Friday, 22 June 2007

Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer: This Rough Magic (2003)

Published: Baen, 2003

It took me a long time - around two hundred and fifty pages of reading - to get into This Rough Magic, and yet I ended up enjoying it immensely. I picked this up in the local library, without looking at it too closely, and didn't even realise that it is the second in a series.

The central part of the plot is about a (fictional) siege of the citadel on the island of Corfu in 1539, when it was held by the Venetians. The Hungarians, led by the evil King Emeric and manipulated by the Grand Duke Jagellion of Lithuania who is a demon in human flesh, carry out the attack in alliance with the Byzantines. The Corfu garrison has been regarded as something of a backwater by the Venetians, despite the island's strategic position (controlling the entrance to the Adriatic, at the other end of which Venice herself lies). Among those trapped in the citadel are the main characters, including the wild young Venetian Benito Valdosta who is the hero of This Rough Magic.

The last paragraph makes clear both the alternate history aspect of the novel (the Byzantine empire had fallen to the Ottoman Turks almost a century before the action of This Rough Magic takes place) and the nature of the fantasy it contains (non-human creatures, both good and evil, ranging from fauns and undines to demons and angels). This is a typical sort of scenario for what is becoming known as the "new weird" (a term I think is terrible), but where This Rough Magic scores is by concentrating on people who have some magical power but are not the most potent around, rather as though a superhero saga like Batman was centred on Robin rather than Batman himself. At the same time, Benito Valdosta is sufficiently heroic without the superpowers for readers to be able to identify with his character in an escapist mode, and more interesting than the bland superhero type of central character (as Hans Solo is more interesting than Luke Skywalker) or the hero who overcomes by extreme superpowers (as Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake is tending to become) - ingenuity is more involving to a reader than simple brute force.

The point at which I began to be involved in This Rough Magic was with the arrival of the main characters on Corfu. The background from the first third of the novel, which leads up to this, is quite important, and is particularly useful to those of us who did not read the first novel (the reader is given enough explanation that This Rough Magic can stand on its own), but it is not particularly interesting: judicious editing and dispersal of some of the material to form references to the past in the second two thirds of This Rough Magic would have improved the novel.

While not innovative, This Rough Magic integrates its various elements of medieval folklore and magic well, particularly in the different ways in which various genii loci work. It is an enjoyable read, and well worth picking up - though skimming the first third is probably a sensible idea.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

George R. R. Martin: A Feast for Crows (2005)

Published: HarperCollins 2006

The fourth volume in Martin's acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire appeared after a lengthy hiatus, and the afterword acknowledges that he found it difficult to write. Not as long as the third volume (which had to be split in two when published as a paperback), it could have been much more so: much material originally intended to be part of A Feast for Crows will now make up the next instalment.

These structural matters aside, A Feast for Crows is basically the diffuse continuation of the many faceted narrative of the earlier novels in the series. Not only would it be incomprehensible to anyone who had not read these earlier novels, but I found it hard to get into because it is so long since I read its precursors. The principal strand tells of the high point in the career of the dowager Queen Cersei, whose ambition for her children, not in fact sired by the dead king but through incestuous adultery with her brother, proved one of the major causes of the terrible civil war. She starts A Feast for Crows as regent for her youngest son King Tommen and is determined to hang on to as much power as possible, despite the misgivings about her competency from man of those who have been her allies so far. Her character is basically an unpleasant combination of Lady Macbeth and Isabella (from 'Tis Pity She's a Whore), and the plotting at her court in King's Landing is very similar to the scenarios of Jacobean revenge tragedies.

Unpleasant as her machinations are, the real theme of A Feast for Crows is the horrific effect of the war on the lower classes. Most descriptions of medieval warfare, particularly as they are filtered through to the fantasy genre, concentrate on the leaders, the gallantry and the spectacle. Some semblance of reality has crept into the genre relatively recently, but few fantasy writers allow themselves to be as bleak about the anarchy, starvation and desperation that follows the brutal rape and pillage that was part and parcel of this style of warfare. While most readers point to the Wars of the Roses for real world parallels to A Song of Ice and Fire, it is not a war that is in my mind at least associated with widespread suffering (though writing that down immediately makes me think of the scene with the son who has killed his father and the father who has killed his son in Henry VI Part III). It seems to me to be more like the anarchic violence which virtually destroyed community life in much of France in the mid fourteenth century, as depicted in Jonathan Sumption's excellent history of this phase of the Hundred Years' War, Trial By Fire. Perhaps this is a little too much reality for the fantasy genre (even if Martin doesn't go into the tortuous financial issues which were an important cause of France's problems in the 1360s): it definitely makes for depressing rather than escapist reading, and really when it comes down to it is not as interesting as the real history.

The series takes a dip in interest here, but I would rate A Feast for Crows as good nonetheless. I will just add one more thing, which is fairly standard for any mid-series novel. If you have read the rest of A Song of Ice and Fire, you will have decided that the series as a whole is worth reading, and you will not be put off here. (A new novel by an author generally has to be pretty poor to alienate a fan.) On the other hand, this is neither the book by Martin to read first, nor is it going to gain new fans for the series - and those who have already tried this series and given up won't be reading it anyway.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Martin Jones: The Molecule Hunt - Archaeology and the Search for Ancient DNA (2001)

Published: Penguin, 2001

In the last two or three decades, modern scientific advances have led to a revolution in archaeology, much of which will be to an extent familiar to watchers of TV shows such as Time Team, which make extensive use of techniques from geophysics to investigate remains which are still buried. But the biggest change is probably due to the use of biochemistry to find out more about the minutiae of past lives and shed new light on long standing questions. This too has been the subject of television programmes; I have seen at least two which aimed to find out what proportion of the British have Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Danish or Norman ancestry. Pop science like this aside, what has the impact of modern biology been on the study of the past?

Martin Jones is in an excellent position to answer this question, as first George Pitt-Rivers Professor of Archaeological Science at Cambridge, and a pioneer of this field. Most of the book is devoted to the message that the traditional big pictures of archaeology developed in the early twentieth century (ideas about migrations, the domestication of animals, the spread of cultures and the Neolithic revolution) are massively over-simplified; this seems to be the major lesson learnt from the new techniques. These major insights are clearly explained, though the complexities of domestication events (basically answers to the question of when and where animals and plants were domesticated) are somewhat confusing due to a desire to include a large number of different scenarios for the different species.

However, I found the minute details which were previously unknowable that have been discovered with biological evidence to be much more fascinating. There was one story about a collection of bodies of medieval nobles exhumed from a German church, which it was possible to identify. There was one count who had no sons, until late in life his wife surprised him. However, DNA analysis showed that he wasn't related to his supposed son and heir. This is something that has obviously been thought about before - I remember reading one analysis that suggested that 10% of official father/son relationships were likely to be wrong, if results from twentieth century surveys on adultery were extended back into the past - but of course it makes something of a mockery of the idea of a royal or noble line of descent. There is always the possibility that the supposed father knew of the parenthood of the child, and accepted the baby as his for political reasons. Determining the real attitude of the count is something that even these new techniques cannot do.

More touching is the story of two communities, one by the sea and the other inland. Analysis of the bodies buried at the inland community showed that one man had, just before his death, been eating a seafood diet which would have been impossible if he had been living there. He must have been a recent arrival, who was buried with as much care as was reserved for the long term inhabitants despite his alien origin.

DNA is obviously the best known, and probably the most important biological molecule discussed in The Molecule Hunt. But Jones does not let his subtitle prevent him from looking at other indicators in biological remains - the second example quoted above does not depend on DNA. Generally, the science is explained clearly, and the story is well told. There is one moment which reads a little awkwardly, though I can see why Jones says what he says: he comments that in the sixties, pottery finds were carefully washed to remove the dirty residue; today, you see projects where the pottery is destroyed in order to make the residue accessible. It is a measure of just how far things have changed, but he says it in a way which is so artificial seeming that it robs it of impact. This short anecdote is atypical of the writing in the rest of this excellent book.