Bridge of Separator (Videssos 12) by Harry Turtledove

Book info (from Goodreads):

Rhavas was a good, holy, and pious man-and the cousin of the Avtokrator. He would probably have become ecumenical patriarch of the Empire in the capital, Videssos the city . . . if his world had not suddenly and tragically fallen apart when the Empire of Videssos erupted into civil war and the Khamorth barbarians swarm over the borders. As the home he loved was brutally sacked, Rhavas had to flee for his life, then make his way through lands swarming with fierce nomads and with soldiers loyal both to his cousin and to the rebel usurper. He may never see Videssos the city again, let alone preside in its High Temple. He has always followed Phos, the god of light and goodness, Videssos’ god, and despised evil rival Skotos. Those who fall off the Bridge of the Separator during judgment in the afterlife tumble down to Skotes’ ice forevermore. But when evil seems to have swallowed the whole world, what is a cleric who reveres logic as well as goodness supposed to believe? It’s a harder question than Rhavas wishes it were.

My impressions:

A story of a heresiarch would interest me even if it wasn’t set in the fantasy Videssos. The fantastic setting was an additional bonus, although I wish there was more magic available in the plot. Still the main character was one of the most interesting fellows I had a pleasure to meet. A cleric who starts doubting his faith. A deeply honest man who, suddenly, cannot see any sense of honest life anymore. Then, without asking or wishing for it, he is given a very strange gift… a gift from his enemy, Skotos. Rhavas will never  be the same again. Or maybe he is becoming the very person he’s meant to be all along…

Of course the book was not perfect. In fact more than one time I had a strong impression that the novel would profit greatly from a round or two of professional editing. Sometimes the narrative stumbled a bit. Sometimes I felt the worldbuild could have been better. There was definitely too much telling instead of showing. Still I give Mr. Turtledove points for tackling a very difficult topic and a very original character, an anti-hero, nothing less. I despised Rhavas from time to time because, undoubtedly, he committed  many horrible crimes; still I couldn’t help admiring the man when he was defending his version of truth before the whole synod of his former colleagues…

Final verdict:

If you like historical fantasy with anti-heroes you might be positively surprised by this one and you’ll love it despite its flaws and violence.

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The Black Widow (Gabriel Allon 16) by Daniel Silva

Product info:

A network of terror.
A web of deceit.
A deadly game of vengeance.

Legendary spy and art restorer Gabriel Allon is poised to become the chief of Israel’s secret intelligence service. But on the eve of his promotion, events conspire to lure him into the field for one final operation. ISIS has detonated a massive bomb in the Marais district of Paris, and a desperate French government wants Gabriel to eliminate the man responsible before he can strike again.

They call him Saladin …

He is a terrorist mastermind whose ambition is as grandiose as his nom de guerre, a man so elusive that even his nationality is not known. Shielded by sophisticated encryption software, his network communicates in total secrecy, leaving the West blind to his planning—and leaving Gabriel no choice but to insert an agent into the most dangerous terrorist group the world has ever known. Natalie Mizrahi is an extraordinary young doctor as brave as she is beautiful. At Gabriel’s behest, she will pose as an ISIS recruit in waiting, a ticking time bomb, a black widow out for blood.

My impressions:

When you are down with flu you might read something ambitious, heavy, and important but it will be so completely wasted on you. It is far wiser if you temporarily settle with something fluffy, simple and dynamic. The Gabriel Allon series usually fits that bill to a dot. This time, however, its sixteenth instalment left me disgruntled. First it chafed me why, oh why, the mighty Israeli super-spy had to meet another super-model beautiful Jewish doctor on his path. I guess Daniel Silva is apparently yet to see a non-beautiful woman worth writing about. Providing such a monster exists at all, perish the thought.

Second, Silva repeatedly uses the same boilerplate language to describe Gabriel and the other members of the Lightning team. What’s more, he often repeats whole paragraphs from previous books in lieu of proper backstory. Isn’t it called autoplagiarism perchance?

Third and the last: Silva took the opportunity to get in a couple jabs at America, Barack Obama and his role in propagating an environment ripe for ISIS. This may or may not be true, but either way, it’s a political statement that would best be left out of a fiction book. If I want to read political opinions of any kind, I’ll buy a newspaper. When I sit down to read a thriller, I want to be thrilled, not indoctrinated.

