25 Apr 2013

Review of 'A Cast of Stones' by Patrick W. Carr

A Cast of Stones: The Staff and the Sword Trilogy Book 1 
"In the backwater village of Callowford, Errol Stone's search for a drink is interrupted by a church messenger who arrives with urgent missives for the hermit priest in the hills. Desperate for coin, Errol volunteers to deliver them but soon finds himself hunted by deadly assassins. Forced to flee with the priest and a small band of travelers, Errol soon learns he's joined a quest that could change the fate of his kingdom.
Protected for millennia by the heirs of the first king, the kingdom's dynasty is near an end and a new king must be selected. As tension and danger mount, Errol must leave behind his drunkenness and grief, learn to fight, and come to know his God in order to survive a journey to discover his destiny."
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I admit that I tend to have high standards where any novel set in the medieval era is concerned, but I really could not get on with this one from the outset.  There were some original elements to the story, and some original characters, but on the whole it seemed a little disappointing and dare I say it maybe a little `ordinary'?
By which I mean rather similar to a lot of other fantasy stories out there, with perhaps little to make it stand out from the crowd except the `lots' and `readers' who will be mentioned later.

First of all there was the writing style- without meaning to seem cruel or unpleasant in the early parts the novel read as though it could have been written by a teenager I know this was probably the author's first book, but the writing felt amateurish in places, especially some descriptions of characters' feelings and metaphors.
Some characters were interesting, like Errol the hero at times, but others may have been just 'stock' characters. Like the ninja-style girl amazingly skilled at fighting, a drunken priest, a greedy merchant, and a love interest or two.

Also, it seemed to be lacking in any real sense of period (at least at the beginning). Yes, it was meant to be set in medieval times, but the setting just seemed superficial as though having the characters wearing cloaks and fighting with swords and bows was enough.
Yet their speech was very out of place and peppered with modern day idioms and phrases, and characters eating such exotic delicacies as turkey and potatoes which were unknown in Medieval Europe.
Also, although fantasy can stretch reality there were some incidents were too implausible. Is it actually possible for a person to dodge an arrow shot from only a few feet on front of them? Even if characters were hit, they would just pull out the offending arrow, carry on with what they were doing, and maybe seek medical treatment later, then seemingly be perfectly fine in a day or two.

Errol the hero also seemed to have an uncanny ability to just pull though when he seemed to be at the point of death. Some two or three times in the novel is badly wounded or sick and near to dying but just manages to survive.
Then there were the fight scenes. I understand element of danger was necessary and allowed Errol to develop his fighting ability but there can be such a thing as too many fight scenes. Perhaps this story relied too heavily on them for `action' at the expense of plot and character development and ran the risk of making the story seem repetitive.

Moving on, some of the religious elements of the work of `Christian Fiction' warrant a mention. Yet the central notion of the `readers' who are `born with' the power to see what is written on lots seems to be one that is dubious. Basically, `lots' are round balls which readers use to help them make decisions or find out information by `fixing a picture' in their mind of the possibilities. To me, it seemed a little like visualisation and appeared as though the readers were almost able to project their thoughts onto the lots.

The allegorical retelling of some Biblical accounts seemed to fall short by their apparent lack of consistency with scripture. For instance it was claimed that Elision (the equivalent of Christ) died to `lock' the evil spirits away from his creation- but there was no mention of him having died for the sins of humanity that I could recall. There was mention of a human King having `purchased the barrier' between the world of men and the evil spirits with his blood- but he was human and not Jesus. Also the descriptions of people being demon possessed might have been a little too intense.

Overall, A Cast of Stones was not a book I greatly enjoyed, and I would not be very likely to recommend it. I received a proof copy of this book from Netgalley for a review. All opinions expressed in it are my own.

20 Apr 2013

English Historical Fiction Authors: Sword Construction - Something To Get a Handle On

 Another interesting article on swords and the use thereof by Scott Higgenbotham. Do I get the feeling this is a subject he likes...

English Historical Fiction Authors: Sword Construction - Something To Get a Handle On:  by Scott Higginbotham What could more exciting than reading or writing about sword construction?   Well, I can think of very few pur...

6 Apr 2013

Does Hollywood know better?

I have noticed something. It happens sometimes, I may not be the sharpest knife the the drawer, but I do notice some things. I don't know if anyone else has noticed. Unless they are pedantic, like me, don't like historical inaccuracy, and draws attention to it, they may not have done. 

Before readers lose interest at another historical rant, please at least let me explain things. What I have
noticed is the way that some people are coming to respond to the pointing out that a book or a movie is historically inaccurate. 
A fairly typical response to this might be something along the lines of "its not a documentary, so it doesn't have to be accurate" . This is an entirely separate issue which I don't want to get into. 
However, there seem to be some people, who, when it is pointed out that a book or movie they like has a severe deficiency in the accuracy department, will respond by trying to make out that it is in fact the history that is wrong.

