Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett

An army on campaign is a sort of large, portable city. It has only one employer, and it manufactures dead people…

Monstrous Regiment is a novel about a young girl, Polly, who runs away to join the army, in order to find her brother. To do so, she has to pretend to be a man. No spoilers there, that’s all dealt with with admirable succinctness on the first page. She meets up with fellow recruits, a jolly old recruiting sergeant and his nasty little corporal, and heads toward the front, as they gradually realise that their nation – beloved Borogravia, in yet another war with the dastardly swede-eating Zlobenians – is losing very badly. In some respects it is an ambitious book: as well as taking on war and nationalism again, it’s yet another assault on organised religion (a return for the ghastly deity Nuggan, last seen in The Last Hero), as well as an extended exploration of broad themes of feminism as well as narrow themes of gender roles, transgenderism/transvestitism and so forth; and for good measure it’s also a chance for Pratchett to show off his beloved Vimes yet again.

Have I said ‘again’ a few times already? I had to laugh when I saw the strapline on one edition of this book, which proudly promises: Discworld is at war… again! Oh good, the punters doubtless think on seeing that. Jingo was so startlingly original I’d just love to read Pratchett going over that ground yet again

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Unfortunately, the weariness you may hear in my voice is also there in Pratchett’s. It must have been so hard at this stage for him: on the one hand, he didn’t want to just repeat himself, and yet at the same time he didn’t want to alienate his fans by doing anything unexpected. At times in this book it feels as though he’s just going through the motions, telling the same jokes he’s already told before… only this time, they’re broader and bigger and flatter and more predictable, like a tired old comedian doing his thirty-first rendition of a famous stand-up routine. It’s tired, it’s old, and it’s lazy. That’s there in a lot of the jokes, a lot of the set-ups, a lot of the voices. It’s there is most of the commentary about states and the little guys, about war and the nation, death and glory, about religion. We know what you think about these things, Pterry! But this time, he just shouts them louder in case we didn’t hear before. The officers are stupider, the wars more pointless, the gods are pettier, the penalties for cross-dressing are less kind. We have the church, which Pratchett tore apart in Pyramids, and Small Gods, and a little bit in Carpe Jugulum; we have the army, which Pratchett took on in Jingo and to some extent in Night Watch, not to mention snipes in books like Pyramids and Eric and Interesting Times and so on; we have an unconventional line-up of recruits including a woman, a troll and a vampire, echoing the woman, troll and dwarf recruits who signed up in Men at Arms; speaking of which we have the unconventional vampire, seen before in Reaper Man, and Carpe Jugulum, and The Fifth Elephant, and The Truth (and actually, there are two here, because Otto from The Truth comes back); we have the agricultural backwaters of Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music, Equal Rites, and to a lesser extent Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies and Carpe Jugulum; and we have the precocious smart young girl who just wishes everybody else weren’t so stupid, previously seen in Equal Rites, Soul Music, The Wee Free Men, and arguably the other Witches and Susan novels. Oh, and we have Vimes and Angua popping in for a bit, and William de Worde, and Lord Rust, and…

This could feel like a greatest hits album. It could be brilliant. But unfortunately it feels more like a muddle: a repetitive, unsurprising muddle.

A large part of that may be because this doesn’t feel like Pratchett doing a Discworld Greatest Hits tour. Instead, it feels like Pratchett really wanting to write an entirely unrelated novel – maybe not even a Discworld novel at all? I haven’t read them yet, but I think there may be echoes of this in Dodger and Nation – and feeling forced to throw in lots of stuff we’ve seen before to prove that it’s What We Wanted.

And that’s a great shame, not because it makes for a terrible book, but because the other book, the book it could have been, if he’d started from scratch and done something new, at times feels like it could have been a seriously good book. It takes quite a long time to get going, and the ending is severely handicapped by the gimmicks that Pratchett commits to, but for a span in the middle there, you can forget about all the other books, and be intrigued by what he’s doing.

When the story is in full-flow, it’s a good story. Unfortunately it is hemmed in both with Discworld features that don’t really make sense and with an undermining gimmick that explodes the most meaningful scenes with overly broad humour.

It really doesn’t fit. For one thing, the novel is clearly set in the Victorian era – everyone is wearing redcoats and shakos and following officers named Rupert, in service of a monarch who is quite clearly Queen Victoria in virtually no disguise whatsoever. And then you have Vimes and Angua wandering around in mediaeval breastplates. You have injuries and tactics that make you think of muskets and cannons and even machine guns, and you have allusions to Vietnam, but then Pratchett remembers that nobody has firearms of any kind, so they have to have… supercrossbows, and megacatapults. And he wants to have his cake and eat it too, so not only do Borogravia and Zlobenia directly parody the European wars of the 18th to 20th centuries, they’re also the subjects of Ankh-Morpork interference that parodies both Victorian colonialism and modern well-meaning interventions around the world (the shadow of Iraq is heavy on the book). Which is a bit thematicaly confusing, particularly when the backward natives, Our Heroes, feel like a more modern society than the still-strongly-mediaeval-tinged Morporkians. On the other hand, because Pratchett has allowed his Morporkians freedoms not present in Victorian England, he’s left thematically and tonally completely undermining his own story: we’re meant to get invested in the struggle for women to be taken seriously in their own right, through the case study of the struggle for women to join the army without having to pretend to men, but all the time this historic progress is being pushed we have Angua wandering around in the background. Nobody actually says outright “oh, we can’t possibly allow women in the army, their heads would explode from all the thinking! Unless they’re Morporkian women, who manage to do this all the time, including the second-in-command to the leader of the entire Alliance!” but it’s hard not to think it. Actually, saying it would help. Pratchett could have addressed this problem directly. He could have had the Borogravians specifically associate women’s rights with Morporkian imperialism. Or he could have taken the chance to point out that Victorian women’s (lack of) rights were not the inheritance of time immemorial (women of earlier generations had had more rights), and that societies more primitive in one respect may be more advanced in others. Instead, the problem just hangs there unsaid.

[It may be intentionally. It’s mentioned several times that the feminist crusade sometimes charges at a door only to find it already open… maybe having Angua hanging around casually having all the rights that the Borogravian women are fighting for, and this not being important in any way to the plot or worth mentioning by anybody, is meant to illustrate that point. But if so, say so! As it is, Angua’s role is so minor (pointlessly minor, frankly, and I say that as an Angua fan – there’s no reason for her to be here) it feels much more like an oversight resulting from smashing together two different stories that aren’t meant to fit together]

Actually, that’s true of Vimes as a whole. In a sense, this is a direct sequel to The Fifth Elephant. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way Vimes had his novel stolen from him, and he’s left floating around the periphery generally being a distraction and having little to do with anything, thematically, that the book is about. ‘The Vimes-as-diplomat-again’ novel collided with the ‘Victorian feminism and the military’ novel, which never really belonged in the same world.

Meanwhile, although Pratchett does make his musings on equal rights and gender roles and so on a little more nuanced than you might expect, there’s still something weird about reading a book-length lecture on the importance of treating men and women equally from an author who peppers the very same book with really old-fashioned ‘have you noticed how men are like this but women are like this’ jokes. Much of the humour of the novel, or attempted humour, is based on the apparently ludicrousness of women pretending to be men when we all know that, for instance, women are physically incapable of swearing. I mean, there are times when I’d accept jokes like ‘women-are-both-thoughtful-and-cooking-obsessed-so-whenever-there’s-cooking-to-be-done-they’ll-always-magically-have-half-an-onion-on-their-person’ as not really being harmful, and playing authentically on experiences of mothers many of us have had, but when it’s in the middle of a women-are-just-like-men-really story it’s just… weird. Not, I should point out, that there’s any misogyny in the book – quite the contrary. The main difference between men and women continually observed throughout is that women are people, whereas men are either bestial troglodytes or gormless cretins.

However, I should acknowledge one thing here: Pratchett has, via time travel, been reading my reviews. Because in my last Discworld review I wandered off on a long-gestating old-women-aren’t-always-that-great grumble about how ‘patriarchy’ isn’t just carried out by men and how the iron-willed matriarchs Pratchett idolises are the ones who send the young women to the Magdalene Laundries for violating their moral views. There’s a bit of that idolisation still present here: it’s suggested, for instance, that women never want their sons to go to war, that’s just a myth created by men – which, to say the least, is optimistic thinking from the author, I fear. But Pratchett here does finally include a section on how reactionary and oppressive old grannies can be (now that Granny herself is safely out of the picture), and specifically talks about them sending young women to the Laundries! Seriously, he was clearly time-reading my review. [Several characters in this novel have been what are effectively in the Laundries, right down to the prominence of laundry, though they’re not actually called that here].

