Wednesday, January 21, 2015

5 Questions Going into Season 2 of “Black Sails”

This Saturday marks the return of the Starz original series Black Sails. It is the first of what should be an incredible run of shows in the first half of 2015, including seasons 3 of Vikings and Da Vinci’s Demons, as well as the return of Outlander and the next season of Game of Thrones. It rarely gets this good! Here are five questions I hope get answered this season as Captain Flint and the remains of his crew set their sights on the shipwrecked Urca de Lima!

1. How Will Flint Survive?

Since Black Sails is a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, we should have always known that Flint was an evil bastard. After all, in Treasure Island it’s revealed he murdered his crew after hiding his precious treasure. Through the first half of Black Sails, however, Flint comes across more as the hero of the story. That is until he murders Billy Bones and Mr. Gates. After that last shocker, I was fully on the side of Mr. Dufrense and the rest of the mutineers, ready to see Flint hang for his crimes. Yet, for some reason, when he woke up on the beach after the Walrus was blown to bits by that Spanish man-of-war, his crew spared him. Is it because he was correct in his belief that they’d find the Urca? Or do they still plan to kill him once they seize the treasure? Who knows, but I suspect he’ll live and Long John Silver will have a big hand in his fate. 

2. Will Eleanor Guthrie Get Her Revenge?

Eleanor Guthrie is one of my favorite characters on the show. She’s tough, takes no crap, and outmaneuvers most men – that is until her ex-lover and hated enemy, Captain Vane, seized the island’s fortress and ruined all her plans. But I wouldn’t count her out for too long. My money’s still on Ms. Guthrie!

3. Can Billy Bones Really Be Dead?

Last season, we saw Flint push him overboard into a stormy sea. Also, he doesn’t show up among the cast of characters on Starz’s website for this season. But could we truly have seen the end of Billy? Not according to Treasure Island, where the appearance of Billy Bones at the Admiral Benbow puts the entire story in motion. Unless, of course, the man who claims to be Billy Bones in Treasure Island is actually some other pirate who has stolen his name! I hope Starz clears this up before the series ends.

4. Will Jack and Anne Bonny Rebound?

By the end of season one, Jack Rackham and Max took over the island’s brothel, balanced the books, and fired its cheating madam. Jack’s girlfriend and former crew mate on Vane’s ship, the beautiful and mysterious Anne Bonny, was none too happy about this, yet she appears to stick with Jack. But when Vane reappears, he renounces both of them. I have to believe Jack and Anne will either get back in Vane’s good graces (though Vane appears to be a fairly unforgiving man) or side with Ms. Guthrie against him. I look forward to finding out which it is.

5. Will Silver Outwit Them All?

Long John Silver, played by Luke Arnold, may be my absolute favorite character on the show. He’s a charming and conniving rouge who’s destined to become one of the most notorious pirates in literary history. But how will he get there? Somehow he needs to get crosswise with Flint. And there’s still the matter of the parrot and a missing leg (though, I’ll note, the real “cook” on the Walrus has already lost one). I suspect there are big things in store for Silver this season, and I look forward to seeing if I’m right!

But those are just my quick thoughts – let me know yours. What big questions are you hoping to have answered in the second season of Black Sails!

* Images courtesy of Starz

Thursday, January 15, 2015

To Miklagard the Vikings Go in “Odin’s Wolves,” Book 3 of the “Raven” Trilogy!

To kick off the New Year, guest reviewer Bill Brockman has reviewed Odin’s Wolves by Giles Kristian, and it looks to be another fantastic Viking tale. Bill is an avid reader of historical fiction, but he’s also devoted his life to public service as a Battalion Chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department and a 31-year part-time airman in the Air National Guard. His review of follows this image of the book’s cover.

Odin’s Wolves is the third and final volume of a trilogy, but may not be the final word in the story of “Raven”, the young Wessexman taken and adopted by Jarl Sigurd and his Viking raiders in the first volume, Blood Eye. I have already reviewed Blood Eye and Sons of Thunder (2nd volume) on Fresh-scraped Vellum (you can read it here and here).

Author Giles Kristian claims Viking ancestry in the author’s note and although he never uses the term Viking (he explains in an historical note to the first volume), there is no doubt who the primary characters are – Norsemen or “Vikings from Norway.” The narrator is a teenage orphan boy who had been named Osric by the villagers of Abbotsend in Wessex in the year 802. He has no real memory of his life before and had been shunned and feared by the other villagers due to his “bloodeye” (one of his eyes is red instead of white). In this third volume he has long left his past behind and become a proud member of the “Wolfpack” of Jarl Sigurd, blooded in battle both in Britain and France.

A motley and enlarged Wolfpack it is, too. In Sons of Thunder, the Norsemen who made up the original band had already been joined by Raven; several Wessexmen led by fierce warrior Penda; a Christian priest named Father Egfrith; and Raven’s love Cynethryth - daughter of the treacherous Wessex Ealdorman Ealdred, who was killed in Sons of Thunder. During that adventure in France, a forlorn group of Danes had been rescued following their imprisonment – along with Raven – by Emperor Karolus (Charlemagne). At the end of that book, we see the two Norse and two Dane longships barely escape from the pursuing Franks by the expedient of leaving behind their fortune of silver to distract the pursuers. This stratagem of Raven’s, although successful, does not endear him to the Vikings and they constantly remind him of their loss. The Danes are weak from starvation and nearly unarmed, but seem a hearty lot and Jarl Sigurd doesn't have it in him to abandon them. Thus the Wolfpack of Sigurd grows.

The solution to their poverty? Well, of course they decide to travel to Miklagard, the Great City!  Also known as Constantinople and today called Istanbul, this city is said to be made of gold, just the thing for “silver-light” Vikings.

Sailing along the coast, as ships nearly always did in those early years before better navigation methods became known, the Wolfpack spend weeks either sailing or rowing as the wind allows, beaching each night. Cynethryth has become a very different woman from the daughter of a prosperous Ealdorman that we met in Raven. Her ordeal at the hand of French nuns has forever darkened her outlook and she falls deeper and deeper into the orbit of the Godi (Norse priest) Asgot. She has little to do with a confused and dismayed Raven. Will she return to the normal world, or be lost into the darker side of the Norse religion? Only time will tell.

Along the journey, the Wolfpack will come into contact with Moors in the Emirate of Cordova (Spain); deal with Moorish pirates in the Mediterranean; visit a fallen Rome, and come into contact with all sorts of characters. The time in Rome, which is a nearly ruined shadow of its former glory, is eventful in several ways. Still populous, the city has lately been in an uproar. There has even been a return of gladiatorial contests to the Amphitheater! Being fierce Viking warriors, these Wolfpack will find a way to enter these contests once a substantial prize is offered by the mysterious Greek who sponsors them.

Their journey to Miklagard will take the nature of a quest to restore and Emperor to the throne, and perhaps lead to the riches Viking always crave. Will Raven and the Wolfpack survive? Will Cynethryth and Raven reconcile? Odin’s Wolves is a welcome and satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, which leaves open the possibility of future adventures. Raven has matured, become wiser and less naive about life and death. His ties with the Wolfpack are tested almost to the breaking point and at times he even wonders if Jarl Sigurd still supports him. Without any more spoilers, you’ll have to read Odin’s Wolves to find out.

Thanks, Bill, for the review. I just started Blood Eye this month, and it looks like there’s a great third book to look forward to in this series!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

“Emaculum” Offers the Perfect Ending to “The Scourge” Series by Roberto Calas!

I began the New Year by finishing The Scourge: Emaculum, the third and final volume in Roberto Calas’ historical fantasy series about a zombie apocalypse set in fourteenth century England. In short, I loved this book and believe it’s the perfect ending to this trilogy. You can read my review of The Scourge here, and my review of the second book, The Scourge: Nostrum, here. A few *SPOILERS* may follow, so be forewarned.

Emaculum begins right where Nostrum ended. Having obtained three vials of a cure for the disease inflicting the zombie-like “plaguers,” Sir Edward of Bodiam and his friend Sir Tristan of Rye need only to return to the abbey of St. Edmund’s Bury to complete their quest. There, Edward can administer the cure to his afflicted wife Elizabeth and reunite with his beloved. Even more, if they can find an alchemist who can decipher the recipe for this cure, they may be able to save all of England. Yet, as in the first two novels, nothing about such a straightforward quest is ever easy. And I mean ever.

Now that the plaguers can be cured, Edward no longer sees them as monsters, but as victims – the afflicted who need to be spared until they can be saved. As the story progresses, he even comes to view himself as the “champion of the dead.” After all, he’s the only savior the afflicted may have. As a result, the true monsters of this story are entirely human. They include Sir Gerald of Thunresleam, Edward’s belligerent nemesis from the past two books, and – in one of the book’s many surprises – the king of England, Richard II, who has succumbed to madness during these dark times. In the Middle Ages, kings had almost absolute power over life and death, so there are few things as scary as an insane and violent king! Richard is the series’ best villain, so it’s not surprising that Emaculum may be the series’ best book. 

One of the author’s greatest skills is his ability to put his characters in a situation and have them suffer the worst outcome imaginable. Often these involve plot twists that the reader may see coming, but only because we’ve become trained to expect the most dreadful results for Edward and his friends. But don’t get me wrong, despite this perchance for putting his characters in unbelievably awful situations, the story’s pace is brisk and thrilling, and it’s filled with witty banter and amusing interludes that provide needed comic relief throughout the tale. Thankfully, the Scourge books are not horror novels, but rather fun, rollicking fantasies in the spirit of classic cliffhanger stories like the Indiana Jones tales – except set in medieval England.

As with the first two books, the author keeps the historical details believable and accurate (as much as they can be in an alternative history), and where he has taken liberties for the sake of story, he admits as much in an excellent series of historical notes at the end. One of my other favorite aspects was the return of a number of characters from the first book that didn’t appear in the second. In this sense, Emaculum takes the entire series full circle, tying up nearly every loose end from the first two installments. This results in a fitting conclusion to one of the more unique and engaging historical fantasy series I’ve encountered in a long time. I highly recommend it!

You can purchase The Scourge: Emaculum here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

5 Thoughts on “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

For my final post of 2014, I’ll offer my thoughts on the final installment in The Hobbit series and what will likely be our last visit to the Middle Earth envisioned by Peter Jackson. So, without further ado . . .

Two movies would have been enough.

 1. This should have been a 2-movie series

I’m now firmly convinced that stretching The Hobbit into three films was a mistake from a storytelling perspective (although it may have been brilliant from a revenue perspective). While the movie covers roughly the last third of Tolkien’s work, the actual Battle of the Five Armies is only a single chapter in the book. Yet it takes up most of the screen-time in this film and frankly felt like the most drawn out battle in movie history.

Had The Hobbit been a two-film series, this movie could have begun with the escape from the elves, included the wonderful scenes with Smaug in the Lonely Mountain, and concluded with a spectacular Battle of the Five Armies. Of course, Jackson would have been forced to cut out all the fat he inserted to stretch the movies into three parts. But that would have been a good thing.

This could be the longest battle ever filmed!

2. The best part was the first scene

Let’s face it, Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, was the best thing about the second film, and he’s the best thing about the third film too. Unfortunately, Bard slays Smaug in what is effectively the movie’s prologue, even before the opening credits. The dragon’s attack on Lake Town was brilliantly portrayed, and the dialogue between Smaug and Bard was perfect. Sadly, the rest of the movie never lives up to this first scene. This could have all been avoided in a two-film series, where Smaug’s entire story would have dominated the middle of the show.
Once again, Smaug steals the show.

3. The madness of Thorin was well done

After the first scene, the best part of the movie mirrored one of the best parts of the book, namely how Thorin’s greed upon claiming Smaug’s golden horde begins to drive him mad, to the point where he’s willing to go to war with the elves and men. Richard Armitage did a fine job with Thorin in this series, who has the most compelling character arch in Tolkien’s book.

Richard Armitage is damn good in his role.

4. I don’t know what to make of that scene in Dol Guldur

I was a fan of Jackson’s decision to include the scenes with the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, which are only hinted of in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. From the appendix in The Return of the King, however, we know that the Necromancer was actually Sauron, having returned to Middle Earth. He ruled from Dol Guldur until he was driven away by The White Council, which included Galadriel, Gandalf, Elrond, and Saruman. 

To me, including the scenes in Dol Guldur transformed The Hobbit into a true prequel to The Lord of the Rings. But the way the final scene unfolded in this film seemed bizarre. Sauron appears in the sky wearing his armor from the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Beneath him, clad in their kingly garb, is a line of floating Ringwraiths that looked like the spinning diamonds on a cheesy slot machine display or a bad video game. The CGI just didn’t look right. To me, the giant flaming eye from the Lord of the Rings films would have been a far better image. To make the scene even stranger, Galadriel turns the color of a Smurf and basically screams at them until they go away. Needless to say, this scene left me shaking my head.

I prefer Galadriel when she isn't impersonating Smurfette.

5. Farewell to Middle Earth

As in the novel, the end of The Hobbit takes Bilbo back to the Shire. The scenes of his final journey with Gandalf and the images of the Shire reminded me how fortunate we’ve been that Peter Jackson was able to bring Middle Earth to life. Even when the movies weren’t great (like the last two in this series), it was still a joy to spend a few hours in Middle Earth. I can’t imagine that Tolkien’s The Silmarillion will be made into a film, so this appears to be the end. I am going to miss these annual journeys to Middle Earth. Fortunately, we can still get there on Blu-ray!

* Images courtesy of

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

An Amusing Interview With Smaug!

It's hard to find time in December to get anything done, and with a busy work week, it's been near impossible. That said, I found a few minutes to post a link to this amusing interview of Smaug by Stephen Colbert (you can see it here). I'm off this week for the holidays, but promise to post again before the New Year. Enjoy!

Note - This originally appeared last Wednesday. Due to a Blogger snafu, I had to repost it after accidentally deleting the original while trying to replace a bad link to the video. Blogger gets a lump of coal for Christmas this year!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Vintage Fantasy: “Three Hearts and Three Lions”

After rediscovering vintage fantasy fiction by Robert E. Howard last month, it got me thinking about some of the other classics I’ve read over the years. Among these is Three Hears and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, first published as a novella in 1953. This may not be one of the most well-known works of vintage fantasy, but its influence on the genre cannot be overstated.

This is the cover of my Fantasy Masterworks edition.
Here is what famed fantasy author Michael Moorcock had to say about the book (from the back cover of my paperback edition):
This book, with The Broken Sword, is the best Anderson ever produced, a great seminal work which should be read by anyone interested in the roots of modern fantasy fiction.
 – Michael Moorcock
Moorcock has admitted that Three Hearts and Three Lions influenced his own stories about Elric of Melniboné, another fantasy classic. Anderson’s tale contains all of the fundamental archetypes of fantasy fiction, and while it may seem cliché by today’s standards, it was original enough in 1953. Also, this novel is credited among the sources that influenced the creation of the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons. It’s easy to see why since the whole story plays out like a good old fashioned D&D campaign.
This old school cover is cool too.
The protagonist of Three Hearts and Three Lions is Holger Carlsen, a Dane living as an engineer in 1930s America who decides to return to Denmark during WWII to join the resistance against the Nazis (significantly, Anderson too is a Danish-American who was in his teens when WWII broke out). When a bullet grazes Holger’s head during a gunfight, he loses consciousness, only to wake up in an age long past. Waiting for him is a warhorse, a suite of chainmail, a sword, and a shield bearing the heraldry of three hearts and three lions. Strangely, they fit him perfectly. He soon encounters a wood witch who divines that for Holger to return home, he must travel to the land of Faerie, and so his adventure begins.

Holger is befriended by a dwarf named Hugi, who plays the role of Holger’s sidekick, and a beautiful swan-may named Alianora, who serves as Holger’s love interest in the tale. As they travel to the Faerie realm, which exists in a perpetual state of twilight, Holger concludes he’s “fallen into a realm beyond his own time.” He comes to learn this world is parallel to our own where the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne exists alongside the realm of Faerie and creatures from legend, as if the fantasy world of the French Chansons de Geste (the Carolingian Cycle) had come to life. The fantastic realm is called Middle World, which sounds a lot like Middle Earth, but both Tolkien and Anderson likely derived the term from the Midgard of Norse mythology. The land is in a perpetual struggle between the primeval forces of Law (represented by the Holy Roman Empire) and Chaos (the forces of Faerie), and like the Nazis of Holger’s home world, Chaos seeks to make the whole earth its own.

This was one of the original covers.
Upon arriving at the Faerie castle of Duke Alfric, Holger learns that whoever he is in this world is a notorious enemy of Chaos. After things end badly at Alfric’s court, the story kicks into gear as Holger and his two companions flee from Faerie and encounter a veritable Monster Manual worth of beasties, including a dragon, a giant, a werewolf, a nixie, and a fearsome troll. He also discovers that whoever he is in this world was once the lover of Morgan le Fay – yes, she of Arthurian legend – and now his scorned lover is one of the queens of Chaos. The introduction of Morgan into the story seemed out of place at first, but then I was reminded that the French Chansons de Geste often crossed into the realm of Arthurian legend (and, without giving away the identity of Holger’s alter ego in Middle World, the chansons even include a story about the paladins of Charlemagne and Morgan le Fay).

Holger determines he must discover his true identity in this land so he can fulfill whatever destiny has brought him to this world. Along the way, he is joined by a mysterious Moor named Sir Carahue (also of Carolingian fame) who has been searching for Holger. Together with Hugi and Alianora, Carahue accompanies Holger on a quest to retrieve a magical sword named Cortanta, forged of the same metal as Durindal and Excalibur, which can help Holger withstand the gathering forces of Chaos (at least according to the old wizard who sent them on the quest). All of this makes it easy to see how Three Hearts and Three Lions influenced so many fantasy tales and role-playing games that came after it.

To me, the most interesting thing about Three Hearts and Three Lions is where it fits into the pantheon of vintage fantasy fiction. Anderson published Three Hearts and Three Lions a year before Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, yet sixteen years after the release of The Hobbit and twenty-one years after Robert E. Howard published his first Conan tale. Because both Tolkien and Anderson borrowed heavily from folklore, it’s hard to tell how much The Hobbit may have influenced Anderson’s tale. The dwarves and elves of Middle World bear little resemblance to Tolkien’s, though the story does have a riddle contest with a giant that’s a lot like Bilbo’s parlay with Gollum, and it’s reminiscent of the scene with the three trolls as well.

Of course, playing riddle games with a monster is as old as Oedipus and the mythological sphinx. The point is, each story and myth influences the ones that come after it. And as far as fantasy fiction is concerned, Three Hearts and Three Lions holds a special place in that lineage.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Teaser

I have been travelling all week, but before the week’s end I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the new teaser for the upcoming Star Wars film: The Force Awakens. Having grown up in the 70s and 80s, it’s hard to measure just how much influence the original Star Wars trilogy had on my own creativity. I am fairly certain that as a nine-year-old boy sitting in Grauman’s Chinese Theater watching a Rebel Blockade Runner being chased by an Imperial Star Destroyer was a life-altering event. I suspect the same is true for many, or even most, science fiction or fantasy authors who grew up in that same time period. George Lucas essentially created a new mythology for our age (he’s sort of like the Homer of the late 20th Century). I frankly cannot imagine a more influential movie in my lifetime.

All of this said, I was never a fan of the three prequels. Every actor who tried to portray Anakin Skywalker seemed horribly miscast. If Anakin was supposed to be a rock-star Jedi before he went to the dark side, they needed an actor who exuded charisma. A Harrison Ford or Chris Pratt-type, if you will. Hayden Christensen brought none of that. Even Natalie Portman, who has proven herself to be a talented and engaging actress in films like The Professional, Black Swan, and even the two Thor flicks, fell totally flat in the prequels. It didn’t help to have that ridiculous age difference between her and Anakin in the first film, which made the last two rather creepy. All of this has convinced me that the biggest problem with the prequels was the writing and the stories themselves. Author Kristin Lamb wrote a wonderful piece on why the prequels don’t work. You can read it here.

Which brings me to the teaser. I loved it! It looks totally old-school and reminiscent of the original series. I loved seeing the X-wings and the Stormtroopers, and the shot of the Millennium Falcon soaring to John Williams’ famous score gave me chills. I even liked that new dark force light saber. J.J. Abrams (of LOST fame and the new Star Trek films, among others) has proven himself worthy of great filmmaking. May the Force be with him on this one!