REVIEW: Attila: The Gathering of the Storm by William Napier

"Attila: The Gathering Storm" Book CoverAttila: The Gathering of the Storm by Wiliam Napier

2 out of 5

So this is marginally better than the first in the series. It deals with Attila’s return from exile and his gathering of the various Hun tribes to march against Rome.

That’s about it. Not much else happens in the plot. In my last review I said that his major problem was trying to squeeze in as many facts about Rome as possible to the detriment of pacing or characterisation. This problem all but disappeared when Attila returned to the Huns, the only information we have about the Huns is from a Roman perspective, we have no sources from their point of view. So for the last 50 pages or so the story really picked up because he didn’t have hundreds of facts to show off. This installment is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Huns and if far better for it. My favourite character, the Hun shaman and token madman Little Bird, is much more prominent here. The story opens up with a lot more action, Attila usurping King Ruga, and there is some mystery about how exactly he intends to get his revenge on Rome. He also displays a sense of humour, largely absent from the previous book, in the character of Little Bird, in occassional jokes amongst the men and in ironically scorning novels as ‘arrant nonsense that openly delights the unlettered multitude ‘ (78). (Novels were considered pretty trashy in the ancient world)

And then he ruins it all with a 60 page digression summing up what’s been happening in Rome in the past thirty years. 60 pages! It just goes on and on. I wouldn’t have minded so much if he had actually told it as a story but he skims over nearly everything, providing a summary so that we never actually get to know more than a cardboard version of any character.

This tendency to summarise rather than involve the reader in the moment, I feel, is Napier’s biggest problem. His narrator for the series is Priscus of Panium, the only historical account surviving from this period. As such he attempts to imitate the ancient style of historical chronicles, which frankly can get pretty boring. We have very little of the internal deliberations of characters, rather their actions are summarised and padded out with endless description.

Once he returns to the Huns this description is everywhere and I found myself skipping over paragraphs and sometimed even pages only to have missed nothing but a three page monologue on some opposing barbarians tattoos and topknot. He is very good at describing battles and the acts of cruelty common in ancient histories (But the battles are much more engaging). Overall there is far too much description that doesn’t add to anything and there is still not enough plot. The book could have done with more editing, especially to get rid of errors in continuity such as Attila berating a man for shooting a horse when they attack a column, then his very next order is to shoot the horses. Similarly Priscus applauds the woman Athenais for boldly defending herself in court full of men and refusing the emperor’s offer, then condemns women who are audacious enough to sit at the table with their husband and his friends. Also his characters occassionally quote Shakespeare which gets kind of annoying condidering the story is set 1100 years before Shakespeare. I’d say Napier didn’t realise he was doing this, some half remmebered quote from school just seemed to fit the situation he was writing about but it is a bit jarring when barbarians and Romans say things like ‘it is an honour that I dream not of’ (Romeo and Juliet) and describe jealousy as a ‘green-eyed monster’ (Othello).

His characters clairvoyance from the previous book is replaced with a remarkable passivity in this one. They follow Attila unquestioningly. He returns after a thirty year exile for treason, murders their King in his own tent and declares himself ruler and everyone just nods along. He defeats the Kutriger Huns in battle, a people Napier repeatedly describes as filled with bloodlust and extremely cruel, but rather than seek vengeance they join him. He slaughters hundreds of their warriors in battle and threatens their women and children and then the Kutriger force of thousands bow down to Attila’s 80 remaining men. It is for these reasons that his slight improvements (such as hugely cutting back on infodumps, his sense of humour and his vivid battle scenes) do not make up for the lapses in this story for me.

Overall I didn’t enjoy reading this which made it feel far too long, for anyone wanting to learn about Attila pick up a textbook. I don’t think I’ll read the next one for a long time.

Word Count-O-Meter

I would like to direct your attention to my new word count-o-meter in the sidebar. I read Writing Fiction for Dummies recently and Ingermanson recommends setting a weekly writing goal and a suitable punishment for not reaching that goal.

Unemployed student that I am I’ve set the (perhaps overly ambitious) goal of 10,000 words a week. Once I finish the first draft I’ll abandon the weekly word count for editing. That’s 2,000 every weekday. Last week went very well, I finished in plenty of time and had lots of time off too.

this week however is a different story, only about 3,000 words done so far and a busy weekend ahead. Which brings me to the punishment end of things.