And throughout it all the humour is always two sizes broader than it would have been in earlier books. So in the past he might have named the Duchess’ capital ‘AlbertHansWilhelmsberg’; here, he names it ‘PrinceMarmadukePiotreAlbertHansJosephBernhardtWilhelmsberg’. Previously his mad gods might have issued commandments against chocolate, so here they also issue commandments against the existence of rocks. Everything is made bigger and bolder so you can’t possibly miss it. [Although I will admit that the constant repetition of the word ‘Abomination’ does gradually become amusing in its own right]. It’s not just the jokes, either. In another book, Polly might be looking for her not-so-bright brother… whereas here, her brother has to be made out to be some sort of barely-functioning idiot savant. You know, to drive home the pathos.

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But it feels wrong for me to be harping on what’s wrong with this book. Because at times, and in ways, this is near the top of what Pratchett can produce. There are some great lines. There’s a successful evocation of the setting, even if it’s a setting that doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of Discworld – it feels like he’s been reading a lot of Victoriana. In particular, it feels like he’s been reading a lot of Kipling – it made me think a lot of “The Drums of the Fore and Aft” – only Kipling does it better. The protagonist, Polly, is created very simply but effectively – and is a much more rounded and likeable character than Esk or Tiffany or Agnes, her most obvious predecessors. Sergeant Jackrum is one of Pratchett’s greatest characters, and feels definitive of a type. The actual plot parts are told very well.

It’s no surprise that bits of it are good. The last adult Discworld novel before this was Night Watch, arguably Pratchett’s magnum opus, and that ability didn’t just vanish overnight. But the thing is, Night Watch felt like an ending – more than that, it felt like a coda. Monstrous Regiment is what happens after a man has ended his life’s work. Part of it is trying to drag the done thing out again, churn out one more hit, do it all one more time, when the inspiration has gone and the jokes have all been told – while part of it is trying to do something new, without the confidence that the new thing will be accepted.

I think part of the problem is that when Pterry loses confidence, or doesn’t know what to do, he falls back on broader comedy. When really what novels like The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch and now Monstrous Regiment seem to shout out is that maybe at this stage of his career maybe he needs to make the transition to more serious writing, to fall back on his grasp of character and plot. Because when Monstrous Regiment is telling that story about the girl who dresses up as a boy to join the army in a fruitless war, and comes within the ambit of a red-blooded but cynical old sergeant, then it manages to be a really good book, and funny too. But when it loses faith and leans on the pratfalls and the silliness and the Big Shocking Funny Revelations (that are predictable from the first page), then it feels tired and rote and forgettable.

I want to finish, though, by mentioning a line from very near the end of the book, because it says a lot. It says:

“The enemy wasn’t men, or women, or the old, or even the dead. It was just bleedin’ stupid people, who came in all varieties. And no one had the right to be stupid.”

That’s just… it says so much about Pratchett. It shows his gift for cutting through things, his gift for pithiness. His dedication to frankness. His universality, his can’t-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down cheerful cynicism… his humanity. His skepticism toward all forms of ideology, and in particular anything non-universal, anything sectional or factional. His tolerance and mercy – after all, someone being stupid isn’t evil, they’re just in need of a good explanation of why they’re in the wrong.

Unfortunately, it also shows why sometimes this liberal, humanist, anti-authoritarian dissenter can sometimes feel like a condescending bully and an apologist for tyrants. Because if you disagree with Pratchett, you’re stupid, and someone ought to force you to be smart. And more than that – if you’re responsible for anything bad happening, it must be because you’re stupid. The problem is, while a knack for simplifying is good, some things can’t neatly be simplified beyond a certain point.

I think this is why Pratchett seems so liberal and likeable on the level of individuals… and why his politics become increasingly confused when he strays into big picture thinking. It’s also an increasing problem in his later work, as he becomes quicker and quicker to slot people into the “stupid; and nobody has a right to be stupid” category.

Anyway, Monstrous Regiment. Doesn’t know what it wants to be – a mishmash of different books, in several different ways. Some really great work, and some sloppy, lazy work, and some big missteps. In its defence, though, it probably works better if you haven’t read 30 of his novels in the last few years before reading it?

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Adrenaline: 3/5. At times, this is quite exciting. Unfortunately, that excitement is hamstrung by a very slow beginning, a rather prolonged end, and a pervading sense of security. This is a Girl’s Own adventure: there is an odd juxtaposition between the background ruminations on the savagery of war and oppression, complete with nasty details, which is maybe as dark as Pratchett has ever been, and the central storyline, in which we know that the protagonists will never face any real danger, and are probably unlikely to have to do anything particularly unpleasant to anybody either. It’s another example of this book being two books: in this case, a dark and bitter assault on man’s iniquities, combined with a YA adventure story that evokes in me words like ‘larks’ and ‘japes’…

Emotion: 2/5. There’s little threat, as I say, and little development, and frankly little engagement with the characters at all. I like Polly… but I never really found myself caring about her, or indeed about anything else – the dark moments are too brief and second-hand to be affecting.

Thought: 3/5. The novel does Raise Issues, and to Pratchett’s credit he does suggest the answers are at least one step more complicated than they might at first appear. But there’s never really any sustained inquiry, or thematic complexity. That assumption I quoted: that the enemy are only ever “stupid people” demonstrates the novel’s fundamental lack of open-mindedness and curiosity.

Beauty: 3/5. It’s polished and professional – but too much so. There are little diamonds, but too few, and there are too many clunky and obvious things.

Craft: 4/5. That said, while Pratchett’s taste may questionable in places, and his plan for the novel either confused or over-ambitious, and his strategy sometimes lazy… his execution is reliably admirable.

Endearingness: 3/5. I love this novel. I also can’t stand it. Monstrous Regiment is always two books supernaturally superimposed… and I love one and I hate the other. I’m not sure which is which exactly.

Originality: 2/5. Most of the elements here are familiar both from the wider literature and from Pratchett’s own earlier work, though there are still occasional moments of distinctiveness.

Overall: 5/7. GOOD.

I want to say it’s one of his best novels, and I also want to say it’s one of his worse – I’ve seldom been so torn about a book. When it’s going well and you’re in the mood to ignore the issues, it really is great; when you’re not in the mood, and you’re in the less great parts, it’s… well, actually even at its worst it’s not a bad novel, by the standards of novels, but there were moments when I did feel it was a bad novel by the standards of Pratchett.

It feels like a novel by somebody who is straining at the bonds, who has grown to a point where they need to break out of their old tracks and do something new: it has both that tiredness and that ambitious energy. Something new!

…so next up it’s the second Tiffany novel, and after that it’s back to Ankh-Morpork again, for Sam Vimes’ tenth and eleventh appearances… (after that, he’ll only be in another five more novels…)

 

 

Incidentally, my Discworld reviews are now nearly 66,000 words long in total. That means… they are now longer than The Light Fantastic itself (the shortest Discworld novel, not counting Eric and The Last Hero, which are illustrated novellas). By the time I get to the end, I’ll probably have written as much as Small Gods. Fortunately, I’m unlikely to make it to the heady, bloated heights of Unseen Academicals, all 140,000 words of it…

Lady into Fox, by David Garnett

It’s hard to say too much about Lady into Fox – it’s a short novella, and very simple. Indeed, I didn’t really feel that I was reading the work of an author – more just hearing an articulate, literate man tell me a story. The prose isn’t always polished – and is speckled with little oddities from the common speech of the era – and the story is straightforward and unadorned. Put bluntly, it’s about an English gentleman whose wife one day turns into a fox, and the difficulties that are posed by this unexpected turn of events.

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That’s a potentially rich – incredibly rich – scenario for a story, and there were many ways the story could have gone. Garnett for the most part chose the most obvious and the least memorable path. But that’s not necessarily a criticism. I was expecting a story that perhaps leant more heavily into social satire, or brought out the comic absurdities more greatly – I suppose I was thinking of how this might go if the story were by Saki, or indeed by Cabell, whose almost exactly contemporaneous own novel, Jurgen, I’ve only just read.

And indeed, there is satire here, and there is absurdity, and wit. But for the most part, Garnett focuses on the pathos, and he does it through precise, transparent realism, avoiding excesses of style or content that might distract from the basic humanity at the core of his story. His style is casual, in the formal manner in which an English gentleman of the era might be casual, and despite the strikingly modern moment of surrealism at the story’s core (Lady into Fox was published only a few years after Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” was published, and long before the latter became famous), his approach is largely conservative. The fantasy, like most early but little later fantasy, is shrouded in a dislocating frame, in this case the conventional, by then perhaps even traditional, Victorian ghost story declaimer, an entire page spent stressing how the author has heard this from unimpeachable sources and is otherwise a skeptical man not prone to believing fanciful stories etc etc. This frame is made a little more personal by the fact that the author does not overtly divide himself from the narrator, happy even to identify himself by name at one point. There’s something of a newspaperman’s approach here, a plainspoken verity that has no time for artistic airs and pretences. I wonder whether even that title, the oddly curt ‘Lady into Fox’, may be intended to suggest the clipped headline of a newspaper report or magazine article.

