October in Books: Dead Souls; The Final Empire; The Norman Conquest

Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol

dead-soulsSeedy Russian businessman exploits state corruption in a get-rich-quick scheme, by buying up the souls of dead peasants for use as collateral against a massive loan.

According to the blurb, Dead Souls is “the funniest book in the Russian language before the twentieth century”, but unfortunately this joke just wasn’t for me. The novel is really a series of caricatures: the plot itself is just a vehicle for Gogol to satirise the various forms of legal, financial and moral corruption in 19th century Russia. Which is fine, if you know enough about said corruption to get the satire – but as I don’t, I couldn’t really find any purchase in what is essentially the story of a man trying to find the best deal on a mortgage.

I do very much like the cover, though, even if that is where my inclinations end. Being incredibly cheap, Wordsworth Classics’ covers do have a tendency to be the naffest of naff, but I quite like Dead Souls’ “Dementors in a poppy field” vibe. That said, it’s probably not enough to stop me passing this one on to the next second-hand shop I visit.

The Final Empire, Brandon Sanderson

the-final-empireA band of thieves and street urchins attempts to overthrow a god.

It’s always great finding a fantasy book that not only does something different with the genre, but doesn’t just lean on that difference as its only selling point. Sure, on the surface The Final Empire looks like yet another story about an uprising against an evil imperial oppressor; but instead of the usual saga of knights in faux-Europe, the first Mistborn novel is more like a Hunger Games reboot led by Victorian alchemists. I imagine this would be a great fantasy novel for people who say they don’t like traditional fantasy novels, or for existing fantasy fans who want something that takes them somewhere new.

The Norman Conquest, Marc Morris

the-norman-conquest

The full story of the 1066 Norman invasion, from its origins in the twilight of Anglo-Saxon England, through to King William’s death and legacy.

I don’t know about you, but for all the emphasis put on it at school I never felt I really learnt much about William the Bastard’s conquest of England. So, with the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings this month, I figured it was time to put that right.

I must admit, this did take a bit to get into. The story of William the Conqueror starts a long, long way before 1066, and Marc Morris spends almost the entire first half of this book focusing on the messy socio-political context of tenth century England that made the Norman Conquest possible. What with all the Danish invasions, failed Godwinson power plays and tenuous succession claims, it took about 150 pages for William to start making any invasionary noises.

But as with any episode in history, you can’t ignore the preamble if you want to make sense of the event itself, and as the Battle of Hastings is arguably “the most important date in English history”, it takes a lot of background reading to really understand why the Norman Conquest was so important. I still think Morris could have pared things down a little further, but compared with the simplistic “he came, he saw, he conquered” Key Stage 3 approach, I’ll happily take The Norman Conquest‘s level of depth any day.

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