Archive for September, 2010

The Short Sun

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

It is always nice to complete a book series, especially if you are looking for a specific version so that all books fit together. This was the case for Return to the whorl (2001) by Gene Wolfe, the third volume of The Short Sun trilogy.  Obviously not a recent book, but for some reason I could not find the paperback version that I wanted. I was in no rush to read it (I am still reading the first volume in a very slow pace), so I could allow myself to wait. If possible I like the books of a series to form a unified whole so if that is the case I can be very patient.

Perhaps a year had passed with some regular checking if it had become available until it was finally there. As usual I check the size of the book to make sure, as paperbacks can come in different sizes while the layout can be the same. I was happy and ordered it. I only had to wait for it to arrive until it did so today. It was the right size and had the same layout, but there was still something funny with it. The cover had a plastic coating and text print was a bit darker, almost like a coated print.  I can’t call it a missprint, but it is still odd and unusual.

Robert Louis Stevenson – Kidnapped

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

After completing Treasure Island I continued with another well-known novel by Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped (1886). As a kid I had seen a adaptation of the book in the form of an animation. This being quite some time ago I had obviously forgotten most about it. Thus the book was a fairly new experience to me.

Kidnapped is another historical adventure story. While adventure drove the story of Treasure Island, it was history that drove Kidnapped. Of course there was plenty of adventure but the theme of the Scottish Highlands and the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 dominated for the most of the story. Naming this is a bit of a giveaway, but essential for my review. I normally try to speak in general terms and avoid being specific, but in this case I cannot avoid it. During the story we meet a fair number of historical figures whose place in history is nicely woven into the story which has little involvement in that background story, as it is fiction. From the historical point of view this was quite interesting and well portrayed by Stevenson, but it dulled the story.

Not all was as dull. About the first one third was very entertaining and nicely styled. A true adventure with some oddities, plenty of action and strange events. There were less historical elements here, just enough for the setting of the story. Just about the right mix. But after this the story lost its momentum. There was still the same pace, but less thrill. While Treasure Island was full with confrontations, the story of Kidnapped was for a large part about avoiding them. The ending was peculiar and somewhat fitting, but not very strong and could not pull the story out of the previous dullness.

As I had gotten used to in Treasure Island, the characterization was well done with some nice development. What seems to be a habit of Stevenson is the depiction of grayness to his characters. There is no clear good or evil and for an adventure story this creates more balanced characters than usual and varying points of view. In a historical setting this is even more important as it is often unclear who was right. Still, Stevenson had a certain preference on who was the good side, even if this was from a romantic point of view.

With a Scottish Highland setting the writing is intermixed with a lot of Scottish jargon and phrases. It creates a fitting atmosphere but also makes it sometimes harder to read. My edition had a few notes, but more wouldn’t have hurt.

Kidnapped is considered to be a classic of literature and although it has some excellent parts, overall it is has a somewhat unbalanced story which will leave a reader not completely satisfied. To me a classic has to be strong as a whole and Kidnapped still lacks some. A recommendable read, but I will not categorize it as a true classic.

A different view of history

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

As I have been posting about several mediaevil books about the history of the Byzantine Empire, they have all been written from the Byzantine point of view. That aspect was of course was interested me mostly, but it is also good to have a different view. This was the books The Conquest Of Constantinople (c. 1207) by Geoffroy de Villehardouin, a French nobleman. Unfortunately I don’t have a Byzantine view (yet), but it is nice to have an eyewitness report of one of the most dramatic and shameful events in Christian history. For those who don’t know: During the Fourth Crusade the main attack was not aimed at the muslims, but at the most important and oldest Christian stronghold in the East, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, which was sacked and plundered, most of the lands divided among the conquerors, breaking up the old unity. Still it was amazing that the Byzantines managed to restore the empire over 50 years later and kept it alive for another 200 years. The question remains if it might have survived longer if it had been able to keep itself intact.

The book itself is only 130 pages long and probably because of this reason the publisher, Penguin, decided to combine it with another book describing events of the Crusades. This was the book The Life Of Saint Louis (1309) by Jean de Joinville, another French nobleman. The Penguin edition is named Chronicle of the Crusades, for those who are interested. As the books are a century apart in age and (obviously) written by different authors, I will treat them as separate books. The Life Of Saint Louis is obviously a biography. It is about the French king Louis IX (1226-1270) who took part in two Crusades. De Joinville was a confidant and advisor to the king, especially during the first Crusade and is just like De Villehardouin an eyewitness of the most important events.

The whole book as such describes three Crusades, although the third only partially as Louis IX died early during that Crusade. Quite unique about these two works is that they have been written by noblemen and not by clergy or the professional writers of those times. I had never heard about that these kinds of works existed, so this was a sort of pleasant surprise. Another nice details is that The Conquest of Constantinople is also one of the first prose narratives to be written in French.

I don’t know when I will be reading the book. I’ve been buying quite a lot of historic work the past months and although I like to read about history I do have to be in the mood for it. It is of a different category than regular novels, so I don’t feel the same rush as I often feel when buying a new book.

Thematic history

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

I’ve been buying quite a number of classic works of history the past year. It’s mostly cases of discovering a certain work exists and then trying to find a version that is available and affordable. One of those works is The Civil Wars (c. 165) by Appianus (or Appian for the English-speaking world). It is a history that covers the period 133 until 35 BC, a time when the Roman Republic suffered from internal strife while expanding it’s empire at the same time. It is a period that has been treated by many historians. The period of 59 till 45 BC I have covered by works of Julius Caesar, and the period of 45 until 35 (and beyond) by Cassius Dio. Further on I have biographies of several important historical figures by Plutarchus and Suetonius, which obviously also cover those times as well as the earlier background. So as a source mainly the first parts of the book will be new to me, but possibly the view of the times can be interesting for further reading.

The remarkable thing about Appianus is that he wrote thematic histories. He chose a theme and only focussed on the events related to them so that the reader would obtain a greater perspective in where the causes were and how events evolved.  It is also the reason why the theme Civil Wars covers the period 133 until 35 BC. It marked the internal changes that would lead to a weakening of the senate while strong man would rise with the help of the people. It ends in 35 BC and not in 31 BC, when Octavianus defeated Marcus Antonius, because from Roman point of view, Marcus Antonius had allied himself with Egypt (Cleopatra) and relied on eastern support. This thematic approach is one of the reasons why I was interested in buying this work, even as it mostly covered a period I already possessed plenty of sources for.

Peculiar publications

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Sometimes you come across a book that has been published in an odd way. One of those is History of the wars (c. 553) by Procopius. It covers the expansion wars fought by the Eastern Roman Empire (or Byzantine Empire as it was later called) during the reign of Justinianus I, who managed to reclaim many territories lost after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. This history has been split into six books by the author, each book between 50 and 80 pages long, which was typical of that time.  Coincidently (or perhaps not),  it is split up in such a way that  a set of two books can be made that covers wars happening in the same region. The publisher decided to keep that split in pubished the book in three volumes, each only 160 pages long. This strikes me as odd because combined the complete work is only 480 pages, which is still a doable size. Normally I would just review the whole work as there would be not much difference between each volume as it is a history, not a novel, but now this makes it a bit complicated for me. There are 3 books, but only one review would suffice. A second and third review for the next books would not provide new insights. So I will probably wait with a review until I have read them all.

There is another peculiarity about the books. They were published by the Echo Library, an initiave to re-release old works for a reasonable price. A great initiave as it allowed me to buy these books as other publications are more expensive. I suspect that this publication uses the text from the older more expensive publication as they use the same translation. The cheap release also shows in the publication. There is hardly any introduction, footnotes are few and there are no maps or registry, which would be useful in a history about wars. Luckily I have plenty of other books providing support so I think I will be able to manage without. The layout is also very basic and large and the pages are really filled with words. Overall this is quite unusual for classic history works as I have quite a number of them. There is usually more than plenty of extra information, making it alsmost a scientific publication. Either way, I won’t complain. I’m happy to be able to purchase these works.

Robert Louis Stevenson – Treasure Island

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Treasure Island (1883) was Robert Louis Stevenson‘s breakthrough novel and brought him great fame. As everyone knows, this is a classic tale of adventure and pirates. I was pleasantly surprised of several common phrases attributed to pirates these days that were a part of this story.  Of course I cannot be that certain that they find their origin here, but they seem to be so genuine to be copied.

As a historical novel the story has no meaning. It only provides the fitting setting of times where piracy was more common and romantic. It is all about the adventure of a young man. One could actually view Treasure Island as a Young Adult novel in the way that Stevenson presents the story. The story is fairly straightforward, but from the first person view it becomes a great adventure. Against this view is the large deathtoll in the book with some harsh descriptions. There is also not much contrast between good and bad guys. They remain somewhat gray, leaving openings for betrayal, confrontations but also civility. There is also plenty space for dialogue and arguments. Events aren’t that simple and dumb acts can turn events around.

Behind the tale of a simple adventure is woven a complex tapestry of interactions, choices and strong and weak personalities. Side characters are depicted sufficiently to give them some depth and as the story is from a first person view some information remains unknown. Some parts of the events are unclear. Are they flaws or conveniences in the plot or something missed by the narrator? This fairly simple story had many hidden layers for those who can see and to me this was a pleasant surprise.

Stevenson’s writing style is very natural and even after almost 130 years an easy read. His use of sailor phrases and lore fits in smoothly. He adds sufficient detail but never too much. He keeps a steady pace which is never too slow or too fast. Of course this is a novel written in the 19th century, so it still sticks to the ways of those times, but the feel is never awkward, just different.

Before I bought this book I wondered how this book would compare in quality to a classic like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Treasure Island is a different book, aimed at a different audience, but one can find the qualities here that were also there in that other famous book. Treasure Island should surely be counted among the classics of literature and as such I recommend it to anyone.

Fritz Leiber – Swords in the mist

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

When one looks for classic Sword & Sorcery fantasy stories then Fritz Leiber is 0ne of the big names to look for. He wrote many short stories about his famed duo, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and would eventually bundle them together in an orderly way in several books. Swords In The Mist (1968) is the third volume of this collection. It contains 4 stories with a few interludes which were written for the collection volume to connect the stories together.

As I’ve already read some other volumes in the past I can say that these stories belong to the strangest Leiber has conceived. One will be used to some fantastical elements, but this time it is more extreme with the duo rather wandering about than really having a real goal. As such the stories are more entertaining for the weird stuff that is seen and happening than for the plot. Plot isn’t really Leiber’s strongpoint. The stories are adventures  and you never really know how they develop or turn out. As the stories are usually not that long, a real complex development is not there but strange twists are all too common. Half of the book is taken up by a single story, a novella thus. It takes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser from their usual setting to a more magical Earth. Leiber structured the story in a strange way. While certain events are basically just summarized, a long narrative of a side characters goes into great detail without much purpose, while still leaving a lot a mystery. It also creates a certain amount of psychological development, showing that Leiber can do it, but as usual he does not do it as one would expect.

The two main characters hold their own and are certainly unique within the fantasy universe. Of course the combination has been copied in many variations, but they never have the peculiarities and odd habit of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

Leiber’s prose is far from smooth. While not being a bad or boring, his use of language is sometimes one of a storyteller entertaining a group of listeners. Of course these stories were originally published in magazines and were thus written with a different intent than today’s large novel stories. Making yourself stand out with a more peculiar writing style was perhaps useful back then. I cannot really say.

What is most important about these story collections is that they show the reader what the original Sword & Sorcery stories within the Fantasy genre were all about and that the contemporary version are quite different. The weirdness of the fantasy stories belongs to a different class that cannot be found in recent Fantasy. Not that real weirdness does not exists nowadays, but it is of a new type and part of the evolution of the genre. The one of Leiber belongs to a time when everything was still very much in development and writers were just trying things out to get attention of an audience. Now that Fantasy has become quite mainstream that environment remains unique and very interesting to explore for any reader, even if it’s not that an easy read as one is used to these days.

The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (part 1)

Friday, September 17th, 2010

When I look for new books usually the only contemporary ones I check for belong to the genres of fantasy and science fiction. If I look for modern novels (basically those written after about 1800) I usually check for older ones. That would books published before the year 1950 and then usually for classics of literature. Sometimes I do not not what to look for and then I pick up a famous author that I remember and check if he hasn’t written more well-known novels that I have forgotten about.

One of those authors is Robert Louis Stevenson. As he died young he only published for a relatively short period in the late 19th century. His most famous novel is The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), but he wrote more works that survived the test of time. I’ve ordered a number of them and I received two of them. I expect the next set soon, but as a blog should be active I decided to write a little already and continue once the others have arrived. I have no idea how long it will take, as that’s how online ordering sometimes works. The novels I received already are coincidently also the most well-known ones, so they are a good start.

The first one was Stevenson’s debut novel with which he claimed fame. It is the classic pirate story Treasure Island (1883), which has been adapted as an animation and other media quite often. I guess many people don’t realise Stevenson is not just the writer of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but also of this famous tale. I don’t remember the adaptations very well, so I will surely indulge myself with this story.

The second book is far less famous, but has also been adapted. It is the novel Kidnapped (1886). I remember an animation of it, but the actual story remains vague so again that’s all for the better. Like Treasure Island it is also an adventure story. Both are thus quite different from the haunting tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and (probably) lighter in nature. The two books (in the editions I purchased) are just over 200 pages, so they shouldn’t be a long read. I don’t they will be lying on my bookshelves for long.