Fantasy Pick List

A fantasy pick list from me is almost pointless, because aside from one obscurity it’s all the classics. So in my commentary I try to explain why these retain greatness in a genre flooded with formula and hack. I’m not biased toward any sub-genre. Represented here is mythic fantasy, portal fantasy, political fantasy, pulp fantasy, science fantasy, survivalist fantasy, and coming-of-age fantasy. But none of this is popular fantasy. If you like the Shannara series, the Wheel of Time, the Sword of Truth, the Belgariad, the Kingkiller Chronicle, the tales of Drizzt, well, then this list isn’t for you.

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1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1954-1955. What needs saying? I could go on about Tolkien’s meticulous crafting of Middle Earth, his prehistorical approach to myth and disdain for allegory, his linguistic brilliance, or his ear for the pagan epics. But it’s the long defeat theme more than anything else that sets Middle-Earth apart from feel-good fantasy. As a Catholic Tolkien thought history could only be a long defeat. Christian readers have claimed that Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo are Christ-figures, but they actually show the need for Christ as Tolkien saw it — noble and courageous, but ultimately hopeless against the forces of evil. That’s why Frodo was a failure, unable to resist the Ring when it mattered most. His quest was triumphant because of a fluke, or the intervention of fate made possible by mercy shown to Gollum. Sauron may have been defeated, but The Lord of the Rings is about everyone’s defeat: the suffering and passing of Frodo, the fading of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men in the Fourth Age. That’s what the Grey Havens is about, and it gets me every time. Even aside from all of this, on the strength of the narrative alone, The Lord of the Rings is the best story ever told.

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2. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1980-1983. Of the three chronicles, the first haven’t aged well and the third are a mixed bag. The second trilogy is the masterpiece and proves that sequels can be really good when authors push themselves. For all the first trilogy’s originality with the character of Thomas Covenant, it depends on a standard contest of muscle — armies fighting armies, with clear lines between good and evil. The second shows Donaldson completely on his own terms in a cross genre of fantasy-horror. I consider the Sunbane to be the most brilliant plot device after the One Ring, and it’s depressing as hell. The Wounded Land may well be the most depressing fantasy novel ever written, as we see the Land we grew to love in the first series poisoned in hideous cycles. The One Tree is even more mind-blowing, and it was an important milestone for me in my teen years. It turns the horror of The Wounded Land inward with self-scrutiny as Linden Avery relives her traumatic childhood over the course of a sea voyage. The quest’s failure at the isle of the One Tree is pure courageous tragedy, leaving Covenant no other option in White Gold Wielder than to surrender to Lord Foul in a desperate gambit so that Linden can heal the Land. This is a rare symphony in fantasy writing.

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3. A Song of Ice and Fire (Vols 1-3), George R.R. Martin. 1996-2000. Lord Lard may have lost his mojo in the recent volumes, but the first three remain the best political fantasy you’ll ever read, and the third in particular, A Storm of Swords, moves like a juggernaut. It’s famous for the Red Wedding, but the entire novel is a roller coaster of brutal twists spread over so many plots that miraculously don’t overburden the narrative. There is Jon’s story in the north, where after patient development over the previous two volumes, everything explodes, with the Others assaulting the Fist of the First Men, the wildlings assaulting the Wall, and Jon going from renegade to lord commander while nearly losing his life on both sides to get there. Dany shows her teeth in east, and I still get chills over her gambit to “give up” Drogon who roasts the slavers of Astapor. By the final pages virtually everyone important on the continent of Westeros is left dead, half-dead, or isolated. A Storm of Swords is the rare 1000-page monster that keeps landing bombshells and killing off characters you hate to love, and it pays off the developments of A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings that are almost just as excellent.

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4. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1977. The tales of the First Age are almost as good as Lord of the Rings and in some ways better. The history resonates on a level that suggests this really is how our world began. The theme is the Fall, which shows how Middle-Earth aligns with the Christian myth without containing it. The elves fall from Valinor when they keep the Silmarilli gems and refuse to help the Valar against Morgoth; this mirrors the fall of humanity from Eden. They fall a second time when they recreate paradise in Middle-Earth by the power of the Three Rings (in Rivendell, Lothlorien, and at the Grey Havens). Men also fall again, when they grow dissatisfied with their island of Numenor, and sail for the Undying Lands to make war on the Valar. In each of the four falls, there is a reach for godhood: men want immortality and elves want to be gods of their own creations. The result is all the tragic tales in The Silmarillion — cycles of hopeless war on the Enemy, destined to be replayed again and again. The battles of Beleriand are epic and I hope to see one or more of them filmed someday, especially Fingolfin’s single combat with Morgoth. His death demoralizes the elves for the rest of the age, as it does to me whenever I read it.

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5. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock. 1963. If you want nihilistic fantasy, you can’t get more devastating than Elric. But his final chapter (in a series of eight volumes) shares a premise with Lord of the Rings that often goes unnoticed. Elric’s purpose in wielding Stormbringer is somewhat like Frodo’s mission to destroy the Ring: both will defeat evil but in the process cause the passing of gifted races (the elves, the Melniboneans) who made amazing things possible on earth. Both create the basis for a new age, in which humanity has more of a fighting chance, without evil entities like Sauron and Arioch. The difference is that Elric’s world has to be destroyed first; the historical age won’t emerge gradually like it does out of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age. After Elric defeats Chaos (or even if Chaos wins) he must wipe everything out so humanity can start over. Things are so bad that a purging is required — the equivalent of Noah’s flood — meaning that Elric’s world is fated to lose no matter what; it’s just a question of whether or not Chaos will continue dominating in the new age. There are scenes of repulsive horror in Stormbringer that left me poleaxed, like Elric’s wife changing into a huge worm from the neck down. It’s a rare fantasy that raises the stakes high and brings everything down so low without tripping over its ambitions.

6. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe. 1980-1983. Fans pour over this masterpiece like biblical exegetes do the letters of Paul. But really, I would advise not thinking about it so hard, at least not on first reading. Just take the story in. The narrative is immersive, the dialogue (which never flags) rich and organic, and Severian’s journey so phantasmagorical that you won’t want the spell broken by studying as you read. Severian ranks with anti-heroes like Covenant and Elric, a torturer exiled for the crime of showing mercy to a prisoner, and then sent to a city far north to assume the role of a public executioner. It’s a task he takes on willingly, but his ambitions are divided when he allies himself with an insurrectionist, falls in love with a young girl he accidentally resurrected (with an artifact he needs to get rid of but can’t), and wants to make peace with a woman who keeps trying to kill him. His ultimate trial is for nothing less than a new sun to save the planet. Fans keep debating if this is fantasy or science fiction. On the one hand it’s set on our planet (“Urth”) a million years in the future, with guns and spaceships; but few can access the technology, and there are also enchanted relics. The magical elements, the regressed medieval culture, and the mystical nature of Severian’s quest align with fantasy more than science fiction — like The Dying Earth (#9), it’s “science fantasy” — and spread over four volumes, it’s the best the sub-genre has ever offered.

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7. The Seven Altars of Dusarra, Lawrence Watt-Evans. 1981. Ask fantasy readers if they’ve even heard of The Lords of Dus quartet and I guarantee you’ll get a blank stare. Even in my day it was an obscurity. The second book, The Seven Altars of Dusarra, is the one I read so many times as a teenager it was ridiculous. Garth the Overman has the personality of Conan, lives in a world like that of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, and wields a sentient bloodthirsty sword that calls to mind Elric’s Stormbringer. Yet none of this feels like pastiche. Garth holds his own like the best of the pulp anti-heroes. He’s sent on a mission to steal whatever lies on the temple altars of seven nasty cults, and he does so with no scruples, relying on hack-and-slash, killing people, regretting it, and calling forth a citywide manhunt. I love the Dusarran pantheon, and the cults have some pretty ghastly rites. The priests of Andhur Regvos blind themselves, those of Sai practice torture and human sacrifice, those of P’hul have hideous skin diseases and enjoy spreading them, etc. On rereading this book in recent years I’d forgotten how much blood Garth spills without a second thought to get what he needs. On the other hand, I remember the strong D&D overtones. Garth’s mission is classic temple robbing, and this is the quintessential novel for old-school D&D players.

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8. Dragonflight & Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey. 1968, 1971. The Pern series devolved into a lame franchise, but the first two books are grade-A survivalist fantasy. The plotting is tight and the writing honest, by that meaning McCaffrey portrayed believable gender roles without kneeling at the feminist altar. She also took a big risk with the dragon-rider concept, as it’s so easy to go wrong with. The Dragonlance novels in the ’80s turned dragons into the functional equivalents of war steeds — an insult to the creatures whose pride would never allow for it. Dragons accept riders only by exacting a high price from them, which in Pern is a permanent telepathic link in which rider and dragon share all their feelings and sufferings. Those feelings extend to lust, which has become something of a bone of contention among the politically correct. Dragonriders succumb to sex with each other during the mating flights of their dragons, overcome with sexual desire for each other often against their will. Lessa’s relationship with F’lar is described in terms of rape, and that’s indeed the premise. Around these dynamics, the dragonriders work against impossible odds to solve the problem of Thread, which in Dragonflight ends in Lessa’s time-travel centuries back to bring help forward, and in Dragonquest F’nor’s even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread itself.

9. The Dying Earth, Jack Vance. 1950. I return to this classic for many reasons, not least for the way it inspired the spell casting system in Dungeons & Dragons. The wizards of far-future Earth would be right at home in Greyhawk or Mystara. They memorize lengthy formulas for spells, activate them by speaking command words, forget them once the spells are cast, and then read and memorize them again. Remember “prismatic sphere”? Artifacts and relics? All from The Dying Earth. Without Jack Vance D&D would have been a different game. But he’s a gifted writer besides, and able to evoke a dying world with incredibly haunting imagery: “Soon, when the sun goes out, men will stare into the eternal night, and all will die, and Earth will bear its history, its ruins, the mountains worn to knolls — all into the infinite dark.” There is imagery you’ll never forget, like the pyramid of screaming flesh half a thousand feet high. I’m hard to please with short stories, but these are so wonderfully written, portraying a remnant humanity who survive by searching for relics, the secrets of life, or just plain love, all of which seem in short supply.

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10. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis. 1956. I’m not a huge Narnia fan let alone enjoy kids books, but I do love The Last Battle. It might seem odd to compare it to Stormbringer (#5) but it is about the world’s destruction, and for a children’s book it certainly doesn’t soft-peddle the apocalyptic horrors. Precious Narnia is destroyed, Aslan’s cute little wayward animals are thrown into the apocalyptic incinerator, and even gentle Queen Susan gets the shaft — she is “no longer a friend of Narnia”, we are told, simply because she enjoys dating boys and having sex. If all of this seems monstrous, that’s much the point. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, apocalypses serve a hyper “justice” that redefines the word. From a dramatic point of view, The Last Battle‘s dark content is its strength, and something never seen in children’s literature on this scale. The Revelation-plotted narrative is a cracking suspense piece, as evil forces keep getting the upper hand against Narnia’s last king. The ape-ass duo (false prophet and anti-Christ) work their repulsive designs from inside a barn, which contains shifting terrors we can barely glimpse. There are no victories here, save Aslan’s at the end, which is glorious though in a very distressing way. Kids have been traumatized by this book and I’m not surprised.

The Best of Stephen King

In my coming of age years I read Stephen King religiously. Then two things happened: he began to change, and so did I. His change was for the worse, as I saw it; I was acquiring a taste for authors with more subdued writing styles. A lot of the King classics didn’t age well for me, and the new (post-Misery) stuff seemed twice as bad. But I kept reading him anyway. King was a part of me, for all his garrulous excesses, and I still respected his imagination. The upcoming It film prompted me to revisit his work and see what has aged well.

As I worked on this list, it struck me that Stephen King is at his best when he’s least like Stephen King — when he’s doing something different, or going outside his comfort zone. I’m sure many King fans will disagree with that, and with my rankings, not least my omissions of what are widely considered his finest works. I have always found The Stand (1978) to be way over-hyped. Many critics thought Duma Key (2008) was a return to form, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. I did enjoy the time-traveling blockbuster 11/22/63 (2011) but was underwhelmed by the final act. Here are what I consider to be the jewels of the Stephen King canon.

[See also: Peter Straub Ranked.]

wizard and glass1. Wizard and Glass, 1997. 5 stars. The ’90s were the sewer of King’s career, but this one exception shines like a thousand suns. It’s the story of Roland’s first and only love affair, and the tragedy that made him so hard and unforgiving. King said he was scared to write it: “I knew that Wizard and Glass meant doubling back to Roland’s young days, to his first love affair, and I was scared to death of that story. Suspense is relatively easy, at least for me; love is hard. Consequently I dallied, I temporized, I procrastinated.” He finally locked himself in motel rooms and tried as a 48-year old to capture what romantic love looks and feels like to those of age 17. I’m 48 myself now, and I still say with confidence that King nailed Roland and Susan on all the right notes. Wizard and Glass an incredibly well told story about the young gunslinger’s exile in a province teeming with rebellion and measurable characters. Rhea the witch-hag is one of King’s best creations of all time, but then so is Aunt Cordelia with her sanctimonious “thee’s” and “thou’s” — and for that matter everyone else in the Barony of Mejis. King shows us a dystopian world where everything is rushing to oblivion. It’s the best thing he ever wrote, and I wish the other Dark Tower books offered this quality of storytelling. The first one does (see #4 below); the second and third are okay; the fifth through seventh are garbage. Let the record state clearly that for all the problems of the series, it has its moments, and Wizard and Glass achieves a tragic greatness seldom reached by the most aspiring writers.

PetSematary2. Pet Sematary, 1983. 5 stars. King thought it was too scary to publish, and he eventually released it only to fulfill a contract obligation when he couldn’t finish another book on time. Think about that: a novel “too scary to publish”. Imagine if The Exorcist film had been shelved at the advice of those on the production team who thought it was too unspeakably obscene? And this gets to the root of my problem with King. When he finally nails it, he doubts himself. Pet Sematary is the perfect horror novel. The writing is incredibly disciplined, with no narrative fat or self-indulgent digressions; the story is told with surprisingly un-Kinglike economy. And it has room for profound reflections that either didn’t impress me or went over my head as a teenager. Now approaching 50, I’m rather shaken by Pet Sematary‘s themes of death and grief. Resurrection is a precious idea in our western heritage, and King gives it a truly terrifying twist. Pet animals come back to life when buried in this cemetery, but as sluggish and stupid versions of their former selves. Human corpses return as grotesque blasphemies who know and broadcast everyone’s most vulgar secrets. The novel’s point (which King didn’t like) is that “dead is better” than what lies beyond, but we’re powerless against our grief; it consumes us to the extent that we’ll do anything to get loved ones back no matter what’s lost in translation, and what takes its place. The death of Louis’ two-year old son and his unspeakable resurrection is one of the most terrifying things I’ve read, and King did right by his nihilistic conclusion.

3. ‘Salem’s Lot, 1975. 5 stars. After forty years ‘Salem’s Lot is still one of the best American novels. Every vampire tale after Dracula stands in its shadow. And unlike my other top five choices, this novel is “pure” Stephen King — the purist Stephen King book that was and ever shall be — written in his particular colloquial voice that has the power to engage and annoy. But it was his first novel (he started writing it before even Carrie), when he had himself under control, and so the style isn’t weighed down by the later self-indulgences. As I read ‘Salem’s Lot for the sixth or seventh time, I found myself marveling over its craft. Of all the undead — ghosts, zombies, mummies, etc. — the vampire is the best but hardest to do justice by. The aristocratic model is cliche, the pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight) is silly, and the tragic Hamlet figures out of Anne Rice get old very fast. King showed how to take the creature seriously: keep it off-stage until at least halfway through; peripherally sight its lair, and let atmosphere do the work; make the creature mean — sadistic and vindictive. When Barlow finally appears, he drips menace in all the right shades of subtlety and blunt aggression. There are scenes in ‘Salem’s Lot that haven’t lost their capacity to terrorize, the number one for me being Matt Burke climbing the stairs at night, “the hardest thing he had done in his life”, holding on to his crucifix, looking down at the guest room slightly ajar, suspecting, knowing, the awfulness that has invaded his home.

the-gunslingers4. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, 1982. 5 stars. Before it turned into a “Stephen King” franchise, Roland’s story was the most professional thing King ever wrote, and in my opinion deserves being classified as literature of enduring value. It was originally published in five parts in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, starting in the ’70s. King refused to release it as a novel, because he thought the story had limited appeal and wouldn’t please his mainstream readers. And here we go again, as with Pet Sematary. When King strikes gold by crafting the perfect novel against his own voice, he gets cold feet. Not only that, he later (in 2003) published an alternative version of the novel to align it with the later franchise — in other words, King-e-fying the voice, and, outrageously, changing things for the worse. George Lucas sanitized Han Solo by making Greedo fire first; King pulled his own Lucas by sanitizing Roland in the village of Tull. In the original, Roland cold-heartedly guns down his lover when she is seized by someone to be used as a human shield; she begs him not to kill her but he does so anyway before killing her captor (and then virtually everyone else in the town). In the revised version she has been driven mad and begs Roland to put her out of her misery. I’m flabbergasted when people like Lucas and King emasculate their own perfection. That’s a way of saying stick with the original Gunslinger. It’s a haunting quest across wastelands and scorched civilizations to make the world right again, a brilliantly meshed genre of post-apocalyptic, western, and fantasy. Then read Wizard and Glass (see #1) for Roland’s tragic backstory. You can ignore the rest of the series.

5. Mr. Mercedes & Finders Keepers, 2014-2015. 4 ½ stars. I didn’t think King had it in him to write mysteries, but the first two Bill Hodges novels proved me wrong. They’re his most disciplined works to date (even more than The Gunslinger, I think), and King admitted how difficult they were to write: “I just can’t fathom how people like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Peter Robinson and Ruth Rendell are able to do this in book after book.” It’s just too bad King was unable to keep this up to the end of his trilogy: he ruined the third book, End of Watch, by resurrecting the Mercedes killer and falling back into his supernatural comfort zone. Had he stayed in genre, the trilogy could have ended up a masterpiece. Throughout Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers (they’re equally good), King keeps his plot tense and reverses expectations to extremely good effect. Each novel opens in 2009, with the recession at its worst; a job fair is about to be held at a sports stadium, where hordes of the unemployed line up in a queue; dawn breaks, and a Mercedes car barrels out of the fog into the crowd, killing eight people and wounding fifteen. Each novel then follows the plot of different characters who were present at the slaughter, with retired detective Bill Hodges and his friends getting tangled in both. Some of the best scenes involve the Mercedes Killer and Hodges chatting in a private online forum, engaged in a deadly game of verbal chess, and the killer getting so incensed at Hodges’ taunts that it takes him five minutes to type a single-sentence reply because his hands are shaking so badly. I couldn’t put either of these books down, and it’s a long time since I’ve been able to say that about Stephen King.

talisman6. The Talisman, 1984. 4 ½ stars. The critics blasted this, and even after thirty years I can’t make sense of it. King teamed up with my favorite author to write a splendid epic about a 12-year old boy on a dark quest to save his mother and, in the process, the cosmos. I first read it in my high school years while visiting Grinnell College in Iowa, and so Jack Sawyer’s westward trek starting in New Hampshire (my home state) resonated in spades. I expected any moment to flip into a Territories-version of the midwest, and the Grinnell campus to sideslip out of reality like Thayer School or transform into a hellish pit mine run by Sunlight Gardener. I even spotted my Twinner in a classroom. In the ’80s it was hard to find dark fantasy (George Martin being a decade away) and for me this was the next best thing after The Wounded Land. Donaldson gave us the Sunbane, and King & Straub came up with horrors just as vile (see here for the Covenant parallels). There are admittedly some quaint fantasy tropes that stand out today, but the occasional laziness is forgivable in an otherwise grand epic. The sequel is Black House (2001), which doesn’t make this cut though I’d probably put it at #11. Objectively it’s better than It but I couldn’t bring myself to omit that one. (The writing on display in Black House is even better than that in The Talisman; the plot is an ultimate let-down for involving the problematic world of King’s Dark Tower series, when these books should be about the Territories only.) Don’t listen to the critics; The Talisman is excellent and for the most part has aged really well.

misery7. Misery, 1987. 4 ½ stars. The last novel of the “classic King” era is one of his best, and involves only two characters in a single setting. It’s possibly the best bottle drama I’ve read in a work of fiction, and it’s too bad that when King tried this sort of thing again in Gerald’s Game, the result was nothing but pages of waste. Misery is top-notch suspense all the way through, about a psychotic woman who has rescued a wounded man who happens to be her favorite author, and then forces him to write the sequel novel he never intended. Along the way, she alternates between smothering him with fan-affection and cutting off pieces of him when he displeases her. The novel examines dependency — the way writers depend on fans, as they depend on him, and also drug dependency, as Paul is fed pain killers by his psycho-fan. It’s also a fascinating (and rather transparent) look at the way an author’s mind works when trying to overcome writer’s block and undo his literary mistakes without cheating the reader. Authors are at their best when they write from experience, and in Misery King exploits everything his fame, drug addictions, and writing challenges have done to him. It’s a special novel that was universally praised by the critics, and as I said it marked the end of period of King’s towering greatness, following his longest and most ambitious book It (1986), then followed by one of his longest (and by far his shittiest) book ever The Tommyknockers (1988). I’d be immensely proud if I could ever do so much in short space like Misery.

8. The Shining, 1977. 4 ½ stars. Let me dispel all doubts as to where I stand in relation to Kubrick’s film. Kubrick’s is the masterpiece, and King is a fool for his life-long career of blasting it. His corrective version for TV proved that even more: it was faithful to his book, yes, but horrible because of it. This is what novel purists and authors like King don’t get. The worst screen adaptations are often the “faithful” ones — the ones that avoid creative interpretation. Literal adaptations hang on every element of the text, with the result that it fails to become a film in its own right and forces the unforceable into a new medium. Only in rare cases is a novel tailor-made for a film (The Exorcist, The Road, for examples). The Shining cries for all sorts of changes, and yet King just spat it back like a stage play. Audiences deserve better, and Kubrick delivered a piece of artistry beyond criticism. King couldn’t see that because he could only see what was lost in his own precious vision. That’s what happens, Mr. King, in a good adaptation: some things are lost, and better things take their place. Jack Torrance’s psychological dysfunction and inner turmoils work well on the page where you can inside someone’s head; a film demands something different. Kubrick did what any great filmmaker aspires to, and if not for The Exorcist his adaptation would stand as the greatest horror film of all time. All of that said, the novel is obviously excellent. But if I had to choose between losing the novel or Kubrick’s film in a trip to the moon, I’d lose the novel. Kubrick outdid King, and I think the knowledge of this is what really, privately, sticks in Stephen King’s craw.

The+Dead+Zone+[front+cover]9. The Dead Zone, 1979. 4 stars. King thought this was his best novel until he wrote Lisey’s Story (2006), and this is how he described it long ago: “The best I’ve done so far is The Dead Zone because it’s a real novel. It’s very complex. There’s an actual story. Most of my fictions are simply situations that are allowed to develop themselves. That one has a nice layered texture, a thematic structure that underlies it, and it works on most levels.” I see what he was getting at. In college I recommended The Dead Zone to a friend who wasn’t a horror fan but wanted to read a Stephen King novel to see what all the hype was about this author. This novel came to mind without hesitation. It was King’s first number one bestseller on both hardcover and paperback lists, and it took an exceptional risk of making the protagonist an assassin like Lee Harvey Oswald. Granted the political target is more like Donald Trump than JFK, a killer is still a killer. On top of that, Johnny Smith is a failure. For all his diligent planning, he botches his assassination attempt and dies for it, to be remembered as a crackpot who couldn’t even succeed when he had the upper hand. I will say that The Dead Zone resonates in spades under a Trump presidency and is worth reading (or rereading) for that reason alone. And I repeat my earlier advice to anyone today who has never read Stephen King but wants a taste of what makes him so good without the more terrifying brutalities of Pet Sematary, ‘Salem’s Lot, Misery, and The Shining. Make The Dead Zone your point of entry.

