Friday, April 28, 2017

April Updates

It's been a while since I posted one of my update posts, so I thought I would share a bit of what I've been up to...including an announcement about a new story that almost no one knows about. :-D


Reading


As usual, I keep a regular log of what I'm currently reading on Goodreads. Probably the book I'm most excited about at the moment is something I'm reading as part of this stage of work on OUTREMER: Healer of the Nations by Gary North. It's a brilliantly insightful book on international relations from a Christian perspective, and as I take a step back to look at the history I've been learning and try to evaluate the ins and outs, the rights and wrongs of it all, this specific book has been incredibly helpful. How ought Christian nations to relate to each other and to nations of other persuasions? Is there any truth in nationalism or internationalism, and what do Christians have to say about such things? These are questions that most Christians don't even think of asking, and this book, despite bearing the stamp of the times when it was written (before the collapse of the Soviet Union), has been extremely helpful to me in thinking through the issues involved in the history I've been learning.

It's available from the publisher as a free PDF here.


Watching


As part of the preparation for the second draft of Ten Thousand Thorns (more on that in a minute), I went back and watched on of my favourite wuxia films. Reign of Assassins isn't one of those serious arthouse wuxia films, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero. Instead, it's much closer to the wuxia books I read a while back: a preposterous, swashbuckling tale of ordinary people having extraordinary adventures. The always queenly Michelle Yeoh plays Drizzle, a deadly assassin who after accidentally killing the man she loves, seeks redemption in a quiet life as a street vendor in Nanjing. The Polearm Guy from Musa (Woo-sung Jeong) plays the goofy errand-runner who's sweet on her. Drizzle's former colleagues, in search for a powerful Buddhist relic that disappeared when she did, are determined to get their revenge for her defection. Will Drizzle ever be able to leave her life of violence behind her? Or is her newfound happiness about to meet an ugly end?

Although I found the ending of the film a little unsatisfying (one character gives up his revenge for no discernible reason), overall this is a charming story. I would, however, highly recommend pairing it with (ex Zen monk) Ellis Potter's book 3 Theories of Everything, which will explain the Buddhist worldview behind the film, and its preoccupation with domesticity, nature, and the small, quiet arts.


Listening


Last time I posted these updates I was listening to My Soul Among Lions, and right now I'm listening to them again, some more. Volume 2 of their ambitious project to record all 150 Psalms in a country/folk style, covering Psalms 11-20, was released just a few weeks ago and I've been listening to it over and over. As with the first album, some of the renditions are more successful than others (Psalm 18 is perhaps a little too long to fit into one track?) but overall, I'm enjoying this second album even more - particularly their Psalms 14 and 20.


Writing


So, here's the part you've been waiting for. *rubs hands*

This month I have been working on the second draft of Ten Thousand Thorns, my retelling of Sleeping Beauty as a homage to wuxia. It's coming together nicely, but looks like being the longest of my novellas so far. Because of the wordcount (potentially 35,000 words, give or take), I'm not sure how much longer I'll be finishing the second draft - but I'm looking forward to sending it to beta readers, hopefully early next month! No other story I've ever written has ever made me smile so hard, so it's been a real pleasure to work on.

The other project I'm working on this month is OUTREMER, you'll all be pleased to know. I've been fidgeting with it since the beginning of the year, and my task this month was to take a step back and do some evaluation of the ethical issues in the history. As an author, my job is, in part, to pass judgement on people's actions. Should I depict Balian of Ibelin and Maria Comnena's decision to force their daughter Isabella to divorce Hopeless Humphrey of Toron as a good or a bad thing, for instance? And what about the decision to march East on crusade at all? It's been a great time for me to challenge some of my existing assumptions, and to be a little more critical of some of what I've been reading in the history books--and a completely exciting time to think about the hand of Providence in these events. At this stage, my hope is to begin writing the second draft in the second half of this year.

And! Here's something you don't know: Last month I had a lot of fun writing the first draft of a whole new fairytale retelling. This one is titled The City Beyond the Glass, and it's a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses in Renaissance Venice, in...well, its own style, really, though it did grow out of my fascination with Rosamund Hodge. I don't think I've ever written such overtly unpleasant characters as the ones in this story, so it was a terrific challenge. 

I didn't tell you about it at the time because of the Death Be Not Proud paperback release (did you get your copy yet? Schuyler of My Lady Bibliophile called it, and I quote, "to die for"). As always, if you've already read Death Be Not Proud and have not already done so, please do consider leaving a short review at Amazon.

And actually, I have another review request. I recently put together my four existing fairytale novellas in a boxset of their own. If you have read all my fairytale novellas, would you consider leaving a short review of that as well? It would be a very substantial help. And as always, if you haven't read the existing novellas, shoot me an email and I will be very happy to shower you with free review copies!

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

The Introduction to my Oxford World's Classics edition tells me that The Way We Live Now was composed in a fit of uncharacteristic spleen. Trollope had spent eighteen months travelling in Australia and New Zealand (his book of observations on Australia is a classic) and returned to England late in 1872 finding his literary star declining to the extent that he had to give up his country home and live in London. There, disgusted by the dishonesty he saw running rampant in fashionable society, he composed The Way We Live Now.

Plot

It's hard to summarise the sprawling, multi-stranded plot of this novel, but here are some of the primary plot lines:

Sir Felix Carbury, baronet, a ne'er-do-well gambler and coward who having frittered away his patrimony is now sponging off his devoted mother and long-suffering sister, elects to support his dissolute lifestyle by marrying an heiress. The heiress in his sights is Marie Melmotte, the only daughter of the fabulously wealthy but utterly mysterious Great Financier Augustus Melmotte - but as bullied and controlled as she's been all her life, Marie is beginning to develop a mind of her own.

All of London society understands that Augustus Melmotte is an adventurer and probably a swindler, but his unimaginable wealth makes him, not just respectable but positively sought-after. As he juggles more and more daring confidence schemes than he ever has before, Melmotte rises higher than ever before - and risks the fall of his life.

Upstanding squire Roger Carbury is devotedly in love with his cousin Hetta Carbury, but unfortunately Hetta has fallen in love with Paul Montague, a rather pliable young man trying to escape a former engagement to an unscrupulous American woman. Will Paul escape Mrs Hurtle's machinations? Which of her suitors will Hetta choose?

Satire and Pessimism

The Way We Live Now was not published to very positive reviews. It begins, after all, with a scorching critique of literary society, as penniless and desperate would-be bestseller Lady Carbury wheels, deals, cajoles, and flatters newspaper editors for favourable reviews (even today, I defy any writer not to read this and wince!). While the tone of the story mellows toward the second half, becoming more sympathetic to its characters, the tone has a good deal more bite in it than Trollope's usual fare, and few of the characters are as lovable as those in Trollope's other stories.

In addition, the plot and cast seem to have gotten away from Trollope somewhere. Lady Carbury, for instance, is introduced as the book's central character, but the character of the Great Financier, Augustus Melmotte himself, quickly wrests the plot away from her, as do a host of smaller supporting characters - the repulsive Georgiana Longestaffe with her increasingly desperate efforts to find a husband, romantic farmgirl Ruby Ruggles with her dangerous crush on Sir Felix Carbury, feckless Lord Nidderdale and the other upper-class twits at the Beargarden Club - some of which end with a bang, and some with a whimper. Paul Montague is another of those indecisive young Trollopean heroes whom you want to reach inside the book and hit over the head, but to whom we give a (reluctant) pass because we suppose he is rather truer to life than the average romantic lead.

So, I will admit that I found The Way We Lived Now a little difficult to love, and certainly not as delightful as The Last Chronicle of Barset. However, there were plenty of things to like.

Politics and Family

There was the Lady Carbury plot - a little sidelined by the great business of Melmotte's rise and fall, but by the end of the book I thought it was the most satisfying thing in the whole novel. I loved how her friendship with Mr Broune developed from coquetry to brutal honesty.

One of the things I've come to notice and deeply appreciate in Trollope's novels is his concern for women and their status. This comes out partially in Hetta Carbury's plot - of whom it's said that she "had been taught by the conduct of both father and mother that every vice might be forgiven in a man and in a son, though every virtue was expected from a woman, and especially for a daughter." Similarly, Marie Melmotte has always been bullied and controlled by her father, and gradually, over the course of the book, begins to assert her own judgement. Unusually for his young female characters, Trollope does not let Marie off without some pretty trenchant criticism, but I wound up with a gleeful appreciation for her. When the loathsome Felix Carbury first set about cold-heartedly convincing Marie to marry him for the sake of her fortune, I was worried for the put-upon and naive young girl. Well...I hate to spoil anything for you, so I'll just say that I needn't have worried. Or at least, not about Marie. 

Perhaps most fascinating was the political satire in this story. Augustus Melmotte becomes such a titanic figure in London society as to run for Parliment. His political opinions are so unformed that he could equally easily run for the Liberal or the Conservative platforms, and he ultimately chooses the Conservatives purely because he thinks he will make more money that way. And London eagerly plays along: "Mr Melmotte was not like other men. It was a great thing to have Mr Melmotte in the party. Mr Melmotte's financial capabilities would in themselves be a tower of strength. Rules were not made to control the club in a matter of such importance as this." Not only are shots taken at the willingness of political causes to prostitute themselves to larger-than-life personalities (h'mm, where have we seen that before?) but also at Conservatism itself: "The Conservative party at this particular period was putting its shoulder to the wheel, - not to push the coach up any hill, but to prevent its being hurried along." The more things that change...

Dishonesty and Hypocrisy

If there's one overarching theme in this book, it is that of dishonesty. Melmotte is the great swindler who dominates the whole story, of course, but the book is full of lesser dishonesties. Felix Carbury, living on credit and loans extracted from his already impoverished mother; Lady Carbury herself, "false from head to foot" who must learn the value of honesty; Georgiana Longestaffe, incapacitated by her greed for any honesty either social or romantic; or on the other hand, the unexpectedly wonderful Mr Brehgert, whose honesty proves himself immediately one of the best characters in the book. Overall the book is mournful in tone: Trollope puts aside his customary optimism in order to bewail the dishonesty that he felt had come to characterise his time: "a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places...so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable." The Way We Live Now is a tale of hypocrisy on a grand scale; its aim ultimately to wake its readers' consciences. The fact that it was disliked in its day and is now regarded as Trollope's magnum opus is perhaps a sad sign that hypocrisy is as lively as ever it was: we are always more willing to put on sackcloth and ashes for the sins of our forbears than for the sins of our own day.

Find The Way We Live Now on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Poem: Pietá by James McAuley

It's Good Friday, and owing to 2017 being the centenary of the birth of James McAuley, one of my favourite poets, I thought I would find one of his poems to post. It's not quite an Easter poem, but it is written with Easter in mind - so here it is.

Pietá

A year ago you came
Early into the light.
You lived a day and night,
Then died; no-one to blame.

Once only, with one hand,
Your mother in farewell
Touched you. I cannot tell,
I cannot understand

A thing so dark and deep,
So physical a loss:
One touch, and that was all

She had of you to keep.
Clean wounds, but terrible
Are those made with the Cross.

James McAuley



Friday, April 7, 2017

The Bell Mountain Series 1-4 by Lee Duigon

I don't quite know what I expected to find in Lee Duigon's Bell Mountain series. A series of Christian fantasy for children put out by an independent Christian publishing house that otherwise mostly just publishes heavy and bearded theological tomes? Don't get me wrong: I love me a heavy and bearded theological tome. They can be useful for dealing with spiders, hitting people over the head with in arguments, and impressing (or repelling) persons of the opposite sex. But, fiction is a totally different kettle of fish, and I was intrigued to find out whether this series was as good as I heard it was.

Yes. It was.

The Series So Far

Young Jack is just the unwanted stepson of the municipal carter of tiny, unimportant Ninneburky. But he's been having dreams--dreams of a bell hung high on mysterious Bell Mountain, a bell that can be heard around the world. Only Ellayne, the chief councillor's uppity daughter, agrees with Jack that the dream must be true and that God wants them to climb the mountain and ring the bell. But it's a long way to Bell Mountain. There are plenty of dangers in the outside world. A deadly assassin from the Temple in the great city of Obann is determined to hunt them down. And then there are all the prophecies that say the world will end when the bell rings...

That's where the story begins in Book 1, Bell Mountain. But it doesn't stay there. In Book 2, The Cellar Beneath the Cellar, the tale explodes into a continent-spanning epic: barbarian invasions, a long-lost boy king, and a hunt for lost scrolls. Book 3, The Thunder King, and Book 4, The Last Banquet, feature wars, giants, monsters, sieges, betrayals, and prophecies. The tale moves fast, following a host of colourful supporting characters: Helki, the Flail of the Lord; Obst, the unwilling missionary; Lord Reesh, the treacherous First Prester; Hlah son of Spider, a barbarian prince on an unlikely mission; an assassin who has renounced his past; a three-year-old girl who can prophesy the future; a girl blown off-course in a storm. And that's not all--there are nine books now available in the series, with more to come.

Needless to say, the series is thoroughly entertaining. I was also impressed by the quality of the craftsmanship. I'm very familiar with many of the most common mistakes made by half-baked or rookie authors (including myself), and the more I learn about writing craft the more these things niggle at me. Lee Duigon's storytelling is not airtight: look very carefully at Books 3 and 4 and you'll notice that two of the most important characters, Jack and Ellayne, are given relatively little to do. But there's plenty he does get right. Three-dimensional, flawed, yet lovable characters. Detailed, convincing worldbuilding. Rich thematic goodness, with an optimistic postmillennial slant. It's all here.

A Few Things I Liked

It's hard to review four full-length books in one post, so I'm just going to pick out a couple of the things I particularly liked. I will try to avoid any but the mildest spoilers, but there might be a few for early books in the series...

First, while the books are apparently aimed at children, they manage to remain realistic, with a helping of darkness and grit. This comes through in a number of ways. It's a common trope in children's fantasy for the children to head off into the world all by themselves, competent to deal with whatever comes their way. I really appreciated that when Jack and Ellayne do this in Bell Mountain, it's made very very clear that they are completely at the mercy of whatever unscrupulous adults might find them. The book is not paranoid about this, but it is rather more honest than a lot of children's adventure/fantasy fiction. 

From Book 2 forward, a large part of the plot focuses on the war that results from an invasion of Heathens from beyond the mountains. Some Heathens convert to belief in God and it is totally not done in modern evangeli-speak; it's got rather more in common with, say, the conversion of Iceland as depicted in The Saga of Burnt Njal. I thought this was great world-building, but just as good is the fun Duigon has throughout by not having these tattooed, polygamous, scalping barbarians suddenly turn into well-behaved modern Americans overnight.
"It's a kind of hymn," she said. "They are asking God to let you drink fermented mare's milk from the Thunder King's skull."
Because of the realistic grounding of the series, it's the kind of story that adults as well as children ought to enjoy. In fact, I'd almost recommend that parents give the series a bit of a read-through first in case their children may not be ready for some of the gritty details.

A Headscratcher or Two

One of the things I'm often interested to note is how other Christian fantasy authors include a Christian worldview in their secondary worlds. From the synopses of the books I could tell that this particular series isn't all that subtle about it: there are overt references to God, his Scripture, his Spirit, and so on. This is not the Tolkien approach, with an unspoken Christian worldview lurking in the background, nor the Lewis approach, with symbolic/representative versions of the Godhead. With such overt references to Christianity, I wasn't sure whether the story would bear up under the weight of realism. In the final analysis, I think Duigon did rather well on this front, but I'm a little ambivalent about his preferred approach.

Basically, Duigon has not included Christianity as the religion in his invented fantasy world; instead, he's made up a fantasy analogue to Christianity. Instead of the Children of Israel passing through the Red Sea, we have the Children of Geb walking across the sea to Obann. Instead of the Temple in Jerusalem we have the Temple in Old Obann. Instead of King David we have King Ozias. When the fantasy scriptures are quoted they are either paraphrases or pastiches of Holy Scripture. 

This is a good approach from a storytelling point of view since it melds the religious themes organically into the setting and prevents them from overpowering the storytelling. However, the analogue religion is so close to Christianity that I'd be a little nervous that very young children, or people not fully familiar with actual Scripture,  might come away confused. Rather amusingly, characters throughout the books declare "Magic doesn't exist" and whenever werewolves or ghosts or witches are mentioned someone usually sniffs at the superstition. I, of course, have no problem with such elements being used in fiction, if done wisely. After all, these are obviously superstitious/fantastical elements. Reading, for instance, the Narnia books as a child, it was always very easy to distinguish between the fantastical dryads and dwarfs and Talking Beasts of Narnia, and the realities of our world. But I'd be a little worried that reading something like the Bell Mountain books as a child, I would have had real trouble distinguishing between the fantasy religion and the real thing.

Conclusion

With that slight caveat, I have to tell you that I have been thoroughly enjoying these books, and I am looking forward to reading more of them. They are perfect for fans of Andrew Peterson's Wingfeather Saga (in fact, I like the Bell Mountain series better overall) and also ought to appeal to fans of N. D. Wilson and Anne Elisabeth Stengl. This is definitely a series that deserves to be more popular, and I'm looking forward to reading the next eight books!

Find Book 1, Bell Mountain, on Amazon. The first plot arc of the series takes up the first four books, so you may like to get The Cellar Beneath the Cellar, The Thunder King, and The Last Banquet while you're at it.

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