Friday, April 28, 2017

American Gods

On Sunday, Starz will premiere American Gods, based on the fantasy bestseller by Neil Gaiman. From the trailers, the show looks amazing. But it will be pretty damn hard to exceed the novel. Here’s why.


By the time I finished American Gods, I felt the same way I did when I finished Stephen King’s The Stand. I had just read the magnum opus of one of a genre’s finest authors, and the story will stick with me for a lifetime.

The premise behind American Gods is so perfect it’s a wonder I waited so long to read this book. The idea is that when various people immigrated to America, they brought with them the gods and myths from their homelands. Those gods live on in the new world, but the problem is: America is a bad place for gods.

Shadow Moon - American Gods on Starz
The story takes place in modern times, where the old gods have faded into the shadows, carrying on as conmen, cabbies, and hookers, just trying to survive. Meanwhile, new gods have risen in America. Gods of technology and the media – the things people in the U.S. tend to actually “worship” today. One old god, Odin the Allfather, sees what’s happening and wants to put an end to it, even if it results in a war between the old gods and the new, Ragnarok style. 

Into this war, Odin – known as Mr. Wednesday in our world (“Wednesday” being derived from the word Wodin’s Day) – recruits Shadow Moon, the story’s main character. Shadow, a good-hearted man released from prison early after his wife dies in a car accident, follows Mr. Wednesday on a journey across the American heartland. Along the way, he encounters the old gods from a myriad of myths: Norse, Egyptian, Slavic, Native American, you name it. It’s as if Gaiman opened an old copy of Deities & Demigods and plucked out the most colorful immortals and monsters to create his cast of characters.

American Gods is epic in scope, wondrous in style, and tremendously fun. It’s also filled with engaging subplots that weave together seamlessly with the main story, including one involving Shadow’s wife Laura, who has come back from the dead, and a murder mystery in sleepy lakeside town. Even more, vignettes scattered throughout the novel show how people over the centuries came to America and brought their old gods with them. I hesitate to give away any more, but suffice it to say, American Gods is a classic. It’s an equal to The Stand – one of the great books by one of the great authors. And a must read, if there ever was one.

* Photo courtesy of Starz

Saturday, April 15, 2017

“The Ocean at The End of the Lane” – A Haunting Fairy Tale by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has been one of the most famous fantasy writers for a while now, though I’ll admit it’s taken me an overly long time to actually read one of his books. That ended recently, however, when I tore through The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Here’s my review.


This book has one of the most haunting covers, and I’ll confess it is the reason I was drawn to the novel. Nonetheless, it took me a good while to actually start reading it. I’m sorry I waited so long.

After a brief preface that hints of an old country that sank into the ocean, and an even older country that met a worse fate, we’re introduced to the narrator: an unnamed man who visits his hometown in England and begins to have vivid recollections of his childhood. He was seven years old then, with no friends except the books he’d read, a full set of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels being among his favorite. 

Neil Gaiman has written about how Lewis’ Narnia stories helped inspire his writing, and I think this novel may have been an homage to those books. For much like young Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the young narrator soon finds himself in a magical – and dangerous – fairy tale.

Narnia helped inspire Gaiman's writing.
The story takes off when the boy encounters eleven-year-old Lettie Hempstock. She lives on a quaint farmstead at the end of the lane with her mother and grandmother, and behind the house is a duck pond that Lettie refers to as her “ocean.” From the moment he meets Lettie and her family, we realize there’s something different about them. For one, they’re able to perceive events before they happen, and there are hints all three of them may be very old. “How long have you been eleven for?’ the boy asks. Lettie just smiles at him.

Bordering the farmland are woods that Lettie claims were brought back from the old country where she and her family came from, like the farm and the “ocean.” It turns out they also brought back something wicked in those woods, and when Lettie and the boy venture there to discover what it might be, they are forced to deal with the nightmare they may have unleashed. To explain any more would spoil the plot, but from the moment they enter the woods, Gaiman builds up suspense and maintains it to the very end. 

Like Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Gaiman leaves the reader to wonder about how much of the story was actually real, and what Lettie and her family actually were. Though he provides ample evidence to keep us thinking about it long after the book is done. That’s a hallmark of a good story, and after Ocean, I look forward to reading a lot more of Gaiman’s tales.

You can preview the book here.

Monday, April 3, 2017

“Treasure Island” Never Happened on “Black Sails”

All the while we were led to believe Black Sails was a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Turns out, that wasn’t exactly true.


One of the more fascinating aspects of Black Sails is that the series wove together historical characters from the Pirates’ Republic of Nassau with the iconic, fictional characters of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. For a long time now, I suspected the series would end with Billy Bones limping up to the Admiral Benbow with the map to the Urca gold tucked away in his sea chest. That didn’t happen, and in the world of Black Sails it likely never will. 


The series ended in way I had not imagined, and few of the characters wound up as one would expect based on Treasure Island. And the reason, it turns out, due to the clever and brilliant writing on the show, is that Treasure Island was but a fable. One that cast its characters in a light that proved untrue. As proof, consider Jack Rackham’s speech near the end of the show:
“A story is true,” Jack said. “A story is untrue. As time extends, it matters less and less. The stories we want to believe, those are the ones that survive, despite upheaval and transition and progress. Those are the stories that shape history. And then, what does it matter if it was true when it was born. It’s found truth in its maturity …
“Long John Silver’s story, it’s a hard one to know. The men who believed most deeply in it were ultimately destroyed by it. And those who stood to benefit most from it, were the most eager to leave it all behind. Until all that remains of any of it are stories bearing only a passable resemblance to the world the rest of us lived in. A world we survived.”
In the world of Black Sails, the story of Treasure Island was never true. It merely became the story that lived on. In retrospect, I suppose, this is not surprising. After all, the Long John Silver of Black Sails was too intelligent, too articulate, and too heroic to become the villainous sea cook of Stevenson’s tale. And while the Flint of Treasure Island was a fearsome monster, the real Flint turned out to be somewhat of a tragic antihero. The finale did get him to Savannah, although I doubt the he will die there by drinking too much rum. (Which simply proves why odds-making is bad business.)

The Long John Silver of Treasure Island was nothing like the hero of Black Sails.
The only character that ended up as we would expect in Treasure Island is Billy Bones. He’s a broken man after betraying his shipmates, and I have no doubt he’ll lead a sad life. But I cannot imagine how he’ll ever come by the map to the Urca gold. Which means young Jim Hawkins will never venture to Skeleton Island with Dr. Livsey and Squire Trelawney. But maybe that story, like most fiction, was born untrue, and only became otherwise in its maturity, when Treasure Island became a classic.

* Photo courtesy of Starz.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Everyone’s Trying to Kill Flint on “Black Sails”

With only two episodes left, Black Sails has finally taken us to Skeleton Island. And as anyone who has read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island knows, some serious stuff is about to go down.


But what struck me most by the end of last week’s episode is that, except for his newfound partner, Flint is alone, and almost all the characters left on the show are trying to kill him. Flint is a goner by Treasure Island, so chances are someone is going to succeed. Here is how I see the odds.


Jack Rackham 1 in 50


I’m still not entirely clear why Eleanor’s grandmother wanted Jack to kill Flint, but that’s beside the point now. Jack has sent out to kill him, but I don’t see it happening. First, I question whether Jack even has it in him. He likes Flint and, think what you will about Calico Jack, I can’t see him tuning on one of his own in the end. Second, in a battle of Flint versus Jack, it’s no freaking contest. Flint could kill Jack with his bare hands.


No One: 1 in 20


All the accounts of Flint’s death in Treasure Island are hearsay, and none of the folks telling the tale are reliable. But in the book, Flint supposedly dies in Savannah from drinking too much run. This would be a Godfather III-like ending, and pretty anti-climactic if you ask me. 


Woodes Rogers: 1 in 10 


The historic Rogers is responsible for the death of a lot of pirates (though Blackbeard was not one of them), so it’s possible he’ll take out Flint. Throughout the series, Flint’s war has been against England, and Rogers is the living embodiment of the Crown on Nassau. Rogers also helped end the Pirate Republic, so I suppose him killing Flint would be symbolic.


Israel Hands: 1 in 5


Israel Hands is a bad, bad man, and Silver has already sent him out with five other pirates to hunt Flint down (unless Silver is playing a different game that has yet to be revealed). I’d say a fight between Flint and Hands is an even match. We know, however, that Hands appears in Treasure Island, so if they do get in a battle to the death, it’s not hard to guess which one will survive.


Long John Silver: 1 in 3


The conflict between Flint and Silver has been brewing for a long time, and a battle between the two was strongly alluded to in last season’s finale. Also, Israel Hands has been trying to convince Silver to kill Flint all season long. “The crown does not divide, it cannot be shared, you know this,” Hands told Silver last episode. “You want it done, you just don’t know how to ask it.” But like Jack, I’m not sure Silver has it in him to kill Flint – unless it’s literally to save Madi’s life.


Billy Bones: Even


Here’s what we know: Flint tried to kill Billy in Season One. Since then, Billy has hated Flint’s guts, and has tried to kill him twice already in Season Four. Even more, in Treasure Island, it’s Billy who ends up with the map to the Urca gold. At the Admiral Benbow, a dunk and old Billy tells young Jim Hawkins that Flint “gave it to me in Savannah, when he lay-a-dying.” Replace “Savannah” with “Skeleton Island,” and “he gave it to me” with “I pried it out of his cold, dead hands,” and my guess is that is how Flint will meet his end in the season finale of Black Sails.

But those are just my musings. Who do you think will end up killing Flint in the end?

* Images courtesy of Starz and Entertainment.

Friday, March 17, 2017

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 my 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 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.


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!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Another Saint Patrick’s Day Sale for Enoch’s Device!

“God didn't love that man enough to make him Irish, lad.” – Brother Donall mac Taidg in Enoch’s Device.
Irish monks drinking to Enoch's Device!
As in prior year’s the Kindle version of Enoch’s Device is going on sale through March 16th in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day! Also, following the cover image is a new product description I’m considering for the novel. If you have an opinion about it (good or bad), I’d appreciate it if you could leave a comment! 

Ireland, AD 998. Brother Ciarán is an apprentice to Dónall mac Taidg, a stern but brilliant monk renowned for his scholarship years ago in France. When a Frankish bishop arrives at the monastery to accuse Dónall of heresy, Ciarán is determined to prove his friend’s innocence. But as he delves into his mentor’s past, he learns that Dónall stole a forbidden tome—one containing a secret as old as the origin of evil itself.

Ciarán and Dónall flee to France, for the bishop knows the secret too and is willing to kill for it. At Paris, Ciarán discovers a hidden reference in the tome to the lost Book of Enoch, an ancient scripture about the Nephilim, the descendants of fallen angels. The tome also speaks of Enoch’s device, a cryptic weapon that can defeat the Nephilim, whose clandestine war against God and mankind could bring about the events foretold in the book of Revelation.

Pursued by the bishop’s men, Ciarán and Dónall rescue the Lady Alais, a beautiful widow accused of witchcraft because she holds a key to the mystery. Together, the trio must find Enoch’s device, which has left clues of its passage through history, from the time of Solomon to the reign of King Arthur and the paladins of Charlemagne. But time is running out, and if they don’t find the device soon, all that they love could perish with the End of Days.
Here are excerpts from the book’s reviews:
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.
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, thanks to a new feature that Amazon is offering, you can read a free preview here.

If you read the novel and enjoyed it, now is a perfect time to tell a friend!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Eleanor Guthrie Was a Tragic Figure on “Black Sails”

About a year ago, I wrote that Eleanor Guthrie was making “Cersei-like decisions” on Black Sails. Such is the nature of tragedies.


I’m speaking in the classic sense of the term: a drama in which the character is brought to ruin by his or her tragic flaw. In Eleanor’s case, the flaw was a short-sightedness that would make fans of Cersei Lannister proud. Like Cersei in Game of Thrones, Eleanor makes decisions to solve the most immediate problem without thinking through the consequences. Appreciating the fallout from her actions isn’t exactly her thing.

When I wrote last year’s post it was about her decision to execute her former lover, Charles Vane. Max warned her against it, but Eleanor didn’t listen, and instead she lit the fuse that would ignite the pirate rebellion of Nassau. After the pirates’ disastrous attempt to capture Nassau in episode one this season, it seemed, for a brief moment, that Eleanor may have recovered from this mistake. But that’s the nature of tragedies. Things seems like they’re going right, until they’re not. And once again, Eleanor’s short sightedness was the cause.


One could argue that from the moment she chose to kill Vane, every decision she made led her to her fate. Her decision to trade Nassau to the pirates for the remains of the Urca treasure, without informing her husband, Woodes Rogers, was the first short sighted decision. After all, it assumed that Rogers, a proud and determined man, would accept her plan without fail, or that Mrs. Hudson could convince him to follow it. In fact, when Mrs. Hudson tries to explain Eleanor’s plan, Rogers points on the flaw in her thinking:
“I fear the instincts that have awoken within [Eleanor],” he tells Mrs. Hudson, “are more insidious than that. She has begun to believe again that disorder in Nassau is inevitable. That civilization is powerless, either through lack of will or capacity to do anything about it. Civilization has a number of faces. To think them all powerless to alter Nassau’s future is a terrible mistake.” 
Eleanor’s decision to fire warning shots to drive Rogers away so her plan with Flint could succeed sealed her fate. She badly underestimated Rogers’ resolve, never considering what he might do if he disagreed with handing the island over to the pirates. Instead, he decides to convince the Spanish governor of Cuba – another face of civilization with the will and capacity to get the job done – to invade Nassau. This decision makes Rogers an equally tragic figure on the show, for anyone who has watched last episode knows what happened next.

Eleanor was a tragic figure, but she was also one of the characters who made Black Sails so great. With only four episodes to go, her character arc was bound to reach its end. 

And it did so in a way that would make William Shakespeare proud.

* Images courtesy of Starz