Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

The War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714, by James Falkner

Precis: A good work on a now-obscure war recommended for readers who enjoy military and diplomatic history, or who have an interest in European history of the Eighteenth century.

Main Review: If one were to summarize the War of the Spanish Succession in the most cynical manner, one might put it thus: “Two old men get into a fight over whose grandson gets to be king of Spain, thousands die, little changes.”

One would not be far off.

Of course, the war had deeper issues than that. The crisis began when King Charles II of Spain, the sickly and bizarre last of the Spanish Habsburgs, died in 1700 without a direct heir. He had named as heir Philip of Anjou, the grandson of his older sister and King Louis XIV. If Philip for some reason refused, the next named heir was Archduke Charles of Austria, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and, through his mother, grandson of King Philip III of Spain, making him Charles II’s cousin.

Being made to trace a Habsburg family tree might well be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

In any event, both men claimed the throne at the urging of their respective monarchs, King Louis XIV and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. The strategic stakes were actually enormous for both realms: for nearly two hundred years, French foreign policy had striven to prevent a union of the two powerful crowns, which would have left them surrounded. The Spanish Empire, though in decline, was fabulously wealthy, and that wealth, in the hands of a vigorous Habsburg at the head of the reunited House, would poses a mortal danger to France. Thus Louis was anxious to see his grandson take the throne, both to prevent that union and get his own grubby paws on all that wealth.

On the other hand, the Austrian Habsburgs wanted the Spanish throne and empire for similar reasons: to counter France and to provide more money and troops for their struggle with the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans.

And then there was England, first under King William III and then Queen Anne, and the Dutch republic. Both had reasons for wanting to weaken Spain and carve off pieces of its Empire, as well as preventing France from gaining control of Spain, the prospect of which probably had the leaders of both lands waking up screaming from nightmares. Thus they backed the claim of Archduke Charles.

And so with Spain in a regency, both sides gathered allies, lined up, and declared war in 1701. A war that would last 14 years, until treaties get signed, Philip gets to keep his throne, some minor territorial changes take place, France winds up broke, and everyone takes a breather until the next war.

Falkner does a good job telling the story of the war and its diplomacy, going year by year and the many fronts: the Rhine region, the Spanish Netherlands (largely today’s Belgium), Italy, and Spain and Portugal. He describes the campaigns and how the commanders fought them, covering battles and sieges, and the diplomacy and strategy of both Louis, on the one hand (for he was decidedly the senior partner in the Franco-Spanish alliance), and the “Grand Alliance” on the other.

But it is a work of pure military history, and thus rather dry for that. Also, the war dragged on for so that, that the reader might well find himself sighing and thinking “Look, it’s over. Just cut a deal already.” If one is looking for how the war affected the societies of the principals, one will find little of that. For me that was fine, as I wanted to learn more about the war itself. The book is heavily footnoted, but these are mostly citations, not explanatory notes. Also, the lack of more than a few maps was unhelpful, particularly when reading about major battles, such as Blenheim and Ramillies. Still, the descriptions are not hard to follow.

One section I greatly appreciated was Appendix III, which provides brief biographies of key players in the war, including what happened to them after it ended. It was the biography of the Duke of Berwick, the illegitimate son of King James II of England and his mistress, Arabella Churchill (thus making him a relative of Winston Churchill, I believe), and one of King Louis’ best generals (his father having been deposed and forced to flee in 1688), that provided my favorite quote:

“Having lived in semi-retirement for some time, Berwick was recalled to service by King Louis XV to campaign in the War of the Polish Succession. At the siege of Phillipsburg, on 12 June 1734, he was decapitated by a roundshot thought to have been fired in error by his own gunners.

Should have stayed in retirement, Your Grace.

I read The War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714 in Kindle format and I’m happy to report I found it well-formatted and typo-free. Too often, Amazon lets sloppy publishers publish shoddy work.

Recommended, with the caveat that it is most likely to appeal to those with a strong interest in military history per se.

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When Paul Johnson writes biography, the intent is not simply to recount the facts of someone’s life: it is didactic. Johnson is an historian who intends to teach a lesson with this writings, to show us what we should draw from the subject’s life, works, and thoughts to better our own lives.

