Category Archives: Book Reviews

Reading History: “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality” (by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein)

Ever since I read David McCullough’s magisterial biography of John Adams many years ago, I’ve always thought it was a shame that the second president and his son have never received the sort of approbation and celebration that their contemporaries have. Adams is almost always overshadowed by his frenemy Jefferson, and Adams is usually swept aside in favor of the towering might of Andrew Jackson (as well as, to a lesser extent, figures such as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, who were also his contemporaries).

In large part, as Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein claim in their dual biography, this is because the two of them largely eschewed the trappings of celebrity, not only because it would have ill-suited their temperaments but also, and just as importantly, because they saw those who did so as caving in to the worst sort of impulses. To them, the rise of men like Jefferson and Jackson–one the frenemy of the senior and the other the victor over the latter–revealed both the dangers of parties but also the unpredictability (and thus the inherent danger) of the tide of popular opinion. For both father and son, democracy was a good thing in moderation, but throughout their lives they both entertained a health skepticism about the passions of the people.

Throughout this dual biography, Isenberg and Burstein situate the two Adams presidents not only in their political milieu, but also amid the intellectual life of the age. Both John and John Quincy were heavily influenced by the ancients, in particularly the Romans, and especially Cicero. To them, the ancient Roman Republican thinkers were the paragon of intellectual and moral achievement, and both saw a little of themselves in the doomed orator, who was one of the sole voices that stood out against the rise of tyranny in the form of Julius Caesar and his successors.

Isenberg and Burstein also note some of the two presidents’ less attractive qualities. Both of the Adams men were prone to bouts of melancholy and to self-pity, and both were often inflexible when it came to matters of conscience. The elder Adams in particular could be very waspish with his tongue, and he could often come across as a little self-pitying when he felt that his own contributions to the founding of the country were overlooked. JQA, for his part, was a stern moralist and became something of the conscience of the House, particularly given his staunch opposition to slavery.

That being said, they also reveal that John Quincy was probably slightly savvier as a politician than his father. When he saw that the Federalists were doomed–thanks in no small part to the machinations and later death of Alexander Hamilton–he joined the enemy and served in the administrations of both James Madison and James Monroe. Some thought him a traitor to the principles that he supposedly espoused, but in reality he knew that he was called to serve, and he wasn’t one to let party affiliation get in the way of his duty.

Throughout the book, we get a strong sense of just how raucous and acrimonious politics could be, both during the Founding era and in the generation that followed. These were men (and they were exclusively men, though women like Abigail Adams were profoundly influential) were men of towering intellect, fiery ambition, and they could often be quite cruel to one another. Indeed, the book points out that it is precisely this volatility that was both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the emerging republic.

All in all, I very much enjoyed The Problem of Democracy. As with many other popular history books produced in the last several years, the authors implicitly draw connections between our own political moment and that of the Founding Fathers. Much as we might like to think that we have moved beyond some of the darker and less pleasant parts of our collective history, Isenberg and Burstein reveal that we must still contend with the shortcomings of the popular will and those who would manipulate it for their own advancement. As the rise of Trump and a particularly violent and dangerous strain of nationalism have made clear, there is still much we must do to keep this republic. Hopefully, we can solve this seemingly intractable problem before it’s too late, and the American experiment goes up in flames.

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Book Review: All Politics is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States (by Meaghan Winter)

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book for review. It’s an unfortunate truth that the last few years have seen a hollowing out of Democratic power. From state houses to the nation’s Congress to the Presidency, the forces of the right have been shockingly and distressingly successful at grabbing the levers of power. This is, of course, no accident, as Meaghan Winter reveals in her book All Politics is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States. Indeed, as she points out in frightening detail, the right has been very effective not only in grabbing power, but in ensuring that they keep it, even if it means going against their constituents’ own wishes. The book focuses on three states and the ways in which they have confronted (and been confronted) by these realities: Missouri, Colorado, and Florida. We see numerous egregious examples of Republican abuse of their new power, ranging from gerrymandering (the sheer scale of their effrontery is truly hard to grasp) to a systematic and ruthless rollback of all the things that progressives have fought for (climate change, abortion, and guns are three key issues). It’s hard to say whether Florida or Missouri provides the more glaring object lesson in the outright cynicism that seems to motivate the Republican party these days. In both cases, state governments have done significant damage to both their states and, in the case of Florida, the planet in their mindless service to their right-wing donors. As guilty as Republicans clearly are for this state of affairs, Winter is not shy about showing how Democrats and other national liberal groups have also been negligent in their response. For too long, she argues, Democrats have focused almost exclusively on federal office, which has meant that not only has money been spent on those big-ticket races, but also that they only seem to care about states during major federal election years. Any other time they are forced to fend for themselves, with often disastrous results. Throughout the book, Winter focuses not only on the big picture and on the negative, but also on the hardworking progressive activists, legislators, and donors who have done their part to roll back this seemingly relentless tide. These are the people–mostly but not exclusively young–working long hours (and not getting paid for many of them), while turning themselves to the herculean task of building a society and a government that works for all people rather than the privileged and moneyed few. Though they don’t always win, it is heartening to know that there are still those who believe in a better world and are able and willing to do what it takes to bring it into being. Further, Winter deserves credit for paying just as much attention to their invaluable efforts as she does to those of their cynical counterparts on the right. As we continue to feel the endless buffeting of our democratic norms, All Politics is Local is a timely reminder that all is not lost, that we can take back our future. At the same time, however, it does not shy away from revealing the enormous difficulties that we still face across the electoral map. What’s more, we have to go into this with eyes wide open about the work involved. Progress is not (nor has it ever again) something that is accomplished and then forgotten about. It is a fight that must be constantly pursued in the face of those who would continue gaming the system for their own advantage. Winter’s book makes it clear that we must fight against those forces at every opportunity, and we must not let down our guard. If we do, as we have so often in the past, then we will have only ourselves to blame for the ruin that results. These days, it’s easy to lose sight of the small, local details, caught up as we are in the daily horror show that is the Trump administration and its cynical allies in the Senate. However, if we take the lessons of All Politics is Local to heart, we can, perhaps, make this country, and this world, a better place for everyone to live in.

Book Review: Siege: Trump Under Fire (by Michael Wolff)

Let me be upfront by saying that I had distinctly mixed feelings about Michael Wolff’s last book, Fire and Fury. While it was, admittedly, tremendously entertaining and dreadfully (one might even say sinfully) readable, I ultimately felt that I had not really learned anything. It was mostly just a rehash of existing information, with a few gossipy bits thrown in for spice.

I had many of the same feelings about Siege, the sequel. Very accessible, gossipy, and more than a little soapy, it shows a President, and a White House, always on the brink of utter collapse.

Siege moves along at nothing short of a lightning pace, taking us through the familiar hallmarks of the Trump Presidency: gross incompetence, constant staff infighting, paranoia about the Mueller investigation, etc. However, that very speed is one of the book’s most significant weaknesses, as it denies Wolff the chance to really dig in deep into the material that he usually covers only glancingly. Sometimes, I had the feeling that Wolff was just rather bored with the whole affair and wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.

As readable as the book is, however, there’s not much in this book that we haven’t already encountered elsewhere, either in traditional news outlets (which I generally find more reliable than Wolff) or in the numerous leaks that seem to be such a hallmark of this administration. This deprives the book of much tension, and by the end I didn’t feel that I’d really learned anything new. More distressingly, what new information there is–most notably Wolff’s claim that Mueller had drawn up an indictment against Trump–has been called into question. It doesn’t really inspire confidence in Wolff’s journalistic ability.

My more major complaint is that Wolff relies entirely too much on Steve Bannon. I find this repellant for a host of reasons, but two are particularly important. Firstly, it remains unclear why, exactly, Wolff relies so much on Bannon’s (profanity-drenched) commentary about Trump and his administration. The obvious answer is that Bannon is one of the few people who will still talk openly to him, but that still leaves one to wonder why Wolff seems to think that he can offer any significant insight on the administration or its doings. Secondly, Wolff commits the crime of elevating Bannon into a status that he most definitely does not deserve, as some sort of oracle that possesses the key to both Trump and his voters. In addition, Bannon just comes across as a grouchy old man who likes to swear a lot and has a very high opinion of himself (one which Wolff clearly shares).

Structurally, the book doesn’t ever quite seem to have a sense of what exactly its governing principle is. There is rarely a sense of cohesion between one chapter and the next, and it sometimes feels as if Wolff is merely jumping to whatever subject seemed to catch his attention at that particular moment (a phenomenon not dissimilar to what Trump himself does). One gets the feeling that this book was a bit of a rush job and, in my opinion, it could definitely have done with some more time to be sculpted into a coherent narrative rather than a series of simultaneously hilarious and alarming vignettes.

Where the book succeeds, arguably, is in its ability to get into Trump’s psychology (as much as any work will ever be able to do so). Wolff has a keen eye for the foibles that make Trump tick and that remain key to his persona. Throughout Siege, Trump emerges as a very paranoid and inept figure, one whose confidence comes from his extraordinary good luck and his ability to survive the sorts of stumbles that would be the end of any other politician (or other public figure). And, of course, the real best thing about the book is that, like its predecessor, it will no doubt get under Trump’s skin.

All that said, I will assert the same thing that I did about Fire and Fury. If even a third of what Wolff asserts is true about Trump’s state of mind, we are in very deep trouble. But, as the bookshop clerk responded when I said this to her: “I think we’re already in a lot of trouble.”

Book Review: “The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent” (by P.E. Moskowitz)

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book for review.

Of all the issues facing us today, one that continues to excite an enormous amount of outrage from the right (and sometimes from the left) is that of “free speech.” Whether it is Milo Yiannopoulos being met with fierce protests at UC–Berkeley or racist psuedo-scientist Charles Murray being met with a similar outrage at Middlebury College, the First Amendment is on everyone’s lips. P.E. Moskowitz’s The Case Against Free Speech is thus a very timely contribution to the fraught (and sometimes violent) discussion surrounding this pressing issue.

I was honestly quite excited about this book. For some time now I’ve been grappling with the complicated issue of free speech and how it can be that Nazis and others who advocate genocide have their rights championed by people across the political spectrum. Though I don’t always agree with Moskowitz’s conclusions, I appreciated the way they lay out in exhaustive and excoriating detail how it is that free speech has increasingly become an empty signifier. While we pride ourselves on our championing of this essential right, the reality is that we have always imposed certain restrictions on certain types of speech, usually so that those who possess power can continue to do so without undue interference from below. Given that many (though not all) of those who have attempted to impose such restrictions have come from the right, it is galling to see them now up in arms.

For me, the most compelling (and convincing) example of the American right’s hypocrisy is their continued bankrolling of radical conservative thought in the American academy. At the same time as they are doing so, of course, they help to lead the charge against those who would push back against such corporate control of our intellectual life. For people like the Kochs, free speech only matters in so far as it allows them to continue building their influence and, it goes without saying, their wealth.

Throughout The Case Against Free Speech, Moskowitz gives attention to those whose stories are frequently left out of (or deliberately effaced) in discussions around free speech. In these pages we meet those young people who led the protests against Milo and Murray, the labor protestors of the early 20th Century, and numerous others who openly confronted the injustices they saw in the world. Dismissed by many as special snowflakes and rabble rousers, here they emerge as people of passion and deep intellect, profoundly invested in changing the world for the better and confronting the deep and structural inequalities that have blighted (and continue to blight), the promise of the American dream. As they point out, it is almost always the marginalized who are sacrificed on the altar of free speech. Those who have been discouraged (often violently) from speaking truth to power are all too frequently the ones who are the first to suffer in these battles.

There were times when Moskowitz’s history lessons threaten to detract from the primary thrust of their argument, and it would have helped if they had tied together those deep (and very problematic) histories with the issues of the present. Part of this, I think, comes from the book’s organization, which doesn’t seem as coherent as it should be. It sometimes shuttles between past and present in a not-entirely-coherent manner, and this makes it easy at times to lose track of the thrust of the argument.

