I finished reading the Ramayana. Or at least I think I did.  What I read was a modern retelling, The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic, by Ramesh Menon. The author explains that previous retellings were “too short” as well as too Shakespearian, while he finds scholarly translations lacking “poetry and mystery”, and even more archaic in language. Besides, who has really read Rāmāyaṇam except those who have plowed through its 24,000 verses in Sanskrit?

(By the way, you might like to know that the accept goes on the antepenult: ra-MA-ya-na. Same rule as Latin, actually: two final short vowels in CV syllables are unstressed.)

Ravana and Rama

The story, for an epic, is simple enough.  Ravana, the king of the rakshasas (the race of demons or perhaps daemons), makes a tapasya— a period of penance and self-mortification.  He has ten heads; after each thousand years of tapasya, he cuts off another head and throws it in the sacrificial fire.  At the end of ten thousand years, he prepares to cut off his last head. Shiva appears and grants him a boon. He asks for strength above all creatures.  (He also gets his nine heads back.)  Unsatisfied, he sits for another tapasya, this time to Brahma, the Creator.  When Brahma appears, he asks for the boon that no god may kill him, no rakshasa, no asura or daitya or gandharva or any other divine or demonic being. This granted, he goes off to conquer the three worlds– earth, heaven, and hell.

(If you’re a conworlder, pause to admire that opener.  Would you have created an origin story like that for your Big Bad? Where he takes a perfectly valid spiritual path to get his superpowers?)

He has made only one mistake: thinking them beneath him, he omitted to ask for protection from humans.  Or monkeys, for that matter.

Eventually Ravana’s crimes (what are they?  we’ll get back to this) become too much, and the gods petition Vishnu for relief.  He agrees to incarnate as a human being, one who will eventually slay Ravana.  His avatar will be Rama, son of king Dasaratha of Ayodhya.

The overall bones of the story are already in place, but some more complications are needed. Rama must go on a few missions to get out of the palace and level up. He meets Sita, daughter of the king of Mithila.  As Rama is the perfect man, she is the perfect woman, and an avatar of Lakshmi.  They are married right away.

The king has three wives, and one of them is tempted by her evil servant to ask for a boon.  This is to send Rama into exile for fourteen years and make her own son Bharata crown prince. She had saved Dasaratha’s life once, so he has to fulfill her wish; Rama, being perfect, acquiesces gracefully.  He takes Sita and his brother Lakshmana, goes into the jungle, and lives like a rishi, a holy man– wearing barkskin clothes and dreadlocks, hunting to support themselves.

Even this is too much bliss for a heroic character, and after Rama gets into an altercation with a colony of 14,000 rakshasas and kills them all, Ravana takes notice– and kidnaps Sita.  Oh, now it’s on, ten-head dude.

So how is it?

Initial reaction: those ancient Indians knew how to epic.  If you like big fantasy epics you’ll probably dig it. In fact it’ll probably satisfy your fantasy hunger better than (say) the Morte Darthur, or the Iliad. Bronze age or medieval warfare, after all, is just humans of similar powers and mentalities killing each other.  In the Ramayana you get different species, magical powers, and excursions into spirituality and romance.

If you’re used to fantasy, you probably crave unusual worlds, but may balk at unusual narrative conventions. A traditional epic was normally told to people who already knew the story, so there is no attempt to hide how it ends. It’s also a religious story, and there’s little of the modern interest in finding the sins of the good and the charms of the evil. For that matter Menon is quite happy to tell you, and often, that Rama is good and Ravana is evil.

I’d also say that Menon hits a sweet spot of modern but not slangy English. Epics shouldn’t sound dusty.

I did see one review that mused that Menon might have tried too hard to Westernize the source materials. Maybe it seems that way if you’ve chewed on the original, or on more scholarly translations, but for the rest of us, Menon’s version is plenty non-Western. The one criticism I’d have, in fact, is that he is a little too devoted to Sanskrit terms.  I understand the impulse– Sanskrit is beautiful, and mistranslation or poor translation can be heartbreaking.  But I don’t know that it adds that much to have Sanskrit terms that are simply glossed “weapon” or “lake” or “trident”.

