Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

August 29, 2009


Filed under: children's lit,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 10:38 pm

A children’s book by Adèle Geras, telling the story of those Odysseus left behind on Ithaka when he went to war – Penelope, his queen; Telemachus, their son; Klymene, her handmaiden, with whom the gods converse; and Ikarios, her twin brother.

I read this courtesy of Second Judith, or to be more accurate I was asked to carry it back to her and accidentally read it myself instead.

It’s a good book, with lots of warmth and vitality; the characters are fairly lightly sketched, but with a myth I (and most of us) know so well then it’s easy for us to flesh them out. On the other hand, this is the same familiar myth from a very different standpoint. The Greek myths are very much Hero Tales – stories of musclebound idiots throwing spears at each other and setting fire to things for the sake of a local beauty queen and the hope of undying fame. Of course, one of the reasons Odysseus is so popular is because he subverts this stereotype; he’s the classic trickster hero. I remember seeing a really interesting adaptation on stage at the Lyric Hammersmith a while back, with Odysseus as a scrawny guy with a dodgy beard and bags of charisma, trying to get his war-weary troops home and ending up stuck in a refugee detention camp with a bunch of Trojans.

The thing about having kings turn up and drag the menfolk off to war, however, is that that leaves the womenfolk at home to mind the house, bring in the harvests, milk the goats, and generally keep life going while the men muck around with their little toys. And since they’re culturally discouraged from violence or effective self-defense, Penelope’s in a sticky position when a whole bunch of suitors show up and start making comments like “Νιγε πλαγε ιου ηαυε ηερε”.

Of course, since this is like Ultimate Patriarchy, Telemachus is also in a sticky position. He wants to toss all the suitors out on their collective ears, and feels he won’t get any respect unless he does, but he’s just a teenager, not a hero, and since he’s a smart lad (he’s Odysseus’s own son, he’s got smart and plenty to spare) he knows he won’t manage it.

This tension is basically what the novel’s about – that space where the family left at home try and maintain their lives in the face of bullying on one hand and abandonment on the other. Of course, just because Odysseus has abandoned them doesn’t mean his actions don’t still affect them; Poseidon, in his grief for his child Polyphemus, goes to the sea strand and the taverns of Ithaka to mutter about his Plan and prepare his revenge.

Because we know that the myth is going to end well – for values of well that include a lot of blood and guts everywhere, and Penelope staying with the man who took ten years to get home from Troy to Ithaka, a distance of about 1,000 miles or three months’ leisurely hike – then we have the liberty, as readers, to focus on Klymene’s coming-of-age story, her relationships with the other Ithakans and the separate peace she forges with one of the suitors’ men, instead of the mythic backdrop. It’s a really good book, and definitely recommended.

August 28, 2009

Tigana part 4 – The Price of Blood

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 4:45 pm

The map this section opens with is of the Sanctuary of Eanna, where Alessan’s mother is cloistered. It seems to be your bog-standard monastic community.

The first chapter, on the other hand, is Dianora’s narration; she goes out walking, and we see what Brandin’s done to the Grand Duke of Chiara’s formal garden. It used to be very neat, tidy, open, pretty – contained and ruled. Brandin had it remodeled to be much more of a wilderness, with narrower paths and dense trees – “deliberately shaped to give a sense of stillness and isolation, and even, at times, of danger.” Dianora reaches a T-junction, hesitates, and turns west “because her heart always did that”. She sees a riselka, and the riselka throws a pebble into the pool, giving her a vision; Dianora knows “her path leads to the sea”. She felt desire for the riselka, but it made her weep. This is the same kind of purposeless, frustrated, mischanneled desire that a lot of the other sexual imagery in the book seems to be aiming at – not that I necessarily agree with the text’s apparent idea of healthy and unhealthy sex, but it’s fairly internally consistent. Of course, it doesn’t say anywhere that people will stop having kinky bondage sex when the curse is lifted…

In Chapter 14, we’re back to Alessan, Devin, and Erlein. On their way north-west they’re being chased by a band of brigands who’ve taken them for Barbadians. When the truth becomes apparent, Alessan tells them about Tigana; most are just confused, and one – Naddo, who later turns out to be the last apprentice of Baerd’s and Dianora’s father – was born there. “Immune to the spell, or another victim of it.” One of the other bandits suggests turning the three in to the Ygrathen garrison, and abruptly dies with a dagger in his back. Captain Ducas isn’t going to condemn the brigand who stabbed him; they all join up with the Cause.

