Vampire Nation by Thomas Sipos

Spoilers!

It is said by many Conservatives that Communism is an ideal in which the government lives off the lifeblood of the people. To simplify, the state is a parasite, sucking the blood of its host till there is nothing left. One author took this idea and took it to the next level, both in scope as well as in satire. In Thomas Sipos’s Vampire Nation the Communists are in fact vampires, drinking the blood of the populace to survive. This book is a rich mixture of Ayn Rand, Van Helsing, and documentary on life in a communist country.

The book takes place during the Regan Era just before the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. It tells the story of an American sent to Communist Romania to scout future locations for a movie about witches he has written. He isn’t in the Romanian capital of Bucharest for long before he discovers that he is not only being constantly watched and bugged, but also that his hosts are more interested in what’s running through his veins rather than helping him make his movie. He falls in with a supposed CIA agent/vampire hunter, who brings him along in her independent mission to kill the king of Romania’s vampires: Nicolae Ceausescu. During their mad dash across the broken and lifeless city of Bucharest they encounter many of the real horrors that were Romanian Communism. They see scores of orphans starving in the streets, numerous attempts by the government to hide the level of poverty the country is experiencing (in one case plants are painted green to look fresh, even though it’s winter), and horrific abuses of power by the upper echelons of the Romanian government.

It should be mentioned that while the vampire aspect of the book is completely false the other aspects and descriptions of starving masses and abuses of power are not. Much of what is described by the Sipos actually happened or, in the case of the orphans, is continuing to happen to this day. Much of the historical facts about Ceausescu and his regime, are taken from the book Red Horizons: The True Story of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescus’ Crimes, Lifestyle, and Corruption by I.M.Pacepa. Pacepa was a foreign intelligence chief for the Romanian government during the fall who defected. His work helped to document many of the abuses of power that took place in the Ceausescu Regime as well as many of the problems that regular people experienced every day. When one looks at Communist Romania it is easy to see a parallel with what is happening in North Korea today.

This books is exceedingly well written and it’s a very easy read. One should take note, however, that many Conservatives views are expressed by the characters. If you like your books politically neutral this book may be a bit of a hard sell for you. As an action and horror story, though, it is quite amazing. It may also appeal to history buffs who enjoy a comical twist on the usual historical events.

The Shattered Citadel Series by Michael Mangual

Courtesy of Michael Mangual

Courtesy of Michael Mangual

Spoilers!

I have found in my experience with stories about war that during battle scenes it is a common incident that the action of a battle leaves me bored and reading faster just to get to a part with real human dialogue and storytelling. Is it odd to say that I have become desensitized to the battlefield in literature? Maybe and maybe not. It is very hard to pack real emotion into a battle scene. This is understandable as any battle in war is barely controlled chaos. How is it possible to pack real emotion and sympathy in something where absolutely nothing is certain and every character essentially becomes faceless as they fight for survival? This week’s review is different from those, in that the author has found a way to humanize (as terrible as it sounds) his battle scenes into something more than a faceless mass of death and destruction.

I was first introduced to the world of Shattered Citadel by Michael Mangual, by a stranger at a Barnes and Noble store who saw me looking over the Alternate History section. I’m thankful he suggested it. Shattered Citadel at this point is a series of short stories that can be found here: http://shatteredcitadel.com/ . They are a work of love from the author, one Michael Mangual who hopes to one day turn this labor of love into a full-fledged book in the same style as The Good War by Studs Terkel and World War Z by Max Brooks. Shattered Citadel is about a future world war (also called the Third Human Civil War) between a Federated Europe, United North America, and India against the hordes of the Chinese Hegemony, a newly born Soviet Union, and a new Muslim Caliphate that is made up of the entire Middle East.

I will not lie many of the stories involve intense scenes of violence which include graphic depictions of genocide, cannibalism, and the unmitigated use of weapons of mass destruction. The world he paints is one that I desperately hope we can avoid. Despite these scenes of intense violence there are also instances of compassion and humanity. Many stories deal with the redemption of characters and champion the sacrifice one person can make out of love for another. While Mr. Mangual is able to make his battle scenes stay interesting he is also able to create real sympathy from the reader for the characters he creates.

This series does not only focus on World War III. Many of Mr. Mangual’s short stories also describe the world afterwards as well as the colonization of the solar system by humans along with Humanity’s first interactions with beings from other planets. These stories I find especially well planned and executed as the alien species are very interesting. One race, the Huellok are described as two headed flesh eaters. The second are the Voorik, large crystalline beings that speak through telepathy in the voices of dead loved ones. Both are very different from the standard aliens we seem to get today, most of which always seem to be overly human. These actually seem otherworldly.

I am genuinely glad to have had this series of short stories introduced to me by a random person in a book store. I have not been disappointed. These series of short stories are great reading for anyone who has an interest in military Sci-Fi.

Courtesy of Michael Mangual

Courtesy of Michael Mangual

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Spoilers!

I’m going to be blunt, this novel was a huge disappointment for me. It had so much potential and promise and it just didn’t deliver for me. The characters were for the most part uninteresting and the story dragged in a lot of places. This coupled with the idea that I don’t believe that Mr. Dick did a lot of research into some of the key players of the Nazi Party forces my disappointment in this book.

It tells the story of of a world where, due to the the successful assassination of FDR by Giuseppe Zangara in 1933, the Nazis and Imperial Japanese are able to beat the Allies and more or less conquer the world. The majority of the story takes place in California which is under the rule of the Japanese. Other locales include Germany and the American Midwest, which has become a buffer zone between the German held east coast and the Japanese west coast. A major plot point is the sale of American “antiques” by the wealthy Japanese who are immigrating to the west coast. These antiques, when not forged, are items that display popular American Culture from before the war. This nostalgia for the Americanism from before the war almost displays guilt from the conquerors for what they did to achieve supremacy over the world.

Another major plot point is the almost novel-within-a-novel. Many characters in the book have been influenced by a book they have read known as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by the fictional Hawthorne Abendsen. This inner book is also an alternate history about the Allies winning the Second World War. In this alternate reality after winning the war, the US and the UK go into a cold war that sees the UK eventually overcoming the US. I won’t lie, this aspect of the book was actually interesting and it was my favorite aspect of the story, but it failed to make up for other aspects of the story. 

My first problem with the story was the characters. It’s inherently hard to like them or even to hate them,they’re just there! They’re nothing more than automatons that talk and feel occasionally. I understand that you don’t have to love the characters in a story, but you should at least feel something towards them. My second problem with the story was how at the end of the novel nothing is really resolved. The ending is completely open. Now keep in mind this isn’t necessary to a good story, after all it could be the set up to a sequel. Now I have heard that Philip K. Dick did indeed intend to write a sequel, but never got around to it. If this is indeed the case then I can let this go. My biggest problem was the historical aspects of the novel. This is keeping in mind that Mr. Dick claimed to have done extensive research into the Axis Powers. At one point in the story the current Fuhrer of Germany, Martin Bormann dies and two factions arise in the attempt to replace him. One faction led by Josef Goebbels intends to nuke the Japanese Home Islands in an attempt to conquer the rest of the world. The second faction lead by Reinhard Heydrich wishes to keep the German-Japanese Alliance in place. First off, the fact the Heydrich not only was one of  the main architects of the Final Solution as well as having helped to organize the mass persecution of Jews during the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) as well as having the nickname The Man with the Iron Heart makes me doubt that if he had survived the war with the Nazis winning that he would be for a peaceful coexistence with the Japanese considering that the Nazis considered them a lesser race. I also found it hard to believe the Martin Bormann would have succeeded Hitler as Fuhrer considering that Herman Goering was always considered the second in line to the Nazi “throne”. Also for all Mr. Dick’s “research” he very rarely mentions the Nazis at all. While this annoyed me, I must mention that his main focus on the Japanese aspect of the War was rather refreshing as most alternate histories alway focus on the Nazis rather than their Japanese counterparts.

Despite having a lot going against it. The book did have some positives. I found some of the technology mentioned in the novel interesting, such as a rocket plane that makes the travel time from Europe to California only a matter of a few hours rather than a day. I also enjoyed the description of the Nazis and Italians draining  the Mediterranean Sea and turning it into farmland. These, however, did not make up for the rest of the story.  There was a lot of potential in this book, but he just didn’t pull it off, I’m sorry to say,

Atlantis and Other Places by Harry Turtledove

I’ll be blunt: I LOVE HISTORY AND I LOVE HISTORY NOVELS. So needless to say the Alternative History genre sets my heart a buzzing. THe idea of “what if” is such an interesting and sometimes frightening concept that it really should be explored more in literature. Harry Turtledove is one of the biggest personalities in this genre. With a doctorate in Byzantine History and having been a professor of history for much of his adult life it is easy to tell that he knows his stuff. He is also well know for his numerous fantasy stories. Atlantis and Other Places is a book of his short stories, twelve in all, that give a nice overview of the types of stories he is known for. Three of the stories in the book stand out to me.

The first was the short storie The Daimon. Its main character is the celebrated philosopher Sokrates. In this story he helps in the war against Sicilian City-States for his native Athens. He influences the supremem commander of the Athenian forces who goes on to win in Sicily and ends up invading Sparta on the way home. After beating Sparta the general goes on to make Athens a dictatorship again and to found an earlier Greek Empire long before the rise of Macedonia. Sokrates goes on to become a martyr for democracy being killed by the general for standing up to his obvious dictatorial ambitions.

The second story that stands out to me us the story entitled Occupation Duty. This story imagines what the modern world would look like if Goliath had actually beaten David in that biblical battle we all know so well. Because of his victory the Philistines never died out and became the dominant force in what we know as Israel. They, much like the Israel we know today, is going through the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. They’re hated by the occupied, a Jewish race that we would not recognize. While they are just as modern as can be expected from an occupied people they have a more primitive form of the Jewish Faith. The scenes of APCs and Novogrodian (Russian) machine guns that the occupied use are all very recognizable to us today. It begs the question of if the situation in Israel where under different circumstances would it be any different?

The third story is a wonderful fantasy story. The Horse of Bronze takes us to an Earth that is easily recognizable despite the changed names of places (England is called the Tin Island) and the “people” who inhabit them. THe main characters are a group of Centaurs from Greece, who in their war against the Sphinxes of Egypt must find a new source of tin to make stronger metals for their weapons. In this world the regions we know today are inhabited by creatures from that regions’s mythology rather than men. Romania has vampires and the islands of the Mediterranean are inhabited by fawns and saytrs. Eventually our group of centaurs make it to “the Tin Island” only to find it deserted of it’s original inhabitants, strange mole like creatures called Nuggies. Eventually They come across Stonehedge and the humans who built it. This leads to a rather unfortunate result.This books was a pleasure to read and I highly recommend it. the other stories are just as good as the three I mentioned above, but I felt that these three needed special attention. If you enjoy a mixture of fantasy and history I am more than certain that you will enjoy this book.