Book Review: The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

Greatest Knight

When I picked this book up it was on a whim…best whim ever!  This is a historical book but I recommend it to anyone running a fantasy RPG campaign. The book connected with me on a lot of different levels and I was deeply impressed with not only the biography of William Marshal but the masterful way that the author provides the context for the story, without miring the reader down with pointless details.  As an author, I am going to use this book as a guide for my own future writing of non-fiction.

William Marshal served five kings during the medieval era, including Richard the Lionhearted.  He had a role in the Magna Carta and was a behind-the-scenes character throughout that era.  No, that isn’t right.  He was often at the forefront of many changes of power in England and France, but somehow has remained hidden in history.

The opening of the book reminded me of Flashman, starting with an obscure manuscript surfacing at an auction that led to the telling of his tale.  I was hooked in the first three pages!  Marshal is the antithesis of Flashman though, a truly honorable man.  He is the perfect template for a Paladin in D&D.  He moves through history with the ease of Forrest Gump in some respects, having a knack for being at the right place at the right time.  The political waters he somehow managed to navigate were deadly and ever changing, yet he managed to do so with honor and a certain dignity that comes through in the book.

In some respects, it reminded me of Katherine Kurtz’s Camber of Culdi series, which has become the metaphorical basis for my own D&D campaign.  I consider this series of books some of the best fantasy I have read over the years, and The Greatest Knight reminded me to go back and re-read those books.

I found the book captivating because the author did such a great job of giving you the foundation for events in Marshal’s life.  The section on tournaments, for example, really debunks the myth of jousting and is something I could see being incorporated into fantasy RPG’s with ease.  This book has forced me to purchase other books on the historical figures mentioned in it, a testimony as to well it is written. In other words, The Greatest Knight is a gateway drug to an addition to non-fiction history.

I give this five out of five stars.  It is an outstanding piece of literature that has saved Marshal from the dustbin of history!

Review of The Romanovs: The Final Chapter by Robert Massie

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When I was a kid my mom took me to see the movie Nicholas and Alexandra at the Bijou Theater in Battle Creek, MI.  She knew my love of history and the story fascinated her, especially Rasputin and Anastasia.  At the end of the movie she covered my eyes when the royal family was shot.  For some reason that has always stuck in my head.

Robert Massie is, well, a giant in terms of historical writers.  I actually wore out my copy of Castles of Steel, it is that good. This book falls somewhere between a history book and a true crime saga.  After all, the Romanov family was never tried for crimes, they were brutally murdered.  When I saw this book on my Amazon feed, I knew I had to pick it up.

It starts with the crime itself, which pulls you in.  The strange, if not bizarre treatment of the bodies was compelling as well.  Massie is masterful at giving you the historical context that is do desperately needed to understand the events.

Slowly what emerges is how the bodies were eventually found and recovered, and the impact of the Cold War and petty academics that played a part in identifying the remains.  This was a story that the public knew very little about.

Suddenly the book takes a hard turn into the rumors of the survivors, namely Anastasia.  I was surprised to learn that one woman claiming to be the princess lived out her years near me, in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The courtroom battles over her DNA were long, but entirely necessary.  Having read Massie’s other books, I knew that he was taking me as a reader on a long journey – and that parts of it were convoluted.  I was surprised that there were so many members of the Romanov family that were spared the violence of the Red Revolution.

As a true crime book, this is pretty intriguing to read but you may find the parts on “Anastasia” lacking, since it feels her only crime was lying about who she was.  As a history book, it is outstanding.  This book is solidly researched and well worth picking up.  Five out of five stars.

Now I need to go to the Netflix series, The Last Czars.  Curse you Robert Massie – you are making me explore this more.

Remembering Apollo 11

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We didn’t do this on a sound stage, we did it live on-location!

Having been born in 1962, the American space program was an important series of events in my life.  In the summer of 1969, we saw the culmination of a great event, man’s landing on the moon and returning to Earth.  It was something that had been ingrained in us as a people.  Every launch was a special event on TV.  Walter Cronkite (and Wally Schirra) took complicated information and fed it to us in a way that every person could understand. We all came to understand the complexities of docking, heat shields, communications lags, etc, as if we were part of the team going to the lunar surface.  Classes were interrupted when Saturn V’s lifted off and when the capsules returned to our planet.  There was a sense, even with us as kids, that this was important and that somehow, we were all a part of it.

There was a whole lot of negative stuff happening around us…Vietnam, peace protests, civil rights marches, a hotly contested Presidential election, hippies, Charles Manson – but cutting through all of that was the space race against the Russians.  America was behind something big, and it was a matter of pride and prestige.  There were detractors who claimed that the money could be better spent elsewhere, but in July of 1969 with the launch of Apollo 11, we rallied as a nation to wish the astronauts well on their perilous journey.

My parents bought Tang, because that was what the astronauts drank.  We sipped it in glasses from the Marathon station that were red-white-and-blue with images of the Apollo missions on them.  My toys included Major Matt Mason, a heroic astronaut action figure.  The space race was everywhere.

I watched the Apollo 11 liftoff from a black and white TV set in my parents non-airconditioned house in Battle Creek, Michigan.  There were only two networks for us, we didn’t get ABC until a year or two later – and you could only get PBS out of Lansing if the weather was right.  You had to adjust the rabbit-ear antenna just right to get a good picture. I was the family remote control for the TV.  That’s how we rolled.

I remember the landing on the moon and the relief that washed over us and over Walter Cronkite when we heard, “Tranquility Base here…the Eagle has landed.”

I, like millions of others, saw the grainy images of man setting foot on the moon. The entire world watched.  Factories stopped production so workers could see it happen live.   Humanity had a singular positive focus for one of the few times in my life.  It was incredible to experience.

When that flag was planted on the moon we knew that we had beat the Russians.  This was a triumph for all Americans.

I remember wanting to be an astronaut when I grew up.  That was what the space program did – it inspired people.  As I grew older I realized with my eyesight and lack of other qualifications, I would never get a chance to fly in space.  I didn’t have the right stuff.  I accepted that and owned it.  As the years passed I found my own way to get into space, by writing science fiction.  With my words, I traveled to hundreds of planets.  Determination always wins out.  While I will never wear a NASA patch (or StarFleet) on my sleeve, I have gone far as a writer because of our space program. I have never forgotten what drove me.

Looking back I know that the landing on the moon was not just about beating the Soviets – it was about having a single purpose as a nation.  It wasn’t about moon rocks, but about retooling of our nation to be a technological powerhouse.  It provided countless jobs in new and exciting fields.  It was America at its best when we were coping sociologically with incredible problems and turmoil.

Now that we look back at five decades past and the accomplishment there, that sense of pride has surged forward.  Space has brought us many triumphs and some gut-wrenching tragedies.  We let the momentum of our landing on the moon slip through our fingers.  Mars seems further away than ever.

In my later years, when I wrote, Terror of the Autumn Skies, I wrote Neil Armstrong.  In one biography he said that in his youth, he admired the subject of my book, Frank Luke Jr.  I was hoping to get a quote from him about Luke.  His secretary wrote me a nice letter back saying that Mr. Armstrong did not give quotes but appreciated my request and looked forward to my book.  He was a class act.  It was a rejection that makes me smile in memory, even to this day.

When my kids got older, we watched HBO’s, From the Earth to the Moon.  My daughter Victoria loved the Apollo 12 episode.  I reached out to astronaut Al Bean and he sent her an autographed photo.  She still has it framed.  Even decades after their missions, these men continued to inspire future generations to look into the blackness of space and wonder what is out there, and when will we go and find out.

Today that feeling of pride in our country we all had then would be labeled as, “dangerous nationalism.”  There would be factions in our society that would be upset that we didn’t have a diverse enough crew on the flight or in mission control.  The planting of the American flag couldn’t be allowed in our present-day culture.  They would even ban the ticker-tape parades because they are not very environmentally conscious.  We couldn’t spend the money on the program because our elected representatives would want to spend it elsewhere. Can you imagine Congress aligning to a single goal for a decade?

Some would say that this new thinking is progressive, that it is better.  As someone who experienced the landing on the moon from a tiny, hot living room in Michigan, I can tell you that such thinking is wrong.  There is something to be said about being proud about your country and what it can accomplish when we work together towards a common goal.  Those that claim that having pride in your nation is inherently wrong or evil; they cannot take from me what I experienced and felt in that summer of 1969.  A part of me wishes to feel that again in my lifetime, but as the years pass I feel it, like our voyages to space, becoming rare, commercialized, and ploddingly slow.  For those of you that were not able to experience the moon landing, I feel for what you have been denied.

Finally, thank you Neil, Mike and Buzz.  You, and the tens of thousands of men and women involved in flight successful brought us together for something positive, challenging, and inspirational.  We will never forget the great risks you took and the indelible ink you wrote on the pages of mankind’s history.

A Pleasant Surprise – The US Planned Invasion of Canada

 

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My wife and I went to Barnes and Noble two weeks ago.  I don’t spend a lot of time in bookstores…usually because I am writing books, not looking for them.  I hadn’t been to a B&N in a long time, at least two years. I had to admit I found myself wondering just how long the place would stay open – there were more employees than customers.

I wandered through the genres I write about, just seeing what was on the shelves, when I finally drifted to the magazine rack.  There I spotted “What If… Book of Alternate History.”  I love this genre so I scarfed a copy.  In line with my wife, I opened it and saw there was a section on What if the US had invaded Canada?  Wow.  I wrote about that (twice) in my book NeverWars (Fonthill Media).  War Plan Red covered this much better in the 1930’s, but the earlier plan, for the 1904-1916 version was a fun read.  So I wondered if the author had used any of the same sources as me.

I flipped to that page and was surprised.  I was the author.

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I remember writing it for a British history magazine years earlier and it never dawned on me that they would reprint it.  What a weird surprise.

I do recommend the magazine – there are some wonderful articles in it as well as a list of the best alternate history novels.

Rorke’s Drift Anniversary

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January 22 is the anniversary of one of history’s most infamous battles – Rorke’s Drift.  I became enamored with this battle after a veteran on my newspaper route in high school recommended I watch the movie, Zulu.  Yes, I know the movie has a number of inaccuracies, but it was compelling.  It harkens to the Alamo, but in this case the Texicans would have won.  At Rorke’s Drift, on 22 January 1879, 150 British soldiers successfully defended the outpost from almost 4000 Zulu warriors.  Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for the battle, more than any other single engagement.

The prelude to the battle was a disaster for the British Army.  At Isandlwana scant miles from the outpost, the 24th Regiment of Foot suffered a staggering defeat and were slaughtered.  The small detachment at Rorke’s Drift were alone in hostile territory, horribly outnumbered by an emboldened enemy fresh from a victory.  The outpost was exposed, surrounded by hillsides.  On paper, defeat appeared inevitable.

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The outpost prior to the battle

The British troops formed a defensive perimeter around the outpost, using the buildings, fences and barricade of mealie bags.  The Zulus were armed with spears and captured rifles, but the defenders had firing discipline and steely resolve.  Sweltering in their brilliant red uniforms, the British (and a handful of Natal troops) repulsed wave after wave of attackers.  To this day, it remains a victory of pride and honor for the British Army.

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Lieutenant John Chard: “The army doesn’t like more than one disaster in a day.”
Bromhead: “Looks bad in the newspapers and upsets civilians at their breakfast.”
From Zulu

Anniversary of the Battle of Midway

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The Yorktown, listing badly

This year, 2017, marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway (June 4-6).  While often referred to as “the turning point of the war in the Pacific,” Midway was more than that.  It solidified a change of military doctrine on the high seas.  Gone was the era of the battleship.  Carrier warfare was what would determine the fate of the Pacific and would reshape our navy into the modern era.

Midway was one of those battles that could have, and possibly should have, gone horribly wrong for the United States.  Six months after Pearl Harbor and our only real victory against the Japanese was Doolittle’s Raid.  We were outnumbered in carriers and experience by the Japanese.  Coming out of the Battle of Coral Sea, the USS Yorktown was badly damaged. The thinking then was that she was going to take several months in drydock in the US to become operational.  The navy got her ready for battle in 72 hours, with some repair crews remaining on the ship and fixing her while at sea.

One of our best admirals, Bull Halsey, was ill.  In his place was Admiral Raymond Spruance.  Fuzzy historians (my phrase – copyright pending) like to say that he was a cruiser commander, but Spruance was well versed in carrier tactics.

The US knew the essence of the Japanese plan. Naval intelligence had broken the Japanese code and learned the basics of the plan.  Admiral Yamamoto’s Plan MI was to strike at the Aleutian Islands to lure away the Americans with a diversion there, then to attack and land troops on Midway. Doing so would lure the understrength American fleet (which he believed only consisted of two carriers, the Hornet and the Enterprise) into a battle they could not win.

Knowing the plan and achieving victory were two different things.  The Americans scouted the Japanese approaches from the air.  Midway dug in like a tick on exposed skin.  The Japanese did not fully expect the US fleet to engage them, they were expecting them to be lured off towards their diversion.

Initially the battle went badly for the American navy.  The Japanese struck at Midway, pulverizing their air defenders and bombing the island hard.  The Imperial Navy scouts spotted the American ships and the Japanese began to swap out contact bombs intended for Midway, to torpedoes to deal with the new threat.  That was when they were pounced upon.  While the Americans failed to do significant damage and suffered heavy losses, the attack threw off the Japanese plans.  As they tried to regroup, another American force, three squadrons from the Yorktown and the Enterprise, hit them again.  The battle was furious and fast, ultimately ending the day with three of the four Japanese carriers crippled or sunk. The infamous line was broadcast back to the carriers by Lieutenant Commander Robert Dixon after sinking the Shosho, “Scratch one flattop!”

The Japanese struck back, catching the Yorktown and hitting her hard – with an over 20 degree list and no working propulsion.  The Japanese thought they had sunk her.  They were wrong though.  The Yorktown was salvaged for another day of battle, though it was destined to be her last.

The next day brought about another strike by the Japanese, this time all but sinking the Yorktown (it would fall prey to a Japanese submarine after the battle. Believing they had already sunk one of the two American carriers the day before, they surmised they had taken out the last American carrier.  US Navy dive bombers took out the last Japanese carrier, forcing the invasion force to retreat.

The US had traded one carrier for four and had, in one battle, tipped the scales of the war in the Pacific.  Pearl Harbor had truly been avenged.

I first learned of this battle from Walter Lord’s book Incredible Victory.  Alan Andrews, a veteran of Vietnam on my paper route loaned me his dog-eared copy and I devoured it.

There are myths around the battle that survive to this day.  One is that the Navy War College wargamed the Battle of Midway many times over the years but was never able to duplicate the US victory.  While accepted as truth, I have not found any credible source for this story.  At the same time, it is hard to doubt it.  Midway was a rare combination of strategy, tactics, and blind luck that would be difficult to properly simulate.

To commemorate the anniversary of the battle I re-watched the 1976 movie Midway.  I wished I hadn’t.  First off, they reused (poorly) a lot of footage from Tora Tora Tora.  Then they intermixed real-life combat footage that made the battle hard to watch from a historian’s perspective.  All of the additional plot lines were unnecessary.  The only fun I had was watching Tom Selleck and Erik Estrada in early career roles in the film. It left me wondering when they would make a good version of this film, one that tells the true story, not the Hollywood dribble.

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While playing SPI’s War in the Pacific.  “I need an ensign to go over there to map 13 and move my carrier task force three hexes north.”

One Man Can Change the World. The 90th Anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s Epic Solo Flight

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Today – May 20, 2017, marks the 90th anniversary of Lindbergh’s take off from Roosevelt Field in New York and into the history books.

We live in a world today where social media and the court of public opinion determines who is noteworthy in our society.  We are a short-term people.  What is hot today is old news tomorrow.  We are driven by what the media tells us, right and wrong.  Our icons today are reality TV stars, grossly overpaid sports figures, musicians that can’t play an instrument, or people who covet fame from YouTube.com.   Our heroes are defined by pixels, their income, and their momentary popularity, more than by their accomplishments.

We weren’t always like that.  In 1927 we chose our heroes differently – by their actions and deeds rather than TV ratings.  Charles Lindbergh was such a man.  He wasn’t the first person to fly the Atlantic, but he was the first to do it solo.  He helped design the airplane for the journey, on that would take him across an ocean and into the history books.

Making such a flight alone was akin the madness.  Several aviators, some of much greater repute, had already died making such attempts.  In the Spirit of St. Louis, he didn’t have a life raft or radio to call for help.  If he ran into trouble he was going to die.

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Takeoff at Roosevelt Field

Lindbergh was the antithesis of today’s public icons.  He shunned publicity.  The man merely wanted to achieve the goal, not bask in the glory.  That was a big part of his great appeal.  He was a boy from next door – everyman.  In many respects he represented America at its best.  He was a man that challenged nature and fate and won.  Lindbergh harkened back to the American ideal of a pioneer and trailblazer.

One of my favorite movies is The Spirit of St. Louis starring Jimmy Stewart.  Yes, there are some factual errors with the film, but it is the best representation we have of what that flight was like and the challenges that this supreme aviator faced.

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In crossing the Atlantic solo, Charles Lindbergh changed forever the way we viewed aviation.  Suddenly, overnight, the world became much closer, more connected.

Every time I visit the NASM I make a point to pause and look at The Spirit hanging in the main gallery.  For a fleeting moment, I remember Charles Lindbergh and the daring he exhibited.  In that second of time I wonder if we will ever again have such men in our nation, men that we don’t seek to bring down, but instead bring out the very best of us.  In find myself longing for standards of men and women and go beyond the internet.  I know I am a romantic at heart, longing for a sense of something that is intangible yet wondrous.

I wonder where our heroes are…