Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is a book whose premise I can’t even talk about without some light book-jacket level spoilers, so stop reading here if that bothers you. It probably shouldn’t.
All right, so this is about some people living in New York circa 2000. Only, it slowly becomes clear, not quite our New York. And one of the characters has dreams that, it slowly becomes clear, are actually journeys back in time, which end up having an effect on the present-day world.
The time travel stuff itself is… fine, I guess, but it never really gets that interesting. If I tell you that they’re travelling back to Elizabethan days and that a playwright figures prominently, I’m guessing you won’t need me to name names. It’s kinda obvious like that.
More interesting is the present-day story, because the person having the dreams is changing the world, but they only remember the old world, so they wake up in the morning thinking that it’s President Gore, and then it turns out oops, not any more. So naturally everyone thinks they’re some kind of high-functioning schizophrenic, which drives some of the more interesting bits of the story.
Least satisfying of all, though, is the big mystery around why this is happening and the larger plot around that. The big reveal is honestly kinda hokey, and felt thematically silly. In no real sense does this feel like a Golden Age SF story—it’s clearly taking the form of literary fantasy—but this felt like the shock twist in an Asimov story.
Not really recommended, but it’s basically inoffensive
So I’ve liked Becky Chambers’ books, and when I saw that she had out a new novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, I jumped right on it… and was disappointed pretty hard.
This isn’t in her existing series, it’s a semi-near-future space exploration story, where Earth sends out early manned exploration missions to nearby exoplanets with apparently life-supporting atmospheres. Not as missions of colonization or anything, just as straight up “let’s see what’s out there” exploration.
And so the book follows one of these missions as it explores its targets, and that’s all fine and dandy; most of the book is pretty straightforward hard SF, with them discovering things and having little mini-adventures and what-not. My main criticism of it for most of its duration is that it’s kind of light on actual story, just more or less a kind of series of events rather than anything that adds up to an actual plot. Inoffensive and pleasant, if a bit aimless.
But then there’s the ending. I hate the ending, with a white-hot passion. I find it absurd and ridiculous and infuriating, just utterly mind-bendingly stupid. It doesn’t seem like how any human would ever plausibly act, nor does it resolve any kind of dramatic tension, it’s just this random bit of nonsense that happens to be at the end of the book. Complaining about it this much probably counts as a spoiler even without the details—if you go to read this story, you’ll spend the whole time wondering what’s going to be so bad at the end now—but maybe the good news is that you won’t think it’s as bad as I’m making it sound, and your lowered expectations will let you be pleasantly surprised instead. That’d be nice, I guess?
Not really recommended.
So when I was reading that history of ancient Egypt, I mentioned that maybe I could do with a bit less pottery in my histories, but here we are in Li Feng’s Early China: A Social and Cultural History:
In fact, through the entire early Western Zhou period, the pottery assemblage in the eastern plains continued to follow the Shang tradition, while in the Zhou central sites in the Wei River valley the pottery culture seems to have gone through a long process of adaptation and modification of the types of different cultural origins.
But this is a lot more than pottery; Li is covering here Chinese civilization from prehistory all the way through the Han Dynasty, which ends in 220 AD. So yeah, you get stuff that’s like that early Egyptian archaeology (but a little less early, because Egypt really did get a good solid head start), but then you also get states with some limited written records, and then you go all the way up through heavily bureaucratic states with whole volumes of philosophy, endless tax records, and detailed histories that put Herodotus to shame.
It’s a pretty broad sweep of history, is what I’m saying, and it moves along fast enough to feel like a fast-paced and breezy read; but what’s extra-fascinating is that a lot of this stuff is new discoveries: Li makes constant references to finds in the 1970s and 1990s—and not just like buildings or statues or whatever, but whole new works of literature that were lost to the ages until now, philosophers who were just barely after Confucius and whose works had an impact on their school of thought, but whose works were lost for millennia.
And of course the discoveries made in these time periods have strong political dimensions to them—when Communist China in the middle of the Cold War is finding things about its own history, they tend to be interpreted in an ideological light both by Chinese scholars and American ones, albeit in different ways; Li gets into the historiography of early China in some detail, from the founding of the subfield to these more recent developments.
It’s all fascinating stuff, and the only real downside is that it is covering so much in such a short book (it’s apparently just a bit under 400 pages in print, which I guess isn’t that short, but it felt shorter) that it doesn’t get into much detail. This is the kind of book that makes you want to read more, rather than making you feel like you now know enough. But I guess that’s not a bad thing for a high-level survey to do, and it definitely does it well. Recommended.
Emily Tesh’s Silver in the Wood reads a bit like one of those turn of the millennium dark fairytale retellings, but also not quite. The basic premise of it is that an ethnographer/folk tale collector is going to a rural village to hear their stories, and stops in at a cottage along the way when he’s caught in the rain. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that there seems to be some connection between the inhabitant of the cabin and the local folktales; but going much beyond that would be a pretty big spoiler, especially considering this is a novella-length work.
But really, there’s not much more to say than that. This is a pleasant enough little story, but there’s not much to it. If it’s the kind of thing you’d like, you’ll like it okay.
So Alexis Hall’s The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is a weird fantasy Holmes and Watson pastiche, which very nearly works.
A part that does work is the setting. Everything takes place in an ancient city, one third of which is sunken beneath the waves and ruled by Lovecraftian elder gods; there are portals to different realities everywhere; and it overall feels like a cross between Victorian London and Max Gladstone’s Craft books. A+ for atmosphere.
What works less well is the treatment of the main characters. Sherlock becomes Sheherezade Haas, a sorceress with eldritch powers and deductive abilities; Watson becomes John Wyndham, a trans refugee of a demon-king theocratic state and wounded veteran of eternal interplanar wars. All good so far. But in giving Sheherezade mystical abilities, she also goes from being a Holmes-style asshole into being flat-out evil, murdering people at a whim for her own convenience and/or amusement. This mostly happens in backstory or offscreen, because the author doesn’t want their protagonist to come off as an antihero, but to me at least, this is firmly lodged in antihero territory.
The other thing that doesn’t quite work is the style. It’s meant to be very clever, with dialogue dripping with banter and witty asides, and it comes close. But coming close ends up feeling like you’re trying really hard to be clever, which is very different than actual wittiness. One particularly grating example is that Wyndham will elide Sheherezade’s frequent swearing with things like, ‘“What the heck is going on!” she shouted, only she didn’t say “heck.”’
The first time, it’s lightly amusing. But by the time you read through this book, you’ll have gotten to, I don’t know, the dozenth? twentieth? time seeing a similar construction, and it does not retain its power to amuse.
Unfortunately, this is a book whose premise is better than the execution. It sounds great, but it doesn’t deliver. Not really recommended.
Marie Brennan’s Turning Darkness into Light is not a Lady Trent book. Technically.
It is, however, a sequel to the Lady Trent books, featuring Lady Trent’s grand-daughter as the protagonist; and while the younger protagonist isn’t a naturalist like Lady Trent, she is a linguist who gets pulled into deciphering an ancient Draconean tablet; and while the book isn’t told as a memoir, it is told almost entirely through diary entries and letters, so retains a lot of that feel.
So yeah, it’s basically a Lady Trent book. And as one, it’s an enjoyable read. It’s focused around both a literary-historical mystery as the heroine attempts to decipher ancient tablets, and a political mystery as dubious characters appear and violent happenings occur.
It’s not super-deep or anything, but it mixes up the formula just enough to keep things interesting. Recommended for anyone who liked the Lady Trent series.
So Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside starts with a down-on-her-luck thief living in the slums of a magic city, taking on the biggest heist of her life to obtain a mysterious box for an equally-mysterious client.
