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Lofgeornost

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When I was a history student the running joke was Historians distrust good writing
Well, that’s one way to look at it. Personally, I’d apply that dictum to social-science writing, which often seems to revel in using obscure jargon, passive voice, and abstractions rather than concrete language. Good historical writing avoids those sins. And it’s not just my opinion; there’s an interesting book on the subject, Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Likely it’s a side-effect of my training, and of needing to read a lot of historical work, but I actually find many history books that are written to be popular—especially those labeled ‘creative non-fiction’—kind of tiresome. All the tricks and trappings that go into making the book ‘juicy’ instead of dry get in the way of simply providing information and analysis. Popular books that combine travelogue or the author’s current-day experiences with whatever historical topic they are supposed to be exploring I find especially irksome. YMMV, of course.
 

BedrockBrendan

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Well, that’s one way to look at it. Personally, I’d apply that dictum to social-science writing, which often seems to revel in using obscure jargon, passive voice, and abstractions rather than concrete language. Good historical writing avoids those sins. And it’s not just my opinion; there’s an interesting book on the subject, Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Likely it’s a side-effect of my training, and of needing to read a lot of historical work, but I actually find many history books that are written to be popular—especially those labeled ‘creative non-fiction’—kind of tiresome. All the tricks and trappings that go into making the book ‘juicy’ instead of dry get in the way of simply providing information and analysis. Popular books that combine travelogue or the author’s current-day experiences with whatever historical topic they are supposed to be exploring I find especially irksome. YMMV, of course.

It was mostly said as a joke. But I think to an extent it made sense (good writing is often done to be persuasive and can obscure a bad argument or bad analysis). I think they were also saying overly polished writing might indicate less effort went into the research and analysis side so it made them distrustful a bit (i.e. they trusted someone who wrote a little sloppy because it indicated the writing wasn't the main point, that the research was). I was told by one professor I was a very good writer, and he joked that might be a problem.

But I would hear it all the time from faculty (sometimes as point of pride, sometimes as a lament if they liked a particular history book but it was regarded as too popular or mainstream). The ideal for history writing when I was a student was plain spoken, straight forward but not the kind of writing you might see in a literary studies course or something (and I was studying in the wake of the linguistic turn, which probably shaped a lot of the faculties attitude towards language). It also did seem to vary a bit depending on the area of focus

But there are plenty of beautifully written history books. I do feel this tension when I encounter that (because my mind immediately says you aren't here for beauty, why is beauty present? Is it a trick?). For me, I prefer clarity in historical writing. To me engaging and clear is good writing for history. Some areas of history, as you point out, get bogged down in jargon or highly abstract phrasing and I often find these types of books actually say very little. That is a whole other issue I think (that is less about good writing and more about purpose and use of language). I remember reading a book, which I won't name, but it was a history of supernatural beliefs that was so burdened by this type of writing that it literally never asserted anything (it only deducted). Which was kind of clever if you are into that sort of thing, but for my purposes it left me with less than nothing in terms of information and understanding.
 

carpocratian

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Well, that’s one way to look at it. Personally, I’d apply that dictum to social-science writing, which often seems to revel in using obscure jargon, passive voice, and abstractions rather than concrete language.

I brought this up several times in social science classes that I took in grad school. Some of the professors admitted that they felt like they had to write that way to sound "academic" to their peers and reviewers in the field. Nevertheless, some of them really praised the serious scholarly works that were written with more accessible language.
 

Lofgeornost

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Laurus Cover 2 - Copy.jpg

Courtesy of the local library, and its I.L.L. service, I recently read Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, which won several literary awards when it was published in Russia in 2012. Of course, I read an English version, by Lisa Hayden, issued by Oneworld in 2015. My guess is that the book lost a good deal in translation. Hayden’s introduction notes that the Russian text combines various types of prose, from archaic sections inspired by Church Slavonic to modern bureaucratese. She attempted to create the same effect in English by including passages similar to Middle English, though more accessible to a modern reader, but I suspect the results are less striking than in the original—the main feature of the ‘Middle English’ sections in this text is their unusual spelling and a few odd verb forms. Anyway, I did not get the impression from the translation of different archaeological strata of language that Hayden states is present in the Russian original.

