Book Review: THE ANCIENT CELTS builds a framework for Ancient European history

The Ancient Celts audiobook occupied my listening time during a couple of recent weekend road trips, and it turned out to be enjoyable and informative.

The Ancient Celts is an excellent historical framework through which to view and discuss the identity and meaning of the term Celtic and the ancient peoples to whom it can be applied. This is the type of history where author Barry Cunliffe strays into several other topics in order to build his primary case.

Ancient Greece, Rome, the Scythians, and Phoenicians all make appearances as Cunliffe traces a millennium of migrations and conflicts across Europe involving various Celtic groups. Cunliffe focuses on the material archaeological record for his study, but he does not hesitate to pull in writings of the Classical era, and previously established linguistic evidence to build his case.

Cunliffe’s ultimate case is that the Celts can be identified as a distinct cultural and linguistic group from the Middle Danube region from the end of the Bronze Age, who had a stark impact on the Classical civilizations of Europe and spread as far south as Egypt, as far East as modern Turkey, and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Europe, and whose cultural remnants can still be seen today.

Interestingly, Cunliffe bookends his study with discussions on the revival of Celtic identity over the last few centuries, and what this might mean in relation to the Ancient Celts he tries to understand. He posits the subjective question of who the Celts were and who they are today, and answers with a surprisingly simple, yet effective statement: anyone who considers themselves Celtic, whether that is through spoken language, material culture, or more ephemeral forms of identity.

Steve D

Book Review: THE GATHERING STORM sets WoT series back on track

The Gathering Storm may be the best novel of The Wheel of Time series to this point (book 12 of 14). This is the first book Brandon Sanderson co-authored after Robert Jordan’s passing, and it is simply incredible.

While Sanderson’s own writing style is markedly different from that of Jordan’s, the climactic narratives of two of the most important characters in the series are what stand out about this volume. The Gathering Storm soars as it brings the arcs of two of its primary characters to stunning crescendos.

Sanderson’s writing style is more befitting a modern fantasy audience, which is likely why he is one of the most popular fantasy authors of the last decade, if not longer. Compared to Jordan’s verbose prose that strains the limits of sentence structure and pays homage to the classical high fantasy authors that preceded him, Sanderson’s writing is concise and emotive. I don’t necessarily prefer Sanderson’s writing style to Jordan, but his punchier phrasing lends a sense of urgency to the story.

The Gathering Storm is ultimately the first part of a three-part conclusion to this epic series. Sanderson wrote it this way intentionally, taking Jordan’s outline for his finale, A Memory of Light, and splitting it into three volumes to capture all of the threads that Jordan wanted to weave into the final tapestry.

This is seen most starkly in the stories of Rand and Egwene. I will not go into detail, but I will say that The Gathering Storm really focuses on these two, separated geographically by hundreds of leagues or more, and narratively by nine or ten books, but linked as they each approach the Last Battle. It can easily be argued that they are the two most important characters in the series, and Sanderson and Jordan emphasize their place by weaving their first steps in the final act of the series together, independently, but in duality.

Several of the dragging plot lines of the middle part of this series are also tied off, often in ways that are surprising or shocking, but that serve the story and the characters. I’ve questioned all along how such a sprawling series could be ended cleanly, and with two books to go I can already see the blueprint. Sanderson utilizes all of the characters Jordan created, the minute storylines he laid out, to push the main groups of characters in the same direction: towards the Last Battle.

The reader feels the impending doom of this legendary confrontation laced throughout the book, throughout each character’s interactions with the others. Everyone, including the reader, knows what’s coming, and we collectively dread the moment and quiver in anticipation. The Gathering Storm is triumphant, even as it tells of only the opening salvos of the final conflicts to come.

I’ve already started reading Towers of Midnight.

Steve D

January Write Day: Keep Plugging Away

Man, another month, another year. December was a solid month. Our holidays were festive with plenty of time spent with family. We also got to experience our first real Christmas through our oldest son, who is three and at the perfect age to get excited for Santa and presents and Christmas lights and all that.

It was a decent month on the goals front as well.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 8,000 words for New Earth.
  2. Read through Uprooted.
  3. Read 3 books.

So how did I do?

Write 8,000 words?

Not quite. I tried to cram a bunch of writing into the final week of the month and came up short at just over 7,000 words. Still a decent output, overall. The first half of December had me stressing a bit about getting everything ready for our holiday celebrations, which knowingly kept me away from writing. I thought I could make up for it in the final week, but no such luck.

I still did all right, though.

New Earth, The Herb Witch Tales #2 is progressing nicely at around 15,000 words, and I’ve hit a stretch where I already have a lot of content from my first draft I can pull from. That should help me stay on track and catch up a bit this month. I just want to get off to a stronger start and not fall behind again.

I did start to find a writing schedule again, slotting in time right after putting my oldest to bed, and then knuckling down on the weekends for bigger word count gains.

Read through Uprooted?

I seriously forgot about this goal. December was a busy month! I definitely want to complete this read-through, so perhaps I’ll have to pay to print it out — all 70-some pages of it – so I can focus on it when I’m away from my computer.

Read 3 books?

I’m going to say yes…? But let me check my Goodreads first.

Success! I finished three books in December, including book 12 of The Wheel of Time series, The Gathering Storm. Look out for that review next week. Spoiler alert: I loved it.

I also achieved my Goodreads 2021 goal of reading 24 books. That may sound paltry based on a lot of the book blogs I read, but that’s a lot for me, damn it! I’m aiming for 26 in 2022.

Goals for January

I feel like I rushed through this post, but this might be a good indication of where my head is at currently. I have a lot I want to achieve in the next few months, primarily finishing a solid draft of New Earth, and I just want to get down to it.

  1. Write 9,000 words. This feels achievable to me based on my writing progress the last two weeks, and it may be the start of escalating writing goals to start the year off. We’ll see how it goes.
  2. Read 3 books. Currently waiting for my copy of Towers of Midnight to arrive 😀
  3. Start working out again. My exercise routine really fell through the last couple months, so I want to get back on track. This is an open-ended goal for now until I can establish a decent routine again.

Happy New Year!

Steve D

Book Review: THE LAST KINGDOM and engrossing characters and story

After years of watching the show and hearing from my father-in-law that I would love Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories series — now more famously known as The Last Kingdom series — I finally listened to the first story, The Last Kingdom, on Audible.

This was my first introduction to Cornwell’s writing, having watched all of the TV adaptation of “The Last Kingdom” previously. Even though I came into this book with inflated expectations, I was definitely not disappointed.

The Last Kingdom follows young Uhtred, the son of an English noble, from the time he is kidnapped by a Danish earl, Ragnar, until he becomes a man. This first installment is effectively a coming-of-age story, where Uhtred learns how to live like a Dane and how to be a true warrior. He learns early on that he has a strong lust for battle and killing, and he chooses the warrior’s path for himself, becoming caught between his Saxon heritage and his Danish upbringing.

Cornwell’s story is exciting, and his plot is punctuated by thrilling action sequences and scenes of dialogue that do most of the heavy lifting in revealing the characters. Many of the names would be familiar to those who had watched the titular Netflix show, but the story is far more in depth.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing more of Uhtred’s early years, which are largely glossed over in the show. The reader gets to see more of the relationship between Uhtred and Ragnar, which truly becomes a father-son bond as the young Uhtred grows. This story lays a strong foundation for Uhtred to constantly be pulled between the two halves of his heart — the half that wants to help Ragnar the Younger in avenging the death of their father, and the half that wants to reclaim his birthright as lord of Bebbanburg.

This story also sets up what is sure to be a fiery relationship/rivalry between Uhtred and King Alfred of Wessex, as Alfred ensnares Uhtred deeper and deeper in the politics of Wessex (and his liege-ship), and Uhtred tries to angle for a chance to see his homeland in Northumbria reclaimed. The dialogue scenes between Uhtred and King Alfred crackle with tension.

If I had one gripe against this story, it’s that I don’t know if I would enjoy it as much if I didn’t already know the characters. Being able to see the actors’ faces in my mind as I listened brought this story to life in a way that many others cannot be.

Can’t wait to start the next one.

Steve D

Book Review: INTERIOR CHINATOWN and commentary on Othering in America

Charles Yu exposes a ton of insight into what it’s like to be a “Generic Asian Man” in America. In Interior Chinatown he tells the story of an actor, Willis Wu, trying to work his way up the ladder, advancing from Generic Asian Man #3, to #2, through several intermediary roles, until at last he gets the chance to play the dream role: Kung Fu Guy.

That is all Willis thinks he is capable of becoming, a trope of cinema and a caricature of himself.

Through this experience, and with some much needed help from his family, Willis comes to realize that Kung Fu Guy is still just another version of Generic Asian Man, just like Old Asian Man or Asian Seductress.

In a strange but emotionally stirring scene in which Willis is “on trial” for boxing himself in racially and socially, he (and the reader) learn some tragic tidbits about how the US has treated immigrants from East Asia, and especially China throughout its history.

This is yet another side of history that we don’t often find in American textbooks; policies like the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which took steps to effectively ban all immigration to the US from China. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first of its kind to ban immigration based on race or country of origin. There were also a series of Supreme Court rulings in the 1920s which sought to exclude Asians from naturalization in the US. (Read more here).

Ultimately, Willis realizes that he is playing into a system which exacerbates his own place as Asian Man; a role which continues to flummox American society at large, even after 200 years of immigration (particularly from China).

I found the structure of this story odd at first. It read like a TV script, with characters delivering lines to each other in such a way that it was difficult to tell at times when Willis was actually acting in a scene for one of his roles, versus when he was “playing” a role as Asian Man in his everyday life. This storytelling mechanism is intentional, of course, and does lend to the author’s crucial commentary, in the form of the protagonist’s monologues.

Overall enjoyed this, but more than anything, Yu makes me want to read more about the Chinese American experience, and the US’s abominable history, distant and not so distant, in this (and many other) regards.

Steve D