the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘military

the-narrator-ciscoThe Narrator, by Michael Cisco

published in 2010

where I got it: received free e-book, and then purchased a new print copy





It’s the atmospheric beauty of Sofia Samatar’s A Stanger in Olondria, combined with the dense verbal wordplay and visual magic of China Mieville’s Embassytown,and gilded with the lyrical poetry of a Catherynne Valente,  Michael Cisco’s The Narrator is a very special book for a long list of reasons.


I don’t gravitate towards military fiction. I don’t even like military non-fiction.  Neither does Low, the protagonist of The Narrator. As he says on the first page of the novel:


“An army is a horror. It’s a horrible thing. They say you might change your mind about that when the country is invaded and your people are suffering wrong, but for me this is all just more horror, more army-horror.”


He’s a student, he shouldn’t ever have been drafted. But drafted he got, and off he went to a war he knew nothing about in a place he never wanted to go.  Why didn’t he just run, or hide, you ask? Because he fell under the view of a Edek, creatures who need a human handler to function in our societies. Once an Edek sees you, you will never be unseen.


This novel is solid prose poetry and literary experimentation.  That makes it sound uppity I know, but The Narrator is a surprisingly easy book to read for how dense it can feel. Every page is illuminated with metaphor and alliteration and grammar that shouldn’t work but it does and words that sent me to the dictionary, words like ambuloceti, velleity, clayx, and quiring.  Choose any page, any paragraph, and you’ll find a miniature work of art surrounded by a million other miniature works of art.


As a trained narrator,  Low’s profession is part biographer, part translator, part bard.  He speaks many languages, and knows the unique linguistic quirks of each. He has even been trained in the arcane arts of creating personal alphabets. He’s a scholar, not a soldier.  This forced journey he is on will make him, or unmake him. Or perhaps a bit of both.


On an almost Gene Wolfe Severian-esque journey to the muster site, Low finds himself on the death-worker side of the city and has a strange affair with a mysterious woman who has been accused of horrible crimes.  Once he joins up with his unit, they end up at a mental institution / prison to recruit what functioning adults are left who can be made into soldiers. And then, into the war zone and towards an island with a mysterious interior that outsiders never return from.  Every minute, Low wants to run. He wants no part of this war that makes no sense.  This is a story of Low’s misery, of his coming to be comfortable with the inevitable.


Jeff Vandermeer wrote the introduction to this edition of The Narrator, and it was through Vandermeer’s Shriek: An Afterword that I learned of the literary trick of describing the grotesque via the sublime while at the same time leaving seemingly important details purposely out away in the periphery.   As a lover of metaphors and adjectives that are not known for working together, Vandermeer was and Cisco is speaking my language. That is to say, if you like Vandermeer, you’ll really like Michael Cisco.

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city of blades RJBCity of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Published January 2016

where I got it: Received ARC from the publisher (thanks Broadway Books!)







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Two asides, by method of introduction:


Robert Jackson Bennett knows how to make a damn good sandwich.


I find mythology tragic, yet addictive. It’s like a scab I can’t stop picking at, a trainwreck I can’t look away from. The more we tell these beloved and culturally powerful stories, the more we trap their inhabitants. One of my favorite examples of this is Loki (Fenrir is another).  He is trapped in his destiny, he can’t make other choices or do other things, even if he wanted to. And every time his story is told, the shackles get tighter. As storytellers, we need him to be a particular archetype, we need him to act a certain way, to be a certain lever of the world as we know it. Because otherwise, the myth wouldn’t have the desired effect.

Mythologies are cultural artifacts of incalculable value, and as we gain strength and inspiration from their telling  we enslave the characters within the myth, because we know how the story has to end.


Confused yet? Excellent. Let’s talk about City of Blades.

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City of Blades is both a very easy book to talk about, and yet a very difficult one.  It easily falls into my favorite category of books, those “that aren’t what they say they are about”, which makes it very easy to talk about without spoiling important plot bits. However, it is hard to talk about, because there are intimacies and honesties in this book that as a reader, I feel I have been trusted with. I do not want to betray that trust by mis-speaking about someone’s experiences.   I just realized I am treating Bennett’s characters as if they are real people. I talk about not wanting to betray someone’s trust, yet that someone is a fictional character, whose life and secrets are available to anyone who wishes to turn the pages of her life. You know what? I like thinking about Turyin Mulaghesh as a real person.  It’s a comfort, to give that kind of weight to her life, and to the lives of the other characters in the book.


Both this new novel, and it’s predecessor City of Stairs, reminded me a little of Cordwainer Smith – as in both Smith and Bennett flat out refuse to follow any of the expected and so-called “rules” of the genre in which they are writing. Both authors write as if there simply are no rules or conventions, as if no one ever took them aside and said “you know you’re not supposed to present this type of story this way, right?”. With City of Blades, Bennett takes it one step further and joins Seth Dickinson in dragging an eraser through the genre, erasing the so called rules and conventions.

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I don’t always read manga, but when I do, it’s usually Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa. I got my first taste of this way back in the early 2000’s, and I’ve been following it ever since.

Ten years and 27 volumes later, two anime series, a movie and more t-shirts and fake tattoos than I want to think about, my journey with the Elric Brothers has come to an end.  Nearly my entire adult life, a small part of my mind has constantly been revolving around this series: waiting for the next issue, getting frustrated when the story moved too fast or too slow, masochistically smiling when every issue ended in a cliffhanger and I had to wait 6 months (at least!) for the next one, my shifting character crushes, losing my squeamishness towards prosthetics and amputation, etc. And unlike the jerk at the grocery store who insisted on telling me what happens at the end even though I asked him not to, this post has no spoilers. Just lots and lots of background.

More than you ever wanted to know about:

The Story

Once upon a time, there were two brothers, the elder named Edward and the younger named Alphonse. They lived with their mother and were happy. Sometimes she got this sad look on her face, especially when she thought about their father, who had abandoned them. The two brothers would do anything to make their mother smile. They studied the alchemy book their father left behind, using their new found science based magic to fix things around the house, make new toys, and make their mother smile. Alchemical transmutation was so easy, all you needed was the parts of the whole – a broken toy, a bowl of sand, a lump of metal, and you could make anything of equal element and mass – a fixed toy, a piece of glass, a new frying pan.

And then she got sick. And when she died, the brothers blamed her illness on their absent father. If only he had been there, they could have afforded a better doctor. If only he had been there, her sadness and loneliness wouldn’t have led to illness.  In the alchemy books of their father was the secret and dangerous answer. Human transmutation: take all the elements and pieces of a human body, salt and carbon and phosphorus and blood and water and everything else, and transmute the pieces into the whole. Bring their mother back, see her smile again.

But there is a reason human transmutation is forbidden, a reason it is hidden in code words and secret symbols in the alchemy texts.  Edward and Alphonse were too naive to realize why it should never be attempted. I won’t go into the details of the disaster, but the alchemical accident left Edward missing an arm and a leg, and left Alphonse as nothing but a soul attached by blood rune to a suit of armor.

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Soldier Son, Book 1: Shaman’s Crossing, by Robin Hobb

published: 2006

Where I got it: purchased new

Why I read it:  I enjoyed Hobb’s Farseer series and wanted to read more of her books.

I can give you a simple summary of the plot of Shaman’s Crossing, the first book in Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy, and I guarantee, it will sound simple. I also guarantee this novel is far from simple.

In the traditional and conservative land of Gernia, the aspirations of noble sons are predetermined by their birth order. First sons are heirs, second sons are soldiers, third sons are priests, and so on. After a recent and bloody war with their neighbors, the King elevated his most celebrated military commanders to the title of Lord, making them equal in status to not only their older brothers, but the old nobility as well.

Nevare Burvelle is the second son of one such elevated veteran. Living on a frontier estate, Nevare is naïve of how the old noble families view “upstarts” such as his father. These frontier estates are often the only thing between the civilized cities of Gernia and the nomadic Plainsmen and the aborigine Speckled peoples of the mountains.

Nevare is a perfect son. He is loyal, honest and obedient. These things make for a good soldier, but his father has greater plans for him. In an effort to make Nevare break out of his quiet shell of obedience and learn to think for himself, his father sends him to learn from a Plainsman named Dewara. Part of Nevare’s “education” with the savage Dewara is a spirit journey, in which things go either very wrong, or very right, depending on how you look at it.

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I originally reviewed this book here for SFRevu.

The Ashtheans have never known hatred, they have never known murder, they have never known distrust. The Earthlings bring them all these things, and such gifts can never be taken back.

On the edges of human colonized space, lies the planet Ashthe, or as the humans call it, New Tahiti. Soldiers, most ill equipped to be ambassadors to another race, are put in charge on a local level, told they have so many years until the colonists arrive, and told to make the island ready for human habitation. Far away from their central government, the soldiers can pretty much do whatever they want with no repercussions. And they do.

When the Ashtheans fight back with violence, the invaders are flabbergasted. They’ve brought civilization to these pathetic creatures, these creechies, how dare they fight back? What’s their problem? The problem is that the Earthlings refuse to believe this diminutive, undomesticated race could possibly be their equals in sentience or intelligence.
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Jon always works alone. Correction, Jon and his uberintelligent ship Lobo always come as a team, but after the contract is up, they are gone. Because Jon has a secret. And it’s not that Lobo is far more intelligent than he has any right to be. That’s an entirely different secret.

Jon and Lobo are asked by an old friend Alissa Lim to help infiltrate and liberate a rebel camp on the planet Tumani, currently in the throws of civil war. Tumani might be a backwater now, but it’s location puts it on the border of two colonizing coalitions, and a very wealthy investor has decided this planet needs to be ready when the coalitions realize how important it is. The rebel forces have been ravaging the jungles – burning villages, killing adults and girl children, and taking the boys hostage, addicting them to drugs and turning them into children soldiers. The mission Jon and the team agree to is to liberate a camp of nearly 500 children soldiers, and help rehab the kids until they can be reunited with their families. Or adopted into new families, since their parents are probably dead.

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FTC Stuff

some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.