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Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: Bilbo’s Last Song by JRR Tolkien

Thursday, January 18th, 2018


Death stalked JRR Tolkien through his childhood and his youth. Nowadays, we are most of us blessed with parents who live on to our own middle age, and friends who grow up alongside us. In Tolkien’s case, his father died when he was four and his mother when he was 12; enlisting in the army as a young man, as he remarks in the preface to The Lord of the Rings, by 1918 when he was 26, all but one of his closest friends were dead, killed in the First World War. So, yes, Tolkien knew death, personally and all too intimately.

This is a poem about death as indeed much of The Lord of the Rings is too. But where does that ship take us?

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

That’s how Philip Larkin describes it. But Tolkien, it seems, keeps faith with his characters, when faced with that final, definitive choice: “let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell!”

Is death catastrophe or Eucatastrophe? Believing, hoping, despite all the evidence of his life, the latter, Tolkien produced The Lord of the Rings and all the wide realms of Middle-earth. Pascal’s Wager and Puddleglum’s vow hold true: better to live as a Narnian, even if there is no Narnia, for the black-sailed ship has no waters in its wake.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

The single most remarkable thing about this book is its date of publication: 1984. Think back to the world then. In Britain, we had only recently seen a fourth television channel – Channel 4, natch – computers still kept their memory on floppy discs and the most electronic thing in the average household would have been the radio, tuned to FM stations.

In this, almost pre-modern world, William Gibson’s Neuromancer appeared like an avatar of an incredible future. But as the years have rolled past, the connected, datarich world that Gibson posited has come closer and closer: if the measure of a science fiction novel is how clearly it looks into the future, then Neuromancer is an extraordinary success.

But prognostication alone does not a great book make: for that you need language. And it is here that Gibson’s book exceeds its prophetic function, for in Neuromancer Gibson invented the language of a future that did not yet exist and, by doing so, made it credible and possible. For without a language, without names, the pregnant future cannot come to birth. By inventing the language of the future, Gibson made it credible – then all it required was the scientists to engineer it. And they did, and here we are, in the future that Gibson named.

So Neuromancer may be the most important novel of the last fifty years. Next to that, the actual story hardly matters, which is probably just as well, as the plot is standard noir, where everyone and everything double-crosses each other, but without the moral core that Philip Marlowe provides in the Raymond Chandler novels that are, stylistically, the progenitors of Gibson’s work. Case, the hero, is as much a cipher as the virtual reality which is the only place where he actually comes alive, and the other characters are so alienated as to be, for all intents and purposes, actual aliens in human skins. The AIs don’t rise to the status of characters either. But this all beside the point: Gibson imagined our future and, for byter or worse, we seem set on bringing it about.

 

Adventures in Bookland: The Warrior Queen by Joanna Arman

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

Does any nation make less of its extraordinary, heroic founders than England does of Alfred and his children, Edward and Æthelflæd, and his grandson, Æthelstan? Of the dynasty, only Alfred is widely known, and then mostly for burning some cakes. His children, who carried on the struggle against the Viking invaders, and his grandson, who completed the creation of England pretty well within its present-day boundaries, are now all but forgotten.

Thankfully, interest is growing in the children of Alfred, helped by Bernard Cornwell’s series of books on Uhtred (although these do no favours to Alfred), and The Last Kingdom TV series. But the portrayal of Æthelflæd in these works is thoroughly modern: in this excellent attempt to find the real woman in the meagre historical sources, Joanna Arman drills through modern romance to the nuggets of knowledge that lie deep in the historical record. As Arman shows, Æthelflæd must have been an extraordinary woman, for she was freely chosen by her people to lead them through war and terror, and she lead them to the brink of victory. What is also clear is that she was not the sword-wielding warrior queen of modern fantasy, but a woman anchored in her own society and culture; one who, understanding the warrior and spiritual ethos that underlay it, could lead and persuade her people to follow her strategy against the Vikings that had carved out kingdoms in the land. This is proper history: sober and factual, but carrying the deep excitement that must underlay any serious engagement with such an extraordinary subject. The one caveat is that the publisher was sloppy with the editing and proofreading: there are far too many typos in the present edition. I hope that a new edition will correct these, so that The Warrior Queen may become the definitive book on Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.

Adventures in Bookland: God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

So, were the Crusades an early exercise in Western imperialism, a pilgrimage of greed and violence visited upon the peaceful and civilised peoples of the Middle East, as the modern understanding of them suggests? This useful revisionist overview of the most recent scholarship argues strongly that they were not. Rodney Stark’s main targets are the popular historians and the film makers and writers who have filtered this view of the Crusades into everyday consciousness and done so so successfully that that great medieval hero, Richard the Lion Heart, is now regularly traduced as a psychopathic killer and, in the word’s of one popular historian, ‘the worst king in England’s history’.

