Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red Rising by Pierce Brown (Del Rey, 2014) 400 pages

RR Brown

It’s hard for me to tell you how good I think this book is. I mean, I understand that I can really like Ann Leckie’s trilogy start Ancillary Justice (I wrote about that book last month: http://www.whatswalterreading.com/2015/01/ancillary-justice-by-ann-leckie/ ) and you might be left cold by the premise and the execution of the world. The science fiction/fantasy genre mansion has many rooms and many corners within those rooms. But when you are not just enjoying, but swept away by a story, all you can do is let it sweep you away and tell as many people as you can about the experience.

I was literally taking the book around with me and saying “listen to this” as I read one passage or another to them. I don’t usually quote stuff from the books in these things. But watch this. This is as they hang the narrator Darrow’s father for, of all things, forbidden singing and dancing in the deep mines of Mars:

“My brother Kieran was supposed to be the stoic one. He was the elder, I the younger. I was supposed to cry. Instead, Kieran bawled like a girl when Little Eo tucked a haemanthus into Father’s left workboot and ran back to her own father’s side. My sister Leanna murmured a lament beside me. I just watched and thought it a shame that he died dancing but without his dancing shoes. On Mars there is not much gravity. So you have to pull the feet to break the neck. They let the loved ones do it.” (This is on page 3.)

This is the story (no spoilers, I promise) of a downtrodden miner on Mars named Darrow who is hung but revived to be “carved” into a Gold, the leading plutocrats of the solar system. He cheats his way through school and exams (bravo!) and is plunked down in a great valley to compete with the privileged offspring of the other Golds to become Primus of the group (named after Olympic gods) and get a good job after this post-grad experience ends. So it’s sort of like real life, except they’d find him out in five minutes today and send him back to the riff-raff in the trailer park.

I found this book different than my usual read. It’s one of those books I could “live in,” which I realize makes little sense to most people and I should explain more. For now, all you need to know is that it means I don’t want the book to end, even though I know it must. The first blurb you see at Amazon is a quote from Scott Sigler: “Ender, Katniss, and now Darrow.” But I tell you honestly, this undervalues Pierce Brown. Nothing against Orson Scott Card and Suzanne Collins (both of whom will likely be unhappy with my remark, and everyone should go right ahead and read their books too) , but I got sucked into Brown’s book and couldn’t pull myself out.

Who is this guy? Pierce Brown has the standard bio blurb in the back and apparently graduated college in 2010, kicked around at some interesting jobs, and then produced  a debut novel Red Rising as the first book of a trilogy (I am halfway through the second book). What I really want to know is how the heck he can write like this in fifteen minutes when most of us can’t write like this in fifteen years.

I am almost done with this program at Arizona State University (ASU) called Your Novel Year (YNY), and we had to read all these classics of science fiction, from Frankenstein to Heinlein and Asimov. Many of them I had read, but many I had not, or had not stuck with long enough to get into (action starts seem to have emerged sometime in the mid-1980s…I guess we can blame MTV for that). I found two of them not just good or great, but “transcendent,” which to me means that these are somehow more than just a series of words put to paper: The Stars My Destination by Alfie Bester and A Canticle of Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Why do I say that? Well, in The Stars My Destination, for example, the hero is trapped in a small room the size of a locker drifting in the asteroid belt among the wreckage of a destroyed spaceship. To survive, he must periodically leave to scavenge more oxygen bottles while hoping someone finds him. But when a passing spaceship nearly kills him, he gets so pissed off that he reads the ship’s repair manual and fixes the engines enough to make it to a nearby asteroid. There, he is set upon by a tattooed sect of salvage folk who marries him off to the ugliest woman among them, after tattooing his face to match the rest of the tribe. Locked in a space yacht to celebrate their wedding night, he attacks his wife and kicks her outside while he blasts off for earth. And all this happens in the first 30 pages.

At this point in the book, you should fasten your seatbelts and get ready for the wild ride. This guy will do anything to survive, and make your dull life seem boring in the process. That’s how Red Rising was for me.

