Reread, again: The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy G Kay

I don’t read much fantasy. I really don’t. The reason is simple – I have a hard time suspending my disbelief when it comes to the supernatural or fantastic. Such stories are, to me, deux ex machina-devices stacked on top of each other, nothing more. Therefore it might be surprising that the only two books that I’ve read to pieces are… fantasy genre books – the first were Lord of the Rings (yes, I’ll call them one book, even it it’s six books in three volumes), which I read again and again until covers and bindings fell apart. That was when I was 12. The second one is The Lions of Al-Rassan.

Admittedly, the binding isn’t very good – it’s a trade paperback. None the less it’s starting to fall apart. So, why does it get treated to repeated reading?

First, the Moorish era and the way it has influenced European culture and “science”, and how it fed the Christian movement, through reasons of fear, backfed for political reasons, interests me and I think Kay has succeeded in using the historical events in a good way; using it to discuss loyalty, friendship, tolerance, and politics – how spin is used to whip up hatred or to keep the public focus away from important matters. Clearly a mirror of our own times – of all times – and extra relevant in these times of War on Terror, of war and fear against anything that isn’t an exact copy of oneself.

Second, for some reason I just love the pretentiousness of the text. The way the words are weaved aspires to poetry, and sometimes it gets a bit construed, or close to being an academic exercise in form and style, but I don’t care because the images are elaborate as the carvings and mosaics of a Moorish castle and evoking real life memories I have of harsh dry cliffs, scorching sun and lush orange grooves; winding labyrinthine alleys, surprising courtyards; the scent of olive groves, thyme and rosemary; star-roofed Arab baths, and the horse shoe arches of Cordoba…

Most people gets irritated on the low quality poetry. I don’t, and for two main reasons – a) I skip it. Read most of it the first time around, and never again – just like I do in any book featuring verse (yes, I skip it in LoTR as well), and b) because some of it is very close to originals penned by Moorish poets, over 1500 years ago. And having read some of those originals I can only say that either they are only readable in their original language, or styles have changed over the millennia. Or maybe both? ;-) In any case I don’t think they’re truly intended to be astonishing poetry but to add texture and ambience. Which is well enough.

Most people also gets irritated by the improbability of the friendship between the main characters, not to mention the love story. I’m not. Perhaps I’m biased by my agreement over the general message – people are people, whatever their heritage or belief – or perhaps I’m just plain blind. I don’t know. But through the story we see two of the main protagonists turn from many-layered individuals into mere placeholders, marionettes, tools for their respective sides, none of which they totally agree with. Sorrow and grief follows, as expected. And at the very last we are shown hope – that coexistence is possible… and that war is not a means to achieve that.

So perhaps the reason I like the book so much is that while it’s well written, well told, and evocative of personal physical memories of place most of all it verifies and validates my personal philosophy; something that might be comfy and cosy, but not especially worthy. But as long as I don’t overdose on it I think a shot of hope every now and then is needed, to sustain life.

I will read this book again. I know it – and admit it – without shame.

Review: The search for the perfect language, by Umberto Eco

I enjoyed this book. There’s only one problem with it – I’m not erudite enough to make it the fast read it should be; it’s so stuffed with information I had to stop every fourth page or so to digest what I’ve read.

Eco states in the preface that it is written with the layperson in mind, but his idea of a layperson knows way much more about linguistics and the history thereof than I do. Apparently. Even if he also states that this is not a book on linguistics but on the history of ideas, which it is, in part – he sketches a history of European thought during the most recent 1000 of the years that led us to be where we are today, using the search for the perfect language and how the idea changed and evolved throughout that millennia as a method for dissemination. This gets especially interesting when he links it with the industrial revolution, the evolution from alchemy to science, and the formation of the nation states and colonisation.

In the conclusion he tells the reader that the discussion could had been even more interesting if he’d included extra-European though and efforts on the topic. I cannot but agree and I’m sure I’m going to seek out some book elaborating on this.

As for now I’m glad I pressed through and actually read the book through, but I’m also glad it’s over. Recommended reading for everyone with an interest in linguistics and European history of ideas. Everyone else is allowed to spend their time on something else.

Review: Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Some books are well nigh impossible to review. Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is one of them. My reason for this feeling is this is so very obviously the first of the three books in the Mars Trilogy – the stage setting, the laying of the foundation for more to come…

As such it is a good one, I think.

In many ways this is Big Ideas fiction, and I’m an avid fan of every book that makes me think. The grandness of the scale is impressive, a multi-decade storyline involving a lot of people, both as individuals and as pieces in a jigsaw too big for them to fathom. The main characters are mostly scientists, with little idea of how they and their side taking affects the world or how they and their ideas will come back at them, with a political twist.

The way the story plays out is plausible, if depressing, but I am eager to get to know how this social, economic and political experiment will develop.

On the down side this is very clearly about people and systems of people – normally known as “societies” and their close kin “political systems” and “economic system” – and not about individuals. Sure, we follow certain characters, but in a distanced third person, and only for a short while – the story is told from multiple perspectives, and these perspectives shifts every now and then. These characters are there to illustrate different viewpoints and different ideas about who to tackle a situation, and sometimes this is too obvious.

Sometimes the text feels like an embellished piece of non fiction, veritable info dumps that gets no less info dumpish by being real science.

Finally, the text is somewhat dated. It plays out in a reality where the US and Russia were still THE dominant actors. This, honestly, doesn’t bother me much. Politics is politics, just like economics is economics – the name tags are not as important as the actual system, and the basic premise that he stipulates is not that far fetched.

All in all it works quite well and at the moment I’m staring at the door waiting for the next instalment – Green Mars – to be delivered; the SF bookshop was out of stock, so I had to order it from another source. (I do favour brick’n’mortar bookshops, I want them to stay in business, so I try to use those I particularly fancy. No luck this time, though.)

I should say that this is not a book to read as distraction. It needs a focussed mind to work, as evidenced by the fact that I had to put it down for a while – since my previous post here I’ve had planned tonsillectomy, followed by high levels of pain and its mitigator (codeine based painkillers, yuk /but that’s another story/) and what felt like a fried brain. During that time – almost two weeks – I either didn’t read at all, or did feel-good rereads.

I’m very glad that I picked Red Mars up again, as it ultimately was a rewarding read.