Reviews: Unicorn Variations, The History of the Franks

In what will probably be the final review in my year-long project, I add in a couple different books – one a collection of short stories (science fiction and fantasy) and essays by Roger Zelazny, and one a quite antique book of European History.  It’s been a little bit interesting to have a reason to note what I’ve been reading: my chief discovery was how very much I actually re-read; the other thing I noticed was that I rarely seem to have fewer than three books in progress at a time – if nothing else, I’ll have a bit of light reading, a more serious work, and then some other book at school for downtime – and this is without considering any devotional reading.

Unicorn Variations

A major theme of this collection is foreign intelligences – alien, man-made, or mythological.  Other stories are perhaps better thought of as Zelazny’s thought experiments on sex and death – not that they don’t overlap.  Most stories are introduced briefly, and interspersed with the stories are some short essays on writing fiction (some specifically addressing science fiction).  Not all feature Zelazny as his best – in particular, the lead and titular story “Unicorn Variation” is somewhat meandering, perhaps a result of having too many ideas attempted in too few pages.  (Alternatively, because the actual story is, at the length it is told, fairly uninteresting.)

Although this has nothing to do with the collection as a whole, I did notice with some surprise that when I read the story “Home is the Hangman”, I recognized it – from the very first Zelazny I ran across, a novel of sorts (which someone else had brought along to round-up for a high school Shakespeare adaptation) called My Name is Legion.  Having taken a look, I found that Legion is a rather artificial construct – three short stories featuring the same character (perhaps originally only similar ones?) strung together.

The History of the Franks

Gregory of Tours’ work, on the other hand, is a fairly scholarly piece of business written in a popular tone – to the point I wondered whether the translator ( Lewis Thorpe) might not have overdone it a bit in places.  To go through it properly would take a good deal of time and some careful note-taking to keep all the names straight.  It’s an enjoyable read, not too long: Gregory takes a section to go through the entire history of the world (as he understood it) and then gets down to the rather gory business of the Frankish kingdoms’ politics and occasional ecclesiastical disputes.

The book produced a number of impressions, of which I will mention the most notable.  First, Gregory’s history covers quite a bit of his own time, and it is curious how self-effacing he is when dealing with political matters, especially when contrasted with his lengthy narratives of a few ecclesiastical or religious controversies.  Second, it serves as a useful reminder to be careful about our self-evaluations: despite the History being mainly one of chaos and civil war, at one point Gregory calmly declares how much better off the Franks have been than those heretical Arian Visigoths (the Spanish kingdoms), whose king had to put down a rebellion by his son.  Third, remarkable mainly because of the weather this year, for several years in a row Gregory notes that the Winter was much warmer than usual.

A curious fact is the number of things Gregory (or his later copyists) managed to get wrong, despite all his evident care – the most startling are his misnaming or misarranging of Biblical persons in his introduction (the translator suggests that he must have felt confident enough to work from memory), but evidently (judging from the footnotes) Gregory’s account does not entirely agree with other contemporary works as to the names or order of various dynasties.  However, those same footnotes also mention periodically – perhaps a dozen times – that one or another of Gregory’s sources has, sadly, since been lost.