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?

joi, 1 octombrie 2015

Full Circle

S.J.A. Turney - The Pasha's Tale (The Ottoman Cycle Book Four), Victrix Books, 2015

So this is it. After five years of wandering between the extremities of Mediterranean and beyond, Skiouros is coming back home, Shortest book ever, right? Well... the previous book make no secret about Skiouros intention or destination and it even puts him on a boat. However, even without the promise in the author's note, I knew there's plenty of excitement coming my way. And I was left with plenty of questions: what is home for a kid growing up in occupied Greece, kidnapped and forced to make a living on his own in a foreign metropolis and growing into adulthood mostly on long trips, usually on boats? Is Skiouros going to settle in Istanbul, or is it Hadrianopole his final destination? Is he going to take up farming? Is he going to see his parents again? What of Parmenio the sailor, or Diego, the fugitive master swordsman? And what's the deal with the gypsies anyway? Most importantly, now that the series is ending and he's free of any restraints, is Simon going to actually kill Skiouros? Are we gonna see our hero benefit from a heroic death that gives him a sense of achievement, or is he gonna get an absurd, tarantinesque death?

The book doesn't really start approaching the questions until close to its end, as before we get there Skiouros will be busy with one more adventure. Not really surprising, but this last adventure (or is it?) does not feel artificial or manufactured in any way. There was indeed a point when I said to myself: "Oh, no, not another plot to kill the Sultan!", though I have to admit this is one of the most smartly created plot I've ever read and in some ways it makes even more sense than the previous one.

Diego de Teba is my character of choice in this book and as he was developing he has gained my admiration completely. Not only is he a typical action hero, brilliant with a blade and courageous as hell, but it is indeed his psychological journey that makes him complete. And I'm glad to see Simon venturing so far into a character's psyche, way beyond the territory of a historical action novel.

Otherwise, more description of Istanbul's life and buildings, more about the habits and customs of the Ottoman Empire approaching its peak, interspersed with fight and action scenes so vivid I was sorry the train was closing on to home. I have to say, Seems like all that looking at bricks does pay off.

I have to say, I don't think Simon quite catches the spirit, the very essence of the Ottoman life or of the higher echelons of Ottoman politics, but his books would be not dissimilar to what a Western European (probably a Genovese or Venetian) would describe if they were contemporary with the action.

Now, because I have gone out of my way not to put in spoilers about the Ottoman books, I will wrap it up by giving one that, while it's quite an important pointer, does not really say anything either: Soliman the Magnificent makes a cameo in this book. Curious yet?

On to quotes:

'A man should not seek to discover every angle or every facet of a thing, for by the time he has uncovered the deepest meaning, that thing might be gone. Decisiveness and willingness to act promptly for the good are of prime importance.'

This description of the difference between the drawing desk and the building site has been highlighted by 3 kindle readers, apparently.

'A truly wise man can absorb the principle facts about a thing in a short time, while continued deliberation will only serve to cloud his mind and make him uncertain.'

'One never knows when one might find one's own neck beneath such a blade. Always sweeten the executioner, just in case.'

sâmbătă, 19 septembrie 2015

The Apennine Way

S.J.A. Turney - The Assasin's Tale (The Ottoman Cycle Book Three), Victrix Books, 2014

After taking us from Istanbul to Crete and from there, by land and by sea along the North Coast of Africa to Spain and from there even to the inconceivable beyond, Skiouros' adventures take him to Italy for this third book, where his ultimate foe is alleged to be.

This is of course an opportunity for Simon to talk at large about Italy at the end of the 15th century, and the portrait painted is - not unexpectedly - not entirely complimentary.

By this time our hero, Skiouros the Greek, has formed a solid posse of friends strongly bonded by their former adventures, albeit not by common interest. And if I were to raise an objection to the plot, it would be this: I'm not sure the motivation of the supporting cast is strong enough to take them all along the long and dangerous road they travel over the course of the book.

Parmenio and Nicolo, to whom we've been introduced at the end of the first book, and Cesare Orsini, who we've met in the second book, are joined by a group of other colorful characters of which I wish we could have seen more of. Hopefully this will not spoil the book for you but I will point out that whereas there is a reasonable expectation that not everyone in the cast will make it through their dangerous adventures, the body count in this Assasin's Tale is brutally high, even by Simon's standards.

By the whims of Fortuna, complimented with a drop of his own will this time, Skiouros gets dragged into the highest echelons of the Italian politics of the time and he becomes acquainted with some of the most powerful men in the country. Because the political power and the clerical one are so strongly intertwined this book more than the others not only gives Simon the opportunity, but rather force him to talk at longer length than he's probably comfortable with about religion, divinity, how they are approached and how they should be approached. It's a beneficial venture, as the inquiries into the spiritual do a good job at spicing up what is still a full-on action novel, always exploring siege tactics, fighting techniques and the high end of medieval warfare.

Because of this the book has less of a cinematic feeling, though this does not in any way deny its merits as a fast paced historical adventure novel.

The memorable episode of Skiouros meeting Charles VIII of France is the cherry on the cake of the book, as it epitomises the main purpose of a historical novel: breathing life into characters who'd otherwise only be a picture in a book.

