Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Source of book: Audiobook from the library (but I do own all the Hitchhiker’s Guide books)

If I were Supreme Lifetime Dictator of the Earth™ I would enact the following rule:

All audiobooks henceforth shall be read by Stephen Fry.

Okay, there can be a few exceptions. Neil Gaiman should read his own books.  And Mary Roach too. I’m on the fence about P. G. Wodehouse. Jonathan Cecil is so very, very good, but Fry is the ultimate embodiment of Jeeves…

So anyway, a friend who shares my love for Douglas Adams informed me that Stephen Fry had indeed narrated a version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I knew we had to listen to it. My wife, however, was the one who actually pulled the trigger and picked it up.

I first discovered this book when I was fairly young. My dad had it, and I borrowed it. No, I didn’t ask permission, and may not have gotten it had I done so. But I fell in love, and never regretted reading it. (It was, if I recall, the first book I ever read that had a few swear words in it. On a related note, I still think swearing sounds best in a British accent…)

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that we listened to it as a family - or that my kids thought it was hilarious. Actually, about the only surprise was just how many of the more sophisticated jokes drew laughs from my boys (ages 10 and 8.) They are growing up to be the right sort of young men, clearly.

This is my fourth or fifth time through this book, so I knew it pretty well already. But I was surprised at how incredibly well this book has aged. In fact, there were several times I realized that it could have been written this year - the issues are that timeless. Police brutality? Yep. Narcissistic celebrity presidential candidates? Oh yes. Artificial Intelligence with personality? Still the best portrayal I have read. Conspiracy theories about the age of the earth? You bet. Bureaucratic boondoggles? Yes, and this version includes bad poetry. Philosophy, hucksterism, probability, modern poetry, sentient mice, tea...it’s all there. And don’t forget the bad puns and deliciously zany lines.

For those not familiar with the plot, Arthur Dent, a not-terribly-bright 30-something Englishman finds his world turned upside down one day. First, it appears that his house will be demolished to make way for a bypass, then his friend Ford Prefect turns out to be an alien from near Betelgeuse, and to cap things off, the Vogons demolish Earth to make way for an interstellar bypass. That’s enough to ruin everyone’s day.

So Arthur and Ford end up hitchhiking across the galaxy. Well, more or less. They get picked up by Zaphod Beeblebrox (who had an extra head and arm added to his already fabulous body), the president of the galaxy, who has just stolen a top-secret spaceship, and Trillian, formerly Trisha McMillan, the only other surviving human in the universe. And then comes Marvin, the depressed android, and a magical spaceship which runs on improbability, and the a mythical planet where custom planets were manufactured for the ultra-rich, and...well just read the book already.

And, believe it or not, you will learn the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

I simply must quote a few lines, however. The very opening of the book sets the tone - and my kids laughed loudly at it.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
And so the problem remained; lots of people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

The digital watches are a recurring idea, incidentally.

There are of course many problems connected with life, of which some of the most popular are Why are people born? Why do they die? Why do they want to spend so much of the intervening time wearing digital watches?

The next line is better in context, but it would take too long to explain all of it. Nevertheless, it is representative of the unexpected zaniness of the plot twists.

Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.

Speaking of philosophical questions, Adams skewers modern philosophy in hilarious fashion. As the computer Deep Thought prepares to calculate the answer to the ultimate question, a couple of Philosophers break in, and demand that their union jobs be protected.

“Who are you?” said Lunkwill, rising angrily from his seat. “What do you want?”
“I am Majikthise!” announced the older one.
“And I demand that I am Vroomfondel!” shouted the younger one.
Majikthise turned on Vroomfondel. “It’s all right,” he explained angrily, “you don’t need to demand that.”
“All right!” bawled Vroomfondel, banging on a nearby desk. “I am Vroomfondel, and that is not a demand, that is a solid fact! What we demand is solid facts!
“No, we don’t!” exclaimed Majikthise in irritation. “That is precisely what we don’t demand.”
Scarcely pausing for breath, Vroomfondel shouted, “We don’t demand solid facts! What we demand is a total absence of solid facts. I demand that I may or may not be Vroomfondel!”

The bit involving the cops is pretty funny too. Particularly since British police officers are, but near-universal agreement, the nicest in the world. (Not that I have much experience, though. My visit to England was notable for the absence of any brushes with the law.)

“Now see here, guy,” said the voice, “you’re not dealing with any dumb two-bit trigger-pumping morons with low hairlines, little piggy eyes and no conversation, we’re a couple of caring guys that you’d quite like if you met us socially! I don’t go around gratuitously shooting people and then bragging about it afterward in seedy space-ranger bars, like some cops I could mention! I go around shooting people gratuitously and then I agonize about it afterward for hours to my girlfriend!”
“And I write novels!” chimed in the other cop. “Though I haven’t had any of them published yet, so I better warn you, I’m in a meeeean mood!”


“Because,” shouted the cop, “it’s going to be very intelligent, and quite interesting and humane! Now - either you all give yourselves up now and let us beat you up a bit, though not very much of course because we are firmly opposed to needless violence, or we blow up this entire planet and possibly one or two others we noticed on our way out of here!”
“But that’s crazy!” cried Trillian. “You wouldn’t do that!”
“Oh yes, we could,” shouted the cop, “wouldn’t we?” he asked the other one.
“Oh yes, we’d have to, no question,” the other one called back.
“But why?” demanded Trillian.
“Because there are some things you have to do even if you are an enlightened liberal cop who knows all about sensitivity and everything!”

And, I just have to quote a bit from the end - a selection from the Guide itself - which transitions into the next book.

“The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instances, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? The second by the question Why do we eat? And the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?”  

Seriously, if you haven’t yet read these books, it’s high time you did. And don’t forget your towel.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare

By general agreement, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays. I have had the opportunity to see 22 of them live in one form or another. (I have also read a few that I haven’t yet seen live.) In fact, looking back, I have seen all of these either with my wife (starting with A Midsummer Night’s Dream before we were officially dating) or with my kids (my wife and I saw these on different nights so we didn’t have to find a sitter.)

In the last few years, since the kids have been able to sit through - and thoroughly enjoy - live plays, we have seen a number that we hadn’t before. This was our first time seeing Love’s Labour’s Lost.

I have always been intrigued by the title. These days, people throw apostrophes around like they are free candy or something, regardless of where the should or should not be deployed. But Shakespeare could hardly have done so on a title of a play - and even if he did, someone would have corrected it. Well, it does turn out that there have been multiple titles, some with one, and some with two apostrophes. With one, the meaning is that the labor of love was lost. With two, thought, I suppose one could say that what was produced by love’s labor was lost, or alternately that the persons who engaged in the labor of love were lost.

Whatever meaning you wish to assign to the title, the play itself is a thoroughly convoluted and mixed up love story in the best Shakespeare tradition. In fact, I am a bit surprised that it is not more often performed, as it seems to be the sort of play that would resonate with modern audiences.

Here is the basic plot. The King of Navarre (or wherever you please - the place never matters in the comedies) convinces his three closest friends to make a vow that they will devote themselves to study and asceticism for a full three years. They will eat frugally, fast, and forswear women altogether. They will engage in the “manly” pursuit of knowledge and learning. 

 Jonny Orsini (Navarre), Amara James Aja (Dumaine), Nathan Witmer (Longaville), and Kierian Campion (Berowne) 
pledge to forswear women in favor of study.

There is a problem, however. The king has forgotten that the Princess of France and her ladies are coming to visit - to speak about important issues of state, naturally. This causes a problem, and Navarre forces the ladies to camp in the park rather than be entertained in the castle.

As one might expect, despite their best intentions, the four men all fall for the four ladies. But they cannot admit this to the others, for fear of being teased for breaking faith.

The women, of course, find this whole business hilarious, and do their best to punk the hapless men. Great hilarity ensues.

There are a couple of subplots. The ludicrous soldier, Don Armando vies for the hand of the country wench Jaquenetta with the equally silly Costard, a bumpkin who is much smarter than he appears. (In fact, he gets the best known line of the play, “They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.” (It is in this scene that Costard also uses “Honorificabilitudinitatibus,” the longest word in any Shakespearean work. (For what it is worth, it means “the state of being able to achieve honors.)

This line is directed at Holofernes, a tutor, and Sir Nathaniel, a clergyman, who are both ridiculously stuffy and pedantic. Their antics and the farcical attempt at a serious play-within-a-play at the end form some of the funniest scenes in the play.

