Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

This is the second backlogged write up. I finished reading Ancillary Justice about two weeks ago, so there is a little bit more reflection and a little less that I remember by way of detail.

Ancillary Justice won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in 2014 and has been on my radar for a few years now both because I heard nothing but good things and because it is part of my conscious effort to read more books written by women. In retrospect, I find it a book completely deserving of winning these awards and, simultaneously, did not like it as much as I feel is its critical reception.

The first part of the novel alternates between two timelines. In the first, an ancillary soldier (more on this in a moment) going by the name Breq is on an icy world searching for a weapon of extraordinary power and stumbles across another soldier, drug addicted, who Breq is sure she knew many hundreds of years ago. This is because Breq is the last splinter of an artificial intelligence known as Justice of Toren that inhabited the systems of a massive starship and thousands of ancillaries–human bodies equipped with technology that allows them to be activated by that AI. The second timeline takes place twenty years earlier on Shis’urna, the last planet annexed by the Radchaai. Despite the power of the Radchaai, their absolute faith in their civilizing mission, and a relative lack of opposition on Shis’urna, the annexation did not go smoothly. When the lieutenant from Justice of Toren uncovers an attempt to frame the local inhabitants for an armed uprising, it sets in motion a series of events that reveal a growing schism in Radchaai, involving their leader, Anaander Mianaai herself. In the fallout, Justice of Toren is destroyed.

The two timelines collapse into a single for narrative for the second part, as Breq and Seivarden, the found soldier, work out a scheme to kill Anaander Mianaai.

Several aspects of Ancillary Justice are refreshing. The AI systems raise issues of dispersed personalities, since each ancillary is simultaneously in its individual role *and* part of an intelligence that has been “alive” for thousands of years, and obliquely address hyper-surveillance.

Another core theme is “civilization.” Within the story Radchaai is: a) a planet; b) an empire; c) the people in the empire and the language they speak, and d) the word for civilization. What’s more, the Radchaai language doesn’t distinguish between men and women, so Leckie uses the female pronoun throughout, except when the characters converse with backward peoples outside Radchaai space, which leads to a great deal of confusion. Within the story, there are people who exhibit masculine or feminine characteristics after a sort and there are sexual encounters, but without our traditional assumptions about the roles. These gender roles are placed by hierarchies dictated by class, both in terms of financial resources and social status. The issues of class are further exacerbated because the Radchaai military is undergoing to a reorganization to allow provincial and lower-class citizens to rise into positions of leadership—a change that is vehemently opposed by many of the older families.

Ancillary Justice was refreshingly disorienting. I spent the first portion of the book reorienting my assumptions and expectations; it was mildly irritating, but I recognized that it was both intentional and novel such that I thought that this was one of the strongest components of the book.

Where I struggled with Ancillary Justice was in determining whether I thought the plot worked. This is not to say this was poorly crafted. The technical elements of the plot are excellent and the twists on an otherwise generic setting make that work too. And yet the plot seemed to me to be overly formulaic, mostly a vehicle for the other concepts at play. On the one hand, this does make issues of class and dispersed personalities come to the fore more clearly; on the other hand, I had to keep asking myself if I found it compelling. In particular, I was underwhelmed by the immediate setting: decayed empire going through transition and fragmentation, which, while perhaps relevant to the contemporary world, also felt like a (somewhat) stale riff on the fall of Rome. This is evergreen material for stories, of course and has been omnipresent in science fiction basically since such thing existed, but it this version didn’t seem to me to be saying anything new on this front.

Rereading the last paragraph has me wondering if I am being harsher than I actually mean to be. Those *were* the issues that kept bubbling up as I read, but it makes it seem as though Ancillary Justice. It was not. There is a lot to like about the novel and I am curious to see whether some of my qualms subside when the (pun intended) ancillary elements of the story is established and therefore requires less attention in the text.

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I have finished reading Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley and Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night and will be getting to these write-ups in the near future. Next up: Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days.

Palace of Desire – Naguib Mahfouz

You imply there’s a difference between prestige and learning! There’s no true knowledge without prestige and wealth. and why are you talking about learning as though it’s one thing?..Some kinds of knowledge are appropriate for tramps and others belong to the pashas of the world.

How can you describe a spirit using corporeal expressions

Long live the revolution!

The second book in Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire, picks up seven years after the events of Palace Walk. Our protagonists have aged in the intervening years and have just now seemed to recover from the tragedy that struck the family at the conclusion of the last book, but the most notable development is that al-Sayyid Ahmad has loosened his authoritarian grip over his family–not always for the better. Palace of Desire is perhaps most characterized by how the characters begin to strip away the layers of formality and constructed roles, seeing who their family members are for the first time.

The bulk of Palace of Desire is dedicated to the stories of the three remaining men of the family, al-Sayyid Ahmad and his sons Yasin and Kamal. al-Sayyid has only recent resumed his attending the raucous parties thrown by his friends and is utterly infatuated with the lute-player Zanuba, who dreams of being a wife. The older son, Yasin, is one of the villains of Palace Walk and continues in his philandering ways through a second and, in quick succession, third marriage. Both marriages are scandalous and cause his father no end of grief, particularly when their amorous affairs come into contact. Yet, where Yasin is indulgent with women and drink to the point to the point that he fails in his societal responsibilities, al-Sayyid is ever diligent in protecting his children.

The affairs of al-Sayyid Ahmad and Yasin are trapped in the past and it is therefore appropriate that the women they pursue are familiar to the reader from Palace Walk. In contrast, Kamal gets a coming of age story in three parts that all revolve around the same central issue: ought the family be looking to tradition or to the west. Now sixteen, he has grown into an intelligent and likable young man, traditional in his dress and disproportionate in his features, but, above all, firmly committed to the cause of Egyptian nationalism. Although his upbringing is old-fashioned and his background modest, al-Sayyid’s success as a merchant and good reputation won his son a position in a good school where Kamal made friends with the children of wealthy and influential families. However, where his friends are destined for lives of luxury or careers in the diplomatic corps, Kamal is determined to go to teacher’s school and pursue a career in writing, much to his father’s dismay.After all, al-Sayyid Ahmad believes the purpose of educating his sons is so that they can gain prestige in modern Egyptian society. At the same time, Kamal falls in love with Aida, the sister of his dear friend Husayn, but, while his heart longs for this elegant, westernized woman who has spent time in Paris, there remains the question of whether she is using him in order to manipulate someone else. Finally, in his despair, Kamal begins to dabble with things he sees as being outside the form of Islam he was raised with, including prostitutes, alcohol, and western science.

Palace of Desire is a specific location in the book (of Yasin’s new house), a metaphorical one for all of the male characters, and could be regarded as one of the overriding themes. However, I believe the dominant theme is how the characters gradually come to understand who their family members are rather. Frequently, this unveiling takes the form of coming to recognize what people actually do when their family is not watching, such as al-Sayyid’s sons seeing him drink and sing, Yasin and Kamal bumping into each other drunk at a prostitute’s door, or al-Sayyid reading an article on Darwin that Kamal published in a literary journal. Every character in the family, as well as those they interact with, project different version of themselves depending on the context and Mahfouz juxtaposes these externalizations with internal dialogue. Much of Palace of Desire, then, is dedicated to the gradual reconciling of the differences between the two.

My biggest problem with Palace of Desire, and why I think it is a modest step back from Palace Walk, is that the stories of the women felt incomplete. For instance, it is stated that Amina received additional freedoms in the intervening years, but as the story of the men takes them further and further from her walls, she is given proportionally less space. Her actions and words are well-conceived and I liked her moments, but she is no longer the rock of the family. Likewise, there is an episode in the middle of the story about domestic strife at Khadija and Aisha’s new home, particularly strife between Khadija and her mother-in-law, that requires al-Sayyid Ahmad to be drawn in as mediator. It is a marvelous scene, both because Khadija launches a devious propaganda campaign against her sister and mother-in-law and because it prompts al-Sayyid Ahmad to have a revelation regarding gender: that Khadija, despite being a woman, is his child who inherited most of his best qualities. But this arc mostly appears and then vanishes without reference to it elsewhere. As with Amina’s story, the result is that the the writing and characterization is excellent and the themes of these passages mesh with the rest of the story, but the tightly-knit family drama that explored issues of gender in such interesting ways in Palace Walk feels just a bit incomplete in Palace of Desire.

