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Ship of Magic – Robin Hobb

A storm is brewing in the Vestrit family. The patriarch, Ephron, is dying, the family debts are growing daily, and the first voyage of their liveship Vivacia with son-in-law Kyle Haven as captain bodes poorly for the future. When Ephron dies, passing his wisdom and experience to Vivacia, the ship and estate pass to Keffria Haven, and thus to Kyle who, contrary to tradition in the old trader families, believes that women’s management has caused Vestrit fortunes to falter. Althea, the younger daughter who has sailed on Vivacia for years is put off the ship, along with the mate Brashen Trell and some others of Ephron’s chosen crew, and replaced with men of Kyle’s choosing. Since liveships, vessels brought to life with magic, require a member of the family to sail them, particularly once “quickened” and come to their full consciousness, Kyle has summoned his oldest son Wintrow back from the monastery he was dedicated to, forcing him to become a sailor. What’s more, Kyle has decided that the solution to the Vestrit financial crisis lies in changing the usual cargo, turning the Vivacia into a slave ship.

Althea runs away. The situation on the between Kyle and Wintrow Vivacia deteriorates, and the situation at home becomes even worse as the tensions between Ronica, Ephron’s widow, and Keffria are only put aside when they realize that Malta, thinking that her mother and grandmother are prudish and lame, has decided she is old enough to start courting boys and in her naivete and fascination with finery becomes entangled in a courtship with a member of a powerful family from the Rain Wild—a place of magic and death that made the traders of Bingtown wealthy, but at what cost?

And then there is the pirate Kennit, determined to capture a liveship and use it to become king in the Pirate Isles.

Ship of Magic is a fascinating and richly complex book that takes place in the same world as The Assassin’s Apprentice, but quite far to the south. There is a large, possibly apocalyptic story in its backdrop, since we receive glimpses of worms, large carnivorous sea creatures that can terrorize ships, who may have some connection to liveships and believe that a time of change is upon the world, but that is not the driving narrative. The plot arc involving the pirate Kennit is more fully developed, but it serves as a Chekhov’s gun that is repeatedly returned to than a central feature of the plot.

No, Ship of Magic is a family drama in a time of social change. The book is built around the figure of Kyle Haven, despite rarely, if ever, getting his perspective. At the outset the family largely accepts Kyle despite that he is not from one of the old families. He makes Keffria happy (they have three children together, but this happiness is both physical and emotional), he is an experienced sailor and wants what is best for the family. Once the stabilizing presence of Ephron is gone, however, Kyle’s domineering attitude and lack of respect for tradition come to the fore. The latter is particularly problematic because he is both unaware of and indifferent to old contracts with the Rain Wild Traders that require gold or blood and the magic that animates the liveships. The only thing worse than bringing enslaving your son on a liveship so that it will sail is turning the liveship into a slaver, but Kyle only sees the one as a way to fulfill a requirement and the other as cargo. Back in Bingtown, his presence likewise looms large since his actions caused Althea to disguise herself as a boy and flee to sea under a false name and for Malta to defy her mother and grandmother in the belief that Kyle will side with her.

There is a lot I liked about Ship of Magic, certainly enough that I will read the remainder of the series at some point. I am now absolutely convinced of the importance of EQ in this world. Not only does it govern the functioning of a Liveship since it is that relationship between ship and family that allows it to sail (and the ship’s ability to sense emotions of everyone onboard is a key reason why people don’t use these vessels to carry slaves!), but despite moments of action and adventure on the high seas, all of the tension in the book is pulled from relationships created and broken, whether from love, hate, or respect. To wit, Kyle is the central villain in the story, and Hobb sets him up to fail with deep character flaws, but not because he is evil. (There is an evil character in the story. His name is Torg.) Kyle’s villainy lies in his sexism and in his inability to see outside of what he wants, which is fine when, for instance, he wants to please his wife, but less so when it leads him to ignore Trader and Vestrit custom. These emotional tension sometimes made the book tough to read, but, despite the length of the book, they did not bore me.