(I do have to say that Book Six goes on for a long, long time. It’s the final battle, and it takes over a hundred pages.  Every single one of Ravana’s family and commanders has to go up against Rama and his army. If you like superhero comics or movies, it’s basically that. But I tire of superhero comics, too.)

Good and evil

In some ways Ravana is the prototype of an evil overlord. But in many ways he’s not.

You expect Sauron’s lair to be hard iron and rock, all midnight black and lava red. Ravana has a city, which is… preternaturally beautiful. It’s rich and lovely, and full of happy rakshasas.  Ravana knows his Vedic lore, and he has his own rakshasa brahmins.  He’s described as regal and magnificent, and he certainly has the unforced loyalty of his family, his commanders, and his army. We’re even told that many of the women in his harem submit to him quite happily, sighing only that his visits are so infrequent.

So what is his crime?  Well, he’s a warmonger, of course, going so far as to attack and defeat Indra in heaven, and Yama, Death himself, in hell. This is hardly a sin, however– conquering people is pretty much how an emperor is expected to behave.

Rakshasas do have a nasty habit of eating rishis. They like interfering with the rishis’ sacrifices and meditation, and even more than that they like eating animal and human flesh. That’s pretty bad, but you could also say it’s their role in the ecosphere.  Rather like Greek polytheism, Hindu cosmology comes across as ethically neutral.  Gods can sin; demons may be wise kings or scholars; the great trinity will grant boons to anyone who can muster a tapasya. And they’re all related anyway. (Ravana is the great-grandson of Brahma.)

Ravana’s big failing, it turns out, is women– of many species.  To be blunt, he’s a rapist.  Though by the time he meets Sita, this has already bitten him where it hurts: one of the husbands he’d wronged curses him, and this is a world where curses hurt: if he rapes another woman his heads, all ten of them, will explode.  So when he kidnaps Sita he doesn’t try to force himself on her; he merely tries every variation of threat and cajoling for months on end. His wiser councilors tell him, not to ease up on the rishi-munching, but to return Sita and apologize to Rama. But he’s fallen in love with her and is willing to fight to the end.

To clarify, as a religion of course Hinduism is very pro-virtue (dharma). Humans are supposed to be virtuous.  And gods are too… when they do sin, they have to do penance or suffer.

The problem of Sita

For a modern reader, the most disturbing aspect of the story are instances where, after Ravana has been defeated, Rama makes a big deal of Sita spending so many months with Ravana, and being tainted.  The text is quite clear that Sita is entirely innocent.  In both cases Rama claims that he never doubted her, but has to be severe in order to put other people’s doubts to rest. And I’m sorry, avatar of  Vishnu or not, that is a dick move.

One of the instances is in the 7th kanda or book of the poem, and supposedly there are doubts that it was original. (The story really ends with book 6; the 7th is largely a prequel, telling the story of how Ravana got to rule the three worlds, and includes a few stories of what happened during Rama’s 10,000-year kingship.)  The other instance may be an interpolation as well… or the fact that people say so seems to indicate that disquiet over the treatment of Sita isn’t new.

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is a response to Sita’s mistreatment, and a lot of fun in itself.


One of the more enchanting bits of the Ramayana is the nature of Rama’s army: besides his brother, it’s all monkeys.  (His brother Bharata is ruling back in Ayodhya, and it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to send a human army.)  Rama makes the acquaintance of Hanuman, a vanara or intelligent magical monkey, and he leads him to the king of the monkeys. They turn out to be a pretty good set of allies, and as they remind Ravana, he forgot to ask Brahma to protect him against monkeys, too.

This raises the question of whether Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King of Journey to the West, is based on Hanuman or on any of the other vanaras. They both have transformation powers, they both help achieve a spiritual mission, they both have magical leaps, they both combine heroism with a little mischief, they both were more arrogant in their youth.  Buddhists don’t directly read the Ramayana, but versions of the story are popular in Buddhist areas, and the Monkey King probably owes a large debt to Rama’s helper.

