Friday, December 27, 2013

5 Things I Liked – And Didn’t Like – About The Desolation of Smaug

This past weekend, my daughter and I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second installment of Peter Jackson’s take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (you can read my review of the novel here). Unlike The Lord of the Rings, where each book in the trilogy fit nicely into its own 3-hour film, Jackson has stretched the single book of The Hobbit into three films. Here are my thoughts on part 2:

1.   Jackson Has Turned The Hobbit Into a True Prequel.

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit years before writing The Lord of the Rings, and it’s pretty clear that when he did so he didn’t have a sequel planned. It wasn’t until his publisher asked for a sequel that The Lord of the Rings was born. As a result, there is very little in The Hobbit that really sets the stage for the next three books. While it’s true that Bilbo finds the ring in the scene with Gollum, he uses it without any ill effects and with no hint that it’s one of the most evil artifacts ever created. In the film, however, Jackson has the ring already taking hold of Bilbo, and he offers more than enough hints as to the dark master who gave it its power. For example, in the Mirkwood scene with the spiders, Bilbo can only understand their speech with the ring on, and when he temporarily loses the ring, he almost loses his mind. This was very well done, and an improvement over the book (even Smaug refers to the ring as “precious,” which is a nice touch).

Also, while The Hobbit mentions a Necromancer that Gandalf must leave the expedition to go deal with, the book never covers those scenes and there’s really no hint that this necromancer is Sauron returning to Middle Earth. In the Appendix to The Lord of the Rings, however, Tolkien later makes it clear that this Necromancer of Dol Guldur was Sauron, and Jackson has drawn on this material to add an entire plotline to the movie – that of Gandalf and his fellow wizards dealing with this emerging threat. He even ties Smaug into the mix by showing that Gandalf’s whole purpose behind the dwarves’ mission is to prevent the immensely powerful dragon from falling under the control of a darker master.

The Necromancer scenes help make this a true prequel

2.  Orcs are everywhere, and there’s a bit too many of them.

One of the ways Jackson has stretched The Hobbit into three films is by adding an entire new plotline involving Azog, the “Pale Orc.” This character is referred to in just a single line of The Hobbit and never makes an appearance in the book. Jackson, by contrast, has Azog and his chief minion, Bolg, hunting down Thorin and Company wherever they go. He was used fairly well in the first film, especially by turning the tree scene with the wargs into a fitting ending to the first installment. This time, Azog is summoned by Sauron to protect Dol Guldur, and since this obviously hinders his plans to kill Thorin (the dwarf who cut off Azaog’s arm), he sends Bolg and his fellow orcs to do the job, and thereafter they infest nearly every scene in the film. The orcs are chasing the dwarves to Beorn’s house, they’re attacking the wood elves, they’re roaming the streets and rooftops of Lake-Town. They’re damn near everywhere. In fact, I was surprised they weren’t hanging out with the dragon. While some of these scenes were well done, I found the constant orc fights a bit tiring by the end.

3.  The barrel riding scene is tremendous!

That said, the scene where the dwarves escape from the wood elves in barrels was fantastic. There are water falls, rushing rivers, pursuing elves, and yes, more orcs. But this time all the action seemed to work. I cannot wait for the first amusement park to offer a simulation of this barrel ride. Seriously, someone needs to do this. It just looks too damn fun!

The end of the barrel ride offers its own reward as we’re introduced to Bard and Lake-Town. Imagine a dirty, ramshackle Venice and you’ll start to get the picture. The setting looked better than I had ever imagined after reading the book, kind of like Rivendale did when Peter Jackson brought it to life in The Lord of the Rings.

These elves are nice additions to the film!

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the addition of Legolas and the Tauriel, a female Wood Elf played by Evangeline Lily (of LOST fame), who are involved in the barrel riding scene, as well as all the Wood Elf scenes in the film. I thought both characters worked. In the lore of The Lord of the Rings, Legolas (who is not mentioned in The Hobbit) is the son of the Wood Elf king Thranduil (who does appear in The Hobbit, and is great in the film), so he naturally would have been present when Bilbo and the dwarves entered the elves’ Mirkwood realm. Tauriel, on the other hand, was a character created by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh for the film. Yet without her, the film would have no female characters because I don't believe there are any in the book. That’s one of the book’s weaker points, so her appearance in the film is a plus in my view.

4.  The ending was too abrupt, and not what I was expecting.

I went into this film believing that it would cover the entire Smaug storyline and that the third film would consist of an extended version of the Battle of the Five Armies and the resolution of the Necromancer plotline. Boy was I wrong. Instead, we get an extended chase sequence with Smaug pursuing the dwarves all around the underground city of Erebor. While much of this was well done (even if it was nothing like the scene in the novel), it dragged on. Little did I know that this scene would be the movie’s climax, only to abruptly end with Smaug leaving Erebor for Lake-Town. So now we must wait a year to wrap up Smaug’s story, and I found that a tad disappointing.

