The Bookables Will Continue Until Morale Improves

Posted at July 23, 2022

Last time I said I should post these more often. I was right.

1634: The Baltic War, by Eric Flint and David Weber

This is another one of the Ring of Fire books, which I’ve been reading since picking up a copy of 1632 at a used bookstore last year. It’s a series of alternate history novels where a small West Virginian town is randomly transported from the year 2000 to the Holy Roman Empire in the 1600s, right in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War. Things develop from there.

This was nearly a year ago, so I’m not going to comment on it in much detail. I remember being frustrated about the pacing, which ground to a halt by the end. I don’t think the climax was as strong as in 1633, which is ironic since so much of that book is setup for payoff in this book. But it also changed the political landscape in ways that were exciting and diverge interestingly from the real history.

It’s a fascinating project. You’ll see some more in the series coming up.

Elfsong, by Elaine Cunningham

This is the sequel to one of last summer’s reads, Elfshadow. Danilo Thann, whose upper class fop persona conceals his true identity as a Harper agent, is given a task. Something has changed the songs about the Harpers. Can he figure out what’s going on, and restore the true songs before the public turns against them?

This didn’t totally click for me. Which is a shame, because bards are my jam when I’m roleplaying, and this book is all about them. The villain is a bard; the story begins when she casts a spell at a gathering of bards; Danilo is given this quest because he’s practically a bard. The Harpers are under attack through story, and neither sword nor wand can save them.

I’ve read a bunch of Forgotten Realms books now. I know that the mission statement of these books is to appeal to fans of D&D, but the parts closest to the experience of playing D&D tend to lose me. Thus much of Danilo’s travels didn’t work for me. It’s cool that he outwits a dragon, but I could’ve done without every other encounter along the way.

Much more appealing was the stuff going on in the city of Waterdeep. A secondary villain is causing trouble, and the secret Lords of Waterdeep face the public turning against them. That stuff was great.

There’s a brilliant write-up at Let’s Read TSR. Go check it out.

1634: The Galileo Affair, by Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis

Here were my thoughts at the time:

I stand by all that.

Andrew Dennis’s first published writing in the Ring of Fire series was a short story in Ring of Fire called “Between the Armies”. It’s about Monsignor Giulio Mazarini, a papal diplomat who seeks an end to all the conflict in the Germanies. After reading reports of this strange Grantville place that claims to be from the future, he sends an underling there to make diplomatic contact. Stuff happens, yada yada. It’s a good one!

I thought this book was going to continue his story. It opens with him in France. But no, once the story proper begins, we’re back with the Americans. I was so disappointed.

Instead, the book is about the United States of Europe (or USE)‘s diplomatic mission to Venice. Their goal is to set up an embassy, display their advanced chemical and medical knowledge, and establish trading connections with the Mediterranean. If Ambassador Mazzare — the small town Catholic priest who got caught in the Ring of Fire — happens to make contact with the Vatican, then so much the better.

Stuff happens. They set up an embassy. Much knowledge is exchanged. The reader gets a crash course on Venetian politics. Yada yada.

None of that matters much to the plot, which really starts some of the kids from the American delegation embark on a terrible plan to rescue Galileo from the Catholic Church. Then — finally — things get interesting. It got really good!

The stuff in Venice didn’t matter. The book would’ve been much stronger if it just started with the Americans in Venice, instead of going through everything step by step. It’s criminal that the plot only kicks in halfway through.

Worse, I got the impression that the authors don’t care for Venice. I love Venice. I wanted so much more from this.

… But that storyline with Galileo and the Pope was pretty great.

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

I’ve read this many times now. There’s something incredibly compelling about it that I can’t quite pin down. One time I started doing a chapter-by-chapter analysis, and I think I might be able to tease out some interesting information.

Anyway. Good book. I’ll probably read it again in a decade.

1634: The Ram Rebellion, by Eric Flint and Virginia DeMarce (and others)

This is another story collection. Unlike Ring of Fire, this time they’re all related — however distantly — to growing unrest in the neighbouring region of Franconia. It’s a chance to examine how the events of the Ring of Fire have affected the rest of the world, and explore the perspectives of downtime Germans.

This one didn’t work for me. Most of the stories were fine, except for an epistolary story which I hated. My biggest problem was the structure. Here’s the high level table of contents:

  • Part I: Recipes for Revolution
  • Part II: Enter the Ram
  • Part III: The Trouble in Franconia
  • Part IV: The Ram Rebellion

The first three parts consist of various short stories. The final part is a novella. I thought that the stories would build up to the novella, but for the most part they don’t. It made it hard to appreciate the stories for what they were, and the overall reading experience was frustrating.

Under the Whispering Door, by TJ Klune

Wallace Price is a ghost. He’s collected from his own funeral by a Reaper, who takes him to a Ferryman named Hugo… who runs a coffeeshop out of his house as his day job, and tells Wallace he can take as much time as is necessary before moving on.

The backbone of the story is the relationship between Wallace and Hugo. The Book Fight! podcast has read a lot of cheesy romance novels for their bonus episodes, and they’ve talked about how many of them have two characters who are clearly into each other, and the only reason why they can’t get together is because of some misunderstanding or plot contrivance that could be cleared up if they talked to each other for a few minutes. In this case, they both know this is a temporary arrangement that has to end, and they literally can’t touch each other.

This is a book about grief and death and what it means to live. It’s a quieter, more meditative book than The House in the Cerulean Sea. And it gets shockingly dark, including a first person depiction of suicide where things continue to get worse after death.

I liked it. It’s a good cry.

