Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell continues the chronicles of Uhtred of Bebbanburg in the Saxon Tales.

Here is a brief summary of the book from the publisher:

It is a time of political turmoil once more as the fading King Edward begins to lose control over his successors and their supporters. There are two potential heirs—possibly more—and doubt over whether the once separate states of Wessex and Mercia will hold together. Despite attempts at pulling him into the political fray, Uhtred of Bebbanburg cares solely about his beloved Northumbria and its continuing independence from southern control.

But an oath is a strong, almost sacred commitment and such a promise had been exchanged between Uhtred and Aethelstan, his onetime companion in arms and now a potential king. Uhtred was tempted to ignore the demands of the oath and stay in his northern fastness, leaving the quarrelling Anglo-Saxons to sort out their own issues.  But an attack on him by a leading supporter of one of the candidates and an unexpected appeal for help from another, drives Uhtred with a small band of warriors south, into the battle for kingship—and England’s fate.

As with my other reviews of the books in this series, Sword of Kings does not disappoint. Everything from the plot to the character development is great–only difference with this book being that it has a twist for Uhtred. Cornwell shows Uhtred going through a little more adversity than normal – he is humbled. This humbling makes the story that much better.

Not only does Cornwell humble Uhtred, but he also continues to keep Uhtred human (rather than some superhuman that many authors tend to do for their protagonist). Cornwell often has Uhtred doubting his decisions–whether to rescue Queen Eadigfu or to honor his oath to Aethelstan to kill Aethelhelm and his nephew Aelfweard. It is refreshing to have the protagonist be unsure of him or herself.

The battle scenes are as epic as ever, which are visceral with a “down-in-the-trenches” description of men fighting with swords, axes, spears, and shields.

As I read each successive book, I have an increasing sadness knowing that Uhtred is getting older, thus his tale will end at some point in the nearer future.

Jonah Goldberg: The Cult of Unity Is a Poison

I’m taking a break from Twitter and Facebook this month for reasons I may blog about later.  Normally, I would share an article I found interesting on Twitter (I don’t do politics on Facebook) but today I thought I would go old school and blog it here.

Mitt Romney at the US Capitol

Anyone reading this who knows me will know that I am a fan of Jonah Goldberg.  I have been reading him for decades and he got me my start in online opinion writing at National Review Online.  His G-File this week is both classic Goldberg and well worth reading.  If you haven’t signed up for his new project, The Dispatch, I highly recommend it.

Part of the newsletter is a riff based in part on Yuval Levin’s new book A Time To Build, which I have just started and which I also highly recommend.  He notes how celebrity and social media come not from character formation that are the function of institutions but the using of those institutions for our own needs and wants – as a platform:

Once you start looking around, the list of people who use their institutions like cultural ATMs—staking out credibility that isn’t theirs to buy celebrity and authority they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford or deserve—starts to seem infinitely long. Ricky Gervais is now a right-wing hate figure for simply pointing out that Hollywood A-listers use award shows as literal platforms for virtue signaling about causes they often know very little about.

One of Yuval’s most important points is how social media erases formality. We say things to and about strangers we would never say to their faces. The anonymity of social media untethers us from the constraints of institutions and good manners. And even when we’re not anonymous social media allows us to cash in on the reputational capital of our institutions for our own agendas.

This is one of the reasons I am so disconnected and disenchanted about national politics these days.  It is platform building, virtue signaling and tribalism everywhere you look it seems.

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3/100 – The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

FYI, I’m blogging my way through what I hope to be 100 books read in 2020.

I really enjoyed listening to The Night Circus on audiobook so when Erin Morgenstern’s new novel The Starless Sea came out I figured why not go with the same format. My reward?An enchanting, mythical, romantic and adventure filled story about stories. Rich with characters, world building, and storytelling of the highest order.

Publishers Description:

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues—a bee, a key, and a sword—that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth. What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians—it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose—in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

As noted, I started with audiobook, which I listened to in the car, but I had to read it when I wasn’t driving because I was so enthralled with the writing, story and characters. Having read some of the reviews, I will admit I am open to the idea that the audio version is the more engaging one.

After all, it is a story about stories. And what better way to get sucked into a story is to have it told to you complete with characters, voices, and all that modern audiobooks provide? Now, granted not all audiobooks pull you in and hold your attention but great storytelling with audio production values can really work.

