Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Fortunes Change Fast on “Game of Thrones”

I’ll be the first admit that I did not see the end of last week’s episode of Game of Thrones coming. Just when we thought the chessboard was set, it was blown to pieces in one epic battle. So where does this leave things on the show after “Stormborn”? *SPOILERS* clearly follow.

All was going great with Daenerys’ plan to defeat Cersei. Until it wasn’t. In one swift and unexpected move by Euron Greyjoy and his hastily built fleet of very impressive ships, half of Dany’s allies were captured or killed, and suddenly the game board looks a whole lot better for Team Cersei.

Who Survived the Attack?

The show left this question with a murky answer. In the final shot, we see a woman hanging from a bowsprit, who I assumed was Yara Greyjoy. After further review, I believe it is Nymeria Sand hanging from her own whip, because higher up on the sternpost is Obara Sand impaled on her own spear. Though it looks like Tyene Sand, the third Sand Snake, may have been captured.

We know Theon escaped, by making what looked like the coward’s choice and jumping overboard as opposed to trying to fight to save his sister. I suspect that’s because there’s a lot of Reek left in him, and when he saw Euron’s men mutilating Yara’s crew, he panicked. Though maybe it was the right move, honor be damned. There was no way Theon was going defeat Uncle Euron. In the real world, Theon probably would have drowned, but at the end of the episode we see him clinging to some wreckage. (I suppose he’ll paddle several miles to shore like Brody and Hooper did at the end of Jaws.) Theon has become like Game of Thrones’ version of Gollum. We haven’t seen the last of him yet.

We don’t know if Yara’s alive. While I no longer think that was her hanging from the bowsprit, one would think killing Yara would be high on Euron’s agenda. He doesn’t strike me as the merciful type, though I suspect we’ll learn her fate later this season.

The one person we know survives is Ellaria Sand. She even begged Euron’s men to kill her, but they refused. I’m convinced she’s the special gift Euron promised Cersei, and who better to offer her than the woman who killed Cersei’s daughter Myrcella? After episode one, I had speculated that gift may be Dragonbinder, the massive Valyrian horn Euron used to win the kingsmoot in A Feast For Crows, which can supposedly control dragons. But now I have serious doubts about that. The horn, like Lady Stoneheart, might only be a thing of the books, which makes we wonder how differently this all might play out if George R.R. Martin ever finishes his novels.

What Does This Mean for Daenerys?

Dany may be more screwed than she knows. My guess is that Yara’s fleet not only was going to take the Dornish to King’s Landing for Tyrion’s planned siege, but also ferry the Unsullied and Dothraki to Casterly Rock. If so, the end of Yara’s fleet leaves a lot of soldiers stuck on Dragonstone. And even if the Ironborn can build new fleets in a miraculously short time, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of trees on Dragonstone. Or Ironborn for that matter.

As for Dorne, who knows what role it will play now in the great game. The show has never explained who would rule Dorne in Ellaria’s absence. The entire royal family appears dead, and Arianne Martell, the daughter of Prince Doran who is a viewpoint character in the novels, has never appeared on the show. In the world of Game of Thrones, I don’t think she exists. So there’s clearly a power vacuum in Dorne, and it’s anyone’s guess who might fill it.

Which leaves the North as Dany’s best potential ally, and this certainly looks to be where the show is going. I don’t know how many ships Jon Snow has access to, so I can’t say how he’d help get Dany and her army off Dragonstone. But his army should be more than enough to replace the Dornish. The problem is he wants to fight the white walkers, not Cersei. I have no idea how Daenerys will react to Jon’s priorities, but finding out should be fun.

What Will Happen in The North?

When Jon left for Dragonstone over the objection of many a Northern lord, he put Sansa in charge. Sansa, I believe, will be a perfectly capable ruler, and maybe even a master of dealing with Lannister-like politics. The problem is that her first major crisis may be an attack on The Wall by the Night King and his army. If Jon has been ignoring the danger to the South, Sana’s the one ignoring the danger to the North. She also has no bloody clue how to defend The Wall or kill an army of undead wights, yet that is where I predict the show may be heading. Hopefully Lyanna Mormont can help her out. She may be small, but I doubt she’s afraid of white walkers!

These, however, are just my thoughts. Where do you think the show is heading after the surprise ending of “Stormborn”?

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Is a Lack of Source Material Affecting “Game of Thrones”?

I’m finally getting around to writing about “Dragonstone,” the premiere episode of Game of Thrones Season 7. As much as I enjoyed the episode, I’m beginning to wonder if the lack of source material is starting to affect the show. Here’s why. *SPOILERS* to follow.

Most of “Dragonstone” was basically set-up to remind the audience where the various characters were after the events of “The Winds of Winter.” There were some important, yet predictable, moments such as Daenerys finally reaching Westeros and Bran returning to the Wall. And a few unexpected developments, like Euron’s marriage proposal to Cersei, and perhaps the beginning of a rift between Sansa and Jon Snow. Oh yeah, and House Frey was wiped off the map thanks to Arya Stark, who disguised herself as Walder Frey and staged her own version of the Red Wedding!

While the opening scene at House Frey was fascinating – and included some of the episode’s best dialogue too – the show has never explained how Arya can transform into whoever she wishes. That is the only thing about “Dragonstone” that bothered me, and I think the reason may be because the show has gotten so far ahead of George R.R. Martin’s novels. 

Over the past few seasons, Game of Thrones has provided plenty of instances where the Faceless Men of the House of Black and White can change their appearance. In fact, Jaqen H’ghar did it all the time. The House of Black and White was full of masks (err faces), but the show never explained how this magic worked, nor did it reveal how Arya learned to master this power. We didn’t see her steal a few masks before she left Bravos, and if she can make masks on her own, the show certainly never told us how she does it. This is the one thing on the show that remains a complete, unexplained mystery, and I find it a bit annoying.

Martin used magic in the novels sparingly, but when he did he usually explained how it worked. As for the magic of the Faceless Men, here is what he told us near the end of A Dance With Dragons:
Mummers change their faces with artifice and sorcerers use glamors, weaving light and shadow and desire to make illusions that trick the eye. These arts you shall learn, but what we do here goes deeper. Wise men can see through artifice, and glamors dissolve before sharp eyes, but the face you are about to don will be as true and solid as that face you were born with.
But Arya’s storyline in A Dance With Dragons ended with that chapter. Martin never got to the point where Arya learned – let alone mastered – these arts. And neither did the show. To me, it feels like a link is missing in the chain. I assume Martin will reveal how Arya masters this power in the series’ sixth novel, The Winds of Winter. If that material had existed, the show’s writers might have been able to offer a more cogent explanation for how Arya turned into the spitting image of Walder Frey. Or at least readers watching the show would not be questioning how she does it. Yet I’m beginning to fear the entire TV series will be over before The Winds of Winter is ever published.

This makes me wonder if we aren’t losing something on the show because, at this point, the writers are working off an outline, instead of a novel. In a sense, this has made the show more fun because we, as both readers and viewers, have no idea what’s going to happen next. But I fear some subtle and significant details have been lost in the process.

That said, I still have high hopes for Season 7. Without a novel to spoil the plot, I’m sure the season will be full of surprises.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Monday, July 10, 2017

Historical Fiction: “Liberty Boy” by David Gaughran

After a brief vacation and a near month-long hiatus from the blog, I’m back today with a review of Liberty Boy by Irish author David Gaughran. It’s the first book I’ve read about Dublin that didn’t involve Vikings (who founded the city way back when), and one I highly recommend.

Liberty Boy is a well-paced, beautifully written novel that puts the reader on the edge of a tension-filled uprising in early nineteenth century Dublin. After crushing a violent rebellion a few years before, the English soldiers are determined to keep order by any means necessary. And they’re making a habit of hanging rebel prisoners in Dublin’s public square.

Into this tension comes Jimmy O’Flaherty, a young Irishman and the son of a famous and martyred patriot. Jimmy, however, wants nothing to do with the rebellion or his father’s past. His only desire is to scrape up enough money to book passage to New York and get the hell out of Ireland. Everything looks to be going as planned until he meets a pretty girl named Kitty Doyle.

The execution of Irish Patriot Robert Emmet plays a role in the novel.
As much as I empathized with Jimmy, it was Kitty who stole the proverbial show. She’s a brave, strong-willed, and smart-mouthed heroine who is more than just a sympathizer for the Irish patriots. She’s also Jimmy’s inevitable love interest and the cause of much of the story’s conflict, dragging him into the brewing rebellion he hoped to run from. 

At only 261 pages, Liberty Boy is a quick, but satisfying read. Gaughran gives the reader a great feel for nineteenth century Dublin, with its many breweries and the smell of burnt hops filling the air. He also has a true knack when it comes to dialogue, and I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to use the phrase “for feck’s sake” after reading this book!

The novel is the first in a series, and ends with a cliffhanger of sorts. But fortunately, the sequel, Dieman’s Land, is coming out soon, so readers won’t have to wait too long to learn what happens next.

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

How a Dead Wife Has Given New Life to “American Gods”

I was a bit critical about the debut season of American Gods. The tone seemed off from the book, the soundtrack was too foreboding, and the barrage of “Coming to America” vignettes was jeopardizing the pacing. But all of that has changed since Laura Moon crawled from the grave.

To be fair, there were some high points to the series’ first three episodes. The characters seemed perfectly cast, and the Shadow and Wednesday scenes were humorous and witty at times. Though no one has stolen the show like Emily Browning’s Laura Moon. Ever since episode four (“Git Gone”), which told Laura’s backstory, American Gods has been so much more satisfying. And since she’s paired with Mad Sweeny, the unlikely duo has far out shinned the best that Shadow and Wednesday have to offer.

The most interesting part of this is that most of the Laura Moon scenes have gone beyond the novel. Neil Gaiman never delved deep into Laura’s past, and the Sweeny-Laura road trip never happened. The show’s writers are obviously using these “new” scenes to extend what easily could have been a two-season series into three seasons or more. The show is barely a third of the way into the novel, and this season has only one episode remaining. Yet far from being filler material, Laura’s new scenes have greatly improved the show.

For one, the scenes have a much lighter tone, and Laura’s dialog – especially when engaging Mad Sweeny – is the best we’ve heard since Elsie mysteriously disappeared on Westworld. Also, the overall storytelling seems to have improved. Last week’s episode, titled “A prayer for Mad Sweeny”, was classic. Emily Browning did double-duty as the Irishwoman who originally brought Mad Sweeny to America, with her story unfolding in parallel with Laura’s and Sweeny’s in the present day. It was probably the best episode yet, and Shadow and Wednesday weren’t in a single scene.

I suppose next week’s episode will have to return to Shadow’s and Wednesday’s tale (though I doubt it will go as far into the book as I originally expected). But I truly hope we get more Laura and Sweeny too. Given the title of the season finale, “Come to Jesus”, I think we will. After all, Sweeny knows a guy who specializes in resurrections.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes and Starz

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

My Thoughts on “The Leftovers” Series Finale

The series finale of The Leftovers was not what I expected, and the last 10 minutes blew me away. I’ve watched the episode, titled “The Book of Nora,” twice now. Here are my thoughts on the finale, but know that *SPOILERS* abound.

By the end of the first two scenes, Nora is inside the machine that supposedly can transport people to the place where 2% of the world’s population went in the Sudden Departure, including Nora’s husband and her two children. The machine is filling up with a metal-infused liquid that will solidify around her moments before a laser blasts her with radiation to effect the transfer. The physicists told Nora that if she swallows the liquid, she’ll die. Just as the liquid reaches her chin, Nora cries out, and the scene ends. Whether we ever learn the truth about what happens next, depends on how you view the final 10 minutes of the series.

