Misha Glenny’s The Balkans has been my breakfast book for the last year. Breakfast books are the many large, heavy books I have on my shelf that I can’t commute with so they get read in twenty minutes stints while I have breakfast. Sometimes twenty minutes is enough time to read a reasonable chunk. Other times, when a book is densely packed with facts and ideas, then twenty minutes gets me about five pages. If I’m lucky and really paying attention. The Balkans was very much the latter.
The book is very insightful. Glenny has spent much of his career as a journalist working in the Balkans and is most knowledgeable. The structure of the book is chronological, taking a span of years and addressing what is happening in each of the areas of the Balkans. I hesitate to say countries because, although nationalism has been a driving force behind much of the conflict in this part of the world, the experience of colonialism over this period has meant that the areas known as Bulgaria or Greece or Albania or Serbia (or others) have grown larger and smaller at various times. What becomes evident because of the structure of the book is the near constant experience of war for people living in the Balkans between the mid-19th century and the 1950s. The social and psychological legacy of that is appalling.
Glenny’s lens is one of imperialism. The start of the period he covers is the wane of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. The ways in which they sought to undermine each other or to retain power at the edges of their influence had a destructive effect on the peoples of the Balkans. Interference from the other great powers, Britain, France and Russia, made things generally worse. The great powers only sought to extract the wealth of the area as they did all around the world. Nazi Germany’s interest in the region was marginally more positive in that it had an economically beneficial impact, but following classic colonial policy agriculture was encouraged and manufacturing denied. When the Balkans (mostly) become part of the Soviet Union, it looks much like more imperialism to Glenny. The Balkan countries are treated as bread baskets for Russia and state terror follows a similar pattern to that of earlier empires.
Only a handful of pages at the end are devoted to the events in Yugoslavia after the fall of the Iron Curtain, which was a little disappointing (but it seems Glenny has written more elsewhere on the subject) but the threads of history and the interference of the great powers (preferring to call themselves the international community now but still playing the same game of putting their strategic interests over the lives of ordinary people) are visible.
This was a compelling and often disturbing read that inspires me to learn more about the Balkans. I remain convinced that nationalism is one of the stupidest ideas humanity has ever had. And there’s some stiff competition.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is fast becoming my favourite author. In The Tiger and the Wolf, the first book of the Echoes of the Fall series, Maniye is a child born to two tribes and beloved of neither of them. In this world, all humans have a totem animal and can shift into that shape whenever they like. Some people are born to parents of different tribes and when they hit puberty have to choose one shape over the other. Maniye can’t choose. She tries to choose the Wolf because that is the tribe she was raised in, and she nearly succeeds, but when she passes the trial she learns her father sees her as his pawn in his war against the Tiger. Maniye flees. She finds the Tiger people, and her mother, whom she believed dead, but realises they are as cruel as the Wolf and she is no more accepted there than she had been in the Wolf tribe.
Most of the novel is a chase, with both the Tiger and the Wolf seeking to capture Maniye and her learning to use both shapes to evade them. Over time the souls within her war with each other and her ability to shift shapes becomes unstable. The wolf and the tiger cannot co-exist. In escaping, Maniye has met people from other tribes, some of which have Champion forms as well as their tribe totem. With the help of a priest of the Serpent, Maniye goes in search of a totem strong enough to hold the tiger and the wolf in check.
Over and above the chase story and Maniye’s coming of age story, The Tiger and the Wolf is a story of a world under threat from a great peril. In the legends of the tribes there are tales of the Plague People and how the tribes fled from one land to this one to avoid destruction. Maniye meets many people on her travels because the priests of the tribes are gathering to share their portents. All understand that something terrible is coming. None know what it is.
I loved this. The writing is great and the worldbuilding is exceptional. It is pretty dark. Few of the characters have redeeming features, many of them are at the mercy of their family and tribe and not free to choose how to act. There are betrayals and reversals and deaths of characters that shouldn’t die. And there is an enormous world-destroying threat coming but the tribes are caught up in their local rivalries and politics to lift their heads up and take notice. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere.
Uhtred of Bebbanburg is back on form. After the somewhat padded and disappointing The Burning Lands, Death of Kings is a welcome return to the storytelling that this series has mostly offered. King Alfred is dying, for real this time, and his dream of England hangs in the balance. The Danish Jarls who rule the north and much of the midlands are waiting for Wessex, Mercia and Kent to become leaderless and undirected without Alfred’s guiding hand.
Having spent most of his life fighting for Alfred, Uhtred is broke. He can barely maintain his household and a single crew of warriors. He certainly doesn’t have the money to raise the army he needs to capture the fortress at Bebbanburg, his childhood home. Disheartened at the lack of generosity from his king, Uhtred considers going Viking. Then, on his deathbed, Alfred makes up for it by giving Uhtred rich estates in Mercia. Even this is a manipulation as Alfred uses this final gift to extract a promise Uhtred doesn’t want to make: an oath to fight for Alfred’s son Edward. When Alfred dies, Uhtred is convinced that there will be an invasion by the Danes. It takes three years to come, in which the Danish Jarls Sigurd and Cnut lay traps for Uhtred and allegiances in Mercia and Cent are fluid.
It culminates in the Saxon and Danish armies chasing each other across Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. The Danish army has too many leaders, Jarls and Kings, to act coherently, an aversion to laying siege to the fortified towns of Wessex, and many small lords just out for plunder. The Wessex army has an inexperienced young King surrounded by priests and cautious lords unwilling to take the fight to the Danes. When the battle is finally forced Edward’s army is victorious.
