Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Pendragon's Heir: Snippets

In case you missed it, a few weeks ago I announced my upcoming novel, Pendragon's Heir. At the moment I'm halfway through a stiff edit of the book, an exciting thing to be doing as always!

And so for this update I'd like to post some snippets to introduce you to some of my characters...

She stared at the featureless iron and felt more keenly than ever the distance between them. Now. Now was the time to say what might be the last words he would ever hear from her.
  “Fight,” she said at last. “Win.”

“Nerys. It’s been fourteen years and you haven’t aged.”
  “No.” Nerys settled back on her footstool, her shoulders falling, her chin lifting. For a moment the veil rose: Blanche sensed a dignity so awful and majestic that she almost expected the footstool to splinter into diamond shards beneath its burden.
  “I am ageless.”

The strange knight spoke, his voice echoing inside the iron helm. “Do you seek death, boy?”
  Perceval grinned. “I’ve yanked his beard once or twice. I can do it again.”

Simon Corbin
“Ah, but even now you fail to understand me. What if it were not the villain doing these dastardly deeds, but your colleague, or your commander?”
  Perceval looked up with quick displeasure. “What do you mean?”
  “I mean,” he said, “that by your own showing, the greatest threat to heaven comes from within the ranks of the angels themselves. Before you can prove to me that heroes can defeat villains with nothing but the purest chivalric ideals, you must convince me that heroes do exist, and that villains are not a fanciful tale for children. You must tell me, sir, if you dare, that you are incorruptible, and that your colleagues and commanders are as pure as you. Your health.”
  And Mr Corbin took a sip of wine.

Sir Gawain, whetting his sword, looked up. “We know the Lady Nimue can be trusted.”
  “Why are you defending her? You know better than any of us what harm comes when Elves meddle with men, however good their intentions.”
  Silence fell, as breathless as the space between lightning and thunder. Perceval saw the others slowly straightening to look at the Knight of Orkney.
  No thunder came. Instead Gawain said quietly, “Yes. I know it.”

Blanchefleur swallowed. Moistened dry lips. “He? Who’s he?”
  Sudden silence fell upon the steeple. At last Morgan’s voice slid out from beneath the table with the calm and sinuous grace of a serpent. “Oh, I would tell you. I am willing to tell you. I am waiting to tell you.”

“I ask your pardon for falling so silent at the Table today when you told me of your birth. It meant no disdain. Only I can imagine no harder thing befalling a man, than to be cast off by his father.”
  “I knew you thought no ill of me,” said Galahad. “And of your kindness, think no ill of him either. So far as the matter lies between him and me, we have killed and buried it.”
  And again, although he searched for it, Perceval saw no trace of bitterness in Galahad’s eyes.

“You were penitent, then,” Blanchefleur said, struggling not to show her loathing. But Elaine’s mouth tightened with resentment: in the flickering candlelight, Blanchefleur saw for the first time that there were deep stubborn lines scored from nose to mouth.
  “Never! I was like the Lady Eve, cast out of my home for a sin Fate demanded of me.”

Arthur and Guinevere
...The gilded knight snatched the cup from the Queen’s hand even while he spoke.
  And flung the wine in her face.
  “A fig for the Table,” the ruffian was shouting, with a laugh, over the uproar of shouts and falling chairs. Perceval saw the King say a word, and a lean grey shadow leaped from under his chair. The gilded knight vaulted to his horse as the hound sprang with bared teeth and straining red maw for his heels. Then the warhorse neighed and lashed out a hoof. The dog scrabbled uselessly across the floor: another heartbeat, and the gilded knight was gone with the drumming of hooves.
  Above it all the Queen of Britain stood still, wine dripping off her face, her mouth pressed shut in a white and wordless fury which swept impersonally across Perceval and all the people gathered in the hall before alighting on the King.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Fall of Arthur by JRR Tolkien

Over the fifty years since his father's death, Christopher Tolkien has made an immense body of work--some finished, some unfinished, some edited into a finished-ish form--available to the public, all of it painstakingly distilled from JRR Tolkien's papers. Without him, there would be no Silmarillion, no Unfinished Tales, and no Lays of Beleriand--none of which I can imagine living without! In more recent years, the Tolkiens have continued strong with the publication of The Children of Hurin, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, The Fall of Arthur, and a recent prose translation of Beowulf.

While reviews of Hurin and Sigurd will need to wait for another day (both are excellent books, and I thoroughly enjoyed both JRR Tolkien's Sigurd poem and Christopher Tolkien's scholarly and learned commentary, which is a great introduction to the Volsung legend's history and variations), I'm excited to bring you a somewhat thematically appropriate review of one of the latest Tolkiens, The Fall of Arthur.

I have to say I never expected this to come to light. Tolkien, who wished to construct (in his Silmarillion) a myth for England, found the Matter of Britain inadequate to his purposes. The presence of a Christian backdrop to the Arthur legends dissatisfied him, not because he had any enmity with Christendom (on the contrary, he was always a devoted son of the church) but because his interest in myth was how it prefigured, rather than wove into, redemptive history. And so he pushed aside the Matter of Britain and attempted to construct a mythopoeic legend that embodied but did not occur against the backdrop of Christendom.

So I assumed that Tolkien never had any use for the Arthurian legends. I was wrong.

The Poem

Another reason to assume that Tolkien would not have been particularly interested in Arthurian legend is that he was proudly and very eald-fashionedly English, in the sense of Anglo-Saxon, in his tastes, and there has always been something rather un-English, something definitely and distinctively Welsh-with-French-glosses, about the Matter of Britain. Insofar as Saxons ever do appear in the myths or retellings of the Arthur legends, they're the bad guys, fought off by the heroic Welsh or Roman Arthur. Of all the medieval Arthurian legends, a good deal are in Latin, French, and even German, by comparison to the few authors--Brut, Wace, Layamon, and Malory--who wrote in English (and Malory is always adding, "as the French book telleth" to his tale). The exception seems to be an intensely English, and largely overlooked pair of Middle English alliterative poems that hark back, stylistically, to Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse like Beowulf or--if you've read The Lord of the Rings at all, the Rohir poetry (which itself is occasionally cribbed from original Anglo-Saxon poems like The Wanderer)--"Where now is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?/Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?"

One of these old-fashioned Middle-English alliterative poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a rattling good yarn, was translated into modern English by JRR Tolkien and published during his lifetime. The other, known commonly as "the alliterative Morte," is less well-known to history since it has more in common with the pseudo-history of Geoffrey of Monmouth than with the more courtly and congenial French romances of Chretien de Troyes. Lots of fellows being split from the nave to the chaps, and not so much courtly knight-errantry in the twisted woods.

Which brings us to Tolkien's Fall of Arthur, a fragment little more than 4 cantos long, written alliteratively in the style of these Middle-English poems and apparently based on the alliterative Morte with a few influences from the French romances, such as the addition of the guilty love of Lancelot and Guinever.

Why It's Awesome

Please. It's JRR Tolkien writing an epic verse retelling of the Arthur myth, taking a good deal of inspiration from obscure sources and adding his own neat twists. Imagine one of your favourite authors writing fanfiction for one of your favourite books. That's what makes The Fall of Arthur a treat for fans of both Tolkien and Arthur.

The plot includes some fresh and refreshing differences to the usual story: I particularly loved what Tolkien did with Gawain. The writing is, as always, meticulous and staggering:

On Benwick's beaches breakers pounding
ground gigantic grumbling boulders
with ogre anger.

In addition, there are repetitions and chiasms in the structure of the poem that give it an odd and mesmerising power. But it's the characters that I most admired.

The poem focuses--indeed, it only has time to focus--on five major characters: Arthur, Guinevere, Mordred, Gawain, and Lancelot. With Tolkien's pen, they each come to life--or something much larger. Gawain, always my favourite of the knights, gets better treatment here than from any other writer since, well, since the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Greatest was Gawain, whose glory waxed
as times darkened, true and dauntless,
among knights peerless ever anew proven,
defence and fortress of a falling world.
As in last sortie from leaguered city
so Gawain led them.

But I was most astonished by Tolkien's treatment of two of my least favourite characters from the legends, Guinever and Lancelot. His description of Lancelot's plight is wonderfully, surprisingly moving--and according to Tolkien's notes for the unfinished remainder to the poem, it would have culminated in a completely original (and rather Wandereresquely Anglo-Saxon) end to Lancelot's story. But in the poem as it stands, it's his Guinever who steals the show. In most versions of the legend, you don't get much of a look into the inner motivations of any of the characters, least of all hers. But in Tolkien's hands, in a few deft lines, we glimpse someone cold and calculating and somehow, despite all this, glorious--a woman we admire even as we condemn her:

Dear she loved him
with love unyielding, lady ruthless,
fair as fay-woman and fell-minded
in the world walking for the woe of men.

In most tellings of the Arthur legends, you always feel like smacking someone over the head. Not in this one: Tolkien has pruned, simplified, tweaked, and adjusted the raw materials of the legend into pure nobility and splendour. Add to all this one final thing to love: my favourite author writing a story set against the backdrop of Christendom: of Lancelot's fathers it is said in an early draft that they

to the western world wandering journeyed,
Christendom bearing, kingdoms founding,
walls uprearing against the wild peoples.

The only thing that's not awesome about The Fall of Arthur? The fact that it ends almost before it's gotten underway. A tragedy!

The Commentary

Accompanying the poem fragment are plenteous notes, and also three essays by Christopher Tolkien examining first, the poem's place in the larger Arthurian tradition (very interesting to Arthur nerds), second, the poem's relation to Tolkien's larger mythos (very interesting to Tolkien nerds, especially considering the remarkable link between the Arthurian Avalon and Middle-Earth's Tol Eressea/Avallone), and third, some commentary on the history of the composition of the poem (very distressing to authors who can't slap down glorious epic alliterative verse more or less on command). Finally, there's a brief essay on Old English alliterative verse, a sort of whirlwind tour of the artform. All these are very interesting, if not quite as informative as the commentary on Sigurd and Gudrun.

Sadly, The Fall of Arthur will probably only appeal to that niche audience with an intersecting interest in Tolkien, Arthurian legend, and Old English alliterative verse. But if any of these things appeals to you, you're going to love The Fall of Arthur.

Find The Fall of Arthur on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Matter of Brittany by Dorothy L Sayers

One of the things I do from time to time is light out and spend a few weeks (even, sometimes, months) staying with friends to help out in times of need. That's what I'm up to for the next 3 weeks, and I don't mind, actually, since it gives me the excuse to post one of my current favourite poems!

I never knew Dorothy Sayers wrote poetry until I went trawling through the University of Rochester's Camelot Project, an extremely useful resource on Arthurian legend. (If you're wondering what such a webpage would be useful for, the short answer is: I'm writing a novel).  Here I found two poems by Sayers from a book of poems published in 1916, both inspired by Arthurian myth and both extremely evocative. This is the one I liked best.

The Matter of Brittany

Draw to the fire, and let us weave a web
Of sounds and splendours intertwined
Of warriors riding two by two
In silken surcoats stiched with blue,
To seek and strive the whole world through
For a scarlet fruit with silver rind;
Of unsteered ships that drift for miles on miles
Amid the creeks of myriad magic isles
Over enchanted seas, that leave at ebb
A beach of glittering gold behind.

Hark! how the rain is rippling over the roofs
And knocking hard on the window-pane!
It rattles down the gutter-spout
And beats the laurel-leaves about;
So let us tell of a kempy stout
With bells upon his bridle-rein —
How, as he rode beneath the chattering boughs,
He clashed the iron visor over his brows,
Hearing upon his heel the hurried hoofs
Of Breunor, Breuse or Agravaine.

Of names like dusky jewels wedged in gold
The tale shall cherish goodly store,
 Of Lionel and Lamorak
And of Sir Lancelot du Lak,
And him that bore upon his back
Arms for the Lady Lyonor;
Persant, Perimones and Pertolepe,
And Arthur laid in Avalon asleep,
Dinas and Dinadan and Bors the bold,
And many a mighty warrior more.

And grimly crouched in every woodland way
A dragon with his emerald eyes
Shall sit and blink on passing knights;
In the deep dells, old eremites,
Victors once of a thousand fights,
Shall sing their masses at sunrise;
And weary men shall stumble unaware
On damsels dancing in a garden fair,
And there, like Meraugis of Portlesguez,
Dance, cheated of their memories.

To towns where we shall feast at Pentecost,
Carlion or Kynke Kenadon,
Each day shall come a faery dame,
Or else a giant with eyes of flame
Shall bid to the beheading game
Knights that the king sets store upon;
And some shall find, at hour of day's decline,
The house beside the fountain and the pine,
And learning much of marvel from their host,
Shall hasten greatly to begone.

Some, by the help of charm├Ęd steeds shall – just –
Leap through the whirling barriers
That guard about the pleasant bower
Where every moment is an hour,
And with an elfin paramour
Drowse and dream for a hundred years,
But setting foot again on Middle Earth,
Or tasting wheaten bread in hour of dearth,
Shall crumble to a little cloud of dust
Blown by the wind across the furze.

Or sometimes through the arches of the wood
The sad Good Friday bells will ring
Loud in the ear of Percivale,
Through many a year of ban and bale
Yet questing after the Sangraal
For comfort of the Fisher King;
And suddenly across a vault of stars
Shall drive a network of enchanted spars,
And Lancelot and Galahad the good
Behold the ship of hallowing.

And first of all I'll tell the tale to you,
And you shall tell the next to me:
How gentle Enid made complaint
While riding with her lord Geraint,
 Or how the merry Irish Saint
Went ever westward oversea;
While your dim shadow moving on the wall
Might be Sir Tristram's, as he harped in hall
Before Iseult of Ireland, always true,
Or white Iseult of Brittany.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Anon, Sir, Anon by Rachel Heffington

I'm so glad for the opportunity I had to run Home Educated Authors Week earlier this winter (or, for those of you who don't live Downunder, earlier this summer). One of the reasons for this is all the amazing new authors I have discovered through the folks I reviewed. Another is the fact that some of these authors are busy little bees and have been hard at work to bring you more good stories.

Jennifer Freitag, with her upcoming magnumopus Plenilune, is a case in point. Another is the sparkling Rachel Heffington with her upcoming novel Anon, Sir, Anon. Rachel was kind enough to send me an advance review copy of this cozy and hilarious murder mystery, which is scheduled for publication on the 5th of November--yes, rather appropriately, Guy Fawkes' Day.
The 12:55 out of Darlington brought more than Orville Farnham's niece; murder was passenger.

In coming to Whistlecreig, Genevieve Langley expected to find an ailing uncle in need of gentle care. In reality, her charge is a cantankerous Shakespearean actor with a penchant for fencing and an affinity for placing impossible bets.

When a body shows up in a field near Whistlecreig Manor and Vivi is the only one to recognize the victim, she is unceremoniously baptized into the art of crime-solving: a field in which first impressions are seldom lasting and personal interest knocks at the front door.

Set against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog, Anon, Sir, Anon cuts a cozy path to a chilling crime.
Anon, Sir, Anon is Rachel Heffington's second novel. I've also had the pleasure of reading Fly Away Home (read my review here) and her novella The Windy Side of Care, both of which were lots of fun. 

