Piranesi

Simply put, I loved this book. It is atmospheric and lovely in ways I have never before experienced. But why? What makes it uniquely beautiful?

This is a book that values the ancient ways of being in the world. It points out the cracks in modernism’s push for the rational and measurable, but not by denying the value of rationality or measurability. No. Instead, Susanna Clarke narrates a proof that the modern agenda is too limited.

Piranesi, though that isn’t truly his name, is supremely rational. He measures the world around him: studying the tides and charting them so that he alone is aware of their comings and goings, risings and fallings. He is meticulous. Yet he lives in a state of childlike wonder (a narrated portrait of what Jesus meant by receiving the kingdom like a child and being born again–Piranesi receives like a child because he has been born anew in his world). The world is enchanted to his eyes, because it is sacramental in his experience. The world speaks, and he hears it because he fits so neatly within it. He knows his place, and lives along the grain, rather than living against it as the Other does. The Other seeks to manipulate the world and mine it for power and “true knowledge,” but Piranesi receives the world as a gift, as infused with meaning that he can receive and understand because he fits so perfectly into its warp and weft.

And this is where the beauty of this work shines through. Whether we’re talking about the Other or the Prophet, both are wrong about this world. The Other because he thinks the true knowledge is something to be taken, contained, and used to dominate; the Prophet because he no longer believes the true knowledge even exists. But Piranesi, simpy by being himself and filling his unique place within the world, proves that the true knowledge does exist and that it cannot be found by seeking it. Instead, it is to be experienced and absorbed by those who truly see the world and fully live within. To find it, transformation is required, and that is something neither the Other nor the Prophet are willing to endure, because the required transformation is permanent. There is no going back. There is real loss involved, but the loss is worth it.

What Piranesi knows is that the world is not a tool to be used. It exists for its own sake.

This flies in the face of what I was once taught. I was told that the world exists to glorify God. What Piranesi knows, in a sense, is that the world glorifies God, but that is not its purpose. It exists because God is the Creator, and all God’s making is gratuitous. God makes because that is what God does and who God is: the Maker, the Creator. And because of that, all things have dignity. All things deserve respect. Because God saw fit to make them.

I believe that Piranesi’s way of being in the world is a model for how I might be in my world. It’s a mystic’s way of being. Living as a creature among other creatures in a sacramental world charged with the grandeur of God. It’s the vision of St. Francis, who saw all things as kin to himself. It’s the vision of St. John of the Cross, who saw that God is especially present in the deepest spiritual darkness. It’s Pseudo-Dionysius’s vision of indivisible multiplicity within the Godhead.

Piranesi proves that the modern agenda has lost its footing, not by insisting on measuring the world and studying it, but by forgetting that the world being studied and measured is a gift. We are not outside of this gifted world looking in. No. We are part of it, and we best understand it when we simply fit within it, kin to the world around us. All of Piranesi’s measured data equipped him to discover something beyond the data: the indivisible unity and harmony of his world, and his place within that harmony even in the face of darkness and mystery.

If I could walk through life in this way, I too would hear the world speak. And in its speech, I would hear the voice of God calling me to union.

The Spider’s War

There’s a good chance this will prove to the best book I read all year. It’s a truly satisfying conclusion to one of the best series I’ve yet read. Big claims, I know, so hopefully I can offer some support for them:

The characters are well-drawn and absolutely convincing. They act consistently and believably, and that means even the characters you’re rooting for aren’t always likable, and the bad guys aren’t all bad. Which leads me to Geder. He is the perfect example of this. His actions are understandable, but he never comes across sympathetically. You’re never rooting for his success even when you understand how damaged he is and how badly he longs to belong. He’s a horrible man, but his relationship with Aster is tender and sweet. It is all the things you’d hope it would be, but Geder’s tenderness and affection for his ward don’t stop him from ordering some true atrocities (all while blaming others for “forcing him to do it” of course). He’s a petty man, small minded and proud, but he isn’t Sauron . . . he isn’t a dark lord with strictly malicious purposes (not that I have any problem with heroes battling against truly epic evil mind you). He isn’t some malevolent force that has lost all that was originally good in him. No, he’s human, just like all tyrants throughout our history, and that means he is equally capable of compassion, mercy, and monstrosity. Murder, butchery, and intense rage contrast with his deep and abiding love of and respect for his father. I’m sure Hitler felt tenderly toward his nearest and dearest, but that didn’t stop him from genocide. It doesn’t stop Geder either. And so evil as represented by Geder is an Augustinian evil–it is an evil characterized not by some intense substantive force, but rather by lack. It is evil as privatio boni, the privation of the good. In this, he parallels Sauron, only on a much smaller scale. He is capable of human-level evil, rather than angelic-level evil (or dragon-level evil to put it in the terms of The Dagger and the Coin). In a world where humanity (in all its races–and we’ll talk more about that in a moment) has risen from the ashes of a dragon-apocalypse to stand on its own two feet, it’s exactly the right depiction of evil, and it’s made even more fitting in the context of war and suffering which is portrayed so dramatically. 

Moving on . . .

Every time Marcus and Yardem are on the page together, I smile. The way they speak to each other is great. Like the best of friends who have worked together, travelled together, and survived countless difficulties together they know each others’ minds so well they don’t even need to speak in full sentences. Their abrupt, punchy dialogue is both delightful and unique. Where others might be long winded, these two speak only the words that must be spoken. Why say, “Yes, it is” when “Is” communicates the same thing? Love it!

The place of medieval banking as a primary story element in this epic fantasy series is amazing! Who would have thought banking would be both fascinating and powerful? Apparently Daniel Abraham would. Of course there’s political intrigue and war, but money is the driving force in these novels and the advancements in banking are integral to the advancement of the plot and of course to the story’s conclusion. Brilliantly done!

The world-building behind this series is magnificent. The conception of the different races forged by dragons from one original stock of humanity is executed perfectly. The differences are shown in the final volumes to be intentional (both on Abraham’s part and on the dragons’) and integral to the plot. The locales are varied and exciting without being extravagant, but they match the races who populate them. It’s a fascinating thought experiment to wonder how humanity would respond if we were essentially divided into 12 very different races or breeds (think humans as we know them side-by-side with humans fashioned in the likeness of dragons, or dogs, or otters . . . they’re all human, even when they’re covered in thick furry pelts or dragon scales). Of course there’s racism and prejudice, but there’s also a shared humanity that even such physiological differences cannot change. And this element of a united (even if not always friendly or beneficent) humanity is in stark contrast to the role of humanity under the rule of the dragons . . .

And don’t even get me started on Inys . . . 

Finally, the main threads of the series are tied off as only a master storyteller can accomplish, but that doesn’t mean Abraham ties off all the threads. He has left himself room to tell other stories (or even another series) within this world that will build on what’s already happened while introducing us to new characters and locales. I really hope he does it because I’m not ready to leave this world behind. I want more of it, and that’s a testament to the work Abraham has put into making this world feel intriguing and real. But even if he doesn’t revisit this world (and he has said in the comments of a post on his blog that he currently has no intentions of doing so), he has given us a masterfully crafted tale in five parts, each one better than the one before. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

It’s Sarah Shaeffer Day!

Growing up, my dad was always my baseball coach. Until I entered high school, he was my only coach (aside from the occasional All-Star team), but this isn’t a story about my dad. You see one day, I don’t remember why, my dad couldn’t make it to baseball practice and so my mom stepped in to lead it. It’s possible she only stepped in for a portion of it, I don’t remember much about that practice, except for one scene that stands out in my mind.

It was batting practice and my mom, as the stand-in coach, was pitching. I was batting. She threw me a pitch. I hit the pitch. And scorched a screaming line-drive right back at her, drilling her in the thigh. Obviously I felt horrible. I mean, I had just whacked a baseball off the leg of the woman who played Monopoly with me when I was sick; the woman who knew my favorite property on the board was (for some inexplicable reason) Pennsylvania Rail Road; the woman who let me miscount so I could land on it, even though she and I both knew full well that I was miscounting intentionally.

I hope I ran out to check on her and felt completely wretched, but I don’t really recollect anything other than the quick 2 seconds of the pitch being thrown and the result. Though maybe that’s not quite true. I do seem to remember my mom soldiering on and finishing batting practice. And whether that part really happened or not, I most certainly believe that it did, because that’s the kind of thing my mom would do.

You know why? Because my mom is awesome. 100%, without reservation, without caveat, awesome. And you know something else? Today’s her birthday.

So, happy birthday to the woman who has blessed me, taken care of me, stood up for me, and loved me all the days of my life. I love you too and I hope the rest of Sarah Shaeffer Day is an absolute joy.

Welcome!

Hello everyone. If you’ve followed me over from my previous blog, it’s nice to see you again. If you’re new, it’s nice to meet you.

This blog will be a place to write about things that interest me. As a current PhD candidate, you can be certain I’ll be writing about Lewis, Tolkien, theology, and spiritual formation. As a poet and story-teller you will surely find poetry, short stories, imaginative prayer, and maybe sections of longer works in progress. As an avid reader you’ll also find book reviews and recommendations. And who knows what else will turn up here–after all, the world is rich and full of wonder.