There’s a Barbadian patrol out, with a Tracker to sniff mages; this turns out to be the “first true battle” of the rebellion. The first to die is the Tracker; he’s a twelve-year-old boy. We see quite a lot of Erlein’s character arc here, as he and Rinaldo di Senzio – another of Alessan’s mysterious friends-and-allies, an old blind Healer – blow up at each other over the issue of collaborating with Alessan, and using Senzio as the battleground.

In Chapter 15, we get Devin’s POV as they cross over into Lower Corte; he’s trying hard to feel it as Home, and we see a great deal of landscape porn. (Including a river – flowing north before it curves west to find the sea. This is a perfectly accurate description of the course of the book from now on.) On the other hand, most of what he’s feeling gets embodied in, or reified by, Alessan.

“Devin knew that he was not the first and would not be the last person to find in a single man the defining shape and lineaments for the so much harder love of an abstraction or a dream.”

This is another interesting theme running through Tigana – whether a Prince has the liberty to be a man, or whether he has at all times to be his country before all else. Whether that kind of sacrifice is something to be admired, or whether – as Erlein shows us quite pointedly – it’s a dangerous lunacy is an open-ended question.

At the Sanctuary, Alessan’s mother is living under the identity of one of her ladies who killed herself after Second Deisa. She’s dying, but still bolt upright, back straight and full of rage, for Tigana and against Alessan, condemning him for gambolling around the Palm playing music while Tigana is still cursed.

Alessan: it would be easier to die.
Pasithea: “You would buy Corte’s freedom, and Astibar’s and Tregea’s, at the price of Tigana’s name. Of our very existence in the world. At the cost of everything we ever had or were before Brandin came. At the price of vengeance and our pride.”
Alessan: I learnt about all the provinces’ pride.
Pasithea: What is a peninsula that we should care for it? Tigana is where Adaon lay with Micaela when the world was young.
Erlein: Everyone has stories.
Pasithea: Nobody else will sing ours!
Devin: Yes, they will. Everyone will. Because your son is going to succeed.

Then Pasithea breaks the news to Alessan, and to the reader as well: Brandin has abdicated as King of Ygrath, to be King of the Western Palm. People are singing his name in the streets of Stevanien.

At this point, Devin realises that someone’s spying on them, and gives chase. When he comes to a locked door, Erlein is there, and opens it with magic – he chose to follow, chose to help, giving the lie to his earlier bitter comments about having had all choice taken from him. Inside, a young monk is trying to make a psychic link to Brandin; Devin stabs him before it can go through, in another of those had-to-be-done moments. They don’t grieve; but Danoleon, the High Priest of Eanna, and another of Alessan’s friends, does, because the young monk had been born in Avalle.

Chapter 16 opens with the words “Spring came early in Astibar.” We get Alberico’s POV; his reaction to Brandin’s abdication, and to the letters from Quileia, is to mass troops at the border with Senzio. Moving over to Rovigo and his daughter Alais, they’re both restless; he wants to go to the far south, see the ice-floes breaking up and the river beginning to run again, carrying the floes crashing and grinding down to the sea. Now that’s fairly unsubtle, as far as the water imagery goes! He settles for a voyage to Tregea, and asks Alais to accompany him; it’s her dream to voyage with her father. “A woman cannot live a life at sea. Not in the world as it is.” He’s going to do everything he can for her, though. This is another of those breaking-rules images, like the sex thing and the single candle lit on the Ember days; you take the little freedoms where you can, when the greater are denied you. Which echoes a comment Alessan made after Pasithea breaks the bad news to him; “That may be a gift, not a curse.”

