Maestra by L. S. Hilton

Maestra by L. S. Hilton (Putnam, 2016) 309 pages

M Hilton

I read this novel because I know L. S. Hilton as Lisa Hilton, non-fiction author who wrote books about Queen Elizabeth and other Medieval queens. I almost bought one, but didn’t, picking up a history of the Plantagenet dynasty instead. So why is Lisa Hilton, historian, now L. S. Hilton, “erotic” novelist? Probably for the same reason that Harry Turtledove, Byzantine historian (I have his translation of the Chronicle of Theophanes) became the award-winning novelist of alternate histories of WW II: because that’s where the money and fame are. At least Harry kept his name and personal history, while Hilton seems intent to disown any of that intellectual person she once was.

Why? Well, Turtledove’s former life was a good platform for his historical novels, although I wonder how much a deep knowledge of Byzantium had to do with understanding how the history of modern Europe might have played out if a few things had changed. But if what you are writing, as the New York Post said (proudly displayed on the Amazon page) is an “erotic novel [that] makes Fifty Shades look like the Bible”…well, you might want to keep those two careers separate. (I doubt anyone at the Post is familiar with how salacious the Bible actually is…you hear me, Lot?)

Also, if you look at the photo of Hilton on the end flap, that woman looks much more like the jet-setting serial killer in the novel than a history geek (although she is almost 42, the image on the book reveals that she is very well preserved). And when it comes to loving sex, no one can doubt that Hilton began laying the groundwork for an eventual titillating best-seller almost 10 years ago: see her article in the Guardian from 2007.

By the way, the title Maestra comes from the feminine form of “maestro,” meaning a teacher or someone of consummate skill, usually in the field of music. In Italian, oddly, the term maestro is used for both male and female.

Now, about the book itself, which is the first of a promised trilogy. I found the idea of a psychopath who kills and screws her way to fame and fortune intriguing, not in the least because every other female (and many of the males) in the book is either a vapid moron or fodder for the maestra to manipulate and conquer. But I found the sex a bit forced, if done with athletic vigor and sometimes drug-induced enthusiasm. To me it was more a curiosity than erotic (do people really do that? I guess so…but no thanks…maybe I’ll just wait outside).

The narrator, Judith Rashleigh, starts out as an assistant at a London art house, the kind that acquires art at an estate sale, cleans it up and appraises it, and then auctions it off so that international drug dealers can launder their money…I mean, so that discriminating rich people can enjoy fine artwork. But because Judy can’t get enough sex, she’s also a hostess at an upscale champagne bar, the ones where the good stuff costs 3000 pounds…but who cares, because the bank I work for is paying my business expenses, right?

Judy is apparently the only person who wants to better herself (she is tired of working for people who don’t have her Oxford education – as Hilton does – but who come from better families). Judy tries to be good until she stumbles onto a plot to sell a “school of” painting as the real deal (a Stubbs). She decides to celebrate her freedom by talking a client into taking her and a friend to the French Riviera, where the girls manage to administer an overdose to their sugar daddy. This event somehow inspires Judy to become a serial killer and pass herself off as one of the vacuous rich that flit on yachts between France and Italy and Spain as the whim strikes them.

Now, I surely applaud people who want to better themselves and become famous novelists after a series low-paying non-fiction books (ahem). But of course you can succeed by killing everyone and anyone who stands in your way. Especially if every coincidence and messy step with the cops and the mob happens to break your way. The trick is to do it while still playing by the rules. You can always cut the Gordian Knot, sure, but everybody with Alexander the Great could have done that.

This is the psychological thriller equivalent of the zombies who, when they chase others, run like the wind, but when they chase the heroes, stagger with leaden feet and stumbling gait. One or two coincidences and betrayals I could take, but by the third or fourth occasion of just-in-time escapes or great fortune, I started shaking my head and longing for a good evaluation of Queen Elizabeth among the rulers or her day.

No matter who old Judy shoots, stabs, poisons, or strangles, she is always one step or more ahead of those corrupt authorities who are, after all, as evil in their own way as our dear maestra. Probably more so, don’t you think? Because they’re supposed to be good guys, a claim Judy never makes for herself.

I did come away with an enriched vocabulary and a better sense of modern female fashion and style. If I ever need to pass myself off as a hooker in downtown London or an ingénue on the Riviera, I’ll know just how to dress for the lap dance or the dinner party on the big boat (see pages 7-8, 20, 55-56, 68, 77, 96, 144, 124, 144, 161, 244, 264, 279, etc).

Now, a lot of the words used in the book I knew, but seldom encounter in my reading (like the colonic on p.33). Many you can figure out from context (like the gun with the silencer she keeps in her Parisian escritoire on p.284). But I don’t often scramble for the dictionary like I did here (a lot of them are special food/clothes words, but there will be a test): angostura (p.9), peruke (p.26), syllabub (p.41), “ruched her pashmina” (p.45), squiz (p.53), monoï oil (p.74), etiolated (p. 79, but 10 points off for repeating this odd word for “feeble” on p. 270), passarelle (p. 104), kurta (p.124), foulard (p.144), snaffle ([.167), raclette (p.201), and “perse” skin and “kir framboise” (both on p. 215).

One odd oversight, although it is absolutely essential to the plot: the Eden Roc in Antibes on the Riviera (NOT the one in Miami), once noted for taking only cash, now takes finer credit cards. (How do I know? My father might have been a coal miner, but I am not a peasant…)

Note to self: If I can arrange for an illustrated edition of this book with a hot blond (Hilton?) dressed up in all the outfits in the book, especially if I can show the monoï oil on her nether regions, I’ll be a multi-millionaire.

But I’ll probably pass on the next two books. I just could not think of old Judy as someone I wanted to succeed. Actually, I wanted someone she trusted to gut her like a fish, preferably during sex while wearing only her pashmina. Maybe that’s how she ends up…one can only hope.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Villard, 1996) 408 pages

TS Russell

This is another book I heard about through that Great Courses course about the history of science fiction called “How Great Science Fiction Works” taught by Prof. Gary Wolfe. This book came out of the class on how religions are portrayed in science fiction. However, a lot of it has more to do with alien “first contact” and the events that follow, although there’s plenty exploring the relationship of God to man (and alien) to satisfy a church deacon.

Wolfe sort of warns you about the odd aspects of this book, both as science fiction and as literature, meaning that it’s not a particularly easy read. But, as Wolfe promised, the payoff is substantial if a bit tame in comparison to what goes on across the planet we live on—aliens aren’t torturing women in Africa or the Middle East in the name of religion. We are. And we are all humans.

Anyway, this book takes place along two timelines: the first contact event in 2019 (almost 35 years in the future when the book was written) and a kind of religious trial when the sole survivor of the initial expedition, Jesuit priest Father Emilio Sandoz is fetched back to earth in 2059. Due to the relativistic effects of star travel, Sandoz is much “younger” than his colleagues who have spent the entire time of his trip on earth and aged at the ordinary rate.

