Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hilary Mantel's WOLF HALL

For a book that I originally rage-quit after only a chapter or so back when it was first published, Wolf Hall has proven to be pretty much exactly the kind of historical fiction I have most wanted in my life, now that I know the "secret" of its lack of dialog tags and highly unorthodox pronounery. That secret being that about 98% of the time, the "he" and "him" pronouns, regardless of the context clues surrounding them, are meant to refer always and only to Thomas Cromwell, blacksmith's son, sometime soldier of fortune, lawyer and courtier to King Henry the Overrated, I mean Eighth, of England.

And yes, of course, it was the BBC TV adaptation that prompted me to give the book another chance, because there is always so much that is interesting and amusing that gets glossed over when cutting things down to a mass-consumption-and-camera-friendly version of a novel. And boy, is there.

Ah, Thomas Cromwell. His very story gives lie to the whole notion of the divine right of kings, of their complete and utter supremacy, of their paramount importance. Junker Heinrich (as Martin Luther referred to Henry VIII) could still order one's head struck off, but it wasn't too hard to avoid that, really, unless, of course, you were married to him and served as extremely public proof that he mostly shot X chromosomes when he didn't shoot blanks, as it were. The others he had beheaded were those who were stubborn about imaginary sky daddy doctrine and/or swore they owed obedience to a different divinely ordained figurehead over in Rome. Smart people were flexible on these points, and kept their heads while they went about the business of actually running the country (well, until they picked the wrong replacement wife, but Cromwell's ultimate fate does not come to bear on this particular novel's narrative), as Cromwell demonstrates mid-narrative in an interview with the deeply silly Henry Percy, who would keep insisting that Henry couldn't marry Anne Boleyn because Anne was already Percy's wife:
How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift West and are burned up in the Sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
In other words, this is the beginning of the end of the rule of inherited authority. The future is for those who work both hard and smart, rather than those who happen to have lucked into the correct noble surname and thus don't work at all unless some peasants or heretics  need killed.

Speaking of killing heretics, OMG, Thomas More. As a girl raised on great old films like A Man for all Seasons, I was more than a bit shocked at his portrayal here; he's pretty much the villain of the piece (but of course, for that matter, Cromwell is usually the villain-or-something-like-one in tales of this period, no?). Seen from Cromwell's perspective, he is a snob, a heartless and often cruel enforcer of orthodoxy, and, most importantly, a man who feels perfectly justified in breaking promises to, lying to, and treatng as sub-human anyone he deems a heretic. Which is pretty much everybody who goes along with Henry VIII's party's program to install Queen 2.0.

Cromwell-the-character, meanwhile, remains, if not exactly compassionate, at least passionate about sparing More a degree of suffering that seems wholly unnecessary. One tiny, practical compromise, saying "some words" and More could go home to a family that loves him, a comfortable estate, a good life overall. More had to earn these things just as Cromwell had to; why doesn't he value them as Cromwell does?

For we see in this portrayal that Cromwell certainly did. Under different circumstances -- his daughters' survival into adulthood, say, which might have filled his house with grandchildren -- he might not have been as willing to rise quite so high as he did? Certainly there is a sort of turning point late in the novel, when the last of his wards/foster children marries a household staffer of his and moves out of Cromwell's house, taking the staffers's children with him, that Cromwell seems very like an empty nester. Might as well become king in all but name...

Ah, but then there are the Boleyns, of course: Sir Thomas, scheming and smooth; George, touchy and annoyed; Mary, pimped out to royalty until she's had enough (really, Mary is a fascinating character here, a survivor who shields herself with amusement and has fun sharing her strategies with Cromwell); Anne, Queen 2.0 whose dark eyes Cromwell imagines as clacking like beads on an abacus. They've a mind to ruling, too, and outnumber him. Fortunately for him, too much of their power rests on Anne's uterus (though, really, it's on Henry's testicles, no?).

Cromwell will have to work much harder than any Boleyn to get himself beheaded. Even harder than More, whose execution ends this first novel (I believe Anne's ends the second, so surely Cromwell's will end the coming third).

And meanwhile, waiting in the wings, is Jane Seymour, of Wolf Hall, a place for which this novel is named but at which no action takes place; we are meant merely, I think, to feel it as a looming presence only. Queen 3.0 is ready.

Monarchy, man...

*Never mind, for now, that these guys turned out to be big jerks, too. Just let me enjoy this moment, mmkay?

Monday, May 11, 2015

SUNS SUNS SUNS: The Claw of the Conciliator 11-15


Back in Chapter 10, Jonas did a pretty good job of summing up what Severian thinks his goals are at this point in the story, even as he mocks how some of them just might cancel each other out:
You want to serve Vodalus, and go to Thrax and begin a new life in exile, and to wipe out the stain you say you have made on the honor of your guild -- though I confess I don't understand how such a thing can be stained -- and to find the woman called Dorcas, and to make peace with the woman called Agia while returning something we both know of to the women called Pelerines.
 Can Severian do any of this, at this point, let alone all of this? We'll see. But first he has a Very Special Meal to eat, and it's even ickier, and more life-changing, than we've been led so far to anticipate, for the "analeptic" (stimulant) quality of the alzabo is just the first course of this bizarre "meal."

Recall that Severian first met Vodalus and Thea in the midst of a grave-robbing. Didn't you wonder what they were going to do with the corpse? Now we're going to find out. Not, of course, with the corpse that they were stealing back then. Oh no. There is a much more important corpse out there now. And it's been roasted for increased edibility, but then dressed and posed so artfully that for a second, Severian seems to think that maybe Agia's note didn't lie, because THE MAIN COURSE IS THECLA!

So now Severian has something in common with this little lady. We thought she liked eating Eddie...


