Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Sons of Thunder" – A Tale of Vikings and Charlemagne!

This week it's my pleasure again to feature a guest review from historical fiction aficionado Bill Brockman, a frequent contributor to the blog (you can read more about him here). In April, he reviewed Blood Eye by Giles Kristian, Book 1 of the Raven Trilogy. This time, Bill takes on Book 2 of the trilogy, Sons of Thunder. His review follows this very cool image of the book's cover.

Sons of Thunder is the second volume of a trilogy. I reviewed the first book, Blood Eye a few months ago on Joseph’s blog.

Kristian seems to be hitting his stride with this second volume, and I found it better written and more entertaining than the first. The characters seem more fully developed, or perhaps now I’m just familiar enough with them. In that book, we met young Osric in a seaside Wessex village in 802, an orphan suffering from amnesia and shunned by the villagers for the red in one of his eyes. Osric’s unhappy life is forever changed the morning his dawn fishing trip to the shore is interrupted by the arrival of two dragon ships full of fierce warriors – Norsemen led by Jarl Sigurd.

When Sons of Thunder begins, Osric, now renamed Raven by Sigurd, is a seasoned “Sword Norse” accepted by the rest of the fellowship. Raven has already fought desperate battles, saved Ealdred’s son and rescued his daughter, and learned what appears to be his true heritage. The Norsemen are sailing their dragon ship “Serpent” in pursuit of Ealdred, the Wessex Ealdorman who has stolen the dragon ship “Fjord-Elk” along with a priceless book of the Gospels Ealdred hopes to sell to Emperor Karolus (Charlemagne) in Paris. Knowing his dragon ship far better than the Wessexmen who sail Fjord-Elk, Sigurd is confident he can catch Ealdred before he makes it up the River Sicuana (Seine) to Paris. On board Serpent with the Norsemen are Ealdred’s daughter Cynethrith, Wessex warrior Penda, and the monk Egfrith. All three have their reasons for siding with the Norsemen over the treacherous Ealdred.

Thus begins a fascinating adventure into the world of early 9th Century Frankia, part of the realm of the most powerful ruler since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire centuries before. Traveling first to Paris, their dragon head ships disguised as Christian vessels, via river, portage, and river again to Aix-la-Chapelle, the seat of the Empire, the Norse fellowship finds Egfrith an invaluable ally. Without his knowledge of the church – guided by his sincere faith and desire to convert the heathens – there is no way that such a crew would be allowed to roam the waterways of a Christian Emperor.

At Aix-la-Chapelle (now Aachen), they meet Karolus, who sees right through their ruse. He nevertheless fairly deals with the Norse and agrees to purchase the Gospel for a fortune in silver. At this point, as one might expect, things begin to go horribly wrong, leading to the taking by the Franks of Cynethrith, “for her own good”. Raven cannot of course let the young woman he has come to love fall into cruel hands. We are soon treated to desperate times and furious chases and near disasters as the Norse fellowship attempts to escape back to the sea with their crew, honor, and fortune intact. Along the way, they pick up some of Ealdred’s Wessexmen and some unfortunate Danes as allies.

As I noted in the first review, stereotypes are inevitable in this type of historical fiction, and indeed appear in this work. No one would put this trilogy in the category of a George R. R. Martin work, where no character is safe from sudden and unexpected death. Despite the desperate circumstances, we always know that Raven will survive (he’s the narrator telling the tale decades later) and we’re pretty certain Sigurd and some of the other main characters are along for the duration. This doesn’t diminish the pleasure of reading Sons of Thunder, as long as the reader understands. We do get to see some fascinating and well researched times and places that leap out from the dust of history. 

One small thing made the scope of centuries vivid for me in particular. At a meeting with the Norsemen to discuss the Gospel book, Karolus notes that it is the Feast Day of Saints Crispin and Crispinian, which is the 25th of October. I was struck by the realization that this story takes place longer in time before the more famous “St. Crispin’s Day” in 1415 than does the Battle of Agincourt from today. This is thought provoking, at least to your reviewer.

I already have the 3rd volume, Odin’s Wolves and look forward to reading and reviewing it. I recommend this trilogy to any lover of historical fiction.

Thanks to Bill for the great review! I just picked up Sons of Thunder on Kindle and look forward to reading the trilogy . . . whenever I finish my summer reading list . . .

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

“A Feast for Crows” Is Cersei’s Wicked Tale

I saved this review until after the finale of season 4 of HBO’s Game of Thrones because there is no way to discuss A Feast for Crows without spoiling the most shocking part of the final episode. So, if you haven’t seen Season 4 of Game of Thrones or haven’t read A Storm of Swords, be forewarned that BIG *spoilers* lie ahead.

I had read that A Feast for Crows is many fans’ least favorite book in George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire, and I can understand why. Due to length, Martin had to split his sequel to A Storm of Swords into two volumes that take place at the same time. He broke them up geographically, and as a result, the stories of fan-favorite characters like Daenerys, Jon Snow, and Tyrion are left for the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons. But there is plenty in A Feast for Crows to make it a very good read, even if it’s not as shocking as A Storm of Swords or as climactic as A Clash of Kings.

Most of A Feast for Crows deals with the aftermath of Tywin Lannister’s death, though at its heart this book is Cersei Lannister’s tale. She’s determined to rule all of Westeros as queen regent, fancying herself as a master of the “game of thrones,” even greater than her late father. But her brother Jaime probably puts it best: “Their father had been as relentless and implacable as a glacier, where Cersei was all wildfire, especially when thwarted.” And the novel bears this out. Cersei is a dangerous disaster, and her list of perceived enemies is long, including all of House Tyrell (with extra venom for the Queen of Thorns), her uncle Kevan, her brother Tyrion—and Jaime to some extent—the sellsword Bron, Varys the Spider, Grand Maester Pycelle, and even the High Septon. All of this makes Cersei into a fitting replacement for Joffrey as the character that readers will love to hate.

The most interesting early revelation about Cersei in this book is her fixation on an old witch’s prophecy: “Queen you shall be,” said the witch, “until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down . . .” Cersei’s obsession over this prophecy sets up a major conflict between her and her young son Tommen’s pretty new wife-to-be, Margaery Tyrell. It also leads to the novel’s stunning climax—one that will leave you pining for The Winds of Winter to see how it all ends!

While Cersei’s story steals the show, Jaime’s develops in satisfying fashion as he tries to wrap up the war Robb Stark started after Ned Stark’s death. Truth be told, I’ve found Jaime Lannister to be one of the more likable characters in the series of late. And it’s easy to forget he threw a seven-year-old Bran Stark out a window in the early chapters of the first book.

Separate from the stories of Jaime and Cersei, the book follows Brienne’s quest to find Sansa Stark, Arya’s journey across the Narrow Sea, Sansa’s time in the Eyrie after her aunt’s murder, and Sam’s journey to the Maesters’ Citadel with Gilly and Maester Aemon after Jon orders them to leave The Wall for Aemon’s safety. (As Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon’s fears that King Stannis’ priestess, Lady Melisandre, might kill the old Targaryen to use his royal blood in one of her spells.) Arya has been one of my favorite characters in the series, but her scenes in this book are a bit of a letdown. That said, Martin is clearly setting up something big for her, but it’s hard to tell where her story is leading. Sansa’s tale is also a bit ho-hum, yet through it Martin reveals the purpose behind Littlefingeer’s elaborate plots. In short, it looks like Littlefinger may be the true master of the “game of thrones.”

In addition to these tales, the novel includes two other storylines, both of which are pretty good. The first involves the Ironborn after the death of Balon Greyjoy and the struggle over who will replace him on the Seastone Chair. The second—which was totally unexpected—concerns the land of Dorne and the daughters and niece of Oberyn Martell, all of whom want vengeance against the Lannister’s after Oberyn’s death at King’s Landing. Except the family’s patriarch, Doran Martell, has very different plans.

Overall, most of this book is setup for what promises to be a dramatic series of events in The Winds of Winter. No storyline is resolved, and the novel ends with a MAJOR cliffhanger. I’ll admit that one of the storylines had me furious at Martin, for it seemed like he led a significant character to a senseless and overly cruel death. I was so angry, I jumped onto the internet to see if that was, in fact, this character’s end. Fortunately, it may not be, and it sets up yet another cliffhanger that longs for resolution (so GRRM is totally forgiven – for now).

In the end, I too ended up liking A Feast for Crows less than the first three books. But the stories involving Cersei and Jamie were so well done, it’s ultimately a very good read.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

5 Surprises from Season 4 of Game of Thrones

Since I’ve read most of the books, none of the jaw-dropping scenes in Season 4 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, such as Joffrey’s murder and Oberyn’s skull crushing defeat, came as big surprises. But what has surprised me is when the show’s producers have strayed from the novels. So before this Sunday’s season finale, I thought I’d highlight the 5 biggest surprises from the perspective of someone who has read the books.

1. How far the series went into A Feast for Crows

I honestly thought the second half of Martin’s third book in the series, A Storm of Swords, provided more than enough material for this season of Game of Thrones without the producers having to stray into the next two books. (After all, with Martin’s writing pace, the producers will run out of material if they keep jumping ahead!) Instead, however, the producers decided to follow two storylines that begin in Martin’s fourth book, A Feast for Crows. The first was the barely-developed quest of Brienne and Pod to find Sansa Stark. Fortunately, this story hasn’t progressed very far (at least until this Sunday), so there should be plenty of drama left for next season.

The second, however, concerns the events in the Eyrie after Lysa Arryn’s death. Her murder is one of the concluding—and most shocking—scenes in A Storm of Swords, but the producers chose to feature this event early in this season. Then they went straight into the aftermath of that event in the scene with Littlefinger and the lords of the Eyrie concerning the cause of Lysa’s demise. This basically takes up Sansa’s entire storyline in A Feast for Crows. On top of that, the producers deviated from the book (more on that below), and I wonder how much of Sansa’s story the producers have left to even draw upon for Season 5—unless they are going to borrow from The Winds of Winter before Martin even releases the novel.

I'm totally rooting for Khaleesi!

2. How far the series went into A Dance with Dragons

As with the Sansa and Brienne storylines, Season Four dipped into Martin’s fifth novel, A Dance with Dragons, for the scenes with Daenerys and Reek. Daenerys’ story didn’t develop much this season, and its most shocking event—the dismissal of Ser Jorah—happened far later in the series than it did in the books. Otherwise, all of the scenes in Meereen come from Martin’s fifth book, and even these were watered down. Hopefully, HBO is keeping the good stuff for Season 5.

As for Reek, his story has been ongoing since Season 3, even though Reek doesn’t even appear until A Dance with Dragons (at least after Theon Greyjoy meets his apparent demise at the end of A Clash of Kings, Martin’s second novel and the subject of Season 2 of Game of Thrones). I understand that one reason for this was to keep Alfie Allen who plays Theon in the show the past two seasons, and I suppose that goal was achieved without any harm to Martin’s storyline in the novels.

3. That scene in Craster’s Keep

In addition to borrowing from Martin’s last two novels, the producers have also made up some scenes out of whole cloth. One example is the scene where Bran is captured by the brutal Night’s Watchmen at Craster’s Keep. This isn’t in the books, nor is Jon’s heroic raid on the keep. In the novels, the bad Crows who kill Lord Mormont at Craster’s Keep are dispatched by the White Walkers. In the show, however, these retches live on to torment Cratser’s wives and capture Bran and his companions. While the outcome of these events did not impact the core storyline of Martin’s novels, I have to believe this scene was added as filler to help compensate for the probability that the show will outpace Martin’s ability to finish his novels.

4. The Iron Bank of Braavos?

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the scene where Davos and Stannis visit the Iron Bank of Braavos, but it’s not in the books. It also disrupts the events that occurred at the end of Season 3 where Davos tells Stannis about the plea for help received from the Night’s Watch on the Wall. Why, in the midst of this urgent message, Davos and Stannis would embark on a banking expedition is beyond me, and it may create a pretty awkward moment in Sunday’s finale.

Is Sansa Stark starting to play the Game of Thrones?

5. Sansa’s big bold move

One of the best parts of the episode that aired two Sunday’s ago was Sansa’s confession to the lords of the Eryie that saved Littlefinger’s ass. This scene, however, totally deviated from the novels. In A Feast for Crows, Sansa maintains the illusion of being Littlefinger’s natural born daughter and she never reveals her true identity to the Eyrie lords. Of course, in the novel, Littlefinger and Sansa blame Lysa’s ’s murder on a minstrel who never even makes an appearance in the show. As a result, the Littlefinger in the show has to pretend Lysa committed suicide. Fortunately for him, Sansa’s bold speech saves his bacon, and the producers seem to be setting her up as a player in the "Game of Thrones." But I’m curious to know if this plot change will impact events as they unfold in later novels. My guess is they won’t, which is why the producers felt they could pull this off, but only time will tell.

Despite these surprises, I truly enjoyed Season 4 of Game of Thrones and think the non-book-reading audience will be in for a hell of a finale if the producers stay true to the conclusion of A Storm of Swords! I’m looking forward to it, and can hardly wait for Season 5—as well as The Winds of Winter, which is scheduled for release whenever who the hell knows (maybe 2015, though I'm very skeptical).

But let me know what you think. If you’ve read the books, what were your biggest surprises in Season 4 of Game of Thrones?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

More Pirate Humor – Keel Hauling!

No time to blog this week. Yet with pirates all the rage these days, I'm re-posting one of my favorite bits from the talented folks at Horrible Histories – enjoy!