Weekly Read: The Relic Master

As it happens, the afternoon after I finished Christopher Buckley’s The Relic Master I stumbled across Blazing Saddles on TV. While watching it for the umpteenth time, I had an epiphany about comedy and violence.

Trust me, these two things go together.

The Relic Master is the story of Dismas, who works for a pair of high placed Germans in the 16th century, scouring the world for holy relics. These baubles – from a piece of a saint’s fingernail to the boat of St. Peter – are supposed to cure the sick and help the sinful atone for being, well, basically for being human.

Dismas tries to scam one of his patrons (with an assist from Albrecht Durer – yes, that one), but gets caught. As penance, he (and Durer) are tasked with stealing another holy relic, the Shroud of Chambery – better known today as the Shroud of Turin. A road trip ensues, terminating in an extended stay in Chambery that, let’s just say, doesn’t go as planned.

It’s a heist story, and a fairly amusing one. It’s never quite as funny as it wants to be (aside from a version of the Last Supper that’s beautifully farcical), but it’s generally fun, quick moving, and interesting. Dismas (who may or may not have been a real person) lived in interesting times (see Luther, Martin – relics play large role in the indulgence trade) and intersects with several interesting historical figures, none of which actually changes history as we know it.

Where does Blazing Saddles come in? Early in the movie there’s a scene where the railroad company sends a gang of thugs to Rock Ridge to scare off the population. Violence, rape, and murder are all on offer and, if presented in any way realistically, would be horrible. But it’s not. There’s no blood, nobody dies, and the attack ends with a nearly pantomime attack on a little old lady who still manages to crack a one liner. A subsequent church bombing is, literally, all smoke.

Why is that important? Because it means the movie never loses sight of what it is, of its tone. It’s a comedy first and foremost. One that’s got something to say about serious stuff, but in terms of action, it’s profoundly silly.

The Relic Master, by contrast, wants to be light and funny most of the time, but twice it dips into serious violence that just ruins the mood. The first is when Dismas’s initial caper goes bad and he’s tortured by his wronged patron. This is all off stage, thankfully, although that results in a heretofore unutilized POV shift. Torture is rarely funny (Vogon poetry should be involved), and the kind the Dismas experiences certainly isn’t It leaves him physically altered (a plot point of which Buckley makes good use later), although doesn’t appear to do that much emotional damage. Regardless, it’s a downer.

The second is near the end, when the other scheme starts to go to shit, with bloody consequences. At one point Dismas references eleven dead bodies in a room. And someone gets their throat cut on stage. None of this is particularly necessary and, again, it’s a real downer. There’s something to be said for dark comedy (think Tarrantino), but that doesn’t seem to be what The Relic Master is going for the other 85% of the time.

The sudden shifts in tone keep The Relic Master from being a completely satisfying read. Whether that’s an outgrowth of making Dismas a former mercenary, and thus possessed of certain skills, I don’t know. Protagonists of capers often work better if they’re talkers, not fighter. While Dismas is clever in his own right, he does fall back on old habits.

Still, a mostly fun, quick read, set during an interesting time. You could do worse.

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A Bit of Perspective

Another year down and the United States national team finds itself doing the major tournament post mortem, this time following the Copa America Centenario. The 100-year anniversary of the South American championship was expanded to 16 teams, shipped north, and enjoyed record-breaking attendance. How’d the US do?

Not bad, if we’re being perfectly honest, going out in the semifinal to Argentina and losing to Colombia (for the second time) in the consolation match. Along the way we won our group, held off Ecuador (currently second in South America’s brutal World Cup Qualifying proceeding), and reached the goal that manager Jurgen Klinsman set for us.

Are we completely happy? Of course not, these are US soccer fans we’re talking about!  We’re a notoriously fickle bunch. I, myself, still think Klinsman isn’t very good at the actual game managing stuff (which is, you know, important). The lineup he chose for the Argentina game was like waving a white flag (or a red flag in front of a bull – take your choice) and had not even the slimmest chances of winning. But do I think the right lineup would have beaten Messi and company? Almost certainly not. Still, might as well go down fighting.

More importantly, let’s keep the whole thing in perspective. The FIFA rankings (flawed as they are) of the Copa semifinalists was 1 (Argentina), 3 (Chile), 8 (Colombia), and . . . 32 (United States). We were punching above our weight. Maybe we could have done it better, but at the end of the say, it seems like things fell about where they should.

Besides, it could have been worse. Mexico was humiliated by Chile, 7-1:

Yeah, we got bounced 4-0 by Argentina, but that’s still kind of reasonable. And it was in the semifinal, not the quarterfinal. And, for all our faults that night, we never gave up.

