A Little Review of Star Readers from out of the East

After reading fifty or so pages of Star Readers from out of the East by Daniel Nygaard, the reader discerns that it conveys a very similar mood to Dune.  The Parthian Empire, where the majority of the novel takes place, is rife with political intrigue, and the prophecy of a new king stands as the chief motivation for the main characters’ actions.  However, the heroes of Star Readers are really heroes–not power-hungry nobles having an aggrieved status.  I know that I am comparing someone’s first novel to a genre classic, but Nygaard’s book, though suffering from a lack of suspense prior to the climax and a somewhat ponderous writing style, strikes me as the better work.  One expects that Nygaard’s style of writing will improve, and it is admittedly difficult to add suspense when the reader knows the ending.  For the rest of the article, I’d like compare Star Readers to Dune, as I expect that people who liked the latter will also enjoy the former.

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Star Readers includes a desert world only slightly more forgiving than Arrakis as its setting.  Not many novels have been set in the Parthian Empire in the First Year of Our Lord, and kudos to Nygaard for the extensive research he accomplished in order to describe this world with such vivid accuracy.  The reader will find that the power struggles within and without the Parthian Empire just as interesting as those of the Fremen and the Padishah Empire.  I could only detect a few historical inaccuracies myself, such as when Nygaard remarks that certain Cataphracts armored their horses in bronze chainmail–this never existed as bronze is not ductile enough to make good ring mail–and when three Roman auxiliaries suddenly come before a city gate.  Now, a standard auxiliary (quinquaganeria) consisted of 500 soldiers–meaning that, if the units were at full strength, a force of 1,500 soldiers were standing before this gate.  Overkill!  But, I would like to emphasize that inaccuracies like this are few and far between: one needs to read Bernard Cornwell in order to find historical novels which are more accurate.

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As a final point of comparison, both novels feature a major religious leader.  However, while Paul Atreides becomes a kind of Muhammad setting up a religious and political kingdom by force, the heroes of Star Readers, the Magi, seek someone who wishes to establish a kingdom of the Spirit rather than one of arms.  The focus on the goods of the soul over those of absolute power give Nygaard’s novel no slight edge in my mind–as much of an edge as the soul has over the body.

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So, do I recommend Star Readers?  Absolutely, though be prepared to read through a very dense book.  But, one is rewarded in taking up this struggle by becoming immersed in a rich and interesting world.  Certain characters stand out as very well rounded, and some of the action is quite fun.  I’m looking forward to more novels from this author in order to see how his style evolves.

Review of Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700

Having recently finished Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700, I cannot be more pleased by all the details of Renaissance warfare provided by Lauro Martines.  Martines augments our understanding our the everyday realities of war for the common soldier and civilian as well as the logistical and financial problems posed by the great armies and numerous conflicts of this time.  On one hand, this history is a poor choice for those who wish to learn the political motivations behind these wars and about the actual battles.  But, no other work likely covers as well the dark side of warfare during this era.

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A friend of mine tells me that the officer class was created as a means to restrain the soldiers after victory.  Rulers and generals began to fear the atrocities soldiers may commit against the civilian populace of cities taken by siege or the massacre of defeated soldiers.  Martines’s description of the outrages committed against civilians both by foraging parties of troops and soldiers who had taken a city by storm corroborate my friend’s assertion.  The order to sack a city almost seemed like blanket permission to pillage, muder, torture, and rape.  Of course, not every soldier would be inclined to do the last three; but, by the rules of war, the property of the losing side was forfeit.  Also, the soldiers, likely maddened by starvation, might be driven to the extremes of ferocity for a bite to eat.

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Martines expends perhaps most of the book explaining the logistical difficulties of war.  Soldiers commonly went unpaid and unfed.  These and other hardships lead to mass desertions.  It was a common thing for countries to default because of the expenses of war: Spain did so five time over the course of a century, and France was about equally guilty.  (Interestingly, this gives me hope for my own country should America ever default.)  The best country in terms of paying its soldiers was the Netherlands, which fact no doubt helped in its struggle for independence from the Hapsburg monarchy.

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Yet, the most striking thing about this history, outside of the cases of singular barbarity and savagery, is how mean a position the Renaissance soldier held.  The understanding of the soldier as a hero who risked his life for his country was lost during this period.  Romantic literature like The Three Musketeers presents too rosy of a picture by far–even if that makes for a great novel!  Obviously, war did offer the possibility of fame for the nobility, but most people avoided soldiering like the plague.  (The Scots and the Swiss seem to be the sole exceptions.)  Many of my readers are familiar with the practice of impressment.  The idle poor and vagrants were particular targets of captains recruiting for their units, and condemned men might have their sentence commuted to military service.  Yes, military service was equated to a death sentence.  Some families even adopted children so that their natural born sons could escape the draft!

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Can it be any wonder that the common soldiers of this time were especially vicious when not only were the worst criminals included in the ranks but even the outcasts of society?  Both of whom civilians society expected war to cleanse from its ranks?  How easily might these factors destroy the least shred of empathy in a human heart?

So, though this examination of the dark side of history is not my favorite kind of work, I appreciated how well Martines covered these details.  The effect was to create a much more complete picture of the period.  This work is a must read for those who wish to understand the grim side of early modern Europe.  The Renaissance was not all art and belles-lettres!

The Perspicacious Michel de Montaigne

For a long time now, I have been acquainted with the essays of Michel de Montaigne.  In college, one of my professors, the learned and affable Justin A. Jackson of Hillsdale College, included a few of this man’s essays in the second semester of the Great Books prerequisite.  Professor Jackson considered him to be the first truly modern author–if memory serves me right.  (If memory has played me false, I tender my apologies to the astute professor.)  The reason was Montaigne’s preoccupation with the self or rather himself, which created essays of a highly personal nature.  Rather than establish himself as an authority, he writes these essays merely to put forth his subjective opinion.

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Yet, Montaigne’s ability to adduce an unlimited amount of examples upon the subject of the essay astounds the reader.  He has a mastery of the writers of Classical antiquity and a thorough knowledge of Medieval and Renaissance history in particular.  In this regard, reading him is very similar to reading the works of St. Francis de Sales, who can allude to many anecdotes and scenes in history to explain spiritual truths better.  Both men have the effect of making me wish that I had spent more time reading and less playing video games.  It must have been a great help to Montaigne to have had his father teach him Latin as his first language rather than French!  I rather wonder what effect it might have on a child to have Cicero, Virgil, and Julius Caesar as more accessible than the Berenstain Bears or similar children’s literature!

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