dragoness_e: Raven strolling (Raven strolling)
Now and then I read something really interesting, and never think to tell anyone about it. This time, I'm telling you about it.

The Gunpowder Age, by Tonio Andrade, Princeton University Press 2016, ISBN 978-0-691-13597-7.

From the Introduction:

Historians have long studied gunpowder's revolutionary effects, but they've paid most attention to the West. Indeed, you've probably heard the saying, false but often repeated, that the Chinese invented gunpowder but didn't use it for war. This meme is still widely circulated, appearing in scholarly works, and even in China itself. But in fact the Chinese and their neighbors explored gunpowder's many uses, military and civilian, for centuries before the technology passed to the West. These Asian origins are often glossed over, and most studies of gunpowder warfare focus on the early modern period (ca. 1500-1800). This was, historians have argued, when the first gunpowder empires were born, and when the "gunpowder revolution" and the "military revolution" helped transform Europe's feudal structures, laying the groundwork for Western global dominance.

But the gunpowder age actually lasted a millenium, from the first use of gunpowder in warfare in the late 900s to its replacement by smokeless powder around 1900. Examining its full sweep can help us answer--or at least clarify--the question of the rise of the West and the "stagnation" of China.

The book is a study of the history of the development of gunpowder in both Chinese and Western warfare, and refutes or attempts to refute many of the classic theses for China's so-called "stagnation". (Answer: it wasn't what most people think). The author is a professor of history at Emory University, who specializes in Chinese/European contact history, among other things. The book is clear and straight-forward to read, not bogged down by academic jargon, but it is a well-documented academic work--everything is footnoted and referenced in the extensive bibliography. The author does not rely on regurgitating other English-only works, but uses and cites original Chinese sources. I approve. Always go to the original source if available, because other people's interpretations of a source are just that: their interpretation.

I learned a LOT from this book, including the fact that I had a lot of misconceptions. I'm one of those people who was taught that the Chinese never did anything significant with gunpowder. Oops, wrong as wrong can be. They did bombs, rockets, guns, incendiaries, and other fun things like "fire lances", which were an early predecessor of the gun that shot fire (burning gunpowder) out of a tube at people. (It took them a while to work out good enough powder and barrels to use gunpowder as a propellant rather than an incendiary. However, it worked as a short-range anti-personnel weapon. I suspect that being set on fire by burning gunpowder was at least as unhealthy as catching a bullet).

I also learned that medieval armies were using early cannon starting in the 14th century--you know, during the Hundred Year's War, that classic late-medieval war that brought us Joan of Arc and those classic demonstrations of English long-bow awesomeness, Crécy and Poitiers. Speaking of which... did you know that Joan of Arc was a skilled artillery tactician? Apparently one of the things that made her armies dangerous to the English was her knowing how to deploy cannon in a siege. Did you know that there were volley guns deployed to protect the longbowmen from any charging knights? Their arrows would kill horses and did a number on the crossbowmen, but they didn't actually penetrate plate all that well.

A tidbit for people looking for an historical, multi-ethnic setting for adventure:

The period from the 1540s to the 1560s was a golden age of East Asian piracy, and the pirates were a motley and multiethnic lot. Most were Chinese, but sources make clear that they worked with Japanese, Portugese, Siamese, "black Malaccans", "black barbarian demons", "white and black mixed types," and various other "barbarians". They exchanged ideas, techniques, and technologies, creating what one scholar has called a "hyrbrid maritime culture." Although arquebuses weren't widely used by the pirates, they were certainly present, and Ming officials took note. According to one source, a pirate band led by brothers surnamed Xu "lured the barbarians from the land of the Franks... and they came in a continuous stream." The Xu brothers established an island outpost, Shuangyu Harbor, which, according to one scholar, "became the stage for the dissemination to all of East Asia's maritime realms of every kind of gunpowder weapon." The Xu brothers worked with many other pirates, including Wang Zhi himself, as well as a man named Bald Li. Some sources suggest that among Bald Li's adherents was "a barbarian chief who was good at guns." -- p.171.
dragoness_e: Living Dead Girl (Living Dead Girl)
I just finished reading the Iain M. Banks Culture novel, Use of Weapons. I am not impressed; I think the author cheated, or tacked on the twist ending (that I saw coming) at the last minute and was sloppy about editing.
dragoness_e: Living Dead Girl (Living Dead Girl)
I finished this book last week or so. It was not actually a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho, though it may have been a bit satiric of it. Northanger Abbey was an Austen romance, not a gothic, in which the author, via the heroine, snipes at Ann Radcliffe's stories (such as Udolpho).

The first bit is the protagonist: I gather that Austen thought Radcliffe's heroines were precious little Mary Sues (she would have completely understood the modern concept) and deliberately made her heroine the opposite: plain, not incredibly intelligent, indifferent as to education, not especially virtuous and obedient as a daughter, not inclined to writing poetry or the arts, but just Jane Average and a tom-boy. Her parents are pointedly not tragically dead, nor are they cruel guardians--they are laid-back, agreeable people who love their children.

