Thursday, May 31, 2007

Tomb Raider: Anniversary - first impressions

It's here! It's finally here! Our copy of TRA arrived from Amazon yesterday (two days before the cited release date, but whatever). Had to resist all tempation to just rip it out the packaging and play it at once; it just wouldn't be the same without me, Dad, and my sister taking turns to play, or heckle: "Go, jump. Jump. Aargh! Oh, my God! Pull out your guns! No. Over there. Over there. What the hell are you doing?! Oh, give it here." Repeat.

As we all know, Tomb Raider: Anniversary is the remake of the original PS1 game, which saw Lara, hired by businesswoman Jacqueline Natla (boo, hiss) to recover the mystical Atlantean Scion, globetrotting to Peru, then somewhere that was probably Greece, then Egypt, then finally onto Atlantis itself. The basic storyline seems to be the same, but there also seems to be a new twist in that Lara and her father had been searching for the Scion already, but hadn't been able to find the hidden city of Vilcabamba. I expect something else will be made of this, but I can't be sure, having only played the Mountain Caves level and part of Croft Manor.

Of course, graphics have moved way, way on in the eleven years since the original. Gone are the square caves with very flat walls and ledges positioned at right angles to each other, and every screen is now crammed with lush, organic scenery, from trailing vines to pillars with intricate Inca-style carvings. I can't wait to see the Egyptian levels. Lara's movement is also much more fluid than the original, as is the camera.

Luckily, Anniversary already seems to be much more than just a remake of the original with prettier graphics. Familiar locations are immediately recognisable, but while some scenes were simply big empty spaces with a couple of vampire bats, every screen so far has been crammed with more opportunities to explore. Lara's moves have gone well beyond the original run, jump, catch, shoot, and it looks like you'll need every trick at your disposal to complete the puzzles. Another welcome addition is the grapple-hook, which was only seen in the original during a cutscene. And Croft Manor is no longer the training level, but a whole location to itself, as it was in Legend.

The real plus with Anniversary is the puzzle-solving. The manor is a big puzzle, and while the timed door from the Caves level makes a return, it's far more sophisticated this time than simply pulling a switch and racing like mad to get through before it closes. The darts that shoot from the walls are back, and there's more head-scratching involved with them. While in the original you could get away with running and jumping over them, Anniversary makes you stop and work out whether you run straight through, jump over, or crawl under.

Of course, one of my favourite parts of Tomb Raider was the sense of atmosphere, and it was great to see it was back, too. Instead of the creepy "tomb noises" of the original, though, the Caves are filled with the sound of dripping water and wind, and the wolves howl to announce their presence.

To sum up, then, Anniversary already looks like a brilliant reworking of an old classic, because it brings so much freshness to the old structure, the enhanced abilities and trickier puzzles being the big pluses. The levels I'm looking forward to the most are the Lost Valley, Saint Francis' Folly, the Palace of Midas, and all the Egyptian ones. Can't wait to see those mummies!

'Scuse me now, I've got to go and explore the City of Vilcabamba...

Monday, May 28, 2007

Book review: Liberty, by Kimberly Iverson

Here there be spoilers.

Ah, Roman Britain, it does know how to surprise us. Every so often, it throws up a remarkable discovery - like that of the "Great Dover Street Woman" exhumed in 2000. The cremated remains of a woman were discovered outside the limits of second century London, and the artefacts discovered with her suggest that she was actually a gladiatrix - a female gladiator. Apparently they were all the rage from the time of Nero until they were banned in 200 AD by Septimus Severus, but until then, no one had actually found any proof of one. A fascinating, unique discovery like that must have had an interesting backstory, and author Kimberly Iverson (otherwise known as Kim Headlee), attempts to give it one.

Although the Dover Street Woman actually lived around 80 AD, Iverson's story begins some time around 160 AD, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Rhyddes (which means "freedom", as we will be reminded many, many times) is a Votadini farm girl who suffers the temper of her abusive father. Things go from bad to worse for Rhyddes within the first couple of chapters. A Pictish raid on her home leaves two of her brothers dead, and her father sells her into slavery to pay off a tax debt. Not even two chapters in, Iverson shows that she has no intention of stinting on detail, no matter how harrowing, and Rhyddes is gang-raped by the soldiers she has been sold to. She then ends up in the slave market, where she is paraded naked in front of the bidders.

