Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Whereabouts

I’ve been off the blog for twelve whole days. I’ve never been away for that long, and here’s why, I suppose . . .

No, I haven't been sailing near the Rock of Gibraltar . . . 
For one, I’ve realized I tend to blog more these days about historical or fantasy related television shows like Game of Thrones and Black Sails. But, alas, we remain in a desolate TV wasteland right now. I don’t mean all current TV is bad. I just finished watching The Night Of on HBO, and loved it. But it’s not the right genre for this blog. I also write book reviews, but I’m in the middle of a book right now, and it will be a week or so before I finish. (It’s Dead Man’s Reach by D.B. Jackson, and so far it’s damn good.)

But the #1 reason I’ve been away is that in my free time I’m dealing with this:


Not the wine, I finished that. Rather, that’s the 154,000 word (“cough*) sequel to Enoch’s Device that I’ve started editing. I swear on all that is good and right in the world, the final product will be shorter. Let’s just say, I’m killing a lot of my “little darlings” before this gets to my editor. Dealing with this beast is turning out to be a formidable task, but also a fun one. I like the way the story ended up, and the revised version should be even better.

I will try to blog more regularly. But if I don’t, it likely means I’m trapped within that giant stack of pages, trying to make the story sing. Wish me luck.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Lions of Al-Rassan Revisited

Isn't this Throwback Thursday? In honor of this fairly recent tradition, I'm re-posting my 2012 review of one of the greatest works of epic fiction I've read in a long, long time . . .

For several years now, I’ve been interested in medieval Spain, and about a quarter of my first novel takes place in tenth century Córdoba (which was part of a Moorish caliphate, back when the Iberian Peninsula was called Al-Andalus). Knowing this, it’s astounding (and a bit embarrassing) that I waited so long to read The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay, one of the more famous novels with a medieval Spanish setting. Boy was that a mistake, as you’ll see from my review after this image of the book’s cover.


Here is the blurb from the back of my paperback edition:
Over the centuries, the once stern rulers of Al-Rassan have been seduced by sensuous pleasures. Now King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, adding city after city to his realm, aided by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan – poet, diplomat, soldier – until a summer day of savage brutality changes their relationship forever. Meanwhile, in the north, the Jaddite’s most celebrated – and feared – military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Ammar meet. Sharing the interwoven fate of both men is Jehane, the beautiful, accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond ...
The Lions of Al-Rassan is every bit as epic as A Game of Thrones. Much like the fate of the Kingdoms of Westeros, the fate of the kingdoms of Al-Rassan and Esperaña are at stake in a fictional world that starkly resembles medieval Spain and the Moorish kingdoms of Al-Andalus. Like the characters of George R.R. Martin's epic series, the character's of Kay's novel are richly drawn. His heroes are Ned Stark- admirable and his villains are painted in various shades of grey, for like A Game of Thrones, the world of Al-Rassan is never black and white.

While the book contains an abundant cast of characters, three in particular drive the story, each one a member of the story world's religious faiths: the Jaddites (Christians), Asherites (Muslims), and Kindaths (Jews). The first is Rodrigo Belmonte, a Jaddite war captain modeled after the legendary Spanish hero El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar), and many of the book’s plot lines seem based on El Cid’s historical tale. The second is Ammar ibn Khairan, a dashing Asherite poet and swordsman responsible for murdering the last khalif of Al-Rassan, which put the first of several story villains, Almalik of Cartada, on his throne. And the third, and perhaps most central character of the lot, is the Khindath physician, Jehane bet Ishak, who ends up the object of both men’s affections.

It is the epic story, however, that makes this novel so special. The book is filled with political intrigue involving the Ashertite and Jaddite kings and their cunning advisors, as well as a host of clerics, some of whom are bent on plunging the land into holy war. Kay does a great job of making the reader feel for these lands and their people, as the rising conflict between the Asherites and Jaddites threatens the friendship between Rodrigo and Ammar, and leaves Jehane with the decision of which man – and which fate – to choose. The reader faces a similar choice as it becomes clear that only one side will win this war, and that the people of the other two faiths shall pay a grave price. I can’t say that I enjoyed this novel as much as A Game of Thrones, but it’s a very close second, and unlike Martin’s epic, the story is resolved in a single, satisfying volume.

Friday, August 12, 2016

“Rome” Revisited

I'm reaching into the archives once again while slogging through the summer doldrums. But this one reminded me how much I loved HBO's 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:
Ciarán 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, August 3, 2016

Medieval Fiction: “The Archer’s Tale” by Bernard Cornwell

Every once in a while I’ll reread one of my favorite novels for inspiration, and this summer that read was The Archer’s Tale by Bernard Cornwell. It reminded me how much I loved his Grail Quest series, and how pieces of it helped inspire my first novel, Enoch’s Device.  I consider The Archer’s Tale to be a must read for fans of medieval fiction. Here’s my review.


Set in the mid-fourteenth century, The Archer’s Tale (titled Harlequin in the U.K.) tells the story of Thomas of Hookton, a bastard-born son of a village priest. Thomas’s father wanted his son to take the cloth, but all Thomas wanted to be was an archer, one of the deadly English longbowmen whose mighty weapon would help decide so many battles during the Hundred Year’s War. After a wonderful prologue, we learn that Thomas got his wish, serving as an archer in the army of the Earl of Northampton during the siege of a walled town in Brittany named La Roche-Derrien.

Thomas is one of my favorite of Cornwell’s protagonists. He’s Oxford educated, speaks three languages, and is happiest when serving as a bowman in the king’s army. But he also has a promise to keep: to reclaim Hookton’s holy treasure, the Lance of St. George, from the man who stole it and murdered Thomas’s father. Despite the urging of Thomas’s friend, Father Hobbe, to keep that promise, Thomas is preoccupied with his life as an archer, until fate brings him low and sets him on the path to fulfill his oath.

That path begins with Jeannette, a widowed French countess who will do anything to make sure her young son inherits his late father’s title. Jeanette is a brave, defiant, and flawed character who hates the English, but soon finds herself surrounded by enemies, both English and French. After the English sack her home in La Roche-Derrien, one of those enemies becomes Sir Simon Jekyll, an arrogant and lecherous young knight who is the novel’s chief antagonist. Her and Thomas’s mutual enmity toward Jekyll brings the two of them together, igniting the spark that propels the story forward.

The Battle of Crecy features prominently in the novel.
If the story were nothing more than a rollick through the early years of the Hundred Years War with Thomas and his band of archers, it would still be a wonderful tale. But Cornwell gives us more. In the prologue, it’s revealed that Thomas’s father is secretly noble, from a southern French family known as the Vexilles. Legend holds that the Vexilles brought back the Lance of St. George from the Crusades, but we later learn they also recovered something else: the most powerful relic in Christianity, the Holy Grail. Even more, the Vexilles are said to be servants of the devil who will use the Grail to bring down Christendom. This legend gives the Grail Quest series its name, for Thomas wonders if he must do what King Arthur’s knights failed to do: find the Grail. 

Like most of Cornwell’s novels, The Archer’s Tale is an adventure of sorts, taking Thomas from the small English village of Hookton, to war-torn Brittany, Normandy, and finally Crecy. It is also filled with brilliantly crafted battle scenes, including the famous Battle of Crecy in 1346 between Edward III of England and Philip VI of France. But it is Thomas and Jeanette, along with a perfect villain in Sir Simon, who make this book one of Cornwell’s best. This is the second time I’ve read the novel, and the re-read was even better than the first. For any fan of medieval fiction, I highly recommend it.

And, thanks to Amazon, you can read a preview of the novel here.