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The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages
Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams
Progress: 367/543 pages

A Marvelous Quartet

The Price of Spring - Daniel Abraham

The Price of Spring concludes what is now one of my all-time favorite fantasy epics, The Long Price Quartet. Daniel Abraham not only continues his masterful sentence-by-sentence writing, with its vivid descriptions and telling dialogue, but he also maintains the vision that made book 1 (A Shadow in Summer) so compelling. The sweeping ramifications of intimate decisions come to the fore once more in this final volume, reflecting the close-in focus of the first volume. All the things done and suffered by our core characters (Otah, Maati, Eiah, and Idaan chief among them) tie into one theme or another and have significance for the development of the plot. Generally speaking, this is close-knit writing, and its tapestry is a work of wonder.


Being a great lover of theme even above character and plot, I was most impressed with how Abraham bound up every thread of this novel with the main themes of the series. One can surmise from the book titles that the passing of the seasons is the major theme ruling all other themes in this series. The Price of Spring unites the concepts of andat (a living idea) with the passing of the seasons to reflect on the timeless truths of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. No profound revelation is made, but this old truth is resonant and Abraham employs all the best tools of a sensitive writer in all the best ways, so that the final product is a work of beauty and poetry.


Advice to readers: follow the motif of the flower. It appears at least in A Betrayal in Winter (prologue chapter), An Autumn War (one of the final chapters, as well as one of the middle chapters in which Otah launches a doomed assault), and in the epilogue chapter of The Price of Spring. It may have been present in A Shadow in Summer but I missed it since it didn't seem so important at the time. I'd like to elaborate just a bit, so the paragraph that follows will be a SPOILER. Also, apologies if my thoughts are somewhat disjointed below, since the overall tapestry is so delicately woven with an impressively multivalent depth. There is so much symbolic intricacy to ponder that it boggles the mind, and one struggles to subject it to rigorous analysis.



The prologue chapter of A Betrayal in Winter describes a white flower blooming in the courtyard of the Khai's palace in Machi. The flower is spattered with blood, the red standing out against the whiteness of the flower as well as the whiteness of the snow lingering from winter. Spring is just beginning. The end of A Betrayal in Winter sees Otah victorious against his scheming and murderous sister Idaan, who tried to become a Khai by murdering her brothers. She murdered Danat but did not succeed against Otah. Otah is now Khai but pardons his sister, sending her into exile instead of executing her. At the end of the novel, she is walking into the distance across the autumn snows, standing out red against the whiteness of the snow. At the end of An Autumn War, after the devastating war of Balasar Gice against the Khaiem and Maati's shattering mistake of unleashing the andat Seedless's new form, Maati goes into exile in a remote cave in the autumn. Seedless had caused infertility in the men of Galt and the women of the Khaiem. Maati's protégé Eiah nevertheless forgives Maati's mistake and brings him flowers colored orange and yellow -- colors representing both autumn and the city of Machi. It is a reminder of the tragic fall of Machi but also a symbol that there may be hope. Finally, at the end of The Price of Spring, Otah's son Danat (named after his brother who had been slain by Idaan), delivers a funeral eulogy for Otah, speaking of the flower as a metaphor for the passing of seasons both in nature and in human life. He stresses a distinction (using language reminiscent of the old poets when discussing the binding of an andat) between returning and replacement. As Otah himself had realized in the letters he had written to his dead wife, no one ever returns when the springtimes of life come around. Each person, as each flower, dies; but he is replaced in one way or another. With this eulogy, the new Danat marks a new age of mankind, one free from the powers of the andat (with all the possible death implied by that...), and one hopefully also free of the internecine strife of the old Khaiate ways. Note that "Danat" is an anagram of "andat". As each andat newly bound is a variation on an older version of its theme, so too is Otah's son Danat a variation on the uncle that was killed by Idaan; or, perhaps it is better to say that he represents a replacement of the previous generation rather than the old Danat in particular. He won't follow the same path, but he is a nod to the past, and he is Otah's creation, as the andat were the creations of poets. Danat is Otah's instrument for change and the betterment of humanity. Also, just as andat are representations of an idea, summoned by a poetic incantation, so too does Danat speak poetically in the eulogy about springtime. The price of spring was bloodshed, as blood sullied the white flower in Machi's courtyard. The price of spring is also the potential for bloodshed, now that the world is left free of the andat's oppressive enforcement of peace. Peace among the nations is no longer guaranteed. Spring is that time when life is renewed and the military campaign season begins. The new age of the world reflects this co-habitation of life and death.



So, the gist of my review is this: The Long Price Quartet is a masterpiece. I've mentioned in my previous reviews that sometimes there is too much introspection on the part of the characters. This remains my opinion, but it is forgivable because it is not really intrusive. And indeed, being of a more thematic bent myself, I may have overlooked some of the intricacies of character development that these introspections evoke. The way that Daniel Abraham wields symbolism as a narrative tool impressed me like few authors have before. In this respect, he approaches the mastery that Gene Wolfe so effortlessly displays. I am happy that, by the end of this series, my initial Wolfean impression remains. If Wolfe is an idea (or ideal!), then Abraham is a new Wolfean andat, transmitting the core element of symbolic mastery while establishing idiosyncrasies of his own.

Blood and thunder, Daniel-Abraham style

An Autumn War - Daniel Abraham

As the title advertises, An Autumn War is the war book of the Long Price Quartet. Book 1 of this epic was the romance, Book 2 was the court intrigue, and Book 3 is the blood and thunder. 


As with the preceding books, it molds itself around the seasons, shaping plot threads and character arcs around themes of death, renewal, and the cyclical nature of life. Abraham is quite good at this, as became quickly apparent in A Shadow in Summer (Book 1), which I called "an intimate epic". Abraham's focus on character is unwavering, and many of his protagonists are interesting enough that you really do care what happens to them in the end. Even as the geographic scope of the story widens in this war book, each plot thread is motivated almost exclusively by the desires and frustrations of the various protagonists. In other words, the author never loses that focus on character even when he needs to outline the grand movements of clashing civilizations.


Without getting too spoilery, here are the main points: An Autumn War follows Otah, Maati, Cehmai, Kiyan, and Liat as they now enter their 40s, seemingly the autumn of their lifespan. Most of these protagonists now have children (except Cehmai, for he is Machi's poet) and their concerns are directed toward cultivating the next generation. Meanwhile, a new character, Balasar Gice, a brilliant general from Galt, emerges as a dangerous conqueror bent on upending the world order.


This novel, by itself, carries the story through to a truly thunderous conclusion, sounding faint war-drums in the beginning and slowly bringing the horrors of war closer and closer to the people we identify with as "the good guys", until the terror and violence become overwhelming. Still, not everyone dies, and the stage is set for the final book of the quartet (The Price of Spring). So, as far as this single book goes, it is very good by itself and might almost be read successfully as a stand-alone (but why would you do that?).


As part of the quartet, this book is even better. It adds new layers of symbolism to its ongoing meditations on the seasons, and it continues building its world, further articulating the Cities of the Khaiem while introducing the Galts and the peoples of the Westlands and Eddensea. As for the andat... well, I don't think I can talk about that and avoid spoilers at the same time... let's just say that there are some major changes, and they play into the cycle of the seasons, especially autumn.


Also watch for visual symbols. There is one in the aftermath of the big battle in the middle of the book (involving Otah on the battlefield) and another one some time after the final climactic battle (involving Maati in a cave) -- these two symbols are particularly powerful, the former harking back to another symbol introduced in the prologue chapter of A Betrayal in Winter (a heavily ironic symbol), and the latter seeming to presage hope in the fourth volume while acknowledging the tragedies of the first three. Finally, and most impressively, none of the symbols in these books can be mapped onto a single season, nor do they have valence exclusively with the book that they appear in. They are significant in all the seasons, but, for that, they lose none of their individuality. It's clear to me that Abraham conceived a brilliant idea when he started putting together this series and has brought to the task a great talent for integration, consistency, and beautiful story-telling. I am most eager to read the final volume.

My Reading Habits (The Survey)

This seems like fun, so here goes:


1. Do you have a certain place in your home for reading?

I read in my Lazy Boy in the living room of my apartment. To the left is the kitchen, always ignored while reading. To the right is a window facing mostly west, necessitating an artificial light source in the morning and night but rarely in the afternoon. To the right and behind the chair is a door letting out onto the balcony. Some reading occurs here on warm days. In South Carolina, this is most of the year and on random days in winter.


I also occasionally read magazines in bed... umm, history magazines, mind you!


2. Bookmark or random piece of paper?

Bookmark, for sure. I have one that says "I like big books, and I cannot lie!" This one shares a home with an assortment of Star Trek bookmarks.


3. Can you  just stop reading or do you have to stop read after a chapter / certain number of pages?

I must read at least one chapter whenever I sit down for a reading. My mind cannot tolerate atomic levels of reading.


4. Do you eat or drink while reading?

Eating distracts, so no. Drinking... only after a section break.


5. Multitasking: music or TV while reading?

Absolutely not. Like eating, it distracts.


6. One book at a time or several at once?

One at a time, unless one of the books is divided into discrete units (like The Norton Anthology of English Literature).


7. Reading at home or everywhere?

Mostly at home... sometimes in the car when I know I'll be sitting somewhere long enough to read a chapter or article.


8. Reading out loud or silently in your head?



9. Do you read ahead or even skip pages?

I avoid reading ahead as though it were a presentiment of my doom.


10. Barking the spine or keeping it like new?

I am no dog, to bark up the spine as though it were a tree. I don't break it either. Books are sacred objects.


11. Do you write in your books?

No. That's what notebooks, pads, receipts, and opened envelopes are for.

Back in action!

To my handful of readers: sorry I've been away -- things got busy over Christmas Break, and Booklikes was under construction last time I tried to make an update.


Anyway, things are working, and I don't really feel like writing full reviews for what I've read. However, I will say a few things:


1. I finished A Betrayal in Winter, by Daniel Abraham. It picks up after A Shadow in Summer, one of the best fantasy books I've read. This second installment is just about as good, even if it shifts in character. It moves us 10 or 15 years forward and drops us into a fascinating Shakespearean royal intrigue.


2. I read a Star Trek: Enterprise book, Kobayashi Maru. Now, the title had me pretty excited because I thought I would get to see the infamous incident that inspired Spock's Academy simulation from The Wrath of Khan. Alas, there wasn't much of that. Still, the book advances the overall mega-plot concerning the Coalition of Planets and the rumblings of war with Romulus. Not bad, but certainly not necessary.


3. I'm now reading An Autumn War, the third novel in the Long Price Quartet, following A Betrayal in Winter. This one is shaping up to be rather epic indeed, with plots to change the very system of the world, the marshalling of armies the likes of which haven't been seen since the Second Empire, and (as always) a set of moral quandaries that stretch our characters to their limits.


4. Of course, I've read lots and lots of comic books since December. I don't usually comment on those, since I read them almost exclusively in single-issue format and would lose what little remains of my free time if I were to review them all. Suffice it to say that I'm still enjoying the DC Universe Rebirth initiative. As a fan who started with the New 52 in 2011, I don't know a whole lot about classic DC, but I'm pretty sure I would enjoy it if it is true that the Rebirth initiative is about returning DC to its roots. Great stuff from Rebirth: Green Lanterns (I am in love with Jessica Cruz!!), Action Comics (really a good story about Lex Luthor), and Detective Comics (a quirky and interesting Bat-team including Clayface, plus the beginnings of a Batwoman story that has huge potential). Moon Knight is a wacky, engrossing, heart-tugging story from Marvel. And the indie publishers have plenty of amazing comics -- the best new comic from Image (with stiff competition indeed) has to be Moonshine, while Aftershock wrapped up a terrific arc in The Revisionist and continued the high quality work in Black Eyed Kids. Marvel's Star Wars books, IDW's Star Trek books, and Dark Horse's Aliens/Predator books continue to entertain me more consistently than the superhero fare from the Big Two.


5. With the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, we now live in the Twilight Zone. The world has become science fiction, and now we have to write our way from dystopia to utopia... somehow.

An Intimate Epic

A Shadow in Summer - Daniel Abraham

I have not read a huge number of epic fantasies in my life; my experience in that genre is limited primarily to GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire and Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy. But one thing I hear about a lot of fantasy epics is that there is a great number of characters in them, and the scope of the events is vast, sweeping across colorfully detailed secondary worlds.


Daniel Abraham's first published novel, A Shadow in Summer, resists that tendency. Most of the action takes place in the great trading city of Saraykeht, one of many trading cities among the Khaiem, a merchant-republic kind of society that seems equal parts Renaissance Italy and Silk-Road khanate. The world outside these cities is vast and has the potential to be treated in detail, and perhaps that will happen in future installments, but in this first novel of the Long Price Quartet, the action is geographically confined. Moreover, the city itself is fleshed out only to the extent that seems necessary to establish a sense of place and a background for the main characters.


The decision to tell the story like this, I think, pays off with large dividends. This is because one of the most important themes of A Shadow in Summer is the conflict between love and justice, and how difficult it is even to put comfortable limits on either love or justice. All the sinister intrigues that threaten to shake up the world order are predicated on motivations grounded in love and hate and executed with misplaced proclamations of justice and injustice.


There are really only five POV characters in this epic fantasy novel, but their actions and motivations are so deeply developed, even between the lines on the page, that one feels an entire emotional world opening up beneath the engrossing details of Khaiate society. As the plot moves forward, all these characters' lives become intertwined in impressively varied ways, and by the end, there is a complex love triangle clashing disturbingly with an unwanted abortion and the dark movements of political intrigue that run deep and powerful like a tide that threatens to pull our characters out to sea. By the end, too, no one's situation is the same as it was in the beginning, and the world order teeters on the precipice.


The course of these events runs forward as everyone involved makes seemingly impossible moral calculations. Far from being cynical amid the grim, dark deeds of this intricate plot, our characters agonize over every decision, aware of its implications and forced to accept ethical compromise. This is the kind of moral dilemma that I find interesting, and it certainly enriches this novel.


I mentioned in an earlier post that there is a strong hint of Gene Wolfe in the early chapters of A Shadow in Summer. But I found the book feeling less like Wolfe as I continued to read. Yes, there is an undercurrent of identity/memory issues in Otah's story, and yes, the prose does marvelously weave together plot, character, and theme (as Wolfe did in Shadow of the Torturer). But, tellingly, the dialogue does not at all resemble Wolfe's style, nor is the importance of symbolism so front and center. Abraham's opus is a thing in itself and wholly of its own author. He nods to the greats, but this new masterpiece is his alone.


I say "masterpiece" even though the narrative does occasionally frustrate readerly pleasures. But this is to the good, ultimately. Consider especially the role of the andat, Seedless, in this book. At first, his nature and purpose are fascinating, but after a while, his character seems only to degenerate into a confusing muddle of ideal form and real manifestation, while his true motivations are constantly called into question. By the end, however, a drastic change of status occurs (I won't spoil the nature of it!), and the symbolism that he bore early on comes to the fore once more, and upon reflection, it becomes obvious that his character is representative of the entire world order, and his own vicissitudes mirror that of his world. Contemplate further upon his symbolic presence, and you (as reader) come to understand more deeply the nature of the society that created him.


Far more lies beneath the surface than can be revealed from just this one novel. Abraham has created a world that he refuses to spoon-feed to the reader but has made it interesting enough that, at least in my case, I cannot wait to delve deeper into its mysteries -- even as it changes! And indeed, its seasons change from the summer of Saraykeht's dominance to the winter of... its discontent? Well, we shall see in A Betrayal in Winter.

A Shadow in Summer - Daniel Abraham

I just read the "Prolog" to this today... an interesting setup, delivered quite capably. The mystery of the andat is an attractive one, and Otah is a character I want to follow for the rest of the novel.


Interesting to note: This chapter bears some similarities to the prologue chapter of another great "Shadow" novel (The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe), which itself unfolded into a quartet of similar length (The Book of the New Sun). In both books, the main character is a young adolescent raised as more-or-less orphan in a strict, highly ordered monastic environment wherein a propensity for cruelty makes its way into both characters as a result of the system they've been brought up in. Both escape this order after being unable to resist showing mercy, though, and they strike out on their own. I wonder if there will be any more similarities (or indeed intertexts) with that Wolfean masterpiece... I am most intrigued.

Reading progress update: I've read 159 out of 543 pages.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

So, I've read a few more pages in this book, a section entitled "Celtic Contexts". What this means is a smattering of selections from Anglo-Norman literature with a Celtic twist or flavor. (Celtic here refers to remnants of Celtic culture that persisted in Brittany, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland after the Norman conquest of 1066).


Mostly, there is good material here. There was one piece, an excessively arid translation of a Tristran & Ysolt story, that I did not like... I am not naturally attracted to romance unless it is very well written, and this translation did nothing for me. Besides that, I liked a lot of the Celtic-influenced literature. The best piece is an Irish legend called "The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu" (that name is pronounced "ish-lu" -- one of these days I need to learn how to pronounce Irish names!), the tragic tale of a woman caught in a mess of love and politics. Refreshingly, the tragedy does not revolve around her desire to cohabit with a man but rather around her independence as a human being. It's interesting to see this kind of attitude expressed literarily in the 12th century, because it's easy for us moderns to forget the origins of our values.


The other selections exhibit a feminine perspective as well. Two poems by Marie of France are present in this edition, and both are excellent. "Lanval" is an entertaining tale of love between a handsome knight (Lanval) and the woman (likely a faerie queen) who seduces him. This one moves at a fresh clip, and the occasional kicks of irony make for pleasant reading. The second poem, much shorter, is called "Chevrefoil", a neat little French word that gets explained at the end of this piece, which riffs in riddling fashion on the love between Tristran and "the Queen" (Ysolt).


Finally, a selection from the "Rule for Anchoresses" -- an interesting allegory that compares the scenario of a handsome knight wooing a proud queen, with Christ wooing a proud humankind. Just as I remarked after reading Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry, it is fascinating to see Christ manifesting differently in different sets of literature -- he was a gold-giving king for the Anglo-Saxon word-mongers, and for the Anglo-Norman "romantics", he was a tournament-touring knight in shining armor.

An okay finish to a great trilogy.

Purgatory's Key: Star Trek: Legacies, Book 3 - Dayton Ward, Kevin Dilmore

First of all, Purgatory's Key is the third and final book of the Trek 50th-anniversary trilogy Legacies. The first two books delivered exciting action and an intriguing mystery concerning the Transfer Key and the menacing Jatohr. Ward & Dilmore's entry does a good job in some respects and a poor job in others. First the good: it capitalizes on the Jatohr element. They are less the two-dimensional villains of the first two books and are revealed to be a rather interesting alien species... but there could have been more. The strange dimension that they come from never did make any sense, and the authors did nothing to explain how such a species could come from such an ethereal place. What we're left with is a gaping plot hole... too bad, because this one had potential!


Another good thing is the Klingon drama. This subplot draws on the strengths of the "Shakespearean" TNG Klingon stories, and it even drops hints as to how Gorkon comes to be a major player by the time The Undiscovered Country rolls around.


Good things too: Sarek and Joanna McCoy get a few good character moments, while Captain Una holds her own. I feel that this trilogy overall has been a good Una story, leaving me wanting more, whether those stories be in the April, Pike, or Kirk era.


Bad things: the aforementioned Jatohr failure. Also, the trilogy hyped the Transfer Key as a secret passed from April to Pike to Kirk... and yet, Pike makes no appearance, just a paltry piece of lip service from Una. The Transfer Key is an interesting plot device, and I would have liked to see its potential realized to a greater degree.


Moreover: the climactic emergency in the Jatohr citadel, while in concept a worthy one, is never developed to the heights that the exciting climaxes of the previous two novels reach. And the last three chapters are pretty boring epilogues. A better-developed climax with a short epilogue chapter would have been preferable.


This review probably sounds a bit harsh. I did like the book most of the way, despite lamenting Pike's absence. The action is well described, the characters are almost always convincingly "voiced", and things move along at an enjoyable clip. I just felt that the potential of this book was not reached.



Middle book of a trilogy -- and it's good!

Legacies #2: Best Defense (Star Trek: The Original Series) - David Mack

Book 2 of the Legacies trilogy, Best Defense, picks up right where Book 1, Captain to Captain, left off... plot-wise, at least. The quality picks up in an entirely different way. This is to be expected, though, because the author is David Mack, who is a superior Trek author. 


Book 1 ended with an exciting cliffhanger involving a Tal Shiar agent having stolen the Transfer Key -- bad, bad news for the whole universe! What's more, it quickly becomes apparent that secret agents, probably hired by the Romulan Empire (or at least the Tal Shiar...) are trying to sabotage the Organian peace talks that would establish some kind of agreement between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The plot revolves around these conflicts, as well as keeping track of Una's progress in the alternate universe (which there really isn't much of). 


Mack is a skillful writer, so that not only do the classic characters' "voices" sound right (especially Kirk's), but the descriptions of the action are evocative and compulsive. One can "see" what's going on easily, and it's always apparent what the stakes are in any given scene. Admittedly, the stakes are raised on a personal level for Spock and McCoy in a manner that seems a bit contrived (i.e., artificially and implausibly constructed for the sake of advancing the plot), but Mack propels the action so smoothly that I stopped caring about the contrived nature of a couple of the plot devices. Indeed, the final confrontations on and around the planet Centaurus are so nail-biting in their intensity that I didn't mind or even notice any literary shortcomings at the moment of reading. 


And now the action moves into the final book of the trilogy -- Purgatory's Key, by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore. Too bad it's not David Mack again, because he is reliably entertaining. I hope Ward & Dilmore can live up to the overall quality of the first two books, because the story is interesting and the stakes are high... these things demand good writing.

The 50th anniversary trilogy begins...

Captain to Captain: Star Trek Legacies, Book 1 - Greg Cox

Greg Cox, David Mack, Kevin Dilmore, and Dayton Ward got together and mapped out a trilogy of books for Star Trek: The Original Series, each by a different author or authors. We can now read the results. Having finished Book 1 (Captain to Captain), I can say it's a trilogy I want to keep reading.


Greg Cox's portion is almost self-sufficient -- the problem of the Transfer Key is introduced, and its mystery, known already to the captains and first officers of the Enterprise, is slowly unraveled for the reader. The middle third of the book accomplishes this task rather nicely, taking us back 18 years to when Robert April was captain of the Enterprise and the Transfer Key was first discovered. This plot, as well as the Kirk-era plot surrounding it, is solidly executed, employing several classic Trek plot devices in entertaining ways.


The greatest delight, for me, is the story of "Captain Una", the name given to the mysterious Number One (played by Majel Barrett) from the original pilot episode ("The Cage"). Her motivations are plausible, and her character -- self-confident without quite passing the mark of arrogance -- is a joy to read, as are her interactions with Kirk and Spock.


Connections with Trek lore are everywhere to be found, but the most intriguing one is the connection with the Mirror Universe. It would be criminal to spoil that one, but watch for it -- the possibilities are tantalizing. Other wonderful tidbits include the origin of the Enterprise computer's voice and the involvement of the Klingons and [REDACTED].


I had only a few problems with this novel. First is Kirk's voice -- he seems a little too talkative here. I wanted to hear William Shatner's classic halting bravado, but I ended up with a guy who overuses adjectives and unnecessary explanations (a general problem with Cox's writing, although it hardly ever reaches the point of annoyance). The second problem is the second climax. Kirk and Spock, in the first climax, have to survive a thrilling chase -- this one is done well. But the second climax is unnecessary and indeed a rehash of similar events in the first third of the novel. Everything about it is heavy-handed, from the low-oxygen scenario threatening characters in no danger of death (narratively speaking, of course), to the last-second Scotty ex machina. The first climax was good enough, but the second only gets in the way, between the first climax and the plot twist in the final chapter.


All-in-all, a good entry, especially for fans of The Original Series. The next book is penned by David Mack, one of the really good Trek authors, so I'm looking forward to it!



Reading progress update: I've read 128 out of 543 pages.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

I read a bit in this volume today -- this time, it's selections concerning the legendary history of Britain and King Arthur, written by three different 12th-century authors, to wit: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Layamon. My favorite is the selection about the earliest settlers of Britain. People in early Norman times in Britain (12th century) and earlier believed that descendants of Aeneas and his band of roving Trojans split off from their Italian cousins, wandered the seas a bit (riffing off the adventures of Aeneas himself in Vergil's Aeneid), and ended up settling Britain! I've studied quite a lot in the Greek and Latin classics, but I never came across Geoffrey of Monmouth because the typical classical education ignores what people did with classical texts after classical times. So, this is new and fascinating material for my brain to pick over.


From those earliest Trojan forebears eventually came King Arthur (whom Geoffrey, Wace, and Layamon all place in the mid-6th century AD, some 1500+ years after those first settlers). These 12th-century stories of Arthur, as far as I can tell from the excerpts here, are not as romantic as the later versions that are more familiar. But you can still pick up on the ideas of romantic love and honorable conduct among high-born warriors (summed up by the term "chivalry"). They also feature some interaction between Arthur and what's left of the Roman Empire! Of course, the chronology doesn't line up; but then medieval authors did not have the same sense of history that we do today. What was more important to the likes of Geoffrey, Wace, and Layamon, was that their contemporary kings (12th-century Norman rulers of England) should pay attention to the "precedent" of Arthur -- that he was a mighty chivalric king pursuing justice and glory for the English but nevertheless had to face the betrayals of his nephew Mordred and wife Guinevere. Such were the deepest concerns of the Anglo-Norman nobility (imperial ventures on the Continent balanced against domestic strife). It reminds me of the narrative arc of Shakespeare's history plays (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III) and thus that some of the anxieties of medieval and Renaissance England were long-lasting indeed.

Metatropolis -- could it be our future?

METAtropolis - John Scalzi

Metatropolis is a fascinating book. There are a few different things that make it so. Its five novellas, all by different authors, are set in the same world, a somewhat near-future Earth after some kind of fossil-fuel crash, a dystopian world that's working hard to make things even better than before (so, an optimistic dystopia). Among the five stories the world-building is consistent, so we end up with a world that, in terms of internal consistency, could have been invented by a single author, but is instead richer for the variety of voices and viewpoints that each author brings to the collaboration.


The world that we end up with is an interesting one: the rise of transnational corporations and the massive disruptions in resource allocations have all but neutralized the power of traditional nation-states. Meanwhile, society and economy have evolved to a point where old understandings of geography have ceased to have any authority. The definition of "urban" is constantly in flux, and what it means to live in a city has changed as well. Living in a city entails deep entanglement with and quick access to a great variety of social networks, but the ways in which technology changes and is used can have a massive impact on what cities look and feel like. Two examples in Metatropolis serve to illustrate the point: first is the city of Cascadia, which is an urban corridor stretching from Vancouver to Portland (Oregon) but exists side-by-side with a vast community of eco-anarchists living in harmony with nature. Moreover, this Cascadia has an "open-door" cross-citizenship relationship with a number of other urban areas around the world, including New St. Louis, Shanghai, and a few others. Jay Lake's story "In the Forests of the Night" builds this little world in great detail. The other example is "Cilenia", which is not a physical place but is indirectly linked with real-world places. It's hard to explain this augmented-reality world without depriving the reader of the pleasure of discovering the relationships between Cilenia and the real world -- just read Karl Schroeder's "To Hie From Far Cilenia"! You can read about Detroit and New St. Louis in the other stories.


The world-building is the main attraction of this book; indeed, much of its significance lies in the fact that it presents a clear-eyed vision of a direction that human civilization could take in the next half-century or so. It makes readers ponder just how their relationships with people and places are defined; it deconstructs old concepts of these relationships and reconstructs them, at times, brilliantly. On this count, Jay Lake's and Karl Schroeder's stories are the shining stars of this book; and, being first and last (respectively), they establish and leave a powerful impression of the world to come.


Besides the world-building, the quality of writing in these stories is top-notch. While Elizabeth Bear's and John Scalzi's stories are a little more lightweight in this respect, eschewing lyrical style for clear character-building and plot-presentation, the other three stories are a pleasure to read for anyone who appreciates dense, prickly, and/or singing prose. Jay Lake's story is the most beautiful in this regard, taking many of its cues from William Blake's poem "The Tyger" and aspiring to the sublime lyrical quality of that work. Tobias Buckell's story is the kind of action-adventure that uses the shape and texture of its words to bring you along for the ride (the literary equivalent of a Paul Greengrass film, I think, if you replace "words" with "cinematography"). Finally, Karl Schroeder's story is the kind of sci-fi exploration story that you can't put down because you're constantly working your way up to the next great revelation.


