Tag Archives: reviews

2017 Writing Year in Review

This past year was a good one for placing fiction but an even better one for placing book reviews. Find below a list of writing highlights from the past twelve months, with loads of links to free content.

DSCF7436 copy

A writing retrospective
Sometimes the work is slow, and in the midst of day-to-day endeavors it feels like not much is getting done. But looking back over the course of the year, it turns out a surprising amount of work does indeed get done, regardless of how it appears on any given morning. And then some of that even gets published. So here, for a moment in the sunset of 2017, I offer a comprehensive look back at what I’ve been doing over the course of the previous year. Four stories were published, including two fantasy pieces in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and ten book reviews in publications like Black Gate, Strange Horizons, and Grimdark Magazine. And it turns out I accidentally sort of wrote a book, which you can also find below.

mythic issue 2

Fiction
Another chapter in my “Wizard’s House” series, an epic dark fantasy, British pumpkin soldiers, and hard scifi on first contact and universal dissolution. The first three you can read following the links below; the last is available in the magazine for purchase.

The Wind’s Departure,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Harvest,” Bracken Magazine issue 4
Deathspeaker,”Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Color of the Flame,” MYTHIC Issue 2

 

ODYC_Cycle01-1

Book Reviews
Most of the fiction I read this year found its way into print as book reviews. You can find links to almost all of them below. For the MYTHIC reviews though, you’ll need to purchase the issues if interested.

Strange Horizons
Wicked Wonders, by Ellen Klages
ODY-C: Cycle One, by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward

Black Gate
The Man Underneath: the Collected Short Fiction of R. A. Lafferty, vol. 3
The Language of the Night, by Ursula LeGuin
Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
In Calabria, by Peter S. Beagle

Grimdark Magazine
Three Books to Get you Stuck into Warhammer 40,000”

MYTHIC
Press Start to Play, edited by Daniel H. Wilson & John Joseph Adams,” (Summer 2017)
Federations, edited by John Joseph Adams,” (Spring 2017)
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Karen Joy Fowler,” (Spring 2017)

Ten Generations cover

Books
Making Stars Physical will hopefully be a part of next year’s end-year review, and I hope to very, very soon be able to unveil the cover for this forthcoming work. The folks at University of Pittsburgh Press are doing an amazing job with this, and I’m quite excited. In the meantime though I put together a small work for my father for Christmas that chronicled the history of our family in America. Along the way I found a document my grandfather had prepared of his recollections before his death, which I edited and included in the work and which blossomed into a 60-page book. I printed it via Createspace, so if any of my family are reading this update and are interested in a copy, it is available. The cost covers printing alone; it was meant to be a gift, and it includes my grandfather’s unpublished writings, so I will not make any money on the sales.

 

Death and Life of Great Lakes_FINAL 1129.indd

Books Read:
I hope to get over this soon, but in the meantime I have a compulsion to review every book I read here on my blog. The list below are the books I read and reviewed in 2017 that did not have reviews published elsewhere.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)
Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works
Lighthouses & Keepers: the U.S. Lighthouse Service and its Legacy
One Summer, America 1927
Beginning to Pray
Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing
Son of Laughter
Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language
With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate
Kindling the Divine Spark
Death and Life of the Great Lakes
Knowledge for Sale: the Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education
Victoria: the Queen
Praying with Icons
The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University
How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything
Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea
Good Boy, Achilles!
St. Siluoan the Athonite
The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World

As always, thanks for reading, and here’s to a great 2018!

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): How the Silver Fox Became a DogHow to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): How the Silver Fox Became a Dog by Lee Alan Dugatkin

To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . . One only understands the things that one tames, said the fox. Men have no more time to understand anything.

— The Little Prince

One of the obvious and forgotten wonders of the human experience is our domestication of other species. “One only understands the things that one tames,” the fox explains in De Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince. “Men have no more time to understand anything.”

Domestication transformed both domesticator and domesticated, and indeed some scientists believe homo sapiens should itself be considered a self-domesticated variety of primate. Yet the mechanisms, history, and genetic implications of domestication are poorly understood. Why is it possible to domesticate some animals (horses), while close relatives (zebras) remain untamable? Why were so few species domesticated in our history, and how was this accomplished?

