Wolf in Shadow, by David Gemmell


I tried to push the events of the week from my mind. My mother was dying, I was waiting to be fired, and staff, who had joined my team in good faith, were facing redundancy. After the fifth large Armagnac I decided to continue work on the book. I knew I was drunk, and I also knew that the chances of writing anything worthwhile were prettty negligible. But forcing my mind into a fantasy world seemed infinitely more appealing than concentrating on the reality at hand.

That’s Gemmell’s own description of how he came to write Wolf in Shadow, from the foreword to my omnibus edition. Drunk and despairing in 1986, in a cheap and unfriendly seaside hotel that he describes, borrowing a line from Jack Dee, as “the kind of place where the Gideons leave a rope”, he tried to work on Wolf in Shadow, his contractually-obligated saga of a ruthless warlord rising to power among a nomadic horde (the prequel to his iconic 1984 fantasy Legend)… but he found his fingers with a mind of their own. He began writing a paragraph in which a mounted scout was to crest a hill, look down onto the plain, and marvelled at a vast army below… but instead, at the climactic moment of discovery, his fingers wrote out for him: There was no sign of Jerusalem.

Continue reading

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

Please bear with me; I fear I may commit a heresy.


Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire was published in 1962 to a chorus of… well, mixed but broadly approbative response from seasoned readers. Some critics loved it. Others thought it a load of rot. Most, however, it seems, fell somewhere in between, complimenting its style, craftsmanship and vivid imagination, but regretting its insubstantiality. TIME, for example, lamented that it “does not really cohere as a satire; good as it is, the novel in the end seems to be mostly an exercise in agility”. In a similar way, the New York Times regretted that it was “a curiosity into which it is agreeable to dip rather than a book which can be read straight through with pleasure… It is one more proof of Mr. Nabokov’s rare vitality. Unluckily it is not much more than that.”

Since it was published, however, the novel has (as we’re told by academics) managed to get better and better every year, until it can now be regarded as, at the very least, one of the 50 or so greatest works of fiction of all time, or even, according to some experts, the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, taking only the text as it is, rather than what it has become over time, I think the initial response was rather nearer the mark.

Continue reading

Still aten’t dead…

Bloody hell. I hadn’t realised quite how long it had been since I’d written on here! I didn’t even do the obligatory end-of-year “wow, I haven’t written much on here this year, have I?” post…

Well, last year was the worst for my reading in probably a decade, which was partly a problem with me (changing schedules, etc), and partly a problem with the books I tried to read, and partly watching too much TV instead.

And while I’ve done some con-langing, it’s paradoxically been a bit too advanced to be suited to one-off blog posts. Similarly, I’ve had a couple of world-building projects that never got finished, but that felt too big to be worth posting as I went along, before I’d worked out the kinks.

On the positive side, I’m hoping to have three, maybe four book reviews up in the near future. And maybe a political-commentary post, even, though I never seem to get those finished before, you know, the world has moved on…

Sluggy Freelance, chapters 70-71; by Pete Abrams

Sluggy Freelance debuted in 1997. It hasn’t ended yet. But there was a time when its author, Pete Abrams, was intending to end the comic at least in its current form (until a subscription drive made continuing a more economically viable proposition); and, naturally, and in keeping with the work ethic he’s always displayed (Sluggy is remarkable not only for running over 20 years, but for providing at least some content every day for around the first 15 of them – when Abrams didn’t have the time or inspiration to finish a page, he would put together filler with stick figures or reused art, or bring in guest strips; of course, much of this ‘filler’ itself was more effort than many webcomic artists expend even on their main strips), Abrams wanted to send fans off with a conclusion to at least one of the long-running sagas at the heart of the venerable webcomic.

It’s a story that has run through Sluggy for nearly two decades, and not long ago it seemed as though it might almost be too big to ever bring to a satisfying conclusion. On the one hand, the importance of the storyline to the plot and mood and characters of the comic was so great that it would require a truly epic conclusion, including the deaths or transformations of some major characters (and a lot of minor ones); on the other hand, the story was based upon a mystery, a puzzle to which Abrams had doled out clues throughout the comic year after year, but which a fanatical audience of hundreds of online commenters had never fully cracked – was there really an answer? Would it, after all these years, satisfy both intellectually and emotionally?

Yes, yes it does.

