Colossus: Stone and Steel-Quarrying Queries

In my review of David Blixt’s Colossus: Stone and Steel here: https://wheresmytower.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/colossus-stone-and-steel/ I say that it “invites intellectual debate.”  Now I’m going to follow through on that by going through the cumbersome quarries of material within this book to chisel out some interesting queries.  (I’m sorry, I had to.)

 

I present to you, Colossus: Stone and Steel Discussion Questions! 

(Expect spoilers).

1. The question of Florus’s wife Cleopatra bothers me.  As the property of Florus, at the time of this novel it would’ve been seen as fitting that she share her husband’s fate.  Undoubtedly, as his wife, she shared in the spoils of his greed and mistreatment of the Judeans.  On the other hand, can any of the blame really fall on her?  The descriptions and inner thoughts of Florus hardly include Cleopatra, let alone giving any hint that he would have behaved differently if she wasn’t there.  None of the victims mention Cleopatra as having done anything offensive on her own.  Even Berenice speaks only of Florus, and surely she would have mentioned Cleopatra by name if this wife had also slighted her.  True, Cleopatra’s personality isn’t stellar-she’s obnoxious and selfish.  Still, is that any reason for her to share the tortuous end of Florus?  Shouldn’t someone have at least thought that Cleopatra might deserve a separate fate?

 

2. Speaking of Cleopatra, is there any way in which this portrayal of Queen Berenice is not reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra?

 

3. Colossus: Stone and Steel frequently refers to the worth of blood and ancestors.  One of the first ways this is set up is in the contrast between the businesses of Judah and Phannius.  While it’s natural to resent such differences now, particularly from the view of non-aristocrats like Judah, can all the blame really always be laid at the door of the “superior-blooded”?  Phannius is constantly described as a ‘lout’, largely because he doesn’t seem to work as hard to Judah and Asher.  He’s even indiscriminately punched in the face by Judah, for no immediate reason, only latent resentments against decisions that are not all, or even mostly, Phannius’ fault, but his mother’s.  Is it any easier for those on the upper side of the scale to overlook such attitudes concerning them?  Should it be?

-On that note, does the fact that Vespasian and Titus are allowed to flourish according to their military prowess in Rome, in spite of their lack of famous ancestors, demonstrate that Roman laws are more progressive than Judea’s?

 

4. Omens appear frequently in this book.  However, whereas Judean omens seem to derive from different interpretations of the same original texts or themes, Roman omens seem to leave more room for individuality.  Titus feels blessed because of something that happened when he was vowing over the Fifteenth’s eagle.  The eagle itself is an established historical symbol, but the wind event derives from the immediate stimulus of visual impact and shared feeling.  Titus does not need to recite other times this same event happened to other people to ensure its validity.    It is valid because he was there and it seemed propitious to those who saw it.  Nor does he need to become anything other than what he is.  Unlike Yosef, who tries to become the mahsiah, Titus’ omen is not so much about his place in society as about external events he will take part in.  Similarly, whereas Yosef’s new interpretation of Hebrew prophesies centers on Vespasian becoming an archetype in relation to others, the Roman prophesy about Vespasian’s family winning the war is purely about outside outside happenings.

-Are omens more powerful as foretellers of events or as declarations of a person’s destined place in the world?  Or more dangerous?  Titus and Vespasian may be less encumbered with deep thoughts about prophesies, but is that good or bad?  Is Yosef’s spiritual journey less genuine because it’s always tied to omens he wants to work himself into?  Or is that responsible for Yosef’s great power to adapt and therefore possibly a positive thing?

 

5. Sex appears over and over again as an underlying theme.  Yet, this too is represented very differently for the Romans and the Hebrews.  The potential for sex appears as something negative whenever the Judeans encounter it: the potential for shame if Judah and Deborah engage in it, the sexual threats to Perel, Edith, and Asher, derogatory comments about Queen Berenice, and the lesson that sexual activity removes the Lord’s presence.  On the other hand, sex is used to bolster the Roman egos-they will win the war like a seducer winning a fuck, they revel in the phallic nature of their weapons, individual men gain strength from their sexual partners.  What does this say about these culture’s views on sex?  Aside from that, which of these sexual attitudes is shown to lead to the healthiest attitudes about women?  Or is it all just foreshadowing of what side will win and which will be violated, and each character should be viewed as creating their own views on sexuality and women?

 

6. Was anyone else’s favorite scene Yosef’s mathematicide?  It was delightful in its inevitability, understated intensity, and flow!  What are some other favorite scenes and why?

 

7. The question of performance versus intention comes up a lot.  Is Deborah really who she seems to be around Judah, if she has to try to act this way?  Is Yosef really brave when fighting if he does it for the sake of those watching instead?  Are Judah and Asher really heroic for firing Roman weaponry, or is their deed tarnished by their desire to be seen as heroes like Atlas?

-Is the real difference between Yosef’s fighting and the twins’ that the twins were willing to die?  Yosef certainly believed he might die.  Was the difference that the twins truly believed it was worth it, while Yosef thought it was madness?  In that case, many of the zelotes’ deeds become noble because their doers truly thought they were needed.  Was it that Asher and Judah performed their fighting for the present moment, whereas Yosef is always thinking ahead?  If so, a lot of us are in trouble because it’s deemed wise and necessary to look ahead.  Is the difference that Asher and Judah respected the people who were watching them, while Yosef did not?

 

8. The question of whether death is greater than life offers a rich quarry, indeed.  Many people are remembered more for how they died than how they lived, the Romans believed that to die with honor was worth more than anything, is immortality granted by the living or by gods?  The side issue of whether suicide or homicide is better also plays a large role.  Is the willingness to die for a cause greater than themselves the true measure of honor?  Or is dying to prove something about yourself equally noble?  Or is either reason simply misguided?

 

9. Yosef gets a lot of flack for continually manipulating everything to try and prove who he thinks he should be.  Most notably, he kills people off to ensure he will live because he believes he’s a person who must.  However, Judah commits very similar acts.  Judah believes that his purpose in life is to be a warrior-that is who he is, the same way Yosef believes he’s a great priest.  Several times, Judah is willing to sacrifice everything and everyone else to partake in the feelings and actions of a warrior.  He rushes out of the shield wall, he wants to stay and die fighting, even if it dooms his twin and his friends, because a warrior’s who he believes he’s meant to be.  Does the fact that Judah is killing Romans instead of Judeans really excuse him from the same personality flaws as Yosef?  Judah’s actions are a more emotional response while Yosef’s are planned, but does that make them different?  Yosef’s belief can be as genuine as Judah’s and Judah’s lack of concern for others when opposed to his personal self-purpose is arguably equal to Yosef’s.  Is it just the end goal of dying (as a warrior) versus living (as a leader) that makes us more sympathetic to Judah?  If so, what does that say about current beliefs about death being greater than life?

 

10. Who betrayed Jotapata?  (Personally, I think the clues are quite clear, but it seems a fitting question to end on.)

 

 

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. David Blixt
    Sep 26, 2012 @ 00:43:19

    The review was absolutely lovely, but these knocked my socks off. Great questions! So glad you connected with this one. Books 2, 3, and 4 are on the way! COLOSSUS: THE FOUR EMPERORS will hit in either December or January. (And the answer to number 10 will have to wait until Book 3.)

    As for #2, it’s one of the classic movies I’ve never seen. I know, Rex Harrison and Liz, but I’ve somehow missed it. So now I’ll have to watch it. Because I adore writing Berenice.

    Reply

    • wheresmytower
      Sep 26, 2012 @ 01:46:37

      Hah! I’m very surprised you haven’t seen ‘Cleopatra’. In my head Berenice is like, her slightly younger cousin who learned everything from her. At the end I imagined her venting her wrath by writing to Taylor’s Cleopatra, etc.

      Luckily, as stated, I’m fairly certain about 10, which is good if it’s not revealed til book 3. There are lots of signs, but the clincher for me was that Placidus asked ‘where’ along the wall the band of Jews dropped, in order to know if they were the band that was to be let go. Someone picked that spot on the wall for everyone else…

      I was hoping you would weigh in on some of the parallels I see between Yosef and Judah? Or perhaps say who is more fun to write? I’m also curious about how long it took to do the math for yon mathematicide.

      On another note, it occurred to me after I posted this that another thing to think about is the complete lack of motherliness in this book. The twins have no mother, Eudorias is not motherly, Judah’s housekeeper is never seen in her role as mother, Caenis is respected but doesn’t seem like a mother figure, and the other mother we see is terminal. Chava never actually becomes one. Is it just to add to the bleak landscape and feel? To focus more on the ‘men’s work’ of war? Or to make every female more easily sexualized? Or to make the choice of death seem more natural and honorable?-It’d be harder to accept that if they had mothers waiting for them.

      *cocks eyebrow*
      Hmm…

      Reply

  2. David Blixt
    Sep 26, 2012 @ 08:39:09

    Beginning with the last, I think at least part of the lack of motherhood is my Shakespearean background. Mothers are seldom seen in Shakespeare, and nearly always dark or distant figures (Gerturde, Tamara, Lady C). Only in the odd later plays do sympathetic mothers appear (I’m thinking of Hermione in Winter’s Tale). Otherwise motherhood is a plot device (the abbess in Comedy Of Errors). Part of it, too, is how few mothers survived. Look at Caesar’s first wife, or Caesar’s daughter, who died trying to give Pompey a son. Why are there so many step-mothers in Grimm’s fairy tales? Because the mothers are dead.

    I wouldn’t be quite so quick to dismiss Euodias. Not every mother is “motherly,” and there are many mothers who cause harm because of their own willful neglect. It is striking that there is no contrasting, kind mother figure, but I was going for the contrast between bitch-mother and sweet-daughter. While I won’t dismiss your notion that I’m keeping nurturing figures out of the story as a subconscious means of making sure all the women can be sexualized, I’d also argue that kindness rarely drives the plot. Kind people become victims or vessels for other people’s ambitions or desires.

    On that note, the mother I wish was in this story, but had already died, is Nero’s. Agrippina’s relationship with her son and daughter-in-law is fascinating and horrific, a twisted view of the nurturing of motherhood. Nero was very much a Momma’s Boy, only his wife managed to supplant his mother as his Momma.

    We do get more of Perel’s mother in the second novel. The same tradition that says Peter had a daughter also tells us that he traveled with a woman who was in every way “as a wife” to him.

    This does raise the question of my female characters across the board. My wife has stated how much she likes Deborah, who’s “not the usual harpies you write.” Nor will she be. And I don’t think Antonia can be described as a harpy. But my women need to be able to affect the world they live in, somehow. Most often it’s by being “unfeminine” on some level, though we also see the danger in too much of the “feminine” in Gianozza. The women I like – Deborah, Antonia, Chava, the Countess in HMW – are often less fun to write than the ones who behave badly or boldly – Katerina, Euodias, Giovanna. Lia is magical to me, as she straddles the worlds of behavior. I enjoy writing Caenis. I detest writing Gianozza, though I quite like writing Tessa.

    Note that whom I like has very little to do with what happens to them. Often if I like someone, I end up heaping misfortune on their heads. Pietro is the ultimate example so far, but Antonia is right up there. And Cesco…

    But in these books, the events shape the tale. Though I gave her a name and a life, Chava’s fate was determined from the start, being described by Josephus. We lose so many great characters in book three, Jotapata will feel like a campfire.

    There’s a review of COLOSSUS on GoodReads that starts out “I can tell this was written by a man!” That stung, I can tell you. I think she felt I was reveling in the violence (which I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment on, though the violence in COLOSSUS is deliberately quite different from the violence in the Star-Cross’d books). But she also may not have liked the male-centric nature of the novel. I’m very aware of my heavily-male casts, and for THE DEVIL’S DUE, I’m delighted to be working on something told first-person by a female protagonist – partly because the story calls for it, but also just to prove I can.

    For the rest, I blame the influence of Shakespeare, who has five men for every woman. I have no other excuse.

    Reply

    • wheresmytower
      Sep 26, 2012 @ 15:11:12

      Actually, the reason there are so many ‘stepmothers’ in the fairy tales are that people were uncomfortable with the idea of mothers doing the things those characters do, so the term was deliberately changed to ‘stepmothers’. Hence, people like Eudorias, while classic mothers, are firmly in this ‘stepmother’ archetype, regardless of blood, which is why I categorically exclude her from my observation of the lack of a ‘motherly’ archetype. The two are completely separate and it is the affects of the nurturing mother that are missing in this novel. The closest are Caenis and Chava. I exclude them not from their lack of blood but because that is not how they are perceived. Chava is Atlas’ wife and is not seen as mothering anybody. Caenis is seen as more of a wise aunt or friend than a mother by Titus.

      I don’t think a lack of survival rate can account for the absence of such presences in anyone’s mind, though. No one is shown as missing their mothers even, or seeking some sort of nurturing from people like Chava. There is a complete lack of motherhood as a nurturing concept, as well as in representative characters. There is Deuel’s mother, but as he never speaks or reveals his thoughts, it cannot detract from this absence. I would argue that while kindness can make people weak, the idea of such kindness or people existing is a very powerful thing that definitely CAN move a plot forward, or assist in character development.

      I wouldn’t describe most of your female characters as harpies. What I did notice is that the females in Starr-Cross’d seem generally more complex than the women in Colossus. While a lot of that is the logistics and subject matter, I think the more interesting issue is that the male expectations of women in Colossus seem similarly simpler. Katerina may be expected to be more ‘good’ than she turns out to be, but few people seem to think she ought to have less aspects to her personality. On the other hand, Judah has nothing but bewilderment when Deborah reveals a slight complexity in her nature. This is particularly telling to me because Deborah’s neighbors know her far better than most of the nobles know Katerina, so shouldn’t the expectation of her having more complicated turns of personality be greater in Colossus? There are differences of sophistication and expectations in the cultures and time periods, but people were never really simpler, so I don’t think that can really cover it.

      I personally think the main problems with introducing the archetypal kind mother figure into such a story as Colossus has more to do with the issues of death being brought up. Kind mother figures are the giver of life and so complicate all issues of suicide being honorable or the worth of lives in general. I understand that this would make things even more problematic, but I also think it would have been very interesting to see such a dynamic in play, to add to the ‘honorable death’ dilemmas.

      On a more personal note, my favorite women have been Katerina and Kate. I don’t respond so much to the ‘femininity’ of Deborah. The lack of a mother figure isn’t so much what I would want from a story like this as something I would expect to see, to balance things in the death, life, sex department. This is why I find the absence so striking.

      Shakespeare is undeniably a strong influence, though.

      Reply

  3. David Blixt
    Sep 26, 2012 @ 09:11:50

    Okay, on to the men. Who is most fun to write, Yosef and Judah? My answer is, Asher. I started with Asher. It was only in later drafts that I chose to make Judah the central brother. I know Asher, I get Asher, so I decided to force myself to write Judah, see Asher through his brother’s eyes. While this is a huge story, it’s also their story, right up to the ultimate moment. In fact, this story belongs to three men and two women. We’ve met Asher, Judah, and Perel, and the other duo appear in the next novel.

    So Judah is hard for me. I have to work at all his scenes. But it’s good work, and feels worth it. As for Yosef, he’s both fun and extraordinarily difficult to write. Mostly because I’ve Lion Feuchtwanger’s novels about him, and also his own writing. So I’m trying to stay true to the facts, while at the same time not recreating someone else’s take on him. Yet reading Feuchtwanger’s novels proved so useful, with details about Judean life that were a springboard for my research. And so often I saw what he was doing with Josephus, and why, and then made the hard choice to eschew it. Josephus is not my hero. He is one of many characters, and he need not be heroic. He just needs to be true to himself.

    There are tons of scenes with Josephus that ended on the cutting-room floor. Those months where he was in charge of Galilee, before the first engagement with Rome, when he was just fighting among the Judeans – he gives a vivid account of each moment, mostly in an attempt to vindicate himself. The scene where he whips the rebels who stirred up the city against him was twice as long, with more suspense and many more details about him pleading with the crowd, about the danger to his person, his abandonment by his bodyguards. But for the sake of the overall novel, all that had to go. It’s the balancing act between the history and the crafting of a story. I’ve heard from some that I still err too much on the side of historical detail (there’s one Amazon review of THE MASTER OF VERONA that describes the novel as a technical war manual), but for me that’s where a lot of the fun is.

    Which all brings us to the scene in the well (I like “mathematicide”). What was interesting to me is that while Josephus states that they were betrayed by a woman, he doesn’t mention what happened to the other women in the well. Was she the only one? I chose not to go that way (making the sole women the reason they were betrayed smacked not only of sexism, but also of making a “statement” – “as Eve betrayed Adam, so the men were betrayed, blah blah blah”) and instead made them part of the math problem that Yosef needed to solve.

    As for the problem itself, the math was fun and relatively simple (as seen here: http://mathworld.wolfram.com/JosephusProblem.html). It’s the motivation behind the math, and the decision to make it Yosef’s choice and not, as Jospehus says and Feuchtwanger implies, God’s. I didn’t want to make him craven – I don’t think he was. To me, he’s more a victim of conflicting loyalties, with his devotion to himself being paramount. If he truly believes he’s destined for greatness, isn’t it irresponsible to throw his life away? I cut out a LOT of the speeches he tells us were made in the cave – again, he’s most detailed when he’s trying to justify his actions. But I tried to preserve the arguments, both for and against.

    What I find interesting about your questions above is the lack of mention of Christianity, and of the Prologue. I’m hardly a Christian writer – my editor was told that this story didn’t fit “Christian literature,” which is fine by me. And maybe there aren’t enough threads for that tapestry to appear yet – just Symeon and Nicanor, really. But they’re in there, and I’m curious what impact they had on the story.

    Reply

  4. wheresmytower
    Sep 26, 2012 @ 15:29:47

    See, for me Yosef is the closest thing to a hero. I do not say he is my favorite, but he seems the closest to a hero. Asher doesn’t seem to believe in himself without Judah, and I cannot follow someone who doubts himself so systematically. Given the choice between Yosef and Judah, who seem like two sides of the same coin to me, I would pick Yosef. He does all this without a support structure-his family clearly encourages him being alone and is not encouraging. He can adapt and at least attempt to think of things from multiple points of view, as Judah really doesn’t. And while he does lack respect for a lot of the people here, he gives it freely and regardless of class, wealth, or background to those who he sees merit in. The fact that he does not find all the same things meritorious as the twins do does not diminish him in my eyes. Judah, on the other hand, is constantly prey to seeing things primarily through such lenses-of course Phannius is a lout because of his unfair blood advantage. Of course the other members of his tent are beneath him, they’re primitive Galileans. I enjoy Judah far more when I think of him as simply being true to himself and not being a hero. 🙂

    I suspect the being betrayed by a woman business was precisely what you point out-speaking to Adam and Eve and the societal expectations of those Yosef was justifying himself to in order to excuse himself, rather than portraying anything factual.

    As for the prologue and Christianity, they’re clearly not ripe yet and this did not seem the book to discuss them from. I noted references to the prologue characters when they came up, filed them away for sequels, and, to be completely honest, forgot all about it while analyzing. Colossus seems like an Old Testament sort of work, that’s the feeling I had. Not chronologically obviously, but in terms of how life was and what really matters to the protagonists. Moreover, any questions about Christianity’s portrayal simply did not grab my attention in this book as the other issues did. It’s clearly there, and I suspect provides ideas of comfort or progress in the future to many readers who follow that philosophy. I think the thing that surprised me the most was that the persecution after Nero’s fire was background information instead of a focus.

    Reply

    • David Blixt
      Sep 26, 2012 @ 15:53:12

      Never fear, it will be a focus in The Four Emperors. That book runs concurrent to Stone & Steel, covering the events in Rome while Vespasian et al are in Judea, then carrying past through the year 69 – one helluva year for Rome.

      As to a more simplistic look at people, I’ll agree with that. There is an element to this that is somehow bare, almost like a fable. Societal roles feel more concrete. Freedom is hardly recognized until it’s lost. Yosef is one of the people who can straddle many worlds. I certainly see his appeal. I just don’t like him very much. Whereas I like your reaction to him, and to Judah. I’m excited to see how you like their journey.

      Reply

      • wheresmytower
        Sep 28, 2012 @ 14:18:42

        Yay, Rome! I am excited to actually reach the City of Seven Hills. Rome was the first European city I ever saw. She grabbed hold of my heart and never let go.

        On liking people, it occurred to me I hadn’t mentioned my favorite character: it’s Barbarus. Some of that might be that I have always found Mithras enchanting. Caenis is a close second. The character I found most surprising was Titus-I liked him far more than I expected to. He seemed so simple at first, but then I discovered I really liked him anyway-he seems to have kindof fringey edges to his simplicity that I adore. Asher I actually liked less than I expected to, because he began seeming the layered one and then became someone who seemed more ordinary and modern to me-like he’s someone I could meet on the street now, which makes him inherently less fascinating to me. Levi I feel is the person I would get along with the best.

        I fully expect this to be a miniseries someday. I vote for casting the guy from ‘Prince Caspian’ and the new “Portrait of Dorian Gray’ for Asher and Judah. Levi could be Mads Mikkelsen. Max Pirkis would KILL as Yosef. Make it happen!

        Reply

  5. David Blixt (@David_Blixt)
    Feb 24, 2013 @ 13:49:16

    Don’t tell anyone, because the launch doesn’t happen for a couple days, but the sequel to Colossus: Stone & Steel is available on Kindle right now. They haven’t added the map yet, so update it in a couple days. But Colossus: The Four Emperors is ready for purchase.

    Reply

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