Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving, 1621 Style!

I've been away from the blog longer than usual this month because I've been working hard on the sequel to Enoch's Device. But since it's Thanksgiving eve, I'm re-posting my traditional piece on the first Thanksgiving. And I've included some menu items from this year's feast after the post!

Growing up, I never paid much attention to the origin of Thanksgiving. Other than what I may have learned in elementary school, all I ever recall knowing was that it was a big feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sometime after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. Only in the past few years did I become interested in what really happened at the first Thanksgiving. Yet like many an adventure, it all started with a few bottles of wine ...

Thanksgiving, 1621, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Not that the pilgrims drank wine at the first Thanksgiving (at least by any accounts I’ve read, although they did have some beer), but the several bottles my friends and family drank a few years ago, after another gut-busting Thanksgiving dinner, inspired us to do some research into the origin of Thanksgiving. (That’s also how we rediscovered the role Squanto played in all of this, but more on him in a moment.)

Apparently there are only two written accounts of the first Thanksgiving, which was celebrated in 1621 as a harvest feast by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Turkey, it turns out, was not the centerpiece of the meal, although one of the two written accounts referenced a “great store of wild turkeys.” The main course appeared to be venison, but there is also reference to waterfowl and “Indian corn.”

The interesting part about the meal is what was not eaten, at least according to an article in The Smithsonian Magazine. There were no potatoes or sweet potatoes. White potatoes originated in South America and sweet potatoes came from the Caribbean, and neither had apparently made it to Massachusetts by 1621. The Pilgrims also lacked butter and wheat flour, so there was no pumpkin pie. Among things they probably did eat were fish, eels, and shellfish (like lobster, clams, and mussels), which were staples for the Wampanoag and the colonists.

But this feast may never have occurred if it were not for a Patuxet Native American named Tisquantum, commonly known as Squanto. He served as an interpreter for the Pilgrims, taught them how to grow corn, and showed them the best places to catch fish and eel, all of which helped them survive their first winter at Plymouth. He also helped negotiate a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag in March of 1621. Without this, I suspect there would not have been a first Thanksgiving.

A drawing of Squanto – I imagine he dressed more warmly in the winter of 1621!

Squanto’s backstory was less than idyllic. He was captured twice by the English and forced to leave his wife and child. During his first captivity in 1605, he was taken to England along with several other native Americans. There, his captor, Capt. George Weymouth, wanted to display them for his financial backers, who were interested in seeing some natives from the New World. In England, Squanto learned English and apparently became the consort of an English woman. By 1613, he was hired as a guide for an expedition to New England and returned to the New World with the famous explorer John Smith.

This is the same John Smith who was saved by Pocahontas in 1607 and 1608.

But Squanto’s time back in Plymouth, where the Patuxet lived, did not last long. Once Smith went north on another expedition, one of his lieutenants, a Capt. Thomas Hunt, kidnapped Squanto and twenty-six other Native Americans to sell them into slavery. Hunt sailed to Spain, where he hoped to sell his captives for twenty pounds each. When local friars discovered Hunt’s plans, they rescued Squanto and his brethren, hoping to convert them to Christianity. Squanto ended up living with the friars until 1618, when he found his way back to London, and then to a ship headed to the New World.

Upon returning home, Squanto discovered that his entire Patuxet tribe had died from the plague (believed to be smallpox, a disease introduced to the New World by Europeans). Despite all this mistreatment and misfortune, he stayed and helped the Pilgrims until he died of fever in 1622. According to one account, the Massachusetts governor at the time called Squanto a “special instrument sent by God for their good beyond their expectations.”

So this Thanksgiving, my family and friends are going a bit more historical. There will be venison and some lobster, and turkey of course. (I suspect mashed potatoes will be in order too, only because my friends and family might never forgive me if I eliminate them for the sake of historical purity.) There will also be more wine and probably a few mixed drinks – including a special concoction that we intend to dedicate to Squanto.

