Category Archives: Historical fiction

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 http://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/. 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.

Repetition and historical writing 2

Well, a post on repetition simply had to have a follow-up… Actually though some really interesting ideas have come out of conversations around this blog post, so a second one seemed called for. And maybe a third?

Statues at Delos, Cyclades, Greece
Some of the connections which emerged were:

  • Links to Mesopotamian writing, especially in the areas of magic and medicine
  • The fact that much ancient writing was intended to be read aloud rather than silently
  • The Egyptian Tale of the Eloquent Peasant
  • A human tendency to use repetition as a calming influence over disturbance: “there, there”
  • Mantras which are specifically intended to be repeated many times

A couple of things before going back to another ancient source. Firstly, the William Wordsworth link can be found in later editions of Lyrical Ballads in his notes to The Thorn. Among many other things, he says:

There is a numerous class of readers who imagine that the same words cannot be repeated without tautology: this is a great error: virtual tautology is much oftener produced by using different words when the meaning is exactly the same… There are also various other reasons why repetition and apparent tautology are frequently beauties of the highest kind. Among the chief of these reasons is the interest which the mind attaches to words, not only as symbols of the passion, but as things, active and efficient, which are of themselves part of the passion. And further, from a spirit of fondness, exultation, and gratitude, the mind luxuriates in the repetition of words which appear successfully to communicate its feelings…

(See http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wordsworth/william/lyrical/poem9.html)

Secondly, I have been reading a book set in the Punjab area of what was then north-west India, now Pakistan, in which the author deliberately mirrors the Hindi/Urdu pattern of repeating words for emphasis, for example “good-good, nice-nice” or similar. Many languages in the Semitic family do the same. This is a level of reflecting a source language which I have not attempted in my own writing.

So, back to the ancient world, and in particular the mythic poetry from the city of Ugarit (on the coast of modern Syria). There is a very common pattern used here where a series of lines is repeated several times over – for example they might appear first in a dream, then in the morning when the dreamer recounts the dream to another, then a days later when the action itself occurs. For example, in the Tale of King Keret we have this pattern:

  1. The chief god El appears in a dream to Keret and after a brief series of questions gives him a series of instructions for obtaining a wife
  2. Keret wakes up and carries out the first stages of the required actions
  3. He goes to the required city and issues demands which recapitulate the dream again and gets the ride he wants (Hurriy)

But… in the second stage there is a crucial change where Keret goes beyond the requirements El set up, and while en route to the city makes a rash vow to the goddess Athirat if the quest turns out well – rash firstly because the scale of the vow would probably have bankrupted a real king of Ugarit, and secondly because it shows a certain lack of faith in El’s declarations!

By the time Keret comes back successfully from the final stage with Hurriy, either he has forgotten the vow, or else he decides that since things turned out well it was not necessary to fulfil it. Either way, the departure from strict repetition is noted by the gods and things start to go wrong.

This sort of pattern, where departures from exact repetition signal looming disaster for the party concerned, can be found in a wide variety of ancient literature. One can easily imagine an eager audience listening out for the crucial action left out or put in, and being alerted to expect some serious consequences. The basic principle can be found in a number of fairy tales and folk stories, often where the third time of asking brings about the change.

So let’s see what comes out of this particular repeat – nothing disastrous, I hope…

Repetition and historical writing

There is a very interesting shift which has happened in writing in recent years. At many times in the past, word repetition has been recognised as a deliberate rhetorical device. Repeated words, or word roots, have been used to signal something important to the reader or listener. Nowadays, in contrast, editors or reviewers often fasten on repetition as a sign of poor vocabulary, or poor proofreading. About the only sphere we regularly encounter repetition now is in political speeches. Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches were full of repetition – “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight… we shall fight…“. But even the vastly less nationally stirring backwash from the UK’s recent council and euro elections has had its share, contributed by several of the major speakers, such as “too big, too bossy, too interfering” or “little pearls, little announcements, but the pearls weren’t connected“.

