by James Luceno
Published in January 2012
Thibault’s Score: 1/5
After reading Cloak of Deception, also written by James Luceno, I had high hopes for Darth Plagueis. Cloak of Deception was a fantastic book which explored the deep geopolitics and economics of the Star Wars universe. Darth Plagueis was a (bad) attempt at creating a history research book set in the Star Wars universe.
Because I don’t recommend the book, I will include many spoilers.
The book started off very strong. It begins with Palpatine who has just murdered Darth Plagueis. The first chapter had me hooked - Palpatine briefly recalls Darth Plagueis’ pursuit of immortality, and wonders if he has really succeeded in murdering Plagueis. He reveals that he senses something powerful in the force, and worries that Plagueis’ spirit may have survived and remained to haunt him. The story then cuts to Plagueis murdering how own master decades earlier.
What followed was a clunky mess.
The biggest problem was that the book tells rather than shows the story. It also assumes readers are completely familiar with the surrounding background story / Star Wars lore. There are too many awkward references to plots from comic books, other novels, and video games. The plot relies on confusing side narratives that aren’t very well explained.
Furthermore, the characters aren’t part of the action, and are usually just hearing about it. This shouldn’t have been a problem, however in this case, it was. Instead of hearing about how characters learn something, more often than not we hear that a character has done something.
In Luceno’s older novel, Cloak of Deception, the off-screen action is handled really well. You learn about events in real time as the characters learn them. For example, chancellor Valorum is told by an aide that he has been involved in a corruption scandal. Valorum’s reaction highlights his anxious and weak personality. You then hear Valorum ask advice from other characters, and debate possible ways of dealing with the situation. Although the audience knows how the debacle will end because they have watched the movie, learning about how things unravel is really fun and exciting.
Valorum looked pale and grim, but he was sitting up in bed, his right arm, from wrist to shoulder, encased in a soft tube filled with bacta. A transparent, gelatinous fluid produced by an insectoid alien species, bacta had the ability to promote rapid cell rejuvenation and healing, usually without scarring. Palpatine often felt that the wondrous substance was as key to the survival of the Republic as were the Jedi.
“Supreme Chancellor,” he said, approaching the bed, “I came as soon as I heard.”
Valorum made a gesture of dismissal with his left hand. “You shouldn’t have bothered. They’re releasing me later today.” He motioned Palpatine to a chair. “Do you know what the guards did when they brought me in here? They cleared every patient from the emergency room, then emptied this entire floor, with scarcely a concern for the condition of the patients.”
“The security was warranted,” Palpatine said. “Knowing you would be brought here if they failed, the assassins could have stationed a second team in the admitting area.”
“Perhaps,” Valorum granted.
In Darth Plagueis, this is handled very differently. Because the novel spans more time, you are often told about past events. For example, one character is described like this:
Notorious for his gambling, Treblanc owned the Galaxies Opera House on Coruscant. Why Jabba chose to associate with gamblers and other lowlifes was a mystery to Plagueis. In some ways the Hutt’s illicit empire was the inverse of Hego Damask’s, where, if nothing else, the criminals were at least politicians, corporate honchos, and financiers. His coming to Sojourn was both uncharacteristic and unexpected.
This book could have been really good, but it failed. I do not recommend its even to Star Wars fans.
Star Wars: Cloak of Deception
by James Luceno
Published in May 2001
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Cloak of Deception is a novel that takes place roughly a year before the Phantom Menace (Star Wars Episode 1). The novel covers the behind-the-scene political machinations that threatened the Galactic Republic, and eventually culminated in the Trade Federation siege of Naboo.
Roughly half of the book covers the political intrigue over taxation and trade policy. As a professional in the real world SEZ industry, I found it very entertaining to real about these issues as they pertained to the Star Wars universe. I will definitely read James Luceno’s other books in the Star Wars universe.
As a teenager, I read a lot of Star Wars fan fiction, and greatly enjoyed a lot of it. In the last year, I picked up two books, only to be disappointed. This book has restored my faith in the genre. It is a must read for any neckbeards out there.
Charlemagne: from the Hammer to the Cross
by Richard Winston
Published in 1960
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
Another kinda dull biography of Charlemagne. This is the 3rd or 4th I’ve read, I can’t keep track of them. Charlemagne’s reign is very… dull. Far from my favorite period in history.
I don’t know why, but for some reason I always have trouble keeping track of who is who and what is what when studying Charlemagne.
This book focuses especially on one interesting aspect of Charlemagne’s reign: how he slowly went from a warrior into a Christian figure.
The book highlights several key tragic events which, Winston argues, lead Charlemagne to become a pious Christian.
First, the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, where Roland and all of Roland’s knights died fighting the Arabs. Later, the death of his wife and children sent Charlemagne into a deep depression. When he emerged, he had become a die hard Christian. He took the religious institutions which he had built up to bolster his reign, and became a die hard believer.
I can’t say I recommend this book, but it’s not bad by any means.
The Forge of Christendom: The End of the World and the Epic Rise of the West
by Tom Holland
Published in 2008
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The Forge of Christendom is a book that covers the tumultuous period surrounding the year 1000. An ancient Christian prophecy had predicted that the world would end 1000 years after the life of Jesus. Many Christians during the early Middle Ages took this prediction literally, and imagined that the world would end exactly on the year 1000.
Making these predictions more poignant were several details which seemed to materialize: a Roman emperor would return, and fight the forces of Gog and Magog. Several men had claimed to restore the Roman Empire, such as Charlemagne or King Otto I. Christendom had numerous enemies, which were variously identified as Gog and Magog: Pagan Hungarian horse archers, Saracen Muslim pirates, or Viking raiders.
Time, and time again, prominent Christian scholars made predictions that the end of the world was near. Inevitably, these ecclesiastical figures found that their predictions fell flat.
I didn’t read this book at the right time - I thought that this book would primarily cover the conversion to Christianity from Paganism, but instead it covers the year 1000 AD. I should have waited to read this book after I had finished books about the period preceding it.
That being said, I had a hard time contextualizing a lot of the historical events, because I wasn’t very familiar with the period, and hadn’t eased into it.
I might have appreciated the book a lot more if I had contextualized it better.
Published in the 4th century BC
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Politics, by Aristotle, is a series of recommendations made by Aristotle about how a city should be run. His prescriptions range from political to familial, with recommendations ranging from how to organize states to how to run and manage households. He also includes many chapters giving recommendations about how to raise children.
This book formed the intellectual cornerstone of Western civilization for the greater part of two millennia. Many later political thinkers based their ideas and own recommendations on Aristotle’s prescriptions. His text became something more than a political manifesto - over time it evolved into a divine prescription, and his work was treated as an infallible and immutable religious text.
Aristotle was definitely a genius, although I am still perplexed as to why his work had such enduring power. Many of his recommendations are not particularly interesting, and strike me as being very specific to city states rather than timeless. I greatly enjoyed reading this book as a historical text by which I gleamed insight into the minds and politics of the Greek city states.
This is definitely one of the must read books of Western civilization, although I didn’t find its contents to be nearly as mind or earth shattering as Plato’s Republic.
by Neal Stephenson
Published in June 1992
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Snow Crash is a fascinating depiction of life in an anarcho-capitalist world, although it can be tacky at times.
The premise is that, after a wave of hyperinflation, the US government was forced to privatize all of its assets. The result is an anarcho-capitalist world where small enclaves and micro-governments have parceled out America.
The setting of Snow Crash is really interesting - I absolutely loved reading about the numerous factions and corporations that have replaced the government. I especially liked that the depiction of these groups was generally positive rather than negative, but didn’t hesitate to highlight potential flaws. The early 2010s technology, as imagined by the author in 1992, was also really interesting. The plot is very interesting, and has fascinating religious overtones.
However, this book falls short in many ways. It is full of corny action. The hero, called Hero, fights using Katanas. None of the characters are particularly interesting, and they all could be considered “Mary Sues” (even the male ones). There is a cringy sex scene, however that cringe doesn’t come near to the cringe of the even worse action scenes.
If this book hadn’t had such an interesting setting, I would have given it a much lower score - probably a 2 or a 3. I don’t really recommend reading this book for the plot, but instead for the universe. I will check out Diamond Age, the sequel, at some point in the future.
This is a book which will have a lot of interesting elements for anarchists, but doesn’t have much appeal for the general population that isn’t interested in anarchism.
The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World
by Justin Pollard and Howard Reit
Published in October 2007
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The Rise and Fall of Alexandria is a narrative history chronicling the rise and eventual fall of Alexandria. Many aspects of this book reminded me about the History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook.
Alexandria, like the “Future Cities” that Brook writes about, was centrally planned by a tyrant. The city was, from the beginning, built as a political experiment in a creating a Greek utopia. The city was built in a multicultural environment.
After Alexander the Great’s death, his empire split into warring states. Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s warlords, took over Egypt and made Alexandria his capital. Under his, and his son’s leadership the city rapidly grew.
The Ptolemaic dynasty was ethnically and culturally Greek, however most of the population they ruled was Egyptian. In order to survive, they enlisted an army of intellectuals to create a new state religion and ideology that was acceptable both Greeks and Egyptians. Over time, this intellectual class was fueled by multicultural contacts with other civilizations, and boomed into a great culture of wisdom.
Numerous great ideas and thinkers came from Alexandria. The city had great monuments to science and learning such as the famous lighthouse and the library. Archimedes, who is often credited as the world’s first scientists probably studied there in his youth, and conquered the city with his ideas after his death. Hero of Alexandria (Hero was a Greek name, not a descriptive noun) was a great inventor who built primitive mechanical automatons, wind powered organs, syringes, vending machines, slot machines, and even invented the first steam machine. The priest Arius began the Arian heresy of Christianity which would fracture Europe for centuries.
The long era of Alexandrian intellectual achievement reached its zenith after the city was conquered from the Ptolemaic Dynasty by the Romans, and slowly declined. Christianity and other religions battled in the streets. Censorious Roman emperors created an atmosphere of suppression and silence. Great thinkers like Hypatia, a female neoplatonist philosopher, were murdered and tortured to death by angry mobs. The final death blow came when the city was conquered by Muslim armies.
I learned a lot, and enjoyed the book. Good narrative histories are hard to write, because if the author focuses too much on historiography, then the story is lost. If the author focuses too much on the story, then it is easy for him to jump to unwarranted conclusions. Justin Pollard and Howard Reid carefully walked this fine line, and wrote a fantastic book.
I recommend the Rise and Fall of Alexandria to anyone who is interested in the history of antiquity.
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Published in May 2005 (Updated in 2010)
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
I was first recommended the book Freakonomics when I was in the 8th grade of high school, only a few years after its initial publication, but didn’t read the book. Later, in high school I had an absolutely amazing economics teacher by the name of Mr. Blackburn who screened segments from the 2010 Freakonomics movie.
The book was very interesting, and covers a wide range of topics from the perspective of economics. The chapters are diverse, and have no common theme besides their use of data and their compelling character.
One chapter compares cheating teachers, sumo wrestlers, and self-service bagel stands. It exposes how people cheat, why people cheat, and highlights statistical methods to find cheaters. Chicago teachers had a financial incentive for their students to score higher on standardized tests. As a result, many began tweaking the answers that their students gave on multiple choice tests. Freakonomics explains how the authors, by looking at test results, caught cheating teachers, and changed the incentives.
Another chapter explains how present crime rates are affected by abortion rates one generation earlier. When abortion was legalized, crime rates dropped because many low income children of single mothers were simply never born.
Chapters such as the one explaining why drug dealers are so poor, or why black parents choose dumb names for their kids (IE Emraldina, DeShawn, or Shanice), or how the KKK was defeated in the 1940s are all amazing. They reveal deep truths about the human condition backed up by economics and rational analysis.
One criticism that I have is that one chapter uses scant statistical evidence to show that good parenting has little impact on the life outcomes of children. Since this book was written nearly a decade ago, a large quantity of statistical evidence has emerged contradicting these findings. For example, many studies of corporeal punishment and spanking have found causal effects between punishment and negative life outcomes.
Overall, this is an excellent book, and a recommended read for anyone interested in sociology or economics. As the evidence mounts, however, more and more chapters will become out of date. Something that I can’t quite place my finger on about this book felt very “early 2000s” - if you are to read this book, I recommend doing so sooner than later.
Also for some reason, this book is banned in Texan prisons.
The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam
by Douglas Murray
Published in May 2017
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
The Strange Death of Europe stands as a dire warning for the populations of Europe for what is to come should mass immigration from the third world continue. It is the single most compelling book that I have read about immigration so far.
The book concisely covers a very wide range of issues that I have been following and researching over the last few years. It recapitulates the history of mass immigration into Europe following the second World War, summarizes the debates which occurred across Europe as the waves of immigration increased, and the evolution of the recent migrant crisis.
It doesn’t just strictly confine itself to immigration, but also briefly explores the reasons why European culture appears to be in decline. For example, Murray talks about the emergence of brutalist architecture, contrasting it with more elegant and traditional styles. He argues that the fall of Christianity in the 19th century, followed by the devastation of two world wars, deeply scared the European psyche. This scar has led to widespread hedonism and nihilism, and is a key psychological driver behind mass immigration.
Most of the book is spent going over various incidents and events that led to the current state of mass migration. I remember many of the news events throughout 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 which deeply shook me at the time when they occurred. He recalls acts of terrorism such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the Bataclan shooting, or the Nice truck attack. He also discusses key events during the migrant crisis, such as the mass columns of migrants which crossed through Hungary, the drowning of a little boy on the shores of Turkey, or Angela Merkel telling a 14 year old girl why she can’t stay in Europe. These are all events I vividly remember, and having someone go through them chronologically especially made a mark.
I really liked that he also spent time interviewing migrants. He opens the book and closes the book with interviews of migrants from Eritrea, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. These interviews reveal the tragic nature of the lives which migrants live, and helps remind the reader that migrants are just as human as the people into the countries they are migrating to.
Few books have so elegantly summarized my thoughts over the last few years, and reading this book was an incredible experience.
I am just as pessimistic about the fate of Europe now as I was before the book. Even though nothing can be done to prevent the slow death of Europe, understanding and chronicling the decline is key. Perhaps future societies and civilizations will then be able to use the information we gather this time to prevent their own declines.
This book is a 5 out of 5, and I strongly recommend it to supporters and detractors of mass immigration alike.
A History of Future Cities
by Daniel Brook
Published in February 2013
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
A History of Future Cities is a book which covers the history of 4 cities which have shaped the modern world, and solidified relations between the east and the west: St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai.
These 4 cities all have several things in common: they were created by authoritarian forces in an attempt to rapidly modernize the area around them, they hosted large and very diverse populations, and they all became pillars of capitalism in their regions.
I was initially recommended this book by Mark Frazier, one of the world’s (retired) leading Special Economic Zone Consultants, and it took me more than two years to get to reading it. That was my loss.
I have the privilege of having travelled to 3 out of 4 cities (I haven’t yet been to Mumbai), and especially enjoyed reading the book for that reason. I could clearly remember many of the places and sights described.
The book starts with St. Petersburg, then chronologically jumps around between the cities, covering the key highlights of their histories. Brook draws many comparisons between the history of the respective cities, pointing out counter-intuitive details. For example, I would have never drawn the comparison between Peace Hotel’s appeal to vice in the 1920s and Dubai’s tolerance of prostitutes and alcohol. Neither would I have ever considered comparing Peter the Great to Mohamed bin Rasheed, although the comparisons are logical.
As a SEZ consultant, I also found the sections about Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in Shanghai and the creation of the Freeport in Dubai to be of particular interest.
This book is a must read for anyone in the SEZ industry, and stands as one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
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