Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Audio File: Alba Salix, Royal Physician

As I've said, on multiple occasions, sometimes it takes a bit before I get to some of the more popular, or more recommended, audio dramatic there. However, I usually wind-up falling in love with them once I finally give them a listen. Without further preamble, let's get into today's review. We're taking a look at Alba Salix, Royal Physician.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there lives a witch named Alba Salix. She's the head of the House of Healing, and oversees all the medical clinics in the Kingdom of Farloria. Alba is joined by her assistant, a fairy named Holly. She's the chief herbalist at the House of Healing. Recently, the House of Healing has also taken on a former monk named Magnus. He's providing public service in lieu of a debt he owes. There's plenty of laughs and fun times to be had as the House of Healing team handles a new case each episode.

I'd seen Alba Salix recommended a few times in the "you may also like" section of my Apple podcast app. However, what finally convinced me to give it a try was a promo I listened to. It played at the end of an episode of We Fix Space Junk I was listening to. Alba Salix, Royal Physician and We Fix Space Junk are both part of the Fable and Folly network of podcasts. It is the same network that Harlem Queen is part of. The promo sounded promising, but what really won me over was the theme music. It is a combination of Medieval-style flutes and modern electric guitars. Snippets of the theme music are used for scene transitions. It perfectly encapsulates the style that Alba Salix goes for; a stereotypical fairytale setting, but with modern humor and sensibilities. Also, the theme music sounds completely awesome. If only we had an extended version of it.

So, I figured, even if I didn't like the show, at least I'd get to listen to the awesome theme music. I gave it a try, genuinely enjoyed the episodes, and now here we are. You guys know my thing about how I prefer non-British accents in fantasy audio dramas. Well, Alba Salix is the first to give me Canadian accents in a fantasy setting. The production team is based in Toronto. I should add they don't sound stereotypically Canadian, except for Holly at times, but they don't sound British, and that is a net positive. Not that I'm completely opposed to British people on fantasy settings, but I find British accents to be over represented in fantasy. I feel that, at times, fantasy fiction is a bit like 19th Century India: it suffers an excess of British people.

As you might have gathered, Alba Salix is a sitcom in a stereotypical fairytale world. And you might also recall my love of the Shrek movies, which took a similar approach to their setting. So, that was another point in favor of Alba Salix. There are plenty of nods and references to classic fairytales and fairytale adaptations. For example, while on an ingredient run gone wrong, Holly comes across a cottage full of three bowls of porridge. One is too hot, one is too cold, and one is just right. Naturally, said cottage is owned by a family of three bears. In other episode, cute little animals offer tips to help Magnus with his chores. However, he blows them off repeatedly, and they get miffed. So, when he finally gives in and asks for help, they give him deliberately bad advice to teach him a lesson.

Now, let's talk about the characters. We'll start with the title character herself. Alba is one of the only people in Farloria with more than a few atoms of common sense and rationality. As such, she plays the straight woman to the antics of Holly, Magnus, Queen Parabel, and pretty much everyone else in Farloria. She's cynical, grouchy, and snarky. But considering what she has to put up with on a daily basis, it isn't hard to see why. Still, despite it all, it is clear that, deep down, she does genuinely care about Holly and Magnus. You don't often see older female characters playing major roles in fantasy fiction, and Alba is a nice change of pace. Despite Alba being the title character, there were times it felt that Magnus and Holly were the true focus of the show. Though, I suppose that's a side effect of Alba serving as the voice of reason. Magnus and Holly can screw-up more easily than she can. Alba is voiced by Barbara Clifford.

Also, Alba's name is a bit of a pun. Salix alba is the scientific name for white willow. Its bark contains salicylic acid, which can be used to make aspirin.

Holly is a fairy who serves as the herbal specialist at the House of Healing. She's almost perpetually cheery, sunny, and happy-go-lucky. It's always really cute when she gets excited and says "Yay!" Holly likes to sing while she works, and is always eager to help out, but has a tendency to be a bit of scatterbrain. For example, she loves to cook, but believes that the most important part of cooking his having fun, rather than following recipes and directions. This line of thinking once resulted in a batch of cookies that caused everyone who ate them to sprout tails. Holly also has terrible handwriting, which causes issues with labeling ingredients. But hey, at least bad handwriting is expected in the medical profession. About the only thing that can truly rattle Holly is the fear that she might be a bad fairy. Thankfully, Alba always assures her that she's a good fairy.

Holly is voiced by Olivia Jon. Personally, I hope we'll learn how Holly came to work for Alba at some point. Holly definitely doesn't seem like someone Alba would seek out of her own volition.

Magnus used to be a monk at the Dragon Mountain Monastery. Unfortunately, due to a martial arts performance gone horribly wrong, he incurred quite a bit of debt. So, he's working for Alba as a form of community service. Magnus has a tendency to slack-off, and otherwise shirk his chores and assignments. He also isn't above scamming the patients in order to make quick money. He wants to learn magic, but has a rather cavalier towards safety and rules. Naturally, he tends to butt heads with Alba. Still, though she wouldn't be quick to admit it, deep down Alba does care about Magnus. It is hinted that Alba sees a lot of herself in Magnus. Magnus has a sort of brother-sister relationship with Holly. They argue and squabble, as siblings are want to do, but the chips are down they're there for each other. Magnus is voiced by Julian Sark.

Parabel is Queen of Farloria and is also Alba's younger sister. Many years ago, King Gunther was turned into a goat by a curse. Three sisters came to the kingdom in hopes of breaking the curse. Alba was the oldest sister, and tried to use a spell, but it didn't work. Parabel was able to break the curse with true loves kiss. As such, King Gunther promptly married her once he became human again. True, Alba missed her shot at being queen, but she doesn't strike me as type who would enjoy that sort of lifestyle. And hey, she got to be head of the House of Healing. Like most siblings, they tend to bicker, and don't always see eye-to-eye. Parabel's royal decrees often given Alba no end of headaches. For example, at one point Parabel orders that the all gardens within sight of the palace be uprooted and filled with nice looking flowers. This included the herb garden at the House of Healing. Alba and the gang need those herbs to make potions and healing salves. Parabel is voiced by Marisa King.

Not much to say about King Gunther. He seems like a reasonably nice guy; if a bit too indulgent of Parabel at times. He is voiced by Geroge Bertwell, who also voiced the badgers from the time Holly and Magnus had to go to Badger Town. That was especially funny. The badgers all sounded like Mr. Meeseeks from Rick and Morty, and it made me laugh.

In season two, Alba and company have to put up with Antalia Pearcey. She's in charge of overseeing all magical things and practitioners in the kingdom. As such, she imposes some very strict regulations on the House of Healing. Alba and the gang constantly chafe under these regulations, but to be fair, Mrs. Pearcey did have a point about the House of Healing being disorganized, and that the jars needing better labels, and that making Magnus sleep in the old tool shed was a bit much. Actually, she raised a lot of good points, but seeing Alba and company trying to comply with the regulations made for good episodes. Antalia is voiced by Elaine O'Neal.

There is a series of mini-episodes that take place between seasons one and two. They're meant to help hold everyone over while season three is in production. They're really fun little vignettes that provide some amusing (mis)adventures for the characters. I particularly liked the one where Magnus and Holly had to collect dragon tears by going to a dragon opera. They had to deal with stuff well-to-do dragons who considered them riff-raff. Another fun one is where Holly finds a pigeon, which she believes to be a person turned into a pigeon, and is determined to do whatever to take to help it. That one was written, and featured a guest appearance, by Beth Crane of We Fix Space Junk. From this, we must conclude that Alba Salix actually takes place in the world of We Fix Space Junk. Well, actually not really, but they are both members of Fable and Folly. But I'm just saying, we have seen a couple pseudo-medieval planets in We Fix Space Junk

There is another series set in the same world as Alba Salix, Royal Physician. It is called The Axe and Crown, and can be found in the same podcast feed Alba Salix is found in. The Axe and Crown follows a troll named Gubbin who owns a tavern, really more of a dive bar, named The Axe and Crown in the run-down part of town. Business is, if not exactly booming, then reasonably well. But the times they are a changing. The Axe and Crown has a new landlord named Stan. He's the son of the deceased former landlord, and is very excited to be part of The Axe and Crown, much to Gubbin's dismay. Before long, Gubbin's niece Betula comes to town to work for the black-market guild. Together, the three of them work together to keep their heads above water, and keep The Axe and Crown from going out of business.

Each season of The Axe and Crown is set between season of Alba Salix. They usually have twice as many episodes as Alba Salix, but the episodes are only half as long, so it evens out. Much of the comedy comes from the contrast between Gubbin and Stan's personalities, and general outlook on life. Gubbin is an almost stereotypical surly bar owner. He's cynical, sarcastic, and places an emphasis on practicality, and sticking with the way things have been. One of the biggest contrasts between Gubbin and most dive bar owners is that he is gay. His ex-boyfriend Johann used to be the head chef at The Axe and Crown, but then he cheated on Gubbin and run off to work at another pub. Gubbin was so heartbroken he boarded up the kitchen door for many years afterwards.