After the somewhat nerve-wracking scene in the departure machine, the episode jumps to an older Nora (who calls herself Sarah), bicycling through rural Australia. When a much older Kevin does show up at Nora’s door, he claims to have only met her a few times back in Mableton. She’s so disturbed by this encounter, she stops at a payphone on the side of a wheat field and calls Laurie, who we all thought committed suicide in episode five. Needless to say, I was disoriented and I didn’t like where the show seemed to be going.

At this point, I had suspected we were once again in purgatory. Nora must have swallowed the liquid and gone to the same place Kevin had visited numerous times since Season 2. That would explain how she could talk to a dead Laurie. So, suddenly I’m thinking Damon Lindelof might be a one-trick pony. Isn’t this how LOST ended? With all the characters in purgatory waiting to meet up in the afterlife?

Fortunately, all this was just skilled misdirection by Lindelof and his team of writers. We come to learn that this is the same world most of the show took place in, just twenty years later. Kevin has spent his life looking for Nora, who everyone assumed was dead. Laurie is alive back in Jarden, having aborted whatever suicide she may have intended at the end of episode five. And in the series’ final scene, we learn where Nora has been.

She went through – to the place where the machine took her.

From here on, Nora tells us what happened to the departed. They were left in their own world, a type of parallel earth where, from their viewpoint, 98% of the world’s population vanished in the Sudden Departure. As Nora explains, the “leftovers” like she and Kevin were the lucky ones. “Over here, we lost some of them,” she says, “but over there, they lost all of us.” That was the mind-blowing part, when I realized how perfectly Lindelof had nailed this ending.

Nora goes on to explain how she found her children after a long journey from Melbourne to Mableton through this barely-populated world. They were living in a nearly deserted town with her husband and a beautiful woman, and Nora realized they were happy. “And I was a ghost,” she says. “A ghost who had no place there.” So she let them be and tracked down the physicist who invented the machine, who was the first one to use it. Eventually she found him and convinced him to make a new machine to take her home because she didn’t belong there.

By the end, Nora gave us a beautiful sci-fi explanation for what happened to the departed. What caused this split in reality remained a mystery, but the writers provided an answer to one of the show’s fundamental questions. Or did they? One internet theory is that Nora was telling Kevin an elaborate lie. A lie she might even believe to be true as part of her coping mechanism after she aborted her journey through the machine. Or a lie to explain why she hid from Kevin all these years. (You can read some examples of this here and here.)

Lindelof acknowledges that either possibility may be true, but he’s leaving it up to the viewer to decide. As for me, I want to believe: Nora went to this parallel world and we know what happened to the departed. For that would be the most fitting ending to a thought-provoking show like The Leftovers. And if true, “The Book of Nora” nailed it.

* Images courtesy of HBO.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Which Mysteries Will Be Solved In “The Leftovers” Finale?

Season 3 of The Leftovers on HBO was a surprisingly short 8 episodes, and with only one episode left, I’m beginning to suspect some of the show’s biggest mysteries will never be solved.

How does Kevin keep rising from the dead?

In season 2 – which in my view was the show’s best season by far – Kevin dies not once, but twice. Both times he ends up in that bizarre hotel that represents Purgatory (or some other form of the afterlife), providing the series’ best two episodes: “International Assassin” and “I Live Here Now.” I always chalked up Kevin’s supernatural resilience to the “miracles” of Miracle, Texas. On the show, Miracle was the only place on earth where no one vanished in the Sudden Departure, and the whole place reminded me a bit of the island on LOST (also created by showrunner Damon Lindelof). And in Season 2, we saw a dead bird come back to life in the opening episode, so it appeared the land’s “magic” could ressurect the dead.

This notion was reinforced in episode one of Season 3, when Matt told Kevin he can’t die so long as he’s in Miracle. But last episode, it happened again, far far away from Miracle, Texas. The episode, which played like a sequel to “International Assassin,” was great, but only raised more questions about how Kevin keeps pulling this off. Is he truly some type of “savior,” like Matt believed? I doubt it, given where the show seems to be going. But somehow Kevin has become the most resurrected man in history. There’s only one episode remaining, and we have Nora’s entire storyline to wrap up, so my guess is we’ll never learn the secret to Kevin’s immortality.

What was the Sudden Departure?

This has been the biggest question on The Leftovers since the series premiered. Was the Sudden Departure, where 2% of the world’s population vanished into thin air, the biblical Rapture? Season 1 went out of its way to suggest that might not be the case. After all, many of the departed were not good people: Nora’s cheating husband; the woman who had sex with Kevin on the day of the departure knowing he was married; and Gary Busey. (In all seriousness, the show has had fun with this for three seasons, but who’s to say Bucey wouldn’t be the first to go in the biblical Rapture?)

Season 2 did nothing to solve the big mystery, but Season 3 has at least offered the possibility that we’ll get an answer. In episode 2 (titled “Don’t’ Be Ridiculous”), Nora is contacted by a secret group of physicists who discovered that Low-Amplitude Denzinger Radiation was detected at the site of each departure. Based on this discovery, they have created a machine that utilizes this radiation to transport people to wherever their loved ones departed. Either that, or the scientists are defrauding people into giving up their life savings only to be incinerated by the machine. In any event, Nora is so desperate to be with her departed children, she’s willing to risk her life in this mysterious device to be with them.

I suppose next episode she could be transported to heaven or wherever the departed may be, though I doubt it. This appears to be the fundamental mystery the show is determined to remain unsolved. So just like we never really learned what the island was on LOST, my bet is we’ll never learn what the Sudden Departure really was. In the words of the Iris DeMent song that opened every episode of Season 2 (and which I suspect will open the season finale), we’ll have to “let the mystery be.”

Will we learn what happens to Nora in the machine?

This is the one question I believe we might get the answer to. The mysterious departure machine has been one of the driving plot lines in Season 3, and Nora is desperate enough that I think she’ll find a way to get in it. Also, we have the strange scene at the end of episode one where a woman named “Sarah” – who looks and sounds a lot like an older Nora – is gathering up doves someplace near a church and denies ever knowing someone named Kevin. Were we glimpsing the future? It sure looked like it.

