Clifford Beal

historical fiction with a twist of lime

Tag: fiction (page 1 of 2)

Talking Tolkien

Met an elderly friend of my in-laws last week who, just by chance and not knowing that I was a novelist, related an anecdote about when he was an undergraduate at Oxford in the late-1950s.  He had recently read  JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings having bought the first published editions. He had a couple of chums who had also read and loved the books and so, just for a lark, they decided to write a letter to Tolkien and ask him to tea. They were amazed when he accepted the invitation. He told me that Tolkien was a very amiable and quiet man, pleased that he had enjoyed the books, but irritated with the publicity he was beginning to get as well as with the opprobrium of some who denigrated fantasy writing. He also told the little group of students (all studying English literature) that his true reason for writing the epic was because he was a philologist and that he wanted to create his own languages. But because language is born and forged through culture, he told them he first had to create a world and its peoples so that he could design the languages to go into it. Middle Earth became the means to that end. Sipping his tea, he related his bemusement with all the fuss as word of LOTR spread across America. And despite his distaste for publicity and promotion, he offered to sign my friend’s first editions. Tolkien subsequently met with them a few more times and my friend treasured his signed books. Many years later, he sold the set to a family friend who was also a Tolkien fan, for two thousand pounds. Then along came Peter Jackson and those films. By the time The Return of the King hit the silver screen the price of a set of signed first editions of LOTR had rocketed to some £35000. The recipient of my elderly friend’s signed set felt a little guilty when he learned about all this. He did send him a case of vintage cognac to help make amends though. I suppose with enough time the cognac might– like those books –appreciate as well.

The Merfolk finally surface!

My mermen look better than this guy

My mermen look better than this guy

It’s publication week for The Guns of Ivrea, my first secondary-world fantasy which combines traditional epic swashbuckling with a slightly contemporary edge. Set in a renaissance-like Mediterranean world, the story revolves around a set of characters that couldn’t be more different yet find themselves implacably drawn together. It has
mermen and mermaids, monks and mantichora, pirates and princes, ship battles and tavern brawls, and some inter-species romance to boot.
Guns of Ivrea You see, I had a conceit to pen a novel that evoked a 15th century-style fantasy, something that might not have been out of place on a table in Milan, Pisa or Venice when the Borgias were throwing their weight around and daVinci was sketching, painting and experimenting. I don’t know if I succeeded but it was a hell of a lot of fun to write it anyway.

It was also a bit of a challenge. The mechanics of writing an adventure novel with an aquatic species of humanoid needed some thinking. People have been writing about merfolk for centuries, but to sustain a mermaid character at book-length, in particular one that has a huge amount of interaction with the world of land-dwelling men, meant I had to consider some new ways of imagining what merfolk would look like. I took a cue from dolphins so my merfolk are actually air-breathing (with great diving abilities like marine mammals), blue-grey skin, and can survive out of the water (for a time). The big difference is that they have two legs. Sorry to disappoint those who have a thing for scales and tails but a woman who is a fish from the waist down tends to put a limit on the scope of a fulfilling romance.

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Being an epic fantasy the book naturally has a variety of villains and villainesses, both major and minor. And with a few notable exceptions, most of the inhabitants could be considered to fall in the category of self-interested “grey” rather than white hats. Which, let’s face it, is the way of the world in much of real life. When I first started writing the novel my intention had been to be much more retro and binary: clear good-guys and clear baddies. But very quickly I realised that the possibilities and nuances of the “grey” character  would be much more interesting for readers—and the writer. You will find magic in The Guns of Ivrea but no duelling wizards with staffs. It is a much more subtle kind of magic that is supernatural and religious-based, rather than lightning bolts from the fingertips. I found this allowed more scope for building menace and dread around the leading dark character, Lady Lucinda della Rovera.

I’m currently in the final stages on a sequel entitled The Witch of Torinia, which will be published next year. That’s the thing with world-building in fantasy: once those people and places come to life, that world expands and those living in it take the ship’s wheel right out of your hands.

Read some of my short fiction

Rather belatedly, I’ve added a page on the blog for short stories, fragments, and unfinished projects that are still flying in a holding pattern and waiting for ground clearance.
mrLincolnThe first bit I’ve posted is chapter one of Camera Obscuraa melodramatic tale set in America in 1864 as the civil war grinds on. Good military intelligence is in short supply and Lincoln’s war cabinet is looking to new sources, even if they’re from beyond the grave.

 

 

Check back soon for a complete short story of contemporary weird fiction, Cast Iron, which recently appeared in the Journal of the British Fantasy Society. I’ll be posting that here in another week or two.

Robert E Howard’s “Solomon Kane” revisited

Wrote a retro review for the July issue of SFX Magazine which the editors have graciously allowed me to reproduce here. It was a very different experience reading R.E. Howard again after so many years–and not an altogether pleasant one. Have a read and let me know what you think.

 

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
Robert E Howard, (Del Rey, 1998)
Writer Clifford Beal considers Conan’s Puritan stablemate

Robert E Howard, who took his own life at the age of 30, was the father of kane
that
 subgenre of fantasy that would become known as “sword and sorcery”. Best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Howard’s writings influenced a generation of fantasy authors, including Fritz Leiber and David Gemmell.

But before Conan, Howard had created a very different character in Solomon Kane, a mysterious Puritan loner who roams the darker corners of the world, fighting ancient and nameless evil in the early 17th century. Bursting from the pages of Weird Tales in 1928, Solomon Kane fought Lovecraft-inspired deities, demons, pirates and scores of hostile natives to rescue the helpless and right wrong wherever he saw it. Kane is far more conflicted and layered a character than Conan, and Howard portrays him as driven, if not downright psychopathic. In “The Blue Flame Of Vengeance” Kane remarks to a man he is helping: “It hath been my duty in times past to ease various evil men of their lives…” Which is an understatement.

To be sure, this is pulp fiction. You won’t find subplots or shades of grey here, and since these are largely short stories there is a definite headlong rush to get down to the business at hand, usually involving a good amount of swordplay and spilt blood. Anachronisms and cod “olde world” dialogue sometimes sound a sour note, but at its best, Howard’s writing is dazzlingly energetic, vivid and not without poetry. His descriptions of hand-to-hand fighting are compelling as they are brutal but even here there is a mastery of mood and intensity. In one scene, Howard’s imagery is chilling: an avenging Kane overpowers a murderous pirate in a knife fight and intentionally kills him by degrees, plunging in the tip of his dagger, one inch at a time.

kane2Yet there’s a darker side to the swashbuckling. Racial stereotyping was always present in pulp fiction and Asian or African physical features were often used as shorthand for moral turpitude and inferiority. Sadly, much of the writing in Solomon Kane follows this path. A few of the better-known tales such as “The Moon Of Skulls” are set in central Africa, where Kane encounters the remnants of an ancient civilisation ruled over by brutish savages. And here, black skin colour is equated with degenerate evil, with Kane portrayed as a white saviour intent on toppling the evil African queen Nekari. Even the last survivor of Atlantis, whom Kane tries to free from bondage, is worried about his ethnic purity: “I, the last son of Atlantis, bear in my veins the taint of Negro blood.”

But Howard and his characters are full of contradictions. Solomon Kane’s self-professed “blood brother” is a black African wizard and the only real friend that Kane has in any of the stories. And in “The Footfalls Within” Kane risks his life to free African villagers from Arab slavers and then guides them to safety. Solomon Kane’s tales are, like those of Conan, rousing epics, and as part of our pulp-era inheritance they deserve to be read. But like much of our past, it’s not all good. Today Howard’s writing, imaginative as it is, leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste.

 

 

The Real d’Artagnan: larger than fiction

With the premiere of the BBC’s new drama series The Musketeers, a whole new generation is

The original and best: Charles de Batz Castelmore

The original and best: Charles de Batz Castelmore

now discovering one of the great characters of dramatic fiction: d’Artagnan. Hopefully, a few might be inspired to actually read the original book. The Sunday night drama is only the latest in a long line of screen portrayals based on Alexander Dumas’s 19th century novels of adventure, set in 17th century France.  In fact, the oldest film version of The Three Musketeers goes back to 1921. Most of these portrayals have been based to a greater or lesser extent on Dumas’s characterization of the iconic Gascon in Paris.

