Wednesday, December 13, 2017

History’s “Knightfall” Looks Promising

I’ve been away from the blog for several weeks trying hard to finish the beta draft of the sequel to Enoch’s Device. In the meantime, however, I caught the premiere episode of Knightfall on History Channel, and wanted to share a few thoughts.

I was completely unaware of this new series until I saw an ad for it two weeks ago. The show airs on Wednesdays after the latest season of Vikings (of which I am now several episodes behind), and concerns the fall of the Knights Templar. Based on the first episode, the series looks quite promising.

It all begins with the series’ protagonist, Landry, a monastic knight in Paris who becomes a leader of the Knights Templar. A friend to Phillip the Fair, king of France, Landry at first appears every bit the hero you would expect in a drama about noble knights. For instance, when Phillip’s villainous counselor, Guillaume de Nogaret, convinces the king to expel the Jews from Paris, and then plots to rob and murder them on the road, Landry learns of the plot and rides with his fellow Templars to save them. After all, that’s what heroic knights do.

Fortunately, however, Landry’s character is a bit more complex than a stereotypical hero. For as the first episode reveals, he’s also broken his vow of chastity and is engaged in a secret affair with a woman who turns out to be Queen Joan of France. This seems destined to affect his friendship with King Phillip, who students of history will remember played a major role in the fall of the Knights Templar.

On top of this intriguing storyline, the show also involves the Holy Grail. The opening scene shows Landry and his fellow knights losing the Grail in the fall of Acre, when the knights were driven from the Holy Land. But fifteen years later, they discover a clue that the Grail may now be in France, leading to a Grail quest that seems fitting for a story about the Knights Templar. We may even see a turn towards historical fantasy before too long, for it appears the Grail is a device that predates Christianity, reminding me a bit of Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons, which turned out to be one of the best historical fantasy series on television.

One thing we know from Vikings, is that History Channel tends to do things right. And since we are in the Long Winter before the final season of Game of Thrones, it’s nice to have a show like Knightfall to help bridge the gap.

* Images courtesy of History

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving 1621 Style!

As I do each year, I'm re-publishing my post on the very first Thanksgiving. Enjoy!

Growing up, I never paid much attention to the origin of Thanksgiving. Other than what I may have learned in elementary school, all I recall knowing was that it was a feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sometime after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. Only in the past few years did I become interested in what really happened at the first Thanksgiving. Yet like many an adventure, it all started with a few bottles of wine ...

Thanksgiving, 1621, Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Not that the pilgrims drank wine at the first Thanksgiving (at least by any accounts I’ve read, although they did have beer), but the several bottles my friends and family drank a few years ago, after another gut-busting Thanksgiving dinner, inspired us to do some research into the origin of Thanksgiving. (That’s also how we rediscovered the role Squanto played in all of this, but more on him in a moment.)

Apparently there are only two written accounts of the first Thanksgiving, which was celebrated in 1621 as a harvest feast by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Turkey, it turns out, was not the centerpiece of the meal, although one of the two accounts referenced a “great store of wild turkeys.” The main course appeared to be venison, but there is also reference to waterfowl and “Indian corn.”

The interesting part about the meal is what was not eaten, at least according to an article in The Smithsonian Magazine. There were no potatoes or sweet potatoes. White potatoes originated in South America and sweet potatoes came from the Caribbean, and neither had apparently made it to Massachusetts by 1621. The Pilgrims also lacked butter and wheat flour, so there was no pumpkin pie. Among things they probably did eat were fish, eels, and shellfish (like lobster, clams, and mussels), which were staples for the Wampanoag and the colonists.

But this feast may never have occurred if it were not for a Patuxet Native American named Tisquantum, commonly known as Squanto. He served as an interpreter for the Pilgrims, taught them how to grow corn, and showed them the best places to catch fish and eel, all of which helped them survive their first winter at Plymouth. He also helped negotiate a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag in March of 1621. Without this, I suspect there would not have been a first Thanksgiving.

A drawing of Squanto – I imagine he dressed more warmly in the winter of 1621!
Squanto’s backstory was less than idyllic. He was captured twice by the English and forced to leave his wife and child. During his first captivity in 1605, he was taken to England along with several other native Americans. Their captor, Capt. George Weymouth, wanted to display them for his financial backers, who were interested in seeing natives from the New World. In England, Squanto learned English and apparently became the consort of an English woman. By 1613, he was hired as a guide for an expedition to New England and returned there with the famous explorer John Smith.

This is the same John Smith who was saved by Pocahontas in 1607 and 1608.
But Squanto’s time back in Plymouth did not last long. Once Smith went north on another expedition, one of his lieutenants, a Capt. Thomas Hunt, kidnapped Squanto and twenty-six other Native Americans to sell them into slavery. Hunt sailed to Spain, where he hoped to sell his captives for twenty pounds each. When local friars discovered Hunt’s plans, they rescued Squanto and his brethren, hoping to convert them to Christianity. Squanto ended up living with the friars until 1618, when he found his way back to London, and then to a ship headed to the New World.

Upon returning home, Squanto discovered that his entire Patuxet tribe had died from the plague (believed to be smallpox, a disease introduced to the New World by Europeans). Despite all this mistreatment and misfortune, he stayed and helped the Pilgrims until he died of fever in 1622. According to one account, the Massachusetts governor at the time called Squanto a “special instrument sent by God for their good beyond their expectations.”

So this Thanksgiving, my family and friends are going a bit more historical. There will be venison and some lobster, and turkey of course. (I suspect mashed potatoes will be in order too, only because my friends and family might never forgive me if I eliminate them for the sake of historical purity.) There will also be more wine and probably a few mixed drinks – including a special concoction that we intend to dedicate to Squanto.

2017 Menu Update: This year, we're going to our friends' house for Thanksgiving, so I'm not cooking my usual six course meal. But I'm still preparing a few dishes in honor of the first Thanksgiving, namely fried lobster tails with a horseradish crème fraiche sauce and oyster stuffing! I'm also making my signature pumpkin soup with fig quenelles and prosciutto! 