Stan, by contrast, is a wide-eyed idealist with a generally sunny disposition. He's kind of like one of those sheltered rich liberals who want to change the world, but don't have much in the way of real-world experience. He fraud toy gets knocked on his ass, literally and metaphorically, but always manages to dust himself off and get back up.

Betula is a bit like Gubbin, but with better social skills, and maybe not quite as cynical. Stan thinks she's the most beautiful woman he's ever met. Gubbin thinks Stan is nuts, well, more so than usual, but it is soon hinted that Betula returns Stan's feelings. Betula wants to try her hand at cooking. She's pretty good at making traditional troll foods. Unfortunately, troll food isn't exactly edible by human standards. But hey, at least she's learning and getting better.

As much as they can get on each other's nerves, at the end of the day, all three members of The Axe and Crown genuinely do care about each other. One of the biggest challenges facing The Axe and Crown is that a Bucket Pub has moved in across the street. They're a pub chain whose names are always something plus bucket; Badger and Bucket, Unicorn and Bucket, Walrus and Bucket, etc. They have many things that Stan is envious of, such as outdoor patios, brunch service, and designer craft beers. Many episodes of The Axe and Crown involve our main trio trying to outwit the Bucket Pub, or else take them down a peg.

The theme music for The Axe and Crown isn't quite as catchy as the theme music for Alba Salix, but it did grow on me with time. It involves a lot of snare drums and horn. It's unpolished and rough around the edge, just like the titular pub.

So, there you have it. Alba Salix, Royal Physician and The Axe and Crown, are fun and funny fairytale sitcoms. Don't wait around like I did, go give them both a listen today. They are well worth your time.

Well, I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Audio File: Becoming Mother Nature

Gen-Z Media is doing some really great work in the world of kid friendly audio dramas. They've got a good mix of genres to choose from. They've also decided to dip their toes into the world of superheroes. That brings us to the audio drama we'll be reviewing today. We're taking a look at Becoming Mother Nature, season 1 of The Natureverse

Twelve-year-old Chloe Lovejoy has a rather strained relationship with her mother, to put it lightly. Chloe has been sent to live with her grandmother in California so that they both have some space. Before long, however, Chloe discovers some startling secrets. Grandma Ivy is none other than Mother Nature herself. Moreover, Chloe herself is the latest in a long line of women who are destined to inherit the power of Mother Nature. Chloe's got a lot to learn, and she'll have to master it quick. There are dark forces at work that want to claim the power of Mother Nature for themselves.

I've had a pretty good track record with Gen-Z Media shows, and Become Mother Nature bowled a turkey for Gen-Z Media. That's a bowling term that means to get three strikes in a row; if you get it in the first frame of a bowling match it is called a sizzling turkey. So, when I first started listening to this podcast, I figured it was a standard urban fantasy show. Hey, nothing wrong with that, I love urban fantasy. However, the more I thought about it, I realize that I could better describe Becoming Mother Nature as a superhero audio drama. It's a little unconventional, but it's there. Chloe finds herself in possession of extraordinary powers, has to figure out how to master them, has a sidekick, and has to take down a man who is basically a supervillain.

I'm all in favor of more superheroes with magical urban fantasy style origins. Mother Nature is one of those characters, like the Sandman or the Tooth Fairy, that everyone knows of, but not many people can actually tell you anything her. There's a lot of wiggle room for interpretation. William Joyce certainly found a lot of wiggle room with his Guardians of Childhood book series. You might be familiar with its, criminally underrated, film adaption Rise of the Guardians

Personally, I think Becoming Mother Nature is a really fun take on a superhero origin story. I also appreciated that does touch on import life lessons. If there is a moral to Becoming Mother Nature, it is that you should be kind to other people, because you don't always know what they're going through. As I've stated, Chloe and her mom, Laurel, have a somewhat strained relationship. However, for as often as she screws up, Laurel does genuinely love Chloe, and wants to do right by here. Of course, at lot of Laurel's issues stem from the fact that she and Grandma Ivy had their own issues. Ivy did love Laurel, but her duties as Mother Nature meant that she couldn't always be there when Laurel needed her. It also meant she couldn't explain to Laurel why this was. Well, actually, I think a case can be made that Ivy should have been more trusting of Laurel in that regard. The Mother Nature powers always skip a generation, and are passed from grandmother to granddaughter.

I also like what the audio drama did with Felix. He's a boy that Chloe befriends, and he quickly becomes her sidekick/mentor. Felix, superhero fan that he is, practically jumps at the chance to be Chloe's sidekick. Felix works mission control for Chloe, and also provides moral support and guidance. Hmm, interesting. In these sorts of stories, it's usually the girl character who provides emotional support and advice. Nice to see Gen-Z Media mixing things up a bit. It was also nice to have a girl and boy as just friends with no hints of romance between them. Though, that might in part have been due to Chloe and Felix's age.

Of course, every superhero story also needs a supervillain. Becoming Mother Nature has Duncan Sunshine. He's a hotshot weatherman, and local celebrity, in the town the series takes place in. He's also been completely obsessed with Mother Nature ever since Grandma Ivy saved him during a storm when he was a little boy. More specifically, he wants to claim the power of Mother Nature for himself. So, he's kind of like Mr. Crocker from The Fairly Odd Parents, but as a genuinely threatening and competent villain. Duncan has a sidekick of his own in the form of his daughter, Raye O. Sunshine. She is involved in climate change activism, and claims she wants to save the planet. In reality, however, she's only in it for the fame and attention.

When I first listened to Becoming Mother Nature, I thought that Raye's name was spelled R-E-I. So, I envisioned the Sunshines being Asian-American. But I guess they were supposed to be more the blonde-haired blue-eyed All-American looking type.

I've often wondered if weathermen secretly get excited whenever severe weather happens. It's probably a lot more fun reporting on that than it is when everything is calm and relatively peaceful. As Duncan himself notes, storms tend to be great for the ratings.

Now, I did very much enjoy Becoming Mother Nature, but it does have a few issues. As I've said, Duncan's evil scheme is to steal the powers of Mother Nature for himself. The first step was to weaken Grandma Ivy, so he could take her out of the picture. How does he do this? Why, he builds an array of satellites that are capable of manipulating the weather, somehow launches them into orbit, and screws with weather systems across the world. Uh, what?

Why does Duncan even need Mother Nature's power? He's pretty much there already. He could probably become incredibly rich if he patented his satellites, or failing that, could make a bunch of money by auctioning them off to the highest bidder. Granted, the government can force you to suppress your inventions if they consider them a significant threat to national security. And Duncan does seem power hungry enough that he wouldn't just stop at weather manipulation satellites. So, I suppose I can let that one slide.

A bigger issue I had is that the Mother Nature powers, and their rules, were very inconsistent. At one point, Chloe freezes a puddle to test her powers out, and as a result, there's a sudden cold snap across the entire continent of South America. That just seems disproportionate. One of the big themes of Becoming Mother Nature is about the need for balance. Chloe has to find a sense of balance within herself if she wants to truly embrace her role as Mother Nature. It is also important to use the Mother Nature powers to help keep the world in a state of balance. I'm just saying, freezing a puddle causing South America to freeze just seem a bit too disproportionate.

I will say that the secret Mother Nature command center was cool. I especially loved the globe that shows real time weather events. It really added to the superhero feeling of the series. I also really loved that Grandma Ivy had a pet opossum named Oscar. He eventually becomes Chloe's pet. I admit, Oscar's not all the consequential in the grand scheme of things, but I like possums, so he made me happy.

The biggest issue with Becoming Mother Nature happened towards the end of the season. As such, we're going to have to get into spoilers. So, if you don't want that, either turn away or skip down a few paragraphs.

This is your last chance. Sure you want to keep going?

Well, if everyone who wants out is gone, let's get into it.

Duncan scheme is to get Chloe to give the powers of Mother Nature to him. There's a big spell book/user's manual for the Mother Nature powers, and one of them is transference. It is the spell that officially passes the powers of Mother Nature from person to person. So, Duncan successfully tricks Chloe into giving him the powers by pretending he'll be her mentor. Except, they don't go to Duncan, they go to Raye. Raye does mention some rule saying that only women can be Mother Nature. However, Duncan makes a remark that suggest he made-up to rule to get Raye to cooperate with his schemes. But, as previously mentioned, Raye really did get the powers.

Uh, how exactly does that work? If a man attempts the transference ritual, do the powers go to his closest living female relative instead? Oh, but we aren't done yet. Chloe may have given the powers away, but never fear, she doesn't need silly things like spell books or transference rituals. It turns out the true power was deep within her all along. So, she taps into her innate Mother Nature power to defeat Raye. Not only does the contradict the previously establish rule, it also comes completely out of the blue, with little to no foreshadowing. Then again, the rules were pretty inconsistent to begin with.

At times it felt like the writers were coming up with the rules on the fly, and this discarding them as soon as they jotted them down. That, or they painted themselves into a corner and just went "You know what, screw it."

Now, I don't want to sound too harsh or negative here. Overall, I did very much enjoy Becoming Mother Nature. It's a Gen-Z Media show, so you know it's going to have excellent voice acting, music, sound effects, and sound design. It will also add that in Cupid and The Reaper, season two of The Natureverse, Chloe's powers and portrayed much more consistently. The rules and also greatly simplified, and are followed consistently. And yes, I will review Cupid and The Reaper before long.