Of course, the girls in the story have been reading Udolpho and think it is the most awesome thing since sliced bread... at first. Later on, our protagonist gets herself in a bit of embarrassment because she lets her Udolpho-inspired imagination run away with her and imagines a cruel tragedy committed by her boyfriend's father--but the hidden manuscript turns out to be someone's forgotten laundry list, and the general's "guilty aversion" to the portraits and topic of his dead wife are the still-lively grief of a man whose beloved wife died when he was away on vital business and couldn't get home in time to be at her bedside. Our heroine realizes (after her dryly-sarcastic boyfriend points it out) that dark, tragic secret crimes might be possible in isolated manors in southern France of the mountains of Italy, but in midlands England, where everyone is all over his neighbor's business and a servant can't sneeze without everyone in the county gossiping about their cold, and our legal system really doesn't go along with that sort of thing? Yeah, no.

The titular abbey turns out not to be the "romantic" ruin Catherine imagined it to be--her boyfriend's family has modernized and expanded the place, because it's where they live, and wealthy families don't camp in ruins. (It would appear Catherine missed the part in Udolpho where Montoni was having the castle repaired and modernized, too...) After seeing how many servants the general has to maintain the abbey, Catherine becomes skeptical of just how realistic her gothic novels are, that have one or two old servants maintaining an empty manor or castle.

Finally, Austen clearly disliked the bad romance trope mentioned in my remarks on Mysteries of Udolpho: stupid misunderstandings that persist for half the book that could be cleared up by five minutes of conversation. Several places she pointedly has Catherine NOT jump to the conclusion that someone's brother or sister who she has not met yet is their secret lover so they can have a big misunderstanding over it.
dragoness_e: Living Dead Girl (Living Dead Girl)
I just finished reading the 1794 novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe. It's considered one of the seminal Gothic Romances, alone with The Castle of Otranto and The Monk.

It's solidly in the romance genre, as defined now: girl meets boy, various obstacles keep them apart, obstacles vanquished by end of novel, girl and boy get married live happily ever after. The "gothic' part of Mysteries is purely atmospheric, as all the apparently supernatural events are explained away by human action.

That being said, there's a reason that literature classes study Jane Austen and not Ann Radcliffe--she's just not that good. Jane Austen is much, much better.

Issues I had with the novel, such that I can see why Jane Austen parodied Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey (It's on my To Be Read list):

Women in 2-D!

There are four types of major female characters in the novel:

  • innocent, young, beautiful upper-class girls, who are so sensitive and innocent that they inconveniently faint whenever anything exciting happens, or when the idea of anything exciting happens. Someone needs to loosen their corset stays or something.
  • hysterical servant women.
  • Kind, generous, compassionate and conveniently deceased upper-class ladies who are relatives.
  • Shallow, spendthrift, self-centered to the point of meanness, and living upper-class matrons who are relatives. Something tells me that Ann Radcliffe did not get along well with her older female relatives.

Elizabeth Bennett would have been embarrassed by the lot of them.

Random Poetry

As in Tolkien's work, we get a lot of the author's poetry randomly interspersed in the novel, purportedly written by the various characters. This is one case where I would have preferred the character's poetry writing to be an Informed Attribute. The poetry is distracting, not that great, and interrupts the flow of the story. (And, in the E-book I was reading, incorrectly formatted, which really didn't help)

Idiot Plots and Informed Attributes

These are connected, as we have several characters--the heroine Emily St. Aubert and the secondary parental figure Count de Villefort who are described as rational, anti-superstition, trained in reason and philosophy, who nevertheless behave like irrational idiots.

In Villefort's case, the otherwise skeptical man who doesn't believe rumors of hauntings and suchlike is willing to believe every bad rumor he's heard about Valancourt's(the romantic lead) character, in spite of having met the man in person and knowing his family. This only happens when the plot requires it, of course.

In Emily's case, in spite of supposedly being quite anti-superstition and a rational devotee of Reason, she's quick to assume every weird thing must be a supernatural horror and doesn't look for alternative explanations--when the plot requires it.

And let's not forget that classic bad romantic trope, the tragic misunderstanding that keeps the couple apart for half the book that could have been cleared up with five minutes of honest conversation.

ETA: One minor thing that drove me nuts several places in the book: our heroes, both male and female, have the singular ability to lose a mountain trail in broad daylight, not find the well-known inn their accompanying guides supposedly were taking them to, and insist that the cleverest thing to do is keep on walking in the dark looking for the missing inn. In the mountains, complete with floridly described cliffs and chasms. In the dark. Because obviously that's the way to find a place--try to walk off random drop offs in the dark.

Seriously, someone needs to teach these people the concept of "making camp at dusk". If you can't find the inn, guess what, you can sleep in the carriage and your useless guides can at least tend the fire and keep watch.

Broken Aesops

The author has an explicit Aesop tacked on in the afterword: good, virtuous people triumph in the end and live happily ever after while evil people die horribly even if they temporarily get to push around the good guys. Not only is this obviously not true in Real Life, it's not true in the book. The completely innocent Marchioness dies painfully of poison, the merely shallow but not evil Madame Montoni (neé Cheron) dies badly; the gentle, kindly father Mons. St. Aubert dies of illness after losing his family fortune and outliving his wife and the Marchioness (who he loved as a young man), leaving his beloved daughter an impoverished orphan, and the completely honorable Mons DuPont drifts out of the book at the end, sad over unrequited love. The real Aesop is "if you are a main character that the author likes, you get to live happily ever after", but that's hardly a surprise.

The implicit Aesop is that one should use reason and control one's emotions and do not trust rumors and appearances, but investigate things that don't make sense. It would have been a much shorter book if the major characters who were supposed to be rational had done that. On the other hand, IF Emily had listened to the rumors around Montoni's character and run off with Valancourt instead of following her guardian aunt to Italy with her new husband Montoni, it would have been a much shorter book. Or at least a different one. Admittedly, Emily neither acted on the rumors nor did she investigate the matter rationally--she did nothing and just went along with things (not that she had much chance to investigate).

In general, Emily was just the kind of overly-sensitive, excessively sheltered twee character that I just want to grab and shake some sense into. Not that it would help, she'd just faint and be feverish for days over the shock to her senses. (Maybe she needs some quinine for that recurring illness?)

Her reaction to Valancourt's supposed disgrace was, frankly, not mine. My reaction would have been: "Clean up your act, get out of debt, and come back when you've proven you can control yourself and your spending habits and then we'll talk." Incidentally, that would have provided him an opportunity to realize that what "I" had heard about him was possibly not the same as what he actually did. Instead, Emily was all weeping and crying and "You have lost my esteem FOREVER, go away and don't even try to talk to me," without mentioning what he'd supposedly done, since obviously he knew how disgraceful he'd been.

This book would have been thrown at the wall several times if I weren't reading it on an e-reader that wasn't built for that kind of abuse. I am looking forward to reading Northanger Abbey to see just what kind of takedown Jane Austen did to it.
dragoness_e: Living Dead Girl (Living Dead Girl)
The other night I decided to go browsing Project Gutenberg for some old pulp novels to read. I happened to remember the name of the guy who wrote the original Fu Manchu novels, Sax Rohmer, and looked to see what PG had of his.

It has several books, including Fu Manchu novels of course; one non-Fu Manchu novel caught my eye: The Green Eyes of Bâst. I read about a third of it on my computer, then downloaded the EPUB and loaded it onto my eReader and trundled off to bed with it.
Rest of review )
dragoness_e: (Dragon Tattoo)
Tony Hillerman, one of my favorite storytellers, just died at the age of 83. He was the author of the Navajo Tribal Police mysteries, which were wonderfully complex, character-driven stories.

I first discovered his stories many years ago; back then, I was less interested in character and more interested in action, and thought the stories rather slow-moving. Now, as I've gotten older, I find myself less satisfied with high-action, high-cardboard characters and prefer complex, believable people in my stories... and I enjoy Mr. Hillerman's stories a lot more. Finally, last year, during my trips to and from California, I crossed the country he wrote about (and the country Louis L'Amour wrote about), including parts of the Navajo reservation. I understand the setting of his stories a bit better now.

The inner and outer conflict between the Navajo way and the white man's world is a recurring theme, and results in two very complex protagonists for his stories. All of his stories depended on the people, the culture, the region they were set in; you could not take a Jim Chee or Joe Leaphorn story and change the names and drop it in New York City. It just wouldn't work.

From the point of view of an aspiring writer (me), his stories are good examples of how particular characters can drive the plot--their actions influenced by their cultural background and attitudes, and the constraints imposed and opportunities provided by the harsh, beautiful desert country. Crimes are committed for the traditional reasons you find all around the world: greed, revenge, hatred, folly--yet events unfold the way they do because of the mindset of the characters, because the population is scattered thinly across a vast, mountainous, beautiful desert wilderness with bad or no roads, few telephones, and a tiny native police force to cover all that, and because of competing jurisdictions and interests...

History/backstory is always an integral part of why things happen in his stories. Mr. Hillerman did a good job of grounding his characters in the world, giving them histories that matter as opposed to letting them be generic blobs with names and descriptions. A plot turned on a certain rancher's habit of suing his neighbors for fun, and on another's hobby of flying an elderly WWII-era scout plane... and on a criminal who used his Ute father's stories of how he evaded pursuing Navajo to evade a manhunt of his own.

Raise a glass to Tony Hillerman, or better yet, read some of his books. He lived to a ripe old age, and gave us some excellent stories. What more can a writer desire?
dragoness_e: Living Dead Girl (Living Dead Girl)
I finally picked up Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code cheap at a used booksale and read it. I had been curious to see for myself why, on the one hand, did writers slam the book as atrocious writing, while on the other hand, it was a worldwide best-seller. If it was so bad, how could it appeal to so many people?

No, it wasn't cumulative bad taste by the public.

Short answer: Dan Brown wrote a very well-done, tightly-plotted story that engages the reader until the end, and has a satisfactory ending.

As I expand on this... )

April 2019

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