Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Magic of Medieval Fiction

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I am especially fond of fiction set in the Middle Ages. My own novel, Enoch’s Device, is set at the end of the Tenth Century, and most of the books I read and review have some connection to the medieval world. These include not only historical fiction, but also works of fantasy such as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the fiction of Guy Gavriel Kay, all of which are set in fictional worlds that greatly resemble the real medieval world.

I've always loved this picture!
This week, I am beginning a multi-part series on Medieval Fiction that will walk through each century of the Middle Ages and highlight novels set in that era. But first, let’s set some boundaries. Many historians have the Middle Ages beginning with the Fifth Century and ending with the Fifteenth Century, but exactly when in those centuries the Middle Ages began and ended is a topic of some debate. The starting point, by most accounts, is the fall of the Roman Empire, which ushered in the Early Middle Ages – the era sometimes called the Dark Ages.

The Roman Empire actually started falling apart long before the Fifth Century. In 286, the emperor Diocletian split the empire into eastern and western halves. Then in 330, following a civil war, the emperor Constantine unofficially transferred the capital of his empire to Byzantium in the east, which was renamed Constantinople. The empire remained divided throughout the Fourth Century, but by then, the Huns, Ostrogoths and Visigoths were becoming a major problem for Rome. The Visigoths invaded the western empire in the year 400, and in 410, led by King Alaric I, famously sacked Rome.

A rude awakening for the Romans!
From there it was all downhill for the Romans. The “barbarians” wreaked havoc on the old Roman provinces with the Vandals spreading through Gaul into Spain, the Franks and Burgundians claiming northern Gaul, and the Angles and Saxons moving into once Roman Britain. By the mid-Fifth Century, Attila and his Huns were on the move, storming through the Balkans and Gaul, and ultimately into Italy. Author William Napier wrote a trilogy on the notorious Hun, beginning with his 2010 novel Attila. Michael Curtis Ford also wrote a series on this time period, including his 2007 novel titled The Fall of Rome. I haven’t read either of these series yet, but they get good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

An International Bestseller - who doesn't love a Hun?
In 476, the last Roman emperor of the west, Romulus Augustus, was deposed and the Roman empire would fade into history. The Byzantine empire would replace the once glorious Roman empire, and would endure through medieval history until it was conquered by the Turks in 1453. But in the Fifth Century, mighty Rome fell and thus began the Middle Ages.
Bad times for Romulus Augustus!
My next installment will focus on fiction set in the late Fifth Century, including novels about one of the Fifth Century’s most legendary figures: Arthur of Britain. Until then, let me know if you’ve read some great fiction set around the fall of Rome – I am always looking for some more good reads!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review: The Princess Bride

I recently re-read William Goldman’s The Princess Bride for the first time in probably sixteen years. I also saw the film adaptation when it was released in 1987, and since then have probably watched the movie ten or twelve times, so I found it near impossible to separate my feelings about the book from Rob Reiner’s masterpiece.

Watch out for the R.O.U.S.s!
I will start with a confession: The Princess Bride is one of my favorite movies, and I enjoyed it more than the book, though this is not a knock on Goldman’s novel. The film has become iconic and its actors were brilliant. And with few exceptions, nearly every scene and many of the most famous quotes from the movie came straight out of the book. Here are just a few examples:
“Fool!” cried the hunchback. “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is ‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia,’ but only slightly less well known is this: ‘Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.’”
“I’m not a witch, I’m your wife – “
“Mawidge – ” the Archdean began.
“Hello . . . my name is Inigo Montoya; you killed my father . . . prepare to die. . . .”
The novel’s plot is straightforward. After Buttercup’s true love, Wesley, is lost at sea, she becomes engaged to Prince Humperdinck of Floirn, who wants to use his bride-to-be to start a war with the kingdom of Guilder. The prince hires a Sicilian named Vizzini and his two henchmen – a Spanish swordsman named Inigo and giant Turk named Fezzik – to kidnap and murder the princess and frame Guilder for the crime. But as the trio is spiriting Buttercup away to the Cliffs of Insanity, they are pursued (“inconceivably” I might add) by a mysterious man in black who is determined to save the princess bride.

You probably know the rest of this comedic adventure from the film, but the book contains a ton of extra material. This makes the book bigger and richer than the film, but not necessarily better. Included in the pages of material omitted from the movie are a long interlude on how Count Rugen discovers Buttercup on her farm and picks her to wed Prince Humperdinck; extended flashbacks that tell the backstory of Inigo and Fezzik; and a protracted action sequence in the Zoo of Death (the name for Rugen’s torture chamber in the book) where Inigo and Fezzik come to grips with a number of the zoo’s deadly inhabitants. Most of this extra material, however, significantly slows the pace of the story, and this is my biggest criticism of the book. To be fair, however, had I never seen the film, I might have never noticed these distractions. And more importantly, without the novel there would have never been the movie, and for that I cannot thank Mr. Goldman enough.

