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30 July, 2012

Anno Dracula

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

My summer reading post didn’t list all the books I aimed for this summer. I have a long list of books that sit in my shelves waiting for me, and one of these sneaked into the pile for this year: Anno Dracula by Kim Newman.

Anno Dracula is a pastiche which takes Bram Stoker’s Dracula as its starting point, and posits a world where Count Dracula’s plans in England succeeded. He has married Queen Victoria, placed his own people in all positions of power, has spread his vampiric bloodline far and wide in British society, and placed Van Helsing’s head on a spike outside Buckingham Palace.

In addition to Dracula, Newman draws on a wide variety of other works, as well as on history, placing it in the same sort of genre as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In addition to the Count we encounter characters like Lord Ruthven, Inspector Lestrade (now a vampire) and Dr. Jekyll. Sherlock Holmes does not make an appearance, he’s been imprisoned due to ideological differences with the new regime. Set in 1888, the novel focuses on the investigation into a series of grizzly murders, where poor vampire prostitutes are killed and mutilated by a figure known as Jack the Ripper. Several people, high and low, take an interest in the case, which speaks to the tensions between the vampires and the living in Dracula’s London, and could potentially spark open conflict.

There’s a lot to like in this book – almost all the ingredients seem tailor made to suit my tastes – so I am honestly a bit puzzled as to why I didn’t like it better than I did. Maybe the problem was that I never really connected with the central pair of original characters – the vampire Geneviève didn’t really feel as weighty as I think she was supposed to. Perhaps the parts I liked were carried more by the familiarity of the appropriated character rather than the strength of the narrative. Wow, that sounded harsh, I did after all like the book! Since the identity of the killer is known by the audience from the very first chapter, the murder investigation didn’t really grip me either. The conflict between vampire regime and general public kept being focused into the murders, however, and only at the very end did we get a few rushed pages of action on that front.

The world was very well crafted, stitching the various borrowed elements into a coherent and quite exciting whole. I do think it a bit unlikely that the title of Prince Consort would give Dracula enough authority to push through his sweeping changes so unopposed, leaving the resistance movement idle until the book gets going. Having Dracula in charge is pretty much a necessity for the story, but if there had been some mention of opposition beyond Van Helsing, I’d be better satisfied. I also wonder that vampirism should become so fashionable, especially since it seems to be common knowledge that Dracula’s bloodline is diseased. That’s minor quibbles, though, I was always turning the page wanting to know more about this world, and some of my dissatisfaction with the book stems from not getting to go as deeply into it as I desired.

I think perhaps my expectations were unrealistic going in – my edition had a really brilliant cover, and a ringing endorsement from Neil Gaiman printed on it twice. Combined with the fact that I loved the idea of the setting, I doubt any book could have lived up to what I imagined. I would still recommend it to anyone who found the cover blurb intriguing, though. It was a fine example of mash-up pastiche.

23 July, 2012

Elantris

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

As part of my summer reading, I recently finished Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. Elantris was Sanderson’s first published novel. I have already read and enjoyed several of his later works, so I had pretty high expectations for this one.

Elantris circles around the eponymous city, a magical place where the inhabitants lived as gods, with vast amounts of power at hand. Any person in the land can become an Elantrian, the magical process that transforms a human into one of the gods strikes at random. Upon ascension, they would go live in the city so filled with power that the very stones it was built with glow, and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, ten years before the story begins, the “happily” part was taken out – the city died, the Elantrians were struck by a disfiguring disease, and their powers abandoned them. The random transformation still happens, but instead of gods, the people become weak and fragile wretches, consumed by hunger, unable to heal even the tiniest of injuries, and doomed to live like that forever.

Like most of Sanderson’s books, it is set in his Cosmere universe, but it is still very much a stand-alone. If the Elantrians were to somehow develop space travel, they could theoretically go visit the world of Mistborn or Warbreaker, but since none of the Cosmere books feature such ships, there’s no direct crossover. The Cosmere books share themes, and the underlying structure of the universe, and a few other as-yet enigmatic features, but the stories in them are quite independent of each other.

I had some odd conceptions on what the book was about before I began reading, as a result of seeing snippets and comments on it elsewhere. I had a notion that it revolved around the sort of decadent society seen in Mistborn, with balls and opulence and possibly lots of political intrigue. I pretty much expected to read about the city as it was before its fall. Going into the book with this misconception actually helped, I think, because it made me feel more strongly about the tragedy of the fallen city. The characters were engaging, and I particularly liked the priest of the foreign religion. He could easily have been just another fanatic zealot of the Evil Empire Inc, but Sanderson made him very sympathetic. As a Norwegian, though, I must admit I have difficulty forgiving the name of the empire. “Fjorden”? Really?