Years ago, I reviewed Sluggy from its beginning up until Chapter 62 (“4U City Red”). In 2018, one great overarching arc of the comic came to an end (or, at least, a conclusion); and so it seemed like it might be time to bring my reviews up to date. Accordingly, I’ve recently reviewed Chapters 63-65, and Chapters 66-69. This will be my last Sluggy review for, I assume, several years to come, as I complete my re-read of this epoch of the comic by reviewing Chapter 70 (“Falling”) and Chapter 71 (“The Heavens and the Earth”), which in effect form a single, immense, set-piece story (almost all of “Heavens”, and a considerable amount of “Falling”, takes place across a single day), albeit one with a clear inflection point at the chapter break.

Here’s the first thing to notice: this story took two years to tell. By comparison, most of the foundations of the comic were laid in, maybe, its first five – and two and a bit years covers everything in the ‘classic’ era from The Bug, The Witch and the Robot through to Dangerous Days Ahead. Now, sure, back then the comic was running seven days a week; in the last few years it was running only five, and later three days a week; but then again, early on most strips were three or four panels, maybe more on Sundays, whereas in recent years a single strip has often been a dozen, sometimes two dozen panels (and the work involved must have increased exponentially, given the vastly superior art now employed).

Let’s be honest: for most of us that sort of comparison – an apparently dramatic slowdown, a turn toward sprawl – will not immediately seem positive. My first thought seeing numbers like that is ‘bloat’. It seems like the way that a late Robert Jordan novel read like it was twice the length of an earlier novel while somehow containing only half the content.

And yet, that’s not what’s happened here. This story takes two years because it needs two years. Because when you’re building a climax big enough to justify twenty years of assembly, you’re damn right it’s going to be big.

This is a climax that doesn’t come as a surprise – the two previous years had been dominated by set-up for this set-piece, and it’s clear at the end of “Six Months Later” that the next chapter will see us finally arrive at the fireworks factory. “Falling” doesn’t disappoint, although it does have to work hard, both to dig some characters out of the (obviously temporary, and frankly rather strained) positions they found themselves in at the end of “Six Months Later”, and to bring together multiple active players who will have to arrive at the same point at the same time. As a result, the reader may in a few places get impatient (particularly with the whole ‘irritating viral Youtube video’ plotline, and some time-wasting sitcom routines (although I did like the payoff to the mailman joke)); I’ve always felt the paraphernalia of conspiracy and, frankly, institution is a bad fit for Abrams’ core cast (he’s wonderful at understanding people, but a bit simplistic in understanding organisations). I also think that the main arc of the “Silencer” subchapter probably would have worked better as part of “Six Months Later” than as part of “Falling”, where, although really great in its own right, it feels like another detour, and compresses its aftermath too greatly to properly maximise its impact as it should do (although I recognise of course the big logistic reason why it would have been hard to move it any earlier). The main events of the chapter, however, provide a suitably gigantic explosion, a great plot twist, a shocking revelation, and a partial answer to a very-long-running question; we also get a pleasing amount of character work throughout the chapter. It elates us in what it accomplishes, not just because of the victories, but because of the seemingly irrevocable (or at least not quickly revocable) nature of the changes undergone here; and yet it leaves us with dread for what comes next.

What comes next, “The Heavens and the Earth” is an even better chapter –it’s similar in scale to “Falling” if not somewhat longer, and yet it stunningly plays out as an uninterrupted (largely chronological) sequence of scenes, without diversions, almost all in the same location. Abrams walks a very thin line here between a story that is too short, wrapping up confusingly and underwhelmingly, and one that is dragged out too long, frustrating and boring to the reader. Instead, we get something just right – a story that is complicated, and developed slowly enough for those complications to make sense, and yet a story that has almost no filler and almost no detours. Just a single setpiece action-adventure sequence, unfolding over 12 months. It packs in satisfying answers to big questions, emotional twists and turns, a major character death, and big changes with directly personal impacts.

It’s hard to know what to say about “The Heavens and the Earth”: on the one hand, it’s so good it’s hard to nitpick, while on the other, as the twist-filled culmination to decades of plotting, every tiny detail is a spoiler. It could be argued, I suppose, that the final resolution for the villain is perhaps a little too pat, but it’s hard to see, after such buildup, what wouldn’t be. Some things don’t come into play as they might have done – but it’s hard to complain about an author keeping some powder dry for the next chapter. I suppose it’s a little frustrating that one character in particular has become, in effect, a constant red herring, but it’s very understandable why that would have to be the case (and has been the case since the beginning of the comic, with a few exceptions). [One slight worry for the future is that, as various central and peripheral characters have grown in abilities or importance, there may have to be more excuses for keeping them out of situations where the threats are no longer their equal]. On the other hand, the chapter deserves praise for taking what might seem to be an insane and unpredictable shock twist (for anyone who doesn’t read the forums, and hence hasn’t seen it coming for the last ten years), and manages to fill it out to a point where it’s hard to remember a time before it – and, in the process, to show that what seemed like one of the comic’s worst missteps was in fact a triumph of long-term plotting. Abrams also does surprisingly well in wrapping up such a big tangle of plotlines in a way that feels conclusive and satisfying (some fans expected that this would actually prove to be the end of the comic as we know it), while still, on reflection, leaving plenty of dangling loose ends for future stories.

In conclusion, I can only applaud. Something I always assumed would be a disappointment turned out not to be… and Sluggy Freelance now feels like it could happily run for a third glorious decade.


Adrenaline: 4/5. “Heaven and Earth” lasted a year, and a lot of days that year felt like cliffhangers. Because I was reading it in real-time, rather than in archive, I couldn’t race through the pages, but I’ve no doubt I would have done had it been possible. “Falling”, though, while having its own exciting runs, was also dragged down by some lulls.

Emotion: 4/5. I wasn’t reduced to tears, but certainly Abrams manages to wring emotion even out of characters and situations that wouldn’t have been thought capable of producing it. There are big triumphs, some tragedies, and plenty of hope and fear for the future.

Thought: 5/5. As a twisty thriller that’s also the culmination of decades-long mysteries and home to some shocking, recontextualising revelations, this keeps the brain cells working on full power, and rewards attentive readers.

Beauty: 4/5. The art is as good as it’s come to be, with some striking set-piece panels; the writing is as always characteristically uneven, but manages to be funny and moving more than often enough to please.

Craft: 4/5. Bringing this plot arc to a satisfying conclusion would earn a high score by itself; doing it while taking us through some very satisfying character work is truly accomplished. These chapters feel like the author’s vindication: in the past, we may have had some uneven filler plotlines, and the build-up for this finale was at times clunky, but here he proves that he knew what he was doing all along. If I were reviewing only “Heaven and Earth”, I would give this a 5. But I can’t deny that “Falling” is more uneven, with some misjudged running jokes and some pacing problems.

Endearingness: 4/5. Great, great fun.

Originality: 5/5. This isn’t a parody, a pastiche, a variation or homage (as sometimes Sluggy chapters can be) – this is its own story, like nothing else.


Is this the best Sluggy has ever been? No. In that some of its highs have been higher. But “Heaven and Earth” is as good as it’s been for a continuous year-long run, and “Falling” is a more than creditable, if less perfect, companion chapter.

Let’s put it like this: I have no doubts that there are many authors in the world who can do things Pete Abrams can’t do. Certainly, Sluggy Freelance isn’t for everybody. But I think that if you charged those authors with writing these two chapters, there are very few of them who might be able to do it as well as Abrams did.

More people should listen to…

I haven’t been posting much, I know, even by my standards. My reading has hit a brick wall, and while I’ve watched a lot of TV*, I don’t seem able to write about TV much. I think it’s because it takes so long to watch something that I’ve lost hold of my original thoughts by the time I’ve finished. Also, the fact I might conceivably write a book one day – conceivably, I said, albeit perhaps not plausibly! – gives me an angle to examine my thinking about books; the fact I’m never going to be involved in writing a TV show makes it hard to engage in the same way, intellectually.

But anyway, I thought I’d just drop in to say: more people should listen to George Onslow.

That’s a sentence I imagine few people have heard recently.

Onslow, for those (i.e. all normal people) who don’t know, was a French aristocrat-composer of the early 19th century. At first untrained, a life of leisure and wealth allowed him to become self-taught, and to acquire some education from Anton Reicha, the great teacher and theorist (whose other pupils included Liszt, Berlioz and Franck, among many others). In a France dominated by grand opéra, the gigantic and the fashionable, Onslow’s work, cultured and predominately for chamber ensemble, perhaps more German in style, was overlooked in his lifetime, though his publishers ardently promoted him as “our French Beethoven” – and was entirely neglected for a century. Allegdly there is now an Onslow revival, but that just means that the amount of Onslow being played is now slightly greater than zero. [for his own part, Onslow was fairly sanguine about his lack of popularity – his immense family wealth meant that he could vanity-publish all his works, and didn’t much have to care about critical opinion]

I came across Onslow a couple of years ago when I happened to buy a CD of some of his cello sonatas, and was immediately impressed. More recently, I came upon a CD of some quintets, and it’s this that I alluded to when I mentioned Onslow in my recap of 2018. I’ve been listening again recently, and just get more impressed each time…

Comparisons are hard; Onslow in his day was compared, by respected writers and composers (Berlioz, Schumann and Mendelssohn all sang his praises), to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The comparison is valid, but unfortunately needs the caveat “not as good as”. I’d actually say he’s less the French Beethoven and more the French Schubert – though still not as good as the latter.

The thing is, though, you can be not as good as Schubert and yet still really good, and I think classical music is only just slowly beginning to realise its own vast richness, the depth of its back catalogue – the existence of composers like Onslow, previously dismissed as second-rate and unfashionable, who are nonetheless worthy of happy attention. As Grammophone put it in one review, Onslow “may not be a great composer, but he is certainly an extremely interesting one”.

It may not seem that way at first hearing. Onslow was an experimentalist, but was not a radical: he clearly admired the middle Beethoven, but detested the ‘chaos’ of late Beethoven. His hallmark appears to be, somewhat like Schubert, responding to Beethoven in a way that emulates the master’s passion and ingenuity, while holding on with one hand to the reins of classical restraint. He is considerably more passionate than, say, a Hummel, but more elegant than, say, Schumann. He has a quality I like, not exactly of ‘darkness’, but of a sort of warm, oaky richness, of  a sort many of his contemporaries, while talented, lacked – if Hummel is a sparkling white, and Mendelssohn tends toward, we might say, a bright, drinkable merlot, Onslow (like Schubert) is closer to a rich shiraz. In my limited lexicon, the closest composer I can think of is, oddly, Dvorak – if we imagine Dvorak pulled half a century back in time, and drained of his distinctive Central European character. A semi-classical French Dvorak, as it were. Grammophone rather insightfully speaks of fundamentally Classical works, bathed in a Romantic glow. When he is inspired, particularly with some beautiful tune in a slow movement, his music would not be out of place alongside great works by Schubert or Beethoven, though nothing I’ve heard so far reaches their heights; when he’s less inspired, he’s still perfectly capable.

Last week, I went to a chamber concert at the Proms, with quartets by Schubert, Sirmen, and Haydn. The Schubert was his first quartet, published when he was 15 and written a year or two before that – it’s a remarkable work for a teenage boy in its sophistication. Sirmen was a female composer (and violinist, and singer) who wrote quartets before Haydn invented them – the one played here was her fifth, the only one in four movements, and it’s an appealing, short work that punctured my accreted “oh, a token ‘rediscovered’ woman composer” cynicism, and that provided an interesting look at what, for better and for worse, the quartet was before Haydn took it over. But I’d rank Onslow’s quintets as better than either. And while the Haydn (the Sunrise) may have been just as interesting, if not more so, than the Onslow, I’d certainly pick the Onslow for listenability (late Haydn, I find, while perfectly pleasant, is often a little cold and hard).

Onslow wrote 34 quintets, to go along with his 36 quartets. Unlike almost all his contemporaries and predecessors (other than Boccherini), Onslow wrote most of his quintets for two cellos, although he also provided adaptations for the more common two-viola ensemble. At a performance of his 10th quintet, however, that he happened to be attending himself, one cellist was missing, and the great Domenico Dragonetti (the man who did more than anyone to popularise the double bass) stepped in to play the part on the double bass; Onslow was so impressed that all his subsequent quintets were published with alternative parts for double bass.

It’s this version that I’ve heard. A group called the Elan Quintet were hired by Naxos to release a complete, 16-CD cycle of the Onslow Quintets, most of which have never before been recorded. At, so far, 1 CD a year (though their own website hasn’t been updated since the 3rd (and latest) came out), it would seem they’ve their career made…

Including the double bass seems like a stroke of genius. The music would be perfectly nice, and indeed perhaps rather more polished, with a second cello instead, but the wonderful timbre of the bass, and the addition it makes to the ensemble’s range, perfectly complements that rich warmth, and also helps to give the five voices room to stand apart, without merging into a block of sound. Compared to the harsher sound of the quartet and the viola quintet, it’s remarkable that more composers haven’t explored the cello, or better yet double bass, quintet.

