Archive for August, 2012

Instead of my usual book reviewy type post in regards to my latest finished read, Jandar of Callisto by Lin Carter, I had an interesting question pop into my head as I was finishing this I wanted to talk out. I’m sure you can guess what that question was, what since it’s the title of this post. (sidenote, Jandar has the best author note ever)

Why do some stories age well?

Jandar is from 1972 and was recommended to me by my dad on my last trip to The Bookbarn, which has come up in the last three or four posts of mine. When John Carter was made into a movie, it made me want to read the book much more than see the green screen fest. My dad picked out this book for me when we couldn’t find any of the John Carter books. It’s similar in genre and style. In fact, Lin Carter dedicates the book to John Carter’s author, Edgar Rice Burroughs. So what we’ve got here is a forty year old book written in homage to a book almost sixty years older than that. I enjoyed the book a lot. It was straight up fast paced and fun. There’s no deep science to it. Any scientific or fantastical question is answered in the simplest manner and we’re moved on. Pacing and action are paramount on Callisto but there’s some character growth going on too, mostly with Koja, an insect-like alien Jandar makes friends with eventually.

There were some things I found a little bit dated, mostly with the treatment of Darloona, a princess in exile who Jandar gets the warm fuzzies for. We meet her throwing down with a biggun jungle beastie. Here she’s a tough hunter. She’s in a bit over her head since it was a very large beastie but she’s out in the wilderness being awesome. The bad guy treats her like she should be a trophy to be won. Eh… I’ll let that one slide. He’s the bad guy and he’s doing it so he can inherit her kingdom. I’ll bite on that. I just get a sense that the author isn’t quite sure what to do with Darloona, wavering between her being tough and progressive for ’72 and a more ‘traditional’ and dated role.

Even with those faults, Jandar of Callisto is a worthy read, fast and fun. This is a crazy juxtaposition with the book I read prior to this.

His Majesty’s Dragon? Nope. It was Element 79 by Fred Hoyle.

I didn’t even realize this was a book full of short stories until I pinged the Goodreads page. There’s nothing to actually indicate this on the back cover review or in the front of the book. I figured they were just titled chapters, something common in older books. I couldn’t get through the first twenty pages. A bunch of people were abducted by aliens that they never see and are held in captivity on a space ship. They’re pretty much a zoo. Upon finding out this was really a short story, I went and read the end of it… and it was horribly vague with no actual ending. The whole thing is dated from 1967, smack in the New Wave of science fiction. I’m familiar with New Wave, early Zelazny is considered part of it. It’s very cerebral and psychological and barely readable.

So why is one still a successful read forty years later and the other had me tossing it aside in twenty pages? Seriously, twenty. I usually give a book a hundred, although twenty is a lot when a book only has 149.

Adventure tales, like that of Jandar or John Carter, have never really gone away. They’ve always been in the public eye larger than just the SF genre. Just look at Indiana Jones. Even that was created because Spielberg and Lucas wanted to make something reminiscent of when they were kids. It makes the tropes of an adventure story somewhat timeless and universal. Swash some buckles, clang some swords, save the day. That sort of thing transcends time and culture. Jandar fights swarthy sky pirates on a Jovian moon. Indiana Jones fights Nazis. There’s not much of a stretch to that.

It’s still going on today too. I was just talking to my dad on the phone before I started reading this and he was raving about In Fury Born and how much fun it was with the pirate navies and rogue planets and super space marines. He’s on an international road job for work servicing a Navy sub (building submarines is genetic apparently) and said “This book is so good, I had to share it. I gave it to the sailors to put in the ship’s library.”

So adventure books are thriving. Why the New Wave fail? Well I think it has to do with the in vogue science. Social sciences and psychology were big. I think there was a prevailing attitude that in order for the genre to be taken seriously, it needed to be serious. It got smart. I think it got way too smart for its own good. Character and fluid pacing were sacrificed in order to be ‘smart.’ And I don’t think it is just an author thing, I’ve noticed it with other books from the 60s and 70s I’ve picked up from The Bookbarn and then sent right back to them. Things like Kampus and even some of the early Zelazny is tough to digest and he’s my all time favorite author.

