The Books of 2016, #10: The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople, by Susan Wise Bauer

Medieval_worldThis is a weird book to review as it's not a standard, single-topic narrative history. Rather, each chapter focuses on a different slice of the world that makes sense to narrow in on topically, with the whole group of chapters slowly moving forward in time. So, for example, every fifth-ish chapter will revisit what's happened in, say, Korea since the last chapter on that area.

Over the course of the whole book, you get a pretty damned good overview of everything that happened of note in every major civilization region across the globe over the couple hundred years this book covers (the same basic idea holds for the previous entries in the series as well). There's an almost unavoidable weighting of text in favor of European civilizations, just due to the simple fact that there's more written source material to work with for them (Bauer made clear in the intro to the first book of the series that she had to limit herself to civilizations that left written records; there's no room in her scope for archaeology or trying to interpret, say, whatever the hell the Harappans were up to in India, or what the bulk of pre-Colombian America was doing). That said, she obviously cares to give as much weight to non-European civilizations as the material can allow for, and does that well.

Even as carefully as written a book such as this must, due to the vast scope of the topic being covered, be a wide but shallow pool. Bauer presents a pretty amazing level of detail on each cultural area over time, but if you're looking for explosive new interpretations or thoughtful analysis of larger trends, you're not going to find it here.

I like this series best as an accompaniment to deeper books I'm reading at the time; like, if I want a wider context on what all of Europe or the world was like during the time period covered by, say, the Third Crusade, I can get that from Bauer's series.

So, for the well-read historian, the series will serve as a great refresher on areas the reader may be weaker on or have forgotten about. But it will work best for the novice; if you haven't cracked a history book since your college World History AP course, but are interested in catching up, this is the first series I'd point you to.

The Books of 2016, #8: The Desert and The Blade (A Novel of The Change), by S. M. Stirling

Desert_and_blade*does some quick Googling…*

Jesus Christ. It's been twelve freaking years since this series debuted. We're also twelve books into it (plus one collection of short stories by mostly-other authors set in this universe). Annnd, as my review of _last_ year's entry, The Golden Princess, showed, I struggle with why I'm still reading this series.

So I'm not going to spend much time on this save to say: it's better than the last book was. We get action, the plot moves forward quite a bit, we get to find out what happened to the greater LA area after The Change… it's a decent entry in a series that probably should have been put to bed two arcs ago.

I'm not entirely sure why I'm still reading it save for the fact that Stirling _can_ knit a yarn pretty goddamned well, and I'm juuuuust enough of a sucker for "oh, we get to find out what happened to THAT part of the world after the Big Disaster?" that I'll put aside my inherent disdain for the increasing magical elements of this tale and bull through just for that.

Stirling is very, very good at creating and writing about alternate versions of our world (his Draka books remain my second-favorite type of this genre, juuuust barely beat-out by the downright depressing and therefore all-too-believable agonies of John Barnes' Century Next Door series…), and injects just enough of that into these books at this point to keep me grimly reading along, regardless of how many orbits my eyes have to do in their sockets at times when the fuckin' McClintocks and McKenzie's have to argue over the trivial differences between their fake-ass dipshit clans for the 79th time…

Fortunately, The Desert and the Blade is a lot better than The Golden Princess was, given that Things Actually Happen in this entry. The High Princess' Quest is in full flower, and they get through a good chunk of it. Stirling seems to have realized that part of the draw of this series was finding out what's going on elsewhere on our post-Change globe, so he introduces some characters who have had reason to travel that globe, and therefore can spend entire chapters describing what happened elsewhere. It's a fun, showy example of just how good Stirling is at world-building, and I appreciate the appearances here.

I can't give much more detail without giving away reasons to actually read this thing, and I assume anyone even considering it is already familiar with the world because good fuckin' luck jumping in on Vol. 12 if you aren't. In a world where this type of book has been almost entirely taken over by Young Adult tropes (bleaugh), I appreciate that Stirling is still writing somewhat more adult tales of the apocalypse, his staunch advocacy of Renn Faire nonsense aside. It's far from his best book, but certainly the best this series has seen for a while, and further sets up the next entry to be pretty far-ranging and interesting to my particular tastes.

So, if you're into this series already, you'll probably like this. If you're not, this book will probably just confuse you. If you like to spend your weekends m'ladying your way through Society for Creative Anachronism meetings, who are we kidding, you've probably already written erotic fanfic based on this world.

The Books of 2016, #7: Rebellion: The History of England from James I to The Glorious Revolution, by Peter Ackroyd

rebellionLast year, I read the first two books of this trilogy, Mr Ackroyd's comprehensive overview of the history of England from earliest times up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. And I loved them. I came into this entire series with a bias as I had read, a few years earlier, his London: The Autobiography, which was a GODDAMNED OUTSTANDING history/mash note of/to that awesome, insane city.

So, yeah, long story short, Ackroyd knows and does England well. It's his thing.

One of the key aspects of this series that makes it manageable (even at three volumes) is its sharp, laser-focus on _England_. This is not a history of Great Britain, or the Empire, or the colonies, or even Ireland or Scotland. It's about England, that weird little 2/3rds of a rather dumpy, damp island that has punched orders of magnitude above its weight in human affairs for a couple of centuries now. Mr. Ackroyd makes no apologies for this focus; one of the tasks of the historian-as-author is circumscribing what they're going to present rather than let that admittedly-interesting but increasingly distant from the theme subtopics run away with the entire narrative.

So, for example, the whole complex web of Irish history is pretty much absent save for when it directly impacts the goings-on in England proper. Ditto Scotland. The conflict between the Anglican Church and the Puritans gets a very large chunk of the text devoted to it, as it was extremely important, particularly in the time period covered by this volume, but, as noted in the book itself, once a large chunk of Puritan leadership decides to fuck off for America, that's the last the book concerns itself with them.
Within the boundaries of these constraints, what you're left with is just a wonderfully detailed, deep look at the people, processes and actions that shaped England throughout this era. As it was a particularly violent and clamorous time, it lends itself to being a good read. The Stuarts were not quite as bloodily bonkers as the Tudors who preceded them, but what they lacked in personal viciousness they generally made up for in bull-headed, stubborn incompetence. This naturally led to the English Civil War, a fairly catastrophic event for the English people (~140k dead in a country of five million souls is… well, it's a fuckin' LOT), followed by the grim stretch of Cromwell & Son's grey rule over a joy-deprived island.

Ackroyd maintains a lively trip through this otherwise dark and bloody era, leading the reader along through the very bad goings-on but also taking care to show the hard-earned lessons the English learned from their suffering, all culminating in the reestablishment of the monarchy in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Stronger boundaries were proscribed around both the throne's and Parliament's spheres of action by this, and most agreed that it was basically time to shunt religion out of the political arena entirely, leaving it generally up to the individual's conscience. The sense as this volume and series closes is that, for all the blood, the Civil War and Protectorate taught the English people the right lessons that directly led to the next two-odd centuries' worth of general growth and prosperity.

Interspersed throughout this volume, and every volume in the series, are shorter, stand-alone chapters that cover various single important works of art, or scientists, or, in the earlier volumes, what people ate, wore, lived in… these asides add a tremendous amount of color to the otherwise-standard chronological march through time of powerful people and their doings. I enjoyed these breaks from the main narrative, and digging into a chapter on, say, how the writings of John Milton reflected the uncertainties and passion of Republican England adds as much to the reader's understanding of the era as the raw facts do.
In all, this is a wonderful end to a wonderful series by a frankly wonderful author. Ending with the Glorious Revolution is a wise choice, as from there forward the history of England is inextricably intertwined with the story of the Empire and of Europe, and the scope would have to widen considerably. Stopping here allows this series to stand alone as a history of pre-modern _England_ all on its own.

I genuinely like and respect all of Peter Ackroyd's work that I've read to date, and I can heartily recommend this particular series to any reader interested in any aspect of English history. It's definitely a popular history, so no prior knowledge of the topic is required to understand or appreciate the work. But, being popular by no means implies that it is shallow or poorly-done; it's masterfully written and will be equally engaging to those of us who were already quite familiar with the period covered here.