Aegypt: The Solitudes by John Crowley

aegypt

Hermes Trismegistus
Hermes Trismegistus

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Why do we think gypsies can tell fortunes?

This question, and the  ideas that stem from it, form the backbone of what might be called the definitive historical fantasy novel.

Pierce Moffet wants to find a compelling book idea for a nonfiction history book.  He discovers that the reason we think gypsies can tell fortunes is not because they came from Egypt (or even India for that matter), but because our ancestors thought gypsies came from Aegypt, a dream-Egypt sprung from the European imagination. In the Renaissance, before hieroglyphs were interpreted, Egypt was Aegypt to the Greeks, and the inscriptions on the temples of that far-off country were suspected of hiding all manner of ancient magical incantations and occult lore given by the Father of Magic, Hermes Trismegistus.

In one sense, Aegypt: The Solitudes is literary fiction, with the bulk of the action happening among the fictitious Faraway Hills region of rural Kentucky in the 1970s. Yet, it is also a historical novel with elements of fantasy. A couple of scenes happen in Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England, and it even has a Goethian “Prologue in Heaven.” Except for one scene, in which a minor character named Beau imagines (with the help of drugs?) that he soars through the heavenly spheres, each of these “historical” scenes are chapters written by the fictitious historical novelist Fellowes Kraft, John Crowley’s alter ego. The result is an alchemy that gives “real” modern, American life a glowing significance in light of the “fictitious” historical past.

Winning the Life Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention in 2006, Crowley has made quite the contribution to American letters. His style feels casual and genuine, a smooth voice that puts you at ease in the pastoral setting of the Faraways.

The Rolling Hills of Kentucky
The Rolling Hills of Kentucky

After a fateful bus trip away from an anonymous life in the city, Pierce finds himself in the rural region, near the town of Blackbury Jams. We learn he is the sort of man who spends an inordinate amount of time coming up with thorough, even scientific answers to fanciful questions, such as what he would do if a djini granted him three wishes. But one question in particular begins to tantalize him: why do we think gypsies can tell fortunes? Little does he suspect that his scientific historicism and fascination with fairy tales will come together to form an intellectual synthesis.

Meanwhile, Rosie Rasmussen is trying to finalize her divorce with her husband Mike Mucho, and look over her three-year-old daughter Sam. She has trouble understanding her own lack of a desire to love Mike any more, wondering what she will do with her life as she consults with her divorce lawyer. Her escape during these emotionally troubling times is to read Bitten Apples by Kraft, a novel about a young William Shakespeare written in a realistic style. Crowley makes us read scenes from Kraft “over her shoulder,” writing certain scenes from Bitten Apples as scenes in The Solitudes. The historical-fictitious world of Kraft’s novels thus run parallel to the main, twentieth-century narrative. The result is that we inevitably compare the main plot to Kraft’s plots, noticing parallels between the past and present.

John Dee http://wp.me/p32Kr4-aF
John Dee
http://wp.me/p32Kr4-aF

The disaffected, modern characters who search for meaning in rural Kentucky contrasts with the Renaissance setting of Kraft’s novels, subtly suggesting that the characters repeat mythic patterns in their day-to-day thoughts and actions. The way Crowley weaves these parallels seems almost accidental, but given Crowley’s sophistication as a writer, it is clear he intends readers to pick up on these “accidents.” Whether they have deeper significance is up to the reader to decide.

Since the novel is about Rosie and Pierce’s relationship to Fellowes Kraft, an author who they’ve never met, and his oeuvre, it becomes significant for past and present when, in Bitten Apples, a young William Shakespeare enters the house of Doctor John Dee on an errand. (To read more on what I wrote on Dee, click here and here.)

During his visit to the old Doctor, Will gets a primitive photograph taken of himself from the camera obscura in Dee’s garden. He is then invited inside his home where he comes face-to-face with Dee’s famous “crystal ball,” a smoky quartz stone the colour of moleskin. Dee uses it to scry for spirits. Will says he sees something in the smoke, a portent warning of fateful visit from a stranger—but whether he really saw anything, or only wanted Dee to think he saw something, remains ambiguous.

An innocent enough reply, Will’s “prediction” comes true when Dee makes the acquaintance of Talbot, or Edward Kelley, a con man who claims to be able to communicate with angels. While he deceives Doctor Dee on his desperate quest for spiritual meaning, Pierce and Rosie, in the twentieth century, ponder their own searches for significance and love.

Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno

But what changes the game for Dee—and Pierce—is the (re)appearance of Giordano Bruno. Bruno was a heretic Dominican monk in Renaissance Italy who develops a theory about an infinite universe while challenging the Ptolemaic world system. The heretic’s story is one that Pierce was familiar with since childhood. But never has Kraft delved into Bruno’s life in quite the way he does in the unfinished, untitled manuscript Pierce finds in the abandoned house of the late author of Bitten Apples

Pierce discovers that his whole life has been preparing him to read this one manuscript, a book that uncannily echoes his own intellectual journey to write a nonfiction book on the history of histories. The manuscript opens as follows:

Once the world was not as it has since become.

It once worked in a different way than it does now; it had a different history and a different future. Its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were other than the ones we know.”

As Pierce reacts to this stimulating subject material, Dee sees Bruno sailing for England in an attempt to flee religious persecution. Aegypt: The Solitudes leaves us off with the sense that the meeting between Dee and Bruno will be an epic meeting that could change the fabric of history itself. The first book of the Aegypt Cycle ends, as does Bitten Apples, with “THE BEGINNING.”

My personal reaction to Aegypt was not unlike Pierce reading Kraft’s manuscript: I felt as if all my research into historical fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay, and even my novel, had finally prepared me to read John Crowley. I first heard of Aegypt researching the historical fantasy genre. The personal research I conducted for my novel Intelligence—research into Giordano Bruno, John Dee, hermeticism, and the Elizabethan era, for example—also found echoes in Aegypt: The Solitudes. It was rather like looking in a strange mirror, seeing myself reflected in Pierce and Kraft’s endeavours. While I cannot say with certainty that Aegypt will form the subject of my MA thesis, I believe I must reckon with it if I wish to continue studying historical fantasy.

The worst praise I could give for Aegypt: The Solitudes is that it is like reading a classier, finer, more intellectual DaVinci Code, if you leave out the thriller elements. Comparing Crowley to Dan Brown is unfair for a number of reasons, but if you like Brown’s thrillers of hidden histories and secret societies, you will have a natural affinity to Crowley, who is undoubtedly the better artist.

For those of you who love literary fiction and are thinking about dipping into historical fantasy, but are afraid you might not enjoy it, reading Aegypt will familiarize you with the ideas behind the best historical fantasy, while not obligating you to leave the confines of literary fiction. For those of you who love fantasy or historical fiction, then Aegypt‘s blend of history and fantasy offers a rewarding literary reading experience.

John Crowley
John Crowley

 

Image Credits:

John Crowley: http://www.momaps1.org/expo1/event/kim-stanley-robinson-in-conversation-with-john-crowley/

Aegypt: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Greaves_Pyramidographia_1646_Front.gif

Giordano Bruno: http://johns-spot112948.blogspot.ca/2013/02/giordano-bruno.html

John Dee:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dee

Kentucky: https://www.flickr.com/photos/anneh632/2691048983/

How did Yeats inspire Sailing to Sarantium?

sailingWhen Guy Gavriel Kay wrote his byzantine historical fantasy Sailing to Sarantium, he was stealing a title from a famous poem by William Butler Yeats: “Sailing to Byzantium.” After reading the novel last June, I took a close look at Yeats’ poem to search for the items that might be said to have inspired Kay’s depiction of Sarantium and the prominent themes of his novel

The following is essentially a slightly edited and modernized re-post from my earlier author site, which has fallen into disuse. I thought my explorations of Kay’s source material was fruitful and I now wish to revisit it and share my findings, old and recent, with you.

First, allow me to provide a quick review of Sailing to Sarantium, which is the first novel in the Sarantine Mosaic, a series of two books that includes Sailing‘s sequel Lord of Emperors.

Caius Crispus, or Crispin, is an dissatisfied artisan working on a mosaic for a royal tomb in Varenna using mediocre teserrae pieces which lack for colour, when his master Martinian receives a letter by imperial post. He has been summoned to work on the great mosaic being planned for the Sanctuary to Holy Jad in Sarantium. Crispin takes on his master’s name and ‘sails’ to the Queen of Cities, Sarantium, and ultimately the court of Valerius II. In actual fact, he travels on foot, encountering many strange people and horrors along the way. When finally he arrives to perform his artwork, his destiny becomes intertwined with the men and women who rule the empire and kingdoms that make up his world.

GGK
Guy Gavriel Kay

In my mind, Kay’s work should be as well known for its portrayal of artist figures as for its spectacular fusion of history and fantasy. There is a great list of such figures now: Alessan from Tigana, the bards of A Song for Arbonne, Ammar ibn Khairan the poet-diplomat from the Lions of Al-Rassan, Sima Zian the Ninth Dynasty poet from Under Heaven, and the most recent one, River of Stars‘ poet-calligraphist Lin Shan. In Sailing, Crispin’s calling is that of a mosaicist. Exploring the process of creative inspiration, Sailing also raises the question of whether the execution of an artwork can be said to be idiosyncratic to the individual artist, or if it is always the result of the culture and civilization in which that artist lives. To some extent, this is a question relevant to all of Kay’s artists.

