It’s not easy to categorize this book into one genre. It has historical fiction, horror and psychological thriller elements. The book begins with a couple, Michelle and Tom Cleveland, moving into their new home in South Africa. For a housewarming party, they play with a Ouija board. Soon after, strange things begin to happen to Michelle, and she realizes she and her husband are being haunted by a poltergeist.

The vengeful spirit is named Estelle, a young woman who died in the aftermath of the Second Boer War. Along with her, the house is also haunted by the shades of Estelle’s father, Pieter, a Boer farmer turned soldier, and Robert, a British officer. These two ghosts are not malicious, but all three are intertwined in tragic ways due to the war.

And this is where the historical fiction part comes in: much of the book is told in flashbacks, showing Estelle’s, Pieter’s, and Robert’s experiences in life. As someone who has only very slight knowledge of this period, these passages were fascinating to me, bringing a semi-forgotten time vividly to life.

And believe you me, the Second Boer War was brutal. Did you know that’s when the term “concentration camp” originated?  After pursuing a merciless “scorched earth” policy, the British sent their captives to camps, where disease and starvation were rampant.

The book spares no detail in describing the horrors of war and its after-effects. Some passages are so poignant and disturbing they are hard to read. It’s easy to see how Estelle’s spirit came to be so bitter and vengeful.

Meanwhile, in the modern day, Michelle works to piece together the story of the three ghosts. She comes to realize that Estelle has her reasons for choosing to haunt her and her husband, as Tom has dark secrets in his own past.

I won’t spoil how it all ends up. The best way I can say it is to say it’s a story full of horror and forgiveness. Forgiveness is a major theme in the story. Though, come to think on it, I think there are some things that shouldn’t be forgiven.

Yes, that’s right; I’m very sympathetic to many of ghost-Estelle’s arguments, demonic though she may be. I won’t say any more, just that I think the reader will have to decide for themselves whether certain characters can be forgiven for their actions.

Maybe this is a good time to bring up trigger warnings. I don’t always do those, just because it’s tough to know what may be upsetting to different people, but in this case, it’s not hard to guess. Pretty much every disturbing thing you can think of happens here. It’s a book about war, and war is a brutal business, and every kind of trauma is referenced here. This is not for the faint of heart, by any stretch. If you want to know more, email or DM me.

If you’re fascinated by history, as I am, then this will be an excellent introduction to the Boer War Era. I’ve been trying to learn more about the period, which is why this is the second Boer War-based novel I’ve read this year. (Curiously, that book was also about forgiveness.) It’s an unsparing, brutal take on it, that depicts the British Empire’s attempt to seize the resources of the Transvaal as a bloodthirsty conquest. While some low-ranking British soldiers and officers, such as Robert, are portrayed sympathetically, the overall picture of people like Lord Kitchener and other high-ranking officials is very harsh.

The whole thing feels very grim and depressing. Mindless violence and cruelty perpetrated for an empire that no longer exists. Once, while researching the Boer War, I came across a song about it by a singer named John Edmond. The song title and refrain is “What In The Hell Was It For?” This echoed in my head repeatedly reading this. It really is that dark, but it’s to the author’s credit that it feels so real and immediate.

As for the supernatural horror element, I liked how it mostly lurks in the background of the story, only to periodically explode in moments of intense terror. It’s used sparingly, but packs a punch when it needs to.

A few technical notes: first, the book is told in the present tense, which may be off-putting to some readers. It felt odd to me at first, but I got used to it. Second, on the Kindle version, there were a few places where the font-size changes abruptly. I think this is due to the smaller font for the footnotes spilling over into the main text. It may also be a function of my using a very old version of the app.

There were a handful of typos. But we indie authors are all used to that sort of thing and know how hard they are to get rid of, and this is a long book, which just makes it harder. It didn’t bother me overmuch.

The last thing is a stylistic point: the dialogue is not naturalistic. It felt to me more like lines from an opera than dialogue from a novel. Now, there are certainly many different ways of handling dialogue, none of which appeals to everyone. It’s just that at times, it seemed a little too “formal” to me, if that makes sense. However, that may not be everyone’s impression, so don’t let that put you off checking it out.

This is a really moving, poignant book, and it’s clear the author did a huge amount of research for the Boer War setting, and the supernatural elements linking it with the “modern” part of the story were ingenious. You have to be in the right frame of mind for it, but if you are, I recommend it.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Dracula is about… oh, who am I kidding? You all know what Dracula is about. Even if you haven’t actually read it, you know the deal: vampire comes to England, mysterious things start happening to a couple of young women. One of them dies, and rises from the grave. Then her friend starts to have similar strange experiences. Eventually, her male friends, with the help of Doctor Van Helsing, realize she is being haunted by an undead monster.

That’s the story. I knew it long before I read the book, mostly because I’d seen the 1931 movie.

One thing I didn’t know was that the book was told as a series of letters among the characters. That was an interesting idea, and made the whole thing feel very immediate. Also, the movie minimizes the coolest scene in the book, the arrival of Dracula’s boat in England.

Now comes the part where I’m probably going to get into trouble: I don’t love the book. It is, in my opinion, just okay.

Part of this is not really anything intrinsic to the book. Dracula is iconic, and as such, most of the elements of it that must have seemed amazing at the time have now become clichés. Alas, there is just no way to read Dracula with the perspective of an 1890s Victorian reader.

But there are some books from the 1890s that still feel to me as fresh as if they were written yesterday. You know the book I mean, so I won’t rehash it again.

Dracula, I’m afraid, doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels dated. That’s not to say it’s bad, because it isn’t at all. It’s fine. More than fine, I suppose. It has become become iconic for some reason. What is that reason?

I’m privileged to know many talented writers and artists. One of the things we often talk about is whether art needs to have a meaning or not. The reason for this question is raised not so much by art, but by the field of art criticism, which follows all art but is never as substantial as art itself, like a mere shadow on a wall.

Is a work of fiction just a pure fragment of imagination? Or are there lessons about the real world that we can take away from fiction?

On the most obvious level, Dracula is about a vampire who comes to England. However, in the century-plus since its publication, critics have written all sorts of analyses of the meaning of Dracula. Dracula is “invasion literature.” Dracula is about tradition vs. modernity. Dracula is about Victorian sexual mores.

Is any of this remotely true? Or is it all a bunch of academic navel-gazing?

My feeling is, if you could ask Bram Stoker himself, he’d tell you Dracula was just a cool story about a vampire.

