Adventures in Words: Maxie’s Demon by Michael Scott Rohan

Maxie’s Demon by Michael Scott Rohan

I finished Maxie’s Demon a while ago and coming, belatedly, to reviewing it I find that I can remember very little of the story. This does, I’m afraid, rather confirm the feeling of disappointment I had in reading it. Maxie’s Demon is the fourth in Rohan’s Spiral series, a sort of spin off sequel, and it doesn’t really add anything to the first three books. The premise – the Spiral that connects, envelops and transcends mundane reality with intermingled worlds of history and myth – is as compelling as ever but the story, and Maxie the protagonist in particular, don’t really carry the premise anywhere further.

An enjoyable enough read in its own right but a disappointment after the previous books.

Adventures in Words: The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans

The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans

Silk. Even today the word carries connotations of luxury, elegance and cool sophistication. How much more was that the case in the 7th century when the only silk available in Europe, and in particular the still glorious Roman Empire based in Constantinople, had to be imported all the way from India. Wealthy Romans – and wealthy Romans were very wealthy – loved to flaunt their money by sponsoring Games (the old gladiatorial games had been outlawed when the Empire became Christian but the new Christian Empire became fanatically addicted to chariot racing) and wearing rich silk clothing. As the silk had to be transported through the territory of Rome’s long-standing enemy, the Sassanids, this left the Emperor beholden to his foes for supplying his magnates with their clothing.

In his history of the Emperor Justinian, Procopius mentions, in a small aside, how the secret of silk, silk worms breeding and feeding on mulberry bushes, was smuggled out of India and to Constantinople. From this short aside, Evans fashions a marvellously picaresque adventure novel where his protagonists, a retired charioteer, a disgraced aristocratic soldier looking to redeem his reputation and a general fixer who is convinced the world is flat, have to travel to India, retrieve the secret and get back to New Rome, all while being dogged by Sassanid secret agents.

It’s a marvellous romp across a world and a time that is little known, and that, unbeknownst to itself, would not last much longer. The Sassanids themselves would be overthrown in the next century when the conquering armies of Islam swept them aside. The Byzantines were shaken but rallied, but the central Asian world that our trio of adventurers cross was irrevocably changed.

Evans does a stirling job of bringing the time and its people to life, infusing the people with humanity while not downplaying the cultural strangeness of the time to modern people. The Charioteer is the first in a new series and I look forward to reading more adventures from Cal, Theo and Cosmas, and hope the book gets the readership it deserves. One word of warning though: don’t get too attached to the subsidiary characters. Not many of them make it through.

Adventures in Words: Blackstone Fortress: Ascension by Darius Hinks

Blackstone Fortress: Ascension by Darius Hinks

There’s not much hope in the grim darkness of the far future. In the 41st millennium, mankind is trapped into a decaying regime that manages to combine the worst aspects of late period Soviet communism (which was real) with medieval theocratic fascism (an entirely modern imagining) while being beset from all quadrants by enemies that really are worse than your worst nightmares. To navigate this universe, some people dive deep into nihilism – and there are 40k writers who will serve that up with complimentary bolters. But for myself I prefer something a little different, a little lighter, a little more, well… hopeful? Hopeful might be stretching the point so perhaps humane would be a better term.

A more humane take on the 41st millennium? It might seem a contradiction in terms, but it is possible. For that, there are few better 40k writers than Darius Hinks. A writer who manifestly cares about the people he puts on the page, he creates characters that are both believable and humane (even when they’re aliens) and rather than the endless carnage of eternal warfare looks, in this book, at one of the places where humans and xenos exist in uneasy truce in the face of something greater and more inexplicable than all of them: the Blackstone Fortress. Ascension brings the two-volume saga to an end but if Darius could ever find some way of bringing Janus Draik and his crew back from the places they end up at the finish of the story, I for one would be delighted to read more of their adventures.

Adventures with Words: Swords and Swordsmen by Mike Loades

Swords and Swordsmen by Mike Loades

An apt subtitle for this book would be ‘A Life with Swords’. Mike Loades did something that very few people would think possible: he took his fascination with ancient weapons and made a career of it. What was even more unusual was that he did this from the 1970s onwards, long before the current interest in historical European martial arts.

All this comes out as asides to the main story, which is a history of Western swords (with a single-chapter diversion to Japan), told by taking a single examplar for each period in the history of the sword and examining both the sword and its wielder. So, we have Tutankhamun’s khopesh, the Sutton Hoo sword, Henry V’s arming sword, and many others.

Interwoven through the stories of the ancient swords are Loades’s own reminiscences of how he worked with similar swords. For Loades found that one way of parlaying his knowledge of swords and swordfighting into a career was to sell his knowledge to film, TV and theatre companies, acting as a historical consultant and fight arranger. Good work if you can get it, but unreliable. So, to maintain a regular income, he also taught stage fighting at London drama schools.

And, talking about the book with my wife, it turns out that Mike Loades taught her stage fighting when she was at East 15 drama school! She was not a natural – during one lesson she unwittingly knocked out her partner. Despite this, Mike Loades remained patient and kind – he was, she says, an excellent teacher.

