Adventures in Bookland: The Janissaries by Godfrey Godwin

The Janissaries by Godfrey Godwin

A history of the shock troops, administrators, Praetorian guard and power behind the rise, dominance and slow decline of the Ottoman Empire, a history all the more fascinating in that the Janissaries were, at least to start with, slave soldiers, impressed Christian boys taken in levy from conquered Christian lands, converted to Islam and made into the personal slaves of the Sultan. It is indeed a fascinating history but one that leaves unanswered the key question with such troops: how were these children, taken as slaves, so effectively turned into the slave soldiers of those who had taken them as slaves? Of course, part of the answer might lie in the eminence that could be attained by the most talented among the Janissaries, but I would still like to see a work where the psychological, physical and other measures taken to turn these boys into slave soldiers is properly examined. I suspect that there might be some parallels with the child soldiers used in some conflicts in Africa but it seems to be the great unexamined area of Ottoman scholarship, as if to investigate it would somehow be indelicate or rude. If anyone knows of such a study, please tell me!

Adventures in Bookland: Western Esotericism by Wouter J. Hanegraaff

Western Esotericism by Wouter Hanegraaff

What is Western esotericism? You may well ask, and the author, a distinguished Dutch academic, spends the first chapter trying to answer the question and worries away at it in asides throughout the book. Perhaps the best way of describing it, now, is marginal knowledge: the bits that don’t fit neatly under the tags of arts or science. But perhaps a better way of expressing it, which Hanegraaff does not say in his book, is that esoteric knowledge bears the same relationship to human understanding that professional sportsmen do in comparison to amateurs. Let me explain. Back in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, when the Western esoteric tradition was taking form as an agglomeration of knowledge drawn from sources as diverse as Platonism, Hermes Trismegistus, Christian mysticism, Kabbalah, Pythagoreanism and early natural philosophy, there was a legitimate question as to the nature of knowledge, namely, could everyone understand it? Once some piece of knowledge was uncovered, did it then become open to all, like opening Tutahkhamun’s tomb. Or was the knowledge accessible only to those who had trod the path to its attainment? To make this clearer, I can play cricket. I know how to play a cover drive, a backward defensive, and so on. But no matter how much I practise, I will never make a professional cricketer, let alone ascend to the ranks of an all-time great such as David Gower (I can still remember the first time I saw the teenage Gower bat in a Sunday League match on Sunday on BBC2 when, in the golden light of a September evening, he seemed a curly haired god bestriding the world of mortals, sending the ball where he willed with the merest flick of his wrists: that is the mark of true greatness in any field, be it sporting or artistic). In some fields, mastery is beyond all but a small elite of people. The question in the early modern period was whether knowledge was like that. The answer we went for, the answer of the modified form of natural philosophy that became modern science, was no. It might take an Einstein to discover relativity but having made his way up the mountain of knowledge he can bring its fruits down to the rest of us. However, western esotericism holds that there are some forms of knowledge that can only be gained by those who climb the mountain: they cannot be shared, only seen. Another analogy would be my knowledge of the colour red. The only way I can truly share this with you, if you have never seen red, is to give you a tomato and say, “Look, this is red.”

That is western esotericism. Hanegraaff is one of a number of scholars now working in this previously little studied field and he is a fervent advocate of studying it in a historical manner, tracing influences, lineages, and developments in its history. What he is adamant scholars should not do is engage in any evaluation of the truth of what the esotericists claim. This, Hanegraaff claims, goes outside the purview of scholarship in this field. However, by deliberately laying aside questions of truth, when Western Esotericism is fundamentally a search for truth, is like trying to study music without listening to any music. Yes, you might learn something about music, from its development to biographies of its practioners to some simple musical theory perhaps, but you will miss the heart, the key, the life; you will miss the music itself. Hanegraaff’s approach misses the music.

So, overall, the book provides a good overview of Western esotericism, clarifies some of the people and schools involved in its various traditions, while remaining little more than an exercise in classification. On a completely separate note, the book has one of the ugliest covers I have ever seen, and one that has really no connection to the subject. The paper the front cover is made from also feels peculiarly unpleasant to the touch. Overall, an interesting but limited approach to the subject.

Adventures in Bookland: Fortress of Fury by Matthew Harffy

Fortress of Fury by Matthew Harffy

The many readers who have accompanied Matthew Harffy’s seventh-century warrior hero, Beobrand, through his adventures in the previous six books in the series will be expecting taut adventure, bloody and brutal battle scenes, and further heartbreak for our hero when it comes to women. They will not be disappointed! The action kicks in with yet another attempt to assassinate Beobrand – a man who attracts enemies the way buried Anglo-Saxon hoards attract metal detectorists – and the only let up after that is when the focus shifts to, yes, Beobrand’s continuing ability to make all the wrong romantic choices. However, his mistake in Fortress of Fury really is a dozy: falling in love with the king’s wife, Queen Eanflæd. It’s only with difficulty that this reviewer prevented himself from, in a literary manner, reaching into the book, grabbing Beobrand’s Welsh follower, Cynan, and telling him to urgently recount the story of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot to his lord. But then, the Arthurian cycle only reached its courtly form five centuries later although that does allow a metafiction thought: Cynan could become the future source of these legends by telling the tale of Beobrand, Queen Eanflæd and King Oswiu to his people. An idea, perhaps, but a better one that has already occurred to Harffy is the use of archaeological evidence to illuminate and drive his plot. Bede tells us that King Penda of Mercia laid siege to the Bernician stronghold atop the great up thrust of the Whin Sill at Bamburgh but says that the attackers were defeated when a prayer-wrought change of wind direction drove the flames they had raised outside the fortress back on themselves. Harffy uses this, but adds to it the archaeological evidence uncovered by the Bamburgh Research Project of extensive burning around St Oswald’s Gate, the original entrance to the castle, to come up with both a great storyline and a thoroughly plausible explanation of what actually happened. This is one of the great strengths of good historical fiction: it enables the writer to play with ideas of the past and Harffy makes full use of this here.

Readers who have followed Beobrand through all his adventures will thoroughly enjoy this latest instalment but this reviewer would like to add his voice to theirs and address the author: please, Matthew, please, please, please, give Beobrand some luck with women by the end of the series. May he find a woman to love, who loves him in return and who doesn’t then die horribly at the hands of his enemies. It’s not too much to ask for a hero who has served you, and the readers, so well.

Adventures in Bookland: Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Frances & Joseph Gies

Cathedral, Forge & Waterwheel by Frances & Joseph Gies

The received wisdom, derived largely from Renaissance propagandists and their amplifiers during the Enlightenment, was that Europe, after the end of the Western Roman Empire, entered a period of savagery and civilisational decline arrested only by the Renaissance that enabled Europe to cast off the superstitious shackles of the Church and emerge into a new world.

The truth is almost exactly the opposite. In fact, the period labelled the ‘Dark Ages’ saw some of the most profound and enduring developments in culture and civilisation since the Agricultural Revolution enabled the first sedentary civilisations. The ‘Dark Ages’ saw the end of slavery, the development of political and economic structures that have endured for two thousand years and a host of technological achievements that improved the lot of ordinary people in unimaginable ways. All slave-based empires have no incentive to find more efficient ways of doing things for, among the small number of hyper rich that dominate slave empires, the ability to employ slaves is a marker of their status. When Christianity made it impossible for Christians to keep slaves, there became a real incentive to find other ways of doing things. Among these innovations, the waterwheel, the forge, a new, heavier plough, all enabled ordinary people to lead significantly better lives than the poor of the Roman Empire: something confirmed by the analysis of remains from comparable cemeteries in Roman and Early Medieval times. It turns out, for all the bread and circuses, you would have been far better off, far better nourished, and significantly better protected under law, as a serf in medieval Europe than as a plebeian under Rome.

The husband and wife writing team do an excellent job of tracing the main technological innovations in Europe during this time, looking at where the inventions came from and the evidence of how they spread. There’s not so much about the social and cultural transformation but a good grasp of the the technological innovations will give the inquiring reader a grounding in the reasons why the Dark Ages were not so dark after all but the foundations for everything that followed: achievements and understandings that would always have been impossible for the Romans.

Adventures in Bookland: The Psychology of Belonging by Kelly-Ann Allen

The Psychology of Belonging by Kelly-Ann Allen

Belonging is fundamental to being human. It has deep, deep roots in human history and prehistory. It makes the difference between a life fulfilled and a life of misery. And psychologists are now trying to understand it at the level of their discipline. Within the limits of psychology, Kelly-Anne Allen does a good job of giving an overview of belonging, from the viewpoints of theoretical and experimental psychology and their applications for psychological treatment. The book’s main limitation, outside its brevity, is the rather desperate efforts made by the author to make it seem that the shift onto social media and the concomitatn decline in real-world interactions has not been absolutely terrible for personal relationships and a major driver for the steep rise in loneliness in the 21st century.

Adventures in Bookland: The Knights Hospitaller by John Carr

The Knights Hospitaller by John Carr

This military history of the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem is solid and generally dependable, apart from its tendency to adopt the outworn tropes of earlier scholarship about the Crusades that saw the Crusaders as ignorant barbarians out for plunder and conquest and with a strong inclination to massacre populations for sport as opposed to the civilised and humane Muslims who always gave quarter and were definitely better mannered. While this view has been shown to be wrong, the awareness of that does not seem to have quite sunk in to John Carr’s treatment of the Crusades and Outremer.

Apart from that, the book does a good job of tracing the history of the Hospitallers, with the part on its latter history after the Siege of Malta possibly the best section of the book. Recommended so long as the reader knows enough to correct the issues about Outremer.

Adventures in Bookland: Sea People by Christina Thompson

Sea People by Christina Thompson

There’s a problem with being a laggardly book reviewer: even the most vivid and fascinating books fade. One of the main reasons for me writing book reviews is to cement the book into memory and generally it works very well. Unfortunately, for various reasons, it’s been quite a while since I fnished reading Sea People and most of its specific content has disappared from my memory as completely as if I, like its protagonists, found myself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But, unlike me, the Polynesians who explored and settled that vast ocean had ways of finding their way around and Thompson does a brilliant job of recounting how they did it as well as the long and roundabout story of how the rest of the world slowly came to appreciate the Polynesian achievement.

There, I’m already beginning to remember more. Something else that comes back to me is that Captain James Cook deserved all the approbation heaped upon him: superlative navigator, exceptional leader and a 19th-century Englishman willing to engage with the natives and learn from them. There was a great section in the book about a Tahitian (I think) who embarked with James Cook and sailed with him, the two becoming collaborators and friends within the possibilities of their respective worlds. It was a meeting of very different approaches to the task of navigating the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean.

Sea People opens a window onto a very different world of water and sun and currents and winds. It’s left more of an imprint on my mind than a book about what is, quite literally, trackless has any right to do so. In fact, it is one of the small percentage of books that would be worth returning to.

Adventures in Bookland: Sharpe’s Trafalgar

Sharpe’s Trafalgar by Bernard Cornwell

Although Sharpe’s Trafalgar comes fourth in the chronology of the Sharpe novels, it was actually the 19th to be written and it does suffer from being a bit Sharpe by the numbers.

So, high-status damsel in distress who falls for the bit of rough, Richard Sharpe: check. Arrogant upper-class type who hates Sharpe but gets his comeuppance: check. Accommodating upper-class type who admires Sharpe: check.

But on the positive side: brilliantly written battle scenes with a new twist – these are naval battles: check. Indeed, Cornwell’s ability to write convincing and engrossing battle scenes, and to always keep them interesting is one of his greatest abilities as a writer. Very few people can manage that as well as he does.

So, a Sharpe novel that ticks all the boxes but perhaps doesn’t have the vim and vigour of the earlier novels.

Adventures in Bookland: Nine Lives by Aimen Dean

Nine Lives by Aimen Dean

There’s not many testimonies from high up in Al-Qaeda and even fewer from someone who turned against the organisation and became a spy for MI6, so Aimen Dean’s Nine Lives will probably always rank number one in a field of one. Thankfully, it deserves its place for its intrinsic value as well as for its extrinsic interest.

Dean was a more than usually pious boy growing up in Saudi Arabia, the youngest of a family of brothers whose father was killed in a traffic accident and whose mother died when he was in his early teens (if I remember correctly). As such, he began to gravitate towards Islamist groups, enlisting at the tender age of 16 in the Bosnian jihad. Having survived that war – more by luck than skill – Dean’s appetite was only whetted to fight further for the cause of Islam and, after an abortive attempt to join the Chechen war, he ended up becoming part of Al-Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks. A bright young man with a scientific bent, Dean was seconded to the weapons experimental division of Al-Qaeda, taking part in all sorts of experiments – many of which involved the death of various unfortunate animal test subjects.

What’s most interesting about the book is how Dean gradually became convinced that the jihadist ideology was wrong, being based on a partial and biased reading of Islamic law and tradition. Having made his decision to leave the organisation, Dean was arrested by Qatari intelligence and given a choice: cooperate with MI6, the CIA or French intelligence. He chose MI6 on the basis of a complete lack of knowledge of France and a general suspicion that the Americans did not protect their intelligence assets. It proved a wise choice. For the next most interesting part of the book is his account of his time as an MI6 agent and the delicate dance of necessity, choice and danger between Dean and his MI6 handlers.

In the end, it was the Americans who gave Dean away, in the memoirs of an official of the outgoing Bush administration, and Dean had to make a hasty getaway. It’s a fascinating story that answers both how someone can become a jihadi and how he might leave the ideology behind. Highly recommened.

Adventures in Bookland: The Drink and Dream Teahouse by Justin Hill

The Drink and Dream Teahouse by Justin Hill

There’s precious few authors who don’t have a pile of failed novels sitting at the bottom of the cupboard or hidden on a hard drive. There’s even fewer whose first completed novel was written when still young. Justin Hill manages both of these and he adds a third: writing convincingly and moving about the old while still a young man himself. To really make this debut novel stand out, Hill does all this in the context of turn of the millennium China: but not the China of newly minted millionaires and communist capitalism but one of the semi-forgotten towns of the northern hinterlands where the winter blows in from over the Mongolian plain, bitter and long. It’s an extraordinary window into a China that very few people outside China know, a hard-scrabble land that, despite its atrocities, communist rule probably improved, leaving the people there caught in the middle of the pivot to consumer communist capitalism made by the Party bigwigs in far away Beijing.

It’s a quite brilliant portrayal of a group of characters struggling to come to terms with a China that has pretty comprehensively demolished its past – Mao ranks as one of the worse cultural vandals in history – but is also busy overturning the few certainties bequeathed by the communist era. For the elderly, it’s a time for some to attempt to come to grips with the past and in particular their parts in the Cultural Revolution. For the young, it’s an attempt to find a road between the new Party goal of getting rich and dealing with the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. It’s a portrayal of the oldest continuously civilised society on earth trying to understand how it could have systematically destroyed that heritage and picking up the pieces of what is left.

All of this is done in the context of the most human of stories: of Da Shan, returning to his old home after getting rich in the big city but still carrying the burden of his part in the great betrayal following Tiananmen Square; of Liu Bei, his one-time lover, eking out her living in the Drink and Dream Teahouse of the title – a brothel frequented by members of the local Party hierarchy. It’s the story of their parents and the other old stagers, still scarred by memories of famine and want and political destruction. It’s a story of a society still deeply scarred by the brutality visited upon it, a brutality that plays out in the story in a couple of harsh scenes of sexual violence that, while integral to the story, might make the book unpalatable for certain readers.

It’s not a story with happy endings but then, the story of China is no fairytale: they do not all live happily ever after, as recent events in Hong Kong and Wuhan show. Read it for an insight into what China was becoming twenty years ago and set it against what the Party lets us see of China now: the true story is very different from what is portrayed in the media. Read it also for a prose style that makes an extraordinary attempt to convey, in English, something of the rhythms and cadences of Chinese.

The Drink and Dream Teahouse would be an outstanding novel for any writer: it’s a truly extraordinary novel for a first-time author.