I also appreciated the complexity of Ship of Magic. The book contains an unusually large number of different points of view, more than The Eye of the World and the same number as Game of Thrones. This feature, however, also led to one of my main complaints. Ship of Magic is long and sprawling and interesting, but its structure seemed incomplete. There are multiple plotlines that are eventually brought in touch with the Vestrit family drama to greater or lesser extents, but that are largely at odds with the rest of what is happening or that spring up seemingly out of thin air or are mysteriously dropped. This is good in the sense that it leaves the impression of a richly textured world, but bad because it muddies up the book. This is fine in the middle of a series where the readers are already on the hook, but not great as a premier that contributes to the stereotype of fantasy literature as bloated and dense.

While more difficult than it sounds, I do wonder if there was a different structure that could have split the series differently, perhaps into five or six shorter books each with a clearer coherence that would then allow Hobb to receive more credit for what she does well. There is a touch of artificiality about the cultures in the world, with names a little on the nose and instances where “northern” and “southern” stereotypes of our world are transposed into this land, but they are not reduced to tokenism. The social changes at Bingtown, both cultural and economic, with the influx of slavery and a relative decline of the old families that signed the compact with the Rain Wild Traders, form a well conceived and executed backdrop that offer avenues for challenging the Vestrit family and the emotional payoffs in Ship of Magic are earned at every step, better than most novels I’ve read regardless of genre.

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I am now reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen and while I can appreciate its importance and how it captures moments in American history, I am not loving it thus far. I have a few directions I can go after that, but am very much enjoying my streak of science fiction and fantasy written by women suspect that I will be reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky in close succession.

Isocrates, on the importance of history and oratory

Furthermore, if it were possible to present the same issue in just one shape and absolutely no other, then one might think it superfluous to bore the listeners by speaking in the same manner that had been done in the past. But logos (discourse or oratory) has such as a nature that the same issue may be interpreted in many ways, whether making the great small or bestowing greatness (on the insignificant), and laying out the things of old in a new fashion or speaking of recent events as though they were old; no one can escape the topics that people in the past spoke about, but [we] must endeavor to speak about them better.

The past is an inheritance held in common, but to lead it forth at the appropriate time, to conclude the appropriate things about each example, and to arrange the right expression is the individual gift of the wise.

πρὸς δὲ τούτοις, εἰ μὲν μηδαμῶς ἄλλως οἷόν τ᾽ἧν δηλοῦν τὰς αὐτὰς πράξεις ἀλλ᾽ ἢ διὰ μιᾶς ἰδέας, εἶχεν ἄν τις ὑπολαβεῖν ὡς περίεργόν ἐστι τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον ἐκείνοις λέγοντα πάλιν ἐνοχλεῖν τοῖς ἀκούουσιν: ἐπειδὴ δ᾽οἱ λόγοι τοιαύτην ἔχουσι τὴν φύσιν, ὥσθ᾽ οἷόν τ᾽ εἶναι περὶ τῶν αὐτῶν πολλαχῶς ἐξηγήεσασθαι, καὶ τά τε μεγάλα ταπεινὰ ποιῆσαι καὶ τοῖς μικροῖς μέγεθος περιθεῖναι, καὶ τά τε παλαιὰ καινῶς διελθεῖν καὶ περὶ τῶν νεωστὶ γεγενημένων ἀρχαίως εἰπεῖν, οὐκέτι φευκτέον ταῦτ᾽ ἐστὶ περὶ ὧν ἕτεροι πρότερον εἰρήκασιν, ἀλλ᾽ ἄμεινον ἐκείνων εἰπεῖν περατέον. αἱ μὲν γὰρ πράχεις αἱ προγεγενημέναι κοιναὶ πᾶσιν ἡμῖν κατελείφθησαν, τὸ δ᾽ ἐν καιρῷ ταύταις καταχρήσασθαι καὶ τὰ προσήκοντα περὶ ἑκάστης ἐνθυμηθῆναι καὶ τοῖς ὀνόμασιν εὖ διαθέσθαι τῶν φρονούντων ἴδιόν ἐστιν.

Panegyricus 4.7-10

This passage comes near the start of the oration published in 380 BCE, in a section that Isocrates gives over to justifying and explaining why he is returning to a theme that has been addressed before. The obvious explanation is a clear justification for the study of history. If history was nothing more than a timeline of events that happened in the past, then there would be little incentive to keep studying the same things and history could be taught almost exclusively by video. Isocrates does not go as far as, for instance, E.H. Carr, in arguing that history is a dialogue between the past and the present, but, then, neither is “history” his primary emphasis.

Oratory and history share a common DNA, with the distinction, perhaps, that history looks backward while oratory looks forward.

In this passage, Isocrates alludes to a common critique of sophistry that it allows the speaker to invert the proper order by making the stronger argument weak and the weaker one strong, but does so with some modification. First, he distinguishes between the mean rhetoric of the courts and that which deals with important issues. Second, and more importantly, he removes moral weight from both great and small. This feature of oratory, then, is not about the individual allowing an unjust argument to be stronger, but giving importance to issues that might not have been considered. Once again this line of reasoning is very much in step with the opinion of many modern historians.

For Isocrates, analyzing the events of the past and deploying them in the appropriate cause is the purview of a wise man, one who would not apply this skill to corrupt purposes. Obviously in this instance the wise man is Isocrates, who, he’ll have you know, is going to speak about the past in a way that is better and more prudent than those who did so in the past. A digression on the misuse of history is simply beyond the scope of this address, but it remains the natural reverse side of the coin. Great harm may follow good intentions and vise-versa, but intent matters.

Isocrates takes an optimistic stance on the use of history. He is aspirational in a way that asserts both the importance of the past and the capacity of people in the present to improve that discourse whether by elevating the importance of the underappreciated or by changing how we think about about our forebears. Isocrates is of course being self-serving in these declarations since they serve to set up the larger arguments he is going to make later on, but this alone does not invalidate what he says.

I returned to the Panegyricus recently in the course of my research and this short section jumped out at me because of the debate over public monuments that has been going on in the United States. This context made what Isocrates omits all the more glaring because both sides assert that the other is attempting to misuse history, sometimes as though public monuments are the primary vehicle for recording the past. (They aren’t, but commemoration and the construction of monuments are their own history that reflects how we think about the past…but that is a topic better suited to another post.) History is an ongoing dialogue and the onus is on all historians (broadly construed) to engage with it responsibly. A modern mind might call for history to be used in ways that are more just or accurate, but there is a simplicity to Isocrates’ dictate: do better.

The Word for World is Forest – Ursula K. Le Guin

Althshe is a tranquil, forested world that has in recent years been colonized by people from Earth, who prize its rich soil and, particularly, the natural wood that is only a memory on their planet. Of course, the colonists have also already discovered the perils deforestation, which quickly destroyed the soil on one of the continents. But Althshe is not uninhabited; millions of green-furred humans living in the forests and the colonists have conscripted many as a labor force, calling them volunteers because slavery is illegal. Althsheans are not hard-working by earth standards, frequently entering into a semi-conscious dream state, but they are tractable and without any conception of violence.

That is, until Davidson rapes and kills a female Althshean, which prompts a male, her husband Selver, to attack him in the street. Only the intervention of other humans, including the intellectual Lyubov, stops him from killing Selver then and there, which Davidson attributes to their weakness.

Davidson’s actions, however, set in motion a chain of events that have catastrophic consequences. In the language of the Althsheans, Selver becomes a god—that is, a person who introduces a new concept into society. Selver’s contribution: violence.

The Word for World is Forest is one of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, in which the humans from Terra begin to colonize habitable planets of nearby stars, only to discover that the planets are already inhabited by humans whose evolution has progressed along a different track. The Left Hand of Darkness is another part of this cycle. On Althshe, humans adapted to live in an idyllic, forested planet where men and women share leadership and define themselves in relation to their intimate relationships. Men’s role in this society is to tap into the dream while waking and sleeping, a trance-like mystical state that allows them to guide society. The role of women is to lead the community. Displays of prowess are achieved through song.

