Review: Specter

In Bleeder, by John Desjarlais, we were introduced to philosophy professor Reed Stubblefield, who thought in Aristotle quotes. During a bit of R and R in the countryside, in a quiet, sleepy little village right out of a Miss Marple novel, he meets a priest, the local stigmatic. When the priest is murdered, Reed becomes the primary suspect.

What follows is an intricate, brilliant work that Agatha Christie would have been happy with.  Desjarlais’ prose is tight, erudite and powerful. His vocabulary is well-used. He knows how to engage the reader, and is very good with turning a phrase.

I enjoyed this book, and I was surprised by the villain-reveal at the end. Five stars all the way.

In Viper, new names appear in the local church’s book of the dead.  Except, none of these people are dead yet. When the names on the list begin to correlate to the fresh homicides in the neighborhood, it’s clear that this is a hitlist.  At the bottom of that list is the former undercover DEA agent Selena De La Cruz. Selena’s passions are guns, shoes, fast cars, and kickboxing, so if someone wants to kill her, it’s going to be a fight they’re going to regret. It was more of a thriller than Bleeder, though it’s set in the same universe — Selena is even dating Reed. This was a fun, solid ride from start to finish.

My only problem with the book was the unrealistic character of a DEA agent who was not only racist, but whose solution to everything was a SWAT team breaking down the front door (Seriously, how did the guy not get fired? Did he have a relative in the hierarchy? Was he a nephew to the AG?).  Even that only knocks it down to a 4.5 star rating.

Finally, we come to Desjarlais’ third book, Specter. And no, not a crappy James Bond movie of a similar name.

In our opening prologue, a Cardinal is murdered in an orchestrated hit that looks like the end of a brilliantly executed caper movie … only with an assassination.  The incident is loosely based off of the death of Cardinal Ocampo in 1993, which was presumed to be the worst case of timing and luck on the planet Earth.

But what if it wasn’t?

16 years later, former undercover DEA agent Selena De La Cruz (of Viper) is about to get married to Reed Stubblefield (of Bleeder), and then the Vatican comes by and says “Hi, we think your family was in on the hit, and you were in town at the time.”

Desjarlais

And we’re off to the races.

A fun part of this is the dynamic between Reed and Selena.  Bleeder was very much Reed’s book, where Selena first appeared. Viper was all Selena, with a few cameos by Reed. Specter is their book. Even the alternating points of views (third person personal) are very distinct. Their chemistry is very much a part of the narrative as it is part of their relationship.  She’s very a very tough, outgoing modern woman who has little problem with a shootout, and he’s a quiet, bookish, old-fashioned gentleman who thinks in Aristotle quotes. And I really like these two together, even though we hadn’t seen much of their developing relationship.  Looking at the two of them deal with the trials of dealing with the wedding is more than enough evidence for why these two belong together.

There’s even one entire conversion that sums it up quite nicely.

Him “We’re incompatible. I’m North Side, you’re South Side. I’m Cubs, you’re white Sox …. I’m publicly-employed pro-union Democrat for gun control and you’re small-business owner-Republican with a gun….I drive a Volvo, you drive a Charger.”
Her: “My godmother is very traditional and is having a hard time thinking of me as Selena Perez de La Cruz Stubblefield.”
“You don’t have to adopt my last name…”

See what I mean? They work so well together, I’m surprised more of this wasn’t a romance novel.  I would have read it twice for banter like that.

Okay, the fact that John Desjarlais has a female badass teamed up with the nerd just like I did in The Pius Trilogy really doesn’t have anything to do with my enjoyment of the book. Honest. It just works really well.  It’s like Baldacci’s King and Maxwell series — they just have this great dynamic together. And if you don’t like Baldacci, don’t worry, that’s the only overlap I can think of.

As for the rest … if you’re thinking that this is going to be exactly like Bleeder or Viper, it is and it isn’t. The overall plot feels like an excuse to watch Reed and Selena on screen, which, frankly, I’m happy with. If you read Desjarlais’ books for the intricate puzzle solving (like Bleeder), you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re in this only for a knock-down shootout (like Viper), you’re going to enjoy the second half of the book a lot.

There is also the best look at supernatural phenomenon I’ve seen in years.  Even little conversations like “ever have a seance or use a ouja board? Those things attract all sorts of nasty things.”

Awesome.

However, if you want to read this book to follow Reed and Selena, dive right in.  As far as I’m concerned, these two are right up there with Nick and Nora Charles. And, from what I’ve heard, Chesterton Press wants more books in this universe from John Desjarlais, despite that it’s “just” a trilogy.

Frankly, I own all six Nick and Nora Charles movies, so I’m perfectly happy with the idea that we’ll see more of these two.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award Nominated Author for Honor At Stake, book 1 of his Love at First Bite Series.  Finn’s own work and collections of essays can be found at his personal web page.

Monster Hunter Memoirs: Sinners, a review

Image

John Ringo’s second book in the Monster Hunter Memoirs: Sinners, is both better and worse than Grunge.Our hero from the last book, Chad, is continuing his mission to be a Monster Hunting killing machine. Due to circumstances beyond his control, he has to leave Seattle, his home base in Grunge. After complaining — a lot — about never wanting to be in the heat ever again, MHI headquarters has the perfect gig for him: New Orleans. The Big Easy has got a lot of problems, and it needs all the help it can get.

Sinners does a great job of capturing the flavor of New Orleans, especially when you consider that standard policy can boil down to “Don’t scare the tourists.” Every local either believes in the dark arts, or practices the dark arts. Of course, we have at least one team member who really wants to turn every other beastie into jambalaya, shootouts in cities of the dead, and one massive shootout at marti gras.

Oh, yes, and for the record, Mr. Ringo, I saw what you did there with those chapter titles.

Another thing Ringo did better here than in Grungeis build an emotional connection to his teammates. At the end of Grunge, one of Chad’s teammates dies.  Listening to John Ringo at DragonCon, we were supposed to feel the emotional impact of the character death. I didn’t then. Here? Oh yes. Characters were much better established, and for the most part, when characters died, I felt it.

Chad also has had a interesting, as well as a deep and abiding faith. This comes very apparent at the end, with a conclusion that’s uplifting enough that it deserves the label of Superversive.

Critics of Grungewill be happy to know that Chad spends less time getting lucky and more time being pummeled. There is even less sex in this book than in Grunge, and seriously, people, he spent more time on politics than sex. And for some reason, people claimed he was a Mary Sue …. to which I will soon reply with a blog post explaining what a Mary Sue looks like, because obviously, people have little to no experience with the phenomenon. Yes, he’s a super genius who’s good at shooting people, but he’s also hospitalized every few chapters.

The only thing that’s really off-putting about this novel is the marked shift from “looking backwards.”  In Grunge, there is a lot of time spend on his family, and Ringo outright states that the larger evil behind everything Chad is fighting is Chad’s brother. This book? Nope. Barely a whisper of Chad’s family, and not a whisper about what’s the ultimate evil of the trilogy. I’m wondering how much of that is editorial, or how much was in the process of the novel. These books are thinner than Ringo’s usual fair, so if you told me he wrote them as one continuous novel, broken up into a trilogy, that would explain certain things.

Also, in Grunge, time was spent on the moral of the story: “Chad” wrote each chapter to illustrate a point. Here, there’s no such clear lesson plan; “Chad” does have “pro-tips” scattered throughout, but the concept seems strangely abandoned. Perhaps this is due to the chaotic nature of New Orleans, where every night is insane, and the full moon is like Arkham asylum let everyone out on a day pass, so Chad is merely fitting in tips where he can.

Heh, it’s a coin toss.

Final verdict is still the same: Sinnersis even better than Grunge

Anyway, if you like this review, you might want to consider one of the following books for your reading pleasure.

