<em>Who Fears Death</em>

It turns out that exhaustion can beat my best intentions to get back to writing about the books I read. That said, I genuinely like wrestling with my thoughts about books and the process of reviewing them, so, despite the prospect of another busy year, one of my resolutions for the year is to get back to writing these posts.

Racial prejudice defines one corner of a post-apocalyptic Africa. According to the Great Book, the dark-skinned Okeke are naturally inferior and therefore ought to be subservient to the light-skinned Nuru. Both groups believe that any mixed offspring must be born of violence and rape and therefore the offspring, called Ewu, are naturally corrupted. On the first count, at least, they are usually not wrong.

The title character of Who Fears Death, Onyesonwu, is the product of such a violation. A powerful Nuru sorcerer following a prophecy about rewriting the book forever led Nuru soldiers into Okeke villages and using his powers to enhance their ability to rape and kill. Every Okeke man died and every Okeke woman was raped repeatedly before dying, save only the sorcerer’s victim, Najeeba, who he is convinced will bear him the son destined. Except Najeeba bears a daughter, fleeing far into the east to Jwahir where she seeks refuge, raising her daughter with a new husband there.

Of course, life isn’t easy for Onyesonwu in Jwahir. She is Ewu, but also her mother doesn’t hold with the town’s superstitions such as the Eleventh Rite (female circumcision), and Aro, the local sorcerer, refuses to consider teaching her magic despite her obvious skill and the mortal threat posed to her by her father. Still, this headstrong girl makes her own decisions, which wins her friends among the other girls her own age and with Mwita, Aro’s Ewu apprentice. The question is whether these friendships will be enough when Onyesonwu leaves Jwahir to challenge her biological father.

At its best, Who Fears Death is a careful exploration of these relationships and issues through a very tightly focalized viewpoint coming through Onyesonwu’s eyes. This meant particularly moving (if often harrowing) explorations of female circumcision, one character who is sexually abused by her father, and the interplay between magic, prejudice, and menstruation and pregnancy that doesn’t always come up in male-authored fantasy. Similarly, I was quite touched by the way in which the shared history in Jwahir and different experiences with the outside world informed the dynamics of this group that sets off ostensibly to save the world they all live in.

However, for all that Okorafor does well and all that I liked, I came away from Who Fears Death strangely dissatisfied––the way one does when expecting to be blown away and receiving satisfactory. Who Fears Death is a competent book that confronts serious issues head-on, but the same features that allow it to do this convincingly does not leave much room for exploration of the post-apocalyptic setting, which provides a few touches but did not strike me as a particularly necessary part of this story. I could say much the same about the “Africa” side of the equation, which could have as easily been an invented world.

(I have been critical of invented worlds that too bluntly followed modern analogs, but Who Fears Death doesn’t have a map and with the historical backdrop largely lost in the apocalypse, those critiques are dramatically reduced.)

But the tight focus on Onyesonwu and her story also caused the ending to fall somewhat flat for me. The actual execution, which involves her awareness of her eventual fate, is adequately executed, but I somehow wanted more because it came off as either too neat or too ambiguous. For me this once again came back to the choice to push this world to the background. Committing to Who Fears Death as the story of Onyesonwu allowed the emotional notes to land, but, at least for me, caused overall arc of the story to fall short.

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My reading has gotten a bit ahead of my writing, as is wont to happen, so I have also finished V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and Alyson Hagy’s Scribe. I haven’t decided what I’m reading next, but since I have read nothing but books by women so far this month, I might as well finish it out the same way.

Star Wars and I

Note: although I have note see The Rise of Skywalker, this post includes a spoiler for that film.

Even before the tepid reviews of The Rise of Skywalker started coming in I had basically decided to sit this one out. Maybe I will see it when it lands on a streaming platform––probably while grading papers––but certainly not in theaters because most of the negative reviews have confirmed my fear that the movie has basically steered into everything that frustrated me about The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. However, after listening to The Watch podcast analyzing the movie and “spoiling” the big reveal, I wanted to revisit the topic.

One of the most appealing things about the original Star Wars trilogy is its simplicity, a perfect tri-colon of the hero’s journey to help the good guys triumph over the bad. Even the primary villains get progressively more powerful and villainous as the series goes along. Grand Moff Tarkin SW has a battle station that he blows up planets with, but he demonstrates his power by having control over Vader, who ascends to the top spot in ESB while teasing Emperor Palpatine for ROTJ. With all deference to Chewbacca, Ben Kenobi, and Lando, the movies only have five core characters (Luke, Leia, Han, R2, 3PO), with the others generally connected to this core group by one or more links. Similarly, each film has only three locations that aren’t starships (The Force Awakens has five, Rogue One had *seven*) and the only times I can think of where one of the original movies follows more than two simultaneous actions are the Death Star escape in SW and the climactic battle in ROTJ where Luke surrenders, Han and Leia are on the forest moon, and Lando has the Millenium Falcon, meaning that there are three arenas, but all circling one limited space.