The book is full of unexpected nuggets of knowledge. Before reading it, I had no idea that there was another horse gait, the amble, falling between the walk and the trot. Those breeds of horse that have retained this gait can cover many miles in a day using while ambling (it’s faster than it sounds) and Loades tells us, having ridden these ambling horses, that the gait leaves the rider much fresher than having to bounce up and down all day in the trot.

Some is speculative, based on Loades’ own use of swords. For instance, his speculations on how the Egyptians used the khopesh, hooking shields with the blade’s spurs, seem entirely reasonable but we will never know for sure.

Minor quibbles include his treatment of pattern welding and a lack of engagement with what recent pracitioners of historical European martial arts have deduced about the use of swords when fighting armoured opponents, but overall it is a marvellous book, beautifully illustrated and very highly recommended.

Adventures with Words: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Much has been written about this book and deservedly so: its examination of life and death in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and how Frankl and others survived is extraordinary – and let us fervently pray that it remains extra – ordinary. But one of the things Frankl’s book does is remind usjust how much our circumstances and society determine how we behave. We would all like to think that if we had been born in the early 20th century in Germany we would have been one of the brave people who resisted Nazism and tried to smuggle the Jews to freedom. The events of the last two years have unfortunately shown that the vast majority of the population would happily go along with demonising a sub set of the population, particularly when encouraged to do so by those in power and those with loud media voices. A tiny, tiny percentage of the German population actively resisted the Nazis. We, you and I, would be no different today.

But Viktor Frankl, a German Jew, was in the part of the population that was demonised and destroyed. Frankl survived and his book is, in part, an exploration of why some men lived when others, faced with similar hardships, died. According to Frankl, the key factor in determining someone’s endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering is the ability to find some meaning in that suffering. While a devout Jew himself, Frankl was also a psychiatrist and, in examining the factors enabling survival, Frankl deliberately separated meaning from religious faith. While religious faith was very useful in providing a framework to understand and cope with the situation the concentration camp inmates were in, Frankl found that any meaning that could be found was helpful to the survival chances of the prisoners.

Frankl went on to found a school of psychiatry, called logotherapy, which argues that the search for a meaning to one’s life is the central human motivating force. He may well be right, once we take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into account and the ordinary necessities for living are accounted for.

But by divorcing meaning from its usual historical anchor, religious faith, Frankl also described the peculiar situation we find in the modern world. Now, the desperate search for meaning in a consumer world has led to people passionately embracing a whole variety of causes, from veganism to climate change. In itself, this is no bad thing. But problems arise were these people, activists, attempt, just as passionately, to impose these meanings they have found for themselves upon their fellows.

So the peculiar paradox of the 21st century is that we find ourselves having to cope with the fervent beliefs of people searching for meaning in places which simply do not have the moral or intellectual gravity to sustain the importance they attach to them. Hence the increasingly hysterical attempts to force norms on other people. The hysteria ramps up because, underlying all this frantic fury, is the unconscious realisation that the causes so many people have dedicated themselves simply do not carry the import they have ascribed to them. Such levels of cognitive dissonance call forth greater and greater efforts to bring the world into line with their imaginings, in a futile attempt to quiet the strumming strings of dissonance.

Today, we suffer for other people’s meanings. And Frankl unwittingly ushered this in.

Adventures with Words: Defenders of the Faith by James Reston Jr

Defenders of the Faith by James Reston Jr

A lot happened between 1520 and 1536. James Reston Jr whizzes us around the world where it was happening, from Henry VIII’s attempts to extricate himself from his perfectly legitimate marriage to Catherine of Aragon, through to Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a door and setting in train the Protestant Reformation. But the fact that the Reformation endured rather than being suppressed was in large part due to what was happening elsewhere, in particular the looming threat from the east: Suleiman the Magnificent and his Ottoman Empire.

The sixteen years covered in Reston’s fast paced, gossipy book, an excellent example of popular history, revolves in particular around the confrontation between Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and, by reason of canny Habsburg marriage diplomacy, ruler of most of Europe apart from France and England, and Suleiman, Emperor of the East. Where Charles was Holy Roman Emperor, Suleiman was Emperor of Constantinople. And while it is possible for there to be a plurality of kings, according to the lights of the time, there could be only one emperor. Both Suleiman and Charles considered themselves the one but Suleiman, with a realm that was less fissiparous, had the advantage. With the Turkish threat, Luther and the German princes who supported him had Charles and the Habsburg monarchy perpetually looking over their shoulders. Thus the Reformation was saved. But it’s clear that, had the weather been better, Suleiman might well have succeeded in his goal of taking Vienna and unlocking the gates of Europe. Then how differently might history have played out. But the spring and summer of 1529 were exceptionally cold and wet, bogging down the great Turkish supply train as it struggled westwards and forcing the Turks to abandon their heaviest cannons. Reaching Vienna, they put up a desultory attempt to storm the city but without the fine cannons that were their trump card, militarily, they could not breach the walls.

However, in an early example of spin, Suleiman and his advisors declared the expedition a victory and went back to Constantinople and celebrated it as such. One of the interesting facts we learn from this book is that propaganda is by no means a recent invention.

Overall, an engrossing and reader-friendly account of a crucial time, with Reston managing ably to delineate the various historical personages so that they each come across as distinctive personalities.

Adventures with Words: Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson loves words. He loves all sorts of words: long ones, short ones and difficult ones (he wrote a whole book about these, called Troublesome Words, which makes ideal toilet reading as it’s full of short but interesting entries). As such, he’s a good man to write a book about someone who loved words even more: William Shakespeare. So the book is very good about Shakespeare’s language: a genius at phrase making so great that many have entered the language as figures of speech.

As a life of Shakespeare, Bryson however takes a minimalist approach when compared to Shakespeare’s language, emphasising again and again how little we know for sure about him. Mind you, it’s not just us. Apparently, Shakespeare himself was a little wobbly about how exactly his surname should be spelled (and in his surviving signatures, it’s never the way we write it now). So the book comes as a good antidote to the various studies that claim to have uncovered the secret of Shakespeare. According to Bryson, there are no secret keys to unlock the mystery surrounding the world’s playwright: Shakespeare himself either covered up his tracks or the simple loss of knowledge by the passage of time covered his tracks for him.

It’s a fairly basic book on Shakespeare, and a good place to start for those interested in finding out something about what we know, but I would recommend James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare as a better book on the Bard.

Adventures with Words: The Good Guy by Dean Koontz

The Good Guy by Dean Koontz

There’s lots of books and courses out there purporting to teach aspiring authors the craft of writing. And it’s true, they will. They’ll teach you to craft characters, write dialogue, embed themes, all the stuff that occupies most of we writers when we are at work. But in those how-to-write books, you won’t find any mention of Dean Koontz. Which is sort of strange, seeing as how he’s sold millions upon millions of books. Or if they do mention Koontz, it’s as an example of what not to do: don’t editorialise, don’t insert your own voice into the narration, don’t… well, don’t be Dean.

But the problem with all these books about writing is that they are missing out on the one thing that Koontz does exceptionally well and it’s the one thing that is really difficult, if not impossible, to teach: he has great ideas. Great ideas that immediately make you want to find out what happens next. The Good Guy is a good example. Ordinary guy, sitting in a bar, strikes up a conversation with a stranger only to find the stranger thinks he’s someone else. That someone else is a killer, and the stranger is hiring him to kill someone.

What would you do if a stranger hired you to kill someone? That’s the brilliant jumping off point for everything else, and it’s these sort of key ideas that Koontz, and many best-selling authors, are so good at, even if they won’t win any prizes for literary craft. But with a good enough idea, you don’t need to be an Evelyn Waugh when it comes to writing prose: the idea will piggyback the story to its conclusion.

So, writers, by all means learn your craft but also, spend time cultivating the instinct for the killer idea, and the patience to sift through the other ideas until you find the one that works. It’s the Dean Koontz method and he’s sold a lot more books than you (or I) have.

Adventures with Words: A Brief History of Slavery by Jeremy Black

A Brief History of Slavery by Jeremy Black

It’s not. 336 pages does not a brief book make. And they are 336 dense pages. But then, not only is it a brief history but it also attempts to be a new global history too. That’s a lot to pack into a book about one of the oldest and most widespread institutions in human history. And, you know, what: Jeremy Black succeeds much better than you might expect.

While today we might think slavery self-evidently evil and beyond the pale, almost all civilisations and places have regarded it as perfectly normal. What Black does very well in this book is show the ubiquity of slavery, demonstrate how in all its forms it required the help of local elites to facilitate the trade and how the British came to play a particularly schizophrenic role in its culmination, opening up the Atlantic slave trade while also then outlawing and finally policing, via the dominance of the Royal Navy, the slave trade to an ending.

To fit all this in, Black eschews emotionalism: it’s a fairly dry account, strong on economics and politics, weak on human interest. This is not a book seeking to outrage but to understand. If you want to learn, I recommend it. If you want to burnish your moral certainties, read something else.

Adventures with Words: Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Another entry in the they’d-never-publish-this-today stakes, Black Mischief is ostensibly about the fag-end of colonialism when exhausted British charges d’affaires and regional officers oversaw the dismantling of the Empire. However, the fictional African state of Azania (loosely modelled on Ethiopia) is independent, its new ruler, the Emperor Seth, an enthusiast for all things modern.

The first chapter is an absolute masterpiece of mordant wit, describing the panic and collapse in a capital and a regime when its functionaries see the rebel soldiers approaching to take the capital. Waugh is quite brilliant in the way he captures the fear and uncertainty, and the reactions of the men and women trying to buy their way to keeping their skins. Then, it turns out, the approaching army is made of victorious loyalist troops, the rebellion has been defeated, and Emperor Seth can get on with his plans to turn Azania into a modern, progressive nation. It does not work out as he wished, despite his employment of Basil Seal, the feckless English emigre.

It’s all too marvellous to convey anything but a tiny hint of the book’s glitter: so long as you’re willing to put aside modern prejudices – which are just as prejudicial as those on display in the book, only more contemporary – then you will thank me for recommending Black Mischief to you.