Next, we switch to Catriana, Baerd, and Sandre, who are travelling and spreading word of a summer Rising. In Tregea, Baerd can’t help decking a Barbadian mercenary who gropes Catriana, and they have to separate. Rovigo catches her and guides her to more-or-less-safety, giving everyone the perfect excuse for the classic scene where she cuts off her hair, because it “would give her away”. I’m unconvinced by this, because I have quite a few friends with ten or fifteen years’ uninterrupted growth of glorious red hair, and generally it does bundle up quite small. But that’s petty realism intruding, and the scene’s important to the book.

August 18, 2009

Tigana, part 3 – Ember to Ember

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 2:12 pm

OK, so in Part 1 we had the backstory and the music-making, the lost child’s heritage and the piercing grief for a land gone if not yet dead. In Part 2 we had reluctant love and strange magics. This is Part 3, and we get knives in the dark, the murder of strangers, terrorism, sedition, poetry, hot kinky sex, drugs, and the death of innocents. Settle in; this is going to be a long post.

We have a new map, of course; this one shows the highlands of Certando (for that matter, Avalle of the Towers was in the mountains, too… there’s just something about mountain people), and part of Quileia. It’s centred on a castle, and there’s nothing much else on the map, so guess where we’re going? That’s right, Castle Borso it is.

First of all, though, we get to spend some time with Devin’s POV in a snow-filled ditch by the side of the road, and watch Baerd and Alessan murder some Barbadians. Baerd strangles a known informer; Devin wonders if he had a wife and children. Alessan kills a mercenary; the text doesn’t even tell us how. And then they take the bodies over to plant them with a second group of Barbadians, and foment discord. There’s a sleeping guard; Devin sticks a dagger in his throat. That’s our nineteen-year-old ex-farmboy singer protagonist for you. Oh, and then they burn down the mansion, and Devin’s dreams are haunted by the screams of horses because they didn’t have time to open the stable doors. Did that Barbadian guard come into the world only to provide him with that right of passage, Devin wonders? “The moment of his ending was not what defined his journey under Eanna’s lights.” This gives us a nice microcosm of the entire book, there. Entities – people, lands, cultures – have worth in themselves, and being killed doesn’t subsume their identity into the killer’s. They have their own stories.

After this, the POV shifts to Alberico of Barbadior, and he’s quite the contrast to Brandin. He takes the Klingon approach to underlings, and starts killing more of the populace too. Someone has been posting elegies to the dead Duke of Astibar around the city; Alberico has every poet he can find arrested. On the first sweep, the poets all deny everything; on the second, they all claim to have written them. Alberico lets them go, suggesting they satirise Brandin; instead, verses about Tomasso’s perversity appear, claiming that it was a deliberately chosen allegory of Astibar’s situation – “a living metaphor for his conquered, subjugated land, for the perverse situation of Astibar under tyranny”. (The Barbadians, incidentally, dislike homosexuality rather a lot.) This is probably the second clearest statement of the sex theme in Tigana there is; we’ll get to the clearest in a few paragraphs’ time! Alberico has twenty or so poets pulled out at random and “death-wheeled”; the text tells us that the author of those verses was among them.

The next part of the book deals with how Alessan and his party lie, cheat, and deceive the people of the Palm into spreading sedition and unrest, and get a lot of people killed doing it. The most notable occasion is when Catriana fakes a suicide leap from a river bridge in Tregea, clutching a copy of the proscribed verses. And into water, no less; what a surprise!

Devin’s thinking about Sandre (the ex-Duke of Astibar) and trying to imagine what it’s like to know that the bodies of everyone even distantly related to you are being death-wheeled across the province. And that, right there, is the cost of what our protagonists are doing. The text doesn’t flinch away from it, doesn’t celebrate it (none of the classic winterborn fallacy here, the idea that just because something is hard and you have to sacrifice everything for it it must be honourable and worthwhile) and doesn’t condemn it.

