Thursday, November 29, 2012

100 Books #114 - Jean Plaidy's LIGHT ON LUCREZIA

I thoroughly enjoyed Plaidy's earlier look at the life of the infamous but possibly unfairly maligned Lucrezia Borgia, Madonna of the Seven Hills, in which Plaidy neatly focused, not on the most infamous rumors and legends about this woman and her family, but on how those nasty tales might have gotten started. This is a nice distinction, maybe -- you can't talk effectively about rumors without mentioning their content, at least in passing, after all -- but one that Plaidy is a master of making, and making into satisfying novels.

Which is why I love her, and, as I mentioned when writing about The Scarlet Contessa, a book set in pretty much the same time and place as Plaidy's Borgia books, wish she'd taken up Caterina Sforza as a subject at some point. Oh, what a glorious book that would have been!

La Sforza does make an appearance in  Light on Lucrezia. the sequel to Madonna of the Seven Hills, but only for a few pages: a swift depiction of her resistance to Cesare's military onslaught and her famously rapey personal encounter with the man after he won the battle. How Plaidy could convey this account and then pass over the notion of writing a book about Caterina will always be a mystery to me. If I'm wrong about this, and she did write about Caterina in more detail under one of her many, many pseudonyms, please, for all love, enlighten me.

But enough about the Lady of Forli; this book is about Lucrezia, picking up exactly after the previous book with the apprehensive coming of the second of her three husbands, Alfonso, illegitimate son of the king of Naples, to Rome. Plaidy protrays this marriage as utterly idyllic, marred only by what every relationship in Lucrezia's life seems to have been marred: the jealousy of the odious Cesare. Every page devoted to this marriage -- and there really aren't many of them -- foreshadows the poor Alfonso's inevitable fate, so when it comes, the reader yawns a bit. And yawns a bit further when Lucrezia predictably chooses to stick by her evil brother, whom she has been conditioned to worship and seek to please since birth.

The rest of the novel focuses on Lucrezia's third marriage, to another Alfonso, this one the heir to the Duke of Ferrara -- which is to say that things pick up from here. Ferrara is ruled by an ancient line of haughty, snotty aristocrats, the Estes (who trace their lineage to times before the Carolingians ruled a good chunk of Europe), who resent that their bloodline will now bear the taint of Borgia ancestry, too, if Lucrezia does her job and makes Este babies. Which is to say that Lucrezia is thrown into a den of vipers, with the chief she-snake being her sister-in-law, Isabella, Marquesa of Mantua, who has long regarded herself the prettiest, most stylish, most accomplished woman in Italy and so sees Lucrezia as a rival to be humiliated at every opportunity. Hilariously, the passive and pliant Lucrezia's non-reaction to Isabella's ploys (and those of Isabella's own sister-in-law, Elisabetta Gonzaga) is precisely the best way to keep her would-be rival at the height of annoyance.

As Lucrezia's domestic troubles take center stage, at last the figures of her father Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) and brother Cesare the Fratricide, fade into the background. This may be why a lot of readers have complained that this second Borgia novel is dull compared to the first; it lacks the dramatic focus the first book, devoted almost wholly to foreshadowing the murder of Giovanni Borgia by Cesare, had. But really? It's all in the title: Light on Lucrezia. Finally, Lucrezia Borgia is the heroine of her own life, or at least as much of one as a Renaissance Pope's only (acknowledged) daughter can be. Which is to say that the modern reader spends a lot of these books wanting to slap Lucrezia and tell her to take some control and set some boundaries, but yeah...

La Borgia's reputation seems to have been on the mend in my lifetime, and I wonder if Plaidy's books might not have helped get this started. For my part, I find her portrait of a passive people pleaser annoying but having the ring of truth to it. A pretty little girl with such monstrous relatives might well just teach herself not to see them as they were as long as they kept her in nice dresses and poets and behaved themselves when she was around, especially in a society that still exercised mighty energies to keep women in their places (the odd amazing virago like Caterina Sforza or Isabella d'Este notwithstanding; some people just don't follow the rules, no matter when they're born), and I find the idea that Lucrezia was such a one far more plausible than that she was a monstrous female Cesare, whoring and poisoning her way across Italy out of ego, malice and desire for power.

So yeah, Holliday Granger played her just right.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

SUNS SUNS SUNS - Shadow of the Torturer 26-30

Last section ended on a very dramatic note, with Severian having found a very provocative note on one of the food trays at the Inn of Lost Loves, where he, Agia and Dorcas are hanging out until it's time for Severian to meet the hipparch on the Sanguinary Field. Severian immediately realizes that "you are my mother come again" means the note was not intended for him, but just as immediately zeroes in on Agia as the likely target because of reasons.

He then spends most of Chapter 26 interrogating Agia about whether or not she has ever had a child, and then alternately ogling her and the newly-cleaned up Dorcas (who is, of course, the one for whom the note was actually intended, but Severian never thinks of this because of reasons), with a brief break to ask the innkeeper who the Snape Trudo ("Trudo says the man is a torturer") might be? Oh, well there's an ostler here named Trudo, but you can't understand a damn word he says because he's from Southern Nessus and from across the river, to boot. Severian already seems to know that somehow, but we never find out the somehow because it turns out Trudo has scarpered for good and we'll never hear of him again.

The note likely came from one Ouen, the waiter, and we will learn more about him later.

And finally, COMBAT TIME! Or as they call it when you duel with averns, MONOMACHY TIME! Again, we are treated to some philosophical musings from Severian on the way to the Sanguinary Field, including the observation that in societies that have outlawed dueling, it's largely replaced with murder, and often ends up with two corpses instead of one, because society tracks down the killer and kills him for his crime. Point taken, Severian!

But of course, he is on his plodding way to become a "carnifex" aka executioner, so his point is pretty interesting, isn't it?


As Severian arrives, people are bellowing out names; turns out it's tradition here to either announce yourself or have a servant do so, so that everyone knows one has turned up even if one's opponent has not. I suppose it would not be seemly to just announce that said opponent has chickened out. Severian tries bullying Agia into making his announcement for him "Severian of the Matachin Tower." She at first refuses, then takes it on herself to edit his cry to "Severian of the Torturers! Severlan of the Citadel! Of the Tower of Pain! Death! Death is come!" and Severian backhands her for it.

Dorcas suggests that wasn't a very good idea, as it will only make Agia hate him more. More than what, Severian asks (disingenuously, in my opinon). But soon there are more important things to think about; Severian's opponent has showed up, and showed up in armor. Should they fight naked? The hipparch declares that his people only go naked in the presence of women. But he's in armor! Oh noes!

Of course the real reason the hipparch refuses to remove his armor -- particularly his helmet -- is because Severian would recognize him as Agia's brother Agilus. If this were to happen, the jig -- because while Severian thinks this is the Guild's roundabout way of punishing him without violating the law but it's really just a ruse the twins cooked up to part him from his valuable sword and fulgin cloak -- would be up. Oh noes! But at last a compromise is reached; the hipparch takes off his breastplate (Severian is already shirtless, of course) and Severian will wear his Super Scary Torturer's Mask. Fine. Soon the leaf-chucking, audience hazardous foolishness of avern combat is underway.* They fight awhile, and then Severian goes down in confusion and the hipparch "in an oddly familiar voice" claims victor's right to Severian's clothing and weapon. Ho ho! But then Severian gets up, ready for Round Two, and the hipparch, with a glance at Agia, runs away.

Next thing we know, Severian is in an infirmary of sorts, hallucinating giant apes with dog's heads and trying to plan how he's going to explain to his Master how he lost both sword and cloak before he was even out of Nessus; he's buck naked in his bed. But no, there is Dorcas with his stuff. Oh, and it turns out the dog-headed ape is real, but I don't know what to make of that. Anyone? Bueller?

Turns out he's in a sort of barracks, part of the Hall of Justice, among a lot of soldiers back from fighting the Ascians (about whom we'll learn more later) in the North. Turns out he'd been hit by a leaf, which didn't just have poison dripping from its edges, but also drinks blood if it's left embedded in the wound.** We learn, too, that his opponent injured many while making good his escape, so hey, at least the audience got to watch someone die, har har.

Meanwhile, turns out Dorcas rescued Severian from his own avern, which was busy turning on him, like averns apparently do?

Like I said, I don't even.

But so anyway, this is another near-death for Severian, but like I've said elsewhere, I'm really not interested in the many-Severians reading of these books. They hurt my brain enough as it is.

Meanwhile, Dorcas is interested in what was up with the note at the Inn, anyway? Which she didn't ask about earlier because she didn't want Agia to hear. Severian seems to interpret this as just females gettin' jealous because who doesn't want a piece of him, but really, Dorcas was onto Agia from the start, I think. Anyway, a discussion ensues, in which Severian opines that Dorcas is not old enough to have had a grown child (which Ouen certainly is) and she breaks down and cries that she doesn't remember.

