Thursday, December 24, 2015

Announcing the Song of Roland Read-Along!

Regular Vintage Novels readers will be aware of my Annual Epic tradition. I love epic poems, but I've found that they slip down more easily if you devour them in the shortest possible time. In previous years, I've taken a holiday right after Christmas to chew through such immense tales as the Orlando Furioso, Jerusalem Delivered, The Faerie Queene, and most recently The Kalevala. This has been huge fun to do on my own...but of course what I've always secretly wished for was to make it a party, potentially with in-jokes and fangirling.

That's why, this year, I've decided to make my Annual Epic a read-along! This year I want to get through a fairly short and easy epic, the seminal chanson de geste The Song of Roland.

The Song of Roland is a very influential text of the medieval imagination and the concept of chivalry. Charlemagne is considered by many the first king of the medieval age. His knights were considered the first knights of the feudal system. And the conflict depicted in The Song of Roland between Christian Franks and Muslim Saracens was in many ways the defining conflict of medievalism, a conflict that had begun before Charlemagne's time (his grandfather, Charles Martel, was the victor of the Battle of Tours in 732, when the Muslim invasion of Europe was finally turned back) and at the time the poem was written between 1040 and 1115, was entering a new stage in the Crusades. 

Like many epics, it's one I've already read, but this year as I chew through OUTREMER, I want a refresher course on chivalry as it was seen in the 1000s. And you're all invited to join in!

I plan to keep this pretty low-key, because January is my downtime and I know that like me, you probably don't want to be stressing out over deadlines this time of year. So:

Join the Party!

1. Get your hands on a translation of The Song of Roland. Everyone agrees the Dorothy Sayers version (available on Open Library) is best, but if you can't lay your hands on one of these quickly, John O'Hagan's is online at the Internet History Sourcebook, and CK Moncrieff's at Project Gutenberg.

2. (Optional) If you have the opportunity, listen to George Grant's lecture (available through the King's Meadow Study Centre) "The Chivalric Code: Quest for Honor and Virtue", which explains the background and impact of the poem on the medieval concept of chivalry.

3. Beginning Christmas Day or thereabouts, begin reading through The Song of Roland. You have all of January to do this, though I anticipate being able to knock it out in about a week.

4. Use the hashtag #readroland to tag your thoughts, reactions, enthusing, or to share articles/commentary on social media. 

5. When you're done, blog your thoughts and add the link to the linkup below by February 1st to go into a drawing to win a celebratory mp3 track of Alfred's War Song by Kemper Crabb!

EDIT: Congratulations to Emily of The Hero Singer for winning the mp3 of Alfred's War Song! If you didn't manage to add your thoughts to the linkup in time for the drawing, feel free to do so at your leisure; I'd still love to see them!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood

Today I want to review a classic Australian novel, Rolf Boldrewood's Robbery Under Arms.

First, though, a couple of announcements. I omitted to mention it in my last post, but: For those of you champing at the bit for OUTREMER, I've been Tweeting one-and-two-liners most weeks. Click here to see them all!

Second: Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my Annual Epic tradition. I usually keep which epic I'm reading a bit of a surprise--but this year I'm announcing it up front, because some friends wanted to do a read-along! So: this year I'll be re-reading The Song of Roland in the Dorothy Sayers translation, and you're all invited to join me! Grab yourself a copy if you want to be in it (try Sayers, Moncrieff, or O'Hagan), and I'll be back with more details right before Christmas.

Onward to the review...

I've been putting off reading Robbery Under Arms for a shamefully long time. All my brothers read it growing up, some of them multiple times, and raved to me about it. I even picked it up and tried reading it once or twice, but wound up getting distracted. Earlier this year, however, I found myself recommending it to a fellow-writer who planned to set his next book in 19th-century Australia. At the same time I was planning to start a weekly read-aloud time with my sisters. Reminded that only half the family had read it, I chose this one to begin with.

Robbery Under Arms is the classic Australian novel of bushranging--bushranger being the Australian term for an outlaw. The story is narrated from jail on the eve of his execution by Dick Marston, a New South Wales bushman whose father enlists him, along with his brother Jim, to help him in a particularly daring theft of livestock. Taking charge of the heist is the mysterious but gentlemanly Captain Starlight. One misstep, arrest, sentencing, and jailbreak later, Dick and Starlight rejoin the gang spoiling for action and determined to earn the price already on their heads, by trying their hand at robbery under arms.

With every step deeper into crime, the Marston Gang knows they have less and less chance of escaping a life that has itself become a prison. Will any of them make it across the sea to America and the honest life they so desperately wish for?

This was a long, episodic, rambling story, full of escapades and adventures and so it was no surprise to discover that it was originally published as a magazine serial. It roams all over New South Wales and Victoria, providing a vivid picture of the gold rushes, horse-races, and country life of the mid-1800s. Since it was first published in the 1880s, I half-expected the book to be more English-colonial than Australian in tone, but I was surprised by how much hasn't changed in the last 130 years. I was, for instance, particularly amused to discover the word invite used as a noun meaning invitation--"Well, I'll come and dance at your wedding if you'll send me an invite"--(for authentic Strine, pronounce it with the accent on the first syllable: INvite).

Stylistically, I regret to inform you that this book's melodramatic tones of anguish and lament occasionally caused Heartless Laughter amongst self and siblings. The narrator pauses pretty regularly to bewail his lot; and I suppose it's necessary, since these are not Shining Heroes but actually rather heartless murdering rascals. Likewise, Boldrewood goes out of his way to depict them doing good things--rushing off to save a house of ladies from some more authentically villainous bushranging associates, for instance.

Never seen it, but it looks sensational, doesn't it?
Nevertheless, it wasn't the melodrama which bothered me so much as what eventually emerged as the book's repeated theme: that it's a shame society treats criminals so harshly (imprisonment, hanging) since that removes any incentive for them to change their ways and become pillars of society. I was mildly surprised to find this emerging as such a strong theme, given that the Boldrewood himself--or to use his real name, Thomas Alexander Browne--was himself a police magistrate and JP. And I was disappointed by the ending, which seemed less full of repentance than of remorse. Generally, therefore, I found the book's whole concept of justice and forgiveness confused. Justice--in terms of the state's scripturally-defined role as bearer of the sword--is about ensuring that evildoers suffer the consequences of their evil deeds; not (as many modern criminologists assume) rescuing or rehabilitating them from those consequences.This is not to say that a Biblically-constituted commonwealth would never pardon an evil-doer, if he showed evidence of repentance. But the care of souls is the province of the church, not the state.

Despite this reservation, my sisters and I thoroughly enjoyed this story. We already knew of it as one of the great novels of colonial Australia (the other, Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life, is another I'm looking forward to reading soon). What I didn't know was that it's been argued that Robbery Under Arms--which made quite a hit in its native Australia--also had an influence on Owen Wister's seminal Western, The Virginian. Does that make the Australian "western" a precursor to, rather than an echo of, the American western? (C'mon, say yes, and we'll let the Kiwis have the pavlova. Deal?)

Find Robbery Under Arms at Amazon, The Book Despository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, December 11, 2015

#DesertIslandReads + Writing Update

So, it's probably time to pause the reviews and give a quick update. It's December, which means two things: National Novel Writing Month is done, and Christmas is coming! In Australia, of course, this also means the weather is heating up and people are beginning to sniff the air expectantly, scenting Christmas barbecues, January vacations, and sunburns on the beach.


I feel I've been in a bit of a slump lately--most of the books I've been reading have either been very well-written but soulless (Erin Morgenstern's Night Circus, for example), or sincere yet unimpressive. The exception is Thomas a Kempis's medieval devotional classic The Imitation of Christ, which is terrific. I'll look forward to reviewing this in more depth later, but for now I want to say that it's wonderful. Having been written over 600 years ago, it's like taking a giant step away from our all-encompassing culture of modernity, in order to view it and critique it through other eyes.

And it's also beautiful.


Elisabeth Foley recommended the 1959 flick North West Frontier earlier this year, and I was interested because it's got one of my favourite actresses, Lauren Bacall, in it. The real star of the whole show, however, turned out to be the steam-train engineer, Gupta, who has to be one of the most immediately lovable fictional characters I've come across.

Another noteworthy flick was Pixar's latest, Inside Out. As with Up, it's beautifully-conceived, beautifully-told, unconventional and yet gloriously well-crafted. I was thoroughly impressed by this poignant and family-affirming exploration of depression, empathy, and joy.


'Tis the season for Christmas music! Most recently I've been enjoying my friend Christina Baehr's haunting harp and voice arrangement of one of my favourite Christmas carols, Down in Yon Forest, newly released as a single. 

The same carol also features as the title track for Kemper Crabb's Downe in Yon Forrest. Subtitled "Christmas From the Middle Ages", this album is a sinewy mix of traditional tunes and instrumentation with a little avant-garde prog-rock styling. To say nothing of the sitars. Featuring lesser-known traditional hymns like Of the Father's Love Begotten and Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, as well as a truly epic rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, this album has stood up to much repeated listening and continues to be a favourite.


Finally, the update you've all been waiting for! Outremer continues to unfold into a messy first draft. November was, of course, National Novel Writing Month, which didn't go quite according to plan. For one thing, I only had 13 writing days in the whole month. For another, I started the month with great enthusiasm, knocking out a number of 5,000-word days (and even one 6,000-word day), but after a week or two of that, began to feel slightly burnt out. As a result, as soon as I hit my wordcount goal of 50,000, I decided to stop and take a week off. I'm glad I did, because December has seen me back in form.

I think I'll be taking most of January off, though. It's been a big year.


Oh hey, and I was tagged at Fulness of Joy to list 8 "desert island reads". Here goes!

(I'm going to cheat and not include the Bible. That doesn't count, sort of like how underwear doesn't count when you're talking about packing outfits for a trip away from home. Nor am I going to include Basic Survival Handbook: Pacific Island Edition, or Thompson's Practical Guide to Shipbuilding, because GK Chesterton already thought of that joke.)

1. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Since I first read it, this has always been my favourite book. I actually haven't read it for nearly ten years now, because I felt if I went on reading it annually I was going to end up getting every word by heart. But I do mean to read it again sometime in the next couple of years, and if I'll be stuck on a desert island for the rest of my life, I want it there with me.
2. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
Another beloved fantasy tome, I felt the first time I read it that I was only scraping its surface. On my desert island, I suppose I would have the time--in between building treehouses and milking goats and what-not--to reread this four or five times, until I began to feel more familiar with it.
3. The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Even though I would still wake up in the morning and curse it for not including more John Donne or Christina Rossetti poetry, it's still the best single collection of poetry I have, and I'm not actually 100% sure how I managed to survive without it until this year.

4. The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
A desert island just might be the only way I'll ever find the time and pluck up the courage to tackle this magnumopus.
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
True, it's Mansfield Park and Persuasion that I love best. But I think if I was going to be face being stranded on a desert island for the rest of my life, I'd want something a bit more charming and bubbly to keep me going from time to time.

6. Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis
This would come because, like The Faerie Queene, it's a book with apparently limitless re-read value. Each time I've read it--three or four times by now--it's revealed new intricacies, new dimensions. It would definitely have to come.
7. Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton
And five minutes after I was shipwrecked I would be kicking myself for not bringing The Man Who Was Thursday instead. Still, I'd probably be able to make the best of the bad bargain...!
It is horrible, I haven't had room for John Buchan, or PG Wodehouse, or Angels in the Architecture, or any of my other favourites. And I'm assuming neither my Crusades reference library nor my wifi would be available--but still, I would be bringing along this WIP, and an endless supply of paper and pens (that doesn't count as a "book", right?!), and it should keep me quite happily occupied for years.

Consider yourself tagged, if you wish! What books would you want with you on a desert island?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Holiness by JC Ryle

But don't get the abridged version, folks.
I found this book in an op shop in New Zealand and picked it up almost as a matter of course. Even though I'd never read any of JC Ryle's work before, I knew this book was a devotional classic.

First published in 1877, Holiness is a collection of essays on a range of topics loosely centred around the topic of sanctification. It begins with chapters on sin and sanctification, and then goes on to discuss specific examples (such as Moses and Lot), the person of Christ, and the role of the Church.

A book this disparate is a little difficult to review. Let me begin by saying that Holiness justifies its reputation as a classic of Christian living. In some ways, it's a rather basic introduction to some foundational aspects of the Christian life. But in another way, that makes it a must-read for every Christian. Ryle's supreme virtue is his ability to define terms with crystal clarity. He is very careful and very distinct in his wording of various definitions and drawing of various distinctions.

This becomes clear pretty early on, as Ryle lays out the role of works in the Christian life. To most Protestants, the idea of works playing any role in the Christian life is basically crypto-Catholicism. But as Ryle insists, the role of works is an intensely important one--in our sanctification. Justification is the work of God from beginning to end, amen. But "In sanctification our own works are of vast importance, and God bids us fight, and watch, and pray, and strive, and take pains, and labour."

 Ryle's clarity in defining sanctification and showing how it differs to justification enables him then to wax refreshingly eloquent in praise of works, without risking the grace of the Gospel. In a day when the vast body of Christianity doesn't look any different to the world, it's imperative that we recover a high view of the role of works in sanctification.

That's where the book starts, but it then progresses through a lot of other topics, ranging quite widely. I want to mention a few highlights and criticisms.

I really enjoyed the chapters on the person of Christ, especially Ryle's emphasis on Christ's authority and on his sympathy with his people. The person of Christ, and his familiarity with our struggles, is what prevents the God of Christianity from being an impersonal and uncaring force like the pagan Fate or Kismet.

His chapters on the church were also thought-provoking and eye-opening. I appreciated Ryle's definition of evangelicalism, and the comparison he made with sacramentalism, in the chapter on the Visible Church. As always, his definitions were very crisp and clear, and allowed me to see where I think I might disagree with him. According to Ryle, evanglicalism puts the emphasis on the individual and his walk with Christ, while sacramentalism puts the emphasis on the corporate church and membership thereof as the mark of salvation. Ryle argues in favour of evanglicalism as the right way to go about it, but his crisp definition made me doubt for the first time in my life whether I am really an evangelical, since I believe that both the individual and the collective are equally important, the tension between them being resolved in the three unified persons of the Trinity.

This individualistic emphasis may be at the root of another difference I suspect I may have with JC Ryle. Throughout the book, I got the feeling that he was coming to his topic from an amillenial perspective. His emphasis is overwhelmingly upon personal salvation and personal sanctification, to the general exclusion of any consideration of the impact of the Gospel, and the necessity of works, in the salvation and sanctification of corporate entities: families, churches, nations. In that respect, the hope and comfort held out by Ryle's book is of limited use. He gives personal encouragement, chiefly focused upon how great things will be in the next life; and he gives little or no encouragement for the spread of Christ's kingdom in space and time. Salvation is the most precious gift of all, for sure. But I don't believe scripture limits salvation to a personal, otherworldly thing: I believe the effects of salvation have a visible impact upon the world. And so Ryle gives us the need for "working out our salvation", with very little encouragement that the works of our hands will actually be established in the arena of time and space.

While I was sorry not to come away with a vision for holiness that went beyond the personal and the individual to affect the whole of life and culture (I'd recommend George Grant's The Micah Mandate for this), there was still plenty of excellent material in this book. As previously mentioned, Ryle's careful definitions and unabashedly high view of sanctification were a pleasure to read. And the chapter on Lot--a very convicting and eye-opening example of the lure of worldliness--was in itself worth the price of admission. Believe the buzz: this book is a classic that will continue to stand the test of time.

Find Holiness on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Under the Red Robe by Stanley J Weyman

First of all: The Indie Christian Book Sale is still ongoing for a few more hours! Nip over to snag final deals on more than 70 indie Christian books, including Pendragon's Heir, The Rakshasa's Bride, and The Prince of Fishes!

And now for today's quick review, this time of Stanley Weyman's melodramatic vintage swashbuckler Under the Red Robe.

'If you have never robbed a man - or a woman - of honour! If you have never ruined boy or girl, Monsieur de Berault! If you have never pushed another into the pit and gone by it yourself! If - but, for murder?'... Thus the lovely Mademoiselle de CocheforĂȘt seeks to reach the heart of the ill-famed Gil de Berault, known throughout Paris as 'The Black Death'. And the hardened duellist sent to spy out and arrest her brother feels the first stirrings of shame. 'Her gentleness, her pity, her humility softened me, while they convicted me. My God, how, after this, could I do that which I had come to do?'
This swashbuckling story of love and hate, intrigue and adventure, in the reign of Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII of France, has been a best-seller ever since its first appearance in 1894.

My review:

Under the Red RobeUnder the Red Robe by Stanley John Weyman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A fun and unassuming vintage swashbuckler, somewhat mediocre but full of fun melodrama on themes of honour.

I'm only giving this book two stars because, well, it wasn't that good. It was kind of derivative and very silly in parts. However, thinking about this novel reminds me what's good about silly melodramatic vintage swashbucklers.

Under the Red Robe is about a man still clinging to some shreds of honour despite being a gambler, a duelist, and a spy. When he finds himself forced to spy on a pair of noble but helpless women, however, he's gradually called back to a sense of right and wrong.

Books like this strike us as silly because of their excessive preoccupation with punctilious details of honour and manners, and their authors were very inventive about placing their characters in heart-rending situations where everything must be given up for the sake of honour. This is all very nice and melodramatic, but you'll get the most out of books like this if you pull back and de-romanticise everything a bit, and focus on the fact that these are books about people agonising over doing the right thing, people who take pride in doing the right thing - keeping their promises, serving their masters, being faithful to their loves, telling the truth. Too often there's also an emphasis on avenging their insults, but I loved that in this book the avenging of insults - the hero's identity as a duelist - is set at odds with his true, conscientious, sense of honour which might be defined as a consciousness of virtue.

A lot of modern fiction is far more concerned with doing the smart, the effective, or the pragmatic thing, above doing the right thing just because it is right and because one's personal sense of right and wrong demands it. I can't possibly recommend Under the Red Robe as great art, but it was a welcome reminder to me of what true honour is, how greatly it was once prized... and what terrific melodrama it makes.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 27, 2015

Black Friday Book Sale


It’s that time of year. The time for buying presents, making wish lists, and planning New Year’s Resolutions. If any of those activities involve books for you, Indie Christian Authors has a perfect event for you. From Nov 27 (that’s today!) through Nov 30th, more than 70 independent Christian books are on sale. You can find free shipping, $0.99 ebooks, package deals, and more! And if your budget is depleted from Christmas shopping, they’ve got you covered with some freebies Think 70 books is overwhelming? Narrow it down and find the perfect books for you or someone on your Christmas list by using this quiz to generate a customized book list. What awesome reads of 2015 are you grateful for? What books are you looking forward to reading in 2016?
A note on the Ebooks Only page. All books are listed as “Sold Out.” This only refers to paperback copies of these titles. Please click onto the product pages to find descriptions and links to discounted or free ebooks.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Leah E. Good for her work organizing this sale, Gloria Repp for completing the time consuming job of uploading book info to the sale website, and Hannah Mills for her fantastic design work on the website graphics. Hannah can be contacted at hmills(at)omorecollege(dot)edu for more information about her design services.
EDIT: Oops! All the links should be working now! Enjoy browsing the sale!

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Floating Admiral by The Detection Club

The Floating AdmiralThe Floating Admiral by The Detection Club
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought The Detection Club was the best thing ever when I first heard of it--a club of Golden Age mystery authors that included Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers? with GK Chesterton himself as the president? but I had never heard of The Floating Admiral, which was a simply terrific idea: a detective novel written round-robin style by the entire Club, each member in turn being required to provide the next chapter of the story along with a sealed solution explaining the solution to the whole mystery. As an entertainment for the Club itself, it must have been pretty terrific. As a curiosity of detective fiction for the Golden-Age detective fan, it's also a great read.

The plot is pretty similar to every other detective story, with the exception that the last chapter goes on and on (and on) as the last poor author attempts to tie up all the loose ends. The subtle shifts in tone, characterisation, and so on, are all fun to watch as each new author steps in to continue the story. GK Chesterton himself contributed a Prologue to introduce the whole story, which is as brilliant and dreamlike as everything GKC wrote. Of the major contributors, Dorothy Sayers stood out as the best author. Ronald Knox, writer of the famous 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction, is an author I wasn't familiar with, whose chapter also seemed one of the better contributions. This book has whetted my interest, and I think I'll be looking up some more of his work in the future.

The solution of the mystery provided in the final chapter was pretty ingenious, though extremely complicated (as necessary considering the crazy clues). It was followed by the solutions which the authors were each required to provide, and I'm sorry now that I didn't read each author's solution immediately after his or her respective chapter, since they might have been more meaningful that way.

All in all, this was a fun read which introduced me to some new authors and stands for the future as a delightful record of one of the great literary clubs of the twentieth century.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 20, 2015

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I woke up one Sunday morning not too long ago feeling a need to read something extremely common-sensical, forthright, merciless, and edifying. For me, the go-to author when I want to read something of this description is Jane Austen. This may surprise those of you who are sick to death of girls who wear out their Pride and Prejudice DVDs swooning over the romantic dance scenes. But what I have always encountered in Austen's stories is not swoony romance but in fact a confronting picture of human sin and folly (I even made a Which Jane Austen Character Are You REALLY? quiz to underline that fact). If you actually read her novels, you'll find that she is witty, she is sharp, she is a merciless realist. As a matter of fact, I once heard that the Victorians considered her novels only suitable for men on account of their severe rationality.

For years Persuasion was my favourite Jane Austen novel. That changed a few years ago when I re-read Mansfield Park, and realised what a profound and insightful book it was. I was curious how Persuasion would compare when I came back to read it again.

In Persuasion we meet one of Jane Austen's most likeable heroines, Anne Elliot. Like Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, Anne is a quiet, unappreciated heroine who is often the voice of reason among a host of clueless supporting characters. Like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, she's got a spark of irreverent wit. But Anne is unique in that she's a good bit older than any of the others, and the romance of her life did not have a happy ending. At twenty-seven, love is something which Anne looks back on wistfully, to when she was nineteen and in love with young naval officer Captain Frederick Wentworth. Sadly, not only did her conceited father, Sir Walter Elliot, baronet, disdain to be connected with a naval man, but Anne's mentor and mother-figure, Lady Russell, also intervened to persuade Anne to break off her engagement. Since then, Captain Wentworth has been fighting in the Napoleonic wars, and Anne has been nursing her broken heart in silence.

All this changes when the war ends, bringing an influx of Navy men--now wealthy and distinguished--back to England. Meanwhile Anne's family has fallen on hard times. Sir William refuses to cut costs, instead choosing to rent his country mansion to Admiral Croft, one of the returning officers. As it happens, Anne knows of Admiral Croft--he's married to Captain Wentworth's sister. Soon, Anne and Captain Wentworth are moving in the same social circle...with an ocean of awkwardness and hurt feelings lying between them, to say nothing of the Captain's apparent intention of courting bright young local thing Louisa Musgrove. With Anne both unable and unwilling to express the love in her heart, is she headed for a second, even more final unhappy ending?

Or is there hope for a second chance?

(Spoilers follow! If you haven't already read Persuasion, what are you waiting for?)

Indirect romance

In some ways I was surprised this time around to note how much more like a romance novel this book is than any of Jane Austen's others. It's fairly brief compared to Emma, for instance, which is nearly twice the length, and that means that the plot focuses closely on the awkward, indirect relationship between Anne and Captain Wentworth. Austen's other novels spend more time on subplots, and Emma, for instance, has much more to do with it's heroine's journey through repentance to maturity, than it has to do with her relationship with Mr Knightley. Persuasion, on the other extreme, has no significant plot arcs among the supporting cast, and its heroine already seems to have learned the majority of her life lessons in the backstory. This means a more concentrated, almost claustrophobic focus on the progress of the relationship itself, an effect which is heightened by the fact that Anne is forced to keep her feelings and thoughts mostly to herself for much of the story, partly because she cannot possibly voice them under the circumstances, and partly because no one is interested in hearing them.

