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Monthly Bookpost, June 2014

The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan
Rand stared at her, unable to speak. An Aes Sedai. He had been trying to convince himself that she would not look any different now that he knew who...what he was looking at, and to his surprise she did not. She was no longer quite so pristine, not with wisps of hair sticking out in all directions and a faint streak of soot across her nose, yet not really different, either. Surely there must be something about an Aes Sedai to mark her for what she was. On the other hand, if outward appearances reflected what was inside, and if the stories were true, then she should look closer to a Trolloc than to a more than handsome woman whose dignity was not dented by sitting in the dirt. And she could help Tam. Whatever the cost, there was that before anything else.

I can tell you right now, this is one entry in the Hugo ballot for best novel that I will not finish before the vote. They went and nominated the entire 15-volume Wheel of Time series, apparently as a recognition for lifetime output by volume, not necessarily quality. The whole set is too thick to fit on one shelf of my local library, and the 657-page first volume barely held my interest, possibly in part because I was dreading 14 more volumes.

The Eye of the World reads like a genre cliche drinking game. Here's a generic fantasy realm with maps showing towns and cities and coasts in detail, complete with far off lands where key players have their towers and sinister forces lurk somewhere in vast, blighted landscapes. Here's a whole special cluster of vocalberries to learn, describing this world's particular magical forces and monsters and doodads and magicians and clerics. Here's a simple, rustic shire village in the middle of nowhere, where an everyday youth and his old mentor have been shepherding for as long as the youth can remember, until suddenly Teh Evil comes to town. Here's the long trip the kid must take with his plucky band of old friends from the village and new mysterious companions with special powers. YES--the old guy who brought him up might not really be his dad, and---YES--he may be the Chosen One fated to be the only one who can save the land from Teh Evil, and--YES--he has to seek out the Magic Doodad, and--YES--he and his friends are chased across the terrain by dark forces before reaching a city bigger than anything the kid's ever seen before, where--YES--the inhabitants don't trust him and he has to hide his true identity! Will he be tempted by the "dark side" of this particular magic universe? Our market research says YES!

I tend to forgive cliches/tropes, because they get to be cliches/tropes by being the best plot devices, and there's only so many ways to structure a popular story, but my patience is stretched. I need to see at least something that's new and different. I'm already pretty sure I know what's going to finally happen at the end of Book 15, and I'm not really looking forward to it.

One Robert Jordan fan tells me that the series is sort of the opposite of the Dune series, which begins with a masterpiece and continues with each book being half as good as the one before it. Slog on, and it keeps getting better. So far, that's a low bar to clear.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin
Read Demosthenes or Cicero, read Plato, Aristotle, or any others of that class; I grant you that you will be attracted, delighted, moved and enraptured by them in a surprising manner; but if, after reading them, you turn to the perusal of the Sacred Volume, whether you are willing or unwilling, it will affect you so powerfully, it will so penetrate your heart and impress itself so strongly on your mind, that, compared with its energetic influence, the beauties of rhetoricians and philosophers will almost entirely disappear; so that it is easy to perceive something divine in the sacred Scriptures, which far surpasses the highest attainments and ornaments of human industry.

(And if you dare to admit that it does not affect you that way, then clearly you've been damned from birth, and there's no hope for you, and we get to burn you for the heresy of refusing to admire the Emperor's New Clothes. Either way, we win)

The original Calvin was not a mischievous boy with a hyperactive imagination and a tiger friend. Would that he had been. The Institutes is, it seems to me, the nadir of western theology and the worst that the Great Books of the Western World set has to offer. It amazes me that such a dour, life-destroying view existed side by side with that of Calvin's contemporary Rabelais (see last month's Bookpost).

Calvin's proof of the existence of God and the authority of Christianist scripture is given above, possibly the only attempt I've seen that is even LESS convincing than Descartes' ontological argument. I happened to read the entire Bible last year, and in no way is it more spiritually moving than those other books he mentions, and it is considerably less so than the ones he chooses not to mention, such as Herodotus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius and even parts of Homer and Virgil. Calvin would say that I say this because I have been cursed and blinded so as not to see the true beauty of scripture, of course, and I can reply that he's a fraud and a snake-oil salesman. Hence, as is typical Calvin, he claims victory by definition in a way that cannot be logically refuted but that therefore does not itself count as reason. Guess we'll just have to teach "the controversy".

