There's certainly evidence that the mysterious false memories are part of a Chinese plot to use psychic warfare against the Vietnamese, but then there's a few scenes at the end that suggest otherwise. Perhaps the two positions aren't as exclusive as they seem. I'll leave it for all of you to decide for yourselves. Uncertainty and ambiguity are big themes in this story, but I'd have liked to have known a bit more about the setting of this story, such as when specifically it is set.

As for the narration, I thought that Tatiana did a good job. This story is sure to keep you thinking for days to come. I say give it a try.

"It's a Wonderful Carol" by Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw
Narrated by Dagny Paul
A PodCastle Original

This story follows a composer named Colleen who has been hitting a spell of bad luck. She has dreams of creating great and moving symphonies, but all of that is outshone by her Christmas ditty Jolly Bells. It seems that Colleen is doomed to only be remembered as the writer of Jolly Bells. Then she receives a visit from her Muse. The Muse offer to show Colleen what life would be like if she had never written Jolly Bells, but first he is going to show her the impact her music has had on the lives of others. Throughout it all Colleen has a question to answer: which life would she prefer?

Yeah, so if you haven't figured it out, this story is pretty much It's a Wonderful Life. As I often say, it's not the plots you use, but how you use them that makes or breaks a story. With this story, however, I'm not so sure the journey was worth it. The story was just so cliched and predictable I could see the ending coming from a mile away, and I could predict most of the twists and turns. It's such a shame, I usually love Tim and Heather's Christmas stories. Of course, that just makes my frustration with this story worse, because I know for a fact that they're capable of doing better. I wanted to like this story, I really did, but it just didn't manage to hook my interest.

Dagny did okay with the narration, but it just wasn't enough to salvage the story. A tragically predicable story from two otherwise very talented authors. Don't bother with this one.

"The Ghost of Christmas Possible" by Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw
Narrated by Ian Stuart
A PodCastle Original

This story is set in Victorian London, to begin with. Ebenezer Scourge has been having some trouble with ghosts, so he has hired a ghost finder named Hodgson. Hodgson will lure the ghosts out by pretending to be Scourge. The plan works like a charm, but what are the consequences of Hodgson's meddling with the affairs of Scourges' spirits?

Yes, this one is better than the summary makes it sound. A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been told hundreds of times, hundreds of different ways, but this story managed to add something new. Hodgson is obviously a nod to William Hope Hodgson, author of Carnacki the Ghost Finder. For those who don't know, the adventures of Thomas Carnacki were a bit like those of Sherlock Holmes, but with a supernatural twist. What made him so effective was that Carnacki was open to mundane explanations as well as the supernatural.

So, just who is this Ghost of Christmas Possible? Well, that's something you'll find out if you give this story a listen. As for the narration, I thought that Ian did an excellent job.

A fun twist on a classic Christmas tale. I say give it a try.

"State Change" by Ken Liu
Narrated by Heather Welliver
Originally Published in Polyphony 4 and full text can be read at Lightspeed Magazine

This story takes place in an alternate world where everyone's soul manifest as a different physical object. The story follows a woman named Rina. Her soul manifested as an ice cube, and she's always had to live life with the upmost of care to avoid an early demise. She always just kind of skated by and avoided risk, but now she feels as though the time has come to change, and take more risks for her own good.

Yes, not the most exciting summary, but this is a Ken Liu story, so of course it is well sort your time. This story has a pretty strong Golden Compass vibe to it, and Ken has admitted that the His Dark Materials series was a big influence on this story. Throughout the story we get little snippets about the lives of various historical figures, and we get to find out what their souls were like. For example, Cicero's soul was a pebble, which he kept in his mouth while practicing speeches. Also, T.S. Elliot's soul was a canister of coffee, so he literally measured his life in scoops of coffee.

It's stated that people who's souls get destroyed die, but then what happens after death? Do those people experience cessation of existence? What happens to people who die of old age? Is there even an afterlife at all?

You can see this story as a metaphor for a variety of things. It can be seen as symbolic of being born with a disability, or of learning to overcome anxiety, or any number of other things. Ken certainly leaves it open to interpretation, and perhaps the stories is all the better for that applicability. As per usual, it really has that heart and soul we've come to expect from Ken Liu's stories. In terms of narration, I thought that Heather did a really great job.

Another great Ken Liu story that knocks it out of the ballpark. Do I even have to say that I recommend this one?