Unlike most of the comedies, which end in a marriage, Love’s Labour’s Lost ends instead with the women extracting promises from the men to wait a year before marriage. This is, perhaps, a commutation of their self-imposed sentence of three years of study, but it is, nonetheless, a great example of the women getting their way - and appearing far more self-disciplined and wise than the men. 

 Amy Blackman (Maria), Pascale Armand (Rosaline), Kevin Cahoon (Boyet), Kristen Connolly (Princess of France), and Talley Beth Gale (Katherine)

There are a number of outstanding lines in the play. In the opening scene, Navarre makes his friends sign their names to the oath. Berowne hesitates the most, and attempts to weasel out of it thus:

BEROWNE: Come on, then; I will swear to study so,
To know the thing I am forbid to know
As thus, - to study where I well may dine,
When I to feast expressly am forbid;
Or study where to meet some mistress fine,
When mistresses from common sense are hid;
Or, having sworn too hard-a-keeping oath
Study to break it, and not break my troth.
If study’s gain be thus, and this be so,
Study knows that which yet it doth not know:
Swear me to this, and I will ne’er say no.

I won’t duplicate the entire exchange, but it is worth reading - or seeing live.

Likewise, the repartee between the Princess and Costard is a joy.

One of the reasons, apparently, that this play is less popular is that it contains a lot of wordplay that requires knowledge of archaic words and phrases. Um, throw me in the briar patch! If there is anything I would enjoy, it is this sort of wordplay. Hey, I read old books all the time, so finding rare witticisms is like finding treasure.

Just a few words about the production. We saw this at The Old Globe in San Diego - one of our favorite cities to visit. A couple of years ago, we saw Pericles here - it was my youngest’s first Shakespeare play. In general, The Old Globe does an outstanding job. The production values are high, and the level of acting is good. The actors are a combination of theater students at the local universities and professional stage and screen actors. (Such is the advantage of living in Southern California. Many of the actors have had bit parts on television shows or movies.) The prices are not particularly low, though, and there are no discounts for kids, which I find annoying. However, the good outweighs the cost.

This production was set in the period (from what I can tell) of the France of Louis XIV. The costumes were delightful, and the set quite nice. This was staged in the outdoor theater, which fit the outdoor setting of the play perfectly.

I want to particularly note the actors which played the parts of Costard, Don Armando (who had the kids laughing non-stop), and Boyet (who was played as a dandy of the first water - hilarious and spot-on.) The women didn’t have the humorous parts, but they played their roles with sensitivity and wry humor. As I believe Shakespeare intended, they had a sort of detached amusement at the foibles of the silly men that they knew desired them but couldn’t come out and say without breaking the manly pledge.

This was a delightful play, and one that I think should be performed more often. Good acting can make clear the more obscure puns, and the humor directed at pompous education, asceticism, macho culture, emotional detachment, and the endless ability of humans to rationalize anything transcend time and place.  


For those who care, we have seen the following: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, All’s Well That Ends Well, Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labor’s Lost, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V, Richard III, King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and The Merchant of Venice.

Obviously, we are missing a few of the histories (which my wife has seen at the Utah Shakespeare Festival) and some of the less commonly performed ones. Perhaps I can collect them all some day.


For what it’s worth, this production was directed by Tony Award winning Kathleen Marshall. If you are in the area and get a chance to see this one, I recommend it.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Other Slavery by Andrés Reséndez

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This is another book that I plucked from the “new books” display on a whim. It dealt with a topic that has interested me for some time: the enslavement of Native Americans in the New World.

A bit of personal background first. I am not (to my knowledge) Native American. (There is one branch of the family for which paternity was never established, so goodness only knows where those genes came from.) However, I have a history of involvement with Native Americans. In addition, my parents were both born overseas - my mom in Mexico, where her parents were missionaries to a village consisting in large part of Native American peoples.

As for my own history, I spent a good bit of time in my teens working with a church group that worked on the Navajo reservation. We assisted in building churches (which also functioned as centers for distribution of aid and assistance), and provided food distribution during Christmas. Out job wasn’t really to preach, but to provide assistance to Navajo (and Zuni and Hopi) leaders so they could care for their communities. As a result of this, I learned a lot about the culture (I can still roast pine nuts which grow in the mountains near where I live, and make fry bread), and spent time listening to Code Talkers and veterans and grandmothers, and so on.

More recently, as part of my law practice, I represent a Tribe in their California juvenile dependency cases. (This is where a child is removed from the home due to abuse or neglect.) As a result of this work, I have had ample opportunity to learn the legal history of the attempts to destroy Indian culture by the forcible removal of children from the home - a tradition that dates back several hundred years, and is not at all benign.

So this book naturally appealed to me. 

The book is called The Other Slavery because the enslavement of other races, in contrast to African American slavery - the “peculiar institution” - is less known, and also had distinct features which made it more difficult to abolish. It also is more relevant to us today, because, unlike institutional slavery, which is illegal nearly everywhere in the world, the Other Slavery persists around the world because the instinct to enslave is more creative than the efforts to end enslavement.

The Other Slavery covers a broad period in history, roughly from the first contact by Christopher Columbus (not coincidentally the first record of Native American enslavement) through the first half of the 20th Century, when Native Americans were finally guaranteed United States citizenship and permitted to vote in 1924. (Yes, shockingly, it took that long…)

Andrés Reséndez is a professor and historian at the University of California, Davis. He has written a couple of other books about Mexican history and the borderlands, which sound interesting as well.

I was struck by two things about the author’s writing style. First, it is remarkably dispassionate and objective. Rather than make an impassioned argument, he uses a devastating accumulation of the bare facts to make his point. It is a book, as the Los Angeles Times review stated, that is remarkably free of ideology. This isn’t to say it is dry. Quite the contrary, the writing tells the story in a manner which holds the interest. The other thing that impressed me is the extensive use of primary sources. The research that went into this book is incredible - it is obvious Reséndez spent hours combing through the inventories from hundreds of years past to find the many references to slaves. It was particularly interesting to note the differences in terms used throughout the history. In the times when enslavement and slave trading were expressly legal, the slaves were referred to as such. However, the increasingly creative terms (and often laws) calculated to conceal the continued existence of slavery took over during times when the authorities attempted to shut the system down. Euphemism and legal sophistry were the order of the day then (as now).

The first point that really stood out to me is something Reséndez includes in the introduction: the four essential elements of slavery. He spells this out because of all the different “forms” of slavery used to evade prohibitions on slavery itself. When outright enslavement was no longer permitted, slave owners (and the government officials which enabled them) used other systems to get the same effect - most notably debt peonage, which remains popular today.

These four elements are: 1. Forcible removal of the victims from one place to another, 2. Inability to leave the workplace, 3. Violence or threat of violence to compel them to work, and 4. Nominal or no pay. I think that these four are useful to divide between actual slavery and “mere” oppressive employment practices. This is necessary in significant part because the remedies are different. Slavery demands freedom, not reform.

Another fact that I was not aware of, but found intriguing was that in the Other Slavery, adult male slaves were far less desirable than women and children. Yes, children - they were arguably the most valuable slaves of all, because they could be disconnected from their culture. Since they wouldn’t know any other life, they could be kept indefinitely.

In a lot of ways, this makes sense. When enslaving people from the general area, you will always risk that they will attempt to escape and return to their own villages. This is less likely for women and children. (Also less likely when you bring your slaves across a large ocean…) The type of labor to be done also can determine who is desired. Agricultural work can often be done by women and teens - as African American slavery proved.

One thing that I will admit hit me a bit hard was the realization that I could - perhaps for the first time - see the benefits of owning slaves. I mean, in the abstract, I understood. Working large plots of land requires laborers. Whether you want to call them serfs, or slaves, or (in our modern era) farm workers, if you want to work more land than you can personally, you need others to do it. To become truly wealthy, you need cheap labor. In an era when land was cheap - or free via the Homestead Act - there was a lot of competition for labor. After all, why work for a pittance for someone else when you can simply get some land of your own and work for yourself? Thus, slaves (or at least immigrants lacking access to land) are necessary. Likewise, to work the infamous Mexican silver mines, you needed labor. Lots of replaceable labor, because life expectancies were very low indeed. But nowadays, fulfilling labor requirements by slavery sounds like an expensive proposition compared to “mere” labor exploitation. The economics don’t seem to work.

[Side note: the Mexican Silver Rush lasted for a couple hundred years, and produced 12 times as much metal as the better-known California Gold Rush. While the Gold Rush attracted a bunch of freelancers, the Silver Rush mines were worked almost exclusively by slaves.]
In contrast, as I realized to my dismay, having someone to do household work in exchange for a shack to sleep in and some food seems like a great deal - for the slave owner. My wife and I could indeed use a teenage girl who could do the Cinderella thing and work 12 hour days for room and board - for the rest of her life… Not a good feeling.

The author’s most interesting point in this book, though, is that he believes - and makes a compelling case - that the genocide of the Native Americans was not, as commonly taught in school, caused by disease, but was in fact caused by the widespread enslavement. The records of the era seem to bear this out. The common practice over a wide area, and over centuries, was to require slave labor from Native Americans, and then when they (inevitably) revolted, use the revolt as an excuse to slaughter the men, and enslave even more women and children. Because there was a seemingly endless supply of slaves - it was cheaper to obtain slaves from the surrounding areas than to bring them across the Atlantic - there was little incentive to prevent the massive numbers of early deaths. The slave trade itself turned out to be a major reason for the spread of the very diseases that killed many as well.  

A few years back, I read a long-form magazine article which pointed out that in the United States just prior to the Civil War, the value of the slaves exceeded every other class of assets - indeed, the slaves were worth more than all the other assets combined. This book confirms that idea, and applies it to the Other Slavery as well. A devastating quote comes from Columbus himself:

“[T]he Indians of Española were and are the greatest wealth of the island, because they are the ones who dig, and harvest, and collect the bread and other supplies, and gather the gold from the mines, and do all the work of men and beasts alike.”

One of the more depressing things about this book was the account (which recurs throughout the book) of how, faced with legal pressure, slavers made little changes to preserve their trade and the institution itself. So, rather than call slaving raids what they were, the slavers trumped up charges that the Native Americans were at fault, making the war against them “just,” and thus justifying the enslavement as punishment for the war. Or, when outright slavery was outlawed, the existing - and future - slaves were then held in “debt peonage.” Essentially, they - or their parents - were considered to owe money to the employer. Thus, they could be kept at involuntary employment until the debt was paid. Which of course never happened. Records were never kept, naturally. And the peon could be sold at will. As Julius Graves, a special agent appointed in the aftermath of the Civil War to investigate Indian Slavery put it, debt peonage was widespread, and “the universally recognized mode of securing labor and assistance; and the results of that system were identical to that of Negro slavery as formerly practiced in the southern states.”

Slavery by a different name.

The elimination of the Other Slavery bedeviled generations of reformers, from the rather admirable Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain to the US Congress in the 1860s. Congress turned out to be the most successful, but it still took two generations to accomplish citizenship for Native Americans.

The author points out in the last section of the book that there is a significant connection between African American Slavery and the Other Slavery that continued to be relevant for a century after the end of the Civil War. In order to maintain Debt Peonage, certain “Indian Codes” were passed. These would later be copied during the Jim Crow era as “Black Codes.” In essence, people of the disfavored group - Indians or Blacks as the case would be - would be required to carry papers showing their employment at all times. If they were caught unemployed, they could be “sold” to the highest bidder for a temporary job - temporary slavery, really. This worked to bind the slave to the employer - he or she couldn’t simply leave to seek better employment, but would be arrested and sold.

It boils down to a universal desire of humanity, perhaps what we should be least proud of. Abraham Lincoln said it so well in one of his debates with Stephen Douglas:

"It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says 'you toil and work and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle."

If we think we moderns are immune from this, one need only look at the debate over wages and the remarkably widespread belief that there should be no restrictions on wages or working conditions. It is the delusion that there is no risk of exploitation, and that the powerful will resist the temptation to enrich themselves at the expense of those below them.

Perhaps that is the most uncomfortable lesson of the book. We too are capable of this, and we too would find ways to justify our exploitation of others as being for their own good.

This is an excellent book, and one I am going to put on my list of important books for understanding the true history of our nation.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Dark Fire by C. J. Sansom

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

A colleague introduced me to Sansom last year, starting with the first book in the series, Dissolution. I enjoyed that book very much, so I decided to push on to the next.

There is a saying about second efforts in all genres that has a certain amount of truth to it. It isn’t unusual for a second book or album to be a disappointment. If nothing else, the first success was the result of a long effort, while the second is sometimes quickly thrown together to capitalize on the success of the first.

This is definitely not the case with C. J. Sansom. If anything, the second book, Dark Fire, is even better than the first. 

Sansom is an English solicitor, sort of (but not exactly) analogous to a transactional lawyer in our United States’ legal system. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake shares this profession - but in the time of Henry VIII. Shardlake is a hunchback, somewhat outside of the approval of society. It is this alienation - and the alienation of several of his associates - that makes him who he is.

While the previous book dealt with a murder committed at a monastery which was being secularized as part of the reforms under Thomas Cromwell (who hires Shardlake to investigate), this mystery is set in London itself. There are two parallel mysteries, in fact. The first is a private case that Shardlake has undertaken: defending a young woman accused of murdering her cousin. The second is another commission from Cromwell with much bigger stakes.

Cromwell has been approached by an alchemist who claims to have rediscovered Dark Fire (aka Greek Fire) in an old monastery. A demonstration is made - successfully - and a time is set to demonstrate for the king himself. But the circumstances are odd, and Cromwell seeks to investigate. Before things can go very far, though, the alchemist is brutally murdered, and all traces of the formula and the Dark Fire disappear.

Throughout the long investigation (the book is nearly 500 pages), it becomes increasingly clear that there are a number of major political figures of the era involved, and that the outcome will determine the fate of England itself.

Sansom has clearly researched his books thoroughly. I did a bit of reading on my own to refresh my memory as to the actual history, and Sansom carefully hews to the known facts whenever the plot involves real events. The dark fire mystery may be fictional, but the players and the fall of Cromwell are most certainly not. Likewise, Sansom put in the time to understand the science behind Greek Fire, both the chemistry and the physics of the delivery mechanism. Equally challenging in this case was to keep the knowledge of the characters limited to that of the 16th Century. Avoiding modern anachronisms is a tough task, but Sansom does his work well.

There is also great skill evident in the historical detail. Whether it is the sights, the sounds, the social issues and arguments, the religious sects, and especially the smells of the city, Sansom brings them to life convincingly. I have yet to detect any errors in any of this - and I care about science and history. It is this attention to detail combined with vivid writing that raises this book above the usual crowd of historical fiction or mystery writing.

The one thing that does strike one as slightly out of place is that Shardlake is a rather modern thinker. Let me hasten to add that this is clearly intentional on the author’s part. Shardlake is both a character, and a stand-in for the author and the reader. Probably an average lawyer of the time wouldn’t have thought in feminist terms or with the same eye to both skepticism and human rights. I mean, the Enlightenment was still a century or more away. But this isn’t as much of a stretch as one might think. Shardlake is an admirer of Erasmus, who himself was far ahead of his time. There is also evidence that a number of intellectuals were already thinking and writing things which would eventually lead to the Enlightenment, so it isn’t unthinkable that others thought the same way, but were unwilling to risk life and property to say them out loud.

In addition to the atmosphere, Sansom has also brought realistic writing to the society itself. Prostitution is (in practice) legal and regulated, women face difficult choices if they become pregnant out of wedlock - and these choices are determined in significant part by wealth. The poor live in deplorable conditions and, like in our own day, the wealthy use their influence to avoid regulation of the slums.

There are a few other things that I thought were interesting about this book. First, Shardlake has a new sidekick. Mark, his original one, eloped to Europe under circumstances that demanded he stay there, so he was obviously not going to be back. I was never a big fan of Mark, though. He was okay, but not a great foil for Shardlake.

Replacing Mark is one of Cromwell’s lackeys, Jack Barak, a rogue of dubious history, with a semi-secret Jewish heritage. (Not good in an era when the Jews had been forcibly expelled from England. Ah, the good old days…) Barak was educated as a child, so he is able to assist in the legal matters, but he later joined the underworld, so his real talents are, well, more physical. At the outset, the two of them do not get along, each suspicious of the other (for good reason) and at odds over both social niceties and social issues. Shardlake, after all, has never known true poverty. He may be compassionate, but he doesn’t really get the experience of the side. Barak, on the other hand, loathes the nobility, and has a tendency to forget his manners at the worst time. This all makes for a nice bit of frisson when they are forced to rely on each other to solve the mystery - and indeed to stay alive.

Like Dissolution, Dark Fire explores the key issue of the day in England: whence Church and State? Henry VIII initially made common cause with the reformer Thomas Cromwell in persecuting both Catholics and Non-conformists. Cromwell was disgustingly bloody - a fact that makes Shardlake uncomfortable even as he must submit to Cromwell. This eventually leads Shardlake to become disillusioned with the Reformist cause, and increasingly question his faith. Toward the end of the book, Shardlake has a conversation with Guy, a Catholic moorish apothecary we meet in the first book - a man who is lying low trying to live his life without being persecuted for his differences: black skin, African (and Muslim) origin, and forbidden religion.

‘Why does faith bring out the worst in so many, Guy?’ I blurted out. ‘How is it that it can turn men, papist and reformer both, into brutes?’
‘Man is an angry, savage being. Sometimes faith becomes an excuse for battle. It is no real faith then. In justifying their positions in the name of God, men silence God.’
‘But have the comfortable belief that, having read the Bible and prayed, they cannot be wrong.’
‘I fear so.’

This is a conversation that has played out in my head over the last few years, as I see my own tribe gearing up for jihad against all who believe differently, Christian, Atheist, or Muslim.

Many of the best conversations (in both books) come between Shardlake and Guy. They are both “outsiders,” so to speak, and both have modern sensibilities. And both have a love for truth and goodness that few of their contemporaries - who grasp for political power and wealth at any cost - share. This means that they often are out of step with the times, trying to find their own way by the light they have. As Guy puts it in context with scientific discoveries:

‘I am with those thinkers who consider God means us to uncover the secrets of the earth by the slow, sure path of observation rather than mystical formulae in ancient books.’

Sansom makes it clear that this difference in approach has also led to the problems in religion and statecraft as well. Creed always wins out over human realities in this world of the past. And sometimes too often in our own as well.  

While not too many major characters in each book are female - the first book is set in a monastery and the second involves high intrigue -  Sansom make the most of the characters he does employ. Even the minor female characters are complex and have histories that make their actions understandable. As in any era, some are expressly feminist, as in Lady Honor, who greatly enjoys the freedom that her wealthy widowhood brings. Others seek to gratify their ambition through carefully orchestrating their descendents’ social rise, as Mrs. Wentworth does - at any price.

The author also notes one of the interesting results of the Protestant Reformation. Often forgotten in any discussion of that history is that it was the beginning of the loss of authority for institutions in general. With Martin Luther and the rest, the shocking idea that the average (literate) person could and should read and interpret the Bible without depending on the experts of the priesthood - that man needed no mediator to access God - led eventually to the collapse of church authority. In the setting of these books, the State and the Church are struggling to figure out how to function when non-conformists insist on doing and believing as they wish, without granting political loyalty to a particular faction.

This crumbling of authority led to the Enlightenment, of course, in which interpretation of, well, nearly everything, became divorced from dogma. Instead, science, reason, and investigation became the new method for determining truth. I won’t spend too much time on the effect this had on science, human rights, and so on.

I do want to mention that this idea also led inevitably to feminism. After all, if the average person could interpret the Bible and determine his own actions based on his conscience and intellect, why couldn’t women do the same? This didn’t necessarily go over well with everyone. As one traditionalist lawyer says, “Not just apprentices. Even silly little women fancy they can read the Bible now and understand God’s Word.” The same later brags that he has never read the Bible, and never will.

But of course, once you let women think for themselves, they might want to vote, control their own money, determine their own destiny.

Just a couple more little tidbits that should be noted. First, as I am not a fashion mavin, I had to look up “farthingale.” Thank goodness I never had to wear one. Forget petticoats. How about a wicker frame to carry around with you under your dress? Yikes.

A reminder that today's fashions aren't nearly as silly as those of the past.

I’ll end with this one. Early in the book, Shardlake mentions this annoying case he has, where the opposing party...well, I’ll let him describe the sort of person all of us lawyers know all too well:

[H]e was one of those maddening rogues whom lawyers encounter, who take perverse pleasure in spending time and money on uncertain cases rather than admitting defeat and making proper remedy like civilized men.

Dark Fire can be heartily recommended for anyone who loves a good mystery, a good historical novel, or just history and good writing in general.