Wednesday, February 25, 2015

“Blood Eye” – My Take On A Fierce Viking Tale

As Season 3 of Vikings gets underway, it just so happens I’m immersing myself in Viking-related fiction. I just finished Blood Eye by Giles Kristian, a book about the Vikings in England that guest reviewer Bill Brockman introduced me to last year. A quote on the cover from Bernard Cornwell (who writes some of the best Viking fiction around) calls it “a powerful, lightning-paced tale.” I tend to agree, and my review follows this image of the book’s cover. 

Set in early ninth century England, Blood Eye is told from the viewpoint of Osric, a fifteen-year-old carpenter’s apprentice in the village of Abbotsend. It turns out Osric has a secret past, for the villagers found him left for dead near a burial mound with a pagan knife hanging around his neck. Unfortunately, he has no memory of his life before then. Even worse, his left eye is stained red instead of white, so the Christian priests believe he’s been touched by the devil. This makes his life less than blissful in Abbotsend, but everything changes the day two Viking longships arrive on shore.

The Vikings are led by Jarl Sigurd, who claims they are traders – while admitting that “sometimes they’re not.” In this instance, however, the Norseman have come in apparent peace, but that doesn’t stop the village priest from trying to kill them with poisoned mead. When Osric warns Sigurd about the treachery, the Vikings take their revenge, and take Osric with them. The good news is that Sigurd believes Osric’s “blood eye” is a blessing from Odin the All-father, so it’s no wonder that Osric soon prefers Sigurd and his men over the English who shunned him. 

Noble Vikings!
Sigurd gives Osric the name Raven, and the boy quickly finds he loves the Norseman and their way of life, which is precisely the theme of the novel. Put simply, this is a tale about Vikings told from a Viking perspective. They are portrayed as noble warriors, while the English priests and lords are a treacherous lot. Jarl Sigurd serves as the paragon of Norse courage and honor, and Raven grows to idolize the man. 

The story kicks into gear when a Wessex ealdorman offers Sigurd a fortune in silver to steal a Gospel book of Saint Jerome’s from the stronghold of the king of Merica. The Norseman are accompanied on this adventure by a fierce Wessexman named Mauger and an endearing priest named Father Egfrith, whom the author uses for frequent banter between the humorously judgmental cleric and the hell-bound “heathens” of Sigurd’s band. In Mercia, Raven helps save a young woman named Cynethryth, who serves as Raven’s love interest for the remainder of the tale. But this isn’t a romance story by any stretch. Rather, it’s a tale of battle and blood, and the fellowship Raven experiences with his new Viking family. 

The novel moves at a fast pace, from one thrilling battle scene to another, mixed with a few good twists and a whole lot a betrayal. The book ends in a way that sets up a perfect sequel, this time a Viking adventure in the empire of Charlemagne. Overall, I found Blood Eye to be a worthy read, and I look forward to the next book in the series.

By the way, for another take on Blood Eye, you can read Bill’s review here.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Return of Ragnar Lothbrok!

Television gets even better tonight as Season 3 of Vikings premiers on History. Vikings, along with Black Sails, is part of a quintet of great historical fiction and historical fantasy shows that will soon include Da Vinci's Demons, Outlander, and Season 5 of Game of Thrones. Needless to say, I love this time of year!

The last season of Vikings ended better than I could have imagined. Just when I thought Floki would betray Ragnar and side with King Horik, the writers executed a perfect twist: Ragnar, Lagertha, and their whole clan turned the tables on Horik, proving definitively that no one messes with Ragnar Lothbrok! Or is it "King" Ragnar now?

Ragnar and Lagertha are back!*
I love that History chose Ragnar as the series' protagonist. Ragnar Lothbrok may be more of a legend than a real historical figure, sort of like the King Arthur of Scandinavian Vikings. He, Lagertha, and Aslaug all appear in old Norse and Saxon poems, but whether they truly lived or were characters based on one or more real personages has never been settled.