From the springboard that the Bible is self-authenticating truth, Calvin leaps into such doctrines as the complete and unchangeable (except by grace) depravity of Man; mortification of the flesh as a good thing to practice; the predestination of your life to good or evil---for almost all of us, it's evil, and nothing to be done about it at all--and the settling of apparent contradictions in favor of despair. Christ died for our sins that we might be saved, sure, but He only chooses to save the star-bellied Sneetches. What a wonderful way to resolve the conflict between depravity and salvation!

Most of Calvin's "logic" consists of no-true-Scotsman assertions and other such victory by definition. All good is rewarded and all evil punished, he says. What about the good who suffer? Well, they must not really be good. The proof is that they are suffering. In fact, the more good they seem to be, the more they deserve to suffer, because their attempts at goodness are an insolent affront against God, a deliberate and disobedient attempt to pass for white heterosexual saved, when God intends them to be bad. (Attempts to behave well are in fact attempts to 'forget your true place' and thus warrant more punishment, as God learns you some manners. And yes, Whites in the deep South brought this doctrine with them when they settled). Similarly, those who are covered in praise, honors and luxuries despite abominable behavior deserve good, because they really are good, in ways you are too cursed to understand, otherwise God would not have blessed them. Also, material luxuries are sinful, and not a real measure of success; those who luxuriate now will burn in Hell, later. Trust us. And so on.

And speaking of Hell, Calvin is full of nasty Hell-threats. He likes to cite a passage from Augustine in which those who ask what God was doing during the eternity before He made the world are told, "He was creating Hell for people who ask those questions." Augustine himself acknowledges that that was a stupid cop-out of a thing to say, and attempts to say something better than that in his book, but Calvin thinks it's the wisest saying since "He who spares the rod hates his son."

Why did Calvinism become popular at all and take such a hold over Europe? Is there any good at all that it offers?

Well, the obvious, snarky answer is that it lets the One Percent feel smug and justified, while those with no hope of bettering themselves can take comfort in the hope of a better afterlife (and are coincidentally kept from rebellion by preachers who encourage them to think so). There is also the convenient excuse to hate the Catholics who (in the 16th Century, anyhow) live in golden palaces and extort money from the poor to gorge their depraved appetites. But there's more to it. There is also the pleasure and a sense of well-being that comes from discipline and impulse control and delayed gratification. I wrote about this when reviewing Epictetus, who I think said it better without mucking it up with the religious aspects, but there is much to be admired about the person who can sigh with sincere contentment over having the same meal of warm but tasteless, lugubrious water-based plain oatmeal day after day. Calvinists tend to be content with their lot, and if they left it at that instead of poking their snoots into other peoples' grocery carts looking for junk food purchased with food stamps, one might be more inclined to just call them different and go one's separate way. As it is, it seems to me that those benefits can be gained from a certain amount of disciplined living, without the need for religious considerations at all.

The Renaissance, by Will Durant
Renaissance painting succeeded in expressing the color and passion of the time, and brought the art to a technical refinement never surpassed. But it had its faults. Its stress was on sensuous beauty, on lordly raiment and rosy flesh; even its religious pictures were a voluptuous sentimentality, more intent upon corporeal forms than upon spiritual significance; and many a medieval crucifix reaches deeper into the soul than the demure Virgins of Renaissance art. Flemish and Dutch artists dared to picture unattractive faces and homely dress, and to seek behind these simple features the secrets of character and the elements of life. How superficial the nudes of Venice--even the Madonnas of Raphael--seem beside the Van Eycks' Adoration of the Lamb! Raphael's Julius II is unexcelled, but is there anything in the hundred self-portraits by Italian artists that can compare with Rembrandt's honest mirrorings of himself? The popularity of portraiture in the sixteenth century suggests the rise of the nouveaux riches, and their hunger to see themselves in the glass of fame. The Renaissance was a brilliant age, but through all of its manifestations runs a strain of show and insincerity, a flaunting of costly costumes, a hollow fabric of precarious power unsupported by inner strength, and ready to fall into ruins at the touch of a merciless rabble, or at the distant cry of an obscure and angry monk.

This is the fifth in the "Story of Civilization" series, one of the shortest of the volumes, and to me, probably the weakest. This is because, as I've previously discovered (see The Lives of the Artists, April 2014 Bookpost) the Italian Renaissance was overwhelmingly about visual art, which cannot be adequately discussed with reference to a handful of glossy black-and-white illustration pages grouped in clumps in the book.

