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

Thursday, October 5, 2017

“The Flame Bearer”: Uhtred of Bebbanburg Finally Goes Home

It look longer than I had hoped, but I finished reading The Flame Bearer, the latest installment in Bernard Conwell’s excellent Saxon Tales series about the founding of the kingdom of England in the early tenth century. Here’s my review.

For ten novels – that’s right, ten – we’ve been waiting for Uhtred to reclaim his ancestral home of Bebbanburg, and in The Flame Bearer we finally learn how that story ends. Fans of the series will recall that Uhtred’s last attempt to capture the impregnable Northumbrian fortress took place in The Pagan Lord, where we were introduced to his son Uhtred as a young warrior. By The Flame Bearer, Uhtred the father is an old man, and with most of his enemies gone after the events in Warriors of the Storm, reclaiming Bebbanburg seems to be all that is left for Uhtred’s tale.

Uhtred is a man possessed in this book, hell-bent on achieving the one thing he’s longed for ever since his wicked uncle stole Bebbanburg from him in Cornwall’s The Last Kingdom. Fortunately, before Uhtred gets too far along on his quest, Cornwell presents him (and us) with another mystery of the kind featured throughout the series. This time, the West Saxons are threatening Northumbria, in apparent breach of the truce reached at the end of Warriors of the Storm. And like most of the mysteries in this series, there’s more to this move than meets the eye.

Uhtred's adventures also continue in Season 2 of The Last Kingdom on Netflix
Eventually, however, the tale turns back to Bebbanburg, and how Uhtred is going to pull off this improbable siege. Uhtred may be old, but he’s still the greatest warrior in England, and the last third of this novel offers one of the longest battle sequences in the series. Cornwell is a master of writing battles, with all of its violence, carnage, and shield walls, so fans of the series won’t be disappointed. By the end, every open storyline from the prior two novels appears to reach its conclusion. That is, every storyline but one. So, in what looked to be the final book in the series, Cornwell drops a hint there may be more to come. 

Even if Cornwell never goes beyond book ten, The Saxon Tales have been one of the great works of medieval fiction. Set in an important era in English history, its stories are engaging, its characters are memorable, and its hero is unforgettable. Someday, we’re going to miss the narrations of Uhtred of Bebbanburg. But until then, enjoy the ride.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

* Image courtesy of Netflix

Friday, September 29, 2017

"The White Princess" and the True Game of Thrones

As I edit away on my next novel, I have a suggestion for anyone suffering withdrawals since the season end of Game of Thrones: Watch a show about the War of the Roses, history’s real life game of thrones.

It’s been well publicized that the historical War of the Roses helped inspire George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, which HBO turned into Game of Thrones. Fortunately, earlier this year, Starz ran The White Princess, a sequel to its 2013 mini-series The White Queen, both about the War of the Roses. If you haven’t seen them, there’s no better time than now to start binge watching.

I wrote about The White Queen back in 2013 (here) and the novel by Phillippa Gregory on which it was based (you can read my review here). But I also posted an excerpt from an article in Vulture titled 7 Ways Starz’s The White Queen is Like Game of Thrones.” Here’s it is again:
Character Correlations: It’s not always direct in Game of Thrones, as one of George R.R. Martin’s characters might share personality traits with a certain historical figure or group, yet a situation or position in common with another. But some people see Cersei from Game of Thrones in The White Queen’s Elizabeth Woodville, the commoner Edward IV married; others see her in Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI (the king Edward IV helped depose) because she's a commanding woman fiercely devoted to putting her sociopathic son on the throne. Yes, there is a Joffrey predecessor, and his name is Edward of Lancaster, a.k.a. the Prince of Ice. Although these aren’t precise match-ups, The White Queen also has a mad king (King Henry VI of Lancaster), as well as an exiled heir to the throne (Henry Tudor). Edward IV, like Robert, also has two brothers vying for the throne. (His brother George, like Renly, doesn't even want to wait for his death, telling him, “I was hoping for your crown.”) Bran and Rickon, meanwhile, are probably the Princes in the Tower.
If this whets your appetite, my guess is you’ll enjoy both The White Queen and The White Princess, but I suggest you watch them in order. The White Queen covers the heart of the War of the Roses, which ended up putting Henry Tudor (Henry VII) on England’s throne. It also tells the story of Richard III (he of Shakespearean fame), the Princes in the Tower, and all the drama surrounding that still mysterious event. All in all, it’s very well done.

