The Flame Bearer is the tenth book in Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series, and it caps off a run of faster-paced stories in over the last few novels.
In this installment, Uhtred sees the budding rivalries between the West Saxons, the Danes, and the Scots in Northumbria as both a threat and an opportunity for his claim to Bebbanburg. acts on his ambitions from the previous story (Warriors of the Storm), and the result is a brutal battle.
Leading up to the climax, Uhtred blunders his way from one step to the next, always with some semblance of a plan in mind, but loose enough for the reader to think he’s on his way to disaster. As I was reading, this felt like an intentional plot point where Uhtred’s confidence leads to drastic measures for him to gather information. In retrospect, I think these sections were a little questionable.
Uhtred has shown in the past that his overconfidence or his desperation can cause him to act quickly, if not wisely. These chapters just felt a little out of character for the older, wiser Uhtred we’ve come to know. I’m okay with chalking it up to his desperation to retake Bebbanburg, though.
I also enjoyed seeing a few younger characters get more time and development on the page. Aethelstan has quickly grown into my favorite character, and his transition from a supposed bastard into a Prince of Wessex is fully realized here in the initiative he takes in the final act and the ultimate leadership he shows on the battlefield. Uhtred the younger also displays the cunning, bravery, and ferocity he’s learned from his father in surprising ways.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. It followed a familiar formula from previous books, but that is to be expected by this point in the series. I still feel like I’m learning something new about Uhtred and some of the other characters with each book, and that’s progress.
Spoiler warning: I was honestly surprised that this was not the final book of the series. However, I think Cornwell has laid the groundwork with the story of the Flame Bearer in previous novels well enough that this story does not feel like a sudden turn. I’m excited to see what further developments come in future books. Spoilers end.
I’ve continued my listening to The Last Kingdom series by Bernard Cornwell with Warriors of the Storm. This 9th entrant in The Last Kingdom series really brought all of the elements I enjoy about this story together.
In this story, Uhtred has entered his second “prime” as a lord serving Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia.
Uhtred has reestablished his relationships with his children and the young Aethelstan, and he builds on these relationships in Warriors of the Storm in meaningful ways, demonstrating that he is no longer the absent father as when his children were younger. He is a father and a leader of young people, who finds young boy servants he knows can learn from him and join the ranks of his warriors as they become men.
Uhtred’s own ambitions have also been reseeded after seeming lost for a time. Through the middle few books of this series, Uhtred appears mostly aimless. He always pines to retake his ancestral home at Bebbanburg, but he has very little idea of how to accomplish that, so he is buffeted from conflict to conflict against a constant tide of new enemies. Warriors of the Storm feels like the first time in several books that Uhtred shows real ambition, where he takes proactive steps to make his claim to Bebbanburg.
This ambition gets Uhtred into some trouble with an army of Norsemen, hearkening back to his younger brasher days. But as a veteran warlord, and with some good allies, he makes his stand.
This story called back a lot of themes from previous stories, helping it feel quite familiar: a Northern threat; a mysterious sorceress; a hair-brained quest; and a last-ditch battle. It was a great story overall that reminded me of why I love this series.
The narration is serviceable, but the tone of this narrator feels underwhelming to me. I suppose nothing compares to the bellowing and growling of Jonathan Keeble, who narrated the first few stories of this series.
I just finished listening to an audiobook of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Lord Dunsany. I’ve previously listened to a short story collection of his that I had enjoyed less than I could have, most likely because of the dull voice actor.
So I came into this novel hoping I could find more enjoyment out of it (and a better voice actor).
I really enjoyed this story. The King of Elfland’s Daughter follows a family, a human lord and his elfin wife and their son, as they each navigate the boundary between the human world and the realm of magic, Elfland. The story started slowly, but the shifting of perspectives between “the fields we know” and Elfland brought an interesting dichotomy between the worlds and how each character wrestles with their desires, the relationships to each other, and their home.
