Saturday, March 26, 2011

Book Reviews-Black Panthers, Heaven's Fall and Vampires

Black Panther-The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas
Emory Douglas was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. He was its best known and most skilled and provocative artist. Often times political art, not to put too fine a word on it, stinks. Douglas’ work is the notable exception to this rule. Douglas has a commitment to social change and an ability to bring forth both strong engaging images of both humanity and depravity. These abilities work hand in hand to animate his art. If you know anything at all about the Black Panther Party and the movement of the sixties and seventies, you know who he is. And even if you don’t know who he is, chances are you’ve seen his art.

Black Panther:The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas is a collection of Mr. Douglas’ art. The book is over 200 pages with index, paperback and is about 8.5” by 13”.  It also combines the artwork with analysis of what was going on at the time, personal memories and media depictions of the era. The preface is written by the actor Danny Glover, who states that “ Certainly the art and images that Emory Douglas created played a significant role in that whole process which in turn created a sense of empowerment and entitlement. We are all the better for it.” If you want to talk about social realism, Douglas embodied it. This is a very worthwhile book. Recollections or praise are also shared by such luminaries as Kathleen Cleaver, Sonia Sanchez, Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, John Sinclair,  Malaquias Montoya, Boots Riley, and Bobby Seale.
The Tempest Tales by Walter Mosley.
Have you ever read any of the Jesse B. Semple stories by Langston Hughes? Semple is a man, who is just as his name implies, is not the smartest man in the room but he has a sort of wisdom and insight that allows him to explain and understand more complex politics. He’s also not the sort of fellow that will make the same mistake twice, though he might make a variation on that mistake.  With a twinkle in his eye and tongue planted very firmly in cheek, the author Walter Mosley updates the Semple character (he dedicates the book to the memory of Langston Hughes) for modern readers.

Tempest Landry is not quite a thug or criminal although he doesn’t mind stealing if he can get away with it. He has a wife, a girlfriend and quite a few women on the side. He has a gaggle of children. He’s been in his share of fights but he rarely starts them. He’ll work hard when he has to but prefers not to do so.  
Tempest is “mistakenly” shot dead by the police when they are searching for another Black man. When his spirit appears in front of St. Peter, St. Peter reads a long list of sins and violations that Tempest has committed throughout his short life and condemns the man to hell. However Tempest is tired of being pushed around. He had good reasons for making some of the choices he made.  He honestly believes that he has not done enough wrong to go to hell and so refuses to go. This is the first and only time that any soul has ever challenged St. Peter’s judgment. The secret is that mortals must willingly accept their entry into heaven or hell. Otherwise heaven itself will fall and Satan will be in charge.
So Tempest is embodied again and sent back to earth with an angel as a minder, who must convince Tempest to accept heaven’s judgment. Of course Old Scratch has heard the news and is just as determined to convince Tempest to remain steadfast in his initial refusal.  Tempest is bound to teach both the representatives of heaven and hell something about what it means to be a black man, a poor black man in America.
This is a short book, barely more than a novella. Mosley does his usual good job of attention to detail and background. But the body of the book is really quite serious. It asks about what is the meaning of free will and predestination. It goes into some philosophical musings about religion. It has a blues sensibility. Good stuff.

Bite Marks by Terence Taylor
This is another addition to the vampire genre.  It’s set in NYC in the mid eighties. I wanted to like this book more than I did. It was good but there’s really not a lot of new stuff here. The twist is that the origin of vampires is moved away from Eastern Europe and given to a Moorish magician/alchemist.
Other than that a lot of the story will be quite familiar to readers. There are “good” vampires, who want to remain anonymous and confine their feeding to those who won’t be missed and “bad” vampires who have thrown their humanity completely aside, see all humans as either cattle or slaves and want to come out of the closet and rule openly.
Although the hook of the story is that the putative heroes, a feuding interracial bohemian couple , Steven and Lori, stumble across real life vampires while struggling to finish a book on vampires, the real protagonists of the story are the French vampire Queen, Perenelle, the leader of the faction of “good” vampires, and the Moorish magician and vampire who turned her , Rahman.
Rahman is searching for a way to reverse the curse of vampirism but still maintain immortality and he’s not too picky about how this is done. The monster of the book is Adam Caine, a vampire who has very strong ideas about who’s the master race. He sets much of the book’s events in motion.
This was an okay read but I was expecting a little more. It is first in a trilogy. His next book in the series “Blood Pressure” was much better. Taylor used to be a writer for children's television so it is interesting and a little unsettling in some respects that he had a story this grim and bloody just percolating in his head all those years that he was working for PBS, the Disney Channel or Nickelodean.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tips to Survive in Corporate America

I've been in corporate America for a while now. I've learned from that experience. Although I wrote this with Black people in mind it really applies to anyone who works for other people. If you work for yourself, I salute you.

