Monday, November 3, 2014

Three Books for October

The Cusanus Game
Wolfgang Jeschke
Tor, 2013
Original (German):
Droemer Verlag, 2005

Yes, I'm a German, and here I'm reading an English translation of a book that was originally published in German.

The process of reading is for me a mixture of language and story, and it's entirely possible for me to enjoy the story thoroughly while the language leaves me cold, or vice versa. So let's start with the important part: Ross Benjamin, the translator, does a very fine job. The book doesn't read as if it was originally written in English. Benjamin chooses words and turns of phrase that give the book not so much a German accent, but rather the promise of a good beer.

Jeschke's story takes place in a fairly near future, a fairly mundane world, with the usual technological advances that we expect, given smart phones and 3D TVs and meta materials. In this future a horrific nuclear accident has scattered deadly fallout across large parts of central Europe. Refugees choke the surrounding areas with their needs. At the same time terrorists and nationalists of various persuasions are battling each other at the margins of a shrinking Europe.

Into this depressing picture walks Domenica Ligrina, a mostly unremarkable young woman who is studying botany at a university in Rome. The city is under assault by terrorists from the South, and the pope has already retreated to Salzburg. Domenica and her student friends seem to drift through their lives, pretending that nothing particular is happening to their world. Domenica is near graduation, when she receives a mysterious job offer from people connected to the Catholic Church for a project they are calling the "Pontifical Institute for the Rebirth of God's Creation." Since nothing much else is available to a newly graduated botanist in these uncertain times, Domenica barely hesitates, in spite of not really knowing anything about the job.

Jeschke's skill in telling a story shows in how he lays out what is going on using an impressionist's palette of scenes, recollections, and flashbacks. Some of those scenes repeat, and as the story progresses we learn that the mysterious business of the Institute involves time travel. Evidently the things that have happened in the past may happen in any number of ways. Some of the ways are impossible to change, which is why the nuclear accident doesn't just disappear. Other things, like the torture and execution of time travelers in 15th Century Europe, exist in overlays of probabilities. Jeschke's story becomes a filigree of these scenes, and the only thing we know for certain is that Domenica is going to be no ordinary time traveler.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story. The titular game, which apparently involves rolling marbles along tracks at just the right speed, in a fashion reflects the mindfulness Jeschke employed in advancing story's plot. My biggest annoyance is that Jeschke, writing in German, will never become as well known in the USA as he deserves.

The Knights Dawning
James Batchelor
Pendant, 2014

I won this book in a drawing, which is a great way of getting reading material to pile up on the side of my bed. However, even though this is a historical piece, and I'm not a fan of historical pieces, the story captivated me and drew me in. So here's what it's about:


Well, mostly it's about the people who went on the crusades, and the people who had to fight them off.

The Dawnings are a recently powerful baronial family from England. Several of the family's young sons go off to fight in what I think are the fourth crusades, around the outset of the 13th Century. King John is running things in England, and pope Innocent III is pulling the strings in Rome.

Crusades are a great thing if you win the battles and bring home loot - that's what the first Baron Dawning managed to do. Now his sons, in an attempt to emulate their father, have depleted the wealth their father had accumulated to travel to the Holy Land and bring back more loot.

As the wildest of them gets himself captured, news gets back to the Dawnings, and several of the remaining brothers go to rescue him. What they don't realize is that it's all a plot to capture the power of their family to punish the crusaders. There are politcal intrigues and pitched battles.

Batchelor's account of presumably fictional events are grounded in the real history of the late Middle Ages. I'm no historian, so all I'm qualified to say is that "it could have happened." In any event, it's quite entertaining, and if you enjoy stories about knights and their world, this book is for you.

Knights of the Cornerstone
James P. Blaylock
Ace, 2008

On a bend of the Colorado river is a small settlement of the Knights of the Cornerstone whose history goes back to the Knights Templar. Some people have gotten wind of the fact that the settlement is literally sitting on a deposit of almost pure silver, and they have been engaged in a lengthy campaign to gain access to that silver.

Calvin Bryson stumbles into this situation when a distant uncle or cousin of his sends him a package to deliver to another uncle who lives in that settlement. In spite of cryptic warnings Calvin has really no idea what he's getting into, but little by little he does get involved in a confrontation that gathers steam rapidly and culminates in a pitched battle for the possession of the silver mine.

As crypto histories go, this one is fairly mild. In fact, it reads quite a lot like those Christian fantasies that try to entice their young readers with stories of miracles that happen when you're pure of heart. I have no idea if that was Blaylock's intent - given some of his other stories I'm thinking I may have missed a satirical point of some kind. But like all of Blaylock's stories, it reads well, and entertained me from cover to cover.