Wednesday, December 13, 2017

History’s “Knightfall” Looks Promising

I’ve been away from the blog for several weeks trying hard to finish the beta draft of the sequel to Enoch’s Device. In the meantime, however, I caught the premiere episode of Knightfall on History Channel, and wanted to share a few thoughts.

I was completely unaware of this new series until I saw an ad for it two weeks ago. The show airs on Wednesdays after the latest season of Vikings (of which I am now several episodes behind), and concerns the fall of the Knights Templar. Based on the first episode, the series looks quite promising.

It all begins with the series’ protagonist, Landry, a monastic knight in Paris who becomes a leader of the Knights Templar. A friend to Phillip the Fair, king of France, Landry at first appears every bit the hero you would expect in a drama about noble knights. For instance, when Phillip’s villainous counselor, Guillaume de Nogaret, convinces the king to expel the Jews from Paris, and then plots to rob and murder them on the road, Landry learns of the plot and rides with his fellow Templars to save them. After all, that’s what heroic knights do.

Fortunately, however, Landry’s character is a bit more complex than a stereotypical hero. For as the first episode reveals, he’s also broken his vow of chastity and is engaged in a secret affair with a woman who turns out to be Queen Joan of France. This seems destined to affect his friendship with King Phillip, who students of history will remember played a major role in the fall of the Knights Templar.

On top of this intriguing storyline, the show also involves the Holy Grail. The opening scene shows Landry and his fellow knights losing the Grail in the fall of Acre, when the knights were driven from the Holy Land. But fifteen years later, they discover a clue that the Grail may now be in France, leading to a Grail quest that seems fitting for a story about the Knights Templar. We may even see a turn towards historical fantasy before too long, for it appears the Grail is a device that predates Christianity, reminding me a bit of Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons, which turned out to be one of the best historical fantasy series on television.

One thing we know from Vikings, is that History Channel tends to do things right. And since we are in the Long Winter before the final season of Game of Thrones, it’s nice to have a show like Knightfall to help bridge the gap.

* Images courtesy of History

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving 1621 Style!

As I do each year, I'm re-publishing my post on the very first Thanksgiving. Enjoy!

Growing up, I never paid much attention to the origin of Thanksgiving. Other than what I may have learned in elementary school, all I recall knowing was that it was a feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sometime after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. Only in the past few years did I become interested in what really happened at the first Thanksgiving. Yet like many an adventure, it all started with a few bottles of wine ...

Thanksgiving, 1621, Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Not that the pilgrims drank wine at the first Thanksgiving (at least by any accounts I’ve read, although they did have beer), but the several bottles my friends and family drank a few years ago, after another gut-busting Thanksgiving dinner, inspired us to do some research into the origin of Thanksgiving. (That’s also how we rediscovered the role Squanto played in all of this, but more on him in a moment.)

Apparently there are only two written accounts of the first Thanksgiving, which was celebrated in 1621 as a harvest feast by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Turkey, it turns out, was not the centerpiece of the meal, although one of the two accounts referenced a “great store of wild turkeys.” The main course appeared to be venison, but there is also reference to waterfowl and “Indian corn.”

The interesting part about the meal is what was not eaten, at least according to an article in The Smithsonian Magazine. There were no potatoes or sweet potatoes. White potatoes originated in South America and sweet potatoes came from the Caribbean, and neither had apparently made it to Massachusetts by 1621. The Pilgrims also lacked butter and wheat flour, so there was no pumpkin pie. Among things they probably did eat were fish, eels, and shellfish (like lobster, clams, and mussels), which were staples for the Wampanoag and the colonists.

But this feast may never have occurred if it were not for a Patuxet Native American named Tisquantum, commonly known as Squanto. He served as an interpreter for the Pilgrims, taught them how to grow corn, and showed them the best places to catch fish and eel, all of which helped them survive their first winter at Plymouth. He also helped negotiate a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag in March of 1621. Without this, I suspect there would not have been a first Thanksgiving.

A drawing of Squanto – I imagine he dressed more warmly in the winter of 1621!
Squanto’s backstory was less than idyllic. He was captured twice by the English and forced to leave his wife and child. During his first captivity in 1605, he was taken to England along with several other native Americans. Their captor, Capt. George Weymouth, wanted to display them for his financial backers, who were interested in seeing natives from the New World. In England, Squanto learned English and apparently became the consort of an English woman. By 1613, he was hired as a guide for an expedition to New England and returned there with the famous explorer John Smith.

This is the same John Smith who was saved by Pocahontas in 1607 and 1608.
But Squanto’s time back in Plymouth did not last long. Once Smith went north on another expedition, one of his lieutenants, a Capt. Thomas Hunt, kidnapped Squanto and twenty-six other Native Americans to sell them into slavery. Hunt sailed to Spain, where he hoped to sell his captives for twenty pounds each. When local friars discovered Hunt’s plans, they rescued Squanto and his brethren, hoping to convert them to Christianity. Squanto ended up living with the friars until 1618, when he found his way back to London, and then to a ship headed to the New World.

Upon returning home, Squanto discovered that his entire Patuxet tribe had died from the plague (believed to be smallpox, a disease introduced to the New World by Europeans). Despite all this mistreatment and misfortune, he stayed and helped the Pilgrims until he died of fever in 1622. According to one account, the Massachusetts governor at the time called Squanto a “special instrument sent by God for their good beyond their expectations.”

So this Thanksgiving, my family and friends are going a bit more historical. There will be venison and some lobster, and turkey of course. (I suspect mashed potatoes will be in order too, only because my friends and family might never forgive me if I eliminate them for the sake of historical purity.) There will also be more wine and probably a few mixed drinks – including a special concoction that we intend to dedicate to Squanto.

2017 Menu Update: This year, we're going to our friends' house for Thanksgiving, so I'm not cooking my usual six course meal. But I'm still preparing a few dishes in honor of the first Thanksgiving, namely fried lobster tails with a horseradish crème fraiche sauce and oyster stuffing! I'm also making my signature pumpkin soup with fig quenelles and prosciutto! 

Yes, I love cooking almost as much as I love writing! HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

The Mayflower in 1620
Another interesting fact: Through my father’s side of the family, I am a direct descendant of Francis Cooke and his son John, and Richard Warren and his daughter Sarah, who married John Cooke. Francis, John, and Richard all journeyed to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620 and were likely present at the first Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Puzzle-like Plots: “Origin” by Dan Brown

While I’ve been reading more medieval mysteries these days, I always go back to Dan Brown whenever one of his books comes out. He’s the godfather of the religious thriller, and while we write in somewhat different genres, I’ve always admired his mastery of pacing and building puzzle-like plots. His latest novel is titled Origin, and my review of the book follows.

Origin offers a new and compelling mystery in the latest Robert Langdon novel, and the most controversial religious theory since Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. In the pantheon of Langdon tales, I enjoyed Origin more than Inferno, and probably as much as Angels & Demons. Though I must say, the first quarter of the book is more suspenseful than any Langdon novel so far.

The plot centers around Edmund Kirsch, a billionaire futurist and notorious atheist, who claims to have made a scientific discovery about the origin of life so profound it will shatter the foundations of religions worldwide. When he shares his discovery with three prominent religious leaders, including a Catholic archbishop who is the spiritual counselor to the king of Spain, Kirsch comes to believe his life is in danger. But despite the threats, Kirsch is determined to reveal his findings to the world in a live streaming spectacle broadcast from the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Enter Robert Langdon, Kirsch’s former professor of symbology at Harvard and a VIP guest to the big unveiling. Once this stage is set, the next hundred pages of Origin is so gripping I wasn’t able to put it down. Someone has sent an assassin to kill Kirsch before he can reveal his discovery. And even though you know what’s going to happen, the chapters are so masterfully constructed they never lose their tension.

Some exciting scenes occur in the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Without giving away the obvious, Langdon finds himself in another desperate situation, this time with the beautiful Ambra Vidal, fiancé to the crown prince of Spain. Along with Winston, an artificial intelligence created by Kirsch (think Siri on steroids), Langdon and Vidal must solve a series of mysteries to uncover Kirsch’s discovery and reveal it to the world. The danger is that the secret might disprove the existence of God, and Langdon fears the Catholic Church and the assassin may stop at nothing to silence the discovery.

Like all Langdon novels, this one contains a twist, and a clever one at that. (Yet another reason I found Origin to be better than Inferno.) Also, the book’s themes, both about the existence of God and the power of technology, are quite thought-provoking, if not somewhat disturbing. Once the answer was revealed, I found the questions the book raised about science to be far more troubling than those concerning religion. But that’s one of the things I enjoy most about Brown’s novels. You continue to think about them long after you finish reading.

A Note on Religion

As a religious person and writer of fiction that involves religious themes, the build-up to Kirsch’s discovery in the novel bothered me at times. I yearned to reach the end just to see if my own faith would be shaken. I’m pleased to report it was not. To reach his conclusion – one in which Brown seems to have a one-sided view, much like his overpopulation theory in Inferno – Brown uses a character based on, and named after, real life MIT physicist Jeremy England.

Incredibly, Brown included England in the book without his permission. Moreover, England, who is also religious, disagrees with Brown’s conclusions. So much so that he authored an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal titled: “Dan Brown Can’t Cite Me to Disprove God.” (You can read it here, though a subscription might be required.) Once you’ve read the book, I suggest you read England’s article.

Since The Da Vinci Code, Brown has had great success taking controversial religious theories and turning them into thrilling stories. That’s a credit to Brown as a writer. But it helps to remember it’s all in the name of good fiction, as opposed to well-reasoned scholarship.

Thanks to Amazon, you can read a sample of Origin here.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

“Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman

This week, I’m focusing on mythology – Norse mythology to be precise, the subject of the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: Ragnarok. While the movie does not even attempt to stay true to actual mythology, Neil Gaiman does in his latest release aptly titled Norse Mythology. Here’s my review.

Anyone who has read American Gods knows how much Norse mythology has influenced the writing of Neil Gaiman. In Norse Mythology, he provides a straightforward retelling of those ancient myths in a tone and tenor reminiscent of Gaiman’s best novels. This is the third book on Norse mythology I’ve read, and it easily ranks as one of my favorites. 

Gaiman covers all the Asgardian tales, beginning with the Norse creation myth and ending with Ragnarok, the Norse version of Armageddon. The heroes of these tales are the Norse gods like Thor, Odin, and Freya. Though if there is one overarching plotline that pervades these myths, it’s that, collectively, Norse mythology tells the story of Loki.

Thor and Loki are together again!
The trickster god is both villain and antihero in these stories. He’s a wisecracking member of the Asgardian court, and travel companion to Thor in their adventures through the giant lands. But he’s also father to the goddess Hel, as well as the gigantic wolf Fenrir and the world-serpent Jormungandr. Through them, Loki becomes the architect of Ragnarok, playing a role akin to the devil in the book of Revelation. Actually, the similarities between Ragnarok and Revelation are quite uncanny.

Overall, this book will be a worthwhile read for fans of mythology, Norse legends, and American Gods. In fact, the true identities of Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon both play big roles in this mythological epic. There are rumors of a possible sequel to American Gods, and after a healthy dose of Norse Mythology, I really hope it happens.

Cate Blanchett is fantastic as Hela.
But until then, let me say a few words about Thor: Ragnarok, which I saw this past Sunday. Marvel’s Thor is all messed up mythologically. For one, Hela (Hel) is Thor’s long-lost sister, instead of Loki’s daughter. Surt is a demon, instead of a fire giant, and Jormungandr is nowhere to be found. That said, the movie is a blast. Germain Lussier of io9 even wrote that Thor: Ragnarok May Be The Funniest Superhero Movie Ever.” The film does give us Fenrir (surprisingly), and a whole lot of Hulk, who does quite a bit of smashing during Ragnarok. Maybe if the real Thor and Odin had had a Hulk at Ragnarok, things would have turned out differently. 

The real Asgardians would have loved a Hulk! 
Finally, if you want another good book on Norse mythology, I highly recommend Loki by Mike Vasich. You can read my review of that book here.

And thanks to Amazon, you can also read a sample of Norse Mythology here.

* Photos courtesy of IMDb.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween!

Many believe the old Celtic festival of Samhain became the inspiration for Halloween. With that in mind, you have to love this quote about Samhain from the opening of Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God ...

Today I have been thinking about the dead.
This is the last day of the old year. The bracken on the hill has turned brown, the elms at the valley’s end have lost their leaves and the winter slaughter of our cattle has begun. Tonight is Samain Eve.
Tonight the curtain that separates the dead from the living will quiver, fray, and finally vanish. Tonight the dead will cross the bridge of swords. Tonight the dead will come from the Otherworld to this world, but we shall not see them. They will be shadows in the darkness, mere whispers of wind in a windless night, but they will be here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Devil's Bridge: A Tale of Samhain

For this Halloween, I’m republishing my flash fiction story titled The Devil’s Bridge. It’s based on a Welsh legend about an old woman and her deal with the devil – on the eve of Samhain (Halloween). Hope you enjoy it!

Bryn dreaded the hike to the devil’s bridge, though she dreaded the full moon even more.

Its light bathed the path through the bracken-covered hillside that led to the ravine. Every few yards, Meg jabbed her walking stick into Bryn’s back, goading the ten-year-old forward, while Meg’s old wolfhound, Mister Grim, followed alongside. Mister Grim was as mean as sin, and Meg had threatened to feed Bryn to the dog more times than the girl could recall. Although tonight, Bryn feared the moon and the bridge more than the wolfhound. Yet she wondered if he could smell the hunk of day-old bacon hidden in her fist.

“Keep moving,” Meg hissed. “Of all the orphans the village has brought me, you be the slowest.”

The old woman’s eyes simmered in their sockets, amid a face creased like an autumn leaf. Some said Meg was once the most beautiful woman in the village, but now she was so old that Bryn’s Nana was just a child when Meg was in her prime. Nana believed witchery preserved Meg’s beauty, but even witchery could not defeat the haul of time. 

Ahead loomed the bridge, a crude arch of stone that spanned the ravine where the river plunged three hundred feet in a rushing fall. On the far side, moonlight kissed the headstone of the ancient dolmen encrusted with moss. Nana once told Bryn that dolmens were the tombs of giants, but some believed they were gateways to the Otherworld, where dark faeries lured their prey.

A chill washed through Bryn. “Why do we have to come here tonight?”

“Because it’s Samhain,” Meg replied. “The curtain between the living and the dead is like mist, and the mandrake growing near the dolmen is at its peak. ‘Tis powerful magic in them roots tonight, so time to harvest.”

“But Nana warned about that bridge.”

“’Tis just a bridge.”

“Nana said that when you were young, you tricked the devil into building it.”

Meg’s eyes narrowed. “Your Nana told you that?”

“She said he built it for you for the price of the first soul to cross it. But instead of going first, you pushed your servant across, a sickly girl, blind in one eye. Cheated, the devil howled and screamed. Now, Nana said, at every full moon he takes the life of the first to cross the bridge.”

“Your Nana died a fool!” Meg snapped. “There’s no truth in them myths. Now come on child, there’s harvesting to do.”

From a pouch on her waist, Meg drew a rusty gardening spade and handed it to Bryn. “Now go and get me some mandrake root.”

Bryn’s stomach hardened. “Alone?”

Meg held up her fingers, bent like a spider’s legs and tipped with jagged nails. “My hands are old, too feeble to grip a spade. Now do as you’re told.”

“But Nana said—”

Meg grabbed Bryn by the hair and jerked her head back. “I don’t care what your Nana said,” Meg growled through clenched teeth. “Go dig up some mandrake root, lest I turn you into a toad and feed you to Mister Grim!”

Bryn froze, scared to even breath. When Meg let go, Bryn backed toward the bridge, nearly stumbling due to the weakness in her knees. Her whole body shook as she turned at the bridge’s threshold. The spray of the falls kissed her face. Hundreds of feet below the bridge, the rushing waters seethed into a cauldron-like gorge.

Bryn’s heart felt as if it would beat through her chest. She stopped and looked back.

“Go!” Meg shrieked. 

Bryn shook her head, a thought pounding in her mind. She cheated the devil . . .

“Get on, or I’ll beat you bloody with this stick!”

Bryn sucked in a breath and shook her head again, mouthing her reply. “No.” 

Meg grimaced. “Grim, make her go.” 

The wolfhound stood as tall as Bryn, with a massive head and teeth as long as her thumbs. His eyes gleaming in the moonlight, he padded toward her like a hound closing on a wounded hare. 

Bryn struggled to hold back a cry. Summoning all the courage she could muster, she opened her palm, revealing the hunk of old bacon in her hand. Mister Grim cocked his head, smelling the cured meat. The wolfhound opened his jaws, just as Bryn hurled the meat toward the dolmen.

“No!” Meg screamed as the wolfhound tore across the bridge.

Mister Grim lunged for his prize. Then Bryn gasped. 

A torrent of water blasted from the falls. Arms stretched from the spray, reaching from a ghost-like shape with burning red eyes. As it fell on the wolfhound, the ghostly demon roared like the wind, drowning out the dog’s cries. Water pummeled the stone bridge. When the torrent ceased, the demon and the wolfhound were gone. 

Bryn exhaled—right before Meg eclipsed her view. The old woman’s eyes fumed with rage. With a fierce cry, she cracked her stick upside Bryn’s head. And the girl’s whole world began to spin.

* * *

On the dirt floor of Meg’s hovel, Bryn woke in darkness to a sound at the old wooden door. The scent of stewed mandrake clung to the air as Bryn rubbed the side of her head, swollen like a gourd. She heard the sound again. Something scratched at the door. As she got up and walked to the doorway, a chill rushed up Bryn’s limbs. Hesitating for a moment, she opened the door. At its threshold stood Mister Grim. The hound’s eyes burned like hot coals.

Bryn staggered back. Those eyes, like the demon’s from the falls! 

She feared she might faint, but the beast brushed past her and padded toward Meg, asleep in her bed. As it lunged and Meg screamed, a faint smile crept across Bryn’s lips. For there was one more thing Nana used to say. 

“Remember child, always give the devil his due.” 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Medieval Mysteries: “The Red Hill” by David Penny

Recently, I started reading more medieval mysteries, and I’m truly enjoying them. These are pure mystery tales like the stories of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, except set during the Middle Ages. And this week’s mystery, The Red Hill by David Penny, is among the best I’ve read so far. 

Set in the fifteenth century, the mystery involves a series of murders within the harem of the Alhambra, the massive medieval palace of the sultan of Granada. The few witnesses to the attacks believe the killer to a djinn, a spirit of the air who appears out of nowhere wielding a deadly blade. With the sultan’s wives a potential target, the sultan enlists his private surgeon, Thomas Berrington, to solve the mystery and expose the killer.

Thomas, the Sherlock Holmes of this tale, is an Englishman with a mysterious past who has served the sultan for years. Driven by logic and science instead of superstition, Thomas is reluctant to take on this role, but a sultan’s request cannot be refused. 

The Hill of the Alhambra in Granada
Like most good stories, the novel gives us a host of memorable characters, including Jorge, the strapping eunuch who serves as Watson to Thomas’ Holmes; Olaf Torvaldsson, the sultan’s Scandinavian general; and the sultan’s many sons, all of whom may eventually lay a claim to the throne. Then there’s Olaf’s two daughters, one who is Thomas’ lover, and the other who wishes to become his apprentice. They all aid Thomas in one way or another, but he’s often left guessing whether they are truly friends, or foes. 

Nearly everyone Thomas meets has a motive to commit the crime, and the author does a fine job of disguising the truth, while offering enough subtle clues to make the ending believable. And like all great mystery tales, the puzzle kept me guessing until the novel’s final twist. The book is the first in a series, and you can bet book two, titled Breaker of Bones, is already on my to-read list!

You can read a sample of The Red Hill here.

* Painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons