Medieval Siege Warfare by Christopher Gravett

Medieval Siege Warfarealt by Christopher Gravettalt is a break from my usual reviews of fiction. But I'm starting to think about my next novel and, if all goes as planned, this one is going to take place exclusively during a siege. One of the rules I set forth going into this next one is that everything would happen in one place—whether it be one city, town, castle, whatever. No traveling, in other words. In an effort to make sure my bases are covered, I thought a little reading on the subject of sieges was in order. Fortunately, I was able to look no further than my own library where I found Medieval Siege Warfare along with another book entitled Siege: Castles at Waralt by Mark Donnelly and Daniel Diehl (review forthcoming on that one).

Medieval Siege Warfare is fairly short, coming in at 64 pages. There are an abundance of pictures, illustrations, and numbered diagrams; the obvious reason for these is to provide a visual for the discussion subjects. In many cases, they helped. The ones I found of most significance were the aerial photos of various castles as these go a long way in impressing upon the reader just how difficult a castle was to capture via siege. The height and thickness of the walls, the strength and defensive position of mural towers, the fact that the defenders were not often idle, leading sorties against the besiegers at every opportunity; all of these factors meant sieges were often a long, drawn out affair where the besiegers best hope was to wait out a castle's defenders until they ran out of water or food. Besiegers often hastened this waiting period by plugging up sewers, doing their best to promote disease within the castle walls by hurling carcasses over the walls, and by cutting off supplies in or out of the fortress. In fact, often diplomacy was the first tactic in any siege.

It's an interesting fact that in a feudal system soldiers were only required to serve for forty days before being allowed to return to their fields or craft as the services and goods they provided formed the basis of society.

Siege engines, artillery, and the other constructs utilized by besiegers are perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of a siege. Gravett spends some time discussing mantlets (a large shield or portable shelter used for stopping arrows or bullets), belfries (a siege tower; expensive, time-consuming to build), battering rams (up to 60 men swinging it to break stone apart), as well as the three types of (pre-gunpowder) artillery separated by the firing principles of tension (ballista; giant crossbow), torsion (catapult), and counterpoise/weight (trebuchet).

The author also discusses sapping or mining, escalade, where men with ladders attempt to take a fortresses' walls by force, and pyrotechnics, many medieval strongholds and towns being highly susceptible to fire.

My overall impression of Medieval Siege Warfarealt is that it gives a good, high-level overview of the different aspects of a siege. I don't know that you'd be able to go off and write a thesis on the subject based on this work alone, but it's thorough enough to satisfy the layman. The only complaint I have about the book is that there is no index. However, it's short enough that finding information isn't all that difficult.

The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien) is the tragic story of the scions of Hurin, Turin and his sister Nienor. Step into the wayback machine; this tale takes place long before The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, when the First Dark Lord, Morgoth, sought dominion over all of Middle-Earth.

Morgoth has fled from his Valar brethren, taking up residence in his dark fortress, Angband, There he plots to conquer all of Middle-Earth. At first, only the Elves oppose him. But then Men revolt against Morgoth. The Elves welcome their new allies, most of all Hurin, who above all others defies Morgoth to such an extent that the Dark Lord takes a personal interest in him. Morgoth captures Hurin and places a curse on his children. He then forces Hurin to watch as Turin and Nienor's lives unfold. Always, there is Morgoth's curse hanging over them and, ultimately, leading them to tragedy.

Unlike The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin is readable. Where the former requires a classroom of Tolkien scholars to help interpret exactly what is going on, the latter is told in an easy narrative style. Christopher Tolkien, who edited the drafts and notes of his father to put this story together, says in the preface that he wanted to tell the story in a more accessible fashion, recognizing that The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales were anything but. That being said, The Children of Hurin, while readable, is told in a distant narrative style. Don't expect a lot of character viewpoint here; it's all told in third person omniscient. It's all telling, in other words, and no showing.

Much of the story has to do with Turin, son of Hurin. Turin comes to realize the curse he carries early on. As a result, he becomes a wanderer and wears many hats (and false identities) as he moves from one part of his life to another. He is often recognized as a natural leader, a stalwart ally, and a fierce combatant, though, and always he is thrust to the forefront where eventually his true identity comes to light. It is then when tragedy strikes as Morgoth's curse inevitably finds him time and again.

