Star Wars: Darth Maul Son of Dathomir by Jeremy Barlow

Star Wars: Darth Maul Son of Dathomir, Jeremy Barlow et al, Dark Horse Comics, 2014

4.5 Stars

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Darth Maul vs All of the Sith

When last we saw Maul in the cartoon, his brother Savage was killed in an awesome double dual against Darth Sidious, aka Chancellor Palpatine, and Maul was taken prisoner for Sidious’ nefarious plans.

There’s no spoilers in telling that Maul makes his escape and vows his revenge. Using his crime syndicate & allies of The Pikes, Black Sun & the Mandalorians, Maul enacts his plan to usurp Sidious as The Dark Lord of the Sith through brute force and turn Sidious’s allies against him.

Fans of Dark Force users will take delight that there are no puny Jedis in this story, just Siths, their acolytes, Night Brothers of Dathomir, and a not-so-surprising return of Maul’s mother, the Night Sister witch, Mother Talzin. There’s plenty of action in this series, with Sith fighting Sith & the Confederation of Independent Systems (CIS) vs Maul’s criminal allies.

I do wish we could have seen this in true animated form, with Sam Witwer’s silky performance as Maul, but this comic was a next-best substitute.

The artwork is solid and the plot is satisfactorily violent. By the end, all the pieces are put in place for “The Clone Wars'” finale, a 4 episode arc of the Siege of Mandalore, which runs parallel to my favorite Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare, original pub 1594

3.5 Stars

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Book – Titus Andronicus

Known as the English bard’s most violent play, “Titus Andronicus” had all the foul elements to be right up my alley. As a lover of the horror genre in all its forms, a tale filled with dismemberment, filicide, abduction, murder, tongue-cutting, adultery, beheadings, throat-slashings, and regicide should have made me quiver with terror. While I enjoyed it, I was not moved by the ceaseless calamities nor by Shakespeare’s less than usually stellar dialogue.

As a youth I never appreciated Shakespeare as I should have. A well-meaning, but overly enthusiastic 11th grade English teacher’s glee turned me off him. I was a contrarian, hating things just because I thought it was cool. That was foolish, of course, and it wasn’t until years later that I could appreciate the unmatchable poetry of Shakespeare’s writing.

Alas, the writing in this play was not as exquisite as I have to come to expect from Shakespeare. I daresay even “Romeo and Juliet was better penned.

As usual in Shakespeare, “Titus Andronicus” is filled with unlikeable characters whose follies lead to their dooms. The title character is an arrogant General, stuffed full of foolish pride. The only players here that are wholly honorable would be Titus’s brother Marcus, and Titus’s grandson, Young Lucius.

A Villain to Die For

The most enjoyable role is the evil Aaron, a so-called “blackamoor.” One could decry the obvious racism in making the black character the greatest villain in this tale, but Aaron has the greatest lines. More importantly, as it is he who masterminds much of the villainy, in a way he’s the most powerful character of them all. Much like Wesley Snipes in “Demolition Man,” Aaron chews up the scenery with his unrepentant evil. And has a grand old time with it.

He is Queen Tamora’s secret lover, and when she births a dark-skinned child, her sons are aghast:

Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?

Aaron: That which thou canst not undo.

Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother.

Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.

BURN!

And at the finale, when Aaron is punished for his evil deeds by being buried alive up to his neck and left to starve to death, does he beg for mercy? Hell no!

Aaron:
O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.

So unrepentant in his evil! How awesome! I wish more of the play had been like this! 🙂

The Bloody Conclusion

The beautiful Shakespearean poetry was lacking here, and the stage directions of brutality followed by brutality were as humorous as the Black Knight’s bloody dismemberment in “Monty Python & the Holy Grail.”

At the climax Titus serves a meal made up of Tamora’s sons to the unknowing queen which is quickly (and I do mean blink-and-you -miss-it, quick) followed by three hasty murders. It was so silly that it should have been written as a comedy.

In fact that scene was adapted to a comedic form hundreds of years later in the best South Park episode of all time: “Scott Tenorman Must Die” where a gleeful Eric Cartman makes a chili out of Scott’s parents and licks his enemy’s tears in delight:

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This would have worked SO MUCH better as a comedy. But hey, it’s Shakespeare, so it was still fun.

The Da Vinci Code By Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, Doubleday, 2003

2 Stars

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Book – The Da Vinci Code

When I was a kid, I adored the Saturday morning cartoon “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo.”

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Remember this ABC Saturday a.m. cartoon, kids? No? Damn, I’m old.

It was my favorite incarnation of Scooby Doo as it was bright, colorful, amusing, and kept me wanting more. While reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, I was reminded of this series, only because I was amazed that a made-for-children animated program had more wit and mystery than this mess of a book. I started to read this and went into a tizzy. What the hell was Brown guy thinking? Did millions of people worldwide truly take this poorly-researched, poorly-written junk seriously?

The plot isn’t complex: Langdon Brown, Harvard professor of Cryptology, or some such nonsense, is in Paris to give a lecture and then meet the overseer of the Louvre. But before Langdon can meet him, the art scholar is killed. Langdon is called by police to go to the Louvre to solve some puzzling clues. A mysterious young beauty, Sophie Neveu, arrives and then Langdon is soon considered the prime suspect of the murder. The two flee from police, while solving “complex” puzzles that lead to more clues.

Meanwhile, in Rome, Bishop Arringarosa, head of the secretive organization, Opus Dei…

The Right Reverend, His Excellency, the Bishop

…has sent his henchman, Silas, a self-flagellating, albino monk who wears brown robes and wraps barbed wire around his thigh so it constantly bleeds (because that’s the kind of guy who blends into a crowd) to make sure a secret regarding the Holy Grail—-one that could destroy the whole Christian faith—-is never revealed.

The book was obviously written with its eye on Hollywood (I haven’t yet seen the movie, and this book doesn’t inspire me to do so). Langdon is referred to looking like “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed” and Dan Brown admittedly wrote the character of Bezu Fache with actor Jean Reno in mind. I enjoy good pulp-fiction, a potboiler that leaves you on the edge of your seat, waiting to know what happens next…but this book was not that kind of read.

For people with ADD/ADHD like me, The Da Vinci Code is split up into short chapters, which should make for easy reading. However, they usually end with nail-biting cliffhangers such as:

“Now, I’ll tell you the rest of the story.”

Or: 

“I can’t drive a stick-shift!”

Dun-Dun! Can you feel the suspense?

Lots of Action: Running and Talking, Driving and Talking, & More Running and Talking!

The pacing is all wrong; the book is 450+ pages long and 90% of the action takes place over 12 hours. Perhaps my definition of a fast-paced novel is different than Brown’s: to me, it’s not one set in a short period of time, but one where a lot of action and suspense occur. Stuff happens here, but mostly it’s just running: Langdon and Sophie escape from the police, they hide though out the Louvre, then drive through the streets of Paris to the countryside to meet a friend, fly to England, hide some more, and skulk their way to another museum, always fleeing from police and bad guys.

All the while, there are a lot of stupid questions asked by supposed code-expert Sophie. Langdon’s long-winded explanations of facts that Sophie should be more than aware of are ham-handedly inserted to enlighten the reader. Thrown in are lots of extemporaneous, long speeches about what this work of art represents plus stupid flashbacks. For example, as they’re pursued by cops, Langdon thinks: “Hmm, this reminds me of the time I was sharing my divine knowledge with prison inmates in a speech about the ambiguous sexuality of the Mona Lisa. She’s really a dude. That blew the their minds. I’m so smart, heh-heh.”

There is another flashback where Landon describes the Fibonacci code to a class of Harvard students who are shocked and dumbfounded that such a series exists in nature.

Really? A 15 year-old-stoner who’s watched Darren Aranofsky’s misnamed “Pi” knows the relevance of this basic sequence!