Not that it much matters. When the second expedition from earth reaches the planet of Rakhat and the two odd races of creatures that dwell there, they find Father Sandoz with his hands horribly mutilated and working in a brothel as a prostitute. Moreover, the crazy priest kills the one being on the planet that actually cares about him: a young child in no way involved in the priest’s condition.

So Sandoz is taken back to earth to face charges about his circumstance when found, as well as questions about exactly what happened to the other seven people who left earth with him. These good people, all chosen by the church, half of them Jesuits, ride an asteroid to incredible speeds (the details of this asteroid mass-burning for speed are not presented) to reach the stars. We know there are intelligent beings on a planet out there because a radio telescope has received charming music of classical quality coming from one of the three suns of Alpha Centauri.

Before going on, let me just say that there are no real spoilers to risk in revealing the plot; no cliffhangers to be uncovered; no plot twists to expose; no doubt as to Sandoz’s guilt or innocence. It’s all there on the book flap, and the real tension is in his former friends grappling with what transformed Sandoz from a gentle priest helping poor children in Puerto Rico into a homicidal maniac. Whatever it was, due to Sandoz’s role in society, there is not convenient villain to blame, like violent video games or our current understanding that many priests are capable of evil deeds because they are all human beings, and human beings are capable of all manner of evil deeds. This book was written before the recent church scandals that have swept away the naïve picture of the always innocent, and in some ways childish, individuals who are drawn to the priesthood.

The first question a reader might ask is this: What the heck is a Jesuit priest doing on an expedition to encounter the first aliens detected by humanity? (And these aliens are tantalizingly close: literally right next door on Alpha Centauri.) Well, in this future, based on trends of the late 80s and early 90s, only Japan has enough money to accomplish great things. In fact, they run Arecibo, the big radio telescope that receives radio broadcasts of truly wonderful music that entices humanity to get to know the obviously sensitive beings that created such marvelous tunes. (This future 2019, imagined in the early 1990s, has no Facebook, no social media, no slavish following of reality show stars, smartphone isolation, or…Hey! Can we go back?…I’m not serious: see Walter’s First Law of Reality: When Things Change, They Don’t Change Back.)

Outside of the rich Japanese, only the Holy Mother Church, not yet unburdened of years of bingo earnings by victims of abuse, has the wherewithal to mount an expedition to the aliens before the world’s governments can scrape together some cash to do the same. In the spirit of exploration, humans just jump right in instead of thinking to send a query to these other beings asking if their arrival would be a welcome one.

The priest’s presence has a lot to do with the author’s background. Russell is a cultural anthropologist, and her specialty is paleoanthropology,the study of how ancient societies lived in prehistoric times. Her studies and experiences inform the text, and make for a different kind of science fiction experience.

Readers can be forgiven if they see Sandoz and company’s encounter with the aliens as a thinly veiled retelling of what happened when the first Jesuits encountered the bloody altars on top of the pyramids of the Aztecs. The moral outrage at all this ripping of beating hearts out of the chests of sacrificial victims must have been absolutely justified to the priests who had conveniently forgotten how their minions made the streets of the Holy Land run with blood during the Crusades. But, obviously, those guys over there are savages, and we aren’t.

(As a footnote, I am not one of those people who tend to think that the Jesuits invented the Aztecs’ brutality in order to justify their own inhuman treatment of the natives after the conquest—which recent DNA studies have shown to be even worse than researchers had imagined. Aztec DNA is immediately polluted with the imported European kind, which probably had the benefit of allowing many of them to survive European diseases. But it seems that a whole generation of women in the cities interbred with no one but the conquerors. More to my point, a recent construction project in Mexico City unearthed an enormous wall consisting of layers of human skulls mud-bricked into a hundred-foot-long rampart, right at the foot of the main pyramid in the center of town. So yeah, those Aztec rulers were some evil folks. Although they say that those invited to for a brief visit to the altar on top of the pyramid were happy to be picked to keep the sun shining, and they had some really good drugs…and never ignore the effects of peer pressure, whether civilian or religious. Those who tremble before Jesus will happily skewer you outside the abortion clinic.)

The question asked about the Aztecs is the same as that asked in this book: could the same God that nurtures us good people also rule over these unrefined heathens? How can a just God, supposed ruler of the universe, allow such inequity to continue?

It’s a fair question. Unfortunately, in this book as in real life, there aren’t any easy answers. The main offense the visitors from earth commit is to treat the downtrodden peasants of Rakhat with as much dignity as their overlords. This offense cannot be forgiven, especially because being invited to dine with the overlords is an experience as fraught as being invited to enjoy the view from the top of the Aztec’s big pyramid. You don’t mess with other people’s food supply.

I will reveal why the book is called The Sparrow: it’s on page 401, almost at the very end of the book. “Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” his judges cite: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.

This book is an interesting peek into the mind of priest who can no longer believe in a just God. If you don’t expect more than that, you won’t be disappointed.

 

Light by M. John Harrison

Light by M. John Harrison (Bantam, 2004) 310 pages

L Harrison

It’s been a while since I’ve done a science fiction book, huh? Let’s fix that right now…

So I bought this course from a company called The Great Courses about the history of science fiction called “How Great Science Fiction Works” taught by Prof. Gary Wolfe. I found it pretty fascinating, especially when we got past the 1980s and into the “rise of the new space opera” and stuff like that. After a time when science fiction focused on the nuances of characters or drilled into the minds of people involved in dystopian worlds or deep government plots (the whole “cyberpunk” movement) , the 1990s saw a revival of stories where the whole universe was the canvas. This harkened back to the old space opera stories of the 1930s.

The new space opera authors were not afraid to send characters to weird worlds, or have them encounter strange aliens (humanoid or not), or find hints of civilizations, dead or alive, doing things that humans could barely comprehend. One of the writers that Wolfe spoke about in the course is British author M. John Harrison, a name I had not come across before. Harrison wrote many books, but this quote got me interested in the book I am writing about this week. Here’s what Wolfe says about Harrison and Light:

“[Harrison writes books] all featuring morally ambiguous characters and all connected to a mysterious region of space where reality is so distorted that it has baffled and even damaged many civilizations over the millennia. [The book] Light, in particular, is a superb example of the sort of literary complexity that can be packed into a space opera template.”

Naturally, after that build-up, I had to get my hands on the book and read it.

It was not an easy read. Not only are the characters ambiguous and mysterious, but so is the narrative. Apparently the idea of a linear or sequential narrative is one of those things that people in the deep future can do without. But if you’re willing to jump around a bit in time and space, you’ll find a heckuva story in here, but told in three interlocking sets of episodes.

Michael Kearney is the person we meet first, a Londoner in fear of the Millennium (it’s 1999). He’s doing research into quantum computing and manipulation of quantum effects with a partner, but mainly it’s the partner who does the research while Kearney mainly goofs off and tries to talk his ex-wife into having sex with him (she does not need much convincing). Kearney is also a very casual serial killer, a fact introduces so casually that you wonder if it’s one of those space-time distortions. But apparently not, and it seems the only reason that Kearney does not murder his ex-wife is because she wouldn’t mind dying at all.

