Two Kings, Two Queens: A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS

A Conspiracy of Kings cover

The fantasy genre has been afflicted by several big names who take years and years to actually produce any books, leaving series dangling and fans angry.  Patrick Rothfuss and George R. R. Martian are the most famous offenders.

But, while it’s true that Megan Whalen Turner has only written five books in the last 20 years, all part of an ongoing series called The Queen’s Thief, I wouldn’t count her with other slow authors.  Her books, while they contribute to an ongoing narratively, all manage to be satisfying, relatively self-contained novels which satisfactorily wrap up their immediate conflicts and plot threads.  They might trickle out at the rate of one every 4 to 7 years, but there’s no feeling of being left waiting for an ending that might never come.

It probably helps that Megan Whalen Turner doesn’t pretend to be a full-time author, and she rarely communicates with the public.  She’s something else, something I actually think is beautiful: a hobbyist writer who just happens to be a master of her art.

It’s impossible to talk about any of the Queen’s Thief books without major SPOILERS for previous books.  The first book–THE THIEF–is best enjoyed if you know absolutely nothing about it’s premise or plot before you start.

A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS focuses on Sophos, young heir to the throne of Sounis, last seen as a significant character all the way back in THE THIEF.  He’s grown up considerably since then, but he’s still relatively inexperienced, and perceives himself as an incompetent young man who’s more comfortable reciting poetry than training swordsmanship or preparing to rule a kingdom.  Adulthood catches up with him when, while he’s living with his mother and tutor on an isolated island, soldiers from a rebellious faction within Sounis burn his villa and capture him before passing him into the hands of a cruel slave merchant.  The rebels quickly lose track of him, and by the time Sophos is able to escape from slavery, his royal uncle is dead, making him the king of Sounis, and faced with three problems:

1.) War with rebels within the country

2.) War with Attolia, now ruled by his one-time friend Eugenides

3.) Potential absorption by the powerful Mede empire, which is seeking to make inroads on his side of the sea

In writing the above, I’ve realized that the magic of these books isn’t easily captured by a simple plot summary.  A summary of the previous book–THE KING OF ATTOLIA–might look something like, “A hapless guardsman loses his temper and attacks his king.  His punishment is to become the king’s best friend.”

Actually, that sounds pretty good.  So let me try a pithier summary of CONSPIRACY OF KINGS: “Sophos never wanted kingship.  Now that he has it, he will have to learn that no one–kings included–gets what they want, and that no king can rule without war.”

Still not as good, but it gives you a better picture of what the book is actually about.  A lot of Sophos’ struggles come from the fact that his newly accepted role as the king of Sounis (or simply Sounis–rulers take their country’s name in this world) makes every relationship and friendship–particularly his friendships with former ally Eugenides and current love interest the queen of Eddis–a battleground of suspicion and layered intentions.  He and the other monarchs have to struggle not just to settle on the terms of their friendship, but on how they can, collectively, prevent their countries from being absorbed into the Mede Empire.

After a lengthy episode seeking help from–and negotiating a surrender with–the king and queen of Attolia, Sophos returns to Sounis for the last third of the book carrying gifts from each monarch.  The queen gives him a flintlock pistol inscribed with the words: “The Queen made me”.  Sophos takes the clear message: only violence will resolve his problems and take back his throne.  Eugenides’ gift is secret, and he tells Sophos to examine it only when he has considered and decided on the queen’s suggested solution.

Sophos finally does, and finds a second pistol underneath the first.  The inscription on this one is “I make the King”.

The climax of the book relies on Sophos using each pistol to shoot a different man.

It’s kind of a sobering theme, but there’s nothing particularly grim about the book as a whole.  In fact, I think one of this series’, and this book’s, greatest strengths is that it’s heroes–two kings and two queens–are all fundamentally decent, even heroically good, people.  That’s a refreshing thing to read in an age of cynicism and fantasy series like Game of Thrones, which portray the nobility as a cast of tyrants, psychopaths, and perverts.

That being said, I might consider this the weakest of the series (or perhaps tied with THE THIEF).  It has stretches that are fairly slow, and on this read-through, I thought there were several sequences, particular the negotiations in Attolia, which could have been pruned without losing anything substantial.  Even when Megan Whalen Turner isn’t at her best, though, she’s still pretty damned good.

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I’ve almost forgotten how to do this

It’s been more than a year since I last used this blog, and I’ve hardly done any writing since then, unless you count the tens of thousands of words of Anatomy and Physiology assignments I’ve done in the last two semesters.  The combination of martial arts, regular exercise, full-time school, and part-time bartending has ravaged my free time and the amount of energy I have to dedicate to hobbies.

