luni, 10 octombrie 2016

Acquire Acquitania

S.J.A. Turney - Marius' Mules IX: Pax Gallica, Victrix Books, 2016

"I am Marcus Falerius Fronto, former Legatus of the Tenth Legion. The governor knows me well." "As do all, by reputation, sir" smiled the optio.

Whenever I write a review of one of Simon's books I am wary of a potential bias. I am honored and humbled that I can call Simon my friend and as such I am aware of a potential conflict of interest. But then I remember that it was the quality of the writing that caused our encounter in the first place. And if one reads the first ever review of one of Simon's books that I've written it's easy to notice where my fascination with Marius' Mules books originated and how it evolved. Besides, I am probably his harshest critic (bar the occasional Amazon hater). I judge pretty much any book I read by a rather high standard and try to see how they culd stand next to the great classics of the universal literature. And I do believe that in this rarefied air of books being read by multiple generations, the saga of the Falerii has its place. Tall order, I know, but so far the only elements missing for this to happen are time and luck.

Needless to say, I am now awaiting each new MM book with an eagerness I did not think possible. Like the previous ones, I have devoured this new Fronto adventure and I shall read it again, together with the rest of the series, once Fronto will be consigned to history. 15 books, says Simon, though I am hoping for a monumental arch over time to encompass the minutiae of the two centuries between MM and the Praetorian series.

Pax Gallica takes us the furthest South we have ever accompanied Fronto, from the North-Western Acquitania through the Pyrenees all the way to Tarraco. There are a few obvious challenges in the writing of this book and Simon confesses to them in the Author's Note: first of all, Caesar's diaries have stopped being helpful. Simon was complaining about their lack of action in the 8th book of De Bello Gallico whereas I thought - and rightly so - the siege of Uxellodunum together with some of Aulus Hirtius' fascination with Caesar would provide enough material for a book. They certainly provide a lot more than the complete silence surrounding 50 BC. But when resources are lacking imagination comes into play and luckily Simon's got an abundance of that. He creates the opportunity to delve once more into a section of Fronto's past still unexplored and in the process he closes some loose threads of the plot that have long been floating in the air. It is, at least partly, an origin story, but occasioned by the chronological flow of the action, and a different type of origin story from Hades' Gate (MM5), for instance. It is, in a way, a classical gimmick of writers of series: once the external demons are defeated, the demons inside the hero surface. In a way, this happens to Fronto at the end of his Acquitanian campaign and obviously, we will feel even more connected to him once these are defeated.

There are also quite a few good old fashioned sieges. None on such a grand scale as the great battle of Alesia, but strategy is strategy irrespective of the numbers. Beyond the enjoyment I took from reading about the mountain sieges, I am fascinated with Simon's ability to bring something new to each and every single one of them. And he is masterful at using the terrain as an important differentiation from one siege to another. It would be oh so easy for MM to be one long series of sieges: this one just like the next, this city just like the next one. Instead, I have now a notion about each and every individual Gallic oppidum and should I ever need to, I can take a pick from a number of ways of capturing one taking into account the strategic objectives of the campaign, terrain, numbers, equipment and skill of the opposing armies.

Now, it is imminent that such a long series would be uneven; some of the books will be better than others. For whoever feels the need for such trivia, I would say Pax Gallica ranks somewhere in-between. As far as I'm concerned, it's quite hard to equal the magnificent MM7, that sees off the great Gallic revolt and the hugely important battle of Alesia. But beyond that, the quality of a particular book is down to individual taste more than anything and some readers might even enjoy the moral dilemmas Fronto faces in Tarraco to the monumental deployment in front of the most famous oppidum in history.

Here's one, not exactly the most important, but relevant for how far Fronto came from the days of fighting the Helvetii: '[The Longinus Villa] would be a better place to bring up the kids while we're banned from Rome and Italia. Rural, with a beach and plenty of land. Not like the villa above Masilia, which is a little more suburban.'

And to wrap up this review, a few more quotes to justify how Simon's books have just as much quality in style as they do in content:

'it was in the nature of arrogant men to forget favours owed but cling to debts unpaid'

'Only the Romans would send a descendant of a love goddess to lead a war.'

'You could go mad yourself trying to ascribe meaning to the actions of the insane'

vineri, 1 aprilie 2016

Shariah-based CSR

The four volumes of The World Guide to Sustainable Enterprise are a continuation of The World Guide to CSR, published 5 years before. A continuation, not a sequel, as the two books are part of the same ambitious project: creating a ready-reference compendium of the most responsible economic entities all around the world for the use of sustainability practitioners.

Without having read The World Guide to CSR, I can confidently say that the sustainable enterprise guide is a much larger work in size, scope and ambition. The need for this updated and upgraded work was obvious to the author and it also seems evident for everyone involved in the field: it is not just an expansion of the size (the four volumes encompass 101 countries as opposed to the CSR's guide 58), but it is also a necessary review of a very fast changing field. For the sake of comparison, it's like a better picture of the same individual 5 years later.