10. It, 1986. 4 stars. It may be the quintessential Stephen King novel, but that speaks against it as much as for. The excesses of King’s writing style are at their most unrestrained here; he shouts at the reader, and digresses from digressions; he’s all over the map. And the formula of sleepy towns torn apart by supernatural forces, with points of view diluted across multiple characters hasn’t aged well for me. (‘Salem’s Lot still works, but that’s the exception.) The loser kids are too good to be true: they speak in ways that sound contrived, and even some of the dialogue given to adult characters isn’t convincing. But I can’t possibly leave this book off my list. It was a milestone for me back in the day, for its examination of childhood fears and innocent beliefs which make anything possible. The story is set simultaneously in 1958 and 1985, and I have to admit the way King segues from one period to another, often mid-sentence, is a brutally effective narrative device. The novel contains King’s most controversial scene of the six boys gang-banging Beverly (they’re all 11 years old). Not only is it an extremely well-written scene, it’s the heart of the book, and I’m enraged that the upcoming film by Andrés Muschietti won’t have it. After battling It in the sewers, Beverly invites her friends to bang her in a quasi-mystical ritual, and that orgy represents many important things, not least the kids’ first stage on the road to losing the power of their childhood and becoming learned but lesser adults.

Stan Uris and the Sewer Orgy in Stephen King’s It

It has long puzzled fans of the novel It why Stan Uris is the only one who kills himself when his childhood memories come flooding back. The other six kids’ encounters with It were as bad as Stan’s, and they weren’t driven to suicide. Something in particular pushed Stan over the edge, but the novel doesn’t explain what. Fans of the novel have tried:

(1) The usual answer is that Stan is the most skeptical member of the Club, relying on logic and reason more than anyone, and is the least of the seven willing to accept that It actually exists. Thus he was too emotionally fragile to face It a second time.

(2) However, it is also implied that Stan was the only one who had somehow become aware that It was female (and pregnant), something that Bill, Richie, and Ben learn in their second encounter with It as adults. Thus Stan chose death over returning to Derry to face the ancient terror that could lay eggs and multiply its terror a thousandfold.

The first suggestion is likely true, but if the second is also true, then it raises an interesting point about the sewer orgy. Stan would have probably freaked out over the idea of gang-banging “Queen” Beverly. She would have come across as a grotesque parody of It, orchestrating her own sex-rite down in Derry’s sewers, and in a mystical orgy that defies the sense and reason he holds precious. Beverly’s seduction of him would have probably amounted to a rape, and a more traumatic one than Eddie’s and the others’.

Many readers seem unaware that what Beverly is doing in the sewer orgy amounts to rape, but the text makes it pretty clear that it is, as I will show below. I’m not saying Beverly is a monster by any means. Eleven-year old kids aren’t accountable in the way adults and even teenagers are. She is actually easy to empathize with when she dominates the boys, because what she is ultimately doing is reclaiming something from an abusive father — her sense of self that her father diminished. Granted she is doing this at the expense of someone like Eddie, but even if she is wrong, it is the sort of wrong that should be weighed according to how we judge young kids who aren’t yet wise in the ways of the world.

Here is the text describing the first orgy act, with Eddie. My notes in bold follow the non-consensual elements.

Eddie comes to her first, because he is the most frightened. He comes to her not as her friend of that summer, or as her brief lover now, but the way he would have come to his mother only three or four years ago, to be comforted; he doesn’t draw back from her smooth nakedness and at first she doubts if he even feels it. He is trembling, and although she holds him in the darkness is so perfect that even this close she cannot see him; except for the rough cast he might as well be a phantom.

“What do you want?” he asks her.

“You have to put your thing in me,” she says.

He tries to pull back but she holds him [using force] and he subsides against her. She has heard someone — Ben, she thinks — draw in his breath.

“Bevvie, I can’t do that. I don’t know how –“

“I think it’s easy. But you’ll have to get undressed.” She thinks about the intricacies of managing cast and shirt, first somehow separating and then rejoining them, and amends, “Your pants, anyway.”

“No, I can’t!” [“No” means “no”.]  But she thinks part of him can, and wants to, because his trembling has stopped and she feels something small and hard which presses against the right side of her belly. [Classic rationalizations, according to the standard dogma: rapists justify themselves this way when victims are betrayed by their bodies. Eddie’s body is saying yes, but his mind is saying no.]

“You can,” she says, and pulls him down. [The rape is now in session.] The surface beneath her bare back and legs is firm, clayey, dry. The distant thunder of the water is drowsy, soothing. She reaches for him. There is a moment when her father intervenes, harsh and forbidding, and then she closes her arms around Eddie’s neck, her smooth cheek against his smooth cheek, and as he tentatively touches her small breasts she sighs and thinks for the first time, This is Eddie, and she remembers a day in July — could it only have been last month? — when no one else turned up in the Barrens but Eddie, and he had a whole bunch of little Lulu comic books and they read together for most of the afternoon, Little Lulu looking for beebleberries and getting in all sorts of crazy situations. It had been fun.

She thinks of birds; in particular of the grackles and starlings and crows that come back in the spring, and her hands go to his belt and loosen it, and he says again that he can’t do that; she tells him that he can [again overriding his protests], she knows he can, and what she feels is not shame or fear now but a kind of triumph. [Many would see this as a shameless rapist reveling in her conquest.]

“Where?” he says, and that hard thing pushes urgently against her inner thigh.

“Here,” she says.

“Bevvie, I’ll fall on you!” he says, and she hears his breath start to whistle painfully.

“I think that’s sort of the idea,” she tells him and holds him gently and guides him. He pushes forward too fast and there is pain.

Ssssss! — she draws her breath in, her teeth biting at her lower lip and thinks of all the birds again, the spring birds, lining the roofpeaks of houses, taking wing all at once under low March clouds.

“Beverly?” he says uncertainly. “Are you okay?”

“Go slower,” she says. “It’ll be easier for you to breathe.” He does move more slowly, and after a while his breathing speeds up but she understands this i not because there is anything wrong with him.

The pain fades. Suddenly he moves more quickly, then stops, stiffens, and makes a sound — some sound. She senses that this is something for him, something extraordinarily, special, something like… like flying. She feels powerful: she feels a sense of triumph rise up strongly within her. [Reveling in her dominance.] Is this what her father was afraid of? Well he might be! There was power in this act, all right, a chain-breaking power that was blood-deep. She feels no physical pleasure, but there is a kind of mental ecstasy in it for her. [Confirming what rape specialists say: that for a rapist it’s the display of power, more than any physical pleasure, that gratifies and excites.] She senses the closeness. He puts his face against her neck and she holds him. He is crying. [He could be traumatized.] She holds him. And feels the part of him that made a connection between them begin to fade. It is not leaving her exactly; it is simply fading, becoming less.

When his weight shifts away she sits up and touches his face in the darkness.

“Did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Whatever it is. I don’t know, exactly.”

He shakes his head — she feels it with her hand against his cheek.

“I don’t think it was exactly like… you know, like the big boys say.  But it was… it was really something.” He speaks low, so the others can’t hear. “I love you, Bevvie.”

Her consciousness breaks down a little there. She’s quite sure there’s more talk some whispered, some loud, and can’t remember what is said. It doesn’t matter. Does she have to talk each of them into it all over again? Yes, probably. But it doesn’t matter. They have to be talked into it, this essential human link between the world and the infinite, the only place where the bloodstream touches eternity. It doesn’t matter. What matters is love and desire. Here in this dark is as good a place as any. Better than some, maybe.

It’s a very well written scene, and again, in the context of the novel, Beverly’s thrills of triumph and dominance are more aimed at “getting back” at her horrible father than degrading any of the boys whom she considers her best friends. Eddie might not see it that way, of course, though he seems to have pulled through okay.

After Eddie, Beverly has sex with the other five boys — Mike, Richie, Stan, Ben, and Bill in that order. King skips over descriptions of Mike, Richie, and Stan (covering all three of them in a couple paragraphs), and describes the last two boys, Ben and Bill, with elaborate detail like Eddie. With Ben it begins as a rape, where like Eddie he protests but is overruled and compelled against his will. But halfway through it turns consensual — right after “power” shifts from Beverly to Ben (“She feels her power suddenly shift to him; she gives it gladly and goes with it.”) With Bill, the group-leader, the sex is consensual from start to finish.

It would have been interesting if King had written elaborate orgy scenes for the other three boys, especially Stan, who I can only imagine would have strongly resisted Beverly’s intentions. Who knows, it might have shed light on his suicide.

Dragons and their Riders: The Rape-Premise of Mating Flights in Pern

dragons-mateI’m rereading the Dragonriders of Pern and realize that I’d forgotten some of the details about the telepathic bonds between dragons and their riders. I remembered that the dragons communicate fluently in human language but only telepathically, and only with the rider they bonded with after hatching. And also that they can teleport instantly over long distances that would otherwise take days or weeks of flight, which allows them to burn Thread out of the sky in many places at once. And that they can time travel — though that’s extremely dangerous.

I also vaguely remembered the way the dragonriders succumb to sex with each other during the mating flights of their dragons: The riders of the mating pair are overcome with sexual desire for each other, often against their will, sometimes hardly aware of what they’re doing. When it’s bronze on gold, it’s rather “standard” because gold dragons are queens, bronzes are males, the gold dragonrider is always a woman, and the bronze rider a male. But when it comes to the “lesser colors” — browns or blues mating with greens — it’s a bit murky and only hinted at in the early novels. Green dragons are females like the golds, but their riders are male. (The only female dragonrider is the one who rides the gold queen.) Which means that the human riders of the green dragons succumb to homosexual sex with the other dragonrider (regardless of their actual orientation) when their green dragon is being mated by a brown or blue. I’d missed this before, because it’s hardly evident. Green and blue dragonriders are regulated to lesser background characters, and I suspect that McCaffrey didn’t want to underscore the theme of homo-eroticism in any case. Back in my day homophobia was pretty strong.

The way it works is this. In the communities of dragonriders (the weyrs), it’s understood and accepted that sex during mating flights is not an option. Anne McCaffrey has said, “the dragon decides, the rider complies.” Dragons mate when they need to, irrespective of their riders’ wishes or sexual orientation, and the riders are overcome by urges they can’t physically control. In other words, the dragon-mating ritual is based on a rape premise (for the human riders), albeit one that is socially accepted. There is “consent” of sorts, in advance, but most people today would consider this the equivalent of something like marital rape.

pernese_dragon_sizes_by_sporelettMcCaffrey has also said that when they hatch, the dragons at least try to bond with a rider of “appropriate” orientation. So in other words, green dragons (which are female) will at least try to bond with a gay man. Blue dragons (which are male, but mate only with greens, never golds) try to bond with gay or bisexual men. Brown dragons (which are male, and usually mate with greens, but sometimes golds if they are big enough) try to bond with heterosexual or bisexual men. Bronze dragons (males) bond exclusively with heterosexual men, and the gold dragon (the queen) bonds exclusively with heterosexual women.

As she wrote more books for the series, McCaffrey fleshed out the history of why green dragons choose male riders. Originally that wasn’t the case. Green dragons used to bond mostly with females, until the practice was stopped because of the way dragon teleporting induces miscarriage in human riders — i.e. fetuses in the human womb can’t handle the “between” interval in teleporting. Given that green dragons are 50% the dragon population (blues are 30%, browns are 15%, bronzes 5%, and there is one gold per weyr), that’s half the fighting force required to burn Thread out of the sky. So the green dragons began bonding with males instead — gay if possible to make the mating rituals more tolerable.

I find all of this to be more fascinating than I remember as a kid, probably because at the age of 11 or 12, most of the character psychology, sexual tensions, and other adult themes went over my head. Let it not be said that homosexuality isn’t present in any classic fantasies from the 60s and 70s. And if at least 50% of the dragonriders are gay/bisexual, that’s not even a minority!

The Lions of Al-Rassan: The Passing of the “Golden Age” in Islamic Spain

les-lions-dal-rassanRead the following passages from a widely-loved novel. If you had to guess the historical period, you might not surmise a medieval nation under Islamic rule. A Christian and Muslim having wild sex out in the open, on the night of a holiday carnival. A jamboree of music and wine and cross-cultural gang-bangs, in flagrant violation of the sharia strictures of Islam.

The first passage describes the novel’s characters buying masks in preparation for the Carnival:

They had met on this mild, fragrant morning to buy masks for the night when torches would burn until dawn in the streets of Ragosa [Zaragoza]. A night when the city would welcome the spring with music and dancing and wine, and in other ways notably different from the ascetic strictures of Ashar [Islam]. And from the teachings of the clerics of Jad [Christ] and the high priests of the Kindath [Jews], too, for that matter.

Notwithstanding the clearly viced opinions of their spiritual leaders, people came to Ragosa [Zaragoza] from a long way off, sometimes traveling for weeks from Ferrieres [France] or Batiara [Italy] to join the Carnival. The return of spring was always worth celebrating, and King Badir, who had reigned since the Khalifate fell, was a man widely honored, even loved, whatever the wadjis [Muslim clerics] might say.

The next evening, at the Carnival itself:

They had been drinking since the first stars came out. There was food everywhere and the smells of cooking: chestnuts roasting, grilled lamb, small-bones fish from the lake, cheeses, sausages, spring melons. And every tavern, thronged to bursting, had opened its doors and was selling wine and ale from booths on the street. Ragosa [Zaragoza] had been transformed.

Alvar had already been kissed by more women than he’d ever touched in his life. Half a dozen of them had urged him to find them later. The night was becoming a blur already. Now he watched as the grey spider approached him slowly, came up, and kissed him on the lips. Twisting, he managed to free his arms in the press of people and put them around the spider. He kissed her back as best he could from behind his eagle mask. He was improving, he thought. He had learned a great deal since sundown.

The spider stepped back. “Nice. Find me later, eagle. She reached downwards and gave him a quick squeeze on his private parts.

Alvar never hooks up with the spider, but he is snared by a ferocious cat with a fetish for leashes, who leads him into an opulent upstairs bedroom:

Alvar moved with this woman, and upon her, and at times beneath her urgency. They had removed their masks when they entered the house. It didn’t matter: she was still a hunting cat tonight, whatever she was by daylight in the customary round of the year. He had raking scratches down his body, as if to prove it. With some dismay he realized that she did too. He couldn’t remember doing that. Then, a little later, he realized he was doing it again. They were standing, coupled, bending forward against the bed again.

“I don’t even know your name,” he gasped, later, on the carpet before the fire.

“And why should that matter tonight, in any possible way?” she had replied.

Some time afterwards she chose to blow out all the candles and leash him in a particularly intimate fashion. They went out together, naked, with the marks of their lovemaking on both of them, to stand on the dark balcony one level above the square teeming with masked crowds.

She leaned against the waist-high balustrade and guided him into her from behind. Alvar was almost convinced by then that something had been put into his wine. He ought to have been exhausted by this point.

The night breeze as cool. His skin felt feverish, unnaturally sensitive. He could see past her, look down upon the crowd. Music and cries and laughter came up from below and it was as if they were hovering there, their movements almost a part of the dancing, weaving throng in the street. He had never imagined lovemaking in such an exposed fashion could be so exhilarating. It was, though. He would be a liar to deny it. He might want to deny many things tomorrow, but he was not capable of doing so just now.

“Only think,” she whispered, tilting her head far back to whisper to him. “If any of them were to look up… what they would see.”

He felt her tug a little on the leash. He didn’t think he was going to be able to deny this woman anything tonight. And he knew, without yet having tested the limits of it, that she would refuse him nothing he might ask of her between now and dawn. He didn’t know which thought excited or frightened him more. What he did know, finally understanding, was that this was the truth at the heart of the Carnival. For this one night, all the rules were changed.

The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) is an historical fantasy, or what Guy Gavriel Kay calls “history with a quarter turn to the fantastic”. It deals with the fall of Islamic Spain, or Al-Andalus (“Al Rassan”) and asks us to lament, with its characters, the passing of an enlightened age. The heroes of the novel are two men and a woman representing the Abrahamic faiths: Rodrigo Belmonte, a Christian warrior (based on El Cid); Ammar ibn Khairan, a Muslim assassin, advisor to the taifa king of Cordoba (based loosely on Muhammad ibn Ammar, who was vizier to the taifa king of Seville); and Jehane bet Ishak, a Jewish physician in Toledo. These men and woman become allies in a mercenary band until the Reconquest efforts of 1085 AD divide them. The character of Alvar in the above passages is part of that band, a Christian soldier from Rodrigo’s homeland.

It’s a story about unlikely friendships in hard times, and still after twenty years one of my favorite novels. But what, in Kay’s brilliant narrative, is fact-based? In some cases he goes off the rails in indulging the myth of Islamic Spain’s “golden age of tolerance” — that the three faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism supposedly co-existed under an enlightened Islamic hegemony — not least in the above festival. In some cases he can get away with it, because the genre excuses it; historical fantasy imposes less reality than historical fiction. In others Kay really does seem to be under false impressions about history that he wants to urge on the reader. Given how many people today believe in the myth of Islamic Spain’s multicultural paradise, it’s worth going through the novel and seeing what aligns with history and what doesn’t.

First things first: the setting

To set the stage: The alternate world resembles 11th century Spain, in the time of the taifa kingdoms (~1031-1094 AD), after the fall of the Cordoba Caliphate. (See the black-and-white map, and compare with the colored map of the actual Spain.) In this world, the taifa period lasts fifteen years, not sixty-three, and the story narrates events al-rassanthat take place during our year of 1085 (the Reconquest invasion and take back of Toledo), and ends with the fall of those petty kingdoms — to the Christian crusaders invading from the north, and to the Islamic fundamentalist “rescue operation” coming up from the south across the ocean. In our world, this fall happened in a series of battles between 1085-1094, but in Kay’s world it takes only two years, across the final chapters of the novel. The epilogue then forwards us twenty years later to show the Reconquest finally taking back all of Spain. In our world that process took over a century longer: most of Muslim Spain fell between 1212-1248, and Granada would hold out until even 1492.

In the fantasy world of Al-Rassan and Esperana, the Asharites represent the Muslims; they worship the stars. The Jaddites are the Christians, worshiping the sun. The Kindath are the Jews, worshiping the two moons (one silver, one blue) of this world. The celestial bodies of worship hold no significance or theological parallels to the faiths of our world, which is effective; since there are no analogies to the figures of Muhammad, Christ, and Moses, we are less predisposed to judge or favor any of the three faiths in advance. Across the sea, the Majriti Desert represents northwest Africa, where the Muwardis are parallel to the Almoravids — the fundamentalist Muslims who are planning to “rescue” their fellow Muslims in Al-Rassan against the efforts of the Christian Reconquest. As in our world, the Almoravid Muslims are far worse than the Christian crusaders, though as we will see, Kay doesn’t always have the best handle on the issue.

Kay has fun rearranging geography and cities, to remind us this is an evocative world and not an exact parallel. Cartada is based on Cordoba; Fezana is Toledo; Silvenes is Seville; Ragosa (the city he takes the most liberties with) is Zaragoza. Ruenda, Valledo, and Jalona are approximations of Leon, Castile, and Aragon, but with an historical reversal used to raise the stakes: King Ramiro of Valledo is based on King Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile, but the historical Alfonso reunited his father’s split three-way inheritance (of Galicia/Leon and Castile) before invading Al-Andalus, not afterwards; in the novel King Ramiro must deal with the machinations of the two sister Christian kingdoms on top of his invasion plans of Islamic Al-Andalus, which heightens the drama.

taifa-spain

The “Golden Age” of the Caliphate

The only sense in which the Cordoba Caliphate (929-1031 AD) was a “Golden Age” was in terms of power and might. During the 10th and 11th centuries, Islamic Spain was wealthier and stronger than the Christian states, and it could hardly have been otherwise since it inherited the wealth from the province in 711 and built on its power base since. That doesn’t mean Islamic Spain was more humane or enlightened, and in fact it certainly wasn’t. Required reading on this subject is Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, published this year. It’s sort of like a book that might be called The Myth of the Happy Slave in the Antebellum South. Are such proofs even necessary? Sadly, yes, and there are far more people who believe the former than the latter. I should emphasize that I don’t think Guy Gavriel Kay buys into the myth of the Andalusian paradise completely. There is enough reality evoked in The Lions of Al-Rassan to call it an historical novel, albeit one that takes license based on common misunderstandings.

Let’s start with Jehane — the Jewish heroine of the novel — as she reflects on the “Golden Age”:

The poets were calling the years of the Khalifate a Golden Age now. Jehane had heard the songs and the spoken verses. In those vanished days, however, people might have chafed at the absolute power or the extravagant splendor of the court at [Cordoba], with the wadjis [Muslim clerics] in their temples bemoaning decadence and sacrilege. Yet some among the Kindath [Jews] had risen high among the courts of the [taifa] kings. They paid the heretics’ tax, as did the Jaddites [Christians]. They were to practice their religion only behind closed doors. They were to wear blue and white clothing, as stipulated in [Islamic] law. They were forbidden to ride horses, to have intimate congress with Asharites [Muslims], to build the roofs of their sanctuaries higher than any temple of the Asharites [Muslims] in the same city or town. But there was a life to be found.

This sort of description actually isn’t too bad. Kay mentions the clerical hostility called forth by libertine caliphate, and the degrading laws imposed on the Jewish and Christian dhimmi. The dhimma system was not one of benign taxation; it was a mafia-like extortion racket that kept the Jews and Christians in humiliating servitude. The protection could be revoked at a whim and often was.

However, Kay also says “there was a life to be found”, which is about the equivalent of saying “there was life” for African American slaves in the antebellum south whose masters were known to make them “part of their family”. As Dario Fernandez-Morera bluntly puts it, “The celebrated Umayyads elevated religious and political persecutions, inquisitions, beheadings, impalings, and crucifixions to heights unequaled by any other set of rulers before or after in Spain” (Myth, p 120). And as other honest scholars have pointed out, in no other place in the Islamic empire was the daily influence of Muslim clerics as strong as in Islamic Spain. Clerics played a central role in the inquisitorial system of surveillance. Blasphemy against Muhammad or Allah was a capital offense. If “there was a life to be found” it was for a tiny few.

Sharia and Jihad

What needs stressing is that throughout the entire history of Islamic Spain — from the emirate following the conquest (711-929), to the Cordoba Caliphate (929-1031), to the taifa kingdoms (1031-1094), to the fundamentalist Almoravid (1094-1147) and Almohad (1147-1212) dynasties — through all these periods, Islamic religion was the law, and sharia pervaded every aspect of life, from the public to the private. Jihad was taken for granted. In fact, one ruler of the Caliphate “Golden Age” period, Al-Mansur (r. 981-1002), carried out close to 60 jihads and commanded that the dust on his clothes be collected after each battle against the Christians so that he could be buried under the glorious dust when he died. The Caliph whom today’s liberals love to cite, Abd al-Rahman III (r. 929-961), developed an Islamic inquisition to combat Greek philosophy.

And yet, for reasons that escape me, people are under a strange impression that the Almoravids and Almohads introduced, or re-introduced, sharia and jihad into the Islamic way of thinking, while the 711-1094 period was somehow free of these core doctrines. That’s completely false. The later fundamentalist dynasties objected to the rich, decadent, and lax lifestyles of the ruling caliphs and taifa kings; and they had stricter or different interpretations of sharia law. But sharia ruled the Muslim way of life in all periods, and it was always oppressive.

Of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafii, Hanafi), the Maliki held authority in Spain, which is the second most strict of the four. The Maliki code forbade Muslims to socialize with Muslims of a different school of law, let alone share in good will with Christians and Jews. As in the other schools, there was no distinction between civil and religious law. In contrast to this, prior to 711 AD in Spain, the Visigothic code of law had combined Visigothic practices, with Roman law, and some Christian principles that, rather remarkably for its time, tried to limit the power of government like the later Magna Carta.

More generally on this point, as Fernandez-Morera explains, the frequent claim that there was no separation of church and state in Christian lands isn’t precise. It’s true that the distinction was blurred at the political level: Christian thought indeed influenced political decision making; the church legitimated monarchs, while secular kings granted lordships to bishops; popes claimed the right to depose monarchs, and there was an ongoing contest between the religious authority of the pope and the secular authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. But what gets lost in this is the clear distinction between church law and civil law, which reflected a distinction between an individual’s spiritual well being on the one hand, and the person’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law on the other (Myth, p 93). This wasn’t true anywhere in the Islamic world — and certainly not in the supposedly enlightened paradise of Spain.

Women

Muslim women were treated horribly in the “Golden Age”. Female circumcision was taken for granted. Muslim women caught in adultery were stoned. They were expected to stay home as much as possible and wear the veil in public. (Women who went out with loose hair and rich garments were usually sexual slave girls.) They couldn’t use the public baths. It’s no surprise that Kay avoids using Asharite [Muslim] female characters in The Lions of Al-Rassan. Even his fantasy revisionism can’t accommodate empowered Muslim women without huge suspensions of disbelief. Zabira is a proactive character, but she is the highest exception, being the favored concubine of a taifa king.

By comparison, the northern Christian kingdoms of Leon and Castile were relative “paradises” for women. A Catholic woman’s access to power in the public sphere was light-years ahead of any rights enjoyed by “free” Muslim women in Al-Andalus. It was a unique judicial system in the north, Castile especially, that grew out of independent peasant-soldiers in frontier territory, and according to scholars it may be the only medieval European analogy to English common law. Catholic women could own property and participate in local assemblies. They could work town businesses and own farmland. They could use public baths on certain days that were allotted to them.

That being said, the character of Miranda Belmonte in Kay’s novel is a bit hard to swallow. She is the analog for El Cid’s wife (the historical Jimena Diaz), who admittedly had a will of steel and ruled a city (Valencia) for him after he died. But Kay runs a bit wild with this figure. At one point she orders the servants and soldiers on the Belmonte ranch to restrain her husband returning home, tie him down, whereupon she proceeds to give him a tongue-lashing for his recent military decisions, and then sexually “assault” him before untying him. It’s entertaining fiction, but a bit over the top.

Any truth at all to the “Golden Age”?

The question presses: Is there any kernel of truth to the myth of Islamic tolerance in Spain? There are two points of contact.

First, the culture of the Islamic elite. It’s true that caliphs, and even more so the taifa kings, flouted religious law when it suited them and lived hedonistic lives according to their pleasure. It’s also true that this is a banal observation. The elites of all cultures lived luxuriously and did what they wanted. The significant fact is that most Muslims in all periods of Islamic Spain were subject to clerical policing of detailed religious observance.

Second, the Jews. They had become allies with the invading Muslims in 711 AD out of political expediency, having suffered discrimination under Visigoth rule. The Islamic invaders exploited this, finding it convenient to employ Jewish officials since as dhimmi (second-class citizens) the Jews were dependent on royal favor and easy to control. In a similar way, Hernando Cortes exploited the Tlaxcalan Indians in his struggle against the Aztecs. No one ever dreams of trying to pass off Cortes’ policy as a Christian Spaniard “tolerance” for the Tlaxcalan way of life, or their religious beliefs, or even relative good will. Nor do we hear that the colonial Belgian authorities in the Congo were “tolerant” because they favored the minority Tutsis against other groups. Or that the United States was “tolerant” in working with the Montagnard Hmong against the Marxist-Leninists in Southeast Asia. (See Myth, p 178.) The Islamic conquerors were no more “tolerant” of Jews than any of these invaders or imperial powers — and in many ways they were worse. Caliphs and kings never called their Jewish physicians and viziers “allies” in any case, but rather “servants”, since the Qur’an demonized Jews even worse than Christians. The Muslim masses demonized them too, which is why pogroms and assassinations broke out, like in 1013 (when the Jews were expelled from Cordoba), 1039 (when the Jewish vizier of Zaragoza was assassinated by a Muslim mob), and 1066 (when the Jews of Granada were killed).

Thus, Kay’s portrayal of hedonistic taifa kings (Almalik of Cartada, Badir of Ragosa) and privileged Jewish physicians and advisors (Ishak ben Yonannon, Mazur ben Avren) — we will get to these figures in due course — is historically correct, and reflects a sliver of truth to the so-called “tolerance” of the “Golden Age” period. But that really amounts to nothing. It’s simply “a selective concentration on the remains of an elite culture, in conjunction with the relative and always precarious politically expedient favoritism shown to members of the Jewish community” (Myth, p 239). When Kay goes beyond these two superficial points to imply “there was a life to be found” in this age, he’s indulging revisionism.

The Day of the Moat

The event that ignites the plot in Chapter One is based on the historical Day of the Ditch (806 AD), when Emir Al-Hakam beheaded 5000 people in Toledo on suspicion of treachery. Of the around 5000, 72 were nobles singled out for massacre at a banquet, and then crucified and displayed in a ditch. In the novel, it is 139 people who are killed: the noble, elite, and merchants of Fezana [Toledo], invited to the palace by the visiting prince of another taifa kingdom, Cartada [Cordoba], sent by his father the king who has designs on annexing this one. The guests are attending the prince at a ceremony which is supposed to be the consecration of the palace’s new wing:

They were individually escorted by soldiers down that dark corridor. Approaching the end of it, each in turn could discern a blazing of sunlight. Each of them paused there, squinting, almost sightless on the threshold of light, while a herald announced their proffered names with satisfying resonance.

As they passed, blinking, into the blinding light and stepped forward to offer homage to the hazily perceived, white-robed figure seated on the cushion in the midst of the courtyard, each of the guests was sweepingly beheaded by one of the two soldiers standing on either side of the tunnel’s arch.

The soldiers, not really strangers to this sort of thing, enjoyed their labors perhaps more than they ought to have done. There were, of course, no wadjis [Muslim clerics] waiting in the courtyard; the castle wing was receiving a different sort of consecration.

The toppling bodies were swiftly seized by other soldiers and dragged to the far end of the courtyard where a round tower overlooked the new moat created by diverting the nearby Tavares [Tagus] River. The bodies of the dead men were thrown into the water from a low window in the tower. The severed heads were tossed carelessly onto a bloody pile not far from where the prince of Cartada [Cordoba] sat, ostensibly waiting to receive the most prominent citizens of the most difficult cities he was one day to rule, if he lived long enough.

This event is “historical” in the sense that it represents the kind of thing which happened in all periods of Islamic Spain — the Emirate (711-929), the Cordoba Caliphate (929-1031), the taifa kingdoms (1031-1094), and the fundamentalist Almoravid (1094-1147) and Almohad (1147-1212) dynasties afterwards. Muslim rulers slaughtered their own as much as they did the dhimmi Jews and Christians, for any number of reasons ranging from the ruthless to the paranoid to the petty. Kay is entirely realistic in this scene.

The Blinding and Silencing of Ishak ben Yonannon

There is the tragic backstory to Jehane’s father, who was rewarded and punished (the parts in bold) for saving a mother and her child during childbirth:

Ishak had performed the only recorded delivery of a child through an incision in the mother’s belly while preserving the life of the mother at the same time. Not Galinus himself, the source and font of all medical knowledge, nor any others, had reported successfully of doing such a thing, though they had noted the procedure and tried. No, it was Ishak ben Yonannon of the Kindath [Jews] who first delivered a living child in such a way, at the palace of Cartada in Al-Rassan in the second decade after the fall of the Khalifate. And then he had healed the mother of her wound and tended her after, so that she rose from her bed one morning, very pale but beautiful as ever, to reclaim her accustomed place in Almalik’s reception hall and his gardens and private chambers.

For this act of courage and skill, on a scale never before known, Almalik of Cartada had gratefully offered a quantity of gold and a gift of property such as to leave Ishak and his wife and daughter secure for the rest of their lives.

Then he had ordered Ishak’s eyes put out and his tongue cut off at the root, that the forbidden sight of an Asharite [Muslim] woman’s nakedness be atoned for, that no man might ever hear a description of Zabira’s splendor from the Kindath [Jewish] doctor who had exposed her to his cold glance and his scalpel.

It was an act of mercy, of a sort. The ordained punishment of a Jaddite [Christian] or Kindath [Jew] who feasted lecherous eyes on the unclothed figure of an Asharite [Muslim] woman who was bride or concubine to another man, was as everyone knew, the death between horses. And this woman belonged to a king, the successor to khalifs, the Lion of Al-Rassan. The wadjis [Muslim clerics] had begun demanding the death of Ishak the moment the story of the birth escaped the palace.

To my knowledge there has never been an Islamic law that stipulates punishment for an infidel who sees a naked Muslim woman, probably because the situation almost never arose. Islamic law does call for the death of infidel Jews and Christians who rape a Muslim woman. (A Muslim, on the other hand, who rapes a Jew or Christian free woman might only be lashed.) And there are plenty of laws and penalties that apply on the Muslim woman herself when she is seen naked or even partially exposed by non-family members, or even raped. Kay’s fiction is a logical complement of sharia law, and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if one of the historical taifa kings did something like this. The Qur’an and Islamic law are obsessed with infidels and regulating women. Kay plausibly joins the two in a rather unique scenario involving a Jewish doctor using extraordinary skills to save a Muslim woman and her baby.

Christian Antisemitism: Queen Vasca

At a critical point in the story, Jehane challenges Rodrigo on the subject of bigotry in his Jaddite [Christian] faith:

“Do you remember,” asked Jehane, “what your Queen Vasca said of us [the Jews], when Esperana [Christian Hispania] was the whole peninsula, before the Asharites [Muslims] came and penned you in the north?”

“That was more than three hundred years ago, doctor,” said Rodrigo.

“I know that. Do you remember?”

“Of course I do. But–“

“She said that the Kindath [Jews] were animals, to be hunted down and burned from the face of the earth.”

“Jehane,” Rodrigo said. “I can only repeat, that was three hundred years ago. She is long dead and gone.”

“Not gone! You dare say that? Where is Queen Vasca’s resting place?”

“On the Isle. Vasca’s Isle.”

“Which is a shrine! A place of pilgrimage, where Jaddites [Christians] from all three of your kingdoms come, on their knees, to beg miracles from the spirit of the woman who said that thing.”

Actually, there was no Christian analog to Queen Vasca in our world who advocated genocide of the Jews. I suspect that Kay wanted to create an equivalent to the massacres Muslims committed on Jews and Christians in Islamic Spain (i.e. the Christian martyrs of Cordoba between 851-859, the Jewish thousands in Granada in 1066). It’s true that the laws of Visigoth Spain in the sixth and seventh centuries were antisemitic. Jews couldn’t hold public office or have any power over Christians; and Jew-Christian marriages were illegal. After 613 they were forced to be baptized, which resulted in emigrations and false conversions. The antisemitic theologian of this period was Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636), who authored On the Christian Faith against the Jews. But even Isidore, while he condemned the Jews for rejecting Jesus, explicitly opposed the state’s policy of forced Jewish conversions. So not even he comes close to being a parallel to Kay’s Queen Vasca, who called for a powerless people to be hunted down and destroyed.

Of course, Kay can do as he pleases in his fictional alternate world, and part of me actually likes the idea of a bloodthirsty queen whose shrine is revered on a sacred isle. But in today’s politically-correct culture that demonizes Christianity at every opportunity while whitewashing Islam, it’s helpful to point out that Queen Vasca is completely unhistorical.

The Jewish Prince: Mazur ben Avren

We’ve already seen the reason for Jewish privilege in Islamic Spain, which had nothing to do with Islamic “tolerance”. One might guess, however, that Kay pushes the envelope with the character of Mazur ben Avren — chancellor under a king who actually grants him military power.

The two men had known each other a long time. Badir had taken a huge risk at the very outset of his reign in appointing a Kindath [Jewish] chancellor. The Asharite [Muslim] texts were explicit: no Kindath [Jew] or Jaddite [Christian] could hold sovereign authority of any kind over Asharites [Muslims]. The penalty was death by stones. Of course, no one who mattered in Al-Rassan followed the texts. Not during the Khalifate, not after. The glass of wine in the king’s hand was the most current evidence of that. Even so, a Kindath [Jew] chancellor had been a very large thing. There was a chance that roll of the dice might have cost Badir his newly claimed crown and his life if the people had risen in righteous wrath.

In return for that risk taken, Mazur ben Avren had made Ragosa [Zaragoza] not only independent, but the second most powerful kingdom in Al-Rassan in the turbulent years after the caliphate’s fall. He had guided the city and her king through the dangerous shoals of a swiftly changing world, and had kept Ragosa [Zaragoza] free and solvent and proud. He had ridden with an army himself in the first years, in campaigns to the south and east, and had directed it in the field, triumphantly. His mount had been a mule, not a horse forbidden to infidels; Mazur knew enough to offer the wadjis [Muslim clerics] their necessary symbols of deference. Nonetheless, the simple truth was that Mazur ben Avren was the first Kindath [Jew] to command an army in the western world… Much could be forgiven if a war went well and an army came home with gold, and much had been forgiven — thus far.

Believe it or not, this extravagant character is historical. Mazur ben Avren is based on Samuel ibn Naghrela (993–1056 AD), who had become the most powerful Jew in the history of Islamic Spain. He was the only Jew to command Muslim armies — the direst of blasphemies. In our world, he was the vizier to King Badis of Granada; in Kay’s alternate world, he serves King Badir of Ragosa (our Zaragoza).

Samuel ibn Naghrela is the classic case held up by today’s liberals to promote the “Golden Age” theory of the Andalusian paradise, which is silly since he’s the outlandish exception proving the rule. As I covered above, the caliphs had found it convenient to employ Jewish administrators, merchants, and physicians, since (unlike high-born Muslims) they depended on royal favor and were easy to control. (The Jewish scholar Hasdai, who served Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, is another example.) When the Cordoba caliphate fell and the taifa kings carved out their own kingdoms, they were frequently at war with each other, which gave Jews even more opportunities. And for whatever reason, King Badis of Granada went the whole blasphemous nine yards in appointing a Jewish military commander. So the character of Mazur ben Avren aligns with the history of our world. Unlike the rest of what we find in Ragosa…

The City of Ragosa

Pretty much everything else about Ragosa is a psychedelic fantasy. But it’s very good fantasy, in my opinion, showcasing some of Kay’s best writing and character drama. At the top of the post I cited Alvar’s loss of innocence at the Carnival, which comes towards the end. Here is his first exposure to the city, when he arrives to serve as a mercenary under Rodrigo Belmonte (the El Cid character):

It was true, what he had been told: the [Muslims] of Al-Rassan inhabited an entirely different world than [his people in Castile]. Every second object in the palace or the gracious homes he had seen seemed to be made of carved and polished ivory, imported by ship from the east. Even the handles of the knives used at some tables. The knobs on the palace doors. Despite the slow decline of Al-Rassan since the fall of [Cordoba], Ragosa [Zaragoza] was a conspicuously wealthy city. Besides the celebrated workers in ivory there were poets and singers here, leather workers, woodcarvers, masons, glassblowers, stonecutters — masters of a bewildering variety of trades.

For the Christian Alvar, who has never been beyond the lands of Castile, these cosmopolitan wonders start to erode his blind hostility to the Muslim world. By contrast, the Islamic fundamentalist Yazir ibn Q’arif has a purely hostile view of his Muslim cousins in Spain, based on reports that he receives in the Majriti (the northwest Africa of Kay’s world):

Yazir’s soldiers and mercenaries sent home all their wages, and with these sums came tidings of affairs in Al-Rassan [Al-Andalus]. Some of it was comprehensible, some of it was not. He learned that there were courtyards within the palaces of the kings, and even in the public squares of cities, where water was permitted to burst freely from pipes through the mouths of sculpted animals — and then to run away again, unused. This was almost impossible to credit, but the tale had been reported too many times not to be true.

One report — this one a fable, obviously — even had it that in Ragosa [Zaragoza], where a Kindath [Jewish] sorcerer had bewitched the feeble king, a river ran through the palace. It was said that there was a waterfall in the sorcerer’s bedchamber, where the Kindath [Jewish] fiend bedded helpless Asharite [Muslim] women, ripping their maidenheads and laughing at his power over [Allah’s believers]. Yazir stirred restlessly within his cloak; the image filled him with a heavy rage.

With regards to the historical Zaragoza of our world, Yazir has the right of it. Kay’s depiction of the city is a complete fable. But as I said it’s a powerful one, and perfectly appropriate in historical fantasy. It’s not as if Kay wants us to believe (or at least I hope he doesn’t) that our real-world Zaragoza, or any of the taifa cities, hosted anything like the annual spring Carnival, where the people of all three faiths took to the streets in masks, sharing food and drink, cavorting to music, and having sex with complete strangers. He seems to be using an extreme vision to make a point about the potential of cross-cultural sharing that perhaps could arise in slightly less extravagant settings that he presumably believes existed, historically, in the taifa cities.

Alas, even that potential was hardly there. In all periods of Islamic Spain, including those of the Cordoba caliphate and the taifa kingdoms, cross-cultural sharing was a farce. Maliki jurisprudence forbade socializing with even Muslims of a different school of law, let alone “sharing” with Christians or Jews (Fernandez-Morera, Myth, p 115). The Christian diet of pork and garlic, not to mention wine, was an obstacle to sharing table-fellowship with Muslims, and when Muslims did have to interact among the dhimmi, they had to use their own utensils and eat “in parallel” rather than actual fellowship. As far as festivals, Maliki law prohibited musical instruments and singing, let alone booze. Clerics had authority to enter houses to break up strings and wind instruments if they even heard them playing. That some rulers and rich Muslims flouted these laws (their singers and musicians were usually slaves) doesn’t negate what dominated most of society. As for interfaith sex, it was entirely out of the question.

I wonder if Kay took some inspiration for his Carnival from the mistaken assumption (even among scholars) that Muslims in Cordoba were known to have “shared” in public Christmas celebrations. The problem with this is the timing. We have evidence of this only in the 13th century, after the Christians had taken back Cordoba in 1236. As Fernandez-Morera says, it makes no sense to point out what Muslims did in Christian-controlled cities as supposed evidence of religious harmony and tolerance in Islamic Spain! In Muslim controlled cities, Jewish and Christian festivals were never allowed to be celebrated in public, let alone “shared” with Muslims (Myth, p 114).

Nevertheless, I don’t begrudge Kay for inventing the idea of the Carnival and running wild with it. Literature often explores the theme of a common humanity across the ethnic divide. The following interaction takes place the day before the Carnival, between Alvar and Husari, dressed in the garb of the other’s faith:

“In the name of the moons, look at the two of you!” Jehane exclaimed.

Alvar was dressed in a wide-sleeve linen overshirt, ivory-colored, loosely belted at the waist, over hose of slightly darker shade and Asharite [Muslim] city slippers, worked with gold thread. He wore a soft cloth cap, crimson colored, bought in the market weeks before.

Husari ibn Musa wore a plain brown Jaddite [Christian] soldier’s shirt under a stained and well-worn leather vest. His horseman’s trousers were tucked into high black boots. On his head he wore a brown, wide-brimmed leather hat.

“My sadly departed mother would have been diverted, I hope,” Husari said. “She had a gift of laughter, may [Allah] guard her spirit.”

“Mine would be appalled,” Alvar said in his most helpful voice. Husari laughed.

Jehane struggled not to. “What would any rational person say, looking at you two?”

“I think,” Husari murmured, “such a person — if we could find one in Ragosa this week — might say we two represent the best this peninsula has to offer. Brave Alvar and my poor self, as we stand humbly before you, are proof that men of different worlds can blend and mingle those worlds. That we can take the very finest things from each, to make a new whole, shining and imperishable.”

“I’m not sure that vest of yours is the finest Valledo [Castile] has to offer,” Alvar said, “but we’ll let that pass.”

“And I’m not sure I wanted a serious answer to my question,” Jehane said.

Husari grinned. “Did I give you one? Oh dear. I was just trying my pendant’s manner. I’ve been asked to give a lecture on the ethics of trade at the university this summer. I’m in training. I have to give long, sweeping answers to everything.”

(A sidebar about the overpraised “universities” in Islamic Spain: they were actually schools for the study of religious texts and law. When the Arabs conquered the Christian world and took over the Christian Greek universities, it is true that they started teaching subjects like medicine and philosophy, and this was the case in Spain; but even at this point, the only degree you could get at these schools was in religious law. Philosophy was a hobby for the select few and had no impact on daily life, for that was the role of sharia. As for most of the arts — sculpture, painting, drama, narrative, and lyric — they weren’t taught at all, deemed unseemly if not blasphemous. See Fernadez-Morera, Myth, pp 65-68, 76-77.)

At certain moments, Jehane thought, in the presence of men like Husari ibn Musa, or young Alvar, it was actually possible to imagine a future for this peninsula that left room for hope. Men and women could change, could cross boundaries, give and take, each from the other… given enough time, enough good will, intelligence. There was a world for the making in [Leon/Castile/Aragon] and [Al-Andalus], one world made of the two — or perhaps, if one were to dream big, made of even three.

Jehane’s thought process may come across as unduly modern, and the scenario historically unlikely, but it works. And that sums up my feelings for the Ragosa chapters. They are unhistorical, even wildly so in the case of the Carnival, but as long as we’re under no delusions, they fulfill the ambition of good literature. Kay doesn’t use Ragosa to make angry statements about ethnic bigotry; he doesn’t preach. Rather, he engages the social drama of his (admittedly propagandist) world, and tests ideas by showing what happens when they naturally unfold. The results are ugly — the killing of Jehane’s servant being the painful climax of the Carnival — and the reader is left struggling, much like the novel’s characters, with timeless human dilemmas. That’s a huge score.

“Civilized” Al-Rassan vs. the Desert Tribes from Across the Sea

In the chapter set in northwest Africa, the prince of Cordoba begs aid from the desert warrior Yazir ibn Q’arif, whose character I relish:

The tribesmen of the desert would not be sparing any moments of prayer for the secular degenerate worse-than-infidel, King Almalik of Cartada [Cordoba], who had just died. As far as the Muwardis [Almoravids] were concerned, all of the kings of Al-Rassan merited approximately the same fate.

Yazir had long ago realized — and had tried to make his brother understand — that the softness of life in Al-Rassan had not only turned the men there into infidels, it had also made them very nearly women. Less than women, in fact. Not one of Yazir’s own wives would have been half so pathetic as this Prince Hazem of Cartada [Cordoba], his nose dripping like a child’s in the face of a little wind. And this young man, lamentably, was one of the devout ones. One of the true, pious followers of Ashar [Allah] in Al-Rassan. Yazir was forced to keep reminding himself of that. [The Qur’an] had taught that charity towards the devout was the highest deed of earthly piety, short of dying in a holy war.

Hazem had been corresponding with them for some time. Now he had come himself to the Majriti [North African coast], a long way in a difficult season, to speak his plea to the two leaders of the Muwardis [Almoravids], here on a blanket before flapping tents in the vast and empty desert. Cities and houses were what the soft men of Al-Rassan knew. Beds with scented pillows, cushions to recline upon. Flowers and trees and green grass, with more water than any man could use in his lifetime. Forbidden wine and naked dancers and painted Jaddite [Christian] women. Arrogant Kindath [Jew] merchants exploiting the faithful and worshiping their [false god instead of Allah]. A world where the bells summoning to prayer were occasion for a cursory nod in the direction of a temple, if that much.

Yazir dreamed at night of fire. A great burning in Al-Rassan and north of it, among the Jaddite [Christian] kingdoms of Esperana [Leon/Castile/Aragon]. He dreamed of a purging inferno that would leave the green, seductive land scorched back towards sand but pure again, ready for rebirth. A place where the holy stars might shine cleanly down and not avert their light in horror and what men did below in the cesspools of their cities.

Kay portrays the Almoravids of northwest Africa as fundamentalist Muslims who despise their “worse-than-infidel” cousins in Spain, which is historically accurate. But he also implies that the decadent dynasties of the taifa kings are an indication of a more enlightened or pluralistic society in Al-Andalus, which is false. Fundamentalist rhetoric paints such a picture, but that’s the nature of fundamentalism. When Kay writes in the same chapter that “Al-Rassan after the Khalifate’s fall, and even long before, had not been the most devout place in the [Muslim] world,” he’s essentially adopting the hostile fundamentalist perspective and treating it as truth.

In fact, as we’ve seen already, Al-Andalus was very devout. The idea that non-fundamentalist Muslims don’t believe in jihad and sharia law is like saying non-fundamentalist Christians don’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection.

The Reconquest: Proto-crusades

A strong advantage of the alternate-world genre is that it allows Kay to telescope historical events for simplicity and better effect. In this case, the Reconquest invasion of 1085 AD with the First Crusade to Palestine in 1096:

The High Cleric, Geraud de Chervales, announced: “Hear, then, news to cause all hearts to exult and offer praise: the king of Ferrieres [France] and both counts of Waleska [Germany], and most of the nobility of Batiara [Italy] have come together to wage war.”

What? Where?” said Constable Gonzales, the sharp words pulled from him.

The cleric’s smile grew even more triumphant. His blue eyes shone. “In [Palestine],” he whispered into the stillness. “In the desert homelands of the infidels, where Jad [Christ] is denied and cursed. The army of the god [the First Crusade] is assembling even now. Already, though, a first battle has been fought in this holy war; we heard the tidings before we left to come to you.”

“Where was this battle?” Gonzales again.

“A city called Sorenica [Salonica]. Do you know it?”

“I do,” said King Ramiro quietly. “It is the Kindath [Jewish] city, granted them as their own long ago, for aid given the princes of Batiara in peace and war. What Asharite [Muslim] armies were there, may I ask?”

Geraud’s smile faded. There was a coldness in his eyes now. The belated recognition of a possible foe. Be careful, Ramiro told himself.

The cleric said, “Think you the Asharites [Muslims] are the only infidels we must face?

Few people know that the Spanish Reconquest was the real “first crusade”. By as early as 1063, Pope Alexander I promised indulgences to Spaniards who drove out the Muslims. That was 30 years before Pope Urban II launched what we call the First Crusade in 1095. The Reconquest, of course, had been prosecuted on-and-off for over 300 years since the 720s, but by the 1060s popes began treating Reconquest efforts as a religious campaign equivalent with the emerging theology of holy war. Kay telescopes the retaking of Toledo in 1085 with the crusade to Palestine in 1096-1099 as being coordinated at the same time, allowing the theme of Christian holy war to resonate more strongly. That’s a smart use of the fantasy world.

Kay blunders, on the other hand, with the Jewish massacre that occurred during the First Crusade. He gives the Jews a special city where they govern in autonomy. Sorenica seems loosely based on Salonica/Thessaloniki, which had a large Jewish population, though obviously not exclusively Jewish, and they obviously didn’t have their own rule; and historically the Jews of Salonica got plundered in the Fourth Crusade, not the First. These adaptations are fine and harmless. But Kay makes the Jewish slaughter part of the church’s intent, which is a common myth. The Catholic church never, in the entire era of the crusades, preached a holy war against the Jews. When misguided crusaders slaughtered Jews, they were roundly condemned by popes and church authorities. Instead, Kay has the high priest practically salivating at the thought of killing Jews.

“A camel herder in the Majriti or a shepherd in Esperana?”

In other words, if you were a Muslim in Spain, would you want to join rival Muslims in Africa or be taken over by Christian crusaders? Ammar ibn Khairan chooses the former:

“Fezana [Toledo] will fall to [our crusaders],” said Rodrigo, “before summer’s end. And then [the Almoravid Muslims] will come across the straits to meet us. Al-Rassan is theirs, or it is ours, Ammar. You must see that. Fezana [Toledo], Cartada [Cordoba], Ragosa [Zaragoza], Silvenes [Seville], they cannot be saved. Even you cannot dance that dance between fires. And surely, Ammar, you must know –“

“I have to try.”

“What?”

“Rodrigo, I have to try. To dance that dance.”

Rodrigo stopped, breathing hard, like a horse reined up too harshly. “Your faith means so much to you?”

“My faith? I would put it differently. I would say, my history. Not just [Al-Andalus], but [Palestine and Arabia], the desert of [Muhammad’s] homelands. The [Almoravids]?” Ammar shrugged his shoulders. “They are a part of that. Every people has its zealots. They are as most of the people of your north are today. Righteous, convinced, unforgiving, uncivilized. But I confess I find little of value in your cities of [Leon and Castile] either. The [African] desert is a hard place, harder than even your northlands in winter. [Allah] knows, I have no bonding of spirit with fundamentalists, but I share even less with those who venerate your fanatic saints. Would I rather be with the [Almoravids]? Again, put it a little differently, and then leave it, Rodrigo, as my last words, lest we quarrel before we part. I suppose I would rather, if [Al-Andalus] is to be lost, herd camels in [Africa] than be a shepherd in [Spain].”

“No! That cannot be the last word, Ammar!” Rodrigo shook his head vehemently. “How do I let you ride to them? Do you know what they will do to you?”

What they did to Al-Mu’tamid, in our world, was nasty. He was the taifa king of Seville, and the historical figure who said the words that Kay gives to Ammar — that he would “rather be a camel driver in Morocco than a swineherd in Castile”. And for his loyalty to Islam he was “rewarded” by being made captive by the Almoravids and tortured. No camel driving career for him.

Kay cops out of this history in favor of a happy ending. In the epilogue we learn that Ammar was pardoned by Yazir ibn Q’arif (despite the cries of Yazir’s people for Ammar’s slow and painful death), and is living with Jehane in Italy. For me, this is the worst part of the novel. Ammar deserved a tragic ending like Rodrigo.

It’s important to note the false equivalence Ammar makes between the Muslim fundamentalists and the Christian “fanatical saints”. In fact, as we’ve seen repeatedly, the Christians in the north were more enlightened than not only the fundamentalist Muslims from Africa, but also the Muslims of Spain. For all the laxity and decadence in the courts of the taifa kings, jihad and sharia law remained (as always) oppressive tenets of Islam, especially under the Maliki code of jurisprudence. The fundamentalist Almoravid tribes in Africa simply had differing interpretations of sharia law and zealous hatred for the cosmopolitan elite. Ammar is one of those elite (a court poet and assassin), and he could never achieve friendship with an Almoravid in the way he did with a Christian warrior like Rodrigo.

And yet aside from the false equivalence, Ammar’s stubborn allegiance to Islam — like the historical Al-Mu’tamid’s — is completely believable, and all the more disturbing for it. It’s not easy to let go of our heritage. As Ammar says, it’s less his faith (being a hedonist in the elite courts) and more his history, or cultural identity. I think this is a point for many liberal-minded Muslims today who get defensive when Islam is criticized as a system of toxic beliefs that is inherently more dangerous than other religions.

Ammar is my favorite character in The Lions of Al-Rassan, and his response to Rodrigo, “rather a camel herder in Africa than a shepherd in Spain”, is my favorite scene, precisely because it’s so realistic and misguided. History proved that with Al-Mu’tamid. I only wish that Kay had followed history all the way through, by giving Ammar an appropriate tragic ending.

The Passing of an Age

But what kind of age? Kay blends fantasy and historical realism, but the scales tip on the propagandist side. He really wants us to grieve for the fall of Al-Rassan, and view the northern and southern invaders about equally benighted. If I lived in 11th-century Spain, frankly, I’d be inclined to welcome the Reconquest. Kay’s propaganda is a success, because the fact is that I do keep grieving for Al-Rassan every time I read the novel — the story is so damn compelling. This scene from the final chapter chokes me up every time, when Ragosa is besieged, and the Jewish chancellor Mazur ben Avren offers to sacrifice himself to the outside mobs, so that his king might receive some clemency.

King Badir scowled. “We have been through this. Do not vex me again. I will not accept your resignation, your departure, your sacrifice… none of these things. What am I clinging to, so desperately, that I would allow myself to lose you?”

“Life? The lives of your people?”

Badir shook his head. “I am too old to clutch like that.” He gestured around the room. “We made this together, my friend. If it goes, one way or another, I will make an end drinking my wine with you. Do not speak of this again. I regard the subject as a… betrayal.”

Ben Avren’s expression was grave. “It is not that, my lord.”

“It is. We find a way out together, or we do not. Are you not proud of what we have achieved, we two? Is it not a denial of our very lives to speak as you are speaking now? I will not cling to some miserable form of existence at the price of all we have been. Are there not some things we have made here, some things we have done, that are worthy to have been in [Cordoba] in the Golden Age?”

And Mazur ben Avren, with a rare emotion in his deep voice, replied, “There has been a king here, at the least, my lord, more than worthy to have been a khalif in those most shining days.”

Another silence. “Then speak no more, old friend, of my losing you. I cannot.”

It could almost make me wonder if King Badis of Granada and his Jewish prince ever had such a deep friendship.

Nothing in my analysis has been intended to undermine the power of Kay’s novel. I consider The Lions of Al-Rassan inspired enough to constitute lasting literature, and because it’s so good it gets away with plenty of dramatic license. What I have tried to do is show where Kay’s world and ours intersect, and where they do not, for the historically curious. And as I finish writing this, I am about to start Kay’s latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, set in the same alternate world but centuries later in the time of the Ottoman Empire…

Review: A Dream of Spring

dream of springWhen I heard that the last Song of Ice and Fire book would be released this summer, I called bullshit like everyone else. In hindsight, I suppose skipping over The Winds of Winter was Martin’s best move. The sixth season of the TV series did more than steal his thunder; it underscored how badly he had fallen as a writer. Like the early novels it moved mountains of plotting, and some critics are calling it the best season yet. If Martin ever does bother finishing The Winds of Winter he should simply adapt the TV-script with minimal modifications. Weiss and Benioff showed him up big time this year, and the message was loud and clear: Remember who your readers are, George — what they signed on for, and what you used to be capable of.

Martin was evidently worried this might happen, because for the past year he’s been rushing to crank out book seven. Yes it’s really here, and it’s pretty damn good, certainly the best entry since A Storm of Swords, though it shows signs of haste. At 574 pages it’s the shortest volume (even Feast for Crows topped 600), and overloaded with shocks, deaths, and surprises that come flying out-of-nowhere and sometimes feel forced. Above all it betrays an author who is pissed at how superior his story has become in the hands of TV adapters. A Dream of Spring is Martin’s desperate appeal that he can still write a good story, and his blatant attempt to go out with a bang before the show writers can. He’s largely successful in this regard. He was too under the gun to craft anything close to a masterpiece; but where he does score, the payoffs are grand.

Huge spoilers follow, so stop now if you don’t want to hear them. Bran is the character who demands the most attention, but before his memorable lead in the first chapter comes a six-section prologue which in some ways — and I hope I’m not damning the book on whole by saying this — is the most suspenseful part. Martin’s novels have always relied on prologues to set the stage, but they’re usually brief and seen through the lens of trivial characters. In A Dream of Spring he serves up what is virtually a short story about the Citadel conspiracy in Oldtown: six chapter equivalents from Samwell’s point of view. (I’m sure most of these were originally intended as Samwell chapters for The Winds of Winter.) Sam has basically traded warfare at the Wall for an intellectual battle at the Citadel, in which sorcery clashes with science and leaves no easy place for his allegiance. It doesn’t hurt that the “antiquated” school has colorful conspirators carrying the flag, nor does it help that “progressive” maesters do little more than sit around and pass gas; Sam is torn both ways, starting as a key player for a Targaryen comeback until shafted by Sand Snake Sarella — a shocking twist that pays dividends as he ultimately throws in his lot with the dominant faction.

In some ways the Citadel conspiracy is my favorite part of A Dream of Spring. It has the tight focus we haven’t seen since the early novels, before Martin spread his story over too many minor characters. And the drama is tense as hell. I was sweating trying to figure out who was doing what to whom. Truths are revealed as half-truths and lies, allies more lethal than enemies, the kind of intrigue we saw in book 1 as Ned was trying to figure out who killed Jon Arryn, and in book 2 when Tyrion was playing all sides against the middle. The transition to Bran was almost a come down after this cracking intro; Martin should consider writing mystery thrillers. This is all to say that the rise and fall of the Citadel conspiracy is deftly executed, brilliantly complex, and proof positive that Martin hasn’t lost his touch. He still has the mojo when he applies himself. He perhaps over-applies himself, however, with Bran.

Bran’s homoerotic passion for a Forest Child will be extremely controversial, not least because of his age. In the TV series Isaac Hempstead Wright has become a strapping youth of 17, but in the books Bran is still only 10. (Four years have passed since the first chapter of book 1.) It is implied that Bran’s greenseer powers have accelerated certain aspects of his biology, but this is still disturbing territory, and there are heavy shades of Ishmael, the androgynous figure from Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. In that film Ishmael physically caresses the prepubescent Alexander, encloses the boy in his arms, and together they will the death of Alexander’s abusive stepfather. Pollen caresses Bran and empowers him in a similar way to murder someone leagues away, but the carnality is much more overt; Pollen is blatantly sexually assaulting him until Bran’s rage turns to passion. It’s an extremely well-written scene, and I’ve said in previous reviews that Martin’s best writing comes in the Bran chapters. But it’s a scene you will feel ashamed of reading.

Bran’s chapters will be controversial in other ways. He’s the most important character (he gets 14 chapters out of 62, almost a quarter of the novel), but his seminal moments depend on changing the past in ways that don’t really change it at all. That worked brilliantly in the TV series in paying off the character of Hodor, but at this stage the results are too predictable: It is Bran Stark who raises the Wall 8000 years ago, unleashing an explosive force of weir-magic through his ancestor Bran the Builder. It is likewise Bran Stark responsible for the mysterious vanishing of the Others in that same year, as he summons them forward in time to the point of four years ago, in order to precipitate the events which will lead to Jon’s alliance with the Wildlings. And he is also Bran the Breaker, who in a fit of epileptic fury defeats the Night’s King and solves the riddle of Joramun’s Horn. Time travel is always risky business, and for the most part Martin handles it well, but again, the events are rather banal once they are telegraphed; we’ve seen this kind of thing done before in fantasy and sci-fic. On the other hand, it’s a solid payoff to Bran’s warging abilities combined with his weir-magic that gives him a near godlike omniscience and omnipresence across time.

The lady Starks get good chapters and surpass themselves. It’s impossible to not feel elated for Sansa as after so much torment in the previous books she assumes control of both Winterfell and the Eyrie, and shafts Littlefinger by consigning him to the Wall. Arya assassinates literally hundreds of Freys and Lannisters before being snared and gang-raped by hundreds more. Her prolonged torture and death is inflammatory by even Martin’s standards, and while this isn’t exactly a complaint on my part, there does seem to be a “My dick is bigger than yours” thing going on between the novels and TV series, as if Martin and Weiss/Benioff are competing to outshine each other with shock value. I wonder how Martin’s spouse-equivalent has reacted to this. Arya is her favorite character and was originally slated to die in book 2; it’s well known among fans that she forbade Martin to kill her off. Arya is my favorite character too, and while I don’t object to her dying unjustly, I’ll certainly say she deserved to go out better than this.

There are shocks around every corner, and by far the most gratifying one is the Iron Throne’s literal rejection of Cersei Lannister. While there have been hints that the Throne is sentient (“Some days you can feel it eating into you,” said King Robert in book 1), the reawakening and arrival of dragons in Westeros seem to have triggered a full-blown animation. The First of Her Name pronounces war on Dorne and the Reach, speaking her awful judgment from the throne only to be gruesomely impaled by its blades. It’s a bit cartoonish but I was cheering; Jaime is another matter. His murder at the hands of Ser Enchanted-Gregor is anything but cartoonish and rather upsetting. We’ve come a long way with Jaime since he threw Bran off the tower, and it’s safe to say he will go down a big favorite of many fans. He finally opposes his wretched sister, and makes a sacrifice for Sansa so sublime that brings perfect closure to the arc with Brienne. All of Martin’s characters are believable, but none more so than Jaime. He has been Martin’s most authentic character by far.

As for the showdown between the Hound (villain turned hero) and Lady Stoneheart (hero turned villain), it’s entertaining but the tone is all wrong, like something out of a B-grade horror film. In chapters like these Martin was clearly taking the piss in his hurry to finish the book. Euron is another case in point. The Greyjoy thread was my favorite part of A Feast for Crows; it was loaded with potential. But Euron’s story devolves into a caricature of sadistic kinslaying — brandishing Theon’s head in public while dressing up in his niece’s skins to terrorize his fellow man. On the other hand, Aeron Damphair gets a standout chapter. His toxic prayers against Euron backfire (literally: he’s killed by a sea-storm so wild it may as well be the Drowned God incarnate), but his righteous tirades are the most entertaining I’ve read in a work of fiction.

The battle between the dragons and the Others is what we’ve long waited for, and it’s good if somewhat by the numbers. On TV next year it’s sure to be mind-blowing. The identity of the dragon with three heads is as I predicted — Dany on Drogon, Aegon on Rhaegal, and Tyrion on Viserion, until Tyrion dies (more on that in a moment) and Jon supplants him. It’s surprising that so many readers dismissed Aegon as a phony pretender. If that were true, Dany’s revelation in the House of the Undying would make no sense. Besides, there is a Martinesque poetry in two bastard sons (Tyrion from Aerys, Jon from Rhaegar) “sharing” a dragon, and the way Viserion’s reins are handed off to Jon is extremely well played. At the Wall, Littlefinger makes the most treacherous move in the series — even I was appalled — and Tyrion dies saving Jon, closing the loop of their friendship established in book 1 when Tyrion visited the Wall on a whim. As for the character of Aegon, he’s somewhat a mixed bag. He began as a cipher in Dance with Dragons (I’m not surprised the show writers dumped him, at least so far), but he’s more interesting now; the problem is that he doesn’t get enough chapters warranted by his role as “the song of ice and fire”. On top of that, much of his story would have been fleshed out in the unfinished Winds of Winter, and so we’re left to fill in the blanks without assistance from the TV series.

Fans have expected Jon and Dany to fulfill the ice and fire prophecy — Jon being the ice and Dany the fire. In fact, it is Sansa who is the ice (she being a complete Stark, unlike Jon), and Aegon the Targaryen fire as promised. I didn’t see it coming with Sansa, even though a fringe group of fans have been predicting a Jon-Sansa pairing. I rejected that theory and am now eating crow. Their passion for each other is intense, though somewhat cheap; I didn’t care for the way Sansa’s red hair evoked memories of Ygritte every time she and Jon were in the sack, nor for their cheesy promises to each other. The Iron Throne does seem to be where Jon is headed until Martin pulls a fast one, leaving the rule of Westeros to Aegon and a heartbroken Sansa who reluctantly then resolutely steps up as queen. Jon and Dany practically fade to black, saviors of Westeros whose cousin and nephew will wear the crowns. That is Martin’s song: the marriage of House Stark and Targaryen’s most capable members.

Many will object to Dany’s ending, but I honestly never thought she would rule Westeros. Her departure for Mereen may seem anti-climactic, but for me it works, especially considering the unfinished business there on top of Daario Naharis’ assassination. In the end she is truly concerned about oppressive injustices more than a prestigious birthright, which is Aegon’s anyway. She accepts that she is a tyrant despite her cause for the dispossessed (unlike Sansa who is naturally tender and knows cruelty firsthand); Jon sees that he’s idealistically naive (unlike Aegon whose integrity is balanced by political realism). I love their farewell at the Wall, and no they don’t get married. In the epilogue Jon is ruling Winterfell without a queen, by all indications as celibate as when he wore the black. And as grim: the Wildlings seem to be a major problem. He reaps what he sowed by his noble intentions, like Dany in Slaver’s Bay. Which is all fine and well. A Song of Ice and Fire was never slated for the most happy ending, and it deserves to live up to its grim reputation. The closing chapters do that, leaving us with only a dim hope, or dream, for a better Westeros.

I doubt that Martin will ever bother finishing The Winds of Winter, and at this point that’s probably just as well. The TV series told that part of the story better than he could ever hope to. I’m just glad he was able to pull his shit together for A Dream of Spring and produce a satisfying conclusion. Even without a leg A Song of Ice and Fire now stands as one of the best epic fantasies of all time.

Ratings

A Game of Thrones — 5
A Clash of Kings — 5
A Storm of Swords — 5+
A Feast for Crows — 3
A Dance with Dragons — 4
The Winds of Winter — ?
A Dream of Spring — 4 ½

(Previous volumes reviewed here.)

Stormbringer = Tolkien’s Long Defeat + Noah’s Flood

eldic

It strikes me that the Elric saga crosses the long defeat theme of Middle-Earth with the nihilism of Noah’s flood. Whether or not this was Moorcock’s intention, I’ve no idea, but it practically leaps from the pages in the final novel Stormbringer.

(1) The Long Defeat. The premise is that Elric is fighting the forces of Chaos, even though his people have been the agents of Chaos. The Melniboneans in this sense are a bit like Tolkien’s elves, a high race tied to that which they are fighting against, and doomed to pass so that men can take over in a more manageable age. The One Ring was pure evil, but the elves’ magic depended on it. As Galadriel says to Frodo, his quest to destroy the Ring is, from her point of view, “the footstep of doom”:

“If you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.”

Galadriel even wishes that the One Ring had been lost and never found, so that it wouldn’t have to be destroyed. Its existence enables the elves to work their enchantments (by their lesser rings of power) and keep alive the pocket-paradises of Lothlorien, Rivendell, and the Grey Havens.

The Melniboneans are likewise a race for whom magic is innate, though unlike the elves, they tend to be evil like the forces of Chaos they serve.

“Elric’s people were neither true men nor true members of the ancient races who had come before men. They were an intermediary type and Elric was half-consciously aware of this; aware that he was the last of an inbred line who had, without effort, used Chaos-given sorcery as others used their earthly skills — for convenience. His race had been of Chaos, having no need of self-control or the self-restrictions of the new races who had emerged with the Age of the Young Kingdoms.”

Moorcock describes the Melniboneans and their sorcery as “an older cleaner sort of evil” contrasted with “the perverted upstart” sorcerers of Pan Tang who are now seeking to emulate Melnibone without understanding how, and thus threaten the world’s stability. Elric, on the other hand, is an exceptional Melnibonean, striving for a world in which justice and Law can be possible, and as such he becomes the agent of Chaos who will defeat the forces of Chaos and ensure his own downfall.

“Elric knew that in reality, Chaos was the real harbinger of stagnation, for though it changed constantly, it never progressed. In his heart he yearned for this state, for he had many loyalties to the lords of Chaos and his own folk of Melnibone had worked, since their inception, to further the aims of Chaos. But now Chaos must make war on Chaos; Elric must turn against those he had once been loyal to, using weapons forged by chaotic forces to defeat those selfsame forces in this time of change.”

Elric’s purpose in wielding Stormbringer is thus somewhat like Frodo’s mission to destroy the One Ring. Both will defeat evil, but in the process cause the passing of gifted races who made amazing things possible on earth. Both create the basis for a new age — a historical age in which humanity will have more of a fighting chance, without entities like Sauron and demons like Arioch.

(2) Complete Destruction. In Elric’s world, however, the new age of history won’t emerge gradually like it does out of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age. After Elric defeats Chaos (or even if Chaos wins) he must destroy the world so humanity can start over with a clean slate. Things are so bad that a purging is required, the equivalent of Noah’s flood. Elric’s world is fated to lose no matter what. Everything he has ever known — his fallen empire, the newer kingdoms, his wife Zarozinia who impaled herself on Stormbringer after being warped by Chaos into a huge worm from the neck down, all his friends and enemies and loves — will be wiped away and forgotten. It’s just a question of whether or not Chaos will continue dominating in the new age. Thanks to Elric, order and justice will rise from the ash, and chaos and evil will become at least manageable.

I almost never compare fantasies to Tolkien unless negatively, to describe how lazy and unoriginal they are. The Elric saga is an exception. Here the Tolkien vibes are strong and in a good way. Which is ironic considering Moorcock’s vocal disdain for The Lord of the Rings. Maybe he took more from Middle-Earth than he realized.