Archive for the ‘ Books ’ Category

The Ethics of Bloody Retribution

A few years ago I read Adrian McKinty’s Dead I Well May Be, which instantly became one of my all-time favorite crime novels. In addition to being a blood-curdling revenge story, it was also a collection of surprisingly lyrical vignettes to different worlds: Belfast in the waning years of the Troubles, a city of desultory terrorism and economic stagnation. New York in early 1990′s, disorderly, larcenous, crazed.  The poor Protestant neighborhoods of the Six Counties over a decade into the Troubles, desperately clinging to a precious few privileges over the Catholics.

McKinty had a knack for sketching sharp characters and scenes with just a few choice details. His characters spoke with different voices, but all filtered through the wry and fatalist gaze of protagonist Michael Forsythe. He had a soft-spot for the underdogs and hopeless fuck-ups, people who chose to trust and love despite being given few reasons to do either. And Forsythe himself, too young for the work he did and far too careless to understand the import of the choices he was making, was one of them. He was just smart enough to know it.

Dead I Well May Be turns into a nightmare journey for the second act, and that gives way to a chilly, purposeful series of killings in the third act. By the time it ends, it has become a triumphant tragedy, the dead bodies piled high after glorious vengeance. Forsythe goes about his work with compassion and understanding, but not an ounce of mercy. It’s exhilarating to see it unfold.

The strength of that book made me a McKinty fan, but it didn’t take long before I started to worry that Dead I Well May Be was a flash in the pan. Hidden River, the story of a disgraced Royal Ulster Constabulary detective trying to solve a friend’s murder in Colorado, had its moments but was ultimately a dud. Not a single character was appealing, and the story behind the murder was devoid of any sense or import. The Dead Yard, the sequel to Dead I Well May Be, was a crushing disappointment.

McKinty seemed to be straining so hard to recapture the magic of Dead I Well May Be that he was turning into a parody of himself. His prose crossed that line from lush to purple, and his use of foreshadowing began to smack of narrative laziness. Rather than showing anything interesting happening, he just kept promising that interesting things would, eventually, happen. Most of them in another book.

The final part of the Forsythe trilogy, The Bloomsday Dead, was better than his other efforts but still a far cry from Dead I Well May Be. He never managed to make the case that Forsythe’s was a story that needed continuing, and the conclusion to the saga relied on a couple predictable twists and some unconvincing behavior on the part of some of the characters.

So I had just about written McKinty off. He’d produced one great novel, one decent one, one mediocrity, and one disaster. However, I gave him one last shot with his latest novel, Fifty Grand, and I’m thrilled to find that he is once again near the top of his game. This is easily his best work since Dead I Well May Be, and is also a marked departure from his other novels.

Fifty Grand is superficially a revenge mystery. A Cuban detective, Mercado, illegally leaves the country to find out what happened to her father when he was killed in a wealthy Colorado town.

That’s just the backdrop, however, for a story about class and illegal immigration. We know that Mercado is a smart professional and a first-rate cop on a fifth-rate police force, but in America she is nothing. Posing as a worker from Mexico City, she is given the choice of being a sex worker or a cleaning lady. The local police turn a blind eye to the illegals who are building their city and serving its elites. The human traffickers who run the immigration operation treat the workers as indentured servants. For everyone else, the Latinos are invisible. Just a bunch of Mexicans, whether they’re Mexican or not, here to build houses, clean them once they’ve been built, and occasionally to screw in them for money.

There is a scene where Mercado witnesses the sheriff administer a savage beating to her boss, Esteban, in front of her and another maid. After the sheriff drives off, Esteban tries to stop crying as he shakes with fury in the driver’s seat of his Navigator. He starts muttering that the sheriff couldn’t do this to him, he was an American citizen. Then he starts to cry as he says that all this, from Colorado to the Pacific, used to be Mexico. And he weeps.

Poignancy and irony are laced throughout this scene. Characters can be aware of the artificial distinctions and prejudices that are the bedrock of most discrimination, yet their ubiquity still makes those characters complicit in inequality. Esteban gets treated like shit because he’s a Mexican, and his reaction is to feel outrage because he’s an American citizen. It’s okay to abuse and humiliate illegals, he accepts that, but it’s outrageous to ask an Hispanic American citizen to accept such treatment. He accepts that American citizenship grants him superiority to the people who come over illegally from Mexico, but then he denies that Americans have any moral right to the southwest that they took from Mexico at gunpoint. Esteban, a Mexican, a citizen, and a trafficker, is mired in contradictions, chafing against a racist regime in which he is complicit.

This is a McKinty novel, however, and there is still a lot of room for lyrical violence and bloodshed. He sets the tone early with this passage, as Mercado tries to explain why she is out to avenge the murder of a man who abandoned her as a child.

Revenge is a game for pendejos. Hector says that tit for tat is a base emotion, from the lizard brain, from way, way down. He says we’ve evolved beyond revenge. Witnesses at executions always leave dissatisfied, and he would know, he’s seen dozens. But it’s not about feeling good, Hector. It’s about something else. It’s about tribal law, it’s about the restoration of order. Entropy increases, the universe winds down, and one day all the suns go out and the last living entity ceases to be. It’s about accepting that, accepting that there’s no happy place, no afterlife, no justice, just a brief flowering of consciousness in an infiinty of nothing–it’s about seeing all that and then defying the inevitable and imposing a discipline on chaos, even as the boilers burst and the ship goes down.

This neatly describes nearly every McKinty protagonist’s motivation. They are not history’s winners. They hunt the privileged and powerful, the people who will resort to violence and betrayal when they have nothing to fear, who cite the law when it is on their side, and who cry for mercy when they are on their knees with a gun pointed at their head. In this universe, justice is a mirage, a trick played on the downtrodden. The only safety is in the promise of retribution.

Dark Force Rising – Further Geek Reminiscences

The second book of Thrawn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy is unique in that it ultimately revolves around a MacGuffin, in this case a lost fleet of warships that could tilt that balance of the war in favor of whoever acquires it, and it focuses almost entirely on the backwaters of the Star Wars universe.

The central character in this chase is the smuggler-king Talon Karrde. Karrde is another character who would prove so popular that he would continue to play major and minor parts throughout the rest of the Expanded Universe’s development. He is established as a criminal counterpart to Grand Admiral Thrawn. Both men are practically omniscient: Thrawn assesses people and predicts events by studying their art, while  information-gathering have been Karrde’s life’s work. Karrde leads a smuggling organization mainly because that’s the best job for someone who wants to know what is really going on in the galaxy; the wealth and power are fringe benefits.

This means that Karrde starts out a dedicated neutral in the war between the New Republic and the Empire. He is content to do arms-length business with both sides, but mostly wishes to keep tabs on them. Yet Thrawn is on a crusade to defeat the New Republic, and begins dividing the galaxy into those who are with the Empire, and those who are against it. As he applies greater pressure to Karrde, Karrde watches his options dwindle until Thrawn finally eliminates the middle-course: neutrality is hostility, and so Karrde finds himself alone against the might of the Empire, his destruction one of the Grand Admiral’s pet projects.

By the end of the book, Karrde has been forced to cast his lot with the New Republic. Thrawn’s attempts to force Karrde into compliance have produced a marriage between the most capable and well-informed criminal organization and the New Republic’s military power. It is another Thrawn miscalculation, and one whose consequences he fails to appreciate. If Karrde could not be made into a friend, he should at all costs not have been made into an enemy. But Thrawn’s mistake is in thinking that understanding and predicting his enemies neutralizes them.

Thrawn’s antithesis in this book is Leia, who goes on a secret mission to Honoghr to convince the Noghri to stop working for the Empire. Thrawn happens to be there at the same time, and the mission nearly goes catastrophically awry, but Thrawn proves once again that his confidence in his own intelligence and capability is his undoing. Where Leia arrives as an uninvited guest, ignorant of local customs and circumstances, Thrawn is a revered lord with long experience dealing with the Noghri. Yet Thrawn casts aside his regard for custom the moment it becomes expedient, using orbital bombardment and the threat of genocide to terrify a people who are already in awe of him. Meanwhile, Leia salvages her mission simply by watching and listening to her hosts, and cooperating with their wishes that she leave their world before she causes trouble.

