Archive for alchemy

the liberation [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2021 by xi'an

The third volume of Ian Tregillis’ The Alchemy Wars arrived in the mail, and I could not resist bing-read it, induced by a heat wave that made anything close to serious work near impossible in the late afternoons… The characters are essentially the same, with two central (human) female characters whose trajectories once again converge to the critical point. Plus, two female robots playing a contrapunt. And the biblical Daniel, reborn from slavery into a free willed, tolerant and pacific being.

“The Clockmakers had been playing a losing game of catch-up (…) They were too soft, too coddled, too accustomed to standing atop the pile. They weren’t well suited to life as underdogs. They were not French.”

The core of the action takes place in Amsterdam, occupied by liberated robots, prone to pogroms as well as re-enslaving other robots. The weakness in the plot is that there is no strong reason these robots do not completely take over the formerly ruling Guild of Alchemists, and lengthy plot-resolving discussions between fighting characters always irk me no end, but the conclusion still feels proper, with the author not at all reluctant to hack at bits and pieces of his character to raise the body-count. À ls George Martin! And the mild philosophical musing about the reversal of dominant-dominated positions in this society are overall enjoyable if not particularly deep. Overall, a striking trilogy.

the rising [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2021 by xi'an

When I received this second volume of the Alchemy Wars, the rising, it was most fortunately a weekend, and I devoured it within the two days! As hinted at by the title, hence not truly a spoiler!, this book ends up with the rise of the robots, thanks to the main characters already there in the first volume, Jax (reXened Daniel) the freed robot, Bérénice [missing her acute accents] the French master spy (code name Talleyrand), and Longchamp the charismatic commander of the Montréal (renamed Marseille-in-the-West) fortress. While the author seems to have invested more in the language of the Dutch Empire than in the one of the remaining French exiled to Québec, I did not spot crimes de lèse majesté on my native language (except for the above accents). A mystery remains though as to how, when crossing the Atlantic ocean, fugitives end up in Honfleur, east Normandy, and far inside the Channel. Returning to the plot per se, while its pace is breathless, with the revolutions of the characters’ paths bringing them into predictable contacts, and the dialogues are still great, the recourse to a hidden subterranean complex irked me as usual, while the repeated escapes of Bérénice from certain death, capture, brainwash, are just too much, even with the help of dei ex machina. This second volume is also less into pondering the meaning of free will and freedom, even though the sad discovery by Jax (sorry, Daniel!) of Neverland being somewhat a mirror of Netherlands is well-thought. Now waiting for the last volume and another free wekend (or a trip to Marseille!).

L’œuvre au noir

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on September 28, 2013 by xi'an

L‘œuvre au noir (The Abyss) is a 1968 book written by Marguerite Yourcenar I read decades ago and took with me this summer. It tells the story of Zeno(n), a mediaeval precursor of the Renaissance humanist, involved in medicine, alchemy, engineering and philosophy, but above all fighting or at least resisting the pressure of irrational beliefs and superstitions until they lead him to suicide. As acknowledged by Yourcenar in her notes, the character borrows from Renaissance scientists like Erasme, Giordano Bruno, Mikołaj Copernic, Leonardo da Vinci, and medical pioneers like Paracelsus (very much like Paracelsus!), Michel Serat and Etienne Dolet. Zenon is an atheist at a time when atheism is punished by burning at the stake, and an experimenter in an epoch when alchemy and dissection were assimilated to sorcery. The original title (translated as nigredo) is the first of the three steps in the alchemist transmutation process but also applies to the transformation of Zenon from what the society planned for him into a free and rational man. So free that he could choose himself the time and manner of his death. So rational that he reached a spiritual solitude that made him see his fellow humans with the doctor’s detached compassion and the philosopher’s pessimistic analysis of their superstitions. (The English title is just missing the point!)

This is a 20th century novel (on which Yourcenar tolled for many years, from three short stories to the final version), which makes the highly modern vision of the imaginary Zenon less remarkable than the steps made by the above real characters, but the text abounds in remarkable discussions and monologues that reminded me of similar passages in Memoirs of Hadrian. Both books are centred on (impossibly and unrealistically) exceptional men with visions that set them out of their historical time. The fate of Zenon is somehow underlying the whole book and his weak and failed attempt at fleeing Bruges and the Inquisition can be understood at the first step towards his philosopher’s suicide, preferring to face the ecclesiastical tribunal and debate of some of his ideas than Flemish smugglers and an inglorious end by being tossed into the North Sea. L‘œuvre au noir is a remarkable if pessimistic book that reflects on science and intolerance in a beautiful style, a book that I put in par with the equally great Memoirs of Hadrian.

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