Thus it is with Johnson’s biography of Socrates, the first and perhaps still the greatest of the moral philosophers. Rather than a dry recitation of what we know of Socrates’s life and works, Johnson looks at themes in Socrates’ life –bravery; his love for Athens; an absolute commitment to doing what was right and just; and irony– and uses them to illustrate those things that should be valuable in our own lives, and thus improve our lives for being valued. Johnson reads much into the texts and context, sometimes making assumptions and presenting them as facts because he’s sure they must be true, and there is the occasional odd error, but the broad lessons Johnson teaches (or, rather, relates what Socrates taught) and the beauty in his writing make them forgivable. The Kindle version is clean, with no typos that I could spot, though it is rather expensive for such a  short book.

Recommended as an introduction to the person, to help make the philosophy more accessible.

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One of the time-honored genres of science fiction and fantasy literature involves men from Earth who suddenly find themselves on other worlds, whether through super-science, magic, or mysticism, rather than visiting as, say, a “normal” space traveler. The most famous early example would be Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” series, but among others are Lin Carter’s “Green Star” books and Andre Norton’s “Witch World” series. In the modern age, the popularity of games such as Dungeons and Dragons in the late 70s and 80s helped revive the genre, with books such as Norton’s “Quag Keep,” Joel Rosenberg’s “Guardians of the Flame” series (especially book 1), and Brian Daley’s “Coramonde” books.

“Starfollowers of Coramonde” is the second of two books, sequel to “Doomfarers of Coramonde,” which introduces us to Gil McDonald, an American soldier fighting in Vietnam. One moment, McDonald and his armored personnel carrier crew are fighting an enemy ambush, and the next they’re in combat with a dragon. (Spoiler: APCs beat dragons. Barely.) McDonald and his men learn they’ve been summoned by magic to Coramonde, a kingdom under grave threat from the evil wizard Yardiff Bey. McDonald chooses to remain behind in the world and helps to restore the rightful ruler, Prince Springbuck, to his throne, foiling Yardiff Bey’s plot. “Doomfarers” ends with Yardiff Bey escaping and taking with him as prisoner Dunstan the Berserker, Gil’s friend.

“Starfollowers” picks up soon thereafter, with Gil, Springbuck, and their friends and allies deciding to take the war to Yardiff Bey and his masters. McDonald and a small party head west to return a magic sword and an infant heir to the land of Vegana, currently under siege by the enemy, as well as to investigate what it is that Yardiff Bey seeks in a long-dead wizard’s writings. Meanwhile, Prince Springbuck forgoes responding to the attacks on his own land and instead leads an army to the lands of the enemy and the city of Shardisku-Salama, wherein reside Yardiff Bey’s masters.

And therein lies the problem with “Starfollowers of Coramonde.” After that set up, the book becomes one long pursuit and series of battles leading to a climactic confrontation in front of the city, itself. The large cast of new characters is thinly drawn, and it is assumed that the reader has all the background information he needs on existing characters from reading the first book. Thus there is little to capture one’s interest and give one a reason to care if one is reading “Starfollowers” first. Without the ground laid in “Doomfarers,” this becomes a rather standard fantasy quest.

But it is well done and enjoyable nonetheless. Mr. Daley showed promise as a writer, even with the occasional tendency toward a Gygaxian abuse of the thesaurus, and it’s a shame he died relatively early in his career. His setting in Coramonde is interesting, and I would like to have seen it developed further. And, similar to other books of that time, I have to wonder if this was the author’s home D&D setting. If so, I would have enjoyed playing there.

I read the book in Kindle format and was disappointed in the quality of the file. There are simply too many typos that could have been fixed with decent proofreading. Not enough to spoil the book or make it impossible to read, but enough to be an annoyance. The publisher should issued a copy-edited revision. There is also a paperback copy available.

On a scale of one to five, I give “Starfollowers of Coramonde” a straight three: enjoyable, but best read if one reads “Doomfarers” first. However, I recommend just that: buy both and sit back for a good late-summer’s read.