Maybe, though, Columbia would have been less upset if she'd gained the sort-of-benefit that Severian does here, because alzabo+Thecla+Severian's freakish Marilu-Henner memory = Thecla's entire experience, even a sort of print of her mind, now permanently shares Severian's skull with Severian.* Just the way we'll learn that someone else does much later on, for Vodalus & co. are not the only ones who exploit the strange properties of the alzabo. But so, no wonder Severian is crazy, and some of his narrative flights of memory seem so discombobulated; he's recording his story years later, and his skull is not entirely his own. Sometimes Thecla cuts in with her own memories. And perhaps someone else has a say in things, too. Dude. And so again, when he says that it's really Thecla's education that makes him capable of holding his own amongst the cultured, it literally is: what she learned and how she learned it, in minute biographical detail, is how Severian knows what the Snape people are talking about.**

But here's the thing: many people are sharing this experience, though for everyone else memories of it will fade naturally. For a time, though, all these people in Vodalus' inner circle are now going to experience all of Thecla's life in some degree. Including her time in the Matachin Tower of the Torturers' Guild. Including all the times she had sex with Severian. Well, I'd feel a little weird about that, were I Severian, is all I'm saying. Some of the guardsmen who'd escorted Severian and Jonas to this gathering were kind of ickily excited about the Sharing (and it seemed to make a difference to them that their, uh, meal, this time was a pretty Exultant woman). So, um, eww.

But anyway! We also finally learn about the mission Vodalus has in mind for Severian: go to the House Absolute -- it turns out that Dr. Talos' theatrical troupe has been invited, so he and Jonas have the perfect excuse to be there -- and pass on a message (in the form of a small piece of steel, vaguely knifelike, of the kind you strike a piece of flint against to get a spark and start a fire) to whoever gives the code phrase "the pelagic argosy sights land"; and if a return message is then given, Severian can pass it on to anyone who tells him "I am from the quercine penetralia."

So, I think at least the first code phrase is referring to the megatherians -- a pelagic argosy being, basically, a flotilla near the shore? Really near the shore if it's sighting land? But as for the "quercine penetralia"... um, quercine basically means "oak" or "oaken" and "penetralia" refers to interior or private parts but NOT ONLY IN THE SEXYTIMES SENSE YOU GUYS I've seen the word used in the context of describing, say, rooms deep inside a house. So, I'm from the heart of the oak? But oh wait, that was the name of a naval song in Nelson's navy! They played it on Jack Aubrey's ships sometimes in Patrick O'Brian's novels. So that, too, is rather an oceanic or nautical thing to say. So, yep, it's all about the megatherians. Or at least those among them or their lackeys who "wait until man is purified again, ready to join with them in the conquest of the universe."

Next morning, Severian and Jonas(who reveals he didn't eat any Thecla, actually doesn't really eat much at all [because he's most likely a cyborg, about which more some other time]) wake to find everybody's gone, but they've been left with some very nice horses to speed them on their way to Autarchland. Easy peasy, lemon -- what the hell is that? Oh look, we're back in Clark Ashton Smith territory again, as ATTACK OF THE WEIRD BLACK DRAPY THINGS THAT SUCK HEAT. Which Severian quickly learns are a mistake to slice up with his sword because that just makes more of them. Fortunately, as bravely bold Sir Robin Severian runs away, he comes upon an uhlan (basically, a lancer, except this is a POWER LANCE THAT SHOOTS BLUE BOLTS OF POWER, YO) and basically maneuvers the "Notules" into attacking the uhlan instead. Of course the uhlan fights back, but of course his BLUE BOLTS OF POWER, YO just give the things more energy and they finally overwhelm the poor sap and GET SUCKED UP INTO HIS MOUTH AND NOSTRILS.

So the uhlan seems to be basically dead, but neither Severian nor Jonas seem particularly concerned about that. Jonas, it turns out, has encountered these things before and knows that the only way to really deal with them is to contain them in something air-tight. So he draws each of them out of the guy's head and stashes them in the guy's little herb box and BOOM, they're done.

But now Severian is feeling a bit guilty about sic'ing the notules on a probably-innocent stranger, and gets an idea. While Jonas gets the horses, he whips out the Claw and puts it on the uhlan's head for a moment and maybe it brings him back to life? But then Jonas just thinks he wasn't quite dead? But never mind, because Hethor is here! And he's brought us a new friend, Beuzec!****

Why are you looking at me like that?

I haven't talked much about Hethor in these posts yet, but it's not because he's not an interesting guy. I'm just trying for SOMETHING like brevity here. Hee. Anyway, Hethor, whom we last saw whining over the loss of his sex doll, has declared himself Severian's "slave" and has been following him doggishly since forever and will turn out to have been the author, by mysterious means, of the notules, as well as many other weird and inimical creatures Severian encounters in his travels. Now, Robert "Solar Labyrinth" Borski has a whole thing about Hethor and maybe Beuzec too being shapeshifters (and thus aliens?) as the best explanation for how Hethor manages to cart his menagerie of monsters around, but as far as I can guess, Hethor is named for St. Ethor (aka Hethor), a Celtic saint and martyr who was killed with 89 other monks in a Viking raid. And as for Beuzec, Beuzec is an alternate name for another Celtic saint, Saint Budoc, who was supposedly born in a cask in which his mother had been sealed by her jealous stepmother ("beuzi" being the Breton word for "drowned"), who no sooner had been born than was reassuring his terrified mother that "we have nothing to fear. God is with us, we are near the end of our voyage, and the time of consolation God promised us by his angel is at hand." He grew up to be a great churchman, whose saintly relics if sworn on guaranteed punishment to those who broke their oaths. But so that kind of blows Borski's shapeshifter thing by his own logic, because only humans from Urth get saints' names in BotNS?

Anyway, it still doesn't preclude Hethor's being some kind of beastmaster, possibly one with access to the same weird mirror technology we learned about in the story of Father Inire and the fish.

But enough about Hethor and Beuzic for now, because suddenly all attention is on a flash of white in the distance and it's like H&B aren't even there anymore. And off goes Severian on a wild walking statue chase.