As anyone giving the matter a little thought would surely recognise, the current view is as partial as the high Victorian view of the Crusaders as exemplars of Christian martial piety. The truth is more mixed, and more interesting, than that – but the Victorians were closer than the moderns. Most notably, the Crusades were not imperialist adventures, nor land grabs by the landless by blows, the younger sons of noble families, but rather serious enterprises by a network of interconnected families who committed their money and their blood to the retaking and the defence of the Holy Land. Careful work by historians on wills, charters and the other deep sources of history confirm this: the Crusaders were, indeed, what they said they were: pilgrims for Christ, sacrificing wealth and, often, health and life, for the sake of reclaiming and protecting the holy places in the Holy Land. As to the reputation for chivalry of their Muslim enemies, it is clear that they were no more chivalrous than the Crusaders, and just as frequently they waded through blood and bodies.

In the end, the Crusades failed because the European nations that had supported them became unwilling to fund the vast expenditure, in money and men, required to maintain Outremer. But reading this fascinating account of the whole enterprise, one can only be impressed, sometimes appalled, but never less than respectful of the men and women who committed their lives and resources to the enterprise. A crusade is something we should all commit ourselves to.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Conquerors by Roger Crowley

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

The book is subtitled ‘How Portugal forged the first global empire’ and that gives an accurate summary of its contents. What it doesn’t convey is the sheer, breathtaking excitement of it all. Over the space of a few decades, a group of Portuguese navigators transformed the whole idea of the world, opening it up in a way that had never been achieved, even in the antiquity that Renaissance humanists so revered. They had outdone the ancients. Roger Crowley, one of my favourite historians, tells the tale with all the excitement and verve these extraordinary men deserve. Few things can match the raw courage of the Portuguese turn into the empty ocean that took them round the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. For, to make the journey possible, Portuguese navigators realised that it was no good to hug the African coast all the way south. Instead, you had to sail west, into the empty ocean, far far from any land, and then catch the trade winds south and east, past the Cape of Good Hope and into the ocean of wealth. For the Indian Ocean, and the trade it carried, was the richest in the world at the time, and the Portuguese arrived determined to grab this trade for themselves. For the Muslim traders who dominated the seas, their arrival was a rude shock (as indeed it was for the Venetians, who suddenly foresaw their domination of trade with the east undercut). The story of these conquerors, and in particular of Afonso du Albuquerque, the Duke of Goa and the man who founded the long enduring Portuguese enclave there, is extraordinary. Highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: Essays in the Art of Writing by Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

This slim little volume of 150 odd pages tells me a number of things. Firstly, that I will probably never be as good a writer as Robert Louis Stevenson. Secondly, that much of the craft he practised on his writing sails far above my head, so I still have a great deal to learn before I’m even able to sit on his footstool. And, thirdly, that it’s pretty difficult to write a really entertaining book about writing. Stephen King managed it, quite brilliantly, in On Writing, but did so by virtue of melding autobiography with style manual. This collection of essays, written for disparate markets and different reasons, doesn’t manage the unity that King achieved in his book, but it is very interesting for telling us Stevenson’s views on various contemporary writers.

Adventures in Bookland: Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness by Ahmad Ibn Fadlan

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

In the 10th century, an Arab traveller named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan went, as part of an embassy, from Baghdad into the far north, to visit the newly Muslim king of the Bulghars who lived on the Volga River where it flows into the Caspian Sea. On his return, he wrote an account of his journey that is remarkable for its precision, dispassion and curiosity. Ibn Fadlan was genuinely interested in the peoples and customs he encountered along the way, and went out of his way to find out more about them. The most obvious example of this is how he set out to learn more about the burial customs of the pagan Rus (Vikings originally from Sweden), going to visit one of their settlements when he learned that one of the leaders there had died recently. His account of the burial is both remarkable and deeply troubling – and should give modern-day pagan fantasists pause. There is a tendency nowadays to ascribe a purer, simpler, more noble or more spiritual culture to pre-Christian pagan societies, such as Neil Young’s idealisation of Moctezuma, king of the Aztecs, in Cortez the Killer. Ibn Fadlan’s chilling description of the ritual sacrifice of one of the dead man’s slave girls should be enough to make anyone rethink idealising pagan cultures.