Crispin’s quest begins with him in a depression, which he channels into anger through his vivid, imaginative insults to which he subjects his apprentices. His wife has died. His daughters are dead too, take by the plague. He has given up living for anything, awash in a world that feels indifferent to him, a leaf in the wind of impermanence. Art becomes part of his search for stability.

yeats
Irish poet W.B Yeats

Art and permanence (read: immortality) are also key themes in W.B. Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium.” Kay has admitted that Yeats inspired his portrayal of Sarantium, which is based on the Byzantine empire under the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora. But to what extent do both literary works invoke the other through shared themes and imagery? The answer surprised me: there were more ways than even I had thought to find.

Here is a transcript of the poem:

“Sailing to Byzantium”

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The church of Hagia Sophia, constructed during the reign of Justinian. Since 1453, it has been a mosque.
The church of Hagia Sophia, constructed during the reign of Justinian. Since 1453, it has been a mosque.

Yeats describes Byzantium as a city of youth and art, a place where you can go to forget “whatever is begotten, born, and dies” (ln. 6). It is the original “no country for old men” (1). I can imagine that Crispin would be comforted in his existential crisis in such an ageless land, although Kay’s portrayal of Sarantium is not quite so idealized as Yeats’ depiction of Byzantium.

A significant stanza regarding Kay’s depiction of the Sarantine court is the following:

“O sages standing in God’s holy fire

as in the gold mosaic of a wall,

come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

and be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

and fastened to a dying animal

it knows not what it is; and gather me

into the artifice of eternity” (17-24).

After reading these lines, my mouth dropped. Even leaving the beauty of Yeats’ verse aside, which is difficult, there were so many subtle reflections of Kay’s universe in these lines. The gold mosaic is a clear reference to the mosaic in the church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Byzantium, the analogue for Kay’s Sanctuary to Holy Jad. The effect of the “holy fire, pern[ing] in a gyre” describes the all-around overwhelming effect that religious art, especially when thrown onto a 360 degree dome, can have on a spectator. It reminds me of the scene where Crispus sees the more rugged depiction of Jad in a provincial sanctuary, and is blown off his feet in awe, so that he can only lie down on his back gazing up at the sublime beauty of the artwork.

The plans for Justinian's original sanctuary of Hagia Sophia.
The plans for Justinian’s original sanctuary of Hagia Sophia.

“Consume my heart away” was the other phrase that immediately called to mind a particularly gruesome scene in Sailing. In the haunted Aldwood forest, a mysterious beast called the zubir devours prey sent to it as a sacrifice. It rips open the rib cage and devours all the internal organs, including the heart, so that the torso is completely hollowed out. Kay literalizes a metaphor that Yeats’ speaker uses to express his longing for immortality—an intense irony, if there was ever one. Yet, after glimpsing the zubir, Crispin becomes so deeply affected by his close brush with death that he becomes more susceptible to the inspiration he needs to create his mosaic, his “artifice of eternity,” which he hopes will win him immortal fame.

My Norton Anthology of English Literature quotes Yeats as having written the following about his poem: “The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of the whole people.” (My italics)

I said before that Sailing is about the tension between the individual artist and role society plays on his artwork. Kay challenges Yeats’ assumption about the impersonality of art. Crispin designs an intensely personal mosaic for the dome of Jad’s sanctuary. His personality is inevitably displayed in the passion and desire he puts into his creation. He does cater to his society, by trying to avoid depicting heretical images and adhering to what Valerius wants emphasized in the artwork. However, Crispin’s personality and his own beliefs end up colouring the final product in subtle ways that might be overlooked by most observers—including censors.

Yeats says that writing the poem and escaping to Byzantium was his way “to warm myself back to life” after an illness (Norton Anthology). Crispin’s character arc is similar, if depression is his illness. He gains the desire not only to live, but to leave his imprint on the world. Yeats and Crispin both have the same driving desire as poets.

justinian

theodora
The mosaics above are from Ravenna, Italy. They depict the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora and their entourages.
Melissa Houle produced this rendering of Crispin's mosaic at the end of Lord of Emperors.
Melissa Houle produced this rendering of Crispin’s mosaic at the end of Lord of Emperors. Notice the similarity to the Ravenna mosaics.

“Sailing to Byzantium” forms a pair with Yeats’ other poem “Byzantium,” where further parallels may be gleaned:

“Byzantium”

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.


Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.


Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.


At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.


Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Right away, it can be seen that the “moonlit dome” that “disdains / all that man is, / all mere complexities, / the fury and the mire of human veins” has resonance, because it is under the dome in the Sarantine sanctuary that Crispin becomes inspired to live without fear of death (ln. 5-8). Furthermore, the opening nighttime imagery resonates strongly with Lord of Emperors, in which many events happen in the space of single night—a romantic hour, if there was ever one.

linonThe enigmatic character in Yeats’s poem, the “image, man or shade, / shade more than man, more image than shade” (9-10), made me recall the zubir, or even Linon, the mechanical bird embedded with the soul of a human girl. Although the beast and the girl are not men per se, both are “superhuman” and can be called “death-in-life and life-in-death” (16). The zubir is a living incarnation of death itself, while Linon’s soul exists in a liminal state of life. It need hardly be mentioned, of course, that Kay uses Yeats’ line “miracle, bird or golden handiwork, / more miracle than bird or handiwork” to refer to Linon as well: he uses the very line as an epigraph in his book.

Valerius II is known as the “Night Emperor” in Sailing, because he is restless at night, always leaving lights on in his window and wandering the moonlit halls of his palace, planning his stratagems to deal with the power-hungry court he must hold together. Yeats draws attention to this special appellation, which Valerius shares with the real-life Byzantine Emperor Justinian, when he describes the emperor: “At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit / flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit, / nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame” (25-27).

On the flame imagery: though the following is a major spoil alert [Do NOT read ahead if you have not read BOTH books of the Sarantine Mosaic], I cannot help but imagine that the “agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve,” which can be interpreted as a reference to the ‘fire’ of guilt, since it does not physically wound, inspired the crime Valerius abetted in the prologue to Sailing, when he first wins the throne. He burns a competitor to death with Greek fire. Perhaps the same fire imagery inspired the way in which the victim and his relatives repay Valerius in Lord of Emperors

dolphinLastly, “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” (40) should carry mountains of resonance with readers familiar with Sailing. In Sarantium, dolphins are heretical to depict in art because they are associated with an older style of worship that is considered unorthodox under Valerius II: the worship of Jad’s son, Heladikos. This pagan god drove his chariot, which was the sun, before dying tragically, in a myth the calls to mind the story of Phaeton. Heladikos is understood among Sarantine heretics to still be carrying the sun through the underworld, suggesting that Heladikos is a symbol of the unconscious, repressed aspects of a society’s psyche. Since dolphins inhabit the seas and occasionally leap out of the water, the old religion draws the link between dolphins and Heladikos, and adds the belief that dolphins ferry the souls of the dead to the underworld.

Undoubtedly, I have only skimmed the surface of the nuances between both poems and the novel. I hope you have found my explorations and speculations illuminating. I will leave it to other readers of Yeats and Kay to tease out any additional layers of meaning between Sailing and its source material. It has been a fascinating exercise for me, and I hope readers of Sailing return to Yeats after finishing the book in order to discover (or re-discover) a remarkable twentieth-century poet.

hagia sophia3

Works Cited

The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 4th ed. Vol 2.

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/byzantium/

http://www.online-literature.com/frost/781/

Photo Credits:

Crispin’s mosaic: http://www.brightweavings.com/artgallery/melissa.htm

Dolphin: http://mosaicbazar.wordpress.com/

Guy Gavriel Kay: http://profunduslibrum.blogspot.ca/2012/10/guy-gavriel-kay-ysabel.html

Hagia Sophia: http://annoyzview.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/the-puzzle-surrounding-hagia-sophia/

Hagia Sophia Interior: http://www.teslasociety.com/hagiasophia.htm

Hagia Sophia Plans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagia_Sophia

Justinian: http://traumwerk.stanford.edu/philolog/2006/01/byzantine_art_as_propaganda_ju.html

Mechanical bird: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kittycreative/7721209084/

Sailing to Sarantium: http://www.e-reading-lib.com/bookreader.php/134766/Kay_-_Sailing_to_Sarantium.html

Theodora: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodora_%28wife_of_Justinian_I%29

Yeats: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/10/19/christine-tobin-sailing-to-byzantium/

