Lands of the lost

Recently, I finished reading Fingerprints of the Gods. I picked it up because I found the premise interesting, and because the mainstream media made such a big deal about author Graham Hancock getting a Netflix miniseries to showcase his unorthodox theories. I went into the book hoping there would be something tangible about those theories. Unfortunately, there isn’t.

Time of ice

The basic outline of the book is this: What if an advanced civilization existed before all known historical ones, and imparted some of its wisdom to those later civilizations as a way of outliving its own demise?

Put like that, it’s an intriguing proposition, one that has cropped up in many places over the past three decades. The Stargate franchise—one of my favorites, I must admit—is based largely on Hancock’s ideas, along with those of noted crackpots like Erich von Daniken. Chrono Trigger, widely regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time, uses the concept as a major plot point. Plenty of novels, especially in fantasy genres, suppose an ancient "builder" race or culture whose fingerprints are left within the world in some fashion.

It was this last point that piqued my interest, because my Otherworld series revolves around exactly this. And I even unknowingly used some of Hancock’s hypotheses for that. The timing of my ancients leaving Earth for their second world matches that of his ancients’ final collapse. The connection of archaeoastronomy as a way of leading to their knowledge arises in my books. Even using the prehistoric Mesoamericans as the catalyst wasn’t an original idea of mine; in my case, however, I did it so I wouldn’t have to deal with the logistics of the characters traveling to another continent.

Some of the questions Hancock asks are ones that need to be asked. It’s clear that ancient historical cultures the world over have some common themes which arise in their earliest mythology. Note, though, that these aren’t the specific ones he lists. The flood of Noah and Gilgamesh is entirely different from those of cultures beyond the Fertile Crescent and Asia Minor, for example, because it most likely stems from oral traditions of the breaking of the Bosporus, which led to a massive expansion of the Black Sea. Celts, to take one instance, would instead have a flood myth pointing to the flooding of what is now the Dogger Bank; peoples of New Guinea might have one relating to the inundation of the Sunda region; American Indian myths may have preserved echoes of the flooding of Beringia; and so on.

While the details Hancock tries to use don’t always work, the broad strokes of his supposition have merit. There are definitely astronomical alignments in many prehistoric structures, and some of them are downright anachronistic. Too many indigenous American cultures have myths about people who most definitely are not Amerind. (And now I’m wondering if Kennewick Man was a half-breed. I may need to incorporate that into a book…)

The possibility can’t yet be ruled out that cultures with technology more advanced than their direct successors did exist in the past. We know that Dark Ages happen, after all. We have historical records of two in the West (the familiar medieval Dark Age beginning c. 500 AD and the Greek Dark Age that started c. 1200 BC), and we’re very likely on the threshold of what might one day be termed the Progressive Dark Age.

With the cataclysmic end of the Ice Age and the catastrophic Younger Dryas cold snap, which now seems likely to be caused by at least one asteroid impact, there’s a very good impetus for the "breaking the chain" effect that leads to a Dark Age, one that would erase most traces of such an advanced civilization.

Habeas corpus

Of course, the biggest problem with such a theory is the lack of evidence. Even worse, Hancock, like most unorthodox scholars, argues from an "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" line of thought. Which is fine, but it’s not science. Science is about making testable and falsifiable predictions about the world. It’s not simply throwing out what-ifs and demanding that the establishment debunk them.

The onus is on those who make alternative theories, and this is where Hancock fails miserably. Rarely in the book does he offer any hard evidence in favor of his conjecture. Instead, he most often uses the "beyond the scope of this book" cop-out (to give him credit, that does make him exactly like any orthodox academic) or takes a disputed data point as proof that, since the establishment can’t explain it, that must mean he’s right. It’s traditional crackpottery, and that’s unfortunate. I would’ve liked a better accounting of the actual evidence.

Probably the most disturbing aspect of the book is the author’s insistence on taking myths at face value. We know that mythology is absolutely false—the Greek gods don’t exist, for example—but that it can often hide clues to historical facts.

To me, one of the most interesting examples of this is also one of the most recent: the finding in 2020 of evidence pointing to an impact or airburst event near the shore of the Dead Sea sometime around 1600 BC. This event apparently not only destroyed a town in such a violent event that it vaporized human flesh, but it also scattered salt from the sea over such a wide region that it literally salted the earth. And the only reference, oral or written, to this disaster is as a metaphor, in the Jewish fable of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Myths, then, can be useful to historians and archaeologists, but they’re certainly not a primary source. The nameless town on the shore of the Dead Sea wasn’t wiped out by a capricious deity’s skewed sense of justice, but by a natural, if rare, disaster. Similarly, references in Egyptian texts of gods who ruled as kings doesn’t literally mean that their gods existed. Because they didn’t.

In the same vein, Hancock focuses too much on numerological coincidences, assuming that they must have some deeper meaning. But the simple fact is that many cultures could independently hit upon the idea of dividing the sky into 360 degrees. It’s a highly composite number, after all, and close enough to the number of days in the year that it wouldn’t be a huge leap. That the timeworn faces of the Giza pyramids are currently in certain geometric ratios doesn’t mean that they always were, or that they were intended to be, or that they were intended to be as a message from ten thousand years ago.

Again, the burden of proof falls on the one making the more outlandish claims. Most importantly, if there did exist an ancient civilization with enough scientific and technological advancement to pose as gods around the world, there should be evidence of their existence. Direct, physical evidence. An industrial civilization puts out tons upon tons of waste. It requires natural resources, including some that are finite. The more people who supposedly lived in this Quaternary Atlantis, the more likely we would have stumbled upon one’s remains by now.

Even more than this, the scope of Hancock’s conjecture is absurdly small. He draws most of his conclusions from three data points: Egypt, Peru, and Central America. Really, that’s more like two and a half, because there were prehistoric connections between the two halves of the Americas—potatoes and corn had to travel somehow. Rarely does he point to India, where Dravidians mangled the myths of the Yamnaya into the Vedas. China, which became literate around the same time as Egypt, is almost never mentioned. Did the ancients just not bother with them? What about Stonehenge, which is at least as impressive, in terms of the necessary engineering, as the Pyramids?


I liked the book. Don’t get me wrong on that. It had some thought-provoking moments, and it makes for good novel fodder. I’ll definitely have to make a mention of Viracocha in an Otherworld story at some point.

As a scientific endeavor, or even as an introduction to an unorthodox theory, it’s almost useless. There are too many questions, too few answers, and too much moralizing. There’s also a strain of romanticism, which is common to a lot of people who study archaeological findings but aren’t themselves archaeologists. At many points, Hancock denigrates modern society while upholding his supposed lost civilization as a Golden Age of humanity. You know, exactly like Plato and Francis Bacon did.

That said, it’s worth a read if only to see what not to do. In a time where real science is under attack, and pseudoscience is given preferential treatment in society, government, and media, it’s important to know that asking questions is the first step. Finding evidence to support your assertions is the next, and it’s necessary if you want to advance our collective knowledge.

Review: Planet Zero

I’ve been waiting for this one since the first time I heard the title track. Planet Zero got pushed back from its original April release to today, July 1, due to a manufacturing delay for the vinyl edition. But that’s okay. It’s definitely worth the wait.

Shinedown was, some years ago, my favorite modern rock band. They were the headlining act of the first indoor concert I ever saw—I’m still kicking myself for being too late to see Halestorm open for them—and they just made good music. Their last three albums (Amaryllis, Threat to Survival, and Attention Attention) all felt lackluster to me, and some of that comes from the big letdown after 2008’s amazing The Sound of Madness, which I will call the best rock album of its decade without any hesitation.

But “Planet Zero” sounded like a return to form, and it sounded like it had a message, a purpose. That’s something rock has been getting back to, so why not check it out?


The intro track sets the tone and the stage, because this is, in a way, a concept album. It’s a quick instrumental with electronic elements, fitting for the futuristic setting. Nothing to write home about, but it tells you that you’re listening to something intended to be cohesive.

No Sleep Tonight

This is the first “real” song on the album, and it’s your typical Shinedown: hard and heavy, but always with a little lift. And a great solo in the middle, which is not what the band is known for. More importantly, though, the lyrics have a distinct theme that resurfaces throughout the course of the album. “We’re tired of being powerless,” it says. And that is a familiar refrain.

Planet Zero

The title track was also the first single. If you haven’t already heard it, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s even heavier than “No Sleep Tonight” was, with a stronger sense of anger, and that anger is directed towards the woke, towards cancel culture and all its evils. As someone who feels the same, “Planet Zero” resonated with me from the first listen. Finally, here was someone who understood what I was saying.


This album has six interstitial tracks. “Welcome” is first, followed by “Standardized Experiences” (track 7), “Do Not Panic” (track 9), “A More Utopian Future” (track 12), “This Is A Warning” (track 16), and “Delete” (track 19). I won’t cover them individually, because they’re basically all the same.

