Thursday, April 25, 2013

Book Review: 1356

I just finished Bernard Cornwell’s 1356, so I’m jumping ahead about nine centuries this week in my series on medieval fiction to allow for a review of yet another great work by one of my all-time favorite authors.
"Go with God, but fight like the Devil!"
1356 is the fourth book in Cornwell’s Grail Quest series set during The Hundred Years’ War. The series’ protagonist, the English archer Thomas of Hookton, is now a knight known throughout France as le Bâtard, the commander of a fierce band of English longbowmen called the Hellequin. Like the other books in this series, Thomas is set on a quest to find a religious artifact. This time it’s a sword called la Malice – the sword that Saint Peter used in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Black Friars are preaching that whoever possesses the sword will win the war between England and France, so Thomas’ lord, the earl of Northampton, sends Thomas and his Hellequin to find it before the French can.

One of the best things about Cornwell’s novels are the villains, and 1356 has a colorful cast of characters opposing Thomas’ quest. These include a thoroughly malevolent priest called Father Calade and Cardinal Bessières, one of the villains from Book 3 (Heretic) who believes finding la Malice will help him become the next pope. There is also an über chivalrous French knight named Roland de Verrec who becomes lured into the cardinal’s service, as well as Thomas’ old sidekick, the Scotsman Robbie Douglas, who now serves his uncle fighting alongside the king of France.

Genevieve, the heroine from Heretic, is now Thomas’ wife and the mother of their son, and those two characters play significant roles in the story, especially in the novel’s most intense scene set in a French castle. There is also a charming scene in the first third of the book where Thomas learns some key information about la Malice from an old nun who is also a former countess. Cornwell’s portrayal of the nun and her amusing dialogue reminded me why he remains my favorite author. This scene also offers clues to the minor religious mystery that’s embedded in the plot.

The famous battle of 1356 – the Battle of Poitiers, for which the book is named – is the setting for the novel’s climax, but the battle plays a lesser role in this story than in Cornwell’s Agincourt. Edward, the Black Prince of England, and King Jean le Bon of France are important supporting characters, and their battle at Poitiers is masterfully written, but the conflict between Thomas and the cardinal over la Malice dominates this story. Overall, 1356 is yet another great novel from Bernard Cornwell, and a worthy edition to one of his most engaging series. I highly recommend it!

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Wayward Herald: An Author’s Interview for Enoch’s Device!

This month I gave my first author interview for Enoch’s Device. Author Tyler Tichelaar, who specializes in Arthurian fiction, conducted the interview, which was first posted on Reader Views. It is also being featured in a newsletter going out to readers today. I had a fun time with it. Tyler asked some great questions that allowed me to reveal a few little-known facts about Enoch’s Device. Here are some excerpts.

Tyler: Welcome, Joseph. It’s a pleasure to meet you. To begin, will you tell us a little about the basic premise of “Enoch’s Device”?
Joseph: It’s about two Irish monks, Brother Ciarán and his mentor, Brother Dónall, who are trying to prevent the apocalypse at the end of the Tenth Century. Their quest is driven by a cryptic prophecy that speaks to the End of Days and an artifact called Enoch’s device, which might have the power to prevent the apocalypse. Their journey leads them to a French village whose deceased lord and widowed lady have some mysterious connection to the device. There, they end up rescuing the lady Alais from a heretic hunting bishop, but are pursued by the bishop and seemingly supernatural forces as they race across Europe to locate the device before it’s too late.
* * *
Tyler: Are you able to tell us just what the device is, or is that part of the mystery?
Joseph: I can’t say too much without revealing some huge spoilers, but one of the novel’s central mysteries centers around the questions: what is Enoch’s device? And where is it? Early on in the story, it’s revealed that the device is an ancient weapon with the power to prevent the apocalypse. The device has left clues of its passage through history, yet discovering exactly what the device is, and how it has influenced history, is a puzzle that both the characters and the reader must solve.
Tyler: Why the name Enoch? Who is Enoch in your story?
Joseph: Enoch is a reference to the biblical Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah. He is also the namesake of the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal text that features prominently in the novel. In fact, buried in that text is a reference to Enoch’s device. The Book of Enoch was actually well known to first-century Jews, but then it all but disappeared for more than a thousand years until it was rediscovered in 1773 by the Scottish explorer James Bruce during his travels in Ethiopia. Incidentally, a copy of the Book of Enoch was also discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Tyler: For readers who may not know, can you tell us what is significant about Enoch in the Bible, and also, what is significant about the Book of Enoch?
Joseph: In the Bible, Enoch is very close to God. The book of Genesis says that Enoch walked with God until God took him, which many believe means that Enoch never died and was literally carried to heaven. The significance of the Book of Enoch is that it tells the whole story behind Genesis 6:1-4, where the “Sons of God”—who were angels—saw that the “daughters of men” were fair and took them as wives on earth, giving rise to the race of Nephilim. These events lead to the wickedness that convinces God to use the Great Flood to wipe out creation. The Book of Enoch goes into far more detail, explaining how the fallen angels taught men sorcery and revealed to them the eternal secrets before God dispatched the archangels Michael, Uriel, and Raphael to deal with the problem.
* * *
Tyler: The story takes place largely in Ireland and France. Why did you choose those countries as your setting?
Joseph: A good number of my ancestors were Irish, so when it came time to find a home for my two heroic monks, Ireland was the natural fit. Also, in doing research for the book, I read Thomas Cahill’s “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” which further inspired me to make the two heroes of the novel Irish. As for France, a lot of the mysteries in the novel, including the cryptic prophecy, involve the writings of one of the paladins of Charlemagne named Maugis d’Aygremont. As a result, a good deal of the adventure takes place in France, but there’s also a portion of the novel set in Moorish Spain, so I’ve always viewed the characters’ journey as spanning much of Western Europe.
Tyler: Can you tell us more about Maugis d’Aygremont? Are his writings real or did you make them up?
Joseph: Maugis d’Aygremont was one of the legendary paladins of Charlemagne, although I’ve not seen any evidence from the eighth or ninth centuries that he actually existed. That said, he is a major character in the French “chansons de geste” written in the twelfth century. In those stories he’s like a younger version of Merlin, although he’s also a belted knight who adventures alongside Roland and the other paladins. So Maugis, like most of the paladins of Charlemagne, is similar to one of the Knights of the Round Table. He is historical in a legendary sense, but may not have been real. As for Maugis’ writings, the “chansons de geste” are filled with references to his book of spells, which, according to one story, he learned from a Fae (or fairy) named Orionde. This spellbook inspired the Book of Maugis d’Aygremont in “Enoch’s Device.”
Tyler: What can you tell us about the fairies in the novel without giving away too much?
Joseph: In the novel they’re called the Fae and they are the same mysterious figures from many of the Celtic legends. The twist is that in “Enoch’s Device” these beings are actually fallen angels who received clemency following the war in heaven and were allowed to remain on earth instead of being imprisoned in the underworld. The story of these fallen angels is a central topic of the Book of Enoch and is even hinted at in the Book of Genesis. One of the monks in “Enoch’s Device” theorizes that this story became the origin of various legends and myths about the Fae and the pagan gods. The Fae of “Enoch’s Device” have largely faded from the world, but they left behind some of their arcane secrets and entrusted a few of them to the paladins of Charlemagne.
You can read the whole interview here. You can also read more by Tyler’s writing at his website, Children of Arthur.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book Review: The Winter King

The Winter King is the first book in Bernard Cornwell’s masterful retelling of Arthurian legend. From the very first chapter, it is evident that Cornwell’s version would be different from many tales of Arthur. The narrator, for example, is the little-known Derfel Cadarn, writing his story as a monk in a small monastery to Igraine, the queen of Powys. Derfel is an interesting character: an enslaved Saxon boy who becomes a ward of Merlin at Avalon and matures into a formidable warrior over the course of the novel. And, in typical and brilliant Cornwell fashion, he is based on the real world Saint Derfel, whom local legends held was one of Arthur’s knights.

The story begins in the year 480 with the birth of the grandson of Uther Pendragon, High King of Britain. With the birth going badly, Uther sends a teenage Derfel to fetch Morgan, one Merlin’s priestesses, much to the concern of the mother and her Christian clerics. Using her witchcraft, Morgan saves the mother and her child, who turns out to be Mordred, just the first of many twists in this tale. The Arthur of this story is still Morgan’s brother, but both he and she are Uther’s bastards, which is why Arthur holds no claim to the throne. But when Uther dies with Mordred still a child, rival British lords vie to become high king and only Arthur, as the Warlord of Britain, can save Mordred’s kingdom.

Cornwell’s Arthur is a larger than life hero, which is one reasons, I believe, Cornwell did not make him a viewpoint character and instead chose to tell the whole story from Derfel’s perspective. Arthur is also a conflicted and complex man. As his mistress sadly tells Derfel, Arthur’s soul “is a chariot drawn by two horses; ambition and conscience, but I tell you, Derfel, the horse of ambition is in the right-hand harness and it will always outpull the other.”

A number of other characters from Arthurian legend feature prominently in the novel. Galahad, whom Derfel encounters in Brittany, is Lancelot’s half-brother and becomes Derfel’s most loyal friend. Nimue (aka Viviane, the Lady of the Lake) is an Irish girl who Merlin believes is blessed by the Celtic gods, and he takes her as his lover. She is also Derfel’s companion during their childhood at Avalon, and their relationship plays a key role throughout the series. Merlin is masterfully portrayed and keeps many of the classic characteristics of the wily wizard of legend. But he is also a druid consumed with saving the land by restoring the power of the old gods and recovering the mythical thirteen treasures of Britain (Excalibur is one of them, and the “grail” (here, a Celtic cauldron) is another). Guinevere is a strong and charismatic woman who steals Arthur’s heart, and their love affair leads to a major conflict in the novel. And, in yet another twist, the Lancelot of this story is never Arthur’s friend, but rather Derfel’s rival.

The book features a good number of combat scenes, including some full-scale battles, and as always Cornwell excels at these. There is also a healthy degree of conflict, tension, and intrigue throughout the novel. But it is Cornwell’s portrayal of the many Arthurian characters that shines the brightest, making this novel the perfect beginning to one of his greatest series and a “must read” for anyone interested in medieval fiction.

You can read more about Arthurian fiction in my posts about The Age of Arthur and Who Was King Arthur? Also, if you want to read the opening passage of The Winter King, which is truly magnificent, you can check it out here.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Medieval Fiction: The Late Fifth Century & The Age of Arthur

Medieval fiction set in the late Fifth Century is largely of the Arthurian variety, as I noted last week in my post titled Who Was King Arthur? Many scholars believe that Arthur (assuming he really existed) would have lived during the last decades of the Fifth Century and the early Sixth Century. Saint Bede (a real world English monk) places the Battle of Badon – a classic conflict in Arthurian legend – between the years 493 and 500, so this time frame for Arthur’s life seems fairly spot on.

I could devote the next three months to fiction about King Arthur and probably barely scratch the surface given its ever-expanding volume, so I'm going to limit this post to my two favorite works of Arthurian fiction.

The first would be Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Bradley tells the story from the viewpoint of the women of Arthurian legend, most notably Morgaine (known in other tales as Morgan le Fay). Viviane (aka the Lady of the Lake and Nimue in some stories) also features prominently, as does Igraine and Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), while Arthur, Lancelot, and his knights are more supporting characters in this novel. The story covers all the classic elements of the Arthurian legend, including Excalibur, Camelot, Mordred, and the Holy Grail, set amid the growing tension between the old pagan religion and the new Christian faith.

The old pagan way, which is portrayed as a Celtic religion involving an earth-mother goddess, is the faith under which Morgaine and her brother Arthur were raised, and which Morgaine and Viviane practice on the mystical isle of Avalon. Meanwhile, the Christian faith, spread by priests and bishops, is growing throughout Britain and grabs hold of Gwenhwyfar, which leads to conflict between her and Morgaine. The love triangle between Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, and Lancelot is particularly well done in The Mists of Avalon, as is the union between Morgaine and her brother that produces Mordred. Bradley’s telling of the Arthurian legend has stuck with me for a long time, and remained my favorite until ...

I read Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles. Cornwell’s retelling is more rooted in history than fantasy. The series, consisting of The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur, is told through the viewpoint of Derfel Cadarn, a character based on Saint Derfel of Wales, a Christian monk who legend holds was one of Arthur’s knights before taking his holy vows. Cornwell’s Arthur is a larger-than-life character who is the bastard son of Uther Pendragon. He never becomes king, but serves as the Warlord of Britain who battles both rival British lords and Saxon invaders. Morgaine is a minor figure in this tale, but Nimue and Guinevere play more significant roles. The Merlin of this series is one of its most special characters, bearing a close resemblance to the Merlin of legend, but with a strong druidic bent that has him more focused on restoring the power of the old gods than mentoring Arthur to rule Briton.

Several other well-known Arthurian tales remain on my to-read list, including Mary Stewart’s The Merlin Trilogy and Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Pendragon Cycle. There are also classic tales, such a T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, along with so many other takes on the story that it has spawned its own subgenre called Arthurian Fiction.

Arthur, however, was not the only legend of the late Fifth Century. Across the Irish Sea there lived a Romazined Briton who was enslaved by the Irish and would live to become their greatest saint: Saint Patrick. In fact, Cornwell, in Enemy of God, has a great exchange between Derfel and another character about Patrick (Padraig) in Ireland:
Oengus laughed. ‘Have to keep them busy, Derfel, you know that. ... Ireland’s going Christian!’ he spat. ‘Some interfering Briton called Padraig turned them into milksops. ... He preached to them with a clover leaf! Can you imagine that? Conquering Ireland with a clover leaf? No wonder all the decent warriors are coming to me, but what can I do with them?’
‘Send them to kill Padraig?’ I suggested.
The best novel I’ve read on Patrick’s life is Stephen R. Lawhead’s Patrick: Son of Ireland. Large portions of this novel take place outside of Ireland and concern the retreat of the Romans from Britain and the defeat of the Romans at the hands of German barbarians. Part of the book even takes place in a crumbling, plague-infected Rome, painting a grim picture of the once magnificent city after its fall. You can read my review of Patrick: Son of Ireland here.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, and with the Romans in full retreat, Clovis I was uniting all the Frankish tribes under one ruler to establish the Merovingian Dynasty. The Merovingians have become popular of late thanks to books like The Da Vinci Code, and who can forget the devilish character named the "Merovingian" in The Matrix Reloaded? But I have yet to identify any good novels on the subject of Clovis and his Merovingians. Perhaps this is fertile ground for writers of historical fiction!

Clovis I leading the Franks to victory!
If you want  to read more about things Arthurian from folks who know a lot more about it than I do, check out writer Leslie Hedrick’s blog or a blog I recently discovered from author Tyler Tichelaar called Children of Arthur. And, until my next installment in this series, which will move into the Sixth Century, let me know if you have a favorite novel about Arthur – or any good novels about Clovis and the Merovingians!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Medieval Fiction: Who Was King Arthur?

Leading up to my next installment in my series on Medieval Fiction, I thought I’d pose some questions about one of the late Fifth Century’s most legendary figures: Who was Arthur of Britain? And was he a real person or a purely mythical figure?
Arthur vs. Mordred - One of my favorite Arthurian images!
These are questions that scholars have debated, and writers have explored, for a very long time. What Arthur most certainly was not was a king in shining plate mail who lived in a massive structure that looked something like Bodiam Castle (below) as depicted in movies like Excalibur and the über silly First Knight (you know, the one with Richard Gere as Lancelot wearing some of the most ridiculous armor ever donned for the silver screen).
Camelot would not have looked like this!*
Massive stone castles with lots of towers, a huge curtain wall, and a moat weren’t built until the late Eleventh or Twelfth Centuries, and plate armor was not in style until the Thirteenth Century. But Arthur, if he existed, would have lived during the late Fifth or early Sixth Century. Here are just seven possible versions of Arthur from historical and literary sources (and trust me, there are many more than these!):
  • He was a Romano-British leader who fought the invading Saxons and killed 960 men at the Battle of Mount Badon (from the 9th century Historia Brittonum);
  • He was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a historical figure and one of the last Roman lords of Britain (the 2004 film King Arthur went in this direction, making Arthur a Roman cavalry officer named Artorius Castus);
  • He was the fifteen-year-old King of Britain and the son of Uther Pendragon (per Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae c. 1138; Geoffrey’s depiction became the basis for many Arthurian legends);
  • He was a boy named Wart who pulled a sword from a stone to become King Arthur (see T.S. White’s The Once and Future King);
  • He was Arthur Pendragon, the nephew of the Roman war leader Aurelius Ambrosius and the cousin of Merlin, who would become the king to unite all of Britain (see Mary Stewart’s The Merlin Trilogy);
  • He was a Celtic king ruling from Camelot during a time of tension between the old pagan and new Christian faiths (see Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon);
  • He was not a king, but a warlord – the bastard son of Uther, High King of Britain (see Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles).
Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d'Arthur in the 15th Century
I’ll have more on this topic when I return to my series on Medieval Fiction, which will happen as soon as I free up some of my free time, which has been spent lately on some exciting promotional work for my novel Enoch’s Device – more on that soon!
In the meantime, let me know if you have a favorite theory as to who King Arthur really was? Or simply a favorite depiction of Arthur from Arthurian fiction?
P.S. – if you want to read more about the Arthurian era from someone who knows a lot more about it than I do, check out writer Leslie Hedrick’s blog here!
* Bodiam Castle - Photo attribution

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Wayward Herald: Enoch’s Device is on Sale for $2.99 – Limited Time Only!

For the next week, the Kindle version of Enoch’s Device will be on sale for $2.99 at That’s less than a Grande Chai Tea Latte or a Tall Mocha Frappuccino at Starbucks! So, if you've been waiting to buy a copy, or know someone who likes medieval adventure stories filled with mystery, suspense, and a bit of the supernatural, this is the perfect time to strike!

Here are some quotes from recent reviews of Enoch’s Device:
"Enoch's Device is 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." - Steven Reynolds, SPR
"Real magic exists within these pages, and it's woven into the story so well that you will be wondering exactly where fact turns to fiction." - Marty Shaw, Reader Views
And here’s a brief description of the story:
Nearly a thousand years after the birth of Christ, when all Europe fears that the world will soon end, an Irish monk, Brother Ciarán, discovers an ominous warning hidden in the illuminations of a religious tome. The cryptic prophecy speaks of Enoch’s device, an angelic weapon with the power to prevent the coming apocalypse.
Pursued by Frankish soldiers and supernatural forces, Ciarán and his freethinking mentor, Brother Dónall, journey to the heart of France in search of the device. There, they rescue the Lady Alais from a heretic-hunting bishop who insists mankind must suffer for its sins. Together, the trio races across Europe to locate the device, which has left clues of its passage through history. But time is running out, and if they don’t find it soon, all that they love could perish at the End of Days.
Enoch’s Device is a fast-paced medieval adventure steeped in history, mythology, and mysteries from a dark and magical past.
Please spread the word!