Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Cell by Stephen King

A while back now while browsing the book section at Costco I came across a novel simply title Cell. Due to its curious cover I picked up the book and began browsing. Needless to say I bought the book soon after. Little did I know this would be my first foray into the world of Stephen King.

Stephen King is of course the best selling author and horror writer who perhaps has defined horror in the last half century and thus needs no introduction.

As a note this contains mild spoilers regarding both the book and the film so consider yourself warned.

The novel Cell opens in Boston, with graphic novelist Clayton Riddell who has just landed a graphic novel deal. To ruin his day a sudden pulse (from hereon in referred to as "the Pulse") is sent out over the global cellular communications network turning anyone who uses their cellphone into a mindless zombie like killer. This escalates a series of events as Clay must escape the horde of gibbering madmen and teams up with middle aged Tom McCourt and teen aged traumatized survivor Alice Maxwell.

As the book goes on we learn the "phoners" (as they have been dubbed) are banding together in groups called "flocks" who are mutually supportive, and as time goes on, they disturbingly seem to find a sense of purpose under the leadership of the spookily intelligent "Raggedy Man" who seems to lead the flock.

The book is an intelligent and unique take on the zombie genre, with all the wit and terror that Stephen King can whip up to make it more interesting. For instance the phoners are all terrifying less in that their a mindless horde, but rather the fact that they're a terrifying hive mind that can operate miles apart and still keep going. Their dream invading terror and other abilities mark them as a great departure from the regular zombie genre. The simple yet inventive nature of the Pulse allows the reader to simply jump in to great chaos from the get go. It's an excellent post-apocalyptic zombie novel which fascinates the reader to no end and keep you guessing all the way to the conclusion.

Now of course back in 2016 it was adapted into a film, which was something I had been waiting for ever since I read the book.

Unfortunately, the film was not very good, and it rather deservedly holds a single star on Netflix.

The film, from the get go, had a troubled production history with Eli Roth originally being chosen to direct the film, and Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who successfully adapted the King short story 1408, into a fantastic film) were chosen to creaye the screenplay. However, Roth backed out of the project in 2009 citing creative differences with the studio, and the original screenplay seems to have been inexplicably dropped or never finished, with Stephen King writing his own screenplay which was completed in 2009, but that appears to have been added to by Adam Alleca. This all seems to have contributed to the detriment of the film,

The casting though, seemed rather solid, with the 1408 team of John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson returning to play the roles of Clay and Tom respectively, and Isabelle Fuhrman as Alice. The supporting cast though, was not quite so strong with relative unknowns being put in some positions and really only the phenomenal voice of Stacey Keach contributing at all to the film.

From the beginning you can see the film suffers from budget issues, with poor quality effects, and very poor sound (even with the volume at maximum I could only understand the movie without subtitles while wearing headphones) and make up and gore effects which don't quite work.

The script seems to have suffered from multiple changes. This might explain the bad acting on behalf of all the main characters, who seem to bounce from one emotional state to another for no reason, and make adjustments absurdly fast to their situation with little indication of time passing being given. The dialogue is uninspired and relatively uninteresting on top of that. Jackson appears bored and uninspired through the film while Fuhrman seems underwhelmed and aimless in her performance, and Cusack lists from being a Nicholas Cage look alike to being a dull mannequin who does nothing. The supporting cast isn't much better, and the "Raggedy Man" stand in "The King of the Internet" (and no that name is never explained) is completely underwhelming and seems like only a bit character. In fact he is apparently set up earlier in the film, but even going back I could not find any reference to him and felt like he stumbled onto the set and just milled around there waiting for the director to tell him to do something. 

The script still seems like the weakest part of the film since it drags down the characters and seems to have been a spliced together version of different scripts. The ending is perhaps the worst part, a boring and confusing mess where I can't understand why anything is happening. In fact it's so hard to follow and even looks like they simply sewed three different endings together in an attempt to create suspense, but failed miserably.

Despite this, there are a few good shots and ideas presented in the film (the phoners gaining the ability to pass on the Pulse through their mouths) and some interesting scenes. 

However, as far as Stephen King adaptations go, this is one of the worst, I would not recommend seeing the film, but would encourage people to read the book, especially if you're tired of the mainstream zombie genre and would rather have something new.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Inauguration Day 2017

Well ladies and gentlemen, the time has come. Time to do away with a popular president who is leaving the White House with a 60% approval rating, and making way for a man who is going into it with a 40% approval rating. Here goes a president who made his best effort to engage with the media, and here comes a president who calls major news agencies "fake news" for running a story about him he doesn't like. A mature and well spoken president leaves office, and in goes a childish, petty, and immature gentlemen who seems more concerned about his image than his constituents.

All in all it's a sad day for American politics I would say. The wealthiest cabinet ever will be taking office, and one which has already managed to generate more than a little controversy. It is perhaps going to be a time when the people running the nation are more disconnected from the average voter in terms of lifestyle than ever. Add to that a key member of a rabid right wing news rag being made a key White House staffer, well we're in for some interesting times as they say.

Now here's the thing. I've made my opinion clear in other forums and as much as I possibly can that I feel Trump is unfit to sit in the same office that Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat in, that Eisenhower sat in, that Abraham Lincoln sat in, and the list goes on. He is a man not suited for public office, and by his business record he's not even suited run a country, much less a parade.

Even before taking office he's been engaged in petty stunts, grandiose proclamations about how he's not going to reveal his taxes, and how he's "totally cutting himself off from his business empire" (even though his kids are running it) which means he's got conflict of interest written all over him.

So one has to wonder, does he really have his country's best interests at heart?

That is all open to speculation though, and for now all we have is that, speculation, on how Trump will run the United States of America. He's certainly a man with an checkered past, and a very uncertain future. Much like the country he is now president of.

Now perhaps I am being unfair to Mr. Trump, perhaps his cabinet really is made of some of the best appointees who have a strong grasp of what they are about and how to handle the myriad of issues facing their nation. Perhaps even through a cold reasoned technocratic handling of the nation they can get it back on its feet. We don't know how they will run the nation or how much influence they will have over the President Elect.

Or perhaps, their conflicts of interest, a president who seems unable to take no for an answer, and unchecked ideological politics will be about as useful as many of us have imagined it to be.

Nothing is set in stone though, and we can only hope that the future is not too interesting.

Either way though, in less than 3 hours a man with a rocky approval rating takes office as the President of the United States and will deliver a speech to the nation, in one-hundred and forty-eight characters or less.

All hail President Twitter.

Until then, we've got some background music for today:

Until next time everyone!

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Sayonara 2016

Well what a year it has been! A year a laughter, a year of tears, and many other things besides. I think, in the interest of keeping my creative juices flowing, I should write an eloquent goodbye to a year that will hardly be missed.

First off let me say that 2016 has been a rather mixed year on a personal level. Many happy events and many turbulent ones. So that has rather distracted me from things which were going on in the larger world for a while.

In no way is this meant to be a comprehensive look at the last year. So much has happened and so much would need to be stated that it would be impossible to cover in a single blog post. Instead I will simply highlight my feelings on the past year and what a good, or bad, year it has been.

Well being honest this is one for the history books. The election that would never end was all over the news and there was a hulking gorilla hogging the air waves and the internet. Also, a gorilla was killed in a zoo and the internet went nuts for some reason. More seriously, 2016 saw a historic election take place, and no matter who won it was destined to be one for the history books. But, now we have our second choice in the White House, and President Twitter is ringing in the new year for a very interesting four years come January.

ISIS has shaken up things in the Middle East and Europe, bringing terror to the capitals of the European nations. However, in the Middle East itself a scrappy coalition is forming to try and drive them from Iraq, Russia has been busy rolling them back in Syria, and we may in a few years see the organizations demise from the face of the earth.

It's been a sad year for celebrities though, and although President Twitter was Times man of the year, I can think of a sort of better one:

Over 100 celebrities died in 2016. A sad year for popular culture.

Though we got Rogue One, so there's that.

The Winds of Winter hasn't come out yet, and Season 6 of Game of Thrones was alright. But the next Brandon Sanderson book is confirmed! Also, Neil Patrick Harris is playing Count Olaf in a Netflix series. So there's some good pop culture news at least. 

All in all 2016 is not a year I will look back fondly on. There were some good moments for sure, but all in all I'm glad to say sayanora.

Bring on 2017.

Happy New Years everyone.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Conservative Insurgency: The Struggle to Take American Back 2009-2041 and our own 2016

So yesterday, on November 9th 2016, I woke up to something a year ago I would have laughed off as impossible, and utterly unrealistic. However, much to my own shock, Donald J. Trump has won the American election with a surprising cascade of victories in key battle ground states. Some people are horrified by this news, others are elated, but one thing is certain, Trump's victory was divisive.

However, on the 8th I began reading a book I purchased on Kindle so many years ago on a lark. That novel was Conservative Insurgency: The Struggle to Take American Back 2009-2041 by right wing novelist Kurt Schlichter.

What originally attracted me to it I cannot recall other than it had a catchy cover and comparisons to World War Z's writing style. It has the writing style down pat, but hardly as compelling a story. In brief, it is, since its 2014 publish date, it is now a piece of alternate history wherein "constitutional conservatives" are launching a long campaign of taking back their country through a political and cultural campaign against the nebulous forces of 'progressives' and 'liberalism' and to re-institute "the conservative vision of the Founders" against progressive dominance as exemplified by a two term President Hillary Clinton.

During this re-read I was struck by the uncanny similarities between many of the ideas espoused by these fictional characters, and the real life supporters of Donald Trump. Such were the similarities that I could not get many of them out of my head. So I thought that one interesting way to comment upon the unexpected events of our own time was to look at the ideology and methods that let this happen through the fictional lens of a novel.

In the novel itself it discusses a "cultural war" being waged against the forces of liberalism, and many would say that this is true today from one side of the political aisle. Most of the view point characters in the novel themselves express that they are trying to win their country back from the forces of the unpatriotic liberals. In order to do that, they set out to detach themselves from an ineffective GOP, wage a cultural war to make 'constitutional conservatism' more palatable to the masses by showing them that it is the liberals who are the racists, the liberals who don't support women, and the liberals who support big government and spying on the American people. Make of these claims what you will of course, but the book is all about attempting to show that these ideas of small government conservatives are palatable to people because they encourage personal liberty and freedom versus the liberals who just hunger for power for powers sake. And that the "progressives" will just use slander and lies to discredit and dismiss conservatives as "racists" and "bigots" who can be safely ignored in public discourse.

Ironically the book manages to hit on a number of points which are rather pertinent both in understanding the outcome of the recent election, and in hopefully understanding the common ground that can be found to lessen the division brought about by the election.

For instance, in the novel it discusses the idea of banding together with 'pot culture' as a symbol of personal freedom which is a means of taking away a section of people who would vote Democrat by passing laws which allow the freedom of choice in the matter and remove the burden that smoking or growing pot on the justice system. This is heralded as a step forward in forging a consensus around 'conservative' values. In real life though, during this election California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada all passed legislation which would legalize marijuana, and so did the states of Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota. So there may be something in the idea that this can bridge gaps. Rather than the false equivalency supported by the novel that "Right leads to freedom, left leads to tyranny."[1]

The novel also manages to hit an interesting number of highlights on the campaign which propelled Trump to power. For instance it discussed that due to the new conservative presidency there was a "border wall" which stopped illegal immigration and prevented millions of unregistered voters from supporting the Democrats.[2] This rather succinctly foretells Trumps long term (and impractical) promise to construct a wall to keep illegal immigrants out, and his promise to deport millions of illegal immigrants. This was the mean and potatoes of Trumps speeches from near the beginning, and one which seems to have meshed nicely with the views of enough Americans to propel him to power.

There is also touched upon the ideological feeling that global warming is a hoax [3a,b]. This seems to be a popular position as well, one cultivated by Fox news, and one happily espoused by Donald Trump, who at one point called it a Chinese hoax. This has been something he has campaigned on getting off of, and most specifically to remove the United States from various global warming related treaties.

However, there are two important points which I think the novel addressed which were very important in explaining the rise of Trump to the White House.

The first is that the novel is constantly harping on the GOP as not standing for 'conservative values' or not standing for the voters. That is something I believe the novel had right then, and is most certainly something the United States electorate agreed on in elevating Donald Trump to the Republican front runner. A political outsider, he has floated the idea of running for president since at least 1988, and he has never had any political experience, and compared to the insiders like Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz he was a breath of fresh air. However, he and the novel made the point that the GOP itself is not speaking for its own constituents. There was a feeling of frustration with the GOP establishment and one which we have seen has been fed since the rise of the Tea Party in 2008. The frustration voters must have felt as they saw their jobs disappearing and infrastructure crumbling[4], all against the backdrop of both a party elite which did not care about them, and an opposition which routinely mocked, marginalized, and discarded them.

That dovetails into a second point that these people were by and large reacting to a culture which regularly abuses and disregards them. That is to say, this is a rural vs urban divide, as David Wong eloquently articulates in his own article. In the novel though, this is presented as a great media gap of the "liberals" disregarding anyone who is conservative as 'racist, bigoted, or stupid' and simply writing them off as a lost cause. In the novel, as in real life, this is something that frustrates and alienates. In real life of course this is a problem where media has merely worked to portray these rural, culturally conservative folk as backwards and bigoted people who are best consigned to the dust bin of history. Calling half of your opponents base 'bigoted deplorables' is hardly engineered to garner either sympathy for you, or your policies.

As outlined in the excellent Cracked podcast on the subject this pattern of alienating a dismissing the people who supported Donald Trump and his policies, both by targeting them indirectly, and their candidate, merely served to strengthen the movement that rallied behind him. This was a direct reaction to eight years of Democrats in the White House, a Republican Party which had become out of touch with its own base, and fear of an uncertain future. Yes, these people are afraid, and concerned about their future. 59 million Americans did not just out themselves as closet racists. Dismissing them as such is counterproductive, much like this novels attempt to dismiss all liberals as power hungry hypocrites who follow a morally bankrupt ideology all for the sake of enriching themselves. It's merely a recipe for creating a toxic environment in social and political discourse.

When one examines how close this election was, with Hillary winning roughly 47.7% of the popular vote to Trump's 47.5%[4] then we can see that creating a further gulf between the people on both sides of the aisle should probably be avoided.

Though allow me to address one thing here. Just because people who voted were Trump were not themselves bigots, does not mean Trump did not rise to power on a wave of bigotry and he was not bigoted. Because boy did he ever. Trump has legitimized some disgusting attitudes and prejudices (which we can already see having a negative impact) that give lie to the idea racism and sexism are not a problem, and ones that, in my humble opinion, make him unfit to govern in Washington in the 21st century. His supporters were willing to overlook this though (much like supporters of Bill Clinton overlooked his sex scandals, and like many have overlooked Obama's poor record with expanding the NSA and drone warfare) because he brought them hope that they finally had someone willing to listen to their concerns.

Though let me be clear, just because someone voted for Trump does not mean they're beliefs, concerns, and fears for the future are invalid. It means that they voted for someone who they felt would address their concerns with what they see as the slow collapse of their country. Simply labeling all these people as bigots and racists and shutting their voices out is so destructive to long term reconciliation that I think such an idea should be rejected out of hand. The future voters need to be building bridges and trying to bring each other together to accomplish more, much as the novel here describes doing (but not in the way the author would like of course) in order to accomplish things that will truly make the United States great again.

There is a reason why rather than professing doom and gloom, commentators who had savaged Trump were able to speak through their disappointment and push for reconciliation between the two divided sides. They don't want a country split into two armed camps. They want a nation which will be stronger. Even Trump himself was asking for unity in his acceptance speech. Hell as David Wong said, Don't Panic. There is no reason to fear Trump will usher in a fascist empire, and even if he wants to roll back the clock on civil rights, he has to go through the voters first. Even if he does, he can't stay in office forever, and everything awful he might accomplish (or try to accomplish) can be undone. It's a democracy, the voters can push back!

Now why am I, a Canadian, writing about this?

Being honest, I think Trump is unfit for the office he has been elected to hold. However, he is the elected president of the United States. Everything he does will effect my country and many of his campaign promises may be devastating in the short term, or even in the long run if you compare his health and tax plans.

He has promised to make American great again. So did another man:

The Reagan years left a legacy of voodoo economics, enormous government debt, and an AIDs epidemic. And he campaigned on similar emotional appeals to fears and hopes.

It is my hope that Trump will be a blip on the map, a last hurrah for ugly populist rhetoric in the United States. He may have though, broken the traditional way politics is carried out, upsetting the political apple cart and letting more diverse candidates into the system and forcing the parties to listen to their constituents needs, and not tell them what they need. This has positive effects in the long run as it may shake up the system and allow new blood in.

In conclusion however, I know many people are hurting, confused, and shocked. But remember, there is hope. My prayers are with my neighbors to the south and I encourage every one to hold on. We are in what the Chinese call, interesting times. Thankfully, times much less interesting than the ones portrayed in the novel mentioned above.


1] Schlichter, Kurt. Conservative Insurgency: The Struggle to Take America Back 2009 - 2041 (Kindle Location 1910). Post Hill Press. Kindle Edition.

2] "Of course, we’ve deported a fair number and with the border wall up there’s no more tidal wave coming north." Schlichter, ibid, (Kindle Locations 1131-1132).

3a]"The guy who was into global warming? Remember that scam? It’s freaking six degrees outside!”
Schlichter, Kurt. ibid, (Kindle Locations 2044-2045).

3b]"Al Gore made a fortune off the global warming swindle—" Schlichter, ibid, (Kindle Locations 556-557).

4] Yes, the article is rather nakedly partisan, but it has one of the most succinct descriptions of the total failings of the American infrastructure I could find.

5] Making this the 5th time this has happened in US history. As of time of writing these numbers are accurate.

Friday, 25 March 2016

The New Normal? Unintended Consequences.

Thirty-four dead in Brussels and three hundred wounded. Simply a small number of victims in an ongoing campaign of terror around the world perpetrated by one of the most evil organizations in the modern day. ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has emerged to fill some of the power vacuum left in the Middle East since the disastrous US invasion in 2003.

How long this apocalyptic cult posing as a country can sustain itself is an open question, one which should worry long term military strategists and politicians for the foreseeable future. This is a tragic turn of events, but one which comes on the heels of poorly thought out goals set down over a decade ago.

With the power vacuum in Iraq created by the American invasion in 2003, the toppling of governments and the unrest of Arab Spring, and the rising xenophobia in Europe alongside the exodus from the war zones of the Middle East we see a vicious cycle of desperation emerging in the region. Thousands of desperate, angry young men are resorting to extremism to find purpose in their lives as they find their homes turned to rubble and few prospects in a new world that is hostile to them.

None of this could have been accurately predicted in the years leading up to these events. However, the short sighted actions of those who initiated the invasion will be judged historically, but the unpredictable dominoes cannot not be laid at their feet however, and we must remember actions will always have unintended consequences. What is frightening is how far these actions have led to the precise scenario that those who carried them out hoped to prevent. In a terrible irony the world is now threatened by a group more organized and farther reaching than those who carried out the 9/11 attacks. We can only hope that they can never repeat that level of destructiveness.

For now though, as the dominoes continue to fall, the world must sit back and hope that they can come up with a strategy for defeating both extremism abroad, and at home.

What worries me though, and ought to worry many others is what I found myself asking in the wake of the Belgium attacks. Is this the new normal? Are we one day going to get used to living in a global war zone between extremism and Western ideals? Will we be able to look at the list of deaths on the news and the new explosions in cities around the world and simply shrug on get on with our lives? We already can ignore the bombs going off throughout the Middle East and Africa, will we one day be immune to the bombs going off in Europe?

I would sincerely hope the answer is no, but we can only wait and see.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Hyena Road

I just had the absolute pleasure to watch the 2015 Canadian film Hyena Road. I have to say it was a spectacular movie, way more moving than the recent WW2 film Fury. It was, simply put, a masterful piece for a Canadian film.

The film is set at an unspecified time during the War in Afghanistan and is a Canadian film written, produced, and directed by Paul Gross (of Passchendaele fame) which was a real treat to see. The story follows the tale of a sniper team as it secures a road (Hyena Road) being constructed deep into the heart of Taliban territory, while they come into contact with a mysterious Afghan elder known only as 'the Ghost' and in the process get neck deep into local conflicts that are raging all around them. Overlooking all is a wily cynical intelligence officer trying to see the big picture.

Hyena Road's story is masterfully done with each character getting an adequate amount of screen time, and it will constantly leave you guessing as to what happens next. The main characters are all fully fleshed out with supporting scenes, and the myriad of sub plots all roll together in a simply fascinating ending that leaves you literally on the edge of your seat. I really don't want to say too much about the story for fear of spoilers but suffice to say it is well done. There are a series of overarching stories which really come together in a big way at the end.

Our principle cast of characters leads with Paul Gross who plays the aforementioned intelligence officer whose voice over narration sets the stage for our setting and much of the overlying narrative. In the beginning we see the squad consisting of Ryan (Rossif Sutherland) Travis (Allan Hawco) Hickie (David Richmond-Peck) and Tank (Karl Campbell) caught in a dangerous mission which they must navigate out of using their wits and aid from NATO forces directed to them by Captain Jennifer (Christine Horne) whom Ryan is far more intimately involved with than regulations might allow. The mysterious tribal elder The Ghost is played by Neamat Arghandabi, who despite not speaking a single word of English in the film, is a force all his own merely by his presence.

My only complaint that I  might offer up regarding characterization is that the side characters were in need of a bit of fleshing out versus the main characters, but each is a joy to watch as witty and natural banter seems to flow right from the beginning to end whether it is from soldiers under fire or men and women in a non regulation relationship trying to show their feelings.

One of the nice things about this film is that it really is a love letter to the Canadian Forces, showing off professionalism and character, getting the military jargon down to a tee. At the same time it portrays them as human beings with flaws, conflicts, fears, and problems all their own; not attempting to white wash them or show them as incapable of making mistakes. You feel that these are real characters, serving in a real war in stressful situations who can live or die at any moment. The film really keeps you on the edge of your seat regarding the characters fates and I give it a real thumbs up for that.

While it also doesn't shy away from portraying soldiers as real people with flaws (and some very colorful vocabularies) it definitely doesn't shy away from violence. The film's opening scene is a teenaged boy burying an IED and receiving a fist sized hole through his chest for his troubles. The gore is realistic, and surprisingly it felt almost tasteful for how not over the top it was. Blood is shed, and many people die, but it isn't the point of the movie.

That being said, this isn't a Hollywood blockbuster. The production values show at times with some scenes being simply stock footage, but the editing tends to hide this well. There are some moments where it certainly doesn't do the film credit (such as really blatant insertions of real soldiers footage into scenes where it doesn't totally make sense) and some moments where the special effects aren't quite right, but that is forgivable.

Overall this is an excellent film. I have to admit it had me on the edge of my seat for much of the run time, which is a decent two hours. I would really encourage anyone who likes a good war film to go out and see it, especially if you're a Canadian. It's important to support local film efforts and this is a film that sincerely deserves that support.

So if you can, buckle your seatbelt and strap in for a trip down Hyena Road.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Why I Love/Hate the Emberverse


Hey there readers I'm just here to talk about a particular series that is both very near, and very far, from my heart.

S.M. Stirling was, in my teen years, one of my favorite writers. He can craft amazing worlds, write some fairly catchy dialogue, and turns out scenarios that are at times so wild that you can't help but be sucked in (I don't think I will ever forget the skirmish with bandits where the protagonists take refuge in what turns out to be an abandoned pornographic store in The Protector's War). And he has written many excellent adventure books, Conquistador, and the Peshawar Lancers which are just too fun to read. He of course is also the author of the infamous Draka series which has probably been picked over as much as A Song of Ice and Fire for details.

However, he is probably currently most famous for his newest (and longest running) series, the Emberverse. The basic premise is that on March 17th 1998, at 6:15 pm a worldwide event known as the Change disables all electronic technology, and even alters the laws of physics which prevents gunpowder and even steam technology from functioning properly, in an instant thrusting humanity back several centuries. The first book in the series (Dies the Fire) follows an excellently written post-apocalyptic scenario where two groups struggle to survive in this fundamentally changed world.

The book follows an interesting cast of characters as they build a new world (even reality) out of the ashes of the old, some good and some bad. The different societies and nations which emerge are fascinating, and the characters themselves are just great. That's not to say they don't go through some hardship. Though from the individual duels and skirmishes, to the sweeping battles of the later series each battle scene is a joy to read and amazingly detailed with twists and turns around every corner.

You have former marine Mike Havel who leads a motley band of survivors in a quest for safety across the Mid West after having survived a plane crash, and Juniper Mackenzie, a Wiccan priestess who bards her way across Oregon who leads her own group to her inherited cabin in the Williamite Valley. Mike founds a warrior society of soldier settlers who take their own territory and hold it against all comers, while Juniper founds a neo-Celtic clan that adopts its new identity with gusto that makes even its founder slightly uncomfortable. These societies develop into things of their own, well beyond their founders intentions in interesting ways.

The first trilogy in the series is fantastic, well fitted together and each book has a tight narrative that you can really sink your teeth into. I will shamelessly admit that they are some of my favorite books of all time, and I have probably read each one at least three times. Mike Havel, Astrid, Juniper, and Nigel Loring are a four very interesting characters who grope their way through a changed world and establish themselves and the groups they bring with them as a new nation, each with its own very unique quirks. They are shaped by the presence of a central antagonist in the form of the neo-feudalist warlord Norman Arminger and his hyper-competent wife Sandra.

While the series tends to present things on unashamedly black and white lines (good guys good, bad guys bad) it doesn't detract from the superb world building, and some of the greatest battle scenes in fiction. The books all tied together well, and presented a compelling story about leadership, survival, and change.

Imagine my pleasant surprise at hearing that a new saga for the Emberverse would be appearing all the way back in 2007. This saga got off to a great start, with an interesting new cast of characters and the promise of exploring more of post-Change North America. We even had amazing new villains in the form of the scary dogmatic religious CUT (Church Universal and Triumphant) and its Prophet, Sethaz.

Now don't get me wrong, these books got off to an amazing start, but they started to teeter on the edge of disappointing very swiftly.

Though I should start by saying that Stirling's skill at world building has not decreased, and the books continue to be amazing romps through a totally different world (which technically counts as alternate history) with the amazing innovations and different survival techniques we've come to see, the force driving that adventure however, diminishes significantly with each volume.

There's no shortage of interesting characters. We have the mercenary salvage man from out East, Ingolf Vogeler, the son of amazing archer extraordinaire Edaine Alyward (and his lovable pooch Gabranth), Father Ignatius from the amazing Knight Templar-esque monks of Mount Angel, and Odard Lieu, son of a villain from the previous trilogy. We also have returning characters in the form of the all-grown up Matilda Arminger (only daughter of the villain Norman Arminger) the twin daughters of Mike Havel, Ritva and Mary, and finally the bastard child of Mike and clan chief and priestess Juniper Mackenzie, Rudi.

I think many readers will understand why I list him last.

At the heart of the series problems from here on in really is this one character. While we have a cast of excellent supporting characters, but they tend to take the back burner whenever Rudi is on screen. Rudi is a very dull, uninteresting, and very poorly executed heroic character whose very presence tends to drag down the novel. In fact he renders almost every other character inconsequential. The main villain of the series (Sethaz) gets progressively less and less screen time until he effectively becomes mostly background noise with only his secondary villains having any screen time at all, and even then its fairly secondary to the plot. He can really do no wrong, and this is outrageously demonstrated in one scene where Matilda overhears a conversation where it sounds as though he is having an affair with another woman and sets up what could be some amazing character drama...only for the next chapter to start with how she was wrong because when she asked Rudi whether he was cheating on her he angrily said no. For me at least that really torpedoed any sense of realism in character development.

The overarching plot of this saga isn't even bad. It's a quest to find a magic sword which will counter the influence of the a dark power which is feared to be rising alongside the CUT. This is backed up by the trials and tribulations of the questers as they cross the vast expanse of North America and run into local politics, CUT allies, savage neobarbarians, and being constantly pursued by CUT fanatics. Some very fun adventures take place amongst the new Sioux nation (with a gripping event involving buffalo) and we get an in depth look at the new nation of Iowa, arguably the most powerful nation in North America now, with a bevy of satellite states surrounding her in the crop rich plains. There's even a great background story about things back home with the war!

The problem again though, is Rudi. The book often goes out of its way to break the "show don't tell" rule when we run into him, and characters will spend pages talking about all the reasons you should like him and all the reasons why he is amazing, and why he is such a good leader. None of this is actually shown to us the readers (unlike with previous archetypal leaders like Juniper or Mike) and we have Rudi with many informed abilities. He is never in any clear danger as he is absolutely unbeatable in combat (which before we see this many other characters spend a good deal of time informing us) and even the sub plot back home tends to devolve around describing how awesome a leader Rudi will be. Despite suffering a serious wound at one point, it doesn't even wind up seriously inconveniencing him as the series goes on. His presence drains any tension from the books and you don't even fear for his friends as things continue. In fact his friends situations get even less screen time and very little development beyond off hand mentions of things happening or a few scenes here and there.

The books from The Scourge of God on really suffer thanks to this. To me, the ultimate disappointment came when we arrived at The Lord of the Mountains where the series had been building up to an epic battle between the forces of good and evil. Now as I've mentioned Stirling can write amazing battle scenes, and with a series that has airships and hot air balloons still being a practical thing the immense undertaking that is plotting and portraying this battle should have been easy for him. Instead we have a series of incredibly underwhelming build ups and an absolutely disappointing let down with a waste of all the books potential epic moments which flop spectacularly in showing us the culminating battle between good and evil. From wasted pages describing the teenage adventures of two squires who are supposed to deliver a message, to simple scenes of meetings where the good guys cheerfully predict their victory over their foes. The book has zero tension, and in an ultimate sin manages to make what should have been an amazing battle boring and utterly unengaging.

However, the novels afterwards have been, well, not incredibly interesting. Despite much tension of when Rudi is supposed to die (a prophecy that he will not live to see his first gray hair) the books play it fairly tamely and he simply dies before he gets any gray in his hair, in middle age. He lives a long healthy life, and becomes a great king. Again we don't really see any of this and are for the most part informed of it by other characters.

The most recent release, The Golden Princess, is now primed to follow a new set of characters into a new quest, for a new sword.

While this one promises to be more nautical, and somewhat more engaging in that it will take readers from the deserts of California to Australia, and finally Japan, it has thus far disappointed. I can say with absolute confidence that people should wait until the follow up volume, The Desert and the Blade, comes out. You will find yourself much more satisfied, since Princess is very lacking in plot advancement versus overflowing with obligatory scenes where characters talk about how amazing Rudi is and describe the very technical feudal terms for feudal government and the neo-Celtic lifestyle. The story honestly just seems to cut off half way through, so I hope the new book will pick up where we left off.

In spite of  the series great  flaw with an unrelatable hero, it does mostly play to Stirlings strengths of world building, battle, and adventure. And you know what? That's a good thing. People may not like the characters, and I'm one of them, but the world Stirling builds is so detailed and intricate that you can't help but want to explore it. He crafts some amazing societies which you will find yourself going back and reading about just to catch glimpses of them. He paints a hauntingly beautiful picture of a completely changed North America built on the bones of our old civilization, and its wonderful.

Though I may not have cared to deeply for the meat of the second saga, I reiterate my love for the first trilogy and recommend it as an excellent series to anyone who wants to enjoy a good book. Stirling is still a good writer, and while it may take a while for the new books to get into the swing of things I fully expect that like the previous books it will contain some amazing gems that will leave you saying "Holy Crap! Did that just happen!?"

It has for me, and I hope it will for many others.