For all of the issues in the original trilogy, including a rather shocking lack of diversity, this simplicity is one of the keys to its success. Deleted scenes from the movies reveal that Lucas had in mind a chattier story about the imperial academy and imperial politics more in line with the prequel trilogy. The final product drops most of those ambitions into the opening scrawl and a few lines of dialogue, allowing the audience to get swept away by the combination of knightly romance and space western. In turn, falling back on these tropes allows the series to develop somewhat more complex themes involving e.g. moral relativity and redemption by the end of the trilogy and leaves the door open to an expanded universe of cartoons and novels that can resolve many of the oversights in the original material.

This is an arc that can only work once. The prequel trilogy tried to literally reverse engineer the story, explaining the fall of the Anakin and the creation of the empire. As someone acutely pointed out to me in college, this turned the Star Wars saga from the Romance of a plucky young hero joining the rebellion against totalitarianism to the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.

For all that they do well, the new Star Wars films are the mother of all third-act problems.

In the Watch podcast linked to above, one of the points Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald talk about is the garbled mess that is the story in The Rise of Skywalker. The original series had a final confrontation with the Emperor and the next set had the creation of Darth Vader and the Empire, where these three movies raced about the galaxy convincing people that Star Wars was back, but introduce stories that go nowhere (some of which are evidently excised altogether because of racist backlash to The Last Jedi) or that deserve a series-worth of exploration. While these issues contribute to the movie bloat, my bigger problem is that they give the sense that this is a trilogy determined to raise the stakes by trying to convince you that each movie is more epic than the last rather than by actually raising the stakes or by having each movie substantially build on the one before it.

All of this culminates in the big twist in The Rise of Skywalker that reintroduces Palpatine and reestablishes the inherited Force-aristocracy. To be clear: Palpatine and even the idea of heritable force powers are not the problem per se. These abound in the in the non-canon EU material and this is a setting where all sorts of technology can exist. In fact, as Kylo Ren’s obsession with the crushed face mask of Darth Vader hints at, Palpatine’s memory and resurgent Palpatinistas is fertile ground for storytelling (whatever Ian McDiamird thinks), except that we had just spent two films not talking about Palpatine in relation to the fascist junta that obviously regarded itself as his political heir.

Despite the idiosyncratic fact that the original three movies were the middle trilogy of nine movies, the third trilogy was never really never developed in any substantial way, which gave room for novelists, cartoonists, and other creators to build out the story. Some of these are not great, but they also gave rise to iconic villains (e.g. Admiral Thrawn), characters (e.g. Wedge Antilles) and room to explore inter-species relationships and xenophobia.

After each of the previous two films, I expressed my hope that people enjoyed New Star Wars, but that I did not fit into whatever the niche that they were filling––fully recognizing the irony of saying this about films directed at “everyone.” I stand by the first part of the sentiment, I hope people enjoy New Star Wars, up to and including The Rise of Skywalker. However, upon further consideration, and for all that the new films do right on the micro-scale in terms of filming, dialogue, casting, making Finn a Stormtrooper who bucks his conditioning, &c, that made the films have a markedly “Star Wars, but fresh” feel, they miss a macro-vision of what made the the original trilogy iconic.

A Recent Reading Recap

The thing about my current semester is that it barely left time to think, let alone do anything, but I did manage to crawl my way through a few books. Now that my semester is winding down and I finally have a moment to breathe, I have a chance to jot down notes.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed – My least favorite of the books I read this fall, The Possessed is a memoir about graduate school and Russian literature in which long sections read as though she was workshopping ideas for the book that eventually became her novel The Idiot. Batuman is a gifted writer and I enjoyed the discussions of Russian literature, but those often went beyond the authors I was familiar with and I was generally underwhelmed by her presentation of graduate school.

Eric Rauchway, Winter War – One of my aspirational goals for teaching is to read one new book about each class I teach in a given semester, beyond whatever other prep I have done. This was my choice for my Modern Americna history class. In Winter War, Rauchway examines the months between the election of 1932 and Roosevelt’s inauguration to show the radical start of Roosevelt’s New Deal and how Hoover sought to undermine his successor. This was a really excellent book that deftly leads the reader through the political maneuverings at the height of the Great Depression.

Josh Gondelman, Nice Try – The final non-fiction book I read this fall was Gondelman’s Nice Try. I attended Brandeis at the same time as Gondelman and we have a number of mutual friends, but I know him primarily as a writer for TV and on Twitter as the world’s nicest comedian. This collection is a delightful, light-hearted stroll through the serious topic of trying to be both a nice and good person in the world.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu – The fourth book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series is one of the best. Like Tombs of Atuan, this novel picks up the story of Tenar, now living on Gont as a middle-aged woman named Goha, her children grown. The inciting event comes when two people come into her life. First, an emotionally and physically damaged child she names Therru and then Sparrowhawk, no longer a mage, but a broken old man. The result is a heart-wrenching fantasy story of sorrow and loss that, like the rest of the series, undermines the typical heroic tropes including, this time, the notion that a single heroic victory would in fact set the world at rights.

Myke Cole, The Armored Saint – I started following Cole on Twitter because of his interest in ancient Greek history, but I also appreciate a good fantasy novel and he recommended people start with this one. The Armored Saint is a coming of age story about Heloise Factor, the daughter of the town’s scribe. What impressed me about this book is how Cole creates the sense of history, with adults having fought in past wars and an Order that prevents demons from entering the world by making sure that no wizard survives, while nevertheless focalizing this story that takes place in one small valley through the point of view of this young woman who, rightfully, is angry at members of the Order who abuse their power.

