Thursday, June 27, 2013

Western History: A Book Review

            Sorry I haven’t posted in awhile. I seem to be saying that a lot lately, whether on blogs, to my diaries, or even for Keebler Elf fan-fiction sites. I’ve just been lackadaisical. I wish I could pretend it’s because of some over-arching project I have in my life that’s consuming the rest of my time, but really it’s a combination of a lack of ideas and Reddit. Robbing me of creativity is probably the best thing that site has done for the world, and I’m counting all of the charity drives those internet curmudgeons are guilted into.
            So in my stupor, I decided I’d choke on someone else’s creativity in order to jump start mine, like some sort of necromancer with a ring of (+5) Pop Culture References. I looked for books like a crook, and mistook all these rhymes for a good, funny… juke? Anyhoo, I found a book that really caught my attention, and I think you guys should give it a try. It’s a huge beast of a book series called Western History. It’s endlessly compelling, although I know most can’t quite get into it, so I thought I’d review it here, just for ya’ll to check if you’re interested or not.
            Like I said, Western History is a major undertaking. The author writes an incredibly deep and complex story, stretching over a huge number of generations. The scope of the entire undertaking puts writers as highly revered as Tolkien and George “Rail Roadin’ ” Martin to shame. It’s the complexity that can keep many readers away. For instance, the intriguing character of Julius Caesar (who could carry volumes of spinoff works in his own right) has to share screen time with the divisive Jesus Christ. But every character has a part to play in the grand works, and even the love-him or hate-him Christ grows into a much larger influence than readers would first think- No spoilers!

The fan's depictions are a little off, why
did they color the guy white?
            It’s that sort of thing where Western History really shines. The foreshadowing in these books is simply amazing. Parts of the tale seem petty at first, yet surface later in the story as major plot points, like when the fun yet boorish Henry the Eighth inherits his dead brother’s wife, a Spanish princess, the creatively named Catherine of Aragon, it seems abrupt and unnecessary, but Henry’s reaction to the situation spins his land off on a completely new tangent. It’s really a masterpiece to weave such intricate fibers into a web of politics and deceit. Or perhaps when Europe tries to wrap itself into a series of alliances during the chapters concerning the years 1812 till around 1821 and immediately spirals into war concerning a state (Greece) in the Baltic Peninsula fighting for independence from a conservative empire (The Ottoman Empire). It’s the same thing that will happen almost exactly a hundred years later, with Serbia, Austria-Hungary, and much more disastrous results.
            Or when Germany ruins France’s, and much of Europe’s, economy in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 by requesting ridiculous reparations, and France turns around and ruins Europe’s economy right back by doing the same thing in the next war forty years later.
            Unfortunately, some of the characters make unrealistic decisions, and frankly, are unlikeable. I’m sure you’ve seen the hateful reactions to the character of Marie Antoinette on Twitter and other internet sites, but you really have to read the books to get a handle on her character. I know that she was probably designed to be unlikeable by the author, since nobody would ever really act that unempathetically to the plight of the poor, but it doesn’t help the books when I can hardly read them between fits of anger at characters like her, the American Andrew Johnson, or late-in-the-game Adolf Hitler.

Ugh, THIS bitch, amirite, readers?
            Hitler, oof, the biggest baddie of Western History since the middle book’s villain of The Black Death (who frankly was a little unrealistic and mystical), brings me to my next point. Sometimes characters, often the antagonists, make such poor decisions that it breaks your immersion. The author had to go so far to get some of these to fall from grace, it often stretches belief. For instance, Hitler’s on top of Europe in Act Two of The Modern Age, but schedules a boneheaded invasion of another land that, honestly, we had seen only a hundred and fifty years earlier. It seems to me that the author is beginning to run out of ideas when a man as important as Hitler can make the exact same mistake as another character from earlier in the same book, Napoleon. The end books become a little repetitive.
            However, the moral grey areas of this series make for some of the best reading in my life. Hitler versus Stalin, who should you root against? They’re both awful men, but someone has to win! And the whole over-arching subplot of rights of the masses to rule over themselves, and failing repeatedly, had me questioning if aristocracies WEREN’T the right idea.
            Although often overlooked in adult literature, stories can still hold morals that speak to the child in all of us. Listen to your elders, respect the rights of others, don’t get involved in a war the far-off and fancifully-named land of Afghanistan, they’re all great lessons that we can take to heart. Sometimes, the morals can be slammed into your head a little bit too unsubtly, although the characters don’t seem to get the memo. The illogically terrible treatment of some characters that only differed in ethnicity frustrated me as major characters and supposed good guys like George Washington or Winston Churchill failed to heed their own author’s lessons. The citizens of the land of England, for instance, fought a war against a man who persecuted the characters known as Jews, yet turned around and began to incite violence against the very same peoples inside their own borders. I suppose it’s the author’s weakness with likeable characters, down to the most minute of individuals, that brings out this quality.
            The author has these troubles in the macro scale sometimes. The land of France is widely unlikeable, and save a brief period the author has creatively nicknamed “The Enlightenment,” does not have any of its business in order. We’ve already discussed Marie Antoinette, and in fairness to the author, the citizens of France seem to hate her nearly as much as the reader. She and other extravagant nobles clash with the plight of the poor almost cinematically, leading to a bloody revolution.
            The character that rises to power, the amazingly named Maximilien de Robespierre, is conniving, brutal, and ultimately doomed, leading to another miniature revolution in only three years. What do the citizens of France do after this? Appoint another Emperor, the classic character of Napoleon, who follows the familiar literary path of the rise to power, the pride, and the fall. Then we see the return of a weak republic, who is overthrown for a monarch, who is overthrown for a republic, and it’s just… tiresome. You find yourself rooting against them at almost every turn.
            Every once and while, a phrase dips into the text. “History is written by the victor,” it reads, and although it seems apt when the protagonists seem to win almost every war, it bothers me. The breaking of the fourth wall can be fun and exciting in some contexts, but here, the author’s self-insertion just bugs me. We know you wrote it, you don’t have to tell everyone you were there.
            I know my review wasn’t quite ringing, but I promise the positives make up for all of its shortcomings. On the plus side, we have an incredible scope, amazing plot foreshadowing and pacing, and important moral lessons. Things that don’t quite work as well are unlikeable characters, repetitive plot points, and poor decision-making by supposedly important statesmen. Not to mention the recurring bumbling of France and its inhabitants, who drag the story down whenever they come up.


Western History: A strong B. Catch it on HBO.

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