Final verdict:

Superficially, it was a quite decent novel but really I felt Silva wasted way too much time preaching his world view. It really slowed down the plot and often felt forced in. Meh royale.

Rating icon. A hairless cat is wearing a santa hat and a sour expression. On the hat reads: meh.

Other books by Daniel Silva reviewed on this blog:

Posted in adventure, book review, contemporary, crime, meh, rating, speculative fiction, thriller | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Movie review: Moana (2016) by Ron Clements, John Musker

Product info:

The seas are calling. More specifically, they call to a girl named Moana. Nonsense, you say? Well, her father, Chief Tu, would agree with you. His strictest rule forbids anyone—especially his daughter—from sailing beyond their island’s Motunui surrounding reef. The danger is just too

great. Better to stay put on the island, eat coconuts, play with piglets and chickens… unfortunately Moana doesn’t listen to her elders. Especially as her homeland becomes endangered by lack of food and there’s no hero on the horizon. Unless you count a fallen demigod, Maui, who might or might not help her in the quest because he clearly has an agenda on his own.

My impressions:

A girl who’s fallen in love with the sea. A girl who wears a dress, has a pet animal and IS NOT a princess. A girl who is a Polynesian explorer with a fire in her soul, passed down through generations. What not to like? Oh, wait, I never warmed up to that chicken… half-witted doesn’t fit my bill when it comes to pets.

Anyway Moana (whose name means “deep water” and has nothing to do with, say, Moaning Myrtle),  was a very pleasant experience even though it was a musical. It reminded me of the best Disney productions: Aladdin, and 2002’s Lilo & Stitch. It was funny, it was original and no, the heroine didn’t have to marry in order to feel completely happy. It was enough her mission ended with a success, restoring the Heart of Te Fiti, a magical stone stolen years ago by Maui, a demi god adorned by dancing tattoos. Really charming

Final verdict:

One of nicest fantasy animation Disney movies I’ve watched – recommendable!

Posted in animation, fairy tale, fantasy, fantasy action movie, movie review | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

They Way of Shadows (Night Angel 01) by Brent Weeks

Product info:

For Durzo Blint, assassination is an art-and he is the city’s most accomplished artist. 

For Azoth, survival is precarious. Something you never take for granted. As a guild rat, he’s grown up in the slums, and learned to judge people quickly – and to take risks. Risks like apprenticing himself to Durzo Blint.

But to be accepted, Azoth must turn his back on his old life and embrace a new identity and name. As Kylar Stern, he must learn to navigate the assassins’ world of dangerous politics and strange magics – and cultivate a flair for death.

My impressions:

The first part of this series reminded me of a not exactly successful night out. The restaurant interior was perhaps ok, the waiter tried his best but the food could have been tastier and the atmosphere lacked some magic. Overall there were moments which I enjoyed but they were few and far between. The ending was a royal mess – as if the author wanted to say: “so you’ve found some incongruities and loopholes? Let me show you real loopholes! Plus plenty of gratuitous violence at breakneck speed! And zero character development because who needs that in a fantasy book? You don’t like it? Tough luck ha-ha-ha! *insert a gif with a teen making a rude gesture*”

Well, I didn’t like it indeed. I had also a few issues with the vocabulary. Dear author, if you call your magical artifact ka’kari, despite the mandatory fantasy apostrophe the “kaka” part inevitably elicits ironic smirks from me. Let me also say that the term ‘wetboy’, used to describe super-trooper assassins on steroids, magic-endowed and inhumanly good at killing, made me simply laugh. I think the term ‘assassin’ is far more dignified. ‘Wetboy’ makes me think of a small child playing in a puddle. Or wetting his trousers. Apart from that I do think women come in more that two flavours: a staintly madonna or a lascivious  whore from gutter.

Now a bit about the cover art – it is good but that hood… it seriously limits your field of vision. ;p Just saying.

Final verdict:

Good ideas, mostly bad execution – in the first part I found just few good scenes scattered around seas of infodumps and such. Recommendable only for teenage action junkies who cannot stop looking for another ‘Assassin’s Creed’ or other videogame-style fantasy.

Posted in adventure, book review, crime, dystopia, fantasy, grimdark | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Product info (from Goodreads):

Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite. . . . Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter. . . . From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life. . . . And onward, with dazzling virtuosity, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a postapocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.

But the story doesn’t end even there. The narrative then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.

