Tales from the Perilous Realm – J. R. R. Tolkien

Way back in the day I used to be very curious about the Tolkien craze that was hitting in the ’80s.  Being short of money I drew the line at getting all the ‘History of Middle Earth’ collections that would come out every so often.

Recently I found quite a few volumes on display at a low price bookstore in the area and picked them up, and probably my ‘completist’ tendencies will make me get them all.

This book is a collection of stories, most of which are not really part of the Middle Earth cycle, but are instead normal fairy stories. Roverrandom, about a toy dog that is a real one under enchantment is a bit ‘young’ for my taste, but Farmer Giles of Ham is very good. Giles is an accidental hero who in the end, instead of slaying the dragon makes a deal with him.   This turns out to be useful when the local king gets to heavy-handed about collecting the loot for himself.

Smith of Wootton Major is another nice one – about a gift that allows a child and man to enter Fairie, but in the end has to be given up and passed on to another.  But my favorite is Leaf by Niggle.  I won’t say much about that one except if this isn’t based on how Tolkien felt about his own life I’ll eat my hat.

The Land that Time Forgot (plus 2) – Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Land that Time Forgot began a series of three linked ‘Caspak’ novels set on a mysterious island in the Pacific populated by extinct species.  The sequels The People that Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss.  I obtained all three from a Kindle collection and enjoyed them all.

The start of the series is interesting because it starts on a freighter in the North Atlantic during WWI. (!)  The Hero, Bowen J. Tyler and his dog are travelling to England when the freighter is sunk.  He survives with the lovely Lys La Rue, and are rescued by an English tug.  The Tug encounters a U-boat as well and is also sunk, but the crew manages to capture the vessel.  Sadly, they still are attacked by the Royal Navy and cannot land, so they sail away from England, holding the German crew prisoner.

The Germans overcome them and sail even farther afield, into the Pacific.  (this U-Boat has a heck of a range!).  The allies manage to take the sub back, but their attempt to land on the West Coast of the US is folied by the sabotage of a Communist traitor and they are lost in the South Pacific with their supplies poisoned.  Their only hope is to land on the mysterious land they find there, only accessible by a submarine through an underground river.  There they find a land stuffed with extinct species.  Soon while the crew explores, the German crew revolts and sails away, leaving them stranded. Then primitive tribesmen attack the camp and carry off Lys, and Bowen heads off to the rescue.  He manages to do so, and tosses the manuscript into a bottle in the sea.

In the second book, the manuscript reaches Bowen’s family and a friend, Tom Billings, heads a rescue expedition.  Tom himself is flying a small plane over the land when it is attacked by a Pterodactyl and he crashes.  He meets up with a fully human native girl Ajor, saving her from death.  He decides to get her back to her tribe and then look for his friend.

On the way Tom finds out about the odd biological system on the island.  Every critter is more or less immortal, and evolves upward through the evolutionary stages itself.  If they live long enough they become advanced enough to give birth to regular kids rather than spawn fish eggs like most females do.  One unmentioned consequence is that in fact everyone on the island is killing and eating their own babies and relatives.  Ick.

During the adventure Tom meets several human tribesmen who wake up and realize that they belong to the next, more advanced tribe down the valley and ‘move on up’ the evolutionary chain.  Tom finds his friend and the rescue party scales the cliffs and everyone leaves – except Tom who stays with his lovely lady on the island.

The third book follows the remainder of the crew, one of whom (Bradley) is snatched by a race of winged men that have evolved on the island and are trying to perfect their race by snatching advanced humans from the regular tribe for their breeding program. There he meets a lovely human girl and rescues her from the winged men.  They meet up with the rescue party from Book 2 and escape to the outer world.

All in all a trio of pretty faced paced, interesting books.  This series has a little less of the ‘crap, Princess Dejah is in trouble again’ plot line that got a bit tiring in the second and third John Carter books.  I hadn’t read any Burroughs before these six books and I enjoyed them all.

