Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Break from the Norm

Today I'm taking a break from my focus on historical and fantasy fiction (at least of the medieval variety) to mention a new novel by one of my author friends, E. Kendrick Smith, titled Defeating Operation Hydra. It's available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, among other booksellers, in e-book, paperback and hard copy. Here's my take on it after this picture of the cover.

I'm not an avid reader of thrillers, but this book kept me turning the pages all the way to its riveting end. Despite its title, this novel is foremost a legal thriller with a heavy dose of international intrigue and military thriller mixed in. 

The story's protagonist is Sharon Weinstock, a brilliant but neurotic assistant New York D.A. with South Georgia roots. When Sharon loses a high profile murder case that seemed like a lock, she suffers an early career crisis and takes an impulsive vacation to Aruba, only to encounter the man she just prosecuted. From there, the story takes a dark and unexpected turn into a web of deceit and murder tied to Colombian drug lords and international terrorism. Soon, Sharon finds herself facing her own trial for a murder she didn't commit. Without her courtroom skills to aid her, she must help an old friend (and former opponent) prove her innocence and stop the real killers before they can kill thousands more.

The courtroom scenes are captivating, but the novel is equally exciting when it veers toward a military thriller, raising the stakes quite high, but always keeping a focus on Sharon and her plight. I really enjoyed Defeating Operation Hydra and suspect others will too.

Friday, November 25, 2011

On This Day In History ...

I love it when dramatic events in history give rise to great works of fiction. Today provides a perfect example.

On November 25, 1120, a royal vessel called the White Ship sank in the English Channel leaving only a single survivor. Among those killed was William Adelin, the son of Henry I, King of England. William’s death spawned a nineteen-year war of succession between Stephen of Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror, and Stephen’s cousin, Matilda, the daughter of Henry I and wife of the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany. This fascinating period in English history, called The Anarchy, provides the setting for one of my favorite works of historical fiction, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.

Follett builds his entire story around the events set in motion by the sinking of the White Ship. Indeed, the mystery surrounding this disaster – and its sole survivor – is a central part of the plot, starting with the novel’s very first scene, the hanging of Jack Shareburg. Other characters in the real-world historical drama feature prominently in the story, including Stephen, who rules as king during much of The Anarchy, and Matilda’s son, Henry II, who ends the war of succession by becoming King of England in 1154 and provides the catalyst for the climactic events at the novel’s end.

I won’t give away any more of the plot (and I’m sure most of you have read it anyway), but The Pillars of the Earth serves as a wonderful example of how an author can take a dramatic event in history and turn it into a fictional masterpiece.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Tiny Piece of Viking Trivia

The little things you learn in research can amaze you. While continuing my studies on Vikings, I came across the story of King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, who died after a battle with his rebellious son, Svein Forkbeard, circa 987 A.D. It turns out that Harald’s surname, “Bluetooth,” provides the name for the ever popular technology that we enjoy every day on our smart phones. 

In fact, the Bluetooth logo is comprised of Harald’s initials in Viking-age runes: Hagall (ᚼ) and  Bjarkan (ᛒ). It’s amazing how history more than a thousand years old can touch our modern lives.

Incidentally, Harald defeated Svein in a great sea battle off the coast of Jutland. But, according to at least one account, while Harald was warming himself that evening, naked by a campfire, one of Svein’s men ended up shooting Harald with a bow and arrow – right in Harald’s bare behind. That night Harald bled to death, paving the way for Svein Forkbeard to become King of Denmark.

Svein may have won the throne, but it's Harald's name that lives on.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Little Known Fact About Tolkien's Dwarves

Yesterday I stumbled across a little known fact about Dwarves. I say little known, when in fact it may be widely known. But it was news to me.

This month I started reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to my daughter, and we’re still at the scene where Thorin Oakenshield and all his Dwarves are invading Bilbo’s hobbit hole. I’ve also been continuing my research on Vikings for my next novel. Well, lo and behold, while studying a book called The Norse Myths, I came across a group of Dwarves that sounded very much like Tolkien’s.

Specifically, in the tale of Loki’s Children, the Norse gods get the Dwarves to make a chain to bind the monstrous wolf Fenrir. And among those chain-making Dwarves were Bifur, Bafur, Bombor and Nori. This sounds a lot like four of the Dwarves in Thorin’s party: Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and Nori. I suspect this is not a coincidence. 

Where did these Dwarves come from?
Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and studied many Old English poems, including Beowulf, which has its origins in Norse myth. Also, the Norse gods and their myths are derived from more ancient Saxon and Germanic mythology. For example, the Norse god Odin probably has his origins in the Saxon and Germanic war god, Woden. Tolkien undoubtedly modeled the Dwarves and Elves of Middle Earth after those found in actual myths. Indeed, “Middle Earth” is likely a play on “Midgard,” the middle world of men in Norse and Germanic Mythology. 

Incidentally, some of the other Dwarves I stumbled across in The Norse Myths include Durin, Dain, Dvalin (Dwalin), Nain, and Nar. All of these Dwarves are mentioned somewhere in Tolkien’s mythology, including The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien took actual mythology and used it to build his own world – one that is much more memorable to today’s readers. 

Now, I’ve found no evidence that Snow White’s Dwarves are derived from Norse Mythology. But if I find reference to a Grumpy or a Sneezy while finishing my research, I’ll let you know.

This picture of Odin the Wanderer looks a lot like Gandalf the Grey.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Is the Official Dog of Fresh-scraped Vellum a Dire Wolf?

It's been a few months, but the Official Dog of Fresh-scraped Vellum has more than tripled in size. She was 8 pounds when we picked her up from the Humane Society. Now she's more than 24 lbs! The Humane Society told us she was a Jack Russell Terrier. Guess not.

At the rate she's growing, I'm starting to wonder if she's secretly a Dire Wolf. Of course, her name is "Lily," so she lacks a cool name like "Ghost" or "Grey Wind." But who knew? For those against the Dire Wolf theory, some think she's part English Pointer. Others think she's a Rat Terrier. For now, however, I shall assume she's part Dire Wolf!

Take a look at her picture and let me know what you think.

Dire Wolf for sure!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Beowulf Reimagined

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

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

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

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

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

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