The shift in the title, from CSR to sustainable enterprise, is a subtle, yet important one: practitioners of the field have noticed that CSR understood as investment of part of the profits in charity projects, as a mostly unwanted add-on tacked on top of the business-as-usual chase for share value maximization is just a highly inefficient corporate white washing. Going the full length in social responsibility means striving to eliminate the negative impact of the business and sometimes even tackling and finding solution to existent social and environmental issues. The second shift is the dropping of the C for corporate as social responsibility is not the exclusive domain of corporations, but a matter that concerns everyone. In business terms, solutions for sustainability can be found at the SME level as well as corporate, and often the small business level proves to be more fertile when it comes to turning social and environmental issues into business opportunities. 'We want to showcase companies and projects that are bringing disruptive solutions to our global challenges, rather than code-compliance or incremental change.' says Wayne Visser in the introduction to the book, and we are soon to find out that, while 'disruptive solutions' are possible in corporate environments (like SABMiller plc did with the sorghum beer in Uganda), large companies are rather slow to adapt and changes are incremental rather than revolutionary.

The project is valuable and salutary and it should be acknowledged by any sustainability practitioner. The only doubt I have about it is that the book format is the most appropriate one: things are moving at a fast pace in sustainability and whilst a book can be a great snapshot , an excellent state-of-the-art, it cannot capture the fluid nature of the changes in this field. To my mind, an online portal would make much more sense: it can be constantly updated, it can be permanently expanded and in today's highly digitized world it can also be much more accessible for a greater number of people. I'm not aware of any similar initiative in the online, but I feel it would be most welcome.

Past the general considerations about the four-volume work, I do have another objection specific to this first volume addressing Africa and the Middle East: despite their geographical closeness, the two regions are so vastly different in culture, social issues and economic development that treating them together in alphabetical order paints a very heterogeneous picture. Lebanon and Lesotho have as little in common as do Saudi Arabia and Senegal. Separating the countries by region rather than by letter would have provided the reader with a much more consistent picture of the regional issues and developments.

The main conclusion to be drawn from the sub-Saharan Africa's country profiles is an optimistic one: the narrative on Africa is changing. The continent is no longer torn by endless civil wars and genocides, human rights infringements have dropped substantially. Clearly, much work is still to be done: there is still widespread corruption, a significant percentage of the population are still living under the poverty line, access to water is still difficult for millions of people throughout the continent and while the low average age of the population is cause for optimism, low access to education and a very acute skills gap are hindering economic development.

I have selected two cases to illustrate my point: Eritrea, where 'President Isaias Afwerki has remained in office since independence in 1991 and the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) is the only political party in Eritrea.' and where, under such an uncontested regime people's empowerment is still just a bed time story, and Rwanda, a country that has made significant progress in terms of ensuring a stable political climate for the economic development to take of but where, however, 'businesses struggle to find skilled workers, with 48% illiteracy and only 5.7% of the population tertiary educated. Malnutrition affects large sections of the population and has detrimental impacts on productivity.' There is little the government can do in terms of investment when 'Tax revenues are limited, since the income of most Rwandans is below the taxable threshold. In fact, 75% of taxes in Rwanda are paid by just 200 taxpayers. (The Economist, 2012)'

The MENA region tells a completely different story. Although just an eclectic a mosaic as the Southern part of Africa and with some countries struggling to get over civil wars (Iraq, Syria) or very recent revolutions (Egypt, Lybia), on average the MENA countries have higher GDPs, stronger governments and tend to rank better on the Human Development Index. The main issues are environmental, with desertification a permanent threat, and shifting the economical paradigm from a heavy reliance on fossil fuels extraction to a diversified and primarily knowledge based economy.

The success story that most appeals to me in this first volume is Jordan, a country roughly half the size of South Carolina, but with a very forward thinking policy:

'According to the UNHCR (2014), approximately 618,420 registered Syrian refugees have settled in Jordan as of November 2014, currently making up over 9% of the Jordanian population. Jordan has a long history of hospitality towards refugees; it also hosts 28,809 Iraqis as of June 2014. Similarly, the UNRWA (2014) reports that the country is currently hosting approximately 2,070,973 registered Palestinian refugees as of January 2014 (of which approximately 370,000 live in camps) making up over 18% of the Jordanian population.
In addition to its commitment to open borders, the Jordanian government decided early on to allow Syrian refugees access to public services, such as health facilities and schools, and subsidies extended to Jordanian citizens, such as those on energy, water, bread and gas.'

While this open border policy must surely put a strain on the country's resources, it also ensures a great payback in the medium and long term: Jordan will benefit from an influx of the most precious resource, the human capital, the one that the European Union seems to be so scared of nowadays, and it will emerge as a beacon of stability and a regional power.

Another quote to appeal to the current European wave of islamophobia comes from Saudi Arabia, about an asset management company: 'SEDCO Capital only had to shift under 1% of its already Shariah-compliant investment to ensure ESG compliance (Environmental Social and Governance). Both, for instance, negatively screen industries such as alcohol, weapons and pornography.' While personally I would dispute the negative screening of alcohol industry and, to some extent, even of commercial pornography, it is interesting to see how close Shariah compliance comes to the Western-centric CSR standards.