Aaaaaand welcome back. We've made it to the end of the list once again. I know it's been a while since I got one of these out, and I want to thank you all for being so patient with me. I've been dealing with some personal issues, and with college and all of that. I'm cautiously optimistic that this year will really start to look up for me in my personal life.

On that note, I'm very happy to announce that I have teamed up with Jordan Harbour of The Twilight Histories Podcast to write a guest episode of Twilight Histories. I've been a big fan of Jordan's work for quite some time, and this is both and honor and a dream come true for me. We're both working hard to get the episode to all of you as soon as possible. It's going to be a really great show, and I'm super excited to get to hear my story brought to life, and to share it with all of you.

Well, I think that wraps it up for now. I hope you've been enjoy The Alt-Hist File, and I will see you all next time.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Riordan Retrospective: The Last Olympian

Well, we've made it.  The Riordan Retrospective is about to hit its first major milestone.  For those of you who haven't heard, this is my look back at the works of Rick Riordan.  That means Percy Jackson and the Olympians, it's sequel series and its spin-off series.  Last time, we took a look back at The Demigod Files.  This time we're looking back at The Last Olympian, Percy Jackson and the Olympians book 5.  As we have done in all of the previous retrospectives, we're going to kick things off with a brief summary.

Against all odds, Percy Jackson, demigod son of Poseidon, is almost sixteen-years-old.  The big moment has finally arrived, the war against the titans has officially begun.  The demigods of Camp Half-Blood are about to make their last stand against the armies of Kronos.  I really can't add much more than that, so let's jump into the commentary.

So, like I've already said, this book is the culmination of everything Percy Jackson and the Olympians has been building up towards.  As usual, there will be spoils ahoy beyond this point.  Turn back now if you don't like spoilers.  With that out of the way, let's continue.

I've been hinting at this in past retrospectives, but let's finally examine Luke, and what makes him such an effective villain.  Percy and Luke have a similar dynamic to them as Superman and Lex Luther, in that's they're mirror images of one another.  Percy is a son of Poseidon, one of the rarest demigods of all; while Luke is a son of Hermes, an utterly common garden variety demigod.  Percy is far from dumb, but he tends to really more on fighting and raw power, rather than his brains.  Luke, by contrast, is a schemer and a master manipulator and tactician.

On the other hand, perhaps they aren't so different after all.  Back to the comic book comparison, it's often said that Batman's villains are a dark reflection of himself.  The same can be said of Luke's relationship with Percy.  Luke could be seen as a shadowy reflection of how Percy might have turned out if he'd made different decisions, or given into temptation.

One thing I find interesting about Luke is that he doesn't appear to have any close friends or confidants.  He clearly knows how to work a crowd, and drum-up support, but he doesn't seem to have anyone he's particularly close to.  Percy, by contrast, has plenty of friends and loved ones.  Annabeth, Grover, Mrs. Jackson, Paul, Tyson and Chiron are the most important, but everyone at Camp Half-Blood had an impact on him in one way or another.  It could be argued that, even though Percy was naturally good, his friends and loved ones played a major role in nurturing that inherent goodness.  I know I've been referencing comics a lot, but you should never forget the major impact Jonathan and Martha Kent had on how Superman turned out.  It really makes me wonder how Luke would have turned out if he'd had even one true friend by his side.

What makes Luke such and effective villain is that many of the points he raises have a fair degree of truth to them.  Granted, that doesn't completely excuse his actions.  If his plan had succeeded, Western society, and probably the world as a whole, would have crumbled.  Millions, possibly even billions, would have been killed, and the remaining world would be ruled by the iron fist of Kronos.  Having said all of that, Luke is right when he says that the gods are incredibly neglectful of their children, have a tendency to abuse their power, and that something should be done to fix this.  He's also shown to be sympathetic to the plight of children of the minor gods.  Luke's problem isn't the problem isn't what he's trying to change, but the way he proposes to bring about that change.

Let's now change gears and talk about Percy.  I've hinted at it in the past, but we are now going to discuss what is so significant about his name.  It's mentioned within the books that Mrs. Jackson named him Perseus because Perseus is one of the few Greek heroes with an unambiguously happy ending.  However, it goes a bit deeper than that.  In the myths, Perseus kills his grandfather, who had previously tried to kill him and his mother.  In this book, Percy plays a major role in helping to kill Kronos, his grandfather on Poseidon's side of the family.

Side note, I loved the scene where Percy battle Hyperion and creates his own mini-hurricane.  It's a pity he never did it again in any of the sequel series, but it's implied that it drains a lot of energy out him, so it must be used sparingly.  Hyperion being one of the villains was amusing in itself, since the books are published by Disney-Hyperion.  Relatedly, Rick Riordan seems to have struck up a deal with Scholastic Publishing to help distribute the books.  I think it is really great that Percy and the gang have become members of the Scholastic family.  I have many happy memories of attending Scholastic book fairs, and ordering from their book order catalogues.

Now let's talk about Beckendorf and Silena.  As I've mentioned in my previous retrospectives, I've always been incredibly fond of them, despite their status as minor characters.  So, as you can imagine, their deaths hit me hard.  I often wonder if it is because they died that I appreciate them that much more. Like the song says, sometimes you don't know what you got til it's gone.  I'm not sure why, but there was just something about them that made me always so fond of them.  At the time I read this book, I wondered by Beckendorf got killed in a fiery explosion if he was as son of Hephaestus, god of fire.  As the Heroes of Olympus later reveled, only a rare few Hephaestus kids get fire manipulation powers.  So, it stands to reason that Beckendorf was sadly not one of those lucky few.

Go back to the theme of history and mythology repeating, this time around we have not only the Titanomarchy, but also the Trojan War.  The way Silena rallies the Ares Cabin to join the war, by putting on armor and pretending to be Clarisse, parallels Patroclus leading the Greeks into battle while pretending to be Achilles.  That puts Silena and Clarisse's friendship in an...interesting light. Now, granted, Silena is very devoted to Beckendorf, and his death is a major blow she never quite recovers from.  Clarisse has a boyfriend as well, Chris Rodriguez, but I can't help but wonder if her feeling for Silena weren't entirely platonic.  The way she was just so devastated when Silena was killed by the dracon could have been because of a deep friendship...or may there was something more there.  Does all of that make the dracon Hector?  Who can say, but it is fun to speculate.

So, just who is the Last Olympian spoken of in the title?  Why, Hestia of course.  It's easy to miss, but the early books mention a girl tending the fire in the center of cabin row at Camp Half-Blood.  Turns out, that girl was Hestia, and her hearth provides the camp with magical protection.  She gets her name because she's the one who stays behind to tend the hearth while all the other Olympians are out to battle.

In hindsight, I find it strange that Percy never got to have a meeting with Demeter.  Sure, we get a brief scene of her in the Underworld with Persephone and Hades, but never a proper introduction.  Kind of seems like a glaring omission.  Was there really no way she could have been introduced in the previous books?  Demeter kind of came across like a stereotypical crabby old Jewish woman, which was...a tad odd, given that she's a pagan deity and all.  Also, in rather on the nose names, the head councilors of Demeter Cabin are named Katie Gardner and Miranda Gardiner.  Yes, their last names are pronounced the same, but spelled slightly differently.  Fun fact, one of Rick's former students was named Katie Gardner.

Speaking of meetings, I did enjoy that Percy finally got to meet Amphitrite and Triton.  I'd always wondered what they'd make of him.  From what we briefly glimpse, they try their best to be polite, but they're clearly very frosty towards him.  It was a nice scene and all, but I kind of wish it had gotten a bit deeper...well, it did take place at the bottom of the sea...oh, you know what I mean!  Anyway, when I read this book I wasn't entirely sure where the small of the back was, so as far as I was concerned, Percy's Curse of Achilles might as well have covered his whole body.

So, before the big battle, Morpheus puts all the mortals in Manhattan to sleep.  On the surface, not too bad, but then you start to really think about it.  How many people were cooking dinner, or in the middle of surgery, or any other manner of things that could get nasty if left unattended?  Yeah, The Mist probably had to work overtime to cover-up all the casualties that Morpheus caused.  That's not even getting into all the sleeping mortal who might have been eaten by monsters, or killed by stray arrows or Greek Fire.

The statues of New York coming to life to aid the demigods was really cool, especially when the Statue of Liberty joined the fight.  There a scene at the end where a statue of Susan B. Anthony strangles a statue of Frederick Douglas.  This might have been a clear historical joke on Riordan's part.  It could be a reference to how the 15th amendment granted black men the right to vote, but women of all races were denied the right to vote until the 19th amendment passed in 1920.  Riordan was a middle school social studies teacher before becoming an author, so you never know.

So we finally get a resolution to the Great Prophecy of the series, but not the way we expected.  Turns out it was Luke, not Percy, who was the hero of the prophecy.  By choosing to killed himself, while playing host to Kronos, he scatters Kronos' spirit for a long time, and brings and end to the war.  As I've mentioned above, Luke's a complex villain, and perhaps also a tragic one.  Greek Mythology is big on the concept of fate and predestination; he couldn't change the big picture any more than the other characters, but he could still change the details.  Of course, if that is the case, then it means that free will is an illusion, and that we're all little more than puppets acting out our roles.  One that note, we finally find out who's string The Fates cut way back in The Lightning Thief.  Turns out it was Luke's string all along.

There's that old saying that it's not how we fall, but how we chose to pick ourselves up, that truly speaks to who we are as people.  Perhaps it holds true for Luke as well.  It's the same for Silena; she was working as spy for Kronos, but only because Luke blackmailed her, and she did it to protect Beckendorf and her friends.  Given the sacrifice she made for the Half-Blood army, I'd say she more than redeemed herself in the end.

Well, that got surprisingly dark, let's lighten the mood a bit.  So, Percy and Annabeth officially become a couple in this book; as if there were ever any serious doubt.  Also, Rachel takes over as the new Oracle of Delphi just in time to set things up for the sequel series, but we'll get to that in our due time.  We also get an answer to a question that has long plagued fans: is it incest if two demigods get into a relationship?  Turns out, gods don't have DNA, so thankfully no.  It is mentioned that two campers from the same cabin dating is frowned upon, though this is hinted to be more of a cultural thing than anything else.

So despite all the trails and hardships, most of our heroes live, and get their rewards from the gods themselves.  I kind of wonder what would have happened if Percy had taken the gods up on their offer to become a god.  Obviously, he was going to say no so he could be with Annabeth, and remain available for the sequel series.  Still, I gotta wonder about what he'd be like as a god.  Sure, Percy is a good person at heart, but how well would he live up to his lofty ideals if he had access to godly powers?  You know what they say about absolute power, but just perhaps, he might prove to be a benevolent deity after all.  I can easily see him getting into epic battles with the other gods.

Of course, that's just speculation.  Percy instead uses his wish to get the gods to acknowledge their children, gives the minor gods much needed representation on Olympus and at Camp Half-Blood, free Calypso, and let's the Big Three gods have kids again; also, Annabeth gets to live her dream of redesigning Mount Olympus.  There a scene near the end where Poseidon hints that Percy has other siblings somewhere out there.  This appears to have been a red herring...baring any surprises from The Trials of Apollo.

So, things are looking up for the demigods of Camp Half-Blood.  Still, gotta wonder about those who fought in Kronos' army.  I can't imagine they had a particularly warm welcome to camp, and you'd think there'd still be bad blood between them and the campers.  If nothing else, you'd think both sides would need time to get over the war and adjust to life in peace time.  We kind of get an explanation of this in The Demigod Diaries, but more on that when we get to it.  Still, I can live with the ending as it was.  I love a good happy ending.

Now it's time to analyze the book covers.  This time around, the covers are actually fairly similar.  They feature Percy flying on Blackjack next to the Empire State Building.  And, as all good Percy Jackson fans know, Mount Olympus is located on the 600th floor of the Empire State Building.  Blackjack, in the old cover, has been noticeably slimmed down since his last appearance on a book cover.  In the new cover, we can see Typhon lurking in the clouds.  I think it's kind of nice how the new cover pays homage to the old cover.

And now, as I special treat, I will so you what the new covers look like when they're all placed together.  I must say, it is quite the sight be behold.  Also, for one final time, I will give a shout-out to Jesse Bernstein's excellent narration of the audiobook version.

With that, we have officially completed our look back at Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  Ah, but the Riordan Retrospective shall continue.  We're moving onto The Kane Chronicles and The Heroes of Olympus next.  Since they occurred concurrently to each other, I'll alternate between reviewing a Kane book and reviewing a Heroes book.

So, all that having been said, I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for joining me on this look back at the works of Rick Riordan.  Join me again next time when we take a look back at The Red Pyramid.  I will see you all next time.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Comic Review: Pax Romana

Time travel has long been used as a vehicle for creating alternate history.  Mark Twain did this in his classic novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  L. Sprague de Camp also did this in Least Darkness Fall, the novel that inspired Harry Turtledove to study Byzantine History.  I bring this up because it relates to the comic that we're going to be taking a look at today.  We're taking a look at Pax Romana by Jonathan Hickman.

