And look at that cover. How, I ask you, could I possibly not read a book with that cover? Even though it is the sixth book in Boyack’s “Hat” series, and I have not read any of the others, I simply could not resist.
Fortunately, Boyack writes such that you don’t have to read the others to understand it. Maybe a few references went over my head, but I could follow it well enough. It tells the story of a musician named Lizzie, her magical talking hat, and a friend of theirs who has been revivified Frankenstein-style and needs to find medicine to stay alive.
But, finding the medicine means finding the doctor who restored him, and he has fallen into the clutches of the titular monster, the sinister-looking entity pictured above.
The book is fast-paced and action-packed. Lizzie and her friends must mow down waves of pumpkinheaded zombies to reach the Rambler in time. There are also moments of downtime when they gather clues by listening to a paranormal late-night radio show along the lines of Coast-to-Coast AM. As you can imagine, I loved these parts of the story.
This is a fun and enjoyable read for Halloween. Or, in this case, Second Halloween. Which is going to be a thing, by golly! What better way to liven up this dreary time of year?
You want vintage sci-fi? You don’t get much more vintage than this, a book written sometime in the 2nd century.
Of course, whether it’s really sci-fi is debatable. “Science” as a concept was very different then. So, while the story does indeed include elements such as a war between the armies of the Moon and those of the Sun, fighting over the contested territory of Venus, it’s not really using space travel in the way we might think of it.
It’s not hard sci-fi. No one will confuse it with Andy Weir’s books. So let’s compromise and call it more of a Space Opera. Still, it has battles with giant spiders fighting over the moon. I say it counts for our purposes.
Then again, I’m not the one whose opinion matters here. That would be up to the showrunners behind Vintage Sci-Fi Month. Obviously, I can only hope that they agree that this fits the bill, despite its lack of the modern scientific mindset.
So much for the “science” aspect. Now for the fiction. Despite the name, the author admits early on that it’s all made it up. It is, he says, in the tradition of “the poets, historians and philosophers of old, who have written much that smacks of miracles and fables.”
The story is a parody of famous Ancient Greek myths, including, of course, the works of Homer. Which is probably why the book is full of fantastic and bizarre things; it seems Lucian was trying to conjure the most insane and impossible ideas he could. For example, he tells us that the denizens of the moon “carry their children in the calf of the leg instead of the belly… it seems to me that the term ‘belly of the leg’ came to us Greeks from there.”
Okay, so probably this joke made sense in the original Greek. Unfortunately, I can’t read Greek. But my mother can. So I asked her about it, and she didn’t know either. 🤷
The tone of the whole thing reminds me a lot of Mark Twain, when he was poking fun at supernatural and fantasy tropes. There are a lot of references to Homer, as well as Herodotus, Aristophanes, and so on; mostly making fun of how outlandish the mythology is.
Despite its age, this book feels surprisingly fresh. Obviously, a lot of credit has to go to the translator in a case like this, and Harmon’s translation makes for a fun, breezy read that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Oh, and also there is a brief mention of something called “Pumpkin pirates”; that is, pirates who sail around in hollowed-out pumpkins. Given that pumpkins are not native to Greece, and Lucian couldn’t have known about them, it seems likely that these are actually melons. (Interestingly, the Greek word for melon is apparently the root of the word “pumpkin”.)
As you might imagine, given my own tastes, I love the idea of pumpkin pirates. This book is worth reading just for that concept.
The story of why I read this book begins with a tweet. The author asked what people thought of the cover.
I have to say, I don’t love the cover. Not that it’s bad; because it isn’t. Rather, it just looks like every other cover out there. I feel like a lot of books have faces on the cover, and small wonder, because the eye is instinctively drawn to human faces. The problem is, book marketers have learned this.
But I was impressed that the author was even asking about this. And so I decided, why not pick the book up and give it a try?
I didn’t expect to like it. Early on, it felt like the sort of book I’d put aside and not re-open, as it begins by introducing us to the rather irritating Isabella Jaramillo, a rich, famous, and altogether spoiled professional time traveler. She has the world at her fingertips, and yet she’s rude, angry, and greedy.
