Archive for July, 2014

Paul the Deacon – History Of The Lombards

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

The dark Middle Ages found their first renaissance in the eight century at the court of Charlemagne who gathered scholars from all over Europe to share knowledge. One of those scholars was Paul the Deacon. As most scholars he was a man of the church although that did not completely hide his barbaric origins. Paul the Deacon was of Lombard (or Langobard) origin whose people had settled in the northern half of Italy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the early 6th century and who had been finally conquered by Charlemagne when they made a serious threat against the Pope. As a reward Charlemagne was eventually crowned Emperor.

At the court of Charlemagne Paul the Deacon was inspired to write a history of his own people which later on was title History Of The Lombards (799). Paul the Deacon based his history on a number of sources he had available at the time and wherever there was any mention of the Lombards. The quality of those sources varied greatly. Some parts were passed on mythological tales, others hearsay while others held some eyewitness accounts. As a result the sources did not provide coherent material to cover the events in which the Lombards were mentioned. In some cases only the focus was solely on a single region of the Lombardic kingdom. In others the focus seems to lie in neighbouring nations, like the Frankish kingdoms and the Eastern Roman Empire. The events actually focus on these and they are told because there is a small Lombardic elements that can be put forward. Paul the Deacon also shows little regard for editing or correcting his material. He simple tried to order the material in a way that seemed to fit. The mythological history forms an interesting sequence. It is doubtful if any of it is real. To me it was partially familiar as he seemed to have used The Gothic Wars by Procopius (recently reviewed by me) as a source. The quality of his sources is in some cases also in doubt as certain events seem to occur again some decades later. Names can be rendered differently if the authors are from different nations.

It is not easy to read the History Of The Lombards. The prose is not bad and reasonably readable although at some points it can get repetitive. The problem lies in the varying quality and the lack of a coherent narrative as the focus shifts randomly and there is no timeline to hold onto. One has little idea of the time that passes except from mentions of the time kings and dukes have ruled when they die. The prose does maintain a steady level despite the varying quality of the sources so that is probably where the hand of the author can be seen. Paul the Deacon adds little of his own. There is an interesting chapter in which he recounts his own family history. It shows that even oral history can quickly become poor. Much of the narrative holds little credibility. Despite being a man of the church Paul the Deacon does not seem to doubt somewhat unnatural occurrences or perhaps the church in these days still held many pagan influences as it had not grown to the power or would later become. The Pope was still in competition with the Patriarch of Constantinople and his influence very limited as the Eastern Roman Empire held great influence in Italy. One reason why this work is interesting because the Pope in those days was trying to become independent and his later alliance with Charlemagne would be the starting point of the rise of the power of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately we do not get to see this last stage in Christian history. Paul the Deacon died while he had only written to the times of his youth. We don’t get a first person account of Lombardic history until the conquest of Charlemagne. The history ends in about 744 CE. I have to add this is not uncommon among early historians whose works are often incomplete due to their death, even though they sometimes lived until high age.

The History Of The Lombards is an interesting works as it fills in certain gaps in the history of Europe in the Early Middles Ages between 550 and 750 CE. Paul the Deacon makes use of certain sources that are now lost but also of still existing sources. The history might not be very coherent or orderly but it does provide a collection of episodes and events that gives insight into the society of Southern Europe in those times.

 

Brian McClellan – Promise Of Blood

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

I have to admit I was, initially, not so certain about Promise Of Blood (2013), the first book of the Powdermage Trilogy by Brian McClellan. Combining magic with guns in fantasy is often based on alternative histories of a few popular periods in history, like the Age of Exploration of the 16th century of Victorian England in the 19th century. If one has success many others quickly follow. Promise Of Blood did not seem to fit in one of these subgenres which was the main reason why I decided to pick it up.

Although Promise Of Blood is set in a world in which the nations and cultures are based on Earthly analogies McClellan made the smart choice of using less typical analogies. Several of his nations have a Central European flavour and his central country is reminiscent of Hungary but not very strictly. So this provides a rather refreshing composition of names. The time period to which the story is most similar is the Napoleonic Age in which the Industrial Revolution plays an important role.

What is more important about this book is that is an extraordinary good debut. It impressed me. It did so for a number of reasons.

The plot is excellent and very strong. There is no introduction. The reader is plunged deep into the story from the very start. These are the kind of openers that will hook the reader in and not let go. McClellan does so in a clever way. He provides his information in subtle doses. Piece by piece the reader is given the greater picture while the story carries on. McClellan does not make it too complicated. The setup is clear, but the execution remains to be seen. This is basically what the plot is about. A choice is made and where it will lead is unknown. McClellan throws a number of great twists while not using them too much. This keeps the reader attentive while at times it seems as if things calm down, only to be thrown of course again.

There are no weak scenes or long winded sequences in the story. The story is cut sharply. Every scene counts and adds something to the story. This may be an action sequence, a moment of thought or a discussion between characters. McClellan adds the action scenes in varying doses. Sometimes we are in the middle of them, other times we are bystanders, and in some occasions the events roll on quickly. He does not drag anything out although he does give several characters some time to shine. He also does not stick to a tight progression of events. Days or weeks may pass if nothing of interest happens.

The narrative is divided over four characters, although one protagonist gets very few narratives. Most of them are divided fairly equally over the other three. These three are also far more interesting characters. Two of them are middle aged and carry a long history with them, while the younger third has done plenty already to catch up. This makes them fully formed characters from the very beginning and far more interesting than some youngsters who have not seen the real world yet. Two of them were really unique which can be attributes to the fact that the magic they use defined them. McClellan presents his characters in a down to earth style. Despite their abilities and positions they are still very normal people.

The magic system is one of the other great things in the story. McClellan has created a unique new sort of magic and given it a great powerful flavour that I enjoyed very much. Personally I think he must have been inspired by the magic systems that Brandon Sanderson has invented as it has some familiar flavours. I should add that there are actually several systems and each is very different. I have seen other attempts to use different magic systems together and the author trying to use their differences to good effect but McClellan has done it far better.

So are there things that are not so good in this novel? It is hard to find any flaws or weaknesses. This is an almost perfect novel in my opinion. The only thing that I could mention is on the side characters. Not all of them are that original and one reason why he does not manage to make them sufficiently different is because he does not spend enough time and attention to them. The focus is often too much on the four protagonists and only a few side characters, those that stick along most of the time, are sufficiently developed. I was interested in some of the side characters but McClellan barely gave them any involvement so I was somewhat dissatisfied on that part. It may be that he wrote extra scenes with them but that these were cut out at a later stage.

I can only recommend this novel very highly. It is original, refreshing, grabs the reader from page one and keeps him wanting more after the final page. Great characters and a fantastic plot that avoids getting long winded and keeps the events straight on while keeping a good pace. The world is not overly complex and the general plot threads some familiar grounds which provide the foundation for a story where individual actions move the story.

 

John Gwynne – Malice

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

It has been a while since I read a new traditional fantasy novel in which good and evil are clear opposites. John Gwynne‘s first novel of The Faithful And The Fallen is called Malice (2012). What makes it different from the usual traditional fantasies is that it finds much inspiration from recent popular fantasy series. I will mention them later on.

Gwynne presents a divided world where the different nations and cultures are actually quite similar to each other. The reader only gets to see some glimpses of different peoples. The background of the story finds inspiration from Tolkien although Gwynne puts in sufficient differences to not make it obvious, except for the experienced reader.

