Archive for February, 2015

The Pandora sequence

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Frank Herbert is one of my favourite science fiction authors. Even so I haven’t read as much of his work as I should have. Perhaps it is because I rarely come across his lesser known works in the bookstore here in the Netherlands except for the Dune series and a few other novels. One series that has been translated is the Pandora sequence, consisting of a prequel and a trilogy, the latter co-written by Bill Ransom. The strange thing about this series that it is hard to find the full series. I first read it as a teenager in my local town library although they only had like two of the novels. As a result I never read the whole story and to be honest I pretty much forgot about it. In 2012 the whole series has been printed anew again and now I have taken the chance to order them online so that I can read it all. The prequel was written by Frank Herbert alone and is called Destination: Void (1966). The trilogy was completed after the death of Frank Herbert in 1986 and consists of The Jesus Incident (1979), The Lazarus Effect (1983) and The Ascension Factor (1988). It has been more than 15 years ago that I read some of the novels in the series and I have forgotten pretty much all of it except that it took place on a water planet, ironically the opposite of Dune. I have to say I will enjoy reading a whole series as I am still reading plenty of ongoing ones.

 

Herodianus – Crisis In Rome

Monday, February 16th, 2015

In classic histories there is a lot of variation in style and approach but in all cases they reflect the author’s position, perspective and to some extent his opinions. The number of available histories declines after 100 CE. Most historians of that time wrote about earlier times, perhaps because their age was fairly peaceful and less happened. After 180 the Roman Empire began its gradual decline and many sources about that time have become fragmented or unreliable. One of the few complete histories is the History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus by Herodianus (also called Herodian); my translated edition is called Crisis In Rome (238), which is a good description of the time, although the empire was still relatively stable compared to the times that followed after the history. Peculiar one of the few recent translations is a Dutch one, which is one of the reasons why I could not find his work earlier as I assumed I had to look at English ones.

What makes this history different is that it is the first history since Caesar’s commentaries (45 BCE) in which the author tells about the history he has witnessed himself. Herodianus makes his task harder for himself by going by to his earliest memories (ca. the year 180) while he writes things down decades later until his death shortly after the year 238. He probably talked with others but much of what is recalled are the most notable or extreme events. Another oddity in this history is that while Herodianus was born in the eastern part of the empire he lived and stayed most of his life in Rome itself. This results in a peculiar perspective of events with many details on eastern and local Roman events. Anything that takes place elsewhere he only knows from hearsay and is far less reliable.

Herodianus is not much of a traditional historian although he tries to. The reader has no idea when events take place or how certain events are related or set within the same timeframe. You have to guess it from comments or references. So for another historian Herodianus can be a frustrating source but if you are general reader you won’t be that troubled. Herodianus tells an interesting story, especially as he brings it as if he is talking about it to an audience. It is rarely longwinded with plenty of variation between battles, intrigues and politics. The reader obtains a good picture of Roman society and how the decline is setting in due to the weaknesses of the political system. Extra nice are certain details on social events and traditions which make the scenes more lively

Crisis In Rome is not one of great classic histories and this is probably why Herodianus is hardly known compared to others of his time. Although the accuracy and chronology lacks in many places it does what it intends to do: describe the events of the time and paint a pciture for the reader to learn his lessons and gain understanding of events even though the author may not be aiming for it.

David Gemmell – Knights Of Dark Renown

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

Knights Of Dark Renown (1989) is one of the few standalone fantasy novels by David Gemmell. Of course even in his series many of the novels contain a self-contained story which can be read without knowing anything on the others. Sometimes characters return and the setting is often similar and that is what connects the novels. To be honest, Gemmell does refer to this novel in his other standalone novel Morningstar but the events lie thousands of years apart and neither of the two novels share much of its concepts except for one thing which might even seem coincidence as even on that point there are differences. I will not disclose it because it will spoil certain surprises.

Knights Of Dark Renown takes place in the generic mediaevil worlds Gemmell prefers to set his stories in. There are hard to pinpoint sometimes as Gemmell avoids going into details on the technology level. Sometimes they fight with bronze weapons, other times with steel and frequently the weapons are magical so it does not matter. As the title of the novel already hints at the central characters are knights and as such the story contains several elements regarding knighthood and battle armour which is what makes it different from his usual fare.

Another difference in this novel is the magical element. Usually it takes a minor place and the main characters are somewhat supported by magic, the wielder usually a mysterious figure. The nature of the magic is left to the imagination. This is not the case here. Gemmell shows more ideas on the magic used and several characters that are capable of powerful magic play an important role. In several cases they provide the point of view.

The novels holds a larger cast of characters than is usual by Gemmell and Gemmell switches viewpoint frequently so that the reader gets to see the story by more of them. This does give them more depth even though the time spent is fairly short. Gemmell manages to do a good job with it.

With so many characters one might think the story will not hold too much plot, but Gemmell puts on his usual fast pace and he uses the larger case to tell more details of what is going on. This gives the plot more depth and variety while it remains a true pageturner as there is much going on.

Knights Of Dark Renown may be one of Gemmell’s lesser known novels (it at least was to me), but it certainly ranks among his best. Here I do have to add that his average quality is quite stable and it is not easy to pick out the better and the lesser ones. This one is certainly recommended.

E.R. Eddison – The Mezentian Gate

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

Can one really write a review about an unfinished novel? E.R. Eddison died while he was still writing The Mezentian Gate (1958), the third novel in the Zimiamvia Trilogy, leaving only summaries for the planned chapters he had not written yet and its actual publication stalled until a much later date. The funny thing is that the chapters that he had written, about a dozen or so, belong for one half to the beginning of the novel and for the other half to the end of the novel. A few chapters remained that take place somewhere in the second half. Including the summaries the whole novel is however still 270 pages, which is still a considerable read. The story has a beginning and an end and while the majority of the middle part is summarized the story in itself is fairly complete.

There are several reasons why one would want to read this novel. The first is that it concludes a trilogy. Reading this novel is essential to understand much of what is written in the first two novels. Much of this is caused by the fact that the first two novels explain very little. The reader is just given the characters, their interactions and the events that take place. This is rather different in The Mezentian Gate. In a way one could compare it to the regular revelations and explanations that are provided in a final novel but in the case of the Zimiamvia Trilogy it is the other way around as the books are set up in reverse order. The Mezentian Gate presents the reader with the events that lead up to what happens in the first novel and when you read it you finally can understand what happened in certain events. So should you actually read the novels the other way around? Personally I think it is better to read them in the order the author intended. This way the first two novels are filled with mystery until much is revealed in the final book and the pieces of the puzzle fall into their place.

Although there are only a dozen full chapters in the book they each shine a deeper light on several known characters and introduce several new characters that have the familiar zeal and vividness as is Eddison’s great style. Although the events are less surrealistic there are still several grand scenes that capture the imagination. There is much to appreciate in the prose and presentation of Eddison. If I could compare them to someone contemporary than that would be Quentin Tarantino who can create iconic scenes where they would seem not to be fitting into the type of movie you are watching but they turn the movie to something more. Eddison does this in a similar way. This was less so in the previous novels but now that I think about the scenes from the few chapters of the Mezentian Gate that captured me then there are several of those in this book.

What makes an Eddison novel unique and original is the way he plots his story. It is all just a bit different from the usual fantasy stories. The cause is found in his approach, his desire to tell a story from a particular perspective that lies outside the view of the reader. Perhaps it is also based on an older storytelling style which aims to expand the interactions between the central characters in which they are to be pitted against each other in as many scenes possible without making either of them seem in control, leaving all options open.

The Zimiamvia Trilogy is no easy read but I did enjoy it because of the unusual and original approach. It is the worth found in a well-written novel in a time when the fantasy genre was slowly becoming distinct from science fiction.