Great swashbuckling: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped

RLS 1Allow Robert Louis Stevenson to give you a swashbuckling time in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up. Kidnapped (1886) is the classic romp through the heather by the master of the modern Scottish adventure, though it’s set in 1746. Stevenson dragged the historical novel out of the rather long-winded grip of Sir Walter Scott, and made it immediate, exciting and relatively fast. Later writers would speed up the narrative even more, but for readers in the 1880s, Kidnapped was a revelation of thrills and excitement, to be gobbled up quickly. The quality of his writing ensured that it could be enjoyed again and again. Stevenson may not strike modern readers as particularly fast, but, compared to Scott, he was super-fast, instant gratification for the fin de siècle.

For those familiar with Scottish history, the setting of 1746 will tell you exactly what kind of novel Kidnapped is going to be. 1745 was the year of the Rebellion, or the Uprising, depending on which side you were on, between the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause to get a Roman Catholic monarch back on the throne of Britain. Prince Charles Edward was the grandson of the former James III, the younger brother of Charles II, who had been invited to leave his country in 1689 by his son-in-law, William of Orange, who brought a Protestant army into England with the blessing of his wife, James’ daughter Mary, and who ruled with Mary as the ‘Protestant Kings’ for the last years of the seventeenth century. Still with me? Good. The point is, James was thrown off the throne for being Catholic, and remained a king in exile on the continent, with his son and then his grandson regarding themselves as the exiled rightful monarchs of Britain. This boiled up into attempted Scottish uprisings and invasions of England in 1715, and then in 1745. The Highland clans were fervently in support of Prince Charles Edward, but when he was sent into permanent exile after the disastrous Battle of Culloden in 1745, the English Protestant establishment, under the Hanoverian King George II, made sure that the Highland clans were persecuted and impoverished sufficiently to remove any threat of a further uprising.

Poster for the 1995 film

All that history is necessary to understand what Kidnapped is about. It’s also necessary for understanding that the Scotland of Kidnapped is full of impoverished Highland gentlemen and their clansmen, speaking more Gaelic and French than English, with no money to their name, but comporting themselves as the proud owners of a great tradition, detesting the English and the Whigs, the supporters of George II. Such gentlemen wear swords as a matter of course to show their rank in life as well as their fearsome skill in defending their lives. They carry pistols that need to be primed and reloaded after each charge has been fired. They wear fine coats and waistcoats, wigs if they can get them, carry snuff which they offer to other gentlemen as a compliment and as an acknowledgement of rank and gentility, and they regard fighting a duel over a point of honour or losing all their money in a game of cards as a perfectly reasonable way to behave, in fact the only way to behave, as a gentleman.

So what IS Kidnapped about? It begins, as it says on the tin, with a kidnapping. After the death of his father, a poor schoolmaster, David Balfour sets off to seek his fortune by going to ask his uncle, whom he’s never met, for help. His uncle is a very unpleasant miser, who seems unsurprised to see David, and gives him a pile of guineas which he says is David’s rightful share of the estate. Anyone with experience of the traditional miser of folklore will immediately see that a miser handing over 30 guineas without visible pain must means that a great deal more is actually due, and there is dirty work afoot. David is not suspicious enough, but he is only 17, after all, and has very little knowledge of the world. He has so little knowledge that he willingly goes on board a ship at the invitation of its captain and the encouragement of his uncle, to have a look round, because he’s never seen a ship before. And, wham, he gets a crack on the head, and is kidnapped, to be taken across the Atlantic to be sold as a slave in the Carolinas.

RLS 3What a mess to get into on your first foray into the world. But, despite seeing murder done on board the ship, David experience even more drama when the ship runs down a small boat in a heavy sea. The sailors all go to the bottom, but the passenger leaps up, grabs the bowsprit to lift himself up out of the sea and pulls himself to safety. That’s a remarkable feat of agility and strength to introduce this passenger, a very important character, but it’s only described in one brief sentence in the novel, whereas in a film it would be fanfared with epic music and a snappy one-liner. Enter Alan Breck Stewart, a Highland gentleman, an officer of the King of France while in exile, and a rent collector for his clan chief, returning to France with a belt full of guineas gathered in secret from loyal clansmen and tenants for the support of their chief. Being a gentleman, Alan Breck fails to realise that mentioning his belt of gold to the ship’s captain might be foolish, and so when David overhears the captain plotting with the ship’s officers to kill Alan for his money, he takes Alan’s side, and joins him in the epic defence of the roundhouse, the cabin on deck. This is a great scene of expert swordsmanship from Alan, and inexpert pistol-shooting from David, in which they kill and wound enough of the attackers to ensure that a truce is called before the ship has no-one left alive on board to sail it. But it’s too late. The ship founders, David is flung overboard, and after many struggles he finally catches up with Alan on the Scottish mainland.

They are now in trouble. Alan is a wanted man on the mainland, not just by the English army, but also from neighbouring clans who have blood feuds either with Alan, with his chief, or with his side in the Rebellion. Nobody knows or cares about David, but this too changes when he is most unluckily right on the spot when a notorious rent-collector for the king, and a clan chief and one of Alan’s enemies, is shot dead by an unknown assassin, on the hillside road where David has stopped him and his escort of soldiers to ask the way. When David runs up the hill shouting that he’s looking for the murderer, and doesn’t come back, he becomes a prime suspect and accomplice in the Appin murder, and he and Alan’s descriptions are printed on Wanted posters, to be posted all over the Highlands.

RLS 4There follows the spirited tale of their escape from unfriendly territory, travelling by night and on secret paths, through enemy lands and through the cordons of English soldiers. Stevenson, through David, makes it clear that he has no romantic delusions about the rights or wrongs of the Jacobite cause, or that he condones the way the Highlanders live – which may be noble, but is also primitive, improvident, impractical, feudal and backward. He persuades us to admire the way his characters rise above the mundane concerns of the world to live according to the rules of romance, and to uphold honourable behaviour in impossible circumstances. Romance here means the triumph of the spirit over earthly concerns, and Stevenson makes a cracking good job of it. David is not romantic in that sense: he is the dour Lowlander who just wants a quiet life and to do the right thing as a gentleman. Alan gets him back to Edinburgh by employing clever tricks and splendid ruses, and helps him get his estate back with a final tour de force of deceit, something he must have learned from his years of playing cards with the experts. From this model, all successive swashbuckling in the modern historical novel is descended: Anthony Hope, Baroness Orczy, John Buchan, and Georgette Heyer included. They’ll be on in the following weeks.


Jemisin, Leckie, Letters to Tiptree: praise ye them

a HugoThe 2016 Hugo Awards were announced last night, and I am SO PLEASED that N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season won the category of Best Novel. It is groundbreaking, superb, a work of utterly readable literary invention that I am proud to have reviewed, here. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy was one of the five other shortlisted novels, also reviewed by me, here.

I’m also DELIGHTED that the excellent anthology of essays and letters by and about James Tiptree jr, Letters to Tiptree won the Alfie for Best Related Work, again reviewed earlier this year with enthusiasm by me here.

An array of Alfie awards as seen on George R R Martin’s site

The Alfies were created by George R R Martin in 2015 as a way to get around the tedious and mean-spirited hijacking of the Hugos by mass block-voting from single-interest groups, rather than the democratic process the voting ought to be. The 2016 Alfies were awarded informally after the Hugo Awards last night. Since the Alfies are not, yet, official, Twitter alerted me with many squeees! that Letters to Tiptree had won an award, and Ann Leckie confirmed it, so I’ll take her testimony as the bottom line in lieu of an official list.

Leckie also sent me these further updates on the other Alfie Awards for 2016

Best Short Story – Alyssa Wong

Best Artist – Julie Dillon

Best Fan Writer – Alexandra Erin

Best Graphic Novel – Bitch Planet Vol 1

Special Award – Locus Magazine

Best Fanzine – Journey Planet

Special Award – Black Gate

Best Fancast – Tea and Jeopardy

Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book

Willis 1I fell into Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book with passionate gratitude, after wading through a run of disappointing novels. This novel, as Jo Walton has apparently said, is the one in which Willis got everything right, and it is superb. It won three awards, including the 1992 Hugo and the 1993 Nebula, and is a time travel novel in which an Oxford PhD student is sent back to the 1348 outbreak of the Black Death by mistake. Its structure reminded me immediately of Julian May’s The Many-Coloured Land (1981), in which characters go voluntarily back in time and find it rather different to how they had imagined it would be. Interspersed are episodes set in the present day, in which the evolving plot makes the fundamental problem, of not being able to communicate with the person in the past, a massive design flaw.

Willis recreates Oxford University academic arrogance so well, caricaturing just enough of the confident assertions of the Middle English tutor and the archaeologist that things will be exactly as they teach in tutorials. Nothing can possibly go wrong if Kivrin learns enough medieval Latin. Kivrin is eager, earnest and exceptionally hardworking. She has learnt dyeing and weaving in preparation for her role as a noble lady, memorised her languages, understands her cultural idioms and volunteers on an excavation of a tomb from the right period to get the hang of the church architecture. So does the tech specialist whose developing fever will skew his calculations to send her back in time by about thirty years, and so do some visiting students who later go to a dance in the city. Who could have thought that a virus could live so long?

willis 2For a novel with such a vast body count, it is unexpectedly funny, in the Oxford parts at least. The humour wells up first from the hysterical backbiting between academics determined to pull rank and gain position. It becomes darker as people begin to get ill and the city is put into quarantine, exasperation running ahead of desperation. It is positively graveyard when the bodies are piling up and still Mr Finch is worrying about the college running out of toilet paper and bacon. The visiting handbell group from the United States are mostly ludicrous, but their bells are essential for the plot. Tolling and chiming bells signify death and the passing of time, to remind us of the time passing for Kivrin in the plague period, and her deadline for catching the link back to the present day. Contrasted to this undernote of dread, the insouciance of the teenage Colin negotiating law, order and Oxford hospital nurses is simply joyous, an affirmation of nous and chutzpah all rolled up in polite Home Counties cheeriness.

willis 4Kivrin’s sojourn in 1348 is oppressive and unnerving. It is so beautifully written, we can feel the snapping frost, hear the cracking logs and frozen mud under the horses’ hooves, and imagine the textures of the clothes she has to borrow, and the filth in which they are caked. Kivrin arrives in medieval England with more than just a head cold. There are no drugs and no antibiotics to help her, other than the hi-tech boosters and immunisations she’s been given in the twentieth century. Surviving whatever it was that had knocked her flat for days, she becomes a children’s nanny, and then a makeshift hospital nurse, stacking up furs and blankets for the household to die in, and fighting for their survival alongside the dogged parish priest. She does all this because she cares so passionately for the people who saved her, and we come to care for them too, since every character is a person.

The children of this noble household are particularly heartbreaking: the enchanting six-year old Agnes who is everywhere she should not be, and the haughty, terrified Rosemund, destined to be married to a fifty-year old neighbour at the age of twelve. Against all the deaths and the inevitability of dying of plague, the hopeless feelings Gawayn the knight and Eliwys the lady of the manor have for each other are both futile and necessary: we all have to live for something or someone.


Stone stories: N K Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate

gorgeous colours and intricate work
gorgeous colours and intricate work

When Terry Pratchett wanted to explore how trolls might name themselves, he used mineralogy. Jade was one of the first Pratchett trolls to have a name. It was curiously dignifying as well as amusingly paradoxical (how could a lump of rock have a name, ho ho ho). Pratchett continued to dignify his troll characters rather than just generating cheap laughs, because naming confers identity as well as personality: Bauxite, Beryl, Mica, Flint and the greatest of all, Mr Shine: him Diamond.

In N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015) [update: which won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel] there was a similar geological component in the storytelling that produces dignity rather than jokes. On completing their first phase of training orogenes name themselves for precious and ornamental stones: Alabaster, and Syenite. Their job is to sense and work with the movements of the earth, to quell earthquakes, shape landscapes, create islands and bury cities. Because of their phenomenal destructive capabilities they are hated and feared by people without that power. In that excellent novel we also met stone-eaters, creatures who move through earth and rock, and eat stone, even stone that was once human. When the Fifth Season begins – a period of violent climatic change brought about by catastrophic eruptions and earthquakes – Essun, an orogene who is trying to find her lost daughter, meets Hoa. She assumes by his name that he is the lost small boy he looks like, although the reader has seen him emerge from a stone nodule. But Hoa is not a mineral name.

In The Obelisk Gate, as Essun struggles to survive after the apocalypse of The Fifth Season, she encounters other stone-eaters. They attach themselves to orogenes, as disconcerting guardians and bodyguards. They exude danger and power in a way that Pratchett’s trolls could not, though Hoa, for one, does have a sense of humour. Essun’s names for them are not particularly beautiful, or respectful: Ruby Hair, Butter Marble, Ugly Dress, Toothshine, Grey Man. Hoa has different names for them, and Essun does call the sternly imposing Antimony by her name for good reason. But these sloppy nick-names reflect Essun’s state of mind when she meets them: usually exhausted, and enraged at how little she understands of what is going on in her community, and in the world, now that everything is made different.

Perhaps it’s the gravity of the situation in The Obelisk Gate that makes the stone-eaters so grim, and so watchful, assembling silently in the plot with a sense of simmering excitement. (Is it food? More of their kind?) The earth has moved in several places, and Essun has learned to summon the obelisks, the gigantic hovering mineral rhomboids in the sky that magnify and amplify her mental earth-moving powers. Alabaster is trying to teach her how to work with them, but he is a terrible teacher, impatient and elliptical, and he is weakening because he is turning into stone. The other orogenes in the underground community of Castrima where Essun is living are only concerned with keeping the people safe and fed, and keeping the life support systems running. But on the surface, where ashfall is preventing crops from growing and killing the trees, other people are coming to find Castrima, and they are not interested in sharing.

The Obelisk Gate continues to develop Jemisin’s rich and complicated world. There is so much that the reader doesn’t and can’t know, yet the pace of the events drags us past unanswered questions. It’s like riding a white-water raft through plot points and characters. Essun spends the entire novel in Castrima, keeping her community alive, but what she doesn’t know is that several other characters are struggling to survive elsewhere on the continent, and she needs most desperately to find them before truly terrible things happen. Really terrible things happen throughout the novel, at the human scale, but Essun’s focus is planetary now, and the reader’s empathy is switched rapidly between small children and whole land masses.

Jemisin’s handling of several strands of narration simultaneously is expert, occasionally with deliberate tangles. As she did in The Fifth Season, in The Obelisk Gate she uses a challenging second-person narration to make us not quite sure who ‘you’ is, and who is saying ‘you’. The multiple narratives tease out the major new development in this novel, a new thing that orogenes can do, which brings magic into the plot, and the series. I was unsure how the integration of sf and fantasy would work, but because Jemisin describes the magical elements in grounded scientific terms, it works for me. What the orogenes do is of course totally fantastical, but by clothing its functionality in words from biology and geology, Jemisin cuts off any possibility of elves and unicorns. We only have the stone angels to contend with instead.

N K Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate (2016, Orbit Books) ISBN 978-0-356-50836-8, £8.99