 

Superversive Blog: Guest Post — Where Religion and Fantasy Meet

This essay began as a post on John C. Wright’s blog. I mentioned that I’d love to post something on this subject for the Superversive Blog. And, here it is!

dore hell 5

Theologic License

by Matthew Schmidt.

An apologia before I begin. Being Christian, and more particularly Catholic, I am writing this from the perspective of a writer considering Catholic theology while writing. However, I believe the same issue will occur to anyone who is attempting to write but also is concerned about their theological accuracy, whatever their theology may be.

The problem of mixing speculative fiction with actual religion has existed since the first time Og told a ghost story around the cave’s fire, and, having returned to hunting the next day, wondered what ghosts meant for the Great Spirit. Whatever Og’s conclusion was has been lost to time, but we see it again more recently (relatively speaking) in The Divine Comedy. In the depths of Hell, Dante comes across Odysseus, who is eternally punished for attempting to reach Purgatory by the sole effort of humans. What exactly the presence of Odysseus implied for the panoply of feuding Greek divinities of the Iliad and the Odyssey, in the further reality of the True Divine, is not considered.

But while Og needed only entertain his tribesmen for a few minutes, and Dante used Odysseus as a symbol of the inadequacy of mortal powers, the modern speculative fiction author does not get off so easily.
The questions for the fantasy author have plagued the genre since Tolkien. They arrive like rubberneckers at the world’s construction site, incessantly pestering the author. If there is a fictional pantheon, are those gods “real?” Are they angelic like the Valar of Valinor, or noble beings like the Overcyns of Skai? Or are they mere frauds as Tash—a safe choice, but then Tash actually appears at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia and the issues are immediately raised. Add magic and ethical issues enter immediately, and whole essays have been written on the topic (see the excellent one by Tom Simon.)

The science fiction author can only avoid the same questions with sufficiently hard science and sufficient planning ahead. (Be sure to put three or so bishops on your generation ship to avoid issues of apostolic succession.) Reach for any other ingredient—time travel, artificial intelligence, or worse yet, extraterrestrial life—and now you have some irritating theological question, one that will devour your creative energies like a black hole.

And avoiding that singularity is the key. In my experience as a writer, attempting to write any kind of speculative fiction while staying behind every jot and tittle of established theology is futile. Fear of writing heretical ideas will do more damage to your writing than actually writing something theologically inaccurate.

After all, by the very definition of fiction, we write of things which God did not do. For Divine Wisdom did not see fit to make Mars habitable to life, allow steam to be able to power giant battle mechs, give information the ability to travel faster than light, or open doors to adjacent dimensions on a convenient schedule. Even “literary” fiction cannot escape this, as whenever it invents an character or happening that does not exist, it tells of an option that the Creator did not take. This leaves only fiction which describes events exactly as they happened, i.e. nonfiction.

But suppose you are willing to stretch the bounds of theology. Should you create a new theology to encompass your alterations? It depends. I’ve found that attempting to construct a sound theology for an idea before using it, unless this is actually relevant to the story, is also pointless, and also hamstringing. There was no point in Lewis breaking off onto a discourse on what Tash actually was in the middle of The Last Battle. At the same time, had he never considered what Jesus would be like in a world like Narnia, we would never have Aslan.

But let us return to Dante for a moment. The Divine Comedy is inaccurate in multiple ways, even setting aside the unexplained existence of various figures of Greek myth. The Catholic Church does not teach anyone specific is in Hell, let alone their location and specific punishment, and Dante must have been well aware of this. But the point of the Inferno is not to map judgments to sinners, or a soapbox for Dante to place his adversaries in eternal damnation. The Inferno depicts the soul of the unjust, and whatever liberties it takes to do this are to show poetic truths, not theological ones. Odyesseus is placed where he is to show the inadequacy of natural powers to reach the supernatural.

But could Dante had succeeded if he had stayed within the boundaries of theology? No. There was no one more suited to attempt Purgatory than Odysseus, and fail. Had Dante even invented another figure, that figure would require his own odyssey, which, to have the same power, would require yet more theological inaccuracies to create dangers against which mortal strength could prevail. Only then could this new Odysseus fail against the supernatural.

In that sense, even the Odyssey must contain poetic truths, no matter its pantheon. So, too, can we bring a great many works into the realm of the holy things.

But how far can we stretch this?

I will now take an example from the world of videogames. Of all the games I have ever played, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor: Overclocked is by far the most blasphemous. Aside from the game-enforced necessity of summoning demons (in the post-apocalyptic Tokyo of the game’s dark plot), and the consequentialism which drenches every “choice”, its greatest offense against sound theology is its “God.” The theology of “God” (as identified by the direct use of the Divine Name) is bizarre and contradictory, both shown as an omnipotent Judeo-Christian Deity and also only a most powerful being that overpowered the previous most powerful being. Said “God” is as if from the Old Testament filtered through a pagan lens: no mercy for sins, no remorse over doing evil to do good, and no ability to raise the dead. (Not even the Messiah can raise the dead, one character says to another in one scene.)

But even despite that theology, and the extreme liberties which the game takes with biblical stories, even then there is a kind of poetic truth that would have been lost with a more accurate theology. Only if resorting to the use of demons, and only if demons are powerful, can it speak of the desire of power and its abuse. Only with the pagan need to justify blood with blood can it offer the choices it does, which sacrifice a few for the many. And only if God would create a paradise on Earth through violence would there be any reason against joining Him, and only if God could possibly be defeated would there by any reason for attempting to oppose Him. By a bad theology, it makes that final real choice: paradise of ruthless order, or hellscape of freedom. And even with all its darkness, at the very end of one of the last battles comes one of the most moving scenes I have ever seen in a game, a true eucatastrophy.

Do I recommend anyone go as far as DSO? No. I think there are ways to tell a similar story with much less darkness, and far less blasphemy. But such a different story would only be able to tell different truths. Yet, while different, possibly better.

And that is my final advice. What matters not is if a work fiction bends the truth. What matters is the truth it tells. A story can be utterly, and knowingly, inaccurate, yet still show a beauty it could not otherwise. Or, I believe, a story can stay within the boundaries of theology, and show nothing but evil. (For even demons believe there is a God.) And that is determined not by studying theology, or ignoring it, but hearing the call of Beauty in the wild.

For more about our author: http://oandhbooks.theinspiredinstructor.com/

 

Why Spock mattered

The National Catholic Register has an article up called Why ‘Star Trek’ — and Mr. Spock — Matters and it is an interesting read.

I think my earliest memory of Star Trek is of an episode I watched at my grandparents’ house, a rerun of “Arena” — the original series episode pitting William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk against a hissing, reptilian alien captain of a race called the Gorn.
To a young kid in the 1970s, the Gorn was terrifying in the way that the Sleestak on Land of the Lost were terrifying, slow and inhuman and incalculable behind a rigid, inexpressive mask. (A few years ago, I showed “Arena” to my kids, and there was much hooting and merriment at the first appearance of the Gorn, who looks much cheesier on our widescreen TV than I remember him on my grandparents’ console television. “Taste my foam rubber fist!” my oldest son chortled. Kids these days.)
But “Arena” was about more than going toe-to-toe with a menacing adversary in a dragon mask. It was ultimately about the power of technology — not just the shiny, now-quaintly futuristic technology of creator Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s vision of the 23rd century, but about the technological leaps that got us there. Specifically, it was about the importance of the discovery of gunpowder.
“Arena” was also about a moral leap — the leap from self-interest and concern for one’s kin and clan to universal empathy and compassion. “By sparing your helpless enemy, who surely would have destroyed you,” Kirk is told in the end by a super-powerful alien sitting in judgment, “you demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy — something we hardly expected. We feel there may be hope for your kind.”

Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/why-star-trek-and-mr-spock-matters?utm_content=buffercebc7&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer#.VPbXAfmUcyN#ixzz3TPg6UXxp