But then… Bram Stoker was a Victorian, and so it is reasonable to suspect that in the process of telling his cool vampire story, he included some elements of himself and the world he knew.

As an example, it is interesting to know that Stoker modeled the character of Dracula after Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the period. Stoker was Irving’s business manager, and it seems he both adored and feared the man. Indeed, he wanted Irving to play the part of Dracula on the stage, but Irving refused, perhaps believing that playing “modern” characters like Dracula (and Sherlock Holmes, BTW) was beneath him.

This is an interesting tidbit, and maybe it tells us something about Victorian society. Maybe the vampire legend’s enduring popularity can tell us other things about society.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe it is just a cool vampire story after all. Either way, though, don’t you want to stick around to find out? 🙂 As I did with the Headless Horseman legend last October, each weekend this month I’m going to take a look at some of the stories related to Dracula and see if there’s anything interesting to be discovered.

This was the first Burke book I heard of, but as it’s the second in the series, I had to read the first installment, Burke in the Land of Silver. I loved it, and eagerly anticipated reading this one.

A bit of background: Burke is like a Napoleonic-era James Bond. (I actually think he’s more like Patrick McGoohan’s “Danger Man,” but hardly anyone remembers that series.) A spy for the British who monitors and sabotages the activities of Britain’s main geopolitical enemy, France.

Unlike Land of Silver, which was based on the true story of the real James Burke, Burke and the Bedouin is a fictionalized account, though most of the major events, such as Napoleon’s army clashing with the Bedouin and the Mamelukes, and the climactic Battle of the Nile, are real, and it is no doubt true that Britain would have had men like Burke present in Egypt.

The book is a bit faster-paced than the first one, and it seemed like there were fewer characters. That’s not a negative, though; just a difference in style. This felt more like an old-fashioned desert adventure story, compared with the political intrigue and machinations of the previous entry. Fortunately, I love a good desert adventure, so that’s all to the good.

And like the previous book, there are definitely times when you have to question just who you should be rooting for. Burke is a very likable protagonist, with a clear sense of personal honor and bravery, so he seems like a straight-up hero… but then you get a scene of him torturing a young French surveyor for information, or spreading sensational lies about the French among the Bedouin. Of course, he’s not doing this randomly–he’s a soldier, in a war. Ugly stuff happens, and people just have to deal with it.

The book does a great job of conveying the sheer brutality of the era. It’s easy to romanticize the Napoleonic wars, especially if you learn it as the history of dashing, larger-than-life figures like Nelson, Wellington, and of course, the Corsican himself. The everyday reality of it was much nastier, and this book captures that well.

If you enjoyed the first one, this book is a worthy sequel. And while it is true this would work as a standalone book, I would strongly recommend reading them in order. Fans of historical fiction, spy thrillers, and adventure books alike should all check out the Burke series.

[Part I is here.]

You all know I’m a big fan of Natalie Portman. I had a crush on Senator Amidala when I was 12 years old, and so I’ve seen a bunch of her movies. Someday maybe I’ll do a definitive ranking of them, although that would require watching Song to Song, which I have no mind to do, so maybe not. But I’m sure I have a better-than-average knowledge of her filmography.

Why am I rambling on about this? What does this have to do with fin de siècle?

Well, I saw a film of Portman’s called Vox Lux in 2018, which grossed over $400 million dollars and earned eight Oscar nominations.

Oh, wait; no, it didn’t. That would be A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Both are films about an up-and-coming singer trying to make it in the music industry. Vox Lux wasn’t 1/100th as popular as A Star is Born, mostly because A Star is Born is a love story and Vox Lux is a weird and unsettling meditation on the depravity of modern culture. You can guess which one I’d gravitate towards, even if La Portman were not involved.

I won’t go on at length about Vox Lux here. If you want that, you can read my review here. Otherwise, just look at this picture from the film:

Now, I know it’s tough to see. But this ominous hooded figure is wearing a golden mask. Do hooded, masked figures make you think of anything from our last discussion? A drop of King in Yellow, a pinch of Red Death, a little Tower Headsman to taste, and before you know it you’ve got a piping hot Symbol of Death. As it should be, because this hooded character in Vox Lux is a terrorist. (See, I told you it was weird…)

Of course, one costume using a fairly common trope to communicate “scary” doesn’t prove anything. I would never dream of saying Vox Lux is the modern-day King in Yellow on such a flimsy basis.

Don’t worry, Vox Lux‘s connections to our old friends from the 1890s run deep. My review contains the full accounting if you want it, although you’ll have to tolerate a bit of redundancy with things I’ve said in this series. Otherwise, we can make do with a couple of images.

But wait. Might this all be a red herring? After all, didn’t I just say Vox Lux wasn’t nearly as popular as A Star is Born?  So who cares what it says about our culture? It’s not widely-known enough to even matter.

Here’s my counter-argument: the art that we associate with the fin de siècle movement wasn’t necessarily the popular entertainment of the day. The Grand Duke flopped. The King in Yellow was far from a hit. These kinds of artistic movements are always a little bit off, a bit outside of “normal” people’s tastes. But the fact that it exists at all is telling.

The Victorian era is famous for its rigid morality. This was a time of modest dress, traditional families, and a conservative culture. “Repressed” is a word you’ll often see thrown around, although of course the Victorians would never have described themselves as such.

But it’s clear that this cultural tradition was eroding by the late 1800s. Much of the shocking art and literature of the decadent period would simply have been unthinkable a few decades earlier.

Curiously, we can perceive a very similar period of changing cultural mores in more recent history. Just as Jude the Obscure would have so not been published in 1860, Vox Lux could so not have been made in 1960. Actually, almost none of our modern day movies could have been made in the era between 1930 and 1960, and not just for technical reasons. Or at least, not made in America.

So, is there just some immutable cycle where, at the end of every century, people start to feel a sense of oppressive ennui, of creeping apathy, and retreat into decadent and strange arts that would seem perverse to their more straitlaced ancestors? Maybe, although no such feeling appears to have existed in, for instance, the 1790s in America.

To me, what can most easily explain these related aesthetics is that these are phases in the lifecycle of a global hegemon. When a superpower arises, it initially is buoyed by a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm for creating new institutions. Over time, however, these institutions grow stale, corrupt, and oppressive, causing people to lose faith in them. 

