Wednesday, December 17, 2014

An Amusing Interview With Smaug!

It's hard to find time in December to get anything done, and with a busy work week, it's been near impossible. That said, I found a few minutes to post this amusing interview of Smaug by Stephen Colbert. I'll be off next week for the holiday, but promise to post again before the New Year. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Vintage Fantasy: “Three Hearts and Three Lions”

After rediscovering vintage fantasy fiction by Robert E. Howard last month, it got me thinking about some of the other classics I’ve read over the years. Among these is Three Hears and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, first published as a novella in 1953. This may not be one of the most well-known works of vintage fantasy, but its influence on the genre cannot be overstated.

This is the cover of my Fantasy Masterworks edition.
Here is what famed fantasy author Michael Moorcock had to say about the book (from the back cover of my paperback edition):
This book, with The Broken Sword, is the best Anderson ever produced, a great seminal work which should be read by anyone interested in the roots of modern fantasy fiction.
 – Michael Moorcock
Moorcock has admitted that Three Hearts and Three Lions influenced his own stories about Elric of Melniboné, another fantasy classic. Anderson’s tale contains all of the fundamental archetypes of fantasy fiction, and while it may seem cliché by today’s standards, it was original enough in 1953. Also, this novel is credited among the sources that influenced the creation of the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons. It’s easy to see why since the whole story plays out like a good old fashioned D&D campaign.
This old school cover is cool too.
The protagonist of Three Hearts and Three Lions is Holger Carlsen, a Dane living as an engineer in 1930s America, who decides to return to Denmark during WWII to join the resistance against the Nazis (significantly, Anderson too is a Danish-American who was in his teens when WWII broke out). When a bullet grazes Holger’s head during a gunfight, he loses consciousness, only to wake up in an age long past. Waiting for him is a warhorse, a suite of chainmail, a sword, and a shield bearing the heraldry of three hearts and three lions. Strangely, they fit him perfectly. He soon encounters a wood witch who divines that for Holger to return home, he must travel to the land of Faerie, and so his adventure begins.

Holger is befriended by a dwarf named Hugi, who plays the role of Holger’s sidekick, and a beautiful swan-may named Alianora, who serves as Holger’s love interest in the tale. As they travel to the Faerie realm, which exists in a perpetual state of twilight, Holger concludes he’s “fallen into a realm beyond his own time.” He comes to learn this world is parallel to our own where the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne exists alongside the realm of Faerie and creatures from legend, as if the fantasy world of the French Chansons de Geste (the Carolingian Cycle) had come to life. The fantastic realm is called Middle World, which sounds a lot like Middle Earth, but both Tolkien and Anderson likely derived the term from the Midgard of Norse mythology. The land is in a perpetual struggle between the primeval forces of Law (represented by the Holy Roman Empire) and Chaos (the forces of Faerie), and like the Nazis of Holger’s home world, Chaos seeks to make the whole earth its own.

This was one of the original covers.
Upon arriving at the Faerie castle of Duke Alfric, Holger learns that whoever he is in this world is a notorious enemy of Chaos. After things end badly at Alfric’s court, the story kicks into gear as Holger and his two companions flee from Faerie and encounter a veritable Monster Manual worth of beasties, including a dragon, a giant, a werewolf, a nixie, and a fearsome troll. He also discovers that whoever he is in this world was once the lover of Morgan le Fay – yes, she of Arthurian legend – and now his scorned lover is one of the queens of Chaos. The introduction of Morgan into the story seemed out of place at first, but then I was reminded that the French Chansons de Geste often crossed into the realm of Arthurian legend (and, without giving away the identity of Holger’s alter ego in Middle World, the chansons even include a story about the paladins of Charlemagne and Morgan le Fay).