Jose Saramago, Blindness – The only capital-L literature book I read this semester was by Portuguese Nobel-winner José Saramago. Blindness is a harrowing story of a city that descends to anarchy when its citizens begin going blind. The government responds to the initial cases by quarantining the afflicted in an asylum, in the hopes that it will stop its spread. But the asylum fills up, and one of the wings organizes a ring to control the spread of supplies, extorting money and sex from the other wings. Then the supplies stop coming in and the inmates escape into a world abandoned when every one went blind. Overall Blindness struck me as a much more sophisticated and satisfying take on the themes of Lord of the Flies. My one lingering question was about the character of the doctor’s wife, who accompanies her husband into the asylum and is the only character in the entire book who never goes blind. I couldn’t decide what to make of her character, eventually deciding that she is saved by her selfless sacrifices at every turn, but also finding that this level of metaphor didn’t quite fit with the rest of characters in the novel. I quite liked Blindness in sum, but the fact that I came away wishing that I read it at a time when I could give it more attention means I might need to re-read this one.

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I am now reading Robin Hobb’s Ship of Destiny, the conclusion of her Liveship Traders Series. By the time I’m done, I hope to have enough time to write full review posts again.

Beloved

Except for an occasional request for color [Baby Suggs] said practically nothing––until the afternoon of the the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but white people. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever.

Toni Morrison is an author who has been on my radar for a long time, but despite using the Nobel Prize for Literature to build a reading list and wanting to diversify my intake I have always found reasons to read something else instead. I have struggled with a lot of books set in the American south, for one, and her books just didn’t seem to be my speed––whatever that means, these are excuses. Morrison’s recent passing inspired me to rectify this oversight.

Beloved is a novel of two places, each with two phases, linked by Sethe––wife, mother, slave, freedwoman, murderer.

124 is the first place, once a refuge for former slaves outside Cincinnati and now where Sethe and her daughter Denver live with the ghosts.

The second place is Sweet Home, a bucolic plantation where Sethe had been a slave before fleeing with her family.

Two arrivals shake 124 from its dismal, spiteful routine. First comes Paul D, a man who had been a slave with Sethe at Sweet Home years past. Second comes the ethereal Beloved, a young woman who seems to have appeared out of the Ohio River. With each arrival Sethe gets further lost in the world of memory. Paul D reminds her of Halle, the father of her children and chosen husband, and of Sweet Home. Beloved, who Sethe associates with her dead baby with “beloved” carved on its headstone,” reminds her of the trauma of 124.

The main thread of Beloved begins in 1873, eight years after the end of the Civil War and longer since Sethe gained her freedom, but this is very much a novel about the lasting impact of slavery. The older women of 124 (Sethe and Baby Suggs, her husband’s mother) physically wear the carry the marks on their bodies, yes, but how Morrison writes the psychological scars is what sets this novel apart.

The most obvious example of these scars––and one that only deepens as the novel progresses––is Sethe’s decision to kill her infant her former owners track her down. This is obviously *the* central scene to the book, but smaller moments were equally revelatory. Some are expected having read about slavery in the United States. Racism from abolitionists, broken and lost families, casual sexual violence (albeit not from an expected angle). Others were less expected, such as Baby Suggs’ preoccupation with color once she is free and realizes she is allowed to have opinions about such things or the disconnect between the names the white slave owners use and the names that the enslaved people want to have.

What stood out most to me, though was how Sethe and Paul D remember Sweet Home.

Sweet Home is repeatedly referred to in glowing terms. It is a beautiful, peaceful place. The Garners, the original owners of the plantation, are generally remembered positively. They treat their slaves well, never beating or raping them, valuing their skills and opinions, and even arming the men to let them hunt. They don’t force Sethe into a sexual relationship, but allow her to have one with the man of her choosing and allow Halle (that man) to hire out his services so that he can purchase his mother’s freedom.

The Garners’ benevolence stands out because, after Mr. Garner’s death, a relation known as Schoolteacher takes over management. His opinion is that the Garners have been too lenient, and begins beating the slaves, restricting their movements, and employing any number of implements, including semi-sexual violations. Saying Sweet Home turned sour understates the toxicity of the change and underscores the depths of horror that slavery enabled.

But Morrison also uses this island of blessed tranquility to demonstrate the grotesqueness of slavery. Even with impossibly benevolent owners, slavery dehumanized the enslaved. Within the confines of Sweet Home the owned had a dim shadow of freedom, but they are isolated and still living their lives for the benefit of their owners. Whatever goodness the Garners have is forfeit by their participation in this system.

Beloved is not necessarily a book written with me, a white man, in mind. I frequently like a voyeur even while I was swept away by the power of Morrison’s prose or was caught by a turn of phrase that made me reread a sentence, paragraph or page. Yet, this discomfort is exactly the reason that people like me ought to read this book. Morrison simultaneously breaths life into the expected jagged wounds of American history and upends any usual assumptions.

If the purpose of literature is to liberate us from our own experience and build empathy, Morrison succeeds in spades. Beloved is spectacular and deserving of every accolade it won.

