The Journal of Corbrum Blackstone, Pine Forge Township

I was ill company for days after riding away from Hammer Mine. There I faced another problem that demanded high resolve to resist the foul demon’s blandishments… and again my pace slackened, my feet drifted away from challenging the possessed miner. Once again I fled to seek the support of my boon companions, my fellow Dogs… without them, the town surely would have wallowed in filth unending. Without their efforts, the town would have neglected the children, continued to believe the heretical tale of the mine in end days, and turned their eyes from the King’s commands. The King is well served by Rusty and Dominicus. I must test my heart, my resolve, to see if the King and ancients have judged me truly fit to bear his word in this sinful world.

[A few months passed, largely uneventfully… now it is the edge of winter.]

Nestled against a mountain, surrounded by well exploited woods and mines, lies the prosperous township of Pine Forge. The town is large–one of the largest in the territories–and crowded with outsiders. As we rode into town, idly drifting snow fell ever more steadily…

We were met by one of our training class, Rusty’s friend Tobias. He led us to the Steward’s house, where we huddled against the cold and listened to Tobias and the Steward explain the problems of the town. Most vexing was the presence of Territorial Authority soldiers–currently a squad of six men–idle and prone to drunkenness. Just last night two soldiers made untoward advances on Sister Althea. Steward Wiley was describing his efforts to navigate the town through rapids secular and religious, when a shot rang out.

We all rushed to the door, hurriedly catching up our coats against the winter chill. The Steward led us unerringly to an inn… outside of which we found a tense gathering, A half dozen men, well armed–clearly the soldiers of whom we’d heard such ill tales–stood tense and well armed, liquor rolling off their panting tongues. Also already present was the sheriff, Brother Henry. One of the soldiers stood stunned, pistol dangling from his hand, glumly staring down at the red stained snow. One of ours, a boy of the faith, lay dead at his feet. Churned snow spoke of a large melee and several folk fled, spurred to flight by that fatal shot.

Rusty and I tangled with Sheriff Henry, who officiously claimed the shooting was a territorial matter–his jurisdiction, not the King’s. His voice burned with sour whiskey; ours rang with the King’s righteousness. Alcohol fueled his stubbornness, but we reminded him of his place–and ours. His shame shone through and his obstinacy collapsed. Steward Wiley led the sozzled sheriff home, to bed.

Domincus spoke with the leader of the soldiers, while I chimed in with a few apt quotes from the Book of Life… and other books the soldier was familiar with. Our discussion turned to the topic of responsibility and ultimate responsibility for our fallen Brother Jackson. Corporal John spoke passionately but fairly for his men; we continued to address him with respect and steadily earned his. Finally his wicked tongue was quelled–not of defense of his men, but of his reflexive slurs and insults of the King.

As our conversation reached a newly respectful silence, the murderous soldier named himself as Private Alex. He admitted to slaying Brother Jackson, though he claimed that it was in defense of his own person–and defense of his fellow soldiers, including the lecherous Private Boone. Reluctantly, the soldiers turned Alex over to our care, and we promised to protect him from hot handed justice.

With that resolved, we sprang into action. Our fellow Dog, Tobias, took charge of Private Alex, leading him to the Steward’s house where he was already encamped. Rusty squared his shoulders and stormed into the den of evil and spirits, ready to wrestle with the speakeasy’s proprietor. I ran to get the mortician, to address poor Brother Jackson’s battered and bloody body. It could do no good to leave his form steaming in the snow.

Rusty’s confrontation with the proprietor, Daniel, was sharp. Daniel was aggrieved by his ill-treatment by the faithful, and not just in this town. (Though he did not confess it, he burned with hatred after being driven from Bridal Falls City itself months ago… at Corbrum’s hands.) The King must have been strong with Rusty; his words persuaded that shriveled devil that continuing to serve liquor after it brought about murder would be foolish. With grave reluctance, he locked his liquor cabinet and handed the key to the King’s Watchdog. Ah, if only I could have seen that moment!

