Friday, April 28, 2017

American Gods

On Sunday, Starz will premiere American Gods, based on the fantasy bestseller by Neil Gaiman. From the trailers, the show looks amazing. But it will be pretty damn hard to exceed the novel. Here’s why.

By the time I finished American Gods, I felt the same way I did when I finished Stephen King’s The Stand. I had just read the magnum opus of one of a genre’s finest authors, and the story will stick with me for a lifetime.

The premise behind American Gods is so perfect it’s a wonder I waited so long to read this book. The idea is that when various people immigrated to America, they brought with them the gods and myths from their homelands. Those gods live on in the new world, but the problem is: America is a bad place for gods.

Shadow Moon - American Gods on Starz
The story takes place in modern times, where the old gods have faded into the shadows, carrying on as conmen, cabbies, and hookers, just trying to survive. Meanwhile, new gods have risen in America. Gods of technology and the media – the things people in the U.S. tend to actually “worship” today. One old god, Odin the Allfather, sees what’s happening and wants to put an end to it, even if it results in a war between the old gods and the new, Ragnarok style. 

Into this war, Odin – known as Mr. Wednesday in our world (“Wednesday” being derived from the word Wodin’s Day) – recruits Shadow Moon, the story’s main character. Shadow, a good-hearted man released from prison early after his wife dies in a car accident, follows Mr. Wednesday on a journey across the American heartland. Along the way, he encounters the old gods from a myriad of myths: Norse, Egyptian, Slavic, Native American, you name it. It’s as if Gaiman opened an old copy of Deities & Demigods and plucked out the most colorful immortals and monsters to create his cast of characters.

American Gods is epic in scope, wondrous in style, and tremendously fun. It’s also filled with engaging subplots that weave together seamlessly with the main story, including one involving Shadow’s wife Laura, who has come back from the dead, and a murder mystery in sleepy lakeside town. Even more, vignettes scattered throughout the novel show how people over the centuries came to America and brought their old gods with them. I hesitate to give away any more, but suffice it to say, American Gods is a classic. It’s an equal to The Stand – one of the great books by one of the great authors. And a must read, if there ever was one.

* Photo courtesy of Starz

Saturday, April 15, 2017

“The Ocean at The End of the Lane” – A Haunting Fairy Tale by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has been one of the most famous fantasy writers for a while now, though I’ll admit it’s taken me an overly long time to actually read one of his books. That ended recently, however, when I tore through The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Here’s my review.

This book has one of the most haunting covers, and I’ll confess it is the reason I was drawn to the novel. Nonetheless, it took me a good while to actually start reading it. I’m sorry I waited so long.

After a brief preface that hints of an old country that sank into the ocean, and an even older country that met a worse fate, we’re introduced to the narrator: an unnamed man who visits his hometown in England and begins to have vivid recollections of his childhood. He was seven years old then, with no friends except the books he’d read, a full set of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels being among his favorite. 

Neil Gaiman has written about how Lewis’ Narnia stories helped inspire his writing, and I think this novel may have been an homage to those books. For much like young Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the young narrator soon finds himself in a magical – and dangerous – fairy tale.

Narnia helped inspire Gaiman's writing.
The story takes off when the boy encounters eleven-year-old Lettie Hempstock. She lives on a quaint farmstead at the end of the lane with her mother and grandmother, and behind the house is a duck pond that Lettie refers to as her “ocean.” From the moment he meets Lettie and her family, we realize there’s something different about them. For one, they’re able to perceive events before they happen, and there are hints all three of them may be very old. “How long have you been eleven for?’ the boy asks. Lettie just smiles at him.

Bordering the farmland are woods that Lettie claims were brought back from the old country where she and her family came from, like the farm and the “ocean.” It turns out they also brought back something wicked in those woods, and when Lettie and the boy venture there to discover what it might be, they are forced to deal with the nightmare they may have unleashed. To explain any more would spoil the plot, but from the moment they enter the woods, Gaiman builds up suspense and maintains it to the very end. 

Like Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Gaiman leaves the reader to wonder about how much of the story was actually real, and what Lettie and her family actually were. Though he provides ample evidence to keep us thinking about it long after the book is done. That’s a hallmark of a good story, and after Ocean, I look forward to reading a lot more of Gaiman’s tales.

You can preview the book here.

Monday, April 3, 2017

“Treasure Island” Never Happened on “Black Sails”

All the while we were led to believe Black Sails was a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Turns out, that wasn’t exactly true.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Black Sails is that the series wove together historical characters from the Pirates’ Republic of Nassau with the iconic, fictional characters of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. For a long time now, I suspected the series would end with Billy Bones limping up to the Admiral Benbow with the map to the Urca gold tucked away in his sea chest. That didn’t happen, and in the world of Black Sails it likely never will. 

The series ended in way I had not imagined, and few of the characters wound up as one would expect based on Treasure Island. And the reason, it turns out, due to the clever and brilliant writing on the show, is that Treasure Island was but a fable. One that cast its characters in a light that proved untrue. As proof, consider Jack Rackham’s speech near the end of the show:
“A story is true,” Jack said. “A story is untrue. As time extends, it matters less and less. The stories we want to believe, those are the ones that survive, despite upheaval and transition and progress. Those are the stories that shape history. And then, what does it matter if it was true when it was born. It’s found truth in its maturity …
“Long John Silver’s story, it’s a hard one to know. The men who believed most deeply in it were ultimately destroyed by it. And those who stood to benefit most from it, were the most eager to leave it all behind. Until all that remains of any of it are stories bearing only a passable resemblance to the world the rest of us lived in. A world we survived.”
In the world of Black Sails, the story of Treasure Island was never true. It merely became the story that lived on. In retrospect, I suppose, this is not surprising. After all, the Long John Silver of Black Sails was too intelligent, too articulate, and too heroic to become the villainous sea cook of Stevenson’s tale. And while the Flint of Treasure Island was a fearsome monster, the real Flint turned out to be somewhat of a tragic antihero. The finale did get him to Savannah, although I doubt the he will die there by drinking too much rum. (Which simply proves why odds-making is bad business.)

The Long John Silver of Treasure Island was nothing like the hero of Black Sails.
The only character that ended up as we would expect in Treasure Island is Billy Bones. He’s a broken man after betraying his shipmates, and I have no doubt he’ll lead a sad life. But I cannot imagine how he’ll ever come by the map to the Urca gold. Which means young Jim Hawkins will never venture to Skeleton Island with Dr. Livsey and Squire Trelawney. But maybe that story, like most fiction, was born untrue, and only became otherwise in its maturity, when Treasure Island became a classic.

* Photo courtesy of Starz.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Everyone’s Trying to Kill Flint on “Black Sails”

With only two episodes left, Black Sails has finally taken us to Skeleton Island. And as anyone who has read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island knows, some serious stuff is about to go down.

But what struck me most by the end of last week’s episode is that, except for his newfound partner, Flint is alone, and almost all the characters left on the show are trying to kill him. Flint is a goner by Treasure Island, so chances are someone is going to succeed. Here is how I see the odds.

Jack Rackham 1 in 50

I’m still not entirely clear why Eleanor’s grandmother wanted Jack to kill Flint, but that’s beside the point now. Jack has sent out to kill him, but I don’t see it happening. First, I question whether Jack even has it in him. He likes Flint and, think what you will about Calico Jack, I can’t see him tuning on one of his own in the end. Second, in a battle of Flint versus Jack, it’s no freaking contest. Flint could kill Jack with his bare hands.

No One: 1 in 20

All the accounts of Flint’s death in Treasure Island are hearsay, and none of the folks telling the tale are reliable. But in the book, Flint supposedly dies in Savannah from drinking too much run. This would be a Godfather III-like ending, and pretty anti-climactic if you ask me. 

Woodes Rogers: 1 in 10 

The historic Rogers is responsible for the death of a lot of pirates (though Blackbeard was not one of them), so it’s possible he’ll take out Flint. Throughout the series, Flint’s war has been against England, and Rogers is the living embodiment of the Crown on Nassau. Rogers also helped end the Pirate Republic, so I suppose him killing Flint would be symbolic.

Israel Hands: 1 in 5

Israel Hands is a bad, bad man, and Silver has already sent him out with five other pirates to hunt Flint down (unless Silver is playing a different game that has yet to be revealed). I’d say a fight between Flint and Hands is an even match. We know, however, that Hands appears in Treasure Island, so if they do get in a battle to the death, it’s not hard to guess which one will survive.

Long John Silver: 1 in 3

The conflict between Flint and Silver has been brewing for a long time, and a battle between the two was strongly alluded to in last season’s finale. Also, Israel Hands has been trying to convince Silver to kill Flint all season long. “The crown does not divide, it cannot be shared, you know this,” Hands told Silver last episode. “You want it done, you just don’t know how to ask it.” But like Jack, I’m not sure Silver has it in him to kill Flint – unless it’s literally to save Madi’s life.