When I was younger, Leia’s segments of the book bored me. Her wanderings around Noghri villages and growing understanding of their history were poor substitutes for the battles and chases that comprise the rest of the book. This time I found it instructive. The films hinted that Leia was a trained diplomat and politician, but we scarcely ever saw her without a weapon in her hand or a man at her side. What Zahn does with Dark Force Rising is show the heroism of negotiation and discovery. It is Leia’s compassionate and respectful example, as a representative of the New Republic, standing against Thrawn’s blatant manipulations and threats, that make the Noghri willing to listen to what she has to say, and admit some uncomfortable truths to themselves. At the end of this subplot, there is a dramatic speech to a Noghri assembly in which smoking-gun evidence of Imperial perfidy is introduced. But it is the conversations about family and culture that lay the groundwork for victory. Leia’s compassion and understanding are revealed to be strengths just as much as Luke’s Force abilities or Han Solo’s cunning.

I would be lying, however, if I said these were my favorite parts of the book. They are pretty tame compared to the rest of the book, which includes a battle aboard an underwater luxury casino, Luke Skywalker’s and Mara Jade’s heist caper aboard Thrawn’s flagship, a massive battle at the Katana Fleet’s location, and an Alamo-style holding action aboard the Katana itself. The middle installment of any trilogy risks being flat, because it cannot really resolve anything, but Zahn solves this problem the same way The Empire Strikes Back did: by turning the characters loose on a breakneck series of set-pieces that make defeat exhilarating enough to feel like victory.

The Decline of American Statesmanship

The first great book I’ve read this year is George C. Herring’s From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. Despite being almost 1000 pages, Colony to Superpower provides a fast-paced yet thorough tour of American foreign policy since Independence that shows the areas where different policies form a coherent whole, and where foreign policy has undergone major discontinuities. By the end of it, I felt like I had been introduced to my own country.

Herring takes a decidedly unsentimental look at many the myths promulgated by the triumphalist tradition in American historiography, but he doesn’t descend into the bitterness and anger that mark A People’s History of the United States. If Herring is bothered by the injustice and ruthless self-interest that have often characterized American policy, he goes to pains to understand and explain how the principals perceived their own actions and how those unfair policies may have benefited the country. What does bother Herring is the self-satisfaction and forgetfulness that run rampant through the American narrative. The United States is a sometime villain and sometime hero, and usually something in between. Yet it insists on depicting itself as more principled and a greater force for good than any other nation.

This is not new information, but seeing the history of American foreign policy puts a sharp point on it. While the plight of the Native American tribes is well-documented and regretted, the United States has done a much poorer job coming to terms with its predations against Spain, its outright assault on Mexico while that country was in its infancy, and its constant meddling in Caribbean and Latin American affairs. The chapter on the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War was the saddest of any save the last. When you consider how often Americans take a snide and condescending attitude to our “backwards” and “corrupt” hemispheric neighbors, it’s horrifying that the U.S. has never really accepted responsibility for the corrupting and retarding influence it exerted on them.

However, the most profound shift in the book came with the end of WWII and the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Prior to Roosevelt’s death, U.S. foreign policy seemed mostly effective and level-headed. There were administrations who managed foreign affairs in a ham-handed and vicious manner, but the responsible caretakers of U.S. interests were quick to reassert themselves. They conducted themselves professionally abroad, and tended to have a high regard for the processes of diplomacy. The high-water mark seemed to come with Franklin Roosevelt, who did an admirable job of curbing U.S. adventurism within the hemisphere while coming to an early understanding of the threat posed by Hitler. As Herring himself points out, FDR may have used a lot of underhanded and deceptive tactics to bring the U.S. into the war against Germany prior to 1941, but Hitler’s Germany stands as an exceptional case if ever there was one.

The problem, Herring says, is that FDR’s successors used his methods for their own purposes, which were never as noble. Even worse, the country seemed to lose its sense of balance after his death. Herring demonstrates that there was a profound and abrupt reactionary tilt to American policy almost immediately after Roosevelt’s death. Although Roosevelt was as capable as anyone at acting decisively, he was also the sort of man to make decisions in a calm, pragmatic fashion. Truman and the foreign policy team that coalesced around him were not.

Whatever FDR would have done about the Soviet Union’s burgeoning imperialism in Eastern Europe, it probably would have been handled more gracefully than Truman’s instantaneous bellicosity. From the day he assumed the office, Truman took a hard, threatening line against the Soviets that only served to stoke their suspicions that the U.S. was an enemy. Furthermore, Truman’s doctrine of containment placed the United States squarely on the wrong side of history during the retreat of the colonial powers, serving to alienate beyond hope the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and most of Africa and Latin America. Furthermore, he demolished the role of the State Department by creating the National Security Council. American foreign policy, once the domain of diplomatic professionals, would be dominated from then on by a growing class of “defense intellectuals” and military officers.

It is also true that the Cold War bred a cycle of hysteria that afflicts the country to this day. The Republicans and Democrats routinely labeled one another as “soft” on communism, squelching any dissent regarding core assumptions of American policy and only disagreeing about how extreme the U.S. response should be. And so Kennedy took office already boxed in by the anti-Communist rhetoric he used to attack Richard Nixon, and Johnson would commit himself to Vietnam in order to guard his right flank during the 1964 election. Now, terrorism plays the part of communism in the national discourse, with the same effects on policy discussions.

One of the ultimate lessons of From Colony to Superpower, and one of its most troubling conclusions, is that the United States has not been able to debate security policy rationally since 1945. As its economic and military power have increased, the capability and sophistication of its foreign policy apparatus and its polity have diminished, to the point where the latter have begun to destroy the former.

Accidental Hiatus

At the end of every year, I tally the books I read. Everyone in my family does this and we usually end up comparing reading lists around Christmas. My father is a very fast reader and can burn through a couple hundred books a year. I’m not as fast a reader and only ever managed around 100, but it was nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, I usually made it a point to read a wide variety of excellent books.

This year I checked my tally. 47. The worst year on record. Even allowing for the fact that I moved from Wisconsin to Boston, and was preoccupied with getting moved and settled for about two months, it’s a depressingly low number. To be honest, it’s also not a terribly impressive reading list.

My partner is on break right now and, even though I meant to stick to a mostly regular work schedule through the holidays, I’ve found myself getting more and more disconnected from games writing, world news, and even gaming itself a little bit. Instead of spending two hours a day patrolling my blog reader, I’ve spent days curled up in my chair, reading books. I haven’t given much thought to games, haven’t played them too much, and haven’t given Twitter more than a few passing glances.

Vacations, especially the ones you didn’t actually mean to take, have a way of pointing out things that are wrong and the ways they could be better. What I’ve realized over the past weeks is that I have let myself become to distracted, multi-tasked into oblivion. I read too much crap that I don’t care about, because for some reason I think it might be important to be able to say I’ve read something that, if I were brave enough to be honest, wasn’t worth reading. I spend too much time being immersed in “virtual worlds”, but never manage to get lost in a novel.

Now that vacation is winding down and deadlines are starting to dot the horizon, I am reluctantly conceding defeat and coming back to the internet’s hyperactive embrace. I have good friends here. But I will also be making more time for reading in quiet rooms, watching sports, and taking walks through this city that I am coming to adore. I hope that it makes me a better, more prolific writer than I have been in the last few months. I am sure that 2010 will find me a happier one.

Heir to the Empire Rediscovered

A couple days ago I moved the front layer of sci-fi paperbacks off the bookshelf and started digging around in the row they had been hiding. I was trying to locate my copy of Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn’s first Star Wars novel and the book that pretty much launched the “Expanded Universe”. I probably read his trilogy a dozen times when I was growing up, and his books did as much as the movies to turn me into a Star Wars fanatic. In point of fact, Timothy Zahn understood the Star Wars universe much better than George Lucas ultimately did. Much of what I cherished in that universe is actually Zahn’s doing, not Lucas’s.

Heir to the Empire

Heir to the Empire

Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the main protagonists in TIE Fighter and its expansions, was Zahn’s creation and remains one of the best villains I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Thrawn is as calculating as Sherlock Holmes, as charismatic as Patton, and as coldly brutal as Michael Corleone. An aesthete who studies art to psychologically profile his enemies, Thrawn consistently remains two or three steps ahead of the New Republic’s leadership until the very end. He is also an outsider to the Imperial power structure. A nonhuman who attained the highest rank in a deeply xenophobic military, Thrawn always seems to regard the dead Emperor and Lord Vader with a mixture of contempt and amusement. He is cleaning up after their mess because they were stupid and racist, and Thrawn is neither. He represents both the kind of talent that is driven underground in a society based on inequality, and the kind of unrelenting self-assurance and ruthlessness that come with being a minority member of such a ruling class.

If you played the Star Wars video games, you saw a lot of material and concepts that came from Zahn’s work. The Imperial Interdictor Cruiser, which prevented ships from entering hyperspace and often played a crucial roll in TIE Fighter missions, was his creation. As was the Z-95 Headhunter, the Dreadnaught-class Heavy Cruiser, the Escort Carrier, the Golan Defense Platform, and many of the other craft that showed up in Lawrence Holland’s Star Wars sims. I loved the movies, but Zahn and Holland ultimately made Star Wars real to me.

Like Fine Wine

When I was moving into my apartment a few months ago, I unpacked Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command and held them briefly, wondering if their 1500 pages would still be as magical to me now as they were when I was a kid.  Much of the sci-fi and fantasy that I enjoyed as child and teenager has not really survived my growing sophistication as a reader and writer. What was once exciting is revealed to be contrived. What was vivid is gaudy. What was romantic and sexy is cliched and childish.

Happily, Zahn’s trilogy seems to have escaped that fate. I was in its grip from the moment the book began, with Captain Pellaeon dressing down a young lieutenant aboard the Star Destroyer Chimaera before taking a report to Thrawn’s private chamber. Characters like Pellaeon, Thrawn, twisted Jedi Master Joruus C’Baoth, smuggler chieftan Talon Karrde, and Mara Jade remain as interesting to me as ever. In fact, I find in many ways I am getting more out of the books now than I did when I was young. Some of the subtleties of character that I missed are more apparent.

For instance, Lando Calrissian often seemed like the dandified fop of Star Wars’ band of heroes. But Zahn understood that most of what we saw of Lando was an act. His smooth charm, gaudy tastes, and rakish attitude toward business was mostly an act he put on to fool both Han and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. He was “good old Lando” with Han because he had already sold Han out and needed to cover that fact. He was a low-rent criminal and gambler with Vader because that was the only way he could keep Vader from simply killing him and seizing Cloud City. The “gentleman gambler” persona that he cultivated was overplayed by later and lesser Star Wars writers. Zahn takes care to show that Lando is shrewd, far more perceptive than he shows, and deadly serious about his enterprises.

Thrawn is another character who I find has eluded me until now. Where before I only noticed his tactical and strategic brilliance, and his uncanny ability to reach the right conclusions based on scant and fragmentary evidence, I am now realizing how blind he is to people’s feelings. Pellaeon sees it, which is why Pellaeon is secretly one of the book’s heroes. Pellaeon, despite a lifetime steeped in prejudice and service, understands people far better than does Thrawn. As Thrawn engages in a battle of wills with C’Baoth, Pellaeon realizes that Thrawn is the one who is out bounds. While Thrawn is making certain that C’Baoth knows his place, Pellaeon sees that Thrawn is trying to wring servility out of a proud man who already agreed to provide service. Pellaeon, not Thrawn, realizes that the Noghri assassins that Thrawn uses are not simply robotic killing machines. Thrawn dismisses a failed operation that will “only cost us some Noghri”, ignoring his Noghri bodyguard standing nearby. Pellaeon knows that Thrawn is falling prey to hubris.

Caught between an insane Jedi Master and a strong-willed genius, Pellaeon is forced to become a subtle manipulator and self-effacing counselor. He finds compromises between the two men that preserve their tenuous peace, and works to curb Thrawn’s worst excesses without Thrawn ever noticing. That Pellaeon has to do this, and is able to succed at it despite Thrawn’s keen intelligence, is the warning that Thrawn himself has fatal flaws.

Perhaps what most surprises me in this reading, however, is what Zahn did with the character of Luke Skywalker. What I missed in previous readings was how incredibly lonely and isolated Luke Skywalker has become since Return of the Jedi. Zahn really considers the implications of the tasks that Luke has been given, and what happens to someone like him as a universe that needed him starts to move on. Han and Leia are married and expecting the birth of their twins. Luke is suddenly on the outside of their relationship. His best friends have a life that is separate from his own. The Rebel Alliance has become the New Republic, and political operators are starting to take the reins from the Alliance’s original leadership. They are careful to show Luke respect, but neither need nor want his advice.

Worse, Luke must train the next generation of Jedi and does not know how. There are few records and no peers remaining. He must train his sister, and someday her children, but is haunted Ben Kenobi’s catastrophic failure with their father. People expect him to do a dangerous and delicate job for which is has had no training. He barely understands what it means to be a Jedi, yet people treat him as though he were an authority on the subject. He is oppressed by the specter of failure, and no longer has anyone who can really understand what he is going through.

It is telling that when Mara Jade changes course and drops out of hyperspace without really knowing why, the Force is guiding her to the place where Luke Skywalker is stranded with a broken hyperdrive. He is sleeping in the cockpit of his damaged X-Wing, the symbol of his identity as a war hero, lost in space and unable to move.

Like I said, I’m surprised at how well these books have held up.

Crucible of War

Earlier this year I picked up AGEOD’s Birth of America from the Target bargain rack, which is about the only way a title published by Strategy First is going to find its way into a major retailer. The game was well-reviewed and spawned a series of follow-ups covering different 18th and 19th century conflicts, but my chief reason for buying it is that I have an embarrassingly shallow knowledge of early American history. Since my interest in wargames and history have always marched lockstep, I thought Birth of America might be a good way to dip my toe in the water. Then I grabbed Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. While historical literacy isn’t a necessary component for playing a wargame, it usually helps you make sense of what you’re being asked to do.

My one disappointment with Crucible is that it is not a particularly interesting book of military history. Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans probably gave me an unrealistic expectation for how action-packed the French and Indian War was, but that doesn’t change the fact that fighting in the New World tended to be a grubby, ad hoc affair. While over in Europe, Frederick the Great was sending waves of grenadiers into dense lines of white-coated Austrians, British commanders in America were pleading with colonial assemblies to raise a handful of battalions. The most pivotal battle of the war, Quebec, is shown to be a case of mutual blundering followed by an almost inexplicable French collapse. The rest of the war mostly consisted of small expeditions against wilderness forts, accompanied by constant, tedious negotiation with the native peoples.

This might have more to do with Anderson’s own interests than it does with the subject matter. His coverage of the battles makes for good reading, but every campaign reads almost as ponderously as it unfolded. Anderson gets into the nuts and bolts of Indian diplomacy and colonial – military interactions, and ends up belaboring a couple points. One Indian negotiation is much like another, but the reader is treated to the repeated site of Indian warriors bearing gifts and liquor back to their villages, Indian chieftains struggling to maintain their social position, and English officials providing the same hollow assurances. Likewise, we find the colonial assemblies (particularly Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) to be chaotic, bitterly divided, and constantly carping about how difficult it is for them to prosecute this war. If Anderson’s goal is to make you feel the exasperation of any British official who had to deal with America during this period, he succeeds admirably.

Where the book really comes alive, however, is in the war’s closing stages, as the action shifts to London. From that point onward, Anderson seems to be on happier ground. We see Pitt at the height of his power beginning to succumb to a megalomania that disturbs his most important political allies, which sows the soil for the attack that the newly crowned George III and the Earl of Bute are waiting to unleash on him. George III doesn’t come across well in this book, despite Anderson’s attempts to be fair minded, because there is no hiding the degree to which he creates one ministerial crisis after another. George is a monarch very much in the vein of Kaiser Wilhelm II: spoiled, self-assured to a degree far beyond his abilities, and deeply desirous of asserting his prerogative over the state. Both men would take control of a government that wasn’t broken, and then bring the state to ruin in the name of fixing it.

Of some surprise is the degree to which Grenville emerges as a minor hero on the political stage, considering that he writes the Stamp Act that puts the first severe cracks in the foundation of colonial relations. While Anderson does not conceal the degree to which Grenville governed like a tin-eared technocrat, he also celebrates the degree to which Grenville was a perceptive and conscientious head of government. When George III begins making a concerted push to fire him, ultimately replacing him with the inept Duke of Cumberland (whose life after Culloden seems to have been spent plumbing the depths of his own incompetence), there is a definite sense that George is stepping off a ledge into thin air. When the Stamp Act meets with a firestorm of colonial resistance, there is nobody left in government by 1766 that is both competent and strong enough to lead Britain out of the crisis.

The reactions in America to London’s expanded efforts at administration also make for fascinating reading. At first, nobody seems to find anything remarkable in the act and the colonies are on the cusp of accepting it without complaint while leading citizens are fighting for the privilege of administering the tax (the better to skim off the top). Then Patrick Henry passes a resolution in the Virginia House of Burgesses asserting that England lacks the right to lay taxes on the colonies, it gets printed in some newspapers, and the entire seaboard explodes.

In Boston, we see the local Sons of Liberty variant contact both of the city’s official unruly mobs (honest) for the sake of raising nine kinds of hell. Similar mob violence occurs in other northern cities, providing an excellent excuse for simmering tensions within colonial politics to explode. The Penn family and its enemies immediately fall to settling old scores against the backdrop of civil disorder. In Virginia, Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry start overturning rocks and find that the state’s leading planters have embezzled fortunes from the province. In Boston, an angry mob goes looking to lynch Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who spends the long night cutting through backyards and staying with different friends as he is hunted through the city. The mob contents itself with getting liquored up at his mansion, then destroying it. By the time the Stamp Act is supposed to go into effect, there is nobody left who is willing to enforce it.

The book ends on an ambivalent note. Anderson argues that the American Revolution was far from inevitable even at the time of the Stamp Act’s repeal, but that British misconceptions about the nature of their rule in America doomed them to a series of mistakes. Pitt himself, who supported the Stamp Act’s repeal and exulted in colonial resistance, is shown making the argument that the British military could grind the colonies to dust if it needed to. Nobody in London really grasped that their relationship with the colonies was based on the colonists’ affection for the mother country and their sufferance of Britain’s occasional commands. If Britain had allowed the relationship to drift along as it always had, the Revolution might have been avoided.

On this point, Anderson’s point seems purely speculative, and not entirely supported by what he has already shown. While colonists seemed to love the Empire and consider themselves Englishmen, Anderson never really explains what we should make of the shocking violence and resentment that erupted against the Stamp Act. The Sons of Liberty spoke and thought with cataclysmic overtones, and the mobs they mobilized were as likely to rip apart redcoats as they were stamp collectors. Many colonial elites, like Washington, still cherished their status as Englishmen. But in Boston, New York, and Virginia, there were large and growing factions that were becoming self-aware as Americans. Toward the end of the Stamp Act riots, John Adams wrote in his diary about what a glorious year it had been for America. Looking over the smoldering wreckage of British policy and legitimacy in the colonies, Adams was already starting see the shape the future would take, and he liked what he saw. It did not include a nation of Englishmen.