History

Book Review: Thieve's Quarry

D.B. Jackson lands yet another marvelous historical fantasy in Thieve’s Quarry, the second installment of his Thieftaker series. Thieftaker is among the greatest historical fiction series out there, let alone historical fantasy. A story in a genre blend which is easily campy, leeching off of the mere presence of prominent historical figures, manages to not only tell its own story, but reverently live and breath its chosen setting. The dialogue and writing style of the Thieftaker books feel like they were pulled straight from revolutionary-era manuscripts, while also retaining readability. Like much of Jackson’s work, it’s a fantasy which manages to rise above the rest. 

Thieve’s Quarry opens with Ethan Kaille on a standard hunt for a stolen good. When his mission is intercepted by Sephira Pryce, a grim series of events force him to use magic in order to save an innocent man. This reveals his conjuring abilities to Pryce, causing her to hire her own conjurer to combat Kaille. When a mass grave is discovered on one of His Majesty’s ships at the dawn of the British occupation of Boston, Ethan is consulted to determine who committed the murder, as there are no physical signs of death among the bodies. As Ethan tracks down suspect conjurers, each culprit is murdered one by one before he can even reach them. Convinced that the killer is a greater threat than he anticipated, Kaille keeps his friends close and his enemies closer, going so far as to warn Sephira Pryce for her own safety. 

Quarry’s greatest feat is the development of Ethan Kaille. He shows a genuine concern for his arch nemesis, Pryce, and even works in junction with her to take down a more dangerous threat. It makes him the better man in what is otherwise a bickering conflict. Kaille also struggles with his convictions on the subject of the British occupation. In Theiftaker he was a loyalist, disgusted by the Sons of Liberty and their antics. Here, when the British enter Boston, Kaille sees nothing but injustice all around him as regulars quarter themselves in peoples’ homes. These changes in his motivations will likely lead to further character development in future books, and possibly turning him into a brash revolutionary.

Many old faces from Thieftaker return in Quarry, but with just enough face time to make way for plenty of new ones. Kaille seeks help from a variety of individuals from high-on-the-hog aristocrats, to bottom-feeding bar owners, to revolutionaries and crooks alike. Their presence breathes life into Jackson’s Boston, making the world all the more believable. Just as in Thieftaker, Boston feels like a place the reader can step into. Jackson’s understanding of the landscape of the town in its pre-revolution glory is on full display, as well as his knowledge of colonial customs. It creates a story whose characters are just as enjoyable to read about as its own world, not growing too detailed or monotonous. 

The series once again manages to hold its own in Quarry, despite its setting being among the most popular periods of history. Quarry could have so easily taken advantage of the plethora of historical figures involved with the Sons of Liberty, yet takes a more reserved approach by only making use minor figures and events. It proves that it can tell its story with its plot, characters, and spirit of its setting, rather than copping-out for the reputation of the Washingtons and Franklins of the time. I’m sure as the series nears the revolution, more familiar faces will begin to appear. But two books in a row with such minimal use of major historical figures proves that the series means business. 

Where Thieve’s Quarry ultimately shines and manages to surpass its predecessor is in its pacing. As great as Theiftaker was, it was a bit sluggish in the manner it handled its mystery, at least compared to its sequel. There is no wild goose chase to be had in Quarry, as Ethan Kaille makes a relentless chase for justice and for his own life. New developments lie around every corner, as Kaille races against the clock to take out a killer before even more innocent are murdered, and even his own friends. It is between this and the development of its characters that makes Thieve’s Quarry a great sequel, not simply a rehash of the first book or a "Season 2" of the series. 

As someone who has read a decent amount of fantasy, the Theiftaker series is among the most quality. D.B. Jackson is a truly talented writer. Theiftaker is a premise which should be silly as all get out, but the amount of history and fantasy it offers and the ethos in which the series is written gives me confidence to recommend it to both historians and fantasy fans alike. Yet its appeal reaches beyond those two groups, which is why I can’t help but recommend the series to anyone looking for some quality reads. 

You can purchase Thieve’s Quarry from Amazon here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017

Stranger Things and My History with Netflix and TV

Here’s something about me: I hate TV.  

I loved TV as a kid, but I never watch it nowadays unless someone in the house is already watching. I can’t recall the last time I genuinely wanted to catch something live on TV unless it was a recent Olympic event, or maybe a Star Wars trailer debut (because that’s the popular way to get people to tune in these days).  The only time I find myself watching TV these days is when my dad is watching Seinfeld, just because I love Jerry Seinfeld.  There was a time when I attempted to catch The Walking Dead on Sunday nights, but after about five weeks I couldn’t keep any consistency, so the episodes collected dust in my DVR.  Simply put, I can’t be expected to take an hour out of my day to position myself in front of a TV and keep up with an episodic plot for a 16 episodes in a season.  I don’t see how we as people are able accomplish such a task nowadays, and I don’t see how we’ve been doing it since the1950s.  (Though I can say that I’ve seen every episode of The Cosby Show because I binge-watched each season on DVD in elementary school, because who has anything better to do when you can’t drive?)

Here’s something else about me: I hate TV on Netflix.  

A few years ago I binge-watched the first 4 seasons of The Walking Dead on Netflix.  Funny thing is, I haven’t even watched The Walking Dead since I finished season four.  I’ve seen the first 4 episodes of Daredevil, and I couldn’t tell you anything about the show beyond that.  As much as I am a Marvel fan, I can’t bring myself to watch the Netflix series, even though they’re pathetically easy to view.   All too often I’m asked if I saw the new season of House of Cards or Making a Murder, and all I can say is "I don’t watch Netflix".  

Another funny thing is that I’ll watch a two-hour movie on Netflix almost every weekend, but I can’t bring myself to binge-watch an entire season or series.  The idea of a digital series sounds like a great idea; The entire season is ready to go from day one and you don’t have to facilitate time to watch it each week or set a DVR recording.  But there’s something that bothers me about the time I lose watching so many seasons. 

Here’s the problem: most TV seasons last 16 to as much as 22 episodes, and for me, that’s just too much.  I’m the kind of person who tries makes myself busy every second of the day.  I choose to fill that time with writing, reading, analyzing a film, traveling, or getting out of the house whether for leisure or for business.  When I watched the fourth season of The Walking Dead, I was confined to a beach condo with my family for an entire week.  I had the time to watch all 16 episodes in bed because I wasn’t going anywhere else, and I had nothing better to do.  In my everyday life, I just don’t have time for TV, and I especially don’t have time to watch an entire season of a show all at once. 

For me, a film averages about 1.5 to 3 hours.  A film’s story is contained entirely within itself, and when I’m done watching, I’m done watching.  A single episode of a TV series averages about 48 minutes.  Now take that 48 minutes and multiply it by 16.  That’s nearly 13 hours spent watching a season; over half a day.  And if there’s more episodes to a season or more seasons to watch, it’s even more time.  

I understand that for many people this practice is commonplace, and really, kudos to them.  I marvel at the fact that people can be so invested in a story that they watch entire seasons in short periods of time.  It’s something that’s engrained in our culture and I honestly think it’s healthy for people to do.  In an age of terrorism, presidential elections, and a lack of common sense, getting invested in a world of fiction for awhile can be a good thing.  It’s probably what’s keeping some of us sane in this crazy world we live in, provided that it’s not too addictive.  I believe something like Netflix can be just as addictive as drugs, but as long as it isn’t consuming every waking moment of our lives to the point of never coming out of our homes for a time, it can be okay. 

Yes, I would love to be an expert on all things The Walking Dead.  Yes, I’m sure House of Cards is a compelling, mind-twisting show.  Yes, I’m sure Daredevil has some badass moments.  But I can’t be expected to find time to watch every episode of these shows just to catch up with everyone else, and until I find that time, those awesome moments are going to have to wait. 

Enter: Stranger Things.  Last week I finished watching this highly acclaimed Netflix series; the only streaming-exclusive show I’ve watched in full. Throughout July, this showed up everywhere on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and was the buzz among many conversations I had.  Everyone kept going on and on about how it’s possibly the greatest show of all time.  I began to look into it, and just by watching the trailer, I could easily tell that this show was a love-letter to films of the 1980s, what could easily be my favorite era of moving pictures.  The show had only been out about three weeks when I first came across it, but I ultimately caved and played the first episode.  

Netflix

Netflix

The first few minutes didn’t hook me.  It did just as lousy a job of getting my attention as any pilot episode to a drama series.  "Wow", I said, "your product placement and '80s style synthesizer music is really cool." 

Then our main character gets kidnapped, and the opening title plays.  

The theme song and opening titles is one of the best things about this show.  It’s so simple, yet can draw anyone into what’s beneath.  The music is filled with mystery, suspense, and whim; it’s enchanting.  The font is just like anything you’d see in an '80s movie, and it’s even blurred to look like it’s o an '80s television set.  The screen cuts to black, and the words 'Created By The Duffer Brothers' flies at your face, and from here it only gets better.