I started reading Palace of Desire shortly after President Trump tried to ban Muslims from entering the United States. I have owned the book for some time now, but chose it because I didn’t have literature by authors from the countries targeted by the ban and Mahfouz wrote in Arabic, so I figured it could serve as a stand-in. Mahfouz presents an Egypt in the throes of a nationalist movement, but trapped between the West and tradition (not necessarily Islam, but it plays a role), between indulging personal choice and fulfilling responsibility, and between the different responses one can have to the inevitability of change.

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I am currently reading two books, Ann Leckie’s Hugo-winning novel Ancillary Justice, which I found a bit difficult to get into but am now enjoying it, I think, and G.R.R. Martin’s The World of Ice and Fire, which I am enjoying the heck out of and have thoughts on both as a fan in terms of the actual material and as a historian in terms of the form.

Silent House – Orhan Pamuk

In the small coastal town of Cennethisar several hours from Istanbul there is an old house, one of the oldest in town. In this house there lives Fatma, a bedridden old Turkish woman who was forced to leave Istanbul years ago because of her husband’s actions, and with her lives Recep, a dwarf, one of her husband’s illegitimate children born to their maid some five decades earlier. For a week every summer the quiet tension of the house is broken by the arrival of her three grandchildren, the divorced historian Faruk, the leftist sister Nílgün, and Metín, a high school student obsessed with the exciting consumer luxuries of modernity. Rounding out this family drama is Hasan, a right-wing nationalist and Recep’s nephew.

The story unfolds over the course of a week as Faruk busies himself in the archives, Nílgün sunbathes and reads leftist publications, and Metín parties with his nouveaux ríche friends. Meanwhile Fatma and Recep are burdened with the memories of Selahattin, with the former being particularly concerned that Recep might be twisting her grandchildren against her. Despite how Fatma treats him, Recep is not threatening her legacy and the children are lost in their own little worlds. There is, however, imminent danger in the obsessions of young men.

Orhan Pamuk’s second novel, Silent House was published in Turkish in 1983 but only translated into English in 2012.  The core plot in Silent House is a variation on a family or dynastic epic, complete with each character representing a different group within the country and three children of different proclivities. At the same time, it differs from the classic examples of such a device (e.g. Hundred Years of Solitude and The Radetzky March), the conflict is compressed into the space of a week instead of dragging out over the course of years.

The style of Silent House is recognizably Pamuk. Each chapter switches between narrators, but interlocks to present a complete story. Silent House also broaches familiar themes, including that Turkey is torn between looking backward and envying countries they believe look forward, but his characters almost too bluntly embody the issues Pamuk wants to address. This is not to say that the characters don’t work for the story, but all of the younger people do not come across as particularly rounded outside what they stand for. The exception to this, and unsurprisingly the part of the part of the book I thought was the most successful, was the relationship between Fatma and Recep, both of whom exist in the present, but who also have the years of memories in which to round out and explain their characters. The younger people had lives outside of the week in the narration, but those lives are hardly explored with the result that their motivations fall back on their types.

All the hallmarks of a great Orhan Pamuk novel are already present in Silent House. The interlocking chapters, the insights about Turkey, and the interweaving of past and present are all there, but the execution is not as successfully realized as in his later novels such as My Name is Red, The Black Book, and Snow. If I had not already been a Pamuk fan I might have struggled with this book. Silent House is still worth reading, but fairly far down my list of favorite Pamuk novels and is certainly not one to start with.

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I am currently reading the second book in Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire. This is a book that has been on my shelf for some time, but I picked it up in light of recent events because it was originally written in Arabic.

Remembering Laughter – Wallace Stegner

Set in rural Iowa, <em>Remembering Laughter</em> opens at the funeral for Margaret Stuart’s husband and features a short scene between Margaret and her sister Elspeth MacLeod. The story immediately flashes back eighteen years to a summer day when Elspeth arrived in Iowa by train to join Margaret and her wealthy husband Alec. The happy couple, composed of the lively and outgoing husband and his puritanical wife, welcomes Elspeth, but Margaret soon begins to worry that her sister is taking an interest in the married and less-than-reputable farmhands and sets about trying to make sure that her sister is taken care of. Little does Margaret realize that attraction elsewhere…and then a child comes into the picture.

I have enormous blind spots in terms of American literature, much preferring to read stories set abroad. <em>Remembering Laughter</em> is both the first piece by Wallace Stegner I have read and my first set in Iowa. Based on a simple description it is not a book I would have picked up, but I had it more than recommended (it was literally handed) to me and I was looking for something short. I was surprised at Stegner’s light touch that made the book incredibly readable and, simultaneously, made the story all the more emotionally powerful.
According to Mary Stegner’s afterword, <em>Remembering Laughter</em>, Wallace’s first book, was based on a story she told him about her two aunts in Western Iowa. What struck me about the story is that even though it takes place over the course of nearly two decades there is barely a hint of the passage of time. The child grows up and the technology changes a bit, but the frigidity between the two women seems to be eternal, at least until the source of their conflict is addressed. Laughter, as the title suggests, looms large in the relationship between the two sisters, but largely because Alec is the touchstone of laughter for both of them.

I cannot say that I will eagerly seek out Stegner’s other books, but I was also pleasantly surprised to the point that I would not resist reading anything else by him.

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I have also recently finished Orhan Pamuk’s <em>Silent House</em> and will write up some thoughts on that book soon. I am now reading Naguib Mahfouz’ <em>Palace of Desire</em> because it is the only book on my to-read shelf originally written in Arabic. It is not a book to be read quickly, but I am enjoying it thus far.

Wicked River: the Mississippi when it last ran wild, Lee Sandlin

I was in Minneapolis for a funeral last weekend and, as a result, was visiting with extended family. One of my cousins lives a matter of blocks from one of my favorite bookstores, Magers and Quinn, so we usually end up talking books. Not for the first time, she passed a number of books off to me. The first of these I picked up is Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi river before the Civil War.

Sandlin takes the reader along with the navigators up and down the river, into the swirling currents, and among the personalities that fought, swindled, and cavorted in the region. His inspiration, in a way, seems to be the stories of Mark Twain even though he notes early on that those stories were already conjuring up a bygone world. In this sense, it is more appropriate to start with what changed. In Sandlin’s account (and I do not think there is reason to doubt it), the infrastructure of the Mississippi River changed in the years after the Civil War when the first railroad bridge crossed the river allowing trains to almost completely replace steamboats. At the same time, US military engineers undertook a massive project to smooth out the rough edges of the river and demographic changes tamed the rough population.

Wicked River is an easy, indulgent read that eagerly regales its audience with the tall tales and local legends from the Mississippi River valley. Most of the stories, Sandlin concludes, are fictions that emerged out of a kernel of truth. Wicked River is well pretty well researched and draws from both contemporary accounts and geographic surveys, but Sandlin employs the same casual, comfy tone whether describing the winter snowmelt or legends about piratical gangs, which becomes only slightly more regimented at the end when those characters lived on only in memory.

I can’t vouch for the value of Wicked River as a historical study, not because I think Sandlin is wrong in his narrative but because I don’t know the historiography on the topic and there is only a loose thesis. But this judgement should not detract from a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging read about a bygone time.

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Next up, I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House.

