Review: “Byzantium”, by Stephen Lawhead

As I’ve noted in the past, I LOVED Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle and King Raven (Robin Hood) trilogy. I consider Lawhead one of the most superversive writers in the field today, and I find it likely, as admittedly little as I read the genre, that he is the greatest living writer of Christian fiction.

“Byzantium” is one of his higher reviewed books on Amazon. It has near-universal critical acclaim out of over 200 reviews. It is a historical novel about a ninth century monk named Aidan who travels with a group of monks on a pilgrimage to Byzantium, where he has a vision that he will die. Along the way he is kidnapped by vikings, and that is the start of the many adventures that follow on Aidan’s quest to reach the city, find his brother monks, and return home.

So what do I think of it?

This was a really, really good book. It was SO CLOSE to being a great book…but not quite.

First, the good – and the good is REALLY, really good. The best part of “Byzantium” is his parallel of Aidan’s loss of faith with the viking Gunnar’s gain. It’s fascinating to see how in each scene where Aidan sees God’s abandonment, Gunnar sees His presence – and always at the moments of greatest suffering. I want to avoid spoilers here, but I’ll simply say that whenever you see Aidan curse God, you can be sure to parallel it with Gunnar praising Him – and both views seem to make perfect sense! It’s a neat trick.

The prose is pitch-perfect. It’s telling that you get several reviewers talking about how difficult the prose is, followed by reviewers calling it simplistic or pulpy. That’s because it’s neither. Lawhead strikes a balance, making his prose both elevated and eminently readable.

Lawhead also knows how to build suspense. Several scenes are almost unbearable to read, because you’re desperate to see how they’re resolved. The attack by the Vikings at the beginning of the book is as tense and exciting as any scene you’ll read, as is the final battle at the end.

All right. It’s an excellent book…but it could be better. Now the bad:

Lawhead’s timing – or pacing – or whatever you want to call it – is curiously off. The moment when Aidan loses his faith should be a horrible and epic moment, yet it was prompted not by a great loss, but by…not dying? Aidan enters Byzantium, knowing from a vision he will die there, but leaves alive…and the fact that his vision was wrong leads him to conclude God abandoned him.

Huh? That’s like thinking God abandoned you because He decided to change His mind and NOT kill you. It..sort of makes sense? But not quite? It feels kind of cheap. And keep in mind, Aidan decided this BEFORE any great tragedy happened. Not dying WAS the tragedy. Not that long after he leaves, something REALLY horrible happens to Aidan. THIS should have been The Moment, but it’s not. It’s just another data point Aidan uses. His loss of faith doesn’t read like a monk who suffers profoundly and loses hope because of how many bad breaks he got, but like a guy who’s upset God didn’t act exactly the way he expected him to. Aidan is a learned monk. That isn’t what the spark should be.

And then the ending…after undergoing this profound loss of faith, we go through chapter, by chapter, by chapter, where he gets steadily worse. At his very darkest moment, where you think there’ll be a turning point…nope. No turning point. He remains resolute for months, perhaps years, after his greatest departure from his priestly vows.

Okay, fine. Well, surely something amazing and profound happens to turn him around? Or perhaps he slowly builds up his faith over many months, aided by his friends and brother monks?

Nope. He gets worse and worse, to the point he decides to renounce his brother monks forever.

Until he’s just…cured. Like that. In one day. Because of a short conversation with a friend and a really vague vision, one that didn’t even seem particularly helpful. He goes from awful soul-crushing despair to holy man of God within TWO PAGES…and then the book ends.

Aidan suffered to lose his faith; he should gain it back through hardship and effort, not the work of a day talking with a friend and a night of sleep, ONE DAY after he decides to renounce his vows forever.

Lawhead gave him a moment of redemption that he – Lawhead – simply did not do enough to earn.

(Lawhead has a similar, if lesser, issue in the book “Merlin”. At one point Merlin is kidnapped by pagans for years and is taught mystical arts. But his kidnapping apparently had absolutely no psychological effects on him and is barely mentioned again after he is allowed to go, nor do those characters ever appear again. Huh?)

Anyway, those are two VERY big flaws. For a lesser author, it would be enough for a poor review. But Lawhead is too good, and does too good a job comparing and contrasting Aidan and Gunnar’s spiritual journeys, for me to call it anything less than a really excellent book.

Buy the book. Read it. Love it, even. But know in advance its flaws. They’re big, and they’re there. I recommend his King Raven Trilogy and his Pendragon Cycle, particularly “Arthur”, “Pendragon”, and “Grail” (book three of “Arthur” is somewhat rushed for reasons beyond his control but contains perhaps his best writing, and a pitch-perfect ending), if you want truly GREAT Lawhead.

But for fans of his work, or of good adventure stories, or historical fiction, or Christian fiction, this is still an excellent, high quality novel. I unreservedly recommend it. Grumblings aside, it deserves most of its critical acclaim.

Reviewer Praise for Heroes and Wonders

James Sale, of the Society of Classical Poets, had this to say about Selected Verse- Heroes and Wonders:

Poetry is a delicate balance of language that is prone to either too much yin or too much yang; or put another way, as the poet steers his or her course like Odysseus towards his true soul, Penelope, waiting at home, he must venture through the double danger of Scylla on the one side and Charybdis on the other. The danger is either writing the yin of non-poetry which we often call free verse—though it is neither free (pure prose with lines) nor verse (since structure-less)—or writing the yang of verse, an over-emphasis on conventional forms, dead tropes, and language reminiscent of past centuries rather than the living vernacular of today.

Some of the most popular poetry revered today veers so dangerously to the yin side that, like Odysseus’s devoured crew, the audience of poetry dwindles as well; people can’t tell if what they are reading is prose or just a cruel joke that academia has played on their seemingly sophomoric intellects. Ben Zwycky’s collection, Selected Verse: Heroes and Wonders, is a daring reversal of direction of the ship’s helm, careening us toward a different monster in a maneuver that is both thrilling and at times unsuccessful.

Heroes and Wonders is, as his title indicates, generally an excellent collection of verse: full of wholesome sentiments, familiar themes of love, honour, resisting evil, and at its best has some pithy aphoristic expressions. Indeed, his best verses are his shortest ones. His final verse, “The Beast,” is some 17 pages long and in my view far too extensive to be readable; but contrast that with “Days,” the second poem in the collection. The opening stanza shows Ben at his best:

 

Days of wonder, days of hope,
Days that help you learn and cope;
Days of refuge, days of peace,
Days that give your heart release.

 

The simple repetition, the pleasing and easy rhymes, all help convey a sense of goodness and strength, and  the anaphora of Days in the quatrains suddenly breaks free of that structure in a final concluding couplet, which gives the poem a nice symmetry:

 

Each new day is heaven-sent,
Make every day a day well spent.

 

The final couplet indeed could become a mantra for the kind of people I meet in my own other specialist field of management consultancy: specifically, time management gurus who will love it!

 

Within this simple goodness and strength, there are also gems that paint, not exquisitely but with the right breadth, the universal longing of the human soul without obtrusive preachiness; for example, these lines from “Beauty’s Message”:

 

All flowing from the source of all, who we’ll see face to face,
Where holiness is merged with love as justice is with grace.
There is our true purpose, there is our true home;
That is why down here on earth our hearts will always roam.

 

But in all this there is a sense of predictability, both in the subject matter, the approach to the subject matter, and the forms themselves. Whilst I am a great advocate of the importance of rhyme in and for poetry, the poet must always master rhyme and not be subjected by it.

 

Unfortunately, in some of Ben’s verse the rhyme has clearly taken control of the meaning rather than the other way round. So, in his poem “The Wise Men” we get:

 

This all our fathers saw and knew,
Most honoured gospel scribe Matthew.
We know their tale is one small part
Of a greater work of art.