This gradual loss of faith is a hallmark of decadence. In such periods of decline, alienation is the norm, and the fabric of society decays, leading to social upheaval, rebellion and a general feeling of collapse.

This brings me to the phrase which I used for the title of this post, which is a quote from Warren Spector describing the creation of the 2000 video game Deus Ex. I love “millennial weirdness,” partly because, although it actually refers to the epoch, it can also sound like a description of my generation, but mostly because it’s the perfect modern American rendering of fin de siècle.

Here’s one reason I feel justified in saying Vox Lux and Deus Ex share an aesthetic. Check out their respective covers:

Seriously, if you knew nothing else about these two things, wouldn’t you guess they were somehow related? Not only do they share this weird day-for-night color palette, but they also both have a Latin phrase for the title. To me, it seems clear that these two images have the same mood.

In terms of behind-the-scenes stuff, Vox Lux and Deus Ex are not related at all. They’re not the same medium, nor the same genre, nor do they, as far as I know, have any cast or crew in common. As for audience, well, it’s entirely possible that I may be the only person who has both played Deus Ex and watched Vox Lux. What does this suggest, if not some some strange memetic propagation of this mood across the culture?

But these are just single images. We can’t judge a film by its poster, or a game by its cover. It could just be a weird coincidence. After all, we know a poster’s vibe need not match the thing its advertising. What else do we know about Deus Ex and its atmosphere of “millennial weirdness”?

I’ve never formally reviewed Deus Ex for one reason: because Ross Scott did it better than I ever could. If you want a masterclass in reviewing, Scott is your man. Gamers reading this should absolutely check out his videos on Deus Ex.

But, for the purpose of my larger argument, let me try to fill you in on the details of Deus Ex, knowing all the while that I stand on the shoulders of a giant.

Deus Ex is set in a dystopian future of, as Wikipedia describes it: “a world ravaged by inequality and a deadly plague.” It begins in New York City. The game was made in 2000, but because of texture issues, they had to eliminate the World Trade Center from the background. They justified it in-game by saying it had been destroyed in a terrorist attack.

Are you thinking back to our earlier discussion of Repairer of Reputations and getting a little deja vu yet? Why do these nightmarish dystopias always feel so familiar?

In the world of Deus Ex, every conspiracy you can imagine is true. The Illuminati, Area 51, global plutocrats ruling over the rest of us, and super-intelligent Artificial Intelligences. All these things exist, and are gradually uncovered by the player’s character, J.C. Denton.

It’s a world of shadowy cabals, distrust and justified paranoia. (There are also robot soldiers and mechs. It’s still a video game.) I think it’s fair to say that Deus Ex‘s imagined future is one in which faith in institutions is not rewarded. Conspiracy theories are typically the product of an age in which trust in the established order is very low.

Beyond that, there is the omnipresent sense of decay and the feeling that the rotten husk of the ancien regime is giving way to something else. In Deus Ex, the player gets a choice in what that is; whether it’s continued manipulation by a sinister oligarchy, rule by a machine intelligence known as Helios, or simply burning it all down, and returning to a simpler time, when life was hard but people were free.

Deus Ex is a deeply philosophical game. There are tons of dialogues about personal freedom vs. order, the morality of power, and so on. It’s simply too massive for me to discuss each example at length. Watch the intro cinematic and see what you think. Don’t worry if it seems a little incoherent; it should. No one is supposed to know what’s going on in Deus Ex when they start.

By this point, I hope I’ve convinced you that “there’s something happening here” even if “what it is ain’t exactly clear.” I’ve used the two examples of Vox Lux and Deus Ex–two separate works, in separate media, nearly two decades apart, to try to demonstrate that this aesthetic exists in modern culture.

But we’re not finished yet. After all, I still need to find some indication that this decadent zeitgeist is related to the 1890s and the original fin de siècle. Ideally, something stronger than “I dunno, they just, like, seem the same to me, man.” (Although true, this is a weak argument, and one to which skeptical readers would be entitled to reply in kind.)

Throughout Deus Ex, there are lots of documents, books, newspapers, magazines, tablets etc. that the player can pick up and read. This is mostly optional; it’s just a way to add to the atmosphere and do a little extra world-building.

Among these texts are scattered excerpts from The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel by G.K. Chesterton. Here’s one of the excerpts quoted in Deus Ex:

…First of all, what is it really all about? What is it you object to? You want to abolish Government?”

“To abolish God!” said Gregory, opening the eyes of a fanatic. “We do not only want to upset a few despotisms and police regulations; that sort of anarchism does exist, but it is a mere branch of the Nonconformists. We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution talked of the Rights of Man! We hate Rights as we hate Wrongs. We have abolished Right and Wrong.”

“And Right and Left,” said Syme with a simple eagerness, “I hope you will abolish them too. They are much more troublesome to me…”

It’s true that The Man Who Was Thursday was published in 1908, and therefore is not, in the literal sense, fin de siècle. But most historians would say that this period really extended until the start of World War I in 1914, so we’ll go ahead and grandfather it in. If so, we now have discovered a missing link between our two aesthetics. The anarchistic philosophy of mass collapse that permeated fin de siècle Europe and the cynical alienation and paranoia that existed at the end of the 20th century and the early 21st, though separated by a massive gulf in technology, fit neatly with one another, the way South America and Africa, now a hemisphere apart, were once clearly connected.

I hope I’ve persuaded you to see things my way, dear reader. If not, I humbly apologize. You see, I’m so confident that my thesis is correct that if I’ve failed to convince you, it can only be because I’ve argued my case very poorly, which is the worst thing someone seeking to persuade can do.   It’s one thing to have an incorrect premise and not be clever enough to make people buy into it, but to have a correct premise and still botch the selling of it is just inexcusable.

But, assuming that what I’ve asserted here is correct, and that there does indeed exist some inherited tradition of a strange, alienated, cynical and decadent aesthetic that flourished both at the beginning and the end of the 20th century, the question remains: what should we do with this information?

I picked this book up because it is set during the Boer War. How many books do you hear about set during the Boer War? I mean, of course, this isn’t the only one, but compared to the seemingly-endless army of books set during, say, World War II, it’s a relatively exclusive club. Come to that, how many people today even know what the Boer War was? It’s not something that gets a lot of attention. Maybe people find it, as one of my history teachers never tired of saying, “Boer-ing”?

Well, it was anything but! People lived and died and enjoyed triumphs and tragedies even before 1939, you know. Forgiven is concerned with telling the story of a young man’s experiences of all these. Richard Wilson is his name, a New Zealander who falls in love with the lovely Rachel Purdue. Rachel is a lovely girl who has had her reputation unfairly tarnished by gossip, which has left her without suitors in her hometown. She and Richard soon become engaged, but are forbidden by her family to marry immediately.

While waiting, Richard gets the not-so-bright idea to join up in the British Empire’s fight against the Boers in South Africa. Rachel, who is a bit sensitive and fearful of betrayal, is furious with him, as well she should be, for making this huge decision without consulting her. But, Richard has given his word, and has no choice but to keep it. And so he ships off to the Cape Colony.

In addition to fighting the Boers, he encounters a ruthless Prussian spy and a haughty English aristocrat, Lady Sarah. Initially, he and she despise one another–he sees her as a stuck-up noblewoman, she sees him as an uncouth commoner–but over the course of their time together, they come to have a mutual respect. I really enjoyed the way their relationship evolves.

That said, one aspect of it that did surprise me was the anachronistic language. I just can’t believe that a man of the 19th century, even one as admittedly rough-around-the-edges as Richard is, would refer to a woman the way he does. Oh, he might not like her, to be sure; he might very well resent being ordered about by such a pampered princess; but he wouldn’t express it the way modern folks do. At least, everything I’ve ever read of 19th century literature indicates to me he wouldn’t.

Now, using modern dialogue in historical fiction is a common stylistic choice, and it can work. But at times, the language did seem to be period-correct. And then something modern-sounding would pop-up. It was a bit jarring.

That said, much of the history feels authentic. The author is an expert on the firearms of the era, and gives the lengthy descriptions of the weaponry, which was quite interesting. Numerous historical figures of the period, including Walter Kitchener, Koos de la Rey, and a young Winston Churchill are all referenced throughout the tale.

Overall, it’s a very well-paced story of adventure and romance, and while the author keeps the pace moving briskly, he stops to indulge every now and again in some very evocative imagery. What I like best of all was how well fleshed-out even minor characters are; it made the whole thing feel very immediate and real.

A couple other minor things that didn’t quite work for me: there’s a sub-plot involving Rachel’s ne’er-do-well brother, which not only seemed unnecessary, but was especially jarring because it was told in the third person, when the majority of the book is in the first-person, from Richard’s perspective.

Also, there was at least one thing that seemed to be a stone-cold anachronism: at one point, there is a reference to a Zane Grey novel. As near as I can tell, the earliest of Zane Grey’s work was published in 1903, and the action in Forgiven ends in 1900. It’s hardly a central plot point, but it I noticed it all the same. Given how accurate the novel is in other respects, this was very strange, and made me wonder if I was missing something. If there are any experts on the period–or Zane Grey, for that matter–who can explain what’s going on here, I’d be very grateful.

Despite these minor reservations, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good adventure/romance, and wants something in an uncommon setting. Give it a try.

To understand the future, we must understand the past. I’ve used this strange, unwieldy phrase “techno-decadentism” in reference to an artistic movement; one that is, I will argue, an heir to the tradition of “just plain old” decadentism. But what was the original decadentism? Where did it come from? And can we learn anything from it?

Come with me, once again, to the 1890s. I talked in the previous post about fin de siècle. But now we have to experience it.

It’s 1897 and there’s a revival of The Yeomen of the Guard on at the Savoy. Check out that poster!

A black figure against a yellow background–how striking. Then again, we’ve seen this before–in 1896, The Grand Duke was playing at the Savoy, with a very similar poster–indeed, by the same artist:

Of course, Grand Duke depicts a broken-down critter, not an imposing figure. And yet, both, in their own way, symbolize the same thing. Do I even have to tell you what they symbolize? Decadence means decay, and the final stage of decay is of course death. A lone figure, symbolizing death… it evokes Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

Ah, now, that’s a bit of a cheat. I have no business dragging a poem from 1842 into a conversation about the 1890s. Or do I? After all, Poe’s influence on the decadent movement was great, and if he was born a little too early, and a lot too west, we can’t blame him for it. Artistic movements usually take a while to bloom; like a plant. “A flower, planted on Poe’s grave,” as I once heard someone describe it.

You might think these posters are similar simply because they are by the same artist, Dudley Hardy. But this is more than just a single artist’s distinctive touch. It’s part of something bigger–hence, we call it an aesthetic. See again the example of Théophile Steinlen’s 1896 poster for Le Chat Noir:

Or, maybe the single most famous piece of artwork to come out of this epoch: The Scream, by Edvard Munch (1893). Again, an ominous background surrounding a surreal and nightmarish figure: 

Everything about Fin de siècle is conveying a mood of pessimism, of decline and decay. In England, a venerable old monarch was growing grey. Victoria’s days were numbered, as her subjects must have known, but would not say. Maybe that’s why Sir James Frazer’s anthropological study of death and rebirth myths The Golden Bough (1890) made such a hit.

You ask: am I just cherry-picking here? Finding all the seemingly-related works from a certain period and leaving out ones that don’t fit? I’m sure there must have been good old-fashioned romantic art being produced in the 1890s. (Actually, fin de siecle art was centered in Europe–other parts of the world were in an altogether different phases of civilization at this point.)

Anyway, yes: I might indeed be cherry-picking facts. It’s easy to find themes that fit a narrative and discard those that don’t, since we know what happened next, and therefore are easily predisposed to see patterns that might not even exist.

To know if anything is really going on here in the 1890s, we have to try to look at the world through the eyes of its inhabitants. This is where my amateurish Gilbert and Sullivan studies come in handy: in their heyday of the 1870s and 1880s, Gilbert and Sullivan made their names with comic operas known for their light humor, bubbly dialogue, and romance. They are optimistic and fun–even when they talk about darker subjects like execution.

And then we come to the 1890s, and things change. Their next-to-last work, Utopia, Limited doesn’t just mock the foibles of particular public figures, but is a broad satire on the British Empire itself. And their last, the aforementioned Grand Duke is cynical mockery of almost everything–love, death and the medium of theatrical entertainment itself. It’s funny (actually, in my opinion one of their funniest) but it doesn’t have heart like their most famous operas do.

As Max Keith Sutton put it in his article, The Significance of The Grand Duke:

The opera is a decadent work, as Professor Jones has suggested–perhaps a deliberate parody of literary trends near the time of Wilde’s Salome, when perverse attitudes (necrophilia, for one) and violence were being seriously depicted on the European stage. Certainly The Grand Duke is decadent in the literal sense of representing physical and mental, moral and political decay.