It’s not exactly the most original of setups, and the immediate plot pretty much goes exactly how you’d think it’d go. But Bennett has an interesting world that he’s built (though not, I’d argue, as interesting as in his Divine Cities trilogy), and is a compelling writer, so despite the over-familiarity of the premise and the predictability with which the story hits all its beats, it’s still well-executed and absorbing, a fun adventure with neat scenery. It feels a lot like Brandon Sanderson, for better or worse.
There is one element of the story that bugs me, though—and it’s probably not the fault of this book so much as just having seen it a lot recently—which is the trope of having artifacts or forgotten knowledge of ancient, long-gone civilizations pop up and then instantly turn out to be absolutely crucial to what’s going on in the book.
I get it, there’s a Chekhov’s gun thing going on, but it really is possible to introduce ancient stuff and have it remain mysterious and ancient for at least the first volume of your series, you know? Like, there’s got to be a lot of interesting stuff in the present of your fantasy world, right? Why not have a few stories that deal with that, before you start immediately jumping to the old gods and fallen empires.
Recommended for people who want a fun fantasy adventure that doesn’t feel like too much of a guilty pleasure.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Orphans of Raspay is the latest of her Penric novellas. Like the previous ones, they’re about a demon-possessing cleric who has miscellaneous adventures—this time around, capture by pirates is the inciting event.
Also like the others, it’s… basically fine, I guess? It’s a story, it reads quickly, there’s nothing wrong with it; but there’s also almost nothing to it, it’s so slight. Worth reading, but not worth seeking out; if you’ve been reading the Penric stories, you’ll presumably want to read this one at some point, but don’t rush.
So as I was reading Fonda Lee’s Jade War, I was trying to think about why it is that I like this book (and the first book in the series) in a way that seems to get past all my “ugh, criminals doing crime shit” filters.
Part of it, I think is that while it’s easy to analogize this book’s setting, with its warring clans based on familial relationship, to the mob, that’s not quite what it is—the clans are also legitimately quasi-governmental bodies responsible for ruling the nation in ways that have nothing to do with crime at all.
Another part of it is that the books are full of people who aren’t traditionally the protagonists of crime shit novels—women play a huge role in the story, not all the characters are straight—and that changes the shape of the thing a lot. There are still the bluff, macho characters prone to fits of violent temper that you’d expect from the genre, but there’s a lot more than that, too.
But I think mostly it’s just that these books are really well-executed. The worldbuilding is great, this feels like a lived history and a real geopolitical situation (the degree to which geopolitics matters probably gets at the “quasi-governmental bodies” part above); the characters are complex and feel real (with the exception of the primary antagonist, but then, we’re not spending a lot of time in their head); and while I’ve seen people describe the pacing as too slow, it seems to move along at a good pace for my tastes.
I’m looking forward to the next volume. Recommended.
Okay, I’ve got two novellas here that are both later installments in ongoing series, and I don’t have a whole ton to say about either of them, so let’s do a quick combo post.
JY Yang’s Ascent to Godhood is the fourth, and apparently final, novella in their Tensorate series. It’s basically the backstory for the Protector, told as a (not entirely sober) oral history. The format works well, and it’s a quick enjoyable read. Really, all I wanted from it is more—more of this story in particular, and more Tensorate stories in general. But “there’s not enough of this thing” is maybe the best complaint to have, so.
If you’ve been reading the Tensorate stories, you’ll certainly want to read this one; if you haven’t, I recommend them.
Ben Aaronovitch’s The October Man is definitely not the last of the Rivers of London series, and in fact it’s not set in London at all. The novella features a new German protagonist, who’s not Peter Grant.
… except that he kinda is. He’s a newly-apprenticed cop studying under a mysterious and old-fashioned wizard who’s been around long enough to be legendary, and he’s dealing with messy murders as an officer in a special unit that liaises with regular cops and river spirits. His first-person narration is even snarkily dry in the exact same way Peter Grant’s is.
This doesn’t speak well to Aaronovitch’s wide-ranging versatility as a writer, but honestly at this point a Peter Grant book, except not mired in convoluted backstory, is pretty much exactly what I want out of this series, so I’ll take it. And the sudden introduction of a set of German characters has me intrigued as to where the next novel is going to go. This is an easy recommendation for Aaronovitch junkies
Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar’s This is How You Lose the Time War is an epistolary novella, made up letters between two time-travelling agents, each of whom is manipulating the past to make their own future more likely.
So the thing about this that might not be immediately apparent is, it’s a low-key character-driven story. The time war stuff is basically just background whose main point is to shape the characters; the heart of the story is the two agents and their relationship to each other, which evolves and changes throughout the sending and reading of those letters. This is going to strike some people as frustrating—you see these glimpses of this epic storyline and plot, but it’s all just skipped past lightly—but El-Mohtar and Gladstone are pushing each other to heights of their writerly craft in their letters, so if you can take it for what it is, you’ll get an original and brilliantly-written relationship story out of this novella.
I suspect it’s a shoo-in when award season comes around. Highly recommended.
John Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom is the second volume of his who-knows-how-many volume history (this is the latest one published). After the silent archaeology of the first volume, this one takes the reader into written history, with the first hieroglyphics… which it turns out, just mean that there’s even more to be misunderstood.
So the book follows two tracks, really. One is the straight history of this time period, the shifting patterns of architecture and geography, of Egyptian exploration and interaction with other cultures, of the fall of the Old Kingdom and the slow rise and eventual fall of the Middle Kingdom. And this is much like the first volume—cautious interpretations based on frustratingly incomplete archaeological evidence (though there’s a lot more available here, including written texts).
The second track, though, is the historiography of ancient Egypt, which ends up being something of a history of 18th and 19th century European attitudes toward Egypt. Romer talks about the mystical view of ancient Egypt that dominated attitudes for so long, and how that collided with the reality of actual history; about the flowering of Egyptology after Napoleon’s invasion opened up the floodgates of ancient artifacts being stolen and brought back to Europe; about the ways those artifacts were misinterpreted through an also ahistorical lens of Greek classicist fetishism; about the decipherment of hieroglyphics, the establishment of schools of philology, the creation of the very modes of historical investigation that dominate universities to this day; and about the racial theories that rose in German schools that eventually fed into the Nazi self-conception.
The history is interesting, seeing the evolution of the Egyptian state and culture over a millennium or so; and Romer particularly draws in recent discoveries and findings to paint an updated picture of what we know. (It seems ridiculous that we know more about 2000 BCE now than we did 20 years ago, but it’s nevertheless true.) The historiography, though, is fascinating—when you’ve grown up with a kind of ambient background view of what “ancient Egypt” is, seeing how that vision was constructed, and the political and cultural forces that drove that construction and popularization, is eye opening; it goes beyond “oh yeah, people believed some incorrect things that we don’t believe anymore” into explaining how and why they got to those beliefs (and makes one wonder what wild blind spots we still have, even as we can so easily make out those of the past).
Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in ancient Egyptian history, and I hope a third volume appears sometime soon.
K. J. Parker’s Savages is, as it eventually becomes clear, a fantasy novel that is telling a story about the epic sweep of history—the conflicts between a great empire and its rival to the east; its internal divisions and crises; and its shifting relations to the titular “savages” (a term that the title is using for ironic effect) who comprise much of its armies and sit on its northern borders. It doesn’t take too much knowledge of Roman history to see the parallels here, although Parker isn’t quite doing a 1:1 mapping.
The scope of the book—spanning decades, with a large cast of characters—suggests an epic feel to it, and in broad outline, there is that; you can see the fate of nations and armies play out over the course of the book, and it has that kind of large-scale historical feel to it. But each individual character’s story feels a lot smaller-scale, as they pull off a successful con or bluff their way into a carpentry job or whatever other small-bore thing they’re doing that day. It actually reminded me a lot of Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Ethshar series in that respect, because Ethshar has its “grand scope of history” overlaying the whole series, but individual books feel like light fantasy. Here, the larger history is foregrounded more, but it still has a light fantasy feel.
Which makes sense, because it turns out that K. J. Parker is actually Tom Holt, a British writer who’s written a whole bunch of humorous fantasies dating back to the ‘80s. I read a solid handful of his books back in college; this was about the same time I was discovering Terry Pratchett, and probably the most certain thing I remember is that they weren’t nearly as good as Pratchett.
But whatever I thought of Holt as a humorous fantasist, in his guise as Parker, his style works well, keeping a weighty topic breezily readable. Savages wasn’t super-brilliant, and I’m not going to immediately rush out and devour the rest of Parker’s back catalog; but it’s a sure bet that next time I’m flying somewhere or otherwise going on vacation, I’ll load up the phone with some of his stuff. Lightly recommended.
As Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever starts out, it’s set in the very near future, and we’re following around a tech executive doing the same kind of stuff they might be doing in a Neal Stephenson book.
But very quickly, it becomes a different type of book entirely, as she’s pulled into a far-future ultra-science universe, in a way that reminds me of Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky. But that’s about the only way this is like an Asimov book—beyond that, it’s more like Vance than Asimov, as it’s set in an inventive galaxy full of strange and ancient cultures (apparently inspired greatly by Journey to the West, which I’ve never read).
This being Gladstone, you can be sure that there’s a way in which this is a lens into modernity, and here I think is the weakest aspect of the book. Because what he’s doing is taking this techbro (well, techsis, anyway) and looking at how her personality traits have driven her to success… but also at how in doing so, they’ve caused larger societal problems. It’s not a particularly subtle critique, and it comes off a bit ham-handed in the plot as well. I much prefer the more organic ways that the Craft novels work their relevance into the fabric of their world-building.
Overall, this is an enjoyable adventure novel in an inventive SF setting. I enjoyed it, and if there’s a sequel, I’ll be reading it quickly. But it also feels like Gladstone’s weakest novel, by a good bit. Recommended, but if you haven’t read his Craft novels, read those first.
Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire is a novel of political intrigue, set in a vast interstellar empire. As it begins, our protagonist, a young woman from a small space-station-based civilization just outside the edge of the Teixcalaan Empire, is summoned to be the new ambassador to the empire.
Upon arriving at the capital city planet to start her new job, she discovers that her predecessor was murdered, and oh hey imperial court politics, whee. From there, it takes all kinds of twists and turns as she ferrets out what happened, what’s happening now, and tries even more to figure out what she wants to happen.
Beyond the political intrigue thriller aspects of it, this is also a book about the nature of empire itself, and is grappling with trying to reconcile admiration for an empire’s beauties with an awareness of its intrinsic inhuman monstrousness; it’s maybe one of the most ambiguous novels I’ve read, that way.
This is good stuff; there will apparently be sequels to this, but it’s a complete story as written, so don’t feel a need to wait.
Annoyingly, Jo Walton’s Lent is another one of these books where even talking about the shape of the story is a huge spoiler (don’t read the cover copy on Amazon, because it blithely spoils major revelations), so let’s see what I can say about it.
I can definitely say that it’s a sort of biography of Savonarola—you know, the Renaissance “bonfire of the vanities” guy?—except that it appears to be one in which Christian mythology is real, and things like demons really do exist.
Taken straight up as a biography and as a portrait of Renaissance Florence, it’s enjoyable, and if your knowledge of Savonarola is as shallow as mine (which, playing the odds, is likely), it’s a useful recasting of his character. But I think I can safely say that it’s not just a straight biography, either, and that there more of a story than just a straight retelling of Savonarola’s life; the unspooling of that story was fascinating, because I like the subgenre that it turned into, but I found the ultimate resolution a little under-motivated and sudden.
(As a random note, I was for a bit convinced that this was set in the same universe as Walton’s Just City books, because Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino are both characters in it, and they’re both so prominent in those other books. But I guess it’s just one of those things where if you’re going hard into Florentine Renaissance humanists, these guys are going to be prominent.)
Overall, I think this is one of Walton’s weaker books—it doesn’t have the punch of Farthing, the wild inventiveness of the Just City books, or the just-right reworking of Tooth and Claw—but it’s still good, and certainly recommended to anyone interested in Renaissance Florence.
Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell has one big thing in common with Seveneves, and it’s that it has a wildly unconventional and unpredictable structure to it, such that saying absolutely anything at all about the book feels like a huge spoiler—and sort of is, because taking the book in totally naive is just going to be this wildly surprising experience that you can’t get if you’ve been spoiled for the shape of the thing.
But, fuck it, I’ve got stuff to say, and I’m going to say it. So I’m going to go ahead with book jacket level spoilers here. If you want the totally unspoiled reading experience (probably only if you’re a dedicated Stephensonphile), stop reading now, and come back later. If you’ve already read the Amazon description of the book, though, I’m not going to really be worse than that.
All right, then. So I had actually been spoiled for this myself, having read an article that mentioned that this was a science fiction story that contained a fantasy story, and so I thought this was going to be some kind of “play within a play” thing, where there’d be an exterior story and an interior story, but nope, it turns out to be one big story that just shifts genres repeatedly.
It starts out as a current-day novel, where it’s Stephensonian in its close, almost pedantic observation of mundane details and is focused on geeky characters, but is otherwise unremarkable. Then it slips into near-future SF, where it’s addressing some very of-the-moment themes about social media and echo chambers and conspiracy theories; and the throughline through both of these parts is a kind of interest in cryonics and brain-scanning and so forth, which eventually gets relevant in the less-near future part of the book; and as we move into the perspective of the simulated brain, it ends up gradually drifting from big-idea SF into straight-up quest fantasy—which means, really, that all the SF part of the book is just the Techbro Silmarillion.
The quest fantasy taken as a straight quest fantasy is fairly banal and generic. But because of all that SFnal context that we bring to the table—the grand sweep of history, if you will—it ends up being interesting anyway.
At least to me. Because the thing is, a lot of Stephenson’s books feel like they should be wildly unpopular and as if he’s writing for a small audience of people who like that sort of eccentric thing, right. But whereas I’d go to bat for the excellence of Anathem or the Baroque Cycle even as I totally understand why a lot of people dislike them, here I think this might actually just be a kinda-bad book that I happen to like a lot.
Because, I mean, the SFnal part of it is really awfully long for how many ideas and/or interesting characters it has; and both it and the fantasy part are almost pathologically focused on the handful of billionaire characters in the book, even at one point having one of the characters explain to another that they shouldn’t feel guilty for using their money to get ahead, that’s just how the world works. Which is not wrong, exactly, but also not the sort of thing that you usually have your sympathetic characters saying in an approving fashion.
And then plus, even beyond the weirdness of this book’s structure, it’s also tying together Reamde and the Baroque Cycle universes in a way that seems to be making a metaphysical point about that larger shared universe. It’s basically never a good idea when authors start tying their franchises together late in their career; it probably isn’t here, either, even though I kinda like it.
So yeah, this is probably Decadent Late-Period Stephenson at this point, and certainly this doesn’t have anything like the verve and brilliance of his best novels, and has some very noticeable warts on it. But for all that, I still liked it immoderately, and powered through it quickly. Recommended for diehard Stephenson fans only.
S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper are the first two books of her Daevabad Trilogy… which, yes, means that I started an unfinished series despite my general resolve to quit doing that. Oops.
Chakraborty is writing Islamic fantasy here; the book starts off with a poor woman living as more or less a con artist on the streets of Cairo during the Napoleonic era; but pretty quickly it takes a turn to the fantastic, and leaves mundane geography behind altogether as it moves to the titular locations.
The story explores weighty themes, looking at an unjust society and how revolution and accommodation and war can change that for good and ill. Despite that, it all moves along quickly and compellingly, with complex characters, political intrigue, ancient magics, and tense action scenes; this is one of those books where I found myself reading it in every spare second, on elevator rides, while walking down long hallways, etc.
Which, if I have a criticism, it’s that it’s maybe a bit too easy to read.
Like, many of the characters are supernatural beings who are hundreds of years old and have lived their life in Asia or the Middle East in the 17th-19th centuries, right; even the human characters are from 19th century Cairo. Despite which, their mindset—the things they think about, the things they value, the things that bother them—too frequently seems casually modern and American.
This ends up making the setting feel like an Islamic gloss over the standard fantasyland—like, just change a few nouns around, and it could be set in generic Disney-medieval Europe. Compare that to something like Nicola Griffith’s Hild or Zen Cho’s The True Queen, where the characters genuinely feel of their time and place, and have concerns and mindsets that aren’t automatically familiar to modern American readers, and you really notice the difference.
But that’s not a huge criticism, because really most fantasy books end up feeling ahistorical in that way, and anyway, Chakraborty’s explicitly stated goal was to make a series that combined Islamic characters and settings with the feeling of “a summer blockbuster,” and she definitely achieved that. If you like epic fantasy full of high magic and political intrigue, these are strongly recommended. I’ll be reading the third book just as soon as it’s released.
R. I. Moore’s The War on Heresy is a revisionist take on late medieval heresy, particularly in the lead up to the Albigensian Crusade.
The main argument the book is making is that a lot of the commonplace beliefs about “Cathars” in that era—particularly their well-organized counter-church, and belief in a Manichaean dualism—aren’t actually backed up by much in the way of credible evidence. He goes through case after case, building up the argument that most heresies investigated at the time were some mix of generic apostolic lay reformer anti-clericalism (which he puts into its social and religious context) and political maneuvering (likewise); and goes on to provide plausible explanations for the origin of the by-now long-standing belief in a) an organized group of “Cathar” heretics who b) believed in a consistent theology based around Manichaean precepts.
The book gets a little bit in the weeds as it goes through all these individual cases, but it’s necessary for what it’s trying to do, and Moore mostly keeps it from getting too muddled and repetitive, with a lively writing style. And the picture it draws—of church institutions, heresies, and the various cultures that surrounded them both, from the theological teachings of Paris schools to the strains on social fabric of increasing trade and manufacture—is one that’s vibrant and messy and deeply human, and which sounds honestly a lot more like real history than the picture more usually painted.
Moore’s argument is controversial, and I am not nearly qualified enough to even begin to judge which way the historiographical winds will blow, but I think that even if Moore’s argument ends up being seen as off-base, it paints a picture interesting enough to be worth reading about, and is a useful look at the difficulties of contextualizing and interpreting primary sources.
And plus also, I find it deeply fascinating that stuff I learned in history classes only twenty years ago, basic foundational things that were just taken for granted as needing only explication rather than argument, is now up for debate. You’d think that the events of 800 years ago would be pretty well understood by now, but apparently: nope. No wonder historians are such nihilists about ever knowing the truth about anything.
Recommended, but probably not if this is your first exposure to the Albigensian Crusade and the Cathars; you’ll want to know the conventional take first.
Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories is, as the title would suggest, a collection of her short stories.
They’re largely little slice of life vignettes. Each stands alone; taken as a whole collection, though, themes emerge. Most of them are about relationships, in one way or another—good marriages, bad marriages, not marriages at all. A bunch of them are about going home, or not going home, or really just generally the complicated relationship that someone who’s moved away might have with their small-town home. And a very grim percentage of them are about people who are dying or have degenerative medical conditions, and how they face that.
It’s easy to see why Munro has won all the prizes she has; she’s masterful at characterization, piercing through the stories and myths that people build around themselves, cutting directly and surgically to the core of her characters’ innermost selves—but doing so with a kind of fundamental kindness, rather than cruelty.
If you think you’d like this, you almost certainly will. Highly recommended.