 

The Visigothic Invasion – Thomas Hodgkin

This is Volume I in a set of books reissued by the Folio Society – “The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire” – that trace the invasions of the Roman Empire and Italy from the time of the Emperor Julian until Charlemagne in 800.  Written in the late 19th century by an amateur historian rather than an academic, it still manages to compress much if not all of the understanding of the sources at the time into its eight volumes.  And it is free of most of the fashionable slants that academia is prone to.

This volume covers probably the longest time period, from the aftermath of the death of Julian the Apostate through the entry of the Visigoths and revolt leading to the battle of Adrianople.  After that disaster, it follows the recovery under Theodosius the Great, then the crisis of the 400s as Alaric and Stilicho contended in Italy, then Stilicho’s execution and Alaric’s sieges and capture of Rome in 410.

From there the Visigoths move to Gaul, where they end up being settled in Aquitane. In the 420s the reduced Western Empire faced usurpers and civil strife between the Regent Galla Placidia and her advisers Boniface and Aetius.  Aetius finally comes out on top even though he lost the battle, as Boniface died of wounds suffered in the fight.  The last man standing returned from exile among the Huns with a new army and was able to regain is post as the Empire’s leading general and virtual master.

These books are excellent in covering in great depth a period of history that tends to be glossed over and ignored in most histories of the period that are approaching the last chapter in the book and often show it.

Volume II covers the Vandal and Hun invasions and takes the history to around the time of the traditional fall of Rome in 476.

Shattered Sword – Parshall and Tully

Subtitled ‘The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway’, this is a Japanese-centric view of the battle.  By looking at how the Japanese fleet conducted itself, the authors are able to show that the Midway operation was in trouble from the start, rather than a triumphal parade that was overturned by a single stroke of luck.

The first major issue was the plan itself.  Why Midway? If they took the island, there was virtually no way it could be defended against counterattack.  It was hardly useful as a springboard to Hawaii, since Hawaii could not be taken, and the civilians could not be fed by Japanese resources if the had taken it.   If the plan was to lure the Americans to battle, then there was little need to carry along the large battleship and troop train that played no part in the battle except to alert the Americans a day or so sooner.

And if the Midway adventure was bad, the Coral Sea and Aleutian expeditions were even sillier – dissipating the carrier force without return.

The authors do a great job in showing how the time needed by the Japanese to mount a strike, by analyzing how they reloaded and moved planes to the deck shows that the fleet needed a considerable amount of free time to get a major strike launched.  After the first strike, aimed at Midway Island, the scattered and ineffectual US attacks first from Midway, then from the torpedo bombers of the fleet, kept the Japanese from launching any second strike until after the dive bombers found and devastated three of the four Japanese carriers.

While Japanese damage control was nothing to write home about, in at least two of those three carriers, the damage on the first strike was severe and would have been enough to render the carrier useless, if not sink it.  The Akagi, hit by just one bomb, might have been kept serviceable with better damage control.  But the real problem for the carrier force was that, pinned in easy range of the US Fleet and Midway, it did not have the time to launch the large coordinated strikes the Japanese favored.

There was no real need for the fleet to press that close.  Japanese planes had a range advantage over most US planes.  Keeping the range open made all kinds of sense.  Shielding the carriers with surface forces also had some merit – and would even be Japanese doctrine in a year or so.  But the main problem was that there was no good reason for the Japanese to try to take Midway, and not much reason for the US to defend it, aside from the chance getting a shot at the carriers.

Ironically, the Japanese, who had produced the best carrier fleet in the world, didn’t value it as much as the US did, once their battleships were ravaged at Pearl Harbor.  They scattered it, and risked it in campaigns of little to no value.  At Coral Sea two carriers were put out of service for months, and at Midway four were sunk.  The remainder was not enough to keep the offensive, and by the time the US started producing its massive fleets of fast carriers in 1943 and 1944 the Japanese could not hope to compete.

 

Three John Carter Novels – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Sorry to lump The Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, and The Warlord of Mars all into one post, but if I don’t I may never catch up.  These were all Kindle volumes, part of an extremely large collection that Amazon sells for a dollar or two.

I’d never read these, although I had heard of them.  John Carter is a Virginian Civil War veteran, who conveniently is immortal.  After the war, out west he is trapped by hostile Indians in a strange cave, passes out and wakes up on Mars.  Mars is a dying world, full of hostile tribes and city states, with everyone at war with everyone else.

Carter’s Earth body makes him stronger than anyone on Mars, and he uses that strength to defend the oppressed, as befits the honor of a gentleman.  He rises from prisoner of the Green Martians to a leader, by right of combat.  Then the tribe captures the lovely Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, and Carter decides to help her get back to her home.  Needless to say, it is not as simple as that, and after adventures, imprisonment, escape, and a myriad of complications – which shows its origin as a serial in a magazine that needs a cliff-hanger every chapter or so – he gets her home and marries her.   After a decade of marriage, a final adventure where Carter saves the entire planet when the air plant fails, he is somehow returned to Earth, where he narrates the story to his nephew Burroughs. Ten years pass as he yearns to get back to Mars and his wife.

Well, it would be a short series if he did not, and in the second and third books he gets back.  And unsurprisingly, straight into trouble.  as he meets his Green Martian friend Tars Tarkas in a fight against impossible odds against a pack of vampire-like plant creatures and white apes.  From Tarkas, he learns that this is the Martian ‘heaven’, where custom says all go after a thousand years of life to rest and be at peace.  Being devoured by monsters is not part of the myth.  It turns out this religion is a lie, run by the evil Tharns.  To return to Dejah, Carter must escape and break the hold of the religion on the planet.

But of course, it is not that simple. For an advanced race of black skinned pirates capture him – they exploit the Tharns as the Tharns exploit the planet.  And they are ruled by another false religion, and the priests devour the captives they take.  There he meets and eventually recognizes his son, who was hatched from an egg after he left.  I guess they grow up fast, since he is a warrior second only to Carter.

They escape, and return to Helium only to find that the rightful rulers have been lost searching for Carter’s son, and Dejah herself had just left to escape the clutches of a usurper.  Soon they find that the Black Martians have her, and she will be eaten after her year is up.

…and so it goes.  They are fun books, if you don’t take them so seriously. Lots of desperate fights against impossible odds, imprisonments, escapes. sneaking into enemy camps and lairs, the whole works.  In the third book you start to wish Dejah stayed home, as she keeps getting kidnapped and re-kidnapped by evildoers over and over from one side of the planet to the other.

Notable Historical Trials III – King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

This chapter in the Folio Society’s collection of notable trials is more sad than interesting because even more than the Witch Trials or the trial of Joan of Arc. these two ‘show trials’ were not about trying to determine any kind of truth or even to demonstrate the truth.  They were strictly staged events.

At the King’s trial there was question after question like this:

Prosecutor:  You did X.

King:  I did not do X.

Prosecutor: You did Y….

No follow-up questions, no refuting with additional evidence, nothing.

The Queen’s trial was even worse, because she had no official duties at all.  One absurd line of accusation was that she, personally, fed wine to the Swiss Guards so that they would attack the mob.  The evidence was some empty bottles under her bed.

Even if she had done that, and the idea of the Queen hanging out with the soldiers passing out bottles is odd, to say the least — the number required to get the men drunk would hardly fit under a bed!  And of course, as Queen she could have far more easily just ordered someone to obtain and distribute wine to the men far more easily.

There was another incident where she was accused of unnatural vices with her son.  Apparently Robespierre was angry about that, because her denial actually won her some sympathy.

To the surprise of no one, the two were found guilty of whatever they were accused of and executed.  I doubt these trials convinced anyone anywhere that there was more justice than if the two had been executed without trial.

Duel of Eagles – Peter Townsend

Duel of Eagles is a book about the Battle of Britain, the first major air campaign in WWII.  Written by one of the participants and a leader of one of the squadrons in the battle, it not only covers the battle, but also the history of the RAF and Luftwaffe from birth to the battle.

The history of the interwar political fights over air services in both camps has its interesting moments.  One odd moment was when the Germans wanted to impress England with her advanced aircraft, they carefully did not mention that they were all using purchased English Rolls Royce engines!