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I’m a great fan of fantasy and science-fiction, much preferring it to “mainstream” fiction. Give me spaceships or wizards any day over the adventures of desperate suburban housewives or men trapped in a job they hate. So it struck me as odd the realize I had never read much of the work of a writer regarded as one of the greats of the Pulp era of “weird fiction,” Clark Ashton Smith. I’d of course seen him referred to in other works, such as Fritz Leiber’s “Our Lady of Darkness,” and knew that he was friends with one of my favorite authors, H.P. Lovecraft, even contributing elements of Lovecraft’s bleak fictional universe, but I don’t recall ever actually reading Smith’s stories.

So it was, after reading several posts and comments full of effusive praise for Smith at James Maliszewski’s Grognardia blog and after mostly enjoying a small folio of three of his stories, that I decided to dive into the deep end and read a collection of what were regarded as his best stories, “The Return of the Sorcerer.”

My one-word review: Ugh.

Okay, okay. That requires some explanation.

The tales contained in Return… come from a time when the barrier between fantasy and science fiction wasn’t as strong as it is today, and so elements of both would often mix in a story, as in “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” or “The Chain of Aforgomon, both stories in Return… . That’s representative of the period and something I enjoy quite a bit. Burrough’s John Carter stories on Mars do the same and are quite a lot of fun.

However, two things ruin this collection for me: pathetic endings that break the rules of good storytelling and Clark’s language. That last is sure to be the most controversial assertion in this review, so I’ll deal with the question of endings, first.

There was a convention in weird fiction of the time that one could end a story, not with a real conclusion, but with an ending that the reader left wondering at the horror and… weirdness of it all. “Weird,” in the older, more poetic sense of things strange and unnatural, not that which leaves one puzzled and thinking “that’s weird.” Lovecraft often did that, and it mostly works fine. In the stories in Return… however, Smith often crosses over to the latter, ending a story with something that doesn’t leave one with a satisfying sense of wonder, but rather with the urge to throw the book across the room in frustration. Which is exactly how I felt at the end of “The Seven Geases:” the protagonist suffers a mors ex machina that literally had me saying “That’s it?” aloud. This is the worst example in the book, though several others had similarly unsatisfying endings.

But what really killed my enjoyment of Smith’s stories was Smith’s prose. This, I know, will be heresy to some, but it’s true. Smith was a poet and, as James observes in in an appreciation of Smith on the anniversary of his birth:

In particular, CAS reminds us of the power of words to transport us to other places and times and to induce in us feelings and moods. Smith began his literary career as a poet, which is why so many of his stories are better understood as prose poems rather than as narratives in the traditional sense. That’s not say that Smith’s stories are devoid of plot, but plot is often secondary to the evocation of emotion in the reader through the use of exotic language. Critics of Smith’s approach deem his vocabulary unnecessarily ornate and they would be correct if one were to indulge in a steady diet of such language. But, as a “palate cleanser,” such language is both useful and inspirational.

I’ll have to demur, with respect. Even in very small doses, I found Smith’s prose florid and often pretentious, indeed precious. Smith regularly indulges in circumlocutions that had me more than once muttering “Will you please get to the damn point.”  Perhaps that reflects a failing on my part as reader, an impatience that makes me ill-suited to Smith’s writings. It’s worth noting that I don’t often appreciate poetry, either. Others may well enjoy Smith prose — in fact, many do. In my defense, I offer my enjoyment of H.P. Lovecraft’s works, which often engaged in similar “purple prose.” Why I should like Lovecraft while reacting badly to Smith is a mystery to me; perhaps it has to do with discovering Lovecraft in my teen years and having fond memories from that time, whereas I came to Smith only recently and thus I wasn’t willing to “cut him some slack.” Maybe, but I still think Smith’s use of language is inordinately self-indulgent.

So, given I disliked Return… so much, was there anything I liked? Sure. Many of the stories, such as the aforementioned “Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” and the eponymous “The Return of the Sorcerer” contain great ideas for fans of roleplaying games, whether fantasy, science-fiction, or horror. Often I found myself being intrigued by a concept Smith introduced, but wishing it had been written by his contemporary, Robert E. Howard. And, should I ever again gamemaster a RPG campaign, I’ll surely come back to the tales in The Return of the Sorceror as an “idea mine.” But for enjoyable reading? No, not when the first word that comes to mind is “chore.”

Summation: Recommended with strong reservations.

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