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I have been snowed under for the past two weeks with the start of the fall semester and have for the most part chosen to read rather than write here. In this stretch, and speaking of discomfort, I have finished reading Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which is a powerful look at her weight and am now making my way through Eric Rauchway’s Winter War, which is a really well-written look at the political gamesmanship between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt between the 1932 election and Roosevelt’s inauguration.

The Invisible Gorilla

The first viral video I remember in college is the eponymous video from this study, the invisible Gorilla. It came from a psych study of the same name where the researchers showed their subjects a video of people passing basketballs back and forth, some wearing white shirts and some black. They asked the viewers to count the number of times the people wearing white shirts passed their basketball. Then they asked them if they noticed a person in a gorilla suit. About half of the participants missed the gorilla, who walks through the middle of the game, turns to the camera, and beats its chest.

The experiment tested selective attention, showing how when the mind is focused on a particular task, particularly when that task involves tracking unfamiliar patterns, people are much more likely to miss what they are not explicitly tracking. When I watch the video I see the gorilla, but sometimes miss at least one of the passes.

In Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons explain this and other experiments, supplemented with real world examples, to give an engaging explanation for how the mind works, covering issues from attention to confidence to the potential for growth.

If I had to put a thesis to Invisible Gorillas it is that the human mind is extraordinarily well adapted for pattern recognition and focusing on individual tasks, but is easily overwhelmed.

Invisible Gorillas offers an exceptionally compelling discussion of (relatively) recent developments in the science of memory and intuition. Some sections of the book dated themselves. While talking about the illusion of patterns and predictive behavior, for instance, they praise John Roberts’ explanation in the Shelby County supreme court decision that struck down the Voting Rights Act, which has aged poorly in ways that were entirely predictable for reasons cultural, historical, and political. If these case studies can be misguided, I can only imagine that the science has developed since the original publication in 2010.

In general, though, I have little negative to say, and found that it offers a few practical lessons. Given the title of the book, the top-line takeaway is the dangers of divided attention. Chabris and Simons spend a significant amount of space talking about driving and other activities that people can do while distracted under ideal circumstances, but explain that distraction primarily interferes with the ability to adapt to the unexpected.

Secondarily, they explain, people overestimate their ability to multitask. I have noticed this when it comes to my writing. I often multitask when writing blog posts, with something on a second screen that I can passively absorb but don’t care if I miss anything. By contrast, when I’m working on projects I hope to publish, I have to eliminate distractions by closing down social media, turning off podcasts or anything visual, and often turn up music on my headphones.

(Chabris and Simons debunk the urban myth that listening to classical music makes one smarter in the illusion of potential; the music I listen to while writing varies, and I find the beat matters more than the genre because I usually tune the songs out.)

But as much I already knew and/or had discovered the issues with illusions of attention, the two studies I found particularly valuable were the illusion of confidence and false beliefs about memory.

On the former, people trust those who express confidence more than those willing to express doubt. In 2019, this is more important than ever. It would be easy to tie this illusion to any number of political and media issues, but I saw a relevance here for academia, too. I have long believed that one of the greatest disservices the US educational system does to students, particularly through standardized tests, is to make them believe that they need to have all of the answers. In turn, this means I try to model for my students how to not-know the answers; that is, to teach them to place confidence in being able to find explanations rather than in feigning them through confident bluster even though, as Chabris and Simons explain, society generally values the latter.

The latter caught my attention because I have been working with memory as a historical construct. I introduced this post with a memory of watching the invisible gorilla video in college, which I thought was a viral video, perhaps on Youtube. The facts line up: I was in college around the time the video made news and Youtube and Facebook both existed. In truth, though, I don’t actually know that this was when or how I saw the video, only that I have been aware of the video for a long time. This inconsistency is exactly the point of Chabris and Simons’ section on memory: memory is malleable and flawed, connected to our emotions and experiences, and highly impressionable. My reading of historical memory is that the same holds true, except with more intentionality behind the shaping of memory.

There is also more to Invisible Gorillas that is worth consideration, including discussion of why we believe so strongly in the potential to improve ourselves quickly and the way in which people tend to misunderstand probabilities. In short, this is a worthwhile read on a number of levels, from simple curiosity to practical applications in a range of settings.

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I just started Toni Morrison’s Beloved because her passing reminded me that I had never read any of her books even though I’ve been trying to read more African and African-American authors. I am only a few chapters in, but am so far finding it viscerally affecting and awkwardly voyeuristic in a way that is making me particularly conscious of my whiteness. The last part is heightened by having seen clips of Morrison commenting on tone deaf critiques of her literature as not addressing white audiences.

The Farthest Shore

“The traitor, the self; the self that cries I want to live; let the world burn so long as I can live! The little traitor soul in us, in the dark, like the worm in the apple. He talks to all of us. But only some understand him. The wizards and the sorcerers. The singers; the makers. And the heroes, the ones who seek to be themselves. To be one’s self is a rare thing, and a great one. To be one’s self forever: is that not better still.

“What is a good man, Arren? Is a good man one who would not do evil, who would not open a door to the darkness, who has no darkness in him? Look again, lad.”

Decades after the events of The Tombs of Atuan, Prince Arren of Enlad has arrived on Roke, the island of the Wizards, with dire news: magic is disappearing from the world. Signs of this impending doom haven’t reach Roke yet, but the Archmage Sparrowhawk (Ged) who watches the balance of the world decides to trust Arren and venture out into the world to see what is happening.

