SevenEves by Neal Stephenson

seveneves
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22816087-seveneves

SevenEves is a near future story about how the human race would survive a sudden extinction level event (which is never really explained how that even came to be, but that’s not really the point). Not by wandering around a post-apocalyptic landscape, but how they would actually survive it in a cobbled together space program. And how they survive the near extinction of the human race (the Seven Eves a clear echo of the the Mitochondrial Eves which gave birth to Homo sapiens), which still results in the same type of social issues that trouble us today. Some things: tribalism, need to grab power, come to us from our primate ancestors and they are not going to be easy to shake, if ever. So in the backdrop of the best of mankind applied to trying to help the human race survive, you have the worst of mankind’s Machiavellian machinations that you wish, with great frustration, that characters were not so stupid to engage in, but you’re not surprised that they do because humans would so totally do that.

It had good, well rounded characters (and if one of them bears a slight resemblance to a popular physicist that is purely coincidental 😉 ). It was a good “the great will, intelligence and creativity of humanity surviving penultimate disaster” story. Complex, realistic and believable,  it included humanity’s greatest strengths as our salvation and our greatest failings as being the monkey wrench that kept being thrown into the best laid plans of mice and women for 5,000 years. So the plot kept you on your toes. There were lots of very edge-of-your-seat gripping moments and believable plot twists with a satisfying end.

The problem.

Neal Stephenson has become famous for “info dumps.” Not exposition, but page after page of related-but-unnecessary-to-the-story information he finds fascinating. And his fans love him for it because reading his books is an educational experience.

(Though I really could have done with the torture/experiment on the live dog in Quicksilver. Between that and reading through 50 pages without a plot showing up, that was one book I never finished.)

Cool. He is a genre writer writing for a fanbase to leans towards hard SciFi. But, he is at a point where he could take a page from Andy Weir.

the-martian-cover.jpg

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18007564-the-martian?from_search=true

Excellent book! I loved it! Very fun and gripping read. Weir’s take on the “resilience of human nature” involved more in-character humor. I think humor would be necessary in a survival situation, but I digress…

The Martian and SevenEves have a basic theme in the same basic setting: A survival story set in the near future where the primary mode of transport and survival is space exploration/flight. The Martian is simpler in that it’s one guy trying to survive and SevenEves is the human race. The Martian being confined to the space program does not allow for the personal conflicts which crippled the efforts in SevenEves. But Weir could tell a space-based survival story without diverting the reader for page after page of scientific technical data that had nothing to do with the story.

SevenEves would stop for an science/technical info dump for eight pages, have half a page of dialog, then go on a further info dump for five pages. It was especially bad in the beginning as it severely stalled the story out which made wading through the first 400 pages (out of 750) a slog. Once you got past where Stephenson thought he had explained everything he possibly could, then the story really got going. The Martin got the tech across without slowing down. Or at least it was not brought to a grinding halt. Repeatedly.

If they can’t cut the info dumps in SevenEves, the least the publisher could do would be to highlight the pages for people who want to get on with the story so they know to skip them.

But despite the slog, the book is worth it. I give it four out of five stars because all the other aspects of it are done so well.

SPOILER ALERT!

Addendum: As someone who has studied physical anthropology, I don’t buy that the “Pingers” were a matter of “selective breeding.” What would become cetaceans branched off from that would lead to primate a looooong time prior, so there would be very little, if any, of their code in our DNA. It would be helluva difficult thing to bring those traits to the surface just by making babies.

Yes, homo sapiens evolve to can adapt, but not like that in 5,000 years. The comparison is made to dogs, but dogs can start breeding when they are 18 months old (they shouldn’t but they can) and have at minimum two liters a year. The average dog lives to 14, has an average litter of five puppies, that’s 125 dogs produced in it’s life, with the youngest producing as soon they hit 1.5 years. That is a LOT of generations in 5,000 years.

Meanwhile humans can’t start reproducing until menarche (first menses), sometime between 10 and 14 years (again, like dogs they should not as early pregnancies are dangerous) but they can. They can also only have one kid a year, with 1 in 4 pregnancies ending in miscarriage. If a woman is doing nothing but pumping out babies, maybe 20 if they are lucky, in their lifetime. So far fewer generations and fewer members per generation to play around in the genome.

