Sunday, February 28, 2016

"The Bells of Paradise" is here!

It's here! You lovely people who already bought The Bells of Paradise on preorder can go off and devour it now on your Kindle devices, and you lovely people who were waiting for release date to purchase it can now do that too!

Although I do recommend splashing out and buying this shiny, lovely new novella before March 5th. Why? Because if you do, you'll get a lovely digital bonus from my friend Christina Baehr--a link to a free mp3 download of Down in Yon Forest, the Derbyshire carol that inspired many aspects of this story!

Speaking of which, I thought you might enjoy hearing a bit about the other inspirations for this novella.

Jorinda and Joringel - this has always been a favourite fairytale of mine, brief and obscure as it is, on account of its vivid imagery and triumphantly happy ending. I'm so thrilled to get this chance to retell it!
Down in Yon Forest / Corpus Christi Carol - two very similar carols, again with very vivid and distinctive imagery. Down in Yon Forest is a variant of the song that emerged in Derbyshire in the 1500s...and so I have set my story in 1500s Derbyshire.
The Faerie Queene - Of course you know that this is one of my favourite books ever, starring valiant fay knights smiting monsters and ridding the land of evil. However, in most English folk-lore the Queen of Faerie and her court are much more morally ambiguous, if not evil. So... The Bells of Paradise is basically Faerie Queene fan-fiction trying to show how Faerie becomes the place we read about in Spenser. If you're familiar with The Faerie Queene, you'll hopefully recognise a bunch of characters that...don't (yet) depict the virtues they do in Spenser. If you're not familiar with The Faerie Queene, not to worry! You can still enjoy the story!
Tam Lin - In this traditional Border ballad, the human knight Tam Lin has been kidnapped by the Queen of Faerie and faces being tithed to Hell if his true love can't rescue him beforehand. This is probably the best-known example of the "morally ambiguous Faerie" trope, so that went into the mix too.

Other references, allusions, and inspirations include all the English folklore ever, including but not limited to The Rime of True Thomas, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter, Neil Gaiman's Stardust, Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Shakespeare, and the late-medieval Unicorn genre of tapestries.

And now you know!


Only a madman would go into Faerie of his own accord.

The one thing John the blacksmith loves more than his peaceful, hardworking life in Middleton Dale is the tailor's free-spirited daughter Janet. But unlike John, Janet dreams of adventure beyond the Dale. And when her dreams lead her into Faerie to be captured by a dangerous witch, John realises he must dare the perilous realm of the Lordly Folk to free his bride.

A poignant and profound retelling of the Grimms' fairytale Jorinda and Joringel, set in the fantastical realms of Elizabethan folklore. Novella, approximately 25,000 words.

"The Bells of Paradise gave me an evening of wonder and adventure. It's about the price of a cup of coffee, and gives you soul food that lasts much longer."
- My Lady Bibliophile

"It's hard to believe the original fairytale was not meant for this setting."
- Elisabeth Grace Foley, author

Now available on Kindle!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Lord Vanity by Samuel Shellabarger

As a longtime fan of melodramatic vintage swashbucklers, I'd often heard of the American historian and author Samuel Shellabarger. You might know of him too: his his most well-known book, Captain from Castile, was made into a classic vintage movie with Tyrone Power (which I have not seen). Yet somehow, every time I considered reading one of his books, something put me off. It wasn't until a desire to learn a little about Venice prodded me to pick up Lord Vanity, which I happened to have lying around, that I actually got around to it.

Richard Morandi, the illegitimate and unacknowledged son of an English lord, holds down a modest job in the theatre world of Venice until one night, working as a musician at an aristocratic house-party, he is asked to play a supporting role in some amateur theatricals. Coached by the mysterious adventurer Marcel Tromba to impersonate a worldly-wise nobleman, Morandi comes away from the party with a taste for high life, an offer to see the world as Tromba's apprentice and ally--and a conflicting interest in Maritza Venier, an idealistic young ballet dancer who despises the moral bankruptcy of high society. Through many ups and downs, Morandi uses his wits, his acting skills, and his sword to pursue both his desire for wealth and power and his love for Maritza, always aware that he will ultimately have to choose between them.

This is a long, episodic historical novel that ranges as far afield as Quebec, where our main character takes part in Wolfe's campaigning against the French. I was impressed by the level of historical detail Shellabarger has mastered for this book: the period really seemed to come alive, whether he was discussing Venetian architecture or military tactics in the fall of Quebec. The book also moves along pretty well, full of spies, sword-fights, escapes, and love-affairs as it is. Sadly, I found the whole thing rather tiresome.

