The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay

I view things through a narrative lens.  I construct my life as story, with myself as chief protagonist.  I make my way through life looking for narrative threads, foreshadowing, inciting incidents and dramatic denouement that I can edit into a compelling narrative.  Those stories of my life are a mash-up of genres: screwball comedy, action-adventure, kitchen sink drama, or tense political thriller.  They are stories of love, friendship and achievement, often in challenging circumstances.

In times of crisis I reach for story as a way of processing my thoughts and feelings about something.  Story written by others (whether on the page or on screen) is both my chief comfort and my main source of inspiration.  Four years ago I binged on books and drama as a way of finding my way out of a difficult time.

So, last night, in the midst of an emotional storm about the outcome of the UK’s referendum on the EU, I found myself reaching for Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan: a fictionalised retelling of the last days of Moorish Spain.  It’s one of my favourite books, and each time I read it I find new layers of meaning and relevance.

Kay’s Al-Rassan is a place of beauty, art and culture.  It is not a paradise.  It suffers from political instability and is ruled by a powerful elite who are quick to resort to violence and persecution.  But in comparison to its neighbours it is a place of religious tolerance that has permitted a diverse culture and civilisation to blossom.  It is bordered to the north by three states where the prevailing religion is an increasingly fundamentalist strain of the Jaddite faith.  To the south and across the sea are Al-Rassan’s Asharite co-religionists, whose harsh life in the desert breeds an extremist interpretation of faith.

Al-Rassan exists in a fragile bubble between these two cultures.  The temperate climate of the peninsula makes life for the Asharites easier, and a civilisation flourishes.  That civilisation is enriched by the diverse flows of people through the region, through interchange with the Jaddite kingdoms of the former Esperana to the north, and through its (albeit limited) tolerance for those of the often-persecuted Kindath faith.  The tension between the desert to the south and the Jaddites to the north has enabled that place of palaces, poetry and fountains to thrive, but Kay’s Al-Rassan is also a place on the brink of decline and collapse.  After the assassination of the last khalif, Al-Rassan has become a place of warring minor kings, increasingly beholden to desert tribes wanting to advance a more extremist agenda.  There are threats from the north too: the Jaddite kings of Esperana are pressured to put aside their differences and unite in conquest and crusade.  The tragedy of the novel comes from the inevitability of the collapse of the fragile, but beautiful, Al-Rassan as a result of these competing pressures.

The Lions of Al-Rassan examines the geo-politics of the Iberian peninsula at that moment through the lens of a love triangle between Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician and two men: Rodrigo Belmonte, a fictionalised El Cid, and Ammar ibn Khairan, a courtier, soldier, poet, assassin and spy.  Both represent the pinnacle of their respective cultures and civilisations.  Although both are ultimately thrown into conflict against one another as the peninsula descends into war, for a brief, shining moment they find themselves on the same side.  Both are sent into exile by the rulers they serve, and find themselves working as mercenaries for King Badir of Ragosa, where Jehane has also found shelter.  Belmonte and ibn Khairan form a friendship and partnership of great creativity and ingenuity, which makes their ultimate opposition all the more painful.

One of the strengths of the novel is the way it depicts the choices and actions that ultimately lead to war, conflict and the collapse of Al-Rassan.  Good people are forced into making decisions in difficult circumstances.  Those choices are often pragmatic, political ones, where the hands of the powerful are tied or forced.  In many cases those choices are underpinned by some toxic religious and nationalist ideologies that the powerful ironically find themselves unable to challenge.

Kay explores the fate of nations through a single set of relationships, but manages to also represent that story in microcosm during one single night.  Ragosa’s Carnival is a night of wine and revelry, but it is also a night of masks that both conceal and reveal, as people use them to make statements about themselves.  This Carnival is particularly febrile as Al-Rassan moves on its trajectory towards war.  Jehane wanders through the city, considering and discarding options about how to spend her evening.  Finally, she is approached by a man in the mask of a lion (Ammar ibn Khairan).

