Review: A Dream Of Empire

A Dream Of Empire

A recent work of alternate history by someone with the pen name “Grey Wolf”, A Dream of Empire is about a war between 19th Century Britain and a surviving Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire. There are lots of characters. And there are airships. Because this is an alternate history work set in the 1800s, there has to be airships.

This isn’t bad, but it feels a little overstuffed and shallow. It’s trying to be a “big war thriller” and a spy thriller, but that’s hard to do with something that’s one third the length of a normal book, much less a big and sweeping one. That’s the literary critique. The alternate history nerd critique is that a Byzantine Empire surviving, Victorian semi-steampunk, and airships are all genre archetypes, if not cliches.

You could do a lot worse for the very low purchase price than this book. But it could have also been a lot more and a lot better than what it actually was.

Review: A History of Cavalry From The Earliest Times

A History of Cavalry From The Earliest Times

Now long since in the public domain (the first edition was in 1877 and later ones were published to 1913), George Denison’s A History of Cavalry From the Earliest Times was a look back at thousands of years of mounted operations. It’s an interesting time capsule. The aim was a sincere chronicle of cavalry and a look forward into an age of increased firepower. It’s a successful one given the limitations of the time.

The biggest problem, besides a 19th Century perspective on the world, is that Denison only had famous text sources to work with. Still, you can’t blame someone for being a product of their time or not having resources that only emerged later on. And he gets both important analyses essentially right. The first is how the role of mobile forces hasn’t really changed for thousands of years. Even if they swapped their horses for motorized vehicles. The second is how firepower and lethality was increasing, with him citing vastly higher casualties in recent (as of publication) battles compared to earlier ones with muzzleloaders.

Of course, the flame of cavalry would be briefly extinguished when offense against it rose massively by 1914 while defense did not. But another vehicle would soon pick up the torch. In any event, this is a good piece of classical military history.

Review: The Burma Wars

The Burma Wars

Because Myanmar/Burma features so prominently in my current novel draft, I figure I’d look at George Bruce’s The Burma Wars , a history of the British conquest. There were three large Anglo-Burmese wars, but Bruce mostly concentrates on the first. This is understandable, as the latter two were uninteresting squashes.

Bruce is every bit the Empire fan you’d expect a British pop-historian of the 1970s to be, but he still gives the Burmese credit when due. They were comparably armed, had a knack for building fortifications quickly, and the Anglo-Indian force that went against them was logistically troubled and questionably led. And yet, the British still eventually won, and it only got better/worse from there.

I wouldn’t make an old piece of popular history the sole source on any big historical event, but this at least made for a good starting point. I’m glad I read it.

Review: Edison’s Conquest of Mars

Edison’s Conquest of Mars

From energy guns to ancient aliens building ancient civilization megastructures, a lot of sci-fi tropes originated in Edison’s Conquest of Mars. Besides that, this book is fascinating because of how min-max it is. A sequel to War of the Worlds bootlegs (it’s a bit of a long story), author Garrett Serviss made-something.

On one hand, the prose is terrible and flat even by 19th Century standards. It’s a self-promoting effort by the title character/famous person. The plot goes against Wells’ theme to a ridiculous extent. The most ridiculous elements seem mundane when actually described. It was originally a short-form serial and it shows in the writing.

And yet so much of the sci-fi cheap thriller was started, or at least popularized here. This, is very much like seeing a video game or movie that’s at the very, very beginning of its genre. It looks horrifically crude in comparison to its later successors, but you have to start somewhere.

Review: White Jacket

White Jacket

So, the time has come to review someone I probably didn’t think I’d be reviewing when I started the blog-Herman Melville and his naval book White-Jacket.

Now, I’ve used the term “Herman Melville for _______” to describe fiction that is overly descriptive at the expense of other things , ie “Team Yankee occasionally devolves into Herman Melville for tanks”. Thus, White Jacket is Herman Melville for Herman Melville. To be fair a lot of 19th century novels are like that, it’s just the writing style of the time, but Melville particularly stands out.

Even at the time, Melville didn’t think very highly of this book, viewing it as something done purely for the money. Even a century and a half apart, I can see the reasoning “Ok, I need a book done, I’ll just slightly fictionalize my experience in the US Navy and send it to the printers.”

White-Jacket, in spite of its clunkiness, manages to stand out for two reasons. The first is its historical value in the life of a 19th century sailor and the operations of the US Navy at the time. The second is that yes, it’s realistic. You want a truly realistic military story, something like this with modern technology is what you’re going to get. I’ve said only part-jokingly that a truly realistic military video game wouldn’t be ARMA , it’d be Desert Bus. This is why I’m not a stickler for realism in literature.