Yes, I love cooking almost as much as I love writing! HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

The Mayflower in 1620
Another interesting fact: Through my father’s side of the family, I am a direct descendant of Francis Cooke and his son John, and Richard Warren and his daughter Sarah, who married John Cooke. Francis, John, and Richard all journeyed to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620 and were likely present at the first Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Puzzle-like Plots: “Origin” by Dan Brown

While I’ve been reading more medieval mysteries these days, I always go back to Dan Brown whenever one of his books comes out. He’s the godfather of the religious thriller, and while we write in somewhat different genres, I’ve always admired his mastery of pacing and building puzzle-like plots. His latest novel is titled Origin, and my review of the book follows.

Origin offers a new and compelling mystery in the latest Robert Langdon novel, and the most controversial religious theory since Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. In the pantheon of Langdon tales, I enjoyed Origin more than Inferno, and probably as much as Angels & Demons. Though I must say, the first quarter of the book is more suspenseful than any Langdon novel so far.

The plot centers around Edmund Kirsch, a billionaire futurist and notorious atheist, who claims to have made a scientific discovery about the origin of life so profound it will shatter the foundations of religions worldwide. When he shares his discovery with three prominent religious leaders, including a Catholic archbishop who is the spiritual counselor to the king of Spain, Kirsch comes to believe his life is in danger. But despite the threats, Kirsch is determined to reveal his findings to the world in a live streaming spectacle broadcast from the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Enter Robert Langdon, Kirsch’s former professor of symbology at Harvard and a VIP guest to the big unveiling. Once this stage is set, the next hundred pages of Origin is so gripping I wasn’t able to put it down. Someone has sent an assassin to kill Kirsch before he can reveal his discovery. And even though you know what’s going to happen, the chapters are so masterfully constructed they never lose their tension.

Some exciting scenes occur in the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Without giving away the obvious, Langdon finds himself in another desperate situation, this time with the beautiful Ambra Vidal, fiancé to the crown prince of Spain. Along with Winston, an artificial intelligence created by Kirsch (think Siri on steroids), Langdon and Vidal must solve a series of mysteries to uncover Kirsch’s discovery and reveal it to the world. The danger is that the secret might disprove the existence of God, and Langdon fears the Catholic Church and the assassin may stop at nothing to silence the discovery.

Like all Langdon novels, this one contains a twist, and a clever one at that. (Yet another reason I found Origin to be better than Inferno.) Also, the book’s themes, both about the existence of God and the power of technology, are quite thought-provoking, if not somewhat disturbing. Once the answer was revealed, I found the questions the book raised about science to be far more troubling than those concerning religion. But that’s one of the things I enjoy most about Brown’s novels. You continue to think about them long after you finish reading.

A Note on Religion

As a religious person and writer of fiction that involves religious themes, the build-up to Kirsch’s discovery in the novel bothered me at times. I yearned to reach the end just to see if my own faith would be shaken. I’m pleased to report it was not. To reach his conclusion – one in which Brown seems to have a one-sided view, much like his overpopulation theory in Inferno – Brown uses a character based on, and named after, real life MIT physicist Jeremy England.

Incredibly, Brown included England in the book without his permission. Moreover, England, who is also religious, disagrees with Brown’s conclusions. So much so that he authored an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal titled: “Dan Brown Can’t Cite Me to Disprove God.” (You can read it here, though a subscription might be required.) Once you’ve read the book, I suggest you read England’s article.

Since The Da Vinci Code, Brown has had great success taking controversial religious theories and turning them into thrilling stories. That’s a credit to Brown as a writer. But it helps to remember it’s all in the name of good fiction, as opposed to well-reasoned scholarship.

Thanks to Amazon, you can read a sample of Origin here.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

“Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman

This week, I’m focusing on mythology – Norse mythology to be precise, the subject of the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: Ragnarok. While the movie does not even attempt to stay true to actual mythology, Neil Gaiman does in his latest release aptly titled Norse Mythology. Here’s my review.

Anyone who has read American Gods knows how much Norse mythology has influenced the writing of Neil Gaiman. In Norse Mythology, he provides a straightforward retelling of those ancient myths in a tone and tenor reminiscent of Gaiman’s best novels. This is the third book on Norse mythology I’ve read, and it easily ranks as one of my favorites. 

Gaiman covers all the Asgardian tales, beginning with the Norse creation myth and ending with Ragnarok, the Norse version of Armageddon. The heroes of these tales are the Norse gods like Thor, Odin, and Freya. Though if there is one overarching plotline that pervades these myths, it’s that, collectively, Norse mythology tells the story of Loki.

Thor and Loki are together again!
The trickster god is both villain and antihero in these stories. He’s a wisecracking member of the Asgardian court, and travel companion to Thor in their adventures through the giant lands. But he’s also father to the goddess Hel, as well as the gigantic wolf Fenrir and the world-serpent Jormungandr. Through them, Loki becomes the architect of Ragnarok, playing a role akin to the devil in the book of Revelation. Actually, the similarities between Ragnarok and Revelation are quite uncanny.

Overall, this book will be a worthwhile read for fans of mythology, Norse legends, and American Gods. In fact, the true identities of Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon both play big roles in this mythological epic. There are rumors of a possible sequel to American Gods, and after a healthy dose of Norse Mythology, I really hope it happens.

Cate Blanchett is fantastic as Hela.
But until then, let me say a few words about Thor: Ragnarok, which I saw this past Sunday. Marvel’s Thor is all messed up mythologically. For one, Hela (Hel) is Thor’s long-lost sister, instead of Loki’s daughter. Surt is a demon, instead of a fire giant, and Jormungandr is nowhere to be found. That said, the movie is a blast. Germain Lussier of io9 even wrote that Thor: Ragnarok May Be The Funniest Superhero Movie Ever.” The film does give us Fenrir (surprisingly), and a whole lot of Hulk, who does quite a bit of smashing during Ragnarok. Maybe if the real Thor and Odin had had a Hulk at Ragnarok, things would have turned out differently. 