It’s worth pointing out that this book is straightforward about its political investments. Moskowitz is very clearly a radical, and in my view this allows them to sometimes fire their criticism at both those who are acting in cynically self-serving ways and those who, for better worse, truly do believe in the essential virtue of the American experiment. Be that as it may, The Case Against Free Speech is nevertheless required reading for all of those who want (or need) to take a good, hard look in the mirror at the myths that we construct around ourselves and that prevent us from seeing the realities of our troubled present.

At the end of the day, however, The Case Against Free Speech leaves us with a conundrum, one that has no easy answers. Do we really want to abandon the idea of free speech, as empty as it may sometimes seem? What would this actually look like in political practice? These are questions we will all have to grapple with, both today and in the days to come.

Book Review: “I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution” (by Emily Nussbaum)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for generously providing me a copy of this book to review.

There’s a peculiar joy that comes from reading sound media criticism. A very few people can somehow capture their intellectual passions in a way that makes their work intelligible for mainstream audiences (something that a lot of media scholars struggle to do).

Thankfully, Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for The New Yorker, has done just this in I Like to Watch: Arguing my Way Through the TV Revolution.

The book is a collection of pieces, most of which Nussbaum wrote for various publications and a few that she wrote especially for the volume. Some are simply short reflections of a particular TV series, while others are more in-depth explorations of a particular series or showrunner (her lengthy piece about Ryan Murphy is one of the best in the collection). Though they vary in subject matter, they are united by Nussbaum’s distinctive voice and intellectual clarity, as well as her deeply personal encounter with the medium.

What I particularly enjoyed about the book as a whole was its willingness to look at television series that fall squarely outside the quality TV designation that seems to be all the rage (or was, at any rate) among those who think and write about television. Indeed, she begins the book with an anecdote about how it was watching Buffy, the Vampire Slayer that drew her into wanting to write about television.

Some of my favourite pieces in the collection focus on these “bad” texts, including Sex and the City, Behind the Candelabra (the HBO film about Liberace), Hannibal, and sundry others. However, she also gives sustained attention to more traditionally quality TV, and her essay on The Sopranos is particularly compelling and insightful. I also loved The Sex and the City essay, which makes the compelling case that this HBO series deserves just as much credit for vaunting HBO into the upper echelons of television production as more male-oriented series.

While most of the essays in the book focus on contemporary television, some also delve deeper into TV’s past, including a particularly erudite exploration of “bad fandom” and All in the Family. Thus, one of the through-lines that runs through the entire book is Nussbaum’s interest in fandom, both her own and that of others. All too often, fandom is something to be confessed to, rather than embraced and celebrated. The fact that Nussbaum, writing for one of the premier intellectual publications in the country, so openly embraces her own identity as a fan is refreshing.

Nussbaum’s style is nuanced and deeply thoughtful yet very accessible. If I have one quibble with her, it’s that I sometimes feel that she (like many mainstream critics) seems to believe that her realizations emerge out of a vacuum, when in fact there are huge bodies of scholarship conducted by television and media scholars that often reach the same conclusions that she does. Since this seems to be a problem with many working for mainstream publications–not just television critics–I won’t be too hard on her.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this foray through Nussbaum’s encounters with television. Highly recommended.

Book Review: “The Last Tsar’s Dragons” (by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple)

Note: I would like to thank NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book to review.

I have to say that the title is what drew me to this strange but enjoyable little novella. How on earth, I thought, can one make dragons relevant to the Russian Revolution?

Somehow, mother and son team Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple weave together myth and history into a compelling tale of the last days of the Tsar Nicholas II and his family, their relentless hatred of both the Jews and the peasants, and their eventual fall from power.

Several notable historical figures appear in the story, including the “Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin, the tsarina Alexandra, the man who would later become Leon Trotsky, and a nameless functionary whose narration bookends the story as a whole.

Of these, arguably the most compelling–and repelling–character is certainly the nameless functionary whose point of view bookends the novella. He is ruthless, vicious, and utterly willing to do whatever it takes to see to it that he advances up the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy, even if that means betraying his own wife (or engage in the murder of Rasputin). He is the only character whose narration is in first person, and this provides us an uncomfortably intimate glimpse into a psyche that is fundamentally twisted and ruthless.

Though the novella is largely driven by such characters, the authors also have a gift for capturing a fascinating mix of the fantastic and the historical. One gets a sense of the political and social ferment affecting Russia on the eve of the Revolution, as various parties struggle to cope with a country–and a world–that seems to teeter on the brink of absolute collapse. Furthermore, they also manage to bring into the open the toxic antisemitism that was such a prominent part of Russia at the time (and since).

All in all, I found The Last Tsar’s Dragons to be an intriguing tale, and it was rather refreshing to see a story told successfully in the form of the novella. At the same time, however, I for one am left hungering for more, precisely because the central conceit begs so many questions. Where did the dragons come from? Were there other places that used them other than Russia? If not, why not?

Perhaps the authors will one day pursue these questions, but in the meantime, we can savour what they have provided us, a glimpse into how the real world of history might have been impacted had the mythical played a larger part in it.

Reading Classic Hollywood: Demographic Angst (Alan Nadel)

As some of you who read this blog regularly know, I’m a passionate believer in the value of the public humanities. Now that I’ve finished the dissertation (yay!) and have a bit of time on my hands, and since I’ve been spending so much time reading books in film, I have decided to do my part in that project. I’m going to start posting reviews of books that I think would be of interest not only to those studying film from an academic perspective, but also to those who are fans of film and want to think more complexly and with more nuance about how cinema engages with the world that produces it.

To inaugurate this, I am writing about the new book Demographic Angst: Cultural Narratives and American Films of the 1950s, by Alan NadelI’ve been a fan of Nadel’s for some time now; in fact, his book Containment Culture (about the instability of atomic technology and the way in which this was reflected in the challenges of postmodernism) enormously influenced my own work on Cold War films. So, needless to say, I was very excited indeed to see that he had a new book coming out, which explores a new aspect of my favourite periods of Hollywood history.

Through a series of erudite readings of classic films of the 1950s–ranging from All About Eve to Singin’ in the Rain, from Niagara to West Side Story–Nadel demonstrates the ways in which the cultural texts of the postwar period reflected the ongoing debates and anxieties that characterized American culture in the aftermath of the Second World War. In particular, these films grappled with the tremendous changes in the American population that emerged after the victory. This was an era, after all, of unprecedented economic and population growth, a pinnacle of achievement that the United States had not yet achieved.

However, as Nadel ably demonstrates, the films of the era exposed the contradictions dwelling at the heart of the Cold War American unconscious. Though this is an era that has, in subsequent years, been understood as one of conformity, it was in fact deeply conflicted, for in its attempt to enforce a hegemonic understanding of normality, the dominant ideologies of the period inadvertently summoned up the anxieties they meant to quell. This endless conflict between opposites, Nadel contends, created the angst that was such a signature part of Cold War culture.

Nadel is a historicist in the finest tradition, and he shows how the angst emerging in the broader American culture found their reflection in the cinema of the era. These concerns include the issue of labour (reflected in the bodies and voices of the characters of Singin’ in the Rain and On the Waterfront), the plight of the organization man in the postwar business world (which can be seen in The Court Jester), the perils of female desire (exposed in films such as All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard), and the shifting understandings of the status of Puerto Rico in an era in which Communist Cuba was becoming an increasing presence on the global stage (explored through the narrative of West Side Story). Through these readings, the book shows how 1950s films were very much a part of their moment of production and, as such, co-creators of the ideologies upon which they drew.

Part of the book’s appeal lies in the way that it draws upon such a deep archive of primary materials from the period. As someone who recently did his own research into the discourses of the postwar world, it was exciting to see Nadel read them in ways that would not have occurred to me. Nadel’s ability to weave together the context and his readings of the films makes this an ideal book for those looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the 1950s, the many competing discourses that barraged those living in this profoundly uncertain time. In that sense, Demographic Angst is a particularly valuable book for those of us living in a similarly contentious period of demographic change.

Nadel, while very complex in his thinking and his interpretation of film, nevertheless manages to write in a style that is at once sophisticated and yet accessible to those outside the academy. If you want to learn more about the important cultural work that classic Hollywood films did in their time of production, there is much to gain from reading this book. Further, it’s clear that Nadel has a great deal of fondness for the films that he analyzes, and that he has a keen eye for the visual details that make the cinema of this period such a joy to watch.