Such persons say something like "We can't possibly know what really happened because we weren't there".
Notwithstanding that the same argument could be applied to the very work of movie makers or authors living centuries or millenia after the events, the people who say such things don't seem to realize  (or take account of) something important.. 
That is we have at least some material composed by the people who were there. Who were around at the time, and may well have known what happened. It is such primary source material that people who study history use.

The history-doubters, however, might have another card in their deck. They may be aware of the source material, and take upon themselves the mantle of self-appointed textual critics by claiming that the sources are for whatever reason unreliable or untrustworthy. Ergo, we still don't know what really happened. Ergo, the movie may not be wrong after all?

It is true that the sources have their deficiencies, they were after all written by fallible men and women who made mistakes and had their own personal biases and opinions, or who may have wanted the depict events in a certain way. 
To entirely dismiss all the sources on this basis however, seems as absurd as discounting everything the in   because the writers or presenters thereof might not be entirely objective, or rejecting all witness testimony in court cases because those who present it may not be entirely unbiased.

Has anyone else noticed this, or is it just me? Is this a new trend? If so, I rather think its about time we cut history some slack?
If someone says something is inaccurate, one can reasonably guess its because people know something about it.
So perhaps, rather then dismissing such claims, its time that we started listening a bit more to those who point this out. In my experience, studying history takes more effort than reading a novel or watching a movie, and let's face it, there are none (or very few) which are entirely accurate.

Maybe we should just accept that, instead of attacking that which brings this to notice. Maybe also, alongside enjoying historical fiction, we could also turn our hand to some  historical and not 'learn' everything we know from what is, after all, entertainment, or worse still, act as though we know better because we have watched the  movie.....

4 Apr 2013

Review of 'A Trail of Ink' by Mel Starr

A Trail of Ink: The Third Chronicle of Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon 
 "Some valuable books have been stolen from Master John Wyclif, the well known scholar and Bible translator. He calls upon his friend and former pupil, Hugh de Singleton, to investigate. Hugh's investigation leads him to Oxford where he again encounters Kate, the only woman who has tempted him to leave bachelor life behind, but Kate has another serious suitor. As Hugh's pursuit of Kate becomes more successful, mysterious accidents begin to occur. Are these accidents tied to the missing books, or to his pursuit of Kate?

One of the stolen books turns up alongside the drowned body of a poor Oxford scholar. Another accident? Hugh certainly doesn t think so, but it will take all of his surgeon's skills to prove

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A Trail of Ink has a little bit of everything that makes this series enjoyable, mystery, a colourful and detailed historical backdrop, and some interesting descriptions of Medieval surgery, medicine and other aspects of life. In this novel, there is even a hint of Romance, with Hugh courting Kate Paxton, the stationers’ daughter he met in the last novel. Unwittingly, he also gains himself and enemy, an initially a love rival in the form of Sir Simon Trillowe son of the Sheriff of Oxford who causes problems in the later books.
This third installment focuses on the relationship between Kate and Hugh, and of course he has a mystery to solve as Doctor John Wycliffe has had all his books stolen. An event which causes Hugh’s friend and mentor some distress- he was a scholar who relied on his books after all. Hugh's employer Lord Gilbert Talbot's encouragement to find a wife gives Hugh the perfect excuse to stay in Oxford, and help Master Wycliffe.

Of course, Hugh soon falls into trouble as Sir Simon Trillowe is literally willing to go to any lengths to get him out of the way- and it is all the harder to deal with him as his father holds the authority of Sheriff. 
Yet the frequency and nature of nefarious plots do harm to or do away with our hero seem to be getting a little implausible. How many times can someone break into his room or his house at night, ambush him in the street, kidnap him, or attack him, and he just narrowly escape? It does seem to be getting to be a little bit of a worn out formula now and perhaps a tad predictable. 

I also had a few issues with Hugh himself in the story. For instance, when he is thrown into jail on false charges and facing execution (begging the question of whether a member of the gentry classes actually could be treated thus), he prays in desperation as he can think of no way out, but, when the situation is resolved, he is not depicted as grateful or thankful to God for apparently answering his prayers.
Instead he whines. Also, his lying does get a bit much after a while, especially when there would be other ways to deal with the situation, and his automatic assumption that he is not as bad as others, or that God won’t mind. The ending also seemed a little but rushed, resolved very quickly seemingly without much explanation of the motives of those involved. 

Altogether A Trail of Ink is an enjoyable mystery story and light read that does not rely on gory murders (in fact this event does not happen until over halfway through the book), in a fascinating and well-researched setting. The said, the elements of the story which can be repetitive, formulaic and predictable were a shortcoming, which could perhaps prove problematic if the series continues.
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