Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"Hold The Door!"

It’s been eight weeks since the surgery on my ruptured patellar tendon, and between trying to get on my feet again and trying to get back to work full time, I’ve unfortunately had very little time to focus on the blog (or much else when it comes to writing). But I did want to say a few things this week about “The Door” on Game of Thrones.

This was the best episode of the season, in my view, and I cannot remember an episode that has lingered more in my mind. Before this season, I generally knew what was going to happen because I had read the books, but this season has been more of a wild card since a good bit of the story has exceeded George R.R. Martin’s published works. Yet nothing had prepared me for the ending of last week’s episode.

In short, I found it to be the most moving moment to date on Game of Thrones. I’ve read plenty of blogs that assumed this was an invention of the show’s writers, and that we won’t learn the origins of Hodor in the books. But show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have debunked that expressly. In the commentary after the episode on HBO On Demand, Benioff said:
“We had this meeting with George Martin where we’re trying to get as much information as possible out of him, and probably the most shocking revelation he had for us was when he told us the origin of Hodor and how that name came about.”
Then Weiss added: 
“It was just one of the saddest and most affecting things. Even sitting in a hotel room and having someone tell you that this was going to happen in the abstract, and in some way, and that ‘hold the door’ was the origin of the name Hodor. We just thought that was a really, really heartbreaking idea.”
If true, this is the first time the show has revealed (or spoiled) a MAJOR event in the books (since we all suspected Jon was coming back). I wish that hadn’t happened, but it won’t be the last time since the show will continue to outpace the novels. Part of me hates this, but I can’t imagine the book version would have been more moving—or haunting—than what we saw last Sunday.

On a wholly diffrent note, I’ve been seriously loving the second season of Outlander. If you’re a fan of historical fantasy, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re missing this one!

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Friday, May 20, 2016

Pope Joan

This week, I’m featuring my review of Pope Joan, the highly acclaimed novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross. I read it before my trip to Rome last year, but only now got around to putting my thoughts to the page. Better late than never, I suppose.

Pope Joan is a fictional account based on the legend of a woman who served as pope under the guise of a man in the mid-ninth century. The book follows Joan’s entire life, from birth until death, and in a way serves as a tour of the early Middle Ages from a distinctly feminist point of view.

The novel begins with Joan as the child in the village of Ingelheim in Thuringia. There, we are introduced to the first of her many misogynistic male adversaries. The worst one of all is her own father, a tyrannical English canon who sets the stage of the medieval view of women that Joan must overcome. Indeed, from the moment of Joan’s birth, he declares his wife’s labor was “all for nothing,” considering the birth of a girl to be a “punishment from God.” When Joan is a little older and wants to learn to read like her brothers, her father tells her, “You are a girl and therefore such matters do not concern you.” It only gets worse from there.

Joan, however, refuses to accept the place her father would have her in life. Her older brother secretly teaches her to read, and when a Greek scholar named Aesculapius shows up in the village, he insists on tutoring Joan, recognizing her intelligence. Through his teachings, Joan develops a keen mind, forged from the writings of Cicero and other classics, which will eventually allow her to outwit many a man. But only if she can escape her father. When he finds her reading a copy of Homer in Greek, he deems it the work of a “godless heathen” and nearly whips her to within an inch of her life. 

A 16th Century Illumination of Pope Joan
Things change, however, when Aesculapius arranges an invitation for Joan to study at a school in Dorstadt. There, she is sent to live with a count named Gerold and his wife. Gerold ultimately becomes Joan’s love interest in this tale, even though it’s creepy to think of a girl with, effectively, her foster father. But at least the author waits until Joan is fourteen (still a bad age for a modern audience, but probably more acceptable in the ninth century) for the affair to develop. Still, the love affair is more of a subplot, than the main plot, which all concerns Joan quest to succeed in the male-dominated medieval society.

After a series of events which I refuse to spoil, Joan decides to pose as a male, taking her brother’s name and calling herself John Anglicus. Disguised as a man, she joins the monastery at Fulda and, relying on her knowledge of Hippocrates, earns a reputation as a skilled healer. Eventually, the story takes her to Rome, where her healing arts bring her into the service of Pope Sergius, a prodigious eater and drinker, and one of my favorite characters in the novel. Sergius has taken ill, leaving his corrupt brother to run Rome, and Joan realizes that the only way to stop the corruption is to quickly heal the pope. 

As good as the novel was during Joan’s childhood in Thuringia and her time with Gerold’s family in Dorstadt, her time in Rome is where the novel shines the brightest. There, she is faced with all the intrigue, politics, and backstabbing that you’d except to find in the papal palace, along with a horde of misogynistic antagonists that Joan must outlast and outwit. The Roman scenes also involve some major historical events, including the Saracen sacking of Rome, the erection of the Leonine Walls around what today is the Vatican, and the battle of Ostia. Rome also brings the return of Gerold, who is in the service of the Frankish emperor, and he is by her side when she’s ultimately elected Pope John. But by then, she’s made a host of dangerous enemies, which propels the novel toward its climax. 

Even though the book is only 434 pages, it seemed overlong at times. Each phase of Joan’s life could have been its own novella, but they were all engaging enough to keep me reading through the end. My one peeve was with the author’s shifting viewpoints. While at times the book seemed written in a third-person limited point-of-view, other times it slipped into a more outdated omniscient point-of-view, often in the middle of scenes. I would have preferred a more personal point-of-view throughout.

That said, I found Pope Joan to be a well-written, thought provoking, and fully engaging novel. An extensive Author’s Note at the end contributes to this by asserting that the legend of Pope Joan was widely accepted as true until the mid-seventeenth century when the Vatican expunged any reference Joan in the papal records. According to the author, the Church’s position on Joan “is that she was an invention of Protestant reformers eager to expose papist corruption.” Nonetheless, the author notes that until the sixteenth century, every pope elected after Joan had to confirm their manhood through genital inspection before they could sit on St. Peter’s Throne, complete with a photo of the toilet-like seat used for the examinations. I found this pretty compelling, but I encourage you to read the book and decide for yourself.

In you’re interested, you can read a preview of the book here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

“My Watch Has Ended”

Without much time to blog this week, I wanted to offer a few quick thoughts on “Oathbreaker,” the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Note, *SPOILERS* to follow.

I think we know what Jon plans to do.
While “Oathbreaker” was basically set-up for the rest of Season 6, my favorite part – and the point of the title, I think – was when Jon handed his Lord Commander cloak to Dolorous Edd and announced “My watch has ended.” For anyone who has read the books, I think we all know what’s going to happen next.

Last season, the show omitted a key event leading up to Jon’s death, and I think “Oathbreaker” served as a course correction to realign the story to the novels. In A Dance With Dragons, Jon actually breaks his oath to the Night’s Watch moments before his murder. He had received a raven bearing a message from Ramsay Bolton, who calls himself the “Trueborn Lord of Winterfell.” Among other things, Ramsay announces Stanis defeat and threatens to cut out Jon’s heart and eat it if Ramsay’s “bride” – whom Jon believes to be his sister Arya – is not returned to him. Jon is so disturbed by this letter he decides to march on Winterfell and asks members of the Night’s Watch to join him.

This didn’t quite happen in the show, although there may have been a hint of it. In last season’s finale, right before Ollie arrives to lure Jon to his death, John is reading a note from a raven. Maybe that note was Ramsay’s, but the show never told. Now, however, Jon has decided to break his oath and end his watch. We’ll have to wait until Sunday’s episode to find out what happens next, but I suspect that Jon, Tormund, and a host of Wildlings will soon be heading for Winterfell. And it’s about time Ramsay got what’s coming to him.

Will Jon save the realm like young Ned?
A few other thoughts. First, did Jon really break his oath? A member of the Night’s Watch serves until death. Jon died before he was resurrected. Oath fulfilled, perhaps.

Also, was it just me, or did we see Jon effectively transform into Ned Stark, Lord of the North? By taking it on himself to swing the sword that killed the traitors, Jon was doing just what Ned taught his sons to do in the very first scene of Game of Thrones. Now, Jon might be playing the role Ned once did when he helped save the realm from the mad king.

Lastly, as soon as young Ned gets into the Tower of Joy in one of Bran’s flashbacks, I believe we may finally learn who Jon’s parents really are. I won’t spoil that with a prediction, but I’m looking forward to it!

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Things are Moving Very Fast on “Game of Thrones”

After just two episodes, Season 6 of Game of Thrones is moving at a furious pace. The reason, I believe, is that the show’s writers are no longer tethered to George R.R. Martin’s books. But is that a good thing?

"That's what I do. I drink and I know things."
In just two episodes, we’ve confirmed the demise of Lord Stanis, seen a complete coup in Dorne, bid goodbye to Roose Bolton, watched Ramsay rise to new heights, seen Balon Greyjoy finally meet his end (three seasons overdue), witnessed the Wildlings seize control of Castle Black, and experienced a long-anticipated resurrection. Anyone who’s read George R.R. Martin’s novels knows that it might take 500 pages or more for so many events to play out. That’s just how his books work, and it’s why the earlier seasons – which more or less covered the novels – unfolded far more slowly than what’s happening now.

Ready for a Kingsmoot!
With the exception of the Ironborn plotline, which is taken straight from A Feast For Crows and was cut out of Season 5, most of the events in Season 6 have not occurred in the books. It’s as if the writers are now working from a list of future plot points provided by Martin once HBO realized this was going to happen. At this pace, it wouldn’t even surprise me if Season 6 goes beyond the events of The Winds of Winter, but only time will tell.

You have to love the giant!
In my opinion, this new pace has made for some exciting television, yet I wonder if anything from here on out will resemble The Winds of Winter whenever its released. In fact, I could see many of these events, including Jon’s resurrection, playing out differently in the novels, especially as Martin fleshes out, or even changes, his outline, which commonly occurs in the writing process. 

So what might this mean for viewers and readers? Both may win. On one hand, viewers will get a fast-paced Season 6. While, on the other hand, the show may not completely spoil The Winds of Winter for readers because the novel may deal very differently with the same subject matters. 

Of course, this will only further divorce the show from the books, but that was inevitable once the show greatly outpaced Martin’s ability to finish his epic tale. At this point, Season 6, and maybe Season 7, will wrap up before the release of the The Winds of Winter. And the show will probably conclude five or six years (or more) before Martin finishes the final book in the series, A Dream of Spring.

That’s just life. And I, for one, am okay with it.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

My Quick Thoughts on “The Red Woman”

I thought the season premiere of Game of Thrones was everything we could have asked for, and more. It touched most of the key story lines, had some hugely exciting moments (go Brienne and Pod!), and a jaw dropping twist at the end. I don’t have time to cover everything that happened, but here are three quick thoughts. Note, *SPOILERS* abound!

Yep, he's dead – but he's coming back! 

Jon Snow Will Return 

I’m fairly certain we’ve not seen the last of Jon Snow. First, there is no reason the show is going to such lengths to have his body preserved unless something is supposed to happen to it – something like resurrection. Second, in the flames, Melisandre saw Jon fighting at Winterfell. Now perhaps she’s mistaken, but I doubt it. We know she has powers, and by the end of the episode it’s revealed she may be an ancient being, perhaps hundreds of years old. We also know that red priests can raise the dead, and I wouldn’t put this past her – especially since it looks like her own magic has allowed her to defy death for centuries. Third, even Davos notes that the Red Woman may be the only way they survive in Castle Black. Yet this might also mean that she’s Jon’s only hope too. After all, why else would Davos go through such effort to preserve Jon’s corpse? 

Also, I would not rule out Ghost playing some role in Jon’s survival. Maybe it was telling that when the episode opened the first sound heard was Ghost howling. Then we see him trying furiously to escape his pen. Perhaps this is because Jon’s consciousness “warged” into Ghost as John lay dying and he was trying to save his body. The novels certainly set up this possibility, and Bran has proven to have this power on the show, so it’s possible Jon has the “skin changers” gift. But that said, the few scenes with Ghost in “The Red Woman” were too ambiguous to draw any firm conclusions.

Farewell Princes of Dorne.

I Didn’t See That Coup Coming

We knew the Sand Snakes were defiant, even to the point to goading the Lannisters into war with Dorne, but I didn't see them killing Prince Doran in episode one. I’m truly curious to see if George R.R. Martin goes there in the books. I could definitely see it happening, but the show has altered the Dorne plot substantially, even to the point of eliminating one of the book’s key characters, Doran’s daughter Arianne. Only The Winds of Winter will tell, whenever Winter arrives.

I'd prefer she keep her necklace on.

I Loved The Twist At The End

I also did not foresee the episode’s shocking end. That scene where Melisandre revealed her beauty to be a glamor concealing a far more ancient form was brilliant. I must say that if there were clues to her ancientness in the show or the books, I overlooked them. Overall, it was a perfect way to end the season premiere, and I believe that revealing Melisandre to be an ancient sorceress promises a big role for her ahead.

And I’m pretty sure it has to do with Jon Snow.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Old Enemies Abound in Cornwell’s “Warriors of the Storm”

On the heels of my review of The Empty Throne, I’m offering my review of the next novel in Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series, Warriors of the Storm. The novel is another excellent installment in Cornwell’s ongoing saga about the Saxons and the Vikings in early ninth century England. 

Reading Warriors of the Storm I could not help but feel like the series in coming to its close. Uhtred of Bebbanburg is an old man by the time this novel begins, and his grown children are now central characters in his story. He has succeeded in putting the Lady Æthelflaed on Mercia’s throne, and is protecting the heir to Wessex, a young man named Æthelstan who Uhtred loves like a son. The Danes are still a threat, but Æthelflaed is devoted to their defeat, and soon all that will remain on Uhtred’s bucket list is Bebbanburg, the ancestral home that he has sought to reclaim since the first book in this nine book series. But Bebbanburg will have to wait at least one more novel, for this time around a few old enemies have returned to threaten Æthelflaed’s lands.

From the very first scene, Uhtred learns that his old nemesis Haesten is back. Haesten, who was a real historical figure, has been around since the second book and has become a major adversary, featuring prominently in The Burning Land, The Pagan Lord, and other books in the series. This time, he has allied with Jarl Ragnall Ivarson, known as Ragnall the Cruel, a Norse lord who ravaged Ireland before setting his sights on England. Ragnall is also the brother of Sigtryggr Ivarson, the dashing Viking lord who married Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra, and suddenly Uhtred is left to wonder whether his own son-in-law has allied with Ragnall to wage this war.

Brida is back in this one!
The most intriguing villain in this book, however, is the second old enemy to side with Jarl Ragnall – Brida, the Lady of Dunholm. I feel like we’ve grown up with Brida throughout this series. She was the Saxon slave who grew up with Uhtred, became his first lover, and ultimately chose the Danes over the English. She ended up as the lover to Uhtred’s brother, Young Ragnar, and served as a frequent ally and sometimes enemy throughout the series. With Ragnar dead, Brida’s anger over Uhtred’s allegiance to the Christian Saxons has now become all consuming. Even more, she’s become a pagan sorceress, and she ends up being one of Cornwell’s most disturbing villains since Nimue in his novel Excalibur

Uhtred has always been a cunning military strategist, and much of this novel concerns his efforts to out-think and out-maneuver Jarl Ragnall, his allies, and his army. Cornwell excels at this type of plot, and it’s no surprise that Warriors of the Storm is on par with most of his books in this series. Like all of his novels, this one is filled with action, including plenty of battles, an adventure in Ireland, and an attack on the Viking stronghold of Jorvik (York). I’ve said before the no one writes battles scenes better than Bernard Cornwell, and this book is no exception.

Once again, Uhtred’s children are co-stars in this story, much to my delight. Uhtred’s son Uhtred has become a fitting heir to his father as a warrior hero, and Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra has become even more like her beautiful mother Gisela, and a sorceress of sorts in her own right. She plays as big a role in this novel as she did in the last one, and the book is better for it. And even Uhtred’s oldest son, whom he disowned in The Pagan Lord when the boy became a Christian priest, plays a part in this tale.

After the events of this novel, I have to believe that the quest to reclaim Bebbanburg is up next. That’s my hope, at least, and it just might take Uhtred’s whole family to get the job done!

PS, you can read a preview of the book here!

* Brida image courtesy of BBC America.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

“The Empty Throne” Is One of Bernard Cornwell’s Best!

Earlier this year, I finished The Empty Throne by Bernard Cornwell, the eighth installment in his newly renamed Last Kingdom series about England’s struggles against the Vikings in the late eighth and early ninth centuries. Here’s my review after this image of the book’s cover.

When I saw the book’s title, I had assumed the “empty throne” would concern Wessex, the English kingdom around which most of the Last Kingdom series has centered. After the death of King Alfred the Great in Death of Kings, I had no idea how long his heir, Edward, would survive. But Edward isn’t the subject of this tale. No, the “empty throne” belongs to the former kingdom of Mercia, and this time around Cornwell delivers his own version of a “game of thrones.” 

At the end of The Pagan Lord, both Uhtred and his hated cousin Æthelred, the Lord of Merica, suffered terrible wounds at the battle of Teotanheale. Uhtred was stabbed in the side by Cnut Ranulfson, with his legendary sword Ice-Spite, and it’s unclear by the end of “The Pagan Lord” if Uhtred will survive. Of course, we learn in this novel that he lived, though he remains weak and wounded and spends much of the novel with one foot inside death’s door. That said, however, he ends up doing far better than Æthelred. 

It turns out that Æthelred is dying without a male heir, so the nobles have summoned a Witan to decide Mercia’s future. Æthelred leaves behind only his teenage daughter and his estranged wife, the Lady Æthelflaed, one of the heroines of the last several novels and Uhtred’s former lover. Uhtred wants Æthelflaed on the throne, but the thought of a woman ruling Merica does not sit well with many of the nobles, especially the Ealdorman Æthelhelm of Wessex. 

Æthelhelm is not only King Edward’s father-in-law and the second richest man in Wessex, but he also has designs on controlling Mercia’s throne. His pawn in the game is Eardulf, the slick and mischievous commander of Æthelred’s household guards, but Eardulf isn’t noble, and the only way he can claim the throne is to marry a woman of royal blood. Uhtred is prepared to ensure that never happens, and his attempts to prevent the marriage propels the novel into a thrilling adventure, with plenty of intrigue and battles of the kind that Cornwell so masterfully writes. 

My hope is that The Last Kingdom on BBC America lasts long enough to portray this tale!* 
This novel is a bit unique among the series because Uhtred is basically too injured to fight, forcing one of the great warriors in fiction to rely even more on his mind than his battle prowess. But it also forces him to rely more on others, which makes The Empty Throne a family affair, Uhtred style. In the last book, we got to know Uhtred’s son Uhtred, who has grown in a warrior like his father. And in this book we’re introduced to his resourceful daughter Stiorra, a spitting image of Uhtred’s late wife Gisela, who has inherited some of her mother’s gift for prophecy. Stiorra is quietly pagan, genially natured, and fierce when crossed, which quickly made her one of my favorite characters in the series.

In addition to its game of thrones intrigue, the novel offers plenty more, including a new and unexpected love interest for Uhtred, a new and dangerous Viking threat, and even a quest to find Ice-Spite after a priest tells Uhtred that if he finds the sword, the wounds it caused will finally be healed. Overall, The Empty Throne turned out to be one of my favorite books in Cornwell’s series. My only hope is that The Last Kingdom on BBC America lasts long enough to bring this book to life.

PS, you can read a preview of the Kindle version of the book here

* Image courtesy of BBC America.