The SFFaudio Podcast #599 – AUDIOBOOK/READALONG: Hawks Of Outremer by Robert E. Howard

Podcast

The SFFaudio PodcastThe SFFaudio Podcast #599 – Hawks Of Outremer by Robert E. Howard; read by Connor Kaye. This is an unabridged reading of the story (1 hour 5 minutes) followed by a discussion of it. Participants in the discussion include Jesse, Paul Weimer, Evan Lampe, Trish E. Matson, Alex, and Connor Kaye

Talked about on today’s show:
Oriental Stories, Spring 1931, Weird Tales, Boom Studios, Mark Finn, Savage Sword Of Conan #222, “freely adapted”, did Connor say Conan?, square cut black mane, lightning blue yes, iron thews, a very unConan conclusion, “sheer weight of numbers”, man against man, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, characters get in the head, ultra-brain damaged, punch drunk, his father was bastard, half norman half celt, a very special story, really interesting, super fun, very manny, Robert E. Howard nerding-out about history, historical references, who was real and who was not, Robert de Vale, Richard Lionheart, Saladin, Mark Finn’s essay, rewriting history in the guise of fiction, the markets are too scanty, if I twist facts too much, my stories center entirely on my conceptions of my characters, writing to a point, pooping on Lovecraft, Howard’s racism, England’s fucked up, Ireland’s fucked up, France is fucked up, religious zealots on a conquering spree, A Means To Freedom, the peopling of the British Isles, anthropology, its all migration, the Normans, two generations away from Vikings, civilization and barbarism, he’s obsessed with it, the German’s the bad guy, entrenched in the blood and the soil, Lovecraft doesn’t really care about characters, we remember Robert E. Howard characters, the themes are always the same, manliness vs gentlemanliness, a character up against them, The Black Stone, Lovecraft couldn’t or didn’t do that, the Saladin movie, Kingdom Of Heaven, Bertran de Born, 1140s-1215, Dante’s Inferno, Gustave Dore, jousting, He nicknamed Richard Lionheart…”Oc-e-Non” (Which translates to “Yes-and-No”),a translation of one of his war poem/songs (by Ezra Pound):

“…We shall see battle axes and swords, a-battering colored haumes and a-hacking through shields at entering melee;
and many vassals smiting together, whence there run free the horses of the dead and wrecked.
And when each man of prowess shall be come into the fray he thinks no more of (merely)
breaking heads and arms, for a dead man is worth more than one taken alive.
I tell you that I find no such savor in eating butter and sleeping, as when I hear cried “On them!”
and from both sides hear horses neighing through their head-guards, and hear shouted “To aid!
To aid!” and see the dead with lance truncheons, the pennants still on them, piercing their sides.
Barons! put in pawn castles, and towns, and cities before anyone makes war on us.
Papiol, be glad to go speedily to “Yea and Nay”, [Richard Lionheart] and tell him there’s too much peace about.”

this is hardcore, yo, the spirit inside of Cormac, war-madness, Apocalypse Now, he’s a ghost, a skull on his shirt and his shield, the West is open, Heart Of Darkness, Cormac is the crazy one, “My most somber character”, an unsalable version of Conan, the story works perfectly without any sorcery (without any sword), spartan in the backgrounds, Joe Jusko‘s covers, an eight page sequence which is almost completely wordless, arms floppin’ off, Medieval castle in Outremer, his hand swelling up like a glove and then exploding, crush the vertebrae, not for the faint of heart, quite vivid, Conan The Salaryman, “the giant”, his catlike slept, pantherish movements, so formidable in battle, he is a fool, a lot of backstory, Robin Hood is running around, the timeline, killed about a people burned a castle, took a sword from a sea-king, a ‘magic’ sword, his true beliefs, he swears by Satan, a symbol of the craziness that is the crusades, Richard is a fool (admirable), I would have you among my men, acting in honour to obey a blood debt, historical fiction, a tiny interregnum between another crusade and another betrayal, everyone is becoming free agents, craft their own little kingdoms, all these bastard sons, what the title means, a girl at the center of the action, a death wish, he’s like The Punisher from the 1190s, a war on crime that will never end, he’s a vigilante, he goes looking for trouble, you broke him, at least one more adventure, Richard Lionheart died in 1199, Saladin’s rule, unhorsed in battle, an Arabian steed and an English warhorse, Saladin was a Kurd, break up the two teams, united in their religion, dismounted?, a french she-knight, a belly fat German, throwing battle axes and lances, that impossible grip, bending the iron bars, this unstoppable Punisher plowing through people, going everywhere trying to make trouble, makes friends with people who are getting into trouble, Howard is so different from Lovecraft, H.P. Podcraft, The Picture Of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Oscar Wilde defeats you using nonsense logic that sounds great, rhetorical flourish vs. rhetorical substance, enough words, time to move, an experiment in manhood, why his stuff is so incredibly powerful, buffin’ up at the gym, military warriors, uncles and advisors and friends, unsurpassed for what it is, walking down the street wearing a time with a notebook and thinking about the stars, the boxing ring, wrestling with what it is to be a man, King Kull is a lot more philosophical than Conan, A Man Returns, were he a total caricature, he thinks its a trick, not just a walking sword, what Europe is like, a feint, betraying fealty, friends betrayed, Queen Of The Black Coast, a big long moral lecture, cleaves the judge’s head, manly loyalty that gets you into wars, the same kind of mentality, the thin blue line, I’m not a knight I’m a lord in my own land, running around in bearskins, philosophizing in fiction about what it is to be a man, the women in the stories are there for addressing men’s duties towards women, ideals of masculinity, a love letter to Saladin, a compeletly different way of being a man, a charismatic chivalrous civilized man, Saladin and Richard, fresh fruit, eat this get better, Joppa, prisoners of war, a Kurd among Arabs, I’m gonna prove you wrong, a Mary Sue, writing about the man he wants to be, strong and chivalrous, kind to his friends and cruel to his enemies, male fantasy,

Cormac glared at him, tensing himself for a sudden leap that would carry the Kurd with him into the Dark. The Norman-Gael was a product of his age and his country; among the warring chiefs of blood-drenched Ireland, mercy was unknown and chivalry an outworn and forgotten myth. Kindness to a foe was a mark of weakness; courtesy to an enemy a form of craft, a preparation for treachery; to such teachings had Cormac grown up, in a land where a man took every advantage, gave no quarter and fought like a blood-mad devil if he expected to survive.

Now at a gesture from Saladin, those crowding the door gave back.

“Your way is open, Lord Cormac.”

The Gael glared, his eyes narrowing to slits: “What game is this?” he growled. “Shall I turn my back to your blades? Out on it!”

“All swords are in their sheaths,” answered the Kurd. “None shall harm you.”

Cormac’s lion-like head swung from side to side as he glared at the Moslems.

“You honestly mean I am to go free, after breaking the truce and slaying your jackals?”

“The truce was already broken,” answered Saladin. “I find in you no fault. You have repaid blood for blood, and kept your faith to the dead. You are rough and savage, but I would fain have men like you in mine own train. There is a fierce loyalty in you, and for this I honor you.”

Cormac sheathed his sword ungraciously. A grudging admiration for this weary-faced Moslem was born in him and it angered him. Dimly he realized at last that this attitude of fairness, justice and kindliness, even to foes, was not a crafty pose of Saladin’s, not a manner of guile, but a natural nobility of the Kurd’s nature. He saw suddenly embodied in the Sultan, the ideals of chivalry and high honor so much talked of—and so little practiced—by the Frankish knights. Blondel had been right then, and Sieur Gerard, when they argued with Cormac that high-minded chivalry was no mere romantic dream of an outworn age, but had existed, and still existed and lived in the hearts of certain men. But Cormac was born and bred in a savage land where men lived the desperate existence of the wolves whose hides covered their nakedness. He suddenly realized his own innate barbarism and was ashamed. He shrugged his lion’s shoulders.

“I have misjudged you, Moslem,” he growled. “There is fairness in you.”

“I thank you, Lord Cormac,” smiled Saladin. “Your road to the west is clear.”

