Tuesday, December 30, 2014

5 Thoughts on “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

For my final post of 2014, I’ll offer my thoughts on the final installment in The Hobbit series and what will likely be our last visit to the Middle Earth envisioned by Peter Jackson. So, without further ado . . .

Two movies would have been enough.

 1. This should have been a 2-movie series

I’m now firmly convinced that stretching The Hobbit into three films was a mistake from a storytelling perspective (although it may have been brilliant from a revenue perspective). While the movie covers roughly the last third of Tolkien’s work, the actual Battle of the Five Armies is only a single chapter in the book. Yet it takes up most of the screen-time in this film and frankly felt like the most drawn out battle in movie history.

Had The Hobbit been a two-film series, this movie could have begun with the escape from the elves, included the wonderful scenes with Smaug in the Lonely Mountain, and concluded with a spectacular Battle of the Five Armies. Of course, Jackson would have been forced to cut out all the fat he inserted to stretch the movies into three parts. But that would have been a good thing.

This could be the longest battle ever filmed!

2. The best part was the first scene

Let’s face it, Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, was the best thing about the second film, and he’s the best thing about the third film too. Unfortunately, Bard slays Smaug in what is effectively the movie’s prologue, even before the opening credits. The dragon’s attack on Lake Town was brilliantly portrayed, and the dialogue between Smaug and Bard was perfect. Sadly, the rest of the movie never lives up to this first scene. This could have all been avoided in a two-film series, where Smaug’s entire story would have dominated the middle of the show.
Once again, Smaug steals the show.

3. The madness of Thorin was well done

After the first scene, the best part of the movie mirrored one of the best parts of the book, namely how Thorin’s greed upon claiming Smaug’s golden horde begins to drive him mad, to the point where he’s willing to go to war with the elves and men. Richard Armitage did a fine job with Thorin in this series, who has the most compelling character arch in Tolkien’s book.

Richard Armitage is damn good in his role.

4. I don’t know what to make of that scene in Dol Guldur

I was a fan of Jackson’s decision to include the scenes with the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, which are only hinted of in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. From the appendix in The Return of the King, however, we know that the Necromancer was actually Sauron, having returned to Middle Earth. He ruled from Dol Guldur until he was driven away by The White Council, which included Galadriel, Gandalf, Elrond, and Saruman. 

To me, including the scenes in Dol Guldur transformed The Hobbit into a true prequel to The Lord of the Rings. But the way the final scene unfolded in this film seemed bizarre. Sauron appears in the sky wearing his armor from the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Beneath him, clad in their kingly garb, is a line of floating Ringwraiths that looked like the spinning diamonds on a cheesy slot machine display or a bad video game. The CGI just didn’t look right. To me, the giant flaming eye from the Lord of the Rings films would have been a far better image. To make the scene even stranger, Galadriel turns the color of a Smurf and basically screams at them until they go away. Needless to say, this scene left me shaking my head.

I prefer Galadriel when she isn't impersonating Smurfette.

5. Farewell to Middle Earth

As in the novel, the end of The Hobbit takes Bilbo back to the Shire. The scenes of his final journey with Gandalf and the images of the Shire reminded me how fortunate we’ve been that Peter Jackson was able to bring Middle Earth to life. Even when the movies weren’t great (like the last two in this series), it was still a joy to spend a few hours in Middle Earth. I can’t imagine that Tolkien’s The Silmarillion will be made into a film, so this appears to be the end. I am going to miss these annual journeys to Middle Earth. Fortunately, we can still get there on Blu-ray!

* Images courtesy of TheHobbit.com

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

An Amusing Interview With Smaug!

It's hard to find time in December to get anything done, and with a busy work week, it's been near impossible. That said, I found a few minutes to post a link to this amusing interview of Smaug by Stephen Colbert (you can see it here). I'm off this week for the holidays, but promise to post again before the New Year. Enjoy!

Note - This originally appeared last Wednesday. Due to a Blogger snafu, I had to repost it after accidentally deleting the original while trying to replace a bad link to the video. Blogger gets a lump of coal for Christmas this year!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Vintage Fantasy: “Three Hearts and Three Lions”

After rediscovering vintage fantasy fiction by Robert E. Howard last month, it got me thinking about some of the other classics I’ve read over the years. Among these is Three Hears and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, first published as a novella in 1953. This may not be one of the most well-known works of vintage fantasy, but its influence on the genre cannot be overstated.

This is the cover of my Fantasy Masterworks edition.
Here is what famed fantasy author Michael Moorcock had to say about the book (from the back cover of my paperback edition):
This book, with The Broken Sword, is the best Anderson ever produced, a great seminal work which should be read by anyone interested in the roots of modern fantasy fiction.
 – Michael Moorcock
Moorcock has admitted that Three Hearts and Three Lions influenced his own stories about Elric of Melniboné, another fantasy classic. Anderson’s tale contains all of the fundamental archetypes of fantasy fiction, and while it may seem cliché by today’s standards, it was original enough in 1953. Also, this novel is credited among the sources that influenced the creation of the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons. It’s easy to see why since the whole story plays out like a good old fashioned D&D campaign.
This old school cover is cool too.
The protagonist of Three Hearts and Three Lions is Holger Carlsen, a Dane living as an engineer in 1930s America who decides to return to Denmark during WWII to join the resistance against the Nazis (significantly, Anderson too is a Danish-American who was in his teens when WWII broke out). When a bullet grazes Holger’s head during a gunfight, he loses consciousness, only to wake up in an age long past. Waiting for him is a warhorse, a suite of chainmail, a sword, and a shield bearing the heraldry of three hearts and three lions. Strangely, they fit him perfectly. He soon encounters a wood witch who divines that for Holger to return home, he must travel to the land of Faerie, and so his adventure begins.

