Book Reviews (23)

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

I first read Wolf Hall choking it down as part of a reading list. Trying again on my own time, I could much better appreciate Mantel’s account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise in the court of Henry VIII, as Katherine of Aragon falls and Anne Boleyn takes her place. The sly manoeuvring of power, sharp dialogue, period detail, and introspective prose make for a compelling experience.

There are segments where it’s tricky to see how things are moving forwards – no doubt that reflects the uncertainties of the time, and Mantel’s writing kept my interest, but some of those periods could’ve been summarised more strongly. One small issue I had with the prose is Mantel’s use of ‘he’ as the subject of sentences, usually referring to Cromwell, being unclear in some places with other men involved.

However, any scene of court drama, business, violence, wrangling tricky people and situations – the majority of the book – shows off a balance of historical fact and strong characterisation, drawing on wit, sensitivity, and brash corruption.

The Hero of Ages – Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn #3

A great conclusion to a great trilogy.

Some of the world-building is a bit top-heavy, but it’s masterful world-building – you get to figure things out yourself and realize they were dangled from book one, and the action sparkles as always. The Big Bad is a bit of a generic destructive bastard, despite the notes of complexity Sanderson did fit in there, but is still a fun enemy. And the story as a whole pulls right along, with the best fast, consistent pacing so far, tying up mysteries and closing long-waiting loops with revelation.

Sazed’s philosophical struggle comes off a little one-note, but it’s impossible to dislike the character, and the arc is staggering. Spook – that guy has really stepped up! Through TenSoon, we get more nice kandra lore. Vin is Vin. Elend is Elend. The two together can feel a touch wooden sometimes, but mostly not – overall it’s good old Brando Sando.

And the ending – the scope and payoff over these three chonky tomes, the sacrifice and reward – crikey. Read these books, people.

The Dawn of Everything – David Graeber & David Wengrow

The standard framing of zoomed-out human history runs something like this: start with small hunter-gatherer bands living in either egalitarian harmony (if you believe Rousseau) or a brutish war of all against all (if you believe Hobbes); then progress through a sequence of evolutionary stages – tribes, chiefs, farming, cities: at which point the scale of people who need organising requires a level of top-down hierarchy which leads inexorably to the modern nation-state.

It’s a tale in which modern civilisation required either sacrificing the childlike equality of hunter-gatherer bands, or taming our brutish instincts through the rule of law. In either case, inequality is an unavoidable price.

This incredible work blows all that up. Looking at the evidence in anthropology and archaeology, Graeber and Wengrow overturn every step of the narrative of progress we take for granted.

Humans didn’t spend hundreds of thousands of years in tiny bands with no further political complexity at play – in a State of Nature taken as either good or evil. Our ancient ancestors, they insist, were conscious of how they organised themselves and made decisions about it. Stone Age people could gather in thousands for meaningful portions of the year, building large structures of their own, and consciously shifted between smaller and larger groups with different forms of organisation at different times of year. Far from simple isolated bands, networks of culture formed across thousands of miles.

Agriculture didn’t force a development towards aristocracies, as many thinkers have claimed; and nor did the scale of cities require a loss of egalitarian organisation. At every point a range of possibilities were open, because people debated how to organise themselves. For millennia, people farmed in such a way as to deliberately prevent crops becoming fully domesticated; and once they were it didn’t force any particular mode of social organisation. Various ancient cities were ran by local assemblies for centuries at a time, running complex projects (irrigation, housing, etc) without kings – while the smaller groups in the hills turned towards monarchy. Some cities turned to rulers. Others overthrew them.

Graeber and Wengrow put aside the usual question of the ‘origin of inequality’, which they point out assumes in its framing a primordial Garden of Eden. Instead of asking ‘are we fundamentally good or bad?’, they look deeper to ask how we really function in light of the evidence, how we got here, and what new possibilities this all raises for our future. The course of history isn’t a set of inexorable stages, but one where human agency has always played a role (not, of course, the only one).

Where, then, did the story of stages come from? They trace it to the encounter between Native America and Europe, in which the indigenous critiques of Europe stimulated Enlightenment thought as well as a conservative backlash. This is the context in which Rousseau, Hobbes, and their contemporaries tackled the questions raised by the clash of culture and ideology, in which many European intellectuals came to conclude that equality was possible at a ‘lower stage of development’ but not in commercial or industrial society. The assumptions they made about the past on this basis are all wrong, so why assume they’re right about the future?

The tone of writing is informed yet informal, nicely wry – on ‘savagely violent’ Yanomami sharing beds, ‘This requires a degree of good-natured mutual accommodation of which few contemporary social theorists would be capable.’

I did get frustrated with the endnotes. Many could be better placed within the main text or as footnotes, because flipping back and forth gets tiring. The writers cover as much evidence as they plausibly can without the nature of the task making things ridiculous, but some minor points are brushed though a little suddenly. A stronger look at patriarchy is also missing, the conclusion’s look at warfare a bit quick.

The scale of the task here means they have to set limits somewhere – they can’t analyse every bone fragment in the world’s museums! – but they are very clear when they’re referring to fact, interpretation, or just a possibility to consider. As ‘radical’ a reimagining of history we might call this, the writers were also very sober with it. Wengrow mentions in his Foreword and dedication to the sadly late Graeber that they wanted to write sequels: ‘no less than three’. Heck.

Whatever happens with that, this book is certainly profound.

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