I’m not claiming that Red Rising is a perfect book, or that everyone will like it as much as I did. Of course it’s not perfect. It took me a while to get used to Brown’s rhythms and present tense frenzy, but it fits the desperate mood of the story.  There are characters that are mentioned doing earth-shaking things (like Lilanth) but they never have role in the narrative proper. One can only hope that Lilanth has a bigger part in the next two books besides eye-gouging. And I never really sorted out the whole cast of thousands, although there are enough memory-joggers to say “oh, yeah, that’s the girl from when they first arrived…” There’s a map at the start, but it confused me more than enlightened me as the book went on.

Brown uses a lot of neologisms, but he’s 700 years or so in the future. They never seem contrived or forced and there is enough context (well, but the second or third occurrence) to quickly puzzle out the meaning. Just keep going.

Another potential drawback is that the hero Darrow is a step or three ahead of everyone else and always has a plan. That’s okay, but with few exceptions, everyone who Darrow depends on acting a certain way to fall into his brilliant traps acts precisely that way and Darrow triumphs. But it never goes so far that the book fails. And Darrow gets slapped down by the proctors enough to give him challenges every stage along the way.

There’s enough blood to satisfy the most manic video game player. But competitions with high stakes, financial or otherwise, are often vicious, even when everyone is in all senses a winner to begin with. I can’t resist noting that Henry Kissinger said that academic arguments among professors are so vicious because the stakes are so low. In that world, the size of the name on the office door can mean everything.

Also, I give Brown really high marks for gender equality. The females in this book are as blood-thirsty, devious, and powerful as the males. And everyone who postpones their quest for a round of sex comes to a bad end. How’s that for a cautionary tale?

I’m not saying the Pierce Brown is my new favorite author – yet. But he’s right up there. The bio says that he’s “available for select readings and lectures” but I wonder about that. Does that mean he’ll read to the Golds but not the Reds? Does it mean that he gets paid a lot to lecture on social justice? Probably the publisher added that part.

So it’s not that I want to follow him around like a Grateful Dead groupie.  I just want to know his secret.

🙂

The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones

By Thomas Asbridge (Harper Collins, 2014) 444 pages

TGK Asbirdge

I have really weird interests in certain historical periods and the geography they involve. The cutoffs at the ends are usually precise: one starts with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Another stretches from the end of Livy’s narrative in 293 BCE to the start of the war with Hannibal and so spans the whole missing Second Decade of Livy. And then there’s this one that starts with the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE and peters out sometime around 1453 with the end of the Hundred Years War (and the end of the Byzantine Empire). William Marshal, who probably lived from 1147 to 1219 (see the genealogy and family tree on page 389 and the other information on pages 162-3), has a career that falls right into the sweet spot of my interest.

Marshal served four and a half English kings: Henry II, Henry the Young King (who never ruled on his own and therefore I count as a half-king), Richard the Lionheart, John (who was so bad as a ruler that no one ever used his throne name again), and Henry III. So the claim that Marshal was the “greatest knight” is backed up by some pretty solid evidence, including the claim that Marshal was the only knight ever to unhorse the crusading king Richard the Lionheart with a lance. And Marshal was treated quite shabbily by some of these kings, like the time that five-year-old William Marshal was held as a hostage by King Stephen, a monarch that is often overlooked in the rush to get from the family of the Conqueror to the Angevins proper. Asbridge prefers the “Angevin” designation to the common “Plantagenet” name I learned mainly through Thomas Costain’s four-book series, but I never like the Plantagenet thing anyway. But back to Marshal: the story goes that as a hostage, young Marshal treated the threats of hanging and being catapulted to death as games to play with his captors and so won over the stern King Stephen with his childish innocence.

How could we possibly know such a detail from the life of William Marshal? I mean, the monks wrote about the great events of the day, and the kings had the royal scribes or whatever to record their daily activities. But of the common people, or even the knights and nobles, we know little, especially before the invention of the printing press (another of those 1400 watershed events). For William Marshal’s life, we owe the good eyes of a French scholar named Paul Meyer. In early 1861, as detailed in the book’s preface, he saw an intriguing manuscript at Sotheby’s auction house in London. It was part of the Savile collection, a group of rare manuscripts put together in the time of Queen Elizabeth I.