I want to share some tips on surviving in corporate America that I've learned either from my own adventures or observing those of other people. I'm not saying I do or have done all of these.

1) Always strive for excellence:  There's no reason you shouldn't be the best at your job. Ok, maybe there is a reason but you should certainly TRY to be the best. And if you fail try harder next time. This is especially important if you happen to be Black as likely there are more than a few people in your company who have negative stereotypes about your intelligence, your credentials, your work ethic and the quality of work that you produce. But Black or not, one of the best ways to keep your job and/or rise in the company is to have an unblemished reputation for quality work and for being able to pick up new assignments quickly. Bosses love subordinates that can take on difficult assignments with aplomb and make the bosses look good. This leads to the next point.

2) Never stop learning:  So you have a bachelor's degree or a master's degree (or two), or maybe a Ph.D, or a J.D or a M.B.A. or an M.D. or so on. Good for you. But what have you done to increase your knowledge lately? The knowledge base changes quickly. You need to keep up. This may involve on the job training or classes or it might mean online, night or weekend classes at a local community college. It might mean shadowing the local experts at your job until you learn everything they do. It might mean getting that extra degree. It could mean obtaining additional certifications in your field. It might mean getting involved in outside organizations set up for people in your field and attending conferences, writing papers or giving lectures. Maybe you should also learn your co-worker's job.

3) Always touch base with your boss: Generally speaking bosses don't like surprises. You need to let him or her regularly know the project status.  Although some bosses are more hands on (something I find greatly irritating) many are not. All they care about is hearing "Yes, the assignment was completed/deal was closed/etc" at the appropriate time. Don't ever mistake a boss' friendliness for him or her being a true friend. Their interest is in your production. Just because you may happen to share gender and race with your boss, don't think that you have leeway to let things slide. Your boss has to answer to supervisors just as you do.

4) Use Careful Communication: In terms of emails, instant messages, written documents, text messages, chances are that your company either views what you write or maintains an archive of what you wrote. Some companies use key-loggers.  And I'm not even going to get started about inappropriate internet usage. There are different rules at various companies but a good rule of thumb is that if you wrote it over their network, it's theirs. They can look at it if they want to do so. So if you really don't want HR reading the salacious IM's you and the curvy young lady from General Ledger send each other or if you realize that the partner probably wouldn't be amused by the scatological joke emails you and your buddy in Purchasing exchange, don't send those things in the first place. This also applies to work related email exchanges where people from different departments get snippy with each other over who's to blame for a mistake. As a department head told me once, "Shady, just pick up a phone and call him!! No need for the email chain". 

5) Don't be afraid to ask for or offer help: You don't know everything. So there will be occasions when you need help. There's nothing wrong with this. Everyone does it. Occasionally I have seen Black people that were scared to ask for help because they thought it might confirm some stereotype. Silly. You do what it takes to complete your assignment. Being helpful to others is also a good idea because it forces you to explain and teach something that you know. This can work to your advantage because not only will you get wider recognition as an expert but it also puts people in your debt. And one day, and that day may never come, you will be able to call upon them for assistance.

6) Avoid sensitive topics at work: If you work with adults, you won't be able to change their mind on much. Anyway that's not your job. Unless you're working for a politically, religiously or socially driven organization, you are probably  working with some people that hold views you would consider anathema on such topics as politics, race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. Some of these people may even be your bosses. Although I do not advise that you ever submissively agree with their foolish ideas, neither do I think it wise to get involved in long drawn out debates with your boss about why the Afghanistan/Iraq Wars were poorly planned and probably illegal. Yes I did that once. Stupid.

7) Always have one eye on the exit: There may come a time when you have done everything you can do in your position. You may be bored. You may be eager to move up. You may be burned out. You may be overqualified for your job. You may have a boss that hates your guts. You may be discriminated against. You may work for an incompetent organization. You may be able to get your work done in 2 hours and spend the next 6-8 hours goofing off/surfing the net. Whatever the situation is, recognize it and take steps to address it. If you're not being challenged any more, perhaps a transfer is in order. Maybe you need to leave the company. Maybe you need a career change. Do not let your work ethic, skills and drive stagnate. If you remain in a bad position-one in which you're not happy or not growing you will come to hate yourself and hate the job. Your work will suffer and your bosses will notice.

8) You don't see everyone that sees you:  You have primary responsibility to your boss but there are several other people that will have influence (direct or otherwise) over your career. If you make the mistake (even unknowingly) of irritating one of your boss' peers, I can guarantee that your boss will hear about it from her. So watch yourself when you're at work. You are being evaluated by several other people whether you know it or not.

9) Connections count/Life is not fair: One of the hardest lessons that I had to learn was that education, experience and work ethic aren't the Alpha and Omega of getting hired or getting promoted. People hire people who look like them. This is a problem if you happen to be Black. But people also hire and promote their friends, their relatives, people who their friends, spouse or relatives vouch for, folks they worked with at other companies, old school acquaintances, people they want to sleep with or have slept with, their church members and so on. This is never going to change. So you can a) impotently rage against the machine, b) quit and start your own company, or c) learn how to network. Networking includes not only reaching out to groups of people you've helped in the past, but also includes many other opportunities. This could be attending the office holiday parties, volunteer outings and occasional off site meetings. It means regularly going to lunch with your buddies in other departments and joining internal company groups or external groups that are designed for people of like minds to exchange knowledge. Keep in touch with recruiters and people who do your job at other companies. By keeping plugged in, you will often get information about hirings and firings long before they are "official". And networking can often make the difference between a boss that wants to promote you b/c you have another boss asking her at their monthly lunch  "When is Shady going to get a shot?" vs. a boss that could not care less if you do the exact same job for the next two decades.

10) Research and Document: A company would be delighted to pay you $50K/yr for a job where the going rate is $80K and the boss' favorite is making $100K/yr. That's business. The method in which you guard against that, since you generally won't have access to everyone's pay records, resumes, academic transcripts and the like is to do extensive research to see exactly what the going rate is for a job and then ask for more.  Also you must document everything. One thing that incompetent or malicious bosses love to do is to give you poorly defined assignments to which THEIR name is not attached. You must guard against this by getting as much as possible in writing. Draw them out. And if you are ever in a situation in which discriminatory language is being used, well there's a reason voice activated recorders exist.

11) Avoid Personal Entanglements: I have seen a handful of people at work that were "hit by the thunderbolt", fell in love and married, I have also seen many more people that thought they fell in love but were actually motivated by different emotions. These dalliances generally didn't last. If you still have to work with the person who now hates your guts with the same intensity with which they used to "love" you, this can become a very unpleasant experience indeed. And if you are a man or you had some authority over this person, rest assured HR is being contacted. Don't ever fool yourself that your fellow workers didn't know what was going on. Everybody knew. You aren't that clever. Bottom line, unless it really IS "the thunderbolt", don't dip your pen in the company ink. It's a BAD BAD BAD idea.

12) Relax, it's just work: Never let work get and keep you down. Maintain a strong distinction between work and home. Work is something that you do to make money. Hopefully it is also something that you like doing and are good at doing. Either way don't bring negativity home.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Libya War: Constitutional or Not?

You don't look like who you say you are

"Just trust me."

People may accept those words from a spouse or loved one. But when it comes to business, to the parts of our lives that are not experienced under an umbrella of mutual intimacy, people are less trusting. Few would accept those words from someone on the other side of the negotiating table, a used car dealer, a boss or rival at work, or a political leader.

And yet that is what President Obama is asking the US citizenry to do. The President has claimed that he thought very long and hard before committing to intervening in the war against Libya. Well, bully for him. How wonderful that he is a thoughtful, deliberative man.

Problem is as Kucinich and several other political leaders have pointed out, it's not HIS decision to make.
There are three major arguments to make against this war-constitutional, pragmatic and political. I think the constitutional one is the strongest so that is where I will start. I will also briefly address some of the common counterarguments. The one argument that I won't address is that other people did it too. That doesn't work when someone is charged with bank robbery and it shouldn't apply here.


Obama, as a candidate, said this to the Boston Globe.