He explicitly makes the comparison with fertility myths:

The decrepit Rudolph has the role of the Old King whose death signifies the end of the year, the defeat of Winter in the ceremonial contest with Spring. “Broken-down critter” that he is, he makes a perfect monarch for a comic wasteland… Rudolph undergoes legal death in the mock duel–”the moment of ritual sacrifice”–and the plump, sausage-devouring comedian takes over as duke for a day and Lord of Misrule.

I can’t prove an entire shift in the zeitgeist based on the work of a curmudgeonly old librettist and his alienated and sickly composer. But, something is going on here, wouldn’t you say? Things that would have never been tolerated at the height of Victorian prudishness are now becoming mainstream. 

There is a sense of a cycle, a cycle that is coming to an end. The cynicism, boredom, and restless neuroticism that characterize a declining empire who knows its best days are behind it. 

I’ve always liked The Grand Duke. It was the least popular Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but its atmosphere is strangely compelling to me. But I never bothered to see it in its proper context until I began to study the 1890s for another reason: Robert W. Chambers’ collection of stories, The King in Yellow, and in particular the first story, The Repairer of Reputations.”

I’ve talked about it before. A lot. Hell, I’ve actually posted the story with my annotations on this blog. So a lot of this will be old hat to longtime readers. But we just can’t understand this strange world of fin de siècle without understanding The King in Yellow. Sorry if this is repetitious for some of you.

Despite my enthusiasm for it, I’ve never actually reviewed The King in Yellow, however, because something in it defies reviewing. The key part of the book is the fictional play described within it, also called The King in Yellow, which connects the first four stories. Chambers only quotes bits and pieces of the play, and, notably, only from Act I. Act II–the really juicy bit that drives people mad–is left a mystery to the reader. Personally, I’ve always imagined it as something to do with an all-consuming plague, like the aforementioned Masque of the Red Death. And I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say there is an echo of Poe’s story in these mysterious lines quoted from the play:

CAMILLA: You, sir, should unmask.
STRANGER: Indeed?
CASSILDA: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
STRANGER: I wear no mask.
CAMILLA: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

But that’s just me. The beauty of Chambers’ technique is that he knows that what the reader imagines will be scarier than anything he himself could create.

If The King in Yellow has a flaw, it’s that its tales are arranged in the wrong order, proceeding from most bizarre to most mundane. M.R. James would have known that the way to truly mess with the reader is to lull them at first, before springing the trap. But, probably some editor told Chambers that one of the ten rules of writing was to lead with the exciting bit, or some such conventional wisdom. Times change; but people who don’t appreciate art remain the same, and also remain in charge of deciding what shall be published.

Recall that, as I said above, it is hard to evaluate an era honestly, because we know what happened. It’s interesting to get a view of the people of the era, who don’t know where it’s all going. It’s even more interesting to read their predictions for where they think it will go.  Chambers provides us with just such a prediction, albeit wrapped in a curious package.

The Repairer of Reputations begins:

Toward the end of the year 1920 the Government of the United States had practically completed the programme, adopted during the last months of President W———‘s administration. The country was apparently tranquil. Everybody knows how the Tariff and Labour questions were settled. The war with Germany, incident on that country’s ————-, had left no visible scars upon the republic…

Okay, so I’m playing censor here and cutting stuff out. Did your mind automatically fill in those blanks? The natural thing is to assume the first is filled with “Wilson” and the second with “invasion of France.” 

If you do that, you have a totally nondescript history of someone talking about actual 1920. Admittedly, it’s a decidedly vague description, but still, it works.

But of course, this story was written in 1895. And it’s President Winthrop and Germany seized the Samoan islands. Which actually happened a few years after Chambers wrote the book, although it was not the cause of the major war.

I am not a believer in prophecies or seers or other such superstitious hokum. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side…” etc. But seriously, this gives me pause. 

What’s even weirder is that, as the story develops, we learn that Hildred Castaigne, the narrator telling us all this, is, um, not exactly reliable. In fact, he’s so unreliable that it might not even be set in 1920 at all, and yet his doubly-imaginary 1920 seems plausible to us, as readers who, unlike Chambers, know what happened in real 1920.

Does this creep you out just a little? There’s more: the future that our narrator reports (envisions?) includes such things as government lethal chambers, where people who find existence unendurable may find relief. Was that prescient? I dunno, let’s check with the American Eugenics Society, founded in 1922. 

So what the heck? Was Robert W. Chambers was some sort of prophet or time-traveler gifted with uncanny insight into the future? And if he was, we must ask: why did he use his powers only to write one cool story, and not for something more epic?

A more plausible explanation, and much more agreeable to my skeptical, materialist mind, is that there is such a thing a zeitgeist where all trends are pointing towards something happening.  For example, could you find some literary work from the early 2000s that involved a highly-contagious pandemic? Why yes, you could! But really, in retrospect, isn’t that one of those things that any intelligent person who was paying attention could have foreseen? 

And this is why fin de siècle literature is so interesting. If it was all just a coincidence that around 1890 everybody started to feel cynical, bored, and generally like the old order is about to go up in some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe, and it did, then it’s a mere historical curiosity. 

But if, on the other hand, there is some sort of predictive value in this–if perhaps people feeling this pervasive sense of decay had something to do with the ultimate fate of Europe, either because it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or simply because anyone attuned to the spirit of the age could see where it was going, then this is very interesting indeed.

And it would be especially interesting if we had some reason to believe that it was happening again… but that’s for another time. 😉

This is a cover for a 1980 edition. There are many like it–and many un-like it–but this one is my favorite.

Starship Troopers is a famous book, with a profound influence on modern science fiction. It’s one of the earliest known appearances of powered armor in fiction, elements of its setting can be seen in countless other science-fiction works about humans battling alien insects, and it was the basis for a cult-classic movie franchise.

The book is told in first person by Juan “Johnny” Rico, a soldier in the Mobile Infantry. It begins with Rico and his platoon attacking an enemy planet, then flashes back to when Rico joined the military, over the objections of his father.

Rico details all the details of basic training, as the drill sergeants mold the recruits into a fighting force. Occasionally, he flashes further back to his high school class in “History and Moral Philosophy,” taught by a retired officer, Lt. Colonel Dubois.

Throughout the book, Rico reflects on Dubois’ lectures. And why is that? Well, we’ll talk about that later.