Another success story to attract attention is the Lebanese-born Sarah's Bags, and I will close my review with another two quotes, the first one drawn from a very Chomskian perspective of the Iranian company Tam Iran Khodro, and the second one from the author's introduction, summing up his main creed, to which I fully subscribe:

'Companies must identify their role and admit their liabilities towards the society. Financial gains must not be the sole objective of the company and we must invest for the development of the society.' (Tam Iran Khodro)

'We desperately need to reinvent capitalism to help smooth the transition to a low-carbon, more equitable and sustainable society' (Dr. Wayne Visser)

marți, 12 ianuarie 2016

Flawed Characters, Flawless Book

S.J.A. Turney - Praetorian II: The Price of Treason, Mulcahy Books, 2015

One would get tired of keeping hearing how great Simon's books are, how each of them is better than the one before and how it is an unmissable lecture for everyone. Also, over the past year I have come to immensely appreciate and admire Simon not only as a writer, but also as a human being and few things honour me more than being able to call him my friend. or, how he'd put it, 'mate'. So while I'm trying to keep as objective as possible there is an inherent amount of positive bias when writing about his books (although in saying this, and comparing mine to other reviews, I'm probably his harshest critic).


There's no helping it. Honestly, Praetorian II is amazingly great, better than the first of the series, about which I said at the time is his best book yet. I will from now on withhold this title, as his best book is probably, like always, his next one. The objection I had to Marius' Mules series was that it sticks to close to Caesar's diaries, the narrative being thus helped along towards a known ending. To this, he loosened the story around the main historical account and proved his mastery at both creating plots, as well as fleshing out accounts.

Praetorian I was such a great surprise because, while being anchored in a few isolated historically documented facts, it was mainly a work of fiction. An outstanding achievement and a very bold one at that, attacking cliches well established by such a good and famous work as the movie The Gladiator. And here's another cliche for you: Simon constantly sets his own bar very high and he constantly outdoes himself. Yes, Praetorian II is a better book than the first, a gripping lecture that literally kept me awake at night and turning the pages with eagerness, but also with regret that there will probably be more than six months until I will be able to read Praetorian III. A lot of the times, while reading The Price of Treason, I was waiting for a gap, a slowing down of the action, be it end of chapter or whatever, just to be able to put the book down and mind the business of the day.

There's no slowing down of the action. First to last page, poor Rufinus has no time to rest and with him, neither do the readers. If in the first Praetorian Rufinus gets stuck at Hadrian's Villa for quite a while, this second book is all about speed and moving around the empire wherever the interest of the emperor requires it. The emperor, Commodus, makes but a very brief appearance, and that's great. Fictionalizing the lives of great men in history is all good and swell, but only when taking a step back, and having characters from the background of the Roman political life at the forefront of the action we can understand the immensity of the administrative system of the empire, as well as the ways in which individual actions can shape the course of history.

And Rufinus is a great lead. Far from being the perfect smart, strong, witty Bond-esque hero, Rufinus is human, all too human, which makes him even more endearing than Bond. He is clumsy, very naive in some regards, slightly retarded emotionally and not always makes the right decisions. He is driven ahead by a sense of morality and justice, but not all of his decisions are good, he does not always get his way and things do not always go according to his plan, nor does everything works out in the end. A great life lesson here, under the guise of historical fiction. People can be vengeful, can be addicts, can do stupid things. Yet despite all that, they can still be heroes. Just as long as their intentions are good.

For goodness' sake, even the dog is in a moral grey area. Though loyal, reliable and helpful, Acheron, such an endearing character, is also a hindrance to Rufinus at times, who cannot move entirely free because of him. The dog makes him recognizable, and the fact that Rufinus and Acheron need to support and protect each other creates an even stronger bond between them. Another great life lesson.

I said and I maintain that the Praetorian series is, so far at least, a James Bond of ancient Rome. Only better. For the reasons mentioned above, but for a few others, too. Whilst Rufinus is completely devoted to his duty to the emperor, what happens when the emperor himself is getting things wrong? What happens when the emperor himself is a power thirsty usurper? How will Rufinus get through the year of the five emperors? Will Pertinax be the good guy or the bad guy? How about Severus?

Nevermind emperors though. What of Rufinus' brother, Publius? Will he survive his semi-captivity? Are Rufinus' friends Mercator and Icarion still alive? Will he see them again? Does he have a future with Senova? Oh, yes, I am looking forward to Praetorian III. No least because at least part of the action will take place in Dacia. I'm from there, you know?

Right, I said Bond. Frankly, the speed of the action, the importance of reaching key places in time with key elements also reminded me of Jack Bauer. High level corruption is also an element dealt with better by 24 than by Jan Fleming's hero. Except that, again, Simon does one better than the writers of 24 for not going for the ridiculously absurd strong, smart, moral and self-sacrificing hero. There is no such thing as Jack Bauer in real life. There might as well have been a Rufinus though. There is perfect plausibility in the historical existence and deeds of Rufinus, although there is no proof for it. 

I'd stop here with my review, but I realise I did not mention Vibus Cestius. New guy, but everyone will like him instantly. I mean, not instantly, but from the second when, after revealing layer after layer of disguises of the so-called 'great game' Simon finally tells us who he really is. You'll love Vibius Cestius. The second you understand who he is.

Another habit I've developed is to send an email to Simon after each review of one of his book to discuss typos and inaccuracies in the text. I could not find any in this book, so the email won't be coming. Instead, I want him to have fun on his documentation trip to Dacia. Or, as he describes it in the very last sentence of the book... 'Another gods-forsaken land of barbarians at the periphery of the civilised world.'

Some things never change, I guess. Have fun in Romania, Simon!

joi, 24 decembrie 2015

Nuclear Seven

Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, Eliza Knight, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Simon James Atkinson Turney, Russell Whitfield - A Year of Ravens: A novel of Boudica's Rebellion (with an Introduction by Ben Kane), 2015

For people who, like me, approached this book from the fanbase of only one of the seven authors (Simon Turney in my case), this is a great way to discover both new authors but also how vast the field of historical fiction is and how much good work is happening in this field. With some of the authors being also very prolific, keeping up with all their novel might also be challenging at times, but I suppose when the water clears everyone picks favourites: favourite authors, favourite historical period.