1634: The Bavarian Crisis, by Eric Flint and Virginia DeMarce

Huh! Once again the story doesn’t get going until halfway through.

Around this point I started developing my general theory of Ring of Fire books. Namely:

  1. A major part of the draw is the history;
  2. The writers are compelled to deliver the history;
  3. The story idles until that’s complete.

I think there’s reason for this. Once the story kicks in, things by necessity diverge further from the real world. I think there’s a conscious intent to establish the historical baseline before diverting.

But that made this book a slog. The same was true for 1634: The Galileo Affair, and to a lesser extent 1633.

So, OK. This one is about those wacky Habsburgs. Archduchess Maria Anna of the Austrian Habsburgs is to marry her uncle Maximilian. At the same time Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of the Spanish Habsburgs is considering breaking away from the Spanish Empire, divesting himself of his religious obligations, and starting a new dynasty in the Netherlands. In the meantime, Veronica Dreeson and Mary Simpson (two notable women from the USE) are travelling to the Upper Palatinate, where the USE is attempting to rebuild the iron mining industry after decades of conflict.

A lot of time is spent going into the Habsburgs, iron mining, and the effects of the Thirty Years’ War on this region. It’s interesting! But it’s a long time before anything happens to knock the plot off its prearranged course.

1635: The Cannon Law, by Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis

… Ya’ll, this is one of the best books I’ve read in this series so far.

Sharon Nichols is the USE’s ambassador to the Vatican, except the Vatican isn’t talking to the USE — not after the current pope enraged the Spanish Empire by appointing an American cardinal. Frank Stone, one of the young uptimers mixed up in the plot to rescue Galileo, has set up shop in Rome. He still has that revolutionary spirit, but he’s a little smarter about it. And Cardinal Barberini, nephew of the Pope, has a bad feeling about things.

This one manages to get the mix between story and history right. It’s a slow burn, but that gives you time to get a feel for Rome, from the palazzos to the slums. Again, the plot doesn’t really kick in until late in the book, but when it does there’s so much momentum built up. I was blown away by how hard this book goes at the end.

This is top tier. I think it’s my second favourite after 1632.

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse

This is the first Jeeves story I’ve ever read.

The first chapter was rough: it made a lot of references to characters and events that I knew nothing about. After, though, I clicked into the voice and had a great time.

P. G. Wodehouse was a good writer. Gasp!

The Thief’s Gamble, by Juliet E. McKenna

I read this originally in 2014 or 2015 for the Dublin Sci-Fi and Fantasy Meetup Group. We used to take over part of the lobby in the Gresham Hotel, and then drink beer and talk books and all that good stuff.

… I could go for a pint about now. Yeah.

Anyway, I remembered enjoying this book. Since I’ve recently been reading all those TSR novels, I figured I’d read this and see how it compares.

Livak is a thief: she gambles, runs cons, and occasionally breaks into buildings to lift valuables. Unfortunately, she’s roped into helping the wizard Shiv and his companions, who are acquiring artifacts on behalf of the Archmage. But some other group is also interested in artifacts from the collapse of the Tormalin Empire, and they have magic the world has never seen before.

Criticisms first: I got annoyed at some of the terminology. It’s generally clear from the context, but every time I read “chime” instead of “hour” I rolled my eyes. I also wasn’t a fan of the sections from the point of view of another character named Casuel, who’s there to be jealous of Shiv, do foolish things, and make the reader cringe.

Positives: Solid voice. Interesting world with a tonne of backstory. I liked the utterly screwed up political system, which forces the mighty and powerful wizards to send agents into the world to do things on the sly. The villains, when they show up, completely upend how things should work and are thus terrifying.

So how does this compare to the TSR books I’ve read? Well, it’s better than most of them. I will say that there’s something comfortable and undemanding about the Forgotten Realms books I’ve read, whereas this demanded a little bit more thought and attention. It’s also the author’s first book, which IMO excuses a bit of the clunkiness.

1635: A Parcel of Rogues, by Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis

K. Finally. The last book…!

This picks up from where things in the UK left off at the end of 1634: The Baltic War. King Charles has read his future histories and knows about the English Civil War and his beheading. Unfortunately for him, he locked Cromwell in the Tower of London, the same place he imprisioned the American diplomatic delegation “for their own safety”. When the Americans finally decided to leave, they took Cromwell with them.

That’s all in the previous book. This one picks up after the escape. Cromwell, a few Americans, and some Brits make their way up north to find out what happened to Cromwell’s family and eventually make their way to Scotland. They’re pursued by a gang of Irish mercenaries under the control of Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork.

There’s also the question of Scotland. At this point in history, Scotland and England are two different kingdoms that happen to share the same monarch. King Charles wants to keep the Scots under control. The Scottish elites, however, have also read their future histories, and aren’t excited about the Act of Union. And there’s the problem of Scottish soldiers fighting for the USE, who are returning with radical ideas about freedom of religion and democracy.

This is another Eric Flint + Andrew Dennis joint. It’s not as solid as 1635: The Cannon Law, but it’s still pretty good. My two biggest quibbles are

  1. I had a hard time following the religious politics of 17th century Scotland. It was a lot.
  2. The version I read had shoddy fadas. I’m down with injecting random bits of Irish, and I totally understand that accents aren’t really a thing in English … but diacritics are important!

Addendum: On July 17th, 2022, Eric Flint — author and the guy behind the Ring of Fire series — died. He was in the hospital for most of 2022. There are remembrances of him posted at File 770 and the Grantville Gazette.

Based on his writing, it seems like he was a good person. Rest in peace.