The real Asgardians would have loved a Hulk! 
Finally, if you want another good book on Norse mythology, I highly recommend Loki by Mike Vasich. You can read my review of that book here.

And thanks to Amazon, you can also read a sample of Norse Mythology here.

* Photos courtesy of IMDb.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween!

Many believe the old Celtic festival of Samhain became the inspiration for Halloween. With that in mind, you have to love this quote about Samhain from the opening of Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God ...

Today I have been thinking about the dead.
This is the last day of the old year. The bracken on the hill has turned brown, the elms at the valley’s end have lost their leaves and the winter slaughter of our cattle has begun. Tonight is Samain Eve.
Tonight the curtain that separates the dead from the living will quiver, fray, and finally vanish. Tonight the dead will cross the bridge of swords. Tonight the dead will come from the Otherworld to this world, but we shall not see them. They will be shadows in the darkness, mere whispers of wind in a windless night, but they will be here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Devil's Bridge: A Tale of Samhain

For this Halloween, I’m republishing my flash fiction story titled The Devil’s Bridge. It’s based on a Welsh legend about an old woman and her deal with the devil – on the eve of Samhain (Halloween). Hope you enjoy it!

Bryn dreaded the hike to the devil’s bridge, though she dreaded the full moon even more.

Its light bathed the path through the bracken-covered hillside that led to the ravine. Every few yards, Meg jabbed her walking stick into Bryn’s back, goading the ten-year-old forward, while Meg’s old wolfhound, Mister Grim, followed alongside. Mister Grim was as mean as sin, and Meg had threatened to feed Bryn to the dog more times than the girl could recall. Although tonight, Bryn feared the moon and the bridge more than the wolfhound. Yet she wondered if he could smell the hunk of day-old bacon hidden in her fist.

“Keep moving,” Meg hissed. “Of all the orphans the village has brought me, you be the slowest.”

The old woman’s eyes simmered in their sockets, amid a face creased like an autumn leaf. Some said Meg was once the most beautiful woman in the village, but now she was so old that Bryn’s Nana was just a child when Meg was in her prime. Nana believed witchery preserved Meg’s beauty, but even witchery could not defeat the haul of time. 

Ahead loomed the bridge, a crude arch of stone that spanned the ravine where the river plunged three hundred feet in a rushing fall. On the far side, moonlight kissed the headstone of the ancient dolmen encrusted with moss. Nana once told Bryn that dolmens were the tombs of giants, but some believed they were gateways to the Otherworld, where dark faeries lured their prey.

A chill washed through Bryn. “Why do we have to come here tonight?”

“Because it’s Samhain,” Meg replied. “The curtain between the living and the dead is like mist, and the mandrake growing near the dolmen is at its peak. ‘Tis powerful magic in them roots tonight, so time to harvest.”

“But Nana warned about that bridge.”

“’Tis just a bridge.”

“Nana said that when you were young, you tricked the devil into building it.”

Meg’s eyes narrowed. “Your Nana told you that?”

“She said he built it for you for the price of the first soul to cross it. But instead of going first, you pushed your servant across, a sickly girl, blind in one eye. Cheated, the devil howled and screamed. Now, Nana said, at every full moon he takes the life of the first to cross the bridge.”

“Your Nana died a fool!” Meg snapped. “There’s no truth in them myths. Now come on child, there’s harvesting to do.”

From a pouch on her waist, Meg drew a rusty gardening spade and handed it to Bryn. “Now go and get me some mandrake root.”

Bryn’s stomach hardened. “Alone?”

Meg held up her fingers, bent like a spider’s legs and tipped with jagged nails. “My hands are old, too feeble to grip a spade. Now do as you’re told.”

“But Nana said—”

Meg grabbed Bryn by the hair and jerked her head back. “I don’t care what your Nana said,” Meg growled through clenched teeth. “Go dig up some mandrake root, lest I turn you into a toad and feed you to Mister Grim!”

Bryn froze, scared to even breath. When Meg let go, Bryn backed toward the bridge, nearly stumbling due to the weakness in her knees. Her whole body shook as she turned at the bridge’s threshold. The spray of the falls kissed her face. Hundreds of feet below the bridge, the rushing waters seethed into a cauldron-like gorge.

Bryn’s heart felt as if it would beat through her chest. She stopped and looked back.

“Go!” Meg shrieked. 

Bryn shook her head, a thought pounding in her mind. She cheated the devil . . .

“Get on, or I’ll beat you bloody with this stick!”

Bryn sucked in a breath and shook her head again, mouthing her reply. “No.” 

Meg grimaced. “Grim, make her go.” 

The wolfhound stood as tall as Bryn, with a massive head and teeth as long as her thumbs. His eyes gleaming in the moonlight, he padded toward her like a hound closing on a wounded hare. 

Bryn struggled to hold back a cry. Summoning all the courage she could muster, she opened her palm, revealing the hunk of old bacon in her hand. Mister Grim cocked his head, smelling the cured meat. The wolfhound opened his jaws, just as Bryn hurled the meat toward the dolmen.

“No!” Meg screamed as the wolfhound tore across the bridge.

Mister Grim lunged for his prize. Then Bryn gasped. 

A torrent of water blasted from the falls. Arms stretched from the spray, reaching from a ghost-like shape with burning red eyes. As it fell on the wolfhound, the ghostly demon roared like the wind, drowning out the dog’s cries. Water pummeled the stone bridge. When the torrent ceased, the demon and the wolfhound were gone. 

Bryn exhaled—right before Meg eclipsed her view. The old woman’s eyes fumed with rage. With a fierce cry, she cracked her stick upside Bryn’s head. And the girl’s whole world began to spin.

