Book Review: The Sparrowhawk Series

Where can you turn if you love reading books that portray man as a heroic being, with a brilliant plot, great dialog and soaring themes? For most readers of my blog, the immediate answer is Ayn Rand. But after you have read and re-read her works over the years, where else can you look for romantic realism that isn’t muddied by the prevailing altruism, naturalism, or logical and ethical confusions of most current and past authors? There’s not a lot out there. I find myself picking and choosing, reading old masters like Hugo – which, as Myrhaf pointed out recently, is a mixed bag – or reading some contemporary works because they contain certain elements that are interesting, fun or enlightening. Still, it gets tiresome always having to look past the failings of an author, to enjoy a book piecemeal, in spite of the problems here or there.

I have often hoped that Objectivist authors would start coming out of the woodwork, but very few have been published. What little fiction I have read by Objectivists (poems, short stories, etc.) has simply not been any good. The visual arts have had more success, perhaps because the artists don't have to fight through the myopic publishing industry. But for every good painting or sculpture, there are many many bad ones.

The particular author or artist may have a good sense of life and a good set of ideas, but he then chooses to hit us over the head with it in a boorish attempt at emulating Ayn Rand (in writing) or the image of Howard Roark standing on the cliff before diving into the quarry pond (in the visual arts). Perhaps the immensity of the shadow Rand casts is such that Objectivist artists have trouble standing on their own, creating unique works with their own voice? Whatever the cause, upon seeing a painting or statue of yet another nude figure with arms outstretched, looking purposeful yet serene, I think, “Just because you have tried to make a rendering of a hero Rand created, does not make your art good.” What is lacking is a true mastery of the particular craft; theme, style, skill, and a unique voice integrated with an heroic sense of life.

As Ayn Rand said, the role of art is to serve the rational man's need for "a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the objectified reality of one’s own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one’s ideal world." [AR Lexicon] I can satisfy this need the realm of visual arts. But what about books?

It was in this context that I started reading Book One: Jack Frake, by Edward Cline, with both anticipation and trepidation. Jack Frake is the first of six books in the Sparrowhawk series of historical fiction novels set in the pre-Revolutionary War period. Previously, I wrote a review of the Baroque Cycle, a historical fiction trilogy that takes place roughly fifty years prior to the beginning of Sparrowhawk. I love those books because they are swashbuckling, intelligent, fun, and well written. They celebrate ideas and how ideas move the world. The main problem with them is that, other than a general respect for reason, there is no core philosophy and thus the plot and characters sometimes wander a bit. It’s the “piecemeal complaint” I mentioned previously.

For me, Book One: Jack Frake started off slowly, and it took me a couple of chapters to settle into Cline’s world of mid-eighteenth century England. But by the time Jack Frake, the main character and hero of the entire Sparrowhawk series, ran away from home as a ten-year-old boy and took a job in a tavern, I was hooked. After devouring the book in a few days (which is very fast for me), I was very glad that I had ordered both it and Book Two: Hugh Kenrick at the same time, on the chance that I’d like the series. Waiting for even a rush delivery from Amazon would have been too much. I also made sure to order the rest of the series and The Sparrowhawk Companion right away, so I wouldn’t have to take a break after Hugh Kenrick. After reading all six in immediate succession, and then purchasing a copy of the series as a gift for a relative, I’m now ready to write about the time I spent with Sparrowhawk.

Simply and rather inadequately put, I love these books. They are thrilling, smart, historically rich, with tightly constructed yet wonderfully complex plotlines (which of course followed the major historical events of the period), fascinating characters, and the theme is heroic and inspiring. As Jena Trammel wrote in the Companion, “…Cline offers readers a rare experience in modern literature: the thrilling emotional and inspirational experience of understanding historical events through the ideas and actions of morally heroic men.”

In complete repudiation of my initial concerns, Cline’s own unique voice and vision shine through, brilliantly loud and clear. The dialog is where his mastery of his craft really shines through, because I think dialog is perhaps the most difficult part of a novel to pull off convincingly. Also, where the historical record is spotty or non-existent, he creates it in such a way that it may as well be repurposed to fill in the gaps of history, because it's damn near perfect. For instance, Patrick Henry's Stamp Act speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765 was never recorded in full detail. Cline therefore had to create it, and did so in dramatic fashion; so much so that if that's not what Henry said, he should have.

The story of the American Revolution is naturally a great story by itself, and much has been written about it. But what of the men who birthed the Revolution in the decades prior? How did it come to pass that the men of the British colonies in America did something that no group of men had ever done, fighting for and creating a country of ideas and reason, not power and plunder? As the book description of Jack Frake says on Amazon.com,
Bringing a radically new perspective to the events leading up to The American Revolution, Sparrowhawk, a new series of historical novels, establishes that The Revolution occurred in two stages: the war for independence and also a more subtle revolution that happened in men's minds that occurred many years before the Declaration of Independence.
This idea, that the “Revolution in men’s minds” was the foundation of American independence, and made the war, the victory, and the founding of the nation possible, is a major theme that informs all the events and characters in the series.

Both the heroes and villains of Sparrowhawk, and all of their actions, revolve around this idea; the extent to which they either create and promote, or deny and resist the “Revolution in men’s minds” makes clear where the battle lines will be drawn, and why. This theme, over the course of the six books, brilliantly elucidates how some men could yearn for continued Crown rule in America, and how some men felt compelled to stand up and defiantly fight for their rights, values, and self-interest as independent men; not at British subjects, but as Americans.

These last are best exemplified by the two heroes of the series, Jack Frake and Hugh Kenrick; two boys born of England – though in opposite stations in life, one a pauper, the other nobility – transplanted to America, who share an unyielding egoistic moral code and fealty to reason. Through them, we learn what type of men, and what ideas, shaped the Revolution.

A question you may have at this point is: “Are these books written strictly from an Objectivist perspective?” I think it best to let Ed Cline speak to this point. In his blog posting, Sparrowhawk: The Project, Cline writes:
I should stress here that I did not set out to write an "Objectivist" novel, nor to create, in Jack and Hugh and in the minor heroes … prototype Objectivist heroes. How could I? The most brilliant minds of that period were not Objectivist -- not Jefferson, not Adams, not Franklin, not Washington or any of the other great men to whom we owe thanks. The task was to imbue my characters with the best received wisdom of their time, and then carry it only a little bit further as a measure of their own intellectual efforts. The fundamentals of a correct political and moral philosophy had to wait two hundred years for Ayn Rand to think of them.
And yet, while the heroes (and their real historical counterparts) are perfectly at home in their time, they seem like giants compared to men of today. The ideas and freedoms they fought for and won are but shadows in America now. At the same time, Cline’s portrayal of the conniving political pull of Parliament and the mercantilism and pragmatism that informed decision after horrendous decision, looks shockingly like our world today. This all serves as a cautionary tale; an example of how far we have fallen in so short a time.

However, it also highlights in heroic fashion how much we have to fight for -- what America was and can be again.

According to Cline, it is a wonder that these books were ever published. I have little familiarity with the publishing industry, but from what I have heard it is difficult to get anything published, let alone books with heroic themes, actual plots, and that advocate such radical ideas as reason and rational self-interest. As Cline wrote in an essay in the Companion:
…I had not expected Sparrowhawk to see daylight, at least not in my lifetime. Fortunately, against all the odds and against all the advice and wisdom of undertaking such a project, the series found a champion in its publisher, David Poindexter, founder of MacAdam/Cage… The story goes that after he had finished reading the manuscript of Book One: Jack Frake, and knowing that I was at work on Book Four: Empire, and that I had two more titles in the series to complete, he wrote on top of his reader’s report: PUBLISH.
The world is a better place because of that one word.

Great books – the ones that have a profound impact on you – are like dear friends, and they hold a place in your psyche, as a touchstone and means of reference in your daily life. You can refer back to them, and reading the stories again is like a happy reunion.

I read the first pages of Sparrowhawk with a jaded eye, not expecting much, and came up for air two thousand pages later cherishing what Cline had created, knowing that these books would be my lifelong companions.


Clay said...

Cline's novels transport us to another world where men learned to fight for their values.

We live in a world of "human" "rights" commissions, and attacks on human freedom from nearly every direction.

I fear lately that all recourse to justice is being closed, but one, and that if it comes to it that there will be few who will fight.

Jenn Casey said...

Great books – the ones that have a profound impact on you – are like dear friends, and they hold a place in your psyche, as a touchstone and means of reference in your daily life. You can refer back to them, and reading the stories again is like a happy reunion.

I really like how you phrased that. My favorite books and their characters roam around inside my head and there's not a day that passes without my recalling something from one of them. They are constant and true and comforting.

(My good friends are like that, too!)

C. August said...

You know, Jenn, when I wrote that passage, I actually had you in mind as my archetypal book lover! Don't get me wrong... that characterization of books hold true for me as well, to a certain extent. But good novels have a bigger place in your life than anyone I know.

Joe said...

I absolutely LOVE the Sparrowhawk books and have all of them... They are what historical fiction should be: true to the spirit of events but enhanced by the skill of the author to create an integrated world view not possible in simple history books.

I had the same reaction of not being able, and not wanting, to put them down, but to read them straight through... the toughest part was when it all came to an end.

Thanks for this great review and thanks to Ed Cline for some fantastic books!

Joe Kane,
Chief Journalist, US Navy