In his terrific study guide to all Austen's major works, Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen, Peter Leithart points out a unique aspect of the romance in this book. Most romance stories keep the two main characters apart either through outside force or by some internal misunderstanding or prejudice. Both of these are problems that can be solved--you might elope to evade the feuding families, or someone might come into the situation and show the characters to each other in their true light. In Persuasion no outside force is keeping the main characters apart: it's clear that Anne has matured enough to make up her own mind and will not be persuaded against Captain Wentworth again. The interior opposition is almost insuperable, not because they no longer have feelings for each other (they clearly do), but because of the hurt and awkwardness that carries over from their past. Actual interaction is nearly impossible.

The result is that they are forced to relate to each other indirectly, through intermediaries. Anne discovers Captain Wentworth's reaction to her breaking off the engagement through eavesdropping on a conversation he has with Louisa Musgrove--but at the same time, she (to say nothing of the reader!) is heartened when he makes kind comments about her to others. Anne goes on to prove her worth to him through a number of indirect means: from her quick and clear-headed reaction to Louisa Musgrove's accident and her advice on how to break the news to Louisa's parents, to the conversation with Captain Harville at the end in which she makes it quite clear to the listening Wentworth that she may have been persuaded to break off her engagement with him, but she continues to love him as much as she ever did.

In other words, the romance in Persuasion is both a good bit more prominent, and much more suppressed, than the romances in most of Austen's other novels. Leithart describes the tone of the story as "autumnal" and points out that most of the first half actually occurs in November. It's a very wistful, poignant story, with its rich backstory and unexpressed emotion.


Of course, one should hardly review Persuasion without saying something about the theme. But then, it's right there in the title. It is the title. All you have to do is grab your highlighter and highlight every time the word crops up.

Persuasion, and the ability to be persuaded, is the bone of contention between Captain Wentworth and Anne. She allowed herself to be persuaded to break off the engagement, and he is not quick to forgive. His flirtation with Louisa Musgrove seems likely to become serious when she boasts of not being easily persuaded against something she's set her mind to--and then ends entirely when he realises he has encouraged her into a piece of foolishness that nearly claims her life. This (the Midpoint, actually, of the novel, for those plotting nerds who are with us) is what causes Wentworth to reconsider his prejudice against persuasion, and by extension, to reconsider Anne. Meanwhile, as Leithart points out, Anne's conversation with Captain Harville at the end serves to make it clear that in one sense at least she has been unpersuadable: she has never given up loving Wentworth. Anne proves, in other words, that she is both able to be persuaded, and able to remain constant.

It's an interesting aspect of the book that Austen doesn't criticise Anne's persuadability. Persuasion and the capacity to be persuaded ends up coming out in a better light than stubbornness. While it's important that Anne should have the firmness of character to be constant rather than fickle in her emotions and her religious principles, it's also important that she be able to hear reason, or to use her own persuasive powers to smooth out possible disturbances or disruptions in social life. Persuasion, Austen concludes, is good or bad--depending. Anne explicitly comes to the belief that she could not have known that it would turn out to be a bad idea to accept Lady Russell's advice--and therefore she should not have acted differently, knowing what she did at the time. Interestingly, some years before writing Persuasion, Austen wrote to one of her nieces, Fanny, to persuade her also to break off a relationship. The niece, like Anne Elliot, was contemplating entering into an open-ended engagement with a young man who did not at that stage have the means of providing for a wife. Given that Austen believed her niece not seriously in love with the man, she strongly advised breaking it off. Persuasion could be seen as the story of what might have happened if the persuadee in such a situation really did have strong feelings for the man.


In contrast to the virtues of persuasion in small, social, or unforeseeable things, Austen also gives us a clear picture of the virtues of firmness and constancy in important things. This goes beyond Anne's inability to move on from Wentworth. In this book Austen was not trying to excuse stubbornness of the kind that would refuse to move on from an obviously impossible attachment. She was quite capable of poking merciless fun at such silliness, for example in Emma through the character of Harriet Smith. Rather, Anne's constancy does her credit because of who Wentworth is, especially in comparison to the other men she is surrounded by.

Like most of Austen's other heroines, Anne undergoes a red-herring courtship by a man who appears congenial, likeminded and upright on the surface, but quickly proves to be otherwise. In Persuasion, this is Anne's cousin William Elliot, who openly admires her and to whom Anne comes to believe Lady Russell would be happy to see her married--perhaps even exerting additional persuasion in that direction. Before this can happen, however, Anne's friend Mrs Smith exposes Mr Elliot as a heartless fortune-hunter who is worming his way into the Elliot family's affections purely in order to safeguard his inheritance. Yet even before this revelation, Anne has decided she cannot trust him:
He certainly knew what was right, nor could she fix on any one article of moral duty evidently transgressed; but yet she would have been afraid to answer for his conduct. She distrusted the past, if not the present. The names which occasionally dropt of former associates, the allusions to former practices and pursuits, suggested suspicions not favourable of what he had been. She saw that there had been bad habits; that Sunday travelling had been a common thing; that there had been a period of his life (and probably not a short one) when he had been, at least, careless in all serious matters.
As I mentioned in my review of Mansfield Park, Austen speaks of religious matters with great seriousness, but in veiled language that modern readers are apt to misunderstand. All the same, the reference to Sunday travelling is a fairly obvious clue that Anne Elliot should be taken to be a sincere Christian serious about setting aside the Lord's Day for rest and worship: it is an insuperable mark against this potential suitor that he evidently does not "remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy". Likewise, "serious matters" is one of Austen's code words for "Christian faith". She is saying that Anne believes Mr Elliot to be either an unbeliever or not serious enough about his faith to merit her love.

By contrast, Persuasion contains one of the most overt references in all of Austen's works to prayer--and it's Captain Wentworth whom we see praying, in a manner that suggests he does it often:
The tone, the look, with which "Thank God!" was uttered by Captain Wentworth, Anne was sure could never be forgotten by her; nor the sight of him afterwards, as he sat near a table, leaning over it with folded arms and face concealed, as if overpowered by the various feelings of his soul, and trying by prayer and reflection to calm them.
Anne's firm attachment to Captain Wentworth, in other words, and her refusal to be persuaded into transferring her affections to Mr Elliot, must be understood in the context of their respective characters. Captain Wentworth is a man of sincere faith, which impresses Anne deeply (as it ought); Mr Elliot is a man of low moral fibre, which repels her deeply (as it ought).

Land versus Sea

There's another aspect of Captain Wentworth's character which is favourably contrasted to one of the men surrounding Anne. Anne's father Sir Walter is an excessively vain man, and Austen reinforces this vanity and conceit in a hundred ways throughout the novel, from his shameless grovelling before his titled cousins to his inability to show gratitude to the Navy men for making his life of ease and self-indulgence possible. Perhaps the most telling moment comes when he lets his house to the lower-status but infinitely wiser Admiral Croft, who remarks that he had to get rid of most of the mirrors in the baronet's dressing-room: "there was no getting away from oneself." Besides persuasion, the novel's next main theme is obviously the difference between the old landed aristocracy--mercilessly skewered in Sir Walter's person as conceited and coddled--and the rising meritocracy of the landless Navy, lauded in the persons of Captain Wentworth, Admiral Croft, and the others as upright, courageous, self-sacrificial, and hard-working men of action.

The Navy was also used in Mansfield Park as a symbol of hard work, courage, endurance, and nobility, in the comparison of Fanny Price's responsible young brother William with the vapid dilettante Henry Crawford. This makes perfect sense when you realise that two of Austen's six brothers joined the Navy and distinguished themselves during the Napoleonic Wars. The Navy thus becomes a kind of shorthand in Austen's writings for true nobility rising out of hard work and self-sacrifice: she is clearly bursting with pride in her brothers. Though it's commonly complained by those who have only a superficial familiarity with her works that Austen was herself a vapid dilettante preoccupied with balls, amusements, and titles, she has never deserved such a slander. In Mansfield Park we had a taste of her notions when she unfavourably compared the idle Crawford with the diligent Price; Persuasion is in some ways a book-length and even more ruthless re-statement of the same opinion.


