Archive for April, 2011

Glen Cook – All Darkness Met

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

The third and last book of the Dread Empire Trilogy by Glen Cook is All Darkness Met (1980). This is a high-paced epic fantasy story where normal warriors clash with terrible and powerful sorcerous opponents in a large scale war. As posted before the first book was a bit messy and a bit overdone, but showing the strengths of Glen Cook. The second book brought more focus and a stronger story.

In All Darkness Met several years have passed again where the different opponents have licked their wounds and recovered. Cook sticks to the same style as the second book, which is a good thing, but upgrades the scale of the story, which weakens it again as there is too little time spent on the different characters. It remains a bit more superficial like With Mercy Toward None, the second book of the prequel. Like that book All Darkness Met is more of a concluding story with a fair number of characters falling away, sometimes quite suddenly.

Overall the third book is a little weaker than the second book. A middle book being the strongest is quite unusual but as each book contains a standalone story arc, typical for the way Cook writes, this is possible. As such the Dread Empire Trilogy cannot match itself against The Black Company novels, but as they were written several years earlier much is too be found which would crystallize into the core strength of that series. In that sense the trilogy is a nice experience for those who want to discover how Glen Cook developed.

The series itself contains many surprises and easily avoids many clichés of fantasy. There is a good and evil side but each side has its different points of view. The large cast and twisting storyline can cause trouble for some inexperienced readers to keep it all together but it remains quite amazing how much story he manages to put into such a short novel. Doing this does lead to some sacrifices to be made, especially concerning characterization. The story moves on and there is little time to contemplate.

The works of Alexandre Dumas

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Those who have read the reviews on my site, or checked the List of Reviews, will have noticed that I often read several novels by an author in short succession. Usually this happens because I have read a book and like it so much I decided to read more. As I don’t have a particular stash of books that I want read but rather a stash of books I can read, I prefer to read what I am interested in at that moment.

Recently I read The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I liked it sufficiently that I decided to pick up the sequels. As I don’t have money issues at the moment I can allow myself to buy all four sequels at once. The titles are Twenty Years After (1845), The Vicomte de Bragelonne (1847), Louise de la Vallière (1847) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1847). The last one is almost as famous as The Three Musketeers. The last three novels were actually originally one novel, with the title of the first book, but as it was too large to be printed in one volume it was split. Each book is over 700 pages in my edition so they are all heavy volumes.

I got them all from the Oxford’s World Classics edition as I like to have connected books in the same cover style. In this case this is actually not that easy as the middle three books are far less famous compared to The Three Musketeers and The Man In The Iron Mask. Those books are widely available.

I’ve already started with reading Twenty Years After, to find out why these volumes are less famous and if they should be mentioned instead.

Glen Cook – October’s Baby

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

Glen Cook made a good turn with the second book of his Dread Empire Trilogy, October’s Baby (1980). October’s Baby is not a direct sequel to A Shadow Of All Night Falling but takes place several years later. Thus it does not suffer from the typical middle book syndrome. This is a common trait of Cook. His books are fairly stand-alone novels. Prior knowledge is useful, but not entirely required. Cook’s good turn compared to the first book is that he focuses the story more on one character. Other views are shown aplenty, but those are mostly short, allowing the story a more steady beat. This is especially useful as Cook puts a lot of story in what is basically a short novel. The first book was moving between characters too much, leaving too little time for the reader to get into a character, leaving many of them superficial. Of course this remain such in this book, but having at least one who is developed strongly makes it a much better reading experience. This does not mean that the large cast Cook uses is all stereotype or two-dimensional but with such a fast moving story there is too little time to provide such.

The first book took place in a somewhat compact and simple setting, although it already introduced many of the great powers of the story. In the second book the scope grows much larger. It is also a more military book. Much of the story is spent on warfare, providing some intense battles as only Cook can write them. These are certainly the highlights of the story.

What still leaves me at odds a bit is that when I first read the prequel to the Dread Empire Trilogy I expected all the main characters of those books to play an important role in the trilogy. Strangely enough the most important characters rarely appear. Without the prequel any reader would have no idea what their function was and how their past related to the other main characters. There are no explanations or references to these things. They could have been left out of the story of the trilogy without affecting it at all.

There is a strong sorcery element in the second book as well, although it remains more vaguer. It plays a supporting role to move events, but does dominate. As Cook prefers the actions of the non-magical characters determine the outcome of events.

October’s Baby is a fast and entertaining story, but it has a lot of details which may confuse a reader. In a way one could say that a story is never that simple as usually presented so in that way Cook provides a scope which is closer to reality than most fantasy stories. With this novel he reaches the level of the least of the Black Company books, which is a vast improvement. Certainly this book contains a lot of typical elements which make Cook’s storytelling so enjoyable. However, it is clearly not completely on that level yet as there are some weaknesses, but that is part of a developing writer.

Glen Cook – A Shadow Of All Night Falling

Monday, April 18th, 2011

I have previously reviewed the two prequels to the Dread Empire Trilogy, The Fire In His Hands and With Mercy Toward None. As the word prequel suggests the Dread Empire Trilogy was written before the prequels. I could have started with the main sequence, but I opted to follow the chronological order of the story to find out if it would be advisable to read the prequels first.

I have now completed the first book of the trilogy, A Shadow Of All Night Falling (1979), and I can already say that reading the prequels would be better. In A Shadow Of All Night Falling Glen Cook refers to earlier events described in the prequels. Not knowing about them beforehand would not be problematic as they don’t play an important role, but it does prevent the reader from falling into the middle of a story. A certain times during the reading I almost thought the book had been partially rewritten to fit the prequel. Only if Cook had already worked out the main elements of the background events he could have done this so well. I do not consider it improbable as Cook often proves himself a master of detailed and complicated plots in which outside events influence the story.

A Shadow Of All Night Falling is not a continuation of the prequels. Those focused on a few main characters of which several only play a minor role in this book. While in the prequels we only got some small hints of the greater powers influencing the world, they now are taking a prominent place and role in the story. Whereas the prequels mainly contained regular people, the story changes to unusual people with a greater background. Cook’s world-building is complex and it took me a while to get a grip on setting which is in familiar territory which was outside of the events in the prequels.

The story moves fast and is full with action and twists. On occasion however Cook suddenly presents chapters playing in the past. They add some necessary background to what is going on as the characters are not reflecting back to earlier events. Most of the characters themselves are hardly developed, just a few sketches which don’t get much time because of the fast moving story. As is a typical trait of Cook he manages to cram an incredible amount of story in very few pages. This does have a bad influence on some other parts as he leaves little time to explore the different settings or characters. You are in a roller-coaster ride with the aim not to let the reader realize where he has been.

To the contrary of the prequels, sorcery plays a much larger role and, unlike the Black Company books, we actually get to see some more actual performance here. I like this because previously the magic system was very much undefined and vague. That it’d be convenient to use it like that is true, but most fantasy authors try to give it some substance.

It is quite clear that this is an earlier book. The story lacks some balance and the actions of the characters sometimes seems odd. The story somewhat suffers from deus ex machina occurrences. This certainly reaches its climax in the final which contains so many twists and surprises that to the reader they will really come out of nowhere. They have not been outside the well of possibilities, but it is not so nice that the possibility only turns up at the end.

I can only say that A Shadow Of All Night Falling is a tough book for a reader to get into. Even with having read the prequels first I had to keep full attention of what was going on. I consider myself a more skilled reader than average. I like complex plots with intricate details. I would guess the average reader would have problems following the story. He would still be entertained but unsure of what was going on. Reading the prequels first would be a necessity. Compared to the prequels, which also contain plenty of twists, A Shadow Of All Night Falling will feel complicated. Quite ambitious but also more superficial as only few characters get time to shine.

The book is entertaining, especially if one is looking for non-mainstream fantasy, so it is surely recommendable. The overall quality of the novel is however lower than the prequel, and thus quite below the Black Company books.

Russian realism

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

It’s been a while since I did a post about what I’m reading. I’ve picked up a short story collection by the Russian author Ivan Turgenev called The Three Portraits (2006). This is not an original collection, hence the recent year, as Turgenev lived in the 19th century. He is not as famous as his contemporaries Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but is counted among the many great Russian authors of that time.

The book is part of a box-set I bought some years ago which contains different work by those earlier named great Russian authors. Half of the set are novels, while the other half consists of short story collections. I’ve picked up Turgenev because I wanted to read some short story stuff and not a whole novel. I have to admit that I have to be in the mood for those as whole novels can be tough reads with those Russian authors. They always have a bit of a gloomy atmosphere to them and the endings can be nasty or quite depressing, which is not something I want to carry around for a longer time. It’s not that I don’t like to read them, but I do have to set my mind to it when I do. They have an unique nature which can’t been found elsewhere in literature so I keep coming back to them.

Alexandre Dumas – The Three Musketeers

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

With this post I reach a small milestone. It’s my 100th. Not bad for three quarters of a year. Such a special post cannot be without a fitting topic, which can only be a review. This one will be my 70th.

