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Book Review: Voices by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Miss Le Guin’s works are myriad. She has written A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, The Earthsea trilogy, and The Lathe of Heaven. The one series which I know best, and that is not saying much, is her Catwings books. It is not saying much because I am missing one of the novels, perhaps two, and so I have lost part of the story.

Voices is the first Le Guin novel I have read in years. It is also the longest Le Guin story I have ever read. What inspired me to pick it up?

That’s a tale in the telling.

Voices takes place in the city of Ansul. From what a reader gathers, Ansul was once rather like Ancient Athens. The capital city of a small nation which was democratic and full of learning, Ansul kept no standing army. They had a merchant fleet but the ships were armed mostly for fighting pirates. Though they had good equipment, Ansul only has the one coast.

So when the Alds from Asudar came storming over Ansul’s land-locked border, the resistance to their invasion was scattered and haphazard. A country which relies on only words and learning to defend itself is not going to do well. This is a fact. Still, Ansul has an extra excuse for their dismal defense. The Alds’ assault was a complete surprise. They had had no forewarning of an attack, let alone an invasion.

The city of Ansul, which was home to the most libraries and their great university, held out against the Alds for a whole year. When it fell, red ruin played out in the streets. The Alds considered any woman walking alone in the streets to be free fodder for rape. As a result, many “siege brats” populate the city in the intervening years. Only old women and children, along with men, can safely go to the market. Any girl over a certain age who goes out alone and undisguised is at risk of being raped.

This would be bad enough for the people of Ansul to bear, but there is more. Their religion is believed by their conquerors to be unholy, and so practice of it is outlawed. Even the mildest gestures can be punished with death. Also the Alds, at the behest of their priests, have invaded Ansul looking for the gateway to their version of Hell. They call this the Night Mouth. And they believe the Night Mouth is somewhere within the city of Ansul.

So after they had control of the city, the Alds wrecked all the libraries. They destroyed the university. Then they went from home to home, building to building, searching for every book they could discover. Considering books to be demonic and full of witchcraft, the Alds would not touch them, so that they would not be defiled by them. Instead they had the citizens of Ansul pile the volumes into carts, then throw these tomes, weighted with stones, into the river and the harbor to drown. They do this because they consider fire sacred, so burning books is the same as elevating them to the sacred.

For seventeen years the Alds have ruled Ansul in this manner. Memer Galva, the Ansul “siege brat” daughter of Decalo Galva, has lived in her grandfather’s house for all those years. A Waylord – that is, a taxman – Memer’s grandfather was taken and tortured for information during the siege. The tortures left him crippled, so that he tires after walking around the ruin that is his house for too long without a rest. He cannot stand up straight and his hands are deformed from the torments he endured.

As a child, Memer discovers a secret room within her grandfather’s house. It is filled with books. Here she plays and, although she does not know how to read, she respects the books in the room. Once she finishes playing she puts the volumes back exactly where they came from on the shelf.

One day, in a righteous fury, Memer enters the room to find comfort. Instead she finds the Waylord – reading a book!

At first, they are both frightened. Then the Waylord relaxes and asks Memer how she got in. Memer describes the method she used to enter. He begins to ask how she could know it, then remembers her dead mother, and the answer becomes obvious.

After a few minutes of silence, the Waylord asks Memer if she wants to learn how to read. From then on, Memer makes nightly trips to the secret room, where the Waylord meets her. Over the years he educates her in history, geography, writing and reading. During these years Memer observes others from the city come to the house, many at night and in secret, with books hidden in their clothes or accessories. These are smuggled to the house in the dead of night, lest those who carry them be drowned or buried alive in the mudflats outside the city. Memer and the Waylord hide these volumes in the secret room.

Eventually, things change dramatically for both Memer and Ansul through the story of Voices. But this is not why yours truly chose to read the novel.

No, what intrigued me right from the start was the blurb on the back of the book. The blurb states that, in conquered Ansul, reading and writing are considered “acts punishable by death” according to the law of the conquering Alds.

I was immediately put in mind of history itself. The barbarians of the past who invaded the Roman Empire, Spain, and other countries always destroyed everything the civilized societies they found there had built. From churches to libraries down to the meanest peasant’s house, all the knowledge, culture, and wonders which the conquered people had built were subject to ruin. Why?

As G.K. Chesterton points out in The Ballad of the White Horse, it is because barbarians of most stripes think that destruction is the greatest power on Earth. The barbarian’s life is marked by futility, selfishness, and despair. For will he not be struck down someday by death as well, the ultimate annihilation?

In the epic poem, Chesterton has King Alfred explain that destruction is far from extraordinary. The very Earth wastes away beneath us at this moment: deserts encroach on arable territories, river banks crumble, rocks are eroded, trees die, and mountains and hills are worn away, whilst others are raised through formerly flat plains. Destruction is part of nature itself. It is nothing special – not in the way the barbarian thinks it is.

What, then, is more powerful than destruction? If annihilation is natural, what can be more powerful than it?

The answer, in the words of “a nameless man” and “A rhymester without home” is this:

“Ere the sad gods that made your gods

Saw their sad sunrise pass,

The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,

That you have left to darken and fail,

Was cut out of the grass.

– 

“Therefore your end is on you,

Is on you and your kings,

Not for a fire in Ely fen,

Not that your gods are nine or ten,

But because it is only Christian men

Guard even heathen things.”

 

How did the West survive the Dark Ages? How did science progress to the age of “Enlightenment” and beyond? How do we know with such certainty what happened so long ago in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Athens, Sparta, Rome, Carthage, and lands beyond?

All this is here because “it is only Christian men/Guard even heathen things.” A culture which does not build, which does not learn, which revels only in death, dismemberment, and devastation, is doomed to ruin itself. Though time will one day end, whatever survives to the day when the last man on Earth makes his choice will be there because “it is only Christian men/Guard even heathen things.”

Preservation, not annihilation. Life, not death. These are the powers which war for control of the Earth. This is what is meant by the phrase “light and darkness.” There is no question as to which side will eventually win the conflict. No, there is only one question each man must ask himself:

Which side will I choose?

This writer chooses to “guard even heathen things,” rather than to leave “The White Horse of the White Horse Vale/… to darken and fail.” I choose to fight the Long Defeat, and to preserve what I can. To be the hare “who has more heart to run” than the hunter who has “less heart to ride.” I would rather “Go gaily in the dark” and “go singing to [my] shame” than “know what wicked things/Are written on the sky” or “know all evil things/Under the twisted trees.”

That is my choice.

What about you, reader? Which side will you choose? Or, as Mr. Chesterton said:

 

Do you have joy without a cause,

Yea, faith without a hope?

The Mithril Guardian

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Book Review – The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

Whew! What a read!!!

The subject of today’s post is an unusual book written by a well-known author. It is a new book and a fabulous read – I literally had to force it out of my hands! But, before going on about this novel, readers, I would like to say a few things about the author.

Jim Butcher is an writer whose books have landed on the New York Times bestseller list several times. A fantasy/sci-fi writer, Mr. Butcher’s most famous series is probably his Harry Dresden novels. Harry Dresden is a wizard/detective based in Chicago. He deals with werewolves, vampires, ghosts, faeries (small and big), as well as other wizards.   He has even met and talked to angels – good and bad!

I have read a couple of Harry Dresden novels and discovered a few things about Jim Butcher in the process. One, he is a huge fan of Star Wars. This is evidenced not only by his own admission at the back of some of his books, but by Harry Dresden’s constant quoting or referring to the original Star Wars trilogy. (I wonder what he thinks of The Force Awakens?)

Two, Mr. Butcher also knows about and enjoys other genres/series, which he also references in his novels. Harry Dresden mentions Marvel characters, the Looney Tunes, The Princess Bride, and even Disney movies throughout his adventures. Harry is by far the wittiest character I have yet seen Jim Butcher write. Though I do not necessarily like everything in the Harry Dresden stories, Harry himself is definitely one of my favorite characters. I am always rooting for him to win.

Another book series by Jim Butcher which I have (sort of) read is the Codex Alera series. Okay, technically, I only read the one book. But that was an excellent story, too! Mr. Butcher is said to have received the idea for the Codex Alera series from a fan or casual reader of his work. This man bet the author could not make a series out of two bad story ideas. So Mr. Butcher challenged him to name two bad story ideas, and he would try to make a good story out of them. The fan came back with The Lost Roman Legion and Pokémon.

Mr. Butcher succeeded admirably in combining the two, I think. And having never seen Pokémon (except in television advertisements and toys), that connection was not immediately obvious to this reader. The Roman connection, however, was extremely hard to miss!

Now, Mr. Butcher has done it again. His newest book, The Aeronaut’s Windlass, came out not too long ago. It is the first book in his new series, The Cinder Spires. Visiting the library sometime back, I saw the book on a shelf of newly acquired novels and literally snatched it up. No way was I going to let this story pass me by! Grabbing a chair, I started reading….and reading…and reading!

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is set in the far future of Earth. Apparently, by this point Earth has been transformed into an alien jungle. Thick mists separate the land from the sky, and while light still gets through, it does not do so in the way in which we are accustomed. And in this future, normal creatures have either vanished entirely or morphed into monsters that prey on humans. As a result, humanity survives in tall, manmade skyscrapers called Spires.

The Spire at the heart of this story is Spire Albion. Several characters in the novel end up working together later on, forming the core group whose exploits will doubtless be the center of this new series. My favorite character in The Aeronaut’s Windlass, however, is Captain Francis Madison “Mad” Grimm, of the Albion privateer ship Predator.

Okay, now I have to back up a bit. Obviously, since humans live in the Spires, there are no seas for them to sail. Instead, the humans in The Cinder Spires sail through the air or, when need be, through the thick mists that shroud the Earth. The ships have a combination of steam powered and crystal powered engines. It is for this reason, seemingly, that Mr. Butcher and others call the Cinder Spires series a “steampunk” saga.

Almost everything in the Spires is run by steam engines, apparently. These engines, aboard airships, receive their power from crystals specially grown in the houses of the Spire’s nobility. Oh, and nothing in the Spires is made of exposed steel or iron. Once that metal is open to the elements, it rusts and falls apart within days. Everything is made of copper, brass, or some other metal. Anything that is made of steel or iron is covered by either of these metals so that it will not corrode.

The airships’ engines, run by the crystals I mentioned before, keep the vessels aloft by riding on the etheric currents that flow through the atmosphere. These currents flow around everyone – even in the Spires! There are, though, some people who have etheric currents flowing right through them. These people are wizards known as etherealists (all of whom are nuts as a result of constantly having etheric currents flowing through them; as usual, some of these wizards are good crazy, and others are bad crazy). You can tell Butcher is a thorough-going Star Wars fan. Etherealists use etheric currents like the Jedi or the Sith use the Force! Both the currents and the Force flow around and through people all the time, after all!

Captain Grimm is a great character. Cashiered from Spire Albion’s defense fleet for cowardice, Grimm is no coward. But the latest prize he tries to snare in his privateering business is only bait for a trap to catch him and Predator. Narrowly escaping that disaster, Grimm loses several men in the skirmish. But the worst damage is to Predator’s core crystal. It has cracked, beyond repair. Core crystals for ships are so expensive they are practically priceless. The only ships that can afford them are Fleet ships. So the chances of Grimm gaining such a crystal are…. nil, nada, and zip.

But Grimm is determined not to give up his ship. Ever since he got out into the open air, he has loved nothing else. The idea of living a Spire-bound life horrifies him, and by this point, it would probably qualify as a death sentence. He will not give up his ship. Somehow, some way, he has to get her skyworthy again.

The opportunity to get Predator in the air again presents itself when Grimm accepts a dangerous commission from the (figurehead) ruler of Spire Albion himself, Spirearch Addison Albion. Unfortunately, I have to leave the description right there readers. I have given quite a few spoilers already. If you do pick up this book, it would be good if you found a few surprises! 😉

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is an exciting adventure – a real page turner! Butcher draws his characters and the world they live in with a precise pen, wasting no words and scattering humor throughout the novel. As always, he keeps some details about this new world to himself. His readers fall in love with the characters and most of their world, while he leaves just enough unexplained, so that we readers have to say, “When is the next book released?! We want more!

Grimm is my favorite character in the whole book, as I said. Mr. Butcher described the novel as a combination of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen “meets Sherlock Homes meets Horatio Hornblower,” prior to the novel’s release. I think this is one of the reasons Captain Grimm appealed to me so much. I was introduced to Hornblower through Masterpiece Theater as a child, and I have had a special love for Mr. Hornblower, the sea, and wooden sailing ships ever since.

Grimm’s skills as a captain are spectacular. If I do not miss my guess, Spire Albion is based on 19th century England, and Grimm has at least some resemblance to her most famous privateer, Francis Drake. He also has a dash of Captain James T. Kirk in him. Star Wars fan that he is, Mr. Butcher doubtless realized (as others have), that Star Trek was more accurate in terms of how it presented space travel as the future form of seafaring. Captain Kirk was drawn accordingly, and so is Captain Grimm, whose ship also plies the skies – though not the galaxy!

Most of Grimm’s character, however, is his own. Despite his resemblance to other heroes, fictional and historical, he is a great protagonist for this new series. As a friend of mine said, “He is smart in how he handles his ship, and wise in how he handles his people.” Grimm reads and takes the measure of his enemies with the care of a scientist, never ceasing to think or wasting his assets if he can help it. He deeply cares about his crew, and remains concerned for the welfare of the young guards whom the Spirearch charges him to support and protect in the novel.

This is a truly tremendous, fascinating book, readers. And the series that follows it can only get better from here! So grab a copy of The Aeronaut’s Windlass and settle down with it as quickly as you can, if I may be so bold! It is well worth reading!

Until next time!

The Mithril Guardian