Linda M. Heywood, NJINGA OF ANGOLA: AFRICA’S WARRIOR QUEEN. A Patreon review.

 

Linda M. Heywood, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen. Harvard University Press, Cambrige MA, 2017.

Linda M. Heywood is a historian at Boston University. (I believe her research focus is on south-central Africa and its relationship with the transAtlantic slave trade, and the cultural transformations that took place as a result of the interactions between the colonisers and indigenous peoples.) In Njinga of Angola, she’s written the biography of a 17th century African queen who came to prominence in the kingdom  of Ndongo (now within modern-day Angola) just as the Portuguese were attempting to establish dominion over the region.

Njinga lived a long and interesting life. She inherited her royal position in her forties, although she had previously been active within the court of her brother, and participated in his diplomatic efforts with the Portuguese. (As an ambassador to the Portuguese authorities in Luanda, she accepted baptism, although during the course of her life she adapted her religious practices to suit her political needs — including a period where she rose to be a war-leader among a cultural/political group whose practices included cannibalism as well as human sacrifice.) She would go on to remain a powerful force in the region until her late seventies, before dying in her — as far as I can tell — early eighties. She was basically a woman who did not quit and appears to have been immensely astute as a war-leader, and very canny as a diplomat and a politician. Well, except perhaps for the matter of arranging the inheritance of her kingdom, but you can’t blame someone for not keeping things in order after they’re dead.

Njinga of Angola divides itself into seven chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. The introduction, naturally enough, introduces the book, the evidence, and its limitations. The first chapter, “The Ndongo Kingdom and the Portuguese Invasion,” provides context and background for the Ndongo kingdom, its society and culture, and the changes it experienced for approximately a century prior to Njinga’s rise to prominence. The second chapter, “Crisis and the Rise of Njinga,” discusses the political and military crisis of the Ndongo realm, and how Njinga managed to succeed to royal power after her brother’s death.

Subsequent chapters — “A Defiant Queen,” “Treacherous Politics,” “Warfare and Diplomacy,” and “A Balancing Act” — detail the next four decades of Njinga’s life. While the Portuguese succeed in dominating much of the territory  of Ndongo, despite Njinga’s resistance, she never stops fighting to a) hold on to and/or reclaim her royal power and b) retrieve her sisters from the Portuguese, after they are captured. Heywood details Njinga’s political manoeuvres and alliances, including the period of her life when she becomes an Imbangala war-leader, participating in their rites and rituals. She uses the forces, and the reputation, which she develops, in order to take over the region of Matamba and prosecute her war to reclaim her Ndongan royal authority. Heywood details how, at the close of Njinga’s life, she moves towards a more diplomatic and accommodating praxis, using religious diplomacy, utilising certain missionaries to help reframe her relationship with the Portuguese, and making overtures to the Pope in order to have her authority recognised.

This biography of Njinga is a fascinating examination of a woman who the Portuguese colonisers saw as a “devil queen,” and of her context. It brought home to me just how much I don’t know how the history of Atlantic Africa. While the writing is at times a little dry, the contents are anything but: and on the whole, the book is worth the effort involved in reading it.

I want to learn more now.

 


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Nonfiction Reviews In Brief: bell hooks, African queens, and ivory Vikings

bell hooks, Outlaw Culture. Routledge Classics, 2006. (Originally published 1994.)

I’d never really grasped the ways in which bell hooks is a foundational thinker for intersectional feminism before picking up this collection of essays. It is an uneven essay collection, and its referents are now nearly a quarter-century out of date, but much of what she has to say doesn’t seem radical to me – in part because over those two and a half decades, they became part of the approaches to feminism that predominate among the people from whom I learned about feminist theory and praxis. (They are still radical, mind you.)

Reading this collection has made me want to read more of bell hooks’ work, which is an excellent thing for any collection.

 

 Linda M. Heywood, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen. Harvard University Press, 2017.

I want to write more about this biography of a 17th-century African queen who just did not quit and seems to have been immensely astute as a war-leader, as a diplomat, and as a politician overall (except possibly in arranging the inheritance of her kingdom, but one cannot blame someone for not keeping things in order after they’re dead). But in brief, it is a fascinating examination of a woman who the Portuguese colonisers saw as a “devil queen,” and of her context.

 

Nancy Marie Brown, Ivory Vikings. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016. (Originally published 2015.)