My impressions:

I admit I had to start this one two times – the beginning could be hardly called riveting. Even being a bit more motivated during my second try I found that going through first 55-60 pages wasn’t easy. The novel consisted of six shorter stories, each intertwined with the rest, all told in a different style and using a vocabulary of its own. Sometimes it was difficult to find the connection at first. Sometimes the style of a story was simply irritating. Sometimes I had no idea why I was reading it at all.

I think I liked the narration of Robert Frobisher, a young bisexual musician going to Belgium in order to escape his English family and creditors, the best. The story of Sonmi, a cloned servant artificially bred and modified to work for one of MacDon… ehem, Papa Song eateries came as second best. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish was at least funny but also rather schematic. Zachry’s narrative left me lukewarm bordering annoyed (seriously, apocalyptic Hawaii where everyone has started speaking in difficult and annoying slang?) Adam Ewing’s was boring and Luisa Rey’s could have been very good but somehow it wasn’t. I agree, the way the stories interrupted each other and flowed chronologically to half way and were then completed in the second half of the book in reverse order was a clever trick. Still I expected more than just tricks, I wanted  something profound. Unfortunately the book didn’t deliver, not quite.

Near the end I concluded that Mitchell simply wanted to spin an elaborate tale of reincarnation and predestination with no real punch and/or endgame. Pure stylistic fireworks, nothing substantial. Pity.

Final verdict:

A book that started badly and ended badly but had some good moments in-between. Taking all the hype into account I found it vastly overrated. Meh. Now I don’t even want to watch the movie.

Rating icon. A hairless cat is wearing a santa hat and a sour expression. On the hat reads: meh.

Posted in adventure, book review, dystopia, historically-flavoured, meh, rating, sci-fi | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Author interview and review: Madam Tulip and the Bones of Chance by David Ahern

Today I am hosting David Ahern, the author of Madam Tulip series – welcome and thank you for visiting my humble blog! David very kindly agreed to answer some questions which, I suppose, might explain a bit Madam Tulip magic :).

 

  1. Have you ever visited a fortune teller? If not, why? 

I have. The first time was by accident, strangely enough. I didn’t even know the person I met was a fortune teller.  Then she told me spookily accurate things.  But like Madam Tulip says, fortune telling is mostly about finding the right questions.

2.Which three facts characterize your writing process the best?

I just tell the story like I was sitting down at a fireside. I value economy. I let characters drive the plot.

  1. Derry O’Donnell, the main character in the Madam Tulip books, is an actress and a gifted psychic. Have you modelled her after a person/people you’ve met/known in real life?

Not at all, although coming from a theatrical background, I’m a big fan of actors.

  1. How many instalments have you planned for this series?

I’ll keep going as long as readers want me to.

  1. Derry drinks a lot of borage tea which, in my humble opinion, is really awful. Why have you chosen such a nasty drink for your heroine?

I discovered it in a silly way. You probably know that Prince Charles’ estate sells organic seeds to gardeners.  I like to try out unfamiliar plants, so I bought a packet of borage for an outrageous price, only to find the thing is a triffid, self-seeding all over the place.  This is a seriously expensive weed, albeit aristocratic.  I did some research and found borage was highly regarded in ancient times as a drink. Tried it and found it pleasant. The 17c herbalist John Gerald says, ‘The leaves and floures of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadnesse, dulnesse and melancholy.’  What’s not to like?

Thank you for your answers, it’s been a pleasure to host you! Now I would like to present the newest Madam Tulip book which complimentary copy I got in return for an honest review – enjoy!

Product info:

A surprise role in a movie takes actress Derry O’Donnell to a romantic castle in the Scottish Highlands. But romance soon turns to fear and suspicion. Someone means to kill, and Derry, moonlighting as celebrity fortune-teller Madam Tulip, is snared in a net of greed, conspiracy and betrayal.

A millionaire banker, a film producer with a mysterious past, a gun-loving wife, a PA with her eyes on Hollywood, a handsome and charming estate manager—each has a secret to share and a request for Madam Tulip.
As Derry and her friend Bruce race to prevent a murder, she learns to her dismay that the one future Tulip can’t predict is her own.

Madame Tulip is the third in a series of thrilling and hilarious Tulip adventures in which Derry O’Donnell, celebrity fortune-teller and reluctant amateur detective, plays the most exciting and perilous roles of her acting life, drinks borage tea, and fails to understand her parents.