Persuasion, Austen opines, can be a good thing. It can smooth over social difficulties. It can be applied by wise older mentors wanting to protect their proteges from risky decisions. But it should never be allowed to seduce us away from a firm and principled love for right conduct and hard-working merit. Persuasion vindicates its humble, but steadfast heroine, for being firm exactly where she should be, and pliable exactly where she should be, despite the disapproval from time to time of all the people she loves and respects most in the world. Finding that balance between firmness and flexibility is one of Lady Wisdom's most delicate arts...and as always, I come away from this Jane Austen novel feeling that I have had a wonderfully deep and illuminating time learning from that lady.

I highly recommend that you rush out right now and find Persuasion on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox!

I have seen one film adaptation of Persuasion, the 1995 Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds production, which I recall as being practically perfect in every way!

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Queen Elizabeth Story by Rosemary Sutcliff

Some of you will know about my next fairytale novella release, The Bells of Paradise, which is coming sometime in the New Year. I'm so happy about this story, which is a Faerie Queene and Tam Lin mashup retelling the beautiful yet obscure fairytale Jorinda and Joringel IN SPAAAAACE TUDOR ENGLAND!

Now some folks have been asking me when I plan to release The Bells of Paradise and the original answer was going to be sometime this month. However, some last-minute plot tweaks inspired by one of my wonderful (and highly discriminating) beta readers meant the release got postponed.

Beside plot tweaks, I also decided I should put some study into fleshing out the setting. Sure, I was pretty much marinated in Shakespeare and Spenser, so imagery and dialogue were easy enough to reproduce. But as for the everyday details of life in Elizabethan England--well, Shakespeare set most of his plays in Italy, and Spenser was writing secondary-world fantasy. Things like rushlights, oriel windows, mirrors of Venetian glass, coffered ceilings, and leaving out a dish of milk on the stoop for the Lordly Folk don't get mentioned much in the period literature.

That was why I decided to read Rosemary Sutcliff's The Queen Elizabeth Story.

One of Sutcliff's earliest works, The Queen Elizabeth Story is a sweet, gentle, fanciful story for little girls, quite similar in tone and whimsy to Elizabeth Goudge's lovely Smoky-House or The Little White Horse. On the night of her eighth birthday, little Perdita, the daughter of the Rector of Broomhall, is visited by fairies who promise to grant her a wish within the next year. Perdita's wish is to see Queen Elizabeth herself, heroine of her favourite bedtime story. As the year slowly passes, through Christmas festivities, new friendships, and her father's stories of ancient legends, Perdita begins to wonder if her wish will ever come true...

Now most people aren't going to be interested in this book as an author looking to improve historical accuracy in her setting. So I will just quickly say that this book provided all the detail I needed and far, far more. Beyond this, parents wanting to introduce their children to the story of Elizabeth I and provide them with a vivid, evocative, and historically-accurate picture of their times can hardly do better than this. Sutcliff uses her story as a framework to explore aspects of Elizabethan life from food and clothing to seafaring and festivity.

There was so much to love about The Queen Elizabeth Story. Besides the immersive vividness of the setting, there's also the gentle and compelling story, peopled with charming and likeable characters. Perdita is a sweet heroine, her family and friends are equally charming, and although the story is more slice-of-live than plot-driven, it pulls you in and holds you spell-bound in the best possible way.

Then there's Rosemary Sutcliff's absolutely smashing writing style. This book is simply gloriously written. Her language is clear, simple...and beautiful. Her descriptions of colours must be read to be believed--"a gay, boisterous sort of blue, picked out in scarlet"--or another blue "as joyous as a kingfisher's mantle". This is the first Sutcliff book I've read since I was a philistine teenager, so I don't recall being so impressed when I've read her previously. This book had me sighing in delight on every page.

Some parents may be a little hesitant about the magical realism of the plot--in that fairies (or "pharisees") are taken for granted as part of the vivid historical setting, and only little Perdita can see them, and they then grant her a wish and bring it to pass. I do think I might have been a little confused by this as a child (but then, I was once confused during a live performance of The Sound of Music into thinking that the real von Trapps were there in the theatre and trying to escape from the Geelong Performing Arts Centre before they were caught by real Gestapo. True story!)

That said, I really liked how Sutcliff used this plot strand to bring out a thoroughly good theme of patience, waiting quietly, and holding onto faith that one's desires have not been forgotten and will be fulfilled. I can imagine many girls, big and little, who would profit from that!

In conclusion, I loved The Queen Elizabeth Story and I think I very much need to revisit Rosemary Sutcliff more often.

Sadly, The Queen Elizabeth Story appears to be out of print. Try Amazon or

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Black Friday Sale + Reader Survey!

Hello, folks! I'm interrupting my normal blogging schedule for a quick announcement. Some Christian indie authors are clubbing together to run a Black Friday sale for the end of the month, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it. Keep an eye out here, or sign up to my email newsletter to make sure you don't miss the sale when it happens.

In the meantime, we're soliciting feedback from you, our reading public, to help us provide you with the best possible deals! Please take a moment to fill out the form below. Thanks for your help!

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Tragedy of the Templars by Michael Haag

Those of you who follow me on Goodreads will already have seen this review. However, I've been reading a lot of books lately which I'd love to review for Vintage Novels, and my backlog is growing faster than my once-a-week blogging schedule can keep up with. So, I'll be cross-posting a few of my Goodreads reviews in order to get ahead. Enjoy!

The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader StatesThe Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States by Michael Haag
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I know that before I can claim to know anything about the Templars, I have to read Malcolm Barber's The New Knighthood. That, however, will have to wait till I can afford it. In the meantime, I decided to try The Tragedy of the Templars, half supposing it might turn out to be hilariously bad, but hoping I'd glean some worthwhile facts.

I was pleasantly surprised.

The Good

This book is readable! Honestly, I'm thrilled that Barber and Hamilton and Edbury are producing such quality work on the Crusades, but you have to acknowledge they can be stiffish reading. Haag's Tragedy of the Templars, on the other hand, combines a formidable level of historical detail with an easy writing style, accessible to a popular audience.

It also contains some brilliant myth-busting on the Crusades generally. Haag spends a good deal of time setting the scene before he introduces his heroes the Templars, and this segment of the book was the one I found most useful. Relying heavily on primary sources from both Christian and Islamic perspectives, Haag outlines the history of the Christian East from Byzantine splendour (during which the Negev was irrigated and farmed) through the centuries of Islamic misrule and persecution (during which Christians retained a solid population majority throughout Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Levant), the first prosperous century of Crusader rule (throughout which Palestine saw a magnificent flowering of art and culture), and the very sad decline under the scorched-earth tactics of Saladin and his Ayyubid and Mameluke successors.

In the meantime, Haag explodes Mohammed's Night Journey from Jerusalem, arguing that the city's significance as the third holiest city of Islam stems in large part from its importance to Christians and only solidified around 1187. He thoroughly debunks Saladin's status as a Muslim hero--before conquering Jerusalem in 1187 he spent most of his time waging war on other Islamic rulers and was seen as an ambitious empire-builder rather than the champion of Islam. He also draws on a wide range of original source documents to demonstrate that the aid of the Eastern Church was a major motivating factor to the organisers and leaders of crusades.

Finally, this book solidly confirmed a number of things I'd gathered from reading other sources. For example, the fact that native Eastern Christians formed the majority of the population of the Near East up until well after the Crusader States fell in 1291. And the fact that the Muslim minorities that did live in the Crusader States were extremely well-treated to the point that the Christian lands became somewhat of a haven for Shia, Ismaili, and other splinter sects persecuted in larger Sunni Islam. And the consistent disregard Muslim conquerors had for the lands under their possession, to the point that the Christians consistently found land which had been under Islamic rule to be depopulated and ruinous, while Muslims consistently found land which had been under Christian rule to be rich and beautiful beyond compare. In all these things, Haag relies heavily on eyewitness evidence from Muslim chroniclers.