Yet despite the pretence of unpretentiousness, Lady into Fox is a piece of art, and not only because of the implausible central conceit, that of a lady transformed into a fox – and not, Garnett take pains to stress, in a believable, piece-by-piece, drawn-out manner, but in a flash, as a fait accompli, the way that Gregor Samsa simply wakes up one morning to discover himself the victim of a metamorphosis. No, the true metamorphosis here is the way that what is presented as a story is really a political position paper.

Of course, all stories are symbolic, particularly those involving elements of fantasy. “The Metamorphosis” is symbolic. But Lady into Fox is symbolic in a much more all-encompassing, more honest, way. It is, quite plainly, a fable, and there is no doubt here that we are to consider what may be the Moral of the Tale. It is perhaps precisely because of the author’s political intent that he so eschews overt manipulations and authorial cadenzas: he is trying to show us the case as it is, matters as they are, to point us to a conclusion – for all that he is doing so through symbols and analogy. Anything that instead called attention to the work as a work of art, or worse as a work of craft, would detract from its objective. [For instance, I suspect this is a story that Oscar Wilde might have liked to write a version of – and I suspect Oscar’s version would have been more beautiful, more polished, more ostentatious as literature, and rather less successful….]

But it’s not quite so simple. On the surface, Lady into Fox is a direct analogy for the contemporary causes of feminism and the free love movement, as Our Hero struggles to come to terms with the inhumanity of his wife, her essential and natural (or supernatural) place outside the conventional norms of womankind. On this subject, the novella takes what has become an unfashionable approach – that of persuading through sympathy, rather than of hectoring and denigrating. Sylvia’s husband is controlling, conservative and jealous – but he is also profoundly sympathetic. Garnett lets him be wrong in some respects, while perhaps being right in others, and while giving him good reasons even when he is wrong. He is not writing this book to mock conservatives – he is writing it to lead conservatives step by step through an argument, an argument presented not in words but in events, challenging them to consider how they would themselves act if their own wives were transformed into foxes, and leaving them to wonder how much of that fable may remain applicable even when their wives do not literally have tails. To this end, it’s a powerful, sincere fable, that like all good fables can be enjoyed by – and can morally influence – even those who are not conscious of its allegory… though there are, I must admit, one or two lines that perhaps make the symbolism just a little too overt.

Except perhaps it may be symbolising something else entirely. Although the themes of control and so on are unavoidable, the one concrete autobiographical element in the tale (a certain name) suggests that Sylvia, the lady-into-fox, may be identified not with a feminist woman, but with Garnett’s male lover, the artist Duncan Grant. This puts a rather different complexion on events, with the wife of the wrong species standing for the lover of the wrong sex – certainly it’s hard not to read that interpretation into passages where the husband worries about being seen out in public with his fox. The fox’s wild life outside civilised society may then stand for the temptations of a homosexual bohemianism; the jealousy and the desire to control (and protect) the fox may well be personal. Grant had many other lovers in his life (most famously the besotted John Maynard Keynes); and although he appears to have been almost exclusively gay, he spent more than 40 years living with a woman, Vanessa Bell, whom Garnett himself had attempted unsuccessfully to seduce.

Or perhaps there’s a third interpretation. Garnett and his friends, the Bloomsbury Set, practiced what in various times would have been called ‘free love’, ‘open relationships’, or ‘polyamory’. Grant and Bell, for instance, lived together and had a daughter, even though Bell was married to another man entire, Clive Bell, who dropped in for frequent visits, and Bell was tolerant of Grant’s homosexual affairs. Meanwhile, Garnett’s Lady into Fox, which at the very least invokes, and perhaps is ‘about’, his homosexual affair with Grant, is graced by illustrations by Garnett’s wife. Perhaps the jealousies, the protectiveness, the difficulty coming to terms with a loved one’s true nature, are really about the stresses of free love: maybe Sylvia, the lady-into-fox, is Garnett himself.

[It wouldn’t be the first time he put himself in a female disguise. Lady into Fox was only Garnett’s second novel; the first, Dope-Darling: A Story of Cocaine was published under a female pseudonym]

But really, all of this is missing the point, I think. Lady into Fox is not a coarse allegory, a thlunking sermonical parable. It’s a fable. Sylvia is not a metaphor, she’s a symbol. Yes, I suspect that all three veins of allegory – feminism, homosexuality, free love – were in Garnett’s mind, but I don’t think he intended readers to come around to agreeing with this or that proposition: I think he wanted readers to come around to seeing matters from a particular point of view, or perhaps rather to see matters through a particular manner of sight. I think the ideology here is not a narrow political position after all, but rather a general call to arms for liberalism, generosity of spirit, open-mindedness, and acceptance. And it also has the courage of its convictions to admit to doubt – the conservative fears are not wholly unfounded, and even if society makes the great leap of faith, we are still left with lingering questions that we cannot wholly answer. As, indeed, further inspection of the biographical parallels reiterates…

 

Adrenaline: 3/5. The story is told in a calm, collected manner; there is tension and fear throughout, but it rarely agitates the reader. I read the whole thing in one sitting, despite not intending to.

Emotion: 4/5. It is not as much of a tearjerker as a more exploitative author would have made it; nonetheless, there is considerable pathos.

Thought: 3/5. A call to feel more than a call to think, its allusive nature and genuinely unpredictable plot make for a thoughtful read, but not an intellectually intense one. The idea Garnett is trying to put across are simple, and are not analysed in any depth. That’s not really the point.

Beauty: 5/5. An odd score here, because I can’t say that the prose itself is gorgeous. It’s elegant enough, but not exceptional, and it even has some rough edges – as I say, it feels more like an articulate man with a good story than the work of a master literary artist. And yet… that allusiveness, the brevity, the pathos, the cool detachment yet soft humanity of the authorial voice, the humility, the feeling of inevitability, and the very inexplicability of it all, all make it for me a really beautiful little piece.

Craft: 4/5. As I say, there’s a country arts-and-crafts feel about it, a homespunness that makes it hard to say it’s a masterpiece of craftsmanship. That’s in the prose, it’s in the moment or two of too-obviousness, it’s in the slight unsureness when it comes to more difficult scenes (such as those of action) and it’s in the rather abrupt ending. But to some extent, it’s also misleading. I think the book creates pretty much the impression I think Garnett was aiming for, and his apparent objective – to put a form of life to the public convincingly and inoffensively through the form of a compelling story – is deceptively difficult. The careful fidelity to life is also not to be dismissed. I can’t say it’s a technical masterpiece, but many authors would have failed badly in attempting to write this, I think.

Endearingness: 5/5. It’s beautiful, it’s enjoyable – there are even a few moments of lightness along the way – and its heart is in such a good place. There’s a humility to it, a recognition of complexity, that I think would make it hard even for some gruff old conservative who thought it was naïve idealism, to really honestly disapprove of it. Myself, I do much more than fail to disapprove of it.

Originality: 4/5. The plot is, as I’ve said, genuine unpredictable. The conceit itself drops the reader into a place of potential and confusion: when you begin with a lady turning into a fox, where can you go from there? Nowhere and everywhere. And yet, in the end, I don’t think Garnett goes anywhere that other writers wouldn’t have thought of. And he does it in a comfortably familiar manner, in terms of structure and in terms of prose; and even his sentiments, while perhaps unfashionable in his day, feel very much representative of a type. So I can’t give it full marks here, but it’s still a refreshing short tale.

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. My numbers would suggest it ought to be ‘brilliant’, but I think I’ll hold off on that. I feel I’ve marked generously rather than stingily… and perhaps just as importantly I think it’s worth saying that this is a very short novel. Or a novella. I’m not just saying that because you might not get your money’s worth in page count, but also because there’s only so much you can do in a novella, and conversely it’s easier to avoid mistakes. This isn’t a symphony, it’s a tone poem. As such, it never quite has time or space or variety enough to hit the highest peaks. It is, after all, a rather simple little fable, simply told. But it’s a good fable, and he tells it very well…

[P.S. for those readers motivated by literary acclaim: Lady into Fox won both the Hawthornden Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, two of the country’s most respected literary awards.]

Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice; by James Branch Cabell

It is not easy for the perceptive critic to doubt [the literary permanence of James Branch Cabell, as surely exceeding that of all writers in England save arguably Hardy and Conrad]. One might as sensibly deny a future to Ecclesiastes, The Golden Ass, Gulliver’s Travels, and the works of Rabelais as to predict oblivion for such a thesaurus of ironic wit and fine fantasy, mellow wisdom and strange beauty, as Jurgen.
– Burton Rascoe, Literary Editor at the New York Herald Tribune, 1921

 

Well, I’ve run into a bit of a problem with this review. The thing is… it’s a bit too long.

So I’m going start out instead with a short flow-chart summary, which may save you from having to wade through the full review.

  • Are you interested in the history of the SF&F genre? If so, you should read this book. Cabell may be forgotten today, but he’s one of the truly seminal figures in the genre and this is his most famous novel. Neil Gaiman has called Cabell his favourite author; Robert Heinlein and Jack Vance began their careers by unabashedly trying to emulate him; James Blish, Lin Carter and Poul Anderson contributed articles to a journal devoted to studying him (Roger Zelazny sent in letters). Michael Moorcock and Ursula Le Guin agree, for once, in praising him. Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, John Brunner and Terry Pratchett are just a few other writers believed to have been influenced by him.

 

  • Are you interested in the history of American literature, or the history of 20th century literature? If so, you should read this book. Cabell was routinely considered one of the half dozen or so titans of American literature throughout the 1920s and 1930s (having been a highly acclaimed writer’s writer before that). H.L Mencken called him the greatest living American writer; F. Scott Fitzgerald put him third in his personal canon after Joseph Conrad and Anatole France; his wife Zelda called him her favourite author of all, and one of only two writers (along with Edith Wharton) who had ever made her cry. [Zelda Fitzgerald, Robert Heinlein, and Neil Gaiman all agreeing on their favourite author: how can you not want to read him?] Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis are just two examples of writers who boasted of Cabellian influences, and when Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and mentioned, in his speech, the other American writers of his era who might have been equally deserving, Cabell was the third name to come to his mind. And quality aside, the court case surrounding Jurgen was the literary cause célèbre of its day, making it, and Cabell, icons for a generation. Oh, and Mark Twain said that Cabell was the author he most enjoyed reading.

 

  • Are you looking for a hilarious light read? If so, do you find writers like P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett funny? If so, read this book.

 

  • Are you looking for an insightful study of the nature of human existence, or at least human existence as it might appear from a very particular personal perspective? If so, read this book. It wasn’t the icon of a generation for nothing.

 

  • Are you interested in the Mediaeval Romance, or in Victorian Revivalism? In Malory, and Rabelais, and Bunyan, and Scott, and Tennyson, and William Morris, and T.H. White? But you don’t mind them being made fun of a little? If so, read this book.

 

  • Are you interested in cultural and sociological modern history, and would appreciate satire directed at early-20th century American society? If so, read this book.

 

  • Do you like beautiful prose? And do you like the prose of Wilde, and Chesterton? If so… well, it’s not a must-read, but if you have the time I’d certainly recommend it.

 

  • Do you need your books to have a strong driving plot, with no time for diversions and amusing episodes? Well, don’t worry too much, since it’s not a long novel – but it may not be perfect for you.

 

  • Do you need gritty, authentic realism? Must everything be dry and serious? Does everything have to happen next to a kitchen sink, and should more dialogue be conducted through grunts than through speeches? Then this may not be the book you want.

 

  • Do you want your books to have a clear, wholesome sense of moral certitude and respect for upright conventional mores? Then the fact that this novel was banned and the author prosecuted for indecency might be a clue that this one may not be entirely up your alley.

 

  • Are you now strongly tempted to go and read Jurgen? If so, go and read Jurgen. Like I say, it’s not a gigantic book, and this is a very long review, so you’re probably better off just reading the novel right now. You can always come back for my thoughts about it later. If not, but you are considering maybe one day getting around to adding it to your TBR pile, then do, please, feel free to read this review…

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Fool’s Quest, by Robin Hobb

“I found myself speaking softly as if I were telling an old tale to a young child. And giving it a happy ending, when all know that tales never end, and the happy ending is but a moment to catch one’s breath before the next disaster.”

Fitz there is certainly… well, being Fitz. He’s putting the worst possible spin on things; no doubt the Fool, for instance, would give that thought a very different emphasis. But beneath the pessimism, Fitz has managed to put his finger on something fundamental about his world, the world of Robin Hobb novels: there are no happy endings. There are no sad endings, either. There just aren’t any endings at all.

In a way, that was the premise of Hobb’s Tawny Man trilogy, which took what was at the time considered one of the greatest endings in the genre, that of her earlier Farseer trilogy, and turned it on its head simply by insisting, “there are no endings… so what happened next?” – I don’t know if that’s how Hobb was thinking of it at the time, but that, in effect, is what happened. And at some point or other she did think of it, because I think that was a clear continuing theme of her Rain Wild Chronicles, and now of the (terribly-named!) The Fitz and the Fool trilogy.

There are no endings. That’s, on the one hand, an incredibly fatuous thing to say… so obvious it’s not worth mentioning… and yet on the other hand it’s a stunningly confrontational statement of intent, a virtual declaration of war against the reader. Because every reader yearns for an ending – for the most part happy ones, but fitting ones at the very least. A story without an ending is scarcely a story at all. Everything we have been taught about stories has trained us to seek out the ending – it’s the ending that gives meaning to the journey. Remember Miss Prism’s prim, Victorian definition of literature, when asked, in The Importance of Being Earnest, about the plot of her ‘three volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality’? “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” Many more adventurous novelists than Miss Prism have challenged the details of this. Tom Stoppard, for instance, suggested: “The bad ended unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.” But the fundament remains unchanged: it is only when we have reached the end that we know what story we have read – comedy, tragedy, romance… sometimes only then do we believe we know who the author was, what they ‘endorse’, as though the author were a stern, judgemental goddess, handing out rewards and punishments when the characters have fought through the tribulations of the final days and reached the author’s throne in the Ending, from where their souls are scattered this way or that into the blessed Epilogue…

But one way or another, we need to have an ending, the way we need harmonic resolution – the way an unresolved harmony fills us with a bone-deep craving like no other respectable craving, a craving that left unfulfilled can seem to drive us to the point of madness… it is not even just that we need to find out what happens next, since in a way an ending is the opposite of that, a sleight of hand in which the author satisfies us with ‘resolution’ and persuades us we no longer want to know ‘what happens next’. It is resolution we crave: progression into a ground state, the restoration of stability, an end of our labours. What matters about happy ever after is not the ‘happy’ (though that helps) but the ever. What happens? How do they end up? They live happily ever after, and that’s all that happens, and that is the end of our questions.

This is the UK cover

For some reason I’m barely a few paragraphs into this review and already I’m sneaking in pretentious quotations. Sorry about that; but while I’m at it, here’s another. It’s a wise old maxim from the world of economics, originally applied to the theoretical analysis of balance of payments deficits, and it’s called “Stein’s Law”, after its inventor, Herbert Stein, chairman of the American government’s ‘Council of Economic Advisors’ during the 1970s. It’s a rule with a surprisingly broad potential field of application, and it says simply: “If a thing cannot go on forever, it will stop.” On some level, we know this, because it’s just what the words mean. And yet most of us, most of the time, forget about it. Because, after all, nothing can go on forever. Everything stops. The question is not whether a trend will cease, but in what way it will cease.

Isaac Asimov knew this when he talked about population growth. People who worried the population growth of the 1960’s would render the planet earth uninhabitable were, he said, rather missing the point. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that 1960’s population growth trends, if they did not stop, would inevitably, mathematically, mean that within two thousand years every single atom in the known universe would have to be converted into part of a human being and still there wouldn’t be enough matter to make up all the people who would have to exist, let alone to provide anywhere for them to have lunch. Those population trends could not continue… therefore they would stop. The real question – the interesting question perhaps for a science fiction writer – is how they would stop. And, of course, what would happen next as a result.*

“And they all lived happy ever after,” says the fairy tale. But they didn’t. They couldn’t. The world couldn’t just stop in its tracks to let that happy moment carry on into infinity. It cannot go on forever, so it must stop. So what stops it? Well, within the world of a story, the answer is obvious: the story stops it. A story is a thing with its own momentum, after all; sooner or later, it catches up with you. You kill the dark lord, eventually his son comes back looking for revenge. You reinstate the monarchy; eventually the good king’s son or grandson or great-grandson will turn out a tyrant. Bring peace, and one day your suddenly-unemployed generals will rebel. Everything you do has consequences. Consequences never go away – so there can never be any real ending. Karma, innit.

Robin Hobb knows this, and that’s what she’s been doing in her recent career. Saying, again and again “no that’s NOT the end… what happens next?” – to the point where she has her audience thinking it even before the ‘end’ is reached. It’s… upsetting, frankly. We crave a certain ending – a happy ending, or something beautifully, elegantly tragic for a change – but at the same time she is telling us “no, think about it, how could that be the end?”