There are plenty of other silly ideas, such as Langdon stating that the Greeks used the word Eros as an anagram for rose. But this makes no sense because “Eros” is Greek and “rose” is English or French. In Greek, rose is ρόζα which translates into roughly “rhodon” or “rodon,” and the alphabets are different besides!

Brown claims in the painting The Last Supper there is a disembodied hand holding a knife at Jesus’s back. In every version I’ve seen, it’s Peter who is holding the knife. (Ok, some art historians claim that it was added in a restoration of Leonardo’s work, as he was such a master of the human form that it makes little sense to have Peter in such an awkward, unnatural pose.)

But Brown is no religious historian either; his “facts” should in no way be taken as such. He’s an average pulp writer trying to make a controversial book and sell copies, and by hitting those divisive notes he shows himself to be a better salesman/promoter than author.

It’s Just Fiction, Relax…

I realized to take Brown’s errors with a grain of salt as I had a huge epiphany about halfway through this book. In a startling revelation, Langdon points to his Mickey Mouse watch and discloses that Walt Disney, like numerous notable historical figures, was one of the keepers the Holy Grail’s secret. Many of his films were filled with hidden “Easter Eggs,” such as the “The Little Mermaid” where Ariel’s red hair makes her a perfect match for Mary Magdalene!

And I finally got it, slapped myself on the forehead, and exclaimed, “D’oh!”

Dan Brown is screwing with the reader and had a jolly old time laughing his way to the bank.

Like the—ahem—History Channel’s program “Ancient Aliens,” he throws so much crap and conjecture that some might figure, well, even if 1% of what’s said is true, then this changes everything! We are through the looking glass, people!

Dan is both a hack and a genius! What’s more he made himself known as a “preeminent” author and made a ton of cash!

Thankfully, I got this e-book for free.

Opinion of The Da Vinci Code

As long as I’m entertained, I can tolerate a silly plot. For me, the Da Vinci Code started out as horrible, then mildly irritating, then unintentionally quasi-hilarious.

If you want to find something amusing that skewers sacred cows, I suggest watching the South Park’s “Fantastic Easter Special” episode, which was snot-flying-from-the-nose-hysterical and revealed the Catholic Church’s true secret:

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Papa Lepus

If you want a nail-biting action-thriller, look elsewhere; as far as I’m concerned Sidney Sheldon’s reputation as “The Master Storyteller” is still safe. If you want to search religious or artistic truth, seek non-fiction, documented sources. Brown might claim his facts are so, but some simple research will show otherwise.

Far from being the engaging blockbuster that I had heard, I found The Da Vinci Code to be an unremarkable let-down filled with flat characters and silly “twists.” Christians of all stripes, Gnostics, atheists, agnostics, historians, lovers of art, readers who enjoy characterization or fast-paced thrillers or even mildly entertaining books, all these people should be offended, because if you’re paying good money for an appealing story, this isn’t it. But like I said, I got it for free, so there’s that.

This was a frustrating read, but it wasn’t so boring that I hated this thing. That’s a positive, I suppose.

Peter the Cruel by Edward Storer

Peter the Cruel, Edward Storer, Andesite Press, 2015 reprint

Spoiler Alert ⚠

5 Stars

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Prince Pedro

In a dusty castle in Andalusia there resided an abandoned Queen and her son, the Infante Don Pedro, heir to the Castilian throne. For years Queen Maria of Spain, daughter of Portugal, had been cast aside by her husband King Alfonso XI in favor of his mistress Leonor de Guzman and the ten illegitimate children she bore him. By right it was Maria who was Queen but it was a concubine who reigned in the King’s court as consort. And so, for years Queen Maria languished, while in her heart burned a longing for vengeance.

By the mid-14th century the romance of the Medieval Age had long-ago subsided. Troubadours and jongleurs no longer galivanted from city to walled city. The Black Plague tormented the continent. As war ravaged Europe, the people were beset by vagabonds, pirates, and thieves. The Renaissance, which had begun in Italy, had not yet reached the Hispanic Peninsula. Five kingdoms ruled Iberia: Portugal to the west; Castile-Leon taking up the vast center; Navarre to the northeast; Aragon to the east; and in the south, the last Muslim stronghold of Granada. Violence ruled the day. Although there was often intermarriage among the Christian kingdoms much time was spent battling each other, not to mention the centuries-old Christian Crusade of the Reconquista to overtake Granada.

It was in Granada where Pedro’s father, waging yet another war, met his end to the Plague. Pedro was not quite 16 years of age. At long last, Maria and her son were set free.

Book – Peter The Cruel: The Life of the Notorious Don Pedro of Castile, together with an Account of His Relations with the Famous Maria de Padilla

Pedro had not harbored resentment towards his father and half-siblings as his mother had. He longed for his brothers’ and sisters’ company and welcomed them into his fold. Leonor de Guzman, as the mother of his half-siblings, he believed, was due respect. One may wonder how such a seemingly kind-hearted young boy grew to be such a despised monarch. When Pedro reached maturity, he would be a fine figure of a man at 6 feet in height, blond-haired, blue-eyed, active, and fit, and except for knees that tended to crack when he walked, had few physical flaws. He would reign on and off for 19 years over a time of civil war and strife and earn the menacing sobriquet of Pedro el Cruel, or Peter the Cruel.

Edward Storer’s Peter the Cruel: The Life of the Notorious Don Pedro of Castile, together with an Account of His Relations with the Famous Maria de Padilla is a terrific historical read. His compact book of 333 pages is supported by 60 works of references, including direct accounts Pedro’s personal historian, Pedro Lopez de Ayala, who was no lover of King Pedro, as well as apologist Prosper Merimee’s hefty 2-part biography (no joke, I own these books and they are about 3 inches thick each). Storer’s work is academic, dismissing rumor from fact, resulting in a fair, ostensibly unbiased look at the much-maligned king.

The Young King Learns to Rule

Young Pedro was, as youths tend to be, naïve. He did not understand how great his brothers’ powers were. Their father, King Alfonso, had given them lands and titles. Enrique, the eldest surviving son, was named Conde de Trastamara (remember that name), his twin, Fadrique, was made Master of the order of Santiago, and the third son was named Don Tello. To guide King Pedro through political waters was Don Juan Alonso de Albuquerque, a nobleman of Portuguese origin. First, Albuquerque set his sights on marriage for the King to a lady of a great family, Juana de Villena. In the first of many betrayals, Pedro’s brother Enrique would elope with Dona Juana, claiming a childhood betrothal gave him the right to her hand and her vast fortune.

This led to various factions across the kingdom fighting it out in the first on many civil wars. Pedro learned that betrayal must be punished with the harshest of penalties. His first murder was that of a knight, Garci Laso, who had the misfortune of choosing the opposing side. Upon Pedro’s order, Laso was maced to death, his brains and skull splattering upon the stones of the floor before Pedro’s throne.

There would be many more brutal slayings to follow, some the typical works of a king seeking to consolidate power, others the kinds that even God might not forgive.

In another betrayal against Pedro, his mother Maria plotted in secret to have her former adversary Leonor de Guzman murdered. Despite who she was, Pedro had never wanted this. While his brother Don Tello received the notification of his mother’s death with ease, the twins were not as forgiving. Enrique & Fadrique would be consumed with a bloodlust for their brother that could only end in murder.

After a bout of sickness, Pedro set upon ruling. Although Storer does not go in depth at this point, it is said that Pedro relaxed laws against Jews, giving them more opportunities (indeed his treasurer Simuel el Levi was Jewish) and tightened control over the nobles. This could not stand.

Enter Maria

Albuquerque plotted to take his young King’s mind off governing and introduced him to one, Maria de Padilla. While not as politically powerful as other royal mistresses in history, such as Madame de Pompadour or Barbara Villiers, the influence she wielded on King Pedro and his reign is undeniable. She was his love, his obsession, his sanctuary, his torment. In his favorite city of Seville, he lived an idyllic life of Oriental decadence with the ravishing Maria, who would bear his children.

After it became obvious that Pedro’s obsession with his mistress was more than a fleeting romance, Albuquerque again attempted to maneuver a political alliance for Pedro. This time he was successful, arranging a marriage to Blanca (Blanche) of Bourbon, niece to the king of France. He sent Pedro’s half-brother, Fadrique, to France to accompany the sweet lady into the land of castles.

One would think that with his mother having been so ill-treated by her husband, Pedro would grant his Queen the respect that was her due. But either Maria de Padilla’s embraces were so memorable, or poor Blanca was so repulsive, or perhaps Blanca’s dowry had not yet been received, that Pedro tired of his wife after a mere two days of marriage. He fled to seek the comforting arms of his mistress, only to return for a few more days and then once more leave his bride, alone & imprisoned, for the rest of her short, pathetic life.

His romance with the infamous Padilla woman was filled with passionate turmoils. After one heated argument Maria threatened to retreat to a nunnery and Pedro left in disgust. During this separation, he found time to romance Juana de Castro, a beautiful, elegant widow, whom Pedro pursued with a deep intensity. Juana would not be content to live as mistress to the King; she wanted Holy Matrimony. Pedro’s marriage to Blanca was declared null and void by his decree. But this was not enough. King Pedro threatened two bishops upon penalty of death to declare King Pedro free to marry. This resulted in the bishops being called to the Pope’s residence to receive harsh punishments. Pedro, himself, would later be excommunicated by the Church for cruelties against the clergy.

In a phony marriage ceremony, Pedro bonded himself to Juana. Unfortunately for Juana, she was to be humiliated in the worst way, abandoned by the King after only one night in his bed. One wonders for what reason such a beautiful lady could have displeased the King. Was it merely the pursuit of the hunt and not the nubile target that intrigued him? In any case, Maria never entered a convent, and it was back to her loving bed where Pedro returned.

Ramon Madaula as Pedro el Cruel

Endless Violence

It is here where events turn endlessly violent. The Padilla family had gained power in Pedro’s court, ousting Albuquerque who fled to Portugal, as did the Dowager Queen, who had found love in her homeland with a handsome knight. Pedro had many enemies: the Portuguese, including his mother and the spurned Albuquerque; the French whom he had offended with his ill-treatment of Blanche; his Trastamara brothers; the Spanish nobles who plotted against him; and the kingdom of Aragon, with its slight ties to the Castilian throne. Bloody skirmishes were fought.

Eventually, Pedro was captured by his brothers and pled for mercy. He was held prisoner for some time and would never be the same after his eventual escape. He had been disgraced; now, he hungered for vengeance. There would be no mercy, not even for his mother. Maria had foolishly decided to go to battle against her son. As punishment, he had her lover and other knights murdered before her horrified eyes. It just one of many in a series of assassinations. Heads on pikes were a common sight in the middle ages. During Pedro’s reign, they were prolific.

More murders were to come. Although Storer denies the veracity of such claims, it was said that during the long months’ travels from France to Spain, Pedro’s bride, Blanca, had been especially close with her guard, Don Fadrique. A love affair had formed. Pedro heard these rumors and it was yet another insult his brothers had cast against him, yet another bitter potion to swallow. He was insatiable in his quest for vengeance.

War was also on the agenda. A moment at sea where Pedro found himself tauntingly threatened by Catalan pirates led to a protracted conflict with Aragon.

Betrayals and Love Affairs

In the meantime, his mother was disgracing herself in the courts of Portugal. Maria, seeking to stamp out memories of her beloved knight was entertaining herself with lover after lover. Her death via poisoning soon followed. Storer admits that Pedro could have been behind her death but dismisses the charges as improbable. More likely, it was her father the King of Portugal who had Maria poisoned. Medieval politics made for tenuous family ties.

A new love affair ensued for King Pedro. This time with a Dona Aldonza whom he chased with an intense ferocity, his pursuit sprouting legends, worthy of the ancient Greek gods. She hid in a convent believing herself to be safe in such a holy sanctuary, but Pedro mercilessly searched every room until he found her. Yet Peter had not forgotten about his Maria. Like a sultan of old, Peter had two households of women. Two women who shared his bed and his ear for politics. A power play arose between the ladies. Ultimately Aldonza overplayed her hand, leaving Maria victorious and Pedro disgusted with her. Thus, she retired again to a nunnery for the rest of her life.

Several more betrayals by his Trastamara brothers led Pedro to the conclusion that their deaths would be the only solution to his problems. In the Arabesque halls of his beloved castle in Seville, the Alcazar, he would order the death of Fadrique de Trastamara. His brother was hunted down like a rabbit, dying only after a long, harrowing chase. His butchered body lay on the mosaic tiled floor, gore flecking the walls.

Pedro dined at his corpse.

Don Tello was also on Pedro’s kill-list, but due to his more suspicious nature, Tello fled before Pedro’s men could reach him. Fadrique’s gruesome death, coupled with the executions Peter mandated for the Spanish nobleman who revolted against him, made the tales about his despotism grow. The soil was fertile for Enrique to gather allies against the King. Illegitimate though he was, he was still a Prince and he perceived he had rights to the throne.

More cruelties followed, including the death of Pedro’s Queen, Blanca, who had been locked away for years. Storer demurs to claim outright whether Pedro ordered her death, offering several options and letting the reader can come to his or her own conclusions. In my opinion, he likely did.

The End for Pedro

Then came his beloved Maria de Padilla’s death. Her loss was painful, but ever the amorous man, King Pedro was able to find solace with numerous women in the remaining years of his life. It was the death of his only son with Maria that profoundly changed him. He became weaker, more dissolute. More murders of noblemen occurred. The number of his enemies grew larger and larger. Numerous people wanted Pedro dead.

Eventually, Pedro became involved in the Hundred Years’ War, allying himself with England. The Black Prince himself came to Spain with thousands of men to lend aid to Pedro. On one side were the Castilians and the English, on the other, the Aragonese, the French, and the Trastamaras. Many knights from far away lands came to Hispania to battle for glory.

Whether through subterfuge or capture, Pedro found himself in a military tent with his brother, Enrique. The knights watched as brother fought brother. It looked as if the more powerful Pedro had the upper hand, but a knight—probably the famous French knight Bertrand du Guesclin—aided Enrique, allowing him to get to his knife and sink it into Pedro’s flesh. Whether Enrique gave the killing blow, or if Pedro was done in by the final stabs of others, is not certain. On that twenty-third day of March in the year 1369, Pedro the Cruel’s reign came to an end.

Through fratricide, the bastard, Enrique de Trastamara had gained the throne of Castile-Leon. His descendants would rule Spain for centuries, first as Trastamaras, then as Hapsburgs, for he was the ancestor of Isabel the Catholic of Castile, Juana I the Mad, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and King Phillip II of Spain, among others.

Pedro’s Legacy

Pedro’s descendants lived on through his children by Maria. His daughters would be Constance, Duchess of Lancaster, wife to the Edward III of England’s son, John of Gaunt, and the other Isabella, Duchess of York.

As for Pedro’s legacy, it is a mixed one. He was, by the standards of his time, truly not more bloodthirsty a king than most others. However, he did not wage his war upon the peasantry nor persecuted minorities, but on nobles. His attempt at social reforms, his unwillingness to oppress Jews, and his endeavors to decrease crimes through harsher punishments were not forgotten. For that, later historians have called him el Justiciero, the Lawful.

It was in personal matters wherein Pedro was dissolute and wicked. More importantly, he lost his crown to a man who had the power to dictate history, the founding ruler of a powerful dynasty whose bloodline lives on today in the royal families of Europe.

The life of Pedro the I has been the subject of many works, with each artist putting his own spin on the disparaged king. Storer writes his life story with organized, even-handed elegance. This work is history come to life, where you can smell the orange blossoms and taste the metallic blood. Peter the Cruel is a wonderful read, an excellent biography for any Hispanophile’s library.