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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: 1610 - A Sundial in a Grave, by Mary Gentle

First off, Mary Gentle’s “Ash: a Secret History” is in my all time Top 10; it’s simply that good. It starts off as historical fiction, then veers off into bizarre alternate history and finally… well, won’t spoil it more than that. If you haven’t read it yet, do.

1610 - a Sundial in a Grave is related to Ash in that it’s also an “alternate history” historical tale, and also in its format: it also pretends to be a later reconstruction of discovered original historical texts…this time, mostly consisting of the memoirs of the French duellist Valentin Rochefort, a shady character connected with some (equally fictious) old novels. Supposedly translated from the original French, the translator says that he/she has translated the text to use some modern idioms in order to make the text flow more smoothly to a modern reader. So again, some parallels to Ash.

Well, it’s no Ash, but it’s still a fun, rollicking tale of sword fighting, sex, royal assassinations and related mayhem. It starts off in 1610 (as per the title), with Rochefort, vassal to one Duc de Sully, getting involved in the plots of Marie de Medici to assassinate her husband, king Henri IV. He tries to finesse the situation and fails, much to his dismay. Forced to flee for his life, he is joined by his nemesis, young boy duellist Dariole, who is determined to prove he is the superior swordsman (and actually seems to be). Rochefort’s relation with Dariole gets off to a steamy start, and Rochefort decides he needs to murder the young brat. However, events conspire to involve Tanaka Saburo, a Nihonese ambassador, in their affairs — and soon all three are heading off to England… where they discover that one Edward Fludd seems to have perfected a mathematics for seeing the future, and has perhaps been pulling the strings all along. Naturally enough, Rochefort objects to being a puppet, let alone one steered towards yet another royal assassination, so things.. get messy.

It’s a huge brick of a book, but mostly a fast read. The characters are interesting, and while the plots and events verge on the fantastic, that’s in character for this type of swashbuckling tale. While there’s a hint of Dumas here, his books never had this amount of (unusual) sex. Mary Gentle practices historical swordsmanship and it shows; her depictions of rapier fights ring mostly true to me. Of course, I’ve never been in an actual fight with sharp rapiers (and don’t intend to), but I have practiced fencing with just the types of weapons they use here. The fight scenes seem authentic enough to me. Rochefort and Dariole, the main characters, are well-drawn and quite fascinating, perhaps because they both are so flawed yet have heroic dimensions at the same time. Neither is a “good guy”, strictly. Tanaka Saburo is more of a samurai archetype, but he does provide amusing commentary on the hygiene (or lack thereof) of the uncivilized gaijin surrounding him. All three are motivated by honor, but honor of very different sorts.

It’s not up to the level of Ash (but then again few books are). It’s a big, wild tale of swordplay, sex and royal politics (as seen from the fringes). I must admit that my grasp of the real history of that period is lacking (to say the least), but I got the impression that most of the main events shown here actually happened in history – though probably not with these exact details. As a bonus, it’s a book that (more or less) seems to get its swordplay right, so points for that. This is very much a “for adults” book; the themes are mature, it’s quite brutal at times, and the sex involved… well, may not be to everyone’s taste.

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Yarrr!

Should probably add a few words here about last weekend, it was tons of fun (though exhausting). We had Dr. John Lennox over at the school, teaching a weekend “Pirates!” seminar on historical naval boarding actions (with a side excursion into stage fighting). Ten hours in all, five each day.

Saturday we first took a look at the combat theory of that time, which included drawing a grid on the floor with masking tape, and visualizing cubes in the air. This was followed by unarmed basics, then knife use, then tomahawk use, and then double weapons (tomahawk + knife). The tomahawk is a quite impressive close-quarter weapon, and paired with a knife it’s pretty devastating.

Sunday we shifted into playing around with the cutlass, then combined that with the other weapons (so we’d do cutlass + knife, cutlass + axe, and other fun combos). Around the midpoint we played around with stage fighting for a while; how to stage combat scenes so that it looks real, is not actually dangerous, and is at least somewhat martially sound. Fun, if a bit tricky. At the end of the day, we did a full ship boarding simulation (with the class split in half), and went for each other at reasonable speed. The “mortality” rate was…. high. The weekend ended with a debrief, where we went over impressions of the stuff and gave some feedback.

I really liked the seminar, and Dr. Lennox proved to be a very good teacher. The style he used here was very different from Guy’s usual one; where Guy tends to go into technical detail and set drills (in the beginning at least), John was more about finding the flow of the weapon, figuring out “what it wants to do”. This difference is much due to the styles and weapons being taught, of course: John was teaching semi-military close-quarter techniques with varied weapons and combos, whereas Guy usually teaches dueling weapons. Vast difference in how those are typically taught. You can easily spend years honing dueling technique, but military combat needs to be straightforward and something you can teach to relative newbies quickly. John’s organic teaching style suited this seminar very well.

The seminar had a group of theatrical stage fighters attending, people I hadn’t met before. Some were actors, one guy was a professional stuntman… they were from all over. Fun guys, and they were very competent and quick learners. At times I felt they did better at some stuff than us “real” sword students did. Of course, most of these guys had a lot of background in various types of acrobatics, martial arts and whatever, so it’s not all that surprising…. but still.

John’s t-shirt was amusing. On the front it had some text about “Naval Historical” stuff with a logo, and the text “Boarding Party” (in large letters). The back had the text “The only party with a 50% mortality rate!”… and then the “50%” was crossed out and 90% written underneath, with a side note in Latin that had something to do with rum…

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Scorchio!

Looks like summer is here, if only for a while. The weekend was quite the scorcher. Saturday we went shopping for plants and spent most of the rest of the day doing gardening and related stuff (yes, it’s fun, when the weather is good). Sunday was sports day; first 2,5 hours of rapier basics, then another 2,5 hours of smallsword basics. Very fun seminar, but of course the weather was hot and the salle was a bit on the warm side too. We survived. Smallsword was weird… intuitive in some ways due to rapier background, totally bizarre in others (possibly due to same rapier background). There are things you can do with the smallsword that you just can’t with the rapier (well, not without breaking your wrist in the process, anyway).

Feeling mostly ok now. The “flu” bug turned out to be streptococcus strain “G” (whatever that means). More or less gone now, anyway, though now I know what medication I’ll ask for if it decides to make a comeback. Didn’t medicate this bout away, since medication helps against this strain only when taken while “sick”, and by the time I got the lab results I was already ok. My throat is still a bit raw, so it’s possible the thing is still lurking in the background. Die, bug, die.

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Exhausted

Though I hadn’t planned it as such, the last few weeks have been quite a get-into-better-shape workout. First a week out on the tundra, and then this week I’ve done a whopping 13 hours of swords practice. “Normal” rapier on Wednesday, then Ilkka’s limited-run Bolognese sidesword course on Friday, then 5 hours of Bolognese sidesword + buckler yesterday and lastly 5 hours of Bolognese/Fiore pollax techniques today. I’m pretty bushed, though in a good way. Oh, and it was fun, lots of fun.

Now I need to keep my head clear (and awake) long enough to go through the Burning Wheel rules one more time, and to do some game planning for tomorrow. We’ll see… it’s a fun game system, but damn is it complex. It’s not every day that a system feels actually more complicated then Exalted. Not sure if it actually is or not, but since we’re used to Exalted and now trying out Burning Wheel, it feels extremely complicated.

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Alkoholi on myrkkyä...

So, the school had its 8yr celebration party on Saturday. Much fun was had by all, and much alcohol was imbibed. Thanks to our visiting lovely bunch of Hungarian lunatics, the booze levels didn’t drop off at any point, and by the time we staggered off home (via taxi) we were quite plastered. There was a weird side episode there, where the taxi’s card reader refused to read our debit cards – so we ended up doing a detour to a local ATM, after some argument with the driver (who spoke with a strong Russian accent). We got it all sorted out in the end.

Anyway… Sunday was a lost cause. I tried to get up around noon, figured I was still too boozed-up for that, and went back to bed. Got up an hour later, had some breakfast… and then went back to the horizontal. Some hours later I finally felt semi-alive, and spent the rest of the day doing no-brain stuff like watching the end of 2nd season of Burn Notice. The wife and friends were having fun hotdropping some carriers on pirates in EVE, but I didn’t feel stable enough to do anything requiring coordination or brain cells (the ones not dead from the previous night, that is). Sigh.

In contrast, now on Monday I feel great and the sun is shining… and tonight is a Sisters of Mercy gig at Nosturi. Sometimes Monday is the good day.

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Life wins, slowly

Spent Sunday at the salle, Ilkka held a seminar on Bolognese sidesword and dagger techniques. Was a lot of fun, once again, and it’s really nice to be back to normal health (if not good shape, yet). I had a really long-term flu / throat infection thingy, and since that carries a small but non-zero danger of heart injury it you exert yourself too much, that meant a month+ of no exercise for me. Which was doubly nasty because the flu wore me down and the lack of exercise did the same. Finally felt well enough to come to the salle last Monday, but a month’s pause in training shows. Oh well. It’ll come back, it always does.

The training, I mean. The flu can stay away, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m also slowly waking up to the fact that Christmas will soon be here. I’ve only begun to think about presents, and only have a few taken care of so far. So… some shopping this week.

Work has been really interesting (if very busy) during the last month or so, since I’ve managed to convince my bos(ses) that doing a certain new app with Rails, with a REST datasource in our Java/JBoss main server end, is a good idea (and I honestly do think it is a good idea). This means that I’ve been coding Ruby/Rails a lot, and also tinkering with some lesser-known aspects of it like ActiveResource. It took a while to puzzle out the HTTP/XML format Rails expects and to duplicate that on the Java side, but once it’s in place it’s pretty impressive: the Rails app can now get a data feed from our server with just a few lines of code, and that feed behaves in many respects like a normal ActiveRecord database object. Cool stuff. I’ve also dived into testing with rSpec, with heavy use of mock objects and dynamic fixtures (since I want to keep the tests independent of server data). Figuring out HttpMock took a while, but now that also works.

Rails rocks, it’s by far my favorite wep app framework nowadays. Nothing else comes even close.

Added later: …though I do have to say that some of the lesser-used facets of Rails (like ActiveResource, especially with nested resources) can be pretty poorly documented, or not at all. I’ve quite often had to resort to hacking the Rails core code to figure out what the hell is going on. Today has mostly been spent in figuring out how the hell I can actually create nested REST resources. Finally figured it out, but it wasn’t exactly documented anywhere I could find. Today’s headaches also include puzzling out the exact XML format for server-side validation errors (no, it’s not what the docs claim it is) and in working around the fact that the XML formatter wants to turn all underscores into dashes in element names. Sigh.

Rails still rocks. But prepare to enter “Here There By Tygers” territory if you use some of the more bleeding-edge facets of it.

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Bolognese sidesword 101

Well, since Ilkka asked people to write something about last weekend’s Bolognese sidesword seminar, I’ll try to do that (though others have already done so much better than I can).

The seminar had the usual length of our one-day seminars, running from 10am to 5pm with an hour of lunch break in between. The difference to a usual weekend seminar this time was the fact that it was the first assistant instructor test we’ve had. As noted before and elsewhere, Ilkka did very well despite Guy throwing various curve balls in his direction, and passed easily. When he didn’t know the answer to something he didn’t get flustered and just said he didn’t know (with the implication of a “yet” in there). His teaching was straightforward and effective… he talked a lot, but that’s normal and required when teaching the basics of a new weapon system. The pace was pretty good; while it seemed fast in the beginning, in actuality it turned out to be just right, I never felt we were really going too fast. I would assume the pace would be lighter when teaching a room full of beginners, instead of the semi-intermediates the class mostly consisted of this time.

The system he was teaching was based on the teachings of some-random-Italian-dude (sorry, my memory for names is as lousy as ever), with some examples from other-random-Italian-dudes. The style emphasised a natural posture, and for once “natural” here actually meant something close to actually natural. I love the rapier as a weapon, but that stance in that (well, at least in Capo Ferro) is a leg-killer. None of that here, the guards were quite relaxed ones. The way the sword moved was a mixture of the natural and the unnatural (for me, that is). Some basic techniques felt easy and fluid, while others felt very, very hard to do correctly – one specific false-edge blade deflection in particular. One technique was extremely close to a rapier technique, and it was no surprise that it felt easy and natural – I guess rapier training has had some impact, since it wasn’t easy and natural to a lot of my training partners. So it goes.

I really like the sidesword as a weapon and this style of using it seems to suit me pretty well; the techniques either feel kinda sorta natural or feel like something that I can get to feel natural, with practice. Of course, the same could be said of any style, but some are easier than others. I get the feeling that the real difficult part is yet to come with this weapon, here we just focused on the basic moves – tactics are a different kettle of fish entirely. This feels like a weapon and style I’d like to learn better, here’s hoping we’ll see some more seminars etc on it in the future. Many of the moves still felt very clumsy and… well, unpolished, when I did them. Can’t find the proper word to use here… there’s a very specific feeling I get when I do a physical tehcnique and what I do is sort of right but not quite right, my body and muscle memory are still working on the details. It’s like rapier in the beginning, you do things but they don’t feel natural, your body doesn’t snap into them on autopilot. That’s what you aim for, of course, in the long run. It’s a nice feeling when you get there, even part of the way.

Ilkka has matured as a teacher. I remember when I first met him he was a nice guy (as he is still) but very gung-ho and pretty extreme in the physical training department; his warmups got a semi-legendary reputation of being killers. That has shifted into an emphasis on smart use of excercise, on doing warmups that are useful for the specific thing you’re training instead of going for raw power all the time. He has also gotten a lot better at explaining concepts and in figuring out why something isn’t working out for someone else – an essential martial arts instructor skill.

The day was made a slight bit more difficult for me because I had a pretty serious ache in my lower back (started some days back), which hurt my concentration and technique at times. I ate some painkillers to handle that but it was still a bit of a bitch. It’s mostly gone now; no idea what I did (wrong) to cause it, but I think I’ll go to swords training next week. Maybe (or actually: more than likely) I just need more/better muscles in my lower back and abdomen regions. That’s a nicer thought than “I’m getting old” :)

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Weekend

Nice weekend. Leonard Cohen was fantastic, managing to be even better than expected. Somehow he made the huge Hartwall Arena seem intimate, which is quite a feat. The backing band was also superb. Janka writes some more on the subject.

Sunday was mostly spent at the salle, we did six hours of Bolognese sidesword. Fun, and a weird mix of easy and quite difficult; some moves felt quite natural, while some were a total bitch to get even remotely right. Normal thing when learning a new weapon, or course. The seminar was also Ilkka’s Assistant Instructor exam, so we did some things (as told to by Guy) to make his life more difficult. He did splendidly and gave us an excellent day of learning the fundamentals of a new(ish) weapon… and easily passed the exam too. Over the years Ilkka has become a good martial arts teacher, it’s been interesting watching him develop both as a swordsman and as a teacher. I do like the sidesword, it’s a fun weapon which combines techniques from various other sword styles I’m familiar with; I’d like to learn more.

Only negative for the day was the fact that my back was killing me, I had picked up a nasty pain in my lower back from somewhere and had to eat some tabs to keep it in check. Those mostly helped, though some parts of the day were painful, literally. Good thing is that the pain is a lot less now, on Monday. Exercise helps (except when it doesn’t, of course).

Swords in the newspaper

Two weeks ago we had reporters from Helsingin Sanomat (the biggest Finnish newspaper) at our swords salle, and this Saturday’s paper featured the resulting story (in Finnish, naturally). There’s also a short but pretty good video available, in which Guy explains some basic background while the camera shows us doing drills; me and another guy were doing rapier that day, the others were doing longsword.

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Swordplay, imaginary and otherwise

We finally managed to run a session of Exalted last Sunday, after some scheduling difficulties. The characters, now in the Northern trapper town of Wangler’s Knob, did some expected things (talk with the locals, set out for the even-farther North) and some slightly unexpected ones (ambushed a Dragonblood expedition in the middle of the snowy wilderness). It was a logical (if ruthless) thing to do, and it was great – the fight was the biggest one we’ve had yet, and Khamyn met the limits of his invulnerability for the first time; I was pretty sure he was a goner for a small while there. It was tight, they were facing 9 skilled Wood Aspects plus their retinue. It was also great because of the moral problems it caused and will cause – since they were the ones attacking without warning in the middle of the night, supported by a demon horde (yes, really)… who exactly are the bad guys here? The fact that the target Dragonbloods had actually been quite pleasant to the characters previously adds some fuel to that fire. While it was a bit unexpected (I expected potential violence, but at a different time and place), storywise this was good. The massive fight ate up much of the playtime, but it also gave us a chance to practice the combat mechanics.

Outside that version of Creation, real-life swordplay has involved a lot less flashy gymnastics and a lot more old-fashioned sweat and repetition of basic moves. My heel, which was giving me serious problems last Wednesday and Thursday, has apparently healed; good, since tendon/joint pains are something that I’m extremely wary of. Tuesday’s basic training went well, and yesterday’s rapier also. While tiring and sweaty, rapier didn’t kill my arm too badly this time round. Maybe some little strength is returning, an iota at a time.

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