As much as I liked The White Queen, I enjoyed The White Princess even more. Unfortunately, Starz premiered the series around the same time as it aired American Gods and HBO aired the final season of The Leftovers, so I ended up missing the show during its run. I did, however, have a chance to binge-watch it before the premiere of Season 7 of Game of Thrones

What I enjoyed the most about the series was the transformation of its protagonist Lizzie (Elizabeth) of York. She’s the daughter of Elizabeth Woodville (the protagonist of The White Queen) and, historically, the mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Elizabeth I. She begins the show as a fierce York loyalist, determined to secretly undermine her unwanted husband, Henry Tudor, in the hope of restoring a York to the throne. But when she finds that she and Henry have more in common than they realized, and later have two sons, she begins to change. By the end, she’s making serious moves in the game of thrones, displaying a ruthlessness one would not expect of the character in the beginning of the show.

You can catch The White Princess on demand on Starz. It’s not the perfect remedy to Game of Thrones withdrawal, but it may be the best one can do in the Long Winter that lies ahead.

* Images courtesy of Starz.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Blogging Whereabouts . . .

It's been a few weeks since my last post because I needed a short break from the blog after the seaon's end of Game of Thrones. Fortunately, I spent what little time I had working on other things.

It looks a bit more dogeared now, but I'm nearing the end of my edit to the sequel to Enoch's Device. It's taken far longer than I had hoped, but I've trimmed it down by 32 pages (and counting), scrapped a few chapters, and written a few new ones. I'm working in the final act now, so the editing has slowed a bit to get it right.

After this, I'll do a quick polish edit and draft my historical note. Then it's off to the Beta readers. My actual editor will be next, and after whatever edits result from that, the novel should be ready to roll. When that will be, I can't quite predict, though I'm hoping for early next year. But enough of that.

In case you missed it, Season 3 of Outlander premiered two Sunday's ago on Starz. For anyone missing Game of Thrones, I've found that Outlander helps ease the pain. I hope to be back with actual content on the blog soon, so check back next week or follow my Facebook page, where I've started posting additional content that wouldn't work for a full blog post.

Thanks for your patience. I'll be back soon!

* Lower image courtesy of Starz

Friday, September 1, 2017

What Remains For “Game Of Thrones”?

Last Sunday’s finale of Game of Thrones provided a satisfying conclusion to the show’s penultimate season. But now that it’s over, what’s left? Only six more episodes.

The Board is Set for the Series Finale

Every storyline from Season 7 was wrapped up in “The Dragon and the Wolf,” and the game board is set for the final six episodes. This made for a fulfilling 80 minutes of television, even though much of it was predictable. Littlefinger’s dangerous game finally came to an end. And even though many sites voted him the most likely character to die in the finale, I liked the clever way Sansa, Arya, and Bran pulled off their endgame.

In one stunning scene, The Wall came crashing down, though it came as no surprise now that the Night King has an undead Viserion. Jon and Daenerys finally did what everyone had been assuming they would do, but the lead into the scene with Bran and Sam confirming Jon’s origins certainly cast it in an awkward light. Although you knew Bran and Sam would put two and two together at some point.

Meanwhile, to no one’s surprise, Cersei betrayed everyone. Though I did not anticipate Jaime leaving her. That was the one development that offered the most promise for next season. Jaime, who began the series as a villain, may end it as a hero. He’s also now brought a third Valyrian sword to the battle against the White Walkers, joining Jon’s and Brienne’s (and don’t forget, Jaime’s and Brienne’s blades were forged from Ned Stark’s great sword, Ice). I’m looking forward to Jaime reuniting with Brienne, if that’s what happens.

But Will the Series End Well?

Overall, the sentiment on the web is that “The Dragon and the Wolf” saved what many viewed as a rocky season of Game of Thrones. You can read examples here and here. But some still dread the final season, fearing that much of the human drama and intrigue will be lost now that the show seems to have boiled down to a fantasy battle between good and evil. (Examples are here and here). However, I’m not too concerned.

For one, the machinations of Queen Cersei will continue to provide plenty human drama and intrigue. She’s hired the Golden Company from Essos, and I can’t imagine they’re simply coming to retake Dragonstone from whatever token force Daenerys leaves there, or to settle the score with a leaderless Dorne. Rather, Cersei’s plans are going to somehow impact (or derail) the fight in the North. And, with six extended episodes to go, we might even see the White Walkers reach King’s Landing. At this point, anything could happen.

Also, Cersei’s story will reach its conclusion, and I think a Shakespearian fate may be what the writers have in store. After all, when Cersei was a girl, Maggy the Frog told her a prophecy that foresaw Cersei would be queen until a younger and more beautiful queen arrived to cast her down. (Hello, Daenerys!) And worse, the “valonqar” (“little brother” in High Valyrian) will choke the life from her pale white throat. Somehow, Tyrion or Jaime has a role to play in Cersei’s fate, but who knows how it will all go down.

Meanwhile, Jon and Daenerys will have to deal with the revelation of Jon’s true origins. The news that Jon Snow is actually Aegon Targaryen, heir to the Iron Throne, will turn Jon’s world upside down. Also, I doubt the man raised by Ned Stark will be okay with ongoing incest. And who knows how Daenerys will react to Jon’s superior claim to the throne? Since her brother Viserys died, she’s always believed she was the one to rule Westeros, so her world will be shattered too. I don’t think this will end well, but it should provide a heaping of human drama.

I also believe we’re in for at least one more big surprise before the show’s end. One totally insane theory blazing through the internet is that Bran is actually the Night King. I’m not going to try to explain it, but you can read about it here and here. And the fact remains that George R.R. Martin has said publicly that the end of Game of Thrones will be bittersweet, much like the ending to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King. In other words, there will be no happily ever after in the final episode of Game of Thrones. But how it will end is anyone’s guess.

For me, that’s plenty to look forward while we wait until 2018 2019 for Season 8. But those are just my thoughts. How hopeful are you about the final season of Game of Thrones?

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Last Sunday’s Episode of “Game of Thrones” Was One of The Most Polarizing Ever

If you’ve been reading the recaps and reviews on the net about last Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, it’s a seriously mixed bag. Even those who liked it had significant gripes. It wasn’t the perfect episode, but I’m surprised at the amount of ire it seems to have stirred. So, as a longtime lawyer, let me attempt to defend the show’s writers, one topic at a time.

Tyrion’s Big Plan

Many who write about the show have focused on the alleged stupidity of Tyrion’s plan to have Jon and Co. kidnap a wight and bring it to Cersei, all in an attempt to get her to join them in the war against the Night King. The gist of most of these criticisms is that everyone should know Cersei won’t be persuaded, so it was foolish to attempt such a dangerous mission in the first place. But I think folks are being too hard on the littlest Lannister.

For one, Tyrion is trying to solve a problem: to stop the War of the Queens so both queens and their armies can aid Jon Snow in his war against the white walkers. Second, while Tyrion claims to believe Jon, he hasn’t seen one of the undead either. So what is the obvious solution? Show everyone the proof that this is happening. Tyrion is just being practical.

To Cersei, the white walkers are just stories to frighten young children. They’re myths, the Westerosi version of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. But I bet if someone dropped a Sasquatch off at your doorstep, you might suddenly become a believer. Also, Cersei is not Tyrion’s only audience. He has Jaime too, who seems to be much more likely to appreciate the danger of an undead army advancing on The Wall. If anyone can convince Cersei to do something, it’s Jaime. 

Lastly, what other choice did Tyrion have? He knows his sister won’t entertain the possibility of white walkers without proof, and according to Jon, Westeros needs everyone to band together if they hope to win the war. So it’s not like they can just cut Cersei out of the plan, or let her ride roughshod over the Seven Kingdoms while Daenerys is off fighting beyond The Wall.

All this said, I wonder if Tyrion’s plan was invented by the show’s writers, or if this is really how George R.R. Martin intended things to play out? The plan led to the biggest game changer in the show’s history by allowing the Night King to claim his own undead dragon. If that event was envisioned by Martin – and I hope something as enormous as an undead Viserion actually was – then something needed to go terribly wrong beyond The Wall to allow that to happen. Of course, if Martin would just finish The Winds of Winter, we wouldn’t need to speculate anymore. 


The Sansa-Arya Storyline

If there is one storyline the critics seem to hate most of all, it’s the feud between Arya and Sansa. Many think Arya is acting totally out of character, and that this is part of some ploy by the writers to manufacture conflict in Winterfell. The critics are certain Arya would never treat Sansa like she’s been doing, and they insist the two sisters should naturally rally together to defeat Littlefinger. Some even fear the writers are turning Arya into one of the show’s villains. My response to all of this: Relax. It’s not hard at all to believe Arya would react this way to Sansa. Here’s why.

In the books and in the show, Arya has always harbored huge resentment for her older sister. Here’s the first thoughts Arya shares with the reader about Sansa in A Game of Thrones:
It wasn’t fair, Sansa had everything. Sansa was two years older; maybe by the time Arya had been born, there had been nothing left. Often it felt that way. Sansa could sew and dance and sing. She wrote poetry. She knew how to dress. She played the high harp and the bells. Worse, she was beautiful. Sansa had gotten their mother’s fine high cheekbones and the thick auburn hair of the Tullys. Arya took after their lord father. Her hair was a lusterless brown, and her face was long and solemn. Jeyne used to call her Arya Horseface, and neigh whenever she came near. It hurt that the one thing Arya could do better than her sister was ride a horse. . . .
Arya also came to hate Sansa for lying about what happened in the incident on the road to King’s Landing where Nymeria bit Joffrey, which resulted in the death of Arya’s friend, the butcher’s boy. This what she tells her father:
“I hate them,” Arya confided, red-faced, sniffling. “The Hound and the queen and the king and Prince Joffrey. I hate all of them. Joffrey lied . . . I hate Sansa too. She did remember, she just lied so Joffrey would like her.”
The two sisters were separated not long after this scene, and six full seasons passed before they were reunited. Anyone who has experienced a bad sibling rivalry knows that, no matter how much people mature and change, those bad feeling linger under the surface and can erupt in ways that are completely irrational. 

Also, we need to view the situation from Arya’s perspective. She went back to Winterfell for Jon, not Sansa. If all Hotpie had told her was that Sansa’s back at Winterfell, I’m pretty sure Arya would have continued down to King’s Landing to kill Cersei, and then all this War of the Queens stuff and zombie hostage taking could have been avoided. Instead, Arya arrived at Winterfell to find Sansa, whom she still resents, but no Jon. That had to be disappointing. And then, after watching Sansa not defend Jon harder against the Northern lords, it’s no wonder Arya is a bit steamed.

And let’s not forget that since Arya left the House of Black and White, she’s killed two men and baked them into pies. She’s also poisoned nearly everyone in House Frey. She may be the biggest mass murder in the recent history of Westeros. Are we to believe that someone who’s accomplished such things can easily snap back into the role of sweet little sister?

I suppose if Arya whacks Sansa on Sunday, the critics may have a point. But at the end of last episode, Arya gave Sansa her Valyrian dagger. In doing so, she may have been saying, despite all this, I’m not going to hurt you. And if so, I suspect we may see the two sisters unite yet against their common foe. Littlefinger is playing a dangerous game, and I can’t help but think his days are numbered. (Though it would not surprise me a bit if he's killed by white walkers and joins the army of the dead. After all, winter is here.)

The Night King’s Decisions

Another groups of critics have wondered why the Night King didn’t just use his magic javelins to kill Jon, Jorah, and everyone else on that rock while they were waiting for Daenerys to save them? Or why he didn’t order his wights to create some World War Z-style zombie bridge to allow the rest of his forces to get to the rock? Is the Night King really that stupid? I think not.

The above criticisms assume all the Night King wanted to do was kill Jon and his merry men. But I don’t believe that was the case. He wanted a dragon (or two) and was waiting for Daenerys to arrive. Some may ask, how in the world did the Night King know she was coming? The answer, I suspect, is that he’s an undead version of the Three-eyed Raven. We already know he can sense Bran’s presence, and the Night King is far older and more powerful than the Greenseer who tutored Bran ever was. Why wouldn’t the Night King be able to see things similar to Bran?

This theory also explains why it’s taken the white walkers so bloody long to advance on The Wall. If the Night King believed he needed an ice dragon to destroy Westeros, he had to wait for Daenerys to get there. Now, if my theory is true, should the writers have done something to show the audience that the Night King can see the future or spy on Dany? Probably so. But that doesn’t take away from the possibility the Night King’s moves have been logical from the start. He needed a dragon – and he’s had several seasons to forge those giant chains.

The Issues with Travel and Time

The issues with time and travel have been my biggest gripe all season, so this criticism will be the hardest by far to defend. Yes, it seems as if ravens in Season 7 move faster than text messages, and whole armies teleport from one place to another like the Rebel Fleet moving through hyperspace in Star Wars. The only way to rationalize such rapid travel is to assume that days or months are passing between scenes on the show.

This assumption was tolerable until last Sunday’s episode. Erik Kain of Forbes wrote a wonderful piece explaining that, in a perfect world, it might be possible for a raven to reach Dragonstone, as well as for three dragons to fly to The Wall, in a matter of days. (You can read it here.) But this would mean Jon and Co. spent days on that rock. One has to assume they did, but the episode’s director could have done a much better job indicating the passage of time. Even a quip from one of the characters about how hungry he’s become after however many days would have helped.

Kain suggests the story would have been best served by having Daenerys, on her own, set off to The Wall after fretting about what might happen to Jon or Ser Jorah. I tend to agree. That would have been a much better way to handle it. But the fact remains that the boundaries of time and space were not necessarily broken last episode – so long as one assumes Jon and the others were trapped on that rock for a few days. (Okay, I’m pretty sure the judge rules against me on this one, but as they said in My Cousin Vinny: you win some, you lose some . . .)

Is The Show Now 100% Fantasy?

Alison Herman of The Ringer wrote a very good article concluding that Game of Thrones has now become a conventional fantasy show. (You can read it here.) Some have suggested this may be a bad thing. Where should I begin?

This argument acknowledges that much of what made Game of Thrones great was the human drama and the history, which seemed so much like real history. (After all, the show was premised on the medieval War of the Roses.) The critics then lament the fact that, with a shift to conventional fantasy, this realism may be slipping away. But anyone who thinks this is not what George R.R. Martin intended does not appreciate how much Dungeons & Dragons the man has played! There were always going to be dragons. There were always going to be white walkers and an army of the dead. And there probably were always going to be good dragons fighting bad dragons. This is the reason I was so excited that Game of Thrones was coming to TV in the first place. Also, I bet we have the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films to thank for it.

And how about The Lord of the Rings? Did those stories help inspire George R.R. Martin? Hell yes. He’s even stated that the ending of this series will echo the ending of The Return of the King. This is not surprising. I dare say J.R.R. Tolkien in some way inspired every fantasy author worth his or her salt. The Lord of the Rings even inspired Steven King to write his epic Dark Tower series. 

In short, we were always getting a fantasy show, and I hope everyone is enjoying it. I also think we’ll still get plenty of human drama. But we’re near the end, and the stakes have been raised. We needed some white walker versus dragon rider-type action. It’s part of epic fantasy’s DNA. 

But The Cracks Are Beginning To Show

Rob Bricken of io9 writes a good article suggesting Season 7 has so many problems they’re getting hard to ignore. (You can read his article here.) This is the one point on which I won’t offer a defense. As I noted in my first post about this season, I think the show is suffering a bit from the lack of source material. The show seems to be moving from one huge scene to another because that’s all the show’s writers have to work with from the outline George R.R. Martin left them. Even Martin, I suspect, hasn’t worked out all the details, because he’s still writing the story (we hope). As result, so many of the things Martin wrote that made the show so great seem to be lacking in subtle ways this season. That’s because, for this season, Martin has not written them yet. And that’s not the show’s writers fault.

But those are just my thoughts? Have you been disappointed in Season 7 of Game of Thrones?

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

In Other News: If you've enjoyed this post or like historical fantasy in general, you may also enjoy Enoch's Device. The Kindle version of the novel is on sale this week through the final episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones. (You can buy it here.) And if you'e already read and enjoyed Enoch's Device, now is a great time to recommend it to a friend! You can even read a sample of the novel here

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Fan Theory Gets Dashed “Beyond the Wall”

The ending of last night’s episode of Game of Thrones contained a huge surprise that I suspect few people saw coming. And with it, a popular fan theory ended as well. *SPOILERS* to follow.

Last season, the show confirmed one longstanding theory of fans of George R.R. Martin’s novels, that Jon Snow was actually the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. A corollary to that theory is that Jon was going to join Daenerys as one of three dragon riders who will fly out to defeat the white walkers. The theory stems from a vision Dany has in the House of the Undying at the end of A Clash of Kings (depicted in season two of Game of Thrones), where Rhaegar tells her, essentially, there has to be three heroes because “the dragon has three heads.”

As for the third rider, most of the speculation has surrounded Tyrion, who some believe is also secretly a Targaryen (due to an affair between Dany’s father and Tyrion’s mother). Well, last night this theory went up in smoke – or should I say ice – when the Night King killed one of her dragons. So there’s one less dragon to be ridden by Dany and her crew.

Instead, the Night King has created what promises to be the most destructive force ever to be unleashed since The Long Night. My guess is the first thing this “ice dragon” takes out is The Wall, and I would not be surprised if that happens next episode. Hopefully Bran saw this whole thing unfold, because Winterfell is about to be in some very serious danger!

* Image courtesy of HBO