In fact, the choice of which paintings and sculptures to include at all in the illustrations seems arbitrary and maybe based on what the various museums would allow to be photographed. Verrochio's "Baptism of Christ" is included although Durant's commentary is largely about how bad it is; Sarto's "Madonna del Arpie", which looks glorious even in black and white, is pictured but barely mentioned in the text, while other works that get a great deal of attention in the text, like Da Vinci's "Last Supper", are not included in the illustrations. Raphael's portrait of Julius II is discussed in the chapter on Pope Julius II, not in the section on Raphael. Go figure.

What the book does well is, apart from devoting special sections to Florence and Rome, devoting the bulk of the book to a travel down the Italian peninsula, from Savoy to Naples, describing what happened during the roughly 150 years of the Rennaissance in each of a dozen semi-independent duchies and kingdoms, from brief mentions of Mantua and Umbria to long chapters about Milan and Venice. Da Vinci gets a chapter to himself, as do Savonarola, the Borgias, and Pope Julius II. Bookending all of it are a prologue and epilogue surveying the post-Dante 14th Century and the later 16th Century, tolling the era's death knell with the passing of Titian in the 1570s.

Durant, as always, writes broadly for the general reader, seasoning historical detail with gentle aphorisms and statements of moral reflection. The denunciation partly quoted above, which rightly marks the era as a great time to live if you were rich and privileged to indulge your appetites in a consequence-free environment, is balanced by the equally right reflection that the period was necessary as a stepping stone to bring Italy, and Europe as a whole, out of the Hellish Christian era. Recommended for generalists.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
"Race is totally overhyped these days, black people need to get over themselves, it's all about class now, the haves and the have-nots," he told her evenly, and she used it as the opening sentence of a post titled "Not All Dreadlocked White American Guys Are Down." Then there was the man from Ohio, who was squeezed next to her on a flight. A middle manager, she was sure, from his boxy suit and contrast collar. He wanted to know what she meant by "lifestyle blog", and she told him, expecting him to become reserved, or to end the conversation by saying something defensively bland like "The only race that matters is the human race." But he said, "Ever write about adoption? Nobody wants black babies in this country, and I don't mean biracial, I mean black. Even the black families don't want them." He told her that he and his wife had adopted a black child and their neighbors looked at them as though they had chosen to become martyrs for a dubious cause. Her blog post about him, "Badly Dressed White Middle Managers from Ohio Are Not Always What You Think," had received the highest number of comments for that month.

DAMN, but I'm impressed! Not least because this is the first "great book" I've come across that incorporates blogging into the story.

Ifemelu and Obinze begin as lovers trying to leave the military dictatorship of Nigeria to make a better future in America. She succeeds and becomes a blogger, writing about her impressions observing and enduring the hundred daily paper cuts that are life as a black woman in America. He is denied entry into the country in post-9/11 America and becomes an undocumented worker in Britain.

There is racism, anti-racism, more racism, and "biggest victim" posturing, including friction between the descendants of various African peoples. a good deal of the book involves watching and commenting on Obama's first Presidential election and the early part of his Presidency. Some I agreed with; some I wasn't so sure, but it seemed appropriate to shut off the talk-back portion of my brain and just pay attention to what Adichie had to say. Hers is a perspective that is not made available often enough, and I learned a lot from it.

At one point, Ifemelu's blog expresses frustration with Dead White Men books and a longing for literature that tells the story of people like her. Her wish has been granted, in that there is now at least one such example in the canon. Highest recommendations.

The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano
O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God? Who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you. Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice? Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered more dear by their separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery with the small comfort of being together and mingling their sufferings and sorrows? Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives? Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty, which, while it has no advantage to atone for it, thus aggravates distress, and adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery.

The difference with this one is that it is nonfiction, and the slavery is primarily in Caribbean islands (or the "West Indies", as they were called back then), although they do go to colonies in Georgia and the Carolinas from time to time. It was pretty much the same culture. Second sons from privileged homes, without inheritance prospects, would go to the Indies or the South and just take whatever or whoever they wanted in a consequence-free environment, claim ownership of it, and set up plantations, living the good life of Yertle the turtle, on the backs of as many others as they could get away with. And they'll do it again, if we keep electing Republicans. Y'all Qaeda hasn't changed much in two centuries, philosophically, and the part that has is still trying to go back there.