This story feels like a progenitor of modern twentieth-century fantasy. It leans quite heavily on mythical creatures that would have been quite familiar to an English reader in the early twentieth century: elfs, unicorns, witches, trolls, and an enchanted forest. Where Tolkien borrowed ideas and themes from Northern European (and other) mythologies and shaped them into his own distinct world, Dunsany inserts fantasy elements into a world that feels not so far removed from our own. Thus, his story reads as if it could have been a lost fairy tale of pre-modern England.
In that way, the tone of this story is solemn and full of wonder.
Throughout The King of Elfland’s Daughter, a pervading sense of yearning is captured between the different characters: yearning for love, for lost love, for home, for the hunt, for so many small things, and this helps the solemn tone feel earned, rather than overwrought. The reader yearns with the characters and feels their losses and gains.
Like in all classic fantasy, the theme of the realms of magic receding from human knowledge stands stark, and so the entire story feels like a lamenting and a yearning for that deeper connection to a world we have lost, or perhaps abandoned.
As I mentioned above, the voice actor for the audiobook version is also excellent, and has definitely endeared me to Lor Dunsany’s writing in a way that the previous stories I’d listened to did not. Now I know I will need to go back and read his other work, either in hard copy or with a different narrator.
I don’t read a lot of literary fiction, so I tend to pick these stories without knowing exactly what to expect. If I don’t know the author or haven’t heard or read much about the book, then I’m basically just going in blind hoping I find something to connect with.
I just finished listening to The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson on audiobook. I primarily chose this book because it seemed like a perspective on drugs and addiction I had never really been exposed to before.
The Residue Years switches between the points of view of Champ and his mother, Grace. Following Grace’s stint in court-mandated rehab for her crack addiction, she and Champ try to reconnect with each other, with their family, and with the previous life and home they’d lost touch with. Champ, meanwhile, sells crack to support himself and his family, even as Grace tries to recover and find a new path in life.
Champ and Grace appear to want to change their lives, but they keep making poor decisions. As protagonists, you want Champ and Grace to succeed in reclaiming themselves and each other. However, Champ is too self-aware for his own good, convincing the reader that he knows that dealing crack cannot be his end-all-be-all, while continually making choices that pull him deeper into that life. Grace does all the right things on the surface. She gets out of rehab, finds a job, attends NA, finds a new church. She recognizes that she needs to stay away from the toxic people of her past and establish a new life, but she too easily allows herself to be dragged backward.
Jackson does an incredible job of making the reader root for these characters, to hope against all odds that they will break the cycle of crack, and to envision a better future for them. He does all this even as the characters make baffling decisions that just repeat the cycle.
This story is ultimately an intimate portrayal of the vicious cycle of addiction and how it erodes those bonds to family, stability, and love.
I don’t recall what made me buy this book initially, but I’m glad to have read it.
Disney hosted Star Wars Celebration over the weekend and, as expected, made several announcements about upcoming projects for their TV and film slate.
I’m still behind on The Mandalorian and Bad Batch, so I don’t have much to contribute in terms of where Star Wars is at the moment and where it may be going.
However, the announcement of a new post-sequel-trilogy film featuring Rey is the best news I’ve heard about this franchise in quite some time. Evidently, the film will focus on Rey trying to rebuild the Jedi order. Here are my probably not-surprising reasons why:
The Rise of Skywalker, and the sequel trilogy as a whole, was botched, and those characters and actors deserve a reboot (Finn, in particular, but I don’t think that’s likely). I greatly enjoyed The Last Jedi, but Disney didn’t stick the landing in the final film.
Daisy Ridley is great.
After seeing The Force Awakens, Rey instantly became one of my favorite Star Wars characters. She was funny, intense, relatable, and packed a believable punch in fight scenes.
I’m always curious about what comes after the Big Bad is defeated.
The sequel trilogy did not know what it wanted to say about the Jedi or the Force, and this could be a chance to correct the narrative.
Overall, I’m glad Disney waited to do something different with Rey, but I’m also glad they didn’t scrap her and the sequel trilogy stories entirely. That trilogy had a lot of characters who are worth exploring, so why not start with the main protagonist?
