ricardienne: (tacitus)
So I started Pierce Brown'a Red Rising -- basically, it's as if Brown read the Hunger Games and thought, "you know what this needs? More gritty manly realism and more angsty chosen-one manpain. Let me take care of that." Our hero is a young, hardworking everyman "Red" (ie low-caste) in a hardscrabble mining colony in District 12 on Mars in a future that uses classical names for everything; when his beloved wife is executed for a simple act of defiance, he falls in with The Rebellion and learns that Everything The Government Tells Us Is a Lie: Mars has been terraformed for centuries, and while his people labor in slavery beneath the surface, the ruling elites of the Capitol the Gold caste lead lives of absurd excess.

Where I am right now, our hero is undergoing a process of having his body remade into that of a Gold so that he can infiltrate the Hunger Games the academy where the sons and daughters of the elite fight it out in brutal game of survival of the fittest in order to determine who dies and who goes on the be the next generation of Ruthlessly Evil Overlords of Mars. Okay, yes, it's terrible, and I am really annoyed that the whole plot is motivated by manpain over the Death Of My Beloved, My Angel, The Gentle Light of My Life Whose Beauty and Inner Strength Made Life Worth Living. But (a) the writing isn't awful and (b) I have an obligation to read all the terrible faux-Rome sff.

Anyway, there was this paragraph:
“My body is not all that changes. Before I sleep, I drink a tonic laden with processing enhancers and speed-listen to The Colors, The Iliad, Ulysses, Metamorphosis, the Theban plays, The Draconic Labels, Anabasis, and restricted works like The Count of Monte Cristo, Lord of the Flies, Lady Casterly’s Penance, 1984, and The Great Gatsby. I wake knowing three thousand years of literature and legal code and history.” (ch. 12)

So...a mix of "classics" and made-up "future classics", but I don't get the narrative that they are trying to tell -- apart from the fact that, uh, I guess the only books that survived into the future were the contents of an American high school English classroom? This kind of passage seems like a great place to briefly tell a narrative what this future-evil-privileged society values and fears. Apart from the fact that I don't trust the author enough to be sure that when he says "Ulysses" he means James Joyce and not the Odyssey (ditto for Metamorphosis: Kafka's Die Verwandlung or Ovid's Metamorphoses?), I don't really get what this set of texts is supposed to do: the Iliad and Anabasis makes a certain kind of sense as classics for a military elite; I suspect that (the?) Metamorphoses(?) is a nod to the transformations that the elite of this society undergo to become superhuman (but...I'm pretty sure that either Ovid's or Kafka's would be on the "restricted" list as far as messages about metamorphosis and society and the fate of the human when s/he is forcibly transformed by (unjust) power structures. Ditto Sophocles. For fuck's sake. Have any of these people read the Antigone?). The Odyssey is probably there because this is all about our hero's love for his wife.

However, I think that overall, these are pretty terrible lists to represent a ruthless, power-hungry, corrupt class of Rome-emulating rulers. Where the fuck is Thucydides? Where's Machiavelli? Where's Ayn Rand? HOW CAN YOU HAVE REALPOLITIK WITHOUT THUCYDIDES? (and where's Tacitus? How can you have imperial Rome without Tacitus. YOU CAN'T.) Where's Lucan? I bet this society would love Lucan. And, of course, let's not even ask why this is completely euro-centric reading list.

I also think that one could be cleverer with the whole "restricted reading" list, although it hangs together a bit (themes of dystopia, Hobbesian excess, and revenge). I mean, 1984, Lord of the Flies...can you be more cliched? Put some real protest writing or anti-injustice writing on there. Make a more explicit allusion to your antecedent of the Hunger Games (wouldn't that be clever?) Or put the Aeneid (!!!!!). When I write a trashy ya dystopia novel about a futuristic oligarchy that models itself on Rome, remind me to throw in an aside about how the Aeneid is a deeply subversive and restricted text because of Vergil's problematization of empire and ambivalence about power. We'll call it The Revenge of the Harvard School.
ricardienne: (christine)
It seems that the publishing industry is trying to make Cleopatra Selene into the new 'Tudors' -- this is the third recent historical fiction treatment. I haven't read Michelle Moran's Cleopatra's Daughter, but I have read the first two books in Stephanie Dray's trilogy, and now, Vicky Shecter's Cleopatra's Moon.

The tropes seem to be pretty constant: Cleopatra's family is extremely (and un-historically) Egyptianized, Selene is a devotee of Isis (Isis rigorously part of the Egyptian pantheon, usually) and a complete, patriotic partisan, Octavian/Augustus is the evilest person who ever eviled, Greco-Egyptians are cultured, intellectual, open-minded and gentle while Romans are brutal, patriarchal, and uncivilized.

Shecter, like Dray, seems to be hampered by history, which puts an awkward necessity (there will be spoilers coming up) on the way that their narratives go. Spoilers for History )

In conclusion: You could write so many awesome YA novels set in this general period. Livia in the late 40's and 30's: 16 years old and newly married, watching her male relatives get killed, fleeing around the Mediterranean and doing everything she can to protect who's left. "Turia", also newly married and having to play party politics and work really hard in a man's world to keep her family hidden and get amnesty for them. On a lighter note, Sulpicia and the Tibullan circle hanging out, writing love poetry, and maybe getting involved with Gallus and that whole debacle. Heck, someone should take Julia seriously, and not just dismiss her has the frivolous, immoral daughter of Augustus with a million affairs (it's frustrating that these Cleopatra Selene novels, in trying to rehabilitate one or two ancient women, just reapply and intensify the stereotypes to all of the other (in)famous women of the period) -- recall that all of the men she was rumored to have been involved with were *also* all of the remaining descendants of the oldest senatorial families. Julia the dedicated republican idealist, anyone? To move a bit later: what about a novel about teen-aged Agrippina the Younger and her mother? What about Epicharis? What about Berenike? (What about the Arrias and the Fannias? What about Servilia?) The field is wide open, people!
ricardienne: (library)
I was browsing the YA section at my public library branch yesterday, and pulled out something called Night School, by C.J. Daugherty. It's your standard rebellious teen + mysterious gothic boarding school + supernatural + love-triangle + ancient evil drivel, but as I was flipping through, a sheet of paper fell out; clearly an elementary/middle schooler's start to a fantasy novel. It made my really happy, you guys -- this is exactly what I was doing in 6th-7th grade. Also, I kind of feel that there is a lot more that is potentially interesting in this novel than in a lot of recently published YA fantasy! So I've transcribed it (supplements the editor has deemed absolutely necessary to the sense are in square brackets; italics represent ornamented capitals in the ms; and obelisks mark uncertain readings).

The Chronciles of Se

"Chastity, the high commander want to see you in his office. ...Now!" and with that the loud speaker clicked off. It seem that I was in trouble again. Making my way the nearly empty corridor to were the High Commander of the Realm reside. But before I open the, it flung open and handed me letters with the seal of the Western Royals and the North. I opened the first one on the way back to my room. It was from my niece empress Mollyania Malkovich †Jamesandsun. Such a long name for a small five year old. All it said was "I miss u, see you on your birthday. The next was from Cecile, my sister in-law, "Dearest †Adilssandra [Allessandra?], I want to be the first to congratulate you turning 15. It's a time of Freedom, but do remember your duties. I know you know that aleast 1,000 gentlemen have asked for hand. But Daneil sent them all packing. Duth has required you to be we[d] before you turn seventeen, since His Majesties health is decliny. Remember your a Malkovich Princess before general in the war. Kayta say her regards so does Mayla. The last letter had been from Her Excellency Ariel. "Excited about turning fifteen, I pondered last two months what to got you, but Maria had the best idea I hope you enjoy, From your spilt personality clone Ariel." At the bottom were a set of keys to a limo maybe. But when I reached my room I saw my gift awaiting. A motorcycle. Tomorrow I would go back to Ruby palace in Flaya. I did not understand why all except the Southern would have three whole day off.

Come on: wouldn't you read this? Apart from the fact that our main character seems to have two names, we've got court and family politics, what with a child empress and also (?) a dying emperor? (Is this Daneil or Duth? I think it's Daneil. Duth is perhaps the chancellor -- either a helpful and loyal adviser or an evil power-behind-the-throne holding the imperial family of Flaya basically hostage). And so Chastity/Adilssandra has to marry to shore up the succession? But she is also a a general on the staff of the High Commander (or maybe she is at the military academy?) and there's a war on! AND SHE HAS A SPLIT PERSONALITY CLONE. (Maybe everyone has one in this universe.) I think I sound like I am making fun. And, obviously, I am, a little bit. But it did honestly give me lot of pleasure to see this anonymous girl working through fantasy tropes and making up a story the way I did. Also, I would genuinely read this novel, split-personality clones and all.

Dear Writer of Chastity's story, I'm sorry that you lost your manuscript, and I hope you keep reading and keep writing. And keep packing your stories with girls! Because that's awesome.
ricardienne: (christine)
At a library book sale, I came across Sarah Emily Holt's Lady Sybil's Choice, and the frontispiece plus first paragraph caught my attention:
Alix says I am a simpleton. I don't think it is very pleasant. Sometimes she says I am a perfect simpleton: and I cannot say that I like that any better. Nor do I think that it is very civil in one's sister to put her opinion on record in this certainly perspicuous, but not at all complimentary manner.
Excellent! I thought. It sounds like a 19th century version of Catherine Called Birdy! The narrator, Elaine, is the youngest daughter (age 14 at the beginning) of the Count of Poitou during the Second Crusade; the novel takes her from her home in France to the Holy Land as she goes to accompany her elder brother, the knight Guy, to the court of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Here There Be Lots and Lots of Christianity, but also some other interesting things )
ricardienne: (tacitus)
Book Review: Song of the Nile by Stephanie Dray. This is the sequel to Lily of the Nile, and takes Cleopatra's daughter, Cleopatra Selene, from young adulthood through her marriage to Juba, the client king of Numidia and the early years of her reign, as she negotiates with Augustus and tries to regain her ancestral throne in Egypt.

I am arguably one of the worst people for this book, because I care very deeply about a completely different, slightly overlapping set of trivia about this period and place. It is very hard for me not to judge this book on its depiction of Vergil, for example, (that sound you hear? The gnashing of my teeth). But I shall try to put that out of my mind, discussing instead things that are of general interest. (But before I do that, one more tiny nitpick: Dray has her characters call Parthians "the Parths" as, apparently, an ethnic slur. And this just doesn't work for me at all, because the Parthians are properly Parthi, that is, you can't shorten the name any further because it's already a monosyllabic stem! Even if Romans formed diminutives (whether affectionate or contemptuous) by shortening, which they didn't. Seriously, what's wrong with parthiculi or parthelli? OK, consider that nit picked. Back to our regular programming.)

The audience for this must be YA. But there's some pretty heavy stuff -- (semi-graphic) rape (of a minor), internalized victim-blaming, extremely messed up sexual politicking, the virgin/whore dichotomy, not to mention incest, but that's the healthiest relationship in the book, honestly-- and the complexities aren't morally signposted the way they usually are in YA. Either it's careless and irresponsible, or it demands a high level of critical thought from the reader.

I don't really know what spoilers one should give with historical fiction. On the one hand, yes, the broad outline is fixed. On the other hand, if you don't happen to be up on your history of the last couple decades of the first century BCE, the plot isn't really any more fixed for you than the plot of Hamlet or Oedipus the King is fixed for someone who isn't familiar with those stories. And it's no easier to find out whether Selene ever returned to Egypt than it is to find out whether Hamlet ever killed Claudius (and the former is a much more obscure piece of trivia than the latter!).

Here there be spoilers, if you think such things can exist here )
ricardienne: (heiro)
At last we are finally getting beyond Wives of Henry The Eighth Syndrome in YA historical fiction!

I've been preparing for months to sneer at Stephanie Dray's Lily of the Nile, the first book in a trilogy about Augustan-era daughter of Cleopatra Cleopatra Selene. In fact, I quite enjoyed it, and found it a much more respectable contribution to the (admittedly small) set of novels about Ancient Rome for girls. But -- a summary: after Actium, Selene and her brothers Alexander Helios and Ptolomy Philadelphus are captured, forced to march in Octavian's Triumph, and then made wards in the puritanical household of the princeps. Selene determined to be true to her faith and place as priestess of Isis and to return to her rightful kingdom in spite of her hated captors, but she has to decide how best to serve her goddess and her people in the brave new world of Augustan Rome.

To begin with, there were three surprisingly excellent things about this novel. First, magic/miracles/actually supernatural goings-on have a small but significant place, as I think they should in a novel about the ancient world. Second, the Romans are pretty unambiguously the bad guys -- brutal severe jack-booted conquering thugs -- but considered from a Roman perspective, they appear pretty acceptable. To be sure, Selene and her Alexandrinian-Ptolomaic background are made rather more acceptable to 21st century norms that they probably should be, but Tacitus would probably be disgusted at how sympathetically and eulogistically Dray portrayed Augustus! Third, this is (historical spoilers!) a novel about a protagonist who is forced to compromise in unheroic ways and who sacrifices (at times) her principles and her freedom for her security. Which is...interesting.

But Lily operates on a number of generic axes, so to speak, and they interact in strange ways. A part of this story is the story about the girl from a warm and temperate and tolerant clime forced into the hands of cruel and puritanical guardians -- think The Witch of Blackbird Pond or even A Little Princess -- who rant about Sin and Evil and won't let her play music or dance or wear bright colors or express her femininity at all.

It's also the story about the girl with a strong and personal faith in a miraculous and loving savior, forced to live among people who mock and persecute believers, but with whom she is anxious to share the truth salvation of her religion. Dray is pretty explicit about the parallels she is drawing with Christianity -- rightly so, I think, at least as far as the prevalence of mystery religions in the period. I've read the Christian versions of this story, however, and it's interesting that essentially the same story -- no longer popular among increasing modern discomfort with Christianity presenting itself as gentle and persecuted -- as Elsie Dinsmore. Only with Isis.

In another layer, however, it's the colonial story: a person who is derided as an immoral Other and who is tragically forced to lose/hide/change her cultural norms to comply with those of her conquerors in order to effect anything. Dray decided to go the route of "the Ptolomies are Egyptianizing and essentially Egyptian," and I was all set to sigh over that when I realized that this post-colonialism-inflected story might actually be a more important and significant story to tell than the story of a privileged Hellenistic princess who loses her royal autonomy. Nevertheless, there's a way in which this is A Little Princess: Selene may think of herself as Egyptian but she's the foreign dynast imposed by conquest in Egypt as much as Augustus!

ricardienne: (heiro)
Roman principate to be the new Tudor England?

(probably not, since Trojan War retellings utterly the YA classical scene, and there are a GAZILLION times as many Early Modern-set novels as either, but I will definitely be reading, and probably mocking, both of these titles.)
ricardienne: (tacitus)
This book looks terrible but awesomely so: British chieftain's son in exile/captivity in Rome hangs out with Tacitus and Titus and has adventures? Sign me up! Only it appears to be self-published and basically non-existent. Too bad.
ricardienne: (library)
My last load of library books included some really terrible ones. I'm not going to write about the sequel to this historical murder mystery because I have only gotten three chapters in, and I cannot read it rationally. At all. All I can think is: "WHAT GOOD DOES IT DO TO MAKE TACITUS A WILD-EYED EMPEROR-HATING IRRATIONAL INDIVIDUAL? ALSO: HAVE YOU READ ANY OF THE WORKS OF THESE PEOPLE AT ALL RECENTLY? YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!" (also: Tacitus unable to read critically? Tacitus?)

But I digress, because what I wanted to post was that I just finished Sarah McLean's The Season (ya, romance, regency), and it was terrible in an entirely different way. Or maybe in not such an entirely different way. I am not particularly a reader of romance, so I probably have an inherent bias against this kind of novel. Nevertheless. The characters were boring, the romance was contrived (by which I mean that it was contrived that they didn't just get together on page 1), and the "mystery" was not mysterious at all. So much not so that I don't feel any spoilery compunctions about complaining about the cliché of the Evil Uncle Who is Jealous That His Older Brother Got the Dukedom. Wouldn't it be nice if the younger brother were bitter and jealous and cranky but, in a twist, not evil and murderous? Or, if he were evil and murderous, but not because he was (*wah*) not loved as much as his brother?

And yet, that isn't even what I wanted to write about, because I ended up reading with my OED in hand, so to speak.

My first foray into worrying about words was while reading a series of mysteries set during the Wars of the Roses. One character described another as a "Puritan," and I thought, "Wait a minute. Does that even work?"(It doesn't.)

The line is hard to draw. In most historical fiction set more than a few hundred years back in an English-speaking place, there is an assumption that the characters are not really speaking the words that I am reading (or at least I read with that implicit understanding, and I hope the authors wrote with it!). In most fantasy, you assume that the characters are *actually* speaking some entirely different language; much futuristic sci-fi dialogue has to be *really* in, at the very least, some futuristic dialect of my language (and, obviously, they aren't really speaking English in Star Wars.)

So in one way, picking at anachronisms is crazy -- there may be an occasional historical novelist who can pull off "authentic" speech, but would a novel in the various dialects of 13th century England be readable by most people? A Lindsay Davis mystery in the painstakingly-reconstructed Hellenic-inflected vulgar Latin of the 1st century? So I try not to worry about it, just as I try not to get too antsy when one character in a heroic fantasy describes another as "Stoic" (really? Can you have Stoics without Seneca? Without Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus?)

But on the other hand, words do matter and do provide context. To a certain extent -- no, to a large extent what we read in dialogue is what we imagine the characters are saying. And so the intersection between our sense of words and their histories and their usage in a supposedly "historical" or "fantasy" novel does matter. I did an OH NO YOU DIDN'T double take and then giggled a lot when Tamora Pierce introduced "spintry" as lower-class slang for a male prostitute in her Provost's Dog novels. Because this is an exceedingly erudite word in the history of English: it has a few 17th and 18th century attestations, where it was clearly pulled straight from Tacitus and Suetonius (there might be a ref. in Juvenal and/or a later grammarian, too) as a highfalutin' literary term (it's not that relevant that we now think that the Latin word (spintria) probably referred not to a male prostitute or brothel but to (a female) one who specialized in exhibitionist group sex, but that's an interesting bit of information, so I'm including it anyway). Now obviously, none of this makes the word inappropriate for appropriation into Pierce's fantasy world. It's still funny, though.

The anachronism usually works the other direction, however. There were two really egregious slang usages in Sarah McLean's novel: "impact" as a conjugated transitive verb in a metaphorical sense. The OED doesn't give the verb "to impact" with any other examples than as a passive participle. We know that it is used differently now, but there are enough complaints from prescriptivists about it that surely someone would have flagged it! The other was "obscenely" in the hyperbolic meaning of "very." Obscene doesn't seem to have been used to mean anything other than, well, "obscene," until after the last print edition of the OED (obviously, print sources lag spoken usage, but I still really question a young noblewoman c. 1815 using it like this and it not sticking out).

Eponyms are obviously problematic, as are words taken from movements or particular historical events. (How would you describe Raglan sleeves in fantasyland? Could you describe some as a "Martinet" before Martinet?) But what about vaguer things? I got quite hung up when the main character of McLean's novel joked to her girlfriend that "they say women are more evolved than men." This seems to me like a very post-Darwininan kind of statement. On the other hand, evolution as a scientific term (having to do with developing and unfolding) was around from the 17th century, and there was probably some drift into metaphorical usage. I can see a conceivable meaning of "women are more cultivated than men," but I think that I'm bending over backwards for a sloppy author in doing so.
ricardienne: (library)
I was good and woke up early to call my adviser's friend on the east coast with whom to talk about graduate schools (it was useful). As a reward, I am going to write about probably the best thing that has happened this spring, namely, the fact that Megan Whalen Turner has published a new novel.

I will say, before cutting for spoilers, that I didn't like this one quite as much as I liked the others, perhaps because I found the main character less compelling than Eugenides or Costis. But it did all of the good things that MWTs books: intricate plotting (both kinds), meaningful issues of responsibility/government/personal desires, good characters, good stupid characters, wonderful intervention of religion, interesting narrative issues...and lots of fodder for classics geekery, of course!

Read more... )
ricardienne: (heiro)
Watched BBC Pericles tonight:

(1) Gower should have a map of the Aegean, and either a pointer or pushpins and string.

(2) It hadn't occurred to me before that Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia-universe is very much like ShakespeareanRomance!Antiquity.
ricardienne: (heiro)
From this interview with Tamora Pierce,, in response to a question about gender inequality in fantasy:

I don’t see how they worked out that equation. The only way it works is if women acquiesce into being second-class citizens. And frankly, all it takes is one pissed-off 10-year-old with a lightning bolt in her hand to overcome it. ... The only way, with [magic] in the equation, that you [could] have an entire sex being oppressed is if they consent to the oppression. Actually, the only way it ever happens is when people consent to that oppression.

I think that I could argue that adding magic to the equation doesn't mean women can't be oppressed because they can fight back with magic as well as men any more than adding pointy objects to the equation means women can't be oppressed because, hey, all it takes is one pissed-off 10-year-old with a kitchen knife in the night...

But mostly: WTF Tamora Pierce?


Jan. 15th, 2009 11:34 pm
ricardienne: (augustine)
-Can't find pattern pieces that I want to use. Also, it turns out we are out of sewing machine needles.

-Watching HBO's Rome with parents (~10/12 for season 1). Am expected to provide historical commentary, natch (mostly making it up: I really need to read Last Generation of the Roman Republic). It's way too pro-Caesar (way to de-enoble the optimates, HBO) and Cicero=Mr Collins=WTF NO!. And it makes me depressed: poor res publica!

-Practicing today = 3 hrs. Work on Other Senior Project = 0.

-Read The Eyes of a King (YA, fantasy, Catherine Banner). I'm not sure what the genre is called: fantasy in a pre-WWI generic-European setting, complete with military dictatorship and recently deposed and massacred royal family. Plus vague magic, plus dimension-hopping and a missing prince raised by a loyal magician in our world until he is able to regain his throne. But the fascinating thing is that the story is told by the magician's great-nephew, who has a much more mundane life trying to survive and be happy as he grows up with his younger brother and grandmother in obscure poverty. Leo (= MC) hate the military training he has to undergo (and for which chance he is supposed to be grateful), quarrels with his grandmother, discovers first love in Maria, the young woman who moves into the apartment above with her infant and parents, and tries to protect his younger brother, the innocent, too-good-for-this-world Stirling. Meanwhile, a mysterious book provides him (and us) with the concurrent story of palace intrigue, brave rescues, etc. Unfortunately, the dialogue is often just awful: Banner has clearly not figured out yet how to write speech that sounds natural. But overall: I really liked this book.


Dec. 21st, 2008 11:43 pm
ricardienne: (Default)
So I got my usual beginning-of-vacation cold last night, and I spent all of today reading:

The Secret History (Donna Tart). So what is it with classics majors being creepy and cliquish? And why are they always studying Greek, but never Latin? I couldn't help but think of Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, except, with freakish and obliviously introverted undergrads committing murders instead of the Queen of Faery. Actually, it was more like a cross between Tam Lin and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. It was a book I admired very much, and thought was good, and meaningful and all that, but not terribly enjoyable.

Book of A Thousand Days (Shannon Hale): I liked this one so much: I think it's my favorite Hale that I've read (and sort of made me want to give River Secrets a second try). Being set in fake!Mongolia rather than Generic!Fake!Europe helped, and I always like stories told "from below" -- the maid's perspective rather than the princess's. But I was also impressed by how much development happened in the main character. The novel is in diary format, and it brought out little changes in Dashti and day to day variation in her attitude toward her place in life, her fate, her princess, etc. as well as the global "learning" that was obviously the point. Yay.

Montmorency and the Assassins (Eleanor Updale): I don't know why no one reads these books because they are SO good: severely injured pickpocket is saved by medical experimentation of brilliant doctor, proceeds to turn self into brilliant master thief, and thence into respectable upper-class type who enjoys the opera. And then has adventures spying and engaging in derring-do around late-Victorian Europe. What isn't to like? I love the characters, and the way they aren't able to resolve the big moral dilemmas, but instead try to smooth them over (the way people do), and how they are really good, decent, likable people even when/though they are sometimes doing highly questionable things. And in this book, the way all five or so principal male characters are each assuming that he is the father of Vi's son? Actually quite awesome.
ricardienne: (snail)
I. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (M.T. Anderson). I had been meaning to read this ever since it came out, but I could never bring myself to pick it up. It always felt like a book I *should* like -- historical fiction, literary narrator, twisty views on the heroical revolution -- and so I kept on putting it off. Then I found a completely new copy for 10¢ at the library sale table (my mother made me put in a dollar). I read it on the plane: one quarter of the novel for every couple pages of Cicero. And, Reader, this is a fantastic novel. Octavian grows up in a strange but retrospectively fortunate household, where a host of neo-classical scholars and Enlightenment intellectuals known only by numbers tutor him and flirt with his mother, an African princess in exile, as he is told. Gradually, the outside world begins to intrude, and Octavian realizes that what is really going on is rather different and rather more horrible than what he has been allowed to know.

First of all, most of the book is O.'s narration, and it is beautiful to read. It's a brilliant character to have created: O. has a complete classical education, and has a huge breadth of literary, historical, and 'scientific' background with which to describe his increasingly (or maybe just increasingly understood to be) horrific experiences as his fortune changes from protegé to experiment, to slave, to captive and fugitive, and in the context of which to think about the inhumanity and insidiousness of slavery, and the evil behind the motto "revolution to protect our property." There i definitely an anti-capitalist strain -- the chief villain repudiates the liberal arts and insists that the only good is profit and hence utility, as well -- and a strain of "oh, yeah, so you thought the American Revolution was all about freedom and justice and the rights of man, did you?" I wasn't bothered by either, actually, as both mostly agree with my own feelings.

II. The Winter Prince (Elizabeth Wein). Another book that I finally read, one that I have been seeing for much longer on the library shelf. I don't like stories about Mordred, and Mists of Avalon pretty much ruined any Arthurian telling with Celtic names (exception: Mary Stewart's). So I was not ever about to pick up this YA novel, where "Medraut" is embittered over his father "Artos'" preference for his legitimate son "Lleu." (Lleu? Double ll's alone pretty much rule out the book!) But now the series is four books one, seems to involve a North African kingdom as well/instead, and is recommended by Meghan Whalen Turner. So I steeled myself, and read the first one.

And I liked it. It didn't thrill me, or jump to the top of any list, but it was compelling, one of the most interior fantasies that I've read. It also reminded me of Mary Stewart, in that it was mostly grounded in post-Roman Britain, with ruined villas and old mines, and kingdoms where the whole royal family has to get out in the fields at harvest time, and goes hungry if it's a bad year. The set up is more or less as outlined above, but is make particularly creepy by the fact that Medraut narrates it to Morgause (= the sister who slept with Arthur and the sister who is plotting against him, in this version). It's after the fact, before we know what the fact are, as if Medraut is explaining his actions, possibly trying to justify them, to someone he hates and fears, and maybe loves. Her relationship with her son, it is clear from the beginning, has always been strong and unpleasant, but the details only come out bit by bit. Not everything worked for me: the character of Lleu didn't quite solidify for me, and it was his developing relationship with Medraut that turned out to be the most important.

III. One or another of the "Gordianus the Finder" mysteries (Steven Saylor). This was my third foray into Mystery Series Set in Ancient Rome. The first was the one set in the late Republic, called SPQR, or something, about a young senatorial type, I think. I only read one book -- the one that borrowed its plot from Book I of Bello Gallico. The second was Lindsey Davis' Falco series -- 1st century A.D., plebian lowlife with an aristocratic girlfriend, v. funny. I read a bunch of those. Anyway, so this one is also late Republic, commoner -- I'm not sure what the angle is after only one book. It was okay. Gordianus was moderately fun as a protagonist, but I think I may stick to Sir Peter Whimsey.
ricardienne: (Default)
I've read two pseudo-historical-fantasy-teen-romances recently: Marissa Doyle's Betwitching Season (Regency/Fantasy Wrede-Sternmer knockoff) and Anne Osterlund's Aurelia (psuedo-18th-century, fairy-tale, empowerment romance). They both have those fashionable photographic covers: pretty girl in a pretty, frilly dress.

This is a silly and petty thing to get annoyed about I know, but it's so obvious, even at a glance, that the lace is cheap machine-done stuff, and that the embroidery was machined onto the fabric on the bolt, with the dress-maker not bothering to make it match along the seams at all. The fan is most clearly plastic, and its ribbon trim isn't even pasted on evenly. The lace of the sleeve is not only the flat and cheap Barbie's-Bride-Costume variety, but it isn't even sewn on well. I bet I could photo-shop something better.
ricardienne: (Default)
-rehearsing student pieces, including one by the conductor's hyperactive and unnaturally talented 8-year old son. Who has perfect pitch, and stopped the run-through to announce loudly to the flute player that "it's an a-sharp".

-Tam Lin (Pamela Dean): I feel like I should have enjoyed it more than I did. Which I think was because I wasn't convinced by the elfland business. Probably I should reread Fire and Hemlock, and then appreciate how coherent Dean is.

-Kathryn Reiss's lastest YA novel. It creeped me out a lot, but all of the things that were bothering me in the beginning (some weirdly flat/stereotyped characters, mainly) were fixed by the end.

-weird dreams involving fleeing across the desert and hiding under carpets, being a slave in a villa urbana and N. from Latin being indicted for murder.
ricardienne: (Default)
I should make this a proper post, and not just a quasi-list sort of thing; lists are so much less effort. The two projects for this month off are supposed to be reading (some) Herodotus and practicing enough to make a good tape and get into a good summer festival. The giant Greek Lexicon, slightly less giant Greek Grammar, similarly-sized Commentary to Herodotus Vol. 1, and small Oxford Herodotus Vol. 1 are sitting on the floor. And they haven't been opened yet.

Instead, I've been reading other things: Sunshine, Catherine Asaro, and Tristia. I liked Sunshine a lot: it reminded me that Robin McKinley is a good author. I had been put off, for some reason, by Door in the Hedge, and had sort of been ignoring her. But Sunshine (which the library somewhat bizarrely shelves in Adult Fiction) was lots of fun: good characters, interesting alternate universe, un-obvious (at least to me) narrative trajectory… It also demonstrated the observation I have been formulating about vampire fiction: if the vampires are subject to some traditional handicap (i.e. sunlight, crosses, silver, running water, compulsive counting, etc.), the novel will likely be good. If they are not, it will probably be crummy. If I lived in Thursday Next's world, I might be able to get it named after me: Ricardienne's Axiom of Vampiric Representation

I picked up the first couple of Catherine Asaro novels because they looked like they might be Bujold-ish sci-fi, or maybe Elizabeth Moon-ish (i.e. Space Opera in the Galactic Fleet sort of thing, which sees to be the only kind of Sci-fi I read). I'm about one and a half in, and well, obviously I kept going and probably will keep going. I'm not sure how I feel about them. Looking at her dates, Asaro is clearly influenced by Bujold (and probably by Moon, too); and it also reminds me very strongly of the juvenile-fiction Firebird books that [livejournal.com profile] existentialgoat introduced me to, but without the strong religious subtext. I am finding them a little disturbing. There was a discussion on Sheroes once about the early Vorkosigan novels as borderline-horror in some scenes, and I think it's much more so in Asaro's books. Really horrific things happen without the characters being able to face them with a sense of "but we can change this and fix what is bad" (as in Bujold) or "this is an anomaly and is not the way things normally happen, but only when the Militant(ly insane) Patriarchy gets in charge for a moment" (as in Elizabeth Moon). Also, most of the main characters are part-computer, which is a little weird (and only gets weirder as the obligatory romance starts to heat up).

I think I like the Tristia because Ovid is so whiney in them: it's cold, he's lonely, life is horrible, the barbarians might attack, it's cold, it's in the middle of nowhere, he wants to go home, ktl., as they say. I start to feel a kindredness with him, because I like to whine, and I don't like leaving home. (The degenerating scale of hardship might legitimately continue from 'Odysseus to Ovid' to 'Ovid to me' I think.) At the same time, I'm sort of surprised that any critical source I look at (admittedly, not a terribly broad or recent number) takes him completely seriously. I don't want to deny the awfulness of his position, to be 'relegated' to the furthest away end of nowhere and be made to stay there for the rest of one's life. I think I can imagine being so desperate and willing to say anything in order to get the sentence lifted as to write five books of whines and abject pleas. On the other hand, poetry! Figured speech! Ovid, for crying out loud! It may have been appealing to a certain generation of editors to imagine that he was completely contrite over those nasty trifles of his youth, or that his desire to come home and depression suppressed any literary consideration but "will this make Augustus relent?". I just don't think that covers it at all. What did it for me was actually not the Ovid-Augustus relationship, but the Ovid-wife one. I was getting cranky at how self-centered the elegy on his departure was: why does he think he should be the center of his wife and household's universe when he clearly has other things on his mind besides them? Why does he deserve all of this adulation?* But then, he compares himself Theseus! He seems to be citing Theseus/Perithoos, but in the context, it's impossible not to think of Theseus/Ariadne.** And now the 'dutiful wife dutifully mourning her husband's misfortune' scenario is a little bit skewed, because we're also thinking about Ovid as the betrayer and not the victim anymore. And furthermore, all of the praise of Augustus is so over the top that it must be at least a little ironic: it's impossible to imagine Ovid writing it sincerely, and hard to imagine, if he was faking it, Augustus, assuming he even read the thing, taking it to be sincere. When he writes that "the worst punishment is to have displeased you," this is just not true false, and contradicted by statements in the poem elsewhere. Besides, sincerity or even the impression sincerity to an intelligent reader, was not exactly the literary goal of the time. And you know? Exile may have sucked, but if Ovid retained his amazing metricization and versification skills, is it that likely that he would have lost the ability to write figuratively? Q., as they say, E.D. and I'm going to bed.

*Because he's a Roman male, yes, I know.

**Also, this is the poet who had written Letters from Mythological Women to the Men who Screwed them Over, which did include Ariadne to Theseus, I believe.
ricardienne: (york)
Or not, I suppose. I've been home 2 days, and this is what I have accomplished: nothing, but I have been catching up on my "fun" reading.

Ptolomy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud. This is the third book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy, the first two of which I went on and on about here. Stroud really seems to have developed over the course of this series, and I do have a feeling that his ideas about where the books were going as far as plot and character changed quite a bit from the first to the third. However, this might be because I read them fairly far apart, and I don't think that it was necessarily a bad thing. I like(d) this series very much: I would reccomend it as a fill-in while waiting for the next Harry Potter book. I don't want to say too much, because I don't want to spoil it, but this third book made me rethink the possibilities of a thoroughly (or near-thoroughly) horrid character (the semi-main one is a sort of cross between Tom Riddle, Artemis Fowl, and Christopher Chant) in a children's book, which has quite a few implications for Snape. Stroud also did something that I was not at all sure could be pulled off in a children's book, and am still not sure at all JK Rowling would (will?) dare pull off, but that's all I'll say on that subject!

The Da Vinci Code. Admittedly, only about the first 1/5th of it, out loud on the way to bring my cello into the shop this morning. (A two-hour drive to get an instrument repaired is ridiculous, but there you are). Now, I can really mock/scorn it, having actually (started to) read the thing.* Because, oh my goodness it was awful! I don't know why the Catholic Church is so upset: if anything, it would tend to make me more favorable towards Opus Dei/the Vatican, because anything that someone as dumb as Dan Brown dislikes can't be all that bad, can it? I probably would have made it through a lot more if my father and I hadn't kept erupting with comments and objections. I don't think there's much point in cataloging them here. However, I am starting to develop a theory about Dan Brown. Clearly he has serious issues arising from the popularity of the Harry Potter books. Note the very clear references to Draco(nian), where no one has (yet) considered the possibility of the word as an adjective but insists on assuming it references the historical figure: this is certainly a coded reference to Draco Malfoy. And then the repeated mention of "dark arts" and the preoccupation with the possibility of a Satanic interpretation of what is in fact non-Satanic. I shall probably have to read the rest of the book before I can decipher the entire message, as my symbological skills are not incredibly great! On a slightly less flippant note, I am somewhat bothered by the assumption that this book makes that Europe is essentially in the Middle Ages. It's really weird, and kind of irritating, although not as irritating as the not always terrible accurate guidebook that he seems to have swallowed. No, I do not care to read about things such as, "Almost emanating sepulchral atmosphere of the nearly thousand-year-old catacombs in the Quartier Latin, the old University district of Paris, Robert Langdon scanned the entire length of the opulently carpeted corridor. It would have take 346,772,491 American pennies laid end to end to approximate it 767.8 foot length."**
*Isn't is cool that I can do that: use the same word as alternately past and present tense? Sometimes I think English is a pretty good language after all.
**Okay, so I made this "quote" up, misplaced modifier and all.

The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova. Counting Da Vinci Code, I have now read three of these pseudo-academic thrillers: that one, Codex, and now, The Historian. Da Vinci Code I talked about above, Codex was stupid in an astonishing number of ways*, but I rather liked The Historian. There are certainly personal reasons for this. I went through a vampire craze in 7th grade, but it quickly turned into a Vlad the Impaler interest, and I've always sort of been on the look-out for novels about him. This one was definitely better than the "Danish medical student finds Vlad's memoirs and falls in love with him because impaling people is teh hotness" one I read back in middle school. And now, with [livejournal.com profile] dracula1897 up, I am definitely in the mood for traditional vampires. (None of that mysterious and misunderstood children of the night business here. This book fulfills on that score; it is a sort of successor to Bram Stoker, except rather more ambitious in scope: the action spans three modern generations (presented all mixed together in letters and journals, however) and much of cold-war era Europe and Turkey. As far as "Academia thrillers" are concerned, this one also tops out the others I've read. The grad students and professors here actually tend to act like the scholars they're supposed to be, and much of the "action" is looking up documents in libraries, trying to find translations of the texts you need and to contact the other people in your field who might have the information you want. I nearly squeed when a crucial document was presented along with notes about the several surviving manuscripts and their possible departures from the lost original. Okay, so it isn't much, but we need more of this kind of thing in this kind of novel. Granted the premise that Dracula goes around trying to snare top academics is more than a little silly, and there were plenty of ridiculous/unbelievably outside the obviously supernatural premise moments. But the clearly made-up stuff, of which there was naturally a lot (a lost Shakspeare play about a vampire in the Ottoman empire, anyone?) worked much better than it did in say, Da Vinci Code. That is to say, I didn't feel that the author was trying to persuade me to believe that such a play actually existed, for example. Unfortunately, it's 600+ pages, which is why I didn't get anything else done today. I did find it fairly scaring/compelling, but then, I tend to get sucked into even pretty bad books, so that doesn't say very much.
*Such as people trying to destroy/find a medieval text because it contains the secret to a very localized 13th century mystery whose solution will have absolutely no effect on anything. Also, the entire plot was based on an early English text that included such things as pages of nonsense and a page entirely inked over as part of its post-modern artistic concept, which is well… no comment.

Tomorrow, I really will start to do all of the things I need to do. If I don't get distracted by the shiny new Richard III novel, To the Tower Born which purports a "new perspective" on the mystery of the Princes in the Tower -- Margaret Beaufort offed them* -- from the point of view of Caxton's daughter, conventiently the best friend of Elizabeth of York. Given that the last book I read about the Princes in the Tower and some random 15 c. girl was this really creepy picture book, it can't be that bad. No, that's not right: it can. I read the prologue, and it promises to be one of those pro-Richard books that makes me think that with "friends" like these, Richard doesn't need any enemies.
*This is not in fact a new idea: this is at least one iteration of it.


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