3.5 – 4 stars While not the masterpiece that was The Name of the Rose, or quite the tour-de-force that was Foucault's Pendulum, _The Prague Cemetery_ i3.5 – 4 stars While not the masterpiece that was The Name of the Rose, or quite the tour-de-force that was Foucault's Pendulum, _The Prague Cemetery_ is both an excellent read and a worthy addition to the erudite canon of Umberto Eco’s works. I must admit to having been somewhat disillusioned with the books he produced immediately after the first two named, finding The Island of the Day Before interesting though not really compelling, and I could frankly not get past the first chapter of Baudolino despite several attempts. (That being said I think I may need to revisit both of these books someday to see if time will have changed my appreciation of them, especially since we can sadly no longer expect to see any further publications from Eco.)
In ‘Prague’ we see Eco treading some familiar territory in the form of vast conspiracies that hinge on the fevered imaginations of those involved and as such I think it can be seen as an excellent companion work to his masterful _Focault’s Pendulum_. While the latter concentrated on the occult and mystical conspiracies that arose from the dissolution of the Templar Order coalescing into the myriad groups claiming to be their spiritual descendants and keepers of the key to an ultimate and mysterious power, ‘Prague’ centres on the political side of the equation, with its preoccupation with the Masonic lodges that were said to be the true powers behind the various thrones and assemblies of eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. Even more, the novel is concerned with the sinister growth of nineteenth century antisemitism which found its penultimate expression in the form of the spurious ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’; a document that harped on all of the fears of ‘mainstream’ society in regards to the Jews, turning them from a downtrodden minority into a vast and powerful coalition bent on the destruction of Christian civilization.
At the centre of the conspiracy is the only purely (according to Eco) fictional character of the book: Simone Simonini, an utterly unlikable character who yet manages to be a compelling protagonist. Born in Turin and raised by a grandfather whose virulent hatred of the Jewish people inevitably infected his grandson, Simonini introduces himself to us with a declaration that is nothing less than a virulent hate filled screed attacking nearly every variety of human that he has come across. His hatred of the Jews is particularly venomous, but he has no qualms with castigating the Germans, English, French, Italians, clergy, Christians in general, and (of course) women, to name a few, with his malice. He is, as you can see, an equal opportunity xenophobe, going so far as to even hate his own people (both by birth and adoption). A more complete misanthropist would be difficult to find. Simonini’s story is presented to us in the form of a diary (with occasional intrusions by the narrator who is purportedly editing the document for our consumption, something Eco also did in _The Name of the Rose_). Not a diarist by nature it appears as though Simonini is suffering from lapses in memory due to some kind of moral crisis and his meeting with the fledgling psychoanalyst ‘Dr. Froïde’ (yes, that one) has prompted him to write down his experiences in the hopes that it will lead to the answer to his problem. We soon come to see that there is an additional layer of complexity to this diary as it is intruded upon by another figure, the enigmatic Abbé Dalla Piccola, who often seems to know more about Simonini’s own doings than Simonini himself. This dialogue being pieced together by our narrator leads us to wonder who is writing this document? Is it one man suffering a crisis of identity or two men somehow joined by their participation in the dark underworld of conspiracy and espionage? (view spoiler)[ In the end we find that the answer is what was perhaps the obvious one, but what else can a man with no conscience do when he suffers a moral crisis, but create a conscience for himself? (hide spoiler)]
Thus we follow the reminiscences of a hate-filled man whose only true love, indeed the only unalloyed joy of his life, is in food. All else is in Simonini’s life is narrated with a sardonic sneer and an implicit (or more often overt) denigration with the exception only of food which he lovingly describes in the rapturous tones of a true gourmand. Aside from the aforementioned father of modern psychoanalysis the tale is jam-packed with appearances or mentions of famous people of the time from Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas to Garibaldi and the ill-fated Alfred Dreyfus. Steeped in the concept of grand conspiracies from his youth (both from his grandfather and the parade of Jesuit priests who were both his teachers and nemeses) it is no surprise that Simonini gravitates towards such things as he grows older and upon coming under the wing of a notary who trains him in the art of forgery and deceit the future path of the unfortunate boy is more or less paved for him. Becoming first involved in the various political intrigues around Garibaldi and the unification of Italy, Simonini is soon forced to flee to Paris and ultimately becomes the spider at the centre of the web which is the vast ‘Jewish conspiracy’ that cements itself in the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Like the three bored book editors from ‘Focault’ that became the grand engineers of the great Templar ‘Plan’, Simonini’s fevered imagination and ingrained hatred are the seeds of something that catapults itself from dream (or nightmare) to reality. Even its own author believes in the truth of his fiction, at least ‘in spirit’ if not in the facts as they are presented.
This is obviously not a book that is filled with the milk of human kindness and its primary subject matter is appalling, but I still found this to be an ‘enjoyable’ read. Part of this is likely due to the fact that Eco took as one of his models the feuilletons of writers such as Hugo, Eugene Sue, and Alexandre Dumas, a genre which I particularly enjoy. Eco isn’t shy about this influence making the works of Sue and Dumas direct influences on Simonini in both form and occasionally detail. Added to this is Eco’s scholarly depth and virtuosity which is, as always, touched with his urbane wit. One always learns something when reading Eco, and if you’re anything like me you are constantly amazed at the man’s polymathic mind, but at the same time I don’t find myself feeling that I am being talked down to (I’m looking at you Gene Wolfe). All in all this was a compelling read that I’d recommend to anyone looking for a serving of historical fiction that is full of the twists and turns characteristic of all of Eco’s work. Just be prepared for a large dose of hate and venom. ...more
When we think of post-apocalyptic fiction we tend to think specifically of science fiction (or at least I know I do). Our vision is usual3.5 – 4 stars
When we think of post-apocalyptic fiction we tend to think specifically of science fiction (or at least I know I do). Our vision is usually either of a near-future survival thriller about the fall of current human civilization into ruin (most often as the result of a nuclear holocaust, an ecological disaster, or more recently due to those pesky zombies), or of the far-future as we witness the after-effects on a society that has fallen into utter barbarity and ruin. We tend to see the apocalypse, understandably, as truly world-ending on a global scale wherein the entirety of human civilization has been laid waste, but what about an apocalypse that is more restricted in its geographical extent? What about one that impacts ‘only’ a single nation or a culture? What about an apocalypse that happens not in the future or near-present, but one that lies in the distant past? We think, or hope, of apocalypses (apocalypsi?) as rare events, something so inconceivable that it could only happen when the blue moon shines, but when we broaden our definitions just a little and look beyond only those events that shatter the globe and also turn our vision from the future to the past we may start to see a world that was riddled with apocalypses; a world where cultures thrived and died on a regular basis. It would seem that in many ways the apocalypse has been a fact of life for humanity since our infancy. Countries, cultures, whole civilizations were destroyed as a matter of course throughout most of human history and Paul Kingsnorth’s _The Wake_ is a tale of one such apocalypse.
1066 is a famous year. Even those ignorant of many ‘major’ historical events likely know that this was the year that William (alternately ‘the Bastard’ and ‘the Conqueror’) of Normandy invaded England and defeated then-king Harold Godwinson and subjugated a people. This subjugation was particularly harsh, even in an age known for the harshness of war, and ultimately involved the destruction (or was it a transmutation?) of a people through the decimation of their language, their rights, and, ultimately for many, of their lives. The Anglo-Saxon culture that then held sway (admittedly itself a race of conquerors on the island) was overcome by the culture of France and a way of life was seemingly decimated almost overnight. Landowners lost their rights and privileges to a crown with new and far-reaching powers; speakers of the Anglo-Saxon tongue found themselves ruled by a people that neither knew, nor cared to know, their language or ways; nearly the entire ruling class was decimated and those beneath them learned that even the yoke they once bore was perhaps not so bad a thing when compared to the new one. What is less well known is that there was, for several years, a guerilla war waged on the Norman invaders by some of the remaining Saxon population. This war, while ultimately fruitless, was the last hope of many for retaining their way of life and it is the story of one such rebel that we are told in Kingsnorth’s novel.
One thing to note before this review goes any further is that Kingsnorth has basically created his own language in this novel and it could be a stumbling block for some. He calls this language a “shadow tongue” since it is a fabricated version of English that incorporates many Old English words and grammatical structures in an attempt to incorporate a sense of verisimilitude with the era in which the story takes place without actually writing it in Old English. It could thus be compared to what Russell Hoban did in Riddley Walker, though I would argue that this is a bit easier to slide into (esp. if you have any background in basic OE syntax and vocabulary). There is also a helpful glossary at the back of the book for some of the more opaque words and terms used in the text. I think, as with Hoban’s use of an invented language, Kingsnorth’s experiment is not merely a gimmick and ultimately succeeds. I find far too often that historical fiction fails due to being little more than modern characters dressed up in historical drag. I wouldn’t say that attempting to recreate a dead language in a way that can (mostly) be read by modern audiences is the sole solution to this problem, but in this case it definitely went a long way towards immersing the reader into what is effectively a different world, and certainly a different mindset. When we have to meet the narrator on his own terms due to the language used we are forced to leave many of our preconceptions at the door. Of course the fact that I have at least a smattering of Old English definitely helped me in acclimating myself fairly quickly, but I would strongly encourage any readers, even without this background, to still put in the effort. Once you’ve picked up the gauntlet dropped by Kingsnorth I think you’ll find that after a few chapters the words that were previously giving you headaches start to roll naturally off the tongue.
We open on the eve of the Norman invasion and are introduced to Buccmaster of Holland (a region of eastern England, not the Netherlands) our stalwart narrator and a “socman a man of the wapentac [who] has three oxgangs” which ultimately translates to “an important man of influence and means beholden to none” (a fact of which he is eager to remind us every chance he gets). Buccmaster tells us his tale of tragedy and woe as he recalls the day that everything started to go wrong and all of the events that followed in its wake. It was, as is usually the case, a day much like any other aside from the fact that he witnessed an omen, a strange bird in the sky, that led him to believe that changes were in the air. His feeble attempts at warning others fall on deaf ears and we soon learn that Buccmaster is an atavism amongst his own people, a man of the old ways as taught to him by his grandfather who has rejected the “hwit crist” and the wave of change that has already come and significantly changed the traditions and beliefs of his people. As a result he is not only something of an outcast and recluse in his own small community, but also already in a position of bemoaning the lost past of his people even before the great apocalypse that will truly decimate his culture has arrived.
It is interesting to note that despite the tragedies that we come to see befall Buccmaster: the loss of his position, the burning of his home, the disappearance and probable death of his sons, the rape and murder of his wife, Buccmaster never becomes a sympathetic character. He is a man, we quickly come to realize, who is neither likeable nor trustworthy. His words always serve a specific purpose - his own perceived best interest – and while it seems fairly clear (to me at least) that he is not deceiving us on purpose it is equally clear that his entire perception of reality and the events that go on around him are skewed. Ironically it is his own words that betray him. As we hear the constant justifications, the repeated assurances of his own worth, power, and rightness, the continual complaints about the wrongs to which he has been subjected (by both his enemies and his friends) we begin to question Buccmaster’s grasp on reality. As Buccmaster falls further and further from his position of relative comfort and influence, or as obstacles to his unquestioned authority arise, we start to hear the voices in his head. These voices whisper to him that the old gods have returned and hand-picked Buccmaster himself to bring back their ancient ways to his people and overcome the invaders. Unable to accept that he is no more than an outcast and outlaw living like a beast in the forest, Buccmaster must instead see himself as the ordained saviour of his people and their ancient way of life.
You might wonder how book with a main character whose catalogue of faults and crimes matches that of Buccmaster could be readable, let alone enjoyable, but I found _The Wake_ to be both. Buccmaster is no saint, he’s not even a likeable sinner, but his story of loss, decline, and madness is a compelling one. As we are given more and more glimpses of both past and present events and the story of his life begins to unpeel like the skin of a rotting onion we start to see the full tragedy of Buccmaster’s life and understand that the last greatest calamity of the overthrow and destruction of his people was simply the final nail in the coffin - the last straw in a long line of sins, disappointments and defeats. It sounds an utterly gloomy tale, and while it certainly isn’t full of a lot of chuckles, I still found it to be compelling and not so much depressing as harrowing. The apocalypse of the Norman invasion may have left the globe at large much as it had been before it occurred – changes in regime happen every day after all – but it was no less world-ending for that to the people that lived through it and came out the other side into a world, a reality, which they could no longer understand.
_The Wake_ is a fine piece of historical fiction that not only incorporates a truly intriguing narrative technique and linguistic structure, but also proves to be a powerful meditation on loss, culture, and the ways we define ourselves as both individuals and members of a wider community. Definitely recommended, though not for the faint of heart....more
What can I say? I find myself constantly underwhelmed by this series despite loving other books by Perez-Reverte. I guess I just want a reall2.5 stars
What can I say? I find myself constantly underwhelmed by this series despite loving other books by Perez-Reverte. I guess I just want a really good historical swashbuckler with a bit of meat on it and despite having been generally underwhelmed by each book in the series so far I keep hoping that Perez-Reverte warms up in the next one. So far in my mind this hasn't happened.
There's nothing terrible about this story: we get to see Captain Alatriste through the eyes of our narrator Inigo (aside from those infuriating portions of the story where Inigo is not present but we are somehow still given a first person view of events...a nit pick perhaps, but if your whole conceit is that this is a first person memoir then you ought to figure out how to handle this kind of situation without contradicting the whole support structure of your text - you're a writer, it's your job isn't it?!) Okay with that off my chest: Inigo is now a bit older (he's the ripe old age of fifteen here) and is following Alatriste to the war in Flanders, specifically around the city of Breda. Inigo's role as a mochilero (basically a boy who follows the army around and does odd jobs for the soldiers) means he gets to see a lot of the action up close and personal, but isn't technically a combatant (not a paid one anyway). He is starting to see Alatriste in a somewhat more complicated way, it's not all just hero-worship anymore, but he is still devoted to his mentor and the squad of veterans of which Alatriste is the de facto commander.
In a nutshell the story is about Alatriste and Inigo as they struggle with the difficulties of war: not just the enemy, but hunger, boredom and even insurrection and I don't know if there's really much more for me to say. Not much of the story left a lasting impression on me. There really didn't seem to be much plot going on here aside from: this is what war in the era of Spain's fading glory was like and I'm going to insert Alatriste and Inigo into the middle of it. If the characters really jumped off the page then perhaps that by itself would be worth it, but I'm starting to think that Alatriste is perhaps a bit *too* laconic. We see him from a remove as it is given that almost everything is coming from Inigo's point of view, but when you add to that the taciturnity of Alatriste which sometimes borders on the ridiculous then it's really hard to identify with the titular 'hero' of the series. It's almost like getting all of the melancholy taciturnity of Athos from The Three Musketeers without any of Dumas' excellent dialogue to bolster it. A mention is made of Alatriste's past, when he was apparently more adventurous and outgoing, and I found myself wishing Perez-Reverte had written a story about *that* epsiode which would have had the virtue of being more exciting and not having to filter everything through the eyes and mouth of Inigo. As for Inigo: I must admit to not being much of a fan...he's a pretty boring character as far as I can tell and his main character traits seems to be devotion to Alatriste, courage in the face of adversity, and undying devotion to a girl he knows wants to kill him.
Anyway...not sure I will muster the strength to continue with this series. Every new book still seems like set-up to some overarching story arc that never ultimately materializes. ...more
I really don’t have a lot to say about this book. It’s the first one by Renault that I’ve been…hmm, not disappointed, but perhaps underwhelmed by. WeI really don’t have a lot to say about this book. It’s the first one by Renault that I’ve been…hmm, not disappointed, but perhaps underwhelmed by. We continue with the story of Alexander the Great from the point at which we left him in Fire from Heaven. Or we sort of do…because this volume is told to us as the first-person memoirs of Bagoas, a Persian noble whose family was killed during internecine fighting for the Persian throne. Bagoas is captured as a young boy by his family’s murderers and is made into a eunuch who, due to his good looks, is ultimately sold as a sex slave.
By some fairly circuitous routes he moves from dire circumstances to become first the lover of the Persian King Darius and, finally, fulfills the same role for Alexander. The first quarter of the book is exclusively concerned with the life of Bagoas and the Persian court during which Alexander is little more than a rumour of menace and looming danger. Afterwards we are immersed in the battles and internal intrigues of Alexander’s mobile army-court-realm as he makes his way eastward on his progress to conquer most of the known world. Of course everything is told from Bagoas’ perspective so many events, primarily battles and the personal and political affairs of Alexander that do not revolve around Bagoas, are told second hand. I think this arm’s-length approach to the central figure is the element of the book I liked least. I didn’t personally find Bagoas to be a particularly compelling character, though he was by no means a bad one, and I really just wanted to get a closer look at Alexander and his life as we did in the first volume.
All that being said this is still a well-executed piece of historical fiction written in Renault’s fine prose. The ability of Alexander to turn his dreams and aspirations into reality is truly awe-inspiring as he attempts, according to Renault at least, to mould a disparate world of warring kingdoms and peoples into a unified empire. Alexander is presented, in many ways, as very forward-thinking in this regard, but I am happy to report that it did not seem, to me at least, to be a case of the writer feeling the need to ‘modernize’ her characters in order to make them palatable to readers as much as an expression of her own beliefs about what the actions and achievements of Alexander pointed to. He is still very much a man of his time, just a truly exceptional one. I wonder if there was perhaps a bit too much hero-worship of Alexander on Renault’s part (though one could argue this was more the result of Bagoas’ obvious love and adoration of him and the natural result of his role as narrator of this story).
All in all a good read, but not my favourite....more
I have to admit to having been disappointed by the eponymous first book in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s ‘Captain Alatriste’ series of swashbuckling3.5 stars
I have to admit to having been disappointed by the eponymous first book in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s ‘Captain Alatriste’ series of swashbuckling romances. It may have been due to unfair, or incorrect, expectations, but I remember being fairly nonplussed by my reaction. I love me a good swashbuckler, but despite this fact I have to admit that I find myself disappointed more often than not in the ones I pick up. Sabatini has one truly great entry in the genre that I have read (the superlative Scaramouche), but I have found myself distinctly underwhelmed by every other book by him that I have taken up…much to my chagrin. Doyle's 'Brigadier Gerard' stories are wonderful, but they are as much comedies as they are swashbucklers. I venerate Dumas père, but must admit that even his voluminous output has its ups and downs and contrary to popular belief I don’t think that most of his works should really be classified as true swashbucklers (though historical romance is such a close kissing cousin that they really ought to just get a room already). It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I took up volume two in the Alatriste series, _The Purity of Blood_. The meat of the story revolves around the titular ‘purity of blood’ that one must be able to prove (especially if you happen to have any Jewish descent in your family tree) in order to be considered an ‘Old Christian’ and the trouble (that’s putting it mildly) encountered by those conversos unable to do so to the satisfaction of the authorities, especially the infamous Inquisition. Alatriste and Íñigo get pulled into a plot that seems to be merely a family affair to begin with, until it becomes apparent that there are tendrils spilling out from it into much higher levels of society. Buckles are swashed, secrets revealed, and danger & death are always waiting in the wings. Through all of this Pérez-Reverte is able to bring into a swashbuckling adventure ruminations on the decay and hypocrisy inherent in the Spain of the ‘Golden Age’; a golden age that, not surprisingly, leaves quite a bit to be desired and, when seen face on, is neither better nor worse than any of mankind’s other blunders throughout history.
I will admit to once again feeling more or less indifferent for much of the novel. All in all it was fairly good...an intriguing mystery setting things up on the first page and a fast paced adventure that was out of the gate with little to no preamble, but I was still not sufficiently grabbed by the adventure to feel myself sucked into the world Pérez-Reverte was creating. I know he’s capable of this as he’s done it to perfection for me in the more slower paced The Fencing Master and the intriguing occult-literary mystery The Club Dumas, but so far in his pure swashbucklers I am not always fully engaged. There were moments though. The conceit of the book is that it is a first person memoir being told by Íñigo Balboa, Alatriste’s ward and companion ever since the boy’s father, an old soldier buddy of Alatriste’s, died in the latter’s arms and asked him to care for his son (more on this anon). This conceit allows us to enter into Íñigo’s mind as his remembrances of his youth take on the bitter-sweet savour of a man looking back on his halcyon days from the vantage of old age. Two moments here struck me as particularly moving. In the first Íñigo recalls the vision of Angélica de Alquézar, the great love of his life; a love that is not without its own ambivalent qualities:
At times, when memories seem so sweet that I long even for old enemies, I go and stand before the portrait Diego Velázquez painted of her, and stay for hours looking at her in silence, painfully aware that I never truly knew her. But along with the scars that she inflicted, my old heart still holds the conviction that that girl, that woman who inflicted upon me every evil she was capable of, also, in her way, loved me till the day she died.
The second was in a moment of truth for Íñigo in which his mettle and devotion to his master are tested. In this moment he finds
“…that there are some things no man can tolerate though it cost him his life or, precisely, because that life would not be worth living if he yielded.”
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Íñigo proves himself worthy of the Captain’s respect and devotion.
Despite these moments that allow Pérez-Reverte’s novel to be tinged with that golden glow of memory so often ascribed to the ‘Golden Age of Spain’ in which these adventures take place, the memoir format is not without its complications. The fact of the matter is that Íñigo spends a large portion of his time separated from the Captain (no need to go into details here, that really would be a spoiler) and yet we still get whole chapters told from the perspective of Alatriste without losing the assumption that ultimately it’s all coming from Íñigo’s mouth (or pen). I’m not normally a stickler for the whole “what is the conceit of how we received this narrative” thing (though it is becoming something I think about more) and usually just go with the flow, but it did grate a bit here for me. I can’t believe that the laconic Alatriste told Íñigo anything but the barest details of what he did while they were separated, yet we still get a view into not only Alatriste’s actions, but his thoughts and words as well (not to mention those of the various friends and enemies with whom he interacts). I liked those chapters just fine as third person narrative, but they didn’t really work for me as parts of Íñigo’s memoirs. That quibble aside I found that as the book neared its conclusion I was warming up to it much more than my experience in the first half would have suggested. I would still say, though, that this is in some ways a book that works less as a thoroughly rousing adventure in and of itself, but is rather a further set up for the long term adventures of Alatriste and Íñigo, especially in regards to the relationships they have both with each other and with those who will prove to be the greatest thorns in their sides. Alatriste has a great moment at the end of the book with his nemesis, the thoroughly evil (yet still interestingly complex) swordsman and assassin Gualterio Malatesta, while the aforementioned reasons for the complex feelings of Íñigo for the lovely and deadly Angélica de Alquézar get some page time as she is shown to play a small, though key, role in the stratagem that nearly proves to be the end of our two heroes. All in all I wasn’t completely swept away by this story, but it planted enough seeds that promise potential greatness that I am committed to following along with the adventures these two motley heroes for at least a little while more. I hope Pérez-Reverte proves to live up to the promise....more
As the rating attests I enjoyed this book, but I am not sure if I will ever be one of the rabid legion of fans enamoured of Patrick O’Bri3 – 3.5 stars
As the rating attests I enjoyed this book, but I am not sure if I will ever be one of the rabid legion of fans enamoured of Patrick O’Brian’s work. I certainly enjoyed this book much more than I did Master and Commander which, quite frankly, I found opaque and uninteresting. I also skipped over the second book in the series since Aubrey and Maturin on land worrying about their love lives didn’t really seem like the next best point to re-try getting into the series. For some reason I can’t quite fathom I’ve always felt a little guilty about not liking the first book and there’s something deep down in me that really wants to like this series. There is, after all, quite a bit to love: two well-drawn main characters who complement and contrast each other very nicely in both their skills and demeanor, a detailed (one might say perhaps a bit too detailed) glimpse into the minds and manners of Napoleonic Europe (with obviously a decided concentration on naval procedures and jargon), and enough adventure and excitement to generally keep things interesting. Of course, there are slow points and between naval engagements or chases, duels, and moments of intense physical or emotional intensity the calm can be somewhat soporific. I suppose this is a nice parallel to the sea voyages that comprise the bulk of the narrative: moments of intense action and apprehension leavened with days and days of routine and boredom. That’s not quite fair, I guess, I certainly didn’t find myself yawning too much during this book, but it is true that events often move at a sedate pace for the lion’s share of the pages.
As the story opens we find ourselves thrust into the midst of a meeting of politicians and naval muckety-mucks the result of which will be a major disappointment for Captain Jack Aubrey and a significant impediment to the health and possible continuance of Dr. Stephen Maturin’s life. Loose lips sink ships, and they also put His Majesty’s spies into tight corners. After some period scene setting with Jack’s fiancée Sophie and an initial adventure involving torture, rescue and escape the upshot is that Jack and Stephen are back at sea, nominally for the purpose of ferrying an envoy from Britain to the East Indies. From here we are treated to the requisite scenes of naval life, Stephen’s obsession with natural philosophy and both scientific and cultural observation, forays into the culture of the Indian subcontinent, and woman troubles for both Jack and Stephen. Add to that a duel, the weathering of some truly monumental forces of nature, and a surprise naval engagement and you’ve pretty much got everything you ought to expect from an Aubrey-Maturin novel.
The long and the short of it is that I enjoyed this novel quite a bit, certainly enough to more or less efface the bad taste I had after reading the first one. I definitely plan on continuing to follow Jack and Stephen’s further adventures, though I have not yet been converted to the level of hardcore fandom. One note: I alternated between listening to the Patrick Tull narrated audio version of the book and reading my electronic version. Overall I enjoyed Tull’s performance (it really can’t be called anything short of that), though his pauses and occasionally prolonged drawl did make me stumble from time to time....more
I am not sure if you could find a better, or more entertaining, tour guide to ancient Greece than Mary Renault. I am constantly surprised by3.5 stars
I am not sure if you could find a better, or more entertaining, tour guide to ancient Greece than Mary Renault. I am constantly surprised by Renault’s ability to balance the fine line between immersing me in a world that is ultimately foreign to my own, and yet one that still often feels surprisingly ‘modern’ and relatable given the era in which the stories are set. I never feel, on the one hand, as though the ancient Greece she has created is simply our world doing cosplay, and yet on the other hand (due largely, I think, to the urban - and urbane - nature of the protagonists and their world) I often find myself feeling very much at home here in spite the many obvious differences between our cultures and the gulf of time that separates us.
In this outing we are once again in the environs of Athens during the classical period (this time after the trials of the Peloponnesian War and just prior to the emergence of Macedon as a great power). Our story is that of Nikeratos, a tragedian of Athens whom we follow as he not only learns his trade, but also navigates some of the shaky political events of his day. It is also the story of the rise and fall of Dion, nobleman of Syracuse and sometime pupil of Plato, as he attempts to free his city from the grip of tyranny and institute the just maxims of his former teacher.
Nikeratos, or Niko, is a man born and bred to the theatre. Following in the footsteps of his father, Niko moves from being a mere extra to ascending the ranks of his profession until he is one of the leading tragedians of his day. Renault also leavens her story with a small bit of the supernatural (something not uncommon in her work, though never an overstated element) in the form of an antique mask of Apollo Niko comes to own. Through this mask Niko is sometimes touched by the god and inspired to acts that tend to further his career and reputation. In one such act Niko defies death at the hands of a jealous fellow actor to ensure that ‘the play goes on’ and as a result gains the adulation of the public and the notice of the upright and pious nobleman Dion. In a lesser writer of historical fiction the two would now become the best of friends, or perhaps lovers, and Niko would be dead centre in the political struggles of Syracuse in which Dion was to play such a large role. Renault, however, plays it slightly differently. To be sure Niko and Dion form a strong bond, Niko himself being somewhat overcome by the noble and virtuous character of the nobleman from Syracuse, but he generally remains a peripheral figure in Dion’s life…one who does participate in important events from time to time due to this connection (sometimes merely as a witness and at others as a peripheral participant), but who still more or less stands at the edge of these history-shaping events, watching from the outside.
I think Renault thus manages to balance the desire (or even need) of a writer of historical fiction to have her characters partake in the great events of history as they have come down to us, and even to hob-nob with some of the most famous personages of the day (Plato, and both Dionysios I and II, tyrants of Syracuse, are examples of such people that Niko meets in this book) without making the connection seem too forced (at least in my opinion). For the most part we remain very much grounded in Niko’s day to day life as an actor even as we circle the periphery of the ‘great events’ going on around him.
Renault had already written Sokrates into her novel The Last of the Wine and Aristotle and his influence would later feature in the Alexander trilogy, but here she scores a trifecta of famous philosophers, having Plato play a significant role in the attempts to rehabilitate the tyrants of Syracuse at the behest of his friend and former pupil Dion, with numerous mentions of his mentor and role model Sokrates, and even a walk-on by Aristotle (Aristoteles here) at small points in the story. I found this, in addition to Renault’s creative attempt to re-imagine the details of the life of ancient Greek theatre, to be entertaining elements of the story. This important role given to these foundational thinkers of western thought has allowed Renault to ruminate somewhat not only on their theories, but on their real-world application. Since our viewpoint character Niko very much views the life of the Academy from the outside, whatever his friendships with its members, one might say that she is thus able to view these tenets in an almost neutral way. Renault’s voice, as uttered by her characters, is always erudite and well-spoken and I found myself enjoying such gems as:
I thought, Perhaps it is impossible for a philosopher to be a king – at any rate, to be both at once. Perhaps that is only for the god
a response to Plato’s The Republic (a work whose precepts very much infuse the novel) with which I heartily concur; not to mention:
We are weary of ourselves, and have dreamed a king. If now the gods have sent us one, let us not ask him to be more than mortal.
Now he had all which if he had sunk his soul to evil could have made him glad. Old Dionysios had had it and died content. He suffered because he had loved the good, and still longed after it.
which both speak to the difficult political realities incumbent upon a king that may render even the best of intentions moot in the end.
Renault’s great love (one might even say worship) of Alexander shines through in an amusing scene at the end of the novel which also speaks to the power of art to move our souls and shape our lives in ways that can be both unexpected and transformative (a fact of which readers are acutely aware, I know I am always in search of such works):
It seemed that the god had said to me, “Speak for me, Nikeratos. Someone’s soul is listening.” Someone’s always is, I suppose, if one only knew. Plato never forgot it.
There’s nothing quite like being able to visit another world, whether the new vistas be ones separated from us by time, space, or psychology and thatThere’s nothing quite like being able to visit another world, whether the new vistas be ones separated from us by time, space, or psychology and that is one of the great joys of reading, isn’t it? I’ve noted how historical fiction, like sci-fi or fantasy, takes this to an extreme by depositing us in a world for which our frames of reference are at best theoretical and we are uniquely at the mercy of the author for our ability to understand and appreciate what is going on around us. We need, on the one hand, to be able to relate to the human characters in the story and understand their experiences in a way that resonates with us, while at the same time we need to appreciate that it is a human experience viewed through a cultural lens whose expectations and assumptions are very different from our own. In my opinion Mary Renault excels at this.
Renault’s greatest skill perhaps lies in her ability to paint an immersive and detailed picture of the world she is creating while still using fairly broad strokes. While I love the genre of historical fiction I have also noted that I often find myself disappointed in the examples I come across. I think that one of the reasons for this is that it seems to me that a lot of authors of historical fiction fall into the trap of over-explication and verbosity. As with some speculative fiction authors it can be far too tempting for the historical fiction author to want to lay all of their cards on the table: “Look at all of this wonderful research I did! Aren’t these details about the toiletries of the 18th century just fascinating? Isn’t this incredibly detailed description of the building I’m talking about based on the numerous pictures and architectural diagrams I’ve seen of the place just painting the most vivid picture? Isn’t the verisimilitude I am creating through this very wordy and extensive descriptive paragraph immersive?” Well no, not always is my response. Renault, however, is able to make me feel like I *am* immersed in the world of ancient Greece without filling up my brain with details and minutiae that tend more to distract from than to add to the verisimilitude. We are given only the details we need, generally filtered through the eyes of the characters who already understand their meaning, and are left to draw our own conclusions. We are given hints and allusions instead of explanations. We are permitted to experience the alien world into which she drops us without being told exactly what it is we are supposed to know or feel about it. I like that.
In _Fire from Heaven_ we begin our journey with Alexander of Macedon (“the Great” to posterity) as he grows from the precocious child of a divided house until we reach the point at which he is on the threshold of his role as stupor mundi of the ancient world. Raised by a father who is equal parts proud and disdainful and a mother who is both fawning and manipulative, Alexander has his work cut out for him. Learning quickly that he must manoeuvre carefully between these two great poles of his life, Alexander makes his way through court intrigues, battlefields, and the training regimen of a noble scion in an attempt to find his own way. Renault does an excellent job with her characters, but I think she particularly excels with Alexander’s divided parents: Philip of Macedon and Olympias his queen. We first see the former in a rather unflattering light – a seemingly venal and power hungry warlord, eager to consolidate the gains he has made on the battlefield and impatient with the wilfulness and ambition of his wife who coddles his son and heir. Olympias herself at first appears to be something of a victim, though one who fights tooth and nail against every transgression (whether real or perceived), but it soon becomes apparent that things are not exactly as they seem. Throughout the story both Philip and Olympias become complex characters, by turns sympathetic and repulsive. Both of them are willing to use their son as a pawn in their game against each other and the world, though both still show the signs of human affection and weakness that make their actions understandable. Alexander himself is somewhat more of a cipher given his almost superhuman abilities and unerring confidence, but even he is given his human moments when we see the person beneath the legend. For the most part, though, we tend to see Alexander somewhat from the outside as those around him constantly gauge and interpret his actions in light of current events.
For his part Philip is presented ultimately as a conflicted man: he is a conquering warlord, but his goal is the ultimate harmonious unification of Greece; he is a Macedonian ‘barbarian’ in love with the ideals of the Greek Hellenes; he is a hard master of men who still craves the love and affection of his extraordinary son. Olympias is a little simpler: a woman in a time when women were generally either victims or property (or both), she uses the typical tools of her sex to gain advantage where she can: sex as a weapon, political intrigue, and hints of witchcraft to push forward her own goals in despite of her husband and the patriarchal world in which she lives. Despite their importance both characters are still playing background roles to their extraordinary son. Shown from a young age to be precocious, he excels in all he attempts and is a constant wonder to his teachers and pedagogues (one of whom was the great philosopher Aristotle), taking from them what he feels to be of use and discarding the chaff. He quickly draws to himself like-minded youths who can’t help but admire the strength and confidence he displays, among whom is the apparent love of his life, his friend Hephaistion. Hephaistion has his work cut out for him as he makes it his goal to watch over his precocious friend and attempt to temper his fiery ambition with some common sense…suffice it to say he is not always successful.
Ultimately we have in this volume of Renault’s Alexander trilogy the bildungsroman of an extraordinary person. The political, philosophical, and spiritual world of Classical Greece which shaped him is brought to vivid life with Renault’s trademark restraint and clarity just as she did for the Archaic period in her Theseus books. Indeed these books do well to be taken together as we once again follow the exploits of a protagonist of heroic stature who still manages to remain for us visibly human. As with the former series the supernatural world hovers on the edges of sight, informing character, actions, and events, though its veracity is never either simply confirmed or denied. If you enjoy historical fiction then you can’t choose a better guide to the ancient world than Mary Renault and I recommend this book to you (after you’ve devoured the Theseus books of course). ...more
Renault once again does a stellar job bringing Classical Greece to life with the story of Alexias, scion of a minor patrician family in Athens duringRenault once again does a stellar job bringing Classical Greece to life with the story of Alexias, scion of a minor patrician family in Athens during the era when the city felt turmoil both from within and from without as they experienced not only the aggression of Sparta during Peloponnesian War, but also the existence of philosopher and iconoclast Sokrates. At its core this is a tale about love, primarily the love of Alexias for his best friend and lover Lysis; though it is also about the different kind of love Alexias has for his step-mother, one of the greatest nurturing elements of his life; the much more complicated love he has for his father, a hard man of unbending principle; and finally the love he has for the truth as learned from the peripatetic sage and gadfly buzzing in the faces of Athens’ elite, Sokrates.
The story is pretty straightforward and documents Alexias’ growth from a child who was nearly left to die of exposure after birth to a young man of some fame, noted for both his beauty and integrity. He experiences the hardship and rigors of war (along with its occasions for camaraderie and glory), feels the exultation of competing in the great athletic events of the day, and learns to question the mores blindly passed onto him by the earlier generation in favour of a more clear-headed examination of truth not solely based on traditionally held assumptions.
The novel is chock-full of famous figures of the era: Alkibiades the statesman, turncoat, warrior, and all-around golden boy loved by both Perikles and Sokrates; the afore-mentioned Sokrates seen at the height of his ‘malign’ influence on the youth of Athens; Plato and Xenophon, two of Sokrates most famous pupils, not to mention many others perhaps only ‘famous’ through their inclusion in Platonic dialogues. The use of famous historical figures can be a bit of a pitfall for authors of historical fiction as they have to either start inventing them out of whole cloth, or pick and choose which ‘version’ of the individual to present. I think Renault had a much better time of it in this book than she perhaps did in the Alexander books: there I think she may have been a bit starry-eyed and created an Alexander who, while eminently interesting, could pretty much do no wrong. She obviously has a deep affection for Sokrates and his circle, but I felt she managed to avoid some of the pitfalls of hero-worship that she fell into with Alexander.
Renault tackles many issues in this story: the many modes and types of love; the place of tradition vs. investigation of the new; the benefits and pitfalls of both the rule of the many and the rule of the few; the struggle between personal desire and communal responsibility, all expressed through the actions and decisions of Alexias as he grows from a boy into a man. Alexias is an interesting figure: someone from a ‘noble’ patrician family who is still committed to the best of the democratic ideals, a follower of Sokrates who still values many of the Athenian traditions his mentor questions. He is a man who comes to realize what it is he fights for when he fights for his city, whether his enemies be the Spartans, their Vichy-like patrician puppets, or even the democratic demagogues that finally win power and I think his vision provides an adroit epigraph for the book:
Must we forsake the love of excellence, then, till every citizen feels it alike? I did not fight, Anytos, to be crowned where I have not run; but for a City where I can know who my equals really are, and my betters, to do them honour; where a man’s daily life is his own business; and where no one will force a lie on me because it is expedient, or some other man’s will.
I love visiting ancient Greece with Renault and am sad to see that only two books remain to me in her oeuvre as new experiences. Ah well, that is what re-reading is for, right?...more
Mary Renault’s _The Praise Singer_ is another highly enjoyable visit to the world of ancient Greece. This time we have left the heroic ag3.5 – 4 stars
Mary Renault’s _The Praise Singer_ is another highly enjoyable visit to the world of ancient Greece. This time we have left the heroic age of her consummate Theseus series (The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea) and entered the early classical period of Athens during the reigns of the tyrant Pisistratos and his heirs as seen through the eyes of the poet Simonides. This turns out to be something of a golden age for Athens and the arts, at least according to Simonides, which lies precariously on the edge of political upheaval and, ultimately, the coming storm of the Graeco-Persian war.
Simonides, the ugly but gifted child of a wealthy landowner on the small and severe island of Keos, tells us the story of his life as he grows from a provincial outcast into a shining star in the cultural centre of the Ionian world. He is an amiable narrator, seemingly unafraid to tell the truth as he sees it, and embodies almost equal parts perceptive insight and naïve simplicity. Given that this is a first-person narrative we obviously see the events of Simonides’ world through his eyes and thus the events that make up his life are central to the story, and yet I also had the sense that however much his life may be the focus of the tale and even be a not insignificant part of the cultural centre of his world, he is still much more of an observer than a participant in what we see. What I mean by that is that while Simonides was in no way a grey or lifeless character I still felt as though it was his world, and not the character himself, that took centre stage in the story. Simonides is also never a mystery to the reader, but I think that is because he is presented as a very straightforward man, a plain-speaking one whose position on any subject is able to be known without needing to ask. This simplicity of character means that there are times that the significance of events, and especially the nuances of personalities, can be overlooked by him until he sees them in a new light after events have fallen out in an unexpected way. The fact that the story is told as a memoir by Simonides as he looks back from old age on the various events of his life lends itself nicely to this nuance of his personality. As is perhaps likely to be the case with any tale set in ancient Greece the story is something of a tragedy, but it is not so much a personal tragedy for an individual brought on by hubris (though that does certainly play a part in things, as it must) as it is a tragedy for a people and a way of life subject to the vicissitudes of time and fortune.
Renault explores many themes in this novel: the unfairness of a human nature which by default castigates ugliness and praises beauty; meditations on the nature and purpose of art as well as its abuses; the precarious nature of human society and the seemingly small, and even personal, incidents that can lead to the downfall of an entire culture; and the serenity that can be found in remaining true to oneself and one’s principles. Aside from these themes the story is worth reading simply to enjoy Renault’s fluid mastery of her prose and her vivid depiction of a long-gone world. I will admit to having enjoyed the Theseus books more, I think that was at least partially because the shading between the natural and the supernatural was still very ambiguous in those and the mythical was coinciding with the historical in a fascinating way, whereas here we are in a much more ‘modern’ and almost purely historical setting where, if the gods are not exactly disbelieved in, they are certainly treated with much more complacency. I sometimes felt as though Simonides’ point of view was occasionally a little too restrictive, though I can’t really count that as a fault since it was really an expression of effective character building and was also inherent in the format Renault chose for her tale; really this was more a case of my own desires not always coinciding with the author’s purpose.
All in all, though, this was an excellent tale that immerses the reader into a specific era of the Hellenic world with vivid characters and a quick, fluid pace. Definitely recommended to lovers of well-written historical fiction and the world of ancient Greece....more
Mary Renault’s _The Bull from the Sea_ takes up where The King Must Die left off and continues the legendary story of Theseus and his kingshi4.5 stars
Mary Renault’s _The Bull from the Sea_ takes up where The King Must Die left off and continues the legendary story of Theseus and his kingship of Attica. There are some differences between this volume and its predecessor, most notably in the fact that the scope of this tale is much broader. Whereas the first volume concentrated primarily on Theseus’ youth and time in the bull ring of Crete and covered the time involved in a fair amount of detail, this volume is much more a précis of many events, covering a much wider range of time. Important events and periods are singled out, however, and expanded upon with more than enough detail to satisfy. I never had the sense that the tale was in any way rushed or incomplete and the broader scope perhaps allowed for a more elegiac tone to the novel, which is appropriate given the ending to Theseus’ tale. This is a memoir giving the wider story of Theseus’ kingship and deeds after the defining moment of his youth has passed.
Even though this memoir comes from the hand (voice?) of Theseus himself and is often told very much in overview I was impressed with the way in which secondary characters came to life. For example with only a chapter seen from Theseus’ POV and the things he is able to glean from implication we learn a lot about the entire youth and development of his son Hippolytos. Theseus’ great friend Pirithoos, his wives Hippolyta and Phaedra and his other son Akama are also all very well depicted even when painted with minimal brush strokes.
Another thing that struck me with Renault’s Theseus saga (and this volume in particular) was the deft way in which many other legends and tales from ancient Greece were woven into the fabric of his tale without taking anything from the tale being told, but also without detracting from their own importance. These include the legend of the famous bard Orpheus, the tragedy of the king Oedipus, the existence of the Centaurs and the apparently contradictory traditions of both their training of the heirs of kings and almost bestial gluttony and lust, the tale of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, and even echoes of the coming Trojan War in a cameo by the young hero Achilles. As with The King Must Die Renault is able to retain the mythic stature of these stories while making them much more ‘realistic’.
For all of the many events that make up the career of Theseus Renault tells a tight tale, woven deftly with nary a thread left astray. We very much see him here as Theseus the King (as opposed to Theseus the wandering hero, though the latter is never wholly absent from his nature or actions) and we see him constantly trying to live according to the guiding principle of his life, learned in first trials of his youth: “To stand for the people before the gods, that is kingship. Power by itself is the bronze without the gold.” Despite the fact that he is a heroic figure whose deeds may often seem larger than life he is also a man whose ultimate tragedy is born of the foibles of his own human nature. In the end Theseus comes to learn, perhaps too late, that all of his choices and actions, along with the fate he has willingly embraced, have a price: “Fate and will, will and fate, like earth and sky bringing forth the grain together; and which the bread tastes of, no man knows.” The taste may be bitter at the end, but the sweet was no less great and is ultimately not erased by his tale’s conclusion.
The past, they say, is a foreign country. One might even go so far as to say that it is another world full of strange wonders and people who both fascThe past, they say, is a foreign country. One might even go so far as to say that it is another world full of strange wonders and people who both fascinate and repel. I imagine that is why history so intrigues me and I definitely approach the subject with a heaping portion of romance as I in no way attempt to diminish the veneer and lustre which the intervening ages bring to previous eras. Despite this fascination I generally find myself of two minds when it comes to historical fiction. While the subject matter fascinates me and the promise of even vicariously visiting that foreign country, the past, is a powerfully attractive one I often find myself somewhat unimpressed by many of the books I have sampled in the genre which, for one reason or another, often fail to capture my interest. Sometimes I am critical of the anachronisms (real or perceived) that seem to litter these books as the writer attempts to make the past perhaps a bit too relatable to our present world. Other times I am simply unimpressed by mediocre writing (I imagine it is no more prevalent in this genre than any other, but somehow it particularly grates when I find it here). Then again, sometimes I am simply not interested in what turns out to be more a history lesson than a story with blood and life to it. I was glad therefore to have found Mary Renault’s _The King Must Die_ which proved to be both well-written, full of particular human interest, and displayed the wonder and strangeness of the past in all of its glory. I also consider it something of a return to the love affair I had in my youth with the Hellenic myths which seemed to fall to the wayside as I grew older and other interests crowded them out.
Renault takes as her subject the early Hellenic expansion among the Greek archipelago when the ancient chthonic mother-goddess religions of the autochthonous peoples (the “earthlings”) were being displaced by the more patriarchal sky-god religions of the invaders. The title of the book itself refers to the ancient tradition that the year-king married the goddess (or more accurately her avatar the high priestess) and would then be killed as a yearly sacrifice to the Great Mother in order to ensure the bounty of the harvest and safety of the people. Into this tradition she incorporates the story of Theseus and his rise to fame and power. The son of an unknown father and the daughter of the king of a tiny Hellenic kingdom, Theseus has grown up believing himself to be the son of the god Poseidon. Theseus comes to learn that some of his preconceptions about his birth may not be literally true, though he never loses the sense that there is a deep connection between himself and the Earth-shaker. I like how Renault handles this aspect of her story. The power of the gods and goddesses of the ancient religions permeates the story and is never simply disproved or denied, yet she also doesn’t make them explicit characters in the story and go fully into the realm of fantasy. There are indications of the ways in which these divinities interact with the world, and it is up to the characters (and the reader) to decide for themselves how to interpret these strange and seemingly coincidental events.
To make a long story short Theseus grows in knowledge and confidence and eventually leaves his tiny home in order to find his fortune, and his earthly father, in the wider world. His journeys take him across the wild and bandit-infested Isthmus of Corinth first to the goddess-ruled city of Eleusis and ultimately to Athens. From his early victories and society-changing actions Theseus is finally driven to the event that will cement his name in the history and myths of his people forever: the yearly tribute of youths from Athens to the kingdom of Minos in Crete. Again Renault does a superlative job of taking what is, on the face of it, an utterly fantastic story and bringing its details down to earth without divesting it of its magic and mythic allure. The Minotaur may not be a true half-man half-beast, but he is no less a fascinating power against which Theseus must stand. The bulk of the novel concentrates on the time Theseus spends in Crete at the labyrinthine court of Minos as leader of a team of bull-dancers. These bull-dancers hold a special place in the hierarchy of Crete, on the one hand they are slaves destined to die at the hand of the god’s creature, the bull; on the other they are sacred and popular athletes who, so long as they survive, are showered with praise, gifts, and glory and are an untouchable segment of the populace, forever kept apart.
All of the elements of the myth are here: the brutal and savage Minotaur looming in the background, the decaying and decadent reign of the monarch known to the world as Minos, the labyrinth built by Daidalos through which Theseus must creep guided only by a thread, and the doomed love of the hero for the unfortunate maiden Ariadne, but they are all subtly transformed. Renault’s transmutation of them in some ways brings them closer to us as they become more plausibly human and understandable as ‘real’ events, but she does not go so far as to allow them to lose the lustre that gives to all true myths the shine and glory which make them everlasting. Of course this is a Greek tale and thus tragedy is a prevalent thread throughout. The tale ends as the first phase of Theseus’ rise and adventures are coming to a close and sets the stage for the final phase of his story in The Bull from the Sea to which I look forward (with suitable fear and trembling on behalf of the man unfortunate enough to be the ‘hero’).
Gene Wolfe’s third volume of the Soldier series is divorced from the first two in several ways. The most obvious is the fact that it was written 17 yeGene Wolfe’s third volume of the Soldier series is divorced from the first two in several ways. The most obvious is the fact that it was written 17 years after the last volume, leaving quite a cliffhanger for contemporary readers (and actually no indication that there would even be a sequel). The other is the fact that even in-story the events occur at a significant remove from those that transpired in Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete. As Sidon opens we find that Latro has been living back at home, apparently with his wife, for some time (though given that this is a Gene Wolfe book I’m not sure if I quite believe that everything is exactly as it appears) though his condition is no better than when last we saw him and he tends to sit despondently in front of his door where the word “Riverland” (aka Egypt) is written (apparently he believes that going to this distant country will enable him to heal himself…we’ve heard something similar before I think). Latro is visited by an old friend, the Persian ship captain Muslak who is one of the few remaining links to the previous two volumes, and his friend promptly decides to bring Latro with him as he just so happens to be taking a shipment of goods to the Nile delta.
What follows is an adventure similar to what we have already seen Latro undertake, though this time the setting is ancient Egypt and Nubia and the secondary cast of characters is different. In a nutshell Muslak’s ship is commandeered by the Persian satrap of Egypt to cruise down the Nile and discover anything that may be of use to him from the countries to the south. Travelling in this band are a Persian magi and his Egyptian priest-scribe, an Egyptian sorcerer-priest, two “singing girls” (aka temple prostitutes who become the “river wives” of Latro and Muslak), an Athenian wine-merchant, several eldritch familiars, and various sailors and soldiers. As before Latro is pulled in several directions by the machinations of the various gods and supernatural creatures he is able to see, as well as by the all-too human people who want to make use of him for their own ends. Aside from the new locale I have to admit that I didn’t notice a lot of difference between this volume and the others and little, if any, final resolution is forthcoming from Wolfe. Still, I enjoy being in Latro’s company and seeing the ancient world (both natural and supernatural) through his eyes.
I like the way, throughout the Soldier series, that Wolfe is able to make the gods into a real living and breathing element of the civilizations that spawned them. They don’t come across merely as archetypes or placeholders (though they do indeed serve those purposes, at least partially), but they are also not just humans with superpowers. There is something distinctly ‘other’ about them that seems equally tied to their roles as both stewards of particular elements of creation and embodiments of basic aspects of the human psyche. Within this ‘god-as-archetype’ role, however, they still retain distinct personalities that elevate them beyond being mere ciphers. The gods of Egypt seem different from those of Greece not only in their physical forms, but also in that they seem to have a less vested interest in Latro. I got the sense from the first two volumes that the Greek pantheon had a specific purpose in mind when they ‘recruited’ Latro as a pawn to their internecine fighting, but while the Egyptian gods are more than willing to make use of him, they seem to be doing so for much less personal reasons. Of course I still have no idea what exactly those reasons were for the Greek pantheon, so the jury’s still out on that one.
As in the other volumes Latro is once again led by prophecy to visit various temples along his path, this time following the Nile river to its source. Various gods and powers meet him along the way and help or hinder him as they see fit. He overcomes a variety of vicissitudes including enslavement, betrayal, and abandonment; he also meets an unexpected old friend in a time of great need, but ultimately ends this phase of his adventures perhaps worse off than he was when he started and on the verge of yet another seemingly hopeless quest. One hopes that this cliffhanger will be resolved in a subsequent volume and that the wait won’t be another 17 years.
Latro continues his journey across ancient Greece in search of his memory in Gene Wolfe’s second entry in the “Soldier” series _Soldier of Arete_. AsLatro continues his journey across ancient Greece in search of his memory in Gene Wolfe’s second entry in the “Soldier” series _Soldier of Arete_. As implied in my review of Soldier of the Mist I am finding this series to be the easiest for me to ‘get into’ of all of Gene Wolfe’s work that I’ve read thus far. I think it’s because many of the elements Wolfe employs in nearly all of his fiction really seem to make sense here. Latro is naïve and ‘unreliable’ as a narrator, but he’s suffering from memory loss due to brain trauma…I can accept that a lot easier than I can the apparent naïvete of characters like Severian (an apprentice torturer and would-be saviour), Silk (an annoying man-child saint)or Able (a young boy transported to a fantasy world, but a boy who seems to have grown up in some kind of very sheltered ‘Leave it to Beaver’ childhood…he certainly never seemed to have the experience I would expect of even a ten-year-old from the modern era). When those characters ‘leave something out’ of the tale they are telling it seems willful to me, Wolfe purposely obfuscating the narrative via his narrative tool, but when Latro does it I can accept it as a natural part of the story due to the fact that he just can’t help it, he really does try to be the best reporter of the events going on around him that he can. Of course this is all really just smoke and mirrors: Latro is just as much the ‘narrative tool’ of Wolfe as the others and giving me a ‘plausible’ excuse for accepting unreliability from him as a character perhaps doesn’t really mean that he has any significant difference from Wolfe’s other protagonists, he is still performing the same ‘sleight of hand’, but somehow it does make a difference to me. I'm willing to accept Latro for who he is and I find that much more difficult with Wolfe's other protagonists.
Wolfe’s ever-present erudition is also on full display in this volume (as in the previous) and we are immersed into the world of ancient Greece at the time of the Graeco-Persian wars. As is usual with Wolfe he pulls no punches and much is left for the reader to make sense of on their own, though Latro’s own need to explain some things to himself in his scrolls, as well as my own interest in the civilizations of this era, made the often frustrating obfuscation and explanation-by-way-of-implication endemic to Wolfe less of an issue for me here. Be warned that spoilers for Soldier of the Mist follow.
The previous volume ended in a cliffhanger: upon leaving the besieged city of Sestos Latro was tricked into a battle that seemed likely to kill him. Although he managed to survive (he is touched by the gods after all) and met a dying soldier who seemed to recognize him, calling out the name “Lucius” only to expire before he could enlighten him beyond this, Latro seems to be no closer to finding his home and identity than he was before. Latro is once again thrown into companionship with some old friends (and enemies) and this time journeys across Thrace, through Athens, and finally to Sparta guided both by the hands of the gods and those in whose company he finds himself. It becomes even more obvious here that Latro is a pawn, both of the gods and the other people with whom he must live. I’m still not sure what the end game of the former group is, or why they view Latro as such an important tool. The human players are much easier to read as they jockey for political and personal power and see Latro’s abilities (both as a soldier and as one who can see the invisible world) as useful tools for reaching their objectives.
It is interesting to see that a character like Latro, one who loses the memory of each day as it recedes into the past, is actually still capable of growth. I would definitely say that the Latro of Arete is a slightly different man from the Latro of Mist and the sorrow and perplexity of his condition are truly beginning to weigh on him. It is also touching to see the way in which many of the people around him truly care for this man (though he would be, and is, horrified at their pity of him) and much of the manipulation of Latro is done with the best of intentions, “for his own good”. Deep down in his heart, though, Latro appears to know better what it is that he needs and how he ought to live and thus, in the end, he makes his own decisions about what he shall do and where he shall go…perhaps to his own detriment, but even a man with no memory wants to feel that he has made his own choices, however well-intentioned the choices made on his behalf by others.
The ending of this volume is an even bigger cliffhanger than the one in Mist and the last chapter is even told in slightly confusing poetic prose by a character other than Latro…a flourish of Wolfe’s that no doubt left the readers at the time of publication thoroughly frustrated (these readers would be forced to wait 17 years for the final volume of the series, a volume that they perhaps never even expected to appear). While this could be validly considered a typically Wolfean ending to a series loaded with ambiguity I am glad that I have the third volume at hand and can see where Latro finds himself in the final fragment of his story without further delay.
Perhaps I’m finally growing into Gene Wolfe. There are still a lot of things about his writing that irritate me, but now that I’ve got a3.5 to 4 stars
Perhaps I’m finally growing into Gene Wolfe. There are still a lot of things about his writing that irritate me, but now that I’ve got a fair number of his works under my belt (some even read multiple times) and have a clearer idea of what to expect I am finding myself more able to accept most of these elements as challenging rather than offensive. I’ve come to expect several things from a book by Gene Wolfe: an unreliable narrator of course (this narrator tends to be a ‘hero’ with exceptional abilities granted either through birth or the blessings of the gods and is usually irresistible to the opposite sex, a bit of a pill personality wise and often follows some version of the ‘innocent fool’ template mixed with the more traditional martial hero and who tends to be less interesting than the secondary characters around him); a puzzle-like narrative that obscures more than it reveals and implies more than it states; erudition that can be somewhat oppressive in its range and obscurantism; the encroachment upon the mundane by the supernatural in both physical and immaterial ways (often in the guise of the inexplicable interference of gods or godlike beings with an agenda for the outcome of human affairs…water gods and nymphs are an especial favourite); and finally a favourite chestnut of Wolfe’s is the inclusion of some kind of vampire-like creature and/or a shapeshifter. _Soldier in the Mist_ certainly partakes liberally of all of these.
I might go so far as to say that Latro, the main character in _Solider of the Mist_, is pretty much Gene Wolfe’s wet-dream of a protagonist. Here we get a narrator so unreliable that he has to sift through his own words each day in order to make sense of them, never mind the poor reader! In this Latro is pretty much the polar opposite of Severian, Wolfe’s hero from the New Sun series: where the young torturer-apprentice from the last days of Urth was cursed with an eidetic memory (which he still parsed to his own convenience) Latro is cursed with a loss of short-term memory that makes him unable to remember anything that happened to him on the previous day. This state of affairs was brought about by a head injury suffered by the mercenary in (as we find out through the course of events) the battle of Plataea as he fought for the Persian King Xerxes against the Greek Confederacy. The resulting story follows a format not altogether unlike the movie ‘Memento’ in which a character in a similar situation was forced to rely on post-it notes, journals, and tattoos to help him remember who he was and that he was on a path of vengeance. For his part Latro has been writing out the events of each day on a scroll and is forced, at least at those times when he is lucky enough either to be reminded by others or happens to read the injunction to “Read This Every Day” that is emblazoned on the outside of his scroll, to go back and read his own composition in order to understand where he is and who everyone around him might be. Like I said…the perfect Gene Wolfe narrator. The reader of course participates in this attempt to make sense of strange and inexplicable events at the same time as Latro does.
To add to the confusion for the modern reader (and really, it wouldn’t be a Gene Wolfe book if he wasn’t trying to confuse you now would it?) is the fact that we are placed squarely in the ancient world and Latro tells us the names of events, places and characters in a literal, and sometimes misconstrued, translation of their name. Thus, for example, Athens becomes “Thought”, the island of Achaia is “Redface Island”, and Corinth becomes “Tower Hill”. I have to admit that I found this aspect of the novel to be something that added to the flavour of the text for me as opposed to one that jarred. I suppose I felt that in adding to the strangeness of the names of places that would otherwise seem too familiar to me from other sources I was better able to approach the world of classical Greece in a new and interesting way. The final layer of confusion and obfuscation is added by the fact that in this world the gods and eldritch beings of classical mythology do indeed walk amongst men and are ever ready to utter a gnomic phrase or attempt to further their own mysterious ends by manipulating mere mortals. They are usually invisible to those who walk only in the mundane world, but as strange things begin to come visibly to the fore as we read it becomes apparent that a bizarre side-effect of Latro’s injury is an ability to see this invisible world clearly (though of course it’s always possible that Latro is just having hallucinations). Sometimes these supernatural beings attempt to aid Latro with cryptic guidance while others seem inimical to whatever actions he attempts to take. Either way it becomes apparent that he is a pawn in their great game.
In essence the story is about Latro’s quest to be healed of his malady, or barring that to at least find out where he comes from and return to his native land. Of course, even with a prophecy from the Shining God to guide him (or perhaps because of it) things are not that easy. We follow Latro across the land of the Hellenes as he attempts to follow the path laid out for him by the god with the aid of several new friends and allies he picks up along the way. We are treated throughout to a view of the Greek Confederacy during the time of the Graeco-Persian wars from the point of view of a true outsider. We also glimpse many of the gods and supernatural beings with which their country appears to be densely populated and learn that more often than not human events appear to have been driven by the will of the gods and reflect wars that, while perhaps more grand in their scope, are no less petty in their motivations. I especially enjoyed Wolfe’s characterization of the gods which seemed to be partially Graves-ian in the anthropological and geographical emphasis he placed on their names, powers, and nature, but which didn’t lose its eldritch character for all of that. These are not the relatively clear-cut (though all-too human) versions of the Greek gods most readers may be more familiar with. Beneath the veneer of civilization and regal glory the chthonic hearts of these gods are dark and dangerous indeed. The world of ancient Greece that Wolfe presents is a fascinating one and the struggles and wars of the gods that impinge upon the world of mortals is intriguing, he seems to have a real flair for the numinous and its impact on human life. I think having just finished The Iliad was a distinct advantage for me in coming to this book. Not only was I still ‘in the mood’ for the world of ancient Greece, but I was even able to see some of the same concerns (and many of the same characters) even though the events portrayed in _Soldier of the Mist_ are happening centuries after the fall of Troy. I also didn’t get the feeling that Wolfe was simply writing modern characters into an ancient setting, his characters were relatable and all displayed familiar aspects of human nature that rang true, but they also seemed to be uniquely suited to (and representative of) their own milieu. I quite enjoyed this book and dove immediately into the sequel Soldier of Arete. I haven’t lost all of my reservations in regards to Wolfe’s method and madness, but overall I think I’m becoming more willing to sit back and enjoy the ride…I just make sure to stop and look around a lot more than I might feel is needed for another author.
_A Maggot_ is an interesting novel. It can be approached as an historical mystery, a meta-fictional experiment of mixed narrative form and genre, and_A Maggot_ is an interesting novel. It can be approached as an historical mystery, a meta-fictional experiment of mixed narrative form and genre, and a meditation on the injustices inherent in the 18th century social, political and religious mindset. The story proper details a mysterious journey undertaken by five individuals across the English landscape whose destination and purpose is unknown. In addition to this each of the individuals is not what they appear, and may not even be what they themselves think they are. This ‘simple’ mystery plot form is expressed with a variety of narrative techniques: a somewhat distant 3rd person with occasional authorial asides taking place “now” interspersing longer passages of first person question-and-answer that are occurring in the “then” of 18th century England. As the story progresses the reader begins to see that even the genre boundaries of mystery and historical fiction are being crossed and significant possible elements of science fiction begin to creep into the tale.
Accepting this novel at face value as a historical mystery would be a mistake, especially since it seems to be a mystery whose whole purpose is not to be unravelled. Rather the mystery ‘plot’ is the vehicle which allows Fowles to show how each character’s own conception of this mystery of which they are a part, and its possible solutions, is determined by their own social standing and personal background, by the hidebound preconceptions they each bring to their experience of the world. These disparate characters allow Fowles to put on display a particular aspect of human society that he perceives as having been distinctly strong in 18th century society due to its make-up, but that still exists today: that we are determined by our perceptions and expectations. The question and answer segments are particularly useful in this regard for making explicit how differently each character interprets the same events; how they look to the expected, the known, or the conventional, in order to explain something that is beyond their experience. Even the visionary falls back onto traditional (to her) paradigms in order to be able to interpret her life-changing experience.
The juxtaposition of perceptions and assumptions of the modern era (as witnessed in the 3rd person intrusions) with those of the 18th century when the novel takes place are well done, and seem central to the novel. These are characters who very much feel like authentic inhabitants of their era. Their modes of speaking and even of thought are truly alien to the modern reader in many ways. As a result Fowles is able to use these differences to indulge in his thematic hobby-horses of free will vs. pre-destination, the fear of change vs. the need to progress, and unthinking acceptance vs. the belief that change can and must be effected. These are ideas that many of us take for granted, but Fowles shows how new and strange many of these concepts were when the novel takes place and they were still in their larval stages. Another major cultural difference between the reader and those whom the book purports to represent is seen in Fowles’ notion that their sense of individuality is not even close to our own (would not even be considered as “individuality” at all by our standards). Fowles goes so far as to draw comparisons between the constraints of people from this era and those of a character in a book, the “plot” of their lives pre-determined according to their role and function in society (certainly if born below a certain social level), and harps on the fact that this was utterly natural to them, something which the vast majority of the people of the day would not even consider an issue worth considering. It is an intriguing idea and allows the more obvious meta aspects of the narrative to gain a further level of depth. Ironically Fowles notes both explicitly and implicitly that that the “birth” of the individual, one of the key elements that broke up the injustices inherent in the 18th century social, political and religious mindset, was as much a blessing as a curse.
All that being said I still found the book to be one I felt more obliged to finish than one that carried me along with the rush of its passage. At times the question and answer sections of the novel seemed to carry on too long and the 3rd person narrative parts could perhaps have been more liberally interspersed into the text than they were. I can accept that not all mysteries have to have a solution, but the utter lack of any real understanding of what happened in that cave in western England, and the impenetrable nature of the young lord’s real purpose and end, is certainly frustrating. In the end I guess I would consider this a highly successful meditation on the birth of modernity and the ways in which we have both learned from, and ignored to our peril, the lessons of the past, but only a moderately successful novel. I think David Mitchell would have written something on the same subject and with the same elements with just as much depth, but that was much more interesting. ...more
We continue where Dumas left us at the end of volume 1 of _Ange Pitou_. The first of the book are taken up with the main action of the b3 – 3.5 stars
We continue where Dumas left us at the end of volume 1 of _Ange Pitou_. The first ¾ of the book are taken up with the main action of the burgeoning Revolution in Paris. True to character Marie Antoinette’s pride and disdain increase as her scope for power and domination decrease; the King continues to vacillate, wanting to please everyone and ultimately pleasing no one; Gilbert seems to be an ally to both sides as he attempts to steer the monarchy through the troubled political waters that threaten to engulf them on the one hand, and on the other tries to promote the ideas of fraternity, equality, and liberty that are the ostensible aims of the Revolution; Father Billot continues to take part in momentous events in the city while it slowly dawns on him that the early ideals of political change are not adhered to by all and his horror at the events he witnesses enacted in the name of liberty grows. The final ¼ of the book follows our boorish, though well-meaning, hero Ange Pitou as he travels back to Villers-Cotterêts with Gilbert’s son Sebastien in tow for safe-keeping.
Ok pet peeve number 1: Despite it being the lynch-pin of the cliffhanger ending of the last volume Dumas does not, anywhere in volume 2, disclose the secret of Gilbert’s casket which was so central a MacGuffin to the plot of volume 1. I think I know what it contains, but damn, c’mon Alexandre…it better be in the next book in the series! Pet peeve number 2: not enough Gilbert and mesmerism…don’t set the dude up as the second coming of Cagliostro and then give him a desk job! Aside from that this was a satisfying “conclusion” to the story of the taking of the Bastille and the birth of the French Revolution (or at least as satisfying as any story with a blatant cliff-hanger ending can be). The first part of the book allows Dumas to paint his picture of the Revolution and its principle movers and shakers (with a few of his own invention) in broad, colourful strokes and I enjoyed it. The second part shows Dumas in melodrama mode as poor Ange Pitou finds himself unlucky in love and the entanglements of romance become bound up in the political agitation of the day. He also manages to set himself up as something of a local revolutionary hero and military leader in his attempt to both impress the lady of his heart’s desire and to elevate himself from the role of country bumpkin.
Al in all a fun read and good continuation of the series, though I have discovered, with some chagrin, that most of the English translations of the next volume in the series, _The Countess de Charny_, are heavily abridged. Maybe it’s finally time to try and read some Dumas in French. ...more
_Ange Pitou_, also known as _Taking the Bastille_, continues the “Marie Antoinette Romances” and further details the travails of the French monarchy i_Ange Pitou_, also known as _Taking the Bastille_, continues the “Marie Antoinette Romances” and further details the travails of the French monarchy in the dying days of its power. The title refers to the ‘hero’ of the story, Ange Pitou, an orphan being raised by his tyrannical and parsimonious aunt in the environs of Villers-Cotterêts (Dumas’ birthplace). As the story in volume 1 begins Ange Pitou is on the verge of being expelled from his school under the tutelage of the Abbé Fortier for his heinous use of “three barbarisms and seven solecisms in a theme of only twenty-five lines” which are anathema to the Latinist churchman’s ears. Pitou, much more inclined to his life as a poacher and haunter of the forests around Villers-Cotterêts, is not personally upset by this set-back, but rather fears the wrath of his aunt who harboured dreams of the young man becoming an Abbé and supporting her in her old age. As events continue Pitou eventually finds himself in the care of a much more moderate guardian ‘Father’ Billot, a farmer of some standing and the local agitator of political unrest (he also happens to be the father of the beauteous Catherine, a fact not altogether without interest to Pitou). So far so pastoral. Of course Dumas will not leave things in this state and it soon comes to light that not only was Pitou once under the guardianship of our old friend Gilbert (now known as Doctor Gilbert), but Billot himself is both a tenant of Gilbert’s and a fiery adherent to his more advanced political philosophies. Through not only the ownership of a banned political tract composed by Gilbert and found in the possession of Pitou while on Billot’s farm, but also the theft of a mysterious casket left in the farmer’s care by Gilbert, both the farmer and the former schoolboy find themselves on the run from secret police and on the road to Paris where they will take not insignificant roles in the historic storming of the Bastille, the symbol of tyrannical oppression in the eyes of the people, and un-official commencement of the French Revolution.
One of the things that can be annoying about reading Dumas, especially when considering his longer series of books that follow the progress of a specific historical period and group of characters, is that there are often large swathes of time that separate the volumes and important events that occur which are mentioned in passing in a “oh yeah, and while you were gone this happened” kind of way. I don’t totally fault Dumas for this since he wanted to write about long ranging periods of the history of France, and in order to do this in a completely continuous way would have made his already voluminous output unbelievably large and unwieldy. Add to that the problem of reading in translation and the situation of abridgment which unfortunately can occur, especially in some of his lesser known works, and it can be more than a bit frustrating. In this case it has been six years since the last volume (The Queen's Necklace) and the last time we saw Gilbert was even earlier, at the end of Memoirs of a Physician wherein he apparently took ship for America with Philip de Taverney. Balsamo did drop some hints about Gilbert in The Queen's Necklace where he chastised Philip for leaving him for dead (or maybe even killing him, the implications were unclear), but suddenly we have Gilbert locked in the bastille for his incendiary pamphlets, apparently he is also the father of a fifteen year old boy currently going to school in Paris who used to be Pitou’s foster-brother. So, that’s a bit of an information bomb. Added to that is the fact that Gilbert, in addition to being a political philosopher and practicing physician, has also been the pupil of Balsamo/Cagliostro at some point and displays to full effect his mesmeric abilities. Seems to me that this probably could have made for an interesting volume in itself, or at least a bit more exposition from Balsamo on the subject in the last one, but I guess Dumas was too busy to trouble himself with such things…continuity doesn’t seem to have always been his first concern.
Dumas delivers on his usual combination of interesting characters, fast paced action, and excellent dialogue. Ange Pitou himself is mildly interesting, a lanky country bumpkin with just enough book learnin’ to sound like he understands what the revolutionaries are talking about even though he doesn’t. There is also some romantic tension that ties nicely into the political situation given that Pitou’s object of adoration, Catherine Billot, only has eyes for one of the Charny boys, a nobleman and brother-in-law of Andree de Taverney, now the Countess de Charny (oh the wonderfully tangled plot lines of Dumas). Père Billot is a salt of the earth farmer of the gruff but lovable variety looking to level the field and bring equality to the people. More interesting by far is Gilbert, now a man of distinction and some influence far advanced from his previous position of pining unrequited lover to Andree and aspiring philosopher and revolutionary under the auspices of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The King is still a feckless, though well-intentioned, monarch on the eve of disaster and Marie Antoinette herself has become jaded by her unpopularity with the people and surrounded herself with a sort of anti-court who are opposed to the more moderate wishes of the king and is something much more akin to the vain dragon-lady of popular conception than her previous role of uncertain victim of circumstance. Volume 1 ends, of course, on a cliffhanger as the newly freed Gilbert has just acquired the position of personal physician to the king and regained his stolen casket from Andree after displaying his mesmeric abilities. Andree herself was on the verge of explaining her antipathy for Gilbert to the Queen and detailing the secret contained by the casket when the curtains were drawn. I’m looking forward to volume 2. ...more
Amongst the sinks and dens of the Paris backstreets a mysterious figure lurks. The criminals whisper in hushed tones. There is a darOur story so far….
Amongst the sinks and dens of the Paris backstreets a mysterious figure lurks. The criminals whisper in hushed tones. There is a dark avenger on the streets. Even the great amongst the fallen are subject to his heavy hand and rough justice. Those who see the errors of their ways, those who are victims dragged down to the gutter and yet still retain their hope, those who have not given up on their fellow man, these may see the fair face of mercy and be given a new chance at life, but those who remain immured in their sin, wallowing in their own filth and degrading those around them, these will feel the iron hand and swift justice of the avenger.
In public he is Rodolph, Grand Duke of Gerolstein in Paris for the purposes of amusement and the fulfillment of his diplomatic obligations. In reality he is a man haunted by his own past and convinced of his mission of atonement: to punish the wicked as the very hand of God and equally to reward the just who are oppressed. His enemies are legion, yet his allies are also numerous: the noble Sir William Murphy, mentor, right-hand man and courageous bodyguard, David the former slave from the Americas and now medical doctor and aide to the Grand Duke’s plans, Madame Georges the keeper of sanctuary and victim of a tragic past. Thrill as Rodolph faces le Chourineur and must either awaken his better nature or fell this giant with his fists! Cheer as Rodolph rescues the beautiful la Goualeuse, a prostitute with a heart of gold! Gasp as Rodolph metes out rough justice to the frightful and deformed master villain the Schoolmaster! Be confounded as we hear the debased story of the Schoolmaster’s twisted one-eyed lover la Chouette! But wait! Our hero’s adventures have only begun. How will he weather the storm when his haunted past meets his dangerous present? Shrink as we hear of the depravity of the duplicitous Doctor César Polidori! Gasp at the audacity of the venal Sarah Seyton of Halsbury and her brother Thomas! Wonder at the mysterious sorrow of the beautiful Marquise d'Harville! What lies in store for Rodolph’s uncertain future?
Yup, that’s really not much of an overstatement of this book so far. Eugene Sue, a former physician and sailor, took up the pen at the same time as Dumas, Stendhal, Balzac and Hugo. Unlike these eminent confrères he is largely forgotten today, though in his own day he was enormously popular and _The Mysteries of Paris_ has apparently even been given some credit in laying the groundwork for the 1848 revolution (this fact comes from wikipedia, so I cannot speak to its veracity). It’s a great potboiler of a tale, reminiscent in some ways of elements of Dumas (esp. some aspects of The Count of Monte Cristo) and I imagine it may have been an influence on later writers who created such figures as Batman, the Shadow, and Doc Savage…though there are obvious differences. The justice Rodolph dispenses is definitely a very harsh one when viewed with modern eyes, and while it is likely to come across as little more than revenge it appears that Sue actually considered it a valid way in which to encourage repentance and rehabilitation (no spoilers!)The novel even spawned its own genre: the “City Mystery”, a species of crime fiction which depicted the seedy underbellies of great cities and was continued by such writers as George W. M. Reynolds, Émile Zola, Paul Féval, and others.
It’s very pulpy and very fun and it’s interesting to see the roots of some of the elements of later genres at their birth. If you like 19th century serial fiction this is a good bet. There are a few unfortunate examples of info-dump chapters that come across (or did to me) as a bit heavy-handed in technique, and one bizarre example of Sue spoilering a mystery with an authorial aside that seemed completely unnecessary to me. I’m reading the series in a six volume set and while I am not planning to continue immediately I do look forward to following the further adventures of Rodolph in the streets of Paris.
Stay tuned! Same bat-time! Same bat-channel! ...more
The Werewolf of Paris is an interesting book. Part horror story and part historical fiction, it follows the travails of the titular werewolf of ParisThe Werewolf of Paris is an interesting book. Part horror story and part historical fiction, it follows the travails of the titular werewolf of Paris from his birth to his death, as well as his place in the blood-drenched moment of history known as the Franco-Prussian War that was followed by the ill-fated Paris Commune. Interestingly the werewolf in question, Bertrand Caillet, is actually something of a secondary character in his own tale, as it is told from the perspective of his adoptive father Aymar Galliez. We never see the wolf itself in action, and despite some tantalizing clues built upon separate pieces of evidence, the actual lycanthropy of Bertrand could as easily be interpreted as a purely psychological affliction as opposed to a supernatural one. Add to that the fact that we are being told this tale third-hand (Endore’s conceit being that his story is being constructed from the reports and reminiscences of Galliez who had to put the pieces together mostly second-hand, interspersed with Endore’s own researches into the documents of the period) and the truth or fiction of the lyncanthropy in question becomes even greater. Sometimes this conceit does not always benefit Endore’s story, for there are many scenes and events that occur within the text that would have been clearly outside of the knowledge of Galliez or any documentary sources of the day…still that is a quibble for something that really is a novel and quite an enjoyable one at that.
Endore starts his ‘documentary’ with a tale taken from the annals of history that purports to enlighten us as to the ultimate origins of our werewolf. It is a sordid tale of feuding nobility wherein the Pitamonts and Pitavals, after having waged generations of warfare against each other, finally end their feud in mutual impoverishment and one of the last of the Pitamonts is held captive for years by the last of the Pitavals. His imprisonment is an inhuman one, and he is left to suffer in a literal hole in the ground, fed nothing save raw meat. This apparently triggers his transformation into the wolf-man of legend. Our tale truly begins, however, when Josephine, a young peasant girl newly arrived in Paris, is raped by a priest, a descendant of the last of the Pitamonts, and bears Bertrand, a child destined to bring forth the family curse.
We follow Bertrand in his young life, at first so full of promise and then slowly brought to near ruin by his ever-increasing taste for blood. Strange things begin to happen in Bertrand’s village: animals go missing or turn up dead, recent corpses are found exhumed and partially eaten. What could be happening? Slowly Bertrand’s “uncle” Aymar (the nephew of the woman who had taken in Josephine and the man who ends up becoming responsible for both mother and child) begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together and see that everything leads back to his nephew. At first he tries to slake the thirst of the monster inside Bertrand by feeding the boy raw meat and keeping him confined to the house. This only has limited efficacy and soon more drastic measures need to be taken. Ultimately the boy is able to escape his well-meant prison and, starving to appease his lusts, goes on a spree of murder and terror that takes him to Paris. Here, amidst the confusion of the end of the Franco-Prussian war and the rise of the Commune Bertrand is able to satisfy most of his hungers free from persecution or discovery. But his Uncle Aymar is spurred on by regret and remorse. He feels responsible for the release of this beast upon the world, a beast he is convinced is a supernatural terror, and decides to hunt him down. The rest of the tale details his attempts to find Bertrand and his slowly dawning discovery amidst the chaos and death that seems to permanently reside in Paris that perhaps mankind itself is the true monster. Side by side with this runs the parallel story of Bertrand and his fortuitous discovery of a lover not only able, but willing to supply him with a conduit for the slaking of his varied lusts…it is an interesting picture of depravity, lust and mutual co-dependence. Of course things come to a head and the piper must be paid.
Endore’s overarching purpose is, I think, not really to tell a werewolf story, but a desire to expose the bloodthirsty nature of mankind, for which the werewolf of the title becomes little more than a symbol, or even a contrast to this thesis, since one lone werewolf, no matter how savage, can never hope to decimate the lives of which plain old human conflict is capable. For, as even Aymar the unstinting hunter of the wolf must admit, if the hands of “normal” men are able to commit and rationalize the cold-blooded killing of 20,000 commoners as part of the reaction against the Commune (not to mention those killed by the Commune itself in its heyday, or the casualties of the Franco-Prussian war before it) then “What was a werewolf who had killed a couple of prostitutes, who had dug up a few corpses…?” Endore, and by extension Aymar, even postulates that the very existence of the werewolf may have been nothing more than the sickness of the time manifesting itself physically…though it is left open-ended in a chicken-and-egg way whether it is the madness of the time that allowed the wolf to be born, or whether it was the existence of the wolf that could infect mankind with its madness and bloodlust.
Overall this was a good tale, though I would say it came across much more as historical fiction for me than as pure horror (which in my opinion is fine). It has also been claimed that this is the “Dracula for Werewolves” and I’m not sure if I agree. Certainly it shares similarities with Dracula in its documentary format and is a well-written, and even seminal, version of the werewolf myth, but I am not widely enough read in werewolf stories to say whether or not it is the best of them. Also, the ambiguity of the actual ‘reality’ of Bertrand’s lyncanthropy and his relatively secondary role as a character in the story makes me think that while this is a good tale well worth reading, it may not be the ultimate exemplar of werewolf fiction. ...more
_Casanova’s Alibi & Other Stories_ is an enjoyable collection of shortish tales from the master of swashbucklers who gave us Scaramouche and Capta_Casanova’s Alibi & Other Stories_ is an enjoyable collection of shortish tales from the master of swashbucklers who gave us Scaramouche and Captain Blood. Drawing from what is perhaps the most rich vein he could find for his métier in history we follow that arch-scoundrel and Prince of Adventurers himself, Giacomo Casanova. The nine tales collected herein follow Casanova from his earliest transgressions in Venice to the somewhat more seasoned (though no less audacious) exploits of his later years.
We see Casanova pulling the wool over the eyes of various dupes, whether it be as an aggrieved brother, an ostensible alchemist or spirit medium, or the apparent champion of a slighted dancer. As is to be expected he is always looking for the angle; the best way in which to advance his position or get some cash (though he would never, of course, be so gauche as to put it that way). Sabatini walks a nice line with his character: on the one hand he obviously admires his audacity and plethora of talents, on the other he is quick to use his narrative intrusions to regretfully point out some of the moral failings of his hero (with the occasional stance of disbelief that such calumny as is reported of him could really be true). In connection with this I also found it surprising (or perhaps given the era in which these stories were written “intriguing” would be the correct word) that there is nary a reference to Casanova’s preeminent role as debaucher and deflowerer of young women. Aside from a casual reference to “intrigues” or the fact that “a handsome face in either a man or woman was ever an irresistible recommendation to Casanova” little enough is said about it until the very last story in the collection. Even here, in “Casanova in Madrid”, we see the relationship we might expect reversed and it is Casanova who falls for the mysterious woman he only glimpses from his window and on whose account much trouble ensues (though Sabatini does admit that his hero is something of a “hard-bitten, flamboyant adventurer of ripe experience and jaded appetites” with an “excessive appetite for philandering”).
While Casanova is certainly an active hero, and a man inordinately aware of his own self-professed honour, he’s no D’Artagnan willing to face down a half dozen swordsmen in the name of it. He is much more calculating than that and will cut-and-run when he has to. He’s a smart gamester and knows that his reputation can be restored later, but his life can’t be regained once it’s lost. His sardonic wit also shares a lot with his scribe’s equally famous creation Scaramouche. You can tell, by reading about either of these characters from the pen of Sabatini, that he got a real kick out of portraying their clever wit. Indeed, it is generally Casanova’s tongue and not his sword that is sharpest and against which his opponents would be wise to take guard.
To the best of my knowledge (a reading some years ago of the abridged The Story of My Life) all of the tales in this volume are based on reality (at least reality as it was reported by Casanova himself) and it really does show what an amazing character this man was. Even if Sabatini is simply taking the bones of a “true” event and fabricating his own story and character around it, the bones are pretty amazing and unbelievable in themselves. Sabatini does a good job with nearly all of these tales and the collection is well-worth reading, though I have to admit that he does not reach the heights achieved by Scaramouche. ...more