But something made me keep going. I got interested as Isabella’s equally unlikable husband decided to strand her in the past as an act of revenge. Isabella started having to make her own way in a world totally alien to her.
The characters of the medieval town to which she is exiled all felt extremely real, too. The characters were well-written and nuanced, and none of them felt flat or clichéd. I felt like I could understand and sympathize with them, even the antagonists. They are a different people, shaped by the harshness of the time and place they were born into, but still complicated and human. And slowly, Isabella starts to be shaped by it, too.
Then the book shifted back to the future and the time-traveler organization, where Isabella’s father Alfredo is frantically trying to find out what’s become of his daughter. But he too has a murky past, and slowly it becomes clear that there are many conflicting agendas at play. The past, or perhaps I should say the pasts, begin to catch up with the powerful men who play at being Gods.
McTiernan displays a wonderful skill at knowing just when to switch from what plot thread to another, keeping the reader hooked on every development, waiting to see what happened next. In other words, by the time I was a third of the way in, the book had totally won me over, and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.
In last week’s book review, I mentioned the harshness of life as a medieval peasant, contrasted with the ease of our modern age. Well, this book demonstrates exactly that, as Isabella is forced to cast aside all the privileges and luxuries she once enjoyed and survive in brutal and unforgiving circumstances.
So often, when I read books about the past, they make one of two errors: either they make the past just like the present, only with the thinnest veneer of Middle Ages clichés ill-concealing a modern sensibility, or else they paint the past as miserable and unenlightened, a world of nothing but ignorant stock-characters.
I’m happy to report this book avoids both pitfalls. The people of the past feel real; both in terms of being different from ourselves in terms of values and beliefs, while at the same time having a core of humanity that makes them relatable.
The book is both science-fiction and historical fiction; both an alternate future with some dystopian elements as well a good old-fashioned adventure/romance. It’s also brimming with interesting religious themes, though I’m probably the wrong person to analyze those.
I started off thinking I’d hate this book and wouldn’t finish it, and by the end, I loved it and couldn’t wait to see what happens next. It does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, so you should know that not all the questions it raises will be answered in this volume, but it’s still a fantastic story.
I don’t typically put content warnings on my reviews, but today I’m going to. There’s no way to talk about this book without talking about some pretty nasty stuff. The book includes some graphic descriptions of violence as well as plenty of swearing. It’s definitely not for anyone who is sensitive or easily-offended. Also, there are lots of racial slurs in it, although not the one you might be expecting. I can’t blame you if, in these troubled times, you prefer not to have your reading filled with such things.
It is a gritty and realistic account of commando raids, told in the first-person with startling immediacy. In great detail, the author describes the covert missions behind enemy lines undertaken by Rhodesian Light Infantry commandos.
Okay, here’s the deal: this book is supposed to be fiction. It’s in the “war fiction” category on Amazon. There’s a disclaimer in large letters at the beginning confirming its fictional nature.
But it does not read like fiction. I read enough non-fiction war memoirs to know what they’re like, and this reads just like one.
Moreover, it doesn’t have any of the standard features one expects in fiction, such as plot arcs or character development. The narrator mentions his comrades and their names and sometimes one or two minor personality traits, but they aren’t “characters” such as might be found in a novel. They are just guys who went on commando raids with him.
And there is no story, no three-act structure, or anything like that. It’s just a straightforward account of missions the narrator carried out, in chronological order.
If Rische just made all this stuff up from a combination of imagination and research, I’d have to say he did a fine job. It captures the feeling of reality with none of the artificiality of dramatic structure. But… I suspect that’s not what this book is.
Every so often, there’s a scandal where somebody writes something claiming to be a memoir, and it turns out to be largely fictional. (This is the most famous example that comes to mind.)
I struggle to think of a case of the reverse, where someone passed off a factual account as fiction. I mean, what would be the point…? Yet I have to wonder if that’s what’s happening here. It just feels too realistic.
And if it really is a work of fiction, and not a memoir, then it feels like a missed opportunity. Because the thing fiction can do that a memoir can’t is explore multiple perspectives and points of view.
