A Month of Books: March

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: This is my second attempt on Ancillary Justice. The first one, I hadn’t been in the right mood to enjoy it, and the shifting between timelines frustrated me more than it enticed me. Second attempt, and I devoured it in a few days. The world-building in this is spectacular, though there is a bit of a learning curve. You’re dropped in the middle of things and the story just goes, filling in the world-building as it becomes necessary and, even then, not all of it. Some things remain vague, some things go unexplained, and I personally delighted in having a world (well, worlds) that I could puzzle over. However, that “drop you in the middle” is honestly why my first attempt at this book didn’t go much beyond the first flashback. Which brings up the other potential hurdle: it’s told in a split-timeline structure with the past and the present trading off chapters between them. In some ways, it helped make the past (and betrayals of the past) more immediate; in others, I’m fairly certain that structure is the reason it took me almost a week to read to the point that the past timeline falls off and the narrative remains entirely in the present. Once it narrowed down to one timeline, the rest of the book zipped by (true, there’s also the investment element in there; by that point, I needed to know what happened next). Now, I’m not sure if I truly called the betrayal, or if I’d somehow absorbed knowledge of it when it’d been nominated, but I didn’t find the past storyline as compelling since I knew where it was going, though I didn’t see the why behind the betrayal. The eventual payoff is worth the wait, though.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: The scope narrows here, going from a massive quest for revenge across an empire to a single space station in orbit around a single planet, though with a much larger cast of characters than the first book. I will be entirely honest, this review isn’t much of a review because I read this one weeks ago and failed to write a review immediately upon finishing, and then COVID-19 happened and my perception of time has turned into dripping molasses, while simultaneously making everything that happened prior to two weeks ago feel like it happened last year. The thing I remember most clearly in this was how so many of the secondary characters on the ship go by title/rank rather than by name and yet, I could tell them apart so easily, the characterization of them was so strong. More and more, however, I do wonder if, perhaps, the guessing of the characters’ gender/sex might be the wrong approach; the more I read, the more I started to feel that the singular pronoun freed characters to act in stereotypical gendered ways without it being a reflection (or subversion) of gender, and the more I read, the more my mental image of the characters flowed. It was an intriguing experience, and though it took me two books to get used to it, I appreciate the approach.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: Ah, and the conclusion. One highlight was definitely Seivarden’s outrage over the suppurating cuticles oath. That, and how brilliant Station is and its way of leveraging Anaander in order to keep its citizens safe. Spoilers perhaps, but the end is a bit more open-ended than I’d prefer for a trilogy. The main conflict set up in Ancillary Justice doesn’t, precisely, get resolved. The civil war is still waging. Hypothetically, it might become more difficult for said civil war to continue quite the same way as it did before a certain event at the end of Ancillary Mercy, but it isn’t resolved. I was also a bit surprised that the concept of cloning ancillaries didn’t come up before the very end and it was…not so much dealt with as tabled for later discussion…except, this is the final book, so I suppose it’s up to us, the readers, to decide how that turns out?