The dragon is worth the price of admission!

5.  Smaug is amazing!

Regardless of how the movie ended, the rendition of the dragon is tremendous. From its voice, to its massive wings and flaming breath, I must say that Smaug is the most incredible dragon I’ve ever seen presented in film. The dragon alone is arguably worth the price of admission.

I’m sure I’ll see the movie again when it comes out on DVD, and I’m sure my opinions on the film will continue to evolve (I ended up liking the first movie much more after watching it again). Overall, however, I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug, and look forward to finishing the series in 2014.

Speaking of the upcoming year, this marks my final blog post of 2013, but I’ll be back with another one just after the holiday. Until then, have a happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Enoch’s Device Is A Year Old – And On Sale!

December 22, 2012 marked the day Enoch’s Device was first published, so I'm celebrating its anniversary by putting the Kindle version on sale at Amazon for the next 7 days! In a recent review, Cate Peace of Indie Books R Us called it “a refreshing twist on the religious thriller, and one that will have you turning pages from cover to cover as fast as you can.” You can read her full review here. Here’s a link to the book’s Amazon page, followed by an image of the cover and a brief summary.

Nearly a thousand years after the birth of Christ, when all Europe fears that the world will soon end, an Irish monk, Brother Ciarán, discovers an ominous warning hidden in the illuminations of a religious tome. The cryptic prophecy speaks of Enoch’s device, an angelic weapon with the power to prevent the coming apocalypse.
Pursued by Frankish soldiers and supernatural forces, Ciarán and his freethinking mentor, Brother Dónall, journey to the heart of France in search of the device. There, they rescue the Lady Alais from a heretic-hunting bishop who insists mankind must suffer for its sins. Together the trio races across Europe to locate the device, which has left clues of its passage through history. But time is running out, and if they don’t find it soon, all that they love could perish at the End of Days.
Enoch’s Device is a fast-paced medieval adventure steeped in history, mythology, and mysteries from a dark and magical past.
Stephen Reynolds of SPR said Enoch's Device is a wonderfully imagined, vividly described, alternately lyrical and violent romp of a novel that should give lovers of historical fantasy just the kind of fix they're looking for.”

Marty Shaw of Reader Views wrote: “If you enjoy tales of magic and adventure that are perfectly blended with reality and history, ‘Enoch’s Device’ by Joseph Finley will be an exciting read for you.”
And (my personal favorite) author L. Marrick called it: “The most exciting book about monks I've read. ... The monks of Enoch’s Device run circles around any monk from Robin Hood. Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor? Child’s play. They’re working with ancient magical forces to thwart a corrupt, evil bishop. They’re rescuing beautiful women from being burned at the stake. They’re travelling across the medieval world to save the medieval world.”

Earlier this month I gave an interview to Ms. Peace, where I revealed a bit more about the upcoming sequel – you can read it here.  Also, you can read more about Enoch, the Fae, and the Paladins of Charlemagne in my interview with author Tyler Tichelaar here.

Happy holidays everyone!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

5 Things That Struck Me About Beowulf

When last I left my series on The Magic of Medieval Fiction, we were in the Sixth Century – the age of Beowulf, the subject of one of England’s most famous epic poems. The tale was the inspiration for Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, and has spawned numerous films, both live and animated. I recently re-read the story, and five things really struck me this time around.

My favorite Translation

1.  The Monsters Have Biblical Origins

Despite the story’s Norse-like setting, Beowulf’s author was obviously Christian, for he gave Grendel and his evil mother biblical origins. When I first encountered this, my hope was it would tie-in with Enochian myth. Perhaps Grendel and dear mom were Nephilim who survived the Great Flood and now lurked in the shadows? Alas, while the poem makes a reference to the giants (the “Nephilim” of Genesis 6:4), Grendel and his mother turn out to be descendants of Cain, banished in their monstrous form as divine punishment for the murder of Abel:
“Cain got no good from committing that murder because the Almighty made him anathema and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants who strove with God time and again until He gave them their reward.”
In retrospect, the odds that Beowulf’s author would have known about the Book of Enoch are slim to none because the Book of Enoch all but disappeared during the Middle Ages. (One of my characters in Enoch’s Device has a great conspiracy theory on the reason why :)

2.  Beowulf Is Foolhardy Brave

When the hero of the Geats arrives to help King Hrothgar rid his land of Grendel, he learns that Grendel scorns the use of weapons. So, being the badass that he is, Beowulf decides to forego weapons too and fight to the death in hand-to-hand combat. Of course, this foolish move works out in the end since it turns out that Grendel can’t be harmed by mortal weapons. Fortunately Beowulf is such a badass, he just tears off Grendel’s arm, which is pretty much all she wrote for the big baddie of this tale.

Who can forget Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mum - she even wore high heels!*

3.  Grendel’s Mom Doesn’t Look Anything Like Angelina Jolie

In Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 film Beowulf, Grendel’s mom is pretty much a naked Angelina Jolie with a really long ponytail. In the actual poem, she’s a “tarn-hag” and a “swamp-thing from hell.” Oh well.

4.  There’s Always a Magic Weapon When You Need One

Like many good fantasy tales, it’s a magic weapon that allows Beowulf to defeat Grendel’s mother: “a sword in her armoury, an ancient heirloom from the days of the giants.” Even more, it’s “holy God” who allows him to find the magic sword, and then with one good chop, it’s off with her head. The notion of a magic weapon – particularly one given to the hero as a divine gift – is one of the archetypes of fantasy fiction (and old hero tales in general), so it’s only fitting that one of the oldest epic poems had one lying around.

We can thank Beowulf for giving us Smaug

5.  The Dragon At The End Is A Precursor to Smaug

Long after the story of Grendel and his mom is wrapped up, the poem contains a whole new story about a dragon. It takes place years after the first tale, when Beowulf is fifty and now the king of the Geats. Lo and behold, the dragon lives in a barrow, guarding a hoard of gold, and only comes out after a thief sneaks in and steals a gem-studded goblet. Sound familiar? J.R.R. Tolkien was a Beowulf expert and even gave a lecture in 1936 called “Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics.” So I had to smile when I remembered that scene from The Hobbit where it’s Bilbo’s theft of a cup that awakens Smaug from his slumber. I haven’t seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug yet, but I’ve read that the dragon is amazing, and we can all ultimately thank the author of Beowulf for that!

Try reading Old English - I dare ya!

One last word on the tale: My favorite translation of the story is the bilingual edition by the late Seamus Heaney. The book has the translated verse side by side with the original Old English text, which makes you realize that modern English looks and sounds nothing like what they wrote in the Middle Ages. I always smile when some folks are critical of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages because the characters are speaking in “modern” English. Trust me, if the characters talked in Old English, you couldn’t understand a word they said, and Mr. Heaney’s translation proves this point. The translated verse, however, is easy to read, and quite beautiful in places. And it makes the story read like a novel instead of a thousand-year-old poem. It is very well done, and not surprising that Mr. Heaney’s version became a New York Times bestseller.

* Trailer photo from

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Gideon’s Angel – Historical Fantasy at Its Best!

Every once in a while I read a novel that reminds me why I adore historical fantasy. It starts with the historical setting, a window to a world in our past and a chance to learn a bit of history – a trait that all well written historical fiction shares. But add in a bit of the mystical and magical, particularly if it’s based on real-world religion or mythology, and the story can become something special, igniting the imagination in ways that only fantasy fiction can. Gideon’s Angel by Clifford Beal is a case in point.

I absolutely loved this novel. It’s set in the Seventeenth Century following the English Civil War. King Charles I has been executed, his son is in exile, and Oliver Cromwell has become the Lord Protector of England. The story’s protagonist is Colonel Richard Treadwell, a Royalist and veteran of many wars, who is exiled to France, working in the service of Cardinal Giulio Mazarin and his agent, Monsieur d’Artagnan (a real life character and the hero of The Three Musketeers). The cardinal has learned that someone in the English court is dabbling in the black arts, and may be preparing to unleash a great evil into the world. The cardinal believes Colonel Treadwell possesses “a skill for finding the Underworld like a pig finds truffles,” and wants him to discover this Satanist among the English court. But Treadwell, has other ideas, planning instead on joining a rebellion to overthrow Cromwell.

Treadwell travels to England, only to find the rebellion is being led by fools, but that the threat the cardinal warned of may be all too real. He soon earns the enmity of Major Gideon Fludd, a member of a secret society called the Fifth Monarchy. Fludd believes he can commune with an angel, and by doing the angel’s bidding, he will usher in the second coming of Christ, even if it will take the murder of Oliver Cromwell to make that happen. Suddenly, Treadwell finds himself on a quest to save Cromwell, the man he vowed to overthrow, and to stop Fludd and his supernatural minions to prevent the End of Days.

Treadwell is accompanied by an unlikely sidekick, a young rapscallion named Billy Chard who is so likeable he quickly became one of my favorite characters. Meanwhile, Treadwell’s Parisian mistress, Maggie, has followed him to England, accompanied by d’Artagnan, who is hell-bent on returning the rogue colonel to Cardinal Mazarin. Along the way, Treadwell is also aided by a mysterious gypsy, a group of Freemasons, and a Spanish rabbi, who is a scholar of Jewish mysticism.

The story’s “magic” is based that mysticism and includes some of its legendary artifacts, such as the Seal of Solomon and the Key of Solomon. There are abundant supernatural elements, including a host of demons – imagined in the truest medieval sense – and the “angel” that gives the book its title. All these magical elements work well together, blending seamlessly with a swashbuckling action and adventure tale that kept me turning the pages. I loved all of the religion and mysticism, and ended up really caring about the characters. Also, the well-developed historical setting made me feel as if I was roaming through Seventeenth Century London (especially London Bridge, where a lot of action occurs). In all, Gideon’s Angel is historical fantasy at its best, and I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

5 Things to Love About Sleepy Hollow

I came late Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. I read about it before the season aired, but thought it was merely a modern day retelling of the story that was already done to perfection by Tim Burton in his movie, Sleepy Hollow. So, I decided to pass. It wasn’t until the show started to pick up some serious media buzz that I took a second look. Fortunately, U-Verse on-demand helped me quickly catch up on the episodes I missed, because all the hype is well justified. This show is fantastic, and here are my top 5 reasons why:

1. The Apocalyptic Angle

Sleepy Hollow completely transforms the legend of the headless horseman. Instead of merely being some evil spirit (as in Burton’s version), this horseman is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, book of Revelation style. The show draws heavily from this biblical source (even if it takes some liberties with the material). The horseman’s goal is to find his head, and when he does, he’ll summon the remaining three horsemen and usher in the End of Days. I obviously love good fiction based on the biblical apocalypse. After all, I wrote an entire novel about it, albeit one set at the end of the Tenth Century instead of 2013.

The story’s protagonist, Ichabod Crane has been bound to the horseman since beheading him in 1781. Though the horseman dealt Ichabod a fatal blow, Ichabod’s wife, a benevolent witch named Katrina, used a spell that put him into a death-like sleep until the horseman rose from the dead. Now Ichabod and his partner, Sleepy Hollow Police Lt. Abbie Mills, must prevent the horseman from achieving his goal. The show portrays Ichabod and Abbie as the “two witnesses” referenced in Rev. 11:3, and even though scripture doesn’t have these two folks preventing the apocalypse, I’m certainly fond of this premise. (In many respects, they’re just like Ciarán and Dónall in Enoch’s Device, trying to prevent he End of Days!) Transforming the Legend of Sleepy Hollow into a race to save humanity from demonic forces that seek to bring about the apocalypse was a brilliant move, and one of the elements, I believe, that has made the show so successful.

2. The Historical Flashbacks

The fact that Ichabod is supposed to be the real Ichabod Crane, a Revolutionary War era soldier in the service of George Washington, was another brilliant move on the writers’ part. Not only does this lead to some of the best lines in the show (as an 18th Century Ichabod amusingly adapts to 21st Century life), but it allows frequent flashbacks to Revolutionary and pre-Revolutionary times. So far, we’ve had scenes with George Washington and Paul Revere, as well as a flashback to the Boston Tea Party. I love these flashbacks, and when they’re coupled with the supernatural storyline, they make portions of the show into wonderful historical fantasy.

3. The Secret History

Embedded into all of the historical flashbacks is the notion that against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War a secret war against good and evil was being waged to prevent the End of Days. General Washington was aware of this war, and Ichabod was one of his agents against evil (indeed, in the show, Ichabod organizes the Boston Tea Party as a diversion during an episode in this secret war). The Freemasons also play a role (Ichabod was a Freemason, and so was Washington), as do many arcane items from myth and legend, such as the Lesser Key of Solomon, a spell book containing secrets to control and ward against demons. Even Washington’s own bible supposedly contains clues to this secret history, which, much like the secrets in the X-Files, are a driving source of the intrigue and mystery that makes Sleepy Hollow work so brilliantly.

4. The Chemistry Between Ichabod and Abbie

All the secret histories and apocalyptic tie-ins are great, but the show wouldn’t be as good as it is without the tremendous on-screen chemistry between Ichabod and Abbie. It’s as good as Mulder and Scully, or Castle and Beckett. Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie could not have been better cast!

5. The Stakes

Ichabod and Abbie are fighting to save the world. Such high stakes are a staple of epic fiction, and by pitting the heroes against a diabolical enemy who seeks to bring about the end times, the show invokes one of the classic archetypes of fantasy fiction: the overwhelming ancient evil. You don’t get more classic good vs. evil when the big baddie of Revelation is involved! Great evil has been part of human history since the beginning of time, and events like 9/11 are merely reminders of this fact. Yet I believe one of the reasons folks enjoy fantasy fiction is to experience a story world where such evil can be vanquished. I know that end of the world plotlines have become a bit cliché, but when they’re done right, they’re worth it. And Sleepy Hollow is doing it all very right.

In October, Fox renewed the show for a second season, so it looks like the adventure of Ichabod, Abbie, and the horseman will continue, and from here on, I’ll be along every week for the ride!