Billy Bones: Even

Here’s what we know: Flint tried to kill Billy in Season One. Since then, Billy has hated Flint’s guts, and has tried to kill him twice already in Season Four. Even more, in Treasure Island, it’s Billy who ends up with the map to the Urca gold. At the Admiral Benbow, a dunk and old Billy tells young Jim Hawkins that Flint “gave it to me in Savannah, when he lay-a-dying.” Replace “Savannah” with “Skeleton Island,” and “he gave it to me” with “I pried it out of his cold, dead hands,” and my guess is that is how Flint will meet his end in the season finale of Black Sails.

But those are just my musings. Who do you think will end up killing Flint in the end?

* Images courtesy of Starz and Entertainment.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Saint Patrick’s Day is one of my all-time favorite holidays, so today I'm re-posting an article about Stephen R. Lawhead's Patrick: Son of Ireland.

I had little appreciation for the story of Saint Patrick until I began my research for Enoch's Device. That novel begins in Derry and tells the story of two Irish monks who try to prevent the apocalypse at the end of the Tenth Century  a time when many in Christendom feared the world would end one thousand years after the birth of Christ. Prior to my research, I knew only the most common stories about Ireland's patron saint: the tale of the trinity and the shamrock, and his chasing the snakes out of Ireland (which has no native species of snakes, by the way).

Back then, Saint Patrick's Day was merely a good excuse to drink Guinness at an Irish pub. Once I began my research, however, all that changed, especially after reading How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I cannot recommend this book more strongly to anyone who is of Irish descent or who’s even remotely interested in the amazing role the Irish played in the survival of Western civilization during the Dark Ages.

Cahill’s book contained the first account I had ever read about Saint Patrick. Here's the abridged version. By the beginning of the fifth century, with the Goths and Huns threatening Rome, the Roman garrison in Britannia became depleted as troops moved back to defend the continent. This exposed Britannia to attacks by foreign enemies, including the Celtic Irish who ravaged Britannia’s western coast. One of the largest raids occurred around the year 401 A.D., when literally thousands of Britons were captured as slaves by Irish raiders. One of those captured was a teenage boy who we know today as Saint Patrick.

Patrick was a Romanized Briton and the son of a noble family. He was not born “Patrick,” and his original name remains in question, yet at least one source has him named Succat. Patrick served his enslavement as a shepherd to an Irish chieftain named Miliucc, who ruled a kingdom in the hills of Antrim. According to legend, Patrick remained captive for six years before escaping after hearing a voice in a dream about a trader’s ship that would return him to Britannia. After finding the ship and returning home, Patrick eventually made his way to Gaul at a time when hordes of Germans were crossing the Rhine to engage the Roman army. There, Patrick studied religion, became a priest, and later a bishop – the title he held when he returned to Ireland as one of its first and most famous Christian missionaries. It is with this background that I read Stephen R. Lawhead’s Patrick: Son of Ireland.

I had anticipated that this novel would tell the story of how Patrick converted the Irish Celts to Christianity. I was wrong. The book actually tells the tale of Patrick's early life, before he returned to Ireland. Aside from a brief epilogue, the novel provides no account of Patrick’s later years which earned him his sainthood. Instead, the author focuses on Patrick’s captivity and enslavement. And this is where the novel truly shines. Patrick’s enslavement introduces him to a druid named Cormac and his sister, Sionan, the woman with whom Patrick falls in love. After surviving several failed attempts at fleeing his captivity, Patrick, with Cormac’s aid, escapes his brutal life by agreeing to serve in a house of druids, and eventually studies to become a bard. This is where the novel becomes both fascinating and controversial.

The bards and druids of Lawhead’s Ireland can use magic, which firmly places this novel on the fine line between historical fiction and historical fantasy. Many of the druids and bards who teach Patrick are also members of the Ceile De, essentially Christian druids who believe in the one true God. Patrick ultimately becomes one of the Ceile De; he never becomes a priest or a bishop, though this is not necessarily foreclosed because the novel ends before the reader learns what becomes of Patrick later in life.

Not surprisingly, this plot point is controversial for those who feel the novel downplays or even eliminates Patrick’s Roman Catholicism. After all, they argue, the Roman Catholic Church would never have canonized a druid. But I view Stephen R. Lawhead as taking artistic license for the sake of his story. And overall, his story works – especially the two-thirds or so of the novel that take place in Ireland.

Although it was not what I expected, I enjoyed this novel, very much at times. And while the author may have taken artistic license with his subject, it works well in the end, telling a story of faith once lost only to be discovered again.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day everyone!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Another Saint Patrick’s Day Sale for Enoch’s Device!

“God didn't love that man enough to make him Irish, lad.” – Brother Donall mac Taidg in Enoch’s Device.
Irish monks drinking to Enoch's Device!
As in prior year’s the Kindle version of Enoch’s Device is going on sale through March 16th in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day! Also, following the cover image is a new product description I’m considering for the novel. If you have an opinion about it (good or bad), I’d appreciate it if you could leave a comment! 