Like the other Cosmere books, this book has at its heart a system of magic unique to this particular world. Much of Sanderson’s writing seems to spring out of a desire to explore these systems, and in this book it is certainly tied into the resolution in a very clever way. Despite that, however, this is my least favourite of Sanderson’s systems so far – the drawn symbols to channel power lack the originality of Mistborn‘s metal-based systems. Warbreaker, which is almost Sanderson’s second go at Elantris, returning to many of the same themes, also has a more interesting magic system in its use of colours as a power source. In general, I think it is fairly clear that this is one of Sanderson’s earlier efforts. It feels less polished than his later works. The ending seems a bit rushed, with the main villain suddenly and unprovoked revealing his motivation standing out as the worst patch. Sanderson in general tends towards avalanches of action for his endings, but in this one it didn’t work as well as in his later books.

Despite its flaws, though, it is a good book. There is a reason why it launched Sanderson’s career. While it wasn’t my favourite of his works, it was definitely worth the time and price of admission.

16 July, 2012

Welcome to My World: Time

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For previous posts in this series, click here.

I mentioned, in the post that turned out to spark this little series, that I have put some thought into the time keeping of my D&D world. Ludicrous amounts of thought, actually, considering that this is a point which is hardly even relevant when playing a game. I’m just the sort of person who wants consistency of holidays and seasons and full moons, I guess. So I made up a calendar for my world. And then, thinking it very unlikely that everyone would use the same calendar, I made another one. And then two more. Yeah, nuts.

I started by deciding the length of the year – for reasons of pure simplicity, I decided to keep days and hours the same length as their real counterparts. I went for a year of 373 days, because I am a tremendous idiot who didn’t think far enough ahead to avoid a prime. By the time I did figure out that maybe I should have gone with something evenly divisible, I had done too much work to feel like starting over. You should see my spreadsheet. Actually, no, you shouldn’t see my spreadsheet; it is a monstrosity of kludging, but it seems to work.

I wanted leap years, ’cause why the hell not, so my year actually ended up being 373.125 days long. Throw in a moon with an orbit of 28 days and it’s all down to the details.

My first calendar I dubbed the Iounian Calendar, naming it for the goddess of knowledge, figuring that in-story it had been invented by her earliest clerics, not long after the world was finished. This is the main calendar, in use by the gods themselves, and the default for me as GM. It has thirteen months, of either 28 or 29 days – like the Gregorian calendar, it can’t follow the moon exactly. Every eighth year, the last month gains an extra day. The months are mostly named for various gods – and since these are just the core gods, I don’t reproduce them here. In any case, it would only make sense for month names to vary by time and location – it is the system of the months that is the important thing. The year starts with the winter solstice, since that was the position of the sun when it was first made. Much easier to make calendars in magic land.

Along with this system of thirteen months, the Iounian Calendar has a nine-day week, with the days also named for various gods – the thing was thought up by pious clerics, after all. This calendar is in use on the continent where I have done most of my work so far, the site of Arkhosia, Myklafar, and of such from-the-books locales like the Nentir and Elsir vales. Being divinely endorsed, it is very widespread – saving me the trouble of making even more unnecessary calendars.

The second calendar, I thought up almost right after the first – the Dark Calendar. This one’s in use in the Underdark, the vast caverns beneath the world. I figured this one was constructed by the drow following their break from the other elves and relocation into the Underdark. Since the drow sort of give me French revolutionary vibes, I went with clear mathematical precision on this one. None of those weird natural cycles. 10 months, each with 5 weeks, each with 5 days. No names, just numbers. At 250 days a year, this is the shortest of the calendars.

Next, I went for lunar. Since there are about 13 full moons per solar year, the lunar calendar also calls 13 months a year. With each month being 28 days long, though, the year becomes 364 days long, 9.125 days shorter than the solar year. The result, like with the Islamic Calendar, is a system of months which move relative to the seasons. Since the moon is fairly closely associated with the Fey in the core books, I made this the calendar type of the Feywild. In the Sehaninian Calendar, named for the moon goddess, the months all have sort of poetic names – in order they are: Breath, Division, Beauty, Lover, Hunt, Thunder, Twilight, Dragon, Mask, Decision, Light, Wolf and Shadow. I have a notion of Eladrin nobles refusing to make any significant decisions outside the proper month.

I did sort of want to make a lunisolar calendar, but I can’t figure out a good way. Screwed by my prime-based solar year, I have no Metonic Cycle of usable length to make it predictable – and if I can’t predict it, I can’t calculate the dates for it. If more mathematically proficient readers have any hints, I’d be happy for them.

The final calendar is where I clearly lost my mind. This one is used on a continent far removed from my main setting, and I wanted something completely different, so I based it on the Aztec calendar. Instead of months based on the moon, this one divides the year into 18 periods of 20 days, followed by a period of 12 days, followed by what is called the Nameless Day. Every eight years, you get two Nameless Days. The periods are based on the zodiac – each of them begins when the sun rises in a new constellation of the ecliptic, and is named for its constellation. The constellations are each associated with different gods, and so the periods of the calendar are as well. The 19th period belongs to the shortest constellation, the Arrow, which is specifically not associated with any god.

In addition to this count of the year, there is a count of days. There are twenty unique markers which is run through in a cycle in periods of thirteen days. When the thirteenth day is passed, the count starts at 1 again, but continues with the next marker. So the count goes: 1 horn, 2 root, 3 ox, 4 straw, and so on until 13 steel, followed by 1 death, 2 star and onwards. When you reach the last marker, which you would on 7 sun, you go back to the beginning, and the next day would be 8 horn.

I know, it’s kind of hard to wrap you head around the way I’m explaining it. The point is, you go through 260 days before you reach 1 horn again. Pair this up with the constellation periods above, and you go through 65 years between each time 1 horn falls on the winter solstice – a Great Cycle. So you have dates like 8 toad, 6 spider, which can only refer to one specific day within a 65 year cycle, and if necessary you add on a clarification of time period. I figure each new period is named for the king reigning at its beginning, so you’d have 8 toad, 6 spider, in the Great Cycle of King Whatshisface.

And, yeah, I can convert dates between them, using my aforementioned kludged spreadsheet. To pick a not so random date, I can tell you that the 12th day of the 7th month in the year 9580 in the Iounian Calendar, is equal to 13/6/9787 in the Dark Calendar, and to the 9th of Masks, 9820 in the Sehaninian Calendar, and to 13 steel, 5 ear in the 148th Great Cycle. I can also tell you that it was Ninsday, and that the full moon was six days away.

So there, my calendars. I had intended to segue from this into some stuff about the zodiac and astronomy and astrology in general, but this post is too long already, so that’ll have to wait for a different time.

9 July, 2012

Summer Reading

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Summer is upon us at last, and even in this neck of the woods there have been days that actually look like it. I’ve started my vacation, and am greatly looking forwards to days spent doing nothing but what I feel like. I’m even slowing down my post writing, as the notice on the front page should already have told you about. Unless you’re reading this at some point in the future, of course, in which case, it doesn’t really matter.

Over the past few years, summer has become the time when I get the most reading done. Over the course of the year, I mostly read stuff I need to, and every time I read something just for fun, I feel guilty for not reading something useful instead. No such problem in summer. The only problem then is picking from the smorgasbord of books I have yet to read.

That list keeps on growing, it seems to me. So much gets added to it, and then slips down the list as new and shiny titles catch my eye. On the top of this year’s summer reading list, for example, lies Elantris and Snuff, two very recent purchases. Snuff, of course, is the latest Discworld novel, and I have long been a fan of the works of Terry Pratchett, so I’ve basically been saving this one as a summer treat. Elantris, I have high hopes for. I have enjoyed every other book I’ve read by Brandon Sanderson, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t enjoy this one as well. This will be the first of his I actually read in print, though – all the others I listened to as audiobooks. I wanted to that with this one as well, but couldn’t find a copy for purchase, since I apparently live in the wrong part of the world. I’ll save my annoyance with region restricted audiobooks for a different post, though, and just enjoy Elantris the old fashioned way.

To offset the new and shiny factor, I also grabbed a book that has been waiting on the shelves for a while, when I vacated my Bergen room for the summer. I have a tiny ambition of being versed in pre-Tolkien fantasy, so The Worm Ouroboros seems a good place to start. I’ve actually read a few pages of this already, and wow, this is heavy on the “high” in “high fantasy”. Lofty language and archaic word forms mixed with fairy tale epic. Seems like fun.

Even though I couldn’t get Elantris, I still have a fair few audiobooks lines up as well. Related to my previously mentioned tiny ambition, I have  A Princess of Mars, and its first sequel stored in the iTunes library. In a recent sale, I also grabbed Lucifer’s Hammer and Gulliver’s Travels. I know very little of the first book, but the blurb seemed interesting enough to get it; the second I know through its many adaptations, but I have never read the original myself. Finally, in the audiobook category, there is Out of Oz, the conclusion of the series Gregory Maguire started with Wicked. I loved Wicked, but found myself less impressed by the first two sequels. I started a re-listen of the whole series to refresh my memory before starting on this one, but stranded half-way through Son of a Witch, lacking the interest to complete it. Even so, I want to see the end of the series, so I guess I’ll just skip straight to it and hope my memory catches up.

That’s all the books I have lines up for the summer so far, but there’s no shortage of titles on the big unread list, so maybe I’ll manage to fit in a few more. Maybe I’ll even manage to type up some thoughts as I finish them. What’s on your summer reading list? Happy summer, and happy reading.

 

2 July, 2012

Interiors, with a Smattering of Hagiography

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

To finish up my primer on St. John’s Church in Bergen, here is a bit about the interior of the church. I ought to rework these posts into an informative pamphlet after this!

Let’s tick these off one by one, starting with the lights.

Chandelier

When it was built, the church was outfitted with a very modern gaslight system. The gaslight fixtures are still all in place – you can see some of the pipes crossing the ceiling in this picture – but they have of course been retrofitted for electricity. Keeping the old fixtures helps preserve the period feel of the room.

Baptismal fontPulpit

Moving on to something a bit more decorative, have a look at the font, pictured over there on the left. It is carved from a block of stone, in the same neo-Gothic style as the rest of the church. Some sources say that it is carved from sandstone, others say soapstone. I don’t know anywhere near enough about stone myself to tell which is correct, but the soapstone explanation seems to be slightly more common in the material I have read. It was carved by the sculptor Wilhelm von Hanno. It is a beautiful font. Unfortunately it is slightly broken – a couple of the columns have been broken off – though the damage isn’t visible on my photo. When it is in use, a silver dish is placed in its bowl to hold the water.

The pulpit of the church is a gorgeous piece of construction. It is made of oak, and carved and gilded for decoration, still in neo-Gothic style. The antependium on the pulpit is the only piece of liturgical colour in the church. The overhang makes the pulpit appear almost like a little church within the church.

St. Sunniva of Selja

St John the Evangelist

At the entrance to the quire there are two statues hanging on the wall, one on either side. These are both replicas of statues from Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, the only monumental cathedral we have in Norway. On the right hand side, right next to the pulpit, there is a statue of St. John the Evangelist. You might think that this would be a heavy weighing argument in the debate on who the church is named for, but these statues are a fairly recent addition to the church. If this statue reflects anything, it is the views of the parish priest who ordered it, not the intentions of the parish founders. Nevertheless, though, it gives the Evangelist a tangible presence in the church, something the Baptist lacks. If you compare the statue with the original from Nidaros, you’ll see that some changes have been made. The original is depicted holding a book, sensible for an Evangelist, while the statue in St. John’s is shown holding a cup. I do not know why this change was made, but the cup is also a symbol associated with John the Evangelist in art, and the change could perhaps be nothing more than a result of the tastes of the priest who commissioned the statue.

Opposite St. John, on the left side of the quire, there is a statue of St. Sunniva, the patron saint of Western Norway. According to her legend, she was an Irish princess, who fled her heathen husband by setting herself adrift on the sea. She came ashore at the Norwegian island of Selja, and lived there for a bit before heathen Vikings came to root her out. She and her followers hid in a cave, and were miraculously saved from the heathens by a rock slide which sealed the cave, burying Sunniva and her followers and preventing them from falling into Viking hands. As miracles go, this one has always struck me as getting the short end of the stick, but when the cave was opened many years, Sunniva’s body was supposedly found intact, and she was proclaimed a saint. The statue holds a rock, one of the rocks that killed-slash-saved her. This statue has also been altered slightly compared to the original, but the differences are minor in this case.

Finally, there is the altarpiece.

Altarpiece

The altarpiece, like the pulpit, is carved oak, with red and gold decorations. The central painting is flanked by statues of Moses and Aaron. Or at least I’ve been told it’s Aaron. It seems a funny choice to me. I mean, it’s a man with a stick in a toga, it could be anyone. Aaron is so rarely depicted in art that he doesn’t really have any distinguishing symbols associated with him, unlike Moses with his tablets. Personally, I would have gone with a New Testament figure, probably Paul, for symmetry. Moses on the left hand pointing ahead, Paul on the right pointing back, with the painting of Jesus in the middle, that sort of thing. Anyway, official word is Aaron, just to go with Moses, I suppose.

The central painting, “Christ in Prayer”, is by Marcus Grønvold, and was painted for the opening of the church in 1894. It illustrates Mark 1:35, which is quoted beneath the painting: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” I have been told this is the only altarpiece in the world to illustrate this particular passage. The painting was stolen in 1981, cut out of its frame. The thief turned out to be mentally disturbed; he kept the painting rolled up with him in bed. It was heavily damaged, but it was successfully restored and is back in its proper place.

And that’s it. I think I’ve unloaded all the main bits of knowledge I have been bursting to spew at the tourists. Now I can face their disinterested masks for another week.

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