Meanwhile, I reached the mortician, who was in conversation with Steward Wiley and a brother of the fallen boy Jackson. I reined in my urgent feelings and fell into step with the solemn procession.

As I trudged back, Dominicus and Rusty spoke with the soldier, Boone, whose advances had provoked the altercation. His tale was one of a frank attraction to Althea, which she eagerly returned. His voice was steady with truth… both on that subject, and when he described Althea’s brother Jackson and a group of local toughs who seized him and drug him outside to beat him while he was too drunk to offer a solid defense. Fortunately (to his mind), his fellow soldiers rushed to his aid, then the scuffle became heated… and Alex’s gun slew one of his attackers.

The swiftly falling snow, backed by bitter wind, chased everyone to bed once we had brother Jackson loaded up for the mortician. Rusty would shelter in the Steward’s already full house (with private Alex and Tobias already lodged), while Domincus and I went unto Brother Ezikia’s home for a night’s rest. The King’s guidance rings in that decision to rest ourselves under his roof…

We were tired from our day’s ride, a day made long and weary by the senseless murder of Brother Jackson. We thanked Brother Ezikia for his family’s hospitality and soon slumbered. While we slept, the town was not idle… but we, as yet, had no way of knowing.

We broke our fast with Ezikia and his family. Ezikia stands at the right hand of the Steward, a swift rise for a man in his early 20s. He burned with passion and disgust for “outsiders”. (I can still hear the sneer and malign twist of his mouth as he spat the word.) Ezikia’s rhetoric was passionate; outsiders were filth who had been presented with strong examples of true faith by our community. If they persisted in their willful neglect of the King… he had no patience for them, no tolerance.

The territorial authority has long passed through Pine Forge; for years, they were little enough a disturbance. That changed when Daniel arrived and opened a distillery. The bad example of outsiders has led even faithful men, like Sheriff Henry, to indulge in forbidden spirits. Now, complained Ezikia, the Sheriff sides against the faith.

We turned the conversation to the altercation the night before at the speakeasy. He turned evasive, protective, when we asked who had been present beside Brother Jackson so we could speak with them. The names spilled out–Newton, Obidiah, and Jackson. His face twisted as I spoke; he heard the taint of eastern education as I deployed my words. Then revelation forced his hand; “I saw Virgil too,” he said, to a quiet prompt from Dominicus.

Aha! We readied ourselves to find out his role in the confrontation when a knock at the door interrupted. The Steward stood framed in the door, his words compelling our attention: “Brother Tobias was caught in the act of smashing the inn’s liquor.” Fortunately, he continued, Tobias didn’t resist when the soldiers rushed down the stairs to investigate the disturbance. “He’s been hauled off to the jail,” he said, so we three Dogs joined him, walking briskly.

The Sheriff, somewhat surly as a result of his tipple the night before, did not want to allow us to speak with Tobias. He barred the way with his body, backed by soldiers who idled about the jail, clearly anticipating our interference. We spoke, at first calmly, with the Sheriff. He pushed Rusty, but Dominicus clamped his powerful hand on the Sheriff’s shoulder before they could give into the call of violence. While Dominicus held the Sheriff, I walked through the soldiers and into the jail. Dominicus and Rusty soon followed, while the Steward remained outside to straighten the Sheriff and counsel him on navigating the demands of faith and world.

Tobias… his tale is sad. He awoke filled with a passion. He urgently drew on his clothes, abandoned his charge Private Alex, swiped a key from slumbering Rusty, broke into the inn and began smashing liquor. We spoke quietly, so our voices would not carry, as we sought to divine whose voice urged him to his reckless act. After probing questions, his doubt made itself manifest and he realized that the passion had been his, not the King’s. “Rusty, you helped me find the King before…” he cried out. At Rusty’s hidden sign, Dominicus and I fled that scene of broken searching, leaving two Servants of the King to wrestle with faith.