Statues at Delos, Cyclades, Greece

Back in the world of ancient literature, such repetition was used a great deal, in many different contexts. Several of the New Kingdom Egyptian love poems are constructed around repeated word roots. For example the first poem in the papyrus Chester Beatty song cycle 1 is built around various forms of nefer, which has the basic meaning of “beautiful” but in English could also mean “splendid“, “brave“, “outstanding“, and a whole mix of other similar ascriptions of quality. In my own translation of this I have tried to reflect this by using the cluster of words “resplendent“, “splendid“, “splendour“.

Biblical Hebrew has similar examples. When King David’s former enemy Abner comes to him to sue for peace, David is minded to grant it to him (2 Samuel ch.3). There is a friendly encounter in which the phrase “and he went in peace” is repeated verbatim three times within a few verses. Then David’s sidekick Joab returns – a rather vicious man driven by a thirst for revenge. He is outraged that his king has done this, and demands “why did you send him off, and he went?“. The absence of “in peace” stands in stark contrast to all of the previous repetitions. Sure enough, Joab goes in pursuit and murders Abner. The repetition of the phrase, and the textual signal provided by its omission, are both crucial parts of the story. David never forgives this act, and on his deathbed commissions his son Solomon to ensure the death of Joab himself.

What do modern translations do? The Message has “sent off with David’s blessing… dismissed with David’s blessing… sent off with David’s blessing… walk away scot-free“, which at least preserves some sense of repetition. The Living Bible has “return in safety… sent away in peace… [one instance omitted]… letting him get away” which leaves almost nothing of the rhetorical delicacy of the original (though of course the basic story is the same). Most recent translations keep the repetition of “in peace” but vary the verb in different ways; again this preserves some of the sense but not all.

But examples are not limited to the ancient world. There was keen interest in and acceptance of repetition as a device through until the 19th century at least. I am reliably informed that William Wordsworth explored its use in connection with Deborah’s Song (Judges ch.5), which is indeed one of the most striking examples to be found in the Hebrew Bible. He is just one of a long line of writers – for example D.H. Lawrence used repetition a great deal.

So, what should modern writers of historical fiction do? Should they avoid repetition or stick with it? The first choice is apparently favoured by editors and reviewers, but the second might be a more authentic mirror of an older style. And, moreover, careful use of repetition places the writing much more in the centre of the broader literary stream. The problem, of course, is that repetition is also easy to do accidentally, by overlooking options and failing to clean up after edits. That kind of repetition is well worth rooting out, but the deliberate kind, in my view at least, has a great future still.

Review -The Serpent and the Staff, by Barbara Wood

I really wanted to like The Serpent and the Staff, by Barbara Wood. Here was a historical fiction book claiming to address a place and time close to my own heart – the city of Ugarit (on the coast of modern Syria), in the time of the early New Kingdom Egyptian pharaohs Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. Sadly, however, I struggled to finish it, and cannot give more than three stars to it. Basically, it was a potentially good story spoiled by insufficient research.

First, the good stuff. As already mentioned, full marks for Barbara’s choice of place and time. The characters were (for the most part) interesting and well-crafted. The recurrent theme of herbal medicine and healing was a convincing thread around which to hang the story. The technical production of the Kindle copy was good, with a mere handful of very minor slips in a long book.

Where I struggled, however, was with the intended historical rooting of the people and plot. Barbara has apparently done far too little background research into the period to be able to write persuasively about it. And I am not talking about research taking several years and a PhD, but a very ordinary level of background reading from reliable sources readily available on the Internet.

U Chicago image – an Ugaritic ritual text
U Chicago image - an Ugaritic ritual text

I abandoned the whole book for several weeks at the point where a long passage digresses to celebrate one of the protagonists inventing the alphabet. If you want to enjoy a fictional presentation of this, you would go a long way to beat The TwentyTwo Letters by Clive King. But there is plenty of readily accessed technical material about the relative roles of the different competing scripts of this age, and the sheer uphill struggle alphabetic scripts had in gaining acceptance. The naivety of the description here, on top of the difficulties I was already finding in the book with iron weapons factories being set up (way way way too early), fictitious kinglists (when we have real ones), Egyptian chariots with four horses (like everyone else’s they had two), and a rather cavalier approach to geography, led me to close the book and give up on it.