Pax Romana starts off in with a framing story in the megacity of Constantinople.  The Gene Pope, the bioengineered leader of the Catholic Church comprise of the genetic material of 1026 holy men and women, is telling the young emperor of the Holy Roman Empire the story of how the empire came to be.  Ah, but this isn't the Holy Roman Empire you're probably thinking of.  It is a Roman Empire that never fell, and where church and state are attached at the hip.

 It all start in the year 2050 of an alternate timeline.  Most of Europe had gone secular, and Islam was on the rise due to mass immigration.  The Church was losing support by the day, and might be on its last legs before long.  In a last-ditch effort to fix this, the Church sent a paramilitary force of 5000 individuals back in time to the year 312 AD.  The goal was to set up a stronger foundation for the Church and prevent the mistakes of the past from ever happening.

The forces were led by Nicholas Chase, the Pope's own nephew.  Well, technically, Caridnal Beppi Pelle was meant to be the leader, but Chase killed him shortly after the team arrived in the past.  Chase and his team decided to implement their own plan, while trying to stay true to the spirit of the original.  They were tasked with creating a better future, but can utopia ever be created by mere mortals?

I think I'll start by talking about the art.  I can best describe it as stylized minimalism.  You don't really get any true backgrounds, just some splashes of color and maybe a couple bit of furniture.  The characters themselves tend to be drawn mostly white with a few splashes of color.  I have to admit, I was rather skeptical at first, but it kind of won me over in the end.  There were times I did wish to see some more detailed backgrounds, but the minimalist style actually kind of works for this comic.

Let's talk about themes.  The description of society in the 2050 is actually a red herring for the true theme of the comic.  Namely, can a perfect society be run by imperfect beings?  As the old saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.  We see this from the very first issue when Nick assassinates Cardinal Pelle.  Of course, it goes beyond that as Nick's fellow mercenaries begin to develop their own plans and ambitions.  Still, in the end they're still pretty successful.  The technologically advanced future of the framing device, completed with colonies on Mars, is reveled to be the year 1492.

Just as a side note, when I first read this comic, the 2050 scenes seemed laughably unlikely.  These days, however, they seem eerily prophetic.  The socio-political part, not the Vatican developing time travel part.  Side note, why does the pope order all evidence of the time travel plot destroyed?  History is going to be changed so, one assumes, all incriminating evidence will be wiped away. 

I thought that the Romans were all well written.  Constantine is more than happy to receive help from the time travelers, but at the same time, he's no medieval moron.  He has his own plans and ambitions.  The Romans might be less technologically advanced than the future humans, but they're no less intelligent than them.  Although, when Constantine declares that the church will incorporate beliefs from many different religions, including heretical strands of Christianity, there is springily little push back.  He basically goes "I'm the Emperor and I say we do it this way, so there!" and beyond a token resistance, everyone is cool with this.  As far as Constantine himself creating such a syncretic religion, I can buy that.  He's often credited as the first Christian emperor of Rome, but he was a major devote of Apollo throughout his life, and his wasn't baptized until he was on his deathbed.

The Catholic Church in this alternate world is very catholic in the small-C sense of the word.  The Gene Pope's official titles include the Black Rabbi, the Last Caliph, the Panchen Lama, the Pratyekabuddha, the Eternal Priest of Amun-Ra, the White Shaman and, of course, the Bishop of Rome and the Vicar of Christ.  It's hinted that this is only a fraction of his full list of titles.

I will say it is a bit odd that Last Caliph is part of the list of title, since there's a good chance that Mohammad was never born in this alternate timeline.  There's brief mention that the positions of Gene Pope and Emperor of Rome have historically been one and the same.  This is likely a nod to how, starting with August, the Emperors of Rome also served as Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of the Ancient Roman religion.  This position is where the pope gets the title of pontifex from. 

Okay, I've been putting it off for long enough.  This is, overall, not a bad comic.  That having been said, it's considerably overhyped, in my opinion.  If you look at a lot of the mainstream reviews, you'll see people gushing about how this is the next big thing, and how it's going to revolutionize the world of fiction.  These people obviously have not read much alternate history, or else they'd know that it's been done before.  Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South has a very similar premise to Pax Romana.  As do SM Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time series, Eric Flint's 1632 series, John Birmingham's Axis of Time series, and you could even go all the way back to the novel's I mentioned at beginning of this review.  That's not even getting into all of the online alternate historians who have tried their hands at such a scenario.

None of this makes Pax Romana a bad comic, but it does go to show that it's premise wasn't quite as groundbreaking as many professional reviewers would have you think.  The big problem I had was just how short the comic was.  We get some very tantalizing glimpses of the history of this alternate Roman Empire that are just begging for elaboration.  This really feels like one part of a much bigger story that never materialized, and overall it just feels incomplete.  As far as I can tell, Hickman never intended for there to be sequels, thus compounding the issue.