A Conjuring of Assassins by Cate Glass: Oooooh, I’ve been waiting for this one for months! And then, when it arrived, I was in the middle of reading a trilogy, so set it aside to finish the Ancillary series first, ’cause I’m not blessed with one of those minds that does well with multiple immersive speculative novels being read at once. Much like the first book, A Conjuring of Assassins takes a little bit to get going, and there is some recap sections that if you’re reading the two back-to-back, might tempt one to skim, but once the mystery of Cinque is answered, the pace picks up and it’s spies and magic and grand con games in order to get closer to the Chimera’s target (the Assassins List). There is also more of a hint of the epic in this one. In the first book, there’s an unanswered mystery that could lend itself to epic fantasy, but here, it’s more overt, and the introduction of Teo (and Teo’s mystery) feels very much reminiscent (and pleasantly so) of the writer’s other epic fantasy series under the name Carol Berg (that hint of the epic, of the almost divine, of magic being otherworldly and beyond human understanding, of parallel worlds, of mind-speech). I look forward to seeing where things go in the next book, and what exactly is magic, and how does it tie in with the long-vanished gods? As a side note, it was both weird and unnerving to read a book so heavily based on Renaissance Italy while simultaneously watching news of the epidemic in Italy as it unfolded.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig: Confession: one trope that I absolutely adore is the one of the old and possibly world-weary immortal/near immortal with centuries of memory interacting with the modern (or near modern) world*–bonus points if there’s a love story (not necessarily romantic love; found family love or platonic love are under-explored with this trope, in my opinion). How to Stop Time somehow managed to slip by under my radar until now, and it’s an exemplar of the trope. I did find the major twist somewhat predictable, but didn’t mind it so much. The romance angle is a great deal more downplayed than what the back cover blurb promised (which was fine). It’s more a story of Tim engaging with the world, realizing that his pattern of isolation and being a recluse isn’t working for him anymore, and that his will to live is slowly, but surely, becoming walled in by fear (of discovery, of death, of change), stoked by Henrich, another alba (or very long lived individual). Much like Ancillary Justice, How to Stop Time uses a dual-timeline structure, though this one is aided by the time period being firmly set in Earth historical past. There is, as a note, far more “past” flashback chapters than “present,” and much of the present is quieter, more introspective. The final resolution of the book’s external conflict is a little ho-hum, but then, it wasn’t really about the external conflict, but the internal one. A small warning, but much of the book has a low-key hum of depression throughout, even though it ends on a rather hopeful note. I, personally, found this resonated with me, but others might find it triggering.


* As much as I claim to be a vampire-junky, it’s not the vampire that engages me, necessarily, but rather this trope of immortal/near immortal, and it just so happens that the most common subgenre containing it is the vampire one, which is why I don’t like all vampire stories, but a very particular subset.

Fantasy, Armies, and Economics

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Image by Yuri_B from Pixabay

Today, I want to talk fantasy. And epic armies. And economics.

Yes, they connect.

First off, I have no expert knowledge in this subject. I’m neither an economist nor do I have a military background of any sort. But I read a lot of fantasy, and I write a lot of fantasy, and recently, I’d been mulling on the topic of fantasy warfare when I’d realized an army in a book I was reading had no food. Which then spun off to other musings, and things (namely, my suspension of disbelief) started crumbling. While this…discussion…is more aimed at epic and grimdark fantasy, it can also be applied to military science fiction and more battle-oriented space opera (though I’ve noticed that military sci-fi tends to be more realistic about the, uh, monetary cost of war). Anyway. Onward!

If you, dear reader, intend to introduce some warfare on a grand scale into your fantasy world, I would like to remind you of a few things:

Armies are big.

Armies are expensive.

Armies eat a fuck-ton of food.

They also, as a whole, move very, very slowly. Mobilizing an entire army and having it move, say, twenty miles is an undertaking. Namely because of supply trains. Because your big-ass fantasy army (which shall be, from now on, referred to as the BAFA) is really made up of thousands of people, and if those people are marching and burning calories, they’re gonna need to eat to replace all that energy expended, especially if you want them to then fight when they get to wherever they’re going (I’m not even bringing up the issue of clean drinking water).

L5dSqUwBut it’s not just food. It’s supplies. It’s equipment. It’s (if you have cavalry) all the horses’ tack and their grooms. It’s all those damn tents. The bedrolls. The cookware for preparing all the aforementioned food (unless you’re going to make them all march on hardtack…expect lower moral). Oh, and all the army’s support staff (the blacksmiths, the quartermasters, the cooks, the grooms, the healers/medical personnel, the engineers for the siege equipment, the army administrators—all the logistical supply for the logistical supply). Armies are big. And bulky. And cumbersome. And, when everything is moving in concert with all its various parts, starts to feel insurmountable. When taken as a whole.*

It’s still made up of individuals.

Who also, if they’re doing this as a mode of employment, like to be paid. Where are you getting all the gold necessary to fund this? Honestly, this is usually why my suspension of disbelief starts to waver when the BAFAs come out. If the writer hasn’t built a believable economy, I start to question where the funds are coming from. By the way, you know what’s more expensive than armies? Countries. Good lord, those are giant money-sinks. But back to the armies.

