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!

Empire by Orson Scott Card

A loan from dad. Empire is a fast paced book that’s almost a buddy movie between Major Reuben Malich and Captain Coleman. It’s an interesting book, particularly since it was written before 2006, when “Bush Derangement Syndrome” was running so high.

The book champions characters who refuse to buy into the left/right divide, but fails to provide anyone sympathetic on the Left side of the dispute, beyond Ruben’s wife Cecily. It’s fun enough and moves along, despite the authorial intrusion that was unsubtle enough to make it clear that “both sides are crazy, but they’re really crazy… and popularly supported!” was just the way he views the world.

In the end, though, it’s evidently a prelude to a video game. For that, it’s immensely better than almost any game adaptation. It was enjoyable enough that I’m reading Hidden Empire, the finale.

I do wonder how he’d write it if it was written today, a decade later. Would it still be the unhinged left, or would Card acknowledge the xenophobia and blatant racism that scream out from today’s rallies? I wonder.

The deluge : the Great War, America, and the remaking of global order, 1916-1931 by J. Adam Tooze

I read this book to follow a reading group. It’s a fascinating time that I’ve mostly skimmed over–Diplomacy taught me that WWI was mostly “trench warfare”, which sounded horrific and boring.

The book begins before the US entry in WWI, discussing the leaders of the various Entente powers, their goals and motivations. Initially, Britain, France and Russia are struggling shoulder to shoulder, with Britain taking the lead on financing for the team. Russia’s implosion into civil war in 1917 made things even trickier…

The politics within the three nations (and Germany!) were opaque to me before now, but came alive and were fascinating. Britain’s relations with its colonies are tricky–particularly in India, where Muslim unity with the Hindu majority suddenly undercuts the story Britain’s been telling itself about why it’s needed. Ireland has to be bribed into supporting the war with home rule… it’s so much messier than unthinking “how the empire acts” history sits in my mind.

Wilson is more a hindrance than a help, and comes across as… too ivory towerish? He’s a man of theory, with goals that are perpendicular to the world he’s trying to interact with. His striving to establish peace without victory has some very unfortunate parallels to our intervention in modern day Syria–with a similar damning of the belligerents to longer misery. He swoops in to accept the German armistice, ignoring his allies in the war–and making Germany resent being treated like they lost the war when officially they hadn’t.

The 1920s had been flappers and war profits investigation to me; the international scene, particularly America’s insistence on repayment of the debt their allies had built up defending themselves before the US entered the war, had been much hazier. While I don’t 100% trust his take on China and Japan, there’s a lot more going on along that front than I’d put together. China was divided–differently in different years. The chapter about Chiang Kai-shek’s beginning as Soviet trained and his coup where he purged the communists out of his resistance movement was all new to me.

In fact, everything Russia seemed new. I’d never heard of Brest-Litovsk, had no idea how abject the collapse of the Russia front had been, what the internal politics of the new regime were and how they had to face democratic populists while they were struggling to get established. Similarly, Ukraine and the Baltics seemed quite happy to escape the Russian Bear… if not for long.

Long story short, it’s a good book and I learned a lot. Further, it’s written for interested amateurs–if you want a broad overview of the world almost exactly a century ago, it’s a great place to start.

The caryatids by Bruce Sterling

This book started off strong–I enjoyed the characters and world building on Mljet; it was an interesting world with a very different focus from today. While I enjoyed the puzzles (that the book consciously foregrounded) like “what happened to money?” and “how bad was the collapse?”, the characters and interaction were strong enough to keep the book engaging. The Aquis was a quirky society, but a comprehensible response to the challenges and collapse of the previous half century.

The shift to Mila (the second sister) was abrupt–I wasn’t done with Vera. (And once the perspective shifts, you never get back to the story from that character’s POV again.) She’s a Hollywood star, a member of the second global society, The Dispensation. To be honest, I didn’t see much difference in their experience versus modern Americans–by picking a member of the city’s wealthy elite, what makes the Dispensation different from today’s society was subsumed in the sameness of “movie stars as the face of issues”. Despite that lesser feeling world building, I enjoyed following Mila around as she struggled to manage the transition of finances and power to the next generation. Unfortunately, she was much more a “general managing the battlefield” viewpoint than engaged with the issues that interested her, so it was less gripping. Her “murder” at the end was shocking, but didn’t have much impact because she’d engaged me so much less.

We then shift to Sonja, who did cool action adventure stuff… mostly in her backstory. So she’s cool and collected as she undergoes dangerous threats, bloody minded, etc. Her shallow reasons for her previous terror made it hard to really identify with her; her body is a tool, she marries but it doesn’t seem to really engage as emotion–it’s more calculation… I don’t know, she was again hard to empathize with.

In the end, I liked the world building, particularly of the Aquis. Future China sounded quite plausible, and sure, wealthy run society Dispensation feels like people abstractly running the world everywhere. I’d have liked a more street level view of the Dispensation to actually see what their society is like–the POV was too removed to have a good thought.

The book was fine, but not one that I’m likely to reread. It’s not bad–it has a number of very good nuggets, interesting worldbuilding, and an engaging character for the first third. That enough for me to say, “add it to your queue,” but not “read it next!”