Among those bidders is Marcus Calpurinus Aquila, the fictional son of the historical Governor Sextus Calpurnius Agricola (not to be confused with Gnaeus Julius Agricola). Marcus lives a double life as an aristocrat's son and star gladiator "Aquila Britannia", even though he knows his "hobby" scandalises his father. Agricola wants Marcus to marry Messiena, a senator's daughter, and also to retire from the arena. Marcus, unhappy at having to give up his freedom, goes to the forum with Jamil, the Egyptian gladiator trainer. Both Marcus and Jamil covet Rhyddes at first sight, but for very different reasons. Marcus wants her 'cause she's hot, and Jamil's looking for a potential gladiatrix to add to his stable.

Anyway, after a grrgnash-inducing scene where Marcus feels up the merchandise and Rhyddes finds herself getting all tingly inside (despite - y'know - the public humiliation and the gang-rape), Jamil comes out the winner, and Rhyddes is introduced to Villa Britanniae, one of Londinium's gladiator schools, to become its first gladiatrix. Marcus, although no longer allowed to compete, comes down regularly to train with the gladiators, and from there he and Rhyddes fall in love. All is not well in the Empire, however, and they very soon find themselves embroiled in a plot to depose Marcus Aurelius, from which neither of them may escape with their alives.

An ambitious novel, definitely, and it could very well have been intriguing, if it weren't for the fact that the core of the story wasn't the kill-the-Emperor one, but the so-called romance between Rhyddes and Marcus. And even then, it wouldn't have been a problem, if the romance wasn't so tepid. I really wanted to feel for Rhyddes, as she's a young woman who's gone from one kind of terrible life to another, but she's just such a two-note character, jumping back and forth between "angry stoic Votadini warrior" to "giddy teenager in lust", I just didn't really care either way what happened to her.

Marcus, however, is worse by far. No matter how many times Iverson describes him as "charming", he remains anything but. He's a shallow, self-absorbed twit who cares about one thing and one thing only: getting Rhyddes in the sack. Such faults could be excused, given that a young Roman aristocrat would no doubt be that way, but there's no character growth there, no reason for me to stop seeing him as merely an arrogant spoiled brat who just happens to have a nice smile.

The whole novel, in fact, is very tepid. Even the kill-the-Emperor-plot is devoid of all suspense, as the identity of the culprit is pretty much obvious from the word go. Not to mention the entire thing didn't make sense. Maybe I missed something, but I couldn't really work out just how a huge gladiator uprising would aid anyone in assassinating the Emperor, especially since half the Praetorian Guard had already been bribed. The book just seems to lumber along, with no real change in pace or mood, with no proper cleverness or humour to add some flavour. Like the two leads, the prose just seems to go along with one or two notes, and although all the scenes with gladiators and the gladiator school are informative without resorting to info-dumping, they're not particularly atmospheric or absorbing. I felt I really was reading the story, not watching it unfold in front of me. Even the historical Agricola, Marcus Aurelius and Empress Faustina are reduced to mere stock cameos.

The romance is badly executed. Rhyddes and Marcus only see each other sporadically, and their encounters leave no room for either of them to properly learn anything about the other for me to believe that what they had was love. By the end, all Rhyddes seems to know about Marcus is that he's good-looking, he has a nice smile, he's a Roman, he's good-looking, he's a good fighter, he's getting married to someone else. And, oh yeah, he's good-looking. By the same token, Marcus only knows that Rhyddes is a beautiful gladiatrix with a terrible past. Their encounters are devoid of any proper emotion, or even any proper eroticism.

History, too, is skewed. Not so skewed as in the Gladiator movie, but noticeably enough. Gladiator life is described down to the tiniest detail, but everywhere else there are glaring errors. More than once, the unmarried Messiena is described as wearing a stola. Tiny, but very obvious. Marcus' short stint as a military tribune is completely off. Tribunes were appointed by the Senate, not by Daddy, even if Daddy happened to be the Governor of the Province, and elected at the yearly Tribal Assembly, not whenever they damn well felt like it. Modern dialogue such as "Quit staring" or "Am I glad to see you" didn't help with the atmosphere at all, furthering the impression that these characters were nothing more than modern teenagers in period costume. The oh-so happy ending was incongruous, too. Yes, as far as I know, a freed slave could be adopted and did receive citizen's rights, but the stigma of slavery remained with them for years in the eyes of society. And Marcus' promise of fidelity to his bride-to-be was so anachronistic it was almost laughable, especially seeing as their marriage was a political contract.

