Friday, February 16, 2018

Nada the Lily by Rider Haggard (re-read)

When I first read this book ten years ago, I realised that it was utterly unique in my experience. There was classic literature that featured black protagonists - Othello, for instance. There was classic literature set in Africa - many of Haggard's other novels about stiff-upper-lipped European adventurers discovering lost civilisations ruled by white queens of Egyptian or Arabic stock who presided over the rites of long-lost deities. But this was the very first historical romance I'd ever read which was about a documented period of premodern African history and featured an all-black cast.

I loved this book because, as I mentioned in my previous review, it brought an often-neglected history and people into the limelight and made them swashbuckling barbarian royalty. It really did give African history that sense of colour, adventure, nobility, and romance which drew me to other historical periods and places. It wasn't a social-issues book or a slavery-history book or a white-people-save-the-day book. I'm not saying those stories are illegitimate somehow. I love Rider Haggard's other books. But those books can't avoid having a certain perspective and a certain focus which excludes other perspectives and foci. Nada the Lily had a different perspective, and a flavour all its own. I adored it, but I never found it again.

Until Marvel's first Black Panther trailer popped up and looked exactly like my best memories of Nada the Lily turned up to eleven in the modern day with superheroes. It was like a pure shot of adrenaline to the imagination, and I hadn't even realised this book had had such a profound impact on me. And so, I thought now might be a good moment to take a second look at this unique Rider Haggard novel...

Mopo is a chieftain's son and an apprentice medicine-man, but when he kills his jealous mentor in self defence he's forced to flee with his sister Baleka to the kraal of Chaka, the powerful young king of the Zulus who once swore friendship to Mopo - and vengeance on the rest of his tribe. Chaka cuts a bloody swath across southern Africa, building a mighty empire - but when Mopo and Baleka conspire to keep one of the king's sons alive, they lay the first foundations for Chaka's fall.

This book is quite the epic, starting in Mopo's youth and ending in his old age. And don't let the title fool you: Nada, the titular character, is barely in the thing and isn't remotely the most interesting person in it. This is even less a "kissing book" than The Princess Bride, and it's significantly gorier. Haggard starts the book out in the Preface by calling it "a wild tale of savage life", and indeed it's full of murder, mayhem, genocide, polygamy, infanticide, and the like. It's got magic, betrayal, ghost wolves, legendary weapons, intrigue, epic battles, and a star-crossed romance with just a whiff of incest. I mean...I haven't ever read George RR Martin's books and I don't intend to, but this book is pretty gaudy. Haggard absolutely runs with the "savage" theme, but it actually manages not to come across as self-righteous precisely because there are no significant white characters in this book. Instead, it's basically Conan the Barbarian with black people.

In addition, one of the things I found fascinating this time around was Haggard's portrait of Chaka, whom he depicts as a mad, evil, but generous and brilliant autocrat. I did a quick read of Chaka's Wikipedia page, which suggested that some of Chaka's crazy actions as mentioned in this book were actually historically founded: his mourning after his mother's death, including killing any couple who conceived a child in the year following the death, for instance. He was certainly a ruthless conqueror responsible for the deaths of millions. But in his fictional version of Chaka, Haggard somehow creates a compelling picture of an Ancient Roman or modernist dictator. A volatile cocktail of fear, manipulation, and propaganda, Haggard's Chaka makes you think of Stalin, Hitler, or Shakespeare's Richard III. I don't know whether reading this book after the twentieth century makes these parallels more obvious now than when the book was written, but what struck me about the "savagery" depicted in this novel was not how far we'd come, but how far we haven't. We've just had a century in which the heads of state of some of the most "civilised" nations on earth behaved just like "savages". Again, this book isn't conducive to feelings of self-righteousness.

Victorian Femininity and Race

Which is not to say that there isn't a problematic aspect to this book. There is. One of the things I remembered finding quite offensive about the book the first time I read it, was the treatment of the heroine. It wasn't just that there was a pivotal moment at which she became too stupid to live, although I realise now that the two things are related. But I really, really didn't care for the fact that Nada is said to be part white. To put it into perspective, Nada's whole shtick is that she's So Beautiful, It's a Curse. Her beauty is like magic and inevitably brings death, and all because of her unusually fair skin, straight hair, and so on. Even ten years ago, I didn't see why conforming to white Victorian ideals of beauty should make someone the reigning beauty of Zululand. To put it into perspective, would Victorian England have gone crazy for a young woman who conformed to Zulu ideals of beauty? Ha! 

