Friday, December 30, 2016

Best of 2016

Well, strictly speaking I'm supposed to be on holiday right now, recovering from a hard year's work and reading my Annual Holiday Epic, but one of the many small pleasures of the Christmas season includes sitting down to look back at the year's reading and hand out some tiny awards.

Also, it's terribly sad this year, but I haven't started the Annual Epic yet. After The Song of Roland last Christmas, I wanted to read another chanson de geste, the Spanish Song of the Cid this time. Unfortunately, I ordered it in at the library in the delicious and toothsome-looking new Burton-Raffel translation - and it hasn't yet appeared. Instead, I'm tiding myself over with Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave - finally.

Otherwise, it's been a really good reading year. According to Goodreads, I got through 113 books this year, which is only slightly down from last year's 119.

Favourite Re-Reads

For me, to re-read a book is in itself a major recommendation, so it often seems unfair to have my re-reads compete against my new reads. In 2016 I re-read 16 books. Here are my top five:

The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart - I appreciated this story far more the second time around - a moody gothic romance complete with mistaken identity, mystery and murder. I thought it also had a bit more substance than I usually find in Mary Stewart's novels.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome - Another readaloud with my sisters, this book is a comedic gem from Victorian England that somehow manages to be every bit as fresh and funny today. Packed full of quotable gems and outrageous situations, it's hard to believe this classic started life as a travel guide. Full review here.

Paradise Restored by David Chilton - since I'd only read it once, many years ago, this one was well overdue for a re-read. Still my favourite theological work, it's an excellent introduction to the interpretation of biblical typology, and a great introduction to optimistic eschatology.

The Song of Roland, trans. Dorothy Sayers - my Annual Epic for 2016 and a vital bit of cultural research for OUTREMER, this poem came alive for me this year in a way it never had before. Probably written during or shortly after the First Crusade, it's a magnificent glimpse at the mindset that produced it. See my detailed review here.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien - you knew this would be on here. Words fail me. Still the best. Book of the year. Some thoughts are available here.

Non-Fiction of the Year

My non-fiction schedule is pretty crowded these days, as my constant fiction output requires a constant, and strenuous, non-fiction intake, whether historical/cultural research or writing and marketing craft. But I do get to read a bunch of books for my own enjoyment: this year, some of the standouts include theological tomes from Ray Sutton (That You May Prosper) and William Symington (Messiah the Prince), William Dalrymple's outrageous romp of a travel book In Xanadu, and Dinah Roe's quadruple biography of a unique artistic family, The Rossettis in Wonderland. And this year, I think I'm actually going to tie two books for Non-Fiction of the Year, because they were both so important in different ways.

Saving Leonardo was every bit as good as I'd hoped, and then some. You could call it a course on art history from a philosophical standpoint, or you could call it a philosophy course with really, really high-quality illustrations. Pearcey focuses mainly on modern schools of artistic expression, and ably explains exactly what philosophies undergird cubism, expressionism, surrealism and more. And while she critiques each of these philosophies from a Christian perspective, she's quick to demonstrate how each of these different schools have been used by Christian artists. It's incredibly rare to find an approach to fine art that both respects it for its philosophical and artistic value, and critiques it from a Christian viewpoint. Saving Leonardo is an absolutely essential book - I can't recommend it highly enough.

The other must-read in my non-fiction stack this year is The Tyrannicide Brief, a gripping and illuminating biography of John Cooke, the humble barrister who was sent the brief to prosecute Charles I. As a QC practicing in the very areas he's writing about - war crimes and tyranny - Geoffrey Robertson is uniquely qualified to provide a detailed, yet never dry analysis of the legal and political issues at stake in Charles I's trial and execution. In three sections, the book deals with the history of tyranny and war that led up to Charles's trial; the unprecedented event of the trial itself; and the denouement ten years later, when John Cooke and a small group of fellow regicides were put cruelly and arbitrarily to death. It is a long-overdue recognition of a man and a movement far ahead of their time, who did more perhaps than any other single generation in history for liberty and justice. I cried.

