So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Abbatial Crosier

The Abbatial Crosier or Bonaik and Septimine. A Tale of a Medieval Abbess, by Eugène Sue

The Abbatial Crosier, set in the year 737 AD, is the 8th volume in a series called The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages that was written between 1849-1857. Eugene Sue created this series to be a European history that depicted the struggle between the ruling and the ruled classes. One family, the descendants of a Gallic chief named Joel, represent the oppressed and the descendants of a Frankish chief Neroweg, typify the oppressors. Down through the ages the successive struggles between oppressors and oppressed are depicted in a series of stories that culminate in the European Revolutions of 1848.

Considered classics of Marxist/Socialist thought, these books are mostly forgotten today, and the English-language editions published at the beginning of the 20th Century have only recently become available through large-scale digitization projects of Public Domain books. Daniel DeLeon, leader of the Socialist Labor Party of America and translator of this series into English, writes a Preface to each volume as an introduction.

The Abbatial Crosier is set in the year 719 when Germanic Franks under the leadership of Charles Martel (The Hammer) are driving back invading Moslems. The native Gauls are enslaved by both sides of the conflict. Sue quotes a female slave as saying "Sad days these are for us. We have only the choice of servitudes."

One young enslaved Gaul, having helped keep his master's weapons sharp, armor clean, and horse well-fed, takes them one day. Assuming a new name, he disguises himself as a free warrior. Fierce in battle, he wins his way into the heart of Charles Martel. He enjoys fighting other German tribes and Moslem invaders, but feels out of place, and fears he will be called upon to fight his own people. One day he must decide between the glory of working for the ruling class, or returning to his Gallic roots.

The turbulent epoch that rocked the cradle of the Carlovingian dynasty, the dynasty from which issued the colossal historic figure of Charlemagne, is the epoch of this touching story—the eighth of the series of Eugene Sue's historic novels known collectively under the title "The Mysteries of the People; or, History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages." From the seething caldron of the valleys of the western Rhine, inundated by the Arabs from the south, the Frisians from the north, the Saxons from the west, and in which the chants of Moslems, of Christians and of barbarians mixed into the one common cry of desolating war, the feudal social system, previously introduced by Clovis, and now threatened to be engulfed, emerged from the chaos as a social institution. Many a characteristic of feudalism would be missed if this, a crucial period of its existence, is not properly apprehended. As in all the others of this series of Eugene Sue's stories, the information is imparted without the reader's knowledge. What may be termed the plot seizes and keeps the interest from start to finish, steadily enriching the mind with knowledge historically inestimable, besides connecting with the era described in the previous story— The Branding Needle; or, The Monastery of Charolles—and preparing the ground for the thrilling events that are the subject of the succeeding narrative —The Carlovingian Coins; or, The Daughters of Charlemagne.
DANIEL DE LEON. New York, 1904.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Branding Needle

The Branding Needle; or, The Monastery of Charolles: A Tale of the First Communal Charter by Eugene Sue

The Branding Needle is the 7th of a 20 volume series called The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Age that Eugene Sue wrote between 1849 and 1857 to depict the struggle between the invading Franks and the oppressed Gallic people of France over a period of 2000 years.
This volume, set in the year 613 in a small monastery, is a sequel to The Poniard’s Hilt which told how 50 years earlier rebellious bandits, fighting the oppressive rule of Frankish overlords and their allies, the catholic bishops and priests, signed a truce with the king and settled in the valley of Charolles. In this book the aged monk Loysik must confront Queen Brunhild, whose bishop has asked her to give him control of the monastery.
Sue writes descriptively of the cruelty and excesses of Brunhild and King Clotaire II who are involved in a struggle for control of France. He writes of how, through a combination of military strength and religious hypocrisy, they enslave the Gallic peasants, and take their lands and property. In opposition to the Frankish control by force and fear, he shows the communal life of the Gauls of Charolles as an example of how people can live in mutual respect and shared resources.
While the structure is a simple morality tale of evil Franks and bishops versus the good peasants of Gaul, Sue's writing brings alive the history of France through a series of episodic novels that trace a Gallic family through generations of oppression and strife. In each book a member of the family recounts their own tale, and adds it to a communal history that has been preserved to inspire future generations with the story of their struggle.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Garment of Shadows

Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King
Garment of Shadows is the 12th book in Laurie King's Mary Russell series which has seen Mary grow from a teenager who befriends the retired Sherlock Holmes, to his wife and equal partner in adventures all around the world. The setting for this book is the city of Fez in the early 1920s at a time when Morocco is divided between French and Spanish protectorates, and an independence movement with its own government is at war with both. Fez is the capital of the French section, and Holmes, a distant cousin to the French governor, comes to the city seeking his missing wife who is wandering the streets of Fez with amnesia. Mix in a bunch of thugs who are trying to kill them, a couple of British spies, a mute child of mysterious background, and both Russell and Holmes in disguise as local Berbers, and you have an idea of what the reader is in for.
While I enjoy Laurie King's writing, this book is not her best nor her worst. Russell's slow recovery of memory is well done, but there are times when the characters tell each other what happened that drag the story down. The author has done a lot of research on Fez, and gives many details about the setting, but there is little interaction with the Moroccans.