Dance of the Dead, by Christie Golden

Ahhh, Dungeons and Dragons novels…

A while back, I decided to re-read an old D&D novel again. I mean, I have a whole stack of them, so I ought to read them occasionally. I’m not expected them to be Tolstoy, but some of them are probably fun. So this time, I picked (largely because it happened to be through chance on top of a prominent pile) Christie Golden’s Dance of the Dead.

And then I didn’t read it. Every time I thought about it, I thought… “oh, do I have to? Really?” And then I’d go and not read anything. Or get distracted by another Discworld or something. Anything but this. Because really, I know I liked this stuff when I was a kid, but do I really still want to be wading through this tripe?

…turns out, yes, yes I do. Because it turns out that this was actually a really fun read, and I should have read it earlier, when I first planned to, and I don’t know why I didn’t.

 

 

We should probably begin with some backstory. Here’s the big picture: in 1974, a pair of wargamers, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, sold around 1000 cheap paper copies of a new game they’d invented called ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, and modern role-playing games were born. In 1975, they followed up with some supplements giving brief details of two potential settings for the game: Gygax’s ‘Greyhawk’, and Arneson’s ‘Blackmoor’. In 1979, they got one of their players – established novelist André Norton – to write a novel set in Greyhawk. Although originally most of their published ‘adventures’ were placed in generic or ad hoc settings, gradually they (and the company they founded, TSR), came to focus on a number of defined ‘campaign settings’ or ‘worlds’. To launch those ‘worlds’, they comissioned tie-in novels: this began in 1984, when the Dragonlance setting was introduced through Dragons of Autumn Twilight and its sequels, but hit full speed in the first part of the 1990s. By the late ‘90s, this approach had proven suicidal (resources were being devoted to increasingly recondite niches that few people were interested in, and rather than drawing in more players as originally intended it was found that each campaign setting merely drew existing players away from the others), leading to a series of take-overs: the near-bankrupt TSR by a company called Wizards of the Coast, which in turn was consolidated into entertainment megagiant Hasbro, which in turn was consolidated into the Illithid God-Brain entertainment hyperomniultraleviathan Disney, because apparently we don’t give a shit about that whole monopolies-distorting-free-trade business anymore, but that’s a rant for another evening.

The strategy may have made no sense financially, but it brought the adoration of legions of fans, and created probably the largest edifice of linked fictional material the world has ever seen: a dozen fully-fledged campaign settings and a few dozen more sketched-out ones, a TV series, a range of films, hundreds of pre-written adventure modules, nearly a hundred computer games including bestselling and critically-acclaimed games like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Planescape: Torment, and somewhere around 600 novels, including dozens of bestsellers. For many of those of us who were teenage fantasy geeks in the ‘90s, fantasy was TSR… sure, their novels may not have been our favourites, and few of the individual novels achieved the readership of the biggest fantasy writers outside the stable, but the sheer number of their books meant that – in an age when far fewer fantasy novels were being published – whenever you finished reading another author’s books there was always a shelf of TSR you could turn to. Unparalleled in its range and diversity, the D&D line spanned Sword and Sorcery (Greyhawk), magic-rich high fantasy (Forgotten Realms), heroic epic fantasy (Dragonlance), political and military fantasy (Birthright), magitech (Eberron), combined-tech-and-magic (Blackmoor), wasteland fantasy (Dark Sun), Arthurian fantasy (Pellinore), ultra-weird space fantasy (Spelljammer), and even weirder metaphysical-with-a-big-slice-of-bizarro-urban-fantasy fantasy (Planescape), and spanning pseudo-mediaeval-Europe, pseudo-‘Orient’ (Kara-Tur), pseudo-Arabia (al-Qadim), pseudo-mesoamerica (Maztica) pseudo-ancient-mesopotamia (Dark Sun again… well, if the mesopotamian city-states were ruled by draconic god-kings draining the land of life-energy, and if the desert tribes were wandering mind-controlling elves and strange alien insect-people… which in real life they probably weren’t), and of course pseudo-bizarro-semi-Victoriana-semi-high-fantasy-semi-whateverthehellyoucanthinkof (Planescape again) pseudo-SF (Spelljammer again) and plain entirely-non-human-civilisation (eg. Council of Wyrms, there the player-characters were all dragons) environments.

And there was Ravenloft. Originating in the seminal 1983 adventure Ravenloft, in which the villain was as much an active character as the players themselves, and in its 1986 sequel, Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill, and finally developed as an open campaign setting in 1990, Ravenloft was the horror branch of the franchise. It intentionally made life difficult for its players – the original intention was for this to be somewhere that established player characters could temporarily be sent for a ‘weekend in hell’ adventure – and it inverted many of the expectations of the genre. The villains were one step ahead of the heroes, evil could hardly ever be truly defeated, victories came with collateral damage, it was impossible to tell the good guys from the bad (spells to ‘detect alignment’ simply didn’t work in Ravenloft), and the former could easily turn into the latter (via enforced game mechanics – those who do bad things become evil), or just go insane (also via mechanics). Just getting through the game without feeling morally uncomfortable is meant to be a challenge. The memorable characters of the setting are not famous heroes but famous villains. In particular, the world is divided into ‘domains’, each ruled (sometimes in a non-obvious way) by a being who has passed beyond hope of redemption: these darklords are immensely powerful, but are trapped in their domains, and in Ravenloft itself (a sort of hell-dimension that characters from other worlds could fall into), and each subject to some personalised tormenting curse*. The concept of the domain allows the setting to have a great deal of internal variety, with different domains reflecting the origins and nature of their domain lord – Saragossa is a weed-choked stretch of water haunted by a vicious pirate trapped in the form of a shark, whereas Pharazia is a patch of mud with some hovels ruled by an ancient mummy, and Dementlieu is a sophisticated early-modern urban European society.

In short: it was grim and dark long before grimdark became popular. But it was also a little bit fun. Many of its major characters were transparently filched from gothic horror novels and films (Strahd=Dracula, Mordenheim=Frankenstein, van Richten=van Helsing, Hiregaard/Malken=Jekyll/Hyde), and the setting had fun with these borrowings, as well as with a baroque, over-the-top sort of tone. It was grim enough not to seem camp, but ridiculous enough not to seem too grim.

There were twenty Ravenloft novels published (and more recently another three novels with the Ravenloft logo on them but no substantial connexion to the setting). Dance of the Dead is the third, and to be honest, by my memory of the books, things were not that promising at that point. Vampire of the Mists had plenty of fans, but was also accused of being dull, overly cliché, and unimaginative; Knight of the Black Rose, as I remember it, was just page after page after page of Lord Soth cutting lesser evil beings into pieces as he marched through the world in straight lines (accompanied by an evil werebadger).

Dance of the Dead is much more interesting.

We should be clear from the beginning that if you’re looking for reasons to dislike this book, you don’t have to look that far. I actually burst out laughing within a page or two, thanks largely to the prose, which is just so D&D I couldn’t help myself. It’s stilted and verbose, more in keeping with Dickens or the like than with a modern horror thriller, and it out-adjectives Conrad. Looking beyond the prose, there are some clunking moments of cliché, particularly in the head-smashingly conventional obligatory romance plot, and some oddly-fitting weirdness that… well, back to that in a moment.

Romance plot. If this were published today, you’d call it a paranormal romance, and it has some of the worse sins of that genre: feisty heroine falls in love at first sight and beyond reason with implausibly perfect young man, whom she instantly trusts absolutely for no reason at all just because. Oh dear.

And the weirdness? Ravenloft is horror, but it’s fantasy horror. The book starts out in the very fantasy domain of Darkon, a land packed with elves and dwarves and magical beings (as well as the lich-king Azalin and his secret police (the Kargat) of werewolves and vampires… of course, the real danger of Darkon is that if travellers stay too long they lose all memory of their lives outside Darkon and instead ‘remember’ wholly fictional new lives), and spends a fair bit of time in Souragne, a domain based on Louisiana or the Caribbean, with its own, more voodoo-influenced, sort of fantasy. Some readers may find themselves put off by mixing elves and vampires, zombies and nereids, and any vestige of sanity with talking, flesh-eating rabbits.

You could also, quite fairly, complain that the plot is basically “Mary Sue gets helped out by a Deus ex Machina”. It’s true that it basically comes down to “the heroine is wonderful and someone or other is sure to help her if there’s something she can’t do herself”. But thing is: this is Ravenloft. It’s not really about achieving particular goals, it’s about the moral journey. And in Ravenloft, there are no gods in the machine – only devils – and any sort of striking talent is just setting a character up for corruption. That’s a difficult thing to convey in a modern novel – again, it’s another way in which the book feels surprisingly anachronistic (apart from those weremink, I don’t think the original gothic really went in for weremink) – but Christie Golden is actually able to handle it pretty well here. It feels natural. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s a book where victory is earned not through hard work or education but through a moral fire, a coming into the proximity of evil.

And talking of evil… one of the great elements of the Ravenloft setting is that there is always something worse out there. Little villains are overshadowed by bigger villains, who are overshadowed by the darklords, who are overshadowed by the shadowy real powers of the world. You find yourself rooting for the devil to put an end to the petty villains. And – again without getting into the plot itself but only the setting – Golden has a pretty fun devil in her back pocket here, one of the biggest devils in Ravenloft, for all that he’s overshadowed by the more famous darklords of the Core Domains. Ravenloft novels – and indeed adventures – can live at any level of villainy: some deal only with the petty local evils, some involve direct confrontations with a darklord (these rarely end well) and some even make the darklord into the protagonist (as in the pair of I, Strahd novels, the (possibly propagandistic) diaries of the setting’s wry, no-nonsense Dracula-substitute). The advantage of that is that it’s hard to know what’s going to happen: everything occurs, in essence, because it is either desired or ignored by some or other power vastly greater than the protagonists. Some readers will hate that sense of impotence; others will revel in the disquiet it provokes. Golden addresses that side of the setting extremely well, in my opinion.

 

Anyway, in more concrete terms, the book tries to overcome its handicaps of clunky prose and clichéd (they would say ‘heightened’, ‘baroque’) plot beats through a couple of tricks. One of those tricks is investing the little character work in some unexpected places, creating, surprising moments around the main narrative that I think help create an illusion of depth. Another is thinking about things just a little harder than the reader expects: several things that the reader at first might roll their eyes over do actually make sense in the end, making the reader a little more willing to accept all the other eye-rolling moments.

But the big thing is audacity. You can carry off a lot if you have enough audacity. Find the writing style too dull? Have a murder. No, have more than one murder. I say without exaggeration: for a substantial percentage of this book (until we start to seriously run out of characters and need to save some for the ending), Golden gives us an average of around one brutal death every ten pages. Try putting it down when that happens… the pace of the thing pulls you in to a point where you get used to the style. I found myself reading through at a right old pace… sure, I didn’t overwhelmingly care what happened, but I still wanted to find out! Audacity…

And audacity too with the ‘sillier’ fantasy elements. It’s as though Golden is saying: “yes, it’s a talking flesh-eating rabbit. You got a problem with that? You want to laugh. Go ahead, laugh. But if you do, I’m going to kill another character.” It’s a perfect level of self-seriousness: enough dry lines, enough dare-you-to-laugh bits of absurdity that I didn’t find it self-important or stuffy, enough that I feel I can mock the silliness without mocking the book… and yet it never lets itself crack a smile itself, never lets you forget that everything is deadly serious for the characters themselves.

And that extends to the brutality too, which at times is on a level where you don’t know whether to laugh or throw up and up just sort of shocked that it went there. I mean, at one point somebody/something wins a fight by biting through the skull of their enemy and eating their head… and they’re on our side! At another point, a zombie arm claws through a man’s chest and rips his beating heart out. And these bits aren’t over-writen and baroque, they’re dealt with as being fairly run-of-the-mill events (in gothic horror, after all, it’s what you don’t see that you’re worried about… mere gore and violence is a nice relief by comparison). It’s hard to really explain this, but… it takes a setting and a story where really terrible things can happen, and presents it as it appears to the people involved who, yes, are on some level traumatised by it perhaps, but who don’t have the time or energy to run around being melodramatic about it.

So in the end, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable book. It’s an old-fashioned, story-telling book, relying on the principle that if you tell a good story people will listen. You don’t really have to have deep and important themes, and you don’t really need beautiful and economic prose, and so long as you do have some twists and turns along the way it doesn’t even matter too much if some characters, some moments, some bits of dialogue, are quite familiar. It’s not setting out to be great literature, it’s just trying to be a fun read. I might prefer great literature… but to be honest, I’d rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else a novel that only tries to be an enjoyable read than one that pretends to the status of great literature and yet falls short.

I must read some more of my D&D novels. Unfortunately, the real curse of them is not that they’re bad, but that the quality is so much a matter of pot luck…

 

Adrenaline: 4/5. Never really thrilling, but stuff kept happening, I kept wanting to find out what happened next, and I kept reading when I had opportunities to stop.

Emotion: 2/5. The lack of sparkling quality lets it down here, as it’s not really able to hammer home the emotional moments and make me feel the pain rather than merely think about it. Of course, your mileage might vary… there’s certainly no shortage of things to feel about! I see there are some reviews out there of people crying their eyes out at points. I guess if you’re used to some easy sparkly fairy-magic romance stuff, you might easily mistake this for more of the same, and I could see how that could lead to a real punch in the gut crocodile bite through the forearm. But this is Baltimore Ravenloft, gentlemen; the gods will not save you. (Other things might).

Thought: 2/5. Not a stupid read, but deep thinking is not the point.

Beauty: 2/5. Some good strong imagery now and then.

Craft: 2/5. Does something a bit different and does it quite well. The prose is probably below par, but to give it credit it is solid – it’s stiff, but it never (ok, barring one or two purple descriptors here and there) becomes painful. Certainly a lot of books have worse writing, and once I got into it this stopped being a problem at all.

Endearingness: 4/5. I may be being generous, but I do think it’s at least a 3, and I’m happy giving it a 4. There are certainly things I don’t like about it, but there are also bits I really enjoyed. It may not be sophisticated reading, but it was fun.

Originality: 3/5. A tricky one to score. On the one hand, some bits are clunkingly by-the-book. On the other hand, some bits are clever, and on a third hand some things are nuts. So I guess a par score overall?

 

Overall: 4/7. NOT BAD.
I feel I may need to remind people here that I mean what I say: ‘not bad’ means just that, and ‘not bad’ is pretty good. I don’t call things ‘good’ unless I really think they are. A ‘Not Bad’ book is usually something I’m happy to recommend to someone who likes that kind of thing: other examples include A Game of Thrones (though the sequels are better), some of the weaker Discworld novels, the first two Feist/Wurts Empire novels, McCaffrey’s Dragonsinger (which I really liked!), and so on.

Just a little reminder there, since I think I’ve been a bit spoilt recently with unusually good books.

Anyway, Dance of the Dead might not be a very fashionable novel in 2014 – though I suspect that large numbers of the equivalent novels of today will fair rather less well with time – but I think that if you turn off the overly critical part of your mind and just read for fun, this can be perfectly enjoyable. And also leave you with a slight sense of discomfort, because this is Ravenloft, damnit.

It may be particularly of interest to those who are fans of paranormal romance or modern grimdark (although it’s a long way from being the darkest Ravenloft novel), just to see how things worked twenty years ago.

 

 

Oh, I forgot that footnote on curses. Some examples:

- Strahd von Zarovich, Lord of Barovia, is an immortal vampire, having killed his brother out of love for his brother’s fiancée. She killed herself as a way of rejecting him. Every generation, his beloved Tatyana is reincarnated (or Strahd thinks she is – it’s ambiguous the extent to which he’s a fate-haunted lost but noble soul and the extent to which he’s a psychotic lunatic), but every generation she rejects him and/or dies tragically. He thus lives forever without the one thing he truly wants.

- Alfred Timothy, Lord of Verbrek, is a werewolf who idolises the violent, merciless beast inside him (he’s even created a religion for werewolves out of it). But whenever he gives in to bestial urges – lust, bloodlust, gluttony, etc – he reverts to his natural form as a rather weedy and unimpressive human. His pride and fear for his reputation thus force him to control himself – the whole of his domain is one big orgy of werewolf sex and killing, which he can’t partake in.

- Jacqueline Renier, wererat Lord of Richemulot, is pathologically afraid of being alone. Unfortunately, being in the presence of anyone she truly loves triggers her lycanthropy and traps her in the shape of a rat. Theoretically with the right man this might not be an impediment to romance, but that’s a pretty specific lonely hearts ad…

- Ankhtepot, Lord of Har Akir, is a mummy, but wants only two things in life: rule of a great empire, and humanity. As to the first, he gets one mud-hut village. As to the second: he’s been given the ability to drain life from one person a day, with each killing granting him a day returned to life as a human. Unfortunately, he knows perfectly well that since his entire citizenry is one mud hut, if he actually uses this power he’ll very quickly find himself ruler of absolutely nobody and will never get to be human again.

- Tristan apBlanc, Lord of Forlorn, is trapped in a pair of temporal cycles, reliving two of the worst days of his (really rather awful) life for all eternity

- Yagno Petrovna, Lord of G’Henna, cannot shake the growing suspicion that the god Zhakata, for whom he has performed endless terrible deeds and in whose name he rules his nation, has all along been nothing but a figment of his own imagination

- Vlad Drakov, Lord of Falkovnia, mighty military conqueror, has finally risen to command his own nation… but nobody really cares. No matter how many times he tries invading the other domains, he’s never treated as more than a mild, ill-mannered irritation.