In short, Liberty felt very much like a wasted opportunity. I did like the characters of Jamil and Messiena (my favourites in the entire book), and my inner Roman history geek did enjoy finding out about the lives of gladiators, but as a novel about two people trying to free themselves from the shackles of society, it fell flat. It didn't hit the wall, but I did have to force myself to finish it.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Baby swans!

Can't believe it - after several years with no success, the swan couple on the "pond" - that's the mini-loch next to our garden - have hatched cygnets. Six of them! And so much for the Ugly Duckling - they're gorgeous!

Back when we first moved in, there was a couple who had cygnets every year, and the male came up to the garden a lot (ever barricaded yourself in the house cause there's an adult male swan laying siege on the patio?), but in the last few years they stopped visiting and a new couple seemed to have taken their place. It was sad to watch, though, because every year we'd see the female on her nest, but they never hatched. The other week, however, a male came up to the garden, so we're not sure if this is the old couple back, the later couple or a new one, but the important thing is, they've got babies - six wee, cheeping, adorable bundles of grey fluff.

Naturally, we reverted to type and named them, keeping to our old tradition. My sister had a bit of an obsession with swans when she was wee, so we named the cygnets after the Children of Lir, which was our favourite Celtic myth. This year, we renewed that tradition, so we now have Fionula, Fiachra, Conn and Fionn (we forgot what the fourth one was called, d'oh!). And for the remaining two, we have Eithne (my choice), and... Penny (her choice). Slightly off the Irish naming scheme, but tradition's tradition. No, I don't know what sex they really are.

Oh, I'm feeling all nostalgic now.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Scottish Historical Exam

Having just finished The Boar Stone, I started looking about for more books set in ancient Scotland, but only ended up with screeds and screeds of Scottish romance novels. Nothing inherently wrong with that - I'll read anything that sounds good - but eventually they all ended up sounding exactly the same, with Lachlan McLean, the tortured alpha-male laird of Dunglen or some other made-up fief. Which was why it was such a relief - and a laugh - to find The Scottish Historical Exam here.

Very funny, and very good for showing all the most well-known clichés. I had to give a big "lol" to points 11 and 12. Hmm... maybe when I finish with the Roman invasions, I'll start looking into some novels about Clan Campbell. Poor, maligned Clan Campbell. We're not evil. We're just misunderstood. Really.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Psycho Murderer Syndrome

Dear God, it was an eventful day yesterday. Trouble with a bogus council worker ended up with me having to give a statement to the police. First time anything like that had ever happened to me, and I was shaken for hours. The really fun part was, "it" had swung around again the same morning with its usual toll of ruined PJs, frayed tempers, sore backs and Feminax. And, just to top it all off, there wasn't a bloody crumb of chocolate to be had in the house. Dad, gallant as ever, refused to do the decent thing and go down to the shop, trying to make out that he's the one who suffers most from PMS so I owed it to him, but I reminded him (very nicely) that it probably wasn't the best day to try that on.

Much better now, however, though I still haven't got back the will to write. Wonder if other women writers just completely lose it those first couple of days. I know I do. I tend to open a file, stare at the screen for hours, type a couple of swear words, then shut the computer down again.

And my letter from Glasgow Uni came through in the post this morning, saying they'd got my acceptance of the place. Just a few more things to sort out now. Feeling better now. Much better.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Book review: The Boar Stone, by Jules Watson

Warning: Spoilers, ho!

I fell in love with Jules Watson's Dalriada trilogy from the first. The first two books, The White Mare and The Dawn Stag, centering around the struggles of Epidii princess Rhiann and her exile husband Eremon to fight the Agricolan invasion of Scotland, were characterised by Watson's wonderful, atmospheric writing, meticulous attention to detail and more drama than you could shake a pilum at. And, after the somewhat abrupt ending to The Dawn Stag, which left me in tears, I barely managed to wait till the release of The Boar Stone, the third and final installment in this thoroughly enjoyable trilogy.

The Dawn Stag effectively ended with the defeat of the Scottish (here called Alban) tribes by the Roman legions at Mons Graupius in AD 83. We now jump forward nearly three hundred years in time, to the year 366, where we encounter a whole new cast of characters. Admittedly, after spending two books with Rhiann and Eremon et al., I needed a wee while to get used to this fact. Only a wee while, though.

Minna, nursemaid to a wealthy Roman family near Eboracum (York), is feared and reviled by the local people because of her unnatural dreams. When her grandmother dies, she's all but accused of witchcraft and leaves. Her brother has betrothed her to one of the household, a match she has no intention of upholding, and decides to go north to join him on Hadrian's Wall. I liked this; the opening of The Boar Stone echoes that of The White Mare, where the heroine is being pushed into marriage against her will, and it helped link the two of them together in my mind.

Anyway, en route to the Wall via Eboracum, Minna befriends the wandering acrobat Cian. When she has to pass the Wall to reach her brother's fort, Cian goes with her. However, all does not go as planned, and a series of unfortunate events sees both Minna and Cian captured by slave dealers and being sold - very literally - up the river, to Dunadd, the seat of King Cahir of Dalriada. Dunadd, however, is very different from how we last left it. It's still a crag surrounded by marsh and topped by the King's Hall, but, instead of the White Mare of Rhiannon, the totem of Dunadd is now Hawen the Boar God. More importantly, due to King Cahir's somewhat reluctant dealings with the Romans, a lot of people, including Cahir's queen Maeve, are desperate to be Romanised and will do anything to see that happen.

Cian is sent to work in the stables, while Minna becomes nursemaid to the young princesses, Orla and Finola. King Cahir returns from the north, and we soon find that something is rotten in the state of Dalriada. Forced to pay tribute to Rome and under pressure from his wife and other courtiers to submit once and for all, Cahir cannot help but be ashamed, especially since he's a descendent of Rhiann and Eremon, who fought the Empire all those centuries ago. But he soon remembers a prophecy made by Rhiann and passed down from king to king, a prophecy he remembers when Minna speaks the words in a vision. Without giving too much away, he and Minna are obliged to travel into darkest Pictland in search of something that will reveal their joined destiny and bring back old memories for us readers, and from there form an unsteady alliance with the Pictish King Gede (Picts and Dalriadans aren't exactly the best of friends) to do what Rhiann and Eremon just fell short of: driving the Romans out of Alba once and for all.

The Boar Stone, like its predecessors, falls very definitely in the category of historical fantasy, filled with ancient mysticism and second sight. There's also the issue of reincarnation. From a remark made at the end of The Dawn Stag, I had a theory about who Minna was, and - (insert happy dance) - I was right. What I didn't expect was how incredibly emotional the revelation would be, for the characters across the centuries. Another possible reincarnation was the old Pictish herb-woman, Darine, whose name is an anagram of Nerida, the name of the high priestess of the Sacred Isle in the first two books. I couldn't help wondering whether this was deliberate, or just a very, very good coincidence.

As with the previous Dalriada books, the best-developed characters are the leads, Minna and Cahir. The secondary characters, from the deceitful Maeve to the very likeable maid Keeva, to King Gede, are all vividly drawn, though they're fairly limited to their roles, and consequently some of them come off as a bit one-dimensional. One character who really intrigued me was Cahir's aunt Brónach, and I'm sorry we didn't get to know more about her story. I'm also a bit surprised Cian's role turned out to be fairly minor, given his introduction at the beginning. The problem may also have something to do with the fact that this set of characters only had one book to themselves, whereas Rhiann and Eremon had two, giving the reader much more time to get to know them.

Nevertheless, Watson's third book is as emotionally engaging as her first two. Although the time leap between Rhiann's time and Minna's seems vast, Watson expertly weaves them together, penning scenes that had me moved to tears barely halfway through the book - a rare thing for me, let me tell ya. Cahir and his peers think of Rhiann and Eremon almost wistfully now that they're three hundred years away in the past, and I really shared that. Another scene, where Linnet's old seeing pool is described as overgrown and almost forgotten, was unexpectedly poignant. And yet, although Eremon and Rhiann are dead, they're not at all gone. The close weaving, and the distance, of past and present is one of the book's most emotional themes. And that's without the relationship between Minna and Cahir - not to mention that ending which I just did not see coming at all and needed lots of tissues for. Just a prior warning.

