Book review: Tour of Duty I

BB reviews Michael Z. Williamson’s Tour of Duty and finds it somewhat of a mixed bag. I have to admit, I was absolutely shocked that I didn’t hate the Valdemar stories, or at least, the two military ones set on the edges of it.  Let’s just say that my opinion of Mercedes Lackey’s books is considerably less generous than Mr. Williamson’s.  Also, unlike the reviewer, I really liked the gun porn at the end. After reading both articles on the 10 and 10 more manliest guns, I found myself checking out current prices on a few of the more interesting pieces.  But I’m not sure which surprised me more, however, the fact that Mr. Williamson had written stories set in Valdemar or that he has such a high opinion of the GLOCK.  

Those suspecting Mr. Williamson of possessing alternate sexual preferences on this basis should stand down, however, as he is highly sound on the 9mm round. As for the fiction, my definite favorite was the hunting in Hell story.

The book title implies some sort of tie-in between all of the short stories and that tie-in has to do with military or fighting life.  In a general way, this is true.Michael Z Williamson threads together personal anecdotes and short stories and he closes out with recipes for shots.  Not firearm shots, alcohol shots.  A lot of the anecdotes are personal insights into the stories that follow.  Some have to do with his personal deployment, some have to do with what sparked the story, such as the Poul Anderson tale.  That story was quite original and I spent a lot of it trying to match up first names with famous people.  If you read the book, you will understand what I mean.  Some of the anecdotes are just general information on how he ended up writing in this or that fantasy world or how he ended up where he is in life.  He has lived an unusual existence compared to most American citizens.

The first half of the book was particularly engaging.  “Desert Blues” was nice to me.  The imagery of mortar attack interwoven with music and altered lyrics and defiance of the enemy…I liked the feel of the story.  It is the one that stood out the most.  Probably because music is such a universal language, how we all blast the stereo on our favorite tunes, yardwork or housework made more bearable by lyrics and notes.  He captures that in the story, but set in a combat zone and I am still not sure if it is fiction or nonfiction.  After reading it, I wondered if he had that “moment” of clarity personally or not.

The stories from the Valdemar universe were familiar because I have read the original books by Mercedes Lackey but they were different enough to make me want to read the ones co-authored by Williamson and his wife.

I was expecting the whole book to be along the same lines but part way through, Williamson included stories about hell.  More specifically, a special kind of hell for lawyers.  Which could be an amusing premise, but I did not enjoy the tales at all.  And after the first story, “Heads You Lose,” I felt the book didn’t have the impact that the first half had anymore.  The two” Lawyers in Hell” stories were somewhat clever, certain characters locked in to their personas before they died, but it became tedious and no longer amusing after a handful of pages.  And the book sort of went downhill from there for me. 

I did ask Vox for guidance on this review because the book doesn’t follow a normal format, being short stories instead of one long tale, and his only directive was to think about whether the blog readers would enjoy it.  I think some would enjoy the first half for the military action, and some might enjoy the second for the clever wordplay in the second half.  The ending with the shot recipes, I just skimmed through them because I was not interested. 

Out of 5 stars, I’d give the book a 2.5 overall, which would obviously be weighted towards the first several short stories.

The following excerpt is from “Desert Blues”:

The guy could play.  Jazz mixed with blues and he just went on and on, silky and then snappy on the strings, playing his own fills and rhythm. It’s one thing on stage or in the studio with racks of gear and a mixing board, but he had a guitar and an amp.

The notes faded out as he dialed the volume down, and we all strained to hear it as long as possible.  The dull roar of generators, ECUS and the remaining ringing from mortars meant we probably missed quite a bit.  Still, it was what we had.

Then a strummed chord brought it all back to life with one of the greatest songs of all time.

“You get a shiver in the dark,

there’s a sandstorm in the park, but meantime

South of the Tigris you stop and you hold everything.”

I’ve tried playing Sultans of Swing.  It really takes two guitars and a bass to get that groove.  It can be done on one guitar, if the guitarist is just amazingly good.

This guy was that good and then some.

He played this syncopated, peppy rhythm, with this odd bluesy, jazzy, Arabian melody.  It fit the mood, the environment and the time, and I knew I’d never hear anything like it, ever again.  Not that I’d come back to Iraq even for a performance like this, of course…though I just might.

We just stood there and soaked it up, rapt or smiling, amazed or just oblivious.

“…Way on down south.

Way on down south, Baghdad town…”

No one moved, no one twitched.  The oven-dry heat covered us, and my feet sweated from the still sun-hot sand, but I was not going to move.  He sang and played and it was wistful and rich and American, even though Knopfler’s Scottish.  This version, though, was pure American spirit.

“Goodnight, now it’s time to go home.

Let me make it fast with one more thing.

I am the Sultan…

I am the Sultan of swing.”

I had no doubt he was.