Ireland, AD 998. Brother Ciarán is an apprentice to Dónall mac Taidg, a stern but brilliant monk renowned for his scholarship years ago in France. When a Frankish bishop arrives at the monastery to accuse Dónall of heresy, Ciarán is determined to prove his friend’s innocence. But as he delves into his mentor’s past, he learns that Dónall stole a forbidden tome—one containing a secret as old as the origin of evil itself.

Ciarán and Dónall flee to France, for the bishop knows the secret too and is willing to kill for it. At Paris, Ciarán discovers a hidden reference in the tome to the lost Book of Enoch, an ancient scripture about the Nephilim, the descendants of fallen angels. The tome also speaks of Enoch’s device, a cryptic weapon that can defeat the Nephilim, whose clandestine war against God and mankind could bring about the events foretold in the book of Revelation.

Pursued by the bishop’s men, Ciarán and Dónall rescue the Lady Alais, a beautiful widow accused of witchcraft because she holds a key to the mystery. Together, the trio must find Enoch’s device, which has left clues of its passage through history, from the time of Solomon to the reign of King Arthur and the paladins of Charlemagne. But time is running out, and if they don’t find the device soon, all that they love could perish with the End of Days.
Here are excerpts from the book’s reviews:
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

And, thanks to a new feature that Amazon is offering, you can read a free preview here.

If you read the novel and enjoyed it, now is a perfect time to tell a friend!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Eleanor Guthrie Was a Tragic Figure on “Black Sails”

About a year ago, I wrote that Eleanor Guthrie was making “Cersei-like decisions” on Black Sails. Such is the nature of tragedies.

I’m speaking in the classic sense of the term: a drama in which the character is brought to ruin by his or her tragic flaw. In Eleanor’s case, the flaw was a short-sightedness that would make fans of Cersei Lannister proud. Like Cersei in Game of Thrones, Eleanor makes decisions to solve the most immediate problem without thinking through the consequences. Appreciating the fallout from her actions isn’t exactly her thing.

When I wrote last year’s post it was about her decision to execute her former lover, Charles Vane. Max warned her against it, but Eleanor didn’t listen, and instead she lit the fuse that would ignite the pirate rebellion of Nassau. After the pirates’ disastrous attempt to capture Nassau in episode one this season, it seemed, for a brief moment, that Eleanor may have recovered from this mistake. But that’s the nature of tragedies. Things seems like they’re going right, until they’re not. And once again, Eleanor’s short sightedness was the cause.

One could argue that from the moment she chose to kill Vane, every decision she made led her to her fate. Her decision to trade Nassau to the pirates for the remains of the Urca treasure, without informing her husband, Woodes Rogers, was the first short sighted decision. After all, it assumed that Rogers, a proud and determined man, would accept her plan without fail, or that Mrs. Hudson could convince him to follow it. In fact, when Mrs. Hudson tries to explain Eleanor’s plan, Rogers points on the flaw in her thinking:
“I fear the instincts that have awoken within [Eleanor],” he tells Mrs. Hudson, “are more insidious than that. She has begun to believe again that disorder in Nassau is inevitable. That civilization is powerless, either through lack of will or capacity to do anything about it. Civilization has a number of faces. To think them all powerless to alter Nassau’s future is a terrible mistake.” 
Eleanor’s decision to fire warning shots to drive Rogers away so her plan with Flint could succeed sealed her fate. She badly underestimated Rogers’ resolve, never considering what he might do if he disagreed with handing the island over to the pirates. Instead, he decides to convince the Spanish governor of Cuba – another face of civilization with the will and capacity to get the job done – to invade Nassau. This decision makes Rogers an equally tragic figure on the show, for anyone who has watched last episode knows what happened next.

Eleanor was a tragic figure, but she was also one of the characters who made Black Sails so great. With only four episodes to go, her character arc was bound to reach its end. 

And it did so in a way that would make William Shakespeare proud.

* Images courtesy of Starz

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Billy Suffers the Ultimate Betrayal on “Black Sails”

We knew it had to happen, the ultimate rift between Billy Bones and Long John Silver. And last Sunday it did.

Last week’s episode of Black Sails was packed with drama. Woodes Rogers discovered, much to his displeasure, that Eleanor sold Nassau to Flint in exchange for the cache of gems, all that remains of the Urca gold. Moreover, he so disagreed with her decision that he made a deal with the devil – England’s enemy, the Spanish governor of Cuba – to retake Nassau. Eleanor, meanwhile, realized that Mr. Scott had used her as a pawn for years to fund his secret island of freed slaves. And then there’s Jack, who delivered a death-knell to Flint’s careful plans. But nothing last episode was more important for this prequel to Treasure Island than the chasm forged between Billy and Silver.

It all begins when Billy wants to kill Flint for trading the cache to Eleanor in exchange for Nassau. But Silver trusts Flint, and so does Madi, who thinks Flint made the right, but difficult choice. Even more, she’s convinced Billy is the one who needs to be “removed” in order to regain the trust of the island’s slaves. 

Silver, who is loyal to both Billy and Flint, doesn’t know what to do, and his dilemma plays out masterfully in his dialogue with Israel hands:
“Sooner or later that cache is going to arrive,” Silver says, “and they’ll be no more delaying. I’m committed to Flint, I’m committed to Madi, yet the road they intend to travel is one I’m losing the ability to understand. I know what Billy has done, what should be unforgivable, and yet so very recently there’s no one in the world I’d call a closer friend. The more he talks, the more I remember why.”
Silver shakes his head. “Determining now to have him killed, which is what it would take to side with Flint, seems like something I don’t know if I have it in me to do.”
Then Hands slaps Silver in the face and delivers a colorful ultimatum. “I don’t  give a sh*t what you choose, but f*cking choose. And don’t  make me suffer the thinking! Worry ain’t a good look in a king, not in a kingdom like this where loyalty is in short supply.”
As the episode nears its end, it looks as though Silver has chosen Billy’s plan. They’re going to ambush and murder Flint as he leaves the fort. But it’s all a ruse. Instead, Silver has sent Madi to meet Eleanor and Flint, and another pirate to murder Billy. The pirate ultimately betrays Silver, but it’s too late. Israel Hands nearly kills Billy Bones, though Silver spares his life. But only to deliver him to the slaves at the Underhill Estate who blame Billy for the retributions against their kin. 

Billy and Silver are now mortal enemies, and like I said before, it had to happen. Otherwise, Billy wouldn’t be hiding out in the Admiral Benbow, and he would never meet young Jim Hawkins. And young Mr. Hawkins would never embark on the journey on which the whole series is based – Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

Friday, February 24, 2017

“The Jekyll Revelation” Is a Clever Take on a Classic Tale

While I’ve been writing about Black Sails, a prequel to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, today I’m posting a review of Robert Masello’s The Jekyll Revelation, a story based on another of Stevenson’s famous tales. 

The Jekyll Revelation is a clever play on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the notorious Jack the Ripper playing the role of Stevenson’s titular villain. And the fact that Stevenson is one of the book’s protagonists only adds to this cunning tale.

The story is a mystery of sorts that unfolds in parallel. One part in the present, and the other in the late nineteenth century. In the present, we’re introduced to Rafael Salazar, a field officer with the Bureau of Land Management in Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles. I actually grew up right near there, so this part of the book reminded me a ton of my hometown. The mystery, however, concerns an old steamer trunk half submerged in a lake. Among other things, the trunk happens to contain a secret journal written by Robert Louis Stevenson, and soon it’s revealed that the past storyline is actually the contents of the journal Rafael discovers.

There’s a whole lot more to the present storyline, including a romantic subplot and a canyon full of tension between Rafael and the local biker gang. But it is the parallel storyline involving Stevenson that really makes the book. The story begins in Switzerland where Stevenson is seeking an experimental cure for the tuberculosis he suffers from. The clinic is an old mansion tucked away in the Alps that reminded me a lot of the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Stevenson, who is there with his wife and stepson, soon discovers that all is not right at the clinic, and that its famous owner, Dr. Rüedi, is engaging in strange and very dangerous experiments. 

From there, the story moves to London during the time of Jack the Ripper. In an author’s note at the end, Masello states that his inspiration for the book came from the fact that the first murder by Jack the Ripper occurred at a time when the stage play for Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was playing in London. In fact, according to Masello, suspicion for the killings even fell on Stevenson for a time. 

The mystery behind Jack the Ripper (who was never captured in real life) drives the second half the book and made it a story I won’t soon forget. And, in a deft bit of storytelling, the mystery of the Ripper even manifests itself in Rafael’s timeline. The most suspenseful and chilling parts, however, play out in Stevenson’s tale. He’s a compelling character, and after 493 pages, I feel like I’ve lived the adventure alongside the famous author. It’s even inspired me to go back and read the one classic of his I never got around to: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

“Black Sails” Takes Artistic License with Blackbeard’s Fate

Well, the events of last week’s episode of Black Sails were unexpected. Yet maybe they shouldn’t have been.

