Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book Review: Devil’s Lair

This week I finished reading Devil’s Lair by David Wisehart, a historical fantasy novel that’s part grail quest, and part return to Dante’s Inferno. It’s an engaging read, and my full review follows this image of the book’s cover.

Part Grail Quest, Part Return to Dante's Inferno.

The premise of Devil’s Lair is that Dante’s account of his travels through Hell in Inferno was basically a true story. Now, the devil has seized the holy grail, and its absence on earth is bringing about the End of Days as the Black Death spreads across Europe in 1349 A.D. A quartet of pilgrims lead by William of Ockham, the famous (and historical) friar and philosopher, undertakes a quest to find the gateway to Hell and retrieve the grail. With him are Nadja, a young German woman accused of witchcraft because she was born with the power to see the future, and Giovanni Boccaccio, the famous (and historical) Italian poet who is an expert on Dante and is expected to guide them through the underworld. The fourth member of their party is Marco da Roma, a former Knight Templar who they find left for dead on a battlefield, suffering from a serious bout of amnesia.

William of Ockham helped inspire William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose.*

The first part of the story, and frankly my favorite part of the novel, takes place in Italy, where the pilgrims are trying to get to Avenrus, a gateway to the underworld according to Virgil in the Aeneid. The problem is that Marco has no intention of joining them, and this provides the conflict for the first half of the story. The pilgrims’ travels through Italy take them to Rome and Padua, the home of Petrarch, the most famous poet of the time, who possesses an artifact the pilgrims will need if they’re to survive a journey through Hell. I found the scenes set in medieval Italy to be well-crafted, and they anchored what otherwise could have been a purely fantasy tale to a real and important period of history.

The second half of the story takes place in the nine circles of Hell, a setting based literally on Dante’s Inferno, complete with all of its monstrous denizens. There are a number of exciting scenes in the underworld, but in between these, the story slows down for scenes where each of the main characters learns something about themselves and their past. At times, this felt like reading a condensed version of Dante’s epic poem, but the author pulls it off and the ending contains enough of a twist to make the whole journey worthwhile.

In addition to being a Dante expert, Boccaccio was quite the ladies' man!**

One minor point: Similar to Loki, which I reviewed earlier this month, it was difficult in Devil’s Lair to identify the story’s protagonist. One of the reasons is that the author gives each of the four characters relatively equal time as a viewpoint character (using a third-person limited point-of-view). I’ve always felt that the protagonist should have the majority of scenes from his or her viewpoint. That way, the reader will always know whose story it’s supposed to be. In the case of Devil’s Lair, I think the protagonist is Giovanni Boccaccio, but it very well could be Marco da Roma. If you’ve read the novel, I’d be interest in your opinion – who is the protagonist in Devil’s Lair?

* Photo credit Moscarlop.

** Photo credit JoJan.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Wayward Herald: Awaiting the End of NaNoWriMo

The Wayward Herald remains convinced that the number of interesting blog posts on which to comment decreases substantially during National Novel Writing Month. Fortunately, that will soon end, and that is one thing for which the Wayward Herald is thankful this week.

Dante looks back on Purgatory at the end of NaNoWriMo.
The Wayward Herald is also thankful for the folks at Sci-Fi Bloggers, who have not only guest-posted on Fresh-scraped Vellum, but continue to publish interesting content during NaNoWriMo! This week, they published a post on the Top 5 Game of Thrones Characters (from the HBO series). For me, it’s a close call between Tyrion Lannister and Arya Stark, but in the end, and by a hair, I’m going with Arya! (I’d make the same call for A Clash of Kings, by the way.)

Sci-Fi Bloggers also posted a review of The Amazing Spiderman, which was released on DVD this month. I thought it was absurd that the Spiderman franchise was being rebooted just five years after the Tobey Maguire series ended. And while that remains absurd, I pretty much share the view of Sci-Fi Bloggers when it comes to this film.

Also, author Dean Wesley Smith published an article titled The New World of Publishing: Some Perspective on 2012, about changes in the publishing industry over the past year. It’s a must-read for writers.

Finally, Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist featured a teaser for Season 3 of Game of Thrones. I can hardly wait!

Until next week, good tidings and good day!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving, 1621 Style!

Growing up, I never paid much attention to the origin of Thanksgiving. Other than what I may have learned from elementary school, all I ever recall knowing was that it was a big feast between the pilgrims and the Native Americans sometime after the English landed at Plymouth Rock. Only in the past few years did I become interested in what really happened at the first Thanksgiving. Like many an adventure, it all started with a few bottles of wine ...

