Science Fiction Classics: “Dune Messiah” (by Frank Herbert)

Darcy and Winters

Having finished Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece Dune, I decided to dive right in and begin the second volume, Dune Messiah. While it lacks some of the narrative richness of its predecessor, in many ways it is even more theologically and philosophically sophisticated, as Paul must contend not only with the consequences of the jihad he unleashed upon the universe, but also with a conspiracy and with the ever tightening noose of his own prescience.

The novel begins several years after Paul seized the throne. The Fremen have swept everyone before them, and Paul is now the undisputed ruler of the Imperium. However, there are those that see him as a danger that must be removed, among them a Navigator from the Spacing Guild, a Tleilaxu Face Dancer, the Princess Irulan, and a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit (none other than Gaius Helen Mohiam herself). While their plan ultimately…

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Science Fiction Classics: Dune (by Frank Herbert)

Darcy and Winters

I’m not sure what prompted me to go back and reread Dune, the science fiction masterpiece by Frank Herbert. I’ve read it several times now, but something just keeps drawing me back to it. Part of it, no doubt, is the fact that it is basically the sci-fi equivalent of The Lord of the Rings, and it focuses more on politics, philosophy, and religion than it does on science. Part of it also has to do with the fact that it continues to be a part of the cultural conversation, both because Herbert’s son Brian (along with his coauthor Kevin J. Anderson) continue adding to the series and because there is a hotly anticipated new film adaptation coming this fall.

For those who haven’t read it, the novel focuses on Paul, the heir to Duke Leto Atreides. When his family is betrayed and his father killed, he flees into the…

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Screening History: “The Tudors” (Season 1)

I’m not sure why I recently decided to watch Showtime’s The Tudors, that sudsy and soapy and gloriously sexy series about Henry VIII and his wives. Obviously, I’m a history buff, and the past is never far from my mind, and it’s true that I haven’t had a chance to revisit it at length since it finished its run way back in 2010. Whatever the reason, I decided to just binge the whole thing again and share my thoughts with all of you.

There’s much to love about the first season, and the supporting players are a key part of that. Henry Cavill is a fantastic Charles Brandon, bringing just the right mix of rascality and nobility to his portrayal. His doomed romance with Henry’s sister Margaret is a little rushed, and it excises a great deal (including the three daughters that they had together, all of whom would come to play an important part of Tudor dynastic politics).

The MVPs of the first season, however, have to be Sam Neill and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Cardinal Wolsey and Katherine of Aragon, respectively. Of course, one always expects the best of Neill no matter what he appears in, but he really shines as Cardinal Wolsey, the most important member of the Tudor court outside of Henry himself. Watching him you can actually believe that he is the son of a humble butcher who managed to claw his way up the hierarchy of both temporal and spiritual power by sheer grit alone. Though he is a polished courtier, he’s also not afraid to use physical force when necessary. His fall from grace–and eventual death by his own hand–is one of the most moving aspects of the whole season, a heavy reminder of the wages of serving a capricious monarch like Henry VIII.

Maria Doyle Kennedy is, in a word, exquisite as the saintly Katherine of Aragon, though I realize that not everyone sees her in that light. (In fact, I was recently reminiscing with a friend of mine about the series, and her impression was that the series intended us to see Katherine as boring and old). For me, she embodies everything that I’ve always associated with Henry’s first wive. She is at once tenacious, vulnerable, loving, compassionate and, when her ire is aroused, vengeful. Somehow, Kennedy manages to combine all of those things, and you genuinely feel for her as she is increasingly distanced from Henry and from the court that she has ruled over for so long.

Though she won’t come into her own until season two, Natalie Dormer also deserves a lot of credit for her portrayal of Anne Boleyn. I strongly suspect that, along with Geneviève Bujold, hers will go down as one of the definitive portrayals of one of the most infamous queens to have ever strutted her way across the stage of English history. With her lips always slightly pouty and her unique looks (is there anyone who looks at all like her in film and television today?) she seems to have been born to play Anne Boleyn, a woman who was similarly described as being like no other woman at Henry’s court. What makes The Tudors so effective is that it makes us appreciate and understand her perspective–particularly the impossible position she occupies as a woman in this patriarchal world, her desires always submitted to theirs–even as it also allows us to occupy Katherine’s. For Anne’s part, she early on realizes that she will have to put aside her love for Thomas Wyatt, or else they will both face Henry’s wrath. Her spurning of him is one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the entire first season.

