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Labor of Love

Ruarin, Lady of Eyre, heard her husband’s boots on the stairs leading to her kitchen.  She placed her hand upon the bundle of food the cook had prepared for the master of the house. Her hounds, Water of Fire and Bounder, sat on the floor next to DaddyBear’s baggage.  Their noses twitched as they tried, in vain, to convince her that they should give their master’s victuals a final taste, just to be sure that it was safe.

Beyond the shuttered windows, a winter storm roared as it swept in from the mountains to the west.  Normally their home would be frosted with snow at this time of year, but unusually warm, wet weather had turned her gardens into sodden mires.  Ruarin’s heart and mood matched them. Her eyes flashed just as the sky did when great bolts of lightning arced to the hills at the edge of their valley.

DaddyBear the Minivandian strode into his kitchen and glanced about as if expecting assassins to leap from the shadows.   The dogs thumped their tails against the flagstones at his approach, earning them each a pat on the head. Their disappointment at the lack of a treat was evident in their eyes.

The Northerner turned to his wife.  Their gaze met for a long moment, then the Lady of Eyre turned away.

“Your things are ready, my lord,” she said in an even, formal tone.  “Is there anything else you need before you depart?”

“My love,” he started to reply, but was cut off when his wife lifted her head and fixed him with a glare.

“Love?” she spat.  “Is it love that sends you off to some forsaken place today?”

“Ruarin, it’s by order of the High King himself.”

“And what of it?  I seem to remember an oath to me that you would stay home for a long while.  Do you remember that?”

“Yes, but…”

“And your oath to our son that you would attend to his training this winter?  The boy needs someone to show him how to use that sword he got at mid-winter, and now his father is traipsing off on another adventure.”

“The master at arms can work with the Young Prince.”

Ruarin’s eyes flashed at that.

“He is your son.  You should be teaching him.”

“I wouldn’t go if I didn’t have to.”

“That is what you said when you missed his birthday last spring, and when you were gone during the harvest feast.  You’ve just barely finished healing from that little jaunt, and now you’re off again.”

“Ruarin, my love,….”

“And what of me?  Am I only the lady of your house now?  Am I to just stay here to keep hearth and home together while my lord is out and about?”

The Miniviandian closed his eyes and took a long, slow breath.  He opened his eyes and let it as he replied to his wife.

“Woman, I am bound by my word to our King.”

“And what of your oath to me?  Have you forgotten that after all these years?”

DaddyBear’s rocked back as if he’d been slapped.  “Of course, I haven’t. Do you think I choose these things freely?”

“I could write to the King.  We’re kin, after all. You should be….”

“No,” DaddyBear said firmly, his voice dropping to a growl.  “I forbid you to do that. I will do my duty.”

The pair glared at each other while another peal of thunder shook the foundations of their manor.  The dogs looked from one to the other, then made the wise choice to slink away.

The Northerner bent down and picked up his bag.  Hefting it over his shoulder, he turned to the door.

“I’ll be back on the full moon,” he said over his shoulder as he stepped out into the storm.  The wind grabbed the door from his grasp, slamming it back into its frame hard enough to make the shutters rattle.

Ruarin stood in her empty kitchen, listening in vain for the sound of DaddyBear’s return for a parting embrace.  After a long wait, she felt hot tears roll down her cheeks, then sobs filled the kitchen.  

In the morning, the cook would find her mistress asleep at the table, the master’s bundle of food cradled in her arms.

 

DaddyBear the Minivandian trudged through the mud as the storm raged around him.  He had tied the pack behind his saddle before leaving home, but chose to lead his horse through the storm rather than ride him.  The big roan walked with his head down, but otherwise did not seem to notice the pellets of ice that had replaced the rain as they walked through the manor’s gate.  

The pre-dawn gloom slowly gave way to a dim, crimson dawn as the Northerner turned to follow a forest path into the hills.  After only a few miles of walking in the rain and mist, his cloak and anything not covered by it was sodden and splattered with frozen mud.  His beard and hair were frosted with ice, but he did not seem to notice as he trudged along. His eyes were fixed forward and he mumbled to himself as he went along.  

Several forest creatures heard his footfalls and voice long before he passed their lairs.   Some, hungry from a hard winter, might have chanced attacking a lone traveller, but none dared face the wrath of the big Northman that day.  Even though his great axe was strapped to his saddle and his sword was sheathed beneath several layers of wool and leather, none wished to face death at his bare hands.

