Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Wind Through The Keyhole

My summer reading has gotten off to great start, and one book I finished very quickly was Stephen King’s new entry in his Dark Tower series, The Wind Through The Keyhole. It was a tremendously fun read, and my review follows this image of the book’s cover.

Within the novel’s first two pages, I found myself transported back to Mid-World with Roland and his ka-tet as if I had never left them. There is something spellbinding about King’s writing that has that effect. King calls this book Dark Tower volume 4.5 because it takes place immediately after the events in Book 4, Wizard and Glass, and ends right before the heroes reach Calla Bryn Sturgis, the setting for Book 5, Wolves of the Calla.

While the novel begins with Roland (the gunslinger) and his friends travelling along the path of the beam, it quickly shifts to a flashback tale about the young Roland who we got to know in the long flashback sequence in Wizard and Glass. This story begins shortly after the end of the Wizard and Glass flashback, and has Roland and a fellow gunslinger named Jamie chasing down a skin-man – a shape-shifter that’s committing widespread murder in a nearby town. Like Wizard and Glass, the story has the feel of an old western tale with the supernatural trimmings of the Dark Tower world King has so beautifully created. The tale of the skin-man is full of suspense and perfectly executed. King could write a dozen more flashback stories about the young Roland and I would buy them all.

Embedded in the flashback story, however, is a whole other tale called The Wind Through The Keyhole. Although it’s narrated by Roland, The Wind Through The Keyhole is a story his mother told him about events long ago (“Once upon a bye, long before your grandfather’s grandfather was born ...”). The story, about a boy named Tim who must survive with his mother after his father’s sudden death, is steeped in Dark Tower mythology and has almost a fairy-tale feel about it. In this sense, it reminded me a lot of another Stephen King novel, The Eyes of the Dragon. There ‘s even an appearance by Randall Flagg, if I’m not mistaken. The story is wonderfully engaging on its own, and after it ends, we still get to learn the fate of young Roland and the skin-man. The novel is shorter than King’s last several installments in the Dark Tower series (only 307 pages in hardback) and is a very quick read that reminds us how special King’s Dark Tower books truly are. I hope this book is not the last, for I’m certain there are more great stories about the young Roland that remain to be told!

Monday, June 25, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #19

For this week’s “beginning” I chose the opening passage from Richard Matheson’s 1954 masterpiece I Am Legend. When I first read this novel, I couldn’t put it down. The book is far better than the film adaptation from a few years ago (though the movie’s change in setting from California to New York City made for some great visuals). Here’s how it begins:

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. 
If he had been more analytical, he might have calculated the approximate time of their arrival; but he still used the lifetime habit of judging nightfall by the sky, and on cloudy days that method didn’t work. That was why he chose to stay near the house on those days. 
He walked around the house in the dull gray of afternoon, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, trailing threadlike smoke over his shoulder. He checked each window to see if any of the boards had been loosened. After violent attacks, the planks were often split or partially pried off, and he had to replace them completely; a job he hated. Today only one plank was loose. Isn’t that amazing? he thought.
– Richard Matheson, I Am Legend

I think this has all the elements of a great beginning: a strong hint of conflict, writing that sets the tone and mood for the story, and a character stuck in an interesting and somewhat mysterious situation. From here, the book just gets better and better until its unpredictable end. But let me know your view – what do you think about the beginning of I Am Legend?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

An Interview with Author Ben Kane

As part of the Virtual Author Book Tour for the new novel Spartacus the Gladiator, I am fortunate to feature an interview with the book’s author, Ben Kane! You can check out my review of Spartacus the Gladiator here.
Ben Kane, author of Spartacus the Gladiator
Your novel is coming out after three successful seasons of the Starz series about Spartacus, beginning with 2010’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Did this series influence your own creative process?

I’m happy to say that it didn’t. I watched the first two episodes of Series One, but quickly stopped because I didn’t want it to affect how I wrote the books. (I watched the prequel series and Series One after I finished the two books, and enjoyed them.)

Did your appreciation for the historical figure of Spartacus grow as you were writing the novel?

Absolutely. Before I did my research on him, I had not appreciated the true scale of his achievements. Escaping from the gladiator school with so few companions, but still able to defeat 3,000 soldiers who were sent against him. Recruiting and training an army of slaves that was tens of thousands strong and defeating so many of the legions in set piece battles. He was an incredible leader.

Ariadne plays a prominent role as Spartacus’ companion in the ludus and during his slave rebellion. How much of her character and her journey was based on actual history?

Sadly, we know almost nothing about Spartacus’ woman/wife. She was a real person, and a priestess of Dionysus. She was with him in Italy, and she interpreted his dream about the snake. Other than that, I had to make her story up. I hope that readers think I did a good job!

Another interesting character in the novel is Carbo, a Roman who falls on hard times and joins the ludus as an auctoratus, sort of a gladiator for hire. What inspired you to feature him so prominently in the story?

Two reasons. The first is that usually I prefer to use main characters who are not true-to-life major historical people. Having Spartacus as a main protagonist was a first for me. Carbo is the manifestation of my usual method. He is also someone I used to show Spartacus’ heroism from another view: in other words, we can see that Spartacus is the man not just because he says so, but because Carbo sees how incredible a warrior/leader etc. he is.

How much research goes into a novel like Spartacus the Gladiator?

A lot! Say about two dozen textbooks plus the skim reading of many more. Months of work. Fortunately, I have written an (unrelated) Roman trilogy set less than 20 years after Spartacus’ rebellion, so I was able to use an awful lot of information that I had researched for that.

One of the topics that generates a lot of comments from readers on this blog concerns the issue of artistic license in historical fiction. In your view, how far should an author take artistic license for the sake of crafting good historical fiction?

An interesting question, and one that divides readers! I think that if an author wants to write historical fiction, then it’s important to stick as close to the ‘facts’ as possible.* Where the author doesn’t stick to the facts, it’s good to acknowledge where, when and why she/he chose to deviate. Authors are completely entitled to move much further away from the facts if they wish, but too far and I think they’re straying into alternate history/historical fantasy. That said, if the story requires the facts to be twisted or bent a little, then they shouldn’t get in the way of the tale.

* I used inverted commas around the word ‘facts’ so that I could make the point that just about all historical information we have can be open to debate – especially when they’re from ancient times. For example, the only records we have of Spartacus were written by Romans, or men who supported Rome. No one from Spartacus’ side got to record their story. In other words, what we have been left with are very partisan accounts, whose veracity has to be questioned, at least a little.

I think his last point is a good one. It's worth mentioning that Spartacus the Gladiator contains an excellent Author's Note (Historical Note) at the end. Thanks to Ben Kane for the interview and best of luck with Spartacus the Gladiator!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Spartacus the Gladiator

Thanks to the kind folks at St. Martin’s Press and Virtual Author Book Tours, I received an advance copy of Ben Kane’s new novel, Spartacus the Gladiator. I was eager to read it because Spartacus is a fascinating historical figure and I’ve been a big fan of the Starz series ever since Spartacus: Blood and Sand. I enjoyed Spartacus the Gladiator, and my review follows this image of the book’s cover.

In the novel, Spartacus is a Thracian and veteran of the Roman legions who studies their tactics in the hope of going home and leading his own army against the hated Romans. When he returns to Thrace, however, Spartacus learns a usurper has killed the king, as well as his own father, and seized the throne. Spartacus plots a rebellion, but when the king discovers his plans, Spartacus is captured and sold to a Roman slaver. Despite this setback, Spartacus gains an unlikely companion in Ariadne, a priestess of Dionysus who offers to join him in slavery in order to escape the lecherous king who longs to rape her.

The fact that Ariadne goes with Spartacus and remains his companion throughout his slave rebellion is the first of several surprises in the novel. Another surprise is Carbo, a Roman teenager who joins the ludus (gladiator school) in Capua as an auctoratus (sort of a gladiator for hire) after his family falls on hard times. Though he ultimately joins Spartacus’ rebellion, Carbo becomes torn between his sympathies for his fellow Romans and his loyalty to Spartacus, one of the few people who believes in him.

Once in Capua, the novel tracks the historical story of Spartacus, from his gladiator revolt and escape from the ludus, to his massive slave rebellion against the Romans. Less than a third of the novel takes place in Capua, and the ludus’ owner, Lentulus Batiatus, is at best a minor villain. The primary antagonists are the Roman generals and their armies, which Spartacus and his gladiators take on from Mount Vesuvius to central Italy, and here’s where the novel really shines. The large scale battle scenes are the highlight, and the author does a great job of showing us events from both Spartacus’ and the Romans’ point-of view.

There is more to the novel than just gladiators versus the Romans, however, as Spartacus faces equally dangerous enemies in his own ranks while trying to hold together an army of Thracians, Gauls, and Germans. Crixus and Oenomaus – historical gladiators with whom readers may be familiar from other versions of the Spartacus story – play prominent roles in the novel, as does Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, who is charged with ending the slave rebellion. The novel never gets to the climactic battle between Crassus and Spartacus as this is the first book of what the author suggests will be a two book series. But Spartacus the Gladiator stands on its own, and in the end proves to be a bloody good read!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Spartacus News!

Earlier this month, Starz announced it will conclude its Emmy nominated Spartacus series next year. The final season, titled Spartacus: War of the Damned, will premier in January 2013. I have loved the series so far, ranking it just behind HBO’s Game of Thrones in terms of quality. And while I understand the producers’ desire to end the season while it’s still popular, I have a hard time believing they will be able to cover the rest of the Spartacus story in just ten or so episodes.

This past season, Spartacus: Vengeance, covered the portion of Spartacus’ slave rebellion that takes place after the Capuan revolt (the topic of season one, Spartacus: Blood and Sand) through the slaves’ refuge on Mount Vesuvius, ending in a spectacular battle with the Roman praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber. This battle, however, was really just the first of many famous battles fought by Spartacus and his army during what historians call the Third Servile War.

The historical Spartacus went on the defeat Roman forces led by another praetor and several consular legions until suffering defeat at the hands of Marcus Licinius Crassus, who later became part of the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Julius Caesar. Spartacus’ battles took place in various locations throughout Italy over a number of years. I doubt the producers are going to cram all of this into one season unless they cut out big chunks of history or end the series before the conclusion of the historical story of Spartacus. But as a fan of the series, I hope they pull it off, however they choose to end it.

In other Spartacus news, on Saturday, June 23, I’ll be reviewing Spartacus the Gladiator, a new novel by author Ben Kane. Then, on June 24, I’ll feature an interview with the author himself! So be sure to check back this weekend at Fresh-scraped Vellum. And in the meantime, if you have any thoughts on the upcoming and final season of the Starz series on Spartacus, I’d love to hear them.

Monday, June 18, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #18

After seven weeks of vintage fantasy beginnings, I’m looking to a more recent novel for today’s “Beginning” of the Week: Jo Graham’s 2008 novel Black Ships. This novel is a re-imagination of The Aeneid, and you can read my review of it here.

You must know that, despite all else I am, I am of the People. My grandfather was a boatbuilder in the Lower City. He built fishing boats, my mother said, and once worked on one of the great ships that plied the coast and out to the islands. My mother was his only daughter. She was fourteen and newly betrothed when the City fell. 
The soldiers took her in the front room of the house while her father’s body cooled in the street outside. When they were done with her she was brought out to where the ships were beached outside the ring of our harbor, and the Achaians drew lots for her with the other women of the City. 
She fell to the lot of the Old King of Pylos and was brought across the seas before the winter storms made the trip impossible. She was ill on the vessel, but thought it was just the motion of the ship. By the time she got to Pylos it was clear that it was more than that.
– Jo Graham, Black Ships

This beginning hints of conflict and sets the tone for the novel, which takes place after the fall of Troy. The main character is interesting, but it takes a little longer than the first three paragraphs to get to know her. But that’s just my view. Let me know what you think about the beginning of Black Ships!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Narrative Viewpoint and The Hunger Games

I didn’t plan on a fifth post in my series on Narrative Viewpoint: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly until I read an article on The Passive Voice about why some believe The Hunger Games movie was better than Suzanne Collins' novel, in part because of narrative viewpoint (note, the Passive Guy was reporting on an original post on Storyfix). Here's the rationale after this image of the book’s cover:

THG was told in rigid first person. This was Collins’ choice. We see nothing that transpires beyond the curtain of her hero’s awareness. Which limits the ability to fully understand the motives and Machiavellian cruelty of the folks who are pulling the strings of the Games themselves. 
The more we understand that, the more emotion we’re likely to invest. This is what the filmmakers knew, and why they changed the story. 
In the book we only get a historical overview from Katniss’s POV. We never meet President Snow or the head Gamekeeper. We never see the machinations of folks with crazy facial hair pulling levers that result in fires and parachute deliveries and digital hounds from hell ....
I enjoyed The Hunger Games novel (you can check out my review here), but the above argument fits perfectly with what I’ve written on first-person point-of-view. It is an incredibly limiting viewpoint, and it necessarily eliminates all those great scenes from the bad guy’s perspective. Again, try to imagine Stephen King’s The Stand without all those scenes involving Randall Flagg. It would be an inferior novel. (Incidentally, you can read Mr. King's review of The Hunger Games here.)

Now, whether The Hunger Games would have been better if it had been written in third-person limited – which would have revealed some story events from the bad guy’s POV – is a matter of opinion. But it illustrates perfectly the significant considerations an author must weigh in deciding upon the best narrative viewpoint for his or her story. If you have an opinion on the narrative viewpoint used in The Hunger Games, post a comment and let me know.

Monday, June 11, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #17

I’m concluding my series on the “beginnings” of vintage fantasy fiction with Tolkien—after all, where would the genre be without him? I’ve already written on the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, which I thought was quite good. But does the opening of The Two Towers hold up as well?

Aragorn sped on up the hill. Every now and again he bent to the ground. Hobbits go light, and their footprints are not easy even for a Ranger to read, but not far from the top a spring crossed the path, and in the wet earth he saw what he was seeking. 
“I read the signs aright,” he said to himself. “Frodo ran to the hill-top. I wonder what he saw there? But he returned by the same way, and went down the hill again.” 
Aragorn hesitated. He desired to go to the high seat himself, hoping to see there something that would guide him in his perplexities; but time was pressing. Suddenly he leaped forward, and ran to the summit, across the great flag-stones, and up the steps. Then sitting in the high seat he looked out. But the sun seemed darkened, and the world dim and remote. He turned from the North back again to North, and saw nothing save the distant hills, unless it were that far away he could see again a great bird like an eagle high in the air, descending slowly in wide circles down toward the earth. 
Even as he gazed his quick ears caught sounds in the woodlands below, on the west side of the River. He stiffened. There were cries, and among them, to his horror, he could distinguish the harsh voices of Orcs. Then suddenly with a deep-throated call a great horn blew, and the blasts of it smote the hills and echoed in the hollows, rising in a mighty shout above the roaring of the falls.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers 
This passage reminded me that Boromir doesn’t actually meet his end until the beginning of The Two Towers, though I agree with Peter Jackson’s decision to do it differently in the movies. Regardless, does the way Tolkien opened this book make for a great beginning?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Narrative Viewpoint: Third-Person Ugly

In the final installment of my series on Narrative Viewpoint: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, I’d like to talk about the “viewpoint” that annoys me the most. In fact, I question whether it’s even a legitimate narrative point-of-view at all. It’s what I call “third-person ugly”—not quite third-person limited or third-person omniscient, but some monstrous thing in between.

This "narrative viewpoint" is downright monstrous!
This thing creeps up on you. There is no obvious omniscient narrator or storyteller that signals to the reader that the story is told from the third-person omniscient point-of-view. No, this one, at first blush, looks and feels like third-person limited, one of the best narrative viewpoints. For those who missed my last post, in third-person limited each scene is told through a single character’s point-of-view. The reader can only experience the scene from that character’s vantage and the only internal thoughts the reader is privy to belong to that single viewpoint character. The author isn’t prohibited from switching viewpoints to that of other characters, but these shifts only happen after a scene break or chapter break. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels are examples of this viewpoint done to perfection.

Understand third-person: read George R.R. Martin!
In the ugly version of third-person, however, the story begins with a scene from a single character’s point-of-view, just like third-person limited, but then mid-scene—without warning—the viewpoint shifts into the mind of a different character. Then it shifts back to the first character or even worse into a third or fourth character’s skull. Some might consider this another form of third-person omniscient, but it doesn’t read that way from the start, and that’s the problem.

By beginning the story in the most intimate of the third-person viewpoints, the author has made a certain covenant with the reader that, yes, this will be a third-person limited story! But then the author suddenly—and inexplicably—breaks that covenant by shattering the intimate bond between the reader and the character. Just when we thought we were getting to know the character—wham!—we’re forced into someone else’s head!

Every time I see this in a novel it reminds me of the movie The Matrix. Being in the story world is like being plugged into the Matrix through a single character’s point of view. Let’s say it’s Neo. We’re rocking along in Neo’s mind, following his actions though the story when suddenly, back on the Nebuchadnezzar, someone rips the plug out of Neo’s head and tries to plug it into Trinity’s head. For an instant we’re disconnected from the Matrix; we’ve been thrown out of the story. And as soon as we get back there, we’re wondering: What happened, who am I?

Don't unplug the reader from the Matrix!
Of course, so long as the story is otherwise well-written, I suppose we can sometimes overlook these unexpected viewpoint shifts. But the effect is still jarring, which makes me question how in the world this can ever be a good thing.

So here’s my view: Unless a writer is going to risk everything with a true third-person omniscient point-of-view—and I mean risk everything since this can be the worst viewpoint of all when it’s not executed masterfully—then just stick to third-person limited and play by the rules. No shifting viewpoints until after a scene break or chapter break. Period.

Monday, June 4, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #16

Any series on the “beginnings” of vintage fantasy fiction has to acknowledge the work of Robert E. Howard and his stories involving Conan the Barbarian. Howard published most of his stories in the 1930s as novelettes in magazines such as Weird Tales. Later, in the 1960s, many of these stories were compiled into novel-length books, often with additional Conan stories written by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and others. For today’s beginning, however, I’m sticking with one of Howard’s originals, the opening passage of his 1934 novelette Queen of the Black Coast:

Hoofs drummed down the street that sloped to the wharfs. The folk that yelled and scattered had only a fleeting glimpse of a mailed figure on a black stallion, a wide scarlet cloak flowing out on the wind. Far up the street came the shout and clatter of pursuit, but the horseman did not look back. He swept out onto the wharfs and jerked the plunging stallion back on its haunches at the very lip of the pier. Seamen gaped up at him, as they stood to the sweep and striped sail of a high-prowed, broad-waisted galley. The master, sturdy and black-bearded, stood in the bows, easing her away from the piles with a boat hook. He yelled angrily as the horseman sprang from the saddle and with a long leap landed squarely on the mid-deck. 
“Who invited you aboard?” 
“Get under way!” roared the intruder with a fierce gesture that spattered red drops from his broadsword. 
“But we’re bound for the coasts of Kush!” expostulated the master. 
“Then I’m for Kush! Push off, I tell you!” The other cast a quick glance up the street, along which a squad of horsemen were galloping; far behind them toiled a group of archers, crossbows on their shoulders.

– Robert E. Howard, Queen of the Black Coast

My copy of Queen of the Black Coast came from the 1969 book Conan of Cimmeria.
No one can fault this beginning for a lack of conflict! Indeed, it’s almost hard to believe this was written nearly 80 years ago, but maybe this is one of the reasons Howard’s stories have become such classics. As always, however, I’m curious as to your thoughts – does this passage have the making of a great beginning?