A Year of Ravens is to me a very novel enterprise, although it looks like the main driving force behind the project, Kate Quinn, has successfully done it before. It also shows how powerful modern communication tools are, as I imagine bringing seven creative minds together in a project so well streamlined and with no glitches or self contradictory information would have been a lot more difficult in a pre-internet age. It is, in some ways, a similar approach to writing TV shows, where characters and the main plot line stays, but style can vary greatly between episodes.

Obviously, the finished product is bigger than the sum of its parts, as the seven authors would borrow ideas, data and inspiration from each other and correct or adjust each other's work while the talent flows freely between the seven of them. Still, it feels slightly less like a novel and slightly more than a collection of short stories. I suppose this is an editorial choice, as the more rigid the main outline is, the more homogeneous the book will feel, while the chapters will very between them proportionally with the freedom the authors are allowed. None of this is a reflection on how enjoyable a read this is, which will always be down to the individual talent. Luckily, Kate Quinn has done a very good job in choosing seven very talented, well-documented and hard working authors. And the process itself, which has always been very transparent on social networks, has been a joy to follow and probably the main thing that convinced me to read the book.

As the subtitle says, this is a novel about Queen Boudica's failed rebellion against the Roman rule of Britannia. The choice of topic is also very smart, as Boudica's uprising is one of those rather abnormal moments in history that don't have a long build up time nor too many far reaching direct consequences. The presence of either of the two would have probably determined some of the authors to write it as a series, rather than a standalone novel. The whole of Boudica's appearance and disappearance from history occurs within a year or so, consequence of a series of very sudden events and very rushed decisions that are not entirely clear to history but that are very well fleshed out in the novel. Same thing could be said about the destruction of Pompeii, Kate Quinn's previous project. What's next, Spartacus?

The boom opens with Stephanie Dray The Queen, a prelude to the Boudica riot seen through the eyes of Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, of which we only know was a contemporary of Boudica, but not necessarily that they ever seen eye to eye. They do in Stephanie's account, and the story very intelligently links Cartimandua with both Boudica and Catus Decianus, the Roman procurator whose decisions were the most direct cause of the rebellion. How? Well, Stephanie takes an approach that is rather divergent from the orthodox historical line, but no less credible. Very well written, this chapter is also an interesting study in the status, options and opinion of the client-kings of Rome, a status with which Queen Cartimandua has juggled successfully for more than two decades.

Next up is Ria's story, a slave girl who's the illegitimate daughter of King Prasutagus, and what the build-up to the rebellion looks like through her eyes. Although I like the idea of giving voice to a slave, something that only very seldom happens, I'm not entirely sure what Ria's story actually brings to the table. She is never central to the story, her interference with the grand political developments is minimal and her final exit from the stage seems slightly artificial. And needless to say, she is entirely fictional. We do understand what the status of slaves was, why being a woman slave sucked even more and the many ways in which slaves were fucked over and shat upon, but all this is hardly new. And hardly central to Boudica's story.

Russell Whitfield's The Tribune is the only chapter written entirely from a Roman point of view. I've seen some of the previous reviewers complaining about the language, but I suspect none of those reviewers ever served in the military. To me the chapter felt perfectly accurate, in line with the language, mentality and habits of first century Roman patricians and it can stand alone as a great coming of age story.

Vicky Shecter's The Druid brings to the fore a decision that has been rather detrimental to the cohesion of the novel: the dual perspective. Three of the seven authors use it, so we have 10, rather than seven subjective point of views on the events. That being said, Vicky does a great job at it, showing how detrimental misunderstood cultural differences can be and how silly it all looks from outside. She's got a great story of a forced interaction between two enemies and a very sudden death, which melt together to form a very good read.

Being familiar with Simon's work, I know he's fascinated with the process of cultural assimilation at an individual level. This is exactly what happens in his chapter with Andecarus, son of a famous Iceni warrior growing up as a hostage in a Roman household. The cultural clash, the internal conflict, the choices the individual has to make and the differences between what the heart and the mind dictates, it's all there. And more importantly, this is a story of redemption, of going back to a alleged ideal life that turns out to actually not be so ideal, and a story about making the right choices.

And, as the coordinator of the project, Kate Quinn has saved the best for last. In The Warrior she tells the story through the eyes of Duro, my favourite character and the one I can identify with the most. Unlike some others, Duro benefits from not having to face any moral dilemmas. His system of values has long been set and he only needs to fulfil his destiny. Incidentally, this involves a lot of spectacular fighting, which Duro proves to be very good at. Kate might argue that he is a lot of the times taken out of his comfort zone, but as with Valeria, his counterpart, Duro is way too set in his ways to react anyway else than the way he always has: obey the Gods, obey the Kings, and fight your way through all the rests. Replace Kings with Husband and you pretty much get Valeria.

The aftermath of the rebellion gives Eliza Knight the difficult task of drawing the story to an end that would preferably not be along the lines of "Rome was victorious". Not a lot of originality in that. Of course Rome was victorious, but what of the Iceni? So Eliza sets to make up a completely original story of whatever might have happened to Boudica and her daughters after the battle of Wattling Street. And she does it very well, with the main thing to take from her final chapter being how the dynamic between two very different siblings works and how everyone has got some undiscovered strengths that only come about in times of duress.

