Friday, November 17, 2017

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

First, an announcement.

For the last several years I've been keeping up a steady once-a-week blog post here on Vintage Novels. It's worked well for me so far, but recently I've been becoming more busy and my rate of vintage-novel intake has declined. Meanwhile, other avenues of writing have opened up to me, and I've been looking for ways to fit them into my schedule.

With that in mind, I've come to a decision, which is that I'm going to go ahead and post every fortnight instead of every week. And I'm going to put the time thus freed up into writing other things.

I actually think this could be a good thing for Vintage Novels. Over the last couple of years I've felt a little pressured by the once-a-week timetable, into prioritising shorter works over longer ones. With a fortnightly schedule, I'll be able to throw some more lengthy works into the mix (Brothers Karamazov, here I come!).

And now for a review of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Set in the early 1300s, this is the story of Adso, a young Benedictine novice who is accompanying Franciscan friar William of Baskerville on a diplomatic mission in northern Italy. The mission is to attend a theological disputation which has emerged from a complex struggle between the Franciscan order, the Pope, and the Holy Roman Emperor - but William and Adso arrive to discover that a murder has been committed.

The local abbot, nervous that any disruption in his monastery will result in the Pope's representatives taking control, begs William to solve the mystery before the papal delegation arrives. Then, one by one, more tragedies strike. Gradually, William becomes aware that the abbey is full of dark undercurrents of politics, theology, and lust - and the nexus at the heart of these seething undercurrents seems to be the library, where a long-lost manuscript is rumoured to lie awaiting discovery. Worse still, the more William and Adso investigate, the more confusing the whole situation becomes. What will happen if they can't solve the mystery?

First of all, a content advisory - this book is not for the faint of heart, and some passages are explicit, though in the most offputting way imaginable, so I wasn't particularly offended.

Second, a spoiler warning, since it's very difficult to discuss the message in this book without discussing the ending!

So, I didn't love this book, and I didn't hate it either. It is, of course, primarily about the medieval age as it was growing old. You have the medieval tension between Plato and Aristotle on one side, and the challenges posed to the medieval world by men like William of Ockham and Roger Bacon on the other. And because Eco is so knowledgeable about the medieval world, there's a lot of convincing detail here, and the characters often seem to have convincingly medieval attitudes about things.

But the book was written in the twentieth century, and it's not a medieval book. In fact, I found it aggressively postmodern. This is a book that's very much about epistemology and knowledge, and too often I thought the book's hero William of Baskerville seemed too much like an up-to-date postmodern skeptic in a monk's habit, which spoiled my suspension of disbelief a little. Then again, maybe if I knew more about the philosophical wranglings of the time period, I wouldn't find Eco's interpretation so jarring.

The plot is a murder mystery, which keeps you turning pages even through dense paragraphs of backstory and detours into philosophy and theology, all of which Eco gradually ties into the central theme. The sheer level of detail in this book is overwhelming and immersive, and the reader digs through it all in the hope that there may be clues hiding here that will be important later. And so there are...except that infuriatingly, the clues do not actually lead to the solution of the mystery. Rather, the actual solution is only revealed through a series of coincidences. One clue is even given to the narrator in a bizarre dream, and it turns out that one of William's most important theories was a complete mistake. They do find the murderer anyway, but the overarching point seems to be about the randomness and unknowability of life.

Of course, this violates the very rules of mystery writing, which is obviously the point. Eco tries to be creative, and he achieves brilliance, but he doesn't achieve a good story. By the end of his book, all the satisfaction that comes from a detective story has dissipated. We have had all the set-up, but no pay-off: the mystery has a solution, but its discovery is a complete accident.

This is not to say that Eco's point is worthless. It actually reminded me of a point GK Chesterton makes in The Club of Queer Trades: "Every detail points to something, certainly; but generally to the wrong thing. Facts point in all directions, it seems to me, like the thousands of twigs on a tree." But whereas Chesterton used this to argue for the necessity of intuition and of revelation, it seemed to me that Eco used it to argue for total epistemological skepticism.

William of Baskerville appears in the novel with a kind of burgeoning empiricism stemming from the influence of Bacon and Ockham. It's because of his ability to observe facts and deduce others that the abbot asks him to solve the murders. But, while William's rationalism puts him at an advantage compared to many of the other monks, it doesn't ultimately help him solve the case.

There's even a whole scene where William bewails the impossibility of knowing truth, and the evil that comes from trying. He says, "I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe." William uses logic and evidence throughout the story, but the whole point, driven home at the end of the last chapter, is that it doesn't lead him to truth. He says he "should have known" at the end of this book, because at the beginning he's already given up being an inquisitor; he's given up trying to find the difference between heresy and orthodoxy using those tools, so it was foolish of him to try to find the murderer that way.

In the book, knowledge is most memorably symbolised by the monastery library, which is one of the book's most satisfying and intriguing symbols. A labyrinth jealously locked away from common access by the spiritual elites of the medieval world, the library is used by those with access to it to coerce and tempt others. William and Adso, the empiricist and his apprentice, penetrate the library and map it out, learning its secrets. But by the end of the story, the library is destroyed in a cataclysmic fire along with the whole monastery. Long after the site is abandoned, Adso returns to scavenge what he can: scraps, pages, and fragments. "I sudied them with love...At the end of my patient reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books." Because of the hubris of those that sought to hoard and control knowledge, because of the hubris of those who presume to systematise and use knowledge, knowledge itself is destroyed, leaving only incomprehensible, random scraps.

The Name of the Rose is a fascinating, yet ultimately pessimistic look at epistemology through the postmodern worldview. It actually reminded me very strongly of Jorge Luis Borges, whose short stories also deal heavily in postmodernism, symbols, labyrinths, and libraries. This is obviously intentional - there's even a character named Jorge of Borgos in homage to him. I always felt that Borges could have written a wonderful novel if he'd wanted to, and The Name of the Rose seems to be that novel.

And yet, when all is said and done, Borges's five-page stories are perhaps exactly the right length to explain postmodernism. After 500 pages of The Name of the Rose, the ultimate disappointment and pessimism at the book's heart feels a hundred times as much of a letdown.

Find The Name of the Rose on Amazon or the Book Depository.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Thoughts? Objections? I'd love to hear from you!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Chronicles of the First Crusade, ed. Christopher Tyerman

My most recent Crusader-research read was a Penguin Classics collection of excerpts from various chronicles of the First Crusade. I've been reading it slowly over the last few months, especially while working on A Wind from the Wilderness, which focuses on the First Crusade.

Christopher Tyerman, the editor, is a well-regarded crusader historian, and he's produced an excellent book. It includes a wide variety of sources, some of which (like the excerpts from Anna Comnena's Alexiad and the letters home from prominent crusader princes) I'd already read. It also includes a number of excerpts from Arab and Jewish chronicles and letters--though nothing from Armenian or Syriac sources, which seems to be an oversight.

The major chroniclers used are Fulcher of Chartes, Raymond of Aguilers, the anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum, and Anna Comnena, and the excerpts are arranged more or less chronologically, so that you get several different perspectives on any single event. This was extremely useful, for example, when I was trying to piece together exactly what happened during the battle of Dorylaeum.

One of the things I like most about medieval chronicles is how the personality of the author is communicated, and this book was a veritable checkerboard or people. I've mentioned Anna Comnena's schoolmarmish self-consciousness before, for instance, but when her chronicle is put side by side with the accounts of the Franks, something else emerges: the adroit way in which she manipulated and spun some of the less praiseworthy facts of her father's behaviour in order to head off criticism. The author of the Gesta Francorum is less a diplomat or a scholar than a soldier; the journey interests him little except as a catalogue of marches to reach an objective, but when describing battle, he revels in knightly good conduct and gallant speeches.

But it was Raymond of Aguilers who provided me with the most to chew on. Aguilers was a chaplain in the service of Raymond of Toulouse. More expressive than the author of the Gesta Francorum, Aguilers is not above hinting that the crusader council ought to have taken his advice on military matters:
On the day following our arrival, we were so angered by the natives that we openly stormed the walls and would, no doubt, have seized Ma'arrat al-Numan if we had possessed four more ladders. However, our two ladders, short and fragile, were mounted fearfully; and it was the council's decision to build machines, hurdles and mounds by which the wall could be reached, sapped and tumbled to the ground.
But reading carefully, it becomes clear that Aguilers's criticism of the council is a little more than simple smartalecry. One of the crusade's resident holy men prophesied that the city of Ma'arrat would fall to an assault with ladders within a few days, and Aguilers, if his chronicle is any indication, was deeply invested in supporting these "prophets".

Peter Bartholomew, Stephen of Valence, and other prophets emerged during the crusade's most desperate days, when they were starving and facing what seemed like certain death in Antioch at the hands of a more numerous, better-fed and better-equipped army of Turks. It was at this darkest moment, when even some of the highest-ranking knights and counts had already panicked and fled, that both Peter Bartholomew and Stephen of Valence came forward, claiming to have been visited by Christ, the Virgin Mary, Saint Andrew, and other saints. Both offered to verify their visions by undergoing trial by ordeal. Bartholomew gained priority at first by discovering (or "discovering") the purported relic of the Holy Lance. Aguilers, present on the scene, says he kneeled to kiss the point while it was still projecting from the ground.

Overnight, Bartholomew became one of the crusade's most influential figures, and he now received a steady flow of increasingly unhinged visions. He claimed to have been visited multiple times by Adhemar of le Puy, the papal legate who died shortly after the siege. Adhemar had refused to accept the legitimacy of the "Holy Lance", and Bartholomew claimed that after his death Adhemar came to visit him sporting horrible burns from Purgatory where he was being tormented for his lack of faith. Finally, Bartholomew's reign came to an end when he insisted that two-fifths of the crusaders should be massacred to cleanse them of their sins and unlock the blessings of God. This was too much for many of the other clergy to stomach, and Bartholomew reacted by insisting on a trial by ordeal, which he did not survive.

Obviously these visions were not actually from God. But I think it's unlikely that they were fabrications, either. Bartholomew and Valence both had faith in what they were saying, and Bartholomew died believing it. But whether starvation-and-trauma-induced hallucinations were at work here, or something more sinister, from my perspective it's undeniable that all this happened, in Charles Williams's words, "under the Mercy". And that's something I'll definitely be chewing over as I work on A Wind from the Wilderness and the other Outremer books.

Find Chronicles of the First Crusade on Amazon or the Book Depository.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Ballad of the White Horse by GK Chesterton

*ahem*
Of great limbs gone to chaos,
A great face turned to night--
Why bend above a shapeless shroud
Seeking in such archaic cloud
Sight of strong lords and light? 
Where seven sunken Englands
Lie buried one by one,
Why should one idle spade, I wonder,
Shake up the dust of thanes like thunder
To smoke and choke the sun?
So begins The Ballad of the White Horse, which has never failed to give me chills.

By 1911 when GK Chesterton first published the poem, Alfred the Great was surely long overdue to have an epic poem written about him. The story of his war against the Danes at the dawn of English history is one of those rare legends that is actually as true as it is stirring. And Alfred is one of the few men in history to deserve every bit of his heroic reputation. Still, most other English epics had focused on King Arthur, Queen Elizabeth I, or taken the Danes themselves as the heroes (I refer to Beowulf), and until GK Chesterton took him in hand, Alfred himself had little poetic remembrance.

The poem begins at Alfred's darkest hour, when the Danish king Guthrum had succeeded in conquering Wessex itself and Alfred was forced into hiding on the swamp island of Athelney. At that moment, it may have seemed clear that Alfred's reign was to be short and inglorious, and that England would be thoroughly conquered by the Danes. But Alfred turned the tide. Scraping together a small army, he came back to face Guthrum at the battle of Ethandune and managed to win a victory that regained Wessex, captured and converted Guthrum, and poised him as the leader of Saxon England. Alfred then used this time of peace to prepare for the next war. Not only did he carry out military reforms, he also recognised the importance of God's covenant blessings in peace and victory. He passed scripture-based laws and promoted education and biblical literacy. Years later, when Wessex was invaded again, this time from multiple directions simultaneously, Alfred was ready.

That's roughly what GK Chesterton covers in this epic. The poem is somewhat on the short side for an epic, though the subject matter and treatment are definitely in the right style. It's divided into several "books" that deal (appropriately) with some of the legends of Alfred's life, including the burnt cakes (Book IV, "The Woman in the Forest") and the infiltration of the Danish camp which Alfred is said to have carried out in disguise as a minstrel (Book III, "The Harp of Alfred").

This, Book III, contains some of the most fascinating material in the whole epic. Chesterton deals with a number of his usual themes in this story. Book VIII, "The Scouring of the Horse", is about the endless struggle between right and wrong, and the role that tradition plays in keeping this fight going. Book IV has Alfred meditating on the nobility and importance of ordinary people, a lesson that comes back when it's the common soldiers that ultimately provide the turn of the tide at the battle of Ethandune. All this is fairly typical for Chesterton.

Book III is the one that, in the lead-up to the battle, confronts Alfred and Alfred's vision against Guthrum and Guthrum's vision. In Book II, "The Gathering of the Chiefs", Alfred calls three leaders to his banner - Eldred the Saxon, Mark the Roman, and Colan the Irishman (sing it with me now: "For the great Gaels of Ireland/Are the men that God made mad/For all their wars are merry/And all their songs are sad"). Each of these men is a specific "type" - Colan the imaginative artist, Eldred the simple farmer and Mark the rational believer ("And his faith grew in a hard ground/Of doubt and reason and falsehood found/Where no faith else could grow"). When Alfred meets Guthrum in the Danish camp disguised as a minstrel, we find that Guthrum also has three chiefs, and just as the Saxon king and the Danish king are foils to each other, so the Saxon chiefs and the Danish chiefs mirror each other. The differences are underlined in the ensuing sing-off. There is Harold, Guthrum's nephew, with a simple and mindless love of glory, wine, and women. There is Elf, Guthrum's minstrel, the singer of a hopeless and beautiful paganism. There is Ogier, Guthrum's earl, a disillusioned old pagan who knows the demonic "wrath of the gods behind the gods/Who would rend all gods and men." And finally there is Guthrum himself, who evidently is no longer sure if he believes in the gods at all, and kills mainly to know that he himself is alive.



The unifying purpose of the poem seems mainly to compare and contrast these four pagan types with the four Christian types, and to dramatise their struggle through the ages in the context of one battle long ago in England. In GKC's own words, "Alfred has come down to us in the best way (that is, by national legends) solely for the same reason as Arthur and Roland and the other giants of that darkness, because he fought for the Christian civilization against the heathen nihilism." In that sense, The Ballad of the White Horse is firmly twentieth-century in flavour. Chesterton is writing one of those "historical" pieces which is only ostensibly about the history. In fact, it's about his own day, and I can't help finding this a little bit disappointing. A more sincere attempt to communicate Alfred in his own world, and his enemies as they were, might have rung a little more true, and felt more meaningful in its celebration of Alfred's life. Of course, I will never try to pretend that authors of historical fiction can separate their interpretation of the history from the needs and intentions of their own day. We see everything through a lens of applicability; that's an inescapable part of existence. Writers of epic, in particular, have always exulted in anachronism. But I think there's a way to find application in the history by listening to what it has to say, and there's a way to force application by shouting over it. The Ballad of the White Horse strikes me as being a trifle shouty.

I feel bad saying this, because Chesterton is one of my favourite authors. And this poem (although this is the first time I've read it right the whole way through) contains some of my very favourite Chesterton quotes--hair-raising, chill-causing, wonderful quotes that beg to be declaimed aloud. But I have to say that after reading the entire thing, I have to agree with JRR Tolkien's legendarily grumpy assessment of this poem:
P[riscilla]....has been wading through The Ballad of the White Horse for the last many nights; and my efforts to explain the obscure parts to her convince me that it is not as good as I thought. The ending is absurd. The brilliant smash and glitter of the words and phrases (when they come off, and are not mere loud colours) cannot disguise the fact that G.K.C. knew nothing whatever about the 'North', heathen or Christian.
I was mildly offended the first time I found this in Tolkien's Letters, but actually? He's right. Much of the "brilliant smash and glitter" Tolkien talks about does fall flat, being simply there for show. Not all of it, of course, and there's enough that does "come off" to raise your hair on your scalp multiple times over. But the ending is abrupt and clumsy. And most of all, you get the impression that the characters are modern-day philosophical constructs, not genuine Saxon and Danish battlechiefs.

I have to further admit that not everything Chesterton was trying to say resounded with me. As a Protestant, it was a little difficult to take Saint Mary's role in this poem, even as a Protestant who thinks Protestants ought to give Mary more credit. Her message to Alfred, which is basically, "So, I'm not going to tell you if things are going to get better, have fun finding out" is not something that I find compelling, and I actually don't think Alfred would have found it compelling either: God's actions in the world are not incomprehensible, and Alfred staked his kingdom on the comprehensibility of God's actions when he invested, not just in military strength, but in religious reformation.

All this said, I still loved this poem and will definitely be revisiting it in future.

*ahem*
A sea-folk blinder than the sea
Broke all about his land,
But Alfred up against them bare
And gripped the ground and grasped the air,
Staggered, and strove to stand. 
He bent them back with spear and spade,
With desperate dyke and wall,
With foemen leaning on his shield
And roaring on him when he reeled;
And no help came at all. 
He broke them with a broken sword
A little towards the sea,
And for one hour of panting peace,
Ringed with a roar that would not cease,
With golden crown and girded fleece
Made laws under a tree.
Ahhh.

Find The Ballad of the White Horse on Amazon, the Book Depository, and Project Gutenberg.

If you're in the market for a wonderful biography of Alfred, I can highly recommend Ben Merkle's The White Horse King, which is every bit as stirring and thrilling as this poem!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Poem: Tapestry by James McAuley

For one reason and another, I haven't had a lot of time to read this month. So, as usual, I'm going to share a poem instead of a book review. This one is a favourite new discovery from James McAuley's Collected Poems...



Tapestry
by James McAuley (b1917)

Alert to the waldhorn
The silent poplars tremble;
Spearmen and hounds assemble
To hunt the unicorn.

Beside the fount at bay
They have him fast surrounded;
The mort is already sounded,
When he springs clear away.

But see, at a virgin's beck,
He enters at the walled garden;
Proudly he stoops his neck,

Subdued to his fair warden;
A banderole bears above
The monogram of love.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Writerly Updates + Snippets + TEN THOUSAND THORNS cover!!!

I really ought to be keeping everyone better updated on all my various writing projects! October has been busy, and that's a fact. However, I have been sitting on a number of exciting announcements, and I suppose it's time to reveal a few.

OUTREMER: A Wind From the Wilderness


Oh, goodness! I can't believe I never made an official announcement about this, except maybe an offhand comment on Twitter. On the last day of September, after an extremely intense month, I finished the second draft of OUTREMER book 1, A Wind From the Wilderness. It's still very rough and not yet ready for beta reading; I intend to do at least one more stiff edit before seeking feedback. With new characters and plotlines appearing, and at twice the length of the first-draft material, it's going to need some serious plot and character surgery.

However, I'm excited by how much it improves on the first draft, and I can't wait to dig back into the next edit/draft, hopefully no later than December. I have a perhaps unrealistic hope of having it beta-reader-ready by February. We'll see.

Snippets!

“I was on watch this morning. I could hear what those boys were saying. ‘It’s the filthy Turks,’ they say. ‘Let’s burn it,’ they say, ‘like good Christians, and send them all to hell.’” He spat into the bilge. “So I went down the hawser and bit one of them.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Didn’t like their talk.”
“That was a stupid thing to do.”
Kismet shrugged. “Not really. I know their sort. Cowards. Knew they’d run.”
“They weren’t running when I came up.”
“Mm. So I s’pose I owe you.” 

*

“Don’t expect to live long if you betray us, Greek,” the count added.
Before he realised what he was doing, Lukas lifted his chin and gave the count glare for glare. “I do this for love of my master, not for fear of you,” he said disdainfully.
The instant the words left his mouth he knew they were a mistake. The count turned his head in a queer sharp little movement like the challenge of a bird of prey, and Lukas steeled himself for wrath—
“That’s enough, Lukas. Be on your way,” the bishop said very hurriedly.

*

They were on opposite sides of something much, much bigger than themselves. Something that had begun long before either of them was born. Something that would go on long after both of them were dead.
Something that not even love could conquer.

*

Thatoul’s own residence was a low stone house built at the citadel’s knees. Round pillars supported a portico, and the entrance-hall led directly into an inner courtyard which was small but delightfully decorated with a fountain and lush greenery. Saint-Gilles, Galdemar and Bessarion followed Thatoul around the pillared portico to where chairs of polished wood softened by dyed sheepskins awaited them by a low marble-topped table.
Saint-Gilles sank into one of the chairs with a sigh of satisfaction. “Your house is like a pool of water in the desert, Thatoul. It does me good to be in it.”
“You have no such places in your own country, my lord?”
Saint-Gilles stifled a smile with his hand. “We have our own luxuries, naturally. But for the last year we’ve lived as nomads, travelling from place to place, through deserts, over mountains, in battles, in sieges, and often in fear.”
“Too long at war,” Thatoul replied, “and men forget what really matters.”

*

“My freedom,” he whispered into the dark, under the rumble of the snores of the others. “And what will I do with it? Starve?”
“God be merciful, Greek. Forget I said anything. Lie in your hammock and whine some more! You’ve done nothing else since you got here!”
The boy’s disgust stung him, and he sat up, swinging his feet over the side. “Why should I bother? Everyone I know is probably dead.”

Kismet’s voice was suddenly level and cold. “Then you ought to avenge them.”


The City Beyond the Glass


With A Wind From the Wilderness on hiatus and Ten Thousand Thorns gearing up for release, I'm trying to get another draft written on The City Beyond the Glass, my retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses set in Renaissance Venice. Did you know that for 100 years spanning the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, over 60% of young patrician Venetian women were forced into monasteries in an effort to preserve the exclusivity of Venice's oligarchy? And that this very quickly led to many of the old houses dying out completely? This is the historical backdrop to a story that I'm really excited about. I've only just begun nibbling away at the second draft. Look for this one, DV, sometime in the first half of next year.

More Snippets!

“Plenty of girls don’t get to see their husbands before the betrothal.”
She was right. I didn’t have to take this risk. With only daughters to carry on the family line, Papa had long since resigned himself to the extinction of the Caloprini name. Nevertheless, he hoped that the Caloprini trading empire would continue under the watchful guidance of a capable son-in-law. Whoever he’d chosen as my husband, it would be someone like himself. A patrician on the Great Council. Someone respectable. Someone steady.
Someone old.
A simmer of rage coiled through my stomach, and I stood up, snatching mask and gloves from Lucia’s hands. “Plenty of girls are gutless.”

*

“One of these days,” Gonzaga said wearily, “I’ll wake up and it will suddenly occur to me. Aha! Signora Gemma doesn’t like me! And it will all make sense.”

*

“I begin to think this house is bewitched, Signor. I begin to think that this is a case for the Inquisitors.”

*

“Do you ever think of anyone’s interests but your own?”
“Frequently. You’d be surprised how far a man can advance his interests through serving the interests of others.” 

*

“Oh ho, is that your game, is it, my Delilah? ‘Tell me wherein thy great strength liest.’ I think not.”

*

Filippa gave a hiss of annoyance as Lucia fumbled with my hair, and took over, screwing it into a hard knot on my head and jabbing it with pins. “If we have to go, let’s go,” she whispered, glancing over her shoulder at the open door. More softly she added, “He’s going to follow us, Gemma.”
“I know,” I said again. 

Ten Thousand Thorns

Most exciting of all: Ten Thousand Thorns is coming on November 30, 2017! And here's the cover, if you haven't seen it already:

Now on pre-order!
Princess Morning Light meditates in a hidden temple surrounded by ten thousand thorns. Guardian of a long-lost sword skill, the princess is destined to wake after a hundred years to return justice to All-Under-Heaven.

Or so legend says.

As the Vastly Martial Emperor extends his brutal domination across the world, rebel leader Clouded Sky flees the capital for the safety of his martial sect at Wudang Mountain. Meanwhile, the renegade martial artist Iron Maiden seeks a hero to awaken Morning Light. As bounty hunters and imperial guards close in, Clouded Sky must determine who he can trust - and who may be planning to betray him.

An action-packed retelling of Sleeping Beauty in the style of a Chinese martial arts epic! Novella, approximately 39,000 words.

I know, I know, it's been ages since I announced the first draft of this story. And I was working on the research for several months even before that. This has not been a quick project, partly because it's the longest novella I've ever written, partly because of my intense focus on Outremer, and partly because the research has been so onerous. I was blessed to find a beta reader who in addition to being Chinese was also a big fan of the wuxia genre, but although he was very encouraging, he did give me a lot of homework to do. Ten Thousand Thorns is finally here, however, and it's going to be huge fun!

Now, the release date is November 30. But!!! Ten Thousand Thorns is available for pre-order right now on Amazon. So, if you're keen to have it land on your ereader the red-hot second it appears, pop off to Amazon and snag a copy now, and in the meantime you can add it on Goodreads.

Or...if you're super keen to read it before anyone else, email me at rosa(dot)gaudea(at)gmail(dot)com, and I'll book you in to receive an advance review copy!

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Ahahahahaha! You didn't think we were going to slog all the way through Shakespeare's history plays right up to Richard III, and not follow it up with The Daughter of Time, did you?

Because we totally are.

Twelve years ago, I'd never heard of this book in my life - nor, for that matter, of its author. Then a lady at church produced this book. I gulped it down in one sitting that very afternoon. By the time I ran out of book, I had not run out of afternoon, and I was filled with a burning sense of historical injustice. I wanted to take some long-misunderstood historical figure and vindicate them so thoroughly that nobody would ever forget it.

Why exactly I picked Queen Guinevere, I'll never know. It's not like she was actually historical. But did it stop Teen Me? Nah! Six days later, I had the first draft of what would later become Pendragon's Heir written. It's still the fastest I've ever written anything in my life, and it came out of me in a white-hot streak purely as a result of Josephine Tey and The Daughter of Time.

As I picked the book up a second time last week, I wondered if the old magic would have dissipated - or whether I'd be waking from a creative daze a week from now to discover that I had inadvertently written another book.

The Daughter of Time is a detective story. Inspector Alan Grant is recovering in hospital from a broken leg sustained in the course of chasing a criminal around London, and is slowly going crazy from boredom. Just in time, his actress friend Marta Shearing turns up to suggest he use the time to reopen a cold case...a very cold case, some historical mystery that has never been fully explained. Grant turns up his nose at Mary Stuart's Casket Letters and also at the Man in the Iron Mask, but then Marta sends him a sheaf of pictures of historical personages. Grant finds himself captivated by one particular portrait, a Renaissance gentleman with the wise and weary face of a judge.

When he turns the picture over, he's shocked to discover that the man is Richard III, English history's most notorious murderer until Jack the Ripper. Fascinated despite himself, Grant is sucked deeper and deeper into an investigation of the facts concerning Richard's short but able life. Did Richard really usurp the throne? Did he murder his nephews in the Tower of London? What does the circumstantial evidence indicate?

This book was every bit as good the second time around, and almost as irresistibly inspiring (thank goodness that there are a few juicy unsolved mysteries in Crusader history, and I don't have to go looking for more). By now, almost seventy years after it was written, The Daughter of Time is recognised as one of the great detective stories of all time, and must have created thousands of passionate Ricardians (or so Richard III's current-day apologists are called). And yet, it somehow does this while defying a whole heap of tested story conventions. The stakes, for instance, are low to nonexistent. There are no villains lurking in the corners of Inspector Grant's hospital room, and he'll suffer no more than a slight injury to his pride if he fails to vindicate Richard. The case is cold, and I don't believe the scene ever shifts out of Grant's hospital room, where he lies in bed looking at books and his ceiling and having conversations with occasional visitors. It's not what you'd expect to form the raw material of a gripping detective yarn. And if Josephine Tey was such an avid Ricardian, you'd expect her to write a weighty non-fiction tome instead of trying to shoehorn all the evidence and scholarly debate into a light detective novel.

And yet she does it.

Partly it's her sophisticated and witty authorial voice. Within the first couple of chapters, Tey lampoons a whole stack of genre and literary fiction in terms that will have you giggling out loud. Partly it's her deft understanding of plot. She doesn't just give her hero a mystery to solve, she constructs the mystery out of the historical facts, complete with twists and turns. Christopher Nolan defines story as "a controlled release of information", and that's what Tey does here. With consummate skill, she has distilled her historical argument into a series of nicely-weighed and controlled factual revelations. She takes the skeptical reader on a journey of discovery along with her hero, and it's wonderfully compelling.

Most of all, too, it's Tey's evident passion for this subject. I've read a couple of her other novels, and none of them seemed to measure up to this one (though Brat Farrar is fun). History is clearly something she was very serious about, and in this story she's avidly debating a subject she loves. The Daughter of Time is full of crusading fervour, and this is a big part of what makes it so irresistible.

It was interesting re-reading this book after becoming much more serious about history, myself. While the main focus of the book is on vindicating Richard III as a good man and a good king, Tey has a bigger point to make in this book: that history can be, and often is, completely fabricated from half-truth, exaggeration, and sometimes downright lies. While I wouldn't agree with all her perspectives on history (I think it's quite possible that the Covenanters were both political rebels and martyrs to their faith at one and the same moment, for example), this is clearly the truth. If you think "revisionist history" is innately a dirty concept, then you should definitely read this book for an excellent example of what revisionism should really be about.

Does Tey successfully vindicate Richard? Well, the debate continues to rage. Nobody denies that Richard III was a supremely competent and brave man (not even Shakespeare), and there are a couple of strong counterarguments that Tey fails to address in her novel, including some that have come to light with more recent research. But Tey does provide good reasons to preserve an open mind.

In The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey has done an excellent job of marshalling and presenting a historical argument within the medium of fiction. No textbook or peer-reviewed scholarly article would have done so much to rehabilitate Richard III, travelled so far, or produced such passion in so many people. There's definitely a place for historical non-fiction, but The Daughter of Time is a wonderfully inspiring example of the power of fiction.

And, it's a wonderful, original, gripping detective story. You can't go wrong reading this book!

Find The Daughter of Time on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

100 Years of James McAuley

A hundred years ago today, on October 12, 1917, James McAuley was born.

McAuley has been one of my favourite poets since I was first introduced to his work five or six years ago. In his own words, McAuley felt "the persistent desire to write poems that are lucid and mysterious, gracefully simple but full of secrets, faithful to the little one knows and the much one has to feel." His poetry was accessible, but multilayered; lyrical, perhaps with debts to the Metaphysical poets. It took the Australian landscape as a perpetual inspiration and wove legend into it, and sometimes it became sharply satirical.

I still haven't read a great deal of his verse (though I recently managed to track down a rare Collected Poems). Here's one poem:

Anonymous Message

Believe O believe a native
Of the country of despair:
You must never give up hope,
Even just as something to wear.

The dry well choked with corpses
After the razzia, the need for flight,
The underground tricklings of pain,
The black empty wind all night -

They can't hinder, they even help:
Quite suddenly time uncloses
The most ancient, most fragrant, the most
Medicinal of all the roses.

You can read more James McAuley at the Australian Poetry Library, which I highly recommend that you do.

Have you seen any interesting articles on James McAuley for his centenary? If so, drop a link in the comments!

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