Eventually, Rico graduates and joins the war against the bugs. His mother is killed by a bug attack on Buenos Aires, a devastating attack which mobilizes Terran forces against the bugs, and Rico soon ships out to attack Klendathu as part of the formidable unit “Rasczak’s Roughnecks.”

Ultimately, Rico becomes an officer and, after another daring raid to capture a “brain bug,” becomes an officer and commander of “Rico’s Roughnecks.”

There really isn’t that much sci-fi stuff in the book. Apart from a few episodes of high-tech infantry attacks against the bugs at the beginning and the end, you’d barely notice the book is set in the future. It’s mostly about military basic training. My father was in the army and trained at West Point, and the descriptions don’t seem much different from the stories he’s told me.

So why did Heinlein even bother setting it in the future, if we’re only going to get a few pages of power-armored spacemen fighting overgrown bugs and lots and lots of “history and moral philosophy”?

Heinlein was a fervent anti-communist, and it is widely believed that he chose insects for the antagonists because they represented a collectivist society taken to an extreme. The bugs care nothing for individuals; indeed, they frequently are willing to sacrifice hundreds of “workers” in order to kill just a few humans. The centrally-coordinated, anti-individualist bug society is meant to represent communism in its most extreme form.

Here is where things get strange. Much of the book is dedicated to showing Rico and his comrades being molded into a cohesive fighting unit–a hierarchical structure where soldiers follow orders from their superiors unquestioningly, the chain of command is respected, and if necessary, soldiers sacrifice themselves to defend society.

Doesn’t that sound awfully… I don’t know… collectivist to you? It does to me. But now I’m confused. Rico and his men are the good guys, and the bugs are the bad guys, and both are collectivist. I’m not saying they’re the same, but it’s a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind as far as I can see. What’s going on here, Heinlein? Make up your mind if we’re supposed to be for collectivism or against it!

Well, there’s more to this story. But first, it occurs to me I’d better apologize to new readers coming to this as part of Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. You probably are used to normal, sane people who review a book by talking about the plot, the characters, and saying what they did and didn’t like. (For a long list of VSFM posts, written by competent and focused reviewers unlike yours truly, see here.) I have a tendency to write long, rambling reviews that go off on tangents, and I daresay this particular book only encourages me. If you want the TL;DR version, it’s this: I didn’t especially like the book as a novel–I found it too didactic, with not enough actual plot to liven it up. That said, it is interesting, and worth reading nevertheless.  But to find out why I think it’s interesting, I’m afraid you’ll have to be subjected to more of my idiosyncratic review style…

Check out the Wikipedia page on Starship Troopers. You’ll see in the contents a section called “Allegations of fascism.” You can read the section if you want, although it really tells you nothing beyond what the title conveys–the fact that some people alleged the book was promoting fascism.

That’s a serious allegation! And maybe it’s the answer to our question. After all, 20th-century fascism was another totalitarian ideology that competed with communism. And when I say “competed” I mean “fought bloody wars against.” Between them, these two ideologies are responsible for death and destruction on a mind-numbing scale.

But you’ll notice I specifically mentioned 20th-century fascism, as formulated by Mussolini. But that was more of a darker take on the nationalism of Garibaldi, wedded to some concepts borrowed from 20th century socialism. We must dig deeper still.

The name “fascism” comes from the fasces, a symbol of wooden rods bound together, which shows up in all sorts of surprising places across the globe. The fasces symbolized power in Ancient Rome, and if there’s one tradition Heinlein seems to be modeling his futuristic society on, it’s the values of the Roman Republic.

It’s time to talk about Lt. Col. Dubois, as promised. Here he is replying to a student who has just said that “violence never solves anything”:

“I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that… Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.”

Wow! Whatever they’re teaching in that Moral Philosophy class, it probably ain’t pacifism, is it? No wonder it got Rico so excited to join up, even over his father’s objections.

Well, that and another reason. Sorry if I buried the lede here, but in the society of Starship Troopers, you only become a full citizen by serving in the military. In other words, you have to complete basic training and fulfill a term of service in order to be able to vote. And why is this? Dubois explains:

“There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free’… This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears…

The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion . . . and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”

The goal of Heinlein’s society is cultivating civic virtue. (Much like the fasces, the words “civic” and “virtue” both come from Latin.)  The idea is that people who have paid a heavy price to wield authority will use it judiciously and wisely. Thus, restricting citizenship only to those willing to fight and die in the defense of society.

Is this fascism, as we understand it today?

Not quite, I don’t think. I don’t believe a society governed by the votes of military veterans is inherently fascist. That said, you can see the potential for it to turn into something a lot like fascism. The Freikorps weren’t all Nazis, by any means, but you can see how easily the former can produce the latter.

Of course, a society in which only military veterans can vote will be much more militaristic than one where everyone can vote. That goes without saying. And militarism, while possibly not the most collectivist society imaginable, is certainly not friendly to ultra-individualism either.

To an ultra-individualist, anything that’s less individualistic than their own ideals looks like some form of creeping collectivism, whether fascist or communist or whatever. Judged by the standards of 2020s America, 1930s America looks pretty collectivist. For example: a huge national service program in which people perform manual labor sounds pretty weird to us, but FDR pulled it off with some good results.

There are some problems–such as alien bug attacks and highly contagious viruses–which require collective action to solve. A certain amount of civic virtue is needed to meet such emergencies, which is why the society Heinlein envisioned is so militaristic.

That is, what we see of it, which admittedly isn’t much. Actually, one of my problems with the book is the lack of description of the wider world outside the Mobile Infantry. Rico’s father does some sort of business, but other than that, details about the economy are vague. Even the government itself is unclear. Veterans vote, but what do they vote on? Do they vote directly for policies, or for representative candidates? Who, in short, is driving this bus?

Starship Troopers isn’t the sort of pulse-pounding action-adventure novel its name suggests. Actually, it’s a philosophical novel about society and government. Given that, it would have been nice to see a bit more of both. But it’s also intended as a tribute to, as Heinlein puts it, “the bloody infantry, the doughboy, the duckfoot, the foot soldier who goes where the enemy is and takes them on in person.”

And certainly, anyone who does a job requiring discipline and sacrifice is deserving of praise. DuBois’ speech above relates to something I’ve been musing about lately: in wealthy societies, where options for entertainment and leisure abound, people easily can forget about the dignity and respect afforded to those who do the hard jobs that keep society running. But it is, and always will be, noble to forgo pleasure to do something good. And the more opportunities for pleasure there are, the nobler forgoing them will be.