The Bad

That said, there was a lot in this book that I found misleading and/or biased. I gathered from reading the book that Haag is a Catholic and a huge Templar fanboy. Consequently, he thinks the Templars' independence from local church authority structures, and their sole answerability to the Pope, the best thing ever. His pro-Templar bias--and I'd have called myself mildly pro-Templar myself--led to some odd distortions of the history. Every time the Templars scratched their noses it's lauded as some tremendous victory; and so we're left with the impression that they single-handedly won Montgisard made the 3rd Crusade a success saved Outremer from an alliance with the Assassins etc etc.

And a lot of this Templar cheerleading is done at the expense of the local Frankish nobility, who weren't perfect either but are painted as traitors and villains. Raymond III of Tripoli, for instance, is made the villain of Hattin, and he and Balian of Ibelin are depicted as treacherous deserters (and thinking back, I'm wondering if he meant to insinuate that Balian's missing the battle of Cresson was too convenient by half). They're also described as the only two men in the kingdom who refused to acknowledge Guy of Lusignan's rule, which is demonstrably historically false. It's true that one of the nobles did in fact refuse to swear homage to Guy, preferring rather to bequeath his estates to his family and exile himself to Antioch--but this was Balian of Ibelin's elder brother Baldwin, not Balian himself, who swore fealty to Guy and served him faithfully until the death of Guy's wife, Queen Sibylla, invalidated his claim to the throne. Raymond of Tripoli also initially refused to do homage for his principality of Galilee, but Guy's response--to muster an army and attack the principality--bordered on the insane and left Raymond with little choice but to ally himself with Saladin, a treachery for which all the historical evidence is that he died bitterly repentant. One last dig is levelled at Balian for breaking his oath to Saladin in choosing to undertake the defence of Jerusalem, after having travelled to the city, alone and unarmed, to collect his wife and children, under a safe-conduct from Saladin on condition that he only spend one night in the city. The fact is that Balian only consented to stay and defend the city after he was unanimously begged to do so by its people and leaders, and that he sent his apologies to Saladin, who immediately forgave him the breaking of his oath and arranged safe passage for Balian's wife and children to Christian-held Tyre. (Which was one of Saladin's not-unknown chivalrous actions for which I think Haag gives him too little credit).

*annoyed huff*

Finally, Haag tends to gloss over, explain away, excuse, or simply ignore Templar sins. Some of these excuses are reasonable--eg the explanation that the massacre after the 1099 siege of Jerusalem was treated with hyperbole by its chroniclers (who would not have expected anyone to believe tales of the streets flowing with blood up to the horses' knees--a thing more or less physically impossible). Some of the explanations are worth bearing in mind, like the alternative interpretation of the Cresson disaster. Some of the explanations sounded completely specious to me--Templar involvement in the Muslim trade in Christian slaves is something I want to know more about, and not from someone keen to gloss over their faults; while I don't at all consider the slaughter of the Assassin envoys during Amalric's reign remotely excusable, let alone a good thing! I was interested to see what Haag would do to rehabilitate Gerard of Ridefort, the Grand Master whose lunatic advice led directly to the disaster at Hattin and who also nursed a petty grudge against Raymond of Tripoli all the way to the loss of the kingdom. Disappointingly, Haag either omits or skips over these parts as quickly as he can, and then fast-forwards to quote from a foreign chronicler's positive obituary after the Master's somewhat redeeming death in battle.

So, in a lot of ways this was a highly valuable book, from which I learned a huge amount. In other ways, I disagreed with it vehemently, and it left me wondering if I could really trust it at all in the parts where I didn't already know something about the history (like the trial of the Templars and the dissolution of their order in the early 1300s). Some of it opened up some fruitful avenues for further research, some of it confirmed stuff I'd learned from more trustworthy sources...and some of it was offputtingly partisan.

Conclusion? Still one of the best and most accessible books I've so far read on the Crusades, but don't let him convince you Balian of Ibelin was anything less than a hero.

View all my reviews

Find The Tragedy of the Templars on Amazon or The Book Depository. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Radiant: Fifty Remarkable Women in Church History by Richard M Hannula

I have to admit that the drawcard for me in this book's description was Lady Anne Hamilton, "who rode with the Covenanter cavalry at the decisive Battle of Berwick". Swashbuckling Covenanter lady? Where do I sign up to read about her?

And so, even though I keep Vintage Novels on topic with, well, vintage novels, I decided I would write and ask for a review copy of church historian Richard Hannula's latest release, Radiant: Fifty Remarkable Women in Church History.

The content, form, and style of this book is not likely to cause riots in the streets. Hannula provides mini-biographies of the promised fifty remarkable women, from the well-known (St Monica, Jeanne d'Albret, Corrie ten Boom) to the obscure (an unnamed Armenian woman, a Mrs Smith of Coventry, the aforesaid Lady Anne Hamilton), all evenly distributed throughout church history from late antiquity to modern times. The briefness of the chapters, the simpleness of the writing style, and the vividness of the storytelling makes this ideal as bedtime reading for children, or quick and easy devotional reading for a grown-up.

The real power in this book comes from the stories of the women themselves and the amazing power of God in their lives to sustain them through difficult times. And this is what will have an incredibly impact on the world. At the same time I was reading Radiant I've been working through George Grant's wonderful The Micah Mandate, specifically the chapters on mercy, and the overwhelming emphasis of these good church women on mercy ministry - food, education, political protection - was a real challenge to think about the wider meaning of the Christian mission.

Beyond that, it was a real pleasure to meet these women. Hannula provided some details I didn't previously know about women like Saint Margaret of Scotland or Katherine Luther, who seems to have been a terrific character!

Luther would occasionally fall prey to bouts of discouragement and gloomy moods. Once, when a depression lasted longer than usual, he left home to visit friends for a few days, hoping that a change of scene might help. It didn't, and he wrote Katherine that he was coming home. When he arrived, he found her sitting in a chair dressed from head to toe in black with a dark veil covering her face. She was sighing and holding a wet handkerchief to her eyes. Luther rushed to her side and asked, "Katherine, what is the matter?"
"Only think, my dear doctor," she said, "the Lord in heaven is dead! This is the cause of my grief."
Other favourites from this book included the adorable Elizabeth of Hungary, the brave and clever Catherine Parr, the grand tragic story of Margaret Nisbet, and of course Lady Anne Hamilton, "the lioness of the Covenant." None of these women had easy lives, but despite illness, persecution, danger, or depression, they were granted victory in Christ.

There were other things I enjoyed about this book. For example, Christianity is not an individualistic or egalitarian faith, and so the lives of many of these great women happened intertwined with the lives of the great Christian men they married, befriended, or assisted in some way. Jonathan Edwards's wife Sarah, Adoniram Judson's wife Sarah Boardman Judson, Samuel Rutherford's correspondent Lady Jane Gordon, and the wonderful Sabina Wurmbrand who told her husband that she would rather he were dead than a coward, are all honoured for their role complementing and supporting their remarkable Christian men.

I also enjoyed the overview this book provided of church history through the ages. Many of the details were already quite well-known to me, of course, but it would be a great introduction for younger readers. I was also pleased by Hannula's balanced attitude toward women who espoused causes evangelical Protestants today might not always agree with--he provided gentle criticism from a Reformed point of view while honouring these women's very real faith and perseverance.

Radiant also provided an introduction for me to a number of women whose biographies we have, but I had never been prompted to pick them up and read them. Reading this book, and skimming through the bibliography at the back, populated my to-read list with a whole lot more reading which I can't wait to get into, much of it in the public domain.

Warmest thanks to Canon Press for supplying me with a free review copy of Radiant!

Find Radiant: Fifty Remarkable Women in Church History on Amazon, The Book Depository, or the Canon Press site.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Anne of Geierstein by Sir Walter Scott

A few months back, I was reading Rolf Boldrewood's Australian classic Robbery Under Arms to my sisters, when one of the characters made a comment which caught my attention at once:
"What the dickens," says Clifford, "can you want, going away with this familiar of yours at this hour of the night? You're like the fellow in Scott's novel (Anne of Geierstein) that I was reading over again yesterday - the mysterious stranger that's called for at midnight by the Avenger of Blood, departs with him and is never seen more."
Well, of course that sounded promising, so I went off and added Anne of Geierstein on Goodreads. Lo and behold, Lady Bibliphile at once contributed a comment to the effect that it was one of her favourite Scott novels, and that she had stumbled across it herself in a different Victorian novel wherein all the characters were reading (and revelling in it) in secret.

That bumped it pretty quickly to the top of my to-read list.

The Plot

The time: the 1400s, shortly after the Wars of the Roses have settled Edward IV on the throne of England. The place: the mountains of Switzerland. The principal actors: a couple of travelling English merchants, father and son. The scene: during a storm, in a rugged mountain ravine presided over by the ancient fortress of Geierstein!

Lost in the storm, Arthur Philipson and his father are rescued and taken to safety by an enchanting mountain maiden, Anne of Geierstein, whose noble family have either fallen on hard times or voluntarily given up their title in preference for a life of liberty and equality among the hardy Swiss peasantry. As war threatens between the impoverished but proud Swiss cantons, and the powerful and autocratic Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Philipson the elder warns his young son that their secret mission must claim their full obedience: there can be no time for writing love-poetry to young Anne of Geierstein, nor for duelling her haughty cousin Rudolf.

The Philipsons join Anne, her noble uncle the Landamman of Unterwalden, and a retinue of bold Swiss youths as they set out on a diplomatic mission to Charles's court. But war threatens and mysteries pile upon mysteries. Not all the young Swiss are determined to keep peace with the Duke of Burgundy. Villainous robber barons attempt to bar their way. Who is the mysterious and sinister Black Priest of St Paul's? Does Anne of Geierstein's ghost really wander the forest while she sleeps? And what is the secret mission entrusted to the English merchants?

Romance and History

As you can tell, if you've ever read a Walter Scott novel before, this book was typical in so many ways. In a Scott novel, the mysterious and beautiful heroine always pops up just at the right moment to give the hero directions or assistance, whether it's in a wayside castle, a midnight forest, or even a noisome dungeon--to an extent which would seem ridiculously coincidental in any other author's hands but in Scott's bears the romantic magic of fairytale. This is one of those books in which every. last. person. is someone terribly important in disguise. In which a traveller might settle down for a night's sleep in a wayside inn and find himself suddenly in the middle of the meeting of a dangerous secret society. In which yes, an Avenger of Blood might call at midnight for a mysterious stranger.

In other words, the book bears the unmistakeable print of Romance, according to John Buchan's definition--"strangeness flowering from the commonplace". Modern readers might be tempted to scoff at the sheer tallness of the tale--the coincidences and improbabilities that rule the plot--but it would be a shame to be that kind of person. The improbabilities are the whole point. The whole appeal of the thing lies in the fact that these things so rarely happen--but could. We are treading close to fairytale here, where only the improbable can be permitted.

But for all the appeal of its romantic plot and setting, I found Anne of Geierstein a little dissatisfactory. Both John Buchan and Andrew Lang mention that Anne of Geierstein was written toward the end of Scott's life when he was struggling to write enough novels to pay off his debts. He seems to have found it difficult to get inspired to write Anne: progress was slow and painful, and he forced himself through it. The result is certainly an entertaining story and a genuine Scott, but comes across somewhat flat and forced compared to Scott's best tales--Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward, The Fortunes of Nigel. This time around, I found myself particularly noticing Scott's rolling, overwrought, polysyllabic prose--eg, "So saying, he betook himself to the place appointed, which was an apartment in the large tower that protected the eastern gateway, in which were deposited the rack, with various other instruments of torture, which the cruel and rapacious Governor was in the habit of applying to such prisoners from whom he was desirous of extorting either booty or information"--I know this is the kind of thing Scott wrote, but in this book it seemed particularly laborious to me.

This is doubly sad because the book is somewhat of a sequel to Quentin Durward, one of my very favourite Scott novels. That book focused on the historical rivalry between Charles the Bold and Louis XI of France, painting utterly wonderful, hilarious, and unforgettable portraits of both. My biggest disappointment in Anne of Geierstein was the fact that Louis XI never appears onstage at all. But perhaps it's for the best: Louis XI was so good in Quentin Durward that it would have been sad to see him sung off-key, so to speak.

All the same, Scott still does some amazing stuff with the history in this novel. He works closely from eyewitness accounts in describing the final months of Charles of Burgundy's life. He weaves fascinating tidbits of Germanic legend about the secret Vehmic courts into the plot. He draws subtle and convincing portraits of historical figures you might never have heard of before, but who you can't help understanding and sympathising with at once.

I was particularly impressed with the characterisation of perhaps the book's most central historical figure, Charles, Duke of Burgundy. Scott does a brilliant job of depicting the irascible, pig-headed and ambitious duke. Somehow, he acknowledges his cruelty and violence at the same time that he shows us his charisma and even nobility. Even in a creative slump, Walter Scott excelled at creating subtle, complex, three-dimensional portraits of real historical figures.

Find Anne of Geierstein at Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Monday, October 26, 2015

More behind-the-scenes on OUTREMER

NaNoWriMo is coming soon, and I'm excited! This is the first time I've participated in National Novel Writing Month since way back in 2009. It hasn't fit into my writing schedule for a while, but this year, as I chew through the first draft of OUTREMER, I decided to jump in. If you're joining too, feel free to friend me on the site!

And in the meanwhile, I've been tagged for Curious Wren's Behind the Scenes writing tag. And Cait of Paper Fury is sharing a linkup for authors wanting to share about their NaNo projects.

Beautiful Books

Or, More Behind-the-Scenes on OUTREMER

How did you come up with the idea for your novel, and how long have you had the idea?

One day I'll have to tell this story in fall. For now, I'll just say that the first seed for Outremer came way back in January 2012—so nearly four years ago, when I read Ronald Welch’s Knight Crusader. I knew then that someone ought to write a novel about the Crusader States, but I was still hopeful that someone else would do it, not me. It took me two years and a mental image that dropped into my mind when I heard Greg Wilbur's setting of Psalm 102 off My Cry Ascends to convince me that I needed to do it myself.

Why are you excited to write this novel?

So many reasons! One is that the history behind it is stunningly epic. Another is that while Crusader history is turning up fascinating new research all the time, the popular conception is hopelessly ill-informed; I'd love to do something to bring the latest scholarship to modern audiences. And finally, even within Crusader history and historical fiction, the overwhelming emphasis is on the expeditions from the West, those who travelled to fulfil a vow in the Holy Land and promptly returned home again. By comparison, it's hard to find material from the point of view of the native Frankish nobility, those who settled in Outremer, and their unique perspective and experience.

What is your novel about, and what is the title?

Ahem. It’s about Outremer, from a native point of view, and the title is Outremer.

Sum up your characters in one word each. (Feel free to add pictures!)

I’m...going to try to make a short list.

Lukas: Visionary
Marta: Cutie
John: Loyal
Saint-Gilles: Autocrat
Balian: Peacemaker
Beaujeu: Spymaster
Miles: Confusing
Khalil: Hubristic

Which character(s) do you think will be your favourite to write? Tell us about them!

The list above may give away the fact that I’m already thrilled to bits with Saif, whose character arc is pretty epic. I’m also super excited to write about Marta. I’m not telling you anything else about them for now, because I want to surprise you.

What is your protagonist’s goal, and what stands in the way?

I hate giving away plot details too early on. OK. The protagonists want to preserve their family, their way of life, and their land. They meet 300,000 words’ worth of obstacles, including wars, assassins, evil overlords, and power-hungry princesses.

Where is your novel set? (Show us pictures if you have them!)

All over the Levant, from Constantinople to Mecca to Cairo, from about 1097 to 1293. Here's a picture of a setting on the Red Sea which I was writing about recently!

Known in 1183 as Pharaoh's Isle

What is the most important relationship your character has?

I actually have about three major protagonists and three ancillary protagonists. The most important relationship the first three have is with each other.

How does your protagonist change by the end of the novel?

By the end, all of them have changed dramatically, some for the better, some for the worse. Some of them are dead, some of them have turned their backs on everything they once held dear, some of them have been broken almost beyond repair.

*rubs hands, cackles*

What themes are in your book? How do you want your readers to feel when the story is over?

I want them to feel thrilled and harrowed but ultimately deeply hopeful and inspired to do great things. My themes are about family, multigenerational vision, building the Kingdom of God, the usual. This was what caught my imagination in the history, and I want to communicate that to my readers.