Olaudah Equiano was an Ethiop, educated, literate and hard-working, who might have done well for himself competing with these louts on a level playing field. Because of his skin color, however, he was kidnapped from his home town, sold and traded several times, managed to do a little industrious trading now and then but had his earnings stolen by "masters" again and again, in a world where the oath of a negro had no evidentiary weight in court, and whites were fined 15 pounds for killing a negro, but only when the killing was brutal and senseless; otherwise, no problem.

Equiano was eventually freed, and spent the rest of his days as an antislavery advocate in Britain, contending with the media machine of the day, which asserted that there was no racism, that slaves were treated well, that negroes were helpless dependents who would starve without white people to civilize them, and that if workers were to be actually paid for their labor, no one would ever have a job. How barbaric! It's a good thing we've come so far since those days.

I read Equiano contemporaneously with Calvin's Institutes, above. Equiano's most brutal "owners' were devout Calvinists who were assured that they had been predestined (manifestly destined, if you will) to be better people than others, and that their slaves suffered because they were bad people who deserved it, otherwise God would not have cursed them so. To free slaves or to treat them well would be rebellion against God's wisdom (or, against the natural order of things, take your pick). Equiano got at least some of this doctrine as well, and submitted somewhat more willingly to degradation, praying that his suffering would translate to a better life after death. win-win for the owners. Highly recommended as an exposure of the hideous overentitled philosophy rooting the white settlers of the West Indies and American South, and the consistent sweeping of ugly truths under the rugs for propaganda purposes, as proof of the basic humanity that slaves had despite said propaganda denials of same, and as a fairly exciting nonfiction adventure.

A Dirge for the Doge, by Elizabeth Eyre; The Traitor's Tale; The Apostate's Tale, by Margaret Frazer; The Book of Shadows, by C.L. Grace; The Eve of Saint Hyacinth, by Kate Sedley

The cry of a gondolier rounding the corner of the Palazzo Ermolin broke into his thoughts and he closed the book, locked it, took off his spectacles and rubbed his left eye, which often gave him trouble these days. Not for much longer, however, for it was shortly afterwards that through this eye the stiletto pierced his brain, wiping out thought, memory, life itself. In the study whose door he always locked, Niccolo Ermolin lay dead across his secret book.
--from A Dirge for the Doge

"I have Roger Chapman's word that he'll hold his tongue," Timothy answered placidly.
"A chapman's word!" Lionel's tone was scathing. "Have you taken leave of your senses?"
"No. Nor will the duke think so when I tell him. For the truth is that Master Chapman here is well known to His Grace and in the past has done him two great services. My lord will trust him with his life, there's no doubt about that. Which, Roger, is precisely what's at stake."
I stared at him, frowning. "You mean...someone is trying to kill Duke Richard?"
Timothy sighed deeply. "That's the long and short of it, I'm afraid."
--from The Eve of Saint Hyacinth

With a trembling gasp, Alice obeyed, dropping onto the chest. Frevisse deftly removed pins and veil, would have loosed Alice from the confining circle of the wimple around her face and throat, too, except Alice with that same anger stripped it off herself and threw it across the room. "There!" she said fiercely. "So much for grieving!" She bowed her head, clutched it from both sides, her fingers digging into her fair hair as if her head might fly apart without she kept hard hold on it, but said no less fiercely, "If he wasn't dead already, I think I'd kill him."
--from The Traitor's Tale

They turned into Ottemelle Lane and almost bumped into Colum and Luberon. "We were coming to look for you." The Irishman gripped Kathryn by the arm and smiled down at her, but his face then became grave.
"Why?" Kathryn asked.
"The magician, Tenebrae," Luberon declared. "He's been foully murdered!"
--from The Book of Shadows

She had had and dared in her life what every one of them was afraid to have or do. Whatever their scorn, whatever Domina Elizabeth chose to give her by way of punishment, she would endure it until this was done.
If I don't first run out of here screaming, she thought.
Not that these women meant to give her any chance at running.
In the darkness, with Dame Juliana's back to her and no one else to see her, cecely gave way to a small, taut smile at that thought, because what she was given and what she chose to take could be two very different things.