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

River of StarsWe first see Ren Daiyan, the heroic protagonist of Kay’s newest novel, as an angst-ridden adolescent in a grove, wielding a bamboo sword to channel his anger. Living in a time of famine, and of war against the barbarian Kislik tribe, he is deeply aware of the diminished glory of the empire of Kitai. In its Twelfth Dynasty (a society based on Song Dynasty China), Kitai is forever overshadowed by the glory and ruin of the Ninth Dynasty (the Tang Dynasty). Kay weaves a theme through his novel that resonates harmoniously with what readers can expect in an epic fantasy novel.  Diminished empires have been part of the epic fantasy genre ever since Tolkien described the fall of Númenor and Gondor.  Even so, River of Stars is best described as a historical fantasy, using Kay’s technique of the “quarter-turn of the fantastic,” in which he depicts a reflection of a real-world society with magic that the society would have believed in. In Under Heaven, Kay described the fall of Ninth Dynasty Kitai during the years of tribulation that are referred to as the An Li Rebellion. In River of Stars, which is a sequel to Under Heaven (although Stars can stand by itself), we see the Kitan court’s pathological fear of the military, along with the emperor’s deep, conflicting desire to reconquer the Lost Fourteen Prefectures, Kitai’s old territories which are now ruled by the Xiaolu. Ren Daiyan’s dream is to enter the court and lead an army to reconquer the Prefectures, restoring the glory of Kitai. He is, however, only a teenager—not quite a man—fighting imaginary enemies in a glade. After killing a band of outlaws single-handedly on the road one day, his life changes irrevocably. The arc of his life then follows a larger-than-life curve. He wanders down paths with random forks, always keeping his single desire at heart: the restoration of an empire. Meanwhile, Kay weaves a brilliant subplot involving the poet Lin Shan. A woman given a man’s education by her devoted father, Shan is an expert calligrapher and the founder of a new genre of poetry: the ci. A succinct definition of ci is “new words set to old music,” which may refer to a theme in Kay’s novels of historical patterns being repeated in slightly different ways, during each time cycle. When Shan meets her poet idol Lu Chen, just before he is sent into exile, she becomes drawn into the world of court intrigue, where she must use her power as a poet to protect those she loves. In his signature manner, Kay depicts her feminine viewpoint in the present tense, to demonstrate how focused and observant (in-the-moment) a woman must be to survive in a ruthless, patriarchal world. Shan speaks out of turn with the men, asserting herself in ways that have become taboo, ever since women were blamed for the laziness of the Ninth Dynasty court. However, the present-day Twelfth Dynasty is just as decadent as the Ninth, though its glory is less. Shan is invited into the Genyue, a beautiful imperial garden sponsored by the Flowers and Rocks Network. The brainchild of prime minister Kai Zhen and his ally Wu Tong, the garden is a vision of harmony created at the expense of the lives of many peasants. Shan will have to court imperial patronage and favour here, placing her life in danger, even as Daiyan fights the Flowers and Rocks as an outlaw. Their lives inevitably interweave, like silk. Mixing the worlds of politics, art, and war is Kay’s trademark, and he does this while asking many questions about how history must be remembered, and how seemingly inevitable events actually carry themselves out. Kay also asks how legends are made, a process that may involve valiant actions on the part of real men and women, but also, inevitably, storytelling—and a dash of fantasy about the past, which inflates heroes to truly immense proportions. All this is to say nothing of Kay’s wonderful poetic ability, the quality of his words that elevates his novel beyond the limitations of epic fantasy, into a more literary domain. Veterans of Kay will find nothing lacking in River of Stars and newcomers can find a great introduction to the author here. However, I suggest that a reader new to Kay should read Under Heaven first, if they wish to receive the full weight and effect of River of Stars.   Other reviews: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/02/interview-guy-gavriel-kay-author-of-river-of-stars/ http://www.fantasyliterature.com/reviews/river-of-stars/ http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/04/what-were-reading-river-of-stars-by-guy-gavriel-kay/

A map of Kitai, Kay's setting for River of Stars. A reflection of China's Song Dynasty. Everything south of the Long Wall and north of the Great River is lost to the Xiaolu.
A map of Kitai, Kay’s setting for River of Stars. A reflection of China’s Song Dynasty. Everything south of the Long Wall and north of the Golden River is lost to the Xiaolu.

  [The review is done here. Following are some observations on the book itself, concerning my previous studies on Kay, and containing some spoiler material.]     Being a Kay veteran (I have read all of his books now), I smiled on occasion while reading River of Stars. This smile emerged not directly as a result of what the author wrote, but in how what he wrote found reflections in his earlier novels. I do not know whether Kay’s intent is responsible for these echoes, or if it is simply a set of imagery and wording that keeps popping up in his body of work, but I am inclined to think it is a mixture of both.

The Weaver Maid and Herdsman cannot meet across the River of Stars (the Milky Way), a metaphor for how we can never attain our ideals, though we may strive for them. Also not a bad love story.
The Weaver Maid and Herdsman cannot meet across the River of Stars (the Milky Way), a metaphor for how we can never attain our ideals, though we may strive for them. Also not a bad love story.

One thing to understand about Kay’s novels, is that all of them are in some way connected to his initial trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry. Fionavar is known in his other novels by other names, such as Finavir (in Tigana) and Fiñar (in The Lions of Al-Rassan). The mentioning of Fionavar, or phrases that refer to the weaving of the Tapestry (such as “brightly woven,” “a bright loom,” or, in River of Stars, “the Weaver Maid”) tie each of his novels to Fionavar, which is the first world, the world of which all other worlds are merely reflections or echoes. Whether it is the author returning to similar images or themes due to the unconscious patterns of his mind, or a deliberate attempt to establish parallelism across his novels, Kay’s repetitions can all be attributed to the Tapestry. In River of Stars, there are two easy examples of parallelism: one is a reflection from The Summer Tree and the other is from The Lions of Al-Rassan. The Xiaolu emperor has a custom where women dance around a fire for him. This dance also serves to demonstrate power, when the emperor forces the leaders of subservient tribes to dance. In The Fionavar Tapestry,  the nomadic Dalrei tribe, a horse-riding people of the plain, have a prominent custom of almost exactly the same type as the Xiaolu. The parallelism suggests that in some mysterious way, the Xiaolu are reflections of the Dalrei. Secondly, there is a moment in River of Stars greatly similar to one in The Lions of Al-Rassan. The brother of the war leader of the Altai tribe essentially repeats King Ramiro’s speech, which describes his dream of being able to ride his horse into the sea on the other side of Al-Rassan (in the Altai’s case, Kitai), claiming all the lands behind him as part of his kingdom. The language of the two speeches are so closely linked that the only explanation is that Kay is trying to deliberately draw a parallel. Those familiar with the poetry Kay brings to his writing will know that he would never repeat himself out of laziness. The King Ramiro grace note suggests that readers who are familiar with Kay should compare the narrative arc of restoration and reconquest in River of Stars to the perspective of the Jaddites in their reconquest of Al-Rassan. The Jaddite reconquest was seen as an arrogant assertion in Kay’s earlier novel, a “reconquest” of a land that was never theirs in the first place. This adds to the sense that the Altai have no right to conquer the Xiaolu—but also challenges the idea that Kitai has a right to reconquer the Lost Fourteen, which have for so long been in Xiaolu hands. After all, whether the peasants in the Lost Fourteen must pay taxes to the Xiaolu or the Kitan emperor makes no difference to them. We find ourselves asking, “How long do a people have to live in a country before they become native to it?” This question was also asked in Kay’s novel Ysabel, regarding Phelan the Roman’s integration into Celtic lands in the south of France, over the thousands of years he’s been living there. As a matter of fact, the moral ambiguity of reconquest becomes one of the central issues in River of Stars. The novel ends up questioning whether it is best to attempt to amend the brokenness of an empire through reconquest, or whether peace is best established in other ways, such as through compromise. River of Stars sets up a narrative of wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing (terms by John Clute; see link) quite distinctly in its narrative arc—and in a distinctive Kay-like manner, questions that arc. In a way, his novel attempts to answer the question, “Is an individual really, in the words of Ninth Dynasty poet Sima Zian, ‘powerless to amend a broken world?'” The answer might surprise you. No more spoilers; read the book.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Historical fantasy author
Guy Gavriel Kay: Historical fantasy author

  Photo Credits:   Author: http://profunduslibrum.blogspot.ca/2012/10/guy-gavriel-kay-ysabel.html Cover: http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/04/what-were-reading-river-of-stars-by-guy-gavriel-kay/ Map: http://www.penguin.ca/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780670068401,00.html Weaver Maid: http://l5r.wikia.com/wiki/River_of_Stars  

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon

An Echo in the Bone“Jamie Fraser is an eighteenth-century Highlander, an ex-Jacobite traitor, and a reluctant rebel in the American Revolution. His wife, Claire Randall Fraser, is a surgeon—from the twentieth century. What she knows of the future compels him to fight. What she doesn’t know may kill them both.”

 

Thus reads the back cover copy of An Echo in the Bone, a sequel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. As the explanation would suggest, it is a time-travelling historical epic, with a bit of fantasy, romance, and family saga thrown in. I call it mainstream historical fantasy. “Mainstream” because it doesn’t fit neatly in a genre category, is a bestseller, and yet isn’t quite literary fiction. And “historical fantasy” because of its subject matter.

A compelling combination, no matter what genre it is, and even if I did enter the series in media res.

Yes, I admit it. I recieved Echo for Christmas, but it was a book in the middle of the series and I had not read the first one. And now I’m reviewing it. Which demands a question to be asked of me right off the top: why do so, if I have imperfect knowledge of the series as a whole? What gives me the right?

It may indeed speak of arrogance, on my part. However, reading the series in media res placed me at an interesting perspective. I read to see if the series could grab me, a fresh reader, in the middle—a dangerous part of any book series. So often, the middle novels of a series lag into repetition. While I have no other novel of Gabaldon’s to which to compare Echo and check for repetitions, I can still observe the inherent quality of her book, as it stands.