Legends of the Tour, by Jan Cleijne

It’s hard to know really what to think about Jan Cleijne’s Legends of the Tour. There’s no doubting that it has many virtues… but how many of them are really down to the book, and not to the events themselves? The book does just what it says, relates a few of the legendary events of the Tour de France. This means it has some of the greatest stories of the 20th century to choose from, the power of which is immense – just look, for instance, at how they are used in Krabbé’s De Renner, which I finally got around to reading (in translation, of course!) a few months ago. I wasn’t really convinced that Cleijne was adding much to the stories, to be honest. Does that matter? I suppose it depends on whether we are looking to evaluate the book as a work of art and craft, or for its enjoyability.

Part of the problem is the question of audience. Who is Legends of the Tour really for? Most likely its main readership will be cycling fans… but we know these stories already. Is it really for non-fans? They would certainly appreciate some of the stories, but is there enough here to explain both the technicalities and the symbolism of the sport? I’m not sure. I suppose the ideal reader, then, would be somewhere in between – familiar with the idea of the sport, but not yet au fait with its history. Fortunately, in this country, right now, that seems like a blossoming market…

Perhaps I should go back and begin at the beginning. Legends of the Tour is a graphic novel divided into ten chapters, in chronological order, relating some of the history of the Tour de France through its most famous moments.

First things first: the ‘graphic’ part is exceptional. Cleijne chooses to progress his art style to symbolise his eras: we begin with an imitation of sepiatone silent film, move through into glorious technicolour, and end up in a panoply of realistic hues. I can appreciate this, and admire the skill (Cleijne’s drawing style is not photo-realistic, and is somewhat sketch-like, but it conveys the events well, depicts the appearance of historical figures with remarkable accuracy, and is also able to convey thoughts and emotions through the art alone)… but I do wish more of it was drawn like the middle pages, which are stunning. The era of Coppi and Bartali is really beautifully portrayed, and I was literally stunned for a moment on turning a page when the Italian Prime Minister is calling Bartali, at the Pope’s request, to save his country: the sickly turquoise of the dejected Bartali’s hotel room explodes into the orange and red of Italy on fire with riots and protests on the eve of civil war, before Bartali filled with the holy zeal of the Papal injunction rides through bright lime-green rain and mud into a hazy white light at the end of the road. Later, the terrible xenoscape of the desert of Ventoux seems literally to glow in the fatal sun, a gleaming silver-gold, as Simpson climbs to his death. Other points are conveyed through whimsy and metaphor: a giant Cannibal is portrayed happily actually eating from a bowl filled with the bodies of the other riders, Monsieur Chrono actually rides around the outside of a giant watch, before we see inside his own nightmares as he rides his heart out looking over his shoulder at a shadowy chasing peloton where all the riders have clocks for faces. There are moments of infographic genius, as when the resolution of the 1989 Tour is explained in two very small panels at the bottom of the page: Fignon strains on his bike, sweat pouring off him as he passes the crowd, ponytail streaming in the wind; and then LeMond, crouched compactly, head encased in a scientifically-calculated helmet, nothing else in the world but him and the air that passes over him, the lines of the wind over his aerodynamic form helpfully inked in (Fignon lost the Tour in a time trial on the final day, the margin of defeat only eight seconds after three weeks of racing – aerodynamicists have since calculated that the Frenchman must have lost more than purely through the more conservative rider’s greater drag compared to the high-tech American).

There’s no doubting Cleijne’s abilities as an artist, and specifically as an illustrator. And yet I do wonder whether the book would have been better if he had been a little less clever, a little less good at conveying the meaning concisely, a little more tied to one style or mood. Yes, a book like this needs some variety, but the contrast in styles, and the contrast between high drama and amusing whimsy (the progress of LeMond and Fignon through the Tour, for instance, shown through a combined-profile chart with little smily faces superimposed on it) was for me a little too great, and became… not exactly actively offputting, but I think a barrier to full immersion.

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(It’s actually less grey in real life. It’s more black. The title circle, the shadows, the background, all sort of different shades of black)

A bigger problem is the stories Cleijne picks and how he tells them. Two of the ten chapters are very brief moments in history: van Est’s fall into the chasm (his heart may have stopped, but his watch didn’t miss a tick) and Simpson’s death in the lunar desert. The rest deal with large eras, typically through single riders: 1903-1918 (Garin and the train, Christophe and the forge), 1918-1939 (the Circle of Death, Leducq), Coppi and Bartali, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault-LeMond, Indurain, and Festina-through-to-Sky. Events that don’t directly concern the key riders tend not to be present, which makes for some shocking omissions: how can you have a book on the legends of the Tour and not include Brive-Agen? The Fall of Rivière? There is no Charly Gaul, only a little (and unflattering) Louison Bobet, no Bahamontes… no Frantz for goodness sake! Pantani is only mentioned as someone who was overshadowed by Festina. Even for the main riders, there’s a lot missing, with only one or two short anecdotes each – we don’t get to see the hubristic Anquetil riding to defeat his own teammate, for instance. Hinault in particular is badly served – his era is instead portrayed from the point of view of Zoetemelk, and then from the point of view of LeMond.

The biggest sin of the book, therefore, is that it’s not much longer. I would have liked to have seen not only more legends, but in more detail… too much of the book is told as a dry history with flashes of anecdote, rather than as actual stories. There are seven whole pages devoted to The Story of Buysse and the Circle of Death, and I wanted the book to carry on being like that… but it wasn’t.

Perhaps this would have been less of an issue for me if the words had been able to carry more of the strain. Don’t get me wrong – the writing isn’t bad. Well, the main body of the prose isn’t bad, and the snippets of dialogue, while arguably not good, are good enough for what they need to do. But the writing does not excel, and Cleijne seems reluctant to write too much. Sometimes, when he gives himself enough pictures to tell the story – as with Buysse – that works, but when he’s in his more accelerated, history-in-brief mode, he doesn’t have enough panels to succeed through the art and he doesn’t allow himself words – and his words are too dry – to really succeed through the words.

The result is not bad. Quite the contrary – this is clearly an enjoyable book, and will probably be enjoyable whether you’re a fan already or not. But the thing is, given this material and given Cleijne’s evidently immense artistic and illustrative talent, the book should be a lot better than probably enjoyable. It’s like reading the 50-page comic-book version of Complete Greek Mythology… yes, it can be a fun enough read in its own right, but it could have been so much more!

I have a couple of additional quibbles. If it seems like all I’m saying is quibbling, well… I wish I weren’t, because it’s entirely unfair. But unfortunately what’s good about this book is that the illustrations are fantastic and it’s about the history of the Tour. And those are two very big things, but unfortunately there’s not much I can say about them. If I went on about the legends of the Tour themselves, I’d be in danger of saying more about them in the review than you’ll find in the book; and I’m afraid I don’t have the art criticism knowledge to explain exactly why or how the illustrations are so good. So it’s another case of the old paradox, where the good, no matter how good, is hard to talk about, whereas all the minor flaws can be enumerated ad nauseam.

But I do have a couple of quibbles, related to one another. One is that Cleijne does play favourites somewhat, even beyond his selection of characters: Coppi, for instance, gets a full send off and what-happened-after, whereas Bartali just disappears out of the story without a mention. And in a similar vein (no pun intended) I was disappointed with the way Cleijne handles doping: of course, there is no solution to this that will please everybody, and I don’t want the entire thing to be about doping. But this is far too much the omerta view of history. Sure, the final chapter deals with Festina, Armstrong and after, and chapeau to the author for including a little glimpse of the Passion of Christophe Bassons (the only Festina rider not to take drugs – he was offered a contract of €270,000 per month conditional on taking EPO, and he turned it down for a salary one-tenth that size riding clean). I would have liked more – I think it if understates how Bassons was psychologically tortured by the rest of the peloton for speaking up against Armstrong (his entire team refused to talk to him, shake his hand, or for most of the time acknowledge his existence, and in more practical term they took the extraordinary step of refusing to share win bonuses with him), and for the full sainthood story you could fast-forward to the tormented Bassons (he quit cycling entirely after a few years) not only publically forgiving Armstrong but sympathising with the ostracism that Armstrong now experiences. In fact I think this illustrates my earlier point about the book not being sufficiently storyish – I would have taken Bassons and made him the protagonist of his own little ‘legend’, and this wouldn’t necessarily have taken many more pages than are actually devoted to him. It’s not necessarily wordcount that’s the issue, but presentation: Cleijne uses Bassons (and most of the stories in the book) as an example, a for instance, rather than plonking us down with a character at a point in time and showing us things from their point of view.

Anyway, well done for having Bassons at all. But not so well done, for instance, in the strong implication that EPO use began only at the end of Indurain’s era (though well done for that marvellous little drawing of Bjarne Riis!)… in reality, the huge improvements took place at the beginning of the Indurain era and Indurain was among the finest examples of them. Sure, I don’t blame Cleijne for not coming right out and accusing Indurain – even if “everybody” says he probably doped, he never failed a test, I don’t think there are any specific eye-witness testimonials incriminating him, and everything is circumstantial, so a book that flat-out says he doped is likely to irritate a whole bunch of lawyers. But Cleijne doesn’t just not say it, he almost goes as far as he can to say the opposite. Likewise, there’s no mention of Fignon doping, although he later confessed to it (not EPO or transfusions, though, just pills). In that huge section on Zoetemelk – and I don’t begrudge him that section, since finishing every Tour for nearly 20 years is a big achievement by itself, and everyone loves eternal seconds finally getting a win – there’s no mention of the fact that Zoetemelk not only popped pills but transfused blood. And this is doubly problematic because – no, wait, trebly problematic! – because Cleijne talks about the very same Tour where Zoetemelk was penalised ten minutes for being caught doping, but doesn’t mention that fact. It’s one thing to ignore an admission, another thing to ignore an official sanction; likewise, it’s one thing to brush past a year (he can’t tell every story) but another to include a year and fail to mention the most famous thing about it, even if it does cast a negative light on one of his favourite riders. And while we’re talking admissions: Cleijne’s happy to follow the omerta view of history and admit that Simpson doped (and in part died for it) while ignoring the doping of everyone else in that era. Anquetil gets an entire chapter but there’s no mention of he himself saying that it was impossible to win the Tour without doping. There’s no mention in an earlier era of Il Campionissimo’s doping, even though that’s a key part of that legend: the modern, scientific, experimental, rule-breaking Coppi against the pious old conservative Bartali who relied on praying as he climbed.

While I’m at it, I’d have liked to have seen a little more content about the changing face of the Tour itself, and its format, over time. But you can’t have everything.

What you can have, though, are some really good illustrations of rainfall. Seriously, Cleijne’s a master of storms, showers, mud and cold: I actually felt cold and damp just looking at the pictures, for all that they’re more suggestive than detailed.

In the end, then, Cleijne shows – if there was ever any doubt – that there is a great graphic novel to be made out of the Tour… or at least, a great graphic short story collection. A Tourmarillion, as it were. And if ever that gets made, Cleijne also shows that he ought to be near the top of the list of artists called in to illustrate it. But this book isn’t really it.

It is, however, nice to look at, and competantly written with some really good moments. It’s worth checking out if you’re interested in either the Tour (/sport/life) or graphic novels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adrenaline: 3/5. Some great stories, but told too much as though by a historian, rather than by a storyteller… too cold and curt at times.

Emotion: 2/5. Likewise. Even with something like the death of Simpson, it’s difficult to get caught up emotionally in the death of a sketched-out figure you’ve only seen a dozen panels of, and the words don’t bridge that gap.

Thought: 2/5. Doesn’t really need much thinking.

Beauty: 5/5. Beautiful artwork, beautiful stories.

Craft: 4/5. Full marks for the artwork, but the writing, plotting, pacing and so on, while broadly competant, are nothing special.

Endearingness: 4/5. Just a bit too short, too light, too piecemeal, too distant for me to love. On the other hand, the stories are epic and the illustrations charming.

Originality: 2/5. They’re the Legends of the Tour. The word ‘legends’ there suggests that originality is not the priority.

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. I feel a little bad about the tone of this review, which isn’t exactly positive. Because yes, this is a good book. If you’re debating whether to get it, the answer is yes. [There are people who probably wouldn’t enjoy it at all, but then you probably wouldn’t be considering it in the first place...] It’s just that it’s hard not to judge it against what it maybe could have been. Or perhaps we should say: what it maybe could be. After all, this is Cleijne’s first graphic novel. Maybe one day he’ll decide to do an updated, longer, more detailed version! We can only hope. Maybe he could even hire Krabbé to do the writing…

Until then, this is a good (which is rare enough in itself) but not great book. On the other hand, it’s not like it’s got a whole lot of competition in the “graphic novel adaptations of Tour de France history” genre, so far as I’m aware, so you may as well get it if that’s something you might be into.

Oh, and it’s got a really beautiful textured black cover. [Or it does if you get it off the press and seal it in a vacuum. Otherwise, you just have to breathe on it and that pristine beautiful black will mark in small but irritating ways. But given the normal standards of book covers, I’m grateful they put the effort in, at least...]

The weather…

It’s almost embarrassing how happy I am right now, for no good reason, and without any adequate excuse. It is pouring rain, flooding with rain, and earlier I was outside and soaked through and tired and hungry and cold. And now I am inside, in clean, dry, clothes, and it’s warm, and I’m not hungry anymore, and as a result I am completely happy.

Sometimes life can be extremely straightforward.

CDs: Part and Elgar

Alina (Spiegel im Spiegel, Für Alina, Spiegel im Spiegel, Für Alina, Spiegel im Spiegel), by Arvo Pärt

A strange little CD; it’s a CD seemingly intended to be a CD – rather than other CDs, which are only recordings of music intended for other formats. True, neither of these two Pärt pieces were designed originally for this presentation, but the CD as a whole is presented as, as it were, a single piece of music in a rondo form. The repetitions are not simply reproductions of the same recordings, but were extracted from countless hours of recorded repetition of these pieces. To be honest, my ear is too blunt to really appreciate the slight differences.

Both pieces are from the late 1970s, and are in the tintinnabular style – Für Alina in particular was one of the first attempts at tintinnabulation, while the more famous Spiegel im Spiegel is from a few years later. To be honest, the CD displays both the good and the bad of tintinnabuli: both pieces, particularly Spiegel im Spiegel, are beautiful and serene; yet after an hour of beautiful white light and serene stillness, one does come to wish for a little ugly motion, a little ungainly change, some saving flaw to draw the attention. Spiegel im Spiegel itself is most often used, and probably best used, for a minute or two of beauty or tearfulness, a momentary pause in the action of some film or TV show – and this is very proper, because it is the sort of music that comes closest to a sort of Schopenhauerian clarity-through-the-veil-of-Maya, a momentary ecstasy of nothingness that can be joyous or painful or even both at once. When I listen to the whole of Spiegel im Spiegel, however, I fear I lack the mystical training necessary to fully appreciate it: sometimes it’s difficult with a composer like Pärt who has his mystical personal union with God going on – it feels like overhearing someone else’s conversation. When you put three renditions of Spiegel im Spiegel alongside two renditions of Für Alina… well, I’m very impressed that the result never becomes annoying. Most music, after an hour of it without change or variation I’d be wanting to smash things, but Pärt really does achieve something beautiful in his simplicity. Unfortunately, stale beauty fades into a background pleasantry that never angers but fails to keep the attention. It becomes easy listening; it becomes good music, fantastic music, to play in a lift.

It’s a good CD, for what it is. In fact I’ll go further: it’s a brilliant CD for what it is. Anyone who wants to explore how minimalism can be beautiful, or who is in to all those ‘relaxing classics’ compilations, and maybe anyone who wants a mystical spiritual form of modernism, those people should all buy this CD. I’m glad I own it, there are always times when something like this is good to have around.

But… I remained unpassionate about it.

 

Symphony No. 2 in E-flat major, by Elgar

Sorry… I don’t get it. Don’t understand it. There are moments here and there that sound like Elgar, confident and melodious and distinctive… but for the most part it’s a whole lot of whistling this and clashing that. Although apparently parallels have been drawn with Brahms, Mahler and Wagner (three composers I also am not greatly fond of), the piece seems very modern to me: slightly unusual time signatures, hemiolas, offbeat accompaniment, tonal ambiguity, reliance on the subdominant rather than the dominant, whole-tone scales…

It’s certainly not just modernist showing-off, though. Elgar was passionate about the work, which he said displayed the whole of his soul. I’m afraid I can’t interpret it, however.

It’s a strange thing about classical music – well, music in general, although most pop music is so similar as a whole that it’s not encountered much in that area – that there is an immense gulf between understanding a piece of music and not understanding it. You can hear the same notes, but the experience is utterly different – exactly like hearing the same words in the same language, depending on whether or not it is a language you understand. It’s an experience I’ve only otherwise had in reading poetry, most of which I admit I just don’t get.

I’m somewhat relieved, on looking this up, that I’m not alone when it comes to this symphony. Two newspaper reviews of the time I would largely find myself in agreement with:

“Elgar’s original charm and his power of surprising us into wonder have diminished rather than grown as his craftsmanship and subtlety of fantastic variation have increased … we can hardly say that the work contains any melody in the full sense of the word. Neither can we say with confidence that it quite vanquishes the impression of coldness and hardness.” (Manchester Guardian)

“One cannot listen to even the most eloquent pleading for nearly an hour without fatigue, and that was the first impression this music made – of restless, unpitying earnestness…not only is no concession made to the sensuously pleasing, but little regard is paid to the psychological need for contrast, for relief. It is a devotee exhorting a congregation assumed also to be devotees.” (The Times)

It wasn’t without its fans at the time, of course. My liner notes suggest that it has become more popular than his more populist 1st, over time – I wonder whether that is simply a reflection of the shrinking of the interested market, the falling away of the general public from symphony-listening in general, leaving only the ‘experts’. In any case, it’s not a symphony that is widely known by the public today, and I’m struggling to lament that fact.

A Song of Ice and Fire

For the sake of neatness and convenience, I should probably have an index page for these reviews. So here it is.

 

A Game of Thrones
A Clash of Kings
A Storm of Swords
A Feast for Crows
A Dance with Dragons

 

Yeah, there are only reviews of the beginning and the end right now. This is because I read the first three ten years ago, and then re-read them before the fourth book, but that was also before I began blogging reviews of what I was reading. With the TV show coming out, and the fifth book, I re-read the first volume to get myself back into the world, but got distracted from following on with the later volumes. I may get around to it eventually. Or not. If anyone’s really curious, I thought the second and third books got progressively better as they went on, but the fourth book was a big disappointment.

An alien species: tabayd (biology)

Yes, yet another. C.f. diophel, cuilco, falarandru, and thaugomur. This time I’ve gone for something a little different: a cliché.

 

Name: Tabayd

Body Plan: tetrapod vertebrates

Stance and Gait: bipedal, walking

Dimensions: tabayd have a similar build to humans, but are typically shorter. Modern females are around 4ft tall, and modern males around 5ft; exceptionally, males may be as tall as 6ft (taller heights are possible, but only with specific medical conditions). On average, tabayd are slightly heavier than healthy humans of equivalent height.

Skin and Pelage: tabayd have soft skin, covered in an extremely short and fine coat of hair (imperceptible to the casual eye) – this is shorter but denser than human vellus hair. The skin is typically a light brown, slightly more red than that of humans; exact skin colour varies with race, but there is less variation than among humans – there are no pale-skinned tabayd at all (other than albinos), and the darkest are only a dark brown, never black. Females have short terminal hair on their scalps, the backs of their ears, and a small line on the spine in the small of the back; males have short terminal hair all along the spine, and on the backs of their ears, and long terminal hair on their ears. Terminal hair is a shade of brown, of a more yellow tone than the skin, varying from black to blonde; unlike in humans, darkness/lightness of the hair is not associated with darkness/lightness of the skin.

A noticeable feature of tabayd skin is its slight looseness: tabayd have very slightly more skin than is required, attached elastically to the body via subcutaneous energy and water stores – any particular patch of skin may slide over the underlying body by several centimetres. The effect is more noticeable on the torso. When standing, the result of this is to produce creases or wrinkles in healthy skin, especially above the hips: on a healthy tabayd, these lines should not droop or hang, but should be visible creases – the absence of these is a sign of obesity, while skin that hangs is a sign of malnutrition or dehydration (as the effect is the result of subcutaneous deposits).

Diet: tabayd are omnivores.

General Appearance and Behaviour: tabayd are broadly similar in appearance to humans, and also broady similar in evolutionary niche: savannah omnivores. Tabayd are a little less hyperevolved for stamina than humans, but are correspondingly a little more powerful in short bursts. They are, however, more adapted for dehydration, with greater subcutaneous water stores; their fat deposits would also assist in staving off starvation, except that their base metabolism is somewhat faster than that of humans. The higher body-fat percentage of tabayd, and their looser skin, gives even the males a somewhat ‘feminine’ appearance to human eyes, belying the muscles hidden below; females, on the other hand, have a somewhat ‘boyish’ appearance by human standards, on account of their more slender hips.

The most obvious difference, however, at least to human observers, is that tabayd females have six breasts. In fact, they have as many as sixteen ‘nipples’, arranged in eight pairs. The first (upper) three pairs are associated with visible ‘breasts’, typically of declining prominence from upper to lower (though tabayd breasts are never large by human standards), and these breasts possess mammary glands capable of producing sizeable quantities of milk. The fourth pair of nipples are visible, and associated with a soft area around them, but this area is only very slightly prominent; there are associated mammary glands, but these are small and can produce only limited milk. The fifth pair, more lateral and immediately above the pelvis, has only a very small nipple, and no mammary gland; the sixth, seventh and eight pairs have no visible nipple at all, but only areolae, forming a lign of three small dots on the upper inner thigh. The fifth-through-eight pairs are vestigial, and their primary functions are as erogenous zones and for signalling purposes (tabayd areolae are typically very pale, but turn red with blood when the individual is sexually aroused). Male tabayd lack any visible nipples or areolae at all, although they do still possess a denser distribution of nerve endings in these areas than elsewhere.

Senses and Faces: tabayd have similar sensory abilities to humans, and similar sense-organs, arranged in a similar way. A tabayd face is unlikely to be mistaken for human – the cheekbones are slightly more prominent, for instance, the nose thin at the top but broader at the bottom – but one species could masquerade as the other with the aid of very minimal prosthetics. The largest difference is the ears, which are slightly larger and more pointed for tabayd, and which bear hair on their reverse. Tabayd faces are also notable for being the only part of the body with noticeable coloration patterns: the skin around the eyes and in front of the ears is somewhat paler, while the skin around the mouth is somewhat darker.

Reproduction and Development: tabayd reproduce sexually, with internal insemination. The male genitals, including the testicles, are external, but the testicles are protected within a cartilagenous ‘box’ held close to the body.

Tabayd males are sexually active throughout the year; tabayd females are in ‘nature’ only sexually active when in heat, which occurs between three and six times per year (becoming less frequent with age and food supply, and when living in larger communities) and lasts around a week. Females in heat are very sexually active (if possible), but not to an obsessive or personality-altering level as in some species.

Although females experience heat regularly from puberty until menopause, they are only rarely fertile. Fertility is inhibited by a variety of factors, including the pheromones of other females, but primarily by breastfeeding: lactation in tabayd females is not limited to the period after the birth of their own child, but can be triggered by close contact with any infant; however, milk quantities are much higher, and the possibility of a failure to lactate much lower, in the period after they have borne young themselves.

Gestation is very brief, and young are born defenseless, with undeveloped digestive and mental faculties, so require a great deal of attention. Their childhoods, conversely, are lengthy.

An alien species: thaugomur (biology)

Another alien species to go along with diophel, cuilco, and falarandru. No, I’ve not forgotten about my falarandru, I’ll get around to writing more about them. But at the moment I’m just writing up what I feel like when I feel like it. And today, that’s these guys…

 

Name: Thaugomur
Body Plan: vertebrate hexapods
Stance and Gait: thaugomur walk and stand on their rear four limbs, with their forelimbs held above the ground. Their foreparts are not held vertically, but at a slight angle to the horizontal – this is made possible by their large, highly zygopophosalized vertebra, which hold the spine near to rigid in the vertical plane. Additionally, the gap between their forelimbs and midlimbs is relatively small.
Thaugomur may utilise a range of quadripedal gaits, including using their long forelimbs for additional balance when required, but they are incapable of elegant motion at speed, or indeed for sustaining speed for any length of time.
Dimensions: a length of around 8-10ft, not including forelimbs, and a height of around 3ft, half of which is leg. Males and females are similar in length and height, but males are more heavily-built, particularly around the foreparts.
Diet: thaugomur are omnivorous, eating soft plant matter and small animals, as well as scavenging. Thaugomur instinctively hunt through the creation of traps.


Skin and Pelage:
in adults, the back, skull and limbs are protected by bony plates: these are not independent external plates, but external extensions of their skeleton. These bones are grey in colour but coated in a thin layer of protective ‘varnish’ that imparts a slight reddish tinge in healthy individuals. Skin left exposed is thick and leathery, a browny-red in colour. Thaugomur possess no pelage.
General Appearance and Behaviour: thaugomur are lumbering, slow creatures for the most part, relying on defence rather than flight to escape predators, and hunting through intelligence and opportunism rather than physique. Their bony heads are further protected by a bony ‘cowl’ rising from the shoulders; their necks are relatively long but concertinaed, allowing them to hide their heads under their cowls or to stretch out to graze on the ground – their necks have evolved to snap out rapidly, enabling them to grab small creatures in their mouths. It’s hard to think of an Earth-based analogy for their appearance – perhaps a small, meat-eating rhinoceros, or an immense cockroach. A longer, more rapidly-moving turtle? Or a giant land-lobster may be more accurate in some ways. A behavioural analogy might be the beaver: like beavers, thaugomur (and their non-sapient relatives) extensively modify their environments to protect against large predators (and conditions), to create traps, and to farm. Much of this is done through the forelimbs of the males, which terminate in huge, spade-like claws. Burrowing and the construction of walls and mounds comes naturally to them, and they also instinctively tear down trees, coppicing them to promote the production of reachable soft new growth. Females lack these claw-hands and have less strength in their forelimbs, so must leave most of these tasks to the males; however, in place of claw-hands they have developed opposable digits, and are able to manipulate objects with some limited dexterity.
Thaugomur are poor swimmers; however, they do enjoy wading in shallow water, having broad feet to help bear their weight in mud.
Senses: thaugomur are primarily visual, but also possess extremely good hearing, and have organs in the knees to sense ground vibration. Their sense of smell is poor, although they have three distinct olfactory systems: in addition to their primary sense of smell, they possess two vomeronasal organs. The first, located in the roof of the mouth, is adapted to detect odours dissolved in a liquid, and can be used when submerged; more importantly, this also replaced the sense of taste – the tongue moves specimens to the mouth of the organ, where they are dissolved in spittle and processed. The second vomeronasal organ is located between the lips and the teeth, and is only involved in reproduction.
Thermoregulation: thaugomur control their body heat not through insulation but through internal pockets of briny fluid. This fluid acts as a heat sink in hot temperatures, and as a source of heat in cold temperatures. However, while this cycle is ideal for day/night temperature cycles, it leaves the creatures vulnerable to harm in sustained extreme conditions. In cold spells, they are able to slow their metabolisms and huddle together for warmth, but they are very vulnerable to overheating – when this becomes a threat, they resort to submersion in water.
Faces: thaugomur have round, bony heads, and broad cheekbones for crushing nuts. Their pointed ears project horizontally, swivel, have bony scutes, and can be closed to help protect them in a fight. The nostrils are located on the side of the head, anterior to the ears but posterior to the cheekbones.
Reproduction: thaugomur reproduce rarely, and almost always within monogamous pairs, which typically establish themselves as a pair for many years before attempting reproduction. Reproduction involves the transference of a solid ‘egg’ from the male to the female; the result is a pair of twin offspring, one male and one female (litters of 4, 8 or more are theoretically possible, but rare; single births do occur, but are viewed as tragic, and often involve some defect in the surviving offspring). The offspring are themselves ‘born’ as a single leathery true egg; this egg grows over time through the additional of layers of nutrient-rich liquid, which solidify onto the egg. This liquid is produced by the female in a special organ, and she licks it onto her egg. Females are almost helpless during this period, and lose considerable weight as they devote resources to the egg: they rely upon their mates, and upon the rest of their community. The young, once hatched, grow to become small but fully-functioning adults within two or three years. Thaugomur females typically reproduce two or three times in their lives; having selected a mate for their first mating, they are monogamous for life, although if their mate dies they may sometimes take a new one for subsequent matings.