Category Archives: Extract

An extract from The Flame Before Us

Today I thought I would post an extract from the in-progress novel The Flame Before Us. Before that, though, some review news. I am now signed up on the Indie section of the UK Historical Novel Society review group. So look out for some of these at the HNS site The deal is that reviews must appear there first before being posted anywhere else (like here, for example). They should also be of a standard length and have a mixture of plot summary, personal response and comments on the physical production. From now on a small fraction – by no means all – of my reviews will be posted there first.

Back to the extract. The scene here is the fall of Ugarit (Ikaret). The city walls have been breached and small groups of people are cut off from each other and trying to escape. Anilat is the wife of one of the king’s envoys, and successfully hid in her house during the initial attack.

The Flame Before Us - Working Cover

They moved outside. The lead soldier turned to her.
“Where to next, lady? Your honoured husband told me to set towards the shepherds’ huts on the hill road, but now you’re here the choice is yours.”
She nodded. “He said as much to me.” She looked around vaguely. “Which way should we go?”
One of the three shook his head. “Bugger that. I’m not going to any shepherd’s hut. I should never have come this far with you. I’ll take my chances somewhere else.”
Before any of them could say anything he had run off down a side street. She looked at the two remaining soldiers.
“What now? Will you leave us too?”
“No, lady. I gave my word to your honoured husband and I’ll see it through. Out to the huts at least, we’ll see you safe out to there. He’ll know what to do once we meet up, I’m sure.”
The younger man nodded as well. They went on a cautious way through the maze of narrow streets. Here and there in the distance they could hear and see the sounds of the city’s rape. Anilat followed the lead without thinking, not recognising any of the paths or buildings. It was one of the poorer regions, emptied already of its occupants. The houses pressed close together, and refuse and waste lay thickly in the corners and ruts. There had been little enough here to attract the invaders, but even so the shadow of their passage lay heavily on it.
Bodies of men and women, old and young, were scattered in and out of the buildings. Anilat’s own children trotted past the corpses with blank eyes, and Anilat herself was soon beyond noticing the marks of violence. Once, while they hurried across an open source near the top of a hill, they caught sight of a great mass of people pressed together along the main city artery, leading towards the great gates down from the palace and temple. There was a noise of confusion and inchoate pain, and the struggling crowd was illuminated only by the flames of burning buildings to either side. From time to time packs of men, like jackals, harried the edges of the crowd and snatched victims away.
Down by the docks the fires seemed to be settling into a steady blaze, while nearer buildings, more recently set alight, rushed up in sudden flurries of sparks. Anilat stopped to catch her breath at the highest point of the ridge and turned, trying to catch sight of her own house, but it was lost in the confusion. One of the soldiers urged her on.
They reached the open space in front of the middle gate. One of the soldiers eased his way slowly forwards to check that nobody was around, then waved the others on from where they had crouched behind some wreckage. The gate stood wide open, with its bolts and bars forced back. Two or three guards lay dead nearby, along with some other fighting men that none of them recognised.
The group slipped out through the gate. The path heading towards the ridge of hills to the east was clear and open. Apparently the city occupants were trying to escape away down the coast rather than inland.
They continued past a few bends in the track, keeping going until the city wall had slipped from sight and the way began to rise up from the coastal plain. The leading soldier looked at the women and children and called a halt. They turned to one side and settled among some stones, hidden by a screen of bushes from anyone moving along the road.
They shared out some food and passed around a skin of weak wine. Nobody spoke for a long time. Finally the younger soldier shook his head.
“I heard someone in the palace say that some of our own men opened the gates to them.”
Anilat looked at him in disbelief, but he persevered.
“And they rushed the walls like animals. With most of the army away north serving with the great king there were just not enough of us.”
The leader shook his head and took another swill of the wine.
“Seems to me they landed from those ships of theirs. The first fighting was down by the docks. Then some of them got through to the north gate and opened it up for the rest. When they defeated the few ships we had in home waters there was nothing to stop them.”
Auntie nodded. “The first fires we saw were down that way. Then it spread wider.”
Haleyna looked around as though she was only just realising where they were. “Where’s father?”

The novel as a whole follows the fortunes of several different groups of people caught up in the destructive migration that the Egyptians attributed to The Sea Peoples. It is about a decade later than Scenes from a Life. The historical events described here are a key landmark in the collapse of the Late Bronze Age cultures. Homer’s Iliad recollects the start of this wave of destruction: The Flame Before Us follows it on as it swept south through the Levant.

