Fortune’s Stroke – Eric Flint & David Drake

This is the fourth book in the Belisarius Series. In it, the past is changed by a crystal entity from the future that wants to crush out individuality. It is starting by using the Indian Malwa Empire to attack towards Rome.  A second entity, Aide is sent to Belisarius, Rome’s best general, to fight it.

Having parried the last year’s campaign by destroying the Malwa supply fleet, Belisarius has a new problem.  The main army is still in Mesopotamia and ready to move out, but the second Malwa army is approaching through the mountains.  This one is smaller, but has better troops and generals.  Also, it is aided by the Roman traitor the eunuch Narses and has an excellent spy network.  A stalemate is not an option.

In other fronts, there are problems. Malwa agents kill most of the royal family of Roman ally Axum in Ethiopia, leaving young Eon, a friend of Belisarius in charge with rebellion in Arabia to quell.  And in India, Empress Shakuntala has to decide which prince to marry to gain the power to take the fight to Malwa and save Rao in the city of Deogiri.

Belisarius has a plan, though – to turn one Malwa army against them and destroy the other utterly. And will risk losing every man in his army to do it!


Destiny’s Shield – Eric Flint and David Drake

This is part three of the Belisarius alternate history series.  I finished my rereading already, but not my reporting!

The theme is that two sentient devices – or beings – arrive from the future. One, Link, is trying to enshrine racial purity and caste systems and has been giving technology to allow India’s Malwa empire to conquer the world.  In the way is the Rome of the 530’s AD, where ability counts more than birth and race. A second device – Aide – was sent to Rome’s greatest general, Belisarius, to fight back.

Although the Nika revolt was crushed, Emperor Justinian was blinded.  Unable to hold power, his wife Theodora adopts Belisarius’ stepson, Photius and makes him emperor, with Theodora as regent.  Justinian retires to follow his interest in Law, and mechanical development.  With the secret out, Rome can openly develop its countermeasures.

But time is short. Already Malwa has launched a two-pronged invasion of Persia.  The most dangerous one is the one in Mesopotamia, where the two rivers give a direct route on to Rome itself.  The main Persian army has fled into the ruined city of Babylon and is under siege.

Meanwhile in India, the revolt spreads as the Empress Shakuntala takes a port city with her refugees and links up with Rao in Maharashtra.

But Rome has troubles of their own.  A revolt in Alexandria ruins plans to make it a base to make gunpowder weapons for the army and for the Axumite and Indian allies.  Belisarius has to leave some forces for his wife, Antonia to take to break the revolt and get this into motion again.  The rest can go to Persia, but it is a pitiful force against the huge Malwa army.

After a few quick victories, Belisarius is left with a problem. Half of his Persian allies are plotting to avoid the fight to bring down the Persian Emperor.  He needs to break the siege of Babylon, but the armies are too large to fight and the supply line on the Euphrates is as sure as sure can be.

Unless Belisarius does something to the river….


1858 – Bruce Chadwick

I suppose I am not being fair to this book from the start.  One of my favorite books on the years coming up to the Civil War is titled 1857 by Kenneth Stampp.  In it he marks out a year where the tide turned from slavery as a periodic crisis to a continual slide to war.  The lines were hardened, the Democratic Party shattered, and secession was only a matter of time.

This book succeeds in giving you a view into the period very well by following several men of the time – some like Lee, Sherman were just men getting by, others like Lincoln, Douglas, and Seward were politicians. And some, like the Oberlin Rescuers who were tried for freeing slaves in Ohio arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act, would not be prominent later at all.  It is weakest at forming a coherent narrative of the year, which is the part I missed.  Partly that is the way the book was designed, but the weakness of the ‘plot line’ makes some of the chapters seem out-of-place. The military fellows seem surplus in a world paced by politics, and they have little to act on unlike, say, Lincoln or even Seward.  Lee is home trying to settle his father-in-law’s will.

Another odd choice was the lack of pretty much any Southern views. The only Southerners are Lee and Davis and they are finished by chapter 2.  Buchanan is a northerner, and he is the only Democrat left.  Pairing a Southern ‘citizen mood’ incident against the Oberlin raid.  The mood of the Southern politicians is hardly touched on – even the Davis chapter is about how he was attacked for being too attached to the North, due to a vacation in Maine.