Brown uses the Lewis chessmen, famous pieces found on the island of Lewis in Scotland in the early 19th century, as a lens through which to examine the late medieval Scandinavian world, its trade connections, and its culture. Brown is interested in the origins of the Lewis chessmen, and sets forth the arguments for where they might have been made, although it is clear her sympathies lie with the theory which ascribes them to Iceland in the late 12th or very early 13th century. (Brown makes a persuasive stab at ascribing them to the hand of an individual ivory-carver, a women named as Margaret the Adroit in the Saga of Bishop Pall – not a saga that has been translated into English.)

Brown is a careful historian, nuanced in her treatment of the evidence, and cautiously qualifying any sweeping claims. But she is also an imaginative historian, and an evocative one. Her knowledge of the Scandinavian world and the Icelandic sagas shines through, and her ability to write both clearly and entertainingly about matters of which yr. humble correspondent knows very little is a rare gift among historians. This is fun history. I approve of it.

Alison Glazebrook and Madeleine M. Henry, eds., GREEK PROSTITUTES IN THE ANCIENT MEDITERRANEAN 800BCE – 200CE

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GREEK PROSTITUTES IN THE ANCIENT MEDITERRANEAN

Alison Glazebrook and Madeleine M. Henry, eds., Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean 800BCE – 200CE. University  of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI, 2011.

This is a really, really interesting book. It’s a collection of papers, all discussing in some fashion ideas around prostitution in the ancient world, the evidence for it, and the history of how scholarship has treated the topic of prostitution in antiquity. Scholarship, the editors argue (as do many but not all of the contributors), has long fallaciously considered that the ancient Greeks believed the hetaira (literally, “female companion”) and the porne (best translation probably “whore”) to be distinct classes where it comes to selling one’s sexual labour. Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean contains several papers which engage critically with this view, as well as several which engage with the evidence for prostitution in the archaeological record, and with the image of women and of prostitutes.

The papers in this volume provide, in fact, a fascinating range of opinions on, and approaches to, (Greek) prostitution in the ancient world: the volume is engaged in an ongoing argument — a fruitful and productive one, and a lively one too — about the study of prostitution in the ancient Mediterranean. Not including the introduction and conclusion, the volume is composed of ten papers.

It opens with Madeleine M. Henry’s “The Traffic in Women: From Homer to Hipponax, from War to Commerce,” a paper which feels a little old-fashioned to me in its use of feminist theory (“the first contract is the sexual-social contract of male sex right,” after Catherine MacKinnon) to analyse the depictions of women in early epic and early lyric poetry. Prostitution, Henry appears to argue, is a logical development with the rise of the polis and the city-state economy from a world which sees women as the property of men, as gifts or valuable objects rather than people in their own right. (I take issue with Henry’s theoretical underpinnings, but her discussion of this worldview is illuminating.)

Alison Glazebrook’s “Porneion: Prostitution in Athenian Civic Space” is the second paper in this volume and attempts from archaeological (less from literary) evidence to locate places of prostitution within the city of Athens. Glazebrook concludes that places of prostitution may not be purpose-built buildings, and that the sale of sex may be carried out alongside other forms of market-oriented labour.

I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Sean Corner in “Bringing the Outside In: the Andrōn as Brothel and the Symposium’s Civic Sexuality,” wherein the role of the andrōn as an outward-facing part of the oikos is discussed, and where Corner concludes that the andrōn functioned as part of egalitarian civic life, by bringing symposiatic homosociality within the home, and the symposium “integrated a man into the reciprocity of an egalitarian non-kin community of liberal pleasures” (79), but it is an interesting read.

Clare Kelly Blazeby discusses the portrayal of drinking women in on vases in “Woman + Wine = Prostitute in Classical Athens?” This paper examines the evidence in detail, although I think more analysis of the curse tablet evidence would have been great, and discusses the class-related aspects of women and alcohol in ancient Athens. (Is the portrayal of a woman drinking a portrayal of a woman who’s, to use an old-fashioned phrase, no better than she should be? Opinions divide.)

Helene A. Coccagna in “Embodying Sympotic Pleasure: A Visual Pun on the Body of an Aulētris” discusses a vase in which a female flautist is shown being vaginally penetrated by the mouth of an amphora. It’s a fascinating examination of the idea of mouths and wombs in ancient Greece, and how this comes to play into sex, wine, appetite, and penetration.

Nancy S. Rabinowitz’s “Sex for Sale? Interpreting Erotica in the Havana Collection” doesn’t really stand out in my memory, apart from her discussion of the value of painted vases (many found not in Greece, but in Etruria) for direct evidence of the society in which they were made. But T. Davina McClain and Nicholas K. Rauh’s paper, “The Brothels at Delos: The Evidence for Prostitution in the Maritime World,” is a fascinating example of looking at the archaeological evidence and carefully using it to suggest the presence of brothels (or places where sexual labour was sold in an organised way) in an area near the port at Delos. It is also an interesting example looking at space as it might have been lived in.

Judith P. Hallett in “Ballio’s Brothel, Phoenicium’s Letter, and the Literary Education of Greco- Roman Prostitutes: The Evidence of Plautus’s Pseudolus,” discusses the evidence for, and the portrayal of, the education of prostitutes as provided by a Plautus play. I think one cannot necessarily draw wider conclusions from Hallett’s discussion here, but the questions she raises are interesting in and of themselves.

Nicholas K. Rauh’s solo contribution, “Prostitutes, Pimps, and Political Conspiracies during the Late Roman Republic,” discusses conspiracy theory as it applies to the portrayal of higher-class prostitutes and their involvement in Roman Republican politics. It is an interesting paper, but a little slight, I think.

Konstantinos K. Kapparis’s “The Terminology of Prostitution in the Ancient Greek World,” the final paper in this volume, is not slight in the least. It’s a fascinating examination of the words and terminology used to talk about prostitution from the early periods up to the Byzantine lexicographers. It’s very revealing of attitudes towards male and female prostitution.

As a whole, this is a fascinating collection. It may not be entirely welcoming to the lay reader, but the interested amateur will find a great deal here to chew on.

 


 

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Matthew Wright, THE LOST PLAYS OF GREEK TRAGEDY: VOLUME 1: NEGLECTED AUTHORS

THE LOST PLAYS OF GREEK TRAGEDY VOLUME 1

The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy: Volume 1: Neglected Authors, by Matthew Wright. Bloomsbury Academic. London 2016.

I came across Matthew Wright’s The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy as a result of an article in The Guardian back in November of last year. It sounded both accessible and really interesting as a treatment of tragedy that spent a lot more time on the context of the texts and fragments we have left than is usual for treatments of Greek literature — especially treatments that might appeal to a non-specialist. In consequence, I treated myself to a copy in the gift-giving season of the year. Fortunately, it turns out that it really is both accessible and interesting.

There are thirty-two surviving complete plays of Greek tragedy, written by the three “classic” tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. This classic trio also comprise the majority of the extant fragments. These playwrights were active in Athens in the 5th century BCE, but they were far from the only tragedians to be at work in this period. There were dozens active from the late sixth down into the fourth centuries, who wrote hundreds of plays — perhaps more than a thousand — and saw them performed in front of Athenian audiences. But of these hundreds, only a handful of fragments survives.

This is in part because the canonisation of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides began in the fourth century BCE, when it is recorded that an Athenian politician, Lycurgus son of Lycophron, basically arranged that this trio should be commemorated as the Athenian state tragedians, with bronze statues, official texts preserved in the state archives, and a ban on deviating from the standard texts in any performance of an Aeschylian, Sophoclean, or Euripidean tragedy. It might be in part for other reasons, too.

Wright is interested in the process by which texts become lost, and by which some texts become more lost than others. He’s interested in what kinds of evidence exist for the lost tragedies, and how that evidence can be used to illuminate ancient Greek tragedy as a genre that extended beyond the canonical trio of authors. He’s also interested in examining the evidence for the development of tragedy as a genre over the course of roughly two centuries, from its inception down to the start of the Hellenistic period.

The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy: Volume 1 is divided into six chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue. In the prologue, Wright sets out his methodological approach very clearly, outlining the caution with which he’s approaching the gaps between the evidence, and describes what he’s setting out to do in very accessible language. (This striking readability is a continuing feature of this volume, and an extremely welcome one.)

The first chapter is devoted to the earliest tragedians, playwrights whose work, in some cases, was lost almost as soon as it was performed. Wright is careful with his arguments, and clear in discussing the evidence and the flaws with the evidence.

The sixth chapter, which I will take here out of order, discusses the “very lost” — tragedians and works of whom nothing is known but their names, and sometimes not even that; names that might be the names of tragedians, fragmentary inscriptions, and so on.

The other chapters discuss playwrights of whom, at worst, something can be said. The second chapter deals with fifth-century tragedians; the fifth chapter, with fourth-century ones (including Dionysus, the ruler of fourth-century Syracuse). The third chapter discusses Agathon, who shows up as a character in Plato’s Symposium, and who might be the best-known non-canonical tragedian, while the fourth chapter is concerned with tragedians who are related to other tragedians, since there seems to have been something of a tradition of theatre as a family business.