Fiction of the Year

Coming up with a single fiction book to recommend each year is about as much fun as pulling teeth, and I've made it hard for myself by disqualifying re-reads (and thus The Lord of the Rings), but let me try. This year I read Pierce Brown's whole Red Rising trilogy, and I read it immoderately, in three gulps, until it was done, and then sat up and begged for more. It's a genre-busting, blood-soaked dystopian space opera extravaganza, with about three times the smarts, three times the conviction, and three times the heart of just about every other YA bestseller I read this year - with one important exception, which was everything I read by Rosamund Hodge. 

I was intrigued by Cruel Beauty and its bitter and bracing look at sin and guilt, and I loved her Gilded Ashes novella, but it was Hodge's second book, Crimson Bound, a Red Riding Hood retelling with some serious teeth in it, which reduced me to tears and made me a confirmed fan. Hodge writes about guilt-ridden bad people undergoing long and painful repentances, all wrapped up in YA fantasy trappings of love triangles and fairytale references. How dark do you like your chocolate? This is 85%.

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, a more classic YA novel, was so good that after reading it for the first time this year and loving it, I went on and read it a second time, aloud, with my sisters. It only improved on closer acquaintance. Not just an exciting tale of adventure and (perhaps) magic in Elizabethan England - this book is something more, a beautiful and sometimes heartwrenching story of trial and redemption.

Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset is probably the book I should be naming Fiction of the Year. It's a solid five star, it's the grand finale to the wonderful Chronicles of Barset, and it came packed not just with adorable characters and horrifying plot twists, but also with social commentary that had me cheering in delight. Trollope ranks about level with Jane Austen in my pantime of Great Authors now, and this was my favourite book of his yet.

All the same, I can't help being me, and so Fiction of the Year goes to...

As you know, I've been living and breathing Crusader history for the last two years, and The High Crusade (see my full review!) probably did better than any other book I read this year (with the sole exception of actual original source materials like Letters from the East or The Song of Roland) at expressing the delightful quirks and contradictions of the medieval character. 

Also, knights versus aliens. How could anything be better?

2016 in Writing

In 2016, I managed a total raw wordcount output of about 325,000 words, give or take, which included:
  • finishing the first draft of OUTREMER, my mega-project on the 200-year history of the Crusader States;
  • second-draft and polishing on Death Be Not Proud, a romantic suspense fairytale novella now available as part of the Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales collection;
  • the first drafts of two new fairytale novellas, Ten Thousand Thorns (which is Sleeping Beauty in the style of a wuxia martial arts epic) and Lady Disdain (which is King Thrushbeard in the style of a vintage swashbuckler). 
As you can imagine, I'm now rather badly in need of a holiday. So, farewell! I'll be taking January to relax and recharge, and will see you all in February with more reviews, and hopefully some more news on upcoming projects! Merry Christmas (it's not Epiphany yet, after all) and a happy new year to all of you!

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff

Merry Christmas to you all for next week! As usual, I've been flat out trying to fit one last writing project into the year before gratefully slipping into much-needed oblivion over the holiday period. And, because I'm lazy, and you're all busy with Christmas anyway, I thought I would merely mention, in an off-hand sort of way, that I've just finished work on another fairytale novella first draft. This one is the long-awaited retelling of my favourite fairytale of all time, King Thrushbeard. Obviously, a story this special to me needs to be retold in a pretty special way; and so this one was not an easy story to write.

However, the first incoherent draft is written, and it's in the style of a vintage swashbuckler (because secret identities and antagonistic love stories fit so well into this genre), and it's set during the English Civil War. The working title is Lady Disdain, and so far I'm happy about how it's come together!

As usual, I read a number of books to prepare myself for this story, and one of the books I read (in addition to a couple of melodramatic Rafael Sabatini swashbucklers and Geoffrey Robertson's absolutely smashing The Tyrannicide Brief) was Rosemary Sutcliff's The Rider of the White Horse.

