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From Monday, 1 November 2010 to Monday, 6 December 2010, I read Lion Feuchtwanger's Jew Süß (a.k.a. Power), translated by Willa Muir and Edwin Muir (NY: The Modern Library [Bennett A. Cerf & Donald S. Klopfer; 1932 ed. [German edition originally published as Jud Süß in 1925; English translation first published in 1926]; 531 pps.).
cover to Lion Feuchtwanger's Jew Suss a.k.a. Power

The 1926 English translation of Lion Feuchtwanger's 1925 novel Jud Süß (or Jew Süss, subsequently retitled Power in the Modern Library edition of 1932, which also deleted the chapter numbers from the five "books" of Jew Süss) was the nominal basis for the infamous 1940 anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda movie of the same name, directed by Veit Harlan, who would go on to be Stanley Kubrick's uncle-in-law.

Jew Süss is loosely based on the life of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer (1698-1738; "süß" or "süss" means "sweet" or "cute," BTW), "a Jewish banker and financial planner for Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg in Stuttgart. He was a nephew and stepson of the banker Samuel Oppenheimer, diplomat and Shtadlan to Kaiser Leopold of Austria." (Feuchtwanger's novel was not the first prose treatment of Süß Oppenheimer's story, nor was the 1940 film the first cinematic treatment of it.) While Jud Süß started out as a detached and cynical "big picture" narrative roughly comparable in tone to B. Traven's Jungle series (Traven was also a German author and a near contemporary of Feuchtwanger's), it turned into a melodrama in the middle of Book IV ("The Duke"), where Duke Karl Alexander causes the death of Süss's daughter Naemi by chasing her through her house, probably with the design of raping her. The melodrama was not quite to the level of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (although the implicit parallels in Book V between Süss and Christ are more of what Marlowe might've attempted, had the times in which he'd lived been even slightly more permissive), but it wasn't as broad or shallow as I'd feared either.

I would definitely be interested in a fresh English translation (Dedalus Books, I'm looking at you), and I wish that Feuchtwanger threw a few more dates into the narrative; I would love an edition with explanatory notes (such as whether "Swabian" really is a separate language or a dialect, part of southern German), background material on the Holy Roman Empire (and Swabia in particular) of the early 1700s, an essay on the titular character and his place within the Oppenheimer family (as well as an explanation why his last name is Süss and not Oppenheimer...), etc., etc.

Feuchtwanger also wrote the Josephus Trilogy (Josephus [literal translation of the German title: "The Jewish War"], The Jews of Rome [lit.: "The Sons"], and Josephus and the Emperor [lit.: "The Day Will Come"; some English editions are titled this]), The Pretender (1936: about Terentius Maximus, the false Nero; the German title translates as "The False Nero") and Foxes in the Vineyard (a.k.a. Proud Destiny, about Pierre Beaumarchais and Benjamin Franklin in Paris from 1776). Feuchtwanger fled the Nazis in the 1930s, but has come under some criticism for soft-soaping Stalin's atrocities.

From Sunday, 8 December 2013 to Tuesday, 31 December 2013 (yes, it was the last book that I finished in 2013), I read George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, the third book in his five-book-long (so far; seven books are planned) A Song of Ice and Fire series, the basis for the HBO television series Game of Thrones (taken from the title of the first book, the tv show's title inexplicably dropped the "A" that preceded "Game of Thrones" in the book's title). (NY: Bantam Books [an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.]; 2011 mass market edition [copyright 2000]; ISBN: 978-0-553-57342-8; 1,179 pps. [pgs. 1,129-1,177 consist of an appendix of the various houses and characters that have appeared in the series thus far])
cover to George RR Martin's A Storm of Swords -- HBO tie-in mmpb

George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series kicks into high gear in its third installment, A Storm of Swords, which features dramatic (and often maddening) developments in the stories of such characters as Tyrion Lannister (the younger dwarf brother to Queen Cersei Baratheon, regent for her son King Joffrey, overlord of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros); Cersei's twin brother Jaime Lannister, called "Kingslayer" for his role in the overthrow of the House of Targaryen (and the true father of Joffrey and his two siblings; he and his sister have been secret lovers since their adolescence); Daenerys ("Dany") Targaryen, apparently the last but one member of the family, in custody of apparently the last three dragons in the world; Jon Snow, bastard son of the disgraced and executed King in the North, Eddard ("Ned') Stark, and a member of the Night's Watch (sometimes called, not always affectionately, "crows," owing to their plain black garb and accoutrement) which guards the Wall to forestall the encroachment of human Wildlings and various supernatural entities and forces that thrive in the land of perpetual winter; Brandon ("Bran") Stark, a young boy with an unusually close bond with his pet direwolf, Summer, who was crippled in the first book, A Game of Thrones, thanks to Jaime and Cersei; Arya Stark, a tomboyish girl and the youngest daughter of Ned Stark and his queen, Catelyn; Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of Ned and Catelyn, and a captive of Cersei's; Davos Seaworth ("the Onion Knight"), counselor to Stannis Baratheon, King in the Narrow Sea, self-proclaimed heir to the Iron Throne upon which his presumptive nephew Joffrey sits (Stannis is the dour brother of King Robert Baratheon, who was the presumptive father of Joffrey and his siblings Tommen and Myrcella, husband of Cersei, who was slain in A Game of Thrones [Stannis knows the true parentage of Joffrey and his siblings, although he was unable to convince enough people of it -- or that it much mattered -- in A Clash of Kings]; Stannis is very much under the spell of Lady Melisandre of Asshai, a priestess of the god R'hllor, styled Lord of Light and God of Flame and Shadow); and Samwell Tarly, a fat, unathletic and timid, though gentle and artistic, member of the Night's Watch who is Jon's friend, and nearly his ward.

It takes Martin 132 pages, in the mass market edition, to introduce most of the main characters who have their own chapters in A Storm of Swords; Samwell's first POV chapter doesn't appear until p. 236. It's not too much of a stretch to call A Song of Ice and Fire an epic fantasy version of a 19th century Russian novel -- or perhaps an epic fantasy version of La Comédie humaine. Martin's strong suit here is setting multiple wheels within wheels, near-infinite variations of the prisoner's dilemma, in motion; the series also provides multiple refractions of our Earth's (mostly) medieval history and various cultures' mythologies (I've mentioned previously some of the real-world incidents that I believe that Martin is riffing on), but most readers -- certainly this reader -- likely won't notice most of these on their first read-through, owing to their being caught up in the sheer busyness of Martin's multiple plots. (One thing that struck me in this book was how often Martin used the tag "a man/woman grown" or "a man/woman near grown" to describe characters that are in, at best, mid-adolescence, if not prepubescence: a stark reminder of the harshness of this world's expectations, to say nothing of its average lifespans.)

A Storm of Swords does have major set pieces -- yes, the notorious Red Wedding occurs here (and I've read that the writers of the HBO series felt the need to tweak this event so that even those who had already read A Storm of Swords would be thrown for a loss) -- but, for all that the book ends with not one but two jaw-dropping climaxes, and for all that Dany's still smallish dragons are finally allowed to be something more than mere novelties, this volume had more doldrums than the first two books did; although it might be argued that the lows are what make the highs in A Storm of Swords so very high. As my youngest would doubtlessly put it, "Shit's gettin' reals, yo!" I've written elsewhere that one should probably be forgiven for thinking, on the strength of A Storm of Swords, that Martin's main theme is "God hates us all!", given how it doesn't seem to matter what a character does, morally speaking: everyone is equally liable to sudden death, maiming, disfigurement, defilement, and debasement, no matter how good, bad, or indifferent their actions; while (usually temporary...) rises in fortune's barometer can also befall anybody, these upticks seem to happen most often to the most reprehensible and unlikeable characters.

That said, the chapters focusing on Jaime eventually convinced me that he's not quite as black as he's been painted (although Cersei comes off here even worse than she did in the previous two books, if you can believe that); and while I liked roughly half of the chapters focusing on Jon Snow, the supernatural elements of those chapters were not what I liked most about them. (A strong point of Martin's series, for me, has been the relatively restrained way in which he's presented the fantastic elements: if a book reads like the contents of a Dungeons & Dragons Monsters Manual come to life, then the fantastic elements are about as awe-inspiring as the cross-town bus that's forty minutes late.) Which is to say, if you've been antsy for a better glimpse at just what the hell's lurking north of the Wall, A Storm of Swords will make you happy (for what Martin lets you see) and frustrated (for all that Martin merely suggests or implies and doesn't let you see) in equal measure. For my part, I would've happily read at least double the amount of chapters here that focused on Daenerys and her quest to restore the House Targaryen and reclaim the Iron Throne, but I have to admit that A Storm of Swords would have perforce been a very different book, and A Song of Ice and Fire at least a somewhat different series. (Martin so excelled himself on Dany's chapters, particularly those focusing on the eunuch slave-soldiers The Unsullied, that I was muttering unkind things about him when I realized that there were no more chapters with her and them to be had in this book.) Sansa's maturity level, if not intelligence, seems to have taken at least two giant steps backwards in this book, after guarded improvement in A Clash of Kings over the naïve drip she was in the first book, A Game of Thrones; Sansa made me think of the infuriatingly naïve and passive Amelia from Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which is not a good thing. Arya wasn't as interesting here as she was in the previous two books; it's possibly the relative slowness of her storyline here that finally let me realize that, if you add an "n" to her first name, you'd have "Aryan Stark"; rather apropos, given her personality.

On a lighter note, one might also be forgiven for thinking that a motif of A Storm of Swords is incontinence, given the number of characters (not always Samwell Tarly, although it must be said that he holds the Professor P.P. Poopypants Seal of Excellence) who piss themselves. Makes me wonder if HBO's ad execs were able to secure sponsorship from the makers of Depends for the third season of Game of Thrones.....

In 2013 I added another platform to the tried-and-true (and, if truth be told, still preferred by me), 650-year-old printed and bound book platform: the missus sold me her Kindle Fire 7" last February, after she'd bought a Kindle Fire HD. I had a brief scare with it in April, when it mysteriously quit working, but the missus was able to dope-slap it back to life.

Since my previous favorite bookstore chain, Borders, bit the dust in September 2011, my acquisition of a Kindle has gradually meant that my new favorite (and I say that guardedly...) "bookstore" is Amazon.com; the other thing that has been driving my eyeballs and wallet (or, to be more precise, electronic access to my bank account) towards Amazon's door is the missus's growing impatience, disgust, and, some days, fury, at my book hoarding library: never much of a reader to begin with, she sees no need in keeping books around after they've been read once (EXCEPTION: those books that she wants to keep around for a possible re-read, such as certain works by Catherine Ryan Hyde, Diane Chamberlain, Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, Lisa See, or Lilian Jackson Braun); however, now that I have a Kindle, she doesn't have to be troubled by the sight of what is to her merely unsightly, ungodly clutter, or at the thought of the time and effort it will take to pack and move a bunch of what is to her utterly unnecessary dead weight when next we change residences.

In addition to purchasing books for my Kindle (and downloading a few free books that Amazon offered; usually not ones in the public domain, oddly enough), I've been working the crap out of Project Gutenberg's main (U.S.) site to download works that I'm interested in reading that have lapsed into the public domain (including some pulp sci-fi and fantasy from the 1920s - 1950s) under U.S. copyright law. (Project Gutenberg's Australia site has even more works available, owing to Oz's less generous copyright laws; however, I seem to be unable to actually download any of the titles on its site, most likely due to my having an American IP address: if I wish to read something on PG-Oz's site that isn't on their main site, I'll be obliged to read it in HTML, directly on their site, which will mean that my bookmarks may be lost, and I won't be able to highlight or annotate it, at least if I read it on the Kindle.) While I've flirted with reading a Project Gutenberg text on my PC or laptop various times over the years -- in particular, I've made two or three false starts of Edwin Arnold's Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation -- acquiring a Kindle actually spurred me to read a few of their books (as well as a couple of short stories). I've previously blogged about my trial-and-error explorations of exactly how I was finally able to read a Project Gutenberg text on my Kindle, so I won't reiterate them here; suffice to say, neither Amazon nor Project Gutenberg make it blindingly obvious how, or if, this may be done.

I've also borrowed some books from the library for my Kindle, only one of which I didn't finish; as the rental period for e-books in my library network is a mere two weeks (as opposed to the three week period accorded to physical books, with the option to renew the rental up to three times, provided that no other library user has placed a hold on it), I've been obliged to drop any other book I was actively reading at the time in order to get through my e-(book) loan. This has directly resulted in my stalling out in a physical book (along with my growing ambivalence about it), but I've resumed picking my way through it as of 31 December 2013.

Alright, enough preamble; on to the rundown.

Read Dead Redemption?Collapse )

America loves a con man.

