Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Mistborn Trilogy: Books 2 and 3 by Brandon Sanderson

From The Week of March 19, 2012

In any discussion about the problems of power, its abuse is invariably the first point raised. For abuse of power is not only often obvious and blatant, it is easily agitated against given that most of us imagine ourselves above such failings. We believe that we possess the strength of character to avoid temptation. However, there's arguably a more pervasive problem with power; its use in general.

Like a boulder plunged into a pond, the deployment of power, no matter how good-intentioned, creates a ripple effect which sets into motion consequences the actor never intended, much less envisioned. In other words, just as much harm can come from doing good as doing ill, provided that the doer of good has not carefully considered his actions. This nuanced and important lesson pervades the final two instalments of the exciting if long-winded Mistborn Trilogy. It is a lesson learned much to the cost of its characters.

In The Well of Ascension, the trilogy's second volume, two years have elapsed since the death of the Lord Ruler, the iron-fisted demigod who used violence and death to maintain peace in his ash-laden realm. But instead of the peace and harmony anticipated by his overthrowers, the Lord Ruler's fall has created chaos in the Final Empire. Predicated on a strict, authoritarian hierarchy, the imperium, in place for a thousand years, is, without its godhead, a crumbling edifice, the continuing deterioration of which has overwhelmed the efforts of the rebels to bring about the changes their insurgency promised. Despite their best efforts to institute a constitutional monarchy, injustice, rebellion and destitution abound. For such a harsh and omnipotent state cannot be so easily swept away. And in the meantime, without the harsh but ubiquitous agents of the Lord Ruler to keep the state running, anarchy and confusion are the immediate results of Kelsier's revolution.

But hope remains. If Vin, the one-time street urchin turned hero, can find the Well of Ascension, a fabled but ultimately mysterious source of power, perhaps the land can be saved from the increasingly burdensome heaps of ash that are destroying what remains of the Final Empire's cropland. Perhaps it can be a demonstration of the good that the new regime intends to bring to the people. Perhaps it can save a dying world from its apparently inevitable collapse. Of course, such legends have a habit of being too good to be true.

In The Hero of Ages, which flows on directly from The Well of Ascension, the apocalypse has truly drawn nigh. Since the Lord Ruler's death, the everpresent mists, which have characterized the land for a thousand years, have grown bolder, consuming those brave souls who dare to venture into its nighttime embrace. Many return from the mists, but some are changed in ways they cannot understand. Might the mists have a purpose? Might they too be an enemy of the beleaguered people of the Final Empire? Or is this just another sign that all things are moving towards a final, climactic confrontation between the forces of creation and destruction?

While the Final Empire's new regime scrambles to extend its protection to the most far flung regions of the kingdom, a new power is on the loose, a power that seeks to fulfil an ancient bargain, a power that wants nothing more than to bury in ash those stubborn humans who've refused to go down with their empire. It's all too much for the band of one-time rebels. Attacked on all fronts, by nightmares, by gods, by the very environment that once sheltered them, events are overtaking them, backing them into a corner from which there is no escape. Ruin will have his day. But for the slim hopes of an ancient prophecy, doom is certain.

Though they lack the excitement and originality of The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages bring the Mistborn Trilogy to a satisfying and apocalyptic conclusion. To replace the rebellious, conspiratorial energy that electrified the first volume, Mr. Sanderson taps into that most existential of human fears, the end of the world, riding this nihilistic wave to a most pleasing if cartoonish conclusion. Throughout, the author has demonstrated a consistent capacity to evolve his characters. More importantly, he allows them to err, to be fooled, to act wrongly, selfishly. In other words, to act human. And it is this humanity which helps to counteract Mr. Sanderson's tendency to rely too heavily on cliche.

The plot here leaves room for both praise and criticism. The former stems from Mr. Sanderson's courageous willingness to dig deeply into his themes. Throughout, while his heroes stereotypically bttle against overwhelming odds, he unflinchingly deconstructs the origins and the utility of religion, truth, destiny and power. His is not the only work of fantasy to raise such complex subjects, but the extent to which he treats them with the gravitas they deserve elevates Mistborn well above the crowd.

The latter stems from numerous sources. The author's over-reliance on Deus Ex Machina is troubling. For a series based on the notions of personal choice, Mistborn's conclusion smacks far too much of predetermination for comfort. More over, Mr. Sanderson's decision, to use epitaphs to relate the exposition of his mythology proves to be tiresome. The technique has some initial charm, but it eventually suggests an inability to gradually reveal the backstory through conventional methods, such as having the characters discover fundamental truths on their own. Worse yet, Mr. Sanderson does a poor job concealing his reveals. This wouldn't be a problem if the author's intent wasn't so clearly to shock and amaze his readers with clever twists at the key moments of the series. Poorly concealing the fates and roles of his characters ensures that the attentive reader is both unsurprised and unexcited by Mistborn's primary revelations.

Notwithstanding its warts, Mistborn is an entertaining trilogy with a vivid world, an imaginative magic system, an interesting mythology and compelling characters. The extent to which the author reveals his hand too early can be forgiven when the rewards are so rich. The most pleasing of these is the series' main character. Vin is a wonderful heroine, a battered angel with broken wings. Her story, along with the author's capacity to express her humanity, her doubts in the face of her superhuman nature, causes her to stand out amongst a sea of similar creations. The series, for all its virtues, would have collapsed under its own portentous weight without Vin's sardonic energy.

A worthy and memorable conclusion to what The Final Empire so magnificently launched. (3/5 Stars)

On Monsters by Stephen T. Asma

From The Week of March 19, 2012

For all of humanity's strengths, for all that we've conquered countless frontiers of thought on our way to earthly preeminence, we remain a species driven by fear. Hundreds of phobias have been documented, ranging from the mundane to the strange, from the mild to the cripplingly severe, but it may be that none of them can compete with our fear of the unknown. This terror is so vast, so all-consuming, that it has lead us to fabricate entire belief systems just to have some sort of order to explain the chaos. We need stability. We need the world around us to make sense. For when it doesn't, we flail for answers we cannot find. Mr. Asma has assembled, here, a wonderful catalogue of humanity's monsters, but it is this fear of the unknown that empowers them to haunt our imaginations.

From misfits to mythology, from demons to the deranged, On Monsters is a tour through the museum of humanity's mental and physical nightmares. Frankensteins and beast men appear alongside zombies and land-bound octopi in this gallery of the grotesque and the devilish, the real and the imagined. The steady progress of science has de-fanged most of these monsters, reducing them to little more than the products of twisted imaginations, but why did we invent them in the first place? What lead otherwise perfectly rational men and women to put their names to first-hand accounts of such deformities when they clearly belong to the realm of the fanciful? Fear and ignorance... The former, revulsion for the unknown, the impure, the apocalyptic, the theological, gave them form, human imaginings based on elements of nature and animated by our disgust. The latter, blindness to the truths of the world, of evolution, of the nature of life, allowed them to persist until scientific advances sucked these creatures back into the pages of myth and story. This virtually guarantees that monsters will always be with us. After all, until science can explain the universe, there will always be room for monsters.

