Books, Books, Books

Life has been stressful for me, to say the least, so I have been in escapism mode for a while now. I deal with what I have to deal with, and then turn off reality.

I finished all the Discworld novels, including the Tiffany Aching ones which turned out to be wonderful. The final novel was a Tiffany Aching novel, The Shepard’s Crown, and it was a beautiful, if sad, end to our adventures in Discworld. It was not entirely written by Practchett. He had written the main scenes. It was filled in/completed by someone else and you could tell at which points because the characters just did not quite “sound” right. But it was still the perfect “Good Bye.”

But Pratchett’s daughter has promised this is the last of the Discworld novels. She said she would protect her father’s legacy, “Even from myself.”

The only ones I did not read with the “Industrial Revolution” novels because the characters simply did not appeal.

But I finished those a while back. Thanks to BookBub and Project Gutenberg, I have not been starved for literary entertainment.

After War and Peace, I read some lightweight fun.

Nefertiti’s Heart by A.W. Exley: Ostensibly this is a Steampunk Fantasy/SciFi novel, but the truth is, it’s a romance novel with a background of Steampunk (which seems to also be used as an excuse for verbal anachronisms) and mystery until the last couple chapters when yon dashing hero must save his lady-love from a serial killer with a magical artifact. The characters are o.k., not overwhelming. They’re romance novel clichés: The dashing TDH nobleman with dangerous reputation, the emotionally wounded tom-boy heroine he must tame with…

If you are looking for the schmexy, there’s plenty there. Not explicit, but you know, it’s there. I think the story a would have been better served with some more balance between the romance and murder mystery, but it’s a nice Saturday afternoon read.

Etruscans: Beloved of the Gods by Morgan Llewellyn and Michael Scott: Now don’t get me wrong, the story is great. Reading at face value I thoroughly enjoyed it. Good characters, good “coming of age” story, great incorporation of the mythical elements. A very enjoyable book, a fun Saturday read. My only nit picks are a historian’s pedantism.

I read Morgan Llewelyn’s Red Branch (her version of the legend of Cu’ Chulainn)  yonks ago. Back when I was a teenager, I think. It was very entertaining and made me very curious about the legend itself, which set me off on researching ancient Irish legends. She is very good at humanizing these mythic heroes, while incorporating the elements of native spirituality/religion and magic. Now, usually she’s about the Celts, but for this one she (and Michael Scott) took on the Etruscans.

Part of the problem with writing about the Etruscans is that we’re still learning about them. We have not even fully translated their language yet (which is one of those out of place oddball languages that has no relationship to the languages around it, it’s not Indo-European). So most of what we know we’re interpreting from art, grave goods and what is left from the layouts of their cities. (Which means it’s pretty tentative.) We know little of their myths and legends. I guess that’s was why Llewellyn and Brooks chose to pull their “Etruscan hero”  from the annals of Ancient (I mean, really ancient, way before the Caesars) Rome: Horatius Colces. (“Hora Trim” being his “Estruscan name”). So it is no wonder that the story spends minimal time in “Eutria” and sends the hero off into the wild and eventually to Rome.

Then why not set the thing in Rome to begin with?

And there was the stated theme that “Man gives Gods form” at the beginning that is not really explored in the story, which is a straight up fantasy adventure.

But it’s a very good fantasy adventure.

Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel: by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. Now this is real Steampunk. The world is not merely a backdrop to the story, but fully formed and integral to the story (even if it does pull from all the conventions of the genre). The characters are delightful, an “Odd Couple” of a brash, explosives-loving Kiwi-“colonial” and a reserved British Archivist (not “Librarian”). The Ministry investigates and collects magical artifacts from around the world (there is even a room full of unsolved cases that the characters edge around calling the “X-Files”), while a madman with an ancient order plots to take over the British Empire and “make it great again.” (Hrm, where have we heard that recently?)

Eliza Braun is pulled into this mystery when her old partner suddenly turns up completely insane after following a lead on his own. Her misbehavior lands her in the Archives with the aptly named Wellington Books who gets dragged, sometimes very humorously, sometimes with surprising adeptness, into her personal investigation/vendetta. Refreshingly, while magic is present in the world, it is not the focus of the villain’s plot.

In the meantime there is a mystery surrounding the director of the Ministry’s activities and a political plot to undermine the Ministry in favor of a new agency, the “British Intelligence Service” who won’t have anything to do with this silly magic business, thank you.

It’s rip roaring fun. Highly recommend it for those who love Steampunk or just a good romp.

The Roman Mask by Thomas Brooke: It’s hard to write a novel (or make a movie) where the audience knows the end is not going to be good and keep them engaged. This book is about the Battle/Massacre of the Tuetobourg Forest, the greatest Roman military disaster that many historians agree helped shape modern Europe. Told from the Roman point of view it is, of course, a very bloody tragedy.

Brooke inserts a fictitious Roman “war hero,” Cassius (no not *that* Cassius, or that one, or that one)  who has lost his taste for the military and nerve for battle after surviving a particularly horrific almost-last-stand. In short, the guy has PTSD and spends as much time as possible drunk and distracted. Yanked out of his life of dissipation in Rome, Livia (wife of Princeps Augustus, now *there* was a couple fiction could not have invented) sends Cassius off to “advise”/keep an eye on Quintus Varus, the Governor of the new Roman province of Germany.

Varus was, as was well known, an utter failure. He had come from governing Syria, which was already a kingdom used to a king, agriculture and production for markets, taxation, etc. when it was conquered by the Romans. Indeed, most of Rome’s stable conquests were of, as one historian put it, “ready-made principalities.” Not so Germany, a land of Iron Age tribes not at all used to farming or taxes or exploiting the land beyond anything more than necessary for their warrior lifestyle. It certainly was not a proper occupation for a Germanic Warrior to work the fields. With low product yield, Varus taxed the hell out of them instead in order to build Roman cities as a showcase of the advantages of Roman civilization, which did nothing to impress any German on whose backs it was being built by force.

This of course led to the great alliance of German tribes under a Arminius/Hermann, the German leader who had been raised as a princely hostage of Rome and even served in the Roman Army. This experience served him well, making him appear as an ally to the Romans while he organized and managed to turn a horde of disorganized warriors into a fighting force capable of taking on three Roman Legions and destroying them utterly.

Cassius is an enjoyable character. His PTSD and guilt do not overwhelm the character to the point of making him a drag. He’s smart, caring, has a sense of humor and is annoyingly experienced and sensible to his young protégé who is filled with dreams of honor and glory. Marcus the protégé manages to be over exuberant without being annoying and you spend the novel on the edge of your seat wondering how the hell are they going to get out of this.

The action of the battle is very well done, incorporating some of the recent archeological finds.

The author takes the liberty of giving the Romans more resistance than they probably were able to put up in real life (also diverges from Tacitus‘s telling that *all* the Roman leaders offed themselves at once), but it builds the tension to a fever pitch of the Romans’ final doomed assault to help a megre few escape. He also redeems the image of Numonius Vala who is considered by historians to have rode out with the cavalry as a cowardly escape. In the book, it’s a plan.

I won’t spoil it for you except to say the ending is not all tragedy. It was a really good, satisfying, read. Well done indeed. The Battle of Tuetobourg Forest is one of those historical events that defies fiction. With events like this, no writer, no Hollywood producer could have come up with what happened in real life, but Brooke handles it deftly.

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