This particular novel is one of the stories Sutcliff wrote specifically for adults, not children. Now granted, all the books of Sutcliff's that I've read have been of such quality that distinctions like "adults'" or "children's" cease to apply. It's been a while since I read Sutcliff's great YA novels - The Eagle of the Ninth, The Shield Ring, and many others - but I felt that The Rider of the White Horse was pretty similar in tone and quality.

Anyway, The Rider of the White Horse is a historical novel covering the first few years of the English Civil War in Yorkshire, from the beginning of the war in 1642 to the battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Our protagonist is Anne Fairfax, the wife of Sir Thomas Fairfax who would become the commander in chief of the New Model Army and de facto ruler of England in the turbulent years of the Rump Parliament. 

When this story begins, however, Sir Thomas is only an obscure Yorkshire gentleman, quiet, reserved, and plagued by recurrent illness. Anne, his wife, loves him deeply but feels that her love is not returned. When war breaks out, Anne accompanies Thomas on campaign and through danger, sickness, and even captivity, finds a measure of happiness she never had in peacetime.

The Rider of the White Horse was an absolutely beautiful novel in a whole number of different ways. Sutcliff could weave sheer magic with words, and under her pen, the Yorkshire backdrop to her story, the sensitive characters that people it, and the battlefield action that punctuates it, are all marvellously vivid. And although the plot was a little tenuous, as befits a relatively true-to-life, character-driven portrait of real people and events, there was plenty of action and danger to keep a plot-lover like me interested. 

The historical detail in the book was wonderful. A few passages, especially near the beginning, were a little exposition-heavy, and there are a couple of places where there's room to challenge Sutcliff's evaluation of the history: I thought the foreshadowing of the King's death was a little heavy-handed, for example; according to Geoffrey Robertson there's good reason to believe that no one seriously imagined trying the King for his crimes, let alone cutting off his head, until 1648. Robertson also argues pretty persuasively that at the time it happened Fairfax was not opposed to the execution of the King, as Sutcliff states. But generally the historical detail in the book seemed effortless - more as if Sutcliff was writing of things she remembered, than things she had researched and imagined.

As for the love story, I'm in two minds about it. On the one hand, the characters of Anne and Thomas Fairfax, and the slow, bittersweet growth they go through, is written with a great deal of sensitivity and subtlety. It was beautiful, and moving, and satisfying - within the novel. The problem appears when you step outside the world of the novel, and consider the historical facts within the context of the larger history. As my friend Christina pointed out when we discussed this book a few months ago, Lady Anne Fairfax certainly accompanied her husband on campaign, which was rather unusual for the time. What was not at all unusual for the time, was the Puritan ideal of companionate marriage, in which, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before in history, a married couple were expected to love, confide in, rely upon, and befriend each other. Given that the historical Anne Fairfax was so ready to put herself in danger and discomfort in order to accompany her husband on campaign, and he found it so important to have her, isn't is more natural to draw the conclusion that the Fairfaxes must have had an unusually close and happy marriage?

From the novel, it seemed clear to me that Sutcliff's Thomas Fairfax is a deeply reserved man with a deep love for his wife but without the gift of being able to communicate it to her in ways that she understood. At least that's the impression I got from the way the characters interacted - but Sutcliff seemed to be trying to convince me that this gentle and self-sacrificing character did not really love her. Not really. Christina suggests, and I tend to agree that on the contrary, a real seventeenth-century woman would have interpreted this as love, and that both Sutcliff's personal and cultural background may have conspired to prevent her recognising this. Culturally, in the 1950s, the ideal of marriage was pretty out of joint with the Puritan companionate ideal: many wives spent their time in the home, bored and unfulfilled, waiting for their husbands to come home and pay attention to them. There was an unnatural division between husband and wife, an expectation that the husband would get fulfilment via meaningful dominion work, while the wife would get fulfilment through the meeting of her emotional needs. In the Puritan ideal, however, both parties have their emotional needs met through the kind of shared dominion work that the historical Fairfaxes obviously undertook. They are a team; they are not shunted off into separate blue-and-pink universes.