Only when DaddyBear’s belly started to rumble with hunger did his attention come back to what he was doing.  With a grunt, he guided his horse into a stand of cedars. The few rays of dawn’s light that escaped beneath the leaden sky shone through the ice encrusting them.  They gave the cedars a red hue that matched the Minivandian’s bloody mood.

When he discovered that he had forgotten his food, DaddyBear cursed himself to any gods that might have been listening.

“Fool,” he said, “do you think you can survive on pine needles and snow?”

After considering that for a moment, DaddyBear snorted.  “I mean, can you survive on pine tea and whatever else you can find, again?”  Images of a frozen forest and a pretty girl flitted across his eyes for a moment.

He stopped to think, but then shook his head.  “No, I’m not going back. I’m already late, and I’m in no mood to cross swords with her once more,” he muttered as he put his foot in the stirrup.  Once he was settled into the saddle, he poked the roan in the ribs and started down the trail again.

“I know where I can get provisions, and the company might be a bit friendlier.”

 

The Minivandian’s cloak hissed and steamed next to the crackling fire as Jedediah the Dwarf filled a mug with dark, rich beer and passed it to DaddyBear.  The short, barrel-chested man looked as if he had been crafted from tooled leather. His skin was deeply tanned, even in the darkest winter. It was either due to his continual work at his forge, or perhaps from decades of grinding grease and soot into it.  His bright eyes twinkled in the firelight above an unruly beard of dark curls. Now, at rest, he wore a woolen robe dyed the color of spring grass. DaddyBear was more accustomed to seeing him in a pair of leather breeches and a thick apron.

His home was small, almost cramped to the Northerner’s eyes, but was spotlessly clean and comfortably furnished.  The aroma of fresh bread, fragrant woodsmoke, and hot metal permeated the house. The walls and ceiling were intricately carved with rosettes and scenes of ancient battles.  Rugs fashioned from the skins of animals both wild and tame carpeted the floor. They, along with a roaring fire, kept Jedediah and his guest cozy. 

“So, you’re off again?” the dwarf drawled as he settled into his favorite chair.  DaddyBear nodded as he stared into the fire.

“Yes,” he took a long pull from his mug, “again.”

“Where to this time?”

“Havheim, to deliver a message to the merfolk.”

Jedediah winced at that.  “I can see why Ruarin’s about as happy as a wet cat.”

The Minivandian nodded. 

“Will she be there?”

DaddyBear replied,  “That’s who the message is for.”

Jedediah winced again.  “Ruarin knows?”

“I hide nothing from my wife.”

“And you’ve told her about your… history with the Lady Cichlidia?”

The Northman sighed and put his mug down.  “I hide nothing from my wife,” he repeated, “although sometimes….”

“You’d rather chance being turned into a toad when she finds out anyhow?”

Both men snorted.  A knot in the fire popped as they laughed at the thought.

“I would make a particularly ugly toad,” the Minivandian said with a chuckle.  “Better to be truthful.”

Jedediah nodded in agreement.  “Well, I’ve got some vittles ya can take.  Y’all’re partial to boar, right?

“Smoked or dried?”

“Brined with dragon spice, then smoked fer a week.”

DaddyBear worked his jaw as if he were already trying to chew the tough, spicy strips of meat.  It wouldn’t be as good as what he’d expected to have on the trip, but it would be better than an empty belly.

“Thank you, Jedediah.  That’ll be fine.”

“In this weather, it’ll take ya weeks to get to Havheim and back.  Ain’t there a quicker way?”

“The King asked that I do this without drawing attention.  A winged beast descending on the home of the merfolk isn’t exactly covert.”

“True, true,” the dwarf said as he got up.  “It’s a long ride in good weather. In this,” he swept his arm toward the window, now crusted in ice, “you’ll be lucky to be home by spring.”

“I’ll make up time once the weather breaks.”

Jedediah snorted.  “I’ll fetch that hawg meat fer ya.  I’ll see if I’ve got any of those dried apples from last summer left.”

“Thank you.”

“Whatcha gonna do about the missus?  This is a bad time to be away from home.”

The Northman sighed and stared at the fire.  “I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll find a gift along the way.”

“Ya know, I’ve still got some of that silver y’all brought home from Illium a couple of years ago.  Might make somethin’ nice.”

DaddyBear stroked his beard and nodded thoughtfully.  “That might help. I’ll see if I can find anything you can use along the way.”

Jedediah cracked a smile as he stood and headed toward his larder.  “Nothing too big, mind you. Just some stones I can set in the silver.”

