Monday, August 27, 2012

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (2003) is a non-fiction book covering the events in Rome of the first century B.C., and is a wonderful introduction to the fall of the Republic.  If you don’t normally read non-fiction, don’t let the fact that it is put you off.  It is a fantastically written book--the prose keeps the complex narrative moving while always injecting bits of wit or personal accounts from ancient sources.  This is no dry history book—it reads more like a novel.
Holland's central thesis asserts that the intense personal ambition instilled in Romans from birth led to their downfall.  Can you imagine growing up in a house with an entire room devoted solely to the accomplishments of your ancestors?  With their wax effigies are arranged so that they stare down at you as if to pass judgment on your worth?  If it sounds serious, it’s because it was deadly serious to the Romans.  Rising to the highest levels of government was the pinnacle to which all Roman males aspired.  Enhancing the might of the Roman Republic was to enhance your own personal prestige and dignity.  To a large measure, this intensity powered the rise of Rome from city to regional power, and with the defeat of Carthage, to the undisputed master of the world.

The problems set in when men of such incredible ambition came up against the constraints of the Roman constitution (more a loose collection of laws and customs than any single entity).  A long succession of Romans began to fiddle with the system, looking for ways to exploit it to their own betterment.  In short, somewhere along the way, men ceased to fight for the interests of the Republic and, instead, sought personal power.  This culminated in the final generation of the Republic with men like Sulla and Caesar who finally brought down the house of cards.

I say that Rubicon is an "introduction" because Holland focuses so heavily on the role of personal ambition in the Republic's downfall at the expense of other broader issues.  Judging by his obvious command of the history, I'm sure this was done on purpose, but I worry that those not as familiar with the time period might miss the importance of these crises.  Given the parallels between the class structure of Roman society and that of modern America, these kinds of issues and the ways in which they are dealt with are of particular interest.

My major gripe about Holland’s approach is that he enters the story a bit too late to give a good accounting of some of these issues, picking up the narrative in force with Sulla’s exploits in the 90s B.C.  Most folks cite the tribuneship of Tiberius Gracchus (133 B.C.) as the key event that instigated the century-long series of crises that eventually led to the fall.  Holland glosses over both the Gracchi in the opening pages and devotes little time to discussing the hallmark of their campaign—land reform.  Likewise, the career of Marius is relegated largely to the sideline.  He, more than any other, was most responsible for bringing about the shift in loyalty of armies from the Republic to the general in command of the force! 

In spite of my few minor quibbles, Rubicon is the best non-fiction book I’ve read about the fall of the Roman Republic.  The writing is truly exceptional!  Folks looking to get fully immersed in this period should also check out Colleen McCullough’s ‘Masters of Rome’ series.  While fiction, it is firmly based in primary sources and really brings the personalities of the great men to life.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Maze Runner

After reading The Hunger Games and enjoying it, I did what a lot of folks did and scoured the internet looking for books of a similar vein.  One that kept coming up was The Maze Runner (2009), the first novel by James Dashner.  I admit to feeling bad about comparing the two novels in the first sentence of my review, but it is almost unavoidable given their plots and intended audience.  To be fair, Dashner wrote The Maze Runner nearly two years before The Hunger Games was published, so the rampant cries that his novel is a blatant attempt to capitalize on the success of THG are misleading.

At any rate, The Maze Runner does fall into the young adult dystopian genre that seems to have saturated the book market in recent years.  The novel has an entirely intriguing premise:  the main character, Thomas, wakes up in a strange glade inhabited by a group of other teenage boys.  Like everyone else in the glade, Thomas has no clue how he got here.  This glade actually lies in the center of an enormous, constantly changing maze seemingly without an exit.  To top it off, every night a bunch of horrible creatures appear, bringing certain death to anyone not in the safety of the glade by sunset.  Thomas is immediately drawn to the maze runners, the boys which daily risk life and limb to venture into the maze in an attempt to map it and reach an exit.  Within days, a girl also arrives in the glade--needless to say this throws everyone into a tizzy because she is the first girl ever to arrive in the glade.  It soon becomes clear that both Thomas and Teresa have a special role to play in the life of the glade.

That's about all I can say without giving away anything, so I'll leave it at that.  While I found the plot to be quite engaging, the novel definitely stumbles when it comes to characterization.  I didn't ever connect with anyone in the novel due to Dashner's rather weak portrayals.  We are endlessly told about Thomas' emotional roller coaster--he is sad, scared, frustrated, confused, angry, but it all comes off as very shallow.  I never "feel" anything that he is experiencing, and every other character is treated similarly.  Given the great promise of the situation for high emotion and tension, this aspect of the writing was fairly disappointing.  So while the plot of The Maze Runner is on par with The Hunger Games, the quality of writing is not.

I think a much more apt comparison is with To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) by Jose Philip Farmer.  There is the same sense of awakening, wondrous setting, mysterious captors, and society building.  I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to say that there is ultimately the same journey to discover just what the heck is going on.  Again, in terms of writing, Dashner's novel pales in comparison to that of Farmer, but the two novels are quite similar in a general sense.

[some light spoilers here]
The end of the novel was also kind of a bummer.  Dashner's reveal a la Ender's Game was reaching a bit given the truly chaotic nature of the maze environment.  Furthermore, while there is some resolution to the situation at hand, the questions I most cared about were left completely hanging.  Yes, it was written with sequels in mind (like most every other young adult book these days), but dangling some clue as to the circumstances in the larger world would have been nice.

So, to sum up, I did enjoy the The Maze Runner from start to finish.  There is plenty of action and intrigue, and the writing for those parts is certainly up to snuff.  I do think I will read on in the series, but it won't be zooming to the top of my to-be-read pile.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Wind Through the Keyhole

Fear not, dear reader!  I've once again been shaken out of silence.  This time to review a book hot off the press.  Stephen King's The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012) is what faithful fans of his Dark Tower series, myself included, have spent years waiting for.  No, not word of yet another TV or film adaptation that will ultimately be relegated to the clearing at the end of the path.  A new novel!

The Wind Through the Keyhole falls in between Wizard and Glass and The Wolves of the Calla, and so can be considered volume #4.5 of the Dark Tower.  During their journey away from the Emerald City, Roland and his ka-tet are forced to seek shelter from a once-in-a-generation storm known as the starkblast.  With all hell breaking loose outside, Roland settles down to tell a tale that harkens back to the year following his mother's death when gunslingers were still a force of law in Mid-World.

Roland is sent by his father to investigate a series of mysterious deaths in an outlying holding thought to be the work of a skin man, aka a shapeshifter. In the aftermath of a fresh attack by the skin man, he befriends a boy who has lost his entire family to the creature.  To calm him down and lend the boy strength, Roland relates a bedtime story told to him by his mother (who is oft on his mind in the wake of her death)--the legend of Tim Stoutheart and his dealings with Marten Broadcloak (aka the Man in Black, Randall Flagg), agent of the Crimson King and longtime nemesis of Roland himself.

The story of Tim Stoutheart and his coming of age provides the bulk of The Wind Through the Keyhole.  Through this narration, we get a portrait of the world before it has moved on (an aspect of the series which I find particularly interesting).  All the usual suspects that make the Dark Tower universe so compelling are there: cowboys, gunslingers, wizards, dragons, North Central Positronics, etc.  Tim's story is heartfelt and quite charming, adding a light interlude to relieve the otherwise on-the-whole gritty series.  Coming right off the events of Wizard and Glass, I think even the heartiest reader could use a bit of a breather!

While The Wind Through the Keyhole doesn't add heaps to the overall Dark Tower narrative, it nicely gives some further insight into Roland's character, particularly as it relates to the tragic circumstances of his mother's death.

It was really fabulous to spend some time with Roland and his ka-tet again, for I have rarely felt more of a connection to a group of characters.  There was the merest whisper of a hint that we might not have heard the last of Tim Stoutheart, so here's to hoping that King will treat us fans to more of the Dark Tower in the years to come!

A final tidbit:  one of the guardians of the Beams, who just happens to be a lion, is named Aslan!  How cool is that?