So, could the machine actually be transporting people forward in time? Or to some alternate reality? All that remains to be seen. But for a show that’s taken Kevin to a bizzaro Purgatory three times now, I truly hope it takes us to wherever Nora goes.

That said, even if these questions are never answered, The Leftovers has been a wonderful and thought-provoking show. But that’s just my take. How will you feel if mysteries remain unsolved after the series finale of The Leftovers?

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Friday, May 19, 2017

“The Leftovers” vs. “American Gods”

This time of year, we’re usually nearing the midpoint of Game of Thrones. (In fact, it was around this time last year the showrunners gave us “The Door”). But not this year. So while we wait, HBO and Starz have pitted two of their top shows against one another – The Leftovers and American Gods – airing them both in the 9 PM timeslot on Sundays. 

This makes for long Sunday nights as I DVR one show and usually watch it immediately the first show ends. But it’s also led to an inevitable comparison between two shows about faith, religion, and what it means to believe.

The Leftovers

Right now, this is my favorite of the two. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and start binge-watching now. 

The Leftovers takes place after a rapture-like event called the Departure where 2% of the world’s population simply vanished. The first season, which was well done, was based on a novel by Tom Perrotta. It also had a spectacular cast that included Justin Theroux as protagonist Kevin Garvey, as well as Liv Tyler and Carrie Coon (of Gone Girl), who plays Nora Durst, a woman who lost her entire family in the Departure. By the end, Season One left genuine questions about whether the Departure was ever the “biblical” Rapture (after all, a lot of bad people disappeared that day), and it dealt more with themes of loss and coping with that loss than it did with faith or religion.

If Season One was good, Season Two was great. From the beginning of that season, the series’ co-creator, Damon Lindelof, had the show in full LOST mode. (Like when LOST was the best show on television.) Season Two gave us our first glimpse of the afterlife (or purgatory at least), had a main character rise from the dead, and made it clear there’s a whole lot of supernatural stuff going on behind the scenes.

Now, we’re at the midpoint of the final season and the show is still in full-on LOST mode, careening toward the series’ finale. And this time, it seems all about religion (Episode One was titled “The Book of Kevin”; later this year we’ll get the “The Book of Nora”). Only a few days remain until the seventh anniversary of the Departure, when many (including Kevin’s father and Nora’s brother) believe some apocalyptic event will occur. This show has mysteries heaped on mysteries, much like LOST did in its prime. And with only 5 episodes left, I’m looking forward to every one of them. 

American Gods

We are only 3 episodes into the much-anticipated Starz series based on the fantasy epic by Neil Gaiman. This show seemed so well cast and received so much hype, my expectations may have been a bit overblown. Though I did predict it would have a hard time standing up to the novel, and on that point I’m beginning to think I was right. 

The show has stayed fairly true to the book, though they’ve moved some scenes around and included a lot of additional material. Most of the added stuff has come in the form of “Coming to America” scenes. In the book, these were short chapters that explained how, over time, immigrants have brought their old beliefs and folklores with them to America. These beliefs now manifest themselves as the old gods, whose conflict with the “new” gods such as the media and technology forms the fundamental plot of American Gods. The show, however, is giving us one or more of these vignettes every episode. Some have been very good, but they have had the effect at times of slowing the story down.

Another gripe, if you will, has been the soundtrack. A lot of the show uses grim and foreboding tones like an old horror movie. (It reminds me of that bad Jack Nicholson film Wolf for some reason.) But thankfully, this isn’t always the case. The scenes with Shadow and Mr. Wednesday continuing their buddy road trip through America often play old songs in the background, in a way that is upbeat or apropos to the scene. Not surprisingly, the Shadow and Mr. Wednesday scenes have been the best by far. They mirror the book’s less serious tone, and I wish the entire show would have embraced this feel. But we’re only 3 episodes in, and there’s still plenty of time for the show to grow on me. And trust me, I don’t plan on missing any episodes.

But those are just my thoughts. Are you experiencing this same dilemma? And if so, which show do you prefer: The Leftovers or American Gods?

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes and Starz

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Medieval Mysteries: “The Templar’s Cross” by J. R. Tomlin

I’ve been away from the blog for longer than normal because I’m spending most of my free time editing the sequel to Enoch’s Device. I always keep reading, however, and recently finished The Templar’s Cross: A Medieval Mystery by J. R. Tomlin. Here’s my review.

The Templar’s Cross is an intriguing whodunit set in fifteenth century Scotland. The novel’s Sherlock Holmes is a lordless knight named Sir Law Kintour. When his former liege, the Earl of Douglas, is slain in the Battle of Verneuil, Sir Law finds himself searching for a new lord in the Scottish city of Perth.

Sir Law’s only prospect, Lord Blinsele, wants the knight to find the lord’s missing wife and the lover she ran off with. But when the bodies start piling up and Sir Law becomes a suspect, he needs to find the killer and clear his name before he hangs from the gallows. 

The mystery is genuinely good, and eventually involves the titular Templar’s Cross, a relic from the Crusades. But my favorite part was the dialogue, which did a wonderful job portraying the dialect of a medieval Scotsman. (All the “ayes,” “willnae’s” and “dinnae’s” made me smile.) That, along with the author’s attention to historical detail, made me feel like I spent some quality time in fifteenth century Perth. Sir Law is an admirable character, and the protagonist of two more novels in the series. And I look forward to his next mystery.

You can read a preview of the book here.

Friday, April 28, 2017

American Gods

On Sunday, Starz will premiere American Gods, based on the fantasy bestseller by Neil Gaiman. From the trailers, the show looks amazing. But it will be pretty damn hard to exceed the novel. Here’s why.

By the time I finished American Gods, I felt the same way I did when I finished Stephen King’s The Stand. I had just read the magnum opus of one of a genre’s finest authors, and the story will stick with me for a lifetime.

The premise behind American Gods is so perfect it’s a wonder I waited so long to read this book. The idea is that when various people immigrated to America, they brought with them the gods and myths from their homelands. Those gods live on in the new world, but the problem is: America is a bad place for gods.