They go first to the Southern Reaches where magic has indeed vanished, and with it most restraints of social connection. The disappearance of magic from the world of Earthsea so disrupts the fabric of society that it begins to unravel as people turn to drugs to cope. People alternate between despair and succumbing to a destructive, addictive promise of oblivion where they are being told that they can find eternal life. The mage and his guardian then head west, encountering the people of the open ocean who live on rafts where the magic of the song is also vanishing, before heading past the islands of dragons and to Selidor where they have to cross over into the land of the dead to find the source of this darkness.

The best thing about Le Guin’s Earthsea novels is her oblique and nuanced approach to themes. Where most fantasy literature relies on supernatural or eternal evil, these novels have grand stakes through intimate stories. A Wizard of Earthsea tackled taking rash actions and overcoming an internal darkness. The Tombs of Atuan took on issues of gender, power, and uncritical belief. The Farthest Shore is no different. Here she tackles the banality of human evil and, ultimately, the ordinariness of heroism when individuals have the courage to take action even at a cost to themselves––regardless of whether the person is young Arren or Ged, the most powerful mage alive.

The themes in The Farthest Shore turn it into a thoughtful meditation on good and evil, but it was my least favorite of the first three Earthsea novels. As usual, Le Guin’s new afterword is an engaging read, here focusing on dragons, the human face of evil, and why the novels seem to skip forward in time at irregular intervals. Contrasted with the first two books, though, I found the plot and most of the character development got lost for the meditation on good and evil. I had this same problem to an extent with A Wizard of Earthsea, but the fact that it was also a story about Ged’s coming of age, character came to the fore.

Here, we get a glimpse of Ged at the height of his powers, something we know because he have heard the tales about his deeds even when we haven’t seen them, but much of the story hinges on Arren, who Ged mostly takes under his wing. So far this isn’t a problem, and Arren even has his moments, but then he is revealed to be the descendant of Morred, one of the good kings of old and therefore a candidate to take up the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and justly rule the land. Where The Tombs of Atuan revealed “reincarnation” to be the work of a dangerous cult and A Wizard of Earthsea showed the nobody Ged to be a hero because of how he used his prodigious gifts, The Farthest Shore offered us an entitled heir if only he has the courage to claim it. For me this undercut much of Le Guin’s otherwise incisive story.

The fourth book in the series, Tehanu, won the Locus and Nebula awards for best fantasy novel in 1991, so I am looking forward to reading it despite my issues with The Farthest Shore.

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Next up, I just finished Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla and other ways our intuitions deceive us, pop-science book about the psychology of intuition. I haven’t decided what to start next. I have a copy of Tehanu, but may need to read Beloved first, in light of Toni Morrison’s passing.

The First Crusade: The Call from the East

I first encountered Peter Frankopan’s work a few years ago when I read his global history The Silk Roads, which aimed to understand the world along an axis unfamiliar to most people: the pathways of exchange that linked Europe and East Asia known collectively as the Silk Road. While reading that book I came across a reference to this one, Frankopan’s first, and made a note to read it at some point. Preparing to teach a survey of world history before 1500, it seemed like an appropriate time to pick it up.

The First Crusade hinges on a simple conceit: historians of the crusades get swept away by the stirring oratory of Urban II at Claremont and the remarkable victories of the western knights that established crusader kingdoms and so miss the forest for the trees.

The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus (r.1081–1118) sits at the center of Frankopan’s retelling. When Pope Urban II issued his call for crusade and began preaching across most of Europe, he fired up his audiences with stories about the collapse of the Byzantine frontier and the horrors that the Turks visited upon their Christian brethren. Byzantium, the great Christian empire and one-time protector of Jerusalem, he said, was on the verge of collapse. Indeed, a Seljuk army under the command of Alp Arslan had inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV in 1071. The empire had suffered additional setbacks in the two succeeding decades, including invasions by Norman knights who would go on to be Crusaders, and by the early 1090s a sudden turn for the worse in Anatolia that included the loss of Nicaea, a strategically-located and heavily-fortified city, prompted Alexios to make his appeal to Urban.

But neither was the Byzantine Empire decaying anachronism. Frankopan contextualizes Alexios’ actions in the institutional and diplomatic traditions of the Byzantine Empire. In this light, the beleaguered empire of the 1070s had recovered under Alexios’ careful hand in the 1080s, thwarting repeated invasions of the Balkans from both Norman knights and nomads from the north, while also choosing careful marriage alliances at Constantinople and stabilizing the situation in Anatolia through careful diplomacy that brought the Turkish leader Malik Shah into the imperial orbit. The death of Malik Shah in 1092 unravelled Alexios’ hard work and ultimately led to a attempted coup in the capitol.

These conditions, Frankopan argues, prompted Alexios to again turn to Byzantine diplomacy for a solution: the call from the east. In Urban II, he found an ally quarreling with the German Emperor Henry IV, who had installed his own Pope, Clement III, in Rome. Alexios’ appeal presented Urban an opportunity to claim legitimacy as the true pope. Urban’s call to arms promised knights wealth and the forgiveness of sin, thereby completing the necessary conditions for the crusade. In short order, thousands of soldiers gathered for war.

