Tuesday, 30 October 2018

The Soviet Vacuum

I’m about two-thirds into Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar. It’s not my usual time period, as regular readers will have noticed, but I’m finding it engaging, and grimly enthralling in parts.

And yet, there’s a nagging irritation. Not with the book. It’s well-written and well worth reading, but with my own vast ignorance. Consider Yezhov and Beria. I’d venture to guess most of you have never heard of them, yet have heard of Himmler, Eichmann and/or Heydrich, the architects of the Holocaust.

It’s entirely right and proper that we remember and continue to teach younger generations about the Holocaust. That only makes it more bizarre and inexplicable that, beside the vast ocean of Nazi, Hitler, and Holocaust dramas and histories, there is very, very little about the Terrors under Stalin.

We’re not talking small numbers of casualties. In total, millions were shot, or consigned to slave labour in gulags. In stark contrast to the Nazi approach of deliberately targeting Jews (and some other groups), the Stalinist way was simply to have a quota for executions and enslavement, and then for desperately enthusiastic underlings to exceed said quotas. People weren’t killed because of a racial hatred, but to make up the numbers.

Why isn’t more said about this? Why isn’t more of it taught in schools, or portrayed in dramas and histories?

There could be an element of embarrassment. After all, the West (most obviously the UK and US) were allied to Stalin’s Soviet Union in the latter half of the war. That was necessary, but it’s never comfortable allying with a genocidal tyrant. Yet, the USSR was an enemy at the war’s start, and afterwards, so I’m not sure that argument holds water.

I asked the question on Twitter (https://twitter.com/MorrisF1/status/1056835920702390272), specifically about dramas, and received a number of interesting answers, including one that the US (when the atrocities became known) didn’t want to see another McCarthy to arise and didn’t comment much on them. (For those interested, a couple of interesting suggestions were made, including Burnt By The Sun and Stalin (Robert Duvall), and the book All Stalin’s Men by Medvedev Roy Aleksandrovich).

Might it be because we never had a conclusive climax to a hot war? The Nazis were smashed, ultimately, in a decisive defeat against the Allied powers. The USSR collapsed in the latter years of the 20th century. It wasn’t conquered by external armies, and it didn’t surrender to the Allies.

Nevertheless, the lack of media programming is still a void, a gaping chasm that should be filled with histories and dramas. There are some fools in the UK today who actually march quite happily under banners of Lenin and Stalin, the hammer and sickle flying on red flags above them.

We would not see this without excoriation it if those on the right marched beneath swastikas and Hitler banners. And those comparisons are very apt. The atrocities were, to a large extent, concurrent (1930s and 1940s), and the numbers involved were comparable.

It’s a little depressing when people know nothing of the Western or Eastern Roman Empires, or are unfamiliar with even basic dates like 1066. But when they’re totally unaware of atrocities carried out within living memory it’s alarming. Our best hope of avoiding a repetition of the tragedies of the past is if we’re aware of them.


Friday, 26 October 2018

Advantages for Women in the Middle Ages

As a rule, life in the Middle Ages was rubbish. It was especially rubbish if you were poor, and even more rubbish if you were a poor woman. Often there was overt sexism (you were expected to obey your father, then your husband) and sometimes it was a bit more subtle (sometimes a guild would allow a woman to own a business but not be self-employed).

However, there were some upsides for women.

Petty treason had a few definitions, one of which was a woman refusing to obey her husband. That’s bad. But there’s a flip side. If a man and wife are found guilty of committing crime, the wife can say she was ordered by her husband to do bad things. What’s she expected to do? Disobedience would be treason. The man will hang, the wife will not.

Sticking with crime, there were a couple of special pleas available. One was to plead clergy, meaning one had to demonstrate the ability to read, and get shunted to a softer clerical court. The other was to plead pregnancy. A woman would be examined and, if considered to be pregnant, any sentence of death would be delayed until after the birth. There was always a chance that the sentence might just be dropped entirely.

There was quite a lot of war in the Middle Ages, including the Hundred Years’ War. Edward III (and others) called up huge armies to cross the Channel and introduce the French to the excitement of English archery. But those armies, risking death and injury in war, and pestilence in camp, were almost entirely men. Woman weren’t dragged on pain of hanging across the sea to wage war.

Domestic violence is not a good thing, yet it was broadly accepted in the Middle Ages. A man beating his wife was not unusual. But if he went too far neighbours and family might put a stop to it. A woman kicking the crap out of her husband, however, would lead not to sympathy and sorrow for him, but mockery and contempt.

Despite the low life expectancy, many kings lived long lives (Henry III, Edward I, and Edward III collectively reigned for 141 years). But there was a problem for them in particular, and men in general. Men were meant to be strong and vigorous, able to defend their home and kingdom (the king, of course, leading this). An old man was worn out and feeble, weak and decrepit, lingering with the mantle of power but lacking the frame to fill it. Old age was not good for men. It was good for women. Longevity gave them the reputation of wisdom, (hence ‘wise women’) as women did most of the healing and nursing, and older women had a great store of knowledge.

I certainly wouldn’t claim life was better for women than for men in the Middle Ages. Property law, inheritance, petty treason, risk of death in childbirth, all made things rather horrid, even without delving into general problems men faced too (high mortality, risk of famine every bad harvest etc). But, as with almost everything, it’s not entirely black and white, and it’s interesting to consider the nuances.


Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Snapshots Review 3: The Reviewening

For the uninitiated, snapshot reviews are when I take 4-6 samples (usually fantasy) and, er, review them. Hopefully it’s helpful for readers to find new books and authors.

Quite a mix amongst this half dozen, with sci-fi and fantasy, comedy and serious stuff.

The Copper Promise (Copper Cat Trilogy), by Jen Williams

The sample includes multiple perspectives, but manages to start tying them together before it ends (which is helpful for trying to assess how the plot might go forward). The opening chapter features a nobleman being surprisingly stoic under torture (nothing too graphic), as his jailers seek to prise from his lips information about his family’s wealth. Following on, there are chapters about separate but linked mercenaries delving into an ancient, haunted, subterranean place, with the latter pair of mercenaries hired by the previously mentioned nobleman (now in a state of some injury, following the torture). The sample ends as they approach the ruin. I enjoyed the writing style, and really liked the very different voices that the differing POVs had. A good test of this is to imagine dialogue without any tags, so the spoken words alone indicate the speaker, and this passes with flying colours. It’s an intriguing beginning.

The Gorgon Bride, by Galen Surlark-Ramsey

An interesting change of pace here. I must admit, fantasy set in the real world tends not to my cup of tea, so when the sample opened with a real life setting hopes were not high. However, I do like Greek mythology, and that’s mingled with the modern world in this comedy-fantasy. The sample’s storyline follows the antics of Alexander Weiss, pianist, and Athena, goddess and taunter of Ares. The mortal soon meets his mortality and is destined to try and find love for Euryale, one of Medusa’s sisters and fellow gorgon. One nice aspect of comedy is that you can tell very quickly whether the style of the humour is to your taste which determines in large part whether you’ll like the book or not. I found it to be a light-hearted and entertaining read. Perhaps as helpfully (for me) it’s a stand alone, rather than part 1 of the Mega Long Fantastical Series.

Paternus: Rise of the Gods (the Paternus Trilogy book 1), by Dyrk Ashton

This is a weird one to review, because it has several things I dislike but it’s also very competently done (particularly the first chapter, of 4-5 or so complete in the sample) which is excellent. It’s set in the modern day real world, with a thrillerish writing style. Could be a blend of magic and technology, not quite clear. The story looks at various POVs, mostly from the perspective of Firstborn. They’re ancient godlike figures, often taken from historical myths. There seems to be some sort war brewing between Asuras (rebels against the ‘Father’ that created them) and Devas (Father loyalists) but how is not clear. I do think it’s interesting and well done, but, like celery, it’s just not for me.

The Sons of Thestian (the Harmatia Cycle book 1), by ME Vaughan

Much more my usual fare than the previous two samples, but I must admit it didn’t grab me. The prologue opens with Jionathan, a prince and would-be escapee from his own city, attempting to evade a nocturnal patrol of bloodthirsty and transmogrified mages, ‘aided’ by the mage Rufus (who appears to be in a stupor). Rufus gets hidden and the prince, as you might expect early on, gets caught and ends up back in his castle. Over the ensuing few chapters we learn the prince’s father is ill, and the Night Patrol is a new and odd addition to the city. Rufus has more POV time early on, but there’s a bit too much telling rather than showing. It’s not badly written, indeed, I found it very easy to read, but it just didn’t grab me.

Kingshold (Wildfire Cycle book 1), by DP Woolliscroft

Have to say I was almost immediately taken by this. It’s the story, seemingly, of a power transition from a terrible king and queen (who end up leaving their positions sooner than they expect, at the hands of a vengeful but probably righteous wizard) and the shift of a kingdom towards a republic/democracy. There are many POVs, indeed, it wasn’t until the last chapter in the sample that one recurred (I did wonder if the author might try, heroically/foolishly, to tell a whole story without repeating a single POV). Every one was engaging, the writing was effortless to read, and, at this early stage, I enjoyed the way the story was going. There’s a drunken minstrel, a precocious maid, a hardbitten mage, and so on. It’s an intriguing start.

Space Team (Volume 1), by Barry J Hutchison

Another comedy that begins in the real world, but this one is sci-fi. The sample’s a little shorter and doesn’t quite have time to set out the premise. It follows Cal Carver, who ends up in the wrong prison due to a bureaucratic error, just as all hell seems to break loose. He wakes up in space for reasons about to be revealed, when the sample ends. It’s very engaging and amusing, although the bodily fluid stuff isn’t my cup of tea. An advantage of comedy over other genres is that it’s very easy to tell early on if it’ll tickle your fancy, and, fluids aside, I found the sample of this quite entertaining.


Friday, 5 October 2018

Review: Silent Heroes, by Evelyn le Chene

Animals have a long history in warfare, and this book explores a number of contributions from our furry and feathered friends in more recent wars (I think the oldest mentioned is the Crimean). A plus side of the relatively modern scope is that there’s more evidence and less anecdote, and there are usually some nice photos (although I do now feel a bit inferior, given there was a collie who received multiple medals and completed various missions and parachute jumps with the SAS).

There are many wars featured, from Crimea to the Worlds Wars, and others around the world, and various different types of animal. Dogs feature heavily, as do pigeons, with the occasional cat and mule, and, perhaps most famous of modern soldier animals, Voytek the bear.

The book’s long enough to provide significant variety, with each chapter (usually focusing on one or two animals) sufficient to put the story in context without padding. I found the writing style to be easy to read, and the subject matter to be charming, if sometimes sad (to be expected, really).

I found it to be a very engaging book, and enjoyed it rather a lot.