 

“Dozhevir, my love, I’m afraid you’ve come all this way for nothing,” Cichlidia said in a rich, sweet voice.  She was submerged in a pool of azure water up to her neck, sparing the Minivandian from having to avert his gaze. Merfolk rarely wore much clothing while in their own realm.

“All my king asks is that you answer his question, my lady,” he replied.  He kept his gaze centered on her forehead, which was ringed by flaxen hair that flowed down either side of her exquisitely beautiful face.  Meeting her gaze for too long might have sent the wrong message to the mermaid.

“Then you may tell him that I must decline his offer,” Cichlidia replied with a beaming smile.  The corner of her eyes crinkled as she rose up a few inches in the water. She could sense DaddyBear’s unease.  She giggled when she saw that he was blushing already.

“Well, then, there are other errands I must attend to,” the Northman said, not taking his eyes off of her forehead.  He bowed. “By your leave, my lady?”

“Going so soon, Dozhevir?”  Cichlidia giggled again, and rising just a little more from the water.  “We’ve got so much to catch up on!”

“I, my lady, am a married man in the presence of someone of your beauty.  Lingering here to talk about old times would be….”

“Wonderful?”  Cichlidia stretched her arms over her head and arched her back.  “Oh, this throne is uncomfortable,” she purred.

“I was going to say ‘disastrous’,” DaddyBear replied tersely.  “I really can’t stay.”

“But, my lord, it’s cold outside.” Cichlidia settled back onto her throne.  “Just stay a few days to let the weather pass.”

“No, I promised Ruarin that I would be home before the full moon, and the High King needs to hear your reply.”

“Well, then, if you must go, then let me give you a proper goodbye.”  She surged across the pool with a hard thrust of her tail. She hovered in front of him, wrapping her shapely arms around his neck.  She leaned in for a kiss, but was disappointed when he turned his head and presented her with a bearded cheek.

“Always the honorable barbarian, aren’t you, Dozhevir?” she pouted as she sank back into her pool.  

“Always, Cichlidia.”

“Well, go with my blessing then, if you must.”

“Thank you, my lady.”  DaddyBear turned and hurried from the hall.  Once he was beyond the walls of Cichlidia’s palace, he wiped his hand across his cheek to make sure no mark from her kiss remained.

“Simon,” he whispered as he strode toward the groom holding the his horse, “I should never have let you talk me into visiting that grotto.”

 

A bolt of blue fire burst against the rocks at DaddyBear’s feet, throwing him to the side.  The big man tucked his axe against his chest and rolled in the pebbles of glass that carpeted the plateau.  A huge nest, fashioned from the trunks of trees and interwoven with tendrils of frost, loomed at its center.  Above it, a huge creature, as white as newly fallen snow, rose as it beat its wings against the air.  

The creature’s cry wrent the air, making the Minivandian’s ears ring as he sprang to his feet and rushed at the nest.  The small stones beneath his feet crunched as he raced across the open area before leaping up the side of the nest. The ice phoenix swooped around in a long arc, then dove at him.   Just as DaddyBear reached the edge of the nest, it stuck at him with a set of wickedly sharp talons.  

DaddyBear felt the fabric of his cloak tear as he was lifted off of the nest and thrown down into it.  He managed to keep hold of his axe by some miracle, but otherwise landed like a sack of wet mush next to a clutch of huge eggs.  His head spun as he tried to regain his feet. He felt no broken bones, but could taste blood where he had bitten through his tongue.

The phoenix cried again as it plunged down at him, then screamed as the intruder rose to his feet and pulled his axe back behind his shoulder. She stretched out her talons to strike.

“Hold!” the Minivandian shouted at the humongous bird.  “I mean you no harm!” He dodged as the bird swooped over him.

“Thief! Assassin!” the phoenix cried out, hovering over the mound of mottled eggs. “You’ve come to murder my children!”

“I come only in search of a jewel!” DaddyBear’s words were a bit muddled by his rapidly swelling tongue.

“Jewel?”  The phoenix kept a suspicious eye on the Northerner as she settled back on her nest.  At this stage, her young needed to be kept warm, and the frigid north wind whistling around her eggs worried her.

“Yes, my friend tells me that ice phoenix have beautiful blue jewels.”  

“Oh, those,” the phoenix scoffed.  “Your friend has seen our tears?”

“Tears?”  This time it was DaddyBear’s turn to be puzzled.