More speculatively, I wonder if the avatar idea influenced Christianity. The Ramayana was written no later than about 300 BC, at a time when Hellenic kingdoms bridged the gap from the Mediterranean to the Indus. That gods could take a temporary human form was of course no great imaginative leap, but the Hindu idea was of a god living an entire human life, fully human and not always conscious of his divinity. It seems like a strange idea to have occurred to strict Jewish monotheists, of all peoples.

I also wonder if JRR Tolkien ever read some version of the Ramayana. The idea of multiple sentient races, some close to God, some near-demonic, was not commonplace in fantasy before him, and there it is in the Ramayana. The general atmosphere– an evil lord far to the south, kings in exile, valued and powerful gurus, numinous elder races, key actions by eagles, various ages of the world each declining from the last, all remind me of LOTR. I’m reminded that C.S. Lewis’s brother in his childhood was fascinated by India– it doesn’t seem like a huge stretch that a British writer in the time of the empire might have heard some of these stories.

Finally, if you’re an AD&D player of my generation, you will remember rakshasas from the very fine illustration of a tiger rakshasa in the Monster Manual. They are a little underpowered, and I don’t know where they got the tiger bit.









What’s your opinion of [Gregory Mankiw’s] response to Piketty?


It’s very weak; it seems like he hasn’t read the book. Even skimming the diagrams would have helped.

First, he says “r < g could be [a problem]. If the rate of return is less than the growth rate, the economy has accumulated an excessive amount of capital. In this dynamically inefficient situation, all generations can be made better off by reducing the economy’s saving rate…we should be reassured that we live in a world in which r > g…” Yet Piketty shows that r < g was true in our world, in the postwar period— precisely the period when there was not an excess of capital; capital was at a historical low. And they were golden years, precisely because r (growth) was so high and so widely shared. (Sadly, one of Piketty’s lessons is that they were also a fluke, not easily repeated.)

Mankiw notes in passing that “the average growth rate of the U.S. economy has been about 3 percent”. Ugh, no. Krugman recently provided a chart of the last 57 years:


The average growth is more like 2%— and it’s plummeted in the last few years. Rates over 2% are generally due to high population growth or developmental catching-up; developed nations will be lucky to get 1 to 1.5% in the next century.

Next, he says that a rich person faces three obstacles to passing on his wealth:

  1. he consumes a good deal of his income
  2. his wealth is divided among his descendants
  3. governments tax estates

I don’t have Piketty at hand, but I’m pretty sure he covers all three points.

  1. He shows that capital is dramatically increasing, going back to 19th century levels and showing no signs of stopping.  So consumption does not reduce the accumulation of capital.
  2. Mankiw actually assumes that “the number of descendants doubles every generation”. Seriously, does he not remember that in developed nations population growth is negative?  Or that to have a family you have to have a couple, and thus 2 children do not double the number of wealth-holders but only maintain it? To make an error this gross is a sign of flailing desperately to avoid unwanted truths.
  3. Is Mankiw really unaware that his party is in favor of reducing or eliminating the estate tax?

He proceeds to argue against Piketty’s capital tax, again ignoring that we already have capital taxes (we call them property taxes), as well as Piketty’s argument that an enormous virtue of a tax on wealth would be making wealth visible. Mankiw is pretty sure that great capital is fine, but we can hardly know for sure since capital is so easy to hide.  Before Piketty’s research people mostly focused on income because we actually have data there. Without Piketty would it have been widely realized that there is no country where capital, as opposed to income, is widely distributed in society?  The Nordic countries come close to a fair distribution of income, but they are still highly unequal in the distribution of capital.

Finally he moves on to some moral arguments.  He says “Piketty writes about such inequality as if we all innately share his personal distaste for it.” And at least Mankiw is up front about being in favor of inequality!  He certainly doesn’t have to share Piketty’s morals. But the same can be said for the rest of us about Mankiw’s morals!  Mankiw writes about inequality as if we all innately share his personal enjoyment of it.

He doesn’t see anything wrong with the present state of plutocracy, but, well, he’s certainly in the 10% who gains enormously from it. For the 90% of Americans who don’t, we’ve been watching for 35 years as the gains of productivity no longer lift us up, but go only to the 10%.  Morally, he’s just wrong: it’s immoral to make the lives of the majority of the population crappier.  And intellectually, he’s ignoring Piketty’s carefully accumulated evidence that the situation is getting worse.  Is there really never a point where the rich have accumulated so much that it’s slightly bothersome to Mankiw?

And pragmatically, he’s a shortsighted fool.  Short-changing 90% of the population works only so long as the 10% have a really good story to fool the majority with. Maybe in 2014, when he wrote the paper, he could be satisfied that the Republican con was working.  Surely it’s a little harder to think so in 2016. A huge swath of Republican and Democratic voters are rejecting establishment answers— Trump and Sanders both speak to the people who feel they’ve been left behind by the 10%.  Is Mankiw happy with either a populist-nationalist or a socialist reformation?  And if inequality continues to rise, does he think the popular response won’t get far worse?



If you’re under, oh, 40 or 50, Roz Chast’s graphic novel will seem like a story from an alternative dimension… like a love story looks when you’re nine.  But this will all happen to you, pal.

It’s about the last years of Chast’s parents, and having lost both of mine in the last three years, I recognized everything.


There’s kind of a secret fraternity of those who have taken care of elderly parents. You watch them tootling through their 80s, a little less vigorous, a little hard of hearing, but still happy and active. Then something happens.  They can do less and less.  They don’t take care of their home as well as they used to. They start getting weak and then positively fragile.  There are emergencies with falls and sudden hospital stays.

Step by step the old relationship reverses, till you are taking care of them. And making decisions nothing has prepared you for: are they insisting on driving when they can’t, do they need help in their home, do they need to move out, is anyone making sure they bathe, what if scammers call them on the phone…

Oh, scammers. One day my sister came to Dad’s house and he wasn’t there. This was extremely disconcerting as he used a walker and simply walking to the kitchen was a big thing for him. He had written a phone number on a piece of paper in the den; I Googled it and found it was a taxi company. We called the company and he had taken a taxi to Walgreens.

Well, he showed up back at the house soon enough, and my sister got the whole story. Someone had called and told him he’d won hundreds of thousands of dollars.  To get it, he just had to send a money card (available at Walgreens) to an address in Nevada, because reasons. They told him not to tell his kids— it should be a surprise!

Fortunately, the clerk at Walgreens was on the ball; he told my Dad it was a scam, and he came home. He was a little embarrassed, though not as much as when he dropped his cranberry juice and one of us had to clean it up.

Point is, you take care of them out of affection and need, yes, and death is horrible and tragic and pathetic, but they’re also exasperating, weird, and sometimes hilarious.

This is all in Chast. I don’t know what you might expect in a memoir about death— it’s occasionally sad or gruesome— but there’s plenty of humor and personal eccentricity. You get to know Chast’s parents, and learn exactly how they drive Roz bats.

When Chast’s cartoons started appearing in the New Yorker, I didn’t like them. They seemed weird and humorless. Eventually I came around. It might have been this cartoon that did it:



Chast has a very dry sense of humor, with an occasional dash of surrealism. Her characters are typically urban, quotidian and a little neurotic, sitting around small living rooms on couches with antimacassars on top… after reading her memoir, I can see her parents and their Brooklyn apartment in her cartoons.

In form, her book is a mixture of comics, text, and a few photos. She’s managed something that many have tried with far less success: moving easily between cartoons and text. The key may be that the text is handwritten, and never too long. Blocks of typesetting are jarring in a comic. At the same time, many comics artists try to keep everything in comics, and that doesn’t work, because six or twenty panels of the same thing are boring.

If you’re young, with no elderly relatives around, I have no idea what the book will be like for you. So check it out to learn what this alternative dimension is like, or come back in ten years…

The people in charge of the Angoulême comics festival were recently completely unable to think of any female cartoonists, so I thought I’d help by contributing a list of more than 200.

If your favorites aren’t there… tell me!  Especially if they’re non-English.  I’m especially weak on manga.

As it happened, I was already reading Deborah Elizabeth Whaley’s Black Women in Sequence, which is about black female cartoonists.  It has a whole chapter about Catwoman, so I had to read it.  (Catwoman has been played on the screen by black actresses twice, going back to 1967, so it’s not surprising she has a special meaning for black comics fans.)

The most interesting chapter is on Jackie Ormes, who had several syndicated strips in black newspapers from the late ’30s till the ’50s.  I would love to see more of her work; it’d be a fascinating glimpse into those times.  What’s striking about her elegant, smart characters is simply that they look human, and sexy, at a time when white cartoonists were producing abominations like the Spirit’s Ebony.

Anyway, Whaley’s theorycrafting doesn’t turn me on much, but the introduction to a bunch of artists is worthwhile.  (I kept wanting to ask what she thought of Jaime Hernandez, or what she might think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new Black Panther…)



My review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century got too long for the blog, so it’s over at the mothership.

I’ve never read any Christopher Priest before, and The Prestige was recommended.  The library didn’t have it, but they had The Islanders, and I figured what the hell.

First, what is it?  It’s sf, of precisely the sort that explains why I use sf instead of ‘science fiction’.  It’s set on another planet, but it could easily pass as mainstream fiction, or magic realism. It reminds me of Borges, and even more of Georges Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi, which tells the story of a Paris apartment story, room by room.

The Islanders calls itself a gazetteer, and in form it purports to be a tourist’s guidebook to the Dream Archipelago, a worldwide array of thousands of islands on another planet— though honestly it’s all so British that we’d might as well call it an alternative Earth.  The planet also has two large polar continents.  One, Nordmaieure, consists of “quarrelsome nation states” engaged in a perpetual war, which in eminently civilized fashion is actually fought in the uninhabited southern continent, Sudmaieure.  The archipelago is neutral, though to get to the battlegrounds troops have to pass through it, so it is hardly unaffected by the war.

The book is arranged alphabetically, from Aay to Yannet, giving descriptions of geography and local attractions, and a listing of what currencies are accepted. It’s soon evident that this is merely a pseudo-pedantic scaffolding for telling stories about the Islands and Islanders: love stories, a murder mystery, meditations on art, some incursions into horror. The gazetteer style is frequently abandoned in favor of news reporting, court reports, memoirs, or third-person stories.

The “Introductory” by an Islander notable, Chaster Kammeston, provides a fair appraisal and fair warning: “It is a typical island enterprise: it is incomplete, a bit muddled, and it wants to be liked.” And in fact I found it extremely readable. I finished it quickly and found none of it boring.

There are standalone stories, such as one of the horror ones, classified under the island Seevl. The manner is Lovecraftian: the story starts out as something of a love story, narrated by a man named Torm, and takes its time to get to the mystery of the ruined towers that cluster on Seevl.

But many of the stories are interconnected, though unreliably. The introducer, Chaster Kammeston, explains that no true map of the archipelago is possible, due to “temporal gradients.”  Later this is explained further: if you circumnavigate an island, you’ll find that landmarks have shifted or disappeared. Getting around can be trying, and people end up in different places than they intend.  My gosh, is there some kind of subtext here?

Mirroring this, the interconnected tales don’t quite cohere. For instance, Kammeston introduces and appraises the book, but a key event in later chapters is his own funeral. One character is described as having lived 250 years ago, and yet she is described as a lover of the artist Dryd Bathurst, who lived long enough to be interviewed by Kammeston, his biographer. Kammeston’s introduction claims that he has never left his native island, but later chapters contradict this.

A key event, narrated multiple times, is the death of a mime named Commis—  killed by a plate of glass which sliced down vertically from the loft of the theater where he was performing. Later we get an account that explains what that plate of glass was for, who left it too loosely attached, and why.  Later yet we learn that one of the suspects went by another name, one that by now we know.

In some unreliable narrator stories, the idea is to piece together the real truth behind the conflicting claims. Not here, I believe.  An in-world explanation is half-suggested: perhaps the indeterminacy which afflicts the physical world of the Archipelago affects the people too.  You return to a man or woman and they’re not the same person as before.  It’s hard to believe that the introduction from Kammeston refers to the same text we’re reading, and not just because of the funeral.  Or, probably more likely, Priest is just spitting on the notion of objectivity, as is common in mainstream lit. Real life is muddled, though it’s still rare (I think) for sf narratives to be also.

As conworlding, it’s brilliant and slapdash at the same time. There’s very little attempt to make this world different from Earth— in fact he could probably have set it on Earth making no substantial changes.  There are some sf elements, but little that affects the storytelling. The indeterminacy of the world has great thematic resonance but isn’t really taken seriously.  (E.g. it’s said that no map of the Archipelago is possible, and yet people do things like plot worldwide ocean currents, to say nothing of undertaking wars on the other side of the globe.)   And as mentioned, all the islands seem British, with a side order of Scandinavian.

Yet it has a real sense of local color— you do get a sense of these islands as distinct places, so that this is that rare thing, an sf world which feels like it has more than one culture.  Torm at one point has a neat insight about continents vs. islands:

[On the mainland] I felt instead the lure of distance, of places I could travel to and people I could meet without crossing a sea, and an endlessly unfolding world of certainty. Islands lacked that. Islands gave an underlying sense of circularity, of coast, a limit to what you could achieve or where you might go. You knew where you were but there was invariably a sense that there were other islands, other places to be.

It’s hard not to feel that he’s describing both Britain, and various sub-worlds within Britain. What he describes as the mainland attitude I recognize in Americans. We have regions, but they always feel like secondary things that you can ignore if you choose.


Would you like it? If what you really like could be described as “Larry Niven again”, then probably not.  But it doesn’t have the dry cold feeling of much experimental literature; rather, it’s warm, digressive, and passionately human. I liked it (far more than the Perec, in fact).

(FWIW I spent a couple of hours reading Priest’s blog. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon, with some judgments that seem more personal than reasoned. E.g. he likes Terry Pratchett and dislikes Charlie Stross, which doesn’t seem unconnected with being an old friend of Pratchett’s. He can be pretty amusing when he rips into Martin Amis, and spectacularly condescending when he offers advice to China Miéville. Fortunately this strain of Aggrieved Blogger doesn’t get into his book.)



I’d never read any Connie Willis before. I’m a sucker for time travel stories, so I got into this right away.

I’m going to start with general comments, so you can decide if it sounds interesting and if so, avoid spoilers. There’s a Line of Truth later on where things get heavy.

The setup is simple: in 2054, we have time travel, and the major use seems to be by historians. The book deals with the historians of Oxford, notably James Dunworthy, who’s in charge of research into the 20th century, for Balliol, and Gilchrist, who has the equivalent position for medieval times, at Brasenose. The 20th century faculty has been doing this for awhile, but Medieval is sending back its first historian, an undergrad named Kivrin. Unfortunately Gilchrist is more eager than competent, and the customary precautions have been skipped or half-assed.  But Kivrin at least is well prepared, and really wants to go. So what could go wrong…?

This is paradox-free time travel, courtesy of The Cosmos. If you aim at a particular time and place, you might not get quite there, especially if it’s important historically. Plus you need special equipment and expertise… it becomes important later on that there’s only one time travel machine at Oxford. In effect this means the traveler has to be very very careful to meet at the agreed-on point and time if they want to return.

I have to say that the historians’ methods invite trouble. A simple example: Dunworthy mentions an exploratory jaunt he took to the 20th century. He had to get to Paddington station and take a train to get to the rendezvous point. Only when he arrived, Paddington was closed for some reason. He made it back, but it was close.  When even a simple trip can be so difficult, what about a trip to the Middle Ages?

Kivrin is well tutored on medieval life, inoculated against the prevailing diseases, and carefully dressed in an medieval outfit, but she’s sent with no electronic devices (except a recorder/translator), no weapons, no medicines, no money. It seems pretty irresponsible, especially as she’s aiming for 1320, which was till recently rated a 10 of 10 on the scale of “centuries you really don’t want to go to”. (Gilchrist thinks it really wasn’t that bad, so he re-rated it.) I won’t say this is a flaw in the book, as the irresponsibility of the attempt is thoroughly experienced and explored by the characters.

Worldbuilding besides time travel is minimal… Oxford in 60 years’ time (the book was published in 1992) seems pretty contemporary. Dunworthy seems to be head of Balliol, so there’s a good deal about his other responsibilities, from dealing with helicopter parents to hosting a group of American bell-ringers. A lot of this is at Wodehouse levels… amusing but not exactly in tune with the rest of the book.

Once Kivrin gets to the 14th century, she has to fit into the life of a medieval manor house. This part of the book is a lot of fun. She starts out with severe language problems: her electronic translator can’t handle the local Middle English. Willis gives plenty of samples; I’m happy to report that I figured it out long before the translator does. (Hint: Willis makes heavy use of a typographical trick to obfuscate it.) She gets to know the family and the tiny village it’s staying in. A clever bit is that it’s interacting with the six-year-old daughter that’s key to understanding the language and the family.

Willis is clear that being a female time traveler in 1320 is particularly dangerous. Dunworthy perhaps over-worries this, to the point of exasperating Kivrin.  She and Gilchrist have worked out an angle: she was traveling with retainers, but attacked by ruffians and left alone. Now, this only solves part of the problem (explaining why she’s alone), and doesn’t address allowing her to proceed alone. But I’d say the book finds a good balance between respecting the difficulties a woman would face in the Middle Ages, and respecting her agency as a highly trained modern person.

Did I hint that things go wrong?  Things go wrong.

OK, this is the Line of Truth. The book goes off into grimmer territory, and if you don’t want to know about that, stop here.


Right in chapter 2, we get problems. Badri, the tech in charge of the temporal insertion, gets extremely sick. Without giving too much away, this sickness spreads throughout Oxford and greatly impedes the modern team in keeping track of Kivrin.

Kivrin, not coincidentally, comes down with the same illness, which complicates her first days in the past. She gets better, but perhaps you’re seeing a theme here. Later on a far more serious sickness, an epidemic, comes to the village.

If you’ve read Iain M Banks’s Against a Dark Background, you know how hard an author can treat his characters. Willis is far more brutal. The final chunk of the book is almost cruel, as Willis destroys hope after hope. I’m not sure it was necessary to be quite as thorough as she was, but it’s certainly effective.

A curiosity of Willis’s storytelling is how much time the characters spend trying things that don’t work. In part this is basic narrative: an adventure plot generally consists of a number of attempts that don’t work followed by a final try that does. But most of the attempts are much smaller scale, nearly pointless– e.g. Dunworthy tries to contact an alternative tech, can’t get through on the telephone, has to try later. Kivrin tries various things to ameliorate the epidemic on her end, to little effect. It’s certainly realistic, but it’s unusual for a genre novel.

The one bright spot is Colin, a bright and resourceful twelve-year-old who’s visiting his great-aunt Mary, the chief university doctor. He ends up– spoiler– helping out in the past, and the general air of incompetence doesn’t extend to him; e.g. he’s the only one who thinks to bring a flashlight and a GPS device.

Bottom line: it’s a really good story, the characters are fun on both temporal sides, and it’s also a very grim ride.

(I learn from Wikipedia that there are three further novels, all featuring Dunworthy, but the time travel is to the 19th and 20th centuries instead.)

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