The Claw of the Conciliator (The Book of the New Sun #2)

0312890176.01._sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Outside the walls of his home city for the first time, a young executioner on a mission finds himself amongst strange locations and stranger people. The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe is the second volume of The Book of the New Sun tetralogy continuing the journey of Severian, an exiled torturer figuring out the world.

Picking up shortly after the last volume, Severian is in the mining village of Saltus with a new travelling companion Jonas after being separated from Dorcas and the theater company at the gate of Nessus. Severian believes he sees Agia, but after searching for her returns to his inn to take his mask and cape to execute an accused witch. Later that night he travels to an old mine, fights off man-apes, and comes face-to-face with Agia but doesn’t kill her even though he tricked him to get him there so see could have revenge and get possession of the titular Claw that she put on Severian’s person during the events of Shadow and Severian used during his fight with the man-apes. Severian and Jonas are then taken by associates of Vodalus, who they kill as they get to the revolutionary’s hide out in the forest. Severian and Jonas join Vodalus after taking part in a cannibalistic ritual, before heading off to the House Absolute on a mission from Vodalus. The two are captured by the guards and in a holding room are attacked, which results in Severian learning that Jonas is a robot with human skin. Using the knowledge acquired from the memories of the person they ate, Severian finds a way out of the holding room and Jonas leaves to find a way to get repaired. Severian wanders around the grounds, finding his sword, coming across the Autarch, and then is reunited with theater group and Dorcas. The five perform a play during which Baldanders turns and attacks the crowd resulting in the group running for it. Severian meets with them again on the road heading north, he and Dorcas head to Thrax while Dr. Talos attacks the other member the troupe resulting in her joining them and is attacked by a poisonous bat which results in her death in the ruins of a city while meeting with associates of Vodalus who perform a mystic ceremony.

This story was all over the place and it felt like the quality of everything connected with it was the same. There was significant worldbuilding with Severian getting out into the wider world as the previous fantasy feel was joined by sci-fi elements to create this unique landscape of future Earth. However while Wolfe created this interested background, the plot and the first-person narration were all over the place and whatever elements that were good were very much outweighed by the bad, in particular the nonsensical play that added nothing for approximately 15 pages and was just to set up Baldanders’ attack in the next very short chapter. And frankly every time Severian seems to become interesting, though by his own account, he does a 180 by disclaiming his own “perfect” memory or puts himself down.

The Claw of the Conciliator is a mishmash of good, bad, and frustration. A lot of this comes down to the writing of Gene Wolfe and primarily from the first-person point-of-view that creates most of the issues. Maybe after finishing the tetralogy I might get a better view of things, but frankly if this “classic” continues to be frustrating it’ll be a big disappointment.

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The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun #1)

0312890176.01._sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

A young man breaks the cardinal rule of his guild and instead of the expected torture and death is sent out the only home he’s known to be a travelling executioner. The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe is the first volume of The Book of the New Sun tetralogy following the life of Severian, an apprentice torturer who betrays his guild and brothers.

Raised within the ancient Citadel of Nessus by the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, aka the guild of torturers), Severian almost drowns in the River Gyoll and with some of his fellow apprentices goes into a necropolis where he encounters the legendary revolutionary Vodalus robbing a grave and helps him in fight with volunteer guards, earning him a gold coin from Vodalus. Later just before Severian becomes a journeyman, he meets a new client Thecla who is being used as a pawn to get to one of Vodalus’ associates. Because of her position, she asks that Severian talk with her and the two becomes friends even though Severian knows she’ll get tortured eventually. After her first torture session, Severian gives her a knife and after she slits her throat he turns himself in. Instead of torture and execution, Severian is sent out into the world as an executioner and given sword named Terminus Est. Venturing out further into Nessus than he ever had before, Severian scares people and is advised by the local guards to put something over his executioner’s garb. The next day after sharing a room with two charlatans he goes to a rag shop and when buying a mantle is challenged by a cavalry officer to a duel using an alien plant. The shop’s owner feeling responsible for this happening in his shop tells his sister, Agia, to show Severian how to prepare for the duel. The two journey around city to get his plant weapon and are joined by the mysterious Dorcas, who Agia dislikes though Severian is intrigued with. Facing his challenger, Severian survives a strike from the plant weapon surprising his opponent who attempts to run but onlookers attempt to stops him but he attacks him and kills several of them before he’s arrested by guards. The next day Severian wakes in a hospice and learns he is needed for an execution, visiting his client he finds Agia and her brother, who was his challenger, then realizes how naïve he was. After Severian executes Agia’s brother, he and Dorcas meet up with the charlatans while looking for some religious fanatics that Agia stole from only to learn they’ve left the city. The story ends on a cliffhanger because Severian decides to finish writing at that point.

There were a lot of things happening in this volume, which resulted in the story being both engaging and disengaging. The first person narration made the story very intimate, but also didn’t allow for the traditional world building which forced the reader to figure a lot of things out while trying to get a grip on the story itself. Yet once you figure things out the story becomes intriguing until Severian confronts the brother and sister in the prison cell and the brother’s reasons for challenging Severian are stupid. And the ending of Severian just deciding just to quit writing at the end of the story is weird as well. The fact that an older Severian is “writing” means that readers know he survives whatever happens, thus forcing Wolfe to take another direction which had both good and bad points.

The Shadow of the Torturer is a good story overall, though there are issues in the beginning and at the end that are somewhat disconcerting for a first time reader. Gene Wolfe created a very interesting protagonist and created several interesting twists throughout the story though some didn’t pay off as well as others while also laying seeds for future stories around Severian. This is an enjoyable volume that I’ll have to revisit with a reread in the future after completing the rest of the tetralogy.

Miracle at Philadelphia

bd7aa2b1eaf90685933536e5977444341587343Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nation new to its independence dealing with issues internally and external, it’s nascent future hanging by a thread all comes down to 55 men from across its length and breadth to come up with a solution. In her 1966 historical review of what became known as the Constitutional Convention, Catherine Drinker Bowen chronicles how the future of the young United States was saved by a Miracle at Philadelphia.

Though the majority of the book focuses on the four-month long Convention, Bowen begins by setting the stage for why and how the convention came about with the ineffectual government that was the Articles of Confederation and the movement to amend them, which was led by James Madison and endorsed by George Washington by his attendance in Philadelphia. For those like myself not really versed in nitty gritty details of Convention it was interesting to learn that most of the work was done in ‘Committee of the Whole’ in which Washington while President was seated among the other delegates. The familiar highlights of the Virginia Plan, New Jersey Plan, and the Great Compromise are covered but in the historical flow of the debates within the Convention and decisions in-between of important elements within the Constitution. Throughout the Bowen introduces important personages and how their views remained constant or changed throughout the Convention resulting reputations being made or destroyed during and after the process of ratification. Bowen ends the book with a look at the ratification process, in particular the debates in Massachusetts and Virginia.

Covering approximately 310 pages, the book is efficient in covering the events of the Convention overall. However Bowen completely missed how the Great Compromise was voted in the Constitution, she just mentioned it. Besides that big miss within the Convention, Bowen spends chuck of the middle of the book covering a “Journey in America” that had nothing to do with the Convention but was just giving a glimpse of the nascent country that felt like filler than anything else.

Miracle at Philadelphia is a very good historical review of the Constitutional Convention that does not analyze but just reports history. Catherine Drinker Bowen does a wonderful job in juggling the various accounts of the Convention by the delegates and the official record to create very readable narrative. I highly recommend this book for those interested in this closing piece of the American Revolution.

The Histories (Herodotus)

1593081022.01._sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The Histories by Herodotus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A generation had no living memory of the greatest danger that the Greeks had ever lived through, but one man decided to change all that and gift posterity with a new genre. The Histories written by Herodotus details 80 crucial years from the rise of the Persian Empire to the defeat the remnants of Xerxes expedition and the events that led to the latter.

Using knowledge gleamed from extensive travel across the ancient world Herodotus begins his historical narrative by giving the ‘legendary’ encounters between the peoples of Europe and Asia before delving into the more ‘historical’ events that lead to Xerxes’ grand expedition. Herodotus details the history of the kingdom of Lydia that was the first to conquer populations of Greeks, those in western Anatolia, and how its great king Croesus lost his war to Cyrus the Great thus placing those same Greeks under the rule of Persia. The history of the Medes and their conquest by the Persians is related then the subsequent history of the Persian Empire until the Ionian revolt which led to the intervention of Athens and setting the stage for Darius expedition to Marathon. Intertwined with the rise of Persia was Herodotus relating the events within various Greek city-states, in particular Athens and Sparta, that contributed to the reasons for first Darius’ expedition and then to Xerxes’. Eventually his narrative would go back and forth between the two contending sides throughout the latter conflict as events unfolded throughout 480-479 BC.

The sheer volume of material that Herodotus provides is impressive and daunting for a reader to consider. Not only does he cover the political and military events, but numerous past historical and general culture aspects as well as lot of biographies and antidotal digressions that add color to the overall piece. Given that this was the first history ever written it’s hard to really criticize Herodotus—though Thucydides apparently had no problem later—but some digressions I wish Herodotus had left out or not heard at all.

The Histories by Herodotus is one of classic historical works that needs to be read by anyone who enjoys reading history. Whether or not you love the style of writing or even the topic, this book is important because it literally is the first history book.

John Harvey Kellogg: Pioneering Health Reformer

4d3bf9809b64e4c596758336d67444341587343John Harvey Kellogg, M.D.: Pioneering Health Reformer by Richard W. Schwarz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A pioneer of the Adventist health message and controversial figure that had a very public break from the Church, yet his life was whole lot more. John Harvey Kellogg: Pioneering Health Reformer by Richard W. Schwarz details the long life of a man who wanted to teach and not become a doctor, but who became both in advocating healthy living.

Schwarz begins the biography in the standard way in relating the background of Kellogg family just before John Harvey birth then proceeded to follow the young Kellogg’s life until he became a doctor. The biography then shifts into various facets of Kellogg’s life ranging from his appointment to head Battle Creek Sanitarium and developing it, his development of various health foods and later his efforts commercially, his family life with 42 adopted children and cool relationships with his siblings, his humanitarian efforts, his work and later break with the Seventh-day Adventist Church including his relationship with Ellen White, and many more. The final chapter chronicles the latter events of his 91 year long life including the struggle to keep Battle Creek Sanitarium open.

In around 240 pages, Schwarz gives a thorough look into everything that John Harvey Kellogg did throughout his life but in a non-chronological manner save for his early and late life. Given the start length of the book and the long life of its subject, this non-chronological look was for the best as Schwarz covered topics in a straightforward manner and avoiding attempting to cover all of them in a on and off if the biography was written in a chronological fashion. This format also allowed Schwarz to reference big events that effected all topics and foreshadowing there importance for when he covered them later in the book.

John Harvey Kellogg: Pioneering Health Reformer is a well-organized and informative biography of a notable pioneer in the Adventist health system that also influenced the larger American health landscape. Richard W. Schwarz work is outstanding and his prose presents a very easy read which makes this book a highly recommended one for anyone interested in Adventist health history.

Divide and Conquer (Op-Center #7)

0425174808.01._sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Divide and Conquer by Jeff Rovin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Conspiracies abound in Washington and Azerbaijan as powerful political figures in the former hope events in the latter will change the nation and the world. Divide and Conquer is the seventh book of the Op-Center series written, and acknowledged, by Jeff Rovin as the newly returned Op-Center Director Paul Hood who is dealing with the aftermath of his daughter’s ordeal and the dissolution of marriage finds himself attempting to stop events political and diplomatic from spiraling out of control.

In Baku, Azerbaijan a CIA operative is knocked unconscious by the terrorist The Harpooner who injects the operative with a virus before joining his team of Iranians to set up and destroy an Iranian oil rig so as to blame the Azerbaijani. The CIA operative goes to the U.S. Embassy and meets the local CIA officer and officer from Moscow when he falls sick resulting in his two colleagues are assassinated by a rogue NSA agent and one of The Harpooner’s contacts. Meanwhile Paul Hood meets with the First Lady about President Lawrence who seems to not be himself, but a clue from the night before results in Op-Center finding something going on with the head of the NSA especially since he was secretly meeting with the Iranian U.N. mission. Hood then learns about The Harpooner in Baku and calls his Russian counterpart to work to capture the terrorist, but the murder of the two CIA agents result in the Russian Op-Center getting an undercover agent to save the sick CIA operative who is recovering. The two agents then track down The Harpooner and kill him. Just then Hood and his team have found evidence that the Vice President and the Chief of Staff along with the NSA head have been giving the President false information so as to use the crisis in Caspian to force him to resign. With the First Lady, Hood forces his way into the Situation Room and confront the conspirators though to a stalemate until the NSA head gets a call from a secure phone in The Harpooner’s possession from the recovering CIA operative. Though the Vice President attempts keep his office, Lawrence forces him to resign along with his two co-conspirators.

Released in 2000, Divide and Conquer was a product of its time with an insider conspiracy against a sitting U.S. President. The background of the Lawrence administration, which is retconned from Op-Center, and events in Washington were the major downfall of this book. First Rovin apparently forgets the 22nd Amendment on term limits, Lawrence has won 3 of the 4 elections he was in, and fails to set up Hood connection with the First Lady in the previous six books. Second, how the conspirators misinform the President is unlikely to happen since in real life they wouldn’t be able to do it and at no time were the Secretaries of State and Defense around especially in the Situation Room. Add on top of this is the poor editing throughout the book especially in regards to the capitalization of titles, i.e. Vice president, and Paul Hood giving The Harpooner’s actual name when no intelligence agency in the world actually knows it. However, I will give Rovin credit for the well written events and characters in and around Baku as well as the Russian Op-Center which are the most believable in the book along with subtle setup for the next book in the series.

Divide and Conquer is a mishmash of good and really bad but unlike previous books there is no intriguing plot for Jeff Rovin to unperformed in writing. If anything of the two arcs in the book’s plot, it’s the one that doesn’t include the titular institution and main character that is better written in story and characters. Although this is a different issue than previous books, it keeps up the generally underwhelming quality of this series.

Op-Center

The Cosmic Code (The Earth Chronicles #6)

3e92de469a8cfb6596871637277444341587343The Cosmic Code by Zecharia Sitchin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The balance between Fate and Destiny to the ancients not only effected man but also the gods for both good and ill that made them all look towards the heavens. The Cosmic Code is the sixth book by Zecharia Sitchin in The Earth Chronicles that analyzes ancient megaliths, ancient mysticism, and ancient texts to reveal the secrets of the aforementioned code.

Beginning with an examination a mysterious circular stone structure on the Golan Heights that according to astronomical calculations is ancient, Sitchin reintroduces his research from previous volumes so as to build a framework to discuss this book’s main theme. Always introduced through the use of his previous research, Sitchin covers the “creation” of the zodiac before linking it to the Golan site and its strategic location between the two main highways of the ancient Middle East. The discussion turns to the death of demigods and why it was distressing before Sitchin recounted the Annunaki creation of man and why they did not give man “immortality” in his DNA. Then Sitchin turned his attention to “secret knowledge” which he posited to be secret number codes that were the basis for languages and latter prophecies, especially in relation to the heavens and the ones who came from there. This talk of prophecies brought Sitchin back to chronicling the history of the Middle East after Marduk/Ra rose to supremacy among the Annunaki and how his turbulent “reign” is recorded in the Bible and other ancient texts until finally his city Babylon captured by the Persians. Yet, Sitchin makes clear that during this time the phrase “End of Time” was always mentioned but it was never specified when it would happen.

Beginning with an enigmatic ruin, Sitchin set the stage for this book in his usual academic approach and then woven in his own theories and research from previous books early on. His examination of Fate & Destiny was interesting but even after the introduction of the beginning of languages, secret number codes, and connections to DNA it was hard to understand what the point was. The further information on Marduk’s reign during the “Age of the Ram” was interesting and basically the highlight of the book though the reader had to wait to get to it. While Sitchin avoided going into the evidence that went into his already written about theories—giving new readers the knowledge of which volume to look for them—he still seemed to tread water in some places before fully moving on. Yet in reflecting on this volume, it was hard to not feel that only half of this nearly 300 page book was new material and a fraction of that was gearing towards the next volume of Sitchin’s series. At the end I felt that this book could have been combined split and combined with the previous volume and maybe in the next.

The Cosmic Code never felt like a cohesive book, it read like Sitchin meshed material from two different books to create another. This overwhelming thought made it hard to focus on the evidence that Sitchin presented to prove his new assertions, but his reliance on flawed conclusions from When Time Began still makes it hard to keep an open mind. If you’ve read all of Sitchin’s previous work then go ahead and read this, but be warned this one seems all over the place.

The Earth Chronicles