However, I returned after a couple of months, partly out of a sense of duty and partly through stubbornness. I decided that the best way to read the book was as a kind of fantasy story without any actual real-world context. Taken on that level, and pretending to myself that the storyline had nothing to do with the start of the Late Bronze Age in the Levant, it was quite a fun romp. The outcome was never really a surprise – my main uncertainty was when and how a particularly brutal individual was going to reappear and unintentionally advance the fortunes of the protagonists.

In summary then – as fantasy I might well consider giving it four stars, though it could easily have been somewhat shorter without losing anything much. But as an intended work of historical fiction, and with all of the historical flaws and anachronisms, I cannot give it more than three. I do hope that Barbara will consider returning to this period – which has a great deal of intrinsic interest – but for my part it would need considerably more investment in background research.

Drews and the 1200BCE Catastrophe continued

Rather over a month ago I wrote about my first impressions of Robert Drews’ book The End of the Bronze Age, concerning the catastrophe that swept around the eastern Mediterranean civilisations around 1200BCE. Since then I have been working my way slowly through the book and have now almost finished.

Outline map of city destructions c.1200BCE
Drews set out to show that the underlying reason for the collapse of these various city states and regional empires was military, in contrast to other theories such as climate change, famine, drought mass migration etc. He recognises that any or all of these might be contributing factors, but makes the basic case that they had all been experienced beforehand without leading to this kind of large-scale collapse. What, he asks, made this episode so qualitatively different from the others?

After reviewing various theories he describes what we know of military actions in Late Bronze (roughly 1550 to 1150 or so) – and the surprising answer is “not a great deal“. It is easy for those of us who know the huge reliefs commissioned by Ramesses II of his Qadesh battle to be misled into thinking that we are overflowing with pictorial information… but this is not the case.

So Drews reconstructs the battlefield from a mixture of text, picture and archaeology, the latter including analysis of the causes of battlefield death. The picture he builds is that Late Bronze battles between established states were very much set-piece affairs, dominated by chariot action. From the Greek city-states round the eastern Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent to northern India we find that a light, two-horse and two-man chariot was the norm, in which the second man wielded a bow. Sometimes a third man might ride along to get to the battle, but would routinely dismount once action started. Such infantry as there were served two distinct purposes – static defence of key locations such as a camp, and support ‘runners’ for the chariots to finish off fallen enemies and protect fallen comrades. Unlike later battles, the infantry were not the main event, but a sideline.

According to Drews, this changed within a few decades when groups from the northern Mediterranean (who became known as the Sea Peoples and entered the text of the Hebrew Bible as Philistines) mastered two new methods of waging war: firstly they armed themselves with javelins and long swords, and secondly they took the infantry battle to the chariots. For a few decades they were unstoppable – horse and rider were suddenly vulnerable in ways they had not been before, and battle after battle was lost outside the gates of city after city until someone worked out that the game had changed.

That someone was Ramesses III (or at least one of his generals) who took the attackers on at their own game with a determined infantry defence and managed to stall the seemingly relentless advance. He fought them to a standstill in the Levant and compromised by granting them land in a series of towns along the coastline. But the social change that had begun could not be halted. Chariotry was not just a way to wage war – for the previous few centuries it had been the domain of the elite. Maintaining a chariot arm was expensive in land, time, food, equipment, and cost, and although chariots remained in use as a prestige conveyance, the time of their military dominance was gone. So to was the position of social dominance that the charioteer used to hold.

You can be sure that these insights will find their way into my fictional writing, in particular in the work-in-progress which now has a provisional title – The Flame Before Us.

Another review…

It has been a good weekend for reviews – this one is a great read from a person familiar with the ancient and classical world. Read the whole lot at http://myth.typepad.com/breakfast/2014/03/scenes-from-a-life.html.

Here are a few extracts…

Abbott is a trained scholar of ancient Egyptian and Hebrew, and a keen observer of the archeologies of the Bronze Age Near East. His aim in this gentle, well-crafted novel is to bring to life the ordinary folk of that time, and to tell their stories with attention and care…
“Scenes from a Life” is a “historical” by genre, but only because the story unfolds in the past. It explores much more deeply the commonalities of humans throughout the ages: who am I, where did I come from, who are my friends, what is my purpose in life. The striking thing about “Scenes” is not its unobtrusive historical accuracy… but its sensitivity: its assured, mature observation of people…
“Scenes from a Life” is handsomely produced for the Kindle, and includes fascinating background material for the linguistically and historically curious. I found I had large numbers of questions to ask the author after reading this book, but at the same time was absolutely satisfied.

Breakfast with Pandora banner image

A review of ‘Scenes from a Life’

Scenes from a Life has just had a review posted on The Review Group – check it out in full at http://thereviewgroup.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/scenes-from-life-reviewed-by-margaret_7.html

Some extracts are:

The setting is well realized, both in the background details …and in the use of language…

…there is lovely description – evocative sentences or phrases that add so much to the atmosphere of the book. To give just one example – ‘hovered like a bird of the reedy marshes around the borders of their conversation.’

…a glimpse of a culture and period that I suspect most readers will know little about. I feel I know much more of New Kingdom Egypt now and I would certainly read another book by this writer.

An encouraging review from a person who started the book knowing only a little about New Kingdom Egypt!

Buy Scenes from a Life on Amazon.co.uk
Buy Scenes from a Life on Amazon.com

Cover image - Scenes from a Life

Review – Britannia’s Reach

Britannia’s Reach, by Antoine Vanner, is the second in a loosely connected series of books about the life and times of a British naval officer in the late 19th century. A while ago I read and reviewed the first in the series. Britannia’s Wolf (Goodreads review, June 2013). The books are independent of each other, and you do not need to have read the first one to understand the second.

Buy Britannia’s Reach from Amazon.co.uk
Buy Britannia’s Reach from Amazon.com

Full marks to Antoine for his unusual choice of setting for this book. Dawlish makes a career of handling slightly shady.assignments and there is something of the Mission Impossible in the way he is routinely told that Britain will disavow knowledge of and responsibility for the endeavour if it goes wrong. Here, commercial rather than political interests drive the military goals. In common with many other naval officers of his day, the protagonist Dawlish is courageous, disciplined on a personal level, and very competent at conducting necessary actions on land or sea – or on river, in this case.

The details of naval technology and customs have obviously been very thoroughly researched, and it is clear from other reviewers’ comments that on a military level the book comes over as authentic. Certainly great care has been lavished on descriptions of the military hardware and its use.

Britannia's Reach - cover imageHowever, the book as a whole did not click with me as much as the first one. For one thing there are essentially no female characters explored sympathetically or in depth. This would be fair enough for the shipboard experience, but in Britannia’s Wolf, Antoine successfully found ways to bring female balance into the narrative.

Similarly, the combat action takes over the whole book from early on, and other forms of interaction are largely discarded. The proportion of the book describing battle scenes is extremely high. The few “boardroom” scenes, and the one attempt to parley, scarcely provide balance. The very dubious moral basis for the action as a whole keeps drifting towards the surface, but does not drive the action or the plot: characters may dislike the position they are in, but apparently have no way to step out of it. Dawlish’s adversaries, who on the face of things might well have a greater moral claim on their side, are mostly flat characters who (with one exception) never attain a life of their own.

On a technical level there were a small number of proof reading errors, but none of a serious nature – basically minor slips of present for past tense or the like. Since these slightly increased towards the end of the book I did wonder if things got a bit hurried as a planned release date approached. The production of the kindle version is accurate and makes good use of the various features available – all in all a well turned out book worthy of the naval professionalism it describes.

The content and focus of the book means that for me this is a four-star book – I don’t really enjoy such a purely martial focus. But others who enjoy the vicarious experience of combat in the late nineteenth century will probably rate it more highly, and I feel sure that it will appeal to a lot of readers. Certainly I will be happy to look out for other books in this series as they appear.

Review – The Handfasted Wife

The Handfasted Wife, by Carol McGrath, is one of the many books which have come out in recent years surrounding the Norman invasion of 1066. For me, this was a five star book that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading.

Buy The Handfasted Wife from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The Handfasted Wife from Amazon.com

Carol has chosen to tell her tale about a year or so either side of the fateful months, and to focus on the person of Elditha (Edith) Swanneck – married to Harold according to popular customs and accepted as valid by most Saxon Christians of the time, but not legitimate according to the stricter rules of the European church.

