Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Puzzle-like Plots: “Angels & Demons”

Before my summer trip to Rome I re-read Angels & Demons by Dan Brown and it reminded me how well Brown crafts puzzle-like plots. I’ve always liked his thrillers because they involve history and religion. But the key for me is the puzzle at the heart of each story. Here’s what I mean. (Minor *SPOILERS* to follow.)

The Set Up

Angles & Demons begins with a murder at CERN, a massive physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. The murdered scientist, who was also a Catholic priest, has been branded with the lost symbol of the Illuminati, a secret society dating back to the 1500s. The Illuminati opposed the Church because of its persecutions of outspoken scientists like Galileo and Copernicus. But over time, the Illuminati grew violent and sought to bring about the obliteration of the Catholic Church.

Enter Brown’s hero, Harvard professor of religious iconology and symbology Robert Langdon, who CERN brings in to identify the Illuminati symbol. He’s soon paired with the victim’s beautiful daughter Vittoria Vetra. She and her father had been working on an experiment to prove the creation event in the book of Genesis was possible – creating matter from nothing. The experiment worked, but just as God created light and dark, their experiment created matter and antimatter. This plot point plays into the book’s primary theme, the conflict between science and religion, which makes the Illuminati the novel’s ideal antagonists.

Vittoria and Langdon quickly learn that a canister of antimatter has been stolen by the murderer. Even worse, it’s now hidden somewhere in the Vatican. When the canister’s battery runs out in 24 hours, the antimatter will explode with the force of a five kiloton bomb. The race against time is on!

St. Peter's Basilica
As soon as the setting moves to Vatican City, the puzzle-like plot kicks into full gear. The papal conclave has begun to replace the late pope, so the College of Cardinals has gathered in the Sistine Chapel. The situation gets worse when a servant of the Illuminati reveals the group has kidnapped the four top candidates to succeed the pope and plans on killing them one by one, each in a church no less. The problem is there are more than 400 churches and chapels in Rome.

The Puzzle

After ruminating on the killer’s cryptic words, Langdon realizes there is something in the Vatican Archives that may help – a book written by Galileo, one of the original Illuminati. The Illuminati created a map to direct their members to their sanctuary in Rome. Called the “Path to Illumination,” the map consisted of a series of concealed markers in locations throughout the city. But, of course, the markers form a puzzle that must be solved! In fact, Vittoria even calls it a “treasure hunt” – and who doesn’t love a good treasure hunt? (I promise you, I do!)

Could this be one of the Altars of Science?
The markers are disguised as religious statues, though each one is a subtle tribute to the four elements of Seventeenth Century science: earth, air, fire, and water. The churches that housed these statues were called the “Altars of Science”—a term used by the killer to note the place where each cardinal would meet his end. 

The puzzle itself is a riddle written in Galileo’s book by fellow suspected Illuminati, John Milton:
From Santi’s earthly tomb with demon’s hole,
‘Cross Rome the mystic elements unfold.
The path of light is laid, the sacred test,
Let angels guide you on your lofty quest.
Nearly every word in the riddle has meaning and each is a clue to solving the puzzle. Even better, some of the words have multiple meanings, giving rise to red herrings. This makes solving the riddle even more challenging, and Brown plays this well. Langdon never guesses right the first time, but rather must deduce the answer by learning from his misassumptions and the evidence he finds along the way. All the while, the killer is carrying out his plot to kill the four cardinals, and trying to stop Langdon and Vittoria in the process.

Most importantly, when the riddle is finally solved, the answer seems credible. While Brown plays lots of word games and engages in plenty of misdirection, the riddle’s ultimate meaning fits the facts. It never seems contrived, so the reader never feels cheated. That, I believe, is the most important element of a great puzzle-like plot. 

The Pantheon - a clue or a red herring?

Science and Religion

In addition to the puzzle-like plot, Angels & Demons has, in my view, the best theme of any of his Robert Langdon novels. Langdon is an academic unable to make the “leap of faith” required by religion. Meanwhile, Vittoria believes in a harmony between religion and science, recalling one of her father’s favorite sayings:
To round out the debate, Brown gives us a Vatican priest who believes science will be the death of religion. The debate plays out well, albeit with a heavier hand in favor of what the reader may assume are Brown’s own view. Vittoria sums up this view best:
“Religion is like language or dress. We gravitate toward the practices with which we were raised. In the end, though, we are all proclaiming the same thing. That life has meaning. That we are grateful for the power that created us.”
Regardless of how you feel about this debate, it adds an extra element to the story that elevates it beyond just a great puzzle-like plot. That is something I always appreciate, and frankly it’s something Dan Brown tends to do very well.

But those are just my thoughts, and I’m always curious about yours: Do you enjoy puzzle-like plots, and how did you feel about Angles & Demons?

PS – a special thanks to everyone who helped make the BookSends promotion for Enoch’s Device a success, especially if you recommended it to a friend! I hope these new readers enjoy the book and its own puzzle-like plot.

* Photos courtesy of my iPhone.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Inspiration & "The Name of the Rose"

I'm pulling from the archives once again due to a hectic week. This one is about the book that helped inspire my own novel, Enoch's Device.

On a lazy weekend back in the early ‘90s, I stumbled across a movie on TV that helped me discover one of the finest books I have ever read – and the story that became the inspiration for my first novel.

Baskerville, William of Baskerville ...
I was drawn to the movie by its medieval setting, and became immediately intrigued once I realized it starred Sean Connery, one of my favorite actors (I grew up a huge James Bond fan, so I came by this honestly). Christian Slater was in it as well, and the two played monks who were skulking about a maze-like monastery, trying to solve a series of murders. There was also a peasant girl that had a thing for Christian Slater, as well as a bunch of other creepy monks and F. Murray Abraham as a merciless inquisitor. When the credits rolled, I realized the film was based on a book called The Name of the Rose, and the next day I set out to find it.

One of my all-time favorite novels!
I drove to the nearest bookstore (which, sadly, has now closed like almost every other bookstore near where I live) and mentioned the book’s title to the lady at the counter. She recognized it immediately and soon handed me my first copy of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (I now own three copies, including a beautiful hardcover edition).

For those who haven’t read it, The Name of the Rose is a medieval take on a classic murder mystery in the vein of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. In fact, one of the main characters, who plays the role of Holmes in the novel, is named William of Baskerville, an allusion to one of Doyle’s tales, the Hounds of Baskervilles. William, a Franciscan friar, and his young Benedictine apprentice, Adso of Melk (Eco’s version of Dr. Watson), arrive at a monastery in Northern Italy where one of the brethren has died under mysterious circumstances. At the behest of the abbot, William sets out to determine whether the monk committed suicide – or was murdered. When a number of other deaths occur under circumstances that hint to passages from the book of Revelation, many in the monastery begin to fear that the Antichrist must walk among them.

The monastery turns out to be a den of secrets, making it the perfect setting for a medieval mystery. The biggest secret concerns the monastery’s labyrinthine library, which the abbot forbids anyone from entering. Then there are the clues – including apocalyptic symbolism, coded manuscripts, and secret symbols – that William must decipher using his logic and deductive reasoning, all in the hope of unraveling the mystery before the murderer kills again. By the time a notorious inquisitor arrives, ready to employ his own brutal methods to solve the crimes, the book had me so hooked I couldn’t put it down. And the story has stayed with me for nearly twenty years.

A decade ago I started writing novels, all in the fantasy genre, and most involving warrior-type characters. None of them were about monks, and none were good enough to publish – or in most instances to even finish. But all the while, in the back of my mind, there lingered The Name of the Rose, along with a few intriguing questions: What if the apocalyptic clues that William and Adso encountered were signs of the actual apocalypse instead of just evidence left by some mortal killer? And what if, by solving the mystery, the monks could prevent the End of Days? Over time, those questions evolved into the premise of my new novel, Enoch’s Device.

Ultimately, Enoch’s Device ended up a very different story than The Name of the Rose. My novel is not a murder mystery, but rather a medieval adventure – and a journey tale of sorts – that takes my protagonist from Ireland to Moorish Spain as he, and his mentor, strive to unravel the mystery behind Enoch’s device, an angelic weapon with the power to prevent the apocalypse. The novel is steeped in mythology and history, and contains a good bit of magic as well. The two monks at the heart of the story, Brother Ciarán and Brother Dónall, bear only a faint resemblance to Adso and William. But those two characters, and the story Umberto Eco crafted so brilliantly around them, became my inspiration. And for that, I am grateful.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A BookSends Sale for "Enoch's Device"!

Tomorrow, the Kindle edition of Enoch’s Device will be featured as a daily deal on BookSends. But I decided to start the sale a day early on Amazon and run it for the rest of the week. (It's on Amazon UK too.) If you've already read and liked the book, now is a great time to tell a friend. Here’s a link to the book’s Amazon page, followed by an image of the cover and a brief summary.

Nearly a thousand years after the birth of Christ, when all Europe fears that the world will soon end, a young 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. But a heretic-hunting bishop has arrived at the monastery, willing to kill to ensure the weapon is never found. 
Pursued by the bishop’s men and supernatural forces, Ciarán and his freethinking mentor journey to the heart of France in search of the device. There, they rescue the Lady Alais, a young widow accused of witchcraft because she holds a key to the prophecy. Together, the trio must race 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.
Author Cate Peace of Indie Books R Us called Enoch's Device “a refreshing twist on the religious thriller, and one that will have you turning pages from cover to cover as fast as you can.” You can read her full review here.

In other reviews, Stephen Reynolds of SPR called Enoch's Device “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.”

And Marty Shaw of Blog Critics 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.”

I gave an interview to Ms. Peace, where I revealed a bit more about the upcoming sequel – you can read it here.  

Also, you can read more about Enochthe Fae, and the Paladins of Charlemagne in my interview that appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Beowulf Reimagined

Another busy week means another post from the archives. This one's from 2011.

Because I was travelling for the past five weeks, I had little time to do research on Vikings for my next novel. But I did have enough time to re-read another of my favorite stories about Vikings, Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead.

The book is short (about 175 pages) and it has probably been twenty years since I first read it. But it struck me after this reading that Crichton was reimagining the classic story of Beowulf. Since I’ve been focusing on the re-imagining of legends and classic tales on this blog, I thought I’d write briefly about Crichton’s novel.

Crichton tells the story through the viewpoint of Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, a real-life historical figure who served as an ambassador from the Caliph of Baghdad to the King of the Bulgars in 922 A.D. Ibn Fadlan wrote one of the early accounts of the Rus, a group of Swedish Vikings who relocated to the Baltic region and ultimately gave their name to “Russia.” In Eaters of the Dead, Ibn Fadlan is chosen to be the thirteenth warrior on a Viking mission to save the land of Venden from a mysterious enemy that attacks from the mist. From that point on, the story mirrors the tale of Beowulf.

The leader of Crichton’s Vikings is a warrior aptly named Buliwyf. When they reach Venden, they are treated to feasts in the great mead hall of a Viking king named Rothgar. But at night, when the mist comes down from the mountains, Rothgar’s kingdom is attacked by mysterious and brutal creatures called the wendol. The beast-like wendol, though many in number, are a clear representation of Beowulf’s Grendel, and the story proceeds in the manner of the Old English poem, all the way down to a severed arm placed over the mead hall and a deadly encounter with the mother of the wendol.

The story is tense and exciting, and the Vikings, observed through Ibn Fadlan’s eyes, start out as savages but end up being noble warriors. Crichton succeeds in this retelling of the legend of Beowulf, but what I liked the most about the novel is the explanation he provides for the wendol. Without spoiling the ending, Crichton suggests a scientific explanation for these creatures that led me to wonder if his wendol explain the stories of trolls, goblins and other monsters that have existed in myths for thousands of years. When a novel makes me think like that, I know it’s done its job well.

If you’re interested in a quick read about Vikings or want to experience another legend reimagined, you won’t be disappointed in Eaters of the Dead.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Great Historical Fantasy: "The Einstein Prophecy"

The Einstein Prophecy by Robert Masello begins with an ominous epigraph. It’s a quote from Albert Einstein, which reads: “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth—rocks.” From there, I was hooked, and the rest of the book never let me down.

The novel is another example of historical fantasy at its best. The story is set during World War II and Hitler’s quest for occult artifacts that he believes will help him win the war (a familiar premise for any fan of Indiana Jones). This time, the artifact Hitler desires is an Egyptian ossuary that supposedly contains the bones of St. Anthony the Great, the father of monasticism who defied the Roman Empire in the early fourth century. 

The story’s hero, Princeton professor Lucas Athan, discovers the ossuary among a horde of stolen art looted by Rommel from the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. The military wants Lucas to open the ossuary and study its contents, but before he can, he encounters a beautiful Egyptian woman named Simone Rashid. She and her father were the archaeologists who originally discovered the ossuary in the Sahara, and the two of them followed its transport to Princeton. Simone warns Lucas that if he opens the ossuary without her, he’d live to regret it. You see, wherever the ossuary has been, terrible things have happened.

The torment of St. Anthony by Michelangelo
Masello does a masterful job of building up the mystery surrounding the ossuary. Through ancient writings belonging to Simone’s father, he reveals that, in legend, Saint Anthony battled demons, and it soon becomes apparent that something much more than the saint’s bones might be locked inside the sarcophagus. Once it is opened, the suspense hits high gear. The book takes on a darker tone and reads, at times, like a good horror novel and great supernatural thriller.

Woven into this suspense-filled storyline is the character of Albert Einstein, also a professor at Princeton and Lucas’ next-door neighbor. Einstein is secretly helping Robert Oppenheimer and the U.S. military develop the atom bomb before the Nazi’s can, much to Einstein’s regret since he knows the horrors such a weapon will unleash on the world. Masello portrays Einstein perfectly as a wise and whimsical soul, a quirky genius the reader cannot help but like. But it turns out his work is of interest to more than just the Allies and the Nazis, for a far more ancient power has designs on the bomb too, which makes Einstein its number one target.

The book was hard to put down and kept me turning the pages until its thrilling (though mildly predictable) ending. The ride, however, was so enjoyable, and the writing was so well done, that I’d rate The Einstein Prophecy as my favorite book so far in 2015. I highly recommend it!