So the implication is that African women are objectively less beautiful than Europeans. But reading the book this time, I thought it was actually worse. Nada is also depicted as conforming to European standards of modesty and is heavily implied to be more enlightened, gentle, and civilised largely as a result of her European ancestry. I do actually sympathise for Haggard labouring to make his heroine appropriate for conventional Victorian tastes. I get what he was doing there and as an author who's also laboured to make things appropriate for a specific audience, I don't want to condemn him so much as his culture. I also am all for standards of modesty and Christian ideals of mercy and gentleness. But these things aren't transmitted by blood, they're transmitted by the Word and the Spirit, regardless of blood.

Haggard's treatment of Nada also implies a double standard when it comes to white women versus black women, his heroine versus the other women in the book. One of the magical effects of Nada's beauty is that although she's often captured by various warring tribes, she's never mistreated by them. She's never forced into an unwanted marriage, and while the regular black women work hoeing fields, she's never asked to work. She's the closest thing in this book to a conventional white Victorian woman, and she's treated like one. But as ex-slave Sojourner Truth pointed out, this honour was not rendered to all women:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
I recently read a post from Jasmine Holmes on "Growing Up Black in the Purity Movement" which perfectly articulated the problem here: 
For me, dignity must be won, not only through my chastity but also in spite of the fact that I was black. ... Ironically, I’m starting to learn that the purity culture we had inherited was highly racialized. The seeds of the movement were fraught with social Darwinism masquerading as theology and assumed that sexual purity could best be exhibited by the “Anglo-Saxon race.” As it began during the Victorian era before sprouting up in my 21st-century evangelical teenhood, that shouldn’t come as a shock.
Now, the real irony in all this is that, as I pointed out in my first review, Nada is the least interesting character in the book. The other, less "white" women - Baleka, Unandi, even Zinita - are allowed to be savages and are therefore tough, hard-working, and cunning. Well, they also tend to be treacherous and murderous, which is a different sort of problem, but my point is that they are much more three-dimensional and interesting characters with far more agency in the plot and far more in common with real women.

In Summary

Re-reading Nada the Lily was fascinating. And while I've spent a lot of time discussing what I felt was wrong with the book - and I've always believed that bad storytelling and bad messages are irretrievably linked - I'm grateful for stories like this that help me understand lies that our culture has believed in the past (and how they continue to affect us today). 

This time around I felt the plot could have been tighter, but this is still a rollicking epic which whet my appetite for premodern African history. Some of the scenes in this book - Mopo and Baleka's footrace to Chaka's kraal at the beginning, or Umslopogaas and Galazi's last stand on Ghost Mountain - are unforgettably awesome. This book is that unique blend of history, fantasy, and adventure which Rider Haggard was so good at writing, and it continues to be one of my very favourites of his books.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Problem of Slavery in Christian America by Joel McDurmon

From time to time, I review some non-fiction, usually history, on this blog. I wouldn't normally review something like this book on Vintage Novels, but I feel that I've made it necessary. Four years ago in this forum I gave a very positive review to John J Dwyer's book The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War. Over the last couple of years, however, I've been forced to re-evaluate a lot of what that book presented. Today I hope to set the record straight with a review of Joel McDurmon's new book The Problem of Slavery in Christian America. This review may not be an easy read, especially if (like me) you've espoused what we might call the John J Dwyer side of the story, or if (unlike me) you've had a front-row seat to American racial tensions. So I want to start by asking the reader to read this review, and interact in the comment section, with as much graciousness as you can muster.

The Problem of Slavery in Christian America describes itself as an ethical/judicial history of slavery in the US. That is, its primary focus is on the civil laws and church teachings as regards slavery (and, related, race) from the early 1600s up to the US Civil War and into the twentieth century. It's also, I should add, written from a conservative, Christian perspective.

The Book

Part 1 of the book focuses on how civil governments promoted, regulated, and institutionalised slavery throughout US history. There is a great amount of legal and statistical detail here: for example, that for a time it was illegal to free a slave unless the former master deported the slave from the colony at his own expense. Or that in some areas slaves made up as much as 90% of the population, and that in the 1700s trade with the Caribbean slave economies supplied a boggling two-thirds of New England’s wealth.

Then, in Part 2, McDurmon retraces his footsteps to look at what the church, through denominational assemblies and prominent churchmen, was saying about issues of slavery and race throughout the same time period. For a committed, conservative Christian, this may actually be the most horrifying part of the book, as it shows - again, through the very words of demominational documents and influential clergymen - how persistently the church either excused slavery, or in many cases actively promoted it, often arguing from natural law premises to do so. And, at best, even where they did condemn it, how often they excused themselves from taking action: "As men and Christian Ministers, we are bound to seek not the freedom but the salvation of our race." Of course there were voices crying in the wilderness, but the majority of the church seems to have turned a stubbornly deaf ear.