* * *

On the dirt floor of Meg’s hovel, Bryn woke in darkness to a sound at the old wooden door. The scent of stewed mandrake clung to the air as Bryn rubbed the side of her head, swollen like a gourd. She heard the sound again. Something scratched at the door. As she got up and walked to the doorway, a chill rushed up Bryn’s limbs. Hesitating for a moment, she opened the door. At its threshold stood Mister Grim. The hound’s eyes burned like hot coals.

Bryn staggered back. Those eyes, like the demon’s from the falls! 

She feared she might faint, but the beast brushed past her and padded toward Meg, asleep in her bed. As it lunged and Meg screamed, a faint smile crept across Bryn’s lips. For there was one more thing Nana used to say. 

“Remember child, always give the devil his due.” 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Medieval Mysteries: “The Red Hill” by David Penny

Recently, I started reading more medieval mysteries, and I’m truly enjoying them. These are pure mystery tales like the stories of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, except set during the Middle Ages. And this week’s mystery, The Red Hill by David Penny, is among the best I’ve read so far. 

Set in the fifteenth century, the mystery involves a series of murders within the harem of the Alhambra, the massive medieval palace of the sultan of Granada. The few witnesses to the attacks believe the killer to a djinn, a spirit of the air who appears out of nowhere wielding a deadly blade. With the sultan’s wives a potential target, the sultan enlists his private surgeon, Thomas Berrington, to solve the mystery and expose the killer.

Thomas, the Sherlock Holmes of this tale, is an Englishman with a mysterious past who has served the sultan for years. Driven by logic and science instead of superstition, Thomas is reluctant to take on this role, but a sultan’s request cannot be refused. 

The Hill of the Alhambra in Granada
Like most good stories, the novel gives us a host of memorable characters, including Jorge, the strapping eunuch who serves as Watson to Thomas’ Holmes; Olaf Torvaldsson, the sultan’s Scandinavian general; and the sultan’s many sons, all of whom may eventually lay a claim to the throne. Then there’s Olaf’s two daughters, one who is Thomas’ lover, and the other who wishes to become his apprentice. They all aid Thomas in one way or another, but he’s often left guessing whether they are truly friends, or foes. 

Nearly everyone Thomas meets has a motive to commit the crime, and the author does a fine job of disguising the truth, while offering enough subtle clues to make the ending believable. And like all great mystery tales, the puzzle kept me guessing until the novel’s final twist. The book is the first in a series, and you can bet book two, titled Breaker of Bones, is already on my to-read list!

You can read a sample of The Red Hill here.

* Painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, October 5, 2017

“The Flame Bearer”: Uhtred of Bebbanburg Finally Goes Home

It look longer than I had hoped, but I finished reading The Flame Bearer, the latest installment in Bernard Conwell’s excellent Saxon Tales series about the founding of the kingdom of England in the early tenth century. Here’s my review.

For ten novels – that’s right, ten – we’ve been waiting for Uhtred to reclaim his ancestral home of Bebbanburg, and in The Flame Bearer we finally learn how that story ends. Fans of the series will recall that Uhtred’s last attempt to capture the impregnable Northumbrian fortress took place in The Pagan Lord, where we were introduced to his son Uhtred as a young warrior. By The Flame Bearer, Uhtred the father is an old man, and with most of his enemies gone after the events in Warriors of the Storm, reclaiming Bebbanburg seems to be all that is left for Uhtred’s tale.

Uhtred is a man possessed in this book, hell-bent on achieving the one thing he’s longed for ever since his wicked uncle stole Bebbanburg from him in Cornwall’s The Last Kingdom. Fortunately, before Uhtred gets too far along on his quest, Cornwell presents him (and us) with another mystery of the kind featured throughout the series. This time, the West Saxons are threatening Northumbria, in apparent breach of the truce reached at the end of Warriors of the Storm. And like most of the mysteries in this series, there’s more to this move than meets the eye.

Uhtred's adventures also continue in Season 2 of The Last Kingdom on Netflix
Eventually, however, the tale turns back to Bebbanburg, and how Uhtred is going to pull off this improbable siege. Uhtred may be old, but he’s still the greatest warrior in England, and the last third of this novel offers one of the longest battle sequences in the series. Cornwell is a master of writing battles, with all of its violence, carnage, and shield walls, so fans of the series won’t be disappointed. By the end, every open storyline from the prior two novels appears to reach its conclusion. That is, every storyline but one. So, in what looked to be the final book in the series, Cornwell drops a hint there may be more to come. 

Even if Cornwell never goes beyond book ten, The Saxon Tales have been one of the great works of medieval fiction. Set in an important era in English history, its stories are engaging, its characters are memorable, and its hero is unforgettable. Someday, we’re going to miss the narrations of Uhtred of Bebbanburg. But until then, enjoy the ride.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

* Image courtesy of Netflix

Friday, September 29, 2017

"The White Princess" and the True Game of Thrones

As I edit away on my next novel, I have a suggestion for anyone suffering withdrawals since the season end of Game of Thrones: Watch a show about the War of the Roses, history’s real life game of thrones.

It’s been well publicized that the historical War of the Roses helped inspire George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, which HBO turned into Game of Thrones. Fortunately, earlier this year, Starz ran The White Princess, a sequel to its 2013 mini-series The White Queen, both about the War of the Roses. If you haven’t seen them, there’s no better time than now to start binge watching.

I wrote about The White Queen back in 2013 (here) and the novel by Phillippa Gregory on which it was based (you can read my review here). But I also posted an excerpt from an article in Vulture titled 7 Ways Starz’s The White Queen is Like Game of Thrones.” Here’s it is again:
Character Correlations: It’s not always direct in Game of Thrones, as one of George R.R. Martin’s characters might share personality traits with a certain historical figure or group, yet a situation or position in common with another. But some people see Cersei from Game of Thrones in The White Queen’s Elizabeth Woodville, the commoner Edward IV married; others see her in Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI (the king Edward IV helped depose) because she's a commanding woman fiercely devoted to putting her sociopathic son on the throne. Yes, there is a Joffrey predecessor, and his name is Edward of Lancaster, a.k.a. the Prince of Ice. Although these aren’t precise match-ups, The White Queen also has a mad king (King Henry VI of Lancaster), as well as an exiled heir to the throne (Henry Tudor). Edward IV, like Robert, also has two brothers vying for the throne. (His brother George, like Renly, doesn't even want to wait for his death, telling him, “I was hoping for your crown.”) Bran and Rickon, meanwhile, are probably the Princes in the Tower.
If this whets your appetite, my guess is you’ll enjoy both The White Queen and The White Princess, but I suggest you watch them in order. The White Queen covers the heart of the War of the Roses, which ended up putting Henry Tudor (Henry VII) on England’s throne. It also tells the story of Richard III (he of Shakespearean fame), the Princes in the Tower, and all the drama surrounding that still mysterious event. All in all, it’s very well done.