Anon, Sir, Anon knocks those two out of the park.
The whole fish in its crispy, salted jacket stared at her with a glassy eye and Genevieve thought it looked at Whistlecreig and its inhabitants in a spirit of judgement and lemon-juice.
"I incline to concur," she whispered.
"To whom are you speaking?" Farnham asked.
Genevieve snapped straight. "To my fish, if you must know."  
This little murder mystery bears all the things I've come to expect from Rachel's books: crackling wit, gloriously well-crafted prose, and quirky, lovable characters. On top of that, the plot was more tightly woven and credible, the character interactions flowed better, and the writing--though I was reading a version which had not yet been polished by an editor--is patently more colourful and compelling than in her other works. In addition, there's a streak of something a little darker in this book. From the plight of the victim, to the identity of the killer, Rachel Heffington proves herself ready to make hard authorial decisions.

It's not that the book isn't fun. I was chuckling and reading passages out loud to my family the whole way through, and at the end I felt as though I'd been snuggling in a warm fluffy comfort read for a few wonderful hours. But this book proves that fluffy and laugh-out-loud funny doesn't necessarily mean insubstantial. I loved that the emotional centre of the book is not Vivi's relationship with the dashing young man she meets on the platform at Whistlecreig--but her relationship with her odd and brilliant uncle, Orville Farnham. I'm a firm believer that relationships are the key to characters, inside the cover of a book or out, and I'm actually in awe of how emotionally satisfying I found Vivi's relationship with her uncle--satisfying enough to bear the weight of a plot much weightier than this one.
Her uncle's arm was a warm thing to clasp as they made their way through the tangle of passages and Genevieve thought what a sad fact it was that gentlemen no longer "elbow" their ladies as Farnham had so bluntly put it; there was a certain peaceable respect in the gesture that made her feel like royalty as they hurried through the echoing hall and into another cell of firelight.
Farnham himself was, of course, a duck of a character. Had he been in a PG Wodehouse novel sharing the stage with Stiffy Byng, she would probably have called him "a woolly baa-lamb", thereby offending him deeply and eliciting some mordant Shakespearian quotation.

Finally, I really loved the understated and taken-for-granted Christianity of the characters. It's rare to find a contemporary Christian novel which doesn't descend into preachiness. Of course, Anon, Sir, Anon is not in that rather weird genre, but I loved to see the sprawling magnificence of the Christian worldview peeking out at the corners--here a quote from Spurgeon, there a reference to "the difference between stepping into a church under construction and a cathedral that had stood six hundred years, steeped in worship." There is a sheer homeliness to such detail that enhances, rather than detracts from, the coziness and comfortableness of the book: God's in His heaven, all's right with the world.

Anon, Sir, Anon isn't published yet. But it contains everything I like best about good vintage mysteries like Ethel Lina White's Some Must Watch or the sweeter Agatha Christie novels. I highly recommend it. 

Keep up to date on Anon, Sir, Anon by following Rachel Heffington on her blog. And: remember, remember, the fifth of November.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Introducing iFlipd + GIVEAWAY

Hello Vintage Novels readers! Today we have something a bit new--a sponsored post. If that sounds a bit grossly commercial, hang in there and I'll see if I can make it worth your while.

I'm actually quite intrigued by all the new ways that technology is changing the reading experience. I started out insisting I would never own an ereader, and now I've owned one for a year and would feel lost without it. We may not like the impersonal nature of technology, but it provides us with a world of opportunity that we simply couldn't access otherwise.

One of the more interesting opportunities I've seen lately is the new ebook rental platform, iFlipd, a reading app with some intriguing possibilities not just for reading more conveniently but also for sharing, trading, and discussing books.

So how does it work?

The basic set-up is pretty simple: you download the app to your device--currently iFlipd only supports Apple's iOS7, though they're planning to branch out as things get underway--and pay $2 to rent a book for a week. If you need more time to read you can just rent it another week, or as long as you like. Once you’ve reached the full purchase price, you own the ebook.

Then things get more interesting. If you finish the book in under a week, you can "flip" the remaining rental time to a new reader who picks up your spare days for just $1. Meanwhile the days you save doing this go into your account to be put toward other rentals.

The social nature of the iFlipd rental model, as well as the “flipping” payment model, holds a few fascinating possibilities--eg, for readers to have whole conversations in the margin of a book they're reading. I interviewed iFlipd's CEO Kati Radziwon for more details.

Interview with Kati Radziwon

Hello, Kati, and welcome to Vintage Novels. Your app sounds like a great way for readers to discover and read new books. Where did the idea for iFlipd come from? 

The idea for iFlipd started over a simple coffee date with a girlfriend. She was looking for a parenting book and couldn’t find it for less than $20 and there was a 4 month waiting list at the library for it. She wasn’t even 100% sure she would like it and just wanted to test it out before buying. This started my wheels turning and I began to research ebook rentals. I quickly realized there was no good solution out there and decided to solve the problem!

What kind of reader do you think would benefit most from iFlipd? 

iFlipd is really for any kind of reader, but we do believe that the model works extremely well for self-help, parenting, cookbooks, travel books, religious content, and several other genres. The best part about iFlipd is that even if you read a novel and keep it long enough, you eventually own it, so there is no loss. You just pay as you go!

I can imagine a service like iFlipd being great value for readers, but how’s it been getting publishers on board?

Publishers are excited about iFlipd and the idea of opening up an additional revenue stream. We have been careful to be very fair to publishers and make sure they are getting the compensation they deserve for their books. We are working to bring on many more publishers as we speak, so keep an eye out for some great new content soon.

There are a bunch of other ebook subscription services out there. What sets iFlipd apart?

iFlipd is not a subscription, so that is the biggest difference. We are a simple pay as you go rental platform that allows readers to only pay for what they are actually reading. No commitments and no hassle. If you don’t read one month, you don’t pay…it’s that simple. We have also integrated extensive social features and rewards into the app to enhance the experience and create a community of readers who get rewarded for participating.

The reading experience has been changing remarkably over the last few years. Do you have any thoughts on where the book industry might be headed next, and how iFlipd will be a part of that? 

The publishing industry is changing rapidly and I think iFlipd is poised to be at the forefront of the change as you will begin to see. Consumers are hungry for new options and publishers are in need of additional revenue. Creating more flexible reading platforms that follow the music and movie industries is something I think you will begin to see shift over the next few years. I also think the reading experience will continue to get more social and engaging with authors and publishers coming up with new ways to communicate directly with their readers.

With the “flipping” feature in iFlipd, where you can share books with others, I’m guessing this app has the potential for more social interaction than most other ebook subscription services. Have you seen a lot of book-related interaction with the app?

Yes! The flipping aspect of the app allows readers to share a book they no longer need with the rest of the reading community and we reward this behavior. This perpetuates the social interaction of our community as people share time with a book, and encourage others to read. It will also be possible to have a conversation directly in the book (coming soon). This allows readers who have previously rented a title to share their notes and comments with others. All this behaviour is rewarded and we believe makes the community of iFlipd readers much stronger.

Lots of people who love books go on to write one. What kind of opportunities does iFlipd offer to authors? 

iFlipd is a great platform for any type of author to test out their work and gain exposure. Because of our lower price point, readers who might otherwise be hesitant to try a book, might now go pick up a new authors work and give it a shot.

And finally, I’ve got to know. Do you have a favourite vintage novel? 

I would say the Wizard of Oz, if that is considered vintage. My dad has the entire original collection of the Wizard of Oz and use to read them to us as bedtime stories. I have wonderful memories of falling asleep to stories of Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion, and the Scarecrow. I am also a big fan of Grimm’s Fairy tales which he collected as well.

Those are two excellent books to consider for reviews at Vintage Novels sometime! Thanks for talking to us, Kati! 


Sadly, because I don't have a suitable device, I haven't had the opportunity to try out iFlipd for myself. However, I've been asked to let you all know that for a limited time iFlipd is giving everyone one free ebook rental to start with.

If this sounds like something you'd be interested in, you can read more at the iFlipd website and download the app from the Apple store.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Boys of Blur by ND Wilson

I was talking to another aspiring writer a few weeks back, and we were agreeing that writing a novel is like juggling cats, what with all the many layers of explicit and implied meaning and artistry that goes into it, and I asked her, "Have you looked into rhythm?"

She hadn't.

So I prescribed a book for her. The Rhetoric Companion by ND Wilson and Douglas Wilson. Chapters 22 and 23 of that book, which is the single best how-to-write book I have ever read bar none, are alone worth the price of the book. They describe and quantify a phenomenon I had noticed but never quite understood. The Wilsons call it the rhythm of words, and say:
The meter of your prose is as present as the meter of your poetry. The difference is that the meter of your poetry is identified and set apart, while the meter of your prose meanders and hides (occasionally under bushels). Nevertheless, at least a portion of your ear should be attuned to this aspect of your supposedly mundane talk.
This small and usually-utterly-overlooked element of rhythm is the single biggest thing missing from the vast bulk of professional writing today. And ND Wilson is doing his best to bring it back. Flip open the cover of his latest novel (written for kids), leaf past the title page, and the first thing you'll come to isn't a chapter heading. It's an ode.
When the sugarcane's burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.
Stare through the smoke and let your eyes burn.
Don't blink.
While cane leaves crackle and harvesters whir, while blades shatter armies of sugar-sweet sticks, watch for ghosts in the smoke, for boys made of blur, fast as rabbits and faster.
Shoes are for the slow. Pull 'em off. Tug up your socks. Shift side to side. Chase. But be quick. Very quick. Out here in the flats, when the sugarcane's burning and the rabbits are running, there can only be quick. There's quick, and there's dead.
Or, better yet, hear the author reading it himself:

OK. Now that you know what nigh-perfect prose rhythm sounds like, let me explain why such fireworks are so particularly apt for this little book.

Charlie Reynolds comes to the little town of Taper, Florida for a funeral--his stepfather's old football coach. That's where he meets his step-cousin Cotton Mack. That's where he runs through mud and sugarcane for the first time. That's where he first meets the old man with the rusty sword, and smells the stink of envy at midnight in the churchyard during a grave robbery...

That's where he meets the Gren, made of shadows and decay, muck-covered and stronger than steel. And the Gren want Taper...

(Gren, geddit? Geddit?)

OK, so when ND Wilson sits down to plan his next nail-bitingly thrilling children's fantasy adventure story, I don't know what happens. Most likely he discards a stack of ideas as amazing as this one, and I'd like to go dumpster diving in the recycle bin of his mind, because it must be crazy in there. But here's what I guess happens:

"So I'll write another adventure story for 9-12-year-old boys, because that's what I do best. And because I do it best and why discard a winning formula, I'll give him a close family, loving relationships with his siblings and mum, and a tragic backstory involving a dad who can't be there anymore and a new father-figure who can be. Only this time, maybe the dad is gone because he was abusive, but instead of Charlie refusing to allow his scars to heal and let his stepdad step into the breach, I'll show them all moving on and healing...Yeah! And the zombies and the football go on top of that!

"Now all I need is a plot. BEOWULF'S."

And then, I imagine, he air guitars around his office.

After reading Wilson's other books, I've come to expect this marriage of real, sympathetic characters (because adults have feelings too), close family ties (because you don't need to be an orphan to have adventures), lowbrow awesome (zombies! Dragonvampires! HAMMY IMMORTAL CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH, ARRR!), peculiar American sports (baseball and gridiron, so far), with philosophical musings on death and resurrection and shameless cribbing from great literature like The Odyssey and Beowulf.