The narrator of this book is not interested in doing that. Time and again, after describing some bloody attack on the enemy, he’ll say something along the lines of, “…but I didn’t feel bad about the brutality. The fact was, if we didn’t do it to them, they would be attacking innocent people.”
It never seems to occur to him that presumably his enemies are thinking the exact same thing. No doubt they could provide their own justifications for their actions, just as the narrator does for the RLI.
And this is of course the ugly logic of war: “do unto them before they do unto you.” And it makes a certain sense, once you are in such a brutal situation, but it is the logic of the vicious circle. At every point, each side’s most “rational” choice is to escalate, leading to utterly inhuman horrors.
Early in the book, there’s a section about the Rhodesian Air Force bombing an enemy camp. The pro-Rhodesia position is that it was a terrorist training facility. The anti-Rhodesia position is that it was a refugee camp. Even if, like me, you know nothing about the Rhodesian Bush war, this sort of dynamic will be familiar to anyone who has read about the Israel-Palestine conflict, or any of the United States’ recent “asymmetric” wars.
Our narrator, of course, believes 100% that it was a terrorist staging ground, and only that, and anyone who says different is just repeating enemy propaganda.
Well, as long as we’re subscribing to the idea that this is “just fiction,” sure, why not? But my sense is that in most real-life cases where things like this happen, it’s usually some combination of the two. A common tactic of the militarily weaker side is to place their agents among civilians, so the stronger side can’t avoid civilian casualties.
Even the wars that we look on as “good” wars have their share of incidents like this. No one really likes to think about it, but in any war, there is some expected amount of loss of innocent life. It’s “priced in,” as it were, when calculating the costs of war.
Do you feel a bit sick thinking about this? I feel pretty sick writing about it. As we should. It would have been interesting if the book had featured a little more introspection, a bit more musing about how the narrator and his beloved country became locked in an inescapable conflict that could only end badly. And did.
But there is no introspection here. Which, again, I would understand in a memoir much more than in a novel. As it is… this is a strange and depressing book. Which, I suppose, makes it an accurate account of how the war must have felt.
I have this informal rule that I don’t review books that I beta read. I don’t mind reading an ARC before its official release, but when I’ve read a book in its early stages and made comments, I feel like I shouldn’t then review it.
So, this isn’t a review, exactly. But it is a recommendation. I first read Peter Martuneac’s Mandate of Heaven over a year ago, back when the protagonist had a different name and the book had no publisher. Now it’s an Ethan Chase adventure from Evolved Publishing.
And yes, I made suggestions on the original draft. I think it was in the form of pointing out a missing comma on page 47 or something like that. Mostly, I just reveled in the terrific story Peter has created. And ever since, I’ve been eagerly waiting for the book to be widely released so I can tell you all about it.
Remember my series on ’90s action movies earlier this year, in particular The Mummy? This book has the same feel as movies like that. Imagine Indiana Jones written by Tom Clancy, and you have an idea of what Mandate of Heaven is like.
I’ve enthusiastically recommended Peter’s zombie-dystopia series His Name Was Zach in the past, despite not being a big fan of zombie or dystopia fiction generally. While I like that series a lot, I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. But this book is much more accessible. Good story enjoyers everywhere will love this one. Peter is an up-and-coming author and his work deserves to be widely read. Accordingly, you should absolutely read this book.
I am serious about this. I wouldn’t bother breaking my own rule if it weren’t important. Even if it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, at least give it a try, as a favor to me. Authors like Peter don’t come around every day, and it’s important to support them when they do.
You can find links to buy Mandate of Heaven from a variety of booksellers here.
Oh, and if you missed my interview with Peter earlier this week, check it out here.
Two bits of exciting book news from fellow indie authors:
-First, my longtime blogger friend Patrick Prescott has published a new book. It is an “autobiography” of Matthew Fontaine Maury. In the vein of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, Pat has immersed himself in study of this Civil War-era naval officer and scientist in order to write an account of his life in the first person. Get it on Amazon here.
-Second, another writer friend, Audrey Driscoll, has the sequel to her 2018 novel She Who Comes Forth available for pre-order on Amazon. She Who Returns follows France Leighton as she revisits Egypt. It will release on May 1 and it’s $0.99 for pre-order. (And She Who Comes Forth is also currently going for $0.99)
Congratulations to Pat and Audrey on their latest writing achievements!
