An Alternative History of Europe

Some time last year, I was having a discussion about alternative histories. My view is that history has in general a particular shape, determined largely by geography, demography and economics, and that it’s very hard to seriously shift it from its tracks. For this reason, I’m skeptical about most hypothetical Points of Departure, as I just can’t imagine them having serious effects.

Needless to say, I was challenged to suggest a POD that COULD make a difference; and one of those that came to mind was the premature death (in our timeline) of King Henry V of England, shortly after defeating France and being declared heir to the French throne. What could have happened, had he lived? I never quite finished the timeline, so I didn’t post it anywhere at the time… but why not put up what I’ve got?

As always, I’m not 100% convinced by all of it anymore, but it’s not total nonsense, in my opinion.

As you’ll see, I’ve also included some Fun Facts About Our Timeline, to provide a little context for those unfamiliar with the events at hand.

NB. I’ve changed this post since first putting it up, as I found a more recent draft…


Wars of Consolidation

Henry’s accession as Henry V of England and II of France did not end the bloodshed, as the illegitimised Dauphin, Charles (self-styled Charles VII) continued to mastermind resistence against the English from the south of the kingdom. After a few years of recuperation, the English launched a major offensive from Gascony, in which they largely had the support of the local population. After the death of popular heroine Joan of Arc in 1429, support for Charles and his Armagnac party quickly crumbled, and he fled to the Dauphiné. In the Treaty of Lyons , Charles admitted his bastardy and renounced his claim to the French throne, in exchange for being granted autonomy over the Dauphiné, which he declared to be the Kingdom of Grenoble.

[Fun Facts About Our Timeline: Even after the death of Henry V, Charles VII struggled to gain support, and for the best part of a decade his forces were continually defeated by the superior generals and technology of the English. Only the lack of effective leadership, and discontent at home caused by the weak regency of Henry VI, kept the war in stagnation. The attempts to enlarge the territory of Gascony were anemic, and failed despite popular support: the locals had no love of the French monarchs and remembered kindly the reign of the Black Prince and the Fair Maid of Kent a century before, at which time their court had been the most brilliant in Europe]

Nor was it only in France that there was discontent. In England, there was disquiet among the nobility at the growing power of the French at court, and the King’s perceived neglect of England. This was exacerbated by the death of Henry I and the accession of Henry II, a good king but prone to bouts of debilitating madness. Much of the power in the nation rested in the hands of the new French Queen, Margaret of Anjou, and those of her father, René the Good, formerly a key supporter of the Dauphin.

The catalyst for revolt was the problem of Scottish raiding; the kings in Paris were considered far too unconcerned about the incursions by the Scots, which took place in increasing force. In responding to this accusation, the court misstepped by placing too much power in the hands of the House of Percy, the Earls of Northumberland, the king’s de facto representatives on the Scottish border; the Percies quickly used the opportunity to settle old scores with their archenemies, the House of Neville. The unrest of the Nevilles, combined with general disquiet in the kingdom, displayed through a peasant rebellion that held London for three weeks, incited the allies of the Nevilles, the House of York (junior branch of the royal family) to rise up against the king. The wars that resulted lasted, on-and-off, for nearly ten years, and were only brought to an end by sweeping concessions both to the houses of York and Neville and to the English Parliament as a body.

[FFAOT: Henry VI was a weak and overly trusting king, manipulated by his courtiers, dominated by his wife, and generally cut out more for sainthood than for rule. However, much of this can be put down to the peculiar, isolated, controlled life of a child-king, under the sway of regents the whole of his life. It doesn’t produce a strong will or much grip on reality. However, the madness probably had nothing to do with the weakness, despite the views of contemporaries: his grandfather, Charles VI (the Mad) of France, had similar episodes of debilitating insanity, and symptoms can be traced back generations through that line.

Serious civil wars are rare things, and the Wars of the Roses exploded from a relatively small base. Here, Henry is stronger, his advisors are better and more diverse, and the King has more to offer the discontented.

The peasants, incidentally, did march on London even in our timeline – lead by the possibly mythical ‘Jack Cade’]


Wars Against John II

Faced with unrest at home, it was natural for the court to seek enemies abroad, and opportunity soon arose on their southern border, in the person of John II, King of Navarre and Aragon. The conflict that followed took place in three stages. In the first, John, who had ruled Navarre through his wife’s claim, fought to maintain his rule against his son and daughter, Charles and Blanche, who claimed to inherit the title of their mother; Charles fled to France, and the Lancastrians used his claim and the threat to support him to blackmail John II into concessions – most importantly, the marriage of John’s grandson, Gaston, to Isabel, daughter of Richard Neville, the key supporter of Edward of York. Charles died from poison, and when Castille attempted to support the claim of the imprisoned Blanche, Lancastrian armies opposed them. The war spread when the Catalans of Aragon rose up against John and asked Henry of Castille to be their king.

Castille was defeated, and Blanche died, but a complication arose when the Catalans voted again, this time to elect René the Good, Duke of Anjou, as their king. The selection was not without basis: René’s mother, Yolande, had formerly claimed the throne of Aragon as the niece of the heirless King Martin. Queen Margaret was keen to support her father’s claim, and Lancaster abruptly switched sides, invading Aragon and exiling John II to his dominions on Sicily. The crown of Navarre passed to Gaston, and after his untimely death in 1470 to his daughter, Eleanor. Isabel acted as regent, but the true power was Richard Neville.

In the third phase of the war, René’s forces invaded Sicily and killed John II.

[FFAOT: Charles fled first to France and then to Alfonso, but in the end he was still murdered, allegedly by John’s second wife, Juana. The Catalans invited first Henry of Castille and then a prince of Portugal to help them before finally choosing René the Good (noted amateur painter and patron of the arts), who sent his son John of Calabria. Both John and his son Nicholas died, allegedly of poison. The crown of Aragon passed to John’s son, Ferdinand, who later married Isabella of Castille to set in motion the unification of Spain (which could have occurred earlier: Alfonso’s father, Ferdinand, could have inherited both Castille and Aragon, but he declined Castille). Navarre, meanwhile, went to Gaston, before being conquered by Castille-Aragon.]


The War of Naples

Having taken Aragon, René’s attentions turned to Naples, also claimed through his mother, and once part of Aragon, but now ruled by Ferdinand, the bastard son of Alfonso V of Castille. Successive Popes had declared Ferdinand’s rule illegitimate, and with the aid of France-England, and a foundation in Aragon, René’s grandson, Nicholas, now invaded Naples. The act provoked a general war in Italy, in which Albania, Milan, Ferrera, Florence and Modena all fought against the Papal-Aragonese alliance. At the same time, the Kings of Grenoble attempted to annex René’s territories in Provence.  The war went badly indeed for the enemies of the Pope; René won the throne of Naples, and the Pope consolidated his power in central Italy; Grenoble was defeated by its neighbour, the Duchy of Savoy, and the French-backed House of Savoy took over Kingdom by marriage. The war also proved profitable for Venice, who took the side of the Pope.

[FFAOT: Joanna II of Naples explictly left her kingdom to René, but it was stolen from him. He made some half-hearted attempts to make good the bequest, but although the Pope blessed his cause, no major power was willing to help him out. In this timeline, René is the key player in the unification of France-England (his mother Yolande being the greatest supporter of the Dauphin), and by now his strong-willed daughter has become Queen (Margaret, leader of the Lancastrian armies in our Wars of the Roses), so it seems quite likely that the Lancastrians would lend an army to secure profitable Naples for this important and popular ally.]


Union with Burgundy

The Lancastrian War ended with independence for Burgundy, but the new nation faced a difficult environment. Its lands were split in two by the Imperial duchies of Lorraine and Bar, both held by René of Anjou, and later his successor after the untimely deaths of his son and grandson, René of the the House of Vaudémont. To the west was France, greatest kingdom on earth; to the south and east, the chaos of the Empire and the obstinacy of the Swiss. The new Burgundian rulers were determined to enlarge and secure their borders, but their blood was weaker than their ambitions. When Charles the Bold died in 1476, he left a teenage daughter, Mary the Rich, as his sole heir.