Compared to explanation of these machinations, Frankopan’s account of the campaign itself is almost perfunctory. He mentions the preparations in passing, offers explanations for the near-defeats turned spectacular victories won by the Crusaders, and duly mentions the thousands of crusaders who died along the way, but only briefly mentions People’s Crusade and does not explore the social or cultural sides of the campaign.

Instead, Frankopan keeps the focus on the Crusader leadership because that allows him to keep focus on their relationship with Alexios, who had hoped to regain Byzantine possessions in the East. All of the Crusader leaders swore oaths of fealty to the Emperor throwing their support behind his cause, but as the campaign surged forward they began to feel betrayed––because Alexios continued to negotiate with the Turks and, particularly, because they believed he was deliberately late with supplies––which ultimately led to the creation of independent Crusader States in the Levant. That is, with the exception of Baldwin, who spent two years ruling Edessa as Alexios’ delegate.

The First Crusade is a slim monograph, coming in at just over 200 pages before notes, meaning that it is not a new synthesis or a magnum opus. It is a relatively narrow thesis that achieves its aim, showing that the Byzantine context is the key to understanding the crusade. This diplomatic focus means that it is at times dry and the fact that the prose is rife with passive voice made certain chapters read like running into a stiff wind, but these are both superficial concerns. I already understood the legacies of the crusades (both the traditionally-numbered ones, as well as the Northern and Spanish crusades) in a global context in terms of trade, diplomacy, culture and religion, and I went into The First Crusade looking for a way to understand the start of the Crusades in the same light. Frankopan offers just that.

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I have since finished The Farthest Shore, the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle and begun Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla, a pop-science bestseller about how intuition and memory can deceive us.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Welcome to Camorr, a city state built on the twin pillars of the ruins of an ancient civilization and commerce. Officially the Duke Nicovante rules from the luxurious heights of the Five Towers, his city guard patrolling the streets in yellow tabards and secret police skulking in black. Unofficially, Capa Barsavi rules. Barsavi controls the city’s criminal underworld, keeping the duke’s Secret Peace that keeps the gangs from targeting the aristocracy and city guard and keeping their actions from spilling into public riots.

The Gentleman Bastards, trained by the blind priest Chains and led by the silver-tongued Locke Lamora, are one of the gangs sworn to Capa Barsavi. A small gang, the Gentleman Bastards let Barsavi believe that they are pretty thieves when, in fact, they specialize in elaborate, non-violent confidence games that flaunt the Secret Peace.

Their target now is Don Salvari. Posing as Master Fehrwight, a foreign merchant, Locke intends to relieve Salvari of a sizable portion of his estate by getting him to fund the rescue of “his” family’s brandy business from an unstable political situation in return for a stake in all future profits. To grease the wheels, they give Salvari a push from the opposite side, posing as the secret police to enlist his aid in capturing the Thorn of Camorr, a thief who has been terrorizing the aristocracy––all Salvari has to do is play along until all of the Thorn’s compatriots can be identified.

Thus The Lies of Locke Lamora begins, a tightly written heist that alternates the Salvari con with interludes that flash back to Locke’s origin and training, as well as introducing the rest of the Gentleman Bastards, the twins Calo and Galdo and Locke’s antithesis, Jean Tannen––large where Locke is small, meticulous and rational where Locke is impulsive and intuitive.

If the novel ended there, it would have been a largely insubstantial book, but a rollicking good time. The Gentleman Bastards are lovable, genteel rogues who steal from those who can afford it and do so without violence. They hoard their money because they haven’t considered what they could do with the money. The deft touch of this plot line conceals a darker setting, which are foreshadowed with brutal revels and the blood that stains Locke’s glib tongue from the time he was a youngest.

This darkness rushes to the fore in the back half of The Lies of Locke Lamora when an ambitious new player arrives in Camorr. The Grey King threatens to upend the balance of power in the Camorri underworld by targeting the heads of the gangs and undermining Capa Barsavi’s organization. Nobody knows the Grey King’s identity, let alone what he wants, but it is only a matter of time before he is going to come after Locke.

Characters can make or break a book of this nature, almost as much as the pacing. We need to buy that our protagonists can plan, prepare, and execute a plan of this scope, while making their marks competent enough so as to not be pushovers. On this point Lynch has an overwhelming success. He populates Camorr with competent, dangerous individuals, while using the interludes to demonstrate how Locke and his friends acquired the necessary skills to outwit them. These characters skew male because of the composition of the Gentleman Bastards, but Camorr is more balanced; I particularly liked Dona Salvari who is a canny partner for her husband and we are given tantalizing hints but never see the one woman Locke loves.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is an immensely satisfying book. Adding to the success of the structure Lynch achieves an effective balance of stakes by balancing the lightness of Locke’s gang with the darkness of the setting.

In fact, there was only one feature of the Lies of Locke Lamora that I *didn’t* like, a seed buried in the world building.

In most of its formal aspects, the world of this novel is a spin on Renaissance North Italy, with Camorr taking the place of Venice. In addition to Camorr being a city of canals and the italianate vocabulary, other aspects of the world reinforce this impression: the bones of the lost civilization that Camorr is built upon is Rome, there are other city states at odds with an empire to the north with an uncouth tongue (Germany), and Emberlain as a poorly-defined place that could be France. Similarly, instead of inventing the epigraphs at the start of each section, Lynch chooses real quotes, first from Shakespeare and then from Jean-Jacque Rousseau.

Over time Lynch developed the world away from this seed––the lost civilization, for instance is both more magnificent than Rome and utterly wiped away while Renaissance Rome was the Papal Seat––until the maps of the world bear little resemblance to the real world, but the underlying disconnect remained.

Using a seed like this doesn’t have to be a problem. Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, for instance, steers into its second-world European setting to good effect. Where complications emerge is when the setting gets caught between a the historical setting and a fully fictional world. As I have previously written, history has advantages: it can imbue a setting with social, cultural, and environmental depth created through the slow processes of geological formation and trade where fictional settings can be unnaturally static, with each region being both a curious mishmash of features and oddly-siloed away from each other.

The fact that The Lies of Locke Lamora remains so tightly focused on Camorr avoids most of these pitfalls. Lynch is able create a richly-textured city while leaving the lands beyond largely undefined. Cracks only occasionally showed, such as the arrival of a frigate constructed after the model of Emberlain, a ship style most associated with eighteenth-century France.

In the end, though the triumphs of The Lies of Locke Lamora more than compensated for any concerns I had with the setting. This is a deeply satisfying fantasy novel that begins as a fast-paced romp before taking a sudden dive into emotional depth.

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I have also finished Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call From the East and am now using the last gasp of summer to continue Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. I am about a quarter of the way through The Furthest Shore.

The Witch Elm

Toby describes himself as lucky, his cousin Leon says that he gets away with everything. He has always had things easy: a rugby star in school, smart, attractive, from an affluent background, and always able to talk his way out of jam––a skill that comes in handy in his job promoting an art gallery. He makes friends easily, has kept close friends since school, and has devoted girlfriend, Melissa.

Outside a minor scrape at work, life is good. That is, until he is beaten within an inch of his life during a home invasion.

The assault lands Toby in the hospital and suffering from brain injuries that leave him physically and emotionally fragile and struggling to speak. Around the time that he is to be released from the hospital, the second of his two cousins, Susanna approaches Toby about moving in to the Ivy House, the family estate where the three cousins spent summers as children, because his uncle Hugo has been diagnosed with late-stage cancer.

Melissa agrees to move in with Toby while he recovers, so the couple relocates to the old home. The new arrangement, alternating between quiet genealogical work with Hugo and the overwhelming activity of family gatherings, is good for Toby’s health. Life settles into predictable routines and, gradually, he recovers. Hugo’s health declines in step, though, and what will happen to the house after his death hovers over the proceedings.

Then one of Susanna’s kids finds a skull in the old Witch Elm tree in the back yard and their lives are thrown into chaos. The police cut down the tree and tear up the yard in their investigation. Once the identity of the body is determined to have been Dominic Ganly, an old classmate of Toby, Susanna, and Leon’s who was reported to have committed suicide just after they graduated, Toby begins his own investigation. He thinks he remembers the dead man as a friendly acquaitance, but could he have been wrong? Is his failure to remember the result of the brain injury or repressed memory? Could he have killed Dominic?

Tana French distinguished herself with the Dublin Murder Squad stories in her ability to spin out tight psychological dramas that build both suspense and emotional depth to relatively simple cases that her detectives solve. In The Witch Elm she flips the script, building a tight psychological drama in two separate cases, this time from the perspective of the victim of one of the crimes. We rarely get to see what the police do to solve the cases, and their methods only serve to exacerbate Toby’s anguish, leading eventually to an explosive late turn that worked after a sort, but put the rest of the story in a different the rest of the story in a different hue that was, in my opinion unnecessary.

(In broad terms, the twist shapes the form the story takes, adding depth to some of the questions of memory and call into question the entire story, but since they are impossible to talk about without spoilers for the whole book, so I will not talk about them here.)

Toby’s PTSD shapes the story, but the overriding themes are memory and identity. The assault and subsequent investigations force Toby to question who he is, even while Melissa tries to keep him grounded. First, the injuries fundamentally change how he interacts with the world and leave him with blanks in his memory. Then, when the skull turns up, everything he remembers about high school and his younger self is called into question.

In Toby’s memory, high school was generally fun, the other people generally benign. But, as Leon and Susanna are quick to point out, Toby has always had things easy. He was a popular, intelligent athlete. For Leon, a gay and eccentric loner, and Susanna, a quiet, nerdy girl, high school was not so fun and their classmates not so harmless. In truth, I came away from this part of the story rethinking what my own high school experience was like since, in some respects, my background was similar to Toby’s.

Lingering over everything is the question of whether or not Toby is a good guy. Melissa certainly thinks so and Hugo agrees, as do his friends, all of whom reassure him that he was the generally benign person that he saw in everyone else. Even Susanna and Leon generally agree, albeit with some minor qualifications. Before the assault, Toby would have taken this as his due; once he is forced to face the consequences of his actions, he is not so sure.

Minor issues with the final twist notwithstanding, The Witch Elm is a powerful and compelling drama that dives deep into questions of memory and family. I went into this novel with high expectations based on having read two of her earlier novels, Broken Harbor and The Trespasser, and a couple of positive reviews, and French more than met them. This is just more evidence that French is one of, if not the best mystery-suspense writer currently working.

