Friday, June 20, 2003

Your average American can't find, say, Yemen, on a map and probably forgot where Kuwait was about six months after the first Gulf War. Courtesy of Dr. ap Zylstra in Arts & Humanities Honors, I know a lot more geography but still suffer the standard American history education with regard to the Middle East (nothing later than ancient Sumeria in grade school; one college course that got up to Alexander the Great). The National Geographic Society's 2002 book Cradle & Crucible: History & Faith in the Middle East is a great introduction to geography, history, culture and religion for the region, making it a lot easier to understand whatever treaty, organization, or bombing is in the news at any one moment. (And given the publication date, this is probably why it was written and published, although one could say that about any time in the last 25 years.)

The history portion of the book is an easy-to-read overview of more than nine millennia, getting more detailed as it gets closer to the present, so the reader doesn't feel like they're getting flooded in a procession of ancient empires at the expense of events with a more direct influence on today's problems. Even if you have some knowledge of European history (and the Islamic world's role in preserving knowledge during Europe's Dark Ages), seeing everything from the Crusades to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire from the Arab and Muslim points of view (and remembering that the two are not identical groups) really makes you think of familiar history in a different way. I couldn't read the section on European powers' "mandates" to divide up the former Ottoman territory into new countries after World War I without thinking "Wow, the people actually living there got really screwed over!" -- and that's before Israel as a state even became an issue.

The book ends with a chapter each on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, discussing both the basic theology of each religion and the cultural experience of its practitioners living in the Middle East. (Being a Christian there certainly differs from being one in the United States, not only because of being a minority but because different sects of Christianity are prevalent there. However, the book points out the great differences between Judaism in Israel and Judaism overseas.) Since Islam is the majority in the Middle East, that chapter has the most political and cultural explanation attached, but members of all these faiths have to decide what degree of power religion is to hold in their lives and what power it should or should not hold in their governments. The book does not endorse extremism, but it helps you understand where it's coming from without being a difficult read.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

The "sword & sorcery" subgenre of fantasy doesn't usually hold my attention. I got through the Lord of the Rings books, but just barely, and was never tempted to reread them. There are a few books that sort of fall into the category that I like -- T.H. White's The Once and Future King, Tamora Pierce's books in the Song of the Lioness Quartet, the Immortals Quartet, and the Protector of the Small Quartet (all chroncling one kingdom starting with Alanna: The First Adventure), and Diane Duane's Tales of the Five books (starting with The Door Into Fire. All of these are set in medieval-style kingdoms, though only White's bears any resemblance to the actual Middle Ages of our world. And they all tell stories of people and how they grow and change, with quests, battles, magical beasts, and spells only important in that they propel those changes. That is what makes them readable not just once but over and over to me, and what sets them apart from the other "sword & sworcery" I've read.

Lois McMaster Bujold has done the same in science fiction for quite a long time -- her Vorkosigan books, from the meeting of Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan amongs interplanetary conflict in Shards of Honor to their son Miles Naismith Vorkosigan's continued work as an Imperial Auditor in the most recent, Diplomatic Immunity, focus on people despite the very exciting "space opera" events that befall them. It should be no surprise that a recent venture into fantasy, The Curse of Chalion grabs the reader the same way. Though it is the will of the gods driving the plot rather than the march of technology in Curse, the politics of governments in the medieval-style setting is just as complex as in the Vorkosigan books' multi-planet empires, and the people just as human. Vorkosigan fans will not be disappointed in this book as some of them (myself included) may have been in her earlier fantasy work The Spirit Ring. I would also like to mention that the pentatheistic theology of the people in Curse makes far more sense without excessive explanation than the worship systems of any fantasy universe I've encountered, even the ones listed above as my favorites in the genre. (This may not be completely realistic, judging by the complexity of Greek mythology or any other polytheistic system I've read about, but it clicks into place immediately and provides a firm foundation for the events of the story.) I would definitely read more stories set in this universe.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

For a few years around 1990 I loved all of Anne Rice's work. I picked up Interview with the Vampire partially because Slash of Guns 'n Roses said it was his favorite book, and partially because a high school classmate recommended it. I remember immersing myself in The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned over Thanksgiving break 1989. Non-Vampire Chronicles books Cry to Heaven and The Feast of All Saints fascinated me too, despite their lack of supernatural beings. And when I started college in 1991, my group of friends pretty much passed around the Beauty trilogy -- whether it was good or not, it was explicit!

But The Tale of the Body Thief bored me, and Memnoch the Devil wasn't even finishable. So I never bothered to pick up new Vampire books as they appeared. I thought Rice might have gotten back into readability with The Witching Hour, which I really like, but I can't really remember what happens in its sequel Lasher even though I own it, and I'm prety sure I sold Taltos to the used bookstore with The Mummy (as well as giving away the Beauty trilogy once I had access to better erotica).

Nonetheless, I had enough good memories of Anne Rice universes to pick up Blackwood Farm off the library's new books shelf and read the inside front cover. My curiosity was piqued by seeing that it claimed to combine the Vampire Chronicles and Mayfair Witches series, so I checked it out. And once I started, I was as hooked as I was thirteen and a half years ago on the Vampire books. Really, there are three storylines in this book: the vampires, the Mayfairs, and the story of Quinn Blackwood and his family. The Blackwoods on their rural Louisiana estate are very different from the relatively urban Mayfairs of New Orleans, so their history doesn't feel like a retread of The Witching Hour. But Rice's strength seems to be in complex stories that span decades and generations, and the union of the different series gives her the opportunity to be even more complex. I've got to agree with the reviewer who says "Blackwood Farm has an unusual flaw: it isn't long enough." The ending is awfully sudden and leaves you wanting more, but I'd rather have that situation than end up disappointed in the book I've already read. I'm rather looking forward to the upcoming Blood Canticle -- not with the excitement of a kid waiting for the new Harry Potter, given the rather iffy summary given on Amazon, but curiosity to see if she can stay at this high level for a while.