Review: The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today, Alison Weir

Rating: 2 out of 5

I was hoping this would be on par with some other works by Alison Weir I’ve read, but I really can’t recommend this short story to anyone. It is without purpose and direction, and while it grasps a historic sense of the moment in the events described, it is without that feeling one expects from a story.

Review: All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

All the King's MenAll the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book took me a long while, indeed a lot longer than I would have thought originally. This stemmed from the author’s style which was rather complex and long-winded. I do not mind this, but I caution anyone going for the novel that if this does not sound like your thing, this book might be especially hard going. Continue reading “Review: All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren”

Review: ‘Dangerous Women’, George R.R. Martin

Dangerous WomenDangerous Women by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to say, rating a collection is tough as it can obviously be very variable in quality. I found this here — a few of the stories were breathtaking in their intensity and beauty while others (the majority, regrettably) not nearly as interesting. For personal reasons, I found the stories which touched on the historic aspect a bit more thrilling but in general the variety was commendable. Continue reading “Review: ‘Dangerous Women’, George R.R. Martin”

Review: ‘Odd and the Frost Giants’, Neil Gaiman

Odd and the Frost GiantsOdd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a delightful tale of old Scandinavia and a winter that people dread. Reading it right after ‘American Gods’ made me think of a bit different an Odin than this tale gives us, but this is foremost a children’s tale as well and the witty animals that entertain us belong here exactly as they are written. More than that, this really is a happy story and I don’t think much else needs to be said: read it.

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Review: ‘Ivanhoe’, sir Walter Scott

IvanhoeIvanhoe by Walter Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ivanhoe is a classic. Yet, it is a classic of the early 19th century which is something we need to bear in mind while reading the novel. Undoubtedly, however, it is also one of the first books (in its many editions and re-translations) which got me into historical fiction and therefore I have some special history with it. Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I took it up again. Continue reading “Review: ‘Ivanhoe’, sir Walter Scott”

‘The Wind Rises’, H Miyazaki

I saw this film only recently, and while I am still considering some of what it showed in the story, I was more hoping to comment on the aspect of a Hayao Miyazaki film in general — for this was the first one I had the pleasure of watching. Maybe this was not the best one to start with, but maybe the others are fairly similar. What I do know is that I enjoyed it, and I would like to watch more of his works.

Why I enjoyed it is a different question — ‘The Wind Rises’ has a very interesting subject matter, the Mitsubishi Zero. Not knowing the engineers who designed it previously by name or anything else, I was able to divine that in the first few minutes of the film. I am not sure whether that was a good or a bad thing, but past that point it always felt to me as if I knew what was about to happen. After finishing, I had the feeling that I had seen it beforehand despite knowing it was the first time. It was a very weird feeling, trying to sustain belief in these thoughts whilst seeing that what went on in the show was moving in the same direction as my mind wanted to take it.

In addition to the previous, it constantly felt to me as the cultural references and borrowings were familiar, or at least some of them. It is difficult to describe what I mean, but say the theme of the film, the ‘Das gibt’s nur einmal, kommt nicht wieder’ song played in my mind for a long long time afterwards. I looked it up to see whether I had known it before (and I can’t divine anything obvious on whether I can).

My conclusion is that the film was a whole, a whole so beautiful and fitting that it all fit together perfectly, creating the sensation of familiarity — quite possibly one of the best gifts that any entertainment can have.

The ForeWorld Books

A man did not need to understand the words to know what was being said. Music, like violence, crossed all languages.

I have been absent for a long time, but I would hope that this post is a worthy reintroduction. Namely, of the books I have read over the last few months the books in the ForeWorld saga are the ones which I would consider best. Best for several reasons, that is, and the last of those would be the quality of the writing. Do not misunderstand me here, the books are written well but individually they are all far weaker than the universe together, a true sum of the parts being more than the parts individually.

So, what is ForeWorld? ForeWorld is an alternative history series of books that spans many years — I have only managed to acquaint myself with the ones that deal with the Medieval Era thus far, and I have not read all of them. I have gone through the five-part main series though, starting with ‘Mongoliad’ that spans three books, and continues in ‘Katabasis’ and ‘Siege Perilous’. I have also read approximately six of the SideQuests which introduce new or existing characters in greater detail.

The message in the books is vague while I am trying to pin it down right now, but reading all of the books gave me an understanding of something. The storyline that continues from the first book to the fifth one is so loosely connected in some ways and yet more binding than anything that could have been created.

The other bit which impresses me so very much is the fact that the story, while not unrealistic in the sense of success/failure, feels as if it is highly unlikely. And there it starts to differ from so many other highly unlikely quests that we have read about (say Frodo to Mt Doom) for in ForeWorld death is common and people know the value of their lives. Some battles are worth it while others are not.

The main protagonists are knights of a military order, Of the Virgin Defender, which is created as a mythical and mystical home for the magical warriors and is generally referred to as the Shield Brethern. The members are all different, a master strategist, a healer, warriors, longbowman, and so forth. The Order began apparently in the Greek times when it was created as a way to embrace and worship Athena in fighting under her name and banner, and then later converted to the Christian ways — ensuring that not all of the members care that much about the Church.

The antagonists are far more varied in character and ability. Some of them are ephemeral (drinking) while others are far more defined (Knights of the Livonian Sword Brethern). Likewise, it is very difficult to give a good overview of them without going into much detail but suffice to say they are thorough in their attempts to do what is good for themselves (as everyone generally does).

What is the main quest, you may be wondering at this point… These knights of the Shield Brethern are such grandiose warriors that in 1240, when Hordes of Mongols threatened to swamp Europe under their hooves, they formed a party with the explicit reason of riding into the far East and finding the Mongol Khan of Khans. And killing him.

Seems slightly insane, doesn’t it?

And, yet, why it feels strange is probably because of the scope of thought involved. What can man not do? Why is this not the way forward?

“How strange it is that we who claim to rule the earth so rarely chance to touch it.”

Maybe what I like most is the fact that a lot of the characters have their own weird sense of humour which sometimes comes up with profound sayings whilst most of the time it is not as sophisticated. The story and the characters feel real, and that is the best that can be said about anything.

Each of our lives have no meaning, except that which we give them by our deeds, and by how our comrades remember us.

‘The Deluge’, H. Sienkiewicz

As promised, I wished to write some more about ‘The Deluge’. I am quite a fan of the writings of Henryk Sienkiewicz, and I do like this book some more than the others. ‘Pan Wolodyjowski’ is good as well, especially since the steppe landscape talks to me when I read those scenes. But for now, of the second book.

So the Swedes have arrived, and let us pray to the gods that someone would be good and gracious enough to re-enact a Kircholm. But it is not to happen (or if it is, then not yet!), and the Swedes, Russians, Prussians, Hungarians, Tartars, and even internal traitors are all forcing their claws into the Commonwealth. What we see is an immense breakdown of discipline and order, only reversed when the people turn back to their faith.

It is the Christian and Catholic aspect of the book that I don’t entirely appreciate, but I can see why Sienkiewicz wrote it in that fashion. His did write in a Romantic era where nationalism was on the rise, and this very same religion helped foster a sense of Polishness.

In many ways though, the author also transcended that plain narrative by bringing in a sense of the future. It is very similar to what Ryotaro Shiba does in his books, although Shiba’s style is better and the tangents that the narrative takes are less controlled. Yet, Sienkiewicz succeeds in what he tries — especially powerful for me is the moment where he describes how the Marshal Lubomirski was to decide what to do with his men and armies.

That indeed, I believe, is one of the finest things to come through to the reader. The power and might of a Polish magnate, and yet how in essence they are no different from any other nobleman. Jeremi Wisniowecki was the magnate in the first book, and he was terrifying in essence. A good leader, a gracious lord, and a vicious enemy. Now we have the Radziwills, the Sapiehas, ┬áthe Lubomirskis, Czarnieckis, and so forth — all of these with their own agendas and wishes. It is clear to me at least that what the author laments is a lacking sense of unity.

But how could unity be found if everyone aspires towards their own personal glory? Could it be that this unity is as much a part of everyone but only needs a chance to gather around something, someone… the something being Catholicism and the someone their good and gracious King Jan II Kazimirz.

In the end though, we return to the argument that Lubomirski made in this book with his head. How about taking two glasses made of crystal, filling them with wine & vodka, and drinking to the bottom only to break those glasses against one’s own head? I can see that scene play out in my mind, and I think that it would have been a moment to behold. Allegiance is there in the hearts of everyone, and money — if for a moment — is not a factor to be considered.

‘Harakiri: Death of a Samurai’

While I was planning to write of ‘The Deluge’ today, I think that has to wait for another day. The why is related to a movie I watched this evening, ‘Harakiri: Death of a Samurai’. Admittedly, I think the English title is a bit of an overkill, but the movie itself was superb.

I will, however, begin with a bit of a backstory that I’ve dug up. It would seem that this film from 2011 is a remake of a 1962 version by Masaki Kobayashi. I read through the synopsis for that, and it seemed slightly different in details if not in the end result. I do believe I would like to see that as well. That, in turn, was adopted from a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi. I am quite sure the novel would also make for an interesting read.

What then was the thing to appreciate in this movie?

I think there is a particular slowness, elegance, and grace that is inherent in Japanese movies (assuming they have been done at least above average). In this specific instance, this elegance assumed the form of an older samurai saying what needed to be said. For some reason, I think that Yamamoto Tsunetomo would approve of the view the older samurai presented — that honour is relative and subjective.

I do wonder why the movies have taken it against the Ii clan though. Is it because of the purges later to follow which did not distinguish between honour and dishonour? Only views mattered then, and a similar adherence to ideology could be seen very deeply entrenched in this Ii clan of 1637 as it would be in the 1850’s. I would think that is an important part of the symbology that could be explored further.

Likewise, what we see is a mockery of what the Tokugawa became — a ruling class impoverished by their obligations and yet unable to change. Who was in control? The bureaucracy more than anyone else. There was a lot hidden in this movie, but for all that I don’t think there are many people who could read into it as much without the necessary historical background. Maybe I am simply inventing things where they did not exist. Why was the Ii clan chosen?

The melancholy and elegance with which this story was presented made it even more beckoning. In a way, this same Japanese style of art I described above is the same as in ‘Meijin’. As good a book it is, it is only enhanced by the foreshadowing of how everything is going to end. In a way, this also happens in ‘Harakiri’ — it can only end in one way. But it is an end that emphasizes once more what we need to see in our days.

‘With Fire and Sword’

I know that there has been a small gap in my writings here, and they will probably be less frequent than the two months I managed from April to June, but I will do my best to have at least some regularity here. ┬áThis return of mine is also signified by me watching ‘With Fire and Sword’, the movie by Jerzy Hoffman of the similarly named book by Henryk Sienkiewicz, for the third time in as many months.

The first time of these was just a plain session, the second one I was slightly drunk and fell asleep before the end, and now I have an extended version (with one oddity as well). So, overall, three quite different experiences.

I’ll just point out that the oddity with the extended version (which is on two DVDs) is that some scenes which were originally in different languages have been dubbed with Polish so that the lines are more or less said twice (since at least to my ears the original language sounds Russian, but I could be well wrong with this).

In any case, the good and the bad?

I have to say I am very much a fan of the music in this movie. It is just so befitting — especially the songs (‘Hey hey, Tuhay-bey’) and the charges by the hussars… The music is definitely befitting for the role it was to play. It is a pity though that translators have passed them by (I always think verses should be translated — no matter how badly — to give an indication of the emotion that the words should convey).

There are a few scenes cut that appeared in the books. I have always been a fan of the moment where the German infantry is surrounded and refuses to surrender. There’s far less of the so-to-say glorification of sacrifice which was supposedly one of Mr Hoffman’s goals. There’s a very good sentence in the end of the movie which summarizes this feeling entirely. However, it is not yet the time for that.

I find it very interesting to just see how Mr Hoffman presented the different characters. It is not something easy to describe, but I know when looking at it that it is a veritable representation of people in general. There’s someone similar to any one of us that can be found within the repertoire of characters here — a Jan Skrzetuski, Zagloba, Bohun, Hmielnicki, Jarema Wisniowiecki, Rzedzian, Michal Wolodyjowski, and so forth.

That indeed for me is one of the great charms of the story. It speaks of human frailty, and it speaks of that in the clearest words possible. But it also gives hope, with a fair dose of reality. No victory will come without cost, and even the victors have their faults.

You’ll find us, we’ll be on everyone’s lips in the Ukraine.

The scene, for example, where Hmielnicki releases Skrzetuski to go back to the Prince Wisniowecki (and, yes, I thoroughly disagree with the poor English translation which has made a princely title into Dukes) is in many ways devastating. I can understand what all of them are thinking, and yet it was the only way to act.

Jarema who came off so much cleaner in the book has his faults here. But he is also a loving husband and a father. I would think that this actor was one of the best casting choices — the role is portrayed with such precision. This indeed is a man who cures rebellions with both fire and sword.

One further thing I would like to comment on is the historical accuracy of it all — I am now specialized enough to give comment on the battles and campaigns, but I do like the effort that has gone into creating a believable culture that we can observe. The uniforms, armour, tactics, and way of speech. The hussars! What else can I say… I would really like someone to make a movie out of Kircholm. But I think I would appreciate it more if it was in the spirit of this movie here.

And finally, to come back to the story we’re being told…

‘Hatred poisoned the hearts of two brother nations.’

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