Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror A Review for the Fantasy Writer

I first heard mention of Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror by Waller R. Newell in a post on Black Gate. I was intrigued and sought it out. But, as Tyrants is a new book, I had to wait quite some time to request it through interlibrary loan. Recently, I received a copy and have since read it. The book is a thought provoking read. I found my assumptions challenged quite persuasively in some passages. But I cannot help but feel the book does not adequately cover its subject. While I might not recommend Tyrants to a scholarly audience, I do think, with caveats, this book is useful for fantasy writers.

Tyrants is divided into three parts. While the introduction presents three types of tyranny, the book itself takes the chronological approach of ancient, early modern, and modern. The result is that garden variety tyrants are an afterthought(or addendum) to reform and millenarian tyrants.

Part One is, perhaps, the weakest part of the text. Newell focus on Classical writers interpreting, engaging, and condemning tyrants of garden variety, reform variety, and mixed variety hues. The problem, however, is that he does not engage with the origin of tyranny. For that, one must delve deep into the great Bronze Age world monarchies/ great states (Egypt, Hittite, Assyria, Babylon, and Mittanni) as well as the Persian Empire.

It must also be noted that I caught a number of factual errors in Part One. The war between the Olympians and the Titans is called the Titanomachia not the Gigantomachia (which deals with the Olympians fighting the Giants, not Titans). Athens is located on the Attic Peninsula not the nearby Peloponnesian Peninsula. Harmodius and Aristogeiton change places within a few paragraphs. And Cleopatra did not order the death of Pompey, her brother did (otherwise I doubt Caesar would have supported her let alone begun an affair with her).

Part Two explores tyranny in relation to state formation in late medieval and early modern Europe. There is a heavy component of period political theory by which the various monarchs are judged. This is, honestly, a very interesting part of the book.

Part Three is where Newell shines and is at his most persuasive. His examinations of the millenarian tyrannies of the Jacobins, Bolsheviks, and Nazis are very good and very terrifying. His tying of the the extreme Left with the extreme Right is convincing. His exploration of the rejection of the Enlightenment and the creeping radicalization of intellectual circles is thought provoking.

Newell does, however, lose some of his persuasiveness as he delves into Third World Socialism because, in part, he does not engage with useful concrete examples. The discussion is mostly relegated to the theoretical with a few practical examples.

After Third World Socialism, Newell turns to the merging of Third World Socialism and Nazism: Jihadism. Newell’s analysis is good, but I wish he had delved deeper. These final explorations seems rushed.

Despite my problems with Tyrants, I do think that the book is very useful for fantasy writers. It will provide, I believe, a firmer grounding and foundation in political and literary theory when it comes to world building. It must also be said that a writer does not have to agree with his sources or inspirations. I have (obviously) numerous arguments with this book. But that does not stop me from having being inspired or using what I learned to better help me with my writing.

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Posted on October 26, 2016, in Books and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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