And then BOOM! As Severian is shopping for a new dress for Dorcas at what amounts to the commisary there by the Hall of Justice, the portreeve (a kind of bailiff, here, I think) stops him and asks him to stand by to act as a carnifex since there's a guy on trial and they're pretty sure he's going to be found guilty. Well! Severian can't say yes fast enough. Even before finding out who his likely client is.

Well, what do you know! The client is none other than Agilus, who managed to kill no fewer than nine people while making his crappy escape from the Sanguinary Field! And Agia is with him. "Because you lived, he has to die," she says to Severian. And even then Severian (supposedly) doesn't get it until Agia laboriously explains her ruse and the penny drops. "You tried to kill me. Just for my sword."

Then Agilus tries to bamboozle our hero with talk of Severian's having wronged him three times and an old law that says a man three times wronged may claim a boon of the one who did poorly by him. First, he claims, Severian entrapped him by carrying an heirloom blade into Agilus' orbit. Second, Severian refused to sell the sword at any price, which "in our commercial society" amounts, Agilus says, to treason. And third, Severian obviously cheated on the Sanguinary Field. The boon Agilus claims is, of course, not being executed, please.

When that argument doesn't work, Agia leaps onto Severian to kiss him all over and proclaim her love for him, and all but demands that he "take" her right there in Agilus' cell. Of course, while she's pawing him, her fingers slip into his man-purse and he hears the rustle of paper and he flings her away from him. She conks her head against a stone in the wall and starts crying. Severian finally chases her out of the cell and has "the talk" with her brother about how best to present himself for death the next day. Don't eat too much, have a pee before the sword comes down, etc. Considerate fella, that Severian.

As he leaves, he finds that where the orichalk he offered Agia to get herself some food was flung by that ungrateful girl, someone has crudely scratched the image of Jurupari, "wreathed in letters I did not know." I've always glossed over this before, but this time I did some digging, and found that Jurupari is the name of a rather nasty Brazilian jungle god, born of a virgin, and also that "jurupari" with a lowercase J is the species name for a popular aquarium fish called the Earth Eater, so this is probably a hidden reference to bad old Abaia, the alien leviathan who will one day swallow the continents. So, who scratched that design there? Agia? Does that mean Agia is in league with Abaia and the rest who are already working to prevent the New Sun?

I think it does.

As Severian leaves the dungeon where Agilus awaits his services, he encounters something new to him: Torturer Fanbois and Fangurls. They want to know all about him, including his real name. One woman almost touches his bare chest. One forces a handkerchief on him and asks him to get some of the prisoner's blood on it. She'll pay him.

And now that I have read There Are Doors, I'm struck by a bit of this scene in which one of the fanbois starts wittering on to Severian about a "paracoita" (sexdoll?) he used to have. It's hard not to think of this fellow as a devotee of the goddess whom Pine knew as Lara in that other book, even though There Are Doors was written eight years after Shadow of the Torturer. So, retroactively creepy. Anyway, this guy lost his doll somehow, and in his twisted way is now all about the Torturers and Carnifexes getting maximal suffering out of their clients as revenge for the theft of said doll. Um..

Nor is that the only ickiness with which this section ends, for now that it's just Severian and Dorcas against the world ("it would be said of her that she was a torturer's woman, who gave herself under the scaffold for money spotted with blood"), there are certain, ah, expectations when they retire to their windowless room (foreshadowing, as he himself observes, Severian's time to come serving as Carnifex for the "windowless" city of Thrax, whenever he gets there). Weirdly, he savors the idea of not sleeping with her, at first: "the pleasure I would have had in abstinence would then have been at least as great (as I thought) as I would have had in possession, with the additional pleasure of knowing that on the next night she would feel the more obliged because I had spared her."***

But while Severian is busily completely denying Dorcas any say in the matter of whether she's going to sleep with him, she reveals that she's kind of thinking about doing so, but only in the most abstract terms: she is wondering what memories will surface when she has sex again. Like an abuse victim. So, ew.

But of course, they do a thing. And the reader says eww, and then eww again as we run out the rest of the chapter with Severian getting himself all psyched up to kill Agilus with the blessing of the state. Eye of the Tiger, Shadow of the Torturer, bitches.

*My friend Paul Weimer, aka @PrinceJvstin on Twitter, tells me he actually worked up an avern combat system for a role-playing game he ran a few years ago. That must have been hilariously fun to play out.

**One pauses to contemplate the evolutionary forces that could shape such a plant on any world. Then one's head explodes.

***Of course, all of this is even ickier once one is in possession of the knowledge that Dorcas is [REDACTED].

100 Books 113 - Lee Battersby's THE CORPSE-RAT KING

Is that a crown in your pocket, or are you just happy to come and rule us?

That's not a quote from this novel, but really? It totally could be.

Marius Helles makes his living robbing the corpses of soldiers who have fallen in battle, a practice he has refined to an art -- until he has no living to make at all. Tee hee. What happens is, he robs the wrong corpse -- that of a fallen king -- and is observed holding a crown by one of the recently dead, who misreads the situation and next thing Marius knows, he's been sucked down to the world of the dead! Whom the gods are ignoring! Because, the dead think, they have no king! So they need a king! Marius has a crown, therefore he must be a king! So he can be their king! But of course, Marius doesn't want to be dead, even if he gets to be KING DEAD!

All of that sounds spoilery, but that's all just the first chapter of The Corpse-Rat King, in which the newly-dead Marius gets his mission: find the dead a king, or else. But like all good Heroes, Marius at first Refuses the Call, and runs away. As excuses for a tour of a funky fantasy world go, this is a highly original one.

Battersby, too, took some time making this more than just a generic fantasy world. There are a lot of nice touches, like a short discourse on a tradition of throwing corn dollies into the water at the beginning of an ocean voyage and the industry of dolly-making that has grown up around it, that, combined with Zombie Marius' antics, make this book a genuine pleasure to read.

There are some disturbingly funny moments, such as when Marius almost "rescues"* a drowned Mad King who is a dig-in-your ribs reference to Caligula (he even named his horse "Littleboot" which is roughly an English translation of "Caligula" -- the nickname bestowed on the beloved toddler son of the Roman commander Germanicus that stuck right on through the kid's rise to the imperial throne) and rides him like a horsey beneath the waves. Or when... but that would be spoilery. Eff off. But oh, how I giggled.

This is another novel that I started and let go by the wayside because of shiny things that came my way. This should not reflect on the book's quality, however. I'm just distractable that way. And though I had read many other things between the putting-aside and the taking-back-up-again (a span of three or four weeks), I did not have to refresh my memory as to what had been going on. And once I was reading it again, I kept on at a giddy pace, carried away by Battersby's wonderful world building (and cathedral building; the Cathedral of Bones licks the Iron Throne hollow as an enduring taunt/symbol of a founding ruler's conquests) and Marius' resourcefulness as he first runs away from and then embraces his quest, like every hero does.

The ending leaves room for a sequel, by the way. Hurrah for Mostly Dead Marius!

*For "rescue" read "spirits away so he can proceed to the land of the dead and become their king."

Friday, November 23, 2012

100 Books #112 - David Colby's DEBRIS DREAMS

So come on now, admit it. You've always felt, deep down inside, that the one thing that science fiction was still missing, egregiously so, was a good and thorough discussion of the pressure differential implications of farting in a spacesuit.

Problem. Solved.

David Colby's debut novel, Debris Dreams has such a discussion, and much, much more to offer the young adult or the supposedly grown-up science fiction aficionado, and plenty to offer the more casual reader as well. Colby has packed a primer in space habitat sociology, a convincing space-borne war story*, a charming coming of age narrative, and a tale of the ultimate in sucky long-distance relationships, into a brisk-reading 284 pages of microgravity adventure.

Our heroine, Drusilla Xao, is a sixteen-year-old conscript into the Chinese-American-Alliance's Space Marines, suddenly called to war when a demented-yet-calculating band of militant Lunan seperatists launch a successful terrorist attack and destroy Earth's one and only space elevator, completely cutting off the post-petroleum society down the gravity well from its colonies, destroying a good chunk of Kenya in the process, and stranding everyone in near-Earth orbit. Drusilla's parents lived and worked on that elevator, as did most of her companions' parents; they now have nothing left to love or fight for but each other -- except for Drusilla, who has an e-girlfriend she has always longed to meet in person and be together as a couple with... down in Ontario.

Drusilla's homosexuality is only a minor plot point, but it tells everything about the society Colby hopes we'll one day achieve. In Drusilla's world, being gay is just a thing like having green eyes or dry ear wax or not liking artichokes (that it also allows our young author/narrator to engage in a bit of wolf-whistling at some of his female characters' physical attributes now and then without being an icky white male ogler-in-prose is merely by the bye**). There are more important things to worry about, like always having breathing equipment handy in case of a hull breach or not stranding yourself unable to move in the middle of a room at zero gee or if that heat signature in that cloud of space debris is maybe another Lunan attack on the way.

A lot of the world-building takes the form of Drusilla's email exchanges with her beloved Earthbound Sarah as she explains her world and her culture, smitten teenager to smitten teenager. Since This is War and resources are limited, these exchanges are short and thinly dispersed and so don't intrude overly on the narrative, but are nicely informative all the same -- Dru and her author have given a lot of thought to conveying a lot in just a few words, packing in infodump and heartbreaking longing in a tiny space. The effect of this device is to make Drusilla's world comprehensible without once feeling like the author is talking down to his readers, which is something a lot of novelists with a lot more work under their belts than Colby has could stand to pay attention to.

My only real complaint about the book is a niggling little one (which, see addendum below). Because the governing alliance includes China, the characters' most intense and passionate moments tend to contain a lot of Chinese vocabulary. In places, the book has actual characters, but most of the words are in pinyin (Chinese syllables rendered into the western alphabet). Somehow, the characters came out fine in my Epub copy, but the pinyin got garbled, and thus is full of question marks in place of letters. Sometimes I could interpolate the letters (I took Mandarin in college mumble mumble years ago) but sometimes a lot of question marks in a row left me questioning, too. Fortunately, context clues let the reader gloss over these bits, but it's a pity nonetheless.

So yes, if you loved the anime series Planetes, or Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, or the TV series Firefly or Brand Gamblin's Tumbler, or Robert A. Heinlein's juvenile fiction (or even some of his more adult fiction with its casual sexual hijinx), or all of the above -- and really, I have a hard time imagining how it could not be all of the above -- Debris Dreams will feel quite familiar to you, but as I've explained, that doesn't mean it's a rehash of any of those, or that it will bore you. Quite the contrary!

Where was this stuff when I was a young adult sci-fi fan? Oh yeah, the author wasn't even born then. Um...

*The best elements of the novel are the combat scenes, many of which feature young Space Marines fighting out in the black in power armor, i.e., not in spaceships of any kind. And fight scenes within space habitats and orbiting factories, featuring the sights and smells of blood spraying in microgravity. These scenes are simply stunning.

**Though this does give Drusilla a slight taint of Mary Sue when coupled with her meteoric rise from civilian apprentice spacer to "Star Corporal" in the Space Marines. But it's only a slight taint.

ADDENDUM (Nov. 30) - I spent a few days in discussion with Kate Sullivan at Candlemark and Gleam, this novel's publishers, and we determined that what was going on in the pinyin was a fault in how a lot of e-readers handle accent marks -- tone marks in pinyin. The rising tone was fine, but the rest were rendered as question marks. Kate asked me whether the garbled accented letters were worse than not having the textbook-correct pinyin and I told her it would be better to just have the syllables in regular italics. The hard core Mandarin speakers would be able to tell from context most of the time which meaning for a syllable was meant, and the rest would just see the italics and either gloss over the foreign words or look them up. Kate has since decided to do away with the accent marks and just present the Mandarin words in italics, sparing us all the question marks and gobbledygook. You think a big Six Five Four publisher would do that for us? HA.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

100 Books #111 - Jeanne Kalogridis' THE SCARLET CONTESSA

Let me take a moment to observe, very gratefully, that this has got to be one of the most misleading book covers I've encountered in quite a while. Sing hosannah! When I got a proper look at it, I felt I'd made a dreadful mistake and ordered some ridiculous softcore porn "romance" novel that was only sort of about Caterina Sforza, badass military bee-hatch of the Italian Renaissance.

Whew! Especially since The Scarlet Contessa seemed to be the only novel -- indeed, the only book -- devoted to Sforza that I could find after wondering what the hell kind of possibly-just-anachronistic-but-wouldn't-it-be-awesome-if-not hot chick in armor riding with the "bad" guys Gina McKee was supposed to be in The Borgias.

For a lot of the novel, though, Caterina is barely present. Much in the way Diana Paxon's The White Raven told the legend of Tristan and Isolde/Iseult from the point of view of the princess' maidservant, The Scarlet Contessa is mostly about Caterina's lady-in-waiting, Dea, a woman of even more dubious origins than Caterina (Caterina was a Duke's bastard daughter, but Renaissance Italy didn't make as big a deal about that as some cultures. As might be expected of a place and a time in which a supposedly celebate Pope made his son the commander of the papal armies and stuff) and who has a preternatural gift for reading Tarot cards. Which means the first third of the book is pretty much a giant foreshadowing yawn fest.

I guess I should have taken our lady-in-waiting's name -- Dea means "goddess" I do believe -- as a warning. There isn't quite enough supernatural/magical claptrap to make this a fantasy novel, but it comes awfully close. Dea inherited her murdered mother's "gift" with the Tarot, which gift seems to involve her not only reading the cards but also projecting herself bodily into their images (i.e. almost getting hit by falling masonry from the Tower card, which comes up over and over to make sure we Get It). In addition, Dea performs rituals to "find her angel" in the best New Agey bulldada tradition. This goes on for ages and pages until the non-New Age reader wants to Throw Up.

And of course everything Dea's Tarot cards predict Comes True. Quite literally. So, e.g., when the Two of Cups turns up in a reading, the promised lover shows up with a gift of two golden goblets. And of course Caterina -- remember, this is sort of supposed to maybe be a novel about Caterina? -- here presented as the most spoiled young woman ever, must have Dea by her side at all times so she can get a reading whenever she wishes. Huh what?

In the "further reading" section at the end of this book is a short -- unpardonably short! -- list of books that contain more information about the Lady of Forli, none of which are recent at all and so are most likely out of print. Sing hosannah I live in the Age of the Internet and can track down copies of those with relative ease, because if there's one thing I want to do after reading this book, it's read a better book about this fascinating woman.

I wish Jean Plaidy had written about her.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

SUNS SUNS SUNS - Shadow of the Torturer 21-25

We left Severian and Agia touring Father Inire's bizarre masterpiece, the Botanic Gardens of Nessus. Severian did not want to leave the Sand Garden, feeling strangely drawn there (since these gardens are pretty much just an extension of Father Inire's optical time machine, I maintain that it's entirely possible that he got sucked into the life of Apu-Punchau then; who wouldn't want to stick around and be a Mu'ad Dib-ish desert god?), but now blundered into the Jungle Garden to have one of the strangest encounters in this entire novel: the Jungle Hut.

Lots is written all over the web about this scene, in which Severian and Agia both do and do not interact with some inhabitants of the Garden in their hut. Robert and the Zulu shaman Isangoma (his name literally means "shaman" in the Zulu language) can see Severian and Agia, but Marie cannot. We learn that, per Isangoma, it's because Robert is an artist and has trained himself to observe what is actually there, while Marie just sees what she expects to see, but only Robert seems prepared to treat Severian and Agia as actual visitors to his hut; Isangoma regards them as "tokoloshe" -- spirit creatures that occur "when man think bad thought or woman do bad thing" and then remain until the end of the world. Or, as Robert says, kind of agreeing with Isangoma but pulling his punches a bit "They are the spirits of the future, and we make them ourselves."

From all the clues strewn about, including a plane that appears, readers generally conclude that Marie and Robert are 20th Century missionaries who, either accidentally or by Father Inire's design, happened across the corresponding geographical location of one of Inire's mirror-access-point-things and wound up in the Jungle Garden. Possibly Isangoma and his tribe did as well, and might be from a yet different point in time, though how they got from Africa to South America...? I don't even.

Anyway, Isangoma recites an interesting bit of rhyme, that may or may not be another hologram of Severian's story and eventual role in the universe:
In the night when all is silent,
Hear him screaming in the treetops!
See him dancing in the fire!
He lives in the arrow poison,
Tiny as a yellow firefly!
Brighter than a falling star!
Hairy men walk in the forest.*
He comes when the sun is setting,
See his feet upon the water!
Tracks of flame across the water!"
There is apparently more to this rhyme, but this is what we get. Note that while Severian's world features a dying red sun, but all of this sun imagery is yellow. Either Isangoma in his little diorama only knows the good old yellow sun that we enjoy, or this is a reference to the New Sun. Hmm.

Even more curiously, Isangoma basically uses this celebration of Severian (wink) as a banishing charm against Severian and Agia. Coincidentally, his poetry slam coincides with Agia getting bored and wanting to leave. "If you want to stay... you'll have to get your avern yourself, and find your way to the Sanguinary Fields." And if he doesn't show up, "the snake called yellowbeard" will be sic'd on Severian's family and friends, including her.

Insert your favorite joke about Graham Chapman's snake here.

They argue some more about the nature of the Gardens and their effect on certain people. Like Severian. No Garden of Delectation for him. Not that there's time anyway. Macht schnell! Off to get the damn avern.

Severian is not expecting a lake, and neither are we. I talked a little bit last time about the Lake of Birds, and the popular reader theory that this is a reference to Lake Avernus, a volcanic crater lake that may once have emitted poisonous, bird-killing fumes. It all fits very nicely.

I'm kind of surprised my good friend EssJay didn't jump up and down and yell "Dead Marshes" at me when she got to this part, actually. There are some major similarities: the tea-colored water "has the property of preserving corpses" for instance. But here, the corpses are sunk into it deliberately, with weights, their positions mapped so they can be fished out later if anyone wants to, Agia explains.

But someone begs to differ. OK, I'm not going to get too into this whole thing with the Boatman and who he probably is, and Dorcas and who she probably is here, because my first time read-alongers will just throw things at me, but it's pretty common knowledge. Anyway, here's  the Boatman , doing his Charon bit, on a boat on the Lake of Birds, and he's having a hell of a time finding his beloved Cas, because the Map of Corpses sucks. Or the corpses move around because there is a pipeline to Gyoll that keeps the Lake of Birds from drying out** and manatees (or undines, wink) come and go as they please and mess things up. It is because of the manatundines that the averns were planted on Father Inire's orders, furthermore. Anyway, five years  the Boatman  has been doing this! Severian is sympathetic, though he suspects  the Boatman is "spell-caught" and his kindness earns him a "wish I could help you, but my boat is too small" from the old man. Fortunately, there's another, proper ferryman nearby.

But first Severian has to catch Agia, who is tear-assing along as fast as her messed-up leg*** can take her, so he has to sort-of-run to catch up to her. So of course he falls into the water. He sure does like almost drowning, that Severian. Is he really just crying out to be baptized? While in the water, he drops his sword, which he now has to frantically search for in the stems of the reeds growing in the lake. And while he's doing so, he makes contact with what feels like a human hand. And it feels like that hand is returning his sword to him, Lady of the Lake style. Juturna again?

Or maybe it's the woman with "streaming yellow hair" who helps Severian back onto land. What? Where did she come from? Oh, and Agia and another man, who proves to be one Hildegrin and is the other ferryman, are there now, too. But who's the blonde, covered in mud, wearing little but rags? Introductions all around, including a contemptuous reference to Severian as Agia's fish that seems pretty interesting (see my immediate prior Suns Suns Suns post for a refresher on Father Inire's fish) but nobody notices.

The blonde is Dorcas. And she doesn't remember how she got there. Maybe she just wandered in? Maybe someone sank her under the waters because she was in a "com'er" and they thought she was dead? But who's this ferryman, then?

Well, for starters, he's not a ferryman, but a "badger"**** -- basically, an excavator of things -- but he has a big boat, and when Severian tells him about meeting  the Boatman, Hildegrin says he feels sorry for the old guy and will do this favor for  the Boatman's sake.

But first, Agia really wants to get rid of Dorcas, who is still pretty out of it. Severian makes lots of suggestions, trying, basically, to get her to go to a better, warmer part of the Gardens, like maybe the Sand Garden? Because it's dry and sunny there? "Yes. Sun." (!) But finally they give up on ditching her and she gets to come in the boat. And hear Hildegrin's lecture about the Lake of Birds, most of the substance of which I've already shared, except for the bit about the Cave of the Cumaean (as in the Cumaean Sibyl, who may or may not be the same person as the historical Cumaean Sibyl), whom the Autarch wants there "so he can come and talk without travelin' to the other side of the world" (Italy?). We'll have more about her later, though.

This is my favorite Cumaean image. That is one butch sibyl, Michaelangelo!

Oh, and during some more of Severian's pseudo-philosophical ruminations, Dorcas maneuvers him into grabbing her breast. "Now what are your thoughts? If I have made the external world sweet to you, aren't they less than they were?"

I'm pretty sure that would be a big 10-4, granny.

And finally, it's avern time.

Freaky weird things, averns. Basically, I guess they're weaponized mutant sunflowers. "Each leaf was like a dagger blade, stiff and pointed, with edges sharp enough to satisfy even Master Gurloes." And poisoned. It even kills off the birds and the bees 8o But the flowers are very pretty. Almost hypnotically pretty: "their petals curled in a way that... formed a complex swirling pattern that drew the eye like a spiral limned on a revolving disk." Oh yeah, combat with this will be interesting. Who the Snape thought of that, anyway?

And the actual method of combat-by-avern is totally the Quidditch of BotNS. Instead of swinging it like a mace, like Severian expects, instead one twists off the leaves one by one and chucks them at one's opponent. OK, half Quidditch, half Oriza. While being careful to make sure the opponent can't grab the bare patch you leave by twisting off leaves, and wrestle your flower away from you. And not pricking yourself with the poisoned leaves. Or being hypnotized by  your or your opponent's blossom.

I don't even.

But so, it's almost combat time for real, so at last we leave the Gardens and head to the Inn of Lost Loves (all good duels start at a picturesque inn. It's the law), which is right near the huge and (in Dorcas' opinion) terrifying City Wall, which "goes halfway to the sky" (but what wall doesn't, really? What is the height of the sky, again? Exactly). I must confess, this inn sounds like my kind of place. No buildings are permitted so close to the wall, so it has neither walls nor roof, and is basically a series of platforms surrounded by greenery.

And Severian gets ready to fight. He has explained earlier that he believed the challenge was the Guild's round-about way of finally executing him for the crime of assisting Thecla in her "escape" and so he is letting himself be led to the slaughter, but I call bullshytt on this: if he didn't care if he survived, why bother practicing with the avern? Surely not just because Agia is sexy. Surely. Right? And yet here Agia is, offering to do, uh, something, behind the screen...

But no! Because NOTE DRAMA! After the innkeeper lays down the law on how much and when he is going to get paid (snickerhoot at the deposit for dinner, with the rest paid when you eat, and if you don't survive your duel, well, that's why his prices are so darn reasonable!), he is discovered to have left a scrap of folded paper beneath a tray. Severian jokes about the melodramatic possibilities of getting a secret note before a duel, but Agia takes it so seriously that she gets naked and say's she'll schtup him then and there if he promises not to read the note. But Severian is more interested in the note, for all of his protestations to us of how she made him "stupid with desire."

The note is interesting. "The woman with you has been here before. Do not trust her. Trudo says the man is a torturer. You are my mother come again."

*Here Isangoma is interrupted by Agia, so this may be a lacuna.

**I stumbled across a delightful theory on, the gyst of which is that the Lake of Birds is Lake Avernus in Italy at the time of its fume-belching worst, but that the pipeline the Boatman mentions is to the Gyoll of Urth. Which would mean that Gyoll, untold thousands of years in our future, is keeping a volcanic lake from hundreds of years in our past, full of water. Oh, and it also allows undines to go back and forth between the river and the lake as they need to. Possibly to switch the corpses around?

***Another reason folks like Borski posit Agia as a relative of Severian's: she's lame like he will be, for a while. OK.

****And, Severian susses out from his familiar voice when he says something about getting the females to safety, Hildegrin is probably the guy who was hanging out with Vodalus the night Severian saved Vodalus' life. THICK PLOT IS THICK!

Monday, November 19, 2012

SUNS SUNS SUNS - Shadow of the Torturer 16-20

"Do you think there are answers to everything here? Is that true in the place where you come from?"

This question, posed by the relatively newly-met Agia to Severian as they tour the mysterious Botanical Gardens of Nessus, stands out to me on this reading as one of the most blatant cases of direct authorial taunting Gene Wolfe -- or perhaps any author -- has indulged in. It also feels like the central question of his Solar Cycle.

But first, let us backtrack to where we left off last time. Severian has met Dr. Talos and Baldanders, and has more or less agreed to be part of their traveling show, or at least to travel alongside them for a while. And he will do this, eventually. But not just now. As Chapter 16 opens and the trio sit down to breakfast at a cafe, Severian is already pretty much making plans to ditch the pair as soon as he can.

But first, they meet someone. Someone who will also be joining the troupe, though she won't be recognizable when Severian next sees her: the Waitress!* But all she does here is serve some mocha and gruel and let herself be sweet-talked by Talos into letting him make her into a beautiful actress. Well, what girl can resist an offer like that?

And then they all part ways, supposedly for a time; Severian agrees to meet them at a place called Ctesiphon's Cross**, does Severian know where that is? Uh, sure he does (no he doesn't). Aaaaaand skeedaddle. Because...

It's time for Severian to go shopping. That's right. SHOPPING. He took those law enforcement buffoons from last time seriously when their boss advised him to get something to cover up that fulgin cloak, badass sword and, oh yes, naked chest. So first, he does the Dying Earth/Faux Medieval equivalent of window shopping, and then, because he's Severian and nothing happens without this vital element, he sees a pretty girl, whom he ogles:
She wore a pavonine brocade gown of amazing richness and raggedness, and as I watched her, the sun touched a rent just below her waist, turning the skin there to palest gold.*** I cannot explain the desire I felt for her, then and afterward. Of the many women I have known, she was, perhaps, the least beautiful - less graceful than her I have loved most, less voluptuous than another, less reginal far than Thecla... I loved her with a love that was deadly and yet not serious.
And this is Agia, she of the provocative question with which I opened this post. She's in a rich dress that's seen better days because she and her twin brother, Agilus, own a used clothing stall. When Severian approaches her, she checks him out and seems to like what she sees (namely his amazing and expensive sword, and his darker-than-black cloak) and talks him into going into her shop, though she neglects to inform him that it's her shop. She does not go in with him.

Behind the counter is her brother, Agilus, wearing a strange mask "more frightening than any torturer. His face was a skeleton's or nearly so." Like any good shopkeeper, he immediately goes into dickering mode, but Severian is hung up on his mask and comments on it, so finally Agilus removes it. The dickering continues; Agilus is hell bent on buying the cloak and sword, but Severian is interested in parting with neither. Then he notices that "the ribbons that held your mask... they're still there."**** Before this interesting point can be discussed further, though, they are interrupted by an armored and helmeted hipparch (a cavalry officer, basically), who doesn't speak, but forces a black avern***** seed on Severian and leaves. As Agilus explains, Severian has just been ordered to fight a duel, not with swords (Agilus tries to get Severian to leave Terminus Est with him, har har) but with averns. Severian has no idea how this has come to pass, and is kind of in shock, so Agilus takes him in hand, sells him a mantle to cover his torturer garb, and says since Severian is his customer, and he's never abandoned a customer, he'll help by sending his sister to help Severian get his avern. What a nice guy, that Agilus!

Of course, Severian, who seems awfully insistent on convincing us that he was in love with Agia, even though he had just met her, is more than happy to have her company on this weird adventure, and burdens us with a bit of Ishmaelian philosophizing to justify and enlarge his decision to play along with this scheme the twins have cooked up. He evokes, for instance, a simple story of an Autarch from the long, long ago, Ymar, and how there are so many different interpretations of that little story. "Of me it might be asked why I accepted the shopkeeper's sister as my companion." Yeah, it might.

Step One: Cut an avern. No wait. Step One: get to the Botanic Gardens so they can cut an avern. No wait. Step One: Hire a fiacre to carry them to the Botanic Gardens in style. Okay, got that? So. Step Two: Get to the Botanic Gardens so they can cut an avern. No wait. Step Two: get into a stupid race with another fiacre, piss off everyone in the marketplace, go crashing into the Cathedral of the Pelerines and "accidentally" trash their altar, where is kept that super valuable gem we keep hearing about, the Claw of the Concilator. In the chaos, Terminus Est gets misplaced, and the straw on the floor catches fire, and it is in that setting that an exultant-tall woman, angry in scarlet, comes marching up with Severian's sword. Is there, perhaps, something of value of theirs that Severian might return, also?

Uh, no?

Very well, the Pelerines conclude. "The  Claw has not vanished in living memory, but it does so at will and it would be neither possible nor permissible for us to stop it." Which is a strange thing to say about a gem, even a gem called a Claw.

So yeah, about the Claw. Finally we learn some more about it, courtesy of Agia as she and Severian now walk to the Botanic Gardens. Remember the Botanic Gardens? But anyway, the Claw. It is understood to have had "some real association" with a quasi-messianic figure from ancient-ish history called The Conciliator, whom Agia, and by association/extension the Pelerines who keep this figure's memory, can't quite refer to as historical or dead because maybe he never lived, or maybe he's still alive? This will all, of course, be sorted out for us in a later novel, but for now, he is supposed to have been the Master of Power "Which means the transcendence of reality, and includes the negation of time." And so this artifact, which may or may not be actually his, is believed to have certain powers. It "forgives injuries, raises the dead, draws new races of beings from the soil, purifies lust"... no word on the julienne fries, but come on, it's a Claw, right?

Severian (paraphrased): huh huh. You said lust. I lust you.
Agia (paraphrased): I don't lust you back, because you might get killed.
Severian (paraphrased): Yeah, about that. You sure this isn't just you and your brother trying to trick me?
Agia: (shakes her ass)

And they kiss.

So now, let's talk about this a bit. What do we think is really going on in all of this? Is Severian onto the Twins' real plan now, and just going along with it for his own ends? Was the crash into the Cathedral Tent really an accident? The Pelerines saw no deception in Severian when he claimed not to have stolen the Claw: is that because he didn't steal it, or because you can't steal what's already yours? Or rather, something that you might have stolen a really, really long time ago but then substituted something else for that you sort of found along the way but then that became the real thing and...

Ow, my brain.

But so here's what I think this time. I think Severian is telling porkies. Here. I think he played dumb with the Twins because he saw a way to "blunder" into the Cathedral to get the Claw and that getting the Claw was the whole point of his little detour through this part of Nessus. Because he was going to need the Claw's powers very soon, because Dorcas (whom I think of as the one he loved most, and never mind who else she is, just now). I realize this is going to make no sense at all to first-time readers who don't yet understand just how much mucking about with time and space is really going on here. But that's how I'm reading it. The priorities here are Claw and Dorcas.

So okay, back to the story. It's time to visit the Botanical Gardens, a place we are soon led to conflate with Father Inire's mirrors, the Corridors of Time, and Tzadkiel's spaceship because this is not just any hothouse. It's a hothouse of many ecosystems, each supposedly just cunningly designed so they feel bigger on the inside on the outside, but every once in a while, things happen to betray the Gardens' dual/treble/OMGble nature. Like the roar of a smilodon Severian hears in the Jungle Garden.

And then there's the Jungle. Oh, the Jungle. Tell me this doesn't feel like a little slice the planet Green from Book of the Short Sun. But anyway.

Severian and Agia meet some of the staff, who are members of the Curators' Guild and brag about, among other things, the Garden of Antiquities, which features "Hundreds and hundreds of extinct plants, including some that have not been seen for tens of millions of years."****** Now, how do you suppose they got those?

As for Agia, she really wants to get Severian into the Garden of Delectation, for reasons that are never made totally clear to us, but might be prurient (in his dreams). They explore for what doesn't seem to be much time at all but which Agia insists was too long; they've missed out on a chance to do anything now but cut his avern. Wait, what? "The gardens affect some people like that," Agia explains. The Autarch has decided having some people kind of stuck in each scene will make them more realistic, and so Father Inire has "invested them with a conjuration" so that people will want to. Severian says he felt as if he belonged there, and that there was a woman waiting for him just out of sight. Well, of course he did.

Me? I wonder if this isn't a point where he suddenly ducks into the life of Apu-Pinchau for a while.

Oh, Father Inire. Just the mention of his name in conjunction with places that mess with your head leads Severian to his another big delve into memories of storytelling, this time, Thecla's (wink). And whether Agia is listening or not, he tells her the story, all about a young girl whom Father Inire caught posing in front of his giant twinned mirrors in the House Absolute and summoned to his sanctum to "see the fish." No, this is not a euphemism for anything tawdry. It is both an extended metaphor/hologram of/for Severian's story and a real encounter with a partly real fish, which Father Inire conjures via a dazzling array of bright lights and otherworldly mirrors: "In the center, the fish flickered to and fro, a thing formed, as it seemed, by the convergence of the light." As the child watches the light-fish, Father Inire discourses on how light travels, and how things might travel faster than light, and how the image of a thing can, in time, become a thing.

And how much do we really, really know about where Severian came from, anyway?

*And of course, lots of people will cough and say "that will not be the first time he didn't recognize her" because this woman, the waitress-who-will-be-Jolenta, is a leading candidate for Severian's-lost-twin-sister-if-in-fact-he-has-one. Borski certainly thinks so, based on his essential criteria of hair color and other criteria I'm avoiding mentioning because of spoilers.

**Unusual name for a place that's supposedly in a far-future Buenos Aires, no? Ctesiphon was the capital city of the Parthian empire in Persia, a great city of ancient Mesopotamia. It was the winter seat of the Parthian kings, and was later captured a stunning five times by the Romans -- Emperor Julian died trying to take it once -- and was the site of a major battle of World War I as well. I can't find anything about anything called Stesiphon's Cross as such, but there is this:

The Taq-i-Kisra, which was a sort of imperial audience hall. This is all that remains today of the ancient city. It looks like the sort of place where the kinds of plays that Talos et al perform might go over rather nicely. One problem, of course, Ctesiphon is geographically nowhere near Nessus/Buenos Aires, at least as we conventionally understand geography in the 20th/21st centuries. However, as we'll see in the next few chapters and, hell, the next few novels, where -- and when -- are kind of plastic.

***The gold and some other things, of course, leading Borski to conclude that Agia and her brother are Severian's cousins.

****Something else has just occurred to me, guys. Guys. The MASK thing. Who else wears masks alla time in BotNS? I mean besides Severian? Barbatus and Famulimus! Screw this Agia and Agilus are Severians cousins hoo-ha. Agia and Agilus are the first appearance of the Hierodules. And if you think about it, Ossipago is maybe here too. Wink.

*****This is a bizarre and poisonous giant flower we'll hear more about later. The term may come from the Latin "avernus" with more or less means "without birds" and often referred to a lake or other body of water that emits poisonous fumes or steams and over which birds were believed to die if they flew. Keep this in mind in the immediate future, when we get to the Lake of Birds. I'm pretty sure there are no coincidences in Gene Wolfe.

*****And some of which have escaped the confines of the Botanical Gardens and are growing out in the world again. D'oh.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

100 Books #110 - Nicholas P. Money's TRIUMPH OF THE FUNGI: A ROTTEN HISTORY

When the author gets out of his own way and just lets us enjoy his material, Triumph of the Fungi: A Rotten History is as interesting and entertaining a book on the subject as one could wish. From Dutch Elm disease to the Potato Blight, Money surveys the history of fungal plant pathogens and their economic and aesthetic impact on the landscape in just the right amount of detail; one feels like a mycologist but isn't having to slog through a lot of soil chemistry data, which is enormously appealing to a lay reader like me.

What isn't appealing is a prevalence of what I can only describe as authorial snottiness; Money lets his personal opinion intrude on his storytelling just enough to be annoying, if not downright offensive: in his speculations about the origins of Dutch Elm disease, for instance, he tells us "I'm all in favor of blaming the Chinese, but in this instance they seem faultless"; pages later, describing the efforts of an early pioneer in research on a disease that all but wiped out coffee production on Ceylon/Sri Lanka, a pioneer who just happened also to be a reverend, he describes him as "a curate with presumable devotion to Christian superstitions" for really no reason at all other than to sound like a jerk, it feels like (to this reader, anyway).* Honestly, I can't believe an editor let stuff like this slide. Once I noticed this tendency, I couldn't stop seeing it, which often spoiled my enjoyment of a book for whom I am exactly the audience.

This is especially frustrating because the book is also full of fascinating bombshells of insight, as when Money points out how the results of a lot of early researchers in to Dutch Elm Disease had their results pretty much ignored because they were women, and a lot of dumb theories and ideas that came from men got credence, "frustrated progress in understanding the nature of the problem." Or when one Thomas Lipton -- yeah, that Thomas Lipton -- saw opportunity on Ceylon and started buying up rust-fungus-ruined coffee plantations to grow cheap tea on.* Or that "Plant pathologists can serve a [sic] excellent vectors of fungal disease." Or that the chromosomes packed into the zoospores of the potato blight fungus contain around 22,500 genes (for comparison, human chromosomes encode around 24,000).

See? Fascinating!

And we won't even talk about the chapter on chocolate. Oh my!** (Well, okay, maybe a little "...imagine massively swollen gentials in response to an infection of  your pituitary gland and you'll grasp a human analogue of this plant disease.")

But then the obnoxiousness makes a return in a chapter about fungal pathogens on rubber trees, in which the author makes as many condom jokes as he possibly can and throws in one about an exporter waiting anxiously for a rubber stamp in a colonial office. Har.

Overall, though, this is a great read. I especially appreciate the criticisms of modern agriculture that are gently buried in this text: fungal disease epidemics only really happen in monocultures; the bigger the plantation**, the bigger the problem. And while Money (wonderful name for a writer about economic threats such as these, eh) never says it outright, really, the worst thing that ever happened to these plants we exploit isn't really the fungi; it's us. Or maybe we're the best thing. Maybe these plants, like some have said that maize/corn does, are actually exploiting us, giving us a little something useful in exchange for our efforts to spread them, keep them bug and disease free, and in general let them take over the earth at the expense of other plants not "smart" enough to provide something we find useful or tasty?

And then, maybe, aren't the fungi the really smart ones, since they've let us humans do all the work of setting them vast banquet tables for them to enjoy?

Lots to think about, when we think about fungi, no?

*Oddly, the victim of this barb, Rev. Miles Berkeley, gets spoken of in seriously glowing terms later in the book. So, you know, why even make a remark like that in the first place? Once I got to the chapter wherein Money describes Berkeley as a "great man" all I could think about was this stupid dis earlier in the book. ARGH.

**And this after Lipton got into the retail business after his family fled the potato famine in Ireland, so "it might be said that Lipton was an improbable beneficiary... of two of history's worst fungal epidemics."

***Theobroma cacao... food of the gods, threatened by, among other things, Witches' broom/escoba de bruja.

****Some nicely subtle digs at slavery there, too.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

100 Books #109 - Louis L'Amour's TO THE FAR BLUE MOUNTAINS

..."There is game."
I smiled. "There are no lords there to bespeak the deer or the hare, William. There is enough for all."
I love this exchange between Barnabas Sackett, gonnabe American pioneer, and the man he's leaving behind to work his tiny plot of land in England's famous fens. Neither can believe that the other wants what he does. William is happy to cut rushes and grow what crops he can on the tillable bits of Barnabas' inheritance; Barnabas wants to be in on the ground floor of history's greatest Do-Over. It's a moment that all but sings with romance and makes the reader want to have been there to sail off with Barnabas, even though that reader knows that yesterday's frontier became today's suburban franchise ghetto and, while there is actually enough for all, the dream of all getting to share in it is far from realized.

But it's a great reminder, a book like this, that the American Experiment really was and still is one. People who knew what had become of hundreds and thousands of years of hereditary aristocracy and hierarchies that might as well have been castes wanted to try something different, but they had to make it up as they went along. And we still are, today. We may be disappointed that this country seems not to be living up to its early promise, but we set ourselves some pretty lofty goals, for which Plan A might not have been the best. Plan B? Plan C? Plan D? Plan E? The important thing is to keep trying.

But that's not what To the Far Blue Mountains is about, of course. All that experimentation is far in the future for America and the Sacketts. First, Barnabas has to gain a proper foothold on the continent and survive and have kids.* But even before that, he has to get out of England, where people in high places have come to think he is a very bad man (some even think he's hiding the Crown Jewels**, which they think he found with the gold coins that started him on his path to independence in Sackett's Land). Which is to say that Barnabas spends the first chunk of this novel (again) in what I like to call "Doctor Who jeopardy"***. There many, many novels after this one, and they're about his descendants, so we kind of know he's not going to be hanged or murdered or anything. Yawn.

Again, this is the stuff of Romance, not history or historical fiction, but fun nonetheless. Swirling capes and salutes, daring escapes, audacious seizures of ships -- all that's missing is D'Artagnan, really, but our Barnabas, so legendary that even weird old men in Welsh shacks know his name without an introduction, makes a pretty fair substitute.

And while he's got him a wife all picked out, the beautiful and tough Abigail (who fought off pirates off the coast of India when she was just 13, apparently), his female companion for a lot of the best bits of this novel would make him a fine match, too. Oh, if you don't love Lila, Abigail's maidservant who got left behind when Abigail and her father sailed for America but who bulls her way into chasing after her with Barnabas, you don't love strong women. Lila is physically imposing, plies a mean sword, cooks a fine supper on no notice and with whatever crap ingredients are on hand, and is fiercely loyal. If Barnabas is larger than life, and he certainly is that, Lila is even larger, a paragon of rough country virtue and can-do-it attitude.

It's a pity that she more or less disappears, for huge chunks of the novel, but this is Barnabas' story, and he's got a lot going on. Like fighting off pirates. Like fighting off the urge to become one himself. Like darting in and out of English ports under the noses of his enemies so he can sell the spars and furs and potash (oh my!) he has collected in the New World and buy clothing and beer and seed corn and whatnot. Like fighting some Indians and befriending others. Like building and rebuilding his fort in Virginia. Like impregnating his wife. Like scenery appreciation.

His is a fun ride on which to be along, and no mistake. Onward to the next book, soon, which appears to concern his first son, the improbably named Kin Ring Sackett.

*So far no plan for dynasty founding has succeeded by avoiding that step.

**Lost in a flash flood by King John's baggage train in the early 13th century.

***As in the way episodes of that show may dangle its title character over any number of cliffs but the fact that the show is his and that he is known to have many future incarnations makes any episodic endings in which he is in danger kind of laughable when one watches, say, Jon Pertwee's turn in the role back in the 1960s.

Friday, November 16, 2012

100 Books #108 - Stieg Larsson's THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST

I think it's safe to say that the Sweden of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy is very fortunate indeed that  big-time villain Alexander Zalachenko was a Male Chauvinist Pig. Had he encouraged his daughter, Lisbeth Salander, badass superheroine of the trilogy, in the development of her talents, had he cultivated her loyalties, the way he did his giant literally-feel-no-pain freakshow son, Niedermann, well, I'm just not sure this ficitonal Sweden could have survived it.

The only thing harder to deal with than Salander (and Team Salander) refusing to be a victim even after she's been shot in the hip, shoulder and oh yes head would be Salander helping daddy run his epic crime organization.

The action* in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest takes place immediately after the closing battle in The Girl Who Played with Fire, in which Lisbeth was not only shot as described above, not only left for dead but buried in a shallow grave -- and yet still managed to dig herself out and nearly succeed in offing Dear Old Dad. Again. As this third and, alas, final book (I'm told there were originally going to be ten of these, but for the author's unfortunate demise) opens, she and Daddy are rushed to the same intensive care ward, where doctors heroically save both of their lives so they can continue plotting to destroy each other.