They have found that the Canis lupus genome has a dizzying variety of genotypes that creates a wide variety of phenotypes (as anyone who has looked at a picture of Great Dane and a Chihuahua can see) which makes Canis lupus one of the most adaptable species on earth. In the wild, there have been Polynesian island strains of dogs, Central and South American jungle strains of dogs, Australian outback strains of dogs, African Savannah strains of dogs. And of course Wolves and Coyotes of North American temperate zones to deserts. All very different than one another, all without human intervention.

Meanwhile Homo sapiens have been around for a 100,000 to 200,000 years. We have seen very little genetic adaptation to living in different environments. We’ve had civilization for over 5,000 years and almost no sign of physical adaptation to the very different living conditions than our hunter-gather ancestors.

So the “Pingers” with their grey mottled skin and webbed fingers and blubbler, their massively extended breath holding, etc. I can’t buy without genetic engineering. Which is possible without the “Diggers” not knowing about it. The Pingers came from a government funded alternate plan B for the survival of the human race. The Diggers were just a group of regular survivalists who adapted a mine. (Though the book should mention they there are millions of cave systems and mines all over the Earth so this group in Alaska can’t be only ones that thought of doing that.)

But this is total nit-picking with no bearing on the believability of the story. I guess we all have our niches.

It is a great story of the determination of the human race to survive at an individual and species level.

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Iliad

So after plowing through Fagels’ translation of the Iliad, I am struck by a few things.

1. Very visual, which makes sense if this was first an orally presented poem spoken to an audience. Helps them imagine it better. It really puts you in the sand and the blood in front of Troy.

2. Gory as hell. (And atomically accurate.) There are modern war films that are not as gory as this. This borders on horror-film levels of violence.

3. Homer names every single person on the battle field, and their father, and sometimes grandfather, even if they are just showing up to die. (And there seem lot of human-nymph marriages, so really, if you have a problem with mixed marriage now, the ancient Greeks weren’t even afraid to mate outside their species.)

This could be Homer’s way of humanizing the victims of war. But it puts me in mind of Le Morte d’Arthur in which Mallory seems to take every single “local boy makes good” legend in all of Britain, and possibly Brittany, and marry them all together in one story. (My personal favorite is Sir Tor, who shows up at Arthur’s wedding asking to be made a knight, gets sent on a quest to get a some lady’s dog back, gets made a knight and then disappears until he gets killed in when Lancelot rescues Guenevere.)

4. Achilles is a wanker. O.K., sit in your tent to prove a point, but sending Patroclus out in his place, in his armor, was a douche move.

5. Needed more Odysseus.

6. Everyone waxes on about Achilles when Ajax was the real lynch-pin/greatest warrior of the Greeks (and *without* any help from the Gods, I might add). Next to him, Achilles is a punk.

7. I now know where J.K. Rowling got the name “Scamander.”

More Books

IdesofMarch

It was good while I was reading it. I enjoyed it. But in the end it did not leave much of an impression on me. This seems to be less a story than a character study of Julius Caesar, following him through the last months/weeks of his life in epistolary (letters, diaries, etc.) form. Historically, it’s a bit of a mess, the timing of some events have been shifted for more dramatic structure (I guess) and some characters are alive when the real people, who potentially should have had more of an effect on what was happening, were not. One gets the sense that this was Wilder’s pet project, his ode to Julius Ceasar, rather than a fully structured and more accurate historical novel. But as an ode, as a character study of Caesar himself at that point in his life, of why he was so disregarding of his safety, it is excellent and worth the read.

 

IronKing

To my shame, I had never heard of Druon or “The Accursed Kings” series until I got this novel cheap off Bookbub. And what a delightful surprise it is. The Iron King is historically accurate, its characters fleshed out and fun to read about, the drama intense in a story that, yet again, Hollywood could not have invented.

This book is the first of the series about the downfall of the Capetian Dynasty. This book is the beginning of the end. When Phillip of the Fair arrested the Templars in order to seize their treasure, he burned the leaders when they refused to sign confessions to the usual trumped up charges of heresy and sodomy wrung out of them after years (seriously, seven years) of torture. Druon uses the legend (not proven, but it started circulating shortly after their burning) of the Templar curse; that supposedly the Grand Master cursed Phillip and his family unto the 13th generation, his Keeper of the Seal (who trumped up the charges) and his puppet Pope in Avignon to give the novel the extra kick and create the theme. Hence “the Accursed Kings.”

But the truth is everything was in place for Phillip’s downfall before the Templars burned. The downfall of society when the worst aspects of “courtly love” were acted on by the brides of Phillip’s three sons. They committed adultery (or at least two of them did, enabled by the third), and were outted by Isabelle, Phillip’s daughter and consort of Edward II of England. (It has been noted that after that incident, the romances of the troubadours pretty much vanished from the landscape.) Obviously, this throws the characters and the country into some serious personal and political turmoil.

Which of course is always fun. I loved it, and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

 

Smoke

I have known of the YouTube series, “The Order of the Good Death” and her very funny and informative videos for years now. I did not discover she had written a book of her experiences in the mortuary industry until very recently. Of course, I immediately bought it.

This is fascinating book that swings easily from the rude realities of death to humorous anecdotes to poignant moments to pondering and personal insights and revelations.

Doughty is not merely a good storyteller, she also asks some of the “big questions” without harping on them or trying to “sound deep” herself. Often they come up in the course of the weirdness of her job. She is self effacing, acknowledges her initial naivete and mistakes, and guides us through the odd world of those who handle the dead.

It’s not anymore overtly “graphic” than a CSI episode, so if you can handle that, you can handle this book, which is definitely worth the read.

 

ArtinBlood

A decent mystery marred by the fact that Sherlock is seriously off his game. Sherlock is allowed *one* “Oh, I have been so stupid!” moment, not three or four of them. This means the mystery was actually not good enough to keep the character truly occupied, so the writer was reduced to PIS (Plot Induced Stupidity) to keep it going. However, the characterizations were good and enjoyably carried the story.

So it’s not bad, but it’s not great either.

 

Rescue Artist

One could almost call this the companion book Hupt’s The Museum of the Missing. In fact, the current front cover of the paperback for Hupt book is a picture of the crime scene of the case the Rescue Artist is constructed around: The 1994 theft of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. (Or one of them, at least.)

This is the police’s point of view, particularly how one detective who had become very experienced in recovering stolen art. This is how he infiltrated (for the umpteenth time) the world of stolen art and recovered The Scream. During the course of telling that story, we learn how this officer got into the game of recovering stolen art and the cases he was involved in. We learn about the odd world of stolen art, the mindset of the thieves (not nearly as meticulous, complex or even thinking long term as Hollywood imagines), to the odd places great works of art can end up (such as being used for currency in a heroin deal in Turkey). The existence of the fabled Thomas Crown/Dr. No connoisseur who would steal for their private enjoyment is debated. The stereotype is dismissed by the cynical police, but not by people in the world of art itself.

It’s a fascinating look into the world of stolen art from the people’s point of view, including interviews not only from police and members of the art dealing world, but criminals involved in art theft. (There is also a good, short, biography of Munch, his mindset, and how he came to paint The Scream.)

Restoree

So obviously as you can tell from the cover, not exactly hard SciFi here. It’s an interesting story of a human suddenly thrust into the political machinations of the ruling class of a different world. Taken at face value, it’s an entertaining, enjoyable book.

However, the characters were a bit flat and there were some parts that irked me. First, how the heroine is suddenly transformed from Plain Jane into the most beautifulist alien ev-VAR! At this jaded point, it’s a kind of sexist cliché (See: Twilight series). Second, the sexist world, bordering on neanderthal, she’s had fallen into and was perfectly happy in. Don’t get me wrong, she does have a vital, pivotal role in the story and plays it ably, especially considering her complete lack of cultural knowledge. But one can’t get over the fact that women are “claimed” by men practically on sight and their reason to exist in this society is to crank out kids. And the heroine is fine with that, because the man who claimed her is hot and sexy.

Now, I don’t define a “strong heroine” as necessarily one who has a sword in her hand. A strong woman can be a strong heroine without being an action hero. But when you looked at the overall picture of the world she just fell into by chance, *yeek*.

McCaffrey’s world building is interesting; what parts of society have advanced and what have not. She explains the advances by saying they were borrowed from their conquerors, though that doesn’t explain the medical advances or why someone who has undergone reconstructive surgery after injury is considered horrible. I mean, they’re still writing with stylus on permanent slabs of metal, but have extremely advanced medical technology? *head quirk*

But if you do not spend too much time pondering the deeper implications, it’s still an enjoyable romp.

 

I’ve also been reading Pirot mysteries in the interim for some light reading; some fantastic (Murder on the Orient Express, Cat Among the Pigeons), some not so much (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe-the ending for that came completely out of left field, she didn’t incorporate any, or at least enough, clues into the story).

 

 

Rudyard Kipling: Let’s Rumble

As obvious from my internet name, I’m a fan. A gift from my father, in fact. Since I was *yea* high, he always said of me, “She is a cat who walks by herself, and all places are alike to her.” (I had it tattooed around my ankle when I was 23, much to my mother’s disapproval and much to father’s delight.) Less poetically, “She has to run into a brick wall twice before she knows it’s there.”

But he also gave me a copy of The Jungle Books that put together all the Mowgli stories in one volume. (The two Jungle Books are groups of short stories that are mostly Mowgli stories, with some other unrelated short stories thrown in, as we shall see. Of these Riki-Tiki-Tavi is the most famous.) I would later read Dad’s copies of John Beechcroft’s Kipling collection until they were falling apart. The year before he died, Dad found (which must have taken a bit of work) intact copies, with dust covers, of Beechcroft’s collection (1956 edition) and gave them to me for my birthday.

So my life has been entwined with Kipling’s work. Speaking as a middle-aged woman who has read a fair amount, I still contend that Rudyard Kipling was one of the greatest storytellers to walk this earth. But he is not taught in schools because of the change in popular opinion that he was a racist imperialist and thus a bad person whose writing we should not read.

(Though we should make heavily sanitized saccharine films of it.)

This was the attitude reflected today in a piece on Gizmodo:

A Reminder: Rudyard Kipling was a Racist Fuck and the Jungle Book is Imperialist Garbage.

As pointed out in the comments, this is click-bait: An inflammatory title to make people to go the site.

Clickbait

But it’s not long so go ahead and read it.

The reason that’s not long as that after she claims that The Jungle Book is “Imperialist Garbage” she doesn’t spend much time talking about The Jungle Books. She immediately leaps to White Man’s Burden, cherry picking a quote to prove her point. Then, ignoring that the hero of the Jungle Book is an Indian boy/young man, she jumps to Kim, who was a white kid raised on the streets of Lahore, claiming he’s “The best spy and Buddhist ever.”And then…

“There’s a fun little story in The Second Jungle Book about a superstitious Indian village that worships a horrible old crocodile, only for a British man to blow it to pieces. Because they are more rational, you see.”

This was so out of whack, it actually took me a few minutes of brain wracking (and thank the Gods she said it was in The Jungle Books, or I would have spent an hour trying to identify it) to figure out she was talking about “The Undertakers.”

And of course the “apes” in The Jungle Book (actually, they were monkeys, there are no apes in India) are supposedly African people, but that’s Disney’s fault, but she mentioned it in an article about Kipling to make sure to drive the point home that it’s racist garbage.

“And, at the end of the day, we’re still left with a story where a white person exoticizes a country and its people. How does this idea pass muster in 2016?” Right, like that never happened in literature then and now. Don’t we still romanticize AmerIndians? Walk into any New Age shop and yes, we sure as hell do. How many romance novels romanticize, literally, AmerIndians. But that doesn’t stop us from letting our government treat them like crap.

So her whole argument that the “Jungle Book is imperialist garbage” is not based on Kipling’s Jungle Books. The simple reason being that would be very hard to prove because it is not. The Jungle Books are rip roaring adventure stories filled with moments of poignancy. (If you do not cry when Akela dies in “The Red Dog” or when Bagheera bids his final farewell you are a soulless automaton.)

But more importantly, there is a story in the Jungle Books called “The King’s Ankus.” Kaa (who is actually one of the good guys, he helped save Mowgli from the monkeys), takes Mowgli to investigate the treasure room of the collapsed palace the Monkeys were living in. They find a very old cobra, half senile, guarding the ancient treasure. Mowgli, not knowing what treasure is, not being useful to him in the forest, is not interested in any of it until is spies an gold and jewel decorated ankus (elephant goad). Long story short, he and Kaa take it back to the jungle while the Cobra hisses, “It is Death!” (Capital “D.”)

Having amused himself with it for a while, Mowgli chucks it because it is of no use. The next day he and Bagheera find that a man walking through the Jungle has picked it up. They end up following a trail of bodies as the ankus passes from one murderous thief to another until they find it surrounded by dead men, one of which accidentally poisoned himself while poisoning the others. Mowgli returns the ankus to the treasure room, telling the Cobra that the jewel encrusted ankus is indeed Death.

That’s a pretty straightforward parable against materialism. Not the sentiment of a staunch imperialist.

That’s as close to any social commentary Kipling gets in The Jungle Books. The rest are adventures and coming of age stories.

So let us turn to The White Man’s Burden. All of it.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another’s profit
And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine,
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
(The end for others sought)
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
No iron rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper–
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go, make them with your living
And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man’s burden,
And reap his old reward–
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard–
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:–
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness.
By all ye will or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your God and you.

Take up the White Man’s burden!
Have done with childish days–
The lightly-proffered laurel,
The easy ungrudged praise:
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Imperialism. In the cloak of encouraging men to the hard work of “civilizing” indigenous peoples, he points out that it’s really for profit, that they are enslaving the native populations and taking from them their culture, that they deny indigenous peoples their “freedom” even if the work is overwhelming, that the indigenous people will be judging not only the colonists, but their religion and by extension their culture, by all they say and do. And all this for being considered “respectable.”

Then there is The Ballad of East and West with the refrain:

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgement Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

The Man Who Would Be King also shows ambivalence towards Imperialism. A worry that English “superiority” would one day be unmasked.

And it is in “The Undertakers.”

The only resemblance Kipling’s short story bears to what the Gizmodo article describes is that there is a crocodile and he gets shot. I talked with other people online who couldn’t figure out what story she was talking about.

You can read “The Undertakers” here.

But in short, a Hyena, an Adjunct Crane (both scavengers of the dead) and a Crocodile have gathered on a bank under a bridge to chat. The Crocodile spends most of the story talking about how he has sown fear up and down the river, mistaking the festival offerings in the river as homage to him. Recently, the crocodile has taken to eating Indian construction workers building the bridge. He says that he has become so great, he has gone beyond the river and has taken to hunting on land. But he also admits to scavenging, eating bodies that washed downstream after a battle, making him an “undertaker” as well. (And in Indian culture, undertakers, people who handle the dead, are part of the “untouchable” caste. Yet this crocodile thinks himself a king, much to the annoyance of the hyena and the crane.) He also tells the story of almost snatching an English child from a boat. But the boy escaped. Eventually, the egotistical croc goes to sleep

And the crocodile is killed by the very same child, now grown into a man. Then the villagers cut the crocodile’s head off.

Now for those looking for analogies, is this really the story of western reason triumphing over eastern superstition? No, it’s the story of the powerful and egotistical being taken down by those they oppress. That the seeds of destruction one sows will come back on them.

With an undercurrent of “those who think themselves above others are not, and will find that out the hard way.”

So Kipling was ambivalent about Imperialism. While he saw the “need” to civilize the “uncivilized,” he was aware of the real motives of the politically driven colonialism/imperialism, which was profit. He was obviously uncomfortable on some level with declaring himself and the English as “superior” (especially while members of the British Raj were parading around in splendor as if they were kings).

British Raj2

And he did not agree with subjecting people by force. He knew that would come back and bite them in the ass.

Now…is The White Man’s Burden racist? Yes. The way Kipling refers to indigenous people as “savage” and “half devil, half child,” etc.. Obviously.

Was Kipling racist?

Yes.

The only biography I have read about Kipling was Harry Rickett’s Rudyard Kipling: A Life. It as dry as it sounds. But it’s also a very balanced view of the man. It’s not trying to make him a saint, and it’s not trying to make him into a member of the KKK either. It’s very clear he was racist, but not in the way made out by the woman writing the Gizmodo article and many others.

Kipling’s type of racism comes across in stories like Kim, in which “the best Buddhist” was the Old Tibetan Lama/Buddhist Monk who served as Kim‘s father figure. It’s in Gunda Din in which the speaker admires the bravery of a Indian water bearer, calling him “a braver man than I.” It comes across in The Jungle Books, where the hero is a wild Indian boy raised in the jungle by wild animals. His type of racism was the “Noble Savage” kind. The kind that thought that those the English subjugated were more pure of heart (like children) because of their connection with nature and assumed lack of sophistication. Kipling thought civilization a double edged sword, Pandora’s box, that would raise them up, and yet corrupt them as people in the western “civilized world” were corrupt. That “simple natives” had something the “civilized Europeans” had lost.

Never mind that India had a complex civilization with roots going as far back as the 3000 B.C.E..

(“Before Common Era” which is the new P.C. way to say “Before Christ.” Now I’m not a Christian, but “BC” set a hard date to calculate by. “BCE” is a nebulous term. What is the “Common Era?” How do we define that except by going back to the birth of Christ? *pedantic grumbling*)

Meanwhile, many of Kipling’s peers barely viewed the Indians as human and pretty much treated them as lesser beings, or even slaves.

British Raj

And not just in India, even after Great Britain outlawed slavery, many of Indians were shipped overseas as “indentured servants” to work the sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean, which is why there is such a strong Indian influence on various Caribbean cultures now.

Racism is racism. It’s a horrible thing that makes people do stupid to horrible things. In Kipling’s case, to take an objective view, his racism was the stupid kind, not the horrible one. And as for him being an imperialist, it certainly was not wholehearted. In fact, I wonder if any of the need he felt to “civilize” anyone was more the British culture of the time than his own innate feeling.

Yet his association with the racism and Imperialism of the British Raj has made him persona non grata in literary circles, his works unread and unappreciated by many. Especially in school where the literature curriculum turns so many kids off reading. His books are intelligent, well written (not written down to anyone) and fun to read. Some of them are straight up adventure and some of them are thematic commentary, but they are all amazing stories. We deprive ourselves not only of a great writer, but of a slightly more objective view of an important time in the world’s history that leads to much of what is happening in that region of the world today. All because of unjust hatred toward him rooted in an embarrassment of a period of European history. And I wonder if this feeling is especially strong in the U.S. because we are an imperialist nation now, and we’re still racist. So many Americans feel we have to reject Kipling in order to disassociate ourselves from what we ourselves are doing. “Oh we’re not as bad as he was!”

Yes we are. Some of us are even worse than he was. (Watch any Trump rally.) A class could even pull from Kipling to compare to America’s own modern Imperialist history.

And I can you right now there is no English-writing author (maybe no author period) walking this earth that is as good as he was.

So no, the author was not a perfect human being, but his works are gifts to the English literature, to our culture, which should not be allowed to languish in obscurity because we are scared of facing our past, of facing ourselves.

(Not to mention we read Shakespeare, Homer, Beowulf. War and Peace and The Great Gatsby and they are all sexist, so are Dumas’ works. Shakespeare was antisemitic. But no one is spending pages flaying those authors alive so to speak. Their work is elevated to top of the literary heap.)

Books, Books, Books

Life has been stressful for me, to say the least, so I have been in escapism mode for a while now. I deal with what I have to deal with, and then turn off reality.

I finished all the Discworld novels, including the Tiffany Aching ones which turned out to be wonderful. The final novel was a Tiffany Aching novel, The Shepard’s Crown, and it was a beautiful, if sad, end to our adventures in Discworld. It was not entirely written by Practchett. He had written the main scenes. It was filled in/completed by someone else and you could tell at which points because the characters just did not quite “sound” right. But it was still the perfect “Good Bye.”

But Pratchett’s daughter has promised this is the last of the Discworld novels. She said she would protect her father’s legacy, “Even from myself.”

The only ones I did not read with the “Industrial Revolution” novels because the characters simply did not appeal.

But I finished those a while back. Thanks to BookBub and Project Gutenberg, I have not been starved for literary entertainment.

After War and Peace, I read some lightweight fun.

Nefertiti’s Heart by A.W. Exley: Ostensibly this is a Steampunk Fantasy/SciFi novel, but the truth is, it’s a romance novel with a background of Steampunk (which seems to also be used as an excuse for verbal anachronisms) and mystery until the last couple chapters when yon dashing hero must save his lady-love from a serial killer with a magical artifact. The characters are o.k., not overwhelming. They’re romance novel clichés: The dashing TDH nobleman with dangerous reputation, the emotionally wounded tom-boy heroine he must tame with…

If you are looking for the schmexy, there’s plenty there. Not explicit, but you know, it’s there. I think the story a would have been better served with some more balance between the romance and murder mystery, but it’s a nice Saturday afternoon read.

Etruscans: Beloved of the Gods by Morgan Llewellyn and Michael Scott: Now don’t get me wrong, the story is great. Reading at face value I thoroughly enjoyed it. Good characters, good “coming of age” story, great incorporation of the mythical elements. A very enjoyable book, a fun Saturday read. My only nit picks are a historian’s pedantism.

I read Morgan Llewelyn’s Red Branch (her version of the legend of Cu’ Chulainn)  yonks ago. Back when I was a teenager, I think. It was very entertaining and made me very curious about the legend itself, which set me off on researching ancient Irish legends. She is very good at humanizing these mythic heroes, while incorporating the elements of native spirituality/religion and magic. Now, usually she’s about the Celts, but for this one she (and Michael Scott) took on the Etruscans.

Part of the problem with writing about the Etruscans is that we’re still learning about them. We have not even fully translated their language yet (which is one of those out of place oddball languages that has no relationship to the languages around it, it’s not Indo-European). So most of what we know we’re interpreting from art, grave goods and what is left from the layouts of their cities. (Which means it’s pretty tentative.) We know little of their myths and legends. I guess that’s was why Llewellyn and Brooks chose to pull their “Etruscan hero”  from the annals of Ancient (I mean, really ancient, way before the Caesars) Rome: Horatius Colces. (“Hora Trim” being his “Estruscan name”). So it is no wonder that the story spends minimal time in “Eutria” and sends the hero off into the wild and eventually to Rome.

Then why not set the thing in Rome to begin with?

And there was the stated theme that “Man gives Gods form” at the beginning that is not really explored in the story, which is a straight up fantasy adventure.

But it’s a very good fantasy adventure.

Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel: by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. Now this is real Steampunk. The world is not merely a backdrop to the story, but fully formed and integral to the story (even if it does pull from all the conventions of the genre). The characters are delightful, an “Odd Couple” of a brash, explosives-loving Kiwi-“colonial” and a reserved British Archivist (not “Librarian”). The Ministry investigates and collects magical artifacts from around the world (there is even a room full of unsolved cases that the characters edge around calling the “X-Files”), while a madman with an ancient order plots to take over the British Empire and “make it great again.” (Hrm, where have we heard that recently?)

Eliza Braun is pulled into this mystery when her old partner suddenly turns up completely insane after following a lead on his own. Her misbehavior lands her in the Archives with the aptly named Wellington Books who gets dragged, sometimes very humorously, sometimes with surprising adeptness, into her personal investigation/vendetta. Refreshingly, while magic is present in the world, it is not the focus of the villain’s plot.

In the meantime there is a mystery surrounding the director of the Ministry’s activities and a political plot to undermine the Ministry in favor of a new agency, the “British Intelligence Service” who won’t have anything to do with this silly magic business, thank you.

It’s rip roaring fun. Highly recommend it for those who love Steampunk or just a good romp.

The Roman Mask by Thomas Brooke: It’s hard to write a novel (or make a movie) where the audience knows the end is not going to be good and keep them engaged. This book is about the Battle/Massacre of the Tuetobourg Forest, the greatest Roman military disaster that many historians agree helped shape modern Europe. Told from the Roman point of view it is, of course, a very bloody tragedy.

Brooke inserts a fictitious Roman “war hero,” Cassius (no not *that* Cassius, or that one, or that one)  who has lost his taste for the military and nerve for battle after surviving a particularly horrific almost-last-stand. In short, the guy has PTSD and spends as much time as possible drunk and distracted. Yanked out of his life of dissipation in Rome, Livia (wife of Princeps Augustus, now *there* was a couple fiction could not have invented) sends Cassius off to “advise”/keep an eye on Quintus Varus, the Governor of the new Roman province of Germany.

Varus was, as was well known, an utter failure. He had come from governing Syria, which was already a kingdom used to a king, agriculture and production for markets, taxation, etc. when it was conquered by the Romans. Indeed, most of Rome’s stable conquests were of, as one historian put it, “ready-made principalities.” Not so Germany, a land of Iron Age tribes not at all used to farming or taxes or exploiting the land beyond anything more than necessary for their warrior lifestyle. It certainly was not a proper occupation for a Germanic Warrior to work the fields. With low product yield, Varus taxed the hell out of them instead in order to build Roman cities as a showcase of the advantages of Roman civilization, which did nothing to impress any German on whose backs it was being built by force.

This of course led to the great alliance of German tribes under a Arminius/Hermann, the German leader who had been raised as a princely hostage of Rome and even served in the Roman Army. This experience served him well, making him appear as an ally to the Romans while he organized and managed to turn a horde of disorganized warriors into a fighting force capable of taking on three Roman Legions and destroying them utterly.

Cassius is an enjoyable character. His PTSD and guilt do not overwhelm the character to the point of making him a drag. He’s smart, caring, has a sense of humor and is annoyingly experienced and sensible to his young protégé who is filled with dreams of honor and glory. Marcus the protégé manages to be over exuberant without being annoying and you spend the novel on the edge of your seat wondering how the hell are they going to get out of this.

The action of the battle is very well done, incorporating some of the recent archeological finds.

The author takes the liberty of giving the Romans more resistance than they probably were able to put up in real life (also diverges from Tacitus‘s telling that *all* the Roman leaders offed themselves at once), but it builds the tension to a fever pitch of the Romans’ final doomed assault to help a megre few escape. He also redeems the image of Numonius Vala who is considered by historians to have rode out with the cavalry as a cowardly escape. In the book, it’s a plan.

I won’t spoil it for you except to say the ending is not all tragedy. It was a really good, satisfying, read. Well done indeed. The Battle of Tuetobourg Forest is one of those historical events that defies fiction. With events like this, no writer, no Hollywood producer could have come up with what happened in real life, but Brooke handles it deftly.

On a lighter note..Haha

I watched the BBC mini-series of War and Peace and I enjoyed it.

War and Peace

I admit the presence of Tom Burke was a factor (hawt), even if his character only exists to be a bastard.

        Dolokhov: “Oh, so good to have met you on this day we are going into battle in which we might die. I regret there was any misunderstanding between us.”

Pierre’s reply should have been, “You fucked my wife. I shot you. Seems pretty straightforward to me.”

Alas, no.

Anyway I thought, What the hell, I’ll give it a go.

Now, War and Peace is one of those novels you read just to say you have read it, and I now realize why.

        It was an o.k. story (if sexist as hell, Tolstoy obviously believed only men are capable of self aware interior philosophizing, but I guess that is the sexism of his time) until about 1/2 – 2/3rds of the way through Tolstoy goes off on these rants about how modern (for him anyway) historians suck and don’t understand anything. I’m not sure what his point was beyond “God is the answer to everything that happens,” but he goes on and on and on, to the point of repeating himself at least couple times. And this is interspersed with the last 1/3 of the story. You end up plowing through 10+ pages of ranting at a time trying to get back to it.
        And then he keeps going on with his belaboring rant against historians for 26 pages after the story is over!
        And his problem is that he looks at historiographical theory in absolutes. He believes that historians believe it was great men who steered history or it was social movements that steered history. Now maybe back then that may have been the case (not my period). The truth is that it is both. (You can never reduce anything dealing with human nature to a single theory, or even three.) A social movement created the French Revolution, but Napoleon is Fucking Napoleon and you can’t say he was merely a tool of a social movement swept along by the tide.
        Talk about “writer in need of a copy editor.” This book could have cut by at least 1/3 if he had stuck to the story and let it *show* how history “really happens” in his theory rather than spending well over 200 pages (at least) *telling.*
        Like I said, the story itself is good, kinda like Jane Austin meets Bernard Cornwell, but with more politics. But good Gods, would Tolstoy just shut the fuck up and tell it!
        But the BBC mini-series is very good. I rarely say this: But skip the book and watch that instead.
        (Sorry about the paragraph breaks. I don’t know what the hell is going on there.)

Why I love Raphael Sabatini

From The Life of Casare Borgia:

Without entering here into a dissertation upon the historical romance,
it may be said that in proper hands it has been and should continue to
be one of the most valued and valuable expressions of the literary art.
To render and maintain it so, however, it is necessary that certain
well-defined limits should be set upon the licence which its writers
are to enjoy; it is necessary that the work should be honest work; that
preparation for it should be made by a sound, painstaking study of the
period to be represented, to the end that a true impression may first be
formed and then conveyed. Thus, considering how much more far-reaching
is the novel than any other form of literature, the good results that
must wait upon such endeavours are beyond question. The neglect of
them--the distortion of character to suit the romancer's ends, the like
distortion of historical facts, the gross anachronisms arising out of
a lack of study, have done much to bring the historical romance into
disrepute. Many writers frankly make no pretence--leastways none that
can be discerned--of aiming at historical precision; others, however,
invest their work with a spurious scholarliness, go the length of citing
authorities to support the point of view which they have taken, and
which they lay before you as the fruit of strenuous lucubrations.

I have been reading his Historical Nights Entertainment, Parts 1 & 2, which are collections of vignettes of famous historical moments in a novel-like narrative. (Many of them were originally published individually in magazines.)  Scholarly and scrupulously honest, he prefaces each collection by what sources he could find and the choices me made in how he portrayed it.

And it is wonderful stuff.