If this isn’t quirky enough, we next meet a woman in the far future named Seria Mau Genlicher, someone who now lives as a mass in a tank of liquid and has been merged into a starship/warship called the White Cat (Kearney’s research involves a black cat and a white cat). These “K-ships” are all that remain of an ancient civilization that has tried to penetrate the boundaries of a region of the galaxy where massive black holes of something even stranger has muddied reality into odd areas of overlapping quantum effects. This is the Kefahuchi Tract, where alien civilizations have entered but form which nothing has ever returned. Seria has taken her K-ship rogue, and is not above taking on passengers she kills in order to examine their cargo, even as the authorities hunt for her and try to destroy her.

Last but not least we have Ed Chianese (“Chinese Ed”) who would rather spend his days as a “twink” on New Venusport near the Kefahuchi Tract than anything else. Twinks live in a virtual reality world while immersed in a vat of psychedelic nutrients, and Ed spins a marvelous fantasy as a hard-boiled detective in Chicago until he can’t pay the rent and is dumped out onto the floor of the tank farm. Ed has experience on “dynaflow ships” and has “gone deep” into stellar envelopes and made his way through old alien mazes where many have been lost. He owes a lot of people, and they’re out to collect…

(Have you figured out this book is not your usual trip to Mars yet? And why would an author try to make faster-than-light travel, or strangely connected places in space and time understandable, or weird god-like beings in some way logical? This is the quantum world, baby, where nothing makes much sense. So just go along for the ride. )

Chinese Ed and Michael Kearney and Seria Mau Genlicher are all tied up in ways that slowly reveal themselves as the book plays out. Kearney and his partner’s actions must determine the future where the other two play, and their work is so important that there are dioramas in place in the far future to commemorate key moments in their lives and work. Ed and Seria have a past that is shared in a way that you slowly figure out as the book goes on. (It’s easy to hide these little snippets in plain sight because there is so much happening in each scene.)

Lurking everywhere in the background is this thing called the Shrander, a being that shows up in different forms under different names (Sandra Shen, for one) at different times all over the book. Kearney has stolen a set of weird dice form this Shrander – they are shown on the cover of the paperback – and is fond of tossing them at odd times. He has given names to different results, names that also exist in the far future in the other parts of the book. But it’s unclear what effect if any this tossing is having on Kearney’s life or anything else.

Perhaps Kearney’s throws in the present are having an effect on the characters in the far future? Lots of things in this book happen on multiple levels, including the narrative. Sort of like real life.

Before I read this book, I would never had thought it possible to sell a narrative so disconnected, or ideas introduced with so little context or explanation (like “K-tech), or characters so clearly lost and adrift in life and the plot. But now I see that you can, or at least a writer could in the early 2000s. There are two more books in this loose “series” about our very odd future (Nova Swing and Empty Space). But I’m not sure I’m ready to read those yet. I hope I will be.

 

Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker

Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) 280 pages

FM Parker

For the past few weeks, I’ve written about groups dominated not about concerns for government and laws, but about the reaction of their peers and the pressure of the tribe (and I use that term loosely). For example, in The Wandering Falcon, the people are confused by a need to have papers like birth certificates to cross what amount to arbitrary nation borders and in Smile as they Bow, the gay community serves the spirits (nats) by “channeling” the essences of these respected gods to escape official condemnation for their lifestyle. In both cases, the tribe clings together for protection, and individuals break tribal customs at their own risk.

Surely we don’t have tribes in modern America, right? I thought so to, but recently several things converged to make Parker’s book even more relevant than I thought when I read it. First I met Parker at ASU’s annual Desert Night Rising Stars writing conference and he spoke about how his home’s proximity to Camp Pendleton and Marines returning from the Middle East influenced this book. Then this week I went to Changing Hands book store in Phoenix to meet Doug Bradley and hear him speak on his book about how music bound together Vietnam veterans both “in country” during the war and after (the book is We Gotta Get out of This Place). And to top it off, I watched Bradley Cooper in the movie American Sniper again on HBO.

If American military veterans do not constitute a “tribe” as binding as the one who wander the Middle East or haunt the temples of Myanmar, then I don’t know what would be. I can think of others too: police officers (I spent most of my adult life living with two police officers and the chief of police of my town on three of the four sides me), fire fighters, and even motorcycle gangs. They have their own rules, their own talk, their own concerns, and yet they live among us quietly until something happens that draws attention to their otherness.

Which brings me to Full Measure. When speaking about this book, Parker mentioned how the returning veterans he spoke to did not care to be addressed as “heroes” or be constantly thanked for their service. To them, they were doing a dangerous and dirty job and trying their best to keep body and soul together during their tours. They weren’t drafted like many in Viet Nam were: they volunteered and had at least some idea of the risks they would be taking. So it’s no surprise that Full Measure opens with Patrick Norris returning home to his family’s avocado ranch in Fallbrook, north of San Diego, and feeling uncomfortable with people who fawn over him, even his brother Ted (page 4). He’s just glad to see his mom and dad again (page 16).

But all is not well at home. A recent wild fire, which might have been set on purpose, has destroyed acres of countryside and many of the Norris avocado trees. If they cannot be saved and provide a cash crop, Pat’s father will have to sell off the land at a fraction of its worth to developers who plan to build houses on the property. Patrick’s home town has changed as well, and now the poorer families, some foreign and others from Mexico, live and work side-by-side with the older (white) population. There is evidence of an active drug market and street gangs. Many of the newcomers don’t own cars, and a young Hispanic boy has been killed by an unknown hit-and-run driver. He tried crossing between the legally established crosswalks at traffic lights set a mile apart (it’s like that where I live in Arizona too).

The mayor holds a town meeting to determine if a crosswalk with solar-powered caution lights should be placed midway between the lights (page 26). The old-timers rail against the expense because the Great Recession has hit the town hard and unemployment is high. They complain even though the state will help pay and enough local money is available. The people vote the measure down, much to the dismay of young mothers trying to dash across the busy street with a baby carriage and two youngsters in tow. But this delights one element of the town: the “white power” advocates who insist on wearing guns wherever they go and want to unseat the current mayor (page 24). As much as Patrick misses the rush of combat (page 28), he doesn’t miss having to carry a gun wherever he goes and worry about people shooting at him on the streets of his home town.

In other words, Patrick Norris’ home town is facing exactly the same problems a lot of towns and cities in this country are facing. The government is losing its grip and the tribes are restless.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the Norris family is increasingly concerned about Patrick’s brother Ted. Ted suffers from painfully flat feet and has the attention span of a gnat. He sits in the old bunkhouse and plays video games all night. When dad has to press Ted into service to try and save the less savagely burned of the trees, Ted immediately screws up and Marine vet brother Patrick has to bail poor Ted out (page 91). Ted drives a cab to help out, but is increasingly drawn to the whole white-power gun-toting crowd when he is mugged by a Hispanic gang-banger. Yet even when Ted tries to take his revenge with the help of his new friends, the result is no better than anything else Ted does.

Patrick, as sympathetic as he is to Ted’s woes, has problems of his own. He tries to connect with a local girl named Iris, and things go well until his PTSD buddies show up at a party at Iris’ place and promptly start a fight that trashes the place. It costs Patrick every penny he has to make things right, but Iris is understandably reluctant to get drawn into Patrick’s orbit.