My impressions:

Derry and Bruce are enjoying themselves as gloriously unemployed actors who can sip coffee and complain all day long when suddenly they get engaged in a movie. Or rather Derry is offered a gig and then the offer is extended to Bruce – all because of the fame Madam Tulip has earned. Off they go to  Scotland, the land of kilts, whiskey and deer stalking – ah, the romance of the Scottish glen! ;p  Jacko and Vanessa, Derry’s parents, appear in the background too, being invariably funny and providing much-needed comic relief because soon Derry’s gig turns dangerous, even deadly. Despite their best efforts, Derry and Bruce get involved in a shady dealings of high-profile money launderers.

I have to admit once again I enjoyed the lecture a lot. The plot was good, properly paced and easy to follow. Of course Madam Tulip, my favourite psychic so far, had to emerge as well – she was asked to tell fortune several times, using a set of dice made of sheep bones (thus the title) – after all there’s nothing better than a bit of fortune-telling on a movie set or during a posh Halloween party. Still the movie was never finished and the party itself ended badly; for Derry and other women it turned into a real horror. Overall I felt it was a darker tale, more serious than the previous parts, or, at least, it was darker when it comes to the last chapters. Witchcraft. Weirdness. Drugs and drink. Misbehaving women. Men’s preconceptions about them. Greed. Mercenaries. I admit the ending read not like cozy mystery at all. Still I enjoyed it – you know me, the dark, dark crow enjoying dark things. And there was a tiny little whiff of romance which, I suppose, Derry deserved after so many unpleasant experiences.

Final verdict:

A cosy mystery which turns into something more sinister near the very end; still as nobody suffered any permanent damage and the book was a joy to read, I recommend it as a funny, recreational reading.

Other Madam Tulip books, reviewed on this blog:

Book’s nitty-gritty:

Posted in adventure, book review, contemporary, cozy mystery, interview | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Movie review: The Nile Hilton Incident directed by Tarik Saleh

Product info:

A police officer in Cairo investigates the murder of a famous club singer at the Nile Hilton

Hotel. What initially seems to be a crime of passion turns into something that concerns the power elite of Egypt.

My impressions:

This movie gives you a chance to observe an Egypt which usually escapes the eyes of ordinary tourists: a land of immigrants, corruption, both individual and systemic, nepotism and criminal interests hidden in plain sight among sumptuous villas of politicians and businessmen. The story takes place in the days leading up to the 2011 revolution that would eventually oust President Hosni Mubarak and it is a very noir tale, with no white hats and no happy endings.

A young Sudanese immigrant working as a cleaning lady at the titular hotel, overhears an argument in a room. Soon two men leave in relatively brief succession. In the room remains just a cadaver of a woman. Tidying up the mess is left to Noredin (Fares Fares), a cop who has few qualms about pilfering cash from the scene of the crime – everybody does it, life is expensive and salaries not exactly high. Noredin’s inquiry immediately points him toward Shafiq (Ahmed Seleem), a real-estate developer and parliament member. Shafiq denies responsibility for the death of the girl who was a local pop singer named Lalena. Lalena also moonlighted as a prostitute; a sleazy pimp named Nagy (Hichem Yacoubi) used her beauty as a bait to take compromising photos of her clients (including Shafiq) that could then be used as blackmail. Stuck in the center of this cesspool, Noredin proves incapable of affecting anything resembling real change. What’s more, his own uncle, district police chief Kamal (Yasser Ali Maher), turns his back on him as soon as it seems the most profitable option.

I enjoyed this movie enormously – not only it sounded real, it also followed the best classic noir cinema traditions. It allowed me to get a glimpse of true Egypt and social problems faced by the real Egyptians, something you won’t experience while sunbathing or enjoying your drink in a hotel lounge.

Final verdict:

A very original story with a bunch of anti-heroes who try to redeem themselves. Or not. Recommendable to everybody who would like to know more about Egypt and its problems.

Posted in drama, movie review, noir thriller | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

The Videssos Cycle 01-04 by Harry Turtledove

The whole cycle, published in the 80s of previous century so rather old, consists of 12 primary and 17 total works. I read the first four od the primary works:

  • The Misplaced Legion (01)
  • An Emperor for the Legion (02)
  • The Legion of Videssos (03)
  • Swords of the Legion (04)

This alternate historical fiction revolves around a possible fate of a lost Roman legion led by the tribune Marcus Aemilius Scaurus. While they were fighting for Caesar during his Gaul campaign Scaurus duelled with Viridovix, a Celtic chieftain. As it happened, both of their swords were enchanted by a powerful druid so, instead of killing each other, they got transported to an alternative world called Videssos. The four books are about them trying to survive in a reality where magic and dark sorcery can test their skill and courage to the utmost.

What I liked:

  • As his Goodreads bio informs you, Harry Turtledove attended UCLA, where he received a Ph.D. in Byzantine history in 1977. It didn’t surprise me and it can be felt in the series. His books include many interesting historical references concerning the Antiquity. I enjoyed all of them.
  • Religion plays a strong role in the books and I appreciated that even more. Too many his-fic authors shy away from the r-word as if it could bring the plague whereas, like it or not, there hasn’t been any ancient culture without a specific set of beliefs.
  • The world in which the Romans have to survive is essentially magical Byzantium, an empire plagued by mercenaries, run by functionaries and bureaucrats, with high turnover in emperors and no real army of their own. I found that premise quite original.
  • In the second and third book I enjoyed the dynamics between Scaurus and Helvis very much. It sounded so real and was fun to read about.

What I didn’t like:

  • To put it bluntly, all main characters could be classified as Mary-Sues. Or rather Gary-Stues as they are male. One short example. Scaurus allegedly comes from one of the oldest, most influential patrician Roman families, the Aemilia. They were one of the gentes maiores which members held the highest offices of the Roman state, from the early decades of the Republic to imperial times. Still strangely Marcus never says a word about his relatives left behind in Milan, where he was born, Rome or anywhere else. He never mentions his parents, uncles, cousins, not even a lover. It seems he was born a tribune, with a sword and an armor, and his life started with the Gaul campaign of Caesar…
  • One scene in the first part almost made me drop the rest for good. Helvis, a local woman Scaurus fancied, was attacked during a riot and almost gang-raped. Fortunately our valiant tribune managed to rescue her in the last possible moment. What happened next? Imagine it or not, they had sex for the first time. Fantastic, hot sex. From a gang rape to an enthusiastic love-making in less than a minute… I know everybody has different sensibilities but that sounded so ugly and psychologically unbelievable to me that I stopped reading for a while and returned only because I am so damned curious.
  • Connected to the previous point: women of this story. They are quite underdeveloped and schematic even if they clearly meant to have more importance (like Alypia Gavra, the princess of Videssos and a scholar modeled after Anna Komnene/Comnena or Helvis, the lover of Scaurus).
  • The fourth book I consider to be the worst. It was obvious the author ran out of narrative steam and used some very crude solutions to different problems. The effect was less than decent.
  • The last remark: how come the emperors of Videssos didn’t have (and didn’t even plan to have) spies among their enemies, the Yezda? Unbelievable…

Final verdict:

Not the worst 80s fantasy series I’ve ever read but also an uneven one. Recommendable only to those who like ancient history and clever variations on that theme too much for their own good. And don’t even mention the Bechdel test…

Posted in adventure, alternate history, book review, fantasy, historical | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Documentary review: Magicians. Life in the Impossible (2016) directed by Marcie Hume, Christoph Baaden

Product info:

This documentary shot over a four-year period follows careers and private lives of four magicians: Jon Armstrong, a master of the card trick, Brian Gillis who has to endure the death of his dog, recessionary challenges, and considerable downsizing on the home front, Jan Rouven, a German-born rising star of the Las Vegas strip, and David Minkin, a self-described “stepchild of magic,” determined to bring his more existential slant on illusion to the small screen.

My impressions:

Personally, I feel this documentary proved that there is no magic. You can learn some nifty tricks, organize a show, you can charm any audience, even the whole bachelorette party, but you cannot avoid financial troubles, divorces, health problems, dishonest competitors, death and taxes. There’s no magic, I tell you – otherwise magicians would be able to solve their most serious issues in an instant. That fact is a bit sad but also strangely heart-warming. We all face the same challenges and woes and here goes the proof. What a relief. ;p

The movie was engaging and quite entertaining, even though you don’t get to see tricks revealed and explained which I admit would be fun. Still the behind-the-scenes footage of magicians dealing with normal life, making a living, going shopping and so on I found endearing. Minkin expresses concern that magic loses power when viewed on screen but I liked  his knack for levitating items  and  his simple, quiet, low-key illusions the best. By the way, Jan Rouven should no longer be called a rising star of anything – follow this link if you want to know why.

Final verdict:

An interesting documentary that proves that there is no magic – sad but true. Still a completely recommendable film for a quiet evening.

Posted in documentary, movie review | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Siúil, Siúil, Siúil a Rún – a bit of Irish history in a folk song

In order to celebrate St Patrick’s Day I am going to dissect a bit ‘Siúil a Rún’, a traditional Irish song and one of my folk favourites. There will be blood! 🙂

The title translates to “go, my love” (or ‘walk my love’): siúil is an imperative, literally translating to “walk!”, a rún is a term of endearment. Here goes the first verse.

I wish I was on yonder hill 
Tis there I’d sit and cry my fill
Till every tear would turn a mill
Is go dte tu mo mhuirnin slan. (translation: And may you go safely, my darling)

I think the first thing that sticks out about the song that it has mixed English language and Gaelic verses and an Irish language chorus. It is a style known as macaronic, characteristic for 19 century Ireland, in times when English was becoming a predominant language and Gaelic was being used less and less. It also indicates that this song might be younger than its content seems to suggest.

I didn’t manage to find out what hill (if any in particular) the narrator wishes to visit. Is it perhaps the Hill of Tara, the place of a famous battle between British forces and Irish rebels on 26 May 1798? If so, heavy crying would suit it perfectly – the Irish lost. Or is it simply an unknown hill where she used to date her beloved? Who knows? Anyway the woman sounds mighty depressed to me. Now let’s tackle the Gaelic chorus:

Siuil, siuil, siuil a ruin
Siuil go sochair agus siuil go ciuin
Siuil go doras agus ealaigh liom
Is go dte tu mo mhuirnin slan 

English translation of the chorus (preserving the accent and rhymes):

Come, come, come, O love/Quickly come to me, softly move/Come to the door, and away we’ll flee/And safe for aye may my darling be!

Though many period Irish people were multi-lingual, I would find it exceptional for a folk song that would require a bilingual audience to be properly understood.  (There are plenty of period written pieces that do just that, usually French/English/Latin/etc., but it’s not consistent with a “folk” song.)  The origins of ‘Siuil a ruin’ are unknown and it doesn’t make it easier to speculate about the reasons behind these strange, mixed lyrics. Was it a nod toward the occupants to make your plight more understood and their approach more sympathetic? A bit of politics in pretty disguise? Who knows?

I’ll sell my rock, I’ll sell my reel 
I’ll sell my only spinning wheel
to buy my love a sword of steel
Is go dte tu mo mhuirnin slan

Let’s return to our heroine. She pronounces herself willing to virtually go broke in order to support her beloved and his new career. Why? The explanation is hardly simple so it will take a while, bear with  me. We must go back in time to the second half of the 17th century. In 1688, James Stuart II, Catholic and king of England, Scotland and Ireland, and his Queen Mary had a son. Until then the throne would be granted to their daughter Mary, a good Protestant,  married to the Dutch prince William from the House of Orange, also a Protestant. Now there was a very real possibility of creating a Catholic dynasty in England and return to the old religion. For some people it sounded like a recipe for a disaster.

The Protestants reacted. William mobilized the Dutch troops, invaded England and started the Glorious Revolution. The Stuarts left the country, and William and Mary were assigned as new rulers. Still James didn’t want to give up so easily. From his exile in the Catholic portion of Ireland he organized an army (whose members were called Jacobites, or the restorers of “Jacobus”, the latin form of English ‘James’) and started a revolt to what was perceived from their perspective as a coup d’etat . James was again defeated by troops led by William himself and fled to France. His defeat triggered  the departure of the rest of Irish Jacobite army under the command of Patrick Sarsfield from Ireland to France, as agreed in the Treaty of Limerick on 3 October 1691. It was known as the Flight of the Wild Geese. An incredibly poetic name for something ruinous and sad.

Sarsfield sailed to France on 22 December 1691, leading as many as 14,000 of his countrymen, around 10 000 countrywomen, and children to enter the French service in the first phase of the military denuding of Ireland. The new authorities saw this as preferable to the potentially disruptive effects of having large numbers of unemployed young men of military age roaming the country. Men who could be armed and knew how to fight. The English were wrong but how wrong exactly they found out only during the Jacobite rising of 1745 in Scotland – guess what part of the conflict the Irish soldiers sided with. After that point the recruitment for foreign armies in Ireland was officially banned, unofficially limited to a trickle of Irish volunteers who were able to make their own way to France. And, as this song claims, such an illegal endeavour was pretty costly.

A replica of an 18th century dress with a red petticoat.

I’ll dye my petticoats, I’ll dye them red
and it’s round the World I will beg for bread
until my parents would wish me dead.
Is go dte tu mo mhuirnin slan

That particular verse started my search and it also proved the most obstinate. I didn’t understand why the woman had to dye her petticoats red at all and why her family might wish her dead as a result. Out of shame? For any other reasons, like wandering aimlessly instead of marrying a good lad and have plenty of kids?

While surfing the Internet and asking Google for answers about the red petticoat I found many contrary explanations. There were suggestions that the girl might be pregnant, or she felt forced to prostitute herself after selling all her most precious belongings (but why she needed to advertize any of these was beyond me). Others thought she might want to join the Travellers (after all the Travellers refer to themselves in Irish as an Lucht Siúil) and go ’round the world’ with them – also a shameful choice. Finally somebody pointed out that ‘red’ rhymes well with ‘dead’ in English. As simple as that. 🙂

I agree that dyed petticoats, red or of any other colour, would make any ‘going round the world and begging’ easier because the fabric wouldn’t show wear and tear so fast as, say, white or light-coloured petticoat. Also red petticoats were favoured by women who had their periods, for obvious reasons. All this so nice and practical, don’t you think? Still I admit that while all of these arguments were interesting I didn’t find them especially helpful.

Irish House of Commons in 1780, by Francis Wheatley. Notice all those red, red jackets and red accents among the public above.

Then I reminded myself of one scene from ‘Gone with the Wind’ (book and movie), when the ever-gallant Rhett Butler offers a red petticoat made of silk to one of Scarlett O’Hara’s faithful slaves, Mammy. The said woman, even if not exactly young and rather a stickler for propriety, was simply thrilled by that fact. Literally tickled pink. I suppose it is a kind of proof that no, red petticoat didn’t have any negative connotations like indicating its wearer was pregnant out of wedlock or a prostitute. It wasn’t  Rhett’s intention to offend Mammy. He wanted to make her a nice gift and he succeeded. As flimsy as that argument might seem, it indicates that working women actually preferred their petticoats to be coloured – for pure convenience- and I must emphasize the fact that a petticoat was completely visible from under the dress in those times.

Then I stumbled on another tidbit. One of the period painters, Francis Wheatley arrived in Dublin at the zenith of the popularity of the Volunteers and quickly assumed the role of unofficial artist of the movement. His paintings document the engagement of women. Apart from his House of Commons painting, shown above, Wheatley’s ‘Volunteer review’ also includes women in the windows overlooking College Green, wearing Volunteer colours, and one woman can just be distinguished dressed in a female version of a Volunteer uniform. These uniforms were red. Bright red.  Still, an appropriate dress or other expensive accessories like hats or scarves were available just for rich and elegant ladies. If a poor girl couldn’t afford it, she might think of home-dyeing her petticoat any shade of red and show her support to the cause in the cheapest possible way. Practical and patriotic – two sparrows killed with one stone. And then she might go a-begging, how droll.

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain,
I wish I had my heart again,
And vainly think I’d not complain,
Is go dte tu mo mhuinin slan.

But now my love had gone to France,
to try his fortune there to advance.
If he e’er come back, ’tis but a chance.
Is go dte tu mo mhuirnin slan

The song ends on a rather sad but realistic note – the girl hasn’t lost all her common sense because she is pretty aware that her beloved might never return and she wishes she was free of her infatuation. Maybe there is some hope for her after all.

Image By Detroit Publishing Co. – Library of Congress REPRODUCTION NUMBER: LLC-DIG-ppmsc-09892, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3510030

My sources:

Disclaimer:

There are many versions of this song available but I based my analysis on the old Clannad rendition. Don’t be surprised if you hear ‘Siuil a ruin’  sung at different pace and with quite different lyrics. Also any mistakes and speculations made in this essay are mine only. 

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