BONUS! Tell us your 3 best pieces of advice for others trying to write a book in a month.

Well for a start, don’t try to get 300,000 words done in a month!

  • Put together a plot outline and do some basic research on appropriate places and customs. You don’t want to get writer’s block this month, and writer’s block is simply a fancy name for not knowing what to do next.
  • Decide how many days you’ll realistically be able to get some writing done, and set yourself a daily wordcount allotment based on that number.
  • Resist all urges to go back and fine-tune. You’ll have plenty of time to do that later. For now, just get words down on paper, no matter how imperfect.

Behind The Scenes Writing Tag

Or, The Creative Process as It Looks From Here
(for which I was tagged by Hanne-col of Ain't We Got Fun and also Schuyler of My Lady Bibliophile)
(and I was also tagged by Anna of Don't Forget the Avocadoes as a Very Inspiring Blogger, and invited to share seven hitherto unknown facts about me. I think these are fairly unknown.)

Is there a certain snack you like to eat while writing?

I drink copious amounts of tea, which I take without milk or sugar—current favourites include vanilla chai, rooibos, licorice, earl grey, oolong, and Russian caravan. Sometimes I go for 90% dark chocolate, nuts, or cheese.

When do you normally write? Night, afternoon, or morning?

Afternoon is my most productive time. I usually can’t afford to write at night because it’s too exciting and I can’t sleep if my brain is buzzing too hard—but sometimes I’ll be on such a roll in the afternoon I won’t be able to tear myself away.

Where do you write?

At my desk in our spare room, always.

How often do you write a new novel?

How long is a piece of string? If I count up all the novels I’ve done at least 50,000 words on over the course of my life, I’d say that on average I’ve started a new novel once every three years or so. As for finishing...well, Pendragon’s Heir took me ten years?

Do you listen to music while you write?

No, I almost never do, and if I do, it’s got to be something I can listen to without really hearing it—so some Lindsey Stirling or Hindi music, nothing too attention-grabbing. I usually only resort to this when something distracting is going on in the background. Music itself is a distraction to me; it uses up parts of my brain that I need to focus on my writing, especially rhythm and cadence. Most writers I know use it, but I’ve never been able to.

What do you write on? Laptop or paper?

PC. It’d be nice to have a laptop but that’s not possible for me at the moment. I use paper mostly for note-taking, although I’ve been known to jump out of bed in the night and scribble a beginning scene on paper.

Is there a special ritual you have before or after you write?

Nope. Not really.

What do you do to get into the mood to write?

A lot of the time I’ll start by going over what I worked on yesterday, getting into the feel of what’s happening in this part of the story, and doing a little editing. Then I can jump back into the flow of things from there.

What is always near the place you write?

Stacks of research books—usually poetry and fiction that captures the mood I’m trying to reproduce, and history or non-fiction books to refer to. My atlas. My timelines, if I’ve made them. Pens, paper, and scribbled notes about what I want to see happening in the story, including page number references to fascinating tidbits I found in my reference books. My cuppa. My phone. Sometimes a candle or incense or an essential oils burner to make things smell nice.

Do you have a reward system for your word count?

Not much beyond “Yes, you can check Twitter/go for a walk/answer that email, but only once you’ve finished another thousand words.”

Is there anything about your writing process that others might not know about?

Umm...well, I love little wordcount counters. I just got an app on my phone, Write-O-Meter, which helps you keep a log of daily wordcount, and tracks it over time, and tells what you’re averaging and how long it’ll take you to finish at this rate. It also has a rewards system but I don’t pay attention to that. The wordcount tracking is particularly thrilling. I can sit in a happy trance staring at that thing for hours. The only thing I can’t do that I’d love to be able to do is friend others and be able to compare wordcounts with them. For that, I have to Google-chat-message Schuyler!

So there you go! Are you participating in NaNo this year? Don't forget to pop over and friend me on the site!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Poem: L. E. L. by Christina Rossetti

I've been thinking about Christina Rossetti lately, and it recently struck me that there's one thing I  really love about her.

Rossetti often strikes a chord with me. I got her Complete Poems for my birthday last year, and since then, as I’ve dipped in from time to time, I’ve discovered a few new favourites. Some of her poetry appeals to the lover of dramatic storytelling, some of it to the meditative recluse. And some of it appeals right to something that, at this time of my life, I sometimes identify with a bit.

It truly doesn’t define my life (certainly not when I'm busy and the sun is shining and there's work to do!). Other things define my life—my writing, my reading, my faith, my family, my ministry of availability to struggling friends. And I think Christina Rossetti felt the same way. But that didn’t stop this minor theme from surfacing from time to time in her verse; and those of her poems that deal with this are often the ones I find myself remembering and quoting the most.

Christina Rossetti never married. On one occasion, she broke off an engagement when her intended converted to Roman Catholicism. Later, she rejected another suitor who didn’t share her passionate faith and moral seriousness. She spent her life writing, caring for her aging and beloved mother, and volunteering in various mercy ministries.

So at this particular stage of my life, I can sometimes really identify with Christina Rossetti. Her poetry of deferred and wistful hopes is something I've come to appreciate more and more as time goes by. She writes about the sorrow never entirely absent from the joy in watching friends and acquaintances pair off: “All love; are loved, save only I.” She writes about heartbreak and lost love: “With all sweet things it passed away, And left me old, and cold, and grey.” She writes about the difficult decision to put her faith and her God above the man she loved: “None know the choice I made and broke my heart, Breaking my idol.” She writes quietly, gently, of her hopes: “I wonder if the springtide of this year Will bring another Spring both lost and dear” and of her fears: “I still am sore in doubt concerning Spring.”

I think these are things that a lot of young women feel from time to time. Sometimes, being unmarried seems, well, less than desirable! For me, it’s at those times that Christina Rossetti has walked alongside me, feeling what I’ve felt, sorrowing over what I’ve sorrowed over.

But most importantly, guiding me into the right responses. In Christina Rossetti’s footsteps, I’ve been encouraged to leave self-pity behind, to fix my eyes on eternal things: “True best is last, true life is born of death.” I’ve been encouraged to look foward to relationships which will never run aground: “think how it will be in Paradise When we’re together.” And I’ve been reminded that no matter what earthly love I may or may not experience, a glorious heavenly Love is mine, so that with Christina I can truly say, “The birthday of my life is come, my love is come to me.”

These poems have been a blessing to me in the past, and I think they will be a blessing to you, too. Here's one of them.


“Whose heart was breaking for a little love.”

Down-stairs I laugh, I sport and jest with all:
        But in my solitary room above
I turn my face in silence to the wall;
        My heart is breaking for a little love.
                Though winter frosts are done,
                 And birds pair every one,
And leaves peep out, for springtide is begun.

I feel no spring, while spring is wellnigh blown,
         I find no nest, while nests are in the grove:
Woe's me for mine own heart that dwells alone,
        My heart that breaketh for a little love.
         While golden in the sun
        Rivulets rise and run,
While lilies bud, for springtide is begun.

All love, are loved, save only I; their hearts
         Beat warm with love and joy, beat full thereof:
They cannot guess, who play the pleasant parts,
         My heart is breaking for a little love.
                 While beehives wake and whirr,
                 And rabbit thins his fur,
In living spring that sets the world astir.

I deck myself with silks and jewelry,
         I plume myself like any mated dove:
They praise my rustling show, and never see
         My heart is breaking for a little love.
                 While sprouts green lavender
                 With rosemary and myrrh,
For in quick spring the sap is all astir.

Perhaps some saints in glory guess the truth,
         Perhaps some angels read it as they move,
And cry one to another full of ruth,
         “Her heart is breaking for a little love.”
                 Though other things have birth,
                 And leap and sing for mirth,
When spring-time wakes and clothes and feeds the earth.

Yet saith a saint: “Take patience for thy scathe”;
         Yet saith an angel: “Wait, for thou shalt prove
True best is last, true life is born of death,
         O thou, heart-broken for a little love!
                 Then love shall fill thy girth,
                 And love make fat thy dearth,
When new spring builds new heaven and clean new earth.”


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