The End of All Things – John Scalzi

The End of All Things is the most recent installment of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. Like it’s predecessor, The Human Division, The End of All Things was released in serial form, with each episode advancing the overall plot, while introducing new viewpoint characters. Like Scalzi’s other work, the book features snappy, sarcastic, and often exasperated dialogue, with a smart and sympathetic overall tone. The End of All Things is not my favorite book in the series, which, at some level seems to be running its course since the novelty of the original premise has grown old, but it nonetheless remains a worthy read.

At the conclusion of The Human Division Earth has been separated from the Colonial Union and is now hung between the CU and The Conclave, an alliance of alien species, many of whom hate all humans. The governments of Earth are convinced, and not without reason, that the CU is responsible for attacking them, but, in fact, the real perpetrators are a shadowy organization known as Equilibrium whose goal is to destroy The Conclave and, if possible, the Colonial Union. It is a race against time for scrappy misfits to stop an all-out war, prevent the genocide of the human race, and, in the process, save the Colonial Union from itself.

One of the things I enjoyed about The End of All Things (despite the opinion that the title, which is also a repeated line in the book, is a little too cute) is that its action-and-ingenuity form is set against a thoughtful discussion of politics wherein there are three camps: keep things the way they are, blow everything up, and aggressively pursue a more structurally sound system. The heroes are in the last camp. Moreover, Scalzi does a notably good job of building a diverse cast of characters who take on important roles, regardless of their gender, without coming across like he is preaching about these virtues. I add this last point because I find it somewhat ironic given his online reputation and also because some other science fiction and fantasy books have sometimes come across as moralistic, though, admittedly, generally within the strictures of their plots.

I have given a brief synopsis and a brief explanation of what I liked about The End of All Things, but want to conclude with some further thoughts about serialization and series. The End of All Things is the sixth book in this series, but unlike a lot of long genre series it doesn’t seem to be building to a single “last battle” or comparable event. If I recall correctly, I have put down every book thinking that a) there was a satisfactory conclusion and b) events outside that particular arc continued, whether or not they were even put down in a publication. This is not an easy task to accomplish.

Each new book picks up the grand plot of the series and features some of the same characters, but doesn’t simply perpetuate itself by finding some new skill for the protagonist to have or by needing to pick up from an incomplete story. Instead, each new book has a new angle or has a new perspective—-and the same holds true for each installment of the serialized books, with the final resolution coming at the end of the final installment. What I find interesting about this approach is that it avoids some of the pitfalls of long-running series that sometimes feel like they are coming apart at the seams because the author keeps introducing new viewpoint characters. Scalzi introduces new viewpoints, but usually because the other viewpoints are not likely to return.

As noted above, I liked The End of All Things, but it concludes at a very nice pause point for that particular universe and I am excited to see what Scalzi puts out next.

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Next up, I am reading Wicked River by Lee Sandlin and will probably open Orhan Pamuk’s The Silent House later today.

The Tattered Cloak – Nina Berberova

I don’t usually read short stories unless I already appreciate the larger piece of art that I already like. There are a variety of reasons for this breakdown of what I read, and my prejudices against the medium, including that I have a hard time connecting with the characters in such a short space, are clearly colored by the types of short stories I do read. (I have also read David Foster Wallace short story collections that are…something.) yet, I do want to read more broadly, and I had picked up Nina Berberova’s collection on a whim at Jackson Street Books in Omaha Nebraska, so I gave it a go as one of the first reads of 2017. The short version of this review: these stories are amazing.

Berberova was born in St. Petersburg in 1901 and emigrated to Paris in the 1920s; her work reflects her personal experience, telling stories about Russians fleeing circumstances in their native country and trying to make a life somewhere else. This particular collection consists of six stories, translated under the titles “The Resurrection of Mozart,” “The Waiter and the Slut,” “Astashev in Paris,” “The Tattered Cloak,” “The Black Pestilence,” and “In Memory of Schliemann.” Berberova conjures a misfit cast of Russians, all of whom are trying to make their way in life, often by somewhat unsavory means. Ultimately the collections reminiscent of Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris crossed with the best of the Russian short story tradition of Gogol.

