Saturday Star Wars: Chaos Rising (Thrawn Ascendancy #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review and Lingering Questions

Hullo everyone, and welcome back to Saturday Star Wars!

It has been a while, hasn’t it? Rest assured, I’m riding high on a Star Wars wave which’ll keep me pumping out regular editions of this column for a few weeks, at least!

Today, I’ll share with you an excerpt of my Chaos Rising review, which you can read in full over at the Fantasy Hive:

I hold Thrawn in such esteem because few characters signify the sci-fi elements of the Star Wars DNA better than he does. The best Thrawn stories, I have always held, are strong enough that they would thrive in a setting different from the Star Wars one. If you were to crop all the important plot points and characters, and only have to do some fine-tuning to make of a franchise novel something unique and original, could you do it? When it comes to most Thrawn books, the answer is a resounding yes. (With the exception of Thrawn: Alliances, that is, which incidentally is the weakest of Zahn’s Chiss-centred works.) These novels are enhanced by being in the Star Wars universe, not dependent on it.

Chaos Rising is a return to form for Zahn. The first in three novels which chronicle Thrawn’s ascendance in his native Chiss Ascendancy (you didn’t think I would resist, did you?), this does exactly what you want a Star Wars novel to do after the horrible dog’s breakfast** that was the sequel trilogy. It expands the fricking universe in ways that are beyond engaging, while offering a whole new look at our title character. One character I was crazy about in the Thrawn: Treason novel makes her return here – Admiral Ar’alani, whose personal history with Senior Captain Thrawn goes far deeper than I dared hope. She’s one of the main PoV characters in this one, and the novel is all the better for every sentence spent through her perspective; Ar’alani is almost a foil to Thrawn in some ways. Though incapable of seeing what he sees (Thrawn is a tactical genius, capable of understanding both the strategy and tactics of other species by studying their art and philosophy), Ar’alani excels at seeing through the minefield that is Ascendancy politics, and her own insights into military matters are no small thing. Through an unlikely friendship with the more junior officer, Ar’Alani proves an invaluable ally in the political machinations taking place against Thrawn.

One of the consistent points of Thrawn’s characterization across thirty years of books, comics and even animation has been his inability to process the world of political intrigue. In Chaos Rising, there’s no end to the Chiss’ blunders. Add to that the complex hierarchical order of the Ascendancy, with its nine ruling families plotting and conniving against each other for greater power, and you will begin to see how great a blind spot Thrawn’s political ineptitude is.

To read the full piece, click on the link above!

Right, with all this wonderful praise in mind, I’ve a mind to ask several questions. Some spoilers below, read at your own peril! Here’s what I want to learn in the next book:

  • Who guided Yiv the Benevolent? The very last scene at the end of Chaos Rising offers us a name, but what’s behind that name? Is this an agent of the power that has the Chiss Ascendancy desperate enough to fake Thrawn’s exile?
  • Is that exile faked? Timothy Zahn confirmed as much in 2017’s Thrawn, but could it be that this might be retconned, or that it was a lie told by Thrawn to close the gap between him and his foe in that piece, Nightswan? With the political clime against the senior captain the way it is within the Ascendancy, that is a distinct possibility.
  • How far is Thalias going to enter into the politics of the Mitth family, to keep the politically inept Thrawn safe? One of the finest scenes in the book showcased her conversing with the ailing Patriarch of the Mitth, and his revelations about Thrawn will doubtless place her in the thick of family politics. This leads me to my next question…
  • What will be the repercussions for Thrawn? Though he has succeeded with flying colours, the Chiss are staunch isolationists, loath to strike against someone without provocation. Yes, Thrawn managed to skirt through the lines and succeeded in what was necessary — but he was told there would be consequences, and I don’t doubt they will cost him.
  • And my last but most important question: Did Ar’alani and Thrawn bone? When she made commodore, a rather suggestive few lines hinted towards the possibility.