As much as I liked The White Queen, I enjoyed The White Princess even more. Unfortunately, Starz premiered the series around the same time as it aired American Gods and HBO aired the final season of The Leftovers, so I ended up missing the show during its run. I did, however, have a chance to binge-watch it before the premiere of Season 7 of Game of Thrones

What I enjoyed the most about the series was the transformation of its protagonist Lizzie (Elizabeth) of York. She’s the daughter of Elizabeth Woodville (the protagonist of The White Queen) and, historically, the mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Elizabeth I. She begins the show as a fierce York loyalist, determined to secretly undermine her unwanted husband, Henry Tudor, in the hope of restoring a York to the throne. But when she finds that she and Henry have more in common than they realized, and later have two sons, she begins to change. By the end, she’s making serious moves in the game of thrones, displaying a ruthlessness one would not expect of the character in the beginning of the show.

You can catch The White Princess on demand on Starz. It’s not the perfect remedy to Game of Thrones withdrawal, but it may be the best one can do in the Long Winter that lies ahead.

* Images courtesy of Starz.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Blogging Whereabouts . . .

It's been a few weeks since my last post because I needed a short break from the blog after the seaon's end of Game of Thrones. Fortunately, I spent what little time I had working on other things.

It looks a bit more dogeared now, but I'm nearing the end of my edit to the sequel to Enoch's Device. It's taken far longer than I had hoped, but I've trimmed it down by 32 pages (and counting), scrapped a few chapters, and written a few new ones. I'm working in the final act now, so the editing has slowed a bit to get it right.

After this, I'll do a quick polish edit and draft my historical note. Then it's off to the Beta readers. My actual editor will be next, and after whatever edits result from that, the novel should be ready to roll. When that will be, I can't quite predict, though I'm hoping for early next year. But enough of that.

In case you missed it, Season 3 of Outlander premiered two Sunday's ago on Starz. For anyone missing Game of Thrones, I've found that Outlander helps ease the pain. I hope to be back with actual content on the blog soon, so check back next week or follow my Facebook page, where I've started posting additional content that wouldn't work for a full blog post.

Thanks for your patience. I'll be back soon!

* Lower image courtesy of Starz

Friday, September 1, 2017

What Remains For “Game Of Thrones”?

Last Sunday’s finale of Game of Thrones provided a satisfying conclusion to the show’s penultimate season. But now that it’s over, what’s left? Only six more episodes.

The Board is Set for the Series Finale

Every storyline from Season 7 was wrapped up in “The Dragon and the Wolf,” and the game board is set for the final six episodes. This made for a fulfilling 80 minutes of television, even though much of it was predictable. Littlefinger’s dangerous game finally came to an end. And even though many sites voted him the most likely character to die in the finale, I liked the clever way Sansa, Arya, and Bran pulled off their endgame.

In one stunning scene, The Wall came crashing down, though it came as no surprise now that the Night King has an undead Viserion. Jon and Daenerys finally did what everyone had been assuming they would do, but the lead into the scene with Bran and Sam confirming Jon’s origins certainly cast it in an awkward light. Although you knew Bran and Sam would put two and two together at some point.

Meanwhile, to no one’s surprise, Cersei betrayed everyone. Though I did not anticipate Jaime leaving her. That was the one development that offered the most promise for next season. Jaime, who began the series as a villain, may end it as a hero. He’s also now brought a third Valyrian sword to the battle against the White Walkers, joining Jon’s and Brienne’s (and don’t forget, Jaime’s and Brienne’s blades were forged from Ned Stark’s great sword, Ice). I’m looking forward to Jaime reuniting with Brienne, if that’s what happens.

But Will the Series End Well?

Overall, the sentiment on the web is that “The Dragon and the Wolf” saved what many viewed as a rocky season of Game of Thrones. You can read examples here and here. But some still dread the final season, fearing that much of the human drama and intrigue will be lost now that the show seems to have boiled down to a fantasy battle between good and evil. (Examples are here and here). However, I’m not too concerned.

For one, the machinations of Queen Cersei will continue to provide plenty human drama and intrigue. She’s hired the Golden Company from Essos, and I can’t imagine they’re simply coming to retake Dragonstone from whatever token force Daenerys leaves there, or to settle the score with a leaderless Dorne. Rather, Cersei’s plans are going to somehow impact (or derail) the fight in the North. And, with six extended episodes to go, we might even see the White Walkers reach King’s Landing. At this point, anything could happen.

Also, Cersei’s story will reach its conclusion, and I think a Shakespearian fate may be what the writers have in store. After all, when Cersei was a girl, Maggy the Frog told her a prophecy that foresaw Cersei would be queen until a younger and more beautiful queen arrived to cast her down. (Hello, Daenerys!) And worse, the “valonqar” (“little brother” in High Valyrian) will choke the life from her pale white throat. Somehow, Tyrion or Jaime has a role to play in Cersei’s fate, but who knows how it will all go down.

Meanwhile, Jon and Daenerys will have to deal with the revelation of Jon’s true origins. The news that Jon Snow is actually Aegon Targaryen, heir to the Iron Throne, will turn Jon’s world upside down. Also, I doubt the man raised by Ned Stark will be okay with ongoing incest. And who knows how Daenerys will react to Jon’s superior claim to the throne? Since her brother Viserys died, she’s always believed she was the one to rule Westeros, so her world will be shattered too. I don’t think this will end well, but it should provide a heaping of human drama.

