Call to Arms: Voystra

The first 1/3 or so of Call to Arms takes place on the planey Voystra, homeworld to Kefan Bzatory, one of the main protagonists aside from those already mentioned. Here is some of the data I put together when planning-out the planet.

System Designation: Sixth planet orbiting [star 1], a large B6 (blue-white) main sequence star approximately 2 ¾  times the size of Sol.

Location: Outer Rim planet; reasonably accessible with a small number of well-defined hyperspace lanes (average for the region), although travelling off these paths may be dangerous due to the presence of the Kappicz Nebula which disrupts Epulone generators pulling some ships into regular space prematurely and causing others to be lost permanently. The neighbouring systems include Wadham, Herleoner Naguba, Elizavetol, and the Burdigala cluster. Wadham and Herleoner Naguba have historically been enemies, as Herleon stronghold, and continue to be so under the aegis of Zelosians, the new masters of that region. Burdigalle, originally colonized by settlers from Durocortōrum  has traditionally been a great ally, being the local bastion of Imperial power but was devastated by the civil wars following the “Estates General”.

Planet Size and Land Area (relative): Slightly larger than Earth, with one major continental mass in each of the north and south hemispheres. The northern continent is about the size of North America and the south the size of Europe. A minor continental mass in the north the size of Australia is the other major land mass.

Gravity: 1.1G

Dominant Climate: Cool temperate, subarctic, and arctic – Voystra is a cool planet that within the last several thousand years was still locked in the grip of an ice age. There are no major landmasses in equatorial climes, therefore most of the settlements share a cool climate with a short hot summer and long cold winter with lots of precipitation.

Dominant Terrain: About a third of Voystra’s surface is still covered in icecaps which are slowly receding; of the remaining two thirds the majority is covered in forest, tundra, or steppe. Huge expanses of land were ground smooth by the retreating glaciers, although there are a number of distinct mountain ranges. Water is abundant; over 90% of the planet surface is ocean and the major populated continent is dotted with freshwater lakes and powerful rivers – the most important rivers being the Vodra and the Biebroz.

Technology: Voystra, being located in one of the furthest wings of the Outer Rim, has a general technology level much lower than that of core worlds – roughly akin to that of late 19th century Europe on earth. Beasts of burden (specifically Brudniki, ox-sized mammoth-like creatures, and Koniki, a stalky, furry horse-like creature) are the most common ways for people to move about and transport goods. Most modern amenities available elsewhere in the galaxy exist on Voystra, but are very rare. The planet has two spaceports: Rozienov on the northern continent, and a much smaller port on the southern continent.

Land Use:
As with most planets in the Empire, the population is shifting from rural to urban as the economy is increasingly industrialised and mechanised, and as smaller rural hamlets are wiped out by the Disease. This has left many of the rural areas underpopulated, which is a problem since grain is one of the major exports of Voystra; the urban areas on the other hand are becoming more crowded, dirty, and run-down despite new construction initiatives.

Natural Hazards: Permafrost over the northern half of both major continents is a major impediment to development; cyclonic storms east of the major mountain chain of the planet on the northern major continent – otherwise, Voystra itself is mercifully free of natural hazards. However, approaching Voystra is dangerous due to its presence on the outskirts of the Kappicz Nebula, which spans some 15 light-years in diameter and contains a cluster of 34 other stars (the radiation from these excites the gases in the nebula to shine). It has the unique property of existing both in normal and hyperspace. In normal space, it is harmless and beautiful, but in hyperspace it is much condensed and dangerous as razorbacks under shallow water.

Population: Approx. 200,000,000 which would place it in the bottom quarter of Outer Rim planets in terms of population and less than 10% of the average core world’s population. Imperially speaking, it is an insignificant population forming only a fraction of a percent of Imperial population. As with all Imperial planets, Voystra has suffered from a decreased birth rate coupled with a vastly increased death rate since the introduction of the New Order. The largest city, Rozienov, is the site of the planet’s only star port capable of holding interstellar-class star ships.

Birth Rate: Almost double the Imperial average of core worlds at approx. 15/1,000 population

Economy: Most of the citizens of Voystra still make their living farming and fishing, although the new emphasis towards industrialisation and urbanisation has increased mining and manufacturing jobs.

Agricultural Products: Primary crops are wheat, rapeseed, and potatoes. Wheat, while providing sustenance for the inhabitants, is a major export crop.

Standing Military: Compared to other planets, the majority of fighting forces on Voystra are backward, relying on bolt-action “slug throwers” and black-powder cannons. Cavalry is still used here and in some of the most backwards areas of the planet some units equipped purely with mêlée weapons exist. Only wealthier officers carry blasters or use skimmers rather than horses. The Imperials on Voystra continue to train every citizen as part of the militia (albeit in a much reduced fashion from before the “Estates General”) and maintains a modest standing Acolyte force.


How C.G.I. Killed Sci-Fi

... well, sci-fi movies, at any rate. I remember when C.G.I. was making it's first appearances (I think around the time of Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park) I was rather excited, thinking that there would be a lot more science fiction movies produced because it would be cheaper/easier to do so, and that this would be great for fans like me. Well, I suppose I wasn't completely wrong, but when I look at all the dreck out there these days, I certainly wasn't right.

Even today, 20+ years after the first "photorealistic" C.G.I. creatures of Jurassic Park and Babylon 5's space station, C.G.I. still, largely, looks totally fake and stupid. My children have been watching Empire Strikes Back over and over and over lately, and the ships in that (1980) film, or how about the Aries 1B Earth-Moon Shuttle from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968!) look far more convincing than, say, the ship in Avatar (2009) that transports Sam Worthington to Pandora.

This also applies to scenery and human battlescenes -- consider the future war scene from Terminator 2 which unlike the T1000 was all models, Animatronics, and "practical effects" (they actually flip the truck, for example). By 2003 with Termintor 3 we got a whole platoon of risible cartoons walking stiffly down a hill. Or even the battlescenes in the Lord of the Rings films, which was probably some of the best C.G.I. I've seen -- it still looks fake because it is.

(Youtube won't allow an embet of the T2 battlescene, but here it is: http://youtu.be/N9YU0hQEZ5M?hd=1)

The battlescene in T3 starts at about 2:55 of the clip below:

And don't even get me started on puppets vs. C.G.I....

And the list goes on -- guys in rubber suits (Alien in '79/Aliens in '86) make for way scarier xenomorphs than the C.G.I. nonsense in Alien Versus Predator.

The thing is, if I had the wherewithal to make a film, all I'd have to do is wander down to the local gaming store and hire all my fellow Warhammer geeks to build and paint-up a whole mess of scenery and vehicles. With less than the cost of one scene of C.G.I., they could whip-up a while galaxy worth of stuff. Now, maybe there are some union issues or something, but C.G.I. just strikes me as the lazy film-maker's way out and it has led to poorer filmmaking. In the old days they had to actually use their heads and get creative, not they just use computers.


Your Bi-Weekly Update #3

1. I got "back on the horse", at least in a limited fashion, with my writing this weekend. I was able to finally start and complete the first 1,000 words on the second short story I want to submit to the Collegium Scriptorum Catholicae anthology (by the by, if anyone is wondering what this is an might be interested in submitting, email me). This second entry features a group of Benedictine monks who've been sent to the court of a barbarian king of sorts to teach him how to use the technology he controls (the bridge of the generation ship they're all aboard) in return for the right to evangelize his people.

2. Updated the reading list again. I've run dry on fiction/pure pleasure reading so I'm looking for suggestions. Something fantasy would probably dovetail well with my research reading. So I'm looking for suggestions. Something like A Game of Thrones only without the garbage would be great.


The Gripping Hand (Book Review)

Title: The Gripping Hand  
Author: Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle  
Publisher: Pocket  
My Rating: 2 stars
Summary in a Sentence: The substandard sequel to the masterful Mote in God's Eye where the next generation of the Empire attempts to finally solve the "Motie Problem" when a new Alderson point creates newfound access to the Empire from the Mote.

Nota bene: Since I do not recommend anyone waste their time with this sequel to the masterful Mote in God's Eye, I provide a number of spoilers without qualm in this review. Do not read this review if you intend to read The Mote in God's Eye until after you have read it ... I still recommend you read this review when you get a chance, however, as it sheds some further light on the first work and on contemporary Catholicism.

While last month I had nothing but praise for the first book of this series, it feels as if different authors wrote The Gripping Hand - or perhaps they just rushed through in slipshod manner a manuscript that the publisher was clamoring for, given the success of the first. The result was a substandard book; one that they should not have written. It only tarnishes the legacy of the first.

After 25 years of blockading the Alderson Point to the Mote, the Empire must again face a real threat from the Moties as the formation of a protostar in the vicinity moves the existing Alderson point -- allowing the Moties to bypass the blockade (which was near to collapse anyway). A tiny force is cobbled together and sent to the new point, arriving moments before the first Moties arrive. The group consists of Horace Bury (one of the few people who appreciates the threat the Moties pose), the children of Lord and Lady Blaine, as well as a small customs ship. The rest of the novel is a convoluted tale of alliances, diplomacy, trade, and space combat between the many, many factions of Motie civilization.

The Empire of Man is far less interesting than it was in the first book, save for the comparisons that may be made between the changes in the real-world Catholic Church and those of this fictional empire over a 25-year period. More importantly, the novel lacks the suspense that The Mote in God's Eye had, and the characters are not nearly as loveable. The recurring characters from the first novel have lost the grittiness they had - rather than being real people, they now feel more like cutouts embodying liberal ideals. The new characters, most of them being spoilt rich teenagers, are "rebels without a cause". Far less interesting than the dutiful but scared sailors of the first novel.

Also, most of this book takes place among the Moties. The alienness of the Moties was interesting when we viewed them from the imperial cruiser MacArthur and through her crew. It makes for a less interesting novel to be living among these totally alien and totally amoral creatures. Finally, the book doesn't seem to flow the way The Mote in God's Eye did, and as a result it felt a chore to get through some sections.

Catholicism in the Sequel

Perhaps more than the first novel, The Gripping Hand gives us a lot of insight into how non-Catholics perceived the changes in the Catholic Church after Vatican II. This sequel was published in 1994 and was therefore written in the early '90s most likely. At this point in time the Timebombs of the Vatican II Council had all been deployed. The Novus Ordo MissÊ was thoroughly entrenched, Assisi I had been perpetrated, vocations were then a shadow of what they were in the late 60s, &c. Even to outsiders, the Church had clearly changed at this point in both appearance, approach to the world and worship, and even in teachings (percieved).

I don't think it is mere coincidence, then, that the Empire of Man that we see in this sequel novel that takes place 25 years after The Mote in God's Eye, is also greatly changed. Overall, it is much more touchy-feely, not the virile military machine that it was before. We also see that:
  • First and foremost, the big solution to the Moties' problems is contraception. The humans develop a method of helping them contracept in order to control their explosive population growth. There is no mention of contraceptives still being frowned upon, and in fact Rod Blaine and Lady Fowler (now Sallie Blaine) have only two children in 25 years of marriage (one is ~24, the other 18).
  • Sexual liberation: Glenda-Ruth Blaine, 18-year-old daughter of Captain Blaine and Lady Fowler, travels unsupervised with her boyfriend in his yaght. It is explicitly stated that they fornicate and she uses some futuristic version of the Pill to avoid pregnancy. They have some inane fight at one point in the novel about her not giving him sex or him not being very good in bed, I forget which ... in any event, it's a far cry from Rod Blaine's solicitousness for Lady Fowler's reputation in The Mote in God's Eye.
  • The Empire is now "flabby and bureaucratized", as one reviewer put it, not the strong monarchy that it was before. There are hints that the Emperor is more of a British-style figurehead now, rather than the sole ruler of before. They are unable to respond to the Motie threat as a result, whereas before they had a heavy battlecruiser and a cruiser heading into the Mote within weeks in the first book after a small probe arrives, they can barely muster a few small customs vessels in response to a potential full-scale invasion.
  • There is no mention of any clergy playing any role whatsoever, versus the clear influence that "the Church" held in the first novel.
  • There are hints that there is now religious freedom as we are introduced to a Mormon planet and it is mentioned that things are better for Levant (Bury's Moslem homeworld). In fact, if one read The Gripping Hand without having read The Mote In God's Eye, first, you would have no clue that there was a state religion.
Interestingly, one of the prominent complaints in the Amazon.com reviews, is how different (and inexplicably so) the Empire of Man is a mere 25 years after the first novel. I think people liked the old-style confessional stat.

It seems to me that "The Empire of Man" in the second novel is basically a Novus Ordo version of its former self. Most of the differences to be found in a comparison of Catholic states pre- and post-Vatican II can be found in the Empire between the two books. Maybe they had another pastoral council in the 31st century that The Gripping Hand doesn't mention? It probably wasn't mentioned because the non-Catholics Niven and Pournelle did not understand why the real-world Catholic Church underwent such cataclysmic changes ... or maybe they didn't consciously notice the changes but just subconsciously wrote them into their novel.

Overall, this just isn't that good of a book. It's okay, and better than a lot of what passes for "great" science fiction today, but still not worth the effort. Enjoy the original, skip the sequel.


Blast from the Past: Dargonzine "Great Houses War: The Stealthy Guardians"

Sir Zephrym Vladon, captain of the king’s guard, clutched Crown Prince Brad tightly to him as he rode through the Wherwell Forest, ten leagues west of Magnus. A light snow was falling, but did little to obscure vision. Zephrym wished that he had the blossoms of spring filling out the forest rather than the dark skeletons of winter, so that they could be shielded from view. He knew that insurrectionist soldiers — those who sought to uncrown King Caeron and replace him with the Beinisonian Empress Aendasia Blortnikson — would be looking for them and could not be far away.

The boy prince, a mere six years of age, clutched at Zephrym’s surcoat with hands wrapped in warm mittens. Even through the thick wool gambeson and chain mail hauberk, Zephrym could feel the warmth of Brad’s body pressing against him. Thank the All-Creator the child had stopped crying for his father, the king, as it had torn at Zephrym’s heart to hear it.

A frigid breeze swept over him. It carried with it chilling voices that whispered in a strange language. A grey mist moved with the voices, dancing amidst Zephrym’s knights then darting away. Zephrym reined his in horse so that Queen Dara could catch up to him. She was not a skilled rider; she and her ladies-in-waiting had slowed the escape from Magnus considerably.

Zephrym’s chest tightened as he remembered King Caeron ordering him to abandon Magnus and take the royal family with him. Zephrym had been a knight in the Tallirhan household for decades. He had taught Caeron how to ride a horse and wield a sword. The king was his friend. Zephrym had begged to stay with him in Magnus, but Caeron had needed someone he could trust to protect the royal family and get them to safety.

“My lady.” Zephrym’s voice came out as a croak. He cleared his throat and tried again. “My lady queen, stay close by my side. This is an evil wind that blows. I fear it carries word to the enemy; it is the eyes of Beinisonian sorcerers.”

“Truly, you think so?” The queen’s voice was a mere whisper, almost the timbre of a young child’s.

