The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

the wakegraetings raeder, this bocc was a thryll, i saes to thu, a triewe thryll.

This is the story of our hero, buccmaster of holland, a man displaced in the year 1066 by the arrival of kyng geeyome and his french cronies, and buccmaster’s travels across an England all aflame.

It is fantastic. It succeeds on three different, but entwined levels:

1. The language

Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes — all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. To put 21st century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.

Kingsnorth has created a hodgepodge language (a ‘shadow tongue’) of old english, modern english, and hybrid-y made-up words. It’s not as difficult as it sounds; most words can be simply sounded out (folc = folk, blaec = black, wifeman = woman) and are clear by context. Others took me a while to puzzle out (sawol = soul, deoful = devil) and there’s a few words like esol and ingenga that are just old or made up words but near-immediately clear from context as to what they mean.

I know some readers despise having to learn a dialect, espousing the notion that good writing conducts these qualities without linguistic hijinx. And that an activity used for entertainment should not require work. I couldn’t disagree with this notion more. As Kingswolf articulates in the quote above — you cannot truly understand a people until you delve closely into the way they think, which exists within the sphere of their language. It’s also why no matter how great a translation from one language to a next is, it will still always be imperfect.

2. Our hero

i is buccmaster of holland i is a socman a man of the wapentac i has three oxgangs and this is my werod. this is my werod and this is my sweord and those wolde leaf with this fuccan preost go now go north go to sec thy earols and beorn lic the landwaster did in northern fyr

buccmaster of holland, a socman of three oxgangs, is a goddamn asshole. He’s a petty, violent, coward obsessed with his own greatness. He thinks he’s the only real englishman left in England. Literally the only positive quality he sees in other people is obeisance to him. He has the voices of ‘eald anglisc gods’ in his head, which are actually originally the norse gods, telling him he’s weak and urging him to fight  (making this the 2nd historical fiction book I’ve read featuring a mad englishman with a voice in his head in as many months).

And you spend the entire novel intimate with this scoundrel, amidst the muddled and contradictory fear and hate that make up his thought processes. It’s litany of 11th century hate, for everything — foreigners, his countrymen, his family, society, religion, the young, the old. Yet despite that you could easily see the same type of man reflected in a present day ultra-conservative pining for days bygone, thinking themselves the only real American (insert your country), lamenting giving women any rights or utterly opposed to any change whatsoever.

And he’s one of the best written protagonists I’ve followed in years. I can hear the fucker muttering his greatness in my sleep. Even after he does something bafflingly cruel and brutal, I can’t help but chuckle when he again uses as his justification the fact that he’s a a triewe anglisc man, buccmaster of holland, a socman of three oxgangs. He’s just so bitter, so full of rage. And also pathetic and devoid of self awareness. His wife and sons are murdered and he whines about the inconvenience to him.

3. The history

Laughably, the blurb for this book states:

Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next…

I guess ‘everyone’ in this context means some englishpeople and historians. Real quick primer: The french rapidly conquered England, and burned, raped, and siphoned the wealth of the good people across England. But in this era of history, England was massively decentralized and underpopulated. The numbers were very small. So a few men escaping the sack of their village (a ‘ham’ of a handful of houses) could hide in the fen or forest, a place the foreign-born french could not pursue them and pick off the invaders in guerilla combat.

It was less a war than pure colonization. The french despised the english and had no problem quashing their customs and ways.The modern english we know today are a combo of french and english from the time. The old gods were already on their way out in favor of ‘the hwit crist’, but the french greatly accelerated the Christianizing of England. Hereditary monarchy and land ownership transmitting through first born sons are old french constructs, not english. Following the events of The Wake, there was not another king who spoke english as a first language for a good 250 years! Contrary to the book blurb’s ‘everyone…’, I knew nothing about this era of history and found it fascinating. I would have guessed old english gods were celtic, not norse.

we is men of the hidden places of our own places and our worc is to stand for the lands we cnawan and cum from to cepe our folc free. and when there is enough of us angland will not be ham for no ingenga and none will stand to be here for none can lif if the treows the ground the hylls them selfs is waepened agan all comers

(buccmaster was wrong)

Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014, Bioware)


This is a short review for a very long game.