Where most children's books seem small, Wilson's seem big. If I were a little more of a snob, I would say that these books are much too good for the piefaces they were written for. Kids don't need to meditate on how a graveyard is like a garden, or feel sympathetic for the bravery of a woman who has left a dangerous and abusive relationship, or be soaked in the rolling cadences of a master prose stylist, or get jokes about the rigours of classical home education.
"Secret is," Cotton said, "I ain't never running from piles of books. I run from the books she be putting in the piles." His eyebrows went up. "You ever hear of the Brontes?"
Charlie shook his head.
"Well, don't," Cotton said. "Ever."
Wilson's are books for a bigger world, a world of more possibilities and adventures than most kids will ever know. A world of danger and big ideas, where excellence is possible even in a nail-biting zombie yarn for kids. That's why they're so important, and that's why your children should read them. Because after a few shots of NDW, they won't just be begging you for the next book, they'll be asking you for Beowulf and Latin lessons.

All of Wilson's books have these things in common, but Boys of Blur was special. Wilson does have some maturing to do as a writer, and the exciting thing is that I see that maturing happening right before my eyes. I've really enjoyed his Ashtown Burials series, but there are times when it resembles a hot mess--a sprawling, gigantic story with the enthusiasm and apparent lack of direction of a rubber bouncy-ball. It's brilliant, of course, but times come when you wish the brilliance would go away for a bit and let you breathe. Boys of Blur, as a standalone, proves that NDW can write something light, tight, and self-contained, with a glorious economy of words, characters, and plot. There's more room to breathe in this book, a better opportunity to appreciate the themes, a more ultimately-satisfying story.

Oh, yes, and if you do include Beowulf in your home-ed reading program, add Boys of Blur. It's not just by a Beowulf fanboy, it's from a family where everyone has been thinking over and discussing the deeper meanings of the poem for a good long time. In Boys of Blur, the monsters are zombies and Heorot is a football stadium, but the meaning of it all is the same.

If you've never read ND Wilson before, I highly recommend starting here. So far, it's my favourite of anything he's ever done.

Find Boys of Blur on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Announcing PENDRAGON'S HEIR by Suzannah Rowntree

It's hard to know exactly what to say. After bleeding so many of them out into pixels, I'm stuck for words. It's not that I'm not super excited for this project, because I am--I think you're all going to love it--but now that the time comes to reveal the thing, I'm not so much bouncing up and down as tossing it out in one direction and then trying to sneak off in the other direction before anyone notices. So here goes.

I'm writing a novel.

by Suzannah Rowntree 
Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she even wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more awe-inspiring and more dangerous than she ever dreamed of--or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?
I've always preferred to keep my writing exercises kind of quiet. After all, I don't want to unleash anything on you all before it's utterly perfect ready. Well, now I can see "ready" on the horizon. I'm hoping to self-publish Pendragon's Heir sometime in the next six months, Lord willing and the creek don't rise.

Some Q&A

How long has this novel been in the works?
The first draft was made, like the cosmos, in six days in 2005--though it wasn't anywhere near as impressive at that stage! I've worked at it on and off ever since, including spending the whole of 2013 rewriting the whole thing from scratch for the third time. I let it rest for the first half of this year while I worked on other projects, and now I'm doing a stiff edit of the most recent draft.

What genre is the book?
It's a fantasy set in 1900 Gloucestershire and Arthurian Britain. 

What authors have influenced Pendragon's Heir the most?
All my favourites, but particularly GK Chesterton and Charles Williams.

Will there be a sequel?
Nope! This is a standalone.

What do you have planned for after Pendragon's Heir?
I have a few ideas for things I'd like to do next, but I haven't done any solid work on them at this point. That will have to wait until I've finished this book!

For more news on Pendragon's Heir, keep watching this space! As I work through final edits and the publishing process, I'll be sure to keep you all updated with my progress, and to share some snippets, character profiles, and so on. Till next time! 


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