Outside a few scenes with Selver, the reader is invited to experience this society through the lens of humans from Terra: the curious and sympathetic Lyubov and the hostile and bigoted Davidson.

This is the third of Le Guin’s Hainish novels that I have read, but will probably not be the last. Set in the near future, the series takes what I love about Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men in that it envisions different evolutionary paths, but then sets an actual story around a particular theme. Thus where The Left hand of Darkness is fundamentally built around gender politics and power dynamics, The Word for World is Forest addresses environmentalism and colonial exploitation, complete with the gendered constructions of the passive Althsheans. Despite winning the Hugo award for Novella in 1973, The Word for World is Forest is in my opinion not as strong a story as either The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, both of which are both more subtle and more powerful in their stories. This judgement, though, is given in light of the high bar set by the other two novels rather than as a condemnation of this slim, beautiful story.

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For the first time in a while I’m reading two books at once, the graphic novel Watchmen and am continuing my run of fantasy books written by women with Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic. Watchmen isn’t written by women, but the prose streak remains intact.

The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

One of the consequences of growing older and becoming busier is that I don’t have the same impulse to stay up all night reading books, even ones that I really enjoy. For the most part that is a phenomenon of my past, but every once in awhile there is a book that makes me want to read straight through in one sitting. This is one such book. I restrained myself, parsing out chapters as a reward for getting enough work done on weekdays, but I wanted to start with this introduction in order to cut right to the chase: the The Fifth Season is spectacularly good and the first book in a series that has won back-to-back Hugo awards for best Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel.

Appropriately for its title, The Fifth Season starts with an end. A deep, fiery, man-made rift opens in the planet’s single continent, the Stillness, spewing ash and starting destructive earthquakes. Like in all fifth seasons, apocalypse-level cataclysms, society crumbles and people die while clinging desperately to the advice preserved in Stone Lore. All the while, obelisks drift through the sky above the stillness.

The Fifth Season rotates between three viewpoints, each following a woman at a different stage of life: Damaya, in her youth, Semnite, as an upwardly mobile professional, and Essun (referred to as “you”) as a middle aged woman chasing her husband through the apocalypse because he killed their son and absconded with their daughter. Each narrative revolves around the issue of orogeny, a hereditary magical ability that allows the wielder to to harness the kinetic energy of the earth in order to quell or incite geological material and activity. This power, which manifests at an early age, is commonly received with superstition and fear, with the wielders killed by angry crowds unless they are swept up by the Imperial Fulcrum, a training program where they can be controlled and protected by the Guardians.

Thus Damaya is swept into this system and exposed to its benefits and horrors, but often finds that her questions about the Fulcrum’s secrets go unanswered. Semnite, by contrast, is a fast-rising “four-ringer” Imperial Orogene and is now authorized to operate in the world on her own, and is dispatched with the prodigy ten-ringer Alabaster to clear a harbor of coral. Her mission is simple on the surface, but the subtext is that she is required to have a child with Alabaster who, in turn, teaches her about orogeny and the true nature of the Fulcrum. Essun, finally, experiences orogeny in the world when her husband kills their child upon finding out this secret.

The three narratives draw together as the book progresses, both serving a larger plot and remaining distinct stories in their own right.

Despite the breadth of the time and space covered by The Fifth Season (the attention to the scale of the continent was refreshing), the cast of characters remained relatively small, which allowed room to explore them in some depth. Jemisin likewise builds depth into the world, both with ruins of civilizations destroyed by fifth seasons past forming the bones of the continents and with an attention to the variety of racial features that set the different people apart.