One of the most famous historical novels is The Three Musketeers (1844) by Alexandre Dumas with countless regular and animated adaptations. It had been a while since I had seen any of those, so I thought it safe to read the actual book, as my memory of those movies wasn’t that clear anymore. With over 700 pages The Three Musketeers is clearly not that easy to adapt. Parts have to be cut. So I was eager to find out, or rather discover, what was in the story that I didn’t know about.

A first comment I have to make is that The Three Musketeers, like many of Dumas’ novels, were originally serials. What the book actually is, is a series of connected events. Why is this important to mention, you may ask. Well, it is because each event is somewhat different in style and setup. There are comedy events, adventurous events, romantic events and suspense events, just to name a few. Those different events make it that the reader is moved in changing ways. On the one side this is positive because the reader can’t get bored by repeating elements, but on the other side the change can be a bit annoying if one has gotten into a good reading mood. I had actually both feeling. I didn’t mind the change, but not all changes were all to my liking. This was partially caused by the fact that certain events are quite extensive with little progress, while other move quickly and dash forward. Such is of course not uncommon in a story, but because they are also a (minor) change of style.

The Three Musketeers is mostly a combination of comedy and adventure with small elements of drama. There is some darkness glooming in the horizon at times, but it is usually not noticeable. It is then that the story gets the feeling of The Count Of Monte-Cristo, which I read about a year ago, which is a quite dark novel. As The Three Musketeers is more famous than that book, the latter is a more solid and whole read as a complete novel. The Three Musketeers is a fun read but contains some weak parts. Funnily enough I expect readers will have different opinions on which parts are supposedly weaker. As they are so different it is really a matter of taste.

The Three Musketeers is very much character driven. Dumas presents a score of very different characters and takes his time to present them clearly. As a number of them are based on actual historic persons he can use the existing knowledge as a frame and make them into iconic figures. The same he manages to do with his original characters. It is this that makes the book stand out. One will remember each of them vividly. People who will have read the serial would be talking about them continuously like one would do with popular TV-shows.

What somewhat surprised me is that some characters are depicted in extremer or less extremer ways than the adapted movies. From a neutral point of view the good guys are actually quite nasty compared to the bad guys, who are are acting in the right interests. That is an impressing feat by Dumas, letting the reader believe that the ones doing what is wrong to be the good guys. Of course this is not true all the way. Both sides do good and bad things, but overall the balance should be in favor of the bad guys.

The Three Musketeers is certainly a classic of literature with so many iconic characters. The story itself has stronger and weaker parts, allowing adaptations to focus on those stronger parts. This does not mean that only the strong parts are well known. Some parts require knowledge of the historic setting or are too cruel or dark to show for a big audience. In that sense one will discover many new things that you will never have seen in a movie adaptation. Dumas tells us not just a story, but also a history, while he twists the motives of the characters as the historic events remain true. That it is highly recommended is no more than normal.

Falsifying history

Friday, April 15th, 2011

In classic times (the Greek and Roman age) writing history was a popular pastime, especially if one wasn’t into poetry or plays. Histories were considered the equivalent of novels as, one has to admit, real events provide more twists and surprises than most novelists can think of. Writing a history, or a biography, was a serious business but vulnerable to the likes and dislikes of the historian. The advantage of this is that the histories have their own flavor although as time went by later historians copied a lot from earlier historians. Such things are easily noted when one is able to compare different historians writing about the same period.

Fictionalizing history, or rather, making it up, was not done. If there was fiction it was because the historian didn’t know and he would make a note about it. A prime example is the first historian Herodotos, whose world was very limited and everything happening outside the world he knew were just hearsay and legends. Nevertheless the events that took place in his own times were detailed and could be verified to an extent. If one doesn’t have a reliable source errors and mistakes happen quickly.

One of the most controversial histories from the Roman age is the Historia Augusta, a sort of continuation to The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, filling up the period until 284. There is no author known and it is not certain if the work is by one author. Some think many parts are direct copies from earlier historians whose work is lost. What is controversial about the work is that few works describing the period 100 to 284 have survived. Mostly fragments have survived of those. The exception is the Historia Augusta which was probably written or composed around 395. What is controversial about it is that parts of it that are used as proof or support of events have been verified as fake. The one who created the work made things up to create his history. So there is a problem discerning true historic facts from fake historic facts. As the counter-proof available is so limited one has to be skeptical when reading this work. Even so, it is considered to be an entertaining and interesting work, also covering rebel-emperors in its accounts.