The end has a twist you won’t see coming, I promise. But not everything gets sorted out with the usual hearts and flowers that books like this sometimes try to peddle. Still, in the end, there is hope.

Let me close my “tribal sequence” with a few last thoughts on this subject. Ted’s problem, as I see it, is that he is shut out of all tribes. The groups that he desperately wants and needs to join are closed to him: war veterans (feet), gentleman ranchers (no head for agriculture), respectable guy with a nice girl (the whole video game obsession, and every girl Ted comes across eventually spurns him as a stalker or someone who is already planning on how many kids they will have). Even the outsiders, the gun guys and the radicals, reject Ted as a hopeless dweeb who can’t even bash someone with a baseball bat in the dark without help. And guns? He’ll probably shoot his foot off sooner or later…

All this rejection drives Ted to increasingly extreme actions which threaten to overwhelm the ability of his brother and parents to protect him. Definitely worth a read, I have to say.

Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi

Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi (Hyperion Books, 2008) 146 pages

SATB Yi

(Yes, that’s really how the title is capitalized…)

Before I talk about this book, I want to share my memories of Keith Emerson, who took his own life this week when nerve damage to his right hand left him unable to play the keyboard (and Moog synthesizer) like the maniac genius he was. Unless I go to see Steppenwolf or the Dave Clark 5 soon, Keith Emerson will remain the person I saw perform over the greatest number of years. I saw him at the Fillmore East with the Nice in April of 1969 and then again at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco with Greg Lake in April of 2009. (Carl Palmer wasn’t there: they were saving the official “Emerson, Lake, and Palmer” reunification show for later that summer in London.) That’s 40 years apart, and although Emerson had was 64 in 2009, he still had a lot of the same energy that I remembered from those old Fillmore days.

Let me share one memory of the crazy 1969 Keith Emerson and then we’ll do the book. Bill Graham did the intro: “Ladies and Gentlemen, won’t you welcome please, a most distinguished group, from England…The Nice!” Emerson didn’t have the Moog he used with ELP on “Lucky Man” yet (which he inherited from Manfred Mann by way of the Museum of Modern Art). But he did have a beat-up old Hammond L100 (some places say L102) organ. During most of the show, he just did his usual show: playing organ with one hand while playing piano with the other, playing the keyboard “upside down” while kneeling on the organ, reversing left hand and right hand parts, and so on. But when he did their big hit, “America” from West Side Story, he went completely nuts. First he took out knives (!) and stuck them into the keyboard to produce a droning chord. Then he toggled the power on and off, producing a “weeee-woooo-weeee” wail as the power surged and faded. Then he got up on top of the organ and rocked it back and forth, producing an indescribable booming crash when it hit the floor, splitting his pants in the process (this is even mentioned on the live album that preserved the performance). Finally, and you will not think this possible (I was there, and I still do not believe what I saw and heard), he went around to the back of this moaning, wailing machine (the knives still in place) and pulled some wires out of the back. By crossing them again, he produced the signature dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah, DAH-DAH-DAH stutter of Bernstein’s “America.” During some shows, he would topple the organ over, sometimes on himself, then haul it back upright and finish the song. At the end, we all went nuts.

There are lots of videos out there. And audio files. Watch them. Listen. We’ve lost a giant.

His death bothered me, for some reason, much more than others. There is some evidence the Internet trolls got to him after his hand problems. Bottom line, the guy killed himself at the age of 71 when he couldn’t do the stuff he loved anymore. May we all find something to keep us going, always…forever, if we can.

Now, the book: this is the second of my attempts to break out of my conventional science/history/science fiction/fantasy reading material and branch out to people and places I would not have ordinarily encountered. The first book, The Wandering Falcon, took place on the Afghan-Pakistani border. This one takes place in Burma (now Mayanmar), and was suppressed for many years before becoming the first book by a Burmese writer to be translated into English.

The book starts with a nice description of people rushing to the rural Taungbyon Festival. It’s not a Christian pilgrimage, but it resembles it. This is one of a series of festivals for the spirits, the nats, who the people pray to for luck, or jobs, or raises, or love, or all of the above. If you’re poor, you can pray to nats yourself, but everyone agrees that it’s better to have a profession who knows what they’re doing intercede with the nats on your behalf.

One of the best of the spiritual mediums (the natkadaw) in town is a gay transvestite named Daisy Bond. Although he is in his fifties, Daisy Bond has a nice place near the temple for his clients to gather before and after the big processions to the temple to worship the nats, down to the river to bathe their holy images, to bring clothing for their images, and so on. After all, it costs a lot of money get a good slot in the procession (before all the crowds melt away instead of watching the rag-tag groups of less prosperous mediums), even more to feed the hordes who descend on your place, and still more to pay for the costumes you use to dress up and play-act as one of the nats as you foretell wonderful futures for all the people who rely on you to plan the months ahead. Why, it’s a miracle there’s a single kyat left over as compensation for Daisy’s life when the crowds have left. As for the pickpockets, well, Daisy warned them.

And if the wonderful things do not come to pass, it surely must be that the person has offended one of the nats or another. A hefty contribution next time will make it all right…

As the book goes on, the reader realizes that this sacred role is a refuge for gays, who would otherwise be subject to arrest and imprisonment. That’s why Daisy has become known as “Bond.” It took courage to wear makeup and high heels and a skirt in public, and when the police were called, Daisy whacked one of them with a high heel and swam to safety across the river, just like James Bond (p.31-32).

Now Daisy basks in honored glory. Outrageous feminine behavior is fine is you are channeling the great spirit of a female nat, and Daisy is one of the best. Daisy even had a young boyfriend named Min Min, a good-looking young man who has traded his independence (and manhood) for a subsidized existence as Daisy’s lover, sharing his bed and putting up with the abuse that the older man heaps upon the younger (p.58). It’s a game neither can win, and the verbal abuse increases because Daisy suspects (rightly) that Min Min has been enraptured by a young female singer whose family sings at the festival (p. 99).

The more Daisy looks for proof of Min Min’s love and devotion, the more Min Min fantasizes about following Pan Nyo’s financially stressed family from festival to festival as they raise a family of their own. The whole book comes to the point of no return when Min Min lies to Daisy about his “date” with Pan Nyo (p.125). Daisy, confused and rejected, is crushed.

Of course, poor Min Min underestimates how he looks to the rest of the girl’s relatives (and perhaps Pan Nyo herself). What work could Min Min do to support a family? Although well-off, he is, after all, dependent on an older, half-crazy gay guy. At the festival, this might be barely tolerable, but away from the service of the nats, well, it just would not work. I’ll leave it to readers to figure out who nurses Min Min back to health when he falls ill…in the end, the tribes are different, but, like last week’s book, the rules the people follow are still determined by the tribe, even in a dictatorship like Myanmar.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Riverhead Books, 2011) 243 pages.

WF Ahmad

 

Before I get into this little gem of a book, let me say a few words about why I hadn’t posted the past few weeks, and something else entirely, which involves the voyage of self-discovery that these essays have stimulated. Two weeks ago, I attended the annual Piper House writing conference at ASU called Desert Nights Rising Stars (DNRS: I keep thinking there should be a comma in the middle). Although the three days ended on a Saturday, the last thing I wanted to do that Sunday was sit and read or write. Last week, we had relatives in from the Midwest that my wife and I had not seen for years, so we spent a full weekend in their company, and even into Monday.

I also learned that I had become so accustomed to writing these essays during football games on the weekends that, after the Super Bowl, I had a hard time sitting down and concentrating without hearing complaints about refereeing. But that’s part of the process. I obviously wrote some of these book essays last spring, without the clash of helmets as a soundtrack. The entity that is Walter reader/writer lurches forward; the path is not always smooth.

And who cares, anyway? The last issue of the New Yorker (March 7, 2016, page 62ff) contains an essay by Nathan Heller about the whole procedure of “reviewing” books, in this case Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott. True, we have professionals who review movies, plays, music, and even food and places (I mean like Rome or Greece), but, as the article points out, “What’s the point of a reviewer in an age when everyone reviews?” Do books become bestsellers anymore, or movies become blockbusters, because a professional reviewer somewhere says they should? Unlikely, I think.

To be fair, the article starts from just the opposite: professionals have essential skills that “Blogging Bob” does not. Critics “know more,” they “can give a fair encapsulation of a work,” and are “decent writers” (!). But in the end, Heller thinks that organizations which dispense with professional critics in favor of a herd-like response to one work or another are shortsighted. A noble thought, but one not necessarily shared by Blogging Wally.

Then again, this is why I don’t call these things “book reviews.” They are…well, different. Writers don’t create words, I like to say: they create themselves. And now I see that readers don’t just passively absorb the thoughts of others: the very process of thinking about the words changes you in ways sometimes subtle, sometimes radical.

Was this a long way to get to this slim book? I guess. I found it in a list of books put together by another web commentator (I wish I remembered who) around New Years. The intent was to recommend books not set in the USA, but set in places all around the world, in cultures alien to the normal USA-based society based on the Bill of Rights and English Common Law.

But if we take away our rights and civil law, what do we have left? We have tribal rule and religious law, and that’s what many of the books on the list were about. Naturally, in the USA, we see our way of civil life as superior to the old tribal ways. But perhaps it’s not that simple. Our attempts to impose good old American values on other parts of the world have mostly ended in disaster. Are these people just stupid? Or is there something else going on that we just don’t realize?

The author of this book doesn’t think people are stupid, I can tell you that. Jamil Ahmad was born in 1931 (making him 85 in 2016) and spent many years in Pakistan’s Civil Service in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A lot of the tension in the book involves attempts before the Soviet invasion in 1980 to impose modern civil rule on the nomadic tribes that summered with their flocks and camels in the mountains and migrated to the plains to survive the winters.

The story follows a child (the “wandering falcon”) born from the union of the second wife of a tribal leader (a sardar) who is carried off by a wandering member of another tribe because he has fallen in love with her (p. 14). The fugitives seek refuge with soldiers in a border fort, and the first clue we aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto, is the distinction made by the local commander (the subedar), as he gives the pair water, between refuge and shelter. Offering refuge would offend the laws of the tribe, and the commander “will not come between a man and the laws of his tribe” (p. 6). Shelter is okay, however, and the couple can stay in an old abandoned building and be fed. However, it’s clear that if the woman’s family shows up, the couple and their newborn son are on their own.

Which is what happens, of course. After a chase, the “lover” kills the woman. Then the woman’s father, a tribal leader, and other tribesmen stone the lover to death (p.20). They won’t kill the boy, however, since he is the leader’s grandson. They leave him with the corpse of a camel at a waterhole. If God/Allah wills it, the boy will live.

The young Falcon is rescued there by a group of seven Baluch tribesmen on four camels (p. 27)who are rebels and outlaws because the “officers” (the government) of the district wanted power over the tribal chiefs, a right previously held only by the tribes themselves (p. 37). As a sign that times are changing, the seven think they have been invited to “talks” to defend their killing of government officials. But this “invite” results in a quick trial to condemn them to death (p.42). Confused because these strangers swear on a Koran instead of by a chief, and stunned that defending their way of life and killing those who challenge it is now taboo, the men regret only that “what died with them was part of the Baluch people themselves” (p. 47). And so the young Falcon ends up adopted into yet another FATA tribe.

One of the most poignant of the tales involves the closing of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the nomads. It sounds so simple to modern ears: you need documents to pass from one country to another. But when the nomads, numbering more than a million in total, try to winter in the warmer and wetter plains, the government turns them back to the cold mountains because they have no birth certificates or identification or health records (they don’t even have counts of animals) (p. 74). Naturally, conflict ensues and the only choice is to die quickly or slowly (p. 79).

These detailed episodes give the flavor of the book. As the Wandering Falcon grows to young manhood and marries at the end of the book, surprises await on every page. The tribes often lapse into violence and killing, true, but there are also built-in safeguards to prevent things from getting completely out-of-hand. For example, to raise money, you and some buddies might go into town and kidnap someone who will pay the $20,000 ransom (in local money), probably a doctor, a schoolteacher, or street cleaner (p. 128). The streetcleaners apparently have a union that will provide the, and how could the town endure being without their prized teacher?

But when my friends show up with only $18,000, there must be a week-long feast while we negotiate. Only then will you decide that $20,000 it must be, but with a $2,000 discount given because you are such a magnanimous spirit and it is a worthy gesture.

By the end of the book, I was convinced that we all, even in the USA, often obey not only civil rules, but tribal and religious rules as well. These can be established by our peers in school, or our circle of friends, or our minister or priest or rabbi, or our motorcycle gang, or our political party. But we break the rules governing our expected behavior only at our own peril.

 

The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley

The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley (Simon & Schuster, 2015), 380 pages.

TRM Buckley

Today, we think of a “relic” as a piece of a discarded past, an object to be considered as obsolete as a buggy whip, something to be regarded as we wonder that people ever really cared for the relic in the first place. But in the early 1500s, specifically the year 1517 and a couple of years following, a relic was an object of veneration, tied to an “indulgence” that could trim as much as 500 years in purgatory off a soul’s torment after death before being admitted to paradise for eternity. Indulgences had a value all their own, although often tied to relics, and were bought the way we buy stocks today. The purchase price went toward building new basilicas and palaces for the Catholic Church, including Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and much of the rest of the Vatican.

Nothing prevented dukes and princes and other royalty in Europe from collecting relics of saints and martyrs on their own. The toe, a rib, or even the skull of a saint would do. The royals collected money from pilgrims who wished to honor or view or pray to the relic. And the more relics you had in the vault of the palace church, the more popular your place became as the last stop of the pilgrimage, complete with a feast and a fair and markets to sell to for everyone.

Today, many people think of relics in terms of Christianity, but many varieties of “holy objects” such as icons have always attached themselves to religions, and likely always will. (The exception might be Islam, which forbids not only portraits of Mohammed, but representations of any person or animal to discourage idolatry, leaving mosques with little choice but to decorate with intense geometrical patterns.) In the New Testament (Acts 19:23 and after), when Paul comes to Ephesus to preach about Jesus, a silversmith named Demetrius organizes a protest because he fears that Paul will forbid the selling and purchase of the little “shrines” that make of the goddess Artemis (Diana in the King James version). The crowd, incensed, riot and cry, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” If the silversmiths had just been smart enough to wait and say they were making “shrines” of the Virgin Mary, who would have cared?

Of course, the Medieval practice of indulgences meant that there had to be a constant supply of newly uncovered relics, procured by a professional “Relic Master” with an eye good enough to detect frauds and fakes (but not a good enough eye so that he starves to death from lack of business).

In Buckley’s book, Dismas, named after one of the thieves crucified with Christ, is relic master to both Frederick III “the Wise,” Elector of Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire, and Albrecht of Brandenburg, Elector, Archbishop of Magdeburg, and Cardinal Archbishop of Mainz. After Dismas attends a great “relic faire” in Basel (there is a nice map on the endpapers of the book), he is shocked to find a beat-up boat with obvious salt-water worm damage being passed off as Saint Peter’s fishing boat from the fresh-water Sea of Galilee (p.8). He makes a speech about the need to make sure the relic is authentic (it should, for example, always smell sweet, even if it’s the mummified thumb of a holy hermit). But no one listens to Dismas, presumably because they realize, one and all, that the market must expand to fill the inexhaustible need for sinners to purchase indulgences.

Albrecht wanted quantity in relics (he had a great desire for Dismas to find weapons, such as the sword that decapitated Saint Maurice: p. 11) while Frederick, who already sheltered some 19,000 relics back home in Wittenberg, wanted quality (such as the teeth or skull fragments of Saint Bartholomew: p.9).

Frederick also sheltered something else very much wanted in 1517: Martin Luther. But Frederick, who otherwise remained a devout Catholic and follower of the Pope, had no intention of turning Luther over to the church for “questioning” (that is, torture), mainly for political reasons. Naturally, this protection allowed Luther to circulate his (then) heretical ideas about indulgences and priests and sacraments far and wide, a necessary condition for this fledgling “protestant” movement to succeed.

Even more historical characters appear in the book (there is a nice section with short biographies starting on page 373). Paracelsus, the first modern doctor who championed the use of opium as a painkiller and mercury compounds to treat syphilis, makes an appearance (under his real name, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim), as does Albrecht Dürer, possibly the only German painter who could compete with the Italians.

The book takes off when Dismas realizes that relic collectors don’t care if the boats or swords or teeth are real, just that they appear to be real. So when Dismas is fleeced of his “retirement” savings, he decides to recoup by making and selling a copy of the revered Shroud of Chambéry, which we know today as the Shroud of Turin (p. 373). (The discovery and analysis of another burial shroud of Jesus is story told in the prologue and epilogue that frames the story of Dismas: supposedly, the book explains this finding of another shroud in a Pope’s tomb in Rome.)

Dismas had hired his friend Dürer to create the fake. However, Elector Albrecht, who buys the fake to help finance his quest for a cardinalship, finds out he has been duped. As a result, Dismas is given a penance that basically forces him to steal the “real” Shroud of Chambéry and deliver it to Albrecht. Dismas twists Dürer’s arm to accompany him, and together they journey to Chambéry. Along with them are three soldiers (p. 133): Cunrat, Nutker, and Unks. These are really the Three Stooges, with Moe as the slightly smarter leader Cunrat, Larry as Nutker, and Curly as the hapless and clueless Unks.

Without giving too much away, the five travelers rescue a female apothecary in the Black Forest, but kill a pursuing count with a concoction of this newfangled gunpowder. But the dead count’s identity and signet ring, bestowed on Dürer, helps when they get to Chambéry. Unfortunately, they find that they are not the only ones who have come not to worship the sacred shroud, but to steal it. This process of moving relics is called “translation,” and the ultimate proof that the relic really wants to move from, say, Chambéry to Turin, is that the sacred relic allowed it to happen(!).

Once the heist takes place, the book threatens to devolve into farce in several places. That it doesn’t is mainly due to Buckley’s keeping it moving and twisting the plot into several forms of pretzel. This does not mean that this book is for everyone, and I mainly enjoyed the depiction of medieval life and culture. There is some discrete sex and lots of violence, but the book avoids raping unwilling women (why bother, with so many willing wenches and whores about?) and looking too starkly inside the castle’s dungeon (it’s damp, I tell you). An appendix (p. 377) does a nice job of assembling the sources used.

The ending leaves open the possibility of more adventures for Dismas, perhaps in the New World, and I wouldn’t mind spending more time with him. Then again, Dismas tends to be kind of prissy in places and should lighten up a bit. He could take lessons in this from Magda the saved apothecary and Dürer the carefree painter.

The Arrow of Sherwood by Lauren Johnson

The Arrow of Sherwood by Lauren Johnson (Pen and Sword, 2013) 306 pages.

TAOS Johnson

Here we have an absolutely realistic take on the Robin Hood – or Robin of Locksley, to give his noble name –legend and his deeds. The problem is in the stripping Robin of all the impossibilities inherent in his legend, like the bumbling efforts of the Sheriff of Nottingham to catch Robin or anyone from his gang of outlaws (which is exactly what they were, of course) or even locate their camp (and its fires) in Sherwood Forest. If you strip Robin Hood of his daring exploits, you also strip much of the allure and romance from the legend. And when legend and fact conflict, as they said in the old Man Who Shot Liberty Valance movie, print the legend.

That’s not to say this is a poor book. In fact, it’s very good, both as historical novel and story. It’s just not much of a story about the adventures of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men during the days when King John ruled while his older brother King Richard the Lionheart was off on the Third Crusade and then in captivity in Germany when imprisoned on his way home.

There are a lot of twists that Johnson adds that work to transform the dashing Robin Hood into the wronged nobleman Robin of Locksley. The book seems scrupulously researched, and Johnson has a degree in history from Oxford. What liberties she took with the topology of Nottinghamshire are outlined in a note on pages 304 and 305: mainly the transformation of Newstead Abbey from a convent under an Abbess into a monastery under an Abbot for Friar Tuch (note the spelling) to inhabit. Oddly, we don’t really know who the Sheriff in Nottinghamshire was in the 1190s, but this allows Johnson to come up with an interesting twist on theme outlaw-authority theme.

For one thing, this Robin Hood is a murderer. A “wastrel,” as the blurb says, he’s killed man in a drunken haze. His trip to the Holy Land on crusade is not a noble undertaking: it’s a penance for his sins. Not only that, but a rumor spreads that Robin is dead in the East, and so Robin’s lands are taken away and given to his mother’s husband, Sir Walter Peverill, who just happens to be the Sheriff of Nottingham. But Johnson’s sheriff is not evil: he’s actually a nice guy who does what he can to mitigate the heavy hand of the royal and church authorities (and give Robin all the slack he needs to perform his acts of justice). The real bad guys are the Norman Viponts, who waste no chance to lord it over the conquered English by imprisoning tax evaders and torturing anyone who opposes them.

In this book, Sir Walter is Maid Marian’s father, and now she and Robin, once betrothed, are step-siblings! Marian is now betrothed to a noble named Sir Guy, who is about as hostile to the returned Robin as possible. (Remember, if Guy marries Marian, daughter of Sir Walter, holder of Locksley Hall, then Robin will likely not inherit, whether he’s legally re-made eligible or not.)

All this adds an element of family tension to the story, already a classic case of class conflict between the Norman lords and English subjects. In case you think this conflict should be somewhat subdued, the Norman Conquest of 1066 was about as far in the past as the US Civil War was from today…and there are still plenty of tensions and conflict around because of that.

The lower classes suffer from harsh taxation and the letter of the King’s law (as interpreted by John). Even the well-off and nobles suffer, and not for nothing did they force the Magna Carta on King John, although this happened many years after this book ends. You can read more about bad old King John (a name never used again for a king of England) and his times in King John and The Greatest Knight.

If Robin wants his land and status back, he can easily go along with the powers in the land, or he can take the risky strategy of looking up his old low-life friends from his “wastrel” days and work with them against the system. Needless to say, this is what Robin does. He uses his old contacts to encourage dissent and outright law-breaking, and slowly builds up a gang of outlaws hiding out in the woods.

So this is more Robin Hood as Batman, the caped crusader (literally) fighting for truth and justice the medieval way (okay, that’s Superman, but still…). There is an elaborate plot to break the captured “merry men” out of the dungeon, helped by the odd circumstance that Will Scarlette is now Robin’s half-brother and his virtually identical twin. But I cannot believe that the evil nobles, once they catch one of the outlaws like Little John, would repeatedly leave the captives in Robin’s care, only to be told they had managed to escape. I can swallow this once, but it seems to happen with alarming regularity. Naturally, it seems that everyone in the region knows who this mysterious friend of the common people actually is, but the people responsible for catching Robin are unrelentingly clueless.

Now, if all this makes the legend of Robin Hood more like a modern thriller or even courtroom drama, that’s exactly what it felt like to me too. I’m not sure this more prosaic Robin Hood works for me. As historical novel, this book is great. You’ll learn a lot about medieval life. But as a retelling of the Robin Hood legend, I’m not so sure.

American Blood by Ben Sanders

American Blood by Ben Sanders (Minotaur Books, 2015) 339 pages

AB Sanders

I bought this book because I thought it would be interesting the read a thriller/crime book written by a New Zealander about events in New Mexico, specifically Santa Fe and Albuquerque. I did wonder why a writer from New Zealand would think that New Mexico is filled with raging drug dealers and gangs who go around terrorizing everyone and murdering and torturing as they liked. Then I realized the answer: Breaking Bad. People probably think that show is some kind of documentary.

My own memories of central New Mexico are different. My memories of Santa Fe involve Georgia O’Keefe landscapes and colorful bluffs. My impressions of Albuquerque are of the pastel blues and reds of the highways (yes, the highways) and sharing an elevator and breakfast with Britney Spears at the Doubletree hotel downtown, after I caught her show at the big mall across town (now, there’s a story…she was really small and talkedreallyfast, like that).

I didn’t spend a lot of time in either place looking for drugs or bad guys, but I’m sure the area is a lot less violent than Sander’s book makes it out to be. The blurb mentions the book and movie No Country for Old Men, but the country in this book has no old men at all: I doubt anyone of the crooks who bother people or the cops who chase them could possibly survive long enough to reach old age.

That’s not to say that Sanders is not a good writer, or that the book is unbelievable. The book moves right along, and you can blast through it. Many scenes are dialog-heavy, and the chapters are only a few thousand words long. There are three main point-of-view characters: the hero, a local narcotics police woman, and one of the main bad guys. The hero is Marshall, an ex-Special Forces and New York cop who ends up in witness protection in Santa Fe. The book blurb says he is “racked with guilt” and “seeking atonement” but I didn’t see any of that in the book itself. I think old Marshall is just the kind of action junkie that drives books like this forward. It could probably be a series (the story ends with that possibility) with Marshall Grade as Jack Reacher, but no human could survive the risky business that Marshall indulges in day after day. (In fairness, the action takes place over a bit more than 48 hours, so maybe this mayhem only happens occasionally.)

The local narc is a woman named Lauren Shore who drinks a lot because she lost her son Liam when he chased some burglars from the house and they shot him (page 17 and 270). Welcome to vigilante America, the book seems to say: this is the greatest country in the world, but you aren’t safe in your own home unless you’re packing heat at all times.

The third POV character is Rojas. He’s in it only for the money, and betrays his boss when the boss (Leon) assassinates a wounded comrade instead of risking taking him to the hospital. Then they chop several people up in the basement and dissolve them in acid. This is instead of, you know, putting them in the secret room with Alyce Ray and rest of the women they have captured because they might be witnesses, or just because they liked the way they looked (seriously: that’s all on page 329). But I had a hard time swallowing Rojas’s sudden attack of squeamishness.

The three main characters are joined now and then by a federal marshal who is Marshall’s witness protection contact and an assassin from New York who is sent out to see if Marshall might be around. The fed’s main role seem to be to help the heroes when it would be absolutely impossible to believe that one man (or woman) could take out four or five really bad folks. It’s fun, but often resorts to the old James Bond problem: the good guys always kill the bad guys, but the bad guys always tie the good guys up because they don’t want blood on the carpet or whatever. 🙂

The New York bad guy is “the Dallas Man” who is sent to wipe out a rival gang and find Marshall for the NY mob, if he’s around. He is, and this cold-blooded killer has a young daughter who he calls right after a hit. At first I found this touch repulsive, and then I kind of liked that this reptilian killer could have any emotions at all.

What happened in NY that sent Marshall out to New Mexico for protection? He went undercover as a fake crooked cop and was forced to either blow his cover or ignore a great injustice (to reveal more would be a major spoiler). The story is told in chapter-section flashbacks that occur at an increasing pace as the book goes on. I almost missed them because the “2010” header to flag flashbacks is only regular text that has been bolded. They are on pages 74, 149, 176, 214, 239, 258, and 273. I liked that device, and writers can learn a lot about pacing and handling back story from Sanders.

Sanders writes well too. I flagged some really nice passages: “One of those mornings when she woke and it was nearly twelve. Still dressed and laid diagonally on tangled sheets, her feet at the pillow and a thin stripe of sunlight across the darkened room.” And this: “She went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror, finger-combed her hair. She put an inch of water in the glass that stood at the basin and knocked it back like a shot.” Both of these are on page 60, and haven’t we all had a morning or two like that?

The biggest issue I had with the book was the reason that Marshall risks his life over and over to help a missing local girl named Alyce Ray. Alyce’s photo reminds him of someone in New York (a lover) the book reminds us over and over, but I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason to blaze a path of destruction up and down I-25. Speaking of I-25, I checked most of the geographical clues about New York and New Mexico and they show that, if Sanders has never been to either place, the Internet can make you an expert on a lot of things.

But I didn’t get the whole thing about Marshall and Stella beer (page 4 and 309). I know it’s big in New Zealand, but I can’t recall ever seeing anyone sipping one in a dive bar anywhere. If you want someone not to know where you come from by the beer you drink (the supposed Stella reason), get a Bud Light.

Also, please don’t have a character named Marshall and other characters who are New Mexico Marshals. My eye ground to halt every time I saw that in print: is that one “l” or two? Marshall or the Marshal?

Bottom line, if you want to find new ways to kill (cutlery—forks and spoons—play a major role on pages 80 and 201) or find out addresses with social engineering (page 238), all wrapped in a well-written package, this is the book for you.

The Explorers Guild by Jon Baird, Kevin Costner, and Rick Ross

The Explorers Guild: Volume One: A Passage to Shambhala by Jon Baird, Kevin Costner, and Rick Ross (Atria Books, 2015) 770 pages

TEG Baird Costner Ross

Okay, before I go any further: READ THIS BOOK. You may love it, or hate it (35% of reviewers on Amazon give it one or two stars), but it deserves your attention. Many of the “bad” reviews have to do with the fact that this tome is almost impossible to read as an ebook and has compatibly issues with many ebook readers, and there is no warning of this to prospective buyers. The book combines elements of graphic novels with traditional text (early 20th Century text, that is) and is printed on tinted paper made to look old and stained…which makes it hard to tell the real stains…but why are you reading books with messy fingers and a leaky Starbucks cups in the first place? However, sloppy or neat, READ THIS BOOK (as a real book: you’ll be glad you did).

This is a book with lots of elbow room. It makes not one concession to “best seller concerns” and I envy it for that. It’s honest and real…the vocabulary is demanding and unrelenting, the long sentences loopy and interminable, the dialog in languages other than English is never translated, and readers are expected to be conversant enough with happenings and cultural touchstones from more than 100 years ago to follow the action and speeches. Speaking of dialog, be prepared to tackle English dialect and phrasing (after a while, it’s sort of like listening to Keith Richards ramble for several days in a row). Several reviewers, stymied by what looks at first glance like an easy adventure tale for teens, abandoned the book in a hundred pages or so. Which is a shame, because the scope of the book increases as the story unfolds and all loose ends come together in an ending that is both extremely satisfying and holds great promise for the rest of the series. This is, after all, Volume One.

So far so good, but what’s the book about? Basically, Word War One has broken out in 1914 not only because of the Sarajevo assassination, but because humans have penetrated the sacred precincts of the holy city of Shambhala, which appears in different places at different times all over the world. The Great War can only end when balance is restored and what has been taken from the traveling city is returned. One of the interlopers is Arthur Ogden, who sets out on a quest from the Explorers Guild in New York to find the Northwest Passage, but which journey turns into a farce and forms one of the longest textual passages in the book—keep with it: it becomes more graphical as it goes on. Sole survivor Ogden (or is he?) returns from a sighting of the sacred city suffering from some strange wasting disease. In desperation, his sister Fanny in New York summons their younger brother John Ogden to find out how to cure their sibling, with clues provided in the form of a mysterious Mr. Sloane, who obviously knows much more than he is telling.

Major Ogden comes with forty followers/deserters, and much of the book traces their travels as they collect the survivors of incursions into Shambhala, a misadventure that has rendered them all hopelessly mad unless brain surgery is performed. Their memories can be probed for clues about the fabled city, but at least two other groups, one led by Mr. Sloane and the other by Brother Polisson, a member of a “non-religious” order of black-robed monks, want to deflect Ogden from his quest. As the forty hearty souls shrinks to fewer than ten, these battle-weary and hardened men became more familiar and endearing to me than many of the guests seated around my table at Thanksgiving. When one or another is lost or wounded or worse, you feel it deeply, and there is no better thing to say about a book, I think. And pay close attention to young Mr. Renton, will you?

That’s not to say the book is a flawless masterpiece (masterpiece, yes; flawless, no). Most of the dangling threads come together nicely, but I could not find closure for one of the key details that sets up the grand finale. The point I’m talking about is on page 681 and referenced again on page 722, but I couldn’t find anything earlier to start this line of reasoning. It just seemed awfully ad hoc to me, as in “Here’s how we get them moving toward Nepal.” And I don’t know how much of it Kevin Costner actually wrote, because the style is almost completely Jon Baird’s as near as I can tell (Rick Ross did the illustrations). But I don’t care if Costner didn’t pen a word and settled for putting his name to an ambitious project—the details of how this came to be are told starting on page 765. But if Costner’s name means more people will hear of and read this book, then I wish there were six more famous names associated with it.

There is no real character development in the traditional sense: the stalwart soldier John Ogden remains stalwart to the end, just as Sherlock Homes remains a great detective even as he spills over the falls and is revived later. Brother Arthur seems just as ditzy as a hapless explorer as he is as the penitent monk he becomes. Handsome and eager Corporeal Buchan remains handsome and eager. And so on. Also, there is an entire character, the young Russian/English/American actress/mistress/prostitute Ms. Harrow, who seems to exist only because without her, we are back to Lawrence of Arabia movie lands with essentially no speaking parts for women other than dining room servants who shriek with proper Victorian outrage when the soldiers ruffle their petticoats.

The blurb promises a return to the “golden age of adventure stories” and conjures up Kipling’s India as the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire as easily the graphical style evokes the crazy adventures of Tintin. It is surely that, and more. Parts of the story will stick with you after you’ve put it down, not only Corporeal Buchan (pronounced “Buck-an”) and his mission to Al-Shar that kicks the journey off in Book I, but the only great battle of the book that takes place in an underground ship’s graveyard (you read that right) that starts on page 619, and the troop’s adventures in the city of Gryzha that is reached on page 643.

There is also the odd fact that all the main characters are undeniably British, but not one second of action takes place in England. There are long sections that take place in New York City and in upstate New York, but one of the best episodes takes place in the old Singer Tower, which was torn down in 1968 to make room for the multi-building World Trade Center complex. Here the old aristocracy of Europe has gathered to wait out the war, too besotted and feeble to stop Ogden’s army from looting their liquor supply and even their coats as they await the German zeppelin that will take Ogden’s crew to Romania. It is also a bit disconcerting that the major players can split up repeatedly and come together halfway around the world so easily. Never mind that all this seems improbable: even this book’s shortcomings are better than most other book’s highlights.

Bonus book revelation: The Ogden family estate in New York (another improbable American/English juxtaposition) is supposedly at a place called “Lowring-on-Hudson.” There is no such place, however, and the latitude and longitude coordinates given on page 361 (43 degrees 55’ 8“ N, 73 degrees 36’ 30” W) are nowhere near the Hudson River. But when the villains flee south towards Staatsburg and are chased on horseback, these can be corrected to 41 degrees 55’ 8“ N, 73 degrees 56’ 30” W (take 2 from the 43 and add 20 to the 36). This corresponds to a bit east of Rhinecliff, which is indeed on the Hudson and near the famous Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome featuring WW I aircraft.