#AcresofInk Writing Challenge: Week 20

Full list of questions here; previous question here.

Week 20: Tell us about … religion in your book

Okay, so I thought long and hard about this because the religion of the book ties intimately with the meta-story of all the books set on my fictional world of Delka but it’s also linked deeply with the setting of this book, Umbra, and its sequel. To understand religion’s spread you have to zoom out a bit.

There are two goddesses, Venus and Artelia, that effectively govern the world of Delka. They were assigned a task by their father to look out after it in his absence. Since the dawn of time, the goddesses and their ilk have battled with their opposites, entities now known as Zekk. The goddesses dealt with the creation energy Mana while the Zekk dealt with an energy that at its heart is deconstruction of existing stuff, Umbra. Neither the goddesses nor the Zekk can dominate as it would cause chaos for the universe, but the Zekk don’t care and want to rule. A finely tuned balance between the two is mitigated by dragons which are celestial beings in this universe. They curb either’s powers with the third and final energy Balance, or sometimes Spirit. The short version of this story is that the goddesses make a deal with the dragons to help them stop the destruction-loving Zekk and seal them away. The result of this comes at a price: Venus must give up her eyes and Artelia must have dominion over the Umbra to maintain the balance of the universe.

In the Three Kingdoms, the story goes that essentially Artelia ate the Zekk to gain their power and overthrow her sister Venus and become the dominant force in the universe. In the process, Venus lost her eyes. Artelia was thwarted and cast down to service the “impure” Umbra as a result. This feeds into the culture of the Three Kingdoms from idioms/curses “Artelia take your eyes” for expression of extreme distaste, right the way up to their perception of other cultures. The subtitle of Umbra is “The War of the Twins”, which refers to the twin goddesses. The Three Kingdoms (colloquially known as “Volgorian” because that is the language they speak, though they have no official demonym) worship Venus, while the Anzori Empire to the south worship Artelia. Both view the other as “savage” because of their worship of the opposite goddess. The most abundant energy type there is Mana, while Anzor’s most abundant energy source is Umbra.

In Anzori faith, Artelia is the wronged heroine of the tale who was banished by her sister who was jealous of her gifts, claiming that Artelia was conspiring with the Zekk for dominion. So shamed was Venus of her crimes, she could not bear to see it and her eyes failed as a result. Dominion over the Umbra means responsibility of dead things and the afterlife. Anzori culture almost uniformly has a deep respect for the dead and the ritual for the dead. Life is suffering, Artelia suffers to see people suffer, but to maintain balance she must not interfere directly. But that does not mean she can do nothing. The way they see it, their restless souls need to be guided to the Undying Lands where Artelia resides who will watch over them eternally.

A priest of Artelia’s religion believes that because of our souls were part made by Venus, the “Tyrant Goddess”, they know restlessness and wickedness. They must devote themselves to guiding their souls to the Undying Lands peacefully without the turmoil, else they cannot be admitted and will wander forever. Many different cultures across the Empire represent faith differently but many express it through hair and ornamentation: men and women both tend to grow their hair long, wear beads, and feathers. Death rites are commonplace services a priest would offer as well as to follow the precept of seeing good in all. They see their mission in putting people on a righteous path. Some might need more help than others. Unfortunately, I have done a great disservice to the Anzori Empire and this religion as of yet is unnamed. You can mark this down as something to flesh out in the redraft. I was speaking with my friend about how underdeveloped religion is and I mean to do it justice, especially with future books.

The Three Kingdoms’ dominant religion is Seinism. Its origin is not commonly known to the average denizen there. The names of most of the countries derive from the major tribe/clan/ethnicity/delete as necessary that lived in the landmass to the north, Volgoria. So Onzarians are descended from the clan of Onza, Tymbroians from the Tymbros, etc., etc. Seinism derives its name similarly. Their clan was a minority and often looked down upon.

A cruel queen, Veena the Unjust, did not like their traditions and banished them to the lands south of Volgoria. The lands south (modern day Three Kingdoms) were supposed to be barren and uninhabited so her ambition was to ship them away and let the emptiness of that land do the job of ridding them of the Seins once and for all. She gave them little food and many starved or jumped overboard to give the others a chance. The few survivors were shipwrecked on the northern shore of modern day Delaria in the northeast of the Three Kingdoms, and brought to their capital at the foot of a mountain. It turns out a flourishing culture already existed, one of abundance. The prominent members of the clan were asked about their home but they decided not to speak of it, calling it a foul and ungrateful land* instead electing to speak only of their own traditions and teachings. These were well-received by the locals and the Seins, these strangers from the north, were viewed as very special, prophets from heaven. Their message spread orally but soon people began to scribe down these teachings and Seinism was formed. That’s about as far as I’ll go as this is getting on a bit. Seinism actually has a much darker underbelly to it that I won’t go into. But yeah. The theme of the series is about perspective and how culture shapes your beliefs. Building a robust religion and culture will be integral in selling this idea.

