Monday, January 31, 2005

Dreaming the Hound by Manda Scott

Review by Alastair Mabbot

The Herald: The third entry in Manda Scott's series about the British warrior queen Boudica, Dreaming the Hound sets the stage for the climactic revolt of the Iceni people against the powers of the Roman Empire.

"At the point we join the story, in AD 57, Scott's Amazonian heroine, Breaca, isn't playing the role of the victorious Boudica. She wears the black feathers of the vengeance hunter in her hair rather than the braids of a warrior, and has cut herself off from her tribe, the Eceni, to wage a lone guerrilla war against the Romans.

Scott's characters lead busy lives and have complex relationships. Half-brothers, former lovers, stepchildren, adversaries and allies are scattered across the landscape, so picking up the threads is daunting. Is it surprising that Dreaming The Hound should turn out to be less than the page-turner promised by the blurbs? In the early stages, at any point where the narrative risks getting bogged down, Scott allows it to do so. Her focus on her characters' inner lives all too often forces the liberation of the British tribes to take a back seat to their various spiritual quests, as they consider the will of the gods deeply and talk to each other in a formalised courtly monotone.

But, although the dialogue doesn't get any more exciting, the action does. In the final third, it gathers pace, leading to a climax which sets the scene for the last installment. The author comes into her own in the closing stretch, generating an atmosphere of tension and horror that is almost enough to make up for the perseverance it's taken to ge there."

The First Fossil Hunters Those ancients weren't dumb: "The Greeks and Romans encountered fossils for themselves and their texts 'contain some of the world's oldest written descriptions of fossil finds, many of them first hand. Writers like Herodotus, Pausanias and Aelian tell us what they and their contemporaries thought, said, and did when they came upon bones of startling magnitude.' (p. 52)

This knowledge led the Romans to something approaching a theory of evolution. Lucretius, writing in the 1st century BC, wrote the nature produced "many monsters of manifold forms" and "bigger animals" in ages past, but these gradually died out when they could not find food or reproduce. "everything is transformed by nature and forced into new paths. One thing dwindles ... another waxes strong." (p. 216)"

Friday, January 07, 2005

Alexander faces the problems of "globalization" in Pressfield's "Virtues of War"

Right now I am listening to Steven Pressfield's "Virtues of War" and he mentioned something in yesterday's session that I had not considered. I had read in a number of sources that the Macedonians bitterly resented the incorporation of Persian units into Alexander's expeditionary force but Pressfield points out that the most politically damaging policy Alexander adopted was the appointment of Persian commanders' sons to his corps of personal pages. The number of pages was apparently fixed and the appointment of Persian youths meant that existing pages from Macedonian royalty had to be dismissed. This was seen as an afront to a number of Macedonian noble familes back home as well as by the youth's relatives already serving in the corps. Furthermore, the Macedonian pages aligned themselves with older officers and commanders who acted as mentors and champions (and possibly lovers). However, these officers would have nothing to do with the Persian boys which resulted in a deficit in their training.

In today's session, Pressfield has Alexander explaining his exasperation with the guerilla warfare he was forced to contend with in what is now Afghanistan. He explains that he broke up the corps into smaller independent fighting units that essentially were sent out on "search and destroy" missions. He found this type of warfare not only demoralizing but devastating to the army's overall unity. The smaller fighting units began thinking of themselves as men of their individual unit commander rather than as part of the overall expeditionary force with loyalty to Alexander. This sounds very much like the problems that developed in the late Roman Republic after Marius' reforms when legions looked to their commanders instead of the senate and people of Rome as the focus of their loyalty and career advancement.