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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-01-24 01:12
His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
His Majesty's Dragon - Naomi Novik

Synopsis:

Navy captain Will Laurence never would have guessed that the recovery of a dragon egg from a captured French frigate during the Napleonic Wars would throw his own life into upheaval. Now, bonded to newly hatched Temeraire, he has to abandon his career and face a new destiny among dragons and other aviators, and finds himself sharing a cameraderie and friendship with Temeraire he never would have thought possible. But the French aren't idle, either. They want their dragon back - and they are not above invading the whole of Britain, either.

 

Review:


As I said in a previous entry, the first part of this book simply blew me away. The build-up of the friendship between Laurence and Temeraire, Laurence's having to get used to his new way of life, Temeraire's childlike curiosity, his mutinous tendencies, his love for Laurence... all this touched me deeply. And when that other aviator came along trying to replace Laurence I was so angry on Temeraire's behalf (and Laurence's), that the reunion and confirmation of their partnership almost made me cry. I always enjoy focusing on few characters and their relationship, and this was just what I love most.

Unfortunately, I wasn't quite as happy with the second part of this novel. While, of course, it's necessary to introduce the other aviators and dragons this section dragged along quite a bit. There was too little action and a bit too much theory behind the Corps and all the dragons. Again, I know that the members of Temeraire's formation have to be introduced and properly described, but I would have wished for a bit more interaction, maybe even a description of how Temeraire fits in. He is, after all, as new to the Corps as Laurence is, so I'd have loved to get a glimpse at the training camp out of *his* point of view, especially given his insecurity at fitting in.

What I did like, though, was the introduction of females into the Corps. Given the setting at the onset of the 19th century one wouldn't expect women to play roles other than as damsels in distress, so I quite welcomed their riding one of the more dangerous dragon breeds.

On the other hand, the training camp offered quite an insight into the partnerships of other riders and their beasts. And while Laurence comes across as extremely accomodating and mindful of Temeraire's needs, the relationship between dragon and human seems generally based on mutual respect and friendship. Small wonder that riders don't quite find the time for other serious relationships. Perhaps because of the caring and loving environment, even between a not so intelligent beast (Vollie) and its rider, the fate of Levitas comes as an even harsher blow. I always find it difficult to bear disdain and negligence when a few simple words and actions could mean all the difference. And I also find it difficult to just look on and not interfere. Why couldn't Levitas be taken away from Rankin? Because *he* wouldn't have accepted another rider? Loyalty for sure is a fickle thing, and love is even more. Not everyone who gets it, deserves it - and still, Levitas couldn't help but be loyal and loving towards Rankin even if the only thing he got back were harsh words, negligence and, at the end, death. I sobbed throughout the whole scene of Levitas' death, I rooted for him to get just one small declaration of affection and worthiness from Rankin - and still, even the fake words Rankin managed to utter on Laurence's behest were enough to let him die peacefully... I'm still tearing up, just thinking and writing about it.

But actually, I do wonder about the set relationship between rider and dragon once the dragon decided on being harnessed. It says quite a bit about the position of the dragons that they can't decide on having a new rider. Novik depicts the beasts as sentient and more or less well aware of their position, and it seems a bit contradictory that, given the mass of available riders and the few dragons being bred, that a dragon that's abused can't be reassigned to a new rider - or even better, that riders such as Rankin that have little regard for their dragon and/or border on cruelty, can't be dismissed from the Corps. And even if that's not an option due to Rankin's family's influence, then it should have been possible to reassign him to duties that prevent him from actually coming in contact with the dragons. Laurence managed to save the next newly hatched dragon by sending Hollins - but what about the one after that. Will s/he then have to face a fate similar to Levitas'?

I'm not so sure what to think about the last part of this novel, the fight to drive back to French forces. I mean, all the training Temeraire and Laurence underwent in section 2 was rendered more or less useless because in the end, it was a previously unknown ability of Temeraire's that saved Britain. Which kind of leaves me feeling cheated.

I know that this whole review appears as if I, ultimately, was disappointed by "His Majesty's Dragon" - but nothing could be further from the truth. The well of emotion throughout this story makes up for almost everything. This may not be *the* perfect book, but despite its... I don't even want to call it flaws, but there's no other word that pops into my mind right now... it comes close. Novik offers a unique spin on historic events, adds fascinating and humane characters, explores relationships and emotions - and stirs well. The result is a novel of about 340 pages in length that I could hardly put down. I simply hope the sequels live up to my now very high expectations.
 
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review originally written in 2008
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-01-24 00:43
Imperium by Robert Harris
Imperium - Robert Harris

Synopsis:


Tiro, Cicero's slave, recounts his master's political career, starting with his case against Verres and ending with his being elected consul...

 

Review:


I first encountered Marcus Tullius Cicero when translating his speeches against Verres and Catilina and later on his philosophical entreaties at school. Up until now he remains my favourite Latin/Roman author/orator, and when I find time I still enjoy translating his works. But quite frankly, I didn't care at all to learn more about his political career back then. After all, he lived more than 2000 years in the past...

But lately, I rediscovered him as a political figure, not just an author whose texts I enjoy, only to find out that political systems, be they from 2000 years ago or contemporary, are not that different after all. Cicero's social standing as a "new man", meaning he's the first of his family to pursue the consulship, the highest political position in ancient Rome, often puts him at odds with the aristocrats who have held power in the republic since virtually forever and are loathe to relinquish it - and who maybe fear being replaced by those "new men". And Cicero poses a threat to them. He is the (reluctant) mastermind behind Pompey's grasp for power, he puts the governor of Sicily, Verres, an aristocrat, on trial for his misdeeds in office, and he's quite popular with the common people as an orator and lawyer.

But as Cicero advances in his political career he's forced to strike up deals and compromises. He gets caught up in a net of conspiracy, corruption, and... well... politics, and only chance helps him achieve his goals as he uncovers a plot to essentially overthrow the political system which secures him the unhoped for support of the aristocrats in the elections practically at the last minute. It's a fitting end to the book that Cicero doesn't boast his victory, that he isn't giddy with glee - but rather contemplative and aware of what he had to sacrifice along the way.

But it's not just Cicero with his witty remarks and high morals that are challenged at every juncture (with the latter sometimes even put aside) that makes this book a fascinating read. Rather, Harris manages to breathe life into the Roman society surrounding these more or less historic events. The basic story, Cicero's career, is based upon his speeches and letters to friends and Tiro's actual account of events, so the facts in this book appear historically sound. But it's much more than a mere biography. It's a glimpse into a Roman republic that is on the eve of its demise, it's ripe with corruption and the pursuit of petty self-interests. Caesar, Crassus and Pompey are already secretly spinning their nets, and one understands at the end, even as Caesar and Crassus' plot is revealed that this would only be a minor road block in their plans - even more so, because the reader of course knows what would happen just a few years after the events depicted in this novel. Caesar would declare himself dictator, and the Roman republic would finally meet its end... This knowledge, and the knowledge about Cicero's eventual fall from grace and cruel death, adds a rather bitter-sweet note to a very satisfying book.
 
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review originally written in 2008.
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-01-24 00:37
Roman Blood by Steven Saylor
Roman Blood - Steven Saylor

Synopsis:


Gordianus the Finder, a private investigator, is called in by Cicero for aid in his first major case, the defense of Sextus Roscius, accused of parricide.

 

Review:


Again, I'm drawn to Marcus Tullius Cicero, but this time to a Cicero who hasn't started his political career yet. We see a young advocate trying to find his feet on the public rostra, a story this time not narrated by faithful slave Tiro but by an outsider. Gordianus is a private investigator, he helps Roman advocates in finding evidence upon which they base their cases - but he's rather a "dirty secret", better not seen in the so-called upper circles of society. Thus, it comes as a surprise to him when one day Tiro stands on his doorstep and asks him to come to Cicero's house who's working on the case of Sextus Roscius, a man accused of murdering his own father. Parricide is a most heinous crime in Rome, deserving of a most cruel punishment, and time is short. Just 8 days are left to the public trial. Gordianus is drawn into a web of personal and political intrigue, he becomes the target of several assassination attempts and starts to wonder just what really happened that day at the Ides of September.

Usually, I'm not too fond of stories that are told from a 1st person point of view, but I guess it's the setting that makes it work. Remember, the story is set in a time where not everything was written down so I can easily imagine this story being passed on orally from generation to generation until it's finally recorded. The main story surrounding the murder of Sextus Roscius pater is quite a straight forward murder mystery that grips one's attention pretty easily, but that's not that extraordinary. It's rather the setting itself that adds a unique touch. Saylor paints a colorful, somewhat morose picture of Rome at the end of Sulla's dictatorship and ventures into the darker parts of the city where crime is common, and often not prosecuted - because who cares about poor widows, whores or beggars - or daughters raped by their fathers? Meanwhile, a few rich men amass a fortune, building on the misfortune of others. It's not the classic picture of Ancient Rome, where the honour of men like Cicero is praised and put on a pedestal. I'm rather inclined to think that people such as the widow Pollia who was raped in front of her mute son and later on abandons said son in the streets of the city are more of a symbol of the state of the republic. Probably, this won't appeal to many readers who expect the afore mentioned glorification, because as I said, ancient times are always thought to be better than the ones we live in - but this time they are both a bit too similar. And this similarity carries through most of the story, and doesn't stop even at Cicero's own sense of honour. Even though the end is a bit forseeable, I can definitely sympathize with Tiro whose hero-worship for his master gets dealt a rather harsh, but necessary blow.

"Roman Blood" is the first novel out of Saylor's "Roma Sub Rosa"-series starring Gordianus the Finder. I admit I have a soft spot for stories that revolve around historic facts. Cicero really defended a man called Sextus Roscius as his first major case - but it's the author himself who surrounds this historical core with the ever present "what could have been" that makes reflecting about ancient times so fascinating. What lies beneath the mere facts about Ancient Rome and its main protagonists? What was life really like back then? Or more basically, who are the protagonists really, what could they have been like? Perhaps that's the most interesting part in any fiction based on historical facts. We just don't know the men behind their political personae. I so appreciate the disillusioned and old Sulla, the greedy Crassus, the dyspeptic, somewhat awkward but nevertheless brilliant Cicero of whom one gets the impression that his mind is leeching off all strength of his body, and of course the young and still naive Tiro.

I for certain wouldn't mind another glimpse into the lives of Gordianus, his slave/concubine Bethesda and little mute Eco in particular, or Rome in general... and I guess I'll return to "Roma Sub Rosa" before too long.
 
~~
 
review originally written in 2008.
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review 2014-01-13 00:00
In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution
In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution - Sophie Wahnich,Slavoj Žižek

Excellent essay on the Terror and on revolutionary violence. Not for those unfamiliar with the Revolution and a bit short in relation with the complexity of the subject.

 

Slavoj Žižek's Introduction is particularly rousing and interesting (qualities I find in all his writings)  although it is a bit chaotic, but that is common in Žižek's work. I appreciated the analysis he did of Corolianus.

 

All in all, a provocative and enlightening analysis of not only the Grande Terreur but also of revolutionary violence.

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review 2013-10-11 00:00
The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England
The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England - Ian Mortimer

Like its Medieval brother, this book is an easy, fun read. I skimmed over the parts about social organisation because they are a very general overview that any reader who is interested in the period's history is already familiar with.

But the chapters and sections dedicated to every day life were a joy, as it is a subject often ignored by uni courses and political history.

The only reason I gave it four stars instead of five is the lack of images to help the reader picture what is being described. I struggled in the geography sections: having no sense of direction at all and not knowing London except trough reading, I was quite lost at what the city looked like.

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