“I fear so.” Zephrym nodded. He had heard many tales of the power that Beinisonian mages could wield. Seeking out their enemies with magical mists was among the least of their spells. “But do not trouble yourself; we will protect you. With our lives if need be.”

He looked around at the household knights of Caeron Tallirhan. He was sure that they were the best knights in the land, each having been hand-picked and trained by himself. They were all completely loyal to the king, as well.

The crack of a dry twig breaking sounded to Zephrym’s left and his head snapped over to look in that direction. Through the sparse, barren trees, he could make out several horses and riders. He narrowed his eyes, trying to discern their heraldry. Were they friend, or foe? Before Zephrym had left Magnus, the king had received word that a loyal army from Welspeare was moving north to try to lift the siege on Irskin Castle. However, he also knew that the insurrectionist houses had armies in the same region and would undoubtedly have scouts looking for the precious treasure Zephrym escorted.

He carefully reached into a pouch that hung from his belt and pulled out a small acorn that he had carried for years. The mage who had given it to him long ago had claimed that it could be used once to determine if enemy or friend was nearby. If they were friends, it would turn into a robin; if enemies, a crow. There was no better time to use such an object, he decided, for when else would he be charged with protecting the Queen of Baranur? He held the acorn to his lips and whispered, “Friend or foe, who are they?”

He threw the acorn towards the riders ahead but it simply fell to the ground and disappeared in the snow. Zephrym silently chided himself for so foolishly trusting such a bauble. He had his own instincts that he could rely on, and those told him that these were soldiers of the insurrectionist camp.

“To arms!” Zephrym shouted, pulling his sword free of its sheath.

One of the ladies-in-waiting to his rear screamed as more brittle branches cracked. He turned his mount to see another group of knights plunging through the forest towards them. “A clever trap,” he thought.

The high-pitched clang of weapons striking each other rang through the forest as the attackers reached his knights. Holding Prince Brad carefully with his left arm, Zephrym charged to intercept a knight moving towards Queen Dara.

“Mama!” the prince cried. “What’s happening?”

“Brad!” Queen Dara screamed back. Her horse spooked and skittered out of Zephrym’s line of sight.
With a powerful swing of his sword, he caught the knight on the side of his helm and knocked him from his horse. Now Brad was wailing at the top of his lungs. Zephrym’s horse reared up and danced to the side as more enemy knights darted around him. He knew the heraldries of all the house guard well and so could easily identify his enemies.

He wheeled about and charged to Queen Dara’s side just in time to knock aside the hand of a knight reaching for her horse’s reins. The man’s chainmail saved him from losing the hand altogether, but he bellowed in pain all the same. Two more knights charged up and attacked Zephrym from both sides. He deftly knocked their blows aside, but he was beginning to tire.

Out of fatigue, he left an opening in his guard. He watched his opponent’s sword swing slowly towards Brad’s head. Zephrym swung his arm down to protect the child and the blade sliced into his chainmail sleeve. Flames seared where he was hit. His sword dropped silently to the ground, snow softening its fall.

His horse reared up in a defensive posture, allowing Zephrym to wrap Prince Brad with his wounded right arm and reach down to his boot with the other. He pulled a long-bladed dagger from it and, as his horse dropped its front hoofs back to the ground, rammed the blade up into his attacker’s throat. With a gurgling sound the knight dropped his own sword and slumped in his saddle.

Another knight wearing an old-style kettle helm charged in and swung with her flail. Zephrym was barely able to duck the blow. He urged his horse closer and, as his opponent wound up for another attack, he threw his dagger. The blade caught her in the mouth and she toppled backwards off her horse with a gurgled scream.

Zephrym looked around. The skirmish was over, bodies scattered about between trees with pools of brilliant red seeping into the snow around them. A handful of the enemy were fleeing, but most were dead. Only a few of the king’s knights had been laid low. Given a few moments to gather himself, he was able to have a proper look at the heraldry of the felled knights. They all appeared to be Northfielders, given the prevalence of blue. Duke Northfield was Aendasia’s husband, so Zephrym was hardly surprised.

“Please, give me my son,” Queen Dara said.

Zephrym realised that Prince Brad was still bawling in his arms and wriggling to get free. Zephrym moved his horse close to the queen and with his good arm took the boy by the back of his fur cloak and handed him over. Queen Dara looked down at Zephrym’s arm and gasped.

“You are wounded, Sir Zephrym.”

“I am only a little weak,” he replied. “Please, my lady queen, we must continue on. These were but a small scouting party; I’m certain there are more of them nearby.”

“Surely by now my husband has defeated them at Magnus,” she said.

Zephrym nodded silently. He hoped that she was right, but he could hear the lack of conviction in her voice, and felt it within his own heart. By the All-Creator, this was one time he should have disobeyed his liege and stayed at Magnus to fight by his side.

He swallowed hard and dismounted to pick up his sword that still lay in the snow. He wiped it off on the surcoat of one of the dead enemy and sheathed it. He noticed a dark brown horse out of the corner of his eye. He looked up to see Cyruz of Vidin, a Stevenic priest who had insisted on accompanying the queen north.

“Lord Vladon,” the priest said in a deep, rumbling voice like thunder echoing in the mountains. “Perhaps it might be prudent for us to travel only at night now that the enemy knows we are near.”

Zephrym grunted. “I appreciate the advice, but we need to make good speed if we are to find friendly forces before this entire region is covered in Northfield troops. However, what we should do is divide our contingent. The ladies in waiting slow us down too much, and frankly, I hardly see the purpose in having them with us. They will make a good decoy if dispatched in another direction with a few good knights.”

The plan formulated in his mind, Zephrym gathered together two dozen of his company and ordered them to take the ladies in waiting due north. As that group departed, he stalked over to where the queen was now sitting on a log, drying her son’s tears. “My lady queen, we must leave now.”

“Must we, right now?” she whispered. “Couldn’t we rest at least a few menes?”

“No, it must be now; it’s too dangerous to stay.” Zephrym grit his teeth at the weakness of the queen. One more breath of cold wind and she might shatter like a piece of fine pottery. J’mirg’s Bones, why was he stuck out here with this little girl while King Caeron fought at Magnus? He prayed that King Caeron was safe, that the realm would not be saddled with this limpid child.

Read the rest of the story here: http://dargonzine.org/the-great-houses-war-part-3-the-stealthy-guardians/

Links to the rest of the series here:  http://dargonzine.org/series/the-great-houses-war/


Horace on Openings

Be not your opening fierce, in accents bold,
Like the rude ballad-monger's chaunt of old;
"The fall of Priam, the great Trojan King!
Of the right noble Trojan War, I sing!"
Where ends this Boaster, who, with voice of thunder,
Wakes Expectation, all agape with wonder?
The mountains labour! hush'd are all the spheres!
And, oh ridiculous! a mouse appears.
How much more modestly begins HIS song,
Who labours, or imagines, nothing wrong!
"Say, Muse, the Man, who, after Troy's disgrace,
In various cities mark'd the human race!"
Not flame to smoke he turns, but smoke to light,
Kindling from thence a stream of glories bright:



My apologies to readers for the lack of posts so far this week. Circumstances in the real world have kept me away from the internet and writing in general for the past week or so. Things seem to be calming down somewhat and I hope to get back on-track soon.

Now, as for Call to Arms, your usual Wednesday feature, I've come to somewhat of a crossroads with the project and am trying to decide what to do. I recently found another reviewer, and one who gave a very honest and hard-hitting critique that is causing me to seriously reconsider the whole thing. I believe massive re-writing will be needed at the very least so that sets things back a lot. Plus I am also reconsidering my plans to self-publish -- I do not want to put poor work out there. I may settle for releasing it on this blog in a very unofficial capacity.