Beyond that, consider what befell the birthplace of the game, England, yesterday in the European Championships:

Iceland has a total population of about 330,000 people – that’s one-sixth the size of West Virginia, not to mention England.

And that’s not even considering a power like Brazil and Uruguay, who failed to make it out of their groups at the Copa, or the Dutch who didn’t even qualify for the expanded 24-team Euros!

I’m not saying I think the US is better than we actually are. But we’re not that bad, either. We pretty consistently do well in tournaments like this, even if we want to do better. It’s important not to lose that drive to improve. In the process, we shouldn’t give short shrift to what we actually achieve.

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Weekly Read: The State of Jones

With the movie Free State of Jones opening this weekend, I thought it was a good chance to highlight this review of one of the books on which it’s based, from my old blog.

A title is a promise, at least for a work of nonfiction. It’s what draws you in, after all, and convinces you to give a book more attention. The full title of this book by Washington Post reporter Sally Jenkins and Harvard professor John Stauffer is The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded From the Confederacy. It’s a case that Jenkins and Stauffer don’t make.

Which is a shame, because the story they have to tell is fairly fascinating in its own right and something that a lot of Americans don’t know about. Revolving around a backwoods Mississippi “dirt farmer” named Newton Knight, it’s a tale of racial and class divisions before, during, and after the Civil War. Poor farmers from areas of Mississippi like Jones County had little interest in defending the ability of wealthy elites elsewhere to own slaves. Faced with the horrors of war in places like Corinth and Vicksburg and with families starving back at home due to shitty wartime economics, Knight and a group of others deserted from the Confederate army and headed back home.

Back in the Mississippi countryside, Knight and company organized an armed group that basically made life impossible for the Confederacy in Jones and surrounding counties. In addition to skirmishing with soldiers dispatched to arrest them for desertion, Knight’s group raided Confederate supply lines and tax collectors. It’s fair to say, based on the evidence presented in the book, that Jones County was effectively outside the sphere of Confederate power well before the end of the war.

But that’s not the same as secession. Maybe it’s because I’m a West Virginian and familiar with our unique history when it comes to the birth of the state and kind of sensitive about it, but secession is a formal, political act, not the de facto result of guerrilla military activity. Jenkins and Stauffer never provide evidence of such an act and, in fact, don’t really show whether Knight and his company were more pro-Union insurgents or simply a group of outlaws who gathered together to protect themselves and, as a side effect, cleared the Confederates from Jones.

It’s an important distinction because there was a hot debate when The State of Jones came out about its quality as work of history. Detractors argued that Jenkins and Stauffer massaged the historical record (and filled in gaps with imaginative extrapolations) to make Knight more of a modern progressive figure than he actually was (see, e.g., here and here). As for the question of secession itself, in part two of her three part review, professor Victoria Bynum (author of another book on Jones County) writes:

The old tale that Newt Knight and his band of renegades drew up a Constitution during the Civil War that declared Jones County, Mississippi, to have seceded from the Confederacy has been a favorite of journalists, folklorists, and even a few historians, since the late nineteenth century. Until historians finally shattered this myth, its effect was to paint the men of the Knight Company as hyper-secessionists rather than Unionists; i.e. as good old Southern white boys on a tear against any and all authority—rebels against the Rebellion, if you will.Stauffer’s defense is, in my opinion, weak:

From Newton Knight’s perspective, neither he nor his fellow Unionists seceded from the Union, which means they were never part of the Confederacy. Knight insisted that since Jones County had voted against secession, it ‘never seceded from the Union into the Confederacy.’

But from the perspective of the Confederacy, Knight and his fellow Unionists did secede. Confederate officers wrote that Jones County was in ‘rebellion’ against the Confederacy, and they referred to Knight and his men as ‘traitors.’ These were the same terms Republicans used to describe Confederates.It simply doesn’t work that way. Whatever irregularities existed with Jones County’s delegate to the Mississippi secession convention (the book alleges that he switched his position and voted for secession, even though the county had voted overwhelmingly against it), the convention voted to secede and the state as a whole was along for the ride. As was Virginia, of course, except for the counties west of the Alleghenies that stood up, said “bullshit to this,” and created, eventually, the state of West Virginia. Statewide votes are binding on the entire state. Individual disaffected voters don’t get to ignore results they don’t like.

Aside from the whole secession issue, The State of Jones has some other flaws that keep it from being easily recommended. For one thing, it’s focus shifts without any good reason from the more personal story of Knight and his family to broad depictions of several major engagements during the war (one of which, Bynum argues, Knight wasn’t present for). Those get tedious, mostly because they drive home the same point each time – war is hell, the Confederate foot soldier’s life was one of near constant starvation and disease, and it’s easy to see why anyone would want to escape it. Once we’ve gotten that point, do we really need it made over and over again?