The strongest arc is probably the Buchanan – Douglas – Lincoln – Seward group, including the famous debates.  It is a large part of the book, perhaps half of the total.  That, and the chapter on Oberlin make this a pretty good book.  To me, the addition of the soldiers misfires, and a more exploration of the Southern view is missed.

In the Heart of Darkness – Eric Flint & David Drake

Still trying to keep up with posting the books the Belisarius series.  The first book led Belisarius to India to rescue Princess Shakuntala to form the core of an Indian resistance to the evil Malwa empire, ruled by the time-travelling Link.  He is concealing her with his entourage, while her protector Raghunath Rao, led the pursuit away.  While he uses the time to learn about the Malwa’s futuristic gunpowder weapons, he makes the Malwa think he is ready to betray Rome.

Meanwhile his wife Antonia is building a secret army of grenadiers, using slings to throw the explosives.  She brings Theodora into the secret, for financing and because the Malwa have spies in Constantinople plotting a coup against Justinian.

But plans change, and when Link discovers that Belisarius is loyal to Rome everyone must flee India in a hurry – the Princess and her Kushan guards disguised as a noble family, carrying Malwa bribes to finance their insurrection, and his friends from Axum and his guards along the well prepared plan.  But him being alone in the middle of a river armed only with a pen-knife was never part of the plan!

After the escape, the Malwa send word for the coup to topple Justinian and kill Belisarius’ wife Antonia. Will Belisarius return in time to stop the Nika Insurrection in this timeline?

An Oblique Approach – Eric Flint & David Drake

I’m re-reading the Belisarius series of six books now. Belisarius was a general in the Byzantine Empire in the 500s, who is most famous for retaking Africa from the Vandals and Italy from the Goths (mostly) during the reign of Justinian with absurdly small forces.  The emperor never trusted him, and mistreated him but he never turned on him.  He has been a favorite of alternate history buffs since even before there were alt-history buffs.

In this alternate history, two contending forces from the far far future have sent agents back to change the past. The bad guys have sent Link to Malwa, an Indian state, to impose caste restrictions and racial purity ideas on the past.  Rome, with its ideas of rule based on ability, is to be destroyed.  The good guys send a crystal intelligence, Aide, to Rome to help defeat them.

Aide can give visions of the future that will come if Malwa wins to help convince doubters.  When Belisarius sees his future, in the last moments before his death, he sees that an Indian refugee that he had serving him was a hero that had fled when the last princess of the dynasty he served had been killed by the Malwa.  If he can change that, and save her, then the Malwa will at least have opposition on the home front.

Belisarius has quite a few problems to solve before this – for one, he needs to defeat the Persians in the war he is in, which hasn’t been done in a century or so.  He needs to start research on gunpowder weapons to counter those the Malwa have.  And he needs to induce a paranoid Emperor to send him to India without telling him the secret!

Only then can the easy part of rescuing the princess from the middle of a 100,000 man army even begin.  It shouldn’t be too hard – there are three Roman bodyguards, five Axumite allies (from Ethiopia), and Belisarius.  And he has a plan….

Reading Update – April


I was using the cool ‘dictionary’ style before but it is too hard to keep up!

Notable Historical Trials III – Now starting a chapter on the trials of King Louis XVII and Marie Antoinette. So far it is less of a trial than a badgering. Will not end well.

Duel of Eagles – This is a book about the Battle of Britain but so far it is giving a lot of details about the birth and development of the RAF and Luftwaffe.  If you want to read about Spitfires and Me109s, you might have to skip ahead.  If you want to find what it was like for these early aviation services, well, it is all in there.

1858  A critical year in the antebellum era as seen through participants. Chugging along through the Lincoln/Douglas debates.  It got demoted to my home walkabout book so progress is slow, due to bad weather.

Wings of War – Airborne Warfare 1918-1945  Very detailed overview of every airborne operation. Currently reading about the Soviet airborne operations in the early war. There’s a lot of ‘we had this plan, but only twenty planes to carry men in so it took a week to get everyone dropped’ happening.

America’s Civil War: The Operational Battlefield (1861-3) – I thought this was going to be different than it is. It is less a military study of campaigns than ‘yet another general war history’.  I have thus demoted it for a while and will pick it up later.

The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire I – The Visigothic Empire – This is the first book in a set I bought from the Folio Society a few years back.  It traces the invasions of Italy even after the fall of Rome, to the Franks of Charlemagne’s time in 8 volumes.