This show manages to accomplish so damn much.  It handles drama on one of the most relatable levels that so many other shows or films fall short of achieving.  It’s a dramatic show, but it can handle utter sadness, it can handle comedy, it can handle horror; it can handle so many human emotions which seem impossible to fully capture on screen.  Humans are emotional beings, but it’s rare that we manage to replicate our entire range of emotion in a man-made medium.  There are movies and shows that make us do nothing but laugh, or feel nothing but suspense, or only make us scared, or can only make us cry. Stranger Things is able to do all of this.  It captures every human emotion through its characters and story in a way that has never been perfected in a way such as this.  I’ve never cried at anything on screen before; I can get emotional, but I’ve never cried.  Stranger Things had me bawling by the last episode…but it also made me scream laugh, smile, and yell "Don’t do it!", at my laptop. 

Part of what makes this show so great is that the characters are so great.  Every character feels like a real person that anybody would know.  There are no cliches in the entire main cast or even the side characters.  What they manage to absolutely nail are the kids.  The kids are played by some of the greatest child actors I have ever seen.  They’re annoying, obnoxious, they eat junk, they get into mischief, they act tough and swear, but in reality they are as weak as the skin on their bones.  They each have their own weaknesses which they try to hide from their peers but still have to deal with the fact that they have them.  It’s something that anyone who’s been through elementary school can relate to.  Most kids on the silver or small screen aren’t believable because of horrible writing or bad acting.  This is one of the only time I’ve related to a young child on screen because I can relate to something I once struggled with at the same age.  Most movie kids are just stock kids, and are only there to move the plot along, but Stranger Things makes kids more than just plot devices or pawns; they’re characters; they’re people.

Netflix

Netflix

The adult cast is just as stellar.  The police chief, Hopper, is a lovable guy and has total control of every scene he’s in.  However, he’s a damage person.  He has a past which gets the best of him and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to avoid going down that path again, or allowing anyone else to do the same.  The main character’s mother feels like a real mom.  She’s willing to do whatever it takes for her family and will stop at nothing for their safety.  There’s another mother character who feels genuine as well.  She concerns for her family, but she’s willing to listen to her children’s problems and talk things out.  So many times the mother character is played for comedy or is the villain of a story, but here they feel like genuine mothers who could just as well be one’s own.  

The entire story takes place in the backdrop of small town Hawkins, Indiana, however the setting is so well selected it doesn’t matter.  It’s a typical small town, but it’s anyone’s town.  Anyone can relate to this place because it’s blank.  It feels more like home than an iconic cityscape or big, grand locale.  Sometimes filming in a massive city ins’t always the greatest choice.  While it may provide great opportunities for cinematography, not everyone calls the concrete jungle home.  

Stranger Things uses it’s setting to the fullest by not only capturing 1980’s perfectly, but even paying homage to films of the era.  It’s clear that it takes a great amount of inspiration from 1980s films about kids getting into mischief such as The Sandlot, Stand By Me, or E.T.  The show is also a love letter to Stephen King and horror elements used in his books.  Stephen King is the man who made me want to write in the first place, and there’s even a flashy cameo of one of his novels in one episode, and later in the series they flat out mention his name.  Needless to say, it sticks to the philosophy of respecting the past while embracing the future. 

When it’s all over, Stranger Things holds its own.  It leaves a few doors open as always, but it doesn’t leave me with a thousand questions as to what happens next like other shows or movies such as Star Wars Episode VII.  I don’t need to come up with theory after theory as to what happens next because I don’t need a 'next'.  There are rumors of a second season in the works, but honestly, it’s not necessary.  I would love to see more of these characters, but simply put, what we already have is perfect.  Stranger Things is one of the greatest things put to the screen.  It’s a flawless masterpiece which parents will pass on to future generations for decades to come.  If I’m completelyhonest with myself, I don’t want Stranger Things to be placed in the category that so many other shows fall victim to.  Some shows start off slow and then have a handful of seasons which are considered its prime, only to fall off for a few more seasons.  Some shows start of fresh and continue to build, only to crash and burn at the end.  It’d be a shame to see Stranger Things eventually drop in quality, only to be thrown in the bin of other shows which have lost their identity for following the same formula of other shows of their time.  It’s not what I want for this show, and I hope that this is a case where people can learn to enjoy what they have, instead of crave for more and never be satisfied again.