The book is the tale of one Arseny, born in 1440 in the Russian village of Rukina. Raised by his grandfather Christofer, he learns the arts of the physician and herbalist, and later in life becomes a renowned healer, though he achieves his cures more by holiness than by medical treatments. Arseny suffers a great tragedy as a young man (I won’t detail it to avoid spoilers) and decides to spend his life atoning for his role in it. That life is eventful—beyond acting (at times) as healer, he is attacked by robbers, spends years as a ‘holy fool,’ goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and becomes a monk and then a recluse, meeting a wide variety of notable characters along the way.

The book’s structure is mainly chronological, but not precisely. At various points in his long career (he lives to be 80), Arseny becomes, or feels he becomes, detached from linear time, so events are dropped in to the narrative without any close connection to those before and after. A bigger break in the normal flow of time comes from Arseny’s friend Ambrogio, an Italian scholar who accompanies him to Palestine. Ambrogio sees visions of the future. A few of these, noted in passing, have to do with his own era—Columbus’ discovery of America, the French invasion of Italy in 1494. But those that are given in full all concern the 20th century and are presented in the book essentially as passages from another novel, so to speak. A typical one, for instance, features a Ph.D. candidate in 1977 taking part in an archaeological dig on the site of a monastery where Arseny once lived. But the vignette does not connect to Arseny’s life or even really the monastery—it mainly focuses on the scholar’s attraction to a local woman and his vacillation on whether to court her. These ‘break-ins’ are interesting enough, I guess, but I didn’t feel that they added much to the novel.

As you can see, a blurb on the book’s cover compares it to The Name of the Rose. In some ways it’s an apt comparison; they are both novels with a medieval setting written by scholars with a deep knowledge of that period. But in most ways the books are not very similar. The Name of the Rose (as I recall it, anyway) is fundamentally a novel about literary theory—the monastic library, with its labyrinthine structure, is a metaphor for ideas about intertextuality and the indeterminacy of texts. Laurus is nothing like that; its real focus is spirituality and in many ways it reads like the modern equivalent of a saint’s life. Holy men, and clergy generally, are almost always presented in a positive light: they really are pious and their spiritual and other advice is good. That’s a marked contrast to most modern novels about the Middle Ages, where religious figures are frequently depicted as zealots, oppressors, or corrupt people interested in wealth and power.
 

Sharrow

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I'll give a slightly different perspective; I think it's linked to age but not necessarily to nostalgia. At this point in my life, I've read I couldn't guess how many thousands of fiction books. Most of them I have relatively little remembrance of, especially if I read them decades ago. I will tend to remember if I liked them or not, and I'm only likely to hold on to the ones I enjoyed, since I purge physical books every so often for space.

So, when looking for something to read, it can make sense to reach for a book that I know I liked but I really don't remember much about. I get much the same enjoyment as I would in reading something entirely new, but the book is 'pre-screened' for me, so to speak. Also, though I like newer genre fiction too, to some extent my tastes were set by an earlier era. Some books that are very popular nowadays, like Becky Chambers' work, I find a little cloying.
I generally have a very good memory for what happened in books I've read (assuming I can link the memory to the title), and know whether I liked them or not and why. However, I'm not generally very good at remembering exact quotes or turns of phrase, so I will happily re-read books I've read in the past just to enjoy the writing, and to see the characters again.

As for what I'm reading at the moment (well, what I'm about to start reading), today I picked up this tome:

IMG_0243[1].JPG

When I was a teen I read the copy my local public library had, but I've not seen a copy for many years, and all those available on Amazon and the like were for ruinous prices with even more ruinous shipping. This copy turned up in a local second-hand book-store for an only slightly horrific price. It's a reprint, but a high quality one, so I'm pretty chuffed and looking forward to reading it and enjoying the illustrations.
 