I also thought it was lovely that Rhiann could act as a sort of spirit-guide for Minna, especially since she spent most of The White Mare and The Dawn Stag desperate for such a thing herself. There was a real sense of fulfillment from that. Did I mention I needed tissues?

Combine all that with Watson's vivid descriptions of everything from daily life at Dunadd to the bloody battles between the Dalriadan-Pictish alliance and the Roman army, and what you've got is a stunning, truly satisfying end to a wonderful trilogy. Although I had my doubts about the time-frame (I thought Dalriada was established in Scotland after the Romans had left, though Watson does give her reasons for an earlier setting), this is an incredibly plausible and immersive vision of ancient Alba. I felt like I'd just stepped into a whole world, one I have every intention of returning to.

Quite simply, I loved it.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Call the Doctor! The series is flatlining!

Is it just me, or is Doctor Who beginning to lose it? Since they brought it back, I've watched it religiously, but now I'm beginning to get the feeling I'm watching it out of routine than of any actual desire to watch it. The last episode of this new series I actually enjoyed was the Shakespeare one; the rest have been pretty... meh. And it's definitely not the acting - Tennant and Agyeman are brilliant leads, but they're being bogged down by non-stories and tired writing.

Take tonight's episode. After that Mark Gatiss one (which me and my mum jokingly called "the Beast of Royston Vasey"), we had to wait two weeks for a decent episode that didn't involve some sort of premise straight out of a 50s' B-movie. Instead, what we got was a total re-hash of the Satan Pit two-parter from the last series, which was one of my favourites. The crew of a grimy, failing spaceship caught in mortal peril, being systematically possessed/destroyed by an evil presence within their own ranks - but instead of the Devil, we have an evil sentient sun. O-kay...There was this whole secret supposedly attached to Michelle Collins' character, but then it turned out to be that she scanned the sun for fuel instead of life. I was left mentally squawking, "W-w-wait! That was it?"

It seems the writers are fast running out of steam. The focus seems to be on the flashy ideas rather than the actual stories. Can anyone tell me what the point of that Motorway episode was? And the Daleks are becoming way, way overused. Instead of running to hide behind the sofa, I'm falling asleep on it. Exterminate, you say? My f-ing pleasure.

C'mon. The old Doctor Who ran for over twenty years; surely to God there must be some more old villains, other than Daleks and Cybermen, to draw on. Like the Master, for instance. Or - hell - I'd even welcome an episode of that green bubble-wrap monster. Anything apart from bloody Daleks.

Well, I'm off to watch some Scrubs. Puppy-eyed J.D is the only doctor I feel like watching these days.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Eagle of the Ninth for the big screen!

Saw it in a wee article in today's Glasgow Herald. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) wants to make a film adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff's classic novel. The story's based the disappearance of the infamous Ninth Legion Hispana who, according to legend, marched north into Caledonia some time during the second century and were never seen again. According to legend, that is.

Macdonald wants to film in Scotland, hopefully beginning next year. He's been a fan of the book since childhood, so maybe we'll have the next big labour of love since Peter Jackson filmed Lord of the Rings and King Kong. It's finally convinced me to order the book itself.

Seems the film world has developed an obsession with Roman history, just at the time I've renewed mine. Plans have also been announced to adapt Robert Harris' Pompeii, as well as Memoirs of Hadrian.

Apparently, Antonio Banderas is cast as Hadrian.

See, when I think of Antonio Banderas, I think:

And when I think of Hadrian, I think:

Definitely a new image for him. lol.

'Scuse me, I've got to go squee into my pillow now.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Book review: A Noble Captive, by Michelle Styles

Warning: possibly spoilerific.

My first Mills and Boon. Oh, I'm so proud. (tear)

Although, at heart, I'm a bit of a romantic (well, okay, a lot of a romantic), I've always been very cynical about romance as a genre, and the excerpts I've read of various historical romances did nothing to change that. Luckily, Michelle Styles' book is anything but your stereotypical romance novel. Instead of some disreputable but oh-so-roguishly-handsome Regency viscount, her hero is a Roman tribune. Yay!

A Noble Captive is set in 75 BC, and based on Julius Caesar's little-known kidnap by Mediterranean pirates, though the book doesn't actually deal with that event. Marcus Livius Tullio, junior tribune, and his men are captured by pirates en route to Africa and taken to a remote Mediterranean island to await the ransom money. The island is ruled by the sibyl of the goddess Kybele, to whom even the pirates pay tribute. Tullio and the surviving members of his cohort meet with the sibyl, and Tullio manages to secure the safety and medical care of his men. He also has another agenda concerning the pirates - but I won't say too much here.

Unbeknownst to the islanders and the pirates, however, the sibyl is bedridden with a mysterious illness. Her niece and aide, Helena, fearing that widespread knowledge of her aunt's weakness will give the pirates the incentive they need to take over the temple, masquerades as the sibyl, hiding her features behind the ceremonial gold mask. She now finds herself in a terrible predicament: her aunt is dangerously ill, the pirates are poised to take over leadership, and a Roman presence, especially in the form of a kidnapped tribune, will no doubt cast the greedy eye of the Roman Republic on the island. And, despite her distrust of all things Roman and her own training for celibate temple life, she finds herself drawn to Tullio. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) for both of them, the Roman captives are not allowed to leave the temple grounds, so that's plenty of opportunity for Tullio and Helena to cross paths and fall in love in this fraught political atmosphere.

And what can I say, but Styles flawlessly balances the romance plotline and the political plotline. There wasn't a time when I felt I could have done with a bit more of one and a bit less of the other. Although the Republic isn't really my strongest part of Roman history, there was nothing, historically-speaking, that felt anachronistic or jarring, and historical detail is integrated nicely into the story. No info-dumps here. Styles deftly establishes a nice sense of time and place and the characters feel true to their age and culture, while at the same time accessible to us modern readers. The blooming romance between Tullio and Helena was very nice to read, with the focus on their emotion and appreciation of each other as - y'know - human beings, but with a couple of sensual scenes mixed in. I found I was really looking forward to seeing them get together.

Tullio is a likeable hero, embodying all those positive Roman ideals of honour and such, though really none of the negatives. He's a soldier, but he thinks with his brain, not his sword - or, indeed, his crotch. He cares about his men, and very deeply for Helena. He appreciates her strength, beauty and competence, and finds himself irked that while she is the one who, in truth, ensures the welfare of the temple, all her work goes virtually unappreciated. He sets about to help with repair work around the temple, at first to show that the Romans don't mean the islanders any harm, but also to help Helena out. He also forges a friendship with the mute goose-girl Niobe, because his own sister lost her speech. His main flaw is his pride (let's face it, as a Roman and a man, it's inevitable, lol), but thankfully he never comes off as insufferably arrogant or overbearing.

Tullio is a good character, but in the end he pales next to Helena, for it is she who really carries the novel. She's plucky and compassionate, and instantly likeable. Stigmatised by her late mother's fatal pride, she strives to be selfless and gives herself up to the celibate life of a priestess, though she's not entirely convinced it's her true calling, as she doesn't hear the goddess as her aunt does, and she longs for a baby of her own. She's dutiful, but has more than enough backbone to prevent her from being completely submissive. And, thankfully, she's not one of those heroines who melts into a puddle of goo the instant the hero so much as touches her. And though she hates Romans but knows she's falling in love with Tullio, there are none of those dreaded "I love you, I hate you" rants. She soon acknowledges Tullio as an honourable, pleasant man, and her reluctance to act on her feelings is more due to her fear of what will happen if the pirates find out. The plot outside the romance deals mainly with the political upheaval she's trying desperately to avert, and so we're given more of her POV than we are of Tullio's, the main reason, I think, his character suffers next to hers.

This aside, I've not really got any other criticism with this book, though at first I was trying to work out which culture the island of Kybele belonged to - Greek or Roman. The romance between Tullio and Helena is very pleasant, and Helena's a heroine to root for. I also liked the sweet secondary romance between the maid, Galla, and Quintus, the hardened old centurion, who bond over swapping recipes. :D

I see Styles also has two more Roman-set historicals under her belt - The Gladiator's Honour and The Roman's Virgin Mistress. I'll need to have a wee look on Amazon, then. In the meantime, however, if you're looking for a nice, light read that you can curl up and enjoy a mug of hot chocolate with, then A Noble Captive definitely fits the bill.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

History in Monochrome

This mini-rant is inspired by my own recent efforts in the writing field. At the moment, Antonine Wall plotbunny aside, I'm working on a novel about Agricola's invasion of Caledonia in the late first century. Or rather, I'm writing about the people involved in the invasion, from both sides. My main POV characters range from Agricola and Calgacus themselves, to a young Caledonian warrior, a Roman legionary and his contubernium, and a novice Druidess. The idea is to sort of focus on each character's personal story as it relates to the "bigger picture". Think something along the lines of the POV technique used by George R. R. Martin in A Song of Ice and Fire, though not on such a mind-buggeringly epic scale.

It's turning out to be a very good way to write such a wide-scale story, as it gives me an opportunity to delve further into each character's psyche, showing their motivations instead of telling them. It also allows me to depict more clearly the strengths and flaws of each individual's personality. I've realised that although there are definitely some characters who can be classified as "goodies", inasmuch that they're decent people doing decent things in a decent way, I don't really have any "baddies". The nearest thing I have is Agricola, the leader of the invading army, but I'm hesitant to call my version of him a villain due to various factors that arise in the storyline. Since the story's told through the eyes of characters on both sides, it's hard to pin labels on any one of them. Agricola is an inspirational figure to most of his men, but evil personified to the Caledonians.

And it's something I'm quite proud of, given what I've seen of most historical novels that deal with Roman-Celtic relations. Granted, it's the classic story: the all-powerful, all-conquering army, unmatched by any force in the known world, and the people that fight to protect their own way of life and prevent conquest. I just wish authors wouldn't be so damn black-and-white about it. I've tried looking for novels set in Roman Britain, and most of the ones I've found are all about the poor, helpless, nature-loving Celts and their cruel subjugation by those EBUL, nasty, imperialistic Romans.

What happened to shades of grey? No society is perfect; people are people, no matter which race they belong to, and as such they're all fallible. Tolkien's Elves, to give a fictional example - the wisest, the oldest, the fairest - were still deeply flawed. Hell, the gods and goddesses of most cultures have their own fair share of personality flaws and petty vices, one of the things that makes their stories so interesting. Lots of leaders are cruel and power-hungry; a small minority actually do hold the people's interest at heart. Even good people can do bad things. Did the Votadini tribe give way to Roman rule because they were all avaricious, or did they do it because it would avoid bloodshed? Or even a combination of both?

So, yes, I'm feeling quite positive about my own work-in-progress. Both cultures are portrayed with their own balance of pros and cons, and, more importantly, the characters are all human beings. Human beings who just happen to be of either Roman or Caledonian heritage. So far, I'm managing to avoid one of the major pitfalls in writing historical fiction, and that can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Don't feed the plotbunny...

I wonder if this happens to anyone else. I'm certain it does, but it seems to happen to me whenever I'm inspired to write something.

Although my brain is currently living in first century Scotland during the Flavian/Agricolan invasion, I did have a vague idea for a murder mystery (of all things) set during the second century, on the Antonine Wall. It wasn't even that much. I had a premise, the central "detective" character, and a victim.

'Course, I had to go think about it some more, and that's when the plotbunny began to grow. And at a radioactive mutant-like rate. Now, instead of a simple case of "Legatus legionis, on the via principalis, with the pugio" (yay gratuitous military terms), what I have is a story about the Antonine Wall, its occupation, and the Pictish attacks that forced the Romans to abandon it and pull back to Hadrian's Wall. It's not on the same scale as the Flavian novel I'm researching for at the moment, but it's big.

Hm. I wonder if I should do a series.

No. Bad Kirsten. No biscuit.

That bumping, thudding sound you hear is an idea running fast away - with me still barely clinging to it.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Charlie is ma darlin

So, the other day my mum and dad were down at the polling station, and they both came back with a funny story.

Funny peculiar, as opposed to funny ha-ha.

Mum said she was looking over the form, in a sort of "yeah, yeah, yeah" frame of mind, going over the parties. She read over Labour, Conservative, all those ones you've heard of. Then she got to the Scottish Jacobite Party.

Scottish Jacobite Party.


Never heard of them before now, no idea what their manifesto is. Put Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne of Britain? D'you think anyone told 'em Culloden was over 260 years ago? Did I miss something?