But the truth of the d’Artagnan legend, now firmly ensconced in popular culture, is far less widely known. Monsieur d’Artagnan was in fact an actual historical figure, famous in his own time and yes,  a musketeer of the king of France. Dumas had discovered a heavily fictionalized account of the life of Charles de Batz-Castelmore d’Artagnan written by a 17th century author named Courtilz de Sandras and based his romances on the story of d’Artagnan as portrayed by de Sandras. The real d’Artagnan had a life as every bit exciting as the character in Dumas’s books, but Dumas made some significant changes including setting the action of the novel several years before the real d’Artagnan ever even joined the musketeers.

Luke Pasqualino as d'Artagnan (sans chapeau)

Luke Pasqualino as d’Artagnan (sans chapeau) in the new BBC drama

In the books, d’Artagnan and his companions, loyal servants of King Louis XIII, work to thwart the plans of devious Cardinal Richelieu and his agents. In fact, the real d’Artagnan served as a trusted secret agent of Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, carrying out a number of diplomatic missions for him while he rose in the Garde Francaise and later in the King’s Musketeers (which had been disbanded earlier in 1646. With Mazarin as his patron, d’Artagnan served Louis XIV at home and abroad, eventually rising to become commander of the famed company. He fought in several major military campaigns, served as the governor of Lille after the city fell to French forces(you can still see the house he lived in) and finally met his death in 1673 while taking part in the siege of Maastricht against the Dutch. Indeed, he died after being shot in the throat while fighting alongside some very rare allies: the English. A young officer named John Churchill was there in the same trench, the future Duke of Marlborough.

Michael York needs a longer blade in the 1974 movie version

Michael York needs a longer blade in the 1974 movie version

When I decided to make d’Artagnan a significant character in my own novel, Gideon’s Angel, I wanted to model him on the real man and not the version in The Three Musketeers. With the action in Gideon’s Angel taking place in the early 1650s, this made it easy for me to write in d’Artagnan as a secret agent of Cardinal Mazarin, travelling to England to stop a plot to assassinate Oliver Cromwell. He’s young, confident, and brash, but also deeply honourable in his wary relationship with the novel’s protagonist, exiled king’s cavalier Richard Treadwell. It was tremendous fun writing scenes that pitted my jaded, war-weary middle-aged hero against this cocksure young French soldier with carte blanche and a “license to kill” from arguably the most powerful man in Europe.

Douglas Fairbanks strikes a pose in the silent film of 1921

Douglas Fairbanks strikes a pose in the silent film of 1921

To be sure, Alexander Dumas did right by the memory of Charles de Batz-Castelmore as a brave man of adventure, and hopefully I have as well. But the real exploits of this remarkable Frenchman are every bit as compelling and exciting as those of the fiction. I recommend Odile Bordaz’s 2010 biography, titled simply: D’Artagnan.

Review: The Musketeers (BBC One)

Hell Bent for Leather

I really shouldn’t complain. It’s a rare thing to get TV drama and film to cover the 17th century musketeers1at all, so when something from that era comes along on the screen I want it to succeed and succeed well. And with a property like Dumas’s Three Musketeers, it ought to be knocking on an open door. Enter the BBC with its new reimagining of the classic tale. This coming Sunday episode 2 airs on BBC One and I fervently hope that it raises the bar from last week’s shaky opener.

musketeers2Episode 1 was an origin story of sorts, introducing us to the main characters while injecting a plotline that centred around the nefarious Cardinal Richelieu’s scheme to discredit our erstwhile heroes by implicating them in a series of murderous robberies in the countryside. It all leads to a somewhat predictable race-against-time story to prevent the execution of musketeer Athos after he faces a rather hasty trial. All the elements are there and the characters we know and love. But it’s a wild deviation from the Dumas storyline as you would expect from something that is trying not to cover the same ground galloped over gracefully by Richard Lester’s classic 70s swashbucklers.musketeers3

While I didn’t think any of the musketeers were particularly riveting characters and the repartee got a bit silly, Peter Capaldi entertains as Cardinal Richelieu. As the leading black hat in this romp he gets most of the best lines. The sets are good since most of it is filmed in the Czech Republic and likewise the weaponry is generally up to scratch (not a flintlock in sight thank God!). The swordfights, of which there are many, are staged competently if not always convincingly. Perhaps these will improve as the series moves forward (and they get more practice in).

Costuming is another story though. To be charitable I could call it “whimsical”. The musketeers are dressed like they had a rummage through the costume box backstage at Universal Studios. Rather than Frenchmen from 1630, they look more like a cross between leather-clad Sergio Leone-style Mexican baddies and extras from Game of Thrones thanks to some bizarre bits of armour tacked on to their shoulders. And what were those red leather ponchos that the Cardinal’s guard were running around in? Even Peter Capaldi gets a black, all-leather padded doublet, hardly de rigueur for a man of the church. Obviously, a lot of cows gave their lives in the making of this series. Gorgeous Maimie McCoy as the evil Milady de Winter walks around dressed for the most part like a streetwalker from 1870s Paris. All this jars the eye and I doubt it is accidental. The producers are striving for an edgy, “hip” feel that will appeal to a younger audience. One that’s heavily into leather apparently. Authenticity be damned.

I suppose I’ll keep watching for now—and hoping. For an actual proper review of the series and not my ramblings,  I recommend (and agree with) David Benedict over at The Arts Desk:  http://www.theartsdesk.com/tv/musketeers-bbc-one

British Fantasy Society reviews Gideon’s Angel

BFS_Logo_red_gradientVery nice review for the novel by the British Fantasy Society this week. “Gideon’s Angel is historical fantasy that smoothly combines real characters with fictional ones to create a gripping and entertaining story.” Check it out here: http://www.britishfantasysociety.co.uk/reviews/gideons-angel-book-review/ and for goodness sake get a copy before Andras, grand marquis of Hell, pays you a nocturnal visit!

 

 

I talk to SF Signal about writing, rapiers, and all-night diners in Providence

sfsignalLogov4

My thanks to John and Kristin over at SF Signal for taking the time to interview me about Gideon’s Angel, future projects, and writing craft. It’s a site that’s always chock full of interesting comments, posts and book and film reviews so well worth a visit. You can check out the post here: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/07/interview-clifford-beal-author-of-gideons-angel/#more-79986CBeal photo

 

Daily Mail looks at historical fantasy releases this week

 

Daily_Mail

The UK’s Daily Mail takes a look in today’s paper at some recent historical fantasy releases including Gideon’s Angel. I’m pleased to see crossover within genre getting some high-profile attention like this as a category in its own right. You can check out the reviews here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-2377794/HISTORICAL-FANTASY.html

 

 

51 Shades of Grey: Has traditional good vs. evil had its day?

Over at Mythic Scribes, Codey Amprim has posted a thoughtful blog about the trend imagestowards “grey” fantasy in the last few years and how traditional black hats vs. white hats storylines seemed to have waned in genre fiction. http://mythicscribes.com/miscellaneous/is-black-and-white-fantasy-dead/

A lot of this trend is down to RR Martin of course, but there are others as well that are creating characters that embody both good and bad qualities—just like a lot of real life people. Westeros isn’t the only place where it’s difficult to tell who’s your friend and who’s not. I remember reading the Thomas Covenant books back in the 70s and being shocked by Donaldson’s handling of his “hero”. Many of Michael Moorcock’s characters such as Elric also come in shades of grey bordering on black. Even my own hapless protagonist in Gideon’s Angel has done quite a few things that are nothing to be proud of. As Codey points out in his post, grey can really help by throwing unpredictability into the plot and spicing things up.

It’s a bit of a red herring to debate whether this reflects a hardening of the society we live in today as some have done. People have been writing characters like this since—well, since they started writing stories. And I don’t think that writers will ever abandon good vs. evil storylines. The power of archetypes appeals to all of us in an almost unconscious way as both Jung and Campbell expounded years ago.

Injecting moral ambiguity into characters can be a great writer’s tool but Codey also notes there are significant drawbacks as well. Unpredictability can lead to a plot becoming directionless with  too many twists, dead ends, and dead characters. The result can be, as he puts it,  “endless repetitive soap opera” and waning reader loyalty and interest. Words of wisdom there and a warning to those who think grey is the new white.

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