I’ve regretted the move away from writing, though.  I’d like to do more, and also find ways to incentivize myself to read more books.  So, I’d like to pick up something I did in Ukraine, and start writing short posts whenever I finish a book, fiction or non-fiction.  These won’t be formal reviews, and will typically be light on plot summary, and I doubt any of them will be much longer than about 300-500 words.  The important thing is to goad myself into regular writing.

Not Constantinople

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Fresh off the tram

I taught my morning class on Thursday, March 31, then hailed a taxi and was at the Lviv airport by 10:30am for a flight to Istanbul, formerly Constantinople: the city of sultans and emperors, mosques and churches, baklava and Burger King.  A lot of Turkish tourists come to Lviv to work and/or hit on Ukrainian women, so flights between the two cities are quite cheap.

Biggest surprise in planning the trip was that, while Americans do need a tourist visa to enter Turkey, this can be obtained online for a small fee and presented at passport control as a print-out.  I assume the process only exists so they can run a check of name/passport number against their database of undesirables.  And collect a few dollars along the way.

The plane heading to Turkey was half-empty, so I abandoned the two Polish girls seated next to me and upgrade myself to a window seat on an empty row.  Thus, I was rewarded with a falcon’s eye view of the Bosporus Straits and the Marmara Sea, both criss-crossed with mercantile shipping.  There’s a set of islands just off the coast of Istanbul called the Prince’s Islands (or the Princess Islands–signage differed) which look lovely, both from the air and from the ground.  Someday maybe I’ll take a trip long and well-financed enough to see them closer.  The most striking thing from the air wa

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The view from my hostel’s terrace. . .it was hard to leave

s the mosques scattered throughout the suburbs.  I had never been in a city with mosques (Madison only manages one or two “Islamic Centers”, sans minarets), and was impressed with the way minarets and domes dominate the Istanbul landscape.

Ataturk Airport itself felt a lot more exotic than any of the European or American airports I’ve passed through.  It’s an intersection point for the Muslim world, so there are planes from Iraq and Saudi Arabia parked alongside Turkish Airlines jets, and people in styles of dress from around the Middle East wandering the concourse.  For me, who’s pretty well enmeshed in a Western, primarily Christian world, it was an interesting look at a very different cross-section of humanity.

In fact, all of my stay in Istanbul was like this.  I saw more tourists I could identify as Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Iranian, or Saudi Arabian than ones who were clearly American, British, or Australian.  English is the language of travel (for which I thank God), but not all of it is used by native speakers.  In addition, I heard some restaurateurs and shopkeepers who could speak Mandarin to their Chinese customers.

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A real Cowboy

This also meant that I _really_ stood out, being not only fish-belly white, but also wearing combat boots, Levi’s, a semi-military looking green jacket, and (after a trip into the bazaar on Day 3) a camo-patterned sunhat.  Not only did everyone know at a glance I was American, I looked so American I had a couple people guess “Texas” as my home state.

I managed not to get my pockets picked.  My secret weapon was keeping both hands jammed in my pockets whenever pedestrian traffic got thick.  Still, I can remember a couple incidents when I could tell I was being at least scrutinized as a target.  While browsing shops near the Spice Market on Day 2, I had a young Turk slap my back as he sprinted past, presumably hoping I’d take my hands out of my pockets in surprise.  I didn’t see the actual pick-pocket in that case, but I’m certain he wasn’t far.

Also somewhat unnerving are the guys hanging around Sultanahment Square who call out to pretty much any lone tourist “Hello my friend!  You speak English?” or, in my case, “Hello my friend!  I like your hat, where did you buy it?”  Common sense tells me not to trust anyone who has nothing better to do than hang around and call out to tourists, and internet research confirmed that this is the opening move of several scams.  At best, they want you to shop for carpets.

I did buy a carpet, but it was a factory made, 5 lira prayer rug.

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A real selling point, in those parts

Turkish sales tactics in general are super-aggressive.  They often have someone standing on the side-walk in front of the shop or restaurant calling out to any likely passerbys.  I found myself a bit offended by this.  In my culture, the courteous thing for a shopkeeper to do is ask if I need help once, then leave me alone if I express a desire to browse.  The hard-sell turns me off.  On Day 3, though, I did choose my dinner restaurant partly because, while I was browsing the menu, one of the waiters caught my eye, smiled, and beckoned me in.  So hey, the Turkish way isn’t all bad.

Speaking of restaurants/Turkish food, the desserts were the best things I had.  Baklava and Turkish Delight are incredible.  On my first night in Istanbul, I bought a small box of Turkish Delight (in cherry, pomegranate, and fig varieties) and sat on the rooftop terrace at night, looking out across the Bosporus at the Asian-side skyline and listening to the final prayer call from the muezzins.

Speaking of muezzins, here’s a few thoughts on my first experience of mosques.  As I understand it, Islam doesn’t technically call for mosques–the prayers can be said anywhere, and they don’t have anything like the Blessed Sacrament.  Mosques constitute a convenient way for Muslims to pray together and listen to sermons.  They also, historically, are designed to be visible markers of Islamic dominance over an area.  Minarets maximize visibility, and the calls of the muezzins (now broadcast over massive loudspeakers) are a daily reminder of Islamic worship.  There are churches in Istanbul–I think about 1% of the population is either Christian or Jewish–but they sure aren’t as visible as the many mosques.

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The Sulimaniye Mosque commands and impressive view

I visited two: the Sulimaniye Mosque, built by the famous conquering sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and the Blue Mosque, built (I believe) 150 years later.  They’ve got a few features churches don’t have: large enclosed courtyards, the obvious minarets (six on the two mosques I saw), stools, faucets, and fountains for the pre-prayer ablutions Muslims practice.  On the inside, they were both. . .massive.  Both seemed to be modeled after the more ancient Hagia Sophia (which I also saw), which, more than some churches, is built to maximize open space.  There are no pews, dividers, or side chapels breaking up the space; just an ocean of carpet, a niche to indicate the direction of Mecca, and a single pulpit for the imam to use when delivering a sermon.  Any evangelization offices or libraries are tucked away to the outer edges.

They were impressive. . .but I still like churches better.  Partly this is because churches are an expression of my own faith, not an alien faith, but there’s an aesthetic component as well.  I simply appreciate images, icons, paintings, frescoes, statues, and murals more than I appreciate Arabic calligraphy and painted floral patterns.  I might feel differently if I could actually read the Koranic verses spelled out. . .but I don’t think so.

I did encounter one familiar phenomenon in the Sulimaniye mosque: the charismatic youth pastor/imam!  They had some imams there in non-threatening, casual clothes to essentially explain and preach Islam to tourists.  I hung about to listen for a bit, and was kind of bemused to see how much he resembled some of the Protestant preachers (and even Catholic missionaries) I’ve interacted with, although he was more wedded to a script, since he does this every day with various people who probably don’t know much about Islamic doctrine.  He didn’t engage much with me, I think sensing that I was not a receptive audience for a quick dose of Islamic proselytism, but it was interesting listening to him.

I also tried the historic Cagaloglu Turkish bath, which loudly proclaimed itself as being on some prestigious list of 1,000 Things to Do Before You Die.  That’s one checked off!  I didn’t actually think being manhandled by a strange man would be relaxing, so I opted out of the massage, and just got basic bath admittance for the low, lo

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A nice Chinese gal took my picture in this former jewel of Christendom.  One of the seraphim is visible above me.

w rate of 40 euros.  I went in, dressed in nothing but a towel, and was suddenly faced with a dilemma. . .do I whip the towel off to bathe, or no?  Context wasn’t much help.  The guys getting massages were naked except for a towel tossed atop their unmentionables, but the attendants had their loins girt, and I didn’t see anyone else.  I solved the problem by finding a mostly sheltered alcove to strip and bathe.

I didn’t find it worth the money.  There was no cold room (something I expected from my knowledge of ancient Roman baths), and so apart from a beautiful marble bath chamber and brass spigots on the individual tubs, the bath didn’t offer much that a humble Minnesotan sauna/swimming pool combo can’t match.  I left before too long, only to face an attendant telling me to use that towel for something, this towel for the other thing, pointing at a stack of identical towels from across the room and speaking in a heavy Turkish accent.  He eventually came over and dressed me up in towels by hand.  I read some Newsweek in the lobby and beat it.

Stray cats are abundant in Istanbul.  And they beg.  I’d never seen a cat stand on its hind legs before.  It left disappointed, because that there kebab wrap was only big enough for the one of us.

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Dolma, flat bread with feta cheese, and tea

Overall, I had some decent food, but the meal I have the fondest recollection of was lunch at a tiny cafe in a street market, where I got a can of Coke, a plate of some kind of spiced potato pastry, pre-sliced into bite-sized hunks, and some baklava.  The guy didn’t speak much English, but the service I got at my little plastic table was every bit as good as what I’ve had in classy restaurants.

 

I didn’t see many Americans, but I chatted with some really friendly Australians in line for the Blue Mosque, and got to see plenty of Chinese, Japanese, and Saudi tourists going about their sight-seeing.  A Saudi guy on the boat tour of the Bosporus I took wanted a picture with me.  I hope he captioned it “I met a real cowboy!”

Other things I didn’t think were worth the cash: The Dervish show.  For some reason, I expected a little more dance, a little less turning in place while holding up their arms.  I also felt extremely young in the kind of crowd such an Oriental curiosity attracts.  At least the Turkish music was interesting.

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In the cistern, tossing Polish coins to the fish

Overall, I found what I enjoyed most was simply walking around the city, seeing the sights.  I felt I got infinitely more value from long walks along the Bosporus or through the street markets, not to mention my tours of the Basilica cistern and the Hagia Sophia, than I did from the handful of expensive attractions I shelled out for.  This is a valuable lesson to carry forward to Italy.

Also, Istanbul takes the prize of being the second largest city I’ve ever visited, falling just a few places below the New York City metro area.  The residential areas I saw were densely packed, with streets that looked just wide enough to admit a single car (and not a wide one).  I’d have felt overwhelmed if the tram route between the airport and my hostel hadn’t been reasonably simple.

Next up: Italy.  UCU has a two-week academic break (corresponding with the Orthodox date for Easter on May 1) and I’m planning an 11-day journey through Venice, Rome, and Naples.  God willing, it’ll be a grand adventure!

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The Bosporus.  I slightly regret not swimming.

What I Read: TERMS OF ENLISTMENT

Here’s one for the shelf of “Books I Bought For the Sweet Cover”.  Unfortunately, I have to judge this one another dud.

The first chapter was pretty good.  We’re introduced to Andrew Grayson, a young man who’s just successfully enlisted in military service as a way to better his lot in a depressing near-future dominated by welfare project housing, high crime, and protein paste rations.  Grayson comes across as a bit of an arrogant lad, but he’s kind to his mom and ambitious.

Then he ships out to boot camp and never thinks about his mom again, leaving him as an obnoxiously arrogant, surprisingly empty-headed, and thoroughly bland protagonist.  His adventures in boot camp are strictly boiler-plate–a couple comrades with funny hat characterization, a couple tough drill sergeants, a little “this is my rifle, this is my gun” indoctrination adds up to a training montage without any originality or science fictional pizzazz to speak of.  Grayson picks up the basics, but loses any semblance of being a thinking individual–he actually mentions to the reader that he’s happy with the way the military takes independent thought out of his life.  That might be a true reflection on military discipline, but it makes an already generic protagonist into a complete zero.  It doesn’t help that he narrates first-person.

Plus, the author depicts a fully mixed-sex infantry, and has a female soldier cranks out more push-ups than all the men in her platoon on day one.  The Plausibility Express promptly wheezes to a halt.

The novel spends the rest of its 350 pages desperately avoiding a plot whenever one threatens to rear its head, then ends just as an actual interesting series of events starts to develop.  Its only real science fictional ideas are tropes, without any sense of exoticism, window-dressing, or the fantastic.  Some of the battle scenes are decently assembled, but I found the military cliches–whole-heartedly swallowed by both the protagonist and everyone around him–to be wearisome.  Maybe the problem is me.  I’m never been a military guy, and descriptions of military life without any insight or color aren’t particularly involving for me.

I actually hadn’t realized how much I disliked this book until I sat down to write about it.  The only thing that really kept me going was that the prose is quite smooth: unremarkable, but completely readable.  There was no particular moment when the book became clearly abysmal, either.  Its just an exercise in mediocrity from about page 10 through to THE END.

I award it two hand grenades out of five, for tight prose in service to a very dull story.

What I Read: BLIGHT OF MUIRWOOD

I could easily become mired in a long rant detailing everything I hated about this book.  That wouldn’t be entirely fair, though.  The experience of reading BLIGHT OF MUIRWOOD was overall pleasant, and I believe it to be the work of a talented author, with a particular knack for crisp prose and characters who embody a refreshing kind of decency while still showing recognizable human feelings and passions.

In particular, I like the down-to-earth setting.  “Low fantasy” seems like an appropriate phrase: the trappings are medieval, decently well-researched but with some idealization.  The only things that stuck out as wrong to me have to do with arms, armor, and fighting men, which I suspect don’t interest Wheeler quite as much as the dynamics of life in a cloister or the work of preparing food in a medieval kitchen.  The characters are generally endearing, and, well. . .the word “pleasant” comes to mind again.  If there’s one word to summarize this book, it would be “pleasant”.  “Mediocre” doesn’t quite fit, and the market isn’t flooded with anything quite like this.  It’s generally inoffensive fantasy whose lack of sex, bloody violence, and terrifying monsters appeals to Wheeler’s (as I understand) primarily conservation Mormon and Christian audience.

So what didn’t I like?

My objections fall into two broad groups with a theme linking them.  First, Wheeler resolves his plot threads pretty much entirely via deus ex machina.  The magical element in these books, a force called the Medium, is described as having a will of its own, is explicitly linked to spiritual goodness, and is basically a stand-in for the divine power that caused Biblical miracles.  The men and women wielding the medium are a sort of holy-order known as mastons.  Our teenage heroine, Lia, is “strong in the Medium”, which seems to make her a miracle worker.  This isn’t typical fantasy magic, with any limits, checks and balances, or hazard to the user.  The only conflicts are essentially ones of faith–can Lia be brave enough to accept the will of the Medium?  Can she trust that it will all work to the good?  If the answer is yes, than pretty much every conflict gets handily resolved by a mix of a.) literal miracles, often ones lethal to the bad guys and b.) miraculous information delivered straight to the heroes as “sensing the will of the Medium”.

It’s pretty theologically shady, as well, but I won’t get into that.  Suffice to say I’m not comfortable with a book where “having faith” translates to “having unlimited power to burn my enemies to death at will”.  That’s not really a fair interpretation–I’m certain Wheeler doesn’t mean it like that–but it’s hard for my mind to make that jump.  It’s also hard to feel much tension when characters are literally resurrected from the dead simply because the Medium wills it.

Then there’s the rather explicit Mormon theology, which brings the story to a dead halt for chapters at a time.  When Lia undergoes her test to become a maston, it turns out not to be so much a rigorous examination of her skills and will as a cursory indoctrination into the divine secrets of the LDS church.

Man, I didn’t mean for this review to get so salty.  I genuinely like the writing and the overall approach.  Plus, Jeff Wheeler is an old internet friend, going back to my days as a teenager writing for the e-zine Deep Magic.  I’m really happy to see the success he’s achieved. . .I’m just frustrated with the couple of his books I’ve read recently.

I probably won’t read anymore in this world, but I’d like to try something from the other series Wheeler’s been writing.

What I Read: World Without Stars

This is a book I bought (on Kindle) solely for the cover.  I had remembered seeing the image in an old album of Michael Whelan cover at my dad owned, and it was one of the pieces that stuck with me.  Something about the image of a space-bard, his rapt alien audience, and the galaxy rising behind them all struck me as inexpressibly beautiful.  So I had to track down the story that inspired it.World Without Stars

What I got was a pretty decent space opera novella.  Poul Anderson is too good a writer for his stuff to be worse than decent.  The story involves a small group of star-farers, rendered functionally immortal by the whizbang bio-engineering of the future, who are on their way to make contact with a new alien race living on a planet whose star is some distance above the galactic disk.  The civilization they’re seeking contact with has just-achieved interstellar travel, but a mix-up with the coordinates leads to a crash on another planet in the system–this one absolutely primitive.  The world is covered in swamps, and the crust is devoid of any metal heavier than aluminum.

Our heroes have to find a way to make contact with their original destination planet using only the remains of their wrecked ship.  Meanwhile, the find themselves caught in a war between two primitive factions.  One, living in small tribes in the highlands, worships the galaxy as an image of God.  The other is enslaved to a race of ancient psionic amphibians who acknowledge no existence outside of what they rule.  Our heroes eventually hatch a plan to help the underdogs and, eventually, work their way off the planet in the process.

The space-bard on the cover is a guy named Hugh Valland, who is three thousand years old, and considered eccentric because he’s faithful to the one wife he left behind on Earth. True to the image, his patience, genial wisdom, and knowledge of good old folk music are critical to gaining the trust of the aborigines.  I think the image conveys the concept–the power of song opening minds to worlds beyond what they dreamed–better than the actual story, but Hugh is the stand-out character nonetheless.

I also appreciate the tendency for classic sci-fi to be incredibly brief.  There’s actually quite a bit of story crammed into just slightly more than 100 pages of text.  I suspect that most modern writers would have tripled or quadrupled the size of the book without actually adding more ideas in to the fill that text.  The result is a book that summarizes a lot of scenes that might have been fully narrated, but is absolutely lean as a result.

Self-Confidence, Propaganda, and the Struggle for Freedom

Last night, I was privileged to attend a lecture at the University by Archbishop Claudio Gudzherotti, the apostolic nuncio to Ukraine.  His topic was roughly stated as Where are we going as Christians ? What are we trying to overcome in the post-soviet experience at the beginning of the 21 st   century ?”

 I’ve heard many similar lectures or homilies (including Pope Francis’s address to congress last year) which were addressed to Americans in general, or commenting specifically on the state of American culture.  Bishops often have the perspective or moral insight necessary to speak broadly on the challenges we face not just as individuals, or as members of a particular party, but as moral agents interacting with the whole world.  I’ve never had the opportunity to hear first-hand what a bishop has to say to another nation and culture with a very different set of problems.  I felt Bishop Gudzherotti’s comments deepened my insight into the issues facing Ukraine.

What follows is my summary of the lecture prepared from the several pages of notes I took.  These are His Excellency’s words and thoughts set down to the best of my understanding, but might not be exact, since they are all filtered through my perception.  When I’ve inserted my own comments, I’ve tried to make it clear using parenthetical statements or personal pronouns.

First, His Excellency talked about the necessity of developing a sense of self that is separate from the unfortunate appellation “post-Soviet”.  Soviet culture silences reflection and breeds artificial conformity.  It thus squelches the ability for self-reflection and self-analysis.  Post-Soviet peoples, Bishop Gudzherotti believes, are not proud of themselves.  Lacking a natural self-confidence provided by self-knowledge, they have a tendency to buy self-confidence when it is “sold” to them by extreme nationalists or power-seekers.

The solution, then, is self-expression.  Ukrainians (and other post-Soviet peoples) need to get in the habit of describing and discussing themselves and their culture.  They will thus develop self-knowledge and, out of that, a healthy sense of self-confidence.  One should look at oneself both critically and with mercy.  The university provides “critically”, the Church should provide “with mercy”.

(Side comment that I thought was funny: “The way a culture asks for the toilet is the way it addresses its problems”.  Cultures where they ask, “May I wash my hands?” are circumspect.  I suppose a hearty American “Where’s the crapper?” would be the opposite extreme.)

People become manipulators, the Bishop said, because they feel lacking in affection.  We manipulate others first for affection, and then for money or power.

He then spoke about the issue of “propaganda”, which is of great concern to Ukrainians, who feel particularly threatened by pro-Russian propaganda in both the East and the West.  Rather than specifically addressing the problem with Russia, however, the Bishop spoke more broadly about the dangers of propaganda in general, and how the Ukrainians may find themselves hurt by their own propaganda as well as the Russians’.

Propaganda, in his view, is the building of a system that kills internal freedom.  It is easy for us to see our enemy’s propaganda for what it is.  It is much harder to see propaganda from our own side.  Propaganda can very easily be the illusion of being better than we are, so that we avoid the work of becoming good.

Propaganda is also the use of character assassination or mud-flinging as a weapon against our enemies.  Propaganda seeks to destroy a man’s whole reputation.  The Soviets, if they arrested someone for a particular crime, would also seek to paint him as a coward, or a sexual libertine, or any number of things.  Justice demands penalties for particular crimes, not the destruction of character as a whole.

Furthermore, even when we make propaganda out of our good feelings, we destroy those good feelings, ultimately corrupting them. (If the Bishop expanded on this thought, I missed it.  My interpretation is that this ties back into the “illusion of being better than we are”, and was a caution to the Ukrainians against lionizing their good qualities to the point it becoming a counter-propaganda).

Jesus, he said, preached religion without propaganda.  His silence, before Pilate and before Herod, is the refutation of propaganda.  Propaganda is endless talking, whereas silence allows reality to be heard.

On the point of “don’t use propaganda for good”, the Bishop said: “No good will come out of evil.  Good is the opposite of evil, not a development from it.”

He then spoke a little about the idea of freedom, seeing that he has never seen a perfectly free country–some might be closer or farther from freedom, but complete freedom is not of this world.  If you want to be free, he repeated, you must know yourself.

Side comment (my paraphrase): “When you are in pain, you are put in touch with your deep self.”  There is no perfection without pain.  Words to live by.

Furthermore, said the Bishop, perfection is never finished.  The saint says to himself, “I need much work.”  Young people are inclined to be become disappointed when perfection is not immediate, and disappointment becomes despair.  Those who are in despair are easily influence by those who offer easy solutions.

The Bishop turned his words back to the Cross.  The Cross, he said, is not a “must”.  It is a choice.  If we reject the “weakness of love”, and pursue power by any means, we have rejected the Cross.  Even the Church is continually tempted by power.  Even a history of martyrdom and persecution may lead a people to feel power is owed to them.

(I don’t believe His Excellency made this explicit, but my interpretation of that last remark is that the Ukrainian people should be cautious when trying to understand the evils perpetrated against them.  The Ukrainian cause is not made just simply by the fact of the Holodomor [the Soviet-produced famine that killed millions in the 1930s] or their history of Russian oppression in general.  They must acknowledge and mourn these evils without being pushed into self-pity.)

His Excellency moved on to some remarks about the University.  To the students, he said that if their professors were not killing them with the discipline of study, they have betrayed you.  Students must be pushed.

Furthermore, false historiography attempting to show the Ukrainians as the best people in the world (the most religious, the inventors of writing, etc.) must be avoided.  No one needs to be the best–only human.

Finally, His Excellency enjoined, avoid corruption.  Corruption begins as a crude kind of decentralized government (his explanation for the origins of the Mafia), but soon becomes mere stealing.  Do not be too quick to accept the authority of the European Union or any other power–Jesus did not flatter kings.  Be proud of who you are and of what you can be.

I’m struck by how, in the classic style of bishops and popes, His Excellency shifted smoothly from the political to the moral and even spiritual, and from the national to the personal.  It makes me reflect that the affairs of nations are really just the affairs of individuals in aggregate.

What I Read: ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER

I’m laid up with a bad cold, and had to cancel my Monday classes, which has left me with plenty of time to read. . .another book, another post!Elephants Can Remember

ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER is apparently the last Hercule Poirot novel Christie ever wrote.  I’ve only read a handful of other Poirot books, but I found this one quite a bit less satisfying than the others.  The story concerns mystery writer Ariadne Olivier recruiting her old friend Poirot to help her find out the truth behind an apparent double-suicide twenty years before (or twelve years before–there’s a couple timeline issues here).

Most of the book’s 212 pages are devoted to long, rambling conversations with people who might remember relevant facts.  These conversations are written more like actual conversations than fictional ones, in that they’re crammed with filler words and indefinite nouns.  I lost count of the number of times a character says something like “She was sent to a sort of mental institution, something like that.”  It’s true that some people would talk like that, but it’s frustrating to read.

There are timeline problems: the time when the murder and/or suicide happened isn’t consistent, nor are the ages of the husband and wife involved.  There’s also a scene where Ariadne Olivier reports something said in a conversation that. . .actually wasn’t included in that conversation.  I had to flip back and check.

It’s also a little disappointing that I was able to figure this one out at about the same time Poirot did–high praise to Christie, because I’m used to much more elaborate and surprising resolutions from her.

On the positive side, the focus placed on memory and oral testimony, and how the passage of time scatters the details of memory and introduces contradictions.  The Wikipedia article on ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER actually suggests that Christie (who died four years after this books publication) may have been suffering from Alzheimer’s, and that this may have been an exploration of problems she was beginning to suffer with her own memory.

Dame Christie may be making further appearances here. . .there’s a bookshop in the city center with an entire shelf of her books in English for about $3 each.

What I Read: Descent Into Hell

Descent_Into_HellC. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and several of their writer buddies famously had a literary club and writer’s workshop at Oxford known as the Inklings.  Lewis and Tolkien are the most famous, but for the last six years of his life, another writer completed the trio at the core of the Inklings: Charles Williams.  His work is notoriously bizarre, and according to hearsay, it was loved and admired by Lewis, but left Tolkien absolutely baffled–he could rarely follow Williams’ thoughts in conversation, much less in writing.

After reading one Williams novel, DESCENT INTO HELL, it’s hard to blame Tolkien.  Williams writes about mystical spiritual concepts and interactions in a way that blends prose and poetry.  His writing has a feverish quality, with long, rambling sentences jammed with wordplay, subtle biblical allusions, and words placed in not quite the orthodox grammatical order.

DESCENT INTO HELL is probably best described as a “spiritual novel”, a category into which I’d also place works by Shusaku Endo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and possibly G. K. Chesterton.  The drama isn’t so much in events, but in spiritual experiences, discoveries, conflicts, and losses.  DESCENT INTO HELL focuses on two characters: one, a retired military officer and amateur historian named Wentworth, has a recurring dream of himself descending a silver rope down through an endless void–not a hard metaphor to grasp, in light of the title.  Wentworth’s lust for a young lady in the neighborhood is so self-centered and venial that he manifests a succubus in her image: not her, but an extension of himself to satisfy his own desires.  Meanwhile, a young woman named Pauline, employed as a companion for her dying grandmother, is tormented by repeated encounters with her doppelganger.  It always turns aside before they meet, but she has a mortal fear for the day when she’ll come face to face with it.

The “framing story” for both of them is a production put on by the neighborhood of a play written by Peter Stanhope, a wise poet who seems to speak for Williams in the conversations of the story.  Stanhope is a man who speaks of “terrible good”–where “good” is the operative word, but “terrible” an essential modifier.  Stanhope is the one who introduces Pauline to the concept of the substitution of love when, hearing about her fear of her doppelganger, who offers to be afraid in her place.

This idea is at the core of the book, and seemingly Williams whole philosophy: that all people are a spiritual community, made to carry each others’ burdens–not just physical, but spiritual.  Stanhope can take on Pauline’s fear, to bring peace to her and one day prepare her to encounter her mirror image.  In turn, Pauline will be called upon to carry the fear of another, someone separated from her by time as well as identity.  For Williams, the ultimate expression of “substituted love” is Christ’s sacrifice, although he never uses those explicit terms.

Contrasted with the community of substituted love is what Williams views as Gomorrah, summarized in a speech by Stanhope:

“The Lord’s glory fell on the cities of the plain, of Sodom and another.  We know all about Sodom nowadays, but perhaps we know the other even better.  Men can be in love with men, and women with women, and still be in love and make sounds and speeches, but don’t you know how quiet the streets of Gomorrah are?  Haven’t you seen the pools that everlastingly reflect the faces of those who walk with their own phantasms, but the phantasms aren’t reflected, and can’t be.  The lovers of Gomorrah are quite contented; they don’t have to put up with our difficulties. . . .They’re monogamous enough! and they’ve no children–no cherubim breaking into being or babies as tiresome as ours; there’s no birth there, and only the second death.  There’s no distinction between lover and beloved, and they beget themselves on their adoration of themselves, and they live and feed and starve on themselves, and by themselves too, for creation, as my predecessor said, is the mercy of God, and they won’t have the facts of creation.  No, we don’t talk much of Gomorrah, and perhaps it’s as well and perhaps not.”

Which is, incidentally, a pretty good slice of Williams’ writing.  I can’t pretend I’m able to parse every sentence in DESCENT INTO HELL, but I’ve also read enough Gene Wolfe that I’ve learned to treasure books with opaque meanings once I’m convinced those meanings are worth the effort.

And DESCENT INTO HELL was absolutely worth the effort for me.  In all vulnerability, the concept of “substituted love”–particular the simple request “let me be afraid for you”–is the kind of thing that brings tears to my eyes.  It’s a book which, in all sincerity, has given me a new way to think about divine love and human love informed by it, as well as a terrifying picture of what it really means to be damned.

What I Read: Monster Hunter: Nemesis

In the interests of using this blog to its fullest potential, I’m going to start posting a short review of every book I read during my time in Ukraine.  These will probably only be a few paragraphs long, and will draw from both the handful of paperbacks I toted along with me and the rich stash aboard my Kindle.  These won’t necessarily be to recommend or sell books so much as give you an opportunity to see what I’m reading on cold, Ukrainian nights, and give me an opportunity to do more writing.
Monster_Hunter_Nemesis

Starting us off is a cerebral novel best described as a cross between the magical realism of authors like Borges, the secret histories of Umberto Eco, and the comedies of manners originally perfected by Jane Austen: MONSTER HUNTER: NEMESIS.  As you can see from the cover, the novel takes as its primary concern the struggle between civilized man (or woman) and the uncivilized urges buried deep under the mundane drudgery of work, family, relationships, and unthinking consumerism.

Larry Correia (a widely known pseudonym for J. D. Salinger) wrote this novel over the course of a decade traveling the world.  One paragraph may have been written in a hammock dangled from an ice-locked cliff in the Tibetan Himalayas, another in the field office of an ecological restoration project outside Rio de Jainero, and still a third while the author took a well-deserved mental break on the beaches in the south of France.  This variety of life experience shines through in every sentence.  Correia’s (or Salinger’s, of course) perspicacious insight into the mingled bliss and horror of the human condition is unmatched by any writer of his generation.

Take, for example, the scene where the protagonist (known to the reader simply as “Franks”) finds himself locked in a battle against his own psychic insecurities, manifested through a haze of narcotics as a redneck werewolf named Earl Harbinger.  Through the metaphor of bloody fisticuffs, we come to see that Franks might truly be called a modern Prometheus.  Despite obeying his conscience, he is condemned to a torment he can neither end nor fully understand, which manifests with all the caprice of an Olympian decree.  We may not achieve Franks’ level of spiritual realization, but we can still understand that the things Harbinger represents are inescapable truths about our own modest existence.

All in all, good light reading for the plane.  I recommend the MONSTER HUNTER series to anyone who appreciates gun fights, monster-based horror, and propulsive action writing.