Saturday, 18 August 2018

Review: A Brief History of Roman Britain, by Joan P Alcock

I found this book, which covers the entire period (and a little before) of Roman Britain to be rather interesting. It’s split into distinct halves, the former being a chronological account of Roman Britain (with a chapter on Celtic tribes beforehand) and the latter consisting of chapters focusing on individual topics, such as religion.

In that way it’s something of a mixture of Adrian Goldsworthy’s Fall of Carthage and Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller mini-series.

The level of detail included is often very deep, particularly regarding food, and does help to put the reader in the shoes of, say, a 3rd century Briton, who might dislike the imported garum fish paste, love their new mosaic floor, and enjoy availing themselves of the public baths.

As the title indicates, the book is about Roman Britain, but to an extent it also functions as a microcosm of the rising and falling fate of the Western Empire more generally. Charting how the Empire won wars then won support from the Celtic leadership (and then lost it with greed and corruption, leading to Boudicca’s rebellion) is an interesting read but also functions as a template for how the Empire won over the people it had conquered. Similarly, declining resources partly due to increasingly frequent civil wars denuded the province(s) of military manpower, exposing them to barbarian attack and reducing economic activity as the well-paid soldiers left and suddenly merchants had lost a huge market. The benefits of city living through local bakers (removing the need to grind your own flour), baths et cetera was replaced by onerous burdens for local leaders (whose taxes and public duties increased as the Empire weakened), leading them to leave and reducing the urban population.

I was a little worried about the first chapter. It’s a little bit listy, not quite to the extent of The Iliad or the Bible, but thereafter the book’s much easier to read.

The writing style could be a little more fluid and little less matter of fact, but except for the first chapter on pre-Roman Celtic tribes, it’s a minor point.

There are one or two small errors that perhaps should’ve been caught. (I’m no longer a Grammar Nazi about this sort of thing, as some mistakes are almost certain in a full-sized book, but certain errors such as writing Julius rather than Julian can be a little confusing). There was also confusion over the name of Isis’ son (Hippocrates or Harpocrates, which might reflect a Greco-Roman divergence or simply be a homophonic typo).

However, those small quibbles apart, I found the book to be interesting, detailed (immensely so in some places), and enjoyable.


Thursday, 9 August 2018

Review: A History of the First World War, by BH Liddell Hart

A bit outside my usual area, but this military history seemed interesting, so I gave it a look. It charts the course of the war from beginning to end, including an introductory segment setting the scene.

Reminiscent of Dodge’s Napoleon biography (first volume), I actually found the political and military preamble to the war itself to be the most interesting part. Setting the scene with the Schlieffen plan and the varying states of readiness of the Great Powers was very nicely done.

The war was notable, amongst other things, for the rapid invention and development of new technology with battlefield implications. The radio, rail, aircraft, gas shells, and tanks were all either created for the first time, advanced swiftly or otherwise had great military significance. Machine guns had existed for a little while by this stage but this was the first war when they gave near total predominance to defence over attack (until the tank rolled up).

It was fascinating to read of how the Germans really could have won the war early on, but for Moltke buggering up the plan Schlieffen had put together some years earlier, denuding the powerful right of strength whilst reinforcing the centre.

I’ve read enough military history (admittedly, mostly classical) to know that some wars are notable for their brilliant strategy, and some are remarkable for surprising incompetence or plain bad luck. The latter was not unique to the First World War (we need only look for how the Romans repeatedly mishandled the Cimbri for evidence that strategic/tactical idiocy and generals infighting can endanger a national cause). World War One does have the slight mitigation that new technologies were not fully understood (aircraft could have been employed on a more aggressive basis, for example), and the exacerbating factor that the same mistakes were made repeatedly, at immense cost of human life.

The sheer numbers of people involved is also worthy of remark. Tens of thousands (or more) fell during the largest battles, millions of men lived in trenches.

I must admit I sometimes found things a little hard to follow, although the gist was never in doubt. (I maintain that military history is more interesting before the use of gunpowder became widespread). There is a good number of maps, with many chapters beginning with a map of the local situation. A nice addition, which was not present, would have been something along the lines of a trench cross-section or the odd diagram of a plane, machine gun or tank, but it would’ve been an extra rather than some necessary that is missing.

It should be firmly stressed that this is a military history, and politics, excepting the interesting preamble to war breaking out, is mentioned only in so far as it directly relates to the war. Russia vanishes after the revolution and peace is agreed between the Bolsheviks and Germany.

The author does comment on both military and moral failings of generals when it comes to mistakes made (some understandable, others perhaps less so), and also those of the ordinary soldier. Whilst rarer, instances of soldiers performing misdeeds (such as advancing well, then coming across quantities of alcohol and getting lashed as a ferret on Christmas Day) are mentioned. That said, the focus of the book is clearly on the military aspects, with morale (and morality) considered alongside ammunition, supply lines, and so forth as a military asset, or deficiency.

