The Books of 2016, #11: Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict In Korea, by Sheila Miyoshi Jager


This book, frankly, exhausted me. In terms of the information presented, it's very good; you're not going to find a better English-language one-volume history of the entire period in which the Two Koreas have existed. She places the war itself in the proper context of the long-view of Korea's divided history, and gives much more focus to Korean impetus and sources than you'd usually get in the American-centric histories that dominate the reading lists here. That said, though; it's just a bit of a slog to _read_. The level of detail occasionally approaches overwhelming, and Jager doesn't provide the best narrative flow in which to situate, comprehend, and retain that detail.

To start with, if you don't already have a good grounding in the war itself, this book is not going to give it to you. For example, there's much more in this book about the rebellion of POW's at Koje-Do than there is regarding, say, the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. The latter is covered, but not to the depth of events elsewhere. And that's FINE; I believe her whole point is to restore the agency the Koreans usually lose in English-language histories of the conflict, and therefore she chooses to focus more on events that haven't been covered well before. Arguably, in terms of KOREAN history, the rebellion at Koje-Do mattered more than the retreat from Chosin. Just know that going in, and read something like Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter" to get grounded on the war itself.

More problematically, even though she does present a lot of detail overall on the war era, it's provided in a weirdly staggered way that makes it hard to follow the actual chronological flow of events. Or at least it was for me.

That said, the book also succeeds on a lot of fronts, particularly on the level of new information presented regarding the domestic South Korean front and the entirety of the Communist side. While again obviously focused on presenting the Koreans as their own actors with their own methods, she does not shrink away from showing that the Rhees and Il Sungs of the time had their actions strongly circumscribed by what their ideological big brothers would allow. For all of the loud trumpeting of the North Korean autarkic ideal of "juche" they have subjected everyone to over the decades, the historical record makes it clear that, at almost no times throughout its history, has North Korea been able to decide entirely on its own course. Rather, the South Koreans have had more success making their American patrons react to their own actions than the North Koreans ever did at getting the Chinese or the Soviet/Russians to theirs.

Jager also does well in presenting an honest picture of the economic race of each Korea in the post-war era; it sounds surprising to consider that North Korea was actually probably ahead of the South Koreans economically until the mid-1960's, even after being bombed mostly flat by the American Air Force in the war, but the South Korean leadership was that bad at caring about or knowing how to improve the lot of the average citizen for quite some time.

I enjoyed Jager most when she discusses how the poor economic performance of early South Korean governments led to civilian dissatisfaction with western-style democracy and, instead, resulted in support for the Communist cause that seemed to be doing a better job of raising the standard of its people at the time. This carries into the reaction and repression that stripped away rights from the South, but also provided the stability necessary for genuine economic growth to finally occur. In turn, that increasing wealth empowered the people to where they were able to force a return of democracy. Meanwhile, throughout, the North simply became increasingly poor, isolated, and unstable.

Overall, I can give Brothers at War a qualified recommendation; if you're well-versed in the war itself that is the dominating event of this entire era, and can deal with the occasionally confusing and meandering nature of the narrative, this book will fill in the periods before and following the war better than anything else you're going to find in English today. If not, I'd recommend reading some dedicated histories of the war itself first, and/or waiting to see if anybody else decides to try and replicate Jager's work here in the next few years in a clearer, more cohesive fashion.

The Books of 2016, #10: The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople, by Susan Wise Bauer

Medieval_worldThis is a weird book to review as it's not a standard, single-topic narrative history. Rather, each chapter focuses on a different slice of the world that makes sense to narrow in on topically, with the whole group of chapters slowly moving forward in time. So, for example, every fifth-ish chapter will revisit what's happened in, say, Korea since the last chapter on that area.

Over the course of the whole book, you get a pretty damned good overview of everything that happened of note in every major civilization region across the globe over the couple hundred years this book covers (the same basic idea holds for the previous entries in the series as well). There's an almost unavoidable weighting of text in favor of European civilizations, just due to the simple fact that there's more written source material to work with for them (Bauer made clear in the intro to the first book of the series that she had to limit herself to civilizations that left written records; there's no room in her scope for archaeology or trying to interpret, say, whatever the hell the Harappans were up to in India, or what the bulk of pre-Colombian America was doing). That said, she obviously cares to give as much weight to non-European civilizations as the material can allow for, and does that well.

Even as carefully as written a book such as this must, due to the vast scope of the topic being covered, be a wide but shallow pool. Bauer presents a pretty amazing level of detail on each cultural area over time, but if you're looking for explosive new interpretations or thoughtful analysis of larger trends, you're not going to find it here.

I like this series best as an accompaniment to deeper books I'm reading at the time; like, if I want a wider context on what all of Europe or the world was like during the time period covered by, say, the Third Crusade, I can get that from Bauer's series.

So, for the well-read historian, the series will serve as a great refresher on areas the reader may be weaker on or have forgotten about. But it will work best for the novice; if you haven't cracked a history book since your college World History AP course, but are interested in catching up, this is the first series I'd point you to.

The Books of 2016, #8: The Desert and The Blade (A Novel of The Change), by S. M. Stirling

Desert_and_blade*does some quick Googling…*

Jesus Christ. It's been twelve freaking years since this series debuted. We're also twelve books into it (plus one collection of short stories by mostly-other authors set in this universe). Annnd, as my review of _last_ year's entry, The Golden Princess, showed, I struggle with why I'm still reading this series.

So I'm not going to spend much time on this save to say: it's better than the last book was. We get action, the plot moves forward quite a bit, we get to find out what happened to the greater LA area after The Change… it's a decent entry in a series that probably should have been put to bed two arcs ago.

I'm not entirely sure why I'm still reading it save for the fact that Stirling _can_ knit a yarn pretty goddamned well, and I'm juuuuust enough of a sucker for "oh, we get to find out what happened to THAT part of the world after the Big Disaster?" that I'll put aside my inherent disdain for the increasing magical elements of this tale and bull through just for that.

Stirling is very, very good at creating and writing about alternate versions of our world (his Draka books remain my second-favorite type of this genre, juuuust barely beat-out by the downright depressing and therefore all-too-believable agonies of John Barnes' Century Next Door series…), and injects just enough of that into these books at this point to keep me grimly reading along, regardless of how many orbits my eyes have to do in their sockets at times when the fuckin' McClintocks and McKenzie's have to argue over the trivial differences between their fake-ass dipshit clans for the 79th time…

Fortunately, The Desert and the Blade is a lot better than The Golden Princess was, given that Things Actually Happen in this entry. The High Princess' Quest is in full flower, and they get through a good chunk of it. Stirling seems to have realized that part of the draw of this series was finding out what's going on elsewhere on our post-Change globe, so he introduces some characters who have had reason to travel that globe, and therefore can spend entire chapters describing what happened elsewhere. It's a fun, showy example of just how good Stirling is at world-building, and I appreciate the appearances here.

I can't give much more detail without giving away reasons to actually read this thing, and I assume anyone even considering it is already familiar with the world because good fuckin' luck jumping in on Vol. 12 if you aren't. In a world where this type of book has been almost entirely taken over by Young Adult tropes (bleaugh), I appreciate that Stirling is still writing somewhat more adult tales of the apocalypse, his staunch advocacy of Renn Faire nonsense aside. It's far from his best book, but certainly the best this series has seen for a while, and further sets up the next entry to be pretty far-ranging and interesting to my particular tastes.

So, if you're into this series already, you'll probably like this. If you're not, this book will probably just confuse you. If you like to spend your weekends m'ladying your way through Society for Creative Anachronism meetings, who are we kidding, you've probably already written erotic fanfic based on this world.