Q. In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites -- a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?)
OBAMA: "The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

"As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent."
Of course like many other people, he changed his mind once HE was the person in charge. If we accept this it shows that despite our protestations to the contrary we really don't want a constitutional republic. This is dangerous. A major pillar of this 200 year+ experiment in separation of powers is that war is simply too dangerous and too seductive to be left to just one man.

A cursory glance through history shows us that monarchs, dictators and other autocrats have launched wars for bad reasons. Queen Bigmouth doesn't like it when Duchess Roundheels shows up at the ball in the same dress. Duke Dodohead takes offense when he loses at billiards to King Stinkybottom. Prince Greedygut is personally offended that the Baron Greasythumb is giving refuge to religious heretics that the Prince is repressing. And so wars break out. The people that start these wars are rarely the people doing the fighting or dying. That is a big part of the reason that the Founding Fathers decided that if war was indeed determined to be necessary at the very least the people, via their elected representatives in Congress, should be the ones to say yea or nay.

The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and does have, in the case of invasion or imminent attack, the ability to defend the nation and do what is necessary to repel the attackers. This is simply not the case with Libya. Libya did not attack the United States nor is it in a state of war with the United States. So for the President of the United States to attack Libya without a Congressional declaration or war or even a fig leaf of a resolution is unconstitutional.

There are two objections to this conclusion (a) the President is acting under UN authority and aegis so that makes it legal and (b) the President still has time to consult with Congress under the War Powers Act so quit your complaining.

The UN argument is unconvincing. Treaties or other international agreements do not replace the US Constitution.
The UNPA (United Nations Participation Act) makes this exceedingly clear

Provided, That nothing herein contained shall be construed as an authorization to tile President by the Congress to make available to the Security Council for such purpose armed forces, facilities, or assistance in addition to the forces, facilities, and assistance provided for in such special agreement or agreements.

In short, Congress still must approve US armed forces being used , whether it is an UN operation or not. As several Congressmen and Congresswomen have heatedly noted, the President consulted with just about everyone EXCEPT Congress. That's just not good enough. If US citizens want the President to have the constitutional authorization to commit troops to UN approved wars without the approval of the US Congress, if they want the UN security council to be a higher authority for the US than the US Congress, they are of course free to propose, fight for and pass a constitutional amendment stating just that. Until then I say Obama's actions are unconstitutional. And yes I would say that about any President.

We joined the UN under extremely specific guidelines designed to ensure the primacy of the US Constitution. The UN Security Council can not be used to do an end-run around possible Congressional opposition. Just because we joined does not indicate acceptance of UN supremacy over US law.

The War Powers Act argument doesn't really hold water either as far I can see. To quote another representative:

"The president has violated the War Powers Resolution," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose. Lofgren read the 1973 law aloud in a telephone interview from San Jose. It allows three instances when the president can use force: "(1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces."
"Have any of those things happened?" Lofgren asked.
No one knows how this war will end. It could be over tomorrow. It could drag on.  I do not pretend to be able to see the future or have any information that the blog readers or blog partners don't have. I do know this though. We don't know who the opposition is. We know that many Libyans-especially those in the opposition- are taking this opportunity to rob, harass, assault or do worse to Black immigrants (legal or not) in Libya. Remember that the current hostility we have with Iran dates back to the 1953 coup. The blowback to that is still going on. The same can be said of the really dumb intervention in the Lebanese civil war of the early eighties. We ought to mind our own business.

It is possible, even likely that the US Congress is just making noise for the sake of making noise. Republicans have generally said Obama waited too long to go to war while several Democrats are rushing to Obama's defense. Congress en masse is disgustingly eager to give away the big decisions to the Executive Branch. But there still a few Congressmen/women with fire in their bellies who will not automatically roll over and fetch just because the President tells them to do so. And depending on how long this war takes, Obama's base may be so disheartened that that they stay home in 2012. 2010 may have been a preview of that. If no matter who you vote for, you get more war then something has gone drastically wrong with our system.

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
-James Madison

So what's your call? Is this war against Libya constitutional?  Are you bothered that he did not even consult with let alone get permission from Congress? Are you satisfied with Obama's explanation or not? Will your opinion change if this is a quick action ("days not weeks") as the President has said? Do you think any blowback will arrive from this? Do you want more interventions overseas?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Book Reviews-Alien Invasions, Black Heroes and Dangerous Women

Infected by Scott Sigler.
The typical alien invasion book features squirmy octopus looking beings that arrive on Earth and start shooting everyone with plasma beams.  There’s also normally a dastardly effete scientist or politician who either wants to learn from these invaders or worse, sell out humanity to the aliens. In the end the good guys win.  They are led to victory by a team that includes a tall square jawed hero, his take-no-nonsense girl Friday, a plucky sidekick and maybe a dog.
Infected, by Scott Sigler is not that book.
The immediate difference is the scale of Sigler’s invasion. What if the alien invasion is not on the macro level but on the micro level? The human body is home to a multitude of viruses, bacteria and parasites. There are over 1000 different sorts of parasites that can live in humans. Some of these are relatively benign but many are quite disgusting and dangerous. Most are invisible to the human eye.  

Infected examines what happens when an alien bioengineered parasite infects humans, turning some of them into lunatic killing machines while making others behave in even more disturbing ways. The parasites have a greater purpose besides just killing other people.  This was a really disturbing book and I mean that as the highest of compliments to the author. I liked it a lot!!! I liked that the author is a Michigan native and sets most of the story in my college town, Ann Arbor and its bedroom communities. 
Most of the story is told thru the POV of one Perry Dawsey-a former U-M linebacker who now works in a dead-end IT job. Formerly known as “Scary Perry” because of his unrestrained brutality on the field, Dawsey blew out his knee and lost any chance at an NFL career.  One day before work he notices a few discolorations on his body. He thinks nothing of it until a few days later he realizes the spots not only aren’t going away but they’re also growing and changing in texture.  These growths are immune to such things as calamine lotion, alcohol, fungicides or skin creams.  A little later Dawsey thinks he’s going crazy because these things seem to be talking to him.  Unknown to him, Perry is also being frantically sought after by both a CIA agent (Dew Phillips) assigned to a new federal agency which officially doesn’t exist and by a CDC epidemiologist  (Margaret Montoya), who has made some discoveries she doesn’t want to accept.  Perry has the sort of nature that will not allow him to lay down to anyone without a fight-no matter the cost. Battle is joined.
This is great biological sci-fi horror.  It captures the anger and fear we have about disease.  This is based in hard science. There is nothing supernatural in the story.  I can’t over emphasize how unnerving this book is. A great deal of it takes place in Dawsey’s apartment.  We get the POV of the parasites. Through the book we learn more about what they want and what they are. Sigler has modeled this on some real-life entities. This is Stephen King’s “I am the Doorway” on steroids.  If you don’t like gleefully detailed descriptions of exactly how the human body and parasites work and to what extremes Scary Perry will go to in an attempt to save himself, let this pass you by. This is first in a trilogy.

Standing at the Scratch Line by Guy Johnson.
This is the debut novel by Guy Johnson, who is the son of Maya Angelou.  This novel shows that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree when it comes to talent. It’s hard to describe this book because it touches on so many different topics. The short description is that it tells the story of one LeRoi “King” Tremain , a black man with a quick temper and an even quicker mind who leaves early 20th century Louisiana after disputes with a rival Black-Creole criminally minded family lead Tremain to murder two white deputies.
Fleeing North, Tremain winds up in the segregated Army during WWI in which he finds himself in combat with racist white soldiers as much as he is with the Germans.  He joins the all Black 369th Battalion. Many of King’s army exploits are based on the very real Henry Lincoln Johnson
In the army he makes connections and allies that will serve him for the rest of his life.  Upon his return to the states King embarks upon several adventures which add to his reputation as that crazy Bad N**** that doesn’t take any stuff off of anyone and especially not racist whites. This includes run-ins with the Klan, various political leaders and the Mob in Chicago and New York.  King is often a brutal character and is something of an antihero. But he is always an engaging one and has what might be considered a fairly strict code of honor. He has a very strong appreciation for his own self-interest but he doesn’t lie or cheat. Deal with him honestly and he will do the same. Do otherwise and run the risk of coming up missing.  It’s said in his home bayous that supposedly every 30-40 years the Tremain family produces a child that will terrorize those around him; King is that man.
This entire story is not quite as anachronistic as one might think. Amoral and occasionally criminally minded though he may be, King represents a paragon of Black resistance to white racism that was always there in American life, though it was obviously not celebrated. Whether it be the mythical Stagolee , the very real African Blood Brotherhood  or David Walker  people like King existed and still exist. In the book’s afterword, Johnson says that some of the story is based on things he heard about his own grandfather as well as the fact that there were black people who had no choice but to defend themselves with violence or otherwise own nothing within the Deep South. Johnson says that a strong Black male character like King may be an anomaly within fiction but not in real life. 
I also want to make two things clear. 1) King is not a superman. He pays a price for some of the wrong he does. Occasionally he is overmatched. 2) This is most definitely not “thug lit”. In both skill and style I would compare this to Dickens. There are far too many characters to describe here but they are all well drawn and have complex motivations. The women in King's life have interests of their own.
The title of the book refers to the practice common in bare knuckle fights.  Before a fight began, a line was drawn in the dirt between the two fighters. The fight would begin and the line would be crossed. If a man was knocked down, his opponent had to return to his side of the scratch line. The other man had to get up and walk to the line if he wanted to continue. Otherwise the man standing at the line was the winner. By hook or by crook, King is the one standing at the scratch line more often than not.