Rosemary Sutcliff's tragic personal life may have also contributed to her skewed romantic paradigm. If I'm informed correctly, she had a love affair with a married man who told her although she was his true love, it was impossible for him to divorce his wife to marry her. After the affair was over, he later did divorce his wife and remarry--to someone else. So, Sutcliff's most powerful personal experience of love was also one of waiting for a man to tire of his quest and meet the woman's emotional needs - but perhaps that's a paradigm that comes out more clearly in Sutcliff's novel about Sir Walter Raleigh's wife, Lady in Waiting.

All of which are fascinating thoughts, and perhaps a useful indication of why Sutcliff chose to tell the story she did. Nevertheless, it's undeniable that in The Rider of the White Horse she has told her story with wonderful skill and feeling.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini

Rafael Sabatini has never approached membership in my great pantime of favourite authors, but ever since I discovered his outrageously melodramatic swashbucklers (while studying law and in need of some light relief), I've had a soft spot for the author of Captain Blood, Scaramouche and Bellarion the Fortunate.

Recently, I decided to re-read one of his most well-known novels, The Sea-Hawk.

Our story opens in Elizabethan Cornwall, where the young privateer Sir Oliver Tressilian is determined to marry his love Rosamund Godolphin despite her brother's objections - there has been bad blood between Tressilians and Godolphins for generations. When Rosamund's brother is discovered lying dead in the snow with a trail of blood leading to Sir Oliver's door, Rosamund becomes his enemy - but not half as deadly an enemy as Lionel, the younger brother Sir Oliver is trying to shield.

A rollicking tale of love, hate, and betrayal ensues, sweeping its characters from the cold coast of Cornwall to the blue sweep of the Mediterranean where the corsairs of Barbary ply their trade, led by the mysterious and inscrutable Sakr El-Bahr, the Hawk of the Sea...

I was captivated by this story the first time I read it, but this time I came away feeling that the whole was somewhat less than the sum of its parts. After all, The Sea-Hawk has everything...duels, pirates, treachery, kidnappings, galley-slaves, romance, palace intrigue, a gutsy heroine, moral dilemmas, and more. It's exciting. The hero and heroine both do terrible things to each other, only to repent of them later. There's a real sense of eucatastrophe when their hilariously tormented love-affair finally comes right, and I felt I could really cheer for Rosamund as a heroine in the final chapters, when she comes in to save the day rather like Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

And yet.

Sometimes Sabatini clicks for me. I've reread both Captain Blood and Bardelys the Magnificent a number of times, and both of them are hugely enjoyable. The Sea-Hawk was awfully close, but never quite closed the deal. Partly it could be the odd pacing. The first third of the book occurs in Cornwall five years before the second two-thirds of the book in Algiers, which gives the story a slightly disjointed feeling. Much of the middle section is taken up by the villainous harem intrigues featuring the wife of the basha of Algiers, a character who didn't interest me in the least. And then there's the main character's rather flippant attitude toward religion, as he sees no problem with changing his allegiances at the drop of the hat for personal gain.

These are drawbacks, but I think the most unsettling thing, for me, was the centrepiece of the book, in which the heroine is sold to the hero in the slave market at Algiers. It makes for good melodrama as he takes her home and gloats over her, and the second half of the book goes a long way towards redeeming him as he starts to realise that a) he still loves her and b) his lust for revenge has put her in terrible danger. However, it's the old have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too trap so many authors fall into: Sabatini has obviously gone to such outrageous lengths, shifting his characters through many an implausible imbroglio to maneuver them into position, just so that this scene can happen. Although the characters spend much of the second half of the book regretting that the scene did happen, it did happen and we got our guilty frisson out of it. 

So, much of this book was pure fantasy, and in retrospect, a rather unhealthy fantasy to boot; but all the same, it was a fun read, with an ending that satisfied. The Sea-Hawk falls on the guilty end of the guilty-pleasure scale, and I'm not convinced it justifies its existence. But, it still has some good elements...

How's that for a rousing recommendation?

You can find The Sea-Hawk on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg and Librivox.

Guess what? They made a film very loosely based on The Sea-Hawk, starring Errol Flynn as the titular pirate! Rather understandably, given the book's structural oddities, the film has nothing whatsoever to do with the book, except for being set during the reign of Elizabeth I and featuring a privateer as the main character. It's not a bad black-and-white swashbuckler though.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Lord of the Rings re-read: some thoughts

As many of you know, I spent much of the last three months re-reading through my favourite book in the world, JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (first reviewed on Vintage Novels here). I'd already read and re-read it as many as eight or nine times as a young teen, before deciding to let it rest for several years.

I left it for ten years before coming back to it now, in 2016. Needless to say, mixed in with all my anticipation was a little bit of worry. I'm a far pickier, more jaded reader now than I was ten years ago. Was The Lord of the Rings going to be the heart-wrenching work of peerless genius that I remembered?

I think the answer is yes. I say I think because with this book there's a certain measure of objectivity forever lost to me, and at a certain level I can never again experience it the way I did the first time I read it, or even the first five times. But for all that, there were still aspects of this story that struck me for the very first time this year, some delightful, some concerning, and one, right at the end, that caught me completely unawares. Here are my thoughts (spoiler warning!):

Bilbo's Story

Bilbo Baggins, after starring as the protagonist of The Hobbit, is basically a supporting character in this book, but a beloved and revered one. In the very first chapter we learn that while most of the Shire hobbits see him as an eccentric or even a madman, there is a small group of young gentlehobbits who have grown up hearing his stories of his adventures to the Lonely Mountain. This small group ultimately coalesces in friendship around Bilbo's adopted heir, Frodo Baggins. They include Merry Brandybuck, Pippin Took, and Fatty Bolger. Also, down the social scale somewhat, Sam Gamgee.

While Bilbo himself, in The Hobbit, was only prised away from his beloved Shire and Bag End with immense difficulty by Gandalf, Frodo and his friends are much readier to leave the Shire and much more curious about Elves, adventures, and the things outside. Frodo knows a little Elvish, Merry and Pippin are constantly singing songs Bilbo wrote, and Sam has even taken to writing some of his own. There's no doubt that Bilbo's own adventures, and the lore and love of poetry that he brought back with him, has had a profound impact on the new generation. If Bilbo never went on that trip, or never told his stories and songs to the next generation once he returned, the War of the Ring would have ended quite differently.

Even Fatty Bolger, who stays in the Shire rather than take the long perilous journey to Mordor, proves to have absorbed Bilbo's lessons of risk and adventure: at the end of the book, we discover that he has been leading a resistance band in the hills, before being captured and imprisoned. All because of Bilbo's courage to go out and have an adventure.

Justice and Mercy

Here's one thing that bugged me this time. It's one of the famous lines from the book, and I was surprised to find myself disagreeing with it this time:
"Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let [Gollum] live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death."
"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it."
I'm not saying I don't partly agree with what Gandalf is saying here - there's an old legal axiom that says it's better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished wrongfully. However, Gollum is demonstrably guilty of murder, and is clearly going to continue in his old ways. I'm not sure I agree with Tolkien's definitions of justice and mercy here. The two are not things in opposition, but are nested within each other: if one extends grace to Gollum, what mercy is extended to the next child he cannibalises? True justice is mercy, and Genesis 9:5-6 seems pretty conclusive to me here.

