We go a-viking: The Long Ships

Original review, posted April 2012

So, this isn’t entirely a drunk book review, but it’s also not entirely sober. As such, I know I’m not going to bother checking my references and making sure I’m not making stuff up, so fair warning. 

Which is the thing. The Long Ships was written by a Swede (or possibly a Norwegian or a Dane) in the run-up to the second world war, drawing on his fiercely academic background in Old German/English/Norse semi-oral histories, stuff like the Icelandic Sagas, the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, etc. Unlike certain crunchy Oxford dons I can think of, Bengtsson has a super sly sense of humor. He’s not trying to build an Anglo-Saxon mythology that works with his Christian ret-con. Seriously, why I am being so coy here? What I am trying to say is that Bengtsson and J.R.R. Tolkien were both writing at the same time, using the same source materials as their guide posts, but they came home with some seriously different narratives. That Bengtsson is in the dust bin of history, and Tolkien is wherever he is with his name recognition, I can’t say what that means. Something. 

Whatever, moving on. 

So, The Long Ships? I’m again not going to look this up, but I think that Michael Chabon in the introduction called this the “last Victorian novel”. Which is, like, super overheated blurb-fodder, but I get what he was at. There’s something un-psychological un-Modern here. These characters are all recognizably human, and they certainly have their thoughts and motivations, but there’s something charmingly without hand-wringing and deeper purpose in terms of The Psyche here. People are what they are, and things happen, and sometimes these things have anything to do with each other, but mostly they don’t. Plot isn’t discovery; it’s shit that happens. 

Which, can we talk about narrator for a minute? I’ve been reading myself some Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I loves how snide they are. The Beowulf narrator can’t help, when he’s introducing some dude he hates, but warn us that the dude he hates is going to slip on banana peels in the third act and die or worse. He’s gonna get it! But watch him be a jackass now so you can savor it when the banana peels rear up under his heels. The narrator here isn’t as entirely intrusive, but he’s going to let you know that while Orm is rowing as a galley slave, that Orm will get out of it in the end, and it’ll make a good story, don’t worry. And it totally does. This is all good story. 

So, wait, plot? Orm Somethingson leaves his home to go a-viking, gets screwed almost immediately, and in a series of reversals of fortune, ends up as a soldier in Muslim Spain. They he bails and heads back to England/Ireland/Scandinavia, where some stuff happens, mostly involving the Christianization of that area. The first section – and, apparently, this was published as two discrete novels back in the day – is much more rip-roaring, trotting all over Europe, meeting up with Jews and Muslims and Christians, holding turn of the first millennium convos about how god(s) work, getting laid, and plundering booty. Which, fuck yeah. It’s like what Skye O’Malley would have been if that didn’t suck rocks. And donkey balls. Almost literally. 

Book two, or the second section, this was tougher sledding for me. Orm converts to Christianity, and although his conversion is super funny – he’s part of a Viking mission that has England by the short and curlies, and the English king is this total cowardly dork, and I’m not going into it more, because, boring for you – the parts where Orm bolts down in Scandowhereveria and has some babies and fights with his neighbors….zzzzz. Or not entirely zzzzz, but it lacks that broad-stroke of the first section, and as an early second millennium reader, I give Christian converts the stink eye. There’s no fanatic like a convert, as my mother likes to say, though that’s not exactly what happens here. Orm isn’t above beating the holy spirit into folk, which is funny, and his theology, when it runs at odds with the priests’, is sweetly pragmatic. But then we go a-viking again! Boo-yah! There’s not lot of danger here, in the sense that the narrator is warning you that everything will turn out all right, and then it does! Squee! Go Orm and all of his descendants!

And now, off topic. Again, according to sources I am not looking up, Bengtsson refused to let the Nazis publish his books under their occupation (must have been Sweden?) and use them as propaganda. Which, interestingly, nor did Tolkien allow the Allies to use Middle Earth as a propaganda tool.* (Which I’m also not looking up, but I’m fairly sure it’s true. Jesus, can you imagine how effective propaganda based on his sort of Teutonic Christianity would have been? Shudder.) I mean, we probably would have forgiven Tolkien in hindsight, should he engage in propaganda for the winning (and non-Nazi, in all fairness) side, but, interestingly, I think Bengtsson’s work is less suited to propaganda. Orm is living in a much more pluralistic society than Middle Earth, regardless of the varying versions of Western Christian societies that peopled that realm: Rohan, Gondor, The Shire. (Which can be read as Anglo-Saxons, Renaissance Italians, and the bucolic English.) Orm’s latent paganism is all over everything he does, even when embraces the True Faith and all that. Orm abides. Dude. 

An interesting book, and I’m glad I’ve read it, although I’m not going to say it wasn’t trying at times. I’m still not through worrying the idea that this is a Victorian novel, because I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, but I’m not sure how to articulate why. Certainly this is no psychological journey, Freud’s grubby hand-prints all over the action and its meaning. But it’s not sentimental either, which I think you can see heaped in huge flowering beds all over (some) Victorian novels. There’s no moral to the story. No coda. No gloss. So I think I’m going to call bullshit on this being a Victorian novel. I can’t say this is Modernist or post-Modernist or anything else though, which makes it incredibly cool and weird. 

Also, there’s a lot of beards. If you like beards, this is for you. Beardo.


*Update, Jan 2015:

Not long after I wrote this, I realized my little tossed off comment about Tolkien and WWII propaganda cannot be true: Lord of the Rings wasn’t published into the early 1950s, though of course it was written during the War, and most certainly drew upon JRRT’s experiences in the previous world war. (What exactly that influence is, you may quibble amongst yourselves.  For sure the Dead Marshes, at the very least, are a WWI reference, as is much of the relationship between Sam and Frodo.)

In the interest of fact-checking previous drunken me’s assertions — I know I must have read somewhere about how Tolkien managed the political application of his Middle Earth, as far as he was able — I googled “Tolkien propaganda”. I got a lot of stuff in German and some other blather. Not looking too closely, I clicked on a link called “Tolkien, his Dwarves, and the Jews”. I’m reading through, getting more and more worried by the antisemitic tone of this thing, when I realize I’m on a white supremacist message board. Ye gads! What the actual fuck!? Get me out of here!!!1!

After nuking my browser and clearing any and all fucking cookies, I can’t quote exactly what these shitheels were saying, but suffice it to say it’s not good. They quote Tolkien saying that the dwarves were modeled after Jews, which surprises the white supremacist. Don’t the dwarves have honor and stuff? And Jews obviously do not, etc, gag. If indeed Tolkien modeled dwarves after Jews — which I don’t find hard to believe, shitty source notwithstanding — then there are a number of troubling implications of this equation.

I’ll try not to get too nerdy here, but let’s just realize how far down the nerd hole we are already. So, basically, Middle Earth is a religious cosmology — we won’t say allegory — in which the main deity, Eru Ilúvatar, creates the races of Elves and Men. The race of Dwarves is created by a demi-god — a sort of Hephaestian character — called Aulë. As such, they’re lesser order beings, imperfect copies of perfect creations. Like Ents or Orcs, who were also created by beings other than Eru Ilúvatar, they struggle with sterility and a bent towards beastliness, tending back to the non-sentient animism of their origin. Eru Ilúvatar eventually gives the Dwarves sapience, but this doesn’t really overturn their origins. Which is why the equation of Dwarves with the Jews is…let’s just use the bullshit term “problematic”.

I’m losing my point here, and mostly I’m just freaking out at Tolkien being used by violent racists to bolster their cause. Oh, I know what my point was! It’s one of those old hoary chestnuts of criticism that “you can’t judge literature from the past with the sensibilities of the present argle bargle”. To which I say, bullshit. I can do anything I want, motherfucker, and if what I want to do is decide that Tolkien’s “races” are treading dangerously close to racial biological determinism and its attendant social violence, then I can do that in the privacy of my own home. And I mos def have both the textual and extra-textual evidence to back that up. It’s not like I’m making shit up; even the white supremacists see it.

But! This determination is a slightly different thing than using Tolkien — or any other writer — and his (admittedly historically determined) blindspots and straight up prejudices as propaganda in perpetuating such diseased worldviews. There is a lot I love about Tolkien, from his shitty poetry to his linguistic ardor for English and a half a dozen other dead languages, but this 1) doesn’t make me blind to his failings and 2) doesn’t mean if I love the baby I need to drink the bathwater. After the LotR movies came out, a bunch of the actors, of myriad political inclinations, came out with various “Tolkien said this or that about politics” statements. To which I say, who gives a shit? I don’t base my political opinions on what my racist great-uncle said about the War, or Jews, or whatever — and dude said plenty, I assure you, and it was all awful — and I’m not going to base my opinions on someone else’s great-uncle either, even if I love his poetry. The personal is the political, sure, but not the other way around.


More statistical wonkery, this time about the Icelandic Sagas

Earlier today I posted elsenet about how someone has done a statistical analysis of how many lines people in Shakespearean couples actually say to one another. The take-home: Romeo and Juliet have the least lines to one another, doi. But the literary statisticians have been busy, bless their hearts.

I can’t find an example of this right now, but I’ve been lured in the past by facebook apps that generate maps of my social network, producing these spidery images of all the connections between the people I am connected to; big hoops of family, school friends, work friends, out to strange outliers who are unconnected to any other person I know. These maps look a lot like the art produced by Mark Lombardi, who is a “neo-conceptional artist”  – wiki’s phrasing – whose mapping of the relationships between government, business, and fraud are both beautiful and chilling.

relationship chart by Mark Lombardi

(I’m kind of freaking out here because I didn’t know that Lombardi killed himself in 2000, and his pre-9/11 documentation of the relationship between the Bush, bin Laden, and al Saud families, for example, ended up being the subject of FBI investigation after the fact. Jesus. Deploy the tin foil, friends.)

Anyway, on a less ominous note, some statisticians have created relationship maps for a bunch of ye olde narratives —  the SagasBeowulf, the Iliad, and the Irish Táin Bó Cuailnge —and found that the ones that are purported to be based in real events produce relationship maps that look a lot more like modern social networks that the ones understood to be fictional. Observe:

relationship maps for the Sagas and the Tain

The one on the left is a relationship map for the Sagas, the right is from the Táin. The latter is understood to be fictional, and the former based on fact. You can see how one has the messy, lived structure of a social network, and the other has the artificial importance of a single protagonist.


It would be seriously freaking interesting if someone would turn this kind of statistical analysis of social structures in, say, the book of Exodus, the Gospels, or the Rigveda.




The Demon Lover: Tam Lin in Newford

For the last month, I’ve been working my way through the ridiculous number of NetGalley titles I downloaded in a big frenzy once I remembered I had an account there. Of course I started with the stuff I knew was in my wheelhouse, to very good results. So time to start in on the less likely stuff! I’m generally not looking for taxing on my Sunday on the couch reads (or Sunday on the back porch, in more clement weather), and I figured something called The Demon Lover (by Juliet Dark, of course) with that cover would fit the bill. There’s a whole passel of books that have more or less that cover, and they tend to be young adult paranormal romance type stuff. Observe:

I’m not casting aspersions here, just making observations (partially because I have not read any of these books in question.) But given general impressions from reviews of similarly covered books, I figured I knew what I was in for here: young girl, maybe some tragedy in her young life to make her “deep”, meet cute with a bad boy/otherworldly creature, sudden love bordering on obsession, lots of angsting and misreading of the classics of Romantic literature. (Sorry to say, kids, but Cathy and Heathcliff can never be made to have a happy ending, and if they do, they are not Cathy and Heathcliff. Character is bloody destiny in that instance.)(Just kidding. I’m not sorry to say it.) But whatever Chardonnay-snorting near-snobbery from me aside, often these kinds of books have a vibrating energy to them, a pulse of often deeply misguided, but very real passion. You can do worse on a Sunday after reading a collection of considered, thoughtful, careful prose. Sometimes I don’t want to think but feel. 

So it was hugely surprising to me to find a musing, allusive, and referential novel here, complete with affectionate send-ups of academia and an almost matter-of-fact tone. Callie McFay – and I will take this moment to note that the names are awful, across the board – McFay barf is an adjunct professor type who has had some minor success with a Master’s-thesis-turned-pop-criticism book about vampires in the contemporary Gothic, and is now figuring out whether to publish or perish. She’s got a long-term long-distance bi-coastal relationship, and has obviously read a lot of Bakhtin, Gilbert & Gubar, and Marina Warner. Not that those things are related, making for a terrible sentence from me. Anyway, she decides to go in for a small college in upstate New York because of feelings, and pretty much all of the bitchy things I said would happen come to pass, except for the misreading of the classics part. Ms McFay (barf) has the Gothic classics down. And goddamn right. Oorah. 

If I were writing a blurb for this novel, which I would never be asked to do because my sentences heretofore have been for shit, I would say: Pamela Dean’s Tam Linmeets Charles de Lint‘s Newford. On acid. Actually, just kidding about the on acid part; that’s just a bad joke about blurbcraft. But The Demon Loverhas the everyday boringness (and I mean this mostly kindly) of Dean’s college fairy tale, and the nose-picking earnest wonder of de Lint’s “North American” – this means Canadian – city and its denizens. (I kind of can’t believe what a bitch I’m being here, and I’m sorry.) I had to swear off reading any more de Lint (except for short fiction) because of inherent blackness in my heart – Newford is just too wonderful for me – so the parts of this that reminded me of that fell flat. But Dean’s Blackstone College is pretty much my collegiate soul, so split differences at will. 

There are many aside observations here I enjoyed about the contemporary Gothic and its workings, but ultimately the action of the prose didn’t do it for me, and I can’t figure what the thesis might be, if you’ll allow me academical phrasing on this. Ms McFay falls in with an incubus, that soul-sucking Romantic/Gothic fantasy of the perfectly Byronic, tragic dude, and while I appreciated the clear-eyed, innuendo-less conversations about what that might mean, I had a hard time connecting with the emotional stakes. Some of this is tone, which is more sensible than usually found in Gothic romance. But certainly, this could be a function of my long-married pragmatic heart, which doesn’t have much patience with dramatic passion with assholes and users anymore. That is too much like work, and the rewards of not being sucked dry and killed by your lover are pretty awesome, especially if you don’t have the dress-billowing mania to make up for the whole Romantic death business. Lest I sound too negative, I do appreciate how this all works out for McFay, and the hard choices she makes, I just…I’m going to have to admit I’m getting old here. Gothic romance is freaking exhausting, which is possibly the take-home message here, which makes this book a little bit awesome. 

So, anyway, enjoyably smart fun, though maybe not the kind of fun advertised on the tin. And I downloaded this because I really wanted to get to The Water Witch, whose cover was much more enticing to me. Billowy dresses, you’re fine and all, but half-naked chicks rising out of the water? That’s the show. We’ll see what happens next Sunday on the couch.

Riveted: A Song of Ice and Fire

Without question, Riveted by Meljean Brook is the most accomplished of the Iron Seas novels so far, with a smooth and well-paced exposition, likable characters who do not behave like children or (worse) teenagers, and a trotting, road-trippy plot that doesn’t drop threads or wander off. Even the cover is better, without the greasy torsos of the first two novels. Greasy torsos really gross me out. Observe:

Admittedly, the Iron Duke looks pretty dry, but someone has oiled the second dude. Yuck. And it doesn’t make any sense, because that character was supposed to be a clothes horse and a dandy. I hate to say this, lest I sound like a hipster douchebag, but the UK covers are better across the board. Apparently, I’m out of step in my torso aesthetics with my country. Rule Brittania. 

David Kentewess is a vulcanologist traveling to survey Iceland for the alt-history version of the Royal Society; Annika is the daughter of an insular all-female society on Iceland. David also has personal reasons to locate and possibly expose Annika’s community. You can see how this might be a problem, despite a meet cute and the fact that they generally enjoy each other. There are other points of connection and fracture between the two of them, and Rivetedtakes time and care to build their relationship with an almost Regency-level restraint. (And I have noted before that this is more an alt-Regency steampunk world, less an alt-Victorian one, dirigibles notwithstanding. Though the first manned balloon flight was in 1783, which is kind of a trip if you think about it. Anyhoo.) 

So, it seems to me that romance novels – especially those that fall in to the broad rubric of paranormal – often deal with various kinds of body trauma. The paranormal, with it’s extreme and changing bodies – the animistic werewolf rippling with fur, the cold blood of the vampire, the insubstantiality of the ghost –almost externalizes that trauma (which doesn’t have to be sexual trauma, but because we’re dealing with body trauma here, almost always affects the sexual) and dramatizes it. Omg, I don’t want to drink blood; change into a monster; succumb to my biology. Et cetera. Certainly, this can be just badly done, and you can hit a bunch of anorexic ideation, slut-shaming, or just straight up rape fantasy, but trauma’s not actually ennobling, and pain and fear bite. But body trauma is often the heart of paranormal romance. 

Steampunk is on the far edge of paranormal – there are often scient-ish explanations for whatever megalodon/dirigible/automata – but a pulp sense of goofy hand-waving to explanation is happily part of the genre. And the Iron Seas books certainly have been taking on body trauma in their romantic pairings. I was not at all comfortable with Rhys and Mina’s deal in The Iron Duke – even while I really loved Mina’s character & the world in general. The whole Alpha male sub/dom thing was just too much for me, though I do appreciate that it’s addressed pretty head on. 

But here with David, we don’t have a big rippling alpha asshole who just has to pin down his lady love and fuck make love the trauma right out of her, but an almost virginal scientist who has been very seriously scarred in a volcanic eruption – one that also killed his mother. His monocle is not foppery, but a prosthetic replacing a lost eye. Three of his limbs have been replaced with prostheses as well. So he’s got some body issues: limited mobility, lingering survival guilt, still adjusting self-image and self-loathing, etc. I haven’t been much of a fan of virgins-lose-it tales, because, ahem, they almost never match up to the awkward reality, and they make me feel weird for how perfect everything is. But here it was sweet and awkward and occasionally painful – not just whatever hymen stuff, but painful in the sense that you can make some serious missteps while learning a lover’s body. Add in the fact that, if you think about, Annika more or less has to come out as hetero. We breeders almost never have to consider our sexual preferences as adolescents, least not the way gay people do anyway, so it is very interesting to see a straight person have to consciously make the choice of straightness, knowing that choice will lead to certain fractures with her community. 

This isn’t obnoxiously done or anything – there’s no Star Trek style arm wheeling about her single-gender community is just as wrong as the rest of them! or whatever, but that does bring me to why I couldn’t cough up that last star. This book is incredibly message-y, from gay rights to ableism to racism to fossil fuels to maybe some other other stuff I’m forgetting. It feels like a bitch-move from me to complain about this, but sheer number and occurrences of the messages got to be distracting, and I’m really sorry to say this, a little bossy. It’s not that I disagree – yes! don’t be dicks to people because of their sexual orientations! – but I felt a little choir-bound. Putting aside the bigots who won’t like this anyway – because fuck them – my main criticism is that so much was taken on – race! gender! the planet! disability! – that the take-homes felt dissipated and topically treated, except for the body trauma stuff. 

Anyway, another perfectly fun and intelligent alt-history/romance from Ms. Brook, one that balances the needs of the relationship against the needs of the plot in a near perfect manner. I certainly have my preferences for the thickly urban steampunk alt-history – and I did miss the London of the Iron Seas world – but the substitution of desolate, volcanic Iceland was pretty great. And there’s a character with my daughter’s name! I can see my house from here!

Oh, and by the way? Scientists are hot. 

From Bangable Dudes in History