Those are the leading questions — when I return to them a year from now, I do hope I’ll have answers to all of these. Until then…

Join me over the next three weekends as I review Volumes 5, 6, and 7 of the Doctor Aphra graphic novel! That sounds exciting – it’s exciting, isn’t it?

The Beast and the Bethany by Jack Meggitt-Phillips — Book Review

The world of middle-grade fantasy fiction must be charming indeed, if Jack Meggitt-Phillips’ debut is anything to judge by.

The Beast and the Bethany is the charming story of 511-year-old Ebeneezer Tweezer, the most selfish man in all the world; and of the orphan Bethany, the naughtiest kid in all her orphanage. What connects these two? One is intent on feeding a monster; the other is destined to be the monster’s snack.

Yum!

This is a story of personal growth; though one has lived half a millennium and the other hardly eleven years, Ebeneezer and Bethany have led a similar existence — one of survival rather than living. For Ebeneezer, survival has become a goal in of itself; for Bethany, it’s a necessity, to hide the vulnerabilities of a lost young girl. As you might imagine, neither one likes the other much, at first; but both find they’ve a lot to learn.

And the Beast? What a ghastly villain! And what an appetite it has! I’m not one to cannibal-shame, but eating a Bethany?! That’s just severe, that is. Everything else, I could look past — the puking, the incurable appetite for new experiences, the frankly ridiculous amount of puking, and of course, the admirable appetite of a growing boy–blob, I meant blob.

This is an entertaining book; I chuckled well more than once, downright laughed a couple of times. Levity is key in a good middle-grade book about monsters eating children, but no less so than moments of emotional release — and The Beast and the Bethany delivers just such excellence.

I disliked the sequel-bating at the end, however – what is this drive to extend perfectly charming stories, anyway?!

All in all, an excellent debut on the part of Jack Meggitt-Phillips – if you have a child, or are interested in children’s literature, this might very well make a fantastic gift. The illustration are beyond charming, themselves, and excuse the purchase of this book on their own!

Thank you to Egmont and TheWriteReads for offering me an Advanced Review Copy as part of the title’s blog tour.

Coventry: Essays by Rachel Cusk – Book Review

Over the last ten months, I’ve began to look to Rachel Cusk’s work with a reverence bordering on religious fervour. Her Outline trilogy* is revelatory, and does what few novels ever manage – it updates character, changes the narrator’s role to little more than a lens to look through. Further, it sacrifices that central individuality of the focalizer almost to the point of eliding the very notion of that individuality.

As you see, discussing Outline awakens a deep passion within me, for the craft as much as the ideas given voice. The same can be said of Coventry, which demarcates its seventeen essays into three parts: the first section, “COVENTRY,” examines topics of a deeply personal nature to Cusk, drawn from her own experiences; the third section, “CLASSICS AND BESTSELLERS,” tells of important authors and their works, and is generous in its praise (and on one account, in its deft critique) of all of them; and last but not least is “A TRAGIC PASTIME,” the second section, which seems to criss-cross the boundaries between the two, its four essays on topics both personal and literary.

The six essays falling into the “COVENTRY” section are universally strong; “Driving as Metaphor” takes a topic I would find snore-inducing on any other day, and turns it into an engaging conversation about this strange activity, which isolates and shifts the behaviour of the individual. It examines also people like myself, who “appear to have known from the beginning that driving wasn’t for them: often they are individuals society might label as sensitive or impractical or other-worldly; sometimes they are artists of one kind or another.”

“Lions on Leashes” is about children, and how they grow from the protagonists of a story told by their parents into free agents with a will of their own. It’s about the way parents dictate their children’s lives, and about that point when it is no longer impossible, when the physical authority parents use to enforce their will is no longer an available tool. It’s also about “the hysteria around maternal ambivalence,”(93) which society “turns into something blatant and grotesque.”