... also, I cut my handlebar moustache off yesterday. I go through phases where I love it, then I loathe it and cut it off, then after a year or two clean shaven I miss it and grow it back.


The Kids of Carcasonne (Boardgame Review)

Name: The Kids of Carcassonne
Game Designer: Marco Teubner
Publisher: Hans im Glück
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Summary: Based on the adult board game "Carcasonne", this excellent simplified version is easy enough for young children to grasp, yet interesting enough to keep the attention of parents or older siblings; an excellent introduction to board games for young ones.

I believe it is good to get children involved in board games at an early age to get them into such things early rather than the easy way out of computer games.  "The Kids of Carcasonne" is a wonderful game to that end. The box says that the game is for ages 4+. I got it when our oldest were 4 and 3. The three year-old was able to play, but our four year-old clearly grasped the concepts better -- although I think he has better aptitude for such things since even a year later he plays with more strategy and the younger one just matches up tiles although she is getting better.

The game is based on the highly popular adult board game "Carcasonne". It consists of several "landscape tiles" with images of roads, buildings, and rivers on them, and children wearing the player colours running on the roads. Each player has a collection of coloured playing pieces that look like small people carved in wood. The players in turn draw a landscape tile and place it; in normal/adult Carcasonne, these the roads will not always or easily match with another piece but in this simplified version each tile has a road exiting each of the four sides meaning that they always match.

Amongst other features, the tiles show children in the player colors on the roads. Whenever a road is "finished", every player places one of his pieces on each appropriate picture. Roads are finished when they are closed at each end by a building or dead-end. The first player who manages to place all of his pieces wins the game.

There are four colours (red, blue, green, and yellow) so you can only play with four people, which is not ideal for large Catholic families in one sense, but on the other hand, keeps it simple which is important for young children. Also, playing time is only about 15-20 minutes so children can easily rotate who plays and do several games in an hour. As mentioned in the summary, unlike some other childrens' board games I've tried, this one is actually interesting for adults to play which is important when teaching the children how to play and also to give you another reason to spend time with your children which is incredibly important (children spell love T-I-M-E, after all).

"The Kids of Carcasonne" is fairly fast-paced, making it a good fit for young minds that haven't developed a long attention span yet. It is entertaining and an excellent way to spent 20 minutes to an hour with your children. It is somewhat competitive and one of them will win the game, but it is not too competitive since all the tiles match up eliminating the intensity of the adult version. It also has a pleasant mediæval theme and children like looking at the castles and the little children in mediæval garb chasing sheep and chickens about. I highly recommend it to any parent with young children around 4-5 years of age. Older children will probably enjoy it as well, but desire more complexity ere long.

As with most, if not all, of the boardgames you will see recommended by Durendal, this board game is not available at the "big" stores like Wal-Mart or Toys 'R' Us, but is readily available on the internet or at local specialty games stores.


Blast from the Past: Dargonzine "Great Houses War: Noose and Falcon"

 WRITER'S NOTE: Between a round of colds at home and being generally "under the gun" at work of late, I've found very little time to complete any new fiction or artwork. I decided to give myself a breather and therefore feature some of my older work. Today's piece is Part 1 of a nine-part series I wrote for Dargonzine, a free internet e-zine, about eight years ago. I wrote several works for them but this is by far my best work for them and combining all nine parts nearly amounts to my first novel since it totals at over 100 pages. My writing improved drastically during my time with Dargonzine thanks to their collaborative critique process which what my inspiration for starting the Collegium Scriptorum Catholicae. If I had more time to write I'd probably re-join Dargonzine. I hope you enjoy it ...


King Caeron surveyed the meadows to the southwest from his vantage point on a tall hill. Fremlow City was just beyond the horizon, he knew, but the army of Duke Valeran Northfield was all that he saw. All the blue Northfield banners bore black falcons, however, indicating that the duke himself was not present. If he had been, there would have been a white falcon to mark his position. Caeron’s own heraldry flew on a large banner just behind him, held aloft by one of his squires.

“If we can achieve a decisive victory here, we may be able to win this war ere it begins in earnest,” Caeron said, looking over at Sir Zephrym Vladon, who sat astride his horse to Caeron’s right.

 “We can only pray, my lord,” Zephrym replied.

The first blood of the so-called Great Houses War had been spilt when a Northfield army launched a surprise attack and took Fremlow City a month earlier. Duke Valeran Northfield, husband of Caeron’s rival claimant to the throne, Aendasia Blortnikson, had thus dashed Caeron’s last hopes of a diplomatic resolution to the disputed succession. Aendasia believed that she was the rightful ruler of Baranur, as King Stefan II had illegally named her his heir out of spite towards Caeron’s conversion to Stevenism. Caeron, however, was the rightful Tallirhan heir, being Stefan’s gran dson, while Aendasia was only a niece, and Caeron had been crowned ruler of Baranur earlier in the year.
After receiving word of Fremlow’s fall, Caeron had abandoned his original plan of defending his crown by invading Equiville, and had made haste into the Duchy of Welspeare, hoping to engage the Northfielders in open field. If they could be defeated, the other insurrectionist houses would be likelier to capitulate, as Aendasia was also Duchess of Northfield. This likelihood was further enhanced by the fact that earlier in the day, Caeron had received a herald from his cousin Hadrus, king-consort to the queen of Lederia, pledging his support of Caeron’s kingship, meaning more enemies for the insurrectionists.

Caeron had received reports that the treasonous Duchess of Arvalia was leading troops south to Port Sevlyn. Fortunately, the Skywall Mountains would slow more rebel troops from Monrodya long enough for Caeron to win a few quick victories and negate the numerical advantage the insurrectionists would have.

“The enemy does not seem ready for us,” Caeron said. Indeed, the Northfield troops below appeared to be in disarray, scrambling to move from a marching formation into battle lines. “We attack swiftly.”

“We won’t be able to use our archers,” Zephrym said. “They aren’t in position yet.”

“We’ll have to make do without, this time,” Caeron replied. “We can’t afford any delay. Lady Milverri, if you please.”

“Your majesty.” The High Mage drew her horse up beside the king’s. “What would you ask of me?”

“Can you use your magic to order Commander Jorym and his Comarrian mercenaries forward?” Caeron asked. Having never been in a battle before, he was unsure what the mage’s abilities were. “They are a good league to the north and it will take time to send runners …”

“I can, your majesty,” Milverri Rhihosh said. “But I must warn you, my powers are not unlimited.

Even the High Mage of Baranur can cast but a handful of spells before she is spent.”

“Others with your skill are present on the battlefield, are they not?”

“They are. I will send your message, majesty.”

Caeron watched in fascination as Milverri Rhihosh began to move her hands in the air, in motions like those of some long-forgotten dance. She chanted in an unfamiliar language. Caeron looked north towards the Comarrian position, but saw nothing untoward. He saw only the branches of a few trees move in the breeze, and a dark-coloured bird fly out from a berry bush. He wasn’t sure what he expected out of the mage, but after a few moments of apparent inaction, he looked to summon one of his runners after all. It seemed that magic really was just a children’s tale.

Just as one of the squires pulled up astride his steed, Caeron heard the High Mage let out a cry. He looked back to see her slumped in her saddle, her tight pink skin shining with perspiration. Her eyes were closed and she swayed to one side. Before she could fall from the horse, one of her fellow mages reached out a steadying hand.

“We are fortunate that the enemy army has no mages of its own,” Milverri said. “Otherwise they might have countered my spell. As it is, this was among my least powerful magics, yet I am still tired.”