That’s about all I have for the moment, because we know so little about what this movie will be like. Recent Star Wars entrants have been hit-or-miss for me, so I can’t say I totally buy into Disney’s own hype. I hope they get this movie right. I hope it revives Rey’s character and brings Daisy Ridley back into the fold as a staple Star Wars actor. And I hope it has something interesting to say about this universe.
March felt like a long month. I spent a week in the office with my entire team, some of whom I haven’t seen in person in years, and couple of whom I was meeting in person for the first time. We’ve had a busy month with the boys, not for any reason in particular other than the fact that an eighteen-month-old and a four-year-old will occupy a lot of your time and energy.
It was a halfway decent month for my goals, as well, until I got sick and was thrown off my rhythm for over a week.
Last Month’s Goals
Revisions for Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1.
Read three books. Pretty straightforward. I also want to continue making good progress on A Memory of Light. I’m at the point where some narrative chips are starting to fall, and it is both dreadful and exciting.
Exercise at least three times a week. The app is making me do three workouts per week, at minimum. So that’s baseline. I also want to start adding in other forms of training, so I’m mentally aiming for 4-5 workouts per week, and I’ll see how my routine develops from there.
Revisions for Uprooted?
I did not complete my revisions, but I’ve made some good progress in the last week. One thing I can say for certain is that I have a really good story on my hands. That is not something I would have been confident in saying before this revision phase. There are a couple minor plot threads I had forgotten about in the long hiatus since my last revision phase (as I was drafting New Earth), that highlight the struggle for survival in interesting ways. Not just describing the characters as tired and hungry again and again, but demonstrating how conflict can smolder from that basic tension.
So, I just need to be more diligent in revising. I still want to finish my current read-through to look at overall plot and identify areas that need more work, and then read through again to reverse engineer my outline and ensure the scene and chapter structure makes sense for the plot and pacing.
After that, I’m not sure. Maybe a third read-through to look for smaller details I want to fix, before deciding whether I have a solid manuscript to send to an editor, or even beta readers.
Read three books?
Yes! And my reviews have been fairly active on Goodreads and here. I might have read four, actually… I lost track a bit, because I updated a few of my reviews on Goodreads, which changes the where they appear in my “read” list.
I didn’t read much in A Memory of Light, but I’m about halfway through. I’m still very much interested. I’m just at a point in the story where some chips are starting to fall, and I’m dreading losing characters I love.
Exercise three times per week?
I started off strong, and then this very minor but very nagging cold I got in the middle of the month threw my off.
I had been using Asana Rebel to find yoga-type workout videos, but I’m not thrilled with the app. After the introductory program, there’s not really much guidance. There are just a bunch of videos from various trainers. I can watch yoga videos for free on YouTube, so I’m not quite seeing the value in the app at this point.
I’m also starting to consider different types of workouts. I just don’t know how and where I want to exercise. I haven’t belonged to a gym since COVID lockdown, and it’s difficult to see an opening in my day-to-day schedule for that at the moment — getting changed, going to the gym, stretching, working out, getting home, changing again. I need a solid hour or hour-and-a-half, and that time is difficult to find as it is. My office has a small workout room that I might start using, just for the convenience. We’ll see how that goes.
Goals for April
Finish two revision cycles for Uprooted, the Herb Witch Tales #1. I definitely want to finish to two read-throughs I mentioned above. If I make real progress doing so, I can aim for a third.
Read three books. I’ve been able to stick to this one so far, this year.
Exercise three times per week. Still in flux what my real workout routine looks like, but I’ve been doing alright for now.
Book #8 of The Last Kingdom series, The Empty Throne returns to form after what I felt was a bit of a mid-series lull in The Pagan Lord, the previous installment.
This book started with a point-of-view section of Uhtred, the younger, the son of the Uhtred who carries the series to this point. I really enjoyed this glimpse into the mind of the young man who is trying to follow in his father’s footsteps as a warrior and a future lord.