“Silly mortals,” the phoenix snorted.  “Of course, tears. When one of us sheds a tear, it freezes immediately.”

“Into a jewel?”

“Well, they are shiny.  I suppose someone might mistake one of them for a jewel.”

“All right then, how do I get a few tears from you?”

“If I cry for you, will you leave and never come back?”  

“Of course.  My home is far from here, and I have no wish to return to your aerie.”

The phoenix sighed and shook her downy head.  “All right, but just this once.”

She dipped her head down so that they were eye to eye.  

“Stretch out your paw.”  

DaddyBear did as instructed.  The phoenix turned her head to the side, then closed her eyes.  A few moments later, azure drops rolled down her beak and into his palm. Searing cold raced up his arm as each crystalline drop fell.

After a few moments, the phoenix raised her head.  One final tear escaped, falling to the ground and shattering in a flash of blue light.

“There, if that’s all you came for…”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Mind that you never return, morsel.  My young will be hungry for red meat in a few weeks.”

“Have no worry, my lady,” DaddyBear said as he tucked the jewels into a pouch.  “I do not wish to disturb you further.” He slowly backed to the edge of the nest, then climbed down to the ground.  The phoenix listened to his footfalls as he crunched through the pebbles and made his way down the narrow path off of her plateau.

“Foolish mammal,” she muttered as she preened her feathers.  “Tears are just pretty. He should have asked for a feather or two.”

 

“So,” the demon said with a sharp-toothed smirk, “your turn!”

DaddyBear scooped the iron dice up from the top of the black stone table.  For the first time in days, he was warm. In fact, he was uncomfortably hot.  Only a suspicion that he might have to race back out into the blizzard howling around the lip of the crater in which he sat kept him from stripping off a few layers of clothing.

“Last try,” the Northerner growled.  He shook the dice thrice, then watched as they clicked and sparked their way across the tabletop.

“Ah, good throw!” the demon cackled.  “But not perfect. Three fives and a four won’t be easy to beat, but we’ll see what I can do.”  

DaddyBear watched as the  imp swept the dice into its claws.  Rather than shake them, it threw them up into the air and let them fall.  Instead of bouncing, the dice landed with a thud. The demon did not look down at the dice.  It merely sneered across the table.

“Four fives!  I win again!”

DaddyBear made a sour face, but slid a gold coin across to his opponent.  It was all that remained of the stack of coins he had entered the game with. The demon laughed as it picked it up and popped the gold into its mouth.

“Oh, that’s a sweet one.”  The creature smiled at his guest.   “Care to throw again?”

“I’m out of money.”  The Minivandian gestured at the empty table in front of him.

“Well, what about that pretty sword you have under your cloak?”

“My sword?”

The demon smiled warmly.  “How about this? If you win, you get everything back and we can start over?”

“And if I lose?”

“That blade will taste really good.”

The Minivandian pursed his lips as he thought about the imp’s offer, then he reached under his cloak and drew his sword.  The polished steel gleamed in the torchlight as he lay it down on the table.

“Are those real Channani runes?  Those will add spice to the meal!”  

DaddyBear’s eye twitched as he scooped up the dice.  Never letting his eyes leave the demon, he shook them, then let them roll off of his fingers.  Just as the demon had done before, he didn’t look down at his dice before saying, “Four sixes.”

“But you only got three….” The demon stopped when the glowing edge of DaddyBear’s sword slid up against its neck.  It tried to pull away, but DaddyBear’s other hand snaked out and grabbed its scaly arm.

“It’s four sixes, you cheating hellspawn,” the Minivandian said in a quiet, calm voice.  “Pay up.”

“But…”

“Give me what I want, or I’ll carve what I need out of your hide after I split you open and take back my gold.”  The demon locked eyes with the Northman, then blinked.

“All right, all right,” it said.  It’s tail slouched to the ground behind it.  “Ye gods, a guy can’t have a bit of fun?”

“Only a fool cheats a man of the North,” DaddyBear growled.  He put a little more pressure on the sword.

“Cheating?” the demon said, slowly reaching into the pouch laying in front of it on the table. “Me?”

“You think I’ve never seen enchanted dice before?”

“Oh, so you’ve played this game before?” the imp asked as it shook several iridescent stones out of the pouch.

“More times than I can count.  I just wanted to see how greedy you were.”  DaddyBear released the demon’s arm and picked up the gems.  Slowly, he pulled his sword back and lowered it.

The demon rubbed the mark the blade had left on its neck and scowled at the Minivandian.  

“I ought to kill you for that,” it spat.

“If you’re feeling froggy, then jump,” DaddyBear answered menacingly.  He stood, his sword clasped in one hand and the firejewels gripped in the palm of the other.

“Care to try again?” the demon asked slyly.  “We can even use your dice.”

“Not a chance.  You only get to cheat me once, and I know you’ve got more tricks to play.”

“Now you insult me?”

“You’re lucky I let you keep the gold. I just don’t have time to clean my blade today.”

The demon shrank back, stepping away from the table.

“Okay, okay,” it hissed.  “Just go. I’ve got other rubes to play with.”

DaddyBear turned his head and spit on the floor of the crater.  It sizzled and hissed as he walked away. “Demon blood makes for good ink.  Remember that before you try anything.”

Without looking back, the Minivandian climbed up the side of the crater and back down to where he had tied his horse.   The hem of his cloak and the soles of his boots smoked where they touched the stones.

 

Ruarin sat at her kitchen table.  A gentle, but constant, rain pattered against the windows behind her.  She had kept her composure until she could be alone, but now her eyes burned from the tears that had soaked into the arm of her dress. The rest of the house had gone to bed hours before, but she had stayed up to watch the moon rise.  

This was the third month she had kept this vigil, and every month had been a disappointment.

Bounder, the smaller of her family’s black hounds, leaned her head against the Lady of Eyre’s lap.  Her tail thumped against the flagstone floor as a delicate hand scratched behind her ears. The dog’s attention drew Ruarin’s eyes from the window.

“You miss him too, don’t you, girl?”  The hound looked up at her and let out a long sigh.  “I suppose he’ll be home by the next full moon.”

Suddenly, Bounder reared her head back and turned to face the door.  Her back arched as she unfurled her leathery wings. A low growl rose from her throat, raising the hair on the back of Ruarin’s neck. Her sharp bark filled the kitchen. It was quickly answered by the loud bay of her brother as he scrambled from his bed in Elsked’s room and raced toward the kitchen.

The Lady of Eyre rose from the table and drew the dagger she kept at her belt.  To her shock, she realized that the door was not latched shut. Hearing a heavy footfall on the stone courtyard beyond, she raced to the door just as it started to swing open.

Ruarin raised her blade, the first bit of a curse between her teeth, when a haggard, bedraggled figure stepped through the doorway and into her kitchen.  Bounder beat her wings as she pounced, striking the intruder in the leg with her paws. Her tail whipped back and forth as she greeted him.

Ruarin looked up into the man’s face.  His long, filthy beard dripped from the rain. His eyes were red with exhaustion.  The cloak across his shoulder was torn in several places. His shoulders were stooped and he moved like an old man.

DaddyBear the Minivandian looked down at his wife.  He could see the surprise and shock on her face at the sight of him.  

“Wife, I am home,” he rumbled in a tired voice.  “I regret that I am a bit late.”

He took another step into his home and raised his hand. Nestled in his palm was a long silver chain.  A pendant of firestones and blue phoenix stones caught the light from the candle burning on the table and glowed with a fire of its own.

“I hope that this makes up for my absence.”  He looked down at his wife, searching for some sign from her.

Ruarin examined the necklace for a moment, then knocked his hand away. Before he could react, she leapt at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him down for a kiss.

“My love,” she said through fresh tears, “I need no jewels.  I only need you.”

The Northman ran the back of his fingers down her cheek, then pulled her close.  They stood there for a long time, holding each other and listening to the rain fall on the courtyard.

Book Review – Pretending to Sleep

Monalisa Foster has penned a poignant, vivid depiction of life under communist rule in Pretending to Sleep:  A Communism Survivor’s Short Story.

Based on actual events, this short story provides a quick glimpse into life under Ceaucescu’s brutal communist regime. Like so many Romanians, ten-year-old Renata lives in fear of Securitate (Ceaucescu’s secret police). They don’t always take you in the middle of the night. In a world where the living envy the dead, not all examples are made in the shadows. Some are made in the light of day.

Pretending to Sleep depicts the events in a child’s life as she endures and escapes communist Romania.  The dehumanizing discipline and fear that such regimes demand is portrayed in simple, blunt language.  Ms. Foster’s tale is in the same vein as Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl or Ryabakov’s Children of the Arbat.

This is a short story, so I read through it quickly.  However, that made it easy to go back and reread it.  The narrative of Pretending to Sleep reminded me of stories told to me by folks who survived Stalin’s terror or suffered under the heel of the Stazi.