Every happy ending is just a pause for breath, at best – at worst, it can be form of imprisonment, an imposition of stasis. There is no stasis in Hobb’s books. At the same time, though, the same is true of tragedies – every tragedy is just the backstory for what comes next. So every disaster is tinted with hope, and every triumph is clouded by the fear of loss.

This war on the expected is present in another way also: the richness of possibility in Hobb’s work. At several points, prophecy in Hobb’s world is described as simply seeing all the possible paths that lead away from every individual moment; and frankly, that’s what it’s like reading this book. Every page is filled with potentially significant details, and every two or three pages there is something, some premonition, that points the way toward a new possible future for these characters, this world, this plot. Some of this is foreshadowing; much of it isn’t. In earlier books, I thought Hobb was fond of red herrings, but by this stage ‘red herring’ is a red herring – it’s not that there are false possibilities sprinkled through the text, but that the whole of the text is so dense in its possibilities that is makes no sense to single out this paragraph, that page, as a ‘red herring’. Instead, the pages simply move closer to the texture of real life. Every moment is filled with potential; every insignificant detail may prove significant, and every pivotal moment may prove irrelevant. We do not have the benefit of great glowing signs pointing at things and saying “pay attention, this bit is important!”

There is, in theory, one more book to go in this trilogy, and perhaps this trilogy of trilogies (in theory – I suspect the odds of the final novel being split into two are high). There are probably half a dozen different novels Hobb could write at this point that would feel like fitting conclusions to this series. But there are so many hints and jinks throughout this book that, had Hobb wanted to take some other path through it, there would probably have been a dozen, two dozen different stories that could have been told.

This is also the UK cover. There is a US cover. I’m just not going to show it to you because I hate it.

Of course, the one thing we can be sure of is that Hobb isn’t going to tell the conventional story. Or rather: she won’t tell the conventional story in the traditional conventional way. A lot of what Hobb does is tell old stories in new ways – richer, more lifelike, more intense ways – and that’s exactly what happens here. Anyone who has read to the end of Fool’s Assassin knows exactly what direction Fool’s Quest is going to take… they just might be surprised at how it does it. And, in particular, how slow it is.

That’s not a new trick for Hobb. Back in her Tawny Man trilogy, the whole second half of the second novel, and much of the first half of the third novel – and arguably even the first half of the second novel too – were material that would just be ignored in a traditional epic fantasy. The normal formula is: “X happens, which necessitates that A does Y, so then A does Y.” Hobb defies this. Instead, she wants to know how A finds out about X. How does A react to hearing about X? How does X decide that they need to do Y? How do they feel about doing Y? Are there alternatives to doing Y? How will they do Y? How will they prepare and plan to do Y?” – to take the crudest example, Fool’s Fate spends an awful lot of time on a boat, when most fantasy novels would simply say “the journey took [insert number of weeks]”.

There’s a reason why more authors don’t do this. It slows the pace, and just as importantly it distorts the pace away from its natural rhythm. But there can be such a rich reward, as Fool’s Quest demonstrates, from taking the scenic route. Because although we think about plots in terms of things that happen… what actually happens to happen doesn’t, in itself, really matter. The meaning and the significance come from the pauses between the things that happen. The power comes from how people react to what happens, and how they prepare themselves for what they believe will happen. The actual occasion of things, the business of the events, is only the acting out of the story written in the quiet moments.

The power is in the pauses; and boy is Fool’s Quest a powerful book. Powerful almost beyond comparison – I’ve read emotional books before, but nothing to compare to the crushing intensity of this novel. Reading normal books, I don’t cry. Reading powerful and emotional books, there can be a part of the book where I cry. In Fool’s Quest, there were just the bits when I was actually crying, and the bits when I was only moist of eye. And it wasn’t just tragedy after tragedy. Some of it was tragedy, but more of it was wringing the full affect out of tragedy, and much of it – the most emotional bit of all – was triumph. But then again, like I say: in this novel, triumph and disaster go hand-in-hand, neither ever out of the reader’s mind, like the face and the back of a dancer whirling.

This is what epic fantasy can do: the weight of words and time, the seven lengthy novels that I’ve spent inside FitzChivalry’s head, have allowed me to care deeply about him (and sensitively, the way a scientific instrument becomes sensitive through fine tuning), and about those around him, and the emotional intensity is heightened by narrative devices built into the very world for that very purpose, and laid bare by the brutality and the austerity of the setting. I cannot imagine how a story like this could be told in any other mainstream commercial genre. This is, as George RR Martin commented of the first novel in the trilogy, ‘fantasy as it ought to be written’. But the flipside of that is that this is also what the rest of fantasy is missing. I can understand if not every author wants to write books like Fool’s Quest, and if not every reader wants to commit the time, the effort, and the ravaging of the soul required to read books like Fool’s Quest. But every author in the genre ought to read Hobb’s entire cycle, to learn just what the genre can do, and what they can do in the genre. To learn what havoc can be wreaked on the reader’s mind with a little patience, a little carefulness, a little, very little, sleight of hand.

If part of the power of Hobb, particularly in these later books, comes from the way she defies worn conventions of plot, pace, and consequently character, it is also greatly in debt to the shear brutality that has been present in Hobb right from the beginning. Hobb is not typically cited as a ‘grimdark’ author, nor should she be, as however dark she may be she is never really grim; and in any case, the impact of her violence (physical and symbolic) is only heavier and deeper for its being so often hidden and velveted. This is not a twisted little boy’s-own adventure playing at cultural memories of cowboys and gangsters, romping through depravity sardonically, reassuringly… comfortingly. This is a book, and author, that wants to talk about the horrors of mankind as well as our glories – horrors whether petty or apocalyptic. Yet she doesn’t wallow in the darkness for the sake of wallowing, for the sake of borrowing from it some sheen of gravitas. She keeps the violence penned in, and lets little drips and drabs out like drops of acid.

There’s a lot of that acid in Fool’s Quest in particular, and some readers are not happy about this. Some will ask whether the ferocity and ungentility of that violence is really ‘necessary’. Couldn’t she tell this story in a ‘nicer’ way? In particular, many, glossing over the killings and the mutilations, the bereavements and despairs, will focus on the rape that has been such a constant thread in Hobb’s vision of fantasy. It’s certainly been more prominent elsewhere in Hobb’s work – in both The Liveship Traders and The Rain Wild Chronicles, rape in all its species, from child abuse to domestic abuse via misogyny and exploitation, is one of the dominant themes and a major driver for the plot – but she’s rarely thrown it quite as violently and offputtingly in the face of the reader as here. Isn’t talking about this unduly unpleasant for polite, comfortable reading? Did she have to make rape seem so ugly? Isn’t purposefully crafting a world in which rape is no less common – or even more common – than in contemporary reality inherently misogynist? Especially given that, in a novel wedded so closely and so inescapably to a male narrator discussing his own deeds as a male protagonist in a male-lead (if not quite male-dominated) society, rape will almost always be more important as a source of motivation for a male bystander than as a motivation for a female victim, and will always be told through a male perspective?

No, not really. Indeed, I suspect the author would feel quite the opposite. My mind goes back to that passage in (if I recall correctly?) Assassin’s Quest in which the Fool attempts to say what became of a particular woman in a raided village, and in his answer loses her individuality into the sea of human suffering, as we realise that each possible future for that woman becomes an actual future for some woman, in some village. And I also remember the passages in which those gifted with the Skill, Hobb’s telepathic gift/curse fruitlessly fight out their war against the raiders through the bodies of others – kings and princes and bastards of royal blood who spend their nights living and dying again and again the sufferings of their people; and I remember how the ultimate villainy in that first trilogy was, in essence, to retreat and to abandon, to shut oneself up in fine houses with fine wines and not talk about what was happening out on the coast. Hobb has no sympathy with that attitude; and I don’t think she would have much sympathy with applying it to fiction, either. Hobb doesn’t want us to avoid talking about victims; she lets her men be motivated by the horrors suffered by women, because that is how change happens. People with power, people with safety, people with privilege, have to be motivated to change the world… because the problems that can be solved purely by the powerless, by themselves, are by definition not the big problems. Hobb could have written these novels about the rape victims themselves, dealing with their problems themselves… but then they would have been books about sod all changing, because these victims don’t have power, that’s why they were in a position to be victimised. [Although, for the record, her Liveship Traders and Rain Wild Chronicles books are both primarily lead by female characters, including rape victims; it’s also worth pointing out that many of her characters may not be presented as the protagonists of these books, yet are presented with enough depth and complexity to be so – I’ve just been having a debate, for instance, about how much Starling is made to seem worse than she is by Fitz’s blinkered perspective, and how the world looks from her side of the story – unlike so many novels, I believe Hobb’s works have enough subtlety around the edges that the perspectives of peripheral characters can still be experienced by a careful reader]. So these are not going to be books in which we politely, respectfully, do not talk about bad things, and they are going to be books in which the sufferings of the powerless are going to be motivations for people who may have the power to do something about it (or not, of course…).

On the other hand, going back again to Farseer: the ultimate nightmare in those trilogies – not merely a villainy but a nightmare – was the loss of empathy. We have to be able to confront tragedy, but not become inured to its pain. That is, I suppose, the path that Hobb traces between the soi dissant progressives on the one hand, with their calls for a bowdlerised, utopianised fantasy of empowerment and escapism, and on the other hand the tawdriest excesses of grimdark slaughterporn, in which the worst of life is made to seem unthreatening through hyperbole, repetition, and flippancy. Face the suffering, and be motivated by it. That may be how those two extremes come to seem almost the same, two sides of the same disconnected coin…

This is, incidentally, also something that progresses through the course of Hobb’s novels, as her protagonist progresses. Thinking in raw terms, the content of Farseer is much more unpleasant than that of Fool’s Quest… it just doesn’t seem that way. Because Farseer is told by, and about, a young man, with the spiritual cushioning of youth. He is able to gloss over many things, and rebound from others. The Fitz of Fool’s Quest, on the other hand, is a man entering old age, and he has a far more sunken, haunted look to his eyes. Things hurt more now. And ye gods but when I was reading Assassin’s Quest I didn’t think I’d ever be saying that…

Specifically, this is the hardback cover. I can’t show you the paperback cover, because it doesn’t exist yet. Also, when it does exist, it will probably be identical to the hardback.

In fact, this is a Fitz who frankly, after the events of Fool’s Asssassin, has been left on the brink of madness. Fitz has always been prone to depression – something that he at least seems to be more aware of in his later years, even though that hasn’t solved the problem – and now the wrenching intensity of the catastrophes of the last book, combined with an accumulated lifetime of petty tragedies, have created a man who seems compelled by fury and lean with death. It’s to his credit, then, and to Hobb’s, that he is also now perhaps at his most caring, his most sensitive. Even if he would now make Liam Neeson go shit himself. [Although, disturbingly, he still remains only the second- or third-most sociopathic of the ‘heroes’ of the novel].

It is, in a way, exactly that sensitivity, that caring, that has left him so dangerous, to himself and to others. It is what has made him unpredictable – what has transformed him into a wild marble careening around this so-carefully-set-up board. And most fascinating perhaps is the way that he goes beyond the borders of what seemed to be his world, barging unceremoniously into the territory of other novels. The ‘northern’ (Fitz-based) and ‘southern’ (non-Fitz-based) strands of Hobb’s cycle have never been entirely kept apart, thanks to You Know Who’s appearance in The Liveship Traders and several Liveship characters having cameo performances in The Tawny Man. But Fool’s Quest is the first time we see these two sub-worlds collide head-on, and I look forward eagerly to seeing the fall-out in the next installment. Needless to say, putting Fitz into the world of the Rain Wilds throws an entirely different light onto the events of the earlier novels, as well as updating us on events we’ve missed in the most tantalising and infuriatingly distant way. If only we could just have some of these people sit down and talk with one another honestly and openly…

…but that’s always the frustration with Hobb. Everybody always has ulterior motives, prejudices, secrets that they need to hide, or think they need to hide. Everybody plays with their cards close to their chests, not only the clinically paranoid Fitz… but then again, the shear intensity of the emotions bared whenever a true heart-to-heart occurs shows exactly why people find excuses to avoid them…

I need to stop waffling soon. How about this as a summary: Fool’s Quest may well be the best and/or my favourite fantasy novel. It wasn’t an easy read – though frankly I am left less troubled by the overt violence and emotion, and more by the creeping feeling that things are getting worse and worse for Fitz, cognitively and behaviourally speaking, and there is less and less chance of a happy ending. But while… oh, hang on.

I’ve just remembered, I need to mention the role of prophecy. Hobb gives us perhaps the best portrayal of prophecy that I can remember in fantasy: while there is never any doubt about the sincerity of the prophets, or the reality of their experiences, the prophecies themselves are invariably couched in such terms that the readers (and the characters) can never quite be sure what is meaningful and what is not, what will happen and what has happened already – if we were not so close emotionally to the issuers of prophecy, I suspect the reader would even be able to deny the predictive power of the prophecies altogether. That doesn’t sound like much: it’s how everybody tries to write prophecy – meaningful in hindsight, but cryptic and inconclusive before the fact. The problem is, it’s hard to do this while making these prophecies feel natural, feel like real, human visionary experiences. Hobb, unlike most writers, succeeds.

Needless to say, where Hobb does not succeed is in her villains, who remain ultimately ridiculous – beginning at human, they pass through menacing and frightening and soon emerge into the realm of laughable caricatures. It continues to baffle me that an author who gave us one of the genre’s greatest, most nuanced and (horrifically, punishingly) sympathetic villains in The Liveship Traders has in every other work of hers given us these ridiculous moustache-twirlers. So far, however, the villains of this series have been elevated by two things: first, by the cleverness of their fundamental conceit, which makes them intriguing and peculiarly unnerving; and second by the decision to, so far, reveal them to us only in the form of their relatively low-ranking – and hence confused, frustrated and limited – agents. I fear that – as in The Tawny Man – what subtlety there is in that regard will be thrown out in the concluding novel as we arrive (as, at least, I assume we will, though nothing can be taken for granted with Hobb) at the rotted centre of their evil.

…right, can I finish now? Fool’s Quest certainly wasn’t an easy read, although strangely, despite the harrowing, I do sort of think of it as comfort reading – perhaps because in Fitz the readers can be assured of always going through these adventures with a well-beloved friend at their side (no pun intended). It’s like curling up in a comfortable warm chair in the middle of the winter – and although these books unaccountably come out in summer, it’s hard not to hear the blizzard howling at the windows when reading this. Both literally and psychologically, Fool’s Quest takes us into the bitterest and barrenest winter of these chronicles. It is a triumphant – though never triumphalist – display of what is possible in the fantasy genre, from its worldbuilding (the place-name ‘Wortletree’ aside – you can’t get them all right…) to its characterisation, to its scenes of action and suspense. Fantasy as it ought to be written.

It’s a bit unfortunate really that I’ve chosen to write a really long review of a book I happen to only have one good cover of. I should go back and write an incredibly long review of The Man Who Was Thursday or something instead. There are dozens of great covers for that one.

Adrenaline: 4/5. There’s a lot of catching-breath. But there’s also a lot of tension, and some explosive action scenes that are as well-written as always. It’s like if a Liam Neeson film were also a deep and introspective character study.

Emotion: 5/5. Well obviously. “Emotion” does not begin to describe the intensity of this novel.

Thought: 4/5. Deliberate pacing, subtle nods and winks (how many novels can turn an observation on the herbal seasoning of a chicken into a fist-punching moment?) a constant web of possibilities, an atmosphere tinged with paranoia, and a very clever conceit underlying the antagonists make for a thoroughly thinky experience, even if it’s not concerned with particularly complicated theorising.

Beauty: 4/5. Hobb’s prose is never going to win literary awards – and perhaps that’s for the best, as we are after all having the whole story narrated to us by a character, and a character with a very particular voice. But where I think her prose started off weak, by now it has become really quite polished – heavy, but not incapable of moments of beauty. The real beauty here, though, is in the situations, the ironies, the call-backs and the culminations. The appropriateness of things.

Craft: 5/5. As I say, the prose isn’t the best ever invented, but it quite suffices. The character work is of higher than the first order, and the plotting is exquisite.

Endearingness: 5/5. Some people might quail either at its slow pacing or at its unpleasant moments. Me, I think this is about as adorable as fiction can be – immersive, intense, yet welcoming and humane.

Originality: 4/5. There is a degree of familiarity about the contour of the plot, and about some of the incidents. That said, the perpetual pluripotency of its plot makes even familiar turns seem surprising, and this surprise in combination with the distinctive nature of the delivery push this above par for originality.

Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT. While fans cheering for this character or that plot development may be disappointed by things not going their way, I cannot really think of any significant flaw in this novel. Literary afficionados will complain that it is not a prose poem, and that the plot is rooted in genre; but these are simply part of the product on offer, and the book would not be ‘better’ by conforming more closely to ‘literary’ conventions instead; it is also worth noting that while the language does have that slightly heavy and old-fashioned tone common to the genre, that doesn’t prevent it from delivering fantastic lines, whether melancholy ruminations on life or just witty deadpan remarks. Similarly, the large page count and slow pace are simply part of the subgenre, intentional choices, and do not betray any authorial indecision or structural flaccidity. The text is sometimes painful, and at other times frustrating, but both are likewise intentional and calculated manoeuvres by the author. The closest I can get to an overt flaw is the excessive, cartoonish evil of the antagonists; but as the ultimate antagonists themselves remain off the page, and the proximate antagonists we actually encounter are effectively humanised and fleshed out, this is more a fear, for the following book, and on the basis of past experience, rather than an actual issue with this book itself. It could also be objected that despite being a lengthy novel there is little actual resolution here (quite the contrary, as it ends on something approaching a cliffhanger – although the book certainly does have more form and completion in its own right than did Dragon Keeper, which did originate as the first half of a split novel and is still observably so). But to accuse this middle book of a trilogy of being, in essence, the middle book of a trilogy would be to shake a fist at literature itself rather than at this novel. At least in a book like this one there is genuinely the sense that the word-count, the novel-count, will be paid off – especially since the experience here is at least as important as the future conclusion. And finally, Fool’s Quest did leave me with some fears for how this series is going to end, how on earth Hobb is going to be able to wrap all this up satisfactorily… but again, that is a problem, if it turns out to be a problem, for next time. This book, in itself… I can find no serious flaws.

Put simply, this novel is brilliant. It’s a shame that so (relatively) few people will haul their way through 15 heavy novels to reach this point. After all, what’s the point of reviewing a novel like Fool’s Quest? If you’re a Hobb fan, you know how good it is already. If you’re not a Hobb fan, a good review of Book 15 is probably not going to get you to pick up Book 1. But I think it needs to be said anyway: this isn’t just the latest comfort-read extension of a perennial epic fantasy cycle… it is that… but it’s also plainly and frankly a brilliant novel.

Maybe if I include a picture of the cover enough times, it’ll work as subliminal advertising?

 

*[A more down-to-earth example is provided by the ongoing Republican Presidential primaries. The former front-runner, JEB! (real name John Ellis Bush), has based his campaign on a promise to return America to the 4% per annum GDP growth of the Clinton years, figures not seen since his brother took over the economy (and only ever seen for four or more consecutive years during the ‘90s and during the early ‘60s, but that’s another issue). What would 4% growth mean, in the long term? Well, assuming GDP per capita growth continues to track GDP growth as it has historically (i.e. there isn’t a sudden baby boom), and assuming that the relationship of median income to GDP per capita remains approximately the same (the average US citizen earns about $24,000, compared to the $56,000 they’d get if annual production were simply shared out equally), 4% growth would mean that by the end of this century the average American would have an income, in real terms (that is, in terms of relative spending power today, taking into account inflation), of about $725,000 a year – in other words, under this plan, by 2100 every American would only have to work about 5 years of their life, and could then live the rest of their life off interest and investments. Well that sounds fun! But it’s nothing like 2200, by which time everyone will have a personal income of $36million… (if you think I’m making fun of Bush, consider: if GDP growth remains at its current anaemic, sluggish, unacceptable great-recession level… by 2300, the average American will still have a yearly income of $2.5million, in real terms. That’s not a bad worst-case scenario!)… this has nothing much to do with Robin Hobb, I just thought I’d share…]

Now go buy it!

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

Another entry in my on-going complete Discworld re-read… although actually this one I was reading for the first time.

Well, I’m in two minds about this one – perhaps that’s why it’s taken me so long to get around to reviewing it.

As you may have noticed from the last few Pratchett reviews I’ve done, we’re now firmly in Pratchett’s “brave new world” phase, in which the author was experimenting, renovating, striking out in new directions, but at the same time also recapitulating. It may or may not be a coincidence that The Wee Free Men has the nice round series number of ‘30’ – well OK, it’s a coincidence, particularly since it wasn’t originally listed in the main sequence ordering of the cycle, shunted aside instead into a “for younger readers” branch. Which is also why I haven’t read it before, because I was a teenager when this came out and found labels like “for younger readers” horribly toxic to my ego…

But where was I? It’s a coincidence that this is big round Number Thirty, but it’s a fitting one. More than any of his books so far, The Wee Free Men feels like Pratchett has picked up everything he’s done, tidied it away into a box, gotten out some more pieces, and done something new. Now note: I said ‘new’; not ‘fresh’. When we tidy our toys away and start from scratch again, the result is often not fresh in the slightest, and that’s both the charm and the cardinal sin of The Wee Free Men. Continue reading

Rawàng Ata: a phonology sketch

I’ve been playing with Rawàng Ata – my constructed language with Austronesian inspirations – for many years now, but I don’t think I’ve ever properly sat down and described its basic phonology.

So, here’s a quick sketch: RA draft phonology sketch

(Since neither WordPress nor online forums seem great at respecting the elementary formatting necessary for this, I thought it would be easier just to make a .pdf of it)

Sorry in advance for any confusion in the document: one problem with this, as with all language, is that every part relies on every other part, so it’s never possible to lay things out in a completely logical order…

Life in the Colonies in the 26th Century: Guerra (3)

Third and final installment…

Politics and Peoples

Guerran politics have always been hard to define. The first settlers, before the Exodus, were driven by profit, and the first Colonial Constitution was highly plutocratic. During the Exodus, when the population exploded and famine stalked the land, the colony became polarised into two camps, Green and Yellow: the Greens were legitimists, who blamed the Protectorate for their hunger, sought the restoration of feudal democracy, and favoured aggregations of capital – specifically land-owners – while the Yellows were neo-MacGaskillite redistributionists. It might be thought that the Greens were solely the party of the rich, but this was not so: many poor Guerrans believed that their best chances of survival came from supporting the ruling class, who were after all the ones driving investment in the young colony, rather than from smashing up the few power structures that could deliver progress, while the more expansionist settlers feared that attacks on the property rights of Atravidian slumlords would eventually mean attacks on their own rights as free landholders in their settlements, and the rights of their children and grandchildren to eventually derive profits from the risks the settlers were taking. It was this division between Yellow and Green that lead to the establishment of Maquinna as a more egalitarian (Yellow) rival to Atravida and Descubierta.

Enthusiasm would be the death of both movements. Inspired by Leveller influences, radical Yellows launched the so-called ‘Guerran Revolution’, an eight-month political upheaval that resulted in the executions of many Greens and the assassination of many Yellows; the radical local governments the revolution produced soon, for the most part, collapsed into chaos. The movement was not entirely discredited, and moderate Yellows took care to identify themselves not with Levellers and Reds but with the Keyite forces, and even went as far as briefly claiming secession from the Protectorate as a Keyite colony; but the secessionists lacked the support of either their own public or the Keyite forces themselves, and the ‘secession’ was soon forgotten about. With the death of the elder Key and the turn of many of his followers to piracy, the Yellow cause withered, its followers being swept up by the Grecian faction within the Protectorate. The Greens for their part were decapitated (literally) as an organised party during the revolution, and gradually drifted into the anti-Grecian faction, and hence into oblivion.

Under the current Constitution, the colony is ruled by a Governing Council. This Council selects its own membership (serving terms of 5 or 10 years), except that the Chairman of the Council is directly elected by the people. This is a genuine election, one-man-one-vote (women are also allowed to vote), although the electoral system is in part indirect: the popular vote is added to regional block-voting, in which small and old regions are over-represented, in a modified majoritarian alternative vote system that seeks to prevent the unfettered dominance of the big cities. The Chairman has a casting vote in the Council and a limited veto, and also assigns portfolios and resources to Council members, but cannot directly control the Council’s composition himself. The Council however has only limited direct powers, and acts to co-ordinate between regions rather than set a single policy agenda; nonetheless, the Governing Council does appoint the Regional Councils, who are much more powerful. Regional Councils must be approved by plebiscite every decade by the populace, but the precise electoral system is left up to the region. Similarly, regions have the right to elect Chairmen of their Regional Councils; some do, some don’t, and some choose boards of chairmen or revolving chairmen – whether this selection is by election or some other method is left up to the region.

Most politics is personal on Guerra. There are few official parties, and they have little power; instead, there exist personal power structures: the last three decades have been marked by the struggle between the Ditmar faction and the Wen faction. These allegiances cut across political boundaries; in general, the Ditmar faction has the backing of the richer landowners, while the Wen faction is backed by capitalists, but these generalisations have many counterexamples, and the allegiances of the liberals, the poor, and the middle classes are unpredictable. Perhaps a better generalisation is that Wen’s faction is more associated with Maquinna and Ditmar’s faction more with Atravida. Place of origin is probably a bigger cleavage than class, in terms of politics, and the Governing Council carefully obeys an unofficial geographical formula: of the twelve senior members, two members are from Atravida, two from Maquinna, one each from Resolution and Descubierta, one from the Voyager Region, one from a smaller city (usually Challenger City), two from lesser regions on Lake Mariner (one from the north, one from the south), one from a minor region, and one from anywhere other than Maquinna or Atravida. The same formula is repeated for the 24 junior members, albeit with less rigour.