 

We have here two issues: in the first couplet the oblique (oblique here meaning the rhyming of a stressed with an unstressed syllable) rhyming of knew/Matthew, which seems strained, and the effect of such an oblique rhyme being comic rather than serious; and in the second couplet the sheer conventionality of the two masculine rhymes so close together.

 

But that aside, if you like verse with simple diction, pleasing rhymes, heroic and moral themes, then this book could well be for you.

http://classicalpoets.org/poetry-review-heroes-and-wonders-by-ben-zwycky-2015

My response (which I have posted there) is as follows:

Thank you for the kind words, James.

It is indeed my goal, as a member of the superversive literary movement to create entertaining work that encourages virtue, courage and a sense of beauty and value, to fight against nihilistic drudgery and build up the foundations of civilization.

I am a flawed writer with almost no formal training in poetry, there are no doubt a few instances of my sacrificing content too much to fit a rhythm or rhyme. However I find it interesting that you pick out that stanza from “Wise Men”, since the situation there is actually the other way around. The structure was sacrificed at this point because of the content and historical context, they are the key to the purpose of my writing the whole piece.

It was inspired by the intriguing possibility (with some scholarly support) that the source of the Matthean birth narrative is the Magi themselves, and that Matthew obtained this knowledge by meeting with their sons. The poem is then something of a dramatization of what that encounter could have looked like, with the sons recounting the oral tradition they received from their fathers, and then asking what it all meant.

In those days oral traditions were often crafted into verse, or used puns, thematic patterns, vivid imagery and other linguistic tricks to aid their memorisation. For the original Magi, this very unusual adventure would have raised a large number of questions: all the intrigue, the signs in the sky, the further signs they no doubt heard about from talking with Joseph, all for a baby born in a pauper’s stall? They knew that something of major significance was going to come from all of this, and the great adventure they had been part of was only the beginning, one small component of a divine masterwork.

Decades had passed since any news of the supposed king of the Jews had been heard, the original Magi had almost certainly passed on by the time Matthew came along to gather additional material for his biography.

The sons would have joyfully repeated the flowing, artfully sculpted and polished oral tradition they were taught and then, with trembling lips at the prospect of their great questions being answered (perhaps compounded by only sharing a second or third language with the former tax collector, since they lived a long way from each other), slightly stumble over their words as they summarise “That is what our fathers told us, we know that there is much more to this than what we have heard. We have helped you, now please tell us the fuller story that you have, so that we can know what our fathers longed to understand all these years.”

The whole poem is building up to that life-changing moment for them.

Perhaps I could have conveyed this more clearly in the work itself, but that is what I was attempting to do.

If you’d like to take a look at the full collection, click the image below:

The future of fast food

It seems that the recent push for $15 wages for fast food workers has sped up the rate at which automation is being adopted and we can expect to see more and more automated fast food restaurant. The Foundation for Economic Education has an interesting article up called New York Orders Fast-Food Workers Replaced With Robots, Kiosks, Mobile Apps. It is an interesting read.

Well, they didn’t quite put it that way — the New York Times’ headline read “New York panel recommends $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers” — but it amounts to the same thing.

A panel appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recommended on Wednesday that the minimum wage be raised for employees of fast ­food chain restaurants throughout the state to $15 an hour over the next few years. Wages would be raised faster in New York City than in the rest of the state to account for the higher cost of living there.

The panel’s recommendations, which are expected to be put into effect by an order of the state’s acting commissioner of labor, represent a major triumph for the advocates who have rallied burger­ flippers and fry cooks to demand pay that covers their basic needs.

They argued that taxpayers were subsidizing the workforces of some multinational corporations, like McDonald’s, that were not paying enough to keep their workers from relying on food stamps and other welfare benefits.

The $15 wage would represent a raise of more than 70 percent for workers earning the state’s current minimum wage of $8.75 an hour. Advocates for low­ wage workers said they believed the mandate would quickly spur raises for employees in other industries across the state, and a jubilant Mr. Cuomo predicted that other states would follow his lead.

In other news, I ordered my lunch yesterday on my computer and picked it up from Panera Bread without ever talking to a person. Last night, I picked up a couple groceries and paid through the self-checkout lane. This morning, I ordered a latte on my Starbucks app, and it was waiting for me when I walked into the store. I’m thinking of going to a burger joint later, where I’ll tap out my order on a kiosk.

Of course, it’s not fair to blame the minimum wage exclusively for the increasingly widespread automation of service jobs. Ordering kiosks and mobile apps are becoming more popular as the technology becomes better, cheaper, and more popular. That will probably happen no matter what the price of labor is.

Read the rest

Not Forgotten

Not long ago, Sir Nicholas George Winton passed away. Since the heroics for which he is most famous took place less than 20km from where I live, I thought it appropriate that I write a poem about him:

Not Forgotten

The accolade of hero is oftentimes bestowed
Quite carelessly and flippantly, and not where it is owed;
The above cannot be said of those who chose to praise
A certain late Sir Nicholas, who did in bygone days
Observe the signs of his own times, the shadows that unfurled
Of an evil threatening to swallow up the world.

Primarily he saw a throng of innocents no doubt
Marked for extermination, and all with no way out.
All they could do was send their treasured children far away,
In the hope that they might live to see a better day.
But who would take them in, and would the Nazis let them go?
They’d need official invitations to present and show.

For unsuspecting thousands, time was growing short,
With no-one there to help them flee, for fear of getting caught.
That quiet English stockbroker then went where others quailed,
To save so many lives that would have ended had he failed.
Mountainous bureaucracy had to be waded through,
In London and in Prague he built himself a loyal crew.

Together they worked day and night to free all those they could.
Funds were raised, papers obtained, they were doing good;
But war loomed ever closer, and papers came too slow.
Some documents they had to forge and hope it wouldn’t show.
Train after train departed, and many lives were spared
In all six hundred and sixty nine with families were paired

And yet two hundred and fifty more sat waiting on a train,
But war broke out, the borders closed, their hopes were all in vain.
Mr. Winton travelled home and did not tell a soul
Of all he’d done to rescue many from a deadly hole.
Not even his beloved wife; he clearly sought no praise
For all of his heroics back in those disastrous days.

It was by chance that in their attic his wife found a book
In which were written all he’d done and all the work it took.
She shared his secret with the world, and honours poured on in.
Admiration well deserved, not just from next of kin;
For the six hundred and sixty nine he’d saved at great expense
Had grown to fifteen thousand in the generations hence.

Great accolades and titles, and medals he received;
When heaven’s final call came for him, many millions grieved.
Six years past a whole century he had graced this earth,
Now we remember his great heart and life so full of worth.
Let his example inspire crowds to choose the higher way
To heal and help and rescue from the evils of today.

The Culture War rages on

After the recent SCOTUS decision there has been triumphalism from the left about the courts recognition of same-sex marriage and finding it as a constitutionally protected right. I saw this interesting observation about the nature of the ongoing culture war, over reach and the future. It is an interesting read and I think in time this victory for the left might be seen as the high water mark this time around.

For those Americans who hoped the culture wars would finally end, the month of June reminded us they’re just getting started.

Within hours of the Supreme Court’s resolution of the battle over same-sex marriage—the triumph of a generation of gay-rights activists—some were already calling for further steps to take tax exemptions away from churches, use anti-discrimination laws to target religious non-profits, and crack down on religious schools’ access to voucher programs. We learned media entities would no longer publish the views of those opposed to gay marriage or treat it as an issue with two sides, and the American Civil Liberties Union announced it would no longer support bipartisan religious-freedom measures it once backed wholeheartedly. A reality TV star pushed the transgender rights movement into the center of the national dialogue even as Barack Obama’s administration used its interpretation of Title IX to push its genderless bathroom policies into public schools. And we learned that pulling Confederate merchandise off the shelves isn’t enough to mitigate the racism of the past—we must bring down statues and street signs, too, destroying reminders of history now deemed inconvenient and unsafe.

On college campuses and in the workplace, across mass media and social media, for American celebrities and private citizens, every comment, act, or joke can make you the next target for a ritual of daily attack by outraged Twitter mobs. It is now an unavoidable fact of life that giving money to the wrong cause, making a “clumsy attempt at humor,” or taking the wrong side on a celebrity, religious debate, or magazine cover can lead to threats of violent death, end your career in an instant, or make you the most hated person in America for 15 minutes—longer if you bungle the apology.

Whether you care about the culture war or not, it cares about you.

Read the whole thing

The Greatest Stories of the 1960s

This is a fun post by the conservative Pajama Media site because it includes videos of Isaac Asimov explaining what changed in science fiction in the 1960s and Harlan Ellison arguing that AE Van Vogt deserved a life-time achievement award.

If you like that kind of inside-game stuff, from a time before science fiction became a wing of the Maoist New left, check it out.

Archaic Industries that Are Still in Business

The increasing speed of innovation was aptly summed up by John Lithgow’s character from Interstellar: “…[I]t felt like they made something new everyday. Some gadget or idea. Like every day was Christmas.”

The tireless march of progress has certainly endowed us with an abundance of technological goodies. It has also fostered a general tendency toward temporal bias–or chronological snobbery, if you prefer–the false assumption that whatever’s newer is automatically better.

In the interest of showing that technological advancement is never as total as many believe, here are some examples of seemingly obsolete industries that are still alive and kicking.

Chimney Sweeps

Developments in heating systems, such as natural gas, electrical, and heating oil appliances, have actually made more work for modern chimney sweeps. These beloved fixtures of Dickensian yarns still ply their venerable trade armed with the classic chimney brush–plus vacuums and digital cameras. Not only can you still hire a professionally licensed sweep to clean your flue, he can also handle minor chimney repairs and tuckpointing.

Chimney sweeps boast a number of professional organizations, including the NCSG.

Horse Buggy Whip Manufacturers

A long-invoked byword for dead industries, applying the label “horse buggy whips” to everything from 8-track tapes to typewriters is actually a false analogy. Not because typewriters are still in production (they’re not), but because carriage whips still are.

Westfield Whip is the last of 40 whip factories left in the “Whip City” of Westfield, Mass. The boom times are definitely over, but still, park carriage drivers, dressage riders, and traditionally minded hunters have to get their whips from somewhere.

Incandescent Light Bulbs

These little marvels are so taken for granted that people hardly ever stop to think that their basic design is over 130 years old. Exemplars of why newer isn’t always better, incandescent bulbs are only now being forcibly phased out by government fiat. Apart from having an edge in energy efficiency, the compact fluorescent bulbs favored to replace them are inferior in numerous ways. Which is why the state needs legislative action to kill the incandescent bulb market.

Left to their own devices, old-style bulbs are still selling–for now.

Print Publishing

Rivaling light bulbs for ubiquity (and enjoying a comfy symbiotic relationship with them), printed books have been around since the 15th century. And that’s just modern printing. The codex (a book made of individual pages bound between two covers) hails from Roman times.

Traditional publishers are making record profits. True, their unprecedented earnings are due in part to ebook sales, but in some sectors (like cookbooks), print is still outselling digital.

That’s not to say that ebooks haven’t seen explosive growth in the last few years. In genre fiction, reliable evidence suggests that digital books are already overtaking print versions. It seems safe to predict that, while they’ll eventually achieve dominance, ebooks will never completely replace print codices.

Still, if any industry in this post could use some innovation, it’s print publishers–especially in regard to the century-or-more-old boilerplate in their book contracts.