Some of Ragnar's sons, on the other hand, were in fact real men. His sons Ivar the Boneless and Ubba, for example, led a Danish invasion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in ninth century England. They are also characters in Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom, which is one of the best Viking tales around.

In any event, I'm back to my research on Vikings for my next novel, and I'm looking forward to spending some extra time with them Thursday nights on History.

* Image courtesy of History.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

5 Thoughts on Peter Jackson’s “The Two Towers”

As a follow-up to my recent post on 5 Reasons Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” Was Better Than Tolkien’s Original, I’m offering my thoughts on the merits of Jackson’s second film, The Two Towers, as compared to the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. (My daughter and I are still reading The Return of the King, so that blog post will have to wait.) This time, claiming the film was superior to the book was a closer call.

To begin, however, The Two Towers stands with it’s fellow books in The Lord of the Rings as one of the most significant works of fantasy fiction ever written. In my opinion, it’s the second-best of the trilogy, and it’s frankly hard to imagine what the genre would even look like (or if it would even exist) had Tolkien not written his magnum opus. That said, Peter Jackson, viewing the book decades after Tolkien wrote it, made a number of improvements. Here are my thoughts:

This is my vintage copy.

1. Jackson’s structure is better than the book.

One of the things I liked the least about Tolkien’s second novel in the trilogy is the way he split the story into two parts that take place at the same time. The first part follows the tale of Merry and Pippin, who’ve been captured by Saruman’s Uruk-hai, and that of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas who’ve gone off to save them. Frodo (the main protagonist) and Sam are nowhere to be found in the first half of the book. Instead, we must wait until the second half to find out what happens during their brave trek to Mordor. 

Most novels have no trouble switching back and forth between storylines from one chapter to the next. This allows the author to proceed with a chronological unfolding of the tale. Fortunately, Peter Jackson saw fit to do this. As a result, the film begins with Frodo and Sam and their encounter with Gollum, before shifting to the fate of Merry and Pippin, and then shifting again to the pursuit by Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. The movie transitions between these storylines with ease, and the experience is better for it. 

Incidentally, the only other time I can recall an author breaking up storylines separately is what George R.R. Martin did between A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons. By doing so, fans were left with a novel that omitted the storylines of favorite characters such as Tyrion, Daenerys, and Jon Snow, which is one reason why A Feast For Crows is considered by many to be their least favorite in the series. 

Eowyn was better in the film!

2. The human element is stronger in the film.

I mentioned before how Tolkien is not great with emotion. Well, The Two Towers is no exception. Jackson’s film, by contrast, does a tremendous job using the plight of the people of Rohan to portray the human suffering when civilians are caught up in the horrors of war. The scenes showing the refugees from Rohan heading to Helm’s Deep, and huddling fearfully during the siege, portrayed this perfectly and added a welcome human element to the story. Jackson also accomplishes this through the character of Eowyn. She is probably the most significant female character in the books (albeit among very few female characters in the trilogy), but Tolkien never tells the story from her point-of-view. Jackson, however, offers a very personal portrayal of Eowyn, and the film is richer because of it.

Legolas shot a few Wargs!

3. It’s hard to beat that battle with the Wargs!

In the novel, the threat of Warg riders during the journey to Helm’s Deep is merely hinted at. But Jackson turned these hints into one of the most exciting scenes in the film. Some may argue that he strayed from the book, yet by doing so he added an element of action the book sorely needed. Not all of Jackson’s departures from the book worked out as well, however – but more on that in a moment.

Helm's Deep was a climactic battle!

4. Helm’s Deep was the perfect climactic set piece.

Tolkien devotes a single chapter to the Battle of Helm’s Deep. He positions it near the middle of the novel, which happens to be close to the end of the Merry-Pippin-Aragorn-Rohan storyline. By doing so, he robs it of some of its climactic potential. Fortunately, Jackson saw the battle as an opportunity to create one of the best set pieces in the film.

Jackson’s battle makes it clear that it is for the survival of the people of Rohan. The stakes, appropriately, feel that high. He also enlarged the battle’s scope, and added an appearance by the elves (which had me scratching my head the first time I saw the film), but I must say it works. When Gandalf shows up at the end with Eomer (who replaces the relatively pointless character of Erkenbrand in the novel), you feel the triumph of good over evil. Jackson also transitions between the Helm’s Deep scenes and the Ents’ assault on Isengard, which creates a wonderful and exciting climax for the film.

In the book, Gollum's story comes full circle.

5. But Tolkien’s ending was better!

Here’s the kicker. As great as the film ended, Tolkien ended the book with an even more thrilling scene – but it’s one Jackson omitted from the film and saved for his third movie. The book ends with Gollum leading Frodo and Sam into Shelob’s Lair and the events that unfold there. This completes Gollum’s character arc from treacherous villain, to Frodo’s willing servant, back to treacherous villain. It also sets the stage for Sam to be the hero when he becomes the ring-bearer after believing Shelob has killed Frodo. 

For me, this has always been one of the most memorable scenes in the entire series. But Jackson left the scene out of the movie. Perhaps he had to because he chose to end The Return of the King after the destruction of the ring (whereas Tolkien added an entire storyline about the Hobbits’ return to the Shire). Had Jackson included the Shelob story in the second film, he would have had scant material for Frodo and Sam’s tale in the final installment. 

But what Jackson chose to do in the second installment didn’t work very well. He created a scene where Faramir takes Frodo, Sam, and Gollum to Osgiliath, a city under siege by orcs and Ringwraiths. Then he nearly has Frodo captured by one of the Ringwraiths when Frodo is tempted to put on the ring, only to be saved by Sam, who delivers a rousing speech. It felt almost like a retread of the speech Sam gives at the end of the first film. 

Also, I’ve always struggled with that Ringwraith mounted on his dragon-like steed just yards from the One Ring. Methinks the Nazgul and his dragon would have grabbed Frodo regardless of whether he put on the ring. After all, Sauron sent all nine of them looking for Hobbits (“Baggins, Shire!”), and lo and behold, two Hobbits appear in Osgiliath of all places. The gig should have been up and Sauron should have won. That’s probably why J.R.R. Tolkien never included such a scene in his books. It wouldn’t have made sense. I think Peter Jackson got too cute with that one, even if he needed to find some way to create dramatic tension in the absence of Shelob’s lair.

But these are just my thoughts. Which take on The Two Towers did you prefer – the movie or the book?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The New "Game of Thrones" Trailer Looks Amazing!

Season 5 of HBO's Game of Thrones will premier on April 12, 2015, and last week HBO released the first official trailer. It looks absolutely amazing, but it also hints to some distinct changes from the books. For example, I don't recall reading about Ser Jorah fighting in Meereen's arena or Jaime going to Dorne, and it looks like Varys may be Tyrion's new travelling companion – which makes wonder if a particular Targaryen lad may have been axed from the show.

That said, I loved our first look at the Sand Snakes, and it looks like Season 5 will delve deep into A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons. Last season already ventured far into those books, and it wouldn't surprise me if this season ends with the conclusion of those two novels. (I'm having a hard time imagining how the writers would find a good place to stop in the middle of either book, especially since much of the two books cover the same time period.) But where will that leave us with Season 6?

Coming in 2016???
According to reports, the next book in George R.R. Martin's series, The Winds of Winter, is not scheduled for release in 2015. Who knows if it will even be published in 2016? Martin is the anti-Stephen King in terms of being prolific  he's not, not even close. Which makes we wonder whether the show will start to reveal events from The Winds of Winter before the book is released, or whether the books and the show will diverge permanently after this season? 

I hope it's not the latter. Although there have been plenty of divergence so far, the core story has basically remained in place. I've read that Martin briefed the producers on how the books end, but I'd hate for the show to spoil what has been a series of great reads. I suppose, however, only time will tell.

But let me know what you think. What are your thoughts on Season 5, and how soon the show will outpace the books?