Except now the police and the court system and the press are more involved in their family problems than ever before. And the buck doesn't stop there. Oh no. Because all the conspiracy pigeons are coming home to roost. And most of them are armed. Or have AUTHORITAH.

Unfortunately, I'm making this sound more exciting than the book actually is. There has been a plodding element to the other two books in the series -- we get a lot of minutiae mixed in with the excitement and adventure and really wild bad things -- but in this book, there's a lot more of that. We watch characters get dressed and plod around their kitchens making coffee and driving or walking up and down streets in way too much detail, way too often.

And perhaps that's always been the case in these books and I just noticed it more this time around because all that minutiae is padding out... courtroom drama (and a slow-motion courtroom drama that takes more than half the book to even get to the courtroom at that). Law & Order: Sweden. Which means with politicians. Who spend a lot of the time wringing their hands over the finer points of Swedish constitutional law. And drinking coffee.

Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of nifty cloak and dagger stuff, and when there is tension, it's very tense indeed, and involves some characters who, let's admit it, have kind of just been window dressing up till now (like Erika Berger, who, had this series progressed, could have wound up being a sort of attenuated Robin to Salander's Batman** except, of course, Robin would be older than Batman. And they'd both be female. But hell, wouldn't you want to read that? I would!!!). And added to the mix this time around are not just one but two new badass ex-policewomen, one working in the very government agency that's at the heart of the Salander/Zalachenko conspiracy, one working for the private security firm for whom Salander got her start in the earning money for being smart business.

And so yes, this means that all of the feminist issues that have been at the heart of this series from the beginning are still at the forefront; these stories aren't just crime stories, but stories about crimes against women, at all levels of society, in pretty much every way crimes can be perpetrated on women. Salander is our heroine of record, but really, any of the ladies who don't just get killed off in these novels could take a spotlight, too, I think. Not a whining victim among them; at their worst they are targets who come alive and shoot back. And if they happen to see a fella (or dame) they fancy, they make it happen, and the fancied one had better just get with the program (fortunately, all of them are glad to do so. Though really, I can't see any of these women, badass as they are, acting unethically in this regard. They know too well what it's like to be on the other end of that kind of attention).

This means I forgive them much, but still find this third novel the weakest of them. I'm not much of a legal thriller fan to begin with, and here I was being led through the ins and outs of a country and a government very different from my own. I don't mind learning about that, might even find it intriguing, but if I'm to be asked to do so to understand a piece of fiction, I want a bit more story than I got this time around. Or at least a bit more Girl; as I observed on Goodreads about halfway through reading this one, a better title for this last installment of the Milennium trilogy would be The People Who Talked About the Girl Who Did Stuff in Other Novels.

I got sick of Blomkvist, improbable chick magnet-cum-authorial wish-fulfilling stand-in, somewhere in the middle of the second book, to be honest, but here he is again like a bad, if very earnest and hardworking penny, stepping up his game to try to be a match for Salander (he does have some nifty, crafty ideas; he must have finally remembered that class he took in cunning from that fox at Oxford), but still ultimately depending on Salander to get to the bottom of things so he has facts to expose in his magazine. Even though she's in a hospital room recovering from all the gunshots and technically under arrest. But you know, he's the sidekick. It's what they do. And at least he doesn't complain about it, or try to be macho or dominating. He is protective, but in a motherly and behind-the-scenes way. There, putting it that way, I don't mind him as much. He can be Alfred. Why not.

Even so, while I read the first two books in the series at breakneck paces, barely stopping to sleep, this one, well, it's another one I kept putting aside for fun and shiny things, and finally finished out of a sense of duty, and possibly out of enslavement to the good old sunk cost fallacy. I was already in for two books and then some, better hang in there...

I'll still have a look at the film, though, because the other two films (I'm talking about the Swedish ones, here; I still haven't been able to bring myself to look at the American one) were cracking good adaptations of their books, and so I have hopes that the film of this one will be a leaner and livelier look at this story, too.

And Noomi Rapace was born for the role.

And I need to see her playing a smart person again to get the last taste of Prometheus out of my mouth.

*What actual action there is, I mean.

**Well, okay, that's a stretch, especially since there are other, more badass candidates for this theoretical female Robin in the story. What I'm trying to say is, Erika impressed me a little this time.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

SUNS SUNS SUNS - Shadow of the Torturer 11-15

So, Severian has ended his apprenticeship and is on the cusp of becoming a Journeyman Torturer. He has lost his virginity to a Thecla-look-alike, become the special companion of Thecla herself, fallen in love with her, and started talking quite elegiacally about his Guild. One gets, does one not, a feeling that not much more of this story is going to take place in the Matachin Tower, among the torturers.

But things don't unfold quite as they've seemed like they would. If this were any other writer, well of course Severian would try to help Thecla escape and run away with her, perhaps to join Vodalus and Thecla's half-sister, Thea, in hiding somewhere. But this is Gene Wolfe, and things just aren't that simple. Starting with the relationship that is still developing, as we start this next section of Shadow of the Torturer, between Severian and Thecla.

I'm terribly interested in a passage early in Chapter Ten, which I left alone last time, where he speaks of being "drawn to the world of ancient knowledge and privilege she represented." Severian is very careful here about how he words things: "If educated men have sometimes thought me, if not their equal, at least one whose company did not shame them, that is owing solely to Thecla," he says immediately after saying the books he brought her were his university and she his oracle. The implication here, to a first-time reader, is that Thecla acted as Severian's tutor, in some fashion, during the winter of her captivity. We will later learn just how much of a mis-characterization that is, though it is true that Thecla's is the (original) education on which Severian will draw. Wink.

The Feast Day of Holy Katharine* comes around, and it's all about Severian; the ritual by which he becomes a journeyman is quite a strange one. After a huge feast, Severian is given a fancy looking fake sword and symbolically kills a woman from the city who impersonates the martyr, the same woman every year. Now, Robert Borski thinks this woman is even more special than she already seems, because Borski is pretty much positive that this woman is Severian's mother. The theory goes that she was originally a Pelerine (a sort of holy order for women in BotNS-verse) who broke her vows, ran off and got pregnant, and thus fell afoul of the Autarch's law and became a "client" of the Guild. Her crimes weren't severe enough for her to be killed, but she would have always had a special relationship with the Guild ever after. Furthermore, she bears some resemblance to Severian, having like him dark hair and a straight nose. Severian compares her face to "a pool of pure water found in the midst of a wood" but is otherwise pretty much unmoved by his encounter with her, though it all feels a little weird when she intones the ritual phrase "Strike and fear not." If Severian really is symbolically killing his own mother, this is a heavy scene. If.

Severian and the Torturers (there's your next band name) then party like rock stars, and the next morning Severian wakes up with his very first hangover. As he struggles in his new little room, he hears footsteps outside it that wig him out a little bit. "I knew I had recognized them, though I could not just then recall whose steps they were. Struggling, I brought back the sound; it was no human tread, only the padding of soft feet, and an almost imperceptible scampering." Is this maybe Triskele (who will turn out to be a bit more than an ordinary dog in Urth of the New Sun)? Or is there a certain Man whose hue rhymes with "lean" padding about certain Corridors? Or is it just apprentices randomly scampering around where they shouldn't be?

Anyway... It's not only for Severian that things have changed, as he soon discovers. For Thecla, despite her certainty that the Autarch would change his mind and order her release and thus has been fantasizing about her future as a cult leader, is about to become more than just a prisoner of the Scare Club for Men, but also a client. She makes a big show of being brave and curious and cynical as Severian escorts her to the machine where she is going to be "excruciated" but when the time comes... it doesn't seem like much, at first, the "Revolutionary," does it? Especially compared to some of the nasty things they walked past to get to it. It seems  most like a mild dose of electro-convulsive therapy, but, as we learn, the treatment itself is not really the excruciation, for all that Thecla does scream.

No, it's afterwards, in the hours and days and weeks that follow the treatment, that are the problem. The revolutionary awakens the Jungian shadow of a person, it would seem, and endows it with tremendous strength and malevolence. The machine turns the self against the self.

Thecla's descriptions of its effects have haunted me since my first reading:

"I thought I saw my worst enemy, a kind of demon. And it was me," she says as Severian bandages her up right after the treatment. And then...
"Since then, I can't control my hands... I can if I think about it, if I know what they're doing. But it is so hard, and I'm getting tired... I bite myself. Bite the lining of my cheeks, and my tongue and lips. Once my hands tried to strangle me, and I thought oh good, I will die now. But I only lost consciousness... My hands are trying to blind me now, to tear my eyelids away."
Egads. It made me shudder again just typing it. And then, because he can't lie to her, Severian answers her bleak questions. Will I be blind? Yes. How long before I die? A month, perhaps. "The thing in you that hates you will weaken as you weaken," and in the end they will die together. DUDE.

And then Severian confesses that he had had thoughts of rescuing her before her excruciation. He even stole a bread knife. But he chickened out. This gives Thecla the idea that pretty much seals Severian's fate as a torturer. She asks for the knife. And he gives it to her. And the thing that hates her gets a helping hand.