Actually, reading her novel in media res was an interesting experience. Experts will tell authors to begin their stories in the middle of the action, so the reader can catch up on backstory on the run. While I was disoriented at the opening of the novel, within a few chapters, I gained an idea of who the main characters were and I managed to reconstruct past histories. This improved as I poured through her 1,000+ pages.

It was time enough to get up to speed, I think. You read that many pages and you’re immersed in a series, no matter what anyone says.

 

Fan art of Jamie Fraser. In Echo, he might have been getting on in years, but I suppose the younger face was more attractive.
Fan art of Jamie Fraser. In Echo, he might have been getting on in years, but I suppose the artist thought the younger face was more attractive.

In Echo, Claire and Jamie are surviving a cold winter on Fraser’s Ridge after their home, which contained almost all of Claire’s medical equipment, was burned to the ground in the previous novel. Recovering their gold from the wreckage, Ian Murray incurs the vengeance of a bitter man after he kills his wife. Eventually, Jamie, who once was a printer by trade, sets out on a goal to find a ship to bring him back to Scotland to recover his old printing press.

Their adventures will force them to become pirates, follow and flee the Continental and British armies, and meet illustrious historical figures such as Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin (one disturbing image of whom I am still trying to wash from my brain).

Meanwhile, a second storyline involving William Ransom, a lieutennant in the British army and his father Lord John Grey unravels. Willie, returning from an intelligencing operation, is sent on a mission northward to Quebec and recieves his first taste of battle. Meanwhile, John Grey’s brother becomes fatally ill after being wounded. Only one woman—Claire Fraser—can save him.

A third storyline follows Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna and her husband Roger. Having just arrived in twentieth-century Scotland from the eighteenth century, Brianna and Roger follow up on Claire and Jamie’s adventures via a set of letters sent through time. Leaving her letters at Lollybroch, a safe farmhouse that has been in the family for generations, Claire is able to keep her daughter informed of their adventures, reassuring her that she is still alive and well. The irony, of course, is that presumably, Claire has been dead two hundred years by the time Brianna reads the letters. Brianna and Roger read them one at a time, which forms a neat segway into Claire’s scenes, which are told in the first person point of view (the other timelines are in third person).

While Brianna gets a job at a hydroelectric company, Roger attempts to overcome an injury done to his singing voice—his throat was damaged by a hangman’s rope in another century—by teaching a choir. He also begins to teach Gaelic in school, as his son Jem readjusts to twentieth century life in which there are cars and speaking Gaelic is considered passé.

The three storylines operate on three different timelines: the 1980s, the 1770s, and Lord Grey and William’s adventures generally occur a few months or weeks earlier than Jamie and Claire’s. The interweaving of the storylines is intricate. As I kept wondering how the characters were connected (being out of the loop), I was consistently astounded—even flabbergasted—when I learned the intricate relations between the characters. There were so many hidden secrets in the past that I could hardly keep up, although that might not be true for one who is more familiar with the series.

StonesWhat enables this interweaving is the fantasy aspect of Gabaldon’s mainstream historical fantasy novel. Instead of a “time-machine” Outlander uses the fantasy trope of mysterious stone circles that send you through time and space. These power centers are connected by ley lines. This and other pseudo-scientific phenomena produce portals that are especially volatile when the sun is an a certain position, such as on Halloween or May Day, which also happen to be Celtic pagan festivals. The portals may go off without warning, but I gathered that if you brought a gem to one of the

stones, you could travel back intentionally, though there is always risk attached. Once, long ago, the price of crossing was blood, a detail that the book leaves you off with during its cliffhanger ending.

 

Ley line map linking sacred sites in Scotland.
Ley line map linking sacred sites in Scotland.

When I finished the novel, I was connected with these characters. They were each well-written, each point of view having a distinctive voice, from Claire’s spunky attitude and fiercely practical relation of field doctor medical procedures, to Jamie and Ian’s Scots drawl, to Lord Grey’s formal, gentlemanly diction. Gabaldon created plenty of mystery and unpredictability, a perfect combination to keep me hooked. Furthermore, the sheer mountain of research that must have gone into these novels is astounding: not just the historical details, but the medical details as well. It made me wonder whether Gabaldon was a nurse once.

All of this combines to make a compelling middle novel. But one must not forget that it is in the middle.

Certain adventures in Echo begin at the start of the book, are forgotten over the middle, and come to a conclusion at the end, lending a sense of completion. However, other adventures begin in the middle only to be concluded (presumably) in the next book.

The effect of this is that not all your questions are answered at the end of the novel and, while you read, characters presumably introduced from previous books keep popping up. If you love Gabaldon’s minor characters, you can probabaly bet on them making second and even third appearances in later books.

I suppose this is how Gabaldon draws her readers into buying the next book in her series. Ironically, her strategy now makes me want to buy her earlier books.

 

Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series
Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series

 

Photo Credits:

An Echo in the Bone cover: http://thelitbitch.com/2011/04/04/an-echo-in-the-bone-outlander-series-reading-challenge/

Diana Gabaldon: http://naturalartificial.blogspot.ca/2009/02/writing-about-places-youve-never-been.html

Jamie Fraser: http://captivated2.deviantart.com/art/Jamie-Fraser-204672719

Ley Lines: http://www.sacredconnections.co.uk/holyland/fortingallyew.htm

Scottish stones: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/lifelists/The-Serenity-of-the-Outer-Hebrides.html

 

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay: Blending Fantasy and History

On the cover of my Penguin edition of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel Under Heaven is a little circular stamp that reveals that it made the Globe and Mail’s top 100 books. It must be understood that these books do NOT just include fantasy literature! This book has proven a better read in the eyes of the Globe and Mail than many thousands of other books published that are more mainstream in subject matter. Kay has scored big time by achieving this. He is an author who blends genres. The historical fantasy hybrid novel that emerges proves to be superior to other works of fantasy literature. With good reason. The story is very powerful.

Under Heaven tells the story of the consequences of a gift. A Sardian horse in the empire of Ninth Dynasty Kitai, a land based on Tang Dynasty China, is a gift that can greatly honour an individual. Superior to other Kitan horses, these Heavenly Horses must be imported from beyond a merciless desert across the Silk Road. When Shen Tai, the Second Son of the general Shen Gao, buries the bones of the dead slain during a terrible battle, he is gifted with no fewer than 250 of these supremely valued horses, an extravagant gift from the Princess of Tagur, Chen-Wang.

The world could bring you poison in a jeweled cup, or surprising gifts. Sometimes you didn’t know which of them it was. This quote from the book becomes the mantra defining Tai’s perilous situation. The horses are his, and he must choose what to do with them. He is going to get sucked away from his solitude in Kuala Nor into the ‘gold and jade’ of the court of Kitai.

By now the motif of ‘the decadent court’ is a staple of Kay novels, and he has honed it to perfection. The tension invoked in such court scenes keep you at the edge of your seat even though there may be no physical action. People use words as weapons, and the game is all about reading faces to discern motivations. Tai is an upstart at court and is being placed in a position of considerable danger, so he will have to use his observational skills to their best advantage. Honestly, if we had time travel, a reader of Guy Gavriel Kay could train in the ways of court life by reading his novels and then go to the sixteenth century and rise to a high station in Elizabethan England. Just about. Take time to read these scenes. So much tension is invoked that it is a model about how to write dialogue effectively.

Moderate spoiler alert for next three paragraphs.

Without giving too much away, there is a divisive feud between two high-ranking officials in the world of the court. The 250 horses complicates that. But one day, rebellion breaks–the Rebellion, as it turns out–and Guy Gavriel Kay writes the following line: “historians, without exception, appeared to join in accepting the number of forty million lives as a reasonable figure for the consequences of the An Li Rebellion” (529).

You read that and then you think, “Oh, $!%@.” And you read on. You have to. Because civilization is going downhill and you can enjoy the ride.

Aside from depicting court life tension and intrigue, the thing that Kay does particularly well is depicting the collapse and changing of civilizations. This puts Kay’s novel on an epic scope. He adds dignity to the genre of epic fantasy by bringing in the historical. Many failures of epic fantasy miss the dignity behind Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which comes from the tragic scope of the Elves leaving Middle Earth, the fall of the race of Men from the glory of Numenor, and Frodo’s symbolic death. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, finds a closer kin in Guy Gavriel Kay, who keeps the tragic elements. Truth be told, reading the last chapters of Under Heaven is like watching a train-wreck in slow motion (anyone ever see Meet the Fockers? Another kind of train-wreck…). But it was a good train-wreck, and who knew just watching civilization collapse into chaos could be so entertaining! Not to mention strongly disturbing, seeing as the rebellion’s creation of a wide famine results in the appearance of cannibalism. I might add, however, that the ending is optimistic. I am not lying: I actually almost cried in one of the final scenes, and I do not cry at movies, let alone books.

No more spoilers!

As an English student, I will be analyzing all of Kay’s novels in my Honours thesis. I find provocative the fact that Kay includes some sections of his book devoted to telling how future Kitai will make sense of the events that occur in his book. No other Kay book, to my knowledge, really has that explicit a dealing with history, though all of his books deal with history in some capacity.

Keep alert of a possible (but only in the discussion-phase) movie deal for Under Heaven. It will be a wicked Chinese movie like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or at least it could be. I can seriously see that coming about. Whatever movie they make of this book, if any at all, will be awesome.