Government policy is the result of compromise between the factions, and there is little overt ideological disagreement on Guerra anymore (outside of some more countercultural groups in the big cities, particularly in Maquinna). Guerrans generally oppose large corporations, but favour small enterprise. They support land rights and oppose inheritance taxes, but they limit land acquisition and defend the rights of tenants. They favour a base level of welfare for all, and seek to support the poor who wish to better themselves, but they do so through mutual banks, and the poor must make a business case for investment in their lives. In general, Guerran politics favours individualism and individual rights, but is also suspicious of great wealth disparities and favours an economically and socially classless society. Guerrans are in general conservative in their values, and many of those values are imposed through the law, albeit on a regional level rather than colony-wide (all sorts of things are permitted in Maquinna). Guerrans ardently support the Protectorate, although there is a degree of stubbornness and skepticism whenever the Protectorate attempts to impose its will on the colony – ‘universal solutions, but through local methods’ is a common refrain.

As for internal, social divisions in Guerran society, there are relatively few. Although the colony is only a little more than a century old, the chaotic nature of its founding, with Earthicans from all regions and classes being deposited together on the planet en masse, led to rapid merging and levelling of cultures (and the Earth of the early 25th century was in any case much more culturally (and genetically) homogenous than in centuries gone by).

The language of the colony is Geriniz, an Anglic speech-form derived from Liiwefraaka. Geriniz and Liiwefraaka remain (unsurprisingly, given the recency of their separation) more or less mutually-intelligible, although recent settlers from Earth may need a little while to ‘get their ear in’. Geriniz itself consists of several dialects, with four or five recognised standard forms… these all share much in common, but also have substantial differences from one another. They are for the most part mutually intelligible.

Outside the megacities, languages other than Geriniz are relegated to the status of ‘house languages’ – languages passed from mother to child and used in family situations. House languages often have limited lexicons and show considerable syntactic influence from Geriniz. Speaking a house language outside the house, other than with close friends, is frowned upon – it is seen as exclusionary, elitist, or sectarian. In the megacities, however, the combination of larger populations and a constant influx of immigrants has enabled the survival of pockets of language-users – dozens, if not hundreds of language have their own little urban communities. However, almost all citizens speak Geriniz, and for most it is their first language.

Regarding faith and life-stance, most Guerrans are ardently panhumanist; many households hold icons of the Eternal Protectors, and of Protector Demmings. Religion is treated with suspicion, as a sectarian force; in particular, the once-sizeable Cathodox population has dwindled away almost entirely in the wake of the Electoral Crisis, though a rump schismatic pro-panhumanist ‘Independent Patriarchate’ still remains. Cultivation is considered the superfluous time-wasting of decadent societies, a vain attempt to fill the psychological void arising from the absence of traditional families, strong communities, a sense of duty and a healthy connection to the soil. Mysticism, however, is commonplace, particularly of a monotheistic, devotional kind. Most Guerrans are not fully convinced of the efficacy of faith, and have litle interest in theological niceties, but devotional practices, particularly prayer and the veneration of icons, are widespread, with saints, gods, orishas and so forth all sharing attention in a syncretistic folk practice. Of particular significance is the native religion of Consuelism, an offshoot of Erengism (itself a new religion of the Early Contemporary era, an austere prophetic and restorationist Christian faith with a high degree of syncretism with Islamic practices) centred around the Messianic and faith-healing claims of a certain Sister Consuelo, who proclaimed herself the appointed saviour of the planet. Consuelism now considers itself the largest religion on Guerra, but in practice most adherents merely treat it as part of the general syncretistic folk devotional practice; its particularism (Consuelo is seen as the saviour for all people on Guerra, but for nobody on any other planet – each planet has its own saviour, appropriate to the particular nature of that world) and its relative lack of any religious obligations or complex theology beyond devotion to Sister Consuelo and general pleasantness to everybody else, make it an appealing faith.

The icons of Protectors, Admirals, and domestic politicians are also commonly used in devotions, although this practice is officially considered superstitious.

Among non-theistic ideologies, Multiplicity is seen as decadent nonsense, Democracy is seen as oppressive and corrupt, and Transhumanism is considered a gross perversion and treason against all mankind. Transhumanist groups do survive in the big cities, particularly in Maquinna, but they are both socially and legally persecuted. Guerrans do have considerable time for Ecologist views, and for the general principles of Grounded Semantics, but few follow any organised ideological groups to that effect.

There are robust populations of many Plain Folk groups, though they are less numerous than on Earth. Most common are the native Guerran Plain Folk groups; these are farming-based communities with strict ‘ordnungs’ but often widespread use of technology where it does not lead to avoiding hard work or to inegalitarianism. Guerran Plain Folk have most in common with Old Order plains, though the historical link is through inspiration and parallel evolution rather than linneage. Guerran Plain Folk are typically non-religious, though some groups venerate their ordnung.

 

 

The World within the World

Guerra is an important colony world, in terms of population. However, it has little economic significance. It does engage in mining and industry, and does export its goods to Earth and elsewhere, but it is not a productive powerhouse like Herjolfsson, Nikitin or Battuta, or even like Degama. Likewise, it does accept a steady stream of colonists – but not that many, nor are they the highest-paying. Guerra is generally seen as a perfectly nice place, safe and dull, with a culture that is distinctive but not too distinctive. Guerra is respectable, and quaint. Guerrans are viewed (as a generalisation) as solid, reliable, and obsessed with farming – but the passionate homesteaders for the most part would rather head to Degama. Guerrans are disproportionately represented in the Fleet, but are less common in the officer corps – it is not in the Guerran mentality to seek to become an officer. The Protectorate sees Guerra as a loyal, untroublesome, but sometimes pig-headed, colony world. The most famous historical Guerran in the Fleet was Grand Admiral Diceman, a sturdy and reliable leader who served as a Marshal on the front line in the Fourth War; a few decades ago, Grand Admiral Ditmar served as Director of Logistics, and was a member of the Central Committee, but his parents had left Guerra for Zheng before he was born. The senior Guerran in the Fleet today is Admiral Longwalker, currently serving as a Tribunal Conductor for the Justice Division.

Guerrans, for their part, are generally welcoming toward newcomers from Earth, but are somewhat xenophobic toward the other colonies. Most are seen as too strange, too pretentious, too divorced from the reality of the soil. In some ways their closest allies should be the Degamans – both are Exodus worlds, both have strong agricultural traditions but also large and vibrant cities. In reality, however, there is considerable tension between the two groups. Guerrans view Degama as the privileged child of the Exodus, receiving resources that could have saved lives on Guerra; furthermore, they view Degamans as individualists lacking community spirit – their farmers, say Guerrans, are more interested in escaping society than in building new communities, and their urbanites are content to ape Earth fashions and divorce themselves from their hinterlands. Guerra, by contrast, may on the surface have a strong divide between the cosmopolitan megacities and the conservative countryside, but in reality there are deep ties between the two, and even Guerran megaurbanites, no matter how countercultural, see themselves as distinctively Guerran, in a way that perhaps is not paralleled in Degaman megacities.

Guerrans are, however, not entirely alone in their own stellar system. The briney planet of Malaspina shares the same star, and many colonists there originate from Guerra. The closeness of the two worlds and their shared history make visits from one to the other relatively affordable; however, in practice the contact between the two planets is minimal. Guerrans are of the (quite understandable) opinion that nobody in their right mind would ever want to visit Malaspina, which they consider to have only been given the prestige of ‘Colony World’ through an accidental coincidence of physics and onomastics. Most Guerrans consequently forget about the place altogether. Malaspinans do visit Guerra from time to time (it must be nice to be anywhere that isn’t Malaspina), but for the most part consider Guerrans dull, lazy, conventional, disorganised, and offensively arrogant. Malaspinans are mistrusted on Guerra – they are considered perverted and louche, yet at the same time regimented, conspiratorial and illiberal. In the megacities (the only places Malaspinans are ever likely to be encountered), the more credulous and bitter Guerrans trade in rumours of Malaspinan machinations against Guerra, attempts to seize power on Guerra surreptitiously, by corrupting key political figures. Why the inhabitants of Malaspina might want to do this, beyond their inherent viciousness, is rarely specified; most plausible in the popular imagination is the rather sensible suggestion that Malaspinans would like to return to Guerra en masse (anywhere must be better than Malaspina), but know that this would require giving up their immoral cultural traits, and so wish to achieve domination of Guerra in order to negotiate return from a position of strength. However, while ‘the Malaspina Problem’ is mentioned regularly in political discussions, most sensible Guerrans find the threat overstated and of little practical interest.