The irony of it was, I had absolutely no problem later on in the book, when Frodo and Sam catch Gollum tracking them, and let him live. Why? Well, he never attacks them, so they have no right to kill him in self-defence. And they (unlike Aragorn, who captured him previously, or the Elves, who held him for a while) are not civil authorities with the ability to try him and sentence him to death. Still, while I didn't mind the way the moral dilemma of what to do about Gollum was resolved in-book, I also wasn't comfortable with the way the question was framed, which seemed to fudge the ethics.

Past and Future, Hope and Despair

One of the things many have pointed out about The Lord of the Rings is its sense of lost glories passing away. In a sense, much of the book is intensely backward-looking and past-oriented, even as the author himself was. This comes across most strongly in the Lorien chapters, where the Elves continue to preserve a tiny microcosm of their lost glories. It's underlined by the fact that it seems to be a place outside Time itself, preserved from it, in some way, by Galadriel's magic: once they leave Lorien, Sam is astonished to find how much time has passed in the outside world.

I thought this was fascinating. Too great a focus on the past will lead to exactly the same attitudes that the Elves seem to struggle with in this book: a despair for the future (Galadriel sees history as "the long defeat"); withdrawal to a few enclaves where the past can be preserved in a static, unchanging form; an ongoing progress of withdrawal and fading and impotence. Sound anything like the modern church?

But, and this is important, these attitudes are not shared by all the protagonists. Especially as we get into The Two Towers and The Return of the King, and Aragorn begins to take his place as the new King of Men, we see a new attitude. An emphasis on the future. An expectation of victory. An acceptance of change and succession. Most importantly, hope. Aragorn, the men of Rohan, and even the men of Gondor, are informed but not chained by the past, and at the end of the book, while the last of the Elves are seeping from Middle-Earth, the race of Men move forward confidently into a bright future.

There's a strong theme of the necessity of hope that runs all through The Lord of the Rings, but
by far the oddest place this theme cropped up was in a subtle comparison between (of all people!) Aragorn and Gandalf, especially in The Two Towers and during the Battle of Helm's Deep. Gandalf is quite pessimistic for much of this book, even while snapping Theoden out of his Wormtongue-induced depression. By comparison, at the darkest hour of the battle, Aragorn confidently tells Saruman's forces that none of them will be left alive to return to Isengard. Interestingly enough, it's Aragorn who's proven right, and Gandalf ends the book withdrawing from Middle-Earth along with the Elves.


And while we're discussing Aragorn, a word about him. It's no secret that I'm far from being a fan of the Peter Jackson movies. They were glorious to look at, but the scriptwriters had no idea, and one of the most noticeable ways in which they had no idea was in making Aragorn a reluctant hero. Film!Aragorn doesn't want to become king, while Book!Aragorn fully intends to do so. Film!Aragorn is basically hiding from his responsibility to defend the free world from Sauron's might, to take up the sword of his fathers and to actually win Arwen's hand instead of skulking behind bushes with her in Rivendell.

However, I did kind of understand the decision. Nobody really trusts someone who turns up and says, "Hi, I'm your king." Doesn't seem very humble to introduce yourself to someone lineage-foremost. Even though we live in an age when the government wields more raw power over every minute detail of our lives than any other government ever has in all of world history, we still expect those who seek that power at every election to at least adopt a facade of humility.

What surprised me this time through The Lord of the Rings was realising just how humble Book!Aragorn is. Far more than I remembered, and quite enough to render Peter Jackson's decision additionally incomprehensible. Aragorn recites his titles and claims his kingship once or twice - at the Argonath, or outside Edoras - but overwhelmingly he downplays his status and claims. Not because he doesn't think they're important. On the contrary, throughout the book he moves with a very clear sense of his purpose and destiny in the world: fight Sauron, protect Gondor, win Arwen's hand, and restore justice and rule to the shattered remnants of Gondor and Arnor. - Or, die trying. No, the reason he downplays his status is for two reasons.

One reason Aragorn doesn't play up his claim to the kingship is because he actually can't simply claim it. He has to be accepted by the people of Gondor (constitutional monarchies like this were basically the norm during the early medieval period). When Gondor does accept him, it's on his merit and character rather than his lineage and claims.

