Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Short Fiction – “Thieftaker” Style

As anyone following the blog this year knows, I’m experimenting with writing more short fiction. I haven’t given up on novels by any means, but short fiction will allow me to produce more content at a quicker pace. To this end, I’m also reading more short stories, and the most recent ones brought me back to D.B. Jackson’s wonderful Thieftaker Chronicles.

The Thieftaker Chronicles is one of the best historical fantasy series around, set in pre-revolutionary Boston. The series’ protagonist, Ethan Kaille, is a thieftaker, a detective for hire who hunts down stolen items – and the thieves who took them. But Kaille is also a conjurer, or “speller,” one of a gifted group of people who can work magic with the aid of a spectral guardian, who in Kaille’s case is the ghost of a medieval warrior nicknamed Uncle Reg. Of course, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where witchcraft was rather frowned upon, being a speller can be a bit dangerous.

Each of the Thieftaker stories is a mystery, sort of like the Harry Potter tales but with a more adult feel. In addition to the four novels that make up the series, Jackson has written several short stories starring Kaille. I recently finished two of them: The Price of Doing Business and A Spell of Vengeance, both of which take place before the series’ first novel Thieftaker.

The Price of Doing Business is more vignette than short story. It provides an account of how Kaille met his archrival in the thieftaking business, Sephira Pryce. Despite its brevity and limited plot, it was fun to return to Kaille’s Boston in the years before the Revolutionary War. I also enjoyed a return to Jackson’s unique magic system, and even smiled the first time Uncle Reg appeared with the summoning “Velamentum ex cruore evocatum,” concealment conjured from blood. 

A Spell of Vengeance is a more fulsome story than The Price of Doing Business. Not only does it introduce Kaille to Kannice, his eventual love interest, but also to Nate Ramsey. As anyone who has read A Plunder of Souls knows, Ramsey is one of Kaille’s most fearsome opponents. In A Plunder of Souls, it was clear there was some history between the two men, and in A Spell of Vengeance, we learn just what that history was. This story really made me long for more Thieftaker tales.

Speaking of, I have read more than once that the series may have ended with Dead Man’s Reach. Say it ain’t so D.B. Jackson! That novel included the Boston Massacre, one of the key events leading up to the Revolutionary War. But there’s so much more rich history to be covered, from the Boston Tea Party, to Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride, to the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Paul Revere has even made a cameo in the series. Ethan Kaille was becoming one of the iconic heroes in historical fantasy fiction, and I have to believe he and Uncle Reg have a few more adventures left in them.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Vintage Fantasy: “A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K. Le Guin

This past week I found myself stuck on a short story I’ve been trying to craft, and then I learned the news that Ursula K. Le Guin had died. So I stopped writing, and started reading.

I’ve not read as much of Le Guin’s works as I had hoped to at one time, but I decided to re-read A Wizard of Earthsea, her 1968 novel that launched one of the more popular series in her storied fantasy career. I finished the novel in three days, which was not difficult at only 183 pages. And once again, I was reminded of how much this work of vintage fantasy influenced the genre going forward.

Long before Hogwarts, Le Guin gave us the wizarding school of Roke. This was always my favorite part of the story. The novel’s protagonist, Ged, becomes a student at Roke under the tutelage of nine master wizards, all of whom may have helped inspire, at least in a faint sense, the professors of Harry Potter’s school of wizardry and witchcraft. But that is where the similarities end.

This was the cover of my original paperback
Ged is a flawed hero. Fueled by a rivalry with a fellow student, Ged’s pride leads him to show off his power by practicing dark and forbidden magic. He ends up unleashing a shadow, and Ged’s quest to ultimately hunt down this demon drives the rest of the novel. In this sense, the story is deeply personal. Even though it covers years of Ged’s life, there is nothing epic about this tale. The story concerns Ged, and Ged alone.

In 1968, this story would have seemed vastly different than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or the sword and sorcery tales of Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock. For one, there is nothing European about Earthsea. Rather, the people of its archipelago appear more like one might imagine hailing off the coasts of Africa, India, or Asia. Also, there’s nary a sword to be found in A Wizard of Earthsea. Instead, it’s all about wizards, and wizards carry staves.

A story about wizards is naturally all about magic, and Le Guin creates one of the most interesting magic systems ever made, all based on the true name of things. A wizard who knows a thing’s true name has power over it, and Le Guin harkens back to that theme throughout her tale. Reading it, I can’t help but think it inspired modern fantasy like The Name of the Wind, which employs a similar magic system. 

Despite a few bouts of lengthy exposition, and conflict that waxes and wanes maybe more than it should, I was drawn into the story as if I was reading it for the first time. I wish it had not taken news of Le Guin’s passing remind me of these tales, but I’m fortunate it did. A Wizard of Earthsea is a true classic, unique in its day and far ahead of its time. For anyone, particularly those who want to explore one of the roots from which modern fantasy was born, I highly recommend it.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Vintage Fantasy: “The Eternal Champion”

One of my goals for 2018 is to explore more vintage fantasy, so I’m kicking off the New Year with a review of The Eternal Champion, one of the lesser known novels from British author Michael Moorcock.

Michael Moorcock is one of the godfathers of fantasy fiction. He found fame in the 1960s as part of a new, grittier wave of fantasy authors who focused on more complex themes than the struggle between good and evil inherent in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (which was published in the 1940s and 1950s). Moorcock’s writing was influenced by that of Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others, and it’s not hard to notice similarities between Moorcock’s works and the tales of John Carter of Mars. Many of Moorcock’s stories would fall within the “Sword and Sorcery” wing of the fantasy genre, and he has filled its ranks with classics. As I think about his works, I’m struck by how much they have influenced modern fantasy fiction, as well as my own writing.

Moorcock’s most famous protagonist is Elric of Melniboné, an antihero who is the melancholy ruler of a doomed empire and the wielder of the sentient sword Stormbringer. But Elric is just one incarnation of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, a warrior who has had many names throughout many worlds, destined to fight in epic conflicts until the end of time. Another incarnation of Moorcock’s tragic hero is the warrior Erekosë, and The Eternal Champion is the beginning of his tale.

Erekosë, like Elric of Melniboné, are both incarnations of the Eternal Champion
From the first few pages it is easy to recognize the influence Edgar Rice Burroughs had on Moorcock’s writing. Like John Carter, protagonist John Daker is a man of our world whisked into another to become that world’s savior. It begins in the twentieth century where Daker is having dreams of living other lives under different names. Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, von Beck, and Erekosë. Through those dreams, he is summoned to an Earth of a different age, awaking in the tomb of the ancient warrior Erekosë, the Defender of Humanity. 

Erekosë’s summoner is King Rigenos of Necranal and his beautiful daughter Iolinda. They have drawn him back from the dead to help humanity defeat the Eldren, an alien race cohabiting their world whom Rigenos refers to as the “Hounds of Evil.” Rigenos wants to rid the world of the Eldren, and he wants Erekosë to lead the armies that will bring about their extinction.

Perhaps fittingly, King Rigenos’ Necranal has a fifteenth century feel, in the worst European sense. The humans engage in slavery and sail tall ships to other continents, where they threaten the indigenous population. And soon, Erekosë begins to wonder if he is fighting for the wrong side. If this sounds a bit familiar, it’s because it’s reminiscent of James Cameron’s Avatar, and I’d be surprised if The Eternal Champion or similar tales did not influence Cameron’s creation. Of course, Avatar’s themes of genocide and conquest are firmly rooted in history, which undoubtedly was an inspiration for all these tales.

Like many of Moorcock’s protagonists, Erekosë is part hero, part antihero, and his choices often lead to tragedy. But few things are black and white in Moorcock’s stories, which makes them richer and more complex than novels that mimic the tales Tolkien wove. In a sense, Moorcock was a predecessor to George R.R. Martin, who began publishing his stories about a decade later. 

One final plus of Moorcock’s early fiction is that the stories are fairly short. The Eternal Champion clocks in at a mere 232 pages, which seems like a breath of fresh air given how long so many fantasy novels tend to be. Overall, The Eternal Champion is a quick, thought-provoking story that plays an important role in the mythology Moorcock has created. Fans of Moorcock’s other works, or of vintage fantasy in general, should find it a thoroughly satisfying read.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

New Year’s Resolutions

I was away from the blog for a long time in 2017. In fact, I wrote the fewest posts since 2011 – when I began this blog in the middle of the year! There’s a reason for the paucity of posts, but I resolve this year to do better.

What was the reason, you ask? I focused more on novel writing than blog writing. I finished the second draft of the sequel to Enoch’s Device, and it’s out now with my Beta readers. As soon as I have their comments, I’ll make whatever changes need to be made, and then it’s off to my professional editor. I feel confident the novel will be published in 2018, though I can’t predict quite when. But I’ll be sure to update everyone on the blog.

By posting more this year, I don’t plan to write less. Maybe just sleep less. My hope is that the return of Westworld will provide a good ten weeks of content, and as soon as I finish one of several novels I’m currently reading, I’ll post some more reviews. 

Westworld is the show I'm most looking forward to in 2018!
I’m also resolving to exercising more on my new recumbent bike (sadly, my running days are long gone after 2016’s knee surgery). I bought one with a desk, so I can read or edit at the same time. The bike is in my office next to a bookshelf packed with vintage fantasy, so I’m planning on delving into that quite a bit in 2018. I’ve always believed there’s nothing like reading the classics that paved the way for the stories we love today.

Lastly, it’s my hope to write more short fiction. One of my biggest novel writing challenges is that historical fiction requires a ton of research, which takes a lot of time. My novels also tend to be longer, as you might expect for the genre, which means it can sometimes look like I’m on the George R.R. Martin plan when it comes to releasing new books. Even though my short stories will also be historical, I plan to use settings (and maybe even characters) with which I’m familiar to cut down on research time, with the goal of writing them in a few weeks or less. With luck, one or more this year may see the light of day.

That’s probably enough for 2018. I’ve never been good with New Year’s resolutions, so it’s best not to push the envelope too far. But for now, I’m looking forward to a happy – and productive – New Year!

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.