It’s possible they may be unpaid, untrained conscripts. Expect some wholesale slaughter if they’re up against a superior force. Also, expect a lot of desertion. However, a few epic fantasies I’ve read lately have been going the route of religious fanaticism to keep their unpaid, untrained constricts standing in lines. …okay. You can have that once, maybe twice, but seriously, it’s starting to get lazy, imo. And they never seem to fall apart quite as frequently nor in the same way as they do in history…

So. Either you are paying your army or your conscripting them. There’s also a third option: pillage-as-pay (or raiding).

viking-army-fantasy-art-7-4kNow, if you’re going to go down the pillage-as-pay route, there’s one inherent flaw: if there’s no pillaging, there’s no pay. If the food, supplies, and money for your army is going to come from the people you’re invading, all the invadees have to do is set fire to their fields and starve you out. You’ll likely run out of supplies long before they run out of country to flee over. Aaaaaand then you have issues of low moral.

(Seriously. It’s like a giant game of Oregon Trail here.)

Let’s say you don’t want to invade. Instead, you’re on the defending side, fighting back the invasion with a standing army. That still costs. They still need housing. They still need to eat. Else you’re going to get the low moral problem.

Low moral, by the way, means people start to resent you. And people who resent you are difficult to convince to go fight and die on your behalf.**

Now, stepping sideways into a specific example, and something that’s been lately bugging me.

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Poniatowski’s Last Charge at Leipzig Richard Caton Woodville, Jr.

Cavalry.

Fantasy writers, please stop misusing cavalry. I know, I know, it looks dramatic in the mind’s eye to line your cavalry up with all their shining armor and lances, and have them suicide-charge against the enemy’s cavalry. Cue flashing weapons, crunching armor, horse squeals, and sprays of blood.

Remember what I was saying about armies being expensive? Cavalry is really expensive. Not only do you have to train your soldier to ride and fight from horseback, you need to train the horse…and horses are not cheap. So you’ve got food, housing, animal care, training plus room and board, training, and arming/outfitting for the human (oh, and pay), and this is just one cavalry-person. Fantasy likes to have cavalry numbering in the hundreds upon hundreds, and every one of them costs.

Are you seriously going to throw your cavalry into certain death? Or are you going to keep them in reserve and, if desperate, dismount your cavalry and have them fight on foot? Save the horse for when you actually need a horse—say, for when you need forces to go from point A to point B quickly, or when you need speed for engaging/disengaging, such as having them to flank and harry the sides of a force.

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And while we’re on the topic of cavalry, what about anti-cavalry? Where are the damn pikes? The spears? The pointy-things partially made for downing horses? And what about anti anti-cavalry? I don’t quite remember who said it, but I know it was at a GenCon panel a few years ago, but someone pointed out that those big heavy claymores? Those are for lopping the ends off of pikes so they don’t impale your cavalry. Now, I recognize this needs citation to be accurate, but if it is, where are the claymores?

Warfare seems, at least to my eyes, to be weapons and counter-weapons (and armor, and tactics). There should be depth to war strategy (honestly, this is why I usually avoid writing from the viewpoints of generals; it can be hard to grasp the stakes when we’re talking about thousands and thousands of people being moved this way and that on a map).

Though it’s a common thing to poke at in fantasy, I will also reiterate that horses aren’t machines. There’s a few wonderful series of articles about horses and fantasy on Tor.com, and I highly recommend taking a gander.

Also, a bit older, but this article on Fantasy-Faction about building fantasy armies might be worth a look while you’re at it.


* We’re talking whole armies here, not skirmishes/raiding parties. Smaller groups can get away with less support.
**While, yes, if we’re talking fantasy, there could be other ways to compel an army to fight, such as through magical means. However, this can lead to the army becoming just a homogenized lump of faceless humanity and little more than a prop to introduce conflict into the narrative.

If anyone knows who did the other three images, I’d love to be able to properly attribute them.