Dominicus and I made haste toward Obidiah and Althea’s house. There, we felt, we would better understand the root of yesterday’s tragedy… but we were too late. When we arrived, their sister told us that Ezikia had come by just after breakfast and gathered them to visit the Steward’s. Dominicus and I blanched; Private Alex had been abandoned there while Tobias smashed liquor bottles–the soldier we’d pledged to protect was undefended. We broke into a jog…

The vigilantes didn’t expect us to come at a run. At my appearance, Newton was startled from his watch and ran to cry warning to his compatriots. He slid across the smooth floor boards of the Steward’s entry hall and pivoted to shut fast the door behind him… but I lowered my shoulder and slammed into the closing door, throwing it back open. Only a step behind was Dominicus, charged with the King’s fury.

Even the mildest of men would have been sickened by the bloody wreck that had been made of Private Alex. Obidiah clutched him under his arms, steadying him for Ezikia’s blows. And worse than blows; Ezikia had a pistol in his hand, its handle slicked with blood. Dominicus and I commanded him to stop in the King’s name, but he was unheeding; the pistol flipped, the bloody grip coming to rest in his hand, ready to fire. “Leave this place,” I commanded him, but his hand was unwavering, the pistol leveled at Alex. “After we take out the trash,” he said, and fired at the private.

Dominicus cowed Ezikia’s followers; first Newton dropped his hands to his side, then Virgil slid out the open door. Sister Aletha rushed forward to cast her body between Ezikia and his target–her bravery bought us time. Obidiah could not be dissuaded, but he fell to a savage punch that I unleashed, toppling him to the floor. Ezikia was unable to breach Althea’s selfless guard of the soldier; unwilling to shoot her or us, he eventually surrendered. Althea turned to treat the fallen soldier while we secured that once faithful man, Ezikia. He was unbalanced by his hatred of others: of outsiders, of the faithless. Of his neighbors.

The remainder took a great deal of discussion with many people. In the end, we allowed the soldiers to take Private Alex with them; Ezikia had taken vengeance’s cloak and delivered a punishment that would have been death had the King wished it. Steward Wiley was dismayed that his student Ezikia’s passion had been in service to hatred. As faint salve, he could count his guidance of Sheriff Henry back to the faith as a success.

The soliders also took Ezikia with them, back to their fort, where he would face a trial for the attempted murder of Private Alex.

Rusty counseled Tobias; they rode together back to Bridal Falls.

Dominicus and I set off for Bridal Falls a day later, delayed to escort one called to be a Dog. In her selfless defense of Private Alex, Dominicus and I saw the spark of the King; we asked Sister Althea to come and learn from the teachers and ancients at the temple. In her shines the spark of justice, her compassion true even when staring down the barrel of her mentor’s bloody pistol. We hope that she will join the King’s Watchdogs and bring her gifts to the faithful. Amen.

Bring Me Flesh, I’ll Bring Hell: A Horror Novel by Martin Rose

An interesting novel, told from the perspective of a… mostly dead protagonist. He’s in a rough world, a victim of a horrific experiment… and it gets personal and twisted from there.

It’s a horror book, and successfully triggered disgust frequently, but rarely creeping horror. I was sympathetic to the protagonist, but… and it’s exactly that but that’s the issue. It read quickly and kept my interest, but it’s not one I’m likely to return to.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

A good book, YA focused, the beginning of a trilogy. I enjoyed it enough to want to read the sequel.

For world building… somehow the world was messed up, probably involving corrupt politicians. From that fallen world, society organized itself into five factions (plus the leftovers)–each with a high minded goal and a widely acknowledged vice. Tris, our viewpoint character, grows up as a member of Abnegation–a service/charity focused faction that tends to the downtrodden… and runs society, since they personify selflessness.

This book is set in a fallen Chicago; prosperity is long behind, and communication, much less travel beyond the city appears strictly limited. A few chapters in, the students (who are 16?) are subjected to a hallucinatory experience that guides them to the faction that fits them best. Except that Beatrice is one of the (rare?) few who is Divergent–not strongly inclined to one faction. She learns that’s a dangerous place to be… and the rest of the book reinforces the need to conform and fit in.

Once I complete my current checked out books, the sequels will hop to the top of my queue…

D’Shai by Joel Rosenberg

An interesting non-European fantasy, thick with concerns of caste, status and honor. I think I’ve read a short story in this world previously, as the caste elements in particular felt familiar. The start, with the almost Mayan running culture threw me off, but that’s the frame of the story.

Inside we have a world of kazuh, of magic that flows as a exaltation of ability. So our runner in the frame story, raises kazuh, and runs in perfect balance for hours. At the end, he’s exhausted, but no horse can keep pace with his magical talent. From there, we meet Kami and his magical family of acrobats. His Dad is renowned and his sister has the talent of acrobatics… but Kami has only studious hard work– not the magical gift.

The world building is excellent. We root for Kami, even though we can understand other people’s perspectives. His romance is fraught, but feels right for a well traveled and experienced teen. Similarly, the feel of the court–from the sumptuous feasts, absolute loyalty and fantastic expected submission all come around and reinforce the feeling of caste and a coherent world.

Witch World by Andre Norton

A classic science fiction book from the 1960s, the start of several interweaving series. The book is fast paced–extraordinarily so in a world of The Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones tomes.

The first chapter sets up our main character as a man on the run, a former Colonel, a physically dangerous man… and catapults him out of our world in Witch World and the country of Estcarp. The next chapters are similarly brief; he’s in a new and alien world, but the narration sticks close to Simon Tregarth in action. As soon as the first conflict is resolved, we hop forward–these days I’d expect a few chapters of “learn the language, study the world, meet the people”, but we leap ahead to a homecoming for the woman he’s escorting and the councils of power. Then we’re off almost immediately to a front in the war.

That war stays tight and focused around Simon’s perceptions… until the end of the invasion, when we shift to a brand new viewpoint character. Who is native to this universe and a woman, for a very different perspective.

The book packs a lot into a little over 200 pages; it’s mostly action. I can see that there’s a lot of space to find out more about the world in sequels; what’s present is well done but the world is only sketched. I’m curious to read a further, though probably not the whole set of books.

Beginning Go: Make the Winning Move by Peter Shotwell and Susan Long

This book is a nice 8×8, 160 page book. It’s attractive, with lots of white space and a simple declarative paragraph to introduce each concept. It has excellent exercises and is more traditional in their setup–a diagram creates a situation and a sentence asks you for a solution. At first, it’s a single stone placement that you’re imagining, but soon your solution assumes a few moves for each player.

This book is the one I’d hand to other people today to introduce the game. Despite that, ?I prefer The Rules and Elements of Go for a reminder–this is probably better for learning the game for the first time, and hopefully less intimidating with the problems and modern layout.

The Rules and Elements of Go by The Ishi Press

This book is responsible for thawing out my love and attempts at Go. It’s a small book (4″x7″), published in 1977. It does a great job of providing a broad overview of the game, explaining the rules, handicapping, and explaining score counting (and how it varies by country). That’s the first half of the book.

The second half is elementary tactics and strategy. Very compactly laid out, one page per problem, with several diagrams and explanations It’s really a nice primer… I should keep it at my side as a quick reference/reminder. The last 9 pages are a professional game, explained with a diagram showing 20-30 moves and a couple of paragraphs describing why. It’s a perfectly good example of a game, showing the abstract elements for the first 50 pages of the book in context.

There are a few odd formatting issues early very early on, but it’s actually very clearly organized, with plenty of diagrams. It’s a great example, despite its age.

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P. W. Singer and August Cole

So far, it’s an intriguing novel with a lot of characters and situations–but, fortunately, not an endless sprawl of characters. The book kicks off by establishing the status quo of about 20-30 years from now. Its status quo is familiar, particularly at sea; America remains dominant and continues to escort freighters, fight off pirates, etc. China is transformed; an alliance of business and the military seized power from the communist party and is working closely to guide China into a bright future. Along the margins is Russia; a junior player to the other two.

Once the baseline is established, it’s kicked out. China eradicates the US satellite network; while in those first hours of confusion, Russia strikes at American forces and Japan, while saboteurs hit American ships in western Pacific waters and container ships unload concealed tanks and weaponry that seize Hawaii in a lightning strike. All of this is important but background; the crippling strike is that corrupted chips are everywhere throughout US planes and equipment–and it has mole routines that sabotage whatever they’re a part of… often subtly.

We skip ahead a few months, to the unsettled new normal. Much of the remainder is about the resistance in Hawaii, with parallel stories continuing in China, the pentagon, etc. Characterization remains strong; a few new characters come to prominence, but POV sprawl is limited. Unfortunately the stars begin to develop plot armor; as we barrel to the conclusion, fate goes well out of its way to spare a few people. The father/son dynamic that develops is good from both sides, with calcified resentment slow to erode.

Overall, it was enjoyable, particularly in the first two thirds, before the “against all odds” conclusion hits the expected notes.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

A weird and interesting story. It’s set in the modern day–no time travel tricks–but Carolyn splits her time between modern America–where she’s an outsider–and the library. The book is heavy on flashbacks and formative experiences. They’re generally horrific; among the tricks that Carolyn’s brothers and sisters have mastered is snatching people from the plains of the dead and returning them to life.

It’s very well written and engaging. We begin the book with Carolyn’s presentation to the world–mousy, asking for help and tricking people into doing more than they agree to. As the book moves on, however, we learn that a lot of that is a ploy; she has acquired powers that no one–not even those closest to her, and certainly not Father.

In the end, it’s a creepy story well told. It’s a world of power, absurd rituals from long ago, foresight and betrayal. It also is a story of compassion, interestingly told.

Hidden Empire by Orson Scott Card

The sequel to Empire, and in book form the conclusion of the series.

The typification is less pronounced and annoying this time, probably because he didn’t have to shoehorn liberals broadly into secessionists. The book has four major parts.

The first part focuses on the “day to day”, with Cole and Cecily as trusted advisers to President Torrent. It’s pretty short, but establishes that Torrent’s elevation to the Presidency has held, that he worries about politics and election to some degree (though as a heavy favorite). Further, the chapter introduction quotes are now all part of Torrent’s writings. In parallel, Chinma is in Nigeria. He’s patient zero of the sneezing plague, which devastates his whole village. In parallel, the events in Africa spur scenes where Torrent and Cecily discuss Africa policy.

The second part involves Chinma’s adjustment to America, his integration with Malich family, their growing awareness and moral conflict over the right role of Christians in treating the sick (behind the African blockade). Then Cole and his jeesh travel to Africa to combat the governments using the plague as cover for genocide. They encounter foes with the mysterious EMP device that’s a perfect counter to their “bones and noodles” that enhance their abilities. How suspicious…

For a while, both Cecily and Cole are in Nigeria, along with Chinma and her eldest son Mark. They’re hard at work, but the coughing sickness gets them all. While the soldiers are down with the plague, another poor African group, suspiciously armed with the EMPs, hits the base. There is death and tragedy…

From there, the book flows into its fourth and shortest block. Cole has to save the President from a deadly attack, the President admits to taking advantage of the events in the world, but not precipitating most of them. Cole adopts Chinma, Cecily returns to baking cookies, end, credits.

I liked the book for its unconventional focus. While the book begins with politics and coordination against Russia, and ends with an attempted political assassination, in between is filled with a mix of “special forces hooah!” and scenes wrestling with the demands of their faith.

There’s plenty to nitpick, but at a proper reading pace you’ll make it through before they start to concern you. Good enough!