Wednesday, October 3, 2007

"The Master of Verona"

David Blixt is a Shakespearean actor-turned-author. His first novel, The Master of Verona, combines Shakespeare’s Italian characters with the real people of Dante’s time.

He applied the Page 69 Test to the new book and reported the following:
Page 69:

The Count glanced up and swallowed his heart. All along the walls of San Pietro, those same walls he had scaled that morning, hundreds of helmets glinted in the light of the setting sun. Enough of them bore the outlines of bows to show that they were archers. But they did not hold crossbows. They held bows of yew.

Somehow, beyond all possibility, the Scaliger’s army had come. Worse, he had armed his soldiers – against dictate of emperors, kings, knights, and church – with longbows. A violation of every code of chivalry, it was political suicide. It was also deadly.

Instead of indulging in outrage, the Count was doing the math. Those weapons could drive an arrow three times the distance of any crossbow. It wasn't an army the Greyhound had brought. It was death, in the form of a hail of arrows.

Below the rows of archers, the Scaliger howled a wordless cry that froze the blood. Ponzino actually shivered at the sound. For a moment he believed it was the dog that had made the noise, so feral it was. The Count saw Cangrande throw his helmet aside in a show of contempt. Still standing in the stirrups, he lifted his reins in his left hand and kicked his horse into a gallop. The spiked mace in his right hand was poised and ready to crush his enemies. Behind him, against all reason, his followers charged, screaming for blood.

In that moment San Bonifacio understood. It was not courage, nor reason, nor a grasp of tactics. It was not honor, nor chivalry. It was a streak of madness that defied reason, thought, life. It was a kind of immortality, perhaps the only kind a man owns. For this heartbeat of time the Greyhound was more than human. He was the Angel of Death, descended from the heavens to reap a fearful harvest.

Ponzino was horrified. “They can’t possibly…”

Already knowing the worst, the Count said, “They already have. Run!”

All around them men in every state of readiness – sober, drunk, valiant, cowardly – fell back before that charge. They’d witnessed their daring leaders run to them for protection, and had felt unsure. They’d watched the Flemings, darlings of the fierce Asdente, run as if the devil nipped their heels. They’d seen men armed with bows along the walls. Now this giant, this impossibly fearless, murderous man, rode at them like Mars on the field of war.

The Paduans broke. The massive army began disintegrating into clusters of terrified men. In their desperate flight they shed their booty, their weapons, their provisions and their armor. Into ditches or into the Bacchiglione it all went as the men scrambled back to preserve their lives.

The Count of San Bonifacio didn't hesitate. Tossing his family armor aside, he turned his horse about, kicking hard. Grabbing the reins of the Podestà's horse, he dragged the stunned commander with him. Ponzino ripped every seal of office from his body, wanting no sign to mark him as Cangrande’s enemy. For the first time that day, the Paduan commander did not think of his honor. He thought only of his life.

In many ways this is an excellent microcosm of the whole. Action, honor, war, and a smattering of grand ideas all in one page.

This scene comes at the tail end of chapter six, as the villain of the piece is trying to hold together the invasion of a contested city. Suddenly the Greyhound of Verona, Cangrande della Scala, arrives out of nowhere to do battle. The Paduans have no idea that Cangrande is bluffing – he arrived with less than one hundred men, to face a force of three thousand.

Amazingly, that isn’t invention, it’s fact. Cangrande’s life is worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy – which is what this novel truly is. I’m an action-oriented fellow, though my action scene have two rules: 1) they need to stem from the characters and their ambitions; and 2) they need to move the plot along.

So, two huge battles, a siege, two duels, a horse race, a fire, a chase, and a few murders. Yeah, I’d say page 69 is fairly representative…
Read an excerpt from The Master of Verona and learn more about the book at the official website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue