Friday, September 23, 2016

Black Amazon of Mars by Leigh Brackett

Woe! I don't have a vintage novel on hand to properly review this week, and the reason is that I've been a little short on reading time, which has left me inching through a number of longish novels--The Lord of the Rings, for instance, which I am taking in appreciative nibbles as I have the time for it.

So instead of posting a new review, I trawled through some of my recent Goodreads reviews, and am crossposting this review of Leigh Brackett's Black Amazon of Mars, from January--with apologies to those of you who've already seen it. Enjoy!

Black Amazon of MarsBlack Amazon of Mars by Leigh Brackett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And now for my latest highly philosophical read...a masterpiece of literary fiction, laying bare the soul of Woman as with a scalpel, we have...BLACK AMAZON OF MARS!!! by Leigh Brackett.


So, rewatching a favourite movie, The Empire Strikes Back, recently, reminded me just how little I'd read of the work of legendary scriptwriter and Queen of Space Opera Leigh Brackett. These days Brackett's most well-known for her first-draft work on the second (and only really good) Star Wars movie, and though apparently very little of her work remains in the finished film, her pioneering work as an author of pulp sci-fi well merited the film's being dedicated to her.

Turns out she also recently had a centenary: December 7th, 1915, was her birthday. I nipped off to Project Gutenberg and downloaded (*clears throat*) Black Amazon of Mars!!!

This is really only a novella in length, but it was oodles of fun. Brackett's two main influences here are quite clearly Burroughs's Barsoom/John Carter stories and Howard's Conan the Barbarian. And while the story makes no pretences to either psychological or scientific realism, or to philosophical heft, it was jolly good--better written, possibly, than any but the best of Burroughs's or Howard's work. Brackett tells her tale with a glorious, taut economy of words--and of everything else. This is a very lean, spare story, but the plot and the world-building are both good enough to keep it from feeling like a mere skeleton of a tale. Pulp fiction was all about the plot and the melodramatics; with everything else pared down to the minimum, Brackett's essential artistic talent shines all the more brightly.

From a worldview perspective, I was fascinated to compare Brackett's story with Edgar Rice Burroughs's. Brackett's hero, Eric John Stark, we are regularly told, has only the lightest veneer of civilisation over a caveman core, having been raised by animal tribes on Mercury. As a pulp hero, he is obviously intended to be the coolest, biggest, baddest warrior barbarian ever, and he's all about the primal urges, which is what makes him so cool. That puts him in rather stark (pun not intended) contrast with Burroughs's chivalrous Southern gentleman hero John Carter. What makes John Carter so cool is that as well as being the best swordsman on two worlds and an unstoppable one-man-army, he's also a thorough gentleman, a man of refinement and self-control. Everyone on Barsoom is a barbarian; it takes the Earthman to transcend that, to win the princess's hand through humble service, tame wild beasts through kindness, and become the Totally Awesome Warlord of Barsoom through winning the savage loyalty of his barbaric opponents.

Brackett's story was good. But when it comes to main characters, give me John Carter over Eric John Stark any day.

View all my reviews

Friday, September 16, 2016

Messiah the Prince by William Symington

Over the last year or so I've taken to reading some classic devotionals in small bite-sized pieces each day. The latest I finished was a reprint of the 1884 edition of William Symington's Messiah the Prince, Or, The Mediatorial Dominion of Jesus Christ.

Symington, the minister of a small Reformed Presbyterian church in Scotland, like many other members of that small denomination down to the present day, saw himself as an heir of the Covenanters whose war-banner read, "For Christ's Crown and Covenant." But what exactly does it mean to be for Christ's Crown? All Christians know that Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven, where he sits ruling and reigning at the right hand of God the Father, until all things are put under his feet. That much we can all agree on pretty clearly. But it's in the finer details that we tend to get lost. Exactly what does Christ's kingdom consist of? How is it ruled? And perhaps most importantly, what effect does it have on our lives?

The modern Reformed world is pretty strong on what it means for Christ to be Priest. He made atonement for our sins. He was our sacrificial lamb. And he intercedes for us. If not for Christ's priesthood, there's no way we could be cleansed of our sins.

We're less firm on what it means for Christ to be Prophet. Still, we tend to have a pretty good idea that this involves Christ's revelation of his will to us and all things necessary for our faith and edification, via his Word and assisted by his Spirit. If not for Christ's prophetic office, we would never hear, or understand, that Christ's sacrifice was for us.

But we're perhaps shakiest of all on what it means for Christ to be King. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, "Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies." According to Symington, if it wasn't for Christ's kingship, we would never accept salvation. It takes a king to conquer us, and not just us, but all our enemies too.

Symington's 350-page book is by far the most in-depth discussion of Christ's kingship that I've ever come across--and yet it's little more than a systematic unpacking of the above Shorter Catechism quotation. It answered questions I've had all my life. After all, when Jesus Christ came to earth, his message was the Kingdom of God. But what is the kingdom? When did it begin? Is it the church? Is it the whole world? Is it purely spiritual? Or does it take place on earth? Who are its citizens? How are they ruled? What benefits accrue to them? How does Christ's kingship affect the church? Does Christ's kingship affect the state, and if so, how? And will Christ's kingship ever end?

These are just some of the basic questions answered in this book. I did have my concerns with part of it, especially the parts where Symington argues for the establishment of religion by the state. While I disagree with him, he does make a fairly reasonable case, which gains strength because he's arguing for something a bit different than what we've seen so far in the establishment of religion. Thinking through his arguments pushed me to develop my own views a little further, so that was helpful.

On the other hand, most of this book was absolutely terrific. I particularly appreciated Symington's explanation of the how the kingdom embraces both the saved and the unsaved. Christ's dominion over believers is obviously the minimum requirement, but Symington goes further, showing that in order for Christ to subdue his (and our) enemies, he must also have dominion over unbelievers and indeed, the entire cosmos. The relevant verse explaining how these fit together is Ephesians 1:22, where it's explained that Christ has been made "head over all things to the church"--that is, for the church's good. The Kingdom is far wider than those who recognise its dominion.

But this is just the starting-point. Messiah the Prince goes far beyond an academic recognition of Christ's kingship, pushing the concept home in areas that go far beyond most Christians' comfort zone. But this is all to the good: if Christ is our king, then we can have hope for everything under his rule. This book was a daily shot in the arm, a daily reminder to be confident and have hope. It ought to be prescribed as a tonic. Read it.

Find Messiah the Prince at Amazon or the Book Depository.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Scattershot Updates

Let's have some updates!


For those just joining us, most evenings (Australian time) I'm on Twitter sharing my continuing thoughts on my long-awaited Tolkien re-read, hashtagged with #JRRTandMe. I worked my way through The Hobbit in July/August, and then started on The Lord of the Rings just three weeks ago. So far I've only made it to Book II of Fellowship, but I'm loving it more than ever this time around--the years have given me some new insights, especially as an author.

I considered writing a whole post containing my fresh thoughts on The Hobbit, but I wasn't sure that it would merit a complete post. So I'll just mention a few highlights here. This time around I was deeply impressed by how closely The Hobbit focuses on the whole concept of making and art. Almost every time a new character or culture is introduced, there's a little aside on their attitude to art, beauty, and wealth--in fact, it's notable that in The Hobbit, the concept of wealth is closely linked to that of beauty. Things are precious because they're beautiful. Some characters have more of an eye to beauty than they do to wealth, and vice versa, but the two things are inextricably linked, which is actually a quite decent economic point--part of the reason why gold, silver and precious stones are precious, even today, is because of their beauty.

This then, of course, parlays into the theme of lust for gold, and maker's jealousy. Tolkien was keenly aware as a sub-creator of the temptation to make oneself the lord and god of one's own creation. And this is a theme that runs through The Lord of the Rings too--just remember the temptation the Ring represents, for example, to Sam. I didn't expect to identify with this theme so much, but it's actually a really powerful point. And it seems that Tolkien's solution is for makers/owners to be generous with their made possessions: it is Dain and Bard's generosity that breaks the dragon-curse on the gold.


As part of the research for Death Be Not Proud, I dipped into some opera, and got hooked. Turns out our library has a whole collection of opera DVDs, which I've been working through steadily. So far, my favourites have been Turandot, Tosca, and Carmen
I can't imagine why it's taken me so long to look into opera. Years ago, I read Kobbe's Complete Opera Book cover to cover, and thereupon thought I knew opera. Of course, opera is a musical, dramatic medium, and you really have to watch it performed *shakes head*. 

Opera is an odd genre; it requires a lot more suspension of disbelief than we're used to, since opera characters tend to be sylph-like eighteen-year-olds, while the people playing them tend to be well-fed forty-five-year-olds. It also requires a longer attention-span than does, say, the latest Marvel movie; and I don't pretend to be highbrow enough to take it as patiently as it deserves. What keeps me coming back for more is the uncanny level of dramatic power opera is capable of. No matter how silly the costumes or unconvincing the performers, there's something incredibly powerful about the alliance of drama with great music. It's a whole different form of storytelling to what I'm used to, and I've been loving it.

(Truth: I have not yet written a story in which people do not burst into song.)


I guess you all know I'm a psalm addict--I never tire of listening to and singing settings of the psalms, and I usually have some psalm album or another in whatever mix I'm currently listening to. Well, recently I discovered My Soul Among Lions, an American folk group with the ambition of recording all-new folk settings of all 150 Psalms. Their first album, containing Psalms 1-10, was released last year, and they're currently running a Kickstarter to fund the next album.

I've been thoroughly impressed by their catchy tunes, poetic paraphrasing, and production values. I could listen to these guys all day. Their second album is already funded, but will still be open for funding for the next few days--which gives you the opportunity to get digital recordings of both their first two albums for just $20. 

It was the good folks at Reconstructionist Radio who put me onto the My Soul Among Lions project, and speaking of them, they also deserve a plug for their inspiring and encouraging podcast network. I particularly recommend this two-part interview with Stephen Perks, on building covenant community.


Since finishing the first draft of Outremer, I've been working on a few other projects. 
I'd like to confirm that Never Send to Know has now been re-titled to Death Be Not Proud. I applied a few more tweaks to that story, and it's currently out for more beta-reading--pretty soon I imagine I'll be able to move into the publication process. Meanwhile I've been lazily brainstorming and researching the next novella I want to write.

What has me tied up at the moment, however, is actually something I can't tell you too much about :). Two somethings, in fact. I'm really looking forward to sharing with you when I can--but for now suffice it to say that there are some exciting projects on the horizon!

The Sophie Nugent-Siegel Poetry Prize

Before I sign off, here's something that may be of interest to young Australian writers (under 30). Sophie Nugent-Siegel was briefly a pen friend of mine, during her final illness. Now, Macquarie University is awarding a $5,000 poetry prize in Sophie's memory. You can read about Sophie here and learn about the prize here.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

Every so often, a book comes along and catches you completely by surprise. I'd heard the name Poul Anderson before, of course, and had a vague idea he was a classic science fiction author. I had no particular reason to look into his books further, though, until I stumbled upon the Goodreads page for his novel The High Crusade. Which came with a high concept so deliciously epic that I knew I had to read it:

Medieval knights versus starfaring aliens.

If that doesn't sound to you like the acme of awesome, I don't know what to do with you. It certainly sounded that way to me, so I tracked down a copy of this 1960 Hugo nominee, and settled down to see if it was as good as I hoped.

It. Was. Perfect.

Our story begins in a small village in 1345 England, as Sir Roger de Tourneville musters his men to join King Edward III in France. It is at this moment that a scouting party of Wersgorix, alien masters of countless planets, descend from the skies in their immense spaceship to put Earth under the Wersgor yoke.

Momentarily taken aback by the aliens' superior firepower, Sir Roger bravely rallies his men, slaughters the aliens, and takes command of the warship. Like any good medieval knight, he instantly determines to use the starship to travel to France and finish the Hundred Years' War in a matter of weeks. After that, they might keep going and liberate the Holy Land from the Saracens.

That's the plan, anyway. In reality, the Wersgor captive they command to fly them to France instead charts a course for his own home planet. Now, stranded hundreds of lightyears away from home, with no idea how to get back, Sir Roger and his men face the full might of a massive empire bent on first crushing their rebellion and then enslaving their home planet.

Something must be done. And fortunately, Sir Roger is just the man to do it...if he can only hold together his small band of knights, priests, and commoners long enough, not all of whom are pleased to be stranded in another arm of the galaxy.
One of the buildings beyond gaped open. A small spaceship — though big as any seagoing vessel on Earth — had been trundled forth. It stood on its tail, engine growling, ready to take off and flame us from above. Sir Roger directed his cavalry thither. The lancers hit it in a single line. Shafts splintered; men were hurled from the saddle. But consider: a charging cavalryman may bear his own weight of armor, and have fifteen hundred pounds of horse beneath him. The whole travels at several miles per hour. The impact is awesome.
The ship was bowled over. It fell on its side and lay crippled.
Obviously, this book was right up my alley to begin with. But as I read it, I became more and more impressed with Anderson's storycrafting and worldbuilding. It was so funny I spent half of it cackling like a lunatic, even in public. Yet its characters stole my heart, so that I spent the other half in nerve-wracking suspense over how it was going to end. It was shamelessly, unabashedly fun, yet its world-building, deft and unobtrusive, provided real speculative-fiction heft to the setting.

As you might expect, Anderson uses this novel to make a point. The High Crusade is all about pitting medievals--people whom generations of modernists have despised as backward and barbaric--against a highly advanced starfaring alien civilisation. Of course, Anderson constructs the rules of his storyworld in such a way as to give the medieval warriors a fighting chance against the aliens, since his interest here (as, apparently, in many of his other stories) has to do with warning readers not to underestimate so-called "primitive" societies. As a result, The High Crusade is an immensely entertaining and rather lighthearted look at how aspects of medieval life and technology might make these people effective against, well, alien bureaucracies.
Huruga: “For the sake of argument, what are your demands?”
Sir Roger: “Your empire must make submission to my most puissant lord of England, Ireland, Wales, and France.”
Huruga: “Let us be serious, now.”
Sir Roger: “I am serious to the point of solemnity. But in order to spare further bloodshed, I’ll meet any champion you name, with any weapons, to settle the issue by single combat. And may God defend the right!”
Huruga: “Are you all escaped from some mental hospital?”
This clash of cultures also, of course, provides a rich vein of humour. Anderson clearly has a preference (he was, after all, apparently involved in founding the Society for Creative Anachronism). His alien bureaucracy is a satire on the modernist egalitarian state which seems far more applicable now than it might have been in 1960 when the book was first written.

But it was his treatment of my babies, the medievals, that really got my respect. Not everything in Anderson's picture of the middle ages is absolutely correct--droit de seigneur was, of course, purely fictional. But he clearly got the medievals. There's one terrific scene where our heroes, stranded on an alien planet with days much longer than 24 hours, worry that they'll go to Hell because they no longer know when to celebrate Lent, Advent, and Sunday. This is exactly the kind of detail that most dilettante writers of speculative fiction, or of medieval historical fiction, would never think to include, but which, if you know anything at all about the history, rings utterly true.

That said, and though I love them to pieces, the medievals were definitely not fluffy kittens. I was further impressed by Anderson's ability to depict both sides of their sometimes contradictory characters. It's hard to express this to modern readers in a sympathetic way, but he did it handily by the use of lashings of rather black humour, like in the hilarious scene with One-Eyed Hubert the executioner.
“Well, sire, now this is another matter, ’tis like the good old days come back, ’tis, yes, yes, yes, Heaven bless my good kind master! Now o’ course I took little equipment with me, only a few thumbscrews and pincers and suchlike, but it won’t take me no time, sire, to knock together a rack. And maybe we can get a nice kettle of oil. I always says, sire, on a cold gray day there ain’t nothing so cozy as a glowing brazier and a nice hot kettle of oil."
So obviously, this book is any medievalist's dream, and was my cup of tea precisely. In addition to a pitch-perfect affectionate spoof of the medieval character, The High Crusade also contains everything else you never knew you wanted in a book: trebuchets, nuclear warheads, trebuchets flinging nuclear warheads... space battles, fish-out-of-water humour, a courtly-love triangle, and the outrageous Sir Roger de Tourneville, who is basically my own Sir Perceval IN SPACE!

These days it's easy to feel that we're also ruled by all-powerful alien bureaucracies. As I read The High Crusade, however, alien bureaucrats began to look a whole lot less scary. Of course this book is a rather self-indulgent medievalist daydream. But it is also a rare and refreshing book, a book that dares to imagine the alien bureaucracy crumbling in the face of determination, physical courage, and low cunning. As such, it was like a whiff of burnt marsh-wiggle: profoundly encouraging. Go and read it!

Find The High Crusade on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Open Library.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

OUTREMER Update + Snippets

So, it's been a while since I've posted an update on OUTREMER. The reason for this has not been that I've been letting it stagnate; far from it. The reason is simply that I've been far too busy writing it.

However, today I come, somewhat thrilled, to give you an update. A real update. An update just a skootch more exciting than "yeah, once again, I've exceeded my target wordcount."

Today, I finished the first draft.

As you may recall, I started work on the first draft nearly a year ago, at the end of September, which means I've taken just on 11 months to finish the thing. Originally I hoped the first draft would clock in at roughly 250,000 words and that at the rate of 50,000 words per month I'd finish by February, or no later than about May.

This did not end up happening. First, I had too much plot for a 250K story: the cursory first draft now clocks in at just over 400,000 (or, a bit shy of Gone With the Wind). Second, while I was correct in assuming that I would be able to keep up a 50K-per-month output over the course of several months, I found that in practical terms I was only able to keep this up for about three months at a time before burning out and needing a break. Oops?

Fun Facts!

OUTREMER is what you'd get if you threw Tasso, Tolkien, Tim Powers, and the Arabian Nights into a blender and hit "STUPEFY"

Some of my favourite things about OUTREMER include:

- lady knights
- assassins
- djinn
- Baldwin IV
- psalms
- redemption
- Rule of Cool
- needlework
- secrets
- irony
- Raymond, Count of Saint-Gilles
- somehow, a decent level of historical accuracy

OUTREMER novel aesthetics thanks to Annie at The Curious Wren
Unfortunately, honesty compels me to admit that OUTREMER is also, at the moment, complete and utter rubbish. It's only a first draft, after all. Some of my least favourite things about this story include:

- incoherence
- failure of awesome at key points
- cheesy melodrama
- incoherence
- the mind-boggling amount of work that will be the second draft
- nonexistent world-building
- incoherence
- the fact that the first act doesn't end where it should
- how often it reads like a dry history text
- incoherence

So what's next?

OUTREMER will be taking a few months on hiatus now, since I need to attend to a few other things for a little while, and it needs time to sit on the back burner of my mind and talk to itself. At this stage of the year I probably won't get back to it till next year, but I'm confident that the hiatus will do it the world of good.

A few facts have emerged pretty clearly from the first draft, the most important probably being that it's not going to be practical to release this story as a single volume. In how many volumes it will eventually end up seeing the light is, however, currently a complete mystery to me.

OUTREMER novel aesthetics compiled by moi


 The count gave a swift glance over the camp and a spark came into his eyes. “So! the old dog has something up his sleeve! A charge, is it to be?”
Saint-Gilles nodded. “When the sign comes.”
Bohemond turned and snapped orders to his men. Then, as the line thinned and the knights took horse, leaving a skeleton wall of sergeants behind them, he swung back to Saint-Gilles.
“What sign is this?”
“The same as the Lord vouchsafed to the Israelites in the desert.” He pointed to the northern horizon. “Watch there.”
The sky showed blue above the northern hills. Saint-Gilles squinted with his one good eye. Was there--?
The young Norman had better eyesight than him, and caught his breath in understanding. “Pillar of smoke,” he whispered, and then wheeled, shouting and snapping and putting the counts in battle array.


It was a bedroom. There was a big bed in the centre of it and sitting up in the bed a small boy was staring at her with enormous eyes.
“Are you an Assassin?” he whispered.
Marta’s stomach flipped and she froze into immobility.
Baldwin the Fifth. She had broken into a king’s bedroom.
“No,” she told him, “I’m a girl. My name’s Marta, like the saint. Are you a count?”
“No,” he whispered very grandly, “I’m a King. Why did you climb in the window?”
Marta sidled to the door. “I don’t believe you,” she whispered, her voice light. “Who ever heard of a King being sent to bed early?”
“I am!”
“Couldn’t be.”
“You’re too short. And how could you even wear a crown? Your head would stick right through. You’d have to wear it like a carcanet.”


“The ordinary Mahometan believes this is the tomb of Rachel the wife of the patriarch.” The voice was young, cultured—and instantly recognisable. It spoke Syriac without the hint of an accent, although John had last heard it speaking Arabic. “For that reason alone I assented to spare it. But you and I know better, I think, John Bishara.”
He swallowed painfully and turned, slowly, slowly, at the door of his wife’s grave. The Chosen was facing him on the path that led from the stream, a light, straight sword held in his right hand. He wore a loose black silken tunic, no doubt with a mail shirt hidden beneath it, and his head was swathed in a mass of black wrappings, turban and veil.
“You did this,” John whispered, a cold horror creeping down his spine.


She bit her lip. After a moment she said: “I don’t understand you. You aren’t a coward. So why do you avoid the fighting?”
Lukas let his head fall back with a thump on the door behind him so he could see into her eyes. “You have got to be joking.”
But the puzzled furrow between her eyebrows convinced him she wasn’t.
“I don’t understand you Franks,” he growled. “You think nothing of throwing yourselves half-prepared into impossible situations, and it amazes you when you’re mown down by your hundreds. I’ll tell you why I don’t run to join them. The last time my belly was full was October. I have a rusty mail shirt, someone else’s sword, no shield, and half a lance. And I have no particular wish to die.”


A black shape came to the edge of the Saracen camp—she could see him outlined against the flickering firelight—and her voice faltered and died as they faced each other.
Then he stretched out his hands at his side and began to walk toward her. Marta froze. Surely he could not see her against the black heap of the hill? Surely he could not hear the half-whispered words of Rahel Bishara’s lullaby?
Then came the fire.
It raged up all around the black robe of the Saracen. Her eyes were hot and sticky and she wasn’t sure what she was seeing: just the small figure standing black and threatening in a ring of dirty, smoking grassfire. She became suddenly, horribly sure that he was looking at her, that all his attention was bent upon her. And then he lifted his hands and walked on, the fire licking after him like the train of a ceremonial robe.


He finished eating, bowed to Abdul, and left the tent. Saida followed him, her baby under her arm. Between headdress and veil, her eyes watched him solemnly. “There will be no more journeys to Acre after this, John Bishara.”
He felt as if a cold drip had run down his back. “Why do you say that?”
“Times are changing,” Saida said in her soft voice. “The wind blows here and there as it wills, and so does the will of Allah.”
“Do you know something I don’t?” he asked on impulse.
She gave him a cool, level stare. “You don’t always have to lick your thumb to figure out which way the wind is blowing, John Bishara.”


They were surging through the last ripples of surf onto the wet sand of the shore when a column of Frankish knights burst over the dunes in a smart shower of sand and stood there, the horses shaking their heads, while one of them only came on, the sand kicking up behind him as he ploughed his horse down to the shore.
“Who goes there?” he hailed when he came within easy earshot. He spoke French with a Western accent. “Who is your leader?’
Balian strode across the firm sand at the brink of the sea, signalling with his hand for his men to gather themselves behind him. At once the knight leveled his spear, nearly in his breast.
Balian stopped. “Are they so poor in courtesy in France, then, that friends are welcomed with blades?”
“Your name,” the Frenchman insisted.
“My ship is flying a cross.” Balian sighed. “I am Balian, former Lord of Ibelin and Nablus. I have a hundred and fifty men and horses and food in my ship. You may have heard of me.”
“No.” The spear wavered downward a little. “From your complexion you could be a Saracen.”


At first, Lukas assumed the duke was scanning the landscape for fortresses, or even signs of the Turkish army rumoured to be on its way from Baghdad. Then Godfrey sighed and said, “It’s beautiful.”
Lukas blinked. He supposed it was beautiful. Under the haze of an April sky, Lebanon glowed in muted colours. On the right, the sea was a rich silver-blue carpet; but the green land reared up on the left like a massive wave. Between mountains and shore the fruitful plain was a patchwork of groves and orchards, all set out in orderly rows, with here and there the brighter emerald of pasture, or the rich red of freshly broken earth. White among the orchards shone farms, monasteries, villages, fortresses, or mosques... South, blue with distance, Tripoli on her peninsula spurred the sea.
“You didn’t tell me it was like this, Bishara,” the duke said with a smile.
Whether it was the long Turkish occupation, or the more recent passage of the Frankish army, the centuries had not left Lebanon untouched. The villages and towns were shrunk. Some of the farms, some of the houses in the villages close at hand, were clearly empty, roofless shells. Some of the orchards had gone wild, and burn-scars in the landscape suggested that some of the buildings had been torched; mosques? Villages?
“No, my lord,” he said, sighing. “It was better than this.”


“The sultan al-Ashraf is merciful,” Ibn al-Salus had told him, a smile lurking in the back of his cold eyes. “You are permitted the next two hours to go where you will. After that, the hunt will begin. The sultan wishes you every opportunity of escape.”
Around him, the Mamelukes stared at him from behind veils of chain, faceless in the predawn dark.
“What opportunity for escape have I in the desert?” he appealed.
Ibn al-Salus shrugged, throwing up his hands. “Perhaps you should have considered that before organising a conspiracy to assassinate the sultan.”
“What if I refuse to run?” He drew himself up to his full height, thrusting out his chin in a show of courage. “A man of my birth should face death with dignity. Not running like a dog.”
“Nor sitting peaceably.” Something that might have been pity moved in ibn al-Salus’ face. “Die a red death, friend.”

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Black Corsair by Emilio Salgari

If you've spent any amount of time around me, you know that I have a soft spot for old vintage swashbucklers. I read a lot of them while I was studying law and thus not mentally equal to anything but the most insubstantial and fun stories, but reading these old-style melodramas of honour, mistaken identity, love and revenge gave me a deep appreciation of the fun and the gripping which continues to this day both as a reader and as an author.

Back in the day when I was a brain-dead law student combing the internet for free vintage swashbuckler ebooks, one author caught my attention: Emilio Salgari, author of the classic The Tiger of Mompracem. Sadly, although Salgari seemed to be wildly popular in the Italian-speaking world, it didn't seem like there were any English translations of his book available. A a result, more recently, when I was contacted by a representative at ROH Press and offered a free review copy of an English translation of Salgari's 1898 pirate yarn The Black Corsair, I was thrilled to take him up on the offer.

Emilio di Roccabruna of Roccanera, Lord of Valpenta and of Ventimiglia (what a mouthful!), is out for revenge. The governor of Maracaibo, Van Guld, a Flemish defector to the Spanish, has shot his elder brother and hanged his two younger brothers. Now only the Lord of Ventimiglia, also known and feared across the Caribbean as the Black Corsair, is left--and Van Guld has sworn to finish his work. After sneaking into Maracaibo to rescue his youngest brother's body from the gallows, the Black Corsair pulls together a coalition of the Tortuga pirates to storm Maracaibo--but Van Guld is as cunning as he is cruel, and more than one surprise waits for the Black Corsair along the way!

As you might guess, this is thrill-a-minute book, intended not to have a dull chapter in it. Reading it, I understood Salgari's appeal. The adventure goes from one peril to the next, complete with a dash of romance, humour, and plenty of gore. Wikipedia informs me that Sergio Leone cited Salgari as an influence on his spaghetti Westerns, and having now had the opportunity of reading one of his books, I can appreciate the influence.

All the same, The Black Corsair wasn't without some rather significant flaws. For me, the most disappointing thing was the lack of conflict in the characterisation. For a book about pirates seeking bloody revenge on the high seas, this story had the most agreeable cast of characters I've ever met! From the hero's three sidekicks, to the vast number of people whom the Corsair dueled, captured, or had dinner with over the course of the narrative, none of them seemed ever to have even mild disagreements, either with each other or with the Corsair. Sure, the constant petty conflict in most current-day books gets on my nerves just as it gets on yours. However, I found myself longing that perhaps one of the Corsair's devoted followers would turn out to be holding some kind of grudge, or that one of the noblemen he duelled at some point would not immediately swear gentlemanly friendship with him immediately afterward. The reason for this is that conflict drives story, and the conflict we as readers find most compelling is not battles and duels so much as it's interpersonal or internal conflict. There was plenty of external conflict in this story, but it was almost fatally short on interpersonal conflict.

As a result, I found it difficult to care about the characters, even though the story itself was never short on thrilling coincidences. My patience was then further tested by the ending, which came with no resolution, just a maddening cliffhanger. I was completely unprepared for this, and considerably annoyed when it happened. Where was the swashbuckler I was promised? This was only half of it! For the rest of the story, I'd have to consult the sequel, Queen of the Caribbean. Enough to make you take to piracy yourself.

That said, there was also plenty to appreciate in this story. Salgari evidently writes with the intention of being educational as well as entertaining, and I found the level of detail he included in his work pretty impressive. One chapter takes a moment to give you a frankly completely fascinating overview of the history of piracy in the Caribbean, the South American jungles are lovingly and even pedantically described, and the nautical details evidently draw on Salgari's own experience as a student of seamanship in his youth.

As far as themes go, the fact that the story doesn't conclude in this volume makes it difficult to pass any firm judgement. While the pirates are depicted sympathetically and act with probably more of a sense of honour than they would have in real life, Salgari doesn't shy away from rather gritty depictions of battle. And while the revenge motive drives the plot, it leads to an obviously idiotic decision on the part of the hero at the end, which I have no doubt at all will be reversed somehow in the sequel.

In the final analysis, I think I probably would have enjoyed this novel a whole lot more if I'd come to it much younger, with much less exacting taste. It was eminently respectable escapist fun, and while I don't know if I'd seek out any of Salgari's other novels for myself, it's definitely worth keeping in mind as good reading-fodder for the young.

EDIT: Some fascinating comments from the translator, who's clearly far more knowledgeable about Salgari than I am:
Your point on conflict is an interesting one, Salgari prized loyalty highly, the Corsair's crew, Sandokan's men, Captain Tempesta's men (his female knight) would never dream of betraying their leader. No sacrifice was too great for a heroic and noble leader. Garibaldi was still a vivid memory to many in Italy, and an example of what a leader should be.

As you noted Salgari was also an educator, and wrote in the same manner of Jules Verne and other writers from that era, though he tended to focus more on nature than technology. All that detail was from books and journals and traveler's tales, he never left Italy.

You're not the first to complain about the ending. Salgari was originally going to leave the story there, from what I'm told. [...] It was an unexpected ending for the time, unlike his usual 'happily ever after' type endings that were more common in his novels. He didn't write the sequel until 3 years later.
Find The Black Corsair in English at Amazon or The Book Depository.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Corsair by Lord Byron

Today, we all know Lord Byron as one of the great Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. Many of us also know that during his own life he was primarily famous as a playboy and rake who left scandal and ruined lives wherever he went--in fact, it took until well after his death for his poetic efforts to be taken seriously, and somewhat detached from the sordid details of his personal life. For these reasons I've always had a bit of an aversion to Byron, but while I was reading The Last Chronicle of Barset, I have to admit that some references to his longer poems whetted my interest. They sounded like immense fun.

So, The Corsair is my first significant experience reading Byron's poetry, and in many ways it was an extremely eye-opening one.

Our story focuses on a pirate named Conrad. A magnetic, passionate, surly figure, Conrad rules his men with a rod of iron, in between brooding on his tragic past and hating himself and everyone else. The only exception is the love of his life, Medora. When Conrad prepares a daring attack on the Turkish Pasha who has sworn to destroy him, Medora fears he may never return...and thus begins a swashbuckling tale full of twists and turns, tragic love, and moody self-loathing.

I have to admit I really enjoyed The Corsair. I decided to read it, by the way, after having watched the DVD of the gorgeous English National Ballet production of the ballet which is based on it. I loved Le Corsaire's pitch-perfect, unironic reproduction of the nineteenth-century Orientalist aesthetic, to say nothing of the pretty music and Alina Cojocaru's mesmerising dancing. I wasn't so keen on the plot, which could really have done with more piracy and fewer slave-girls. Byron's original poem, I was glad to discover, had a very similar flavour--but shares only a few character names with the ballet. The plot is wildly different, and the characters are by and large much more interesting--especially the villain, who makes a much more compelling and scary character.

So I enjoyed The Corsair as a fun story. I particularly admired the plotting, which was fairly tight and full of plenty of surprising swerves (right up to one rather ridiculous plot twist at the end). Most of all, however, The Corsair fascinated me as the originator of an extremely common and influential literary trope.

Well, of course, the origin of the Byronic Hero is not solely The Corsair. However, I was struck by how influential this poem must have been. Take The Count of Monte Cristo, for instance. Both stories feature a mysteriously charismatic man with a tragic past, forging his own destiny with a sense of pride and hubris. Both stories are strongly romantic tales featuring piracy on the Mediterranean; both touch on the Ottoman occupation of Greece. Last time I reread Monte Cristo, I noticed that the titular Count was quite the Byronic hero, but the whole Mediterranean/Orientalist flavour of the setting confirms that Dumas's novel drew strongly on the Byronic tradition. Or take another book I'm currently reading--The Black Corsair, a vintage swashbuckler. Though this corsair haunts the Caribbean rather than the Mediterranean, his character could have been copied word-for-word from Byron's Conrad.

All these stories, of course, ultimately stem from the Romantic tradition. As you know if you've ever looked at the history of philosophy, this was one of two streams of thought (the other being Rationalism) flowing directly from the Enlightenment. It's important to note that both streams of Enlightenment thinking saw man as the measure of all things; but where Rationalist man was a coldly logical being inhabiting a baldly materialistic universe, Romanticist man was a passionately emotional being inhabiting a universe of powerful natural and supernatural forces. In the Rationalist stream, man's reason shapes the universe. In the Romanticism stream, it's his passions and imagination.

We see this pretty clearly in the Byronic hero. Besides being attractive, sophisticated, and introspective, the Byronic hero traditionally demonstrates a strong, individualistic and often unconventional moral code. This brings him into conflict, often violent conflict, with society: he's quite likely to be found either leading nationalistic uprisings, plotting complicated vengeance, or starting revolutions.

I find it fascinating to see where this philosophy ultimately led. A later thinker in the Romantic tradition was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who took this idea to its logical extreme in the figure of the Ubermensch. As I understand it, Nietzsche's Ubermensch was a figure who had freed himself from traditional concepts of morality in order to reconstruct for himself and for the rest of humanity a new moral code independent of what had come before. This figure was necessary to the eradication of the concept of God from human thought, since to eradicate God would be to abolish morality. Since Nietzsche was opposed to nihilism and considered some form of morality necessary, the Ubermensch was born. In a nutshell, this was a philosophy of human transcendence: the deification of mankind.

Both the Byronic Hero and the Ubermensch have gone on to become enormously influential cultural tropes: characters whose own unfettered and reconstructed sense of morality shapes all those around them. It was fascinating to read an early entry in this progression.

Find The Corsair on Wikisource.


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