The moment you pick up The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel (Quercus, 2014) translated by Anthea Bell, your eyes are assaulted by a wall of praise. It starts with the usual deathless prose from The Times of London, “Like, wow man! Far out!” or words to that effect, closely followed by the pack of British critics snapping at the heels of what they unanimously declare to be an international bestseller sans pareil. It makes the likes of me, Johnnies-come-lately viewing this as a prospective launch into the US market, feel somewhat redundant. Indeed, I’m briefly seized by a moment of reverse psychology, predisposing myself to find the British establishment favoring elitist prose and literary fiction to the detriment of mass appeal. With a heavy heart, I pick this up, relieved it’s relatively short.
The book is based on the Hinterkaifeck murders which took place in 1922, but relocates the killing in time to 1955. We’re set in Tannöd, a West German village still struggling to adjust to life after the end of the war. So many of the men have been killed or returned “damaged”. Farming has always been a hard life and not suited to men coming newly to the land. This leaves many of the older farmers under serious pressure until a new generation can grow to an age where they can take over responsibility for keeping the family inheritance as a going commercial concern. The problem, of course, is the lure of the cities. Manufacturing is beginning to reestablish itself and this lures many of the younger people away. They fear the drudgery of farming and find the idea of better paid factory work more attractive.
Against this background, there’s a terrible murder at a remote farmhouse. An entire family and the newly arrived maid are battered to death with a pickaxe handle. A visiting journalist collates interviews and rumours gleaned during his visit to the village. People are inclined to talk unguardedly with a man they do not know and who will not stay. The resulting patchwork of information is elegantly structured to take us into the heart of the mystery of who would commit this terrible crime while interweaving a third-person narrative from the only person who can say what actually happened. The result is grimly fascinating as the picture of the family killed slowly comes into focus. It’s not a pretty picture and some may prefer not to read a story which catalogues such systematic abuse. The fact such behaviour was tolerated in a small community says a great deal about the times and the tendency of small groups of people under severe economic pressure to worry more about their own affairs than interfere in the troubles of others.
Putting all this together, I arrive at a slightly equivocal conclusion. Because the structure is a collage of fragments, there’s no chance to get to know or empathise with any of the people whom we meet on this journalistic excavation into the past. Rather, as Michel Foucault suggests, we see the contents of documents as having no more significance than the silences revealed by what the documents do not say. Indeed, it’s the lacunae that, in the end, speak the most eloquently through inference. So The Murder Farm is a short book one admires for its cleverness and its ability to so carefully disclose the psychology of all the interested parties. But it’s not a book one reads as a mystery or thriller offering a white-knuckle ride. On that basis, I recommend it for those interested in dispassionately deconstructing criminal motivations in a historical setting. Indeed, the themes are probably sufficiently universal to transcend time. We still turn a blind eye to domestic abuse and prefer not to interfere in the lives of our neighbours, no matter how awful they are. There may be lessons in this book for all of us.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Rather in the same style as one of those old ads for miracle products to rid us of acne or baldness, I think it best to have a before and after picture.
I suppose the question ought to be what most people feel when they pick up a 1,000 page book. But in these reviews, we never mind the “oughts”. Being a selfish and cantankerous old man, I am only thinking of myself at times like this. I feel intimidated. I know it is not fashionable to admit to physical frailty, but I am not joking when I complain about the weight of books. After holding the damn things for any length of time, wrists do grow tired. In this case, I have decided to cheat, raising my legs on a low stool to take the weight and, with knees carefully adjusted, balancing the tome without stressing the spine in all senses of the word. Now I only have to worry about the other thing. Will a book this length hold my interest? Born and raised on novels clocking in somewhere around the 40,000 to 50,000 word mark, I could easily read one, if not two, in a day. The local library loved me for my fast turnaround. There’s little time to grow bored when you’ve already finished it. But when a book staggers in at three-hundred thousand plus words, it gives you pause. What on earth is this author going to rabbit on about at this length to keep it interesting? Perhaps more importantly, will I still remember who everyone is as I get nearer the end?
Well, this has been a remarkable experience. I am pleased to report that this is completely fascinating. I am reminded of Hal Clement (the pseudonym used by Harry Stubbs). He delighted in world-building to present his readers with puzzles. Probably the best of these is Cycle of Fire in which the local ecology has evolved to cope with major climatic shifts every 65 years. It is like a mystery or detective story in which you see the world through the eyes of the main protagonist and have the same chances of working out the solution. So Brandon Sanderson has developed a highly complex world for us to explore. There are multiple types of life-form, both physical and intangible. The real is described from the grass up, and is very specifically adapted to local climatic conditions. The other forms are hinted at and described. There also appears to be at least one alternate dimension in play.
This is a very postmodernist fantasy with a major part of the work devoted to describing the cultures, defining roles by gender and other physical attributes. In this, the most important academic skills are considered appropriate for women in general and certain sects or groups of individuals. Rather in the same way that Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is built around the abbey’s library, so we are also invited to spend time in the planet’s major library with Shallan and Jasnah as they excavate the past and interrogate the written texts to determine the significance both of what is written directly and as glosses, and of what is not written. Although we are not quite in the same league as Eco in describing a full scholastic methodology as a part of semiotics, we do have a real opportunity to watch two scholars try to interpret the past, using different tools. This may be logic or philosophy as they try to tease out meaning from the content as written and as commented on. In this, they must often try to reconcile stories within stories, separating what may be facts from the fiction. In this note that the title of this novel, The Way of Kings, is a reference to the name of a largely anecdotal work on how to unify and run a kingdom extensively quoted and relied on by characters in the book.
The process of archaeology as proposed by Michel Foucault is complicated by the religious character of some of the information. Different sets of powerful people through time try to distort or conceal parts of the discourse. In the main, this is achieved by scapegoating or demonising some earlier or contemporary groups as evil or wrongdoers in both the literal and the religious senses of the words. Religion is often used by those in power to control access to information or to skew the interpretation of past events. This story is a classic example of the problem, signaling its intent by making one of the scholars a well-known atheist. More generally, the novel gives us a perfect opportunity to watch the different individuals access information as visions, and from their oral traditions and written texts. Their interpretations differ according to their cultural backgrounds.
That said, the main thematic concern of the novel is the question of honour and it poses the interesting question of whether it is a good in its own right. Altruism has always had a fuzzy feel to it because what is a selfless concern for the welfare of others in the minds of some, is loyalty to abstract concepts like government or a national state in others, or duties and obligation owed to leaders, or self-interest to those who are part of the group that will benefit from the planned activity. In this, we are primarily interested in Kaladin, whose story we work through in direct narrative and flashbacks. This is a man who constantly struggles with who he is and how he should relate to others. His early life training as a surgeon with his father taught him the notion of service to others but, in the real world, such service has not always been welcomed or valued. Similarly, Brightlord Dalinar Kholin struggles with himself as a warrior. What code of honour should he follow in his life and in combat? How much can or should he bend to achieve what he believes to be necessary improvements in the way his local kingdom is set up to run? It is all about ends and means, thinking through whether the journey is more important than the arrival at the intended outcome.
At the end, we have everything perfectly set up for the next thrilling installment. All the right people have been moved into position. Even the enigmatic “fool” is on the move as one of the key plotters emerges into the light.
I can well understand why it has taken so long to get this book into print. It is a major work of fiction, showing immense narrative skill in balancing “adventure” and “physical conflict” with the more cerebral elements. Although Elantris and Warbreaker are substantial and impressive works, this is has moved one step up the ladder of complexity and interest. If Brandon Sanderson keeps on improving, he could become the premier fantasy writer of the first part of this century. I unreservedly recommend The Way of Kings Book 1 of The Stormlight Archive, even though its use may not put hair on your head or remove unsightly zits.
Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance.
For the record, The Way of Kings won the David Gemmell Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2010.
Having read my first draft of this post to the end, I realised that, instead of a postscript, I need an antescript. From this, you will understand this is not a standard review. When thinking about books, it’s customary to discuss them more directly, even when what you write is literary criticism. This piece is rather oblique and, for those of you who worry about such things, it contains no spoilers. Instead and, perhaps, somewhat patronisingly, I have described what the book made me think about and vaguely projected this as if I assume it to be what the author was thinking about while writing.
For those of you who prefer reading posts on sites like this just to find out whether the reviewer thinks the book is any good, you can save yourself the trouble of reading the the end. As first novels go, this is very good. For those who want to know why, read on
The frame is a old-fashioned “club story” — in which one member of a club of adventurers pulls another to one side, offers a brandy and a cigar, and tells a story. This is very Victorian or Edwardian in approach and, in a perverse way, sets the tone of what can only be thought of as a postmodernist ghost story. This requires some explanation. Abandoning strict theory, let’s call the twentieth century a “modern” age in which we rejected the Victorian era that went before it and sought to progress to a new set of cultural ideas through our literature, art, theatre and music. As technology improved, we diversified away from the printing press, and into the new distribution systems of radio, television and now the internet. In the ways we have tried to use these different methods of communication, we were searching for new meanings. Early in the century, we had the harrowing experience of WWI. Millions of lives were thrown away in sterile conflict. We hoped there was a better way of communicating with each other to prevent such a catastrophe from repeating itself. Yet, no matter what political stance we took — whether the appeasement of the British or the isolationism of the US — future war was not to be denied.
This disturbed our certainties. The Victorians had prided themselves on the strength of their beliefs. They were invincible in trade and combat. After two world wars, we recognised that too high a price was paid for such certainty. We moved away from omniscience, and embraced relativism and subjectivism. Whereas the Victorian ghost was a practical manifestation of evil, intent upon causing harm and, even, threatening the Empire, the modernist ghost was a symptom of our own psychological insecurities. We were haunted as much by ourselves as by spirits or creatures from another dimension.
In a new century, we now move beyond modernism and look for a more coherent view of ourselves in the world. To do this, we use a kind of archaeology of the past, interweaving the fiction and ideas from earlier generations into our current discourse, allowing the past to illuminate the present. In writing this, I am borrowing the ideas of Michel Foucault and others who have helped crystalise the process, enriching our understanding of what we now think and believe by reinterpreting what we know, or do not know, of the past.
What’s so particularly fascinating about House of Windows (published by Night Shade Books, 2009) is that it becomes a form of postmodernist parable in which the two key characters mine the past for information in the hope it will explain what is happening to them. In this archaeological endeavour, they come equipped with the right skills. They are both academics, specialising in literature and, by implication, the postmodernist theories of literary interpretation and semiotics. So when they wish to explore the history of the house, they will search all records, look for contemporary witnesses from whom to collect impressions, and so on. They will interrogate the past. If they wish to know more about how the husband’s son died, they will reconstruct the past through maps, witness statements and physical re-enactment with models. There’s no tool or metaphorical device they will not use to progress their understanding of what happened and is happening.
There are supernatural events. As hopefully objective observers, they do not doubt the evidence of their senses, but this triggers anxiety about how their mental state will be perceived. It’s easy to predict how others will respond should they discuss their experiences. So they remain largely silent until the disclosures made through this novel. That they are willing to suspend disbelief is a sign of their scholarship. They become energised, determined to analyse, and so take control of events. They believe they will resolve matters satisfactorily once they have applied the scientific method, postulating a hypothesis, seeking evidence, interpreting it and reasoning to a conclusion. Such is the hubris of the postmodernist. That this may be genuinely supernatural and so not explicable in human terms, is not something they consider a barrier to eventual understanding.
Thematically, the main interest is in parental relationships. In theory, each generation socialises the next and fashions a new set of people capable of carrying the family fortune and the nation’s wealth to higher levels of prosperity. Except, of course, parental relationships can be seriously dysfunctional and the values that are handed down prove rather different from those intended. So we are invited to judge parents as they relate to their children. Where the focus is on a father, we are asked whether the behaviour of the natural mother and, in one case, the younger stepmother and wife, is a positive force. This is not to say that children are always the victims of their parents. A father may project his own dreams on to his son, hoping he will take up the torch and run further with it. Within reasonable limits, this is a constructive approach to parenting. But a more obsessional academic father may not to see his son’s dyslexia for what it is. When you want so desperately for your son to become a scholar, you are more likely predisposed to see the son’s difficulty in reading as defiance.
So when, for a host of sins, both real and imagined, the father curses the son and casts him out, what effect does this have? Remember, we are dealing with the supernatural here, so we are not restricting effect to physical separation or psychological torment. When the son dies without ever reconciling with the father, there will be guilt for the father to deal with and what from the spirit of the son? Indeed, the real question is what a dead son could do from beyond the grave. As a spirit, could he even find his way home without a map?
This is not a Victorian style of ghost story as in “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant, nor do we meet a ghost such as Hodgson’s Carnacki might have found. This is not M. R. James nor anything cosmic with tentacles along the lines of H. P. Lovecraft (although there’s a hint the house might be a little like the Witch House). Instead, the house is a metaphor for memories and how we see them. If we were standing inside our heads, think of the eyes as like windows through which we can look out across our memories. At any moment, we might “see” a memory of our children, or a place we visited as a child, or something we imagine. Because we are fallible, memories are rearranged, we reinterpret them and some we forget. So the house might seem to be confusing, perhaps generating the suggestion of different rooms or doors, or being able to access different spaces. If you prefer not to accept this metaphor, think of the “slow glass” stories by Bob Shaw through which we might perceive the past. Why the past? Because that’s the source of the emotions of loss and grief and guilt (although not necessarily in that order).
House of Windows is not a horror story in the traditional sense. It’s far too cerebral and dispassionate for that. Rather it’s a story about relationships which has a supernatural dimension. As first novels go, it succeeds in provoking considerable thought. This is a good thing. I believe this is a harbinger of future greatness. In terms of style, I was reminded of Peter Straub. Langan is not yet that good but, if he strikes a better balance between the ideas and the narrative, I think he might get to that level.
For a review of John Langan’s first collection of short stories, see Mr Gaunt and other uneasy encounters.
For this review, I’m travelling back in time a little. I’ve been putting off reading this second in a trilogy by Brandon Sanderson until I had the time to read the last two books together. It avoids the cliffhanging ending being too much to bear for a year and more until the last episode comes along. So, off we go with another strength-enhancing dumbbell of a book. Weighing in at almost 600 pages, The Well of Ascension continues the fantasy saga of the Mistborn. But rather than a “conventional” text, it’s written with very clear postmodernist sensibilities. It would be easy to see this story as only about a small group, mainly magicians of varying degrees of power, trying to cobble a government together using democratic means while being threatened by invading armies. But there’s a lot more going on in the text.
Michel Foucault proposed in a series of articles and books that the best way to understand the present is to interrogate the past. He described this process as a type of intellectual archaeology. Researchers dig down into the early layers of documentation. Every new piece of evidence being important not only for what it says, but also for what it does not say. The lacunae are just as important as the finds. This process is central to this book as the Terris Keepers are walking archaeologists, each carrying a datastore of the accumulating knowledge about the past and present. As new facts are uncovered, the researchers cross-reference and annotate, creating an ever more comprehensive view of past events. All this scholarship does, however, rest upon a simple assumption. That no-one else can change the records they find or keep. Just imagine how distorted the research would become if someone was able to manipulate the records.
This theme directly links into the second proposition that access to control over people depends on a linkage between pouvoir and savoir — power and knowledge. Societies are built on and driven by a continuing stream of discourse. In their most refined form, the discourses of constitutional law and political influence dictate the shape and operation of the state. At the lowest levels, the discourses of class and culture determine how people present themselves to the others with whom they interact. Everything is essential from the clothes they wear, their body language, the accents with which they speak and so on. Leaders dress in particular ways to communicate their right to lead. There are deliberate borrowings from semiotics in this fantasy as Tindwyl, one of the Terris Keepers, tries to instruct Elend, the potential leader, in the theories of communication and the manipulation of signs and symbols.
In this story, there is access to all parts of the discourse at a metalevel with only the records engraved on metal outside direct control. Lower down in the layering of discourse, access follows the real-world structures of political power brokers and increasingly less influential classes. But, interestingly, two of the magical skills are soothing and rioting which allow those with the power to directly interact with the emotions of those close to them. Thus, the combination of words, body language and magical ability (substitute “charisma” in the real world) endows speakers with the maximum ability to influence their audience.
Then there are matter of the heart. Hardly the concern of a postmodernist but Sanderson rises to the occasion with an extended parable about choice. In one set of relationships based on romantic, courtly love (albeit not quite in the real-world mediaeval European style), the Mistborn finds herself between two brothers who could not be more different. She is young and inexperienced in love, but the need to make a choice between the two brothers becomes increasingly real as the book continues. In the second relationship between a mature couple, we are presented with two Terris Keepers. Male Keepers like Sazed are eunuchs. Tindwyl has her own reasons for preferring to remain platonic. In this trilogy, Sanderson’s central preoccupation is on the relationship between love and trust. He muses on how people might transcend their differences and find comfort in each other. It could be an entirely rational and somewhat dispassionate process. Or it could be intuitive as the couple try to see beyond surface impressions. It might be driven by the genetically-programmed desire to continue the race by producing children, or the couple might be intellectually compatible while incapable of producing children. As a separate but allied thread in the plot, we also have the developing relationship between the Mistborn and her kandra who, by reason of his ability to take on the shape of humans and animals, is not who he seems to be. With the kandra, we have a person who feels bound by the strict letter of his race’s agreement with humanity, yet is tempted by the freedom to choose.
The danger with books of this kind is that they become too preoccupied with the discussion of ideas. Every author walks a fine line. One of the best examples of the problem is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. As an academic specialising in semiotics and literary theory, Eco could have sidelined the mystery to identify the murderer in a mediaeval abbey, but the primary narrative of how William of Baskerville “solves” the case manages to rise above its context. Although not quite on the same level as Eco, Sanderson also drives the plot along as the imperial capital of Luthadel finds itself surrounded by two armies. The threatened arrival of the third non-human koloss army keeps everyone on their toes. The merits of a democratic as against various kinds of more direct power structures are pivotal to the unfolding of events, but they remain sufficiently a subtext to let the narrative to drive forward. The emerging interest in religion also hints at future developments.
On balance, I found this an intelligent and pleasing book. I hesitate to limit it by genre. Yes, it’s ostensibly the second in a fantasy trilogy, but Sanderson’s willingness to explore the ideas and relationships gives an added depth and resonance to the otherwise simple story of daring-do. For once, I swept through a long book and immediately picked up the concluding volume, The Hero of Ages, to see how it all turned out. Five hundred and seventy two pages later, I had the answer.
For a review of the sequel, The Hero of Ages, and two YA novels set in different universes, see Alcatraz Versus The Scrivener’s Bones and The Rithmatist. There’s also a stand-alone novel called Warbreaker and a novella The Emperor’s Soul.
You also have the first two novels in The Stormlight Archive:
The Way of Kings
The Words of Radiance.