Overall, I found the book interesting, occasionally a bit tricky to follow. As I’ve said before, its sole interest is the military side of things, so those after something considering the political or social implications of the war will find it lacking. Those seeking to understand the strategic and tactical situation that unfolded from 1914 to 1918 will find it of significant use.


Thursday, 2 August 2018

Review: Game of Thrones, season six

It’s been a little while since I saw the fifth series of Game of Thrones, but I’ve got to say that the sixth was the televisual equivalent of fitting like a glove.

At this stage, and certainly by the end of the series, the TV show is ahead of the books, so if you’re waiting for the books then I’d advise you stop watching either at the end of the fourth or fifth series (the fifth is ahead of the books in at least one significant place but behind in many others). That said, there is some divergence between the media, so…

Naturally, there will be spoilers galore for the first five series. I shall keep spoilers of the sixth to the barest minimum reasonably possible. So if you want zero spoilers at all, stop reading now.


The three main prongs of the story are the ongoing power struggle in King’s Landing, the battle to rule the North, and Daenerys’ arc (which I shall not spoil but shall say is significantly better than the last few seasons of Meereen hum-drummery).

The High Sparrow’s storyline, the tale of insidious fanaticism, of the seemingly kind being amongst the most brutal (the benevolent dictatorship of stamping on your face, but only because it’s good for you) is absolutely fantastic.

The last two episodes, as is so often the case, were great, both wrapping up some storylines and promising future delights in others. The CGI remains very good but they aren’t over-egging it, using real actors, horses and practical effects well instead of simply relying on pixel magic all the time (and going for tiling of real images rather than making pretend ones where possible).

The general quality of acting is, as always, excellent. Jonathan Pryce as the High Sparrow deserves a special nod for his portrayal of the smiling, kind fanatic.

The story has one or two twists and turns that are predictable (one in particular is so lacking in surprise it did make me wonder how the unfortunate chap involved didn’t see it coming) but there’s a good share of cunning twists and fiendish plans. There’s a relatively strong focus on the three main plots I mentioned above.

Bran returns after an absence in the fifth series, and there are rather dramatic doings. He is not the only character to return (and I am not referring to he whom you might think I am referring to).

Downsides on the TV show itself are minimal. Dorne was a dog that didn’t bark, featuring but not nearly as heavily as I anticipated.

That said, keeping all the plates spinning with a show that has so many different threads is a difficult thing and, by and large, the showrunners have done a great job.

Weirdly, the case/packaging have changed a lot from the first five series, being significantly slimmer. I have mixed feelings as I don’t have that much room, but format changes within a series irk me.

As always, some commentaries are better than others. Sophie Turner and Kit Harrington (Sansa and Jon) were entertaining, and I enjoyed the quartet of chaps (particularly Dolorous Ed’s actor, Ben Crompton).

Whilst not a fan, as a rule, of behind the scenes stuff, the half hour (ish) look at the Paint Hall over 24 hours was quite fun because we get to see the cast and crew in their natural habitat. There’s also a behind the scenes look at a battle. Shan’t give details to avoid spoilers, but it was also pretty interesting.

By this stage, you pretty much know if you want to keep watching Game of Thrones or not. There are no clangers or woeful reasons not to watch, the general excellence is maintained, and if one or two plot twists are telegraphed, there are plenty more great moments to enjoy.


Monday, 9 July 2018

So, The Last Jedi [spoilers galore]

I am, it’s fair to say, rather late to this tap dance. However, I did recently see this film. And so I thought I’d ramble about it (this is my blog, after all, home of rambling about sci-fi and fantasy. And history).

For those who haven’t seen it yet, this ramble will be laden with spoilers, so if you don’t want them, stop reading now.

Sometimes in really grim/serious films (Batman Begins, for example) I wish they’d add a little levity. I don’t mean change the overall tone, but people crack jokes, even if just as a coping mechanism in terrible situations. In World War One, when soldiers were pinned down in trenches with dead friends, they’d prop the bodies up (mimicking a soldier on guard duty) and shake their hand when they walked past. It’s ok to have a joke now and then, even if it’s still pretty grim.

The Last Jedi is the opposite. It’s ok to be serious now and then. Impending evacuation under heavy fire, wildly outgunned? Better crack a joke then. Waking up from some sort of medically induced coma? Slapstick and leaking time.

Star Wars has always been (mostly) family friendly (very friendly if you include the incestuous kissing in Empire Strikes Back). That doesn’t mean it can’t take things seriously, just occasionally, when dealing with what is, essentially, war between good and evil. Darth Vader could crack a joke (as Captain Needa discovered), but he was still a serious character. Hux is practically comic relief.

Captain Phasma and her rubbishness returns. Cool armour, lame turn of events. And then there’s Snoke (daft name), the pale imitation of Emperor Palpatine. But what really annoyed me about Snoke was how damned contrived and clunky the dialogue was when he ‘read Kylo Ren’s mind’ and saw him turn the lightsabre (yes, Americans, sabre is spelt this way in England) and kill his ‘true enemy’. … Decent twist to have him kill Snoke but the lumbering awkwardness of the dialogue and the mental hoops to jump through detracted from it.

In the same way JJ Abrams doesn’t understand the basic concept of space being big, it seems Rian Johnson didn’t understand the first thing about Star Wars. Or, if he did, he wanted to ‘interpret’ it (ie damn internal consistency) in the same way that Russell T Davies buggered up Davros’ character in New Who*. Luke, the hopeful hero who believed he could turn Darth Vader, apparently now thinks about killing his own student whilst he sleeps, and attempts it in such an incompetent way he accidentally turns said student evil. And is also capable of being defeated by same student.


Not only that, Luke apparently knows how to speak Wookie less well than Rey, who helpfully translates what Luke’s close friend Chewbacca has to say.

The plot wasn’t hugely engaging. Star Wars does get knocked for rehashing the Death Star story (although it’s worth noting that The Empire Strikes Back had nothing to do with that and is the best film by a mile), but this effort did make me wish there was a superweapon on the loose.

The storyline is that they need fuel after evacuating. The First Order is chasing down the tiny remnants of the Rebellion. Rightyho. Not the most engaging plot ever.

I do disagree with some criticism I’ve read. Rose wasn’t my favourite character but she wasn’t terrible.

Some have criticised the revelation that Rey’s parents were not especially significant, but I don’t think that was a problem at all. Not everyone has to be related. Plus, the weird relationship she develops with Kylo Ren would’ve been, er, a bit weirder if they’d been related and she *had* been Luke’s daughter.

I think Luke appearing effectively as an astral projection to Kylo Ren was fine (that’s a new power rather than one which contradicts previous rules of the universe), although his inexplicable death afterwards was both nonsensical and a very stupid way of killing one of the franchise’s key characters.

It was absolutely irrational that Admiral Holdo decided to ram, at hyperspeed, Snoke’s ship. And that it worked. Yes, noble self-sacrifice, etc. But it doesn’t actually make any bloody sense at all. The premise was that the Rebel cruiser was the only ship that could be tracked and therefore the smaller escaping ships would be safe as all First Order attention would be on the cruiser Holdo was piloting. She was drawing it away and would be killed (the plan was foiled when the First Order was able to fire on the smaller ships after all).

So why not ram Snoke’s ship to start with? If you’re certain to die and the options are to die alone or take down a huge ship and thousands of enemies, why wouldn’t the latter be your first option? For that matter, why wasn’t that approach used with the Death Stars? Or the Starkiller base? You don’t even need a human aboard, just get a droid to pilot a large, empty ship. I’m really not a fan of plot ‘twists’ that don’t actually make any sense.

I’d quite like to watch Phantom Menace again to have a side-by-side view of the films. I suspect the prequel would look good by way of comparison.

The flaws with The Last Jedi, besides an uninspiring story, is that it contradicts what’s been previously established, most obviously with Luke’s character. It also has a lot of stuff that just feels unrealistic (yes, it’s sci-fi and gets to break rules on faster than light travel, but even fantastical stories have to maintain their own rules and have some semblance of contextual realism. Otherwise Snoke could just snap the Rebel ships in two using the power of his mind).

I tend not to do film rambles/reviews, so didn’t post about this before, but I thought Rogue One was pretty good. Had weak spots, of course, but I liked the sense of certain doom, loved the ending, and, although some better characters would’ve been good (likewise if the pointless monks had been axed) it was a decent film.

The Last Jedi is the weakest of the Star Wars films I’ve seen (all except Solo). I do think the reaction has been over the top. Whilst not a great film, it’s still just a film. Pouring abuse over people is not limited to those who hate The Last Jedi, but it’s depressing to see (videogame developers, politicians, almost anyone in the public eye can get dogpiled with venom, sadly).

I’ve seen a little of the fallout from the film. Boycott for Solo, hate for Rian Johnson and the actress who plays Rose and so on. Disliking a film is fine but personalising hatred online is just wrong. It’s like complaining the well water is brackish and pouring in poison.

Anyway, those are my rambling thoughts on The Last Jedi.


*Spoilers for Doctor Who:

Davros’ whole character arc was creating the daleks, being betrayed by them and then trying to (and eventually succeeding) in reasserting control. Then in New Who, he actually agrees to be the compliant captive of the dalek leader. Utter tosh. Tosh, I tell you!