Turin uses many names corresponding to the false identities he takes on in an attempt to in some way forestall the curse. I found all of the names added to the already difficult names Tolkien bandies about. Fortunately, there is a "List of Names" in the back of the book which I found myself referencing often just to keep the various characters straight.

I enjoyed The Children of Hurin. It's a good addition to the Tolkien legendarium, though if you're looking for something as entertaining as, say, The Lord of the Rings movies, you might be disappointed.

Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon

Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon is the first book in The Entire and the Rose series. Subsequent novels include A World Too Near, City Without End, and Prince of Storms. Bright of the Sky was (and still is) a free Kindle giveaway, which is how I obtained this gem. Free is always easy; you didn't pay anything for it, so if it doesn't live up to expectations, no big loss. Fortunately, Bright of the Rose did not disappoint.

The novel is a blend of science fiction and fantasy, the latter coming into play because the technology is so far advanced that it might as well be magic. The setting is reminiscent of such series as The Chronicles of Narnia or the Thomas Covenant Chronicles, both of which feature characters who travel from our world into one that is both wonderful and strange. What Kenyon does, however, borders on brilliant: instead of journeying with the main character into this other world for the very first time, we quickly learn that our main character, Titus Quinn, has already been there. This sets things up in an entirely different way than if he's just come into the Entire (the name for this otherworldly dimension). The catch is that he doesn't remember much about his previous stay, and only once he's back and immersed in the Entire's strange culture do bits and pieces return to him. As readers, everything is new. But with Titus as our guide, we're able to skip over some of the minutia and get right into the good stuff. That's the brilliance of Kenyon's approach.

The only thing that Titus does remember for sure is that he didn't enter the Entire alone: with him were his wife and daughter. They did not return with him, though, and so Titus spends much of his time trying to convince others back in his own world that he isn't crazy, that there is another world or dimension that he somehow traveled to, and that his wife and daughter are still there. The opportunity to return final presents itself when your somewhat atypical greedy corporation steps in offering to send Titus back in exchange for his performing some reconnaissance for them. It seems space-time works differently in the Entire, and they think it can be used to speed up interstellar travel. Titus agrees, and off he goes.

The Entire is an odd place based loosely on feudal Chinese society. Ruled by the Mantis Lords, or Tarig, there are humans and many others races there, but all are kept in a sort of subjugation by the Tarig, who are the creators of the Bright, an energy source that makes the Entire possible. Our world is called the Rose, because while those of the Entire view it as a thing of beauty, they also have seen its thorns. Interaction with the Rose is forbidden, and punishable by death, as is aiding someone like Titus who's come from there. Titus does find allies, though, those who are tired of the Tarig yoke. HIs journey becomes one of deception and subterfuge as he avoids detection at all costs while trying to determine the fate of his wife and daughter.

Titus comes across initially as a bit of a bitter kook. He was ridiculed and discredited upon his return to our world, so he chooses to live a life of solitude until given the chance to return to the Entire. He is ruled by guilt over leaving his family behind, though, and so he desperately wants to return. This desperation sets him up ultimately as a sympathetic character whom I wanted to succeed. As the story unfolds and Titus's memories return to him, the fate of his family is both sad and bittersweet. Ultimately, what begins as a sort of rescue mission for Titus becomes something else entirely as old enemies emerge and secrets are revealed. Suffice to say that Kenyon resolves some threads while leaving others spinning on the loom for the next two books in the series.

I give Bright of the Sky a solid thumbs up and I plan to continue with the series.

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder starts out flat out hard to understand. Not the writing, or the language, or even the plot (though it does take a while to fully unfold). It's the world itself that took me way too long to comprehend. The setting is a sort of blend of science fiction and steampunk and takes place on a planet called Virga. Maybe 'planet' is the wrong word. The description on Amazon defines Virga as a "planet-sized balloon", which is about right now that I think about it. But that fact was never understood, at least not by me. I figured Virga for a gas planet because there is no surface, but, to confuse things a bit more, there are artificial suns within the 'balloon'. People travel about inside this balloon using ships armed with rockets and protected by hosts of flying motorbikes. At one point, they travel to the outer (inside) edge, but can go no further. There is a sentient, all-powerful race outside the balloon, and presumably they're the ones who keep the people inside (?). Again, confusing.