Holger determines he must discover his true identity in this land so he can fulfill whatever destiny has brought him to this world. Along the way, he is joined by a mysterious Moor named Sir Carahue (also of Carolingian fame) who has been searching for Holger. Together with Hugi and Alianora, Carahue accompanies Holger on a quest to retrieve a magical sword named Cortanta, forged of the same metal as Durindal and Excalibur, which can help Holger withstand the gathering forces of Chaos (at least according to the old wizard who sent them on the quest). All of this makes it easy to see how Three Hearts and Three Lions influenced so many fantasy tales and role-playing games that came after it.

To me, the most interesting thing about Three Hearts and Three Lions is where it fits into the pantheon of vintage fantasy fiction. Anderson published Three Hearts and Three Lions a year before Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, yet sixteen years after the release of The Hobbit and twenty-one years after Robert E. Howard published his first Conan tale. Because both Tolkien and Anderson borrowed heavily from folklore, it’s hard to tell how much The Hobbit may have influenced Anderson’s tale. The dwarves and elves of Middle World bear little resemblance to Tolkien’s, though the story does have a riddle contest with a giant that’s a lot like Bilbo’s parlay with Gollum, and it’s reminiscent of the scene with the three trolls as well.

Of course, playing riddle games with a monster is as old as Oedipus and the mythological sphinx. The point is, each story and myth influences the ones that come after it. And as far as fantasy fiction is concerned, Three Hearts and Three Lions holds a special place in that lineage.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Teaser

I have been travelling all week, but before the week’s end I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the new teaser for the upcoming Star Wars film: The Force Awakens. Having grown up in the 70s and 80s, it’s hard to measure just how much influence the original Star Wars trilogy had on my own creativity. I am fairly certain that as a nine-year-old boy sitting in Grauman’s Chinese Theater watching a Rebel Blockade Runner being chased by an Imperial Star Destroyer was a life-altering event. I suspect the same is true for many, or even most, science fiction or fantasy authors who grew up in that same time period. George Lucas essentially created a new mythology for our age (he’s sort of like the Homer of the late 20th Century). I frankly cannot imagine a more influential movie in my lifetime.

All of this said, I was never a fan of the three prequels. Every actor who tried to portray Anakin Skywalker seemed horribly miscast. If Anakin was supposed to be a rock-star Jedi before he went to the dark side, they needed an actor who exuded charisma. A Harrison Ford or Chris Pratt-type, if you will. Hayden Christensen brought none of that. Even Natalie Portman, who has proven herself to be a talented and engaging actress in films like The Professional, Black Swan, and even the two Thor flicks, fell totally flat in the prequels. It didn’t help to have that ridiculous age difference between her and Anakin in the first film, which made the last two rather creepy. All of this has convinced me that the biggest problem with the prequels was the writing and the stories themselves. Author Kristin Lamb wrote a wonderful piece on why the prequels don’t work. You can read it here.

Which brings me to the teaser. I loved it! It looks totally old-school and reminiscent of the original series. I loved seeing the X-wings and the Stormtroopers, and the shot of the Millennium Falcon soaring to John Williams’ famous score gave me chills. I even liked that new dark force light saber. J.J. Abrams (of LOST fame and the new Star Trek films, among others) has proven himself worthy of great filmmaking. May the Force be with him on this one!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Cyber Monday Sale for "Enoch's Device"!

In the wake of Black Monday, the Kindle version of Enoch’s Device will be on sale starting today, through Cyber Monday, and lasting the entire week! You can purchase it here.

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.
Stephen Reynolds of SPR called “Enoch's Device is 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.”
Marty Shaw of Reader Views 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.”

And Cate Peace of Indie Books R Us summed it up: "All in all, a refreshing twist on the religious thriller, and one that will have you turning pages from cover to cover as fast as you can."

Now is a great time to pick up a copy – and if you’ve already read it and enjoyed it, please tell a friend!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving, 1621 Style!

I wrote this two years ago, but I'm reposting it every Thanksgiving for tradition's sake. I've also included my menu for this year's Thanksgiving at the end of this article.

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. 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 of 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.

2014 Menu Update: For two years now I've prepared a multi-course meal for Thanksgiving, and this year will be no exception! (Each course will also be paired with a wine or cocktail :)

Course One: Whipped ricotta salad

Course Two: Baked littleneck clams, corn cakes, and fried lobster tail with horseradish crème fraiche sauce

Course Three: Pumpkin soup with fig quenelles and prosciutto

Course Four: Grilled venison sausage with a pear and celery root puree

Course Five: Turkey two ways (roasted and smoked) with twice-baked sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, whipped potatoes, and sausage dressing

Course Six: Pumpkin pie shots, banana cream pie shots, and caramel apple trifles

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, who journeyed to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Black Sails" Will Be Back Soon!

I missed this when it came out last month, but Starz has started promoting the new season of Black Sails, the amazingly well-crafted "prequel" to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Last season was intense (and far superior to NBC's Crossbones in my view), with Captain Flint and Long John Silver barely surviving an attack by a Spanish Man O' War, and now their long-sought treasure is in sight. The new season premiers on January 24, so if we can survive the holidays, it looks like there will be some fantastic historical fiction on Starz beginning next year!

Billy Bones has to be back, right? . . .
Unless whoever was "Billy Bones" in Treasure Island stole his identity!
Photo courtesy of Starz.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Void in “Interstellar”

I’ve had very little time to write or blog this week, but I thought I’d share some brief thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar. While I’ve avoided talking about any of the plot twists, there are some minor spoilers, so venture on at your own risk.

To begin, I wish I had time to write a more thorough review, but I don’t. If you’re looking for one, here are four reviews (from Salon, The Wall Street Journal, Grantland, and The Book Smugglers) that are generally consistent with my own feelings about the film. Also, let me briefly say that the movie is visually stunning and well-acted by Matthew McConaughy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Cane, and others. 

That said, I had two issues with Interstellar as large as the black hole at the center of the film. The first is the overly convenient plot that contains holes large enough to fly the Nostromo through. The world is dying for reasons only hinted at in the film. Whether due to overpopulation, climate change, or who knows, earth is ridden by violent dust storms and losing its capacity to grow food. Let’s just call it the Dust Apocalypse. During the Dust Apocalypse, science has become verboten, the Lunar Landings have officially been deemed a hoax designed to bankrupt the Soviet Union, and NASA has gone underground. Fortunately, a nearby corn farmer (McConaughy’s character) happens to live nearby. Also, before the Dust Apocalypse, he was a really good astronaut. Suffice it to say, he soon discovers secret NASA and they just happen to have a spacecraft that’s ready to travel interstellar through a wormhole near Saturn to find a new world for mankind.  

I can overlook certain things for the sake of plot, but I still scratch my head about this stuff. Who spends a gazillion dollars on an interstellar spacecraft without having a pilot, unless they intentionally built the secret NASA lab near McConaughy’s cornfield hoping he’d decide to leave his family and don his old spacesuit? It’s as if the rebels of Star Wars had built their secret base on Tatooine, hoping that Luke Skywalker might stumble onto it one day while taking his speeder for a joy ride.

Second, Interstellar is about saving the human race and going boldly where (almost) no man has gone before, but it’s virtually devoid of any notion or mention of religion or spirituality. Apparently, that died in the Dust Apocalypse, but I think the movie is emptier because of it. Contrast this with Contact, another film starring McCounaghy, based on a novel by Carl Sagan. That movie is filled with spiritual themes that concern the interplay (or conflict) between science and religion, and I found Contact to be a much more fulfilling tale. The absence of any talk of God or spirituality, when the whole point of the film is surviving extinction and exploring the great beyond, makes Interstellar a bit hollow in my view. There’s not even a hint of extraterrestrial life beyond the wormhole. Nothing but mankind trying to save itself, all alone in the universe. That’s not a future I want to believe in.

But this is just my short take. If you’ve seen the film, let me know—how did you feel about Interstellar?