Society on the Stillness is in the twilight years of an empire that dominated large swathes of the continent through its control of orogenes because this allowed much of its territory to remain stable while technology was developed. Its rule is not what it once was and most outlying comms (communities) are not directly subject to central power the way they once were. But being subject to an empire for so long has left its mark in most communities such that they are organized along similar lines. Each person has a name, the comm they are attached to (particularly important in times of crisis), and their use-cast, such as “leader,” “innovator,” or “strongback.” During a Fifth Season many of these distinctions no longer matter, but they also serve as a mark of normalcy. Center and periphery alike are adhere to Stone Lore, the advice literally carved in stone about how to survive cataclysms that is supposed to be immutable. This convention, however, need not actually be the case.

I’ve enjoyed the other books of Jemisin’s that I have read, but in The Fifth Season she takes the combination of worldbuilding, prose style, and storytelling to a new level. I cannot recommend this book enough and am greatly anticipating its sequel, The Obelisk Gate.

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I am continuing with my streak of reading books by women, so, next up I am reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo-winning novel The Word for World is Forest.

Herodotus on rejecting the expertise of physicians

The second wisest [Babylonian] custom is this: they carry those suffering from illness into the agora, for they have no use for physicians. And coming there to consult with the sick about their illness are any who have suffered from the same disease or who have seen others doing so, consulting and exhorting how they or others flushed out the disease. And it is not permissible to walk past the sick person in silence, before having asked after the illness.

δεὺτερος δὲ σοφίῃ ὅδε ἄλλος σφι νόμος κατέστηκε: τοὺς κάμνοντας ἐς τὴν ἀγορὴν ἐκφορέουσι: οὐ γὰρ δὴ χρέωνται ἰητροῖςι. προσιόντες ὦν πρὸς τὸν κάμνοντα συμβουλεύουσι περὶ τῆς νούσου, ἔι τις καὶ αὐτὸς τοιοῦτο ἔπαθε ὁκοῖον ἂν ἔχῃ ὁ κάμνων ἢ ἄλλον εἶδε παθόντα, ταῦτα προσιόντες συμβουλεύουσι καὶ παραινέουσι ἅσσα αὐτὸς ποιήσας ἐξέφυγε ὁμοίην νοῦσον ἢ ἄλλον εἶδε ἐκφυγόντα. σιγῇ δὲ παρεξελθεῖν τὸν κάμνοντα οὔ σφι ἔξεστι, πρὶν ἂν ἐπείρηται ἥντινα νοῦσον ἔχει.

(Histories 1.197)

It is probably for the best that Herodotus didn’t live in the age of the internet.

What’s Making Me Happy: The Good Place

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

This week: the T.V. show The Good Place, created by Michael Schur (just put out on Netflix).

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is dead and in the afterlife, greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of the community, and introduced to her soul mate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and her new neighbors Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto). This is “The Good Place,” heaven, she is told, where she will be rewarded for all the good deeds she did while alive. The problem, of course, is that Eleanor Shellstrop wasn’t a good person while alive. In fact, she was a prickly, callous narcissist. There are reasons for this, including a dysfunctional childhood, but by wanting no part of genuine relationships, Eleanor went through life as an amoral jerk. Now, surrounded by “good” people, Eleanor wants to change, and so her ethics-professor soulmate Chidi takes her back to school even though the situation causes a constant ethical dilemma.

Then there are Tahani and Jianyu, also soul mates. Tahani is the less-accomplished child of a wealthy and influential family, with famous “friends,” while Jianyu is a Buddhist monk who took a vow of silence….or possibly a not-yet-successful amateur DJ from Jacksonville. Really, this pair is no more perfectly matched than are Eleanor and Chidi.

I’ve been a fan of Michael Schur for some time, and while I’ve not seen Brooklyn 99 and am not that fond of The Office, I am hugely fond of Parks and Recreation. On a joke-for-joke level I still prefer Parks and Rec, but in terms of an overall show—characters, plot, pacing, feel—The Good Place is spectacularly good. Organized into chapters, the first season builds upon itself in a clear narrative arc guided by a singular question: will Eleanor be allowed to stay in the good place?, but with a conclusion that perfectly sets up a second season.

Beyond an avalanche of jokes, visual and verbal, highbrow and simplistic, is the warmth of The Good Place. The main characters bond over the course of the thirteen episodes, developing genuine emotional connections that become their own form of torture in turn. More than that, though, basic premise of “The Good Place” is a sort of gamification of life crossed with an eternal Match (dot) com, with points accrued or deducted for most every action, but the demerit system in particular is meant to be its own layer of jokes. There is no malice intended for any of the listed items, but the overall message about living a life that helps other people is most welcome. The viewer is invited to ask whether people can improve themselves, and while it may not be of much use within the immediate context of the show, the answer it gives is an unambiguous yes.

All in all, The Good Place is a warm, funny, clever show, and easily one of my favorite things I’ve seen this year. With season one binged in less than a week, I’m excited to see where season two goes.

Still Midnight – Denise Mina

It is Ramadan in sleepy, suburban Glasgow when a brutal home invasion staged by Pat and Eddie (two white men) throws everything into chaos. They are demanding two million pounds of the Anwar family, which seems to not have access to such resources and accidentally fire a bullet through the hand of the family’s youngest daughter before kidnapping the patriarch, Aamir, declaring it to be retribution for Afghanistan, and fleeing into the night. Of course, the family is from Uganda. Is the middle-class veneer hiding deep pockets full of illicit activity, is the home invasion a hate crime, or is there something different going on altogether? This is what detective Alex Morrow needs to find out while Aamir Anwar is still alive, if only her superior would give her the lead of the case instead of passing it to his (male) protege.

Mina gives approximately equal space to the stories of Alex Morrow, Aamir Anwar, Pat and Eddie (the kidnappers). The first two make sense, the former because she is our protagonist, and the latter because it is clearly foreshadowing that will have agency in his escape. The last inclusion is made for Pat because of a romantic angle to his story, but largely dissipates the tension that the best crime novels create because the reader knows more about the mystery than does the protagonist. Far be it from me to reject this story structure entirely, but it struck me as representative of larger problems with the book.

I picked up Still Midnight looking for a good crime novel written by a woman since that has been my resolution for the month. In small ways the book met my expectations, with a female protagonist who has to deal with rude coworkers, micro-aggressions, and with an eye for details I’ve not seen in male-written books in the same genre.

My problems arose when the story veered from Alex Morrow’s role in the case because much of it came across as half-realized or far-fetched. For instance, there are multiple plot threads that deal with Alex’ relationships outside the police department, including a failing marriage caused by a recently deceased child that felt airlifted into the story and a half-brother criminal who is loosely connected to the case. Both relationships could be seen as filling in parts of Alex’ character, but they don’t seem to fit into this story. Similarly, Aamir gets flashbacks to his escape from Uganda and the horrors that beset his mother, but while the scenes are moving, they aren’t exactly central to the plot. Then there is a strange, sudden, and largely unexplained romance between Pat and one of the family members. I could go on (e.g., the lack of a sense of place, the lack of depth to the characters other than Alex, how the case returns to Alex seemingly because her colleague doesn’t feel like dealing with paperwork), but will let it rest.

Still Midnight was extremely frustrating. I wanted more of Alex and a fuller sense of her Glasgow, perhaps with the tension building to a breaking point with her husband and her job as she fought these conflicting interests. Instead, Still Midnight offers a promising start, but devolves into a shallow drama punctuated by interesting moments, featuring a too-large cast of uninteresting characters.

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Continuing with my month-plus of only reading books written by women, over the weekend I started reading N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo-award winning novel The Fifth Season. In short: it is mind-blowingly good, combining her penchant for interesting world-building with a leap in the poetry of her writing. I’ve been too busy to just read it in a single sitting, but it is so good that not being able to is making me angry. Stupid responsibilities.

Writing and Experience

When I find an author whose work I like, I tend to seek out everything I possibly can from that person. There are exceptions to this rule, particularly in genre fiction where I can be turned off by a particular premise, but working through an author’s catalogue is my general m/o. In part this habit is a way to hedge my bets that I will enjoy each new book I pick up now that I have basically stopped re-reading books, but it has also led to an observation: writers improve.

Trite, I know, but true. Some authors may hone their craft such that each book in a series is more precisely paced and formed as though from an assembly line, but in others the craft of writing is more finely-tuned.

My favorite example of this is in Hemingway’s novels. His earliest novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929) offer the classic examples of the spare prose style that is associated with him, but by To Have and Have Not (1937), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and definitely Old Man and the Sea (1952), Hemingway had mellowed the harsher edges of his prose. From a technical standpoint, he had improved. Hemingway’s unfinished novels show similar improvement, even in their unfinished state.

More recently, I’m noticing a similar improvement in N.K. Jemisin’s novels, from her first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) to The Fifth Season (2015). The former is excellent, refreshing for many reasons, the latter is a pleasure to read, almost poetic in its presentation.

This observation is not meant as an endorsement or indictment of any particular book. There are plenty of experienced writerly ticks that drive me insane and first books that set an impossibly high bar, but, nevertheless, experience is an excellent teacher. Why mention it, then? Simply because it gives me hope that, given practice, my writing will continue to improve too.

Re-evaluating Antisemitism

I am not particularly religious. I generally don’t begrudge people their religion and am frequently awed by the faith of others, but personally fall into the categories “agnostic” and “skeptic.” My fascination with holy books comes out of my instincts as a historian rather than in a search for answers. All of this is rooted in my personal philosophies and while I am happy to discuss them, both the philosophies and religion generally, I am not in the business of proselytizing. This was not always the case, but I have more interesting things to do with my time than argue about religion, provided that it isn’t being used as an excuse for bigotry.

It is for this reason that I do not feel a strong attachment to my Jewish heritage. I had a moment to reflect on this at my grandfather’s funeral earlier this year. He was particularly active in the Jewish community in Minneapolis, helping settle refugees among other things, and in his synagogue. I’d be best described as adjacent to Jewish culture—loosely conversant, barely observant, and mostly there for the food. I’ll light candles at Channukah and know a lot of the stories, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been to services for high holidays and don’t keep kosher (the home kitchen is vegetarian, however). I’ve been to Israel on Birthright and attended Brandeis, but, as I thought about in January, this part of life that was so important to my grandfather is something that I could see from the outside, but never fully enter.

Here’s the thing: I’m Jewish enough. I don’t count myself a Zionist, I don’t look particularly Jewish, and I don’t attend temple, but none of that matters. For the purposes of the intolerant, rationalized with pseudo-scientific concepts of genealogy or loosely conceived and broadly construed labels about culture and lifestyle, I count.

Ultimately this post has been formulated in the tumult following the rioting in Charlottesville. In the past I have been largely indifferent to neo-Nazi posturing, not because it isn’t important (it is), but because “Nazis are bad” seemed to be one of the few points of consensus in mainstream American politics. Even with strains of Holocaust-denial breaking out like a bad rash that could never quite be eliminated, anti-semitism in the form of anti-Judaism seemed mostly benign, contained by social contracts. To follow through on the medical analogy, this sort of anti-semitism is chronic, but treatable and not fatal.

This is hardly an endorsement of anti-semitism, rather that I was more conscientious of other forms of bigotry, against African Americans, Muslim-Americans, women, and people who fall outside the hetero-normative gender and sexuality spectrums—i.e. forms of intolerance that, if not deemed acceptable, are more widely tolerated.

Now, I am not so sure.

Other forms of bigotry are still more common and that obviously makes them more dangerous, but it is becoming difficult to dismiss the increasingly visible anti-semitism. A recent poll showed that nearly 1 in 10 Americans believe that holding Nazi beliefs is acceptable. A glance at the numbers show a decent amount of noise in this poll; “only” 3% agreed strongly with the statement and it did not get specific about specific beliefs. Allowing for the undecideds and the somewhat-agrees to be mere defenders of free speech does not improve the situation because it means that a growing number of people are willing to tolerate antisemitism, and in this tolerance is a slippery slope toward tacit endorsement.

Throw this situation into a mixer with the polarization and toxicity that the internet can facilitate and a dash of a void in leadership, strained over easy access to weapons and you have a dangerous cocktail. Just this morning Brandeis University announced it is closed today because of threats sent by email.