As a barely-adult female ruler of a great nation, Mary needed a husband, and with her armies overextended she did not have the luxury of picking one of her own nobles: a powerful protector was required. Fortunately for France, the young Mary was extremely close to her stepmother, Mary of York, sister of the powerful Duke of York and Mercœur, and under her advice (and with great concessions made to York by the King) she chose the hand of Edward of Varennes, Prince of Wales.

The marriage reunified France with Burgundy, bringing into the fold not only the Duchy and Free County, but also the profitable Burgundian holdings in the Nertherlands; although, at least at first, Burgundy enjoyed considerable institutional independence from France.

[FFAOT: Charles the Bold died at Nancy, trying to conquer Lorraine. In this timeline, Lorraine is an ally of Lancaster, and hence of Burgundy, so perhaps Charles dies in a different war. Or perhaps not, since brief wars between allies were not unknown at that time. Either way, Charles was devoted to expansion, and his death in battle with no male heir was quite probable, even if not in that exact year.

In reality, Mary married Maximillian of Hapsburg, Archduke of Austria, son of Emperor Frederick, hence passing the Netherlands to Hapsburg rule. The more likely groom was the son of King Louis of France, but Mary was very close to her stepmother, Margaret of York, and she advised against French ties – in any case, Louis jumped the gun by sending armies into Burgundy to pre-empt an Imperial land-grab. In the short-run, Louis was successful, but he forced Mary into the arms of his nemesis, the Emperor, and lost the Netherlands in the process. In this timeline, Mary (who in reality was once considered as a bride for her step-uncle Edward of York) chooses to side with the Lancastrians; it’s an obvious choice as they’re her most powerful neighbour, her traditional ally, and a nation with which she has a personal affinity. It’s possible that Margaret would not have been so keen to see her step-daughter marry into the rival house of Lancaster; but in the process it improves the status of York, and a marriage to Edward would hardly have been feasible.

In our timeline, Mary desparately needed immediate support to prevent Louis annexing the Netherlands, and was forced to turn to the Dutch people for help, granting them sweeping freedoms and reversing her family’s earlier attempts to centralise power and modernise their state. In this timeline, “the Great Privilege” is never granted.

Mary does rather well out of this change of events: in this timeline, the riding enthusiast is not crushed by a falling horse in an accident at the age of 25.]




The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb

As is my wont, I thought I’d create a single post to link to to cover reviews of all three parts of the trilogy.

Don’t worry, I’ve tried to make all three spoilers more-or-less spoiler-free, so unless you’re a puritan about such things, you shouldn’t be scared to read them before you read the books.

My reviews of:

Assassin’s Apprentice

Royal Assassin

Assassin’s Quest




Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban

As usual, the world has been destroyed in a nuclear apocalypse. Long, long after, near the end of a new stone age, a young boy wanders around eastern Kent, with unusual spelling.

I’m sorry if that sounds an unsympathetic and simplistic description of Riddley Walker, but I’m not exactly well-disposed to it right now. My train of thought as I’ve gone through this novel has been, broadly:

At first: dear god, what is this and do I really want to have to wade all the way through it?

At second: ok, I can get used to it, looks like it might be interesting…

At third: hey, this is actually really good! I mean, not much has happened yet, but it’s pretty involving!

At fourth: ha, that was a good scene! But could something happen at some point, please?

At fifth: err… what’s going on? Anything? Is there going to be some point to any of this at some point? Please? PLEASE?

At sixth: gaaah! stop! just stop! just stop!

At seventh: ok, come on, nearly there, nearly there, I CAN DO IT, I CAN make it through this book, i CAN!

At eighth: ahh… hang on a moment, something interesting’s happening again, is this going to –

At ninth: oh, it’s over. Err…. hmm.

So far as I can make out, Riddley Walker is at heart two simple things: a coming of age story, complete with ruminations, illustrations and perplexities about the nature of adulthood (a theme not confined to the young characters, but extending to the old, many of whom have never truly grown up); and a postmodern dissection of the old Enlightenment certainties that lie at the heart of most modern storytelling, a denial of the comfortable idea of a single uniting narrative.

Both aspects of the book are familiar, but both also are innovative, and have genuinely interesting points to make. To some degree, they are even brought to overlap, conceptually, as issues of independence, and the freedom to interpret independently, break into that open sea (pun intended, for those who have read the book) of postmodernism.

Unfortunately, some things are lost along the way. These include plot, characterisation, and a vague idea of what’s going on about half the time. The good stories that deal with perspectivist issues do it while maintaining a narrative and conceptual coherence that lends meaning to the whole: they are like fugues, in which the massing of sound can be turned into music only when we can make out the individual lines. As a fugue becomes more complex, the lines blur and interweave and we cannot follow it all in straight lines, but we know that the tunes are there, wherever we look; but when the composer is not the equal of the fugue, the lines dissolve into pure chaos. At some point, there is no difference, musically, between a badly complicated fugue and randomised sound. The genius of counterpoint is to bring the meaning out of that chaos. The same is true in literature. That ability, the ability to tell stories even while acknowledging that they are not the only story, is what distinguishes perspectivism from nihilism. Russell Hoban tries to do this. I’m not sure he succeeds.

There is a lot of good here. Individual thoughts, images, speeches, are noteworthy and memorable. Some episodes are well-written and exciting. There is something in the sweep and majesty of this total assault on narrative that more conventional authors could learn much from. But…

I should explain what I’m talking about (which is more than Riddley Walker does). The basic structure of the book is the story of young Riddley Walker, of a semi-nomadic clan living somewhere near modern Wye, wandering around, as potentially momentous event happen around him. To put it simply, three things are hung on this structure:

  1. As he goes, people tell him stories, and he tells stories to us, which illustrate both the history of these people (i.e. our possible apocalyptic future), or at least their beliefs about it, and their current attitudes toward various things;
  2. Various events unfold, through the course of which all our preconceptions about who is the hero, who is the villain, what is the objective, what is the danger, are all turned around;
  3. Riddley interprets the world around him, moving from accepting what people tell him to trying to understand the world for himself.

The first thing is a fairly traditional thing, and it’s not particularly well or badly done here. It’s done probably better than I could do, but I don’t think it’s on the levels of, say, the stories told in The Book of the New Sun. We piece together What Has Happened, while noting with amusement the ways they have misinterpreted the past. We note that as the apocalypse seems to take place in our future, we are to some extent as ignorant of it as these people are of our own time – what exactly IS the Ring Ditch around Cambry, for instance? [And yet other things seem rather anachronistically backward – when the book was written, for instance, they were just building the M20, but there is no sign here of any motorways existing, though A-roads still remain]. Some of the stories are rather boring and over-familiar; others are very good. I particularly enjoyed the Punch-and-Pooty show. [Derivatives of Punch and Judy are of key political importance in this world.] But those alone aren’t to support the whole book.

The second thing is a familiar-enough concept, but very rarely done as skill-fully or as whole-heartedly as here. This does, unfortunately, place some weight on the plot, but not so heavy a weight that it could not have been born. I think this is the greatest merit of the book.

The third thing is the greatest demerit. Riddley tries to understand the world, but he is hopelessly unable to do so. With neither philosophy nor technology to call on, his theorising is at the level of a child. Sometimes he (or someone else) hits on some particularly elegant phrasing and we take note; other times, he comes by roundabout ways to something we know to be true, or something that will progress the point. Oftentimes, he does not. There is something important here, I think, about the way we come to the book being the subject of the book to some extent. So much is being said about ways of seeing, about the role of interpretation in experience, the fallibility – or perhaps we should better say variability – of our ways of understanding the world, that I feel that this too is sleight-of-hand: we come expecting to find a post-nuclear warning story and find something more complex; we believe that we should be judging much of what is concluded by how well it aligns with our grasp of science, but for the characters that is not the purpose of it all at all, that is only a side-effect. We are talking here not only about how the results of interpretation can vary, but about how the purpose, the meaning, of interpretation is variable. In some ways it seems to be telling us how different humanity can be, how Riddley and his people interpret things in a fundamentally different way; and at the same time it also tells us that we ourselves are different from how we think we are, that we are not so different from these people as we might believe. I think that this is all fascinating, and I am very sympathetic toward the general project of the book.

But a book is a book, and a book lives or dies by its virtues as a book, not by the virtue of the author’s intention.

The fundamental problem of the narrative is the alienation of the protagonist both from the world around him and from ourselves. I might phrase it more directly by paraphrasing and summarising the key plot developments of this novel: SOME THINGS HAPPEN. That’s pretty much it. The protagonist doesn’t ever really do anything, things just happen while he’s around. On the occasions when he does sort of do something, he has no reason for doing so, he just sort of feels like it, sometimes with a little metaphysical warbling to accompany the moment. Every step he takes is literally absurd. Inexplicable. An author can get away with a few moments here and there in a novel where the protagonist does something without knowing why, simply because it feels right. It’s a true reflection of how we often act, particularly at important moments. But when every decision is taken like that, it cuts the heart out of the story. Without reason, without will, without purpose (the closest we ever really get to purpose is a vague idea of being on one person’s side or another, but these allegiances themselves seem to simply be forced on the character by his passing whims), there IS no character. Perhaps it would be possible to have a sort of inverted narrative of things that happen TO a character, to define him that way, but that doesn’t happen here either. The protagonist is, with maybe two or three exceptions, only tangentially affected by anything that happens.

It feels like the author is trying to run by only moving one leg.

Indeed, he even comments on the pointlessness of it all:

I said, ‘What can I do then aswl be my oan doing?’

                Words came: Whats the diffrents whos doing it?

Well, that might be an interesting philosophical point that a novel might address: but in terms of narrative structure it’s a big difference. Novels are like music: they have a rhythm to them. When the tune comes back at the end of a movement, it moves us more than the first time, because we have lived with it through all of its travails and growth and self-doubt in the development. We need to feel a story. A story is a series of events that together form a pattern; which pattern it forms, which story it is, depends on how our feelings about it are ordered. Here, there is no pattern; there are no feelings.

Please don’t think I’m a literary conservative. I’m all in favour of experiment, of finding where the limits are of what we can understand. But I think this has gone past the limits, at least of my own understanding. Riddley’s impotence would be fine by itself, if we had some compensation: is another character the protagonist after all, perhaps? Is Riddley’s society itself the protagonist? Are we the protagonists? Is God the protagonist? Nothing and nobody! There is nobody here who does things and deals with the consequences, who suffers and learns and changes. Nobody does anything. A few people have things done TO them, but even there we are not pushed toward actually caring in any way, shit just happens to happen and we shrug and move on. And there is no story in “shit happens”, no matter how you spell it.

So what do we have instead? Well, mostly just thinking about stuff very badly. Sometimes this in interesting, sometimes it is amusing, but there is little rhyme or rhythm to it. The thoughts do not develop coherently – there is nothing deep enough or novel enough or well-enough expressed to make this work as a philosophical treatise, but what else is it meant to be? A brilliant short story, I think, that got rather out of hand. A vignette, writ so large that we can’t see what it’s a picture of.

The worst offender by far is Chapter 15. Possibly the longest chapter in the book and it consists of… what? Page after page of rambling free association. He sees something, that makes him think of something, that makes him think of something else, that makes him think of something else, suddenly he decides to do such-and-such for no apparent reason and that makes him think of… OK, so a bit here or there is clever, and sometimes several paragraphs in a row make sense. Others don’t. When he can’t stick with the same image for two clauses in a row, who can be bothered to work them all out? Well, perhaps I might have done had I thought it would make any difference. But no, by then I know that none of this stuff will make one iota of difference to anything that happens afterward.

Basically, it’s like reading something written while massively, massively high. LSD springs to mind. The whole book is a bit like that, but when Riddley himself starts getting visionary, the audience has no hope at all. And that is the climax and centre-point of the book.

The language is also worth mentioning. Notoriously, the book is intentionally written with bad spelling and grammar, to represent English of the future. Well, on the positive side, it conveys the primitiveness of Riddley’s society – albeit in a slightly patronising and racist way, since it perpetuates the ridiculous idea that simple societies have simple languages (English’s subordinate relative clauses, for instance, are replaced with simple parataxes – “He baked the cake that I ate” would I think become (using modern English words and spelling) “he baked the cake which I ate it”). This insistent position of barbarity makes it easier to express gnomic wisdom while sounding childlike rather than pretentious. There is in places an elegant rhythm to the language.

But is it really worth it? It’s not really consistent – some words and phrases feel anachronistic even now, let alone in the future, the spelling rules and sound changes are mostly but not entirely consistently carried out, the lack of commas, colons and semicolons (bizarre, beside the retention of perfectly 20th-century rules for punctuating quotations!) just makes some passages hard to read through first time, and as for the base idea that in centuries, perhaps millennia of illiterate barbarism, English spelling, vocabulary and grammar has changed less than it did in the few hundred years from Shakespeare to us, it’s just… well, frankly, the whole enterprise feels mostly like an excuse for making bad puns. And when your novel relies on the cod-philosophical pun as its cornerstone, you know you’re in trouble. “Because a woman is a wooman ant she,” Riddley ejaculates at one particularly theologically insightful and climactic moment, “She’s the 1 with the woom shes the 1 with the new life coming out of her.” Gee golly gosh, Mr Hoban, thank you for that wisdom! And the other 27000 fatuous puns. One or two, it’s a little funny. Three or four, ‘oh, that’s clever’. 27000 and I bang my head against things.

I don’t want to sound as though I hated this book. It’s truer to say that I was frustrated by it. There is real potential here. The beginning of the story – when we still actually see the world around Riddley rather than just the inside of Riddley’s head – and to a lesser extent the end of the story, when we come a little closer back to earth, feel as though they should be parts of an important book. And when I write out what happens, it sounds like a really good idea for a book, with a clever and profound plot presented innovatively. But instead of the heart of the story, we’re given acres of fatuous cod-philosophy broken up with passages of description and senseless action – the fatuousness obscured only by obscurity an nonsensicality. Don’t get me wrong – a novel doesn’t have to be world-shakingly profound, and this novel is sufficiently thought-provoking and innovative to stand proudly in that respect, but when a novel seems to rely so greatly on its ruminative dimension, its ruminations must be held to a higher standard. This is neither a treatise nor a story. The book is over now, and I have learnt nothing, felt very little, and enjoyed myself only in patches. So what, fundamentally is the point?

That said, I don’t regret reading it. I may read it again some time. But it won’t be soon. And there are some nuggets here; it just takes rather more digging than the prize really merits.

Adrenaline: 2/5. In places, it’s exciting. But for a large chunk of the middle of the book, it’s as dead as smallpox.

Emotion: 2/5. I feel I should feel. I can sort of see how I might: taken as a whole, and interpreted as a sort of record of a transcendental experience or a religious conversion or a mental breakdown, I can sort of see its trajectory, see how I could be feeling something. But it doesn’t really work, and I’m left with a few moments of pathos here and there.

Thought: 4/5. If you really sit down and work through every pun and every metaphor, there’s a lot of mental exercise here. But I don’t think it’s worth it. Even so, it has some novel ideas – and the plot does a good job of keeping the reader guessing right to the end.

Beauty: 3/5. Some great images, some elegant developments. And the prose: how you take the prose will be quite a personal thing. I felt the beauty of it now and then, but by and large I found it brutal and unsubtle. Similar effects can be accomplished with more elegant writing – some of the narrative voices employed by Margo Lanagan spring to mind.

Craft: 4/5. Hoban’s chief sin here is probably ambition. It’s a very difficult book to write, and though he doesn’t quite succeed, he still does quite well with the challenge he set himself. Simply maintaining that narrative voice throughout the book is a respectable achievement. He manages the twists in the plot with surprising élan, making them unexpected but not incongruous.

Endearingness: 2/5. Some parts, I liked. By and large, I feel tired, annoyed, and a little cheated.

Originality: 5/5. What can I say?

Overall: Good. OK, this review may not scream “good”; but I think it’s a fair word to use overall. It is, I think, a failure in the end, but it is an ambitious failure, and an innovative failure, and a memorable failure, and I can see why others have been impressed with it. There’s certainly much here to like… it just doesn’t quite really work as a whole.