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[…] poets scorn

The boundaried love of country, being free

Of winds, and alien lands, and distances

Vagabonds of the compass, wayfarers

Pilgrims of thought, the tongues of Pentecost

Their privilege, and in their peddler’s pack

The curious treasures of their stock-in-trade

Bossy and singular, the heritage

Of poetry and science, polished bright

Thin with the rubbing of too many hands

Last Monday Stephanie and I travelled out to Kiama to take in the sights. It was a beautiful day, the sun was causing little birds to queue up for shallow bird baths and the town itself has a lovely series of shops that stock tasty condiments, dessert sweets and some unusual jewellery. There was of course also a second-hand book shop, which I made a bee-line for.

There I picked out this book, as I have always wanted to learn more about Vita Sackville-West. All I really knew about her was that she inspired the Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Indeed she is most famous these days as Woolf’s lover, a great woman reduced to a footnote. I flipped through the book, with its water-damaged cover and dedication dated 1939 – and found on the back page a poem written by the book’s original owner.

So here’s what I am doing folks. I am going to quote the poem in full, here, so that it lives on and survives this decaying book. Just a little gesture on my part to this book lover who was inspired by Sackville-West to write his own poem –

Plus and Minus

What is a tree before the Spring?

A skeleton, a scaffolding

And yet the inner spirit grieves

At the officiousness of leaves

 

When does it most delight the age?

In January or July?

And in the sum of loveliness

How much is figure, how much dress?

George Keogh

Anyway, back to the business of reviewing.

Sackville-West long-form poem is split between the four seasons, beginning with Winter. Each seperate season is allocated it’s own canto and within each of these the perspective of an assortment of labourers, farmers and country-folk is described. The relationship between man and the land he tills is described as an alternating master/slave dialectic:

There is a bond between the men who go

From youth about the business of the earth,

And the earth they serve, their cradle and their grave

This same passage leads to what I think is the most devastatingly beautiful line in the collection:

Life’s little lantern between dark and dark

Her purpose is not to condescend to the ‘yeoman’, and ‘shepherds’ cited within their verses, but to celebrate them, frame their labour as an expression of the purpose of humanity itself. Sackville-West takes the pastoral Romantic vision of, say Wordsworth, and  injects it with the individualistic thrust of Walt Whitman. The Land is also passionately nationalistic:

An English cornfield in full harvesting

Is English as the Bible

The English weather is cited as a temperate ideal envied by ‘exiles’, in other parts of the world.

The purpose of the poet is to celebrate and promote such ideals of individuality and nationhood, but also the essential role played by ‘ordinary workers’, in sustaining humanity’s foothold on the earth. In a sense, Sackville-West is attempting to collapse the rarefied divide between upper-class literary society and the working class. High learning may be of no practical use, but the farmer, the bee-keeper and the gardener has a deeper understanding of the world than insensate Romantics:

I have not understood humanity.

But those plain things, that gospel of each year,

Made me the scholar of simplicity

The passing of the seasons is shown not just to require different activities in relation to harvesting and husbandry, but in turn causes the men who work the land to change. The fields that have been ploughed and tilled should not be mistaken for a beaten opponent. Those who work the land should respect it as an ally, a companion. Somewhere in between the free-flowing verse of pastorals and the dry concerns of farming, a middle-ground is sought, where true understanding can be found that outstrips empty talk of Nature(!).

To a contemporary reader perhaps Sackville-West‘s language seems too old-fashioned, but consider the audience she was pitching this work to. The Land received the Hawthornden Prize in 1926, so I imagine her message was heard. Of course the idealism and forward-looking culture that rose up following the ‘Great War‘, would soon be lost..

A socially conscious corrective to Romanticism, beautifully captured.

 

The two men shared a look. Finally Breeze spoke. “Lord Ruler knows, I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge. But, Kell, I do question your reasoning. Are you sure we can do this?”

“I’m positive,” Kelsier said. “Previous attempts to throw down the Lord Ruler have failed because they lacked proper organization and planning. We’re thieves, gentlemen – and we’re extraordinarily good ones. We can rob the unrobbable and fool the unfoolable. We know how to take an incredibly large task and break it down to manageable pieces, then deal with each of those pieces. We know how to get what we want. These things make us perfect for this particular task.”

I should explain how my reading speed works. Basically, I need to be interested in the book I’m reading to finish it quickly. For example, the book I have had the hardest time finishing in time for review on this site so far has been Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It bored me silly and I just managed to get my piece published in time, despite it being quite a slim book. So why am I reviewing a book that is over six hundred pages long? I am very interested in Brandon Sanderson. See this is the fellow who has been handed the unenviable task of wrapping up Robert Jordan’s overlong and unwieldy Wheel of Time series. Which I first began reading in 1992. I grew out of the books, but I just want the series to end, so I can find out what happens. So I tackled one of Sanderson’s own books, to see what kind of writer he is.

The story begins with a land shrouded in mists and covered in black ash. The Lord Ruler controls the lands of the so-called Final Empire, his reign over a thousand years old. The people his armies enslaved long ago are known as skaa and they believe him to be nothing less than a god. One night in a regional settlement the cries of a young girl are heard as the provincial lord’s men drag her away. The skaa do nothing. Tired and frightened, they accept that this is the way of things. A stranger who has recently arrived goes out into the night in pursuit. When he does not return the people assume the men who kidnap their daughters killed him as well as the girl. In the morning they awake and find the young child they thought lost returned. The castle has been burned to the ground, the soldiers defending it dead and their lord stabbed to death by the stranger. His name is Kelsier and he is what passes for a hero in these times.

The Lord Ruler’s capital is known as Luthadel and for most of Vin’s short life she has lived on its streets, stealing to survive. Her brother is gone and she is utterly alone. Until Kelsier, the man referred to by the skaa as The Survivor finds her. He invites her to join his crew of thieves, men who work together and even seem to trust one another. What makes her special? Vin, like Kelsier, is a Mistborn, capable of drawing power from diluted solutions of metals and alloys. Allomancy is an ability restricted only to the nobility who serve the Lord Ruler. Any who hide among the skaa and practice these powers are hunted down and killed by the agents of the Final Empire, known as Inquisitors. All of Kelsier’s men have some ability with alomancy and he has a plan. They’re going to pull off the biggest con of all. Collapse the Final Empire itself.

As I was reading, I had this niggling sense of familiarity. A crew of thieves with special powers? A long-con designed to financially cripple a powerful enemy? A hero with a tragic past and a precocious young women with amazing abilities….this is the fantasy version of Inception!(which you can read me kvetching about here and here).

It’s also a post-nationalist fantasy, something of a constant since the time of Tolkien. The setting is mostly urban, you have morally gray heroes and a fantastically bleak premise (the jacket reads ‘What if the Dark Lord won?’) – Sanderson has, unwittingly or not, become a torch-bearer for Moorcock’s revisionist take on the fantasy genre.

Well developed characters, interesting concepts and a climax that actually delivers (this is the first book in a series), I am impressed.

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