Wednesday, December 28, 2016

“Unholy Night” – A Clever Reimagining of a Biblical Tale

For my final post of 2016, here’s my review of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Unholy Night. I had hoped to write this before Christmas, as the book is somewhat pertinent to that event, but alas holiday shopping and work got in the way. Yet as they say, better late than never . . .

I may never forget the Antioch Ghost. I had expected Seth Grahame-Smith’s Unholy Night to be a reimagining of the biblical nativity tale and Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt, one where the Three Wise Men were thieves instead of magi. In concept, the book was intriguing, especially to someone like myself who enjoys historical fantasy with religious elements. In practice, the books was so much more, all because Grahame-Smith gave us the Antioch Ghost.

In the story’s world, set in the year 2 B.C. during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the Antioch Ghost is a legend, the Scourge of Rome and Thief of the Eastern Empire. The moniker belongs to Balthazar, a Syrian, who we find running from the army of Herod the Great, king of Jerusalem, who is pursuing the Ghost after his latest heist. When Balthazar is caught and imprisoned with two more outlaws, an African named Gaspar and a Greek named Melchyor, he must devise an ingenious escape, and three of Herod’s priests (“wise men,” no less) prove integral to that plan.

Balthazar and his companions have little in common with these magi!
On the run in Bethlehem, Balthazar and his two companions take refuge in a barn, where they encounter a carpenter named Joseph, his teenage wife, and their newborn son. They also encounter Herod’s men, who have orders from their king to kill every newborn in Judea to eliminate the Messiah, whom Herod’s prophets claim will topple all the kingdoms of the world. (Herod, by the way, proves to be a truly fiendish and memorable villain in this tale!) This slaughter of innocents proves more than Balthazar can bear, motivating him to save the young family and bring holy hell down on Rome.

As far as stories about thieves go – of the medieval and ancient kind, at least – Unholy Night is one of the best I’ve read. In fact, had the story simply been about Balthazar the thief, it would be a good read. Balthazar, however, is not a religious man, and like many a thief he thinks only of himself. Yet once he’s involved with Mary, Joseph, and especially their infant child, he’s forced to confront serious religious questions, including the purpose of God. This conflict elevates the novel in my view.

Though despite its religious themes, the novel is no sermon. Instead, it’s a rollicking adventure packed with plenty of supernatural elements for fans of historical fantasy. There’s even a magus – an old wizard who is the last of his race -- employed by the Romans to hunt down the child using unholy magic. And then there’s the young Roman officer named Pontius Pilate who Caesar sends to aid Herod in his dark quest. The appearance of a young Pilate was an unexpected twist, and Grahame-Smith does a clever job of tying the events in this novel to those later in Christ’s life, as well as to a scorchingly famous event in the history of Rome. 

In all, I thoroughly enjoyed this tale. My only disappointment is that it’s a standalone novel, which means there will be no more stories about the Antioch Ghost. The man had series potential, but at least, in his only performance, he stole the show.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Happy Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!

I've been away from the blog for longer than I would have liked, but time seems to vanish during this time of the year. I had hoped to post my review of Seth Grahame-Smith's Unholy Night, a reimagining of the story of the Three Wise Men and Joseph and Mary's flight to Egypt, but I'll have to save that for next week. For now, a Feast of Seven Fishes awaits, along with another visit from Jolly Old St. Nick!

Enjoy the holidays and have a very Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Yuletide Sale for "Enoch's Device"!

'Tis the season for holiday sales, so the Kindle version of Enoch’s Device is on sale for the next four days. If you've read the novel and enjoyed it, now is a perfect time to tell a friend! Here’s what the book is about: 

Nearly a thousand years after the birth of Christ, when all Europe fears that the world will soon end, a young 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. But a heretic-hunting bishop has arrived at the monastery, willing to kill to make sure the weapon is never found.
Pursued by the bishop’s men and supernatural forces, Ciarán and his freethinking mentor journey to the heart of France in search of the device. There, they rescue the Lady Alais, a young widow accused of witchcraft because she holds a key to the prophecy. Together, the trio must race 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.
Here are excerpts from the book’s reviews:
Author Cate Peace of Indie Books R Us called Enoch's Device “a refreshing twist on the religious thriller, and one that will have you turning pages from cover to cover as fast as you can.” 
In other reviews, Stephen Reynolds of SPR called Enoch's Device “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.”
And Marty Shaw of Blog Critics wrote: “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.”
I gave an interview to Ms. Peace, where I revealed a bit more about the upcoming sequel – you can read it here. Also, you can read more about Enochthe Fae, and the Paladins of Charlemagne in my interview that appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here

And, thanks to a new feature that Amazon is offering, you can read a free preview here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Westworld’s Final Twist was the Best Yet

Last Sunday’s season finale of Westworld on HBO served as a near perfect end to what has been one of my favorite shows on television in years. As I predicted last week, Ford’s new narrative was the finale’s ultimate focus, but the twist at the end proved completely unexpected. Note, *SPOILERS* for the season finale to follow.

Kudos to showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for crafting a narrative with so many fun, yet solvable mysteries, all the while subtly setting up the final twist in a way no one saw coming. After last week, I suspected that Ford’s new narrative with Wyatt was meant to recreate the incident 34 years ago in Escalante (the village with the black-steepled church) where Teddy killed all the hosts and Arnold met his end. As I predicted, Ford’s character Wyatt was based on the role Delores played back then, convincing Teddy to kill the others before she murdered Arnold. But I never suspected that Delores and Wyatt were literally one in the same.

What we did not know last episode was that Wyatt was actually a character in an old, but unrealized narrative created by Ford and Arnold 34 years ago, and that Arnold input Wyatt’s code into Delores to help her carry out the original massacre. What we also didn’t quite understand is that Arnold planned the massacre to convince Ford to not open the park because he believed Delores had achieved consciousness and become real. Arnold even planned his own suicide, at Delores’s hands, to emphasize his point. “The stakes,” he tells Delores, “must be irreversible. He can bring all of them back, but not me.”

Throughout the entire season we were cleverly led to believe that Ford and Arnold were always at odds and that the conflict between the two men remained ongoing. We know that Elsie discovered someone named “Arnold” was tampering with the hosts and changing their prime directives so that they could harm humans. We suspected this saboteur might be Bernard, carrying out the work of the man in whose image he was made, or maybe Arnold himself in the form of a sentient computer virus who was speaking directly to the hosts. Yet never did we suspect the true saboteur was Dr. Robert Ford.

I did wonder after last episode if Ford was allowing Maeve to gain conscious, and perhaps even start her uprising. After all, it was the simplest explanation for how she could get away with so much without anyone knowing. (Mr. Occam’s Razor, anyone?) But I never could understand why Ford might allow that. Now, however, we know that Ford changed Maeve’s narrative, replacing it with one called “escape,” which has driven all her actions this season – until the finale’s final moments. The reason, I believe now, is twofold. First, he needed a diversion to allow the hosts in cold storage to be moved topside; and second, he actually wants Maeve to escape Westworld. 

The purpose behind all of this was revealed in the finale’s unexpected twist. When I asked last week what game Ford was playing on Westworld, it turns out the answer was “Arnold’s game.” Although it took more than 30 years, Ford had come around to his old partner’s way of thinking. Ford was the one who set Delores on her journey in the present to discover the center of the maze, allowing her to understand its true meaning. I even think Ford used William (Ed Harris’ Man in Black) as a pawn to help Delores achieve true consciousness. Then Ford used his new narrative, tellingly called “Journey into Night,” to recreate the original massacre, including his own suicide at Delores’ hands, except this time Charlotte and Delos Corp.’s board of directors were the victims. But where Arnold created a code to force Delores to pull the trigger way back then, Ford lets Delores decide what to do this time around. 

Ford reveals his motive in his final speech, which also sets up the premise for next season:
“Since I was a child, Ive always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth. 
I also thought I could play some small part in that grand tradition, and for my pains I got this. A prison of our own sins. Because you don’t want to change, or cannot change, because you’re only human after all. But then I realized someone was paying attention. Someone who could change. So I began to compose a new story for them. It begins with the birth of a new people. And the choices they will have to make, and the people they will have to decide to become.”
Delores then tells Teddy her new purpose: “It’s going to be alright Teddy, I understand now. This world doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to us.”

Even William finally understood Arnold’s game. And that strange smile he had, even after being shot in the arm, suggests that he liked the ending. What this means for next season is a ton a Jurassic Park-like chaos. There are still a bunch of humans in the park (or parks, if the revelation of “Samurai World” proves true), and plenty of host characters that need to achieve true consciousness. I wonder if Bernard and Delores will becomes leaders of the hosts, and we still need to see where Maeve’s journey goes. But I do hope we also get some new mysteries to ponder and dissect. That was one of my favorite parts of the show, and since the creator of Memento is still at the helm, I suspect we won’t be disappointed.

* Images courtesy of HBO.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

What Game is Ford Playing on Westworld?

With one episode to go, a few mysteries still remain on HBO’s Westworld, even though two of the biggest appear to have been solved last Sunday. One remaining mystery concerns the new narrative Ford has been obsessing about since episode 2. This begs the question: What game is Ford playing on Westworld?

Here’s what we know. The narrative has something to do with the “city swallowed by the sand” – that little village with the black-steepled church that may or may not be named Escalante. It also involves a villain called Wyatt, as well as Teddy, who helped Wyatt murder a company of Union soldiers in that same village long ago. Or did he?

At least that’s the memory Ford implanted in Teddy’s head back in episode 3, when I believe his and Delores’ “present” journey began on the show. But last Sunday, Angela (Talulah Riley’s character) got Teddy to tap into a deeper memory. One where he was a sheriff who murdered innocent townsfolk instead of Union soldiers. And once again, his dialogue with Angela reveals a ginormous clue about what’s really going on.

As Angela is holding the Man in Black’s knife and walking toward Teddy, he asks her, “Where’s Wyatt?”
“Wyatt has yet to return,” she says. “You’ll find him where you saw him last.”
“Escalante . . .” Teddy replies. “Wyatt went missing while I was away on maneuvers. Came back with some strange ideas. He told me he needed me. I couldn’t resist. It was like the devil himself had taken control of me . . .”
All the while, Teddy is reliving the moment as a Union solider. “We mutinied,” he says. “We killed every soldier. Then Wyatt killed the general. Then he turned on me.”
Teddy recalls Wyatt shooting him when Angela asks, “Are you sure that’s how it was?” She grabs him by his hair and says, “Look at me Theodore, don’t you remember?” This triggers Teddy’s memory of the distant past, where he sees himself murdering innocent townsfolk, with Angela among them. Notably, the carnage looks like the flashback Delores sees in episode 2 before she tells Maeve, “These violent delights have violent ends.”
“No,” Teddy says, shaking his head. “I couldn’t have.”
“But you did,” Angela says, “and you will again. This time we will be fighting with you. When Wyatt returns, we will be by your side in the city swallowed by the sand.”

So what might this all mean? It appears that Teddy’s flashbacks were of the first critical failure that happened in Westworld, the same one Delores keeps seeing in her mind. We also know that Delores played a huge role in that first incident, likely inspired by her conversations with Arnold that encouraged her to question her reality. These would have seemed like “strange ideas” to Teddy, which makes me believe that Delores played the role of Wyatt in the distance past. She was the one who convinced Teddy that these violent delights have violent ends, causing him to carry out the massacre. Then she killed Arnold – just as she admitted last episode – just like Wyatt killed the general.

While all of this may be fascinating, what does it mean for Ford’s new narrative? Is he trying to recreate the incident that happened years ago? Could another mutiny of hosts be part of his master plan? If so, this might explain how Maeve has been able to get away with so much in the present. Maybe Ford is letting her. Maybe this is all part of his grand new narrative?

Another thing to consider is: Who are the other players in this game? We know Arnold had a game, and his game “cuts deep.” Also, despite Arnold’s demise, Ford and he still seemed locked in the conflict that’s existed between them since the beginning. Could Ford, through his new narrative, be trying to prove Arnold wrong? Might he be setting the same events in motion, only to prove they will end differently this time around?

Or does this have more to do with the Man in Black and Delos Corp.? During the scene where Ford confronts the Man in Black in a saloon, there sure seemed to be a rivalry between the two men. We also know that Ford and Delos have long been at odds. So, might Ford be luring the Man in Black to the center of the maze as part of Ford’s grand new narrative? (One where Delores is the “gatekeeper” to the maze?) Or will the new Escalante spell the end for Charlotte and her band of Delos cronies, all at the hands of Teddy, Angela, and a mob of violent hosts? 

I truly don’t know, but I’m glad the show has left us with a few mysteries now that we know that William is likely the Man in Black and that Bernard was made in Arnold’s image. (In fact, as more astute observers have pointed out, “Bernard Lowe” is an anagram for “Arnold Weber.”) Yet we still do not know how this is going to end, or what Ford is really up to. Of all the characters on Westworld, Ford keeps his cards closest to his vest. And I suspect that his big reveal might be the most surprising one yet. 

PS – During the scene where the Man in Black is talking to Teddy, what did the scary guy with the mask remove from one of the dead host’s arms? Could it be an explosive charge? And if these scary men work for Wyatt, serving Ford’s new narrative, why are they tampering with the hosts?

* Images courtesy of HBO.