As for the destination of our Greek hero's adventure... talking about it would reveal a great deal of how the action pans out; so instead of doing that, I'll just encourage everyone to discover how exactly Cem Sultan ended his mortal existence. And Simon reveals it in a much more spectacular fashion than Wikipedia will ever be able to.

Because I mentioned a more pregnant presence of divinity in this book than in the others of the series, here's a few quotes to whet your appetite:

Page 7: "God lived in the heart and not in a building, no matter how elegant, and that God listened to the quality of a man's soul, not to the words he uttered by rote from a prayer of any set faith."

Page 137: "God does not approve of vengeful men, though he might oft be so himself"

Page 139: "A dancer in a tin suit is still a dancer, while an ape in breeches is still an ape"

Page 149: "God was a central truth around which men built their own churches to their own needs"

And a very interesting quote on Rome, a hugely important city to Simon's work:

Page 74: "It is a great city full of marvels and glories and hope and beauty [...] but do not let that fool you. It is also a stinking cesspit of whoring, villains, corruption and decay."

This has probably been true for Rome for more than two millennia, as it is true for all metropolis cities throughout history.

vineri, 18 septembrie 2015

Colturi de continent

Totttenham Hotspurs – Qarabag FK 3-1 (Son '28 '30, Lamela '86 – Almeida pen. '6), UEFA Europa League 2016, Grupa J, Joi 18-09-2015, 20:05 GMT, White Hart Lane, Londra

Victorie de rutina pentru Spurs in ciuda unui oponent ambitios si a unei sperieturi initiale

Imi va fi iertat sper faptul ca pana de curand nu auzisem de Qarabag FK. O privire sumara asupra istoriei clubului releva o poveste cu suisuri si coborasuri. Qarabag FK isi joaca meciurile de acasa in Baku, capitala Azerbaijanului, desi echipa este originara din Agdam, un oras de 40.000 de locuitori, complet nimicit de conflictul din Nagorno-Karabakh. Nu prea ramane loc pentru sport in locurile in care razboiul isi face casa. In Agdam, n-a mai ramas loc nici pentru oameni. Dar iata ca, la 20 de ani dupa conflict si la 250 de kilometri de casa, Qarabag a reusit sa inchege o echipa solida cu care domina competitia interna si cu care a speriat in ultimii doi ani nume cu rezonanta in Europa, ca Inter Milano, care n-au reusit sa-i invinga in Baku, sau Celtic Glasgow, care i-a scos la limita, 1-0 in dubla mansa, din calificarile pentru Champions League sezonul asta.

De partea cealalta, Mauricio Pochettino i-a primit pe azeri cu o echipa tanara din care au lipsit piese grele: Ericksen, Bentaleb sau Chadli, in timp ce Harry Kane a fost doar rezerva.

Tottenham incep meciul relaxati, prea relaxati poate, iar oaspetii vor sa demonstreze ca nu se sperie de numele adversarilor lor. Asa ca primul sut pe poarta apartine azerilor, iar Lloris trebuie sa se intinda serios pentru a preveni un gol dupa doar doua minute de joc. Primul gol va veni insa repede, 5 minute mai tarziu, cand Richard Alemida transforma o lovitura de pedeapsa acordata in urma unui fault al lui Wimmer.

Chiar si conducand, azerii continua sa joace pozitiv si desi cedeaza posesia, se apara exact si contrataca rapid, reusind un al doilea sut pe poarta in minutul 20, inainte ca Spurs sa-l solicite in vreun fel pe portarul Sehic. Dar cand il vor solicita, va fi doar sa scoata mingea din plasa, pentru ca apararea lui Qarabag nu stie cum sa raspunda unei presiuni crescande a gazdelor. Sud coreeanul Son, recent achizitionat de la Leverkusen, profita de doua mari greseli defensive pentru a-si trece in cont o dubla in mai putin de 3 minute.

La 2-1 gazdele revin la carma jocului si intetesc presiunea la poarta lui Sehic, dar Alli rateaza din pozitie de 1 la 1 cu portarul sansa de a inchide meciul. Qarabag reuseste doua contraatacuri periculoase, dar scorul ramane neschimbat pana la pauza.

Tottenham iese de la cabine mult mai proaspata iar in repriza a doua azerii vor fi complet dominati fizic si sunt norocosi ca nici una din ocaziile lui Spurs din debutul reprizei nu se concretizeaza. Lamela in special e teribil de ghinionist sa nu inscrie in minutul 52, cand sutul lui il depaseste pe portar, dar loveste bara si iese in afara terenului. Francezul va trebui sa astepte pana cu 5 minute inainte de final pentru a-si trece numele pe tabela.

In minutul 86, dupa o pasa a lui Harry Kane, introdus in minutul 67 in locul lui Son, Lamela il lobeaza pe Sehic si duce scorul la 3-1, rezultat ce se mentine pana la final.