Thanksgiving, 1621, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Not that the pilgrims drank wine at the first Thanksgiving (at least by any accounts I’ve read, although they did have some beer), but the several bottles my friends and family drank a few years ago, after another gut-busting Thanksgiving dinner, inspired us to do some research into the origin of Thanksgiving. (That’s also how we discovered the role Squanto played in all of this, but more on him in a moment.)

Apparently there are only two written accounts of the first Thanksgiving, which was celebrated in 1621 as a harvest feast by the English colonists at Plymouth and the Wampanoag, a Native American tribe. Turkey, it turns out, was not the centerpiece of the meal, although one of the two written accounts referenced a “great store of wild turkeys.” The main course appeared to be venison, but there is also reference to waterfowl and “Indian corn.”

The interesting part of the meal is what was not eaten, at least according to an article in The Smithsonian Magazine. There were no potatoes or sweet potatoes, because white potatoes originated in South America and sweet potatoes came from the Caribbean, and neither had apparently made it to North America by 1621. The colonists also lacked butter and wheat flour, so there was no pumpkin pie. Among things they probably did eat were fish, eels, and shellfish (like lobster, clams, and mussels), which were staples for the Wampanoag and the colonists.

But this feast may never have occurred if it were not for a Patuxet Native American named Tisquantum, commonly known as Squanto. He served as an interpreter for the colonists, taught them how to grow corn, and showed them the best places to catch fish and eel, which helped them survive their first winter at Plymouth. He also helped negotiate a peace treaty between the colonists and the Wampanoag in March of 1621. Without this, I suspect there would not have been a first Thanksgiving.

A drawing of Squanto – I imagine he dressed more warmly in the winter of 1621!

Squanto’s backstory was less than idyllic. He was captured twice by the English and forced to leave behind his wife and child. During his first captivity in 1605, he was taken to England along with several other native Americans, where his captor, Capt. George Weymouth, wanted to display them for his financial backers, who were interested in seeing some natives from the New World. In England, Squanto learned the language and apparently became the consort of an English woman. By 1613, he was hired as a guide for an expedition to New England, and returned to the New World with the famous explorer John Smith.

This is the same John Smith who was saved by Pocahontas in 1607 and 1608.

But Squanto’s time back in Plymouth, where the Patuxet tribe lived, did not last long. Once Smith went north on another expedition, one of his lieutenants, a Capt. Thomas Hunt, decided to kidnap Squanto and twenty-six other Native Americans and sell them into slavery. Hunt sailed to Spain, where he hoped to sell his captives for twenty pounds each. When some local friars discovered Hunt’s plans, they took possession of Squanto and his brethren, hoping to convert them to Christianity. Squanto ended up living with the monks until 1618, when he found his way back to London, and then to a ship headed to the New World.

Upon returning home, Squanto discovered that his entire Patuxet tribe had died from the plague (believed to be smallpox, a disease introduced to the New World by Europeans). Despite all of this mistreatment and misfortune, he stayed and helped the colonists until he died of fever in 1622. According to one account, the Massachusetts governor at the time called Squanto a “special instrument sent by God for their good beyond their expectations.”

So, this Thanksgiving, my family and friends are going a bit more historical. There will be venison and some lobster, and turkey of course. (I suspect mashed potatoes will be in order too, only because my friends and family might never forgive me if I eliminate them for the sake of historical purity.) There will also be more wine, and probably a few mixed drinks – including a special concoction that we intend to dedicate to Squanto.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Top Shelf of My Bookshelf

The other day I was looking at the top shelf of my bookshelf and realized it contains a number of beautiful hardcover books, but they’re not necessarily my favorite novels (due, in part, to the fact that I keep my Bernard Cornwell novels together, and every book I own of The Warlord Chronicles are all paperbacks, so they reside on the second shelf). That said, what’s on the top shelf of my bookshelf? We’ll, here it is, from left to right, and draw whatever conclusions you may:

One of the greatest fantasy novels ever?
Numero UnoThe Stand, by Stephen King, one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written. I adore this book, but why it’s number one on my shelf, I have no idea. (Perhaps, because it’s so thick and can hold up all the other books?)

The Stand is followed by the entire Dark Tower series, from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger to The Dark Tower, including The Wind Through The Keyhole. In my view, this is one of the greatest journey tales ever written, and one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read. Wizard and Glass may be the pinnacle, but all the others are excellent, and The Gunslinger remains one of my all-time favorite novels.

The Arcanum follows Stephen King on my top shelf. I love this book, which most of you may not have read. Though I highly recommend it!

You really should read this!
Next, I have two books from Umberto Eco: Baudolino (which I have yet to read) and The Name of the Rose, which served as part of my inspiration for my own novel, Enoch’s Device.
 