Kindle Books – Having read the Challenger and Verne books, I started into the John Carter of Mars series.

Fiction – Re-reading Flint/Drake’s Belisarius series, am on book three. I need to catch up on posting about the others.

The Poison Belt – Arthur Conan Doyle

This is another quickie Kindle story involving Professor Challenger and his friends. It went quickly enough – Challenger is in the news again and collects the same four who went to the Lost World with him to come to his estate – with an oxygen tank.  He has been predicting the end of the world, you see.

When the four get there, they find that he thinks the Earth is entering a poison belt in the ether, and soon everyone will die. Well, soon everyone is dying, but the oxygen seems to help and just before the last tank runs out the Earth leaves the belt and the four (and Challenger’s wife) survive.

They spend some time driving around, even finding another survivor, an invalid who had her own air tank.  Then those ‘killed’ start coming back to life, aside from those killed in the train wrecks and burning cities he described in the first part.

This one, while well enough written, isn’t one to come back to, unlike the fun romp of the first Challenger book.  The waiting for death section is naturally gloomy, and the ‘never mind’ ending doesn’t make up for it.

The Lost World – Arthur Conan Doyle

Another old classic on Kindle for virtually nothing!  In this romp Edward Malone, who wants to do something important and manly to impress the lovely Gladys, is sent to meet the violent Professor Challenger, who has a tendency to beat up reporters.  Challenger says he has proof of a plateau in South America where extinct animals still live, but others scoff at the evidence, which drives him berserk.

After a rocky start Malone actually makes friends with the unstable Challenger, and joins the expedition to prove or disprove the evidence. The others on the trip are Lord John Roxton, adventurer, and rival Professor Summerlee.  The three are joined surprisingly by Challenger himself and the four go to find the “Lost World”.

They find a way onto the inaccessible plateau but are trapped, and then have a difficult time with the dinosaurs, a race of ape-men, and even the friendly natives who don’t want them to leave.

This is a nice adventure story, and very amusing – it doesn’t take itself very seriously at all.  Challenger’s huge ego and bombast is played for laughs, and I did find more fun in that the only way the other two men could get the Professors out of bickering with each other is to mention a third Professor that they could both revile together!

In the end, the four have fame, fortune (Roxton finds diamonds and splits the take), but not love, as Gladys went and married an accountant, instead of the hero and world-changing man she told Malone she wanted.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne

I finally finished this Kindle book that I had started a while back but put aside for the David Drake-a-thon that I just finished writing up.

This is the least ‘light hearted’ of the Verne books I have read.  There are amusing moments, but the book as a whole is a little darker.

In the late 1860s a strange sea monster is spotted that alternately evades and damages shipping.  Finally a major expedition on the US ship Abraham Lincoln is sent to find and destroy this creature.   French Marine expert Professor Pierre Aronnax, his man Conseil, and Canadian harpoonist Ned Land accompany the expedition.  After a long search they encounter the ‘animal’ and in the conflict the three fall overboard and end up clinging to the beast, which turns out to be a vessel, the Nautilus, captained by the mysterious Captain Nemo.

Nemo takes them prisoner, and tells them they can never leave the ship to keep its secrets. For a time, the adventure of exploring the seas with Nemo makes up for the imprisonment, but as they learn more about Nemo’s one man war against the land nations, culminating in the attack and sinking of a ship they decide to escape when they can.  They get their chance when the Nautilus is sucked – or intentionally driven – into a huge whirlpool and make their escape.  Was the ship destroyed too?  The book never says.

These days, when undersea subs are an everyday thing the novelty of the voyage is reduced, and the sense of wonder the book originally had is mitigated.  Bur even so the glimpses of Nemo – genial host and captor, whale saver and whale killer, refugee and avenger are still compelling.

What Distant Deeps – David Drake

In this installment of the RCN Series, Leary and Adele are again sent to a remote sector, this time more as a rest cure than a serious mission.  The rigors of the last mission were severe, and with Cinnabar and the Alliance finally at peace and neither side wanting to resume the war the chance for a relaxing, routine mission seems high.

But there are more sides than the two major powers in the fringes, and an ally wants to extend their influence by seizing an Alliance planet, using their supposed Cinnabar support as a shield.  Will Leary risk war with the Alliance by supporting an ally, or risk death by fighting his own side?

Like always, Drake uses historical events to provide a framework for his stories, which adds to their realism.  And he throws in enough actions for a dozen books in each volume.