Black Sails is not only wrapping up the prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but also its historical retelling of story of the Pirate Republic of Nassau. Already, Black Sails has tackled the fate of real life pirates such as Charles Vane, Edward Low, and Benjamin Hornigold, so perhaps it’s not surprising that we witnessed Blackbeard’s fate before the series’ end. That said, a good bit of artistic license was taken in the telling.

As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve never been opposed to the taking of artistic license for the sake of good storytelling. In fact, I’ve written on the subject a number of times (see here and here, for example). In this instance, we saw Woodes Rogers take down Edward Teach, one of the most notorious pirates in history. Though, while the historical Rogers helped bring an end to the pirate republic, he was nowhere near Blackbeard when the famous pirate met his end. 

The historical Blackbeard found his demise at the hands of a British Lieutenant named Robert Maynard, who has never been depicted on the show. Yet the show’s writers did honor the story of how Blackbeard met his fate. After it appeared that Blackbeard had overcome Maynard’s [think Rogers’] sloop with cannon fire, Blackbeard and his men boarded the sloop to find much of its crew dead on the main deck. But Maynard had hidden more than a dozen men in the hull for an ambush. And the rest, shall we say, is history.

A must read for fans of the history behind Black Sails!
The keelhauling scene may have been gratuitous and lacking in historical evidence, though keelhauling was a very real and horrific practice in the golden age of piracy. According to Colin Woodard’s history on the matter, titled The Republic of Pirates (which I’m reading now),citing one historical account: “The final blow came from a Scots highlander who decapitated Blackbeard with a powerful swing of his sword, ‘laying it flat on his shoulder’ attached by a bit of flesh.” Alas, such a mighty Scotsman was absent on Black Sails, but Blackbeard’s fate worked out just fine in the name of good fiction.

* Photo courtesy of Starz.

Friday, February 10, 2017

On “Black Sails,” Israel Hands Adds Another Link to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”

I’ve been travelling the past seven days, so I just caught up on the latest episode of Black Sails. I’ll admit, a grin spread across my face when I realized who had captured Long John Silver.

Silver is the craftiest character on Black Sails, and once again his “silver” tongue saves his bacon after he’s captured by a weathered pirate living among the wreckage of an old ship. The pirate wants to sell Silver to the British, until Silver talks him out of it after recognizing who his captor is – a man who suffered a peculiar injury at the hands of Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard.

That man, Silver concludes, is Israel Hands, and suddenly the entire set up proved once again how brilliantly the show’s writers are sewing together this prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Hands is an important character in Treasure Island, but he’s also one of Stevenson’s few characters who was actually a real-life pirate. 

Hands, as the show revealed, was Teach’s second in command. Historically, Hands is known for having been shot (but not killed) by Teach during a fit of rage. Hence that unique scar below his eye on the show (though by historic accounts, the bullet only pierced Hand’s knee). Hands’ notoriety grew tenfold when Stevenson made him one of Long John Silver’s pirates in Treasure Island. So it’s fitting on Black Sails that Silver has turned Hands from his captor to a deadly ally, as his attack on Max’s men proved last Sunday. 

I’ve always wondered if we’d ever see Israel Hands on the show. The emergence of Blackbeard last season suggested we would, but now it’s happened. And the links between Black Sails and Treasure Island only continue to grow.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The True Conflict Emerges on “Black Sails”

The final season of Black Sails on Starz looks to be as good as its predecessors, though I was struck by how quickly the fortunes turned for our favorite pirates.

At the end of Season 3, Silver and Flint had pulled off a massacre of Woodes Rogers’ British fleet with the help of Madi’s legion of freed slaves. Meanwhile, they had hidden the chest with the Urca’s treasure, with only Flint, Silver, and Jack Rackham knowing were it’s buried. While in Nassau, Billy Bones stoked the fearsome legend of Long John Silver to cow the rest of the pirates into opposing Rogers and the Brits. 

Yet twenty minutes in the premiere of Season 4, everything goes to hell. The Walrus is destroyed, Flint, Madi, and what remains of their crew are forced to flee in longboats, and Billy’s warning about the ambush that awaited Flint in Nassau somehow never was delivered. By the episode’s end, Silver is left for dead on the beach, and Black Beard is willing to abandon the pirates’ cause so long as Rogers surrenders Eleanor, whom Black Beard blames for the death of Charles Vane. All of which throws a huge wrench in Jack’s and Anne Bonny’s plans to make a new home in reclaimed Nassau.

While I was surprised at how quickly things deteriorated, the episode did a fantastic job of setting up the fundamental conflict that should lead to the series’ end and the beginning of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It’s all about the secret location of the buried Urca treasure. Yes, the same treasure, I believe, that Doctor Livesey, Squire Trelawny, and young Jim Hawkins set out to search for in Stevenson’s classic tale.

