Book Review: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi (4 stars)

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

4 out of 5 stars

Read in May 2009

The first half of this sequel to Old Man’s War immersed us in Special Forces, as experienced by Jared Dirac, a very unusual recruit to the Ghost Brigades. Jared’s squad leader is none other than Jane Sagan. Unlike Old Man’s War, combat and battle are secondary to what’s going on inside of Jared’s brain.

The second half reveals more of the politics driving the war and fight to colonize in this corner of the galaxy. Jared meets Charles Broutin, and more importantly, his daughter Zoë. Jane and Jared discover ever more frightening information regarding the aliens Charles is aiding to the detriment of humanity.

I enjoyed this novel at least as much as the first installment. Scalzi might not have made me laugh, but he did make me cry on more than one occasion. If you’ve read Old Man’s War, you won’t be disappointed in this sequel.

Book Review: Alas, Babylon by Frank (4 stars)

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

4 out of 5 stars

Read in March 2009

It’s 1959. It’s the height of the Cold War. The threat of thermonuclear war hangs in the air like an impending thunderstorm.

Randy Bragg is a lawyer living in the backwaters of Florida in the small town of Fort Repose. He’s the younger brother of an Air Force Colonel, Mark Bragg, stationed at Offutt AFB in Omaha – the renowned home of SAC HQ. Mark sends Randy a cryptic telegram telling him his wife and kids were coming to visit and ends with the phrase “Alas, Babylon.” This is a code word they discussed a few months earlier that meant a nuclear strike against the US was imminent.

Randy attempts to stock up for the aftermath, but really doesn’t have a grasp of what will be left after the attack. It’s not like a hurricane where your power and water might be interrupted for a few days or a few weeks. The entire infrastructure of modern life was shattered and disrupted beyond recovery in most large cities. Medical supplies, food, communications, transportation – everything was thrown back one hundred or even two hundred years in a matter of days.

The author did an excellent job of showing how one small town, uniquely spared the nuclear holocaust, managed to not only survive but retain some civilization and hope for the future.

I noticed a couple of obvious missing resources. The author mentions in passing amateur radio operators when he is describing retired Admiral Hazzard’s sideband radio. However, in 1959, it would have been difficult to toss a rock without hitting an amateur radio operator, and we (I am a licensed amateur radio operator) are usually involved in Civil Defense. We are the first line of communication when all other forms fail.

Also, Fort Repose was not far from Cape Canaveral (where NASA is now) and I would have thought there would be more military or engineers (retired or otherwise) living in Fort Repose.

I find it difficult to believe that even a small town would only have one bicycle – the one that belonged to the Western Union office used by the messenger boy. Every child would have had one and I’m sure some of the adults as well. Drive three or five miles on a bicycle in flat Florida wouldn’t have been too arduous.

In hindsight, we now know more concerning the other hazards of nuclear attacks; things like nuclear winter and electromagnetic pulses. Still, I am very impressed, even fifty years later, with Pat Frank’s chilling tale of survival and hope.

Book Review: Assassin’s Apprentice by Hobb (3 stars)

Assassin’s Apprentice

by Robin Hobb

3 out of 5 stars

Read in July 2009

A hard knocks coming of age tale that never lets up nor provides relief or a glimmer of hope for the protagonist.

A boy of six, drug through the harsh winter weather by his maternal grandfather, and returned, like unwanted goods to a retailer, to an outpost of the King of the Six Duchies. The boy is the offspring of the King-in-Waiting, Chivalry, conceived out of wedlock. The second son of the King, Verity, happens to be in residence and assigns the care of the boy to the King’s Stablemaster, Burrich. Burrich eventually names the boy “Fitz,” a derogatory reference to his heritage (i.e. a bastard).

Fitz is raised along with the puppies and ponies. He eventually comes to the notice of the King while roaming Buckkeep. The King decides he should have a more formal education. Fitz soon begins training in weapons, horse and hound handling, reading/writing and more clandestinely as an assassin.

There aren’t many fantasy elements in this story. No magical creatures or magic, beyond psi powers of the Skill and the Forging done by the Red Ship Raiders. Most of the tale involves political intrigue and the tortured trials of Fitz, the bastard-in-residence at Buckkeep.

Robin Hobb does a masterful job of evoking emotions from me in response to all the heartache Fitz suffers and even his triumphs are bittersweet.