sâmbătă, 28 septembrie 2019

Where do you want to go today?

Dan Brown - Origin, Penguin Random House 2017

Considering how prejudiced I was against Dan Brown before reading this book, it is amazing how much of an advocate of his I became now, at the end of Origin's 538 pages. But it didn't even take that long. By page 100 I think, I was already converted.

I have seen the Inferno movie first, and that that probably helped, because I could only imagine Professor Langdon as Tom Hanks. And I am actually looking forward to the Origin movie, actually, though by the looks of it they're still working on making The Lost Symbol, so probably a good few years away.

Now, don't get me wrong: I don't think Dan Brown is the be all end all, I don't think Jesus had offspring or that some dude with a computer discovered the origin of life. In fact I am quite annoyed with the way some of the premises are looked at - the idea that a scientific certainty on the origin of life would eliminate religion (sic!). Well, myself and a few friends of mine, such as Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn might have a few things to say about this idea of 'scientific certainty' and it's obvious that Mr Brown, talented storyteller as he might be - is missing a few important reads. In fairness though, it is much more exciting to go and visit Sagrada Familia or the monastery of Montserrat then write about them than researching some obscure academics and their dry lectures on epistemology. So I don't agree with the writer, but I sympathize.

The selling point of the book, and - I imagine - the reason behind Dan Brown's success, is his truly captivating storytelling: enough threads to keep one interested, but not enough to make it too complicated; very short chapters and quick jumps from one plot to another; non-linear story-telling on top of a clear chronological thread; putting most of the enigmas out in the open from the off, but always leaving something to discover; and throwing enough red herrings to keep things spicy, but keeping one final reveal.

And despite the omnipresent issue of the lack of a serious, in-depth, analytical approach to all the 'big facts' postulated, the ending is good enough to offset some of the silliness of the beginning premise.

No least, sympathy for the bad guy, something rare in literature and actually rather difficult to achieve. Admiral Avila is a likeable, well crafted character and he's got a chance to become memorable, despite a rather unbelievable end.

I do have a number of other issues, but they're all minor: accuracy of Budapest's nightlife, the veneration of Winston Churchill, the (potentially deliberate) misunderstanding of Catholicism in Spain and the like; things that the American public won't really care about, and the foreign language audience won't insist upon. The fact remains that because of this book I now want to visit the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, which is no mean feat.

And I also want to read more of Mr Brown's books. But not now, when I'm so looking forward to dipping my head in my ever-growing pile of non-fiction. No, no! In the summer, on the beach. Because, as a holiday read, Dan Brown is really hard to match.


339: 'To permit ignorance is to empower it. To do nothing as our leaders proclaim absurdities is a crime of complacency.'

503: 'Love is from another realm. We cannot manufacture it on demand. Nor can we subdue it when it appears. Love is not our choice to make.'

535: 'I don't believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason and intellect intended us to forgo their use?'

luni, 2 septembrie 2019

Love kills

S.J.A. Turney - Commodus (The Damned Emperors),  Orion Books, 2019

Commodus, the infamous son of Marcus Aurelius, emperor at 19 and assassinated at 31, is revisited by Simon in this second iteration of his Damned Emperors series. I say revisited because Commodus is also an important character in the Praetorian series, and I found it particularly interesting to see the same events described from different perspectives. As a fan and reader of most of Simon's books, I have to confess a mild disappointment at the lack of crossover between the storylines, but this book is better served by being a complete stand-alone.

Like the first book of the series, Caligula, Commodus is also narrated by a female character. Julia Livilla, Caligula's sister, is the narrator of his story. Commodus' life is shown through the eyes of Marcia Ceionia, a freed woman and mistress of the emperor, which makes this one something of a love story, an interesting twist indeed for a Simon Turney novel. Only danger is, Marcia is herself a character so interesting that she tends to upstage the protagonist at times. 

In the end, however, having a strong supporting cast (not only Marcia, but also important historical figures such as Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, Lucilla, Pompeianus or Cleander) makes for a rich story and a very gripping read. And although I find it very hard to decide which of Simon's books or series I prefer, Commodus is right up there with the best.

Non-regular readers of Roman fiction will find a rich account of Commodus' life, but also very suspenseful read, especially if they're not particularly familiar with the events of the emperor's life.

And it's a testament to Simon's craft that he can compile such an intricate, rich plot from a relative poverty of sources. This Commodus is a much richer, more developed character than Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal in The Gladiator, and a much more believable one. Also very different, but very similar to the Praetorian series description, is Commodus' sister Lucilla, which, it's obvious by now, Simon does not hold a particularly favourable view of.

A very refreshing addition to the previous portrayals of the emperor is the sympathetic look with which Simon approaches this portrait. Sure, Commodus is far from perfect and some of his decisions are more than questionable, but when he is looked at as a man in his own social and historical context, even if we don't agree with his decisions, we can at least understand what led him to them. Same goes for Marcia who, as the narrator, starts with an inbuilt capital of sympathy from the reader. She is also far from a moral example though, and it is this placement of all characters - including the main villain, Cleander - into an ethical grey area that makes the reader really invested in the story. Even the divine Marcus Aurelius, the emperor-philosopher, who even today enjoys a very respectable reputation even according to the unforgiving Christian dogma, is portrayed here as a man, a special man of good moral standing sure, but also subject to human emotions and mistakes.

A relatively bulky book, Commodus, stands at almost 500 pages in the hardcover edition, but I found it gripping enough that I galloped through its chapters and carved time wherever I could in my daily routine so that I can see what happens next. One of those happy situations in which you want to get as far ahead in the book as quick as possible, while at the same time regretting the fact that it's drawing to an end, and missing the book's universe once it's finished. Hopefully, the third iteration of the series will come before too long.