Walking statues? Yes. Four times life-size and inhumanly beautiful and walking around what is rapidly becoming a garden as they progress. Maybe we're closer to the House Absolute than we think, yes? Yes. Because suddenly praetorians! In impossibly shiny and reflective armor that makes them very hard to see, so perfectly does it mirror their surroundings! And they've arrested Severian and Jonas and, presumably, Hethor and Beuzic! And it turns out that they've all been on/in the House Absolute for quite a while now, because the House Absolute's roof is covered in soil and stone and flowers and paths and walking statuary! Because the House Absolute is underground! As Thecla already kind of knew, come to mention it, but Severian is still getting acquainted with how the whole Head-Thecla thing works.***

But soon it's 100% Thecla memory as Severian works out where they've been brought: the infamous Antechamber, where we soon learn generations of prisoners have lived and died waiting for an audience with the Autarch to explain away their crimes. Or their ancestors' crimes? It's all very weird and terrifying and monstrously unfair. Jonas winds up shanghai'd into lengthy conversation with a lot of people who have never been outside of the Antechamber, whose parents never got out, etc etc until they have a lot of weird funny ideas of what the outside world is like, on the order of believing that the people who carry sugar are armed with swords to defend it****, because the whole concept of "bees" got lost in a big game of generational Chinese Whispers.

Meanwhile, Severian has been pulled aside by two old people, Lomer and Nicarete (no, not the stop smoking aid, but rather a lady whom our friend Robert Borski has convinced me just might be the mother of Thea [Vodalus' girlfriend] and Thecla, the latter being Nicarete's-or-someone's illegitimate daughter by the Autarch). Lomer seems to be a garden variety offender, but Nicarete, Nicarete is in the Antechamber voluntarily! She claims it is in order to help humanity earn the forgiveness of all the pissed-off-aliens who sent the megatherians by way of making it hard for society to forget that there are generations of people trapped here in the Antechamber. But she appears to have grown old there, so, how's that working, huh?*****

And then we come to Jonas' big freak out. What he has learned from the habitual prisoners is bothering him in lots of ways, right into a big ol' existential crisis. He reveals some things. Like that the group of prisoners he was talking to all claim to be descended from a guy named Kim Lee Soong, a name that seems to have considerable meaning for Jonas because it might just have been his original name when he was 100% organic human, centuries ago, and was maybe part of an early wave of space colonists from, not Urth, but Earth (a time and place when Kim Lee Soong "would have been a very common kind of name")...

BUT, no time to ponder that now, though, because lights out! And they really mean it. It's pitch black in there at night. Except when it isn't. Except when it's lit up by brilliant flashes of green light, which are pretty much our clues that there is danger, not only because they are unusual, but also because they are a good sign that our friend the Green Man is making another time-tripping attempt to pay off his debt to Severian by saving his life! Chaos ensues! Severian hears "the clear laughter of a young woman: then it was gone."

And... scene. More or less.

*A crowded, crowded place is Severian's skull. But I'm trying not to be entirely spoilery here. But it's a crowded, crowded place.

**And but so take that, Severian sister-hunters. I submit that the puzzle of Severian's missing sister (eyeroll) that so many are on about is entirely beside the point. Severian has one woman that he is closer to than any other (and yes, Robert Borski, she meets the creep-o criterion for female relatives in that he has boned her), and that is Thecla, living in his head. She may be dead, but she has a more intimate connection to Severian than anyone could (well, except for [REDACTED FOR NOW]). And it is perhaps this, the ultimate in highly developed feminine sides, that gives Severian the edge in terms of New Sun candidacy. That also-ran, Appian [HEE], only got a feminine side after he was gelded for his failure. Har. I am the funniest Gene Wolfe blogger.

***For me, it's impossible not to imagine this relationship as being pretty much exactly like Head-Six on Battlestar Galactica. And yeah, I could picture James Callis playing Severian, come to think of it. Hmm.

****There is probably something very clever to be said tying this remark to the former life of the current-within-this-part-of-the-narrative Autarch, Appian, who apparently started palace life as a honey steward, but it's not coming to me now. Nor is the clever remark about the Antechamber being a microcosmic hologram of Book of the Long Sun's generational spaceship full of people who don't remember that the artificial intelligences that govern the ship are artificial intelligences governing a ship but rather think they are gods who control a small hollow earth lit by a really gigantic fluorescent tube suspended in the middle, which they call the Long Sun. Insert your own here.

*****Nicarete's namesake saint is pretty interesting, too, by the way. An early (5th century) Christian, she was a student of theology and became a physician and follower of St. John Crysostom, whom she once cured of a stomach problem. I don't know for sure how transgressive it was then for a woman to be involved in this kind of stuff, but it kind of fits in with our character's self-given mission to make sure the poor dwellers of the Antechamber aren't forgotten, eh?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

SUNS, SUNS, SUNS - Claw of the Conciliator, 6-10


So how's that for a lacuna, my pups? A little over two years since I left Severian in the dark at the end of Chapter 5. I'm not going to waste time with excuses. Stuff. Reasons. Whatever. Anyway, this post is continuing a project I started a few years ago, originally as a read-along with friends, taking a very close look at Gene Wolfe's Solar Cycle. To see the older posts, click here and start reading from the bottom.

But so, Severian has gone off on a wild Thecla chase and wound up blundering into Clark Ashton Smith territory, which he is just starting to realize as Chapter 6 opens. He's scaled a Mt. Rushmore-like cliff (as we'll learn later, whole mountain ranges on Urth have been sculpted into the likenesses of Autarchs past, and I like to imagine that by Severian's very late day, pretty much every mountain or rock that's still standing above water has been carved into a monument to some jerk or other. It's the way far future, yo. The continents aren't even the same. Etc. But really it's just me being a little gleeful about that image of water falling out of a high cave mouth "like saliva from the lips of a petrified titan". But he's going to see some petrified titan lips soon enough, anyway, so why not now.), entered a cave through which a stream is flowing, and is heading upstream into the dark. D'oh.

Just in case his adventure somehow actually does involve Thecla, he calls out her name a few times. She, uh, does not answer.

