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Follow-up acts are hard; follow-up acts a full nineteen years after the first are particularly hard, more so when the first is so revered. King of Dragon Pass was a commercial failure back in 1999, but its utterly daring artistic vision led to it becoming a cult classic with a loyal fan base, including yours truly. It was a unique mix of fantasy RPG, strategy, resource management and Choose Your Own Adventure, lovingly portrayed through hundreds of illustrations and several fat fantasy novels’ worth of text. It re-emerged and achieved success as a handheld game on the iPhone in 2011, which in turn led to the development of a long-awaited spiritual sequel, Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind. I stress the phrase “spiritual” sequel – you can absolutely jump into this without having played King of Dragon Pass. I’ll also mention from the outset that I was given a free copy by the developers in exchange for an honest review.

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Like its predecessor, Six Ages is set in Glorantha, a role-playing world developed by anthropologists and historians in the 1960s as a specific counter to the Tolkien-derived generica that was already becoming dominant in fantasy; a marvellous setting with a rich backdrop of cross-cultural lore, mythology and religion. You’re in charge of a clan of about six or seven hundred people who have recently migrated to a new land, trying to settle in amongst their new neighbours, some of whom are culturally similar to you and some of whom are terrifying monsters.

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You control the clan’s agriculture, trade, diplomacy, military raids, magic, exploration and a dozen other things, plus handle the random events which occur regularly, ranging from things as mundane as legal disputes or a falconry contest to totally bonkers stuff like flying skeleton birds or the ghosts of your ancestors demanding vengeance against their killers. You’ll be presented with multiple options and your advisors (who appear at the bottom of the screen and are active characters within the game’s story – fighting, exploring, ageing and dying) will suggest options you might take based on their own expertise, opinion and quite often their own prejudices or agendas. Six Ages very firmly slots into the category of strategy games in which there isn’t always a right or wrong decision, but every decision you make is impactful: everything is counted in the behind-the-scenes tally of how much another clan likes you or how strong your battle magic is or how displeased the gods may be with you.

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Comparing it directly to King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages comes up shinier in a number of ways. Firstly, the decision to keep about 90% of the gameplay system fundamentally the same – the raiding, sacrificing to the gods, keeping track of cows and goods – is a sound one. King of Dragon Pass was a brilliant game. What made it brilliant was its utter dedication to setting, story and worldbuilding, and all that a fan could ask for is a fresh setting and a fresh story. Six Ages delivers this in spades, while also implementing an interesting fundamental change which long-time players of the game will appreciate: you no longer play as the Viking-esque Orlanthi, but rather their long-standing enemies and rivals in King of Dragon Pass, the horse-centric Riders. What at first appears to be window dressing is revealed in short order to be quite clever: the Orlanthi are not merely distant enemies the way the Riders were in King of Dragon Pass, but active clans dotted across the map, whom you can directly raid, trade with, send diplomatic missions to, etc. In King of Dragon Pass, everybody – even the duck people – were Orlanthi. Six Ages has a more split and more volatile political situation, and it’s a clever move by the developers to put you in the shoes of the first game’s enemy, so to speak.

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There are further mechanical tweaks which greatly benefit the game: more transparency in some of the gameplay effects, for example, with the main screen reminding you when you have things like “raiding omen” (the gods said not to raid this year) or “morale stress” (the people are pissed off you took in refugees). This is a handy reminder if you come back to the game a few hours or days after not playing, and I imagine it’s helpful for new players, considering the game’s steep learning curve. Six Ages is also fully compatible with VoiceOver, which I understand makes it completely accessible for visually impaired players.

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In comparing it to King of Dragon Pass, however – and every fan of that game will – the game does literally come up short in one aspect. I beat it on my first time playing, in about 35 in-game years, and found the main storyline to be both quicker and easier than that of King of Dragon Pass. This doesn’t really matter, given how rich the game is in replay value, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t catch me by surprise; I thought I was only at the midpoint of the game, and I think most veterans would prefer to know beforehand that this is a shorter game than its predecessor.

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Though that brings me to the title, which derives from the developers’ intention to put out six of these games, if this is successful (hence the title Six Ages and why I probably should have referred to this one as Ride Like The Wind). That seems like a ballsy challenge – but given how they took an ugly duckling of a concept back in the 1990s, plunged a half-million dollar budget into it, put out a product with a miniscule team, and eventually not only ported their way to a profit but got enough backing to make a sequel two decades down the line… well, who’d bet against them?

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My overall verdict on Six Ages is fundamentally the same as King of Dragon Pass. If you’ve read this review, looked at the screenshots, got an idea of how it plays and thought “nah, not for me” – you’re almost certainly right. It’s a niche title and not everybody’s cup of tea. If, on the other hand, you find your curiosity even slightly piqued, you should absolutely take a punt on it. It’s $10.00 on the app store, and likely the best ten bucks you’ll spend on a game all year.

 

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The World in Winter by John Christopher (1962) 224 p.

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John Christopher, as always, is great for an engaging sci-fi potboiler you burn through in a couple of days. This one’s an apocalyptic story about a calamitous weather event causing a new ice age which renders the northern latitudes inhospitable, similar to the film The Day After Tomorrow, and I enjoyed it a lot. It’s also Christopher’s most nakedly political book, but discussing that will involve spoiling the entire plot, so duck out now if you want to read it.