Well, there you have it. Becoming Mother Nature is a good, if slightly flawed, superhero origin story. It is an enjoy story on its own, and sets things up for later installments in The Natureverse.

I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.

Friday, July 2, 2021

The Alt-Hist File: Age of Confusion

I'm a big fan of historical fiction and alternate history, but I don't listen to very many history podcast. That is, podcast where it's usually one or two guys talking about various historical events. I find them to generally be low quality, interchangeable in terms of style and execution, and just not very good, barring a few notable exceptions. That's what makes the podcast we'll be looking at today so notable. It is alternate history, but told in the style of a non-fiction history podcast. Yet despite this it manages to be incredibly entertaining and engaging. What it this podcast? It is Age of Confusion.

What would have happened if President John F. Kennedy had survived his assassination attempt in Dallas, Texas? Perhaps it would be an age of wonders, or an age of terrors, but it certainly would be an Age of Confusion. Age of Confusion tells the story of just such a world. It chronicles the alternate history of America, and the world at large, from 1963-1983, starting with JFK dodging a literal bullet.

Age of Confusion is created, written, and produced by Sean Munger. He's a professional historian. He also runs the Second Decade podcast, which is about things that happened between 1810-1820; as well as Green Screen, an environmental movie review podcast. I first became aware of Age of Confusion when I read about it in the weekly new relates thread on the r/audiodrama subreddit. It looked promising, I gave it a listen, and now here we are.

As I've previously mentioned, due to the nature of this podcast, Sean has to carry the entire production all by himself. This is no small task, and there is a lot that can easily go wrong. Thankfully, I'm happy to report that Sean succeeds with flying colors. He presents the alternate history in a sort of narrative non-fiction format. Understandable, given that he's the one controlling the course of events, and it makes for an entertaining listening experience. It also helps that Sean's voice is very easy to listen to.

On the podcast's website, each episode page has a segment where Sean compares how things when in real history. He also uses these segments to explain his though process, and why he chose to make the changes that he did. I think that this is really great, and I applaud him for going that extra mile. Perhaps these segments, combined with the show proper, will get listeners to think more about the real history of the era. I know it has gotten me thinking.

The style of Age of Confusion reminds me of the novel For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga by Robert Sobel. If is an alternate history novel set in a world where the American Revolution failed, and is notable for being told in the style of a non-fiction history book. It is a novel that proved quite influential on the online alternate history fandom. If you can't find the book itself, I recommend checking out the very detailed Sobel Wiki, which is dedicated to the world to For Want of a Nail.

So, how is the alternate history. I think it should be clear by now that Sean pays a great deal of care when crafting the alternate history of Age of Confusion. You can tell that he pays considerable attention to details. Why don't we go over a few highlights of this seasons? I should add that, every five episodes or so, Sean puts out a recap episode to help new listeners catch-up with the story so far, and to provide a refresher for returning listeners.

The first major changes happens when Kennedy returns to Washington DC. Congress moves to vote on the 1963 Civil Rights Act, and segregationist politicians successfully kill the bill in the senate. As you might imagine, this has major ripples. Martin Luther King Jr loses a lot of his clout within the Civil Rights Movement. He'd been banking on Kennedy getting the Civil Right Act passed. Many in the movement also begin to question King's non-violent methods. Instead, the movement pivots towards Stokely Carmichael. He was one of the founders of the Black Power Movement. He encourages Blacks to go on strikes and hold sit-in demonstrate how much of the economy is dependent on Black people. He also says he wants the strikes and sit-in in Northern cities as well as Southern cities. That way, it will show that the struggle for Civil Rights isn't just a Southern issue.

The series starts off with a bang, and I think Sean does a good case for his choices in altering history. In our world, Lyndon B. Johnson was able to use Kennedy's tragic death to push the Civil Rights Act through Congress. He framed it as Kennedy's legacy. In a world where Kennedy survives, there is no guarantee that the 1963 Civil Rights Act is going to get passed; especially if Congress votes on it in December.

I can also see MLK falling out of favor with the Civil Rights Movement. Even in our own timeline, King was starting to fall out of favor with the movement around the time he was assassinated. Sean has confirmed that King will not be assassinated in the world of Age of Confusion. It was only a minor mention, but we see that Malcolm X also survived his assassination attempt. He's been seriously reconsidering the direction of his life. Sean takes the view that assassinations are disruptions to the flow of history, and he wants to imagine a world where the major assassinations of the mid-twentieth century never happened.

Sean also has a very interesting method for determining the outcome of elections. He uses Thirteen Keys to the White House system devised by historian Allan Lichtman. They determine who will be president based on factors such as which party is in power, what were the midterm gains and/or loses, were there any scandals or major policy changes, how charismatic are the candidates, and so on.

It's actually really interesting stuff. The Thirteen Keys system has successful predicted every presidential election from 1984 to 2020. The only exception was the 2000 Election. To be fair, Florida having faulty voting machines was a factor nobody saw coming. The Thirteen Key successfully predicted the election of Donald Trump, something that most other analysts said was impossible, as well as his defeat at the hands of Joe Biden.

The first application of the Thirteen Keys is applied to the 1964 Election. Kennedy faces off against Nelson Rockefeller and ekes out a narrator victory. However, what I found most interesting was that a segregationist politician managed to carry Mississippi. Third party candidates almost never carry states in elections. The two main exceptions were Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party in 1912, and George Wallace's segregationist platform in 1968. I figured this would have major ramifications for the 1969 election, but we'll get to that in a minute.

A new Civil Rights Act is proposed, and this time, Kennedy fights harder. There had been previous attempts to get a Civil Rights Act passed prior to 1963, but they always got defeated. On the whole, Kennedy did support civil rights for minorities, but he had to contend with the segregationist win of the Democrat Party. He also didn't want thing to move so fast that they scared white voters. To be fair, most other white politicians sympathetic to Civil Rights tended to hold this attitude. Although, one of Kennedy's motivators to fight for the new Civil Rights Act is that it will be his legacy.

The Comprehensive Civil Rights Act officially gets signed into law in 1966. As the name suggests, it's actually a somewhat expanded version of the 1963 Civil Rights Act. For example, one its provisions is the establishment of a national department to investigate instances of police brutality. It will be interesting to see how thinks turn out in future seasons now that we have the Comprehensive Civil Rights Act.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union has been experiencing some political turmoil. A coup was successfully carried out against Nikita Khrushchev. There's a lot of squabbling and in-fighting, but once the dust settles, a hardline Stalinist named Alexander Shelepin. He wants to undo Khrushchev's reforms and take a more aggressive approach to the United States. The beginning to each episode begins with snippets from in-universe new reels and recordings. One of these is a broadcast from West Berlin saying that East German tanks are invading the city. My guess is that, at some point in the future, Shelepin is going to put pressure on East Germany to retake West Berlin. Also, the podcast cover art is a collage several pictures, include a hydrogen bomb exploding. That has...troubling implications, to say the least.

Meanwhile, things heat up in Vietnam like they did in our world. Sean makes a good case that Kennedy would probably choose to commit American troops to the conflict due to not wanting to look soft on communism. Albeit, Kennedy doesn't commit nearly the number than LBJ did in our timeline. At the same time, Sean also makes a strong case that Kennedy would pull America out of Vietnam sooner than in our timeline. It would still be viewed as a tragedy, but there would far less loss of life.

One aspect about JFK that isn't often discussed is that he had Addison's Disease. In our timeline, Kennedy actually lied to voters during the 1960 Presidential Election, and claimed to not have Addison's. Oh, you better believe this comes back to bite him in the ass, and leads to a major scandal. Again, this is further proof of the attention to details that Sean puts into Age of Confusion.

Now we're going to talk about the 1968 Election. It was the most recent episode, as of this writing, so I figured I should maybe do a spoiler warning for it. So, if you don't want spoilers, skip down a few paragraphs.

Last chance, you sure you want to keep going?

Well, if everyone who wants out is gone, let's continue.

Lyndon B. Johnson has his sights set on being Kennedy's successor, and he wins the Democratic nomination. The Republicans do some more scuffling, but ultimately nominate George Romney as their pick. In our timeline, his son Willard, known by his nickname Mitt, unsuccessfully ran for president in 2012. Romney runs into some trouble because he was born in Mexico, and is accused of not being a real American. However, his parents were both American citizens, so it is a moot point. I can't decide if it is funny or groan-worthy how this parallels similar accusations leveled against Barack Obama in our world.

Personally, I'm amazed that Romney's Mormon faith didn't prove to be more of a stumbling block. In our world, JFK was frequently hounded about his Catholicism throughout the 1960 Presidential Election. There was a still a fair bit of anti-Catholic sentiment in America at the time. Sean justifies things going easier for Romney by having him downplay his Mormonism. Romney speaks of his strong Christian faith, but almost never specifically identifies as Mormon. That said, Sean has hinted that this will come back to bite Romney in the ass, and he'll be involved in a scandal.

From the intro, we know that Bobby Kennedy will become the 37th President, and JFK was 35th. So, the only question now is will RFK win in 1972 or 1976? Well, that and how many terms will Romney serve.

