Thursday, September 3, 2015

Great Historical Fantasy: "The Einstein Prophecy"

The Einstein Prophecy by Robert Masello begins with an ominous epigraph. It’s a quote from Albert Einstein, which reads: “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth—rocks.” From there, I was hooked, and the rest of the book never let me down.

The novel is another example of historical fantasy at its best. The story is set during World War II and Hitler’s quest for occult artifacts that he believes will help him win the war (a familiar premise for any fan of Indiana Jones). This time, the artifact Hitler desires is an Egyptian ossuary that supposedly contains the bones of St. Anthony the Great, the father of monasticism who defied the Roman Empire in the early fourth century. 

The story’s hero, Princeton professor Lucas Athan, discovers the ossuary among a horde of stolen art looted by Rommel from the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. The military wants Lucas to open the ossuary and study its contents, but before he can, he encounters a beautiful Egyptian woman named Simone Rashid. She and her father were the archaeologists who originally discovered the ossuary in the Sahara, and the two of them followed its transport to Princeton. Simone warns Lucas that if he opens the ossuary without her, he’d live to regret it. You see, wherever the ossuary has been, terrible things have happened.

The torment of St. Anthony by Michelangelo
Masello does a masterful job of building up the mystery surrounding the ossuary. Through ancient writings belonging to Simone’s father, he reveals that, in legend, Saint Anthony battled demons, and it soon becomes apparent that something much more than the saint’s bones might be locked inside the sarcophagus. Once it is opened, the suspense hits high gear. The book takes on a darker tone and reads, at times, like a good horror novel and great supernatural thriller.

Woven into this suspense-filled storyline is the character of Albert Einstein, also a professor at Princeton and Lucas’ next-door neighbor. Einstein is secretly helping Robert Oppenheimer and the U.S. military develop the atom bomb before the Nazi’s can, much to Einstein’s regret since he knows the horrors such a weapon will unleash on the world. Masello portrays Einstein perfectly as a wise and whimsical soul, a quirky genius the reader cannot help but like. But it turns out his work is of interest to more than just the Allies and the Nazis, for a far more ancient power has designs on the bomb too, which makes Einstein its number one target.

The book was hard to put down and kept me turning the pages until its thrilling (though mildly predictable) ending. The ride, however, was so enjoyable, and the writing was so well done, that I’d rate The Einstein Prophecy as my favorite book so far in 2015. I highly recommend it!

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Fine Line Between History & Fantasy

With no time to blog this week, I'm digging into the archives. This one's from January 2012.

In one of my earliest blog posts, I talked about the fine line between the genres of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Earlier this month, two of my favorite authors, George R.R. Martin and Bernard Cornwell, touched on this issue in a joint interview on The Indigo Blog.

 Are Martin's and Cornwell's Novels Two Sides of the Same Coin?

During the interview, George R.R. Martin said, “It has long been my contention that the historical novel and the epic fantasy are sisters under the skin, that the two genres have much in common.”

Bernard Cornwell responded, “You're right—fantasy and historical novels are twins, and I've never been fond of the label 'fantasy,' which is too broad a brush and has a fey quality. It seems to me you write historical novels in an invented world which is grounded in historical reality (if the books are set in the future then 'fantasy' magically becomes sci-fi).”

I largely agree. While Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire could never be considered “historical” in a literal sense because it doesn’t take place in the real world, the most prominent elements of his novels scream “historical” fiction. His setting is broadly “medieval” and his storylines – a war of succession, political intrigue, and battles among noble houses – are classic subject matters of some of the best historical fiction. And this is not surprising given that Martin’s epic was inspired by the historical War of the Roses. Magic may be present in Martin’s novels, but it is subtle and never the driving force behind his world.

The War of the Roses - inspiration for A Game of Thrones.
Similarly, Bernard Cornwell has written “historical” novels that dance along the fine line between history and fantasy. Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles, for example, tells the Arthurian Legend from a more “historical” perspective. But as anyone who has read The Warlord Chronicles knows, Cornwell’s Merlin performs acts which could be magic – or not. He leaves it to the reader to decide. But the core of his novels are the same as Martin’s: wars among kings and nobles, and the heroes who survive them. And perhaps most importantly, both Cornwell and Martin create wonderfully real characters for which, we, the reader, cannot help but empathize.

I still believe there is a line between the two genres, but maybe Cornwell is right – that line doesn’t matter much. The things we love about Martin’s novels are many of the same things we love about Cornwell’s novels. Does the fact the land of Westeros never existed, while Dark Ages Britain did, truly matter in the context of a great novel? For me, it doesn't. It’s the story that matters and the characters who inhabit it. That is why we adore reading them.

Friday, August 21, 2015

“Inferno” The Movie?

It looks like Inferno might be coming to the big screen. I don’t mean the film version of Dan Brown’s latest novel starring Tom Hanks. But Dante’s Inferno. Yep, you can’t make that up.

I learned about it yesterday in an article on io9 titled “Get Ready, Sinners: Warner Bros. Is Making Dante’s Inferno Into a Movie.” Here are some excerpts.
Instead of following in the steps of a Noah or Exodus, Warner Bros. is going a different route for its next loosely-based-on-the-Bible story. This time, it’s going to be loosely based on a book loosely based on the Bible. A yes, Dante. The original self-insert Bible fanfiction writer. . . . 
Apparently, Warner Bros. is excited by the “franchise potential” of the project. Which is endlessly hilarious to me because Purgatorio and Paradiso are so much more boring than Inferno. There’s a reason most people can only tell you things about one-third of the Divine Comedy. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to Paradiso being split into two movies to capitalize on the franchise, Twilight-style.
You can read the full article here. While I too wonder if the Divine Comedy has “franchise potential,” I could see an Inferno movie working with the right plot. For one, it’s a special effects artist’s dream. I’d love to see Charon, Cerberus, and Geryon brought to life, not to mention a climax set on the frozen lake of Cocytus! And with the right actress cast as Beatrice? It could be a love story, like Titanic – except, of course, set in Hell.

But those are just my quick thoughts. What do you think about Inferno the movie?

PS, if you were pining for Dan Brown's Inferno, the movie is planned for release in October of 2016.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Jet-lagged . . .

I returned from Rome a few days ago, but it still feels like I'm on Roman time. The research, however, was a smashing success. But for this trip, I would have botched my chapters on Castel Sant'Angelo. Despite copious research, I never would have understood that ancient structure until seeing it with my own eyes.

On another note, the Pantheon is beautiful at night! (Both the Pantheon and Castel Sant'Angelo will play a role in the sequel to Enoch's Device.)

I'm grateful I had a chance to return to Rome for some on the ground research, and I promise a more substantive blog post next week once I've caught up on some sleep. Ciao!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

On the Ground and Away from the Blog . . .

Medieval Rome!
As I mentioned last week, I'm doing some on-the-ground research for the sequel to Enoch's Device, so it'll be another week before I have time to return to the blog. (But I promise, pictures will be coming!) Until then, you can check out my Pinterest board,which is full of images from Enoch's Device and its upcoming sequel. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

All Roads Lead To “Rome”

My wife and I recently finished HBO’s Rome in advance of a trip to Italy we’ll be taking this summer (which, thankfully, will allow for some on-site research for the sequel to Enoch’s Device). We adored the show, and in reading about it afterwards I happened upon an article in The Verge titled Before Game of Thrones, there was Rome.” Its point: without HBO’s Rome, we might never have had Game of Thrones.

For those who haven’t seen it, Rome tells the story of the rise of the Roman Empire. Season one is about Julius Caesar, while season two covers the rise of Octavian and his conflict with Marc Antony. And while the show features a host of historical figures (all portrayed by a wonderful cast), it’s told primarily from the viewpoints of two legionnaires: Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Think of Rome like a great buddy film set amid some of the most famous events in Roman history, and you’ll start to get the picture. 

But what are its connections to Game of Thrones? Here are some excerpts from The Verge: 
Name the most enticing aspects of Game of Thrones, and you’ll find them in Rome. Both tell grand stories of violent political turmoil through the intimate lens of personal experiences. We don’t care as much about who won this or that battle as we do when Jaime Lannister loses a hand or Lucius Vorenus liberates his daughters. Every frame of Rome is drenched in intrigue, which occasionally erupts onto the screen through acts of bloody backstabbing or equally explicit sex scenes. Much as in Game of Thrones, being the most influential or powerful character is no guarantee of surviving until the next episode, let alone the next season. In fact, power and misery seem to be inextricably bonded in both shows.
As much as Game of Thrones may be ahistoric and subject to its own internal lore and structure, its inspirations are clearly drawn from the same bloody pool of human history as Rome’s. Daenerys Targaryen, the young queen threatening the seat of Westeros power from beyond the seas, finds her parallel in Egypt’s Cleopatra. Joffrey Baratheon is as cold and unsympathizing a ruler as Rome’s brutally calculating Gaius Octavian. And the strong female figures of Catelyn Stark and Cersei Lannister find their Roman counterparts in Atia of the Julii and Servilia of the Junii. Come on, it’s cool to even just say those names.

The article even notes the link between Rome’s actors and those in Game of Thrones:
CiarĂ¡n Hinds, the Gaius Julius Caesar of Rome, now performs the pivotal role of Mance Rayder in Game of Thrones. Indira Varma, the actress that once portrayed the wife of Lucius Vorenus, turned into the paramour of the vengeful Prince Martell in last season's Thrones. More importantly, Rome showed HBO was capable of wrangling huge casts and weaving together sprawling and complex storylines to create one compelling whole. There was just one issue: it couldn’t stay within budget.
Rome’s massive budget ultimately shortened its run to two seasons, but the lessons HBO learned from the highly acclaimed show helped bring George R.R. Martin’s epic to life. 
Without Rome, I’m sure we wouldn’t have the epic and ambitious Game of Thrones that we’re enjoying today. The funny thing is that with Rome, we wouldn’t have the present Thrones, either, given the way that show burned through HBO’s finances. So Rome had to both rise and fall, as a TV production, in order for Game of Thrones to become what it is today.
So the next time you watch Game of Thrones, tip a cup to Vorenus and Pullo and everything they gave us in Rome.

You can read the full article on here.

* Images courtesy of HBO

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Artistic License and Historical Fiction

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 A.D. – the famous battle where the army of King Edward Longshanks defeated William Wallace and his fellow Scotsmen, depicted in the movie Braveheart. So, this week I'm revisiting one of my first posts from July 2011, this blog's inaugural month.

Loved the film, even if the history is questionable.
The Battle of Falkirk was one of the most significant battles in the First War of Scottish Independence. In Braveheart, it’s the battle where Wallace is almost killed before he’s dragged from the field by Robert the Bruce, who had sided with the English at the behest of his sinister father. 

Now Braveheart is a great movie and that was a dramatic and compelling scene, but many historians have criticized both the scene and the film as being historically inaccurate. For one, Robert the Bruce did not side with the English at Falkirk. He wasn’t even there, although during his reign he did change sides between the Scots and the English several times. Nevertheless, was the artistic license taken in Braveheart defensible in the name of crafting good fiction?

Does Robert the Bruce look like a traitor?
One of my all-time favorite historical fiction authors is Bernard Cornwell. For his novel Heretic, set during the Hundred Years War, he created several fictional places and personages central to the story, including a French count, a walled city and its lord, and a cardinal from Livorno, which is not a real archdiocese. In my opinion, Heretic is a fantastic novel and Cornwell’s artistic license is entirely justified. In fact, unless you are a student of the French countryside or an aficionado of Italian archbishoprics, you’d not even know artistic license had been taken.

A perfect use of artistic license!
I did something similar in my own novel, whose antagonist is a French bishop. He’s not a nice man – and that’s being kind! So instead of slandering the name and memory of some real bishop, I made this character the Bishop of Blois, even though Blois’ real bishopric was not created until centuries later. I made this call for the sake of my story, and I stand by it.

But others may disagree. So what’s your view? When does artistic license go too far in the name of historical fiction?