I put off reading this for a while for some reason – but in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed this smart, engaging Victorian fantasy.
It’s set in 1889 Paris, not the 1889 Paris we all know (ha ha) – this one is a fantastical world, with four Houses of an international order, the Order of Babel. Each House historically has its own matriarch (or patriarch), except that one house has fallen – the Fallen House – and is no more; and the heir of another – the House of Vanth – was found to be not the true heir during some magic test of rings 10 years ago. That failed heir is Severin, convinced that the test was fixed and that he must reclaim his birthright. In the meantime he manages to be very wealthy, owns a Paris hotel, and has gathered a diverse band of accomplices who help in his trade of “acquisitions,” commonly known as theft, robbery or heists.
Some aspects of this world are dealt with rather sketchily: the background is that the biblical Tower of Babel fragmented and the fragments scattered, providing the foundation of civilizations, but the reader doesn’t get a clear sense of how the Houses arose or even of the current members, apart from the misfit patriarch Hypnos who joins the band. The forging magic which certain members of the Houses possess – who has it, how, do they receive training, what does it do??? Some of that stuff is there but it’s very fleeting and we don’t really see it. Similarly, the bad guys – to do with the Fallen House – are not really given enough presence, motivation or background to seem deeply sinister or scary. I found myself wondering why Severin didn’t join forces with the Fallen House, as they’d both been kicked out of the Order.
The story has a number of very strong points. The Paris Exposition at the time was a celebration of empire and racial supremacy: the novel counterpoints that brilliantly, partly through its highly diverse characters and partly through its explicit discussions and references (one character is a mixed-race filipino historian) as to how history is rewritten and cultures erased through colonization. The characters’ diversity is not limited to their racial identities – although that is intrinsic to the plot: is that why Severin was denied his birthright? The brilliant Zofia is on the autistic spectrum, Hypnos is queer, Enrique pan… so, diversity in various ways.
The writing is often sumptuous and poetic, and paints gorgeous sensuous scenes. The puzzles and problems, and the interweaving of this magical world with ancient civilizations, mythologies and religions, are very cleverly done. The characters are extremely engaging for the most part. Two things slightly bothered me at the end: A reveal about Tristan – why? I could have done without that (and why did the bad guy target him anyway? I didn’t understand the reason). Plus Severin seemed to undergo a personality transplant for the last couple of scenes and turned into a dick. If I’m going to be super-picky, too – interesting that Severin and his buds are wealthy. Racism and oppression are in reality tied very closely to wealth acquisition: the general status of the oppressed is that they are poor, and have to work long hours in cruddy jobs just to eat. They don’t potter around experimenting in laboratories and greenhouses, or perusing historical texts in libraries. Only the oppressors have time for that kind of thing. So the racism here is stand-alone, not tied to economic exploitation as is the case in the real world.
But apart from that – if you like smart fantasy with healthy multicultural themes, very engaging characters and a fast-moving story, then you should give this one a go. Definitely a cut above, sophisticated YA.
This was nearly a DNF for me. Ultimately I’m glad I stuck with it, but it was definitely not the sort of writing I find appealing.
It’s basically the story of the massacre of the Palestinians of Lydda, now Lod, in 1948. Once the narrator gets to that, the narrative becomes powerful and horrific – somewhat diluted still by his endless circuitry and waffle. The long first part of the novel is about the narrator, Adam Dannoun, having a kind of identity crisis as he’s told his parentage is not what he believed. This is told as a story within a story, by some academic first person maundering on about his not-an-affair with a beautiful young Korean student, amongst other things, and how he came into possession of Adam’s notebooks. I suppose Adam’s search for identity is kind of a mirror or symbol of the crisis in identity that displaced refugees experience, as the heart of the story is around dispossession, and losing your place in the world. As well as genocide. Certain themes are revisited: love, silence, words… over and over again. Repetition is not a crime in this kind of stream of consciousness narrative (though I’m sure it’s not really SOC at all, but carefully constructed): maybe repetition is meant to emphasize.
The finding of notebooks device, and frequent (again, repetitive) references to an old myth or fairy tale of a lover in a coffer, again seem to go round and round. The prose is often poetic, and probably more poetic still in the original, but this kind of waffle I find self-indulgent. I think the impact of the atrocity – the tale he has to tell - would be infinitely more powerful without this endless self-obsessed burbling (though admittedly that is often a feature of lauded literary works I don’t like), which ultimately wraps around and dulls the sharp blade of truth and horror within.
I’m being a plebian/philistine here – but it would be better at half the length. Then, if he wants to talk about words and silence and his many fathers, he could write a short poem or two. And as for the Korean student – did-he-didn’t-he have an affair?– leave her out altogether. And the notebooks device – story within a story. He doesn’t return to it, and as far as I can see it’s entirely redundant.
But for all those many caveats, an important, heartbreaking story that needs to be told.
I remember this title from years back caused quite a stir when Loewen challenged various myths embedded in standard text books, and how the accepted attitude ennobles the heroic founding father figure type and ignores or belittles any other culture’s contribution to America’s unquestioned greatness.
This is an American book about American history textbooks, so it is less directly relevant to an outsider (I’m not an American) but it is still fascinating reading. Much of Loewen’s debunking is around figures such as Columbus (what a piece of work he was) and the early founders of the constitution. He takes on the injustices and near genocide wreaked on Native Americans north and south, the way slavery is skated over in traditional school texts, the neglect of the civil rights movement, America’s unconstitutional involvement overseas, and the myth of the American dream – “work hard and you will get on in America” – when in fact America possesses, interestingly, one of the least socially and fiscally mobile populations in the western world. So basically, Loewen addresses social class – a near-unmentionable in traditional texts, which choose to perceive America as a classless society with opportunity open to all.
I think this is an incredibly valuable book, despite elements of repetition and maybe a slightly too obvious liberal white guilt itchy feel. I see Loewen mentions time and again that school boards will not accept non-traditional texts: there is a kind of censorship (or maybe propaganda) which decides that young minds should only be fed carefully edited facts to encourage them to believe their country is great.
The trouble is, how does this translate for poor white kids, or black kids who know it isn’t true? They must be poor because their parents didn’t work hard enough, or are undeserving in some way. So if they believe this version of reality, they must feel shame for their parents and their families.
I suspect most of them don’t believe it, but they don’t know what they should believe, either. They are most likely confused, maybe angry – and maybe disengaged. They will certainly be uninformed.
This book is an attempt to address that lack of/misinformation.
If I would like to see one addition, it would be a bigger section on the class system and the effect of trickle down economics. Loewen describes the enormous and fast growing disparity in wealth between haves and have-nots – the gap between rich and poor – but doesn’t mention Reaganism and Milton Friedman, whose economic policies have become widely accepted across the western world. The catastrophic failure of these policies, which we are being very slow to recognize mainstream, is surely a significant factor in the growth of poverty and inequity. They are part of history too.
What Works And Why?
We read to escape, enjoy, engage, and find out more about our world. So reading is great - but what makes a great read? A page dedicated to short analyses of how writers engage readers.