Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End – unconditional love across race and gender in the 19th century


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How curious that after reading an extraordinary story of decades-long love and friendship in the cultured environs of a luxury hotel in early 20th century Moscow, I follow up with another extraordinary story of decades-long love and friendship, this one set in the barbaric world of 19th century USA, amidst the Indian massacres and the Civil War . The first book is A Gentleman in Moscow, which I wrote about recently and the second is Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, both published in 2016.

The styles of writing reflect the contrast in setting; while Amor Towles’ prose is nuanced and oh-so-civilized, Sebastian Barry’s narrative is raw and mercurial, like the world that his book’s characters inhabit. Barry’s story is narrated in the first person by a poor Irish immigrant turned soldier, a man who expresses his feelings without thought to the rules of language; an uncensored, unfiltered stream-of-consciousness style that is almost a sort of magical poetry. Initially I found this difficult to ‘process’, but it had a magnetic quality that quickly became both engaging and endearing.

Days Without End is the story of two men – Thomas McNulty and John Cole – who meet in their early teens in the late 1840’s and then go through a series of experiences and adventures over the next 20 odd years. I discovered while writing this post that McNulty’s family has been the subject of three of Barry’s previous novels, criss-crossing generations on either side of the Atlantic. In this book, through McNulty, we are witness to the American nation’s growth pangs as it engages in a bloody war to wrest control of land and resources from Native American tribes, then tears itself apart due to a fundamental disagreement over slavery and black rights (the echoes of which continue to reverberate even today).

The two meet as teenagers in Missouri and are hired by a saloon owner to dress up as girls in the evenings so that his patrons have someone to dance with, there being hardly any women in the mining town to be recruited for this (“It’s just the dancing. No kissing, cuddling, feeling or fondling”, assures the owner Mr. Titus Noone). After some years, the boys, now in their late teens join the Army and go out West along the Oregon Trail. In due course, they participate in brutal warfare and massacres of Native American tribes.

John Cole progressively becomes McNulty’s friend, companion, lover and reason to live. In spite of his status as a co-protagonist of the story, Cole is a distant figure in the book, McNulty’s virtual worship of him elevating him in his narrative to an Olympian level of existence, beyond the daily scrimmages and depredations of ordinary men. Cole’s silent compassion, courage and presence of mind acts as a rudder of stability as the two men traverse the geography and events of turbulent 19th century America through the Indian Wars, the Civil War and continued troubles with the Native Americans thereafter.

Along the way, the two become three. McNulty and Cole are joined by a young Native American girl who is the survivor of yet another massacre initiated by trigger-happy soldiers. She along with other surviving children from the tribe are taken in by Mrs. Neale, the wife of the US Army commander and schooled in the ‘Christian Way’. This girl, Winona is then assigned to be a servant to these soldiers (the commander’s wife making it very clear that she is not be abused in any way) and the two men get permission to take her along with them, when they resign their commission and set off to seek civilian employment back in Missouri. Just as in Gentleman in Moscow, this novel comes alive with the arrival of a young child into the lives of the protagonist/s; she unlocks degrees of love and parental instinct that these characters did not know they possessed and which in the natural course of life they could not have experienced (Count Rostov as a lifelong bachelor enduring house arrest in Russia and McNulty/ Cole as gay lovers in 19th century America).

In the following years, the little ‘family’ live through a roller coaster of experiences and emotions – happy times, times of separation and times of extreme stress and persecution. They stay sane and alive and together through their unstinting and unconditional love for each other. The twists and turns in the plot elevate the story to almost thriller-like levels of anxiety and anticipation; at one point, I was convinced that one or the other of the three would not make it to the end of the story alive. Suffice to say that there is indeed a happy ending, although one cannot say to what extent the physical and psychological scars will impact the trio over the remainder of their lives.

I mentioned earlier about the magical quality of the first person narrative. As in the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, there were many lines and passages I highlighted while reading the book that I went back and read again, some of which I have listed below.

When meeting their old benefactor Titus Noone after a gap of many years, McNulty remarks how well old Mr. Noone looks – “His skin is made of the aftermaths of smiles.”

Marveling at the beauty of his adopted daughter Winona, McNulty says,”Goddamned beautiful black hair. Blue eyes like a mackerel’s blue back. Or a duck’s wing feathers. Sweet little face cool as a melon when you hold it in your hands and kiss her forehead.”

Later in the book, describing Winona’s singing voice,”Such a sweet clear note she keeps in her breast. Pours out like something valuable and sparse into the old soul of the year.”

Days Without End has won both the 2016 Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread Book Award) and the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction from the UK. As with A Gentleman in Moscow, this is a book that reminds us what it means to be human!

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Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow – House arrest in the good old days


It’s not often that I take a break from my steady diet of scifi and even when I do, it’s usually to read a travelogue or a biography. So I surprised even myself, when I decided to pick Amor Towles’ highly acclaimed 2nd novel A Gentleman in Moscow as my next read. All I knew about the book was the blurb I read on Goodreads. At the time, I had never heard of Amor Towles and knew nothing about him (graduated from Yale, lives in NYC, investment professional for 20 years).

What a good decision it was! I tend to carried away with praise for a book I really like; especially immediately after I’ve finished it, I’ll go around saying “this is one of the best books I’ve ever read!”. That’s why I waited a week after I finished the book and after that, I skimmed through the entire book a second time (stopping at various passages which I had highlighted during the first read) to check if I still felt the same way. I do. This IS one of the best books I’ve ever read!

This is a story of a member of the Russian aristocracy who in 1922 is sentenced by THE EMERGENCY COMMITTEE OF THE PEOPLE’S COMMISSARIAT FOR INTERNAL AFFAIRS to live the rest of his life under house arrest for writing a poem which was considered to be disruptive to the spirit of the Revolution. With immediate effect, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is escorted back to the luxurious Hotel Metropol in Moscow, which is where he had been in residence for the previous 4 years, using it as a sort of serviced apartment as was the practice of the wealthy in those days. When he goes upstairs to his room, he discovers that he has been moved into a tiny attic, which can only accommodate his massive writing table, a chair, a bed and his large collection of books. Everything else has been confiscated by the State.

From this point, we become intimately familiar with the landscape of the hotel where this entire story plays out. The restaurants – the Piazza and The Boyarsky, the Shalyapin Bar (where he has his nightly aperitif), the barbershop, the kitchen, the card room, the florist’s room, the seamstress’ room (yes!) and of course, staircases, corridors and storerooms.

This is a character-based rather than plot-based novel, woven around a series of vignettes, the author dipping in every few years into specific events.

The first major event happens when the Count meets 9-year-old Nina Kulikova, the daughter of a widowed Ukranian bureaucrat, who is resident at the hotel. Nina’s governess has chosen not to send her to a regular school, nevertheless she is incredibly well-informed for her age (in their first meeting, she sagely proclaims that “a woman is always involved” when talking about duels between gentlemen). The Count and Nina quickly form a partnership of equals. While he educates her on the ways of the world (especially her desire to know “how to become a princess”), she teaches him how to navigate the various hidden and forgotten passageways of the hotel…a skill that will be immensely helpful to him in the decades to come.

This young and enterprising girl stays at the hotel until her teens. Some years later, the Count sees her walking through the hotel lobby with a couple of acquaintances. She has become an intense, passionate, but utterly humorless young woman with many idealistic thoughts and an activist nature. At this point, I shared the Count’s deep disappointment that this little girl whose wisdom was so charming in her youth had grown up into this serious, boring young woman. As the Count says to one of the hotel staff when describing the encounter, “I fear that the force of her convictions will interfere with the joys of her youth.” I felt sad that the story had been deprived of their entertaining relationship.

But I needn’t have worried. Soon after this incident, the author brings in a new source of charm, innocence and youthful wisdom. The very same Nina returns furtively to the Metropol, specifically to meet the Count. She is now married and her husband has been sent off to some correctional facility and she has decided to follow him there in the hope of being able to secure his release. She leaves her 6-year-old daughter Sofia in the Count’s care, until she returns. And this is a significant event, because Nina never comes back. The Count effectively adopts the little girl and brings her up as his own daughter. This relationship between the Count and Sofia forms the emotional core of the story.

By this point, the Count has become fast friends with the Chef Emile Zhukovsky and Andrey, the maître d’ at the Boyarsky. This triumvirate eventually become a cohesive parent/ guardian unit for the girl, frequently assisted by Marina the seamstress.

And into this already rich mix of relationships that the Count develops, there has been another addition: Miss Anna Urbanova, a fast-rising actress, who clashes with the Count when they first meet (there is quite a commotion caused by her two dogs chasing the resident cat across the lobby and the Count chastises her for not controlling her pets) but eventually reappears in his life years later and goes on to have a long-term relationship with him.

All these key characters, as well as others like the bartender Audrius, the desk captain Arkady, the old handyman Abram who cultivates a honeybee nest on the roof, the concierge Vasily, form the human landscape of this story.

And indeed it is a story of retaining one’s humanity and being civilized in the midst of some of the most turbulent times in the history of Russia. And above all, it is a story of love. Strangely, the author that I was most reminded of while reading this book was J.R.R. Tolkien. Although Tolkien wrote of elves and dwarves, his books too were full of sincere, good people who cared for each other and helped their friends through difficult times. The style of narrative of both books is evocative of an earlier, simpler age when good people didn’t have shades of grey.

And running throughout the book is Towles’ sensitive, intelligent, witty and cultured dialogue. Was it really like this among the educated classes in Russia at that time? Perhaps so, given this was the land of Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin and countless other world-renowned wordsmiths. Take for instance, this description of the conversation between the Count and Sofia after he fails to find an object that she has hidden in a room during a game:

Sofia: “Are you giving up?”
“I am conceding,” said the Count
“Is that the same as giving up?”

“Yes, it is the same as giving up.”
“Then you should say so.”
Naturally. His humiliation must be brought to its full realization.
“I give up,” he said.

There were so many such passages in the book and I found myself quietly chuckling away every few minutes. I was tempted to include more examples in this post, but had to give up the plan as I’d have ended up putting half the book in, especially since the wit works best within the larger context of the scene and not necessarily when just quoted as a standalone sentence or phrase.

In a strange way, this was also a coming-of-age story. Not the normal sort about teenagers or young adults, but of a cultured gentleman of leisure who in keeping with the times, never actually did anything prior to his house arrest (as he informs the committee at the start of the book “it is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations”). In due course, his intrinsic humanity helps him become a hardworking, contributing member of the closed society within the Metropol.

While reading it, I started thinking that in the hands of a good director, with great casting, this would make an eminently watchable movie. And so I searched and was thrilled to read that a few months ago indie production company Entertainment One secured the rights to adapt the book into a TV series to be directed by Tom Harper (War & Peace, Peaky Blinders). Very much looking forward to that!

PS: Here’s a short interview with Amor Towles by the Wall Street Journal in which explains how he came to write the novel. After watching this, please go read the book!

The history of Istanbul by Thomas Madden is as gripping and entertaining as Game of Thrones


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How do you compress the 2700-year history of a city (and empire) into 450 pages without losing any of the drama or human stories nor reducing it into a dry listing of events and dates? Thomas F. Madden, the 56-year-old American historian shows you how with his extraordinary 2016 publication, Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World. Mr. Madden is the Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University and has been known for years as a specialist on the Crusades, so it seems only fitting that he write this history of the city that was the focal point of the war between Christian and Muslim armies for centuries.

I have always been fascinated by Istanbul/ Constantinople – its breath-taking architecture, its unique geographic position between Asia & Europe, the fiction it has inspired such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and even its cuisine including the Baklava and Turkish delight. I’ve not yet had a chance to visit this iconic city, so to prepare myself for a future journey (and perhaps to compensate for not having visited it before it became like any other modern world city), I searched for a comprehensive yet compact history of Constantinople which brought me to Mr. Madden’s recent publication.

By the time I finished the book, I was convinced that much of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones must have been inspired by people, events and settings from this city’s history! Even the Unsullied, the slave-soldiers of Astapor sound a lot like the elite Janissaries of the Ottoman ruler.

The book starts off with the founding of the city in 667 BC as Byzantion, a north-eastern trading outpost of the Greek city-state of Megara (now a small town about 40 km west of Athens). The outpost was about 600 km from Megara as the crow flies and the voyage by ship would have taken the Megarans across the Aegean Sea, through the narrow Dardanelles strait, past Gallipoli peninsula into the Sea of Marmara before arriving at the Bosporus straits. The Bosporus linked through to the Black Sea and was the key source for goods and grain from Central Asia. The control of this key trade route eventually made Byzantion the most powerful city in the world for close to two millennia.

It’s easy to think of this sea route as a straightforward journey when viewed on Google maps today, but I was amazed at how these ancient seafarers could have discovered this particular route from among all the hundreds of other possible combinations they could have taken on the open seas!

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From this point, the book takes us through the many rulers and dynasties which shaped the destiny of this city which became the seat of the Greek (Byzantion), Roman (Constantinople) and Ottoman (Istanbul) empires before emerging as the modern, secular city it is today.

There are many fascinating characters who have played a role in the city’s history. As in Game of Thrones, one realizes how the ambition, courage or foolhardiness of a single individual can influence the fate of empires and millions of subjects. This is a story of intrigue, betrayal, blindings (a common way of dealing with a rival to the throne was to gouge his eyes out), beheadings, massacres, pillage and destruction. But also a story of the creation of incredible artefacts and architecture, much of which have been destroyed over time and many of which have survived till today.

In particular, the individuals whose stories have stayed in my memory are:

Constantine I “the Great”: By AD 285, the Roman empire had grown so vast that it was divided into two halves, with the Western empire governed from Rome and the Eastern empire based in Byzantion, which had been “liberated” from Greek rule in 196 BC. This was the time when a new religion called Christianity had taken hold among the poor and downtrodden. After an initial period of peaceful co-existence, Christianity came under fire and was outlawed in AD 302 leading to large scale persecution of Christians. But then a new Western emperor came to power in AD 312 called Constantine. During an earlier military campaign, he had a vision that his victory would be assured by Jesus Christ and after coming to power he formally converted to Christianity. This led to the stoppage of the persecution and the elevation of Christianity as a religion of the emperor. In AD 324, Constantine defeated the Eastern emperor, unified the Roman empire and chose to live on in the East rather than return to Rome. He rebuilt and expanded Byzantion, renaming it as Constantinople. It became – along with Rome – the heart of the Christian world for the next thousand years.

Justinian and Theodora: In AD 532, Emperor Justinian was on the verge of being overthrown by a rival faction in what is now referred to as the Nika revolt. There were violent riots between the two factions for nearly a week with nearly half the city being burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed. Justinian and his advisors were on the verge of fleeing the city when his wife Theodora made an impassioned plea to stay and fight. Theodora came from humble beginnings; her father was a bear trainer at the famous Hippodrome which held chariot races of the sort shown in Ben-Hur. She then worked as an actress and a prostitute (the two professions were interchangeable in those days) before coming to the attention of Justinian while he was heir to the throne. It was this former prostitute turned empress who prevailed on the ruling elite to resist the rebellion. Inspired by her words and spirit, Justinian did so and went on to rule Constantinople with Theodora for several more years, building aqueducts, bridges and churches including the famous Hagia Sophia.

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Andronikos Komnenos: Perhaps one of the most colourful of the Byzantine rulers, Andronikos was supposedly a handsome and striking personality, a general and statesman who lived a charmed life of debauchery, seduction and intrigue. He rose to the Byzantine throne in 1183 at the advanced age of 65. His rule was marked by murders, massacres and terror. He was eventually overthrown and handed over to furious mobs who tortured him publicly for several days; his right hand was cut off, his teeth and hair pulled out, one of his eyes gouged out, animal dung and boiling water thrown on his face. Finally, he was hung by his feet between two pillars and two soldiers competed to see whose sword would penetrate his body most deeply!

Alexsios IV Angelos: The machinations of Alexios IV to reclaim the Byzantine throne on behalf of his deposed and blinded father Isaac II resulted in four different emperors on the throne from July 1203 to April 1204. In a ridiculous turn of events, the Fourth Crusade which was organized to reconquer Jerusalem from the Muslims ended up sacking, looting and destroying Constantinople, the capital of the 2nd largest Christian empire! These events would lead to the eventual weakening of the Byzantine empire and 250 years later it would fall to the armies of 21-year-old Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in May 1453.

Suleiman the Magnificent and Hurrem Sultan: In the 1530s, Sultan Suleiman (the great-grandson of Mehmed) sent shockwaves through the empire by marrying his Ukranian concubine Roxelana (later named Hurrem, “the cheerful one”). Previous Sultans never married, but fathered children from the many women in their harem, rarely sleeping with the same woman twice (there was a strong preference for virgins). However Suleiman became captivated by Hurrem and the two became true soulmates, effectively ruling the empire together for two decades. This was the Golden Age of the Ottoman empire, which saw the reform of education, taxation and criminal law. Suleiman’s brilliant architect Mimar Sinan supervised the construction of nearly 500 buildings, including the famous Blue Mosque and the even more impressive Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, one of the greatest achievements of Islamic architecture. Hurram’s partnership with Suleiman led to the 130-year period known as the Sultanate of Women, during which the wives and mothers of sultans exerted considerable political influence in the running of the empire.

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Incidentally, it was a failed invasion of Vienna by Suleiman during 1529-32 that convinced Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire not to burn Martin Luther at the stake as he needed the help of the Protestant leaders against the Ottoman threat. Thus the Protestant Reformation thrived and was saved from being snuffed out.

Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’: The father of modern day Turkey, Ataturk was an Army commander who went on to become the 1st President of Turkey, abolishing the caliphate in 1924 and bringing to an end 2500 years of empire in Byzantion/ Constantinople/ Istanbul. Mustafa Kemal was responsible for establishing Turkey as a modern secular nation, adopting the Western calendar and the Roman script to re-integrate the nation into the global economy after decades of decline, recognizing and celebrating the pre-Islamic history of the city including conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum.

And so, I came to the end of this fascinating book which has got me even more excited about visiting this city one day soon. The complexity of Istanbul is perhaps best represented through this 16th century illustration of the city by Danish renaissance painter Melchior Lorck.

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Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is a thrilling trip through time


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I’ve just finished reading my 26th Stephen King book, 11.22.63; I read my first – It – in 1988. I’ve read more of his stories than I have of any other author, with Isaac Asimov next at 18.

Stephen King doesn’t give the reader any easy rides. His protagonists go through pain. Lots of it. There are lots of lead characters in popular culture who get hurt, like Indiana Jones and John McClane; but those guys mainly experience physical pain and they are still strong enough to bounce back in the next action scene a few minutes later. King’s characters on the other hand, keep hurting for a long time because the pain is physical, emotional and psychological. Like in real life. I think this is the real reason he is classified as a horror author, because we know that life’s realities can be more horrifying than any ghost, monster or supernatural phenomenon.

11.22.63 falls into the scifi spectrum of Stephen King stories, like Under the Dome. In 2011, a small town high school teacher Jake Epping is invited by long-time acquaintance Al Templeton to his house, where he learns that Templeton has been using a secret time portal to travel back in time; the portal opens into a specific day in 1958. Templeton extracts from Epping a promise that he will go back and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a pivotal moment in American history which Templeton believes led to America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War and many other ills the world has suffered since. Epping agrees, goes through the portal and then travels down south to Texas where he has to get through the next 5 years, find Lee Harvey Oswald and prevent the foul deed. In the hands of any other author, this would have become a typical suspense thriller, but King is interested as much in the journey as the destination and takes us on a tour of America in the late 50s and early 60s, a nation that has gone past the post-war baby boom and is now dealing with urban decay and social cynicism. Along the way, Epping meets some memorable characters, falls in love, gets into some heart-stopping dangerous situations and eventually faces his destiny as the man who has the power to change the course of history.

One key plot mechanic used – kind of like the opposite of a deus ex machina (apparently the term is ‘diabolus ex machina’) – is that the past does everything possible to prevent its course from being changed. And so, Epping has to battle all sorts of people and incidents that pop up, like Murphy’s Law, to stop him from getting to Oswald before he fires that gun. And afterwards, Epping finds out that even if you do manage to change the course of events, Time has a way of taking revenge.

This is a fascinating story that stays in the memory well after the last page has been turned. I would love to watch the mini-series featuring James Franco as Jake Epping, which premiered on Hulu earlier this year and see if it does justice to King’s writing. If it weren’t for the fact that King writes horror/ fantasy/ scifi, he would certainly have been celebrated as one of America’s great modern writers of fiction.

Which is worse? Living in a radioactive airship or inside a giant bio-engineered lizard?


I recently read two very different scifi books, with a similar theme – people living part or all of their lives on the move, inside an unusual, cramped and unpleasant form of transportation. Both stories are set about 250 years in the future on a post-apocalyptic Earth operating under militarized society.

First, let me talk about James Barclay’s Heart of Granite. The book begins with this quote from fictional scientist Dr. David Wong – “History will record that the discovery of alien technology and DNA on asteroid X34-102-401 brought us to a predictable catastrophe. Governments perverted our greatest gift to synthesise vehicles of destruction. Global conflict was inevitable.”

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The story takes place during the mid-23rd century in the midst of a world war involving three major global powers – United Europe (UE), Middle East & Africa (the Mid-Afs or Mafs) and Latin America (the Sambas). All three parties use alien DNA technology for their weapons.

Our hero, Max Halloran is a maverick pilot (think Tom Cruise in Top Gun), fighting on the side of United Europe. Operating under the call sign ‘Hal-X’ he flies with the Inferno squadron. So far, so normal. Except that he flies an artificially grown dragon (called a Drake), synthesized from alien DNA and terrestrial lizard DNA. The drakes have a pouch which the pilot climbs into. It then fills with fluid to protect the pilot from g-forces and also neurally connects him/ her to the drake’s brain so that it can be controlled by thought. The drakes, pilots and a few thousand other military combatants are transported inside the body cavity of a kilometer long giant lizard (called a Behemoth), which lumbers along the devastated battlefield on 30-odd pairs of legs. The Behemoth inside which Max and his crew are based is the eponymous Heart of Granite (or HoG for short). The military also uses other genetically modified lizards as troop carriers (Komodos), ground assault vehicles with missile launchers (Geckos), support carriers (Iguanas) and high speed patrol vehicles (Basilisks), some of which are also transported aboard the giant Behemoths.

Heart of Granite plays out like a standard pulp fiction military thriller. There are spectacular air battles, heartless superior officers, rivalry between hotheaded pilots, plus the usual mix of sex, drugs and alcohol.

But what made the book special for me was the description of life aboard the HoG, which operates like a typical military base. The author goes into tremendous detail about the internal structures of the Behemoth. There’s the main bridge inside the head cavity with its large screen monitors and sophisticated communication equipment; the flight deck from which the drakes are launched – a giant ramp opens out under the Behemoth’s tail from which they take off; the hidden passageways and rooms occupied by black marketeers and drug peddlers; the giant brain of the Behemoth which can be accessed in the case of an emergency to reset the electrical, mechanical and biological systems. Some parts of the Behemoth are particularly smelly or occasionally leak body fluid through cracks in the flesh, which then pool on the floor in a squelchy mess. It’s anything but glamorous, but the men and women aboard the HoG take it all in their stride as they fight for their nation and for glory. There’s also a somewhat convoluted plotline involving a government and military conspiracy, which Max gets sucked into. Eventually, he has to save himself, his friends and the HoG, while evading the higher-ups in the military who are trying to silence him.

 

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The second book I read was Nicholas Sansbury Smith’s Hell Divers. About 250 years after World War III turned the surface of the earth into a radioactive wasteland, all that remains of humanity is a population of less than a thousand people, who live aboard two helium airships – the Hive and the Ares.  Once upon a time, there were dozens of such airships, but now only these two survive. The rest fell to the poisoned earth one by one, as their ageing nuclear systems failed or the ships were struck by giant bolts of lightning from the perpetual mega-storms which circle the planet. Generation after generation of airship captains circle the globe, looking in vain for a single spot on the planet which is not radioactive, where they can touch down and start a normal life. Meanwhile, over more than two centuries, they have learned how to survive inside the airship, with plants grown inside farms, systems constantly patched up and repaired, living in cramped quarters with stinking toilets, everything recycled and citizens suffering from cancer due to the leaking radiation from the on-board nuclear reactors.

The protagonist of this book is Xavier Rodriguez, or X for short. X is a Hell Diver, an elite member of the military on board the Hive. They specialize in doing parachute drops into ruined cities, looking for precious spare parts or other pieces of technology which are required to keep the ships functioning and airborne. The author starts off by telling us that the average life expectancy of a Hell Diver is 15 jumps, but X is about to do his 96th. Beating the statistical odds comes with a price – most of X’s Hell Diver friends have perished over the years, his own wife has recently died and X keeps himself going by drowning himself in alcohol.

In this story, the airship Ares attempts a desperate retrieval mission for a large cache of critical nuclear reactor parts. The ship chooses to go to Hades (Chicago of old earth) which was the HQ of the company that built these airships and is rumoured to have a warehouse filled with pristine spare parts. Unfortunately, Hades is racked by the most violent thunderstorms on the planet and no airship’s Hell Diver team has ever returned from a dive there. Not surprisingly, the Ares is badly damaged and sends out an SOS; Captain Ash of the Hive decides to respond, her conscience winning out against the advice of her subordinates. She turns to her most experienced Hell Diver and it’s up to X and his crew to save the day. Most of them survive the jump against all odds, but once on the surface, they discover that Hades is overrun by a host of mutated creatures which are able to survive in the radiation. It becomes a desperate race against time to find the cache of parts, escape the marauding creatures and get back to the ship before it too falls victim to the brutal weather above the ruined city.

There are a couple of subplots which lift the story above standard military scifi fare. One involves the orphaned and traumatized son of X’s deceased colleague who now comes under his care. Just as the boy warms up to X’s attempts to build a rapport, he has to deal with the possibility that X will not return from his dive into Hades. The other subplot involves a group of citizens who are fed up with the squalid conditions on the lower decks of the Hive and decide to start a rebellion at the same time that the ship enters the perilous skies above Hades.

I’m not a particularly fast reader, but I managed to finish each of these books in less than four hours, which is an indication of how quickly-paced both stories are and how easy it is to digest the conversational language of both authors, in spite of lots of technical details thrown in.

Sorcerers of Majipoor: world building on the scale of Lord of the Rings


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Robert Silverberg’s award winning 1980 novel Lord Valentine’s Castle introduced scifi fans to the world of Majipoor, a giant planet settled by humans and other alien races for thousands of years. Since then, the prolific Mr. Silverberg (now 81 years old) has published 6 more novels and countless short stories and novelettes revisiting Majipoor at different points of time across its history, the latest being the short story collection Tales of Majipoor, published in 2013.

The novels deal mainly with the ruling triumvirate of the planet – the Coronal (equivalent to a king), the Pontifex (the head of the bureaucracy, a post into which the ruling Coronal moves upon the death of the previous Pontifex) and the Lady of Sleep (the keeper of morals, a post occupied by the mother/ aunt of the reigning Coronal). Majipoor is a ‘backwater planet’ which has limited contact with Earth. The original human settlers were technologically advanced and were able to tame the planet and its aboriginal inhabitants – the Piurivar – in the early part of the planet’s history. In those early centuries of colonization, the human settlers built great engineering marvels. One of these is the Coronal’s castle, built on top of Castle Mount, the tallest mountain on the planet with springtime weather maintained right to the top using force fields and atmosphere generators. There is also the sprawling underground city called Labyrinth which houses the Pontifex and the entire bureaucracy. Other alien races have since then migrated to Majipoor and become an integral part of the human-dominated society. Interestingly, due to the scarcity of metals on the planet, whatever advanced technology exists on Majipoor (genetically modified draft animals, floater cars and energy guns) is the stuff that’s survived or maintained from the original colonist tech. Since then, Majipoor has settled into an agricultural economy supporting a pastoral society.

This means that the Majipoor stories have more in common with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings fantasy books than the scifi stories of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. In the Majipoor novels, Robert Silverberg has unleashed his world building skills and the sheer amount of detail that pops up in the novels is astonishing. Tolkien likewise had worked for many years to create an extensive historical, geographical and linguistic backdrop to the world of Middle Earth before he embarked upon the task of writing the actual stories of hobbits, elves and the One Ring.

I had read Silverberg’s first Majipoor trilogy – Lord Valentine’s Castle, Majipoor Chronicles and Valentine Pontifex – in the late 90s. The trilogy centred around the character of Valentine and his journey from becoming the Coronal till his succession to the position of Pontifex.

Now, more than 15 years later, I am thoroughly enjoying revisiting this world with the first book of another Majipoor trilogy featuring the books Sorcerers of Majipoor, Lord Prestimion and King of Dreams. These are set thousands of years before the Valentine trilogy and tell the story of Prestimion and his journey to becoming Coronal of Majipoor.

And so, I am in awe all over again of Silverberg’s amazing world building skills and am re-experiencing the sheer joy of reading about this gigantic planet, its flora, fauna and peoples. I have a mental picture of Silverberg sitting down with large sheets of paper and writing out the names of each of the 50 cities (Amblemorn, Dundilmir, Castlethorn, Gimkandale, Vugel, Muldemar…) that dot the slopes of Castle Mount or the names of rivers, lakes, flowers, trees (simbajinder, dyumbataro, mengak, havilbove, jujuga, halatinga), birds, animals and minerals which are mentioned as part of the narrative.

For example, in the Sorcerers of Majipoor there is a page and a half devoted to the description of the dyumbataro tree – how it’s branches uniquely grow from a mass of aerial roots and how the humble fisherfolk living around Lake Roghoiz are able to shape these to build a platform for their houses; how the houses are built from translucent sheets of a glossy mineral cut from the sides of nearby cliffs and the evening sunlight strikes this material to create a sight of extraordinary beauty along the shores of the lake. This scene is a small part of a chapter which covers a journey by the main characters down the River Glayge aboard a riverboat named Termagent, passing the village of Makroposopos, famous for the skill of its weavers, arriving at the impressive Stangard Falls, then onwards past the river towns of Jerrik, Ganbole, Sattinor and Vrove with the cities of Nimivan, Threiz, Hydasp, Davanampiya, Mitripond, Storp visible along the way…

You get the picture!

Many online reader reviews have criticized Sorcerers of Majipoor for its slow pacing and lack of plot progression. That’s something one has to be prepared for when reading the Majipoor books. The whole point of the book is the enjoyment of the world rather than the thrill of a page turner.

Even so, there is a plot in this book, not just descriptions of cities and trees! It is a story of political intrigue played out against the backdrop of old-fashioned jousting games, royal balls, lavish feasts, the above-mentioned river trip and much more. The central character here is Prince Prestimion, who is heir presumptive to the Coronal’s throne but has the crown snatched away from him on the eve of the coronation through the machinations of others. He now has to sort out who are friends, foes and fence-sitters as he attempts to overthrow the usurper. His three closest friends – the noblemen Duke Svor, Septach Melayn and Gialaurys – remind me of the Three Musketeers, each with their own personalities, which get fleshed out over the course of the novel.

The Majipoor novels are not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you enjoy losing yourself in imaginary worlds, then start off with Lord Valentine’s Castle and work your way through the two trilogies. You may want to keep a notebook and pen handy though, to keep track of all the characters and places!

Of Great Houses, Power Crystals and the ability to speak ‘cat’


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Jim Butcher is an American best-selling author, best known for his long-running Dresden Files series of contemporary fantasy/ mystery novels. He’s written one book a year for the past 15 years and they keep popping up whenever I browse Amazon for best-selling books in scifi/ fantasy. I haven’t read a single one as I have no interest in the sub-genre, but I’ve always wished to read one of his books, as surely someone with so much success must be a good writer.

Well, my wish has now been fulfilled because Mr. Butcher has started on a steampunk series and the first entry The Aeronaut’s Windlass was published a few months ago.

Steampunk is one of my favourite scifi sub-genres – a type of alternate history set in Victorian or pre-Victorian times, but with advanced mechanical automation and technology.

There are also steampunk novels that are not set in our world, like Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World which is set on a Mars of the far future where some societies are operating at steampunk tech level. The Aeronaut’s Windlass is similarly set in an unnamed world where instead of nations, we have spires that tower for miles over a misty surface.

The story centres on two warring spires, Spire Albion and Spire Aurora. Albion, as the name suggests is an analog of Great Britain and Aurora stands in for Spain. Spire Albion’s society is identical to that of feudal Britain. Members of high society belong to any number of Great Houses with their own pecking order, Houses Lancaster and Astor being among the richest and most powerful. The Spire is ruled by a Spirearch, the current ruler being His Majesty Addison Orson Magnus Jeremiah Albion.

So far, so normal. Now come the interesting bits.

While gunpowder was the source of power in our world, it’s crystals in this world. Giant crystals tethered inside airships help them levitate and create a protective force field called a shroud. Smaller crystals are used to power ‘light cannons’ on the ships and even smaller ones placed in hand gauntlets allow the wearer to fire blasts of energy in battle. The crystals are grown over several years and are very precious. A destroyed or damaged crystal means a tangible reduction in the Spire’s firepower until a new one of similar size is ready for use.

Another interesting element is that meat is grown in vats and there are ‘vatteries’ all over the spire to provide food for the populace.

Now it gets weirder. Cats occupy a very special place in Spire society. They are very few in number, are as intelligent as the humans and have organized themselves into Clans, some of which are aligned with the Great Houses. Since the cats are generally aloof and arrogant, they are not particularly liked by the general public. A very select group of humans have the ability to speak Cat and are therefore held in very high regard by the Cat Clans but are treated with some degree of hostility and distrust by other people.

While this sort of plot element could easily push a story into the realm of farce, Mr. Butcher keeps it all very straight-faced. When fantasy and scifi authors build imaginary worlds, they run the risk of going into excruciating detail and boring the reader to death, or keeping it too superficial and therefore straining credibility. I’ve only read a quarter of the book so far, but I like the way the layers of this world are being peeled away in every chapter; it’s the sort of journey of discovery I enjoy when reading a book.

The characters are a mixed bag. The humans are rather stereotypical – feisty noblewomen, spoilt rich noblemen, heroic rich noblemen, brave and dedicated ship captains.

Fortunately, the cats make things interesting. Well actually, there’s only one that’s appeared so far. I became an immediate fan of Rowl, the heir apparent of House Silent Paws. He suffers no fools and fiercely protects his ward, the human Bridget, who comes from one of the poorer Houses, Tagwynn (Rowl lovingly calls her ‘Littlemouse’). Bridget and the impetuous Gwendolyn from House Lancaster are both in training at the Spirearch’s Guard, the elite force that defends Spire Albion from Auroran attack. The two ladies become good friends and have to deal with the usual mix of friendships and rivalries that emerge in these situations (think of Top Gun or The Officer and a Gentleman).

The two most boring characters are the captain and the XO of an Albion merchant ship called the Predator – Messrs. Grimm and Creedy. I literally cannot sit through any part of the book when the two of them are together on the ship. Grimm is serious, Creedy is earnest and it’s just impossible to describe how boring it is when two such men speak to each other, even in the heat of battle. I hope to God the heroic guy on the cover of the book doesn’t turn out to be Grimm. That would crush me.

Keeping the cats company on the interesting end of the scale are the etherealists (sort of like wizards). One of them, Efferus Effrenus Ferus is hilarious; think Dumbledore on weed…lots of weed.

At the quarter-way point in the book, things are just warming up. There are some mysterious and dangerous creatures living in the hidden depths of the spires. There are a few people who are called warriorborn, who Rowl refers to as ‘half souls’. I am looking forward to the reveals on these as the story progresses, provided I can get past the boring Grimm-Creedy bits!

The Aeronaut’s Windlass was a 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards Nominee in the Fantasy category. The second book The Olympian Affair is likely to be released in early 2017.