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie.
I loved Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy (FLT). It was a corrective to the more insipid high fantasy which infests bookstores.  Abercrombie writes in an unabashedly adult and quite profane style. So I had high expectations for his novel Best Served Cold (BSC).

BSC is quite similar to FLT. It’s set in the same world. Many minor characters from FLT show up in BSC. BSC shares themes with FLT; what does revenge really profit someone, how can you be good in an evil world, are men and women really all that different, and does what anyone does in life really matter in the long term. After all good or bad, we all end up "back in the mud" as one warrior reasons.

It is a stand-alone book. You can read it and enjoy it without having read FLT. Reading BSC will not spoil FLT.
The story opens with the mercenary leader Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna being invited to an honorary event by her employer, the Grand Duke Orso. It is no spoiler to reveal that Orso has decided that he can't trust either of the Murcattos any longer and has them both murdered. Or so he thinks. Monza, who is also known as “The Butcher of Caprile” and “The Snake of Tallins” for her brutal style of warfare, improbably survives and swears to kill Orso, Orso's sons and everyone else who was in the room when her brother was murdered and she was scarred for life.

We have a revenge obsessed woman, her motley crew of quirky psychopaths and money hungry killers who will either assist her or betray her, old lovers or would-be lovers showing up and of course an ice cold murderer who is dispatched to eliminate her. In short, although the ride is exciting, it's not exactly a new story. There are more than a few shout outs to "Kill Bill" and "The Princess Bride".

Abercrombie gets a little lazier about national stereotypes. Styria, where all of the action takes place, is so much of a stand-in for Renaissance Italy that one wonders why Abercrombie didn't just set his tale in 15th century Italy. It would have read exactly the same. Murcatto is somewhat based on the real life terror Caterina Sforza. Many of the names Abercrombie uses are either real life Italian names or sound as if they could have been- Vinari, Nicomo Cosmo, Grand Duke Orso, etc.

Women have several key roles in the book, besides the lead. This is not done in any sort of self-consciously feminist style but realistically. Abercrombie's female characters are just as self-centered, morally vacuous, flawed and dangerous as his male ones. Abercrombie maintains a sharp ear for dialogue.  No one stops in the middle of a fight to say something snarky.  Survival is not guaranteed.  People actually get tired and make mistakes. Lovers quarrel and cheat, etc. Murcatto's quest for revenge leads her to some places she'd rather not visit.
I would like to see what Abercrombie could do with characters who are not 100% selfish, twisted, sadistic and cynical. Cynicism is his defining motif.
There is not much of a positive character arc for anyone.  Those who are openly evil remain so. Some people that appear to be decent are revealed to be evil. And even those few people that try to be good eventually decide that being good doesn't work and become as evil as anyone. As one person says repeatedly "Mercy and cowardice are the same thing". Just to make this point crystal clear the author opens chapters with quotes from Machiavelli and various Borgias.
There is one depressed, socially maladroit, and verbose poisoner-very reminiscent of the Tom Hanks' role in The Ladykillers who was in some respects the closest thing the book had to a voice of reason. The book is otherwise EXTREMELY nihilistic. Consider it "fantasy noir".

Don't get me wrong. I did enjoy it -just not as much as FLT. FLT actually did have a few people try (and usually fail) to do the heroic thing. FLT had better misdirection and slower reveals. There is a twist at the end of BSC which was pretty good. There are more than a few moments of humor in this book-mostly centered around the aforementioned gabby poisoner.