Carol has delved heavily into the various literary sources referring to these years, with an appropriately critical eye depending on their authorship as well as their distance in time from the events. Small extracts from approximately contemporary texts stand at the head of each chapter, a device I personally enjoy. Indeed, the quality and detail of research stands out from the book as a major feature. There was a real sense of immersion in the age.

To some degree, this was a slight distraction – much as I like research, there were times in the first half of the book where it threatened to overwhelm the story. In ruthlessly objective terms, not a great deal happens for a fairly large chunk of the book, but Carol uses a lot of space informing us of local customs and everyday objects. In complete contrast, the second half of the book, involving flight and pursuit into the west of England and beyond, accelerates at a rapid rate.

The Handfasted Wife - cover imageOne of my great joys of reading this book was simply the pleasure of knowing the terrain Elditha and her various companions move across – at least, the modern version of it. The river trip along the Thames near Oxford, the approach to the Severn valley, the view of the estuary at Exeter – all were vivid episodes enhanced by my own experience of them. They are, I think, well enough described that someone who does not know the land would still appreciate them.

As well as the exterior landscape of England, Carol captures the interior world of Saxon women in a way I find very credible. The Norman rule was a cruel time for women, not only in the obvious forms of personal violence, but in the destruction of their role in society. As the dust of the conquest settled, women would find themselves in a completely subordinate position, with the rights and privileges accorded them in Saxon society swept away. These would not be recovered for many centuries.

Again on a personal note, this made an interesting connection with my own preferred period – the much earlier transition from Late Bronze to Iron Age in the middle east. Here also, a long-standing and stable social structure was being swept away and replaced by a system which put women at a considerable disadvantage and locked them into a few prescribed roles.

This was definitely a five star book for me – the minor reservations that I had with the level of research detail inserted into the text do not detract from the overall effect. I particularly enjoyed the blend of interior and exterior worlds, and the larger sense that a whole way of life was being swept away in ways that were rather unexpected to the parties involved. Definitely to be recommended if you like books set in this era which focus not so much on the fighting and battles as much as the personal experience of life.

Review – City of Women

City of Women, by David Gillham, was another book club selection and another three star book for me. The club choices are the result of a collective vote, so we only have ourselves to blame… but part of the idea is to deliberately expose ourselves to books we might not choose in the ordinary course of life. City of Women is a second world war book, but set rather unusually in 1943 Berlin.

Buy City of Women from Amazon.co.uk
Buy City of Women from Amazon.com

The title comes from the fact that most men of military age were away serving in the armed forces, mostly out east in the Soviet Union. Despite this, there seem to be enough men around to provide the main character (a woman who works as a typist in a minor government agency) with plentiful bed partners. The return from the eastern front of her wounded husband does little to interfere with her sex life, since their marriage was already in a precarious state when war broke out. Nobody seems especially bothered, or even surprised, by the state of affairs.

I found the book immensely dreary, I’m afraid. I suspect that in part this was a deliberate stylistic choice of the author, to convey to the reader how dreary wartime life in Berlin was. If so, it was all too successful.

On top of the daily grind of boring work, inadequate food and regular bombings, with only a cinema to provide official entertainment – and sporadic and rather mechanical sex as a diversion – there is a steadily developing plot of helping Jews to escape the city and the country. It is hard to decide if this is really an act of courage, or just one more way to escape boredom. For a few of the people involved, the actions are part of a moral stand, but for many, there is no real basis other than a rather unfocused sense of anger.

Personally I didn’t find that this theme integrated very well with the personality of the central woman, though perhaps the author feels that once again this is the point he is trying to make – in such a situation, unlikely responses are drawn out of ordinary people. The slightly dreamlike lack of volition, of just following along to see what would happen next, pervades the book.

For me this mix did not work. I found the combination of dull routine and improbable coincidence unconvincing, and was filled with a sense of unreality as I persevered through the book. I cannot give this book more than three stars – perhaps some people will find it more engaging than I, but other than the feeling of dogged endurance, I have not come away from the book with any deeper insight into this period of history, or the human condition in general.

On a purely technical note, the kindle version does not make proper use of the kindle navigation features, and there were a number of editorial and proof-reading slips. Since this is a Penguin book, and not self-published or small press, this highlights the issue that finding a major publisher does not at all guarantee a quality finished product.

Cover image - City of Women