Dance of the Dead, by Christie Golden

Ahhh, Dungeons and Dragons novels…

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

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

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

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Legends of the Tour, by Jan Cleijne

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

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The weather…

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

Sometimes life can be extremely straightforward.

CDs: Part and Elgar

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

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

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

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

But… I remained unpassionate about it.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Song of Ice and Fire

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

 

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

 

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

An alien species: tabayd (biology)

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

 

Name: Tabayd

Body Plan: tetrapod vertebrates

Stance and Gait: bipedal, walking

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

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

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

Diet: tabayd are omnivores.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An alien species: thaugomur (biology)

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

 

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


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