Netflix

Netflix

This leaves one question: Why did I break my eternal code with Netflix for Stranger Things?

For one thing, Stranger Things as a streaming exclusive show does a number of things differently than other shows.  For one thing, it keeps the run time to the average of 48 minutes, sometimes going a little shorter or longer.  Secondly, there are only 8 episodes, which is the magic of this thing; it manages to tell its story in a shorter amount of time which other shows would demand twice as much.  Because of this, Stranger Things is able to use its time to the fullest.  When a drama TV series has as many as 16 episodes or more to a season, it allows for a lot of meandering in the plot.  The Walking Dead always has the occasional episode where I think, "Well, nothing happened there." I never had to say that for Stranger Things.  Every episode satisfied every minute of its runtime which left viewers hungry for more.  Because of this people are feeling more fulfilled when they finish watching Stranger Things’ than they do for a more exhausting 16 episode season.  

Another thing which makes Stranger Things work is that it’s basically tailor-made to be streamed.  Had this show been on primetime television, it just wouldn’t have worked.  There would be too much space between each episode for anyone to care, and commercial breaks could easily break the emotional appeal.  No commercials means that viewers can take in every aspect of the episode for what it is.  Viewers can also watch the show at their own pace, rather than being enslaved to waiting one week between each episode, which helps the pacing of the show flow more smoothly.

Netflix

Netflix

Now that I have officially watched a streaming-exclusive show in its entirety, I can see a lot of the positives in the concept.  Having every episode at the viewer’s disposal is great, and less episodes means there is less fluff and more buff.  Maybe Stranger Things is the dawn of a new way TV shows are done these days.  So many TV shows nowadays are streaming exclusive, and there will likely come a day when TV is only streamed, given how many people are abandoning cable.  Maybe we’ll start seeing TV seasons with less episodes due to less demand because writers can make more with what they have.  While this would be nice, we must understand that Stranger Things is a special case; the first of its kind, really.  Again, as I said before, I haven’t watched Netflix to the extent many people do, and I made a special case for Stranger Things.  Maybe I would start watching streaming exclusive shows more it there were less episodes, but who’s to say every show will suddenly adopt the Stranger Things formula?  Even if House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black were only 8 episodes to a season, I doubt that would convince me to watch them.  Stranger Things for me was a special case, and it’s unlikely that this will change my opinion of TV and convince me to stream other shows.  With that, I’m glad I facilitated time over the last few weeks to watch Stranger Things.  I enjoyed every moment of it, and I’ll say it was time well spent.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; August 2016

Book Review: Thieftaker

D.B. Jackson presents a compelling tale with his novel Theiftaker, a pre-American Revolution historic fiction…with magic.  On paper, nothing could sound better.

In Jackson’s novel, Ethan Kaille is a down-on-his-luck thieftaker in colonial Boston. A theiftaker is someone who retrieves stolen property for money.  Ethan’s dirty secret is that he is also a conjurer, and can use organic material around him to cast spells.  The novel opens with Ethan tracking down a target he’s been hired to pursue, in which we see Ethan’s extent of mental, physical, and magical ability.  This opening chapter does well to establish the character and his broad range of skill.  We also see right from the start that the magic in Jackson’s world isn’t the clean-cut magic we’re used to seeing in the likes of say, Harry Potter.  Jackson’s magic is crude, and doesn’t always work for novice conjurers.  It requires energy and effort which gives the conjuring characters a taxing factor in their ability, and are by no means invincible.  In addition, we learn that Ethan has to cut himself whenever he conjures because blood produces the most effective spells, so use of magic always comes at a sacrifice.  This raises the stakes for the character to the extent of forcing Ethan to choose between self sacrifice or what is an otherwise more comfortable journey.  The big question is always which will grant him his life.

Once the story gets moving, we learn of Ethan’s hardships as a theiftaker, and that he’s new to the business.  He faces the challenge of dealing with a substantial rival theiftaker, Sephira Pryce, who essentially has mooks all over Boston hunting Ethan down to keep him from stealing her work.  This takes a dark turn for Ethan when he is hired to retrieve a stolen article from the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who is willing to pay him substantially for his efforts.  Ethan has never taken up the task of solving a murder mystery, but is willing to try.   Not only does he discover how threatened he is by conspirators of the murder, but Sephira Pryce is out for blood since he has accepted a high-paying contract which would otherwise belong to her.  Throughout the story, whenever Ethan is close to finding another clue, Sephira and her mooks get in the way and he has to start from square one again.  And whenever Ethan encounters Sephira, it’s no quick beat 'em up.  Ethan is almost always outnumbered 10 to 1, and he must refrain from using magic or will otherwise be accused as a witch.  When Sephira’s men beat him, he suffers the consequences.  This isn’t like the movies where our hero can take a beating and get back up again unscathed.  When Ethan is beaten, he is practically immobilized.  His bones break, he gets bloodied up, and has trouble breathing.  His injuries get in the way later in the novel when he’s at his most desperate.  While Spephira and her men are a substantial threat in the story, it’s rarely explained how she has so much power.  We understand that she essentially owns the streets of Boston, but we never know why.  Additionally, while it’s mentioned multiple times that she’s a thieftaker, we never see her do any theiftaking, which I feel would’ve made her character a little more fledged out.  I may be getting ahead of myself as there are more Thieftaker novels after this, but it would’ve been nice to see her style of thieftaking in this book.  Even then, this is only a minor nitpick compared to the rest of the novel.

Ethan also goes to bat with another conjurer throughout the story who quickly proves to be far more skilled than himself.   The conjurer is never physically visible, which makes thwarting him all the more difficult.  In these instances, Ethan has to get creative with his conjurings, and readers witness the full extent of magic within Jackson’s world.  The conjurer never allows Ethan to walk away on two feet.  The spells this mysterious figure uses on him are violent, and Jackson’s descriptions make the reader feel the pain Ethan is going through.  These are some of the best and scariest portions of the novel, which strangely enough make the reader feel like their in Ethan’s shoes.  

Jackson’s Boston is one of the most believable reading environments I’ve ever been placed in.  Having taking place nearly 250 years ago, it feels like I’m actually there and can talk to the city’s inhabitants.  I can feel the grime and dirt, and can smell the smells.  Jackson’s similes and metaphors are also kept within the time period.  There are no modern-day comparisons or comparisons that could work for any point in history.  For example, there’s a part where Jackson describes a character’s dialogue as "a statement that would’ve made King George wince".  Something like that ins’t necessary per-say, but it keeps the story within it’s setting, and is a nice little touch.  The believability of this world is once again thanks to the way Jackson describes it. We see authors do this all the time, but Theiftaker feels like a place I can actually go to and interact with.  Jackson takes us to every nook and cranny of Boston through Ethan’s adventures, meeting colorful characters and exploring new locations, which only adds to the believability of the world.  

Thieftaker lends readers to a vast number of characters, which most fantasy novels would have issues handling for casual readers.  However most every character in Thieftaker feels genuine because they add weight to the story.  No character is shoe-horned in simply for the sake of adding something that wasn’t there before, or as a cop-out to advance the plot.  It’s because they hold so much weight that we feel that they’re actually there.

For a novel that takes place in Revolutionary America, there aren’t that many references to typical American Revolution tropes, and for me, that’s a good thing.  Most settings in this era would have Ethan amidst the Boston Tea Party, or fighting redcoats as a vigilante.  Ethan is most nearly the exact opposite.  He simply doesn’t give a damn about taxation without representation, and is just trying to do his job.  He will take sides with the patriots or loyalists if it means not having to discuss politics so he can get on with business.  This is a fresh look at a character in this era, as most Revolutionary characters always side with the patriots, and it’s interesting to see someone who’s neutral for once.  There are also few major historical figures of the time.  There are no George Washingtons or Thomas Jeffersons here.  Rather, most figures of this status are given as little as a mention, such as Paul Revere or John Hancock.  The most significant figure who appears is Samuel Adams, and even then he isn’t front and center throughout the novel, and is instead used as a means to relay information to Ethan in the latter half of the story.  This is how it should be.  Theiftaker is willing to stick to it’s own story by using its setting as a backdrop, and not rely on historical figures for history class nostalgia.  While I’m sure that Ethan will encounter more historical figures in future novels, as there are more in this series, for a first installment this was a very smart choice.  It shows readers that the story knows what it is doing independently, and doesn’t have to rely on nostalgia for the sake of getting history buffs’ attention.  

Thieftaker is an engaging novel which engulfs readers in a believable world, and manages to stick to it’s plot throughout.  There’s no fluff in the story, and every character adds weight, which is a rare thing for novels with such a vast number of characters to achieve.  Though a lack historical characters, any red-blooded American fantasy lover should get a kick out of this novel, as well as casual readers who aren’t into fantasy.  Definitely a tale for the ages.  

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; June 2016

Purchase Theiftaker from Amazon.