But instead, clouds of glowing mist "of an impure yellowish green" appear. First one, then a few, then many. He never encounters this mist, though, because it isn't there. There is some truly bravura scene and mood setting at work here that I don't want to spoil for first time readers, so I'm just going to jump ahead to the serious Klarkashtoniana -

ATTACK OF THE BIOLUMINESCENT MAN-APES who, Severian realizes, are still pretty much human and definitely as sentient and self-aware as he himself is... and they are fully aware of their condition: "As the old are imprisoned in rotting bodies, as women are locked in weak bodies that make them prey for the filthy desires of thousands*, so these men were wrapped in the guise of lurid apes, and knew it." But lest you think this is going to be some kind of compassionate reaching-across-the-species-gap kind of feel good moment, one of the man-apes comes at Severian with a mace made out of a thighbone, another comes up from behind him, and it is ON.

Of course Severian slices up all kinds of man-ape ass, and the carnage only stops when he falls over and the Claw of the Conciliator falls out of his boot-top (he's taken to storing it there since so many people seem to be so good at sneaking things out of his murse), and it's glowing like a freaking Silmaril. It reveals what Severian has been suspecting in the lead-up to and during the fight, namely that this mine he's touring contains a big buried city** full of stacked silver ingots, and that the man-apes are holding off their attack, not out of fear, but out of reverence for the Claw. Whether they are doctrinaire believers in the Conciliator/New Sun theology is never examined, but my guess is that they are, they recognize the Claw, and who knows, may even in some fashion recognize Severian.

Meanwhile, in the azure light of the claw, he kind of recognizes them, too:
...their faces were the faces of human beings. When I saw them thus, I knew of the eons of struggles in the dark from which their fangs and saucer eyes and flap ears had come to be. We, so the mages say, were apes once... Old men return to childish ways when at last the years becloud their minds. May it not be that mankind will return (as an old man does) to the decayed image of what he once was, if at last the old sun dies and we are left scuffling over bones in the dark? I saw our future -- one future at least.
The future if nobody succeeds in bringing the New Sun.

But so okay, here's as good a place as any to get into this a bit more. I remember the first time I read through these books, and I thought the Conciliator was a really odd and esoteric way to refer to a prophet or messiah, and then really just sort of filed it under stuff to maybe think about again someday. But of course after, I think, three re-reads (and this makes a fourth) I'm having a serious DUR moment about it, and maybe some of you guys missed it, too. If nothing else, it's good to be honest. I'm not a Gene Wolfe expert, just someone who really digs his stuff and likes to talk about it, so, yeah, it was only this time around that I realized why, not only the revered holy man of the past is specifically called the Conciliator, but why it makes perfect sense that Severian winds up being both the Conciliator*** and the bringer of the New Sun. Urth is in the situation it is, a Dying Earth way before its time, because its biped children made like they were in a T-Bone Burnett song and colonized already inhabited planets and worse, and so some of the other beings/civilizations wronged by those jerks fought back and punished the Urth by introducing a black hole or something that is prematurely killing off the good old sun that you and I and Gene Wolfe are living under. Except, because said beings/civilizations weren't quite the jerks that we were, they left Urth a way out, if we proved to have been misjudged: the New Sun.

And how might we prove ourselves misjudged? We're going to need a Conciliator (i.e. an arbitrator between parties in a dispute). And lo, though the one lived centuries before the other, the Conciliator and the New Sun are the same dude, because Tzadkiel is so wibbly wobbly timey wimey that he makes that other guy look like an apprentice watch repairman.

So yeah, dur. As you all are probably yelling at me right now. But hey.

So anyway, back to the Claw and the man-apes. While the latter are admiring the former, and Severian is trying to back away and escape, Severian realizes that they are not alone. Yes I'm totally thinking of the Balrog right now. But this is Gene Wolfe, so the Balrog is never onscreen (or at least not right now). All we get is a loud noise, "a step that might have been the walking of a tower on the Final Day**** when it is said all the cities of Urth will stride forth to meet the dawn of the New Sun."

And lo, just like the goblins in Moria, the man-apes want none of this ish and flee. Wisely, so does Severian, who, by the way, notes with interest that once the man-apes are gone, the Claw's light goes out. Now, some guys might interpret this as the light only shining when it's needed to scare away the baddies, but what Severian concludes is that "it had flamed for them and not for me." Perhaps because they believe sincerely, and at this stage of the story, Severian just thinks he's some schmoe trying to rescue his dead-but-maybe-not-but-actually-dead-but-living-on-in-his-head-no-really-she-totally-is-he-just-hasn't-gotten-to-that-bit-yet girlfriend? And here endeth Chapter Six. Phew!

And thus we come to very probably my least favorite bit in the novel, if not in BotNS overall. Chapter Seven starts off as a breathlessly exciting escape!.... but soon Severian, ever having to justify his actions and tell us he's not a Bad Guy, mediates a bit on cowardice and bravery, which leads him to recall a time when he witnessed one of his mentors being cowardly.

The reminiscence reads as banal-if-you-can-accept-professional-torturing banal, but then, but then... We find out that the cowardice on display is in the mentor's having been unwilling to directly sexually abuse a Client (prisoner) as ordered, and deciding to use a big iron dildo instead (this made all the more creepy and chilly by Severian's comparing the way the Master smacks the dildo against his palm to the way the man-apes smacked their clubs against their palms before combat). Yuck.

But anyway, escape! But he's no sooner or of the cave than someone is shooting fiery projectiles at him! Of course it's Agia!***** Of course he defeats her and her henchmen, but then wait! A man-ape shows up and I hate this part, too, because the man-ape in question is newly missing a hand ("I recognized the clean cut of Terminus Est"), and fixes Severian with a "beseeching look" that breaks my heart but just leaves our hero speculating about why the man-ape hasn't bled to death yet.

Ugh.

Anyway, the poor thing just wanted another look at the Claw, which Severian gives him. Agia gets all excited to see this thing again and who knows what would have happened had not good old Jonas showed up. Much talk ensues, chiefly of the Agia-shaking-her-fist-at-the-meddling-man-ape variety (she wrote the of-course fake Thecla letter), and Severian lets her assume he's going to kill her now she's at his mercy, but as she's telling at him to just do it already, he and Jonas sneak off into the night.

Within the context of the chapter, we are to understand, I think, that it's cowardice and not mercy that stayed our man's hand. Or at least that that's what he wants us to think.

At any rate, he's onto bigger, if not better things. Kind of literally. Telling Jonas all about his adventure in the mine, he starts pumping Jonas for information about what the not-Balrog might have been, because its presence and barely-glimpsed nature remind Severian both of a story Jonas told about the strange "soldiers" living inside the Wall of Nessus, and of the stories Severian and Thecla read together back in the Tower from a book called The Wonders of Urth and Sky. 

Yes, it's all about the megatherians. Jonas, who has admitted to being some kind of outsider, knows a bit about those, enough to conclude that whatever's in the mine it's not one, because "Their actual size is so great that... they can never leave the water -- their own weight would crush them." So it's at best a servant of theirs in the dark. Severian asks how mere puny humans could possibly defeat beings who are supposedly destined to devour the continents when the sun goes out, but Jonas doesn't really have an answer for that, or at least none that we get, because soon Severian is off on another of his extended journeys down memory lane, rhapsodizing about what it was like to have sex with Thecla, recalling in detail the dream of the undines he had the night he shared a bed with Baldanders (in which he maddeningly tells us that he now understands why Abaia and Erebus have decided to suck him into the battle over the New Sun, but doesn't bother to tell us anything of this revelation), and then BOOM! Kidnapped!

He and Jonas get bundled off, on the back of a baluchether (and don't get me started on this. I had a minor obsession with these creatures, or at least their prehistoric equilvalents, hornless rhinos 20 feet tall, the biggest land mammals that ever were, when I was a kid), past a huge field full of disturbed graves and strewn with perfectly preserved corpses so it all looks like a failed Rapture, to parts unknown. Furthering the post-apocalyptic feel of things (and, of course, indulging in a bit of foreshadowing), Severian, reminded by the baluchether's smooth, silent gait of travel by boat over calm water, tells Jonas "I feel now that I'm traveling through the Citadel in a flood, solemnly rowed." Not until Ushas, buddy.

But despite this moment of weird tranquility, Severian doesn't go quietly. He waits until one of his captors tries and fails to draw Terminus Est from its sheath (there's a trick to it; it involves both hands moving in opposite directions sideways, one holding the sheath and the other the sword hilt), screws up and hurts himself and another guard,  and lickety split starts effecting a slicing and dicing escape from the howdah on the back of the beast. He's just about completely free when they arrive at their destination, which means he has really just managed to make a spectacular entrance to the camp of his hero, Vodalus. Remember Vodalus? This is a song about Vodalus.******

Now, recall that Severian saved Vodalus' life way back at the beginning of Shadow of the Torturer, because Vodalus does. Being a hardened leader of men (and having grown up in the upper class), instead of saying thank you, he tells our boy in fuligin that he has a Seekrit Mission for him. Come have some dinner.

But first, a kind of pre-dinner, Vodalus and his consort, Thea (half-sister of Thecla), outline their philosophy of opposition to the Autarch in terms that even Severian (and we) can understand: The Autarch is complicit in keeping humanity backward and Urthbound, but humanity once ruled "the daughters of the sun" and other places, and should again. Never mind that the megatherians and all the other aliens disagree and will destroy our sun if we try to make that happen; Vodalus does not concern himself with such. For him, it's purely a political matter. And Severian is potentially important in this. But we'll talk more about that at dinner.

Later on, but still before this mysteriously important dinner, Severian gives Thea details about Thecla's last days, and in return, Thea gives Severian a clue about what's so special about the upcoming dinner. The "analeptic alzabo", derived from the gland of an alien carrion eater, is to be consumed. And alzabos, when they consume human flesh, know "for a time the speech and ways of human beings." She hints that thus is somehow going to help them know more about the past, which they must "if our allies and masters who wait in the countries beneath the waves are to triumph."*******

Something weird is going to happen.

*No, I'm not sure how I feel about this observation.

**Every time I get tempted to delve into what city this might be, I get tangled up in all the intricacies of the decades of discussion about this and ALL THE OTHER MINITUIAE at Urth.net and I sprout 17 new grey hairs. But it's probably a city from our era. A lot depends on what continent you think Severian is wandering on. The prevailing theory is that it's South America (and that his city of origin is either a Dying Earth Buenos Aires or a Dying Earth Santiago), but you can find unorthodox souls who think it's wild stuff like Africa but drifted up to where Europe was and the Mediterranean shrank down to a river and that river is Gyoll (where Severian almost drowned among the nenuphars and probably first met Juturna way at the beginning of Shadow of the Torturer). Hey, have at it. Me, I'm punting on the geography question.

***Yeah, yeah, spoiler for first time readers, but I'm pretty sure I lost the first-time readers a long time ago. I doubt much of any of these posts have made sense to first timers.

****I always want to think, despite Jonas' coming assertion, that this is maybe an unnamed non-aquatic megatherian. Nowhere is it stated that I can find that all of them are the same size, so why can't one be vastly huge but not so huge he/she/it is confined to water. The image of the walking tower presented here makes me think of Abaia, who, when he makes his appearance later on, making his way up the Gyoll, is mistaken for a really big ship. But that's just his head. Ship head, building head, hey, why not? But Robert Borski thinks this not-Balrog is a figure referred to as the Guardian of the Lost Archives (the Lost Archives being the subject of a story told elsewhere in BotNS in which various attempts to preserve all human knowledge have led to some autarch or other confiscating all of the handwritten documents that were created when the machines began to fail, and stashing them in an undisclosed place and setting some kind of big scary something to keep interlopers out (for their own good, of course. Don't need people rediscovering space travel, now, do we?). A something that Severian and the man-apes accidentally woke in their scuffle. OF COURSE the two need not be mutually exclusive, for who has a greater interest in confining humanity to earth than the megatherians? So perhaps one being posted like a cherubim with a flaming sword isn't terribly beneath them?

*****You didn't think she was just going to let Severian execute her brother without turning into a vengeful stalker, did you?

******Sorry not sorry, Arlo.

*******This remark of hers used to really bake my noodle. Vodalus is opposed to the Autarch. The Autarch is a failed New Sun candidate who now seems to be cooperating with the megatherians in confining humanity. The megatherians live in the ocean. So how can they be allies or masters of the likes of Vodalus and Thea? I can only conclude that Vodalus is somewhat in league with some alien rebels, i.e. whomever Juturna seems to be siding with? But of course that might be way too simplistic. Abaia et al are a punishment detail, our jailers. But does that mean they are totally inimical to us? Perhaps they are hoping that we can reform. Perhaps they don't want to destroy the Sun and devour the continents and they're simply under orders to do so if we prove irredeemable. Perhaps they (or some of them) want us to succeed, to reform, and helping Severian and Vodalus is just their thumb on the scales? I think I've just convinced myself of this. How about you?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Guy Gavriel Kay's LORD OF EMPERORS

I must admit to having reserved a certain amount of judgment on just how much I liked Sailing to Sarantium, the first book of Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic diptych, until I saw how the story ended in this second volume, Lord of Emperors, because the first book didn't quite feel like it could stand on its own. The two really should just be published in an omnibus edition and be done with it, to make sure that nobody who was left a little meh at the end of the first book would miss out on the absolute joy to be had in the second.

As I observed before, the story told here is to a vast degree a slightly fantastical retelling of the reign of Justinian and Theodora of Byzantium, with some nifty artisanal viewpoint characters to give it life and color and emotional oomph.

But here in the second volume, the story at last decides to diverge from that most glorious of Byzantine periods, even as it brings more similarities to that story to the fore; thus a semi-barbarian queen, Gisel, who had a scene in the first book is more fully fleshed-out and revealed to be a fantasy (and younger and prettier and unattached) version of Amalasuntha of the Ostragoths, whose mistreatment at the hands of usurpers gave Justinian an excuse to reunite the Western and Eastern Roman empires.

Preparations for that great event, or rather, its fantasy equivalent, serve as the backdrop for this second volume of the diptych, for our hero of the first volume, Crispin the Rhodian mosaicist, brought tidings from Gisel to Valerius II (aka Justinian) and so can be said to have touched off Valerius' Great Excuse. Thus while Crispin busily works on decorating the great dome of the Sanctuary to Jad (aka the Hagia Sophia), plots unfold all over the place. But wait, there is more.

Lord of Emperors brings two new and important, and deeply interesting, characters into the mix, characters who do more, really, to drive the novel's plot than even Crispin or Valerius or Gisel. The first is a Bassanid (Sassanid) doctor, Rustem, unexpectedly come to prominence in his own country and then sent by his king to (cough) learn things in Sarantium; the second is Cleander, the hotheaded teenaged son of Sarantium's Master of the Senate, who makes all the messes that Rustem winds up having to clean up. Messes which wind up involving all of the characters, high and low, from the first novel, and keep things entertaining, but still wind up just being distractions to the MAJOR PLOT of the mighty that is the most dramatic, but also troublesome, element of the two novels.

I say troublesome because, just as the novels' story diverges dramatically from actual history and seems poised to be exploring some really tantalizing "what ifs" that I'm trying desperately not to spoil for you except to say that yes, they involve the novel's Belisarius counterpart, Leontes, quite intimately, which is part of what makes these what ifs so very tantalizing to contemplate, it then briskly winds down. The effect is kind of like if, say, Harry Turtledove had written his alternate U.S. Civil War stories but then just stopped right after the South won. Frustrating.

But forgiveable, here, only because everything else is so beautiful. Rustem is a lovely addition to the cast of characters and his story is as moving as Crispin's, as Valerius', as Alixiana's, as those of the chariot racing superstars and faction dancers and cooks (and cook's assistants) we already had met. Cleander spends a lot of the novel as the jerk you want to slap, but he's perhaps the one who undergoes the most character development; you don't exactly wind up cheering for him, but in the end you wind up pretty glad he's there.

As I've come to expect from Kay, there are some heartbreakingly emotional moments, some lovely prose, and, yes, some overemphasis of some things (like repeatedly pointing out how subtle everyone is). I really, really hope there's another volume of this some day, though. I want to know what happens now, since history doesn't tell me.

One other thing of note: beautifully, Kay also manages to leave us the idea that our man Crispin is the novel counterpart to the unknown artisan who made the wonderful Justinian and Theodora mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna:




Which is a lovely grace note to a work of art that really didn't need any more, but that's why they're grace notes. I mean, look at those things. If these books don't tell their creator's story, they tell a story that might have been his. And they tell it beautifully.

*The historical detective work of looking for the historical figures who might have inspired the regal characters in these books is deeply unnecessary for enjoying them, but it's lots of fun if you're a certain kind of person.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Michael Moorcock's BYZANTIUM ENDURES


Mention Michael "Eternal Champion" Moorcock in pretty much any crowd you'd care to and I'm 100% sure that no one is going to mention mundane historical fiction. Or social fiction. Or Russian fiction.

But he wrote some, and it was damned convincing. Someone I'm too lazy to look up again has called Byzantium Endures the best 19th century Russian novel written by a 20th century Englishman there is. And so maybe there's not so much competition in this category, and so maybe this is damning the book with faint praise, but look, this is still quite possibly the weirdest thing Moorcock has written, for all that it lacks soul-sucking swords and beast-masked warriors and six-fingered prosthetic hands that can summon monsters.*

How it manages to be weird without these kinds of things comes down to, of course, its narrator. For this is the first of four volumes, what is called the Colonel Pyat Quartet, and it's told in Pyat's own voice.**

Pyat was, or claims to have been -- yes, another unreliable narrator -- born with the 20th century and so has seen and experienced an awful lot on his journey from genteel poverty in Ukraine to the seat next to you at the English pub where he holds forth at great obnoxious and pompous length every exhausting night about what he's seen and done in his eventful life, living through two world wars, revolutions, etc. and what have you done with your life, loser?