Going on, the book also contains extracts from other Arab travellers. While none are as interesting as Ibn Fadlan, their varied testimonies add to a patchwork quilt of impressions of which, for me, the chief was the realisation of just how large a part the slave trade played in linking the economies of Asia, and in particular the links between the Caliphate and the pagan cultures of the steppes. Much of war was, in fact, slave taking expeditions, with a huge market waiting for the captured slaves in the Islamic world and among the shot lived kingdoms of the steppes. But what is particularly eye opening for the modern reader is how women and girls were such a significant part of this trade. Slaving expeditions would raid neighbouring tribes, capturing young women and girls, and these would be sold on as concubines to rich and powerful men in the Islamic world. One of the other writers in the book, Abu Hamid, notes in passing how he buys two slave girls, ages 8 and 15, and gives them various jobs before saying that one of them had a child but it died.

To put it bluntly, in this world, women were currency: they were bought and sold and became the trophies that accompanied the worldly success of rich and powerful men. Modern-day feminists have little use for Christianity, but that religion’s refusal to countenance concubinage contributed more to the decline of the trafficking of women than any of other factor.

Adventures in Bookland: Leaf by Niggle by JRR Tolkien

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017


I had read this little story by JRR Tolkien many years ago and remember being strangely moved by it, but not much more. So when I heard that a theatre production of the story by the Puppet State Theatre Company was touring with it, we all went along to see it. As Richard Medrington, the performer and narrator of the performance, tells us at the beginning, the production company’s name is a bit of a misnomer for this production: there’s no puppets and it’s not really a theatre show, there being only one performer, Mr Medrington himself. But after a preamble, delving into his own family history for reasons that aren’t immediately clear but become so later, Medrington begins telling the story of the painter, Niggle, and his attempts to paint a painting of a landscape he glimpses in his imagination, but can’t quite grasp. And in the telling, something extraordinary, something almost miraculous happens: worlds unfold, hearts open, eyes are made clear, for a while at least, of the dirt of daily life and we see, we see… Well, what do we see? In the end, we see a glimpse of what Niggle saw: the world he strove to capture but never quite did, the worlds that Tolkien wrote about but never completely grasped, the worlds we hope and dream and think on. It was the most moving theatrical evening of my life. Richard Medrington and his team at Puppet State have done wonders with Tolkien’s little tale, and brought out the vast world that is necessary to make even one, little, leaf. If you ever get the chance to see the production, don’t miss it. Here’s the trailer for the show.

Oh, and that preamble about Richard Medrington’s family? Through the course of the performance, we all come to realise that artistic creation is not vain, even if it never finds an audience, for through it we are doing what we, as humans and, in Tolkien’s phrase, co-creators are put on this Middle-earth to do.

 

Adventures in Bookland: The Emperor’s Silver by Nick Brown

Sunday, December 24th, 2017

With a new cover design that is much more in keeping with the tone of Nick Brown’s excellent Agent of Rome series, the fifth book about the adventures of Imperial agent Cassius Corbulo may be the best so far. In keeping with the genre-bending that Brown has done throughout the series, this one is mainly a detective story, but one embedded in the provincial politics of the third century. The plot is intriguing and the way Brown uses it to examine different aspects of life in the third century is fascinating. However, what sets it apart is the growing conflict, and to a degree resolution, between Cassius, the patrician pagan, and Simo, his Christian slave, and Indavara, his bodyguard, who worships Lady Fortune. Brown does a brilliant job of depicting the different assumptions each bring to these unequal relationships, while keeping them true to third century mores (there are no disguised 21st century characters in these books). It’s a fascinating portrayal of ‘friendship’ between master and slave, where both see the relationship as friendship, but both are equally aware where all the power lies: Cassius can, at any time if he so wishes, sell Simo and there is nothing Simo could do about it. Highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: The Black Stone by Nick Brown

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

The first four books in this marvellous series are not well served by their covers, and I think this, the fourth and final volume with a cover in this style, is the worst. Looking at it, you’d be justified in thinking the book it covers told the adventures of some muscle-bound Roman lunk whose only recourse when faced with a problem is to get out his sword. In fact, while tense and exciting, it’s a long way from the hack ‘n’ slash of the wish-fulfilment school of historical fiction written for male readers. Cassius Corbulo, the hero, is cerebral rather than brawny, the series itself plays with different genres, mashing up detective fiction, thrillers and espionage, with very little in the way of the military hist-fic that the cover promises. But what makes the stories stand out is the developing, and deepening, relationship between patrician and pagan when it suits him Cassius, his Christian slave, Simo, and his bodyguard, Indavara, who worships Lady Fortune. The dynamics and power imbalances implicit in such relationships are brought out skillfully by Nick Brown, and these are what make me want to read more (alongside a cracking plot with all sorts of unexpected turns of fortune). The books are also developing an interesting realist take on the outcomes of these sorts of contests: often, the bad guys do get away. All in all, another excellent installment in the Agent of Rome series.