The Balkans 1804-1999 Nationalism, War and the Great Powers

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.

 

The Tiger and the Wolf

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.

Death of Kings

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.

Will Uhtred ever get to Bebbanburg?

The Goblin Emperor

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

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.

The Burning Land

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

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

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.

Redemption’s Blade and Salvation’s Fire

Redemption’s Blade by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Salvation’s Fire by Justina Robson is a duology written by two different authors. It works way better than you might think.

Redemption’s Blade is about what people do in the aftermath of war. Particularly, it’s about what heroes do when the world no longer needs them. The main character is Celestaine the Slayer, who killed the evil demigod trying to destroy the world, but feels guilty about how far he got before she stopped him. I especially enjoyed the treatment of her magic sword which has a blade that can cut through anything and that’s actually really inconvenient. Scabbards don’t last, she had to learn how to fight completely differently, if she accidentally grazes someone they lose a limb. A sword that can carve through basalt makes mincemeat of people.

Celestaine believes if she can find a magical object of sufficient power she can restore one of the peoples who were broken by the evil demigod. Mostly it feels like she won’t, and Celestaine grapples with whether she’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do, or because she thinks it will make her feel better. Complicating things, the evil demigod was one of several demigods who were supposed to protect the world until he went rogue, and the rest of them are acting strangely now. In the end, though, she finds the magical macguffin, kills another demigod to get it, and her magic sword gets broken. Then there’s nothing for it but to go home and face the boredom.

Salvation’s Fire picks up a few weeks later just as Celestaine is finding home life constricting. One of the demigods pitches up to ask her and her companions to come on another quest. The evil demigod severed the world’s connection with the gods and one of the others has an idea about how to restore it. Meanwhile, loose in the world is a magical creature who was made by necromancers to be the bride of the evil demigod, and the person she’s bonded with is small girl whose entire people were slaughtered in the war. When Celestaine finds these two, it somehow seems that they have a role in what is to come, but what that role will be remains unclear. This journey takes them to the far north and then into other dimensions to find the gods, by way of some soul searching and some facing up to what was done in the war.

Adrian Tchaikovsky is quite prolific so there was a lot to choose from when I wanted something to follow the amazing Shadows of the Apt series. Redemption’s Blade is the first I picked up and it doesn’t disappoint. I loved it, couldn’t put it down, and was left wanting more. I was a bit apprehensive about how Salvation’s Fire would match up. Justina Robson’s Living Next Door to the God of Love was incredible and is one of my favourite books. Then I read a couple of her Quantum Gravity series, which are sci-fi/fantasy/spy/cyberpunk mash-ups. They’re good, but not my cup of tea. But there was nothing to worry about. Salvation’s Fire was just as good as Redemption’s Blade. It took the story and made it deeper and more complex. I highly recommend them. I wish there were more.

Non-fiction round up 2019

I have been a bit sporadic with posting to this blog for a while, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. What I have now is a backlog. An evergrowing backlog that induces procrastination. Because I am lazy, I am doing a round up post of the non-fiction books I read this year that I enjoyed enough to want to talk about.

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman: This book presents the case for imagining a better world for all the people who live in it and a way out of the trap of consumption. There are a few key ideas such as a universal basic income, paying well for jobs that contribute to wellbeing (like rubbish collection and caring jobs), and reducing the working week to two or three days. It was cogently argued, well-evidenced and easy reading. Just what you need to re-inspire you about the possibility of positive change.

London, the biography by Peter Ackroyd: Well, this was just lovely. Spanning from the origins of human settlement in the London area to the end of the 20th century it covers the development of London thematically. There are chapters on theatre, crime and punishment, rivers, food and drink, disease, and many other ways of seeing. It’s a big book and packed full of stories and connections. It perfectly captures the romance of London in all its corrupted beauty and compelling horror.

The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes: When I visited Berlin earlier this year, I was keen to learn more of the history of Germany beyond the world wars. Must be more to Germany than that, right? This book spends some time on the early history of the peoples of the land that would eventually comprise modern Germany, and some time on the relationship between catholic Prussia in the East and the protestant cities and states in the West. Most of the book though, at least half, is actually about the world wars and the eventual rise of the Nazis. Maybe this is because Germany as a country hasn’t existed for that long. It was interesting to see a longer perspective on the forces at play. It’s a perspective that goes some way to illuminating the same currents in evidence today.

The Rise of the Green Left by Derek Wall: A fascinating book on the relationship between socialism and environmentalism and the history of eco-socialism. This was really educational and gave me a much better understanding of eco-socialist movements across the world. One small element that was particularly enlightening was the discussion of eco-fascism. It seemed self-evident to me that environmentalism and socialism are naturally compatible, but there has also been a tradition of environmentalism allied with right-wing ideology and so the link should not be taken for granted.

Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber: Bullshit jobs are jobs where no one actually benefits from what you do. So, jobs like being a carer, or a nurse, or teacher, or road sweeper, are not bullshit. We need to do those jobs and we’d all be a lot worse off if they weren’t getting done. Graeber identifies five types of bullshit job: flunkies, whose job it is to make someone else look or feel important; goons, whose jobs have an aggressive element, like lobbyists and corporate lawyers; duct tapers, whose job is to fix problems that shouldn’t really exist; box tickers, allowing a company to claim it’s doing something it isn’t; and taskmasters, assigning work to people and creating more bullshit jobs. It is full of anecdotes about the crappy jobs people have held and is a very entertaining read.

The Art of the Good Life by Ralf Dobelli: Sequel to The Art of Thinking Clearly, this is another collection of short essays on cognitive fallacies and the ways in which our thinking gets distorted. Always useful to have a reminder.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo: I love Marie Kondo. It’s not about decluttering or only having six books or whatever other nonsense has been said about the book and the tv series. Marie Kondo is about appreciating what you have and arranging your house so you get the most enjoyment from it. Her folding method is brilliant – I have found I can get lots more clothes in my drawers and still be able to see more clearly what I’ve got. Magic, indeed. I’m also a big fan of talking to my house, because I love my house. I think anything that encourages appreciation is a good thing.

The Inflamed Mind by Edward Bullmore: New science around the understanding of depression shows a link between physical inflammation and mental depression. This is a dense book, but really interesting and worth the effort. The research outlined in this book challenges conventional understanding of the links between physical and mental health, and challenges the categorisation of symptoms. I’ve long thought that depression is a catch-all term for very different experiences that don’t respond to the same treatment.

The Devil’s Doctor, Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science by Philip Ball: This is not the sort of thing I would normally buy. As it happens, I found it on a train. Paracelsus lived from 1493 to 1541, when magic and demons and gods were still very real in people’s lives, yet the scientific discoveries that would drive the Enlightenment were coming thick and fast. It is an insight into a period of great change, through the biography of a man that was both scientist and magician. Considered a key figure in the development of chemistry and medicine, he was also a charlatan and got run out of town several times. I’m glad I picked it up.

Who Rules the World? by Noam Chomsky: This is a must-read for anyone who consumes news. What happens and how it is reported is very important. This book highlights the disparity between the stories we tell about events depending on who the actor is and the values that actor wants us to believe they hold. If you’ve ever had the sense that how you’re being told to interpret world events is distorted and confusing, this book will explain why that is.

History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell: I’m not sure it’s true to say that I enjoyed this book. It’s certainly not true to say I understood very much of it, although I now have a much better understanding of what philosophy actually is. But I felt very clever and pleased with myself for having read it.