REVIEW: John Houlihan: The Seraph Chronicles, Volume One: Tales of the White Witchman

When I begin to describe John Houlihan’s The Seraph Chronicles Volume One: Tales of the White Witchman, the combination of themes will seem bizarre to most. I went through precisely this same train of thought and started reading The Seraph Chronicles with a sceptical mind but came out converted; proven previously cynical.

THE TRELLBORG MONSTROSITIES (Book One of The Seraph Chronicles)

The simple breakdown of this three-book-volume is made up of Nazi agendas, gods, supernatural occurrences, monsters and historical inspiration. John Houlihan’s first book The Trellborg Monstrosities, of The Seraph Chronicles Volume One: Tales of the White Witchman, threw me headlong into this uniquely varied genre. A major plus of this book I think; there is no faffing about with getting stuck in, I was pitched into the suspense and action from the first page and it keeps up the pace as it goes.

The plot follows The Chronicles’ namesake, the eclectic character Seraph – the White Witchman himself – and the more normalised Major Powell, plus a few of his men from a mysteriously named “the Section”. Together they oppose the SS and other Nazi associated groups. These Nazi groups are concerned with getting their hands on an artefact that will make their cause stronger and ultimately invincible. In the pursuit for this artefact, plans go awry (naturally) and we see the effects this has on the mind of one powerful man Ludwig von Obertorff, the lives of the local villagers and the company of men from “the Section”.

When I began to read The Trellborg Monstrosities I felt I could not connect with the dialogue. When I read a book I go into a nice little bubble of just myself and the story, oblivious to anything else around. When starting to read The Chronicles, I found I could not quite get into my bubble at first. I also thought on the first read that Major Powell – who is our guide and the point of view throughout the book – was conflicted on his feelings about the whole supernatural aspect of the plot. The abrupt changes between disbelief and acceptance in his character during the exposure to supernatural occurrences was just a touch odd for me. Although, perhaps that is just my sceptical side rearing its head there, for when I had finished The Trellborg Monstrosities I re-read it, particularly focusing on the beginning of the book to see if I still had these reservations concerning the dialogue. I actually found they were not as noticeable. Paradoxically to my first impressions of the dialogue, the writing style and language was beautiful to me from the outset, a reader’s dream. I could imagine everything Houlihan described in complete clarity. Setting and action enticed me to read paragraphs multiple times, just to soak up the atmosphere that Houlihan had created.

I believe that my momentary reservations about the dialogue stemmed from my reluctance to immerse myself unconditionally in such an unfamiliar topic. I have learned my lesson! Once I understood the pace of the book and got into the mind set of undead Nazi soldiers allied with beasts of ice being the general theme, I realised that perhaps what I perceived as a blasé attitude in Major Powell could actually be seen as an author-intended coping characteristic. I particularly enjoyed Seraph’s character. He made me think of a science fiction Sherlock Holmes character; a cut above the rest in intelligence and with a flair for dramatic deliverance, with Major Powell serving as a characterful Watson.

As we are following the The Chronicles’ namesake, Seraph, it is only fair to mention that despite reading my way through the three books, his character remains cocooned in a shroud of mystery. I cannot say that I felt I got to know his character any better as the series progressed. Although, I think if we got to know him too well he would lose the mysterious quality that forms the basis of his character. After all, the mystery of something is what pushes you on to the discovery is it not?

THE CRYSTAL VOID (Book Two of The Seraph Chronicles)

The second book in The Seraph Chronicles, The Crystal Void starts with a dialogue, almost a – here comes an over-used phrase – continuous stream of consciousness. If you studied an English related subject at any point you will now be cringing to see me use this phrase in a sentence of my own free will, under no exam conditions. Despite the over-used associations this term has with literature analysis, I still like it. For times like these, there is no better description. What with my previous comments about the dialogue you may fairly assume I found the same issue here too. The opposite is in fact true, I could not get enough of this man Gaston d’Bois and his story. I was instantly hooked by this book.

Despite the name of this series being a bit of a giveaway in hindsight (The Seraph Chronicles) it took me by surprise when Seraph appeared as the fateful rescuer. I was so captured by possibilities for the fate of Mademoiselle Odette d’Hiver and pondering on how Lieutenant Gaston d’Bois would save her from the clutches of Marquis Phillipe de Figueira da Foz (what fantastic names), that I forgot that I was waiting for Seraph’s appearance at all. That was how gripping I found the story line.

I was so enjoying the story line of the second book, that to an extent I didn’t want Seraph to come and eclipse any importance that the current characters may hold. I felt this happened a little between Seraph and Major Powell in The Trellborg Monstrosities. The only reason why it was noticeable to me is because our point of view comes from the secondary characters in The Chronicles; the secondary characters in each of the three books being Major Powell, Gaston d’Bois and the Kommandeur. I call them secondary characters only in terms of the primary character being Seraph. Once I thought about it and understood the importance of Seraph being our true focal character even if he is not our voice, it was a much clearer journey. In fact, I began to see Seraph’s actions as having a mothering quality towards our secondary characters and so once again the Sherlock and Watson duo comparisons were at full whack.

In short, this second book in The Chronicles was my favourite. Everything about The Crystal Void was a credit to Houlihan.

TOMB OF THE AEONS (Book Three of The Seraph Chronicles)

And so we come to the third and final book in The Seraph Chronicles Volume One: Tales of the White Witchman. The rules of the series still apply, Seraph saves the day and we follow a lesser mortal through various chasms of hell. In this case, the mortal in question I simply knew as Kommandeur Siegfried. We are introduced to the Kommandeur during his active service and we can see from his actions towards the enemy that he is not afraid of breaking the rules to get results. I think this character was a little more hardened and capable in his personality than the other two. Well, he was at least far more sensible about diving headfirst in to a tomb steadily piling up with ever increasing amounts of bodies. Despite my fondness for Lieutenant Gaston d’Bois’ quirky manner I did appreciate this display of realistic humanity in the Kommandeur.

This book had a very cult-like feeling. All books had elements of cult-like behaviour but Tomb of the Aeons had the robed figures, blood sacrifice and the calling-up-of-a-monster-from-the-deep vibe. Very fitting with how Seraph’s magic appears to develop over the series. I am still not sure how to peg Seraph’s magic, along the lines of the mystery that comes with Seraph. If I found out the secrets behind the sorcerer I think it would spoil the effect. Some may disagree.

So, summing up the topics in this book: cults, snake men, soldiers, monsters and Seraph. Also, there is a kitten, Little Hans, involved in this book. An instant winning quality if ever there was one. I was sold.

ON THE WHOLE…

If consistency in plot and character profiles are a must in your reading material list then I really recommend. If you prefer to be kept guessing in plot lines then perhaps not. The books are reassuring in their consistency of deliverance. I did find the second book The Crystal Void was my favourite, the nature of d’Bois’ character I enjoyed. He is quirky and intriguing and the style of writing in the book matches the character’s quirky nature.

If you have a liking for the first book, then I would say that you are guaranteed to enjoy them all. After a little perseverance of faith and understanding of the topics I enjoyed them very much. I hope and assume that there will be a The Seraph Chronicles Volume Two, in which case I am looking forward to how the White Witchman and his companions progress in some structural twists and turns and of course, a return of the Sherlock/Watson qualities!

Happy reading…

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Joe Haldeman: The Forever War

Private William Mandella is a reluctant hero in an interstellar war against an unknowable and unconquerable alien enemy, but his greatest test will come when he returns home. Relativity means that for every few months’ tour of duty centuries have passed on Earth, isolating the combatants ever more from the world for whose future they are fighting.

I also thought I would include the blurb comment by British author Peter F. Hamilton as I cannot improve on his apt summary.

Only a writer as skilful as Haldeman could use war’s dark glamour to lure the reader in and then deploy that same fascination to show the effect of this orchestrated barbarism on the human soul. A book about corruption, atrocity, hope, stupidity, and triumph. Throw in faultless advanced military technology, fascinating aliens, and a dangerously believable future Earth, and you have a book that’s near perfect.

First off, an apology. Whilst trying to write about this book I had drawn a complete blank whenever it came to facing my Evernote screen. It could be due to the technical knowledge escaping me a little but this has not been an issue before. My knowledge behind the military background of the plot was and still is distinctly lacking but despite this it somehow did not stop the inexorable pull to read the book cover to cover in the space of a weekend. It is a wonderfully paced book. I am finding the space and time element of this book fascinating. To the point where I am collecting scientific journals from anywhere and everywhere to try and wrap my non-scientifically-apt brain around the concepts, theories and hypotheses. To read it is one thing; to apply what you read is completely another.