Caeron suppressed a laugh at that. As far as he could tell the mage hadn’t done anything. Then he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and looking to the north, he could see an armoured warrior on horseback, holding the Comarrian’s colours aloft, charging from the low ground in which the mercenaries had been waiting. Quickly behind him came a mass of horses and men. For a brief moment Caeron was stunned, but he quickly gathered himself and looked back to Milverri Rhihosh.

“I see now that I must be very scrupulous in calling on your powers, Lady Rhihosh,” Caeron said. He turned to Zephrym. “Order the advance. The Comarrians should be able to break the enemy’s north flank, but we will need to be there to make good the assault.”

“Very good, my lord,” Zephrym said.

Caeron took his helm surmounted by a gold crown from one of his squires with shaking hands. He moved his horse closer to Zephrym so that he could speak to his captain in secret. “How are you so calm, Zephrym?”

The old knight smiled, creases forming at the corners of his eyes. “I am just as scared as you, my king,” he said, “but I have many years of experience in hiding it. You are doing a fine job.”

Caeron nodded, though he was not certain he believed Zephrym could be as scared as he was. He had trained for many years for war, but this would be his first real battle. Despite the coat of plates and chain mail suit he wore, he knew from history that kings could die in war as surely as any other man could. But why should he worry? He looked up at his banner, held by a faithful squire. Emblazoned atop the traditional Tallirhan family heraldry, he’d had a noose added in honour of his devotion to the Stevene’s Light. If God wanted him to be king, surely God would not end his reign so soon. And yet, Dara had been beside herself with fear when Caeron had left Crown Castle sennights ago.

He looked to his left, where the Duchess of Kiliaen was commanding the vanguard. She waved to show she was ready. Other barons and their household knights, men-at-arms, and peasant soldiers stood at the ready.

He hefted the heavy helm onto his head. Though it bore eye slits that he could easily see through, he had waited until the last moment, as all warriors did, because it weighed nearly thirty pounds. He raised his lance in the air and swung it towards the enemy army.

As one, Caeron’s household knights and the supporting infantry moved forward, down the hill towards the meadow. Ailwyn Meadow, Caeron thought it was called. With his helm on, he could not see to the sides, but he knew that the rest of the army was moving forward as well. His horse was anxious to spring forward, but he kept it reined in at a trot so as not to outpace the infantry.

Read the rest of the story here: http://dargonzine.org/the-great-houses-war-part-2-the-noose-and-the-falcon/

Links to the rest of the series here:  http://dargonzine.org/series/the-great-houses-war/


Hygiene in the Middle Ages

As I complained at the beginning of the week, I've been feeling very uninspired about my writing of late and unwilling to force myself to write since this is supposed to be a hobby/recreational pastime. And so ... research. Although I'm darn glad to have left my school days far behind, I do still find it fascinating and enjoyable to revisit the Middle Ages and delve into new areas. This week I started into Maria Dembińska's Food and Drink in Medieval Poland to help with developing the Eastern European FLAVOUR I am working into my current project.

But for today's post I want to harp on one of my pet peeves -- that many people stull believe that mediæval people did not bathe. On the contrary, they not only washed, but they placed a high value on hygiene, and bathing was quite common. The "once a year bath whether you need it or not" canard was foreign to mediæval sensibilities. If such an attitude ever existed, it did in a period I am not familiar with.

Pulling out my old notes, I must make reference to one of my favourite books from universty: The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England by Barbara A. Hanawalt. The author is a liberal university professor, but an honest one at least, who did painstaking research to try to recreate certain aspects of mediæval peasant life. She researched her book by examining coroners' inquests in 14th and 15th century England. In total, she surveyed 3, 118 sudden death inquests.[i]

Of that sample, 35 (just over 1%) cases involved people whose baths ended in drowning. These ranged from bathing in a stream where the current was stronger than the bather believed, to where the unfortunate person slipped and hit their head.[ii] There was also clear evidence that bathing was common even in winter, including a case where an infant died when it was scalded after the tripod broke on a cauldron of bath water that was heating over the fire.[iii]

On top of all this, she found 12 cases where people died while washing laundry. Given that bathing and doing the laundry are hardly dangerous activities, one has no choice but to conclude that people bathed and washed their clothes frequently if this many people died due to fluke accidents while washing.

Beyond Dr. Hanawalt's specific work, there is abundant evidence that soap was very common in the Middle Ages. There are also numerous references in the literature of the time to bathing, wherein it is treated as something commonplace.[iv]

According to 13th century etiquette manuals, mediæval people were expected to always wash their hands before and after meals. Monastic rules included regulations ordaining regular bathing.[v] In the courts of the nobility, there were formal ceremonies that were scrupulously observed in this regard. Many people today don't wash their hands before and after meals. Perfume was also popular, and for the same reasons as today, not to mask bad hygiene as common "wisdom" would have us believe. [vi]

Finally, there is the related myth about Mediæval peoples' dental hygiene: that it was very bad and they had only blackened stumps for teeth. However, when one studies documents written during those horrible "Dark Ages", one finds that there were liquids to whiten teeth, compounds for filling cavities, dentures made of human teeth or cow bone, and even surgical techniques for oral cancer and the repair of fractured jaws.[vii] Scientists who have studied the exhumed remains of mediæval peasants found that they in fact had better teeth than modern people, probably because of better diet. In fact, at one site, not one body buried in the graveyard had tooth decay.[viii]

The true mediæval attitude towards bathing and cleanliness can perhaps be summed up by a common saying from France at the time: "Venari, ludere, lavari, bibere; Hoc est vivere!" (To hunt, to play, to wash, to drink, - This is to live!)[ix]

[i] Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound : Peasant Families in Medieval England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 13
[ii] Ibid., p. 61
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Horvat, Marian, "Refuting the Anti-Catholic Lies of the e-pamphlet 'Life in the 1500's'", Tradition in Action, http://www.traditioninaction.org/History/A_005_Myths1500s.shtml
[v] Ibid.
[vi] "Cosmetics and Beauty Aids" Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, Ed. Norman F. Cantor, London: Viking, 1999.
[vii] Elliott, Jane, "Medieval Teeth 'Better than Baldrick's", BBC News Online, 8 October, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3722598.stm
[viii] "Medieval Peasants Had 'Better Teeth'", Ananova,
[ix] Horvat, Supra at note 4


Chesteron - Words I Write By

Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

Great quote for writers like myself who gets easily discouraged with his writing, and is tempted not to write because he's "not good", "not going to be published", &c. General Sherman had a similar quote that "perfect is the enemy of the good" which I think has a similar meaning.


Your Bi-Weekly Update #2

1. I revised and updated my Game of Thrones book review after giving the series a great deal of further thought in light of the essay "In Defence of Rockets and Quests". Ultimately, I realised that although George Martin's skill in writing is most excellent, I could not in good conscience give the series any better than 2/5 stars owing to the appalling theme that underlies the whole thing.

2. I've also done a fair bit of further work on developing the background and plotline for the as-yet unnamed fantasy novel I'm working on; I've placed some of these developments regarding characters onto the "What I'm Working On" page. I'm having great difficulties deciding what to call the "technomages" who wield the weapons and other relics of the extinct civilization of this world ... I thought perhaps to call them magisters because of the scholarly connexion, but they're not really teachers, plus it's a bit close to the "maesters" in A Song of Ice and Fire. And thaumaturges or theurgists seems too difficult to parse, though I thought to have thaumaturgy be an area of specialisation along with alchemy for them. If anyone has some suggestions, I'd love to hear them (hoping Sophia's Favourite will have something).

