2014. május 6., kedd

You can't cage an eagle - Napoleon In America

The Napoleonic is one of my favourite eras. It’s fascinating how a man with an average stature and lowly social background shook the crumbling world of the privileges and ancient orders.  Was Napoleon a ruthless tyrant who stomped on the achievements of the revolution or the victim of the European reaction, the father of civil code? Was his reign a catastrophe for the Frenchmen or the age of gloire when nothing was impossible? My review about the 2014 alternate history novel Napoleon In America by Shannon Selin.

As I pointed out, alternate history writers should have a good hunting ground in the Napoleonic era; the history-turning events caused by the Corsican are plenty.
History would have been much different if a single stray bullet had had its mark on the Bridge of Arcole in Italy, eight years before Napoleon’s enthronement.

It surprised me a bit that the point of deviation in Napoleon In America happened in the aftermath of Bonaparte's career, and even later than I expected. In this storyline, the banished emperor escaped St. Helena’s Island in 1821, in the year of his real life death. Judging from the title only, I supposed Napoleon managed to avoid the British ship of the line Bellerophon and reached his original destination, the United States yet in 1815. Frankly, it’s hard to believe any serious escape attempt by the stomach cancer-stricken cadaver of 1821. 

The emperor of France by merit has a mixed reputation. Indeed, few men in history rose so high and lost so much as Napoleon Bonaparte.

There wouldn’t have been much of a story if the once emperor hadn’t regained his health in the New World in Napoleon In America. Napoleon arrives at a young country and meets a not yet nation where the principles of revolution are the facts of life, the lands are plenty, everybody is his own master, and military is scarce. May the fifty-year old Bonaparte become the greatest of newcomers in the country of immigrants or will he choose the tranquility of farmer life and assimilation like his elder brother Joseph did? I think we all know the answer for that, the rolling stone will seek out glory and new achievements, and the World will tremble again under his boots.

The high watermark of the French empire. The charge of the Old Guard in Sergei Bondarchuk's Waterloo

I give a fair warning that Shannon Selin’s Napoleon In America is not an easy reading. If let’say Robert Conroy’s alternate history novels are the fast food, this is a rare and original delicacy. Normally, I can finish off a book with average length within two days, but I was sitting on this one for a week. Shannon Selin had recreated the world of the 19th century with punctual accuracy, but there is a danger that the slow-moving of events and the strange dialog may alienate today’s readers, especially if they are not native English-speakers like myself. In this novel, everybody with an education speaks in a periodic style with lots of classic references. Good luck with understanding all of them, but I think I managed to follow the dialog most of the time.

By the half of the book, nothing happens if we don’t count Napoleon’s recovery itself. We have to reconstruct most events from fictitious diplomatic and family posts, weekly newspaper writings, the same way the people of this age did. We get nothing on a plate, messages travel for weeks in this world, unlike the mass media of today which tries to get our attention desperately in every hour. Napoleon in America won’t press you for faster consuming, you have to focus for the understanding, and some knowledge about the historical background won’t hurt either. 

Shannon Selin, the author of Napoleon In America
Napoleon In America is just the beginning of a new fictional universe where the little corporal reshapes the history of both worlds, the Old and the New. We haven’t seen the peak of his carrier yet. I’m wondering where Shannon Selin will take us in the next part.

2014. április 18., péntek

The unworthy offspring - War of the Worlds: Goliath

We are getting back to the War of the Worlds franchise a bit. I have to make up for an old debt of mine. I try to focus  on relatively fresh alternate history/historical fiction material and reviews more and more on these pages, and the War of the Worlds: Goliath of 2012 borderline qualifies that criterion. This is an anime made by Americans, actually. Admittedly, I made only brief trips into the anime world yet. According to my limited cinematic experience, the message and the story of Japanese animes with a Japanese topic are a little hard to grasp onto. It doesn’t work for me either when they try to touch Western history. This happened to me when I was watching the Steamboy anime.

War of the Worlds
. Yes, we have been here before. Tripods surrounded with clouds of poison gas, vaporizing death ray, bloodsucking aliens from Mars, red weed, and the glorious Earth bacteria, you name it. The War of the Worlds: Goliath is an interesting anime adaptation of the original H.G. Wells novel. A historical fiction work with steampunk elements, or more like a pseudo-sequel of the original. 

The plot takes place fifteen years later after the original Martian invasion of 1899 and tells a story about a second attack. The anime refers back to the first invasion with beautiful pictures in the intro. Not a single word is told, but none is needed, they are telltale and plastic, completely functional from a dramaturgical point of view. I’m afraid we have just touched the most valuable parts of the movie already.

Fifteen years ago, faceless invaders from the hell of deep space commited genocide against humanity. Now it's time for a rematch.

World War One has been just postponed

It’s not like the story writers didn’t have some good ideas. Placing an international elite military squad into the age of ultra-nationalism was a daring and promising attempt to get my attention. The respective national consciousnesses of the age were absolute and look incredibly competitive nowadays. I mean, grade school children were taught to verse warmonger poems about exterminating each other, not to mention the racial theories. The Martian invasion changed the Earth of this alternate universe forever, of course. Still, a multi-racial strike force against the aliens promised a lot of interesting interaction between the team members. 

The Goliaths of the human battleline. A lot of effort went into the promotion of the anime.

Somebody said explosions…?

There are some, but I wasn’t satisfied. The main reason for this that the storywriters had settled for a Michael Bay-ish visual orgy with pasteboard characters and action movie cliches. I consider Bay as the apostle of the cinematic equivalent of sleep-denying torture.  He doesn’t use the story to keep your attention but every tricks of visual compulsion. Release me- you are screaming internally. I broke halfway on Transformers 2 and wept.

It's not like the Martians didn't make some improvements.

The War of the Worlds: Goliath is not that bad, but it’s not far off either. Japanese stories are maybe a bit hard to digest, or I’m just lacking the required sensitivity and cultural background to grasp them. Maybe it’s just the different strokes, but the real trainwreck is when Western creators utilize a fashionable template (in this case, the anime-style) to produce a cliched animated action movie. I’m afraid that the War of the Worlds: Goliath is not really more than that. 

Again, much effort into the design and visuals of Goliath. No argument there.
Don’t get me wrong, our nine year old kids will be charmed. But for me, The Great Martian War 1913-1917 had more entertainment value, despite it’s nowhere close to the visuals of the Goliath with its cheap manipulated historical footage and fake interviews. Too much effort into the visuals, too less into the story, that’s why I consider War of the Worlds: Goliath as a failure. H.G. Wells deserves more.

2014. március 24., hétfő

The Royals: Masters of War

When superheroes and the world wars get into the same context somehow, most buffs will associate to the Golden Age of Comic Books. Pictures like Batman hunting for nazi saboteurs in America or Superman wrestling enemy submarines come to my mind. These ancient popular entertainment pieces may strike us as naive and caricature-like, but they just reflected to the spirit of their age. Who knew that very late descendants of these patriotic comic books still appear in our days. The Royals: Masters of War is a six-part historical fiction comics adventure, which takes us back in the time of the biggest crisis of England in the 20th century. 

On these pages, the Battle of Britain is joined by the members of the British Royal Family, and superhero-abilities flow in the blue blood. This post is a review of the first two published episodes.

Hitler and Tojo are in trouble. Mr. pants on the outside of the 40s is teaching them a lesson (and doesn’t forget to encourage you to buy war bonds).

What is in the blue blood?


In this alternate universe, flowing royal blood in your veins means having superhuman abilities, those were the source of the power of your ancestors. This power became title and was inherited generation after generation. The superhuman ruling class guarded the purity of its noble bloodline carefully for a reason and kept the newcomers out. This marriage practice lead to interbreeding and the unavoidable mental and physical degeneration. The exhausting and costly Great War had shattered the people’s confidence in the traditional ruling classes and social order. Several ancient royal dynasties like the Romanovs or Habsburgs fell victim to this turmoil.

The East End in Flames. The Blitz, London, 1940.

The British Royal Family: The House of Windsor had chosen to lay low and withdrew from public life. The heirs were declared as powerless for the public, and the king forbid them to use their powers ever again. The Windsors would have kept living their decadent lifes on taxpayers’ money and would have filled the pages of tabloids all right if the Second World War hadn’t happened.

The king returns and seizes the skies (SPOILER)


The young and naive blond prince Henry cannot stand the carnage outside and  the suffering of the common people anymore. Instead of distributing tea and some blankets in a bomb shelter, he enters the raging battle above his own home, like his ancestors did in the  times of peril. In a very early part of the storyline, we will meet a serious character flaw of his, but it only makes the prince and the plot more interesting. By the way, the story itself doesn’t follow the historical family tree of the Windsors; the names and characters are different.

When I’m writing these words, yet only two parts of the six were published, but I can tell that the major theme is the superhuman escalation of World War Two. The pictures are beautiful, not Jim Lee- or The Red Star-beautiful but they are pleasant to look at. The Royals: Masters of War comics come with the promise of being extraordinary. Superheroes and the old royal dynasties are a daring but ingenious combination (bloody hell, after the magic-enchanted Soviet empire, I’m laissez faire on the subject…), and I’m really looking forward to the next episodes.

The pictures were taken from the resptective pages of The Royals: Master of War #1-2. Written by: Rob Williams. Artist: Simon Coleby. Publisher: Vertigo Comics