In Progress Review: The Imjin War: Japan's Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China, by Samuel Hawley

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This isn't a final review, since I'm still reading this book, but I read a line yesterday that was so damned good I want to get a recommendation out for this book now rather than later.

A scene where a Korean general has realized he is not going to survive, much less win, the battle at hand is described as:

“This is the place where I will die.” It was. And he did.

That's some fantastically concise and correct writing. 

This is a very good book so far, btw. Originally published in 2005, it's back in print as a new edition, and generally considered the best book available on the topic in English (not that there's many to begin with). As a war that's basically unknown in the West, it's fascinating. It's the story of the Japanese warlord/unifier Hideyoshi's attempt to not only conquer Korea, but also China, Vietnam, the other southeast Asian island kingdoms, Spanish Philippines, and, why not, India as well.

He was nothing if not ambitious, particularly since he began this undertaking before he had fully completed conquering all of Japan itself. 

It goes into great detail on how the societies and economies involved were structured at the time, as well as covering the actual military campaigns and events that took place (the naval stuff is particularly bonkers).

It's enjoyable written, fast-moving, and has the nice feature of doing short recaps of previously-covered events inline when the followup events are covered later, a tactic I suspect was purposely chosen by the author to cover the typical Western reader's lack of familiarity with the topic overall. Essentially, the reader needn't struggle to remember all of the important names and places on their own, as he will give you a brief reintroduction when they rejoin the action after their initial appearances. It's a thoughtful touch.

Anyways, it would have to fall off course rather hard for me to turn my current recommendation into a non-recommendation, and there's nothing to indicate that that's going to happen, so if you have any interest in east Asian history or military history but this massive war is somehow still foreign to you, pick this book up. It's intensely fascinating. 

Book Review: Babylon's Ashes by James S. A. Corey

Babylons_AshesA solid entry in the series, but starting to strain the suspension of disbelief that the same six-seven people are constantly at the center of these epochal, shattering moments for humanity. So, on that note, I'm glad that they're moving into the "final" trilogy of The Expanse with the following book, Persepolis Rising. As for THIS book, it brings a generally satisfactory conclusion to the story of Marcos Inaros and his Free Navy's rebellion against Earth/Mars/OPA. I'm basically just glad to see Marcos go away (spoiler, but c'mon, you knew it was coming) because he's a paper-thin caricature of an evil bad guy who was never really developed much beyond being a necessary plot agent. His background with Naomi was rather insubstantial, his relationship with their child almost Darth Vader-ian in its comical abuse... what he did to Earth is genuinely disturbing, and I almost wish they spent more time dealing with the effects of the attacks, but the background info we get via Avasarala does a pretty good job of conveying just how fucked things are.

That said, the fact that the 1300 new worlds and many new colonies that we know are out there spend this entire book basically out of sight entirely is distressing; I get that we have to settle our home solar system's story here, but Jesus Christ do I hope that the final trilogy takes place amongst these new worlds already (I know the first book is already out and thus I could already know if that's what's going on, but I'm saving the entire final trilogy to binge on once it's all released, inshallah).

So, while not quite as cool as the first trilogy (Marcos is no Miller in terms of being Holden's primary foil), Babylon's Ashes does a solid job of fulfilling the usually-difficult mission of wrapping up the middle act of a series. If you've enjoyed the series to this point, I doubt you'll not enjoy this entry as well.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

IstanbulI'll be blunt: this book is a goddamned triumph.

I liked this book so much that I read all 800 pages of it even though the e-book had a glaring processing problem that caused it to insert a space after every double-f in the text (and some other cases I couldn't pin down a precise cause for). So, every time like "offered" was in the text, which was a surprisingly large number of times, it showed up as "off ered".

This was AMAZINGLY distracting. And normally the sort of thing that would cause me to bail out and wait for Amazon to fix the copy or something, but not in this case. The book, from Page One, was just too good.

Admittedly, I'll basically read anything even tangentially related to the Byzantine Empire. But even if you don't particularly care about that narrow topic, say you're just a "history buff" in general, this is the sort of work you absolutely should read.

Why? Well, Ms Hughes pulls off the herculean task of integrating classic history of the "which ruler sent what general to fight which enemy for what reasons" type, with the more modern aspects of "and how did that affect the culture, economy, mores, religion, etc., of the common man/woman/eunuch/slave of the polity?" type, AND does it all with a measure of style and competence that few authors are able to pull off successfully.

The book moves roughly chronologically through the "Three Cities" of the title; starting with the ancient Greek polis of Byzantion, then moving through the long epoch of the Roman/Byzantine Constantinople, then wrapping up with the world capital of Ottoman/Islamic/Turkish Istanbul. For such a long book, it moves remarkably briskly, helped along by economical chapter lengths and a vibrant writing style that generates that almost novel-esque sense of "just one more chapter" that few works of non-fiction ever achieve.

While firmly a history book, each chapter tends to start off with a wonderful and personalizing vignette from the author's own experience of researching for that chapter, situating the historical time about to be discussed in the modern age, which really helps pull the reader in and serves additionally as just great color. It also forces the reader to occasionally consider the randomness of history at time; sometimes your ancient relic becomes the still-venerated Hagia Sophia hundreds of years later. Other times, you're an equally-stunning ancient mosaic buried in the basement of a kebob joint behind a cell phone store. Such is fate.

VERY few histories give any nods to these also-rans of importance, and that Hughes does in this book jarred me into thinking for a bit about the caprice of history, the undeniable fact that what we today consider important about the past may not have been what the past considered important about itself, and that so much is left to the random chance of what managed to survive the millennia between a building or work of art's original period of importance and the reignition of interest in that original period by a much-later time. Basically, how many Michelangelo's "David"s are we missing out on today because nobody cared three hundred years ago and repurposed something beautiful into a roof for a barn?

It's this effect of the book I enjoyed most; at times I would read something that would force me to put the book down and just let my mind wander down a path it never had before, to consider some arcane detail of 1700's Constantinople that I hadn't thought of.

The breadth of knowledge Hughes shows here is also commendable; being able to write authoritatively about how an ancient Greek polis organizes itself politically is typically an entirely separate discipline from say describing in detail the personal politics of a reform-era Ottoman Sultan's harem. She handles both, and all of the other disparate topics that come up in a history of this breadth, with aplomb.

Bottom line, this book is just a delight. If you like good history, read it. If you're a fan of anything Byzantine or Ottoman, read it. If you like just plain good writing, read it. It's got that kind of cross-genre appeal few books pull off without being "lite" in their treatment of the topic, an accusation that absolutely cannot be laid at Ms Hughes' feet here; it is that rare bird, the Serious Work of History that is also an absolute joy to read. It gets my highest recommendation.