Thursday, January 31, 2013

Puzzle-like Plots (Updated)

I've been travelling this week for work, and I'm way behind on blog posts. So for this week, I'm updating one of my first posts on puzzle-like plots.

This month on the SFWA Blog author Terry Bisson offers 60 Rules for Short SF and Fantasy. I found Rule #3 particularly interesting: “The SF reader is a gamer who brings problem-solving intelligence to the story. This is the SF writer’s one great advantage. Use it."

While I don’t write science fiction, this got me thinking about the stories I enjoy reading. Most of them involve some mystery or riddle the protagonist must solve, a puzzle that keeps the reader’s mind churning until the end of the novel. My all-time favorite historical novel about medieval monks (a subject dear to this blog) is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery at heart, set in 1327. The Name of the Rose helped spawn an entire subgenre of historical mysteries, and helped inspire my own novel. While my novel, Enoch's Device, is more historical fantasy than historical mystery (it’s certainly not a whodunit), there is a puzzle at core of the plot for both the protagonist and reader to solve. In crafting it, I followed a basic rule: write what you like to read.

There's a puzzle at the heart of this plot!
The puzzle or riddle plot type is one of twenty classic plot types listed in 20 Master Plots: And How To Build Them by Ronald Tobias. Other plot types, such as the “Adventure” and the “Quest,” seem more common in the fantasy genres, but there are a handful of stories out there with puzzle-like plots. The Harry Potter books, for example, have a mystery at the heart of each novel. Maybe that’s one reason they were so fun to read. Other books with puzzle-like plots include The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler, and Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz. All these books kept me thinking – and turning the pages – until I had the puzzle solved.

I’m curious as to your views. Do you like a good puzzle at the heart of your plot? A story where you, the reader, can bring your problem-solving intelligence to bear? Or do you prefer other plot types for the fiction you read and write?

Brother William of Baskerville had quite a puzzle to solve!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Spartacus Is back!

This Friday marks the premiere of the final season of Starz’s fantastic series Spartacus. As I’ve mentioned before, I'm a big fan of the series, ranking it just behind HBO’s Game of Thrones in terms of quality. Here’s a description of the upcoming season, aptly titled Spartacus: War of the Damned, from Starz’s website:

Gaius Claudius Glaber is dead. Many months have passed since his defeat, and the rebel army, led by Spartacus and his generals Crixus, Gannicus and Agron, continue to amass victories over Rome. With the rebel numbers swelling to thousands of freed slaves, it has become a force that has started to challenge even the mighty armies of Rome. ...
The Roman Senate turns to its wealthiest citizen, Marcus Crassus, for aid. A powerful, strategic politician, he respects his opponent and refuses to make the same mistakes Glaber and his predecessors have. With a young and fiercely competitive Julius Caesar as an ally, Crassus is determined to crush Spartacus and his rebellion.
The epic conclusion of a legendary journey, Spartacus: War of the Damned will unleash a battle unlike anything ever seen before.
My favorite season was the first, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, starring Andy Whitfield as Spartacus. The series has never been the same since he tragically died of cancer after season one, but the producers did their best to maintain the overall quality of the series, including the unexpected prequel-season, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.

The past season, Spartacus: Vengeance, covered the portion of Spartacus’ slave rebellion that takes place after the Capuan revolt (the topic of season one, Spartacus: Blood and Sand) up through the slaves’ refuge on Mount Vesuvius, and ending in a spectacular battle with the Glaber. This battle was the first of many famous battles fought by Spartacus and his army during what historians call the Third Servile War.

Presumably, this last season will cover the remainder of Spartacus’ battles against the Romans. I still can't fathom how the producers are going to cram all of this into one season unless they cut out big chunks of history. But I’m looking forward to it, however it may unfold!

Want more Spartacus? You can read my review of Ben Kane's new novel here.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hobbits Trounce Vampires – Worldwide!

I have learned a thing or two about gambling this past month. The first lesson is: don’t make a wager with your spouse unless you know with certainty that you can win (seriously, this should be a maxim in life). The second is: don’t bet on the film version of a worldwide fantasy classic if you’re limiting the playing field to the U.S. box office!

For some reason, I limited my bet over which movie would do better between The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 to the U.S. Domestic box office. How stupid could I have been? J.R.R. Tolkien was British! Of course he’d have more fans across the pond. And what about the rest of Britain’s European neighbors? Certainly they’d have affection for a classic story by a fabled European writer. And it was filmed in New Zealand, by a New Zealander. My self-imposed limitation was foolishness beyond folly!

Had I merely expanded my thinking and my geographic perspective, I would have won hands down! The Twilight film, which came out in mid-November, has grossed $290,281,174 domestically and $822,755,791 worldwide. By contrast, The Hobbit, which debuted in mid-December – a full month later – has grossed $279,689,070 domestically, but a whopping $877,689,070 worldwide. That’s about $55 million more than Twilight, which had a month’s head start!

I view this as a victory for all Hobbit fans and for classic works of fantasy fiction in general. I just wish I had realized this before I made my wager ...

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Wayward Herald: Is The End Nigh For Brick & Mortar Bookstores?

This past week, the Wayward Herald came across a post in The Passive Voice about the closing of a number of Barnes & Noble bookstores across the U.S. The numbers quoted in the post, which comes from an article at Melville House titled The Wrong Goodbye of Barnes & Noble, are alarming:
If you include the company’s college stores, this is going to mean 1362 bookstores disappearing from the American landscape — less than two years after 686 Borders stores disappeared.
I hope the grim reaper is not coming for brick & mortar bookstores!
I truly hope the news is not as bad as it sounds. I am a huge fan of bookstores and adored the Borders not far from my house. When it closed, all I had left was a local Barnes & Noble, which is still a fantastic store. Yet if it were to close, I don’t think there would be a bookstore within five miles of my home – and I live in the heart of a major U.S. city!