Cusk’s words here, especially, connect to one of my favourite Greek tragedies: “Medea doesn’t kill her children because she dislikes them or finds them irritating. She kills them because her husband has abandoned both her and them for someone young, beautiful and rich. She refuses to be made such use of. She refuses to let him get away with it.” This fits in exceptionally well with my essay on Euripides’s Medea. Find the time to read it — this Greek tragedy is still relevant today. If you get your hands on “Lions on Leashes” — which, outside of Coventry, can be found in the NYTimes — read the two together, there’s almost a dialogue between them.

“Making Home” and “On Rudeness” are phenomenal works, which pushed me into deep introspection, as did “Coventry,” the titular essay of the collection examines a very specific phrase I had no familiarity with, “being sent to Coventry.” The connotations it has for family, the relationship between parents and children, and silence make for captivating subject matter.

My favourite piece in the second part, “A TRAGIC PASTIME” is “How to Get There.” It is a beautiful love letter to creative writing and its role in society: “If creative writing culture represents only that — freedom — it is justification enough.” A particularly poignant part of this piece says:

The reattachment of the subjective self to the material object is where much of the labour of writing lies — labour because, in this one sense, writing feels like the opposite of being alive. The intangible has to be reversed back into tangibility; every fibre of subjective perception has to be painstakingly returned to the objective fact from whence it came. The temptation is to elude this labour by ‘making things up’, by escaping into faux-realities or unrealities that are the unmediated projections of the subjective self. This is not the same thing as imagination or inventiveness: the feeling of not believing something you are reading arises not from the fact that it is set in Hogwarts School but from the suspicion that it is pure projection. A writer who knows how to give subjective content an objective form can be as far-fetched as she likes. A writer who doesn’t can make even the most creditable things unbelievable. (185)

Seems to me that this penetrates at the heart of what makes good speculative and SFF fiction.

“I Am Nothing, I Am Everything” was perhaps one of the weaker essays, though that says little — even the least of them offers an engaging intellectual debate between what’s on the page and the reader.

In “Shakespeare’s Sisters,” the question of “women’s literature” is examined, dissected with a scalpel and brought home to a conclusion many will find contentious — I, myself, question it with great relish.

The pieces on Lawrence, Ishiguro and Edith Wharton made me care for each and every book Cusk mentioned — I’ve long wanted to read the former two, but I don’t think I’d heard of Wharton, except maybe in passing.

Cusk’s esssay on “Eat Prey Love” is a meditation on the nature of that bestselling book, its main critique that Gilbert’s voyage of self-discovery is, in a word, vapid. “…[Gilbert] might have chosen not to live entirely and orgiastically in the personal — in pleasure — but instead to have renounced those interests in pursuit of a genuine equality. But to say that, of course, would be to take it all much too seriously.” (233)

“On Natalia Ginzburg” offers an excellent cut-off point to the anthology, with a final line that offers a stark glimpse at the role of writing, from Ginzburg’s own collection of essays:

And you realise that you cannot console yourself for your grief by writing . . . Because this vocation is never a consolation or a way of passing the time. It is not a companion. This vocation is a master who is able to beat us till the blood flows . . . We must swallow our saliva and tears and grit our teeth and dry the blood from our wounds and serve him. Serve him when he asks. Then he will help us up on to our feet, fix our feet firmly on the ground; he will help us overcome madness and delirium, fever and despair. But he has to be the one who gives the orders and he always refuses to pay attention to us when we need him.’

An excellent reflection on writing to close the non-fiction anthology of a writer so inquisitive, so searching as to the nature and function of writing, don’t you think?

The only element of Coventry I would bemoan is the lack of a proper introduction to this collection, either from Cusk herself or from whichever editor aided in the collecting and publication of these seventeen essays in their single, 250-page tome. I would’ve so enjoyed some small foresight as to what drove Cusk to explore some of these themes — but that’s less criticism than a thoughtful shrug at what could’ve been.

Coventry is a must-have anthology for any lover of the essay, by a modern master of the form.

*I have spoken of both Outline and Transit, here and here.

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler – Book Review

This is my penultimate Philip Marlowe novel and I am so happy with it, you guys.

The Little Sister is as self-reflective, exhausted and close to broken that I’ve seen Raymond Chandler’s PI get. He’s not having an easy time with what promised to be a simple enough missing person case, full of deceptive femme fatales, drugs, corpses and very angry cops. For once, Marlowe doesn’t get his teeth kicked in by the fellas at the local precinct, but it’s not for lack of desire on the part of certain of his new copper friends; makes for a nice change of pace, though, dunnit?

There’s an air to cynicism to The Little Sister which will stay on with you longer than you might be comfortable with; but it’s easy to relate to Chandler for underlining it. The almighty dollar is powerful indeed, folks. That’s a little something the cast of characters, no matter the societal class they belong to, no matter all else that might bind them together, are conscious of; worse than conscious, they’re ready to trod on any joint human relation if it means lining their pockets.

Philip Marlowe is the antithesis of that, a man who, despite his disillusionment with the world at large, has a strong moral backbone, a man unwilling to look the other way when injustice is being carried out. It’s his defining trait, and in the hardboiled world of the old-school crime thriller, it’s as good as you can hope for.

You have to admire Chandler, you have to. What he does with language, the force of his metaphors and flourishes is as much the reason behind the continued popularity of these novels as his plots and characters, perhaps more so. Reading him is like catching a whiff of asphalt fumes in a candy store; sweet as the prose is, it’ll always shock you, the things he comes up with:

Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver’s shirts, a he-man hero with shining eyes and brilliant smile reeking of sexual charm out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunch-box. Out of a Texas car hop with the literacy of a character in a comic strip it will make an international courtesan, married six times to six millionaires and so blasé and decadent at the end of it that her idea of a thrill is to seduce a furniture-mover in a sweaty undershirt.

And on occasion, when he writes a line like this one: “She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me,” you know Chandler was a man who could take the piss out of himself, someone who knew how to keep the balance between serious and soul-crushing.

Ray Porter’s narration is, as ever, an easy 5/5. He is my Philip Marlowe, it’s as simple as that.

Few other paragraphs could beat this one for my favourite quote in the novel:

Philip Marlowe, 38, a private licence operator of shady reputation, was apprehended by police last night while crawling through the Ballona Storm Drain with a grand piano on his back. Questioned at the University Heights Police Station, Marlowe declared he was taking the piano to the Maharajah of Coot-Berar. Asked why he was wearing spurs, Marlowe declared that a client’s confidence was sacred. Marlowe is being held for investigation. Chief Hornside said police were not yet ready to say more. Asked if the piano was in tune, Chief Hornside declared that he had played the Minute Waltz on it in thirty-five seconds and so far as he could tell there were no strings in the piano. He intimated that someting else was. A complete statement to the press will be made within twelve hours, Chief Hornside said abruptly. Speculation is rife that Marlowe was attempting to dispose of a body.

Thanks for reading! Have a song to get you in the proper mood for a Marlowe story.

The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan – Book Review Repost

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 1
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 544 (kindle edition)
Review Format: e-book
Purchased Copy.

I enjoy playing catch-up at year’s end – time is ever a limited resource and great books fall through the cracks more often than I’d like. One such prime example is The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, the first part in The Black Iron Legacy sequence, a wildly imaginative work. This is the author’s debut and it has put Hanrahan on just about every book blogger’s radar, at least in my tiny corner of the internet. Many have called it “the best debut of 2019” and now that I’ve read it, I can see why.

The Gutter Prayer is immensely imaginative, one of the first books I would hand over to someone who used to love fantasy but has gotten worn down by the conventions of the genre. It is an ambitious novel, unafraid to tackle the nature of gods and their relationship with their faithful, as well as economic inequality, the effects on deadly disease ravaging through the populace and more.

Guerdon is a fully realized city, every detail you could ask for mapped out and integrated into a heterogenous whole. I wouldn’t say it’s seamlessly done – no great city, no harbor port town in our own history could be described as seamless in that sense – but it is masterfully executed. This is a city of industry, with all that comes with that, from the shit-filled gutters and quarters dominated by crime and poverty and the stone plague to the homes of the middle-class and the boroughs of the rich, all the way to the city-within-a-city that is the Alchemist guild’s district. And that’s not even touching on the catacombs and tunnels down below, housing their own chthonic horrors…

So much is at play here, and it is slowly revealed through the eyes of an increasing cast of stellar characters, the first among which is a gutter rat of a thief called Cari, the lost daughter of a once-prominent Guerdon family. Cari is angry, brash and vengeful but above all else, she is as unlucky as they come, as before too long at all, she finds herself under the assault of strange, nightmarish visions whose appearance spells a great deal of trouble not only for Cari but for the city entire.

Her two friends, Spar and Rat – a Stone Man and a ghoul, respectively – further complicate matters. Spar is afflicted with a disease that slowly turns him to stone from the inside out. Before too long, he will be a prisoner of his own body, a living statue dependent on the mercy of others, until his lungs, his heart, his veins and blood also harden and calcify and he expires. The only stop-gap measure is an alchemical compound known as alkahest, expensive and difficult to get unless given directly by the Alchemist Guild; which is why so many Stone Men work as manual labourers for the Guild. But Spar doesn’t work for the alchemists– no, he’s part of the Brotherhood, a Thieves’ Guild, if you will, once under the control of Spar’s father Igde – an idealist who exemplified the romantic Robin Hood mentality of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor –  but now under new, far more cutthroat, less idealistic management. I didn’t necessarily like Spar for the first half of the novel; he’s hard-headed and obstinate, just like his decisions. But he grew on me, just like that crystalline formation keeps growing on him, taking away the physical boundaries of his humanity one inch at a time.

The ghoul, Rat, is a young member in a race of psychopomps, creatures that feed not only on dead flesh but on the souls of the dead, delivering them to the bosom of the Keeper gods, one would think. They’re a fun lot, ghouls are, and Rat most of all.

Ghouls love their eldritch mysterious stairwells descending infinitely into fucking shit-and-mushroom town.

Other characters also loan us readers their headspace – Jere, a thief-taker; an assistant at the university of Guerdon; a saint or two. These myriad viewpoints allow for a depth of experiences within the world, a mapping out of the different layers of society within this city. It’s downright Dickensian in how Guerdon is itself not only the battleground of so many different ways of life trying to assert themselves over the others, but a main character in its own right.

The city hasn’t slept. It staggers, drunktired, into the new day, uncertain of everything and looking for a fight.

Written in the present tense, it might take you a chapter or three of getting used to if you’re as used to reading in the past tense as I am – it’s certainly no hindrance to the enjoyment of The Gutter Prayer. I suspect Hanrahan chose it in order to further reinforce the feeling of immediacy in the action that often dominates the pages of the novel.

I must commend the author for the glossary of delightful monstrosities within these pages, from the alchemists’ insane servants, the Tallowmen with their wax bodies and sharp axes:

Before they can get to it, the door opens and out comes a Tallowman. Blazing eyes in a pale, waxy face. He’s an old one, worn so thin he’s translucent in places, and the fire inside him shines through holes in his chest. He’s got a huge axe, bigger than Cari could lift, but he swings it easily with one hand. He laughs when he sees her and Rat outlined against the fire.

all the way to the Gullheads; from the cursed Stone Men who become stronger the more their deadly disease progresses, to The Fever Knight, a creature of nightmare held together within its plate armour. Oh, and if these aren’t enough, there’s also worm-people, the arcane and utterly disgusting Crawling Ones:

Its voice is oddly musical and warm, but behind it she can hear the flapping and slithering of the worms, like hot fat on a frying pan. “What, may we ask, brings you walking in the places beneath?” It extends a cloth-wrapped “hand” to Aleena and helps her up. She feels worms pop and squish beneath the cloth as she pulls herself upright.

Ew. The descriptions of all these creatures lean almost towards the grotesque but they are all so very excellent. The cover, too, is a work of art, capturing the tone of the book perfectly – illustrated by Richard Anderson and designed by Steve Panton, it is nothing short of exquisite. If you take a look at it, you’ll get an idea, a feeling of what exactly awaits and this is witness to the makings of a great book cover.

Something that left a bit of a negative impression – I spied quite a few typos, an unusual number for an Orbit-published book. Something that could be cleaned up from the ebook and future reprints but at this point, I’m wondering whether to start offering my services as a copyreader.

Politics, magic, religion and alchemy all come to a head in The Gutter Prayer. Driven by a stellar cast of characters and an enviable imagination, this book is a must-read for fantasy lovers. My score for Hanrahan’s debut is 5/5 stars. 

Originally published over at booknest.eu — I’m archiving all my older reviews on this here blog, as it would be easier to categorize them all.

Sentence Structure # 04 Word Choice: The Sharper, The Better

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There is a difference between “Someone stole the priest’s thing!” and “The abbot’s lover absconded with his most prized Bible!” and that difference is owed to word choice. The more exact the words you make use of, the better. Words are the writer’s tools; you’ll want to avoid those with a blunted edge. Instead, you want your words to be sharp, to cut through the mind’s haze and shatter your reader’s pretty little heart!

Think of the last news article you clicked. Odds are, the headline was striking enough to catch your attention in-between the mountains of forgettable text the Internet is chock-full of. My last read? Pediatrician Seema Jilani’s first-person account of the Beirut catastrophe, titled: Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast. See how evocative it is? The words immediately call to mind the recent tragedy, while at the same time providing ample space for the reader to add their own association with the first half of the title. These are concrete words, which forecast the very real and horrific experience the writer — and hundreds of thousands others — went through, an event that will continue to define many lives for months and years to come.

The opening of the article proper does not lose any steam:

As I emerged from the car, the air was still whirring with debris. Everything was eerily silent. But it wasn’t. I just couldn’t hear anything. My ears were ringing.

The street scene in front of me, almost two blocks from my apartment and walking distance from the epicenter of the blast, was a silent horror film. Stunned people stumbled out of cafés, dogs dripping with blood cowered in corners, cars crumpled under chunks of concrete. A young girl approached me, dust layered in her eyelashes and hair.

Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast
Seema Jilani for the NYR Daily

I turned away from that article devastated, my understanding of the tragedy in Beirut now no longer merely the intellectual kind that a horrific tragedy happened which affected an entire city and its population; but the emotional understanding of and response to the plight of one family, and through that plight, the resonance that a thousand–ten thousand, a hundred thousand– families went through a visceral experience that has traumatised a society.

Hey, look at me breaking my own rule about sentence length. Back to the topic at hand…Such is the strength of concrete word choice; it is the most certain way of evoking the experience you want from your readers, and it’s among the most important building blocks in the writer’s toolbox.

Remove bland, general words from your writing unless they serve a very specific function in your sentence. June Casagrande puts it best:

I never want to read that your character heard a noise. I never want to read that the burglar stole some things. I never want to learn that your actions had an effect, that your CEO implemented a new procedure, or that your employees enjoyed a get-together.

I want loud thuds and Omega wristwatches. I want e-mail surveillance and sudden firings. Tell me that your CEO is cracking down on personal phone calls and that the accounting department held its annual drunken square dance and clambake in the warehouse.

Use specific words. Make it a habit to scrutinize your nouns and verbs to always aks yourself whether you’re missing an opportunity to create a more vivid experience for your Reader. This habit will open up a world of choices.

Chapter 6, Words Gone Mild

There isn’t much more to this topic, and the post can be distilled to the following advice from Yoda: Be mindful, young Padawan.