Another problem with the book is, as noted above, its use of speculation and conjecture to fill in the blanks of Knight’s life and the lives of those around him. To be completely fair, Jenkins and Stauffer don’t hide it when they do it. To the contrary, many times they discuss a particular event, then transition into something along the lines of “we don’t know what Knight thought about this, but it might have been . . ..” Nonetheless, it’s frustrating to have the actual history whither down such dead ends.

I’m glad I read The State of Jones, if only because I knew nothing about this particular part of the Civil War before. But, after reading it and much of the discussion about it around the Web, I wouldn’t recommend it. There are other, more scholarly (if drier, perhaps), accounts out there. But The State of Jones is the one most likely to be encountered by the general public. That’s OK, if it serves as a jumping off point, rather than a comprehensive education.

Originally published March 15, 2013.

The New York Times had an interesting article on the movie and the director’s engagement with the issue of historical accuracy.

Water Road Wednesday: Hirrek of Clan Dost

First contact is usually a story that plays out in science fiction stories, but it’s just as likely to pop up in fantasy or other genres, too. As you can see from the third excerpt from The Water Road, it’s got a kind of first contact story, when Antrey, after years of living among Altrerians in Tolenor, first encounters the Neldathi from Clan Dost.

The Dost roam an area squished in between the Kelly Range to the north and west , the Levin Mountains to the west, and the sea on the east. It’s not the largest of the Neldathi clans. The area its great circuit covers is one of the smallest, in fact. But it’s in a particular location, about as close to the Triumvirate as you can get, that makes it especially important.

Yet, when Antrey makes first contact with the Dost (by accident, it has to be said), it isn’t with a thek or a war leader, but with a hunter. After all, a clan has to eat to keep moving.

The one who put the elk out of its misery was Hirrek, Master of the Hunt of Clan Dost. Not only does he hold an exalted position in the clan, but he comes from an important family within the clan. His mother, Ushan, is thek of Clan Dost. His father, Kajtan, is war leader. Although most Neldathi clans, including the Dost, work on a democratic level when it comes to selecting a thek, being the son of such powerful parents should go a long way.

Needless to say, Hirrek is a little suspicious of Antrey. She’s a complete stranger, for starters. But more than that, once his mother begins to listen to Antrey’s story, Hirrek is able to see that his world is about to be up ended. Neldathi life was always changing – it’s the nature of being nomads. But at least Hirrek has some idea of the path his life was going to take. His world was his clan and that was it.

Then he gets roped into something bigger than himself, bigger than his clan, and bigger than his imagination ever could conceive.

Remember, The Water Road is now available at Amazon – just 99 cents for the rest of June!

Water Road Wednesday: It’s Here!

After years of writing and what seems like years of doing these Water Road Wednesday posts, I’m beyond excited (“berry ready to pop,” to steal a phrase from Mike Keneally) to say that The Water Road, the first volume of The Water Road trilogy, is now available for your reading pleasure:

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The Water Road is available in both eBook and paperback form from Amazon. For the rest of June, the Kindle version is only 99 cents! It’s also available for free (essentially) as a part of Kindle Unlimited.

Enjoy and remember – volume two, The Endless Hills, is only a few months away. And check back next week for another Water Road Wednesday!

Water Road Wednesday: Final Excerpt from The Water Road

For the third and final excerpt from The Water Road, we return to Antrey. In this scene, she’s escaped Tolenor and made her way into the mountains south of the Water Road itself. For the first time since she was a child, she encounters Neldathi in the flesh.

She jumped across the stream and made her way to the rocks, which clustered near the upstream corner. She sat down, slipped the bottle from her satchel, and took a long drink. What was once snow was now ice-cold water. She gulped it eagerly, knowing that the pool would provide a means to refill it.

Just as she took the last drink of water, Antrey heard a noise behind her, downstream, that sounded like a violent displacement of limbs and leaves. She turned and saw an elk dive out of the trees on the other side of the stream. Its great antlers were a tangled mess of underbrush ripped from the forest as it ran. Her eyes met those of the elk, which had stopped at the edge of the stream, gasping hard, its breath frosting in the chilled air. After a moment’s pause, it dropped its head and began to lap water from the stream.

Antrey closed her eyes for just a moment and heard the elk make a terrible screaming sound, like it was crying out in pain. It made her shudder and sent a bolt of pain shooting down her own spine. She opened her eyes and saw the elk, reared up on its hind legs, thrashing its head back and forth. There was an arrow in its neck, just above the shoulder. Antrey had not heard anything to indicate that anyone was around.

A salvo of three more arrows thwacked into the elk’s flank. It screamed again and tried to move away, upstream back to the trees, but it took only a few faltering steps before it collapsed in the snow. As it gasped for air, the white ground turned red with blood. The beast was trying desperately to live or calling out to die. Antrey wasn’t sure which.

Antrey was so transfixed by the elk’s plight that she forgot for a moment that the arrows meant that, after all this time, she was no longer alone. She did not hear the further rustling of the trees, but did see first one, then two, then half a dozen Neldathi emerge from the forest and approach the elk.

They were tall, with just the faintest tint of blue in their white skin. Were they naked, they would nearly blend in with the snowy ground. Each wore multiple layers of animal skins that obscured, but could not hide, that they were strong, powerful men. All had long black hair, which grew from a fringe of scalp at the back of their heads. It twisted in braids that ran halfway down their backs. About halfway down, the black color gave way to a pattern of red, black, and white strips. Three of them carried ornately carved bows, while two others had similar devices slung over their backs. They either had not noticed her or ignored her and approached the elk.

The other Neldathi, Antrey had thought initially, was unarmed. The tallest of the group, he strode towards the elk, reached inside the layers of his clothing, and pulled out a knife, bigger than anything Antrey had ever seen that was not called a sword. In a maneuver that showed years of practice and an abundance of skill, he knelt beside the elk, placed the great blade to its throat, and drew the knife across, ending the beast’s misery. All the while, he said something quickly under his breath.

Antrey had never seen anything like it in her life. When she was young she had never experienced a hunt or a kill, only the end result. The sight of such a brutally efficient killing shook her to the core. The bottle slipped from her hands and splashed into the pool underneath her. At the noise, the hunters turned and saw her.

The one that had killed the elk crouched motionless next to it, knife still in hand. The others moved away from the kill and sprang across the stream swiftly, switching their focus. They began to converge on her slowly, two from upstream in the direction of the elk, two others having circled around to come at her from the other direction. She lost sight of the fifth, but within moments she knew she was surrounded. Before it ever occurred to her to try and get away, five well-armed and curious Neldathi had blocked any means of escape.

She ignored the ones on her side of the stream and tried to make eye contact with the one by the elk. He appeared to be the leader of this hunting party or its senior member. Regardless, he was someone who commanded respect. Maybe by making contact directly with him she might open some line of communication, although she had no idea how to do that. At the very least, maybe he would put the knife away. The way he crouched there, casually displaying the bloody blade, made her think he meant to tell her that it might be her neck that was sliced open next.

As the others inched slowly closer to her, Antrey could feel their eyes on her, covering every inch of her with their eyes. One of them was close enough that Antrey thought he might have sniffed her, but she quickly dismissed that as a work of her imagination. That was something the barbarian Neldathi of the Altrerian culture would do, but made little sense upon rational examination. They would use every sense available to them, just as she would.

With each footstep that brought them closer, the snow crunched underfoot. Antrey’s heart raced the closer they came. It was calmed only somewhat when the one across the stream stood up, wiped the bloody blade of his knife on the elk’s carcass, and returned it to its sheath. When she heard a voice behind her, she nearly exploded.

As I said, that’s it for the excerpts from The Water Road. That’s because it finally comes out next Wednesday! After all these weeks of reading about it, isn’t it time you just read it for yourself? Head over to Amazon and pre-order your copy today (only 99 cents until the end of the month!).

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Weekly Watch: The Martian

It’s a fact of my modern life that I don’t see most of the movies I want to see when they hit theaters. Various factors conspire to keep me separated from these flicks for months, until they happen to slip through my sphere of influence. The minute The Martian came out, I wanted to see it. Ridley Scott adapts a DIY-publishing success sci-fi story for the big screen? Yes, please!

Alas, it came and went from theaters. It kind of slipped below my radar. I nearly paid way too much money to watch it while I was on the road last week, but fought the urge. Finally, a stroke of luck – it was on HBO last weekend. Hooray for my low tech ways!

Here’s the real problem with that kind of delay. It’s hard in the modern world to avoid opinions about a movie (or a book or album) when the first come out. It’s damned near impossible to do so for months afterward, particular when it’s nominated for some big awards and wins some others. I’m not talking about being ruined by spoilers. I’m just talking about how you can have certain expectations about something when you finally get around to see it.

So what of The Martian? Well, it didn’t live up to the hype.

Which is not to say it’s bad. In fact, it’s very well made, pleasing to look at, and has some good performances. It’s got a “rah rah, bring the boy back home” story that winds up into a feel good ending. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but it’s what leads up to it that doesn’t work so well.

Mark Watney, the main character, is a nice enough guy and the situation he’s put in really sucks. Not just stranded, but left for dead. He has considerable obstacles to overcome in order to survive and he . . . fairly easily overcomes them. At one point he says, about a problem, that he’s going to “science the shit” out of it. That attitude – every problem has a solution, take one at a time – is driven home back on Earth when Watney begins training the next generation of astronauts.

It’s a great motto and probably an excellent way to deal with real world problems. It doesn’t, however, bear any real dramatic weight. The bottom line – Watney’s too damned competent. Everything he tries works (until plot requires that it get destroyed) and, while we see him make some snarky comments about his situation, it never really seems to get to him. Even if all his schemes kept working, he’s still millions of miles from home and alone. We know what solitary confinement does to people – it ain’t pretty.

In this way, The Martian suffers considerably from comparison to the much smaller (and much less seen) Moon. Even before it gets to the issue of clones and whatnot, it paints a really effective picture of what being along on another planet(oid) would really be like. The struggle, as the kids say, is real.

But Watney’s isn’t. It’s not that I want to see the man suffer, but some struggle would have been nice. There’s no way a big-budget summer movie, rated PG13 and starring Matt Damon, is going to go all the way dark and have him die on the planet or commit suicide or something. But some hint that the vast expanse of time without human contact had some impact on his psyche would have been interesting. As it is, only his weight loss seems like an issue (and it’s light years away from what Christian Bale puts up with).

Writing this, I’m reminded of a post on the IMDB discussion board where someone asks “is this based on a true story?”. It’s not as dumb a question as it sounds, looking at it now. Real life can be many things, but it’s not often filled with the dramatic tension we expect in fiction. A true story of clever survival, rooted in the fact that it actually happened, has a pull to it that a fictional tale of similar stature just doesn’t. I read somewhere that the difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense. It has to have some drama to it, too.

Which is not to say The Martian sucked. It was a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, but it didn’t live up to my perhaps exaggerated expectations. It was fluff, but it was engaging fluff. There’s something to be said for that.

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Water Road Wednesday: Naath of the Isle of Amreh

The Islanders – the inhabitants of the Slaisal Islands in The Water Road trilogy, not the hockey team – are an odd bunch.* In a world that’s defined by where you were born and lines between such places are brightly drawn, the Islanders go a different way.

Physically, as well as culturally, they have a lot in common with other Altrerians, particularly those in the Triumvirate. They aren’t, for example all stand offish the way the Azkiri are. But they don’t really want any part in the political stuff, much less the military expeditions. Folks in the Triumvirate view the Islanders as essentially hiding behind the protection they provide – it’s not like the Neldathi are going to sail up to the Slaisals anytime soon. The Islanders just see it as somebody else’s problem.

The irony is that the Islanders deal with the Neldathi more than the Triumvirate does. They trade with them and built four cities along the Neldathi coast (along with one on the northern coast, on the edge of Azkiri territory). Yet, they don’t have any particular affinity for the blues – they just do business with them. In a world with a lot of walls between cultures, the Islanders don’t pay attention to any of them.

Which is where Naath comes in. Born on Amreh, one of the many Slaisal Islands, he decided at an early age to go to sea. It was either that or be a fisherman and he never had any particular love for sharp hooks and the smell of fish guts. It would be wrong to say he wanted to see the world, but that’s precisely what he ended up doing. The pull of home at the end of a long voyage was strong, but at the end of the day, Naath belonged on the deck of a ship plowing through the ocean.

At the time The Water Road begins he had risen to be second in command of a trade ship called Gentle Giant – yes, it’s a prog referrence!

It’s the final part of paying his dues that’s going to lead to him having a ship of his own, maybe more than one. That’s the plan, anyway. At least until he rows onto the shore of bay in Dost territory and meets Antrey Ranbren.

Then his future, especially at sea, becomes much less certain.

* Maybe the hockey team is, too, for all I know. I’m not much of a hockey fan.

Water Road Wednesday: Leave a Message at the Beep

Thank you for calling Water Road Wednesday. We’re sorry, but your desire to learn more about the world of The Water Road trilogy cannot be fulfilled at this time. The author has been called away to the industrial north to attend a gathering of those who fight the good fight (none of which involve Neldathi, the Triumvirate, or anything like that).

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Regular service will return next week.

Until then, go tell the author’s niece (also a writer) happy birthday – she’s 21 today!

Or, if you need some companionship, just talk to the answering machine: