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Mon, 1 Aug 2011

July 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In July 2011 I read the following books:

1. Grunts, by Mary Gentle

Sword n' Sorcery fantasy is a bit tedious. It's pretty much all derived directly from Tolkien with little originality, and you always know that the good guys are going to win. "Grunts" is occasionally touted as being an antidote to that.

It's not a very good antidote though. It's still derived entirely from Tolkien - admittedly as a deliberate pastiche - and still not particularly imaginative. I could put up with that, if only it was funny. It isn't. Oh sure, there's a few jokes, but a few jokes don't make good comedy. I could even put up with that, but there's one more terrible problem. I don't know whether it's bad writing, bad editing, or bad printing, but a few times the action would leap completely unexpectedly and with no reason from one place and time to another, leaving stuff incomplete and seemingly dropping us into the middle of a scene.

That took something that could have been a perfectly decent piece of mindless entertainment and made it just too annoying.

Now, on the off-chance that it was just a load of printing errors, you should note that the book I'm linking to is a different printing of the one I read. Same edition, same ISBN, but with a different cover and, if it really was a printing error, maybe that's fixed. Caveat emptor!

2. Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers, by Sir Mortimer Wheeler

Sir Mortimer, or, to give him his full name and titles, Brigadier Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler CH, CIE, MC, FBA, FSA, was clearly a splendid chap. He wore a handlebar moustache and smoked a pipe and was, back in the 1950s when this book was published, something of an archaeological celebrity, much like that hairy bloke with the funny accent off of Time Team. He published this through Penguin's Pelican imprint in 1954.

It is, unfortunately, very much a product of its time, when communication of scientific knowledge to the masses was at best in its infancy, and not seen as being particularly important by much of academia. The very fact that he even wrote this book makes Wheeler stand out from his contemporaries, but sadly while he may have had the desire to write for a mass audience, the literary tools that are so well used these days by the likes of Simon Singh had not yet been invented.

The subtitle is "a new and concise survey of Roman adventuring beyond the political frontiers of the Roman world". Well, that's partly true. It is (or rather, at the time of publication, it was) new, including work done just two or three years earlier. And it's concise, at 214 small pages. Unfortunately we learn precious little about Roman adventuring. It consists in large part of dull and dry detailed descriptions of a few scraps found in northern Europe, much of it terribly repetitive, and the author himself tells us that the provenance of much of it is unclear, and so there's virtually nothing to be learned of Roman adventuring from it. In fact, in the whole book there are only two "adventures" even mentioned, both from classical written sources and not from archaeology: one being a "knight" (ie an eques) who travelled to the Baltic to trade for amber, and the other being a servant of one Annius Plocamus, a Red Sea tax collector, whose ship was blown off-course by a gale and eventually wrecked in modern Sri Lanka. Both are briefly mentioned by the elder Pliny - but only briefly, so again, no adventuring.

Outside Europe, we learn more in 20 pages about Roman dalliances in the Sahara than we did about anything in the hundred plus dedicated to Europe, but the existence of a mausoleum or two doesn't really tell us much about adventuring, and the best Wheeler can do is to hypothesise that a few Romans may have lived with local Tuaregs either as traders or diplomats - and hypothesise only, nothing more. East Africa gets even shorter shrift, just three pages, despite Axum being well-known to the Romans. Finally, there are about 60 pages on India and its environs. This is by far the best part of the book, as it is at least more coherent, embedded as it was in a milieu of organised states and literature, and also where Wheeler himself did much of his own work. It still tells us nothing of Roman adventuring though, only that substantial trade existed between southern India and Rome - but again, we know this from Pliny, who bewailed the haemmorrhaging of gold from Rome to the east (one hundred million sesterces a year - equivalent in modern British terms to between 8 and 14 billion pounds) to pay for luxuries like pepper and silk, and from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

I can't recommend this book. Even though, being published by Penguin, it is intended for a lay audience, it is manifestly unsuitable.

3. Fury, by Henry Kuttner

Originally published in 1947, this slim volume thinks it's more important than it really is - the foreword claims that is "has its own important message for our time" - and it could never be published these days, as the hero is a terrorist and what's more, a successful terrorist whose actions end up benefiting all.

It does of course show its age in numerous ways. Every single scrap of science is ridiculous (including that which sets up the environment in which the story is set), and all the women in the story are either play-things for men or act as tools for men. There are also a few niggling inconsistencies in the world Kuttner has created - ones that he should have been aware of even allowing for the fact that he was a barely-scientific savage. But despite these flaws, which are mostly flaws in what the author knew as opposed to flaws in the writing, there is a fine character-driven story here, which can be dipped in and out of easily. I recommend it.

4. A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin

The first volume in this series, A Game Of Thrones, was always going to be a tough act to follow, and as is just about always the way with sequels, this doesn't quite get there. The problem is mostly because there are just so many factions that it's hard to keep track of who's in which and who's betraying who. Most confusion is cleared up fairly quickly though, and I can still recommend this book whole-heartedly, with the proviso that it won't make much sense unless you've already read the previous volume.

Posted at 23:22 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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