Saturday, December 3, 2016

It's here! ONCE: SIX HISTORICALLY INSPIRED FAIRYTALES

It's the moment you've all been waiting for - Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales is now available for purchase on Kindle!



The six stories include:

The Mountain of the Wolf by my good friend Elisabeth Grace Foley - a moody, simmering tale of revenge and romance in the old West that gradually reveals itself as Little Red Riding Hood retelling.
She But Sleepeth by Rachel Heffington, which draws on an amazingly fairytale-like true story from Romanian history.
Rumpled, a fabulous steampunk retelling of Rumplestiltskin from sci-fi author J Grace Pennington, full of inventive world-building details.
Sweet Remembrance by Emily Ann Putzke, which sets The Little Match Girl in the Warsaw ghetto with a glimmering message of hope and defiance.
With Blossoms Gold, a clever twist on Rapunzel set amidst the political machinations of Renaissance Italy, by Hayden Wand.

OH AND OF COURSE MY OWN BABY. To celebrate release date, I'm sharing an excerpt!

Death Be Not Proud
Chapter 1 - excerpt
If only I’d had some warning. If only the thing had come the same way a storm from the north comes—racing down the lake faster than a horse can run, the water whipping from glass to silvered whitecaps under its scudding feet. Or if only it had come like a traffic smash, with the screech of brakes and an agonised honk of the horn.
 But there was no warning. No whitecaps, no screech. Just the crisp air of a night in late autumn, the hectic sound of jazz, and Mr Hunt elbowing his way through the crowd on the dancefloor to lean his knuckles on my table.
“Ruby?” His voice was breathless, portentous. “There’s a gent over there wants to buy you a drink.”
By day, the marquee on Roy’s Island hosts a meek teashop, where respectable businessmen and holidaying families pay too much for tea and buns. But on Sunday evenings like this one, most people with a claim to respectability stay home. Paper lanterns bloom on the rafters. Tom Hunt posts a lookout on shore with a covered lantern to signal if the police decide to join us. Big unmarked flasks come up from the still hidden on the north side of the island, the quartet from Oamaru sets up next to the bar, and the singing and dancing gets louder and faster late into the night.
Usually, someone offered to buy me a drink, but not until after I’d sung. I snapped my lipstick shut and lifted an eyebrow. “A ‘gent’? Anyone I know? You know I’m bad with strangers.”
Beside me, Kat Johnson snorted. “What a liar you are, Ruby. He can buy me a drink if he likes, Tom. Bill Fisher’s getting Ruby an applejack.”
But Mr Hunt kept his eyes on me. “He’s over in the far corner,” he said with a jerk of his head, “and I think you’ll find you know him.”
I'm so thrilled you all finally get to read this story, and I'm even happier to see it come to light in the company of five other stories in the same spirit. Want to taste-test the other stories in this collection? Take a stroll on the links:

The Mountain of the Wolf
She But Sleepeth
Rumpled
Sweet Remembrance
With Blossoms Gold
"But, Suzannah, how can we help celebrate this exciting new release?" Oh, how kind of you to ask!
 Here are some ideas:

- Tweet about this release with the hashtag #OnceFairytales
- Pop over to Amazon and snaffle a copy of Once for Kindle!
- As always, don't forget to share your thoughts by leaving a review on Goodreads and/or Amazon :)

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Snared Nightingale by Geoffrey Trease

Geoffrey Trease was the author of multiple historical novels for children, and growing up, we thoroughly enjoyed some of his books, like Seas of Morning (reviewed on Vintage Novels here) and Cue For Treason (on the other hand, his version of the Robin Hood myth, Bows Against the Barons, was incredibly depressing). When I discovered that Trease had also written a novel for adults, The Snared Nightingale, I was interested enough to get it off Open Library - but I'm sad to say I found it rather hard going.

Brought up in the lap of luxury and the cradle of Renaissance humanism in Urbino, Niccolo Bray is Italian in all but fact. In blood he is an Englishman, the offshoot of an obscure branch of a noble family; but when an English bishop appears to offer Niccolo the inheritance of an earldom on the Welsh Marches, Niccolo instantly smells a rat. Indeed, with the Wars of the Roses in a lull, King Edward IV fears that the earldom could be dangerous in the wrong hands, and is keen to give it to a supporter.

Installed in the grim old castle of Kyre, half a world away from the beloved scholarship and dalliances of the Urbino court, Niccolo wonders what he's got himself into - and that's before he begins to suspect that someone may be trying to kill him.

The writing in this book is great, and Trease does a really fine job of showing a very worldly and sophisticated young man coming to genuinely care about this place that seems so crude and savage to him. When I think of what I liked about it, I think of the vividly evoked world Trease has conjured up, the countryside, the weather, the buildings, and the clothes.

When I think of what I didn't like, I'm left with almost everything else.

