Wednesday, September 24, 2014

“Dubh-Linn” – Another Viking Adventure in Medieval Ireland!

This week, I’m pleased to feature another book review by guest reviewer Bill Brockman, this time of Dubh-Linn by James L. Nelson, Book II of the Norsemen Saga. As many readers of this blog know, Bill is an avid reader of historical fiction, but he’s also devoted his life to public service as a Battalion Chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department and a 31-year part-time airman in the Air National Guard. Bill’s review of Dubh-Linn follows this image of the book’s cover.

When we left the Viking crew of the longship Red Dragon, led in theory by Jarl Ornolf Hrafnsson but in reality by his son-in-law Thorgrim Ulfsson, also called Thorgrim Night Wolf, they had lost nearly everything but their lives, including the Red Dragon.

I had the opportunity to visit modern day Dublin between reading the first and second books. We even took a boat cruise down the River Liffey and around the headland to the north of Dublin Bay. Needless to say, this vibrant modern city built on a medieval street grid bears little resemblance to Dubh-linn, but still gave me a sense of place. In the Irish country side one really can feel the weight of the centuries.

In this highly entertaining sequel, Nelson develops the characters we met in the first book more fully. We find Jarl Ornolf happily ensconced in the mead hall in Dubh-linn, the rapidly growing Norse trading port on Ireland’s east coast. Norwegians, or “Fin-gall” having taken it from the Danish “Dubh-gall”, Olaf the White rules, and Ornolf is more than happy to preside over the drunken revelries of the mead hall. Thorgrim, however, is anxious to get back to his homestead in Vik. His problem is that he is now penniless; having lost his ship and crew; but no Viking with a longship seems in any hurry to sail back to Norway.

In an effort to change his fortune, Thorgrim has signed onto the crew of Jarl Arinbjorn, a suspiciously ingratiating character whom Thorgrim doesn’t quite trust. Thorgrim’s beloved younger son Harald is also on Arinbjorn’s longship Black Raven as a Viking fleet launches a raid on the southern coast town of Cloyne and its monastery. Adding a wild card factor to the crew of Black Raven are a loose gaggle of berserkers, “led” by Starri the Deathless. Berserkers are a fascinating sub-set of the Norse raiders; working themselves into a frenzy of blood-lust, they disdain helmets and armor, often going shirtless. Used as disposable shock troops by the more “normal” Norsemen, the berserkers care not whether they live or die. Starri openly weeps after surviving the battle for Cloyne, having been once again denied Valhalla, the reward for Norsemen who die in battle with sword in hand. Starri will play a large role in the story that unfolds.

In this volume we will also become reacquainted with two remarkable Irish women from Fin-gall, Morrigan and Brigit. Brigit’s father, King Mael Sechnaill mac Ruanaid of Brega, was killed in that book and we find her marrying an empty headed young kinglet, Conlaed. Brigit hopes to rule through him while at the same time providing a legitimate father for the baby already growing inside her – in truth the child of Harald the Norseman. Morrigan has her own plans to acquire power through her brother Flann. Behind all the scheming lies the Crown of the Three Kingdoms that would – in theory – unite the entire island against the Norse invaders. The monk Father Finnian becomes a major and instrumental character and perhaps the most admirable in the story.

In Fin-gall we learned that Thorgrim is called Night Wolf because it is said he can become a wolf and roam the land during the dark hours. The truth of this was left vague, but in Dubh-linn Thorgrim’s ability is pretty clear cut – he can really do it. In fact, his supernatural ability leads to triumph in the taking of Cloyne when he discovers a secret of the walled town. What else will the Night Wolf learn and do? Read to find out.

I found Dubh-linn a worthy sequel to Fin-gall with greater character development, more involvement of the Irish, and a good sense of the swirling tensions around the island during this period. The various Irish kingdoms and minor kingdoms had never been united and were always at war with one another in various alliances or convenience. A movement to unite the island – led by the church – featured the Crown of the Three Kingdoms. The lure of its perceived power was highly seductive. Into this mix had come the Danes and later the Norse, bringing warrior skills far above the average of the locals. The Norse had also created the first real city in the form of Dubh-linn, creating a major trading port and source of both wealth and danger. The clash of religions between the “pagans” and the Christians added yet another source of tension and hatred. Nelson has done an admirable job of stirring this mix together to create an entertaining story with characters you will come to care about.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Looking Forward to Season 2 of "Sleepy Hollow"

This Monday marks the premiere of Season 2 of Sleepy Hollow on Fox. Last year, I became quite taken with the show (you can read my post here), and I'm looking forward to the upcoming season, especially after the huge twists at the end of last year. Here's a quick look at the trailer for Season 2.

At the end of last season, everything had literally gone to Hell. After discovering the map to Purgatory in George Washington's bible, Abbie ends up stuck in a Tim Burtonesque dollhouse in Evil Land, while Ichabod and his witchy wife Katrina learn that their ally, Henry Parrish (the so-called "Sin Eater"), is actually the second Horseman of the Apocalypse. And, in the biggest twist of the show, Henry turns out to be Ichabod and Katrina's long-dead son, resurrected by the alpha-demon Moloch. By the season's end, the Headless Horseman has captured Katrina and Henry has stuffed Ichabod in a coffin, leaving him for dead. After all this, it's hard to imagine how Season 2 will begin. But we'll know the answer soon enough on Monday night!

Ichabod and Abbie in happier times – with George Washington's map to Purgatory!*
If you're a fan of Sleepy Hollow, let me know what you think - how will Ichabod and Abbie escape this nightmare?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Loss and Light

I’ve had no time this week to dream up a good blog. This has been a hard summer for my family, on my father’s side particularly. I lost a dear aunt and cousin to illness, two souls who left earth before their time. And it is days like this in which I seek solace.

For many it is scripture and religion, and for me that is true to some extent. But it is also the lessons taught in life, and part of my life is literature. In times of loss, my sanctuary of late, outside of my family and church, has been a single work by Richard Matheson, one of the legends of speculative fiction—his novel, What Dreams May Come. After I saw the 1998 film with Robin Williams (also a loss to all, R.I.P.), I read the book and it is the one novel I feel everyone should read who has suffered a loss.

The 1978 novel is a masterpiece about the afterlife. The story is based on a manuscript communicated by the narrator’s deceased brother, who provides his account of the great beyond. Matheson considered this book the most important he had ever written. It is the most thought-provoking, spiritually satisfying, and comforting novel I have ever read about death, the afterlife, and, as the title states, “What dreams may come.” I recommend this book to everyone. Here is my favorite passage from its final chapter:

Life on earth is only a panorama of vivid observations which seem real to you.
Why should afterlife seem less real?
Let me not confuse you though.
It will seem real enough to you.
And, please, my brother, do not fear it.
Death is not the king of terrors.
Death is a friend.
Consider it this way. Do you fear to sleep at night? Of course not. Because you know that you will wake again.
Think of death the same way. As a sleep from which, inevitably, you will awaken.
True life is a process of becoming. Death is a stage in this progression. Life is not followed by un-life.
There is only a single continuity of being.
We are part of a plan, never doubt that. A plan to bring each one of us to the highest level of which we are capable. The way will be dark at times but it leads, assuredly, to light.
– Richard Matheson, What Dreams May Come

Thursday, September 4, 2014

5 Reasons "Guardians of the Galaxy" is the Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Movie in Years

This past weekend, my daughter and I watched Marvel Studio’s Guardians of the Galaxy for the second time. It’s the number one movie in America, which didn't surprise me after the first viewing. But after seeing it twice, I'm convinced it’s one of the best science fiction/fantasy films in years. Here are five reasons why.


1.  The Most Fun Since Star Wars – Seriously

To truly understand this point, you just have to see the film. But in a word, it’s fun. Really fun. The movie’s loaded with humor, and I’ve even seen it referred to as a comedy, but that may be a stretch. Yet like Star Wars, and few things since, there are laugh-out-load moments, tons of action, and witty banter between the leads that harkens back to Han and Leah, and R2 and C3PO at their best. Take any of the good SF&F movies of late, including the first Star Trek reboot, and Guardians of the Galaxy surpasses them in terms of pure fun. This is something many of the Marvel Studios films like Iron Man and The Avengers have done very well, but never as well as it’s done in Guardians of the Galaxy.


2.  Awesome Mix Vol. 1

Speaking of fun, the soundtrack to this movie is phenomenal. It’s based on a cassette tape called Awesome Mix Vol. 1 that the protagonist’s mother gave him when he was an adolescent before she became terminally ill. The protagonist, Peter Quill (aka Star Lord), is never without his Sony Walkman playing 70’s tunes from the cassette, and the songs flow through the movie with incredible energy. The musical link to our world also helps keep the story feeling real and grounded despite its uber-fantastic plot. It’s no wonder this is the #1 movie soundtrack in the US right now. And, I’ll confess, I often play part of it before starting my writing routine every morning.

3.  The Characters Rock

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill puts on one of the most charismatic performances since Harrison Ford told Chewbacca to “laugh it up fuzzball.” The beautiful Zoe Saldana of Avatar fame (who also plays Uhura in the new Star Trek movies) puts on, in my view, her best performance in a sci fi film as Gamora. She’s green in this one, and much more fun than her blue-hued heroine in Avatar. Throw in Bradley Cooper as the sharp-tongued, gun toting Rocket (a genetically-engineered raccoon), as well as the ultra-literal Drax the Destroyer played by wrestler Dave Bautista, and Groot, a humanoid tree creature played by Vin Diesel, and this movie becomes a hard act to follow. Again, not since Star Wars have we seen a cast of characters this memorable – and this fun.

4.  Great World Building

The galaxy these folks are guarding is one fascinating place. Not only is it connected to our own world, called Terra in the film (after all, that’s where Peter came from before he was abducted by interstellar pirates), but there’s an entire planet made out of the severed head of some ancient celestial being, an earthlike world ruled by a very cool Glen Close, a prison ship which provides one of the craziest scenes in the film, and an abandoned planet with an ancient temple that reminded me of the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark – except to the tune of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” I can’t wait for the sequel to explore this galaxy some more.


5.  “We Are Groot”

You have to see the movie to know what I mean. But it’s the whole point of the film. The big theme, if you will – love between friends and family conquering all – and it’s the most touching scene in the movie. It will make you want to dance to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” I promise.

** Images courtesy of Marvel Studios - Guardians of the Galaxy.