They tell the story of the eponymous Planet Zero, which may or may not be a future version of Earth. (Considering the opener’s title and the fact that, in Orwell’s novel, London had been renamed Airstrip One, I think the parallels are pretty obvious.) On Planet Zero, as the helpful computer voice explains through these tracks, everyone is happy and sociable. They have to be, or else they’re sent in for reeducation or surrendered to the populace for “social judgment”—in other words, canceled.

If that isn’t a direct indictment of modern leftism and the Great Reset, I don’t know what is. It couldn’t be any clearer. Those hateful ideologies have the goal of eliminating nonconformity and thus individualism; Planet Zero is clearly the end result of that, a dystopia called a utopia, a combination of 1984, Brave New World, and The Matrix. That’s the direction our world is heading, so it’s always good when someone with a platform speaks out against it.

Dysfunctional You

After what’s actually a seriously dense metaphor packed into about 30 seconds, “Dysfunctional You” is a jarring contrast. A light melody typical of Amaryllis tends to overshadow some surprisingly deep lyrics. This song, as far as I can tell, is about being yourself even when other people think you’re crazy.

It’s a powerful message when you think about it, and all the more so in our current climate of normalizing every possible peculiarity. But we’re not talking about embracing degeneracy here. No, this is more about those minor or moderate mental disorders we too often treat as much more. They’re not. Working for someone who is dyslexic, I’ve come to understand how it affects a person, but it’s not the end of the world. While anxiety—one of my own maladies—can be crippling at its worst, it’s a part of who I am, and something I’d rather learn to control through my own actions rather than with drugs.

If anything, that’s the message of this song. Be who you are, and be proud of it. Don’t change just to fit in. That goes for the anxious and the depressed as much as for the tomboy being pressured into transitioning.

Dead Don’t Die

Another hard track, another of the back-and-forth pendulum swings that mark Planet Zero. This time, it’s more like classic Shinedown. And that’s a little odd, because it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. It doesn’t really continue the dystopian storyline, and it honestly reminds me of nothing so much as “Diamond Eyes” from the soundtrack to The Expendables.

Still, it’s a good song, a nice “you can’t bring me down” anthem that could apply to just about any situation. It doesn’t drag the album down, but it doesn’t do much to pump it up, either. I guess everybody needs some filler every now and then.

America Burning

Track 8 should be the headliner, but I absolutely understand why it was saved for the full album release. If it weren’t, I don’t believe it would’ve come out at all. More than any other song, “America Burning” nails the message of Planet Zero.

Again, it’s a harder one, but forget about the music and focus on the lyrics. “You might be woke but not awake,” one line reads. “Is this apocalypse now? Who let the animals out?”

Anyone who saw the massive riots over the summer of 2020, triggered (at least in part) by the death of a random drug addict, knows what “America Burning” means. Anyone who watched as blatant election fraud was swept under the rug, even as those who stood up for fairness were vilified and jailed, understands the even deeper message. That anyone is brave enough to speak out against the senseless destruction of our country and the indoctrination of our children is astonishing. That it comes in the form of a catchy and memorable song is so much better.

A Symptom Of Being Human

Back to the light side again. As with “Dysfunctional You”, here’s another track about facing the odds to be yourself. In this case, it’s more about feeling out of place, something I can’t help but get. “Sometimes I’m in a room where I don’t belong,” is how the chorus opens; well, that’s just about every room I’ve ever stepped into.

We’re all crazy in our own unique way. That’s a fact of life, and it’s something that progressives, with their desire to neutralize all differences between us, fail to grasp. But that craziness is what gives us life, and what makes that life worth living. It creates society, with all its ups and downs. Mild insanity is, to put it simply, a symptom of being human.


“Hope” is by far the most inspirational song on this album, and quite possibly one of the brightest Shinedown has ever released. (“I’ll Follow You” and “Unity” from Amaryllis both come close.) The acoustic guitar work and the mildly heavy riffs in the solo give it a quality akin to 90s alternative and pop rock; listening to it, I was reminded more of Collective Soul and Sister Hazel than the band that was banned from MTV for daring to let a white man stare down the barrel of a .45.

Even the subject matter is almost cloyingly positive, but that still manages to fit the tone of the album. If “America Burning” is the realistic look at what our country is facing, “Hope” is the whitepill, the reminder that we can still make it right as long as we’re willing to be true to ourselves.

Clueless And Dramatic

Following a brief interruption from our AI overseer, track 13 jumps right back into harder rock. This time, Brent is railing against what many on the right side of the internet have begun to call the NPC Race, that significant group of people who aren’t ignorant, but shockingly poor at reasoning.

“Clueless and dramatic” is indeed a good way to describe the Twitter blue-checks who show no self-awareness, no memory of recent or historical events, and far too much emotion for something they clearly aren’t emotionally invested in. Think the many, many calls for “my body, my choice” regarding the recent Dobbs ruling, often from the same people who, two years ago, said that the decision whether to take an experimental drug was something the state could and should mandate.

The best defense against these people is to ignore them. And that’s the remedy Shinedown offers: turn it off, save yourself from the clueless and dramatic.

(Also, this song has a nice callback to 45, the band’s first real hit.)

Sure Is Fun

If I didn’t have MP3 tags, I would’ve thought this was Imagine Dragons. I’m not entirely sure what this song is saying or why it’s a part of the album. It sounds more like the lowest points of Attention Attention and the reason why I had given up on Shinedown for a decade. Call it a filler track, really.

Despite that, it’s not too bad. There’s more spitting in the face of wokeness, which is always good. The melody gets stuck in your head. Give it a listen, but there’s really no need to come back to it.


“Daylight” was the third single for Planet Zero, and it’s the only true ballad on the album. As I’ve said repeatedly, both on here and in real life, a ballad is a necessary component for a great record. It just is.

When I first heard this one—less than a month ago, but it feels like much longer—I broke down. I truly felt as if the words were meant for me and me alone. Rather, for myself and my partner. “I was diagnosed with a fear of getting too close.” Yeah, that’s me. “Had to tell the ones I love I was on the ropes.” Yep. Did that.

If all goes well, I’m going to meet Leslie in person for the first time next week. After three years of waiting, including the “one year and three months in the dark” of lockdown madness that Brent so eloquently states here, I have finally made it to the point in my life where I can do this. And every single line of this song is what I want to say to the woman I love, the one who has given me a reason to go on throughout it all.

The Saints Of Violence And Innuendo

If you ask me, “Daylight” would have worked better at the end of the album, because how do you follow that up? (It’s the same for “Call Me”, all the way back on The Sound Of Madness, but that one was at the end.)

Well, this isn’t the way. Another stand against the woke mob doesn’t really flow from the tearful reminder of those who get us through the day, and no storyline filler can change that. Still, “Saints” is a great Shinedown song. It has the beat, the feel, and it would fit just anywhere in their discography. Its connection to the story certainly helps it here, however, because it’s easier to see the connection between the title and the target.

Army Of The Underappreciated

“Cry For Help” came out 14 years ago. I’ve probably listened to it a hundred times since then. And, for whatever reason, it’s all I can hear when I listen to this song. They just sound the same.

As with “Saints” before it, “Army” is a little generic. It’s a Shinedown song more than a Planet Zero track. That’s not bad, of course. You do want a band to sound like itself, since that’s what the fans are looking for. On the other hand, there’s nothing in here that stands out.

What You Wanted

Another Imagine Dragons wannabe closes out the album. There’s really not a lot to say about the music, because there’s not much music to deal with. You mostly have Brent singing over a kind of faux marching band and string section.

But this is the end of the story, too. Our visitor to the so-called utopia has been found out, his individualist thinking noted by the authorities. And he doesn’t care.

The lyrics here are a message, an ultimatum to the very real anti-human forces trying to rule the world today. You will not rule forever. Your end will come. And no one will come to your rescue. The pendulum is already swinging back in the other direction, as Dobbs, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, West Virginia v. EPA, and Carson v. Makin show. Wokeness is a hateful, divisive ideology, and its followers should be careful not to let that pendulum hit them on its way back. But honestly, they deserve no less.


I won’t say this was the best album I’ve heard. It’s not even the best Shinedown album. But its highs are much higher and more frequent than its lows. It has some really good tracks, not too much filler, and a coherent narrative running through much of it. As a bonus, that narrative is pro-human, pro-freedom, and very courageous in speaking truth to power. I felt the anger of “America Burning” and the, well, hope of “Hope” as much as “Daylight” left me crying.

That’s all I ask for in music: emotion and meaning. I got it here, and I’m glad one of my favorite bands has taken the right stand. That only makes it better.

Review: The War To End All Wars

I’m a metal fan, in case you haven’t noticed. I’m also a fan of stories, and that drew me into the power metal subgenre some two decades ago. Power metal is full of songs about fantasy; “Elvenpath” by Nightwish was my introduction to that, and Blind Guardian’s Nightfall In Middle-Earth remains one of my favorite concept albums of all time.

Sabaton is…a little different. They’re definitely worthy of being called power metal. They use the same style of music, the chord progressions and the riffs and whatnot. Their songs, however, aren’t based on Tolkien or Martin or another fantasy author (who’s going to be the first to write an album set in Sanderson’s Cosmere?), but real life. Specifically, the history of warfare.

Their latest album, The War To End All Wars, carries on as a direct sequel to 2019’s The Great War. As you might expect from the titles, those are both about World War I, and that already predisposes me to liking them. Since I started researching WWI for a school project in 6th grade, I’ve been fascinated by it. Its successor gets all the glory, all the notoriety, but why? This is the First World War we’re talking about here! It’s the birth of airplanes, tanks, trench warfare, and chemical weapons. It’s the last hurrah of cavalry charges and line infantry, and really the birth of “modern” warfare. So why don’t we talk about it more?

Some do. Indy Neidell’s The Great War web series explores the conflict in depth, while always reminding the viewer of the horrors of war in general and this war in particular. I wish I’d known about it when it first started, because it was exactly what I was looking for all those years. And Sabaton clearly thought so, too: they partnered with Neidell to make Sabaton History, which goes into detail about the stories behind their songs.

So let’s talk about those songs. We’ll take it from the top.


Though the signs were there for years, World War I officially kicked off with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. The opening track of the album (as long as you got the proper version) is mostly a spoken-word telling of that historic event by narrator Bethan Dixon Bate, with the band’s refrain interspersed.

“Sarajevo” sets the stage, not the tone. The format reminds me of classical drama, with its narrator/chorus counterpoint in the opening act. The tension rises throughout the track, as Bate speaks of the web of alliances and the failed diplomacy that led to the Battle of the Frontiers and plunged the entire world into a deadly, devastating war for the next four years. From here on out, we’re on the battlefield.


Sabaton doesn’t judge. They’ve taken some flak for that in the past, as certain people believe they “idolize” Nazis simply because they don’t always portray them as unspeakably evil. But there are no good guys in war; heroes and legends can come from anywhere. The eponymous Stormtroopers were harbingers of things to come, a preview of the blitzkrieg tactics used by Germany a quarter of a century later, and there’s nothing wrong with telling that tale.

The first actual metal track on the album is very, very metal. Hard and heavy, with the sound that tells you, “This is a Sabaton song.” Which is great. That’s who I’m listening to, after all. The problem is, the song itself feels a little generic to me. It doesn’t have anything to distinguish it, and you could easily fit it into any of their other albums without even trying.


Except for the sinking of the Lusitania, Americans tend to forget that WWI was a naval war as much as a land war. The Dreadnought battleships that plied the waters of the North Sea get even less attention than the Western Front, and that’s a shame. They were just as innovative as the numerous technological debuts on land, and they changed the face of naval warfare in a way that’s still recognizable today.

As for “Dreadnought” the song, it suffers from the same problem as “Stormtroopers” before it. There’s nothing that singles it out as being part of The War To End All Wars. The music sounds far too much like a reuse of “Bismarck”, a promotional single from a few years ago. And something about Joakim Brodén’s voice sounds…strained. I don’t know if that’s from emotion, illness, or editing, but it’s stood out every time I’ve listened to the track.

The Unkillable Soldier

Here’s a case where Sabaton didn’t do the subject justice, but that’s because nobody ever could. Adrian Carton de Wiert was a legend. He was basically the Terminator a hundred years early. Shoot him in the eye, and he just laughs it off. Take him prisoner, and he’ll escape. And he was everywhere that mattered. If you want to make an action movie about WWI (and WWII, and the Boer War…) then he’s your guy.

The song’s great, too. It captures the madness of the war and the madness of its maddest of madmen. After two tracks that don’t really distinguish themselves, “The Unkillable Soldier” sounds fresh and powerful. (As an aside, it also has a video, where Carton de Wiert is played by the aforementioned Indy Neidell. That had to be an excuse to torture the poor historian.)

Soldier of Heaven

One of the great things about metal is the way it has room to take in other genres. Folk metal is an industry these days. A few metal artists incorporate rap in ways that make it bearable. Sabaton, though, occasionally tosses in what sounds like electropop elements. 2019’s “Attack of the Dead Men” did it, and “Soldier of Heaven” does in its intro. Take that little bit of discordance out, and you have an upbeat song that hides a truly chilling story.

White Friday (which fell on a Wednesday, oddly enough) saw thousands of soldiers perish in a series of avalanches. The forces of Austria-Hungary were camped atop Gran Poz, while Italians had massed in the Val Ciampi d’Arei. Heavy snow and frigid weather were major factors in the war already; a disastrous Ottoman advance into subzero temperatures served as one excuse for the decisions that led to the Armenian Genocide.

But avalanches are sudden. They strike without warning, and without care for nationality. On White Friday, they buried both Austrian and Italian forces. “Soldier of Heaven” speaks from the perspective of one soldier, presumably Austrian, who has scaled the mountain only to fall victim to the rushing snow. His body frozen in the avalanche, frozen in time, he waits for spring to come and release his body from its icy prison. Wow.


The perfect contrast, isn’t it? The Harlem Hellfighters were considered the dregs of the American army at the time. Composed mostly of black and Puerto Rican soldiers, the 369th had to earn its place in history, and earn they did. Forced to fight longer than most other regiments, they served as an example of many things, but drive is certainly at the top.

In a time of pandering to minorities, it’s refreshing to see someone who bucks the trend and looks at people as…well, people. This isn’t “The Lost Battalion” but black. There are echoes, however. Both songs have that same sort of desperation in their words, making you feel like you’re among the men, waiting as they are for the day you can leave the trenches and go home.

Race to the Sea

The Race to the Sea was one of the early events in WWI, the start of the trench warfare that was its lasting legacy. In Belgium, the first country to be invaded, King Albert I didn’t want to see his realm fall, so he took matters into his own hands. Literally. World War I was the last war among monarchs. King, kaiser, and tsar all had a part to play—never mind that the major players were cousins—but Albert was the only one who took the field.

The song “Race to the Sea” tells that story, and it does so in a way that lets the listener feel the pride Belgian forces must have felt at seeing their king fighting beside them. “For king and country” is relegated to history and fantasy these days, but the Battle of the Yser might be one of the last times men truly meant it. Sabaton turns it into an anthem here, an ode to the nationalism of bygone days.

Lady of the Dark

I knew about most of the stories on the album already. I hadn’t heard of the White Friday avalanches or Adrian Carto de Wiert, but the rest were new to me only in details. “Lady of the Dark” is altogether different, because it’s about a soldier from Serbia, and Serbia usually flies under my radar.

Milunka Savić, by contrast, flies under everyone’s radar, as she has for about a hundred years. Her brother was drafted into the Serbian Army, but she went in his place, dressing as a man until she was wounded in battle, then fighting openly as a woman and becoming one of the most decorated female soldiers of all time. But here’s the thing people today won’t understand: she got those awards and honors because of her deeds, not because of her sex. She wasn’t a token woman or a mascot, nor did she want to be either.

As with “Hellfighters” earlier, this is a case where Sabaton turns modern progressivism on its head. Yes, their song emphasizes that Savić was a woman, calling her “the girl in uniform” in the chorus, but it always comes back to the fact that she was fighting for her family. “Lady of the Dark” is one of the brightest lights in the darkness of this war-themed album, for both its message and its music.

The Valley of Death

Here’s another story I didn’t know before. The Battle of Doiran pitted Allied forces against those of Bulgaria. Most Americans today couldn’t find Bulgaria on a labeled map, so I’ll forgive you if you think this is a filler track. In actuality, it’s a last stand worthy of, well, The Last Stand. Bulgarian forces held out against a numerically and technologically superior force by virtue of their heavy defenses and the sheer will of their commander, who was later honored by his enemies.

One of the things I love most about Sabaton is the way they make you interested in a story almost no one has ever heard before. “Last Dying Breath” and “The Final Battle” are two good examples from earlier albums, and “The Valley of Death” adds to that list. It’s not a standout track in the musical sense. It’s a little piece of forgotten history, a gem that shines through.

Christmas Truce

In the last week of 1914, something strange and wonderful happened. All along the Western Front, men of the Allied and Central Powers threw down their guns, walked into No Man’s Land, and shook hands. They talked to their enemy, shared a drink, swapped stories, and told the war to wait. Why? Because it was Christmas.

The Christmas Truce, as it became known, was quite possibly the last widespread display of civility in war. Nowadays, we’re used to seeing bombed-out buildings and castrated Russian POWs, and we’re urged to forget that those people we’re fighting are humans just like us. In 1914, the propaganda hadn’t set in, and there was still a sense, even after four months of horror, that war was a gentleman’s pursuit.

Sabaton captures this perfectly. The track starts with a hauntingly beautiful intro that draws from “Carol of the Bells”, also the source of “Christmas Eve – Sarajevo 12/24” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the song that invented modern Christmas rock. Joakim’s vocals then begin to speak of a soldier in the trenches hearing the guns fall silent, seeing the men who had been trying to kill him instead offering their hands in friendship. “Today we’re all brothers,” he says. “Tonight we’re all friends.” That’s something we lost, and we’re poorer for it.


“Christmas Truce” could have been the end of the album, and I’d be happy. But the troops didn’t come home by Christmas, as was initially promised. Instead, they stayed in the trenches another four years, until November 11, 1918. And the true end of the war didn’t come for almost a year after that, with Germany’s unconditional surrender at Versailles the following summer.

Our narrator returns for this outro track, speaking of the treaty and the events that led to it. She then turns an eye to the future. American forces return home. Russia has to handle the Communist Revolution that would almost destroy it. Borders are redrawn all over the world as the era of colonialism comes into its final act. (Forgotten in all this is the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire under the Sykes-Picot agreement, the direct cause of today’s troubles in the Middle East, but I digress.)

World War I was known as the war to end all wars. Today, that very phrase has become formulaic, and we interpret it as a claim of superiority. In its time, however, it was meant literally. The war was so destructive, and it reshaped the world so greatly, that it was believed to be the last of its kind. Yet it took barely two decades from Versailles to the Sudetenland, and those two events are directly correlated.

That’s the lesson to take from WWI. Not the intricacies of trench warfare or the geopolitical ramifications of three cousins fighting each other using millions of men (and the occasional woman disguised as one) as pawns. No, the strategies and tactics don’t matter in the long run. What matters is what we can learn from the events of the 1910s and what came after, how they compare to the things we’re seeing right now.

Nazism grew because of the privations forced upon the German people during the Weimar Republic; in America today, the people are beginning to suffer from the same hardships. The “eternal” Israel-Palestine conflict didn’t start until two peoples were forced together, and that never would have happened without the First World War. The tsar, leader of Russia for centuries and ruler of lands stretching from Kiev to Vladivostok, fell to Communist hordes, birthing one of the most deadly regimes of the 20th century.

History repeats itself, and we are witnessing that firsthand. While Sabaton may not be on the front lines in Mariupol, they’re watching the current war with interest, because who knows? It might be the spark that fuels a greater conflagration. Such things have happened before. The assassination of a noble plunged the entire world into war for four years, killing tens of millions. The treaty that ended this war subjugated a people and provided Hitler with the perfect foil. The two armies who destroyed his Third Reich then turned their sights—but not their weapons, thankfully—on each other, resulting in a series of proxy wars all over the world, the latest of which started a few short weeks ago.

I’ll give The War To End All Wars an 8 out of 10, but understand that this includes a bonus point for its timing. The world needs to hear this album, the stories within it. Even if you don’t like metal or history, it’s worth a listen. And then, when you’re reading the latest dispatches from Donbass, you’ll hear the echoes.

Review: United States of Fear

Over the weekend, I was perusing a…well-known library site in search of inspiration or, failing that, simple distraction. Instead, I found United States of Fear, by Mark McDonald, M.D. And I’m glad I did.

This is a very short book, consisting of only four chapters and clocking in at (according to my reader app) a measly 178 pages. I’ve written that much in two weeks before, but that’s fiction. United States of Fear is very much nonfiction. It’s real, the real life we’re dealing with at this very moment.

Dr. McDonald is a psychiatrist working in Los Angeles. In itself, that wouldn’t be cause for celebration. “Nobody’s perfect,” I would say. What makes his perspective important is that he uses his practice and position to publicly call for a return to rationality, something sorely needed in the world today. As he bluntly puts it, America is in the grips of a mass delusional psychosis. This is very similar to Dr. Robert Malone’s diagnosis of mass formation psychosis; in both cases, the point is that most people in this country have fallen victim to a self-reinforcing, even contagious sort of fear.

We can’t blame that entirely on our elected leaders, so many of whom disregarded not only basic scientific facts and their oaths of office, but all common sense in their quest for medical tyranny. We can’t pin it all on mainstream media, which has displayed perverse pleasure in stoking the fears of its dwindling supply of viewers for two straight years. No, we all share in the blame.

The seeds were sown generations ago. As the author explains, the fear gripping our nation today has its roots in the Red Scare of the 1950s, the feminist movement of the 1970s, the political correctness craze of the 1990s, and this century’s obsession with terrorism. In every case, the dangers existed. Some Americans really were Soviet spies. Some men really were rapists and abusers. Some people really were harmed by callous use of language. And some people really were Islamic fundamentalists wanting to destroy the West. But not all of them, and not all the time.

So it is with the Wuhan virus. Dr. McDonald consistently uses that terminology, and I respect him for that. Call this thing what it is: a biological agent released from a lab in Wuhan, China. (In the short weeks since the book was published, we’ve discovered—confirmed, rather—that it was developed by the United States, but that wasn’t known at the time.) Words have power. Names have power. Refusing to use a name because it is taboo only gives that name power over you.

The virus itself, of course, has little power of its own. Yes, it is infectious, but no more than the seasonal flu we’ve all had at some point in our lives. The currently favored strain, dubbed “Omicron”, is even more contagious, and this follows the normal pattern for viruses: they mutate to become easier to spread, but lose their lethality in the process. “Omicron” case numbers bear this out, as the strain is more like a common cold, and the only people dying from it either already had something very wrong, or else they’ve suffered debilitating immunodeficiency effects from the experimental mRNA treatments we’ve all decided to call vaccines.

As the author explains, and as attentive researchers have known since March 2020, the Wuhan virus is essentially only deadly to those who are sick, morbidly obese, or elderly. The fear effects surrounding it, on the other hand, are well on their way to destroying an entire generation. Year-over-year IQ averages have dropped 20 points since 2020; this is more than a full standard deviation, meaning that the average child of 2021 would be in the bottom third of intelligence when compared to those only a year older. Social development is also being stunted, as these same children are having trouble forming friendships and interpersonal bonds simply because they aren’t allowed to. Even infants are suffering: lip-reading is an important part of acquiring speech, yet it’s impossible when everyone around you is wearing a mask. If all this weren’t bad enough, cases of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in children are skyrocketing (no surprise, as they’ve done the same in this middle-aged man) and too many parents are too afraid to do anything about it.

Dr. McDonald specializes in child psychiatry, so it’s no wonder he spends a lot of time on that topic. Really, though, it’s a symptom of a bigger problem, which he discusses at length. Most of the fear comes from women, specifically educated, left-leaning women in urban areas. In other words, the same ones who have grown up hearing about “toxic masculinity” and “systemic racism” and other such nonsense. They are socially conditioned to look at the world from the perspective of a victim, and what does a victim want above all? Safety. The Franklin quote never enters their minds, except as an object of derision.

Men, he is quick to add, haven’t done their share. We have let ourselves become passive and weak. Although my experience is tainted by the same sort of depression, I can vouch for this personally. I recognize how much of it comes from social expectations. I was raised in a conservative, Christian environment with firm gender roles. The man, I was always told, is the breadwinner, the protector, the paterfamilias. The woman bears children, takes care of them, and serves in general to nurture. Men are strong in body, women in heart, and that’s the way of things.

Modern progressivism and feminism have turned that on its head, denying that this millennia-old way of looking at the world has any merit whatsoever. To this side of the political spectrum, women are supposed to be independent fighters, the center of a household, and men are relegated to a role one step above that of a sperm donor. We lose control, we lack agency, and the very real biological processes underlying the “traditional” family are completely ignored. Not surprisingly, it is this same segment of the population that expresses the most dissatisfaction with marriage, the least desire to reproduce, and the strongest urge to control others’ lives.

That’s the author’s thesis: America has become paralyzed by fear mostly because it has subverted the traditional social order. And I wholeheartedly agree. It’s what I’ve spent the past two years trying to find a way to say. Maybe I don’t always live up to my own expectations—believe me, I’m well aware—but I understand why I have them. Too many people don’t “get” those perfectly natural urges they feel. And we fear what we don’t comprehend.

Before I close out, I will say that Dr. McDonald also doesn’t have a full grasp on the complexities of the situation on the ground. First, he recommends Telegram and Signal as virtual meeting-places because they are “largely secure” and “inaccessible to the NSA.” This is patently false, and it hides a very important point. Telegram is a censorious platform that has suspended users for posting certain information. Signal’s claims of encryption cannot be verified at the protocol level. Both should be considered suspect at best, compromised at worst, and neither is the friend to privacy that we need. Instead, it would be better to promote truly free platforms such as Matrix and the fediverse, as well as applications like Element which make end-to-end encryption simple and safe.