I also believe we’re in for at least one more big surprise before the show’s end. One totally insane theory blazing through the internet is that Bran is actually the Night King. I’m not going to try to explain it, but you can read about it here and here. And the fact remains that George R.R. Martin has said publicly that the end of Game of Thrones will be bittersweet, much like the ending to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King. In other words, there will be no happily ever after in the final episode of Game of Thrones. But how it will end is anyone’s guess.

For me, that’s plenty to look forward while we wait until 2018 2019 for Season 8. But those are just my thoughts. How hopeful are you about the final season of Game of Thrones?

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Last Sunday’s Episode of “Game of Thrones” Was One of The Most Polarizing Ever

If you’ve been reading the recaps and reviews on the net about last Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, it’s a seriously mixed bag. Even those who liked it had significant gripes. It wasn’t the perfect episode, but I’m surprised at the amount of ire it seems to have stirred. So, as a longtime lawyer, let me attempt to defend the show’s writers, one topic at a time.

Tyrion’s Big Plan

Many who write about the show have focused on the alleged stupidity of Tyrion’s plan to have Jon and Co. kidnap a wight and bring it to Cersei, all in an attempt to get her to join them in the war against the Night King. The gist of most of these criticisms is that everyone should know Cersei won’t be persuaded, so it was foolish to attempt such a dangerous mission in the first place. But I think folks are being too hard on the littlest Lannister.

For one, Tyrion is trying to solve a problem: to stop the War of the Queens so both queens and their armies can aid Jon Snow in his war against the white walkers. Second, while Tyrion claims to believe Jon, he hasn’t seen one of the undead either. So what is the obvious solution? Show everyone the proof that this is happening. Tyrion is just being practical.

To Cersei, the white walkers are just stories to frighten young children. They’re myths, the Westerosi version of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. But I bet if someone dropped a Sasquatch off at your doorstep, you might suddenly become a believer. Also, Cersei is not Tyrion’s only audience. He has Jaime too, who seems to be much more likely to appreciate the danger of an undead army advancing on The Wall. If anyone can convince Cersei to do something, it’s Jaime. 

Lastly, what other choice did Tyrion have? He knows his sister won’t entertain the possibility of white walkers without proof, and according to Jon, Westeros needs everyone to band together if they hope to win the war. So it’s not like they can just cut Cersei out of the plan, or let her ride roughshod over the Seven Kingdoms while Daenerys is off fighting beyond The Wall.

All this said, I wonder if Tyrion’s plan was invented by the show’s writers, or if this is really how George R.R. Martin intended things to play out? The plan led to the biggest game changer in the show’s history by allowing the Night King to claim his own undead dragon. If that event was envisioned by Martin – and I hope something as enormous as an undead Viserion actually was – then something needed to go terribly wrong beyond The Wall to allow that to happen. Of course, if Martin would just finish The Winds of Winter, we wouldn’t need to speculate anymore. 


The Sansa-Arya Storyline

If there is one storyline the critics seem to hate most of all, it’s the feud between Arya and Sansa. Many think Arya is acting totally out of character, and that this is part of some ploy by the writers to manufacture conflict in Winterfell. The critics are certain Arya would never treat Sansa like she’s been doing, and they insist the two sisters should naturally rally together to defeat Littlefinger. Some even fear the writers are turning Arya into one of the show’s villains. My response to all of this: Relax. It’s not hard at all to believe Arya would react this way to Sansa. Here’s why.

In the books and in the show, Arya has always harbored huge resentment for her older sister. Here’s the first thoughts Arya shares with the reader about Sansa in A Game of Thrones:
It wasn’t fair, Sansa had everything. Sansa was two years older; maybe by the time Arya had been born, there had been nothing left. Often it felt that way. Sansa could sew and dance and sing. She wrote poetry. She knew how to dress. She played the high harp and the bells. Worse, she was beautiful. Sansa had gotten their mother’s fine high cheekbones and the thick auburn hair of the Tullys. Arya took after their lord father. Her hair was a lusterless brown, and her face was long and solemn. Jeyne used to call her Arya Horseface, and neigh whenever she came near. It hurt that the one thing Arya could do better than her sister was ride a horse. . . .
Arya also came to hate Sansa for lying about what happened in the incident on the road to King’s Landing where Nymeria bit Joffrey, which resulted in the death of Arya’s friend, the butcher’s boy. This what she tells her father:
“I hate them,” Arya confided, red-faced, sniffling. “The Hound and the queen and the king and Prince Joffrey. I hate all of them. Joffrey lied . . . I hate Sansa too. She did remember, she just lied so Joffrey would like her.”
The two sisters were separated not long after this scene, and six full seasons passed before they were reunited. Anyone who has experienced a bad sibling rivalry knows that, no matter how much people mature and change, those bad feeling linger under the surface and can erupt in ways that are completely irrational. 

Also, we need to view the situation from Arya’s perspective. She went back to Winterfell for Jon, not Sansa. If all Hotpie had told her was that Sansa’s back at Winterfell, I’m pretty sure Arya would have continued down to King’s Landing to kill Cersei, and then all this War of the Queens stuff and zombie hostage taking could have been avoided. Instead, Arya arrived at Winterfell to find Sansa, whom she still resents, but no Jon. That had to be disappointing. And then, after watching Sansa not defend Jon harder against the Northern lords, it’s no wonder Arya is a bit steamed.

And let’s not forget that since Arya left the House of Black and White, she’s killed two men and baked them into pies. She’s also poisoned nearly everyone in House Frey. She may be the biggest mass murder in the recent history of Westeros. Are we to believe that someone who’s accomplished such things can easily snap back into the role of sweet little sister?

I suppose if Arya whacks Sansa on Sunday, the critics may have a point. But at the end of last episode, Arya gave Sansa her Valyrian dagger. In doing so, she may have been saying, despite all this, I’m not going to hurt you. And if so, I suspect we may see the two sisters unite yet against their common foe. Littlefinger is playing a dangerous game, and I can’t help but think his days are numbered. (Though it would not surprise me a bit if he's killed by white walkers and joins the army of the dead. After all, winter is here.)

The Night King’s Decisions

Another groups of critics have wondered why the Night King didn’t just use his magic javelins to kill Jon, Jorah, and everyone else on that rock while they were waiting for Daenerys to save them? Or why he didn’t order his wights to create some World War Z-style zombie bridge to allow the rest of his forces to get to the rock? Is the Night King really that stupid? I think not.

The above criticisms assume all the Night King wanted to do was kill Jon and his merry men. But I don’t believe that was the case. He wanted a dragon (or two) and was waiting for Daenerys to arrive. Some may ask, how in the world did the Night King know she was coming? The answer, I suspect, is that he’s an undead version of the Three-eyed Raven. We already know he can sense Bran’s presence, and the Night King is far older and more powerful than the Greenseer who tutored Bran ever was. Why wouldn’t the Night King be able to see things similar to Bran?

This theory also explains why it’s taken the white walkers so bloody long to advance on The Wall. If the Night King believed he needed an ice dragon to destroy Westeros, he had to wait for Daenerys to get there. Now, if my theory is true, should the writers have done something to show the audience that the Night King can see the future or spy on Dany? Probably so. But that doesn’t take away from the possibility the Night King’s moves have been logical from the start. He needed a dragon – and he’s had several seasons to forge those giant chains.

The Issues with Travel and Time

The issues with time and travel have been my biggest gripe all season, so this criticism will be the hardest by far to defend. Yes, it seems as if ravens in Season 7 move faster than text messages, and whole armies teleport from one place to another like the Rebel Fleet moving through hyperspace in Star Wars. The only way to rationalize such rapid travel is to assume that days or months are passing between scenes on the show.

This assumption was tolerable until last Sunday’s episode. Erik Kain of Forbes wrote a wonderful piece explaining that, in a perfect world, it might be possible for a raven to reach Dragonstone, as well as for three dragons to fly to The Wall, in a matter of days. (You can read it here.) But this would mean Jon and Co. spent days on that rock. One has to assume they did, but the episode’s director could have done a much better job indicating the passage of time. Even a quip from one of the characters about how hungry he’s become after however many days would have helped.

Kain suggests the story would have been best served by having Daenerys, on her own, set off to The Wall after fretting about what might happen to Jon or Ser Jorah. I tend to agree. That would have been a much better way to handle it. But the fact remains that the boundaries of time and space were not necessarily broken last episode – so long as one assumes Jon and the others were trapped on that rock for a few days. (Okay, I’m pretty sure the judge rules against me on this one, but as they said in My Cousin Vinny: you win some, you lose some . . .)

Is The Show Now 100% Fantasy?

Alison Herman of The Ringer wrote a very good article concluding that Game of Thrones has now become a conventional fantasy show. (You can read it here.) Some have suggested this may be a bad thing. Where should I begin?

This argument acknowledges that much of what made Game of Thrones great was the human drama and the history, which seemed so much like real history. (After all, the show was premised on the medieval War of the Roses.) The critics then lament the fact that, with a shift to conventional fantasy, this realism may be slipping away. But anyone who thinks this is not what George R.R. Martin intended does not appreciate how much Dungeons & Dragons the man has played! There were always going to be dragons. There were always going to be white walkers and an army of the dead. And there probably were always going to be good dragons fighting bad dragons. This is the reason I was so excited that Game of Thrones was coming to TV in the first place. Also, I bet we have the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films to thank for it.

And how about The Lord of the Rings? Did those stories help inspire George R.R. Martin? Hell yes. He’s even stated that the ending of this series will echo the ending of The Return of the King. This is not surprising. I dare say J.R.R. Tolkien in some way inspired every fantasy author worth his or her salt. The Lord of the Rings even inspired Steven King to write his epic Dark Tower series. 

In short, we were always getting a fantasy show, and I hope everyone is enjoying it. I also think we’ll still get plenty of human drama. But we’re near the end, and the stakes have been raised. We needed some white walker versus dragon rider-type action. It’s part of epic fantasy’s DNA. 

But The Cracks Are Beginning To Show

Rob Bricken of io9 writes a good article suggesting Season 7 has so many problems they’re getting hard to ignore. (You can read his article here.) This is the one point on which I won’t offer a defense. As I noted in my first post about this season, I think the show is suffering a bit from the lack of source material. The show seems to be moving from one huge scene to another because that’s all the show’s writers have to work with from the outline George R.R. Martin left them. Even Martin, I suspect, hasn’t worked out all the details, because he’s still writing the story (we hope). As result, so many of the things Martin wrote that made the show so great seem to be lacking in subtle ways this season. That’s because, for this season, Martin has not written them yet. And that’s not the show’s writers fault.

But those are just my thoughts? Have you been disappointed in Season 7 of Game of Thrones?

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

In Other News: If you've enjoyed this post or like historical fantasy in general, you may also enjoy Enoch's Device. The Kindle version of the novel is on sale this week through the final episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones. (You can buy it here.) And if you'e already read and enjoyed Enoch's Device, now is a great time to recommend it to a friend! You can even read a sample of the novel here

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Fan Theory Gets Dashed “Beyond the Wall”

The ending of last night’s episode of Game of Thrones contained a huge surprise that I suspect few people saw coming. And with it, a popular fan theory ended as well. *SPOILERS* to follow.

Last season, the show confirmed one longstanding theory of fans of George R.R. Martin’s novels, that Jon Snow was actually the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. A corollary to that theory is that Jon was going to join Daenerys as one of three dragon riders who will fly out to defeat the white walkers. The theory stems from a vision Dany has in the House of the Undying at the end of A Clash of Kings (depicted in season two of Game of Thrones), where Rhaegar tells her, essentially, there has to be three heroes because “the dragon has three heads.”