I really liked every story in this collection, but the lead story, “The Resurrection of Mozart” was the one that stood out to me both as being a little bit different and particularly memorable. This story is set a little bit after the others, taking place in June 1940 just after the outbreak of war between France and Germany. A group of Russian emigres are gathered in a village outside of Paris and debating which famous figure is most necessary in times like these. Someone says Napoleon, another says Julius Caesar, but the host insists that in troubled times artists are most necessary and none more so than Mozart. The next day a stranger with a strange accent wanders into town while everyone is furiously making preparations for war. Without revealing what happens next, Berberova offers a devastating commentary about life during troubled times. She doesn’t suggest that calling back a famous warrior would have changed the course of World War 2, but she does seem to suggest how powerless a single individual can be.

The Tattered Cloak and other Stories did a lot to moderate my opinion of short stories. Berberova crafts short vignettes on a given theme and creates engaging and memorable characters. She does not cringe away from difficult topics, which some people might find off-putting, but as with the comparable authors I listed above, I find that these moments add a power to the stories. I intend to read more of her work in the future and absolutely recommend this collection to just about anyone.

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Next up, I finished reading John Scalzi’s The End of All Things. I started reading Lee Sandlin’s Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi River this morning and plan to read Orhan Pamuk’s The Silent House next.

To Each His Own – Leonardo Sciascia

“But,” he said to himself, “Sicily and maybe all Italy is full of likable people who should have their heads chopped off.”

To Each His Own is the second novel I’ve read by the Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia, the first being The Day of the Owl. Despite being radically different stories, the two novels have certain similarities. Both are mysteries set in small town Sicily and both cases center on the exploitation of power by shadowy family organizations that may or may not be the mafia, depending on who is talking. However, unlike The Day of the Owl, To Each His Own is told through the lens of a native Sicilian.

The story opens when the town pharmacist receives a death threat in the mail. He is disturbed, but writes it off as a prank and continues with his plan to go hunting with his friend Dr. Roscio. Neither man returns home, but their bodies and the animals they killed are later found. The police investigation quickly stalls, but the case attracts the attention of Professor Paolo Laurana, a teacher and literary critic who is particularly captured by the death threat, which is made up of newspaper clippings that include the word “Unicuique” (suum): to each his own.

Laurana’s investigation continues around his school duties, starting with the provenance of the death threat. Slowly, though, his suspicions are transferred onto the death of Dr. Roscio, who had recently took an emergency trip to Rome and is married to Luisa the beautiful niece of Dean Rosello. Although Dean Rosello is a local pastor, he is both the spiritual and terrestrial head of household for a family that owns vast tracts of land in and around the city and protected his brothers’ widows, raising their children, including Luisa and another Rosello, as though they were his own, ensuring that his family members married well and received influential posts in local government. Despite the police honing in on the clues that point to the pharmacist being responsible for the death of the two men, Laurana believes that there is something shady about this family and proceeds to become entangled in the the web he is trying to unravel.

I liked To Each His Own better than The Day of the Owl. The latter story is an earlier work and is still a powerful critique of mafia culture, but was too much on the nose. To Each His Own is still an inconclusive story and touches on the same themes, but does so obliquely, which, in my opinion, allows the main narrative to thrive in its own right in a way that The Day of the Owl sometimes did not.

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I have finished The Tattered Cloak, a series of short stories by the Paris-based Russian emigré Nina Berberova, and am now reading John Scalzi’s serial novel The End of All Things.

Vanished Kingdoms – Norman Davies

My final non-fiction read of 2016 was another large book that has been on my list for quite some time. Norman Davies Vanished Kingdoms is a weighty tome that purports to investigate the rise and fall of states. In my opinion, Davies falls short of this stated objective, but the book as a whole is nevertheless worth reading.

Each chapter of Vanished Kingdoms is dedicated to a different European “kingdom” that a) came into being after the fall of the Roman Empire b) has somehow shaped the modern European landscape and c) no longer exists. The studies are arranged in rough chronological order, starting with the Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa and concluding with the Soviet Union (albeit focussed on Estonia). Each chapter is divided into three parts. First, there is a synopsis of the modern region, second is a synopsis of the titular state of the chapter, and finally there is an analysis of how that state collapsed. Some chapters are more comprehensive than others; for instance, the chapter on Byzantium is littered with comments about how this short chapter is inadequate to give anything other than a passing impression. The unevenness was usually not a major problem, except in the case of Byzantium, which seemed like a chapter that a reviewer asked to be added to the book rather than one that really fit with the rest of the text.

Davies returns to themes of language, culture, and religion over and over again, and with good reason. His approach highlights that the largely stable borders of European nation-states were deeply fragmented as little as a century and a half ago and liable to change because of elite marriages. Vanished Kingdoms does an excellent job of explaining many of the independence movements in, for instance Catalonia, without trying to be a Grand Narrative of Europe. I also particularly liked Davies’ approach to European nationalism, which is not to push national identity per se into the past, but to ascribe weight to historical developments in terms of the the development of modern nationalism—and starting this narrative in the shadow of Rome was defensible for seeking these roots.

I liked Vanished Kingdoms quite a bit, particularly enjoying the chapters on Alt Clud (northern England), Litvia, Borussia, and Aragon, but, as noted above, think that framing the book as a study of how states die is misleading. The final chapter is a historiographical epilogue that engages with the literature on how states fail, infused with observations and conclusions from the fifteen studies in the book. This chapter was fine, but I found the frame limiting, particularly in that this is a Eurocentric book. Instead, I thought the stronger parts of the book engaged with the wrinkles of European Nationalism, something that is tangentially related to how states collapse, but actually examining how states survive—not in terms of political strategy, but in terms of the formations that currently exist.

The Dark Tower – Stephen King

The Dark Tower has been on my to-read list longer than I think any other book. I first considered reading it sometime in high school, but never got around to it until I found a copy in a used book store a couple of weeks ago. It also occurred to me as I made my way through that this is also the first Stephen King novel I’ve read. That leaves me with a lot of catching up to do, on the one hand, but some amount of ambivalence on the other.

A short synopsis: Roland is a Gunslinger walking across a post-apocalyptic(?) wasteland giving chase to the Man in Black, who he blames for having caused the destruction of his home and family. The Man in Black has left traps for Roland and he is briefly waylaid by an orgiastic interlude with Alice and the need to take care of Jake, a lost boy who is from another time and place, but the pursuit continues.

I can see why people like The Dark Tower and I can see why it is a classic. Roland is one of those tenacious archetypes of the lone hero who can’t be deterred from his mission and flashbacks to his upbringing hint at the prodigy of stubbornness. Even his prey is nameless and faceless through most of the book, adding to the archetypes. The world is a post-apocalyptic mashup of the American southwest, medieval Europe, and some added flavor from elsewhere, and, for the most part, the story is solidly crafted to have a surreal aura. Still, I found something lacking. For one thing, it reminded me of a number of 1970s/1980s fantasy novels with pseudo-terrestrial settings that I almost always find jarring. Dystopias where something has happened are fine, but for a book to not really be set on earth yet feature a christianity as the common religion take me out of the setting. For another, I found the first third of the book or so to be fairly jumbled up and somewhat overwritten. It is not that this section was exactly bad (it reveals Roland’s character and gives plenty of setting), but I didn’t understand why I ought to care about any of this. In contrast, once The Dark Tower started to give Roland context through flashbacks, something that both played in- and added onto his archetype, the story got significantly better.

The Dark Tower ends by answering one of the questions it starts out with, but also opening up the setting for the rest of the books in the series. I don’t know that I will read them, though I have been told that the next few, at least, are worth reading. I liked The Dark Tower well enough, but King’s writing and the story didn’t grip me the way other series sometimes have and I have a lengthy to-read list that includes a number of fantasy books by authors I like a lot more.

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I finished reading Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms this morning and will write up some thoughts about that at some point. Next up is Leonardo Sciascia’s mystery novel To Each His Own.