Archive for November, 2010

Titus Livius – The Early History of Rome

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Faster than I had expected I have completed The Early History of Rome (c. 25 BC) by Titus Livius (Livy for the Anglicized version). The main reason for this was not only that the story was compelling, but most of all that the translation was pretty much done in smooth modern English prose. I’ve read other works by Livius in the Dutch translation and although I enjoyed them I remember them to be more in a Latin style (from what I know of the language) than modern Dutch. If the Dutch translation had been more strict or English is simply so different that the translation creates easier prose I don’t know, but it does make this classic work more easily accessible.

The edition itself consists of Books I to V of Ab Urbe Condita (Since the Foudation of the City), which is the great history consisting of no less than 142 books by Titus Livius. These five books together are already some 400 pages in total, so it’s really a massive work. Most of the books have been lost over time, but the first ten have surprisingly survived completely. The first five books deal with the early legends of Rome until the sack by the Gauls in 386 BC. The first book deals with the early settlers, refugees from Troy, to the foundation of the city and the seven kings who would rule for a period of 250 years.  That these are legends is clear, especially with each king ruling for 30 or 40 years and often until a high age. The next four books covers a period of 120 years in much more detail and almost year by year. As I’ve already started in Book VI (first part of Rome and Italy, the next five books) it is remarkable to note that Livius states that anything written before that book was very fragmented and hardly accurate, as few consistent records survived those times, especially as Rome had no historians until 200 BC. So what Livius actually tells is that Books I-V are mostly made up history with a core of true elements.

If one has read Books II to IV one will be somewhat surprised as the books tell in detail how Rome started as a republic and gradually changed and improved their democracy. This process is very well written when you can see the development year by year. This part is hard to believe as fake.

The more unreliable parts consist of the almost continuous wars Rome fight. First to establish itself as a dominant city and later to sustain this status. There is hardly peace and the enemies are often the same. Several times it is mentioned the enemy has virtually been broken, but only a few years laters they are back at full strength. That Rome rarely obtains a decisive victory is also awkward.  Of course there are losses but the victories are far more plentier.

Overall this history is a mix of short wars, political strife and other events. The variation is exactly right so it never becomes boring. Livius adds in plenty of speeches, short and long, to create a greater feel of a story and not just a series of events. There are many great characters that stand out and create their place in time. It is no surprise these first books became so popular and survived time so well. Within the history is also a hidden theme. It is a moral theme where Livius praises the virtues and condemns the vices. The good usually prevail in the end, the bad often lose. That this does not get noted so easily is because the good and the bad are not of separate parties but are found among every party, either Roman or enemy. Although Rome is the great one overall, it is not a black and white story. Rome also has to develop and grow up and mistakes are part of it.

Although The Early History of Rome is a history it is, like in the classical tradition, also a story, to entertain the people. This history reminded me somewhat of the Histories of Herodotos, who wrote to entertain and to inform in the form of a history. Livius writes in a far more structured and concentrated way, but is also very enjoyable to read. Very much recommended.

In and started

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

A quick roundup on the latest events. I’ve started reading The Demon King (1998), the second book of the Seer Trilogy by Chris Bunch.  Today I received two books I ordered online. The first one is The Riddled Night (2000) by Valery Leith, the second book of the Everien Trilogy. I wanted to have the same edition as the first book and as this one seemed to be sold out I had to do with a second hand copy. Unfortunately it was not in as good quality as I hoped, but it will do.  At least I can now continue the series, as I’ve received the third book some weeks ago already (ordering from the USA can take some time). The second book I got is not a novel in the true sense, but related to a great series. This is the Vorkosigan Companion (2008), providing interviews, overviews and background information about the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. For those who don’t know it: it is Science Fiction and she won several important SF awards with this series. Although the series isn’t a classic the novels are well written with great characters and character development. Especially with longer series which I’ve enjoyed I like to read more about it. Of course there is a commercial reason behind it to get the publisher to publish it, but the books are usually from fans or an author wanting to tell more than can be put in a story.

Chris Bunch – The Seer King

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

No less than 12 years ago I first read a book by Chris Bunch. This was The Far Kingdoms (1985). It was a nice book, but not overly impressive. The main reason I didn’t pick up another work by him was simply because I didn’t notice any for a long time. Recently I found a trilogy by him at the local second hand book store and I decided to give him another try. The Far Kingdoms hadn’t been bad and a fairly decent read. Usually authors don’t go worse if the level hasn’t been that high (but there are some exceptions to the rule) , so I bought The Seer King (1997), the first book of the same titled (or untitled) trilogy.

The Seer King is not a particular mainstream fantasy, but it can be put in a more simpler mainstream subgenre where a mediaevil world also has magic and demons without there being a more complex layered background. This is a fairly straightforward story and although one will not be able to predict which forks the story will take, it will be quite clear how it will evolve. Because of this the story will have to gain more from its characters and prose to make a stand. Unfortunately those remain just as average.

There are basically two main characters and several side character who don’t really become three-dimensional. The second main character also doesn’t get much to develop himself as the story is told from a first-person point of view. This means the story is mainly carried by that person. In my opinion it was a bad choice to use a first-person point of view and even more to use this main character. The main character is a cavalry officer with no particular skills or intelligence. Bunch actually manages to portray him quite well, but that is also the downside of it. When using the first-person point-of-view one has to make sure he is able to tell an engaging story, but the prose is just as average as the character. Without using this point of view Bunch could have switched between characters and deepened them more or have focused on a better prose.  Another let-down is that the main character likes to refer to events to come in the future. Although this spoiling is minor, it does not help an already straightforward story.

One last point of criticism is that for a first-person point of view in which a main characters talks about the events of his past, he seems to spend a fair amount of time on explicit sex scenes which do not add much to the story. They became so repetitive that I started to glance over them later on.

Even with all this critique of mine this is still a decent book. It’s not particularly exciting but it still takes you to a different world which is not really unique but interesting enough. One will still want to know how events will unfold and where the story will end. This because the main character telling about himself is imprisoned at the beginning of the book and surely will play another role in the last book (I hope). This setup reminded me of Dan Simmon‘s novel Endymion (written before The Seer King), which was a far better book. In fantasy and SF similarities will always exist so it’s not something that bothers me.

I don’t really recommend this novel, but it is no book you should ignore either. A good one for vacations or travelling or just some easy reading.

Another one about Rome

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

I’ve been filling quite a number of posts about my purchases of Roman history and I still can’t get enough about this fascinating period. There is a positive side to it, though. There are only a limited amount of histories and even less translations available, especially for a decent price. Basically what I am saying is that I’m nearing the end of my collecting spree of the past years on this topic. I’m fine with that as it saves me a bit of money too, although I fear I will probably find something else. Still, I won’t stop writing about it here as I still have plenty of reading and reviewing ahead of me after all that buying.

My latest purchase is a collection of works by Gaius Sallustius Crispus (Sallust for the Anglicized version). Het wrote a number of historic works but only some small parts have survived. The size of these works is so small that they are combined into one book as they only fill up 160 pages. The titles are Catiline’s War, The Jugurthine War, and Histories (c. 35 BC). Sallustius, like most classic historians wrote about his own times as well and except for The Jugurthine War he can be named an eye-witness of those events. Like the several historians of those times he was an ally of Julius Caesar who also obtained positions of power, sort of mimicking their leader in his own writings.

Catiline’s war is about a famous conspiracy uncovered by Cicero in 63 BC while The Jugurthine War tells of a war in northern Africa between 111 and 105 BC. If you would wonder why this war would be of any importance to survive time and being translated is because the war brought two great men into prominence: Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla. They would rise in power until their rivalry would cause the first civil war in Roman history (88-82 BC), a time which would be eclipsed by the much greater civil wars of Pompeius and Julius Caesar and their successors. They were also partially responsible for the division of Rome into two parties as they became their leaders mainly to obtain their own desires (which was no different for Pompeius and Julius Caesar). The Histories are mainly fragments taking place after that first civil war, consisting of speeches and letters.

Appianus – The Civil Wars

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

This review only covers about half of the book The Civil Wars (c. 165) by Appianus. Reason for this is that the book is about the period 133 until 35 BC of the history of Rome and I already have read histories covering the period after 50 BC. As historians in those days had no problems with plagiarism, differences will be minor, even as the introduction of the book mentions that Appianus did not use many sources that have survived until this day. I’m not planning to read the rest any time soon and half should still be fairly sufficient for a review.

Appianus tried to be different from other historians by writing thematic histories in which he focused on one great event or several events that were closely related. Obviously those were the great conflicts. Among those conflicts the civil wars of Rome form the most interesting topic as they describe the transition of the Republic of Rome to the Roman Empire.

The Civil Wars consists of five books of which I have read the first two. The first book covers the period 133 till 70 BC (until the formation of the first Triumvirate) and the second the period 70 till 44 BC (until the death of Julius Caesar). Of the second book I skipped some small parts describing the period after 50 BC, mostly speeches that usually don’t add much extra value for today’s readers.

As the first book covers many years Appianus does not go into very much detail. He picks the most important events and he ignores all other big events that are not related to the theme of civil war. He keeps his focus and surely manages to select the right events, but he does little explanation or theorizing about their importance. They are simply mentioned and the reader has to recognize why they are important. Also notable about the first book is that there are no speeches.

The second book covers a shorter period and describes how Julius Caesar, Pompeius and Crassus controlled the Roman state until their quest for greatness lead to their doom. The main part is about the actual civil wars between 49 en 45 BC which was fought all over the Roman Empire. The pace slows here and Appianus goes into much more detail. The last part during which Julius Caesar ruled as victor until his assassination is described more shortly.

Appianus’ work is more of a pure history. He sometimes comments on events but overall he leaves it to the reader to interpret what he has read. Where possible he goes into detail, but as the history is thematic, he skips a lot of events. Appianus also rarely mentions dates or something to match the dates on. I already knew when all the events happened so it didn’t bother me, but for a new reader it can be quite confusing to find out the period of time and the years when events happen. Luckily there are plenty of notes to compensate for this lack.

The prose was easy to read. If this was because of a modern translation by the translator I don’t know. I’m familiar to translators trying to uphold the style of writing as much as possible, leading to a prose that I have defined as typical latin. However, those have been mainly for Dutch translation. This was actually my first English translation of a classic latin work. I did not notice a typical style and it read like a modern (well-written) history book. As the last three books go into much more detail with a lot slower pace I cannot say how well this opinion will remain, but I think it will.

So why recommend this book? This is actually the only remaining history covering the whole period between 133 and 65 BC. It does leave out a number of great events as it focuses on the theme of civil war, but for those who want to know more about those I refer to Plutarchus’ biographies of the important men of those times. These also provide some extra background, as Appianus is not a historian to add those for extra information.

Robert Jordan – Towers of Midnight

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

This is probably one of many reviews of the thirteenth book of the Wheel of Time: Towers of Midnight (2010). Started by Robert Jordan and now being completed by Brandon Sanderson. After this book only one book will follow. Finally we are reaching the end of this immense series. The big question of course is, will the end be as good as the rest of the series.

As this is no less than the thirteenth book I will not indulge into much talking about the plot, the characters or otherwise. I expect anyone who reads this to be quite familiar with the ins and outs of the Wheel of Time. As this is my first review of a book of the series I will first gave a short recap of my the series.

Books 1 to 3 were a strong introduction of the series, setting up the pieces and the playboard, in which the author used a variation of methods to tell his story. Once having reached this far, you would not want to finish. Books 4 to 6 set the wheels into motion. A very strong first middle part, one could say. Although there were already hints of Jordan’s habit of using many words, these books were certainly very good. After book 6 the series started losing momentum. Books 7 to 9 suffered from the middle sequence weakness. Here I really got dulled by long chapters in which little happened. Of course there were good parts but one could start wondering how long the series would take. Book 10 was not badly written but consisted mostly of unimportant sidestories. It should have been shortened heavily with the early parts put in book 9 and the later parts in book 11. With book 11 things changed for the better. The pacing moved up increasingly, there was plenty of action and some long lasting storylines were finally wrapped up. Jordan got back to the level of books 4 to 6 again.

Then Robert Jordan died and Brandon Sanderson took over to complete the work. Over the past few years I’ve read several of Sanderson’s novels and my opinion was that he was a good choice as he had some similarities to Jordan in the way he wrote and he did so at good quality. Book 12, the first of the final three books that were one, proved to be the best of the series.  One can see that my anticipations for the next book were high.

Before I go into detail about Towers of Midnight I want to tell about my general opinion on the Wheel of Time series. It is a good, sometimes very good, fantasy series, but certainly not the best. In it’s scope it will be certainly named a classic, but it still has a fair number of flaws. The biggest problem of the series is that it uses far too many words. I always hear that editors usually cut out large parts which are unnecessary but this often did not seem the case for the Wheel of Time. At times the story would feel long-winded or close to boring. Another flaw was Jordan’s habit of going far too much into detail about different cultures. It could feel too forced or simply repetitive. The funny thing in it however was that in many cases names of different cultures sounded quite similar and that there was one language. Of course this might be explained, but Jordan only in certain occasions managed to give it an original feel. I’ve seen it done far better by other fantasy authors who took time and energy to create different cultures. All these are of course not very big flaws. Overall this is a great series and a joy to any fantasy fan.

Now that I’ve mentioned all these remarks of what I’ve thought about the earlier books it is time to write about how Towers of Midnight fits into the series. As the last three books were intended as one book this has caused certain effects for the second book. The first thing I noted in the book was an asymmetry of events in time during the first half. The first book focused on Rand and needed an end and because of this a number of events that did not involve him were moved to the second book. These are told in the first half of Towers of Midnight, but at the same time we still get to read of events that happen after the end of the previous book. Events are happening out of sync. This is not really bad, but it isn’t nice either.

The second thing I noted was that the regular coupling between chapters and characters had been abandoned. During a chapter we switch to different characters like is usual in the prologue. This caused a change of shifts and less time spent on one character. It did at least prevent any feel of long-windedness, but I’m not sure what the motive was to change.

During the reading of the book I noted a third thing. I started recognizing the prose of Sanderson next to that of Jordan. I hadn’t really noticed it in the previous book, perhaps because I had read less of Sanderson back then, but it wouldn’t be surprising. Jordan would have written more of book 12 than of 13 before he died. While Sanderson mainly had to connect the pieces he will now have had to write larger parts based on notes. I had the feeling Sanderson’s prose started to dominate in the second part. It is hard to point out but it is just in the little details. Sanderson has a bit more down-to-earth style of writing than Jordan. I have no idea which parts Sanderson has actually written but I had the idea that in certain scenes he was following instructions more than doing it more naturally. Happy scenes were sometimes a bit too much good feeling, while dark scenes felt moodier than Jordan did it. Completing a work of someone else is a big challenge. Sanderson certainly has done a great job, but I didn’t always feel if it would have been the way Jordan would have written it.

As I’ve read (and reviewed) Sanderson’s own book The Way of Kings I do also now recognize that writing the Wheel of Time has influenced his prose as well as it seems to have gotten more of Jordan in it. Time will tell if this will remain the same.

What did surprise me in the book were a number of rather wicked twists in the story. They almost felt not like Jordan, although we know that he has made detailed instructions. To me they almost felt Sanderson-type twists, unless Jordan got inspired to add them, as he has probably read some of Sanderson’s novels.

Another thing that I felt as different was that I had the idea that certain scenes and events had been cut short. With the previous novels we often see certain events played out in detail. This time events sometimes moved on quite quickly. Jordan sometimes didn’t go into details of events but if he did he would see them through.

More than The Gathering Storm (book 12), Towers of Midnight is wrapping up storylines. This leads to a number of reunions and happy times. This feel-good theme felt as a bit too much in contrast with the situation and a possible approaching doom. It made the story go out of balance as it also lacked a good final. The best scenes were actually at two-thirds of the book. Surprisingly Towers of Midnight does suffer a bit of being the middle part of the final book (which consists of three books). It was not as good as The Gathering Storm and more on a level with Knife of Dreams (book 11). Although is has plenty of great scenes it still lacked some urgency, a fitting mood displaying the coming of the Last Battle. Still, nobody will want to miss out on the final book and to see how it will really end.

Valery Leith – The Company of Glass

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

As I wrote in an earlier post, I bought The Company of Glass (1999) by Valery Leith because the back cover text only gave a description and gave nothing away about the plot. I thus had no idea what to expect, but the description sounded interesting so I took the gamble.

The Company of Glass is a non-mainstream fantasy novel. It contains fairly original concepts and ideas. One might have read about similar things but Valery Leith does it in her own way. It is a book which is about persons who are undergoing the transition from a tribal to a people society. In the meanwhile they live in a world with strange monsters and mysterious and dangerous human-like creatures where there are places where time and space are not what they seem. That would be enough spoiling but for a review, especially when it is about non-mainstream fantasy, I have to present some key elements to at least give an idea. Luckily Leith helps me in preventing in giving away too much too soon.

One thing that I immediately liked about the story is that it doesn’t have an introduction. The story starts from the first page while you immediately have been left with some gaps of knowledge by the prologue. The pace of the story can be seen as fast, but I see it as simply not bothering with details or just random events to set up characters which are usually part of an introduction. Even as this is a trilogy, the story comes to an actual conclusion, leaving some openings for the sequel. I’m not that much a fan of cliffhangers, especially as I don’t have book two yet, so a conclusive story was a good thing.

The book is told from the view-point of several characters. This was done fairly decent, but I’ve seen it done much better. There is some character development but the story was not particularly set for that. This is a more story-driven than character-driven novel. What I mean with that is that the author is all about telling the story. The characters play there distinctive role but it is not particularly their actions that decide the story.

The book contains a number of mysteries. I like this, because it makes the reader guess what the answer will be. One mystery involved the ending of the plot of the first book and I guessed it correctly, although it is not something that doesn’t leave other openings or explanations. I don’t know if other readers will see it that easily.

A weak point about the style of writing was the use of flashbacks. Instead of having an introduction Leith added a fairly large number of flashbacks to explain some background about several characters. In my view there were too many of them. Some of them could have been done through dialogues to avoid the repetitive nature of this element in the early story or simply postponed so they were spread out more.

This book certainly was an interesting and enjoyable read due to its original ideas and lack of mainstream elements. The depiction of the characters and the writing style however were quite average and didn’t make much impact. It wasn’t bad, but also not particularly noteworthy. I do recommend it for any fantasy fan. I myself have ordered the next two books online (as I doubt I will find them anytime soon in my local bookstores) as I want to read more about this great story. I can say it was a good gamble, something which I usually am right in.

Early Roman history

Friday, November 5th, 2010

As I am an avid fan of classic history I like to collect works written by the historians of those times as those books are also viewed from the perspective of the author. I have purchased two works by the famous Roman historian Titus Livius (Livy for those who only know his Anglicized name): The Early History of Rome and Rome and Italy. Technically these together are Books I-X of his history Ab Urbe Condita (From the Foundation of the City). As these belong to his earliest works they were written around 25 BC. With these books I’ve completed the available works of this great history as I already owned Books XXI-XLV (no more complete Books are available except for fragments). I have those in the Dutch translation in two very fine volumes. Books I-X were published previously and are out of print while I’ve never seen any second hand copies. Because of this I decided to pick up the English Penguin editions, which are relatively cheap. If there is ever a reprint of the Dutch version I will still surely purchase those eventhough there is little annoying Anglicization of Latin names in those older Books.

For those who wonder what time these Books cover: The Early History of Rome spans about the period 750 until 400 BC, while Rome and Italy covers the period 400 till 300 BC. The aforementioned Books XXI-XLV cover the period 220 until 170 BC, focusing on the war against Hannibal and activities in Greece.

Besides these older works I also bought a little more recent work by Cassius Dio from the Echo Library. This is Volume 6 of their series Dio’s Rome (233). Cassius Dio wrote a similar but smaller work as Livius, but now spanning the times until his own present time. I already have his histories covering the power struggles after the death of Julius Caesar between 44 and 31 BC and the reign of Augustus (31 until 12 BC and from 9 until 14 AD). I didn’t buy earlier and later histories as I already have works spanning those times, although he fills in a gap between 37 and 44 AD that exists in the Annals of Tacitus. Maybe I still will. I already have several overlapping histories and it’s not that bad to have different view points. Those others works by Cassius Dio exist in regular editions, but the period after 54 AD is very fragmented except for his last book which covers the period 221 until 229 AD. This book is in Volume 6 and a complete story reads much better than fragments. Even so, as this is the last volume and only one book is short, two thirds of the volume contains all the collected fragments from the foundation of Rome until 145 BC. So in a sense this history also covers early Roman history and I get an idea of what they mean with fragments when I read about what remains of lost works.