Like the poll linked to above, the recent rally in Boston demonstrated again that many more people oppose these forms of intolerance than support them, but recent events have been pointing to a trend moving in the wrong direction. There are no easy answers or solutions, and the longer that the current political atmosphere persists, the more toxic things are going to get.

Let me offer two relevant quotations by way of conclusion.

“I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that ‘the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, 1948

“No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours, are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
– Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, 1770

Royal Assassin – Robin Hobb

Note: as this this the second book in a trilogy, there will be minor references to the events of the first book.

The second book in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy picks up roughly where Assassin’s Apprentice leaves off, with FitzChivalry, royal bastard, recuperating after nearly dying in the mountain kingdom. He was successful in ensuring that Kettricken managed to marry King-in-Waiting Verity, but the underlying problems—including the continued raids from the Red Ships and the ambition of Prince Regal—have only intensified. All is not right in the Six Duchies.

Royal Assassin is a long book, and felt it, with the plot covering a lot of ground. It may be effectively divided into two halves: one where hope for salvation comes from men, and another where the hope is straight from legend. In the first, Fitz works alongside his mentor Chade and Verity to thwart the Forged Ones and build a fleet to confront the raiders at sea. In the second, Verity leaves on a quest to find the Elderlings that legend says once saved the kingdom, while Fitz works with Kettricken to hold the kingdom together against Regal’s worst excesses as King Shrewd’s health fails. Bridging the two parts of the story are the continuing personal relationships that so defined the first half. Fitz courts Molly Chandler, reduced temporarily to a maid in the castle, but King Shrewd has other ideas about his romantic future. At the same time, Fitz has to build rapport between Kettricken and Verity who are so different, yet more alike than they care to admit, and negotiate a family drama between Chade, his half-brother King Shrewd, and Prince Regal where the first two are unwilling to accept that the third is willing to sabotage his own family to satiate his own pride.

There are of course more of these relationships, including another one with an animal, a wolf, that plays a critical role in the plot. Rather than parse these relationships in any sort of detail, though, I want to double down on the central point I made in the post about the first book, which is confirmed through the text of Royal Assassin. Fitz is adequate as a character, but what makes this story so effective in its first-person narrative is this web of relationships and the emotional connections they create (including hatred), whether through mundane interaction, through magic, or through their absences in the case of the Forged Ones. Hobb’s genius in this book is how thoroughly she develops the connections, so when they are ripped away, Fitz’ pain is conveyed all the more powerfully. Along the way, the reader gets a sense of both positive and negative relationships in a variety of contexts. If the humanistic purpose of reading is to develop emotional maturity, I cannot think of a fantasy or science fiction book that does this more successfully than this.

Royal Assassin relies on emotional tension enough that it frequently a difficult book to read, even as I became ever-more enamored of its craft. The story feels condensed because so much of the plot takes place in the same handful of rooms in Buckkeep, while, at the same time, there are two powerful threats. The one is nameless and apocalyptic, threatening the very existence of the kingdom as the Red Raiders bear down. Where other fantasy stories might make this the primary conflict, though, Royal Assassin doesn’t. Our central villain is the vain and influential Prince Regal, easily dismissed, but supremely dangerous. Our protagonists suspect what he is up to, but can’t prove anything and so are forced to largely watch helplessly while he schemes his way to the top—and proves better at doing this than at actually governing.

It is possible to pick nits with Royal Assassin. The conclusion, for instance, struck me as both too much like a variation on its predecessor and it suffers a bit from second-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome, but its positives vastly outweighed the negatives and I am looking forward both to concluding the series and reading more in this world.

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I am really enjoying this month (or more) of reading books written by women. Last night I started reading Denise Mina’s Still Midnight, a Scottish detective mystery featuring detective Alex Morrow. Without being able to speak to the book’s overall quality just yet, I am already noticing subtle differences with, say Wallander, in terms of the types of details Alex attends to regarding her presentation.