“It is late now, Jehane,” said this man who seemed to have found her in the night after all.  “It may even be too late, but shall we walk together a while, you and I?”

That single piece of dialogue encapsulates the whole novel for me, freighted as it is with layers of meaning and significance.  It is indeed late in Carnival night when this exchange takes place.  But Ammar’s hesitancy also comes from the depth of personal history between him and Jehane.  His actions have contributed to the personal tragedy of her family, including the maiming of her beloved father.  That may be too much for her to get past, despite their attraction to one another.  But Ammar ibn Khairan is also the man who killed the last khalif of Al-Rassan, and in no small part has contributed to the chain of events that is sending the peninsula towards war.  With conflict on the horizon there may be no space for love at all.

The choices Jehane makes in The Lions of Al-Rassan are ultimately ones of pragmatic self-interest.  As a relatively powerless member of a persecuted minority she chooses the way that offers the potential for greatest safety for herself and her family within some terrifying circumstances.  There are no perfect options.  Jehane’s choices are made in the full knowledge of the flaws and challenges of the options before her.

Right now, we must all be like Jehane.

Goodreads rating: 5*


Celts: Art and Identity

I’m not feeling much desire to hang around the house at the moment, but one of the joys of living in London is the ability to take advantage of the many museums and galleries.  The time between Christmas and New Year is perfect for taking in an exhibition or two.

Today, on an impulse, I headed up to the British Museum to see their exhibition Celts: Art and Identity, which runs until the end of January.  It’s the latest blockbuster exhibition from the British Museum, and worth every penny of the ticket price.

The exhibition seeks to place the material culture of the Celtic peoples of the British Isles into the context of European trade, waves of migration and invasion, and cultural influences such as the spread of Christianity.  Although often used to justify separate national identities, the exhibition focuses on the linkages between the peoples of Europe at the time, and the lack of distinctive national identities within the Celtic peoples in order to gently critique current Celtic nationalisms.

Expect to see a lot of metalwork.  And by metalwork I mean a lot of torcs.  In all their regional variations and construction methods.

Section of the Gundestrup Cauldron.  Photo from the National Museum of Denmark
Section of the Gundestrup Cauldron. Photo from the National Museum of Denmark

But apart from the shiny necklaces there are some stunning pieces in the exhibition.  The one I was most excited about seeing was the Gundestrup cauldron.  I’ve only ever seen images of it in books, so to find out that the British Museum had borrowed it from the National Museum of Denmark for the exhibition was amazing.  If anything, it is even more stunning in real life, and the quality of the metalworking and dense detailing is astounding.  It’s hard to believe it was dug up in a bog in Jutland at the end of the 19th Century and has survived in such fantastic condition.

The Stanwick Horse Mask

The exhibition also featured one of my absolute favourite pieces, the Stanwick Horse Mask.  It’s only 10cm high, and was probably made as a decorative mount for a bucket.  What I love about it is the way it depicts a horse’s face with a supreme economy of line.  The face has a slightly doleful, Eeyore-ish quality, which I adore.

There are also some beautiful illuminated manuscripts, including the St Chad Gospels (on loan from Lichfield Cathedral) and The Book of the White Earl (Bodleian Library), one of the earliest collections of writing in Irish and Irish folklore, dating from the mid-15th Century.

The Battersea Shield

The exhibition draws all these threads together by looking at the way this period of history has been reinterpreted and reinvented, primarily through the lens of the Celtic Revival of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with its romanticised view of the past being used to support everything from Irish nationalism to modern druidism.  But it also makes links to modern art and design, including the Arts and Crafts movement.  You can really see echoes of those Art Nouveau lines, organic but simultaneously showing controlled geometry, in pieces such as the Battersea Shield.

If you get the opportunity before the end of January, do try to go and see this exhibition.

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind – Anne Charnock

Anne Charnock‘s first novel, A Calculated Life, is one of my favourite novels I’ve read this year.  So I was very excited to get a review copy of her latest novel, courtesy of 47 North via NetGalley, which was published on 1 December.

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind is a braided story about three women.  Antonia is the daughter of Paolo Uccello, a noted Renaissance Italian painter.  Toniah is an art historian with an interest in that period, involved in an organisation that works on revisionist histories of art to bring to greater prominence the role of female artists.  Set in the future, she is the result of parthenogenetic reproduction (a clone, to you and me).  And Toni is a teenage girl, whose widowered father makes his living as a professional copyist of the works of others.  Most recently, he has been commissioned to reproduce one of Paolo Uccello’s most famous paintings.

It would be easy to see Sleeping Embers as ‘just’ a feminist novel.  Antonia Uccello was a real person.  She became a nun, and is recorded as an artist, but none of her work survives.  Charnock imagines what her life must have been: the talented daughter of a noted artist who, because of the strict gender roles of her time would be unable to pursue her art without the comparative freedom a wealthy woman in a convent could attain.  Toniah is very explicitly made an art historian who specialises in that period of Italian art.  She is employed by an organisation whose mandate is one that Gerda Lerner would identify as ‘compensatory history‘: the retrospective identification of notable women from the past who have made contributions equivalent to those of men, albeit within the context of strict gender roles.  But that organisation seems more interested in destroying the reputation of notable men than identifying and advancing knowledge of previously unknown female artists.

But Sleeping Embers is a much more nuanced novel than this.  It deals compellingly with the consequences of those absent from our lives: the gaps they create and how people’s actions are shaped by loss and the missing.  Toni and her father are working through the tragic consequences of the loss of her mother in a car accident, seeking to rebuild their family without her.  Toni’s school history project explicitly charts families who lost relatives too soon (albeit that in many cases people instinctively leap to men killed in combat rather than women dying in childbirth).  Toniah unravels the mystery of her own heritage: the loss that made her grandmother choose to become an early adopter of parthenogenetic reproduction.

As with A Calculated Life, Sleeping Embers is a tautly written novel.  It is more explicitly literary, with only Toniah’s parthenogenetic heritage nodding to genre, but it is thought-provoking and very well-crafted.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Shards of Heaven – Michael Livingston

Michael Livingston‘s debut novel The Shards of Heaven (review copy via NetGalley from Tor) has just been published.  It’s an alternative history set around the time of one of the key periods of Roman history: the rise of the Emperor Octavian, who becomes Augustus Caesar.  The novel broadly covers the time period surrounding Octavian’s war against Mark Antony, up to the invasion of Alexandria and Antony’s suicide.

Livingston’s twist on this period is to blend Greco-Roman history with its myth and the search for some magical artefacts.  Octavian’s victory over Antony at the Battle of Actium is aided by Poseidon’s Trident, which was discovered by Octavian’s adopted brother Juba.  This can be used to control the water, to devastating effect.  The trident is powered by a mysterious black stone, one of the long lost ‘Shards of Heaven’, which are the fragments of the throne of God.  These fragments are scattered among a range of artefacts, including the Ark of the Covenant, and all have different effects.  Those on both sides of the conflict seek these artefacts out, either to use them or to deny their use to others.

There is real skill in the way that Livingston has blended his adventure story with impeccably researched history.  Most of the characters in the book are based on real people from history.  For the most part the novel feels authentic.  Livingston has taken a very Shakespearean approach to Octavian and Antony.  The latter is a tragic hero, bewitched by his love for Cleopatra.  Octavian is cold and power-hungry, determined to neutralise the threat posed to his rule by Julius Caesar’s only natural born son, Caesarion (by Cleopatra).

The characterisation in the novel is pretty mixed.  Although Caesarion is a pretty bland can-do-no-wrong hero, there are some interesting moments, particularly in the camaraderie between Vorenus and Pullo, two of Antony’s trusted and experienced lieutenants.  But the women are quite poorly served.  We have no sense of Cleopatra as a woman of power and Pharoah in her own right.  She is merely a beautiful woman who has turned Antony’s head.  Her daughter Selene seems doomed to being ‘feisty’, but no more.  And Rebecca, who is introduced as the pivotal character who is the heir to knowledge of the Shards, is presented primarily as a love interest for Caesarion.

That aside, this is a fun read and the start of a solid fantasy trilogy.  Livingston is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Goodreads rating: 3* 

On violence

Today, less than 24 hours since the tragic events in Paris, I went to see a film.  It is about a person who commits acts of violence and ends up becoming complicit in a highly public suicide committed by a particularly militant member of the cause.  That person has been radicalised by colleagues and charismatic speakers, driven further and further away from family, and losing their job in the process.  A major contributing factor to their radicalisation is the abuse of power by the executive arm of the state, whose members should be protecting the marginalised rather than subjecting them to torture and degrading treatment.

That film is Suffragette.

I’ve seen at first hand the devastating impact that terrorism and violence has on the victims and those around them.  I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of loss at first hand and seen friends who have witnessed violence at first hand struggle to come to terms with it.  Those are effects that last for years, blighting families and leaving lifetimes worth of trauma.  And at its worst, that violence perpetuates a cycle of further violence that it can prove difficult to break.  I understand why people feel they have to resort to violence and terrorism (particularly when there appear to be no other options open to them) but it is not something I could ever support or condone.

I watched Suffragette with mixed emotions.  As a passionate feminist (albeit an imperfect one, striving to be better) I have always been proud to be part of a long tradition that includes the Pankhursts and Emily Wilding Davison.  Their work secured the vote, paving the way for other developments like equal pay and sex discrimination legislation, giving all of us – men and women – greater choice about how to live our lives.

It’s easy to romanticise things like the suffrage movement.  With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight we see the legitimacy of their aims because they coincide with our own social attitudes and values, which have been shaped by their success.  They become some of the founding myths of contemporary society, key parts of our culture.  Tales of struggle and sacrifice are always stirring, particularly when seen through the soft-focus lens that comes with the distance of time.  We like to imagine ourselves in a heroic role, striking blows for freedom.  But those stories, attractive as they are, conceal real suffering affecting real people.

Without standing directly in the shoes of those forced to make difficult choices about the best way to address the issues facing them, shedding the values of our contemporary society, it’s difficult to pass judgement.  But can I in all conscience associate myself with a movement that resorted to criminal damage and violence in support of its aims?  Would I have been a suffragist, peacefully campaigning for the vote, but achieving little?  Or would I have been a suffragette, out smashing windows with my toffee hammer in the name of equality?



Landfalls – Naomi J Williams

Landfalls is the debut novel by Naomi J Williams.  It was published by Little, Brown (who kindly gave me a review copy through NetGalley) on 22 October 2015.  Landfalls unfolds for us a fictionalised version of a true story: the doomed French voyage of exploration led by the Comte de Laperouse in the 1780s.  Both ships mysteriously disappeared in the Pacific Ocean in 1788.

Structurally, Landfalls is a very interesting novel.  Williams chooses to write each chapter from the perspective of a different character, writing only about those times where the expedition’s ships make landfall as part of their voyage of exploration.  That allows her to explore the different members of the crew, their relationships with one another and their thoughts and feelings about the voyage.

Some of those chapters are intensely moving, in particular those dealing with the loss of life of some crew members at various points during the voyage.  We see the grief of those left behind, struggling to make sense of their loss and find ways of explaining it to distant family members.  In others, Williams shows the narrow and limited lives of those living in far-flung colonies.  The arrival of the expedition ships provides a welcome dose of excitement and fresh company that can have profound effects on those visited by the expedition.

Only two chapters are told from the perspective of female characters.  One of the chapters shows the disastrous loss of two of the ships longboats in a freak accident while surveying a harbour in Alaska.  The woman is one of the indigenous people from the tribe living in the area.  Towards the end of the novel, we see the end of the Laperouse expedition from the perspective of another indigenous woman, this time form the Solomon Islands.  Both women are left baffled by the strange Europeans visiting where they live, whether in a brief visit, or the survivors of the doomed expedition.

Overall, Landfalls is a fascinating and accomplished novel that allows Williams to showcase her skills as a writer.  Its braided narrative structure reminded me slightly of Ian Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, albeit with less close weaving between the individual storylines.

Goodreads rating: 3*

New Lanark

I was in Glasgow for the weekend a couple of weeks ago.  One of the highlights of the visit was a trip to New Lanark.  As probably the first model village in the UK, it’s now one of Scotland’s six world heritage sites, owned by a preservation trust who manage the site.

The mill is located in a beautiful and sheltered valley south of Glasgow.  It has its own mill-race or ‘lade’ (the Scots word), which is a diverted branch of the Clyde.  There are spectacular waterfalls and scenery.

Glasgow 014

New Lanark was built as a cotton mill, and the most interesting stages of its development occurred under the stewardship of one of its owners, Robert Owen.  Unusally for social reformers of the period, Owen was an atheist, and New Lanark was built and run on strict Benthamite principles.  Owen’s workers were able to access good food, education and healthcare, but were subject to very strict routines and oversight.  New Lanark has some fascinating exhibitions showing preserved living accommodation and working conditions, as well as the history of the mill.

But one of the chief attractions for me was that New Lanark is still a working mill.  The trustees have switched production from cotton to wool, producing a highly-regarded (by those in the know) range of hard-wearing and tweedy yarns in a wide range of colours.

Glasgow 003

Their spinning is still powered by the river, except with a modern turbine instead of water wheels.  The Mill is entirely energy self-sufficient, its turbines providing power to the whole site (including a hotel and spa) as well as returning power to the National Grid.

Photo by Bronagh Miskelly

Part of the tour includes a walk through their working mill, using a lot of the existing belt-driven machinery, with the main turbine-powered spindle running the length of the room at ceiling height and always turning.

And at the end of the room was a basket full of finished yarn.  Big squishy hanks of it, rather like those body pillows that you see sometimes.  It was very tempting to try to stuff one into my bag and take it away with me, but I’m not sure they would have let me.  I think it would have been a little obvious if I’d tried to sneak it out with me, sadly.

And a working mill that produces its own yarn means a factory shop, hopefully full of bargains.  New Lanark yarn is tremendous value anyway, but buying straight from the manufacturer offers the prospect of unusual items not normally sold retail.  The shop had a bulging remnants basket, which was very tempting, but what I came home with was coned yarn.  It’s fantasically good value, at just under £23 for 570g of yarn.  Though it comes with the spinning oil still in it.  I’ve never worked with oiled yarn before, so I’ll have to do some research about how to use it.

IMG_1998I bought two shades, both in their wool/silk DK tweed.  Firstly, I bought two cones in a lovely warm brown shade.  The colour has a slight purple shade running through it, and some pretty white tweed neps.  I’m planning this will become a Rhinecliff cardigan, but I’ll probably lengthen the pattern quite a bit to mid-thigh rather than have it sit on the hip.  That should give me a lovely, hard-wearing cardigan I can wear with jeans or with a dress.  And you’ll see that I had the same problem taking this picture that I did with my Missy yarn!

IMG_2002I also bought a single cone of the same yarn in this beautiful, bright peacock blue.  I have no idea what it will become, but I just couldn’t resist the colour – it’s so vibrant.

I managed to restrain myself pretty well, I think.  I could have bought an awful lot of yarn there.  They had some lovely 1kg cones of aran weight tweed that were calling to me as well.  I suppose I’ll just have to go back another time.

New Lanark is a great place for a day out, particularly if you’re interested in industrial and social history, and textiles.  I’d strongly recommend a visit.

And did I mention they make their own ice cream?  It’s fabulous.