Granted, there is a timeline towards the end that chronicles some events in the history of this alternate universe, but it just isn’t the same as being able to see all of that in comic book form.  I know that Syfy has expressed interest in adapting Pax Romana.  If they do, I sure hope they expanded it into a full-series, rather than just a miniseries.  It worked wonders when Amazon did it with The Man in the High Castle.

Well, there you have it.  Pax Romana is far from a bad comic, but also quite a bit overhyped.  I think you'll find it reasonably enjoyable, if a bit lacking.  Well, I think that will do it for now.  I'm off to find more great comics to review for you guys.  I will see you all next time.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Flag of the Kingdom of New France

This is the Flag of the Kingdom of New France.  It comes from a world where France actually put effort into colonizing the New World.  The French government provided monetary incentives for families to settle in France's North American holdings.  The thinking was that this investment would eventually be paid back by production of goods from the colonies.  Families were given priority because of their importance to sustaining the colonies in the long term.  France frequently got involved in boarder scuffles with the British, and this, among other reasons, led to something of an alternate French and Indian War. 

Britain gained the Ohio River Valley, and a few other small bits of land, but New France survived the war more or less intact.  During the war, the British also managed to capture Cuba.  Cuba provided raw materials for Britain's North American colonies which, along with the fact that they were hemmed in by the Mississippi River, meant that the colonies stayed loyal to Britain.  Thus, there was no American Revolution in this world.

The same, however, could not be said of the French Revolution.  France's colonies had help relieve the pressure on its citizens a bit, but overtaxation, combined with a bad harvest, ensured that the revolution came to pass.  However, when it became apparent the revolutionaries were going to gain the upper hand, the French monarchy fled to New France. 

Originally, this government-in-exile was known as France-d'outre-mer.  However, when it became apparent that retaking European France was unfeasible, the monarchy declared New France independent from France.  Thus, the Kingdom of New France was founded.  Eventually, things claimed down in Europe, but France remained staunchly republican.  

New France is an economic and cultural powerhouse of North America.  Over the years, it has to cede some of its southern territories to the Dominion of North America, but these days the two are on friendly terms with each other.  The two nations compete with one another for immigrants from around the world.  People of all races are given protection under the law of New France.  Recently, a First Nations man was elected governor of the province of Canada.  New France has been trying to convince nations, such as the Empire of Mexico and the Empire of Brazil, to create a league of New World monarchies. 

The flag has as three-tailed banner design and feature blue and white, traditional colors of New France.  An enlarged royal seal is displayed prominently on the flag.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Flag of Isla Blanca

This is the flag of Isla Blanca.  It comes from a world where the Spanish Armada was slightly more successful than in our world.  Though it failed to conquer England, the armada to manage to capture the Isle of Wight.  Due to a mistranslation, the island was renamed Isla Blanca, or White Island in English.  Isla Blanca proved to be an invaluable strategic location for the Spanish.  Owing to its close proximity to the British Isles, the Spanish were able to use Isla Blanca to keep the British in check.  As a result of this, Gibraltar remains firmly under Spanish control. 

Over the years, the Britain has made many attempts to regain Isla Blanca from Spain.  For example, when Isla Blanca's constitution was being written in the late 20th Century, it was stated that it could not seek independence from both Britain and Spain.  Shortly after that, a referendum was held to decide Isla Blanca fate.  The options were continued union with Spain, union with Britain, or having both nations share joint custody of Isla Blanca.  The people of Isla Blanca overwhelmingly voted to remain part of Spain.  Several other referendums have been held over the years, but the result is always the same, much to Britain's chagrin.

In terms of culture, it is often said that the people of Isla Blanca are more Spanish than even the Spanish themselves.  Recently, following Spain's decision to leave the European Union, some have wondered if Isla Blanca might waver in its loyalty.  For now, however, Isla Blanca remains fiercely loyal to Spain and proud of its Spanish culture and heritage. 

The waves on the flag represent Spain's control of the wave, and a nod to its former world-spanning empire.  Above the waves is a maroon field, representing royalty and the Spanish monarchy.  The monarchy is also reference in the crown atop the coat of arms.  The coat of arms contains a stylization image of Isla Blanca set against a soft blue sea, as well as two fish.  The fish represent fishing, unsurprisingly, a historically important industry on Isla Blanca.