Saw The Wolf of Wall Street last Friday night (27 December); that's the new movie from director Martin Scorsese and writer Terence Winter (one of the main writers on The Sopranos and the creator, head writer and show runner for another HBO series, Boardwalk Empire), based on the eponymous memoir of convicted financial criminal Jordan Belfort, who was encouraged to write his story by Tommy Chong -- half of Cheech & Chong -- whom he met in prison.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a near-great movie, arguably Scorsese's best film since Gangs of New York (I wasn't much of a fan of The Departed when I first saw it in the theatre, but I've softened somewhat -- possibly in the head -- after viewing it a second time on DVD). It's terribly enjoyable: at once an homage to the barrier-breaking Hollywood movies of the then-young Turk directors (of which Scorsese himself was one, lest we forget) in the 1970s, it also suggests a Scorsese version of a Quentin Tarantino movie (or, at minimum, Scorsese's response to Tarantino's oeuvre); but behind the wild excesses of misbehavior on screen, it's an acerbic, bilious, pitch-dark meditation on the downside of capitalism in general and the financial industry in particular. (It's telling that Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort disparages CDOs -- collaterized debt obligations; they're one of the main causes of the still-ongoing, despite reports to the contrary, economic malaise called in some quarters The Great Recession, because most pundits don't want to unlimber the big-D word -- as being too crooked and convoluted even for him to understand.) It's also easily the most damning indictment of the American Dream in a Hollywood movie since Scorsese's Goodfellas.

I also loved Scorsese's sort-of zombie sequence (where DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, strung out on ultra-powerful Quaaludes, fumble and wrestle in DiCaprio's / Belfort's kitchen), which was a witty fillip to the zombie craze that's taken over tv, comic books, movies and, based on the evidence of Amazon's Kindle store, self-published electronic books. (Have to say that Hill's fake horse-teeth choppers were as distracting as Sean Penn's jewfro in Carlito's Way, though.)

Other pluses for me were the cameo, as a judge, by acerbic humorist Fran Lebowitz (she was the subject of a Scorsese-directed HBO documentary, Public Speaking); the appearance of Shea Whigham, who plays Eli Thompson on Boardwalk Empire, in a bit part; the clip of an episode of the mid-1980s tv show The Equalizer, starring Edward Woodward (which was apparently at least partly inspired by a British tv show from the late 1960s / early 1970s that I've started watching this year, thanks to Netflix: Callan, also starring Edward Woodward), which featured Steve Buscemi (who played Tony Soprano's would-be massage therapist cousin Tony Blundetto, and is currently starring as Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire, whose pilot Scorsese directed) as a guest star.

Far and away the biggest plus, and what really drives the movie along, over and above the fourth-wall breaking exposition by DiCaprio's Belfort, the jump cuts and the louche on-screen shenanigans, is the soundtrack: the soundtracks of Scorsese's movies almost always stand head-and-shoulders above their peers (Peter Gabriel's score for The Last Temptation of Christ gets my vote as best soundtrack evAH; the movie itself is an interesting misfire), and the songs heard in The Wolf of Wall Street are even better than those heard in The Departed, for all that I thought that the soundtrack of The Departed helped propel that movie and mask, to a certain extent, its flaws.

It's interesting that Scorsese seems to have glommed onto DiCaprio as his preferred leading man: The Wolf of Wall Street is DiCaprio's fifth Scorsese film (following Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed and Shutter Island). DiCaprio's got a ways to go to catch up with Robert De Niro (Mean Streets -- probably still my favorite Scorsese movie -- Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Casino), but he's made a respectable start. (And really, Mean Streets shouldn't be included in De Niro's tally, since he was only a co-star; Harvey Keitel was the leading man.)

Wish that the role of Hildy Azoff (MacKenzie Meehan) -- wife of Jonah Hill's Donny Azoff -- had been expanded a bit, but it probably would've made the movie a bit lopsided. Hopefully Meehan will get more quality film or tv roles.

It was fun to see Joanna Lumley -- a Bond girl in On Her Majesty's Secret Service; Purdey in The New Avengers (I've seen more episodes of this spin-off show than I have of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in the original The Avengers, a lack that I really should address one day; Rigg was, it should be remembered, the main Bond girl from On Her Majesty's Secret Service) -- in a supporting role, as a veteran of "Swinging London", a period and cultural phenomenon satirized in the Austin Powers movies.

Could've done without the git behind me stage-whispering "YESSS!" every time DiCaprio's Belfort punched his second wife Naomi (the not entirely real-looking Margot Robbie); it wasn't as bad as the group of assholes who sat behind me in another, now defunct, theatre in 1988, lustily cheering Jodie Foster's character's being gang-raped in The Accused, but it was off-putting.

It's an interesting footnote that Wikipedia records that there was a (silent?) movie called The Wolf of Wall Street, released in February 1929, nearly nine months before the Crash of '29. (This movie starred the notable blowhard George Bancroft, Olga Baclanova -- best remembered today as the evil aerialist Cleopatra in Tod Browning's career-ending movie Freaks, she also appeared in the overrated The Man Who Laughs -- and Brandon Hurst, another alumnus of The Man Who Laughs, and who also appeared in the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, both versions of The Thief of Baghdad, the 1932 version of Murders in the Rue Morgue, and the even more vastly overrated [though seminal] 1932 horror movie White Zombie.)

Who says that Hollywood is in its own little cocoon, blithely unaware of goings-on in the so-called real world..?

Call this another installment in the "Holiday Stupidity" file; it's actually not another instance of the "War on Christmas!!!" bulldada, though.

Happened to hear, on the Wed., 11 Dec. edition of CBC Radio One's This Is That, an interview with Sharon Coyle of the Canadian Association Alliance, who objects to the phrase "Happy Holidays" not because it's not Christmas-specific, but because she doesn't think that anyone should wish anyone a happy anything. "If you're working, you can't have a happy holiday" and "Don't impose your wishes on anyone" are some of her typical (paraphrased) remarks. (The quote from This Is That's blog entry under the previous link is even more outlandish: "First off, to assume someone is actually happy is obscenely offensive. Secondly, to speculate that a person is on holiday is equivalent to slapping them in the face.")

Her solution? Use either "It's December!" or "It's winter!" instead. (She actually prefers "It's winter!," since she also thinks that it's rude to assume that everyone you encounter uses the same calendar. That she didn't take into account that, for residents of the southern hemisphere, the greeting "It's winter!" is, by her logic, also grossly offensive and inappropriate, wasn't addressed.)

Man. And I thought that "Count" Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics (which Robert A. Heinlein thought so highly of; see the Fair Witnesses in Stranger in a Strange Land) was ridiculous.

You can listen to the segment (5:20) here. If I didn't know better, I'd swear it was an SNL or a This Hour Has 22 Minutes skit.

*Reposted in a slightly different form from a comment on marlowe1's entry of 10 December 2013 at 16:22:00.

Fatal paterfamilias.

Woke up from my afternoon nap yesterday (Saturday, 23 November) in the midst of a disturbing dream: my father was calmly, almost cheerfully, trying to kill me, as he said that I was such a towering disappointment and regret to him.

He had enlisted the aid of two or three of the more thuggish and rough-looking of his Mexican (or Mexican-American; not sure which) buddies; as far as I know, he doesn't have any such compañeros, thuggish and rough-looking or otherwise. I was living in my parents' big, ramshackle house, which bore little, if any, resemblance to their real-world big, better-repaired house. My wife and eldest two kids were nowhere in evidence in my dream, although my youngest was also living in their house. I was roughly my real-world age; my youngest was perhaps a year or two younger (he's 19 in RL). My parents were at least twenty years younger.

I kept trying to approach my mother for advice, and, more importantly, help; she uttered soothing reassurances, but I couldn't tell if she was on my side or my dad's (an uncertainty which was not infrequently experienced during my RL growing-up period).

He cited, with approval, the ancient Roman law, extant to at least the 1st century B.C., of a father's right to slay his child for disobedience or out of disappointment. While I've often suspected my RL father's affection for this law, I've never actually asked him about it. For obvious reasons.

What was most horrifying about the dream was my uncertainty as to whether my father didn't have a point after all. My waking thoughts often wander down these discomfiting and unproductive channels.

These are the shapes of my nightmares: existential dread and horror, rather than ghosties, ghoulies, cosmic abortions (á la Lovecraft), Saw- or Dexter-like psychos, or apocalyptical tangos. I'd prefer Door Number Two to Door Number One; the contents of Door Number One aren't as easily shaken off.

Oddly enough, in the RL, I'm largely indifferent to or outright bored by traditional horror tropes, even Lovecraftian ones.

Damn. Does anyone ever recover from their childhood, ever?

Forget the "birth trauma" bushwah; childhood, "growing up," is the real scarring and scarifying mindfuck.

"The horror; the horror...."

From Monday, 4 November to Friday, 15 November, I read Poul Anderson's The People of the Wind (NY: Signet Books [The New American Library, Inc.], May 1973 [tenth printing; undated, but cover price is U.S. $0.95]; 176 pps.); originally published in the Feb. through Apr. 1973 issues of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact. The unsigned cover is by Fernando Fernandez, per the Internet Speculative Fiction Database; the complete version of the painting may be viewed here.

cover to Poul Anderson's The People of the Wind_0002(1)

The People of the Wind is the last book in Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League series; however, as I've noted previously, since it is set generations after the deaths of said series' two main characters, Nicholas van Rijn (whose name I've only just learned was very likely taken from the homophonic name of a main character in Anya Seton's 1944 novel Dragonwyck) and David Falkayn, and generations before Anderson's follow-up series, the Terran Empire or Dominic Flandry series, it is more properly considered as a bridge novel connecting the two series. Though the references to characters and events of the preceding five or six books are oblique (David Falkayn is the only character directly mentioned, and it's in roughly the same context that a present-day American might refer to Daniel Boone or Lewis and Clark), it would be helpful if one has first read the Ythri stories (and novel, The Man Who Counts, previously published in a truncated form as War of the Wing-Men; this novel is, properly speaking, the first installment in the Polesotechnic League series) collected in The Earth Book of Stormgate before reading The People of the Wind.

The People of the Wind is a densely-packed, swift-moving story of imperial and colonial ambitions playing out in a series of interstellar skirmishes collectively dignified with the title of war: the relatively newly-formed Terran Empire (dominated by humans) wishes to hedge off the expansion of the even more recently-formed Ythrian Domain (dominated by ornithoid "bird-men" called the Ythri; humans and Ythri are similar enough so that they can eat most of each others' native foods, although the Ythri are more vulnerable to radiation than humans are, while humans are more susceptible to heavy metal poisoning than the Ythri are [p. 93]; the two species cannot interbreed, although there are hints of occasional sexual encounters between them), while the human and Ythri colonists of the world named Avalon (which gets a prominent mention in the stories collected in The Earth Book of Stormgate) would rather be independent. Anderson has an absurdly large cast of characters for such a brief novel: while his mission statement for this novel may be inferred by the book's dedication ("To Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett with thanks for many years of adventure"), Anderson usually wasn't satisfied with writing "mere" adventure tales, and his intent here is obviously greater than producing a "mere" space opera or swords & planets romp; unfortunately, his high-minded intentions are undermined by a lack of believable character development and by a, at best, tin-eared disregard for the horror and seriousness of rape.

For all the sober reflections on the ethicality of an interstellar empire versus a colony breaking away from its parent state (or states, in the case of Avalon, as its society is a blend of human and Ythrian), or the morality of war and what the moral distinctions are, if any, between standard warfare (up to and including particle beam weaponry, and implicitly including chemical warfare) and nuclear warfare, The People of the Wind suffers from one of its characters, Chris Holm (Ythrian name: Arinnian), being an exceptional prig, and from Anderson's cack-handed treatment of another character's rape.

The character in question, Eyath, is an Ythrian; Anderson stacks the deck by saying that the Ythri, while humanoid in all important respects, are enough like their bird-like ancestors that they don't share humans' sexuality: to wit, Ythrian females are not theoretically receptive to sex at all times, but rather go into estrus, during which period they emit pheromones that Ythrian males are able to detect and track from many miles away. More to the point, the sexual functionality of Ythrian males is wholly dependent upon the receptivity of Ythrian females -- which doesn't preclude Ythrian males shipping off to war from finding a few abnormal, "always ready" Ythrian females, usually functioning as de facto prostitutes, to "party" with before boarding their spaceships. (Given that this is a work of a member of the last generation of classic science fiction authors, it should come as no surprise that Anderson doesn't posit the existence of homosexuality in the Ythri, considering that he scarcely acknowledged its existence in humans.)

Early in the book, the wannabe Ythrian, the human Chris Holm (Ythrian name: Arinnian), is discomfited by what his galemate (roughly akin to the human concept of "blood brother," "galemate" denotes an unusually close friendship between two Ythri and, in mixed choths or tribal groups, between a human and an Ythrian; the choth that Arinnian and Eyath belong to is Stormgate, which is a rather conservative one, though not, one feels, as conservative as Arinnian comes off as; one suspects that he's trying to be "more Catholic than the pope" in a vain attempt to "go bird") Eyath tells him about her attraction to a stand-up Ythrian named Vodan:

"She shouldn't tell him such things. It wasn't decent. An unmarried female Ythrian, or one whose husband was absent, was supposed to stay isolated from males when the heat came upon her; but she was also supposed to spend the energy it raised in work, or study, or meditation, or --"

-- p. 17

Later, news of Vodan's death shocks Eyath into premature estrus (recall the seldom-discussed phenomenon of "funeral sex," i.e., some people having sex immediately after a funeral, either with their partners or with a one-night stand, in order to shake the grim and sad feelings that a funeral inspires), which is supposedly at least partly what inspires an atavistic Ythrian named Draun to pursue and rape Eyath. It's hard to avoid the suspicion that Anderson is channeling his thoughts on human rape into his ornithoid extraterrestrials; he even goes so far as to have a human female character, Tabitha Falkayn (a descendant of David Falkayn, who at the time of this book has been dead for centuries; p. 18; p. 30), defend Draun by telling Chris/Arinnian, "'[T]hey couldn't help themselves. Neither could....Shock and grief brought on premature ovulation, and then he chanced by ---'" (p. 141). When Chris/Arinnian calls Draun on the videophone to confront him, Anderson puts the nastily dismissive and hoary arguments deployed by human males the world over against rape into Draun's mouth:

"'Done's done, and no harm in it. Choth law says not, in cases like this, save that a gild [financial payment; akin to the Germanic weregeld] may be asked for wounded pride and any child must be provided for. There'll hardly be a brat, from this early in her season, and as for pride, she enjoyed herself.'"

-- p. 141

Anderson has Draun muddy the waters by introducing a bit of species envy, this time by an Ythrian for human male capabilities:

"'No harm. Why, you humans can force your females, and often do, I've heard. I'm not built for that. Anyhow, what's one bit of other folk's sport to you, alongside your hundred or more each year?'

"Arinnian had kept down his vomit. It left a burning in his gullet. His words felt dull and, in his ears, remote, though every remaining sense had become preternaturally sharp. 'I saw her condition.'

"'Well, maybe I did get a bit excited. Your fault, really, you humans. We Ythrians watch your ways and begin to wonder. You grip my meaning? All right, I'll offer gild for any injuries, as certified by a medic. I'll even discuss a possible pride-payment, with her parents, that is.'"

-- pps. 141-42

In short, Eyath's rape is ultimately dismissed by a "She asked for it," a disgusting attitude perhaps most commonly reported of late in India, but by no means alien to the U.S. That Anderson attempts to justify this dismissal by a bit of made-to-order xenobiology -- It's the females who control sex! Sex just doesn't happen unless the females want it! -- makes one suspect Anderson of having similarly retrograde attitudes towards rape among humans ("Just get over it"), much as one is apt to suspect Robert A. Heinlein when he brings the subject up in his late novel Friday.

Anderson's presentation and "resolution" of this incident is the biggest flaw in The People of the Wind; but the frankly unbelievable character "growth" that he tacks on at the end also cheapens the ideas that Anderson was able to successfully present here (including a rather neat snookering of the invading Terran forces that the Avalonians were able to perpetrate), as does an absurdity that Anderson should have been too intelligent to let slip through: the Terran admiral in charge of the punitive expedition against the Ythrian Domain and Avalon tells representatives of those polities: "'The truth is, you're up against Imperial Terra, which thinks in terms of centuries and reigns over thousands of planets'" (p. 116). That a human government, any human government, is capable of planning centuries into the future isn't merely a trope of science fantasy (forget "fiction"); it's a bona fide opium pipe dream. It also flies in the face of everything that Anderson wrote in previous and subsequent installments (some of the stories that fall earlier in the series' chronology were actually published after The People of the Wind) of his Polesotechnic League series, where the human governments were scarcely capable of planning to the end of the current calendar year.

One of the highpoints of The People of the Wind comes in a dialogue between Daniel Holm, at this point the Marchwarden of the Lauren System, and his son Chris (Arinnian), a little over halfway through the book; Holm senior says:

"'I read a book once, on the history of colonization. The author made an interesting point. He said you've got to leave most of the surface under plant cover, rooted vegetation and phytoplankton and whatever else there may be. You need it to maintain the atmosphere. And these plants are part of an ecology, so you have to keep many animals too, and soil bacteria and so forth. Well, as long as you must have a biosphere, it's cheaper -- easier, more productive -- to make it supply most of your food and such, than to synthesize. That's why colonists on terrestroid worlds are nearly always farmers, ranchers, foresters, et cetera, as well as miners and manufacturers.'

"'So?' his son asked.

"'So you grow into your world, generation by generation. It's not walls and machinery, it's a live nature, it's this tree you climbed when you were little and that field your grandfather cleared and yonder hilltop where you kissed your first girl. Your poets have sung it, your artists have drawn it, your history has happened on it, your forebears returned their bones to its earth and you will too, you will too. It is you and you are it. You can no more give it away, freely, than you could cut the heart out of your breast.'"

-- p. 119

Anderson here presents a scientific basis for regarding one's homeland with the same level and type of reverence shown by, say, Amerindian tribes, which is a lot more palatable than his half-assed explication of rape. If you can forgive or forget the latter, then you might derive a few hours' worth of pleasant diversion from The People of the Wind.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

Boys will be gormless pervs.

As maddeningly chaotic as it is whenever the brats all get together (or when the middle and youngest get together), sometimes unintentional hilarity ensues to leaven the free-floating rage that their shenanigans more typically arouse in me.

Case in point: yesterday, the middle child came over to trash the house and futz with the family room's telly play some NHL video game on the X-box 360 with the youngest child. I was in the kitchen/dining room, attempting to tune them out while I putzed around on my laptop.

At one point, the youngest yelled at the middle: "Stop playing with your dick when you're talking to me!" They were both lounging around in boxers that provided far too little coverage, especially when they would sit with their legs up.

The youngest is 19. The middle child is 27, married, and the only child no longer living at home.

So no, age and the marital state don't always -- or even necessarily -- bring wisdom, dignity, self-restraint.

The missus used to be an assistant swim coach for both a girls and a boys high school team, back when her health was better; she repeatedly remarked that, on the whole, she preferred coaching boys (far less drama, or DRAH-ma, than girls), aside from the alarming propensity of many of the boys to, uh, "adjust" themselves while talking to her and the senior coach (who was also a woman). Sometimes, a couple of the boys would even flip their Speedos down, wholly exposing themselves, and absently scratch and otherwise fondle themselves, while talking to them.

For the most part, the missus and her boss would strive for a low-key reaction to this, if they reacted at all. When forbidden flesh was exposed, they would advise the offender(s) to cover it up, and sometimes merely bark out their names; they never made a federal case of it, which would have been a lot of bother all the way around.

One wonders when -- or if -- these absent-minded self-manipulators will ever learn to steel themselves to not fondle themselves in public.

Kind of makes you wonder about some of the doofuses slapped with sexual harassment charges; one suspects that, in at least some of the cases, it was less about attempting ribaldry and/or seduction than it was about absentmindedly relieving an itch, rather in the manner of a dog licking itself.

One would hope that the greater cranial capacity of a Homo sapiens would be able to overcome, at least in public, such reflexive behavior; but such is sadly not the case, at least not as often as it should be.

Maybe the middle child's blushing bride will be able to break him of it; but I wouldn't bet heavily on it.

From Monday, 7 October through Friday, 11 October, I read Poul Anderson's Mirkheim (NY: Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1977; hardcover; book club edition; 183 pps.). The name of the artist who painted the rather abstract cover is Richard Powers, although his name is not given in this edition.

cover to Mirkheim by Poul Anderson(1)

Mirkheim is the penultimate novel in Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League series, the subject of which is a loose (in this book, nearly non-existent) alliance of inter-stellar merchant princes modeled on those of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century; whether it is considered the 5th or 6th book of the series depends on which source you accept (it should be noted that Anderson's Wikipedia entry lists the books in somewhat different order than Anderson's publisher did in the 1970s and 1980s). There is a certain amount of overlap between this and the subsequent series in Anderson's "future history," the Terran Empire or Dominic Flandry series; note that Anderson's Wikipedia entry shows that the two series have been reprinted together in omnibus format as The Technic Civilization Saga.

Mirkheim is very much a valedictory lap for Anderson's "globular" (his granddaughter calls him "Gunung Tuan," which is appears to be the name of an Indonesian mountain) trader, the nonpareil gourmand, rough-and-tumble spaceman, devilishly canny bargainer, superhumanly shrewd business executive (his personal fiefdom is the Solar Spice and Liquors Company), backroom political force of nature and Krishnaesque rakehell, the malapropism-spewing, half-Dutch, half-Indonesian Nicholas van Rijn, whose preferred garment is a sarong (which he would doubtless say on him looks "so right"; it's curious that Anderson never had him say that, come to think of it), and his associates: his grandson-in-law David Falkayn, a lesser scion of the nobility of the human-colonized planet Hermes, and Falkayn's extraterrestrial shipmates, the just under a meter long, bloodthirsty feline ("She had once heard herself compared to a cross between an Angora cat, a monkey, a squirrel, and a raccoon, and idly wondered which of these were supposed to be on what side of the family"; p. 25) Chee Lan (as I've previously remarked, I can't help but wonder if she served as a partial inspiration for an X-Men supporting character, Mam'selle Hepzibah of the Starjammers; yes, yes, her name is clearly an homage to the character in Walt Kelly's Pogo strip, but her personality is mostly Chee Lan-derived) and the four-and-a-half-meters-long, over two meters high (p. 26), dracocentauroid from a planet that humans have named Woden, the fierce-looking practicing Buddhist Adzel (and yes, I also see a rough inspiration for Ch'od of the Starjammers in Adzel).

The Earth-based human government and business combine -- referred to as the Commonwealth, the Home Companies, and the Seven (Companies) In Space, respectively -- and the independent merchants operating under the loose collective of the Polesotechnic League find themselves on a collision course with a race of hydrogen-breathing sentients on a subjovian planet that humans have named Babur (humans refer to these beings -- Anderson's preferred term for intelligent beings is "sophonts" -- as Baburites; they're roughly meter-long, four-eyed, lobster-like creatures with "eight short legs," pincer claws and tendrils "extending from the wrists above these....to serve as fingers"; p. 7) over the titular planet that Falkayn christened Mirkheim, owing to the planet's volatility, which produces rare and too expensive to produce artificially supermetals at the higher end of the periodic table. Both the human-centric organizations and the Baburites want primary, if not exclusive, domain over Mirkheim's bounty. The rather convoluted plot involves generations-old socio-political tensions on Hermes, a human agent secretly advising the Baburites and feeding them intelligence about the disunity among the Terrans, and the Home Companies and the Seven pushing the Commonwealth into becoming more of an overtly corporatist -- read fascist -- state, the better that the business combines may pad their own profit margins.

As one might suspect, such a set-up gives Anderson ample -- too ample -- opportunity to have various characters bloviate about libertarian ideals. (Unions come in for a bit of a drubbing, which only serves to underscore how old a work Mirkheim is, given that it was written and published just as unions in America were dropping off of their height of power; one wonders what Anderson made of the rollback of unions in the U.S., beginning under the auspices of Ronald Reagan.) Much like his fellow libertarian Robert A. Heinlein, or the socialist Mack Reynolds, Anderson makes a good case for his philosophy when he can hand-pick his opponents; one hopes that most readers would prefer a libertarian-type government to a fascist-type one, but it must be allowed that science fiction and reactionary tendencies, up to and including fascism, are old friends.

Though Anderson gives hints early in Mirkheim that he would delve into just what sort of interactions a race of oxygen-breathers and a race of hydrogen-breathers could or would have with each other, he largely leaves these questions unplumbed, in favor of mostly dour ruminations on human society, and how the arc of history is warped into a downward spiral for the human race. The book is replete with such dialogues as this:

"'I am not sure anybody will ever grasp why mortals make war,' van Rijn answered somberly. 'Maybe someday we will find a sophont species what is not fallen from grace, and they can tell us.'

"Falkayn addressed the woman [Sandra Tamarin-Asmundsen]: 'Well, we can use logic. Successful imperialism does in fact pay off for its leaders, in wealth, power, the sense of glory...yes, and often the sense of duty carried out, destiny fulfilled.'

"'Better we stay with honest greed,' van Rijn remarked."

-- p. 163

Such bull sessions are well and good, and are as much a part of science fiction as BEMs, FTL travel, beamed weapons, and psionic powers; but even a sympathetic-minded reader may find his patience tested by the proliferation of these diagnostics of the human animal in aggregate.

Mirkheim would suffer the most of any of the Polesotechnic League books and stories for being read out of sequence: a reader who first comes to the series via Mirkheim is perhaps not very likely to continue further, which would be a shame; though Mirkheim is one of the driest installments of the series, the pleasures found in most of the earlier installments are to be found here in abundance: van Rijn's verbal filigrees; the bantering and bickering of Falkayn, Chee Lan and Adzel; the reappearance of other old characters (Sandra Tamarin-Asmundsen, from the first novel in the series, War of the Wing-Men, published in an unexpurgated form as The Man Who Counts in the collection The Earth Book of Stormgate; van Rijn's granddaughter Coya Conyon, here married to Falkayn; and reference is made to a bygone associate of Falkayn's, Martin Schuster [p. 148], from "The Three-Cornered Wheel," collected in The Trouble Twisters; it should also be mentioned in passing that two of the stories in The Earth Book of Stormgate should be read between Satan's World and Mirkheim, and after Mirkheim: "Lodestar" and "Day of Burning," respectively); and, as usual, Anderson sprinkles unidentified quotations in his prose to enliven it, from a snippet from Revelations 8:1 (p. 168) to a line from Robinson Jeffers's poem "The Stars Go Over the Lonely Ocean" (p. 108). For my money, though, the highest pleasure of Mirkheim is to be found in the poker games that Falkayn, Chee Lan and Adzel "enjoy" with the AI of their ship Muddlin' Through, the inappropriately-named Muddlehead; these scenes are far funnier than any of the officers' poker sessions on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I have zero interest in card games.

Mirkheim's ending is bittersweet and downbeat; just how depressing or morbid you find it will depend on how well you like van Rijn, Falkayn, et al, and how much patience you have for Anderson's socio-political pronouncements. Mirkheim was the last time that Anderson would write these characters; from where I sit, that's a passing that's well deserving of a parting glass. Though there is one further book in the Polesotechnic League series proper -- 1973's The People of the Wind -- it is set generations after the lifetimes of van Rijn and Falkayn, and generations before the birth of Dominic Flandry; as such, it may be more properly considered to be a transitional novel, bridging the two series.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

From Thursday, 19 September through Sunday, 6 October, I read Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's A Flame in Byzantium (NY: Tor [Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.], 1987; 406 pps.; book club edition). The wraparound cover (below) is by San Julian; apparently the woman on the cover is supposed to be the lead character here, Atta Olivia Clemens, but she looks more like Ursula Andress as Ayesha ("She Who Must Be Obeyed") in the 1965 movie version of She than anything like Olivia's supposed to.
front & part of back cover to A Flame in Byzantium

back cover to A Flame in Byzantium

A Flame in Byzantium is the first book in the trilogy featuring Atta Olivia Clemens (usually called simply Olivia), a character first introduced in the third published book in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's long-running Count Saint-Germain series, Blood Games (which is set in the Year of the Four Caesars), but whose voice usually makes an appearance in subsequent books set in subsequent times via her letters to Saint-Germain (she actually makes an "on camera" appearance in Night Blooming, set around the time of Charlemagne's being anointed Holy Roman Emperor); the trilogy is a sidebar to the Saint-Germain series proper, and Saint-Germain appears in this book only via a couple of letters that he exchanges with Olivia.

A Flame in Byzantium opens in 545 A.D., when Olivia, who was made a vampire by her former lover Saint-Germain in Blood Games, and her bondsman Niklos (a supernatural creature more akin to a kinder, gentler ghoul, as is Saint-Germain's manservant Rogerian; Niklos is some two hundred years younger than Olivia), are obliged to flee their estate in Rome (called here by its proper name, Roma) on the cusp of the second siege of Rome by the forces of the Ostrogothic king Totila during the course of the Gothic War (535 - 554), wherein the Eastern Roman Empire -- otherwise called the Byzantine Empire -- under Justinian I attempted to wrest as much of the territory of the Western, or classic, Roman Empire (chiefly the Italian peninsula, with particular attention given to Rome as the seat of Christianity) away from the Ostrogoths as it could.

Olivia and Niklos relocate to the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople (often referred to here by its Greek name, Konstantinouplis), just recovering from an outbreak of bubonic plague three or four years prior, under the sponsorship of the Byzantine general Belisarius, since women have no rights of their own there, and are nearly as excluded from public life as in any of the repressive Islamic governments of our time; once there, she finds her life increasingly constrained, even though she is more or less taken under the wing of Belisarius's ambitious wife, Antonina, and introduced by her to the Empress Theodora, the equivalent to a former vaudevillian of her day (and much more, if some of the stories about her that have survived -- largely in Procopius's posthumously-published Secret History, or Anekdota -- are at all credible), and nearly as important an influence on the steering of Christian doctrine and ecclesiastical policy as her uxorious husband (although it must be said that they were, at least superficially, at cross purposes).

Olivia's unapologetic adherence to old Roman customs (especially as regards her, to the Byzantines, shockingly liberal treatment of her slaves) and deportment (women at this time in the Eastern Roman Empire are not supposed to be educated, literate, or express any opinions whatever in political, military, or ecclesiastical affairs; Theodora and Antonina are the rare exceptions to this rule), coupled with her sponsor Belisarius's falling under suspicion of Justinian, soon earn her the malicious attentions of the office of the Court Censor, who is essentially the head of Justinian's secret police. Although she takes comfort in the person of Captain Drosos, one of Belisarius's loyal officers, circumstances drive them apart: Justinian recalls Drosos from Italy and charges him with the burning of suspect literature contained in the Library of Alexandria (which is to say, all of it that is not explicitly of the type of Christianity of which Justinian doesn't approve), an act which effectively breaks Drosos and curdles his love for Olivia. Owing to her straitened circumstances -- though she is ensconced in a comfortable villa, Olivia cannot own her own property, or control her own finances; she also cannot enter into direct dialogue with court officials and bureaucrats, but must have a male conduct all of her affairs for her -- Olivia soon falls into the snares of a plot largely directed against Belisarius, as what a more recent time would call a "fellow traveler."

A Flame in Byzantium is an extreme example of the drawbacks to Yarbro's writing, to wit: Yarbro condenses, elides, or flat-out ignores much of the admittedly tangled backstory of Justinian and Belisarius, in favor of presenting a more streamlined narrative. Unfortunately, these omissions mean that the political intrigues as presented here -- chiefly embodied by the complicated dance that Justinian and Belisarius enacted with each other throughout their long careers -- feel airless and weightless, with relatively little significance outside of placing Yarbro's main character in mortal peril. Yarbro mostly ignores the tangled thicket of religious controversy that Justinian so loved to plunge into (her chief nod towards this complicated ecclesiastical history comes in Part II ("Drosos"), Chapter 6, when the Court Censor complains to one of his underlings of the weariness of "'expunging the heretical writings of Eutyches and his followers'" [p. 211]); however, it would've been nice if she had managed to at least hint of Belisarius's varied career, which saw him participate not just in the major military campaigns of the Empire, but also in at least some of the religious controversies: had she done so, his falling under Justinian's suspicion might've been more fraught and more poignant than it is here.

Justinian serves as the driving, though off-stage, villain of A Flame in Byzantium; indeed, in Yarbro's telling, he is more akin to a modern totalitarian ruler -- a Stalin, a Mao Zedong, a Kim Il-sung -- than he is to an early medieval autocrat (or, more properly speaking, theocrat). Though one can find enough supporting evidence in more modern histories than Procopius's (J.B. Bury's History of the Later Roman Empire, From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian, Vol. II [1923] and Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 2: The Rise of the Saracens and the Foundation of the Western Empire [1911], to name two) of the darker aspects of Justinian's character, one has to search to find a portrait of him as unrelievedly bleak and distasteful as the one that Yarbro here paints. (Although, to be fair, Justinian seems to have been remarkable chiefly for the length and scope of his reign, not for the severity of it, and certainly not for being the first stern Byzantine ruler; as a modern Byzantine historian observed, "university life at the end of the fifth century was beginning to resemble that of Nazi Germany," although "worse was to come," and: "Instances of declared religious toleration during the Byzantine period may be counted on the fingers of one hand"; Cyril Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome [London: Phoenix Press, a division of Orion Books Ltd.; ISBN: 1-89880-044-8; 339 pps.]; p. 135 and p. 89.)

The magnitude of the burning of the books (read: scrolls) of the Library of Alexandria -- styled here the Mother and Daughter libraries, although most sources agree that the Mother Library was burned in 391, over 130 years before Justinian was crowned emperor -- is also questionable. (The Encyclopaedia Britannica's [15th ed., Vol. 13; p. 232] article on "Alexandria" states: "In 391 Christians destroyed the Sarapeum of the Ptolemaic cult and what Cleopatra had saved of the Mouseion library.") Yarbro shows Drosos burning "the Mother and all Daughter Libraries with the exception of the one Daughter Library devoted to Christian writings" (Yarbro; p. 219) on Epiphany (January 6) in 549, "in order to erase the taint of godlessness more completely from the world." While I have no trouble in believing that Justinian, who essentially promulgated a beta version of the Inquisition, could have issued such orders, as Yarbro has him do here, I am somewhat surprised that I find no hint that he actually did so in any of the sources previously mentioned; it certainly isn't mentioned in the Encyclopaedia Britannica's glowing article on him in Vol. 6 of its 15th edition (1994; pps. 663-65). The Wikipedia article on the Library of Alexandria has a useful cautionary note: "Although there is a mythology of the burning of the Library at Alexandria, the library may have suffered several fires or acts of destruction over many years."

Oddly, by severely narrowing the scope of her book, Yarbro also severely foreshortens the importance of the two dominant supporting female characters in it: the Empress Theodora and Belisarius's (here rather unlikeable) wife Antonina. Bury does not stint in crediting Theodora's importance to Justinian -- he goes so far as to deem her "more far-seeing and acute than her husband," as regards the importance of the eastern provinces, and the religious dissent therein, and that "she foresaw the future more clearly and grasped the situation more accurately than did her imperial associate," and declares that "as soon as [Theodora] died a decay set in which brought the glorious reign to a sad close" (The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 2; "Chapter II: Justinian's Government in the East" [no page numbers are available, as this is the Kindle edition]) -- which makes it all the more remarkable that an avowedly feminist writer such as Yarbro should do so. (The main role that Yarbro credits Theodora with is as a governor to Justinian's wilder caprices; once she dies, his paranoia and intransigence are rampant, doubtlessly encouraged by various unnamed self-serving and sycophantic courtiers.)

While A Flame in Byzantium follows the Saint-Germain books proper in the low-key, mostly off-camera treatment of the supernatural elements, it differs from them in the presentation of Olivia's sexuality: while Saint-Germain's undisputed masculinity allows him a certain latitude in which he can be a softer and more generous lover than is the wont for much of the places and times that Yarbro places him in, Olivia must necessarily have an even tougher time than Saint-Germain in finding a suitable -- wholly open and giving -- lover to sustain her in her undead life. Blood does play a part in keeping Yarbro's vampires alive, but for them to truly thrive, to rise above the status of a bloody-handed revenant (as Saint-Germain himself was for at least a millennium), they must needs take and give emotional nourishment, as is most commonly (but not so commonly, for all of that) found during the course of sexual congress. Accordingly, Olivia here finds herself the recipient of a "pump n' dump" encounter, which for her has the added insult of containing all the empty calories of a Big Buford. (This raises a question that Yarbro doesn't answer here: since she's established that male vampires are impotent, it follows that female vampires suffer from a de facto clitoridectomy; but one can't help but wonder, if one is of a certain mindset, if female vampires are likewise unable to lubricate. Granted, many women in southern Africa have to endure "dry sex" on account of the men's dislike for a moist vagina, as Mark Schoofs reported in Part 5 ["Death and the Second Sex"] of his Pulitzer Prize-winning series on AIDS in Africa for The Village Voice [Schoofs notes, "Research shows that dry sex causes vaginal lacerations and suppresses the vagina's natural bacteria, both of which increase the likelihood of HIV infection. And some AIDS workers believe the extra friction makes condoms tear more easily."]; but, still: ouch.)

The other noted difference of A Flame in Byzantium from the Saint-Germain books is the relative (enforced, it must be allowed) passivity of Olivia's character, as compared to Saint-Germain's: because Olivia simply cannot act directly (or, owing to her association with Belisarius, indirectly), she is essentially that most hated trope of popular entertainment: the helpless female victim. That this is her story and she can't even act in it is nearly as frustrating to the reader as it is to Olivia herself. A Flame in Byzantium is, in short, a most unsatisfactory read, one of the worst of all of the Saint-Germain-related books that I've thus far read. While Yarbro does manage to convey the pervasive terror, distrust, and isolation of mid-6th century Constantinople (an atmosphere that preceded Justinian; see, for example, Mango, p. 94) that would become all-too-familiar to denizens of the latter half of the 20th century, the climax of her narrative -- the torching of countless volumes of "heretical" and "blasphemous" scrolls contained in the libraries of Alexandria -- occurs a little over halfway through the book; the rest unfolds as half-demented fumblings in the dark: even Olivia's being arrested by the office of the Censor is shown to be more of a grasping at straws on the part of that office, an attempt to support Justinian's suspicion of Belisarius, as well as an attempt to show itself as being a capable and productive agent of Justinian's will, than an actual animus against Olivia herself (excepting of course the ongoing animus of Constantinople towards all things Roman, even as Justinian and Belisarius sought to reintegrate Rome and Italy as a whole back into the Empire's territory).

I most likely won't rush to read the other, out of print, and unowned-by-me, books in the Olivia trilogy (Crusader's Torch [1989] and A Candle for d'Artagnan [1994]); the Saint-Germain books themselves contain more than enough shortcomings and, usually, greater pleasures, for me to willingly settle for a lesser iteration of them.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.


The supreme space lord who will now DEST
The Feckless Wonder

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