Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Book Review: The Historian

I’m not a big fan of horror novels, but I’ve read my fair share of vampire fiction, everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and even Twilight, if for no other reason than to see what all the hype was about. This Halloween, however, has me thinking about one of the more unique and intriguing vampire-related novels I’ve read: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. My review follows after this image of the book’s cover.

The Historian takes Bran Stoker’s Dracula and links him to his historical inspiration: Vlad III, the fifteenth century prince of Wallachia, known as Vlad the Impaler. The narrator is a woman who, at age 16, stumbled across the journal of her father, the story’s protagonist, a former diplomat and professor named Paul. Most of the book is then told from Paul’s point-of-view, either from his journal or conversations with his daughter. It begins when Paul, as a graduate student, discovers a strange book that someone left on his desk in the university library: a small tome the size of a prayer missal with vellum pages that opened to the center, bearing the woodcut design of a winged dragon and a single word: “Drakulya.” The rest of the book’s pages are blank, but they reek of decay and the smell of corrupted flesh.

Paul shows the book to his friend and advisor, Prof. Rossi, who happens to possess a similar copy, both printed in Central Europe in about 1512. Rossi claims the copy was left on his desk as a graduate student, just like Paul’s, and it led him to conduct research on Vlad the Impaler, a tyrant and enemy of the Ottoman Turks. Rossi traveled all the way to Istanbul where he discovered a chilling truth: Vlad Dracula is still alive. 

Not long after this revelation, Rossi disappears and the implication is that Dracula, or one of his minions, has taken him. What ensues is Paul’s quest to find his mentor, and to do so, he must find the secret location of Dracula’s tomb. Paul is aided in his quest by a dark-haired beauty named Helen, who turns out to be Rossi’s daughter. Their relationship, and ultimately, lover affair, enriches the story, but it’s their attempt to unravel the historical mystery behind Dracula’s whereabouts that I enjoyed the most.
Paul and Helen’s journey takes them to communist Romania, Istanbul, and ultimately Bulgaria. It is a quest through libraries and ancient tomes, all grounded in the history of Vlad the Impaler and his enmity with the Ottoman Turks. These types of historical mysteries, steeped in religion and legend, are my cup of tea, and despite the novel’s considerable length (my paperback is 676 pages), it captivated me until the end. There are ample dollops of action and suspense, as the vampire’s minions are hunting the heroes, and the ominous threat of Dracula seems ever present. Eventually, the storyline of Paul’s daughter merges with the main storyline as she too gets drawn into the quest to find Dracula’s tomb. Overall, The Historian is a beautifully written novel, with much to offer for both history lovers and Dracula fans, and it stands among my favorites.

Friday, October 25, 2013

On This Day In History: Agincourt!

Happy St. Crispin’s Day! On 25 October 1415, the English army of King Henry V won the Battle of Agincourt, one of the most significant battles against the French in the One Hundred Years’ War. The battle is the subject of one of my favorite Bernard Cornwell novels, aptly titled Agincourt, which I reviewed here two years ago. This year, I’m honoring the anniversary with a bit of humor, thanks to the talented folks at Horrible Histories – Enjoy!

(You can watch it here too.)

Incidentally, the victory at Agincourt crippled the French, and allowed king Henry to marry the French king’s daughter, Catherine of Valois. Their son, Henry VI, became the English monarch at the forefront of the War of the Roses, the setting for The White Queen, which just wrapped up on Starz and is based on Philippa Gregory’s novel of the same name. Funny how in history, one war always seems to lead to another . . .

The Morning of the Battle of Agincourt 25 October 1415

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fin Gall - A Novel of Viking Age Ireland

This week I’m featuring another guest review from Bill Brockman. I was fortunate a few months ago to feature Bill’s review of Hawk Quest by Robert Lyndon, which you can read here. This week, Bill is reviewing Fin Gall – A Novel of Viking Age Ireland by James L. Nelson, and it sounds like another fantastic read! Bill's review begins after this image of the book's cover.

James L. Nelson is a former professional mariner and has authored 17 books of fiction and non-fiction before writing Fin Gall. This novel marks a significant departure for Nelson, who heretofore has written novels with a naval setting covering age of sail pirates, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War. He has also written non-fiction works covering much of the same periods, and recently wrote of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Now he has ventured to Viking Age Ireland, the year 852 in particular, when Vikings were ravaging Ireland, much as they had Britain before. Norwegians by way of Scotland founded a longphort, or ship fort on the River Liffey. The settlement came to be named after a pond formed where the River Poodle met the Liffey, which was called Black Pool, or, in Gaelic, Dubh-Linn. The Norwegians, called fin gall (white strangers) by the Irish, were later driven out by Danish Vikings, called dubh gall (black strangers for the darkness of their mail armor). This is the way things stand in eastern Ireland when our novel begins.

Our protagonist, Thorgrim Ulfsson, also called Thorgrim Night Wolf, is from the Vik region of Norway. An excellent warrior and poet, Thorgrim has been raised to high rank by his Jarl, Ornolf Hrafnsson. He has been honored to marry Ornolf’s daughter Hallbera– a happy marriage until Hallbera’s death in childbirth. Now, called once again by Ornolf to go a-viking, he is sailing to Ireland in the longship Red Dragon. Along is Thorgrim’s strong 15 year old second son Harald, much beloved. Ornolf is old, fat, usually drunk and long past his prime and Thorgrim commands in all but name. None on board know that Dubh-Linn is now in the hand of Danes, who bear no love for their Norwegian cousins.

While battling a raging storm off the eastern coast of Ireland, the Red Dragons spot another ship. The smart thing to do would be to continue sailing in such conditions, but these are Vikings and plundering other ships is what they do. They manage to catch the loaded curragh, but this is no simple trader and is filled with a score of armed and armored warriors. Throwing caution to the wind, the Red Dragons grapple their prey and the bitter fight ends with all the Irish dead, valiantly falling to five-to-one odds. In the aftermath, Thorgrim discovers the treasure the Irish have died to protect. This is something far more important than Thorgrim can imagine, and later he will learn it was being borne to Irish King Mael Sechnaill mac Ruanaid, who wants it desperately to further his power. So does the Danish ruler of Dubh-Linn, Orm, for quite opposite reasons, and several other would be rulers – Dane and Irish. Thorgrim will have to use all his warrior’s skill, his thinking powers, and maybe even his ability to prowl the night in the guise of a wolf to bring himself, Harald, and at least some of the crew through alive. Along the way, the fin gall will encounter Morrigan, who seems to be just a simple Irish thrall with some healing arts and Brigit, the beautiful and strong willed daughter of Mael Sechnaill.

Well written with an appealing – and appalling – cast of characters both Viking and Irish, Fin Gall will take the reader to a time and place long gone, but no less real for that. This volume is planned to be the first of a series and I look forward to the next installment. Highly recommended.

Thanks, Bill, for the great review! It inspired me to pick up a copy of Fin Gall for my kindle, available here.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Magic of Medieval Fiction: The Sixth Century

It’s been a few months since my last post in this series, largely due to a crazy summer work schedule. But as life returns to normal, I’m trying to get this series back on track. I had left it at The Age of Arthur in the late Fifth Century, including posts on The Hallows of Ireland & Britain, Tristan & Iseult, and an attempt to answer the question: Who Was King Arthur? The Sixth Century is a bit more obscure than its predecessor, but it still inspired some well-known historical fiction.

We’ll start with the legendary king of the Geats, the North Germanic folk who now inhabit Sweden. Before he became king, he was the warrior-hero Beowulf, and the story of how he saved King Hrothgar of the Danes from the monster Grendel and his fiendish mother inspired the famous Old English poem. My favorite translation is the 2000 New York Times bestseller Beowulf by Seamus Heaney. I also enjoyed the 2007 movie rendition featuring Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother, even if the movie deviated from the poem and went way over the top with some of its scenes. Beowulf has inspired numerous other works, including Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead. Even the monster has his own version of the tale, as told in John Gardner’s Grendel.

In Ireland, the followers of St. Patrick continued to found monasteries and spread Christianity across the Emerald Isle. This was the age of the great Irish saints like Columcille (who is referenced often in my own novel, Enoch’s Device) and Brendan the Navigator, the subject of Morgan Llywelyn’s novel, Brendan, which I reviewed here. One of my all-time favorite non-fiction works, How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill, explores this fascinating part of history – for those, of course, who care about Western Civilization.

Meanwhile, in the east, Constantinople supplanted fallen Rome as an empire. This was the time of Justinian, a man born to a peasant family in Thrace who rose in station to become one of the most famous Byzantine emperors. Justinian rebuilt the city after a violent uprising called the Nika riots nearly burned it to the ground. The riots actually broke out at the Hippodrome during a chariot race between supporters of rival teams, making it officially the worst soccer riot in the history of the world. The Hagia Sofia, which went up in flames during the chaos, is the most famous of the architectural marvels reconstructed during Justinian’s reign. 

Justinian also tried to recapture portions of the old Roman Empire that had been lost to the Vandals and the Ostrogoths, although these expeditions fared a bit less well than his reconstruction of Constantinople. While I’ve not read any historical fiction about Justinian (though I imagine some must exist), Guy Gavriel Kay used the Justinian's reign as the basis for Sailing to Sarantium and his Sarantine Mosaic series. Those remain on my to-read list, but if they’re anywhere near as good as The Lions of Al-Rassan, they’ll be well worth it.

As always, I am curious to know: Have you read any great fiction set in the Sixth Century, especially any books about Constantinople under Justinian’s reign?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

More Medieval Humor

My work week shows no sign of slowing down, but I do have time for some more medieval humor. It’s another video from Horrible Histories exposing a rash of cheating in medieval tournaments.

(You can view it here too)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Review: The Scourge

Last week I finished reading The Scourge by Roberto Calas, and boy was it a gripping read! I ended up sacrificing the better part of a good night’s sleep to finish the final twelve chapters, and I’ve already started the second book in the series, Nostrum. My review follows this image of the book’s cover.

The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse?
The Scourge is a compelling work of historical fantasy and alternate history that depicts Fourteenth Century England during a plague far worse than the Black Death. Believed by the priests and bishops to be a scourge from God, the plague transforms those afflicted into bloodthirsty zombies called “plaguers.” Imagine mixing a Bernard Cornwell novel with the zombie apocalypse, and thanks to Roberto Calas’ considerable research and attention to historical detail, it really works.

The novel’s premise is straightforward: Sir Edward of Bodiam seeks to return to St. Edmund’s Bury in East Anglia to save his wife from the plague sweeping across the kingdom. He travels with his companions, Sir Morgan, a devout knight and former priest who views the plague (and perhaps its cure) from a deeply religious point of view, and Sir Tristan, a skeptic with a witty sense of humor. Along with the more pragmatic and conflicted Edward, these three characters provide a spectrum of viewpoints – both religious and non – about the scourge and its origins.

This was the original cover when I bought it - both look good!
The knights’ religious bent, as well as that of most of the supporting cast, naturally plays a big role in the story since religion was a huge part of medieval life. There is even a Muslim point of view via a Moorish character who appears about halfway through the tale, and the novel is richer for it. One of my favorite aspects of the story was its focus on relics. Christians in the Middle Ages were obsessed with the bones and other remnants of dead saints, and the author cleverly plays on this obsession in the novel.

As one would expect from a story like this, the book is chock-full of action and suspense. The author has a knack for imagining just how bad a particular situation could be for the characters – and then makes it a whole lot worse. Suffice it to say, the numerous plot twists and cliffhangers kept me turning the pages to the very end. The author also has a talent for battle scenes and an appreciation for medieval weaponry, including the earliest firearms which began to emerge in the later Middle Ages and play a role in the story. The novel ends in a way that begs for a sequel, and fortunately the author has given us one. I truly enjoyed The Scourge and look forward to finishing the next book in the series.