Indeed, many of our most cherished fantasies tend to relate to the place we were born--when we find ourselves defending it, or singing its praises. It's not that the details we give aren't true, it's that we have a sort of rosy-quartz view about the place that made us. It also comes out in what we dislike about our home, what tired and frustrated us--there is a whole mythology within us of what exactly we believe our provenance to be like, and it is more the truth of us than the truth of that place.
Kipling's Kim is often considered his greatest work, and as Said's introduction notes, it is one of his only works that profits from close reading. His others are certainly enjoyable, and have certain themes, but tend to wear these on the chest, while Kim presents a rather more complex relationship.
Of course, there was an uproar when it was announced that the Penguin edition would feature an introduction from Said, but as someone who has actually read his work, I was not concerned he would do Kipling wrong. Indeed, his treatment is even-handed, noting both the strengths and flaws of the text, and bringing together many interesting observations from other sources.
It is a boys' club book, about the doings of men in their 'Great Game' of death and deceit. Of women there are two: a whore and a mother figure, and neither one strays beyond the bounds of her given role. Indeed, this book was one of the inspirations for the creation of the Boy Scouts, after the romantic adventure of Kipling's young fellow.
It's also certainly a tale of privilege, as of course, that is the role Kipling himself was born into: of being free from social constraints, on the top of the heap, able to go where and when he liked, and in whatever guise, for there was none to gainsay him.
But beyond these bounds, it is certainly a wondrous and vivid tale, full of color and character, all those little details and curious turns of phrase that make a good adventure. Indeed, there is much more of the fantastical in this than in many adventure books--magic and mysticism have central roles, as do cultural dissonance, even if Kipling ultimately ignores the great and central conflict which first showed itself in the Sepoy Uprising, and grew to eventual fruition in Gandhi and at last, independence.
Rarely have I seen the Other and the defamiliarization of ideas portrayed so wholly, particularly in a colonial work--and if Kipling had used these strengths to tackle the great central conflict that looms over all, the work would have been truly profound.
The relationship between Kim and the Lama is the crux here, the deep and genuine friendship between stereotypically Eastern and Western figures, which crosses boundaries of faith, philosophy, race, and language, seeking ever for mutual ground and further understanding. Yet that the old man is a fool, and that Kim ultimately tricks him, secretly committing himself to the colonial role while paying outward respect is unfortunate.
There is a conflict between the two, but it is never allowed to come to the surface, it is never confronted and dealt with. Instead, the hope seems to be that if two disparate people can agree on the surface, that the fundamental contention between them is not worth exploring--when indeed, its usually the only thing that is, especially for a novelist, whose work is to drive to the heart of the matter.
But then, as Said points out, it was a conflict that Kipling did not see, or did not want to see, and in the end, it weakens the tale. Kim is not really answerable to the people he claims to serve, and as he tries to work for them in secret, he really serves himself. The condescension of 'knowing better' and with that excuse, keeping others in the dark is perhaps The Great Sin of governance.
But for that, it is an exciting tale, a thorough and palpable exploration of India and its people, as Kipling saw them, and brings to mind many important questions of the colonial role, Indiamania vs. Indiaphobia, and what it means to find yourself between cultures. If only Kipling had delved a bit more....more
This 'horror classic' was such a strange mixture of psychological terror and late-night campfire yarn that it never really came together. He starts seThis 'horror classic' was such a strange mixture of psychological terror and late-night campfire yarn that it never really came together. He starts setting the mood in classic Blackwood fashion--slow, deliberate, and philosophical:
"The silence of the vast listening forest stole forward and enveloped them.
". . . that other aspect of the wilderness: the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man."
"When the seduction of the uninhabited wastes caught them so fiercely that they went forth, half fascinated, half deluded, to their death."
But then, just as he's building this slow-burn terror of strange noises, of things brushing against the tent, of a queer and unsettling scent on the wind, we get our first victim, torn away into the woods at 'furious, rushing speed', and as he disappears, he yells
"Oh! Oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire! Oh! Oh! This height and fiery speed!"
And so, in one line, all the tension was deflated and I couldn't help but laugh out. The same line gets repeated several times over, which is what reminded me of a campfire tale--that there is a sort of repetitive motif that ties the thing together. Yet it really seemed to be in conflict with the general tone of the piece.
Other than that, and as usual for Blackwood, there were some quite disturbing and effective images, and some unpleasant implications. It really is a thoughtful and well-constructed story, I only wish he had found a voice for the victim's terror that wasn't so oddly specific in observing and reporting on the details of his predicament....more
In July of 2009, Caleb Crain gave this book a negative review in The New York Times. Though the review is well-written and specific, it is not, on itsIn July of 2009, Caleb Crain gave this book a negative review in The New York Times. Though the review is well-written and specific, it is not, on its own, enough to make me reject de Botton outright. The fact that the author then sought out Crain's blog and posted the following comment, however, is quite another matter:
"Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value. The accusations you level at me are simply extraordinary. I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon – so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer. You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. You present yourself as 'nice' in this blog (so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc). It's only fair for your readers (nice people like Joe Linker and trusting souls like PAB) to get a whiff that the truth may be more complex. I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude."
This would seem to make it quite clear that he is no more than a spiteful, petulant child, incapable of assembling a coherent thought. All of his accusations come by way of inane attacks which do nothing to defend the worth of de Botton or his book. This is not how an intelligent, capable man writes, and this is not what a measured response to criticism looks like. This is an embarrassment.
Of course, the comment caused a significant bust up in the literary world, and was covered by various literary news sources. Later, de Botton was interviewed about the comment, where he apologized and said:
"I never believed I would have to answer for my words before a large audience. I had false believed (sic) that this was basically between him and me."
Indicating that he is the sort of man who is courteous in public, but in private, where he imagines he can get away with it, becomes an utter prat. In short, it confirms everything Crain claimed about de Botton's confused and erratic sense of superiority, and more. As ever, it demonstrates that a bad writer does not require a critic in order to look bad on a public stage....more
It is not necessary to have been to a place in order to write about it--indeed, even those who spent years there, or who were born and raised there, oIt is not necessary to have been to a place in order to write about it--indeed, even those who spent years there, or who were born and raised there, or who are of that very culture can still show biases just as deep. After all, as I'm sure you're tired of hearing, The East is a fantasy, just as any unified notion of Europe or America is a fantasy--or really a collection of competing fantasies--and just because someone is born and lives in America does not mean they have an unbiased view of it--quite the opposite.
But then, Howard never pretended he was writing anything but fantasies. Certainly, he spent a lot of time reading, taking notes, getting his details down, forming an understanding of culture and history--but he could still only prevent his own view on the subject, his own experience and philosophy.
In some ways, his views could be short-sighted--particularly his views of racial and cultural 'types'--but there is also a grand thrust of the human spirit in his works which often raises him above mere prejudice--and the thrill of his prose doesn't hurt, either.
Of course, as with all his works, there are problems with his style--he is always somewhat uneven--and it's the same problems: as each short story was meant to be separate there's some recycling of descriptions, and themes, some redundancy in presentation. As always, he picks a certain animal and bases half his metaphors around it: for Conan, it's the panther, for Solomon Kane, the Lion, and for his desert heroes, the wolf.
It works best in Conan, where we can take it as a sort of 'Homeric epithet'--a nod to the purposefully repetitive cadence of epic poetry--but there is no such excuse for stories about cowboys in the Khyber. He also repeats uncommon phrases in a way that makes them stand out unnaturally--such as 'beetling cliff' or 'hell-burst' only a couple of paragraphs apart, or even using the same word within a sentence:
"with a moaning cry the Jowaki released him and toppled moaning from the wall"
And of course, there's the fact that every cliff is 'knife edged', every silhouette 'etched against the sky', every muscle 'corded'. The most frustrating part about Howard's writing is that these are such simple errors to fix--the sort of thing that would have been, if he'd had a competent editor, and that it's clear from other passages that he's entirely capable of perfectly lovely, effective passages:
"Crumbling pinnacles and turrets of black stone stood up like gaunt ghosts in the grey light which betrayed the coming of dawn."
Or this speech about a cursed ruby:
"how many princes died for thee in the Beginnings of Happenings? What fair bosoms didst thou adorn, and what kings held thee as I now hold thee? Surely blood went into thy making, the blood of kings surely throbs in the shining and the heart-flow of queens in the splendor."
It would be remarkable to see a Howard story where he maintained the care and skill he takes with such passages throughout the whole tale.
Yet his works are not just about well-put phrases, but quick and balanced plots, which Howard had a gift for. His tales are always exciting, always moving, always with some thrust of clear motivation to lead us from one scene to the next, full of odd characters and curious coincidences and hardships to test our hero.
It is interesting, as noted in the critical essay that accompanies this collection, that each of his desert heroes has a different approach to life, different desires and motivations for what he does. Some are scoundrels, some men of deep moral fiber. It's the fact that he succeeds so often in many areas of storytelling, from the prose to the structure to the characters, that raises him above other writers of the pulps--and indeed, above many modern-day genre authors, for all the sophistication of years that they can call upon when writing their story, where Howard had to make much of it up as he went along.
But then, that may also be the source of his power as a writer: that he wasn't writing a 'known subject', pre-defined and set up with a hundred different tropes that allow any hack to construct such a story 'by the book'. Howard instead had to piece his stories together from real histories, from classic adventure writers, and from legitimate authors of literature, which tends to give them much more depth and variety than simply following a standard model.
So, if the East is a fantasy, then what is Howard's fantasy? Not surprisingly, it is the fantasy of freedom, of a man making his own way in the world, unfettered by arbitrary social concerns. When the American Southwest becomes too civilized, crowding out the adventurer to make space for the cattle rancher and the homesteader, Howard's heroes go to Arabia, to Afghanistan--to places where life is not defined by train schedules and banking firms, but by will to survive, by camaraderie, and where the system of governance is the tribe and the warlord.
It is, for Howard, a place much like the ancient Hyborean world of Conan, a pre-modern world where the industrial revolution has not reshaped everything for convenience and assembly labor. Yet he can set his stories in modern times, with guns and trains and bombs, using modern characters with modern concerns, but still able to tell the same tales of valiant personal combat, where one man, alone, can make a difference.
It is the same fantastic life that men like 'Chinese' Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, and Richard Burton made for themselves--mixing fact, fiction, and self-mythology into lives that sound like they belong in fiction, not history. Howard's desert heroes have direct antecedents as well: white men who worked as soldiers and warlords in the 'Great Game' of the colonial powers as they struggled for control of central Asia--men like Josiah Harlan and Alexander Gardner.
It's certainly not difficult to see why such tales appealed to Howard, who was fascinated by the man out of his element, the clash of culture--as well as the mutual coming together of disparate cultures. There is, of course, a less flattering tradition of such stories as delivered by writers like Haggard, of the White Savior who out-nobles the Noble Savage--luckily Howard's characters, being loners with little interest in leadership roles, are less prone to this than many of their contemporaries.
Overall, these stories possess less depth and variety than the Conan stories, but they are largely well-crafted, apart from Howard's little bad habits, and perfectly enjoyable....more
The East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and feThe East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and fears. They will create it even where it doesn’t exist, and they will believe in it despite evidence to the contrary. When a lawyer in London convinces them with words, they will call him ‘shrewd’--when a Hakim in Delhi does the same, they lay it to ‘mesmerism’. When a young thing with a bare shoulder in Paris turns their head, it is because she is a pretty coquette, no more--when a musk-scented daughter of Persia does the same, it is laid to some ancient magic.
Tales of colonial adventure in the East, with few exceptions, are fantasies--true fantasies, of magic and impossible things, of notions which spring from the mind and come to life in the world. Indeed, that is part of the charm of such narratives: that in reading Burton, we learn more of Burton than we do of ‘The East’, as his sometimes questionable translations demonstrate--but even biased as he may be, to read of a man as large and queer and self-made as he is an amusing thing.
Of course, it is also makes the narratives false, and invites us to believe that the East is real, and not merely a fantasy. Hesse writes of the tenets of German Protestantism--but because he writes of them under the guise of Eastern wisdom, they are gobbled up as if they were new. In the fascinating (and sometimes uncomfortable) documentary Kumaré, a man born in New Jersey grows a long beard and imitates his grandmother’s accent, and easily fools everyone into thinking he is some wise guru, even when his words make no sense. It is the fantasy of the East, and while it can make for an entertaining story, we must not be fooled into thinking, as Kumaré's students are, that their own notion is the real story of a real people.
Mundy’s is a better fantasy than most, relying as it does upon all those little bits of oddness, verisimilitude, and turns of phrase that gradually build into a wondrous and strange realm. But then, Mundy lived during his youth in Africa, India, and elsewhere, making his way as a con man and petty criminal, which experiences certainly give his tales an excellent flavor. It is hardly surprising that his work was an influence on authors of Sword & Sorcery Adventure, inspiring Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar--and both construct their fantastical worlds along the same lines as Mundy's.
In Howard, it is the story of the foreign man in the mystical East, amongst the arched temples, the scent of incense, the dancing girls, the wicked viziers, the brutal yet righteous warriors, debauchery, savagery, and ancient magics unearthed. For Leiber, it is the thousand-fold minarets of the eternal City of Brass: the old houses and old feuds, the corruption and tyranny of the priests, the bustling marketplace where the spoils of a hundred far-fetched lands are priced and weighed.
But then, of course, these are all traits of the great European cities, as well, which are no less ancient, no less strange and bustling--but somehow, a twisting alley in London is thought of differently to a twisting alley in Marrakesh. It is the process of showing us something old, but in a way that makes us think of it freshly, without preconceptions--a process known in literary criticism as ‘defamiliarization’. The Myth of the East is a sort of automatic defamiliarization, in that we are always primed to see its ways as strange and different, even when they are not.
This was how the Theosophists used it, to lend a sense of newness and authenticity to their own lives. Without that, they were merely eccentrics with loose morals and a dislike of honest labor, but shroud it all in a veil of pseudo-religious phrases and symbols, and it starts to read in quite a different way, altogether. It’s still how many New Agers live their lives: they do not sacrifice in order to practice a faith, they sacrifice the faith in order to practice themselves. It is just an exercise in self-prejudice.
Mundy himself was a known Theosophist, which is not hard to detect in his work. He has made of the East something like a fairyland, and espouses the same old philosophy of the stagnation of the Abrahamic faiths giving way before the more ancient (and hence ‘true’) and more infinite variety of the Eastern Gods.
In his bright and curious characters, his poetic bent, and his turns at spiritualism, he resembles that group of colonial authors whose works aspired to greatness: Conrad, Kipling, Doyle, Melville, H.G. Wells--but he never quite philosophizes the way they do. His action is planted too firmly on the ground, and his mysticism is too undefined and undifferentiated to reach the profundity of those authors. Thus he is relegated to the lesser tier of adventure writers, whose works sparkle and delight, but rarely challenge.
In style, Mundy possesses a cleverness and a passion that outstrips Haggard, though one will recognize in King--of the Khyber Rifles a story that very nearly parallels the Quatermain tale She--yet I found that Mundy’s take was more subtle, owing more to Realism than Pulp, and with greater sophistication and charm. The beginning, slowly playing out, is the superior part, introducing us to Captain Athelstan King of the Secret Service--a kind of early secret agent working for the Raj. He is an immediately recognizable type, that self-possessed, competent man who wins his way through life by wit and daring, of which the Colonial Period gave us numerous examples in the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Richard Francis Burton, or 'Chinese' Gordon.
Though in detail and subtlety, Mundy outdoes Haggard, there are some slower patches, particularly in a lengthy section of exposition about the middle which should have been the climax to the mystery that led us along the first third of the book. He begins to get bogged down in his plot, and then to make of his characters mouthpieces for his own Theosophical notions about true religion and ancient divinity.
Yet, after this stint, we're on our way again, towards the somewhat predictable climax. There is a rather delightful twist in the story that I happened to guess about the middle, due to the phrasing in a particular scene--and when I realized it, I was embarrassed not to have seen it sooner, as should be the case with a good twist. Yet, I think that without that one scene, I might not have realized it until quite a bit later, though it does grow increasingly obvious.
But, for all its inevitability and a few slow sections, it is overall a delightful adventure, and reminds me once more that as a fantasist, it is important that I study not only the blatant fantasies--the fantasies that call themselves fantasies--but also those fantasies that masquerade as truth, the ones that we use as convenient shortcuts to represent the world, and to confirm our own biases, that are true only in the mind, only as symbols, and which by habit we overlay upon a world that we can never fully understand.
For you poor folks who have never heard of the Flashman series, they tell the story of your classic Victorian adventurer, a man who travels through maFor you poor folks who have never heard of the Flashman series, they tell the story of your classic Victorian adventurer, a man who travels through many lands, making his way by his wits and his skill and always being drawn into the dangers of politics, secret plots, and local politics. But the hero of these stories comes with a twist: he's an awful cad who lies, cheats, and steals his way through the world, a coward who only survives by the skin of his teeth, but who pretends the role of the brave, bluff Brit.
The books are well-researched, full of delightful details and references for anyone interested in the period, as well as a vivid reconstruction of archaic slang. However, I find I liked the first book much better than the second one. For one, the character of Flash is much more of a rascal there--many of the things he does make you dislike the character greatly, despite his forthright charm. In this one, I wondered if MacDonald might have been making him a little more heroic, a little more sympathetic.
Along the same line, most of the difficulties he gets embroiled in throughout the course of this book--the very things that drive the plot--are thrust upon him, leaving him a much less active character. He's kidnaped, blackmailed, and forced at gunpoint to take part in various plots, instead of being trapped into them by his own faults and greed, as he was in the first volume.
But then, that's part of the problem of a cowardly character: how do you make him an active agent in his own story without forcing his hand? How do you ensure that the mess he's in really is his own fault, and not merely a contrived circumstance that forces him to act against his own nature?
Without that culpability, he begins to become a victim, a lowly and sympathetic figure instead of the brash, bold personality which he is meant to be. We do get him taking a risk here or there for the sake of lucre, but pure greed isn't the most complex or intriguing of character motivations.
Hopefully in future volumes, I'll get to see him return to his old form--because other than that, this book is a delightful bit of adventure fiction....more
This one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much ofThis one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much of the time--which isn't to say childish, it's more of a young man's immaturity.
The whole premise: that a powerful terrorist force is trying to destroy all world governments is somewhat uncomfortable for a modern reader--and the fact that the terrorists are meant to be the heroes brings it to another level. However, their rebellion is a vague, nonsensical thing. The idea seems to be to destroy society, and not to worry about what the next step is until later.
I guess they've never heard of the 'baby with the bathwater' problem. I mean sure, society has lots of problems, but if you don't have something better to put in its place, then tearing it down is not going to solve anything--it's probably going to make things pretty shitty in the meantime. But then, it strikes one as being typical of a man in young adulthood: irate with the horrors and inequalities of the world, rebelling against anything society has to offer without really understanding why things are the way they are.
But conveniently, everyone just signs up and agrees that this is a great plan. There are no ideological disagreements or concerns about where this whole thing is going--everyone is stalwartly devoted to the undefined cause, and willing to die for it (whatever it might be).
There are actually a few members who betray the cause, but they always do it out of mere greed, not because this whole 'terrorism' things seems kinda shaky. They also rebel despite the fact that the terrorists have an infallible network of assassins, the only airships in the world, and a leader who can literally control men's minds with a thought. All betrayers die the same chapter in which they commit their betrayal.
I mean, I understand that this was a serial, but the fact that every problem gets solved as soon as it's introduced means that the whole thing doesn't have as much continuity as it might. Indeed, for the whole first half, they're just hanging around, waiting for things to happen, not even putting their plan into action.
Now, if this had been juvenile in a sort of fun, adventure way, that could have been enjoyable, but it's clear that Griffith is taking it a bit more seriously than is warranted. It's never a battle with a fleet of ships, it's always two destroyers, five torpedo boats, a complement of three thousand men, &c. Then there are all the wire telegrams and news stories that repeat information we already know, or just talk about various battles and parts of the war that don's seem to matter much to the story.
Then, of course, there is the titular 'Angel of the Revolution' herself, a totally gorgeous teen girl who all the terrorists want to marry, but whom they respect too much to romance overtly. She's also a crack shot, and utterly loyal to the cause, even if it means (horror of horrors) marrying someone she doesn't love. Our superscience hero, of course, does everything he can to get her, until she finally tells him that the best way to get into her pants is to destroy society and create eternal peace. Sexy.
Once again, what could have been a passable adventure story is ruined by the author's inane attempts to make it 'realistic' and fill it with all sort of unrelated details. It doesn't take much seriousness to ruin the guileless charm of a pulp romp....more
Hector France was a colonial soldier who served long in Algeria. Upon his return to France, he would regale his friends, many of them notable artistsHector France was a colonial soldier who served long in Algeria. Upon his return to France, he would regale his friends, many of them notable artists and authors, with his soldier's tales of life amongst the Muslims of North Africa. Eventually, they convinced him to try his hand at writing them down, and he turned out to have an author's talent.
This, then, is the collection of the strange and wild stories of his life as a soldier--some are his own adventures, others those of his friends and acquaintances, and littered throughout are details of the country, the people, and the politics of his time and place. Too many details, it turned out, for his Victorian audiences, as the book only received a small, private publishing, and is little-known today. I was only able to read it because it's available for free online.
France was not shy about representing prostitutes, child-brides, murderers, hashish use, and the incompetence of his colonial overseers. As his title poetically informs us, we are to expect stories of sex, drugs, and death. The collection runs the gamut from the humorous to the touching to the disturbing, as a soldier's recollections tend to do, each one a curious slice of life.
While France is not entirely free of a certain cultural bias, he is much more the Humanist than the Nationalist, often remarking on the violent stupidity of the colonials, who will start a war over nothing and whose inability to comprehend that they are dealing with another culture invariably makes fools of them.
For France's part, he is of the opinion that there is no one way to live, and that whatever lessons the Arabs might learn from the Europeans, the Europeans have just as much they should be learning from the Arabs. It is not the view of the distant Orientalist or governor who tries to deal with the whole mass of a culture without ever bothering to deal with the individual man and woman within that culture.
France is also not quite the wild egotist his fellow adventurers, like Burton, tend to be, which means he is less likely to try to rewrite the foreign culture to match his idea of 'exoticism'. He does indulge in a bit of 'scientific racism', which was quite popular at the time, but overall his view is more nuanced than one generally expects from the soldier's memoir.
France also has a rather surprising subtle and effective use of prose--superior in fact to many similar fictional tales written up by successful authors. He has a sense of poetry, a flair for drama, and a strength of characterization that I wish more fiction authors had.
Of course, he also had the benefit of taking a lifetime of adventure, of strange people and experiences, and of reducing it down to the most unusual, touching, and intriguing examples. The amount of imagination it takes to equal the life of a middlingly interesting fellow is surprisingly great.
However, many men who lead even more remarkable lives were unable to deliver such charming and affecting stories to the page--whether it was their own bias that got in the way, or a matter-of-fact disposition, or a habit of including too much, without enough thought to what is liable to interest the reader. It is pleasant to find a more earnest and open sort of fellow--or at least a man capable of affecting such candor when it suits him....more
This collection has a very strong start: the first few stories are gems, just wonderfully-well crafted, evocative, sympathetic tales of life. There arThis collection has a very strong start: the first few stories are gems, just wonderfully-well crafted, evocative, sympathetic tales of life. There are humorous clever bits and heartbreaking bits, and it all has the ring of truth about it. I kept getting hints of this in The Home and The World, but Tagore couldn't seem to sustain it.
Unfortunately, that proves to be true here, as well, as several of the stories don't quite come together, and get hung-up on clumsy construction. My previous complaint with Tagore was about his habit of just telling us (or having the characters tell us) the subtext, instead of actually letting it play out in dialogue and action.
The plot and actions of a character are not what give them personality--it's how they do things that makes them unique. After all, there are endless books that share roughly the same plot, for example the Hero's Journey story of a young, inexperienced man who goes out into the world and, with the help of his wise mentor, defeats a great threat and returns older and wiser. Some of these stories are dull and vapid, others are engrossing and fascinating--so it's not the mere litany of facts, but the way in which they are shown to us.
Most stories have subtext: a meaning that's never quite stated outright, but which becomes obvious through the relationships as they are depicted. So, in one of Tagore's stories, we have a girl who can't speak, and the story is about the difficulty of her life. There's a great concept for a bit of subtext in the story, but the way Tagore delivered it was very disappointing.
In the opening paragraphs, we are told:
"her mother looked upon her as a deformity in herself."
That would be a very poignant way of looking at the relationship--except that when the author just blandly states it instead of actually showing it in action, it loses a great deal of its strength. Then, Tagore ends the paragraph:
"Her mother regarded her with aversion as a stain upon her own body."
So, not only is the story's subtext just blandly laid out for the reader, it's done so twice in the same paragraph. This is the kind of sloppy execution that makes a lot of Tagore's writing disappointing, especially when other sections are crafted with so much more skill and care.
It's certainly well worth reading for the number of excellent stories that it contains, but as a whole, it's uneven....more
Many books have delighted me, but none have done it so accidentally and inexplicably as this one, so it is with great pleasure that I bring to you 'YoMany books have delighted me, but none have done it so accidentally and inexplicably as this one, so it is with great pleasure that I bring to you 'You Are to Decide.. But Death And Rising Are Through Human Flesh' (Fantastic Thriller). It's clear right from the title that this is going to be a winner, from the erratic capitalization and an ellipses that is both improperly used and the wrong length, to the complete incoherence of its message, it is one of those rare titles that tells you everything you need to know about this book in one fell swoop.
Sadly, none of you received a request in your inbox to review the work from one of the authors (because clearly, a work of such staggering scope could not have been made alone), so it falls to me to inform you that The prose is strengthened by poetry that completes the content, as evidenced by the following example of the work's profound prosody:
"At the crossroads of pathways, Where morning fogs are blue and cold, Your eyes enchafed those of my days, When silver frost suffused my soul. The text is written on originally formed pages."
I think my eyes are chafing right now.
The rest of the prose is an equally confused mish-mash of pseudospiritual nonsense fed through a Google translator and then set loose upon an unwilling world. Of course, the book experience is not complete without a visit to their website, which contains excerpts from the book, a hilariously serious video featuring partially animated fan art of Jesus killing naked ladies and flashing phrases like 'Outwit Destiny or the Right to Truth', as well as the misleadingly labeled 'fan site', which turns out to be a comment page full of equally garbled and confusing messages from people like 'Reader', and 'Sam', who clearly have high opinions of the book:
"Bow to authors. Brave, genius and talented people. Interesting, how do they live?"
My first thought was 'through the ingestion of nutrients'--but suddenly I'm beginning to doubt . . .
"Read with interest. But how can you dare to predict this? Practically claim this."
The audacity of claiming.
Then there is 'Carole', who I suspect may be a study nook that has somehow gained sentience, who says in a single, fragmentary, ungrammatical sentence the truest thing that can be said about this book:
"it will take many times reading it to really get the full value of he is trying to convey"
However, I'd be careful of how many times you read it, as I've come to suspect it may be an experiment by the Chinese in brain reprogramming....more
Now, the actual illustrations in this book are fine, but scattered throughout the pages are photographs of people LARPing, and you could hardly have pNow, the actual illustrations in this book are fine, but scattered throughout the pages are photographs of people LARPing, and you could hardly have picked a set of more awkward, unappealing folks. In a sense, the pictures are very effective, because they immediately brought to mind a strong memory of being at a LARP, and that memory was a disembodied smell. It wasn't wholly pervasive--no, it came and went. Yet, it didn't seem to be tied to any particular individual, either. It was as if the smell itself was a player, going in and out of its own accord--some disembodied spirit of LARP invoked by the ritualized actions of the game.
Now, I understand the desire to show people having fun performing the activity that the book represents, and there are LARPs I've walked into and thought to myself 'this seems like a good time, these folks seem alright'. These illustrations do represent that LARP: the glassy eyes, the unwashed ponytails, the sheen of grease picked out by candlelight, the strained facial expressions that do not resemble any known human emotion. I mean, I know these people exist, and some of them aren't too bad, but this is about image, about the representation of an idea of a good time. I'd rather see pictures of the LARP I wish I was going to--a LARP that looks like one of those goth clubs that was in every sci fi movie in the 90's. I mean, you'd think if you ran a roleplaying company, you'd be able to set something like that up.
Instead, what we get, while perhaps more honest to the average experience, is the equivalent of a McDonald's commercial featuring a dozen pale and flabby customers in stained sweatpants, each hunched over grey-hued meals they eat wordlessly, the only sound the screaming of a thick-wristed child. It's about image, people, and I'm not sure this is the one you want to send. A professional photographer, good lighting and costumes, and some makeup isn't dishonesty--it's how you create an attractive product.
Then again, I've come to realize that my experience with roleplaying is somewhat unusual--that my group consisted of active, attractive people who dressed well, had many friends and socialized without difficulty, were evenly distributed between men and women, and were made up of actors, directors, runway models, doctors, lawyers, poets, chefs, dancers, professors--all and sundry artists and intellectuals. So perhaps it's more that the gulf between my reality and theirs is just oddly wide....more
Man, I could have illustrated this book, myself and done a better job. Always sad to see an RP book with such flat, uninspiring illustrations when soMan, I could have illustrated this book, myself and done a better job. Always sad to see an RP book with such flat, uninspiring illustrations when so many books have been improved and uplifted by the art within them. The writing is likewise awkward, especially when the author is trying to get poetic. The thing about White Wolf books is you really have to get the feel right in the flavor text, or the whole thing becomes quickly and long-windedly tedious. The rule set is alright, but I get somewhat tired of the cookie-cutter nature of the different World of Darkness settings. I think in terms of feel, I actually prefer the old Mage--it wasn't as streamlined or balanced, which was a problem, but it was often strange and wondrous and possessed a real complexity that allowed a lot of different play styles.
The single most important thing for a system based on story and character is that the world is varied enough that we can make a wide variety of characters, and fully-realized enough that it is a world that we would want to explore, a world where we can present many different ideas and scenarios. This setup all seemed too locked-down and small to really allow for that level of exploration.
I struggled trying to make a character in this rule set, because instead of being able to create the character I envisioned, I was forced to cut corners and fit him into the narrowness of the pregenerated system. The whole thing is so Western, so stuck in a very particular magical tradition that it becomes bothersome to try to construct anything that doesn't fit that standard. I feel like it might have been more effective to give the different Mage societies different cultural backgrounds and approaches to magic, instead of just going with 'the law mages, the nerd mages, the rebel mages, and druids who lack self-control'. If instead the branches had represented European, Asian, African, and Native American philosophical approaches to magic, it would have given the world a lot more depth and room for interpretation.
I mean, I'm sure they'll fill those in later with other sourcebooks, but to me that seems the wrong approach. The main book is the setting, so it should be grand and wide-spanning in its ideas, whereas later books can focus on one or another particular approach. By instead basing the setting on only one approach, the whole thing is limited from the get go.
Now of course, I can modify and re-interpret things to get them to fit conceptually, but as has been said many times before: if the player has to rewrite the setting and rules to make things work, that means the original game was flawed....more
Between the description of an 'infinitesimal glass of sherry', the litany of cutesy place names ('Crook Manor', 'Ceck's Bottom', 'Pock-on-the-Fling')Between the description of an 'infinitesimal glass of sherry', the litany of cutesy place names ('Crook Manor', 'Ceck's Bottom', 'Pock-on-the-Fling') and actually reminding the reader in as many words that the theme of the book is 'the grotesque', I now know what it's like to read a book with the iconoclastic spirit of Gormenghast as written by an author lacking the wit or idiom to carry it off. It's affected, trite, and tiring. Mostly tiring....more
Once again, I'm reminded that even a lackluster history often has a better plot and characters than most novels. Gardner does have his good points, buOnce again, I'm reminded that even a lackluster history often has a better plot and characters than most novels. Gardner does have his good points, but overall he becomes easily enthused by the great names of certain English heroes--not to say that they weren't remarkable men who shaped history, but there's a little to much hero-worship for my tastes. Likewise, there are a few remarks about the 'violent, mysterious, spiritual East' and other such silly prejudices that Said built a career on critiquing, but overall it's not a book that dwells on such assumptions, and even reverses them, now and again.
Most interesting is the fact that the premise of the book is the uniqueness of the East India Company, a shipping interest owned by shareholders that incidentally ended up one of the most powerful empires in history, an empire owned and run by businessmen, and for profit--though they were often used as a screen for government interests, and ran on a debt most years of their existence, paying lie to the old notion that 'if business were run like governments, they'd fail'--for indeed, most business do run on debt and loans, and it hardly cuts into the profits--indeed, in allowing for larger risks, it often makes them bigger.
However, I was unconvinced by the premise that this system of governance is unique--firstly, it seems that the majority of governments have been run for the profit of their little elect group, and whether you call them 'nobility' or 'the board of directors' is really only a matter of tradition. More than that, there are of course more modern examples of the 'Barons of Industry' running governments both at home and abroad, from Banana Republics and Drug Cartels to the Fiji Water Tyranny, and of course the fact that Bills in America tend to be passed or blocked on the basis of lobbyists and high-payed consultancy positions.
In the end, more than anything, it reminded me of the post-cyberpunk world in Snow Crash, where the map has been literally divided up into the protectorates of various business concerns. But then, since the business schools of The East India Company produced John Stuart Mill and the philosophy of Utilitarianism, I begin to ask whether open rule by a corporation might not be better than half-secret rule by them--at least then, we'd have a better idea of what we were getting.
The most fascinating part was the role of Rani Lakshmibai in the terrible Sepoy Revolution (a rather important bit of history that we don't get here in the States). She was a modern day warrior queen who lead her people in an uprising against the Company, as it was trying to suppress their religion and dearest cultural traditions, one of the most foolish things an invading force can do to a far remote culture over which it has power....more
In the hands of its most talented practitioners, Sword & Sorcery can be thrilling, scintillating, and deeply ironic--which makes it all the more rIn the hands of its most talented practitioners, Sword & Sorcery can be thrilling, scintillating, and deeply ironic--which makes it all the more regrettable to see just how thoughtless and cliche depictions of race and sex tend to be in the genre. Part of what excited me about the prospect of reading this hard-to-find series was that it is very much about race, a self-aware deconstruction of one of the genre’s historic failings.
It is that--as well as a dip into African History, a fascinating (and vast) slice of the human story that is too often ignored and downplayed--especially in the face of the endless pseudo-Medieval setting that covers the fantasy genre like a fetid swamp. However, the parallels with modern, Colonial slavery and the complexities of identity of American Blacks born to that tradition are a bit too on-the-nose. I would have appreciated more of a Humanistic look at the role slavery has played in human history, as well as the way that racial identity is coded and manufactured socially--it’s a vast and important set of ideas that needs more than simply the xenophobia of Lovecraft versus the modern, post-Civil Rights view to encapsulate it.
It was pleasant--particularly after trying the Kane series--to read stories which are so intensely focused upon the hero's internal life: his decisions, thoughts, experiences, and emotions. Never was there that struggle to connect the character to the world and to the story--as so often crops up in tales of ‘impossibly muscled’ heroes who cleave their way from danger to danger by the sweat of their brow, but otherwise remain aloof.
Unfortunately, Imaro’s successes were too often the result of a sort of generic ‘strength’--an overcoming by gritting one’s teeth, and simply coming out the other side unscathed. It’s always a shame to see a writer give in to such a simplistic resolution--but it's very common, and not only in the fantasy genre. There are few things more escapist, more wish-fulfilling than the notion of achieving something simply by wanting it enough, willing your way through, and forcing your preferences on the world. If only the world would bend to us, recognize that we are right, and let us have our way--but such a fantasy makes for a poorer story.
I wished that these internal struggles felt as personal and emotional to the character as his motivations. Intense conflict is such a great place to reveal a character, to show how he differs from everyone else on the page--what unique approach he takes, in light of his experiences and personal style.
Of course, that requires the imagination and skill of a seasoned author, while this is only Saunders' preliminary outing. There's certainly a lot of room for improvement, but also a lot of strong elements that make the story engaging and readable. I'll have to give Imaro another try, down the road, and see how he progresses....more