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.
Fire and Blood by G. R. R. Martin is the first of a two-part history of the Targaryen rulers of Westeros before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire. It starts with the conquest of Westeros by the first DragonLord and ends with the war between members of the Targaryen family which results in the deaths of most of their dragons. Written in the style of a non-fiction historical account, the book provides context and depth to the stories hinted at in A Song of Ice and Fire.
It is 700 pages and I have it in hardback which is why it has taken me so long to get around to reading it. With the opportunity to take some time off work and needing to rest to recover from a series of crappy colds and viruses, I read it in nearly a single sitting. It is engaging and well-written and it was quite hard to put down. Having said that, I think this is very much one for the fans. If you’re not already familiar with the books of A Song of Ice and Fire or the tv series Game of Thrones then I’m not sure you’d get much out of this. If you are a fan, then I would definitely recommend this. The only downside is there is a part two and it is unlikely to be published for some years so I finished Fire and Blood wanting more and not able to get it. I am seriously considering re-reading all the books now.
Earthwind by Robert Holdstock
Published by Pan Science Fiction in 1978
Humans have colonised many planets and on one, Aeran, something strange has happened. The colonists have de-evolved into a stone age culture. Elspeth Mueller has come to find out why. Her colleague warned against the madness the planet evokes if you stay too long so she keeps her trips to the surface short. Until the empire, in the form of shipMeister Gorstein, arrives and Elspeth is trapped.
Elspeth is conscious of losing her grip on her memories as the days go by. She begins to understand what is happening on the planet with the help of Peter Ashka, a seer, who is troubled by the effect that Aeran has on his relationship with his oracle. In Holdstock’s universe there is a uniting force that can give guidance in the form of oracles such as the I-Ching, an indication of what will happen if no action is taken, if one continues on the current path. It is understood that people can change their fate if they choose to act. If the prediction does not come about, it is because something changed or the interpretation was flawed. Aeran has its own oracle, the Earthwind, that is never wrong and the Aerani believe their fate cannot be changed. At first, Elspeth and Peter attribute this to the primitive nature of the Aerani culture but eventually come to believe that there is a fundamental difference between the two oracles.
Gorstein wants the Aerani to accept a mind-implant that will connect them to the other worlds because the empire is paranoid about rebellion. Elspeth opposes this for two reasons: the threat the empire poses to the Aerani culture, and because of the possibility that what has happened on Aeran might spread to other planets via the implant. The colonists themselves are divided and the debate ruptures the community. The longer Gorstein’s ship stays on Aeran the greater the risk they will all revert to stone age mentalities. Elspeth must seek the source of the Earthwind to discover what is happening to her.
It was nice to have a female protagonist of colour, especially as there was no reason for the character to be either of those things. It was just a choice, and it was refreshing that the author made it. I found this both thought-provoking and entertaining. It’s a good adventure story, with a mystery solved by Peter and Elspeth but not without cost. I think this one will stick with me for a while.
The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha
Published by Vintage in 2013
The Impossible State is an examination of North Korea and whether it will ever change. In the wake of the Arab Spring and the popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa, Victor Cha wonders if this might happen to the Kim dynasty of North Korea.
To do this, Cha looks at the establishment and construction of the North Korean state. It is a country with thousands of years of history and much experience of invasion and occupation. After the second World War the Koreas were split and two separate countries were created. The book gives the history of the Kim family and how Kim Il Sung came to be installed as the leader of North Korea, looking at his personal qualities, his experience and his relationships with the Chinese and Russian governments.
North Korea in relation to South Korea is interesting. For several decades, North Korea was richer and more advanced than South Korea. This was partly to do with financial support from China and Russia but also partly to do with chaos and mismanagement in the South. What’s worth noting is that the current situation wasn’t inevitable. Cha was foreign policy advisor to several US presidents and is well placed to understand North Korea and its place in the international system. It wasn’t always as isolated as it is now, with even China’s support hesitant and reluctant.
Much of the book is focused on North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the motivations behind it. Cha credibly argues that there is no way that North Korea will willingly stop developing nuclear weapons. It is the only leverage they have and the last twenty years have seen it work pretty well. They saw Qaddafi give up his nuclear enrichment programme only to be invaded by the US and the North Korean regime has a strong incentive to maintain its own development.
And finally, will there ever be a popular uprising? Cha thinks it’s unlikely. The control the Kim family has over the population and the way the cultural narrative has been manipulated has resulted in a people that have very little access to the outside world. Popular uprisings depend on the belief that life could be better, because it is seen to be better elsewhere. The North Koreans don’t have that belief. They have been told that life is much worse outside their own country and denied access to any information that might suggest otherwise.
This is a fascinating book. I haven’t read anything about North Korea before and much of this was new to me. I can’t tell you if there are better books out there, but if you want to know how North Korea became the impossible place it is now, then this is a good place to start. It’s a dense book with a lot of erudition but Cha’s writing style is light and pacy, so it never feels as heavy as it actually is. A surprisingly easy read and I enjoyed it.
Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan
Published 1988 by Gollancz
In a world where virtual reality is inside everyone’s head and you can choose to be someone else if you tire of your own personality, somethings are still illegal. Like being crazy without a license. Seeking altered states of consciousness and living an impulsive, directionless life, Allie Haas tries a black market trip into paranoia. It leaves her unconscious and dying and her dealer drops her off at a mental drycleaner, leading to both of them being arrested.
Allie is offered a deal: train as a mindplayer to facilitate the work and games of others, or be imprisoned. She takes the deal.
Mindplayers is a fascinating exploration of our inner mental worlds and how we use narrative to create ourselves and our lives. Allie finds intimacy with others in the mental realm, discovers what happens when someone has their personality stolen and helps other discover meaning in their creative work. It’s like meditation and psychology combined, enhanced and lifted to another level. What might be possible if we could have such insight into ourselves?
I really enjoyed this. It combines great storytelling with serious exploration of science and technology and its impact on humans. Science fiction at its best.
Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire
Published by Random House in 2003
I went to Rwanda last year on a work trip and it inspired me to learn more about the genocide in 1994. I visited the excellent Genocide Memorial and bought several books.
Shake Hands with the Devil is the memoir of the force commander of the UN mission to Rwanda. It starts slowly, with some time spent on Lt. Gen. Dallaire’s career and experience, but by the end of the book it is clear why this needs to be covered in such detail.
This is a book about the actions of the international community in response to the crisis, or, more precisely, the lack of action. As Dallaire describes his experiences in Rwanda and with the UN it becomes clear that there was a lot going on that he was not aware of until far too late. The politics surrounding the genocide – the relationships the Rwandan government forces and the Rwandan Patriotic Front had with France, the US, and other western countries independent of the UN, the domestic situations in those countries and the public tolerance for another foreign intervention, the under-resourcing of the UN – contributed to something truly terrible. Shake Hands with the Devil doesn’t exonerate the Rwandans who made this happen and the choices both sides made, but he does make clear how the structural, systemic issues in international relations supported and exacerbated those choices.
There is a tragic honesty in this memoir: Dallaire comes across as a man well and truly out of his depth. He lauds and celebrates the officers and soldiers assigned to the mission but doesn’t hide his own failings. Indeed, the early pages spent exploring his own experience serve to show how his lack of real conflict experience hampered him as well as demonstrating the abilities that qualified him for the role.
Shake Hands with the Devil is an eye-opening read. The exposure of the way the UN has to operate, and what that means for people it is supposed to help, is damning.
Devices and Desires by K. J. Parker
Published by Orbit in 2005
Sentenced to death for innovating in a country that tightly controls its industry, an engineer, Ziani Vaatzes, escapes prison and flees to an enemy nation. Outside the Republic the warring duchies are much less technologically advanced, a situation the Republic desires to continue, so Vaatzes offers one of them his knowledge to build war machines. As the Republic is prepared to go to war to recover its errant engineer, the Duchy is in no position to refuse. But Vaatzes motives are more complicated than that. As this is the first in a trilogy, exactly what Vaatzes is up to is not clear by the end of the book, but by this point there have been many switches and double crosses.
Devices and Desires is a huge book, both in length (700 pages) and scope. Aside from Vaatzes there are a number of point of view characters and subplots, including a love triangle between warring duchies. It takes a little while to get going as Parker establishes his world but once it does I found myself quite reluctant to put it down. One aspect that annoyed me was the virtually entirely male cast of characters. Parker chose to write about highly patriarchal societies and I am tired of reading about them. I’d really like to read some fantasy that conceives of society in a different way. Recommendations please!
That aside, I enjoyed it. Devices and Desires is complex and Parker manages to keep the intrigue up right to the end. There’s more going on than is revealed, and it still isn’t revealed by the end of the book. I may at some point pick up book 2 to find out.
The Secret State by Peter Hennessy
Published by Penguin in 2002, updated in 2010
The Secret State is about Britain’s secret plans to respond to an attack on the UK during the cold war and beyond. It covers the rationale behind investing in nuclear weapons and why UK governments chose that rather than a civil defence programme.
It is a fascinating book full of detail from Peter Hennessy’s conversations with key political figures as well as information from documents of the time no longer secret. It makes sense of where we find ourselves now with the Trident programme and the reasons it is hard for governments to make a different choice about it now. It didn’t change my views about Trident and nuclear deterrence but it did help me understand the reasoning behind arguments in favour of it.
I found it quite amusing/terrifying that a large part of the rationale for a British nuclear capability was that governments in the immediate post-war period thought that the US was more likely to start World War III than the USSR, and an independent British nuclear capability would ameliorate that. I wonder if our current government still thinks that.
This is an interesting and informative read and I really enjoyed it.
I was at a book reading (of The Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj) at David’s Bookshop in Letchworth recently, and because I have poor impulse control in book shops, I bought more books. One of them was an essay on giving gifts, specifically giving books as gifts, by Robert Macfarlane, called The Gifts of Reading.
In it, Macfarlane reflects on the impact on his life that books given as gifts have had on his life and on his relationships. He speaks about gift giving more widely and the power of giving with no expectation of return. The corollary of that is the ability to receive gifts with love. Indeed the book is more about gifting than it is about reading. It’s lovely. Reading it feels a bit like meditation.
The proceeds from the sale go to Migrant Offshore Aid Station which is reason enough to buy it, I think.