…Or was that a piece of advice from yoga?

Either way, vague words are the enemy. Cast them into the fire, and don’t look back.

Griftlands Early Access — Is It Worth It?

Early Access is so often little more than a grift, a calculated money grab intent on screwing the players over little more than a promising idea – but that has not been the case with Klei Entertainment’s previous games, and it certainly isn’t with the developer’s latest. Griftlands is an excellent roguelike deck builder with modular storytelling that you’ll be well pleased with. It has excellent protagonists, two sets of decks, and the kind of worldbuilding that engages with the player on a constant basis, which makes for plenty of moments of emerging storytelling. I’m eager to follow its development. References: More on Modular Storytelling here: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/David… Adam Millard’s “What Makes a Great Deckbuilder?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_gBR… ——————————– If you’d like to read the script for this video, please visit https://fantasy-hive.co.uk where I host a gaming column, in addition to acting as Assistant Editor! DON’T FORGET TO LIKE, SUBSCRIBE AND RING THAT BELL FOR NOTIFICATIONS! IF YOU’D LIKE MORE CONTENT… FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER: http://bit.ly/2op2jmt

Pawn (Sibyl’s War #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review — The Fantasy Hive

Blurb: Nicole Lee’s life is going nowhere. No family, no money, and stuck in a relationship with a thug named Bungie. But, after one of Bungie’s “deals” goes south, he and Nicole are whisked away by a mysterious moth-like humanoid to a strange ship called the Fyrantha. Once aboard, life on the ship seems too good […]

Pawn (Sibyl’s War #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review — The Fantasy Hive

Augustus by John Williams: The Will to Power (Part 1 of 2)

John Williams witholds the inner voice of the eponymous Augustus, born Gaius Octavius, until the very last. The first Roman Emperor remains among the most enigmatic figures in history, and Williams, too, keeps him at a hand’s length, his motives obscure even as the author’s other characters scrutinize Octavian’s every move.

And what characters they are! Nearly all of them based on real historical figures, rendered to life with daunting skill. But a few of these figures are Octavian’s three closest friends: Marcus Agrippa, Salvidenus Rufus, and the patron of the arts (and, judging by the emperor’s words, a bad poet in his own right), Maecenas.

But I am getting ahead of myself. This essay is the first of two planned out, aimed to celebrate a monumental work of historic and literary fiction, a work both intelligent and empathic, concerned with “the ambivalence between the public necessity and the private want or need” that Williams himself identifies as the conflict at the heart of the novel. This first essay examines Book 1 of Augustus, which follows Octavius Caesar’s ascension to power, his navigating the treacherous waters of a chaotic Rome in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination. His begins as a pursuit of justiceagainst his uncle’s assassins — or is it vengeance, or even a mere casus belli for the ambition of a young man?

Despite this, it’s not long before Octavian is forced to save one of his uncle’s assassins, Decimus, also one of Julius’ proteges. Here, then, is the first glimpse at the central conflict of Augustus. When Decimus, saved by the intervention of Octavius sends word to him in the hopes of conversation, Octavius Caesar’s response is telling:

I did not come to save Decimus; therefore, I will not accept his gratitude. I came to save the state; and I will accept its thanks. Nor will I speak to the murderer of my father, nor look upon his face. He may go in safety by the authority of the Senate, not by my own.

Augustus, Vintage edition, 60.

You see, then, how public necessity forces the young Caesar places public need before want; though whether it’s due to respect for the state, or to increase his own political capital during a time when doing so is of utmost necessity, is anybody’s guess.

The first part of the novel concludes after Octavian’s victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium. Success drips blood, failure gushes it. This is not something Octavius Caesar is unconscious of: “We knew that we had won the world; but there were no songs of victory that night, nor joy among any of us.” (140) So writes Marcus Agrippa in Williams’ fictionalized Memoirs of the very same, upon his recollection of that final contest between Octavius and Mark Anthony. The battle seals the latter’s face; Anthony kills himself not long after.