In that regard, Starship Troopers certainly offers plenty of food for thought, and it’s easy to see why Heinlein chose to put such an austere message in the form of a science-fiction story, at a time when the United States, as a prosperous superpower, was beginning to focus on the possibility of traveling into space. As President Kennedy said in 1962, three years after the publication of Starship Troopers:

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? 

…We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

“Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” There’s a political rallying cry for you! Sadly, there is always the danger that “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” will be competing with it…

Anyway, Starship Troopers is definitely a worthwhile book, not only for its status as a hugely influential work of science-fiction, but also as an insight into the mindset of the Cold War.

My friend Patrick Prescott has recommended this movie many times. For further in-depth analysis of its themes, see his posts here and here.

Friendly Persuasion is about the Birdwells, a Quaker family living in Indiana in 1862. They are good people, though they each have their flaws. The father, Jess, (Gary Cooper) is a little too competitive when it comes to racing his friend to the meeting. The teenage daughter Mattie, (Phyllis Love) is a bit vain and boy-crazy. The youngest son, Little Jess, (Richard Eyer) is prone to anger as young boys often are, and the oldest son Joshua (Tony Perkins), too, can be tempted to fight.

And Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) the family matriarch, can if anything be a little too prim, as when she takes a hard line against her husband’s affinity for music. More about this in a moment.

In large part, it’s a family comedy-drama. The humor is not over-the-top, but in little things, as when Eliza denies to her children that she danced in her younger days–not really appropriate for a Quaker minister–but then unconsciously taps her hands and feet in time to the music when the family goes to a local fair. Or the way Jess tries to beat his friend in a race to meeting, while Eliza shoots disapproving looks at him. It makes the characters relatable. (I have friends who get much the same looks from their spouses when we get carried away talking about fantasy football.)

The film is based on a book, The Friendly Persuasion, by Jessamyn West, which is a series of vignettes from Quaker family life. It has the feel of being a loosely-connected series of episodes rather than a tightly-plotted tale. But that’s not a flaw. The Birdwells are a pleasant family to spend time with, and it’s always amusing when some element from an earlier episode comes back into play–as when some Quaker elders pay Jess and Eliza a visit while Mattie and her cavalry officer beau are playing music in the attic. (No, that’s not a euphemism!)

What I really like about this film is its portrayal of conflict, or more accurately conflict resolution. Even when it’s something as simple as Eliza and Jess’s dispute over his purchasing an organ–she says she won’t stay in the house as long as a musical instrument is there, and goes to sleep in the barn. Feeling abashed, Jess follows her out and spends the night with her, and they come to a compromise. Cooper and McGuire have great chemistry together–it’s an extremely romantic scene, and what’s more, it’s a very unusual kind of romantic. Most movie romances go for the easy stuff–the excitement of courtship and new love and so on. It’s much harder to portray a couple who have been married for a long time, been through thick and thin together, and still have an underlying affection. But that’s depicted very clearly here.

I really admire this. It would’ve been so easy to play it for cheap laughs by having Eliza seem like just a humorless goody-two-shoes, or Jess seem like just a sort of Quaker Ralph Kramden. But the script doesn’t take the easy path, and the actors play the roles with appropriate nuance.

The screenplay was written by Michael Wilson, who also co-wrote scripts for classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia–two of my favorite films. However, he didn’t receive screenwriting credit for these, or Friendly Persuasion, because he was blacklisted after he was accused of being a communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

(After some digging, I found a transcript of Wilson’s testimony before HUAC. It’s here, and I strongly recommend reading it, because it helps put Friendly Persuasion in context. I also tried, without success, to find Wilson’s speech to the Writer’s Guild of America on receiving a lifetime achievement award in 1976. Based on the part quoted here, I suspect it’s interesting reading.)

At the end of the film, the civil war begins to impact the Quaker community, and the Birdwells eventually are forced to face challenges to their pacifist ideals. Joshua goes off to fight over the objections of his parents, and when a Confederate raiding party comes to their farm, each member of the family is confronted with a choice of whether to fight or hold to their beliefs.

And this is where the film becomes more than just a family drama and something else entirely. As Pat says in his review, the film implicitly makes the audience ask if they would be able to show the same restraint that the Birdwells do. The family is tempted, yes, and they stray from the path of perfect Quaker doctrine–but not nearly as much as most people would. Watching the film, thee can’t help but ask if thee could do what Eliza or Jess do–giving food to enemy soldiers ransacking thy land, or letting a man who had just killed thy friend go free.

I know what my answer is, and I suspect it’s most people’s answer–and that is why the Birdwells’ courage is of a very different sort than the heroes of other Hollywood period films. They don’t handle things the way John Wayne or Clint Eastwood characters would, that’s for sure. (Ironically, given Wilson’s blacklisting, the film would later be used by President Reagan as a symbolic gift to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to illustrate the need for peacefully resolving conflicts.)

Not many movies can make thee ask deep, uncomfortable questions about morality while also being highly entertaining. This film manages it, and all without ever being preachy or sanctimonious. It doesn’t tell thee what to think; it just introduces thee to some characters, and asks thee to put thyself in their shoes.

Now, there are a few technical gripes I can’t resist making. This movie is over 60 years old, and it shows its age in some respects. 1950s Hollywood production designers could never seem to resist using anachronistic makeup and hair styling, and a few of the clothes look like post-1900 materials. Also, although the film is set in Indiana, it’s very obviously shot in California. Maybe most people wouldn’t notice this, but to a native Midwesterner such as myself, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

But these are just nit-picks, and shouldn’t for a moment deter thee from watching it. Better to have dated production values and a timeless theme than to have a sharp-looking piece that has no heart or wit. Friendly Persuasion is a forgotten gem. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but it seems to have largely faded into obscurity. That’s too bad; because it’s a really charming movie. I’m very grateful to Pat for recommending it. If thee like classic movies, and want something a little different than a typical historical-war drama, I highly recommend it.

Also, there is something interesting about the way the characters talk. See if thee can figure out what it is. 😉

This is a historical fiction novel set in the Napoleonic era. It follows British lieutenant James Burke, who is in Argentina as a “confidential agent.” A spy, in other words. While there, he assumes different identities of varying nationalities to worm his way into a position where he can learn the latest news.