The Name of the Rose  was part of the inspiration for Enoch's Device!
After that, I have some classics: Homer’s The Odyssey and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Hard to argue with either of those.

J.K. Rowling dominates the next seven volumes, all from the Harry Potter series. It’s hard to dispute that these hardbacks are all beautiful books (the covers, I mean), and the stories are now classics in the fantasy genre.

Undeniably, Rowling has created some classics!
From there, I have three Dan Brown novels: Angels & Demons, The Da Vince Code, and The Lost Symbol (please don’t judge, I actually enjoyed reading these, though Angels & Demons was my least favorite).

The bookend on the right consists of two classic works from J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit, and a complete, hardcover volume of The Lord of the Rings with brilliant illustrations from Alan Lee. This is one of my prized possessions, and it serves as a glorious exclamation point to the top shelf of my bookshelf.

This is one beautiful book!
So, now that I’ve confessed about the top shelf of my bookshelf, I’m curious to know: What’s on the top shelf of your bookshelf?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Wayward Herald: The NaNoWriMo Effect

The concept of my early week posts under the guise of The Wayward Herald is to highlight interesting blog posts and other information I’ve encountered from the blogosphere in the prior week. But these days, there’s been a dearth of interesting posts, and I attribute that to NaNoWriMoNational Novel Writing Month – which takes place every November.

I follow a ton of writers’ blogs. But if the authors of those blogs are devoting all their time to NaNoWriMo, that explains why there may not be a lot of interesting stuff out there right now. After all, who can draft good blog posts when you’re trying to write 50,000 words in a 30-day time frame? Maybe The Wayward Herald should take the month of November off, sort of like a sabbatical.

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo. I’m fearful that I’d crank out a bunch of junk that would need endless amounts of revision. My personal writing style is a bit more deliberative. I outline my novels before I write them. (For those interested, I am fairly devoted to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! and John Truby’s The Anatomy of a Story.) And, as an author of historical fiction, I usually conduct a ton of research before I even begin my outlining. Sometimes this research can take several months, or more. This isn’t really conducive to NaNoWriMo unless you’ve finished the bulk of your research by Halloween.

Nevertheless, this week, I tip my cap to those devoted enough to embark on NaNoWriMo – may you fare well and prosper!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Kingkiller Chronciles Days 1 and 2

This week, I'm featuring my first ever guest post, a great article by Sci-Fi Bloggers about Patrick Rothfuss' fantasy series, The Kingkiller Chronicles. Sci-Fi Bloggers is an online magazine covering all things science fiction and fantasy: movies, TV, books, video games, comics and more. It's well worth reading!

Kingkiller Chronicles Day One
The eerie cover belies the rich color in Rothfuss's writing.
The fantasy genre has a hard time fitting in with most academics, and Wisconsin-native Patrick Rothfuss knows this. He teaches writing and fencing at the local college but spends the long winters writing. His breakthrough novel The Name of the Wind caught many academics offguard with its reinvention of magic in fantasy.

The Name of the Wind reads like a memoir of orphaned troubadour turned adventurer Kvothe, as he recounts the shift in his life that brought him to fame and then infamy. After the death of his family, Kvothe enrolls in The University to study sympathy, the force that connects all life and can be manipulated by those who understand it. Sympathy in Rothfuss’s world looks like magic but works like science. Rothfuss splits the way sympathy works into several different fields that could easily be equated to medicine, alchemy, metallurgy, and physics. What makes the story interesting is that Kvothe seems a natural genius at all of them.

However, the intricacies of the novels don’t revolve around Kvothe’s savant-like success but rather his stupidity-based failures. Kvothe represents the ideal in all of us, the destiny to succeed at the same time that we self-defeat. The flaws in Kvothe are what lead us to enjoy his life story, not his successes.

The characterization of both the world and people in The Kingkiller Chronicles makes this series a page-turner, but the way the story unfolds itself is really what shows the level of Rothfuss’s craft. The plot happens in reverse, as we enter the story long after Kvothe has gone into hiding and awaits his impending assassination. Even though things are happening that the reader has yet to come into, there isn’t the sense of confusion common to the in medias res technique. It’s clear that Rothfuss knows where he is going with this story; questions about what is happening prompt discovery but never get left by the wayside the way flashback story elements do in television (I’m looking at you polar bears from LOST).

Book two of the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, continues the narrative feel of the previous volume but has a bit of more of a conventional feel to it. In this book, we follow Kvothe as he takes a leave of absence from The University and tries to make a mark on the world. Kvothe finds himself on three significant adventures into the worlds of political intrigue, fairy mystery, and martial arts training. While it is fun to follow along the three and see how they interweave, the second book does carry the feel of “fan-pleasing.” At times, we get the impression that someone buzzed into Rothfuss’s ear, “wouldn’t it be cool if Kvothe also trained to be a hired assassin? Wouldn’t it?” The overall effect is that the character seems to be overcompensating for failures that actually endeared him to us in the first book. On the other side of the coin, we can see how Kvothe needs to rise high in the world in order to be set his fall in book three of the trilogy.

The dialogue in both books feels clever and fresh despite the semi-antiquated setting. The plot moves forward at just the right pace to keep things interesting without feeling breakneck. The world itself is richly detailed and enjoyable. But what truly distinguishes this series is the art woven into it. Characters take time to tell each other stories that enrich the world without feeling preachy or heavy-handed. Religions are introduced that have striking similarities to our own but don’t insist that we draw the connections. Kvothe devotes himself to music, and even without hearing it, the reader feels struck by its inclusion. Most importantly though is the development of architecture in the books; Kvothe inhabits the world in such a way that we feel that we are breathing the same dust as him and washing our hands in the same clean water. When even the facet of environment makes the reader connect with this world, you know that the book will truly take you somewhere that even the most academic mind would love to explore.

My Comment: A good friend of mine has recommended The Name of the Wind for several years now. After reading this post from Sci-Fi Bloggers, I downloaded the novel on my kindle and look forward to reading it!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Wayward Herald: Tuesday Edition

I have long been a fan of Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! as an excellent resource on storytelling, and plot in particular. This week, in preparation for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), author Bethany Myers posted an article titled Plot Like A Pro, a creative piece applying Snyder’s 15 elements of story structure to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. If you’re a writer or a Potter fan, it’s worth the read!

J.K. Rowling knew a thing or two about good plots!

This week The Passive Voice linked to a guest post on Laura Howard’s blog by author Anthea Lawson titled Is Traditional Publishing a Happily Ever After? She was a traditionally published author who is now going the indie route, and her post is quite insightful.

Meanwhile, the folks as Middle-Earth News did a great piece on the fact that Stephen Colbert is a ginormous Tolkien fan (who knew?). He even has a part in the upcoming film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Middle-Earth News also featured a new TV spot for the upcoming film, which you can view here.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell has retaken #1 fantasy ranking on Amazon, while The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern remains #1 novel in historical fantasy.

Until next week, good tidings and good day!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Loki

A while back, I was doing research on Vikings for my next novel, which will be the sequel to Enoch’s Device. In the course of that research, I spent some time on Norse mythology, since many a tenth-century Viking would have clung to the worship of Thor or Odin instead of embracing the Christian faith that was slowly spreading throughout Scandinavia. While I found several good texts on Norse mythology, I jumped at the chance to read Mike Vasich’s 2010 novel, Loki (which I only discovered recently). Loki is a masterful retelling of Norse myths, and my review follows this image of the book’s cover.

Norse mythology comes to life!

Author Mike Vasich brings Norse mythology to life in way that only a gifted storyteller could. The novel slightly reimagines the Norse legends leading up to the apocalyptic battle of Ragnar̦k, but stays basically faithful to the core mythology. The story is told through the viewpoints of several of the Norse gods, including Tyr, Freyja, Odin, and, of course, Loki, the King of Lies, whose mistreatment and exile by Odin and the other gods motivates him to bring about the Nordic version of the End of Days. In the novel, Odin is known as the Terrible One, a grim and manipulative being that lives up to his nickname. The other gods are also interesting characters Рespecially the fearsome Thor and the sensual Freyja Рas is Loki, who is both a sympathetic character and a murderous villain.

The novel reminded me a bit of some of the great, vintage fantasy tales, like Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné. But Vasich tells his story in a modern and well-written third-person limited point-of-view. The story moves at a quick pace and the battle scenes are masterfully portrayed, being some of the most exciting in the novel. On top of that, the ending is both thought-provoking and satisfying. This is a truly fantastic novel that should appeal to anyone who loves mythology, or simply a really good fantasy tale. I highly recommend it!

Is Odin the antagonist?
One more point: Loki had me thinking about a Wayward Herald post titled Who Needs A Protagonist? (which commented on a great article by Jane Lebak). If Loki is the novel’s protagonist, he is somewhat atypical, being part antihero and part villain. In this respect, he reminded me a lot of the character of Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. There are many more fitting heroes in Loki, however, including Tyr, Heimdall, and Thor, which could suggest that Loki is actually the novel’s antagonist (although, in my view, one-eyed Odin plays that role). Yet Loki’s character is the only one who seems to change by the novel’s end (and who ever said change had to be good?), so at least by many views, he would be the story’s protagonist. But for those who have read Loki, I am curious as to your opinion – is Loki the protagonist or the antagonist of the novel?