Meyer became a great scholar (his evidence cleared Alfred Dreyfus of espionage charges in 1898), but in 1861 he was only twenty-one and unable to do anything but examine the book before the auction. And there, inside the brown leather, was an account in verse of (as Meyer recorded in his notebook) “an original chronicle, which seems to report the conflict that broke out in England during the reign of Stephen, nephew of Henry I.” Once Meyer became a respected scholar, he tried to find the intriguing manuscript, but it had disappeared into an enormous collection of 60,000 manuscripts (!) held by Sir Thomas Phillipps, and miscataloged to boot. Not until 1881 was Meyer able to read the story of Sir William Marshal, knight, earl, raider, tournament winner, pilgrim, landholder, early Irish settler, and friend of kings, all set out in 19,215 lines of medieval French verse.

I found the account that Asbridge presents of medieval times, especially the tournament circuit in France in the 1100s, and the tension between the conquered English and their Norman (French) overlords, absolutely fascinating. England is not the England of Robin Hood, but the England Richard treats like a source of money and goods to accomplish his real goals of conquest, a place where he spent only a few months of his entire reign. Most of the drama of Marshal’s life plays out on the tournament circuit of Norman France, where the practice was still legal. Even here, the noble combatants often used the jousts and contests as an excuse to get all rowdy and terrorize the countryside (page 62 and 65 has nice details on this).

I learned a lot more about medieval tournaments and combat than I ever knew from this book. I also learned the difference between the Occitan “Langue d’Oc” (where “yes” is “oc”) and French “Langue D’Oeuil” (where “yes” is “oeuil” or the modern “oui”)(page 79). Oddly, this difference plays a role in the Joan of Arc book from last week: when the inquisitor asks with an Occitan accent what language Joan’s voices speak to her in, Joan retorts that “they speak better French than you do.” Joan rocks, I think.

One of the claims of the book is that men like William Marshal helped to usher in the fall of the noble-knight-vassal-peasant system. Asbridge’s argument is persuasive, and includes the observation that the rise of a more stable, moneyed economy meant that knights could just pay their way out of that nasty-dangerous warfare thing and sit home in the castle while contributing to the ruler’s war chest or supplying a bunch of paid mercenary volunteers to do their dirty work. Sturdy household knights became rich nobles, and much of this evolution took place during Marshal’s lifetime.

The defining moment of King John’s reign is, of course, the Magna Carta forced on him by his nobles to limit the whims of majesty. But I never realized how complex the process and document were: the clauses cited on pages 332 and 333 make readers almost feel sorry for poor King John.  But King John wasted no time trying to destroy the lives and careers of those who opposed him. William Marshal, who owed almost everything he had to the kings of England, officially backed his king instead of the French invaders under Louis of France – yes, 1066 was the last successful invasion of England, but Louis had no problem rampaging through Kent. Only after John’s death did the nobles decide they would rather have a weak Henry III than a strong Louis ruling over them.

On a complete tangent, this book made me aware of a great film featuring a fictionalized “Thomas Marshal” and his knights. In 2011, the movie Ironclad depicted the siege of Rochester Castle by King John in 1215. Although in many ways a complete fantasy, the film does capture the real brutality of the times and the fine line the well-off had to walk to stay in the good graces of everyone who mattered. The peasants ran into the woods and the monks headed for the hills (of Rome), but those with castles to defend were sort of stuck with defending it.

This is the second book in as many weeks that impressed me with both the selection and the quality of the color illustrations. Where else can you find illustrations of the shields of nobles and knights (facing page 141)? Or the seals they affixed to the Magna Carta (referenced on pages 349 and 366)?

I love books that are so good you don’t want them to end, that teach you many things you did not know before, and that are well-written and illustrated. This book has it all.

 

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured By Kathryn Harrison (Doubleday, 2014) 382 pages

JOA Harrsion

Somewhere on the fringes of “walterspace” dwells a stack, and on this stack are books that I have read. I can access this stack in LIFO manner, pushing books onto the top of the pile and popping one off each week when I write these. I usually do this. But I can also deal from the bottom and process the stack as a FIFO queue and go back a few months. (If these terms make no sense and I sound like I think like a computer, be thankful you aren’t me.)

Everyone should know more about Joan of Arc than they do. So read this.

I admit I am a sucker for Joan of Arc anything. I have been since I first encountered the Classics Illustrated version of the life of Joan of Arc in Mrs. Girard’s fifth grade class. We were all like “What? You can read comic books in class?” (There were no graphic novels until comic books went all literary.)

Mark Twain, who knew a thing or two about human nature and the struggle to excel when things are stacked against you, wrote a book about Joan of Arc. Twain said that Joan led the “most remarkable life between us and Jesus.” You don’t have to be religious or a Christian to recognize that Twain had a very high opinion of the girl who came to lead the armies of France against the occupying English. I say “girl” because she was burned at the stake as witch by the English on May 30, 1431, a few months after her 19th birthday. Her career as a general lasted only 13 months, from early May 1429 (when she was 18) until May 23, 1430 when she was cut off and captured outside the walled town of Compiegne (I am not adding accents here).  She started her agitation to attack the occupying English forces in 1428, after claiming to have heard “voices” guiding her in 1424, when she was 13. (BTW, I have nothing against the English for the whole Hundred Years War thing—heck, I’m an American: invading is what we do.)

These facts occupy the first half or so of Harrison’s book (Joan is captured by the Burgundians on page 227). She was a female peasant born in 1412 (we don’t know exactly when, but it seems to have been late January) on the edges of what was then left of France. After a couple of false starts, she convinced the Dauphin (prince) of France to give her an army to raise the siege of Orleans and chase the English out of France for good. She didn’t succeed, but had the Dauphin crowned King Charles VII of France in the heart of English territory. The new king apparently did not care to have someone around more popular that he was (and a girl at that), so he withdrew financial support.  Joan carried on more or less alone until captured, tried by the English as a heretic and witch, and burning at the stake. So see what happens to uppity chicks around here?

I learned many things from this book, and I’ve read quite a few on Joan. The color photo section is one of the best, and it’s even possible to cross-reference the illustrations with the page of the text where they are discussed, which is not always possible in many books. One thing that started to wear on me a bit is Harrison’s habit of tossing in bits and pieces from fictionalized treatments of Joan. That said, I’m not sure how I would have ever learned about Bertolt Brecht’s 1900 play (one of three he wrote about Joan) called Saint Joan of the Stockyards (page 57) which transplants Joan and her struggles to the slaughtering grounds of Chicago where she champions the hungry workers and confronts the Meat King.

To those who point out that Joan’s exploits did not end the Hundred Years War, Harrison replies that the war ended in 1453 with peace terms that would have been unthinkable without Joan’s conquests.  Had she lived to see it, Joan would have been all of 41 years old (page 312). Her rejection of the traditional roles of Medieval womanhood (or modern womanhood for that matter) as maid (what’s with the horseback riding?), wife (some local yokel tried to claim her, but her father would have none of that – page 59), and unmarried woman (only one type of girl went off willingly with men-at-arms, as page 46 points out) confounded even her family…at least until she became famous.

I liked how Harrison emphasized Joan’s military aspects, topics often avoided in more faith-based books and films. Her Joan comes soaked in the blood of her enemies, a fact that helped the prosecution brand her as a tool of the devil. Joan is trained by the best of knights (page 72) and outfitted in customized battle armor (page 113) and wields a sacred sword (page 114). Joan is wounded several times (almost killed by a crossbow bolt on page 156, pierced through the thigh on page 206). Joan apparently endures repeated checks of her virginity with a shrug, although she does take precautions against rape after her capture by sewing herself into her clothes (page 250). For those who wonder, Joan showed no evidence of “the female malady” during her time in the field, as reported by her squire (page 44). I wondered about this until I read about how irregular women were in this time of famine and enormous stress (in a great little book called The Medieval Vagina, which actually has a chapter called “Going Medieval on That Vagina”).

It’s easy to be skeptical about Joan, just as easy as it is to be impressed with her accomplishments. She was peasant born, true, but her father was the richest peasant in Domremy (page 22) and made a “dean” on page 30. Their house (it still stands) was no shack, but stood right next to the parish church (the book has very nice photos of the place). So her family had a certain standing and respect when it came to interacting with the great powers of the day.

Some books try to reveal “the power behind Joan” which could be a conniving relative, or Yolande, the king’s mother, or some great noble who did not like La Tremoille, the evil minister who had Charles’s ear. Her appointment as general was a joke: clearly someone else was in charge “for real.” Harrison addresses these issues head-on, for example, by noting Joan’s orders regarding the placement of cannon on the battlefield, which may not have been the consensus, but was always obeyed. There seems to be no question that many people who encountered Joan encouraged or supported her for selfish reasons. But so what? We should all be so lucky. Joan’s favorite saying was “God helps those who help themselves” (page 103).

There’s always controversy regarding Joan: she was supposed to be a virgin, but you know how those country girls are (you can add a wink here). And the whole short hair thing and dressing in men’s clothes, well, you know what that means. None of these “sins” seemed to have bothered Joan. Joan had no qualms about being a girl in boy’s clothing: she wasn’t in disguise; she was in the army. Out of armor, she didn’t wear a false penis codpiece, but this meant her “short, tight, and dissolute” male jackets and leggings left her sexual characteristics right there on display for all to examine (page 188).

My favorite line in this book is on page 284. Joan of Arc is condemned on May 2, 1431 because she had “searched curiously into things passing our understanding.” Who among us will have as good an epitaph?

In her short years, Joan of Arc upset a lot of cherished ideas about the young, the poor, the odd, the misfit, the gender-bent, the illiterate, the devout, the privileged, the downtrodden, and so on. May your life be as disruptive to the status quo as Joan’s. I can leave you with no better blessing.

 

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free by Cory Doctorow

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age By Cory Doctorow (McSweeney’s, 2014) 162 pages

IDWTBF Doctorow

I’ll skip to the chase right now: information doesn’t want to be free, Doctorow says. But people want to be free.  Who can argue with that, right? But that doesn’t mean that everything in this book is correct. Laws and regulations are easy targets, because it’s always easy to find absurdities and, by definition, they don’t include any nod to the human elements that specific cases can bring to a generic situation. However, on the whole, Doctorow is probably more right than he is wrong. (I’m not going to debate specifics: read the book and make up your own mind. On the whole, publishing and copyright has been very, very good to me…)

The book starts with a litany of oddities that digital rights management has wrought with regard to DVD players and other technologies. The whole “zone” system of DVD locks is crazy because you can’t buy DVDs from England (for example) and play them here. Why? How come what I buy isn’t mine? Digital locks are not there for the consumer, he points out (page 6).

Another good point concerns digital locks on e-books (page 15). You don’t really buy anything: you license it. You don’t have to agree that the former telcos (now all ISPs as well) are “lying, evil scum” (page 30) to appreciate that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it legal to install any OS on your iPhone, but illegal to tell someone how to do it.

I’m an author myself, and I know plenty more of them, so I understand the concept of intellectual property and related concepts a bit. I only hope that I don’t act like a hypocrite while downloading stuff I’d be annoyed at others for doing to mine. (To me, this would be a nice problem to have, actually. But I don’t have bootleg downloads to worry about.) And I think it was kind of a sneaky thing to do to make copyright protection retroactive (!) on all types of music to

To many, copyright is sacred, especially in the old “right to distribute copies” sense, but mainly to the publishers of books and music. If you’ve written a book, or even if you haven’t, look inside: it usually says “copyright 2015 by X” where X is not the author. You assign your copyright to the publisher, which controls distribution and collects royalties on the author’s behalf.

But not so fast! I have an author friend who published a book years ago. Then he noticed that his book was on sale in Australia. A first edition was going for like 250 bucks! His US publisher sold the rights to Australia for a (low) lump sum. No further royalties accrue. But he can’t sell his copies (if he had them) in Australia, because he would be violating the copyright that the publisher holds on his own works. That’s protection, but not for him.

But without copyright, how can authors and artists make money? Doctorow lists six ways, starting on page 53, including selling ads, tickets, and so on. One of my favorites is “swag” because I remember the days when music groups would tour to get people to buy their records, and now they give their music away to get people to come to their concerts and buy, buy, buy…online too! No wonder the record companies (and potential traditional publishers), says Doctorow, are in a state of high anxiety.

Speaking of artists making money, I don’t mind geniuses like Elvis or Jimi Hendrix using their talents to become filthy stinking rich, and creators have every right to expect to profit from the fruits of their labors during their lifetimes. But I can never understand how I should be expected to support their heirs, people who haven’t done a darn thing except be born into the right family (yes, I have a problem with inherited wealth too, no matter what the source). If regulation stifles innovation, how much does being the children of a genius starting life as billionaires stifle innovation and everything else? (If you have answers to those questions, I’d be happy to hear them, as long as they don’t regurgitate the “job creator” theme: how many jobs does a good book create? Or a famous painting?)

On page 68, Doctorow makes a point that almost anyone who is a creative person knows: you don’t do it to get rich. That’s not to say that someone doesn’t get rich: someone wins the lottery too. But buying lottery tickets to get rich is probably not a winning strategy.

I tell people “when I started writing, I didn’t have to, but I wanted to. Now I don’t want to, but I have to.” Writing gets in your blood, and once it does, you have to write.

Back to the book: on page 125 we meet the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (EUFI) that makes sure the OS you load on a computer has the “signature” approved by the manufacturer. I’ve been bitten by this before when I tried to load Linux on an old PC that I no longer used for “real work.” But the system wanted me to install only the OS that came with the system or an upgrade, and would not let me do it.

Doctorow has a good example of how copyright has been exploited in the United States (and he’s from Canada). The original copyright term in 1790 was fourteen years (this is not a typo: 14 years), renewable for another fourteen. On page 133, Doctorow has a nice dialog between a colonial author and a publisher, who offers to publish the book for one potato (well, it’s 1790). The author signs the contract and for the next fourteen years, the book sells like mad and the publisher gets rich. At the end of the fourteen years, the publisher offers to renew the agreement for another potato, or else the work falls into the public domain. In this case, the author at least had some leverage: I want more to renew with you. But if the copyright is 99 years (renewable), then the creator has absolutely no leverage over that work, only new work.

I actually floated a new paradigm for creative content to a gathering of Famous Authors in early 2014. They looked at me as if I were speaking an unknown tongue, but let me share it with you and see what you think. In the future…by the way, I think the future has been redefined as anywhere from this afternoon on: the future no longer has an immediate blind spot covered by “now”: the future used to start at the end of next year, at least. The past is still the past, so where did “now” go?

Anyway, in the future, there will be no “publishers” of books or music or visual arts. The creative person will have sponsors, derived from past experiences or social media or referrals or whatever. The sponsors will pay to enjoy the artist’s or author’s new work immediately upon release. These sponsors will then be free to distribute it to others, or on public access media, encouraging new listeners or readers to become sponsors, and so on. The sponsor idea is simply the concept of insider privilege, taken to a new level. That’s what I think. Everyone pretty much agrees that there is no longer a need for the “mediator” of the giant media firms to act as middle-person for the entire world, not while we have the Internet. (The Internet’s survival in its present form is not a given, by the way. Beware!)

This has only scratched the surface of the whole issue, of course. Read the book and decide what you want as a person and take a stand. Or don’t read the book. But definitely take a stand.