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!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

No Time to Write, But at Least There's a New Avengers Trailer!

I've had no time to write this week, which never fares well for this blog. Fortunately, Marvel Entertainment has released the latest trailer for the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron film, which looks amazing. Generally, I like to keep this blog about historical and fantasy fiction, but the Avengers get an exception thanks to every Vikings' favorite deity, Thor . . . who just happens to be an Avenger.

Thor in his pre-Avenger days!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

“Blood Eye” – My Take On A Fierce Viking Tale

As Season 3 of Vikings gets underway, it just so happens I’m immersing myself in Viking-related fiction. I just finished Blood Eye by Giles Kristian, a book about the Vikings in England that guest reviewer Bill Brockman introduced me to last year. A quote on the cover from Bernard Cornwell (who writes some of the best Viking fiction around) calls it “a powerful, lightning-paced tale.” I tend to agree, and my review follows this image of the book’s cover. 

Set in early ninth century England, Blood Eye is told from the viewpoint of Osric, a fifteen-year-old carpenter’s apprentice in the village of Abbotsend. It turns out Osric has a secret past, for the villagers found him left for dead near a burial mound with a pagan knife hanging around his neck. Unfortunately, he has no memory of his life before then. Even worse, his left eye is stained red instead of white, so the Christian priests believe he’s been touched by the devil. This makes his life less than blissful in Abbotsend, but everything changes the day two Viking longships arrive on shore.

The Vikings are led by Jarl Sigurd, who claims they are traders – while admitting that “sometimes they’re not.” In this instance, however, the Norseman have come in apparent peace, but that doesn’t stop the village priest from trying to kill them with poisoned mead. When Osric warns Sigurd about the treachery, the Vikings take their revenge, and take Osric with them. The good news is that Sigurd believes Osric’s “blood eye” is a blessing from Odin the All-father, so it’s no wonder that Osric soon prefers Sigurd and his men over the English who shunned him. 

Noble Vikings!
Sigurd gives Osric the name Raven, and the boy quickly finds he loves the Norseman and their way of life, which is precisely the theme of the novel. Put simply, this is a tale about Vikings told from a Viking perspective. They are portrayed as noble warriors, while the English priests and lords are a treacherous lot. Jarl Sigurd serves as the paragon of Norse courage and honor, and Raven grows to idolize the man. 

The story kicks into gear when a Wessex ealdorman offers Sigurd a fortune in silver to steal a Gospel book of Saint Jerome’s from the stronghold of the king of Merica. The Norseman are accompanied on this adventure by a fierce Wessexman named Mauger and an endearing priest named Father Egfrith, whom the author uses for frequent banter between the humorously judgmental cleric and the hell-bound “heathens” of Sigurd’s band. In Mercia, Raven helps save a young woman named Cynethryth, who serves as Raven’s love interest for the remainder of the tale. But this isn’t a romance story by any stretch. Rather, it’s a tale of battle and blood, and the fellowship Raven experiences with his new Viking family. 

The novel moves at a fast pace, from one thrilling battle scene to another, mixed with a few good twists and a whole lot a betrayal. The book ends in a way that sets up a perfect sequel, this time a Viking adventure in the empire of Charlemagne. Overall, I found Blood Eye to be a worthy read, and I look forward to the next book in the series.

By the way, for another take on Blood Eye, you can read Bill’s review here.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Return of Ragnar Lothbrok!

Television gets even better tonight as Season 3 of Vikings premiers on History. Vikings, along with Black Sails, is part of a quintet of great historical fiction and historical fantasy shows that will soon include Da Vinci's Demons, Outlander, and Season 5 of Game of Thrones. Needless to say, I love this time of year!

The last season of Vikings ended better than I could have imagined. Just when I thought Floki would betray Ragnar and side with King Horik, the writers executed a perfect twist: Ragnar, Lagertha, and their whole clan turned the tables on Horik, proving definitively that no one messes with Ragnar Lothbrok! Or is it "King" Ragnar now?

Ragnar and Lagertha are back!*
I love that History chose Ragnar as the series' protagonist. Ragnar Lothbrok may be more of a legend than a real historical figure, sort of like the King Arthur of Scandinavian Vikings. He, Lagertha, and Aslaug all appear in old Norse and Saxon poems, but whether they truly lived or were characters based on one or more real personages has never been settled.

Some of Ragnar's sons, on the other hand, were in fact real men. His sons Ivar the Boneless and Ubba, for example, led a Danish invasion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in ninth century England. They are also characters in Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom, which is one of the best Viking tales around.

In any event, I'm back to my research on Vikings for my next novel, and I'm looking forward to spending some extra time with them Thursday nights on History.

* Image courtesy of History.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

5 Thoughts on Peter Jackson’s “The Two Towers”

As a follow-up to my recent post on 5 Reasons Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” Was Better Than Tolkien’s Original, I’m offering my thoughts on the merits of Jackson’s second film, The Two Towers, as compared to the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. (My daughter and I are still reading The Return of the King, so that blog post will have to wait.) This time, claiming the film was superior to the book was a closer call.

To begin, however, The Two Towers stands with it’s fellow books in The Lord of the Rings as one of the most significant works of fantasy fiction ever written. In my opinion, it’s the second-best of the trilogy, and it’s frankly hard to imagine what the genre would even look like (or if it would even exist) had Tolkien not written his magnum opus. That said, Peter Jackson, viewing the book decades after Tolkien wrote it, made a number of improvements. Here are my thoughts:

This is my vintage copy.

1. Jackson’s structure is better than the book.

One of the things I liked the least about Tolkien’s second novel in the trilogy is the way he split the story into two parts that take place at the same time. The first part follows the tale of Merry and Pippin, who’ve been captured by Saruman’s Uruk-hai, and that of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas who’ve gone off to save them. Frodo (the main protagonist) and Sam are nowhere to be found in the first half of the book. Instead, we must wait until the second half to find out what happens during their brave trek to Mordor. 

Most novels have no trouble switching back and forth between storylines from one chapter to the next. This allows the author to proceed with a chronological unfolding of the tale. Fortunately, Peter Jackson saw fit to do this. As a result, the film begins with Frodo and Sam and their encounter with Gollum, before shifting to the fate of Merry and Pippin, and then shifting again to the pursuit by Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. The movie transitions between these storylines with ease, and the experience is better for it. 

Incidentally, the only other time I can recall an author breaking up storylines separately is what George R.R. Martin did between A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons. By doing so, fans were left with a novel that omitted the storylines of favorite characters such as Tyrion, Daenerys, and Jon Snow, which is one reason why A Feast For Crows is considered by many to be their least favorite in the series. 

Eowyn was better in the film!

2. The human element is stronger in the film.

I mentioned before how Tolkien is not great with emotion. Well, The Two Towers is no exception. Jackson’s film, by contrast, does a tremendous job using the plight of the people of Rohan to portray the human suffering when civilians are caught up in the horrors of war. The scenes showing the refugees from Rohan heading to Helm’s Deep, and huddling fearfully during the siege, portrayed this perfectly and added a welcome human element to the story. Jackson also accomplishes this through the character of Eowyn. She is probably the most significant female character in the books (albeit among very few female characters in the trilogy), but Tolkien never tells the story from her point-of-view. Jackson, however, offers a very personal portrayal of Eowyn, and the film is richer because of it.

Legolas shot a few Wargs!

3. It’s hard to beat that battle with the Wargs!

In the novel, the threat of Warg riders during the journey to Helm’s Deep is merely hinted at. But Jackson turned these hints into one of the most exciting scenes in the film. Some may argue that he strayed from the book, yet by doing so he added an element of action the book sorely needed. Not all of Jackson’s departures from the book worked out as well, however – but more on that in a moment.

Helm's Deep was a climactic battle!

4. Helm’s Deep was the perfect climactic set piece.

Tolkien devotes a single chapter to the Battle of Helm’s Deep. He positions it near the middle of the novel, which happens to be close to the end of the Merry-Pippin-Aragorn-Rohan storyline. By doing so, he robs it of some of its climactic potential. Fortunately, Jackson saw the battle as an opportunity to create one of the best set pieces in the film.

Jackson’s battle makes it clear that it is for the survival of the people of Rohan. The stakes, appropriately, feel that high. He also enlarged the battle’s scope, and added an appearance by the elves (which had me scratching my head the first time I saw the film), but I must say it works. When Gandalf shows up at the end with Eomer (who replaces the relatively pointless character of Erkenbrand in the novel), you feel the triumph of good over evil. Jackson also transitions between the Helm’s Deep scenes and the Ents’ assault on Isengard, which creates a wonderful and exciting climax for the film.

In the book, Gollum's story comes full circle.

5. But Tolkien’s ending was better!

Here’s the kicker. As great as the film ended, Tolkien ended the book with an even more thrilling scene – but it’s one Jackson omitted from the film and saved for his third movie. The book ends with Gollum leading Frodo and Sam into Shelob’s Lair and the events that unfold there. This completes Gollum’s character arc from treacherous villain, to Frodo’s willing servant, back to treacherous villain. It also sets the stage for Sam to be the hero when he becomes the ring-bearer after believing Shelob has killed Frodo. 

For me, this has always been one of the most memorable scenes in the entire series. But Jackson left the scene out of the movie. Perhaps he had to because he chose to end The Return of the King after the destruction of the ring (whereas Tolkien added an entire storyline about the Hobbits’ return to the Shire). Had Jackson included the Shelob story in the second film, he would have had scant material for Frodo and Sam’s tale in the final installment. 

But what Jackson chose to do in the second installment didn’t work very well. He created a scene where Faramir takes Frodo, Sam, and Gollum to Osgiliath, a city under siege by orcs and Ringwraiths. Then he nearly has Frodo captured by one of the Ringwraiths when Frodo is tempted to put on the ring, only to be saved by Sam, who delivers a rousing speech. It felt almost like a retread of the speech Sam gives at the end of the first film. 

Also, I’ve always struggled with that Ringwraith mounted on his dragon-like steed just yards from the One Ring. Methinks the Nazgul and his dragon would have grabbed Frodo regardless of whether he put on the ring. After all, Sauron sent all nine of them looking for Hobbits (“Baggins, Shire!”), and lo and behold, two Hobbits appear in Osgiliath of all places. The gig should have been up and Sauron should have won. That’s probably why J.R.R. Tolkien never included such a scene in his books. It wouldn’t have made sense. I think Peter Jackson got too cute with that one, even if he needed to find some way to create dramatic tension in the absence of Shelob’s lair.

But these are just my thoughts. Which take on The Two Towers did you prefer – the movie or the book?