Archive for June, 2014

Lucius Procopius – The Gothic Wars

Monday, June 30th, 2014

I conclude The History Of The Wars  by Lucius Procopius with Books V & VI which described The Gothic Wars (ca. 553). Unfortunately I discovered that The Gothic Wars do not consist of 2 books like the previous two Wars but of four, of which Book VIII only exists in a fragmentary form. Of Book VII there is no affordable translation available, so I will have to do with an incomplete collection of the events.

The Gothic Wars is a bit misleading name. It recounts the war that the Eastern Roman Empire fought against the Ostrogothic kingdom that finished the Western Roman Empire in 476. The setting is thus Italy where the Goths only form the ruling class and society is still very much Roman in nature and character. The reconquest of Italy by the Eastern Roman Empire is possibly an essential event that allowed for the survival of Roman society and culture in Italy and the Pope in Rome gradually gaining ascendancy as the central power of the Catholic Church, as the Goths, and later the Langobards, were Arians, and this protected them against a possible dominant influence. But I am getting ahead here of the narrative. This book is only about the first campaign in Italy by the Eastern Roman Empire.

The difference between the first two Wars is that in each War the central figure, the general Belisarius, is more present. In the first Persian Wars he was only barely present during the events and in the Vandalic Wars he was only there initially and the successes could hardly be assigned to him and more to his commanding officers. In The Gothic Wars he is all present and here I finally had the feeling his fame was given credit. Warfare in the later days of the Roman Empire was far from the effective military machine of its early days so it is nice to see some tactical creativity.

More than the previous Wars, as Belisarius is more present, Procopius is able to provide an accurate narrative of the events as he was the personal secretary to Belisarius. There is much more detail and far less digressions than before. The previous Wars were more chaotic in nature. This war is more focused and there are more peculiarities to be noticed. This is not the place to discuss them as they are the interesting things to explore when reading this history. Procopius remains a fairly neutral observer. He does not judge although he sometimes expresses sadness or worries regarding the actions of certain persons. So his commentary remains of a mild nature. In general he is never negative or overly positive.

Despite that The Gothic Wars ends abruptly as there have been written more books there is a sort of conclusion of the first part of the campaign and some events of the second part which in some cases remain somewhat in the open. There the war turns a bit more chaotic again so one could say we get to see the better and more interesting part of the war.

The quality of the narrative in this final volume is the best of the series as we get a true eyewitness account of someone who was in the middle of the events. It is a well written history and there are few of those in those days at the start of the Middle Ages. Later histories were mostly written by members of the church and their histories have a very religious perspective, giving more focus to religious events, something that Procopius barely has attention for. It is perhaps one of the shortcomings of the histories of Procopius as they focus on martial events and only political events directly related to these are remarked upon. There is no complete picture as most historians are wont to provide for. However, this remains a very interesting read.

 

Michael Chabon – The Final Solution

Sunday, June 29th, 2014

In most cases I dislike reading novels that have stories based on the characters of another writer as they can rarely create the same atmosphere and feeling and the characters presented as they should not be. On this occasion I have made an exemption to try one, although this review will of course give a verdict that is partially based on an existing view that I have. The novel, or rather short novel or novella, I am talking about is The Final Solution (2005) by Michael Chabon. Chabon is one of the few contemporary writers whose work I have always enjoyed so I give him some credit here as he might make something more out of it.

The Final Solution is a Sherlock Holmes story set in his old age. His name is not mentioned so for the reader unfamiliar with Arthur Conan Doyle’s work the recognition will not be automatic, even as Chabon adds in plenty of hints without them being to obtrusive. Writing the story this way is actually not unusual. Even Doyle himself wrote a few Sherlock Holmes stories without mentioning his name.

Chabon does not attempt to mimic anything of the style of Doyle. This is of course an essential approach as it is very hard to do so. The story is told from different points of view. There are not many characters in the story so this way we get a greater picture. Chabon keeps a relatively slow pace, at least compared to how he usually writes. It adds to the atmosphere and the setting. There is a crime and a mystery and they should be approached with care. Chabon takes his time to present several characters and his depiction is as vivid and accurate as ever. He writes with great quality prose although he keeps his words a bit more simple than usual, which is good as it would disrupt the narrative.

