Book review: Julian

JulianJulian by Gore Vidal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although it is not impossible for an imperfect person to write a perfect work, few people, perfect or imperfect, will do so and therefore it is not hard to be a critic of someone’s work. Not hard at all.
Thus I found myself writing one critical review after the other.
Granted, mostly about movies and games, which I spent much more time with and upon then with reading. This felt like a kind of downwards spiral of negativity. There is too much wrong if everything has to be right. And nothing but perfection can stop criticism. Perhaps not even that.
I wanted to stop sliding movement into the darkness and so I decided to write a positive review. Something to lighten the mood so to speak.
I selected a book from memory which I really liked and thus I selected Julian by Gore Vidal.
But why?

I am not a good reader by any means. I am too impatient to appreciate the elaborate well written paragraphs that give other people such literary thrills. I tried a few other books written by Gore Vidal, Lincoln for instance, but it did not grip me and draw me in the same way Julian did. But I liked his enjoyable and human critical article about Ayn Rand and her objectivism.
So why did I like Julian?
Perhaps it was because Julian reminded me of a friend and thus he became a person whom I got empathy with because I knew him in a way. Julian strikes me mostly as the kind of person that gives his whole life to this one passion: philosophy.
That friend I have is like that, only his love is music. To be more specific: modern classical music.
Philosophy is what Julian adores most and it is this burning passion that basically drives him throughout the book. This might sound boring, but it is not given the fact that Julian is also a close relative to the sole autocratic ruler of the Roman Empire, the Emperor Constantius II, a man controlling an fast tottering empire beset by serious social and financial problems and threats from both within and without. In fact Julian is the nephew of both those emperors and he is even closer to the throne than this might suggest, because Constantius II has massacred most of his family after he gained the throne and has no sons and daughters. This makes Julian both a danger and a salvation. A danger for he could be used to dethrone the emperor and a salvation because an emperor without a successor in increasingly in danger when he grows older.
It is not boring either because precisely at that point in time Christianity gained the favor of the emperors, first the tacit support of Constantine I (the Great) and then the more committed one of his successor Constantius.
Julian finds himself dragged into the middle of all of this, while he rather wants to spend his days as a philosopher in Athens, a city that has at that point in time lost much of it’s former splendor.
Julian comes to his love via the church. A great irony in hindsight. First he is being taught the tenets of the Christian faith by priests and bishops, but then they also introduce him to those other more worldly teachings of philosophers.
Now Julians finds himself in turmoil, for the teachings of the one do not fit well with the other. Julian is losing his religion and replacing it with an another. In fact with many others. He is returning to polytheism.
And while he is struggling with this, fate intervenes. Or rather, the emperor. Constantius II – kinslayer – lacking sons and anyone else to trust, turns towards his few remaining relatives for aid. First Julian’s brother Gallus, who is instated as a prince of the realms. But Gallus soon reveals himself to be a homicidal maniac and has to be disposed by the emperor in a sinister plot that makes you wonder about the power of an emperor that needs to use backstabbing methods to dispose of an unruly subordinate. For a moment Julian’s life hangs in the balance as he stands a great change to be one of the hapless victims of his brothers demise, but he survives his brothers death by the timely (and gentle)intervention of the Empress.
And then, secondly, in almost ironical turn of fate, Julian himself is appointed prince.
He is then sent off to head an army that has to deal with the marauding barbarians that took the opportunity of the empire’s momentary weakness to cross the Rhine and pillage Gaul. In an astonishing campaign Julian amazes friend and foe alike by restoring order and routing the invaders against all odds. He restores peace swiftly. He is competent..too much so.
And now Julian too becomes a threat..for his success is too great and threatens the emperor. At least that is what the enemies of Julian at court say.
I leave the rest for you to read but I want to mention Julian’s development in his religious ideas, because that is what he is most famous for. For Julian is the Julian the Apostate.
Julian, as emperor, eventually turns against Christianity and in doing so he treads the path of the despot. At first he thinks that not supporting Christianity is enough to make people turn away from Christianity and return to the old ways. But he soon comes to the insight that merely not supporting Christianity is not enough. So he starts to actively and openly support the old religions. But eventually he realizes that even that is not enough and..
But we will never quite know how far he would have gone, yet when you read about Antioch you know where he was going.
What fate lies in store for Julian can be found in the book. It is greatly written..Gore Vidal gives us vivid idea of this Julian and his world. Gore is a great juggler. He gives us just enough but never too much. He draws a picture and is precise where he needs to be and broad and general when that is all that is required. He does so by having the story told by two old philosophers who write letters to each other. This allows Vidal to skip steps and have them explain things so we can understand what is going on.

However I feel there should be a bit of a caution attached to his book. In hindsight I find the depiction of Julian is somewhat detached. You never get quite feel of this man. We have no idea about his sexuality for instance. We know he is married, but it is all described in a detached way. Some people seem to take it that he was gay, but from the book this is hard to tell. In fact it might be much more believable that he was just absorbed by his passion for philosophy and his desire to turn back the clock religiously speaking. I know people who seem to have completely substituted their sexual desires in that way. I once thought my friend, mentioned above, was like that, but even he has a partner, a intelligent girlfriend who somehow matches him. Take heart in that, if you feel like you are an outsider.
Women play almost no part in this book except for when it seems absolutely necessary, like when Empress Eusebia intervenes on Julian’s behalf with Constantius.
This is man’s world mostly, not of a ladies man mind you, but one of the mind where men discuss and talk and are friends with men and his world is chiefly occupied with religion. friendships and relationship with other men(but not in any sexual way) and politics. You will find no romantic developments.
Perhaps in that way it is not perfect book. But for me it is perfect enough.

(I edited it a day later, because I was writing this and it was already 2 am, but i saw the flaws.. it still has many flaws.. I wished I could write like Gore Vidal can.. oh well).

Note: amazingly Gore Vidal never ever mentions the name of Ammianus Marcellinus.. which is really strange as not doubt Ammianus was the one who must have supplied him with all the relevant information. Ammianus was a close friend to Julian, an officer and a historian of the roman empire who is the prime source of the live of Julian. Yet I cannot recall him to appear in the book or being mentioned even in an aside. But mabye I remember it wrong.

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Book review: Night Watch

Night Watch (Watch, #1)Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have stopped reading Night Watch around page two hundred and will return the books to the library. The writing started to annoy me so much that it was no use continuing.

Night watch is not a surprising read. I say that because some people seem to say that the idea is novel. The world painted in this book is similar to Vampire the Masquerade and even more to it’s successor, the World of Darkness. Both of these world settings and their spin of books pre-date this book by half a decade.
The idea is that woven in with the ‘normal world’ there is a hidden world of non normal humans or supernatural beings that form a community consisting of diverse forces that sometimes oppose but sometimes help each other. In this world there are the forces of light and the forces of dark..but we already are introduced very early in the book to the idea that there might be independent and rogue forces. The established forces might oppose each other, but for the sake of ‘balance’ they have come to some kind of truce and agree to make sure that us normal beings are not aware of them: them being the usual staple of vampires, demons, witches, shapechangers and wizards.. nothing that I have not seen or read about before.
So the background and settings are not unusual and what transpires is hardly novel.

The main character
I have a problem with the detached writing. After fifty pages into the book I hardly knew anything about the main character, Anton, besides some superficial details. The writer feeds us a few background details and we are continuously told that he is more like this or that, but it is not shown. Anton’s personality is so flat that when first part of the book was finished I did not care one way or another for him. Indeed I cared more for the other beings like, Olga, his companion, the boy Jegor, the vampire and the woman who was inflicted with a dark dangerous spell.
They seemed to have more personality and depth than Anton.

The writing
The writing is actually a big stumbling block. The writer skips one way and another. He goes from one scene to the next, from one setting to the other and so on. He also like to use the favorite bad trick of not telling the reader about something and then suddenly pull out the rabbit: bet you did not know that one.
His skipping and hopping about makes the story unfocused and rushed while at the same time nothing seems to really happen. We drive a lot to and fro, but the story does not really develop during this driving. The writing is on par. He introduces one character after the other, briefly describes them and skips to the next.

Inconsistent story telling
The writer introduces ideas but does not follow through or explain. For instance at one point someone drives the main character to a scene in his private car.. acting like a kind of taxi. Anton remarks that the guy is rich and even offers Anton a job as a system administrator when he finds out he is a programmer(??), but there is no explanation why someone like that would drive around through the night working on the side as a cabdriver.
So much is unexplained. For instance where does Anton get his money from? And how does he stay awake since he has a additional job as ‘watchman’ next to his other job?

There are however some positive developments. One is that we see Anton develop. We get to know more about his companion Olga, a woman forced into the body of an owl. We discover the duality of light and dark. We see how Jegor reacts when he sees how both sides are using him. And the vampire that is almost killed survives..So she might come back and exact revenge(I hope she does.)
So I am giving it a try and see what the next chapter will show and report back. Otherwise I lend another book.


No explanations
I stopped somewhere in part two. The beginning of part two is ominous bad : his name was maxim. And then we get several lines explaining that the name was not unusual but not usual either. Not that this piece of information is relevant to the plot.
This illustrates how unbalanced the writing is. At some moments we get long drawn out lines and next the writer rushes over things without at least given an idea of how something essential works. For one: at some point the hero of the story is sitting in a restaurant with someone else and he spots a dark magic user. How does he know? Does he know the magic user? Can he sense dark magic and discern if from good magic? Which is strange as before it is said somewhere that darkness and light seem more to be motives and methods than basically different in essence. But no explanation or even a hint at how this all works.
Another example is when he investigates the past of some of his colleagues he finds out that his direct superior was around at the time when the treaty between dark and light was made hundreds of years ago. He then goes to say that it was strange that his superior was of such a low rank considering anyone else who was there (and still alive) was now a high ranking watchman. How does he know that? Do you know if all the high ranking managers of a big company have something in common like being at a place at the same time in a distant past? Did his investigation into the alibi of a low ranking watchman give him access to the information about high ranking ones? But if so, why did he only get that information and not about his lower placed superior? For he says he knew about all the high ranking members but not about his superior. I could invent some reason he knows, but the writer does not bother to explain.
On the other the writer has a hard time to differ between himself and his ‘hero’. His hero knows things he can not know unless explained and when it is essential to the plot it requires explaining.

Another annoying thing is that the writer is obsessed with young women, alcohol and ranking. Almost all the women in the story are ‘young women’. The vampire, Olga, Swetlana, the two useless (narrator’s words, not mine) women who act as programmers(???). There is one exception: a woman called Polina who is described as looking older..which might as well mean that she looks to be in her late twenties or early thirties, but the writer does not explain. He in fact does not even tell us what ‘younger women’ means. It might well be they are all in their late teens or in their late twenties or maybe even in their late thirties..It all depends on what viewpoint you take. But again nothing gets explained.
Alcohol is very present.If not thinking about or drinking it, they are talking about it and if not talking about it they are using it as a weapon against vampires. Yup.. alcohol has replaced holy water in this russian novel. How ironic.
And then ranking.. Oh my god.. everyone is ranked.. his superior is a low ranking director, there are high ranking people above him and strata of lower ranking beneath him, Anton is of this rank, his fellows of that rank, and those people over there are of that rank. And poor Anton thinks he will never get beyond rank four(on what scale) but he happens to have done rank two magic as a rank three magic user (or is he rank one) which seems to be pretty impressive but I am lost. The whole world is layered in ranks of which the writer.. eh lead is specifically aware of. We have no clue how he knows all that. Has he some kind of book? Do they have, like in roleplay games, have levels that hover over their heads like a tag? Oh hey, that is a level 21 sorcerer and that is a Level 8 priest. He is so focused on ranking that his ego gets a real boost that when his superior tells him that he had done something that was believed to be beyond his power.
But nothing was so painful to read when told about the useless(the lead’s words..not mine) two young women programmers who desperately wanted to be part of the watch but had no power or skill at all.
I foamed at the mouth. My experience is that if people have a drive you can have them do something useful and if you confess someone who has a drive to be useless.. you should look in a mirror.

The biggest problem is that after two hundred pages he never seems to bother us with anything that might make a person into a person. We still know next to nothing about Anton. He must have a social life, he can not live in a void. What about his parents? What about any other family, friends, colleagues, people he knows from school. His neighbors? What about his favorite soccer club(if any?)
Still there is no explanation about how he combines his daytime job with his watch time exploits. It does not have to be rubbed in, but at some point a brief mentioning of him having a lack of sleep might give an idea. But the writer does not bother with that.
And then it gets worse. At some point it becomes clear he is obsessed with a girl he hardly knows and never seems to get to know better. This girl is Olga, the woman from the first part of the book who was punished to live in the body of an owl and could redeem herself by helping Anton. In part two she has redeemed herself partly, we are told(but how she did that we are not told. Or was she redeemed as part of what happened in part one? But she hardly did anything but tagging along with Anton?), so she is now human and not an owl and yet again we get no more information, where something more might at least gives us an idea of the person she is (She is the potential love interest!)
And then Anton’s obsession becomes repulsive. Illustrative is this part: he has to stand close to Olga as part of a magic spell and he goes something like: it is strange to be close to a woman who has felt the touch of another man. Uh.. what? (Ironic: they swap bodies, not that Anton spots the irony: how strange it must feel to be in the body of a woman that has been touched by another man!)
The whole time we see Anton painting Olga in a sexual context. We never seem him joke or have a nice conversation. He never sees her as another person. We see him ponder what has been going on when Olga and his boss retreat into a room with two glasses and a flask of wine. Well, she was probably getting touched by him. Oh my god.. this centuries old woman is not a virgin! Cut down some trees, make a bridge and get over it. He is obsessed with her having sex but we never see a moment that might at least explain that there is some kind of affection developing between them.. you know that moment when you and your love laugh at the same thing and you recognize you both do?
Now you might say: this is great storytelling.. and in other cases it might be if Anton was meant to be a distorted personality but I suspect that this is meant as part of a love story that will slowly unfold. It is meant to be romantic not pathetic.

Unbalanced writing(again)
Now all of that would probably be tolerable. I have been entertained by bad stories before(Ready Player One springs to mind) but the pacing is still off balance. Long parts of Anton going from a to b, while nothing in particular happens and we get monologues on various subjects, then very brief moments of sudden action that usually result in some kind of anti-climax. The lack of exposition where it is needed and too much of it where it is irrelevant.
For instance: Anton is an analyst, so we are told, but it is never described. Instead we are told that he analyses something and then are given a conclusion. Hop scotch. There is no in between process and I suspect the writer has no knowledge of the subject or the whole thing does not really interest him. Why then make Anton an analyst?
Anton is also a small time administrator. We are told how he installs software he does not care about on people’s desktops. Specialist administrators and programmers do not install software on end user desktops for the simple reason that they are too expensive to do such work. It sometimes happens that a well paid administrator programmer cares for something very much and thus does work he or she is not supposed to do. But we are told he does not care for it, so he does not belong to that category. Or perhaps Anton works for a organization that has highly trained and capable staff doing simple jobs they do not care about? We do not get an explanation.. again.

The final scene
The final nail to the coffin was the restaurant scene. So Anton is now in the body of Olga and accompanied by Swetlana, who has to be with him so he has an alibi at all times. This because they think the dark ones want to frame Anton for the string of strange murders. So in this restaurant is dark magic user(he is mentioned above). This magic user then goes off to the toilet gets killed and Anton is just in time to be alone with the corpus delicti and without Swetlana to give him an alibi. How utterly convenient. Not only so because in a previous instance we are told that the Others are very rare. Very few people become Others. So what a coincidence that the murderer, Anton and the victim are on the same spot but without Swetlana and without Anton bumping into the murderer? While I grant any writer the right not to explain a thing, i think that at least they ought to make a story plausible. But given the track record of the writer there will be no doubt in my mind that this will not be explained.

Night Watch is probably meant to appeal to a certain audience that wants to cast themselves in the boots of the main lead Anton. Hence there is a lack of personality and background. The less we know him, the more we can be like him.
The story lacks plausibility. Things happen because they have to and the writer does not seem to care much for rhyme or reason and thus, if need be, a deus et-machina is used to resolve the issue.
I grant that the background interests me and there are ideas in this story that might have been interesting but without any developed personalities and a well developed story I am left to wonder what the appeal of this book is. For me it has non.

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