The Killer Angels – Michael Shaara

TheKillerAngelsIn this Pulitzer winning classic, Michael Shaara tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War from both Union and Confederate sides. This is not a history text however, since Shaara has written it as a novel. Mainly focusing on Union Colonel Chamberlain and Confederate General Longstreet, the pivotal battle and its players come alive on the page.

Beyond the very basics, I didn’t know much about the Civil War before I read this book. Certainly I had little awareness of how people thought at the time, or the deeper underlying motivations leading to  war. Certainly slavery was a big part of it, but it is made quite clear in the novel that the South and the North are societies that work in different ways. Roughly speaking, the North is “modern”, urban, industrialized and with a firm egalitarian ethic, while the South is more “old-fashioned”. The men are “gentlemen”, with notable class differences. The Southerners also believe in much stronger state independence. The North, victorious, strengthened the federal government, a development which is clearly seen in the United States of today. But they all see themselves as Americans. In fact the officers all have many friends on “the other side” (they were in the same army before after all) and there are many thoughts given to the sadness of having had to part, and then to meet on the battlefield as enemies. Are they fighting for loyalty, or for idealism, or just because they are soldiers?

Shaara went back to letters and first hand accounts for his research, and it shows. Sometimes overlong, but quite interesting internal monologues reveal the though processes of the characters. These are not our contemporaries. They are romantic and in our eyes often naive. They cry openly for lost friendship, they revel in life and companionship. They do not hide their emotions in public like we do today.

The battle scenes are excellent, and frightening. The comparative inefficiency of the rifles of the day is shown by the very short ranges and the fact that soldiers often sustain multiple wounds without notably impaired performance. It is combat up close and personal, with regimental commanders right there among their men. Logistics plays a big part, as does morale. A good commander knows not to throw troops who have marched all day straight into battle, in particular without food.

The undoing of the Confederates in this battle was an absence of strategic and tactical vision. As Longstreet remarks to himself, their tactics consist of “we find the enemy, and then we attack.” Longstreet himself is a master strategist, and strongly urges more refined tactics, making the Union army come at them instead of the other way around. It is not until the end of WWI, over fifty years later, that his defensive warfare ideas become mainstream. Lee orders a massed assault on a fortified position partly because of fear that the men will see it as weak to withdraw and attack on another flank. One romantic, glorious, useless, stupid charge that accomplished nothing but break his own army. And thus the tide of the war turned.


Genesis – Bernard Beckett

GenesisGenesis is set entirely within the four-hour examination for Academy admission of one Anaximander. The Academy rules the society of the future, and Anax is one of the very few chosen for examination. The examination focuses on her chosen subject, the life of Adam Forde, who committed a peculiar act of rebellion, and received an even more peculiar sentence for his crime.

The story is quite short, a novelette in fact, and is told through the examination dialogue and recreation of historical record. Society has devolved into war and plague, civilization destroyed but for one remote and isolated pocket. This pocket must defend itself against the plagues ravaging the outside, and rebuild into a new society. The second part of the book deals with the nature of consciousness, with surprising results.

The novel is explicitly a reflection and discussion on humanity, on what it means to be human, to be a thinking being. Mr. Beckett cleverly uses Anax’s examination and the history of society and Adam Forde to explore the subject from a philosophical viewpoint without making it tedious philosophical discourse. A very interesting read.



Tiger by the Tail (Paladin of Shadows VI) – John Ringo & Ryan Sear

PaladinofShadows6TigerbytheTailMike Harmon and his band of Georgian (the country not the state) mountain soldiers are back. This time they are on a training mission in Southeast Asia. One thing leads to another, with the action moving from Indonesia, to Hong Kong, to Phuket and finally to Myanmar.

In this sixth book, Ringo is cooperating with Ryan Sear. While the action is pretty good, compared to the previous books, especially I-IV, it feels a bit color by numbers, a bit like a Bond movie. The sex scenes, while still explicit and edgy, seem more written for shock effect than with reference to actual S&M practices. And apart from one quite brief action scene, there is far too little doubt about the outcome. The Keldara have become supermen, and this is a bit dull.

The perhaps unfortunate thing about a novel with a large chunk set in Hong Kong is that I could pick it apart for accuracy. I understand artistic license and I understand that there will be inaccuracies but in this book it was a bit much. For example a Hong Kong scene is set in Shekou docks, but this is over the border in Mainland China. A simple check on Google Maps would have established that. It detracts from the enjoyment of the novel when the research is so sloppy.