It helps that Onslow’s music must be a joy to play. In addition to his lush, appealing style, there’s a constant curiosity – rather than settling back into a style or a format, he always seems to be trying something different. The parts cross frequently, and the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material is well-shared between the players – rather than, as in some (particularly early) chamber music, ending up as a solo violinist with her accompanists – and if I were a second violin or a violist, I’d be overjoyed to get to play this compared to the meagre roles some composers give them.  His movements are less wild than Beethoven sometimes gets, but they are reliably characterful – now tender, now agitated, now aggressive, now playful – and for the most part very busy (without sounding like notes for note’s sake) and often unexpected, so both listener and performers always have something to entice their attention.

Onslow is not one of the great composers – he’s a solid, capable composer with moments of being very good. But he’s a little more interesting than that makes him sound – he’s willing to take some risks. As a result, although his style is immediately and unambiguously of his age, it’s also very individual – you can instantly pinpoint his rough location in time, but if you don’t know him yet you may struggle to think which specific composer he might be. He’s not just an imitator. That quality, of having an individual voice, is surprisingly rare, and combined with his delightful style for listeners, and engaging style for performers, should make him much better known than he currently is. While his reputation may not be strong enough to anchor major chamber recitals, this is music that would merit its place as a fine supporting act alongside almost any great quartet or quintet.

It’s unlikely that picking up some George Onslow chamber music is going to change anybody’s life. But if you like characterful, accessible, but interesting chamber music of the late classical or early romantic period, then you may be pleasantly surprised!



*Continuing this post’s themes of classical music and delightfulness, I’ve now seen all of Mozart in the Jungle. Like Onslow, it’s not one of the true greats, but I found it a reliable pleasure, both funny and moving, despite some tonal missteps in the first season. It also didn’t rest on its laurels, and did some admirable work introducing new and modern music and the music of forgotten female composers in its later season.

The main thing I’ve been watching, however, is a complete binge-watch of all five series of Alias, which I’ve almost finished…

The Lord’s Prayer in Vestan

From the past to the future. Here’s a translation of the paternoster into 26th-century Vestan:

||:|||::: iee1 ô2vo3 fûzo4 :: in āvan5 see6 ::
io nààm shə̀ bá sāwraaza
bòn uud laig in āvan see :||:
gēv dɛ̀7 plɛ̀i8 gə̄iəd ôvo dáála mīmbo9 |
noo fōgev dɛ̀ plɛ̀i vìr ôvo lêze10 glàin11 ::
laig ɛ̀ fōgev dɛ̄dam see :: díí glàin gààs ɛ̀ see |
noo díín lá ɛ̀ plɛ̀i nó bá là êni nee tíítaajhan |
bɛ́ líver ɛ̀ plɛ̀i fən rûie :||:
aamen :::|||:||

(it seems this font can’t handle diacritics over schwa, sorry about that)

Some notes:

1: Vestan, like all Space English, requires all vocatives to be made explicit with a preposed pronoun; the distinctive, irregular lowering of the vowel in this word is a Vestan trait.

2: Space English is a tonal language (or family of languages, depending on your point of view). The diacritics in this transcription (into contemporary Detroit Letters – Vestan is natively written mostly in its own script with an archaising and idiosyncratic spelling, largely indecipherable to outsiders) indicate tones.

3: Vestan, like other asteroid dialects, strengthens medial /w/ to /v/; this is a major diffeence between these dialects and the non-asteroid forms of Space English, which instead tend to strengthen /w/ to /ɾ/.

4: the first vowel is a prominent example of the asteroid-wide back vowel chain shift. By contrast, the Asaphian translation of this nominal clause reads i̯ii ɔru fozu.

5: an example of Space English’s occasional conservativism – the final nasal here has been lost in many English languages by this time.

6: our first example of one of the most distinctive grammatical features of Space English: the “see-relative”. Early Space English introduced the clause-ending particle see as an auxiliary marker of various subordinate clauses, including relativisation and comparisons of manner. In the former case, it has generally entirely taken over the relativising function – in āvan see translates to “who is in heaven”. However, while this is true within the Solar System, the more conservative and isolated dialect of the world of Valhalla also retains the original pronoun, and hence has iúús in ávan sēē.

7: another unusual feature of Space English is its retention and regularisation of the dative pronouns to mark recipient arguments of certain verbs (even in the absence of themes). Their use is most widespread in Vestan. In the case of the verb “to give”, all Space English regularly uses the dative: hence, for example, Asaphian gēf dɛ̀s and Valhallan gééf das alongside Vestan gēv dɛ̀ (Modern English “give (to) us”). However, in the case of the verb “forgive”, only Vestan uses the dative: Vestan fōgev dɛ̀, but Asaphian fògef ɛ̀s and Valhallan fógeef as.

8: Space English requires all imprecatives to be marked with the imprecative particle; however, the exact placement of this particle varies somewhat between dialects. Vestan tends to place the particle after a pronominal object of the verb if present, but Penuman prefers to place the particle immediately after the verb, and Asaphian allows single-word adverbs to also precede it: hence Vestan gēv dɛ̀ plɛ̀i gə̄iəd, in a way the middle ground between Penuman gēv plɔ̀iz dɛ̀z jhodɔ́i and Asaphian gēf dɛ̀s gɔ́ɔ́biɔt plɜ̀ɜ̀s. Valhallan, meanwhile, is as usual more divergent, and regularly places the imprecative particle at the end of the clause it modifies: gééf das gáájət ąr hāni kɛɛk pilɔɔs.

9: the word mīmbo or its relation is found in all Space English, but the exact meaning differs. In Vestan, it refers both literally to yeastcakes (the staple food) and metaphorically to the requirements of living, or by extension to money; in Valhallan, however, it refers almost entirely to money. In Asaphian, it can refer to money, or to food, but more specifically refers to the universal basic income.

10: as in several other English languages, the plural has been entirely lost from Space English, and wholly replaced by the use of numerical classifiers, along with numerals and adjectives – lêze is the classifier for most abstract nouns.

11: the merger of post-consonantal /l/ and /r/ is one of the shibboleths of Vestan and Vestan-influenced asteroid dialects. Penuman has grain, Valhallan has krain, and Asaphian has graam. However, it should be noted that the historic contrast is not entirely lost, but is partially preserved through consonant quality and tone.


A brief explanation:

Vestan is a prominent dialect of Space English in the 26th century; it has over two million native speakers and a respected body of media content.

Space English is an English language of the Western family – it diverged from West Coast over the course of the 23rd century, and was at first regarded simply as a ‘broken’ vernacular form of the southern variety of West Coast that was developing at more or less the same time and with which Space English has a number of developments in common. It emerged out of a very particular context: among early FTL pioneers exploring and settling the Solar System, West Coast remained the most common lingua franca; but by the 23rd century the dominance of West Coast had faded considerably, and many pioneers spoke it poorly. The Space English that developed consequently emerged from a process of mild pidginisation (though it is msitaken to regard it as a fully-fledged pigeon or creole), in which the number of vowel and consonant qualities was reduced, morphology was dramatically reduced (derivation) or eliminated (inflection) and a large number of loanwords were introduced. Much more use is made of clause-modifying particles, and the language is tonal. None of these features are unique to Space English, but their rapid and simultaneous adoption lead Space English to diverge quickly and to swiftly be recognised as an independent dialect. Since the 23rd century, it has since itself diverged into a number of dialects (or languages, depending on one’s perspective), aided by the generally insular nature of its speaker-communities.

Despite its name, Space English is not really the language of humans in space; the initial faltering steps that created a young and independent culture spread across the solar system were soon wholly overshadowed by the much larger migrations to extrasolar colonies, and the use of the nascent Space English within the early professional spacetraveller community was overwhelmed by the development of the modern space fleet on a dramatically larger scale and a more militaristic footing. Today, the language of the fleet is Fleet, a new mixed language, with some similarities to Space English but no close genetic relation, and no intelligibility, while the colonies speak a range of languages very similar to those they left behind on Earth – above all, Leewefraaka, with which Space English is not mutually intelligible. Space English has survived in only a few, overlooked places: the handful of colonies remaining in the asteroid belt; on Deimos (and to a lesser extent Phobos and Mars); and on the floating sky-world of Valhalla, which was settled directly from early extrasolar colonies, rather than from Earth. Old Venerean English was never widely spoken and is now only of academic interest; Old Lunar, however, has experienced a slight resurgence as a cultural and domestic second language, though it has few or no native speakers.

A defence:

This, you might complain, is clearly rubbish. There’s no way English spoken only a few centuries from now could be so different! But actually, I disagree. Changes aren’t all created equal, and it’s surprising how small changes can have a big effect in a short period of time. In the case of Vestan, I think that the soundchanges up to the 23rd century give a language that’s very recognisable as English, albeit with an unusual accent; but beyond there, I think that the changes suddenly ‘snap’ those bonds of recognition, at least for me. But this has also happened before. Consider, this English from 700 years ago:

Whylom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duk that highte Theseus;
Of Athenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne
Now, there’s a word or two might give a modern English speaker pause, and we should recognise that our conservative spelling obscures a few differences in pronunciation (‘silent e’ was not yet silent). But by and large, this is very recognisable and very understandable English. Oh, we might say, you see, English hasn’t changed much in 700 years, and won’t change much in another 500!
But now here’s some English from 1,000 years ago:

Swá ðá drihtguman      dréamum lifdon
éadiglice      oð ðæt án ongan
fyrene fremman      féond on helle
wæs se grimma gaést      Grendel háten
maére mearcstapa      sé þe móras héold

Look how English changed in just 300 (or400) years! Some of this of course is the replacement of some of these words by loanwords by the time of Chaucer, and some is the use of poetic images (and hence unexpected words), but even when the words are perfectly alive today, they’re different enough, and the grammar is different enough, that it’s hard to recognise them. And some of the changes are quite simple: even if you just regularise the definite article, introduce the indefinite, standardise the word order and cut off some suffixes, you get something like “a feond on hell,  the grim gaest hat “Grendel” (a fiend of hell, the grim ghast hight [i.e. “was called”] “Grendel”).

The Vestan I propose above may at first glance seem alien, but it’s actually not that remote – less remote, I’d suggest, than the changes in a few short centuries between Old and Middle English.


The Lord’s Prayer in Old Wenthish

Old Wenthish, for those who don’t yet know it, is a fictional Germanic language I’ve been working on – specifically one influenced early on by Ingvaeonic, but not within the Ingvaeonic family itself. It’s spoken in the later centuries of the first millennium on the Wenthar Islands, a fictional archipelago of low-lying, windswept, North Atlantic islands in the vicinity of Rockall.

And here’s their paternoster, with a few explanatory notes:

Ūser fadar, thu tha isi1 ā2 hibnē:
gahāilgōda sī
3 thenha4 namō,
cuemē thenha cuinnengarēca
6 thenha uiliō
an middegardē
7 sua sama ā hibnē.
8 ūs ādagē ūser dagelēcen hlāibia9
ād frageb ūs ūser scuild
sua sama fragebād uī ūser scuildēdom
ād ne t
eoh ūs in cuistongo11
ac befri ūs aba droehtthō

1: usually, a locative verb is to describe positions; in this case, the choice of the existential verb indicates an essential property (God’s being in heaven is part of what is meant by ‘God’) rather than an accidental location.

2: heaven is considered something God is “on”, rather than “in”. This may reflect influence from Old Irish, but is also a natural decision in Germanic languages (c.f. English “on high”)

3: the subjunctive form of the copula; throughout this prayer, the optative sense is conveyed simply by subjunctive verb forms. The copula takes two arguments, but both are in the nominative, and their order is optional, with the adjective fronted here for emphasis (is is often the case with adjectival predication).

4: the reduced form of the possessive, used when no specific contrast is implied.

5: kingdom, from cuinnenga, ‘king, warlord’, and reach, ‘realm, domain’. The more intuitive (for English speakers) cuinnengadōma is also a valid word, but primarily conveys the sense of ‘kingship’ (the quality or property), rather than ‘kingdom’ (the geographical entity).

6: the transformative copula, but also used, as here, for the enactment, instantiation or implementation of abstract nouns – a loose translation might be “come to pass” or “come to be”

7: ‘the middle enclosure’ (c.f. “middle-earth”, “Midgard”). It would also be possible to speak of earth, but this would primarily indicate earth or soil, rather than the world. Nonetheless, an earth is an colloquial phrase for ‘in the world’, ‘on earth’ or ‘in life’.

8: this is a rather direct language, and a plain imperative is not considered inappropriate for requests, even of God.

9: bread (c.f. “loaf”). The cognate to English “bread”, brād, also appears, and can be used for cakes and loaves of bread, but primarily has the sense of ‘swelling, bulge’. This is probably because the Old Wenthish still primarily made use of unleavened bread (PGmc. *hlaibiz), with the term for the newerfangled leavened, risen bread (PGmc. *braudaz) becoming primarily associated with the swollen appearance of bread after rising.

10: flaw or wrong(doing). The sense here is therefore closer to ‘sin’ or ‘crime’ than to (as is found in many English translations) ‘debt’, although a scuild is distinct from, vaguer than and more innocent than a scathō (injury, harm, crime), pecced (sinful act), anfoled (injustice, crime) or cairi (crime, felony). The cognate term is used in an old Northumbrian version of the prayer, though not in those from southern England.

11: here the translation follows the Old English – cuistong, not unlike Old English “cost(n)ung” primarily bears the sense of a tribulation, trial, or test, even a hardship, rather than the more seductive sense of modern English “temptation”. This reflects a wider uncertainty over the appropriate translation of the Greek term that has vexed translators into many languages.

12: evil, particularly of a theological kind; the abstract noun derived from droht, ‘evil, unholy, morally wrong’, which itself is a loanword from Old Irish.



And a tentative translation (sure to be revised later) into Modern Wenthish (the contemporary descendent of the above):

Ur faðer, thu as er á hibhenne,
lątte thy nąmme yheilow’ð a’liegge
lątte thy conge-reach a’cwemme
lątte thy ønske a’weorthe
an midyarde sam as á hibhenne.
Ląt thyssel a’yebhe us ydaynne ur dáyly hláf
an so lietch thi, Ab
áy a’fayebhe us ur schiydde
also sam we fayebhen schiyd-effaren with us
áy ná a’leððe us ynat ná cystung
achnion a’byfrion us av driythi
an so lietch thi, Ab

Wolf in the Fold, by Simon Green

I’ve not been doing well with reading, recently. Mired in a Soviet monolith of an epic, I’ve been trying to sneak in a few nostalgic comfort-reads and the like, but even that hasn’t been entirely successful (the penultimate Discworld novel, in particular, is easy to read, yet also disheartening). So I turned once more to Simon Green’s Hawk and Fisher novels – I haven’t read this particular one before, but they’re the kind of thing you know is going to be unchallenging and mildly entertaining. I had a little while before I needed to sleep, this being a weekend, and so I thought I’d make a start on Wolf in the Fold.

Later, at an ungodly hour of the morning, I realised I’d accidentally read the entire novel in one sitting. True, it’s under 200 pages so it barely counts as a novel, but still – I haven’t done that in a while. Turns out, Wolf in the Fold is actually… well, kind of good.

Continue reading

Raising Steam

This review is one of (presumably) the final parts of my complete Discworld re-read project.

And so, it has come to this.

When I first started this re-read project, people warned me: Raising Steam (one of a handful of Discworld books I had not yet read) is not very good. Throughout the project, I’ve been wondering: what does that mean? How bad is not good? Can it really be so much worse than, say, Unseen Academicals?

Yes. It can be, and it is.

I have always said: there’s no such thing as a bad Discworld novel. There are brilliant ones, good ones, and merely adequate ones. But none are ever outright bad.

I was wrong.

Continue reading

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, by Gene Kemp

Note to self: don’t let three months go by before before reviewing a book!
Further note to self: wait, what? OK, I have excuses for April, but did we even HAVE a March this year!?

When I was a child, in secondary school, the words “Carnegie Medal” did not fill me or my friends with excitement. The venerable prize for children’s fiction was for us more like a warning sign on a book’s front cover – it generally indicated that the novel that bore it in its blurb was going to be respectable, improving, and age-appropriate. Which is to say: it would have content appropriate for children ten years younger than us, written in a dour, worthy style that appealed to the quintagenarian grey-cardigan-waring English teachers who awarded it. It was not the absolute kiss of death for a novel – Terry Pratchett somehow won it one year – but it signified that a book should be approached with caution. Worst of all, it made a novel eligible to be one of the despised set texts that we would be cruelly forced to, in the loosest possible application of the term, “study”.

Nonetheless, the honour role of the Carnegie (first awarded 1936) is bristling with “classics” of children’s fiction, whether tedious or enchanting. Arthur Ransome won the first for Pigeon Post, and subsequent winners have included Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952), Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958), Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967), Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), Gilian Cross’ Wolf (1990), Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1995), David Almond’s Skellig (1998), Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001), Jennifer Donelly’s A Gathering Light (2003), Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2010), and Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls (2013)… and 1977’s winner, The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, written by Gene Kemp.

Continue reading