There's also an epilogue to round up the novel and bring about a rather poetical resolution for the future of Britannia. Cartimandua makes a short reappearance and links back with Boudica's story, providing an antithesis to the feisty Iceni queen and leaving the reader with one of the recurrent questions in history: live in fear or die in pain?

All in all, a great novel based on a very good story and some brilliant writing, some of which I've sampled below:

"If I would not be universally loved, I must still be feared"
"You were only betrayed by the predictability of my enemies."
"My reputation is nothing when weighed against the good of my people."
says Stephanie Dray through the mouth of Cartimandua in a lesson of tribal politics. While Decianus' domestic trouble provide the humour:

"How was it that women could simultaneously give a litany of specific instructions as though admonishing a simple-minded child and then imply that only by obeying them completely could one live up to the standard of masculinity they had just eviscerated?"

"He looked at me as if I had promised him a honeycomb and handed him a wasp's nest." (Ruth Downie)

"We cannot shape the destiny of the empire from the army [...]
  We cannot manifest the destiny of the empire without the army [...].
"one should count each day as a separate life. All of us make mistakes, Agricola. That's what being an adult is all about. Being a man is bearing them, learning from them, and moving on."
"Well, to make the sculpture, it starts out as nothing. In fact, it is ugly. A piece of lump. But when the right man comes along with the right tools, he makes the lump something beautiful and wonderful. So it is here in Cambria. Paulinus is the man, Cambria the rock. To make it a beautiful thing, as in the rest of Britannia, he must first break the rock. Much of the rock will be wasted. Much of the rock will be dust. But when the job is done... it will be good."
some stoic philosophy from Russ Whitfield, very able in providing it in the field on the military too:

"Naso nodded and glanced al Calvus' body: 'We used to joke that this was the only way I'd get a fucking promotion. It was funny at the time, I suppose.'
'Carry on' was all Agricola had to say."
"Arms observe no bounds, nor can the wrath of the sword, once drawn, be easily checked or stayed; war delights in blood."

"If a babe was left and found alive the next morning, then the child was meant for greatness. If a babe was found dead, the gods had not accepted it - and woe to the mother of such a child, for her fate was never certain."
"Before the sun rose, the world turned gray. Was this when spirits walked the earth? Was this when death would come to claim those the gods had chosen?" (Eliza Knight)

"It all begins and ends with ravens. Ravens, who have seen all the great tragedies of the world unfold, and whose cry is eternal." (Stephanie Dray)

"It's one of the great joys of writing historical fiction, wondering more about the characters and less about the deeds of these long past lives" (Russ Whitfield)

miercuri, 9 decembrie 2015

Frontman Fronto

S.J.A. Turney - Marius' Mules VIII: Sons of Taranis, Victrix Books, 2015

It has been obvious for some time that the Marius' Mules series has surpassed by a damn long mile any objective it set out to achieve: it followed Caesar's account on the war in Gaul, but the last book of the Gallic Wars - to the chronology of which this volume corresponds - was not written by Caesar anymore; it fictionalized the great general's diaries, but the series is no longer the fleshing out of a laconic historical account, but has become the vast saga of the House of Falerii, lead by everyone's favourite legate, Marcus Fronto.

By that same token, the huge cast makes it completely unnecessary for Fronto to make it to the end of the series alive. And the way Varus was built up in the first half, and with the unfolding of the events in Massilia and Rome in the second half, I did wonder throughout a huge chunk of the book: "Oh, my God, is he going to kill Fronto?" Sure, he had to be at Alesia, he had to be the unsung hero of the biggest battle in the campaign, but once that's done, he is in grave danger. Sure, Fronto has always been in great danger, and always at the forefront of fighting. But we knew he'd survive. We knew we'll find him in the very center of the immense clash in the Mandubii capital. He could've died a glorious death there and bring the series to an end, but Simon spared him on that occasion. And even though he is now retired from the army to the very unspectacular career of wine merchant, Fronto is in a bigger danger that he has ever been: he is no longer necessary and once you realise that, it feels like every page can be his last.

Caesar's officers, his former comrades, already speak about him in the past tense. He is not tied to any real document or source, so Simon has no obligation to achieve anything with him. And with his talent for always getting in trouble, every fight now can be Fronto's last, without endangering the series in any way.

I won't spoil what happens to Fronto for you, but I will reveal this; I got towards the end of the book thinking: 'Oh, this time the Gods - and Simon - have been really merciful with the cast, as no one of any importance dies throughout, like in the previous 8 books.' And then, at the very end, on comes a massive onslaught, in the very heart of Rome, in which characters fall like the apples of an abandoned orchard in late autumn.

I thought this book will be in some ways poorer than its predecessors, as the year after the battle of Alesia will not see any clash anywhere near as big as the one where Vercingetorix was captured. But after 12 years and some 15 books, Simon has learned when to stick to historical facts and when to give free rein to his imagination. And he manages such a good mix in this book that Sons of Taranis is in many ways more gripping than some of the earlier volumes in the series.

I've also realized something else about all of Simon's books, not only the MM series - what makes them so enthralling is not necessary the size of the clashing armies or the historical importance of the event, but simply the way he creates tension. He adjusts his level of detail so that we can always envisage the action in a cinematic fashion and we always get a feeling of expectancy, the idea that something is about to happen, yet we never know what exactly or which way the story is going to go.