A Dirge for the Doge is the last so far of Eyre's Sigismundo and Benno mysteries, the only series I know of set in Italy during the Renaissance. Overall, the series has disappointed me, but this last one is by far the best one I've read, a cohesive and suspenseful locked-room (well, it calls itself a locked-room mystery, but with a large, open, accessible window overlooking the canal from the murder scene, it's hard to see how it qualifies as such) tale of a murdered merchant with a secret book of blackmailable business transactions, a much younger second wife, several Venetian assassins, and a Doge's unabashedly prodigal son. Very well played.

I'm also saying farewell to Frazer's Dame Frevisse chronicles, which cover the earliest part of this year's historical period, and end right about when the War of the Roses is just getting going. As The Traitor's Tale opens, the Yorkist rebellion is still in some stage of deniability, Cade's rebellion is done, and the main point of contention is still the aftermath of Suffolk's rise and fall, with Frevisse's sister Alice trying to bury the man without too much of the taint rubbing off on her and their son, and several of Suffolk's household turning up murdered, apparently by someone in a high place. The Apostate's Tale does not cover any worldly affairs, but concerns the return to St. Frideswide's of a nun who went AWOL with a man some years back, and who now has a child in tow on her return with nowhere else to go. As usual, the most interesting part involves the matter-of-fact treatment of the then-current customs and traditions (it was considered illegal, for example, for anyone in the country to give any kind of shelter to an apostate nun; they were supposed to hand her over to the secular authorities, who were then required to give her back to the church to be "chastised" unto death, if necessary. This is what happens in "Christian nations", and we should pray that such nations never exist again).

The Book of Shadows is not Grace's best. Kathryn the healer and Colum the soldier are still an endearing sleuth couple; their fourth adventure is a standard, somewhat clumsy locked room adventure with way too much credulity given to the possibility of a supernatural solution, although the murdered "magician" is revealed early as a charlatan and his eerie book of spells revealed as a collection of blackmailable secrets, not of spells. The subplot of a man who dies mysteriously after being cursed by a witch is more interesting, although the identity of the killer, and the method used, is obvious.

After a couple of isolated adventures in remote villages far from the Yorkist court, The Eve of Saint Hyacinth brings Sedley's Roger Chapman back into the big historical events, where the future Richard III's advisors commission Roger to foil an assassination attempt in an environment with five spotlighted suspects, several others not identified as suspects who might be the real killer anyway, and the duke's brothers Clarence and King Edward, either of whom might have given the order. I had thought the English kings had pretty much given up their aspirations to France after Henry VI, but the primary historical backdrop to this novel is Edward IV's planned biggest bestest French invasion EVER.

Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto, translated by David R. Savitt
The king was stunned and as angry as he could get
for this disturbed his regal equipoise
He pointed at her and scowled, and this was met
with a prompt response that comes to one who annoys
his majesty. There are swords, lances and maces
and scowls of fury on all the people's faces.

For the king they do this, of course, but for Grifon too,
whose armor they think this rightly is. And she?
Imagine a young lady who is dressed up, and who
is eager for music and dancing and such gaiety
to start...Such is her delight at this to-do.
It is like a party or perhaps a jamboree.
for she loves horses and weapons and grunting knights
whom she can wound and kill. She adores fights.

She spurs her horse and with her spear impales
one through the neck and another in the breast
while the great weight of her charging steed assails
several more and knocks them down with the rest.
With a swing of her sword she cuts off a head (These details
are gory, but some people like them best.)
Another head she smashes and then she performs
transradial amputations on several arms.

Orlando Furioso is one of the few giants of imaginative Italian Renaissance literature. Its plot is a famous potpourri of WTF, the stuff that Cervantes read and put into the mind of the delusional Don Quixote, with dozens of interchangeable adventurers and adventuresses pursuing one another and fighting over one another in a world of giants, monsters, enchanted and cursed doodads and assorted kingdoms where Christians fight Muslims and all the mythology from Ancient Greece to King Arthur to Beowulf are incorporated, with homages to St. George's dragon and the source material for some of Shakespeare's plots, all described in iambic pentameter in a work as long as all of Homer.

The tropes are not just standard; they're chewed up and sprayed around like a verbal Jackson Pollack painting. Two things set it apart from the formulaic monotony I disliked in The Eye of the World, above. The first is the Ariosto's sense of whimsy. He has not written a poem to be taken seriously; he knows how silly it all is, and he's having fun with it. Example: And there it is, easy as pie, although/ Why pie is easy is hard to explain.

The second is the very modern David R. Savitt translation of 2009, which translates the original Italian into VERY modern English, including references to "weapons of mass destruction", "bling bling" and "You betcha". This was extremely jarring to me for the first 50 pages or so, but once I got used to it, it was delightful in the mode of the LeClercq Rabelais (see last month's Bookpost). Don't even bother trying to keep up with the plot; just have fun with it.

Warbound, by Larry Correia
Lifting his sword, the ninja charged. He opened his mouth and let out a battle cry. Most Fades never got to Heinrich's level of control. The ninja would need to be solid well before he could hit Lance with that sword.
It was a race.
Lance got the shells into the chambers and snapped it shut. The stubby double-barrel came up as the Fade swung.
Lance won the race.
The ninja got splattered across the hall. He hit the ground with a gaping hole in his ribs.
The Imperium bastard was still moving, so Lance tried to give him the other barrel. Lance grunted as he tried to manipulate the shotgun, but it wouldn't go. He looked down. His right hand wasn't responding because it was lying on the ground, along with most of the rest of his arm, and then the unbelievable pain hit. "Aw, shit."
He hadn't won after all. It had been a tie.

This is part three of a trilogy, and on the Hugo ballot for best novel this year (see last month's Bookpost for the first two). Correia got himself nominated by promoting himself as the conservative candidate for best novel; then he turned around and pretended to have only wanted his book judged on the merits, and claimed that fandom was just biased and intolerant of assholes, which in his mind sets him up to claim victory after losing (I checked, and Correia does not live in a former Confederate State, but it was a valid hypothesis).

Seems to me, fandom is not so much intolerant as resentful that a subculture they built for fun to indulge in fantasy and escape from the bigger world where mouthy right wingers have utterly dominated the floor by shouting the loudest in an environment where they've bought the only available microphones, has been invaded by the loudmouths they were trying to get a respite from. Further, I've seen some popular authors draw attention to their nominations in a "I'd like it if you voted for my book" sort of way--and it seems to me that, unless authors have met a LOT more of fandom in person at the conventions and such than I ever imagined, they're popular because people like their books--or at least, their blogs. This is the first time I've seen someone say, in effect, "please vote for my book as a way to give noogies to nerds."

None of which says anything about whether Warbound is any good.

And, having finished the trilogy, I say....yes, it's good, especially compared to The Eye of the World, above. It's good like a Mickey Spillane pulp book or an 80s Schwarzenegger action movie (Predator, in particular, comes to mind)--nice escapist brain candy if you're in the right mood for it; definitely a commercially successful formula; but no one would consider it Oscar material. Thankfully, the book itself does not have pretensions to high art. It overlays comic book superpowers and a bit of steampunk over the Hammet era noir genre, and plays it for camp. It even has illustrations in comic book style. Jake Sullivan, the ex-special-forces rogue protagonist, mostly wears weird armor and superpower-enhancing tattoos, but for all intents and purposes he's the guy in a fedora and trenchcoat walking the rain-slick street at night trying to solve a crime without being rubbed out by goons or double-crossed by a dame. Aside from a couple of annoying scenes in which a "heroic" wealthy capitalist is being shaken down by the rotten old FDR New Deal government, it's not more political than the average war story. Sure, there's a pre-WWII West vs. East conflict, but the real evil forces are ancient evil things from space.

Correia also gets points for giving us a female lead with real agency, who does more than her share of heroics AND thinking, does not serve a function of emphasizing how badass the male lead is, and does not need rescuing, not once. Summer Glau in the Firefly series is a fair comparison, but without a brother.

And yes, there are glaring scientific and historical inconsistencies. It's that kind of book. You're not supposed to take it too seriously, which is part of why it's so jarring to see it brought for consideration for a literary award. Just get out the popcorn and have fun with the gun porn.

The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
At the end of the meal appeared a rum jelly. This was the Prince's favorite pudding, and the Princess had been careful to order it early that morning in gratitude for favors granted. It was rather threatening at first sight, shaped like a tower with bastions and battlements and smooth slippery walls impossible to scale, garrisoned by red and green cherries and pistachio nuts; but into its transparent and quivering flanks a spoon plunged with astounding ease. By the time the amber-colored fortress reached Francesco Paolo, the sixteen year old son, who was served last, it consisted only of shattered walls and hunks of wobbly rubble.

Though Italian, this book has nothing to do with the Renaissance, and has more in common with last month's The Godfather. Apparently drawn from the life of the author's actual grandfather, it takes place during and after Garibaldi's uprising of 1860 which, while normally presented as a leftist popular movement, reads here as fascistic and nationalistic in nature, with the power of the (usually corrupt) feudal landowners giving way to the (almost universally corrupt) wealthy business interests, forerunners to the mafia families of the 20th century. The peasants, of course, continue to be screwed.

Don Fabrizio, the protagonist and "leopard" of the title, is part of the landowner class, watching sardonically as his family's way of life, as they've known it for centuries, is swept away. He takes a detached, philosophical view, indulging in many soliloquies and reminiscences and saying things like, "Everything must change so that everything may stay the same."

Everything that happens in the book is a metaphor for the bigger picture. The quoted passage about the jello castle, for example, is meant to symbolize the ruin of the son's inheritance as heir to the family estates. The book's final passage, about the ultimate fate of the family dog, has at least three levels of meaning and disturbed me emotionally for several minutes after I put the book down. Brief, very readable, and highly recommended.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
For three thousand years, Anaander Mianaai had ruled Radch space absolutely. She resided in each of the thirteen provincial palaces, and was present at every annexation. She was able to do this because she possessed thousands of bodies, all of them genetically identical, all of them linked to each other. She was still in Shis'urna's system, some of her on the flagship of this annexation, Sword of Amaat, and some of her on Shis'urna Station. It was she who made Radchaai law, and she who decided on any exceptions to that law. She was the ultimate commander of the military, the highest head priest of Amaat, the person to whom, ultimately, all Radchaai houses were clients. And she was coming to Ors, at some unspecified date within the next few days.
There have been complaints in fandom that the Hugo Award voting is cliquish, with certain authors being favored because they're part of a "Cool Kids' Club", as opposed to because their stories are good. Unless writers take the trouble to personally meet and schmooze with their fans at NerdCon XVII or whatever, it's hard to see how they could have acquired a large fan base without writing really good stories to attract such a base in the first place. Further, it's hard to see how such an accusation could be made against Ann Leckie, since this is her first novel, and it's considered the favorite to win this award along with several others it's already acquired.

I'm not done with the Hugo novel list yet, but so far I wouldn't fault Ancillary Justice for the win. It's a good story and innovative, with some completely original concepts--the things that are supposed to make up quality sci-fi. There are two timelines, appearing in alternating chapters:Some years before, and some years after, the Very Bad Thing happens. In the more recent timeline, a lone figure is in the midst of that old, old story: a quest for vengeance on someone who did "her" wrong. In the more distant past timeline, that figure is the AI of the spaceship Justice of Toren, whose consciousness exists not just within the ship, but in the "minds" of hundreds of quasi-cyborg "ancillaries", the ship's soldiers, all under the complete control of the colonialist intergalactic Emperor.

I said "her" in quotes, because, in this empire, the gender-neutral pronoun is "she", and Leckie chooses not to reveal the genders of most of the characters (other than the tone-setting line early in chapter one when the ancillary protagonist says of another character, "I could tell she was a male"). To readers like myself, who have a visual movie inside their heads when reading fiction, this can be a challenge; I solved it by visualizing all of the alien species as sexless Roswell-ish beings; having done this, I gave up what some enthusiastic readers see as an opportunity to explore gender roles and assumptions (I gave up a similar opportunity when reading Sarah Caudwell's mystery series--see Bookposts, April through July 2011--with a pointedly gender-neutral protagonist. I didn't even notice the gimmick until seeing it in the blurb on Book 2, having assumed "Hilary" was a female name; apparently, it is or was more common among British males than American males), and just took the author's world as a given. Gender's not important? Fine, I'll concentrate on what is...like class differences. An early section of the plot takes place on a colonized planet where, prior to colonization, the "Star Bellied Sneetch" class enjoyed privilege. With the Radchaai in control, they no longer do, and they're pissed. They continually warn the Radchaai about how untrustworthy the bare-belly class is, and when illegal weapons are discovered in the bare-belly section of town, the captain of Justice of Toren must determine whether the bare-bellies are in revolt or being set up by the star-bellies. And the plot twists and turns from there, and so rather than risk spoilers, I'll give Ancillary Justice very high recommendations and let you see for yourself.

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
It chanced one day that I was leaning against a shop of one of these men, who called out to me, and began partly reproaching, partly bullying. I answered that had they done their duty by me, I should have spoken of them what one speaks of good and worthy men; but as they had done the contrary, they ought to complain of themselves and not of me. While I was standing there and talking, one of them, named Gherardo Guasconti, their cousin, having perhaps been put up to it by them, lay in wait till a beast of burden went by. It was a load of bricks. When the load reached me, Gherardo pushed it so violently on my body that I was very much hurt. Turning suddenly round and seeing him laughing, I struck him such a blow on the temple that he fell down, stunned, like one dead. Then I faced round to his cousins, and said: “That’s the way to treat cowardly thieves of your sort;” and when they wanted to make a move upon me, trusting to their numbers, I, whose blood was now well up, laid hands to a little knife I had, and cried: “If one of you comes out of the shop, let the other run for the confessor, because the doctor will have nothing to do here.” These words so frightened them that not one stirred to help their cousin. As soon as I had gone, the fathers and sons ran to the Eight, and declared that I had assaulted them in their shops with sword in hand, a thing which had never yet been seen in Florence. The magistrates had me summoned. I appeared before them; and they began to upbraid and cry out upon me—partly, I think, because they saw me in my cloak, while the others were dressed like citizens in mantle and hood; but also because my adversaries had been to the houses of those magistrates, and had talked with all of them in private, while I, inexperienced in such matters, had not spoken to any of them, trusting in the goodness of my cause. I said that, having received such outrage and insult from Gherardo, and in my fury having only given him a box on the ear, I did not think I deserved such a vehement reprimand. I had hardly time to finish the word box, before Prinzivalle della Stufa, who was one of the Eight, interrupted me by saying: “You gave him a blow, and not a box, on the ear.” The bell was rung and we were all ordered out, when Prinzivalle spoke thus in my defense to his brother judges: “Mark, sirs, the simplicity of this poor young man, who has accused himself of having given a box on the ear, under the impression that this is of less importance than a blow; whereas a box on the ear in the New Market carries a fine of twenty-five crowns, while a blow costs little or nothing. He is a young man of admirable talents, and supports his poor family by his labor in great abundance; I would to God that our city had plenty of this sort, instead of the present dearth of them.”

I can't help feeling a bit sorry for Benvenuto Cellini. It must have been pretty wretched trying to make oneself as an artist immediately after the heyday of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, and as a contemporary of Titian. Most of Cellini's surviving works are considered afterthoughts to a golden age of art, and Cellini's real fame rests on his autobiography, which is pretty much the last of the Great Renaissance Books. The last one I intend to read for now, anyhow.

Cellini certainly was his own favorite person. He self-presents as combining the best aspects of Indiana Gionno, Oscario Wilde, Cyrano de Bergerac and Spenser for Hire, with a life story consisting of an uninterrupted sequence of innovative feats of sculpture, jewelry, music, devastating epigrams, wenching, duels, soldiery, daring escapes from prisons and ambushes, and the Italian art of revenge. Ladies wish to bed him. Gentlemen wish to be him or to kill him. Popes and lords crave his work, welsh on their promises to pay for it after he completes it (because they can), and are shown the error of their ways by Our Hero.

Because a hero needs a great deal of scenery to chew while overacting, Cellini also gives us a vivid portrait of the Italy of the time, which evidently had a lot in common with the post Reagan neo-feudalism of modern society. The wealthy controlled everything, believed they were simply better persons than the poor, used the law and the outlaws as their wholly owned tools, and felt entitled to do whatever they wanted to others in a consequence-free environment. Cellini self-presents as a sort of libertarian hero who manages to outwit the powerful on their terms, thereby showing that anyone else with a little pluck can do the same, and that only the incompetent need any rotten old "government" to try to trim the claws of the big moneyed interests. Of course.

Cellini's autobiography was brought to my attention as one of the 50 volumes included in the Harvard Classics set. The book is fairly rich and entertaining, but it's hard to see why anyone attempting to compile a small collection of the BEST writings of all time, including all historical periods and nations around the world, not just the West (and in a format with "representative" works, such that, unlike the Great Books of the Western World, one could put just some of the best Montaigne and Plato and Shakespeare instead of their entire works) would set aside an entire volume for Cellini. moderately recommended as a decent dessert/finale to a study of the Renaissance.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here: http://admnaismith.livejournal.com/tag/bookposts


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jul. 2nd, 2014 08:03 pm (UTC)
I checked, and Correia does not live in a former Confederate State, but it was a valid hypothesis

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