Tuesday, April 26, 2016

My Quick Thoughts on “The Red Woman”

I thought the season premiere of Game of Thrones was everything we could have asked for, and more. It touched most of the key story lines, had some hugely exciting moments (go Brienne and Pod!), and a jaw dropping twist at the end. I don’t have time to cover everything that happened, but here are three quick thoughts. Note, *SPOILERS* abound!

Yep, he's dead – but he's coming back! 

Jon Snow Will Return 

I’m fairly certain we’ve not seen the last of Jon Snow. First, there is no reason the show is going to such lengths to have his body preserved unless something is supposed to happen to it – something like resurrection. Second, in the flames, Melisandre saw Jon fighting at Winterfell. Now perhaps she’s mistaken, but I doubt it. We know she has powers, and by the end of the episode it’s revealed she may be an ancient being, perhaps hundreds of years old. We also know that red priests can raise the dead, and I wouldn’t put this past her – especially since it looks like her own magic has allowed her to defy death for centuries. Third, even Davos notes that the Red Woman may be the only way they survive in Castle Black. Yet this might also mean that she’s Jon’s only hope too. After all, why else would Davos go through such effort to preserve Jon’s corpse? 

Also, I would not rule out Ghost playing some role in Jon’s survival. Maybe it was telling that when the episode opened the first sound heard was Ghost howling. Then we see him trying furiously to escape his pen. Perhaps this is because Jon’s consciousness “warged” into Ghost as John lay dying and he was trying to save his body. The novels certainly set up this possibility, and Bran has proven to have this power on the show, so it’s possible Jon has the “skin changers” gift. But that said, the few scenes with Ghost in “The Red Woman” were too ambiguous to draw any firm conclusions.

Farewell Princes of Dorne.

I Didn’t See That Coup Coming

We knew the Sand Snakes were defiant, even to the point to goading the Lannisters into war with Dorne, but I didn't see them killing Prince Doran in episode one. I’m truly curious to see if George R.R. Martin goes there in the books. I could definitely see it happening, but the show has altered the Dorne plot substantially, even to the point of eliminating one of the book’s key characters, Doran’s daughter Arianne. Only The Winds of Winter will tell, whenever Winter arrives.

I'd prefer she keep her necklace on.

I Loved The Twist At The End

I also did not foresee the episode’s shocking end. That scene where Melisandre revealed her beauty to be a glamor concealing a far more ancient form was brilliant. I must say that if there were clues to her ancientness in the show or the books, I overlooked them. Overall, it was a perfect way to end the season premiere, and I believe that revealing Melisandre to be an ancient sorceress promises a big role for her ahead.

And I’m pretty sure it has to do with Jon Snow.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Old Enemies Abound in Cornwell’s “Warriors of the Storm”

On the heels of my review of The Empty Throne, I’m offering my review of the next novel in Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series, Warriors of the Storm. The novel is another excellent installment in Cornwell’s ongoing saga about the Saxons and the Vikings in early ninth century England. 

Reading Warriors of the Storm I could not help but feel like the series in coming to its close. Uhtred of Bebbanburg is an old man by the time this novel begins, and his grown children are now central characters in his story. He has succeeded in putting the Lady Æthelflaed on Mercia’s throne, and is protecting the heir to Wessex, a young man named Æthelstan who Uhtred loves like a son. The Danes are still a threat, but Æthelflaed is devoted to their defeat, and soon all that will remain on Uhtred’s bucket list is Bebbanburg, the ancestral home that he has sought to reclaim since the first book in this nine book series. But Bebbanburg will have to wait at least one more novel, for this time around a few old enemies have returned to threaten Æthelflaed’s lands.

From the very first scene, Uhtred learns that his old nemesis Haesten is back. Haesten, who was a real historical figure, has been around since the second book and has become a major adversary, featuring prominently in The Burning Land, The Pagan Lord, and other books in the series. This time, he has allied with Jarl Ragnall Ivarson, known as Ragnall the Cruel, a Norse lord who ravaged Ireland before setting his sights on England. Ragnall is also the brother of Sigtryggr Ivarson, the dashing Viking lord who married Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra, and suddenly Uhtred is left to wonder whether his own son-in-law has allied with Ragnall to wage this war.

Brida is back in this one!
The most intriguing villain in this book, however, is the second old enemy to side with Jarl Ragnall – Brida, the Lady of Dunholm. I feel like we’ve grown up with Brida throughout this series. She was the Saxon slave who grew up with Uhtred, became his first lover, and ultimately chose the Danes over the English. She ended up as the lover to Uhtred’s brother, Young Ragnar, and served as a frequent ally and sometimes enemy throughout the series. With Ragnar dead, Brida’s anger over Uhtred’s allegiance to the Christian Saxons has now become all consuming. Even more, she’s become a pagan sorceress, and she ends up being one of Cornwell’s most disturbing villains since Nimue in his novel Excalibur

Uhtred has always been a cunning military strategist, and much of this novel concerns his efforts to out-think and out-maneuver Jarl Ragnall, his allies, and his army. Cornwell excels at this type of plot, and it’s no surprise that Warriors of the Storm is on par with most of his books in this series. Like all of his novels, this one is filled with action, including plenty of battles, an adventure in Ireland, and an attack on the Viking stronghold of Jorvik (York). I’ve said before the no one writes battles scenes better than Bernard Cornwell, and this book is no exception.

Once again, Uhtred’s children are co-stars in this story, much to my delight. Uhtred’s son Uhtred has become a fitting heir to his father as a warrior hero, and Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra has become even more like her beautiful mother Gisela, and a sorceress of sorts in her own right. She plays as big a role in this novel as she did in the last one, and the book is better for it. And even Uhtred’s oldest son, whom he disowned in The Pagan Lord when the boy became a Christian priest, plays a part in this tale.

After the events of this novel, I have to believe that the quest to reclaim Bebbanburg is up next. That’s my hope, at least, and it just might take Uhtred’s whole family to get the job done!

PS, you can read a preview of the book here!

* Brida image courtesy of BBC America.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

“The Empty Throne” Is One of Bernard Cornwell’s Best!

Earlier this year, I finished The Empty Throne by Bernard Cornwell, the eighth installment in his newly renamed Last Kingdom series about England’s struggles against the Vikings in the late eighth and early ninth centuries. Here’s my review after this image of the book’s cover.

When I saw the book’s title, I had assumed the “empty throne” would concern Wessex, the English kingdom around which most of the Last Kingdom series has centered. After the death of King Alfred the Great in Death of Kings, I had no idea how long his heir, Edward, would survive. But Edward isn’t the subject of this tale. No, the “empty throne” belongs to the former kingdom of Mercia, and this time around Cornwell delivers his own version of a “game of thrones.” 

At the end of The Pagan Lord, both Uhtred and his hated cousin Æthelred, the Lord of Merica, suffered terrible wounds at the battle of Teotanheale. Uhtred was stabbed in the side by Cnut Ranulfson, with his legendary sword Ice-Spite, and it’s unclear by the end of “The Pagan Lord” if Uhtred will survive. Of course, we learn in this novel that he lived, though he remains weak and wounded and spends much of the novel with one foot inside death’s door. That said, however, he ends up doing far better than Æthelred. 

It turns out that Æthelred is dying without a male heir, so the nobles have summoned a Witan to decide Mercia’s future. Æthelred leaves behind only his teenage daughter and his estranged wife, the Lady Æthelflaed, one of the heroines of the last several novels and Uhtred’s former lover. Uhtred wants Æthelflaed on the throne, but the thought of a woman ruling Merica does not sit well with many of the nobles, especially the Ealdorman Æthelhelm of Wessex. 

Æthelhelm is not only King Edward’s father-in-law and the second richest man in Wessex, but he also has designs on controlling Mercia’s throne. His pawn in the game is Eardulf, the slick and mischievous commander of Æthelred’s household guards, but Eardulf isn’t noble, and the only way he can claim the throne is to marry a woman of royal blood. Uhtred is prepared to ensure that never happens, and his attempts to prevent the marriage propels the novel into a thrilling adventure, with plenty of intrigue and battles of the kind that Cornwell so masterfully writes. 

My hope is that The Last Kingdom on BBC America lasts long enough to portray this tale!* 
This novel is a bit unique among the series because Uhtred is basically too injured to fight, forcing one of the great warriors in fiction to rely even more on his mind than his battle prowess. But it also forces him to rely more on others, which makes The Empty Throne a family affair, Uhtred style. In the last book, we got to know Uhtred’s son Uhtred, who has grown in a warrior like his father. And in this book we’re introduced to his resourceful daughter Stiorra, a spitting image of Uhtred’s late wife Gisela, who has inherited some of her mother’s gift for prophecy. Stiorra is quietly pagan, genially natured, and fierce when crossed, which quickly made her one of my favorite characters in the series.

In addition to its game of thrones intrigue, the novel offers plenty more, including a new and unexpected love interest for Uhtred, a new and dangerous Viking threat, and even a quest to find Ice-Spite after a priest tells Uhtred that if he finds the sword, the wounds it caused will finally be healed. Overall, The Empty Throne turned out to be one of my favorite books in Cornwell’s series. My only hope is that The Last Kingdom on BBC America lasts long enough to bring this book to life.

PS, you can read a preview of the Kindle version of the book here

* Image courtesy of BBC America.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

“A Plunder of Souls”: Historical Fantasy Set in Colonial Boston

This week, I'm a little late to the blog, largely because I’m recovering from knee surgery. But this unfortunate development has offered some time to catch up on my reading. Recently, I finished A Plunder of Souls by D.B. Jackson, and here’s my review.

A Plunder of Souls is a welcome and worthwhile edition to Jackson’s Thieftaker series, a quartet of historical fantasy novels set in colonial Boston. Like the series’ first two books, this one follows the adventures of Ethan Kaille, a thieftaker employed by Boston’s wealthy citizens who wish to go “above the law” to retrieve their stolen goods. Ethan is also a conjurer, or “speller,” as they’re called, who can work magic with the assistance of his spectral guardian, a medieval ghost he calls Uncle Reg. This magic system is original and fascinating and one of the series’ strengths. While the magic in this story world has never been fully explained – in fact, even Ethan does not understand all the workings behind his powers – it works brilliantly in these novels.

Other than the main character, my favorite thing about the Thieftaker series is its setting. Reading these books, you get a real sense of colonial Boston, and boy is it fun. The first two installments involved some fairly significant historical events, namely the Stamp Act Riots and the British occupation of Boston. This one involves a smallpox epidemic that actually plagued the city in the summer of 1769, and while it’s not as interesting as the events in the first two books, Sam Adams and his patriots are still present, and even Paul Revere has a cameo. (I suspect we’ll see more him in future novels.) In any event, every time I pick up one of these books, I want to sit in an old Boston pub and drink some ale!

The first two Thieftaker novels were true mysteries that neither Kaille nor the reader could solve until the very end. That may be why I enjoyed the first two books a bit more than this one. In A Plunder of Souls, there’s still a mystery – someone is desecrating graves, causing the spirits of the defiled dead to crop up throughout Boston, and the clerics of King’s Chapel have hired Kaille to put a stop to it. But unlike the prior two books, Kaille solves the mystery well before the end. What remains is an incredibly powerful adversary that Kaille spends the rest of novel trying to defeat – if he even can be defeated.

A powerful enemy is nothing new to this series, though A Plunder of Souls offers up the most potent villain yet. That said, I would have preferred a little more mystery in this tale. Nonetheless, the book allowed me to escape once more to Ethan Kaille’s Boston, and that’s a place I truly enjoy spending time. So, I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. And I plan to read the first chapter with a big flagon of ale, and maybe even a bowl of chowder on the side!

P.S., thanks to a new feature on Amazon, you can read a preview of the novel here.