Holger is befriended by a dwarf named Hugi, who plays the role of Holger’s sidekick, and a beautiful swan-may named Alianora, who serves as Holger’s love interest in the tale. As they travel to the Faerie realm, which exists in a perpetual state of twilight, Holger concludes he’s “fallen into a realm beyond his own time.” He comes to learn this world is parallel to our own where the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne exists alongside the realm of Faerie and creatures from legend, as if the fantasy world of the French Chansons de Geste (the Carolingian Cycle) had come to life. The fantastic realm is called Middle World, which sounds a lot like Middle Earth, but both Tolkien and Anderson likely derived the term from the Midgard of Norse mythology. The land is in a perpetual struggle between the primeval forces of Law (represented by the Holy Roman Empire) and Chaos (the forces of Faerie), and like the Nazis of Holger’s home world, Chaos seeks to make the whole earth its own.

This was one of the original covers.
Upon arriving at the Faerie castle of Duke Alfric, Holger learns that whoever he is in this world is a notorious enemy of Chaos. After things end badly at Alfric’s court, the story kicks into gear as Holger and his two companions flee from Faerie and encounter a veritable Monster Manual worth of beasties, including a dragon, a giant, a werewolf, a nixie, and a fearsome troll. He also discovers that whoever he is in this world was once the lover of Morgan le Fay – yes, she of Arthurian legend – and now his scorned lover is one of the queens of Chaos. The introduction of Morgan into the story seemed out of place at first, but then I was reminded that the French Chansons de Geste often crossed into the realm of Arthurian legend (and, without giving away the identity of Holger’s alter ego in Middle World, the chansons even include a story about the paladins of Charlemagne and Morgan le Fay).

Holger determines he must discover his true identity in this land so he can fulfill whatever destiny has brought him to this world. Along the way, he is joined by a mysterious Moor named Sir Carahue (also of Carolingian fame) who has been searching for Holger. Together with Hugi and Alianora, Carahue accompanies Holger on a quest to retrieve a magical sword named Cortanta, forged of the same metal as Durindal and Excalibur, which can help Holger withstand the gathering forces of Chaos (at least according to the old wizard who sent them on the quest). All of this makes it easy to see how Three Hearts and Three Lions influenced so many fantasy tales and role-playing games that came after it.

To me, the most interesting thing about Three Hearts and Three Lions is where it fits into the pantheon of vintage fantasy fiction. Anderson published Three Hearts and Three Lions a year before Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, yet sixteen years after the release of The Hobbit and twenty-one years after Robert E. Howard published his first Conan tale. Because both Tolkien and Anderson borrowed heavily from folklore, it’s hard to tell how much The Hobbit may have influenced Anderson’s tale. The dwarves and elves of Middle World bear little resemblance to Tolkien’s, though the story does have a riddle contest with a giant that’s a lot like Bilbo’s parlay with Gollum, and it’s reminiscent of the scene with the three trolls as well.

Of course, playing riddle games with a monster is as old as Oedipus and the mythological sphinx. The point is, each story and myth influences the ones that come after it. And as far as fantasy fiction is concerned, Three Hearts and Three Lions holds a special place in that lineage.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Teaser

I have been travelling all week, but before the week’s end I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the new teaser for the upcoming Star Wars film: The Force Awakens. Having grown up in the 70s and 80s, it’s hard to measure just how much influence the original Star Wars trilogy had on my own creativity. I am fairly certain that as a nine-year-old boy sitting in Grauman’s Chinese Theater watching a Rebel Blockade Runner being chased by an Imperial Star Destroyer was a life-altering event. I suspect the same is true for many, or even most, science fiction or fantasy authors who grew up in that same time period. George Lucas essentially created a new mythology for our age (he’s sort of like the Homer of the late 20th Century). I frankly cannot imagine a more influential movie in my lifetime.

All of this said, I was never a fan of the three prequels. Every actor who tried to portray Anakin Skywalker seemed horribly miscast. If Anakin was supposed to be a rock-star Jedi before he went to the dark side, they needed an actor who exuded charisma. A Harrison Ford or Chris Pratt-type, if you will. Hayden Christensen brought none of that. Even Natalie Portman, who has proven herself to be a talented and engaging actress in films like The Professional, Black Swan, and even the two Thor flicks, fell totally flat in the prequels. It didn’t help to have that ridiculous age difference between her and Anakin in the first film, which made the last two rather creepy. All of this has convinced me that the biggest problem with the prequels was the writing and the stories themselves. Author Kristin Lamb wrote a wonderful piece on why the prequels don’t work. You can read it here.

Which brings me to the teaser. I loved it! It looks totally old-school and reminiscent of the original series. I loved seeing the X-wings and the Stormtroopers, and the shot of the Millennium Falcon soaring to John Williams’ famous score gave me chills. I even liked that new dark force light saber. J.J. Abrams (of LOST fame and the new Star Trek films, among others) has proven himself worthy of great filmmaking. May the Force be with him on this one!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Cyber Monday Sale for "Enoch's Device"!

In the wake of Black Monday, the Kindle version of Enoch’s Device will be on sale starting today, through Cyber Monday, and lasting the entire week! You can purchase it here.