And the Moslem warriors courteously salaamed as Cormac FitzGeoffrey strode from the royal presence of the slender noble who was Protector of the Califs, Lion of Islam, Sultan of Sultans.

that’s the author talking, a lion like roar, Richard the Lionheart is the other lion, wasting all these lives, Robin Of Sherwood, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, maybe their religion aint that bad, reading Howard in comics, its never Cimmeria, interacting with not nice people, he comes from the north, that wanderlust, a lack of the gigantic mirth, that being towards death thing, in search of a calling, he’s clearly looking for someone, we want him to go there, its corrupt, decadence, Bêlit is probably supposed to be Jewish, she’s a Shemite, hawk-nosed Shemites, was so passionate her love, she’s a psycho killer, corruption everywhere, this person is not corrupt, a romance of the westerners towards this history, the propaganda is that he was exceptionally good, Howard inspired by history stories, his themes are not shallow, redeeming features to the latest Marvel Conan?, Conan the Gambler, it just carries you along and you hardly notice the philosophizing, he is so skilled at writing the prose, the dialogue is used in the Boom Studios adaptation, Roy Thomas era of Conan, text boxes, virtually no text boxes, losing all the sidelights that Howard is throwing, it feels like a novel’s worth of material, two major flashbacks, he storms two castle, a really strong workout, a lot of the tension came from Howard’s writing, it ends and you almost want to cheer, Two-gun Bob, His Own Barbarism by Mark Finn, he saw suddenly embodied in the sultan, the Frankish knights, his own innate barbarism and I was ashamed, he’s literally a werewolf, semi-mythological metaphors, Smaug, The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien rewriting the Saga of the Volsungs for his own children, Thorin becomes the next dragon, a representation of turning into a dragon, a wolf-like figure, there’s too much peace around, a dead man is worth more than one taken alive, ransom, the butter and the sleeping, propagandistic: let’s do this fucking think, a hype-up, flex contests, let’s get this war on, fuck the money, it feels so fucking good, PUBG, trench warfare, become a wizard (like Evan), become a lich, ways of winning this manhood game, Connor is so lucky to be young and have Jesse giving him his wisdom, Mark Finn, Robert’s relationship with Doctor Howard, I got a $120 for that story, Blood & Thunder The Art & Life Of Robert E. Howard by Mark Finn, Connor’s narration, the voice of Cormac, really fun to narrate, The Blood Of Belshazzar, more of the same?, Magic Carpet Magazine, looking east, Orientalism, the interest in the east, Connor’s big Hippocampus Press purchase, R.H. Barlow, W.H. Pugmire, Clark Ashton Smith, The Tindalos Cycle, John Ajvide Lindqvist, The Black Diamonds by Clark Ashton Smith, a Boy’s Own Adventure by a kid who didn’t know what he was doing, ridiculously fun, an enthusiasm, Lovecraft seems to be a fanboy of Clark Ashton Smith, that prose that is a painting, the reds from Robert E. Howard, Scarlet Citadels, Red Shadows, it was a colour but I can’t describe it, four issues on Archive.org, 33 stories up on the PDF Page, The Sowers Of Thunder by Robert E. Howard, set in Otremer, an Irish crusader with a troubled past, maybe Connor’s got another project, talking about manhood, Lovecraft is more correct about the status of masculinity in the 20th century, Lovecraft knows the future is going to be libraries, academics, Lovecraft’s Roman dream, a fantasy of the working class, Wastelands by W. Scott Poole, it doesn’t matter how much you train, what it is to be a man and what it is to be masculine and what it is to be an adult, trophies, the female gaze upon the muscles, female characters who are wimps, the Indiana Jones second movie, Willie Scott’s job is to scream, The People Of The Black Circle, The Hour Of The Dragon, Zenobia, Red Sonja, Valeria from Red Nails, she’s a companion, not a plot object, the exact same plot as Iron Shadows In The Moon, the stupid squire character, Zula, Grace Jones is great, a little horse battle, Conan: The Destroyer is garbage, N’Longa, I need you, I’m yours, if Will were here, Tonto to The Lone Ranger, fifties square, Jay Silverheels, rancher’s daughter needs rescuing, range romance on the edge of civilization, Beyond The Black River, Conan fighting Indians on the frontier, John Carter, Tharks, not having magical element, sword and sorcery, didn’t need an evil wizard, Hashshashin, other than being really strong, Sharpe’s Rifles is historical fiction, that axe-throw was borderline, Harold Lamb, Adventure (magazine), it doesn’t really matter what he applies his writing to, The Tower Of The Elephant, he steals from the best, the puzzle solving, the pathos of the elephant, Almuric, and here’s some fragments, a description of a real town, how the houses loom, those sentences are still him talking, the natural storytelling, a jigsaw puzzle and a protractor, the soul of a poet.

Hawks Of Outremer by Robert E. Howard

Joe Jusko - Hawks Of Outremer

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The SFFaudio Podcast #367 – READALONG: The Prince And the Pauper by Mark Twain

Podcast

The SFFaudio PodcastThe SFFaudio Podcast #367 – Jesse, Julie Davis, and Maissa talk about The Prince And the Pauper by Mark Twain.

Talked about on today’s show:
1881, 1882, Julie’s Mark Twain obsession, realistic fiction, children’s literature, reading with teenagers, old books teach you their vocabulary, quasi-historical fiction, Tom Sawyer, something classier, Sir Walter Scott, like Dickens-lite, sooo Dickens!, Huckleberry Finn, young people of all ages, anything public domain was marketed for children, appealing to children, sympathetic characters, lacking wry cynicism, less biting, he’s an anglophile, making points, how do we treat people, trading places, The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Bleak House, the progress of an author, everybody knows the story, enters the popular culture like a fable, a meta-issue, where’s the science fiction and the fantasy?, Jesse’s thinking, The Prisoner Of Zenda, Ruritania, inspired by, precursors, an immediate classic, that Ringo (1974) movie, Carrie Fisher, that Monty Python thing, so much fun, and his talentless half brother, Vincent Price, John Ritter, chock-full of fun, The Man In The Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas, Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein, this phenomenon, replacing the king, Citizen Of The Galaxy, the influence of Twain is in SF, Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, the Wishbone adaptation, way down into the culture, Dave (with Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver), Moon Over Parador with Richard Dreyfuss, in that continuum, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, research and divergence, footnotes, Edward, Lady Jane Gray, Star Trek: Mirror, Mirror, parrallel worlds, Freaky Friday, so many avenues, Big with Tom Hanks, swapped identity, genre defining, what it says on the tin, parody versions, The Monkees, 25 minutes of ridiculous, The Monkees a fake version of The Beatles, Twain’s Joan Of Arc book, incredibly well plotted, dreaming the life of a king, Tom is the king of Offal Court, crazy, King of the Gamecocks and King Foofoo, Miles Hendon’s story is parallel to Prince Edward’s plot, it goes really deep, Tom’s two sisters, Nan and Bess, Mary and Elizabeth, everybody gets to be king or queen for a day, queen for nine days, Mary’s short reign, Elizabeth’s long reign, a lot of pain and torture and unjust punishment and superstition, the psychological irony, every king should live by the laws of his subjects, the Blue Laws, pardonings, wise judgement, chapter 22/23, not a joke book, situational humour, doing the Robin Hood thing, the Ruffler, a beggar who refuses to beg, threatening the tinker with a soldering iron, a thief who won’t steal, putting a clime on him, a cant term for an ulcer, a slatternly woman and a diseased baby on the side of the road, an here’s the recipe, the mother daughter witches, witchcraft, the wisdom of Solomon from the mouths of babes, foolishly wise, native common sense, hath it always this dread effect?, a parallel scene, when Edward is in gaol as Tom, the crime of being Baptists, who burned?, burned at the stake, Tom had watched a procession, crisp flesh, some gruesome stuff, not a satire, straightforward historical (romanticized), Errol Flynn as Miles Hendon in the 1937 movie, the Oliver Reed movie adaptation (1977), tainted by Ringo, too heavy, Ernest Borgnine, Rachel Welch, interchangeable beauty, you monster!, he’s Errol Flynn-ing it all over the place, a heavy focus on the Miles story, Charlton Heston as Henry VIII, he was every historical male figure, all the time travelers form the 1970s movies, Miles’ brother is sent to the American colonies and becomes a politician, making it more satirical, the 1977 adaptation is very faithful to the novel, comedy, Edith, the children’s hospital, when Twain visited Europe he bought a lot of books, after his ordeal, teachings out of books, The Merchant Of Venice, reading the classics, I’ll make a classic tale, as if it has been with us forever, absolutely historical fiction and yet…, a Disney version, a timeless story, remember the humanity of the people around us, applying your humanity, anchor in reality, the kids, forgoing the crazy laws, I’m going to honor children always, meta-stuff, a short reign, the romantic relationship, she spurns Tom and marries a rich old Earl, Romeo And Juliet, twin brother from another mother, Ivanhoe, close enough, about as far away from SFF as Jesse will go, Moby Dick, Wrath Of Khan, William Shatner is the white whale, Patrick Stewart, the whipping boy, “to cheapen miracles by wasteful repetition”, he’s going places, what do you do with your time?, the Prince’s eyes flashed, speak on, we wade and swim in the canals, reality was so dreary, be careful what you wish for, the grass is always greener, delicious irony, adults child relationships, Mark Twain’s relationship with Dorothy Quick, on a trans-Atlantic crossing, a Disney movie about their relationship, Dorothy Quick was a Weird Tales poet, a New York Times obituary for March 16th, 1962:

DOROTHY QUICK, POET AND AUTHOR
Mystery Writer Dies – Was Friend of Mark Twain

Mrs. Dorothy Quick Mayer of 880 Park Avenue and East Hampton, L.I., a writer who treasured a childhood friendship with Mark Twain, died yesterday at her home here after a long illness.

Miss Quick was a girl of 11 in 1907 when she met the famous author on an Atlantic crossing. She was returning to Plainfield, N.J., from Europe with her parents, the late Mr. and Mrs. Henry Quick.

Recognizing Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) by his wavy hair and white suit, she walked around and around the deck, passing very slowly by his chair each time, until he finally came over and introduced himself.

“It was the beginning of a friendship that was to last until the very day of his death,” [1910] she recalled in 1954.

After the voyage she received a telegram from Twain asking whether she would prefer as a birthday present “one elephant or 10,000 monkeys.” She replied that she would prefer his books – which he sent her, along with a tiny white elephant.

Her memories of Mark Twain were published last year by the University of Oklahoma Press under the title “Enchantment.”

Miss Quick was married in 1925 to John Adams Mayer, who died in 1940. She continued to write under her maiden name. Her collected poems were published by the University Press, Washington. She also wrote mystery stories and contributed a weekly column for many years to newspapers in East Hampton and Riverhead, L.I.

Since 1960 Miss Quick had been honorary president of the Mark Twain Association of New York. Her other literary memberships included the P.E.N. Club, Pen and Brush, the National League of American Penwomen, the Brooklyn Poetry Circle, Women Poets of New York, and the Society of Composers, Artists and Authors.

over-sexualizing everything, Jack London and H.G. Wells, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, a persuasive fan letter, Poe and Dickens had a private lunch, my pet raven, the end of Barnaby Rudge, a can of leaded paint, Poe had been struggling with a particular poem: The Raven, Dickens is the epitome of success, his reviews, there’s a reason why, put that in, worth a reread!

Mark Twain and Dorothy Quick

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

SFFaudio Review

Cover Art for Grave MercyGrave Mercy
by Robin LaFevers; Read by Erin Moon
Publisher: Recorded Books
Publication Date: 3 April 2012
[UNABRIDGED] – 14 hours 14 minutes
Themes: / historical fiction / assassins / medieval / politics / young adult

Ismae, our protagonist, is a teenage nun assassin in fifteenth-century Brittany. That descriptor alone, issued by a guest on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, was enough to hook my attention and reel me into listening to this book. The term “nun assassin” alone, evoking a strong sense of cognitive dissonance, is rife with narrative potential. Mix in some fantastic elements of ancient gods  masquerading as saints and set the whole thing against a late medieval backdrop, and you would seem to have all the ingredients for an entertaining, emotional, and perhaps even thought-provoking novel. Unfortunately, Robin LaFevers’s young adult novel Grave Mercy falls short in almost every regard.

The novel opens with great promise. Ismae finds herself rescued inexplicably from an arranged marriage and whisked away to the convent of Saint Mortain, who, in LaFevers’s universe, is the ancient Britonic god of death who lives on in the guise of a Catholic saint. She quickly gains acceptance as one of Mortain’s servants and begins her training as an assassin. We meet several of her Sisters in training, who show immense promise as complex, complicated characters. Ismae immediately shows promise in the deadly arts, especially in the brewing of poisons. The stage is set for a Potteresque term of training, comeraderie, and schoolyard intrigue. I very much wanted to read that book.

Unfortunately, we are soon whisked three years into the future just as Ismae receives her first assignment as a full-fledged assassin. Easily dispatching her first victim, she then undertakes a much more difficult assignment at the behest of the Abbess. This task throws her smack-dab in the middle of Brittany’s courtly circle, where the young Duchess struggles to fend off both French invaders and equally persistent suitors. Under the pretense of serving as mistress to Duval, the Duchess’s bastard brother, Ismae must try to sort out the tangled web of politics and allegiances.

Wait, what? Where’s my Bildungsroman? I was looking forward to a classic coming-of-age story, but instead find myself listening to a book of court intrigue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with court intrigue, of course, except that most of the members of court in Grave Mercy are utterly forgettable, and those who do show a spark of personality don’t receive much stage time. There are no Lannisters or Starks here. Characters from the novel’s tantalizing early chapters hardly receive a second mention. The plot simply doesn’t hold together.

My second complaint is more subjective: the novel just isn’t rooted enough in fantasy. Mortain, the ancient god of death who marks his targets for the sisters of the convent, is potentially a fantastic character, or at least a useful construct, but sadly we learn about him and him only indirectly. Had we been treated to more time at the convent, we might have learned more of his mysterious ways. The novel also hints that other old gods also live in LaFevers’s Brittany, and presumably the remaining novels in the His Fair Assassin series shed more light on their nature. This volume, however, resembles historical fiction more than fantasy.

Despite its medieval setting, there isn’t much in the writing and themes that bear much resemblance to the writing or thought of the Middle Ages. The prose, while capable and at times even captivating, feels thoroughly modern in its tone and diction. The characters converse in a colloquial style that feels sterile and devoid of even the veneer of medieval cultures that most authors apply when setting stories in this time period. Ismae is an empowered young woman of the 21st-century variety, and the undertones of trauma and survival also have a modern ring to them. LaFevers is writing for a young adult audience, which in theory should make these choices easier to swallow. I grew up reading authors like Tolkien and Kipling and even Shakespeare, though, so I don’t buy into the assumption that fiction should be diluted for young readers. I’m not saying that this was necessarily LaFevers’s explicit intension, but rather that the current YA culture subconsciously encourages these trends. The genre’s very existence, to some extent, proves my point.

Erin Moon’s mellifluous narration makes Grave Mercy a pleasant listening experience even if the story itself is uneven. She captures Ismae’s quavering sense of vulnerability, and gives distinct voices to the other characters, at least to the extent the writing allows. Her pronunciation of French place-names, with one or two minor exceptions, is pretty much spot-on. Nothing ruins an otherwise-perfect audiobook like even a few pesky mispronunciations. So even though I wasn’t always captivated by the story, Moon’s performance kept me listening to the end.

As I look back, I’ve tried reading several assassin-themed fantasy novels: Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows, and Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study. This is the first one I’ve actually finished. Assassins should make for compelling, dynamic characters spinning taut webs of dramatic tension. But for some reason they have always fallen short in this reader’s estimation. Maybe my subconscious finds them somehow inherently distasteful, or maybe the kinds of stories they find themselves in just aren’t to my liking. Take that into consideration in my review. If you like assassin stories, you’ll probably find much to enjoy about Grave Mercy.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

SFFaudio Review

Cover of Quicksilver by Neal StephensonQuicksilver
By Neal Stephenson; Read by Simon Prebble and Kevin Pariseau
Audible Download – 14 Hours 48 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: 2010
Themes: / Natural Philosophy / History Of Science / Historical Fiction

Let me begin this review by saying that anyone with the cajones to write historical fiction on this scale deserves mad props. Quicksilver, being the introductory volume in Neal Stephenson’s epic Baroque Cycle, spins a dizzying tale of science and adventure on the colorful canvas of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Christendom. Like Stephenson’s massive World War II yarn Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver blends erudite discourse on the nature of the world with high drama and hair-raising adventure. The story sometimes takes a back seat to the intellectual ideas under discussion, but readers not afraid to apply a little mental elbow grease will find a lot to enjoy.

Before diving into an actual review, a note on this audio edition is in order. Audible Frontiers has elected to split the three massive print volumes of the Baroque Cycle into eight audiobooks. They haven’t just taken a metaphorical paper knife to the series, though. They’ve worked closely with Neal Stephenson to ensure the audio volumes have their own cohesion and progression. Neal Stephenson also lends his voice to a brief audio introduction preceding each volume. Thus, this audio performance of Quicksilver comprises only part of the print volume of the same name. I’ve not read the print edition, so I can’t draw any further comparisons.

In typical non-linear Stephenson fashion, Quicksilver narrates the pivotal events in the life of Puritan-turned-scholar Daniel Waterhouse. The story jumps between his youth in the mid-1600s and his later life in the early 1700s. Readers of Cryptonomicon will be familiar with this technique. They’ll probably also recognize our protagonist’s surname, as the Waterhouse family plays a pivotal role in the aforementioned novel. The ageless enigmatic Enoch Root also makes an appearance early on in the novel. Stephenson, to some extent, seems to be following the example of James Clavell, whose Struan family formed the backbone of his Hong Kong novels through different time periods. Having said that, one certainly doesn’t need to have read Cryptonomicon to appreciate Quicksilver.

The similarities between Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver also extend to theme and writing style. Stephenson takes frequent detours to explain the dynamics of a sun dial, the optics of a telescope, or the physics of eighteenth-century seafaring vessels. The digressions feel appropriate to a tale that features the likes of Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, and Gottfried Leibniz. Indeed the title Quicksilver, the common name for mercury, serves as a metaphor for the transition in modes of thinking and reasoning that the novel is trying to highlight. Daniel Waterhouse witnesses the nascent days of experimental science as we know it. The erudite dialogues and monologues sometimes made my eyes glaze over, however, and I was yearning to return to the story.

What saves Quicksilver from sometimes devolving into a mere lecture on the history of science is Neal Stephenson’s vibrant prose. Stephenson writes with the exact precision of a philosopher, but with an eye for earthy metaphors and a sensitivity towards the modern reader. I might quibble with occasional use of language that wasn’t current in the seventeenth century, but must concede that these (usually very minor) transgressions make the work far easier to read and digest. As a lover of language for language’s sake, I found Quicksilver a philological joy to read.

The colorful prose is brought to life by Simon Prebble’s artful narration. Narrating historical fiction can be almost as monumental a task as writing it. How does one lend a voice to the intellectual magnificence of a Newton or a Leibniz? Simon Prebble does a magnificent job, aided by Stephenson’s written cues, of bringing real life and character to most of the novel’s characters. The cast of Quicksilver encompasses a vast ethnic background, from British to Dutch to German to the New World, and Simon Prebble juggles this diversity with ease. Kevin Pariseau narrates only the epigraphs beginning each chapter, which are usually apropos to the following content.

One last observation about Quicksilver: it isn’t really science fiction. Okay, if you want to get pedantic, it’s actually the purest form of science fiction–fiction about science and its development. But the novel certainly isn’t science fiction in the modern genre sense. The ageless (immortal?) Enoch Root figures into the tale, and there are certainly themes reminiscent of science fiction (what is real? how does the world work?), but listeners casually browsing the science fiction portion of Audible hoping for a straightforward science fiction story will be disappointed. Like so often happens in publishing, I assume that the categorization was a marketing decision, by analogy with Stephenson’s more strictly science fiction work like Snow Crash. Still, fans of science fiction with an open mind will find lots to appreciate in these stories.

I’ve begun listening to King Of The Vagabonds, the follow-up volume to Quicksilver. The story shifts gears abruptly in both focus and tone, turning its attention now to the homeless beggar and thief Jack Shaftoe (another familiar name to readers of Cryptonomicon). Clearly the Baroque Cycle has a wide array of stories to tell, and I’m looking forward to following its tangled webs.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton

Fantasy Audiobooks - Eaters of the Dead by Michael CrichtonEaters of The Dead
By Michael Crichton; Read by Victor Garber and Michael Crichton
2 cassettes – 3 hours [ABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audiobooks
Published: 1998
ISBN: 0679460330
Themes: / Fantasy / Historical Fiction / Alternate History / Vikings / Arabs / Mythology / Neanderthals / Epic /

In the year A.D. 922, Ibn Fadlan, a devout Muslim nobleman, left his home in Baghdad on a mission to the King of the Bulgars. During his journey, he met various groups of “barbarians” who he reported as having varying degrees of bad hygiene and alcoholism. It was a classic clash of cultures story that revealed more about both societies than any other type of narrative could. Whilst encamped in a Norseman trading village word came of a request for warriors to return to Scandinavia to battle an unnamed foe. Because the Norsemen were so superstitious, Fadlan was shanghaied as the “13th warrior”, a necessary foreigner, and forced to accompany the war party. Under the leadership of Buliwyf, Fadlan and eleven other Norsemen journeyed far to the North, to a land where the nights last only a few minutes, where sea monsters abound in the oceans and where shimmering lights in the sky are a nightly occurrence. Once there he and his companions must fight a battle against the Eaters Of The Dead.

If the premise is familiar it may be because you’ve seen the movie “The 13th Warrior,” which is based upon this novel. Supposedly this is a true story taken from the journals of an Arab courtier named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. In reality it is only partially based on those writings. Crichton wrote Eaters Of The Dead based on a bet. He argued that Beowulf, the oldest surviving epic in British literature, could be successfully turned into a satisfying adventure story. In the real life writings of Ibn Fadlan Crichton found a viewpoint chracater who’d be able to witness the adventure of Beowulf and his fight against Grendel first hand. Starting with actual journal entries from Ibn Fadlan, Eaters Of The Dead begins as non-fiction. About a third of the way into the reading, Crichton stops using Fadlan’s journals, starts writing in the style of Fadlan, and begins telling his version of Beowulf. Sounds simple, but because Crichton doesn’t tell us any of this in his introduction, it isnt.

Confusing things further, Victor Garber’s reading of the story is interupted every so often by commentary by Michael Crichton! Crichton doing commentary on Crichton confuses things to a high degree, and yet somehow it works! This is a compelling story, likely because it draws so heavily from the deeply rooted mythology including snippets of ideas from everything from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to modern anthropological theories regarding the extinction of the Neanderthals.

Victor Garber does a good job reading, his only flaw is that his Arbaic accent sounds a bit to much like a Punjabi accent. Crichton too reads his commentaries well. As with many abridgments this one leaves the listener wanting more of the story, though thankfully it doesn’t suffer from the equally common failing of being incomprehensible.

As with all Michael Crichton novels, this turns into a Frankestienian morality tale in the vein of “there are some things men wernt meant to know”. For the most part it works, but what bothers me most about Eaters Of The Dead is its fence sitting nature. Not strictly fiction nor strictly non-fiction, Crichton has chosen to deliberately blend the reality and the fantasy without any disclaimer of even the most generous “based on a true story” or even the weaker “inspired by true events”. Instead he deliberately tricks us into thinking this is a true story by interspersing his own commentaries about the translation! True stories are inherently more interesting than fiction, no doubt Crichton chose to capitalize on this by deliberately obscuring the fact that he basically made up the whole last 2/3rds of the book! Had there been a disclaimer about this at the beginning of the book I’d have been much happier with it. That said, the story is fun, an interesting ride, and certainly one of Crichton’s best novels, but it isn’t even in the same class as say Robert Silverberg’s terrific A Hero Of The Empire, which also deals with historical figures in ancient Arabia.. If you absolutely insist on reading Michael Crichton novels I’d recommend you actually NOT read his Science Fiction! Read his fantasy, read Eaters of The Dead and then if you want a non-SFF treat try Crichton’s admirable The Great Train Robbery (also based on a true story), which is far better than his constant rehashing of Frankensteinian plots about cloning, time travel, etc.