Friday, July 31, 2015

All Roads Lead To “Rome”

My wife and I recently finished HBO’s Rome in advance of a trip to Italy we’ll be taking this summer (which, thankfully, will allow for some on-site research for the sequel to Enoch’s Device). We adored the show, and in reading about it afterwards I happened upon an article in The Verge titled Before Game of Thrones, there was Rome.” Its point: without HBO’s Rome, we might never have had Game of Thrones.


For those who haven’t seen it, Rome tells the story of the rise of the Roman Empire. Season one is about Julius Caesar, while season two covers the rise of Octavian and his conflict with Marc Antony. And while the show features a host of historical figures (all portrayed by a wonderful cast), it’s told primarily from the viewpoints of two legionnaires: Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Think of Rome like a great buddy film set amid some of the most famous events in Roman history, and you’ll start to get the picture. 


But what are its connections to Game of Thrones? Here are some excerpts from The Verge: 
Name the most enticing aspects of Game of Thrones, and you’ll find them in Rome. Both tell grand stories of violent political turmoil through the intimate lens of personal experiences. We don’t care as much about who won this or that battle as we do when Jaime Lannister loses a hand or Lucius Vorenus liberates his daughters. Every frame of Rome is drenched in intrigue, which occasionally erupts onto the screen through acts of bloody backstabbing or equally explicit sex scenes. Much as in Game of Thrones, being the most influential or powerful character is no guarantee of surviving until the next episode, let alone the next season. In fact, power and misery seem to be inextricably bonded in both shows.
As much as Game of Thrones may be ahistoric and subject to its own internal lore and structure, its inspirations are clearly drawn from the same bloody pool of human history as Rome’s. Daenerys Targaryen, the young queen threatening the seat of Westeros power from beyond the seas, finds her parallel in Egypt’s Cleopatra. Joffrey Baratheon is as cold and unsympathizing a ruler as Rome’s brutally calculating Gaius Octavian. And the strong female figures of Catelyn Stark and Cersei Lannister find their Roman counterparts in Atia of the Julii and Servilia of the Junii. Come on, it’s cool to even just say those names.

The article even notes the link between Rome’s actors and those in Game of Thrones:
CiarĂ¡n Hinds, the Gaius Julius Caesar of Rome, now performs the pivotal role of Mance Rayder in Game of Thrones. Indira Varma, the actress that once portrayed the wife of Lucius Vorenus, turned into the paramour of the vengeful Prince Martell in last season's Thrones. More importantly, Rome showed HBO was capable of wrangling huge casts and weaving together sprawling and complex storylines to create one compelling whole. There was just one issue: it couldn’t stay within budget.
Rome’s massive budget ultimately shortened its run to two seasons, but the lessons HBO learned from the highly acclaimed show helped bring George R.R. Martin’s epic to life. 
Without Rome, I’m sure we wouldn’t have the epic and ambitious Game of Thrones that we’re enjoying today. The funny thing is that with Rome, we wouldn’t have the present Thrones, either, given the way that show burned through HBO’s finances. So Rome had to both rise and fall, as a TV production, in order for Game of Thrones to become what it is today.
So the next time you watch Game of Thrones, tip a cup to Vorenus and Pullo and everything they gave us in Rome.

You can read the full article on theverge.com here.

* Images courtesy of HBO

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Artistic License and Historical Fiction

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 A.D. – the famous battle where the army of King Edward Longshanks defeated William Wallace and his fellow Scotsmen, depicted in the movie Braveheart. So, this week I'm revisiting one of my first posts from July 2011, this blog's inaugural month.

Loved the film, even if the history is questionable.
The Battle of Falkirk was one of the most significant battles in the First War of Scottish Independence. In Braveheart, it’s the battle where Wallace is almost killed before he’s dragged from the field by Robert the Bruce, who had sided with the English at the behest of his sinister father. 

Now Braveheart is a great movie and that was a dramatic and compelling scene, but many historians have criticized both the scene and the film as being historically inaccurate. For one, Robert the Bruce did not side with the English at Falkirk. He wasn’t even there, although during his reign he did change sides between the Scots and the English several times. Nevertheless, was the artistic license taken in Braveheart defensible in the name of crafting good fiction?

Does Robert the Bruce look like a traitor?
One of my all-time favorite historical fiction authors is Bernard Cornwell. For his novel Heretic, set during the Hundred Years War, he created several fictional places and personages central to the story, including a French count, a walled city and its lord, and a cardinal from Livorno, which is not a real archdiocese. In my opinion, Heretic is a fantastic novel and Cornwell’s artistic license is entirely justified. In fact, unless you are a student of the French countryside or an aficionado of Italian archbishoprics, you’d not even know artistic license had been taken.