Disturbing and enlightening, On Monsters is an engrossing journey through man's twisted psyche. Mr. Asma, a professor of philosophy, puts our gremlins under the microscope, examining not only the fears that went into their creation but the purposes their existences served. Pleasingly scientific, he relies on reason and research to explain the origins and popularity of the fanciful and the actual. For the author is most revelatory when he connects our nightmares back to the actual creatures that gave rise to them, things so brutally purposeful that they put to rest, for good, any notion that Nature is kind or gentle.

A fascinating read, as much for the history lesson in monsters as for the stroll through the human imagination and the lengths to which it will go to layer logic atop the inexplicable. What's more, Mr. Asma's avoidance of a lecturing tone allows the reader to join him in his exploration of the root causes for our monsters. This invitation should be taken up by anyone even mildly curious about how the mind works and fears. For here lie those forces that spawn prejudice and racism, us and them, good and evil. A better understanding of such forces is bound to make us wiser souls. (4/5 Stars)

Afghanistan by Stephen Tanner

From The Week of March 19, 2012

While our fortunes are shaped by many factors, our parents, our nations, our eras, it may well be that the most pivotal force, in the determining of our destinies, is geography. For not only have exploitable land and natural resources, separately and together, altered the futures of nations and empires, forbidding mountains and impassable oceans have protected and nourished cultures that, otherwise, would have been long-since absorbed by more powerful societies. However, as much as these natural barriers can shield populations from assimilation, they can also invite attention by those rapacious greats of history who see only challenge in the unconquerable. And wherever there is conquest, ruin is not far afield. No country has ever labored more beneath the curse of geography, than Afghanistan. Mr. Tanner explains in this, his military history of that battered country.

Sprawled at the intersection of empires and continents, tribes and civilizations, lies Afghanistan. For thousands of years, this country of mountains and deserts has been the fascination of warriors and scholars, the former having tried with some success to conquer it; the latter having tried in vain to understand it. For Afghanistan, which has crouched between east and west for centuries, is an inexplicable blend of past and future. It is a country of cities and tribes, of cultured merchants and horse-born nomads. In any other land, such divisions would have been forced to amalgamate, to be normalized by the inevitable blending of cultural elements that occurs any time people are forced to comingle. However, Afghanistan's geography shortcircuited this process, allowing the tribes to live and survive in the mountains while, below, the citydwellers moved on, their fortunes rising and falling with the succession of kings and warlords, emperors and high priests, who, over millennia, have laid claim to this most vital and rocky roadway between Europe and Asia.

From Alexander the Great to Chandragupta Maurya, from the British empire to the Soviet Union, Mr. Tanner recounts Afghanistan's long and bloody history with armies and imperiums. He describes how these experiences imprinted upon the people of Afghanistan both the Way of the Warrior and the will of the resister, values that, along with the country's challenging geography, has kept it from cohering into a stable, united society. The absence of this national identity has bestowed upon Afghanistan a terrible legacy of chaos, the misery of which has only been added to by arrogant empires who sought to subdue through force a world they barely bothered to understand.

Though Afghanistan is not without flaws, it is, in the main, an excellent primer on the history of this cursed country. From the Mauryans to the Mongols, Mr. Tanner, a military historian, bombards the reader with a dizzying array of empires that have trampled and besieged this diverse land. In the process, he introduces us to the great men of history, the savage and the enlightened, who've driven their standards down into Afghanistan's hard soil. But as illuminating as the author makes this long and winding journey, he sheds very little light at all on the Afghanis themselves, their customs, their treasures. This may not be the fault of the author. An absence of written records for much of the country's history surely does not aid in a fulsome portrait of Afghanistan. More over, the works' core revelation, that Afghanistan is little more than a collection of disparate fragments which have been so long left in pieces that they can no longer fit together, raises the question of which culture, the city or the tribal, should be expanded upon. Nonetheless, the absence of cultural information leaves the work, at times, to read like little more than a succession of battles, the details of which eventually blur into a haze of bloodshed and suffering.

For all its handicaps, Afghanistan is revelatory work that leaves little doubt that this fractured place will continue to be a troubled country. Published in 2002, the author concludes his history on the positive tone created by the NATO defeat of the Taliban. However, we know better. For we have had the benefit of watching those early gains recede in the face of Talibani truculence which, ironically, only underscores Mr. Tanner's overall portrait of an Afghanistan divided, an Afghanistan burdened by countless invasions, an Afghanistan without a national identity in an era of nation states. Much to the cost of the Afghani people, this portrait leaves little doubt that this country will continue to be what it has always been, the road over which great civilizations destructively churn. (3/5 Stars)

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Mistborn - The Final Empire: Mistborn 01 by Brandon Sanderson

From The Week of March 12, 2012

Despotism is a pernicious force. It institutionalizes corruption, stifles innovation, imposes a strict hierarchy upon society, and hardens the hearts of the powerful to the plights of the powerless. That it does all this, and more, ought to ensure its destruction, for what society could long endure such decrepitude? What people, cognizant of the bleakness of their lives, would not act to bring down the regime and replace it with something better?

Despotism flourishes, not because it's logical, not because it's reasonable. It endures because it pedals fear and terror, emotions that eat away at the courage necessary for unity, for rebellion. But what happens when despotism goes too far? What happens when it leaves the beleaguered with nothing left to lose? Well, then it has a fight on its hands, a fight to the death. Welcome to Mr. Sanderson's apocalyptic Final Empire.

In a world of metal and ash, of smoke and fire, of red skies and fiery pits, the Final Empire churns painfully onward. Founded a thousand years earlier by the Lord Ruler, a shadowy, immortal presence that hangs over the realm like an oppressive cloud, the empire ostensibly exists for the betterment of mankind, bringing order, stability and freedom to a world once threatened by the mysterious Deepness. However, in reality, it is a corrupt aristocracy in which the nobility rule at the expense of the Skaa, a filthy, downtrodden people made obedient and docile by centuries of systematic slavery and abuse.

Transformed through personal tragedy from an arrogant fop into the leader of a Skaa rebellion, Kelsier is Mistborn, a mighty mystic who draws power from burning small amounts of various metals consumed both in powderized and solid forms. Rare among the nobility, Mistborn are second in power only to the Inquisitors, the strange, eyeless enforcers of the Lord Ruler's dictatorship. And so, when Kelsier stumbles across Vin, a beaten and battered girl thief, and discovers that she, like him, is mistborn, he eagerly takes her under his wing and watches as she blossoms from a skittish, suspicious urchin into a powerful force within his insurgent conspiracy. For something must be done to topple the Lord Ruler. Something must be done to bring sunlight and grass, fresh air and green plants, back into this world of mist and fire. A thousand years of servitude is long enough.

Having spent the last ten years establishing himself as one of the most prolific authors in the fantasy genre, Mr. Sanderson is a gifted builder of worlds. The Final Empire is a poignantly brutal place, a world reminiscent of an outer circle of Hell. Not a single page passes without leaving the reader with the impression of it having been smeared by soot. We, like Mr. Sanderson's characters, are given no respite from the ash-filled clouds, no opportunity to draw a breath of clean air from the misty, smoggy atmosphere. It's a credit to the author's skill that this feels far more evocative than oppressive. More over, the author has assembled an exciting, alchemical system of magic which is both pleasingly logical and behaviorally governed by physical laws. Yes, it is overly simplistic, and the heady reader will be able to grasp the implications and applications of the various metals far in advance of the story's characters, but this is a minor quibble in what is otherwise the most rewarding magical system since Weaving.

Though he lacks Martin's poetry of language and Jordan's depth of character, Mr. Sanderson's simplistic prose is only a minor hindrance to an excellent plot which sends the reader hurtling towards the climax of a wonderful yarn. Entertainment is, after all, the object of the whole endeavor. And, with a good sense of comedy and pathos, wistfulness and vengeance, the author has done that in spades. This is a slice of what life would be like in a world where the bad guys won. But though, in this, it is reminiscent of Karen Miller, it nonetheless cherishes its essential goodness.

Quality work. (4/5 Stars)

Prince Of Thorns: The Broken Empire 01 by Mark Lawrence

From The Week of March 12, 2012

Revenge is a powerful emotion. It can sustain us through the darkest moments, burning away all of our secondary concerns to leave a hardened core of vengeful purpose. But for all of revenge's potence, it is ultimately a corrupting and abrasive emotion, the use of which erodes both morals and personality. For in time, even the hardened core must inevitably give way and then what is there left but a grim, purposeless void, an emptiness that can never be filled up by light. This is the enduring and oppressive lesson of Prince of Thorns, Mr. Lawrence's first and uneven novel.

In a world riven by war and rivalry, life labors onward in the Broken Empire. A once united whole that gathered up everyone from the knights down to the peasantry, the empire has since shattered into a hundred fragments, fiefdoms ruled by warlords who masquerade as nobility. Titles that once denoted honor and chivalric service are now merely pretty decorations to distract from the awful truth that there is very little of actual nobility anywhere in this realm, let alone in its landed classes.

Deeply scarred by being a witness to the murder of both his mother and brother, Honorous Jorg Ancrath is but thirteen and already a man. For he has spat into the eye of death and lived to tell of it. The leader of a band of cutthroats, he fully intends, before his grave is dug, to wear crowns, first a king's and then an emperor's. But to realize his ambitions, he will have to regain his hard father's prickly faith. For that is the avenue to power. But when even his own family betrays him, Jorg is left with no choice but to summon his will, his determination, and his cruelty to forge his own bloody path to victory. For there is nothing left but to make revenge upon all those who have taken from him the life he could have had.

Prince of Thorns is a vulture, an irredeemably bleak adventure that'd as soon pick out your eyes as look at you. Its dirty, jagged world is strongly suggestive of a far future England limping along after a global, nuclear holocaust. Though the environment appears to have recovered somewhat from the Day of a Thousand Suns, society has gone the other way, descending from chaos into authoritarianism. From authoritarianism, matters have regressed even further into a kind of fractious feudalism where the law, as such, resides along the sharp edge of a swordblade. While other cultural elements have survived the holocaust -- Christianity, if not its church; historical text, if not their meaning --, this medieval society, animated by mysticism and ghoulishness, has, by far, the strongest sway.

This is a difficult novel. While it presents a portrait of the bleakness of medieval life that is rightfully stripped of all its romantic claptrap, the utter lack of any redemptive elements makes the novel a bitter pill indeed. Anyone interested in gritty fantasy should be braced for such grotesque grimness, having no doubt cut their teeth on the likes of Abercrombie, Morgan, Kearney, et al. And yet, for all their cynicism, moments of levity and hope broke through the unremitting blackness of these other tales. True, they were lights that glowed but weakly, sickly, but they glowed nonetheless. The extent to which Mr. Lawrence has taken this theme to its nihilistic conclusion, total gloom, is either the natural progression of a genre ridding itself of High Fantasy's nonsense, or it is simply the efforts of a hack to carve out some space for himself in a genre that demands more skill from its authors than he can summon. Genius or failed mimicry? I lean towards the latter, but I may well lack that spark of brilliance that allows those rare few among us to spot genius even while it emerges.

Bold and provocative, but if you needed a sickbag for Joe Abercrombie, you'll need a mental enema for Mr. Lawrence. (2/5 Stars)

Lion of Liberty by Harlow G. Unger

From The Week of March 12, 2012

Even those of us who do not subscribe to the Great Man theory of history must concede that there are turning points in time, nexuses at which momentous events are met and shaped by special individuals. Julius Caesar at Pharsalus, King John with Magna Carta, and Abraham Lincoln in the American Civil War are just a few examples of the countless incidents at which individual will re-wove the tapestry of humanity's future. Perhaps we would all be better off if this were not the case, as, in such contests, the authoritarians appear to carry the day as often as the altruists, but not all things can be decided in committee. Sometimes, decisiveness is required to seize the moment and forge from it a lasting good that will outlast a lifetime. Though he was no less flawed than the rest of us, Patrick Henry stood at the heart of one such moment. This alone makes him a man worthy of study.

A man of homesteads and faith, of country life and country values, Patrick Henry (1736-1799) rose up from modest origins to not only help win American independence, but to leave a lasting legacy on the nation he helped create. The Virginian-born son of Scottish and English immigrants, he twice, in his youth, tried his hand at entrepreneurial enterprise, failing on both occasions, calamities that left his learned and ambitious family concerned for his future. But after becoming a lawyer in his mid-twenties, and after using his gift for oratory to mount several successful defenses of Virginian clients, he found his calling.

His ascending star eventually took him, at 29, to the Virginia legislature where, after the Boston Tea Party signalled the Massachusetts rebellion, he gave an impassioned speech advocating that Virginia, by far the largest and wealthiest of the American colonies, should rise up in common cause with the Boston radicals and throw off English tyranny. This speech, along with his singular oratory and his unwillingness to accede to the conventions of the moment, eventually elevated him to the newly created office of Governor of Virginia, a position he would hold through some of the most turbulent moments of the fight for American independence. Though he is now best remembered for the patriotic slogan, "give me liberty or give me death," his contributions to the formative years of the United States, along with his advocacy for the anti-Federalist cause, have left upon his country an imprint the likes of which has been bettered by only a few.

Lion of Liberty is an excellent, if myopic, biography of one of the United States' founding figures. Mr. Unger, an American historian, has winningly captured both the life and the mentality of a fascinating individual who, but for "give me liberty or give me death," has been largely consigned to history by the steady, continuous rise of American Federalism, an ideology against which he fought bitterly. From his country origins, to his missteps as a businessman, to his contributions to the Revolution, to his later years as a lawyer, the author neglects no chapter of Henry's history in an effort to paint a most thorough portrait of a flawed but brilliant mind, unshackled by prejudice, bigotry, or lust for power. In this, he would appear to take a backseat to none of his contemporaries.

However, while Mr. Unger's recount of Henry's life is pleasingly thorough, he almost entirely ignores his subject's family. Occasionally, there are passing references to a son, John, who succumbed to madness during the Revolution, and his wife, Sarah, who suffered grievously in relative isolation while her husband was off creating a country, but these are merely scraps, token nods in the direction of a fuller tapestry. And it's not as though Mr. Unger lacked the room to flesh out the portraits of Patrick Henry's supporting cast. After all, he capitalized on every opportunity to expand upon the man's extraordinary virility. Perhaps a few of these passages could have been assigned to a better cause.

Notwithstanding its single-mindedness, Lion of Liberty is wonderful and readable history. Given the extent to which it restores to the light of day the contributions of a marginalized giant of history, it is worthy work. (4/5 Stars)

1688 by Steven Pincus

From The Week of March 12, 2012

It is possible to view the whole of human history as one long march to equality. For what began as a species ensnared by tribal ties and hierarchical societies has, over the long, dark centuries, evolved into a civilization of souls at least partially ruled by the freedom to think and do as they choose. More over, this march has bestowed upon us the momentum necessary to fulfil our universal destiny of becoming an intelligent species governed by fair laws and equitable opportunity. However, an important question remains.

How has this march been sustained? How were kings and tyrants, warlords and high priests, convinced to shed their all-consuming powers and reduce themselves to regular citizens? Did the people rise up and take back the authority they had given to their betters, or was this authority frittered away, a currency spent by profligate overlords? Perhaps both are possible avenues towards equality, but it is the latter that seems to have brought down many of our most famous rulers. James II of England is no exception.

The catholic king of a protestant nation, James II, the last member of the House of Stuart to wear the English crown, was, in the main, a pious king who, in the name of reform, enacted numerous laws and empowered new institutions in an effort to modernize a realm still staggered by Oliver Cromwell and his Commonwealth. Initially, his reforms bore fruit, resulting in a potent army, capable of withstanding attacks from mainland powers, and a clergy able to practice James' Liberty of Conscience, a policy that put Catholic priests on equal footing with their fellow religionists. However, deeply troubled by rebellious protestant lords and confronted by a largely hostile parliament, James, instead of consolidating his gains and passing them onto his heirs to further, doubled down on his reforms: ordering that the officer core of his army be stacked with loyal catholics, using the courts to attack religious leaders who resisted him, and re-affirming that his power to rule descended from God himself and that, therefore, no parliament could gainsay him without defying the divine.

James II's transition from reformist to authoritarian triggered, in 1688, a revolution in England. In parliament, political differences were set aside for the universal goal of ousting the increasingly tyrannical James and replacing him with a monarch who would happily submit himself to the laws of parliament, acknowledging that assembly of citizens as the paramount body of authority in the land. William of Orange, the protestant husband of James II's daughter, became the ideal candidate. And so, after he agreed in that same year to invade England with a force of Dutch troops, and after those troops easily routed James II's new army, sending the king into exile, the revolution was complete and William III of England became the first monarch to rule an England governed by the new and perpetual Bill of Rights.

Though 1688 is a thorough, academic history of this Glorious Revolution, and though it exhaustively examines some of the revolution's triggers, it is a tome entirely too preoccupied with its author's own grudges. Instead of devoting some of its 650-some pages to establishing solid biographies for the major players in this most vital of historical dramas -- James, the fallen monarch; William III, his son in law and successor; Henry Compton, the rebellious bishop; or even the heads of the Wigs and the Tories, parliament's two major political forces --, Mr. Pincus devotes himself to refuting the claims of fellow historians, a pervasive attitude that grounds his text in esoteric arguments. For those who populate the insular, academic circles in which Mr. Pincus must swim, debates over whether or not the Glorious Revolution was conservative or progressive, or whether or not it can be considered a revolution at all, may well be cause for much excitement and debate. But for the rest of us, who are merely interested in the historical milestones that mark the progress of humanity, these are irrelevancies which pale in comparison with actual events.

Notwithstanding its author's many preoccupations, 1688 contained valuable information. Mr. Pincus' contention that the relatively good state of English roads lead to the swift dispensing of information, which in turn fuelled public interest in government, which in turn hamstrung James II, leading to the revolution, is fascinating. He adds other heavy chapters on the state of economics and religion in late 17th century England, both of which bear edible fruit. But ultimately, Mr. Pincus' distractions doom the piece. I pity those university students compelled to read this. How their eyes must droop... (2/5 Stars)

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice

From The Week of March 05, 2012

Though there's no doubt that our cultural fascination with the supernatural emanates from any number of subconscious or animalistic sources, the main driver must be our desire for individuality. After all, our lives are characterized by the need to distinguish ourselves from the pack, to stand out, to earn a mate who will help us pass on our genes. Yes, society eventually grinds us down into conformity, but the cumulative effect of this cultural sandpapering cannot touch our formative years. Here, everything is possible. For the passage of time has not yet convinced us that we are not special. It has not yet robbed us of the dream of being unique, of leaving our imprint upon the world. What's more unique than being vested with supernatural powers? What's more special than belonging to that rare other that stands apart from the teeming masses? As a lifelong purveyor of such notions, Ms. Rice taps into this desire and more in her expansive, entertaining and ultimately unoriginal novel.

The 23-year-old son of a wealthy, bay-area surgeon, Reuben Golding is a journalist trying to find himself in a world of possibilities. Infantilized by his overprotective mother and his patronizing girlfriend, both of whom believe him an innocent incapable of wisdom without their intervention, he is a restless and questing soul when he meets the beautiful and elegant Marchent Nideck, a mysterious creature whose seductive powers are augmented by the magnificent mansion she calls home. Here, in the long shadows cast by the Redwood Forest, Marchent introduces Reuben to her world of art and literature, genealogy and inheritance. For she and her two brothers appear to be the last of the long, Nideck line now that her uncle, Felix, has gone missing.

During Reuben's stay at the house, he and Marchent grow close, so much so that Marchent wills Reuben the grand house, knowing that he will be a worthy steward. But no sooner has she completed this act of generosity then she is violently murdered by her wayward brothers, an attack that nearly claims Reuben's life as well. He, however, is spared by a mysterious wolf who avenges Marchent before disappearing and leaving Reuben to recover from his terrible wounds in a San Francisco hospital where his doctors are utterly baffled by his recuperative powers. Even the wolf bite he took from the thing that spared his life is fading, just like all the blood and tissue samples the doctors take from him, vanishing before they can be studied, understood.

Recognizing that Reuben is a changed man, no longer the baby boy they trained him to be, Reuben's mother and girlfriend look on as Reuben draws away from them. Hounded by voices, by urges, he tries to hold himself together until he can resist the change no longer and he succumbs to the Manwolf, a creature of power and grace that is set to turn California on its ear and usher Reuben into a twilight world of friends and foes, power and legend, that humans will never comprehend.

The Wolf Gift is classic Anne Rice. Though it is too damning to contend that all her books are alike, it is, nonetheless, impossible to ignore the tropes here that she herself had a hand in creating. The supercilious women, the majestic mansion and the conspiracy of ancients are all present, energizing The Wolf Gift as much as they did her previous and most famous series. In this, her latest offering is unoriginal fare. Its reliance on long stretches of dialogue, its digressions into splashy passages of violence and self-absorption, and its drive towards a predictable conclusion inhibit any effort to think otherwise. However, this weakness is also the work's strength. For fans of Ms. Rice will be able to indulge in all the familiar rhythms of her literature. And in light of how well the author sells, this will do more than enough to secure the work's profitability.

Nonetheless, notwithstanding the extent to which Ms. Rice helped popularize the supernatural genre, one cannot help but sense the author's desire to wade into a literary space rocked by the Twilight phenomenon and show those who came after her exactly how it's truly done. For, in the end, The Wolf Gift is little more than a glossy, grown-up version of the many vampire/werewolf derivations that have bombarded us in the last ten to fifteen years. The work is not without merit -- its landscapes are lush, its action cinematic, its journey well-paced --, but it is impossible to read this novel and find in it anything original or noteworthy. Instead of imposing her imprimatur upon the werewolf genre, Ms. Rice has only succeeded in summoning a stayed supernatural tale and repackaging it in prettier wrapping. (3/5 Stars)

The Etched City by K. J. Bishop

From The Week of March 05, 2012

Human nature demands that we apply narratives to both our lives and our history. It is, after all, how we think, a quirk of the brain's memory-storage system that compels us to turn everything we are and everything we were into a chronicle. But these narratives, embellished over time, are deceptive. They are assemblages of events which, individually, had no meaning, or pattern. They were simply events, things that happened in spacetime that do not have to be governed by the laws of cause and effect. It is merely hindsight that prompts us to gather up these disparate threads and weave them into a meaningful tapestry, a portrait that applies some kind of order to the randomness of life. Though Ms. Bishop's dreamy, Gothic adventure is animated by the nightmarish, the grotesque and the painfully realistic, it is this absence of gilded history, this jagged dislocation, that underpins the piece.

In a world of deserts and snow, of sun and ice, the Copper Country is some of the deadliest territory imaginable. Riven by war and treachery, these dusty plains are antithetical to a long and fruitful existence. Yes, bounty hunters and brigands can find much coin here, but what happens when that life grows too hard, when ones luck has run as dry as the earth? Then one has but two options, death or a new beginning, elsewhere, in a place of meager hopes and fantastic dreams.

Raule and Gwynn, once friends and mercenaries, have chosen survival over an anonymous death in the baking sands. Teaming up on the road, the female doctor and the male gunslinger ride for Ashamoil, a sodden city on the edge of the tropics which, far from being a respite from the lives they've known, seems to harbor magic and nightmares all its own. Having fended off their vengeful pursuers -- ex-colleagues from the old country --, Raule sets out her shingle in a hospital run by nuns, trying in some small way to turn away from her past. Gwynn, however, is unrepentant, signing on with a powerful crew of cutthroats who more or less operate autonomously within this humid outpost of civilization. As Raule buries herself in healing work and Gwynn lives the life of a mercenary soldier -- killing, drinking, whoring --, their orbits drift apart, but when war comes to town, setting off a chain reaction of increasingly violent incidents, their worlds will once again overlap, much to their pains and their cost.

The Etched City is without doubt one of the strangest pieces of genre fiction to have recently floated to the cultural consciousness. Ms. Bishop has a poet's skill with words and a dreamer's talent for imagery, virtues which, together, invest her work here with a Gothic majesty. The setting is strongly reminiscent of the 19th century Wild West with Ashamoil taking up the mantle of the lively but amoral border town nestled on the edge of the untamed frontier. Pre-electric, knightly chivalry has nonetheless given way to the advent of guns which have turned every man, armed with a grudge and grandiose aspirations, into a deadly weapon capable of instantaneous and irreversible violence. In this, the world is similar in feel to Steampunk's Victorian revival.

What's striking about Ms. Bishop's work, however, is not the lengths to which it revels in the visually grotesque, the mystically bewildering, or even the understandably nihilistic. It is the grace with which the author interweaves discussions of morality, godliness and reality into what is otherwise episodic escapism. Though the work is difficult at times to swallow, and a challenge at other times to enjoy, it leaves no doubt that it was the product of a talented mind. It is as if Hemingway, or Joyce, or Dickens, or any of the greats had decided to descend from high art to put to paper the fancies of their powerful imaginations. And so even though it is occasionally repellent, The Etched City is, like the magnificent snakes with which it is so fond, always hypnotizing. I must seek out some of the author's short fiction to see if it too bears this compelling amalgam.

Mesmerizingly gruesome. (4/5 Stars)

Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

From The Week of March 05, 2012

As much as we endeavor to remind ourselves that we are lucky and that not everyone is blessed to live as we do, these are but empty admonishments, whispers on the wind of ignorance. For unless we actually experience true poverty, we cannot understand it: how it shapes our every action, how it limits our every dream, and how it empowers the cruel while crushing the hopeful. This isn't to say that we should not debate the best ways to solve poverty, nor is it to say that the rhetoric from all along the political spectrum is without merit, but it is to say that all the theories and the bluster mean very little when they are confronted by true poverty. Ms. Boo has published a nearly perfect work of journalism, full of revelations and tragedies, but it is perhaps the extent to which it cuts through all our nonsense with the white merciless light of unyielding truth that makes it an enduring work.

In the developing world, few countries are being as swiftly transformed as India. Memorably demonstrated in both its fiction and its skylines, this vast country of 1.2 billion souls is hurtling into the future at such velocity that no time, much less concern, is being given to the extent to which millions of its citizens are being left behind, abandoned at the roadside while the privileged race along the highway to prosperity. The speed of India's development has left no time for its institutions to grow with it, opening up gaping holes in the social fabric through which exploiters of political, cultural and economic forces can dive through, laying their greedy paws upon what they have not earned. This corruption only encourages others to do the same, leaving only fools to play by the rules.

So what of those who are left behind? What are their lives like? What are their prospects? Do they have opportunities to advance themselves , to elevate their families out of poverty? Or are they locked into lives of perpetual toil, Sisyphian souls who, every time they manage to climb out of the neglected underworld, are shoved right back down into that darkness by the moneyed classes who are ashamed to acknowledge their existence? To find out, Ms. Boo, an American journalist who has written extensively on poverty in the west, has trained her sights upon the underclasses of Mumbai, India's largest city. Over several years, through the compilation of thousands of interviews and hours of videotape, she has assembled a portrait of a shantytown that squats on soon-to-be developed land around Mumbai's international airport. Here, in the shadows of civilization's powerful floodlights, a society ekes out a daily existence on less than a few US dollars a day. Some beg, some steal, some work odd jobs in and around the airport, and others sort and sell trash, all in the hope that somehow, someday, they will encounter a moment of good fortune, an opportunity that, when seized, will deliver them and their families from a world smeared by jealousy, envy, hatred and rivalry.

Behind The Beautiful Forevers is investigative journalism at its finest. Though it stops short of the gonzo journalism practiced to such potent effect by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bowden, it does so barely. For, here, Ms. Boo has boldly chosen to tell her story through the eyes of her subjects, the impoverished with whom she has spent such time. It's difficult to imagine that anyone could do this without taking artistic license, or without abandoning objectivity altogether. And yet Ms. Boo's characterizations, of the hopeful and the vengeful, the aspiring and the despairing, are utterly convincing. Remarkably, the impact of these sweat-soaked portraits is bested by to the extent to which she captures the social hierarchies that exist within the slums. From the boss down to the one-legged prostitute, we watch Ms. Boo unpack our neat and tidy expectations of poverty, forcing us to regard, instead, a world that possesses its own rules, its own customs and its own rhythms.

Ms. Boo has done a masterful thing. For while she has pulled back the curtain on a colorful and tragic world, she has done so without proselytizing or hand-wringing. Instead, by eliminating herself as much as possible from the tale, in plugging us directly into the minds and the emotions of the forgotten, the abandoned, she has stripped away all the political biases and cultural barriers that stand between this book's readers and its subjects, allowing us to see them as they are, people like us, who want what we want, who yearn as we yearn, who dream as we dream. She does not call us to action, or submerge us in guilt. One merely gets the impression that Ms. Boo wants us to remember the downbelow people the next time we look away from them on the street, the next time we hide ourselves from them behind tinted glass.

Exquisite work... (5/5 Stars)

The Great Fire of Rome by Stephen Dando-Collins

From The Week of March 05, 2012

What are legends? Are they apocrypha? Compelling stories that survive to the present day by dint of their entertainment value. Or are they allegories? Embellished, yes, but tales that nonetheless reflect the accepted truths of the times that birthed them. Perhaps legends are both. After all, with so much of history's facts lost to the rigors of time, we have no way of knowing if they were sparked by haters, self-aggrandizers, or even by those seeking to speak truths about the discredited, the wronged. As we lack a time machine with which to seek out the evidence that could convert legend into truth, they will remain just that, legends, funny stories that enliven our culture. That is, for most of us. Not so for Mr. Dando-Collins who, here, takes up the task of getting to the bottom of one of history's most memorable scandals. His detective work does not fail to entertain.

During its 2,000 years of cultural and political prominence, the city of Rome has suffered many disasters and indignities. It has had its treasures looted, its women raped, its buildings flattened and its streets rubbled. Some of these tragedies have even befallen it numerous times across the countless generations. As such, the great fire that all-but-consumed it in the year 64 AD might well have lapsed into history, indistinguishable from any other episode of destructive misfortune, were it not for the enduring image that has come down to us of emperor Nero fiddling while the capital of the world, his capital, burned. But such is the power of this symbol of authoritarian indifference that this legend has survived nearly two millennia, coloring both our impressions of the man and his empire. After all, it seems a fitting metaphor for the enduring political chaos that would follow in the wake of his death.

But did Nero actually fiddle while Rome burned? Mr. Dando-Collins, historian and commenter on all things ancient Rome, says no. For not only was the fiddle not introduced to Rome until decades after the great fire, the first account that makes reference to this unforgivable transgression was written more than a century after Nero's death; plenty of time for a cruel story to become accepted truth. So why the legend? What forces caused Nero's reputation to be so low that people would imagine he could be so cruel? Mr. Dando-Collins reveals that Nero did not know how to sell himself to his warlike people. For not only was it common knowledge that Nero had his domineering mother slain, he did little to hide his self-identity as a bisexual artist who knew nothing of the ways of war. More over, he may have only been tolerated by the Roman people because he kept grain prices low and because he was the last descendant of Julius Caesar. Without these virtues propping up his reign, Nero, that creature so unlike them, might well have fallen long before his city was destroyed by an epic week-long inferno that ruined a capital and brought low the most powerful man in the world.

Writing with his characteristic brashness, The Great Fire of Rome is Mr. Dando-Collins at his sardonic best. An avid chronicler of Roman history, he is able to summon the best virtues of narrative and academic history, applying both to his work. As a result, they are invariably fast-paced, compelling and informative investigations of the key moments in the chronology of ancient Rome. Here, he rescues Nero from the flames his critics have sought to consign him to, contending that there is plenty of evidence to indicate that Nero was a decent man who was poorly prepared for a challenging time. His good intentions, as evidenced by his numerous efforts at public works, were clear. And yet his artist's spirit was a poor match for the pains and pleasures of ruling a martial people. This awkward marriage eventually lead to attempts on Nero's life which radicalized him into a tyrant.

In virtually every respect, The Great Fire of Rome is a success. It leaves us with a vivid portrait of Nero, an extensive description of the fire that overtook his city, and the blaze's politically thorny aftermath which eventually lead to the emperor's downfall. However, Mr. Dando-Collins is unconvincing in his attempt to argue that the fire of Rome was a huge turning point in Roman history. His case, that Nero's rule would have turned out differently without it appears to ignore the longterm trend towards nihilism gripping the empire, even at this time. The general discontent and the lust for power would have been there with or without the fire. The inferno was merely an accelerant for an already healthy burn.

Regardless, this is narrative history at its most entertaining. (4/5 Stars)

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Bengal Station Trilogy by Eric Brown

From The Week of February 27, 2012

No matter how hard some among us strive to live lives of honesty and integrity, there is, for all of us, a vast gulf between our public and private faces. The former, the facade we show to the outside world, is the best representation of ourselves, a moderated distillation of personality and attitude designed to help us fit into the world we know. The latter, the gestalt of our deepest thoughts and emotions, is the naked visage of our true selves that we dare not expose. For to do so would be to reveal our dreams and our fantasies, our pettinesses and our grudges, to not only those dearest to us, but the world at large. Why are these two faces so different? Is it healthy to have this private space in which we may grapple secretly with demons endemic to our species? Or would we all be better off in a world where our innermost thoughts were broadcast to everyone around us, compelling us to adhere more closely to the ideal espoused by our public faces? Mr. Brown's darkly entertaining trilogy speculates.

In the 22nd century, on an over-populated Earth riven by political, economic and ideological feuds, Bengal Station is a microcosm of human society. Perched on the Bay of Bengal, the station's 20 levels are home to 25-million souls who range from the corpulently affluent to the hopelessly impoverished. The former, inhabitants of the station's uppermost levels, enjoy fine dining on spacious decks which have been tricked out with colorful parks and sunsplashed courtyards. The latter slave away belowdecks, in a heavily industrialized warren of factories that generate most of the station's economic output. Down here, the rights and freedoms of citizens are as fleeting as the sun which never penetrates this humid and overheated gloom.

The station is an interstellar port of call, a sleepless hub of activity that is a world unto itself. Consequently, it has its own politics, its own hierarchy and its own crime which takes on any of countless guises. To keep ahead of the curve, the station employs telepaths to protect its interests. These psy-sensitive humans have been augmented with neural rigs that that enhance their psychic talents, transforming them into empaths and mindreaders who can fish from the minds of the guilty the darkest of intentions. The only check against their powers are the silvery mindshields, discs which, when worn close to the body, sheathe the wearer's mind in a cloak of impenetrable static.

In Necropath we meet one such telepath, Jeff Vaughan, a middle-aged Canadian scarred by a dark past and burdened by a grim and endless present. Years of submerging himself in the minds of the cruel and the hateful,searching for ill intentions towards the station and its personnel, have worn him down, leaving him a cynical ruin of a man who softens his pains with drugs, booze and Tiger, a sweet-hearted orphan who is part of a crew of beggars working the station.

Vaughan, whose painful past compels him to keep a certain distance between himself and the beggar girl, is shattered when Tiger overdoses on a powerful, offworld drug that promises communion with the divine. Motivated by guilt and vengeance, Vaughan allies himself with a sympathetic station cop who can help him find the source of this drug and the madness that spawned it. Together, the two men attack the mystery, discovering that a cruel and alien conspiracy lies at its vicious heart and that there may be precious little either of them can do to stop it.

In Xenopath, the tone of the trilogy takes a distinct turn for the positive. Jeff Vaughan is free of his crippling burdens. Not only is he no longer a telepath -- his rig having been destroyed by a ghost from his past --, he is in love with a young woman pregnant with their first child. Sure, the loss of his telepathic talents has reduced him to blue-collar work refuelling starships, a difficult job for poor pay. But not even this labor can mar his newfound joy at being free of both his talent and his past.

No sooner has he gotten used to the absence of the innermost thoughts of others then an old colleague comes calling with a job offer. A private investigator, she wants Vaughan to join her agency which is paid handsomely by the station police to solve crimes beyond the talents of its overworked personnel. Vaughan is reluctant, knowing that signing on with the agency will necessitate an operation to restore his telepathic talent, without which he's useless as an investigator. However, the lure of extraordinary pay, which would set his family up for life, compels him to agree to both job and operation which has barely been completed by the time his first case begins. Scientists are being murdered on the station. Vaughan doesn't have to dig far to discover that they worked together on a newly colonized world which contains immense promise for Earth's mining concerns. How far are these companies willing to go to preserve their newfound profits? Are they capable of descending to murder to keep their dirty secrets out of the light of day? Jeff Vaughan must discover the truth quickly if he's to prevent the death of something sacred and pure.

Cosmopath, the trilogy's final instalment, finds Vaughan a happy husband and a proud father. Basking in the solace his family provides him, a solace that helps to bottle up the darkness of his past, he is rocked when his youngest daughter contracts cancer, the cure for which is expensive beyond his considerable pay. Just as Vaughan is coming to grips with this cruel turn, he is approached by a business tycoon intent upon exploring the disappearance of one of his company ships. He has, in cold storage, an engineer from the doomed mission, frozen at the moment of her death. If Vaughan will travel with him and consent to read the thoughts contained in the woman's dying brain, the tycoon will arrange for Vaughan's daughter to be treated by the finest doctors. Backed into a corner, Vaughan agrees to the proposal, but what he finds on the distant world rocks him to his core. For the tycoon, in his arrogance, is tampering with alien forces far more powerful than he can comprehend. Teamed up with another telepath, who also happens to be the tycoon's lover, Vaughan tries to find both the truth and the proper outcome to a mystery made alluring by greed and the lust for power.

The Bengal Station Trilogy is imaginative science fiction. Mr. Brown's 22nd century world, dominated by fractiousness, economic inequality and Asian power is as fascinating as it is convincing. The universe is populated with alien races, many of which are millions of years ahead of relatively rustic humanity, a species just beginning to extend its influence to distant stars. This expansion is viewed with a kind of stoic skepticism by the other races who know full well that humans have not yet overcome the fundamental flaws that have plagued them for centuries. Consequently, they are wary of this human Diaspora which will inevitably lead to conflict.

Just as Mr. Brown uses the aliens in his trilogy to highlight the flaws in humanity's character, he deploys his cynical, telepathic protagonist to do the same for human institutions. Jeff Vaughan has spent his life being pulled by one government or another into schemes that pit the powerful against the disenfranchised. A lifetime of these manipulations have compelled him to reject all political and ideological affiliations. He identifies himself as a human, a husband, and a father, a man who lives for the love of his family. For these are the only things over which he has total control. He knows they are pure because they play out before him, around him, every day. To agree to be part of institutions is to subject oneself to the corruptible moralities of others who consider themselves superior. In this, Vaughan is a glimpse into our future, one in which the fatal flaws of large institutions are recognized, allowing us to rejected them for lives that we can control.

Beyond the species and institutional critiques, Mr. Brown's trilogy holds up modestly. The mysteries here are uncomplicated knots that the observant or experienced reader will have untangled before too many pages have been turned. What's more, Mr. Brown reserves the right to change the powers and the properties of the technology in his stories to best suit the plot. On most occasions, this passes without annoyance, but in the case of the story's mindshields, his inconsistency irritates. These are not stories that will be welcomed by fans of hard SF, but they will certainly be cherished by fans of science fiction in which the fiction dominates the science.

Commendably entertaining work. Nothing revelatory here, but Vaughan's personal evolution, along with a colorful and gritty world, keeps the reader engaged throughout. (3/5 Stars)

The Black Banners by Ali H. Soufan

From The Week of February 27, 2012

There can be little doubt that we are entering the age of extremism. For until now, there has never been a means by which to gather together the world's disenchanted, from the hateful to the hopeless, and have them be forged, by a single manipulative force, into weapons of ideological warfare. The Internet and the personal computer, notwithstanding the immense good they have wrought, have made this possible. For they have allowed the confused and the vulnerable to reach out from their loneliness to access propaganda they are ill-equipped to refute. Once converted, these malleable souls then become dangerous munitions, loaded guns that need only be pointed at the most convenient targets. Thus, there has never been a time in which the resources of the national security have had to be more thoroughly and wisely marshalled if our countries are to be protected from the misguided aims of nihilists. What is it like to be on the frontlines of this new war? Of this new and more ideological world? Mr. Soufan demonstrates in this history of his career at the FBI which is bound to leave its readers quietly terrified.

From the East African embassy bombings to the crippling of the USS Cole, from the wilds of Yemen to the mountains of Afghanistan, Ali Soufan, a veteran of the FBI, describes, in riveting detail, his decade-long hunt for Al-Qaeda. From the interrogation of captured assets to the tracing of financial and political connections, this most staunch counterterrorist illuminates how Osama Bin Laden came to the attention of the West in the 1990s, how he channeled the disenfranchisement of Middle Eastern Arabs into an anti-American crusade, how the organization he created entered into a political marriage with the Afghani Taliban, how he was able to plan attacks on American assets, and how he was able to dispatch his agents to the United States where they executed the most destructive terrorist attack in American history. What emerges is a vivid portrait of the day-to-day challenges of counterterrorism: the egos that must be managed, the laws that must be adhered to and the intelligence that must be properly applied if our world's most violent souls are to be subdued.

Though The Black Banners is something of a grind, the extent to which it illuminates the lives of Islamic terrorists and those who pursue them makes it an invaluable read. Mr. Soufan foregoes the extensive lessons on the roots of Islamic terror so wonderfully illuminated in The Looming Tower and, instead, chooses to fixate on the anatomy of the criminal investigation of terrorist attacks. Here, Mr. Soufan is at his best. For he grants us a front-row seat to the investigation into the bombing of the USS Cole. We watch as leads are pursued, bureaucracies overcome, money traced, and terrorists caught and interrogated until a broader picture of Al-Qaeda emerges, one in which Osama Bin Laden is seen to be desperately trying to provoke his ginned up enemy, the United States, into a rash attack that he can then use as fuel for Jihad. When the bombing of the USS Cole fails to yield the desired result, an even more audacious plan is hatched, one that will bring down the World Trade Center, ignite two wars in the Middle East and eventually lead to the death of Bin Laden and many of his fellows.

As much as Mr. Soufan can rightfully claim numerous, investigative successes, he devotes many more of these 600 pages to a spirited condemnation of the intra-agency conflicts that characterize the United States' national security establishment. Mr. Soufan sides with Mr. Weiner and the 9/11 Commission in laying at least partial responsibility for 9/11 at the feet of the CIA which could not bring itself to deviate from pigheaded doctrine to protect the country that spawned it. Perhaps this is why the CIA has responded by redacting so much of Mr. Soufan's work. The text here is shot through with so much black that numerous chapters are hard to follow. Consequently, The Black Banners fails to reach the brilliant heights of The Looming Tower.
This is an intensely personal memoir that paints a grim picture of our future, a future in which we must worry as much about those who purport to protect us as those who purport to hate us. For make no mistake, we in the West live in security states that eat away at our liberties in the name of keeping us free. This cannot be forgotten. To the extent that Mr. Soufan has shown us how this is done, he has done us all a service. To the extent that he and his efforts, both here and at the FBI, have protected his country and brought some measure of solace to the victims of the USS Cole, he should be commended. Difficult but engaging work. (3/5 Stars)

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres

From The Week of February 27, 2012

Desperation is an extraordinary emotion. While it can drive us to phenomenal feats of insight and innovation, it can also compel us to believe in the most pathetic flights of fancy. It can motivate our minds to race against time to unlock the mysteries of impossible challenges, but it can also invite the spiritually wounded to find only glory in the petty schemes of others, suspicion suspended by a desperate desire to believe in the pure. Light and darkness, insight and blindness... These are just some of desperation's gifts. But what of its faces? What of its costs? For answers, we need only to turn to Ms. Scheeres' riveting and foreboding reconstruction of the Jonestown disaster.

Born in depression-era Indiana, Jim Jones, the man who would one day execute one of the largest events of mass-suicide in recent history, was a sensitive but troubled youth whose dissatisfaction with the external world and all its racial and economic divides compelled him to seek out answers to the world's many injustices. Embracing both Christianity and socialism, he started a small church in Indiana which, in time, grew in both its size and its devotion to its charismatic leader. In the late 1960s, believing the world to be set on a course for nuclear war, Jones relocated his flock to California where both his message and influence spread until the doors to the halls of power were open to him and his People's Temple. Here, under the aegis of good works, Jones convinced his followers to live communally with one another, surrendering their labor and their worldly goods to Jim Jones in the furtherance of his ministry.

In the early 1970s, feeling persecuted by suspicious authorities and those disenchanted souls who had left his temple, Jones dispatched loyal lieutenants to Guiana where, over a two-year period, they constructed a socialist sanctuary, christening it Jonestown. There, until 1978, Jones and the bulk of his nearly 2,000 followers tried, with varying degrees of success, to eke out an existence in a land that stubbornly refused to be cultivated. Their setbacks, along with increased scrutiny from distressed relatives of temple members, accelerated Jones' descent into a state of constant paranoia in which virtually everyone, including his own people, became possible members of a conspiracy against him. Armed with both his fears and messianic delusions, Jones used a toxic blend of violence and coercion to browbeat his followers into submitting to his plan for what he called revolutionary suicide, an act of mass-killing that would deliver his acolytes into paradise. After months of threatening such nihilism, Jones finally carried out his nightmarish plan on November 18th, 1978, forcing his flock, at gunpoint, to drink poisoned Kool-aid. Hours later, surrounded by a thousand of his dead disciples, Jones ended the drama with a single, self-inflicted gunshot to the temple.

As chilling as it is compelling, A Thousand Lives is weighty work. Ms. Scheeres, who admits to having been raised fundamentalist Christian, exhibits an abiding sympathy for Jones' victims, many of whom she appears to have personally interviewed for this book. Their accounts, which are universally harrowing and heartbreaking, consistently portray Jones as a dynamic leader whose siren song of racial harmony lured into his power the weak and the wounded, the idealistic and the innocent. He gave them hope which earned him their goodwill which he then used to create Jonestown, a vortex of death and despair that now stands as a warning to all that humans, no matter how good of spirit or pure of purpose, are poorly equipped to withstand the seductions of absolute power. Being that Jim Jones was far from good or pure, his fall from whatever grace he had was swift and sure.

This is a challenging read for there are no easy villains here. Certainly, Jim Jones deserves to be fitted for a black hat, but one gets the sense, from Ms. Scheeres' account, that Jones was little more than a charismatic extension of his followers, men and women who, for reasons of family, society, or biology, were profoundly broken. Jones merely provided a conduit for that dysfunction, channeling it into a doomed venture, a doomed faith, a doomed dream. Read this book. And then go to those who have loved you and done you a good turn and thank them. For it is their kindness that has helped to keep you from dissolving into this darkness. (4/5 Stars)