The History

I want to make a quick note about something that McDurmon is not saying in this book. He is not picking sides when it comes to North versus South. He is every bit as hard on the North as he is on the South, and he's careful to note that a lot of abolitionist activity in the North was actually motivated by the same racism that motivated Southern slavery.

That said, he does directly engage a lot of the arguments that have been used in the past to excuse the actions of the Confederacy. For instance, many would argue that while there were cruel slaveowners, there were also kind slaveowners whose slaves were not treated too badly. McDurmon provides convincing evidence that this was not the case: if anything, slaves complained that their more devout and "Christian" owners were harder taskmasters than the dissolute ones. Another common argument is that slavery was due to disappear from the South altogether within a few decades, without the need of a war. Even before the war, prominent Southerners promised that slavery wouldn't last. However, the very same men at other times argued that slavery was the foundation of the Southern social order, and that abolishing it would also destroy the South. Southerners also envisioned expanding US slave territory not just into the western frontier but also into the Caribbean, to form a future "Golden Circle" of slave states. Given this vision of a glorious slave-backed future and much other historical evidence, McDurmon is also critical of the notion that the war was not fought primarily over slavery.

However, even if all these pro-Confederacy arguments could be proved to stand up to McDurmon's criticism, reading this book confronted me with a fact which I believe much pro-South material tends to gloss over, and that is that any system which permits evil men to commit outrageous injustice with impunity is abusive by definition. The legal structure itself was horribly oppressive even for the best-possibly-treated slaves: they couldn't learn to read, their movements and gatherings were severely regulated and restricted, their marriages and filial ties could be broken at any moment for the benefit of the domestic slave trade. In addition, you also have the fact that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of human souls suffered under this system for two hundred years, hopelessly, in most cases with no hope that they or their children would ever escape. And then on top of that, you have the racism.

Australia isn't completely devoid of racism, but racial tensions here are nothing compared to the US, and after reading this book I think I understand why. With the rise of American slavery in the 1600s, the medieval caste system was fading away following the downfall of its intellectual foundations in the Reformation, and slavery needed a new justification. McDurmon's book shows how racism became a new tool to justify slavery. He traces the development of racism through laws intended to drive social wedges between poor whites and black slaves, because the southern aristocracy feared what might happen if the two classes joined in revolt. Later, racism also became institutionalised in the church as well: theologians like Thornwell and Dabney argued from natural-law grounds that blacks were inherently inferior to whites, and that without the benevolent institution of slavery to curb their impulses they would run amok. In other words, slavery was such a huge part of American culture for such a long time that the justifications underpinning it became deeply, deeply ingrained into the minds of everyone in it.

This is why, although slavery itself was abolished after the war, quasi-slavery arrangements as well as a vast and entrenched attitude of racism persisted well into the twentieth-century and have yet to be completely eradicated in the twenty-first.

The How and Why

As previously mentioned, Joel McDurmon has written this book from a conservative, Christian point of view. The stirring Epilogue is an exhortation based on the parable of the Good Samaritan (which is explicitly about racial reconciliation), in which he gives a practical outline for healing these old wounds through personal and private service, giving, and fellowship.

As I was reading The Problem of Slavery in Christian America earlier last month, I had a friend ask if I thought this book was really necessary given how much has already happened to redress the evils of slavery and racism. Do we really need this book? Naturally, as an Australian, I'm not completely qualified to answer this question. But here's what I think.

The US has always prided itself on being a beacon of freedom and opportunity for all comers, the place where you could go from being born in a log cabin to dying in the White House. That is the American dream. But for the majority of its history - let's say from 1660 to 1960 (still within living memory), or three hundred years - that dream was only for white people. For a huge number of black people, the US was "the land of the not-free and the home of the slave." For black slaves and far too many of their descendants, it was a dystopia where they were exploited, segregated, and silenced. While some things have improved, I'm willing to bet that a huge number of black people have never had a conservative, Christian person look them in the eye and say, "What happened was indefensible, and it grieves me that it was done to your people." But even just knowing the history documented so painstakingly in this book will, I believe, open the way to greater empathy and understanding.

And that's why I think this book is important: because I honestly believe that reading it, and taking it seriously, will lead to greater love, service, and fellowship. This is not an attempt to stir up strife, it's an attempt to lance and clean a festering wound. I hope this book travels far and causes great reconciliation.

I'd warmly encourage you to buy The Problem of Slavery in Christian America at Amazon.

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!

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