The other reason is that along with Aragorn's sense of destiny comes a sense of his capacity for royally mucking it all up. He takes charge of the Fellowship after Moria, and thus is in command during the disastrous breaking of the Fellowship, which sees the majority of those under his command either killed, captured, or lost. And we actually see that failure follow him all the way across Rohan in The Two Towers. Aragorn knows he has a job to do, but he also knows he has no guarantee of success. And you'll pardon me if I think that is a better kind of humility than the kind that doesn't try at all.

Mordor as Penance

In The Return of the King, we see Frodo and Sam making their last desperate journey through Mordor. They're low on food and water, Frodo is dying of sheer exhaustion from long wandering, wounds, and the burden of the Ring, which has begun to consume his mind; and the landscape around them is a dark, smoggy desert, which likely draws on Tolkien's memories of the Western Front in World War I. I'd always wished someone would have come and rescued them and saved them the effort. But this time I noticed something else.
But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam's plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.
The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam's mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.
I'd heard before that the lembas could have been used as a sort of metaphor for the Eucharist, but whether or not that was clearly in Tolkien's mind, I think the spiritual metaphor in these Mordor chapters is absolutely intentional. What Sam and Frodo go through in Mordor is an intensely trying, refining, purifying experience; it is penitential in the sense of nobly-born hardship, supported by fasting, physical discipline, and a form of spiritual sustenance (the lembas). I don't think you have to be Roman Catholic to appreciate this and find it deeply moving. As a sola-fide Protestant, I'd also approve of the fact that even after undergoing this ordeal, it doesn't in itself render Frodo capable of doing what he's come to do: on Mount Doom itself, he's incapable of freeing himself from the Ring's power.

I just found it an incredibly compelling depiction of the role of suffering for our good. This time, I did not wish someone had gone and saved the hobbits from having to undergo this trial. The landscape of Mordor was no longer evil, but rather Saturnine: a place of penitence, fasting, and rigor, the house of lamentation that is not always worse than the house of mirth.

The Ending

This post has grown way too long, but I have just one more thing to note, and that is the ending. Like I said, I was curious whether the old remembered magic would still be there in this book. By the time I got to the end, I had to admit that it was. But it wasn't actually so much in the big epic setpieces - Khazad-Dum, Helm's Deep, or the Pelennor Fields. It was after, in the long denouement.

I don't know how Tolkien does it, but that last hundred pages, after all the danger is over, is some of the most bittersweet, emotional storytelling I've ever read. The Lord of the Rings is one of the only books I know that packs such an emotional punch at the end. At the same time there's an absolutely agonising sense of loss and elegy running through it: if I was to put it into words, I think it would be that you get a wrenching awareness that the characters are mortal, and are going to die, and may never see each other again.

Not all of it is sad, but it's all very bittersweet. And it's this that leaves you with the certainty that you have read a book of "piercing beauties", to steal CS Lewis's words.

Well, like I said, this post is way too long. But I'm so glad I re-read The Lord of the Rings now, as I confront my own mega-book, OUTREMER. I took lots of notes!

Have you read The Lord of the Rings yet? If your answer is no,* please lose no time in racing to Amazon or The Book Depository, and securing your own copy forthwith.

*no, the movies don't count.

Saturday, December 3, 2016


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

The six stories include:

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Snared Nightingale by Geoffrey Trease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

All the Dish on TEN THOUSAND THORNS + Snippets

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess you'd all like to see snippets!


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan (2016 film review)

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

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

The Story

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

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

Overall thoughts

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

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

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

Nature as God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Comment on Jane

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

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

Sorry, Folks

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Taoism, Buddhism, and Worldview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 4, 2016

Poem: His Books by Robert Southey

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

His Books

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 28, 2016

Tank Commander by Ronald Welch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find Tank Commander on Slightly Foxed.

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


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