Nevertheless the story progresses quickly. Like many of the Sherlock Holmes stories Chabon finds the right pace and every mystery is often not as complex as it seems. Chabon keeps it up for about three-quarter of the novel. What then happens is hard to describe. He goes off track and makes a shambles of the conclusion. Despite the title the reader is not really provided with a solution. We are missing some key elements that are never explained and I remained somewhat dissatisfied. If Chabon really had wanted to do a genuine homage he should have ended story in the right style. Instead he changes the focus and the direction of the story. I didn’t get the point.

So there is much to enjoy about this novel. It is a nice homage, but of course far from the real deal. One should not read it for the Sherlock Holmes references and homage but for the story itself and the typical Chabon style and elements which makes his novels a great read because there is much here as well.

 

Janny Wurts – Keeper Of The Keys

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

I had quite some problems getting through Keeper Of The Keys (1988), the second novel of The Cycle Of Fire by Janny Wurts. I had the same with the first novel and in this middle book of this fantasy trilogy it was far worse. For one part the problem was that it is the middle book. At the end of the first book the main protagonist had achieved the most imminent goal to be accomplished. The second and rather obvious goal was clear from the start but the main protagonist could not just go for it. The whole story of Keeper Of The Keys is about the process to make the main protagonist develop the right frame of mind to get there. Wurts creates a sequence of obstacles and events that he has to overcome. This is the second part of my problems with the book. Pretty much all the events felt very much contrived. They didn’t feel natural. It felt like the author was putting in the setpieces as there were quite some problems creating the obstacles. Wurts had to provide the antagonists with the necessary information to allow for some of the obstacles to be created. One usually speaks of character-driven or plot-driven stories but this felt too much like author-driven. Wurts was the one making the choices in a number of cases just to be able to have some development for her characters.

The appreciation of the characters was because of this also very low. I had trouble connecting with them in the first book and there was pretty much none of it here. Only the main protagonist had character development but little of it felt realistic. It did not help that the world-building is not very good. Wurts provided some more background information on the world but unfortunately this rather damaged it more than it helped. For me there were, just like in the first novel, several very structural flaws and inconsistencies. As I don’t want to spoil I can’t deliberate on them but they are fairly obvious.

Despite all these apparent issues this is not exactly a bad novel. As I wrote in my review of the first novel, Stormwarden, this series is like a first attempt of her Curse Of The Mistwraith series, a series that I like and the reason why I wanted to try this series. There are many similarities in the worldbuilding and on some level in the characters as well. You see the potential, only if the author can get her plotting and worldbuilding right. Wurts’ prose is good, her style triggers the imagination and she has the right hand for good character development. There are many moments that do captivate the reader, but it is like you are looking at a beautiful painting but the canvas is made of water and the painter is trying to keep everything together forcefully.

This is certainly not the series to start reading the works by Janny Wurts. To all accounts I sadly have to say that it is better avoided as it will give a negative impression while she is so much better in her later works. As the plot and the worldbuilding form essential components in a fantasy novel one cannot save it on other accounts. The only reason why I will probably still try to read the third novel (although not any time soon) is because I am interested in what kind of conclusion the series will have as her long Curse Of The Mistwraith series is not near its end yet and Wurts isn’t producing new novels very quickly.

 

A.E. van Vogt – Future Glitter

Monday, June 9th, 2014

When it comes to science fiction I much enjoy the old style novels when science fiction was far from mainstream and the ideas and creativity of the writers knew few bounds. Since the hi-tech age was introduced in the 80ies and science fiction gained mainstream popularity the stories changed and I haven’t really seen the old kind ever again, although I have to admit¬† I am not that an avid SF reader.

One of those old style SF novels is Future Glitter (1973) by A.E. van Vogt. It is a lesser known work by this pioneer of modern SF. I actually haven’t read that much by him although his Null-A and the ‘Clane’ books are among my all time favourites. I had this book on my shelves for quite some time.

Future Glitter is basically founded on one specific idea which for its implementation required a second idea. This second idea I can disclose as it is about the setting of the novel. Future Glitter is a dystopian novel in the likes of 1984 and Brave New World. The main difference with those novels is that these are centred on the idea of the dystopian world and that their stories are about depiction the reality and the conflict it causes. In Future Glitter Van Vogt presents a differently set up dystopian world, introducing some new interesting concepts in its formation. As I have read a fair number of dystopian novel they all seems to share a number of similar traits which makes me wonder if it is the only way one can imagine it.

Despite all this the dystopian plot is the vehicle for the central idea of the novel. Van Vogt uses it to great effect and he fuses it deeply inside the dystopian plot. Much that happens depends on this central idea and everything that happens is in fact a battle between the central idea and the dystopian system. From the beginning they start the fight which even continues when either of them is temporary sidelined. Common to Van Vogt’s style are the numerous plot twists. Van Vogt keeps up a very fast pace, leaving the reader barely any time to think or consider the events. It is impossible to predict what is going to happen in the next scene and that makes the read pretty much a roller coaster ride. The danger with such plot developments is that the author gets tangled up with all that is going on. Van Vogt manages to stay clear for the majority of the events. Nevertheless there remain a number of events which remain rather unexplained and Van Vogt sometimes needs to steer his plot forcibly in the right direction.

Future Glitter is a fun read. He presents a fairly large case of characters and manages to present them quite well despite the limited time he has. There are two main protagonists. The first we start the story with and to me he was the most interesting one. Van Vogt uses the limited time extremely well to give him great depth. The second is a much younger character. He is put through much of turmoil, showing some amusing styles that provide some comic scenes. I did not particularly connect with him but for the plot he provided an unusual frame of mind.

Like many of the old style SF novels Future Glitter is based on a few concepts which are exploited with great effect to provide the reader with an exciting and fast story that does not lack in some comic moments. In this way it is different from the usual dystopian novel which usually has a serious approach or a creepy atmosphere. There is little of that here. Van Vogt holds up a certain distance as he does not want to depress the reader but entertain him and he succeeds at that, although the novel is far from perfect. Despite it being a dystopian novel it does not aim bring the powerful message that others have tried to convey. Nevertheless there are many realistic observations towards the dystopian society and even some anti-criticism. So there is more than meets the eye.

 

Lucius Procopius – The Vandalic Wars

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

A return to books of history brings me to The Vandal Wars (ca. 553) by Lucius Procopius are in fact Books III & IV of The History Of The Wars. This is a history of the military activities of the Eastern Roman Empire, or rather the Byzantine Empire, during the reign of Emperor Justinian, who attempted to recover the Roman Empire after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Procopius organized his history not by year but by subject so that he could tell a more coherent history as the Eastern Roman Empire was engaging in many activities. This setup also allows him to start each wars-sequence with a story of the background. In the case of the Vandal Wars he recounts where the Vandals came from and how they ended up in modern day Tunisia where they created a kingdom that in size was very reminiscent of ancient Carthage. Their capital actually was a new version of that actual city. His history thus actually covers a period from about 400 to 550 CE with the greater part taking covering the last 20 years of that period. His long introduction is thus also interesting as a source of the history of that period.

What makes this history different from The Persian Wars is that the great general Belisarius has a strong presence here with Procopius himself present as his secretary. Most of what is written is thus actually an almost eyewitness account or else from trusted sources.

Oddly enough Belisarius is not that much present in the story although he is credited with much of the success. Reality however shows that the Vandals had been enjoying a fairly luxurious life and lived mostly by raiding. They were there rather Romanized barbarians, more feared than actually countered by the weakened structures in the Mediterranean. The Byzantine campaign is rather poor in setup. It is a set of lucky circumstances which allow them to make the right choices and obtain quick and easy victories. Despite the name Vandal Wars this is far from a great war. The Byzantines managed to maintain the upper hand and despite internal intrigue and some poor governors a number of capable commanders prevent the Vandals to regain their strength and crush them permanently.

The recovery of the empire is thus not so much a matter of competence but a matter of luck. The region itself is rather weak and the feared opponent is not that terrible. The conqueror itself shows plenty of weaknesses so it is no surprise that it was easily conquered by the expansion of the Islam a century later.

Procopius himself provides no analysis or comments on the problematic events of the wars. In this he is thus neutral. He recounts the facts, whether they are good or bad. The reader has to judge them. There are two views to be opinionated here. Either he his blind to the many shortcomings of his society or he lets the reader decide on that. In that light it is somewhat hard to find the voice of the author in this work. I like to read these contemporary works because they usually express the mores and the wiles of the society of those times. It is hard to do so here although one can comment that Procopius is simply used to these kind of affairs and that it is not that unordinary.

The Vandal Wars provides the reader with a number of interesting insights in the events of those times and also gives some cultural details on the Vandals and the way they fight their wars with a mixture of barbarian and romanized behavior. The reader is also provided with their background and history so this work is more than a simple history on a number of events. This all makes this work quite interesting and as it is not a very long work it is a relative easy read.