Torch of Freedom – David Weber/Eric Flint

This science fiction book is the most recent one in one of the branches in the Honorverse books, which involve the planet Torch and its fight against the evil Manpower slavers. It gives a lot of illumination to the background of the main sequence of books, but like some of the current set suffers a little bit from the ‘three or four people discussing current events’ exposition style rather than giving background through action or events.  When the characters do leave the conference rooms, thing are well paced.

It is a good book if you are into the series, less so if you are unfamiliar with the world or events.  I have read all the books and even I was getting a little lost with the planets Maya (good) and Mesa (bad).

The overall storyline is winding up the large war between Manticore and Haven, and a new and larger war looms ahead against the slavers, genetic manipulators and their tools in the huge and wealthy Solarian League.  So perhaps the overall pace will pick up in future books.

Starting “428 AD” – Guisto Traina

Subtitled “An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire” this book is going to cover events of a “representative” year in many different places in the Empire, East and West. So it is less about following the sweep of events but creating a snapshot.  An intriguing approach.

The Tour starts in Armenia, where the nobles deposed the King and did not replace him with anyone. This tended to nominally move the country into Persia’s orbit, but in effect they were still pretty independent, if not the political bone of contention they had been for the last three hundred years.

The next stop is Syria, where a general who had failed in his mission to Armenia stops at Simon the Stylite, a holy man who lived on top of a tall pillar in the desert outside a town. He cured the general of his affliction. These exotic holy men and hermits were a growing feature of Eastern Christianity.

The next stage is this same general escorting the new Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, to the city. He would be ejected in a short time and help a branch of Christianity that spread into Persia.

Pretty interesting so far!

Knight’s Cross update

Status

I’ve progressed in this biography of Erwin Rommell, the famed German general, through his part in the first World War. The author did not spend a great deal of time here, but there was more detail than is usual on his actions as a junior officer in the war. It is interesting how similar on a smaller scale he was to his exploits later on a larger stage – the urge to attack even when in an uncertain position, the feeling that the rear areas and lines of communication would work themselves out, the unconcern with facing superior numbers of enemy.

To his credit, it pretty much always did work out for him.

Bull Run: Its Strategy and Tactics – Robert Matteson Johnston

This description of the campaign of first Bull Run was written about the turn of the century by a professional soldier. In one way, this is excellent as this makes him a credible witness about what could or could not be done at the time. In another, you have to remember he has his own axe to grind.

So when he opines that if there had been a large regular army, the rebellion would have been crushed, you have to remember that a large regular army was what all these officers wanted to build their careers. In reality, this was out of the question. In addition, if the South had dominated the regular army like they did the officer corps, the army might have fought on the wrong side!

In a similar vein, when he mentions that the ‘deserting’ units that went home just before the battle because their three-month terms of enlistment had expired should have been shot, you need to realize that such an act would have been out of the question at the time, or at any other time for that matter.

Aside from this, it’s a pretty good review, and even-handed. Joe Johnston comes out looking the most professional. McDowell gets somewhat mixed to negative reviews. Patterson and Beauregard get panned.

How Rome Fell – update

I’ve made a bit more progress on this book by Adrian Goldsworthy, which like Gibbon starts with the Antonines in charting the decline and fall.  His thesis is to be that the periodic civil wars were the determining factor, and not that the barbarians or Persians were stronger or more organized as recent works stress.

Replacing one theory that may be two simplistic with a second one that is equally simplistic is a tall order.

I am now at the end of the crisis of the third century, when the empire was spilt into three parts, the frontiers were overrun almost at will and emperors were deposed by unruly troops almost annually.  Civil wars were virtually constant. Sadly for the thesis, the fall did not take place for another two hundred years, so he is forced to downplay this crisis as not such a big deal in order to form a continuum from the Antonines (Rome Strong) to the Fall (Rome Weak).  If Rome was weak and got stronger, the theory that each war made a progressive and essentially unfixable hole in the fabric of the empire is unsustainable.

Lord knows that civil wars are a bad thing. But a generation or two away from this war, those that died and those that did not all will have passed away. Crops are replanted, populations recover, sacked cities are rebuilt. The wonderful Antonine empire he holds up was built on about a hundred years of civil strife and wars to create the empire, and a second civil war in 69 AD. So was Rome even stronger before that?

He also has to downplay the increase in the external threats – he claims there is no detectable improvement over this entire period.  I don’t think this will be sustainable. Barbarians like the Goths went from mere border raids to far more substantial sea-going ones in this period. The growth of the confederations like the Alamanni and Franks has not happened, but this speaks to an increase in organization as well.

Personally, I think Rome was weaker – partly due to wars and partly due to the increasing tendency for East and West to be ruled without reference to each other, a tendency that was exacerbated by the weakness of the Emperors after 395 AD. But I think the Barbarian threat was also stronger and more organized – and instead of wanting to raid and go home they wanted to occupy portions of the West.

We will see.  But in any event, the book is giving a good concise picture of the state of the empire in these centuries, so it’s worth reading.

The Desert War Trilogy I – Mediterranean Front

I completed the first volume of Alan Moorehead’s Desert War trilogy. He was a British war correspondent in World War II and these books, published during the war itself, have the same immediacy as the dispatches from the war zone that they are expanded from.

Moorehead rode with the Navy on several sorties against Italy, and followed O’Connor’s counteroffensive that took Cyrenaica from the Italians in late 1940. After that, he seems to have moved from zone to zone just barely missing some actions he was eager to see – he missed Rommel’s counteroffensive since he was at the retaking of Ethiopia. He missed the capture of the capital because he couldn’t quite make the air connections through Uganda.  He did catch some action in Greece, and was evacuated, but was unable to get onto Crete and had to report on that battle from Egypt.  He did end the book on one stroke of luck – he was vacationing in Palestine when the Commonwealth invaded Vichy occupied Syria and was able to get a close look of much of that obscure operation. He did miss the capture of Damascus, to put a cap on the running ‘gag’ of the book.

The book gives a slighty different view of the war than you get from a standard history. I’m looking forward to the other books in the set which cover the fight against Rommel and the fight in Tunisia.

On the Reading List

Aside

The new ‘on the road walkabout book’ is Knight’s Cross, a biography of Erwin Rommel.  These are often excessively deferential to him, so it will be interesting to see if this one is more balanced.

I also started a new SF book “Torch of Freedom” by David Weber. Its another of the Honor-Verse books, filling in before the one I just read a week or so ago. I mentioned that he split the story line into several mostly independent threads a while back, and this book catches one of them up to the main line.

Review: The Sun King – Nancy Mitford

I finished this book, another Folio Society book, today.  It is a history of the life of Louis XIV of France with emphasis on his life at Versailles.  It’s a popular work, so it reads more like a chatty gossip column rather than as a dry historical work. So you find out more about if one of Louis’ mistresses made a sacrifice to the devil than what the laws were like or what the soldiers were doing. You meet a general or so, but only when his wife is found in bed with a count.

The final chapters follow the twilight of his reign – he is getting older, and he then gets involved in a ‘world war’ with most of Europe over trying to put a nephew of his on the throne of Spain.  The strain on the country is huge, and the English general Marlborough is bringing him to the brink of destruction. The worst winter known to man brings him to the table to surrender. Only the demand that he send his own army to dispossess his nephew of the Spanish throne (against the wishes of the Spanish, who had grown to like their king) kept him in the fight.  Then the tide began to turn as the nation rallied behind him.

The army fought Marlborough to a standstill. The English changed governments and betrayed their coalition partners by leaving the war. WIthout England, France won a respectable peace.

Then personal disaster struck as three heirs to the throne died in less than a year, leaving only a sickly child as the last of the line. So the final years before his death were less gitter and glory, but gloom.

The book is well written and fast paced. It is more a view of the personages than of the government or the nations of the time.  And its actually the better for it.  It is an interesting change from the usual histories.

Notable Historical Trials II – Charles I

This Folio Society set of three books contains chapters about famous trials in history. I had previously finished the first and part of the second volume before it got pushed down in the stack, but now it is again getting some work. Each chapter consists of excerpts of other works, with some framing text. It’s an informative and enjoyable book, which is especially noteworthy since the subject isn’t one that I go into naturally. So the bar is set a bit higher, which it passes.

I just finished the chapter on King Charles I’s trial.  After winning the English Civil War, Cromwell and the Parliament tried the king on various charges, which mostly came down to tried for losing. Apparently much like in the later French Revolution, the republican forces wanted to put a cap on their win by executing the king.  Tactically this ended up being a mistake, since the king had heirs that were free, and even Parliament itself could think of nothing to do after Cromwell’s death than to restore the monarchy.

Given the nature of the trial, Charles’ basic defense that his trial before Parliament was not valid because they were not a court and he, as king, was above them anyway, hardly mattered.  His behavior after sentencing and at the execution made him a martyr which played a substantial part in the eventual restoration of the line.

Alan Moorehead “Desert War Trilogy” I – Mediterranean Front

Just getting into this Folio Society book written by a English reporter about the battles in North Africa in World War II.  It’s pretty readable and interesting, and it is less about the battles on the large scale than about the human side from his point of view as an almost tourist in the middle.

So far he has hitched a ride with the Royal Navy to dare the Italians to come out and fight, gone down to the south Sudan to ride in a bombing mission, and now is following in the wake of the successful British offensive against the Italians in late 1940.

He’s been recently picking through the debris left after the Italian retreat and been pretty dismissive of the huge stacks of cases of dried pasta, but did put in a good word for the ‘instant’ minestrone soup that he found.

Good stuff so far.