Victorie meritata a gazdelor, dar fotbalistii lui Qarabag trebuie felicitati pentru fotbalul pozitiv practicat si pentru increderea cu care joaca in fata unor adversari mult mai bine cotati. Doar naivitatea, lipsa de experienta si conditia fizica superioara a englezilor le-au adus in final o victorie comfortabila. Dar rezultatul nu spune toata povestea, a fost un meci frumos si ambele echipe au contribuit cu ocazii si faze de poarta. Daca isi mentin filozofia de joc, e foarte probabil ca azerii sa incurce socotelile calificarii in aceasta grupa complicata, din care mai fac parte Anderlecht si Monaco.

sâmbătă, 1 august 2015

Secera si ciocanarii

West Ham United – Astra Giurgiu 2-2 (Valencia '23, Zarate '51 – Boldrin '71, Ogbonna '82 og), UEFA Europa League 2016, Turul 3 preliminar, prima mansa, Joi 30-07-2015, 7:45 GMT, Boleyn Ground Londra, Spectatori: 33.858

O ocazie importanta pentru doua echipe ce se intalnesc rar cu cupele europene, jucata intr-o atmosfera de presezon

Vedere de la masa presei
Cadorisita de UEFA cu un loc in Europa League datorita castigarii titlului de cea mai fair-play echipa din Anglia sezonul trecut, West Ham United este, cel putin la nivel declarativ, un club nerabdator sa-si rasplateasca suporterii cu un parcurs european bun in ultimul sezon petrecut pe Boleyn Ground. Realitatea este insa putin diferita intrucat ciocanarii au trecut cu greu in turul doi al calificarilor de modesta echipa malteza FC Birkirkara, avand nevoie de prelungiri si lovituri de departajare, iar in meciul din aceasta seara au aratat ca o echipa neinchegata, nerodata si nepregatita pentru noul sezon care deja a inceput.

De celalta parte, Astra Giurgiu – un club fara multa experienta europeana, in ciuda unui parcurs decent in sezonul trecut – nu avea decat de castigat din aceasta excursie la Londra, un meci impotriva unei din Premier League insemnand mult pentru elevii lui Marius Sumudica.

Ciocanarii plecau asadar ca favoriti, si au inceput meciul onorandu-si statutul, cu o asezare mai buna in teren si mult mai multa siguranta in posesia mingii. Desi fara sa fie excesiv de spectaculoasa, prima parte a meciului a apartinut gazdelor, care s-au multumit sa preseze steril, sa-si impinga adversarii pe linia de 16 si sa inabuse rapid orice contraatac. Planul a parut sa functioneze, in parte si datorita unui inceput timorat al oaspetilor. Marius Sumudica avea de altfel sa recunoasca dupa meci ca elevii lui au jucat cu frica initial, cedand posesia si multumindu-se sa absoarba atacurile londonezilor.

Perioada de presiune a gazdelor a dat roade dupa 20 de minute de joc, iar Enner Valencia a deschis scorul in urma unei serii de cornere in succesiune rapida acordate de Astra in partea dreapta a apararii. West Ham au avut astfel ocazia sa puna in practica schemele exersate la antrenament pana cand au gasit formula castigatoare: pasa scurta in lateral, o minge aruncata inalt in careul Astrei pe care Valencia, inaltat cu un cap peste marcatorul lui direct, a trimis-o in plasa.

Ciocanarii vor mai avea doua mari ocazii pana la pauza, doar paradele lui Silviu Lung reusind sa mentina scorul la 1-0. Raspunsul echipei noastre a fost timid, primul sut pe poarta al giurgiuvenilor fiind inregistrat in minutele de prelungire ale primei reprize prin Amorim, care a incercat sa-l surprinda pe Adrian de la aproximativ 20 de metri.

Pauza le-a gasit pe gazde cu un avantaj minim, dar Bilic a fost nevoit sa faca doua schimbari in prima repriza, amanunt cu repercusiuni pentru rezultatul final: Valencia, accidentat, a fost inlocuit de Modibo Maiga in minutul 37, la doar 3 minute dupa ce Reece Burke i-a luat locul lui Joey O'Brien in partea dreapta a apararii, acolo unde antrenorul croat a sesizat un potential punct nevralgic.

Repriza a doua a inceput in aceeasi maniera ca si prima, cu gazdele in atac, Zarate reusind sa dubleze avantajul echipei sale dupa doar 5 minute de la reluarea jocului. O tasnire din banda dreapta, trei adversari depasiti si un sut de la marginea careului printre cei doi fundasi centrali ai Astrei au reusit sa-l invinga pe Silviu Lung si sa rasplateasca frumosul efort al argentinianului cu un gol ce parea sa incline balanta calificarii decisiv in favoarea gazdelor.
Astra a parut insa sa se trezeasca usor-usor si sa atace ceva mai curajos, dar doua greseli individuale ale experimentatului fundas James Collins vor fi cele care vor relansa meciul: mai intai Collins primeste cartonas galben pentru un fault de o duritate excesiva asupra lui Budescu pentru ca doar 3 minute mai tarziu acelasi duel sa se repete la o faza la care Budescu ar fi scapat in situatie de unu la unu cu portarul. Collins e nevoit sa faulteze din nou atacandu-l pe jucatorul roman din spate. Chiar daca acceptam opinia lui Bilic cum ca eliminarea e putin cam dura, al doilea cartonas galben e justificat iar Collins nu ar fi trebuit sa se puna intr-o asemenea situatie.

Aflati de odata in fata unui adversar in inferioritate numerica, giurgiuvenii prind brusc curaj si vor avea nevoie de doar 5 minute pentru a crea prima mare ocazie, in minutul 63 Reece Oxford vazandu-se obligat sa respinga mingea de pe linia portii.

Usor-usor Astra pune stapanire pe joc si un sut de la aproximativ 25 de metri al lui Fernando Boldrin va prinde interiorul transversalei, de unde ricoseaza in plasa, facand inutila parada lui Adrian.

Cu un moral complet schimbat dupa 2-1, romanii continua sa atace din ce in ce mai curajos si sa isi creeze o serie de situatii bune. Cel care va inscrie insa va fi un jucator al gazdelor, noua achizitie Ogbonna – fundasul central cumparat de la Juventus pentru 11 milioane de euro – deviind in proprie poarta o centrare a dracilor negri care nu promitea foarte multe.

La 2-2 si cu ceva mai putin de 10 minute de joc ciocanarii reiau atacurile la poarta lui Lung de aceasta data insa fara luciditatea din debutul partidei, ci mai degraba cu o frustrare rezultata din constientizarea faptului ca acest scor da prima sansa de calificare echipei romanesti.

Desi impinsi inspre propria poarta de catre agresivitatea gazdelor, baietii lui Sumudica reusesc sa reziste si chiar vor incerca sa contraatace timid, dar singurele evenimente notabile pana la sfarsitul partidei vor fi cartonasul galben primit de Dimitri Payet pentru proteste si trimiterea in tribuna a antrenorului croat Slaven Bilic de catre centralul partidei.

Desi nimic nu e inca decis, acest 2-2 da prima sansa romanilor, carora un 0-0 la Giurgiu le va fi suficient pentru a trece mai departe.

Marius Sumudica a incercat in conferinta de presa de dupa meci sa discrediteze sansele echipei sale, insistand ca West Ham sunt in continuare favoriti la calificare, accentuand diferenta de valoare de piata si de valoare individuala in favoarea englezilor cat si superioritatea fizica a acestora.

Abordarea managerului lui West Ham a fost insa mult mai pesimista, Slaven Bilic afirmand ca fara Tomkins, Diafra Sakho si Collins (eliminati) si fara Enner Valencia (accidentat), misiunea europeana a baietilor lui este mult mai dificila acum decat inaintea celor 90 de minute de joc. In acelasi timp, antrenorul croat a parut preocupat mai putin de un parcurs european si mai mult de debutul Premier League in care echipa lui ii va primi pe acelasi stadion pe mult mai bine cotatii vecini din nordul Londrei, Arsenal.

Ca o concluzie, meciul din seara aceasta a fost unul destul de spectaculos, cu patru goluri si un nivel de fotbal decent, chiar daca a fost evident ca nici una din cele doua echipe nu e inca pusa complet la punct cu pregatirea pentru noul sezon.

Astra Giurgiu a obtinut un rezultat foarte bun dintr-o deplasare extrem de grea si are acum prima sansa la calificarea dupa aceasta dubla. Elevii lui Sumudica s-au prezentat onorabil si par a constitui un grup suficient de bine inchegat pentru a se reprezenta cu demnitate in Europa.


In acelasi timp, West Ham United nu pare o echipa suficient de inchegata incat sa abordeze noul sezon cu prea mare incredere. Cu o serie de achizitii noi, din care nici una extrem de spectaculoasa, ciocanarii par a avea nevoie de mai mult timp atat pentru a crea relatiile de joc care sa fluidizeze curgerea mingii cat si pentru a se adapta stilului ofensiv si spectaculos pe care Slaven Bilic incearca sa-l impuna, mai ales ca Sam Allardyce, fostul antrenor, este un pragmatic desavarsit, adeptul declarat al rezultatului cu orice pret si al ideii ca scopul este mai important decat metoda. Ar trebui sa fie un sezon istoric pentru ciocanari, care isi vor parasi casa de 100 de ani la vara – legendarul Boleyn Ground – in favoarea stadionului olimpic aflat la aproximativ 3 kilometri distanta si cu o capacitate de peste doua ori mai mare. Aceasta extindere este abil exploatata de o politica de marketing foarte inteligenta si este menita sa creasca veniturile londonezilor si sa-i plaseze in aceeasi categorie cu echipele de top ale Premier League. Dar daca managementul inteligent nu e dublat de rezultate bune in teren, sezonul ciocanarilor risca sa se transforme intr-un fiasco.

marți, 14 iulie 2015

Pirates of the Mediterranean

S.J.A. Turney - The Priest's Tale (The Ottoman Cycle Book Two), Victrix Books, 2013

When I started reading The Ottoman Cycle I imagined, in my immense naivety, that the action will take place on the background of the new Istanbul, making the series an immense fresco of the city and the time. While this is certainly true for the first book, The Priest's Tale sees our hero, Skiouros, away from the capital of the empire, on an adventure that starts is Crete and ends... very far away from it. Saying the end is unexpected is an understatement, but I'll try not to give anything away as potential readers might want to discover where it ends for themselves. But the richest of the rewards in this book, like a lot of the times, lays a lot more with the journey than with the destination.