So see, he does sort of help her escape.

Then there is nothing for it to go fess up. He expects to be executed for this, but it turns out that would not be lawful. But he's put his Guild in a bind, until the Masters come up with another idea. Turns out, the Guild also used to provide executioners or "lictors" to some of the larger communities outside of Nessus, and one such community has asked for one again. Perfect! Before Severian has really had time to think about anything, he's in Master Palaemon's room, being inspected by via the Master's weird lens contraption that hides his face**, being told of his new job and how to get there, and receiving a magnificently badass sword, Terminus Est ("the line is drawn") that Palaemon just happened to have lying around. Severian is to use it to behead condemned men in the city of Thrax, but meanwhile, he gets to carry it around in a beautiful manskin (!!!) scabbard and hope no one lays too covetous an eye on it, because it is one beautiful sword, fancily decorated and balanced with a core of liquid mercury (okay, "hydrogyrum") so that its killing stroke is extra powerful. Curiously, it has a "man edge" and a "woman edge." But they're both, you know, sharp. Oh, and it doesn't have a sharp point, because it's for cutting, not stabbing.

It's interesting how Palaemon almost directs Severian to head "down" Gyoll to the sea rather than up Gyoll towards Thrax, as they part. The sea is where the big enemies are, of course, but Severian is nowhere near ready to deal with that crap yet, not even in the backwards-ass way he's going to, eventually.

And so Severian leaves his Guild, but not entirely, for he takes it with him in a fashion. He wears a fulgin cape, carries a distinctive sword, and has an unusual job waiting for him at his destination -- to which he must walk, because the Guild is certainly not going to pay to send him off in style, not after he left them on the hook for Thecla the way he did (shades of the Blackadder II episode "Heads" there, no? Heh). And sure enough, as he sets out on his way, he's held up by the local law enforcement buffoons before he's even to the city's outskirts. They think he's a faker, and want to charge him, but the bossman is cautious, and, moreover, observes that Severian smells like a torturer (blood and metal) and not like some schlub off the streets, and just cautions him to get some different clothes and find a place to spend the night until he can.

And this, this is how he meets his gonnabe-traveling companions, Baldanders*** and Dr. Talos, whose room he winds up sharing at an inn. Severian winds up sleeping through the night next to Baldanders, and has a very peculiar dream, in which he meets a familiar giant underwater face, because he is underwater (after plummeting from the sky, wherein he rode a giant, leather-winged beast that flew so high he saw all of Ocean, only not surrounding the land like it should, but having engulfed it entirely. Prophetic???), only this time he gets to tour her city and meet her sisters and hear them talk about what it's like to be the Brides of Abaia, Abaia being the giant only-sort-of-Lovecraftian alien who will "devour the continents" when this Dying Earth finally Dies. Again he remarks on being underwater but not breathing, which echoes his experience almost drowning in Gyoll in Chapter One.

Baldanders, too, is found to have dreamed, but of something very different: "Of caverns below, where stone teeth dripped blood... Of arms dismembered found on shattered paths, and things that shook chains in the dark." Robert Borski suggests that both dreams were "sendings" from Tzadkiel (whom we'll meet in UotNS) and/or Abaia, but got switched around, with Severian getting Baldanders' dream and vice versa. I do not scoff at this notion, as Baldanders is an alternate candidate for Severian's ultimate job, and his dream sounds more like an ordinary dream for a guy who was "nurtured by the torturers" but, you know.

As for Dr. Talos, right now he acts very much like Baldanders' boss, but things are not always as they seem, of course. But for now, well, it is he who invites Severian to come along with them and their performing troupe, whose path is also taking them up the Gyoll, maybe even to the House Absolute!

And thus endeth Chapter 15...

*This is, of course, BotNS's version of St. Catherine of Alexandria, aka Catherine the Martyr, she of the Wheel, another virgin saint. Catherine was a princess, the daughter of a pagan king, who converted to Christianity only at the age of 14, and went on to convert many others -- possibly even thousands of others. She also took on the Roman emperor Maxentius, trying to make him see the error of his Christian-persecuting ways. She won a debate he set up between her and a passel of scholars, and, from prison, converted Maxentius' own wife. Naturally, she had to be tortured until she gave up her stubborn ways. When that didn't work, the emperor proposed to her, only to be told her spouse was Jesus and she had consecrated her virginity to him. What else was there left to do but put her to the Wheel? Which miraculously broke. So finally, she was beheaded. So, you know, who else would be the Patron of Torturers, right?

**And thus, per Borski, makes him a candidate for Father Inire in disguise. But there's more reason than that to suspect Palaemon of being even odder than he appears; per the generally accepted scheme of how Wolfe named characters in this most occult of series, if this Master were merely human, he would get a saint's name like pretty much everybody else did. But there is no St. Palaeomon. There is a Roman grammarian and teacher by that name, but he was a pagan. But there is another Palaemon, actually two of them. And they are mythological: Palaemon is an epithet for Hercules/Heracles, and Palaemon is also the name of one of that Hero's sons. Who gets mythological names in BotNS? Oh, that's right, ALIENS. Like Erebus and Abaia and some others we'll meet later. HMMMMMM. (Oh, and btw, Inire is a Latin infinitive. The verb means "to enter or begin" which is an interesting name for "the oldest living man" isn't it?).

***Ahh, Baldanders. When we first meet him, he is just a dude asleep. A very big dude. When he gets out of bed the next morning, he turns out to be a really, really big dude, like three times taller than a man big. And then there's the name, which is, TA-DAA, mythological. Baldanders is a Germanic version of the ever-transforming Greek god Proteus, and, yes, is a transformer. His name literally means "soon another." Most of my friends will recognize the name from Jorge Luis Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings, where he is described as having a human head and torso, the tail of a fish except for one leg, which is the leg of a goat, and the wings and claws of a bird. Perhaps this Baldanders is just that in larval form? As we'll learn in later books, he does get bigger...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

100 Books #107 - Walter Moers' A WILD RIDE THROUGH THE NIGHT

"I've got no idea what's gone wrong with your dreams of late, but they've definitely been getting wilder."
When your own dear personal psychopomp aka "dream princess" who is also your late great-great-great grandmother tells you this, you know you're in for a weird adventure. Of course, by the time twelve-year-old Gustave Dore meets his ancestress and hears this observation, he's already been on one for a good bit: captaining his own ship and all but losing it to the "Siamese Twin Tornados", meeting Death and his sister Dementia, saving a Damsel in Distress from her Dragon but learning that he kind of misread that situation a bit...

Wait? Meeting Death? Yes. Death wants the kid's soul, like now, and the only way young Gustave can avoid complying is by performing a series of tasks. Welcome to the wild, weird, wonderful world of Walter Moers, here exhibited as part Where the Wild Things Are, part Maakies (Drinky Crow and Uncle Gabby would have felt right at home on Gustave's ship), with a dash of the Twelve Labors of Hercules thrown in.

Every Walter Moers book I pick up becomes my new favorite Walter Moers, and A Wild Ride Through the Night is no exception, despite the absence of Moers' cartoons. That's not to say the book is unadorned by illustration, though; far from it. The story took its inspiration from twelve engravings by 19th century French engraver and illustrator Gustave Dore*, and these appear sequentially in the book (and, being engravings, look pretty okay in e-Ink, to my surprise), making it at least partly a sort of wry commentary on sequential art and how any sequence's story can be altered by any amount of interstitial storytelling; it can even be made into an imaginary portrait of the artist as a young man.

I've been a fan of Moers since I first stumbled across The City of Dreaming Books in the new books section of my public library a few years ago. With a title like that, how could I pass it by? That book was nothing like I'd expected, but altogether wonderful -- and the lovely thing about his Zamonia books* (I mean, besides their inherent charm and their amazing, adorable illustrations) is that any one of them is a wonderful introduction to this world, populated by sentient, literate, civilized dinosaurs, adventuring educated dogs, blue bears who captain ships, and yes, dreaming books. But also, any one of them is a total gateway drug; once you've sampled from it, if it's at all to your taste, you will feel utterly compelled to go and get them all. So, you know, here.

A Wild Ride Through the Night is an earlier work than the Zamonia books, but already quite a mature one: Moers has already worked out his signature style (and so has his translator, John Brownjohn), blending whimsy, satire and pathos with fairly strong character creation (Lil' Gustave is no Rumo, but who is?) and a whole lot of just plain WTFery. If you don't laugh at loud at some of these bits, see your psychiatrist. And while a lot of the weirdest stuff (like a monstrous flying pig with lizard/goat legs) originated from the fevered imagination of Dore, I really don't think Dore could have come up with the kind of dialogue Moers gives to such grotesqueries. Truly, he is like no other writer, living or dead.

But you know, if you can't have Moers illustrations in a Moers book, Dore will do. Yes, yes he will.

*Illustrations used are taken from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", Orlando Furioso, "The Raven", Don Quixote, Legend of Croquemitane, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Paradise Lost, and the Bible.