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 called “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 Cate Peace of Indie Books R Us summed it up: "All in all, a refreshing twist on the religious thriller, and one that will have you turning pages from cover to cover as fast as you can."

Now is a great time to pick up a copy – and if you’ve already read it and enjoyed it, please tell a friend!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving, 1621 Style!

I wrote this two years ago, but I'm reposting it every Thanksgiving for tradition's sake. I've also included my menu for this year's Thanksgiving at the end of this article.

Growing up, I never paid much attention to the origin of Thanksgiving. Other than what I may have learned in elementary school, all I ever recall knowing was that it was a big feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sometime after the Mayflower 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 rediscovered 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 Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. 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. White potatoes originated in South America and sweet potatoes came from the Caribbean, and neither had apparently made it to Massachusetts by 1621. The Pilgrims 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 Pilgrims, taught them how to grow corn, and showed them the best places to catch fish and eel, all of which helped them survive their first winter at Plymouth. He also helped negotiate a peace treaty between the Pilgrims 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 his wife and child. During his first captivity in 1605, he was taken to England along with several other native Americans. There, 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 English 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 lived, did not last long. Once Smith went north on another expedition, one of his lieutenants, a Capt. Thomas Hunt, kidnapped Squanto and twenty-six other Native Americans to sell them into slavery. Hunt sailed to Spain, where he hoped to sell his captives for twenty pounds each. When local friars discovered Hunt’s plans, they rescued Squanto and his brethren, hoping to convert them to Christianity. Squanto ended up living with the friars 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 this mistreatment and misfortune, he stayed and helped the Pilgrims 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.

2014 Menu Update: For two years now I've prepared a multi-course meal for Thanksgiving, and this year will be no exception! (Each course will also be paired with a wine or cocktail :)

Course One: Whipped ricotta salad

Course Two: Baked littleneck clams, corn cakes, and fried lobster tail with horseradish crème fraiche sauce

Course Three: Pumpkin soup with fig quenelles and prosciutto

Course Four: Grilled venison sausage with a pear and celery root puree

Course Five: Turkey two ways (roasted and smoked) with twice-baked sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, whipped potatoes, and sausage dressing

Course Six: Pumpkin pie shots, banana cream pie shots, and caramel apple trifles

Yes, I love cooking almost as much as I love writing! HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

The Mayflower in 1620
Another interesting fact: Through my father’s side of the family, I am a direct descendant of Francis Cooke, who journeyed to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Black Sails" Will Be Back Soon!

I missed this when it came out last month, but Starz has started promoting the new season of Black Sails, the amazingly well-crafted "prequel" to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Last season was intense (and far superior to NBC's Crossbones in my view), with Captain Flint and Long John Silver barely surviving an attack by a Spanish Man O' War, and now their long-sought treasure is in sight. The new season premiers on January 24, so if we can survive the holidays, it looks like there will be some fantastic historical fiction on Starz beginning next year!

Billy Bones has to be back, right? . . .
Unless whoever was "Billy Bones" in Treasure Island stole his identity!
Photo courtesy of Starz.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Void in “Interstellar”

I’ve had very little time to write or blog this week, but I thought I’d share some brief thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar. While I’ve avoided talking about any of the plot twists, there are some minor spoilers, so venture on at your own risk.

To begin, I wish I had time to write a more thorough review, but I don’t. If you’re looking for one, here are four reviews (from Salon, The Wall Street Journal, Grantland, and The Book Smugglers) that are generally consistent with my own feelings about the film. Also, let me briefly say that the movie is visually stunning and well-acted by Matthew McConaughy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Cane, and others. 

That said, I had two issues with Interstellar as large as the black hole at the center of the film. The first is the overly convenient plot that contains holes large enough to fly the Nostromo through. The world is dying for reasons only hinted at in the film. Whether due to overpopulation, climate change, or who knows, earth is ridden by violent dust storms and losing its capacity to grow food. Let’s just call it the Dust Apocalypse. During the Dust Apocalypse, science has become verboten, the Lunar Landings have officially been deemed a hoax designed to bankrupt the Soviet Union, and NASA has gone underground. Fortunately, a nearby corn farmer (McConaughy’s character) happens to live nearby. Also, before the Dust Apocalypse, he was a really good astronaut. Suffice it to say, he soon discovers secret NASA and they just happen to have a spacecraft that’s ready to travel interstellar through a wormhole near Saturn to find a new world for mankind.  

I can overlook certain things for the sake of plot, but I still scratch my head about this stuff. Who spends a gazillion dollars on an interstellar spacecraft without having a pilot, unless they intentionally built the secret NASA lab near McConaughy’s cornfield hoping he’d decide to leave his family and don his old spacesuit? It’s as if the rebels of Star Wars had built their secret base on Tatooine, hoping that Luke Skywalker might stumble onto it one day while taking his speeder for a joy ride.

Second, Interstellar is about saving the human race and going boldly where (almost) no man has gone before, but it’s virtually devoid of any notion or mention of religion or spirituality. Apparently, that died in the Dust Apocalypse, but I think the movie is emptier because of it. Contrast this with Contact, another film starring McCounaghy, based on a novel by Carl Sagan. That movie is filled with spiritual themes that concern the interplay (or conflict) between science and religion, and I found Contact to be a much more fulfilling tale. The absence of any talk of God or spirituality, when the whole point of the film is surviving extinction and exploring the great beyond, makes Interstellar a bit hollow in my view. There’s not even a hint of extraterrestrial life beyond the wormhole. Nothing but mankind trying to save itself, all alone in the universe. That’s not a future I want to believe in.