Second, the doctor repeats the mistaken assumption that everyone in America who needs therapy can get it. Some of us can’t. That’s especially true of in-person visits, which are vital for improvement. Most psychiatrists and therapists in rural areas have switched to virtual-only appointments, have adopted anti-health policies of mandatory masks or vaccines, or have an unwritten rule that every mental problem can be solved by just prescribing more SSRIs and amphetamines. The truly good practitioners—what few there are—are booked for months, and some of us need help now. I know. I’ve been there.

Almost no one has the complete picture of just how much the fabric of our society is fraying. I don’t claim to. I only know what I’ve seen and felt. The America I grew up in began dying over 20 years ago, when so many people decided to throw away essential liberty over the fear that a one-in-a-million event would repeat. But it limped along for nearly two decades. The killing blow was in 2020, and it could have been prevented.

I’ll admit that I was afraid of the Wuhan virus at first. But I learned about it, and I realized it was nothing to be afraid of. Anyone who took twenty seconds to check the Diamond Princess figures could say the same thing: this is a bad flu at worst. Instead, they surrendered to fear, and they forced all the rest of us to go along. They brought us into their delusion, whether we liked it or not, and they have imprisoned us inside it with no clear escape.

Every time you see a person wearing a mask outside, you’re seeing a victim of this fear. Whenever you watch a woman—it’s always a woman, and there’s a good reason for that—taking a Clorox or Lysol wipe to her groceries, you’re watching the result of mass delusional psychosis. Overprotective mothers not letting their children play, or even locking them in their rooms, are but a symptom of a greater disease. The Wuhan virus has two safe, effective treatments: ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. Our social psychosis has no such easy cure. It will take a lot of work on everyone’s part. Men need to remember that they are men. Women need to be willing to let themselves be protected by those who have evolved to do exactly that. Parents must teach their children that safety is never assured.

“Fear is the mind-killer,” wrote Frank Herbert. A lot of minds have died these past two years, but maybe we can resurrect them.

Rhythm of War: my thoughts

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson. I’ve stated that many times here, and I often use him as a yardstick for my own writing skills. Why? Because he’s one of the few authors out there who is popular and accessible, but also takes worldbuilding seriously. In other words, he’s a kindred spirit, an idealized version of myself in one specific aspect.

I felt that way when I got hooked on Mistborn. His series that started with Skyward filled a need I didn’t know I had. And then there’s his in-progress magnum opus, The Stormlight Archive.

This thing is massive. It’s comparable to the Wheel of Time or Song of Ice and Fire novel series in sheer size and scope, but it’s really nothing like either in the details. No, this is something else.

So far, the series comprises four enormous tomes. The first, Way of Kings, clocks in over 1000 pages, and this is no simple text. I knew that when I saw the table of contents, which included not only two different prologues, but also an “Ars Arcanum” section (a common feature of Sanderson’s writings, where he describes the book’s magic system through the eyes of a character) and illustrations.

That’s a trend that has carried through the series. These books are works of art, and I encourage anyone who wants to read them to pick up the hardcovers. They’re just worth it.

The story

(Note that I will be spoiling the first three books of The Stormlight Archive. That’s kinda hard not to do when you’re discussing the fourth entry in an epic fantasy series.)

Rhythm of War picks up, following a prologue that is the fourth retelling of a pivotal event in the series, shortly after Oathbringer leaves off. The world of Roshar is at war, as the dark god Odium has resurfaced after thousands of years. His malign influence turned the enslaved Parshendi into the demonic Voidbringers, powerful beings from such a distant past that they were thought to be legendary.

Standing against the tide of darkness are the Knights Radiant, a small but growing group of humans with divine powers of their own, granted when they bond with beings called “spren”, fairy-like creatures that represent emotions, forces, elements, and essentially any other part of the world.

Odium’s forces control much of the world, while the Radiants and their followers have retreated to the lost city of Urithiru, and it is here that most of the book’s story takes place. For the Voidbringers have found a way to not only locate the lost city, but turn its magical defenses on the Radiants, shutting them down.

The secondary plot of Rhythm of War concerns the spren themselves, specifically those representing honor. These are some of the most powerful, as they are closer to divinity; Honor is another deity of the setting, specifically the one worshipped by humans as the Almighty. Problem is, he’s dead. The circumstances leading to his death were revealed in prior books, and the fallout has been on display ever since.

Honor’s spren “children” consider humans to be oathbreakers, owing to events of ages gone by, and they have begun to refuse the bonds that create knew Knights Radiant. That weakens the war effort, obviously, so getting them back on the good guys’ side is paramount. Doing that, however, requires meeting them on their own terms, in a kind of parallel dimension called variously Shadesmar or simply the “Cognitive Realm”.

A digression

This is one of those Sanderson conceits, and I have to pull you aside to explain the gist of it. Many of his works are in a shared setting, the Cosmere—this inspired my own Paraverse, as I’ve stated before. Rather than a single planet, however, the Cosmere is something closer to a whole galaxy. Roshar is merely one planet. In fact, it’s one of three in its system. The other two, Ashyn and Braize, are not physically inhabitable (Ashyn used to be, apparently), but have a kind of spiritual presence; humans in the series consider them heaven and hell, respectively.

Other books in the setting take place on different planets. Mistborn, for instance, is set in the world of Scadriel. For the most part, this is nothing more than flavor, a background detail put in for more serious readers to drool over. Each world has its own characters, its own history, its own magic system, and they’re mostly separate.

With Rhythm of War, that’s starting to change. I don’t know if this is because The Stormlight Archive is meant to be a series that “connets” the Cosmere as a whole, but it certainly seems that way. Flavor text, in the form of opening quotes, talks of the various “shards of Adonalsium”, some kind of divine artifact that effectively turns people into demigods. Odium has one, that of Passion. Honor’s was, well, Honor. Sazed, a character in Mistborn, gets two of them, uniting Preservation and Ruin into Harmony.

It’s all very interesting, if mostly because it’s so maddeningly vague. We get a few tantalizing hints that some of the Stormlight characters are from other parts of the Cosmere. One, known only as Wit, actually is: he’s some kind of world-hopping author insert who has cameos in all the setting’s various novels. Obscure references from him and the chapter intros point to something big happening in the universe at large. As Sanderson has repeatedly stated that he’s a fan of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, I can imagine what sort of reckoning that would be.

The world

So Roshar is part of a larger setting, but that doesn’t mean it’s bland. Not by any means. As usual for a Sanderson world, there’s a lot of thought put into it. The world map is a rough approximation of a Julia fractal, for instance, and this fits with a number of references to mathematics and aesthetics that permeate the series. The original Knights Radiant all have palindrome names (e.g., Kelek) as did their cities—Urithiru counts if you treat “th” as a single letter.

The biggest feature of the world is the storm. Something of a supernatural hurricane, it repeatedly crashes into the east coast of the Roshar continent at somewhat regular intervals, bringing heavy rain, damaging winds, and the magical essence of Stormlight.

In typical Sanderson fashion, the storm defines the cultures, the kingdoms, and every aspect of life. The word “storm” itself can be used as a curse. (The author prefers not to use English profanity due to his religion, so this is his way around that.) Calendars are oriented around the storm schedule rather than the sun and moon—moons, rather, as Roshar has…two, I think? Cities, towns, and even villages have to bear the brunt of constant battering, so they’re designed to sit in the lee of walls or natural rock formations. And so on.

But the worldbuilding goes deeper than this, because you also have to take into account the geography, the ecology, and here is where Brandon Sanderson shines. Roshar is a harsh planet with harsh terrain. Except in the far western land of Shinovar, where storms are far weaker, the land is cold, rocky, and downright alien. There’s no topsoil, because it’s all been eroded away. Permanent rivers are rare. And the native life reflects that. Instead of trees, plant life mostly consists of short, stout organisms, most of which have adapted to encase themselves in hard shells. Animals do the same; some also have gemstones within, a nod to oysters and the fabled bezoar that serves as a major plot point.

Natives to Roshar don’t see anything wrong with this. To them, it’s life, even if it’s a life unlike ours. In much the same way, Mistborn‘s inhabitants think nothing of a sky full of volcanic ash or a land so brown it could be a map in a Quake game. The inhabitants of Skyward‘s devastated planet know only their world, their life of eternal aerial warfare and a life lived underground.

That’s what draws me to Sanderson’s works. He doesn’t make a big deal about his worlds. They’re different, sometimes so incredibly different that we find it difficult to imagine them. But to his characters, they’re home. And home is nothing special. It’s just where we live. It’s part of who we are.

The characters

If he has any weak spots, writing good characters definitely comes close to the top of the list. Kaladin is exactly like Vin, Spinsa, and almost any other protagonist Sanderson writes. The troubled youth with a checkered past who stumbles into a superpower. It’s so cliche that you want to cringe, but he plays it well, and the worldbuilding more than makes up for it.

I will say that he’s getting better. Rhythm of War‘s ensemble cast at least offers variety. It’s also pretty much the DSM-5 in novel form, though. Kaladin is now suffering from severe depression and anxiety, which resonated with me so strongly that I sometimes had to put the book down. Shallan has multiple personalities (whatever that’s officially called these days) that get confusing in the narration. Taravangian, a relatively minor character who ends the novel in a much different position, is a bona fide sociopath.

It goes on from there. Kaladin mentors a small number of men who clearly have PTSD. The Lost Heralds—four of the original Knights who found immortality at some point—are varying degrees of insane. Adolin is a narcissist, though he is getting better; one of his subplots turned out to be my favorite part of the story, even ahead of exploring the lost city and waging a resistance against an occupation force. Schizophrenics, psychopaths, and sadists are all represented in the cast. One of the heroes has a developmental disorder, but pretends to be mute so no one will hear his “slow” speech.

In other words, it’s almost like everyone in Roshar is damaged in some way. Nobody’s perfect, and this setting shows the truth of that in all its naked glory. That said, these characters aren’t defined by their mental state. They’re people. Kaladin, for example, has a very good reason for his depression: he blames himself for his brother’s death eight years ago, and losing his friends in battle only reminds him of that. His father pressured him into becoming a surgeon, someone who saves lives instead of ending them, but fate put him in this position.

There are other good characters. I greatly enjoyed Navani’s story of invention, experimentation, and quiet resistance. The spren, when seen in their native realm, are a fascinating take on fairy and “daemon” myths. Most of all, the people interact in ways that seem logical. You don’t always understand their reasons, but you get that they have them. It’s a rarity in today’s hyper-politicized fantasy landscape.

The fatal flaw

I’ve said this one before. If I have any problem with Sanderson’s writing, it’s not the worldbuilding. No, that’s top-notch. It’s not even the character development, because I can see that he’s getting better at that. Book design? Rhythm of War, like its three predecessors, is a masterpiece in that department.

But the prose. Oh, the prose.

I will freely admit that I’ve never taken a class on writing. I scraped by in English class in high school, even if I somehow managed to be #1 in the school on standardized writing assessments. (20 years later, and I still can’t figure that one out!) On top of that, when I write a novel like Nocturne or Innocence Reborn, I’m doing it without an editor. I’m my own proofreader. You’d need a microscope to find my self-esteem, a miracle to get me to praise my own work.

Despite all that, I can say with no reservations that my prose is far better than that of my favorite author. Yes, Rhythm of War is 1200 pages, but he could probably cut a hundred or more off that if he just learned how to use a pronoun every now and then. His word choices leave a lot to be desired, and leave what would be an otherwise impeccable book with long stretches of repetitive dialogue or narration. And all that isn’t getting any better. It was the same in Mistborn—the prologue of Shadows of Self left me literally wincing at points.

Unlike many, I won’t criticize Sanderson for avoiding profanity. I do the same thing in my works. It’s a personal decision that contributes to an author’s style. For the same reason, I had no problem with Peter Brett’s use of dialectal speech in the Demon Cycle series, to name one example. It fit his style and the world he was building.

Yet there’s no excuse for some of the cringeworthy prose in these bestsellers. (Worst of all, in my opinion, was the random use of “okay” by a character in Oathbringer. I have never in my life lost suspension of disbelief so fast.) What is the point of a professional editor if not to polish these things?

Take that away, and Rhythm of War is a solid 10 in all respects. Sure, the series as a whole is a huge time investment, but it’s one that pays out better dividends than buying GameStop stock. You’re getting access to a beautifully made world, a creation that rivals Middle-Earth in its complexity and sheer gravity. The story is truly epic. The characters are, in some cases, perfectly imperfect. Sanderson knows how to write.

I just wish he’d learn how to write.

Thoughts on: The Lightbringer series, by Brent Weeks

I don’t often do book reviews. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it’s mainly because I feel I get too immersed in a novel. For things like the Summer Reading List Challenge, I’ll do my best. Otherwise, I’d rather talk in more general terms than a single work.

Well, let’s do that, then. Instead of reviewing a book, I’d like to offer some thoughts on an entire series. Specifically, the Lightbringer series, written by Brent Weeks, which I just finished reading.

This fantasy novel series consists of five entries, making it as much of a trilogy as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Lately, it seems that five-part series are gaining popularity, as this is the fourth I’ve really delved into in recent years. (The others, if you’re wondering: Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle; Django Wexler’s Infernal Battalions; and The Dagger and the Coin, by Daniel Abraham.) I will say that I like this better than the traditional trilogy for genre fiction. It allows more room for expansion, more detail, and an overall slower pace. Some of my favorite things, in terms of reading.

The rundown

As this isn’t a book review, I won’t go into great detail about each individual novel, but it helps to know something about the story.

First off, the list:

  1. The Black Prism
  2. The Blinding Knife
  3. The Blood Mirror
  4. The Broken Eye
  5. The Burning White

Each has its own story, but they are by no means self-contained. Later installments directly continue storylines started earlier, and The Burning White begins with an author’s note that some of its events are concurrent with the conclusion of The Broken Eye. So it’s very much a series, not an anthology.

The overall story revolves around a war between the corrupt, bureaucratic Chromeria and the anarchic White King. In the first novel, those seeds are planted, and they grow throughout the series, coming to a climax in The Burning White. Along the way, we follow a small cadre of characters who play various parts on both sides. Almost all are larger than life, or else they become so. There’s magic, cloak-and-dagger politicking, lots of humor, and an incredible number of battle scenes. Something for everybody, assuming you’re into epic fantasy.

And I would call it epic. Lightbringer features world-changing magical powers, godlike entities, ancient secrets, and anything else you might look for. Weeks builds the tension and the stakes as the series progresses, so it feels natural that the farm boy grows into a hero for the ages. It’s “The One” told in a good way.


In my opinion, the absolute best part of this series is its worldbuilding. You know I love that. (If you don’t, just read, oh, anything else I write on here.) As we’re dealing with fantasy, that includes what I consider the most innovative aspect of Lightbringer: its magic system.

The whole thing is based on light and the spectrum, hence the “Chromeria” name above. Magic users in the setting are able to draw on light to activate their powers, which manifest in one of two ways: an effect or a physical substance called luxin. Different colors have different powers, though the people of the setting divide the rainbow into only five colors—indigo and violet are left out. So blue is the highest, and it covers intelligence, rationality, and general left-brained thinking. Not bad for my favorite color.

Going down the line, green is mainly for raw strength, yellow covers a nebulous sort of balance, orange works on fear and similar emotions, and red covers “passions” such as anger and lust. But here’s where the trick comes in. Some of those who can use these powers also have access to other parts of the spectrum. They can literally see into the infrared (“sub-red” in the text, to represent their lower state of advancement or something) or ultraviolet (“super-violet”) parts, even though this is physically impossible for human eyes.

Believable it is not, especially when you get into the rare magic users who have access to the forbidden “colors” of paryl (high-frequency microwaves) and chi (long-wavelength X-rays). Still, it’s fun, and there’s a lot of deep thought behind the lore. Yellow is supposed to be the balance color, for example, but it’s the most unstable when brought into material form, meaning that the spectrum is a source rather than a sink. Tetrachromats exist and are known; they’re the only ones who can properly stabilize yellow, and (this is accurate) they’re almost always women. One of the main characters is red-green colorblind, which comes into play. Infrared magic controls fire and allows one to see heat, naturally enough. Despite the fantastical parts, it’s logical, something I believe is the hallmark of a good magic system.

Downsides are necessary to explain why magic hasn’t taken over the world, and Lightbringer gives a pretty good one. People can only use a finite amount of color magic in a lifetime. They even have a visible manifestation, in the form of “halos” of the color they’ve drawn on that slowly grow to fill their irises. Once they burst through, that’s a sign that the magic has begun to take over the user’s mind. Responsible people go to a willing sacrifice. Those who don’t become “wights”, and are often hunted. And this forms the central conflict of the series.

The Burning White gives a midichlorian-like explanation for the process, but that’s not necessary. What matters is that it all comes together. Using too much magic drives you insane, says the common lore. But what if that’s wrong? What if you could reverse the process? Some people are immune, so it makes perfect sense that these would reach positions of power.

Beyond the magic system, Lightbringer offers a somewhat atypical fantasy world. There’s a mishmash of influences from Europe and the Middle East, with the primary empire called the Seven Satrapies (satrap comes from Persian). Religious and magic-related terms and names tend to be Latin or Greek. Fallen immortals all have names drawn from Near Eastern mythology, such as Abaddon and Belial. One territory is full of Irish influences; another uses Hebrew. Very little fantasy, though.

Technology is another important part of a fantasy setting. Here, Weeks bucks the traditional trend of the High Middle Ages, instead placing his world in a kind of early modern era. Gunpowder weapons are common, from cannons down to pistols. A number of mechanical devices exist. And the technological progress is deftly interwoven with the magic system: lenses, glassmaking, anything to do with light is far beyond the circa 1600 feel of the rest of the world.

Magic and religion also tend to have a curious relationship. With Lightbringer, they’re again combined in a reasonably intelligent manner. The Chromeria represents a monotheistic (and very Catholic) faith, while the enemies are often described as pagans. Cosmic beings lesser than the creator deity exist. Many of them are called “fallen”, mirroring Christian legend. Prophets abound on both sides, and some of them even have a true gift. The sacrificial ceremony for magic users who have gone too far is a sacred one. And so on. Again, smart, and a good use of existing pieces.

The culture, much like the naming, shows a number of influences. Fortunately, modern identity politics doesn’t seem to be one of them. One minor character is a confirmed lesbian (the text uses the term tribadist, another of those little details I like). The protagonist is described as having darker skin, but it seems to be closer to Mediterranean or Arab than African. But that’s about it. Races and sexes mix freely. Merit and magic are the ideals for advancement, although political connections often overshadow them. It’s refreshingly escapist.

The characters

An innovative magic system, a sensible cultural context, a lack of annoying modernity. The setting for Lightbringer comes closer to my preference than anything I’ve read not written by Brandon Sanderson or, well, myself. But setting does not a story make. We need good characters, too.

Well, here’s where things start to get a little hairy. Yes, this series has some great, memorable characters. The protagonist, Kip, begins The Black Prism as…not one of them. He’s an overweight loner who spends his days being bullied by neighbors, his nights abused by his mother. Beaten down, no friends, the object of mockery. Hmm. That sounds awfully familiar.

When I started reading The Black Prism in 2011, I saw a lot of myself in Kip. He quickly became one of my favorite main characters in fantasy, simply because of how real he was. This was the escape I needed: someone like me becoming better. By the time I finished The Burning White nine years later, I have to say that my opinion hasn’t changed. The character did, yet so many of the more mundane changes mirrored my own.

Specifically—and I realize I’m digressing here—Kip gets forced into a political marriage, then comes to love his new bride. She started out in the first book as just another bully he had to face, the stereotypical “mean girl” at school who sabotaged his entrance exam and made fun of him for being fat and awkward. Later, we learn that she has plenty of her own problems. She’s highly intelligent, but people consider her a bit of an airhead because she’s, well, busty. Her sister’s orientation brings her further mockery, and events conspire to bring her low at the same time Kip’s rising.

Kip thinks he’s unworthy of someone so beautiful; I think the same. His wife tells him it’s okay, that they can make things work as long as they have love and trust; my partner says the same. Some of the moments they share in The Burning White rang so true to me that I was almost brought to tears. “I have to help her help me,” Kip thinks at one point, words I needed to read at the perfect moment. “I believe in you,” she tells him at a pivotal point, “but that’s not enough for you, is it? You have to know. For you.” We’ve had that exchange almost word for word. During the final book’s climax, Kip tries to find a way out of a…predicament, and he reflects on all the things he could have done better: “If. If. If.” I wrote those exact same words in a therapy workbook last Friday.

So I’m emotionally invested in the protagonist, far more than in any other series I’ve ever read. But the rest of the main cast is strong. Karris goes beyond the “warrior princess” angle to become not just the strong, independent woman Hollywood wants, but a true leader. Teia has a winding story arc that only ends after a series of epilogues to make Peter Jackson blush; she embodies loyalty and angst and even teenage hormones in a way that leaves her endearing, if a little insane. In later novels, Kip’s soldier bodyguards grow into heroes in their own right, while the head villain of the tale is a proper megalomaniac.

That’s not to say everybody hits the right note. The secondary protagonist is Gavin Guile. The Prism, leader of the Seven Satrapies and the Chromeria, commander of the victorious forces of the civil war a generation before. He’s an interesting man, for sure. His dark side is creepy, but you can see that he tries to hide it as best he can. But Gavin is one of the main problems with the story as a whole, and here is where we enter spoiler territory, as well as my biggest problems with the Lightbringer series. If you don’t want to know the big twists, skip the next section.

The twists

Brent Weeks is a good writer. He’s a master at worldbuilding. He can describe cinematic action scenes in a way I envy. But he can also come up with some of the most ludicrous plot twists I’ve ever seen. The kind of thing even writers of fanfiction would call unbelievable. His other series, the Night Angel trilogy, became legendary for this. I’ve never read it, so I can’t say whether it’s worse than Lightbringer in that regard, but I dearly hope it’s better.

Mostly, the fault I find is that everyone is related, and the relations are downright convoluted. Kip discovers in The Black Prism that he’s Gavin’s son. Except that Gavin isn’t actually Gavin. He replaced his twin brother at the final battle of the civil war they fought twenty years ago. One brother or the other slept with a random woman from the town nearby, and thus Kip was conceived. Except that Gavin’s father claims he actually did that. Meanwhile, Gavin’s other son, Zymun, is a psychopath. Oh, and Karris is his mother. And her brother is the main bad guy.

It only gets worse from there. The real Gavin is alive, we find out in the first fifty pages of The Black Prism. He’s being held in a secret dungeon underneath the Prism’s tower. Except that the fake Gavin goes to kill him one day, only to find he was never there at all…despite a dozen or more chapters from his point of view! The whole thing is a trip, and you can’t blame it all on magic. Some of it has to be the author’s fault.

It’s as though Weeks stopped seeing the forest for the trees. The set-piece reveals are excellent. On their own, I’d eat them up and clamor for a movie version. Too bad they don’t fit into the narrative.

I could say the same for the entire climax sequence of The Burning White. All told, it takes up about a third of the book, almost 300 pages with barely a break to breathe. And it feels like a snowball that turns into an avalanche of insanity. Magic flying everywhere, a conspiracy unmasked, people on all sides looking for whatever advantage they can find. Climax, for both the novel and the series as a whole.

But Gavin’s storyline goes in a different direction. He’s been tasked by assassins with an impossible mission. I’m not making this up. He’s sent to kill God. It makes more sense if you’ve read the books, but not a lot more. Problem is, he’s fully willing to do it. He’s an avowed atheist due to the benevolence paradox, so he wouldn’t even mind succeeding. Then he meets a figment of his imagination in the form of his dead younger brother (this series has a ton of those) who causes him to have a complete change of heart and a renewal of faith. That transformation felt so forced that I almost started rooting for the bad guys. The most skeptical man in the world suddenly becomes the most zealous? The swiftness with which it happened made me think far less of both Gavin and the writer who created him.

So much else happens in that novel-within-a-novel that it’s hard to keep track, and the carefully crafted setting tends to go out the window. Just about every main character ends up going full-on Super Saiyan, none so much as Kip and Gavin. There was always an element of the mythic in the series, but this sequence ramps that up to absurd levels. It left me turning pages frantically, wondering what would happen next, yet dreading how it would be written.

The verdict

That, I think, is an apt description of Lightbringer as a whole. It’s a flawed masterpiece. There is a great story in there. The magic system is top-notch, and the setting as a whole just clicks. I found, after years and years of searching, a character that truly felt like me, who even grew with me. A million and a half words over five books and almost a decade, it’s still what I’d call time well spent.

Yet I’m troubled, because I feel it could be so much more. Some of the red herrings were too predictable. Not all of the twists made sense. A few plot threads were left incomplete. I cringed at the prose more than I have for any other book. The whole thing is ambitious, but that ambition sometimes comes out a mess.

That said, I loved it. Flawed though it is, Lightbringer is epic fantasy, with heavy emphasis on the “epic” part. That seems to be the Brent Weeks style, which is fine. (I tend to write “lower” fantasy, and I do like to read it more, so maybe that bias is coming through in some of my criticism.) Often, I wish a series wouldn’t end. In this case, I’d gladly read ten more books in the setting. Because, no matter our preferences, we could all use an escape from time to time.

Another review

Once again, I feel compelled to review a bit of media. In particular, it’s an album. Call it a sign of the times, I guess.

I first discovered Nightwish in 2004, based on a recommendation from…Slashdot, I think. If I recall correctly (for something that long ago, I can’t say I do), it was the same “smart kids like metal” article that got me interested in the genre as a whole. But I kept seeing them at the top of a few favorites lists, so I checked out Once.

I was blown away. This was the kind of music I never knew I’d been looking for. My only real experience with symphonic metal before then was Metallica’s S&M live album, which was actually really good. Too bad the band immediately lost any goodwill by suing its fans, but I digress. Once left me hooked on not only a band, but an entire subgenre of music, and that hook has stayed in me for a generation.