Shadow Moon - American Gods on Starz
The story takes place in modern times, where the old gods have faded into the shadows, carrying on as conmen, cabbies, and hookers, just trying to survive. Meanwhile, new gods have risen in America. Gods of technology and the media – the things people in the U.S. tend to actually “worship” today. One old god, Odin the Allfather, sees what’s happening and wants to put an end to it, even if it results in a war between the old gods and the new, Ragnarok style. 

Into this war, Odin – known as Mr. Wednesday in our world (“Wednesday” being derived from the word Wodin’s Day) – recruits Shadow Moon, the story’s main character. Shadow, a good-hearted man released from prison early after his wife dies in a car accident, follows Mr. Wednesday on a journey across the American heartland. Along the way, he encounters the old gods from a myriad of myths: Norse, Egyptian, Slavic, Native American, you name it. It’s as if Gaiman opened an old copy of Deities & Demigods and plucked out the most colorful immortals and monsters to create his cast of characters.

American Gods is epic in scope, wondrous in style, and tremendously fun. It’s also filled with engaging subplots that weave together seamlessly with the main story, including one involving Shadow’s wife Laura, who has come back from the dead, and a murder mystery in sleepy lakeside town. Even more, vignettes scattered throughout the novel show how people over the centuries came to America and brought their old gods with them. I hesitate to give away any more, but suffice it to say, American Gods is a classic. It’s an equal to The Stand – one of the great books by one of the great authors. And a must read, if there ever was one.

* Photo courtesy of Starz

Saturday, April 15, 2017

“The Ocean at The End of the Lane” – A Haunting Fairy Tale by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has been one of the most famous fantasy writers for a while now, though I’ll admit it’s taken me an overly long time to actually read one of his books. That ended recently, however, when I tore through The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Here’s my review.

This book has one of the most haunting covers, and I’ll confess it is the reason I was drawn to the novel. Nonetheless, it took me a good while to actually start reading it. I’m sorry I waited so long.

After a brief preface that hints of an old country that sank into the ocean, and an even older country that met a worse fate, we’re introduced to the narrator: an unnamed man who visits his hometown in England and begins to have vivid recollections of his childhood. He was seven years old then, with no friends except the books he’d read, a full set of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels being among his favorite. 

Neil Gaiman has written about how Lewis’ Narnia stories helped inspire his writing, and I think this novel may have been an homage to those books. For much like young Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the young narrator soon finds himself in a magical – and dangerous – fairy tale.

Narnia helped inspire Gaiman's writing.
The story takes off when the boy encounters eleven-year-old Lettie Hempstock. She lives on a quaint farmstead at the end of the lane with her mother and grandmother, and behind the house is a duck pond that Lettie refers to as her “ocean.” From the moment he meets Lettie and her family, we realize there’s something different about them. For one, they’re able to perceive events before they happen, and there are hints all three of them may be very old. “How long have you been eleven for?” the boy asks. Lettie just smiles at him.

Bordering the farmland are woods that Lettie claims were brought back from the old country where she and her family came from, like the farm and the “ocean.” It turns out they also brought back something wicked in those woods, and when Lettie and the boy venture there to discover what it might be, they are forced to deal with the nightmare they may have unleashed. To explain any more would spoil the plot, but from the moment they enter the woods, Gaiman builds up suspense and maintains it to the very end. 

Like Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Gaiman leaves the reader to wonder about how much of the story was actually real, and what Lettie and her family actually were. Though he provides ample evidence to keep us thinking about it long after the book is done. That’s a hallmark of a good story, and after Ocean, I look forward to reading a lot more of Gaiman’s tales.

You can preview the book here.

Monday, April 3, 2017

“Treasure Island” Never Happened on “Black Sails”

All the while we were led to believe Black Sails was a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Turns out, that wasn’t exactly true.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Black Sails is that the series wove together historical characters from the Pirates’ Republic of Nassau with the iconic, fictional characters of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. For a long time now, I suspected the series would end with Billy Bones limping up to the Admiral Benbow with the map to the Urca gold tucked away in his sea chest. That didn’t happen, and in the world of Black Sails it likely never will. 

The series ended in way I had not imagined, and few of the characters wound up as one would expect based on Treasure Island. And the reason, it turns out, due to the clever and brilliant writing on the show, is that Treasure Island was but a fable. One that cast its characters in a light that proved untrue. As proof, consider Jack Rackham’s speech near the end of the show:
“A story is true,” Jack said. “A story is untrue. As time extends, it matters less and less. The stories we want to believe, those are the ones that survive, despite upheaval and transition and progress. Those are the stories that shape history. And then, what does it matter if it was true when it was born. It’s found truth in its maturity …
“Long John Silver’s story, it’s a hard one to know. The men who believed most deeply in it were ultimately destroyed by it. And those who stood to benefit most from it, were the most eager to leave it all behind. Until all that remains of any of it are stories bearing only a passable resemblance to the world the rest of us lived in. A world we survived.”
In the world of Black Sails, the story of Treasure Island was never true. It merely became the story that lived on. In retrospect, I suppose, this is not surprising. After all, the Long John Silver of Black Sails was too intelligent, too articulate, and too heroic to become the villainous sea cook of Stevenson’s tale. And while the Flint of Treasure Island was a fearsome monster, the real Flint turned out to be somewhat of a tragic antihero. The finale did get him to Savannah, although I doubt the he will die there by drinking too much rum. (Which simply proves why odds-making is bad business.)

The Long John Silver of Treasure Island was nothing like the hero of Black Sails.
The only character that ended up as we would expect in Treasure Island is Billy Bones. He’s a broken man after betraying his shipmates, and I have no doubt he’ll lead a sad life. But I cannot imagine how he’ll ever come by the map to the Urca gold. Which means young Jim Hawkins will never venture to Skeleton Island with Dr. Livsey and Squire Trelawney. But maybe that story, like most fiction, was born untrue, and only became otherwise in its maturity, when Treasure Island became a classic.

* Photo courtesy of Starz.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Everyone’s Trying to Kill Flint on “Black Sails”

With only two episodes left, Black Sails has finally taken us to Skeleton Island. And as anyone who has read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island knows, some serious stuff is about to go down.

But what struck me most by the end of last week’s episode is that, except for his newfound partner, Flint is alone, and almost all the characters left on the show are trying to kill him. Flint is a goner by Treasure Island, so chances are someone is going to succeed. Here is how I see the odds.

Jack Rackham 1 in 50

I’m still not entirely clear why Eleanor’s grandmother wanted Jack to kill Flint, but that’s beside the point now. Jack has sent out to kill him, but I don’t see it happening. First, I question whether Jack even has it in him. He likes Flint and, think what you will about Calico Jack, I can’t see him tuning on one of his own in the end. Second, in a battle of Flint versus Jack, it’s no freaking contest. Flint could kill Jack with his bare hands.

No One: 1 in 20

All the accounts of Flint’s death in Treasure Island are hearsay, and none of the folks telling the tale are reliable. But in the book, Flint supposedly dies in Savannah from drinking too much run. This would be a Godfather III-like ending, and pretty anti-climactic if you ask me. 

Woodes Rogers: 1 in 10 

The historic Rogers is responsible for the death of a lot of pirates (though Blackbeard was not one of them), so it’s possible he’ll take out Flint. Throughout the series, Flint’s war has been against England, and Rogers is the living embodiment of the Crown on Nassau. Rogers also helped end the Pirate Republic, so I suppose him killing Flint would be symbolic.

Israel Hands: 1 in 5

Israel Hands is a bad, bad man, and Silver has already sent him out with five other pirates to hunt Flint down (unless Silver is playing a different game that has yet to be revealed). I’d say a fight between Flint and Hands is an even match. We know, however, that Hands appears in Treasure Island, so if they do get in a battle to the death, it’s not hard to guess which one will survive.

Long John Silver: 1 in 3

The conflict between Flint and Silver has been brewing for a long time, and a battle between the two was strongly alluded to in last season’s finale. Also, Israel Hands has been trying to convince Silver to kill Flint all season long. “The crown does not divide, it cannot be shared, you know this,” Hands told Silver last episode. “You want it done, you just don’t know how to ask it.” But like Jack, I’m not sure Silver has it in him to kill Flint – unless it’s literally to save Madi’s life.

Billy Bones: Even

Here’s what we know: Flint tried to kill Billy in Season One. Since then, Billy has hated Flint’s guts, and has tried to kill him twice already in Season Four. Even more, in Treasure Island, it’s Billy who ends up with the map to the Urca gold. At the Admiral Benbow, a dunk and old Billy tells young Jim Hawkins that Flint “gave it to me in Savannah, when he lay-a-dying.” Replace “Savannah” with “Skeleton Island,” and “he gave it to me” with “I pried it out of his cold, dead hands,” and my guess is that is how Flint will meet his end in the season finale of Black Sails.

But those are just my musings. Who do you think will end up killing Flint in the end?

* Images courtesy of Starz and Entertainment.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Saint Patrick’s Day is one of my all-time favorite holidays, so today I'm re-posting an article about Stephen R. Lawhead's Patrick: Son of Ireland.

I had little appreciation for the story of Saint Patrick until I began my research for Enoch's Device. That novel begins in Derry and tells the story of two Irish monks who try to prevent the apocalypse at the end of the Tenth Century  a time when many in Christendom feared the world would end one thousand years after the birth of Christ. Prior to my research, I knew only the most common stories about Ireland's patron saint: the tale of the trinity and the shamrock, and his chasing the snakes out of Ireland (which has no native species of snakes, by the way).

Back then, Saint Patrick's Day was merely a good excuse to drink Guinness at an Irish pub. Once I began my research, however, all that changed, especially after reading How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I cannot recommend this book more strongly to anyone who is of Irish descent or who’s even remotely interested in the amazing role the Irish played in the survival of Western civilization during the Dark Ages.

Cahill’s book contained the first account I had ever read about Saint Patrick. Here's the abridged version. By the beginning of the fifth century, with the Goths and Huns threatening Rome, the Roman garrison in Britannia became depleted as troops moved back to defend the continent. This exposed Britannia to attacks by foreign enemies, including the Celtic Irish who ravaged Britannia’s western coast. One of the largest raids occurred around the year 401 A.D., when literally thousands of Britons were captured as slaves by Irish raiders. One of those captured was a teenage boy who we know today as Saint Patrick.

Patrick was a Romanized Briton and the son of a noble family. He was not born “Patrick,” and his original name remains in question, yet at least one source has him named Succat. Patrick served his enslavement as a shepherd to an Irish chieftain named Miliucc, who ruled a kingdom in the hills of Antrim. According to legend, Patrick remained captive for six years before escaping after hearing a voice in a dream about a trader’s ship that would return him to Britannia. After finding the ship and returning home, Patrick eventually made his way to Gaul at a time when hordes of Germans were crossing the Rhine to engage the Roman army. There, Patrick studied religion, became a priest, and later a bishop – the title he held when he returned to Ireland as one of its first and most famous Christian missionaries. It is with this background that I read Stephen R. Lawhead’s Patrick: Son of Ireland.

I had anticipated that this novel would tell the story of how Patrick converted the Irish Celts to Christianity. I was wrong. The book actually tells the tale of Patrick's early life, before he returned to Ireland. Aside from a brief epilogue, the novel provides no account of Patrick’s later years which earned him his sainthood. Instead, the author focuses on Patrick’s captivity and enslavement. And this is where the novel truly shines. Patrick’s enslavement introduces him to a druid named Cormac and his sister, Sionan, the woman with whom Patrick falls in love. After surviving several failed attempts at fleeing his captivity, Patrick, with Cormac’s aid, escapes his brutal life by agreeing to serve in a house of druids, and eventually studies to become a bard. This is where the novel becomes both fascinating and controversial.

The bards and druids of Lawhead’s Ireland can use magic, which firmly places this novel on the fine line between historical fiction and historical fantasy. Many of the druids and bards who teach Patrick are also members of the Ceile De, essentially Christian druids who believe in the one true God. Patrick ultimately becomes one of the Ceile De; he never becomes a priest or a bishop, though this is not necessarily foreclosed because the novel ends before the reader learns what becomes of Patrick later in life.

Not surprisingly, this plot point is controversial for those who feel the novel downplays or even eliminates Patrick’s Roman Catholicism. After all, they argue, the Roman Catholic Church would never have canonized a druid. But I view Stephen R. Lawhead as taking artistic license for the sake of his story. And overall, his story works – especially the two-thirds or so of the novel that take place in Ireland.

Although it was not what I expected, I enjoyed this novel, very much at times. And while the author may have taken artistic license with his subject, it works well in the end, telling a story of faith once lost only to be discovered again.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day everyone!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Another Saint Patrick’s Day Sale for Enoch’s Device!

“God didn't love that man enough to make him Irish, lad.” – Brother Donall mac Taidg in Enoch’s Device.
Irish monks drinking to Enoch's Device!
As in prior year’s the Kindle version of Enoch’s Device is going on sale through March 16th in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day! Also, following the cover image is a new product description I’m considering for the novel. If you have an opinion about it (good or bad), I’d appreciate it if you could leave a comment! 

Ireland, AD 998. Brother Ciarán is an apprentice to Dónall mac Taidg, a stern but brilliant monk renowned for his scholarship years ago in France. When a Frankish bishop arrives at the monastery to accuse Dónall of heresy, Ciarán is determined to prove his friend’s innocence. But as he delves into his mentor’s past, he learns that Dónall stole a forbidden tome—one containing a secret as old as the origin of evil itself.

Ciarán and Dónall flee to France, for the bishop knows the secret too and is willing to kill for it. At Paris, Ciarán discovers a hidden reference in the tome to the lost Book of Enoch, an ancient scripture about the Nephilim, the descendants of fallen angels. The tome also speaks of Enoch’s device, a cryptic weapon that can defeat the Nephilim, whose clandestine war against God and mankind could bring about the events foretold in the book of Revelation.

Pursued by the bishop’s men, Ciarán and Dónall rescue the Lady Alais, a beautiful widow accused of witchcraft because she holds a key to the mystery. Together, the trio must find Enoch’s device, which has left clues of its passage through history, from the time of Solomon to the reign of King Arthur and the paladins of Charlemagne. But time is running out, and if they don’t find the device soon, all that they love could perish with the End of Days.
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.” You can read her full review here.
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.

If you read the novel and enjoyed it, now is a perfect time to tell a friend!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Eleanor Guthrie Was a Tragic Figure on “Black Sails”

About a year ago, I wrote that Eleanor Guthrie was making “Cersei-like decisions” on Black Sails. Such is the nature of tragedies.

I’m speaking in the classic sense of the term: a drama in which the character is brought to ruin by his or her tragic flaw. In Eleanor’s case, the flaw was a short-sightedness that would make fans of Cersei Lannister proud. Like Cersei in Game of Thrones, Eleanor makes decisions to solve the most immediate problem without thinking through the consequences. Appreciating the fallout from her actions isn’t exactly her thing.

When I wrote last year’s post it was about her decision to execute her former lover, Charles Vane. Max warned her against it, but Eleanor didn’t listen, and instead she lit the fuse that would ignite the pirate rebellion of Nassau. After the pirates’ disastrous attempt to capture Nassau in episode one this season, it seemed, for a brief moment, that Eleanor may have recovered from this mistake. But that’s the nature of tragedies. Things seems like they’re going right, until they’re not. And once again, Eleanor’s short sightedness was the cause.

One could argue that from the moment she chose to kill Vane, every decision she made led her to her fate. Her decision to trade Nassau to the pirates for the remains of the Urca treasure, without informing her husband, Woodes Rogers, was the first short sighted decision. After all, it assumed that Rogers, a proud and determined man, would accept her plan without fail, or that Mrs. Hudson could convince him to follow it. In fact, when Mrs. Hudson tries to explain Eleanor’s plan, Rogers points on the flaw in her thinking:
“I fear the instincts that have awoken within [Eleanor],” he tells Mrs. Hudson, “are more insidious than that. She has begun to believe again that disorder in Nassau is inevitable. That civilization is powerless, either through lack of will or capacity to do anything about it. Civilization has a number of faces. To think them all powerless to alter Nassau’s future is a terrible mistake.” 
Eleanor’s decision to fire warning shots to drive Rogers away so her plan with Flint could succeed sealed her fate. She badly underestimated Rogers’ resolve, never considering what he might do if he disagreed with handing the island over to the pirates. Instead, he decides to convince the Spanish governor of Cuba – another face of civilization with the will and capacity to get the job done – to invade Nassau. This decision makes Rogers an equally tragic figure on the show, for anyone who has watched last episode knows what happened next.

Eleanor was a tragic figure, but she was also one of the characters who made Black Sails so great. With only four episodes to go, her character arc was bound to reach its end. 

And it did so in a way that would make William Shakespeare proud.

* Images courtesy of Starz

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Billy Suffers the Ultimate Betrayal on “Black Sails”

We knew it had to happen, the ultimate rift between Billy Bones and Long John Silver. And last Sunday it did.

Last week’s episode of Black Sails was packed with drama. Woodes Rogers discovered, much to his displeasure, that Eleanor sold Nassau to Flint in exchange for the cache of gems, all that remains of the Urca gold. Moreover, he so disagreed with her decision that he made a deal with the devil – England’s enemy, the Spanish governor of Cuba – to retake Nassau. Eleanor, meanwhile, realized that Mr. Scott had used her as a pawn for years to fund his secret island of freed slaves. And then there’s Jack, who delivered a death-knell to Flint’s careful plans. But nothing last episode was more important for this prequel to Treasure Island than the chasm forged between Billy and Silver.

It all begins when Billy wants to kill Flint for trading the cache to Eleanor in exchange for Nassau. But Silver trusts Flint, and so does Madi, who thinks Flint made the right, but difficult choice. Even more, she’s convinced Billy is the one who needs to be “removed” in order to regain the trust of the island’s slaves. 

Silver, who is loyal to both Billy and Flint, doesn’t know what to do, and his dilemma plays out masterfully in his dialogue with Israel hands:
“Sooner or later that cache is going to arrive,” Silver says, “and they’ll be no more delaying. I’m committed to Flint, I’m committed to Madi, yet the road they intend to travel is one I’m losing the ability to understand. I know what Billy has done, what should be unforgivable, and yet so very recently there’s no one in the world I’d call a closer friend. The more he talks, the more I remember why.”
Silver shakes his head. “Determining now to have him killed, which is what it would take to side with Flint, seems like something I don’t know if I have it in me to do.”
Then Hands slaps Silver in the face and delivers a colorful ultimatum. “I don’t  give a sh*t what you choose, but f*cking choose. And don’t  make me suffer the thinking! Worry ain’t a good look in a king, not in a kingdom like this where loyalty is in short supply.”
As the episode nears its end, it looks as though Silver has chosen Billy’s plan. They’re going to ambush and murder Flint as he leaves the fort. But it’s all a ruse. Instead, Silver has sent Madi to meet Eleanor and Flint, and another pirate to murder Billy. The pirate ultimately betrays Silver, but it’s too late. Israel Hands nearly kills Billy Bones, though Silver spares his life. But only to deliver him to the slaves at the Underhill Estate who blame Billy for the retributions against their kin. 

Billy and Silver are now mortal enemies, and like I said before, it had to happen. Otherwise, Billy wouldn’t be hiding out in the Admiral Benbow, and he would never meet young Jim Hawkins. And young Mr. Hawkins would never embark on the journey on which the whole series is based – Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

Friday, February 24, 2017

“The Jekyll Revelation” Is a Clever Take on a Classic Tale

While I’ve been writing about Black Sails, a prequel to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, today I’m posting a review of Robert Masello’s The Jekyll Revelation, a story based on another of Stevenson’s famous tales. 

The Jekyll Revelation is a clever play on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the notorious Jack the Ripper playing the role of Stevenson’s titular villain. And the fact that Stevenson is one of the book’s protagonists only adds to this cunning tale.

The story is a mystery of sorts that unfolds in parallel. One part in the present, and the other in the late nineteenth century. In the present, we’re introduced to Rafael Salazar, a field officer with the Bureau of Land Management in Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles. I actually grew up right near there, so this part of the book reminded me a ton of my hometown. The mystery, however, concerns an old steamer trunk half submerged in a lake. Among other things, the trunk happens to contain a secret journal written by Robert Louis Stevenson, and soon it’s revealed that the past storyline is actually the contents of the journal Rafael discovers.

There’s a whole lot more to the present storyline, including a romantic subplot and a canyon full of tension between Rafael and the local biker gang. But it is the parallel storyline involving Stevenson that really makes the book. The story begins in Switzerland where Stevenson is seeking an experimental cure for the tuberculosis he suffers from. The clinic is an old mansion tucked away in the Alps that reminded me a lot of the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Stevenson, who is there with his wife and stepson, soon discovers that all is not right at the clinic, and that its famous owner, Dr. Rüedi, is engaging in strange and very dangerous experiments. 

From there, the story moves to London during the time of Jack the Ripper. In an author’s note at the end, Masello states that his inspiration for the book came from the fact that the first murder by Jack the Ripper occurred at a time when the stage play for Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was playing in London. In fact, according to Masello, suspicion for the killings even fell on Stevenson for a time. 

The mystery behind Jack the Ripper (who was never captured in real life) drives the second half the book and made it a story I won’t soon forget. And, in a deft bit of storytelling, the mystery of the Ripper even manifests itself in Rafael’s timeline. The most suspenseful and chilling parts, however, play out in Stevenson’s tale. He’s a compelling character, and after 493 pages, I feel like I’ve lived the adventure alongside the famous author. It’s even inspired me to go back and read the one classic of his I never got around to: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

“Black Sails” Takes Artistic License with Blackbeard’s Fate

Well, the events of last week’s episode of Black Sails were unexpected. Yet maybe they shouldn’t have been.

Black Sails is not only wrapping up the prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but also its historical retelling of story of the Pirate Republic of Nassau. Already, Black Sails has tackled the fate of real life pirates such as Charles Vane, Edward Low, and Benjamin Hornigold, so perhaps it’s not surprising that we witnessed Blackbeard’s fate before the series’ end. That said, a good bit of artistic license was taken in the telling.

As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve never been opposed to the taking of artistic license for the sake of good storytelling. In fact, I’ve written on the subject a number of times (see here and here, for example). In this instance, we saw Woodes Rogers take down Edward Teach, one of the most notorious pirates in history. Though, while the historical Rogers helped bring an end to the pirate republic, he was nowhere near Blackbeard when the famous pirate met his end. 

The historical Blackbeard found his demise at the hands of a British Lieutenant named Robert Maynard, who has never been depicted on the show. Yet the show’s writers did honor the story of how Blackbeard met his fate. After it appeared that Blackbeard had overcome Maynard’s [think Rogers’] sloop with cannon fire, Blackbeard and his men boarded the sloop to find much of its crew dead on the main deck. But Maynard had hidden more than a dozen men in the hull for an ambush. And the rest, shall we say, is history.

A must read for fans of the history behind Black Sails!
The keelhauling scene may have been gratuitous and lacking in historical evidence, though keelhauling was a very real and horrific practice in the golden age of piracy. According to Colin Woodard’s history on the matter, titled The Republic of Pirates (which I’m reading now),citing one historical account: “The final blow came from a Scots highlander who decapitated Blackbeard with a powerful swing of his sword, ‘laying it flat on his shoulder’ attached by a bit of flesh.” Alas, such a mighty Scotsman was absent on Black Sails, but Blackbeard’s fate worked out just fine in the name of good fiction.

* Photo courtesy of Starz.