I spent approximately one hundred hours playing this game — exploring fen and mountain, slaying (endangered) dragons, talking to the members of my inner circle, reading backstory text logs, tweaking my party’s gear and abilities, trying to stop demons from pouring into the physical world — an amount of time I rarely come anywhere near in single player games.

I look back at all those hours now and I can barely explain what had me so enthralled. DAI subscribes to the Ubisoft/Assassin Creed gameplay trend of making everything a collectible or completionist checklist. A fair portion of my time spent was collecting magical shards, claiming landmarks for the inquisition, collecting random items for towns/countryfolk for minimal reward. In a word: busywork.

The plot does not bear up under scrutiny. The pacing is really awkward. You’re consistently foiling the one-dimensional villain and the ‘final’ battle is just putting him out of his misery, not stopping any pressing threat. The dialogue is undeniably goofy, often. The game tries to make single deaths a big deal — there’s plot beats based on revealing my buddies have murder in their past. Yet, this happened after I got an achievement for “kill 2500 enemies”, probably half of which were human bandits and soldiers. If you took all these story elements together and put them into a novel, I wouldn’t read it unless you paid me.

The combat and mechanics are fun but feature a major lack of balance. The designers tried to eliminate an antiquated mode of RPG combat — dedicated healers to reverse damage done by the player’s enemies. But in doing so, they just put more emphasis on a different antiquated RPG mechanic: the ‘tank’, or warrior who must soak up all the damage and keep enemies off the rest of the more fragile party members. Even on the hardest difficulty, fighting the hardest enemy (dragons), my whole group would die except my unkillable warrior who would slowly whittle down the dragon to death.

The game was also supremely buggy and forced me to reload several times; I missed one plot point because the major character involved disappeared and the game would show a blank wall and silence when she was supposed to be speaking.

And yet, no matter how nitpicky or damning I can write about this game, I enjoyed my time immensely. I was entranced. I thought about it at work when I wasn’t playing it.

I don’t know. Video games are weird.

Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko

almanacThere was not, and there never had been, a legal government by Europeans anywhere in the Americas. Not by any definition, not even by the Europeans’ own definitions and laws. Because no legal government could be established on stolen land. Because stolen land never had clear title.

Leslie Marmon Silko is pissed. Five hundred years of outrage. The colonization of the Americas goes beyond mere colonialism into the whites’ insatiable thirst for more and more resources, clawing the earth apart in search of more riches to deplete. The spirits are pissed too. At the destructive whites and at the native people who do not honor them*. Ten thousands years of Native American ancestors ready to unleash their sorrow and anguish in terms of droughts, tsunamis, hurricanes, you name it.

Which brings me to the plot. There’s a war coming. The details are hazy, and its many tellings are varied and contradictory, but the thrust of all prophecies is clear: at some undetermined point in the future, all the white people in the Americas will be swept away and its native peoples will reclaim the land.

Note: The book is like 800 pages and the war never happens.

This is a story of vignettes, of interlocking stories and characters. A coked out young mother searching for her child, twin Indian sisters (one a talk show personality who can find missing people, but only if they are dead; the other subtly declaring war on the US government in part by stockpiling an enormous amount of guns), an old, contemplative border smuggler gone soft, a mobster with a cadre of assassins and his real estate tycoon wife building water-strewn Venice in Arizona, a Native man refusing his past and obsessed with bulletproof vests, another man kicked out of his tribal lands after inadvertently allowing a Hollywood crew to film his peoples’ sacred stone snake…

The story of a character will unfold, we’ll get in their head and see their story, and then after a few sub-chapters, the story will swap to a different character the first one knew, then afterwards, another character that that character knew, and so on, deeper and deeper until the chain starts again. All lives are entwined, mostly in Tucson, Arizona and south of the border, but the story crisscrosses all over the US. They are marginalized peoples. Mexican and Native Americans. Black power vets looking to South African independence as guidance. The white people have some outsider qualities — brain damaged as a youth or a Vietnam war vet or a woman…

The characters are largely reprehensible, but some are much worse than others and the book slides into dangerous group-identity territory with its cadre of women-hating, gay sadists. (The only vaguely emphatic gay character kills himself.) There’s detailed descriptions of snuff films, of bestiality, of child abuse. With the length of the novel, this can get a little tiring; you’ll probably feel a little worn out. The extreme weight of all these terrible people gets heavy, maybe backbreaking for some.

I eat these kind of books up, when the characters are written well and engaging; everything from Game of Thrones to Catch 22. I love a fat, complex, multifaceted story. At times, Almanac reminds me of narratives like Pulp Fiction or Infinite Jest, but being written in 1991, it predates both. The style reminds me of Joan Didion. Not just because one of the main characters is a Californian white woman, with abortion in her past and lost child drama in her present, spinning out of control. Sentences are typically short and complete. There is repetition. Angles will change mid paragraph. It’s smooth and palatable and difficult content aside, it’s easy to get lost in.


*”The spirits allow you no rest. The spirits say die fighting the invaders or die drunk.”

Used Bookstores of Hawaii

Pictured left: Makalawena Beach in Kona, Big Island, Hawaii. Requires a drive in a (rental) car down a roughshod road cut through a lava field and subsequent 20 minute hike through lava field. Just ‘secret’ and adventurous enough to stay relatively uncrowded and foster a comradely wink among attendees. Pictured right: the pile of books we purchased on Big Island

I have become a connoisseur of city used-bookstores. Or, if ‘connoisseur’ denotes a level expertise I don’t actually possess — call me a wide-eyed explorer, an amateur archaeologist, an enthusiast. Big city standbys like Powell’s in Portland, OR, a veritable castle of books. Or small city eccentricities, like the naval/seafaring collection of a bookstore on the island of Alameda, CA. I wasn’t always this way. I grew up in the suburbs and naturally a bookstore was the massive Barnes and Noble or Borders (R.I.P.) in the nearest giant mall. 3 floors of glossy bestsellers, new releases, and tables piled with gift suggestions that nowadays I only see every holiday season when I am back home on the east coast and need to buy several family members Christmas presents.

Also, when I was a child, vacations were synonymous with book purchases. I’d whine incessantly until my parents brought me to a bookstore (they’d give in only because it was a special occasion, like a birthday or holiday). Then I’d spend most of the time away, usually camping in New Hampshire or Maine, reading hundreds or thousands of pages. It’s weird to think now that what prevented me from reading then was not time to read but availability of new books.

These two factors tie adult vacations closely with buying books. I was disappointed the first time I went bookstore hunting in Hawaii. Kauai, despite all its other very high qualities, has one lame bookstore and I only bought a book because I felt I had to. It was Life of Pi and I didn’t even like it. So I was wary on my return trip, this time to Big Island (a birthday present from my amazing wife).

Big Island has used bookstores everywhere. Big ones, small ones, good ones, bad ones, weird ones comprised entirely of beat up mass market editions. It’s a high-use swap culture, judging by how well-used the books are and the fact that there’s several copies of books that just came out that aren’t even in softcover yet; This makes an easy way to get cheap hardcovers of books I wouldn’t have read for years, or possibly forgotten about (in this case, Emily St. John Mandel’s much heralded Station Eleven). We bought most of our books from the sister stores Kona Bay Books and Hilo Bay Books, giant warehouses that look like aircraft hangers, converted to shelf upon shelf of books. The smell upon entry is unmistakable. They’re the kind of store that still have entire sections dedicated to mystery or suspense and have sci-fi sections that are bigger than most normal stores’ fiction sections.

A short list of the types of books only to be unearthed in musty, used book stores:

  • The book you had been planning to buy forever but only just now picked up due to its amazing cover (seen here as the 1981 version of The War of the End of the World. Something between a telenovela and Jesus Christ Superstar)
  • The book that is so ancient and tattered that it’s list price is less than its present-day used book price (My $2 purchase of the originally 35cent The Turn of the Screw)
  • The book you had never heard of by one of your favorite authors (The Cave by Jose Saramago)
  • The book that honestly shouldn’t have been this hard to find (A Void by Georges Perec — seriously been looking for this for months, despite it being his most well known book)

Incidentally I only ever seem to come home with these enormous book caches when I am already in the middle of reading a massive novel (The Almanac of the Dead in this case — it’s really good, but also 800 pages). Thus putting off the choice of choosing which of these gems I can even start.