In the beginning, I did think “Easy, I’ll write about a series of 73 books I have not read yet” and didn’t anticipate that I am no longer a happy-go-lucky student with acres of time to spare anymore. There goes the days of extensive research you could always find me doing. For this reason I will not be uploading the SF Masterworks books exactly in order, as the book I had planned to read for my next update – Cities In Flight by James Blish – was far chunkier than I was anticipating, so that will be more of an ongoing read. I also want to include some chatter about other books too. As well as keeping up to speed with my ever growing list of review requests; after all, how can you say “no” to reading predominantly brilliant books for free in exchange for a review?

Also, just a note to potential readers of The Forever War; despite my lack of comprehensive knowledge of the subject, I really enjoyed this book. It did not mar the experience in any way. I still very much recommend reading it even if it’s not exactly your usual cup of tea.

I digress.

Where to start with The Forever War? I hadn’t done much background research into the plot of this book before reading (in fact, very little) so I was unknowingly thrown headlong into the life of Private William Mandella, caught in the throes of a complex war-torn interstellar world. The plot starts by following Private William Mandella in the year 1997 during his training with other men and women with IQs over 150 and a certain aptitude for survival. Mandella is a cynical character, making it particularly entertaining to follow his life. I think The Forever War and Andy Weir’s The Martian (a book I am currently in the middle of, I recommend) have the protagonist’s character in common. This character formula in a fantasy based book works so well for me. Sometimes in an unbelievable scenario, a little bit of cynicism and humour can make it more believable in my opinion. It lends the topic stability and honesty, making me as a reader feel like the protagonist is on my side.

Mandella’s particular outlook on life is our guideline for the tone of The Forever War. A cynical attitude to the war by the partakers seems only appropriate as the reasonings for initiating the war seem entirely dictatorial and devoid of sensible reason to me. Do not fear, sense is found later on in the progression of the war, thousands of years later. In exact words, the war is seen as an example of “human stupidity. And shame.” Despite the storyline being rather tragic – it is war after all – the regular snippets of gallows humour more than make up for it.

By following Mandella through the time and space oddity that is the setting of this book, we get to see the span of the entire war despite it taking…hmm…a long time. If somebody would like to supply me with the mathematics of it then you are welcome to do so. My overview will be woefully lacking in the technical. To explain simply, as I understand it, the war is spread through the duration of generations but because of the combination of time, space and speed of travel, Mandella has in fact only aged through one lifetime. It also means that because of a time warp so to speak – those people who have experienced their fair share of live shows, don’t start dancing – when the enemy, the Taurans, pops out of one of these jumps, known as collapsars, they could be from any time period of the war; from highly evolved weapons and tactics of the war’s future, or tragically under-equipped as they were when they first began fighting in the past. Still with me? I had to do a lot of rereading through this time warp explanation section.

Mary-gay Potter is part of this group of elite soldiers we meet in 1997. Incidentally, she is the soldier pictured on the cover of the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition. As the plot develops she becomes Mandella’s hope, the only link he has with any kind of familiarity. The space and time realities in The Forever War result in Mandella returning from missions after generations have gone by on Earth, even though it has only been months for him. When he returns his world is not a familiar one. Mandella arrives to a new world system, with opposing values and laws each time he completes a mission. Mary-gay provides the only stability in his life. Although this book has a strong affiliation with war and conflict and it seems that much of the plot is set in some sort of war zone, the book’s focus is in fact more about the limbo in between duties and the relationship Mandella has with this every changing society. Personal values, laws, sexual orientation, family planning and lifestyle all take a beating with every tour of duty. The small nuances of daily life that cause these lifestyle changes to make sense for the common man are lost on the soldiers as they are left wondering what was wrong with the original system of living. I think for me the strangest changes throughout the book was the change of perception towards sexual orientation. Not for the reason of what they believed but because of the changeable nature of their decisions.

I wouldn’t call this a romantic novel by any stretch of the imagination but there is enough humanity in there among this world of clones, war and aliens to make the plot relate to the reader – the secret of great SF in my opinion. I also won’t give away the ending…but it did make me burn my toast in my focused concentration of scrabbling to turn the next page.

Happy reading…