Friday, November 18, 2011

Bourgeois Book Club

Prospero Lost, Prospero in Hell, and Prospero Regained by L. Jagi Lamplighter

What if instead of one of his tragicomedies, The Tempest was actually one of Shakespeare's histories, the true story of an exiled Duke of Milan and his daughter? And what if Prospero, his immortal children, and their bound wind spirit servitors guard humanity against the capriciousness and malevolence of the supernatural under the guise of a global corporation unto this very day? That is the conceit of this fantastic trilogy.

When Prospero suddenly disappears, his most faithful child Miranda's world is turned upside down. With the help of embodied wind spirit-cum-detective Mab, she has to unravel the mystery of her father's disappearance, as well as comply with the wishes he left in a message to track down and warn her estranged siblings of the infernal threat stalking them. But as Miranda delves deeper into her fractured family's history, the more mysteries appear, and the darker, and deeper, the threats become. Did her father mind-control Miranda into docile subservience? Are some of her siblings in league with the infernal? Is there any way to piece her fractured family back together? And how are they to rescue Prospero from the very bowels of Hell itself?

Miranda is a wonderful protagonist. Held in a sort of stasis for centuries, Miranda has to deal with feelings for the first time: empathy, vulnerability, fear, compassion, and, perhaps most of all, love. She also must face the secrets that litter her life, secrets that threaten to upend everything she thought she ever knew. She has to, in short, become human.

The Prospero family dynamics are well-drawn and believable. Can you imagine how annoying siblings can be over the course of centuries? Very. But they're family, so you love them anyway. I think Lamplighter strikes a good balance between those two impulses in the sibling banter and interrelationships. Some siblings are closer than others, and some downright hate one another, but in the end, they're still family.

If you're a mythology and folklore nerd like me, you'll love the books for their crazy-quilt mash-up of lore. Greek gods, Hermetic spirits, Japanese ogres, medieval angelology, quasi-Gnostic cosmologies, elves, witches, and Santa Claus all have a place in the Prospero world.

If you're a "pondering the big questions of existence" nerd like me, you'll love the books even more. In between the demon-battling and sibling rivalry, there's some serious theological speculating going on. What is faith? What does it mean to forgive? What is free will? What is sin and redemption? There is a very strong, though thoroughly unconventional, Christianity undergirding the story, but one can be an absolute heathen like me and still appreciate Lamplighter's examination of those questions. However, the only discordant note comes towards the very end of Prospero Regained, when Lamplighter starts to make thinly-veiled condemnations of modern society and the inequities and "immoralities" of it, including an anti-abortion message. I thought that was laying on a bit thick.

A wild melange of Shakespeare, Dante, folklore, mythology, quest, mystery, the Prospero series is a delight. Brimming with whimsy and fantasy, it's marvelous entertainment punctuated by passages of stunning beauty and lyricism.

A More Perfect Heaven by Dava Sobel

All most people know about Nicolas Copernicus is that he "discovered" that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and maybe that he was Polish. If you're a nerd like me, you also know that he was the nephew of a bishop, studied in Italy, and didn't publish his work until he was on death's door. The details of his life are otherwise either a mystery or an irrelevance. Neither option could be further from the truth, however.

From a prosperous Polish family, he came under the care of his bishop uncle, who procured for him a lucrative canonship at the cathedral of Frauenberg. After his studies in Italy, where he trained in both astronomy and medicine, it is there he returned and lived out the rest of his life. The security and authority he enjoyed as a canon allowed him the time and resources to perform his astronomical observations, as well as pursue his other interests, including coinage and the translation of ancient texts. He was a diligent and fair administrator for the lands belonging to the cathedral during a trying time; he lived in a warzone between Poland and the Prussian lands of the Teutonic Knights. Add to that the firestorm of the Reformation and the political intrigues in the bishopric, and his was no dull, obscure life.

As he approached the end of his life, a young mathematician named Rheticus suddenly appeared at his door. A professor from Wittenberg, home of Martin Luther and the very eye of the Reformation, Rheticus had heard of Copernicus's ideas (though his full explication hadn't been published, his ideas were known in intellectual circles), and came to Copernicus for tutelage, despite the dangers of travel and the fact that the bishop had banished all Lutherans from his territory, and also to help him finish and publish his work. Copernicus, fearing ridicule and the specter of his own inaccuracy, had eschewed publication of his masterwork, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, for years, despite the entreaties of friends and even cardinals. Rheticus, however, finally convinced him to publish.

No one, of course, knows precisely what they said to one another, so Sobel uses the facts that are known to construct a short play that comprises the middle section of the book. As a play... it's fine. I think it'd play much better live, as most plays do. In the hands of good actors, it would probably be a really riveting performance.

After his death, Rheticus and Copernicus's friend, Bishop Giese, tirelessly worked to see that his book was circulated and all credit due him given. An unauthorized preface that downplayed his heliocentric theory as a mere hypothesis suitable for mathematical calculation but with no basis in reality sent both of them into a rage. And the reaction of many, including Luther, was one of scorn. Did not Scripture clearly say that the Earth did not move? Mathematicians and astronomers took to his tables and methods of calculation, but mostly disregarded the heliocentrism as well. It was eventually placed on the Index of Forbidden Books and condemned as heresy by the Catholic Church. However, beginning with Tycho (who did not believe in heliocentrism, but admired it nonetheless), Kepler, and Galileo, the book and the system gained wider acceptance and adoption, making way for the whole of modern astronomy and physics.

I found myself become rather fond of Copernicus by the time I finished the book, and Sobel obviously felt the same way. Copernicus comes across as a brilliant, conscientious, learned, kindly man with many friends. But he was also timid, and perhaps too self-conscious, a trait of which I know quite a lot about and sympathize with.

Despite her being one of the most prominent popular science writers of the day, I'd never read any of Sobel's work until A More Perfect Heaven. She is an engaging enough writer, and uses ample quotations from Copernicus himself and his contemporaries to good effect, showing that Copernicus was a great mind, witty and learned. This short, economical account putting Copernicus and his ideas in historical and intellectual context is highly recommended for learning about a very important man who is far too little known generally.

Master of the House of Darts by Aliette de Boddard

Third in de Boddard's Obsidian and Blood series of historical-fantasy mysteries set in the Aztec Empire. When a solider returning from a war to obtain captives for sacrifice dies in mysterious, and mystical, circumstances, the whole of mighty Tenochtitlan is threatened by a curse-disease that soon begins claiming more victims. As in the first two books, Acatl, High Priest of the God of Death, must navigate the treacherous political and magical currents of the Aztec Empire to solve the murder, discover who or what is behind the attack, and stop them. But as his investigation continues, he soon discovers that a powerful sorcerer with a grudge against the Empire, and an incipient coup against the current, ineffectual emperor, may be too much for him to handle. Even gods are frightened.

Another wonderful entry into a fascinating and unusual series. The Mesoamerican setting and the culture and magical systems that go with it are utterly unique in fantasy literature, which still is predominated by European settings and conceptions. Instead of a world of castles and magic wands, it is a world of pyramids and blood, and it is refreshing.


slyder said...

Very good reviews, Frank! I tried the Prospero books but found them too ponderous. I loved the Sobel book. Wonderful read. And I MUST try the Boddard books.

Right now I am recommending Jim Harrison's The Great Leader, which the author calls a "faux mystery". A dark commedy about aging, cops, wilderness, love, sex, family, and a pedophilic cult leader. Jim Harrison is one of the few living American writers worthy of a Nobel. Legends of the Fall is his most famous novel to date.

Frank said...

Slyder, the Boddard books really are a delight. I see what you're saying about the Prospero books, but I liked it. I like a bit of ponderousness from time to time.

I'll have to take a look at the Harrison.