Back in September of 2011, I wrote about the seemingly hard reality that bookstores as we know them are ceasing to exist. As much as I appreciate the online booksellers that have created so many opportunities for writers, I really hope the brick and mortar stores hang on. Maybe it won’t be the giants like Barnes & Noble. Perhaps it will be the reemergence of small, independent bookstores. But whatever it is, I pray it happens because I don’t want to imagine a world where you can’t walk into a real bookstore with a hot cup of coffee and browse for new books.

In other news, and ironically on the subject of online booksellers, Enoch’s Device is now available on Smashwords and hopefully will be available soon on Apple’s iBooks! Also, you can read one of the first reviews of Enoch’s Device here.

Until next week, good tidings and good day!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Bernard Cornwell’s 1356 Released in the U.S.

The newest novel from one of my favorite authors, Bernard Cornwell, was released this week in the U.S. My copy arrived yesterday from Amazon and it looks fantastic. Here is an image of its very cool cover.

1356 is the latest novel to feature Thomas of Hookton, the protagonist of Cornwell’s Grail Quest Series. Thomas is an English archer whose family had a mysterious connection with the Holy Grail, which was the topic of the first three novels: The Archer’s Tale, Vagabond, and Heretic. Now, he’s in search of another religious artifact around the time of the famous Battle of Poitiers fought on September 19, 1356 during the Hundred Year’s War. Here’s a description of the novel from the blurb on the dust jacket:
September 1356. All over France, towns are closing their gates. Crops are burning, and throughout the countryside people are on the alert for danger. The English army – led by the heir to the throne, the Black Prince – is set to invade, while the French, along with their Scottish allies, are ready to hunt them down. 
But what if there was a weapon that could decide the outcome of the imminent war? 
Thomas of Hookton, known as le Bastard, has orders to uncover the lost sword of Saint Peter, a blade with mystical powers said to grant certain victory to whoever possesses her. The French seek the weapon too, and so Thomas’ quest will be thwarted at every turn by battle and betrayal, by promises made and promises broken. As the outnumbered English army becomes trapped near Poitiers, Thomas, his troop of archers and men-at-arms, his enemies, and the fate of the sword converge in a maelstrom of violence, action, and heroism.
If I had never heard of Bernard Cornwell, this description would still make me buy this book in a heartbeat. The quote on the cover by George R.R. Martin would have helped too: “Bernard Cornwell does the best battle scenes of any writer I’ve ever read, past or present.” I could not agree more, and I can’t wait to read 1356!

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Wayward Herald: Vampires Trounce Hobbits, and Enoch's Device Picks Up a Review!

Sadly, Bilbo and the dwarves have fallen down the dark goblin hole, while the vampires still sparkle in sunlight. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was outperformed at the domestic box office by The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 by around $28 million in the first three weeks. The Twilight film grossed $249,598,866 after its third weekend compared to only $221,626,882 for Bilbo and his friends, at least according to Box Office Mojo.

As if Gollum wasn't miserable enough ...
This also means I lost my wager. Quite badly, actually. But one of the blog’s loyal followers, 10,000 Days, who predicted a Twilight victory by more than $22 million, wins this blog’s first book giveaway! Well done – and the prize will go out this week.

In other news, Enoch’s Device has received it's first review in the blogosphere thanks to fellow writer and blogger Leslie Hedrick! You can read her review here. Ms. Hedrick has one of the coolest blogs for interesting medieval topics and it's always a good read.

Enoch's Device is now available on Kobo as a ebook, in addition to Amazon and Barnes & It is also available in paperback from Amazon and the CreateSpace eStore.

Until next week, good tidings and good day!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Book Review: Death of Kings

It took far longer than I expected to get around to reading Bernard Cornwell’s Death of Kings. My hope was to skim through the other five books in The Saxon Tales series before reading the sixth book, but that never came to pass. Eventually, I just dove into the novel, and I’m glad I did since Death of Kings is another excellent book in The Saxon Tales series.

The novel covers the events surrounding the death of Alfred the Great of Wessex in 899. His son Edward is heir to the throne, much to the chagrin of Alfred’s nephew Æthelwold. Uhtred, the protagonist of The Saxon Tales and the warrior who defeated many a Dane in defense of Alfred’s kingdom, is in his forties by this novel. He is still the lover of Æthelflaed, Alfred’s daughter, and remains the greatest Saxon warrior in England. But his own life and the fate of the kingdom become threatened by Alfred’s impending demise as a cast of Danes, and even some treacherous Saxon lords, scheme to take Wessex for their own. And killing Uhtred of Bebbanburg is at top of the list towards achieving that goal.

As with most of the novels in The Saxon Tales series, the foundation for this plot was laid with events and characters from earlier books. Familiar villains, like Haesten the Dane, are back, as are allies including Father Willibald, Father Beocca, Steapa, and Finan. And like many of Cornwell’s novels, this one builds towards a climactic battle with the Danes over the fate of Wessex. Cornwell writes medieval battle scenes better than any author I have read, and the several in this novel are the highlights of the story. There is also a bit of a puzzle in the plot, because this time none of the Danes’ actions make sense to Uhtred until he unravels a mystery at the end. I truly enjoyed this novel and highly recommend it!

One last point, albeit slightly off topic. I bought this book in hardcover as soon as it was released, and started reading it in that format. But when the e-book went on sale on Amazon, I bought a copy of that too. I actually finished this novel on my Kindle Fire and found I could read at a much faster pace when my eyes weren’t straining to read the smaller, printed text. I think this confirms that, despite a lifelong love of hardcover books, I actually prefer reading on the Kindle. I would be curious to know if any of you have reached a similar conclusion.