Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review: The Fall of Arthur

While I was writing a series of posts of the Magic of Medieval Fiction and the Late Fifth Century and the Age of Arthur, this little gem fell out of the sky: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur. Needless to say, I dove right in, and my review follows after this image of the book’s cover.

The Fall of Arthur is an unfinished poem published many decades after Tolkien’s death, but I am very glad it was. The poem is written in the Old English style (think Beowulf), and the only real knock is that it remains incomplete. For those unfamiliar with this style of poetry, here is an example from the poem’s beginning:
Arthur eastward   in arms purposed
his war to wage   on the wild marches,
over seas sailing   to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm   ruin defending.
The poem starts out with King Arthur, Sir Gawain, and their warriors heading overseas to fight the Saxons in their homeland, only to leave Camelot unprotected from Mordred’s treachery. Mordred is the singular villain of the poem, and early on seeks to abduct (and do worse) to Queen Guinevere. Meanwhile, Lancelot is living in exile in Benwick following his affair with Guinevere, but he longs to return to the service of his friend and king. This is how the story sets up, but unfortunately we never learn the ending, though it should be well-known to most fans of Arthurian fiction.
This is how it always seems to end ...
Fortunately, The Fall of Arthur offers a lot more than just an unfinished poem. An engaging Forward by Christopher Tolkien explains his father’s love of Old English poetry and offers explanations for why the poem may have never been finished (hint: it may have to do with that other little story he was working on – The Lord of the Rings). The book also contains a fascinating discussion of the origins of Arthurian myth, including the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory’s Tale of the Death of Arthur. I never knew how far out Monmouth’s work went, including a supposed account of Arthur defeating the emperor of Rome! Who knew? Fortunately, Tolkien’s poem is a bit more historically based – Saxons, not Romans, is a good thing, even if it’s unlikely that Arthur ever sailed to Saxony. In addition, the book includes an interesting discussion about Gawain and Lancelot, as well as an essay on the poem’s evolution and a surprising chapter on the unfinished poem and its relation to The Silmarillion.
In short, there is a lot more to this little book than an unfinished poem about King Arthur. Rather, it stands as a wonderful reference on early Arthurian legends and Tolkien’s love of epic poems. For true fans or Tolkien or Arthur, this book is a worthy read.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Wayward Herald: Enoch’s Device Is On Sale This Week!

For the next 72 hours, the Kindle version of Enoch’s Device will be on sale at Amazon for 99¢! Here’s what Marty Shaw of Reader Views said about the novel: “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.” Here’s a link to the book’s page on Amazon, followed by an image of the cover and a brief summary.

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.
Stephen Reynolds of SPR said "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."
Author E. Kendrick Smith added, “And while it is a thoughtful and carefully-written work, it is also a fun read, in the spirit of the ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (but with more accurate historical references.) Whether you like history, fantasy, mysteries or high conflict thrillers, ‘Enoch's Device’ delivers.”
Author Erica Dakin said, “History, fantasy and existing legends – sometimes religious, sometimes not – are interwoven seamlessly, and the whole makes for a wonderful ride that often has you on the edge of your seat. The heroes are likeable, the villains suitably loathsome, and the story is never boring.”
Author Tanjlisa Marie wrote: “Wow! What a wonderful ride!! Where to begin... First, the entire time I was reading the story I was also hoping that the author would separate fact from fiction at the end. And he did not disappoint.”
And (my personal favorite) writer and blogger L. Marrick called it: “The most exciting book about monks I've read. ... The monks of Enoch’s Device run circles around any monk from Robin Hood. Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor? Child’s play. They’re working with ancient magical forces to thwart a corrupt, evil bishop. They’re rescuing beautiful women from being burned at the stake. They’re travelling across the medieval world to save the medieval world.”
You can read more about Enoch, the Fae, and the Paladins of Charlemagne in my interview with author Tyler Tichelaar here.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Medieval Fiction: Tristan & Iseult

After a brief hiatus, I’m returning to my series on the Magic of Medieval Fiction, where we have been lingering in the late Fifth Century and the Age of King Arthur. One of the stories from that time period that I neglected to mention previously was the tale of Tristan and Iseult. This story has become part of the Arthurian legend, and in many versions Tristan is one of Arthur’s knights. The story has also spawned a modest amount of fiction, as well as an opera and a movie, so it makes sense to discuss it while we're dwelling in the early Middle Ages.
The tragic lovers: Tristan and Iseult
There are numerous versions of the legend (which may have been based on an older, Celtic tale), but in most accounts Tristan is the nephew of King Mark of Kernow (Cornwall). Tristan is sent to escort Mark’s much-younger bride-to-be, an Irish princess named Iseult (sometimes spelled Isolde), from Ireland for the wedding. But at some point on this journey, Iseult and Tristan fall in love. Many of the legends attribute this to a love potion, though the stories conflict over whether the potion was accidentally consumed or whether Iseult used it on Tristan to escape a fate with the far-older King Mark. As one can imagine, the affair creates a huge conflict with the king, and most of the legends concern the couple’s efforts to escape the king’s justice. In some versions, the story ends tragically with the couple being sentenced to death, though other versions have a happier conclusion.

In more recent fiction, Bernard Cornwell tackles the legend of Tristan and Iseult as a subplot in Enemy of God. In Cornwell’s version, Tristan is the son of King Mark and an ally of Arthur, though he is also a good friend of the book’s protagonist, Derfel Cadarn. After King Mark marries Iseult, she and Tristan fall in love – without the need for any potion – and the two go on the run. Here is a brief passage describing Derfel’s first encounter with Iseult at her and Tristan’s secret refuge:
Small and dark and fey and fragile is how I remember Iseult. Little more than a child, really, though she had been forced to a woman’s state by her marriage to Mark, yet to me she appeared as a shy, small, thin girl, nothing but a delicate wisp of near-womanhood who kept her huge dark eyes fixed on Tristan until he insisted that she greet us.
The couple’s affair impacts the central plot of Enemy of God when Arthur must decide whether to turn the couple over to King Mark, a truly monstrous character in Cornwell’s portrayal. Arthur’s decision helps dramatize one of the novel’s central themes: honoring one’s oath verses doing what one thinks is right. Ultimately, Cornwell chooses a tragic ending for the two lovers, and in doing so reveals a hard truth about Arthur.
I’ve not read any other fiction about Tristan and Iseult, but I’m aware of a trilogy about the couple by Rosalind Miles, beginning with her novel Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle, and continuing with The Maid of the White Hands and The Lady of the Sea. There is also a YA novel by Rosemary Sutcliff titled Tristan and Iseult, and there is the 2005 movie Tristan & Isolde. I’ve never seen the film, but the Tomatometer wasn’t kind.
In any event, I am curious to know: Have you read any fiction about Tristan and Iseult, and was it any good?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Interview with Ben Kane, Author of Spartacus: Rebellion

As part of the Spartacus: Rebellion Virtual Book Tour, I interviewed author Ben Kane about the second book in his epic series.

Q: Ben, welcome back to Fresh-scraped Vellum! Last June, you were kind enough to give me an interview on your first book in the series, Spartacus: The Gladiator. Had you already finished Spartacus: Rebellion by the time the first book was published?

Hello, and thank you for having me! To answer your question, not quite – I finished Rebellion about a month after the first book came out in the UK. (So I had finished it before it came out Stateside, yes.)

Q: Spartacus is faced with some hard choices in this book. Now that you’ve finished Spartacus: Rebellion, what is your view of Spartacus as a man and a leader?

I have even more admiration for him than I did previously. He freed himself from slavery, forged an army from what were effectively civilians, and then beat the Romans up and down Italy for two years. He led the largest slave rebellion in history, and could have escaped if he’d wanted to. Ultimately, his story is a tragic one, which makes me like it even more.

Q: How fun was it to turn historical giants like Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gaius Julius Caesar into characters in this novel?

A bit intimidating, as it always is. I do prefer writing the parts of lesser, fictional characters, partly because no one can criticize them. Having said that, here I am having written about Spartacus from his point of view! However, both men had featured in my first novel, The Forgotten Legion, so I had an already formed opinion about them both.

Q: Crassus, who takes the lead in attempting to defeat Spartacus and his rebellion, is one of the more significant figures in Roman history. Did your view of Crassus change or become more defined while researching and writing this novel?

Yes, I grew to respect him more than I had when I wrote my first book (it’s not giving away too much to let readers know that he died in that novel, partly because of his poorly executed campaign into Parthia). To defeat Spartacus, he had to have been a resourceful and determined leader, with good tactical ability.

Q: One of my favorite scenes in the novel involved Spartacus and Carbo sneaking into Rome in an attempt to kill Crassus. What inspired that scene?

It was the middle of the novel, and I was dreading the end, which we all know about. I wanted to imagine a possibility, however slender, that Spartacus might have assassinated Crassus – and what might have happened then?

Q: The characters of Gannicus and Castus play fairly big roles as antagonists among Spartacus’ army. Were they real historical figures, and if so, what has been written about them in historical sources?

Yes, they were both real men, as was Oenomaus, who was in the first Spartacus book. In fact they are the only four names that we know of the original gladiators who escaped the ludus in Capua. There are only a few references to them – bear in mind that only 4,000 words survive about Spartacus ― and I’ve used just about everything that we know. They broke out with Spartacus, but they broke away near the end of the rebellion, and were killed with all their men. I made up the antagonism between them and Spartacus, because it seemed natural, and was a good way of increasing the plot tension.

Q: How significant do you believe Spartacus and his rebellion ultimately were to Roman history?

Very. He and his men were still being remembered hundreds of years later. Mark Antony was branded a new Spartacus when he threatened the Republic with his armies. Slaves were regarded with more suspicion after the rebellion, and politicians took to using gladiators as their muscle. There was even one instance of gladiators being used to train legionaries.

Thanks, Ben, for the interview, and best of luck with the new book!

And for those who missed yesterday's post, you can read my review of Spartacus: Rebellion here.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review – Spartacus: Rebellion

As part of the virtual book tour for Ben Kane’s new novel, Spartacus: Rebellion, I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the book and a second interview with author Ben Kane! I’ll post the interview tomorrow, but until then, here’s my review of the book after this very cool image of its cover.

Spartacus: Rebellion begins where Spartacus: The Gladiator left off, with Spartacus and his army of gladiators and slaves having defeated the praetor Claudius Glaber, as well as every other legion Rome has thrown their way. But the hotheaded Crixus and many of his Gauls have broken away from the army to try to face the consular legions of Lucius Gellius on their own, and another faction of Gauls are threatening to further fracture the slave rebellion. Meanwhile, Spartacus is torn between leading his troops – many of whom want to stay in Italy and fight the Romans – and the desires of his pregnant wife Ariadne, who would like nothing more than to cross the Alps and escape Rome forever.

A good bit of the novel involves the famous battles between Spartacus and the Romans, including the consular legions of Gellius and Lentulus, and ultimately the army of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome and one of its most ruthless leaders. As in Spartacus: The Gladiator, the battle scenes are gripping and viscerally portrayed. But some of my favorite parts of the novel involved a series of reconnaissance missions by Spartacus’ sidekick, a young Roman-turned-gladiator named Carbo who played a major role in the first novel. Spartacus even joins Carbo on one of these missions, a secret trip into the heart of Rome to try to kill Crassus.

Crassus takes center stage in this novel as the primary antagonist. A good deal of the book is told from his point of view, and some of the book’s best scenes concern his political dealings in the Roman senate with his ally, a young Julius Caesar. Caesar’s role in this book was more limited than I had hoped, especially since the author develops him early as an interesting character. Crassus, however, is compelling enough on his own to make a more than worthy adversary for Spartacus.

The climactic battle between Spartacus’ army and Crassus’ legions is intense. Told mostly from Carbo’s point of view, the reader gets a real sense of how terrifying and exhausting it would be to fight in a Roman shield wall. While even casual students of history know how Spartacus’ rebellion ended, Kane does a fantastic job with the ending, and pulls it off in a way that keeps the reader guessing. A lengthy denouement proved to be one of my favorite parts of the story, and it provided a worthy and satisfying conclusion to the series. By the end, I think I enjoyed this book even more than its predecessor, but the series is really a single story split into two parts. And for anyone interested in the story of Spartacus, Ben Kane’s two-part series is a must-read!

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Wayward Herald – The Spartacus: Rebellion Virtual Book Tour!

Fresh-scraped Vellum is excited to participate in the virtual book tour for Ben Kane’s new novel Spartacus: Rebellion! A review of the novel will be posted this Thursday, and on Friday I’ll feature an interview with author Ben Kane.

Fresh-scraped Vellum also participated in the tour for the first book in the series, Spartacus: The Gladiator (you can read the review here), so it was wonderful to get invited to the tour for the sequel to Mr. Kane’s epic.

In other news, author Erica Dakin has posted a review of Enoch’s Device on the blog Silk Screen Views. You can read the entire review here, but here's an excerpt:
History, fantasy and existing legends – sometimes religious, sometimes not – are interwoven seamlessly, and the whole makes for a wonderful ride that often has you on the edge of your seat. The heroes are likeable, the villains suitably loathsome, and the story is never boring.

Many thanks to Ms. Dakin for her gracious review! And until next time, good tidings and good day!