Uhtred, the elder is older now, wounded, but wiser. Some of the bitterness of the previous story has fallen away, and Uhtred is starting to truly recognize his own limitations. In one battle sequence, Uhtred recognizes to himself, and the reader, that in his younger years he would have been one of the fierce young warriors in the fray of the fighting, but he stays back to be a leadership presence for his, knowing that his wound would make him a liability in the thick of the fighting.
This story focused quite a lot on Uhtred’s relationship with his children, Uhtred and Stiorra, and Aethelstan, the (non-)bastard son of Edward. While Uhtred’s regard for Aethelstan as an adopted son has become clear over the last few stories, his mentorship of whom he believes is a future king is on full display here.
This shift in tone is greatly welcome for a character whose brash decision-making was becoming tiresome, for the other characters, and for the reader. Uhtred is still confident, daring, and courageous, but he seems to have truly come into lordship not just as a warrior, but as a leader, and that transformation continues to be fascinating.
I’m also quite intrigued by the introduction of Sigtryggr. His character on The Last Kingdom TV series was a frightening and admirable, and I look forward to seeing how his character, and the Norse threat overall, develop going forward.
I was never out on this series, but I took a break after the last book. Now, I’m fully back in.
Another wonderful modern fairytale by Neil Gaiman. At this point, I have no excuse whatsoever for not poring through every single story that Gaiman has ever written, because each story feels impactful and poignant.
I listened to the full-cast production of The Graveyard Book on Audible. I’m used to Gaiman narrating his own stories and being a fantastic storyteller. The full-cast production of The Graveyard Book is stellar; each voice actor brings nuance and feeling to their character(s), and the voicing brings real life to the scenes in a way I normally do not expect from audiobooks.
This story follows a boy who was raised in a graveyard after his family were murdered when he was a toddler, and eventually learns how to survive in the world outside. The boy, Bod, short for Nobody Owens, also must ultimately learn about the man who killed his family.
Gaiman writes primarily from the boy’s perspective, and Bod’s narrative voice grows naturally as he ages, a credit to Gaiman’s writing, and the voice actor’s work. Bod develops a close if curious relationship with his guardian, a not-quite-human-being named Silas who has an uncanny ability to fade into the shadows. Silas does not express the usual paternal emotions for his charge, but throughout the book, the emotional bond Bod has with Silas, and the other residents of his graveyard, are unshakable.
Yet again, Gaiman masterfully inserts pieces of folklore into his story to make it feel supernatural and mysterious and familiar all at once.
This is the third Neil Gaiman story I’ve read, and he is quickly bounding to the top of my favorite authors list. I cannot rave about this story enough, so I’ll stop myself before this gets out of hand.
Audible recently offered The Wrong One as part of some kind of sale. I’ll always give free books a shot, and I could definitely not say no to a novella by Dervla McTiernan.
I’ve read the first couple installments of McTiernan’s more well-known Cormac Reilly series, following a Dublin-born detective trying to figure out his career in Galway as he solves often strange cases.
McTiernan’s crime stories always have a slow burning build, usually following multiple characters, until the threads twist into an intense third act. It may sound formulaic, but the characters are always well-developed, and the twists are enough to put a reader off-kilter.
So, I went into The Wrong One expecting to be hooked from the start. Admittedly, I was not. The Wrong One uses two voice actors to narrate the respective point-of-view narrators in the story, and I was not a fan of the first narrator. I’ll go into a little more detail below, in a section marked for spoilers.
This first narrator had an odd inflection to his voice that irked me. The second narrator was good, fitting for a teenaged boy who thinks he knows everything.
Despite my issues with one of the narrators (and the character they were playing), the story’s tension ramped up rapidly with a looming realization and twist that only McTiernan can deliver with such fluidity and emotional weight. I ended up enjoying this story quite a lot. Now I just want to go read more Cormac Reilly stories.