One more compliment I can give this book is that it’s appropriate for children older than 10 or 12 years old.  In fact, I’d say that it would be good for someone who is learning about the world to read it.  The evils of totalitarianism, communist or not, need to be retold so that we don’t forget them.

Give Pretending to Sleep a read.  It’ll definitely give you something to think about.

Audiobook Review – I Heard You Paint Houses

Rather than watch DeNiro and Pacino chew on the scenery for three-plus hours in The Irishman, I decided to just listen to I Heard You Paint Houses.  I’m glad I did.

The Irishman is an epic saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran, a hustler and hitman who worked for legendary crime boss Russell Bufalino alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th Century. Spanning decades, Sheeran’s story chronicles one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, the disappearance of legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and it offers a monumental journey through the hidden corridors of organized crime: its inner workings, rivalries, and connections to mainstream politics. Sheeran would rise to a position of such prominence that in a RICO suit against The Commission of La Cosa Nostra, the US Government would name him as one of only two non-Italians in conspiracy with the Commission. Sheeran is listed alongside the likes of Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano and Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno.

Charles Brandt did a masterful job of mixing quotes from Frank Sheeran’s discussion of his life with historical facts to make The Irishman / I Heard You Paint Housesinto an interesting living history lesson on the American underworld in the second half of the 20th Century.

The book covers Sheeran’s life, starting with his youth in Depression-era Philadelphia, through his service in World War II, and his career as a soldier in organized crime and the Teamsters.  We get to meet people like Russ Bufalino and, of course, Jimmy Hoffa.

The author spends quite a bit of time humanizing his subject, which makes his crimes even more shocking when they are discussed.  Sheeran goes into detail about his deeds, explaining how he would approach and eliminate his targets, how crimes were planned and executed, and how the syndicates controlled government, business, and the unions.

If you’re looking for an insider’s look at crime and the people who live in its world, this one is a great source.

Book Review – The Reservist

J.R. Handley joins Nick Cole and Jason Anspach in the 6th volume in their Order of the Centurion series: The Reservist

They promised him one weekend a month. The House or Reason swore the 9th would never leave their gentle homeworld. But after Kublar, things changed for Sergeant Fetch and the Caledonian Reserve Legion Corps. Thrown into a meat grinder conflict in a desperate bid to hold the line, it doesn’t matter whether you’re reserve or active, only that you kill and survive.

A searing tale of combat and honor at any price from a wounded veteran of the War in Iraq who fought to keep the MSRs open from Mosul to Tikrit.

Short version – The Reservist is one of the best pieces of military fiction I’ve ever read.  I got as much out of it and enjoyed it as much as I did Starship Troopers and David Drake’s Redliners.

The Reservist follows a part-time soldier who has to become a warrior and a leader when the world falls in on his unit before they’ve even geared up.  The action is relentless, punctuating a story of personal growth and loyalty to those who stand with the main character against an evil and intractable enemy.

Even with all the action to grab you, it’s the characters who hold on.  Fetch and the soldiers who fight with him are drawn in vivid Technicolor throughout the book.  The details that make them individuals and not cardboard cutouts make their suffering and loss even more impactful.

I read The Reservist from cover to cover in one sitting, and I completely lost track of time while I was reading.  Handley paced this one perfectly.

If you’ve read the other Galaxy’s Edge books, you’ll enjoy this one.  Even if you haven’t, if you enjoy good military fiction, science fiction or not, then you’ll love The Reservist.

 

Audiobook Review – Galaxy’s Edge: The Best of Us

Karen Traviss enters Galaxy’s Edge by taking us back to Earth and the beginning of the series’ future history in The Best of Us:

Half the world is a wasteland; the other half is on borrowed time.

The West has been devastated by epidemics, bio-terrorism, war, and famine. Asia has shut its borders to keep the threats at bay, and some with power and influence have already abandoned Earth. Now an escape route a century in the making – the Nomad mission – finally offers hope to a small town and a secret research centre hidden in a rural American backwater.

Shrouded in lies and concealed even from the research centre’s staff, Nomad is about to fulfil its long-dead founder’s vision of preserving the best of humanity to forge a new future. But who decides who’s worthy? The mission is now in the hands of a unique AI called Solomon, and an encounter with a band of military veterans reshapes his plans for mankind’s future after the arrival of a scientist with a grudge threatens the whole mission.

Don’t miss this breathtaking new series from New York Times best-selling author Karen Traviss as she explores the dramatic origins of Jason Anspach & Nick Cole’s Galaxy’s Edge universe.

It’s not often that the umpteenth book in a series can be read without having to go back and read the rest of the series, but The Best of Us is that rare gem.  It’s set in the Galaxy’s Edge universe, exploring events hinted at by Tyrus Rex and Goth Sullus, but it doesn’t depend on the other Galaxy’s Edge books to stand on its own and shine.

Traviss takes us back to the collapse of the United States and introduces us to what could be the founders of the world Jason Anspach and Nick Cole created for us in Legionnaire and it sequels.  She paints a bleak picture of a future in which our world is on the brink of starvation and dissolution, but also has sparks of hope.

This tense, tightly woven tapestry is set in rural America a decade or so after bio-terrorism and nuclear holocaust brought civilization to its knees.  Her characters strive toward the same goal, but the story’s conflict arises when they try to get to it using vastly different means.

Where Galaxy’s Edge is wonderful military science fiction highlighted with political and heist subplots, The Best of Us is entirely driven by Traviss’ characters and how they deal with life, the past, and their own futures.  There is the old soldier and the farmer, trying to keep their folks safe and together.  The author also introduces us to managers and scientists who have been shielded by the increasingly harsh conditions outside their bubble.  Intermixed with all of this is Solomon, an artificial intelligence that tries to guide all of them toward a better tomorrow.

The plot does not race toward its conclusion. This is a book that takes its time, letting us get to know the characters.  Fred Tatascoire did a good job giving all of them voices and painting their pictures through words, tone, and pacing.

Whether or not you’ve enjoyed the other Galaxy’s Edge books, The Best of Us will make for great reading or listening.

Audiobook Review – Galaxy’s Edge: Takeover

Jason Anspach and Nick Cole begin Season 2 of their Galaxy’s Edge series with a bang in Takeover:

Every disaster brings an opportunity.

Goth Sullus and his empire have fallen.

With the Legion and the rest of the galaxy watching from the still-smoldering galactic core, Carter, a former legionnaire turned private contractor, and Jack Bowie, a Navy spy with nowhere left to turn, sign up to work for an enterprising private contractor looking to make a statement on the planet Kublar.

Plans are in motion dating back to the Savage Wars, and as the galaxy rushes to fill in the vacuum created by the fall of the Imperial Republic, the bodies are hitting the floor.

But every plan has a reckoning…

Takeover is the thrilling aftermath of the final, desperate execution of Article Nineteen and the looming rebirth of the Legion and the galaxy itself as Galaxy’s Edge: Season Two begins!

Takeover is set in the aftermath of the death of Goth Sullus and the Republic.  The stories of Carter, a former Legionnaire, and Bowie, a former spy, intertwine as their new employer tries to wrest control of Kublar from what’s left of Republic forces.

Carter’s story is pure military fiction.  Raids, battles, and gunfights burn through his tale.  Any reader who enjoys run-and-gun fiction will get their money’s worth just from Carter.

The plot of Bowie’s exploits is more understated, but just as riveting.  This is pure cloak-and-dagger storytelling, and it’s done masterfully.  There’s a lot of action here, but it’s short and violent when compared to Carter’s firehose of non-stop combat.

Both stories are done by masters of the art.  The plots flow beautifully, and I found myself glued to Takeover as Ray Porter read it to me.  His narration was spot on, changing tone and cadence when switching between the two plot lines.

If you’ve enjoyed the first season of Galaxy’s Edge, you’ll love Takeover’s introduction to Season Two.

Musings

  • This morning, while I was driving back to the house, the title “The Wights of Their Eyes” popped into my head.  I have no idea where that came from or where it will take me, but it goes in the ever-growing file of things to write about.
  • Following the family tradition of “Boo got sick last week, so Dad gets sick this week”, I’m sick.
  • Luckily, it’s not flu.  This particular brand of not-flu includes headaches, fever and chills, body aches, listlessness, and a smart mouth.
    • The doctor said that the smart mouth might be congenital.
  • NyQuil fever dreams are enhanced when you fall asleep watching a docudrama about a nuclear power disaster.
  • Nothing says “hectic couple of months” like finding two claim tickets from last year and saying “Oh, yeah, I need to call my gunsmith.”
  • I’ve been listening to biographies of mafia figures lately.
    • Some authors become too close to their subjects, sometimes literally.  It seems to cause some kind of Stockholm Syndrome in which the author writes the life of a worthless, conniving, manipulative scumbag as if he were some modern-day Robin Hood.
    • In this version, however, Robin Hood puts two behind Little John’s ear because the Sheriff of Nottingham is getting too close.

Thought for the Day

Good night, stars
Good night, moon
Good night, howling voice of doom

Time to sleep in my bed
Time to let my pillow meet my head
Time to pray against the walking dead

Tomorrow brings another day
The sun’s bright rays will light the way
While I keep the hordes at bay

So, good night, stars
Good night, moon
Hope I don’t meet my fate too soon

Musings

  • Going back to work after a little over a week off was just as much fun as it sounds.
  • For some reason, I got a hankering to watch a police procedural.  I ended up purchasing the first two seasons of Law and Order.
    • I’m 10 episodes into the first season.  There are 22 episodes in the first season alone.  It’s hard to remember when a TV series had more than 10 or 12 episodes to a season.
    • I’d forgotten just what a shit-hole pre-Giuliani New York was.  Looking back, it was almost as bad as large cities in California are now.
    • I’d also forgotten about the clothes and hair from that time.  Some of it made me cringe, some of it made me wish it hadn’t gone away.
    • The acting is as good as I remember it.  I’m especially liking Michael Moriarty’s role as Benjamin Stone.  To be honest, I don’t plan to continue to watch the series much after that character leaves.
    • It’s interesting that many of the issues discussed in this 30 year old television program are still with us.
      • Drugs – The focus is on cocaine and the crack epidemic.  Now, we’re worried about meth and heroin.
      • Guns – This comes up several times in the first few episodes.  There’s a serious bias against civilian ownership and use of firearms, especially handguns, in the plots of these episodes.  After 30 years of progress in gun rights ebbing and flowing, I wonder how these same sequences would be written.
      • Race Relations – Honestly, the friction I see between white and black characters from 30 years ago could be lifted, updated with new fashions, and reshot almost word for word.
    • One subject that appears several times is AIDS.  It’s easy to forget that HIV and AIDS were a death sentence back then.
  • The search for a new house is starting to ramp up.  Irish Woman and I have discussed our must-haves, wants, and can’t-haves.
    • Since putting Boo through private high school in a few years will cost more than it would to send him to college, we’ve decided to move somewhere the public schools are better than the holding pens Louisville calls their schools.
    • So far, our biggest points of disagreement are subdivisions (me no likee), the amount of land we want (I want more), and the existence of a pool on any new property (me also no likee).
    • She wants a nice house in a nice neighborhood with lots of nice kids so that Boo can make nice friends and have someone nice to play nice with.
    • I want a few acres of mixed woods and open fields, with a creek running through it, and clear fields of fire out to the main road.
    • I keep pulling up listings for North Dakota, Arizona, and Texas, but She Who Shall Not Be Named is not interested.

Movie Review – Jumanji: The Next Level

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

Following up on 2017’s Jumanji:  Welcome to the Jungle, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart return in Jumanji: The Next Level.  They are joined by Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, and Awkwafina to round out the cast of this enjoyable romp.

If you’re looking for high cinematic art, look elsewhere.  If  you’re looking for a great couple of hours eating popcorn and laughing until it hurts, this one is for you.

Just as in the last movie, a group of friends are pulled into a video game world and have to defeat the game in order to go home.  A twist on the theme happens when one of their grandfathers and his elderly friend come along for the ride.  There is a ton of slapstick comedy and a lot of heart-warming sequences slathered on the storyline like melted butter on a $10 bucket of popcorn, but it works.

The plot moves along pretty quickly, with a few slower parts to allow the characters some interaction that didn’t include screaming or running.  I certainly didn’t notice the 123 minute runtime.

If you saw Welcome to the Jungle, you know what the acting is like.  Dwayne Johnson and the rest of the cast seemed to enjoy themselves in this one.  The part of Ruby Roundhouse, played by Karen Gillan, gets more screen-time than in the first installment, so we see her character develop a bit more.

The visual effects were about par for the course for a modern movie.  The animals and settings they portrayed were realistic enough, but also cartoonish enough to remind you that the movie is set inside a video game.

While there is a bit of rough language in the dialogue, I wasn’t uncomfortable with it.  It did seem to be more prevalent than in the 2017 movie.  Both movies are rated PG-13.

Overall, I’d recommend The Next Level for families with older children or teenagers.  It made for a great mid-winter evening getaway.

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