Lofgeornost

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It was mostly said as a joke. But I think to an extent it made sense (good writing is often done to be persuasive and can obscure a bad argument or bad analysis). I think they were also saying overly polished writing might indicate less effort went into the research and analysis side so it made them distrustful a bit (i.e. they trusted someone who wrote a little sloppy because it indicated the writing wasn't the main point, that the research was). I was told by one professor I was a very good writer, and he joked that might be a problem.

But I would hear it all the time from faculty (sometimes as point of pride, sometimes as a lament if they liked a particular history book but it was regarded as too popular or mainstream). The ideal for history writing when I was a student was plain spoken, straight forward but not the kind of writing you might see in a literary studies course or something (and I was studying in the wake of the linguistic turn, which probably shaped a lot of the faculties attitude towards language). It also did seem to vary a bit depending on the area of focus.

That makes sense. It occurs to me that when I posted above that social-science writing is often pretty bad, I should have been clearer that most historical writing isn't done in a social-science vein or style, though of course some is.

Historical writing can be good or bad prose, naturally. (I think the nicest thing any reviewer ever said about my style is that it is 'sturdy' or some similar adjective). Some of history's reputation for bad writing, though, can come from mistaking books written for specialists with those written for a general audience.

I see this sort of thing on Amazon all the time; reviews of scholarly historical works that complain that they are boring, too concerned with historiographical controversies, or don't provide enough background. But those books were written for other historians who already know the background, are interested in findings and argument more than in a 'good read,' and who are quite concerned with how a book fits into the historiography. There are some scholarly historical books, based on deep research, that are also quite accessible to the general reader, but they are naturally fairly rare.

The physical sciences don't seem to have this problem. There it seems well accepted that books for general readers are different from works aimed at researchers and reporting the latest findings (though these are more likely to be articles than book).
 

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I read Jeremy Bai's Sun's Blood and Storm of Souls, now I've got to wait forever for book three. Aargh. I also went through sa bunch of old Laumer works (Retief stuff) which I adore. I love the confidence man/two-fisted sci-fi hero archetype. Who solves problems despite his 'job' basically being all red tape 'follow the path of least trouble' aspect. It amuses me. I'm wondering why there are no SF games that focus on Retief/Stainless Steel Rat, and other such ahem, heroes.
 

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Got this from Lulu, there are two volumes, the third will have a section on rpgs. They maintain a fun Twitter account as well with lots of video clips, etc.

20220712_183002.jpg



Good interview, as usual, on The Grognard Files.

 

Lofgeornost

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Over the weekend, I read Gogol's Taras Bulba, in the newish (2003) Modern Library translation by Peter Constantine. I'd never read this novella and I was interested to see how it compared to the Tony Curtis/Yul Brynner movie version.

It was interesting, though I'm not sure I would say I enjoyed it. One difference between the book and film are that the son Andrei's back-story with the Polish 'princess' is far shorter in the novella; I assume it was extended in the film to give Tony Curtis more screen-time and to make his desertion of the Cossack cause more plausible. The book extends considerably beyond the Cossack attack on Dubno and is far darker, in its violence and anti-Semitism, than the movie. It also is a work of Russian patriotism, which now reads as a little odd, though it makes sense in a 19th-century context. The combat scenes are fitting Homeric, and as the introduction notes, actually borrow some metaphors from the Iliad. The pen-portraits of the steppe also are intriguing.
 

Lofgeornost

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This morning I was awakened at 3:30 when a skunk unburdened itself somewhere near my house. The smell was so intense I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I spent the wee hours finishing a book I’d been reading, Greg Bear’s Strength of Stones. I think it originally appeared in 1981, but I was reading the 2014 e-book re-issue, thanks to Hoopla, my public library’s app.

I’ve read some of Bear’s short stories over the years, but this was the first of his novels I’ve read. It’s divided into three distinct parts—Mandala, Resurrection, and The Revenant—and the first two were originally published individually. Though set on the same world, the first two tales have no characters in common, though the third features characters from both.