And his characters have become much more complex, specially the Gauls. So much so that I no longer know in which moral category to place most of them. Lucterius of the Cadurci had the heroism of an epic hero in the previous book and he seemed to be the one to take over the torch of freedom from Vercingetorix once the Arverni royal would be captured. Yet after the biggest army Gaul ever put together is defeated, Lucterius' fight and the the man himself is painted as almost ridiculous in its stubbornness. The siege of Uxellodunum, the most important moment of the year's campaign, is treated rather lightly, as a story with the ending written beforehand, though it does occasion another brilliant moment of bravery from Atenos, now (finally) primus pilus of the famous Tenth Legion. 'That man would hold the gates of Hades itself against Cerberus if you asked', says Varus, though what Atenos pulls at the ramp at Uxellodunum looks like a more impressive feat.

However, Lucterius is not there. He is busy trying to raise support that will never come, to revive a spirit that's been broken for good. And neither is Molacos, a skilled hunter and warrior that can easily skip through the Roman lines at Alesia and easily wins the reader's sympathies in the previous book, but is now turned into a bloodthirsty thug.

It is this playing with grey areas of morality and looking at characters from different angles that gives them depth and make this book stand proud among the others in the series.

Two more aspects I particularly appreciated:

- the description of Massilia, background for Fronto's civilian adventures, as usual very well documented but unusual in that this is a Greek city-state, which steers the reading towards the educational side - observing how this is different than the typical Roman city and what the role of the ancient Greek colonies was;

- description of the engineering heroes of Caesar's army, the unfashionable but highly efficient advantage that the Romans had over their Northern conquests. Their work is the one that ensured maximum advantage is drawn from the terrain, that maximum damage is inflicted before the battle and that losses are minimized through facilitating sieges, use of artillery and ample defensive structures. And whenever they pop up, they also seem to be providing an element of humour. Like when Varus says:

'It is an immense job. I asked about it before we heard of the spring, and the senior engineer just looked at me as though I's asked him to lower the sky a little.'

And the proof the Simon is now so exercised and confident in writing about the Gallic Wars that he even affords to create some ad-hoc folklore:

'there was a saying among Caesar's legions since Alesia. "Lead the tenth to glory, but put a coin in your mouth first." ' thinks Atenos after the surviving Uxellodunum.

Oh, and we've also got a great stand-off finale phrased better than any previous ones:

'There are moments when the great games of gods are poised on a knife-point and the outcome could go either way. At such times, the world holds its breath and even death seems inconsequential next to the enormity of the moment. The gods' dice teeter on their points, waiting for gravity to pull them down and declare a winner.'

But to find out what is happening in this particular history defining moment you will have to click on the link at the top, go to Amazon and buy the book. It's well worth it, though if you're already fans of the series I doubt you need any further encouragement.

duminică, 1 noiembrie 2015

Lacrimi si sfinti

Ziua de astazi a fost lunga si trista. Am inceput cu cateva telefoane in Bucuresti - pentru ca nu prea-mi venea sa cred ca e adevarat.
Am fost intr-un club aseara. Am fost la un concert rock in seara de dinainte. Din ultimele 7 seri, 4 le-am petrecut in sali de spectacole. Daca eram in Bucuresti, posibil sa fi fost in Colectiv aseara. N-am fost. Am fost in Electric Ballroom, in Camden, unde am vazut un numar de inghitit flacari si am ascultat Enter Sandman: Exit light, Enter night, Take my hand, We're off to never never land...

Am plecat dupa Raining Blood, cand probabil ca in Colectiv chiar ploua cu sange. Si ma gandeam la fata care a facut numarul de inghitit flacari, si la cum la final n-a reusit sa stinga pe scena una din torte, asa ca a dus-o aprinsa in culise, si m-am uitat dupa ea sa vad daca nu cumva se intampla vreun accident. Un accident se intamplase...

Ideea e ca o asemenea tragedie se poate intampla oricui, oriunde. Si sunt socat doar de cat de aproape a fost asta. In The Forum, in seara dinainte, la concert Carcass, am vazut oameni fumand in sala in ciuda interdictiei de a fuma, Si crowdsurfingul era interzis, dar in orice moment erau cel putin doi oameni care faceau crowd surfing. Ce se poate intampla daca ai grija, nu-i asa? Iar legislatia e oricum imposibil de stricta. Tin minte cat m-am enervat cand a trebuit sa cheltui 15 lire pentru un spray ignifugant, pentru ca altfel nu-mi dadea teatrul voie sa folosesc decorul. Sau cata bataie de cap ne dadeau aprobarile si securizarea materialelor pirotehnice la Five's. Sau cata munca de convingere si cat de neconvenabil e de fiecare data la Leicester Square Theatre cand trebuie sa folosim flacara deschisa. Si te intrebi de fiecare data de ce, si cateodata primesti cate un raspuns de-asta care e atat de absurd incat nu te lamureste de fapt cu nimic, dimpotriva.

Primul instinct cand se intampla o tragedie este de a cauta vinovati - cel putin conform lui Nietzsche, dar mi se pare ca nu e momentul pentru asta acum. Cele trei zile de doliu national inseamna fix asta: o perioada in care sa ne plangem mortii si sa avem grija de raniti, ca in perioadele de amnistie din razboiul traditional. Prioritatea noastra acum trebuie sa fie sa-i ajutam pe cei 150 de raniti si apoi sa-i plangem pe cei 27 pe care de acum inainte doar Dumnezeu ii mai poate ajuta.