Scene: London in the early 1960s. Men are men and women are women, and the first act of The World in Winter, while briefly mentioning the news stories about the sun’s radiation dipping, is mostly about the emotionally cold protagonist Andrew, his new friend David, and the love quadrangle that emerges between themselves and their trophy wives Carol and Madeleine: scotch and soda, sitting rooms, suspenders, it’s all very quaint in a Mad Men sort of way, with an emotionally stiff British slant. As the scale of the crisis becomes clear and the British government introduces rationing, David (a senior civil servant) urges the others to emigrate to tropical climes, where he will eventually follow. When the situation worsens, with a military cordon around a snowbound central London and the temperatures steadily dropping, they follow this advice, and the second act follows Andrew, Carol and Madeleine as refugees in Nigeria – the British pound worthless, European migrants lucky if they can get basic labouring jobs, Andrew and Madeleine reduced to living in a slum. The third act follows Andrew after the new normal has set in and he joins a Nigerian hovercraft expedition which is probing back into England for a possible re-colonisation effort, attempting to beat the other African states in a sort of Scramble for Europe. (Yes, hovercrafts. Britain thought they were going to be the Next Big Thing in the 1960s; my only memory of old-school Doctor Who is Tom Baker engaging in a risible hovercraft chase.)

Now, there are plenty of people who consider this a racist book and I can understand why. But I think it’s important to separate product-of-its-time racism (i.e. words like Negress) from a fundamentally racist worldview or assertion. This is, after all, speculative fiction. So what is Christopher speculating, beyond the catastrophic events of a new ice age? It’s obviously a thought experiment in turning the tables, in asking a white reader how they would feel if they were a penniless refugee in a country that resents their presence (even more topical, these days) but also in ultimately asking how a weak and impoverished Britain would feel if the shoe were on the other foot and it was Nigeria colonising London under the guise of aid and charity.

The answer to both of those, of course, is obvious. But it’s the stuff between the cracks that makes it more interesting, and while reading this in the 21st century you’re constantly waiting for the shoe to drop – for Christopher to say something terribly racist or portray Nigerians as hopeless buffoons. He does brush up against this at times, though nothing depicted as negative (Nigeria having a bribery-riddled culture, an undisciplined civil service or a society rife with tribal affiliations) is presented as something inherent to the race. There was something I couldn’t really put my finger on, though. I did think for a moment near the end of the book that he’d finally showed his hand:

Abonitu turned to look at him. “A black man. Some years ago, in your Parliament, one of your leaders said that all Africans are liars.” But for Epimenedes’ paradox, I would say that also. Abonitu, an African, says that all Africans are liars. There is no paradox, really, of course. To be a liar is not to lie with every word one speaks. And we are murderers, too, and cheats and tyrants. Some of the time.”

On the face of it this seems outright racist, and no less so for Christopher putting the words into the mouth of a well-educated Nigerian character. But this segment comes directly after the expedition has just escaped frozen Guernsey, which has been turned into a petty little kingdom ruled over by a violent, ruthless white man. Neither Christopher the author nor Abonitu the character believes that white men are not also capable of being liars, murderers, cheats and tyrants. This may be a sci-fi potboiler but you still need to read between the lines.

It was during those last few chapters, after the encounter on Guernsey when Abonitu takes control of the shambolic expeditionary force, that it clicked for me. I looked back at a book in which the brutish lout who now rules Guernsey turns out to have been the groundskeeper, tormenting his former employer and governor, a decent chap who’s known simply as ‘the Colonel;’ in which a Nigerian princess is extremely kind and helpful to Andrew and Madeleine, while a lowly bank clerk savours their misfortune; in which the two white British members of the hovercraft expedition are portrayed as rough drunkards with working class accents (“hope you can flogging well swim, china”); in which a British Army captain with only a “slight” Yorkshire accent does his unpleasant but professional duty in tear-gassing the East End oiks who attempt to mob his patrol while he protects those lucky souls behind the barrier in central London; in which Andrew fits quite comfortably into Nigerian society after he luckily secures a well-paid job and gets a penthouse with paid staff.

So, like most Englishmen of his generation, Christopher’s chief subconscious prejudice isn’t race: it’s class. Even at the end of the book, when Andrew ultimately chooses to stay in London and help ward off African colonisation attempts – after he has clubbed Abonitu on the back of the head and taken him prisoner – he and Abonitu still speak to each other cordially and cheerfully as though they’re on the playing fields of Eton in the months before World War I. It’s all very fundamentally 20th century British in a Wyndhamesque sort of way.

And like the works of John Wyndham, The World in Winter both an interesting book and a very entertaining one; dated but still immensely readable. I think I polished this book off in two sittings. I really need to track down the rest of his back catalogue.

Life Itself by Roger Ebert (2011) 415 p.

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I’ve been a reader of Roger Ebert’s writing for a long time, though I can’t remember how long – certainly it must be since at least 2010, since I remember reading his recollections of London when I first visited it myself. I mention that because he’s not a household name in my native Australia in the way that he is, I understand, in the United States, where Siskel & Ebert was a long-running movie review program syndicated nationwide. Australia’s version of this was Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, who after 25 years on our public broadcasters parted ways in 2014; Margaret the enthusiastic bundle of energy, David the stern, pessimistic headmaster figure. It irritates me not so much that they decided to retire, but rather that neither SBS nor the ABC has picked up the slack with a new full-length movie review show, leaving me at the office watching Mark Kermode on our BBC feed reviewing movies which might very well not come out in Australia for another year. Come on, people, what am I paying my four cents a day for?