If you’re a fan of the movie, you’ll like this post from about the 25th anniversary of The Princess Bride. Also, I’m curious to know what you think: which do you prefer, the movie or the novel?

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Wayward Herald: Only 8 Days Left To Win A Copy Of Enoch’s Device!

The Goodreads Giveaway for my novel Enoch’s Device closes in eight days. Click here to enter for a chance to win one of ten copies. Also, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, and because my novel begins in Ireland and features a young Irish monk as the protagonist, here are some of my favorite Irish-focused quotes from the novel.

Ciarán (the aformentioned young Irish monk): “I’ve never seen a bishop in black robes.”
Dónall: “That’s because God didn’t love that man enough to make him Irish, lad. Back on the continent, they dye their robes black – think it’s some grand symbol of piety or some such tripe.”
* * *
The priest’s eyes flashed with anger. “You two are pushing your luck.”
“In case it’s news,” Niall said, “we Irish have a lot of luck.”
* * *
“Are all Irishmen so proud?” [Alais asked.]
Ciarán flashed her a smile. “God could only make one place so beautiful on all the earth, so at least we come by it honestly.”
If you don’t want to wait for the Giveaway results, you can always purchase a copy of Enoch’s Device in print and ebook at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and as an ebook from Kobo and Smashwords.

Until next time, good tidings and good day!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Story of Saint Patrick

This Sunday is Saint Patrick’s Day, one of my all-time favorite holidays!  In honor of the great Irish saint, I'm re-posting an updated article from last year about Stephen R. Lawhead's Patrick: Son of Ireland.

I had little appreciation for the story of Saint Patrick until I began the research for Enoch's Device. That novel begins in Derry and tells the story of two Irish monks who try to prevent the apocalypse at the end of the Tenth Century a time when many in Christendom feared the world would end one thousand years after the birth of Christ. Prior to my research, I knew only the most common stories about Ireland's patron saint: the tale of the trinity and the shamrock, and his chasing the snakes out of Ireland (which has no native species of snakes, by the way). Back then, Saint Patrick's Day was merely a good excuse to drink Guinness at a raucous Irish pub. But once I began my research all that changed, especially after reading How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I cannot recommend this book more strongly to anyone who is of Irish descent or who’s even remotely interested in the amazing role the Irish played in the survival of Western civilization during the Dark Ages.
Cahill’s book contained the first account I had ever read about Saint Patrick. Here's the abridged version. By the beginning of the fifth century, with the Goths and Huns threatening Rome, the Roman garrison in Briton became depleted as troops moved back to defend the continent. This exposed Briton to attacks by foreign enemies, including the Celtic Irish who ravaged Briton’s western coast. One of the largest raids occurred around the year 401 A.D., when literally thousands of Britons were captured as slaves by Irish raiders. One of those captured was a teenage boy who we know today as Saint Patrick.

Patrick was a Romanized Briton and the son of a noble family. He was not born “Patrick,” and his original name remains in question, yet at least one source has him named Succat. Patrick served his enslavement as a shepherd to an Irish chieftain named Miliucc, who ruled a kingdom in the hills of Antrim. According to legend, Patrick remained captive for six years before escaping after hearing a voice in a dream about a trader’s ship that would return him to Briton. After finding the ship and returning to home, Patrick eventually made his way to Gaul at a time when hordes of Germans were crossing the Rhine to engage the Roman army. There, Patrick studied religion, became a priest, and later a bishop – the title he held when he returned to Ireland as one of its first and most famous Christian missionaries. It is with this background that I read Stephen R. Lawhead’s Patrick: Son of Ireland.
Photo credit: Sicarr
I had anticipated that this novel would tell the story of how Patrick converted the Irish Celts to Christianity. I was wrong. The book actually tells the tale of Patrick's early life, before he returned to Ireland. Aside from a brief epilogue, the novel provides no account of Patrick’s later years which earned him his sainthood. Instead, the author focuses on Patrick’s captivity and enslavement. And this is where the novel truly shines. Patrick’s enslavement introduces him to a druid named Cormac and his sister, Sionan, the woman with whom Patrick falls in love. After surviving several failed attempts at fleeing his captivity, Patrick, with Cormac’s aid, escapes his brutal life by agreeing to serve in a house of druids, and eventually studies to become a bard. This is where the novel becomes both fascinating and controversial.

The bards and druids of Lawhead’s Ireland can use magic, which firmly places this novel on the fine line between historical fiction and historical fantasy. Many of the druids and bards who teach Patrick are also members of the Ceile De, essentially Christian druids who believe in the one true God. Patrick ultimately becomes one of the Ceile De; he never becomes a priest or a bishop, though this is not necessarily foreclosed because the novel ends before the reader learns what becomes of Patrick later in life.

Not surprisingly, this plot point is controversial for those who feel the novel downplays or even eliminates Patrick’s Roman Catholicism. After all, they argue, the Roman Catholic Church would never have canonized a druid. But I view Stephen R. Lawhead as taking artistic license for the sake of his story. And overall, his story works – especially the two-thirds or so of the novel that take place in Ireland.

Although it was not what I expected, I enjoyed this novel, very much at times. And while the author may have taken artistic license with his subject, it works well in the end, telling a story of faith once lost only to be discovered again.

I hope everyone has a happy Saint Patrick's Day this year!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Book Review: A Storm of Swords

Season 3 of HBO’s Game of Thrones premiers on March 31st, so it’s about time for another review of a book from George R.R. Martin’s epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. As I’ve mentioned before, I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire shortly before the HBO series first premiered, so I arrived a little late to the GRRM party. I just finished A Storm of Swords, which is the subject of Season 3 of Game of Thrones, though I believe it may only cover the first half of the book. In any event, my review of the novel follows this image of the book’s cover.

A Storm of Swords is as well-written as the first two books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but this one left me feeling unsettled after finishing it. The story picks up immediately where A Clash of Kings ended. Robb Stark remains the King of the North, but his decision to marry another woman threatens to undo his alliance with the Freys. Catelyn is so concerned about her daughters that she’s willing to ransom the Kingslayer for their safe return (this development introduces Jamie Lannister as a viewpoint character for the first time). Sansa remains Cersei’s hostage, while Arya has escaped from Harrenhal, hoping to find her way back to Robb. Meanwhile, Jon is with the wildlings beyond the Wall, Daenerys and her dragons are still far away in the east, Tyrion lies in bed recovering from the attack on his life, and his ruthless father becomes the Hand of the King.

Even more than in the prior two novels, nothing works out the way you’d expect in A Storm of Swords. I counted no less than four major plot twists, and there’s a shocking body count as far a major characters are concerned. Martin is almost fiendish with the turmoil he put his characters through, and every time you think a character is safe or making some progress toward his or her goals, Martin changes the game, often in brutal and unexpected ways. I believe this is what left me so unsettled. One twist near the middle of the story was so jaw dropping that I never felt the same about the book the rest of the way. Of course, this is one of Martin’s gifts: creating characters that the reader truly cares about. And when something awful happens to some of them, I found myself more emotionally drained than I ever expected with this novel. Still, I was unable to put this book down, and the more harrowing events became, the more I kept reading, sleep be damned.

The brightest storyline belongs to Daenerys. Martin has handled her character arc from the first novel to this one brilliantly, and she is fast becoming my favorite character in this series. I didn’t think I’d root for a Targaryen to rule Westeros, but I am now – at least until Martin throws yet another unexpected twist into this tale, which might change my perspective entirely. I highly recommend A Storm of Swords, but be prepared to be taken for a rather harrowing ride.

I am really looking forward to Season 3 of Game of Thrones. Season 2 is out on DVD and Blueray if you need to catch up before March 31st. And if you have thoughts on Season 3 or A Storm of Swords, post a comment and let me know!

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Wayward Herald: The Review of Enoch’s Device Is Up On Reader Views!

The review of my novel Enoch’s Device is now up on Reader Views. Previously, the review, written by Marty Shaw, was published on Blogcritics. Here are some more excerpts from the review, which I first mentioned here:
"I’ll be honest and admit I wasn’t a fan of Dan Brown’s 'The DaVinci Code,' so I was a little hesitant when I flipped open 'Enoch’s Device' by Joseph Finley, imagining a dry mystery buried within a description-heavy historical setting, but I was hooked within the first few pages and that other novel was quickly forgotten.
"The number one difference between Finley’s debut novel and any other historical fiction book out there is that the story offers much more than a mystery to be solved. 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."
"The main character is a young Irish monk named Ciaran, and he’s an enjoyable character to follow around. I was especially intrigued by the excellent balancing act the author performed with the character. Ciaran spends a lot of time during the first half of the book repeating the philosophy to himself that monks aren’t warriors, trying desperately to not get involved in the adventure that begins unfolding around him. However, fate keeps tossing him headfirst into the action and he eventually comes to terms with how to be both a warrior and a monk.
"What’s so impressive about this is that Ciaran never undergoes any type of radical change that makes you wonder if you’re still reading the same character. He doesn’t go to bed one night as a docile monk and wake up the next morning as a battle-ready warrior. The hot-blooded Irish lad’s transformation is slow and evolves naturally, so that when he heeds the call to battle and steps solidly into the role of hero it’s both expected and surprising at the same time.
* * *
"In addition to the people that populate the story, the setting itself is a powerful character within the book. You’ll easily imagine yourself standing on the grassy plains of Ireland and feel the salty spray of the ocean against your face as demons attack the ship you’re sailing on. The locations, the experiences, and the time period itself come to life with the author’s talented use of words.
"If you enjoy tales of magic and adventure that are perfectly blended with reality and history, 'Enoch’s Device' by Joseph Finley will be an exciting read for you."
You can read the complete review on Reader Views here. In other news, there is still plenty of time to register for the Goodreads Giveaway for Enoch’s Device! You can read more about it here.
Until next time, good tidings and good day!