2015 Menu Update: This year, we're going to our neighbor's house for Thanksgiving, so I'm not cooking my usual six course meal. But I'm still preparing a few dishes in honor of the first Thanksgiving, namely littleneck clams steamed in Boston lager and fried lobster tails with a horseradish crème fraiche sauce! I'm also making an oyster dressing (my wife's favorite), my signature pumpkin soup with fig quenelles and prosciutto, and turkey gravy made with a port wine reduction! 

Yes, I love cooking almost as much as I love writing! HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

The Mayflower in 1620
Another interesting fact: Through my father’s side of the family, I am a direct descendant of Francis Cooke and his son John, and Richard Warren and his daughter Sarah, who married John Cooke. Francis, John, and Richard all journeyed to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620 and were likely present at the first Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

George R.R. Martin's “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” May Be the Most Fun In Westeros Yet!

Two months ago, I deemed The Einstein Prophecy by Robert Masello my favorite book of 2015. But after reading George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, I must say we have a new winner. In fact, this one may rank among my favorite books of all time. Here are a few reasons why.

Unlike A Game of Thrones with its epic scope and myriad of viewpoint characters, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms follows the adventures of Ser Duncan the Tall, sometimes referred to as Dunk the Lunk, and his squire, a bald, scrawny boy of eight curiously named Egg. In fact, before they were compiled into this beautifully illustrated tome, these novellas were known as “The Tales of Dunk and Egg.” Compared to the frequent grimness of A Song of Ice and Fire, this book is a breath of fresh air. My only wish is that it was longer, for I would love to read more of their adventures.

Set a hundred years before A Game of Thrones, the story opens with Dunk burying the hedge knight he served. In Westeros, even a hedge knight has the power to bestow knighthood on another, but it’s never clear whether the old man knighted Dunk or if the lad just took the old man’s sword and horse and set off to seek fame and fortune at the nearest tourney. Along the way, he meets an odd and likeable boy named Egg who wants desperately to become Dunk’s squire. Together, they set out on a series of adventures that will shape the fate of the Seven Kingdoms. And adding a twist to the tale, one of the pair is far more than he appears.

The novel is comprised of three novellas that Martin published between 1998 and 2010. The first story, titled “The Hedge Knight,” is our introduction to Dunk and Egg and the endearing relationship the two share. Without giving too much away, Dunk ends up in trouble with a Targaryen prince while trying to save a smallfolk girl Dunk has grown fond of. Ser Duncan, you see, is a knight true to his vows, but by honoring those vows, he soon finds himself in a trial by combat to save his life. The story involves dreams and prophecies and even hints to events that will transpire in A Song of Ice and Fire, but this is a character-driven tale with a protagonist and his squire you cannot help but love. Of the three novellas, “The Hedge Knight” was my favorite. But believe me, it was a very close call.

The second story, titled “The Sworn Sword,” involves a conflict with the Red Window, a noble lady who may have murdered her last four husbands, and now she’s at odds with the lord to whom Dunk has sworn his sword. This is the first of the three tales that delves into the political history of Westeros and an event called the Blackfyre Rebellion, where a bastard son of the old Targaryen king declared his rights to the Iron Throne. Here we learn of the red dragon – the banner of the Targaryen loyalists – and the black dragon, the banner of the rebel cause. As Dunk often reminds himself, “red or black was a dangerous question, even now.” It reminded me of the War of the Roses – a red rose or a white one – but then again, English history has always been Martin’s inspiration for his tales of Westeros.

Like all three stories, “The Sworn Sword” contains a good plot twist, but it also offers the most intriguing female character of the three tales. I found myself hoping for a happy ending, but then reminded myself this was written by George R.R. Martin. He gave us the Red Wedding, after all.

The third story, titled “The Mystery Knight,” concerns the second Blackfyre Rebellion, another tourney at the lists, and a dragon egg as a prize. There is even a prophecy of a dragon to be born from this conflict, and a hint of the coming of Daenerys’ dragons from A Game of Thrones. Like the first tale, Dunk and Egg find themselves embroiled in another adventure that will shape the fate of the Seven Kingdoms. There are a few more twists in this one than the other two, and it serves as a fitting ending to the book, though it left me wanting more. Fortunately, Martin plans on continuing the adventures of Dunk and Egg. If only he could finish The Winds of Winter and get on with it!

What makes this novel so wonderful is its namesake, Ser Duncan – the Knight of the Seven Kingdoms – and his relationship with the young boy, Egg. It’s different than anything Martin has given us in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, and as much as I enjoy his epic series, these three little tales were probably the most fun I’ve had in Westeros since I discovered Martin’s works. He’s promised us more of Dunk and Egg and I’m eagerly awaiting their next adventure.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Historical Fantasy: “The Skin Map”

With a title like The Skin Map and a hellish-red cover with shadowy images of pyramids and glowing arcane symbols, I expected this novel by Stephen R. Lawhead to be dark, and even biblically apocalyptic in tone. Boy was I wrong!

The Skin Map turned out to be one of the most whimsical novels by Lawhead I’ve ever read. You see, it’s all about ley lines, those mystical places where the fabric between dimensions runs thin (think Outlander and those ancient standing stones). And by way of these ley lines, there’s a lot about alternate realities and alternative histories, from ancient Egypt to seventeenth century London. And it’s a bit about a man named Arthur Flinders-Petrie, whose tattoos contain the secrets to navigating the ley lines and even understanding the mysteries of the Universe. So, you see, the map is on skin, but fortunately for Flinders-Petrie, that skin is still on his chest. 

While Flinders-Petrie is vital to the story, the book follows a number of other characters, several of whom are more important from a protagonist point of view. It all starts out when a modern-day Londoner named Kit, who “has all the social prospects of a garden gnome,” encounters Cosimo, his long-lost great-grandfather who doesn’t look nearly as old as he should. Cosimo has come to rescue Kit from “a life of quiet desperation and regret” by showing him the secrets of ley travel. Things, however, go awry after Cosimo’s initial journey with Kit causes him to miss a date with his morose girlfriend Mina. She doesn’t believe a word Kit says about “laying” lines and his long-lost relative, so Kit endeavors to prove it to her by showing her the ley line he and Cosimo used. But in the jump between dimensions, Kit and Mina become separated, and now Cosimo and Kit have to rescue her.

Thwarting them at every turn are the Burley men, henchmen of Lord Archelaeus Burleigh, a master ley traveler who seeks the skin map and believes Cosimo has a piece of it. Burleigh is a devilish villain who spices up the novel in every diverse storyline the book follows. These include an entire plotline about Arthur Flinders-Petrie and his tattoos, and one about Mina of course, whose life changes completely after she finds herself stuck in seventeenth century Prague.

All of the storylines coalesce by the novel’s end – but then the end is really not an ending. Rather, it’s a bit of a cliffhanger that doesn’t resolve the story. Lawhead has used cliffhangers before, and while I find them a tad frustrating, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the next book. The Skin Map is part of his five-book Bright Empires series, so there is plenty more to this adventure. 

All in all, I found The Skin Map to be a delightful story that showed a lot of promise for the series. It’s also further proof that Stephen R. Lawhead is among the great writers of historical fantasy right now. If you are looking for a fun and lighthearted adventure, I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Devil's Bridge

Last October, while participating in “Fright Fest” at Heroines of Fantasy, I published a work of flash fiction titled The Devil’s Bridge. It’s based on a Welsh legend about an old woman and her deal with the devil – on the eve of Samhain (Halloween). So, in honor of Saturday’s holiday, I’m republishing the story here. Hope you enjoy it!

Brynn dreaded the hike to the devil’s bridge, though she dreaded the full moon even more.

Its light bathed the path through the bracken-covered hillside that led to the ravine. Every few yards, Meg jabbed her walking stick into Brynn’s back, goading the ten-year-old forward, while Meg’s old wolfhound, Mister Grimm, followed alongside. Mister Grimm was as mean as sin, and Meg had threatened to feed Brynn to the dog more times than the girl could recall. Although tonight, Brynn feared the moon and the bridge more than the wolfhound. Yet she wondered if he could smell the hunk of day-old bacon hidden in her fist.

“Keep moving,” Meg hissed. “Of all the orphans the village has brought me, you be the slowest.”

The old woman’s eyes simmered in their sockets, amid a face creased like an autumn leaf. Some said Meg was once the most beautiful woman in the village, but now she was so old that Brynn’s Nana was just a child when Meg was in her prime. Nana believed witchery preserved Meg’s beauty, but even witchery could not defeat the haul of time. 

Ahead loomed the bridge, a crude arch of stone that spanned the ravine where the river plunged three hundred feet in a rushing fall. On the far side, moonlight kissed the headstone of the ancient dolmen encrusted with moss. Nana once told Brynn that dolmens were the tombs of giants, but some believed they were gateways to the Otherworld, where dark faeries lured their prey.

A chill washed through Brynn’s gut. “Why do we have to come here tonight?”

“Because it’s Samhain,” Meg replied. “The curtain between the living and the dead is like mist, and the mandrake growing near the dolmen is at its peak. ‘Tis powerful magic in them roots tonight, so time to harvest.”

“But Nana warned about that bridge.”

“’Tis just a bridge.”

“Nana said that when you were young, you tricked the devil into building it.”

Meg’s eyes narrowed. “Your Nana told you that?”

“She said he built it for you for the price of the first soul to cross it. But instead of going first, you pushed your servant across, a sickly girl, blind in one eye. Cheated, the devil howled and screamed. Now, Nana said, at every full moon he takes the life of the first to cross the bridge.”

“Your Nana died a fool!” Meg snapped. “There’s no truth in them myths. Now come on child, there’s harvesting to do.”

From a pouch on her waist, Meg drew a rusty gardening spade and handed it to Brynn. “Now go and get me some mandrake root.”

Brynn’s stomach hardened. “Alone?”

Meg held up her fingers, bent like a spider’s legs and tipped with jagged nails. “My hands are old, too feeble to grip a spade. Now do as you’re told.”

“But Nana said—”

Meg grabbed Brynn by the hair and jerked her head back. “I don’t care what your Nana said,” Meg said through clenched teeth. “Go dig up some mandrake root, lest I turn you into a toad and feed you to Mister Grimm!”

Brynn froze, scared to even breath. When Meg let go, Brynn backed toward the bridge, nearly stumbling due to the weakness in her knees. Her whole body shook as she turned at the bridge’s threshold. The spray of the falls kissed her face. Hundreds of feet below the bridge, the rushing waters seethed into a cauldron-like gorge.

Brynn’s heart felt as if it would beat through her chest. She stopped and looked back.

“Go!” Meg shrieked. 

Brynn shook her head, a thought pounding in her mind. She cheated the devil . . .

“Get on, or I’ll beat you bloody with this stick!”

Brynn sucked in a breath and shook her head again, mouthing her reply. “No.” 

Meg grimaced. “Grimm, make her go.” 

The wolfhound stood as tall as Brynn, with a massive head and teeth as long as her thumbs. His eyes gleaming in the moonlight, he padded toward her like a hound closing on a wounded hare. 

Brynn struggled to hold back a cry. Summoning all the courage she could muster, she opened her palm, revealing the hunk of old bacon in her hand. Mister Grimm stopped and cocked his head, smelling the cured meat. The wolfhound opened his jaws, just as Brynn whipped her arm and hurled the meat toward the dolmen.

“No!” Meg screamed as the wolfhound tore across the bridge.

Mister Grimm lunged for his prize. Then Brynn gasped. 

A torrent of water blasted from the falls. Arms stretched from the spray amid a ghost-like shape with burning red eyes. As it fell on the wolfhound, the ghostly demon roared like the wind, drowning out the dog’s cries. Water pummeled the stone bridge, and when the torrent ceased, the demon and the wolfhound were gone. 

Brynn exhaled—right before Meg eclipsed her view. The old woman’s eyes fumed with rage. With a fierce cry, she cracked her stick upside Brynn’s head. And the girl’s whole world began to spin.

* * *

On the dirt floor of Meg’s hovel, Brynn woke in darkness to a sound at the old wooden door. The scent of stewed mandrake clung to the air as Brynn rubbed the side of her head, swollen like a gourd. She heard the sound again. Something scratched at the door. A chill rushed up Brynn’s limbs as she got up and walked to the doorway. Hesitating for a moment, she opened the door. At its threshold stood Mister Grimm. The hound’s eyes burned like hot coals.

Brynn staggered back. Those eyes, like the demon’s from the falls! 

She feared she might faint, but the beast brushed past her and padded toward Meg, asleep in her bed. As it lunged and Meg screamed, a faint smile crept across Brynn’s lips. For there was one more thing Nana used to say. 

“Remember child, always give the devil his due.” 

Friday, October 23, 2015

5 Questions For Season 3 of “Da Vinci’s Demons”

After a very long wait, the premier of Season 3 of Da Vinci’s Demons airs tomorrow. To me, it will be bittersweet because Starz has ended the series, making Season 3 the final season of one of my favorite shows. Even worse, the studio made the decision after filming wrapped, so it’s unlikely we’ll see a true series finale that resolves all the show’s storylines. But let’s hope for the best. Here are 5 questions I would like answered before the series ends.

1. Will Pope Sixtus Fail?

The evil Pope Sixtus has remained a major antagonist of Lorenzo and Leonardo since the series began. As one character noted, “a devil sits on the papal throne.” This becomes all the more true once we learn that he is not even the real pope! The real pope is his twin brother, whom he imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo. In Season 2 it is revealed that the true pope has a plan to take his rightful place at the appropriate time. But will his plan succeed before the series ends? I’d like to see what happens to the evil Pope Sixtus then.

2. Will Lucrezia End Up A Hero?

In Season 1 we learn that the beautiful Lucrezia Donati, the mistress of Lorenzo the Magnificent, is actually a spy for the evil pope, under the command of Count Riario. Her actions in the first season turn out to be seemingly villainous, although it’s suggested that Riario may be manipulating her into doing his bidding. We eventually learn, however, that everything Lucrezia has been doing is to help her father, who is the true pope (his brother, the false pope, even killed Lucrezia’s sister before her very eyes). This revelation changed everything I had thought about Lucrezia in the beginning, and I’m looking forward to seeing if she emerges as a hero by the series’ end.

3. Will Leonardo Meet His Past Self?

There has always been a time travel element to Da Vinci’s Demons. In the very first episode, the Turk, al-Rahim, tells Leonardo about a mysterious order called the Sons of Mithras. When Leonardo denies being a member of this order, al-Rahim says, “Are you sure?” This suggests that al-Rahim knows about Leonardo’s future. Later, it’s revealed in a flashback that what Leonardo witnessed in a cave as a young boy was actually his adult self dangling in the shape of The Hanged Man (you know, the card in the Tarot deck). And somehow, this is all connected to Leonardo’s mother, who disappeared when he was an infant and had some connection to the Sons of Mithras. Now, it turns out she is with the Ottoman fleet sailing upon Naples. This plot line has been built up from the beginning, so I really hope we see it come together in Season 3.

4. Is Riario Lost to the Dark Side? 

When we were first introduced to Count Riario in Season 1 he was the henchman of the evil Pope Sixtus. But by Season 2, after he and Leonardo are captured by the natives of Machu Picchu, Riario and Leonardo become allies, and, surprisingly, Riario becomes a somewhat likeable character (not Jamie Lannister likable, but much more likable than the snake that he was). We can also have pity for Riario after it’s revealed that the evil Pope Sixtus made Riario into the monster that he is. 

After Riario returns to Rome, he seeks absolution from the real pope in the dungeons of Castel Sant’Angelo. But the imprisoned pope would have none of it, deeming Riario beyond absolution. Condemned and broken, Riario has now been forcefully indoctrinated into the Enemies of Man, a group opposed to the Sons of Mithras. The Enemies of Man also seeks the Book of Leaves, the show’s central mystery. And, as al-Rahim warned Leonardo, “In the hands of the Enemies of Man, it will be greater than any army.” In the end, I expect a major conflict between the Sons of Mithras and the Enemies of Man. Although I wonder, when the dust settles, whether Riario will be saved or whether his soul will belong forever to the dark side.

5. What is the Book of Leaves?

This mysterious book has been a focal point for two seasons, ever since al-Rahim told Leonardo to seek it, and we learned that Pope Sixtus wants it too. The tome was supposed to lie hidden in a place called the Vault of Heaven, but when Leonardo and Riario enter the Vault, the book was missing. What they found instead, was a brazen head that played a recorded message left by Leonardo’s mother. This is the first time we learn that she may be alive – and that she might have the book. 

The evil Pope Sixtus believed the Book of Leaves was written by the Nephilim, the offspring of humans and angels spoken of in the book of Genesis. And indeed, when we saw a page of the book kept in the papal archives, the letters changed magically from every type of language, to astrological symbols, and even to strange hexagonal patterns. Count Riario, meanwhile, believed the book had Atlantean origins. But even he seemed to come around to the Enochian theory after witnessing a cave drawing inside the Vault of Heaven. The drawing depicted human-like beings with elongated heads (or helmets of some type) and strange haloes or circles behind them. When Riario sees them, he begins to quote from the book of Genesis: 
“There were giants on the earth in those days. Perhaps these were the Nephilim, the offspring of the Sons of God and the daughters of men, and they created this Vault.”
Leonardo has to find the Book of Leaves. After all, that’s been his quest since the first episode, and it would be a shame to end to the series if the book is never found.

Closing thoughts: The answers to all these questions will come sooner than expected since Starz is releasing the entire final season On Demand starting Saturday. I, however, will probably watch the episodes as they air. But for those who want to binge watch or skip ahead, the season finale to Da Vinci’s Demons is just a day away. My only hope is that we get a satisfying end to Leonardo’s tale and his quest for the Book of Leaves.

* Photos courtesy of Starz

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms!

Many of you may already know that this is out, but while we wait patiently for The Winds of Winter, George R.R. Martin has released a book comprised of three novellas he wrote some time ago about a hedge knight in Westeros and his diminutive squire.

I picked up a copy last week and can't wait to dig in! Here is a description from the novel's dust jacket:

Taking place nearly a century before the events of A Game of Thrones, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms compiles the first three official prequel novellas to George R. R. Martin’s ongoing masterwork, A Song of Ice and Fire. These never-before-collected adventures recount an age when the Targaryen line still holds the Iron Throne, and the memory of the last dragon has not yet passed from living consciousness.
 Before Tyrion Lannister and Podrick Payne, there was Dunk and Egg. A young, naïve but ultimately courageous hedge knight, Ser Duncan the Tall towers above his rivals—in stature if not experience. Tagging along is his diminutive squire, a boy called Egg—whose true name is hidden from all he and Dunk encounter. Though more improbable heroes may not be found in all of Westeros, great destinies lay ahead for these two . . . as do powerful foes, royal intrigue, and outrageous exploits.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is also beautifully illustrated and only about half the size of the average novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. What's not to love about this?

Friday, October 9, 2015

"The Last Kingdom" Premiers This Saturday!

This one snuck up on me, but thanks to friend of the blog Bill Brockman I've learned that the television adaptation of Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom will premier this Saturday on BBC America!

Young Uhtred
For those that follow this blog, you know that Bernard Cornwell is my all time favorite author of medieval historical fiction. The Last Kingdom is the first book in his Saxon Chronicles about Alfred the Great who prevented the Vikings form nearly conquering all of England. Here is an excerpt from The Wall Street Journal about tomorrow's episode:
BBC America’s powerful new historical drama “The Last Kingdom” tells the story that made England possible, and with it the flourishing of Anglo-Saxon culture and law that underpin America as well. The series is set mostly during the ninth-century reign of Alfred the Great, the Saxon king whose realm of Wessex—roughly covering the lands south and southwest of London—was the last holdout against the Danish Vikings who had conquered the other English kingdoms. After several years of “Vikings” on the History Channel, it’s nice to root for the home team instead.
I truly can't wait for this one. At a time when we're still waiting for the debut of Season 3 of Da Vinci's Demons and the return of Vikings (not to mention Outlander, Black Sails, and Game of Thrones), we get this to entertain us through the fall. Good times indeed!

** Photo courtesy of BBC America