Wright concludes with a brief epilogue in which he discusses the apparent continuities in tragedy as a genre on down into the late fourth century, followed by an appendix which collects all the fragments of the non-canonical tragedians in English translation.

This is a really solid and engaging piece of work on ancient Greek tragedy. I found it fascinating, and I think it might have wide appeal.


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WELLINGTON’S ENGINEERS: MILITARY ENGINEERING IN THE PENINSULAR WAR 1808-1814 by Mark S. Thompson

WELLINGTON’S ENGINEERS book cover.

 

Mark S. Thompson, Wellington’s Engineers: Military Engineering in the Peninsular War 1808-1814. Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley Yorks., 2015.

The Peninsular War refers to the campaigns in Portugal and Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. (The most prominent generals involved in this conflict were the English general Sir Arthur Wellesley — better known by his later title as Duke of Wellington — and the French Marshal-of-the-Empire Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult. The Spanish and Portuguese military personalities of this period have been less well-remembered by history.) I’ve been vaguely interested in this theatre of the Napoleonic Wars since my childhood fascination with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, and I’m always interested in historical logistics — the difficulties of transport, the technologies of moving large numbers of people and large amounts of material in a period before the invention of the internal-combustion engine and a modern road system — so I decided to give this book a shot.

Unfortunately, contrary to the implication of its subtitle — Military Engineering in the Peninsular WarWellington’s Engineers is far more concerned with the engineers themselves, their personalities, and their political conflicts among themselves and with the military leadership, than with the logistics and details of the engineering challenges which they faced in the course of their duties. That’s not to say that Thompson doesn’t talk about engineering. He does. But he talks about engineering in terms of who went where, and when they went, and what they built there, and how many guns were employed in the course of a siege, and why the sieges were lifted, rather than talking about actual engineering details. What’s involved in digging a trench in a 19th-century siege? What sort of thing is a Napoleonic redoubt or a gun battery? How do you set a mine, or blow up a bridge, or build and maintain a pontoon bridge? These things are sadly not covered in any detail, although Thompson does offer a brief appendix on pontoon bridges, and one on the education of the Royal Engineers in the British Army of the time.

I will confess to a little disappointment.

Wellington’s Engineers: Military Engineering in the Peninsular War 1808-1814 discusses the employment of Royal Engineers during the Peninsular War chronologically. It comprises nine chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion: seven of the chapters deal with one year of the war, while one chapter (chapter three) discusses the lines of Torres Vedras and the defence of Portugal in greater detail and the final chapter (chapter nine) takes the narrative of events from 1813 to 1814, out of the Iberian Peninsula, and into France itself. Thompson does a good job in general of keeping timelines straight and bringing documentary evidence clearly into the narrative, as well as letting the letters humanise the subjects of this history.

But. (You knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?) Thompson’s really not a great writer. His sentences are at times strained, his narrative has no energy or sense of personality (well, apart from a prosingly dull one), and he has no sense of pacing or tension. At times he confuses the right word for the almost right one, and he has very little interest in discussing anything thematically — or at least, thematically in such a way that I can tell there’s a theme. And the little tables he uses to illustrate siege timelines are annoyingly confusing.

If you have a particular interest in the Royal Engineers as individuals during the Peninsular War, or a timeline and discussion of what sort of engineering works took place, this is a decent book. If you’re interested in the relationships between senior engineers and the military leadership, then it’s actually quite good. If you want something that looks in detail at the technology and techniques of military engineering in this period, though?

This is not that book.

 


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Sleeps With Monsters: The Power of Community in HIDDEN FIGURES

A new post over at Tor.com:

Long after the rest of the world, I’ve finally managed to see Hidden Figures.

As a film, it deserves its accolades. Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Taraji P. Henson deliver extraordinarily powerful performances, ably framed by Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner. It follows some of the conventions of a biopic, but manages to marry biopic with the pacing of an action film for a smooth, elegant and taut narrative that combines to tell a triumphant story about science, courage, and perseverance. And it is beautifully shot.

THE SILK ROADS: A NEW HISTORY OF THE WORLD by Peter Frankopan

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.
(Bloomsbury, 2015, HC,  ISBN: 978-1408839973, 656pp.)
No one has leapt to offer suggestions for me to review this month. (Understandable: it’s February, and February is a grim month at the best of times.) So you’ll just have to put up with me taking a ramble through what interests me, and offering you a reaction to Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.
I’m calling this a reaction rather than a review, because I’ve stopped 180 pages into this 500+ giant hardcover brick in order to gather my thoughts about what I expected from The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, and what it turns out it actually provides.
The Silk Roads is a universal history, or at least is trying to be one. It begins with Achaemenid Persia and continues up to the most recent American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have not read this far: by page 180 Frankopan has just about dealt with the Frankish sack of Constantinople in the early 1200s CE and moved on to Genghis Khan. That means, of course, that fewer than 200 pages have been devoted to eighteen centuries of history, leaving more than 300 pages for the more recent eight.
From a history that references Central Asia with its title — “Silk Road” is a term coined by a 19th century German traveller and geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, and popularised by the Swedish explorer (and admirer of the Third Reich) Sven Hedin in a 1938 book — one expects a certain focus on Central Asia, a book that centres the sweep of the continent from Dunhuang and the Jade Gates to China in the east to the Dardanelles in the west. A book about the enduring influence of Merv and Samarkand, Bukhara and Balkh, Khiva and Karakorum, Baghdad and Beijing: the interchange between the Hellenistic kingdoms of Central Asia and the spread of Buddhism, the effect of Central Asian sciences and traditions on the early Islamic caliphate, and some history of the Tang Chinese and the development of China, and how Central Asia spoke to East Asia and South-East Asia.
You would, perhaps, expect a book that acknowledges that between late third/early fourth century CE and the sixteenth century CE (post-Columbus and de Gama, when Europe’s serious colonial imperialism began), Europe was a backwater. Essentially, in terms of major intellectual and political developments, there’s a millennium where Europe’s at best a poor, isolated, inward-looking country cousin — with the exception of Muslim Spain.
But instead of focusing on the history of the world as it might look from the point of view of, say, Merv or the ports of the Persian Gulf, The Silk Roads recapitulates a familiar (and familiarly Eurocentric) vision of history. Frankopan spends more paragraphs on early Christianity’s church councils than the entire context and history of Zoroastrianism, and more time on the life and conquests of Alexander than all of Tang China. The medieval crusading period is mostly dealt with from the perspective of Christian individuals — far fewer Islamic rulers and their responses to the conflicts of that period are spoken of than Christian ones.
It’s just… this is not a new history, okay guys, this is the same old history and not a particularly illuminating version. I read S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age From The Arab Conquest To Tamerlane last year, and I was deeply impressed by his command of Central Asian sources, his ability to draw connections, his explanatory early history of Central Asia, and the way in which, despite focusing on a limited period, he wrote a history of intellectuals and scientific development that was, because of the connections, truly global. Starr’s achievement shows up Frankopan’s shallow engagement with non-Eurocentric histories and contexts for at least the first eighteen centuries of his history.
Before I throw up my hands and expectorate invective for my conclusion, I’m going to quote a paragraph from this book that added insult to injury — or perhaps injury on top of insult on top of insult, I’m not quite sure.
This is the second paragraph of the first page of the chapter entitled “The Slave Road.”
“The Rus’ were careful with their prisoners: ‘they treat the slaves well and dress them suitably, because for them they are an article of trade,’ noted one contemporary. Slaves were transported along the river systems — remaining chained while the rapids were negotiated. Beautiful women were particularly highly prized, sold on to merchants in Khazaria and Volga Bulgaria who would then take them further south – though not before their captors had sexual intercourse with them one last time.” (Frankopan, 2015, 117.)
And then he just — moves on, without contextualising any of this from a social history point of view, to talking about slavery as vital to Viking and Rus’ economies. No comment on what “treat[ing] the slaves well” might mean to the slaves themselves, no pointing out that transporting people in chains while negotiating rapids might not actually be treating them all that well, and no acknowledgement that having sexual intercourse with enslaved women is rape. You can say rape in a history book, Peter Frankopan! (And you can stop pretending that slaughtering the inhabitants of cities is just good business sense for conquerors, while you’re at it.) (And you can rephrase that whole paragraph to something less full of slavery apologia and rape culture assumptions, as well.)
So, basically. My reaction to these 180 pages is one part WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST READ to three parts WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU BORING ME WITH THIS BULLSHIT.
Disrecommend.
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THE NUNS OF SANT’AMBROGIO: THE TRUE STORY OF A CONVENT SCANDAL by Hubert Wolf

Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent Scandal. Vintage, 2015. Translated from the German by Ruth Martin.

I first heard of this book via Lady Business, where it was spoken of in very complimentary terms. I can confirm that it is extremely solid history writing, clear and thorough and immensely readable: the kind of history where you keep reading in order to find out just what happened next.

Wolf deals with a particular convent scandal, one that took place in the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome and was investigated as a result of a complaint made by the German Catholic Princess Katarina von Hohenzollern to the Holy Office for the Doctrine of the Faith (the office of the Inquisition). Katarina had entered the convent as a postulant and then a novice (after two marriages and a previous unsuccessful attempt to become a nun in a different convent) and came to believe that she was being poisoned by the sisters of Sant’Ambrogio, as a result of her opposition to certain practices she believed were entirely improper.

Wolf draws on several archival sources, including the Inquisition’s own files and the testimony of the witnesses and defendants in the case, to illuminate the life of the Hohenzollern princess, the convent, the other nuns, Church politics, and the case itself. False saints, poisonings, political manoeuvring in the Jesuit order, the curia, and the papacy, Solicitatio by priests in confession, sexual assault of novices, female sodomy: this is history mixed with true crime, and Wolf lays it all out in fascinating detail.

Including a good deal of detail on how the Inquisition actually investigated the charges laid before it, which is fascinating in its own right.

THE SNIPER’S KISS by Justine Saracen

Justine Saracen, The Sniper’s Kiss. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

A romance novel involving women who love women set during WWII. A Russian-speaking American clerk in the Lend-Lease programme and a Russian soldier, later a sniper, encounter each other first during international meetings about the Lend-Lease programme. Later, the American clerk gets into trouble investigating corruption on the Russian end of the Lend-Lease problem and ends up at the front, where she disguises herself as a dead Russian sniper and partners with the live Russian sniper. Saracen has done her research: the WWII setting feels believable. The characters are reasonably well-rounded, the relationships make sense in context, and the writing is better than tolerable. As F/F romances go, it’s definitely in the top 10%, particularly for historical ones.

(I always feel sad judging F/F on these particular merits. But in any given month where I look at six or eight F/F books from Netgalley and at best only half of them are even readable, they are certainly the merits.)

Crusader Kings II: Queen of Oman

I recently started a new game of CRUSADER KINGS II, and since I’ve been enjoying Django Wexler’s write-up of his, I thought I’d do my own.

But unlike Django, I’m a cheating cheater who cheats.

Meet Karima Jamalid, a Levantine Karaite Shaykhah in the lower Arabian peninsula. There are no Levantine Karaites in the Arabian peninsula, you say! I say, I CHEATED.

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Thanks to the Ruler Designer Unlocked mod, Karima is a Strong Genius, Brawny and Shrewd, a Sayyid, poet gardener scholar mystic and so on, the healthiest woman on earth and so fertile that she only has to look at a man to fall pregnant.

Case in point: Shaykhah Karima of Dhofar produced a daughter almost exactly nine months after her first marriage:

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I also cheated my way into 50000 troops and a few thousand bits of gold. Just to get Karima started.

Karima is a vassal of the Azd Umanid Emirate, so her first cunning plan is to start a faction to weaken her liege’s power.

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Our second daughter is a genius. That’s useful!

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A bout of Slow Fever shortly after her second daughter’s birth results in Karima’s court physician cutting out her eye. It works! Cure! Now she’s one-eyed and badass… and still very fertile.

Several years pass. Karima forges a claim on Jask, on the other side of the Persian Gulf, and adds it to her desmesne. She has many children by many different fathers – some of whom she even married.

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Karima eventually declares independence, and after her former liege dies, claims another county, this time on the very tip of the Arabian peninsula.

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She gives Jask to her eldest daughter’s husband, and institutes elective monarchy, nominating her genius daughter Nastaran as her heir. A claim on Berbera and two quick Holy Wars later, Emira Karima is sitting pretty on a pretty piece of real estate.

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It’s stressful being a ruler. Next step, conquer the Arwadids and swear fealty to Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid caliph, to stop him gobbling us up…

Mourning Our Icons

I don’t know why the death of Carrie Fisher has hit me so hard. Maybe it’s that in the last two years, she seemed so much larger than life: unruly, unabashed, and unapologetic, an icon I was looking forward to see puncture the hypocrisies of Hollywood and how the world treats women for the next twenty years.

Her outspokenness about mental illness, her gifts as a writer and a public figure, and her utter willingness to give the world the finger – when it deserved it or just because she felt like it – were an inspiration.

And she gave us Leia Organa. She made that role what it is: Senator, Princess, Rebel, General. Her red pen is on the script of The Empire Strikes Back.

I don’t think I can express what it meant to me, to see Carrie Fisher as General Leia. Oh, I came to Star Wars through the novels, and later met Leia staring down her torturers on the screen: the woman who sees her entire world die and still doesn’t break. Who carries the men around her when they falter and digs deep and finds the strength to keep going.

General. Forty years on, brother vanished, son a traitor to everything she worked for, lover running from responsibility, and still the backbone of a movement. Still fighting: choosing again and again to stand for what she believes in, in a galaxy where doing that has already cost her everything. And yet still able to be generous, still choosing to welcome Rey, to hold out hope and an open hand.

General Leia is not all that Carrie Fisher was – she might be the least part of a complex comic genius. But the woman Carrie Fisher and the character Leia Organa are each in their own way inspirational figures, and the character is what she is because of the woman behind her.

To Carrie Fisher: drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra.

May her memory endure forever.

THEODORA: ACTRESS, EMPRESS, SAINT by David Potter

David Potter, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. Oxford University Press, 2015.

An excellently readable biography of sixth-century Byzantine empress Theodora, who began her life as the daughter of an actress and the bear-master of one of Byzantium’s factions, became an actress herself, bore a daughter out of wedlock to a wealthy man, left (or was abandoned) by him, somehow met Justinian, nephew of the then-emperor Justin, and married him – in order to do this, the law barring actresses from marrying respectable men had to be changed.

She and Justinian had no children, but she was one of the pillars of his reign, though they tended to be on opposite sides of the major theological-political question of their day (regarding the outcome of the council of Chalcedon and whether Jesus Christ had one (divine) nature or two (human and divine)). During the crisis of the Nike riots, she is reported as convincing Justinian to stay and fight rather than fleeing, saying “Power is a splendid shroud.”She predeceased him by more than a decade, but he never remarried.

Potter’s biography is lucidly clear and eminently readable. He does great work in tying the (complex) sources together into a plausible narrative of Theodora’s life and her personality. But I think more context for her later life (during the rest of Justinian’s reign before her death) would have been very useful: as it stands, the biography feels very much weighted towards her rise, rather than her reign.

THE HELLENISTIC FAR EAST: ARCHAEOLOGY, LANGUAGE, AND IDENTITY IN GREEK CENTRAL ASIA by Rachel Mairs

Rachel Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East: Archaeology, Language, and Identity in Greek Central Asia. University of California Press, 2016 (first published 2014).

This slender volume is specifically concerned to discuss the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms in the region that today is eastern Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India. Mairs focuses on the archaeological remains, uncovered by excavation and by survey; the challenges posed by the evidence and the state of publication of the evidence; the difficulties posed by unprovenanced items (as a result of looting) and the interpretative challenges of investigating “ethnicity” and “identity” in a region whose inhabitants are very lightly represented in the surviving literature (Chinese and Greek) and that from the point of view of outsiders; and in a region where very little epigraphic evidence has come to light that may illuminate the self-understandings of the inhabitants of ancient Bactria in the three hundred years after the conquests of Alexander the Great.

Because of its prominence in the evidence, Mairs looks in detail at the city of Ai Khanoum, the Hellenistic urban foundation that has a Greek inscription which claims to be copied from Delphi, and posits a Bactrian architectural koine to explain some of its more unusual (as a Greek city) features. Mairs also looks at the relationship between settled and nomadic people in the region, and examines the explanations given for the fall of the Graeco-Bactrian kingdoms.

While brief, this book is really interesting, particularly from the point of view of identity in the “Hellenistic” world.

LOST ENLIGHTENMENT: CENTRAL ASIA’S GOLDEN AGE FROM THE ARAB CONQUEST TO TAMERLANE by S. Frederick Starr

S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. Princeton University Press, 2015 (first published 2013).

Lost Enlightenment is an ambitious and very readable intellectual history of Central Asia between the late 600s and the late 1200s CE. The first three chapters of this solid tome (over 500 pages, excluding end matter) set out to provide context: context for Starr’s endeavour, and context for Central Asia, which had a long and vibrant history even before the Arab invasions.

Further chapters centre on specific courts or specific figures, with significant space given to al-Khwarazmi, al-Razi, ibn Sina, al-Biruni, al-Farabi, Ferdowsi, and al-Ghazali, all figures who in their own way shaped the intellectual and cultural life not only of Central Asia, but of the entire Arab-speaking world and eventually Western Europe.

Starr accompanies this history of ideas and thinkers with a reasonably comprehensive discussion of political events affecting the region across this timeframe. His narrative occasionally tangles itself in confusion, as it does not always take either a strictly chronological or a strictly thematic approach. Lost Enlightenment‘s achievements are also lessened by Starr’s continually insistence on using comparanda from Western Europe: he assumes the reader is familiar with examples from Western Europe but not from Central Asia or the Arab world, whereas some of us (even Western Europeans!) are much more familiar with, say, Maimonides than John Locke.

For all its faults, however, Lost Enlightenment is a fascinating work and an excellent introduction to a region and a set of thinkers frequently neglected in Anglophone history writing. I don’t think there’s complete English translations of the works of any of the writers named above, with the exception of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh – and where there are English translations, many of them date from a century or more ago. Perhaps Starr’s efforts to bring this intellectual heritage to wider appreciation will spur some press to bring to an Anglophone audience more of the primary sources on which his history depends.

THE DEVIL AND COMMODITY FETISHISM IN SOUTH AMERICA by Michael T. Taussig

Michael T. Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America: Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Originally published in 1980, I first heard of this book as a recommendation from Max Gladstone. It is an anthropological study – one might call it a Marxist anthropological synthesis – of certain cultural and social practices present in some areas of 1960s and 1970s South America. It focuses in particular on a practice of the “devil bargain” among male agricultural workers, and on practices involving a figure known as the “Tio,” or “uncle,” a devil-like figure, which are carried out by Bolivian tin-miners. Taussig strives to argue from historical cultural context, and makes a strong case for the continuity (and adaptation under new pressures) of historic cultural forms.

This is a complex book, with a strong theoretical focus drawing on Marx, which is not an area in which I’m competent to say much. But it is fascinating read, if at times a difficult one to follow.

BATTLING THE GODS: ATHEISM IN THE ANCIENT WORLD, by Tim Whitmarsh

Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. Faber & Faber, London, 2016.

This is an intellectual history of atheism in Greek and Roman antiquity. It begins with the Archaic period in Greece, where traces of anti-theism (the idea that gods can be fought, or denied) can be seen in the Hesiodic Catologue of Women, among other places. From these mythological beginnings, Whitmarsh constructs a lineage of thinkers who disbelieved in the godly powers of the gods, and who theorised explanations for the workings of the natural world that relied on the principles of cause and effect.

The best parts of this book, by me, are the discussions of early “god-battlers” in the mythology, and the discussion of the various philosophical schools and their adherents. Whitmarsh made me want to read Sextus Empiricus – or at least feel mildly inclined towards doing so – which, since Sextus Empiricus’s books rejoice in titles like Against the Mathematicians, is a hell of an achievement. The weakest part is post-Constantine, which is not really treated in any depth: there might not be any space left for public atheism, but the book could have used a chapter on how the texts in which the outlines of classical atheism remain were preserved.

On the whole, it’s an extremely readable book, lucidly argued, and occasionally funny. Whitmarsh does sometimes like to pull out unusual words like perdurance, but that only adds to the experience. Battling the Gods is entertaining history. Which is the best kind.

Links of interest

Pulling some things out of the open tabs…


Marissa Lingen, On-ramps to various weird freeways:

So there was a Fourth Street panel where Max Gladstone wanted to talk about on-ramps to the weird: what accessibility we provide readers to works with a sense of alienation and dislocation, how we allow them to navigate works of science fiction and fantasy either without feeling uncomfortable or despite that discomfort, and what tools we can get from other genres in their on ramps–genres like magic realism and surrealism.

The Head of Donn Bó, The Tatooine Cycle. Star Wars as medieval Irish epic.

What was the reason for the Tragic Death of Cenn Obi and the Destruction of Da Thféider’s Hostel?

CBC News on the deciphering of the Antikythera mechanism:

After more than a decade’s efforts using cutting-edge scanning equipment, an international team of scientists has now read about 3,500 characters of explanatory text — a quarter of the original — in the innards of the 2,100-year-old remains.

They say it was a kind of philosopher’s guide to the galaxy, and perhaps the world’s oldest mechanical computer.

“Now we have texts that you can actually read as ancient Greek, what we had before was like something on the radio with a lot of static,” said team member Alexander Jones, a professor of the history of ancient science at New York University.

The Independent, Scientists recreate Greek skies to accurately date 2,500-year-old Sappho poem.

Vulture, The Korean Gothic Lesbian Revenge Thriller That’s Captivated Cannes.