Once I was sucked into the story, I quickly found myself reading the Kindle version when I wasn’t in the car. But I listened to the vast majority of the book.

Here is what I wrote about The Night Circus:

Morgenstern builds her world slowly and at first you might be tempted to ask “Where is all this going and what does it mean?” But the details are worth reading even as the world begins to come together.  And even as you know in some important ways what will happen you are carried along increasingly pulled into how it will happen and what the ramifications will be for these future events.  And just as you begin to get a sense of understanding all of the intertwining threads Morgenstern begins to pull at these threads and reveal more in the unraveling.

And there is a sense that the details are more important than the larger picture. If you are looking for intellectual or philosophical depth or coherence I am not sure you will find it. Instead, it works best if you can lose yourself in the details.

I think that is equally true for The Starless Sea.

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2/100 – Notre Dame by Ken Follett

If you have been following along, in 2020 I am attempting to read 100 books.  I am also going to blog each book.  Hence the 2/100 in the title of this post.  Book #2 was another “hmm, that looks interesting and it has the added benefit of being short” library grab.  And as I often enjoy, and tend to collect, short biographies or histories of people, place and ideas Notre Dame by Ken Follett fit the bill.

But it turned out to basically be a short essay exploring the history of the cathedral in the aftermath of the great fire in 2019 via historical touch points or vignettes. It is a sort of explanation of why the famous cathedral captured our imagination and became such a symbol. It felt, however, too short and insubstantial for anyone with knowledge of the subject. For those new to it, however, may spark interest in further reading. And proceeds from sales are donated to the restoration fund.

Publishers description:

Hardcover Notre Dame by Ken FollettIn this short, spellbinding book, international bestselling author Ken Follett describes the emotions that gripped him when he learned about the fire that threatened to destroy one of the greatest cathedrals in the world–the Notre-Dame de Paris. Follett then tells the story of the cathedral, from its construction to the role it has played across time and history, and he reveals the influence that the Notre-Dame had upon cathedrals around the world and on the writing of one of Follett’s most famous and beloved novels, The Pillars of the Earth.

I suppose we should give marketing a break but “spellbinding” is a bit much.  It is an interesting essay if you have an interest in the famous cathedral and/or the author but if you want to give the restoration fund there are easier ways to do so than buy a book that would be better off as a series of blog posts. The Smithsonian Magazine has a taste.

But on the other hand, if you enjoy this sort of thing, grab a short fast read that illuminates some key historical/literary vignettes that brought us to the that fateful day when the fire started.

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1/100 – The White Hare by Michael Fishwick

I am trying for the first time in my life to read 100 books in 2020. I plan to document all 100 here. Hence, the 1/100 above.

I saw The White Hare at the local library and was intrigued.

A lost boy. A dead girl, and one who is left behind.
A village full of whispers and secrets.
When the white hare appears, magical and fleet in the silvery moonlight, she leads them all into a legend, a chase.
But who is the hunter and who the hunted?

It turned out to be the first book of 2020 for me and it is a good one.

A tad too much teenage angst for me (I’m clearly not the target audience) but a wonderful mix of tension and mystery with just enough myth and otherworldly aspects. A definite page turner despite not being a thriller or action style plot.

Kirkus captures what makes it such an enjoyable read:

Finely tuned prose, a rich sense of place, magical folklore elements, multidimensional characters, and a well-paced plot create a suspenseful contemporary tale of grief, retribution, and healing.

Evening Standard gets at some of the awkwardness as to target audience:

Michael Fishwick, a publisher-turned-novelist, retells the white hare legend in this coming-of-age story which wavers uncertainly between young-adult fiction and a crossover modern folk tale.

Forward Reviews artfully describes both the subjects touched on and the writing style:

Fishwick wields strangeness rather than certainty, and specificity rather than answers, in this rare offering filled with mystery and emotional depth. A treatise on the brutality of love and the pain it frequently leaves behind, The White Hare looks to the wild places and feral people that grief creates. The beauty of its prose lingers, a grace note amidst the heartbreaking realization that, often, “it’s hard to know how guilty you are.”

Like I said, solid start to 2020. Outside of some ambiguity about the age or message, and that ambiguity can be a strength, The White Hare is a lyrical and engaging read for ambitious readers of varying ages.