I had, at first, been reluctant to pick this book up, inundated as I was with all the marketing and buzz surrounding it. The last time I had felt like this about a novel, was with "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel" by Susanna Clarke, and I was thoroughly disappointed after buying it. But on the insistence of a friend who had read this behemoth of a novel in a single sitting, I finally got myself to my favourite Indigo bookstore and picked it up.

Reading this book reminded me how differently a novel reads depending on how much importance you give to it. It made me think of the first time I read "The Lord of the Rings" . The edition I had bought contained the entire trilogy within it, costing a full five hundred rupees, an enormous sum for me at the time. I was so excited when I got home, confessing to my mother about spending so much in one go, at the same time convincing her that it was worth it. My previous reading of "The Hobbit" had conditioned me to anticipate one hell of an adventure story (I didn't really appreciate the fantasy aspects at the time), and the sheer weight of expectation regarding the trilogy (along with its own considerable charms) lended to it a central place in my mind for many years to come, and made it one of my favourite books of all time.

And so when I began reading "The Historian", hyped as it had been by my friend whose judgement I trusted implicitly, I opened to the first page with respectful reverance and trembling anticipation. I reminded myself to savour every carefully chosen word, to fully realize every scene of colourfully described imagery, and above all, to enjoy the novel as its author intended: by noticing and enjoying every detail. I have been obsessed of late, with the number of books I read, quantifying and recording this year's readings rather than focusing on getting the most out of them; I am now determinded to change that.

I admit then, that perhaps this book impacted me more than it would have usually done. But despite even that, it is a compelling read. The author wastes no time getting into the action, the central mystery being revealed within the first few pages. The entralling story of an obscure book that comes into the narrator's father's possession, hooks you into the novel, not allowing for any disctractions. The colourful descriptions of Eastern Europe make the smells and visions of the scenery come alive, the historical yet alien locations lending the tale a certain ominous air. The prospect of encountering the terrifying Drakula is made readily apparent within the first few chapters, giving all further readings a sense of dread anticipation, as we are assured of a coming doom. Yet I am a mere fifty pages into the book, hardly enough to create a complete picture of what I expect to come. Still, I hope to continue reading, and am even more hopeful that I shall continue and complete this review. Till later then, I bid you adieu, and based on my first impressions, encourage you to give this novel the good ol' college try (I always wanted to say that!).

I made a committment earlier, to write about each and every book I read this year. Obviously, I have failed to do so rather spectacularly. So it is with great pride and joy that I unveil the Rolling Review. From now on, I shall attempt to write about a book as I am reading it. This is the result of being frustrated with the ususal reluctance I feel about posting a review after reading a book, without having a complete and comprehensive thesis about the damned thing. Hence, the Rolling Review. No pressure. Just pure thoughts.

I hadn't even thought about this until I read another blog (I forget where) where the author claimed this approach greatly helped him with both understanding and apprecitating a novel, as well as get him to post more frequently on his blog.

And so, with no further ado, I present the first edition of the Rolling Review.

P.S. (or, Some ado before we continue): The nature of the writing, following as it does the meandering thoughts of my mind, tends to wander from the specific subjects of a particular book, and often incorporates other musings my brain fancies while wandering the narrow path the author provides. Please, I ask you to bear with me, for in the end even the daydreams that a book elicits from me, have hopefully, something to say about the novel itself.

Absolute knowledge is a fictional creation, as is the idea of an absolute truth. And so, while I have professed to be an avowed atheist over the past five or six years, I have slowly acknowledged within myself that I more agnostic than atheist. Of course, since the former merely allows that a God (or many Gods) might exist, it may not seem like much of a distinction after all, but it is enough.

