Book Review – Doctor Who: Engines of War by George Mann


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Ever since the War Doctor (or the Other Doctor, or the Predator, or the Renegade, or whatever we want to call him), was introduced last year, fans have been wondering just who he is. What was this man like, who seemed so similar to the Doctor we know and love, yet apparently was very, very different? Now we get a glimpse at what this man was all about.

Doctor Who: Engines of War starts off on a distant planet, where a young woman, nicknamed Cinder, is fighting back against the Daleks. The rebellion isn’t going well, and she’s about to be killed by one of the Daleks, when the Doctor’s TARDIS crash-lands and saves her. From that point, Cinder and the Doctor travel together, trying to unearth the secrets of a new Dalek weapon and save…well, therein lies the conflict. For the Doctor can save the Time Lords, but in doing so would be allowing them to commit a great crime. His moral dilemma forms the crux of the story.

I very much enjoyed this tale. It helps that I’m very fond of the old series, so I recognized many of the references (“The Five Doctors” in particular is heavily referenced), but I suspect even new series fans who have never seen an episode of the old series will be able to keep up just fine. I also appreciated the connections between the new series and old. Having an appearance by a certain Lord President of dubious character was quite fun, especially as he’s still wearing a glove I like to refer to as “The Hand of Omega”, but probably isn’t.

As for drawbacks, well, there really weren’t any, aside from the fact that I was left wanting more. This story is clearly supposed to be the War Doctor’s last adventure before the events we saw in “The Day of the Doctor”, and so I do hope someone at some point goes back and fills in more blanks. It would be lovely if Big Finish were able to do so, but failing that, more novels would be great.

A good story all around and one that I highly recommend.

Book Review – Last Orders, by Harry Turtledove


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This series has been really irritating to me on several levels. Everything from the the so-called “big switch”, which promised to change everything but in fact changed nothing, right on down to the way this book, supposedly the last in the series, ended. And yet…the story has been interesting enough to keep my attention and if there winds up being another book in this series, I’ll probably read it.

As before this book follows several characters zipping around a slightly earlier version of World War II doing various things. There’s a Czech sniper in Spain (did you know it gets hot in Spain during the summer? In case you forget, you’ll be reminded several times), a Soviet bomber crew (did you know bombers get lighter as they drop their bombs? In case you forget, you’ll be reminded several times), a Jewish woman living in Munster (did you know the Nazis didn’t like Jews? In case you forget, you’ll be reminded several times), and others, all of whom have attributes to them that you might forget, but, don’t worry; you’ll be reminded about them several times.

Yes, as you may have gathered, one of Turtledove’s more annoying practices is back again. Also, it has returned. On top of that, it’s annoying. Plus it’s annoying, and back yet again.

But…still I read, and still I mostly enjoy. In fact, I was generally satisfied with this book until the very end.

SPOILERS from here on out.

You see, the war in Europe comes to an end in the last few chapters (and yet again, a major alt history writer misses a chance to put Hitler on trial for war crimes), and that’s all well and good. Germany isn’t as beaten as they were in the real world, and it could be interesting to see how that impacts things down the line. But if I never found out, that would be ok.

What isn’t really ok is that the war in the Pacific seems to finally be gearing up to take center stage. Midway and Wake are both taken and things are getting interesting, especially as the marines who invaded Midway are forced to remain there under quarantine for an undetermined time.

And…then the book ends. The apparently last book in the series. The war with Japan is just really getting interesting, and the book stops. Doesn’t even really end, as far as that part is concerned; it just stops. Now if this is a set-up for book seven, which as far as I know, isn’t a thing, that’s fine. If it’s just the end of the series, then it’s very sloppy writing.

Sadly, Turtledove seems to have lost his touch in recent years. The Atlantis series was drivel from the first book, so I didn’t bother with the second. The Supervolcano series showed so much potential, but the second book was so dreadful, I haven’t bothered with the third. Then there’s this series, which again, had much potential, but, really, it isn’t a very alternate history.

All that said, if there is a book seven, I’ll read it. If not, I’ll probably read whatever Turtledove puts out instead next summer. Even his bad books are still better than most.

Book Review – A Million Ways to Die in the West, by Seth McFarlane


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I’ve had a great appreciation for history over the years, and the more I’ve learned the happier I am to be living in the future. The past is generally a tableau of horrible things happening and becoming slightly less horrible as time goes on. Slavery, for example, morphed into Jim Crow laws, and eventually to something like 1 out of 8 every eight black males being in prison or on probation, so that’s progress…of a sort. I suppose. Or consider women throughout history! We’ve gone from the likes of Elanor of Aquitaine and Elanor Roosevelt, as well as other women not named Elanor, to women like Sarah Palin. So…yeah…the inexorable march of progress…I guess.

Anyhow, the Old West was a particularly awful time and place, and I’ve never understood why people romanticize it as much as they do. Thankfully this book, by Seth McFarlane, best known for Seth McFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy”, is a lovely panacea to that belief.

The story centers on Albert, technically a sheep farmer (for some rather odd sheep, it must be said), but mostly a professional coward. Think of Rincewind but in the Old West. We follow him on his adventures as he experiences life, love and getting shot in the ankle. Along for the ride are characters like Edward, the humble cobbler, and his girlfriend, a rather enthusiastic prostitute whose command of sex-talk is somewhat lacking.

The book is VERY MUCH along the lines of what you’d expect from McFarlane. Swearing? Oh, yes. Weird situations. Oh, yes. Anachronisms aplenty? Oh, yes. Now if you like all those things you’ll be happy, if not, you probably won’t bother buying this book, or even reading this review, so there’s that.

I’m docking a star because while McFarlane is a great TV writer, he still needs to learn a bit about writing novels. It really seems like a screenplay where he basically cut and paste the lines into his word processor and the added “he said” when needed. Which I think is basically the case. But I did enjoy it overall, and it does make me look forward to the movie.

Also, wow, the Old West sucked.

Book Review – The Scriptlings by Sorin Suciu


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(special thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy!)

Well, here we have The Scriptlings. It’s an interesting urban fantasy story that tells the tale of a young man whose career in magic starts with his death and sort of goes from there. It also focuses on a young girl with the unfortunate name of Merkin. It’s clearly inspired by the works of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, and while the author isn’t quite up to their standard yet, he does show some promise.

As mentioned, this is a modern fantasy story, thus giving us magic in the “real world”. The magic is heavily influenced by computer programming and makes use of languages like Sumerian and Latin, something which I found to be rather interesting. I also very much enjoyed the way magic and tech are used together to create something quite a bit different from the usual fantasy fare.

The characters as well were generally enjoyable, though Buggeroff was way more interesting than the others. The setting was also rather neat. It’s fun to see a story that’s already set in Toronto so when they film the movie in Vancouver, they won’t have to change much.

I did have a few minor complaints. The use of footnotes wasn’t quite as smooth as what one gets from Pratchett, and often seemed to be unnecessary. The book could have also used a bit more editing. The writing style is extremely dense, and in many ways makes the book about 25% longer than it really needed to be.

But those complaints aside…I quite liked this story, and I feel once the author gets a few more books under his belt, he could be a major force to be reckoned with in the literary world.

Book Review – If Kennedy Had Lived, by Jeff Greefield


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It’s one of the more beguiling questions in history. What if John F. Kennedy had survived assassination and gone on to finish his first term, perhaps even winning a second? It’s a question that, obviously, we can’t ever really know the answer to, but it is fun to speculate, especially if the person doing the speculation is a good, well-informed writer who seems to know what they are talking about. Greenfield is that sort of writer.

In this book, the point of departure for history involved rain not clearing up. In our history, it had been raining in Dallas, but it stopped early enough that JFK went out in an open top vehicle. In this book, perhaps because of a butterfly in Brazil, the rain continues, and the protective canopy is put onto the car. As a result, when the bullets fly, Kennedy is grievously wounded, but survives.

From that point we progress into 1964 and beyond. The book explores things I didn’t know, like an investigation that had been focusing on Johnson right before the shooting. It also creates interesting versions of the elections in 1964 and 1968 (though frustratingly, we don’t learn who won in ’68. I’m guessing Humphrey). We also get to see Kennedy wind down the Cold War and pull out of Vietnam, which is about the only thing he pulls…oh, never mind.

The book doesn’t lionize JFK. He’s also shown selling out on the Civil Rights Act, at least initially, and it also showcase his adultery and his drug use. I liked that the book takes a balanced approach to the man.

The book also creates a wonderful view of a very different late 1960s. Without Kennedy being assassinated, and without Vietnam becoming a thing, Americans are a lot more optimistic. There is still, for example, a counter-culture, but it takes a different form.

Overall, I really liked this book. I feel that the changes the author suggest are very plausible, and that’s always important in alternate history. The fact that it’s an interesting read is icing on the cake.

Book Review – The Long War, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter


I was about a quarter of the way through The Long War which I bought on release day, started that day, and only finished yesterday, before I finally got to the stage where I couldn't put it down. The first twenty-five percent draaaaaaags. Mostly it's just moving people around, getting them into position and ready for the main story. Once that story gets going, however…

This book tells three distinct tales. There are a few other little threads, such as those of Lobsang and Sister Agnes, as well as a Chinese expedition to the 20 millionth world, but we don't see too much of these, and while the Lobsang story does have an impact on the larger narrative, as it must, it's a bit more restrained. Anyhow, the first major storyline features Joshua, back from the first book. He's now married, has a child, and is mayor of a settlement some distance away from the Datum Earth. After an incident involving a troll, Joshua heads back to the Datum to try and arrange legal protections for the creatures. He's met with a stabbing, so that's fun.

The second story involves Sally and (now retired), Police Lieutenant Jansson as they work to save the trolls from the encroachment of humanity into the far worlds. This takes them to the Gap, where they encounter a fascinating take on the space program, and returns them to a world we'd seen only briefly in the first book; a world I was glad to see more of.

The third story centers on a military expedition; an airship with her captain and crew who are traveling to the far away worlds to, essentially, show the flag and make it clear that areas in "US territory" are still part of America. They often compare themselves with Starfleet, and that's a very apt comparison, especially as the captain channels her inner Janeway on more than one occasion.

It was that last story that appealed to me the most. I had thought this was going to be the story of huge war consuming the Long Earth, and how billions would die, etc, etc. This was something I thought to be wildly implausible, and that was part of why I had a tough time getting past the opening segments. But it turned out to be something far different, with the war going exactly the way you'd expect from the man who wrote Jingo. No, there's no invading army that gets arrested, but what does happen is quite satisfactory.

Aside from my problems with the beginning of the book and the place where the Datum Earth starts and ends the story (an end point where it seems to collide full-on with a recent Harry Turtledove series), I really liked this book. It did what a sequel should, in that it furthered the characters and took what was best about the first book (the various interesting mysteries), and ditched, or played down, what was more annoying (the travelogue). What is left is a very good, solid story, and one that makes me actively anticipate the third novel.

Book Review – Two Fronts, by Harry Turtledove


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I’m beginning to think that Turtledove has tried to make a feast out of a light snack. The idea of World War II starting up early, before either side was really prepared for it, was a good one. But I’m beginning to see that without major, MAJOR twists to the timeline, it doesn’t seem to have much potential for an ongoing series.

This is book five in the “The War That Came Early” series and really, that series should have ended at around book three. Book four tried to produce the major twist to the timeline by having England and France ally with Germany, but by the end of that book, the twist was undone and there were no real consequences. That book could have been skipped entirely without really missing much of anything.

Sadly, so can this one, or at least about 95% of it can. If you want to know what happens, I’ll tell you: one character dies and gets replaced by another, something bad happens in Hawaii (though even that gets brushed aside as more annoying than anything else), and…that’s about it. There’s no real character development, which while not unusual for a Turtledove story, is particularly notable here. Almost every single character is the same place (mentally, physically and emotionally), at the end of the book as they are at the start.

And really, that’s the problem with the series as a whole at this point. Nothing really HAPPENED in this book. Oh, there were plenty of scenes and lots of battles, and of course Turtledove’s problem of telling you the same thing constantly, as well as his problems with telling you the same thing repeatedly, and his problems with constantly giving you information you have already, but there wasn’t much plot.

What’s rather annoying is that Turtledove ignores characters that have plenty of potential to be interesting. Take, as an example, Peggy’s husband, Herb. Peggy gets basically nothing to do in this novel other than sell war bonds and drink. That is not an exaggeration. That is 95% of what her character does in this book. Turtledove clearly has no idea what to do with her at this point, and hasn’t been bold enough to simply write her out.

Her husband, on the other hand…he works for the government. One of his jobs takes him to Tennessee. People who know their WWII history will know what’s significant about that location at that point in time. The outcome of what he does there is rather interesting, and has some fascinating long-term potential, as do his visits out west later on. But we don’t get to actually see any of this. Instead we get him, reluctantly, feeding bits and pieces to Peggy.

How much more interesting would it have been to have Herb as a viewpoint character? To have him actually interacting with some of the people behind the special project that’s happening? In my wildest and wettest, he might have even met, and maybe become friends with, a scientist named Jens Larsen…but, no. That doesn’t happen. Instead we see Peggy getting hit on by George Raft.

Peggy isn’t the only one that doesn’t have much to do. Heck, there’s at least two characters who I kept forgetting even exist until they pop up again in their little segments, but they’re gone quickly, and never leave any sort of an impression.

Aside from the characters, the setting is getting dull and predictable, too. The only real, major, ongoing differences between this timeline and ours is that the US hasn’t yet entered the war in Europe, and the Japanese are engaging in germ warfare. That’s it. Otherwise everything it tottling along like normal. We haven’t even seen any new and interesting weapons turn up. Imagine if the Germans had really pushed their jet fighter program? That could have made for an interesting twist, but, no. The weapons are still basically the same.

There’s still potential for Turtledove to save this series and make it interesting. It’s never going to be as fun as Worldwar, or as intricate and involved as Timeline 191 (which, for all its predictability and flaws, was at least entertaining), but there’s still room for it to really become something neat. I’d love to see something where there’s a successful coup against Hitler and he has to run to Italy, for example. Or something where Germany offers status quo ante bellum, and we then follow the next few years with a very different kind of Cold War from what we had in our timeline. Or even better yet, something totally unpredictable.

But instead I fear that will will happen is the following: by the end of book six, at least one, maybe two, allied cities will get hit by German nuclear bombs (or whatever Turtledove calls them in this series), and by the end of book seven, Berlin and Tokyo will be nuked, too, forcing an Axis surrender and leaving the timeline largely unchanged from that point on. I’d like to think that I’m wrong here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not.