All that strangeness aside, Sun of Suns is a surprisingly entertaining novel: Hayden Griffin wants revenge on the man responsible for killing his parents and forcing the subjugation of his nation. Admiral Chaison Fanning of Slipstream is that man. But as Hayden gets close to the admiral, intent on killing him and selling his own life in the process if necessary, he comes to learn of a threat more dangerous than Slipstream that the admiral intends to meet head on. Forced to join Fanning's crew from circumstance if nothing else, Hayden finds himself growing attached to certain Slipstream crewmembers and unwilling to carry out his original mission.

Schroeder has quite the imagination when it comes to world-building. I only wish he'd stopped for a moment to explain it a little better. While the novel does meander a bit—the main plot points are not revealed until the reader is well into it—a riotous, action-packed ship battle at the end almost makes the whole experience worth it. Add Sun of Suns to your reading list. It’s a five book series, so plenty of time for explanations of how things work later on.

The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett got off to a great start, but ultimately didn't do it for me. This is a book I'd read a lot about, and so I began reading with a certain amount of pent-up expectation. The concept is great: humans have lost much of their past, including technology and magic they once used to nearly drive the demons that rise from the ground each night into extinction. They survive now only because enough of the warding magic was preserved to protect their houses where they are forced to hide each time the sun goes down. Once, there were attack wards, but those have long been forgotten. Until the Warded Man returns, a legendary figure from a bygone era who not only walks the night, but preys on the very demons who hunt humanity.

If only Brett had launched into the story like that, I think it would have worked much better. Instead he takes us on a long voyage beginning with Arlen's childhood (Arlen eventually becomes the Warded Man), the loss of his mother, and how it drives him to leave his village one day with no concern for the demons that he knows will kill him as soon as the sun sets. He survives that first night, and others, until he arrives at a city where he is taken in by a Messenger, someone who braves the night to bring news and supplies from one village to another.

The story also deals with the upbringing of two other characters: Leesha and Rojer. Leesha becomes a medicine woman and Rojer a Jongleur, a companion to Messengers and an entertainer. Their individual stories are interesting enough. Suffice to say their paths cross with that of Arlen's or, rather, the Warded Man, since that is who Arlen has become by the time the three meet, and together they stage the largest assault on demon-kind the world has seen in a very long time.

While I did enjoy Arlen's transformative journey, I felt that introducing the Warded Man as a more undefined entity might have worked better. Instead, by seeing the Warded Man's origin story laid out in such detail, it takes away all of the mystery surrounding him.

Rojer seemed almost an afterthought at times. He fills up some pages, but was he truly needed? I have my doubts.

Leesha… a likeable character with a deep personality but I had an issue with a plot point in which Leesha is raped. I don't know what the deal is, but this is the second time I've read a somewhat recently released fantasy novel where a rape "happens" (I won't even call them scenes because they are both dealt with after the rape has occurred; the event itself is completely skipped over). The other was Sprunk's Shadow's Son. In both novels, the rape is so unnecessary to the story that I have to wonder if it wasn't the publisher who strongly encouraged (made) the author put it in. In Leesha's case, in particular, the character goes to great lengths at times to "save herself" for that perfect man she might meet someday (she winds up finding herself attracted to the Warded Man, something I did not get at all; it seemed really forced) only to find herself in the most ridiculous of circumstances and raped. The ridiculous circumstances are when Rojer, an experienced traveler, tells a group of perfect strangers what route they intend to take and, oh, by the way, I'm the only one guarding this fair lady.

Not that The Warded Man is all bad. The whole idea of demons rising every night is top-notch. Brett explains their existence and how humans lost the ability to fight them well-enough, also. I think he really had what could have been a grand series here. Unfortunately, I think he fails to execute and I don't think I'll be picking up the next book in the series.