The more trustworthy part of the Historia Augusta is the first part, covering the emperors from 117 to 222. Reason for this is that the Roman Empire was still very stable in those times so that there is more verification possible. The second part, from 222 to 284, covers a period with the Roman Empire in turmoil with a large number of emperors changing seat in a short time. For that reason the first part is available as a Penguin classic under the title Lives Of The Later Caesars and as I am still interested in reading the histories of those times I decided to purchase it, even as some parts are uncertain to be true. Even falsified there will also be a certain amount of truth in a history.

Lucius Cassius Dio – Roman History Volume 6

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Usually historical works by classic authors have some titles to cover the topic. The edition of the Roman History by Lucius Cassius Dio as published by the Echo Library, is made cheap to allow access to rare works and thus not much effort is made for the publication of the book. Although a new and nice typeset is used they take up more longer lines on the pages so they take up less space. There are no introductions, maps or glossaries, except for some footnotes that usually are related to translator notes or explaining some detail mentioned.

Of the six volumes in which the Roman History has been divided I have only bought the last as I already possessed very beautiful editions of the most complete parts, covering the period 45 to 9 BC. There are more (partially) complete books of the period until 54 BC but as I already have works by other authors on this period I haven’t decided if I want to buy them also. That this edition is currently unavailable also helps, although I know it is around.

Cassius Dio wrote a complete history from 753 BC until 229 AD but as usual most has been lost except for many fragments and the last four books, which are partially complete. Those last four books, covering the period 211 until 229, are in Volume 6 and that was the reason why I wanted to buy it, especially as Cassius Dio was a contemporary of the time. It ends in 229 because he probably died soon after that time (he was already of high age).

In contrary to what I hoped, which was a detailed account of the events of the time, it actually wasn’t as Cassius Dio spent most of his time away from Rome as governor in several provinces. Not uncommon for the great Roman historians, Cassius Dio also had a successful political career.

The history told in four rather short books is mostly from second hand hearsay and tells about the horrible reign of two young and rather twisted emperors. How they survived for several years can be seen as a mystery. Somewhat problematic in the books is that the names used by Cassius Dio are not the same as they have survived history (it was not unusual to give emperors a different nickname after they died, in East Asian culture it was also common to do so), but because of adoptions and name changes to raise the stature of emperors or their children, confusion can arise easily, especially as Cassius Dio does not stick to a single name. One can understand I had some troubles keeping focus on the story. As all the books are also incomplete this means there are parts with lacuna (small gaps) or large gaps, but most of it seems rather whole. Still, the events told seem rather more hearsay or gossip than actual historical research. This might be influenced by the high age of Cassius Dio when he wrote the last books and the fact that he lived outside Rome.

The four books only cover a third of Volume 6. The other part is filled with fragments of the earliest books, basically covering the period 753 until 146 BC. Here it is quite clear that these fragments are no more than that. Many are just one or a few lines of which it is hard to make sense. As I’ve already read the rather complete early Roman history by Livius (see those reviews) I rather skipped the period 753 until about 287 BC as those would not tell me nothing new and the parts that I read were just too fragmentary for a nice read. There were a few larger fragments but most were very small. Some fragments were clearly copied many times as certain events that I remembered from Livius were clearly deformed in the fragment.

The period 287 until 264 BC (the start of the First Punic War, which is well described by the World History of Polybios) can be considered a gap in the Roman History. The only other source I possess is the biography of Pyrrhus (the one whose name is connected to the Pyrrhic victory), which partially involves wars against Rome. The fragments by Cassius Dio that survived are good enough to get a fair picture of what happened in this period when Rome had gained dominance over Italy and was obtaining influence over Greek who lived in the south of Italy. Even as they are fragments there is much more clarity in the story than that of the last four books. The contrast is quite clear.

After 264 BC the history becomes even more fragmentary. There is little on the First Punic War and the period until the Second Punic War. Of the latter more has survived, but with the extensive accounts by Livius and Polybios which I’ve read already I was less interested. I did read some of the early parts explaining the beginning of the war, which contained some large fragments.

The last part of the fragments, covering the period 167 until 146 BC caught my interest again as these are less wel documented, but these were too fragmentary to make much of an impression.

A lengthy review for a rather short book, but the fact that when I bought it I had no idea what it really contained made me feel like providing this information. The most interesting part, the last four books, is unfortunately somewhat confusing and as the events described are so extreme they make hardly a sensible history. They are not that easy to read. The fragments of the early books provide an interesting comparison for the histories by Livius and Polybios, but most parts are just that and lack sufficient context for a decent read. In contrast the larger fragments are very readable, compared to the last four books.

Should one read or even buy this? Only a die-hard like me perhaps, but it is not really a worthwhile addition to my collection of classic histories.