Scenes from a Life ABNA Excerpt now available for free download

Well, Amazon have now made available the ABNA Excerpts as free kindle downloads at the various international sites. For Scenes from a Life, navigate to one of:

On the Amazon sites you can preview the first couple of pages, or download in kindle format the Excerpt for free. The Excerpt for Scenes from a Life was about 3750 words long – the upper limit was 5000 words, but I wanted to end the Excerpt at an obvious section break. It represents part but not all of Chapter 1.

General Fiction ABNA logo

You do not need an actual kindle device to read it as there are kindle viewers for all kinds of other platforms such as PC, Mac and so on.

Like any other purchase on Amazon, you can add your own reviews of the Excerpt. It’s not very clear how audience reviews feed into the next stage – the main judging is done by staff from Publishers Weekly who have access to the entire manuscript now. However, in addition to this “Amazon customers can download, rate, and review Excerpts on, providing feedback to Amazon Publishing Editors about submissions”. So if anybody is motivated to write such a review, I would very much appreciate it. There is about a month for this stage of the process, until May 23rd or thereabouts, and the names of those going through to the semi-finals are announced around June 13th.

The survival of Egyptian influence in Canaan

Another portion of the author’s notes from Scenes from a Life. This one briefly explores some issues surrounding the survival of Egyptian influence in the province of Canaan, after the collapse of the New Kingdom.

At one time scholars thought that Egyptian involvement collapsed extremely quickly, within a few decades after 1200 BCE or so, leaving essentially no Egyptian presence in Canaan. More recent careful investigation has shown that the actual situation was more complex. Egyptian rule in any direct sense was certainly over, and standing garrisons of troops were recalled. However, Egyptian influence remained considerably longer in the form of buildings, styles of pottery, and writing.

The author’s main interest is in the written word, and here we find several fascinating issues. Firstly, the style of Egyptian writing we now call hieratic survived in the former province of Canaan for a long time, especially for technical information like weights and measures. In Egypt herself, writing style evolved from hieratic to demotic, but the older form remained in the province. The obvious conclusion is that the style was learned during the period of occupation, and stayed in use after that had ceased – it is like a fossil relic of this earlier time.

Now, learning hieratic is a process that needs good teachers and a scribal tradition. We do not have direct evidence for schools of this kind in the form of buildings or monuments. However, these little marks of numbers and letters, scratched into the surface of various everyday artefacts, show that scribes trained in the Egyptian manner were still carrying out their trade in the province. The novel uses phrases such as “quick scribal signs” for this writing style. This is in contrast to what Makty-Rasut calls “proper writing” – hieroglyphic – which would be used back in Egypt for official or ceremonial purposes.

Next we have the evidence of the rather later biblical psalms. Several critics have noticed that one group of these, those which are petitionary pleas for help in time of trouble, bear strong resemblance to earlier letters written by subordinates to their political superiors. A writing style originally used in the secular sphere for addressing someone of higher rank, was adopted for religious use addressing gods. This would seem quite an obvious idea for someone who has been trained in official protocol and is then asked to create spiritual songs.

British Musuem - one of the Amarna letters
However, the resemblance is stronger than that. Specific kinds of phrasing, and specific kinds of appeal for help, turn up in political letters from around 1350 BCE, and also in the earliest psalms from around 1000 BCE or so. Moreover, they do so in the same geographical location – Jerusalem (Shalem in this story). This again suggests that there was a continuity of tradition that spanned those years.

In Scenes from a Life it is suggested that this link was set in place by an Egyptian scribe who found reasons of his own to move out to the province. Scribal teams in Egypt were well coordinated, with clear specialisation of skills, and it is easy to imagine that such a person would be able to organise and motivate a group of people in Jerusalem, whether Egyptian or native-born.

Books on the Underground

I have previously posted about this scheme, in which authors contribute books which are marked with a distinctive sticker and then placed for public consumption on the London Underground. Loads of people read something on the Tube, if only the free Metro newspaper, so the scheme is a great idea. Check out the website for more details. Anyway, there have been two sightings of In a Milk and Honeyed Land in the last few days – at Earls Court on Monday, and Notting Hill Gate today. Let’s hope someone is enjoying the read…

Other news from the Orangeberry book tour –

  • An extract (first chapter) and brief description at The Book Connoisseur
  • An author interview and some blurb at The Reading Cat – the interview has some stuff about the forthcoming Scenes from a Life as well as more general things.

There’s more to come over the next few weeks… which should keep me quiet in between proof-reading and such like.

Egyptian poetry and tomb writing

This is another portion from the author’s notes at the end of Scenes From a Life. This, and the rest of the book, is undergoing heavy proof-reading and editorial work just now…

Chapel entrance, Luxor

Tomb inscriptions are one of our main windows into Egyptian life at royal and elite levels. Tourists to Egypt, and visitors to museums all around the world, still look at these today. Here in London, the New Kingdom Egyptian galleries in the British Museum provide excellent background material to this story, as well as being well worth a visit on their own account.

As Makty-Rasut comments to his friend Sanedjem-Keni, the royal tombs focus almost entirely on formal religious themes. These are often individually expressed in different tombs, but display broadly the same ideas and images. This is because of the specific role that the ruler was expected to fulfill in the afterlife. A great deal depended on him carrying out the right actions in the right way, so the tomb decorations revolved around ensuring that he would be armed with accurate information for the task at hand.

The tombs of elite individuals lower down the social ladder – priests, high-ranking soldiers, city officials, and so on – are very much more varied. Some scenes are popular and appear often, such as a hunting scene of a married couple on a boat in marsh-lands. Others, however, are unique, and capture for us something of the particular life of an individual. If the person had carried out any sort of official duty then we expect to find something of this in the tomb record. In addition, lively and inventive images can pop up in surprising places. We learn far more about life in Egypt from these tombs than from those in the Valley of the Kings.

An important part of the tomb was the autobiography. This was not intended to be a dispassionate or balanced account of the person’s life. Rather, it served as a kind of CV justifying to the gods why that individual should be allowed to enjoy the delights of the afterlife. These autobiographies therefore seem to us to be grossly self-congratulatory. In the early days of Egyptology, they were treated with great suspicion, or dismissed as having no historical merit. Nowadays they are regarded with more sympathy, and sifted for nuggets of value in amongst the generally up-beat expressions.

In Scenes From a Life, the snippets at the start of each even-numbered chapter are an invented but credible tomb autobiography for Makty-Rasut. Each one speculates how he might have presented for eternity the events described in that chapter. In contrast, the poems at the start of the odd-numbered chapters are taken from, or adapted from, one or other of the love poems which have been found in Egypt. Many of these were discovered near Luxor, in particular among the workmen’s houses at Deir al-Medina.

When reading translations of ancient Egyptian material, it is always worth remembering that the plain text version we read is only part of the whole. It is loosely similar to hearing the dialogue from a film soundtrack without seeing the pictures, since our written form is almost completely divorced from any underlying visual content. It does not really matter to us, and is largely overlooked, that the letter “A” originally derived from the head and horns of an ox. Today we routinely separate out writing from illustrations.

But with Egyptian writing, the visual and textual parts of an inscription were a unified whole. Since most letter signs still clearly showed their origins as pictures of real-world objects, it is easy to integrate the two. There are many places where one sign in the written text is placed so as to also form part of a composite pictorial scene. In other places, design elements in the picture can be read as words or suggestive puns.

The “hunting in the marsh” scenes mentioned above are loaded with such elements, indicating that the picture is not really about catching ducks or fish. The main message told by the visual metaphors is one of love, passion and fertility. A scribe such as Makty-Rasut would show his skill by weaving in such “hidden” stories in amongst a more simple surface-level picture.

New readings at YouTube

Well, I have finally got around to doing a series of readings and so added to my YouTube collection. For a long time this has stuck at the single promotional video for In a Milk and Honeyed Land (at

Now there are no less than five readings made by yours truly, three for In a Milk and Honeyed Land and two for the (as yet incomplete) Scenes From a Life. They are home-produced rather than in a studio.

The three from In a Milk and Honeyed Land follow Qetirah’s story arc – though in fact in these extracts she has not one word of her own to say. They are:

  • – Damariel takes part in the burial of his two brothers. His relationship with Qetirah is just beginning.
  • – Damariel returns home from a pilgrimage trip to Hatsor, expecting to find Qetirah waiting for him. Instead…
  • – The final confrontation between Damariel and the chief Mahur-Baal, towards the end of the book.

As for Scenes From a Life, please bear in mind that the text may well change over the next few months as I work towards completion later this year. The extracts I have chosen are:

Enjoy! Eventually I hope to add some more readings to add to the collection.

Reminders of Kephrath near to home…

I thought this week I would post up some images taken over the weekend from in and around home, which have some sort of loose connection with the world of Kephrath. The first is a bee-and-flower picture – nowhere near as sharp as the real book cover, but this one was just at the back of the garden with our own bee!

Bee and Flower

The second is our fig tree, which is now (after a slow cold start) coming into leaf. Back in Southampton our fig tree there produced some fruit each year, the amount varying considerably with the season. This little one is only last year’s planting and so is some way away from fruiting yet… but great to see the leaves emerging.

Fig leaves

Qetirah poured them each a little red wine from a stoppered jar. They drank it very solemnly, eyes fixed on one another. She took one of the figs and pulled it in two, giving half to Damariel. He held the fruit in his hand briefly, caught by the dark flesh speckled with seeds. When they had finished he took another fig and did the same, this time keeping hold of it for her to eat, feeling her lips against his fingers.

Finally here is a view of a corner nearby. The connection here is quite tenuous but made through the name Gilgal – the name of the first encampment of the Israelites across the Jordan.

Garden corner

The camp itself was roughly square, insofar as the arc of the River and a few encroaching outcrops of rock allowed, and was divided into unequal regions of tents by interior paths. Nepheret supposed that, like islands in the inundation that she remembered from childhood, the tent groups were occupied by different families. The people she could see wore a range of brightly coloured kefs, and for a moment she was reminded of the flower fields that filled the hill country in the spring time.

Other news – it’s nearly a year since In a Milk and Honeyed Land reached the market, and to mark the anniversary I am planning some sort of promotion for the end of this month. More details next week…

Historical Novelists Spring Book Fair

Here’s a fine idea I came across overnight – Francine Howarth ( is organising an online Historical Novelists Spring Book Fair at

So I have signed on with In a Milk and Honeyed Land to join all the other folk there (at the time of writing, there are 40 other people listed). The book fair badge looks like this:
Historical Novelists Spring Book Fair badge

So, for all new readers… In a Milk and Honeyed Land is a full-length novel which explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200BC. It follows the life, loves, and struggles of a priest Damariel in the small hill town of Kephrath. The large-scale actions and military campaigns of the Egyptian pharaoh and other great kings are nowhere in sight; this is a story of the resources and people available within four small allied communities.

it is available as physical or ebook formats from online retailers and some bookshops. Amazon links for the kindle edition are

Damariel is apprenticed as a young man by the village priest, whose reckless actions lead to his disgrace. Damariel manages to avoid becoming implicated in the matter and carries on his training, marrying his childhood friend Qetirah shortly before they begin their shared ministry in the town. Feeling ashamed of their continuing inability to have children, Qetirah becomes pregnant by the chief of the four towns, but the pregnancy is difficult. Damariel’s anger and outrage spills over into the marriage. He holds the chief responsible for the situation but cannot see how to get either justice or revenge…

Here’s an extract from the middle of the book, at an emotionally charged central point where Damariel has just got back from a pilgrimage to the northerly city of Hatsor and its temple. On his return, his friend Kothar has to tell him that Qetirah has died while he was away.

Damariel felt icy blood pound in his head and leaned back against the doorframe. He shook his head.

“No, no, don’t say things like that. Just tell me where she is. Is she alright?”

Kothar took a step towards him and gripped his shoulders.

“Damariel, listen. She’s not alright, not at all. She’s not with me, nor Kinreth, nor your mother, nor Saniyahu. No-one. Not at Giybon. She’s—”. He stopped as Damariel put a hand over his lips to stop him. He was shaking his head again and again.

“Kothar, what are you saying? This can’t be. No, surely not. Where is she?”

Kothar closed his eyes for a second, then gripped Damariel’s hand to take it away from his mouth and looked directly into his eyes.

“Where is she? Damariel, she’s in the tomb of her ancestors. She’s not with us any more, brother. She’s gone across to the other side. Damariel, forgive me, and may all the gods forgive me for saying it, but, Damariel, she is dead.” He gripped Damariel’s arms as he staggered away from the doorway. The chill in Damariel’s body had spread out, and he felt a cold pain in his heart, in his throat. He was still shaking his head. “Look, Damariel, I’d cut my own heart out if it would help, but nothing will help. I wasn’t there when she died, but I saw her afterwards.”

Damari knocked the stool over as he stood up abruptly and ranged around the room from end to end. He suddenly turned on Kothar and shouted.

“Why didn’t you wait for me?”

Kothar was silent for a few moments, facing towards him.

“Why did you put her down into the earth, Kothar? With the others. I didn’t see her as she went across to the other side. Now I’ll never see her. Not in this life.”

Kothar stepped close to him and looked very directly at him.

“Look, Damari, this was four days ago. We didn’t know when you were back, and we couldn’t just keep her body out. Not right, not fair on anyone, least of all Ketty herself. Saniyahu and Halith came down that same day as soon as they heard, laid her in Kinreth’s family tomb the next morning. Even if we’d known where you were we could not have waited four days. You know how it is.”

Damariel nodded, and, at a whisper, replied, “Yes, I know.”

There was a long silence.

“I’m so sorry, Damari.”

Damariel nodded, setting the stool on its feet again and sitting on it. He leaned back against the wall, pulled his kef off and tore it in half. Then he took the collars of his tunic and ripped that in half down from neck to waist. A single tear ran down one cheek, and he wiped it absently with one half of the kef.

“I wasn’t here, Kothar. Why did I go away?”

Very much later, after Kothar had gone, Damariel sat in the porch under his vine for a long time, looking across the stones of the high place, before gathering the torn halves of his kef and walking the slow path to the tomb of Kinreth’s family. Sitting in front of her resting place he took the knife he used for sacrifices and cut two long gashes down his arms and another across his chest.

He stayed by the great stone that sealed up the tomb most of the night, lying full-length with his face down on the flat stony space in front of it. The night went very slowly, and the chill in his heart swallowed up the chill from the cold, damp ground below as the blood from his arms soaked into the soil. At one point, when the stars had wheeled above him for some hours, he found himself so racked with uncontrollable shivers that his own life seemed to be clinging only by a thread to the world on this side. For a little while it seemed best just to give in to the desire to let himself slip across the boundary. It was only a little step: how well he knew that. Ketty would be waiting just the other side. It was not far to go.

He wondered, in the slow, heavy way his icy thoughts allowed, if she would be angry about the extra time in Hatsor.

I hope you have enjoyed the extract and might want to follow the rest of the book!

In a Milk and Honeye Land cover

Second historical fiction blog hop

This post is for the second of Jessica Knauss’ historical fiction blog hops – once again huge thanks to Jessica for coordinating this. Her blog post lists the other participants – please hop over to them and read through the other extracts which people have chosen to post.

This time around I am posting a section from work in progress. The novel has working title Scenes from a Life, and is set some twenty years after In a Milk and Honeyed Land, so shortly after 1200BC. There is some overlap of characters, but this will not be obvious until some way through the book.

The central character is Makty, an Egyptian scribe who specialises in decorating non-royal tombs in the area we now call Luxor. Anyone who visits the so-called “tombs of the nobles” a little way outside the Valley of the Kings might hope to see some of his work (had he really lived). As an aside, I have imagined the scribal culture he works in as similar to the world of IT contractors that I inhabit in my day job… with no mobile phones, and stone tablets rather than electronic ones, of course, but with quite similar attitudes and relationships.

The start of the book sees Makty largely ignorant about his upbringing, and content with that. The subsequent story then combines the physical journey he takes along the Nile river, with the interior metaphorical journey he takes as he uncovers his own origins.

The ten sentence extract I have chosen is from about 2/3 of the way through. Makty is now in the Nile Delta, and has arrived at a temple to the goddess Hekhet – in modern terms a convent. He remembers growing up here as an orphan, and thinks that this will be the last stage of his journey… Some of his initial hardness of attitude has worn off, and he has become more open and vulnerable. Senenptah, who is casually mentioned in the middle of the extract, is a very old priest in Luxor, and his former employer.

The chantress, a considerably older woman who walked slowly with the help of a long stick, limped heavily as she came towards them. Both her feet were turned in on themselves, and her gait was very awkward.

Makty realised that she had been one of the many crippled babies who were turned over to the temples by families or owners who did not want the burden of raising them. He watched her come towards them, proud in her difficulty. He wondered suddenly if his heart limped in just this way as it passed through life, if only one had eyes to see the shapes of the inner world? What had Senenptah seen as he looked at him?

The lady came into the room. Moved by years of boyish habit, Makty moved across to her and knelt at her feet on the dusty floor. She put one hand on the crown of his head in blessing and he felt old memories of homeliness flood his body. He had been a very long time away from home, and he put his arms carefully around her twisted legs and clung on to her.

Of course this is not the final stage of his journey, but the information he gains here allows him to take the next step. I am hoping to finish the book this year, but was rather alarmed to find that January has already been and gone! Comments and general feedback are very welcome…

Thanks again to Jessica; please remember to check out the other participants in this, accessible from her blog entry.