However, there is one huge, glaring problem with this season, and the series as a whole, and that is Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry. It probably goes without saying that he looks absolutely nothing like the historical figure. Aside from being far too young, he is also significantly shorter than Henry, and his dark brown hair is a far cry from the signature Tudor red of Henry and, except for a brief moment, he doesn’t sport a beard. It’s more than just his appearance, though. He seems to have three settings: shouting, brooding, and sexing. As a result, his depiction of Henry is curiously one-dimensional, and he emerges as little more than a petulant, screaming child, one giant, pulsing id.

That said, there are some redeeming qualities about Meyers’ portrayal. Though his style leaves much to be desired, and though he looks nothing at all like the real Henry, his model physique and face–both of which are sculpted, razor-sharp, and defined–manage to convey Henry’s capriciousness. Henry VIII was a man, after all, who was known for using and jettisoning courtiers at an almost frantic pace (sound familiar?) Furthermore, the fact that Meyers is little more than an id is, itself, a commentary on Henry’s reign which, in some ways, driven by Henry’s whims and sexual desires.

Thus, contrary to what most people at the time (and since) have asserted, I actually think that the series does have something serious to say about history, at least implicitly. While the series’ creator Michael Hirst commented–hopefully somewhat tongue-in-cheek–that Showtime commissioned him to write a soap opera and not history, he actually managed to do both. It is certainly true that The Tudors, especially the first season, pays more attention to the suds and the sex than it does to the events of the past, but that may be precisely the point. While it does allude to significant historical events–the meeting with Francis at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, for example–The Tudors is primarily interested in making us feel the past, to understand sex and desire as key to the unfolding of grand historical events. This may not be what many define as historical understanding, but it is a form of engagement with the past, and it should be recognized and respected as such.

Stay tuned for my review of the second season which, in my humble opinion, is when the series reaches its apotheosis.

The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “Before and After” (S2, Ep. 15)

I have to admit that, contrary to what I usually say, this isn’t one of my favourite episodes of The Golden Girls. There’s nothing wrong with it, really, it’s just that it rather lacks the dynamic energy that characterizes so many of the other episodes of this season. In it, Rose has what she at first believes is a heart attack (it’s actually just an esophageal spasm), which makes her decide that she’s going to “eat life,” and her new lifestyle clashes with her roommates. As a result, she moves out, only to realize that nothing can replace the community she has with the other girls.

Among other things, this episode reveals a fundamental aspect of Rose’s personality, i.e. her willingness to sacrifice her own happiness in order to volunteer for others. The opening moments of the episode reveal the truly staggering array of activities in which Rose is involved, ranging from helping the neighbors by baking a wedding cake to various types of community service. While all of the women–including Sophia–frequently engage in community activities, there’s no question that Rose is the most involved in that regard. This episode is one of the few times that she starts to question the intrinsic worth of those efforts.

As with so many episodes of The Golden Girls, this episode addresses the fundamental issue of death. Given that all of them are over fifty, the reality is that death is always a possibility. In this case, it makes Rose reconsider all of the things that she has done and the way that she has lived her life. One can hardly blame her for this moment of self-reflection. After all she, like the other women, isn’t getting any younger, and so it would make sense for her to want to make sure that she gets the most out of her life while she still can. However, one can question the way that she goes about it, which seems by nature designed to alienate the women that she has already built such a strong relationship with, and the quickness of her decision to move out is, I think, one of Rose’s least-charming moments.

This is also one of the handful of episodes that sees one of the women takes up residence with someone else (Sophia does so in a later episode, for similar reasons). While the episode lacks the sort of social commentary that makes The Golden Girls such a wonderful series to watch, her exchanges with her new roommates does, I think, reflect something essential about how the series views personal relationships. For these new women, their living arrangement is one purely of convenience. They are, as one of them says, roommates, not friends. One can see this in every exchange that occurs , whether that’s one roommates leaving the room while Rose is in the middle of a story, the other roommate mistaking Rose for the other roommate’s mother, or the fact that the women know nothing about one another.

The purpose of these exchanges is, of course, to highlight the difference between these living arrangements and those shared by Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia. At a deeper level, however, I also think it says something about the state of American society in the mid-80s and about the fraying social bonds that once tied people together. It’s hard to imagine these other two women having any friends which is, I think, the saddest and most profound statement about the nature of American culture in the ’80s in the entire episode.

Next up, we come to an episode in which Blanche has to confront the decisions that she’s made as a mother.

Book Review: “Lady Hotspur” (by Tessa Gratton)

Darcy and Winters

Warning: Some spoilers for the book follow.

Judging by Goodreads, this book has, somewhat to my surprise, been ill-received by those who have read it. Perhaps it’s because of the book’s literary basis, or perhaps it’s the particular type of prose that Gratton uses–which, to be sure, is at times a bit baroque, or maybe it’s just that the author is a woman and the world of fantasy can be a bit unforgiving of female voices.

Allow me to be one of the dissenting voices. I found Lady Hotspur to be by turns moving, beautiful, haunting, and terrifying. It captures what is best about the fantasy genre and, what is just as important, it manages to do all of this in one volume rather than several. While there is pleasure to be had in a sprawling, multi-volume fantasy saga, sometimes you just want to read an epic story in one…

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The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “The Actor” (S2, Ep. 14)

It’s been entirely too long since I journeyed into the world of The Golden Girls, and so I thought I’d take a few minutes and share my thoughts on the 14th episode of the second season, entitled “The Actor.”

I know I’ve said this about many episodes of this show, but “The Actor” is without a doubt in my top ten favourite episodes. In it, Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose find themselves competing for the affections of a dashing actor, Patrick Vaughn, who has been contracted to perform with them in their community playhouse. Hijinks ensue, of course, given the fact that Patrick is carrying on an affair with all three of them, as well as with most of the other members of the community players.

Part of my love for this episode comes from the performances. In what is perhaps the funniest moment in the entire run of The Golden Girls, both Blanche and Dorothy recite lines next to Patrick. While Dorothy is swept up in her passion for Patrick in their on-stage kiss and “ad libs” a request for him to “take her, right here on this stage,” Blanche wears a pair of inflatable breasts that would make Jezebel blush. This moment, as my boyfriend has remarked, is a brilliant piece of blocking, as it requires that Blanche move about the “stage” in order to keep the viewer’s attention. It’s more than that, though. Blanche’s sheer exuberance, her ability to inhabit the role of Josie so completely, is hilarious precisely because it fits so neatly with the overdramatic southern belle persona that she has so thoroughly crafted for herself. The fact that Patrick inadvertently “pops her bosoms” just makes this moment all the more uproarious.

As humorous as the whole episode is, there is a moment at the very end that captures something deeply and emotionally resonant about this whole madcap affair. Each of the three women speaks of the thing that Patrick made them feel. He made Dorothy feel beautiful, he made Blanche feel young, and he made Rose feel smart. Though it is, of course, played for laughs–particularly when Dorothy responds to Rose’s confession with “God, what an actor”–it is also a moment of profound vulnerability, when each of them relates to the others their deepest insecurity. It’s one of those brilliant moments that the writers of The Golden Girls were so adeptly able to capture.

The only slight drawback is that Sophia is something of a bit player in this episode, though she does have some some great one-liners, such as her introduction of herself as “Linda Ronsatdt,” or when she informs Rose that she is off to “discover the Straits of Magellan.” Given that the episode focuses on the other three and their romantic competition, that makes sense. Nevertheless, her jokes are one of the key parts of my affection for the episode.

Yet the greater part of my affection comes from the fact that narratively it is the perfect distillation of a plot that the series will draw on several times: the competition for a man. In our culture, generally speaking it is precisely this competition that so often pits women against one another, forcing them to choose between their romantic desires and their bonds with one another. As this episode makes abundantly clear, they will always choose their each other, precisely because men are so transient, so willing to betray the women in their lives so long as it pleases their own desires.

Next up, we’ll see what happens when Rose suffers what she thinks is a heart attack and begins to change the entire way she lives her life, with very mixed results.

Reading History: “And They Called it Camelot: A Novel of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis” (by Stephanie Marie Thornton)

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for a good historical novel. While I mostly prefer novels that are set in the distant past, recently I’ve found myself drawn to a recent crop of historical novels set in the more recent past. One of the best authors in that regard is Stephanie Marie Thornton. I very much enjoyed her novel American Princess, which was about the life of the spitfire Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, and so I was looking forward to her new book about Jackie O., the beautiful and enchanting wife of John F. Kennedy and the queen of Camelot.

As soon as I started reading the novel, I knew that I was going to be entranced, and so it proved to be. From the first page to the last, I found myself swept up in the heady and enchanting world of mid-20th Century America, when everything seemed possible.

The novel starts just before Jackie begins her romance with John Kennedy. The two quickly and fall in love and get married, and Jackie finds herself drawn along as Jack begins his political ascent. Of course, she also has to deal with a multitude of other conflicts and issues: his powerful family, her sister and mother, Jack’s health troubles and infidelities, the strain of the 1960s and its political conflagrations. Through it all, Jackie continues to show her signature strength and durability, weathering each blow. The novel concludes with a visit to the White House, where she stands with her two children and gazes at the portrait of Jack Kennedy, poised to take on the future and all that it holds.

Throughout the novel, we come to feel with Jackie as she confronts the realities of her husband’s infidelities. (She doesn’t have much good to say about Marilyn Monroe, needless to say). Like so many other political wives, she has to work through the complicated political calculus of whether to stay with this man that she so clearly loves, or whether she should set out on her own and leave him. Ultimately, she decides on a middle course, and in doing so she radically reshapes the role of the First Lady, shaping a template that will influence subsequent women. Most notable is her decision to remake the White House into a repository of American history, a testament to Jackie’s historian sensibility.

As important as Jack was to Jackie, her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, is also a significant figure. I have always found that particular relationship to be something of enigma, but in the novel Thornton makes the convincing case that Jackie married the Greek magnate in an effort to escape from the glaring lights of the public and to provide her children with some level of security. We can’t help but sympathize with her desires.

The novel steers something of a middle course when it comes to her relationship with Bobby Kennedy, which is understandable, given that historians and biographers alike remain similarly divided on the issue. The novel makes it clear that they felt dearly for one another, that Jack’s death brought them even closer together. Whether or not they ever consummated their relationship physically is left unclear, but in the end it is somewhat beside the point. For Jackie, Bobby is in many ways the man to fill the hole in her life left by Jack’s brutal death, and his subsequent death is yet another example of the tragedy that afflicts Jackie’s life.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the novel was the way that it emphasized the fact that Jackie Kennedy was a fierce and sharp intellect. This is no small thing, considering that the dominant image of Jackie in the popular imagination is of a glamor queen. However, this is a woman who knew French, who studied at the Sorbonne, who had a passionate interest in history, who went on to become an editor at a major press. It is her interest in history that I found particularly compelling, especially as she attempts to ensure that Jack’s legacy is remembered in the way that she deems appropriate.

And They Called it Camelot also allows us to see how it is that a woman who was more comfortable out of the spotlight than in it found herself at the center of one of the most famous presidencies in the history of the United States, the glittering queen who ruled over a golden court. At the same time, the novel doesn’t shy away from the fact that her life was also marred by an almost bewildering amount of tragedy. In addition to Jack’s brutal assassination in 1963, Jackie also had to endure several miscarriages (the last of which occurred right before Jack was killed). Time and time again, however, she

And it’s not just that the novel is well-constructed. It’s also just exquisitely written. The prose is at times incredibly lush, as frothy as the champagne that the Kennedys so frequently drink. At times, I simply allowed myself to just luxuriate in the prose. Though there is something to be said for using beautiful prose just for its own sake, here it serves a greater purpose. It allows us to believe that we are truly in the mind of the First Lady, with all of her refined taste and her nuanced ways of looking at the world. Every page is a pleasure to read, and before you realize it you’re done with the book.

And They Called it Camelot is one of the finest sorts of historical fiction. It allows us an intimate look into the mind of one of the most influential and well-known First Ladies to have inhabited the White House. It’s hard not to feel a profound sense of sadness at the fact that Camelot, that brief glimmering moment when America seemed poised on the cusp of a whole new world, lasted such a short period of time before being cut short by an assassin’s bullet. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I can’t wait for Thornton’s next effort!

Book Review: “Thrawn: Treason” (by Timothy Zahn)

Darcy and Winters

So far, I’ve enjoyed each installment of Timothy Zahn’s new Thrawn trilogy, and the conclusion is no exception. In this novel, Zahn manages to tie together the various strands that he’s woven so far. Having established himself as one of the foremost warriors in the Empire and one of Palpatine’s most reliable lieutenants, Thrawn might seem to be at the height of his powers. Unfortunately, other powers are gathering that want to take him down, and the Empire is being threatened by an outside force. Thrawn must ultimately decide whether his true loyalties lay with the Empire or with his native Chiss Ascendancy.

This novel includes fewer passages from Thrawn’s point of view than previous installments. Instead, we get a variety of others, including Commodore Faro (Thrawn’s chief subordinate), as well as Ronan, one of the chief people involved with the development of the Death Star. It also sees the…

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Book Review: "A Darker Shade of Magic" (by V.E. Schwab)

Darcy and Winters

Every so often you read a fantasy books that just sort of sweeps you up in its fictional universe, a book that’s told in such a compelling way that you feel like you literally can’t put the book down.

Such is the case with A Darker Shade of Magic.

This novel, the first of a series by V.E. Scwhab, follows two characters, Kell and Lila, as they attempt to stave off the consequences of a dreadful new type of magic that threatens to upend the fragile balance of power that exists in their interconnected worlds. In the process, they discover much about themselves and, by the end of the novel, the stage is set for further adventures with the two of them.

At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why it was that I loved this book so much. Part of it, a significant part, is the setting. In the…

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Reading History: "Victoria" (by Daisy Goodwin)

I’ve always been fascinated by Queen Victoria, and it’s unfortunate that the image that dominates the popular imagination has been, until fairly recently, the dowdy old queen who appears in so many photos from the period. As a corrective to that, Daisy Goodwin has written Victoria, a novel that exists in conjunction with the British television series of the same name.

In this novel, we get a more intimate glimpse into Victoria as she comes to the throne. She is particularly drawn to the formidable Lord Melbourne. Though he starts out as her prime minister, she soon finds herself falling in love with him, to such a degree that she almost considers taking him as her husband. At the same time, she is surrounded by multiple people who want to see her manipulated for their own advantage, including both her mother and her conspirator Lord Conroy. Through it all, however, Victoria manages to assert her own identity and her own desires, until she meets the man who will change the course of her life forever: her cousin, Albert.

Goodwin excels at drawing us into the mind of the young Victoria, a woman who is willful and more than a little foolish sometimes. However, there’s no question that Victoria matures as the novel progresses, as she slowly comes to terms with what it means to be a queen. She must learn the painful lesson that so many monarchs both before and after her have had to absorb: that being a ruler means putting the needs of one’s subjects and one’s country ahead of one’s own. It’s really quite fascinating to watch Victoria learn these lessons, and her growing maturity is part of what makes her such a charming and sympathetic character.

Now, it must be said that there are times in the novel when it gets a little easy to lose patience with Victoria. She tends to be more than a little childish, and she indulges her whims to an unreasonable degree. However, that is precisely the point. This is a young woman who, because of her mother and her scheming paramour Lord Conroy, has kept Victoria sheltered from the outside world. Is it any wonder that, for a time at least, she was far too willing to give in to the demands of her heart, even if they exist in tension with the needs of the kingdom? And, besides, who hasn’t felt themselves falling in love with someone who showed us a bit of kindness and compassion when we needed it most?

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is in its exploration of relationships. Obviously, the most important one is that between Victoria and Lord M., but we also see the vexed and fractious bond she shares with her mother. There’s something almost tragic about the tension that always exists between the two of them, for while it’s clear that they truly love one another, there are always those who keep them from expressing that in the way that they both clearly want to. Lord Conroy deserves the lion’s share of the blame in this regard, for while he clearly has some affection for the dowager, he primarily sees her, and her daughter, as his pathway to power. Those moments when Victoria finally manages to attain a bit of closeness with her mother are some of the most affecting in the novel, and they remind us of the dangers of alienating those who should be closest to us.

Though the vast majority of the novel is told from Queen Victoria’s point of view, it does occasionally shift into other perspectives. For example, there are several times when we get to see into the mind of Lord Melbourne, and I often found myself struck by just how tragic it is that he and Victoria cannot have the romance that they both so clearly desire. Lord Melbourne is a man whose life has been marred by romantic tragedy, with his deceased wife having been responsible for hurting him (through an affair with Lord Byron, of all people).

Arguably the novel’s most important relationship is that which finally begins to develop between Victoria and her cousin Albert. When they first meet, they spar almost incessantly, each of them attempting to fight back against the feelings that they clearly feel for one another. It is only as they each begin to let their guards down and to embrace their own vulnerability–this is particularly difficult for Albert–that they allow their clear feelings for one another to begin to grow and develop. Though some reviewers have taken the novel to task for waiting until near the end to show the two of them falling in love with one another, I actually found that to be one of the novel’s greatest charms, their romance a satisfying way of bring it to a conclusion.

Only occasionally does the outside world intrude upon the world of enclosed world of Buckingham Palace. There are some few mentions of the war in Afghanistan, and there is a crucial scene in which Alfred bears witness to the grinding poverty afflicting London. These incidents show us the broader world of which Victoria was a part, despite the fact that she spent the vast majority of her life moving in the upper echelons of power.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Victoria. My only disappointment, and it’s a relatively minor one, is that, so far, this is the only novel Goodwin has written about Victoria. Goodwin really has a knack for both capturing the essence of a historical period and for getting us inside the minds of her characters. Though she has, clearly been at work on the television series as well , to my mind there’s a particular pleasure to be had in the reading of a historical novel, one that’s be easily replicated in a television series. However, now that I’ve finished the novel, I definitely plan on watching the show, if only to enjoy the fantastic costumes that will be on display.

Stay tuned for my review!