12.21.2008

The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov

The White Guard
The White Guard
I've been wanting to read this short novel for a while, ever since I first discovered Bulgakov. I like reading novels about Russia, especially ones written by Russian satirists. One of my life goals is to finish reading The Master and Margarita. The White Guard is one of Bulgakov's early novels, written about a family in Kiev (I presume) during the winter of 1918-1919.

Reading this book was a lot like reading an extended series of vignettes. There wasn't much plot to speak of, but that wasn't the point of the book. The point of this book, for me, was to show the chaos that people lived with as Russia went from World War I to the Soviet Union and the Russian Civil War. When you think about it, you'll realize that Russia was at war in some form or another from 1914 all the way to 1921 and beyond. In reading this book, you get a little bit of a sense of the choas. Unless you're well-versed in Ukrainian history (which I am not, despite my best efforts with Wikipedia), you have about as much idea as ordinary Kiev citizens at the time had of what was going on. Throughout the book, Bulgakov gives you brief glimpses of all the rumors flying around. There are German soldiers left over in Kiev from the way, Symon Petlyura's citizen army, and Bolshevik's on the way from Moscow and St. Petersburg. In general, I knew what was going to happen, but I didn't know what was going on during that winter. It was kind of refreshing, instead of frustrating. Most of the time when I'm reading about impending historical disasters, I want to yell at the characters to get the hell out and head for a safe country.

In the middle of all the chaos, the story roughly follows the experiences of the Turbin family and their friends and acquaintances. Their downstairs neighbor is stocking up on money and supplies for when the Bolshevik's show up. The male members of the family and their friends all decide to volunteer for Ukrainian nationalist forces, to defend the city against Petlyura. Unlike what the title of the book would have you believe, the men aren't really tsarists. They're just not Socialists. Two of the men--the eldest brother Alexei and his friends Karas and Myshlaevsky--have some army experience. Myshlaevsky was a WWI veteran. But the youngest brother, Nikolka, had only been to the military academy and only has some basic training under his belt. The sister, Elena, is left by her German husband at the beginning of the book, and spends a lot of the rest of the time worrying about her brothers.

I can understand why this book wasn't published in the Soviet Union until the 1960s. None of the conquering forces in this book is shown in a particularly good light. And the tsarists and nationalists aren't painted as entirely evil. Instead what you get in this novel, is a ground view of the Revolution and the beginning of the Civil War, where men are given rifles and told to shoot at the other guys without being told why. Throughout the invasion of Kiev by Petlyura, Bulgakov keeps showing orders being phoned in by anonymous officers to posts where most of the men have deserted and/or the equipment is malfunctioning or broken. Cadets are ordered to reinforce other platoons only to find that those platoons are missing in action.

One thing that always strikes me when I read a book about either the Russian Revolution or the French Revolution, is how quickly people start turning on each other, at the anger they feel towards each other and towards the government. Having never experienced such a thing in this country, I don't think I'll ever understand.

12.14.2008

The Hero of Ages, by Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages
The Hero of Ages
I once heard Sanderson speak at a local university and he said that one of things he was good at as a writer (and probably why he was chosen to finish Robert Jordan's series) is ending things. Unlike a lot of other epic fantasy writers, who like to write quadrilogies and quintilogies and however else you can refer to those long, long series. At least, when Sanderson says he's going to write a trilogy, you know that the story is going to end in book three.

And what an ending it was! The Hero of Ages was totally worth the wait.

At first (about the first 200 pages), involved a lot of set up and a lot of repetition of ideas from the first two books. It was a little irritating, having things and ideas repeated every couple of chapters. But at about the page 250 mark, things really started to get interesting. Sanderson set up such an apocalyptic scenario that I wasn't sure how the protagonists were going to come out on top. I had a really hard time putting to down last night.Oh, it was nice to read a book where the loose ends got tied up.

There were so many things that I liked about this book that I'm going to have to write this out in a list:

1. Religion and faith. Even though I'm not much of a churchgoer (I only go on Christmas Eve to sing carols), I am fascinated by religions. In The Hero of Ages, the character Sazed is searching through all the lost religions that he knows, trying to find one that will give him solace, since he lost the love of his life in the previous book. One of Sazed's duties was to remember all the tenets and beliefs of religions that were wiped out a thousand years ago. As he goes through the list, he keeps finding logical inconsistencies. To which, I thought, duh. Whenever he would eliminate another one, I wanted to tell Sazed that religion is not about logic, it's about faith. It doesn't matter that they don't make intellectual sense.Towards the end of the book, Sazed does realize this and does start to believe. And because he believes, Sazed helps to save the world with his knowledge of how the world used to be before the powers of Preservation and Ruin started fighting each other.

2. Science. Part of what was causing the end of the world was how out of whack the characters' world was with its own science and natural processes. The planet was too close to the sun, so the Lord Ruler (evil overlord from book one) created volcanoes to put enough ash and particulate matter into the atmosphere to cool off the planet. And that problem led to other problems, which led to more problems.

One of the ideas that keeps getting repeated in this series is that every action has a consequence. So, in the middle of all this religious talk is Newton's law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When the characters all charge ahead trying to fix all the new problems instead of undoing them, they make things worse. Hence, the whole end of the world thing.

Interestingly--and I kind of hate to give this away--but the answer to restoring the world came from all the religions that Sazed remembered. Because they were all created before the Lord Ruler started messing with physics and biology, they had the information needed to undo the "problem-solving" measures.

3. Duality. This was one of the things that held my attention all through. In the first book and for most of the second, I didn't realize (probably as Sanderson wanted) that the world was caught in a dualistic struggle between equal and opposing forces: Preservation and Ruin. Preservation is, just like the name says, the force that keeps things alive and opposes Ruin. Ruin is the desctructive force, and keeps things changing. They're both necessary as long as they're in balance with each other.

The duality helped keep me reading once I got to the interesting bit, and made it hard to for me to figure out how the world was going to survive. I mean, you can't defeat a force of nature can you? And if you destroyed Ruin, then things would stagnate and stop changing. You need change as much as you need a preserving force. At first, I thought it was a little odd that Sanderson chose Preservation to match up against Ruin. I understand destruction, but isn't destruction's opposite creation? Of course, then the forces wouldn't have had to work together to create and the plot would have been a lot more one-sided, not to mention totally different.

4. The ending itself. The ending of this series was just magical, in both senses of the word. I loved it! It's kind of hard to describe, because you really need the background of the first two books. It was amazing to see it all come together the way that it did. I don't want to give away more than I already have, so I'll stop.

Run, don't walk, to read this book. If you haven't read the series, go get it.

12.07.2008

Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory

Pandemonium
Pandemonium
Daryl Gregory's Pandemonium is another one of those rare books that I really wished was longer than it was. I picked the book up from the library yesterday and read the whole thing in one go; I just couldn't put it down. The premise is absolutely fascinating, and I would have loved the opportunity to learn more about the world that the author created.

As the back cover of the book says, the world of Pandemonium is just like ours except for the fact that some people get possessed by cultural archetypes, Jungian archetypes--not demons. When possessed by archetypes like the Truth, the Kamikaze, or the Little Angel, the possessed person has to act out whatever the archetypes role is: as a judge punishing liars, crashing planes, or giving dying people the kiss of death (respectively). The book is intersperced with short stories about particular appearances by the archetypes. I would have loved to have read more about those, but the book is only 288 pages long. Damn, I wish that it would have been longer.

The story is narrated by Del, a man who was once possessed by the Hellion (a Dennis the Menace-like troublemaker). After a car accident, he realizes that the Hellion is still with him and he begins a quest to try and have the archetype exorcised before he hurts someone. Along the way, Del discovers the reason why the archetypes started possessing people in the late 1940s.

Let me back up. At the beginning of the book, I was surprised to see so many different archetypes that I wasn't all that familiar with. Granted, I'm no Jungian expert, but I had never heard of the Kamikaze before, for example. It didn't fit in with the more traditional archetypes like the Father or the Trickster. Without giving away the other big plot twist, Del discovers that the archetypes are really coming from comic books from the Golden Age of comics. At first, I was a little dismayed by this revelation. I mean seriously, comic books? I was really interested in the idea of the collecctive unconscious and all the Jungian stuff. That's why I picked up the book in the first place. But I saw the comic book explanation as next to the aliens as deus ex machina plot device that I really hate. (I'm look at you Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Stargate.) But as the idea grew on me, I found that I could go along with it and evevn start to enjoy it.

I don't think I can recommend this book too much. I really enjoyed reading it, and I sincerely hope that Gregory writes more like it. I don't care if he uses the same characters, I just want another book set in this world. The premise is so rich that I don't think I could ever get bored with it. Absolutely fantastic.