Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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52 Books, #3 – Queens Walk in the Dusk

Queens walk in the dusk
Thomas Burnett Swann, 1977

What an unusual book!

Thomas Burnett Swann was a critic, a poet and a writer of fantasy. He used classic mythology and history in his stories, and Queen walks in the dusk, while the first of the Latium Trilogy dealing with the origin of Rome, was in fact is last book, published posthumously – Swann died in 1976.

Swann’s name had been on my radar for ages – mentioned in articles and essays, sometimes compared to Jack Vance for his prose. That’s high praise indeed, and reason enough to check this guy out. It was a while now I wanted to read his books, and I decided to start from this one. And I was impressed, baffled, and utterly fascinated.

Queens walk in the dusk is a retelling of the story of Dido and Aeneas. I understand that to English-speaking readers, the story is familiar, if at all, through Henry Purcell’s opera, but to us in Italy, it is part of the school curriculum, and as such we know it well, and hate it (because we often hate what is imposed on us by school programs).
So there is this sense of deja-vu, in the story Swann is telling us.
But the strangeness and the charm of this book is not in the story itself – that is good, mind you – but in the style.

The world in which the story is set is the one of the ancient Greeks and Romans – a world peopled with monsters and gods that enter the everyday lives of the inhabitants, a world in which you can hold a conversation with a ship’s spirit. The sense of wonder of this state of affairs lays not in the extraordinary, but in its commonplace status. This is a wonderful world because everywhere is magic, and power. It is also quite cosmopolitan, the characters being aware not only of the various kingdoms and peoples of the Mediterranean, but also of far-away India (we visit an elephant town in Africa in which Ganesha is worshiped by the elephant population).
And the story is told in such a world in a way that reminds one of the ancient epics – not for its bombast, but for its straightforward manner in which wonders and magic are presented, and for its economy.
Dido loves Glaucus. He is killed by her brother Pygmalion.
She flees Thyre, stealing half the fleet, and builds Carthage.
Aeneas flees the burning Troy and seven years later lands on the coast of Carthage.
All this, in thirty, forty pages. Not a word is wasted, and yet at the same time the language is rich, with a tempo that recalls a ballad or an oral tradition more than a book, a modern novel.
The thoughts and the actions of the characters are thoughts and actions from the ancient world, guided and informed by different mores, and a different morality. This makes some situations particularly grating – Ascanius, Aeneas’ ten-years-old son is appalling in his role as a sex-obsessed smartass who tries in the bluntest of ways to get his dad a woman to replace his dead mother. But the character is historically realistic and true to the version in the Aeneid – and let’s admit it, we hated the little runt even in Virgil’s original, back in high school.

And yet, for all of these classically-derived elements, Queens walk in the dusk is a thoroughly modern tale, and one that gives us characters with complex and fully-developed psychologies.

The final result is strange, but highly entertaining and quite good.
I will read more of Thomas Burnett Swann’s novels, and I fully understand why, while many seem to have forgotten him, those that remember his work cherish it and consider it a classic.

(WAIT! What happened to Book #2?!
Apparently, WordPress decided to lose the programmed post – I will reload it in a few days. Sorry for the inconvenience)


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The last book of the year

I should be writing, but I am reading instead. It’s very cold, the countryside is still and dreary, and I need to recharge my batteries. I have stories to write, stories to translate, work on two games over which the deadline looms closer and closer. But like I always do, like I have been doing ever since I was eight, I got a new book for Christmas, and I am reading it.

The book is Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction 1950-1980, and it is a multi-faceted, in-depth survey of what I grew up calling “New Wave”.

Edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre, this is part of a series, and I should get the other two books – about counterculture and youth culture in pulp and popular fiction respectively.

It will be a while, I am afraid, because as I have explained elsewhere, one of my good propositions for 2022 is to stop buying books until I’ll have been through a substantial part of my ever-growing TBR.
I will also cut all unnecessary expenditures, in an experiment whose purpose is trying to stop compulsive (and meaningless) buying.

This sounds a lot more radical and political than it really is, and goes well with the book I am reading – because here we have the highs and lows of the revolution, the Swinging London of Michael Moorcock and the savage fury of authors like Ellison, Disch, Farmer.

The volume is a collection of monographic articles, nicely illustrated with covers from the books of the time. For someone like me, that grew up reading SF in the late ’70s and through the ’80s, this is like browsing an old school yearbook, and catching photographs of old friends.

It is also a dire menace to my promise of not buying books in 2022 – because a lot of the titles discussed I read, but a lot I only know through word of mouth, and now, after seeing them so intelligently analyzed, I want to read them.


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Spooking

As it usually (and frequently) happens, I was looking for a gift for my brother’s birthday, and I ended up buying a few books for myself. I also found a suitable gift for the brother, so it’s all right.

And among the books I bought for myself there’s one that’s moving steadily to the top of the best books I read this year. I bought it from Amazon and I am happy of my purchase, but you can find it for free on the Project Gutenberg.

The book is called The Road to En-Dor, and it was written in 1919 by a former officer of the British army, Welshman E.H. Jones. The subtitle is suggestive…

BEING AN ACCOUNT OF HOW TWO PRISONERS OF WAR AT YOZGAD IN TURKEY WON THEIR WAY TO FREEDOM

It is the account of how Jones and RAF pilot C.W. Hill, both prisoners of the Turkish forces in a camp in the Altai mountains, set up a colossal spiritualist scam in order to bamboozle their guards and make good their escape.
It took them almost two years, and a lot of chutzpah.
Jones calls his fake medium ploy “spooking” and the made-up Spirit Guide he created with the help of Hill is, of course “The Spook”.

The book is written in a plain, straightforward tone and it does really sound like the reminiscences of someone that saw some pretty dark places, but got through it all, and now can talk about it.
Jones is a fine writer, the plot hatched around the ouija board is the sort of crazy that would be deemed implausible in a novel, and the succession of events feels like a very good adventure comedy-drama.
The BBC should do a series from this book.
Indeed, there is a screenplay, written in 2014 by Neil Gaiman and Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) – but apparently nobody was interested in shooting the script.

This book ticks all the right boxes with me – it’s an adventure story, it’s set in the East and somewhat along the Silk Road, it’s set in the early 20th century. It features war (and little-known episodes of the Great war inparticular), danger, espionage, bravery, survival, the supernatural, stage magic and confidence games. And it’s a true story, narrated with the dry wit of a man from a more civilized time.
This is a perfect example of why I love history so much.


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Down the Ulamba river

I am reading C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, the classic 1935 adventure story that in 1951 was turned into a movie by John Huston, featuring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. I must have seen the film a thousand times, and it remains one of the all-time great romantic adventure films, but I had never read the original novel – nor was I particularly familiar with C.S. Forester’s other books. Sure, I saw a number of adaptations of his Hornblower stories, but I had never read any.

And I must say I am impressed by Forester’s narrative economy and skill in creating characters and bringing them alive on the page. The prose is lean and direct, the images vivid, and the psychology of the characters masterfully presented. The lot, with an almost total lack of artifice. This is entertainment, without any conceit or affectation, and yet it manages to be literature.
Really, I am surprised they don’t study this book in schools – and it really is a concise, fun master class in how to write an adventure story.

And the good news is, while I spent some of my hard-earned money for a copy of the novel, you can actually download an ebook edition for free, from this page.
I really recommend the novel – if you are a fan of the Bogart/Hepburn movie, doubly so.
And if you read it – or if you knew it already – tell me what you think of it in the comments.


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Storm Constantine (1956-2021)

I have just learned about the death of British fantasy writer Storm Constantine, popular for her Wraethtu stories and for her collaboration with Michael Moorcock on Silverheart. A strikingly original writer, I first encountered her work back in 1992, when I discovered the trade paperbacks of her first trilogy – The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, The Fulfillments of Fate and Desire.
In a beautiful style reminiscent of some of Tanith Lee’s works, the Wraethtu Chronicles were ahead of their time, in tracing the future history of humanity’s slow but inescapable replacement by a new species of hermaphroditic beings, the titular Wraethtu.

The stories were rich of atmosphere and tackled a variety of ideas and situations not often seen in commercial fantasy – which probably explains why Constantine’s novels developed a sort of cult following.

Constantine would later expand the series (that also came to include a roleplaying game), exploring further aspects of her future history, finally launching a publishing house devoted to her works (including expanded versions of her earlier books) and those of other writers she supported.
She published other series – most notably the Grigori sequence – and she also wrote a number of essays on magic, including a few spellbooks.

Often described as a writer of “shadow fantasy”, Storm Constantine was an impressive writer, both for her bold ideas and her sophisticate style, and she was also that rarest of creatures, a fantasy writer that would have been perfectly at home in one of her imaginary worlds.
She’ll be sorely missed.


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A bit of pulp detection

One of the things that have helped me remain sane in the last few months is the weekly podcast I record with my friend Lucy.
It’s a simple thing, in Italian, that we started because we were isolating at home 500 kms apart, and were both feeling stressed – so we meet virtually once a week, and we talk about old horror movies. We would have done it anyway, as a way to keep a hold on our sanity, but then we said … why not turn it into a podcast?

So far we’ve discussed films new and old, from Carpenter’s The Fog to he classic post-apocalyptic Doomsday from 2008, and then Bride of Frankenstein and A Chinese Ghost Story, and so on and so forth. We have a pretty loose definition of horror, and we expand on SF, adventure, disaster movies, even comedies. We are currently about to record the 16th episode, and we are already working on the 17th.

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