The historical note at the back of the book gives the archaeological evidence for the final battle and the historical evidence for the events, but much is conjecture to put Uhtred at the heart of events. In the background is the story of the Christianisation of England and a sadness for what was lost in the process.
I picked up The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison after EasterCon 2019. I attended a session called Build your Utopia looking for a discussion about creating worlds where humanity’s best traits are foregrounded. I’m kind of sick of the narrative that people are awful and there’s no way to change that. The Goblin Emperor was given as an example of hopepunk, a genre recently emergent as a reaction to grimdark fantasy.
It’s not as if nobody behaves badly in The Goblin Emperor. Maia, the half-goblin fourth son of the Emperor of the Elf kingdom expects only to live out his life in isolated exile. Then his father and three elder brothers are assassinated and his world is turned upside down. Not everyone is thrilled about his ascension to the throne and he faces treachery and an assassination attempt on his own life as well as courtiers seeking to take advantage of his naivety. Maia has to adapt to a complex society that nothing in his life has prepared him for and learn who he can trust. Eventually, he finds his way to identify and remove most of his enemies, to decide what kind of ruler he wants to be (a good one, obvs), and set himself on a hopeful path. Some of the characters are venal, violent and prejudiced. Others are generous, progressive and trustworthy.
Part of the discussion in the session at EasterCon was whether the idea that conflict is story is in itself a form of cultural hegemony. That there are other story traditions that are devalued and ignored because they don’t follow the structure we’re most familiar with. It’s an interesting debate. The hero’s journey structure that so much storytelling in books, tv and film is based on makes it hard to explore some kinds of ideas and concepts.
I enjoyed The Goblin Emperor overall but I found it a bit slow. Also, I never really believed Maia was in peril. There was no point in the book where I doubted that Maia would succeed. I enjoy those moments in a book where you suddenly think it’s not all going to work out okay for your favourite characters. I’m not sure The Goblin Emperor has given me a taste for hopepunk. I love grimdark and, more broadly, I am a sucker for tragedy, but perhaps I should stretch myself and get out of my reading comfort zone.
The Gayer Anderson Cat by Neal Spencer is part of the British Museum’s Objects in Focus series. So far, I’m enjoying the series immensely. There’s something very satisfying about a short book packed full of stuff I didn’t know before.
The Gayer Anderson Cat is the familiar, well-known cat statue from Ancient Egypt. I was surprised just how much isn’t known about the statue. It was acquired by Gayer Anderson, an art and antiquities collector in the early 20th century, who purchased objects from dealers on a regular basis but no information about where it came from or what it was for came with it. Thousands of cat statues were created in Ancient Egypt: there is evidence of workshops churning these things out and the book covers the excavations of some of these workshops. How they were used and who by is more mysterious. The Gayer Anderson Cat is the finest example of the type in existence so an assumption is made that it was paid for by someone wealthy and dedicated in a temple, but that is still conjecture.
New technology can tell us a lot about how it was made from the casting technique to the effects of the chemical composition of the metal. It can also reveal more detail on the surface of the object than is visible to the naked eye. The book goes into this in some detail. X-rays have revealed that there are repairs around the head and show how they were made.
These books are delightful. I like the intense focus on one small thing and what it tells us (or what we have projected on to it) about the lives of people who lived thousands of years ago.
Book 5 of Bernard Cornwell’s 11 book series The Warrior Chronicles (made for TV as The Last Kingdom), is The Burning Land.
It is late in the reign of King Alfred, around the end of the 9th century. The fictional Saxon lord Uhtred once more defeats a Viking invasion of Wessex, then is provoked into breaking his oath and leaving Alfred’s service. He goes in search of silver to raise an army so that he can capture his childhood home Bebbanburg from his uncle, but fails to get enough, so then he goes to Dane-ruled Northumbria where the Danes plan an invasion of Mercia and Wessex. Just as that starts, Uhtred is called back by Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd, to whom he has also made an oath, and ends up fighting for Mercia. His ancestral home feels as far out of reach as it did at the beginning of the series.
This isn’t the best of Cornwell’s books, or even of this series, so this is probably only one to read if you’re already committed. It felt a little padded, especially in the first half of the book, and is mainly battle scenes with very little in between. Still, I like Vikings, I quite like an action story, and I have the rest of the series on my shelf already, so on we go.
The best bit is the historical note at the end that describes the archaeological evidence for the story’s events.
Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala is about how the intersection of race and class affect black working class people living in Britain today. It combines academic research with personal experience and biography in a way that makes the statistics accessible and relatable. As well as deeply upsetting. We have nothing to be complacent about. Hate crimes are on the rise in the UK and social mobility is less easy than it was a few decades ago. Racism has a powerfully detrimental affect on people’s life chances and if we don’t act to tackle those affects they will get worse.
Natives covers a lot of ground, focusing on the impact of experiences in education, with the police, and with representation in the media. I particularly enjoyed the chapter contrasting the UK mainstream media’s treatment of Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro as this was a new lens for me. It highlights how curated our news is and how much the way events are reported, the way people are talked about influences our understanding. Our understanding of recent history is distorted in many respects.
I enjoyed this book very much. It is funny and erudite and moving. Highly recommend.