Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Lions of Al-Rassan Revisited

Isn't this Throwback Thursday? In honor of this fairly recent tradition, I'm re-posting my 2012 review of one of the greatest works of epic fiction I've read in a long, long time . . .

For several years now, I’ve been interested in medieval Spain, and about a quarter of my first novel takes place in tenth century Córdoba (which was part of a Moorish caliphate, back when the Iberian Peninsula was called Al-Andalus). Knowing this, it’s astounding (and a bit embarrassing) that I waited so long to read The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay, one of the more famous novels with a medieval Spanish setting. Boy was that a mistake, as you’ll see from my review after this image of the book’s cover.


Here is the blurb from the back of my paperback edition:
Over the centuries, the once stern rulers of Al-Rassan have been seduced by sensuous pleasures. Now King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, adding city after city to his realm, aided by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan – poet, diplomat, soldier – until a summer day of savage brutality changes their relationship forever. Meanwhile, in the north, the Jaddite’s most celebrated – and feared – military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Ammar meet. Sharing the interwoven fate of both men is Jehane, the beautiful, accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond ...
The Lions of Al-Rassan is every bit as epic as A Game of Thrones. Much like the fate of the Kingdoms of Westeros, the fate of the kingdoms of Al-Rassan and Esperaña are at stake in a fictional world that starkly resembles medieval Spain and the Moorish kingdoms of Al-Andalus. Like the characters of George R.R. Martin's epic series, the character's of Kay's novel are richly drawn. His heroes are Ned Stark- admirable and his villains are painted in various shades of grey, for like A Game of Thrones, the world of Al-Rassan is never black and white.

While the book contains an abundant cast of characters, three in particular drive the story, each one a member of the story world's religious faiths: the Jaddites (Christians), Asherites (Muslims), and Kindaths (Jews). The first is Rodrigo Belmonte, a Jaddite war captain modeled after the legendary Spanish hero El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar), and many of the book’s plot lines seem based on El Cid’s historical tale. The second is Ammar ibn Khairan, a dashing Asherite poet and swordsman responsible for murdering the last khalif of Al-Rassan, which put the first of several story villains, Almalik of Cartada, on his throne. And the third, and perhaps most central character of the lot, is the Khindath physician, Jehane bet Ishak, who ends up the object of both men’s affections.

It is the epic story, however, that makes this novel so special. The book is filled with political intrigue involving the Ashertite and Jaddite kings and their cunning advisors, as well as a host of clerics, some of whom are bent on plunging the land into holy war. Kay does a great job of making the reader feel for these lands and their people, as the rising conflict between the Asherites and Jaddites threatens the friendship between Rodrigo and Ammar, and leaves Jehane with the decision of which man – and which fate – to choose. The reader faces a similar choice as it becomes clear that only one side will win this war, and that the people of the other two faiths shall pay a grave price. I can’t say that I enjoyed this novel as much as A Game of Thrones, but it’s a very close second, and unlike Martin’s epic, the story is resolved in a single, satisfying volume.

Friday, August 12, 2016

“Rome” Revisited

I'm reaching into the archives once again while slogging through the summer doldrums. But this one reminded me how much I loved HBO's 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:
Ciarán 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 theverge.com here.

* Images courtesy of HBO

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Medieval Fiction: “The Archer’s Tale” by Bernard Cornwell

Every once in a while I’ll reread one of my favorite novels for inspiration, and this summer that read was The Archer’s Tale by Bernard Cornwell. It reminded me how much I loved his Grail Quest series, and how pieces of it helped inspire my first novel, Enoch’s Device.  I consider The Archer’s Tale to be a must read for fans of medieval fiction. Here’s my review.


Set in the mid-fourteenth century, The Archer’s Tale (titled Harlequin in the U.K.) tells the story of Thomas of Hookton, a bastard-born son of a village priest. Thomas’s father wanted his son to take the cloth, but all Thomas wanted to be was an archer, one of the deadly English longbowmen whose mighty weapon would help decide so many battles during the Hundred Year’s War. After a wonderful prologue, we learn that Thomas got his wish, serving as an archer in the army of the Earl of Northampton during the siege of a walled town in Brittany named La Roche-Derrien.

Thomas is one of my favorite of Cornwell’s protagonists. He’s Oxford educated, speaks three languages, and is happiest when serving as a bowman in the king’s army. But he also has a promise to keep: to reclaim Hookton’s holy treasure, the Lance of St. George, from the man who stole it and murdered Thomas’s father. Despite the urging of Thomas’s friend, Father Hobbe, to keep that promise, Thomas is preoccupied with his life as an archer, until fate brings him low and sets him on the path to fulfill his oath.

That path begins with Jeannette, a widowed French countess who will do anything to make sure her young son inherits his late father’s title. Jeanette is a brave, defiant, and flawed character who hates the English, but soon finds herself surrounded by enemies, both English and French. After the English sack her home in La Roche-Derrien, one of those enemies becomes Sir Simon Jekyll, an arrogant and lecherous young knight who is the novel’s chief antagonist. Her and Thomas’s mutual enmity toward Jekyll brings the two of them together, igniting the spark that propels the story forward.

The Battle of Crecy features prominently in the novel.
If the story were nothing more than a rollick through the early years of the Hundred Years War with Thomas and his band of archers, it would still be a wonderful tale. But Cornwell gives us more. In the prologue, it’s revealed that Thomas’s father is secretly noble, from a southern French family known as the Vexilles. Legend holds that the Vexilles brought back the Lance of St. George from the Crusades, but we later learn they also recovered something else: the most powerful relic in Christianity, the Holy Grail. Even more, the Vexilles are said to be servants of the devil who will use the Grail to bring down Christendom. This legend gives the Grail Quest series its name, for Thomas wonders if he must do what King Arthur’s knights failed to do: find the Grail. 

Like most of Cornwell’s novels, The Archer’s Tale is an adventure of sorts, taking Thomas from the small English village of Hookton, to war-torn Brittany, Normandy, and finally Crecy. It is also filled with brilliantly crafted battle scenes, including the famous Battle of Crecy in 1346 between Edward III of England and Philip VI of France. But it is Thomas and Jeanette, along with a perfect villain in Sir Simon, who make this book one of Cornwell’s best. This is the second time I’ve read the novel, and the re-read was even better than the first. For any fan of medieval fiction, I highly recommend it.

And, thanks to Amazon, you can read a preview of the novel here.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Pirates & the Caribbean Revisited

I'm still figuring out what to do in a post Game of Thrones world, so this week I'm resurrecting a post from the summer of 2013. Hope you enjoy it.

For the third year in a row, I plan to spend my summer vacation in the Bahamas. It’s hard not to like the Caribbean with its perfect beaches and wonderful resorts, but as a fan of history, the Caribbean always makes me think about pirates. Maybe it was the Disneyland ride I used to adore long before Johnny Depp became Jack Sparrow, but for me it always comes back to those rum-swigging buccaneers. So two years ago I reviewed Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Pirate Latitudes, and this year I’m focusing on the most classic pirate story of all time: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The Coolest Treasure Island Cover I've Seen By Far!
After probably 30-some years, I re-read Treasure Island, this time with my eight-year-old daughter, and it was an interesting experience after half-a-lifetime of reading adventure tales. The first thing that struck me was how much dialect there is in this book. Half the time it was hard to understand what the heck Long John Silver and his pirate friends were saying to the poor, and much more well-spoken, protagonist Jim Hawkins. Here’s a good example from Mr. Silver’s mouth: “Not much worth to fight, you ain’t. P’r’aps you can understand King George’s English. I’m cap’n here by ‘lection.” I don’t know how I overlooked this as a kid, but it has far more dialect than I’m used to. Yet given that it’s a classic, that must have worked back in 1883, so I can’t be too critical.

Can you believe they named a fast-food place after this guy?
The story also contains less action than I’m used to from reading fiction written in the 20th and 21st centuries, but back in 1883, Treasure Island may have been that generation’s “Star Wars.” The plot is fairly straightforward. Young Jim Hawkins, who works with his mother at an English inn called the Admiral Benbow, meets a drunken old seaman named Billy Bones who is fearful of a mysterious one-legged man. After Billy dies, Jim discovers his old treasure map (with an “X” that marks the spot). He shows it to Dr. Livsey and Squire Trewlaney, a pair of gentlemen willing to take risks for the sake of adventure and a chest full of gold, and soon finds himself on a sea voyage to Skeleton Island. Unfortunately, the crew hired by Trewlaney – who seriously needs to work on his background checks – is comprised of former pirates who have been seeking the treasure for some time. Even worse, they are led by the one-legged man that Billy so feared: Long John Silver (“shiver my timbers!”). Naturally, a mutiny ensues, and before long, it’s up to young Jim to save the day.
Take that Israel Hands!
Almost every pirate cliché you can think of derived from this novel, including the peg-legged captain, the talking parrot, the map with a great big X, and “yo-ho and a bottle of rum!” No wonder it’s a classic. It did to pirates what Tolkien did to dwarves and elves. There were enough harrowing moments to keep me engaged, despite the awkward dialect and a penchant for “telling,” instead of “showing,” which seems to have been rampant in 19th century writing. There was more violence than I remembered, which made it less than ideal for my eight–year-old, but no one can fault Mr. Stevenson for that. I’m glad I re-read it, and I understand why it’s so famous, but I must say, I think I’d prefer a more recently crafted pirate tale. That said, it’s hard to be too hard on a classic.

Along with Pirate Latitudes, this makes a whopping two novels I’ve read about pirates and the Caribbean. If I go to the Bahamas next year, I’ll surely need one more, so any good recommendation will be much appreciated!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Waiting for Winter on “Game of Thrones”

The past few days have brought mixed news about HBO’s Game of Thrones. On one hand, the show was nominated for 23 Emmy Awards, more than any other on television! Then came the unhappy news . . .


First, the showrunners confirmed that next season will only have 7 episodes. This is consistent with rumors that the next two seasons will be shortened. Even worse, the show is waiting to begin filming Season 7 until winter literally arrives in many of their filming locations. This means that unlike years past, when we go from Black Sails and Vikings straight into a new season of Game of Thrones, next year we’ll have to wait a few more months to find out what happens to Cersei, Daenerys, and Jon Snow. 

But Outlander may be our savior. If Starz airs Season 3 in the spring, we’ll have at least one excellent show to carry us through until Season 7 of Game of Thrones.

One last interesting note: Because Season 7 will air after May 31, it won’t be eligible for next year’s Emmy nominations. If true, this means the show with the most nods this year won’t have any in 2017.

* Image courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Thursday, July 14, 2016

“Outlander” Is One of the Best Shows on Television

At the same time HBO was giving us the best season of Game of Thrones, Starz was airing the second season of Outlander, based on Diana Gabaldon's best-selling time travel novels set in 18th century Scotland. Both are fantastic shows, and it’s too bad they have to air around the same time, leaving us in a desolate TV wasteland now that both seasons have ended. 


I’ve always been meaning to write a post on Outlander, which is incredibly well acted and well done. But unlike Game of Thrones, with all of its mysteries and fan theories, I never found the right angle with Outlander, and I still haven’t. Fortunately, two great articles on the series were recently posted, so at least I can point you to them. 

The first article by Alison Herman at The Ringer is titled “‘Outlander’ is the Grossest Romance on TV.” And while the title may not be flattering, the article sure is. Here’s an excerpt, but you can read the whole thing here:
Created by Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore, the show takes a historically trivialized genre — several, really — and maximizes it. But Outlander doesn’t pointedly avoid tropes á la Game of Thrones, whose success can sometimes feel like a backhanded compliment to its fantasy origins. It leans into them: yearslong investment in a multilayered relationship, equally developed male and female leads, and yes, sex scenes grounded in a woman’s perspective.
Outlander does all these things better than any other drama on cable, and the internet has responded accordingly. But the stuff that sets Outlander apart from the rest of the pack doesn’t come at the expense of Serious Television values like realism and nuance. That’s because Outlander is also one of the most gory, raw, and violent shows on television, often more so than the gritty, fatalist dramas that typically serve as its foils. To say so doesn’t qualify its core romanticism — it augments it.

The second article, from Katherine Trendacosta at io9, is titled “How Outlander Made a Show Without Any Surprises So Damn Good.” You can read the whole article here, but here’s an excerpt:
In a time travel show, the obvious way of surprising audiences would be to have the characters actually change history, and it’s something our heroes have tried really, really hard to accomplish. But history seems to be locked in Outlander, and thus so is the plot—and no matter the superficial differences from the novels, Outlander still puts its characters exactly where we know they’ll end up.
So instead of relying on surprises, Outlander has placed a huge burden on its characters. The writers have to make sure they are rich and complicated and then the actors have to make us believe it. And they’ve done a superb job.
* * *
By focusing on its characters, Outlander has made a show where nothing in the plot surprises us—who really thought Jamie would be dead?—but the characters still keep us riveted. Which is why we’re all dying for season three.
There’s much more to both articles, which is why you should read them in full. And if you haven’t started watching Outlander, you really should. After all, what else is there to do in this TV wasteland?

PS, I’m trying to fill the void by binge watching all three seasons of The Borgias. Just finished season one, and enjoyed it. And you can’t beat all the scenes set in early Renaissance Rome!

** Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Why Jon Snow Had to Die and Be Reborn

Yesterday, TV Guide published an article titled “Game of Thrones: What Was the Point of Jon Snow’s Death and Resurrection?” The article, however, never seriously answered the question. Instead, it concluded that “Jon was killed just for the show to have something to do during its saggy midpoint, and his death and resurrection won't really have a huge impact on the story.” Really?


First off, Jon dies in the books, okay. The show’s writers didn’t make this up. George R.R. Martin did. And for anyone who has read his novels, there is certainly a much larger purpose at play. 

To its credit, the TV Guide article pointed out that after Jon was resurrected two episodes into Season 6, the resurrection didn’t seem to have any real purpose on the show:
“[T]he only question I have after watching the excellent Season 6 is: What was the point of Jon Snow dying and coming back to life? He died at the very end of Season 5. He was brought back to life in the second episode of Season 6. After that, things were remarkably normal regarding Jon and there was no discernible change in his behavior (aside from hanging a kid, he actually came back even more meek than before). He was the same old semi-bland fantasy hero he was in his first life, and when he was brought back he continued on the path he was already on before he died. So death was merely an inconvenience for Jon, like Cersei spilling a glass of wine on her new robe.”
The reason for this, I believe, is that Season 6 was limited to just 10 episodes. And while we didn’t get any overt explanation for his resurrection, we did learn something incredibly important about his parentage: Jon is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. I’m fairly certain this means something, and Martin had it in mind all along.


Throughout his series, and on the show, there have been references to a prophesied savior called either Azhor Ahai (Melisandre’s favorite hero) or “the prince that was promised.” The gist of the prophecy is that this hero will be “reborn” to defeat the White Walkers led by the Night’s King (you know, the one who in “Hardhome” gave Jon that “You and me bro, mano y mano” kind of stare). There have been some really good articles written on who Azhor Ahai may be on Game of Thrones, whether it’s Jon or Daenerys. You can read them here and here, and decide for yourself.

But I like to go back to the books, and one of the most interesting pieces of book “prophecy” comes from A Clash Of Kings, when Daenerys is seeing visions in the House of the Undying. She sees a man whom she mistakes, at first, for her bother Viserys, though it’s strongly implied to be her older brother Rhaegar. He is with a woman holding his newborn child, when he tells her: “He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire.” 

Could this vision have alluded to Jon, who is literally a child of ice (the Starks) and fire (the Targaryens)? I think there’s a good chance that it did. And if Jon needed to be “reborn” to fulfill this prophecy, that would give his death and resurrection a significant purpose from a literary point-of-view.

Even if this is not the case, some commentators on the TV Guide piece make another good point. Jon lives by his vows and, like Ned, is wont to break them. The only way he could be truly released from his vow to the Night’s Watch was by way of his death. That’s now happened. He’s not a deserter of the Night’s Watch like the one Ned had to execute in the very first chapter of A Game of Thrones. Instead, having been released from his vows, he’s now the King in the North

In either case, his death and resurrection had a purpose. And it wasn’t to boost ratings on Game of Thrones. I’m pretty sure of that.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes