Summer Reading 2019

We all make promises to ourselves that we can’t keep. We say we’ll go on a diet or go to the gym more, or spend more time outside. If you’re like me you probably tell yourself you’re going to read more. That’s what I told myself at the beginning of the summer and I did, but not as much as I had hoped. I told myself a similar lie when I said that I would get this written over a month ago. And yet here we are.

So here is my very late list of some of the reading I got done this past summer.

Dune

Every fan of science fiction has probably at least heard of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece and with a new movie adaptation on the horizon it’s bound to get even more buzz. I first read the series back in middle school, it was one of the books I would bring with me every day to read on the bus and during study hall. It’s amazing the details you miss out on when you’re fighting to stay awake on the ride to school because you stayed up too late reading the night before.

I’ve been telling myself for years that I would revisit Dune to take in some details that I missed on my first read-through or that simply went over my head at that age. Well, I’ve finally accomplished my goal, or part of it. Back in July I was gifted the book on Audible and finally gave the platform a try (I admit this is a loose definition of reading). I never thought I would enjoy an audiobook but this really changed my mind. The narration brought the characters to life and some sections of the book even boasted separate voice actors for each character. These different voices helped greatly with immersion, especially in the case of Baron Harkonen. My only complaint is that the entire book was not narrated in this style.

I was really amazed by how many details I missed out on. Frank Herbert crafted a book with a complex setting that feels lived in and distant, but familiar at the same. I thought I knew the story well but I felt as if I was experiencing the book again for the first time. These books certainly deserve more than one read to really appreciate.

Velocity Weapon

I haven’t been doing much to keep up with recent scfi, or keep up much with scifi at all. So when I saw Meghan O’Keefe’s Velocity Weapon on sale I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. Boy do I regret staying away from scifi for so long.

O’Keefe introduces us to rogue AI, a wounded gunnery sergeant and her brother, and a thief living in the slums of her planet’s habit domes. The action takes place across two planets and a space ship, and leaves you guessing for much of the book about how they connect and what is real. O’Keefe does a great job keeping the reader in the reader guessing. Several times I tried to guess at an upcoming plot twist and turned out to be right, but the book keeps its secrets leaving readers to discover deeper plots alongside the characters.

The Darkness That Comes Before

I have a friend that has been trying to get me to read some of R. Scott Bakker’s work for years now and this summer I finally picked up the first book of “The Prince of Nothing” which is in turn the first trilogy of Bakker’s “The Second Appocalypse.” Before going on I should point out however that these books are not for young readers, and certainly not for those who might find gruesome of explicit content in their books disturbing. With that said, I very much enjoyed this book.

I started out unsure of how I felt. The book throws a lot at you in the opening chapters and doesn’t give a whole lot of explanation of what is going on. Overtime we learn a few things, Achamian is some kind of sorcerer who belongs to an magical order called the Mandate. Kellhus is a monk who has been sent out to accomplish some task that we aren’t quite sure of yet. And there is a holy war coming that several factions are fighting to take advantage of.

The book has a lot of things that I enjoy including a deep sense of history. The world we’re shown just feels old and there are constant hints of a greater past that has been lost. Bakker’s characters are deeply flawed and readers will likely be hard pressed to say that any of them are truly good. These are characters who have been shaped by a harsh world and their actions show it.

Magic is shown to be incredibly powerful in these books. At one point we are shown a relatively small group of sorcerers who annihilate a much larger force. With that said, magic is not something that is used frequently, at least in the sections that I have read so far. In fact we are told that Achamian, on of our POV characters, is incredibly powerful. Enough so that even the leaders of other magical schools seem to be wary of him and yet in the entire book we only see mentions of his power but few actual demonstrations. If anything I think this shows his strength more than any spell-slinging could.

The Thousand Names

Django Wexler’s books have been on my to-read list for a long time now and I have to say that I regret waiting. The series takes place in a gunpowder fantasy setting and follows a group of soldiers assigned to their kingdom’s colonial forces and in the beginning of this book find themselves faced with the difficult task of reinstalling the local rulers following an anti-imperialist coup. Their situation is then made more difficult by arrival of reinforcements led by an eccentric commander who has other motives for having requested this assignment.

I really enjoyed the book’s focus on the common soldiers and its portrayal of napoleonic style tactics in a fantasy setting. Even though this is a fantasy setting magic is not seen for most of the book. Features that initially seemed magical later turn out to have much more mundane explanations. Not to worry though, the book’s namesake turns out to be central to the plot later on and my initial impressions of the second book lead me to believe that magic will become a bigger part of the plot as the series progresses.

Designing Your Monarchy

Monarchs are a central feature of nearly all fantasy. No matter what there is bound to be a king or queen found running around somewhere. Monarchs may occupy the role as both hero and villain in fantasy, and in flintlock fantasy their overthrow may be a central theme.  Knowing which form of government your monarch functions in will give you more options to flesh out your setting and create conflicts to move the story forward.

Feudal Lords

Since many stories take place in their world’s version of the Middle Ages we might as well start with the system of governance that was popular in Western Europe during that time. In these systems the king wont be much more then a wealthy landowner. It’s important here to remember that being king doesn’t necessarily mean anything. What the king is able to do will be limited by their ability to raise funds and convince noble landholders to follow them. You might also see a lack of well-defined borders, and lords of one country may be free to make their own treaties with lords of another.

Robb Stark struggling to keep the support of the Karstarks is a good example there being no guarantee that the king’s orders will be followed.

Autocrats

More powerful than a simple feudal king. An autocrat, at least in theory, wields absolute power. Nobles serve at their pleasure and their authority is backed up by the strength of their armies. All monarchies are beholden to the whims of the ruler, but in an autocratic regime where there are even fewer limits on the ruler’s power, the government will be especially vulnerable to the mood swings and fancies of its ruler.

We can expect these upheavals to be most evident shortly after a new ruler has come to throne and begins replacing their predecessors advisers with their own. If they had any ill-will towards their parents, this would become obvious as they begin to do away with the institutions built by their parents.

For a real life example you can look to the Russian Tsars. They were autocrats with many different styles of rule. Some even believe in enlightenment principles but excused their failure to enact them by claiming that they would never work in Russia.

Elected Kings

The election may be a one time occurrence or a regular affair. A one-time election may happen following the death of the previous monarch. If no satisfactory heir is available to nobility may opt to chose one for themselves. This happens in Adalbert Stiftler’s Witiko and is also how the Romanov dynasty came to power in Russia. In other lands such as the Holy Roman Empire, electing a ruler was more routine. Elections could be bought by paying off electors or otherwise convincing them to vote for a particular candidate. By manipulating this system a single family can stay in power for generations even if the position in not actually hereditary.

Constitutional Monarchs

At one point these rulers were likely autocrats or feudal lords, but since then their power has been greatly diminished. Constitutional monarchs have had their power limited by the imposition of constitution which outlines their rights and those of their subjects. Who wrote this constitution and the conditions under which it was written will ultimately determine the content. A constitution written to preempt an uprising will be far less generous than one pried from the king. What’s most important about these types of monarchies is not necessarily who the government gives a voice to, but who it does not.

Suffrage may be extended to the entire population or only select parts of it, but for our uses it easiest to assume that voting power lies in the hands of the wealthy landowners, nobility, or possibly members of the priesthood. At first the power of these voters and the limitations placed on the monarch may be relatively small. Parliament for example began as a way for the king to raise taxed from the nobility. But what this does is force the monarch to negotiate with the nobility when they need funds, and may be forced to make concessions in order to get their support.

Divine Will

Many rulers in our own history have claimed that their power is granted to them by gods, claimed relation to a god, or claimed to be a god. But in many fantasy settings it’s not out of the realm of possibly that you’ll find deities walking alongside your characters. A civilization ruled by an immortal demigod or an actual deity is going to have a very different political structure than any we’ve seen. How well will a revolution go if the monarch can call down hellfire to smite their rivals?

Usurpers

Every so often someone comes along and decides that they would make a better king than whoever currently sits on the throne. This person may or may not have a strong claim to the throne through family ties and will have come to power by exploiting a succession crisis or and incidence of weak leadership on the part of their predecessor. Once they’ve seized the throne the big question is whether they will be able to keep it. An usurper may seek to marry someone related to the previous ruler in order to legitimize their claim to the throne and generally look for ways to assert their legitimacy. Upon their death the legitimacy of their heir’s claim to power may also be in question.