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Three Books…

October 11, 2006

There’s been quite a lot going on in Austin over the past month or so but, frustratingly, none of it has struck me as being particularly blog-worthy.  I can’t talk about work,  won’t talk about my writing (all you need to know is that it is progressing), and don’t want to bore with any more car-related posts.  As a result, whenever I’ve had the time to sit down and write a post, I’ve ended up staring at the monitor with no idea what to write about.

Well…today I want to offer up my thoughts on three recent reads.  All three are new hardcovers from some of my favorite authors, those fortunate few whose offerings I will pick up without question.  Ultimately, I found one a disappointment, one a frustration, and the other an absolute delight.

The Afghan Campaign – Steven Pressfield

Let me begin by saying that I love Steven Pressfield.  His Gates of Fire and Tides of War, about the Battle of Thermopylae and the Peloponnesian War, respectively, are brilliant, gritty, involving epics.  They bring the world of Ancient Greece alive and given an urgent energy that has to be read to be understood.  If you have not read them, do so.

His book on writing, The War of Art, is imbued with that same gritty, urgent energy.  It makes you want to stand up and do something.  In my case, that something was buckling down and giving the novel writing thing a serious go.  For that, I will be forever in the man’s debt.

And then came Virtues of War, Pressfield’s take on Alexander the Great.  I’ve posted about it before, but suffice to say, I found it a rather unsatisfying work that, frankly, left a sour taste in my mouth. 

With The Afghan Campaign, however, I was willing to give Pressfield another chance.  Though he was revisiting Alexander’s campaigns (guess which one…), he was returning to his roots and telling the story through the perspective of a relative nobody, a random soldier in the Macedonian army.

What follows is a tale of guerilla warfare and the Macedonians’ repeated attempts to adapt and fight an enemy that vanishes before they can mobilize and that blends in among the people.  An enemy that, history tells us, delayed Alexander for three years.  It should be intriguing stuff, especially considering our current situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it left me cold.  Gates of Fire gloried in its triumphant tragedy, and in the sacrifice of the three hundred Spartans who died to buy the rest of Greece just a little more time.  Tides of War made the epic, generation-long Peloponnesian War accessible, all while exploring some of the more deplorable attributes of human nature.  But The Afghan Campaign?  Its theme, if any, is of disillusionment and futility.

It was not a bad book, not by any means, and it was certainly better than the maddening Virtues of War.  But it fails, in my opinion, to live up to his earlier works.

Knights of the Black and White – Jack Whyte

Jack Whyte’s Arthurian saga, the Camulod Chronicles, has been one of the most interesting takes on the legendary king that I have ever read.  Grounded in the realities of 5th century Britain, the epic series begins several generations before Arthur’s birth, explaining the founding of Camulod, the forging of Excalibur, and the relationships between the central characters of the legend in ways that, while extraordinary, at least seem plausible.

Now, however, the Camulod saga has been completed, and Whyte has turned his attention to the topical Knights Templar.  The Knights of the Black and White, the first volume of what will eventually be a trilogy, seeks to explain the origins of the Templars.  And explain them it does, in a quite interesting fashion.  As Whyte tells it, the Templars are founded as a cover for an ancient secret society.  This society, the Order of the Rebirth of Sion, knows the truth behind Christ’s crucifixion and the founding of the Church, and establishes the Templars as a way to excavate the Temple Mount in Jerusalem without arousing suspicions.

When Whyte is dealing with the Order and the establishment of the Templars, the book is fascinating.  But when it turns its attention to the surrounding story, to the intrigues of the Jerusalem nobility, and to the inner battles of a young Templar, it loses all sense of urgency and becomes flat-out boring and tedious.

A Meeting at Corvallis – S.M. Stirling

The third and final book, A Meeting at Corvallis, is S.M. Stirling’s conclusion to the trilogy he began with Dies the Fire back in 2004.  In the first book, an inexplicable event referred to as "the Change" rendered electronics, internal combustion engines, and firearms useless and cast humanity back into the Dark Ages.  Chaos followed as most of the world’s population succumbed to hunger, disease, violence, and even cannibalism.

Ten years on, the survivors of the global die-off have adapted to their new world and coalesced into a number of developing societies, and the tensions that have been building since the Change finally come to a head when the Portland Protective Association, a feudal society led by a former history professor, invades its smaller neighbors, including the warrior monks of Mt. Angel, the kilt-wearing wiccans of Clan MacKenzie, and former marine Mike Havel’s Bearkillers.