Spoiler section with some further thoughts…
Alright, so I didn’t like the first narrator, playing Simon, had an inflection that made him sound emotionally vacant and like a know-it-all from the start, making him virtually unlikable. Then, as the story progressed, it becomes clear that Simon is more than full of himself — even delusional — about his advances towards Clara and her obvious (to everyone but him) complete disinterest in him. Then, his pathetic delusions became overbearing, then possessive, then manipulative, and then, holy shit it was him the whole time! Great twist. I’m telling myself that the strange voice-acting of the character was completely intentional to throw the reader off-balance from the start. Totally worked.
Creativity is tricky. Trying to be creative is even trickier.
In recent months, I’ve found myself searching for more of an outlet for my creativity. Writing stories is my first creative love, but the fact is that it comes with several limitations, some of which I may be unnecessarily imposing on myself.
I also struggle with a lot of the mental aspects of sharing my creativity with others, especially through social media. How much sharing is too much, too revealing, too damaging to my own privacy? Ideas run through my head all the time, and I feel compelled to share them with people, but I often don’t, or perhaps more often I share them in person with my wife or my friends. That type of creativity sharing can be quite cathartic, but it leaves open the question of whether, and what, and how I share my creativity beyond that limited group of people.
This very post comes out of a sense of frustration that I didn’t have something else to write about. So, I’m going to do some unpacking here and see where it takes us.
Limits on My Creativity
I mentioned above that it feels like there are limits to my creative outlet in writing stories. As soon as I wrote that, I thought that many of those limits must be self-imposed, so I’d like to examine them. In no particular order:
Not enough time
Worries over my copyright
Keeping ideas about my fantasy world-building close to the vest
Five off the top of my head; not bad. That should be enough to delve into for a bit.
Not enough time
I’m not a full-time writer and likely will not be in the foreseeable future, so this limitation is partially by circumstance. However, I think it’s also due in part to the way in which I approach writing. I primarily write novels or at least short stories, and so sitting down to write 100 words doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment.
Now, look, I fully realize that every little bit counts towards the greater goal. I get all the writing mantras. But it can be difficult to maintain that steadfastness day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month as you churn over a longer story.
Worries over copyright / protecting my ideas
I’m combining items two and three, because they feel very much related, although still different
Worries over copyright infringement is not easy to navigate, especially online, as I discussed last week. But even beyond the notion of someone stealing my work, I’m quite protective of my creative ideas, especially when it comes to my world-building universe.
With enough prompting, I can quite easily ramble about the myriad ideas I have for my fantasy universe, but I sometimes worry that speaking my ideas out loud will… release them from my mind. As if the words roll off my tongue and the ideas themselves evaporate.
Strange, I know. I’ve learned to be careful about how much I reveal about my stories, my ideas, and where I might take them, because I don’t want to lose the drive to write them down. Speaking them out loud is a form of sharing them with the world, but I know I can develop them in so much more depth and with more coherence if I write them down. So, I try to “save” my ideas for my writing, or maybe only discuss certain aspects of them, if I want to workshop them with someone I trust.
Another piece of “protecting” my ideas springs to mind.
Limited formats / platforms
I’m also combining items four and five.
I realize that there are tons of platforms out there where I can publish stories for various online communities to read. Wattpad, Tumblr, Reddit, IngramSpark, Kindle, this blog… and literally hundreds or thousands of other websites I cannot even name.
But does publishing my story in one space restrict me from another? Is a freemium story platform like Wattpad too open to exploitation of my ideas? Is there just too much damn content online for any of this to matter? I have no clue.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m in the process of reassessing how I write and publish my stories. I love the idea of publishing novels, and I will continue to strive for that. But if I’m only publishing a novel once in a blue moon, then where do the rest of my ideas go? Is there somewhere else I can put them to get them into the world without feeling exposed — to copyright infringement, or loss of my ideas to the ether, or whatever else?
These questions bug me, so to this point I’ve resigned myself to the full self-publishing process with novels, novellas, or short stories, because it feels more official, and safer.
But I think I can find something else to fill the drawn-out in-between spaces — spaces in my head, in my publishing schedule, in my day-to-day schedule where smaller ideas can be nurtured and thrive. I just don’t know what yet.