With Napoleon’s power growing, the British are trying everything they can to undermine him, which includes taking an interest in Spanish-controlled Argentina. Burke allies with some freedom fighters to scout the land for a potential invasion by His Majesty’s forces.

Of course, this is a spy thriller, and Burke, like another famous literary spy with the initials J.B., is a ladies’ man, and soon is sleeping with Ana, the beautiful wife of a local merchant. Ana has all sorts of connections with major players in Argentinian politics, and in addition to their romance, provides Burke with useful information for plotting a British invasion.

But Burke also makes powerful enemies, including one who soon proves to be critical to the future of the nation. Amidst political machinations and the occasional bumbling of his own country’s military commanders, Burke finds himself having to improvise one plan after another to keep himself alive.

The book is engaging and fun. I know next to nothing about 19th-century South American politics, but the story and characters are so vivid it was easy to follow along with the plot. Williams’ descriptions of the terrain are excellent, making it easy to picture the caravans, troop movements, and other maneuvers in which Burke is involved.

There is also just the faintest element of the supernatural to the tale. At the very beginning and the very end, Burke has an unusual experience which makes him feel like a man guided by the hand of Fate. It’s very subtle, as is appropriate, but I liked the touch.

Burke is a supremely capable man, pragmatic and sometimes cold, though he can be swayed by feminine wiles. He occasionally pauses to reflect on the grim amorality of his work, as he manipulates events and people to further the aims of the British Empire.

In fact, if you read between the lines, while Burke may tell himself he is doing this to defeat the evil Corsican, in actual fact it’s hard not to see it as simply one more conquest by Britain. As best I can tell, l’Empereur was interested in South America solely to the extent it was a possession of Spain, with which he was allied. British foreign policy in the early 19th-century was that Bonaparte’s empire had to be destroyed, and the best way of doing that was to establish an even bigger empire, that happened to be owned by London. Convenient, eh?

But I don’t expect you to trust me on this point, dear reader. After all, I have been accused of harboring Bonapartist sentiments in the past. (I swear, the bust of him on my bookshelf is only there for aesthetic reasons!)

Read the book for yourself, and make your own judgments. Because, while Williams may take literary license now and then, the events are firmly rooted in historical fact. Like, James Burke was a real person. So was Ana, and so was the main antagonist of the book, whose name I’ll not reveal since it could be something of a spoiler.

As I read it, I kept thinking what a good film or TV series this book would make. I was picturing Patrick McGoohan in the role of Burke. Of course, even if we could use a time machine to offer the role to the late Mr. McGoohan, he would probably turn it down for much the same reason he did the role of 007. Alternatively, one could imagine Rowan Atkinson as Burke and Tony Robinson as his servant, William Brown, but that’s not quite the right tone…

But enough of this idle silliness! Read this highly entertaining book, and whatever conclusions you draw about Burke or the nation he serves, appreciate British military intelligence for all the amazing tales of espionage they’ve given us over the centuries.

Okay, this is a little different.

I normally review modern novels and short stories. This was written in the 14th century, and it’s describing events in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It’s not really a novel, and definitely not a short story. It’s more along the lines of something like the Iliad–a combination of historical account and mythology.

And of course, it was originally written in Chinese. In fact, it’s one of the most famous works of ancient Chinese literature. I read the 1925 translation by Charles Brewitt-Taylor. There are more recent translations, but I deliberately chose an older one because a translator can’t help coloring his translation with his own impressions.

Brewitt-Taylor was an Englishman, and his translation shows a rather Victorian sensibility. So this is looking at a historical-mythopoetic account of ancient China through the lens of an early 20th century Briton. What better way to view one past empire than through the eyes of another?

The book is vast and sprawling, covering numerous battles, political intrigues and other events. The core characters are Liu Bei and his brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Brothers by sworn oath rather than blood, the trio participate in countless battles and grand historical struggles.

7th century depiction of Liu Bei. Via Wikipedia.

Liu Bei is the closest thing to a hero in the story–wise, capable and humble, he usually manages to extricate himself and his brothers from a variety of dangers.

There are shifting alliances and Machiavellian intrigues on every page. (Can I say “Machiavellian” when the events depicted predate Machiavelli by about 1400 years? Discuss.) Also, huge battles and reports of troop movements that are pretty hard to follow for one as ill-trained on Chinese geography as I am. I have at least read Sun Tzu, who is referenced briefly here.

Also, note that the word “romance” in the title is being used in the classic sense, of a medieval legend. Think the stories of King Arthur. Because it’s almost completely devoid of romance in the sense we think of it today. Marriages are arranged strictly for political purposes, and wives and concubines are treated as property.

Of all the hundreds of characters, I believe there are three women who have actual lines of dialogue. These are all rendered in weirdly submissive third-person terms: e.g. a character will refer to herself as “thy unworthy handmaid.” It’s pretty shocking to a modern sensibility. But I suppose everything about life in ancient times would be.

The central theme of the book is the struggle for power. Constantly, nobles and generals are scheming for ways to take power, and to hold it once they’ve got it.

The exception to this is Liu Bei. Despite being supremely capable, he remains humble and unassuming. One would almost say unambitious, and yet he continually rises, by virtue of his ability to positions of command which he hardly thinks himself worthy.

As depicted in the legend, Liu Bei essentially embodies the Confucian concept:

“The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.”

This is sometimes paraphrased as, “To set the nation in order, first set ourselves in order.”

The real Liu Bei of course is somewhat more complex than the character of legend, although he still seems well-regarded by history.

That said, the most fun parts are the translator’s renderings of the condemnations heaped upon Liu Bei’s enemy, the villainous minister Cao Cao. For instance:

“Thus Cao Cao is the depraved bantling of a monstrous excrescence, devoid of all virtue in himself, ferocious and cunning, delighting in disorder and reveling in public calamity.”

The version of the book that I have includes the Chinese Hanzi next to the English translation. For fun, I tried looking up the words in the quote above with this miraculous site, to see if it would render Brewitt-Taylor’s translation back into Chinese in anything like the same characters. But the translation didn’t seem to match up with what I was seeing. Even with the hint, via Wikipedia, that this: 曹操 is “Cao Cao,” I still struggled to match what I read on the page with the translation.

However, learning Chinese is not necessary to use this book as a window into a fascinating period in history–several periods, in fact. Given its massive length, it will probably be a while before I tackle Volume 2, but I’m glad I read this one.