For every week that I don’t reach my goal I lose €50. I have to put it into a savings account that I’m not allowed touch until the whole novel is finished and ready to be sent off to publishers and agents. what better motivation could there be in a recession?

Undergraduate Awards & DRHEA 2011

So it’s that time of year again, where I frantically try and compress 3,000 word essays into 100 word abstracts foe submission to the undergraduate awards of Ireland and Norhtern Ireland and the undergraduate research conference run by the DRHEA.

Undergraduate Awards

for this you can submit up to three coursework essays along with a 100 word abstract for each and 5 keywords. The prize is publication of your essay in a journal as well as a medal and probably a chat with the president (assuming that doesn’t all go belly-up this October)

I’ve submitted two papers and I might try get a third one in assuming i have time.

Undergraduate Research Conference

I entered this last year and was chosen to give a talk on The Butcher Boy and In America. It was a bit nerve wracking at first because I only had fifteen minutes to cover a pretty broad topic and I was speaking to people from all disciplines so I couldn’t assume any prior knowledge and they go to ask questions at the end which initially terrified me but overall worked out alright.

I had good fun, met lots of nice people and the majority seemed to enjoy my talk so I’m entering again. (you can choose to do a poster presentation rather than a talk but ti’s pretty difficult to do one on the humanities)

The DRHEA require around 250 words of an abstract, I’m submitting the same essays to both so I’ll include the longer abstracts below. I’ll keep you posted on my progress and I’d thoroughly recommend attendence at the conference even if you’re not submitting anything.

ABSTRACT #1: A Move towards the Posthuman: The Performance of Androgynous Characters in Popular Music

Popular music frequently explores and challenges gender identity. The performance of androgynous characters in lyrics, album art and music videos by artists across different genres such as Annie Lennox (Pop), David Bowie (Glam Rock) and Marilyn Manson (Goth) is an attempt to transcend gender boundaries. Often combined with new  technologies and futuristic themes (Such as the alien Ziggy Stardust as played by Bowie and Omega as played by Manson) this shows a striving for the posthuman to rewrite and deconstruct apparently intrinsic gender characteristics. Cyborg mechanics and the alien traditionally are signifiers of the posthuman. Judith Butler’s theories of repeated stylized acts in constructing gender are offset by Theodor Adorno’s theories of the culture industry commodifying and draining any meaning out of such repeated acts. In order to challenge gender identities and avoid commodification and heteronormative discourses these performances exist in a referential circle and continually increase the radicality of their transgression. Lennox’s cross dressing is augmented by Bowie in introducing the alien and Manson further subverts the integrity of the body itself and the human in his album art. This increasing radicality highlights the importance of the visual in modern and postmodern culture and discourses of identity.

Keywords: androgyny, posthuman, anti-heteronormativity, gender performance, commodification


ABSTRACT #2: Deconstruction of the Author and the Self in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman.

Examination of Flann O’Brien’s treatment of the author and selfhood across a range of his works show how he explores the constraints of language in determining a self and an identity. He does this through use of intertextuality, metatextual devices and postmodernism. He places the author in opposition to his characters and investigates issues of control as they try to author an identity for themselves and each other. O’Brien uses these conflicts to show how reality affects literature and vice versa. Stage adaptations of his work such as At Swim-Two-Birds and Slattery’s Sago Saga highlight the instability of identity and the master-slave dialectic between author and character. Roland Barthes’ concept of “The Death of the Author” and Freud’s
“The Uncanny” provide useful theories for illuminating postmodern strategies of
decentralising the subject of knowledge. In exposing the literal mechanisms of
fiction in The Third Policeman O’Brien highlights the constructed nature of selfhood and identity so that it functions similar to a machine. In dealing with his characters’ search for identity and self-determination O’Brien highlights the permeability of the self
and the inability of language to created this autonomous self.

Keywords: Anglo-Irish literature, the Self, ‘Death of the author’, Deconstruction, the Uncanny.

REVIEW: ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ by Neil Gaiman

      Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

       8 out of 10  

      My friends have been trying to get me into Neil Gaiman for a while. Good Omens, which he co-authored with Terry Pratchett is one of my favourite books. I eventually tried American Gods and hated it. Don’t get me wrong, the premise is great, I loved his ideas and his world building but the plot kind of disappeared at a few points during it and I found the characterisation woeful. I find it hard to believe that the main character, Shadow, after just being released from prison, finding he has nowhere to go and his wife and best friend had just died, wouldn’t have an emotional reaction.

But my friends persisted and one decided I should read his short stories, that’d be good back door into his world. As exams were coming up and I never have the time or concentration during exams to read a novel I agreed.

And it was excellent. Absolutely amazing, one of the best books I’ve read in a long time in fact. It’s difficult to review each story independently because it could go on forever but I’ll just list a few of my favourites.

1. Snow Glass Apples

A retelling of the Snow white story darker than any Grimm’s fairytale but hugely intelligent and compelling.

2. Nicholas Was

Less than a page long, pure genius and packs more of an emotional punch than I got from all 800 pages of American Gods.

3. When we went to see the end of the world by Dawnie Morningside, age 11 1/4

The end of the world and possibly the end of a marriage through the eyes of an 11-year-old.

4. Murder Mysteries

There’s a murder in heaven that prompts the angel Lucifer to have a think.

5. Chivalry

Very funny story about an old woman who buys the Holy Grail for 30p in a charity shop and Sir Galaad, knight of the round table, shows up on her doorstep.

The whole collection is filled with gems like this, huge variety in the content and a lot of thought has gone into the ideas, I’m glad I gave him a second chance, I might even try one of the novels next.

* Disclaimer: I never read the poems in this book because I find you have to devote time and thought to poems to really appreciate them and frankly I didn’t have the energy on top of exams – that is the only reason I’ve deducted 2 marks because I don’t know if they’re any good or not but the stories on their own deserve 10 out of 10 *

REVIEW: ‘Ship of Rome’ by John Stack

Ship of Rome: Masters of the Sea 1 by John Stack

7 out of 10

I first read about Stack when an account of him writing this series about the Punic wars and getting a Harper Collins three book deal was published in the Irish Independent. However I’ve been unable to get a copy of it till now due to financial constraints and a woeful lack of historical fiction in my library.

The bad stuff first. This is another author who insists on itlalicising every use of a Latin word which does get very annoying when it happens two or three times on a page. I know it’s a minor complaint but after explaining the difference between a Holplon Shield and a Scutum shield he shouldn’t feel the need to highlight the fact that the word is Latin every time it is used, I know it’s not an English word and he kindly tells us what it means so there’s no need to break flow in a fictional narrative to obey academic conventions.

A love story between Hadria and Atticus is crowbarred into the plot but barely dealt with leaving a skeleton romance to be fleshed out in the sequels. The manner in which he deals with this is extremely clumsy, the counterparts barely meet then subsequently are separated for a long period of time. Upon their reunion they assert their love for each other despite Hadria’s only apparent quality being her beauty and they barely speak to each other up until this point.

Another scene which really got to me is the one in which Fabiola, wife of the senior consul Scipio, seemingly telepathically discovers the traitor in their servants who feeds information on Scipio’s plans to the Junior Consul. The information he passed on, about an enemy fleet  blockading Sicily, was also known by the crew of an entire naval vessel and a maniple of soldiers, none of whom were under orders to keep silent on the matter. They were all in a dock not twelve miles away potentially full of spies and informants, someone there could have easily heard the news and passed it on without Fabiola knowing but she dismisses this out of hand and just ‘knows’ that it was a servant listening on the other side of the door as Scipio told her the news. She even knows which servant because when Scipio called for him he had to do so three times. How could he not be a spy with psychic evidence like that?

There is some criticism of the historical accuracy in this novel but I don’t think it’s especially relevant as this is a historical novel some things have to be embellished, invented or left out for the benefit of the narrative and his writing style.

Some of his characterisation is stereotyped (Scipio, Gisco, Hadria) while some is excellent (Atticus, Duilius, Septimus). His main characters get the most development and detail so the few one-dimensional characters don’t drag down the story too much. His writing style overall is excellent. For a novel mainly concerned with war and strategy he paces it brilliantly, balancing description and action so that one doesn’t outweigh the other and neither is used when unnecessary to the story. For the various battle scenes he chooses a few characters, usually three, with different roles, objectives and allegiances, and flicks between them in short passages so that we get a fully comprehensive picture without any unnecessary overlapping.

Overall the book is an enjoyable read and I will read the rest of the series.

Bloomsday 2011

"Ulysses" Book Cover

I confess I never finished Ulysses. I got as far as the Wandering Rocks episode (about halfways through) and then college hit and it wasn’t compulsory so I dropped it. Don’t get me wrong, It’s a brilliant book, it deserves the fame. But it also deserves it’s reputation as a difficult book. I read the Odyssey years ago so I thought it would give me a leg up but I still read Ulysses and a guide to Ulysses simultaneously because there was no other way I could figure out Stephen Dedalus’ theories by which he mathematically proves that Hamlet is Shkespeare’s grandfather (or something similarly ridiculous). I intend to finish it this summer because I did enjoy it.

Despite it’s difficulty it’s structure lends it to easy exploitation by the Irish tourist board which probably accounts for at least some of it’s fame.

This was my first Bloomsday, I had no real plan, no idea of what to do and definitely no costume (have you seen how expensive those things are?). I met a friend and we rambled around the city for a few hours, similar in style to Bloom and Dedalus’ ramblings but we definitely didn’t follow the same course for much of it. We showed up at Stephen’s Green just as the public readings were over and went to coffee shops rather than pubs. I did take a trip around the Irish writers centre, I saw number 7 Eccles street, say Davey Byrne’s and one or two plaques and statues and I saw masses of people in period dresses and more straw boaters than is strictly necessary.

But it rained. It lashed and lashed. then it stopped for about five minutes then lashed again. (I know I didn’t read the full thing but I saw the film and I’m pretty certain it didn’t rain). I hope people’s costumes weren’t ruined.

Next year I’ll be better prepared. First of all I’ll finish the damn thing. Then I’ll get there early, no student lie-ins for me. Then I’ll actually plan the day out properly. Get a decent crowd going up too (Being one of the few of my friends who is unemployed there were only two of us free who were interested). And I’ll make sure I check times of all events on the Irish Writers centre and the Joyce centre website, go to everything I can and start random conversations with anyone wearing a boater. I might even wear a costume.

REVIEW: ‘Attila’ by William Napier

"Attila" Book CoverAttila: The end of the world will come from the East by William Napier

2 out of 10

I recently completed a module on the Later Roman Empire called Christians, Barbarians and the Fall of Rome. Roughly 4 months of lectures, study, exams, essay and there was not one mention of Attila the Hun. I decided this was false advertising so I bought The Attila trilogy by William Napier to fill in the gaps hopefully in an enjoyable way.

(small disclaimer before we proceed: I actually really enjoyed tha module, just in case anyone going to Maynooth reads this, it’s taught by Dr. Michael Williams, stick with him through the tedious Christian history because the Barbarian section is brilliant)

It turns out I should have just bought a textbook on the Huns. The first half of the book is extremely tedious. I can normally get through a book this size in a few days, a week at most but this took weeks because I really didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t look forward to reading it at all and couldn’t have cared less what happened to the pompous little Attila. The book deals with Attila’s boyhood in Rome and his attempts to return to his people. The Huns exchanged him with the son of a roman nobleman as insurance, so that both sides would have an incentive to remain allies rather than declaring all-out war on each other.

The first half of the book is crammed with so many ‘facts’, useless information and tidbits about the ancient world that on almost every page I can feel Napier thinking ‘I spent time researching this so I’m damn well going to stick it in, relevant or not.’ This along with extensive descriptions (pages about the food at a feast, or the words of a preacher who’s never mentioned again)  really drag down his story and slow up the pacing. It feels like he’s just stretching it into a trilogy for the sake of tradition, using all this as filler.

However, despite his relying on this infodump more than plot or characterisation for the first half I found myself questioning the reliability of every statement. I understand that when writing historical fiction you have to choose a version of history and stick with it, offering alternative theories just messes up narrative continuity, but I feel he is taking liberties all the same. Allowing for the fact that he wrote this in 2005, perhaps dominant theories were different then, it still seems like he got a lot of information about daily life wrong. He is setting up the trilogy for a clash of cultures, Romans freely offer opinions on those barbarian Huns whereas Attila scorns Roman decadence periodically but it all feels extremely forced and over the top. The description of a Roman feast at the start is so over the top indulgent that it felt like it came out of the Satyrica (An ancient novel specifically exaggerating the efforts of freedmen to join the upper classes in order to cast scorn upon this kind of decadence) rather than historical documents where descriptions of a groaning feast table are much more meager. A lot of the characterisation of barbarians by Roman characters is not in line with modern thinking on the ethnography of 4th century Rome but I won’t go on about this because as I said Napier did have to pick a version of history and he seems to have gone with he one that suited his ‘totally opposed cultures’ theme in every way.

His characters are blessed with remarkable foresight and psychic ability. All of them are constantly predicting the future accurately, General Stilicho even refers to the Dark Ages at one point, centuries before they happened and almost 1,000 years before the term was in general use. This foresight is apparent when Attila gets into a street fight in Rome as a twelve year old, he accidentally kills a man and all the onlookers see him as a threat, a powerful man, someone who they should soon fear rather than a young lost boy whose arrogance has just been cut back to size when he makes this mistake. Later an entire Roman century is more than happy to give up their lives to defend the hostage boy. Attila is fourteen at this point and with no opportunity in the two years to train, no mention of him having any knowledge of how to use a sword he is able to fight alongside them. From snivelling boy after accidentally killing someone to fierce warrior, and indeed one of the only survivors of the battle, is a little hard to believe without at least some mention of practicing. Genetics seem to be doing all his work for him.

I found there were inconsistencies in tone, language and technique in the novel. Archaic seeming language, almost attempting to imitate Virgil and ancient historical chroniclers frequently gives way to modern phrases, slang and curses with an extremely jarring effect. Because he relies so heavily of fact for most of the novel an extremely mystical scene with an old woman who turns into a young girl, can read their thoughts and induce visions seems extremely out of place and almost irrelevant. One thing in particular that annoyed me was his insistence on italicising any word or phrase that was not in English. He doesn’t have to follow the academic standard when writing fiction, it’s a minor thing that breaks flow but I found is especially annoying when characters were speaking. What’s even more annoying is when a character says a Latin phrase and then the english translation in the one breath. They’re supposed to be speaking in Latin al the time anyway so why would they need to translate the words for each other? I would have preferred if the narrator provided the translation or if it was all in English because the use of Latin, Celtic and Hunnish words seems like another instance of him doing too much research and being determined to show it off.

However the book picks up a lot towards the end, for one reason or another he seems to run out of things to say and there are very few written sources on the Huns so once he gets all his lecturing out of the way the story isn’t too bad I’m willing to forgive the aspects of his style I didn’t enjoy so long as the story becomes much faster paced and as I can’t afford a different book on Attila now I’ll continue with the series.

Creative Writing Drinking Games

As promised: Alcohol induced literary madness gleaned from the finest corners of the internet!

1. The players in this game stand in a line and each person will say a part of a story. This can be as short as one sentence per person; however, the people in line do not tell their part of the story in the order in which they are standing. Random people in the line randomly declare their thoughts. The goal is to eventually create a story that makes sense, which isn’t always as easy as it may seem. While this game is extremely funny without alcoholic beverages, drinking can be incorporated so that every time someone laughs or fails to connect the elements of the story, he or she is penalized with a drink.

2. A better version of the previous one is where people sit around with pens and paper. The first person writes the start of a story or a poem (usually one or two lines), the next person writes the next bit and folds the top down and passes it on. The paper passes around the circle, each person adding a line then folding down the paper so that no one person sees the full story when they add their bit, only the previous line or two. The stories end up hillarious as the evening moves on and more alcohol has been consumed.

3. Some fun games can be made out of recitations. Say whenever soemone’s poem mention the big themes (love birth sex and death) everyone takes a drink.

4. I’ve never played this one before because I don’t know who Roger Cohen is but I’m sure it could be applied to anyone with equally bad writing

5. This is a list of games to play when reading specific writers.

6. This one sounds pretty difficult but I include it for any hardcore drinkers who can function on this level after a few pints.

7. Finally, the incredibly sophisticated game ‘In my pants’ is good fun when drinking. Typically someone says a song title followed by the phrase ‘in my pants’ looking for the funniest combination (‘Stairway to Heaven in my pants’) but instead of song titles it can be played with book titles (‘Things Fall Apart in my pants’)

Enjoy, remember, never ever drink and write. 😉