The conflict emerges in the scene where Billy warns Flint that he’s no longer in charge of the pirates of Nassau:
“I prepared these men to follow Long John Silver upon his return,” Billy tells Flint. “Now if you assume in his absence that role reverts to you, then you assume wrong. See, my men know your name, but you’re not the one that recruited them into this. You weren’t the one that led them into those midnight raids in the western plantations. You weren’t the one who has lived with them, and drank with them, and bled with them. So in the absence of Long John Silver, the men will look to me, not you, for answers to what happens next. And I will be the one to give them those answers. Not you.”
In response, Flint plays the only card he has: “You’re forgetting one thing. Somewhere on an island a few days journey from here is a chest filled with treasure buried in a secret place. And of the three men who know of that place, I may be the last one alive after today.”
That’s when Billy reveals how important that treasure is: “Are you threatening to withhold the location of the chest that every man here has counted upon to provide for Nassau’s treasury once we secure it? Solely so you can maintain your status here?”
Which is exactly what Flint is doing: “There is an unthinkable victory within reach. And I will see this through with whatever means I have at my disposal.”
But that’s when Madi drops a bomb: Silver entrusted her with the treasure’s secret too. And so long as she know this, she vows: “There will be no pirate king here. Of that much, I am certain.”
This fundamental conflict promises to grow throughout the season, and consume most of the main characters before it’s done. After all, Black Sails began as a prequel to Treasure Island, and has slowly been moving toward the beginning of that novel. Somehow, Billy Bones is going to get his hands on that secret. And I won’t be surprised if we see him shuffling up to the common room of The Admiral Benbow before season’s end.

* Images courtesy of Starz and Rotten Tomatoes.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Where Does History’s “Vikings” Go from Here?

With only two episodes left in the second part of Season 4 of Vikings, I’m not a hundred percent sure where the show is going now that Ragnar’s death has been avenged. But I suspect the show will alter history yet again.

The past few episodes of Vikings have embraced some of the more significant events in Viking lore: the famous death of Ragnar Lothbrok in the pit of serpents, the “Great Army” formed by Ragnar’s sons Ubbe and Ivar the Boneless to avenge Ragnar’s death, and King Aelle of Northumbria’s legendary demise by “blood eagle,” the most gruesome punishment of the Viking Age. Aelle’s death is really the end of the “legend” or “myth” of Ragnar Lothbrok, and gives way to real history after that – except on Vikings.

Historically, the Great Army invaded Northumbria in 865 A.D. and defeated King Aelle (whose defense of York, by all accounts, was wholly ineffective, as portrayed on the show). From there, the Great Army headed south, and a few years later pressed into Wessex, where it encountered a king named Ethelred and his younger brother Alfred at the Battle of Reading. Both, incidentally, were the sons of a king named Athelwulf of Wessex.

On the show, of course, there is no Ethelred. Instead King Ecbert has appointed his son Athelwulf to defend Wessex when the Vikings arrive. The historical Athelwulf, however, died in 858 A.D., ten years before the Great Army invaded Northumbria. But his son Alfred would, in fact, grow up to become King Alfred the Great, who’s renowned for saving England from the Vikings in the ninth century.

Viking’s Alfred (who happens to be the son of our favorite monk Athelstan instead of Athewulf) is clearly meant to be Alfred the Great. It also seems likely that Season 5 of Vikings will cover the conflict between Alfred and the Danes. So I suppose the next two episodes of Season 4 will take us to Wessex, where Ethelred does not exist and Athelwulf will leap through time and space to take on Ragnar’s vengeful sons. 

True history has always been a bit of a mess on History’s Vikings – something the show that follows Vikings freely admits. That said, I’ve long been okay with a story taking historical license to make great fiction, and I’m fine with it here. 

Yet one area the show has free reign, historically speaking, is with Lagertha, the famous shieldmaiden who may or may not have been a real historical figure. Season 4 has gone beyond the legendary account of Lagertha’a life by the medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus, so the writers have a blank slate as far as she’s concerned. Lagertha has always been one of my favorites on the show, and I hope she survives to Season 5. I’m don’t mind Vikings toying with real history, so long as it keeps one of the best parts of Norse legend around a while longer.

* Images courtesy of History

Thursday, January 12, 2017

On History’s “Vikings,” Ragnar Lothbrok Gives Rise to Bernard Cornwell’s “Last Kingdom”

I’ll be the first to admit that part 2 of Season 4 of Vikings on History snuck up on me. But when I started catching up with the new half-season, I did not realize that Vikings was becoming a prequel to Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom. In fact, it seems, we can credit Ragnar Lothbrok for giving rise to the very events that would create Uhtred of Bebbanburg. 

Unbeknownst to me, Vikings’ new half-season premiered on November 30th, right after Westworld’s penultimate episode, when I was too caught up with Delores and what may lie at the center of the Maze. I didn’t see a thing about Vikings on the 20 or so blogs I follow regularly, and had no idea the new half-season had even aired until one of my friends asked me about it. Needless to say, I’m a few episodes behind, but after the fourth episode, I was struck by the clever trick the writers had played with actual history.

When Season 4 began way back in February of 2016, I wondered if this season might end with Ragnar Lothbrok’s legendary death at the hands of King Aelle of Northumbria (Ælla, if using his proper Saxon name). Ragnar’s death is what inspires his famous sons to attack Britain, and nearly conquer the whole island. Then, lo and behold, at the end of Season 4’s first part, we’re introduced to the adult sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. Everything seemed to be coming together.

Then History gave us a twist of sorts. I’ve long noted that the actual history on Vikings is quite skewed, especially its timeline. But that’s not the case for this twist. Rather, the writers have had Ragnar Lothbrok become the author of the event that would inspire his sons’ revenge.

Ivar the Boneless plays a role in Cornwell's The Last Kingdom
Throughout all of Season 4, Ragnar has been in a hugely dark place following the failed siege of Paris. In fact, Season 4 opened with Ragnar staring at the gates of Valhalla, only to see them shut before he gets there. He is a man wracked by guilt over the fate of the Viking settlers in Wessex and the death of his beloved friend Athelstan. He’s had a death wish all season and that desire worsens after he shows up years later in Kattegat, when the new half-season begins.

The dialogue between Ragnar and Ecbert was a fantastic scene!
When he and his son Ivar return to Wessex, Ragnar begs King Ecbert to kill him. But Ecbert can’t. The two men are like kindred souls, both haunted by similar demons, and I dare say they’ve almost become friends. But that’s when Ragnar – and the show’s writers – throw us the curve ball. It turns out that Ragnar himself hatches the plot to have King Aelle be his slayer. Ragnar convinces Ecbert to hand him over to Aelle (the very first king whose lands Ragnar ravaged way back in Season 1), with the promise that when his sons seek revenge for their father’s death, they will exact that revenge on Northumbria instead of Wessex. So not only has Ragnar arranged his own famous death, he has aimed his son’s wrath squarely on Northumbria – which is precisely where they go historically.

What the new half-season is setting up to be is a prequel to Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, which chronicles the Viking conquest of Northumbria. In fact, the capture of York by Ragnar’s sons Ubba and Ivar is one of the first events in Cornwell’s novel, where a boy named Uhtred is captured by the Danes. Uhtred will go on to become one of Cornwell’s most iconic characters, and the hero of no less than 10 novels and a TV series that aired last year on BBC America. 

Uhtred of Bebbanburg on The Last Kingdom
With Vikings big twist, Ragnar Lothbrok has inadvertently set in motion the series of events that give birth to the hero Uhtred becomes. And for anyone who has read the Last Kingdom series (which also focuses on Alfred the Great, the king who basically saved England from becoming Daneland), this does not bode well for Ragnar’s descendants. Quick note to Ragnar’s son Ubba: You do not want to fight Uhtred of Bebbanburg!

Even more interesting is that Vikings has been renewed for a fifth season, which means that it and The Last Kingdom, which will air Season 2 on Netflix, may be covering the same historical events with many of the same characters. This seems surreal, but since both shows are great, I’m not sure I mind. In fact, I think the journey might be rather fun.

* Images courtesy of History and BBC America.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Season 4 of "Black Sails" Is Almost Here!

One of my favorite shows of the past few years has been Black Sails on Starz. It's an amazing prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and has been, in my view, one of the best shows on television. A rival, perhaps, to even Game of Thrones. The final season premiers on September 29, and one has to expect it will end right about where Treasure Island begins. Also, the trailer looks amazing!

I've written a lot about this show, but if you want to catch up before the final season begins, here are a few posts to start with: "On 'Black Sails' the Seeds of 'Treasure Island' are Beginning to Grow"; "Where Things Stand on Season 3 of 'Black Sails'"; "Eleanor is Making Cersei-like Decisions on 'Black Sails'"; and "It's All About Silver in the 'Black Sails' Season Finale!" You can also read my review of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island here.

Until then, I'll be counting the days until we can sail again on the high seas with Captain Flint, Long John Silver, Anne Bonny, and all the crew!