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?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rediscovering Vintage Fantasy Fiction

The other day, I happened across a gorgeous compilation of tales by H.P. Lovecraft in my local Barnes & Noble. The book, whose cover features Cthulhu’s writhing tentacles in all their texturized glory, is titled The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, with an introduction by famous comic book author Alan Moore. Despite its hefty price tag, I snatched up the tome. And having brought it home, it has literally allowed me to rediscover vintage fantasy fiction.

I couldn't pass this one up!
This rediscovery wasn’t due so much to Lovecraft’s tales, though I am anxious to dig into my new book. Rather, it was the effort it took to find space for this huge tome on my bookshelf. After moving a few dozen volumes around, I ended up reorganizing a second set of shelves that had become the dumpster ground for old paperbacks. In doing so, I unearthed my original copies of the Conan novels by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter. While the original Conan tales were published in pulp fiction magazines during the early 1930s, Conan (#1) (the first of several compilations of those stories) came out in 1983, so it’s probably been 30 years since I first cracked its cover. I found myself opening that cover once again, and reading the book over a cold and breezy weekend. Here are a few of my observations.  

Still love this old cover.
First was the introduction on Robert E. Howard written by L. Sprague de Camp. The most surprising thing about Howard was how briefly he lived. He wrote prolifically during his twenties (from 1927 to 1936), and by his late twenties he was earning more money than any other writer in his home of Cross Plains, Texas. At age thirty, he took his own life.

According to de Camp, Howard was a bit like the characters he created: six feet tall and over 200 pounds, an accomplished boxer and horseman. He was brilliant, introverted and, as de Camp writes, “maladjusted to the point of psychosis.” Perhaps not surpassingly, he was also a pen pal of H.P. Lovecraft. Conan the Barbarian was Howard’s favorite character, though he created other memorable ones in the genre de Camp calls “heroic fantasy,” such as Kull of Atlantis and Solomon Kane. Most interesting to me was that after World War II, Howard’s stories and heroic fantasy in general fell out of favor and almost disappeared. That is until 1954, when J.R.R. Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring. As we all know, Tolkien’s trilogy revived the genre and gave rise to the new era of fantasy fiction we are living in today. 

Robert E. Howard
Second was Howard’s essay on the Hyborian Age, where he describes the history of the world he had built for Conan’s adventures. Interestingly, even though Conan was modeled on a Gaelic or Irish warrior, Howard chose to invent a pseudo-history for his stories because he feared that trying to use a historically-accurate setting would require too much time-consuming research. (As a writer of historical fantasy, I feel his pain!) As far as world building goes, the essay is a hot mess. Howard has taken disparate concepts from mythology and more recent history and literally blended them together. For example, he talks about the ancient civilizations of Atlantis and Lemuria, and goes on to describe their wars with the “savages” of that age – none other than the Picts! (While the Picts gave the Romans trouble in Late Antiquity, these painted Scots lived eons after the legendary Atlantis.) Throw in some concepts from Norse mythology, such as the Vanir of Vanaheim and Æsir of Asgard (who were gods in mythology, but are mere people like the Swedes and Danes in Conan’s time), add in a race named after the mythical river Styx and the “empire of Zimbabwe,” and welcome to the Hyborian world. To be fair, Howard was not a scholar like Tolkien and did not have access to all the historical resources we have today (imagine a world without Wikipedia – ye gads!). What he did have was a copy of Thomas Bulfinch’s Outline of Mythology published in 1913, and he apparently mined it for all it was worth.    

Finally, there are the stories themselves. This book consists of seven loosely connected short stories that all begin in the medias res with Conan pursued by wolves or guardsmen, or in the middle of a plan to steal some treasure. The young Conan of this book is a wandering adventurer, working as a thief in most of these tales, who inevitably finds himself alone in some haunted ruin or sorcerer’s lair, only to be confronted by a monster or some supernatural foe. As a barbarian, he can neither read nor write, so he solves problems with brute force. Let’s just say, there are no puzzle-like plots to be deciphered in his tales. This does not mean, however, that the stories are without mystery or twists. In fact, one of the best stories in the book, “The Tower of the Elephant,” featured an unexpected twist that most certainly was influenced by Howard’s friend, H.P. Lovecraft. Another tale, “The God in the Bowl,” begins as a murder mystery, but don’t expect Conan to play the role of Sherlock Holmes.

Many of the stories seem cliché, but that’s because I’m reading them in 2014 instead of the 1930s. Back then they were “original” adventure tales, and since they predated most forms of entertainment available today, they were probably damn entertaining. Imagine a time nearly fifty years before we met Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker, or even Josie Wales and James Bond. Stories like Conan’s were among the most rollicking adventure tales around. This is just one reason why they are true classics, and I’m glad I rediscovered them.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

On Dracula and Vlad the Impaler

Last week, io9 ran an article titled “No, Bram Stoker Did Not Model Dracula On Vlad The Impaler,” which debunks the belief that Stoker’s legendary vampire was based on the notorious Wallachian prince. In fact, in early drafts of the novel, Stoker’s antagonist was apparently named “Count Wampyr.” You can’t make this up.

The historical Dracula
I found the io9 article fascinating, and you can read the whole piece here. Below is an excerpt of the part I found most interesting.
The truth is, there's no evidence that Bram Stoker was even aware of the name Vlad III—much less that he was called "Vlad the Impaler." Miller warns that we can't assume that Stoker's notes are the end-all, be-all of the creation of Dracula, but they do provide the only factual information we currently have about Stoker's research. And the notes tell us exactly where Stoker got the name "Dracula."
While in Whitby in the summer of 1890 (after, it should be noted, his much-discussed dinner with Vambery), Stoker came across a copy of William Wilkinson's book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. We know that, because he copied sections of the book into his notes. Wilkinson's book contains references to multiple voivodes named Dracula, and some of the sparse details on one such Voivode Dracula make it into Stoker's text: that he crossed the Danube to attack Turkish troops and had some success. That's it. There is no reference to a "Vlad," no mention of a nickname Tepes or "the Impaler," no detailing of his legendary atrocities.
So why did Stoker choose that name, Dracula? Well, we can infer that from his own notes. He copied information from a footnote from Wilkinson's book that read in his own notes, "DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL," with those capital letters. The footnote explained that Wallachians gave the name "Dracula" to people who were especially courageous, cruel, or cunning. Stoker chose the name, it appears, because of its devilish associations, not because of the history and legends attached to its owner.
After reading the article, I tend to agree with its conclusion. There are no explicit references to Vlad III in Stoker’s Dracula, and his novel contains no historical details about the violent conflict with the Ottoman Turks that dominated the story of the historical “Dracula.” That said, I believe storytellers since Stoker have improved on Dracula by making a more direct connection between him and Vlad III.

History and Dracula combined
For one, linking Dracula to the historical Vlad the Impaler helps transform the story into historical fantasy, a genre I prefer to horror or modern day vampire tales. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a perfect example. In her novel, Dracula and Vlad Tepes are one in the same. The quest for Dracula’s tomb drives the story, which takes the reader to communist Romania and Istanbul in an attempt to find evidence in ancient texts, all grounded in the history of Vlad the Impaler and his enmity with the Ottoman Turks. As I wrote in my review of The Historian, “[t]hese types of historical mysteries, steeped in religion and legend, are my cup of tea, and despite the novel’s considerable length (my paperback is 676 pages), it captivated me until the end.”

Coppola improved on the original
Another good example is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Despite its titular reference to Stoker’s novel and general faithfulness to Stoker’s plot, Coppola clearly portrays Dracula as Vald Tepes, a member of the Order of the Dragon (“Draco” is translated to “Dracula”). Vald renounces God and succumbs to darkness when he returns from a battle with the Ottoman Turks only to discover his beloved wife has committed suicide after being tricked into believing he was slain on the battlefield. This sets up tremendous motivation for Dracula, who becomes convinced that Mina Harker is the reincarnation of his lost wife. The desire to be reunited with his beloved lends far greater purpose to Dracula’s actions than in the book, where Dracula is simply a monster to be reckoned with. I much preferred the complexity of Coppola’s Dracula, whom I almost felt sympathy for at times. And let’s face it, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the vampire was damn near perfect. In short, I thought Coppola’s take far surpassed its source material, and his link to the historical Dracula was one of the major reasons why.

But that’s just my view – let me know what you think about the io9 article or whether others have improved on Bram Stoker’s original. And most of all, have a happy Halloween!

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Devil’s Bridge

Today I’m guest blogging at Heroines of Fantasy, a site devoted to fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and especially women in genre fiction. As part of their month-long “Fright Fest,” I’ve written a work of flash fiction (i.e., a story under 1,000 words) titled “The Devil’s Bridge.” It’s based on an old Welsh legend about an old woman and her deal with the devil. Please visit Heroines of Fantasy and check out my new story, as well as all the other great posts for Fright Fest!

An ancient dolmen what evil lies there?*
And special thanks to author Karin Rita Gastreicht for the invite to post on her blog!

* Creative Commons Attribution - photo courtesy of Steve Ford Elliot 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fishing and a Flash!

I’m off to my annual fishing trip, and though I doubt I’ll catch the Midgard Serpent this year, I leave with fond memories of last night’s TV experience with my nine-year-old.

I’ve endeavored to find good TV shows we can watch as a family. In years’ past, it’s been Once Upon A Time, and while we still watch it, the Frozen plotline has become a bit silly to me. Fortunately, we decided to start watching CW’s new series The Flash. I must say, the adventures of Barry Allen have provided more family entertainment than I would have expected. We’re having a ball with this show, and if you have any fondness for superhero tales, I highly recommend it.

Next week is Halloween, so stay tuned for some spooky story news on the blog!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

“Thieves’ Quarry”: Another Tale of Murder, Magic, and Mystery in Colonial Boston

Yesterday, I finished Thieves’ Quarry by D. B. Jackson and found it a worthy sequel to the first book in the series, which I reviewed here. My review of Thieves’ Quarry follows this image of the book’s amazing cover.

D. B. Jackson has crafted another fun historical fantasy with Thieves’ Quarry, the sequel to his first novel in the series, Thieftaker. The series takes the reader to colonial Boston and a world where conjurers, called “spellers,” live secretly among the population. Among them is Ethan Kaille, a thieftaker who retrieves stolen goods for a price. And like the first book, Kaille once again finds himself investigating a mysterious murder committed by a new and deadly conjurer.

The murder involves the strange and sudden death of the crew of the Graystone, one of many British warships that have arrived in Boston Harbor for the Crown’s occupation of the city. Agents of the Crown hire Kaille to find the killer, and he must do so quickly, before the colony’s lieutenant governor has every speller in Boston put to death for the crime.

The novel’s mystery is well crafted, with plenty of twists that kept me guessing until the end. Just as intriguing is the series’ magic system, which plays a key role in the tale. When casting, spellers need the aid of a ghost-like familiar (in Kaille’s case, an old medieval warrior he calls Uncle Reg), and every spellers’ magic and ghost has a unique color to its glow. Once Kaille discovers the color of the magic used on the crewmen, he just needs to find the conjurer to whom the color belongs to identify the killer. Jackson has been revealing clues about the magic system in each book, but he has left much of it unexplained, keeping the mystery behind the ghosts and their origins alive for a future tale. Yet he’s explained enough here to make it “believable,” and in many ways the magic system is one of the reasons this series work so well.

The rest of the books’ appeal lies with the characters who populate this fictional Boston, from Kaille’s rival, Sephira Pryce, to his friends at a tavern called the Dowsing Rod, and even historical figures like Samuel Adams. (Honestly, between the tavern and Adams, I always feel like having an ale while reading these books!) Also, the series is inching closer to the Boston Tea Party, and Kaille is beginning to question his allegiance to the Crown. All of this creates a unique world to which I am eager to return. And fortunately, the next book in the series, A Plunder of Souls, is waiting on my shelf.