The next thing that happens, unfortunately, is a bit of Oddness regarding race. Sandre has disguised himself as a Khardhu warrior, with potions and lotions and a shave… and everyone buys it. So these strange dark-skinned people from the hot northern continent are identical to the natives of the Palm in every way except skin colour? I just do not buy it.

After that, on the other hand, we get another Really Cool part – the introduction of Erlein di Senzio, an old session-musician acquaintance, and a wizard. Most wizards of the Palm cut off two fingers on their left hand to “bind themselves to the Palm” for additional power; it’s the tiny glow of the magic Erlein uses to mask this that Sandre sees. And the Princes of Tigana, we learnt in the first part of the book, have the hereditary ability to bind a wizard to their will. Devin suggests that Alessan give everyone a haircut, and he uses that opportunity to bind Erlein – who is, not surprisingly, utterly furious about it. The text uses the phrase “grievously wronged”.

“What gives you the right?”
“I must use what tools I can.”
“I am not a tool!”

Sandre refuses to agree that it’s no more than the exercise of naked power, and justifies it by saying that it’s the duty of a Prince to “do what his soul cries out against for the sake of his land”. I mean, yes, this is pretty winterborn stuff, but it’s quite thoroughly problematized in the text, rather than the usual unqualified adulation for Hard Men who do Things Like That because Someone Has To.

Erlein and Sandre disagree quite thoroughly over whether Erlein was free before; this is a particular issue for him as a citizen of the neutral province, Senzio, unconquered by either Tyrant. (Of course, the Duke of Senzio did demote himself to Governor to avoid upsetting them…)

Alessan spends the rest of the evening playing songs from Senzio on his pipes. Now, from anyone else this could be a cheap manipulative trick, but we’ve seen before that Alessan has too much respect for the music to do that. This is Alessan reminding a fellow musician where the soul of the land lies, trying to awake his patriotism – and stressing the point, which he’s been making over and again in his travels, that the Palm needs to be united, and setting province against province in their pride is why they got invaded. In Devin, it rouses strong grief; “For Catriana and himself and all their generation, rootless and cut off from what they were in a world without a home. For all the myriad accumulations of loss and what men and women had to do in order to seek redress.”

Erlein, on the other hand, tries to escape, heading off into the wilderness, tying himself to a tree, and struggling so hard he passes out. And this metaphor is so anvilicious that even Devin points it out to us. Oddly, nobody wonders what would have happened to Erlein if Baerd and Devin hadn’t retrieved him; after all, tying himself to a tree in a “wild and lonely place” and deliberately making it impossible to get himself free is not exactly a recipe for survival.

Chapter 10 starts with some history. The highlands of Certando used to be a very wild and prideful place, and most of the old songs are about clan feuds and battles; and most of those feature Castle Borso. All that’s changed now, and the place is a haunt of decadence and sex, presided over by one Alienor, who gets to vamp over Catriana, give Alessan some letters – his mother is dying – and teach Devin all about switchy bondage sex.

“Is this what happens to us? When we are no longer free. Is this what happens to our love?”
“It is one of the things that happens to us. A kind of insurrection in the dark that somehow stands against the laws of day that bind us and cannot be broken now.”
“Possibly that. Or an admission somewhere in the soul that we deserve no more than this, nothing that goes deeper. Since we are not free and have accepted that.”

Alienor sends Devin away; tomorrow is the first of the Ember Days, when no fires are lit, and he won’t be able to find his way back without a candle. And since her husband died, she always sleeps alone. On the way back, Devin’s candle goes out, and he remembers a saying from the priest who first taught him music. “There are no wrong turnings. Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.” Today, the dead walk. Who are his dead? Tigana? The Barbadian he killed? He finds his way to Catriana’s room by accident, and we hear her wishing she could be more like Devin, more patient. Her passion for Tigana is mostly down to her father, who left before Second Deisa – possibly before First Deisa – and hated the memory of Tigana, wanted to keep it buried. Her mother always lit one candle on the Ember days; she and Devin discuss this. His father did the same, which he’d always characterised as pride and arrogance, but to Catriana it’s a reminder to herself, like Alessan’s blue wine. This relates to the sex thing, I think; deliberately transgressing because if you can’t have what you love then you need that reminder, that blade in your soul.

