Published: 14 April 2018*
“The Last Dance” brings an end to the episodic nature of the series. Everything from here on out is welded quite tightly into the main plot – or, rather, the main plot constitutes what happens in the last three stories. Spoilers for “The Last Dance” from here on out. What seems like a straightforward get-the-book smash-and-grab (which involves Lemma and Iola going undercover in a harem, because @midorikonton knows which side her bread is buttered on) turns into the return of fairy murdergoblin “Red” for his third and final confrontation with Lemma. Red loses, although mostly thanks to Iason and Rhoda and Rhoda’s
Machamprage-demon Sonneillon. (Rhoda being, of course, the person Lemma used the ghost last time to call for.)
Lemma’s desire to be enslaved is something she’s been dealing with, more or less successfully, up until this point, but it’s something Iason and Iola don’t actually know about yet. That reticence is now coming back to bite her in the ass. The most important conflict in this story isn’t the fight against Red, or Lugal’s** magic clothes; it’s between Lemma and Iola over what the right course of action while trapped in the palace is. Lemma wants to give in, of course, but Iola’s experience with mind-control has been a lot more traumatic than Lemma’s, and she has a very strong personal/cultural “go down fighting” ethos, and she doesn’t seem to have this particular kink on any level anyways. We were reminded just last story of all of Iola’s trauma around the whole magical mind-controlled sex thing. But unlike that time, Lemma, for strategic reasons, doesn’t feel like she has to room to let Iola do her own thing. So she doesn’t just go along with the enchantments, she actively throws her magical weight behind glamouring Iola too. Iola doesn’t know the actual reasons Lemma did this, but I’m not sure it’d make a difference anyways: she would understand it, correctly, as just as awful a betrayal either way.
The party – now up to four with the addition of Rhoda – is off to Hattush to find the last, most apocalyptic book, and it’s all very dramatic. But what sticks with me the most about the end is Iola’s refusal to tell Lemma everything’s ok.
*Look, it was supposed to be out this week, but the EMCSA (my canonical reference for links and dates) is on a one week break, I’m travelling next week, and its been posted to Tumblr now. Also it’s been burning a hole in my drafts folder for nearly a month now. ;P
**His death at the hands of Red is a little abrupt, but he’s enough of a controlling jerk I can’t brink myself to feel too sorry for him. Plus, you know, dying abruptly is a peril of kingship. (If Red had murdered, say, poor Simta, I’d be a lot angrier; but Jenny seems to have learned her lesson since the Vamp!Brea business***.)
***Yes, I’m still mad. ;P
When The Fuck Are We? 🤷
For the first time, we’re further back in time than the Bronze Age Collapse! “Possession with Intent” is set in Khemeth, which is clearly K•m•t, Egypt*. Ancient Egypt is one of those things everyone at least knows a little about** so I’ll focus on two slightly more obscure points.
The first is Iason’s reference to Khemeth being “the breadbasket of the Inner Sea”, which is both true and false in an interesting way. Egypt, being spectacularly fertile, essentially one-dimensonal, and laid out on a lazy, easily navigable river, is indeed just about the optimum imaginable setting for extracting massive food surpluses with ancient technology and governance. But it wasn’t a big export from Egypt (Egypt’s main ancient export was papyrus, thanks to its ecologically-enforced monopoly). Rather, it was mostly used to pump up Egypt’s own population, and in particular the showpiece capital cities such as Memphis, Thebes, or Alexandria. In the ancient world, having an unnecessarily – nay, infeasibly – large capital was a point of pride, which is where Egypt’s actual role as a breadbasket comes in: after it lost its independence in 30BCE, the Romans told Alexandria to get stuffed and began exporting Egypt’s wonderful easy grain surpluses to Rome, instead***. But of course, there’s not much here to imaginably suggest that we’re in the Roman Empire, timeline-wise.
Which brings us to the other point: the party being around for the invention of pyramids is obviously just for the joke, but even discounting that Egypt is old. The usual comparison is to note that when Augustus began redirecting the Egyptian grain surplus to Rome, the pyramids at Giza were already older than Augustus is now. The Egyptian state that survived the Bronze Age Collapse was the already declining New Kingdom, third of the traditional old/middle/new kingdoms division of ancient Egyptian history; it’s the heir to a polity stretching back into the 31st C BCE. Egypt is old.
“The Last Dance” takes us to the one city-dwelling society even older than Egypt. Lagasch/Lagash is a Sumerian town, and Sumer (the south end of Mesopotamia, so modern-day south-central Iraq) has recognizable cities all the way back into the fifth freakin’ millennium BCE, and a historical record stretching patchily into the late fourth. Lagash ceased to exist as in independent city-state in the late third millennium*****, so about as long before our stop in Etruria as that was before Mercia, or Mercia is before the present day (and this story doesn’t seem to be taking place at the end of Lagash’s time as an independent polity, either). Based on some truly shoddy historical research******, we might slap this with a date of 2500 BCE – old enough to actually start getting close to the invention of the pyramids.
Sumerian, like Etruscan, is a language that seems to be unrelated to every other known language. (Before you come up with a brilliant theory that will revolutionize ancient history – no, they don’t seem to be related to each other, either.) Unlike Etruscan, we have such a huge corpus of text that we can translate it fairly reliably. (It helps that Sumerian remained in use as a record-keeping language for centuries after it had stopped being spoken – rather like Latin in Medieval/Early Modern Europe.) I’ve already mentioned the problems with king lists and such, but one of the great things about Mesopotamia is that unlike the logistical records of Mycenae, or the glorifying propaganda of Egypt, we have all of that and also preserved letters, and that lets us look so much further afield into the culture, you don’t even know. We even have recognizable preserved jokes: a regional administrator writes the central palace complaining that his requests for supplies to repair a dangerously deteriorating wall have been ignored, and it’s going to fall over and hurt someone. He demands supplies again, “and if you can’t send those at least send a doctor”.
Also, despite what Neal Stephenson will tell you, Sumerian is not glossolalic and you can’t use it to mind-control people.
*Look, you try transliterating Coptic into Latin characters! Like its distant relatives the Semitic languages, Coptic is based around consonantal root-words, into which vowels are slotted to make verbs, adjectives, and so forth. It makes for somewhat awkward transliterations.
**He says, and then panics trying to figure out how much people who aren’t actually historians have read about ancient Egypt. Tutankhamen’s weird Sun cultist dad is common knowledge, right?
***Rome’s peak in the Augustan period at a couple of hundred thousand, maybe a million****, was almost entirely on the back of the annona, a massive subsidized bread ration distributed to the Roman civic populace, and supplied in large part by Egypt. (It’s not terribly comparable to modern food stamps or other social welfare; in an ancient context, it’s more like spiking the football.) The population cratered between then and the burned-out husk the Goths and Byzantines squabbled over in the 6th C CE, but not because of the “fall of Rome”. Rather, the 4th C CE founding of Constantinople and the redirection of the Egyptian grain surplus there (so the new capital would bulk up to an appropriately prestigious population) was what really did it for Rome; and all of that happened when the Roman Empire was still riding high. The state of Rome was closer before and after the Visigoth sack than either was to Augustus’ city of marble.
****The brilliant if wildly opinionated historian Colin McEvedy had a great turn of phrase arguing for 250,000. (He has a great turn of phrase for everything, you should read him.) After laying out the more archaeological arguments about land use and suchlike, he notes that the one solid literary record for the annona we have, around the time of Augustus, gives a little less than a quarter of a million rations, and “who ever heard of a dictator who put a smaller figure on his largesse than he needed to. If [Augustus] had fed a million Romans he would have said so.”
*****We can peg it to exact years relative to related dates – the Mesopotamians were pretty through chroniclers, so we know how long kings ruled, in what regnal year they went on what campaign, and so forth, but they’re floating around in a little bit of a void. There are a couple of different possible chronologies depending on which recorded astronomical events you make line up with which calculated astronomical events.
******To wit, googling “Lagash king list dates” and looking for names that resemble “Lugal”. My historiography prof just shuddered and doesn’t know why.
Next time: the thrilling climax! Oh, man, does Lemma do some climaxing.