Thursday, April 23, 2015

Artistic License & History’s “Vikings”

Tonight marks the finale of Season 3 of Vikings on History. While this season has been as good as the prior two, it’s also highlighted the artistic license the writers have taken with real historical events. Let’s just say the “history” of Vikings is a complete mess. It’s conflated nearly a hundred years of real events into the prime years of a single man, mashing together characters who didn’t even live during the same decades. Here is what I mean.

It's unlikely Rollo and Ragnar even knew each other in real life.
It starts with Ragnar Lothbrok and Lagertha. Both are legendary characters in Nordic lore, but there is no historical evidence that either actually existed. As I’ve noted before, Ragnar is to the Northmen what King Arthur is to the Britons. If Arthur was a real man, no one quite knows when he lived. Others think Arthur may be an amalgamation of several real historical figures, and the same is true about King Ragnar. Lagertha is the same way, though some suspect she’s the embodiment of the Norse goddess Thorgerd. Incidentally, Ragnar’s second wife, Aslaug, is also straight out of Norse mythology instead of the annals history.

Given that Ragnar, Lagertha, and Aslaug may or not have been real, one would expect a degree of artistic license in the telling of their tale. In Vikings, Ragnar is among the first to sail to England, where he leads the famous raid on Lindisfarne Abbey (and enslaves Athelstan in the show). That was a real event that took place in 793 A.D., and many consider it the beginning of the Viking Age. This would mean that both Ragnar and Lagertha were adults at the end of the eight century, and here’s where the problems start.

Aslaug may come from legend, but her children were real.
Despite the legendary nature of Ragnar and his wives, their children were real historical figures. Let’s start with Bjorn Ironside, the son of Ragnar and Lagertha who is just a little boy on the show at the time of the Lindisfarne raid. Historically, Bjorn is known for Viking raids in the South of France and in Italy – all around the year 860, nearly 70 years after Lindisfarne. I highly doubt Bjorn did this at the ripe old age of 90.

Next come Ivar the Boneless and Ubba Lothbrokson, two of Ragnar’s sons with Aslaug. In 865, they led a famous invasion of England and conquered Northumbria. These are the events chronicled in Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, by the way. Ivar dies around the year 873, and Ubba is killed in battle around 878 (by Uhtred of Bebbanburg in Cornwell’s fiction account). In any event, both are still small children in Season Three of Vikings, which features the Siege of Paris as its big set piece. Unfortunately, that real and quite famous historical event occurred in the year 885 –after the deaths of these Vikings lads. 

The Siege of Paris in 885 A.D.
One real historical Viking who did fight in the Siege of Paris was Rollo, who is depicted as Ragnar’s brother in Vikings. Of course, in the show, Rollo also took part in the raid on Lindisfarne, which would make him about 120 years old. Indeed, Rollo would go on to found Normandy in France, and even marry Gisela, the French princess who has appeared in the past two episodes (which explains the glowing prophecy Rollo got from the Norse priest; Rollo’s descendants would include William the Conqueror and the future kings of England). Ragnar Lothbrok, presuming he was indeed the father of the historically-deceased Ivar and Ubba, would apparently be one of the undead if he joined in the Siege of Paris. 

King Ecbert in Wessex - decades before the Seige of Paris
Across the pond, while Paris is being besieged, King Ecbert is plotting to take the kingdom of Mercia and sleep with his son Aethelwulf’s bride. The problem here is that Ecbert of Wessex ruled from 802 to 839, decades before the Siege. His son Aethlwulf reigned from 839 to 858. Incidentally, Aethlwulf's son, Alfred (who is actually Athelstan’s son on the show), would become one of the greatest kings in English history. Alfred the Great was king during the defeat of Ubba and Ivar, and is known for saving England from the invading Danes and Norseman. Bernard Cornwell wrote the first six volumes of his Saxon Tales about Alfred’s reign, and I highly recommend them all.

But back to History’s Vikings. Since they are telling a good story, I personally don’t mind the artistic license taken by the show’s writers. But I also know enough history to know where they’ve taken it. I wish the show would air a special akin to a Historical Note in a book to explain why they made the changes. I’d enjoy that, and given that it’s the ‘History” channel, it seems like the right thing to do. Yet regardless of whether Ragnar and Lagertha would be undead if they were still walking the earth during the Siege of Paris, I’m still looking forward to tonight’s finale. The last episode in each season has been among the best and most shocking, so I can only imagine what’s going to happen . . . even though I know how the Siege of Paris is supposed to end. 

Those are just my thoughts, however. How do you feel about the artistic license taken in History’s Vikings?

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Friday, April 17, 2015

Story Structure & The World Of Harry Potter

I don’t often blog about the craft of writing, but I do love a good story. Good stories tend to have good plots, which usually means they’re well-structured. This week, I’m blogging a bit about story structure . . . and Harry Potter. Why, you ask? Let’s just say it all began with a wager.

Welcome to Hogwarts!
Last year, I encouraged my daughter to read all seven Harry Potter books to fulfill her advanced reading requirement at school. As incentive, I gave her a challenge – or call it a wager, or a fool’s bet, if you will – by promising that we’d go to Harry Potter World at Universal Orlando for Spring Break if she finished the series. Let’s just say, my daughter loves the books and we’ve recently returned from a wonderful trip to Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley! (Plenty of pictures to follow.) Before I left, I brushed up on the books (which I read years ago), and that led me to this post.

I’ve long tried to think of ways to write a post on the Harry Potter series that would fit my blog. Yes, they began as middle grade fiction and evolved into YA (young adult) literature, but in my view they’ve become true classics in the fantasy fiction genre. The books are well-written and tremendously entertaining, and it’s fair to say that J.K. Rolling deserves her seat among the pantheon of great fantasy authors. Fellow pantheon-member, Stephen King, has written glowingly of Rowling and her work, and I agree with everything he’s had to say. 
“The fantasy writer’s job is to conduct the willing reader from mundanity to magic. This is a feat of which only a superior imagination is capable, and Rowling possesses such equipment.”
– Stephen King
After spending a week thinking about the books (so I wouldn’t miss any of the details Universal has sprinkled around the parks), I realized how perfectly the series as a whole fits the structure of a well-crafted story. When it comes to story structure, I’m aware of the more erudite views such as Joseph Campbell’s the “hero’s journey,” based on what Campbell calls the “monomyth.” Yet I’ve always preferred the less erudite but more straightforward structure outlined in Save the Cat, a book on screenwriting by the late Blake Snyder. Snyder takes storytelling’s classic three-act structure and breaks it down into 15 parts (or “beats”) that I’m convinced are common to most well-crafted tales. To prove my point, let’s take a look at “Harry Potter and the Fifteen Beats” (with a brief description of each beat for those unfamiliar with Snyder’s work; obviously, *SPOILERS* ahead):

The Hogwarts Express takes you from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley.

1. The Opening Image

According to Snyder, this is the opening scene that sets the mood and tone for the story. In the series, this is the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which opens with a scene set at the Dursley residence, Number Four Privet Drive. “You-Know-Who” has been killed and the mysterious Dumbledore appears with Professor McGonagall and Hagrid on his flying motorcycle carrying the Boy Who Lived. The infant Harry survived Voldemort’s attack, leaving only that lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead. This event is a catalyst for the entire series, and even though it probably should have been a prologue instead of chapter one (because it takes place nearly eleven years before chapter two), it’s a fitting opening image for the story of Harry Potter.

Hagrid's Hut - An example of the detail in Harry Potter World!

2. Theme Stated

This beat is just like it sounds – an event or dialogue that establishes the story’s theme. J.K. Rowling once said the Harry Potter books were largely about “death.” That’s a bit grim, but clearly death is a big part of the series (think Harry’s parents, Dumbledore, Sirius, and Cedric Diggory). And I suppose the opening chapter sets this up quite well. Yet another theme—and perhaps the biggest one to me—is love and friendship. In book one we meet Ron and Hermione, who become Harry’s new family when he gets to Hogwarts and his beloved friends. This theme runs through the entire series and it’s set up well in book one.

The gateway to Hogsmeade!

3. The Set-Up

This beat is also just like it sounds, and in Harry Potter it’s all done in the first book. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sets up the wizarding world that Rowling has built. We’re introduced to Quidditch, Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, Gryffindor, Slytherin, and a host of memorable characters who will stay with us through seven books. Rowling’s world building is as good as that of any fantasy author out there, and like the world of Star Wars it’s become part of our culture. 

We had plenty of fun in Hogsmeade!

4. The Catalyst 

This is the moment everything changes for the hero and he or she is thrust into the central plot. In the series, this begins when Harry and Hermione learn of the break in at Gringotts, which leads them to learn about the Sorcerer’s Stone and the mystery surrounding who is trying to steal it. This the first of many puzzle-like plots that Rowling gives us in the series, even if it’s perhaps the weakest of the seven. That said, the efforts of Harry, Ron, and Hermione to solve this mystery ultimately lead them to Voldemort (or what’s left of him), plunging them into the plotline that dominates the series, namely Harry verses Voldemort to determine the fate of the wizarding world. 

The Sorting Hat talks to you while you wait in line.

5. The Debate

This is the point where the hero must decide whether to answer the call to adventure or reject it. Series-wise, it takes place when Harry believes that Snape is about to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry wants to get the stone first, but Hermione and Ron try to talk him out of it.
“I’m going out of here tonight and I’m going to get the Stone first.”
“You’re mad!” said Ron
“You can’t!” said Hermione. “After what McGonagall and Snape have said? You’ll be expelled!”
“SO WHAT?” Harry shouted. “Don’t you understand? If Snape gets hold of the Stone, Voldemort’s coming back!”
Harry wins the debate, and the three of them answer the call!

You could spend a whole day in Diagon Alley.

6. Break into Two

This is the part of the story where Act One ends and Act Two Begins. It’s the point where the hero leaves the old world behind and enters one where everything is different. In the series, this happens at the end of book one when Harry discovers that Professor Quirrell has been possessed by the spirit of Voldemort. From this point on, Voldemort becomes the major antagonist in the novels – You-Know-Who is back and nothing will ever be the same so long as he’s around!

Hogsmeade Station

7. Fun and Games

According to Snyder, this is the “promise of the premise.” In the first four books, that is solving magical mysteries in the world of Hogwarts, and that’s just what the next several books in the series offer. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets presents what is probably the best pure mystery tale of the lot. Students are being petrified at Hogwarts and many suspect the Chamber of Secrets has been opened – an event that hasn’t happened for decades when someone called the Heir of Slytherin was responsible for murders at the school. We also meet Tom Riddle and his diary, and the revelation of who he really is provides one of the series’ best twists. It is also our first experience with one of the Horcruxes, unbeknownst of any of us at the time.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban gives us another fun mystery, but it also establishes some important backstory. Through the Marauder’s Map, we’re introduced to Padfoot, Wormtail, Mooney, and Prongs. We discover why Snape hates Harry and who really betrayed Harry’s Parents to You-Know-Who. This is also our first real exposure to the Ministry of Magic, which ends up playing a huge role in the later books. And it’s the series’ only foray into time travel, which it handles quite well. The story is fun and games through and through, and it’s the last time for a while that a Harry Potter book has a happy ending. 

It continues in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. After all, nothing screams “fun and games” like a Triwizard Tournament! Book four has its own mysteries to be solved. For instance, how did Harry’s name get into the Goblet of Fire? And is there really a death-eater at Hogwarts now that that Durmstrang group has arrived? Each Triwizard task has its own puzzle to be solved too.

The goblins at Gringotts practically seem real!

8. The “B” Story

In Snyder’s structure, this is often a subplot that gives the audience a break from the main plotline, and in many stories it’s the love story. In Harry Potter, the B story blossoms in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when a fourteen-year-old Harry realizes he’s interested in girls (and has to find a date for the Yule Ball, ye gads!). Cho plays the role of Harry’s desired, but unavailable, paramour. Ginny Weasley takes up this role in latter books, though J.K. Rowling recently admitted that Harry should have ended up with Hermione. I could not agree more.

The dragon atop Gringotts breathes fire every few minutes!

9. The Midpoint

This is the middle of the story where something enormously important is supposed to happen. Sometimes it’s a marvelous victory. Other times it’s a crushing defeat. In Harry Potter, it’s the latter and it takes place at the end of Goblet of Fire. The Triwizard Cup turns out to be a portkey that lures Cedric Diggory to his death and Harry to his first battle with Voldemort, mono-y-mono. The Dark Lord is all-the-way back, the Death Eaters have returned, and the whole series is about take a turn toward the dark side. A third theme of good versus evil, which has been lurking in the shadows of the first four books, rises to the surface. Big time. 

Another look at the dragon from Diagon Alley.

10. The Bad Guys Close In

After the midpoint, the bad guys start to put a whole lot more pressure on the heroes, sort of like the opposite of fun and games. The midpoint raised the stakes and things are starting to get real. In the series, this begins with the tale of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Voldemort is back, but the Ministry is refusing to believe it. Even worse, they send Delores Umbridge to keep Hogwarts in check. Umbridge might just be the series’ best villain. I can’t remember hating anyone in the books more than her, which means Rowling had Umbridge playing her role perfectly. Umbridge brings themes of authoritarianism and rebellion front and center in this book. And if ending her tyranny is not enough, Harry must stop Voldemort from retrieving a prophecy that could allow him to triumph this time around. The book ends with a showdown in the Ministry of Magic and the death of Sirius Black. The war against Voldemort is getting real. 

The bad guys continue to close in in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. Here, we learn Voldemort’s backstory through Harry’s sessions with Dumbledore and his Pensive. We also learn about the seven Horcruxes, which hold Voldemort’s life force, sort of like Sauron and the One Ring. Meanwhile, Draco is now working for the Dark Lord, and Harry knows it. And when the Death Eaters assault Hogwarts, the series takes its darkest turn yet. 

Inside Hogwarts - and yes, the picture move and talk.

11. All is Lost

Snyder calls this the “whiff of death,” a point in the tale when all hope seems lost. A classic “all is lost moment” is when Darth Vader strikes down Obi Wan in Star Wars. In the world of Harry Potter, this comes at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when Snape kills Dumbledore. Harry’s guardian is dead and it looks like the Dark Lord’s forces have won. 

They make their own brew at Hog's Head Tavern!

12. The Dark Night of the Soul

This is the aftermath of “all is lost” when the hero experiences the full impact of the major defeat in the prior scene. This happens at the end of Half-blood Prince. Harry is devastated by Dumbledore death. He decides not return to Hogwarts next year. Instead, he’s going to find the remaining Horcruxes and kill Voldemort once and for all. 

Inside The Three Broomsticks

13. Break into Three

The hero finds a way to press on and a plan emerges to solve the story’s major problem. It begins in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. With the Death Eaters on the warpath, Harry, Ron, and Hermione receive three mysterious gifts as part of Dumbledore’s last will and testament. By solving the mystery behind these objects, they learn about the location of another Horcrux and set out to destroy it.

The dragon in all of his glory!

14. The Finale

This is the story’s climax! Harry learns that the final Horcrux is in Hogwarts, and when he gets there he discovers Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters are on their way. Everything soon comes to a head. We experience the final confrontation between Draco and Harry, and we learn the reasons behind Snape’s actions and why he killed Dumbledore. We also learn that Harry himself is the seventh Horcrux because a piece of Voldemort’s soul was bound to Harry’s when Voldemort tried to kill him as an infant. So in order for Voldemort to die, Harry must die too. Of course, there’s still a way out, and with a little help from the spirit of Albus Dumbledore, Harry learns what it is. Just when it looks like Voldemort has triumphed, Harry slays him in a final duel. 

A parting shot of Hogwarts.

15. The Final Image

This is the final scene, the denouement if you will, where we understand how the character’s lives have changed as a result of everything that’s happened. In the series, it is the epilogue in Deathly Hallows, which takes place nineteen years after the events of the last book. Harry is married to Ginny, and Ron is wed to Hermione, and all of them are taking their eldest children to the Hogwarts Express for their first year of school. It’s a fitting end to a wonderful series.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

5 Ways “Game of Thrones” May Diverge From The Books

With the fifth season of Game of Thrones set to begin this Sunday, there has been plenty of internet chatter on how the show might diverge from the books. Given the pace at which George R.R. Martin is writing The Winds Of Winter, with some predicting a 2017 release, it’s a certainty the show will run out of source material. And for some of the story lines, that’s already happened. So, here are my top 5 predictions for ways the show will diverge from the books (be warned, there are some *SPOILERS* ahead for anyone who hasn’t read through A Dance With Dragons):

1. Jaime Lannister, Sand Snake Lover!

It’s clear from the trailers that the show’s writers are sending Jaime to Dorne. In A Feast For Crows, Jaime never sets foot in Dorne, but rather goes off to end the fighting in the Riverlands. Meanwhile, Martin treats us to an entire Dornish subplot involving Arianne Martel, the daughter of Dorne’s ruling prince, and her love affair with Ser Arys Oakheart of the Kinsguard, who is in Dorne to watch over Cersei’s daughter, Myrcella. He also introduces the Sand Snakes, the bastard daughters of Oberyn Martell, who was killed in that duel with the Mountain last season. They are itching to get back at Cersei for their father’s death, even if it means starting a war with King’s Landing.

In the show, I predict Jaime will play the role of Ser Oakheart. I’d say he’ll fall in love with Arianne, but she doesn’t appear to be cast as a character for Season 5. So I’d guess it’s a Sand Snake, and if I had to pick one, I’d choose Nymeria. This would inject Jaime into the story line involving Myrcella and the Sand Snakes’ attempt to avenge their father’s death. This adds an extra twist because Jaime is actually Myrcella’s father, and who know how he'll react to a plot that might imperil his daughter, as well as his sister and his son Tommen back at King's Landing. Whether he will ever get back to the Riverlands for his ominous reunion with Brienne remains a mystery. For the first time in the series, knowing what happens in the books won’t spoil what happens on the show.

2. Tyrion and Varys, Traveling Duo 

It’s also clear from the trailers that Tyrion will meet up with Varys across the Narrow Sea. In A Dance With Dragons, Tyrion joins Magister Illyrio, who is working with Varys to lead an expedition that would help put Daenerys Targaryen on the Iron Throne. Varys, however, is not there, and the book suggests he stayed in back in King’s Landing. 

In Season 5, it looks like Tyrion will travel with Varys for a while, and it seems clear from the trailers Tyrion will actually reach Daenerys. In the books, this never happens. Instead, by the end of A Dance With Dragons, Tyrion is outside the walls of Meereen with the Yunkai army camped at the city gate. He gets there after being first captured by Ser Jorah, and then by slavers. He also meets Penny, a fellow dwarf who was among those who performed at the Purple Wedding. Whether any of this happens in the show remains to be seen, but one can only imagine what’s going to happen when Tyrion and Daenerys actually meet!

3. Forget the Ironborn

A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons feature elaborate story lines involving the Ironborn after the death of Balon Greyjoy. This includes Asha’s attempt to become king at a Kingsmoot (where the Ironborn elect their leaders) and the arrival of her ruthless uncles, Victarion and Euron Greyjoy. Euron even has a magic horn that can control dragons, and by the end of A Dance With Dragons, Victarian is sailing to Meereen to save Daenerys from the Yunkai and make her his bride. 

Both of these facts suggest the Ironborn will play a big role in the outcome of The Winds Of Winter, but I don’t believe Euron or Victarion have even been cast for Season 5. And I also don’t think we’ve seen the death of Balon Greyjoy on the show, even though he dies in A Storm Of Swords, along with the other kings that Melisandre predicted would perish when she killed those leech’s filled with king’s blood. 

My one hope is that the show keeps Asha’s story intact, at least after the Kingsmoot. In A Dance With Dragons, she ends up captured by Stannis, who is on a mission to take Winterfell from crazy Ramsay Bolton. Ramsay, meanwhile, has Asha’s brother Theon (aka “Reek”) captive, and I was looking forward to his and Asha’s reunion. Unfortunately, however, I’ve seen no evidence the actress who plays Asha (called Yara on the show) will appear in Season 5.

4. Farewell to the Other Contenders and Pretenders

A Dance With Dragons contains two fairly-involved story lines about princes who hope to capture the Iron Throne. The first is Quentyn Martell, the son of Doran Martell, the ruling prince of Dorne. In A Dance With Dragons, he and his friends meet up with Tyrion’s party on their way to Meereen. There, Quentyn hopes to marry Daenerys and help her reclaim the Seven Kingdoms. When he arrives, however, Daenerys wants nothing to do with him, so he ends up getting in some big trouble trying to prove he’s worthy of her love. His actions play a big role in the end of A Dance With Dragons, but there is zero evidence he’ll even appear on the show. His storyline also appears to end in A Dance With Dragons, so I don’t think the loss of his character will have a big impact on Season 6. 

The other contender – or maybe pretender – to the Iron Throne is young Aegon Targaryen. He was Prince Rhaegar’s son, who was supposedly killed by the Mountain as a boy in the war that put Robert Baratheon on the throne. In A Dance With Dragons, he is part of Verys’ and Illyrio’s scheme to put a Targaryen back in power. He joins Tyrion on the journey to Meereen, along with Jon Connington, a former Hand of the King, in the hope of reaching Daenerys. Halfway through the book, however, Aegon and Connington decide to return to Westeros, along with a huge mercenary army, to capture the Seven Kingdoms without her. Whether Aegon is the real Aegon or an imposter, it’s clear his attempt to reclaim the Iron Throne will be a big part of The Winds Of Winter. But, as with Quentyn Martell, neither Aegon nor Connington appear to be cast for Season 5. As for how the show’s writers will deal with this in Season 6, only time will tell. 

5. Sansa Stark as Lady Stoneheart?

The revelation of Lady Stoneheart at the end of A Storm Of Swords was shocking, though I was never comfortable with the fact of who she was or how she is existing in the world. Everyone who’s read the books knows who I’m talking about, but I won’t spoil it in case she eventually appears in the show. Yet I don’t think that will happen.

In A Feast For Crows, Lady Stoneheart is working with the Brotherhood Without Banners to enact revenge against Houses Frey and Lannister for the Red Wedding. This puts her conflict with Brienne in one of the book’s most troubling scenes. But if she’s not in the show, who will play the role of revenant? 

Enter Sansa Stark. Her entire story line in A Dance With Dragons was wrapped up by the end of Season 4. Yet it’s clear by the end of that season that Littlefinger is encouraging her to become a player in the “Game of Thrones.” I could see her stepping into the role of revenge queen, and I might even see her turning on Brienne because Sansa hates the Lannisters and, as it so happens, Brienne is in love with Jaime and hopelessly loyal to him. I’m waiting to see if Sansa pulls a full Michael Corleone and becomes as ruthless as Lady Stoneheart, ready to settle all the family’s business. It may not happen, but I wouldn’t rule it out!

All of this said, I suspect the story lines of Cersei, Jon Snow, and Arya will remain largely intact in Season 5. I also predict that all three will reach their conclusion at the season’s end. What this means is that fans of the book will likely learn what happens next from HBO instead of George R.R. Martin’s pen. If you’ve read the jaw-dropping cliffhanger at the end of A Dance With Dragons, you’ll understand how big of a deal this truly is. I’m not sure how I feel about this, except that it’s inevitable absent a surprise release of The Winds Of Winter early next year. The safe bet is that’s not going to happen. Though we can always hope, right?

But these are just my thoughts. What are your predictions on how Season 5 of Games of Thrones will diverge from the books?

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Thursday, April 2, 2015

“Outlander” Is Back!

For those suffering from Black Sails withdrawal – after a wonderful season finale, I might add – Starz is finally giving us the second half of Outlander, season one, beginning this Saturday. It’s been a long hiatus, but I can’t wait to return to the eighteenth century Highlands!

One of the best shows on television!*
Outlander was the show that surprised me the most last fall. I had not read the books by Diana Gabaldon, and knew little more than they had a time-travel premise where a twentieth century woman is transported back to eighteenth century Scotland. What I discovered was one of the best shows on television. It’s the equal to Black Sails and Game of Thrones – and, yes, I truly believe that.

The show could not have been better cast, and I love the narration by Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire Beauchamp, the series’ protagonist. Since watching the show last fall, I’ve begun reading Outlander, the first book in Gabaldon’s series. Much of the show’s narration comes straight from the text, and the show has been fairly faithful to the book. I’m barely a quarter of the way through, but it’s been a wonderful read. 

The book's been as good as the show!
That said, I plan on reading the book slowly so it doesn’t spoil the show. Sometimes it’s better that way. In Game of Thrones, for instance, the Red Wedding was hardly a shocker since I’d read A Storm of Swords long before it aired. I think that spoiled it a bit. For Outlander, I’ve decided to let the show carry the day. And because the book’s so well-written, it remains a joy to read even though I know what’s going to happen. 

But those are just my thoughts. Are you looking forward to Outlander? And, for novels that have become films or TV series, do you prefer reading the book first or waiting until after the show?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

5 Questions Going into the “Black Sails” Finale

Season 2 of Black Sails on Starz has proved to be the best historical fiction on TV by a long shot – at least until Outlander returns in two weeks. But seriously, Season 1 was good, Season 2 has been amazing. Going into Saturday’s finale, I thought I’d re-cap some of the thoughts I had before the season began and look at how much has utterly changed since then. If you haven’t been watching this show, but love historical fiction, pick it up on on-demand. Or buy the DVD. You don’t know what you’re missing.

1. How Will Flint Survive?

I asked this question before the season began, but it’s truly apropos now. By the end of Season 1, Flint proved himself to be the evil murder that Robert Louis Stevenson made him out to be in Treasure Island. In Season 2, however, we learn that Flint is only a mask for James McGraw, a former British naval officer with the noblest intentions. A series of flashbacks introduced us to McGraw, his affair with Miranda Hamilton—and her husband Thomas—and his betrayal at the hands of Thomas’ father (whom Flint murdered before the series began). 

Season 2 put Flint firmly back into the hero—or antihero—role, and reestablished him as the most interesting and complex character on Black Sails. His goal this season was the survival of Nassau by turning it into a legitimate colony. By last Saturday’s episode, he had saved the daughter of his old friend, Peter Ashe, now the governor of the Carolina colonies, and was petitioning for Nassau’s legitimacy. It looked like Peter was agreeable, provided that James was prepared to basically confess his crimes before the lords in London. But then Miranda realized it was Peter who betrayed them so many years ago, leading to her husband’s death and the murder Flint would later commit. Her sudden death was one of the show’s wildest turns, and now Flint is set to be hanged. How will he survive? In one of the show’s greatest twists, it looks like his archenemy Charles Vane may be the answer. This was one of those totally “wow” moments when I realized the show’s writers had just killed it. It was truly awesome, and set up the perfect season finale. 

2. Will Eleanor Guthrie Get Her Revenge?

At the end of Season 1, Vane had outmaneuvered his old lover and seized the island’s fortress. It turns out, Eleanor still loves Vane, and he loves her, as evidenced by his rather swift killing of Captain Ned Low. But when Vane planned to ransom Lord Ashe’s daughter, which would threaten Nassau’s survival, Eleanor took matters into her own hands. She saved the girl and gave her to Flint, all as part of their collective plan to legitimize Nassau. Yet now her fate truly lies in the balance since she was betrayed by Mr. Dufrense and Captain Hornigold and handed over to the British Navy. The Brits are about to become the true villains in this show, but whether Eleanor survives remains to be seen. I bet she’ll escape, I just don’t know how it’s going to happen. 

3. Billy’s Not Dead, But Now What?

Billy Bones is alive and well, in one of Season 2’s most welcome developments. After all, Billy has to survive for Treasure Island to take place. It turns out that after Flint pitched him overboard, he was rescued by the British Navy, tortured, and offered a pardon if he just turned in Captain Flint. But Billy is a wise soul. He realizes the pirate way of life will soon come to a violent end with the Navy encamped on a nearby isle, so he buries his bitterness with Flint and supports the captain’s plan to save Nassau. Even more, once Vane captures Flint’s ship in Charleston harbor, Billy gives him the speech that may turn Vane into the hero of this season’s finale. Vane realizes it’s the pirates against the Brits for the survival of everything. And he needs to save Flint to makes that happen. 

After playing one of the show’s greatest villains, Vane may explode into one of its biggest heroes. As for Billy, I think he’ll be just fine (um … until he gets to the Admiral Benbow).

4. Will Jack and Anne Bonny Rebound?

I asked this question before the season, and it’s pretty much come true, though not as I expected. And it’s all thanks to Max. It was not a surprise to learn of Anne’s affections toward Max, or of the love triangle involving them and Jack. But Max gave Jack a ship and a crew, and—thanks to Long John Silver—the location of the unguarded Urca gold. 

Eleanor, however, figured out Max’s plan and tried to stop it. That’s where Anne Bonney comes in. After Jack spurned her and set sail, Anne’s story took a dark and murderous turn. What we realized, however, is that Anne is the most ruthless killer of them all. A true badass who saves Jack and now looks to make Max’s and his plans a reality. I would not want to piss off Anne Bonny. Just saying. 

5. Will Silver Outwit Them All?

In season 2, Long John Silver seemed to pull off his greatest scheme—to seize the Urca gold for his own. He’s always been cunning, and I fully expect him to succeed in becoming the most notorious pirate in literary history. But in last Saturday’s episode, he fell victim to Vane. Even worse, he’s disabled their ship, just when the British Navy is preparing its assault in Charleston harbor. 

The stage has shifted to Vane. But I don’t think Silver is done. In fact, I suspect he may decide the Season 2 finale! 

But that’s just my take. Did you enjoy Season 2 of Black Sails, and how do you think it might end?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Saint Patrick’s Day is one of my all-time favorite holidays, so today I'm re-posting an article about Stephen R. Lawhead's Patrick: Son of Ireland.

I had little appreciation for the story of Saint Patrick until I began the research for Enoch's Device. That novel begins in Derry and tells the story of two Irish monks who try to prevent the apocalypse at the end of the Tenth Century  a time when many in Christendom feared the world would end one thousand years after the birth of Christ. Prior to my research, I knew only the most common stories about Ireland's patron saint: the tale of the trinity and the shamrock, and his chasing the snakes out of Ireland (which has no native species of snakes, by the way).

Back then, Saint Patrick's Day was merely a good excuse to drink Guinness at an Irish pub. Once I began my research, however, all that changed, especially after reading How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I cannot recommend this book more strongly to anyone who is of Irish descent or who’s even remotely interested in the amazing role the Irish played in the survival of Western civilization during the Dark Ages.

Cahill’s book contained the first account I had ever read about Saint Patrick. Here's the abridged version. By the beginning of the fifth century, with the Goths and Huns threatening Rome, the Roman garrison in Britannia became depleted as troops moved back to defend the continent. This exposed Britannia to attacks by foreign enemies, including the Celtic Irish who ravaged Britannia’s western coast. One of the largest raids occurred around the year 401 A.D., when literally thousands of Britons were captured as slaves by Irish raiders. One of those captured was a teenage boy who we know today as Saint Patrick.

Patrick was a Romanized Briton and the son of a noble family. He was not born “Patrick,” and his original name remains in question, yet at least one source has him named Succat. Patrick served his enslavement as a shepherd to an Irish chieftain named Miliucc, who ruled a kingdom in the hills of Antrim. According to legend, Patrick remained captive for six years before escaping after hearing a voice in a dream about a trader’s ship that would return him to Britannia. After finding the ship and returning to home, Patrick eventually made his way to Gaul at a time when hordes of Germans were crossing the Rhine to engage the Roman army. There, Patrick studied religion, became a priest, and later a bishop – the title he held when he returned to Ireland as one of its first and most famous Christian missionaries. It is with this background that I read Stephen R. Lawhead’s Patrick: Son of Ireland.
Photo credit: Sicarr
I had anticipated that this novel would tell the story of how Patrick converted the Irish Celts to Christianity. I was wrong. The book actually tells the tale of Patrick's early life, before he returned to Ireland. Aside from a brief epilogue, the novel provides no account of Patrick’s later years which earned him his sainthood. Instead, the author focuses on Patrick’s captivity and enslavement. And this is where the novel truly shines. Patrick’s enslavement introduces him to a druid named Cormac and his sister, Sionan, the woman with whom Patrick falls in love. After surviving several failed attempts at fleeing his captivity, Patrick, with Cormac’s aid, escapes his brutal life by agreeing to serve in a house of druids, and eventually studies to become a bard. This is where the novel becomes both fascinating and controversial.

The bards and druids of Lawhead’s Ireland can use magic, which firmly places this novel on the fine line between historical fiction and historical fantasy. Many of the druids and bards who teach Patrick are also members of the Ceile De, essentially Christian druids who believe in the one true God. Patrick ultimately becomes one of the Ceile De; he never becomes a priest or a bishop, though this is not necessarily foreclosed because the novel ends before the reader learns what becomes of Patrick later in life.

Not surprisingly, this plot point is controversial for those who feel the novel downplays or even eliminates Patrick’s Roman Catholicism. After all, they argue, the Roman Catholic Church would never have canonized a druid. But I view Stephen R. Lawhead as taking artistic license for the sake of his story. And overall, his story works – especially the two-thirds or so of the novel that take place in Ireland.

Although it was not what I expected, I enjoyed this novel, very much at times. And while the author may have taken artistic license with his subject, it works well in the end, telling a story of faith once lost only to be discovered again.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day everyone!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Another St. Patrick's Day Sale for Enoch's Device!

In honor of one of my favorite holidays, the Kindle version of Enoch’s Device will be on sale at Amazon for the next 7 days! (And on Amazon UK too!After all, the book's heroes, Brother Ciarán and Brother Dónall, are Irish monks who undoubtedly enjoyed a pint or three on St. Patty's Day!
Irish monks emptied the kegs on St. Patrick's Day!
Author Cate Peace of Indie Books R Us called Enoch's Device “a refreshing twist on the religious thriller, and one that will have you turning pages from cover to cover as fast as you can.” You can read her full review here. Here’s a link to the book’s Amazon page, followed by an image of the cover and a brief summary.

Nearly a thousand years after the birth of Christ, when all Europe fears that the world will soon end, an Irish monk, Brother Ciarán, discovers an ominous warning hidden in the illuminations of a religious tome. The cryptic prophecy speaks of Enoch’s device, an angelic weapon with the power to prevent the coming apocalypse.
Pursued by Frankish soldiers and supernatural forces, Ciarán and his freethinking mentor, Brother Dónall, journey to the heart of France in search of the device. There, they rescue the Lady Alais from a heretic-hunting bishop who insists mankind must suffer for its sins. Together the trio races across Europe to locate the device, which has left clues of its passage through history. But time is running out, and if they don’t find it soon, all that they love could perish at the End of Days.
Enoch’s Device is a fast-paced medieval adventure steeped in history, mythology, and mysteries from a dark and magical past.
In other reviews, Stephen Reynolds of SPR called Enoch's Device “a wonderfully imagined, vividly described, alternately lyrical and violent romp of a novel that should give lovers of historical fantasy just the kind of fix they're looking for.”

And Marty Shaw of Blog Critics wrote: “If you enjoy tales of magic and adventure that are perfectly blended with reality and history, ‘Enoch’s Device’ by Joseph Finley will be an exciting read for you.”

I gave an interview to Ms. Peace, where I revealed a bit more about the upcoming sequel – you can read it here.  Also, you can read more about Enochthe Fae, and the Paladins of Charlemagne in my interview that appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here. And if you've already read the book and would recommend it, please tell a friend.

Happy St. Patrick's "Week" everyone!