Thursday, January 28, 2016

On “Black Sails,” the Seeds of “Treasure Island” Are Beginning to Grow

With little time to write this week, I wanted to pass on my thoughts about last week’s season premiere of Black Sails on Starz.

The premiere showed a ton of promise for season three. Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard) is on his way to Nassau. Max, Jack, and Anne Bonny are worried about the damaged fortress, and more importantly the Urca gold stashed within its broken walls. Captain Hornigold and Mr. Dufrense have become traitors and now fly the British flag. Meanwhile, Eleanor Guthrie may have no choice but to aid her British captors. But the most intriguing part of the series premiere took place on The Walrus with Captain James Flint.

Flint, Long John Silver, and Billy Bones are the truly fictional pirates on Black Sails, each one being a character from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. (Most of the other characters, like Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, and Anne Bonny, are based on historical pirates.) Black Sails has always been a prequel of sorts to Treasure Island, and in the series premier, we saw the seeds of Treasure Island begin to grow.

It all begins with Flint. In Treasure Island, it’s no secret that Flint was despised by his crew, and by Silver most of all. The Flint of season three is a man obsessed, hellbent on revenge for what the British did to Miranda. Flint has always put his personal agenda before the lives of his crew, and was always a bit ruthless—just remember what he did to poor Mr. Gates! But now, it looks like Flint is going down an even darker path, and given the dark looks that Silver and Billy are giving him, I think we’re about to experience the rift that will forever lead to enmity between Flint and his crew. 

Which brings me to Silver. In the past two seasons, Silver was a charming rogue who, while thoroughly self-interested, always found himself siding with Flint. But by the end of last season, Silver lost his leg and took the first steps toward becoming the Long John Silver that Stevenson imagined. Silver, if you’ve ever read the book, was the most dangerous pirate of them all, and I would not be surprised if he ends up there by the end of season three. And if so, Black Sails is about to get really, really good!

** Top image courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes; the rest, courtesy of Starz

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Last Viking

Poul Anderson was one of giants of the golden age of science fiction and fantasy, authoring vintage classics like Three Hearts and Three Lions. But he also wrote historical fiction, including a trilogy about Harald Hardrada, a Norwegian king whose failed attempt to conquer England in 1066 marked the end of the Viking Age. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the Kindle version of The Golden Horn, book one of his Last Viking Trilogy. Here’s my review.

Set in the mid-eleventh century, The Golden Horn by Poul Anderson covers the early life of King Harald Hadrada. At the time of the novel, Harald is a Norwegian Prince in exile after Cnut the Great, king of Denmark and England, defeated Harald’s half-brother, King Olaf the Stout, to claim Norway’s throne. This is the second book I’ve read about Harald, but it’s the first one that portrays him as a noble – yet highly ambitious – hero.

After his half-brother’s death, Harald flees to Russia (which, incidentally, had been founded by Northmen) to the house of Jaroslav, Grand Prince of the Rus. There, Harald grows into manhood as a seven-foot-tall warrior, whom Anderson describes as “curt and haughty” with “small taste for bookish learning.” He’s the classic warrior-hero of twentieth century fiction, along the lines of Conan the Cimmerian, for “no one could stand before him in battle or sport.” All Harald dreams of is reclaiming Norway’s throne, but until the moment is right, Jaroslav convinces Harald to bide time in legendary Miklagardh, where he could win fame and fortune serving in the emperor’s Varangian Guard.

Miklagardh – a Norse name for Constantinople – is where most of the book takes place, and gives the book its title, the “Golden Horn,” referring to the primary inlet of the Bosporus around the great city. It is also the place where the book hits its stride, as Harald soon finds himself caught up in the politics and machinations of the Byzantine court. After joining the Varangians, a group of rollicking Northmen who serve as the emperor’s elite soldiers, Harald becomes noticed by the Empress Zoe, a bawdy, yet cunning woman rumored to have poisoned her first husband. He also earns the attention of John the Monk, the emperor’s ruthless and conniving brother. Both have designs for the young Norwegian prince, whom they view as a valuable pawn in their Byzantine games.

Much of the book concerns Harald’s military adventures as he and his Varangians battle Saracens, Normans, and Bulgarians at the emperor’s behest. But it is Harald love affair with Maria, the beautiful daughter of a Greek nobleman, that is the novel’s most compelling storyline. Maria serves as a lady in the empress’ court, but Zoe is none too pleased about her relationship with Harald, which ultimately puts the Norwegian prince at odds with the most powerful woman in Byzantium.

