Tuesday, July 21, 2020

A Chain of Thunder, by Jeff Shaara

A Chain of Thunder (Civil War: 1861-1865, Western Theater, #2)

This book tells the story of the Campaign for Vicksburg during the Civil War. I've visited the National Military Park there a couple of times and always find it both fascinating and moving. Shaara does a good job of providing varying frames of reference from both sides of the battle, generals and enlisted men alike. There are several maps throughout giving a feel for the movement of troops, which is nicely juxtaposed with the southern civilian viewpoints who were only told their position was impregnable and chose to believe it.

This is clearly a well-researched novel, with detail after detail about the quality of life as well as the military strategies. I was surprised to find that anti-vaxxers were not a recent idiocy but were alive and well in the 19th century. "It amazed Bauer that so many in the town, and in the army, had responded instead with outcries against the vaccinations that seemed born of nothing more than superstition." With all this detail, though, there is a surprising lack of what life was like for the slaves in Vicksburg—none of the narrators were Black. When white civilians during the siege were reduced to eating dogs and rats, what the slaves ate isn't stated. Considering this was a war over slavery, this lack of insight hurts the overall narrative.

It was strange reading a novel about the Civil War during a time where it feels our country is splintering along similar political lines, if not physical ones this time. On the North side Grant and Sherman fought to hold the United States together. On the South, Pemberton fought out of loyalty to his Virginia-born wife rather than dedication to the Confederacy. The Northern soldiers fought for duty, the Southern desperate to maintain their way of life. Both sides are depicted fairly nobly, and the institutional racism at the root of the conflict isn't a part of the story. Makes you wonder how the raging racists running Washington will be depicted in literature a century from now.

First Sentence:
The ball was a glorious affair, the Confederate officers in their finest gray, adorned with plumed hats and sashes at their waists.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward (Skyward, #1)

I've liked everything Brandon Sanderson has written, and this book is no exception. Skyward tells the tale of young Spensa that dreams of being a pilot like her father, fighting the aliens that keep them trapped on a desolate world. Unfortunately, her father mysteriously went from hero to traitor during a battle and she has been branded the daughter of a coward, unsuitable for society—much less a candidate for flight school.

Sanderson's world-building and magic systems are legendary, but neither are really present here. This is targeted at young adults, but it felt dumbed-down compared to his other works which was disappointing. YA novels tend to be coming of age stories and shy away from extreme themes, but that isn't any reason to have one dimensional characters or a by-the-numbers plot. Look at The Outsiders or Ender's Game for better examples of the genre. That said, this is still an enjoyable read with a good hook and nice twist at the end setting up the sequel.

First Sentence:
I stalked my enemy carefully through the cavern.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson

Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive, #3)

This third book of the Stormlight Archive might be the best of the three so far. The main players have all been introduced, but their roles are continually changing keeping them interesting. The war hinted at in the previous novels is here in full force, and yet rather than devolving into battle after battle the plot is still filled with mystery. The twist in motives towards the end was masterfully done, arriving as a surprise yet clearly being obvious in hindsight.

Sanderson's writing continues to sparkle, sometime taking me out of the story entirely with wonder. When one character wakes up with a stiff shoulder he thinks to himself, "He had found middle age to be like an assassin—quiet, creeping along behind him." Having turned 50 myself this year, I found this to be a delightful and sobering description of life these days. And speaking of sobering, one character discovers to her delight her magic can immediately cure her drunkenness. Now that is a power I'd like to have!

Rhythm of War is the next book and is due out later this year. With ten books being planned for the series, my worry is that this will deteriorate into a George R.R. Martin-style of delay after delay, but am willing to give it a chance. At least for a while!

First Sentence:
Eshonai had always told her sister that she was certain something wonderful lay over the next hill.

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