The crux of the matter lies in the perspective one looks upon the world with. Do I take a reasoned stance that allows for the existence of the unknown, for gaps in my knowledge, or do I take an immutable stand on my stated beliefs, never to recant or change my opinions on what I accept as “truth”. And stated in such manner, most people it would seem, would choose the former. But in practice, it implies that my existence as an atheist is as rooted in blind faith and stubbornness as is that of a religious zealot. I say, “I do not believe in the existence of God because I have seen no proof that he exists. My powers of perception and reasoning have not revealed God to me and so I deny his (or her for that matter) existence.” But what we learn is that our perceptions and sense are severely limited, that we do not in fact, see everything, hear everything. My reasoning is so startlingly similar to that used against the mind bending claims of Darwin or Galileo that at first it horrified me. Our senses so clearly tell us that the sun moves around the earth, and that monkeys remain monkeys, that the absurdity of any claim that states otherwise is obvious to even the most simpleminded of simpletons.

But that is the very point of scientific thought isn’t it? To ask questions of the most obvious beliefs, and above all to never dismiss any claim out-of-hand. Yet that is what I have done most of my life; this is what we all do. What got me thinking about this was (of all things) the recent South Park controversy about Issac Hayes (the voice of Chef) quitting over an episode making fun of Scientology. A couple of friends and I were making fun of the guy and Scientology on the whole, when I suddenly realized I actually knew close to nothing about the so-called religion. So after everyone left, I fired up my computer, did a trusty Wikipedia search and sat down for some hard reading and thinking.

In the spirit of my newly purchased perspective of not reflexively dismissing outlandish and unfamiliar ideas as absurd delusions, I stopped for a moment to imagine a world where the claims of Scientology are true. Much like how true Christians believe that we are all the sons of Adam and Eve, and Judgment Day is around the corner (I’m trying to say this with as little sarcasm and skepticism I can, believe me), what if I truly believed that all of humanity is merely a pawn in a galaxy-spanning space-opera and that we have been brainwashed by a galactic dictator named Xenu some 75 million years ago? How would I react to what I see in the world around me? How would I go about sharing my privileged knowledge with the world? If we take Scientology to be true, and accept that its founder, Ron L. Hubbard had access to this knowledge of human history that has remain hidden from the rest of humanity by design, then the world at large takes on a very different face.

What secrets, I would ask, does the church of Scientology conceal from all but its most advanced members, revealing them only out in the middle of the ocean on the mysterious ship Freewinds? What need have we to look to Science Fiction and Fantasy when such a world of wonder and variety exist within our very own time and reality?

“A strange and rapidly expanding religious cult gathers power as its highly visible members begin proclaiming their beliefs on the world stage, their status in popular culture giving them voices that resound across the globe. As their existence becomes widely known, growing ridicule and persecution against them gives them more credibility than ever before, as it did the Jews and the Christians and the Muslims.

At the same time, a religious politician is chosen to lead the greatest and most powerful nation on earth, waging war against his one-time spiritual cousins, who believe in his same God, his prophets, and his faith’s history until very recently. And out of this chaos and destruction, the people turn to the wild proclamations of the small cult that promises them a different future, which tells them that their decades of discontent is caused by money-grubbing pharmaceutical companies and their psychiatrist lackeys. It promises the masses a true, scientific path for the redemption of their souls (for despite peoples earnest professions to the contrary, Science is the true religion now) and the world sees its previous folly, and repents.”

Perhaps I paint a rather fantastical picture, but one must never forget that such far-fetched events have occurred again and again in human history and pre-history. Their grad and epic sweep overwhelms the mind, and we who live through such times never truly grasp their import until they have already passed us by. I wonder what the majestic Romans first thought of the puny cult of Christianity and its absurd ideas of a singular God. How frail and misunderstood the Christians must have thought themselves in the face of the mighty empire that receded so far into history that it dwarfed the lifetime of their recently crucified prophet. Yet Christ came to rule and judge over that mighty kingdom; he survived its collapse (though some say he was the cause of that particular catastrophe) and saw another usurp his role as the last prophet of the Lord God. Yet today his followers live their daily lives, walking about calmly buying groceries, gossiping and cheating and living, without a moments thought as to how they came to be where they now are.

Who knows? Maybe a day will soon come when their long prophesied Apocalypse will arrive, and they shall look to the sky expecting to see the (four?) dark horsemen that shall mark its coming, and see instead the ominous face of Xenu, riding in on his trusty Douglas DC-8 aircraft. Then, we shall truly know that the Apocalypse has arrived.

This is not ostensibly a post about Google. It is in part however, inspired by Google and their far-reaching motto, as well as their well publicized aim of 'indexing the world's information'. A while back I wrote about Wikipedia and the controversy over the inaccuracies inherent in such a system. What people seemed to be missing about the whole story was that the point was not that the authors of the article had posted lies or unsubstantiated facts, but rather that such stories and facts would have been posted regardless, whether Wikipedia had existed or not. Wikipedia, merely provides a common forum for all the random web pages that had sprung up over the past decade of growing internet usage, giving people a common repository for ideas and knowledge that inhabited 'net.

The sheer vastness of the web defies the perusal of a single overseeing body; no gatekeeper exists for the 'net, and nor should they. But accessing and tapping into the fragments of truth that are scattered across the internet is the defining challenge for the next decade, and without success in that sphere, the internet will remain unable to realize the immense potential that its size and scale represent. Wikipedia is merely one such attempt. It acknowledges that the knowledge of the world does not (indeed, cannot) come from a single source. Like the fictional Encyclopedia Galactica in Douglas Adams' satirical novel, any source claiming such omniscience will be relegated to ridicule and obscurity. The comparison mentioned in my previous post between Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica help underline this simple fact, and convinces me that the face of the internet must change to closer align to this approach.

Google, in part, is attempting something like this: a single point of access for all the information in the world. But if fails in several key ways, most significantly, its poor browsing interface. Google, in all its various forms be it Video, Image, or Document searching, remains only a search platform. Once the searches have been completed it appears somewhat confused and unsure what to do with the results. Thus its interface, which begins with such startling simplicity, becomes uncertain and inefficient.

This is where the importance of the "social" aspects of the internet comes in. It seems to be rearing its elegant head nearly everywhere you look, and for good reason. What flickr, del.ico.us and other such services quickly realized was that much like the information services of Wikipedia, no single source could form a coherent and complete documentation and classification of a large amount of data. So the collective mind, the "community" that appears to be the core of the Web 2.0 revolution, is far more capable of undertaking this task that defies a solitary company such as Google. A combination of Google's search capabilities with its access to vast amounts of information, and the community's involvement in its organization is the key to a more usable and ultimately useful internet.

However this is merely a single view of how the future of the internet can be shaped. Another, far more ominous outlook appears to gathering greater attention and support, especially among the large companies that have of late been left out of the growing internet economy. This includes the telecom and cable giants that are our access points into the vast world wide web, but have little control over what we do beyond this point. And that is something they just can not stand for.

This has been gathering more and more attention recently (via Digg), especially after the announcements by Yahoo and AOL that they would begin a new paid service for 'priority' mail that would be 'guaranteed'… whatever that is supposed to mean. Silly me, thinking that current emails are already guaranteed to arrive where I send them. What, is there only like a 70-80% chance that when I press that 'send' button, my email will reach its destination?

Anyway the point is that when we really get down to it, we as consumers, have very little say in such things, and it seems obvious that the pure internet companies such as Amazon and Yahoo, that are currently against this 'other' form of internet, will eventually change sides once they are given a slice of the oh-so-sweet money pie. And so this is a call to all you people, consumers, workers, companies… please, Don't Be Evil! Let there exist an open forum for the world community to thrive together, communicating at a level unimaginable before, with a freedom that is unprecedented. We stand at a precipice; we can fall into the age old trap of bottom-line profit thinking, and let the floodgates of corporate ownership and control into the sacrosanct world of our internet, or stand together, strong and resolute, shouting – "We will not stand for it!" The decision, ultimately, is ours and ours alone.

I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly attracts me to fantasy novels. The historical aspect is no small part of it; I began looking to fantasy as a replacement for the poor selection of historical-fiction that was available. But it was something more than just that.

Today I started reading ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ by Robin Hobb, when one possible reason became rather obvious to me. Fantasy novels (and by extension, their authors) tend to inherently posses a certain amount of arrogance within them. This arrogance is justified because the author, in every sense of the word, is truly the ‘creator’ is such a setting. Freed from all the restrictions of reality, of physics, history or even evolution, the fantasy author is like some playful Yahweh, proclaiming the existence of the sun, a moon or two, all with a few shakes of his mighty pen. How can any fantasy author help but be arrogant?

Faced with such absolute power, the author lends himself a sense of importance, a belief that the events he describes are momentous, earth-shattering and entirely under his control. Other authors in comparison, subconsciously cower in the face of the immense limitations that bound them to the painful realities of this world. So much so, that they shrink themselves, reaching more timidly than would be normally allowed by the boundaries of our universe. They seem to ignore the absurdities and wonders that appear in our everyday lives. For these authors, there always remains the small trace of self-doubt, the small voice whispering in their heads telling them that they could not possibly have all the answers, have the complete picture.

For what mortal can assume to know what was going on in the mind of Julius Caesar as he chose to cross the Rubicon, or be fully aware of all the circumstances that surrounded the event some two thousand years in the past. The fantasy author, on the other hand, is comfortably secure in the knowledge that every motivation, every event, indeed every breath taken will only occur at his behest.

Neal Stephanson, the author of ‘Cryptonomicon’ and other sci-fi/cyber-punk classics, (as well as the historical-fictionesque ‘The Baroque Cycle’) talked briefly about this arrogance. He said that he had been scorned by ‘literary’ authors for the appearance of this very arrogance in his writing. These ‘literary’ authors are the ones cowering far within the limitations of this world that they write in, and for them assuming such omniscience is incomprehensible (my words, not his). The arrogance however, appears in abundance within the writings of fantasy/sci-fi authors, the best of whom make full use of this license and weave a story of such imagination and scope that we are left in awe of their creations. While I may be stretching his meanings a little (since he was talking about himself compared to the ‘literary’ authors, not fantasy or sci-fi authors) but I believe that he parallels my discussion closely.

Guy Gavriel Kay, nominally a fantasy writer, truly writes historical fiction (or you must, then historical fantasy). His insight is in openly acknowledging and embracing a truth that everybody already knows: that all historical fiction is truly fantastical in nature. In Kay’s case, by marginally changing the names of people and places he is writing about, he allows himself the freedom to assume the mantle of a world creator, rather than merely a chronicler of history, a figure that he even includes in one of his books. His historian is a bumbling yet sly figure, fully aware of the obscurative powers of history, knowing that even though he is part-villain in the present, history (under his control) will show him as an innocent bystander in the horrific events that he was forced record on page.

Examples of successful wielders of this arrogance I go on harping about are numerous, most recently (in my readings) by R. Scott Bakker in his “The Prince of Nothing” trilogy (a series I will soon talk about in far more depth). Outside the realm of novels, I believe Peter Jackson is a stellar example of someone with such capacity, in both The Lord of the Rings, as well as (more surprisingly) in King Kong. In the latter movie, I was struck by how uncompromising he was in his commitment to his vision of the movie, with a long introductory section based in a wonderfully recreated 1930’s New York. Here, in what many people felt was an unnecessary and somewhat cheesy sequence, Jackson unflinchingly throws us into the heart of the Depression period, and is so true to his vision, that I was swept up along with him, even as Naomi Watts plaintively cried to her surrogate father figure “But you’re all I’ve got!”.

The fact is, I tend to enjoy myself the most when the author/director fully embraces his mantle of ‘creator’ and show us a world where the differences are revealed in all their alien glory, rather than grudgingly explained away, as if to say “see, see, its not all that different after all!”. So it is the Scott Bakker’s of the world that truly transport us into their living worlds of inexplicable customs and races and powers, and with their sheer determination and conviction, sweep us away and allow us to truly experience a book.