Friday, January 19, 2018

Captain Quiros by James McAuley

Captain Quiros
Each year in the break immediately after Christmas, I read an epic poem. It's a small personal tradition that I've kept up for the last eight years since first starting this blog, but it's been a good way of keeping in touch with one of my favourite forms of storytelling.

Until the rise of the modern realist novel, epic poetry was one of the most prestigious and beloved forms of narrative literature. Starting in classical Greece and Rome with works like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid, epic poetry continued throughout the medieval age and enjoyed a resurgence with the Renaissance before quietly giving way to the novel. Along the way, epic poems gained a number of distinct tropes. They often involved the foundation of a noble house or formative events from the history of a nation. They blended fantasy with real-life events, made references to other epic poems, and began with an invocation to the poet's Muse (which in Christian epics always meant the Holy Spirit).

Above all, they were a form of myth-making. An epic poem took the history and heritage of a people, and elevated it to the status of myth. It then became something that could be looked back to with pride, as a reminder of the ideals that birthed and inspired them.

(Obviously, this kind of exercise is not always a good idea, especially when the history and heritage in question is fabricated from lies and half-truths as a way to pardon and whitewash evil. But more about my other recent holiday read next time.)

I give this quick introduction to epic poetry because it's no longer as mainstream as it once was, despite the fact that people still occasionally write it (GK Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse is a good example of a more recent epic poem). And also because it explains what I found so special about James McAuley's Captain Quiros. Australia, you see, was not settled by Europeans until 1788. The day of the epic was already long past when the modern Commonwealth of Australia began to be formed. I have read possibly dozens of epics in my life, all of them commemorating other people's history. Reading an epic poem by an Australian poet about events in Australia's history was a completely new and uniquely moving experience.

The island in Vanuatu where Quiros landed, still named Espiritu Santo

A Myth for Australia

The irony is that nobody in this poem sets foot on Australian soil once, but McAuley doesn't let that stop him. He chooses to focus on something that happened before the discovery of the continental landmass: the origin of Australia's name. Before the discovery and mapping of Australia or Antarctica, and as early as ancient times, scholars agreed that given the great landmasses in the northern hemisphere, there must logically also be some great landmasses in the southern hemisphere, which they called Terra Australis or the Southland.

Late in 1605, the devout Portugese explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros set out from Peru on a mission to discover the Southland. His three ships crossed the Pacific Ocean and ultimately made landfall on a large island in what is today Vanuatu. Quiros believed he'd found the Southland, and he named it Australia del Espiritu Santo - the Southland of the Holy Spirit. Idealistically, Quiros named his new settlement Nova Jerusalema - New Jerusalem - and instituted a chivalric order, the Knights of the Holy Ghost, to go along with it. Within weeks, however, the colony had to be abandoned. Quiros always desired to return and prove that he had in fact discovered the Southland, but he would never be taken seriously again.

This is the story behind James McAuley's epic of Australia. Part One of the poem deals with Quiros's first expedition under Mendana to the Solomon Islands. As pilot, Quiros is unable to prevent the dissolution of the Mendana expedition as a result of mutiny and ill-treatment of the local natives. Part Two, which kicks off with an amazing Proem, deals with the expedition to Vanuatu and the foundation of New Jerusalem. And finally, in Part Three, the disappointed and dying Quiros is comforted by a vision of the future of his Southland of the Holy Spirit.

I really appreciated McAuley's treatment of the subject matter. He is well and truly mythmaking here, especially in Part Three. He doesn't try to make Quiros into an Achilles, or the Spanish expedition into lantern-jawed heroes. Captain Quiros could only ever have been a tale of the clash between ideals and human sin, so that's the story McAuley tells. He is very matter-of-fact about his hero's weaknesses as well as the ill-deeds of the Spanish explorers. His portrait of the native islanders is both respectful and sensitive, treating them more as noble than savages; we see the difference between those who have never heard the truth but are willing to receive it, and those who have the truth but have hardened their hearts against it. It's not by any stretch of the imagination a romantic story - in fact it's an extremely grounded story - and yet that just gives Part Three all the more visionary power. Nobody is surprised when good people accomplish good things. It's when somehow God works in our weaknesses, failures, and sins to produce good things that we are overwhelmed with awe and thankfulness. And that's how James McAuley weaves a myth for Australia.

Bird of paradise
Signs and symbols

Unusually, McAuley leaves the traditional invocation of the Muse for Part Two of his epic, to introduce the expedition to Vanuatu. But when it comes, it's magnificent.
O for the gift of tongues and prophecy!
For these heroic mysteries require
The voice of Elders chanting solemnly
Over a sea of glass mingled with fire,
While all creation bears the underpart.
Let the resources of our fictive art
Thrill to such tones, burning with new desire.
To chart in verse the voyage that I took
In youth and hope to seek the Great South Land;
To shut the sounding Ocean in a book
By verbal spells; charm to an ampersand
Each curling seahorse; teach rough waves the dance
Of formal metre - might one not sooner chance
To draw out huge Leviathan with a hook?

It's fitting in multiple ways that McAuley calls for "the gift of tongues and prophecy". These are gifts of the Holy Spirit, the muse of Christian art; not only that, but the poem is all about the Holy Spirit working in history, and the naming of Australia as the Southland of the Holy Spirit; not only that, but the Holy Spirit crops up again and again throughout McAuley's oevre, usually linked with birds, especially the bird of paradise, and with Australia. For example, To the Holy Spirit, from a 1956 collection, which begins:
Leaving your fragrant rest on the summit of morning calm,
Descend, Bird of Paradise, from the high mountain;
And, plumed with glowing iris along each curving wire,
Visit in time our regions of eucalypt and palm.
Another symbol that cropped up a couple of times in the poem was the star Aldebaran, called a "prophetic star" at the end, and so likewise linked to the Holy Spirit. McAuley's very first published collection of poetry was titled Under Aldebaran, and one day I hope to come across someone who can explain more fully what this imagery meant to him. Unfortunately, McAuley's work has been so shrouded in silence since his death in 1976 that it's very difficult to find any in-depth discussion of his poetry.

Eschatology and History

James McAuley's myth of Australia inhabits the sharp cleft between the ugliness that is and the nobility that ought to be. It's a tension I know well: Pendragon's Heir is all about the same thing. But to have this applied to Australian history brings it all just a bit more sharply into focus.

Not that I would have given Quiros the same answer as McAuley gives him. As Quiros sails home in defeat, his dream of the Southland of the Holy Spirit in ashes, McAuley imagines him turning to a dying priest for encouragement: "Where was the fault, that we have merited/No more than this from heaven?" The priest replies at length:
Not ours to bring to birth
That final Realm; nor shall our labours build
Out of the rubble of this fallen earth
The New Jerusalem.
...
If by enthusiasm we should confuse
This dispensation with the next, we abuse
The wisdom of our Faith, and cheat our prayers.
Quiros's attempt to found the New Jerusalem and call down the power of the Holy Spirit on Australia was well-intentioned, but it left out one important consideration: the will of God. God doesn't work according to human schedule, and we don't bring in the kingdom by sheer hustle and bustle. So far, so good. However, I do think I would probably disagree with McAuley in some respects. He speaks of Eternity coming upon us unawares, as if the coming of the kingdom is a sudden thing. Naturally the consummation of history and the perfection of the kingdom will be sudden, but Scripture speaks of the stone growing slowly to a mountain that covers the whole earth, or leaven working systematically through the dough. It is God working in the church according to his secret counsels that brings about the growth of the kingdom, not human schedules, but desiring and hoping to build the kingdom on the earth, and doing it God's way, through service and sacrifice for the weak and the needy, is truly possible.

This said, I loved reading an epic poem about my own country that gave so much expression to what I've often thought or felt about it. The final canto especially, The Last Vision, powerfully expressed both the sins and the virtues in Australian history.
Mingled the seed grown in the new-turned ground:
The quickening Word, the cactus of delusion,
Straight stalks of courage, indolently wound
With flowering folly, all in gay profusion.
In Captain Quiros, James McAuley puts his finger on everything that I'm sad about in Australian history. This is a deeply bittersweet epic, but as an exercise in mythmaking for a post-Enlightenment nation, it's wonderful work. I never quite understood the power of national epic until I read this book, and I'm so glad to have discovered this one.

Find Captain Quiros on the Australian Poetry Library.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Beta reading announcement

Hello, readers, friends, and countrymen.

Over the Christmas and New Year holidays, I did a lot of thinking and studying about my writing and business, and also about some of the ways I've been spending my time. I came to a decision that I wanted to tell you all about.

It's a guinea pig with a book! Get it? Get it?
 Beta reading has always been something I've wanted to do for my friends. Coaching, critiquing, and teaching is to me an incredibly important way that I can build into the life of someone who may one day far excel me as an author. As RJ Rushdoony once said, "The world was not empty when we were born into it, and we are not supposed to leave it poorer because we have been here." I know I can make the world a richer place by sharing what I've learned about my art, and that's been my vision in beta reading for my friends.

However.

In 2017 I did somewhere in the vicinity of 375,000 words' worth of beta reading for friends. On top of that, it transpires that a Suzannah Rowntree Beta Reading Experience is probably not a lot like the beta reading you'd normally get. It's more on the level of a manuscript critique or a development edit, because I'm afraid I take the whole beta reading thing way too seriously. It involves hours and hours' worth of work and thought on top of existing commitments. It involves spending time distilling pages' worth of notes into a lengthy feedback email or for major works, 2-3 hours on the phone. And it draws on everything I've learned over years of teaching myself the writing craft.

I often try to dial it back to something a bit more chill. It hasn't worked. I don't seem to have a setting for "chill".

As I've met more budding authors, grown in my own craft, and gained more of a community online, the demands on my time through beta reading have become more frequent and the quality of my feedback has become much higher. Meanwhile other financially profitable avenues have been opening up to me through my writing. My time is becoming more valuable and more rare. Taking these considerations and advice from my parents into account, I have decided that I need to start calling what I do by its real name - manuscript critique - and charging a fee for it.

From now on, if you'd like me to critique your story, it's going to cost you AU$5 per 1,000 words. This is below what a professional would charge you. If it's a chilled-out, friendly beta read you're after, then there are dozens of people you know personally who can give you that. I can't give you that, but I can give you something a lot more challenging and a lot more informative. I'm sorry I'm having to start charging for it, but I know that if I do, I'll have the opportunity to go on doing it.

If you have any questions about this, please don't hesitate to shoot me an email. In the meantime, happy New Year! I'm looking forward to a busy and productive 2018 and will be back next week with another review!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Best of 2017

Is it too late to put together my 2017 In Books? Nah. It's never too late.

This year I once again failed to read as many books as I did last year - the final tally is 110, down from 114 last year and 119 the year before. I'm tempted to feel a little bit despondent about this, but on second thoughts, let's not. After all, I did both achieve and exceed my base goal of 104 books, or two books per week. Plus, the time I didn't spend reading was spent with friends and family, or just giving my brain some time to relax. I don't feel anywhere near as mentally tired as I did this time last year, I didn't drive myself as hard, and I'm feeling ever so much better.


Best Re-Reads of 2017

I only re-read 9 books this year, but I'll pick my top 5 as usual.

The Mating Season by PG Wodehouse - I read this aloud with my sisters (we have a once-a-week readaloud time) and we laughed until we cried. The scene with the village talent show/variety concert in particular will be deeply cathartic to anyone who has had to suffer through a similar event!

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare - I don't know why more people don't love this play. It's the original British screwball farce and I loved it even more as an adult than I did as a teen.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey - In case you missed it, this book was directly responsible for kickstarting my first novel, Pendragon's Heir. It's a completely unique whodunit which I found similarly inspiring the second time around.

The High Crusade by Poul Anderson - This was my pick for 2016's Fiction of the Year and I loved it so much that I almost immediately started re-reading it, this time aloud with my sisters. In this zany space-opera/comedy, starfaring aliens invade medieval England and are somewhat surprised when the local knights fight back. This utterly joyous book combines some of my favourite things: medieval people, aliens, giant explosions, and unquenchable hope. Oh yes, and so far all my siblings love it as much as I do.

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow by Allen French - This is a rather obscure boy's adventure story written about 100 years ago, and it's jam-packed with feuds, ghosts, duels, shipwrecks, and an ending that will put a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye. Oh! And did I mention, it's written in the style of medieval Icelandic sagas? Why yes, this book is awesome.


Non-fiction of the Year

I read 22 non-fiction books this year, just one-fifth of my total intake, but each of the books I read was well worth it. I loved Tom Wolfe's hilarious and trenchant critique of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, which explains a lot. In Crusader research, I took in several tomes including military history and primary source documents, but I want to single out two books which have put important puzzle pieces in place for me. Jonathan Riley-Smith's book The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading explains why the First Crusade elicited such an enthusiastic response - it wasn't a desire for land or wealth, and it couldn't possibly have been a ploy to get rid of surplus younger sons. Rather, it was the idea that ordinary people could serve and please God in their ordinary occupations - as knights, for instance - rather than having to become monks. Then, Christopher MacEvitt's book The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance filled in the all-important details about Crusader relations with indigenous Greek, Syriac, and Armenian Christians. Not to paint too rosy a picture, but this book blew apart claims I've heard that the local Christians reacted to the Frankish incursions with suspicion and hostility.

But my pick for Non-fiction of the Year is actually a writing manual.


I've been recommending John Truby's book The Anatomy of Story to everyone since I read it. First off, I should mention that I don't agree with Truby on everything, especially plotting, but everything he says about theme and characterisation is pure gold. This book is the heavy-hitter when it comes to creating thematic resonance and unity in your story. If you happen to be a writer, this is one of the must-have books. So many writing manuals will mess you around with scratch-the-surface techniques that don't actually help if you don't understand the core of what you're doing. This book explains techniques that you'll realise you've always seen everywhere. Definitely get this one.


Fiction of the Year

I feel a tiny bit disappointed about the fiction I read last year compared to the year before. Once you discount re-reads, there isn't a lot left that I absolutely loved. I enjoyed reading some classics by Sir Walter Scott and Anthony Trollope, but they weren't exactly epoch-making (although my current Trollope read is hilarious and delightful and I can't wait to share it with you when I finally finish it!). I read two highly well-regarded literary novels this year - Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Leif Enger's Peace Like a River - but they both ended with a resolution which I found unsatisfying. I was very happy to discover a new guilty-pleasure read in Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, which has been wonderful light fun, however.

Oddly enough, the standouts for me have been mostly poetry. The Icelandic Elder Edda, GK Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse, the medieval chanson de geste The Song of the Cid, James McAuley's Captain Quiros, and (of course) Shakespeare's cycle of history plays are the things that got my creative wheels turning this year. 


I'm going to nominate Shakespeare's Richard III as my Fiction of the Year, but really, that honour should go to the entire cycle of plays from Richard II onward. Henry V is the one most people would probably pick from the history plays - definitely it's a more mature, subtle, and ambiguous work, with some unforgettable and hair-raising writing in it. But, I'm a Richard III girl. Not only does the play cap off a series full of juicy melodramatic backstabbery - but it does probably contain my very favourite ethical set-up found anywhere in fiction. I refer to the situation morally grey characters find themselves in when divine justice suddenly gets into gear and starts dispensing VENGEANCE. This play is Judgement Day for the Yorks and Lancasters, and it's delicious.


2017 in Writing

Last year was unusually full for me, and I didn't get as much writing done as I hoped. In the first half of the year I spent a lot of time planning the next stage for Outremer, and in the second half we had a lot of houseguests, and both these things took away from my writing time. However, I worked hard, released two novellas (Death Be Not Proud and Ten Thousand Thorns) and I definitely hope to release The City Beyond the Glass and Outremer: A Wind From the Wilderness in 2018, DV.

Two exciting writing-related things happened for me this year. First, I got published in Faith for All of Life magazine. This is a Big Deal for me because we subscribed to that magazine when I was growing up and I used to read every issue with avidity. My most recent article - and I'll probably wind up writing more for them - is about how writing Outremer caused me to do some deep soul-searching on my attitude toward Muslims. You can read it here.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, I got to meet the lovely and hilarious WR Gingell in Tasmania, and she very kindly gave me some coaching on how to market my books as a self-published author. Wendee has been a constant encouragement and inspiration to me...and her books have been a welcome source of laughter! Since meeting Wendee, my flatlining sales have revived, and I made more money in the last four months of 2017 than in the whole of 2016. That's good news because it means I can move on with Outremer and other projects in confidence that I'll be able to fund them and bring them to the readers who are going to love them best.

Which brings me to something important: thank you all. Thank you for reading my books or commenting on my blog or sending me emails or leaving reviews on Amazon or just being a friend. You're the reason why I'm here. I hope your 2018 is as good as I'm sure mine will be.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Count Robert of Paris by Sir Walter Scott

For the last three years or so, I've avoided reading any fiction set during the Crusades. This is because I didn't want OUTREMER to be unduly influenced by anyone else's stories. Now, however, with two drafts of A Wind From the Wilderness under my belt and this part of the story becoming a little firmer, I decided it was time to read a long-awaited novel set during the same time period: Sir Walter Scott's late work Count Robert of Paris, set in Constantinople during the First Crusade.

By the time I started reading, my expectations for this novel were not very high. One of Scott's very last novels, which was very difficult for him to write, this book, in John Buchan's words, "pleased nobody":
Count Robert is history rather than fiction, a compilation from Gibbon and the Alexiad, and as prolix as Anna Comnena herself. The court of Byzantium in the eleventh century was not a subject with which Scott had any natural affinities, and he was too languid to reproduce the drama of the clash of West and East in the first Crusade. There are moments of vigour, like the fight with the tiger in the dungeon, but everywhere lassitude weights his pen.
Another critic, Philip Hobsbaum, is said to have said, whether seriously or in jest, that “Everyone who has not read ‘Count Robert of Paris’ knows it to be unreadable.” As a result, I'm slightly at a loss to explain why I liked it so very much. Maybe my expectations were so low that they couldn't help being exceeded. Or maybe Walter Scott at his very worst is still able to ace a historical yarn.

Not that the story is particularly well-grounded in history. There are howlers on every page. Scott depicts Christian medieval Constantinople as having minarets on every church (actually, the minarets were added by the Turks). Astonishingly, Bohemond of Taranto is said to have been made prince of Antioch by Alexius in 1097 (in fact Alexius probably planned to rule Antioch himself and Bohemond's claim to the city was highly controversial even among the other crusaders). And this isn't to even shake a stick at all the romantic orientalist trappings (like the imperial family riding around on elephants!) that are added in just to make the story seem more exotic.

All in all, I have a hard time labelling this story as "historical fiction" rather than "fantasy", because it's pure imagination, a kind of historically-inspired pantomime. That said, this book definitely came with its own goofy charm. Yes, it's prolix, but then, Scott is always prolix. And the things I liked were huge fun.

In Comnenid Byzantium, danger lurks behind every shadow, as you'd expect from a decadent city (yes, of course it was decadent, Edward Gibbon said so) full of cowardly, scheming and conniving Greeks (Gibbon again). An honest and upright Anglo-Saxon, exiled from his native Britain by the recent Norman conquest, and sadly parted from his long-lost love (there really ought to be a Walter Scott Tropes drinking game or bingo form or something), who now serves the Emperor Alexius as a member of his Varangian Guard (this is reasonably historically accurate), is drafted into a conspiracy to overthrow Alexius by his commanding officer, Achilles Tatius. Our Varangian, however, plans to remain loyal to the Emperor--but everyone's plots are upset by the sudden arrival of hordes of Franks on their way to liberate the Holy Sepulchre.

Alexius decides to manage the Frankish threat by getting them to swear homage to him and sending them quickly on their way. Count Robert of Paris, however, annoyed at having to swear homage, pranks Alexius by sitting on his throne (Anna Comnena records this actually happening). Later, Alexius sees the opportunity to gain a valuable hostage and has Count Robert and his wife, the fearless lady knight Brenhilda, kidnapped. As Count Robert tries to escape, he falls in with our Varangian hero, and they strike up an uneasy partnership. Meanwhile Alexius attempts to neutralise the threat to his throne, without falling afoul of the warlike Franks on his doorstep...

This book is honestly not one of Scott's best. It's very uneven (though all his books were uneven to some extent) and the ending is fairly unsatisfactory. But there were lots of things I loved about it. First, it's definitely more in the tradition of Ivanhoe and The Talisman than Guy Mannering or The Heart of Midlothian, and I've always preferred the first two books to Scott's more grounded work. If Count Robert is a fantasy, it's the kind of fantasy I love. And then it has tigers and elephants and surprise! killer orangutangs! and Funny Medievals Who Love Killing Things in the tradition of Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel and Poul Anderson's Sir Roger de Tourneville. It even has one of Scott's trademark Wily And Faintly Ridiculous Monarchs, in Alexius Comnenus:
The Emperor had stood somewhat disconcerted at the beginning of this speech, but hearing it so very unexpectedly terminate, as he was willing to suppose, much in his own favour, he threw himself into an attitude which was partly that of a modest person listening to his own praises, and partly that of a man highly struck with the commendations heaped upon him by a generous adversary.
The chapters in which the Anglo-Saxon Hereward and the possibly Norman Count Robert (except that I don't believe the real Count Robert was actually Norman? never mind it's just a story) team up to rescue Countess Brenhilda were some of my favourite in the book. They make wonderful frenemies:
"Art thou a man," said Count Robert to his companion; "and canst thou advise me to remain still and hear this?"
"I am one man," said the Anglo-Saxon; "you, sir, are another; but all our arithmetic will not make us more than two."
Speaking of the Countess Brenhilda, she was also tremendous fun. Scott clearly discovered some of those bemused Byzantine historians who recorded some of the Frankish crusader noblewomen riding astride, dressed in armour, and has gamely attempted to write an action girl. I say attempted, because he doesn't seem to have ever done this before, unless you count the not at all heroic Helen MacGregor from Rob Roy, and because towards the end of the novel he more or less loses interest in Brenhilda. He can't restrain himself from making a number of disparaging comments about her, but he also allows her to be as proud and vivid a character as her husband. The couple that decapitates unmannerly barbarians together stays together, if Count Robert of Paris is any indication. Scott even winds up providing a sort of backhanded justification for women knowing about self-defence: kidnapped and stowed away in Alexius's darkest dungeon, worried that his wife may have fallen into the hands of the philandering Nicephorus Briennius, he sets his mind at rest by reminding himself that she's quite big and strong enough to take care of herself. With all respect and appreciation for Rebecca, Rowena, etc, which other Walter Scott hero can say the same?