Now we’re up to Chapter 11, and this one is Weird. Baerd goes walking out, and discovers a remnant cult of sort-of-wizards who take hallucinogenic drugs on the Ember Night so they can battle an invading blight, spreading from the west (towards Tigana) and destroying the crops. In their overlay-world (Baerd tells us it feels too real to be a dream) the blight takes the form of an invading army of Ygrathen to him, but appears differently to everyone. Apparently, it’s been getting much worse in the last twenty years (since the Tyrants invaded) and the Night Walkers have to choose between opposing it, keeping it from winning even more land, and keeping their strength up to fight it again and again.

Baerd leads them to victory, and challenges the dark figure that leads (or personifies) the blight: Begone, or I’ll name you now and cut your strength apart. He does – “tyranny in a land that has been free” – and it flees towards the west, into the dead lands the blight took. Interestingly, the idea of things that have power only when they’re not named is a pervasive one. It brings up echoes of Walter Wink, which is never a bad thing – and it echoes the power given to a hidden, clandestine revolutionary movement. There’s a passage in Part 2, Dianora’s memories of Baerd in Avalle Stevanien, where the Ygrathen soldiers play a game with him by getting him to say the name of Tigana and going “sorry, what was that? Couldn’t make it out” and then he turns that back on them.

And while they’re there, Elena – the Night Walker viewpoint character, a Certandan born and bred – can hear and speak the name of Tigana. That’s the world-beyond-the-world for you; when you’re in that dreamlike nighttime state, in a TAZ, those kinds of social restrictions and careless ignorances can be bypassed. So they have sex. I’d not realised the similarities between Tigana and the Illuminatus! trilogy before.

The Important Meeting that Alessan was here for turns out to be with Marius, King of Quileia – the Golden Bough-style Oak King who got tired of beating up challengers and overthrew the Matriarchy. At the beginning of this section, we learnt that the Matriarchy had closed off the country two hundred years ago, and the Certandan highlands had withered as a result of the sudden stoppage of trade. Seeing a very male warrior-king overthrowing the female organisation who had previously been in charge is not all that good, but it seems to work in context.

Alessan and Baerd, it turns out, helped Marius onto his throne, and now the favour is to be repaid.

“I cannot give you an army.”
“I wouldn’t ask it, and don’t want to be remembered as the man who brought in a foreign army.”

Alessan asks Marius to refuse trade with Brandin for now, and ask time to think; to refuse trade with Alberico, citing Brandin’s intimidation; and to offer free & unrestricted trade with Senzio, which Alberico will of course know immediately. Trade with Quileia would be the death of Tigana, and failing to bring in prosperity through trade would be the death of Marius, but for Alessan’s sake Marius offers six months. People may not be tools, but if a Prince has the responsibility – the obligation – to use them as such…

August 17, 2009

Et in Arcadia Ego

Filed under: sf — Tags: , — Sam @ 10:02 am

…hang on, that’s not SF, is it? It’s respectable mainstream theatre, and there’s a production on in the West End. What’s it doing here?

The answer comes in two parts. First, my definition of SF can be more or less summarized as “things which are like other things which are SF”[1]. (Whatever your S stands for. F is for fiction, mostly.) Arcadia makes a more or less perfect pair with To Say Nothing of the Dog, and a really interesting match with Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.

Secondly – this is a play about science. It’s a wonderful, thinking, tingling play, and it gets both history and science perfectly. It is kind, true, and necessary all at once. It has a fascinating premise – what if a young teenage girl, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, had understood iterative modelling and the Second Law of Thermodynamics? And what effect did it have on the people around her? Is that which has passed away truly gone?

This play is fire to the cool river water of To Say Nothing of the Dog. There’s passion, and love, and death, and literal fire; nearly everywhere in the play, something is burning. And in an ocean of ashes, there are islands of order; patterns arise from nothing.

[1] This is an iterated algorithm. If you knew the algorithm which would make a computer read SF and write an SF response and fed it back say ten thousand times, each time there’d be a book somewhere on the screen. You’d never know where to expect the next book. But gradually you’d start to see this shape, because every book will be inside the shape of this genre. It wouldn’t be a genre, it’d be a mathematical object.

August 14, 2009

Tigana part 2 – Dianora

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 10:45 pm

With this section, we get a new POV character – Dianora di Tigana Certando, Brandin of Ygrath’s favourite concubine – and a new map. This one’s purely political, without any more details; it shows us that Brandin of Ygrath has conquered four provinces (three on the mainland, and the island of Chiara, where this part is set), Alberico of Barbadior four, and the last one, Senzio, is neutral.

It is, of course, significant that Brandin’s made his headquarters on the island, separate from the rest of the Palm – and like most of the images in this book, it works both ways. The island’s separate, but it’s also surrounded by the ocean, and the ocean is the soul of Tigana. We learn, in fact, about the Grand Dukes of Chiara, and the Ring Dive – the Duke would throw a ring into the sea in token of a wedding, and a woman would dive for it to bring it back.

For that matter, Dianora was sent over the ocean, on a “Tribute Ship”, as a concubine for his saishan (seraglio), and became his favourite – and came to love him, despite having sworn to kill him. The saishan is attended by eunuchs, chief amongst whom is Vencel; he is “awesomely obese”, with a “dark face”. He’s from the hot northern land of Khardhun, and rather sympathetically presented. I’m assuming that the Khardhu are North Africans, Berbers perhaps. (This will become relevant later.)

In Chapter 8, we learn that Brandin ran up Sangarios, the mountain peak of Chiara, and there he encountered a riselka. I’m not sure what a Slavic water spirit is doing in an Italianate story, but it seems to work out. As we learn in more detail later, if one man sees a riselka, it’s a fork in his life; if two see a riselka together, one of them will die. If there are three, one is blessed; one comes to a fork; and one will die.

That afternoon sees an assassination attempt – the Ygrathen master-musician Isolla has manipulated Camena di Chiara, the most famous poet of the age, into shooting at Brandin under the guise of a threat to her. Dianora pushes someone else into the path of the crossbow bolt, reacting without thinking; Brandin would have died, otherwise.

He doesn’t send for her that night, and Dianora remembers her childhood in Tigana, in Avalle of the Towers, where the noble families competed to build the tallest tower until the Prince decreed that nothing could be taller than his own masterpiece. She grew up with her brother Baerd, and under the stress of the occupation they slept together for comfort – and who else would understand?

“What are we doing?” her brother whispered once. [...] “Oh, Baerd,” she’d said. “What has been done to us?”

How many SFs?

Filed under: meta,sf — Tags: , , — Sam @ 9:45 pm

Yet another exercise in sweet-ghu-those-people-are-taking-over-my-genre – well-known homophobe John C. Wright, author of such fine schoolgirl spanking fetish stories[1] as Titans of Chaos takes a few pages to whinge about “perversity”, waggle his huge fannish dick around, and generally show off his insecurity.

He may well protest about “homosex activists” infiltrating other areas of life; I don’t know. That would involve reading more of his non-fiction writing[2] than I absolutely have to. But it’s clear he feels very defensive and possessive about SF, probably because he feels himself to be the heritor of a Tradition.

The thing is… so does everyone else. The SF I grew up with is about strangeness, about encountering the Other and getting used to them and mastering your instinctive reactions, learning to find the similarities and celebrate the differences and learn from everything. It’s about challenging boundaries and preconceptions, and finding the alien within yourself.

And so much of it was written by people who didn’t fit in, who felt themselves alienated, who wanted to understand why or make other people understand that it happened.

I don’t know which SF Wright grew up with; it may have been about rich white middle-class American guys blowing shit up, discovering new worlds, and looting the inhabitants’ corpses. But one of the first examples that came to mind was a passage in ‘Doc’ Smith’s book First Lensman, where Virgil Samms talks to an incomprehensibly strange female entity from Palain Seven. The text takes great pains to explain how very incomprehensibly different she is… then explains how cool Virgil is, because he hadn’t any thought of her as an “it”, but instead as a woman. For its time, that’s pretty good.

And you know the thing about the authors who wrote that shit? They’re pretty much all dead, or not writing any more, or (best of all) writing interesting things instead.

And the future is us. It’s chromatic, LGBT, disabled, working-class, with complex hyphenated identities, and it’s too big for anyone (or any one clique) to control, or even to judge.

And yeah, they’re all entitled to their opinions, no matter how incorrect or repellent; but you’d think that one of the first things they’d learn from SF was that you don’t get to assert objectivity. The world is problematic, and if you as a narrator (and are we all not narrators?) look upon something and see that it is Bad and Wrong, that doesn’t tell us about it. It tells us about you. There are, after all, always other narrators.

[1] And later in the book, we learn that the schoolgirl is a hyperdimensional tentacle monster, and the headmaster is a Greek god (and we know what they’re like). I mean, it’s not as though there’s anything wrong with any of these things. Just… from what he’s whinging about, I’d tend to assume he did.
[2] He’s not actually a bad writer. The Chaos trilogy has some really interesting ideas. He just acts, all the time, as though he wants to be Heinlein when he grows up. And oozes self-satisfaction with his own rhetoric.

August 12, 2009

Tigana, part 1 – A Blade in the Soul

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 2:19 am

To begin at the beginning, with the author’s acknowledgements. He cites a number of scholars; the three I know offhand are Joseph “Hero’s Journey” Campbell, Robert “White Goddess” Graves, and Johan Huizinga. So altogether, a nice mix of “ooh, interesting”, “hm, could be entertaining if he doesn’t take Graves too seriously”, and “oh, god, not Campbell again”.

Next we have one of the most traditional markers for Fantasy of all; a pronunciation guide. This particular one consists of “most of it is Italian”. And speaking of traditional markers, here’s the map. The Palm looks very much like Italy turned upside down; across the water there’s what looks like the edge of a continent, Khardun, and Ygrath and Barbadior indicated by arrows pointing west and east respectively. To the south is Quileia, and we have no clue what any of these places are like.

And now the text, with the Prologue. The land is lit up by two moons, and a falling star arcs across the sky. We’re in a battle camp by the River Deisa, on the eve of a war, and “the dark-haired Prince of grace and pride” is giving the boys a touch of Harry in the night. They know perfectly well they’re going to lose, against the sorcerer-king of Ygrath; but that isn’t going to stop them. “The one thing we know with certainty is that they will remember us.”

Part 1 – A Blade in the Soul. Chapter 1 opens in a khav room, thus proving once again Diana Wynne Jones’s adage in Nad and Dan adn Quaffy that there’s always some variant of coffee around. A bit of background; the Palm is divided between two tyrants now, Alberico of Barbadior and Brandin of Ygrath. Given the Interestingly Cryptic nature of the scenes with a particular musician, he’s clearly one of our heroes. The chapter ends on the words “he’d forgotten to ask the musician his name” – and this is, of course, a theme we’ll be seeing over and over again. It’s all about names.

The other thing it’s all about, of course, is the sea, and the next chapter opens with one Devin getting drunk in a bar by the docks. Devin is a lot smarter, more resourceful, and emotionally useful than the typical 19-year-old we meet in the early stages of Big Fantasy, and that’s a refreshing change. Apart from a bit of Golden Bough background, and an introduction to a couple of people who will later become important, that’s it for this chapter – except that we learn the name of the musician from earlier, Alessan di Tregea.

The third important theme is music, and they’re all working together – Alessan, Devin, and a young redheaded singer named Catriana who resents Devin for making it look so easy. The fourth is sex, preferably illicit, kinky, and/or socially unapproved sex – and from the text, I can’t decide whether bisexuality falls into that category or not. It’s worth noting that just about all the sex anyone has, for most of this novel, is very much for a purpose – it’s to distract someone, to get close to them so they can die, as a hopeless beacon of protest in the darkness. We’ll see more about that when we come to Part 3.

In Chapter 4, it looks like Devin’s stumbled into the intersection of two complicated conspiracies – the Duke of Astibar has taken the Juliet Drug to make sure he and a few others have time to talk unobserved by Alberico’s agents. Alessan crashes the party before the Duke wakes, and points out that getting rid of one tyrant won’t do; the other will just take over the entire Palm. So here we have yet another theme, that of compromise with the stubborn imperatives of pride. More gnomic comments about names, and then – cave! Alberico’s coming. Someone betrayed the party; everyone dies before they can talk, except the Duke’s son Tomasso. Whom, it turns out, is gay and sadomasochistic, and wears makeup, and who “would leave nor ever a name to be spoken, let alone with pride”, and who is Secretly Very Competent. What a surprise that was! Seriously, though, it’s good to see a fantasy book that doesn’t immediately jump on any of those things as signifiers of Evil.

Outside, the conspirators test Devin out by telling him a story. The map shows a province called Lower Corte; the people of that province killed Brandin’s son during the conquest. In revenge, the sorcerer took their name away, so that no-one who was not born in that province could hear and remember the name of Tigana. They can speak it, but nobody will hear.

That’s really horrible – I find it an incredibly cruel revenge, to erase the identity of a people like that, and give them no way to represent themselves to others, no voice. To force them to use another’s name for their land, and to know that their children will be strangers, foreigners, that their home is lost and will die with them. And unlike most instances, this was done to them deliberately. I’ve got a particularly strong viewpoint on this one, of course, since I’m Cymraeg. Both in my country and in Scotland, the native languages were abandoned, the English names were the “real” ones, children were beaten for speaking Welsh or Gaelic at school – and the worst, saddest thing is that we did that to ourselves, to our own children. We told them to go and be English, because it was the only way they’d get on in the world, the only way they had to be better than they were.

Devin, on the other hand, was born in Tigana and can hear the name – and these passages, again, are full of water metaphors. We hear throughout the book that there’s a special connection between Tigana and the sea, even when it’s not stated outright as it is here. “If something could be remembered, it was not wholly lost” – and that shard of hope, those few people who remember and care, is all they’ve got. It doesn’t look like much, but that’s no excuse – and Alessan, it turns out, is the Prince of Tigana, child of the prideful Prince of the prologue.

The section ends as the Duke wakes, and joins with Alessan’s band because it’s the only revolutionary game in town; and when he admits to being a wizard, and uses his powers to visit his son Tomasso in prison and take him poison. The last words are “The difference between the spoken and the unspoken ceased to matter any more.”

August 6, 2009

The Princess Bride

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 8:07 pm

A couple of weekends back, I was in a readthrough of the film script (playing the grandfather & narrator – probably one of my favourite characters[1], though next time someone arranges one of these I’ll be asking for Inigo) and, of course, prepared for it by reading the book. Well, most of the book; the first 30 pages are a rather tedious, maundering fact-and-fiction introduction by Goldman, to the point that I’m surprised it’s only 30. I remembered it as a hundred or so.

The book is billed as the “Good Parts version” of “S. Morgenstern’s original”, and Goldman’s scattered the text with abridger’s notes – brief descriptions of what was in the original that he didn’t include. The thing is, I want to read the original! I want the fifty-six pages of packing and unpacking scenes in Chapter 3, the forty-four pages of parties at the beginning of Chapter 6, Inigo’s six-page soliloquy on the anguish of fleeting glory, Inigo and Fezzik’s search for ingredients for the resurrection pill… and I don’t want Goldman’s interjections about what he did to the “original” text, because the author’s voice here is fundamentally unlikeable.

In theory, it’s an interesting take on the messy-unreliable-multiply-redacted-text through which actual history comes to us; but framing it as All About The Authors (real and fictional) is just precious and self-indulgent. For a far better example of this sort of framing story, I recommend Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards, written in the style of Dumas pére by an in-universe historian, one Paarfi of Roundwood, and without anyone else’s voice intruding until the “interview with the author” section at the end.

[1] “Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…”

Powered by WordPress