The narrative style is inspired by A Song Of Ice And Fire. The chapters are titled after the character from whose viewpoint the story is told. They are short and in the first part they switch frequently between the different protagonists of the story. It is not altogether flawless. Gwynne sometimes adds in cliffhangers and in several occasions he returned after switching to other characters in whose chapters clearly time had passed so that you get the feeling that things are not sync. This in contrast to some occasions where the next chapter does not switch to a different character but the same.  While it seems that there are several protagonists in the first part of the novel they gradually start to gravitate to one protagonist who then clearly becomes more the main protagonist as he gets more of the centre stage.

Most of the narrative is told from the perspective of teenage characters and much of the their immediate plot involves coming-of-age storylines. The few exceptions are only added to fill in the plot so that gaps or sudden twists have a solid foundation. Most of these teenage protagonists shared certain similarities in their characters and situations. This compared to a plot that tries not to be too complicated, or at least tries to present events orderly and clearly understandable, and the avoidance of adult scenes, swearing and overly violent scenes made this novel feel like Young Adult book. There are some relatively brutal scenes but they do not have that hard an impact. The difference between good and bad characters is often very distinct. Only in a few cases there was originally created some greyness but that shifted later on.

The story itself finds, in my view, inspiration in The Wheel Of Time series. There is an extensive prophecy, a chosen one and an adversary in the great fight between good and evil. The Wheel Of Time already addresses several issues and Gwynne decided to take one of these and give it a twist of his own and that forms the core of this novel. As this novel has such a way of presenting things rather distinctly this twist can be spotted early on, although other readers might not see it as soon as I did, although I must admit that I hoped Gwynne wouldn’t turn things they way he did rather sooner than later.

The story it not all that straightforward and predictable. Gwynne was clearly inspired (again) by A Song Of Ice And Fire to introduce a number of twists with a heavy impact. They are however not presented as brutally as George R.R. Martin has done. Most of them came in the later part of the novel. This does give the novel a different flavour from the usual fare and they are the elements that make the story shift out of the Young Adult sphere somewhat, although I have read Young Adult novels with similar dark elements.

The novel was not exactly what I expected. On some parts I was somewhat disappointed as there are many traditional elements. In contrast to those are influences from more contemporary classic fantasies that give the story a sufficient different flavour that events become more unpredictable. It was an enjoyable and easy read, but a relatively light fare that has a fair number of engaging scenes. The story keeps a good pace and nowhere turns dull. While there are other protagonists the focus of the story is on the one protagonist I was actually least interested in as he has a rather dull and predictable character. Will I pick up the next instalment? I probably will. I won’t be rushing to get it however and that is what defines a really good book.

 

Luke Scull – The Grim Company

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

The Grim Company (2013) by Luke Scull is a fantasy novel set in a broken, almost post-apocalyptic, world where things are turning for the worse. What remains are only brutal societies where nobody is on the ‘good’ side as survival is central to life. Unlike other similar novels Scull does not slowly reveal the nature of his world but instead quickly introduces a grand plot with many complexities. He takes little times to build up the story and plunges the reader right in.

The Grim Company has a quick-paced plot that follows several storylines. Events follow in rapid succession and Scull has cut off all the fat he came across. That does mean we sometimes see very little of the events that are occurring or scenes are already over just after they have started. The reader gets little time to get acquainted with the different characters and settings. It is all okay, but not well balanced.

Balance is certainly the central issue in The Grim Company. There is a lot going on and as Scull jumps a lot between storylines and moving them ahead quickly it is hard to get into the story. Scull puts in a lot of different elements into the central conflict with the idea to enrich it and while they entertain they do not manage to create a stable atmosphere or strong flow that drives the reader forth. He makes things complicated and while he does not botch things up, Scull does fail to make something greater out of it. It makes me feel like Scull should have first written something simpler and constricted to practice his skills before he should have set off with this story which would have benefited much from a more experienced writer.

