Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Historical Fiction & A Game of Thrones

Last August, I wrote a post about the excellent Starz original series The White Queen titled “The White Queen & A Game of Thrones.” The post commented on an article from Vulture.com that made a connection between The War of the Roses—the setting for The White Queen—and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Last week, Rolling Stone re-ran an interview with Martin that touched on that same subject, and I’ve included some of the more interesting quotes below.



Q: With the exception of the fantasy elements, Game of Thrones might well have been a reimagination of the Wars of the Roses.
I did consider at a very early stage – going all the way back to 1991 – whether to include overt fantasy elements, and at one point thought of writing a Wars of the Roses novel. But the problem with straight historical fiction is you know what's going to happen. If you know anything about the Wars of the Roses, you know that the princes in the tower aren't going to escape. I wanted to make it more unexpected, bring in some more twists and turns. The main question was the dragons: Do I include dragons? I knew I wanted to have the Targaryens have their symbol be the dragons; the Lannisters have the lions, the Starks have the wolves. Should these things be literal here? Should the Targaryens actually have dragons? I was discussing this with a friend, writer Phyllis Eisenstein – I dedicated the third book to her – and she said, "George, it's a fantasy – you've got to put in the dragons." She convinced me, and it was the right decision. Now that I'm deep into it, I can't imagine the book without the dragons.
Later in the interview, he talks a little bit more about his interest in history:
History was my minor in college. I don't pretend to be a historian. Modern historians are interested in sociopolitical trends. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the stories. History is written in blood, a gold mine – the kings, the princes, the generals and the whores, and all the betrayals and wars and confidences. It's better than 90 percent of what the fantasists do make up.
You can read the complete interview here at rollingstone.com.

As a writer of historical fantasy, I agree with everything Martin says. It’s true that with pure historical fiction, an informed reader will always know how the historical story ends. In my own works, which are set it the historical Middle Ages, I try to make the main plot less connected to the outcome of real historical events to preserve some sense of the “unexpected” that Martin talks about. I also love his view on what makes history interesting—because it’s written in blood—and I agree that real history is usually far more interesting than your average fantasy fiction. Martin, of course, strikes the perfect balance in A Song of Ice and Fire, which is one of the reasons, I believe, the books have been so successful.

But I’m curious to know what you think – does pure historical fiction rob the reader of a bit of the unexpected, and do you prefer fantasy for that reason? Or do you find the “written in blood” real history to be more interesting than anything 90% of the fantasists write? Leave a comment and let me know!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Pagan Lord – Another Battle-Fueled Tale by Bernard Cornwell!

The Pagan Lord is the seventh novel in Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Tales series, and while it was not my favorite (that distinction belongs to The Pale Horseman), it offered another suspenseful and battle-fueled adventure in the decades-long conflict between the Saxons and Danes to decide England’s fate.


The story begins when the series’ protagonist Uhtred of Bebbanburg, an unabashed pagan, kills an abbot while attempting to reclaim his eldest son and namesake who chose to become a priest. His son’s choice is so repugnant to Uhtred that he takes back the boy’s name after throwing him in a dung pile, referring to him forevermore as “Father Judas.” This act of violence against the Church—just the latest of many by Uhtred over the years—infuriates the Christians and their bishops, and Uhtred is once again forced into exile. But this time, he decides to leave Wessex and Mercia for good and reclaim his ancestral home of Bebbanburg.

Much of the novel concerns Uhtred’s quest to reclaim Bebbanburg, which has been ruled by Uhtred’s traitorous uncle Ælfric since the first novel. Yet before that quest begins, Cornwell introduces the novel’s central mystery: the wife and children of Jarl Cnut Ranulfson (“a legend in the lands where the Danes ruled”) have been kidnapped by men pretending to serve Uhtred, but the real culprit remains hidden. After Uhtred convinces Cnut of his innocence, Cnut asks him to find out who took his wife and children. Uhtred agrees to do so, if he can, but also discovers that his old enemy Haesten is in Cnut’s service. According to Uhtred, Haesten is like Loki the trickster god, so the plot thickens shall we say.

Fans of the series have been waiting for Uhtred to reclaim Bebbanburg for years, and his quest produces some of the novel’s most memorable scenes. Uhtred leads a small company of men, including his Irish sidekick Finan, to capture the impervious castle through subterfuge. He is joined by Osferth, the bastard son of the late King Alfred, and Uhtred’s second son, who he calls Uhtred Uhtredson. And just how many characters are there named “Uhtred” in this novel? By my count, no less than five, and it can get a bit confusing at times.

One of the aspects I’ve enjoyed the most about Uhtred’s tales is that, in a way, these novels are like medieval James Bond stories. Each one delivers some new and powerful villain, as well an intriguing female character who inevitably serves as Uhtred’s love interest for a time. This time, we’re introduced to Ingulfried, the cunning and beautiful wife of Ælfric’s son (and Uhtred’s cousin)—who’s also named Uhtred and has his own designs on Bebbanburg. But King Alfred’s daughter, the strong and likeable Æthelfled, features prominently in the novel too, as does another of Uhtred’s past flames, and at times I wondered just which one he might end up with.

Like all of Uhtred’s tales, the battles are some of the best parts, and no one writes them better than Bernard Cornwell. Before it’s over, the novel provides one of the more epic battles in the series, and that’s saying a lot for a series that’s featured a number of them. The novel’s end threw me for a huge loop and featured the series’ first cliffhanger ending. I’ll be looking forward to the next book—I just hope we don’t have to wait too long to learn how it all ends.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What Is The Book Of Leaves?

In the same weekend that Game of Thrones unveiled its latest shocking plot twist (for anyone who hasn’t read A Storm of Swords), Da Vinci’s Demons continued to weave its own elaborate tale. And once again, we’ve learned some intriguing tidbits about the cryptic Book of Leaves.

Count Riario has his own theory about the Book of Leaves.**
The Book of Leaves is the object at the center of the show’s biggest mystery. Last season, in the bowels of Castel Sant’Angelo, where the pope keeps his hidden treasures,* we witnessed one of its pages. The page is written in an alien language that Leonardo has never seen, but with the wave of the pope’s hand, the writing magically switches to Hebrew, then to astrological symbols, and even to strange hexagonal patterns. In that scene, Pope Sixtus revealed the book may have Enochian origins. Being an author of Enochian fiction, I loved the angle the show was taking. But in last Saturday’s episode, Count Riario offered another theory about the Book of Leaves when talking to Nico in the Basilisk’s brig:
“His Holiness believes it was written by the Nephilim, the offspring of angels and men. I find that notion romantic, but unlikely. No, I believe it was transcribed by the elders of an ancient civilization in Crete, nine thousand years before Christ, in a place that later became the lost city of Atlantis.”
So maybe the mystery surrounding the Book of Leaves will take an Atlantean turn? Yet even if Riario’s theory is correct, it may not rule out the pope’s. For one, some legends hold that Atlantis was an Antediluvian city, which means that if it existed, it was before the Great Flood. This was the time of Genesis 6:1-4, when the Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went into the daughters of humans, who bore children to them.”

According to The Atlantis Encyclopedia (yes, there is one, and it’s a handy reference for anyone writing fiction set in Atlantis), “the Nephilim appear to have been fourth millennium B.C. Atlanteans.” And even if the Atlantis of Da Vinci’s Demons existed after the Flood, Genesis tells us the Nephilim lived on past that cataclysm, and they’re even mentioned in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy (with old king Og, a remnant of the Rephaim, whose bed was nine cubits long (about 13 ½ feet!)). So perhaps the evil pope is still right. In any event, I’m looking forward to how this all unfolds later this season.

Is Lucrezia becoming a hero?**
And speaking of the evil pope, the show gave us an enormous plot twist about the brother he’s holding captive. I didn’t see that one coming! Nor did I foresee Lucrezia turning into a hero as she stays in Rome to save her father. Something makes me think that Lorenzo, who is halfway to Rome, may get embroiled in it too. I like that the writers kept us in Florence and Rome, for part of the show at least, even though Riario and Leonardo are racing across the Atlantic to find the New World.

If you’re a fan of the show, let me know what you think about Riario’s little theory. And if your jaw’s still slack after this past Sunday’s Game of Thrones, feel free to comment. The internet is abuzz with who you-know-who’s killer might be, and I’ve read a few wild conspiracy theories. Of course, the answer lies at the end of A Storm of Swords. All you have to do is read the book :)

* Note, if you re-watch the scene in the episode called The Hierophant, you’ll see that in addition to the Spear of Destiny (which looks a whole lot like the Holy Lance of Constantine) and the page from the Book of Leaves, Pope Sixtus is hiding the Ark of the Covenant! If only Indiana Jones had started his quest in the secret Vatican Archives!

** Photo courtesy of Starz.com

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Blood Eye – A Fierce Viking Tale

This week, I’m pleased to feature another review by Bill Brockman, this time of Blood Eye by Giles Kristian, Book 1 of his Raven Trilogy. For those new to this blog, 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. His review of Blood Eye follows this image of the book’s cover.


Blood Eye is the first volume of a trilogy, just discovered by your reviewer, which is already complete. Let me begin my review by saying I intend to read the next volume without hesitation. Vikings are hugely popular right now, so let’s have a look at this offering.

Kristian never uses the term Viking (he explains in an historical note), but there is no doubt who the primary characters are – Norsemen or “Vikings from Norway.” We meet the narrator, a teenage boy who knows nothing of his past and who dreams of “great rock walls rising so high from the sea that the sun’s warmth never hit the cold black water.” Named Osric by the villagers, he is apprenticed to a tongueless (explained later) carpenter in a dirt poor village on the south coast of Wessex – Abbotsend – in the year 802. Shunned and feared by the other villagers due to his “bloodeye” whereby one of his eyes is red instead of white, Osric is not at all happy. The local priest considers his bloodeye a sign of Satanic origins.

Osric’s unhappy life is forever changed the morning his dawn fishing trip to the shore is interrupted by the arrival of two dragon ships full of fierce warriors – Norsemen led by Jarl Sigurd. Amazingly Osric realizes he can both understand and speak the language of the invaders. This skill both saves his life and is used by the Norse as they force him to show them to the village. He does so, feeling the guilt of a traitor. After an initial tense standoff with the villagers, led by retired warrior Griffin, a trading agreement is reached and all is well for a day. However, the priest Wulfweard, hating the pagan Norsemen, plots to poison the Jarl Sigurd. Warning Sigurd, Osric precipitates a massacre and his own abduction by the Norse, along with his master, the mute carpenter Ealhstan.

Thus begins an amazing journey of growth and change for the boy, soon to be renamed Raven by Jarl Sigurd. He comes to think of himself as one of the Norsemen, despite fierce resistance from certain factions of the crew, led by the godi (pagan priest) Asgot who wants to sacrifice the two Wessexmen to the gods. But Sigurd sees his own lost son in young Raven, and protects him as they first encounter Ealdorman Ealdred in fierce combat, then in uneasy alliance. The Norsemen are recruited – their dragon ships held hostage – to recover a priceless artifact from the King of Mercia, Coenwulf. (Note, King Coenwulf and King Egbert of Wessex are historical figures, as is Coenwulf’s predecessor Offa.)

Stereotypes are inevitable in this type of historical fiction, and indeed appear in this work. Author Kristian also doesn’t shy away from fully developing the hatred and contempt with which Christian Wessexmen and pagan Norsemen held each other. This, of course, leads to frequent horrific violence against warrior and innocent alike.

Fierce battles, along with trickery, treachery and betrayal on all sides (and some friendship and romance too) follow as Raven and the Norse travel first to King Coenwulf’s hall, then journey into Wales and back to Wessex in an attempt to regain their dragon ships. The Norsemen’s almost supernatural – and at times this strains believability – skill in battle preserve them on more than one occasion. But how often can they overcome near overwhelming odds to fulfill the treasure quest and regain their beloved dragon ships?

Thanks, Bill, for the great review. I’ll be turning my own writing efforts back to Vikings soon, and Blood Eye sounds like it will provide a healthy dose of inspiration. I’ve picked up a copy on my Kindle and hope to read it soon!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Noah Finds Religion—and Stony Angels

I managed to see Daren Aronofsky’s Noah a bit earlier than I anticipated. Having just read the graphic novel, I thought I knew what to expect. And while that was partially, true, the film went in a surprisingly more religious direction. Also, as I hoped, there were plenty of Watchers—the fallen angels of Genesis 6:1-4 and the Book of Enoch—but even these guys threw me for a bit of a curve.


What I can’t tell is whether Noah’s new dose of religion was added to the script by the studio to quell critics or whether Aronofsky’s vision of the film changed a bit from his graphic novel. As I noted last week, the graphic novel has an uber-environmentalist bent. The wickedness of men that causes the Great Flood is chalked up to man’s sins against the environment, and animals in particular, causing Noah to see himself as the savior of God’s innocent creations.

As many critics have noted, this environmentalist storyline diverges from the true wickedness of man that inspires the Genesis version of the Flood. In Genesis, it all starts with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but he’s nowhere to be found in the graphic novel. Yet in the movie, he appears right after the opening credits! He also can be seen almost every time the movie talks about Original Sin. Moreover, there’s a scene in the movie designed to portray the wickedness of man. Amidst the murder and chaos, Noah sees a man that the movie strongly suggests is the serpent embodied in human form—the Enemy himself inflaming the wickedness that provokes God to cleanse the earth.

This is a 180-degree change from some of the pre-release speculation about the film. And while the story does have Noah turning down a dark path, believing God wants to exterminate all of mankind and that Noah is supposed to help Him accomplish this, the film’s story arch is one of redemption, backed by a powerful message of love. It’s actually done much better in the film than the graphic novel. Noah’s wife, Naameh, embodies the theme of faith, and Jennifer Connelly, who plays her, pulls this off well.

Now let me say a few things about the Watchers. Unlike the graphic novel which depicted them as gigantic, six-armed ogres, the movie portrays them like Middle-Earthen Tree Ents, but made of stone.

I’ve already written about how Aronofsky’s vision of the Watchers diverges from the Book of Enoch and Genesis chapter 6. Contrary to what you might read in the movie reviews, these guys weren’t the Nephilim of scripture. The Nephilim are actually the children of the Watchers and human women. But let’s just say the Watchers in the movie don’t look capable of procreation. Because they’re more like walking boulders than manlike beings.

Their appearance in the movie, however, got me thinking. I wonder if this wasn’t an intentional play on the Book of Enoch. In that ancient text, the actual Watchers rebel against God, mate with human women, and spawn with the Nephilim, who wreak great evil in the world. As a result, God sends his archangels to imprison them in the earth. In the movie, when these beings of light arrive on earth against God’s will, they turn to stone, literally trapping their light within earth. If my theory is right, this was a very clever move by the writers.

Overall, I enjoyed Noah and think it may have been superior to its graphic counterpart. It’s earned some very good reviews (you can read some here and here). And just maybe it will kindle some interest in that curious verse in Genesis—the one Brother Remi is obsessed with in Enoch’s Device. Speaking of Enoch, Methuselah (played brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins in the film) speaks fondly of his father Enoch, and he wields a little bit of white magic too—just enough, in fact, to change the world.