 

*Their desire for vengeance would see this foreign nation, known as Erebia, stretch out to the southern tip of Volgoria, but not much further than that.

Next question.

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February Reviews

Our shortest month flew by and disappeared—mostly unnoticed. But I still managed to squeeze in four books. A month of good reads hemmed in by really great ones. First up …

Blood Upon the Sand by Bradley Beaulieu [4/5 stars]

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Sequels are pretty tough. Especially if your first book is well-received you have to continue on a story that captivated while doing something new entirely to retain interest without becoming stale, not to mention continue to attract new readers who this might be their first book*.

The story picks up right after the end of the great climax of Twelve Kings with our protagonist enacting her vengeance. From there, the world of the Shattered Sands continues to unfold as more intrigue and mysteries continue. There is some exciting and genuinely disturbing scenes in this and Beaulieu tells his story with beautiful prose, and with a subtlety that hints at a much larger tale (this is 2 of a projected 6). My gripes with the structure of Book 1, namely with the amount of flashbacks, are gone and in exchange we get a lot of forward momentum. Perhaps a bit slow overall still but enjoyable nonetheless.

I’m a sucker for some blood magic and you get blood magic in spades. Also, I don’t know what it is but despite the magical creatures and magic itself alongside gods, the book feels really grounded. It’s probably Beaulieu’s attention to building up the world which is rich in culture, myth, and legend; it just breathes with life. Çeda continues to be an interesting and complex protagonist and I kind of like that I don’t know the entire scope of the series though I have some suspicions. I think after book 3 I’ll have a clearer picture. Speaking of which, that’s out really soon. I can wait though, lol.

Next up!

*I’ve really got to get into the head of people who read from a sequel first.

Great House by Nicole Krauss [3/5 stars]

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Oh man, where do I even start? This is one of those “should’ve worked” books. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book. The skill of Krauss’ prose and her sharp insights are what constitute the rating of this book. But the structure of it is uninviting.

I came out of this book drained. This should have been the kind of book for me—about memory and relationships, in particular loneliness—but I had a difficult time with it, often having to push myself to finish. “It’s only 300 pages,” I’d tell myself. But that felt like I was wrestling with a literary behemoth.

The book is about many things and nothing—the most mundane things ever, which isn’t a problem for me. But the fragmented structure was … rough.

The POVs have a strong connection with writing or the writing process but the various stories are told in a very fragmented and honestly distracting way. The various POVs are linked by a giant desk which seems to hold a emotional value that matches its physical size. At some point the characters either possess or have their lives affected directly by it. I’m certain I didn’t pick up on some of the subtleties and the smaller connections with the POVs beyond the desk but it was slow going.

Part II is the shortest and the conclusive part. Incidentally, it’s the most satisfying. Krauss’ elongated prose is eliminated and there’s an economy to the pace and exploration of ideas. The talk on Jewish diaspora was some of the best writing in the book, for example. I kind of get that, when linked with Krauss’ points on diaspora, the structure’s fragmented style is kind of the point—that home isn’t a place, not anymore, but each person connected to it carries a fragment—but I struggled. I really did. I feel like I should make concessions but this was about my experience of it, which was laboured, so I will extend none.

Honestly, when I was reading it, I found myself missing Stone Arabia, which deals with memory much better. My review unpacks it better as it’s a layered and moving read, like this was trying to be but sadly failed to. I really want to like Nicole Krauss but this wasn’t the book for me.

Five-Star Billionaire by Tash Aw [3/5 stars]

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This is another “I should’ve loved it”!  That’s two books now that I’ve come out empty. There are flourishes of quality but I have a sort of yawning gap where satisfaction should lie. I don’t know if I’m to blame or I’ve just been unlucky in my picks twice in a row.

The set-up should have been a great one: five immigrants from Malaysia go to Shanghai to make their fortune. Big city dream! Disappointment and dissatisfaction abundant! You could argue that this is the life that Aw wanted to present but it was kind of frustrated and laborious. Like Great House, there are some fascinating insights and some real wisdom but I ended up feeling very detached from the characters for some reason and I’m unsettled that I don’t know why. By no means a bad book, though.

 

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin [4/5 stars]

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A brief and lyrical novel about the growing turmoil of a man who loves another man and denies that part of his reality and the tragedy that ensues as a result. At first I thought this was a story about a man who is punished for denying his true sexuality. But it’s actually a book about a man who cannot love and seeing that new perspective is what makes this quite slim book all the better. Loneliness and longing are the core themes in this and it’s a glorious read. It’s fairly haunting too. There was a very sad scene about mid book which made me feel as empty as our narrator. Great reading.

 

The days are moving so quickly that I didn’t realise I’d read four books last month! What productive reading year this is proving to be!

June Book Reviews

I’ve found very gentle themes that have drifted across my reading habits. This is purely accidental but I find it amusing. June’s reading has taken me away from the more sprawling studies into more intimate settings. I lead with a new found favourite.

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong [5/5 stars]

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Reading a five star book for me has been a bit like a four leaf clover. I also have a weird paradox: I want to find favourites pretty readily but also their scarcity makes them precious, a book class of their own.

I Contain Multitudes in short: the world as we know it is dependant on in a large part to that which we cannot even see. Our health, behaviour, and the ability to do anything is down to a healthy relationship with the trillions of microbes that live within us.

In the book we get a look at microbes in nature, like in a bobtail squid there are certain microbes which allow them to glow and protect them from predators.

Eye-opening is an underwhelming adjective to describe this book. It’ll have to do, unfortunately. I left this book with a new perspective of the complexity and wonder of the world. Highly recommended!

Parade by Shuichi Yoshida [4/5 stars]

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Ever read a book at the perfect time in your life? Like the stars aligned and produced a bit of content that fitted your exact mood? This is what Parade was for me. Again, I was gripped by the melancholia of post-graduation, a long shadow of uncertainty stretching far into the distance.

It follows five Japanese under 30s in various states of discomfort, stuck in unfavourable situations and uncertain how to go forwards. Basically: same. If I were to describe this book, I would say it’s about nothing, not even growing up per se which might sound like a not very interesting overview. For me, though, it’s part of its appeal: it feels like we’re taking a slice out of these characters’ lives, bearing temporary witness to a space of time that they all occupy until the final point.

Anger and violence are sleeper themes in this also. I read it in a day so it felt a bit more intense that it might have been if I paced myself. Good reading.

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu #1) [4/5 stars]

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I did it! I have finished volume one of Proust’s epic. Like the sun that crests an autumn horizon, gently bathing that once frigid landscape with its pale light that unfurls like the banners of your country’s army, near those frozen fields by old Combray that are awakened to the prospect of a new dawn, the story unfolds in a gorgeous, but slow manner, such as in the case of that old gentleman Swann, that storied champion with whom we spend an excellent period exploring the tragedies of love and jealousy, those visceral emotions that can make a man as much as they destroy him, a consuming battalion of emotions not unlike the effects of illness, taking us completely whole without chance of rebellion or clarity, which in our fevered grip we hold onto some notion of self as it has changed from memory of a time we have lost, namely such as a time when mind and body were not overwhelmed with illness, not racked or distorted but completely whole.

Reading this book you will find yourself reading a lot of sentences like this. While isolated it might even be quite endearing, but it made  for slow reading, especially to begin with; more than once I wrestled with the notion of abandoning it. But I didn’t. And, being on the other side, I did enjoy it but I must say “overwritten” is a word that comes to mind. Especially when it comes to simpler ideas. In exploring the nuances of emotions, Proust has no rival, and he writes a mean description too. But it poses a problem when you lose the point of the sentence after the 20th comma. I wonder how much is down to the translator. I may never know. What you do have though is something with real flourishes, a piece of literature deserving of its esteem. I’ll check back in but not too quickly.

Review Round-up: January(ish)

I read books in fairly quick succession towards the end of January so rather than bombard you with a post per review, I’ll do it by month. This trend seems to be continuing this month so this is probably how I’ll do reviews in the future.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein [4/5 stars]

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This book in a broad sense: Naomi Klein vs. Milton Friedman in a rigorously researched, brutal, oftentimes scary, critique of Friedmanite economics and how willing individuals, including governments, are in order to put them into place.

More specifically it’s a critique of the eponymous idea of the “Shock Doctrine”, or disaster capitalism. This is basically the main thesis of Milton Friedman and friends from the Chicago School of Economics: that the best thing is free-market economics—what Klein sums up with three core aims of “deregulation, privatisation, deep cuts to social spending”. The problem? People aren’t super hot about it, so they won’t vote for it. The solution? Shock and awe.

If a country is in the midst of a tragedy, quick implementation of Chicago School economics is the way forward; while the people are reeling, change the entirety of the country’s system. By the time things calm down, everything is different and no-one can protest. The first of these happened in Chile, which was basically a lab to test the efficacy of such a thesis. This was done through the assistance of a coup to instate the dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1973, before moving on the other countries in that region. If you want to read more about the coup, go ahead. A lot of death there. Though, what a surprise for a dictator.

From this point, Klein goes through the decades and talks about how various people have taken the Friedmanite approach to economics and fucked people over across the globe, in the midst of economic depressions, wars, and natural disasters.

That’s the real bare bones of the purpose and focus of scrutiny Ms. Klein employs across the book. Now as a book, I was genuinely informed and learned a lot of new, very horrible things that governments have done in order to service quite frankly narrow interests (the aftermath of the Sri-Lankan tsunami, Latin America, as well as the Middle East were among the most striking, though all of the book is upsetting in basically equal parts). And while indeed it was meticulously researched, it lacked a certain degree of intellectual rigour.

For example, it lacked a detailed exploration of  free-market principles which were kind of necessary to make the case, I felt. My understanding is that it’s been tacitly stated that it’s not a defensible position at all, mostly because of what people have done in its name. That’s a dangerous conflation. I think, for example, that lemonade is a good thing. Very plausibly I could be motivated to do bad things in order to persuade more people to consume lemonade. But my actions in the name of lemonade are entirely divisible from the perceived qualities of it.

What I think Klein wants to argue is that what people have done in the name of free-market ideals is reprehensible, but it reads more to the effect that free-market economics as an idea itself is necessarily wrong which I disagree with. Not because I believe in that type of economics, but because I think the presentation of it is incorrect.

It’s a very interesting book that has taught me a lot about aspects of the world I either knew nothing or very little about.

Eat The Document by Dana Spiotta [4/5 stars]

904478Eat the Document is my first exposure to Dana Spiotta. She’s not a very well-known author here so tracking her books down was its own little quest. But the internet provides.

This is a brief book that takes a look into activist culture from the 1970s all the way to the new millennium. Now that doesn’t tell you much because not much happens. Not in a bad way but really the  main focus of the book is more to do with the relationships between the characters and exploration of the idea of rebellion, its functions, and people’s attitudes towards it.

What I loved were the digs at the more post-modern aspects of the activists, most notably the book’s criticism of irony over more meaningful forms of protest: irony essentially being self-defeating. I also really enjoyed the richly detailed interiors. Spiotta really makes you feel present in the scenes, with a clear understanding of personal spaces and people, with sharp details and good dialogue. What was also interesting was the juxtaposition of people and artifice—the not-quite activists, artificial materials, even fake identities—which seems to be a through-line. There is, in a way, a dedication to the need for truth and honesty in some capacity to lead a meaningful life.

My main criticism is that it skipped along a bit too easily. It’s a rare occasion where I ask a writer to write more not less, but so it goes. Very enjoyable and a quick read. A very understated writer!

Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar [3/5 stars]

29776922The “ish” in the post’s title is because of this book,  which I technically finished on the 1st of Feb but it’s just a day out and leaves this month a little less burdened (I estimate maybe five books being read this short month).

Someone in another review said it’s kind of like an extended think piece of a newspaper, which is about right: it’s nice, considering it was written by a journalist in lucid prose about a fascinating topic. However, that’s also where it doesn’t quite live up to what I thought it’d be.

So the premise of the book is this: there’re people who are charitable, and there are do-gooders, people who basically go above and beyond the call of duty. These people go to extreme levels of privation in order to service the greater good. There are alternating chapters of do-gooders and philosophical discussions relating to ethics. But that’s all it is. I thought it would be an integrated analysis of what kind of things we can extrapolate from people who go to extremes, but it doesn’t really quite get there.

So in one chapter, one person is so committed to helping to reduce suffering that he lives on an annual budget of just under $10,000 dollars for subsistence. The rest of his money, time, and resources are wholly dedicated to helping to reduce suffering. What I thought would happen would be a balanced evaluation of the do-gooder’s actions. What I got instead was a grouping of stories with some interesting and well-researched bits between them. It ultimately left open-ended questions such as: is it absurd to be so committed to helping people? What can we learn from these people? Are we, the non do-gooders, doing enough?

I assume Ms. MacFarquhar wants us to decide on our own. Overall, I think you should check it out in a similar way I might be tempted to share a thought-provoking article. It’s interesting journalism, but not enough stitching together of the ideas to make it a very good book.

It’s not a bad month for books, all things considered. I’m also doing well for my goal to read more non-fiction as well. I’ve got quite a few lined up for the coming weeks too.