A perfect use of artistic license!
I did something similar in my own novel, whose antagonist is a French bishop. He’s not a nice man – and that’s being kind! So instead of slandering the name and memory of some real bishop, I made this character the Bishop of Blois, even though Blois’ real bishopric was not created until centuries later. I made this call for the sake of my story, and I stand by it.

But others may disagree. So what’s your view? When does artistic license go too far in the name of historical fiction?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

“Mockingbird” Gives Us the Real Atticus Finch

The past several days, the internet has been abuzz with the story that Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set A Watchman, portrays Atticus Finch as a racist. This is the same man she portrayed as a noble hero in To Kill A Mockingbird, which is set twenty years before Watchman. So how could the moral hero of that book have gone down such a dark path later in life? There’s one simple answer: he never did.


To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the greatest novels of all time, and remains one of my favorite books. But it’s never had a sequel, and still doesn’t in my view, despite today’s publication of Go Set A Watchman (which is about an adult Scout returning to her hometown). 

By all accounts, Lee wrote Watchman in the mid-1950s. Her editor at the time, however, didn’t want to publish it. Instead, he asked her to write a new novel based on the main character’s childhood. That is the story that became To Kill A Mockingbird, while Watchman was shelved for a half-century. 

As every writer knows, a story changes as it is written, often metamorphosing into something very different than what the author originally envisioned. And the same is true for a story’s characters. In my own novel, there are characters who existed in early drafts that never even appear in the published book. My main character went through three name changes, had his origin story rewritten twice, and was sired by three different fathers, depending on the day. My antagonist was no different. He changed names, jobs, and mannerisms throughout my writing journey. I doubt the antagonist from my early drafts would even recognize the villain from the published novel. 

Given the changes that occur during the writing journey, it’s no surprise that a character who began as a racist in the author’s mind later evolved into a moral hero by the final draft. By the time Lee finished Mockingbird, Atticus Finch had completely transformed into the character so many readers admire today. Mockingbird’s Atticus never shared the poisonous views of Watchman’s Atticus because that Atticus disappeared somewhere along the way. He was lost in the writing journey that gave us Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch.


Because of the order in which the two books were written, Watchman was never intended to be a sequel that explains how Atticus Finch became a racist. That would be like J.K. Rowling writing a sequel where Harry Potter has become a religious fanatic who’s really into witch burning. The reality is that Mockingbird’s Atticus did not exist when Watchman was written. That noble Atticus had yet to be born in Lee’s mind. 

At least that’s the way I like to think of it. I don’t want to believe a hero like Mockingbird’s Atticus could turn into the man apparently portrayed in Watchman. I’d rather believe that Watchman is some alternate reality where Mockingbird’s Atticus never existed. Because that’s essentially what Harper Lee did. After she wrote Watchman, she created a whole new reality for the six-year-old Scout, one where her father, Atticus Finch, was a hero we could all believe in.


PS – Yesterday The Passive Voice posted an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal that suggests Lee’s father was the model for Atticus Finch. Apparently, we was a segregationist who changed his views while Lee was writing Mockingbird. That may help explain how Watchman’s Atticus transformed into Mockingbird’s Atticus during her writing journey. Here’s a link.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

“The Lord of Vik-Lo” - Another Viking Adventure in Ireland!

Once again I'm pleased to feature a guest review by Bill Brockman, this time of The Lord of Vik-Lo by James L. Nelson. Bill is an avid reader of historical fiction, but he’s also devoted his life to public service as a Battalion Chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department and a 31-year part-time airman in the Air National Guard. Here's his take on this new Viking tale:


I have previously reviewed the first two books of The Norsemen Saga by nautical fiction and history writer James L. Nelson. Now, he presents us with a somewhat less complex story in the third book, The Lord of Vik-Lo. I found it to be probably the best of the three, perhaps due to the author deciding to limit the scope of the work somewhat compared with the first two.

The volume opens by introducing a new set of characters and a new place – still set mostly on the Eastern Coast of 9th Century Ireland. The Danish, or Dubh Gall, Norsemen of Vik-lo are heading home from raiding the Fearna Monastery for a rich haul. Being well upriver from the coast, this particular place had not been previously raided; the Dubh Gall under Jarl Grimarr Giant worked their dragon ships far up river to surprise the monks and work their usual destruction and pillage. On the way home, Grimarr’s ship has been delayed for emergency repairs and he is hurrying to catch his fellow “Lord of Vik-lo” Fasti Magnusson, into whose ship has been placed all the spoils of the raid. What Grimarr finds instead is Fasti’s ship under attack by several Irish curraghs under the command of minor Irish king Lorcan, who rules the lands around Vik-lo and desires to rule much, much more. Lorcan knows about the treasure and plans to have it.

Grimarr arrives in time to drive away Lorcan’s men – but not to save Fasti or his crew. The only survivor is a young Irish woman who had been captured as a slave on the raid. Even worse, the treasure is nowhere to be found.

Few things are more fun than a dragonship!
Meanwhile, our hero of the series, Thorgrim Ulfsson, also called Thorgrim Night Wolf, wants nothing more than to return to the life of a peaceful farmer in Vik, Norway. And, it looks as though he may finally achieve his desire. Readers may recall that in Dubh-lin, the second book, Thorgrim lost his longship, Red Dragon, and was forced into the life of a supplicant. However, fate intervened, and assassins were sent to kill Brigit, whose father, King Mael Sechnaill mac Ruanaid of Brega, had died in the first book. Fighting off the Dubh-gall assassins, Thorgrim, his son Harald and companion Starri the Deathless had gained a new longship he has named Fair Voyager through right of conquest. So, with Harald, Starring, his father-in-law Jarl Ornolf, and a crew made up of both survivors of his original ship and some newly recruited Norsemen from Dubh-lin, Thorgrim at last is underway for Vik by way of England across the Irish Sea.

As usual with Thorgrim, the gods have other ideas and a violent storm soon finds the Fin-gall forced to seek shelter in Vik-lo (Thorgrim has sworn to never return to Dubh-lin) where they find a suspicious but ultimately welcoming Grimarr. Thorgrim and his crew will be allowed to stay long enough to repair Fair Voyager. Grimarr remains in mourning for his two dead sons with only less favored Sandarr still living. Sandarr has schemes of his own.

Thorgrim and company soon find themselves involved in a struggle to retrieve the treasure, the location of which is known to the Irish girl to whom only Harald can communicate. Lorcan also hasn’t forgotten and plots his own scheme. Then, changing everything, Grimarr discovers a dark secret about Thorgrim’s longship and the story behind his sons’ deaths. Thorgrim and crew will soon be fighting for survival against two sets of enemies.

If you, like I, enjoy a rousing adventure involving Vikings and Irishmen, and strongly drawn characters, both admirable and despicable, you will love The Lord of Vik-lo.

I would add – since Joseph’s blog leans toward works that involve fantasy and the supernatural to a certain extent – that Thorgrim is not called “Night Wolf” for purely symbolic reasons. Whenever things seem to get really desperate – something happens.

Note: Vik-lo is now a county and town on the Irish east coast known as Wicklow, south of Dublin.

Thanks, Bill, for the review. I recently finished Finn Gall, the first book in the series, and plan to offer my take on it in the next few weeks. One thing I'll say now is that James L. Nelson is an author worth reading!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Independence Day


Some of my favorite words ever written, 239 years ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Happy July 4th to all!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My Big Problem With “Jurassic Park”

This past weekend, my daughter and I saw Jurassic World, and we both really enjoyed it. I wish I felt the same way about the original Jurassic Park when I saw it in 1993, but I didn’t. I had a big problem with that film. Here’s why.

I had no beef with Jurassic World - it's a very fun film!
I recognize that Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is a beloved movie that won a lot of awards, and many people have fond memories of seeing it. For those much younger than I, it was a life-changing event, sort of like Star Wars was to me as a kid. But I saw the film as an adult fan of Michael Crichton, having read everything he had written up to that point. Decades later, Crichton’s Jurassic Park remains one of my all-time favorite novels. With the story Crichton wrote, Spielberg had the opportunity to create a truly great film. But instead, for reasons I will never understand, he chose to eliminate one of the single most important elements of any story – the antagonist. 

Perhaps my expectations were too high?
Every great story needs one, and it’s been that way for thousands of years. Star Wars needed Darth Vader, just like Harry Potter needed Lord Voldemort and Gladiator needed Emperor Commodus. But who plays the antagonist in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park? 

It’s certainly not InGen’s archrival, Biosyn, who hired Newman from Seinfeld to steal some embryos. Newman gets eaten halfway through the story, and the Biosyn folks aren’t even on the island. Also, the dinosaurs were going to eventually get loose, despite whatever Biosyn did. Just ask Dr. Ian Malcolm about chaos theory.

These guys aren't the antagonists of Jurassic Park (or in the new film either).
It’s not the T-Rex either, as awesome as she was in the film. Or the velociraptors who don’t appear until the third act. Technically, they were all forms of “antagonists” since they stood in the way of the protagonists. But animals rarely make great antagonists. Their motives are never nefarious enough or human enough. Because, after all, they’re animals. 

Of course, there are exceptions like in Jaws and Alien. But in those films, the monster is always present, almost from the beginning to the end. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, however, were just minding their own business until the power went out. And once they get free, who can blame them for what they did?  

So if the dinosaurs aren’t the true antagonist, which “main” character was to blame for the story’s big problem? (Again, Newman from Seinfeld isn’t it.) Who was standing in the heroes’ way to resolution? In the movie, NO ONE. But that wasn’t the case in the book.

One of my favorite books of all time!
Crichton’s novel had a very well-crafted and despicable antagonist who was to blame for the story’s problem. His name was John Hammond. Yes, the man Spielberg portrayed as a Santa Clause-like grandpa. He was never a threat to anyone, just a dotting, old, rich man who regretted putting his grandchildren in harm’s way. 

The real John Hammond – the one Crichton created as an essential piece of his story – is a cold and ruthless businessman tinkering with nature like Dr. Frankenstein. When he thinks about his grandchildren, it’s always “those damned kids!” The book’s Hammond is so blinded by greed he can’t see that it’s dangerous to play God, which is exactly what he does by bringing dinosaurs back after so many millions of years. In fact, that’s the entire point of the story. 

Here’s a snippet of dialogue from the book’s Hammond that sums up his motives:
“This is our triumph, this park. We have done what we set out to do. And, you remember, our original intent was to use the newly emerging technology of genetic engineering to make money. A lot of money. … If you were going to start a bioengineering company, Henry, what would you do? Would you make products to help mankind, to fight illness and disease? Dear me, no. That’s a terrible idea. A very poor use of new technology.”
In the end, Hammond comes face to face with his own creation: a pack of chicken-sized dinosaurs called compys who promptly devour their creator. Hammond’s demise is symbolic and drives home the book’s theme. If Spielberg’s Hammond had played this same role, the film would have been so much richer and better than what ultimately made it onto the screen.

Indominus Rex is a true antagonist!
All this said, I loved seeing the dinosaurs brought to life in Jurassic Park, and it’s clear that the strides Spielberg made in terms of special effects paved the way for more than twenty years of cinema. But when I compare it to the book, the movie falls short.

Fortunately, Jurassic World does not make this same mistake. There is both a human antagonist and a monster antagonist done right. At times, some of the scenes with the monster (a genetically engineered killing machine called Indominus Rex) even reminded me of Alien. They were that well done. It may have taken twenty-two years, but in Jurassic World we finally get a real antagonist. And we come close to getting the story Jurassic Park could have been.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Monday, June 15, 2015

Dead May Not Be “Dead” on “Game of Thrones”

The entire Game of Thrones watching world is talking about last night’s season finale. So here are my thoughts. Obviously, huge *SPOILERS* to follow if you missed last night’s show.


Last night, Jon Snow played the role of Julius Caesar, apparently stabbed to death by the brothers of the Night’s Watch. Kit Harrington, who plays Jon Snow, has already said that the character is gone, and showrunner Dan Weiss has said the same, noting that “dead is dead” on Game of Thrones. Except when it’s not.

Now, Jon’s “death” happens similarly in A Dance With Dragons, so I’ve had lots of time to think this through. Here’s my theory on why we haven’t seen the last of Jon Snow.

Let me begin by stating one huge assumption – that the show’s writers will not fundamentally deviate for the core of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. If they do, all bets are off. But so far, despite the fact the show has deviated in numerous ways from the books, it has never strayed from the core plot. Every major event that is core to the books, including the deaths of Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark, Dany’s dragons emerging from the stone eggs, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, the fate of the Wildlings and the White Walkers beyond The Wall, has all happened on the show. I cannot imagine the show changing the fundamental story, even if they stick Sansa in Winterfell for a time or have Jaime travel to Dorne.

I have to believe HBO won't deviate from the story's core.
This assumption held true after last night’s episode too. Again, with the exception of Sansa, nearly every character is where they need to be at the end of A Dance With Dragons. Daenerys is surrounded by Dothraki while Drogon takes a nap. Cersei is back in the Red Keep. Sam and Gilly are heading to Old Town. Theon has escaped from Winterfell. Tyrion is in Meereen (he’s nearly there by the end of the book), and Jaime is back to a place where his story could resume as normal if the writers so choose. So could Brienne’s, for that matter, even though she’s taken a detour on the show.

Most importantly, however, Jon is where he ends up at the end of A Dance With Dragons – and so is Melisandre. She’s back at Castle Black, just where she needs to be.

Could she be Jon's salvation?
In A Dance With Dragons, Melisandre never leaves Castle Black, and in fact she takes a rather strong interest in Jon Snow – so much so that we’re left to wonder if she suspects he might be the savior foretold by her Lord of Light, Azor Ahai reborn, instead of Stanis Baratheon. At one point she even thinks: “I pray for a glimpse of Azor Ahai, and R’hllor shows me only Snow.” 

So what does this mean? Well, first and foremost, let’s remember that A Song of Ice and Fire is epic fantasy. Everything appears to be leading up to a ginormous battle between the White Walkers and the saviors of mankind, and like every epic, the story’s going to need a hero or two. Now, Daenerys is obviously one of those heroes, and her three dragons will undoubtedly play a big role in the epic conflict to come. But everything we’ve seen about Jon Snow suggests he is one of those heroes too. This is likely one reason George R.R. Martin has coyly stated in reference to Jon Snow, “Oh, you think he’s dead, do you?” 

I simply have to believe Martin has more planned for Jon. Otherwise, the only point of his death is to leave The Wall without a leader, virtually guaranteeing the White Walkers will overtake it soon. And even if this is part of Martin’s plan, all he needs is for Jon to be “dead” for a while – until the savior needs to return. So assuming that Martin still has big plans for Jon Snow in A Song of Ice and Fire, and that the show’s writers won’t deviate from Martin’s core plot, I suspect Jon will be back before the series wraps up in Season 7.

As for how Jon will survive, we can only speculate. But there’s plenty of magic in the world of Game of Thrones to allow this to happen. First, we know that the priests of R’hllor can raise the dead. Thoros of Myr did this to Beric Dondorion on the show and in the books (resurrecting him numerous times). Thoros also resurrects Caitlyn Stark at the end of A Storm Of Swords, turning her into Lady Stoneheart. So, with Melisandre back in Castle Black, resurrection remains a possibility. And, even if she doesn’t make Jon rise from the dead (an outcome that might be inconsistent with Kit Harrington’s comments that he’s not going to be in Season 6), maybe she can preserve his body until the time it’s needed again (say, in Season 7 – Harrington, noticeably, did not mention Season 7 in his interview with EW).

Or might Ghost save the day?
Second, Jon, like his brother Bran, has the power to transfer his consciousness into his direwolf (just like Bran does with Summer, and later Hodor). This is revealed for Jon in the second book, A Clash Of Kings, and he “wargs” into Ghost in A Dance With Dragons as well. Further, it’s revealed in the prologue to A Dance With Dragons that when one of these skinchangers is dying, they can survive by “warging” or transferring their consciousness into the animal they control. In fact, the prologue makes explicit reference to Snow from the point-of-view of a Wildling skinchanger named Varamyr Sixskins:
“He had known what Snow was the moment he saw the great white direwolf stalking silent at his side. One skinchanger can always sense another.”
A few pages later, Varamyr is slain but his conscious flees into a wolf, allowing him to survive. Why would Martin make that explicit connection between a skinchanger and Jon Snow if it wasn’t supposed to play some role in the grander scheme of A Song of Ice and Fire? That’s one reason it’s completely feasible that Jon Snow’s consciousness might live on in the mind of his dire wolf, Ghost. In fact, as he’s getting stabbed in the book, Jon whispers the word “Ghost.” 

And here’s some more evidence. When Melisandre sees a vision of Jon Snow in the flames, this is what she sees:
“His long face floated before her, limned in tongues of red and orange, appearing and disappearing again, a shadow half-seen behind a fluttering curtain. Now he was a man, now a wolf, now a man again . . .”
A man, then wolf, then a man again. Sounds like a prophecy to me. And, as any reader of fantasy fiction knows, prophesies usually come true. Therefore, I think it is possible Jon may reside in Ghost for a while before returning to human form to help save the day. This certainly would not be inconsistent with the genre of epic fantasy. But again, this assumes the show’s writers plan to stay true to Martin’s master plan. Yet I still believe that’s the case.

This stare has to mean something.
In fact, even the show has foreshadowed an epic battle that will involve Jon Snow before it’s done. Just think back to that scene in “Hardhome” where the lead White Walker has that stare down with Jon. That was a classic “you and I will fight mano y mano someday” kind of stare. Why promise that if Jon’s going to truly bite the dust two episodes later? And why reveal that Jon’s sword just happens to be one that can kill a White Walker in a single strike? No one else I can think of is going to swing that sword when the epic battle reaches its climax. 

No one but Jon Snow.


* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes and westeros.org.