As a story, the most obvious shortcoming is the plot, which doesn't begin to move visibly in any particular direction until the midpoint. The book seems uncertain whether it's about Niccolo's various romantic pursuits, or whether it's about the attempts of the rival heirs to supplant him. It finally finds a way to weave these two things together, but not until it's committed one of the most common plotting sins in existence: failed to convey any sense of immediate threat from an identifiable quarter in the whole first half of the story.

The meandering plot is not helped by the fact that Niccolo spends the whole first half of the book chasing a romantic false lead. This subplot was the main reason I didn't like the book, on ethical grounds as well as plotting, as the bored and unscrupulous Niccolo sets about trying to seduce the daughter of his seneschal. I found this whole plotline incredibly creepy and offputting, as Niccolo works, for instance, at accustoming the girl to his touch and maneuvering her into his room. It turns out that she is by no means as innocent as Niccolo thinks, but I felt that it was an author's saving throw to keep Niccolo sympathetic. Well, it didn't work. It was incredibly predatory, and the attempt to justify it only made it more so.

(Is it just me, or are the mores these days in many ways more conservative than those of the '50s and '60s? True, you'd never have something like 50 Shades of Grey back then, but at least these days our characters tend to be basically monogamous).

Finally, perhaps the biggest complaint I had with this story was its attitude toward medievalism. This somewhat surprised me, since Trease spent so much time writing about the medievals. On the other hand, perhaps Bows Against the Barons should have warned me. As we all know, I have perhaps too much of a love for medievalism, and it's been good for me to challenge that from time to time. Late medievalism did get into a mess, and I felt some of Trease's jabs were justified. But the Renaissance was hardly the age of love and light. Many of the negative things modern people associate with the middle ages - grotesque torture machines, blind superstition, witch hunts, and the fettering of scientific advance - were in actual fact Renaissance inventions. Meanwhile, the Greek and Roman classics, and learning as a discipline, were by no means lost during the middle ages. The Snared Nightingale, with its regular paeans to the supposed enlightened humanism of the Renaissance, lost no time at all in peeving me to the back teeth.

To conclude, I don't recommend this book. The plot is weak, the main character is sleazy, and I didn't agree with the theme. It's a shame, because I really enjoyed some of Trease's children's books, which did not have any of these problems. Stick with them, and keep away from The Snared Nightingale.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

All the Dish on TEN THOUSAND THORNS + Snippets

So, if you've been following me on Twitter, you know that this month I got back to writing (finally) and was able to knock out the first draft of a new fairytale novella!

This is pretty exciting for me, since it marks the first new fairytale novella I've written since June 2015. Of course, the reason for the long delay was that I was too busy ploughing through that magnificent mess, OUTREMER. But the whole time I wrote that, I was keeping my eye on a whole hutch full of healthy little fairytale plot bunnies. Today, I'm thrilled to introduce you to one that's been putting a big smile on my face ever since I first conceived of it.

Ten Thousand Thorns
a retelling of Sleeping Beauty
in the style of
(hold your hats)
 WUXIA

Hi-YAHH!! Other embarrassingly enthusiastic noises!
That's right, a kung-fu Sleeping Beauty. I have a huge grin on my face right now, actually. I had every bit as much fun writing this as you can imagine, and not only that, but I also took the opportunity to let my inner rebel jump up and down and shout a bit.

I've enjoyed wuxia film for years, and while the research for this particular novella was a bit more daunting than most because I felt I had so little familiarity with Chinese culture, I thoroughly enjoyed watching some old favourite films and getting to make the acquaintance of some new ones (Red Cliff! Hearts in eyes). I also, of course, was able to read some of the classic wuxia novels (and you can read my review of The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden here). 

I was attracted to wuxia for its stunning visuals, chivalric sensibilities, and epic fight scenes. But as I explained in my review of White-Haired Maiden, the more I discovered about the genre, the more I realised what a perfect vehicle it was for the story that I wanted to retell. Ten Thousand Thorns takes a whole new look at Sleeping Beauty, and I couldn't be more thrilled about how well this story works in this genre.



I guess you'd all like to see snippets!

Snippets

"Tea is an art to be studied, not a thing to be tossed together in an odd moment of the day. Now go and make it properly."

~

“And,” said Old Zhang Guo, beaming in delight, “on her sixteenth birthday, after sustaining a slight injury from the Golden Phoenix Sword, she will enter into a profound meditation, from which she shall attain complete enlightenment, and from thence leave her body and ascend spiritually into Heaven.”

~

Something rapped against the shutters of his room, calling him abruptly back to consciousness. Clouded Sky tried to ignore it, but it persisted, a meek, insistent rat-tat-tat that needled on the edges of his calm.
Finally he got up and threw them open.
“Why disturb me? Why not just let yourself in?” he said sarcastically.
Iron Maiden hung upside-down from the gutter above, her face pink and smiling. “I wanted to be polite, Clouded Sky gege. You might have been bathing.”

~

He pulled back and opened his eyes. She was awake. She was staring at him.
In the corner of his eye, the lamplight leaped and flickered. A killing aura.
“Princess,” he gasped.
Shinggggg! The Golden Phoenix Sword leaped from the scabbard. He was staring into two wrathful eyes over the sharpest edge he’d ever seen.

~

“Oh, pah! Give him a rejuvenation pill and some ginseng soup.”

~

Now he met Morning Light with his own sword. Shua, shua! Back and forth they danced in the midst of the great battle, gold and black, two peerless martial artists in the world. Feinting to the east and stabbing to the west, they employed not just swords but also fingers, palms, fists, and feet. Each time their swords met and slithered against each other, it was as if the string of a zither was being plucked and allowed to die away; the energy their swords possessed flashed and sparked with each passing blow.

~

From far away, it seemed, a voice came to him out of the past. 
“Clouded Sky gege! Quick! Lu Dongbin Pierces the Dragon!”
He still held his sabre in his hand. Almost without thinking, he stabbed upwards with it and spitted an attacking guard.
The battle had come to him and was about to roll over him.
The voice came again. “Hero-Killing Forefinger! Roaming Wind On Rainbow Mountain! Jade Maiden Throws the Shuttle!”
Clouded Sky executed each stance in sequence. He moved almost blindly, but with each of the voice’s commands his stances were able to counter the attacks of his enemies.
“Assault on Heaven-Defying Gate! Iron Rod Breaks the Vase! Serpent-Crushing Divine Heel!”

~

 (yes, I really did have way too much fun writing this)


While I'm excited about Ten Thousand Thorns, I'll be honest with you: you most likely won't get the chance to read it for a while. However, if you're excited about my fairytale retellings, or fairytale retellings in general, don't forget that I have a story coming out in the Once fairytale collection just *checks calendar* TEN DAYS FROM NOW. Death Be Not Proud is also going to be a lot of fun, and I can't wait for you to read it!

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan (2016 film review)

I am a mild Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, one of the two dozen remaining in the world, and so I was always going to see the new Tarzan movie. Having done so, I would then have gone on living my life without further comment, if it hadn't been for the irrepressible Ness Kingsley telling me I should write a review. If there's one thing I can't resist, it's the opportunity to air my opinions, so here goes.

(Oh, and by the way, I did read and review the original book, Tarzan of the Apes, when Vintage Novels was in its infancy.)

The Story

John Clayton, Lord Greystroke, finds his life perfectly satisfying, thank you very much. When he's not drinking tea (rigidly, with pinkie extended), he's turning down invitations from royalty and brooding silently across the vast expanses of his ancestral mansion at his perkily anachronistic wife. Only the occasional birdcall and the usual bedtime snack of raw eggs remains to remind him of his previous life as Tarzan of the Apes, vine-swinging lord of the jungle.

But when an American journalist begs Greystroke to accept King Leopold's invitation and venture back into the Congolese jungle to find out just what, exactly, the Belgian colonists are doing there, disaster strikes, and Tarzan must swing back into action.

Overall thoughts

I'll be honest with you: I neither loved nor hated this movie. It was OK. It was average.

On the downside, it had some pacing problems and some unsavoury attempts at humour. It was much too straight-faced, and should have been lighter and more fun. The scriptwriting seemed pretty amateur and the lack of a subplot left important supporting characters underdeveloped. On top of that, I couldn't really get behind the theme and I found it difficult to connect with the characters.

On the upside, I was really intrigued by the decision to tie the Tarzan story in to King Leopold's exploitation of the Congo, and I thought the execution of this idea, while not as good as I'd hoped, was nevertheless nowhere near as bad as I feared. While the script often made me wince, there were plenty of moments when nobody said anything, just acted really well - and those moments did work. Finally, I was really impressed by the balance and subtlety brought to the story on a number of different levels. This film walks a few difficult lines and does it mostly really well. It depicts the worst of colonialism without painting all rich white colonialists as monsters, nor all black people as innocents. It also manages to depict a hero as ridiculously empowered as Tarzan without making him some kind of invincible saviour figure.

Nature as God

At its most fundamental level, this is a story all about the relationship of people with nature. In this film, just like in the original source material, nature is the highest authority, the source of truth and redemption. And goodness is defined in terms of closeness to nature. It's the relationship of each character to nature - or to its antithesis - that defines their heroism or villainy. King Leopold and the baddies want to exploit nature and the people who live closer to it than themselves. We see traincars full of enslaved natives, or piled high with bloody elephant tusks. And the film has power because we all know that colonialism, at its very worst (and the Belgian Congo was colonialism at its very worst) did pretty much just this.

Our good characters are the ones who live close to nature. Jane has grown up in an African village, and the African people there are sunlit, happy, and brave - Rousseau's noble savages, seemingly untroubled by witchcraft and animism and all the other dark powers that have historically oppressed the people of Africa. The tribe of slightly villainous Africans, on the other hand, are antagonists because of a crime against nature carried out by one of their number in the backstory, and so they must learn to put the good of nature above their own personal feuds. Tarzan himself, as quasi-superhero character, is empowered not (like Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli, or like the Bible's Adam) by virtue of his human dominion over nature, but by submission to nature. In a repeated line, Jane tells us, "They speak of his power over the animals of the jungle, because his spirit came from them. He understood them, and learned to be as one with them." And his personal character arc, even the fulfilment of his desire for a child, depends on his willingness to leave the aristocratic and civilised inheritance of his human parents for the wilderness legacy of his animal parents.


Nature is also the power that Tarzan uses at the film's climax to overwhelm his enemies. But (mild spoilers!) watch carefully and you'll notice an odd little crack appear in the film's worldview. Right before the final attack on the forces of exploitative civilisation, European women and children are visible strolling through the set. The moment Tarzan invokes nature to unleash a blind and unstoppable attack, however, the women and children vanish (whisked to safety by invisible filmmaking wizards?), and we only see the deaths of men. (End spoilers). It's an odd little acknowledgement than in reality, this nature-based morality doesn't quite work: nature causes suffering blindly, and even in 2016 our Christian-trained morality cannot accept the deaths of the innocent, even as part of a just retaliation of nature.

That said, for a film with such a strong pro-nature message, I was pleasantly surprised by how annoying it wasn't. The pro-nature message fitted naturally into the story they were trying to tell, and the scriptwriters didn't try to overstate the message in the dialogue. And the fact that I don't want to worship nature as the ultimate source of virtue doesn't mean that I don't think it's important to care for and guard nature - after all, that was Adam's original job in the Garden of Eden. This is actually one area where the modern church has succumbed to a kneejerk reaction against some of the prevailing follies, aided by a lamesauce eschatology. In the words of ex-Buddhist Ellis Potter,
Have Christians misread the Bible in ways that result in the misuse or exploitation of nature?

Yes. An example would be escapism eschatology. This is the belief that at the end of the world Jesus is going to come and take us away to someplace else, and burn His creation and start over in some heavenly realm. I don’t believe this idea is supported by the Bible, but it has been believed by Christians and has resulted in a utilitarian attitude of ‘use creation for your own purposes, because God hates it and is going to burn it up anyway.’ This attitude is one of the main criticisms that New Age people and Buddhists have against Christians, and the criticism is valid.
He Strangled Him With a What?

The criticism Ellis Potter mentions above is one which The Legend of Tarzan makes full use of. In this movie, the ultimate villain which is pitted against the goodness of nature, is Christianity, as represented by Roman Catholicism in general and a baddie named (I'm not kidding you) ROM (pronounced Rome) in particular. One of the very first images in the film is Rom's rosary, and we quickly find out that one of the reasons it's never far from his hand is that he uses it as a garotte to strangle people with. It's also the subject of one of the film's many wince-worthy lines, because when Rom tells Jane that his priest bought it for him in Jerusalem (because they totally sell unbreakable garotte-rosaries outside the Holy Sepulchre, you know, to all the albino ninjamonks on pilgrimage), Jane chooses to display her strong! feminist! attitude by making a veiled reference to priestly paedophilia.

This is all completely intentional, in case you were wondering. Of course, Belgium was Roman Catholic at the time, and so the rape of the Congo occurred, in some sense, under the Church's responsibility. But not all colonial powers behaved so wickedly. Behind much of the good that did occur under the banner of colonialism, stood one giant of the Christian faith, William Wilberforce, and his Clapham Sect (for more information on the influence of Wilberforce and men like him, read Indian intellectual Vishal Mangalwadi's The Book That Made Your World and Australian historian Roy Williams's Post God Nation?). Wilberforce is best known, of course, for championing the end of slavery, and it was the work of him and men like him that make the truth about the Belgian Congo such a scandal in its own day.

I was mollified to see that the film did acknowledge some of this, if you tilted your head and squinted your eyes a little: when Tarzan's journalist ally exposes the truth behind the Belgian Congo, the English Cabinet is evidently horrified.



Meanwhile, not all the blacks in the film are innocent or heroic figures. Probably the most interesting scene (and the best scriptwriting) in the movie happens when Tarzan's journalist ally, George Washington Williams (an actual historical personage, who probably didn't spend his days off swinging around on vines with Tarzan) tells us his own backstory. According to the film, Williams came through the American Civil War and then fought as a mercenary in Mexico and the West: "What we did to those Indians..." he muses. "I'm no better'n them Belgians." I think that was the scene in which I began to like the movie; it was surprisingly honest about the fact that the lines between oppressor and victim are not always as clear-cut as we like to think.

A Comment on Jane

Tarzan's Jane was probably one of the less sympathetic characters in the movie, a twenty-first century gal spouting twenty-first century female empowerment, somehow transplanted into this period adventure flick. The hilarious thing about her was that for all the feminist posturing, she actually did play the role of a damsel in distress, and the film worked pretty well because of it.

For instance, when Rom taunts Jane that Tarzan should not have brought her, she retorts girl-powerishly that he didn't bring her, she brought herself. The funny thing is that this directly contradicts the scene earlier in the film when, after telling her he wants her to stay home, Tarzan relents and agrees to let her come. I actually liked that scene, as a rare portrayal of a married couple reconciling their differences in a thoughtful, grown-up way. I also liked that the film found a way to make use of Jane's character in a way that was smart and relatively effective, without making her an action heroine on a par with Tarzan.

Sorry, Folks

I actually feel pretty bad for spending so much time dissecting such an incredibly average film. Don't let the length of this screed fool you: unless you really like Edgar Rice Burroughs, or have a burning desire to watch this movie for some other reason, I don't particularly recommend it. It's a decent example of how to tell a story with a strong message, that nevertheless isn't too preachy, and it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been. But it also was nowhere near as good as it could have been.

(I am, however, totally inspired to breeze through some more of the Tarzan books. Burroughs was of uneven quality, but he was usually entertaining!)

Did you see The Legend of Tarzan? What did you think? What did I miss?

See my original review of Tarzan of the Apes here, and find The Legend of Tarzan on Amazon.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Bai Fa Mo Nu Zhuan (The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden) by Liang Yusheng

China. A country famous for being enormous, having a really difficult language, and for being ruled throughout its history by a series of oppressive totalitarian-style governments of which Mao's Communism was only one of the more recent manifestations.

Not, therefore, a place to which Western readers, including myself, would tend to look for entertaining reading matter. But recently, I discovered just how wrong I was.

China may be famous for being oppressed by monolithic states, but neither its history, its people, nor its culture are monolithic. And the world's little people have always gone on being themselves: dreaming of freedom, adventure, and influence, even when the odds are stacked against them. Over the years, these dreams collected, in China, into a genre of tales dealing with adventurers, swordsmen, assassins, and heroes who dared to take justice into their own hands. It was a literature of the little people against the faceless bureaucracies that ruled them. The Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912) discouraged and suppressed this genre of stories for obvious reasons, but only succeeded in entrenching the genre further into the lower classes. With the twentieth century came a new wave of anti-imperial, nationalist sentiment, as well as more opportunities to tell these stories that everyone loved. Authors such as Gu Long, Jin Yong, and Liang Yusheng spearheaded a renaissance of the genre in the middle of the century, and a new name was developed to describe it: wuxia, or "martial hero", fiction.

Probably the wuxia genre is best known in the West via film. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou's Hero and House of Flying Daggers are all arthouse-style homages to the genre, representing the wuxia attitude with varying levels of faithfulness. Hero, for instance, backs away from the traditional anti-authoritarian streak in wuxia (which was influenced partly by a cultural revolt against Confucianism), and ends on a depressingly statist theme of the kind which traditional wuxia abominated.

Western homages to the genre also exist. Dreamworks's animated Kung Fu Panda films, which I haven't seen, are said to be a homage to the genre. The Forbidden Kingdom, a relatively family-friendly film whose main attraction is Jet Li and Jackie Chan's epic duel, blends wuxia with Chinese folklore. The movie also features its kung-fu fanboy protagonist geeking out over a DVD titled The Bride With White Hair. Which leads us into today's review: the classic 1958 wuxia novel Bai Fa Mo Nu Zhuan, The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden, by Liang Yusheng.


The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden

It is the final years of the Ming Dynasty. Barbarians from beyond the Great Wall, the feared Manchus, are attempting to conquer China from the north, held back only by a few brave generals (Historical spoilers: eventually they fail and the Manchus take over, setting up the Qing Dynasty). In Beijing, the last Ming Emperors decline into weakness, falling into the influence of the wicked Minister, Wei Zhongxian, a eunuch, and the new emperor's wet-nurse, his former lover Madam Ke.

In the border provinces, the young female bandit Lian Nicheng, aka Yu Luocha, "The Jade Demoness", has developed an unparalleled sword skill as she battles the injustices committed by wealthy officials and Manchu spies. This, together with her buoyant personality, leads to her making a number of enemies in the martial arts world, not least, the tradition-bound Wudang Sect.

For centuries the prestigious Wudang Sect has dominated the martial arts world. Young Zhuo Yihang, a first-generation disciple, is poised to take over from his master Taoist Priest Purple Sun as Sect Leader when he meets Yu Luocha and the two fall in love. Irretrievably torn between his love for the plucky bandit and his loyalty to the sect elders who believe her to be unorthodox and malicious, Zhuo Yihang is about to become wuxia's least-liked protagonist.

Meanwhile, a young military attache from the Manchurian frontlines undertakes a dangerous mission in search of Manchu agents in the capital. A formidable swordsman from the new Mount Heaven sect, Yue Mingke quickly realises after duelling Yu Luocha that their respective masters used to be married before their rivalry in martial arts split them apart. Realising that they are the sole inheritors of two peerless martial arts schools, Yue Mingke and Yu Luocha agree to meet ten years in the future to settle, once and for all, their masters' rivalry.

Now add: Manchu spies, imperial guards, rival bandits, snaky bureaucrats, stuffy priests, a cast of hundreds, a truly amazing number of cliffhangers, three or four MacGuffins, constant epic fight scenes, approximately fifteen years' worth of plot, and settings that roam across the length and breadth of China, and you have The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden.

The Bad

I have to admit, it took me a long time to like this book. I wanted to read it, so I persisted with it, but in a lot of ways it wasn't kind to the reader. To begin with, it was a really, really long book featuring many, many characters who, being named in Chinese, were a little difficult to keep track of. The fight scenes could sometimes be a little tedious (though overall I thought Liang did a great job of making them interesting - there were just a lot of them). The plot was extremely loose and unstructured, while the romance at the centre of the plot was infuriating because of the extreme gormlessness of the male lead. (Mild spoilers!) I wanted Zhuo Yihang to man up. I wanted Yu Luocha to stop eating her heart out over a complete dweeb. I wanted Yue Mingke to sweep her off her feet. Alas. None of this happened. (End spoilers).

Nevertheless, something happened about a quarter of the way through this book. I got interested. I began to like the characters. It was a sort of literary Stockholm syndrome - after sticking to the book so long, I began liking it despite myself. Partly this was our heroine Yu Luocha, who was huge fun to read about. Partly it was getting invested in the relationships in the story that did work: Yu Luocha's loving relationship with the crusty old bandit she adopts as her foster-father, Yue Mingke's star-crossed romance...goodness, even Zhuo Yihang's friendship with Yue Mingke was more convincing than the central romance.

But I think what I liked most about this story was the fascinating glimpse it gave me into one aspect of Chinese culture I never knew existed.

Jianghu Heroes
Long Xiaoyun coldly said, “Why do you talk reason with them? If they were reasonable, they wouldn’t be government officials!”
The concept of the "jianghu" (literally "rivers and lakes") is central to twentieth-century wuxia. I'm going to quote Wikipedia:
Novelists started creating a fantasy world in "jianghu" in which characters are martial artists and in which the characters' enforcement of righteousness is symbolised by conflicts between different martial artists or martial arts sects and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Martial arts became a tool used by characters in a "jianghu" story to enforce their moral beliefs. On the other hand, there are characters who become corrupted by power derived from their formidable prowess in martial arts and end up abandoning their morality in their pursuit of power. Around this time, the term "jianghu" became closely related to a similar term, "wulin" (武林; lit. "martial forest"), which referred exclusively to a community of martial artists. This fantasy world of "jianghu" remains as the mainstream definition of "jianghu" in modern Chinese popular culture, particularly wuxia culture.

[...]

A common aspect of the jianghu is that the courts of law are dysfunctional and that all disputes and differences (within the community) can only be resolved by members of the community, through the use of mediation, negotiation or force, predicating the need for the code of xia and acts of chivalry. Law and order within the jianghu are maintained by the various orthodox and righteous sects and heroes.
In Legend of the White-Haired Maiden, the jianghu attitude is represented most strongly by Yu Luocha and her bandit friends. On the other hand, the many sympathetic characters working for the imperial court represent the (most likely Confucian) values of the rest of society. Zhuo Yihang especially, who is from a well-regarded family of bureaucrats and a member of the highly-respected Wudang Sect, is incapable of understanding or appreciating the jianghu code of conduct, and it's this that complicates his relationship with Yu Luocha.

The jianghu code of conduct is explained in the book like this: "People of noble heroism should really be holding the act of helping out each other as their personal mission." While the jianghu code isn't without a certain sense of larrikin irresponsibility, it definitely comes with an insistence on personal relationships and individual responsibility. In the words of Tie Shanhu (Yue Mingke's rather adorable love interest):
“Only silly goofs like you would take upon the matters of the world as your own personal mission and then go to support such a degenerate dynasty. For me, a life wandering through the Jianghu world, standing up for justice and performing acts of heroism, living an existence comparable to the wild cranes and carefree clouds would be a much more gratifying and worthwhile experience. [...] I know, I know. You have your whole philosophy of how you must facilitate the Emperor in order to defend the country against the intrusion of foreign invaders – right? But the thing is, we don’t necessarily need an Emperor in order to defend our country against the Tartars!”
I couldn't help contrasting this with the attitude shown by Zhuo Yihang, or other characters, like the noble general Xiong Tingbi. With the Emperor's court heavily infiltrated by Manchu spies and ambitious officials, our heroes are often liable to be arrested on outrageously false charges. Those without the jianghu code see themselves as obligated to submit meekly to the Emperor's "justice", even when that "justice" is being corrupted by traitors. And when the jianghu heroes merrily break into jail to rescue them, they nobly refuse to leave, unable to face the shame of breaking any command issued by the Holy Lord Emperor, even when those commands are obviously wrong.

And this is the difference between those in the jianghu and those outside it: for those in the jianghu, justice can be done apart from the Emperor. Being loyal to one's country doesn't always mean being loyal to the Emperor. Which is, I think, an absolutely vital concept for any patriot of any country to understand.

Though incredibly depressing, Hero is one of the prettiest films you'll ever see.

Taoism, Buddhism, and Worldview

As I mentioned above, the Zhang Yimou film Hero abandons this theme, instead opting for something which, even in my most charitable mood, I can only call blatant statism. However, partway through The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden, I decided to read Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching in an attempt to better understand the Taoist underpinnings of the story. After I'd done so, it became much clearer to me that the statist worldview of Hero draws directly on Taoist philosophy.

Interestingly enough, it's quite clear throughout The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden that the characters' fantastic martial arts skill is based on Taoism and Buddhism as well. Through the practice of meditation, the characters are able to access qi or chi energy, which might best be described as something like the Force in Star Wars. Qi is then used to add force to blows, whether the blows are made with hand, foot, sword, or even fabric (this is why people whap each other with their sleeves in martial arts movies - and now you know). Weapons gain their own qi, and it can also be used to help the characters levitate (which is why wuxia films have all that fancy wirework). At one stage, Yue Mingke is fighting his way through the Shaolin monastery when he pauses to have a lesson from one of the Buddhist monks:
The teachings of Buddhism posits that one must abolish all of one’s ignorance and abandon all forms of obstinacies before one can be awakened to enlightened intelligence and enter into the state of eternity. From these Ch’an teachings, Yue Ming Ke was suddenly enlightened to the principle of inner energy cultivation, causing an inspiring revelation to flood into his mind and illuminate his heart. 
Obviously, The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden and the whole wuxia genre is thus inseparable at some level from the Eastern mysticism that gives its characters their impossible abilities. From my limited experience, it seems to be axiomatic in Eastern martial arts that beating people up is, contrary to Western expectations, not the ultimate goal of training in martial arts. Rather, it is the attainment of enlightenment, and I think Hero expresses this quite well:
In the first stage [of swordsmanship], man and sword become one and each other. Here, even a blade of grass can be used as a lethal weapon. In the next stage, the sword resides not in the hand but in the heart. Even without a weapon, the warrior can slay his enemy from a hundred paces. But the ultimate ideal is when the sword disappears altogether. The warrior embraces all around him. The desire to kill no longer exists. Only peace remains.
Given this, I think it's safe to say that Hero is much more epistemologically self-conscious, much more internally consistent with its worldview than Legend of the White-Haired Maiden is. To prove, this, I only have to quote a line from the book that's kept me chuckling for days:
The Lama in red harshly shouted, "Don't tell a lie in front of a holy man, don't think that you can escape by becoming a Buddhist monk. Quickly hand over Xiong Manzi's book on military strategy, otherwise the Buddha will release you from suffering today!" 
This is a villainous character speaking, but I laughed because it's a perfect picture of how Legend of the White-Haired Maiden subverts the Eastern philosophy of detachment and nonresistance on which it's built. Buddhists should not, strictly speaking, toss off snappy pre-fight one-liners. The internally consistent Taoist hopes to bring peace and justice to the world by refusing to fight evil, not by swashbuckling around the jianghu fighting oppressors.

But swashbuckling around the jianghu fighting oppressors is exactly what Legend of the White-Haired Maiden is all about. Despite the shortcomings in its plot and characterisation, this book was a valuable look inside the classic wuxia genre. I did end up enjoying it quite a bit.

I read The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden in a sketchy internet translation, which you can also read here.

The book has been adapted into a number of TV shows and movies, none of which I've seen, and none of which apparently stick very close to the book.

All of them, for instance, man up Zhuo Yihang considerably.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Poem: His Books by Robert Southey

The famous Bodleian, in Oxford. Hearts in eyes...
I love to collect poetry books and dip into them from time to time. For the last year and a half, I've also been steadily working through The Oxford Book of English Verse - the lovely blue-and-gilt verson edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch, which I picked up last year in Oamaru, New Zealand. I'm now in the middle of the Romantic poets, whom I'm liking a bit more than usual. Here's a poem from Robert Southey, which I copied into my commonplace book:

His Books

My days among the Dead are past;
Around me I behold,
Where'er these casual eyes are cast,
The mighty minds of old:
My never-failing friends are they,
With whom I converse day by day.

With them I take delight in weal
And seek relief in woe;
And while I understand and feel
How much to them I owe,
My cheeks have often been bedew'd
With tears of thoughtful gratitude.

My thoughts are with the Dead; with them
I live in long-past years,
Their virtues love, their faults condemn,
Partake their hopes and fears;
And from their lessons seek and find
Instruction with an humble mind.

My hopes are with the Dead; anon
My place with them will be,
And I with them shall travel on
Through all Futurity;
Yet leaving here a name, I trust,
That will not perish in the dust.

Hands up if this describes you exactly! I don't think it's always good to live in the past, but I loved this bookish tribute to those who've gone before.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Tank Commander by Ronald Welch

A couple of weeks ago I got another delightful parcel in the mail from Slightly Foxed, an English publisher of fine out-of-print books. This one contained the final book in Ronald Welch's wonderful (and long out-of-print) Carey Family series, Tank Commander.

Each of the Carey series follows the adventures of a young man from a noble Welsh family in some historical period or other. Tank Commander focuses on World War I. Young John Carey is a career soldier like his father and grandfather (and most of the rest of his family, all the way back to Philip D'Aubigny of Montgisard during the Third Crusade), but he's never experienced war until he finds himself as a second lieutenant under shellfire at Mons, in the first major battle of World War I. The death of the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo has sparked off a continent-wide conflict, and nothing John has learned so far, about fencing with the sword, cavalry charges, or maneuvering over the open ground of a battlefield, has prepared him for a whole new kind of war. As the war bogs down into the ghastly, flooded trenches of the Western Front, John gains experience, rank, and cynicism as nearly everyone he knows is wiped out. When a new invention promises to end the stalemate and save thousands of lives, John jumps at the chance to help...

I've been interested in World War I ever since my teen years, when I discovered and fell in love with John Buchan's Richard Hannay novels. Though very little of those novels actually took place in the trenches, the books were peppered with references to the different battles - Ypres, Arras, the Somme, Cambrai - which meant nothing to me but would have been well-known from the headlines to the original readers. In addition, Buchan had no call to be providing a detailed picture of trench life, since the vast majority of his readers would have experienced it for themselves.  

Tank Commander, being written in the '70s for a generation who had never known war, fills in this picture with vivid, gritty, immersive detail. I feel it's the single most informative thing I've ever read about how WWI was fought--Welch, as a renowned military historian who had seen active service himself in the Tank Corps during WWII, is on his home turf in this book. And while the book doesn't give a comprehensive picture of the war - it ends right after the battle of Cambrai in 1917, when the war still had a year to go - its compelling and often stomach-churning descriptions of important battles including Mons, Le Cateau, First and Second Ypres, Arras, and Cambrai definitely give the reader a good idea of how the war developed over the first three years on the Western Front.

Each time I read a new Ronald Welch book, I gain a better appreciation for him both as a historian and as a writer. Welch is no Shakespeare, not even a John Buchan, but his books are always meticulously researched, exciting, and manly. Tank Commander, like all his novels, expects a certain level of maturity of both its characters and its readers. In this novel, anyone can (and does) die. John must break the news to a young soldier that he has been sentenced to death for cowardice. He must take orders from incompetent, outdated officers while trying to use his own experience to protect his men. Tank Commander is a challenging book for any young person to read.

The book was not without its faults. The first chapter, which catches us up on the month leading up to the war, is (I thought) rather badly edited together, with some characters introduced twice, as if for the first time. The characters, especially supporting characters, never quite come into three-dimensional life. And the plot is pretty tenuous. The book makes up for all these shortcomings by being so incredibly immersive, and so historically detailed. It straddles the line between history and fiction, its purpose less to tell a story than to follow a fictional character through a very real historical setting.

Parents might like to be warned that Tank Commander contains pretty consistent use of mild British-type swearing along with regular, graphic descriptions of wounds and death. It may be too gory and intense for young readers of previous books in the Carey series, but I'd definitely recommend it for young adults.

After being unaccountably out of print for years, Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series is now being released by Slightly Foxed in illustrated, clothbound limited editions. Slightly Foxed were kind enough to send me a free review copy of Tank Commander, but I was under no obligation to write a positive review, or to tell you to rush off and MAKE THESE BOOKS YOUR OWN BEFORE THEY SELL OUT.

Find Tank Commander on Slightly Foxed.

Other Ronald Welch books on Vintage Novels:
Knight Crusader (the inspiration for my own work in progress OUTREMER)
Captain of Dragoons (about Marlborough's campaigns and the Battle of Blenheim)

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