Adventures in Bookland: Suleiman the Magnificent by Andre Clot

Suleiman the Magnificent by Andre Clot

There must surely be a pun to be made on the author’s name – something like a clot upon Suleiman’s magnificent reputation – but given that the book is very good, it’s proved beyond my wit to make it. Suffice to say that the book spends its first half on Suleiman’s life and reign in an engaging manner, making a reasonable effort to understand the man behind the appellation – Clot’s point that Suleiman really did see himself as a ghazi, a warrior for Islam, is perhaps key to understanding much of his reign – and the second half in a wider description of the Ottoman world over which Suleiman reigned and which, during his reign, seemed poised to remake the world in his image and the image of his religion.

Adventures in Bookland: Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander was a wonderful beginning to the Aubrey/Maturin novels but reading it in the light of this, the second book in the series, it becomes clear that Patrick O’Brian wasn’t necessarily thinking of writing a twenty book series of oceangoing adventures when he wrote it. Master and Commander would have worked perfectly well as a standalone novel, with O’Brian going off to mine different literary seams, but with Post Captain it’s clear that he as a writer, as well as we readers, realise that it’s right here that he’s found the rich seam or, to employ a more nautical metaphor, found clear water and a following wind. With Post Captain, the series really takes off, in particular revealing both the sly humour that peppers the rest of the series (Jack Aubrey’s escape from France disguised as Stephen Maturin’s dancing bear balances on the edge of ludicrous before falling into the fields of delight) and the author’s ability to employ the language of the period to telling effect, making of it almost a seagoing, masculine companion to Jane Austen’s novels. Yes, it is that good.

Adventures in Bookland: The Two Sieges of Rhodes, 1480-1522 by Eric Brockman

The Two Sieges of Rhodes, 1480-1522 by Eric Brockman

In the 16th century, the idea that European civilisation would come to dominate the world in the following centuries seemed extremely unlikely. Yes, it is true, mariners and adventurers had opened up the New World and sent Christian ships into the Indian Ocean, but Europe itself was fracturing, its medieval unity of religion breaking on the rocks of the Reformation, while from the east, the rising power of the Ottomans appeared to be flowing westward as inexorably as the tide.

With the gaze of Christian princes turned to the wider world beyond the Mediterranean, the main defence against Ottoman expansion was left to the Knights Hospitaller, the last of the monastic crusading orders, from their fortress island of Rhodes. In 1480, the conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmed, tried to take the island but a heroic defence turned him back. 42 years later, his great-grandson, Suleiman, tried again and this time a similarly heroic defence could only delay him since no Christian prince was willing or able to send a relieving force, so conscious were they of their rivalry and enmity.

Brockman tells the story of the two epic sieges well, making good use of the contemporary sources, although I would cavil at some of his interpretations. But overall an excellent account of the start of the war for the Mediterranean.

Adventures in Bookland: The Lord of Middle Air by Michael Scott Rohan

The Lord of Middle Air by Michael Scott Rohan

For this review, I really need to coin a couple of those wonderful German compound words that don’t exist in English but that we cheerfully appropriate, in the language’s magpie fashion, to express ideas that need a word to express them. So we’ve already got Weltanschauung and Schadenfreude and many other useful words, so what I need to coin for this review is a German compound word meaning ‘the sudden joy of discovering a new author whom you will enjoy for many years to come’ (Google translate suggests FreudeeinesneuenSchrifstellers) followed by a word conveying ‘the despair when you discover your newly discoverd author actually died two years ago’ (this seems a bit long even for German compound words, so we’ll just have to go with the long-winded English description of the feeling I experienced when I looked up Michael Scott Rohan only to discover that he had actually died in August 2018).

I loved this book. Set in the Scottish borders during the 13th century, Rohan displays a mastery of the use of Scotch dialects that is evidence of uncommon skill as a writer. The style is rich, dense, complex in style but relatively straightforward in plot: a young man encounters his returning relative, Michael Scot, a renowned scholar and possibly a mage, returning to his home in the borders after many years travelling the world. With Scot come wonders, but fear too: of sorcery, heresy and the unknown in general. But the hero of the book, young Walter Scot, follows the trails laid out by his relative to realms he had not dreamed of, only to return and reclaim his lands and his title. The story is straightforward, but the language and the telling makes the tale, of the borderlands between the human world and Faerie, thoroughly convincing. The story was a joy to me and, finishing it, I immediately looked up Michael Scott Rohan: it’s not every day that one encounters a writer who seems entirely in sympathy with your sensibilities. So imagine how upset I was when I discovered that he had died, after a long illness, and a life that should have been full of many, many books for me to read in future had been cruelly cut short by illness, so that there was only a handful of books for me to read by Rohan in future.

May he see his worlds.

Adventures in Bookland: The Death of Halpin Frayser by Ambrose Bierce

The Death of Halpin Frayser by Ambrose Bierce

Some stories are spare and lean: every excess word trimmed away in service of the narrative. But others are ornate, luxurious plays upon the sound and texture and harmonics of words: like a coral reef growing upon the wreck of a foundered ship. The Death of Halpin Frayser belongs in the latter category: a feast of word play, allusion and writing for word’s sake. As such, it requires somewhat closer attention from the reader than the first sort of story, but it’s an effort worth the making for a voyage into a literary jungle, fecund with life and texture.

Adventures in Bookland: Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard

Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard

By the time Robert E. Howard wrote this tale of Conan the Barbarian, he had both thoroughly learned the craft of writing and fixed the world of the Hyborian Age in his own imagination and the imagination of the reader. The result, in Beyond the Black River, is a taut, surprisingly melancholy tale told through the point of view of a young man who aspires to be a warrior like Conan. The story is as sharp as one of Conan’s axes and as spare as a winter wolf. There are very few writers who create characters who transcend their own ability and time: with Conan, Howard emphatically did so.

Adventures in Bookland: Sea Above, Sky Below by Richard Medrington

Puppet State Theatre’s production of Leaf by Niggle

Back in 2017 – which seems a long time ago now – my family and I saw Richard Medrington’s one-man show of JRR Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle for Puppet State Theatre. It was a wonderful, uplifting, heart stopping evening that highlighted once again the extraordinary dramatic power and possibilities of theatre. If Puppet State Theatre ever puts the show out on the road again, I would urge you to see it.

After the show, Richard Medrington said that a side-effect of rehearsing and producing the performance was that he had dusted off a three-quarters finished novel that, like Niggle, he had never finished but, inspired by Niggle, he had finished and it was available for sale if we would like to buy a copy. So, I did, hoping that some of the hope sparkle of the evening would be dusted over the pages of the book.

And it was. In fact, the book is a testament to ideas and writers sometimes being able to transcend their own technical limitations to produce something better than the words on the page. How can a book, that is made entirely of words on a page, transcend those words? Because words are magical, sound engines of meaning, creators of worlds and vistas; givers of the Secret Fire of life – in Tolkien’s thought – as far as is possible for we sub-creators. So while there are problems on the surface of Medrington’s book – some repetition, stricly speaking it should be cut by a quarter for better narrative drive, and a few other things – the singular vision that drives it, and the characters that populate it, particularly Alma who hides behind a bin and finds a door to another world, enable the story to transcend its formal limitations and reach – or point – beyond itself: just like that Leaf, by Niggle.

Adventures in Bookland: Suleiman the Magnificent by Hourly History

Suleiman the Magnificent by Hourly History

A short but thorough, within the limitations of the space, introduction to Suleiman, tenth sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the man who raised it to the height of its power and prestige. While the European princes of the Renaissance, Charles V, Francis I and Henry VIII, vied for prestige and power, Suleiman brooded in the east, exquisitely aware of his power and even more exquisitely, indeed excruciatingly, aware of the lack of his family’s prestige with respect to the ancient monarchies of Europe. By the high point of his reign, all that had changed: the crowns of Europe glanced nervously eastwards to the brooding sultan in his Sublime Porte. Indeed, it is quite likely that Suleiman’s presence made possible the enduring split in Christendom that produced the Reformation: Charles V could never devote all his forces to defeating the Reformation due to the ever-present threat of Suleiman – a man who regared Charles’ imperial title as Holy Roman Emperor as a direct personal insult for there can only be one emperor and, so far as Suleiman was concerned, that emperor was him. A well written gallop through a most important reign.

Adventures in Bookland: The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson

The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson

Channelling my inner football pundit, if ever there was a book of two halves, this is it. As to the content of those two halves, the subtitle of The Hobbit describes it perfectly: there and back again.

But this is also a book that is difficult to review as it was both one of the most extraordinary and one of the worst books I’ve ever read – although the extraordinariness outweighed the bad sufficiently to pull me through to the ending, even though the second half of the book (the back again) was significantly worse than the first half (the there).

It’s also a book whose influence has been substantial. Its narrative structure was stolen wholesale by Olaf Stapledon for his extrapolation of humanity’s future, Last and First Men and its vision of the future has inspired a whole tranche of writers.

So, let’s say something about The Night Land. It begins in some undetermined but vaguely early modern kingdom where a young man of low station falls in love with a princess, who after some trials returns his love, and they are married, blissfully happy until the princess dies in childbirth and the unnamed narrator is stricken with grief. Then, in his grief, a message, an intimation from the far future reaches back to him, of his own soul reborn into the last age of mankind, when all humanity has retreated to its final redoubt, a huge pyramidal structure, to hold against the obscure but terrifying monsters that plague the Night Land – for the sun has gone out and all is dark. But when I say all humanity, it turns out that this is not the case: there is another colony, holding out against the Night, and among its residents is the reincarnation of the narrator’s lost love.

Mirdath the Beautiful is her name and the narrator leaves the safety of the Last Redoubt in search of her (the there). This part, as the narrator travels through one of the strangest, most intensely imagined landscapes ever committed to paper, is the strongest part of the book, as the deep horror of this haunted land drags the reader into the story: it’s an extraordinary imaginative exercise in an almost physical darkness.

But finally reaching the other redoubt, our narrator finds that it has fallen to the forces of the night. However, he finds the reincarnation of Mirdath the Beautiful and then begins the back again. Here is where the story drags, firstly because they are literally going back over the same footsteps and with largely the same dangers and obstacles, but secondly and worse because of the turgidity of the love story – yes, we know she is the most beautiful and lovely woman in the world but there is a limit to how often we need to be told that as readers, that limit being reached before they have managed to cover more than one tenth of the journey home.

So, I confess, the back again part I read with the aid of a fair amout of skipping – whenever it returned to another bout of mutual mooning, or teenage squabbling (with a weird overlay of corporal punishment) I turned the page – but having travelled so far with our narrator, I wanted to see him home again. And they make it! Back to humanity’s final refuge, holding out against monsters and evils too strange to even describe, until it too falls and the night rules all.

The whole thing is written in repetitive, cod-17th century prose, however I found that less of an issue than the irritation with the cooing love couple.

But the vision – ah, the vision, of the earth in its desuetude and the final struggle of humanity against the night…

There are few books that can overcome so many problems with their style and their plot, but this is one of them. I will remember it long after many ‘better’ books.

Adventures in Bookland: The Colonel’s Monograph by Graham McNeil

There was a question, extant in publishing in the 1990s, that I think I can now answer: who (or what) killed horror? Back in the 1980s, on the back of the huge success of Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Herbert and Peter Straub, horror was the big genre, with publishers greenlighting pretty well everything calculated to scare the reader.

And then, horror died. The readers stopped buying, the publishers stopped publishing and those writers who had started off in the genre had to find another outlet for their talents – or another career entirely. The usual reason given for the sudden collapse of the market was over saturation: too many books by too many mediocre authors. But that has scarcely been a problem for chick lit, or detective fiction so why did horror fiction crash?

I think it was because, for horror to be truly frightening, there has to be an underlying belief, on the part of the writer as well as the reader, that there is something worse than dying. There has to be consequences for moral choices that transcend merely pain and suffering, which, however bad, will terminate in death, and a sense of the possibility that we, as human beings, can fall into an eternal state that cuts us off completely from what we are and what we should be. For horror to work, there has to be a profound sense that, while human beings enter this world as human beings, it is possible for us to leave it as creatures anywhere on a hierarchy from the basest and most depraved to the highest and most exalted, and that these possibilities carry on after death. For a horror that is based purely on this world becomes, in the end, nothing more than torture porn, variations on the suffering that can be inflicted on to the physical body and a mind that is conceived as nothing more than an emanation of the physical. As such, horror loses its horror, for death brings down the curtain on all suffering and cuts every story, well, dead.

This is exactly what happened with the decline and fall of the horror genre: it devolved into variations on how to cause pain, with Clive Barker’s Cenobites representing the terminal perfection of this view of horror: pain as ecstasy, horror devolved into a sado-masochistic forever.

But in the Warhammer 40k universe, there really are things that are worse than dying. Accepting the premises of the universe, with its pervasive dread of a corruption that can continue far past death itself, there is the possibility of reworking the necessary tropes to make horror work, to return it to its Victorian prime, and I’m pleased to say that Graham McNeil takes the opportunity in his stride. Indeed, with the nods to M.R. James, doyen of Victorian ghost fiction, in the book, it’s clear that he knows exactly what he’s doing in The Colonel’s Monograph. There are worse things than dying and McNeil lets that deepening dread seep through the controlled prose of this taut novella. A fine addition to the 40k universe.