Anyway: Roger Ebert was famed as a film critic, and while his movie reviews were brilliant, when I really started to find him fascinating as a writer and a person was when I started reading his blog. I understand he mostly took up writing this (and much of it is reproduced in Life Itself) after his thyroid cancer surgery in 2006 robbed him of speech. He covers all manner of topics: his memories of staying in an old London hotel, his walks around that city, his opinions on architecture, his love of physical books. He was an unfailingly honest writer – collected in this memoir are chapters where he talks about his alcoholism, his obesity, his failed relationships. He’s evocative, as when writing about his young days as a newshound working for the Chicago Sun in the 1960s:

“Come on, kid,” Royko said. “Let’s have a drink at the eye-opener place.” It was a bar under the tracks so cramped the bartender could serve everyone without leaving his stool. “Two blackberry brandies and short beers,” he said. He told me, “Blackberry brandy is good for hangovers. You never get charged for a beer chaser.” I sipped the brandy, and a warm place began to glow in my stomach. I had been in Chicago four months and I was sitting under the L tracks with Mike Royko in an eye-opener place. A Blackhawks game was playing on WGN radio. The team scored, and again, and again. This at last was life.
“The Blackhawks are really hot tonight,” I observed to Royko.
He studied me. “Where you from, kid? Downstate?”
“Urbana,” I said.
“Ever seen a hockey game?”
“No.”
“That’s what I thought, you asshole. Those are the game highlights.”

He can be very funny:

The first time I saw him, he was striding toward me out of the burning Georgia sun, as helicopters landed behind him. His face was tanned a deep brown. He was wearing a combat helmet, an ammo belt, carrying a rifle, had a canteen on his hip, stood six feet four inches. He stuck out his hand and said, “John Wayne.” That was not necessary.

And he can be poignant, like the closing lines of his chapter remembering his long-time friend and film critic partner Gene Siskel (who died in 1999), the two of them famed for their Statler-and-Waldorf bickering and arguing:

We once spoke with Disney and CBS about a sitcom to be titled, “Best Enemies.” It would be about two movie critics joined in a love/hate relationship. It never went anywhere, but we both believed it was a good idea. Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love.

There was a lot of other stuff in here I wasn’t particularly engaged with; he lingers a long time on his childhood, and there are a lot of chapters devoted to his relationship with individual directors or actors who were mostly famous in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to someone who wasn’t an admirer of Ebert’s – or even someone who was. I do, though, recommend perusing his blog. The writing is what it’s all about, really. Who cares about the format?

You can to this day type in any movie and the word “ebert” into Google and, if it was released before his death in 2016, odds are he reviewed it. It makes me sad to think I’ll never be able to know his thoughts on movies that came after that point. But on the other hand, the whole canon of cinema is still sitting there, and Ebert saw ten times as many films as most of us will see in our whole lives. So I can still occasionally catch middling films from thirty years ago late at night on TV, watching them out of the corner of my eye while working on something else, and open another tab to idly check what Roger Ebert thought of some forgotten 1980s potboiler. I appreciate that.

The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian (1979) 340 p.

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The entire Aubrey-Maturin series is of course one long story, but up until now the books have been largely self-contained. Each had Jack Aubrey in command of a ship, or a squadron of ships, and ends with the characters either back home in England or safely en route. The fifth book, Desolation Island, broke with that by having the HMS Leopard still stranded in a remote rock in the Southern Ocean, with Stephen Maturin watching as the spy Diana Wogan and her lover Michael Herapath abscond in a passing American whaler – an escape Stephen has actually orchestrated, after planting false documents on Wogan. The Fortune of War is a direct sequel to that book not just because it picks up the same voyage months down the line, as the Leopard limps into Malaya by way of New South Wales, but because – and I’ll try to say this without spoiling anything – Wogan and Herapath return as characters, along with other characters from Jack and Stephen’s past.

It’s an interesting book in that it’s the first one in which Jack never has command of a ship: after Malaya, he and his officers are sent back to England as passengers, and of course from one side of the world to the other, things don’t run smoothly. There is a naval battle about a third of the way through (and another unnecessary one at the end) but The Fortune of War is, perhaps more than any other book so far in the series, very much focused on Stephen. This suits me just fine, since I prefer his flavour of adventure to Jack’s. Much of the second half of the book takes place in a port – I won’t name it, to avoid spoilers, though the funny thing is that it’s in a country which I’d mostly forgotten existed in the world of Aubrey-Maturin, because we tend not to think about it in that early 19th century milieu; it’s far more prominent in both its past and its future, in terms of pop culture at any rate. Anyway, the main characters are thus landbound for about half the book, and O’Brian is brilliant at playing on the strengths of Stephen and the weaknesses of Jack in such a situation. A running joke in the series is that while Jack is a hugely competent sea captain, he can be naive and hopeless on land – and indeed he does make a few critical blunders which endanger Stephen’s careful chess match of espionage. But it’s a bit unfair to Jack as well – he’s not a complete idiot, and after a Stephen-centric book (and a really great long set-piece in the third act) it’s Jack who ultimately has to hatch a plan to extract them both from mortal peril.

I enjoyed this one quite a lot – probably the most since HMS Surprise. Given the way it ends I suspect the next book, The Surgeon’s Mate, caps off a sort of internal trilogy; although it might just be that the story is beginning to run together at this point as O’Brian decided that he’s really writing one enormous meta-novel.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974) 380 p.

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My edition of The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, is from a Scottish press and contains an introduction from the chief editor and historian, Hugh Andrew:

Between 1861 and 1865 America was riven by one of the greatest wars in history. The shadow of that war still hangs over the modern United States. The consequences of that war changed the world. Yet because it was a civil war it is little-known outside America. For American readers, the characters and events of The Killer Angels run in their blood. For the rest of us however some explanation is required.

It’s true that I have a relatively hazy idea of how the Civil War played out, in particular its geography; I never quite grasped when I was younger how, as they say, it was “brother versus brother” – were there villages right on the border, or something? The truth is that while we (by which I mean foreigners; maybe some Americans do too) conceptualise the war as North versus South, it was more properly the Union versus the Confederacy, i.e. an existing political entity versus a collection of rebels who were never diplomatically recognised by outside powers. Brother versus brother would not have been an issue for northerners; rather, it was a problem for southerners faced with the choice of joining up with the rebellion or remaining loyal to their “country.” (More on that in a moment.) An interesting case is John Buford, a US Army officer stationed in Utah at the outbreak of the war, and one of the early characters in The Killer Angels. Buford was from Kentucky (a slave-owning border state) with strong family ties to the South. Nevertheless (from Wikipedia):

One night after the arrival of the mail we were in his (Buford’s) room, when Buford said in his slow and deliberate way “I got a letter from the Governor of Kentucky. He sent me word to come to Kentucky at once and I shall have anything I want.” With a good deal of anxiety, I (Gibbon) asked “What did you answer, John?” And my relief was great when he replied “I sent him word I was a Captain in the United States Army and I intended to remain one!”

That brings us to the famous Robert E. Lee, a brilliant general in the US Army who hailed from Virginia. (As a foreigner I can never reconcile myself to the fact that Virginia is in the South, which I associate more with climate than history; but it was actually the most populous and important Southern state.) Lee was supposedly opposed to slavery (though that claim is hotly contested today, as discussed below) and was very much against the notion of secession. Nonetheless, his loyalty was first and foremost to Virginia, and he dutifully followed his native state into rebellion. This seems strange from a modern perspective, but it’s key to understanding the Civil War: it was the war itself that cemented the notion of the United States as a single country rather than a union of individual states. As Andrew Hugh puts it in the introduction, “the new [post-war] mood is best shown by the change from the plural to the singular when referring to the United States.” In other words, no longer is it “the United States are sending an ambassador to France;” it’s now “the United States is sending an ambassador to France.” (See also the first 20 seconds of this clip, with Stephen Dillane playing Thomas Jefferson – “Well, I’d rather be in my own country. Would not you?”)

So, anyway, the book itself. I’ve never been particularly interested in the Civil War, but the beauty of Shaara’s writing – like all good historical fiction – is that it makes history no longer seem a distant and settled matter, but something very much present and active. The story is told from only a handful of viewpoints, and aside from the opening chapter, none of them are ranked lower than colonel. Shaara stays very much within their minds, and we’re privy to every passing thought: their plans, their doubts, their worries, their motivations, their goals and desires and evaluations. It seems strange, while reading this, to scroll through Wikipedia articles and see historians criticising this or that general for their bad decisions. The Killer Angels makes the battle seem very much now, very much in play, a thousand possibilities stretching out into the future, influencing the entire war, and these few men tasked with deciding which road to go down. There’s also a subconscious bias in people, I think, to imagine figures from past ages as uneducated hicks because they never, say, witnessed the marvel of a computer. (William Gibson talks about that a bit here, and how he subverted it in The Peripheral.) But these are not stupid men. They know Shakespeare off by heart, they speak multiple languages, they have travelled around the world. One of them, James Longstreet, is a strategist well ahead of his time, advocating for the use of fortified trench warfare a full fifty years before the First World War.

And so the past does not seem past. Yet at the same time, as modern readers, we know a cataclysmic battle is coming and it hangs heavy over the opening of the book. The first shot is not fired against the enemy until page 73, and that first quarter of the book is pregnant with anticipation: not just because we know what’s coming but because Shaara skillfully imbues it with that sense of foreboding, of two great armies on the march, of the night and the rain and the scouts and the preparations, the lay of the land, the civilians fled, the oppressive summer heat. The moment when that first shot is fired, the end of the first act, is a brilliant piece of writing:

Just before dawn the rain began: fine misty rain blowing cold and clean in soft mountain air. Buford’s pickets saw the dawn come high in the sky, a gray blush, a bleak rose. A boy from Illinois climbed a tree. There was mist across Marsh Creek, ever whiter in the growing light. The boy from Illinois stared and felt his heart beating and saw movement. A blur in the mist, an unfurled flag. Then the dark figures, row on row: skirmishers. Long, long rows, like walking trees, coming up toward him out of the mist. He had a long paralyzed moment, which he would remember until the end of his life. Then he raised the rifle and laid it across the limb of the tree and aimed generally toward the breast of a tall figure in the front of the line, waited, let the cold rain fall, misting his vision, cleared his eyes, waited, prayed, and pressed the trigger.

(Incidentally, this is why I like the use of big blank pages and then PART II or whatever in big letters. It emphasises the sense of drama we desire as humans, of the ending of something and the beginning of something new; of the notion that there are certain moments in life more important than others.)

Why, then, is this beautifully written and deeply affecting novel of war not quite getting top marks from me? There are a couple of reasons. The cast of characters is quite wide, all of them simply referred to by their Anglo-Saxon surnames, sometimes popping up and then disappearing for another hundred pages or so. Many of them blur together. There’s a touch of Patrick O’Brien in the troop movements and tactics and descriptions; a sense that yes, Shaara is a master who knows this stuff back to front, but forgets that his readers may not be quite as interested in the minutiae as he is. Certainly The Killer Angels has more tactical maps than you’d see in the typical historical fiction novel. (It also, mind you, has the only example I’ve ever seen of a tactical map which invoked a sense of narrative frisson: when Buford, a character we have come to admire and respect, is early to arrive with his regiment in Gettysburg in the face of the invading army; a single black arc marked BUFORD, standing alone, with the repeated black marks of the rest of the Union Army on its way to reinforce him, but the positions of the Confederates much closer, and closing. Just a little black mark, a defiant stand, Buford praying the cavalry will arrive in time.)

But these are minor flaws. What I felt was really lacking, as you may have already guessed, is the political aspect. It’s impossible to read The Killer Angels in 2018 and not think of the ugly modern white supremacist movement which again, more than ever, idolises Robert E. Lee and valourises the cause of the South. It is amazing to consider that the United States had a black president sitting in the White House while the country was (and is) still adorned with statues of Southern generals (and scant few memorials to slavery), and it only makes sense if you view it through the lens of one’s state being more important than one’s country, which was supposed to have ended in the 19th century. (Certainly I doubt many proud Southerners with a Confederate bumper sticker wouldn’t also consider themselves proud Americans.) What, in other words, were they really fighting for? And of course Shaara does grapple with this to an extent. An early passage:

“Well, Jim Kemper kept needling our English friend about why they didn’t come and join in with us, it being in their interest and all, and the Englishman said that it was a very touchy subject, since most Englishmen figured the war was all about, ah, slavery, and then old Kemper got a bit outraged and had to explain to him how wrong he was, and Sorrel had some others joined in, but no harm done.”

And later, when Union officer Chamberlain comes across an escaped slave:

He felt a slow deep flow of sympathy. To be alien and alone, among white lords and glittering machines, uprooted by brute force and threat of death from the familiar earth of what he did not even know was Africa, to be shipped in black stinking darkness across an ocean he had not dreamed existed, forced then to work on alien soil, strange beyond belief, by men with guns whose words he could not even comprehend. What could the black man know of what was happening? Chamberlain tried to imagine it. He had seen ignorance, but this was more than that. What could this man know of borders and states’ rights and the Constitution and Dred Scott? What did he know of the war? And yet he was truly what it was all about. It simplified to that. Seen in the flesh, the cause of the war was brutally clear.

Shaara goes on to write how Chamberlain, who comes from Maine and has barely seen a black man before, is physically revulsed by his black skin – ashamed of himself for being so, but revulsed nonetheless. And it’s good and fine to examine the racism of the Northerners. Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery but did not believe black and white society could be integrated; few people today realise that the West African nation of Liberia (Latin for “land of liberty”) was originally founded by Americans encouraging freed blacks to literally go back to Africa. So, yes: that’s a valid thing to examine.

But we hear nothing of blacks in the South. We hear nothing of the freed blacks who were re-enslaved by the Confederate army as it marched into Pennsylvania. We hear that Lee died “perhaps the most beloved general in the history of American war” – George Washington might have something to say about that – and, in Hugh’s epilogue, that after the war he knelt beside a black man at the communion rail of a church in Richmond to pray for reconciliation. We hear that Lee never criticised the Union officers who had defeated him, and that when he died, Jefferson Davis – i.e. the Jefferson Davis who was Confederate president and segregated his states from the Union to preserve the institution of slavery – said “his moral qualities rose to the height of genius.” We don’t hear about how Lee himself owned slaves. We don’t hear about how he fought in the courts to overturn his father-in-law’s will which specified his slaves should be freed, instead keeping them on to help with his plantation’s debts. We don’t hear about even the rumours that Lee personally whipped runaway slaves.

One of the regular left-wing arguments against the celebration of Lee in the South is that he was a “traitor to his country.” I think that’s wrong, not just because it considers unblinking patriotism to be a virtue but because it’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the notion of “country” prior to the Civil War, as discussed above. But the other point is that Lee fought to defend slavery. There is no getting around this. You can say that he was fighting for Virginia, but that means indirectly fighting to defend slavery, because that is what the war was about. It is not enough to call Lee a man of his time – slavery was already banned in the North, it had been banned in Europe for more than a generation. Lee was not stupid. He was not blind to the causes of the day. He saw which way the wind was blowing and decided, yes, he was going to kill other men to defend the rights of Southern citizens to keep human beings as property. When the right-wingers of 2018 and the soldiers of 1863 talk about states’ rights, that’s basically the right they’re talking about: the right to keep slaves. The right to deny other people their basic human rights, absolutely and unconditionally, to tear their families apart and trade them like cattle and abuse them and subjugate them.

I’m not saying this makes a novel written from Southern points of view completely unworthy. I’m not saying that Lee himself is not deserving of a sympathetic portrayal, of a writer who really tries to get inside his head; all human beings are deserving of that. I’m saying that by sidelining the fundamental cause of the war – by having only one encounter with a slave, from the Northern side, and by portraying Lee’s greatest failing as an erroneous tactical decision on the final day of the battle – Shaara finds himself on shaky political ground. The fact that I still consider this to be a worthy Pulitzer winner which is one of the best books this year and which I highly recommend to anybody is a measure of how talented a writer Shaara is in the first place.

It’s a bit of a puzzle as to why Shaara felt fine with handwaving away the fundamental cause of the war – he was no Southerner, but a New Jerseyan born to Italian immigrants (“Shaara” being a mistranslation of “Sciara.”) One clue as to his interest in Lee is his descriptions of the general’s heart disease, which clearly struck a chord with Shaara, who suffered a premature heart attack at 36 and died of another before his 60th birthday. Certainly his service in the Korean War goes some way towards explaining his focus on the bonds between men, and the eye-rolling that goes on on both sides about “the Cause;” it’s a theme I’ve read often in war fiction, that once the bullets start flying it’s about the men alongside you, and nothing else matters. But the most fundamental reason, I suppose, is that it was the 1970s: only a decade after desegregation, a fundamentally different time and place, when the black story was acknowledged but still marginalised; present, but never the focus, at least not from a white point of view, even if that white point of view in question was a generally sympathetic novelist. America clearly hasn’t come to terms with slavery even today, so what can one really expect from a novel almost fifty years old?

I say all of this because I’d be remiss not to. The Killer Angels isn’t slavery apologia or Lee hagiography, but it does omit plenty of uncomfortable details, to its discredit. Like the characters it deals with, it was a product of its time. That’s unfortunate. But it doesn’t hold it back from being an excellent war novel, and one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett (1995) 368 p.
Discworld #18 (Witches #5)

Maskerade

This one is ostensibly a parody of opera, though it’s really specifically modelled on Phantom of the Opera. Agnes Nitt, one of the more level-headed members of Diamanda’s young coven from Lords and Ladies, is being eyed off my Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg to replace the departed Magrat as the indispensable third member of their own coven. Well aware of this, and not wanting to be the third fiddle that Magrat always was, Agnes departs Lancre for the bright lights of the big city to pursue her singing talent at the opera. Nanny, meanwhile, has (classic her) authored an erotic cookbook which has turned out to be a vanity publisher’s bestseller in Ankh-Morpork, oblivious to the fact that the publisher now owes her a lot of money. And so the two meddling old crones head down to the big smoke to recover her royalties and possibly, maybe, check in on young Agnes.

The crux of the novel centres around the Opera House, and the mysterious Ghost who has always been something of a superstitious good luck charm for the employees and performers. Unfortunately the Ghost has also recently started committing ghastly murders. Only a small number of characters at the Opera House are actually named, so as with any murder mystery it’s clear one of them will turn out be the culprit. The primary suspect is clear from very early on in the piece, and it’s a credit to Pratchett’s writing that this assumption is both right and wrong at the same time.

It is slightly strange to see a murder mystery in Ankh-Morpork as part of the Witches arc; had it been written even few books down the track it undoubtedly would have been a City Watch book. Instead we only see three Watchmen: the comic relief characters Corporal Nobbs and Sergeant Detritus, plus an undercover officer we’ve never seen before and never see again. I suppose at this point Pratchett had only written two Watch books, and hadn’t yet written one set in the modern, legitimate, hundreds-strong Watch – that’ll be the next book, Feet of Clay. (In fact of the next six books, three are City Watch.) Anyway, it works, and it’s actually a bit refreshing to see an Ankh-Morpork centred book which doesn’t heavily involve Vimes and his thin blue line. I recall Pratchett saying at one point that after a certain point, any book he tried to write in Ankh-Morpork had a tendency to turn itself into a City Watch book.

Is Maskerade a good Discworld novel? It’s fine. It works in and of itself, but there was little here I remembered from my teenage reading apart from the Morporkian opera star who pretends to be foreign so people take him more seriously, and the amusing after-effects of Greebo’s transformation into a human in Witches Abroad, which culminates here in an opera-balcony-climbing and chandelier-swinging pursuit of the Ghost by the were-cat Greebo. Maskerade is certainly a step down from Lords and Ladies, but I’d rank that as one of the best books in the series, so that’s no insult. Still, I would personally define this as the end of a sort of sophomore phase for the Discworld series as a whole (and in how many series can you say that about the 18th book!). Now, with Feet of Clay, begins what I’d define as the golden age: a run of about ten solid books in which Pratchett almost unfailingly hit its out of the park.

Rereading Discworld Index

Just before dawn the rain began: fine misty rain blowing cold and clean in soft mountain air. Buford’s pickets saw the dawn come high in the sky, a gray blush, a bleak rose. A boy from Illinois climbed a tree. There was mist across Marsh Creek, ever whiter in the growing light. The boy from Illinois stared and felt his heart beating and saw movement. A blur in the mist, an unfurled flag. Then the dark figures, row on row: skirmishers. Long, long rows, like walking trees, coming up toward him out of the mist. He had a long paralyzed moment, which he would remember until the end of his life. Then he raised the rifle and laid it across the limb of the tree and aimed generally toward the breast of a tall figure in the front of the line, waited, let the cold rain fall, misting his vision, cleared his eyes, waited, prayed, and pressed the trigger.

– From “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara

Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian (1978) 270 p.

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My friend Chris tree-changed out to the Victorian countryside a couple of years ago, his partner buying some acreage near Ballarat, and I visit them fairly often for a night or a weekend. I find it refreshing. Since I moved to Melbourne after university I’ve lived in a sequence of rathole sharehouses or my current rathole one-bedroom apartment, this of course being the first generation to have lower living standards than our parents: so, yes, it’s nice to go out to a roomy country house, a place where you can stretch out, drink red wine, sit by the fireplace. Chris was surprised when I mentioned how comfortable I felt out there; he only experiences that feeling when he and his partner go an hour up the road to stay at her parents’ farm. He proposed it was because the feeling stems from abrogating responsibility. When I’m at their place, they take care of everything; when he and his partner go to her parents’ place, her dad takes care of everything. You sink back into a semi-parental world; one which has some order and sense to it. I imagine this is also why, when my girlfriend drives home to Albury on some weekends, she still calls it “going home” despite having lived in Melbourne for seven years.

This is a close equivalent to how I feel, in literary terms, when working my way through the Aubrey-Maturin series. I can’t entirely explain why. Historical fiction has always been a comforting genre – certainly more so in the last few years, since climate change started spiralling out of control and the world started slouching back towards fascism – but the Aubrey-Maturin series most definitely has an ineffable sense of comfort. This seems entirely counter-intuitive for a series about bloody naval battles and the gruelling day-to-day life of the British Navy, yet here we are. I suppose it’s inherently romantic to read about a dashing sea captain who is best friends with a supremely intelligent naval surgeon/naturalist/spy. Possibly it’s because the lead characters are so immensely likeable, and a series of books is inherently a familiar and enjoyable thing to revisit; Philip Reeve compares the cabin of one of Jack Aubrey’s ships to Blandings Castle or 22B Baker Street.

But calling a series comfortable also suggests that it’s lightweight; an easy read. These books are anything but. The author O’Brian is most often compared to is Austen, and I’ve noted before that if I had to guess, I would have thought these books were actually written in the 19th century in which they’re set, rather than the 1970s and ’80s.

So, anyway: Desolation Island, book five of the series, and well slotted into a formula by now. Jack is home in England, spending his money on various idiotic investments, but Stephen’s espionage dealings have resulted in the necessity of transporting a captured female spy to the penal colony of New Holland (home sweet home). As Jack has also been ordered to head down to Sydney and sort out Bligh’s second unfortunate mutiny, the two missions are merged, and his new command the HMS Leopard finds itself with a consignment of convicts – and away we go!

There are two really tremendous setpieces in this book. The first is the Leopard’s flight through stormy Antarctic seas from a larger and more dangerous Dutch warship, the Waakzaamheid – a ship which, Jack is disturbed to realise, intends not to board and capture the Leopard but to sink her outright: effectively an act of mass murder, and unusual outside a fleet battle. But all is fair in love and war, and so the Leopard fires back in kind, and the two ships engage in a running chase, up and down enormous waves like a rollercoaster, the ships firing at each other from stern or bow respectively, since neither vessel can present its broadside to the waves; this necessitates the use of the captain’s cabin at the stern as a firing platform, and ends with half of it torn away and swamped with seawater, Jack injured and half-drowned and senseless, looking out the huge gap where his wall used to be at the point where he and his men have landed a lucky shot and brought down the Waakzaamheid’s foremast, sinking her:

The Leopard reached the crest. Green water blinded him. It cleared, and through the bloody haze running from his cloth he saw the vast breaking wave with the Waakzaamheid broadside on its curl, on her beam-ends, broached to. An enormous, momentary turmoil of black hull and white water, flying spars, rigging that streamed wild for a second, and then nothing at all but the great hill of green-grey with foam racing upon it.
“My God, oh my God,” he said. “Six hundred men.”

This battle (the first, apparently, that O’Brien invented outright rather than lifting from history, which is possibly also the reason it’s the first in the series that thrilled me rather than putting me to sleep with dreary exposition of naval tactics) is subsequently followed by a sequence, in calmer seas, where the Leopard is struck by an iceberg and slowly begins to founder. O’Brian brilliantly brings home the utter, dreadful horror of such an event: a thousand miles from even the edge of civilisation, at a time when the oceans hadn’t even been fully charted, an exhausted crew endlessly pumping water out of the ship all through the night while others desperately try to repair the damage and jettison what wasn’t already thrown overboard during the flight from the Dutchman – and all the while a good part of the crew insisting that the ship is doomed, that they should take to the open boats and make for South Africa, more than a thousand miles away, a strain of panic beginning to run through a divided ship.

Jack was awake, grey but alive, with Killick’s good breakfast dispelling the cold, when Grant came to him, reported the water over the top of the well and gaining fast, and the parting of the new fothering-sail at the dews. “So there we are, sir. We have done all we can by the ship. We cannot pass a new sail before she settles. Shall I provision the boats? I presume you will go in the launch.”
“I do not intend leaving the ship, Mr Grant.”
“She is sinking under us, sir.”
“I am not sure of that. We may save her yet – fother the leak – fashion a rudder with a spare topmast.”
“Sir, the hands have wrought hard, very hard, ever since the moment we struck. We cannot in honesty give them any more hope. And if I may speak plain, I doubt they would come to their duty, with the water deep in the orlop. I doubt they would still obey orders.”
“Would you still obey orders, Mr Grant?” asked Jack with a smile.
“I will obey orders, sir,” said Grant, deadly earnest. “No man shall ever accuse me of mutiny. All lawful orders. But, sir, is it lawful to order men to their death with no enemy at hand, no battle? I respect your decision to stay with your ship, but I beg you to consider those of another way of thinking. I believe the ship must founder. I believe the boats can reach the Cape.”

This is apparently based on a real event, the tale of the HMS Guardian, which struck an iceberg on Christmas Eve in 1789. Spoiler alert: the boats did not reach the Cape. This is the power of O’Brian’s prose: I read that Wikipedia article, I read the phrase “a wall of ice higher than the ship’s masts slid by along the side,” with a real sense of horror, but of course that was purely because I’d already read the whole gripping sequence of the foundering ship in Desolation Island. It may have been 200 years ago, but these were real people – real human beings – who died cold and lonely and frightening deaths in dark seas a thousand miles away from home.

What was that I was saying about a comfortable read? But it is – because it’s not just the exquisitely realised horror, it’s the beauty, too. The smaller moments, like when a blue whale surfaces alongside the ship to Stephen’s delight:

As the wind was biting through his fourth waistcoat and comforter, he was rewarded by what appeared to be the sea-bed rising to the surface right by the ship, a vast dark area that grew clearer and clearer until it assumed the form of a whale. But a whale of unspeakable dimensions: still it rose, unhurried, and as he stared, holding his breath, the sea rounded in a smooth boil – the surface parted – the creature’s streaming back appeared, dark blue-grey just flecked with white, stretching from the fore to the mizen-chains. The head rose higher still and expired a rushing jet of air that instantly condensed in a plume as tall as the foretop and floated over the Leopard’s bowsprit: and at the same moment Stephen himself breathed out. He believed he heard the hissing inspiration just before the head sank and the enormous bulk slid over in an easy, leisurely motion; a dorsal fin appeared, far back; a hint of the flukes themselves, and the sea closed softly over Leviathan; but his hurry of spirits was so great that he could not be sure.

We’ve all seen skeletons or life-size blue whale models on primary school trips to maritime museums. Big deal. But the beauty of O’Brian’s prose is that he can put you right there, in Stephen’s shoes, and make you realise what a spine-tingling, thrilling moment it would be, for a European, so far from home, so close to death, on a crippled ship in frigid foreign seas, to suddenly witness something like that emerge – as large as the ship – just there for a moment – and then, like a dream, gone. It takes you back to a time when there was still so much mystery and wonder in the world.

These, I think, are some of the reasons people adore these books. I wouldn’t say I adore them myself, just yet – I’m averaging one every eight months or so, and they can be heavy going sometimes – but I can understand why others do, and see how I would come to. There is something immensely pleasing about regularly visiting this world and these characters that O’Brian so meticulously crafted.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (2017) 545 p.

belle sauvage

We waited twenty years for this?

Philip Pullman describes La Belle Sauvage, the first in a trilogy comprising what he calls The Book of Dust, as neither a “prequel” or a “sequel” to his Dark Materials trilogy – apparently the books will run before, during, and after that trilogy, chronologically speaking – and instead describes it as an “equal,” which is a clever turn of phrase and also a whopping fib. La Belle Sauvage is an unnecessary prequel if there ever was one.

The book takes place ten years before the events of Northern Lights, on the outskirts of Oxford, where innkeeper’s son Malcolm often does chores for the nuns of the priory across the river. One evening a group of important noblemen congregate at the inn and inquire as to whether the nuns have ever been known to take care of an infant – so soon the priory finds itself raising the baby Lyra, the protagonist of Northern Lights. The agents of the authoritarian Church (the least interesting part of the Dark Materials trilogy) are sniffing around for the baby, as is a mysterious man with a hyena for a daemon, and a great storm is building. In due course of events, Malcolm finds himself trying to bear Lyra to safety during a cataclysmic flood.

I’m one of the readers – who I suspect may be a majority – who adored Northern Lights, liked The Subtle Knife less so, and found by the The Amber Spyglass that the spark had sputtered out. While reading La Belle Sauvage it struck me that perhaps Pullman never fully grasped what made Northern Lights so compelling for so many young readers. It wasn’t the religious overtones (almost entirely absent from that book anyway); it certainly wasn’t Dust and fate and destiny and all that other philosophising that crumbles when you look too hard at it in daylight. It was the vibrant, creative and fascinating world that he introduced us to – a world a lot of readers have wanted to return to, but not if he merely treads the same ground. Consider how wildly inventive everything in Northern Lights was – the daemons, the bears, the Scandinavian witches, the clockwork beetles, the alethiometer. Every chapter seemed to have something new. But La Belle Sauvage contains nothing fantastic that isn’t a re-tread of the original trilogy or lazily lifted from English folklore.

La Belle Sauvage, most of all, is badly paced and understuffed. To compare: my hardback edition of Northern Lights is 403 pages long and contains Lyra’s world of Jordan College, her life and subsequent escape from Mrs Coulter in London, the world of the river-dwelling gyptians in the Fens, an Arctic expedition, the eerie polar research institute, the Scandinavian witch clans, the island of the armoured bears and Lord Asriel rupturing a gateway through the aurora into another world. My hardback edition of La Belle Sauvage is 545 pages long and contains… a priory on the riverbank, some amateur sleuthing, a big flood and a ridiculously persistent pursuer. (On a page-to-page level, the book is increasingly bogged down by Pullman’s inability to sort the wheat from the chaff when droning on about Malcolm’s physical actions while preparing his canoe, shifting his gear, packing his food, etc.) There are a handful of chapters towards the end dealing with the magically disruptive events of the flood, as Malcolm and his companions stumble across a few elements of English fairy mythology; but it’s too little, too late. Northern Lights was an epic in a single book, a grand story about a child’s first adventure out into the wider world; La Belle Sauvage, on the other hand, takes an awful lot of pages to tell us not very much.

I didn’t completely hate it, but I did find myself bored by it, much as I was bored by large parts of The Amber Spyglass. I’ll continue to read the rest of the trilogy as Pullman releases it, particularly because La Belle Sauvage strikes me as an egregious example of groundwork-laying, and perhaps the later books will improve. But by and large, I imagine a lot of fans are going to be very disappointed by this – and it certainly isn’t an “equal” to Northern Lights.

The Physician by Noah Gordon (1986) 686 p.

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I have a very firm idea of what makes a good airplane book. It needs to be long. It can’t be too literary – there’s a time and a place for reading some beautifully written Midwestern family tragedy that won the Nobel Prize or whatever, but that time and place is not the middle of the night somewhere over the Pacific Ocean when your eyeballs feel like glue. So obviously it also needs to be good: compelling and readable, but not too fancy. The phrase “airport fiction” is usually tossed around as an insult, but I don’t see it that way. In the same way that people think writing children’s books is easy when it isn’t, authoring an undemanding yet engaging story which carefully treads the line between artful writing and accessibility is a very specific skill.

So: The Physician, a 600+ page whopper of a historical fiction novel which I’d never heard of until recently despite it being a bestseller – it turns out because, although it was written by an American and has an English protagonist, it was far more popular in continental Europe than in the Anglosphere. The Physician begins in London in the 11th century, when Rob J. Cole (a clanger of an Americanism, I know) is left orphaned after both his parents die. Gordon doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the time – Rob’s siblings are passed along by his father’s guild to various other families, separated from each other forever, and Rob himself, at less than ten years of age, is left as an apprentice to a barber-surgeon who roams around England selling snake oil to medieval rubes. Thus begins a picaresque coming-of-age story in which Rob is slowly inducted into the rudiments of medieval medicine, and – this isn’t really a spoiler, since it’s in the blurb – one day carries out a bold scheme to travel across Europe and study at the great, forbidden universities of Persia by disguising himself as a Jew.

I’m no historian, but I suspect a lot of details in this book are fudged or fabricated for fiction’s sake – and that’s fine. I could compare it to Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which takes place in more or less the same place and time period but does a far better job of making the 11th century seem like the grubby, barbaric and alien era it was; but I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. (And The Wake, in any case, is exactly the kind of experimental piece of literature I don’t want to read while I’m incubating jet lag in an unknown timezone.) The Physician falls short of being great literature, which airport fiction can in fact be capable of; my perennial example here would be Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. But that’s an above-and-beyond accomplishment, not a reasonable expectation. The Physician is entertaining and compelling and interesting and it never bored me. I enjoyed it a lot.

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