As for the third rider, most of the speculation has surrounded Tyrion, who some believe is also secretly a Targaryen (due to an affair between Dany’s father and Tyrion’s mother). Well, last night this theory went up in smoke – or should I say ice – when the Night King killed one of her dragons. So there’s one less dragon to be ridden by Dany and her crew.

Instead, the Night King has created what promises to be the most destructive force ever to be unleashed since The Long Night. My guess is the first thing this “ice dragon” takes out is The Wall, and I would not be surprised if that happens next episode. Hopefully Bran saw this whole thing unfold, because Winterfell is about to be in some very serious danger!

* Image courtesy of HBO

Friday, August 18, 2017

“Game of Thrones”: 3 Subtle Reveals from “Eastwatch”

“Eastwatch,” much like the first episode this season, set the stage for the season’s final two episodes on Game of Thrones. A lot happened, with little fanfare, but there were 3 subtle developments that should have a big impact on the show.

Sansa’s Letter

Last week, I wrote that aside from the white walkers, the most dangerous thing in the North was Littlefinger lurking around Winterfell. And in “Eastwatch,” we begin to see why. Petyr Baelish is nothing if not cunning. He realizes his position is precarious, especially now that the Starks outnumber him at Winterfell.

The arrival of Brann was bad, in more ways that Baelish realizes. But I think Littlefinger thought the return of Arya was even worse – particularly after he saw her go toe to toe in a swordfight with Brienne of Tarth. That said, he also realized Arya and Sansa don’t like each other. Both sisters have changed dramatically since Ned Stark’s death, yet neither one realizes how different the other has become.

Enter Sansa’s letter. As many writers have observed over the past week, this was the letter Cersei forced a very young Sansa to write after Ned was captured, but before he was beheaded. (Vanity Fair has a great article about this, complete with a video clip of that scene from Season One; you can read it here). The letter’s purpose was to convince Robb Stark to swear fealty to Joffrey. In reality, it had the opposite effect. Robb suspected Sansa wrote the letter under duress, which helped spur him to oppose the Lannisters. Arya, however, doesn’t know any of this, and her opinion of Sansa is so low, she might not give her sister the benefit of the doubt.

Littlefinger made sure Arya knew of the letter, and then planted it in a place where Arya would find it. So what’s he up to? Presumably, he hopes the sibling rivalry gets so bad that Arya leaves (or is banished from) Winterfell, removing one huge obstacle to Littlefinger’s survival. I also suspect Littlefinger intends to take Sansa’s side in this feud, hoping to repair their broken relationship. His real problem, however, is Brann. The three-eyed raven could see through this whole charade in two blinks of his three eyes. The only question is whether Brann has retained enough of his humanity to intervene when his sisters are at each other’s throats. 


Gendry’s Return

One of the more delightful developments in “Eastwatch” was the return of Gendry, Robert Baratheon’s only surviving bastard, whom Ser Davos found at his old smithy in Fleabottom. We’ve waited three seasons to find out what happened to Gendry after Davos saved him from Melisandre (who was going to burn him alive because of his royal blood). Now we know he returned to his old life as a blacksmith, just like Hotpie returned to baking.

I believe, however, that Gendry’s return suggests he has a bigger role to play in this war, and others have suspected this too. First, he’s now met up with Jon, and who else needs a good smith to forge weapons from Dragonglass? Even more, as another good article from Vanity Fair points out (here), Gendry was the apprentice to the smith who turned Ned Stark’s massive Valyrian steel sword Ice into two blades. And other than Dragonglass, what else kills white walkers? Valyrian steel. In other words, Gendry’s skills could come in handy.

In the next two episodes, I bet we’ll know if this speculation proves true. Gendry has joined Jon, Ser Davos, and the unlikely band of heroes who ventured beyond The Wall at the end of “Eastwatch.” I’ll state right now that I’m 100% certain not everyone on that team – which also includes the Hound, Thoros of Myr, Berric Dondarrion, and Tormund Giantsbane – is going to make it back alive. In fact, two or three of them may be goners. So we’ll know soon if Gendry is merely making a cameo before becoming a casualty, or if he truly does have a bigger role to play on Game of Thrones.

Jon’s Bloodline

The most subtle reveal that many are talking about was Gilly’s discovery in the Citadel that Rhaegar Targaryen’s marriage to Elia Martell had been annulled, and that he was married to someone else in a secret ceremony that same day. The “someone else” is Lyanna Stark, whose alleged abduction by Rhaegar sparked the war that put Lyanna’s finance, Robert Baratheon, on the Iron Throne.

Last season, we received the big revelation (and confirmation of the longstanding fan theory, R + L = J), that Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna, who incidentally was being protected by Rhaegar’s best knights – a clear hint she was more important than your typical hostage. Thanks to Gilly, however, we know that Jon is not even a bastard. Instead, he’s the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, and his claim is even superior to Dany’s.

The thing is, Jon has no idea about any of this. And even if he knew, I’m not sure it would change what he’s doing as long as the Night King is threatening Westeros. (Though I wonder how Dany may react, especially after having learned how much her dragons like him.) What I do believe is that this revelation is another piece in the puzzle that proves Jon Snow is the true hero of Game of Thrones. Riley McAtee of The Ringer made a great case for this theory earlier this week, declaring that “‘Game of Thrones’ Is Officially Jon Snow’s Story.” This is something I’ve written about and suspected for a long time. Two seasons ago, “Hardhome” gave us a huge clue with that staredown between Jon and the Night King, all but ensuring they’ll meet in some climactic battle. Yet long before then, we had the old paperback cover to George R.R. Martin’s first novel in the series, A Game of Thrones. Just look at this old-school fantasy artwork and tell me you can’t guess who the hero is in the Game of Thrones?

Look, it's Jon Snow and Ghost too!
But those are just my thoughts. What did you think about the revelations in “Eastwatch’?

** Photo images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.