I didn't like the main character. Richard starts off fairly young and even naive, and the book is one of those have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too books about someone being tempted away from the straight and narrow, having lots of fun doing it, and then coming to repentance right at the end (after having had All The Fun). I had a wistful hope the book would be better than this: all the way through it, Maritza, who is a delightful character, acts as the book's exemplar of goodness and purity. And (spoiler?) Richard does come around to her way of seeing things at the end. But that happens after he's been enjoying the fruits of sin for a while, whether it's in his impersonation of an aristocrat or his affair with the self-centred and amoral Comtesse des Landes.

It's easy even for the reader to enjoy the high-society atmosphere of intrigue, danger and decadence which tempts Richard away from his quiet life. But though that was fun for the first sixty pages, it palled pretty quickly after that. Maritza's evaluation of 1750s aristocratic society is correct: it's shallow, amoral, unreal, and unsatisfying. But the book still wants us to spend more than four hundred pages there being entertained by the very things it affects to despise.

Though this was a vivid and engaging historical novel, I really don't think I'll be reading any more Samuel Shellabarger anytime soon.

Find Lord Vanity, if you must, at Amazon.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Huon of the Horn by Andre Norton

Back in the days when our local library was a place for children's books from the 50s and 70s to go and die--in other words, a treasure trove for homeschooled children--one of my brothers unearthed Andre Norton's book Huon of the Horn, and we all read it avidly. We did not know that Andre Norton was a classic sci-fi author, and we did not know that in this book she was pretty straightforwardly retelling an old chanson de geste. We recollected--or I did, at any rate--that Huon of Bordeaux was King of the Fairies, successor to Oberon in Puck of Pook's Hill, and we were fond of King Arthur legends, so discovering Huon of the Horn was great fun.

The book was soon cleaned out of the library and I hadn't thought of it for years when re-reading The Song of Roland whetted my appetite to go back and revisit this retelling--the more so as there doesn't actually seem to be a good easily-available translation of the original Huon of Bordeaux chanson. I was able to locate Norton's version online, however; and curious to see how it stood up to a re-read.

I found it unexpectedly thought-provoking for a fairly straightforward retelling.

As I explained in my Song of Roland review, the medieval chanson de geste was quite different in flavour to the romances that followed in the 13-1400s. Romances, like Le Morte D'Arthur or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, had more interest in love stories, magic, and adventures to surreal fairytale landscapes. Chansons, on the other hand, were basically gritty war epics. Huon of Bordeaux, the chanson Andre Norton is retelling in this book, was composed in the 1200s and exists only in fragments. The full story, as Norton tells it, comes from a later version that has been extended, presumably with romantic elements added. So I would classify it as a romance, not a chanson--but it still served as a nice little chaser to The Song of Roland.

The plot is exciting, though episodic. When a villain persuades Charlemagne's son and heir to attack the young Duke of Bordeaux on his way to court, and Huon manages to slay his anonymous attacker, Charlemagne exiles Huon from the kingdom on a quest that's sure to bring him his death. Huon must travel to Babylon. And he must kill the Amir's greatest lord, kiss the Amir's daughter, and bring back a handful of hair from the Amir's beard and a handful of teeth from the Amir's mouth.

Norton's retelling comes in two parts. Part One tells how Huon travelled to Babylon and with the help of Oberon, King of the Fairies, achieved his quest and won the hand of the Amir's daughter Claramonde. Oberon thereupon names Huon his heir, and Part Two tells the further adventures of Huon and Claramonde, and how Huon earns the right to succeed Oberon.

It was all good fun. I appreciated Claramonde's character particularly: plucky and dignified, she advises Huon when he's around and commands the defence of his castle while he's away, even taking part as an archer (one is reminded that medieval advice columnist Christine de Pisan recommended baronesses learn how to fight for this very reason).

Which reminds me. Many of our misconceptions about medieval history actually come from other periods of history. Medieval kings in Christian countries, for instance, were not absolute monarchs. In many cases, in fact, succession was not a matter of the eldest son automatically succeeding to the throne; instead, it was understood that the heir must be approved by the election of the barons. Huon of the Horn contains as its primary theme the tyranny of kings and the resistance of the plucky duchy of Bordeaux--from Huon, its rightful duke, and Claramonde, its duchess, all the way down to the common people plotting liberation in the streets--against all sorts of misbehaving emperors, dukes, and governors.

