Reading History: “Mary, Called Magdalene” (by Margaret George)

Since finishing The Confessions of the Young Nero, the most recent literary outing from historical fiction author Margaret George, I’ve found myself possessed of the desire to re-read her entire oeuvre, beginning with the two novels of hers that I haven’t read. So, I started with Mary, Called Magdalene. 

In another life, I was passionately interested in the history of early Christianity, and I even entertained the notion of pursuing graduate work in that field. Since I opted out of that, I am very happy to see that works like George continue to bring to light the lives and experiences of those women who have been largely left out of the larger historical narratives concerning the genesis and birth of Christianity. Fortunately for me and those like me, Margaret George is right there to bring to light what it might have felt like to walk in the shoes of one of Jesus’s earliest converts.

Having combed through both the canonical gospels as well as numerous other ancient sources, George has managed to construct a plausible idea of what Mary’s life must have been like before, during, and after her membership in the circle of disciples that follow Jesus. While she begins the novel as a traditional Jewish wife and mother of the 1st Century CE, things begin to change when she is possessed by a number of demons, vengeful spirits that have grown angry at their dispossession. Ultimately driven nearly mad, she is only saved when she encounters Jesus at the River Jordan, after which she joins his ministry, following him until his death and even afterward.

George ably captures the contradictory position that women occupied in ancient Israel, and Mary consistently chafes at the limits imposed upon her by both her own family–who constantly criticize her for her willfulness and ultimately disown her after her decision to follow Jesus–and even by her fellow disciples. In refusing to bow down to the imperative of respectability, she also sacrifices her place in society. While this means that she must also give up her access to her daughter Elisheba–a sacrifice that haunts Mary throughout the novel–she never regrets her decision to follow Jesus and subscribe to the dictates of his ministry.

George also ably demonstrates the troubling sense of doubt that Jesus’s disciples must have felt as they struggled to accept a message and a man that went beyond anything that they had been raised to understand. All of them see in Jesus and his message something that helps them make sense of the world, and it is precisely in this multiplicity that George situates Mary and her own interpretation of Jesus. She sees in him both a possible romantic connection (ultimately dashed) and something more, something that is a message that is not based in empty ritual but instead on spiritual fulfillment. She sees in Jesus not a political messiah but instead someone who can, indeed, bring about a very different kingdom, one of the spirit rather than the flesh.

The world that George paints is one poised on the edge of a great conflagration. Increasingly embittered as a result of their subjection under the yoke of Rome, the Jewish people yearn for someone to deliver them. For some, Jesus promises an escape from their dilemma, while for others–most notably the leaders of the Temple–he represents a very real threat to their political alliance with Rome. Mary, as a prosperous Jewish woman, finds herself caught up in this conflict, even as she attempts to understand Jesus’ message and her relationship to it.

The novel is peopled by a variety of characters from all walks of life, from fisherman to tax collectors to zealots, all of whom see in Jesus something slightly different. It is for this reason that Mary fits in with them, though she does have moments of conflict. Most notably, she finds herself in several terse interactions with Judas, who is both the most like her and the one most prone to his own inner demons and despair. She also finds herself in something of a competition with Peter, with whom she vies for the position of being closest to Jesus.

While the entire novel is compellingly readable, it’s the last portion that I found to be the most moving. Here, we are given a close-up perspective of the gospel that Mary has begun to compose, for she comes to understand that Christianity as a faith increasingly diverges from its Jewish origins and that there are those in the fledgeling communities who desperately yearn for the words and testimony of those who were with Jesus while he still walked the earth. As time continues its inexorable march forward, Mary finds herself a key part of the history of a religion.

Yet the most heartbreaking thing is the fact that Mary is not reunited with her daughter until it is too late, after she has died as a result of injuries she sustains as a result of her casting down of idols in the city of Ephesus. It is only then that her daughter finally comes to see her, and she erects a memorial testifying to her affection. This sense of being too-late adds a further layer of emotional resonance to Mary’s story.

The core of Mary’s narrative and personal dilemma is her awareness and recognition that despite his earth-changing message, the historical world moves on, even though her own life has irrevocably changed. Tormented by the visions that she has of the future, she bears the heavy weight of historical and spiritual responsibility. With its privileging of her perspective–almost the entire novel is related either in third person limited or first person–Mary, Called Magdalene gives us a unique perspective on the presence of the feminine at the root of Christian thought and history.

Currently, I’m hard at work on George’s other novel about a famous Mary, Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. It’s quite a large work, so it will take me quite a while to finish but worry not. Watch this space for my thoughts and reflections on that book as well.

Reading Tad Williams: “To Green Angel Tower: Part 1” (Book 3 of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”)

I must apologize for taking so long to finish up this post. I have been on the road quite a lot that past couple of weeks, and have just now (finally!) finished the first half of To Green Angel Tower  (yes, I still have the mass market paperback, which split the final volume into two halves). Having done so, I can now offer a few remarks on what constitutes one of the greatest works of fantasy of the latter half of the 20th Century.

First, a brief word about the artwork for the cover. From the moment I bought these books at Waldenbooks all those years ago, I have loved the cover. There is just something piercing and perfect about Michael Whelan’s renditions of Miriamele and Simon, paired with Jiriki and Aditu. It is very rare that I find a cover that captures my own mental image of a character, but this one seems to capture the world-weary mortals and the continuing intensity of the Sithi. I would even go so far as to say that this is my favourite cover of a fantasy novel, showcasing the best of Whelan’s always-extraordinary talents.

I won’t spend too much time reciting plot summary, other than to note that the novel starts bringing all of the characters together. While the Sithi finally ride forth and return the control of Hernystir to its people, Simon, Binabik, and the others overcome significant obstacles to cement Josua’s position of strength, while Miriamele, Isrgimnur, and Camaris finally make their way to the Stone of Farewell.

This novel, perhaps more than the ones that preceded it, shows us in full measure the powerful sweep of historical events that often pick humans up in their midst and hurl them against the rocks of fate and chance. All of the characters, both major and minor, bear the scars of their travails, and it’s hard not to feel at least a stab of pity even for Elias, whose own folly and poor judgment have led his father’s kingdom and all of his accomplishments to the edge of ruin (and perhaps beyond). They are all of them, even the Storm King and his ally Utuk’u, bound by historical forces that they cannot quite control or name. The true tragedy, to my mind, is that so many of them can’t even recognize the limits of their own agency. History is a prison from which none can ultimately escape.

For all of its attention to the grand sweep of history, however, it is at the level of the personal that the book truly succeeds. Williams has a deft and deep understanding of what makes people work. Both Simon and Miriamele have been through some of the hardest and most trying encounters a human being can endure, and while they clearly have feelings for one another, they do not yet know how to express them in a way that is mutually satisfying. Each of them remains locked in an emotional prisoning not entirely of their own making, afraid to really render themselves vulnerable to one another and thus express their love.

Other, more minor characters also have their own tragedies. The princess Maegwin has become trapped in her own mind, wandering the lonely roads of madness, while Count Eolair, the man who loves her and whom she loves in return, can only look on and hope for the best. Like Simon and Miramele, the seemingly grand history in which they are caught up has begun to take a tremendous toll on both their physical and emotional well-being, and in staging this drama Williams manages to show us the costs of history, the way in which it affects the lives of those who, so we might think, are those who are in the middle of the story.

However, while the younger heroes are of course the center of the narrative, it is also worth pointing out that Cadrach, at least as he is revealed through the eyes of the princess, is also a tortured and mutilated soul. He struggles against the darker and baser parts of his nature, and yet he always manages to come up short. It is hard to know precisely what to make of him, considering that the only access that we as readers get of him is what Miriamele thinks and believes, but even that is enough to tell us that he cannot escape his deeds in the past. While the full extent of his complicity remains something of a mystery, enough has been revealed to show us that, in some way, whether large or small, he has been pivotal to all of the events that have unfolded.

Though the entirety of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is, of course, an epic, it is also, I would argue, an embodiment of the highest aspirations of the tragic mode. The great schism between the Sithi and the Norns is one of the great and terrible events of the series, and while it lies back in the mists of time for humanity, it is one of those signature events that still dominates the fortunes of those living in later days. Indeed, had the two families not been sundered, it’s possible that the events that are even now taking place might have been prevented, and a great deal of bloodshed and brutality avoided. And yet that is precisely what makes the events of the novel so heartbreaking. So much pain might have never have happened, so many lives could have been saved if only certain events had not transpired. And yet, like all tragedies, the events keep us moving ahead, helpless to stop what is about to happen.

I’m currently hard at work reading the second part of To Green Angel Tower, so I’m hoping to have my thoughts on that ready for public consumption by the end of April. I have to say that I’m really enjoying both re-reading these novels that played such a large part of my youth, as well as sharing my thoughts about them with those of you out there in the dark. As always, I invite you to comment and reflect on your own reading encounters with “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.”

Reading Tad Williams: “Stone of Farewell” (Book 2 of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn)

Today, I continue with my reviewing of the corpus of the fantasy author Tad Williams, and today’s entry focuses on the second volume of his series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” Stone of Farewell.

The book begins where its predecessor left off. Simon and company are held by Binabik’s fellow trolls, with Binabik himself and the Rimmersman Sludig under a sentence of death. While they are eventually released, their trials and tribulations have just begun. Gradually, the pieces begin to move in their necessary directions. Josua and his band of survivors make their way to an old Sithi place named the Stone of Farewell, where they are joined by Binabik and Sludig. Simon, having been separated from his companions, finally makes his way to the Sithi stronghold of Jao e-Tinukai’i, where he is reunited with his old friend Jiriki and encounters the ancient Amerasu. Unfortunately, the Norn queen Utuk’u sends the hunter Ingen Jegger to kill her, and he succeeds (though he dies in doing so). Simon is permitted to leave and rejoins his friends at the Stone of Farewell. Meanwhile, Tiamak struggles with his own quest, Miriamele falls prey to the predatory Count Aspitis, and Maegwin tries to lead her people in exile.

By the end of the novel, the pieces are in place for the final throws of the game, in which the outnumbered Josua, the League of the Scroll, and their scattered allies must begin their attempt to beat back the vengeful plot of the Storm King (the full extent of which is still unclear). The novel is, unsurprisingly, full of Williams’ lush and often heartbreaking prose–there were several points where I actually shed a tear–and the characters manage to persevere through some of the worst trials imaginable. Indeed, their wanderings bear more than a striking resemblance to those of other heroic figures in epic literature, ranging from Odysseus to Aeneas. Their wanderings and setbacks allow us to get a stronger sense of the stakes of their struggle, and the growing conflict between Miriamele and Aspitis in particular reveals the subject position that many women occupy in this world. However, she also reveals her strength and her ability to persevere through trials that would break a weaker person.

As compelling as Miramele is, however, she is not, in my opinion, the strongest and most powerful of the novel’s female characters. This honour belongs to Amerasu, the eldest Sithi still living. While she is only ever glimpsed through Simon’s eyes, Amerasu emerges as one of the novel’s most tragic characters. Hers is a terrible burden, for she must choose between bringing about the utter destruction of the being who was once her son and the choice to preserve the world that he will stop at nothing to destroy. This is itself part of the larger tragedy faced by the Sithi as they attempt to determine whether they should partake in the coming conflict or hunker down and hope that the storm passes them by. After all, in many ways they have more in common with their cousins the Norns–who are, after all, leading the charge in the destruction of humankind–than they do with the mortals who have been responsible

One of the most distressing and heartbreaking scenes comes during the council that the Sithi hold, in which Amerasu states that she will reveal to those gathered the designs that she believes that the Storm King has in mind in his efforts. When she is ruthlessly slain by Jegger, it is hard not to feel that something has been irrevocably lost as a result of the vengeful spirit that has begun to sake shape in the North. It is rendered all the more tragic in that she is stopped before she can give the gathered Sithi the vital information that they can use in their battle against one who once belonged to them. Knowledge has once again been denied the very people who could use it most.

Similarly, it is hard not to feel the potent tragedy of Elias. While we have yet to learn what he was promised by Pyrates that led him to this dreadful pass, there is nevertheless something almost despicable about it. We get the feeling that Elias would not have done the things he did without the malignant influence of the red priest. Further, through the eyes of his Hand Guthwulf, we are led to believe that Elias has even begun to tip over the edge into outright madness. We also get the sense that, for all of his personality flaws, Elias might have been a decent king had he not let himself be led astray. He would not, perhaps, have been as wise or as great as his father (and neither would Josua, who is as moody and tormented as any Romantic hero), but he would at least have been able to hold the kingdom together and would not have sacrificed the well-being of his people.

Like many middle volumes, Stone of Farewell shows that the tides of evil are cresting while those of good have seemingly been pushed to the very cusp of defeat. We are consistently led to feel a sense of powerlessness each of our heroes struggles to overcome events and powers that are so much greater than they are. These are, after all, conflicts that are centuries in the making, and the power of the Storm King in particular is such that it seems that nothing short of a miracle can bring hm low. Yet that is precisely the pleasure of the epic genre, is it not? The sense that the powers of evil–and whether they can be so easily defined–is one that Williams is adept at articulating. However, we also know that, eventually, the forces that we have come to identify with shall eventually triumph, though the cost they pay may be very high indeed.

I’m currently making my way through the first half of the next and last novel, To Green Angel Tower. Stay tuned to this space to my review!

Book Review: “The Sorcerer’s Daughter” (Terry Brooks)

Though I finished Terry Brooks’s most recent book some time ago, I’ve just now got around to writing my review of it. This book, The Sorcerer’s Daughter, focuses on two parallel plots:  one traces the adventure of Leofur, the daughter of the malevolent sorcerer Arcannen, as she attempts to rescue her friend Chrysallin. The other, unsurprisingly, follows Paxon Leah as he attempts to save a Druid delegation pursued by Federation soldiers.

There is much to love about this rather slim, briskly paced novel. Most of the characters are ones that we have met in the previous two novels, but it was quite refreshing to see both Chrysallin and Leofur get their own narrative arcs. Brooks has always excelled at blending together firm characterization with well-laid plots, and The Sorcerer’s Daughter is no exception.

I have been reading Brooks’s work for over twenty years, and even now I’m still astounded at his marvelous ability to conjure spaces and places that are truly, viscerally terrifying. The Murk Sink, the lair of a particularly nasty witch, is one such place. Full of monstrous creatures whose size dwarfs anything that we’ve seen in quite some time (Mr. Teeth is a particularly terrifying creation, precisely because he is such an unpredictable and deadly leviathan). Though this world may be our future, it is a terrifying future, one filled with creatures the likes of which we cannot, at this moment, imagine.

All of this reinforces the sense that the world of the Four Lands continues to exist in an unstable relationship between chaos and order. On the one hand, the possibility of a rapprochement between the Druids and their allies on the one hand and the Federation on the other implies that this world might at last find a measure of peace. On the other, forces such as the sorcerer Arcannen continue to pose a threat to this order, the dark lure of chaos always lurking just around the corner.

What interested me most about the novel, however, was its remarkable queerness. I mean this not only in reference to the same-sex couple that appears (albeit briefly) in the novel, but also to Imric Cort’s experience as a shapeshifter. To me, at least, the inner turmoil that Cort repeatedly faces was the emotional heart of this novel, as he struggles with the sense that he is not who he should be, that he always has to keep a part of himself hidden from the rest of the world. Any queer person (by which I mean LGBTQIA+) knows this experience well. We live in a heteronormative world, and we are always conscious that the way we are exists as the flip side of everything that culture tells is “normal.” In this novel, Brooks manages to capture this sense and while Cort is, strictly speaking, “straight,” his experience is certainly not. Just as importantly, his relationship with Leofur does not “cure” him of his shapeshifting tendency; instead, she is an anchor that allows him to be who he is without guilt or self-hatred. It really is a stunningly beautiful relationship that Brooks has crafted here, perhaps one of the most emotionally resonant and complex that he has ever created.

If I have one complaint about Brooks’s latest outing, it’s that I wish there were more of it. In this concluding novel of this informal trilogy he has given us a satisfactory conclusion to a number of the ongoing trials of Paxon, but the ending is bittersweet. I actually find it rather refreshing that Brooks avoided the easier path of a happy romantic ending for his hero, opting instead to show us that, sometimes, life does not quite end up as we would like it to. Instead, we must sometimes rely on our friends to see us through those dark points in our life.

All in all, I would say that The Sorcerer’s Daughter nicely sets the stage for the epic showdown that seems to be looming in the near future. Now that we know, per Brooks’s own words, that the chronological end of Shannara is near, we can get a clearer sense of the final trajectory. Perhaps, finally, the people of the Four Lands may find some level of harmony and peaceful coexistence.

But then again, perhaps not.

Only time will tell.

Book Review: “Children of Earth and Sky” (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Every so often you come across an author who manages to blend the strands of fantasy and historical fiction into a seamless whole. There are, unfortunately, very few of those in the fantasy world, though authors like George R.R. Martin has come to fame in being able to do so, but if your appetite for the blending of the two genres has been whetted by A Song of Ice and Fire, you should definitely crack open a book by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Kay’s most recent work, Children of Earth and Sky, is set in a universe largely like the Early Modern world that we are familiar with, peopled with a number of competing powers and players, including Seressa (a Venice analogue), Osmanlis (the Ottomans), Obravic (the Holy Roman Empire), Senjan (the Senj), and Dubrava (Dubrovnik). A host of characters both major and minor appear, including a young painter, a renegade nun, a young raider, and a prosperous merchant. Their fates intertwine and break apart and, as a result, the foundations of their world begin to shift.

There is just something haunting and lyrical in Gay’s prose that makes each of his books a genuine pleasure to read. He manages to evoke not just the inner psychology of the characters but also the ethos of the period. We can inhabit, if only for the space of the narrative, a world in many ways utterly unlike our own, governed by different laws and lived by different rules. This was probably more true of the original Sarantine books (given that they take place in Late Antiquity), but the same is still true of this novel, with its world of cut-throat politics and a world trembling on the brink of change. (Perhaps that world isn’t so unlike our own, after all…)

Further, Kay imbues his works (at least all the ones that I have read) with a strand of philosophy. He writes fiction that does and says something, that strives to make us think about the world in a different way. This novel, perhaps more than any other that I have read in recent memory, asks us what it means to exist in the flowing stream of time and history. Very few of the characters are major players in the world’s political sphere–though they are often adjacent to it–but their actions have far-reaching consequences that affect everyone in their world. Kay, and his narrator, clearly wants us to think about how it is that we make sense of both our individual

However, this is not to say that the novel doesn’t also give equal attention to the personal and the romantic. Indeed, there are at least three haunting romances that occur during the course of the novel, and Kay handles the affairs of the heart with the same grace and haunting prose as he does the larger set pieces. It’s a rare book that actually brings me to tears, but I definitely shed more than a few as I read the final pages of Children of Earth and Sky.

Of course, for those who have read his duology The Sarantine Mosaic (comprised of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors), Children contains a number of fascinating little nuggets. Pero, for example, stumbles upon the remains of the tiny birds that were used by the sorcerer in Sailing to Sarantium as vessels for captured spirits, while the dowager Eudoxia serves as a living reminder of the earth-shattering fall of the splendid city of Sarantium to the invading Osmanlis. Much has changed since Crispin made his fateful voyage, and though the reader remembers him, it would appear that much of what he has created has vanished with time. Time is a river that can wash away even the greatest of art, even a mosaic made by a heartbroken mosaicist looking for redemption in an eastern city.

The only downside to being a fan of Kay’s is that, being such a meticulous craftsman, it takes him a fairly long time to produce a new novel. Fortunately, I’m still working my way through his back catalogue, but once I’m finished with them, I’ll just have to wait patiently until he once again allows us a glimpse into his endlessly fertile imagination.

Reading History: “The Conqueror’s Wife” (Stephanie Thornton)

As readers of this blog know, I have a voracious appetite for historical fiction set in the ancient world. Fortunately for me, Stephanie Thornton has again released a fantastic tale, this time focused on the men and women surrounding that most powerful of ancient generals, Alexander the Great.  With The Conqueror’s Wife, Thornton takes her place alongside Mary Renault as one of the handful of writers who has a strong grasp of the effect Alexander had on those who surrounded him.

The novel follows the fortunes of four primary characters:  Drypetis, younger daughter of Darius III; Thessalonike, the half-sister of Alexander; Hephaestion, Alexander’s lover and best friend; and Roxana, Alexander’s conniving yet beautiful first wife and mother of his child Alexander IV. They each find themselves caught up in the powerful, overwhelming personality that was Alexander the Great.

Through some strange skill known only to her, Thornton manages to make Roxana, certainly one of the novel’s most vicious and bitter characters, into an understandable figure. We see through her eyes as she suffers first the brutal punishments of her cruel and uncaring father and then the depravity of the usurper Bessus, before finally becoming the original Queen of Queens to Alexander. Her position remains unstable, though, and becomes all the more so after the conqueror marries the royal Stateira and then dies of a fever. Desperate to retain her status, Roxana resorts to ever more desperate measures, and while we are led to feel revulsion at her increasing bitterness and cruelty, we also understand their source. She recognizes the cruel necessity that her body is her key to power, even as she grows to hate (at least at a subconscious level) what she has gradually become.

Roxana’s fellow Persian, Drypetis, could not be more different. She yearns to understand what makes things work, and her restless desire for more knowledge keeps her going even through the hardest moments of her life. She gradually endues the loss of almost everyone that she cares for, from her father Darius to her husband and true love Hephaestion.

Thessalonike is in many ways the twin of Drypetis. Both are royal young women who are exceptional in that they do not fit comfortably into the roles expected of them.  Thessalonike yearns to be a fighter and a warrior like her elder brother,while Drypetis has a mind for mechanical things.  Neither is willing to let the limitations imposed on their gender keep them from doing what they want, and both are fiercely loyal to their families. Unfortunately, they both also find themselves subject to powers greater than they are, and both experience unimaginable loss.

Fortunately, they also find strength in one another. As two of the fortunate survivors of both Alexander’s reign and the bloodbath that followed his death, they are able to find solace and power in the companionship that they have so long been denied. It is a fitting reminder of the intensity of the relationships that often emerge between and among women.

Finally, we come to Hephaestion. He has always been an ambiguous character in much historical fiction, given the fact that many authors prefer to refer to him as Alexander’s “best friend” or some equally innocuous term. Thornton cuts through all of that and makes it clear that the bond between Alexander and Hephaestion was deeply passionate and intensely sexual. While the novel does not go into too much detail about the mechanics, it also does not leave any doubt that, even after many years, the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion was almost certainly still sexual and that they really did love one another with a power beyond that of mere friendship.

Thornton paints a compelling and visceral portrait of a dark and brutal world. She doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to portraying both the grit and gore of the battlefield, as well as the equally bloody and dangerous worlds of the bedroom and the political arena. All of the characters find themselves forced do things that they would rather avoid, and they have to live with the scars that these actions inflict on their psyches.

There are two casualties of the novel, Alexander and his mother Olympias. Unfortunately for Olympias, her actions–most of which had at least some measure of justification given the dark and tumultuous times in which she lived–do not lend themselves to sympathetic portrayal. For my part, I did feel a pang of sympathy for her when Cassander at last outmaneuvers her and has her stoned to death. This, after all, was a woman who managed to survive everything thrown her way, only to at last meet the most ignominious of deaths. But, I have to admit, she makes a compelling villain.

As for Alexander, the novel paints him as something of an egomaniac (as he probably was), and in that sense is a useful corrective to some of the more hagiographical approaches of other authors. Much as I love Renault, she tends to gloss over some of Alexander’s more glaring faults. Thornton shows Alexander as an undeniable genius, one of those rare leaders who combined phenomenal charisma and military acumen with more than a touch of madness.

Thornton does an excellent job, as always, of painting exquisite portraits of the conflicted and compelling personalities that had an enormous impact upon the world in which they lived. I cannot wait until she reveals the subject of her next novel.

Book Review: “The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams” (Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski)

Given that it’s Tolkien Appreciation Month, I’ve been reading pretty widely, not just revisiting The Lord of the Rings, but also wading into the waters of Tolkien biography and secondary scholarship.  First up is the new book The Fellowship:  The Literary Lives of the Inklings:  J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams.

As its title suggests, The Fellowship charts the literary and scholarly fortunes of the four key members of the Inklings, a group of men that bonded over their devout Christianity and their belief in the power of fantastic literature to provide meaning to a disordered world plagued by anomie.  Though the cohesiveness of the group weathered many challenges, and while many men came and went during the course of its existence, the assembly left an indelible mark on each of its members, allowing each of them to produce some of the most remarkable works of imaginative literature in the 20th Century.

The authors have a strong grasp of the philosophical roots underpinning both Lewis’s scholarship and his fiction.  Indeed, their discussion of the former helped me, always a Lewis skeptic, gain a newfound appreciation for one of the 20th Century’s most noted Christian apologists.  To be quite honest, I’ve always found The Chronicles of Narnia to be vastly inferior to The Lord of the Rings, and the Zaleskis pay less attention to Lewis’s fantasy series and more attention to his many other works of scholarship, devotion, and fiction.  While not a Christian myself, the skill and aplomb with which the authors depict Lewis’s own conversion and subsequent intellectual and religious rigour granted me a deep and abiding appreciation for his genius.

There are also a few compelling observations about Tolkien’s work, including the note that Tom Bombadil represents an escape from the terrors of history that afflict the other characters.  The Fellowship allows us to understand Tolkien in all of his vast complexity:  a man of incredibly devout Catholic faith; a rigorous and vigorous scholar who wrote incredibly textured and insightful scholarship on his beloved Anglo-Saxon; and, bringing these two together, something of a visionary of fantasy, using the act of subcreation to show how fiction can both express God’s divine plan and bring us closer to that plan.  Yet, as with the other Inklings in the book, Tolkien was sometimes not very pleasant, and could indeed be quite cutting (almost vicious) in his criticisms of both his work and that of others.

Unlike many other reviewers, I actually found the portions of the book dealing with Charles Williams and Owen Barfield to be some of the most compelling.  It is certainly true that the two of them have become overshadowed by Tolkien and Lewis, but they were rigorous philosophers and compelling fiction-writers on their own, and the authors devote several chapters to looking at their thought and works.  Owen Barfield, as the last surviving of the central four, gains especial attention, and the authors do a creditable job of teasing out both his (admittedly rather strange) belief in anthroposophy and his intense commitment to finding meaning in all aspects of the universe.

All of the Inklings emerge as fully-fledged individuals, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree.  The book doesn’t gloss over the fact that the Inklings was ruthlessly exclusionary along lines of gender, and each of the men had character traits that could be downright unpleasant in certain circumstances.  The book does entertain a rather prurient interest in Warnie Lewis’s chronic alcoholism, which becomes a might distracting (which is a shame, considering he was an immensely well-regarded scholar of French history), and there are other casualties, including Mrs. Moore, C.S. Lewis’s long-time companion.  Yet these are minor flaws and don’t distract from the whole.

In terms of style, the book is accessibly and even entertainingly written.  It moves at a brisk pace, while also slowing down when necessary to move through the intricacies of the philosophical underpinnings of many of the men in the group.  While some have complained that these portions of the book are difficult to follow, I think that any reasonably educated person could grasp the basics of the discussion.  And, given that these men did see themselves as philosophers, this aspect of their intellectual and mental lives is worth addressing in detail.

All in all, The Fellowship does justice to at least the central four that served as the nucleus of the group during its most productive period.  Just as importantly, it allows us to see the ways in which they influence, and continue to influence, the literary and intellectual contours of the 20th, and the 21st, Century.

Reading History: “The First Congress” (Fergus M. Bordewich)

Some popular historians have a knack for writing works that are both erudite and eminently enjoyable.  While the latter is certainly not a criterion that should be emphasized too much, it certainly does make reading their works easier.  Such is certainly the case with The First Congress, by Fergus M. Bordewich.  With wit, erudition, and just plain good writing, Bordewich brings this pivotal period in American governmental history to life.

Bordewich paints these characters with a marvelously detailed brush, showing us the ins and outs of these men (and they were exclusively men) who sought to forge a government out of the tumult and failure of the Articles of Confederation.  While he focuses, with good reason, on Washington and Madison, whom he sees as crucial to the forging of the early American government, there are many others who gain some attention.  He draws particular attention to William Maclay and Robert Morris, the two senators from Pennsylvania.  These two men could not have been more different, yet Bordewich allows us to understand their idiosyncrasies and the values that motivated them to undertake the mammoth effort to craft a unified government.

Alexander Hamilton and John Adams also both make substantial appearances in the book.  Hamilton is painted (justifiably) as a brilliant mind and an integral part of the formation of the infant nation’s financial infrastructure.  Unfortunately, Adams does not emerge in a very flattering light, and Bordewich seems to (at times, anyway) go out of his way to highlight his inadequacy as the president of the Senate.

As Bordewich points out, two of the fundamental decisions facing the First Congress were the formation of the national bank and the decision on where to establish the national capital.  Of course, neither of these were easily decided, and both necessitated a great deal of negotiation among the various parties.  It is rather startling to think that the U.S. capital might have ended up somewhere in Pennsylvania (there was, for a time, a sizable that wanted it located on the banks of the Susquehanna), and while the national bank did not last (it was eventually demolished by Andrew Jackson), without it the United States government would probably have foundered on the banks of insolvency.

There are some particularly eyeopening revelations in this book, including the fact the Bill of Rights, that most vaunted and celebrated part of the Constitution, was actually not high in the list of priorities for this first Congress.  Indeed, as Bordewich argues, it was only through the resourcefulness and skill of Madison that we gained the amendments that remain so fundamental to our way(s) of thinking of ourselves as a nation and as a culture.

The two greatest casualties of the First Congress, Bordewich suggests (though he does not go into a great deal of detail) were the fates of African Americans and Native Americans.  While the question of slavery was punted to future generations–a decision that would have grave consequences for the future of the nation–Native Americans were also rather thrown under the bus in these early days by the members of Congress.  While this particular aspect does not get as much attention in this book as it probably deserves,  Bordewich does deserve praise for bringing it into focus at all.

All of this is delivered in a lively and engaging style.  Bordewich, like so many of our great popular historians, writes with clarity and precision.  In particular, his command of verbs lends a vivacity and immediacy to the proceedings, so that we as readers feel as if we are there in those early days, dealing with the harsh winter conditions or the blistering summers, the devastating (and often deadly) outbreaks of influenza, and the myriad other inconveniences that comprised daily life in late 18th Century America.  Fortunately, Bordewich leavens this with his own sharp analysis and piercing interpretation of historical events.

Overall, Bordewich paints a compelling and eminently readable portrait of the First Congress.  Furthermore, his chronicle gives hope that, even in these incredibly divided and partisan times, there is still hope that Congress can somehow overcome its own worse nature, work through the bickering, and finally manage to accomplish something(s) for the greater, common good.  I only hope that that’s not just wishful thinking.

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this wonderful book.

And, finally, here’s to my 200th post on this blog.  Let’s hope for 200 more!

Reading History: “Wolf Hall” (by Hilary Mantel)

I’ve been an avid fan of historical fiction for most of my life.  Some authors have always stood out to me as possessing an extraordinary talent.  Margaret George, Mary Renault, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Philippa Gregory (at her best) are novelists who mange to evoke the power of the past.  By this I don’t simply mean the tired old expression of “bringing the past to life;” instead, I mean something much more vibrant and intense.  These authors help us to understand not just what the past looked like, but also how history happens, how individuals contend with the deeper social and cultural currents that often create the nexus through which history takes place.

In Wolf Hall, Mantel manages to not only bring the strangeness of the Tudor world to brilliant and scathing life, but also show how a pivotal period in the development of England.  Admittedly, this is a period that has been fictionalized more than perhaps any other (especially in recent years), so managing to make this period shine in any sort of significantly new way should be lauded as an accomplishment.  Mantel does just that, allowing the reader to get the sense that this is a dark, dreary, and ultimately very dangerous world, where children are subject to the brutality of their fathers and even the most devoted servant (or wife) of the king is likewise subject to his caprice.  Reading Wolf Hall, one does get the sense that this world is one that teeters on the brink of tremendous social and political change, with Cromwell emerging as the harbinger of that change, a man who is thoroughly modern in his outlook and who helps to set in motion the changes that will move England squarely out of the Renaissance proper and into the modern world.

One of the things that makes this novel so endlessly enjoyable is its subtle employment of a certain dry and sly wit.  While Cromwell does have moments of emotional depth–as when he loses his wife and his daughters to the sweating sickness–far more of the narrative actually involves him utilizing his sense of humour to make sense of the world around him.  Whether it’s poking fun at Thomas Wriothesley, jokingly calling him “Call-Me-Risley” (or “Call-Me for short), puncturing the holier-than-thou egotism of the tyrannical Thomas More, Cromwell controls his world by adopting a superior stance to it, or referring to the blustering Duke of Norfolk as “Uncle Norfolk,” Cromwell allows the thoroughly modern reader to judge and critique this world where the old ways of doing things no longer make sense.  The old ways die hard, the novel suggests, but that does not mitigate the fact that they are, in fact, on their deathbed.

Nor Henry does not emerge from this story as anything even remotely resembling a hero. The Henry VIII of Wolf Hall is endlessly vacillating and cruel.  While he may have a certain charisma and intellectual acuity, he still depends on those around him, such as Wolsey and Cromwell, to get him what he wants.  Like almost all of the other royal and noble characters, Henry seems like something of a holdover from the period of his youth, a reminder of an earlier period whose last vestiges are slowly being shed by the England over which he rules.

If I have one complaint to make about this novel, it is its portrayal of Anne Boleyn.  As Susan Bordo demonstrates in her wonderful book The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Mantel slips all too easily into the long-standing tradition of painting Henry’s second queen as a bloodthirsty, iron-hard, and manipulative shrew, juxtaposing all of this to both Katherine’s saintliness and maturity and Jane Seymour’s innocence and youth.  There are a moments when one does feel a glimmer of sympathy for Anne–how could one not, when she is constantly being pushed in various directions by everyone around her?  Like Katherine before her and Jane after, Anne knows that her well-being, and indeed her life, depend on Henry’s good graces.  Her pensive and shrewish personality, it seems, are the logical result of these unbearable pressures.