Last week saw the release of Nightwish’s ninth studio album, cumbersomely titled Human. :II: Nature. (For the sake of clarity, I’ll discard the extraneous punctuation for the rest of this post.) Naturally, I’ve listened to it a few times already, and now I’d like to talk about it.


This one’s actually 2 CDs, not that “CD” means much when almost everyone is going to listen to it in MP3 or Youtube video format. The first disc leads with “Music” as its opening track. We get a fairly long symphonic intro—always a nice touch, in my opinion—before what I see as a fairly traditional Nightwish track: upbeat, with lifting vocals that mix with the orchestral and metal music to create something that overpowers your ears while still sounding beautiful.

“Noise” follows, and it’s a sharp contrast. Where “Music” is almost soft, “Noise” is overtly harsh. The singing is closer to screaming, and there’s more…shredding. Which fits the lyrics, full of references to Black Mirror and allusions to the cacophony that is our modern life.

Farther down the line, “Harvest” is the 4th track, and I would call it a masterpiece. Poetic lyrics, a melodic sound, and a general feeling of goodness permeate the song. Between its content and the chorus of band members singing, I have to admit that I was, for some reason, reminded of “Baba Yetu” by Christopher Tin, the theme song of Civilization IV. “Harvest” just struck that same chord within me.

“How’s the Heart?” is another that left me feeling better. In a way, it’s kind of a sequel to the previous album’s “Elan”. (A common theme, as Human II Nature as a whole seems to be envisioned as a sequel to Endless Forms Most Beautiful.) But it stands alone just fine, and I see it as one of the most meaningful tracks on the album. My interpretation of the lyrics is simple. We’re all human. We all have needs, and ranking high among them is the need for socialization. In these times where that need, like so many others, has been forcibly suppressed, “How’s the Heart?” asks a question I can only answer in one way: it could be a lot better.

“Procession” immediately follows, and I look at it as another “sequel” to a song on Endless Forms Most Beautiful, this time “Edema Ruh”. There seems to be a common theme in these two albums of…watchers. Call them ancestors, angels, aliens, or animist spirits, but someone is watching humanity, as though we were performing for their benefit. They were here before us, they’ll be here when we’re gone. Above all, though, they’re curious. They want to see what we’ll do next. In “Procession”, they sound as though they’re getting tired of our petty squabbles and lack of inspiration. And I agree.

Disc 1 concludes with “Endlessness”, the only track with primarily male vocals. That’s one of the downsides of the album, in my opinion, but I understand. The band’s always been more female-fronted in its singing. Although I won’t say this is the best song on the disc, it holds its own, despite being fairly long. It’s a grand finale, and it does succeed at that. You feel like you’re at the end of a journey when it begins to fade.

But the journey is only halfway done.

The second disc is technically a single song, divided into eight parts collectively titled “All the Works of Nature Which Adorn the World”. It’s entirely instrumental, apart from the occasional choral vocals and a spoken word section at the beginning and the end, and…it’s a metal symphony. There’s no other word for it. “Vista” and “Aurorae” are stirring, “Moors” makes me long for…something. I’m not sure what, but it’s there. “Anthropocene” is a term I generally loathe, considering it a pejorative, but here it comes off as inspiring—if this be the age of humans, let us make it ours. (To top it off, this movement of the symphony even includes a version of the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal, the world’s oldest known musical work.)

“Ad Astra” closes the book on Human II Nature, and let me tell you this right now: nothing could have prepared me for it. Not only does the music build to a perfect crescendo, creating the sense that, while this story is done, ours hasn’t even begun, but the spoken section is moving, inspiring. It’s a passage from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, where he muses over the picture of the same name, a photograph of Earth as seen from billions of miles away.

Our whole planet doesn’t even take up a whole pixel of the image. Everything we know, everything we are, is nothing more than a dot, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” For Sagan, that’s a call to protect and cherish what we have. For me, it’s something different. Yes, we must ensure that our environment continues to support not only our lives, but also (and this is where so many environmentalists go wrong) our livelihoods and our standard of living.

To me, the pale blue dot is the beginning. It must be, because otherwise it would be our end. And that, I think, sums up my feelings on the meaning of Human II Nature. We were born of nature, yes, we are of nature, but we have outgrown it. Tsiolkovsky said it best:

Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.

“Ad astra,” the song’s title says. To the stars. At a time when tens of millions of Americans aren’t even allowed to leave their homes, we can yet dream of better times to come. We don’t have to be chained to the indignities of the present, the ghosts of our past. We can make a future that is greater.

Why? Because we’re human. We’re not the disease. We’re the cure.

Celeste: my thoughts

I’ve never been a video game reviewer, and I’m certainly not going to start now, but I picked up Celeste this week, thanks to a Switch sale and my amazing Tetris prowess. I finished the main story portion of the game last night, so I’d like to offer my thoughts on what’s considered by some to be one of the top indie releases of the past few years. Bear with me, because this does connect to the rest of PPC. Eventually.

The gameplay

Celeste is a 2D pixel-art platformer where you’re expected to die. A lot. The difficulty is, in parts, brutal. Deaths are easy to come by, successes are rare and relieving, and the game pushed me to my limit in multiple spots.

You play as Madeline, a young woman who wants (for reasons we’re never truly told) to climb the fabled Celeste Mountain. Along the way, she has to solve a ton of jumping puzzles, most involving numerous spikes. You can jump, you can dash, and…that’s about it. Oh, and you can grab on to walls for a few seconds. No weapons, no enemies other than bosses at the end of each chapter, just you and whatever the mountain throws at you.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s fun, and it reminds me of a lot of retro games, just with better music. And while it is a hard game by any measure, it’s not a sadistically hard game like, say, Super Meat Boy or the Kaizo mods of Mario games. This is a challenging game most of all. As I’m not a platforming guru, Celeste tested me sorely. The game tracks your total deaths, and those rose fairly steadily with each chapter: about 50 for the first, climbing to 425 for the climactic “Summit” level.

Basically, the gist of it is this: if you want a challenging, yet rewarding, platformer, this one’s worth your time. But there’s also a story buried in there, and it’s that story which made me want to write.

The story

Madeline is troubled. She’s determined to climb this mountain, for whatever reason, and that’s laudable. I know I’ve doggedly pursued some questionable goals in my life. I’ve faced trials, and I’ve kept going through some tough times in pursuit of what I truly want. On the other hand, I know what it’s like to give up when the going gets too tough, too. So once the story of Celeste started developing from “I want to climb” into something more, I paid attention.

The mountain has magical powers, it seems. A kind of magic mirror in a ruined town near its base separates a part of Madeline’s personality, or psyche, or something. The character is literally called Part of You, and it’s kind of a palette-swapped version of our protagonist. Rather than the red hair and healthy skin of Madeline, her “dark” part is a purple-haired vampire.

This part is, as far as I can tell, supposed to represent her fears, misgivings, and so on. It’s always telling her that she should give up. Go home, because there’s no point in continuing. Okay, I’ve got one of those, too. Thing is, it’s called all of me.

In a talk with the stereotypical “bro” NPC Theo, Madeline talks about depression and anxiety, and I get that this is intended to be central to the plot, but…it just doesn’t work for me. As someone who really does suffer from both of those, the depiction rings so false that I was cringing at points. It’s not a mater of “Just try harder, and you’ll make it through.” That’s not how it works. No amount of platforming is going to solve the problem of the deck being stacked against you. “If you don’t stop, you won’t fail,” is the moral of the story, and…that’s not true. If it were, I’d have a job that pays enough to live on, not just the occasional freelance gig. I’d be living with my partner (and I’d call her my wife) instead of desperately scrambling to rearrange my life so I can meet her in person just one time before she finally gets tired of waiting.

In other words, the story of Celeste simplifies a complex, very personal topic in a manner that rubs me the wrong way. It’s good that games are trying to discuss such subjects, and I’m glad it doesn’t go too far into political rambling. (The worst sin here, in my opinion, would be the forced “diversity”: there are no white male characters at all, but that’s unfortunately the norm for the games industry these days.) And maybe its depiction of depression and anxiety work better for other people. I’m sure some do feel like they’re at the bottom of a dark ocean. But I don’t.

The verdict

As I stated above, I’m not a reviewer. This is, to my knowledge, only the second time I’ve gone into such detail about any media I’ve enjoyed. But maybe I’ll do it more from here on out.

Anyway, if I had to put a number on Celeste, I’d give it probably a 7 out of 10. I’d call it too hard for “casual” players, and the pixel art style might put some off. I like that style, however, so I find the aesthetic truly beautiful in places. The music is excellent, although a couple of the tracks are a little repetitive. And the story, although it isn’t front and center, has the problems I mentioned above.

Despite those flaws, it’s well worth the seven virtual dollars and six real hours I spent on it. Just don’t look to it for serious advice on overcoming your mental obstacles, and you’ll find a fun, challenging throwback to the days of yore.