Another interesting part of this section is that he follows the stories of how flyers on both sides got into piloting in the first place.  Most of the participants in the battle were in the air forces before the war when the role of air forces was a lot less clear.  German pilots did some training in secret bases in Russia, because of the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty that ended WWI.  English pilots were hampered by funding issues and being dispersed all over the Empire.

After the Fall of France, the Germans were in an odd position. They could not reach the English because of the Royal Navy, and the plans for an invasion were extremely sketchy.  When you compare the plans for Sealion to those of D-Day, you can see that realistically the invasion was not going to happen.  But as a first step, the Germans tried to gain air superiority over England to either support the invasion or later as an attempt to ‘break the will’ of the nation.  Good luck with that second one.  As the Allies themselves found out with their massive air offensives later in the war, you might do damage but you won’t end the war by air power alone.

But no matter how feckless the goal, it is the fellows on the front lines that have to do the hard part.  The book really shines here, following both sides with personal stories.  While the English had the advantage of the home field, so that pilots who bailed out could return rapidly to fight, as the weeks went on the pressure and losses built up.

The final relaxation of pressure when the bombing of London started put a quick end to the German campaign, as the rebounding fighter forces tore into the bombers that could only be poorly protected by Me-109 fighters at their extreme range.  This led to the formal cancellation of Sealion and end of the attempt to destroy the RAF.

The Dance of Time – Eric Flint & David Drake

This is the final volume in the Belisarius series.  The Malwa empire, twisted into evil and strengthened by the evil entity Link from the far future. is finally on the ropes.  Exhausted by defeats from Axum and Rome, weakened by rebellion in India, for the moment it is on the defensive.  But the cost to bring it the rest of the way down will be high.

The cost has already been high.  The young king Eon of Axum has died in battle, leaving an infant heir and a young bride behind.  Politics and the personal combine to require a good solution to ensure Axum’s future.  Belisarius’ aide, a young officer blinded in battle has stayed on as historian and correspondent, publishing dispatches describing the war to the home front.  There is an interesting subplot of his initially embittered wife trying to travel to the front but on the way becoming an alternate Florence Nightingale with the injured and wounded along the way.  This is enthusiastically supported by Aide and Belisarius, once the situation is brought to their attention.

The stalemate is finally broken when Lord Damondara revolts, supported by Rana Sanga and his army.  Their families hidden by the devious eunuch Narses, and with Link far away at the front, they make a stab at the capital city.  Can they take it before Link returns with reinforcements?

Belisarius sees his chance when Link leaves the front facing him with a small force.  If he can trap Link, Malwa will fall to his rebelling allies.  But can they capture Link before it jumps to a new host and assure that the far future creatures that send Aide will exist?

——

This is a great series.  I also like the fact that the focus is increasingly on the personal rather than huge battles as in some of the middle books.  Instead of a continual ‘Can I Top This’ battle strategy narrative, events turn on Belisarius concentrating on having people act as individuals – even the traitor Narses who becomes an ally as he uses his love of plotting and ambition to serve his purposes.  When you are fighting a being that wants to end individualism forever, having the key events be the character of a few men on both sides seems very fitting.

The Tide of Victory – Eric Flint & David Drake

After the destruction of the main Malwa army in Mesopotamia and the death of Link’s avatar Great Lady Holi, Belisarius and his allies have an advantage that they have to press.  The second Malwa army in the North is recalled to fight against Princess Shakuntala in south India.

Not trusting the leaders of this army, Malwa decides to hold Prince Damondara’s family, even though he is part of the Royal Family in Malwa.  They have an even worse fate planned for Rana Sanga, the Rajput general.  To bind him closer to Malwa, they plan to secretly have his family killed and to have him marry the new Great Lady Sati.

The eunuch Narses, his ambition fired by Belisarius telling him he will live thirty years or more, has a counterplot in the works to extract the families and have Damondara rebel.  But he needs Belisarius’ bodyguards to accomplish it.

Meanwhile the army keeps up the pressure by invading the Sind and Punjab (modern-day Pakistan), aided by the worlds first steam ships.  Can they keep up the pressure long enough for Narses’ treason in their favor can start?