I'm also thinking I need to change the background for Stavalka slightly. I do wish to portray the country as greatly weakened, decadent, and corrupt owing to several generations of weak rule of a series of elected monarchs who were little more than puppets to certain powerful nobles. My initial idea was to give Stavalka, in its recent history, a civil war that resulted in the winners imposing something similar to Poland's Third of May Constitution which gave everyone the right (among other things) to acquire membership in the nobility (szlachta). Only taking it a step further and actually making everyone "nobility" (meaning that the aristocracy was essentially done away with). Which means that knighthood means very little anymore, and wealthy merchants have come to dominate dominate. This will bear further thought.

3. Otherwise, it seems that the ever fickle Muse has abandoned me again. Of course, I was able to write Chimera in her absence, and my confreres at the Collegium say it's my best work yet. Ironically I do seem to write well when totally uninspired, but I get no enjoyment at all from writing during those times. And considering that I am not getting paid for my writing, I wonder what's the point in writing when it is not fun? Perhaps focussing on some more artwork in the interim would be a better use of my time -- and getting back to painting my Warhammer 40K stuff which I haven't done in over a month.


Crusader King (Book Review)

Title: Crusader King: A Novel of Baldwin IV and the Crusades  
Author: Susan Peek
Publisher: TAN  
My Rating: 4 stars (out of five)
Summary in a Sentence: [An] historical fiction novel about the unusual life of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the leper crusader king who - despite ascending to the throne at only 13, his early death at 24, and his debilitating disease - performed great and heroic deeds in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Teenagers and avid readers of all ages will be amazed at this story and be inspired by a faith that accomplished the impossible (from TAN Books' description)

This novel is geared towards teenagers and certainly reads at a lower level than my usual fare. Nevertheless, I must recommend it as a very well written tale about Christian virtue. I was inspired to study the life of King Baldwin IV after reading this novel, and overall it is reasonably historically accurate although a fair bit of artistic license is taken (as admitted by the author in her afterward). As a novel I found it highly enjoyable, full of great characters and stirring events. King Baldwin's heroic actions despite being afflicted by Leprosy and his quiet resignation to the Will of God is truly inspiring. The depiction of the Battle of Montgisard is one of the greatest scenes I've read, where the king prostrates himself before the True Cross and begs God to save his kingdom as his army of 300 faces Saladin's army of nearly 30,000 (as portrayed in the novel -- historical sources vary and some of them do offer the 100:1 odds, but others but it at closer to 10:1). The friendship portrayed between King Baldwin and his childhood friend Theodore is purely fictional, but an excellent study in a true Catholic friendship.

This is definitely a book I would recommend for any parents with teenage sons. Even adults will enjoy this book, I think. At any rate, it is a quick read -- I read it in between three or four hours total. It is a fairly light book, and therefore I don't have anything particularly deep to say about it. It's just a good, solid, Catholic book which is especially good for kids. I'd give it an 4 stars on my scale of rating.


Blast from the Past: Dargonzine "Great Houses War: Call to Arms"

By Nicholas Wansbutter

WRITER'S NOTE: Between a round of colds at home and being generally "under the gun" at work of late, I've found very little time to complete any new fiction or artwork. I decided to give myself a breather and therefore feature some of my older work. Today's piece is Part 1 of a nine-part series I wrote for Dargonzine, a free internet e-zine, about eight years ago. I wrote several works for them but this is by far my best work for them and combining all nine parts nearly amounts to my first novel since it totals at over 100 pages. My writing improved drastically during my time with Dargonzine thanks to their collaborative critique process which what my inspiration for starting the Collegium Scriptorum Catholicae. If I had more time to write I'd probably re-join Dargonzine. I hope you enjoy it ...


“The king is dead!”

Caeron Tallirhan, rightful heir to the throne of Baranur, looked up with a start from the game of King’s Key he had been playing. His grandfather was dead? He hadn’t even known that the old man had been ill. He stared at the young squire panting at the door leading into Caeron’s chambers in his country manor in Dyunill. The boy, who was not much younger than Caeron, was dressed in furs to protect him from the cold and his cheeks were red.

“How did it happen?” Caeron pushed back the fine oak chair he had been sitting on and approached the messenger, who, while tall enough himself, was still almost a full hand shorter than Caeron.

“Your majesty, he fell suddenly ill with a fever after hunting on the tenth and succumbed late last night.”

“I should feel something,” Caeron thought. He was shaken by the news, but only because it was unexpected. He had hardly known the man; in fact King Stefan II had banned him from the court when he and his wife Dara had accepted Stevenism. The man had wronged him, but still he was family: Caeron’s grandfather. Caeron should have felt sorrow, sadness, or compassion. He only felt surprise and guilt for his shameful reaction.

Caeron slammed his fist into his hand and turned away from the boy. He strode toward the stone hearth that dominated the room and stared into the dancing flames, chewing on his lower lip. “What sort of grandson feels happiness at his grandsire’s death?” he admonished himself. On the other hand, there were other things to consider. What did the old king’s death mean for Baranur? Should not the last remaining Tallirhan think of such things? Caeron was vaguely aware of his wife, Dara, getting up from the King’s Key table and gliding up to his side.

“Aendasia will undoubtedly claim the throne.” Caeron shook his head. He could feel anger bubbling up inside him. He’d always had a short temper. He knew he needed to try to control it, but as he envisioned Beinisonian troops marching through the streets of Magnus, his grip on the fireplace mantel tightened. “My cousin Aendasia, the Beinisonian empress-mother, whom grandfather named heir before me. Cephas’ boot, I thought this was something we wouldn’t have to deal with for years!”

Caeron was the only surviving heir of the Tallirhan name, the family that had ruled over Baranur for nearly nine hundred years. But, when Caeron had converted to Stevenism, King Stefan II had disowned him. The only other heir was Caeron’s cousin Aendasia who had married the Beinisonian Emperor, Alejandro VII, many years before. When Alejandro died and his son ascended to the throne, Stefan had arranged a marriage for Aendasia with Valeran, the Duke of Northfield, apparently in hopes of forming some sort of alliance between Beinison and Baranur. Aendasia had borne the name Blortnikson for many years, however, and was thoroughly Beinisonian as far as Caeron was concerned. Caeron had hoped that he could eventually heal the rift with his grandfather and — once Stefan’s anger had cooled — that the lawful lineage would be restored. Now it was too late.

Dara placed a hand on his arm and rubbed it soothingly. “It is against the laws of inheritance; surely you are Tallirhan’s heir.”

“Your majesty, if I may –” the messenger tried to interject.

“Of course, but grandfather willed the crown to Aendasia, rather than allow it to ‘fall into the hands of Stevenic apostates.’” King Stefan II had been well-respected by his lords, and some scholars said that when he had disinherited Caeron that technically the Tallirhan line had ended and therefore the crown did indeed go to the next closest kin, Aendasia. Many had supported the proposal when it had been put forward in hopes that it would ensure Beinison never threatened Baranur again. “Bah! The Beinisonians would instead make us but another province in their empire.”

“My lord?” Dara said.

“I was just thinking about that tired justification: that Aendasia becoming queen could somehow protect us from Beinison,” Caeron said.

“Would it be too much to hope that your cousin would abdicate?” Dara said. “You are still young, my husband; there are many years –”

“Twenty-four years is old enough for me to know I am the rightful king! Old enough to know my people will be enslaved should Aendasia ascend to the throne.”

“Your majesty, please!” the messenger exclaimed.

Caeron stopped and took a few deep breaths. He had lost his temper, as usual. It was hardly behaviour befitting a good Stevenic. He took another breath and, satisfied he had regained his composure, turned back towards the door. “Excuse my outburst. Do you bear further news?”

“Your majesty, I also bear tidings from your half-brother, Master Priest of the High Church of Magnus. He begs you come to Magnus with all possible speed. He says that several of the Great Houses will support your claim on the throne. Lady Aendasia is in Beinison and it will be some time ere she hears the news.”

Of course, Aendasia had lived in Beinison for so many years that she considered herself Beinisonian and preferred to spend the majority of her time there, even since being named heir to the Baranurian throne. But the lords … Caeron was somewhat surprised to hear that a number of them had altered the position they had taken when Stefan II had still been king. What had his half-brother Cyrridain been up to?

Caeron took Dara’s hand and gripped it tightly. “Could it be, love, a chance for the throne to remain in the rightful hands of Tallirhan?” Caeron knew that he had to make a decision quickly. The fate of the kingdom rested on what he decided in that moment, it seemed: bow to the old king’s wishes which, though unjust, were his right to make, or seize this opportunity? It must have been a sign that things had played out in this manner, that Stefan had died while Aendasia was in Beinison. “The Stevene’s Light shines on me this day. I should have known that being the first Tallirhan to follow the Stevene’s teachings, I would be favoured … I must make haste to Magnus. Zephrym!”

“My lord?” A sturdy man with greying hair and stubble on his chin casually pushed the squire aside and strolled into the room.

“Have the house guard ready to travel; I leave for Magnus immediately. I want you to follow behind with Lady Dara and the rest of the household.”

“Should you not wait so that we can travel with you, my lord?” Zephrym, the captain of Caeron’s personal guard, asked.

“No, I must get to Magnus as quickly as possible, to solidify my claim on the crown. I will better accomplish that travelling alone.” Caeron bent down and kissed his wife on the forehead. “I must be off, my love.”

“I will see you in Magnus, my king.”

Read the rest of the story here: http://dargonzine.org/the-great-houses-war-1-call-to-arms/

Links to the rest of the series here:  http://dargonzine.org/series/the-great-houses-war/


The Despair of Liberalism

I've come to the belief that liberals are a rather despairing lot.

George Martin of "A Song of Ice and Fire" fame, describes himself as a liberal on his website, and I believe his work is a good example of the liberal mindset. As mentioned in my review of the first four books of A Song of Ice and Fire, his basic philosophy is essentially "there are no true knights, no more than there are gods" (as enunciated by his character "The Hound", Sandor Clegane) and "there are no happy endings" (as stated by Samwell Tarly in A Feast of Crows). Furthermore, I realised just this morning in the shower, in his novel the ONLY afterlife is hell.

I suspect that most, if not all, liberals, deep down, share this belief that there is no heaven, only hell. Or at best no afterlife at all, which is why there is such a focus on the material and on enjoying life. Yet interestingly this materialistic worldview has consistently, through history brought far more pain and suffering than the "backwards" Christian culture.

Liberals also have a very dim view of Mankind. Although they deny Original Sin and espouse nonsense like Rousseau's "Noble Savage" theory, they really think quite little of human beings. This is illustrated very well in Martin's bleak "there are no true knights" series of books where only atrocities, no heroism, happen. The Liberal Party of Canada made this clear during the 2006 Federal Election when a senior staffer of theirs criticized the Conservative Party's $100/month payment to help towards child care costs for children under 5, saying that parents would blow this money "on beer and popcorn". That's why liberals are almost universally statists: their dim view of humankind leads them to believe that people need to be told what to do.

I should end by stating that I am NOT a conservative. In my view, "conservatives" are really just another brand of liberal. They are last week's liberals.

Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that the reason I may seem bitter about this is because people like George Martin completely dominate the literary field. That's one of the main reasons I write -- to try to get some stuff with a different worldview out there.


The First Christians in Mecca

While refreshing myself on the life of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem for a guest lecture to the high school boys at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Academy, I re-read The Leper King and His Heirs I was reminded of the interesting little tale concerning the first Christians to visit Mecca. Italian traveller and writer Ludovico di Varthema (c. 1470-1517) is generally recognized as the first European non-Muslim known to have entered Mecca. Nearly three hundred years earlier, a pair of crusader knights visited Mecca in far less pleasant circumstances ...

The backdrop is Saladin's war with the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem which began in early 1182. After victories by the Royal Army led by King Baldwin IV (who was by this time suffering terribly from advanced lepromatous leprosy) at Le Forbelet and at Beirut Saladin had withdrawn to Syria to campaign against the Aleppan Mohammedans who were not subject to him. During this "break" in active combat in the Kingdom of Jerusalem itself in early 1183, Raynald of Châtillon (a man unjustly villainized by many histories and by that abomination, Kingdom of Heaven), outfitted a flotilla of five galleys which were launched into the Red Sea where they were able to wreak much havoc behind Saladin's lines. Saladin's governor of Egypt, al-Adil, was able to get ships transported by land from Alexandria to the Red Sea and eventually routed this Christian force. After abandoning their ships, they surrendered, being trapped on the sourthern part of the Arabian Peninsula with no way of marching back home. When al-Adil asked Saladin what to do with these prisoners of war, he ordered that they all be executed, and reserved an especially grisly fate for two knights.

It is noteworthy that this episode does not come from European or Christian sources; in fact, the Frankish sources of the time make no mention of this particular expedition. Rather, this comes from Islamic sources, which can hardly be accused of being "Islamophobic" or pejudiced (if anything, they could be accused of being biased in favour of their fellow Mohammedans). Back to the story: the "special fate" these two knights I mentioned, was described in a letter written by al-Imad, contained in Abu Shama's (1203 - 1267) The Book of the Two Gardens[1]:
They were taken to Mecca where, during the great annual pilgrimage, they were led outside the city to Medina. This is a stage in the pilgrimage at which the faithful offer animals for slaughter and give their flesh to feed the poor. There, among a zealous and hostile crowd of thousands of pilgrims, the two Christians were slaughtered ëlike animals for sacrificeí, presumably by having their throats cut.[2]
So, some three hundred years before Varthema these two Christian knights had visited Mecca and were then given the crown of martyrdom in Medina shortly thereafter by members of that great "religion of peace". As to the "honourable", "just", "tolerant" Saladin(who is especially lionised in Kingdom of Heaven)'s part in ordering all of this:
al-Adil had misgivings about executing all these prisoners, for in accordance with Islamic law, their lives should have been spared because they had surrendered voluntarily, but Saladin had no scruples of this kind.[3]
And speaking of martyrdom, this same book (The Leper King) also mentions in the same chapter the treatment of Latin Christians by the Byzantines, a group who, like the Moslems, are made out to be innocent, peace-loving victims of the vicious Franks (cf. the sack of Constantinople) by most modern historians. When Emperor Manuel Comnenus died in 1182, his widow Mary of Antioch (a Latin) was overthrown by Manuelís cousin Andronicus Comnenus. His coup was bloody:
When Andronicus advanced on Constantinople, there was a spontaneous uprising of the mob, who massacred all the Latins in the city, regardless of age and sex, and cut off the head of the papal legate. Even the hospital of St John was sacked and its inmates murdered.[4]
The Franks were certainly guilty of some brutalities of their own, we can't deny that. But on the whole, they were far less barbaric than those around them. Other than the sack of Jerusalem (which is generally exaggerated) their rule of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was quite benign: see Chapter 3: The Kingdom of The Leper King. In fact, read the whole book; it is an excellent account based on primary sources of a very important and misunderstood period of a misunderstood era, that of the Crusades.

[1] An account of the dynasties of Nur ad-Din (Saladin's predecessor) and Saladin, which makes careful use of contemporary sources including letters and a history written during Saladinís life by a Shi'ite scholar from Aleppo named Yahya Ibn Abi Tayy. (Cf. Hilmy, M. and M. Ahmad. "Some notes on Arab Historiography during the Zengid and Ayyubid Periods (521/1127-648/1250)". Historians of the Middle East. Ed. Bernard Lewis and P.M. Holt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962. pp. 90-4)

[2] Hamilton, Bernard. The Leper King and His Heirs: Baldwin IV and the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p. 183

[3] Ibid., p. 184

[4] Ibid., p. 173


Rex Caelestis: Loss of the Admiral Kolchak

From Kane, David, Disasters and Accidents in Manned Interstellar Flight, Marianaburg: Harland, 2306.

Incident: Loss of Contact - all hands presumed lost
Date:  30 June 2217
Vessel: I.S.S. Admiral Kolchak
Viktor Kirilov - Captain
Dmitri Ermolov - Executive Officer
Vladislav Volkov - Chaplain
Ludwig Wagner - Science Officer
Artem Fournier - Navigator
Georgi Patsayev - Chief Engineer
Bogdan Dąbrowski - Engineering Tech
Description: Constact was lost with the I.S.S. Admiral Kolchak two weeks into its mission to test the newest version of the Lomonosov FTL drive. Up to this date, all ships had been using the Angelikovo (Aнгеликово) drive which had been successfully used by the I.S.S. Lepanto's history-making trip to Proxima Centauri in 2212. As part of these trials, the Admiral Kolchak was performing a number of short faster-than light "shunts" beyond the Öpik–Oort cloud. The ship's last transmission from the ship's captain indicated that the tests had been suspended to investigate an ancient, and believed derelict, One World space craft. After three days of no contact the I.S.S. Vistula was dispatched on an emergency rescue mission but no trace of the Admiral Kolchak could be found.


Apollo 18 (Movie Review)

Title: Appollo 18
Director: Gonzalo López-Gallego
Producer: Dimension Films
Starring: Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins
Excellence: 3 stars (out of 5)
Summary in a Sentence: A solid entry into the sci-fi/horror genre featuring a classified Apollo mission to the moon as told through decades-old "leaked footage".

This is yet another film that's been dealt with fairly harshly by the critics (25% at Rotten Tomatoes), but which I quite enjoyed. By no means a masterpiece, it was a more than satisfying experience. Many critics didn't like the use of the "Blair Witch Project-style found footage" format but I thought that it was very effective for this particular piece. The plot synopsis from the official webpage states:

Officially, Apollo 17, launched December 17th, 1972 was the last manned mission to the moon. But a year later, in December of 1973, two American astronauts were sent on a secret mission to the moon funded by the US Department of Defense. What you are about to see is the actual footage which the astronauts captured on that mission. While NASA denies its authenticity, others say it's the real reason we've never gone back to the moon.

It was not an intense, edge-of-your-seat sort of thriller. Perhaps since I don't see movies very often (I watch them about as often as I review them, i.e. once per month) I have not been so inured to bursts of adrenaline and was able to appreciate the more measured and realistic pace. The last ten minutes were appropriately suspenseful, but I thought that the real treasure of this film was the feeling of desolation and being utterly alone and cut-off that was given. I thought that the scene where they come upon the abandoned Soviet moon lander was especially chilling.

The realistic portrayal of a moon mission added to the enjoyment for me. As one who was born to late to live through the space race, but who studied it avidly as a youngster, I thought this aspect was particularly well-done. It wasn't a high-tech adventure and it was very easy to suspend disbelief. I thought that the actors all gave very credible performances. The eerily beautiful moonscape was well-done; the special effects overall made it all seem real -- although I'm really not sure what point a BluRay/HD version of this film serves, given that it is all purposely in 1960s quality.


Space Barbarian (Artwork)

Here is last week's drawing now fully coloured. Readers may have noticed that I created a new tag named "Space Barbarian" -- that's because drawing this inspired me to do some light, short stories wherein I shall attempt to emulate the style of Robert E. Howard as a way of giving myself much-needed writing practice and hopefully something that my readers will enjoy.

Update: I tinkered with the contrast and brightness a bit and I think the current version above (as opposed to the version posted early this morning) looks better -- although not as good as when I'm viewing it using GIMP. Hmmm ...

Think I'd better just stick to using the scanner at home, since it seems to get the colour hues and brightness just right, directly out of the scanner.


Star Wars Episode I in 3D and The "Imbecilic Conception"

There was no father. I carried him, I gave birth, I raised him. I can't explain what happened. Shmi Skywalker, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
So, with 3D somehow being all the rage again, apparently Star Wars Episode I is being re-released in 3D this spring. I'm debating whether to take my older two children to see it or not ... they love Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. Will seeing the prequels taint them? On the other hand, they're 5 and 4 so they will probably actually like the Gungans, "Annie", and the battle droids. They have books featuring these and like them. The podrace sequence will probably be fairly decent in 3D. But while I mull over that, another thing comes to mind re: Episode I ...

I'd have to say that for me, the worst innovation in the Star Wars "prequel" trilogy, was what I call the "Imbecilic Conception". That is, the whole miraculous birth of Anakin Skywalker to a virgin mother. I suppose he was supposed to have been concieved by "midi-chlorians", another ill-concieved notion that sterilised and de-mysticised The Force (I simply didn't like adding a hard sci-fi aspect to the all-time classic space fantasy chronicle).

As a Catholic, of course, I find it somewhat offensive, even, for Lucas to rip-off one of the greatest events in history, the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary to use in his story. Now, George Lucas has denied that he got the idea from Christianity, and was rather looking at pagan mythology (Rolling Stone interview, June 2005). That's why I say it's only "somewhat" offensive and I don't take it as an intentional attack or a belittling of Christianity, though in practice, I think it does, given the milieu into which the movie was delivered.

It's an especially annoying device because it was not necessary to the plot, and not consistent with the vision of the force that was suggested in Episodes IV-VI. I think it actually took away from the character of Anakin Skywalker because it makes him less human. He's unlike any other being, has no father, in fact. Jesus Christ has God as His father. Anakin Skywalker was fathered by microorganisms. It seems like he was trying too hard by half to make Anakin Skywalker "special". Instead of focussing on an interesting character, make him born of a virgin and viol·, you've got a great memorable character! Seems a rather weak gimmick to me. I think he could have made a much more compelling story if he'd not relied on such things.

I call it the "Imbecilic Conception" as a play on words. We Catholics believe in the Immaculate Conception, which was actually the miraculous conception of Mary, not Jesus. The Immaculate Conception is so called because at that moment, the Blessed Virgin Mary was concieved without the stain of original sin so that she could be the pure vessel for God.

Actually, come to think of it, it was probably the "Inebriated Conception" but Miss Skywalker didn't remember the incident (too many Tatooine Sunburn shooters) and Mr. Lucas thought that would be too "edgy" so he reformulated it to make it more kid-friendly (like his transformation of the Wookies into Ewoks for Episode VI).


Call to Arms: Imperial Security Officer Ranks

After the Estates General, the Empire re-organized its military forces into the "Imperial Security Force", a suitably pacifist name to suit the outlook of the new regime. This reorganization included an overhaul of the rank structure that eschews traditional ranks like "sergeant" and "lieutenant".

Here is a list of the ranks with a description, in brackets, of roughly what the rank translates to.

Senior Group Leader (Brigade Commander)
Group Leader (Regiment Commander)
Security Detachment Leader (Battalion Commander)
Security Unit Leader (Company Commander)
Unit Head Leader (Company 2IC)
Junior/Senior Unit Leader (Platoon Commander)
Senior Section Leader (Platoon 2IC)
Section Leader (Section Commander)
Junior Officer
Officer Candidate

Of course, sort of like Starfleet, everyone in the Imperial Security Forces is an officer.
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