Friday, October 31, 2014

Hans Holbein and The Dance of Death

For centuries, the short, gray days of November, heralds of winter, have prompted Christians to remember and honor their beloved dead and to reflect upon their own inevitable end. The Middle Ages embodied this heightened awareness in visual depictions of The Dance of Death (Danse macabre). In this vivid allegory, a personified Death summons individuals from all walks of life to join a chain of frolicking skeletons. Adorning churches and private chapels, such paintings reminded viewers that death spares no one and all, status notwithstanding, share the same ultimate fate.

St. Nicolas's Church, Tallin
The visual tradition of the Dance of Death continued well into the seventeenth century. In the early sixteenth, the German painter Hans Holbein modified the tradition in a way thought to reflect burgeoning Reformation theology. Instead of depicting Death's victims united in an unbroken chain after their passing, he fashioned a stunning series of sketches wherein Death snatches victims away in the midst of their normal daily activities. Pope, king, nobleman, merchant, old woman, priest, peddler, child: a grisly skeleton comes for each at the moment he or she least expects it. Death is as likely to arrive during the performance of sinful actions as charitable ones; good works provide no protection from its ravages.

Hans Lützelburger of Basel cut Holbein's sketches into wood blocks sometime between 1523 and 1526. The woodcuts soon appeared in proofs with German titles. It wasn't until 1538, however, when 
the drawings were published in book form by the Treschsel brothers in Lyon, France, that Holbein's vision reached a wider audience.

Les Simulachres & historiees faces de la mort, autant elegamment pourtraictes, que artificiellement imaginées (Images and Illustrated Facets of Death, as elegantly depicted as they are artfully conceived) features forty-one of Holbein's woodcuts. An illustrative Bible verse crowns each engraving; below the picture follows a short quatrain in French by the poet Gilles Corrozet. The book was intended to help Christians of both persuasions prepare for death by meditating on the vanity of status and possessions, which offered no protection from Death's violence.

Here are a few of Holbein's more striking engravings:

The King (Note the fleur-de-lys and the marked resemblance to François I)
The Young Child
The Physician

The Abbess
The Ploughman
The Drunkard
The Soldier
You can view the entirety of the Simulachres with their Bible verses and accompanying poems here. The work was published at least six times in French by 1562. Innumerable copies in various languages followed through the nineteenth century. The popularity of the work attests to Holbein's genius. By rendering the horror of sudden death visible and viscerally palpable, he reminds viewers to take not a single moment of life for granted. A valuable lesson, even today.

Memento mori. Death comes for all--don't let it catch you by surprise.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Interview with C.W. Gortner, author of THE TUDOR VENDETTA

Yesterday I reviewed C.W. Gortner's newest novel, THE TUDOR VENDETTA. Today, C.W. answers some questions about the novel and his other works.

Welcome, Christopher! Congratulations on penning this most satisfying ending to your three-book Spymaster Chronicles series. It is quite evident from your writing that you felt a strong affinity for these characters. Which one of them will you miss most and why?

I’ll miss them all. I’ve lived with them for years, and as with any character that a writer creates, be it historically-based or fictional, you end up spending a lot of time with them. You get to know them intimately and they become your friends, even the ones who do rather terrible things. I also loved this series for the freedom it gave me, to search the crevices of history and develop suspenseful stories around certain events. But perhaps mostly, I’ll miss Brendan and Elizabeth. I think he has matured over the course of three books and come into his own. He’s been a wonderful, challenging character to inhabit. And Elizabeth, too, constantly surprised me as a character; she transformed, showing unexpected sides of herself. She did what she had to, to get ahead. I think she must have been quite something to know personally, and I’m honored to have had the chance to write about her.

Is there any historical evidence that someone of Brendan’s lineage might have actually existed?

There is, of course, evidence of royal bastards; Henry VIII sired at least one that we know of. But there is no evidence of someone with Brendan’s particular lineage. That was the fun part—to come up with a plausible origin for him and then explore how a man hidden from the world, unaware at first of who he is, must cope with his secret when he’s thrust into the thick of court and attempts to protect himself and those around him. I think that despite all the evidence we have of people who lived hundreds of years ago, there is still a lot we shall never know. Everyone has secrets; it’s not unreasonable to assume that Tudor royalty had secrets, too. This was a time of intense scrutiny and little privacy, but also a time of no paparazzi (though foreign ambassadors came close) and no cell phones or photos. People in the public eye could still hide things they didn’t want others to see, if they knew how to go about it.

In your opinion, were Elizabeth and Robert Dudley ever actually lovers? Do you think Elizabeth would give a man such power over her? 

I don’t personally believe Elizabeth fully consummated a sexual relationship with Dudley. I believe they were indeed lovers in almost every way that matters, certainly on an emotional basis, and to an extent, physically, as well. But I also think we romanticize them to fit our own needs; we want to believe Elizabeth found fulfillment as a woman and Dudley was her pining suitor. The truth, however, is more complex—and to me, more interesting. We must take into account the realities of sexuality in the Tudor era. Birth control was imperfect at best, and Elizabeth was no fool. Once she gained the throne, she did everything in her power to minimize risks to her position: her aversion to war, to the execution of her own cousin Mary of Scots, who posed a significant threat, among others, attest to her legendary caution. In addition, her adolescent exploits resulted in a scandal that put both her and her servants at risk, and ended with the beheading of a man who, by all accounts, she loved. And because of her mother Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth must have learned early in life to equate sexual surrender with danger and death. I think her adolescent imbroglio was the one exception; in her later years, she showed evidence of a lifelong sexual frustration through the demands she put on her women to remain unwed, her rage when one disobeyed her, and ceaseless need for adulation. But I also think she made the choice upon winning the crown to never submit, and Dudley was not a devoted lover willing to lie at her feet. He came from an ambitious family and was, like most noblemen, always seeking his advantage. He wanted more than she was willing to give, which created a tension that fueled their attraction. Elizabeth understood there is nothing more tantalizing than forbidden fruit; she knew how to play Robert and keep him enthralled, even if in turn, her ploy exacted from her a heavy toll. She never forgot that her mother lost her freedom the moment she let herself be won.

Are you surprised at the endurance of reader interest in the Tudor era? Do you think the craze will ever fizzle?

I think it has its ups and downs. Interest is waning now due to overexposure, but after another fallow period, the era will rise again. These are fascinating, larger-than-life people in a tumultuous time, who also are very human; we are drawn to them because of their struggles and weaknesses as much as their strengths or triumphs. Not a happy dynasty, but one that has all the elements we look for in stories—drama, passion, intrigue, death, love and loss. It really doesn’t get better than the Tudors, whose reigns precipitated so much upheaval and change, and whose iconography is forever cemented in our popular imagination.

Who are some “underused” historical characters from the Renaissance you would like to see feature in novels?

Certainly, Renaissance France deserves more attention. Northern Europe, as well. I’d love to see more books about the Ottoman Empire, too. English history tends to dominate historical fiction in the US because of our strong links to the UK, but the Renaissance was a widespread phenomenon. There are many underused characters whose stories are waiting to be told. The challenge is market-driven. Recognition factor is a key incentive for publishers in our current climate, so a novel about, say, the Tudors is going to be more appealing from a marketing standpoint than one about an obscure sultan in Turkey. But that might change; I think my own career has shown that you can write beyond the margins while taking into account marquee appeal, and still have strong books. Then again, it took me nearly fourteen years to get published!

As an experienced novelist, what aspect of writing still challenges you the most? Where have you made the greatest strides in your writing?

Accessibility always remains a challenge. To write the past, you must always bear in mind that your modern-day reader may know little or nothing of the era you are covering, and you can’t throw a thousand things at them. You can’t expect them to understand the world-view of your characters without detailing it, of course, but too much detail swamps the momentum of the story you’re trying to tell. Balance between everything you know with what the reader needs to know is a fine point in writing historical novels; my motto is, less is more. I’ve had a few reviewers take me to task for not “including the wider historical context.” But that’s really a compliment to me. My books focus on a single point of view in first person. I seek to reveal my character’s inner life as they navigate their particular circumstances. They only know what they know and see what they see. It makes it easier for me and my reader, because it creates intimacy. In the end, I’m not an historian seeking to teach you about Spain, France, or England in the Renaissance. I’m a storyteller, depicting one individual’s story through their eyes. I think I’ve made the greatest strides in mastering my enthusiasm for research with what actually ends up on the page. I know the wider historical context; I have to in order to write, but I’ve also learned that not everything my research has uncovered must, or even should, be included in my book. It’s my framework, the block of stone upon which I chisel out my characters. What remains is necessary: nothing more and nothing less.

Out of the seven novels you have written, do you have a favorite?

The last one is always my favorite. But beyond that, I am very proud of all of them for different reasons: THE LAST QUEEN is my novel of the heart, the one I struggled with for many years to see published, about a bold woman unjustly maligned by history. THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI is my most ambitious, in that I undertook an entire life in a very complex era, and found that my original intent to write a villainous narrator became a quest to reveal another woman who’s been misunderstood. THE QUEEN'S VOW was the most challenging, because of all my characters, Isabella developed her personality early in life and remained steadfast in who she was, despite her travails. Writing her was tough because in her core, Isabella did not change; she is nothing like me. But in the end, I empathized with her because I think she honestly believed she was doing her best. I don’t agree with her, but I understand her impetus. The three Spymaster books have been my playground, where my imagination could roam through a fictional male character who shares many of my beliefs about how the past can haunt us, my love for animals, my respect for loyalty and forgiveness, and the need for compromise.

Will you ever revisit Brendan, Kate and Raff again?

I hope to, in the future. I simply felt I had reached the end of this particular journey and wanted to explore other horizons. I’m not an historical novelist who can mine the same era over and over; I’m eclectic in my obsessions, with many interests beyond the Tudors. It was time to move onward, but I bear great fondness for these characters, and who knows what the future holds? For now, however, Brendan deserves this respite. He’s been through a lot!

Your newest novel, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL, about fashion designer Coco Chanel, will appear in March 2015. What prompted you to choose a subject so far removed from the Renaissance? Did writing about the 20th century pose different challenges than writing about the 16th?

Before I became a full time writer, my career trajectory included ten years of working in the fashion industry; I came to learn about Coco Chanel while undertaking my degree in fashion marketing. She was my style icon. I had a battered book of her designs that I referred to often when consulting with clients. Writing a novel about her was something I always wanted to do, but the idea sat on the sidelines for years. When I did decide to do it, it was on impulse. I had spare time after delivering two prior manuscripts; my editors were reading those, and while I waited for feedback, I made the spur of the moment choice to try writing a modern woman. I was not under contract for this book and had no idea if it would work, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. I wrote the first draft in five months— record time for me. Coco’s story presented different challenges, of course; she’s a 20th century figure who’s been extensively documented, and the choice of language and style for this novel had to fit her times. But again, my foremost challenge became what to include, much as with my 16th century novels. I had to find the intimacy in her story without overwhelming my reader with minutia. Still, writing a character who could actually telephone her friends was a plus! Communication is so much easier in our age. And portraying a woman who rose from nothing, not born to privilege yet who became a queen in her own right, was fascinating. And the clothes, of course: all those fabulous clothes. What’s not to love? She also made controversial decisions that blackened her reputation, so in some ways, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL is not so removed from what I’ve written previously. She is an extraordinary woman in an extraordinary era, who lived by her own rules, despite setbacks and personal tragedies. She shares certain traits with my 16th century ladies.

Whose journey, out of all the characters you have created, most closely mirrors your own journey as a writer?

Probably Chanel’s. Not that it’s a fair comparison; she faced obstacles I never have, foremost being misogyny. Because of her gender, she had to fight to be taken seriously in a time when women had few options. But as a gay man whose writing had been rejected over 300 times over the course of thirteen years, I understood both her frustration and determination to succeed. I also think I relate to her decision to live as she saw fit; gay men have faced prejudice and hatred because of our sexuality, and Coco experienced prejudice because of her lifestyle. She also reaped rewards, but she paid the price for who she was. I know what that feels like. Nevertheless, all of my characters carry a bit of me inside of them, or rather, I find a bit of me in them. It’s what writers do: we cannot live for years with characters we detest. We must find an echo of their souls in ours to bring them to life. Without that echo, the writing is empty.

Thank you for sharing this time with me. I hope your readers enjoy THE TUDOR VENDETTA. To find out more about my work, please visit me at:

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review: THE TUDOR VENDETTA by C.W. Gortner

Time and again, Brendan Prescott has proven himself loyal to Elizabeth Tudor. As a trained intelligencer, he has uncovered lies, navigated treachery, and survived attempted assassination in his quest to protect England's new queen. But can Brendan's loyalty withstand the temptation to claim all Elizabeth has for himself? This is the challenge Brendan ultimately faces in THE TUDOR VENDETTA (St. Martin's Press, October 2014), the third and final volume of C.W. Gortner's Spymaster Chronicles.

Mere weeks after claiming her throne, Elizabeth recalls Brendan from exile in Switzerland, where he has fled for protection and further training. Her favored lady-in-waiting, Lady Parry, has vanished in Yorkshire while caring for a nephew's sick child. A scrap of paper tucked beneath the saddle of Parry's wandering horse bears an ominous message: She must pay for the sin. Fearing for her attendant's life, Elizabeth sends Brendan to search for her. Although reluctant to leave the queen, who has narrowly avoided being poisoned by a tainted coronation gift, Brendan travels north. At the home of Lord and Lady Vaughan, Catholic sympathizers of the late Queen Mary, the mystery deepens to involve an elusive stranger intent on settling a vendetta with the Protestant queen. As Brendan investigates the fate of Lady Parry, he discovers a shattering secret about Elizabeth--a secret this enemy hopes to exploit in order to bring a quick end to the new queen's reign. Can Brendan stop him in time? And even if he does, can the intelligencer resist using the dangerous knowledge he has gained to further his own ambition?

THE TUDOR VENDETTA, like its companion books THE TUDOR SECRET and THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY, is a deftly plotted mystery that seamlessly weaves plausible rumor and imaginative innuendo into an accurate and convincingly evoked historical framework. Gortner handles the difficult task of refreshing the reader's memory of the events of the previous two volumes with aplomb. He never allows the complicated politics and religious factionalism of the era to overwhelm the narrative action nor loose ends to weaken the story's grip. Wary lest the twists and revelations that structure the plot appear gratuitous or overly convenient, he takes care to prepare the ground with timely hints and supportive backstory.

But more than the tight plot, it is the finely nuanced characters that make THE TUDOR VENDETTA an enjoyable read. A foundling who shares Tudor blood, Brendan struggles to overcome feelings of inferiority even as he chooses to hide the truth of his birth. He retains an endearing vulnerability that prevents him from lashing out at past oppressors or taking advantage of improved circumstance. All he wants from life is a sense of belonging and a home to call his own, yet these are the very things he must sacrifice in Elizabeth's service. As a man who takes his responsibilities seriously, he has difficulty forgiving himself his failings, to the degree that he risks his future happiness by dwelling on past transgressions. Elizabeth is equally well-rounded, fragile yet determined, loyal yet willing to sacrifice whatever she must to maintain her grip on the throne. She allows herself one weakness, her love for the vain and power-hungry Robert Dudley; even so, she maintains a level-headed awareness of his shallowness and her own dangerous response to his attentions. Archie Shelton, Brendan's rough and tumble father, demonstrates a touching but never mawkish devotion to the son he was forced to ignore for so many years. Brendan's beloved Kate suffers no illusions about her relationship with the intelligencer and knows that his devotion to Elizabeth will forever complicate his love for her. Although she shares his devotion to the queen, Kate must decide whether she can live with Brendan's divided loyalty. (She is the one character I would have liked to have seen more of in this novel, but the plot necessarily removes her for much of the story.) Gortner's characters leap from the page in a blaze of convincingly contradictory emotions and impulses that keep the reader wholly invested in their struggles.

THE TUDOR VENDETTA brings The Spymaster Chronicles to an entertaining and satisfying conclusion, one that closes the present cycle yet leaves open the possibility for future tales of intrigue and aspiration at the Elizabethan court.

C.W. Gortner holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California. After a long career in the fashion industry, he now writes full-time and is the author of seven acclaimed historical novels. You can learn more about his work at his website and blog.


I wrote this review as part of a Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. To read other reviews of the novel and guest posts by the author, please consult the list of tour stops. Return here tomorrow to read an interview with C.W. about THE TUDOR VENDETTA and his other work.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bags Full of Reading Goodness

Several weeks ago, I made a general plea to my Facebook author friends. I was interested in putting together a basket of autographed books for my son's school auction. I asked that anyone interested in helping donate a signed copy of her book in return for some publicity on the blog. I was astounded and humbled by the response. Eleven authors sent me one or more copies of their book(s); two others offered, but unfortunately, I was not able to receive their books in time. This generous response from the writing community allowed me to put together two baskets, each valued at approximately $185. I divided the books into two lots and packaged them in bookish totes from Barnes & Noble along with fancy bookmarks.

Here is a list of authors who donated their books. If you are looking for holiday gifts or excellent additions to your own library, please consider purchasing something from this list. I have read most of the books myself; many I've reviewed here on the blog and additional reviews will be forthcoming. They are all excellent reads.

Maryanne O'Hara, CASCADE
Patricia Bracewell, SHADOW ON THE CROWN
Julie K. Rose, OLEANNA
Marci Jefferson, GIRL ON THE GOLD COIN

I am very grateful to my author friends and thrilled that new readers will soon experience their wonderful books. These bags are sure to start a bidding war at the auction! I wish I could bid on them myself.

Thanks again to all involved!