This final novel in the trilogy is thrilling not just for its story, but for Stirling’s research (for some indication of the depth of his research and planning, check out his detailed account of Britain post-Change, a fascinating read in itself), for the throwaway pop culture and historical references, and for the exploration of the development of societies and the origins of myths and legends.

With A Meeting at Corvallis, Stirling caps a haunting, thrilling, and wildly imaginative trilogy.  Read it.  You won’t be disappointed.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2006 4:39 pm

    I am halfway through with Meeting at Corvalis and loving it. The only bummer is knowing that it will end. He is in the works for a second trilogy that takes place some times after this trilogy. One of the best trilogy’s ever. You know it is a good book when, without seeing a single picture of any main characters, you know exactly what they look like!

  2. Tim permalink
    October 13, 2006 10:36 am

    Have to be honest … I thought Gates of Fire was one of the best stories I’ve ever read, but I got frustrated with Pressfield back at Tides of War. Some great scenes, but incredibly uneven. My main reaction to Alcibiades, about halfway through, was “shut UP already.” The man (or at least the character as Pressfield creates him) was a pompous blowhard who took 10,000 words to say 100. I think I counted one of his impromptu speeches in the book at almost 30 pages.

    If you’re going to tell the story of a great motivating speechmaker, and you’re going to have him give speeches … they better be great and motivating. Pressfield’s were tedious.

    Any takes on Last of the Amazons? Hardly ever hear anybody talk about this one of Pressfield’s — although it got relatively good reviews.

    I’m currently in the middle of Whyte’s second book, The Singing Sword. Love his historical background. Wish he’d watch his pacing more — there’s sections of his books (at least these early ones) where he loses any sense of conflict or tension and the story drifts, and then it’s time to just plow through until the next crisis. Still enjoying it, though.

    Does sound like I should pick up the SM Stirling series, though — haven’t read any of them.

    Other recommends from recent readings:

    * The Historian, which sounds like a Merchant & Ivory movie but turns into a story-within-a-story-within-a-story about vampires, with tons of fascinating historical background of the real Vlad Tepes. Very cool, especially for anyone who gets into historical fiction.

    * The Prestige, which I had on my shelf for 7 or 8 years and finally read since, well, the movie is about to come out. Amazing book. Very twisted story about two dueling magicians in the 1800s. Perfect material for Christopher Nolan, who showed with Memento that he is great with unreliable narrators and shifting points of view. (In other words, it’s kind of a mindfuck book, and he’s a great mindfuck director.)

  3. October 16, 2006 11:53 am

    Agreed about “Tides of War” and Alcibiades. Though I was quite taken by Pressfield’s portrayal of the Sicilian campaign, and of the trial and conviction of the four admirals.

    I read “Last of the Amazons” a few years ago. Didn’t care for it too much.

    As for Whyte…he is prone to tangents…though nowhere to the level of, say, Colleen McCullough in her Rome books. Also…as you read…skip “Uther”.

    I’ll definitely have to check those two recommendations out. Always up for new reading.

  4. Tim permalink
    October 16, 2006 1:53 pm

    Absolutely agree about the Sicilian campaign. Read that opening battle scene, and was prepared for another Gates of Fire. And then … the speechifying started.

    I think Pressfield is one of the better writers of battle scenes going. And great on the historical research. And one that isn’t necessarily so good at some of the other things.

    Whyte just needs to remember to keep the dramatic tension up — there’s too many places in his books where I could just put them down and come back a month or two later and not feel like I’ve lost anything from the experience. Down to the last 50 pages of Sword, for example, and for the past 100 pages I’ve just been trusting that some kind of conflict will happen because there HAS to be one by the end of the book … right? If not, I’m just reading the diaries of the impossibly well meaning, noble, and modest Publius Varrus, not exactly the most intriguing narrator ever created. But when he does get to conflict, he is a good enough writer to create a lot of dramatic tension — just needs to be able to hold it over the whole book, not just for 30 pages out of every 200 or so.

    (I mean, we all KNOW he’s going to create the first cavalry sword using the skystone metal — title of the book, dead giveaway — and we’ve known that for over 200 pages, so it’s not exactly like that’s a source of dramatic tension … and that’s the only thing going in the story right now. Hah.)

    Took a swing by Half Price for the Stirling books — but all they had were his Terminator adaptations. I passed.

  5. October 16, 2006 4:33 pm

    Tim,
    I will give you number 2 in the series whe you get to town. I think that I still have the first one as well.

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