For the past sixty years, a remarkable experiment has been underway in Siberia to understand this process by recreating it with foxes. In just over a half a century—the blink of an evolutionary eye—Russian scientists have succeeded in domesticating foxes to the point where they live with humans and behave remarkably like dogs. Along the way, this has illuminated genetic changes unlocked when animals are unnaturally selected for calmness and tameness.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is the story of this experiment, documenting its history from its inception under the reign of Lenin to today. It is a popular treatment co-authored by an American evolutionary biologist and the Russian scientist who currently heads the project. The authors use the work to examine a variety of scientific issues, including evolutionary genetics, the role of hormone production in wild versus tame species, genetic coding, and primate evolution. Along the way there is also plenty historical context revealing what it was like to navigate a large, enduring experiment through the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Yet there are flaws with the book as well, specifically related to its awkwardly hagiographic tone regarding the founder of the experiment, the Soviet geneticist Dmitri Belyaev, as well as an un-self-conscious neglect of the ambivalent ethical background of the experiment carried out against the background of the Soviet fur industry and entailing generations of thousands of foxes raised in cages to be euthanized for their fur. The authors gloss over these implications for their research, focusing instead on the innate appeal of the idea of being able to take a fox home for a pet.

Victoria: the Queen

Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an EmpireVictoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

I remember an evening class session my first semester as a history PhD student at Notre Dame held in the living room of a professor who has since passed away in which this incredibly erudite historian made a case for empire. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the crux was a contrast between the relative peace that prevailed between various peoples who saw themselves as part of a single empire against the contemporary strife of nationalism among the ashes of collapsed empires. I remember that many of us were still young enough to find this idea shocking, distasteful, and certainly heretical to our American ideals of democracy. The democratic, in-fighting cities of Greece were the good guys, after all. The absolutist, domineering emperor of Persia was the singular Bad Guy.

Because that’s the problem with empire, isn’t it? You need an emperor. It never seems to work to unify a disparate collection of nations or peoples under the authority of an elected body. (Or at least, it didn’t work for the Romans for long, and one could argue whether the United States is in some respects simply a relatively young experiment in democratic empire-building.) It doesn’t work because an empire doesn’t really want all its constituent pieces represented. It just wants them unified, and the best way to do that is to place them all under the authority—perhaps only a symbolic authority, though sometimes that’s the strongest authority of all—of an emperor.

We’ve forgotten what a Christian idea this is. Christianity was not born in democracy, nor does it tend toward it. Every day, Christians around the world pray for the coming of a kingdom, an empire with a benevolent Prince of Peace as the ultimate, un-democratic authority. This was an ideal I was first introduced to in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, when the ghost of Severian’s tutor walks his pupil through what Severian assumes are progressively higher and more developed forms of government until the tutor asks in what relation Severian stands with most loyal, obedient companion. Democracy, Wolfe seemed to be saying, does not have a monopoly on virtue and loyalty. Indeed, these might flourish more easily in an empire ruled by a worthy leader. (And much of the plot of this five-volume epic is the story of Severian becoming a worthy emperor.) Famously atheistic Terry Pratchett makes a similar argument in the character of Lord Vetinari, the benevolent dictator of the Discworld’s most fabulous city.

This isn’t an argument against democracy, or even an argument that one form of government is better or worse than another. But it is an argument that to understand other peoples and periods (and maybe even our own theology) we need to at least consider giving up the notion that democracy is inherently and without question the best or the natural progression of all states. When we do, we might be in a position to understand the life and significance of someone like Queen Victoria.

As Julia Baird sets out in this sweeping biography of the life of the queen (and empress), Victoria reigned over an empire that during her lifetime grew to encompass a quarter of the world’s inhabited landmass and hundreds of millions of subjects—arguably the largest empire in history. Yet her life and reign (second in British history only to the currently-reigning queen) spanned the industrialization of her empire and a growing tide of liberal reforms. Under her rule (though not always with her support), Reform Bills expanded the voting franchise, and new laws began modernizing women’s rights and protection of children and workers and even animals (through anti-cruelty laws). Throughout a reign lasting from 1837 to 1876 (she came to the throne at the age of only eighteen), Victoria balanced being a figurehead and yet a real, forceful symbol of devotion to empire with the exercise of true political power.

Baird does a tremendous job mining primary sources and balancing her treatment of Victoria as a person with the context of the political and social world that was being transformed around her. From her stormy relationship with her mother to her adoration of husband Prince Albert and her veneration of his memory after his death decades before her own, to stubborn battles of will with the various Prime Ministers she outlasted and outlived, to her (previously often censored) relationship with her Highlands servant John Brown, Baird shines the light on Victoria the woman—often stubborn, selfish, and self-interested, but just as often stubborn, indomitable, and compassionate. Throughout, Baird highlights what it meant, for men and women, to have a woman as sovereign in a period when the rights of women in Britain were still developing.

