Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Review: Flight From The Dark (Lone Wolf book 1), by Joe Dever and Gary Chalk

Disclaimer: I played these books as a child, so my reviews will likely be laced with nostalgia.

Flight From The Dark is the first of dozens of gamebooks that Joe Dever (initially with Gary Chalk, later solo) wrote. For those unaware, a gamebook is approximately halfway between a videogame or tabletop RPG and a book. The reader/player makes decisions to determine how they try and solve problems, win fights, and so on. It’s eminently possible to end up dead and have to restart.

Flight From The Dark is a thinnish volume but has 350 sections. The premise is simple: you are Lone Wolf, a lowly member of the Order of the Kai, hero-warriors who protect the good from the evil of the nearby Darklords. Unfortunately, you’re a slacker and have to miss a celebratory feast to go gather firewood as punishment. This saves your life as the Darklords roll up and kill everyone who attends, wiping out the entire order.

Except for you.

You must flee to Holmgard, the capital, to warn and help the king, evading or fighting the Drakkarim, giaks, kraan, and other monstrous servants of the Darklords.

Character creation is mostly about picking the Kai disciplines you have, everything from healing to animal kinship, psychic defence (or attack) to hunting. Choosing wisely is critical, and getting lucky when you ‘roll’ (you could use a d10 but there’s also a sort of random number generator by way of a grid of numbers at the back, from which you can pick blindly) for combat skill and endurance.

Smart choices also matter. Being heroic sounds good, but I only survived one entirely voluntary encounter by fluking a couple of great combat results. By rights I should’ve been killed. At other times my cunning strategy helped me evade fights that would’ve occurred, if I didn’t have the right skills.

It’s a fun introduction to Lone Wolf, Magnamund (the wider LW world), and gamebooks, and only takes an hour or two after you’ve created your own Lone Wolf.

I discovered shortly after writing the above review that Joe Dever died a few years ago. RIP. His Lone Wolf books were (along with books written by Bernard Cornwell) what I read the most in my early teens. Sad to hear of his passing.

For those interested, there are plenty of second hand paperbacks floating around, and I know he gave his blessing for Project Aon, a website which enables you to play the books for free. There’s also (though I’m unsure of availability) some hardback reprints from a decade or so ago, if you prefer physical books.


Saturday, 8 June 2019

Review: The Hundred Years War, by Alan Lloyd

Written in the 1970s, this book is about 170 pages and covers the entirety of the war. Naturally, that means it has to skimp on detail in places (although the battles are well-described and I did learn some interesting facts I didn’t know previously, such as France’s population at the time being roughly three or four times that of England).

There’s plenty of medieval artwork (although the Henry IV portrait actually isn’t him, according to a much more recent biography of said monarch by Ian Mortimer) and maps, which are clear and helpful, are peppered throughout the pages.

The general ebb and flow of this prolonged contest, which was as much down to who happened to be king of either side as anything that happened on the battlefield, is well-described, and I’m glad the relatively low number of battles was gotten across, as was the development of siege weaponry and varying martial habits (from brutalising the peasantry to trying to win them over through restrained behaviour).

I liked reading the book, though it should be stressed this isn’t an exhaustive account (or, indeed, an attempt at one) so it’s perhaps best as an overview or introduction. Other general books of that nature, with more detail, include Philippe Contamine’s War in the Middle Ages (reviewed here), and Christopher Allmand’s The Hundred Years War (reviewed here).

There’s also Ian Mortimer’s excellent biography of Edward III (The Perfect King, reviewed here), which covers about half the conflict.


Saturday, 1 June 2019

Review: After the Ice, by Steven Mithen

After the Ice covers human prehistory from 20,000 BC to 5,000 BC. This extends from the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), covers the initial warming after the end of the Ice Age, the cold spike of the Younger Dryas, and the return of the warming trend.

Beyond the obvious warming and a vague fuzzy awareness of hunter-gathering giving way to farming, my knowledge of this sort of period was minimal at best.

It’s a global book, looking at every continent on Earth and charting, in some cases, the arrival of mankind (in the Americas), and the development of man, which varied quite a lot. It’s intriguing to see the differing advance of technology and the earliest establishment of towns (in the Middle East/Mesopotamia), and the intermediate phase between hunter-gathering and Neolithic farming that happened in Europe and elsewhere (the Mesolithic).

As interesting were common features, particularly cave art and the use of stone (mostly flint and obsidian).

The author’s approach was to combine a straightforward archaeological summary with the practical implications, telling these through plausible vignettes of an unseen time traveller, John Lubbock (named after a Victorian who wrote a related book), as he visits various places and times to see how people lived.

The book is quite large, just over 500 pages (beyond which lies the index etc), and later on some of the less distinctive places/locations do blend into one another somewhat.

The epilogue was very interesting, and I liked the credible alternative perspectives on GM crops (essentially, it could bugger biodiversity and cause extinctions, or cure world hunger) and other matters. Throughout the book there’s a general open-minded approach that avoids imposing a single view when there are plausible options or a lack of evidence.


Thursday, 9 May 2019

Review: The Blue Book of the War, edited by Herbert Strang

The edition I read was reprinted in 1917, and I think originally came out late 1916 (preceding the revolution in Russia and collapse of the Eastern Front). I believe this book was aimed at older children (it’s a little similar in style to The Wonder Book of Aircraft). The mindset is fascinating and the writing engaging.

Most books about The Great War nowadays tend to conjure images of terrible grind, both in terms of trench warfare not moving very much, and in terms of immense grimness. And those things are not wrong. But they’re also not the complete story.

In the Middle East and Africa, things moved with greater pace, and the middle of the book is dedicated to stories of naval exploits, many of which I had no idea about (British submarines getting up to mischief in the Bosphorus, for example).

The mentality of the book is of another age, with the start of a battle described as an adventure beginning. There’s both a recognition of how terrible war is (quoted below) and a celebration of the human spirit that can arise in conflict.

Early on, the book is poignant (a letter home from a soldier the day before he got killed in one of the many large battles standing out in the memory). But the overriding sense is of a quite alien attitude to both Britain and war, the latter perhaps closer to Livy’s Romanesque glory than today’s immense reluctance. I was wondering if it would be a parochial book, yet one of the examples of heroism cited was of a priest who gave the last rites to an enemy soldier, and whilst there is some German-bashing there’s also praise for Turkish manoeuvres around Suez, Von Mackensen’s Eastern shenanigans, and the final chapter is dedicated to heroism from British allies (Frenchmen, Russians, and Italians singled out, with kudos also given to the Sikhs, Maoris, and others).

Must admit, I found the book to have a lively writing style, and yet was perhaps even more interesting from a psychological perspective. The differing topics of the various aspects of the naval conflict and doings further afield ensured that, whilst the focus is on Britain and her Empire, there is plenty about other arenas where our involvement was either minimal or non-existent.

I shall end this review with a few excerpts that I made note of as I read:
War is a terrible, hideous thing.” [A short time later in the same paragraph]. “Yet there is something even more terrible than war, and that is the weak and cowardly acceptance of what we believe to be evil for the sake of saving our skins.”

We shall not, therefore, be surprised when we learn that by far the greater part of British naval strength and resources has in the Great War been devoted to the efficient maintenance of its patrol services: and we may well wonder at the weakness of human nature which impels us to esteem a dashing exploit, carried through in, perhaps, a few minutes, more highly than we regard the faithful endurance of hardship and the vigilant discharge of duty continued for long, weary months amid the stress and perils of the northern seas.”

Their brigade was lying in front of Gorizia and was much inconvenienced by the enemy’s fire from a particular hill that dominated their position – a hill so craggy, in fact, as to seem quite inaccessible.”