Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving, 1621 Style!

I wrote this last year, but I think I'll repost it every year around this time. If you're curious, I've included my menu for this year's Thanksgiving at the end of this article.

Growing up, I never paid much attention to the origin of Thanksgiving. Other than what I may have learned from elementary school, all I ever recall knowing was that it was a big feast between the pilgrims and the Native Americans sometime after the English landed at Plymouth Rock. Only in the past few years did I become interested in what really happened at the first Thanksgiving. 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 some 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 discovered 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 English colonists at Plymouth and the Wampanoag, a Native American tribe. Turkey, it turns out, was not the centerpiece of the meal, although one of the two written 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 of the meal is what was not eaten, at least according to an article in The Smithsonian Magazine. There were no potatoes or sweet potatoes, because white potatoes originated in South America and sweet potatoes came from the Caribbean, and neither had apparently made it to North America by 1621. The colonists 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 colonists, taught them how to grow corn, and showed them the best places to catch fish and eel, which helped them survive their first winter at Plymouth. He also helped negotiate a peace treaty between the colonists 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 behind his wife and child. During his first captivity in 1605, he was taken to England along with several other native Americans, where his captor, Capt. George Weymouth, wanted to display them for his financial backers, who were interested in seeing some natives from the New World. In England, Squanto learned the language 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 to the New World 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, where the Patuxet tribe lived, did not last long. Once Smith went north on another expedition, one of his lieutenants, a Capt. Thomas Hunt, decided to kidnap Squanto and twenty-six other Native Americans and sell them into slavery. Hunt sailed to Spain, where he hoped to sell his captives for twenty pounds each. When some 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 of this mistreatment and misfortune, he stayed and helped the colonists 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.

2013 Menu Update: Last year I did a multi-course meal for Thanksgiving, and this year will be no exception! (Each course will also be paired with a wine or cocktail :)

Course One: Watercress and endive salad with roasted hazelnuts and cranberries

Course Two: Baked cherrystone clam and fried lobster tail with horseradish crème fraiche sauce

Course Three: Pumpkin soup with fig quenelles and prosciutto

Course Four: Venison sausage with caramelized pear and cider

Course Five: Roast turkey with Irish Colcannon, sweet potatoes, and oyster dressing

Course Six: Banana pudding with meringue

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Narrative Viewpoint & The White Queen (plus a book review too!)

After finishing The White Queen on Starz, a show I really enjoyed, I picked up the novel by Philippa Gregory on which the show’s based. The Starz series stayed true to the novel, The White Queen, with a few significant exceptions, namely a very real difference in the stories’ narrative points of view.
The cover of my edition
Having read the novel after watching The White Queen on Starz, it’s difficult for me to comment on the book without drawing certain comparisons between the two. The novel is set during The War of the Roses and tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, a widow and minor noblewoman, loyal to the House of Lancaster, who falls in love with the young York king Edward IV and improbably becomes queen of England. Her marriage to Edward ignites a bitter conflict with his mentor, the Earl of Warwick (known as the “Kingmaker,” since he put Edward on the throne), who feels betrayed after arranging Edward’s marriage to a French princess.

Edward’s brother George is none too happy about the situation either, and ultimately he joins forces with Warwick against the king. And then there’s Edward’s brother Richard—the famed number III of Shakespeare’s play—who also has a claim to the throne, and together, the three of them comprise the novel’s antagonists. While the events in the book track those of the show, the novel concludes a bit earlier, before the Battle of Bosworth Field between Henry Tudor and Richard III for England’s throne. 
Richard III - According to Shakespeare
The first thing that struck me is that the novel is written in the first person point-of-view. This means that (theoretically) every scene is supposed to be from Elizabeth’s viewpoint. So, unlike the show, there are no scenes from the viewpoint of Warwick’s daughters, Anne and Isabel Neville (though Ms. Gregory did write a separate novel about them called The Kingmaker’s Daughter). Nor are there any scenes from Margaret Beaufort’s point of view. In fact, Margaret is a bit character in the novel, and her most significant interaction is by way of a letter to Elizabeth near the story’s end (although Margaret also has her own book by Ms. Gregory, titled The Red Queen). 
Well cast - He's a threatening character in The White Queen!
Another downside to the use of first-person point-of-view is that most of the battles involving Edward are not scenes. All we get is news of the battle as it’s relayed to Elizabeth. One exception is Edward’s battle against Warwick, where the author jarringly switches to third person point-of-view, since Elizabeth is far away at Westminster Abbey. It’s as if the author realized halfway through that her chosen viewpoint was too limiting, so she just tossed out the rules on point-of-view and kept on going. I will say that the first-person viewpoint seriously enhanced the scenes where Elizabeth and her children are living in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. In those scenes, the reader really feels Elizabeth’s tension and fear, especially as to Richard, who turns out to be a ruthless and threatening antagonist. Indeed, the sanctuary scenes during the time of the Princes in the Tower are so well written that I increased my rating of the novel.
The Poor Princes in the Tower
The second thing that struck me is that this novel, beyond any doubt, is a work of historical fantasy. Elizabeth, her mother, and her siblings are Burgundians who supposedly descended from the river goddess Melusina. In fact, in the novel, there are frequent intervals where Melusina’s story is told (she’s a figure of European folklore that seems to have inspired the tale of The Little Mermaid, as best I can tell, since she’s a half woman, half fish who becomes human for a man’s love). By calling upon the goddess’s power, Elizabeth and her mother (and later her daughter) are able to work magic, usually by conjuring violent storms that wreak havoc on their enemies and drive the outcome of major historical events. I adored this aspect of the book because I love historical fantasy that stays true to history, but isn’t afraid to add a bit of magic or mysticism too. 
This is why I love historical fantasy - and sometimes drink Dos Equis!
Overall, I found The White Queen to be every bit as good as the show, if not better in some respects. I’m glad I read it, and I’m curious to read more novels in The Cousins’ War series.

P.S. – If you liked the theme song to The White Queen series, it’s available on iTunes. (Yes, I’m a proud owner and frequent listener!) And as for Melusina, well, she’s apparently the inspiration for Starbuck’s logo. Yes, she may have influenced significant battles in The War of the Roses, but she also brews damn good Sumatra coffee!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Enoch’s Device – In The Seattle P-I!

Recently, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer re-ran an interview I gave to author Tyler Tichelaar about my novel, Enoch’s Device. I wasn’t expecting this, but what a great surprise! In the interview, I provide some insight into the meaning of the book’s title, the role played by the paladins of Charlemagne, and the sequel in the works. You can read the entire interview here, and some excerpts after this image of the book’s cover.

To begin, will you tell us a little about the basic premise of Enoch's Device?

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.

Are you able to tell us just what the device is, or is that part of the mystery?

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.

* * *

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?

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.

* * *
In the Book of Genesis, Enoch was one powerful dude!
Will you tell us about the main character, Ciarán, and how he becomes involved in trying to save the world?

Ciarán is a twenty-year-old Irish monk at the monastery of Derry whose world changes when his mentor, a senior monk named Brother Dónall, is accused by a bishop of heresy. In his attempt to prove Dónall's innocence, Ciarán discovers a series of warnings hidden in the illuminations of a copy of the book of Revelation. Those warnings reference a cryptic prophecy tied to the End of Days - and the unfortunate fact that the prophecy has already begun. So Ciarán not only has to save Dónall, but together, they need to decipher the prophecy to save the medieval world.

* * *

The story takes place largely in Ireland and France. Why did you choose those countries as your setting?

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.

Can you tell us more about Maugis d'Aygremont? Are his writings real or did you make them up?

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.

What can you tell us about the fairies in the novel without giving away too much?

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.

* * *

Do you plan to write any more books, and can you tell us a little about them if you do?

I'm actually working on the sequel to Enoch's Device right now, which will pick up where the first book ends. It will also take the characters and the reader on another journey, this time to England, where the Vikings were a huge problem, and ultimately to Rome.

Might Ciaran's journey end here?
On a totally separate note, I was also recently featured in an "Author's Spotlight" on writer Mark Alford's blog (thanks Mark!). You can read his post here.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book Review – The Scourge: Nostrum

I ripped through the second book in Roberto Calas’ The Scourge series, and I think that’s a testament to how engaging these books really are. I’ve tried hard to write a review that doesn’t contain too many *SPOILERS,* but if you’re inclined to read the first book in the series, you may want to stop now and return back after you’ve enjoyed The Scourge.

Nostrum begins immediately where The Scourge ended: the wife of Sir Edward of Bodiam is now one of the afflicted, which sets Edward on a quest for a cure for the disease that is turning the English population into zombie-like “plaguers.” There are rumors of an alchemist who’s invented a cure and lives in an island fortress. Leaving his afflicted wife imprisoned in the abbey of St. Edmund’s Bury, Edward sets out to find the alchemist, and one hell of an adventure ensues.

Edward is soon reunited with his best friend, Sir Tristan of Rye, as well as a new travelling companion, a beautiful nun named Belisencia who may not be all that she seems. Together, they search for the alchemist, encountering plaugers along the way, and even worse, humans afflicted by what Edward calls the “third plague” – a madness that has swept across England, inspiring many to do unthinkable things in the name of religion. There is a scene about midway in the novel involving the cult of a self-proclaimed “Hugh the Baptist” that embodies this madness to its fullest, and it’s one of the most memorable in the novel.

Overall, I found Nostrum to be even better than The Scourge. It’s less gritty and less grim, but more of a rollicking adventure tale, which I found even more fun to read. It’s rare when the sequel exceeds its predecessor, but I think Roberto Calas has accomplished that here. One of my favorite scenes in the book involves Edward and Tristan’s need to slay a dragon. Although this novel is a work of historical fantasy, Nostrum’s “dragon” is completely grounded in historical plausibility, a brilliant move by the author, who has a knack for imbedding as much real history as possible into a story about a medieval zombie apocalypse.
Might a medieval dragon look something like this?
Without giving much away, the ending is thrilling. An old enemy makes his return, and the madness of the third plague threatens everything Edward has fought for. The ending leaves room for a third book, and I really hope the author gets a chance to write it. It seems there is one more tale needed to complete Edward’s journey, and after the first two in this series, I’ll pick it up on my kindle the day it’s released!
You can buy a copy of Nostrum here.