Skiouros goes half-circle around the Mediterranean, by sea and by land, and encounters trouble wherever, without particularly looking for it. The end of the previous book has introduced us to two characters, captain Parmenio and Nicolo, but gave no clue as to how important they will become in the story. Together with a rather mysterious Italian nobleman they will form Skiouros' posse, an adventurous gang of friends that makes the novel smell like bromance at times, another innovation to what was largely an individual story in the first book.

The Mediterranean world in the late 15th century is a very interesting place, a mixture of civilizations that clash, collide, live side by side and influence each other over a flurry of material for the interested historians and anthropologists. And we encounter all of these civilizations here: the Ottoman Turks who took over the ruins of Byzantium, the shrinking Arab world of North Africa, the Berber nomads roaming free across the ruins of the Phoenician empire, the Egypt of Mamluks and the warring Catholic states of Western Europe. And like all Simon's books, real history goes closely along the personal stories, making his books a history lesson delivered in the form of an action novel. Which is the ideal recipe for children books, really, the structure of most books I grew up with.

Religion being the important social element that it is in this era, is an unavoidable aspect as Skiouros' story too. And in this an author cannot but betray his own beliefs, siding automatically and unconsciously with whatever faith is closer to his convictions. There is no secret that Simon's values are mostly secular ones and as such , the more pervasive a certain faith will be, the less virtuous it will be deemed. To that end, the biggest villain in the book is the most fanatical believer: Etci Hassan, the Ottoman pirate, is by far the best villain in any of Simon's books I read so far and an all-round great villain by any measure. It does have an element of Jafar and it does echo of the Islamic fanaticism of which we see far too much today, but this Turkish pirate is a man of his age and it made me understand better how the interest of the Italian city-states at sea have collided with the Ottoman ones and led to the great naval battle of Lepanto.

Speaking of Hassan's vengeful quest, I did wonder at times if his resolve could not have been put to better use, if his chase of a Greek fugitive is not too insignificant a goal for a commander of the Ottoman fleet. And this is one point in which maybe the reader is required to suspend his belief here and there: is Skiouros' quest really worth it? Is his ultimate target really that guilty for the crime he is chased for to be deserving of that much hateful determination? And could his friends not divert him to better causes rather than getting whirled in this personal story of revenge?

And Skiouros does seem to be more and more of a conflicted character and this development does make for a better book, though the inflexibility of his ultimate goals bring some predictability that might not be necessary.

Two great pluses to compensate for this slight drawback: first, this is an action novel. The twists and turns, the fights and chases come thick and fast and I usually found it hard to put the book down as I would want to see which way an action scene is gonna go; only for it to be followed by another action scene and before you know it, the hours have flown by.

The second plus is a gallery of secondary characters, of which I would have liked to see more of: Don Diego de Teba, a Zorro avant-la-lettre, the fighting priest in Tunis, the gypsy traveler, Kemal Reis, the good Muslim and most of all, the Caravan lady, an absolutely delightful character that unfortunately disappears from the story way too quickly for my liking.

I will end my review with a quote that is becoming recurrent, as it appears at least twice in the third book of the cycle as well: "Vengeance is hollow victory, and as oft destroys its perpetrator as its target", Cesare Orsini tells Skiouros, and in the light of this wise words I am very curious to see if and how the young Greek's vengeance will be carried to an end. I am a book and a half away.

miercuri, 1 iulie 2015

Second Rome

S.J.A. Turney - The Thief's Tale (The Ottoman Cycle Book One), Victrix Books, 2013

Having finished reading all the 8 books that have come out so far of the Marius' Mules series, I am now learning how it feels for viewers of box sets to wait for a new season. Or, I imagine, for readers of historical fiction waiting for the next book in a series they enjoy. It's frustrating, specially when Simon's last update on it is: "As well as MM8, I'm on various simultaneous projects: I'm in the final stage of editing a kids' book that's with my agent, I'm in the same stage with the joint work with Gordon, I'm busy writing book 2 with Gordon, I've a short story collection for charity sitting idle, waiting for a foreword to finish it off and now I've been signed up to join in with another project."

So my choice of reading was one of Simon's two finished series: The Ottoman Cycle and Tales of the Empire. Given that I am not a big fan of how 'fantasy' sounds' (too reminiscent of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings) and I am a new convert of the historical fiction genre, my choice was simple. I was itching to see how Simon portrays the Turks anyway, as the history of the Ottoman Empire is closely related to my country's history, and I'm always curious about that.

This book is almost a case study of how an author is allowed to create his own rules within his own work, as long as they are consistent (unless, of course, he builds inconsistency in as a rule). The book is built on a couple of real historical events and around historical buildings of Istanbul, but the main plot and the main characters are all fictional. Also, so consistently built that a reader can assume the events might as well have taken place. And with this, Simon might give future historians a headache, as once a book that does that reaches classical status it becomes much better at entering the collective memory than a scholastic work. It doesn't even matter that the author himself puts a disclaimer at the end. Some people REALLY believe that Sherlock Holmes REALLY lived at 221b Baker Street and, more important, people like to believe it.

And Skiouros, our hero, is likable enough. He's innocent and mostly open and honest about his intentions, while it's also got plenty of flaws that make it easy for the reader to feel a connection: he's a thief, lowlife, without any ambitions or goals. He's a drifter, basically, though a drifter no older than 24, though likely quite a bit younger than that. And Skiouros story will take him throughout the city of Istanbul where he's spent the last eight years of his life and where, in the space of a week in 1490, the circumstances will take him in close proximity of some of the most powerful men of the day and will transform his life forever. Skiourous' story is fascinating enough, but the way Simon creates situations and twists makes this book a proper thriller, with twists and new developments coming in fast and thick, guaranteed to lose the reader some sleep.

And because Simon is not tied to a real historical narrative, we are completely in the dark, never knowing what's going to happen next. I feared for Skiouros' life quite a few times and the knowledge that the last book of the series is introduced as 'Skiouros returning home' assured me that he'll survive the world-shattering events (in more than one sense) he goes through. Other characters, however, are not that lucky. I was surprised at the sudden brutality with which Simon disposes of some people, it's like he suddenly found his inner George R.R. Martin.

I will throw a spoiler in the mix, so if you're not into that skip this passage entirely. Now, before I get to the next line. Here goes: people are trying to kill the Sultan. Knowing as we do that Bayezid II reigned from 1481 to 1512, we hope we'll be safe in the assumption that the Sultan survives. I did wonder though if, in the virtue of the author creating his own rules principle, Simon might actually pull an Inglorious Basterds on poor Bayezid II. And he's well within his rights to do so, too. Who's to stop him?

I will say this more: the end surprised me quite a bit. This being the Ottoman Cycle, I expected to be introduced to a hero and see life in Istanbul through his eyes over the course of four years. This does not happen and to a reader this unknown course of events and surprising turns are a rich reward. 

If I was to correct anything, I would say Simon is too in love with the historical Istanbul and some pages are going towards talking about that: streets, period colouring, buildings, buildings' interiors, clothing, the looks of food stalls and the like. They're very useful, very educational and provide a sometimes necessary respite, though at times, specially when we know our heroes are in a place of bother, talking about a building's defective staircase is playing on out nerves a bit.

But the one big conclusion to be drawn for this book is that Simon proves he is a multi-faceted writer, able to switch between periods and styles, between the big epic and the individual story while keeping the ingredients that make his books such a good read: the fast-paced action, the suspense, the insane level of documentation.

And sometimes he provides memorable quotes, too. Here's a few samples;

"Haggling with a Greek, they say, is like trying to ride a two-legged donkey: it takes too long and you'll wish you hadn't tried."

"He can see beyond the trappings of their religion to the fact that they are men, and he treats them as such."

"Religious fanatics were dangerous men to work with. They tended toward irrational acts and unpredictable moves."

"Do not worry about tomorrow, for thou knowest not what the day will bring forth" (Judah Ben Sira)

"May God smile upon your ship and your voyages" "And may He look the other way where you're concerned."

sâmbătă, 27 iunie 2015

Backstage

S.J.A. Turney - Prelude to War (Marius' Mules series), Victrix Books, 2014

I'm guessing this volume is born out of Simon's desire to write about important episodes in the great scheme of the Gallic Wars that could not have possibly fit in Caesar's diaries. It might have been a mistake to have stuck so rigidly with the parity between MM books and Caesar's chapters of De Bello Gallico, as for instance this book gives the impression of being the collateral victim of that policy, while MM7 is a monster of a book and in MM8 Simon will have to struggle with a rather uneventful year in Gaul, when Caesar was probably already preparing a confrontation with Pompey.

The fact that it does not have a number assigned makes it easy to overlook, and skipping it as one sails through the series would be a mistake. First, because it's very well written. Nothing unexpected here when it comes to Simon, as he seems to beat his own very high standards with each new release. Faithful readers of the Marius' Mules series will no doubt revel in getting more of the same, while its size would make this book a perfect taster for any new readers. Because maybe with the exception of the very last page, when Fronto's name pops up rather unexpectedly, the stories can very well stand alone.

The second reason not to skip it is that it contains episodes that are very important, if not essential, for the biographies of some of the supporting cast. And by supporting cast, I mean everyone that is neither Fronto nor Caesar. The series gravitates around them, sure, but they are circled by an array of characters, both historical and fictional, that are no less memorable.

In the first story (The Fire Arrow), Cita the quartermaster takes center stage. While only a minor character so far, making him the lead gives us a better understanding of how the behind the scenes of the gleaming Roman legions work, which I suspect is Simon's main purpose for writing this. Plus, it gives us a memorable sidekick, Bennacos of the Boii, a cunning warrior of great ability and even better morals. For some reason it reminded me of Tom Sizemore's character in Saving Private Ryan. The whole story is actually a tale of great heroism, but saying anything more would be giving stuff away, and I encourage people to read it and see for themselves.

No spoilers in the second story, though: Clodius Pulcher dies. While the death of Pulcher and its details are known historical facts, Simon's mastery of the writing craft is in the way he links it with his series and his characters. And I suspect he was itching to write about it, as it is an event with a huge impact on the civil war to follow.

The third story (Rise of Kings) takes us straight back into the heart of the matter: Gaul is very much rising and, while Fronto is nowhere to be seen, Priscus, along with Fabius and Furius, are very much at it, thus giving the feel of being back to the main narrative.

So this is it. For me, Prelude to War was as enjoyable a read as any from the series, and an integral part of it. The only disappointments I can express are that it does not have a number, belittling it somewhat undeservedly, and that it is too short. Not that good literature is exclusive to a certain size, quite the contrary actually. It is just that I found myself at the end of it too quickly. The mark of good writing, after all, is when you can't get enough of it, is it not?

sâmbătă, 6 iunie 2015

The Good Within

Wayne Visser - Sustainable Frontiers, Greenleaf Publishing, Sheffield, 2015

Having just been launched at the beginning of the week, I estimate Wayne Visser's latest book, Sustainable Frontiers, will make quite an impact among the professionals of sustainability. As a matter of fact, judging by the testimonials on its website, it already has.

The book attempts a systemic approach at 'unlocking' sustainability via a series of 8 key factors: leadership, enterprise reform, technology, corporate transparency, stakeholder engagement, social responsibility, integrated value and future fitness. Readers will recognize some of the terms, be intrigued or baffled by others and point out that some of them are better known under a different name. And herein lies one of the problems of sustainability/CSR: no set terminology. It might look like a trivial issue, but allow me to progress the case further of why this is important.

As Dr. Visser repeatedly points out, various forms or elements of sustainability have been around for far longer than our first intuition would make us believe. But there has never been – until recently – a systemic concern for reducing, eliminating or reversing our negative impact; neither have there been enterprises that would have this at their very core, rather than a side concern. As such, the tools for these enterprises are still in development and we are still a way away from knowing how they will end up looking. An important aspect of these tools has to be a set terminology, a commonly agreed lexicon without which the passing of information is rendered extremely difficult, if not impossible. 

Ever since coining the concept of CSR 2.0, one of Dr. Visser's favourite mantras has been that 'CSR has failed'. I tend to disagree with it, or reshape it to 'the CSR model that has been in common use throughout the 90s and the first years of this millennium is outdated'. I'm not even sure this is disagreeing. I think that CSR model (CSR 1.0) has had its uses, that generally corporations are now much more aware of their impact than they were 20 years ago and responsibility has been internalized to some degree by both businesses and society. However, we are still nowhere near a definition of 'CSR' or 'sustainability', though we seem to converge on a few of them.

Another tricky side of this systemic approach is that humans lack any sort of capability of systemic understanding. Daniel Goleman points this out in his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, making the argument that there has never been an evolutionary need for such an understanding. Therefore, putting such an approach in practice is likely out of the grasp of any one individual, though obviously influential individuals can make a stronger push (Muhammad Yunus or Anita Roddick are two examples – both mentioned a number of times as positive influences in sustainability by Dr. Visser).

We are, therefore, caught between over-simplifying what sustainability is (ethical behavior) – this having the disadvantage of raising questions all the time about what exactly is ethical - and this insanely complex approach that throws us into a vast territory over which we have no control. How does a huge corporation know that none of the companies in its supply chain is slipping through the net of ethical business? Is one of the myriads of certifications available out there enough? How do I know that my carefully selected household recyclable waste does not end up in the landfill via some logistical misunderstanding?

The key to this dilemma seems to be collaboration, a set of common goals and growing awareness all across the board on the impact of our own actions. Systems Change is a Multiplayer Game is the title of a sub-chapter in Sustainable Frontiers. The book talks about all of these elements and circumscribes them to CSR 2.0, a new form of acting in both business and society.

As you can very well see, the temptation is – when confronted with some form of theoretical approach to sustainability – to reply to those ideas with my own rather than being able to talk about them. Part of this goes back to the clarity of the lexicon. While it is obvious that most of us, sustainability supporters, are on the same side, ideas need to be clarified before we can fully subscribe to them.

Speaking of sustainability supporters (or superheroes, as Dr. Visser calls them), one of my favourite bits in the book is their classification: experts, facilitators, catalysts and activists. This has been particularly interesting to me as for years I've had an ongoing identity crisis when it comes to sustainability. Not being a professional of the field, but rather a supporter oscillating between elated naivety and fatalistic skepticism, this is helpful in pointing out how you can best serve your goals, whatever angle you approach them from. 

Parts of Sustainable Frontiers have been previously published as newspaper articles. Add to that the fact that the writing style alternates between a corporate report – clear, concise, resorting to facts and figures – and a highly lyrical meditation sprung from the author's own sensibilities – reworded African legends interwoven with meditations on nature and teachings from half-gurus, and it results a book that lacks a certain internal cohesion, that is missing a central narrative. The up side is, we have a very well-structured work, easy to read and to follow and, most importantly, a book whose purpose goes beyond the first lecture, staying as a great companion, guide and ready reference along one's journey through the field of sustainability.

Below are a few quotes that have stood out. Each of them could be the starting point of a separate discussion about what it is and what it would be ideal to be. Those discussions, however, will have to take place some other time.

If wave after wave of corporate scandals are revealing anything, it is that corporate governance is sometimes not worth the paper it is written on. If the people involved in implementing corporate governance do not have their hearts in the right place and if they are just going through the motions, the process becomes a charade.You can have all the non-executive chairpersons, non-executive directors, board committees and external auditors you like, but things will go hideously wrong if ceremony has replaced substance and cynicism is the order of the day.

Impacts that are far away, or in the future, are like smoldering fires in the distance: noteworthy but not action-worthy. People need to feel the heat: directly, personally, here and now. For organisations and leaders, that might mean lighting a few fires.

The status quo says that the business of business is to make profits. We have always challenged that. For us, the business of business is to keep the company alive and breathlessly excited, to protect the workforce, to be a force for good in our society and then, after all that, to think of the speculators (shareholders).” (Anita Roddick, The Body Shop)

Bakan (2004) goes as far as to argue that today's companies are pathological in nature, in the sense that 'the corporation has a legally defined mandate to relentlessly pursue – without exception – its own self interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to other'

our global economy is so inefficient that less than 1% of all the resources we extract are actually used in products and are still there six months after sale.

customers and governments need to give up their compulsive throw-away habits and embrace the take-back economy.

Necessity, rather than an unexpected attack of conscience, will be the driving force behind the transition to a circular economy.

The problem with the rationalist view of organizing people is that people are not very rational. […] In fact, if our understanding of the current state of psychology is even close to correct, man is the ultimate study in conflict and paradox.

The point is that, despite all the evidence and frameworks supporting the notion of the holistic individual, business has yet to respond in a meaningful way. Employees are still regarded by companies as inputs to production and expenses in business rather than creative beings and assets in business. People are still expected to leave their emotions, intuition, dreams, fears, family and community concerns and a myriad other qualities characteristic to being fully human, outside of the workplace. And as workers, they are still expected to be motivated and inspired by monetary incentives, increased productivity and profit making as opposed to personal development, genuine service to others and the search for meaning in their  lives. The time is long overdue for business to begin to serve humans rather than the other way around.

sâmbătă, 30 mai 2015

Inglorious Singularii (Dirty Contubernia)

S.J.A. Turney - Marius' Mules VI: Caesar's Vow, Victrix Books, 2014

I have finished this book a while ago but I hesitated writing about it because... well because I was under the impression there's not much left to say. I have talked in my previous reviews about how brilliant Simon's books are and how much I enjoy them, and this is always the bottom line. I can only imagine how hard must be for Simon to be keeping writing on the series, and I am always surprised by the energy with which he does it. Because with long series like this you always run into a conundrum: your audience will always want to more about the heroes. They get bored by always being fed more of the same, but at the same time you cannot afford to innovate to much without risking to either making the story too unbelievable or changing the characters so much that they become unrecognizable when compared to their previous selves. That's why a lot of TV series have a dip in quality after two or three seasons.

Having said all that, with this sixth book of the series Simon proves to be a masterful innovator, in that the action develops in a surprising way, while the characters stay true to themselves. At the same time, the historical reality of Caesar's diaries is respected as well, as Simon is very intelligently exploiting a gap in the historical timeline, namely what happened to the rebel king Ambiorix of the Eburones. It is clear that Ambiorix's deed of destroying an entire legion and killing two high ranking officers (Sabinus and Cotta) is the biggest failure of Caesar's Gallic campaigns, with probably heavier losses than even the Battle of Alesia. 

After a bit of a rocky and only partial reconciliation with the general, our hero, Fronto, is given a commando and a mission. This is a turn of events as clever as it is surprising, as it frees Simon to take Fronto and his 20-odd men wherever he pleases. Fans of the series should not be worried, as there is plenty of blood and gore, of hacking and stabbing, though sometimes the numbers are smaller. There are two cult movies this book reminded me of, and they're both referenced in the title. Which makes me rather curious if Simon took any of his inspiration from Tarantino's movie in the same manner in which Inglorious Basterds is inspired by the Lee Marvin classic.

There are a few really great moments in the book, of which one got stuck in my mind due to the depth of the psychological drama: when Fabius has to kill the villagers to whom he promised freedom only moments before, thus going against all his ethical convictions. The army does that to you a lot of the time, and it is captured here surprisingly well.

I need to note a slight disappointment when I think about how fascinated I was about the mythological animals Caesar describes as being part of Northern Gaul's regular fauna and about the longest anthropological inquiry the great man makes into the life of this part of the world in his sixth book of De Bello Gallico. I was eagerly waiting to see what Simon has to say about the weird animal with a horn in the middle of its forehead out of which two pairs of antlers grow. Instead, he dismisses all of it under the label of 'fabulations attempting to mask a military failure'. Which, come to think about it, might very well be true.

So rather than being a mere setup for next year's world-shattering events, this sixth book is actually a great standalone, that can very well be read by itself as well as a natural follow-up to the fifth and the adventures of the previous year. Highly recommended.

Having already read The Great Revolt, I can only say I'm looking forward to reading it again. But before that, Prelude to War, a 'gap-filler'. Very curious.