The narrative follows five protagonists, although there are a few incidental. As the plot develops quickly Scull also switches frequently between these narratives. In combination with the multiple storylines there is limited space to develop their characters. He does manage to present them distinctly, but there is one peculiarity. Three of the five characters are very similar in their attitude and perspective although they have very different backgrounds and places in society. So they are in a way made of the same mold and I didn’t like the way Scull presented them. I rather disliked them and I could not connect. Their narratives were more irritating than enjoyable so I mainly focused on their surroundings instead and the characters they interacted with. The two other narratives were very different. One of these has the greatest focal points of the narrative as he was related to several storylines while the others were more independent. This character was however the least original of the five, although he was most likeable. The fifth was the one I enjoyed the most. This character was not that likeable in reality but instead I did like him best as he was the most ambiguous character with more depth than the others.

The Grim Company is a fairly enjoyable albeit somewhat unstable novel. Scull introduces many interesting ideas and concepts although there is much roughness to it all. There is much promise and with experience I think Scull can improve himself. I am not sure if he can do so in the remainder of this series. Most authors need to start with a fresh slate, especially as he is stuck to some characters that simply are not that strong.

The novel leaves open a number of threads and these are interesting enough for me that I will probably pick up the sequel to see where things will go. I will not call this novel great, but it is certainly not mainstream and thus provides some different fare from the usual, so I was not unsatisfied and that is always worthwhile for a novel.

 

Jack Vance – The Dogtown Tourist Agency

Monday, July 7th, 2014

It has been a while since I picked up a Jack Vance novel. I have as good as his complete science fiction and fantasy bibliography, even as it is all the Dutch translation, and I have thus read them all at least once already. While most of his novels are short the one I picked up belongs to the shortest ones. One could dub it also a long novella, depending on the definition to follow. The Dogtown Tourist Agency (1975) has a somewhat peculiar title. It reveals something about the plot while the plot takes a while to get there. The Dutch title of the novels is much less literal and more powerful: The Machines Of Maz.

The novel itself is science fiction only in the setting of the story. Vance uses it to introduce and explore strange worlds, societies and cultures. The technology used is a strange mishmash of old and new things. The Vance universe is however an old future age where technological progress has been exchanged for a relatively stable universal society. Is it realistic or probable? One should not seek the answer when reading Jack Vance. His aim is to tell a captivating and engaging story where you can get baffled, amused or get a laugh while there can be found hidden messages for those who like to give it more thought.

The protagonists of Vance’s novels are often made in the same mold. I have often compared them to Clint Eastwood. You see him in different settings and roles but essentially his character has a versatility that makes it feel like you are seeing the same magnetic person who you can’t stop enjoying to experience. The protagonist in The Dogtown Tourist Agency is no different. Compared to the usual character format he has a colder, more business-like attitude who grabs his opportunities when he sees them. It are these details that create the subtle differences that make these familiar protagonist unique in each novel.

Most of Vance’s novels are too short to have much character development. The pace of the story is fast as Vance does not dwell on too many details or overly long thoughts or dialogues and the narrative only follows the protagonist of the story. It is all about the effectiveness of his writing and it is this where he excels in. He requires few words to trigger the imagination of the reader and immerse him in the story.

The plots of Vance’s novels usually conform to a similar nature. While the protagonist has a considerable influence on the development of the story there are always outside events that collision with what he is trying to achieve. This can either result in a negative or a positive effect. While this setup is used frequently by Vance it is something that is not seen to this extent in other novels because what it does it put things into perspective. This is just a minor story, a peculiar tale that is worthwhile to be told. There is much more going on and these events on the background elicit the curiosity of the reader as one does not see the complete picture. One has to guess, make up theories, even when it is not of real importance to the main story. It is a strength of Vance that he always knows to employ.

As I am a huge fan of the works of Jack Vance, this novel certainly gets no bad review. Even his poorest works are still on an average quality level. The Dogtown Tourist Agency is one of his many small gems. Despite the relatively short length it holds plenty of story and one will feel just as satisfied at the end when reading a much longer novel. Vance wrote another story with the same protagonist called Freitzke’s Turn although it is no more than a solid short story.