The paragraph quoted above is telling for the price of Augustus’s ascension. There is no end to the spilling of Roman blood in what was, in essence, the last chapter in a lengthy Roman civil war that saw its beginnings before even Julius Caesar’s star had risen. Many of the actors early on in Book 1 are driven by the notion of restoring the Republic to its former glory; Williams captures the political entanglements and atmosphere of the Eternal City through the letters of Cicero.

NYRB’s Editor at Large, Daniel Mendelsohn, describes Williams’ voice as “capturing both the wit and preening of Cicero”. Here, then, is one example of that wit, this time from a fictional letter penned by Maecenas:

We had heard the witticism that Cicero made: “We shall do the boy honor, we shall do him praise, and we shall do him in.” But I think that even Octavius did not expect the Senate and Cicero to offer so blatant and contemptuous a dismissal. Poor Cicero . . . . Despite the trouble he cause us and the harm that he indended, we were always rather fond of him.

61

This early actor in the political landscape of Book 1 does not last long, however, for a simple reason:

…the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; the the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the chall to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder.

62-63

Indeed, these early actors fall away from prominence as the novel moves inexorably onward. Even though many of the Republican faction survive to play a role in Book 2, the factional conflicts are overshadowed between Octavian and Mark Anthony’s own conflict. One of them is beloved by the people, the other has the loyalty of many of Julius’ own legions; both driven by the will to power.

Each of them, however, is possessed by very different qualities. Anthony is a soldier; a man whose own fortunes are built in the shadow of Julius Caesar. Followin Caesar’s detah, he viewed himself as the rightful heir of the power wielded by his former leader; but Anthony lacks the qualities of an administrator, as history teaches us when he took the position of Administrator of Italy in 47 B.C.; some of Anthony’s blunders are referenced by Williams on p. 51: “[Antonius] had defied the constitution once by entering the city with his armed forces…”

Further, Anthony is hardly a master tactician. Upon allying himself with Cleopatra and campaigning for her, he makes a fool of himself. Proof is to be found in the fictionalized report of Epimachos, High Priest of Heliopolist to Cleopatra: “[Antonius] fights more bravely than prudence should allow, and endures privations and hardships which would destroy the most seasoned common soldier. But he is no general, and the campaign has been a disaster.” (123)

Octavian, meanwhile, is that exceedingly rare mixture of scholar and skilled politician. Look towards the comparison between him and Cicero: “[Cicero] acted out of enthusiasm, vanity, and conviction. We had learned early that we could not afford those luxuries; we moved, when we had to move, out of calculation, policy and necessity. [My italics]” (62) These are good qualities in a statesman.

Octavian has the wherewithal to surround himself with capable men; though one of his friends, Salvidenus Rufus, betrays him in a moment of doubt, he leans both on Maecenas and on Agrippa; one a talented political operator, the other — a strategos of great skill. Anthony, by contrast, allows himself to be manipulated by Cleopatra, a pawn to aid the Egyptian ruler’s ambition of a Greko-Egyptian line to overshadow Rome itself. A pawn that loses even the loyalty of many of the soldiers in his sworn Roman legions, forced now to stand against fellow Romans for the defense of barbarians (as the Romans viewed the Egyptians and their kingdom).

One man proved victorious, the other was vanquished. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, August 19, marks the 2006th anniversary since Augustus’s death. Join me next month, on the anniversary of Octavian’s birth on September 22, for the second part of my analysis of John Williams’ Augustus: “In Times of Peace”.

Humankind Open Dev (Weekend #01) — First Impressions

What’s this?! Gaming content on the Fantasy Hive? I know what you’re thinking, dear Reader — the powers that be must be mad to give me such autonomy! That’s right, we at the Hive enjoy all things fantastical and creative, and so it’s my great pleasure to bring you all some game coverage starting with […]

Humankind Open Dev (Weekend #01) — First Impressions

And here’s the video itself:

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