For quite the Renaissance polymath wunderkind secret author of everything is Pyat.*** The only reason you don't know his name is conspiracy has denied him credit for his great inventions, his strategic brilliance, his general thwarted awesomeness. Most of which he blames on the Jews, even though he is himself probably Jewish, a fact which he rantingly denies at every opportunity, often (unintentionally) hilariously. He is, in short, the last guy you want to be trapped having to listen to for any length of time, and here he's gone and "written" four volumes of autobiography, apparently, all of it loaded with his overblown claims. I know a hundred guys like this one. They're in every dive bar in the land. It's never their fault they're not ruling the world. Nor that lesser men are ruling it, and letting it go to pot because they have no standards. Democracy and socialism have teamed up to turn all to kipple. No, he never uses Philip K Dick's awesome word for the deteriorated detritus of civilization, but yes, one can imagine him doing so if only he'd gotten to learn of the word.

But so why on earth should one read these things? Because, if this first volume is anything to go on, they're brilliant, and not just because of the character(s) they so vividly realize. They are absolutely convincing works of pseudo-Russian literature, full of period detail and gorgeous descriptive passages and vivid evocations of the whole lotta history through which our man has lived.

And yes, obliquely they tie into the Eternal Champion stuff, despite their complete lack of fantastic elements, for Pyat is a close friend of Mrs. Cornelius, mother of Moorcock's swinging 60s version of the Champion, Jerry Cornelius, whose adventures I have not yet read because the last time I had them handy I was too young and teenagery to want to read anything of Moorcock's that didn't involve moody sword-swinging albino sorcerors or hunted one-eyed princes or guys with big black jewels embedded in their skulls. I'm going to rectify this soon, though it's going to take me a while since I'm going to have to mess with a dead tree book to do so, and I still have big trouble manipulating dead tree books due to chronic medical conditions that have left me not very dextrous. But I'm gonna.

But there's more than just that obvious link going on, here. Check out the title: Byzantium Endures. Here, Byzantium refers to the cultural heritage of Greece as preserved and transmitted via the Eastern Roman empire, aka Byzantium, and the Orthodox church it spawned, a church that dominated the cultural and spiritual life of Russia until the Revolution. Pyat spends a lot of time rhapsodizing about this, and bemoaning the culture's decline, a decline he helped, at least in a small way, to set in motion. He had to, to survive.

An ancient and sophisticated culture that degenerated until it was finally all but destroyed by its scions. How Melnibon√©. How Elric. 

But this is the real world, where the forces of chaos and law are lower case and lack any supernatural force. Humans did it. Humans can undo it. Byzantium endures. Sort of.

*And it seems that no one in my circle has read it. When I was debating giving this book a try, I asked a few times on Twitter if anyone had an opinion and got nothing but cricket sounds. Which is a shame!

**There's a whole lot of faux preface and appendix material dealing with how Moorcock had to stitch the narrative together from a lifetime's accumulation of notebooks and scraps on which his narrator composed his memoirs, his manifestos, etc. The effect of reading this "material" is kind of like slogging through a Christopher Tolkien hodge-podge of J.R.R. Tolkien's ephemera. I got impatient with it and finally just skipped to the story proper. The stuff at the end, proported to be raw snippets from Pyat's notes, is somewhat more engaging but it's a tough slog, in many languages and next to no complete sentences. I found it blurring, then interesting, and finally tiresome. Your mileage may vary.

***See also Philip K. Dick's CONFESSIONS OF A CHEAP ARTIST.

Mark Lawrence's PRINCE OF FOOLS

I absolutely loved Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire trilogy, so there was no way I was not going to dive right into this sidequel pretty damned soon. The world created around the story of Jorg Ancrath begs to be further explored, and Lawrence is a master at creating unique character-narrators to lead one's expeditions. So I had very high expectations heading into Prince of Fools, first of a new series titled The Red Queen's War.

They weren't entirely met, but I didn't really notice that as I was reading, because my expectations were beside the point. Lawrence was revisiting his world but doing so in a completely different way from what I'd come to expect, and doing it brilliantly. So Prince of Fools, for all its familiar settings and cameo appearances by characters from the other books, is very much its own thing, and its sort-of-hero, Prince Jalal Kenreth, is very much his own man. Well, at least as much as Jorg was. I mean, look how problematic Jorg turned out to be!

Jalal, or Jal as he wishes people would not call him, is also problematic, but not quite so much so as was Jorg. Jalal is relatively simple (or at least seems so, so far): he is a self-professed and unapologetic coward, and tells us so clearly and distinctly every few pages. He's proud of what a good coward he is, very good at making fun of what a really almost perfect coward he is, and very entertaining and droll on the general subject of his mastery of the finer points of cowarding.

Except, of course, he isn't. Because one thing that he never seems to have noticed about actual cowards is that they never admit to being cowards. Far from it. They always have very high-flown, high-horse riding reasons for their actions that are actually quite noble and brave and necessary, thank you very much. And if you use the C word in their presence, they might just slap you with a glove and demand you meet them on the field of honor. At which they'll not show up because they had some highfalutin' duty to perform. Yeah, that's it.

No, Jal is really pretty much a hero, but doesn't want that to become known, because then people will expect things of him. Jal, can you rescue this maiden, Jal, can you solve this dilemma, Jal can you fend off this invading army that threatens our very existence, Jal can you marry this homely but rich maiden for the good of the Realm. If there's anything he fears, it's that. Far more pleasant to drink and gamble and whore around, leap from noble bedchamber window to noble bedchamber window to have a go at the sister, etc.

Until plot things happen that bind him magically to a by-gods Viking whose very involved backstory has left him a prisoner of Prince Jal's grandmother, the Red Queen. Said Viking due to be released until Jal gets a load of his overwhelming brawniness and diverts him into the fighting pits instead so that Jal can make some money off him. And then magic.

The tale thus becomes a different kind of road narrative from that we enjoyed with Jorg and his Brotherhood. Jal and Snorri (well, of course the Viking is named Snorri. Read your sagas!) must travel north to do battle with evil forces that have destroyed Snorri's family and realm, forces that he at first just thinks are rival Viking bands but turn out to be closely related to the Big Evil that so warped Jorg's tale and against whom Jal's grandmother and her eerie and witchy Silent Sister are subtly arrayed.

The resulting book is a bit less complex than the Broken Empire books (or at least seems so thus far!), a bit less uncomfortable to enjoy, but compensates for all this by being a lot more fun. Snorri is a hilarious hero straight out of the sagas (he'd sweep all the categories except maybe Outlawry if the guys at the Saga Thing podcast were for some reason to take on this story), whose many notable witticisms manage to keep things amusing even when Jal stops cracking wise as narrator. Their story and the weird magic that binds them is compelling and occasionally hair-raising. There were plenty of undead/necromancy encounters in the Broken Empire books, but the walking dead in Prince of Fools are much scarier, even if they do maybe owe a lot to A Song of Ice & Fire's White Walkers. Or do they?

This is how you do a sidequel, kids. Now I'm seven kinds of psyched for the sequel to the sidequel. Sesidequel? Sedequel?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Guy Gavriel Kay's SAILING TO SARANTIUM

There is a lot of attention to and respect for craft in Canadian fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay's fiction, and not just as a source of metaphor, though the tapestries of Fionavar and, here, the mosaics of the pseudo-Byzantine Sarantine empire, certainly serve as highly effective over-arching ones for the story structures he's created.

There were, though, no weavers in Fionavar. The tapestry was woven by a god, though not one of the gods who romped and fought and occasionally fornicated in the land -- they had personalities and desires and whims. The Weaver of Fionavar was much more impersonal, not a character.

But in Sailing to Sarantium, while yes, the overall story can be seen as a mosaic created by a divine mosaicist, there is also a real and earthly artisan who is a master of that art, and his story is the main one of this first novel in the Sarantine diptych.

Said artisan is one Crispin, who begins the novel far from the fabled city of Sarantium. Crispin is a Rhodian -- a citizen of this world's western Roman empire after it was sacked by this world's Visigoth analogues* -- and a mosaicist of considerable skill and dedication, if not yet reputation. The reputation is all his partner's, and it is his partner who is invite-commanded by the emperor to come to Sarantium and work on the novel's Hagia Sophia analogue. The partner,though, is old, and tired, and Crispin is merely middle-aged and embittered, so they decide it is he who will go "Sailing to Sarantium" in the novel's idiom for finally getting a shot at the big time, though because the imperial courier dawdled with the message it's too late in the year for safe sailing and so Crispin must travel overland.

So far this sounds about as fantastic as a Lars Brownworth podcast**, and I will just spill the non-fantastical beans here and say that, well, a Clark Ashton Smith story this is not. There is very little magic here, and not much in the way of mythical creatures either -- about as much as you'd see in, say, four or five chapters of A Song of Ice and Fire. But like those books, you're not going to be reading this for the dragons and centaurs and necromancers. You'll read it for the characters and the intricate and crazy court politics and for Crispin's story, the story of an artisan, the kind of guy we can never know any real story about (hence, I posit, the decision to make of this tale a fantasy instead of just a historical novel set in Byzantium. At least in part.) because artisans' names and biographical details did not make the history books until, overall, the Renaissance.

And also because, so far in my experience at least, when Kay writes fantasy, he's interested in exploring one of the more interesting possibilities that the fantasy genre offers: that of examining a world in which religion and its attendant rituals are not matters of mere faith/belief, as they are in our world, but matters of fact. Gods exist and prove their existence by directly interacting with humans (sometimes quite intimately). Ignoring them, to paraphrase Philip K. Dick, does not make them go away. And neglecting to propitiate them has real and tangible consequences that can't be argued about (or at least not much). We saw this in spades in Fionavar; here it's all a bit more subtle. There are pagans still in the Sarantine world, and we get at least one spectacular encounter with the reality of their pantheon and program during Crispin's journey to the great city from the sticks, but there is also a monotheism where, at least in this first novel, no proof is offered. It's all more like ours. It's all about belief.

Which lets Kay explore at one remove the schism between Western and Eastern Christianity that was just really developing in Byzantiume during Justinian's reign. The official religion of the Sarantine empire has sort-of-pagan trappings in that its single deity, Jad, is a sun god, but, just as Christianity was through its history, there's monotheism and there's monotheism. Pagan tugs at believers' heartstrings have some venerating a pantheon of martyrs almost as deeply as the god, and many arguing over whether the deity's incarnated earthly son was or was not as divine as the god itself.

All of this may turn off some readers, but those who have the patience for it are amply rewarded. The theological nitpicking deeply informs some of Crispin's very real and intense experiences, and his plans and visions for his coming triumph, the decoration of the pseudo-Hagia Sophia, which is to be more than a little bit of an assertion of doctrine given form in stone and mortar and prismatically lovely glass tesserae.

As I said, Kay loves exploring craft, and takes it as seriously as fodder for stories as he does his own practice. The care of Crispin for not merely design but construction and composition mirrors Kay's own attention to his craft. The result is as splendid as the dome of Hagia Sophia must have been in Justinian's day.

All this and some crazy action, too. Chariot races! Chariot crashes! Fighting! Sometimes in a bathhouse! And intrigue. So much intrigue. Crispin's arrival upsets many, many applecarts.

A caveat, though; as others have complained, Sailing to Sarantium ends feeling incomplete. Very little is resolved; most is saved for the second volume Lord of Emperors (which I'm already reading, of course). If you're going to read this, then, do yourself a favor and make sure you have the second book ready at hand.

Go, Blues!

*And let's just get this all out of the way and say that, fantasy trappings aside, this novel is basically set in Byzantium in the reign of Justinian and Theodora. All the events of that period are mirrored here, from the Nika riots and Theodora's famous quote about how imperial purple is a good color in which to be buried to the near-eternal conflict between the Blue and Green factions that are really only nominally about the two major colors striving for supremacy in the chariot racing marvel of the Hippodrome (as in the real Byzantium, the two factions also correspond to sides in a religious schism), to the need, after said riots, to rebuild the city and especially its primary religious edifice. It's all so on the nose, but as Byzantium is woefully under-represented in fiction, I happily allow it.

**If you've not listened to the marvelous Twelve Byzantine Rulers, go! Listen! It's glorious! I promise!

Flattr for Blogger