While there is plenty of action in the story, the novel also contains lengthy doses of exposition. I viewed the exposition as a welcome lesson in history, although I could see some readers wanting to skip through it, since it tends to slow down the pace. Overall, however, I found The Golden Horn to be a worthy piece of historical fiction that should appeal to anyone interested in Harald Hardrada, medieval Byzantium, or the works of Poul Anderson, one of the legendary authors of fantasy fiction’s golden age.

Update: Amazon has just added a fantastic new link that allows you to preview any Kindle book before you buy it. You can preview The Golden Horn here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Winter Full of Pirates, Vikings, and Druids!

Winter of 2016 is promising to be a fantastic year for historical and fantasy-themed television. Season 3 of Black Sails is right around the corner, followed by the debut of Season 4 of History’s Vikings. And, in perhaps the most unexpected new addition, MTV, of all networks, has already brought us a surprisingly good adaptation of Terry Brook’s Shannara Chronicles. Looks like my DVR will be working overtime!

Black Sails

Black Sails a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, starts back up on January 23rd on Starz. This is the one I’m looking most forward to, for I’ve long considered Black Sails to be one of the best shows on television. Season 2 was better than Season 1, and Season 3 may be the best yet. The pirates of Nassau are about to go to war with the English, and Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo on HBO’s Rome) will appear as Blackbeard. This promises to be good.


Stated simply, no one – and I mean no one – should mess with Ragnar Lothbrok, and I think King Ecbert is about to learn that lesson big time. Last season, while Ragnar and the Danes were preoccupied in Paris, King Ecbert had his son kill the Danish settlers in England, breaking his peace with the Vikings. When Ragnar discovers this, I suspect he’ll be none too pleased. Season 4 premiers on February 18.

The Shannara Chronicles

I had low expectations for this one, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. This is the long awaited adaptation of Terry Brooks’ The Elfstones of Shannara, published in 1982 (and I think I read it around that time). This is classic fantasy, highly influenced by Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, embracing about every type of fantasy trope and cliché imaginable (although there is a good reason so many of these things seem cliché; you can check out a series of posts on that here). Nonetheless, I think MTV has done a beautiful job with this one. The show is shot in New Zealand, so it has the feel of Peter Jackson’s epic films, the special effects are far better than I would have imagined for a TV production, and it appears perfectly cast, with Manu Bennet (of Spartacus) as the druid Allanon, John Rhys-Davis (of The Lord of the Rings) as King Eventine, and a host of young actors to take up the lead roles. The show premiered on January 5, but MTV has them available for download if you want to catch up!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Winter Isn't Coming . . .

At least The Winds of Winter, that is. That was the news this week from George R.R. Martin when he informed fans that the next book in this A Song if Ice and Fire series won’t be released before Season 6 of Game of Thrones.

This news confirms that we’ll learn the fate of Jon Snow and Daenerys from the show, long before we’ll read about it in the books. Here are some excerpts from an i09 article on Martin’s announcement:
We discussed some of them last spring, as the fifth season of the HBO series was winding down, and came up with a plan. We all wanted book six of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE to come out before season six of the HBO show aired. Assuming the show would return in early April, that meant THE WINDS OF WINTER had to be published before the end of March, at the latest.
. . .
Unfortunately, the writing did not go as fast or as well as I would have liked. You can blame my travels or my blog posts or the distractions of other projects and the Cocteau and whatever, but maybe all that had an impact... you can blame my age, and maybe that had an impact too...but if truth be told, sometimes the writing goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, and that was true for me even when I was in my 20s. And as spring turned to summer, I was having more bad days than good ones. Around about August, I had to face facts: I was not going to be done by Halloween. I cannot tell you how deeply that realization depressed me.
. . .
Here it is, the first of January. The book is not done, not delivered. No words can change that. I tried, I promise you. I failed. I blew the Halloween deadline, and I’ve now blown the end of the year deadline. And that almost certainly means that no, THE WINDS OF WINTER will not be published before the sixth season of GAME OF THRONES premieres in April (mid April, we are now told, not early April, but those two weeks will not save me). Even as late as my birthday and our big Emmy win, I still thought I could do it... but the days and weeks flew by faster than the pile of pages grew, and (as I often do) I grew unhappy with some of the choices I’d made and began to revise... and suddenly it was October, and then November... and as the suspicion grew that I would not make it after all, a gloom set in, and I found myself struggling even more. The fewer the days, the greater the stress, and the slower the pace of my writing became.
You can read the full article here.

As someone who writes slowly, I can empathize with Martin’s plight (though at least I have the excuse of a full-time job). I still believe the book will be full of surprises whenever it comes out, especially since the show has already deviated from the books in numerous ways. io9 published a good post on this today, and you can read it here.

All this said, I was looking forward to devouring The Winds of Winter before Season 6 aired. But now I’ll wait patiently for what may be an end of 2016 release. At least Winter will come  eventually.