This treatment of her personal character is balanced with enough context to help the reader place Victoria and her family in the center of shifting European politics and historical developments. Her children and grandchildren were scattered across the royal families of Europe, with repercussions up to the time of First World War. The ultimate fate of her granddaughter, wife of the doomed Tsar, in the Russian Revolution is well-known, but I had not realized the intricacies of what the rise of Prussia in the late 1800s (eventually ruled by Victoria’s grandson Kaiser Wilhelm) implied for family loyalties even before the Great War. Baird does a good job giving an overview of these complexities (and among the German kingdoms this could easily become dizzying) without getting lost in the details.

Finally, Baird finds a balance between the civilizing aspects of empire and the brutal realities this often entailed—usually for subject peoples. She doesn’t shirk from outlining the forgotten wars that played out on the fringes of the empire, like the Taiping Rebellion in China that she says cost millions of lives. At the end of Victoria’s reign, the Boer War in South Africa was pitting British imperialism against descendants of Dutch settlers in a conflict that put to rest ideals of empire as a benevolent force in light of the realities of forced relocation, concentration camps, and a naked bid for mineral wealth. Tangentially, Baird’s account outlines the true magnitude of the “Scramble for Africa”, in which colonial powers carved the continent between them and laid the groundwork for conflicts that would explode across Europe in the First World War. It made me wonder whether a more nuanced exploration of the conflicts that have shaken Europe might usefully recast them in light of the consequences of exploitation on the edge of empire, which historical treatments have often kept off the primary stage of history.

In my own fiction, empire often functions as a monolithic background in my fantasy. Empire is an easy background for epic. Allegiance to a distant, aging, perhaps half-forgotten emperor has something of romance, and I’ve looked at what loyalty to a larger ideal embodied in the person of an individual in a few of my published stories—”The Glorious Revolution” and my Wizard’s House sequence. I’ve also explored what the character of an empress forced into power might be like, in “Deathspeaker,” which is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. But all fiction is only a mirror, and it is only as rich as the history that informs it. I’m coming to realize that books like Baird’s and the characters like Victoria who return to life through them are essential for literature and that the interplay between history and fiction– even fantasy– might be closer than I realize.

Octopus!

Octopus!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the SeaOctopus!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea by Katherine Harmon Courage

Octopus! is a fascinating exploration that is less about the creature itself (the plural of which we are told not more than a few pages in, is octopuses because of the word’s Greek origin, not octopi) as it is humanity’s relation with it. The book begins with a look at how these creatures are caught and from then goes on to examine everything from the role of the octopus in our cuisine to how the organism is informing studies of camouflage, robotics, and artificial intelligence. A large portion of the work is about those who are working to understand the cephalopod’s physiology—from the fluid mechanics of how it jets around in water to the distributed intelligence that likely helps control its arms to how cells in its skin detect the surrounding conditions and allow it to camouflage itself so quickly (not simply changing color but also texture and even the polarization of reflected light).

All of this means that as much as Courage wants us to take the octopus on its own terms, throughout the book the animal is continually seen through the lens of its relationship (and usefulness) to humans. In this respect, the title needs the exclamation point, because despite the fascinating topic, the book itself reads at times like an extended Scientific American article, or a series of these articles put together (and it did, admittedly, start as something like that): a ride-along on an octopus fishing boat, a visit to a robotics lab on the Italian coast or an octopus-processing plant in NYC, complete with a cascading cast of experts and scientists who add their perspective to the author’s account. It makes for a lot of information but not necessarily a cohesive narrative.

Besides the octopus and our interactions with it (on boat, plate, and lab) the book lacks an organizing or overarching theme. We’re not given a clear picture of Courage’s own story regarding the subject: how did she develop such an interest in the octopus that she was driven to seek out experts around the world? This might have helped tie things together, if the author herself played a larger role in the narrative. Courage’s writing style was also at times uneven, moving abruptly from expert scientific exposition (which was usually clear and sharp and detailed, as when, for instance, she offers an extensive discussion of editing in the octopus gene sequence) to random allusions of octopus depictions in comics, pop culture, horror films, and even erotica. A more structured discussion of any of these topics would have added to the treatment, but presented as they were without context or discussion (at times it seemed just for comedic effect) they seemed abrupt or even jarring. Despite these flaws, the book was rich with fascinating detail regarding these amazing invertebrates.

Good Boy, Achilles!

Good Boy, Achilles!Good Boy, Achilles! by Eddie Ellis

Darwinian evolution did something to theology. Suddenly it became much less straightforward to see humanity as the center of the created order. Man was not the apex of creation but rather a species that happened to have had a series of successful random adaptations. More importantly, perhaps, nature red in tooth and claw put to the question the idea of humans as somehow mediating between God and the world in a chain of being where the higher animals were below us (and in our care) and the angels above.

On the other hand, it’s still pretty clear that humans play a role in the natural order, perhaps even a central role—even when seen in a purely materialistic context. We tilt the world toward change through our actions or inactions. (Climate change offers just one example of this.) More than broad ecological effects though, we have physically transformed certain species through the millennia-long experiments of domestication. Even if the rest of the animal kingdom could care less about humans, we in a very real way have some kind of role or responsibility to discharge vis a vis our dogs and cats, cattle, horses, and fowl. All these species are to some extent our own creation and have helped make human society possible. Dogs, for instance, have in some contexts and with a great deal of truth been claimed as our greatest and most enduring invention.

But which way does this responsibility go? Could it in some respects be reciprocal?

Theologically, you could respond to the idea of a unique relationship between humans and at least certain portions of the natural world (domesticated species, for instance) in a couple ways, specifically in light of humanity’s painfully evident inability to properly steward and protect these creatures (as well as ourselves). Classically, this fact is referred to in Christian theology as the Fall or as humanity’s fallen nature.

You could take the stance that this brokenness extends to the rest of the physical world as well as to humanity itself (St. Paul’s expression about the entire creation groaning). A theological view of animals in this case might hold that whatever redemption they have or need is mediated through mankind. C. S. Lewis comments on this somewhere when he responds to a question about animals in heaven by saying something like it is the role of humanity to mediate between God and nature and restore creation—that whatever kind of relationship animals might have with a Creator, it is through their relationship with man.

If that seems to anthropocentric, another theological tact might be that the rest of the world is still pure and unspoiled and that it was only man that went wrong, that this taint doesn’t extend beyond humans. Lewis again provides an example of something like this in his Space Trilogy, where only the planet Earth (the “silent planet”) has been occupied by the Enemy, and the creatures and animals on other planets in the solar system live in harmony with each other and their creator. A theological view of this might claim that animals still have an unobstructed relationship with God and that the responsibility of care might run the other direction— that they might be charged with helping to deliver us.

Now if all this seems like a lot of theological throat-clearing for a review of a slim book about puppies written for kids, I would point out that the author of said book has a Master’s in theology and PhD in religious studies, as well as a clear theological message to communicate in his writing. In the fictional universe Ellis creates (centered around a boy named Jeremy who lives on a farm with his parents and their dog Ginger, who has just given birth to a litter of puppies), it is the dogs who still have a clear point of contact and communion with their Creator and who are charged with the care and stewarding of their humans. Humans are muddled. Not only do they not smell and hear as well as their canine caretakers, they don’t have the inborn instincts and understanding that dogs are born with in Ellis’s book. The puppies and their mother know the voice of God and even occasionally interact with His messengers, but it’s not apparent whether this ability extends to the other animals on the farm or the wild animals (primarily raccoons) that occasionally make a nuisance of themselves.

That last line was not offered facetiously, as this would have been an interesting wrinkle to explore in the work. If dogs are innately “good”, does this extend to other animals that classically represent domestication and companionship? And are wild animals (like wolves, for instance) distinguished by their inability to hear or heed the voice of the Maker? Questions like these, and the potential conflicts that might arise, would have been interesting things to explore in a work that otherwise is a very straightforward tale about a boy who wants a puppy.

Ellis is writing for children, so he keeps the narrative focused and simple. Jeremy wants one of the puppies, named Thunder, for his own, though his parents have explained that they’re giving away all the puppies because they cannot afford them. Jeremy’s universe is as tight and tidy as the narrative itself: a halcyon farm where his dad takes him fishing and his mom makes cornbread and engages in the occasional snowball fight, a world complete with faithful family friends, church, and a cozy barn with a litter of puppies. We don’t see any conflict or fracturing of this idyllic scene; all Jeremy can see is a puppy that his parents have denied him.

Tension builds throughout the book as one by one the other puppies are taken away and Thunder learns what it means to care for and protect his human, from whom he ultimately receives his true name. Ellis’s voice and descriptive prose is solid, as you would expect from someone accustomed to academic writing. His tone is never dry or awkward, and he spins out the warm, domestic scenes with ease. The book slides along toward its inevitable conclusion until a final departure in which Jeremy, with very little warning, takes matters into his own hands with all the simple and unfathomable logic of a child. It is in this final crisis that Thunder (in what feels like a riff on a classic Lassie episode) proves himself to be Jeremy’s dog and saves both the boy and their future together. (Strangely, for all the attention that Ellis pays throughout the novel in passing along wisdom about God, patience, and obedience through the parents to the son, there is no final discussion or consequence related to Jeremy’s final, reckless gambit.)

It’s difficult for me to offer a perspective on how this book would read for a young child except to say this: I think kids like complexity. I think they can handle a lot more ambiguity than we normally give them credit for. Good Boy, Achilles seems to harken back to a time when children’s book were much more straightforward and black and white: a boy and his dog, obedience and trust. But even a book like that needs some wrinkles. In the straightforward world that Ellis creates, I kept finding myself looking for the complexities, perhaps some along the lines of what I outlined above. In some respects this book might fit a niche similar to Charlotte’s Web, but Charlotte’s Web had a cast including not only a pig and a spider but also geese, a rat, and entire barnyard ensemble. Ginger’s puppies have ended up in a variety of homes by the end of the story. If Ellis follows their various adventures, I hope we learn more about what it means to serve and follow (or question) the Wounded One (the dogs’ name for Christ) in other, varied setting with a broader cast of characters.

Shimmer 2015

cwyu3qbxeaiil6g-jpg-large Shimmer 2015 edited by E. Catherine Tobler

My rating: nine out of ten badgers

Shimmer is a magazine that publishes stories that might eat you alive. Some of them almost certainly will. Once a year, the editors put together a lovely physical collection of all the stories that have appeared in the online magazine, and as a contributor this year I was lucky enough to find Shimmer 2015 in my mailbox a few weeks ago. I waded in, knowing something about what Shimmer produces and happy to read more of it. Be warned though: if you’re looking for some light snacks, some fluffy fiction to help pass the time, this is not it.

These stories are real. They’re written with passion and razorblades. They have dark hearts, and they bleed. They might make you bleed as well.

The stories in this collection were a reminder to me that any time I think I have a handle on this writing thing, I need to go back to school, to shut up for a little while so I can have my heart torn out and handed back to me on a plate by other writers who are much sharper, smarter, and more alive than I am. Seriously, after reading these stories, I feel like my own are consistently written in crayon—or at best, smudgy pastels. (To be fair though, I’m quite proud of my piece that appears in this collection and feel it holds up pretty well, but that’s an exception.)

Shimmer is one of those rare markets that has a firm handle on exactly the sort of writing it wants to publish: science fiction and fantasy, ostensibly, but tending toward speculative fiction on the urban or dark end of the spectrum, with an iridescence that shades toward black. More than this tone though, a common thread in these stories is that they’re build not only on great ideas that would find a home on the pages of any fantasy or science fiction magazine but around characters that are alive in cultures or contexts outside your own tidy existence and that these characters and their perspectives bring a passion to their tales often missing from other more mainstream venues.

The opener for the volume, Malon Edwards’ “The Half Dark Promise,” provides an excellent example of this and a taste of what’s to come throughout the collection. On its surface, this story is about a girl with certain powers facing off against a monster in the dark, but it is clothed in the reality of a Haitian immigrant on the streets of Chicago. The language, the thoughts, the blood that flows through the story is that of Otherness and reality despite the fantasy premise. A similar example from early on in the collection is Alexis A. Hunter’s “Be Not Unequally Yoked,” which again takes a straightforward fantasy trope—the tale of a changling—but puts it in the context of an Amish coming-out story, Otherness turned on its head twice and shaken up a bit and again made real through its characters.

There are a few stories in the collection that could be considered more straightforward fantasy, but even these are done with a rich quality of content and tone, making them stand out in any collection. Of these, my favorites included “Of Blood and Brine” by Megan E. O’Keefe, in which O’Keefe creates an incredibly foreign but plausible world based on names and scents in a matter of pages. Another favorite because of the way it plays with nineteenth-century history of astronomy is “The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars” by Kali Wallace (and I hope Wallace tells us more about the Southern Star elsewhere).

Again though, what the stories in Shimmer 2015 do best is to take compelling ideas and clothe them in something more, a twist or a perspective that makes them land like a punch to the gut. “Monsters in Space,” for instance, by Angela Ambroz, is a piece about the naïveté of love against the politics of mining oil on the moons of Saturn. Likewise, “You Can Do it Again,” by Michael Ian Bell, is a gritty story of time travel that’s also about poverty, drugs, and the pain of a lost brother. “Good Girls,” by Isabel Yap, one of the most beautifully jarring works in the collection, is a monster story that’s also about friendship and girlhood and what it means to try to be a good when you are by definition one of the most frightening creatures imaginable.

I could go on: these are stories that are more than good. They illustrate what strong story-telling looks like today: taking fantastic or gorgeous ideas (like the idea of an illness that gradually turns you into a city in “Rustle of Pages” by Cassandra Khaw) and using it to hit you with the things you need to be thinking about (in this case, mortality and aging gracefully and love in the twilight of life). Then there are those that just push in the knife and twist it, like the absolutely eviscerating “Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale,” by Sunny Moraine, which takes the line from The Princess Bride song and pushes it to its darkest, most troubling conclusions—a story that literally eats you when everything bright in the world is gone.

I have a student who wants to be a writer, a young woman with a lot of passion who wants to put some of these into stories. I think I’m going to pass along my copy of Shimmer 2015 to her, because it’s a great example of the hardest thing about writing great fiction: you can’t just have good ideas and you can’t simply present those ideas in a compelling manner. More than this, especially today, you have to bring a voice and a passion—a perspective, usually in the person of one of your characters—to this whole endeavor that makes it come alive. Sure, some stories might survive on the merits of their ideas alone, but as Shimmer shows, the stories that come to life and grab you by the throat are the ones in which the characters carry you outside yourself with their own perspective, so you can see the world and all its incredibly, iridescent darkness and beauty, through their eyes.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval EmpireByzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been fascinated with Byzantium for years, ever since I found a copy of Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World on the shelf at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, years ago. Wells’ book was in the tone of most popular work on Byzantium, balancing the empire’s relative obscurity in history with its neglected importance. Since then I’ve read 1453, Roger Crowley’s account of the final siege of Constantinople that reads like the story of the Alamo times a thousand, as well as several other recent popular works on the city itself or the empire or their role in the Crusades. After that it was time to dive into the older, classic works by Steven Runciman and John Julian Norwich. Eventually all this reading inspired some fiction, a historical fantasy called “The Gunsmith of Byzantium,” which I’ve been shopping around for years, so far to no avail.

Byzantium represents both continuity and transition, something at once central to the heritage and transmission of classical learning but also largely peripheral to Western histories. It is the enduring Eastern half of the Roman Empire, lasting for well over a thousand years, from Emperor Constantine’s transferal of the imperial capital to the city on the banks of the Bosphorus to its ultimate conquest by Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: the Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire is not a straightforward history or a narrative on this huge topic. You won’t find the same dramatic scope as you would, for instance, in Crowley’s book or in Norwich’s sweeping chronological treatments. Rather, Herrin offers a synthetic survey, roughly chronological, distilling the various threads of Byzantine history and culture and drawing them into the light for a wide audience. Throughout the work, the author’s obvious enthusiasm and expertise in the subject vies with a small amount of tediousness as Herrin works to balance being thorough and comprehensive with being straightforward and engaging.

You’ll find out, for instance, both about the practices of taxation in Asia Minor as well as the epic poetry composed along this frontier, the splendor of the imperial court and the role and history of eunuchs within it. Herrin offers surveys of theological disputations that divided the empire, the role of women in propping up emperors and supporting the arts, the role of language and literature, the changing political fortunes of the empire, and the impact of the Crusades. The vast scope of issues she needs to discuss and angles to explore to be comprehensive is necessary for a complete treatment of an empire that endured for over a thousand years, but it makes the overall narrative structure slim. Throughout though, Herrin does a good job drawing connections with contemporary issues and the enduring legacy of Byzantium.

For the casual student of Byzantium, Herrin’s treatment doesn’t hold many surprises. It’s a good overview of Byzantine life and culture by a recognized scholar in the field. For someone who has heard of Byzantium though and is looking for a good place to start (and wants something a bit more synthetic and less sensational then Crowley’s 1453), Herrin provides an ideal entrance to this largely neglected world.