Am vazut ca multi oameni s-au grabit sa arunce vini intr-o parte sau alta: a fost acuzat clubul, organizatorii, tehnicienii, edilii, pompierii, doctorii, biserica (?), Dumnezeu (??), sarbatoarea halloweenului sau muzica rock (?!?). Dar cui folosesc toate astea? Haidem mai bine sa vedem daca putem sa facem ceva pentru oamenii aia din spitale cu fetele arse si cu plamanii plini de fum.

Am vazut si multe dovezi de solidaritate si cumva asta a mai indulcit putin gustul amar, pentru ca iata, incepem sa invatam si noi cum sa fim solidari si uniti in fata tragediilor. Merge greu, e nesigur si ezitant, pentru ca nu prea avem exercitiul solidaritatii, pentru ca suntem prea obisnuiti cu suspiciunea. Exercitiul urii ne vine mult mai usor.

Sper ca dupa cele 3 zile de doliu, cand emotiile se vor mai domoli, cei in drept sa faca o ancheta care sa indeplineasca doua obiective:
 - sa stabileasca daca normele PSI din club respectau legislatia in vigoare si daca materialele pirotehnice au fost folosite in conformitate cu legile si normele in vigoare;
 - sa stabileasca daca legislatia in vigoare legata de PSI si de utilizarea materialelor pirotehnice este la un standard la care sa poate reduce la minim orice risc rezonabil de accident.
Abia dupa ce cunoastem dintr-o sursa oficiala lucrurile astea putem sa stim ce masuri se impun.

Iar despre Adi... of, Doamne! Am incercat astazi sa-mi aduc aminte cand ne-am cunoscut si mi-a venit abia acum, dupa miezul noptii: ne-am cunoscut prin 2003, cand el era tobosar la Nexus iar eu le filmam concertele sau stateam treaz pe plaja din Vama Veche pana la 5 dimineata pentru ca erau ultima trupa din Stufstock si au cantat de fapt pe la 6.30, pe lumina curata.

Imi amintesc cand i-a adus pe Lake of Tears la Agronomie, cum l-am rugat sa ma ajute sa fac un internship la E!Magic prin 2009 si a acceptat si cum isi gasise nisa in piata cu Backline Shop.

Dar tot astazi, devreme, mi-am adus aminte de un alt episod care pentru mine il surprinde perfect pe Adi Rugina. Era, daca-mi amintesc bine, Festivalul Enescu 2007, trebuia sa montam un ecran 6X6 in Piata Revolutiei, spectacolul incepea in cateva ore si abia ne apucasem, Eram relaxati, poate prea relaxati. Adi era coordonatorul de eveniment. A venit si m-a intrebat "O sa fie gata montarea in timp util?" "Da" i-am raspuns. "Ok, daca esti tu aici nu-mi fac probleme. L-ai montat de atatea ori, sunt sigur ca stii ce faci."

Cam asta a fost tot schimbul de replici, de un calm desavarsit, acolo unde de obicei lucrurile se desfasurau cu panica, nervi, tipete si certuri. De altfel, nu-mi amintesc sa-l fi vazut vreodata pe Adi Rugina nervos. Nu-mi amintesc nici sa fi auzit vreodata pe cineva ca a fost enervat de sau ca este suparat pe Adi Rugina.

Si m-am gandit si eu astazi toata ziua: nimeni nu si-ar fi facut probleme pentru Adi Rugina. A fost la atatea evenimente incat stia ce face. Cu fizicul, experienta si calmul lui nu i se putea intampla nimic, nici macar intr-o situatie de criza ca asta. A mai fost in situatii de criza. Sigur stia sa simta pericolul, sa realizeze ce e de facut si sa se puna in siguranta. Sunt convins ca nu despre asta a fost vorba. Sunt convins ca in momentele alea nu s-a gandit sa se puna in siguranta. Sunt convins ca prima lui grija au fost ceilalti, restul publicului. Sunt convins ca Adi Rugina a murit pentru ca altcineva sa traiasca, Nu stiu nimic despre credintele lui, dar oricare ar fi fost ele, lucrurile astea ar trebui sa se contabilizeze undeva. Sper ca e bine acum.

Si mai sper ca - pentru ca o mare parte a crestinatatii sarbatoreste astazi ziua tuturor sfintilor (care, a-propos, e si sarbatoare ortodoxa, doar ca in alta data) - traditia sa fie adevarata. Sper ca intr-adevar astazi portile cerului vor sta deschise vor trece prin ele fara judecata si vor merge de-a dreptul la Dumnezeu, sa-i stea alaturi,

LATER EDIT: nu stiam, la momentul in care am scris cele de mai sus, ca doi dintre membrii trupei Goodbye to Gravity au murit. Sper ca cei ramasi sa continue.

joi, 29 octombrie 2015

The Play's NOT the Thing

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler, 05.09-21.11.2015, Michael Grandage Company, Noel Coward Theatre, London

What I could gather before going to see Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51 was that it is a story of a woman scientist who was robbed of her Nobel prize by people who stole her work, that different people think different things about what actually happened and that the play is not necessarily very true to life.

After seeing the play I'll add to that the bits of biographical information about Rosalind Franklin included in the program and in her short article on Wikipedia. And my take on the facts is this: Rosalind Franklin was a brilliant scientist but not necessarily the most pleasant or easy to deal with of human beings. Being a woman and Jewish is not the most pleasant position to be in in the wake of the Holocaust in a highly competitive, male dominated environment. Add 'sexually repressed' to the aforementioned and we have more than enough for a terrible individual drama. It is a drama consumed entirely in the unseen latency of Rosalind Franklin's personality, in the vast loneliness behind the mask of a hard-ass, impossible to please, annoying bitch. And unfortunately it will continue to have Franklin's psyche as its only host for a while still, as Anna Ziegler chose to approach the subject matter from the perspective of her heroine's scientific career rather than the biographical angle.

The whole play takes place in labs and research centers and the script is laden with scientific terminology which does not render it incomprehensible, but boring at points. I must confess, although I enjoyed the play, I am not the biggest fan of Ziegler's script and I think she made a couple of wrong choices, the first of which I already mentioned. To my mind, Franklin's own demons would have made for a much better story than a picture that has been used without her explicit approval. It would have made more sense, too, as the emotional connection between Ziegler and Franklin hails undoubtedly from both of them being Jewish, women and having to struggle to succeed in environments that aren't necessarily very accommodating.

Perhaps Ziegler was afraid to stray too far from the truth and thus insult the memory of Rosalind Franklin. To this I say a degree of speculation is inherent in any artistic work and as long as the main thesis is in line with the facts, there is no need for all the details to be. In fact, there might be a lot more questionable aspects in the present version of the script than it would have been if the choice was to tell the story of the woman rather than that of the scientist.

The play has a documentary feel - mostly understandable - and the writing is all very factual, the plot hardly ever leaving the lab (except for a passing episode of Franklin (Nicole Kidman) going to see a play which might steam more from playwrights' obsession with self references rather than from some sort of biographical relevance). Franklin's correspondence with Caspar (Patrick Kennedy) is included in the script as is and delivered as monologues. Again, I would have chosen to use a bit more stagecraft, to turn them into dialogues and maybe use them to steer the play one way or the other. Same goes for the (admittedly short) soliloquies of Franklin's assistant Gosling (Joshua Silver) that carry the action forward. Integrating them into dialogue would have enhanced the dramatic feel imho.

And lastly, I do not believe Franklin either cared about or was robbed of the Nobel prize. Hers was a very personal odyssey that hardly lends itself to the understanding of the public. Franklin cared about getting the most accurate experimental results and that's that. Even her approach to the very idea of science is wrong, for science is not the exact description of the facts but rather the best possible explanation of the facts. And fallibility - the possibility of being proven wrong - is a condition sine qua non of scientific theories. And by a shift of paradigm two theories can describe the same set of facts with whole different sets of instruments. Although, in fairness to Franklin, she died before both Kuhn and Popper published their studies on the philosophy of science.

In the way of accuracy of results, Franklin must've died content of her achievements, and rightly so. Which gets me back to the point I've been trying to hammer home - contention does not make for good drama.

Understandably, reviewers are head over heels for Nicole Kidman. Most obviously, hers is a brilliant performance and it is this performance more than anything that gives depth to the character and indeed carries the play forward. But let me just add this: it is an easy part. There is no denying Nicole Kidman is a fabulous actress, but I think this script requires little virtuosity. This is Chopin playing Danny Boy.

I did like the direction and how natural it felt to have all the characters on stage all the time, I liked the sense of separation of spaces, the minimal set changes and in general all the choices Michael Grandage made.

Something good to be said about the set design, too. I thought the cellar full of debris will make little sense before the play, but it is in fact an excellent background for the story, with the additional merit of being historically accurate. The panel lit floor is a great choice too, its effect in the key moment of characters witnessing the DNA model gives the exact sense of wonderment the real scientists must've felt and its effect highly surpasses whatever actual model the designer could've come up with.

I have seen it often on the West End - specially in limited run productions - designers fall too much in love with their sets and then it becomes its own thing. The background comes to the fore, overshadowing the actual play. I was glad it is not the case here. Same goes for music and lights. Both sound and light design are discreet but efficient, just like they should. They underline, emphasize and always support, but never lead. The absolute mark of good production management in my opinion.

And now to the core of the issue that's eating at me: Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin. People who know me also know how much I love Nicole Kidman and how I'd never utter anything bad about her. I do wonder though: would this play have been the sold out run it is if the lead actress had less of a name? Take Nicole Kidman away and you'd struggle to get the script in the most uptight fringe venues in London. I don't like it, but I have accepted it as a fact that star actors is the number one deciding factor in terms of ticket sales. Does it serve the script right, though, to be staged in front of an audience that's there solely to see the lead? And more importantly, does it serve Rosalind Franklin right? Would the quirky, awkward, weird, sexually repressed scientist think her most suitable interpreter is one of the most famous sex symbols of our age? This is in no way a reflection on either of the two women - they're both great just the way they are -  but, if anything, on the audiences, on the general public and on the state of the art consumption.

A very small proportion of this show's public actually cares about Rosalind Franklin as they go in the theatre. If, a hundred minutes later, their interest for the Jewish scientist, for X-ray photography or for the discovery of the DNA double helix structure has increased the least bit then maybe yes, the play is best served by a star actor to top the bill. But has it?