If you’re like me, you know C.S. Lewis mainly as “that guy who wrote the Narnia books.” Most people probably remember them fondly from childhood. I was unusual (what else is new?) in that I really didn’t care for them. I was about nine years old and I couldn’t stand The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I thought it was just weird. My dad agreed with me; I remember him saying that the author of these books “must have been on drugs.” (My dad has never been a big fan of the fantasy genre.)
But I was interested to learn recently that Lewis had also written science fiction. That Hideous Strength is the third book in his “Space Trilogy,” but in the foreword Lewis promises that it can be read without reading the other two books. I have chosen to test this assertion, for reasons which I hope will become apparent.
And, of course, this is Vintage Science Fiction Month! What a perfect excuse to review a relatively obscure book by a relatively famous author. I hope that if nothing else it piques your curiosity. If you’re new to this site, please forgive my rather long-winded reviewing style; I tend to go on at length about books that I find interesting. And I’m afraid I’m usually unable to refrain from discussing plot spoilers. Normally I don’t feel so bad about that, since I’m reviewing older, classic books, but since you may not have read this one before, please be forewarned that I’ll be giving away the ending.
That Hideous Strength follows a couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. Mark is a fellow at Bracton College in Edgestow, England. He has been busy with college business, and Jane has a sense that she and her husband are drifting apart, as he spends nearly all his time on his work. Jane is also troubled by strange dreams, such as a vision of the disembodied head of a recently-guillotined criminal named Alcasan.
The college business that Mark is involved with has to do with a scientific outfit called the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E., which is in the process of purchasing land from Bracton College. N.I.C.E. is a prestigious and powerful body of scientists, and Mark is delighted when a colleague recommends him for a job there. Mark eagerly goes to the N.I.C.E. headquarters in Belbury.
Meanwhile, Jane goes to a town called St. Anne’s seeking treatment for her dreams. However, she is told that her dreams are in fact visions of real events, and that she is a seer. The people at St. Anne’s are a mysterious and mystical bunch, whose chief is a man called “Mr. Fisher-King” and who has a wound in his foot.
This is a reference to the Fisher King of Arthurian legend. The whole St. Anne’s group is very much associated with the legends of King Arthur and his court. Mr. Fisher-King, whose real name turns out to be “Ransom,” is himself the “Pendragon,” which, if you are familiar with Arthurian legend, effectively means belonging to the family of King Arthur.
I, by the way, am not really familiar with Arthurian legend, but I got something of a crash course in it by reading this book. Lewis was a professor of Medieval Literature, so I guess he’s a good source.
Anyway, if you think that’s weird, wait until you find out what’s happening at Belbury. In addition to the office political jockeying that will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about academia, the N.I.C.E. has its own private police force, headed up by Major Fairy Hardcastle. We have to pause to talk about Miss Hardcastle.
On the one hand, she’s clearly meant to represent a type of “modern” woman that Lewis dislikes. She smokes, she swears, and she even <gasp!> sits with her legs uncrossed. I think just by telling us these facts, Lewis felt he had adequately communicated that she is a Bad Woman.
So, not a whole lot of feminism going on here. On the other hand, I have to give Lewis some credit because she’s probably my favorite character in the whole thing. I don’t mean she’s likable. Not at all. She’s unquestionably a villain, as shown by the sadistic pleasure she takes in tormenting captives brought in by the N.I.C.E. police. But she’s memorable. It’s the same way Darth Vader isn’t a good guy, but who could deny he’s the most iconic character to come out of Star Wars?
“The Fairy,” as she is sometimes called, also has most of the best lines. Like this, when she’s ordering Mark to write newspaper articles to polish N.I.C.E.’s image, and he wonders if they’re to appear in the Right or the Left-wing papers:
“‘Both, honey, both,’ said Miss Hardcastle. ‘Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the N.I.C.E. is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us–to refute the enemy slanders. Of course we’re non-political. The real power always is.'”
She has a coarse, slangy way of speaking that, again, I think Lewis meant to show how evil she is, but this makes her scenes some of the most vibrant, especially the way Hardcastle’s bluntness contrasts with Mr. Wither, the Deputy Director of N.I.C.E., who speaks in a mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy fashion, always trying to avoid committing himself too far to anything.
To get back to the synopsis, Mark gradually realizes that he is being manipulated and coerced into staying at N.I.C.E. This is not difficult, as Mark is not a steadfast or resolute type, and his cravenness makes him easy for them to play upon.
The book bounces back and forth between Jane at St. Anne’s, where Ransom and his assistants are interpreting her visions to discover what their enemies are doing, and Belbury, where the scientists of N.I.C.E. are shown engaging in increasingly depraved practices as part of their plot to conquer the world.
Ultimately, it comes out that both groups are attempting to capture the re-awakened wizard Merlin. The land that N.I.C.E. was buying at the beginning of the book housed his resting place where, (rather like Cthulhu), he has lain in a state of suspended animation, waiting until the time is right to rise again. That time comes about halfway through the book, and from there, the rival groups are fighting to recruit him.
This is where I question what Lewis said about it not being necessary to read the other books in the series. The story gets seriously bizarre at this point, bringing up stuff that Ransom did on other planets, and something called “eldila” that are basically angels and devils. Also, there’s a bear named Mr. Bultitude. I hadn’t thought about it for decades, but after reading the third act of this, what my father jokingly suggested about Lewis’s use of drugs seemed quite plausible.
The ending is a mess. Merlin works his magic during a banquet scene at Belbury that feels incongruously comical. It’s not quite Gussie Fink-Nottle at the Market Snodsbury prize-giving, but it’s close. And while that works in a light comedy, here it’s just… odd. It feels unsatisfying and anti-climactic. I guess the best way to say it is that Merlin is very deus ex machina.
And speaking of Deus Ex… well, before that, here’s a bit of dialogue from some N.I.C.E. personnel:
“And so,” said Straik, “the lessons you learned at your mother’s knee return. God will have power to give eternal reward and eternal punishment.” “God?” said Mark. “How does He come into it? I don’t believe in God.” “But, my friend,” said Filostrato, “does it follow that because there was no God in the past there will be no God also in the future?” “Don’t you see,” said Straik, “that we are offering you the unspeakable glory of being present at the creation of God Almighty? Here, in this house, you shall meet the first sketch of the real God. It is a man–or a being made by man–who will finally ascend the throne of the universe. And rule forever.”
And here’s the last line of the intro to the 2000 video game, Deus Ex:
We’ve had to endure much you and I, but soon, there will be order again. A new age! Aquinas spoke of the mythical city on the hill; soon that city will be a reality, and we will be crowned its kings. Or better than kings… Gods!
This isn’t just some freak coincidence, either. Both That Hideous Strength and Deus Ex are about evil, quasi-mystical conspiracies by shadowy organizations of madmen bent on achieving superhuman powers.
More fun facts: Deus Ex includes multiple passages from G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday. A contemporary reviewer for the Manchester Evening News wrote that
“In general outline, and to some extent in atmosphere, [That Hideous Strength] rather resembles G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Man Who Was Thursday.’ Mr. Lewis probably owes something to Chesterton as a writer, and certainly shares his horror of modern machine civilisation (the title of the book, by the way, is taken from a poem about the Tower of Babel) and his reliance on the “eternal verities” of the Christian Church, as against scientific materialism or nihilism.”
Indeed, a major focus of the book is how the scientists at Belbury, mad with power, are trying to create a new, scientifically efficient world. For example, they see World War II as an excellent blueprint to follow:
“[E]very advance in industry and agriculture reduces the number of work-people who are required. A large, unintelligent population is now becoming a deadweight. The real importance of scientific war is that scientists have to be reserved. It was not the great technocrats of Koenigsberg or Moscow who supplied the casualties in the siege of Stalingrad: it was the superstitious Bavarian peasants and low-grade Russian agricultural workers.”
And their schemes aren’t confined to massive wars of annihilation. They’re out to remake every aspect of life. As one of them says, even the trees are going to have to go:
“At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently, we find a chemical substitute. And then, why *any* natural trees? I foresee nothing but the *art* tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.” “Do you mean,” put in a man called Gould, “that we are to have no vegetation at all?” “Exactly. You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet.” “I wonder what the birds will make of it.” “I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.” “It sounds,” said Mark. “like abolishing pretty well all organic life.” “And why not? It is simple hygiene. Listen, my friends. If you pick up some rotten thing and find this organic life crawling over it, do you not say, ‘Oh, the horrid thing. It is alive,’ and then drop it?”
Like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis clearly loved the folkish and organic, and hated the mechanical and the industrial. Speaking of Tolkien, there are also references in the book to “Numinor,” which, Lewis mentions in the foreword, will be discussed further in a forthcoming manuscript by Tolkien. (Does anyone know if that ever got published? ;))
The Manchester Evening News reviewer, though generally favorable about the book, agrees with me on the ending, writing:
The book ends in a way that is so preposterous that it does not even succeed in being horrible in spite of much bloodshed.
Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win.
Even this kind of understates it, in my opinion. The book would have been more satisfying if God Himself appeared and said, “I condemn all you evildoers of Belbury to eternal Hellfire.” That might have been predictable, but it would feel less random and bizarre than all this rigmarole about Merlin.
I remember reading once that Frank Herbert said of his novel Dune that the book had many layers, such that the reader could re-read it multiple times and each time find a different layer to follow. I think the same could be said of That Hideous Strength. There are at least three different threads to it:
Mark and Jane trying to save their failing marriage.
N.I.C.E.’s conspiracy to create a scientistic dystopia.
Whatever this stuff about Merlin is.
The first two layers fit together nicely. The third feels like it’s part of some other book and clumsily tacked on.
I’m serious, there are parts of this book where I have no idea what is even happening. Some of the visions Jane has towards the end are just too bizarre, and I have trouble understanding what they’re supposed to mean. There’s clearly some sort of symbolism going on, but it’s over my head.
On a more basic level, I just didn’t feel that Mark had grown enough over the course of the story to deserve Jane. Yes, he kind of redeems himself, in that he’s not the complete wimp he was at the beginning, but he’s still far from a truly brave or heroic character.
Actually, maybe that’s what the book is really lacking: an actual hero; someone who counter-balances the gleeful villainy of Miss Hardcastle & co. Merlin isn’t one; he’s just a plot device. Ransom is implied to be heroic, but he never really does anything; just gives speeches. Mark is right out. Jane seems like she could be heroic, but she never gets much of a chance. The most heroic character is Mr. Bultitude. Yes, that’s right: the bear.
The result is that the ultimate victory never feels earned. The show just goes on until the climax, when everyone transforms into who they’re supposed to be, like a bloody harlequinade.
I’ve been withholding some information from you, though. Our reviewer from the Manchester Evening News is not just some random critic. He’s George Orwell, of Nineteen Eighty-Four fame. The review was written in 1945, when Orwell had just begun work on what would become the quintessential dystopian novel. I wonder if That Hideous Strength influenced him at all. Some of the interrogation scenes reminded me of the Ministry of Love scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Actually, I guess the use of the acronym N.I.C.E. to describe the malevolent organization is itself what would come to be called an “Orwellian” phrase.
It’s surprising to me how positive Orwell’s review is, and how many similarities there are between Nineteen Eighty-Four and That Hideous Strength. After all, Lewis was a Christian conservative and Orwell was an atheist socialist. But clearly, both of them must have seen some of the same trends in the world they lived in. Namely, the rise of what James Burnham called “the managerial class.”
On balance, I’m with Orwell that the book would have been stronger if the supernatural element were toned down. I wouldn’t be in favor of removing it entirely, but I’d have liked it better as a subtle thing, lurking in the background.
Still, there are some effective occult horror scenes in here. Like this description of the art that is used to gradually indoctrinate people into the inner-circle of N.I.C.E:
There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skillfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could almost feel the hair; indeed you could not avoid feeling it however hard you tried.
Isn’t that creepy? I like this much better than if it had just been a scene of something mindlessly horrific. It’s just a touch off, and so it sticks with you more.
Okay, now we come to the big question, which I’ve been putting off as long as I can: is this book any good or not?
Well… it’s a mixed bag. A seriously mixed bag. Apart from the supernatural stuff and Arthurian legendry that just doesn’t fit with the rest, there are also some really slow stretches. There were parts that were just one committee meeting after another. This is probably an accurate depiction of an academic institute, but it doesn’t make it any more entertaining to read.
But then there are other things that seem strikingly fresh. Indeed, some scenes hit harder than most modern dystopias do. Also, while he seems like he wandered in from Narnia, I really do like some of the parts about Mr. Bultitude. Lewis tries to write him as a truly non-human character, with a whole way of perceiving the world that is unlike our own, but with which the reader can still empathize. I liked that.
And of course, Fairy Hardcastle. Everyone should read this just for the Fairy alone. Of course, if that actually happens and she becomes popular enough, the next thing we know, she’ll be getting her own spinoff prequel movie series starring Emma Stone. Oh, well; it’s just a chance we’ll have to take.
Like a lot of old sci-fi books, this didn’t strike me as an outstanding book, and at times it’s slow moving and old-fashioned. But also like a lot of old sci-fi books, it does contain plenty of interesting ideas for the reader to chew on. I can understand both why someone might love this book and why they might hate it, but either way, I think it’s worth reading.
I’m telling you this story to illustrate (1) that Shepherd is cool and you should use it and (2) how I find books, which is generally to read a lot of authors’ blogs and pick the ones I stumble across.
But okay, so what is the book about? It’s a novel set in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation. It follows a mullah who runs a madrassa in a remote and rural part of the country. The mullah struggles to instruct his students in Islam all while defending them, and the residents of the nearby village, from marauding bandits and brutal warlords who continually terrorize them.
The Mullah is a fascinating character: intelligent, wise, but also very harsh, and strictly adhering to the fundamental precepts of his religion. At times he seems quite sympathetic, at other times downright heartless; but no matter what, it’s hard to doubt his conviction.
Some of his students are dutiful and faithful, others are impulsive and reckless. But of course, one feels for all of them, growing up as they are in this brutal and war-torn environment.
This book is incredibly dark, and while it is a novel, there can be little doubt that events similar to those described took place, which makes it all the harder to read. It is gritty, unsparingly realistic, and disturbing. And at the same time, Halton’s prose is beautiful and haunting, which makes it all the more unsettling.
It’s not an easy or comfortable read, but it does give a westerner such as myself a great deal of insight into the recent history of Afghanistan, and how it came to be the way it is. Halton has also written a non-fiction history of the country, which I am considering reading as well.
This Shall Be a House of Peace is an unforgettable look at a region and a culture which, despite having been a focus of American geopolitical power for two decades, many of us know very little about.
As I think most of you know, Halloween is by far my favorite holiday. But even I can go for a good Christmas tale. So naturally, a Christmas book that brings a witch into the picture is going to get my attention.
This book tells the story of Cinnamon Mercy Claus, who unexpectedly finds herself journeying to the North Pole for the holiday season. There she meets her grandparents: Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus themselves.
This would be a shocking enough discovery on its own, but she next learns that her grandmother is a witch and that she wants a divorce from the jolly old elf, who has been taking all her Christmas magic for granted. She angrily leaves her bewildered granddaughter in charge of handling all the arrangements for delivering toys to all the children of the world.
This is a lot to take in for Cinnamon, who is more comfortable working in the world of spreadsheets and number-crunching than of magic, but, with the help of the elves, she throws herself into the task.
The book is a lot like those made-for-TV Christmas movies that they broadcast this time of year. Which are not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but I happen to enjoy them. Yes, they can be predictable and sometimes overly-sentimental, but hey, what are the holidays about if not the comfort of something cozy and familiar? It is true that most of the time I prefer darker varieties of fiction, but when December comes round, there’s nothing wrong with little light trifles.
And that’s exactly what this book is; a fast-paced bit of Christmas-themed fun. Read it while eating some gingerbread cookies or something, preferably by a fireplace or under some decorative lights, and you’ll surely be filled with the Yuletide spirit.