Huon himself was a wonderful character. At the beginning of the story, he's a hot-headed youth who gets into fights easily and makes his greatest mistake in lying about his faith to gain admission to Babylon. (This, by the way, is fascinating, because the Templars instructed their knights to lie about their faith if it would save their lives in captivity; and at the dawn of the 1300s, this led to their spectacular downfall.) By the end of the story, however, Huon has become a wise and cool-headed man who humbles himself before his rivals--the Emperor of Alamayne, even King Arthur--in order to preserve peace. Given the historical context of the story, it's hard not to see Huon as an aspirational hero, a demonstration to the knightly audience of the humility and peaceableness of the true Christian hero as contrasted with the tyranny of many of the lords, kings, and emperors around him.

And because of his humility, Huon is rewarded with a high post as the co-king of Elfland, tasked with defending the universe against the forces of darkness on the Western Marches with King Arthur as his colleague.

Another of the many things that fascinated me in this story was the character and role of Oberon, king of the Fairies. As a practically all-powerful ally, Oberon is always stepping in to rescue the characters from Certain Death! But in the second half, he repeatedly refuses to help Huon. The reasoning goes that now that Oberon has adopted Huon as his heir, he must be left to earn his place on his own. Around this time, I began to feel a mite uncomfortable. I realised that Oberon was functioning as the story's Christ-figure. So what does it mean if Huon must earn his position as king? On more mature thought, however, I began to wonder if the poem was drawing a graceful distinction between justification (Huon's repentance for lying leads to his adoption by Oberon) and sanctification (now he must work for his happy ending). Certainly, the final scenes, in which the Elf King goes into Paradise leaving Huon (and Arthur) to occupy Elfland, gain a lot of power from Christlike imagery, and puts an unexpected grin on the reader's face. For Huon's job is the job of every Christian in the world. We too defend the universe against the forces of darkness. We too reign with Christ and the saints.

This review is already too long. I could point out the wistfully hopeful picture of Huon going to the Holy Land and recovering Jerusalem, for instance, or the equally wistful fact that he does so with the help of a Shah of Persia who has converted to Christ (the medievals' hope to be aided by an Eastern Christian potentate was so strong it took mythical form in the person of Prester John). Or I could discuss the interesting case of the Adamant Island where bread and wine saves Christian souls but destroys false converts.

It would be interesting to know if Andre Norton made any alterations, additions, or omissions to the story in retelling it like this for children. Certainly it's one of those retellings that seems more aimed at a faithful reproduction of the original, than in reinterpreting it for a new generation. As such, I really enjoyed it. Perhaps the story isn't as epic or as tightly-woven as you might expect from really great literature; but I was amazed at how much food for thought there was in this short book.

Find Huon of the Horn on Amazon or Abebooks.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Agent Carter, Nancy Wake, and Why I'm Not a Feminist

When I sat down to watch Marvel's Agent Carter series several months ago, I was looking forward to some light cheesy fun. Like everyone else, I'd been sucked in by the premise: ladylike, yet sassy British spy fights crime in the aftermath of WWII, while wearing an endless array of gorgeous '40s fashion--what's not to like?

What I didn't expect was unremitting feminist propaganda, very self-consciously built into the show at every level, from the premise up: Stuck holding down a desk job at the SSR after her hour of glory in World War II, Agent Carter follows the adventures of Peggy Carter as she attempts to save the world...right under the noses of her misogynistic boss, her chauvinistic co-workers, and a world rampant with casual sexism!

Now I may not be a feminist, but I don't live under a stone. I live in the same world you do, and that means I'm constantly brushing up against feminist ideology. From The Empire Strikes Back to Edge of Tomorrow, for example, the movies I like usually include it to some degree. I'm used to it. I expect it. I make allowances for it.

But Agent Carter was something else: a show that was fundamentally about nothing but feminism versus sexism, and how evil the latter is, and how all-pervasive it supposedly was in the 40s. With little or no character arc for its leading lady, a plot with the substance of Kleenex, and episodes that consisted of little more than a tiresome series of men being either evil or irresponsible buffoons, Agent Carter demonized the world of the past to such an absurd degree that it rendered itself incapable of even making an intelligent case for feminism. If you reduce your opponents to straw men, then you will not be able to defend your own position very well, hmm?

Small examples abound in the series. Men constantly patronise leading lady Peggy Carter by calling her "darling", assuming that she gained her rank during the War by sleeping with officers, or telling her that "you're so much better at that sort of thing [filing papers, a stereotypical secretarial job] than I am." Peggy successfully manipulates her boss into giving her a sick day by delicately hinting she's on her period, the mere mention of which causes widespread alarm and disgust in the office. And in the radio show based on the in-universe adventures of Captain America, "Nurse Carver", the Peggy Carter character, having been demoted from strong and tough special agent to stereotypically feminine nurse, spends the whole time screaming for Captain America while being menaced by Nazis.

And then there are the bigger things. I'll take one that irritated me most. One of Peggy's coworkers, the attractive and sensitive Daniel Sousa, permanently on crutches after a war wound, is actually nice to her. Literally: the only guy in the office who doesn't see her as less than the carpet beneath his oxfords. Sousa constantly shows her friendship and takes her seriously as an agent. Could it be? Are the producers actually permitting a male character to exist who isn't a sexist jerk?


Eventually, (first-season spoilers!) the SSR come to suspect that Peggy has turned her coat and has betrayed them. They lock her in a small room and interrogate her aggressively--and it's Daniel Sousa who leads the interrogation. The reason? Sexism: his previous regard for her wasn't a real respect for her as a person, but idolisation based on a maddona-whore complex. Soon convinced that she must be a traitor and is sleeping with the enemy, Sousa viciously attacks her instead, earning himself a scorching pscyhoanalytical tirade from the self-righteous Peggy. "To you I’m [...] the girl on the pedestal, transformed into some daft whore."

ME (trying to be helpful): You know, this has been done before. Shakespeare already made this point back in the 1500s, in Much Ado About Nothing. And A Winter's Tale. And Othello. And then there was the Tale of Gereint and Enid in The Mabinogion from the 1300s. And then--

AGENT CARTER PRODUCER #1: Did someone hear something? Something about white male Christian authors writing plays and books on this problem of idealism and unrealistic expectations for the last seven hundred years?

AGENT CARTER PRODUCER #2: It can't be true! We know that feminism and respect for women was born fully-fledged for the very first time in 1996! We know that in the 1940s all you were allowed to do was answer phones; certainly we have no examples of women back then doing skilled craftsmanship or important academic work, being elected to Parliament, or leading thousands of Resistance troops!

AGENT CARTER PRODUCER #1: Oh, well then. I guess it must just have been a loud wind.

Seriously! We've talking about this for years.

Wait, maybe I'd better explain something.

I'm not a feminist.

No, I actually mean that.

There are many reasons why this is so, but here's the main one: Scripture teaches that the relationship between man and wife is a picture of Christ and the Church. Christ is the Head of the Church. And as the Church submits to Christ, so a woman should submit to her own husband.

Because every married relationship is a picture of Christ, and because feminism tells us that men and women are functionally equal even within marriage, so that the Bride should not consider herself obliged to submit to the Head, I believe that therefore, feminism is at root and by definition dedicated to telling a lie about Christ and the Church. It symbolically raises humanity to equality with God.

Another reason I'm not a feminist is the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Within the Trinity, all the members are equal in a sense: all of them are equally God, equal in glory and blessedness. This is the ontological equality of the Trinity. But at the same time, the members of the Trinity are not functionally, or economically equal (to use the technical term). Scripture teaches this when it tells us that Christ did not see equality with God as something to be grasped, but humbled himself to death, even to death on the Cross. In the same way, a human man and wife, or a human father and child, or a human elder and parishioner, or a human magistrate and subject, or a human employer and employee, are all ontologically equal (holding equal status and worth as human beings), but are economically or functionally inequal.

(Requisite disclaimer: Of course, none of this means women have less worth than a man, or must submit to a misbehaving or abusive head. The Trinitarian argument affirms the ontological equality of women, and the spousal argument affirms a woman's binding authority over her children, since she represents the authoritative Body of Christ. Finally, the doctrine of the Fall of Man teaches us that no earthly authority is perfect, and the doctrine of interposition tells us that lesser authorities have the right and duty to resist tyrannical greater authorities.)

If Agent Carter had wanted to make a real defence of feminism, it should have forgotten about the strawmen and tried engaging with a real argument. Or the least it could have done was try to reflect historical reality, as did a biography I just finished reading aloud with my sisters.

Nancy Wake by Russell Braddon

Nancy Wake was a feminist.

She was also a WWII special agent.

She was definitely a gorgeous, feminine woman.

She faced baddies and sexism and defeated both with gunfire, judo, and jawdropping charm, smarts, and luck.

And the best part?

She was real.

When Nancy Wake died in 2011, the most-decorated servicewoman of WWII (with three Croix de Guerres, a Resistance Medal, a George Medal, an Order of Australia, and a Medal of Freedom), it was amazing to see her all over the news around the world. Her story has been told many times, but my favourite so far is the biography by Russell Braddon. When we were invited to an Australia Day fancy dress party recently, I suggested one of my sisters should dress up in 1940s attire to honour her. Then, because neither of my sisters knew who I was talking about, I sat them down and we read Braddon's biography aloud together.

Nancy Wake grew up in Australia, but soon set off travelling the globe as a reporter. In Paris, her path crossed with the wealthy Marseilles industrialist Henri Fiocca. After a whirlwind romance, they married, and in 1939 Nancy found herself living in the lap of luxury with an adored husband, two spoiled dogs, and limitless supplies of champagne and caviare in Marseilles.

It lasted a few short months before the Nazis invaded. France capitulated after a few months and after a brief stint driving an ambulance on the frontlines while her husband fought in the ranks, Nancy returned to Marseilles to get used to life under the collaborationist Vichy government. Before long, she began to help interned Allied officers to escape across the Pyrenees to which involved her more and more deeply in the French Resistance. Her husband, still running his business, financed her to the tune of millions. The Gestapo called her the White Mouse and put her at the top of their "Most Wanted" list with five million francs on her head.

Finally Marseilles became too hot to handle her, and Nancy was forced to flee across the Pyrenees to England, while the Gestapo captured her husband. There she spent some months training for the Special Operations Executive, and parachuted back into France a few months before D-Day. She wore high heels on the drop. Working in the Auvergne, she was soon the commanding officer of over 7,000 Resistance fighters. After leading them through several pitched battles and too many skirmishes to count, and killing enormous quantities of Nazis (one with her bare hands), she wrapped up her wartime career by liberating Vichy itself.

Braddon's book was written in 1956, just a decade after the setting of Agent Carter, but it tells the story with unabashed, pro-feminist glee throughout. Nancy Wake outwitted would-be seducers and killers. She manipulated a Gestapo officer's sense of chivalry to get him to carry her suitcase for her--then at the psychological moment, hinted that it was full of black-market pork, so that he was obliged to get it safely through customs for her rather than risk being caught carrying it. In training to become an SOE agent, she refused to get out of bed at 5am for physical training, simply claiming to be ill--and got away with it.

One thing that impressed me about Nancy Wake's feminism was that this was a feminism that rolled up its sleeves and did the work, accepting the consequences, rather than throwing a tantrum and insisting the world remake itself to suit her. I was fascinated to note what Wake had to forego in order to do all the amazing things she did. Leading 7,000 Resistance fighters was no cakewalk. Once she cycled 200 kilometers inside 3 days and returned to her men a physical wreck. She learned to walk with a constant slouch to try to disguise her curvaceous figure. She learned the filthiest language of the Marseilles fish-markets, and employed it plenteously to keep her men in line. When peace finally came, she wore a hat and a dress for the first time in months to meet some of her colleagues for drinks at a hotel. At first, they failed to recognise her. In many ways, she bought her power and influence at the cost of her identity.

Interestingly, her men still never forgot she was a woman. Her bodyguard of Spanish refugees from Franco's regime were aggressively protective and gallant, whether blasting her way through a Gestapo checkpoint or stopping at a restaurant to order her a meal. On such occasions, they would sweep the whole building, interrogate the owner, and then stand around her bristling with guns and belligerent chivalry while she ate.

I suppose they all had madonna-whore complexes.

Although Wake told Braddon not to make the story too gritty--"My war was full of laughter," she insisted--there's plenty of darkness peeping around the edges: death, torture, and rapes perpetrated by both sides. There's language, there are off-colour songs, and if you dig into other biographies, it isn't much of a surprise to learn that one close associate and friend of Wake's was flamboyantly homosexual and that Wake herself, after a turbulent upbringing with an emotionally distant and very religious mother, ran away from home and abandoned her faith. So this is not a clean, tidy, homeschool-girl kind of story.

"I don't see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas."
But then, nor is it a feminist fantasy that delights in bashing misogynistic strawmen. What it is, is a true story, a tale of incredible daring, excitement, and humour, about the 1940s as they really were.

And it's a story that licks Agent Carter hollow. If you haven't already, I highly recommend reading Russell Braddon's biography of Nancy Wake.

Find Nancy Wake at Amazon or The Book Depository.

Here is a shorter and more colourful biography of her life. Warning: language.


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