Friday, July 31, 2015

All Roads Lead To “Rome”

My wife and I recently finished HBO’s Rome in advance of a trip to Italy we’ll be taking this summer (which, thankfully, will allow for some on-site research for the sequel to Enoch’s Device). We adored the show, and in reading about it afterwards I happened upon an article in The Verge titled Before Game of Thrones, there was Rome.” Its point: without HBO’s Rome, we might never have had Game of Thrones.


For those who haven’t seen it, Rome tells the story of the rise of the Roman Empire. Season one is about Julius Caesar, while season two covers the rise of Octavian and his conflict with Marc Antony. And while the show features a host of historical figures (all portrayed by a wonderful cast), it’s told primarily from the viewpoints of two legionnaires: Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Think of Rome like a great buddy film set amid some of the most famous events in Roman history, and you’ll start to get the picture. 


But what are its connections to Game of Thrones? Here are some excerpts from The Verge: 
Name the most enticing aspects of Game of Thrones, and you’ll find them in Rome. Both tell grand stories of violent political turmoil through the intimate lens of personal experiences. We don’t care as much about who won this or that battle as we do when Jaime Lannister loses a hand or Lucius Vorenus liberates his daughters. Every frame of Rome is drenched in intrigue, which occasionally erupts onto the screen through acts of bloody backstabbing or equally explicit sex scenes. Much as in Game of Thrones, being the most influential or powerful character is no guarantee of surviving until the next episode, let alone the next season. In fact, power and misery seem to be inextricably bonded in both shows.
As much as Game of Thrones may be ahistoric and subject to its own internal lore and structure, its inspirations are clearly drawn from the same bloody pool of human history as Rome’s. Daenerys Targaryen, the young queen threatening the seat of Westeros power from beyond the seas, finds her parallel in Egypt’s Cleopatra. Joffrey Baratheon is as cold and unsympathizing a ruler as Rome’s brutally calculating Gaius Octavian. And the strong female figures of Catelyn Stark and Cersei Lannister find their Roman counterparts in Atia of the Julii and Servilia of the Junii. Come on, it’s cool to even just say those names.

The article even notes the link between Rome’s actors and those in Game of Thrones:
CiarĂ¡n Hinds, the Gaius Julius Caesar of Rome, now performs the pivotal role of Mance Rayder in Game of Thrones. Indira Varma, the actress that once portrayed the wife of Lucius Vorenus, turned into the paramour of the vengeful Prince Martell in last season's Thrones. More importantly, Rome showed HBO was capable of wrangling huge casts and weaving together sprawling and complex storylines to create one compelling whole. There was just one issue: it couldn’t stay within budget.
Rome’s massive budget ultimately shortened its run to two seasons, but the lessons HBO learned from the highly acclaimed show helped bring George R.R. Martin’s epic to life. 
Without Rome, I’m sure we wouldn’t have the epic and ambitious Game of Thrones that we’re enjoying today. The funny thing is that with Rome, we wouldn’t have the present Thrones, either, given the way that show burned through HBO’s finances. So Rome had to both rise and fall, as a TV production, in order for Game of Thrones to become what it is today.
So the next time you watch Game of Thrones, tip a cup to Vorenus and Pullo and everything they gave us in Rome.

You can read the full article on theverge.com here.

* Images courtesy of HBO

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Artistic License and Historical Fiction

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 A.D. – the famous battle where the army of King Edward Longshanks defeated William Wallace and his fellow Scotsmen, depicted in the movie Braveheart. So, this week I'm revisiting one of my first posts from July 2011, this blog's inaugural month.

Loved the film, even if the history is questionable.
The Battle of Falkirk was one of the most significant battles in the First War of Scottish Independence. In Braveheart, it’s the battle where Wallace is almost killed before he’s dragged from the field by Robert the Bruce, who had sided with the English at the behest of his sinister father. 

Now Braveheart is a great movie and that was a dramatic and compelling scene, but many historians have criticized both the scene and the film as being historically inaccurate. For one, Robert the Bruce did not side with the English at Falkirk. He wasn’t even there, although during his reign he did change sides between the Scots and the English several times. Nevertheless, was the artistic license taken in Braveheart defensible in the name of crafting good fiction?

Does Robert the Bruce look like a traitor?
One of my all-time favorite historical fiction authors is Bernard Cornwell. For his novel Heretic, set during the Hundred Years War, he created several fictional places and personages central to the story, including a French count, a walled city and its lord, and a cardinal from Livorno, which is not a real archdiocese. In my opinion, Heretic is a fantastic novel and Cornwell’s artistic license is entirely justified. In fact, unless you are a student of the French countryside or an aficionado of Italian archbishoprics, you’d not even know artistic license had been taken.

A perfect use of artistic license!
I did something similar in my own novel, whose antagonist is a French bishop. He’s not a nice man – and that’s being kind! So instead of slandering the name and memory of some real bishop, I made this character the Bishop of Blois, even though Blois’ real bishopric was not created until centuries later. I made this call for the sake of my story, and I stand by it.

But others may disagree. So what’s your view? When does artistic license go too far in the name of historical fiction?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

“Mockingbird” Gives Us the Real Atticus Finch

The past several days, the internet has been abuzz with the story that Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set A Watchman, portrays Atticus Finch as a racist. This is the same man she portrayed as a noble hero in To Kill A Mockingbird, which is set twenty years before Watchman. So how could the moral hero of that book have gone down such a dark path later in life? There’s one simple answer: he never did.


To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the greatest novels of all time, and remains one of my favorite books. But it’s never had a sequel, and still doesn’t in my view, despite today’s publication of Go Set A Watchman (which is about an adult Scout returning to her hometown). 

By all accounts, Lee wrote Watchman in the mid-1950s. Her editor at the time, however, didn’t want to publish it. Instead, he asked her to write a new novel based on the main character’s childhood. That is the story that became To Kill A Mockingbird, while Watchman was shelved for a half-century. 

As every writer knows, a story changes as it is written, often metamorphosing into something very different than what the author originally envisioned. And the same is true for a story’s characters. In my own novel, there are characters who existed in early drafts that never even appear in the published book. My main character went through three name changes, had his origin story rewritten twice, and was sired by three different fathers, depending on the day. My antagonist was no different. He changed names, jobs, and mannerisms throughout my writing journey. I doubt the antagonist from my early drafts would even recognize the villain from the published novel. 

Given the changes that occur during the writing journey, it’s no surprise that a character who began as a racist in the author’s mind later evolved into a moral hero by the final draft. By the time Lee finished Mockingbird, Atticus Finch had completely transformed into the character so many readers admire today. Mockingbird’s Atticus never shared the poisonous views of Watchman’s Atticus because that Atticus disappeared somewhere along the way. He was lost in the writing journey that gave us Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch.


Because of the order in which the two books were written, Watchman was never intended to be a sequel that explains how Atticus Finch became a racist. That would be like J.K. Rowling writing a sequel where Harry Potter has become a religious fanatic who’s really into witch burning. The reality is that Mockingbird’s Atticus did not exist when Watchman was written. That noble Atticus had yet to be born in Lee’s mind. 

At least that’s the way I like to think of it. I don’t want to believe a hero like Mockingbird’s Atticus could turn into the man apparently portrayed in Watchman. I’d rather believe that Watchman is some alternate reality where Mockingbird’s Atticus never existed. Because that’s essentially what Harper Lee did. After she wrote Watchman, she created a whole new reality for the six-year-old Scout, one where her father, Atticus Finch, was a hero we could all believe in.


PS – Yesterday The Passive Voice posted an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal that suggests Lee’s father was the model for Atticus Finch. Apparently, he was a segregationist who changed his views while Lee was writing Mockingbird. That may help explain how Watchman’s Atticus transformed into Mockingbird’s Atticus during her writing journey. Here’s a link.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

“The Lord of Vik-Lo” - Another Viking Adventure in Ireland!

Once again I'm pleased to feature a guest review by Bill Brockman, this time of The Lord of Vik-Lo by James L. Nelson. 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. Here's his take on this new Viking tale:


I have previously reviewed the first two books of The Norsemen Saga by nautical fiction and history writer James L. Nelson. Now, he presents us with a somewhat less complex story in the third book, The Lord of Vik-Lo. I found it to be probably the best of the three, perhaps due to the author deciding to limit the scope of the work somewhat compared with the first two.

The volume opens by introducing a new set of characters and a new place – still set mostly on the Eastern Coast of 9th Century Ireland. The Danish, or Dubh Gall, Norsemen of Vik-lo are heading home from raiding the Fearna Monastery for a rich haul. Being well upriver from the coast, this particular place had not been previously raided; the Dubh Gall under Jarl Grimarr Giant worked their dragon ships far up river to surprise the monks and work their usual destruction and pillage. On the way home, Grimarr’s ship has been delayed for emergency repairs and he is hurrying to catch his fellow “Lord of Vik-lo” Fasti Magnusson, into whose ship has been placed all the spoils of the raid. What Grimarr finds instead is Fasti’s ship under attack by several Irish curraghs under the command of minor Irish king Lorcan, who rules the lands around Vik-lo and desires to rule much, much more. Lorcan knows about the treasure and plans to have it.

Grimarr arrives in time to drive away Lorcan’s men – but not to save Fasti or his crew. The only survivor is a young Irish woman who had been captured as a slave on the raid. Even worse, the treasure is nowhere to be found.

Few things are more fun than a dragonship!
Meanwhile, our hero of the series, Thorgrim Ulfsson, also called Thorgrim Night Wolf, wants nothing more than to return to the life of a peaceful farmer in Vik, Norway. And, it looks as though he may finally achieve his desire. Readers may recall that in Dubh-lin, the second book, Thorgrim lost his longship, Red Dragon, and was forced into the life of a supplicant. However, fate intervened, and assassins were sent to kill Brigit, whose father, King Mael Sechnaill mac Ruanaid of Brega, had died in the first book. Fighting off the Dubh-gall assassins, Thorgrim, his son Harald and companion Starri the Deathless had gained a new longship he has named Fair Voyager through right of conquest. So, with Harald, Starring, his father-in-law Jarl Ornolf, and a crew made up of both survivors of his original ship and some newly recruited Norsemen from Dubh-lin, Thorgrim at last is underway for Vik by way of England across the Irish Sea.

As usual with Thorgrim, the gods have other ideas and a violent storm soon finds the Fin-gall forced to seek shelter in Vik-lo (Thorgrim has sworn to never return to Dubh-lin) where they find a suspicious but ultimately welcoming Grimarr. Thorgrim and his crew will be allowed to stay long enough to repair Fair Voyager. Grimarr remains in mourning for his two dead sons with only less favored Sandarr still living. Sandarr has schemes of his own.

Thorgrim and company soon find themselves involved in a struggle to retrieve the treasure, the location of which is known to the Irish girl to whom only Harald can communicate. Lorcan also hasn’t forgotten and plots his own scheme. Then, changing everything, Grimarr discovers a dark secret about Thorgrim’s longship and the story behind his sons’ deaths. Thorgrim and crew will soon be fighting for survival against two sets of enemies.

If you, like I, enjoy a rousing adventure involving Vikings and Irishmen, and strongly drawn characters, both admirable and despicable, you will love The Lord of Vik-lo.

I would add – since Joseph’s blog leans toward works that involve fantasy and the supernatural to a certain extent – that Thorgrim is not called “Night Wolf” for purely symbolic reasons. Whenever things seem to get really desperate – something happens.

Note: Vik-lo is now a county and town on the Irish east coast known as Wicklow, south of Dublin.

Thanks, Bill, for the review. I recently finished Finn Gall, the first book in the series, and plan to offer my take on it in the next few weeks. One thing I'll say now is that James L. Nelson is an author worth reading!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Independence Day


Some of my favorite words ever written, 239 years ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Happy July 4th to all!