All in all, I highly recommend this book to any fan of science fiction. Everything that makes old-school anthropological sci-fi great is here (world-building, social speculation, and intricate prose). You'll also find that the authorial voices, in their variety, actually complement each other to build a world that you really want to see more of. Read it, enjoy it, and ponder it.

Gene Wolfe takes a crack at detective fiction!

Pandora By Holly Hollander - Gene Wolfe

If you know me, you know that I hold Gene Wolfe in the highest regard. He is a literary god. In fact, I make burnt offerings to him on a regular basis. (in my mind, of course).


You may also have seen my review of Castleview. That novel was incomprehensible. Even Wolfe nods. Pandora by Holly Hollander is a good deal easier to follow (disclaimer: Wolfe's fiction is never really easy to follow, but at least if you're paying attention Pandora is not difficult). Apart from the plot, which is prima facie a boilerplate mystery plot, there are some interesting things about this book. First, there's the title, which is a mildly funny literary joke in the same vein as the title of one of Wolfe's classic short stories ("The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories") and his classic collection The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. There's also a Foreword (usually something written by the author to explain something about the book) written in the voice of Holly Hollander. So, Wolfe effaces himself as author, and yet everything about the style of the book is pure Gene Wolfe (at least the style that he was developing in the late '80s). I haven't figured out why he does this, but it does make the book sound more personal because it lends the fictional author some of the persona that a real author tends to have.


The plot is indeed autobiographical from the standpoint of Holly Hollander -- she is a part of the action at every turn, and yet (as with every Wolfe plot) there is always something going on behind the scenes that does not become clear until the big reveal in the penultimate chapter. Now, the Big Reveal is a well-used device in the mystery-plot toolbox (another disclaimer: I don't read much mystery fiction, but I've seen plenty of Masterpiece Mystery!). But the Wolfe-style Big Reveal is special because things are always happening behind the scenes while the means and motivations of the players are obscured. What's more, though, is that the real significance of the novel hits you, rather strongly and obliquely, in the final paragraph, making the whole whodunit merely a tool for expressing the sub-rosa family dynamics lurking at the core of the novel.


Holly Hollander is the only-child daughter of a wealthy couple living in suburban Chicago. Her mother acquires a mysterious box labeled PANDORA to give away as a prize at the upcoming annual fair. What's in the box, everyone is afraid to ask (because of Pandora, y'know). Well, the box is opened at the fair, people die, and the rest of the story is a whodunit. My head was swirling with theories about who did the deed, but I was surprised by who it actually was. Family dynamics are the key to solving this one, but even if you know that, you may still finger the wrong suspect.


I did have some issues with the pacing -- some conversations went on entirely too long, and not in a good Quentin-Tarantino way either. But the mystery still had me hooked, and I could hardly look away from it. Recommended for anyone looking for an oddball mystery!


One last thing: I mentioned previously that the book was autobiographical because its "author" Holly Hollander is the main character. Well, she confesses several times in the book that she is an aspiring professional writer herself. So, be on the lookout for literary tropes and think about their relationship with reality. Note also that Gene Wolfe for a very long time has lived in suburban Chicago.


Children of the Storm -- good Trek!

Star Trek: Voyager: Children of the Storm - Kirsten Beyer

This will be a bit spoilery, especially if you haven't read Star Trek: Destiny (which, if you haven't, you really must read!).


Plot details: The Voyager fleet split off into different directions in the previous novel (Unworthy). While Voyager was dealing with the Indign, a few of the other ships were investigating the Children of the Storm, a race of telepathic, telekinetic space spheres that destroyed an entire Borg fleet when Captain Dax took the Aventine to the Delta Quadrant in Destiny. Voyager finishes its Indign mission and finds that the Children of the Storm part of the fleet hasn't been heard from... uh-oh! From there it's a race against time as the good guys try not to die at the hands of these Children while at the same time upholding Federation principles of non-violent exploration (to the extent that it's possible, anyway).


Verdict: This one has an interesting premise, which is part Voyager (strange enemy was invulnerable to the Borg!) and part Original Series (the aliens are very alien and the story is driven by a desire to learn and communicate rather than destroy, using a combination of Federation empathy and Trekky science). So, it's on the good side as far as Trek plots go. The characters here are interesting too. While Unworthy focused primarily on the usual heroes of the Voyager story-line, this one is populated with characters on a few of the other ships in the fleet. I was expecting this kind of character diversity ever since the Voyager fleet got together for the purpose of exploring the Delta Quadrant, but it's here for the first time that it actually happens. The captain and the doctor (both old dogs) of the Esquiline have some good moments, but the most compelling parts of the novel take place on the Demeter, with its mutinous contention between the commanding officer (a real galaxy-class biologist) and the XO assigned to keep an eye on him. While tensions rise on board the ship, the Children of the Storm have them under siege. Some want an all-out fight for survival while the more enlightened commander wants to find a scientific/diplomatic solution. He's no Picard, but his solution is elegant and very much in the spirit of the best of Star Trek.


Despite some clumsy writing here and there, the character-development and good old-fashioned Trek plot make Children of the Storm a pretty good read, even if you're not a big Voyager fan.


Next up: after two or three non-Trek books, I'll read the brand-new TOS trilogy (Legacies), which should be complete and in bookstores by the end of August!



Unworthy - not bad, actually

Star Trek: Voyager: Unworthy - Kirsten Beyer

This one picks up where Full Circle left off. This isn't very spoilery: Voyager returns to the Delta Quadrant (this time, with the "Full Circle" fleet) for a new mission of exploration, and a lot of our characters are back, albeit most in different roles.


I liked this one better than Full Circle mostly because the Warriors of Gre'thor story (which I was dumped into, in medias res, in the previous novel) did not play a role besides a brief mention. The story is indeed far more coherent in Unworthy. Everything revolves around the discovery of a new species with a mysterious connection to the Borg, and all the ongoing character arcs intersect nicely with this plot and advance satisfyingly as a result of the plot. What's more, the plot has a beginning, middle, and end all in one novel! (Yes, this is the kind of thing worthy of note in our present age of trilogies, quadrilogies, decalogies, and so on). In short, Unworthy occupies a good middle-ground between tying in with the rest of the post-TV Voyager book series and being a stand-alone story that can be enjoyed by someone unfamiliar or only vaguely familiar with the happenings of the Voyager crew after the TV series ended.


As far as character arcs go, they're all pretty good here (if you read my review of Full Circle, you'll see that this is not the case with that novel). The best, in my opinion, is Seven's arc -- she's struggling with an identity crisis that goes beyond that found in the TV series, and we really see some character development here, enough that I'm curious to see how she develops in future Voyager novels. Chakotay, Tom, B'Elanna, and Harry get a lot of page time in this one, and Reg Barclay even gets a few exciting moments. A guest character from one episode of Voyager shows up too, quite unexpectedly, and I'm not entirely convinced that that part of the plot was necessary... but it was at least interesting.


Overall, it's a pretty good Voyager book, and I recommend it to Voyager fans especially. You will probably enjoy it as a stand-alone, but it's still better to at least read Star Trek: Destiny and Full Circle first.

Reading progress update: I've read 114 out of 543 pages.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

I've been reading bits of this in between other books (mostly sci-fi and fantasy) because I'm a history buff and love classical literature. I'm pretty well steeped in classical Greek and Latin literature because of my schooling but don't know very much about the English classics. So, I jumped at the chance to buy a few volumes of this Norton anthology at a local library sale (I completed my collection with some used-book purchases through Amazon's marketplace) -- I think I got the whole series (8th edition, 2006) for less than $20 total!


So far, I've read the Anglo-Saxon Literature section of the book -- this section contains some really interesting works from the period of roughly 600-1000 AD. I don't know any Old English, so it's a good thing they're all translated into Modern English (it's mind-blowing how much the English language has changed in the last 1500 years.


We start off with an excerpt from Bede's Ecclesiastical History (written in Latin but included because it gives context for the next entry...) and Caedmon's Hymn, the oldest surviving piece of Anglo-Saxon literature -- so also, the oldest surviving piece of the English language -- it begins thus: "Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard". That means "Now we must praise heaven-kingdom's Guardian". See, English has changed a lot.


Next is The Dream of the Rood, an interesting Germanic-influenced take on the image of Christ on the Cross (that's the "Rood").


Of course, Beowulf is next, in Seamus Heaney's outstanding translation. I remember reading the part about Beowulf vs. Grendel in school... but that's only the first third of the epic poem. He fights Grendel's mother and then, in his old age, he fights a dragon! There's more to it than that, naturally -- it's about the Danes and Germanic honor infused with Christian thought (which results in a strange and fascinating balance).


That is a hard act to follow, and the next few entries are somewhat less interesting, with the quality of the translations variable. I did not like the translation of the poem called "Judith", even though the source material is interesting -- the Biblical Judith deceives the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and thereby saves Israel. Probably the most interesting thing about it is that the Anglo-Saxon version changes a lot of stuff from the Biblical version and the description of the battle conveys very much the Germanic warrior ethos and is a strange way of describing an Israelite battle.


King Alfred the Great actually wrote things too! This book has his Preface to his own translation of the Latin Pastoralis (a book meant to educate the clergy), where he stresses the importance of learning other languages so that you can translate their literature into things useful for your society. The theme resonates today.


The last bits of the Anglo-Saxon section are The Wanderer, a deeply moving poem about the loneliness of an exile, and The Wife's Lament, another moving poem about the loneliness of an exile... but this time she is a woman separated from her husband, who has also been sent into exile but away from his wife.


I enjoyed reading most of these and will happily move on to the "Anglo-Norman Literature" section after I read the next couple of novels on my list.