I am not saying a book needs to dumb itself down in order to be enjoyable. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is one of the smartest books I’ve ever read, steeped in philosophy and science and math, blurring the lines between them like really high level science tends to do. I think there was just a precedence placed on abstract social science to make itself sound important in these older novels.

What’s going to make a story last? How can we make the SF powerhouse that’s going to last as long as Shakespeare? Well, do like ol’ Bill did and transcend your setting. It sounds slightly pretentious but the human stories are the ones that are going to last. The hero overcoming the odds. The tragic romance. The behind the back treachery. They worked in Elizabethan days. They worked for Burroughs. They worked for Carter and Weber and dozens of other authors I’ve read across all different times and genres. The set dressings still need to be up to snuff. Changing what aspects get the short shaft is a lateral move, not an improvement in writing. But years from now when we snicker at “blazing fast 28.8 modems” or a “futuristic 2020,” we can overlook a dated setting if the rest of the story holds up strong.

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Personalization

Posted: August 24, 2012 in Writing

Holy crap two posts in a day! I know, seriously!

Good news on the writing front today. Not, “Good lord you’re awesome, here’s a pile of money now get writing” awesome, but an solid step in the right direction.

I’ve moved up to personalized rejections in my fiction. I’ve already gotten twitter high fives from other writers over this. Nonwriter people who are confused by this, trust me, the rubber stamp rejections are the norm. I imagine this is doubly so from the small crowd of professional rate markets for short SF fiction. Those editors see loads and loads out of their slush pile. It really is a big thing to have one take the time to send along an encouraging word.

My ideas were interesting but “it felt like a snippet from a larger piece of work.”

I’m ok with that. The story in question was originally written as a Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge so came in at a scant 800 words. And I’ve decided I really like the character that came out of it and have been planning on writing more about the elf from Brooklyn.

I can go with this.

I will go with this.

I’m in a very good place creatively today.

His Majesty’s Dragon

Posted: August 24, 2012 in Reading
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Late to the party again. Very late. Naomi Novik‘s Temeraire series has been floating around in the circles I pay attention to this year. Because it’s on book seven. Whoops. Missed that boat. But remember how I was over at The Bookbarn, the most epic used book store ever? Well I found a copy of the first book, His Majesty’s Dragon. It actually surprised me to find it there. This book is from oh-six which isn’t brandy new, but more recent SF books don’t show up in the used stacks so often. So upon seeing this and knowing that there must be some good things going on if it’s up to book seven, I snatched it up.

I am way late to this party, but it’s a party I’m glad I showed up to.

Back of the book time!

Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors rise to Britain’s defense by taking to the skies … not aboard aircraft but atop the mighty backs of fighting dragons.

When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes it’s precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future – and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarefied world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

So this book sounds like it should be regency dragon knights. We’ve got the right time period and all the right ingredients. Novik doesn’t even let this idea take hold before it’s properly shown the door. Dragon warfare has more of an WWI aviator feel combined with Age of Sail ship to ship combat. Dragon captains are like those aviation duelists who took to the skies in flimsy bi-wings to have at it with the Red Baron. It’s a special attitude they’ve got to have to manage with this style of warfare and although the term ‘flyboy’ is never used due to period accurate language (and women captains), it’s a term that fits with all its connotations of swagger and cockiness. If the attitude seems out of place in Napoleonic era Europe, well it is. Laurence is a sea captain on page one with all the period norms in terms of honor and attitude of a ‘proper gentleman.’ The book being from the point of view of the outsider, it gives Novik the opportunity to examine the Aerial Corps society in a way that is beneficial to the reader. We’re shown exactly how it isn’t normal and are gradually brought into the fold with Laurence. Toward the end of Dragon, the captains go off to a London society gathering and it’s all of a sudden very jarring for reader and characters to be back where we were once comfortable. Very well done.

What I think of as the most unique aspect of Dragon, though, is the interaction between the dragons and captains. Keeping as far away from the dragon knight as possible, the dragons are more like familiars to their people. Or at least to start with. In order to be ‘tamed,’ they bond with a person right out of the shell. Dragons can and do reject any other people trying to bond with them. The dragon and their handler become more like partners as they grow together. All of the dragons can talk right from the shell  which was a pleasant surprise in chapter one (or two… Act one. yeah, we’ll go with act one). Temeraire is a particularly bright dragon and absorbs knowledge like a sponge. A lot of the best dialogue in the book is between Laurence and Temeraire. The supporting cast of dragons all have their own personalities too.

My critique on Dragon is that it falls into some Book One Problems. Knowing there are six more books published and two more on the way mitigates a lot of these. As a reader you pick up a different set of expectations and point of view when you know you’re diving into 3000 pages of story rather than 300. It was noticeable enough to me that at the halfway point of the book I stopped and thought “Where’s the meat and potatoes of this going to come in?” The action was very minimal until the third act. I’m not an action junkie and Dragon provided plenty of narrative ups and downs along the way, but when you’ve got a book about a military unit in the middle of a contenent spanning war, get me some action. Because of the 3000+ pages total across the whole series, Dragon spends a lot of time in the “Getting to know you” phase between Laurence and Temeraire and their comrades. So while I ended up very pleased with the book in the end, I was itching for some more aerial combat.

But when we did get to the combat, oh my. Remember how I mentioned two paragraphs ago how Dragon is WWI aviators crossed with Age of Sail ship combat? It works way better than you’d think. As an experiences and sometimes jaded reader when it comes to fantasy and the dragons that inhabit it, I am very pleased to say that this takes things on in a completely unique way I had never seen before. That’s very hard to do. Temeraire and some of the breeds of dragons are large enough that they have full crews harnessed in them. So not only do we have a dragon tearing into battle with claws and teeth (some with spitting acid!), they’ve also got two dozen sharpshooters strapped to them. There are some more parts of dragon combat that I really want to squee about, but I don’t want to ruin anything. Suffice to say, the Aerial Corps have a lot of cool moves going on.

So His Majesty’s Dragon has hooked me completely. I think the book stands alone enough. There’s a set up for the future but no cliffhanger. If I was reading this brandy new, there would be no frothing rage at having to wait a year for the next installment or frustration of having to go back and reread the first in order to understand the second. That’s exactly how series installments should work. I still have to stress to maximize enjoyment out of this, keep it in the back of your mind that this is still part of a sprawling epic and isn’t going to go sprinting out of the gate.

Henri – My Writing’s Kevin Bacon

Posted: August 21, 2012 in Writing

I have to start this with how I come up with names when I’m writing.

Fantasy names are easy. I look around the room and pick out syllables from industrial products. I named a bard Nize based off a toothpaste ingredient. Once I used Vernay from a box of floor tiles.

Actual real world names are harder, especially when I need non-AngloAmerican names.

Referencing people and things I know and/or like is something I enjoy. I tend to tuckerize my friends a lot when I’m working on my novel. They get the recurring bit parts. There are some shipyard nicknames that were purloined from actual shipyard nicknames where I work. Big Bear Moniz. Top Side Mary (surprisingly, not a sexual reference, just someone who only does half a job). The Bagger. Pick and Flick. Shipyards are weird places to work. My main character’s boss is named Eli Simms because I’m a New York Giants fan.

That only goes so far. I used to carry around a magazine when writing. I longhand it out so slipping an old Wired or Discover in with my notebooks was easy. There are only so many options in a magazine though. One of the planets featured in my sci-fi novel was settled by Irish and Japanese. Seamus, Padraig and Akira are the Tom, Dick and Harry of that world. That’s all well and good, but I wanted better names than that, not to mention last names.

Enter the World Cup. Or maybe the Euro Cup. Enter some sort of international soccer game. Every country in the world has FIFA sanctioned soccer team. Need to name a Swede something other than Lars? Bam! Wikipedia + Soccer = Tobias Hysen. How about an actual Thai name? Couldn’t tell you what on earth that will be until I tab over and find…. Chonglatit. Pretty useful.

So keeping the soccer thing in mind, I’m working on an exercise at the URI Writer’s Conference I went to a while back. Start with dialogue.

“It’s Henri, with an I. And the H is silent.”

“That’s a weird way to spell it.”

“You have to say it like your French. On-ree.”

“But you’re from Cleveland?”

The name came from Thierry Henry, who I am just finding out now does not spell his name with an I, but that’s where the French part came from. First place I thought of that speaks French, Haiti.

Henri just became Haitian-American from Ohio.

For some reason, I have latched onto this name. I really like it and I’ve developed this image around it. Then one day I was ripping through a new short story and needed a name so just dropped in Henri. The preformed image of this person went with it even though it was an entirely different circumstance. It’s become a thing. So he has shown up as a successful landscape architect, a point blank shooting victim, a strung out junkie that gets his kidney cut out, a time traveler, space bartender and punk rock lead singer. Henri has an eventful existence.

EverQuest – Rogue’s Hour

Posted: August 18, 2012 in Reading
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I was at one of my favorite places on earth the other day, The Book Barn back where I used to live in Connecticut. Mass market paperbacks are a buck so I’ll take a chance with something I might not otherwise grab off the shelf. I’ve sent plenty of misses right back to them. I was just about to leave when a bright orange cover caught my eye. EverQuest – Rogue’s Hour by Scott Ciencin was purchased purely on nostalgia. Played that game for years through high school and college and I’ve got some fond memories of it. Like my New England based guild having meetings at a casino and how we caused 1000% inflation on our server by cornering the commodity market. (Gamers, notice how the market doesn’t really allow you to do that in Warcraft, prolly thanks to us) Rot gut New Hampshire Brand Vodka probably burned away all the bad memories, but regardless, I was strangely excited to read this book. I mean… my last tie-in read was a good one right?

Back of the book time!

Deep in Qeynos’ Skull Alley, a dashing rogue bursts from the shadows and rescues a young woman from two brigands – only to find that he is the one in peril. Though he has no memory of anything before today, bloodthirsty assassins close in on him, targeting him for death. Armed with only his extraordinary blades, a cryptic note naming him “Rileigh,” and apocalyptic dreams of the Dragon of World’s End, the rogue embarks on a desperate quest to save himself by unraveling the tangled threads of his past.

He and a ragtag band of so-called allies – the beautiful, murderous half-elf Bronwynn; Connor, the fiery barbarian; the wrathful dwarf Underfoote; and Uaeldayn, the mysterious Erudite – journey to the pirate-infested reaches of the Barren Coast and the necromantic city of Paineel to stop the resurrection of a creature bent on destroying Norrath. Though the rogue can trust no one, his greatest foe may not be the dragon … it may be the man he once was.

To start with, factor out the nostalgia of this, Rogue’s Hour has a theme that shows up in a lot of my favorite books, amnesiatic protagonists. Rileigh starts out kicking ass and taking names without knowing how he came about this prowess he’s got for it. He subsequently gets himself rescued by Bronwynn. She’s a very interesting character, devious as hell and out for her own ends one hundred percent. She’s in and out of the storyline and I’m pretty sure she tries to kill everyone at least once. We’re actually given a bunch of her backstory and it’s got some nice layers to it. Murdering double dealer is all well and good, but it’s so much better when we’re told why.

Obviously, we’re not getting Rileigh’s backstory, but we do get a bit of Connor and Uaeldayn. It’s enough to keep them from being too flat but there’s a fairly large cast to this book that float in and out, both in terms of antagonists and POV characters. There was an ogre bounty hunter who I felt was somewhat unneeded. I think he was added in as some fan service that I just don’t remember. (The book is from 04, right around when I got out of the game) Connor has a wolf companion named Ironclaw. There’s a couple bits from the wolf’s POV which are some of the best in the book. He viewed his person, Connor, as a tiresome pup he needed to keep out of trouble. I wish there was more of that because it was delightfully written.

The large cast didn’t bother me though, even if there were some sacrifices made for the large crew. It kind of brought me back to an old school sort of fantasy where buckles get swashed, people get stabbed and quests get had. That’s the whole vibe I got out of Rogue’s Hour. It’s fast paced. It’s fun. Some swords and some magic, but never so much where they take away from Rileigh’s quest. I seriously had a lot of fun reading this book. Really way more than I honestly expected to.

And the strangest thing is that the fun wasn’t EverQuest dependent like I thought it would be. I remember Paineel and Queynos and swear to this day that I could find my way around Qeynos better than some places I’ve actually lived, so yeah, I enjoyed that part of it but I rarely felt that the fan service was heavy handed. I actually think that if you took the EverQuest name off the cover, most anyone could have a good time with this book. Some of the names are steeped in fantasy cheese, but if you get get past a couple of groaners, Rogue’s Hour is a solid read.

Ever have a trope, convention, whatever you want to call it… ever have one that you didn’t even realize was there until something broke it?

I’ve mentioned a couple times since I’ve started talking about this blog that I’m always trying to find something new. I’ve been reading SF-F since I was a kid… I’ve seen a whole lot in twenty years. Finding something new (and conversely, writing something new) can be a real pain in the ass at times. Relating to what I’m talking about now, I’ve been drifting away from straight up fantasy books for a while. The Tolkien, the Goodkind, the Lackley… I’ve seen it in countless novels. I’ve tried writing it in a whole mess of things in varying stages of completion. And I’ve played it in many late nights of DnD.

But I’ve found some fantasy books that have grabbed me because they’re doing something different. Myke Cole has managed to do something completely new with his magic-modern military mash up. I enjoyed the hell out of Sam Sykes. Kelly McCullough and Ben Tate are adding aspects of thrillers to the mix. So fantasy has caught my eye again after a long drought and I think because I haven’t been seeing it so much in the last couple years, that’s why I think these tropes caught my eye.

Food.

The tropes are about food, a largely insignificant detail in most books of any genre that’s just thrown in as set dressing. The menus of most fantasy novels read like the Goods and Services Table in Dungeons and Dragons. “Eeeew. DnD, I don’t wanna read that.” Fine. I’ll talk about it some more than. Bread. Onions. A fish. Stew. Chunk of meat. Hunk of cheese. Rations. Ale. More ale. And then wash it down with some ale.

Seriously. Food is very mundane in fantasy books for the most part. You’ll get the highborn set in fantasy. Their hunks of meat are roasted swan instead of miscellaneous bird. It’s dressed up but the same stuff.

Let’s break tropes! (still one of my new favorite words)

First time I saw it was with Ben Tate’s Leaves of FlameSome of the main characters are on a speed run towards a major confrontation and they’re getting ready to move out. The Alvritshai character is making breakfast for Colin, the main character, and the other Alvritshai in the party traveling with a massive dwarren war party. He makes scrambled eggs.

Seriously. Scrambled eggs. Completely threw me for a loop that they ate the same thing for breakfast that I did.

Example two came up in Kelly McCullough’s Broken Blade. Aral is on the run at the end of Act Two. He had his ass kicked and was recovering with his allies. It was breakfast time again. They had bacon. That falls under Chunk of Meat. And they had bread. That falls under Bread. Put them together. Huh? Bwuuuuuh? Sandwiches. They made bacon sandwiches.

I eat bacon sammiches! Hell, I want one right now just thinking about them!

I finished Broken Blade a couple weeks ago and Leaves a couple weeks before that. It’s still rolling around in my head how such a little thing can stand out with such a weird impact. If those books had stayed with the common tropes about food in fantasy books, I would never have seen them as tropes and kept right on reading. I wonder how many other genre conventions are sitting in our pages without even being noticed.

By the Blood of Heroes

Posted: August 5, 2012 in Reading
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So with my latest read, I mixed it up and went with something with a bit more horror than I usual with By the Blood of Heroes by Joe Nassise. This book has been on my radar since it showed up on a Scalzi Big Idea last spring. When I nabbed it from an actual bookstore, (Holy crap! Actual bookstores!) the covers made it look like the PR guys didn’t really know what to do with it. The front is all “Zombie Red Baron! And more Zombies!” and the back is all “Behind enemy lines!” In a world where mixing genres is like alchemy, that’s not going to raise a red flag. I’ve read plenty of subgenre mash ups and some of my own writing falls into difficult to define, but a book that seems pulled into different directions is definitely a yellow flag. But the Big Idea was a great hook and the back of the book, while different from the front, has some more hooks in it.

Bam! Time for that back of the book!

At the tail end of 1917, the Germans introduced a new type of gas to the battlefield, T-Leiche, or “corpse gas,” and changed the face of the war by resurrecting the bodies of the dead, giving the enemy an almost unlimited source of fresh troops.

When the American ace Major Jack Freeman – poster boy for the war against the Kaiser’s undead army of shamblers – is downed over enemy lines and taken captive, veteran Captain Michael “Madman” Burke is the only man brave and foolish enough to accept the mission to recover Freeman. Burke assembles a team of disparate members, from his right-hand man, Sergeant Moore, to big-game hunter turned soldier Clayton Manning, who funds the mission for an opportunity to confront the most dangerous zombie game, to professor Dan Richards, one of Tesla’s top men and the resident authority on all things supernatural. With the help of a highly advanced British dirigible war machine to infiltrate enemy territory, the team faces incredible danger as it struggles to reach the prison camp and strike at the heart of the enemy.

But they are pitted against th emost deadly enemy of all: Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. Having risen from the dead with his abilities enhanced but his mind on the brink of madness, Richthofen has plans for victory that give no quarter from soldiers or civilians.

See what I mean? Back of the book is much more alt-history than zombie. Heroes ends up being a mash up of the two. I’m ok with this. As the subtitle of the book is “The Great Undead War: Book One” the act one set up kind of stuff takes a bit to get through. We’ve got to establish Burke as a bit of a bad ass and Freeman ending up in Stalag 113. Burke gets himself a clockwork hand which is how we meet the professor. Our Captain gets tapped by the hush hush guys in the Army because of his dust up in chapter one and is handed his behind enemy lines mission. I don’t want to drop a spoiler but there’s this Burke-Freeman connection seems a bit “Oh by the way, it’s a really small world out here on the Western Front.” Burke gets handed his team and one of them might as well be wearing a redshirt. Groan.

All of the … quirks, of the first act are quickly forgotten though once Burke and his team go behind enemy lines. This part of the book reads more towards alt-history rather than the zombie parts. If it wasn’t for the occasional appearance of the shamblers, as straight up historical fiction. The pacing works in the book’s favor, the constant tension of getting caught is there and had me tearing through the pages. There’s some really intense scenes with a zeppelin.

I should hope I’m not actually surprising anyone by saying they spring Freeman. Not in any way they planned, clusterfucks make for much better reading, but from the outset we knew that was going to happen. The shamblers play more of a roll on the escape and said escape  thoroughly and satisfyingly raises the bar on all the action. They actually bookend the action, appearing mostly in the beginning and end. Heroes creates a solid zombie mythos and holds to it while letting the zombies grow. They never feel overpowered while the dangers keep escalating.

There were a couple parts of the book that were way too over the top for my tastes, total shock value that didn’t really add to the story. It involves some German officers that don’t even play a proper roll in the narrative beyond the shock. “Hey! This is gross and evil! These people are really bad! Told you so!” That’s all I really got out of it and it seemed a bit cheap. I’m sure when you get to it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If it was integrated into the plot more than it was, I don’t think it would have bothered me a bit. In the end, it wasn’t a pattern that reared its head again and again in the book so I wrote off the incident as a zombie book trope and moved on. Zombie books aren’t something I read tons off so I’m not that versed in their conventions.

I liked the ending of the book but I disliked the epilogue. I know that Heroes is a Book One and as such, there has to be some prep for the next book. I would have much preferred to leave some open ended questions rather than dangling the bait right in front of our noses. I understand wanting to throw out Book Two’s hooks in the epilogue of Heroes but I think it would have served better as the prologue for Book Two leaving Heroes with a more satisfying ending. And the actual ending really was satisfying. The climax of the book is where the author mixes the alt history and the zombies together most effectively.

In the end, I would recommend this book. It’s flawed, but really, what isn’t? The flaws of Heroes don’t detract from its positives. The hardcore alt history guys and the mega zombie guys might not like this book as it keeps the tropes of each somewhat light. This is a genre mix that works very well together though, especially since it’s WWI when most of this type of thing gos for WWII instead.