If I have one slight complaint about the book as a whole, it’s that Nadel tends to be a little too literal in his associations between the context and the reflection in the film. Still, it is entirely possible that those watching these films would have understood them as participating and reflecting their own lived reality and the ideologies in which they were immersed. As Nadel ably puts it, however, these films also rendered visible–and thus forced an experience of–the contradictory impulses of postwar America.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book for the light that it sheds on the films of the 1950s. I’m one of those weird people who genuinely enjoys reading film criticism, particularly when it helps me to see my favourite films in new and exciting ways. I also like reading about films that I haven’t seen yet (as odd as that sounds). Indeed, sometimes it’s reading about them that makes me want to see them.

Demographic Angst is published by Rutgers University Press. It’s actually priced quite reasonably at around $30, so if you can you should buy a copy for yourself. After all, buying a scholar’s book not only helps them (if they sell enough copies they’ll eventually get a royalty) but also helps to demonstrate to university presses that there is a market for scholarship that exists beyond the libraries that typically purchase them.

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Dragon Reborn” (Book 3)

Now that he has acknowledged that he is the Dragon Reborn, Rand must make his way to Tear and claim Callandor, one of the most powerful sa’angreal that were created during the Age of Legends. Meanwhile, Nynaeve and Elayne must seek out the Black Ajah, and Perrin, Egwene, and Mat have to accept their role in Rand’s destiny.

I’m going voice what will probably be an unpopular opinion. Both Rand and Mat are the most insufferable characters in fantasy literature. I mean, I know that Rand is supposed to be the reluctant hero and all of that, but he’s not only unwilling, he’s stupidly stubborn. The only other character I can think of that is nearly as annoying is Jon Snow, whose character also suffers because of a certain lack of competency on the part of most fantasy writers to create central characters who aren’t infuriating.

That being said, there is a lot to like in this novel, particularly the (for the most part) well-organized plot that sees several different strands converge at the end in the climactic moment when Rand claims the sword for his own and announces to the world his status as the Dragon Reborn. What’s more, this novel really gives a great deal to Perrin who, among the three male leads, is definitely the most sympathetic (and the least insufferable). Though he won’t really come into his own until The Shadow Rising, the seeds are already set for his starring role in that book.

The novel also includes the perspectives of several of our other favourite characters, each of whom starts to develop a true mission of their own. I particularly enjoy the plot in which Nynaeve and Elayne are sent to track down the Black Ajah, particularly the malicious Liandrin and her fellows. These are truly some of the most sinister characters in the series, women who have no intention of doing anything other than leashing Rand for a service to the Dark One. The fact that they elude the justice that they so richly deserve is frustrating, but it does give us something to look forward to in the next novel.

Like it’s predecessor The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn is briskly-paced, so that we move through the various stages of the plot in a relatively short book. I would actually argue that the first three books of The Wheel of Time are in many ways a springboard for the vast tapestry (a Pattern, if you will), that will consume all of the subsequent books. In fact, this is the last book for quite a while that will have a narrative that is actually contained and leads to a meaningful fruition. From this point on, we’ll get more POV characters and more plot-threads, but given that the sheer scope is part of the pleasure of this series, I’m not going to complain too much.

There are still some nagging bits of inconsistency in terms of pacing, particularly Moiraine’s ability to kill Be’lal with seemingly little resistance on his part. Sure, it seems like she is able to get the jump on him, but it really makes one doubt the power of the Forsaken if they can be so easily dispatched. But then, the Forsaken, for all of their vaunted strength and prominence in the Age of Legends, seem a bit off their game in this new world.

Overall, though, The Dragon Reborn is a truly entertaining and thrilling read. It is probably the last book in the series in which Jordan is able to restrain his worst impulses. From this point out, the plot will start to meander and hundreds more characters will make their appearance. In addition, the characters will begin to engage in their endless refrains that will become infuriatingly repetitive the longer the series goes on.