But this is just my short take. If you’ve seen the film, let me know—how did you feel about Interstellar?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rediscovering Vintage Fantasy Fiction

The other day, I happened across a gorgeous compilation of tales by H.P. Lovecraft in my local Barnes & Noble. The book, whose cover features Cthulhu’s writhing tentacles in all their texturized glory, is titled The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, with an introduction by famous comic book author Alan Moore. Despite its hefty price tag, I snatched up the tome. And having brought it home, it has literally allowed me to rediscover vintage fantasy fiction.

I couldn't pass this one up!
This rediscovery wasn’t due so much to Lovecraft’s tales, though I am anxious to dig into my new book. Rather, it was the effort it took to find space for this huge tome on my bookshelf. After moving a few dozen volumes around, I ended up reorganizing a second set of shelves that had become the dumpster ground for old paperbacks. In doing so, I unearthed my original copies of the Conan novels by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter. While the original Conan tales were published in pulp fiction magazines during the early 1930s, Conan (#1) (the first of several compilations of those stories) came out in 1983, so it’s probably been 30 years since I first cracked its cover. I found myself opening that cover once again, and reading the book over a cold and breezy weekend. Here are a few of my observations.  

Still love this old cover.
First was the introduction on Robert E. Howard written by L. Sprague de Camp. The most surprising thing about Howard was how briefly he lived. He wrote prolifically during his twenties (from 1927 to 1936), and by his late twenties he was earning more money than any other writer in his home of Cross Plains, Texas. At age thirty, he took his own life.

According to de Camp, Howard was a bit like the characters he created: six feet tall and over 200 pounds, an accomplished boxer and horseman. He was brilliant, introverted and, as de Camp writes, “maladjusted to the point of psychosis.” Perhaps not surpassingly, he was also a pen pal of H.P. Lovecraft. Conan the Barbarian was Howard’s favorite character, though he created other memorable ones in the genre de Camp calls “heroic fantasy,” such as Kull of Atlantis and Solomon Kane. Most interesting to me was that after World War II, Howard’s stories and heroic fantasy in general fell out of favor and almost disappeared. That is until 1954, when J.R.R. Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring. As we all know, Tolkien’s trilogy revived the genre and gave rise to the new era of fantasy fiction we are living in today. 

Robert E. Howard
Second was Howard’s essay on the Hyborian Age, where he describes the history of the world he had built for Conan’s adventures. Interestingly, even though Conan was modeled on a Gaelic or Irish warrior, Howard chose to invent a pseudo-history for his stories because he feared that trying to use a historically-accurate setting would require too much time-consuming research. (As a writer of historical fantasy, I feel his pain!) As far as world building goes, the essay is a hot mess. Howard has taken disparate concepts from mythology and more recent history and literally blended them together. For example, he talks about the ancient civilizations of Atlantis and Lemuria, and goes on to describe their wars with the “savages” of that age – none other than the Picts! (While the Picts gave the Romans trouble in Late Antiquity, these painted Scots lived eons after the legendary Atlantis.) Throw in some concepts from Norse mythology, such as the Vanir of Vanaheim and Æsir of Asgard (who were gods in mythology, but are mere people like the Swedes and Danes in Conan’s time), add in a race named after the mythical river Styx and the “empire of Zimbabwe,” and welcome to the Hyborian world. To be fair, Howard was not a scholar like Tolkien and did not have access to all the historical resources we have today (imagine a world without Wikipedia – ye gads!). What he did have was a copy of Thomas Bulfinch’s Outline of Mythology published in 1913, and he apparently mined it for all it was worth.    

Finally, there are the stories themselves. This book consists of seven loosely connected short stories that all begin in the medias res with Conan pursued by wolves or guardsmen, or in the middle of a plan to steal some treasure. The young Conan of this book is a wandering adventurer, working as a thief in most of these tales, who inevitably finds himself alone in some haunted ruin or sorcerer’s lair, only to be confronted by a monster or some supernatural foe. As a barbarian, he can neither read nor write, so he solves problems with brute force. Let’s just say, there are no puzzle-like plots to be deciphered in his tales. This does not mean, however, that the stories are without mystery or twists. In fact, one of the best stories in the book, “The Tower of the Elephant,” featured an unexpected twist that most certainly was influenced by Howard’s friend, H.P. Lovecraft. Another tale, “The God in the Bowl,” begins as a murder mystery, but don’t expect Conan to play the role of Sherlock Holmes.

Many of the stories seem cliché, but that’s because I’m reading them in 2014 instead of the 1930s. Back then they were “original” adventure tales, and since they predated most forms of entertainment available today, they were probably damn entertaining. Imagine a time nearly fifty years before we met Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker, or even Josie Wales and James Bond. Stories like Conan’s were among the most rollicking adventure tales around. This is just one reason why they are true classics, and I’m glad I rediscovered them.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

On Dracula and Vlad the Impaler

Last week, io9 ran an article titled “No, Bram Stoker Did Not Model Dracula On Vlad The Impaler,” which debunks the belief that Stoker’s legendary vampire was based on the notorious Wallachian prince. In fact, in early drafts of the novel, Stoker’s antagonist was apparently named “Count Wampyr.” You can’t make this up.

The historical Dracula
I found the io9 article fascinating, and you can read the whole piece here. Below is an excerpt of the part I found most interesting.
The truth is, there's no evidence that Bram Stoker was even aware of the name Vlad III—much less that he was called "Vlad the Impaler." Miller warns that we can't assume that Stoker's notes are the end-all, be-all of the creation of Dracula, but they do provide the only factual information we currently have about Stoker's research. And the notes tell us exactly where Stoker got the name "Dracula."
While in Whitby in the summer of 1890 (after, it should be noted, his much-discussed dinner with Vambery), Stoker came across a copy of William Wilkinson's book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. We know that, because he copied sections of the book into his notes. Wilkinson's book contains references to multiple voivodes named Dracula, and some of the sparse details on one such Voivode Dracula make it into Stoker's text: that he crossed the Danube to attack Turkish troops and had some success. That's it. There is no reference to a "Vlad," no mention of a nickname Tepes or "the Impaler," no detailing of his legendary atrocities.
So why did Stoker choose that name, Dracula? Well, we can infer that from his own notes. He copied information from a footnote from Wilkinson's book that read in his own notes, "DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL," with those capital letters. The footnote explained that Wallachians gave the name "Dracula" to people who were especially courageous, cruel, or cunning. Stoker chose the name, it appears, because of its devilish associations, not because of the history and legends attached to its owner.
After reading the article, I tend to agree with its conclusion. There are no explicit references to Vlad III in Stoker’s Dracula, and his novel contains no historical details about the violent conflict with the Ottoman Turks that dominated the story of the historical “Dracula.” That said, I believe storytellers since Stoker have improved on Dracula by making a more direct connection between him and Vlad III.

History and Dracula combined
For one, linking Dracula to the historical Vlad the Impaler helps transform the story into historical fantasy, a genre I prefer to horror or modern day vampire tales. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a perfect example. In her novel, Dracula and Vlad Tepes are one in the same. The quest for Dracula’s tomb drives the story, which takes the reader to communist Romania and Istanbul in an attempt to find evidence in ancient texts, all grounded in the history of Vlad the Impaler and his enmity with the Ottoman Turks. As I wrote in my review of The Historian, “[t]hese types of historical mysteries, steeped in religion and legend, are my cup of tea, and despite the novel’s considerable length (my paperback is 676 pages), it captivated me until the end.”

Coppola improved on the original
Another good example is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Despite its titular reference to Stoker’s novel and general faithfulness to Stoker’s plot, Coppola clearly portrays Dracula as Vlad Tepes, a member of the Order of the Dragon (“Draco” is translated to “Dracula”). Vlad renounces God and succumbs to darkness when he returns from a battle with the Ottoman Turks only to discover his beloved wife has committed suicide after being tricked into believing he was slain on the battlefield. This sets up tremendous motivation for Dracula, who becomes convinced that Mina Harker is the reincarnation of his lost wife. The desire to be reunited with his beloved lends far greater purpose to Dracula’s actions than in the book, where Dracula is simply a monster to be reckoned with. I much preferred the complexity of Coppola’s Dracula, whom I almost felt sympathy for at times. And let’s face it, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the vampire was damn near perfect. In short, I thought Coppola’s take far surpassed its source material, and his link to the historical Dracula was one of the major reasons why.

But that’s just my view – let me know what you think about the io9 article or whether others have improved on Bram Stoker’s original. And most of all, have a happy Halloween!

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Devil’s Bridge

Today I’m guest blogging at Heroines of Fantasy, a site devoted to fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and especially women in genre fiction. As part of their month-long “Fright Fest,” I’ve written a work of flash fiction (i.e., a story under 1,000 words) titled “The Devil’s Bridge.” It’s based on an old Welsh legend about an old woman and her deal with the devil. Please visit Heroines of Fantasy and check out my new story, as well as all the other great posts for Fright Fest!

An ancient dolmen what evil lies there?*
And special thanks to author Karin Rita Gastreicht for the invite to post on her blog!

* Creative Commons Attribution - photo courtesy of Steve Ford Elliot 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fishing and a Flash!

I’m off to my annual fishing trip, and though I doubt I’ll catch the Midgard Serpent this year, I leave with fond memories of last night’s TV experience with my nine-year-old.

I’ve endeavored to find good TV shows we can watch as a family. In years’ past, it’s been Once Upon A Time, and while we still watch it, the Frozen plotline has become a bit silly to me. Fortunately, we decided to start watching CW’s new series The Flash. I must say, the adventures of Barry Allen have provided more family entertainment than I would have expected. We’re having a ball with this show, and if you have any fondness for superhero tales, I highly recommend it.

Next week is Halloween, so stay tuned for some spooky story news on the blog!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

“Thieves’ Quarry”: Another Tale of Murder, Magic, and Mystery in Colonial Boston

Yesterday, I finished Thieves’ Quarry by D. B. Jackson and found it a worthy sequel to the first book in the series, which I reviewed here. My review of Thieves’ Quarry follows this image of the book’s amazing cover.

D. B. Jackson has crafted another fun historical fantasy with Thieves’ Quarry, the sequel to his first novel in the series, Thieftaker. The series takes the reader to colonial Boston and a world where conjurers, called “spellers,” live secretly among the population. Among them is Ethan Kaille, a thieftaker who retrieves stolen goods for a price. And like the first book, Kaille once again finds himself investigating a mysterious murder committed by a new and deadly conjurer.

The murder involves the strange and sudden death of the crew of the Graystone, one of many British warships that have arrived in Boston Harbor for the Crown’s occupation of the city. Agents of the Crown hire Kaille to find the killer, and he must do so quickly, before the colony’s lieutenant governor has every speller in Boston put to death for the crime.

The novel’s mystery is well crafted, with plenty of twists that kept me guessing until the end. Just as intriguing is the series’ magic system, which plays a key role in the tale. When casting, spellers need the aid of a ghost-like familiar (in Kaille’s case, an old medieval warrior he calls Uncle Reg), and every spellers’ magic and ghost has a unique color to its glow. Once Kaille discovers the color of the magic used on the crewmen, he just needs to find the conjurer to whom the color belongs to identify the killer. Jackson has been revealing clues about the magic system in each book, but he has left much of it unexplained, keeping the mystery behind the ghosts and their origins alive for a future tale. Yet he’s explained enough here to make it “believable,” and in many ways the magic system is one of the reasons this series work so well.

The rest of the books’ appeal lies with the characters who populate this fictional Boston, from Kaille’s rival, Sephira Pryce, to his friends at a tavern called the Dowsing Rod, and even historical figures like Samuel Adams. (Honestly, between the tavern and Adams, I always feel like having an ale while reading these books!) Also, the series is inching closer to the Boston Tea Party, and Kaille is beginning to question his allegiance to the Crown. All of this creates a unique world to which I am eager to return. And fortunately, the next book in the series, A Plunder of Souls, is waiting on my shelf.

Friday, October 10, 2014

More Images From The Upcoming Sequel To “Enoch’s Device”

Earlier this year I wrote about how I’m using Pinterest to stockpile images of the places and people featured in my novel, Enoch’s Device, and its upcoming sequel. Ten months later, the sequel board has grown considerably. Here’s a link if you’d care to take a look.

Who is that man in black?
And speaking of the sequel, it’s coming along, though not as quickly as I’d hoped. Setting much of the novel in medieval Rome led to a ton of time-consuming research. By 998 A.D., Rome had more than a thousand years of significant history behind it, and nearly every place in the city has its own story. Also, the pope at the time, Gregory V, features prominently in the book, so I’ve had to brush up on my papal history. Then, of course, there has been the requisite research on obscure, ancient, and mystical texts that any sequel to Enoch’s Device must certainly involve.

Yes, there will be a sequel . . .
So fear not, the adventures of Ciarán and Alais will continue. My sincere hope is that the wait will be much shorter than that between George R.R. Martin novels. Maybe I’ll even beat out The Winds of Winter . . . but only time will tell!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A New Take On A Legendary Antihero

I have long preferred novels (the written kind) to novels of the graphic kind, and I haven’t collected a comic book in more than twenty-five years. But last week, I learned of a new graphic adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy classic Elric of Melniboné – and, according to one source, Moorcock thinks this adaptation may be superior to his original stories.

Before the Iron Throne, there was the Ruby Throne.
The news came from io9, which publishes very cool tidbits from the SF&F world. The graphic adaptation by Julien Blondel and Robin Recht is titled Elric: The Ruby Throne, and volume 1(published by Titan) is available now. For those unfamiliar with the story, Elric is the sorcerer king of Melniboné, an Atlantis-like island surrounded by the Young Kingdoms. He is also a sickly albino who takes potions to maintain his health – until he discovers the enchanted sword Stormbringer, which can steal souls to give him strength. But the sword is sentient and evil, and it threatens Elric’s soul most of all.

The original classic!
As I’ve written before, Elric of Melniboné is one of the greatest antiheros in vintage fantasy fiction. And if this graphic adaptation is as good as Michael Moorcock thinks about his famous creation, I’ll have to check it out. Here’s a snippet from io9’s interview with author about the latest take on his classic tale.
io9: What makes this your favorite comic adaptation of Elric?
Michael Moorcock: It has all the romance and decadence of the old Gothics brought into modern times just as I brought the angst and self-questioning of the revolutionary 1960s to the character, without losing what I hope is a sense of myth. I have loved a lot of Elrics and particularly enjoyed working with Walter Simonson on two successful Elric projects (as well as Hawkmoon). But this takes Elric in many ways back to his roots in European folklore and fiction.
You can read the rest of io9’s interview here – it’s well worth it!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

“Dubh-Linn” – Another Viking Adventure in Medieval Ireland!

This week, I’m pleased to feature another book review by guest reviewer Bill Brockman, this time of Dubh-Linn by James L. Nelson, Book II of the Norsemen Saga. As many readers of this blog know, 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. Bill’s review of Dubh-Linn follows this image of the book’s cover.

When we left the Viking crew of the longship Red Dragon, led in theory by Jarl Ornolf Hrafnsson but in reality by his son-in-law Thorgrim Ulfsson, also called Thorgrim Night Wolf, they had lost nearly everything but their lives, including the Red Dragon.

I had the opportunity to visit modern day Dublin between reading the first and second books. We even took a boat cruise down the River Liffey and around the headland to the north of Dublin Bay. Needless to say, this vibrant modern city built on a medieval street grid bears little resemblance to Dubh-linn, but still gave me a sense of place. In the Irish country side one really can feel the weight of the centuries.

In this highly entertaining sequel, Nelson develops the characters we met in the first book more fully. We find Jarl Ornolf happily ensconced in the mead hall in Dubh-linn, the rapidly growing Norse trading port on Ireland’s east coast. Norwegians, or “Fin-gall” having taken it from the Danish “Dubh-gall”, Olaf the White rules, and Ornolf is more than happy to preside over the drunken revelries of the mead hall. Thorgrim, however, is anxious to get back to his homestead in Vik. His problem is that he is now penniless; having lost his ship and crew; but no Viking with a longship seems in any hurry to sail back to Norway.

In an effort to change his fortune, Thorgrim has signed onto the crew of Jarl Arinbjorn, a suspiciously ingratiating character whom Thorgrim doesn’t quite trust. Thorgrim’s beloved younger son Harald is also on Arinbjorn’s longship Black Raven as a Viking fleet launches a raid on the southern coast town of Cloyne and its monastery. Adding a wild card factor to the crew of Black Raven are a loose gaggle of berserkers, “led” by Starri the Deathless. Berserkers are a fascinating sub-set of the Norse raiders; working themselves into a frenzy of blood-lust, they disdain helmets and armor, often going shirtless. Used as disposable shock troops by the more “normal” Norsemen, the berserkers care not whether they live or die. Starri openly weeps after surviving the battle for Cloyne, having been once again denied Valhalla, the reward for Norsemen who die in battle with sword in hand. Starri will play a large role in the story that unfolds.

In this volume we will also become reacquainted with two remarkable Irish women from Fin-gall, Morrigan and Brigit. Brigit’s father, King Mael Sechnaill mac Ruanaid of Brega, was killed in that book and we find her marrying an empty headed young kinglet, Conlaed. Brigit hopes to rule through him while at the same time providing a legitimate father for the baby already growing inside her – in truth the child of Harald the Norseman. Morrigan has her own plans to acquire power through her brother Flann. Behind all the scheming lies the Crown of the Three Kingdoms that would – in theory – unite the entire island against the Norse invaders. The monk Father Finnian becomes a major and instrumental character and perhaps the most admirable in the story.

In Fin-gall we learned that Thorgrim is called Night Wolf because it is said he can become a wolf and roam the land during the dark hours. The truth of this was left vague, but in Dubh-linn Thorgrim’s ability is pretty clear cut – he can really do it. In fact, his supernatural ability leads to triumph in the taking of Cloyne when he discovers a secret of the walled town. What else will the Night Wolf learn and do? Read to find out.

I found Dubh-linn a worthy sequel to Fin-gall with greater character development, more involvement of the Irish, and a good sense of the swirling tensions around the island during this period. The various Irish kingdoms and minor kingdoms had never been united and were always at war with one another in various alliances or convenience. A movement to unite the island – led by the church – featured the Crown of the Three Kingdoms. The lure of its perceived power was highly seductive. Into this mix had come the Danes and later the Norse, bringing warrior skills far above the average of the locals. The Norse had also created the first real city in the form of Dubh-linn, creating a major trading port and source of both wealth and danger. The clash of religions between the “pagans” and the Christians added yet another source of tension and hatred. Nelson has done an admirable job of stirring this mix together to create an entertaining story with characters you will come to care about.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Looking Forward to Season 2 of "Sleepy Hollow"

This Monday marks the premiere of Season 2 of Sleepy Hollow on Fox. Last year, I became quite taken with the show (you can read my post here), and I'm looking forward to the upcoming season, especially after the huge twists at the end of last year. Here's a quick look at the trailer for Season 2.

At the end of last season, everything had literally gone to Hell. After discovering the map to Purgatory in George Washington's bible, Abbie ends up stuck in a Tim Burtonesque dollhouse in Evil Land, while Ichabod and his witchy wife Katrina learn that their ally, Henry Parrish (the so-called "Sin Eater"), is actually the second Horseman of the Apocalypse. And, in the biggest twist of the show, Henry turns out to be Ichabod and Katrina's long-dead son, resurrected by the alpha-demon Moloch. By the season's end, the Headless Horseman has captured Katrina and Henry has stuffed Ichabod in a coffin, leaving him for dead. After all this, it's hard to imagine how Season 2 will begin. But we'll know the answer soon enough on Monday night!

Ichabod and Abbie in happier times – with George Washington's map to Purgatory!*
If you're a fan of Sleepy Hollow, let me know what you think - how will Ichabod and Abbie escape this nightmare?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Loss and Light

I’ve had no time this week to dream up a good blog. This has been a hard summer for my family, on my father’s side particularly. I lost a dear aunt and cousin to illness, two souls who left earth before their time. And it is days like this in which I seek solace.

For many it is scripture and religion, and for me that is true to some extent. But it is also the lessons taught in life, and part of my life is literature. In times of loss, my sanctuary of late, outside of my family and church, has been a single work by Richard Matheson, one of the legends of speculative fiction—his novel, What Dreams May Come. After I saw the 1998 film with Robin Williams (also a loss to all, R.I.P.), I read the book and it is the one novel I feel everyone should read who has suffered a loss.

The 1978 novel is a masterpiece about the afterlife. The story is based on a manuscript communicated by the narrator’s deceased brother, who provides his account of the great beyond. Matheson considered this book the most important he had ever written. It is the most thought-provoking, spiritually satisfying, and comforting novel I have ever read about death, the afterlife, and, as the title states, “What dreams may come.” I recommend this book to everyone. Here is my favorite passage from its final chapter:

Life on earth is only a panorama of vivid observations which seem real to you.
Why should afterlife seem less real?
Let me not confuse you though.
It will seem real enough to you.
And, please, my brother, do not fear it.
Death is not the king of terrors.
Death is a friend.
Consider it this way. Do you fear to sleep at night? Of course not. Because you know that you will wake again.
Think of death the same way. As a sleep from which, inevitably, you will awaken.
True life is a process of becoming. Death is a stage in this progression. Life is not followed by un-life.
There is only a single continuity of being.
We are part of a plan, never doubt that. A plan to bring each one of us to the highest level of which we are capable. The way will be dark at times but it leads, assuredly, to light.
– Richard Matheson, What Dreams May Come

Thursday, September 4, 2014

5 Reasons "Guardians of the Galaxy" is the Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Movie in Years

This past weekend, my daughter and I watched Marvel Studio’s Guardians of the Galaxy for the second time. It’s the number one movie in America, which didn't surprise me after the first viewing. But after seeing it twice, I'm convinced it’s one of the best science fiction/fantasy films in years. Here are five reasons why.


1.  The Most Fun Since Star Wars – Seriously

To truly understand this point, you just have to see the film. But in a word, it’s fun. Really fun. The movie’s loaded with humor, and I’ve even seen it referred to as a comedy, but that may be a stretch. Yet like Star Wars, and few things since, there are laugh-out-load moments, tons of action, and witty banter between the leads that harkens back to Han and Leah, and R2 and C3PO at their best. Take any of the good SF&F movies of late, including the first Star Trek reboot, and Guardians of the Galaxy surpasses them in terms of pure fun. This is something many of the Marvel Studios films like Iron Man and The Avengers have done very well, but never as well as it’s done in Guardians of the Galaxy.


2.  Awesome Mix Vol. 1

Speaking of fun, the soundtrack to this movie is phenomenal. It’s based on a cassette tape called Awesome Mix Vol. 1 that the protagonist’s mother gave him when he was an adolescent before she became terminally ill. The protagonist, Peter Quill (aka Star Lord), is never without his Sony Walkman playing 70’s tunes from the cassette, and the songs flow through the movie with incredible energy. The musical link to our world also helps keep the story feeling real and grounded despite its uber-fantastic plot. It’s no wonder this is the #1 movie soundtrack in the US right now. And, I’ll confess, I often play part of it before starting my writing routine every morning.

3.  The Characters Rock

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill puts on one of the most charismatic performances since Harrison Ford told Chewbacca to “laugh it up fuzzball.” The beautiful Zoe Saldana of Avatar fame (who also plays Uhura in the new Star Trek movies) puts on, in my view, her best performance in a sci fi film as Gamora. She’s green in this one, and much more fun than her blue-hued heroine in Avatar. Throw in Bradley Cooper as the sharp-tongued, gun toting Rocket (a genetically-engineered raccoon), as well as the ultra-literal Drax the Destroyer played by wrestler Dave Bautista, and Groot, a humanoid tree creature played by Vin Diesel, and this movie becomes a hard act to follow. Again, not since Star Wars have we seen a cast of characters this memorable – and this fun.

4.  Great World Building

The galaxy these folks are guarding is one fascinating place. Not only is it connected to our own world, called Terra in the film (after all, that’s where Peter came from before he was abducted by interstellar pirates), but there’s an entire planet made out of the severed head of some ancient celestial being, an earthlike world ruled by a very cool Glen Close, a prison ship which provides one of the craziest scenes in the film, and an abandoned planet with an ancient temple that reminded me of the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark – except to the tune of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” I can’t wait for the sequel to explore this galaxy some more.


5.  “We Are Groot”

You have to see the movie to know what I mean. But it’s the whole point of the film. The big theme, if you will – love between friends and family conquering all – and it’s the most touching scene in the movie. It will make you want to dance to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” I promise.

** Images courtesy of Marvel Studios - Guardians of the Galaxy.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Thieftaker: Historical Fantasy in Colonial Boston!

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson was on my summer reading list, and boy am I glad it was! Between this and the novels by Clifford Beal, I’m starting to enjoy great historical fantasy set outside the Middle Ages—in the case of Theiftaker, 1765 in good ‘ole Boston MA.
Great cover art - and a great scene in the book!
Ethan Kaille, loyal subject of the Crown, is a near-middle-aged theiftaker—someone who, for a price, retrieves stolen goods and makes the thieves disappear (being the moral type, Kaille encourages them to leave town, though other thieftakers aren’t so kind). But there’s a twist: Kaille is also a conjurer, who can use magic, usually by drawing his own blood and summoning the power of his spectral guardian, an old medieval ghost he calls Uncle Reg. In this sense, the world of Thieftaker is a bit like an adult version of Harry Potter set in the eighteenth century. There are muggles and “spellers,” and Kaille is just one of many spellers living secretly in Boston.

The story begins when Kaille is hired to retrieve a brooch stolen from a merchant’s daughter who died mysteriously during the Stamp Act riots that proceeded the American Revolution. It turns out the murder and thief is a conjurer, which makes Kaille the perfect man for the job. But the conjurer is more powerful than any Kaille has ever encountered, and I spent much of the novel wondering how he would possibly survive his battles with this dangerous foe.

At its heart, Thieftaker is a well-crafted murder mystery that combines an intriguing magic system with a wonderful historical setting. I’ve been to Boston many times, but I more than enjoyed visiting this city in its pre-revolutionary days and being introduced to a few real historical characters, including Samuel Adams, along the way. And speaking of characters, the author has developed a host of memorable ones, from the rival thieftaker Sephira Pryce to Kannice Lester, the pretty barkeep who serves as Kaille’s love interest in the tale.

All in all, I put the world that D.B. Jackson has created among my recent favorites in historical fantasy fiction. I also loved the fact that Kaille is not a young man, which I found refreshing, especially with so many YA books flooding the fantasy sections these days. Needless to say, I’m pleased there are at least two more books in the series—Thieves’ Quarry and A Plunder of Souls—as I am eager to explore more of colonial Boston with Ethan Kaille!