Barbarian Book Club: 6 June 2019

Another month goes by and I managed to scrape by with seven books. How I yearn for the old days where I could spend all day reading. Sometimes finishing two novels a day. Being a husband and a father take up most of my time. I’m looking forward to retirement where I can spend my days reclining in an armchair, drinking tea, and devouring books.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. A modern western about two brothers sent to California to kill a man who owes their boss money. It had a few moments but overall disappointing. It came off as a Tarantino pastiche that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be serious or comically absurd. But it’s biggest sin was leaving out the most important character in any western. The West itself. Great westerns always make the land a character. The deserts, the mesas, the wide plains, and treacherous mountain passes. The land itself must be in the novel.

The Medici: Power, Money, and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance by Paul Strathern A fantastic historical overview of the powerful Medici family that rose from modest means to being some of the principals behind the Italian Renaissance. Bankers, Patrons, Bishops, Dukes, Popes, and Queens, the Medici rose to the heights of European power. The books main focus is on the height of the family during the Renaissance, from Cosimo through Lorenzo, wrapping up with the eventual fall of the family into obscurity. Fascinatingly the book also focuses on the artists, poets, and writers such as Michelangelo, showcasing the massive impact on the artistic revival of the most illustrious Medici.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay Outstanding novel. My favorite fantasy read this year. My complete review here.

The Renaissance at War (Smithsonian History of Warfare) by Thomas Arnold The Smithsonian History of Warfare series is really good. Quick pocket size books filled with maps, charts, diagrams, and all sorts of great information for anybody interested in a more in depth look into historical warfare.

Landsknecht Soldier 1486–1560 (Warrior) by John Richards Quick chapbook on the famous mercenaries. The Osprey Publishing books make great research material for writers. I read this one in a few hours while watching some young guns qualify on the rifle range.

Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici by Miles Unger I find the political history of the Italian city states during the Renaissance interesting and the Medici of Florence are some of the most interesting players of the era. Lorenzo the Magnificent being the best example of a Renaissance lord. A dark, brooding, complex man who was an expert and ruthless political player yet abhorred the process, pining for the freedom to tend garden and write poetry. I also enjoy biographies and believe that all writers should read biographies. Getting a deep understanding of great men and women helps one create complex believable characters.

A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay This was a audiobook re-read. Kay is one of the rare modern fantasy writers I enjoy reading and A Song for Arbonne is my favorite one of his fantasy novels. This one has great characters, set in a fantastic fantasy version of Cathar Provencal in the age of the Troubadours. It ends with a great medieval battle that doesn’t quite reach the heights in Return of the King yet comes close enough to make it memorable. I highly recommend this one.

No Silver, No Swiss

“No silver, no Swiss,” commented Gian Trivulzio, a Milanese Condottiero during the Italian Wars. He was talking about the Swiss Mercenaries that served in the armies of the Italian City States. They were expensive and often sieges and sacks depended on the city’s ability to pay foreign soldiers.

A more recent quote “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics,” quoted to Gen. Robert H. Barrow, Commandant of the USMC.

The bravest warriors and the stoutest horses can’t fight without food and water. The most advanced military weapons can’t be operated without fuel and spare parts. Men can’t march without boots. Supplies can’t be used unless they arrive at the right place at the right time. Military supply and logistics is often if not the most important aspect of battle behind fate itself.

Yet so many fantasy and science fiction novels completely hand wave this critical aspect of military operations. Fantasy fiction is often the most grievous violator of basic common sense. Massive armies march across barren lands. Foot soldiers willing to leave their homes to die for whatever cause, yet pay is never mentioned, supplies never shown, equipment that in reality would cost a lifetime to acquire is just magically handed out.

The Cost of Infantry

During the Renaissance

Sergeants -5 Ducats per month

Corporals -3 Ducats per month

Pikemen -3 Ducats per month

Musketeers -3 Ducats per month

The Renaissance at War by Thomas F. Arnold

The above is in Venetian Ducats, one of Europe’s most popular and traded form of currency. While exact value and buying power is hard to pin down. You can approximate based on known sources. For example, Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo earned about 100-300 Ducats a year. Michelangelo earned up to 450 per statue, and he was a superstar.

The Ducal Palace in Urbino built by Federico da Montefeltro was estimated at 100,000 Ducats when it was first built. The richest Medici had savings of 200,000 and up.

Ducal Palace Urbino

Your average army had about 20,000 infantry, so you are looking at 60,000 Ducats per month in wages alone, ignoring food, water, clothing, and you know.. the really expensive aspects of an army, cavalry and artillery.

Emperor Charles V during the Schmalkaldic War took 54 artillery pieces, 10 of them were full cannon. A full cannon weighed 10,000 lbs, required 21 horses to move, and cost about 1,310 ducats. The price does not factor in the horses, carriage, spare parts, iron balls, and the wages of the 20 or so artillery men assigned to each gun.

Warfare was, and still is, monumentally expensive.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

The sailors say the rain misses the cloud even as it falls through light or dark into the sea. I miss her like that as I fall through my life, through time, the chaos of our time. I dream of her some nights, still, but there is nothing to give weight or value to that, it is only me, and what I want to be true. It is only longing.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay several years ago when I returned to Fantasy. Originally I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire but quickly became burned out on the nihilism and onslaught of negativity in those books. Yes, the world is dark and often people are cruel, and nasty. But the world is also beautiful and people can be surprisingly selfless, heroic, and noble. More often than not people can be both cruel and selfless, both heroic and nasty.

After almost giving up on Fantasy because I didn’t want to read nihilistic grimdark or the bloated door stoppers focused on magical power systems, I stumbled on Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and fell in love with Fantasy all over again. Here was a modern writer that wrote beautiful literary fantasy with a depth of emotion not found anywhere else.

Kay’s novels are poetically written historical fantasies. Worlds and characters in fantasy worlds slightly different but recognizable. His poetic writing and focus on theme over plot give his novels an almost impressionistic feel, full of sorrowful and nostalgic moods invoking a hazy watercolor like experience.

Some of his past novels that I consider some of my personal favorite, are The Lions of Al-Rassan and A Song for Arbonne. The first takes place in a fantasy version of Andalusia during the Reconquista. Lions is as story about war, love, friendship, and loyalty, in a world that is ceasing to exist. The latter, and my favorite, is set in a Fantasy version of south-western France somewhat inspired by the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade. A mercenary from the north becomes involved in a web of war and politics involving the Troubadour culture of the Arabonne’s Court of Love.

I read a lot of Kay’s novels but my interest in his work began to taper once he switched his focus away from European inspired work and began writing several novels based on Chinese Dynasties, a historical subject I don’t have much interest in. But, randomly I came across news that he was about to release a new work, a novel set in a Fantasy version of Renaissance Italy, which has been my historical obsession for the past year. I pre-ordered right away.

A Brightness Long Ago might be my Kay’s best novel to date. A thematically complex work focused on memory and the intersection of choice and fate. Our main character is Guidanio Cerra, a well educated son of a tailor now a powerful member of Seressa’s(Fantasy Venice) ruling council. He mournfully recalls his youth where his life crossed paths with two powerful feuding Condottiere Folco d’Acrosi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio, and the fateful events surrounding their final confrontation.

Guidanio’s recollections are written in conversational first person and filled with his philosophical and religious musings on memory, love, fate, and will. But other characters and sections are written in third person, giving us a complex and satisfying view of the personalities populating this world.

The beauty of this novel is not in the plot, which is painted with broad strokes, but in the interconnected depth of characters and in the theme of fate and choice. Several times in the novel minor characters make small, seemingly inconsequential choices that turn out to have life changing consequences in later chapters.

What I personally loved is the lack of linear logic in the chain of events. Sometimes things just happen. People just die. People get sick. People make irrational decisions that lead to catastrophic results. Sometimes your favorite loses the race and you go home. Sometimes the heroes don’t answer the call. Sometimes you luck out and win. Maybe the person you randomly meet is ends up being the love of your life, or maybe not, and you quickly forget each other.

As humans we tend to think of our lives, the past, history, as a logical linear progression and our brains invent a connected narrative. But, real life isn’t like that, the narrative is always tacked on with hindsight. The future is hard to predict due to the vagaries of fate and choice. A Brightness Long Ago captures this like no novel I’ve read before. For the first time in awhile I was actually surprised at some of the events without it feeling contrived.

The setting is beautiful and full of depth and the characters, from the major players to the minor ones that only stay with you for a few paragraphs are perfectly written. Connoisseurs of Italian Renaissance history will recognize Kay’s fantasy stand ins for the city-states, the mercenaries, the Medici, the Popes, and numerous other Renaissance personalities like Michelangelo. The world has a magical quality but also feels real and more complex than fantasy worlds developed over numerous novels.

A Brightness Long Ago is a fantastic, beautiful, and elegant novel. The perfect mix of literary and fantastic writing. A novel that goes beyond plot, exploring complex theme, yet doesn’t sacrifice character, adventure, and magic. I have a feeling it stay at the top of my favorites for a long time.

Backstory is for Busters

But what makes you sit down and absorb lifeforms into yourself? Did it start with your father? Tell me about your mother, did she absorb lifeforms?

The thing I love about classic Sword and Sorcery like Conan is that Howard had no need for useless backstory. You find Conan chilling in some tavern, he hears about a wizards tower filled with loot, he decides to rob it freeing ancient gods and fighting monstrosities along the way. Simple, done, no bullshit.

Modern fantasy writers instead of focusing on the action would spend paragraphs boring me with the socio-economic role of said wizards tower in the city economy and how the looting economy would be disrupted by Conan’s actions. All of this following an in-depth two book background story on Conan’s intra-personal family relationships and his estrangement from his mother causing him to be a wandering barbarian thief.

The nerdy obsession with over explaining everything is really a symptom of our current generations inability to deal with the unexpected and unexplained. Bret Easton Ellis in his book White talks about 70s and 80s horror movies and how they lacked explanation.


… movies made in the ’70s didn’t have rules and often lacked the reassuring backstory that explained the evil away or turned it into a postmodern meta-joke. Why did the killer stalk the sorority girls in Black Christmas? Why was Regan possessed in The Exorcist? Why was the shark cruising around Amity? Where did Carrie White’s powers come from? There were no answers, just as there were no concrete connect-the-dot justifications of daily life’s randomness: shit happens, deal with it, stop whining, take your medicine, grow the fuck up.

Bret Easton Ellis in White

Excessive backstory and explanation demystify, destroying fantasy and imagination.

I Put the Book Down

I’m on vacation. A much needed vacation. Much needed for my wife who bared the brunt of the unpacking, decorating, and taking care of the baby, while I was in Malaysia.

Yesterday she went hiking with her friend, so me and the baby had the day to ourselves. I decided a trip to B&N followed by In’N’Out would keep us entertained. It doesn’t take much to keep her entertained.

I like B&N. I like all of the big corporate bookstores. I like them more than small, dirty, dusty, hipster bookstores filled with snobby douche bags who often have poor taste. It was after all a hipster chick employee that gushingly recommended The Name of the Wind, the shittiest fantasy novel I’ve ever forced myself to finish.

I like getting coffee, walking around a large clean store, looking at things, picking up books, thumbing through coffee table art and gardening magazines, buying cookbooks. It’s all pleasantly middle class.

When I was in high school and had a car I used to ditch school a lot. I would wake up in the morning, get dressed, say goodbye to my family, and drive towards school. A few blocks from school I would take a hard right and drive to the beautiful two storied Borders Books. I would get some coffee and spend the day on the second floor reading, sometimes for eight or nine hours straight. My senior year I must have read over one hundred books. I got a F in English.

So yesterday I was thumbing through the Literature section, on the second floor of B&N. My usual bookstore leisurely pace was somewhat hampered by having to entertain an inquisitive ten month old, but it was a good time.

One of the employees came by to meet my baby, young girl, really nice. She brought her a cute fox book and asked me if I was looking for anything in particular. I told her I was looking for short story collections. I just finished Airships and wanted more litfic shorts.

She brought me a book by a writer I haven’t heard of. The cover looked really interesting, I actually noticed it on the shelf myself and meant to take a look at it earlier but got distracted. I thanked her and threw the book on the pile of stuff I was planning on buying.

Because I’ve never heard of the author before I decided to look her up. I immediately made the mistake of searching her name and clicking on the Twitter link that popped up. Every one of her posts were deranged anti Trump nonsense. I put the book back on the shelf.

An author being liberal isn’t shocking, it’s actually about as original as putting ketchup on your hot dog. Completely bland. I read liberal writers, I read conservative ones, dead ones, living ones, and everything in between. But I’m so tired of the hysterical nonsense that I can’t take anyone who continues to rage serious. It’s 2019, Trump has been our president for almost three years. He will be re-elected and will run the country for another four. Grow the fuck up.

The liberal aesthetic has dominated the literary and art world so much that it’s become completely boring. It’s cliche. I want a different viewpoint, a different perspective. I’m sick of the same cliches over and over.