Meanwhile, George Wallace runs on a platform of segregation and repelling the Comprehensive Civil Rights Act. He chooses Strom Thurmond, rather than Curtis LeMay, as his running mate. Troublingly, they do even better than Wallace did in our timeline. They win every former Confederate state, minus Florida and Texas, but plus West Virginia. They didn't bother campaigning in Florida because they thought it was too full of Jews and Cubans. They almost succeed in throwing the election to Congress, but Romney manages to get just enough electoral votes to win.

I would assume that there will be no attempt on Wallace's life in 1972. That is, if we are to go by the theme of assassinations never happening. In our world, Wallace was not killed, but he was paralyzed from the waist down. This caused him to reevaluate his life, and eventually lead him to renounce his racist views. In fact, towards the end of his life, Wallace worked toward the betterment of racial relations. If the assassination attempt never happens, Wallace will probably continue to fight for segregation. That's bound to have impacts future down the line.

Sean has stated that there won't be very many episodes about the Space Race. I guess it's going to go more or less as it did in our world. That said, there are some differences. The Apollo 1 disaster never happens, but something equally tragic happens. A Saturn V rocket, with crew already loaded into it, explodes on the launch pad. I bring this up because it is what costs Johnson the election. Much as in our world, Johnson really pushed NASA to kick the Apollo program into gear. He does this in hopes that the Moon Landing will happen after he is elected, and he can take credit for it. In the world of Age of Confusion, however, Johnson is under scrutiny for pressuring NASA to ignore safety regulations.

And so that is everything of note so far. It is very exciting stuff, and we're just getting started. Sean said that he played things safe with season one. He stuck fairly close to the actual historical record. However, in future seasons, things are going to diverge much more. I can't wait to see how it plays out.

The only suggestion I have, and I admit it is a minor one, is that perhaps Sean could vary up the style of the show a bit. I really enjoy the opening of each episode where we get snippets from news bulletins and recordings from the world of Age of Confusion. Perhaps, in future episode, he could play some extended clips in the middle of the episodes. I think I might add to the immersion of the podcast. Maybe also bring on a fellow historian, either a real one or an actor, to discuss in-universe events. Or perhaps interview people who witnessed the events of episodes. Obviously, they'd be played by actors. These would also be great ways to build the immersion.

Of course, if Sean chooses to keep the show as is, well, I know I'll be perfectly happy. I also hope that you give Age of Confusion a try. It is an alternate history audio drama in the style of a non-fiction podcast. It is a really creative and interesting twists on alternate history audio dramas.

Well, I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Book Review: Island in the Sea of Time by SM Stirling

Sometimes, I will listen to an audiobook, absolutely love it, and I will know it is a book I have to review. That way, I can share it with other people. Of course, sometimes life gets in the way, or I have to put it off for other reasons. But, sooner or later, I usually get around to it. That brings us to the book we'll be reviewing today. We're taking a look at Island in the Sea of Time by S.M. Stirling.

Island in the Sea of Time begins on 1998 AD on the island of Nantucket. It's a sleepy little island off the coast of Massachusetts, but also a popular tourist destination. Everyone is looking forward to what the new year will bring. Then, without warning, the sky is completely filled with a strange red light. The people of Nantucket notice some strange things once the sky returns to normal. The cities on the mainland have been replaced by unbroken forest, there are no radio signals, and the stars in the are totally different. Before long everyone reaches a startling conclusion: they've been sent back in time to the Bronze Age. Specifically, they're now in the year 1250 BC.

Like it or not, the people of Nantucket are going to change the past no matter what they do. Will they choose to create a better world; one free from the mistakes of the old? Or will a hostile flag of conquest fly across the Bronze Age world?

I'd known about this book for a while. It's kind of hard not to if you're into alternate history. The online alternate history has its own slang and acronyms for various tropes. One of these is named ISOT, which, of course, is short for Island in the Sea of Time. It refers to any land or individuals, from as small as a single person to as large as a whole country, getting transported to a different time, usually somewhere in the past. You then try to imagine what happens from there, much as this book series does.

I'm glad I finally got around to checking this series out. It was as excellent as I thought it would be, and it quite well researched as well. Obviously, with all the competing theorizes about life in the Bronze Age, there's no way that Stirling could possibly be faithful to them all. That having been said, the ones that he does decide to go with are extremely well researched. Moreover, Stirling had to, in essence, create many of the cultures feature in this series completely out of whole cloth. This is by necessity due to lack of surviving written records. For example, we know that Tartessos probably existed, that it was located in Southern Spain, and some people think it inspired Plato's account of Atlantis...and that's pretty much it. Stirling had to create basically everything about Tartessos and its culture from scratch. Oh, but don't worry, he succeeded with flying colors.

I briefly became obsessed with all thing Bronze Age after reading the Island in the Sea of Time trilogy. I fully blame that on Stirling excellent writing skills. I also wish to visit Nantucket someday. Many of the places mentioned in the series are indeed real places that you can visit. Stirling has posted pictures of several trips he took to Nantucket on Facebook, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. Nantucket has some of the best preserved pre-Civil War architecture in America.

A brief side note on terminology. The series as a whole is often referred to as Island in the Sea of Time, after the first book. This is how I prefer to refer to it. However, you will sometimes see it referred to as the Nantucket trilogy or the Islander trilogy. Just thought I should let you know. 

A significant chunk of the novel is dedicated to the Islanders working to make Nantucket self-sufficient and laying the foundations of their new nation. I was worried that this might drag on too long, and we wouldn't get very much alternate history goodness. Fortunately, I'm pleased to report that this is not the case. In fact, I found these segments to be quite engrossing and entertaining. I suppose that is a testament to Stirling's talent as a writer.

I also liked that there was conflict some conflict, of varying scale, because not everyone was on-board with the new state of affairs. There's one scene where an accountant flips-out because he's been assigned to help clear land for farm plots. He rails at how unfair it is that he's being force to perform manual labor. It's understandable why he'd feel that way; I'd probably feel similar. Still, Nantucket needs manpower and laborers, not accountants. Especially since they're also having to rebuild the economy from scratch. At this point, they're using work chits as a currency of sorts. Basically, you work a job for a set among of time, and get a certain number of chits to spend on whatever you wish. Money from the old universe is considered worthless. It is a basic economic truth that money has no intrinsic value beyond that which we imbue upon it. Of course, after a year or so, once things get settled, Nantucket transitions to an actual official currency of its own.

I also liked how the characters have to deal with the loss of stupid incidental stuff you probably wouldn't think about. You have various characters think on how much they'd give for something as simple as hamburger or a club sandwich. The loss of coffee is another big blow to everyone's collective moral. Sure, there are some coffee plants on the island, but they're bred to look pretty, not for their flavor. Wild coffee plants were mostly confined to the Ethiopian highlands in 1250 BC. For me, I think the biggest blow would be the loss of seamless socks. I have very sensitive skin, and socks with seams drive me completely insane. The lack, or least rationing, of air conditioning would also be a major downer. Not having any tea would also be unfortunate.

It's also mentioned that Internet addicts are taking it rough, but at least they're getting involved in community theatre and music groups. This book was written in 1998, when the Internet was still in its infancy. If the book had been written today, pretty much everyone on Nantucket would be dealing with major Internet withdrawal. Think about it; streaming services, YouTube, online video games, all the various information websites, Amazon, and search engines all just went poof. Oh, and your favorite review blog, by which I mean this one, would also be gone. Social media would also be gone, but that might not be such a bad thing...I say despite how much I use it to promote this blog. Relatedly, it's mentioned that of the teachers on the island took to living together; because living alone gets lonely when you don't have entertainment at your fingertips.

Now I think we should discuss the characters. I should mention that it wasn't just Nantucket that was sent back in time, but also the surrounding waters. This is important because the Eagle, and her crew, came along for the ride. It's a Coast Guard training ship that is made out of metal, but also uses sails. It has engines and motors, but it is capable of running purely on sail power. It was originally built by Nazi Germany, but was capture by America during World War II and converted into a Coast Guard ship. Oh, and did I mention that the Eagle is a real ship that actually exists? The crew are all fictional, but the ship itself is very real. In fact, I've actually heard that they keep a copy of the Island in the Sea of Time trilogy aboard the Eagle.

The Eagle is captained by Marion Alston. She's a no-nonsense woman of action and a master sailor. She had wanted to be a sailor her entire life, but the Navy didn't allow women to join. So, she joined the Coast Guard, because they actually allow women to join. She also previously trained in sword fighting with katanas, which comes in handy when she needs to train the Coast Guard in hand-to-hand combat. She one of the few prominent black people on Nantucket, but that doesn't stop her from rising to position of considerable authority within the new government of Nantucket. She's also a lesbian, but while some of the more conservative residents of Nantucket grumble about this, most people don't care, especially after all she's done for Nantucket.

One of the first things Nantucket realizes is that they need food for the winter. Corn was really only being grown by the Olmec in 1250 BC, so that rules out trading with Native Americans. So, the Eagle is sent on an expedition to England to trade for grain and livestock. At this point, the native people of England are in the process being displaced by the proto-Celtic Indo-European tribes. The ingenious people are England are known as the Fiernan Bohulugi, which roughly translates to People of the Soil, or Earth Folk. They're the ones who built Stonehenge. They don't have a written language, but they have extremely advanced knowledge of astronomy, and the movements of the stars and planets. Oh, and no written language means they have to do the calculations entirely in their heads, so they're pretty good at advanced math as well.

They're a matriarchal society, and their religion is based around the worship of a goddess named Moon Woman, who is said to be the mother of the stars. From what snippets we hear, their religion is vaguely similar to Buddhism, if a bit fatalistic at times, and is mostly peaceful.

The people attacking the Earth Folk are known as the Iraiina, which means Noble Ones, but the Earth Folk called them the Sun People, because they worship a sun god as their primary deity. In contrast to the Earth Folk, the Sun People are patriarchal, highly aggressive, and expansionist. Most of their other deities seem to be based upon various Celtic gods, which makes sense, given that the Iraiina are presented as the forerunners of the Celtic peoples.

As I've previously stated, we know basically nothing about Bronze Age England and its peoples. As such, Stirling had to invent pretty much everything about the Earth Folk and Sun People all on his own. Despite this, they both felt like fully fleshed out and vibrant cultures. In fact, on time I took a linguistics class, and we talked about the history of the English Language. The professor mentioned that we know basically nothing about the first inhabitants of England. I thought about the Earth Folk, and then I felt sad when I remembered that the Earth Folk were merely figments of SM Stirling's imagination. It is the mark of a truly great author when you feel sad that the people they invented aren't real.

Also, as I've stated, with all the competing theories about life in the Bronze Age, Island in the Sea of Time can't stay accurate forever. In fact, on Facebook, SM Stirling recently shared a link to a study suggesting the way he portrayed Bronze Age England got things backwards. However, he was not distraught by this. Quite the opposite, he was actually very excited about it, because it means we are learning more about the ancient past. That's a really good attitude to have with these sorts of things.

So, when the Eagle arrives to trade with the Sun People, Marion is gifted an enslaved Earth Folk woman named Swindapa Kurlelo. Understandably, Marion immediately grants Swindapa her freedom, and Swindapa accompanies Marion back to Nantucket. Once Swindapa adjusts to life in Nantucket she develops a romantic relationship with Marion. They couldn't be more different. Swindapa is barely nineteen, is almost always cheerful, likes to do cartwheels down the street just because, and obviously, is a white girl from Bronze Age England. Marion is stoic, in her late thirties/early forties, and is a black American woman from the modern day. Despite all of this, the two become a genuinely loving and devoted couple. An interracial, inter-temporal, lesbian couple with an age gap; they're breaking all sort of barriers.

Of course, there's a dark implication here. Swindapa's life as a prisoner of the Sun People was completely abysmal. There were times when she hoped that death would claim her and put an end to it all. The implication is, in the original timeline, this is exactly what happened. If nothing else, Nantucket can be assured that Swindapa and her people are better off because of them.

Marion is in charge of Nantucket's military, but the civic affairs run by former police chief Jared Cofflin. He likes to lead by example and out his money where his mouth is. During the early days after the Event, he took part in fishing and whaling expeditions. He's the leader of Nantucket, but he's subject to the laws like everyone else. While not opposed to using force where necessary, he tends to prefer to seek peaceful solutions for Nantucket's problems. He isn't college educated, but he isn't dumb, and can be rather thoughtful and insightful at times.

Both of these points are demonstrated during Nantucket's first major crisis. One of the pastors on the island is convinced, and convinces his parishioners, that Satan sent Nantucket back in time to prevent the birth of Jesus. As such, they try to burn everything on the island down. Thankfully, the crazed parishioners are quickly stopped, though the fire does burn down the arsenal. Many people want the arsonists hanged, but Jared suggest they instead be sent in temporary exile to the island of Inagua to collect salt. They will be watched over by Nantucket's resident priest Father Gomez, who will hopefully rehabilitate them. Cooler heads prevail, and everyone votes for Jared's proposal. He reasons, in his internal monologue, that their beliefs were wrong, because God exists outside of space and time. He also reasons that Nantucket is changing thing simply by being in the past.

Interestingly, several of the other Christians on Nantucket share this thinking. They reason that God will know if/when to send Jesus to the new world Nantucket has found itself in. As such, missionary trips are organized to proselytize to the Sun People. The hope is that converting to Christianity will make them less violent. Yeah, I'm not so sure about that. Considering how much violence Christianity has inspired over the years, I can see many ways converting the Sun People could backfire. If anything, it might make them more violent, because now they can declare holy wars on the Earth Folk. Or they can justify attacking the Earth Folk by claiming them to be godless blasphemers. Still, I will say that the concept of spreading a religion before the birth of its founding is interesting from a storytelling perspective. Granted, this is never a major focus of the series, but it is still interesting.

Nantucket probably would have had a much harder time making allies in the Bronze Age if not for Ian Arnstein and Doreen Rosenthal. Ian is a professor of Classical Greek History and Culture. He is a native of California, loves puns, and was visiting Nantucket when it got transported to the Bronze Age. Sharp-eyed readers will note that he bares more than a passing resemblance to fellow alternate history writer, and good friend of S.M. Stirling, Harry Turtledove. Stirling has confirmed that this is indeed deliberate.

Doreen is an astronomer who was doing research at Nantucket's observatory. She determined that Nantucket had been sent to the Bronze Age by examining the positions of the stars. She also accompanied one of the first expeditions to the mainland. Unfortunately, she had the sniffles, and accidentally gave it to the local Native American population. The Native Americans, having no immunity to such things, were completely decimated by this common cold. This is very similar to what happened in our world when Europeans made contact with the Native Americans. I'm not sure it could have really been avoided. Still, it is rather odd that Doreen, and Nantucket in general, never seem to dwell on this for very long. Granted, they have more pressing issue at the moment, but it is odd that it doesn't even get a passing consideration later on.

Doreen and Ian joke that, being two of the limited number of Jews on Nantucket, they're the only option each other has. Of course, they do actually fall in love in get married. Hmm, we've got Marion and Swindapa, Ian and Doreen, and Jared marries town librarian Martha. Stirling sure seems to enjoy pairing up characters into odd couples that still work.

Of course, what is a series like Island in the Sea of Time without a villain? William Walker is the primary antagonist of the series. He starts off as a member of the Coast Guard, but soon develops ambitions of carving out his own empire in England. Walker is a cold, calculating sociopath. He shares his name with a 19th Century historical figure who was famous for filibustering. In those days, the term meant invading other countries and setting yourself up as dictator. Stirling has confirmed that William Walker from Island in the Sea of Time was indeed modeled on the historical William Walker. Well get into this in the later books, but if you know about the life of the historical Walker, then you can guess about how things will go for the ISOT Walker.

Walker finds several allies for his cause, including a merchant from Tartessos named Isketerol. He was part of a trading expedition that was in England when the Eagle arrived. The Tartessians are master sailors, and the best shipwrights in the Mediterranean. In fact, they actually figured out that the Earth is round by studying the way that the horizon works. Though, that particular fact is mostly known amongst ship captains and their crews. Nantucket initially hoped that they could court Tartessos as a potential trading partner using Isketerol. Once on Nantucket, however, Isketerol perused some encyclopedias at the Atheneum. It is the main library on Nantucket and is built in the style of an Ancient Greek temple. From this, Isketerol realizes that the Nantucketers really are from the future by seeing pictures of the Great Pyramid and the Gates of Mycenae in ruins.

As you can imagine, he is horrified to discover that almost no information about Tartessos survived in the future. He is determined to prevent Tartessos from meeting the same fate. He concludes that Nantucket will be the biggest threat to Tartessos, and allies with Walker to get his hands on future technology and knowledge. Though, he really only views Walker as a means to an end. Amusingly, Walker pretty much views Isketerol the same way. Hmm, so Isketerol betrayed Nantucket. His name sounds a bit like Iscariot, as in Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Also, I think that's supposed to be Isketerol on the cover of the book.

Rounding out the main antagonists, at least for this book, is Pamela Lisketter. The term social justice warrior hadn't been invented yet when Island in the Sea of Time was written, but Lisketter fits the stereotype to a T. She an outspoken bleeding-heart progressive, very pushy with her views, gets offended at the drop of a hat, and isn't nearly as knowledgeable as she claims. For example, when Nantucket is considering starting whaling expeditions to supplement the food supply, she objects on the grounds that whales are endangered. This ignores that fact that whales were most certainly not endangered during the Bronze Age. You can practically hear the other characters rolling their eyes. It is somewhat fitting that Nantucket returned to whaling. Whaling was Nantucket's primary industry during the 19th Century.

Lisketter also criticizes Nantucket for trading with the Sun People. This ignores how desperately Nantucket needed the food, and how they allied with the Earth Folk as soon as they understood the political situation in England better. On an unrelated note, I loved the scene where the inhabitants of Nantucket see a flock of passenger pigeons for the first time. Their flocks were truly a sight to behold back before they went extinct. And there were be also sort of other amazing animals, that were driven extinct in our world, still alive during the Bronze Age. To name just a few, there were moas in New Zealand, thylacines in Australia, quaggas in South Africa, dodos in Mauritius, and Falkland Wolves in... well, the Falkland Islands.

Lisketter and her followers decide they need to save the Olmec, lest they be subject to colonialism. They enlist help from the great humanitarian himself, William Walker. You know, that white dude who is subjecting ingenious people to his colonial rule? Really, he judged need a distraction for one of his plans, and Lisketter was just the useful idiot for the job. Of, but it gets better. Turns out the Olmec didn't want to be saved. Most of Lisketter's followers are either eaten or used as human sacrifice. I'm rather reminded of those stories of missionaries who went to islands in the South Pacific, ran afoul of local customs, and wound up as the main course for dinner.

Oh, but Lisketter got the worst punishment of all. Well, the Olmec probably considered it an honor. She had green eyes, almost the exact color of jaguar eyes. The Olmec apparently have a creation myth about a woman having sex with a jaguar, and giving birth to a god. I should mention that this appears to be Stirling's own invention, in reference to the half-man half-jaguar often featured in Olmec art. So, Lisketter is forced to reenact the myth with a live jaguar, which somehow doesn't maul her. Then, she has to do it again with the village chief, who is wearing a jaguar skin robe. Needless to say, she practically begs for the sweet release of death by the time all is said and done.

Oh, and someone in her expedition spread mumps to the Olmec. One of the side effects of mumps is sterility, so congratulations Lisketter, you just whipped out the Olmec, along with all the Mesoamerican civilizations descended from them! Though, was that all Olmec, or just that settlement? In the next book we see Olmec merchants in Nantucket, suggesting that the other Olmec settlements are doing just fine. Now, the portrayal of the Olmec fell into several stereotypes about Mesoamerican civilizations. Normally, I'd be very annoyed by that. On the other hand, seeing Lisketter's followers get ripped limb-from-limb was incredibly cathartic, not to mention absolutely hilarious. I think I'll let it slide just this once.

Okay, this review has dragged on for long than I intended, and I think we need to wrap things up. There are a few other things I could add, but I'll save them for next time. Before we go, I will say there is an audiobook version. It is narrated by Todd McLaren. He's narrated a few audiobooks for both S.M. Stirling and Harry Turtledove, and he is always excellent to have as narrator.

Well, I think we'll call it a wrap for now. Island in the Sea of Time is an excellent first novel in an amazing time travel alternate history trilogy. I can't believe I waited so long to give it a try. Don't make my mistake, read/listen today. You will be glad that you did. And don't worry, my reviews of Against the Tide of Years and On the Oceans of Eternity will be here before you know it. Think I might review 1632 by Eric Flint as a compare and contrast as well.

Well, that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Book Review: The League of Seven by Alan Gratz

I've said before that it is often true that good things come to those who wait. This is especially true in the case of audiobooks. So, today we're going to take a look at an alternate history audiobook that was more than worth the wait. We're taking a look at The League of Seven by Alan Gratz.

The League of Seven takes place in a world here Lovecraftian monstrosities, known as the Mangleborn, arose in 1775. The Mangleborn feed off of electricity, and will awaken when electricity is harnessed in sufficient quantities. The Americas were relatively unscathed, but they were cut-off from the Old World. The Thirteen Colonies founds themselves cold and hungry, but then salvation arrived. The Iroquois Confederacy agreed to adopt the colonists as the Yankee tribe, and thus, the United Nations of America was born. Over the years, the United Nations forged alliances with other tribes and expanded their territory, but mostly stayed east of the Mississippi River.

By the year 1875, the United Nations is a prosperous nation where whites and Native Americans live as equals, and is home to countless steam-powered marvels. Archie Dent is a young boy whose parents work for the Septemberist Society. They're an organization dedicated to the League of Seven. A group of seven heroes always form to take down the Mangleborn whenever they rise. Unfortunately, the Mangleborn have infiltrated Septemberist Headquarters. Before long, Archie is on the run with his trusty robot butler Mr. Rivets. They're soon joined by a Scottish boy named Fergus and a Seminole girl named Hachi. Archie and company have to find a way to take down the Mangleborn before it's too late.

As you might know, before I started this blog, I got my start writing for the Alternate History Weekly Update. It was a truly great blog, and one of the places I looked to for inspiration when I started The Audiophile. It's a shame it had go, but that was a big motivation for me to really kick my own blog into gear. Anyway, one day Alan Gratz stopped by to talk about a new novel he would be publishing soon called The League of Seven. I loved the setting that combined steampunk tech and adventures as well as Native American cultures. Oh, and the maps, I loved the maps too. Personally, I'm a bit sad that an updated version of Alan's full color map, complete with little mini flags, wasn't used. I mean, I get that black and white is more economical, and the map in the book doesn't look bad. Still, that full color map is awesome. Here, I'll include it and the revised official map blow it.

They're mostly the same baring a few minor differences. The most noticeable is that, in the revised map, there is a former Japanese colony called Beikoku in the Pacific Northwest. Interestingly, the book makes mention of something called the Seattle Alliance, whose location is now occupied by Beikoku. Perhaps a holdover from an earlier draft of the book? Anyway, Alternate History Weekly Update founder Matt Mitrovich did a review of the book, which only made me want it more. Alas, there was no audiobook. I patiently waited for this to change, until one day, when my patience was rewarded. So, now here we are

This book was exactly what I expected. I expected it to be an absolute blast, and it was. I loved the way it blended steampunk tech and alternate American History. In particular, I loved the focus on Native American peoples. You don't really see Native Americans too much in alternate history, or historical fiction for that matter. Actually, come to think of it, Native Americans also tend to get left out of the historical record in general; though recent scholarship is working to fix that. There's a lot of untapped potential in alternate history featuring Native Americans; particularly, in stories where Native Americans successfully resisted European colonialism, or else didn't get totally screwed over. As such, I'm glad to see that The League of Seven is working to fix that.

At times I got the impression that Native Americans comprised the major of the United Nations of America; or at least, where in equal name to the white population. In fact, since 1775, some parts of America have gone from majority white to almost entirely Native American. For example, Atlanta, now known as Standing Peach Tree, is primarily populated by the Cherokee and Muskogee. I suppose it does makes sense, given that there haven't been any immigrants from Europe since 1775. The Southeast had a fairly large Native American population prior to the Trail of Tears, which never happened in the world of The League of Seven.

New Jersey retained most of its colonial names, but is pretty entirely Iroquois as of 1875. They build their houses out of brick and stone, but in a way that evokes the longhouses of old. Wait a minute, what happened to the Lenape? They were the original inhabitants of New Jersey before white, and in this case Iroquois, settlers moved in. So, where did they go? It could be an oversight on Alan Gratz's part. On the other hand, at one point, Archie is going through his family's belongings and finds an aether pistol used in the Pawnee War. So, perhaps the expansion of the United Nations wasn't as peaceful as we're led to believe. We do see that there is growing tension between the Cherokee and Muskogee, though this is hinted to be caused, at least in part, by the Mangleborn. I thought that was actually good. Native Americans weren't a united block, they had tensions and rivalries just like everyone else.

So, just what is this League of Seven? Well, like I said, they're a team of seven heroes that forms every time the Mangleborn awake. They're roster is a veritable who's-who of famous members from World Mythology and Folklore. The most famous iteration of the league is the Ancient League. They consisted of Daedalus, Heracles, Atalanta, Ma'at, Anansi, Wayland Smith, and with Theseus as the leader. Wayland Smith is the only one I didn’t recognize from mythology. Apparently, he was a smith in Norse and Germanic Mythology,  and is the one who developed the aether pistol. Ma'at is the name for the Ancient Egyptian concept of balance and order, but there was also a goddess by that name, who acted as the personification of the concept.

It would seem that, in the world of The League of Seven, all myths and legends are true, but not all myths are and accurate account of what actually happened. The stories from mythology we know are just the cover stories, because the truth was too terrifying for the general public to know. For example, Theseus didn't fight a Minotaur in a labyrinth. He actually fought a shape-shifting Mangleborn capable for producing powerful illusions.

The Septemberist have identified a group who they believe to have the potential to be the new League of Seven. Well, maybe they did before the Mangleborn infiltrated headquarters. You know you're reading an alternate history novel when you've got Fredrick Douglas and Robert E. Lee on the same team. The novel makes a point of mentioning that Lee is wearing the blue uniform of the United Nations military. It appears that the United Nations had no equivalent of American Civil War. That raises a good question. Did slavery still happen, or did robots make it redundant? Mr. Rivets has been serving the Dent family since at least the 1770s, so the world has had steampunk tech since at least the 18th Century. We spend plenty of time in the South later in the book, but none of the people we see are black. Hopefully the sequels will address this.

I love the little incidental bits of worldbuilding we get along the way. For example, lacrosse, rather than baseball or football, is the sport of choice in the United Nations. It makes sense, given that lacrosse was invented by the Iroquois. 

The alternate history of The League of Seven goes beyond the 18th Century. For example, the Roman Empire expanded into the New World and established colonies in North America. Atlanta, Georgia was the site of a Roman fort. However, these colonies were a major finical drain, and contributed to the downfall of the empire, along with barbarian invasions. Well, that's the cover story anyway. In reality, the real reason Rome fell was because they started building electrical power stations, and this attracted the Mangleborn.

Also, New York City is instead named New Rome. Is it a former Roman colony perhaps? Instead of the Statue of Liberty, a statue of Hiawatha, the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy, stands in New Rome's harbor. Going back even further, Atlantis, Mu, and Lemuria were all real places that actually existed. Atlantis was located in North America, and the Atlanteans were the ancestors of the Native Americans. This is also why there's so many technologically advanced Native American tribes; the technology they use is derived from leftover Atlantean tech. Like the Romans, Atlantis met its end due to building electrical power station and awakening the Mangleborn.

Okay, enough gushing about worldbuilding, let's talk about the characters. Archie wasn't a bad character, and overall, I did find him a good protagonist. That having been said, compared to cast of colorful characters featured through the book, he just came across as a bit bland by comparison. Of course, his primary job in this book was to introduce us to the world of The League of Seven. Perhaps he will get a bit more fleshed out in the sequels. There's more to discuss, but we'll save that for the spoilers section.

Fergus was born in the Carolinas, but apprenticed with an Iroquois man in New Jersey. They both worked at Thomas Edison's lab in Menlo Park where they sought to unlock the secrets of electricity. However, as previously established, messing around with electricity is dangerous in the world of The League of Seven, and not just because you might shock yourself. Of course, Edison knows this perfectly well, given that he's working for the Mangleborn. Yeah, I didn't like that particular plot point, but more on it in a bit. As part of a ritual to summon Malacar Ahasherat, also known as the Swarm Queen, Edison has Fergus infused with blood from an electric squid. His body is covered in weird tattoos, but he gets the power to shoot electricity out of his hands. I guess it isn't impossible for Fergus to be Scottish, but I found it slightly odd, given that there haven't been any immigrants from Europe since 1775.

Hachi is a Seminole girl from Florida. She lost pretty much her entire tribe to one of Edison's previous attempts to summon Malacar Ahasherat. Did she mean her specific branch of the Seminole? She must have, because we see other Seminole at various points. Anyway, because of this she tends to be fairly reserved and stoic, but she does open up as the book goes on. She has a menagerie of miniature clockwork animals that help defend her. We later learn that she attended an all-girls boarding school in Georgia. They covered all the subjects that young ladies ought to be proficient in. This includes, but is not limited to, reading, writing, arithmetic, sword fighting, archery, and hand-to-hand combat. I loved the scenes set at Hachi's old school.

Okay, now let's switch gears and talk about some of the stuff I didn't like. As previously stated, Thomas Edison is a villain. Can't say I was too pleased about that, but then the book made it worse. At one point, Archie and the gang meet Nikola Tesla at an Atlantean power station beneath Niagara Falls. Tesla is presented as a noble hero working for the Septemberists. First of all, if there haven't be any immigrants since 1775, how his Tesla even there? Second, it really annoys me when people lionize Tesla. While it is true that he did some admirable work in electricity and radio, he also has quite a bit black marks against him. Chief among them is his support of eugenics. Tesla supported the forced sterilization of the mentally ill, criminals, and racial minorities. Quite ironic, given that Tesla suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder and hypochondria, meaning he'd be subject to the very policies he championed.

And here's another bit of irony: Tesla briefly worked for Edison before striking out in his own. Thomas Edison gets an undeserved bad reputation. True, he was very strict with his patents, but that largely stemmed from how he got screwed over early in his career. True, he could be a jerk, especially later in life, but the energy market was a pretty cutthroat place. People like to blame Edison for Tesla never getting credit, but that fact remains that many of Tesla proposals, such as his plan to use massive Tesla coils to give free electricity to all of America, simply would not have worked. To be fair, not as much was known about the laws of physics as we know now. If anything, Tesla would have made a far more fitting villain. Say what you will about Edison, at least he didn't support eugenics or forced sterilization.

Then there was a scene where Fergus meets a Cherokee police officer. The officer tells him an "old Cherokee legend" about how there are two wolves inside each of us. Slight problem, that's not a Cherokee legend. In reality, the whole "two wolves inside you" story was actually invented the American televangelist Billy Graham. In fact, in the first few tellings, he claimed it was an Eskimo legend from Canada. He only changed it to Cherokee after the Canadian Inuit successfully sued him for libel. Whenever someone tells you about a "Native American" legend or myth, ask them what tribe it came from. If they can't name the specific tribe, then it probably isn't authentic. Of course, as we've seen here, being able to name a tribe is no guarantee of authenticity.

This is particularly frustrating as, up until that point, The League of Seven had done an excellent job depicting Native Americans. It didn't fall into lazy stereotypes or caricatures. This was also disappointing due to how infrequently Native Americans appear in alternate history, as I've previously mentioned. Granted, this was the only major error I could stop, and I certainly hope that future installments of the series won't make similar mistakes.

I realize that electricity summoning the Mangleborn was necessary for the story to happen. I realize this, but it still gave the story an oddly anti-science, anti-technology, and anti-progress feel to it. Quite ironic, given the frequent emphasis on how cool the steampunk tech is. Moreover, steampunk tech is shown to have a few drawbacks. For example, Mr. Rivets has a variety of skills and functions, but can only activate them when the relevant punch card is inserted into him. Oh, and he can't insert the cards on his own, he needs a human to do that. If you want him to pilot an airship you need the airship pilot card, treating injuries requires the surgeon card, cooking requires the chef card, and so on. Technically, he can do functions other than whatever card is currently in him, but he does so slowly and inefficiently. And if you happen to lose the punch cards, well, tough luck.

Okay, now we're getting into the spoilers. So, skip down a few paragraphs if you don't want any of that.

Last chance, you sure you want to continue?

Well, okay, if everyone who wants out is gone, let's get into it.

At one point, Archie and the gang go to the nation of Acadia, which is located in Quebec rather than the Maritime Provinces. I would think that Canada would be a more fitting name, but I digress. Anyway, they retrieve the fur coat of a Mi'kmaq cultural hero who was a member of a pervious iteration of the League of Seven. Think of the coat like the Nemean Lion skin Heracles wore. The Mi'kmaq hero was, according to legend, the son of a bear. In reality, however, he was a Manglespawn. Manglespawn are half-human and half-Mangleborn. Yeah, have fun with that mental image. Heracles was also a Manglespawn, rather than a demigod.

I mention this because, at one point, Archie survives falling from12,000 feet in the air. He was wearing the special coat, true, but that was still pretty impressive. It reminded me of that time Percy Jackson survived jumping off of the Gateway Arch and landing in the Mississippi River. Of course, that was because Percy is a demigod. It was then that the gears started turning. Archie thought of himself as the Theseus of the group, because he's the leader, but what if he's the Heracles? What if was not entirely humans?

Well, come the end of the book, my suspicions were confirmed. Archie isn't completely human, because he is indeed a Manglespawn. The Septemeberists found him on a mission to the Amazon rainforest. The Dents wanted children, but had trouble conceiving, so they agreed to adopt Archie. He isn't biologically their son, but they still love Archie very much.

I mean, I saw that twist coming, but I was still a bit surprised. That's definitely going to play a big role in the future books in the series. Coming to terms with his nature is probably going to be a big part of Archie's character arc.

And you know I have to take a moment to talk about the audiobook. I initially wasn't sure if James Fouhey would be the right fit, but I soon found that I had nothing to worry about. He gave a solid performance, and from the looks for things, will continue to do so in the next audiobooks of the series.

And I can't wait to explore those next books. Sure, The League of Seven had a few issues, but overall, I was extremely pleased with it. It was an absolute joy from start to finish, and I can't wait to explore more this steampunk alternate America. Do yourself a favor a get a copy of The League of Seven today. Believe me, you will be glad that you did.

Well, I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Audio File: The Creeping Hour

When I was a kid, I absolutely adored the Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Sure, maybe they could be a bit cheesy at times, but that's what made them fun. Plus, they were good introductory horror novels for kids. You just don't really see very much horror media aimed kids like that these days. Thankfully, I've found an audio drama that fills that niche. We're taking a look at The Creeping Hour.

The Creeping Hour is a horror anthology aimed at kids. It is hosted by The Creeps. They're three kids named Axe, Weta, and Toro. They turned into monsters after listening to too many scary stories. If you're not careful you may become a Creep yourself before the podcast is over. So, strap in your ribs, crumple you ears, and suck on something sour, because the time has come for The Creeping Hour.

I first learned of The Creeping Hour when it decided to take a look at the website for TRAX. They're a subsidiary of PRX focused on creating quality podcasts for listeners between the ages of nine and thirteen. I'd know about TRAX thanks to Timestorm and Live From Mount Olympus, and I was curious about what other shows they had to offer. I saw The Creeping Hour, it looked promising, and now here we are.

The Creeping Hour is created by Elie Lichtschein in collaboration with WGBH. If you've ever watched PBS or PBS Kids, chances are you've encountered WGBH's logo at some point. This is rather fitting, as I think of TRAX as what it would be like if PBS Kids made audio dramas. Molly of Denali doesn't count, because it was made to tie-in with the show. Usually, audio dramas from TRAX have at least some sort of education content to them. The Creeping Hour stands out due to being purely for entertainment.

Like I said, this is a horror podcast aimed at kids, so don't expect anything too intense. Think along the lines of Goosebumps or Are You Afraid of the Dark? However, being aimed at kids doesn't mean that that these aren't good stories. I quite enjoyed them. In fact, why don't we take a look at the individual stories?

Our first episode is titled "Meet the Creeps." We are formally introduced to our ghoulish hosts for the first time. Axe goes first with the story telling. She tells a story about two boys who sneak into an old house on a dare. The house belongs to an old man named Mr. Dirt Spy, because that's all he can say. They're sure they'll find something weird, but they're about to find more than they bargained for.

Overall, this was a reasonably good first episode. The production values are top-of-the-line, as is to be expected from TRAX. The acting is also quite good. In fact, I think I recognize one of the boys as the kid who played Mondo in Cupid and The Reaper. And yes, I have that and Becoming Mother Nature on the "to be reviewed" list. Anyway, there's a good sense of tension and spookiness before we finally get the big reveal. I thought that said reveal was well done. On the flip side, Mr. Dirt Spy's constant chanting got very irritating very quickly.

All of that having been said, I couldn't help but feel that The Creeping Hour was capable of doing better. I sensed strong potential, don't get me wrong, but perhaps this first episode isn't their best work. I'm going to discuss the big reveal, so jump down a few paragraphs if you don't want that spoiled.

Everyone who wants out gone? Then let's continue.

So, what's lurking in the house? A spider, a very big spider. That's what Mr. Dirt Spy has been trying to say: dir spi, or put another way, spider. All well and good, but I protest this slander of our eight-legged friends! They are wonders of nature, and help keep the insect population in-check. Besides, we all know that only naughty kids get eaten by the monster-sized ones. The story stops just before we find out the boys' fate, but that just makes it more effective. Horror often works best when you leave blank spaces for the audience's fertile imaginations to fill.

Also, I realized that the names of the Creeps are puns. Weta has mandibles and antennas like an insect, and shares her name with a type of cricket from New Zealand. Toro has horns and a nose ring like a bull. Axe seems to be the only one without an obvious theme. Though, I guess it works as a rocker name, and she is a rock star.

All in all, a reasonably solid first episode, but I sensed that The Creeping Hour was capable of doing better.

That brings us to episode two "Out of the Wind." Weta tells a story about a group of friends on a field trip. They're helping clean up a beach on a blustery overcast day. Before long, they discover some mysterious eggs, and decide to sneak them home on their backpacks. But what about that mysterious creature soaring through the clouds?

Okay, now we're talking. I rather enjoy overcast days when it's not too bright, but also not too dark. When the light is just right, it's a magical time where anything seems possible. A sort of time when mystery and adventure could be lurking in your own backyard. We never get a full description of the monsters, but what we do hear sounds fun. I like the idea of some sort of sky shark thing that only comes out on overcast days. Well, only comes out on overcast days as far as we know.

But we also gotta talk about Rashona. She really wants to be a scientist. She's determined to make discoveries and prove how fearless she is. To this end, upon discovering the mysterious eggs, she...immediately swallows several of them. I realize that kids don't always think things out, and the horror often relies on people doing stupid things, but really? Rashona, there's a difference between being brave and being stupid. In fact, most scientists would agree that sticking random objects in your mouth, especially when you don't know what they are, is incredibly dangerous. Although, this does lead to some amusing scenes later on in the story.

I thought it was a nice touch to have the monster attack the bus when everything was dark and rainy. When I was a kid, my classes always took charter buses whenever we went on out of town. It was actually pretty fun; the rides were always very relaxed and casual. Of course, if we ever drove once it got dark, then things could get boring. Hey, at least when it's day you have nice scenery to look at. It probably would have been scary, but having a monster attack would have spiced things up.

In a way, this episode was almost were rely nostalgic for me. It is also an excellent second episode, and really begins to show what The Creeping Hour is capable of.

Episode three is titled "Big Shoes." Toro tells the story of Andrew Korman. He loves to pick on Gary, a kid who wears big shoes because he has big feet. Andrew begins to wonder if maybe Gary might not be human. Perhaps, he might be a shedim. Andrew is sent to see the guidance counselor, Mrs. Chanticleer. Of course, Andrew will soon learn that a phone-call to his parents is the least of his concerns.

This show keeps getting better and better. I love it when I get to learn about creatures from folklore and mythology that I hadn't previously heard of. Shedim are creatures from Jewish Folklore. They're a type of demon, or at least, fill the role of demons. They look exactly like humans, except that they have large chicken feet, instead of human feet. Yes, there are more creatures in Jewish Folklore than just golems. It is really great to see lesser-known aspects of Jewish folklore brought to a wider audience. Admittedly, it was pretty obvious that Mrs. Chanticleer was the shedim. Chanticleer is a common name for roosters in fairy tales. It was obvious, but still effective. Sometimes times in horror, waiting for the other shoe to drop for the characters can be effective.

It sure was nice of Gary to save Andrew from Mrs. Chanticleer. Personally, if I was in his shoes, I'd have just let the bully get eaten. I guess that makes Gary a better person than I am. The only real issue is that it is said that Mrs. Chanticleer is from Sylvania. I looked it up, and I couldn't find anywhere of that name. I suppose it was supposed to be a fictional Central/Eastern European country.

Still, that's a minor quibble. I'd say this is the best episode of The Creeping Hour yet. So, how are they going to top this one?

The fourth episode is titled "Perfect Teeth." Weta tells the story of Mariana, a girl who needs to get braces. Thankfully, she won't have to wear them for long. Her orthodontist, Dr. Fossil, has discovered a revolutionary new metal called fossilonium. It is stronger and quicker to bond than most other metals, so Mariana will only have to wear her braces for a few weeks. However, Mariana's brother Pablo has noticed that she's acting awfully strange after getting her braces. It's as if the braces are changing more than just her teeth.

So, how does The Creeping Hour top the last episode? Quite well indeed. It's interesting, because this episode very much reminds me of an episode from the Canadian radio horror anthology Nightfall titled "The Dentist." Said episode was later adapted by the always excellent horror anthology audio drama Campfire Radio Theatre. It involves an evil dentist who is using a laser to lobotomize his patients, and then sells their cranial fluids as a youth serum. Obviously, this results in some pretty significant personality changes in the patients. So, in many ways, you can see "Perfect Teeth" as a kid-friendly version of "The Dentist." Hey, I'm not complaining. "The Dentist" was one of my favorite episodes of both Campfire Radio Theatre and Nightfall.

Horror often derives from social anxieties, and this episode is no different. Just as "Big Shoes" taps into the fear of bullying, this story draws upon feelings of forced conformity. When you're a kid, it often feels like every adult is trying their hardest to cram you into a mold. Braces are also something many kids have to deal with sooner or later. Now, I should say most orthodontist are lovely people, but it doesn't make brace hurt any less. Hey, if you ever feel bad about having braces, take solace that at least you aren't me. I had to have braces twice! Second time was to correct the impact of faulty headgear, and I had to have jaw surgery as part of that correction.

An episode that manages to surpass its predecessor and more. I'd even go so far as to declare it possibly the best of the bunch.

Episode five is titled "The Beat." Axe tells the story of a boy named Ben. He is attending a Halloween party hosted by his friend Aiden. Ben is incredibly nervous and easily spooked, but his crush Esme will be there, so he's trying to put on a brave face. But he'll have to find answers to several questions if he wants to make it through the night. Why is very wearing such strange white masks? And what's up with that strange beat coming out of the speakers?

And so, we've reached the final episode of The Creeping Hour. I found Ben very easy to relate to. I too was very nervous and easily spooked when I was kid. Well, if I'm being honest, I still am. I didn't go to many parties, but that's because I didn't actively seek them out, and I wasn't much of a social butterfly. It didn't help that I tend to be fairly sensitive to loud music. I must say that the titular beat is rather catchy. I found myself tapping along to it. Hmm, better watch out, the fourth wall might not be able to protect you from this one.

It's not that this was a bad episode. Far from it, I quite enjoy it. It's just that this was the last episode of the series, hopefully just for now, so I was a little bummed that The Creeping Hour was over already. I also felt that "The Beat didn't quite keep up the momentum that "Big Shoes" and "Perfect Teeth" started. Again, this isn't to say that "The Beat" was bad. As the final episode, it had a lot of pressure riding on it, since it is the note that the series ends on. Again, hopefully that's just for now. If it had been just another episode, then perhaps it's would feel like there was less pressure on it.

Now, I don't want to end on a bad note here. This was still a very good episode, and I very much enjoyed it.

And so that was all the episodes of The Creeping Hour. It's a little disappointing that we only got five episodes, but hey, quality over quantity. According to Elie, the five episodes that are out so far are the pilot season. They were written with the hopes that The Creeping Hour would get picked up as a full series. Here's hoping that it does sooner, rather than later. It's been over a year, true, but the COVID-19 pandemic messed with the schedules of a lot of audio dramas. So, I suppose that hope springs eternal. I really hope we get more episodes of The Creeping Hour someday.

And so that was The Creeping Hour. An excellent horror podcast that is aimed at kids, but that doesn't mean listeners of all ages can't join in the fun. Give it a listen if you haven’t already.

Well, I think that should do it from me for now. I will see you guys next time.