Bertha, the Varangian's long-lost love, is a more conventional Scott heroine, and it's interesting to note that she's depicted as discharging an important diplomatic mission with discretion and success. Anna Comnena (there are a lot of pivotal female characters in this book) is a more thorny proposition, however. Sure, the real Anna Comnena seems to have been somewhat conceited and emotional, but no more than normal for a high-ranking medieval - it was an age when titanic emotional displays were considered appropriate on all solemn occasions, and when everyone above the rank of a knight, much less a porphyrogenita of Byzantium, might feel justified in thinking highly of themselves. Edward Gibbon, however, snidely remarked that her history "betrays in every page the vanity of a female author" and Gibbon seems to be the one authority who counts: Scott's characterisation of Anna in this story is subtly and incessantly satirical. I don't happen to think that Anna Comnena was a good role model at all, even on the most charitable interpretation of her life (she indubitably tried to murder her brother at their father's funeral), but Scott was obviously following Gibbon and his Enlightenment rationalistic contempt for women as a group, not a legitimate assessment of Anna's qualities as a person and a historian.

I hasten to add that I wasn't offended by the depiction of women in this book. In fact, I found the importance of the three female characters to the plot rather refreshing and enjoyable, and obviously Brenhilda (who challenges her would-be seducer to a duel instead of cowering) was lots of fun.

Do I recommend Count Robert of Paris? Really, it depends. If you've read, and enjoyed, Ivanhoe and The Talisman, then this is another in the same vein. I thought it was immense fun.

You can find Count Robert of Paris on Amazon, the Book Depository, and Project Gutenberg.

Friday, December 1, 2017

TEN THOUSAND THORNS is here!!!

It's been a really warm week. I've been super busy with all sorts of projects, including making and decorating a number of Christmas cakes as gifts for friends. But it's time to stop and celebrate, because Ten Thousand Thorns is here!


Read it today!
Amazon | Kobo | Barnes & Noble | Apple | Smashwords
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.

What readers are saying...

"Ten Thousand Thorns is a version of Sleeping Beauty that has a life, message, and style all its own. I loved it!" - Seasons of Humility blog

"Unlike the original folk tale, Ten Thousand Thorns doesn’t allow its heroine to remain a whispered persona. ...It took the entire fairytale in a whole new and refreshing direction!" - When a Brown Girl Reads blog

"If you like warrior women who like their tea, and animals, and whose response to enemy soldiers is likely as not to be laughter, you’ll probably like Iron Maiden." - Of Dreams and Swords blog


The background for Ten Thousand Thorns...

This story was inspired by Chinese wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and my personal favourite, Reign of Assassins.  I got the idea after realising that in this fantasy world of martial arts and adventure, a Sleeping Beauty figure would be blessed with enlightenment rather than cursed with sleep!

It's taken me more than a year to research, write, and edit this story. Partly this is because at 39,000 words, Ten Thousand Thorns is a little longer than my other novellas. But it's also because I had to do a lot of research! I read the classic wuxia novel The Legend of the White Haired Maiden, as well as other works by classic wuxia writers Gu Long and Jin Yong.

Even after that, I was keen to make sure my story was reasonably accurate to its Chinese setting, so I called on a friend of a friend, Stephen Wei, to read and critique the story. Stephen wasn't able to give detailed feedback on the whole story, but his notes and a long Skype call during which he explained the foundations of Chinese ethics were very helpful!

I hope you have half as much fun reading this story as I had writing it :-)

Oh, and--just in case you hadn't seen it yet...


Closing Soon - The Indie Christian Books Sale



Have you checked out The Indie Christian Book Sale yet? It closes on November 30...my goodness! That's today!

In case you haven't checked it out already:

- Tons of clean and/or Christian reads in a variety of genres
- Most of my ebooks are on sale for 99c
- Even my paperbacks are on sale (very rare!), so you can get them cheap for Christmas gifts!

You can browse the sale at www.indiechristianbooks.com or skip straight to the Suzannah Rowntree books.

Happy reading!

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.

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