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I am now reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in the Gentleman Bastards series.

The Tombs of Atuan

When I finished A Wizard of Earthsea, I concluded that it was a good story, but clearly geared toward a younger audience. Friends on Twitter convinced me that I should keep reading and, in short, I never should have doubted Le Guin.

The Tombs of Atuan is an old temple complex in the Kargish lands (a region left unexplored in A Wizard of Earthsea). The complex contains multiple temples, including for the Godking and the God-brothers, but the oldest is the Place of the Tombs, a sanctuary dedicated to the Nameless Ones. According to tradition, the priestess of the tombs is forever reborn, her essence transferred into a new body born at the moment of the old priestess’ death. That child becomes “The Eaten One,” her soul consumed by the Nameless Ones and her body raised by the temple as the new priestess.

Year by year, Arha (formerly Tenar) learns of her charge. The eunuch Manan is her faithful companion and the older priestesses of lesser gods see to her education, teaching her the lore of the Tombs and about the soulless magic-users of the western lands. But the rest are forbidden from entering the Labyrinth beneath the tombs, so the most important parts of Arha’s training must be self taught. She must discover the secret paths and the long-forgotten offerings for herself––and, equally important, Arha must see to the appropriate sacrifices. Human sacrifices.

Arha’s youth puts her at a disadvantage to the other priestesses. Her primary rival is Kossil, the priestess of the Godking, who regards the Tombs as a forgotten relic of little consequence. Arha has to tread carefully, lest Kossil have her killed and conveniently forget to replace the priestess.

The arrival of a stranger, a thief from the Western Islands trapped beneath the labyrinth, disrupts their tenuous balance of power. That stranger is Ged/Sparrowhawk, come to steal the greatest treasure held in the Tombs: half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, which, when joined with its other half, promises to reveal a rune that could bring peace to the world. Curiosity stays Arha’s hand, but this initiates a dangerous game with Kossil, who demands his execution.

The Tombs of Atuan is a brilliant novel, and a leap in complexity from the youthful coming of age story in A Wizard of Earthsea, despite the latter’s subtle sophistication.

(As a note, I cannot recommend the new afterwords Le Guin wrote for the series enough. They combine reflection on the process of writing, reflection on development of the genre, and a keen eye for literary analysis.)

Le Guin comments in her afterword how The Tombs of Atuan is, in some ways, a direct inversion of A Wizard of Earthsea, much of which stems from the protagonist’s gender. She writes:

Be that as it may, when I wrote the book, it took more imagination than I had to create a girl character who, offered great power, could accept it as her right and due. Such as situation didn’t then seem plausible to me. But since I was writing about the people who in most societies have not been given much power––women––it seemed perfectly plausible to place my heroine in a situation that led her to question the nature and value of power itself.

The word power has two different meanings. There is power to: strength, gift, skill, art, the mastery of a craft, the authority of knowledge. And there is power over: rule, dominion, supremacy, might, mastery of slaves, authority over others.

Ged was offered both kinds of power. Tenar was offered one…

In such a world, I could put a girl at the heart of my story, but I couldn’t give her a man’s freedom, or chances to equal a man’s chances. She couldn’t be a hero in the hero-tale sense.

And it is true. Tenar is the protagonist in The Tombs of Atuan, but Ged is the hero. That is, Tenar undergoes the emotional journey that drives the story, but her evolution is contingent on Ged as the doer of great deeds.

Le Guin rightly and astutely comments on the issue of gender in her afterword, but makes no mention of a second issue that features prominently in the book: the power of belief. This power forms the basis of the conflict between Kossil and Arha/Tenar in that Kossil is an ardent non-believer (though her non-belief may itself be corrupted) whose interests lie in the exercise of power over the younger priestess.

Despite the sinister overtones of human sacrifice, severe routines, and an indoctrinated child, the circumstances could be set for a more benign sort of story. In Arha/Tenar’s privileged position, this cult and culture is not inherently evil. Her charge simply is, so her questioning of the power is caught up in her struggle with Kossil. Only when Ged arrives does Tenar begin to question what she had been taught about the “soulless” westerners and the very nature of the religion.

Fantasy worlds allow for primordial and magical powers to exist, but the power of belief is no less real in life than it is in books. Tenar’s struggle for liberation from the only life that she has ever known elevates The Tombs of Atuan into a masterpiece and reduces Ged’s quest for an artifact that promises to bring good governance, a worthy ambition in its own right, to just a McGuffin.

In short, I loved this book. Simon and Schuster markets it as a teen fantasy, but in Le Guin’s masterful hands it is a brilliant sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea and I look forward to reading the next book in the series with eager anticipation.

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Work and travel have interfered with regular updates. The ship may have sailed on a full writeup A Long Day’s Evening, a philosophical novel by the Turkish novelist Bilge Karasu, though I still hope to write some notes. I have also finished Tana French’s The Witch Elm and have a full post planned about that one. I am now reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in Scott Lynch’s The Gentlemen Bastards series. I’m enjoying its cleverly interwoven origin and heist stories, but a small part of my brain is hung up on aspects of the world building that so far are a little too on the nose for Renaissance North Italy and Germany.