Although he is certainly the hero of this novel, and though the entire work is told from his limited perspective, I emerged from this novel feeling that Thomas Cromwell was even more an enigma.  While much of what he does is motivated, at least in part, either by a displaced attempt to separate himself from his father or to avenge the fall of Wolsey, the real Cromwell always seems to lurk at the edges of Mantel’s prose, enticing with his enigmatic inaccessibility.  If I have one complaint to make of the novel’s portrayal of Cromwell, it is that he emerges from this story a little too perfect, a little too precocious and subtle.  I am reminded of Mary Renault’s portrayal of Alexander, which also lionized her subject.  But perhaps that lionization is for Mantel, as for Renault, the necessary part of bringing a great man to literary life.

Book Review: Defenders of Shannara: “The Darkling Child” (by Terry Brooks)

I’ve been an avid reader of Terry Brooks for many years, and he has always managed to keep me riveted with his extraordinary writing abilities.  The latest installment of his long-running “Shannara” series, The Darkling Child is no different.  As always, Brooks manages to ask pointed and deep philosophical questions while still maintaining his trademark storytelling abilities.

The novel has a brisk pace, picking up shortly after where the first novel in the trilogy, The High Druid’s Blade, left off.   Paxon, devoted servant to the Ard Rhys Aphenglow, finds himself struggling with his identity.  When Reyn Frosch, a traveling musician in command of the wishsong, reveals his power, Paxon accompanies the Druid Avelene to attempt to bring the boy to Paranor.  Of course, the dangerous sorcerer Arcannen also has designs on the singer, intending to eradicate the Red Slash, an elite corps of the Federation army responsible for the destruction of Arbrox, a community of pirates who gave him shelter.  The inevitable showdown ensues, and while Reyn flees into hiding as a doctor, Arcannen escapes again and the Druid Avelene is slain.  The novel ends with a broken and lost Paxon visiting Leofur, the sorcerer’s daughter, in the hopes of rekindling their romance.

Throughout his long and storied career, Brooks has crafted a number of compelling and disturbing villains:  the Dagda Mor and Reaper from Elfstones, the Mord Wraiths of Wishsong, Brona of Sword and First King.  With Arcannen, however, Brooks has really outdone himself.  The sorcerer is a man driven by his own needs and desires, dangerous precisely because he has a vision of the world that forces everyone else to accommodate him.  Indeed, I would even go so far as to suggest that Arcannen is this world’s version of a sociopath.  His sociopathy becomes all the more terrifying in that he does seem to have at least some moral compass; his desire to eradicate the soldiers of the Red Slash, for example, is driven (at least in part) by his desire to gain vengeance on behalf of the people of Arbrox who were ruthlessly slain by the Federation army.  It is precisely this sense of a twisted moral logic that makes him such a compelling, and almost understandable villain, an agent of chaos that threatens the

While most of Brooks’s works (with the exception of “Landover”) have had world-altering consequences, that is less the case in this present trilogy, where the focus remains pretty rigorously centered on the ongoing conflict between Arcannen and Paxon.  Indeed, there is something refreshing about the ways in which Brooks’s vision of his world can accommodate these various kinds of stories, showing us the many questions that the best fantasy novels can ask and the ingenious and complex ways in which they can begin to think about, if not to conclusively, answer them.

All of this is not to say that the novel doesn’t still contain some sense of that epic scale of wonder that has long been a trademark of Brooks’s work.  He has stated that he is beginning to wind up the Shannara series, and one can sense even in these more tightly contained novels a sense that this is a world on the brink of a profound change.  After all, this is our world many years in the future, when an apocalypse has destroyed most of what was once gained by science.  Now that things have slowly begun to reach their pre-apocalpyse stage of development–the Four Lands are now faced with both airships and increasingly-advanced weapons of war–a final showdown between the wielders of magic and those of science is bound to happen.

What emerges from this novel, in other words, is a bleak existential look at the nature of what makes an epic hero.  While Brooks has always been a deft hand with portraying his heroes, particularly those of the Leah family, as tortured souls contending with the world around them and with the sometimes nigh-unbearable forces arrayed against them, Paxon is of a different order.  This is a young man struggling with the immense demands placed on him as a result of his various heroic roles:  as brother, as servant of the Druids, and as relentless foe of Arcannen.  At the same time, he also has to contend with his failures, and it remains to be seen whether his heroic destiny will break him or whether he will rise to fulfill it.

While those familiar with the “Shannara” world will probably gain the most pleasure out of this novel, it is also an ideal starting place for those looking to see what all the fuss is about.  With interest in the series starting to pick up thanks to MTV’s forthcoming scripted series (based on Elfstones) entitled The Shannara Chronicles, those who find this novel compelling will be glad to know there are numerous other entries in the series, just waiting to be read.

Score:  10/10