The novel takes place on the planet God-Does-Battle, which was settled in the 22nd century by a coalition of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, whose religious extremism had made them unwelcome on Earth. With the help of a genius architect, they constructed vast living cities for themselves there. But, within a century or two, the cities abruptly exiled the humans for their sins and for a thousand years or more refused to allow any of them to enter. Some survivors, called Expolitans, settled near their cities—at least initially, since the cities could and did disassemble themselves from time to time and move to new locations. Others, called Chasers, lived feral Mad-Max-style lives, simultaneously worshipping the cities and wanting to destroy them. Bear provides a special language for them, a degenerate form of English, rather like that in Riddley Walker (though less complex).

The book begins in the 3400s and the first section traces the events which brought one Expolitan, Jeshua Tubal Iben Daod, to the city of Mandala. It reads as something of a cross between a post-apocalyptic novel and one of those classic evocations of the city of the far future, like Against the Fall of Night. I will admit that I was so taken with the description of Jeshua’s adventures and the city itself that I failed to suss out what was, in retrospect, an obvious plot-twist in the tale. So kudos to Bear for that. The next section deals with another Expolitan refugee, the Muslim Reah, and her encounter with the city of Resurrection. The plot is more complex than the first segment, since the story also features the career of one Durragon, who has raised an army of Chasers and Expolitan refugees and is seeking to make himself into a ruler, rather than simply the leader of a horde. The final section, set a century later, focuses on an avatar of the original architect, which has been created to survey the situation. He encounters some of the characters from the earlier tales. The third section’s ending veered off into somewhat bizarre territory, as one of the characters actually remarks. I admired the attempt to fit ideas from Kaballah into a hard SF setting, but it didn’t really work, IMO.

The setting for the initial stories would make an interesting one for an RPG. There are even dungeon-equivalents: undergrounds excavated by the original settlers and used while they were constructing the cities, known as Sheols, in which remnants of old technology and some odd creatures can be found. As a terraformed world, God-Does-Battle does not offer a lot in the way of ‘monsters’ but the Chasers in part fill that role, as do elements of the living cities that have been sent out to survey the land—or which have malfunctioned and wandered off.

Strength of Stones.jpg
 

Fenris-77

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I'm in the middle of re-reading Neal Stephenson's System of the World series [edit - The Baroque Cycle...), but I think I'm going to take a little break and get caught up on the Expanse novels, which fits better with the RPG writing I'm currently lip deep in.
 

Lofgeornost

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I'm in the middle of re-reading Neal Stephenson's System of the World series [edit - The Baroque Cycle...), but I think I'm going to take a little break and get caught up on the Expanse novels, which fits better with the RPG writing I'm currently lip deep in.
I remember finding those novels engrossing when they first came out, though they got some savage reviews.

Over the weekend I read Herman Lons’ The Warwolf. It’s a German novel about the Thirty Years War from a peasant perspective, published in 1910, which was translated into English about 15 years ago. I’d been vaguely aware of it, but saw it referenced in the RPG Courts, Cloaks, and Gonnes, and so checked it out from the library.

I found it a slightly odd read. The main plot of the book is straightforward and rather predictable—bad things happen to the farmers in the Luneberger Heath section of Saxony as a result of the war and its depredations, and they fight back. The main character, and the leader of the resistance, is one Harm Wulf, a rather larger-than-life fellow who—though he’d rather be farming peacefully—becomes the head of a band of fighters known as the Warwolves. The thing that I found rather odd about the novel is, well, how little the main characters actually suffer from the war and how overwhelming and successful their resistance is. After Wulf’s village is burned, he and others retreat to the nearby marshes and construct their own hidden community there. They have plenty of food and (with one exception near the end of the novel) are never seriously threatened in their stronghold. They put together a band of several hundred locals who descend on any group of soldiers, marauders, or just strangers in their region and wipe them out. Generally they do this from ambush, with no real danger to themselves and apparently nary a loss. Nor do they seem that worried about the slaughter, which Wulf at one point estimates at several thousand people over the decades. They don’t spare women or children, either. There are a few points at which the psychological toll of killing comes up, but this is a very minor element of the novel compared to many statements about ‘those outsiders got what is coming to them.’

The book does mention, in passing, the extreme depredations of troops, the ravages of famine, etc. in surrounding regions. But this never seems to affect Wulf and his community all that directly. They do have some tragedies, but these are largely those you might expect in a novel about peasant life in the 17th century. And the book spends time on the main character’s marriages, children, etc. In a way, it seemed to me an odd combination of a ‘survival in the wilderness’ novel, like Swiss Family Robinson, and a tale of bushwhacking in 17th-century Germany.
 

Voros

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I remember finding those novels engrossing when they first came out, though they got some savage reviews.

Over the weekend I read Herman Lons’ The Warwolf. It’s a German novel about the Thirty Years War from a peasant perspective, published in 1910, which was translated into English about 15 years ago. I’d been vaguely aware of it, but saw it referenced in the RPG Courts, Cloaks, and Gonnes, and so checked it out from the library.

I found it a slightly odd read. The main plot of the book is straightforward and rather predictable—bad things happen to the farmers in the Luneberger Heath section of Saxony as a result of the war and its depredations, and they fight back. The main character, and the leader of the resistance, is one Harm Wulf, a rather larger-than-life fellow who—though he’d rather be farming peacefully—becomes the head of a band of fighters known as the Warwolves. The thing that I found rather odd about the novel is, well, how little the main characters actually suffer from the war and how overwhelming and successful their resistance is. After Wulf’s village is burned, he and others retreat to the nearby marshes and construct their own hidden community there. They have plenty of food and (with one exception near the end of the novel) are never seriously threatened in their stronghold. They put together a band of several hundred locals who descend on any group of soldiers, marauders, or just strangers in their region and wipe them out. Generally they do this from ambush, with no real danger to themselves and apparently nary a loss. Nor do they seem that worried about the slaughter, which Wulf at one point estimates at several thousand people over the decades. They don’t spare women or children, either. There are a few points at which the psychological toll of killing comes up, but this is a very minor element of the novel compared to many statements about ‘those outsiders got what is coming to them.’

The book does mention, in passing, the extreme depredations of troops, the ravages of famine, etc. in surrounding regions. But this never seems to affect Wulf and his community all that directly. They do have some tragedies, but these are largely those you might expect in a novel about peasant life in the 17th century. And the book spends time on the main character’s marriages, children, etc. In a way, it seemed to me an odd combination of a ‘survival in the wilderness’ novel, like Swiss Family Robinson, and a tale of bushwhacking in 17th-century Germany.

Sounds a bit like von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, although that is very much NOT a successful rebellion. I know it from the Schlondorff film. Schlondorff's The Sudden Wealth of the People of Kombach is based on another real life story of a peasant revolt of sorts but again being historically grounded it is more tragic.
 

Mankcam

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After all the grim themes of A Song of Fire & Ice, The Witcher, and The First Law, sometimes it's just nice to return to something simple which first spellbound me about thirty-five years ago...

1658827719321.png 1658828021315.png 1658828077748.png
The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E.Feist
 
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Nobby-W

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After all the grim themes of A Song of Fire & Ice, The Witcher, and The First Law, sometimes it's just nice to return to something simple which first spellbound me about thirty-five years ago...

View attachment 48057 View attachment 48058 View attachment 48059
The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E.Feist

I liked that when I first read it, D&D-isms and all (it was based on a D&D campaign REF ran in the 1970s).

I met him once, at perhaps the worst publicised book signing in history. It was at a bookshop in Christchurch called Scorpio Books, sometime in the middle of the 1980s, perhaps 1986 or 1987. Literally nobody turned up; I had no idea it was on that day and I was browsing the role playing section (Scorpio was one of three bookshops that stocked RPG materials) when he turned up for the book signing. So, I just chatted for a while. He seemed a decent chap and was pretty gracious with a young nerd boy of about 16 or so. Being a computer geek, I naturally found out that at the time he had a Mac plus and was going to upgrade it to 4MB of RAM. He wrote Magician on an Apple II.
 

Mankcam

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I liked that when I first read it, D&D-isms and all (it was based on a D&D campaign REF ran in the 1970s).

I met him once, at perhaps the worst publicised book signing in history. It was at a bookshop in Christchurch called Scorpio Books, sometime in the middle of the 1980s, perhaps 1986 or 1987. Literally nobody turned up, and I was browsing the role playing section (Scorpio was one of three bookshops that stocked RPG materials) when he turned up for the book signing. So, I just chatted for a while. He seemed a decent chap and was pretty gracious with a young nerd boy of about 16 or so. At the time he had a Mac plus and was going to upgrade it to 4MB of RAM. He actually wrote Magician on an Apple II.
Wow, heh heh, cool story!

Raymond E.Feist writes classic High Fantasy, and was likely a major contributor to why High Fantasy unfortunately became very generic.
But these days I might take that over yet another Modern Young Fantasy or some Dark Fantasy Edgelord rubbish; as all of that is getting bloated and overloaded (which is pretty much what happened with the High Fantasy novels of the 1980s/1990s, and the Sword & Sorcery novellas before that)

Yep classic High Fantasy D&D-isms abound everywhere, given the origins of Midkemia.
I still love Feist's works all the same - I was reading these books as I was getting into trpgs, so nothing can take that shine away for me :shade:
 
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Lofgeornost

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Sounds a bit like von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, although that is very much NOT a successful rebellion. I know it from the Schlondorff film. Schlondorff's The Sudden Wealth of the People of Kombach is based on another real life story of a peasant revolt of sorts but again being historically grounded it is more tragic.
I know a bit about the Kohlhaas case from reading about feuds in Early Modern Germany, but I've never read Kleist's novella. I really ought to some day.
 

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My wife update me on the Belgariad books. At first only one was up, then they all started appearing and then they all vanished. Then they recently re-appeared. She'd already snagged them and I wasn't aware. lol. Also she's been trying to snag the Malloreon series as well with no luck. They aren't on Kindle/pdf but you can buy audio and physical books as well as a CD of the series if I read that correctly. lol
 

Mankcam

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I wish they had the Belgariad in digital form.
Yes, besides The Riftwar Saga, the other huge series of the era was The Belgariad for us trpg kids, it pretty much defined High Fantasy
(and The Lord Of The RIngs of course)
 

Lofgeornost

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Unfinished Land Cover.jpg

Recently I read my first Greg Bear novel, so I thought I’d try another—his The Unfinished Land, published this year by Mariner Books—I guess it came out in hardback last year. Set in 1588, it begins with a young fisherman, Reynard Shotwood, adrift in unknown seas. The small craft on which he sailed was caught up in the battle with the Armada and of those aboard only he is left alive. On the edge of succumbing to exposure, he is ‘rescued’ by a Spanish ship similarly lost, which soon makes landfall on an uncharted—and deeply weird—Northern shore. This is Tir Na Nog, but nothing like the blessed other-land of Irish mythology.

The inhabitants, and the man who rescued him at sea, insist that Reynard has a special destiny on the island. The novel traces his trek across the isle, in the company of a changing band of guardians, seeking his and the land’s ultimate fate. The setting is fantastic, but with overtones of SF as well—for example, the ‘drakes’ of the island, which bond to some humans (somewhat as in Pern) are actually giant dragonfly-like insects. There are also references to Shakespeare (a character named Calybo, who is rather like Caliban), Norse and Polynesian mythology, legends about the Travelers and their languages, and hints of Lovecraft. Oh, and a Plain of Jars—a name instantly recognizable to Americans of a certain age—filled with the tombs of creatures so eldritch that even looking upon their corpses causes insanity. This brief catalog just scratches the surface.

For all the fascination of the setting, the novel is not entirely successful (though it’s better than most online reviews I’ve seen indicate). One issue is that Reynard does relatively little—and his companions not a lot more, most of the time. They move through the death-throes of their world, and we see its dissolution, and learn some of its secrets. In the end, the book turns out to be a version of ‘the magic goes away’ theme, and Reynard’s role in what comes next struck me as rather anti-climactic. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers.

The style of the book is also difficult in parts. The dialogue is written in pseudo-Elizabethan English, though easy enough to understand. The real issue is that Bear’s prose is often elliptical, failing to state what is actually going on, and leaving that for the reader to intuit. This is an example at the end of a chapter (pp. 72-73):
When the dark finally fell, Dana let the knob dim. “Stay close,” advised a small, big-chested fellow, and Reynard and Manuel found themselves bumping shoulders in the center of a circle…

“Doth not matter if we sleep,” Anutha said. “They are not ghosts. Eldest outside, youngest in.”

Manuel seemed expectant, almost happy. Reynard doubted he would himself sleep.

And then… he did…
Now, some parts of this are clearer if you’ve read the novel—the group is worried about being attacked by creatures called Eaters. But what strikes me is that there is no simple statement like ‘people lay down within a circle.’ That seems to be what is going on here—it explains the ‘eldest outside, youngest in’ remark—but it’s never made clear. There’s a lot of that in this book. A skilled author naturally omits much, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. But when a tale takes place in a fantastic otherworld where things don’t work the same way they do in ours, it seems to me the writer needs to be clearer on basic matters. Otherwise we won’t know if ‘the sky smiled down at them’ is a metaphor or a simple description.

Still, if the book is not entirely successful, it has a lot of good things in it which one could plunder or adapt for RPG purposes. For instance, the Eaters I just mentioned. These are creatures, once human beings, who exist by stealing time from other people, thus aging them. So you might consider them a variety of vampire. But their description—their appearance varies—often suggests something more elfin. And you could view them as an explanation for some legends about fairies. As well as feeding on the life-time of their victims, they can transmit memories to them. Those memories could be the root of fairy-land experiences, and the aging could account for the idea that time runs differently in elvish realms. So an encounter with Eaters could seem like spending a lifetime in another world—and you would wake up the next morning to find yourself decades older.
 
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urbwar

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Currently switching off between these story collections:
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Atelerix

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The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Graeber was an anthropologist most famous for his involvement in the Occupy movement, and for his books Bullshit Jobs and Debt: the first 5000 years. Wengrow is an archaeology professor.

The aim of their book is to look again at the evidence of social development from an imagined "state of nature" that was either "nasty, brutish and short" (Hobbes) or "primitive innocence" (Rousseau) that "inevitably" progressed to modern technological, hierarchical societies.

Their thesis takes evidence from dialogues between indigenous Americans and early Jesuit missionaries. The Amerindians were appalled by the lack of freedom and dog-eat-dog nature of European society, and defeated the Jesuits time and time again in debates on the subject. The Jesuits, to their credit, were seriously impressed.

The authors use anthropological evidence to argue that many primitive societies actively work and debate to maintain equality and reject hierarchy. Some societies use hierarchy in times of need (hot summers or deep winters), but choose to return to equality once the danger is over. There was no inevitable progress - societies repeatedly used and abandoned techniques like cultivation as they needed. Investigators often came away with the impression that "simple" people who were active in the community, discussed the options equitably and shared resources were actually smarter and more awake than us "civilised" types.

They look back through the archaeological record to argue that a wide range of societies were used throughout human history, often different methods at different times of year by the same people.

Materially rich Palaeolithic burials, they argue, are not of wealthy, powerful men, but often outsiders - the disabled, or children. The furs, antlers and jewellery made of shells and beads that were buried with them cannot be assumed to correspond to money or power.

It's a book that's so rich and full of depth and detail. The authors clearly have a thesis they want explored (politically, Graeber was an anarchist) that starts with asking why there is inequality. They're clearly out to make waves, and the tone is entertainingly not neutral.

For RPGers, there's clearly the "Gloranthan cultural anthropology" side to explore, but many of the cultural setups described would add depth and flavour to any fantasy setting. The image of hundreds of people coming together on the wintery Ice Age steppe to pool their resources under the temporary leadership of experienced elders, and using the bones of dozens of mammoths to build a monument to the event, is compelling.

Chapter 2 on the Enlightenment is a bit of a slog, the rest is fascinating though. Amusingly written but thought-provoking, deliberately challenging and controversial. Recommended.
 
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