I’m very much enjoying my re-reading of The Wheel of Time. I am sincerely hoping to have it finished by sometime in early 2018, which is a bit ambitious, but I’m sure I can do it. I’ll be honest. I’m sort of skimming the volumes that I’ve read several times, but I hope to slow down and savour the last four.

With that, onward we go!

Reading Tad Williams: “The War of the Flowers”

Having finally found a bit of breathing space in the midst of frantic Dissertation, I thought I’d pop in and write a quick review of Tad Williams’ excellent one-volume epic The War of the Flowers. 

In the tradition of other epic fantasy writers who turn to something a little more whimsical than is usually on offer with the genre of the epic, The War of the Flowers is narrated from the perspective of the 30-something, mostly-washed-up musician Theo Vilmos. One night, he finds himself attacked by an undead creature and is saved by the foul-mouthed sprite Applecore. Whisked into the realm of the Fairies, which exists alongside our own (and to some extent mirrors ours), he soon finds himself embroiled in a long-simmering war between the various great houses of this world, some of whom wish to co-exist with humans and others that want to obliterate them. In the process, he learns a great deal about himself and solves a troubling mystery about his own heritage.

It’s not everyone who can manage to write a single-volume epic fantasy, but as always Tad Williams shows himself a master of whatever genre he turns his hand to. The pacing is, for such a large novel, quite brisk, toggling effortlessly between brisk action set-pieces and the more arcane political machinations that one always expects from the best sorts of epic fantasy. There are characters from every walk of life in this mysterious fairy world, and there are family loyalties, class warfare, and all of the other trappings that make this genre one of the most complex and fascinating in contemporary literature.

The characters are fully-drawn which means that they are often quite awful and difficult to like. This goes for Vilmos as much as it does any of the more magical creations, for Theo is the epitome of what might be called privileged white manhood. He sometimes can’t seem to wrap his head around the idea that he is not entitled to an easy answer to all of his questions, and that sometimes one is caught up in events that sweep us along. The fact that, as a rather entitled man, this lack of agency comes as a shock, reveals a great deal about how the men in our world think about the way that they inhabit social spaces. Williams has a keen eye for the insufferable nature of this sort of behaviour, and he’s not afraid to allow us as readers to get quite annoyed with Theo throughout the novel.

Of course, this being Tad Williams, there is more than a little social commentary going on throughout the novel. The higher forms of fairies are notoriously cruel, unthinking, and exploitative, and they care little (or nothing) for the lives and well-being of their fellows. They ruthlessly exploit them to power their scientific (magical) advancements, but in doing so they inadvertently sow the seeds of their own eventual downfall. The War of the Flower makes it quite clear that so many of things that many people take for granted, both in the fantasy world that Williams has created and in our own, are built, from the foundations, on the exploitation of others. It’s a troubling realization, but that is part of the brilliance of this novel.

Though it was written in the early aughts, The War of the Flowers feels even more relevant today. Button the Goblin could just as easily be a stand-in for the incendiary politics of Bernie Sanders, and the wanton cruelty of Thornapple and Hellebore bear a surprising resemblance to certain nefarious parts of the American political system of 2016 (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon). When, at the end of the novel, everything in the world seems to have fallen into ruin and chaos, there is still a glimmer that a new, more just political order might emerge from the ashes of the old. That, ultimately, is a very optimistic view of the world that it is nice to see in epic fantasy.

All in all, I enjoyed The War of the Flowers quite a lot. I’ve always admired Williams’ ability to combine thickly layered plots with lush description, and both of those tendencies are on full display here. He has definitely earned his place in the pantheon of great epic fantasy writers of our generation, and I very much look forward to my continuing journey through his oeuvre. 

Next, it’s on to the Bobby Dollar series, which I like to think of as film noir meets John Milton. Stay tuned!

Reading Tad Williams: “The Witchwood Crown” (Book 1 of “The Last King of Osten Ard”)

Warning: Major Spoilers Follow

At long last, I have finished The Witchwood Crown and let me tell you, dear readers, this is one hell of a book.

The story takes place roughly thirty years after the end of To Green Angel Tower, and Simon and Miriamele have successfully ruled as the High King and High Queen of Osten Ard. However, not all is as peaceful for it seems, for there is unrest throughout the human kingdoms, and the Norns have also begun to re-emerge from a long period of dormancy. Beset with problems both domestic and political, and joined by numerous new characters, Simon and Miriamele must contend with yet another grave peril to their beloved kingdom.

There is something uniquely pleasurable about seeing the characters that we loved so much in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. All of them, of course, bear the burden of the intervening years, Miriamele and Simon most of all. They have governed well, but already there are disturbing signs that all is not as well as it might appear. Fortunately, there are still those that are able to aid them, such as the doughty but aging Count Eolair, as well as the lovable and eternally loyal troll Binabik. There is something equally sad about learning that some of our favourite characters–Rachel the Dragon, Father Strangeyeard, etc.–have already died. And if you don’t feel a tear come to your eye at the death of dear old Duke Isgrimnur, then I don’t think that you are really a human being.

While Simon and Miriamele were the central characters in the preceding series, it seems that now they are on the fringes of the narrative. Their actions are important, certainly, but it’s hard not to feel that events have begun to slip beyond their grasp. Having faced the death of their only son, they now have to contend with the fact that his son has become something of a wastrel. Williams does an excellent job conveying their maturity, as well as the sinister fact that even their most seemingly loyal councilors–such as Pasavalles–may have motivations that are not in the best interests of the monarchs.

As with The Heart of What Was Lost, one of the things I enjoyed most about this novel was the portrait that we get of the inner workings of Norn society. This is a rigid culture that has very set ways of doing things, and while many of them believe that this is the way that it should be, there are significant nodes of resistance among even the highest of them. Viyeki, now a Magister, is one of these, and the parts of the book devoted to his viewpoint are always compelling, in no small part because he, perhaps more than any of his countrymen, realizes that the Queen and her chief adviser Akhenabi may not be as wise or as infallible as the Norns have come to believe.

Most of the new characters are likewise compelling, though Morgan, the grandson of the king and queen, is quite insufferable (for all that we sympathize with him in some ways). Nezeru, the daughter of Viyeki and the mortal Tzoja; Unver the Thrithing; and numerous others make appearances that show that this novel is comprised of a number of moving parts. Everyone has their own motivations, some noble and some not, and that is part of what makes The Witchwood Crown such an utterly consuming read.

At a deeper philosophical level (which is always one of my favourite things about Williams’s work), the novel forces us to confront one of the uncomfortable realities that simmers beneath the surface of a great deal of epic fantasy. While the endings of so many epics suggest that the evil has been banished once and for all, that is almost never the case in the real world. The story goes on, the cycle of history repeats itself, and those who are caught in the gears of it have to fend for themselves or learn to navigate as best they can. While Williams’ books tend to not be as ruthless as those of, say, George R.R. Martin, I am beginning to wonder if we might not see the end of some of our most beloved characters (after all, the series is titled “The Last King of Osten Ard”).

At this point, it’s still rather difficult to see the endgame of the series as a whole. Clearly Utuk’ku will stop at nothing to reclaim the world that she thinks has been stolen from her and her people by the mortals. What’s more, most of the humans seem to be so caught up in their own pettiness that they fail to see the forest for the trees. Even after the carnage and destruction of the Storm King’s War, humanity seems chronically unable to hold itself together long enough to be able to actually build a more just, stable world. This series seems like a slower burn than Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and in that sense it seems to have more in common (pace-wise) with the Shadowmarch series. For someone like me who likes a plot that only gradually unfolds–with, of course, a tremendously satisfying conclusion–this is right up my alley. And, in my humble opinion, it is one of Williams’s greatest strengths.

Overall, this new adventure in Osten Ard seems a bit darker than its predecessors, a product, perhaps, of the very different sociocultural milieu in which Williams is now writing. There are even more grey areas than there were before, and even some of the characters whose minds we inhabit are far murkier than we might have thought possible. There are great forces at work, and it is entirely possible that the things that everyone has taken for granted in this world, perhaps even the very substance of the world itself, may come crashing down into ruin. I have already begun bracing myself for what’s coming next.

The only problem is…how long will I have to wait for the next volume?