Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review of Ilario: The Lion's Eye by Mary Gentle

We are so often a disappointment to the parents who abandon us.

A male voice interrupted my thoughts, speaking the language of Carthage. 'Papers, freeman—'

The man broke off as I turned to face him, as people sporadically do.

For a moment he stood staring at me in the flaring naphtha lights of the harbour hall.

'—freewoman?' he speculated.

The opening five paragraphs of Mary Gentle's Ilario: The Lion's Eye lay two of the novels central themes squarely on the table: parent-child relationships and the uncertainties of gender identity.  There are many others — political manoeuvring, the nature of history, the ideals of Renaissance art — but these two take us straight to the heart of the book.

Ilario is an alternative history novel set in the same "First History" as the earlier Ash: A Secret History, but about half a century earlier (necessarily earlier, though the reason for that necessity is a massive spoiler for Ash).  This is a version of the 15th century in which much is the same as the history we know, but much very different.  Unlike Ash, though, which includes both SF and fantasy elements, this contains only one or two aspects that set it aside from straight history, if not entirely the history we're familiar with. 

The book's written in first person which, as we quickly discover, is a practical necessity as well as narratively appropriate.  Ilario, a former privileged slave, is a pure hermaphrodite, who not only has the physical aspects of both genders in equal measure but also has a personal identity in which they are equally balanced.  Just imagine writing 663 pages while trying to skirt around the issue of whether the central character should be called he or she.

The illegitimate child of a nobleman's wife and a soldier, Ilario has been the King's Freak to an Iberian kingdom (though not exactly one of the Iberian kingdoms we know) and freed just before the start of the novel.  All s/he (it'll have to do) wants is to be a painter in the new style that's challenging traditional mediaeval art, but life isn't that simple, and s/he unwittingly becomes the centre of a political crisis that envelopes much of the Mediterranean world.

The Mediterranean world of the First History, that is.  Ash began with a Europe that seemed normal enough — just odd hints that all is not quite what it seems — before confronting us with an invasion from the Visigothic kingdom of Carthage, which most certainly doesn't belong in any history we know.  Ilario, as we've seen, opens in Carthage, and quickly introduces us to many other differences in this version of history.  Rome is now a crumbling backwater, and Constantinople is the centre of an Egyptian empire in exile — though still threatened by the Turks.  There's no sign of either an Arabic empire or of Islam at all, while Christianity has a very different form and background, seeming to have been European in origin.

Gentle introduces a number of historical figures into this world, including Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneer of printing, though in many cases they're slightly displaced in time.  For the most part, though, it's populated by exotic figures like Ammianus, King-Caliph of Carthage, or Ty-ameny, Queen of Alexandria-in-Exile.  Not to mention the lost fleet of Zheng He from the strange land of Chin — presumably this history had no Marco Polo to bring back word from the great civilisations of the east.

Like all alternative history, Ilario is to some extent commenting on history as we know it by showing how it could have been different.  Fascinating as this is, the story is fundamentally about the characters, and they're a varied and engaging crowd.  Besides Ilario, the most important are Rekhmire' — the Egyptian eunuch, book-buyer and spy — Ilario's father Honorius and mother Rosamunda, and Rosamunda's husband Videric.  The cast ranges, though, from Honorius's mercenaries (Gentle has always done soldiers well) to the fascinating Queen Ty-ameny.

Not to mention Onorata, the baby Ilario improbably manages to produce.  Although the baby's main contribution to the action is to scream and yell, it's most of all in Ilario's relationship with Onorata that both the gender and parent-child issues come to their head.  Is Ilario the child's mother or father?  S/he feels s/he should be the mother, but only knows how to be the baby's father, and that imperfectly.

On the other hand, just as Ilario has an improbable number of parents (five, counting step and foster) Onorata has "fathers" on all sides, most of whom seem better at it than Ilario.  Ilario has been rejected by his/her mother, who has made a number of attempts to kill the "monster" she's produced, and consequently has no model of parenthood to create a relationship with Onorata — or thinks s/he doesn't, while actually not making a bad job of it.

The other main theme of the novel is the coming of the Renaissance — in the First History, just as in ours — in all its forms.  Ilario's training as an artist focuses on the revolutionary concept of painting what you see, not what you know is there, and this concept informs all aspects of the story, from Ilario's unique gender to the politics.

Especially the politics.  The Renaissance produced not only Leonardo and Erasmus, but also Machiavelli (pictured left), and the realpolitik he described is alive and well in Ilario.  Even the more sympathetic politicians, such as Ty-ameny, are unsentimental and realistic, exploiting the difference between what's actually there and what people "know" to be there.

Ilario isn't for readers who look for breakneck action.  It certainly has action, excitement and terror (the attack of the stone golem, one of the book's few fantasy elements, has all these) but it also has long sections of reflection and discussion: the final five chapters, for instance, are essentially a single conversation.  Personally, most of these passages held me spellbound in their complexity and the ideas they throw out, but probably wouldn't interest all readers.

Occasionally (very occasionally) there's too much of this even for my tastes.  In the final scene, for instance, the gender politics that have been subtly shown and implied throughout become perhaps overstated, though only by a little, though the relationships being explored at the same time certainly prevent any loss of interest.

Mary Gentle's world-making and her philosophical subtexts are among her great strengths, but (as should be the case in fiction) her greatest is her ability to create characters capable of fascinating the reader.  Ilario, in particular, is someone who attracts and exasperates in equal measure: idealistic, reckless, intelligent, conflicted, occasionally clueless, with an explosive temper.  S/he sees everything and everyone in utterly visual terms, as an artist.  Even (especially) at moments of greatest tension, when s/he expresses the tension by defining exactly what colours would be needed to paint the scene.

Gentle has something of a habit of creating odd couples (Valentine and Casaubon, Rochefort and Dariole) and Ilario and Rekhmire' make an excellent addition.  The hermaphrodite and the eunuch, they seem opposites but fit together perfectly.  And at least they have similar tempers.

Ilario: The Lion's Eye isn't quite my favourite Mary Gentle book (that's still the incomparable Rats & Gargoyles) but it's certainly helped maintain her as my favourite living author (formerly jointly with Iain Banks, who alas no longer qualifies).  I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who appreciates wonderful characters, epic sweeps of history and the challenge to think as you read.


Note: The UK paperback edition of this, with the cover shown, is a single-volume edition, but in the US and on Kindle it's published in two volumes as Ilario: The Lion's Eye and Ilario: The Stone Golem.  However, these are in no way separate books, merely a novel published in two parts.  And, if you have the full edition, don't allow yourself to be seduced into buying the "continuation", since you'll have already read it.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Sisters & Cousins & Aunts: Language Families for Fantasy Writers

Last year, I posted Fantasy Languages for Dummies here, where I outlined some of the basic issues to think about when inventing words and names for an imaginary language.  Judging from the number of hits, it seemed to be something that interested a lot of people, and I thought I'd try something a bit more advanced, for those who want a little more out of their fantasy languages.

Most fantasy writers who create a secondary world invent imaginary languages to some extent, even if it's only a handful of names.  Some, of course, stick strictly to real-world languages, but most have something invented.  In many cases, these don't offer any consistent sense of phonology or morphology, but there's usually a hint of it, even if it's only the Burroughs Universal Constant (that, wherever you go in the universe, female names always end in a).

Writers who take a genuine interest in language and naming, though, might put a lot more thought into the matter, creating names that follow similar linguistic forms when they come from the same culture and distinct forms when they don't.  Well and good; but few fantasy writers (unless they happen to be linguistically orientated professors of English from Oxford) seem to consider how their various languages relate to one another.

Languages don't exist in isolation.  Well, OK, some do, like Basque or Burushaski, but they're exceptions.  We'll come to that later.  Most languages, though, are grouped into a hierarchy of families, super-families, super-super-families etc. in structures so similar to biological taxonomy that the same terms are often used, though not consistently.  English, for instance, is a Low German language, belonging to the West Germanic division of the Germanic family, part of the great Indo-European phylum.

What exactly does that mean, though?  Everyone knows that English is essentially a rag-bag language that contains French, Latin, Celtic and Greek, as well as words from almost every part of the world the British Empire ever came into contact with.

There's an easy experiment that can show what the classifications mean.  Well, easy to imagine and explain: not quite so easy to do.  Take an average passage of English (not too scholarly or technical, not too monosyllabic) and list every word in it.  Then look up the origins of those words (a good dictionary would give that) and count how many words derive from each source.

What you're likely to find is that the great majority are either Germanic, whether from Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian, or Latin, whether directly or via French.  There'll be a smattering of Celtic and Greek, together with odd words from further afield.  The balance of Latin and Germanic will probably be roughly even, maybe with more Latin words. 

So why isn't English counted as a Latin language?

Now repeat the experiment, but counting each word each time it occurs, and you'll find a dramatic change, with the vast majority derived directly from Anglo-Saxon.  This is because the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary of English includes the most common words, repeated over and over: the, and, to, for and so on.

This is what linguists mean when they classify a language as belonging to a family, and it's easy enough to see why.  Vocabulary changes all the time in a language.  It's not hard to imagine foreign words for, say, house or table becoming fashionable and eventually replacing the original words, but why would anyone create a different word for the?  These words do change, of course, but very slowly and usually only in ways that can be easily followed.  That makes them a breadcrumb trail back to where the language has come from.

Languages drift apart when two groups of speakers don't often interact.  They borrow different foreign words and coin different words for new concepts, but their pronunciation often diverges quite radically.  Pronunciation is changing all the time.  It's true what the old people say: youngsters don't speak the way we did at their age.  Of course not; and, over the centuries, it can become completely different, till a linguist comes along and explains how it's really all related.

There's a saying I remember hearing long ago: when comparing languages, vowels count for nothing, and consonants for very little.  That's not quite true, but you have to understand how the different letters are formed to understand why one can change into another.  One of the most famous sets of changes is known as Grimm's Law (yes those Grimms — they were primarily linguists) which explains how the Germanic languages differ from other Indo-European groups.  For instance, the English word foot is actually the same word as the Latin equivalent, whose stem is ped (as in pedal).  Under Grimm's Law, p mutates into the related sound f, d into the related sound t, and the vowel just mutates.

It goes further.  During the 1st millennium AD, the Western Germanic dialects divided into High German and Low German (that's not like High Elvish, by the way, just a matter of whether they were spoken on the upper or lower Rhine) and foot in Low German (which includes English and Dutch) became fuss (the vowel's pronounced much the same) in High German, which is modern German.  Similarly, in many cases d again turned into t — door/tur, deer/tier etc.

These might seem small changes but, with large numbers of them going on over thousands of years, together with word replacement, languages that started almost the same can change beyond recognition.  In a context without a strong, centralised political or cultural structure, this will take a form where the language spoken in village A and village B diverge a little, although not too much for them to understand one another.  Similarly, the villagers in B won't have too much trouble understanding the speech in village C, but those in A might struggle a bit.  By the time you reach village Z, there appears very little similarity at all.

If, on the other hand, there's a strong state that needs to issue laws and proclamations that will be understood, or if authors and poets are writing works that are understood to be expressions of the entire culture, standard forms will gradually emerge that become national languages.  These often differ little from the language next door, but their speakers like to think of them as different for political or religious reasons: Dutch/Flemish, Serbian/Croatian, Hindi/Urdu, Malay/Indonesian etc.  Curiously, with English and American, which are almost as distinct as some of those pairs, the political separation seems to have fostered a sense of being a common language, instead.

Many of the world's languages are grouped together into widespread super-families — examples include Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Altaic, Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian and Niger-Congo, along with many smaller families.  In the New World, the old picture of a dozen or so families has been brought down (though with disagreement from many linguists) to three, with the Amerind family covering all of South and Central America, much of the contiguous US and eastern and central Canada.

The temptation is always to try to link up language families into fewer and larger super-families, but that's not always easy.  Indo-European is a relatively straightforward case, and even that produces controversy and disagreement. 

It's a special case for two reasons.  One is that it's a relatively young family.  Although there are different models for its origin, it's probable that it descends from a group of mutually comprehensible dialects spoken between four and five thousand years ago.  The other is that it includes languages (such as Greek, Latin and Sanskrit) that were extensively written more than half that time ago, and some, such as Hittite, that have left written records from when the family was fairly young.  This makes it quite easy to establish what it was that all these languages are descended from and so identify other members of the family.

On the other hand, many language families are significantly older, and their languages have sometimes only been written down for the first time within the last few centuries.  This makes identifying their relationships even more difficult, especially when they're isolated remnants of families that have largely been replaced by a later wave, a process that's still going on, especially in areas of the world that were colonised by Europeans.  Isolated languages like Basque in the Pyrenees, Burushaski in Kashmir, or the so-called Paleo-Siberian languages may not have had any interaction with any "relatives" that might survive for ten thousand years or more.

Some languages are more conservative than others (Lithuanian, for instance, is often taken as the closest we can get to how the original Indo-European language might have been) but ultimately they all change, mutating their sounds and replacing their vocabulary with foreign imports.  There's a point beyond which current techniques just aren't good enough to detect whether two languages are related or not.

Besides, associations can be as important as "descent", as we saw with the huge quantity of imported vocabulary in English.  Sometimes these influences are greater, affecting even the structure and the stable words used by linguists.  For a long time, there was a controversy over whether Vietnamese was a Kadai language, like its neighbour Lao, or an Austroasiatic language, like its neighbour Khmer.  Most linguists have plumped for the latter, but the language is very much a hybrid.

Japanese is an even stranger case.  The jury's still out here over whether it's an Altaic language that arrived via Korea or an Austronesian language that arrived via the Philippines.  It displays elements of both.

So it's unlikely that we'll ever know for sure whether all human languages ultimately derive from the same source, or if they arose independently in many parts of the world.  The human brain appears to be hard-wired for language, so the multiple invention theory is quite plausible.  It's likely to come down to when our ancestors started talking.  Until quite recently (the idea appears in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy) it was believed that language started with a quantum leap in human intellect as recently as 33,000 years ago, at a time when the species was already spread all over the planet, and that would have favoured the multiple origin of language.

Recently, though, both circumstantial evidence of earlier symbolic thought and physical evidence of a speech-enhancing mutation of the larynx have suggested that humans were using language a great deal earlier, probably at a time when they were confined to a relatively small area of Africa.  Although this doesn't prove the single-origin theory, it makes it much more likely.

Then again, maybe they were all taught by Quenya-speaking elves.  It's possible.

So what bearing does any of this have on writing fantasy?  Unless you're going to actually create a whole raft of languages, and then treat your readers to a lecture about them, does it really matter what families they belong to?

Well, yes and no.  It's very much a background aspect, which the reader's unlikely to notice (though it may be far more noticeable if it's ignored or poorly done) but it can contribute to that seamless gloss of reality that the best fantasy worlds somehow achieve.  World-making always reminds me of a swan: seeing it gliding gracefully and effortlessly across the water gives no idea at all of how its legs are going nineteen to the dozen underwater to achieve that impression.

The sounds and elements that make up names can give away subtle relationships between their countries' languages.  Suppose, for instance, several towns in your main country have names ending in -ket — perhaps this is the equivalent of the English element -ton.  Another country (three or four across, perhaps) has a town whose name ends in -gad.  This could suggest the same kind of sound-shift as those described by Grimm's Law, indicating the two countries have related languages, but not closely related.

It can also affect the difficulty characters encounter when learning to speak foreign languages.  It tends to be easier to learn a language if we can latch onto familiar elements and harder if nothing's alike.  I have a scene in an unpublished novel where a character who's good with languages is trying to learn to speak to the people he's staying among.  He comments that it's easier to learn than many, observing that Some of the words seem a bit like Kimdyran.  Like, they say duvin for a cow, and we say tovien.  On the other hand, he tries and totally fails later to learn another, very strange language.  Besides giving an element of his character, it helps to define the relationships between languages, and therefore cultures, within his world.

On the principle that "messy worlds rule", this doesn't have to be too predictable.  In our world, even before languages like English, Spanish and French went global, some language families were extremely far flung — Austronesian, for instance, is spoken all the way from Madagascar to Easter Island, and is mixed up in places with other families.  On the other hand, bordering countries may be linguistically unconnected, such as Hungary, forming a Uralic island in a sea of Indo-European Slavonic languages.

You can perfectly well ignore all this.  Most authors do, I suspect, and often still manage to produce worlds with believable names and cultures.  It can give an extra layer of reality, though, to think about how your languages relate to one another.  And, if you're like me, it's fun.  Which is the main thing, of course.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Happy Birthday, New River

About five minutes' walk from my front door flows a river called the New River.  It looks more like a canal than a river, but it's too narrow for boats — its only sailors are swans, geese and ducks.  In reality, it's not really either a river or a canal, but an aqueduct.  It's not particularly new, either, unless you compare it with the age of most actual rivers.  In fact, it's exactly four hundred years old.

Mostly, I use this blog for discussing fantasy, writing, myth and the kind of history that might figure in fantasy, as well as some reviews.  This time, though, I thought I'd use it to celebrate an old friend's birthday.  I've lived near the New River most of my life, and had other connections with it too, and I know much of its length quite well.

The New River arose from a debate in the later 16th century, while Elizabeth was on the throne, Drake was defeating the Spanish Armada, and some guy called Will was writing a play or two.  London's drinking water traditionally came from the River Thames, but by this time even many Elizabethans had realised that water from an open sewer wasn't suitable.  The city was liberally supplied with wells, too, but population growth meant these were no longer adequate.  More water was needed.

In 1604, after several decades of hot air being expended, Edmund Colthurst obtained a charter to build a new river, and he carried out a survey.  By the following year, though, he'd run into financial difficulties, and the project was taken over by Sir Hugh Myddelton, a Welsh entrepreneur whose interests ranged from clothmaking to banking. Myddelton set up the New River Company, along with investors known as “Adventurers” whose shares were each valued at £336 in 1611, with no profit expected for twenty years. Myddelton also gave shares in the company to Colthurst.

Work began on digging the river on 20th February 1608, although the survey on which it was based was unfortunately lost in a later fire that destroyed the New River Company’s records.

The river was begun in Hertfordshire at Chadwell, between Hertford and Ware, taking water from the natural springs there and a couple of miles downstream at Amwell, although this turned out to be inadequate. A channel was then dug to take water from the River Lea, and pumping stations were built along the route, tapping the water-table below the surface.  

The river originally ran a total of forty miles through Hertfordshire and Middlesex, looping around heads of tributary valleys to the Lea and carried over some lower ground by aqueducts built of wood and lead lined. The whole route was engineered with a constant fall of 5 inches per mile, allowing the force of gravity alone to create its flow.  For the time it was created, it was a miracle of engineering.

The labourers Myddelton employed are recorded as earning 10d (tenpence) per day, with an extra 2d if they were working in water. Skilled men, such as carpenters, were paid 1s 4d (one shilling and fourpence, or sixteen pence) a day, and bricklayers could earn 1s 6d. This compared well with average wages at the time, when an agricultural labourer could expect only 8d a day.  

Myddelton, like Colthurst, ran into financial problems, as well as strong opposition from some of the landowners along the river’s route, who feared their land could become waterlogged. Both problems were solved when King James I threw his weight behind the project. He invested £6,347, 4s and 11½d (a massive sum) in return for 50% of the shares, and opposition to a royally sponsored venture melted away.  

In fact, the New River came near to killing James. A few years later, riding on a winter day on his Theobalds estate in Cheshunt, just under halfway along the river's course, he was thrown by his horse headfirst into the icy river, with only his boots showing above the ice. One of his companions, Sir Richard Young, was quick enough to pull the King out before he drowned, but it was touch and go.  

The New River ended in Islington, now part of London but then a village north-west of the city, at a great cistern known as New River Head, from which pipes distributed the water through London. A grand opening was held on Michaelmas (29th September) 1613, attended by the Lord Mayor and many dignitaries.  

Myddelton was created a baronet in 1622 and died in 1631. It was many years, though, before the New River Company began to make a profit, and a rival scheme was proposed in 1631 but never built. Eventually, “Myddelton’s Water”, as it was sometimes known, proved its worth both in practical and financial terms. In 1898, a share in the New River Company sold for £128,500.  

The New River still flows from Chadwell to Islington, although some sections have been straightened or rebuilt, reducing its length to 29 miles. Parts of its course through North London are now piped underground, but it still supplies water to London.  Today, obviously, there are many more ways of obtaining clean drinking-water, as well as a better understanding of its importance, but the significance wasn't lost on past ages.  A monument has stood for over two hundred years near Amwell Springs, with the inscription Sacred to the memory of Sir Hugh Myddelton, Baronet, whose successful Care, assisted by the Patronage of his King, conveyed this stream to London. An immortal work, since Man cannot more nearly imitate the Deity, than in bestowing Health.  

Not a bad legacy to leave.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Repost: Ten Writing Rules to Take with a Grain of Salt by E.L. Wagner

An excellent new post on E.L. Wagner's Umbral Musings blog debunks some of the "rules" that are flung around for writers to follow.  This is a great selection of such rules, and a fine explanation of how, even though most (though perhaps not all) have some basis in reality, they all need to be taken with a grain (or even a large bag) of salt.

You can read her post here.