In ancient Britain, a Lady is living in a stone-walled house on an island in the middle of a river. So far as the people know, she
has always been there. They sense her power, they hear her singing, but they never meet her.
At first her life is idyllic. She wakes, she watches, she wanders in her garden, she weaves a complex web of what she sees, and she
sleeps again. But as she grows, this pattern becomes narrow and frustrating. She longs to meet those who cherish her, but she cannot.
The scenes beyond the walls of her home are different every time she wakes, and everyone she encounters is lost,
swallowed up by the past.
But when she finds the courage to break the cycle, there is no going back. Can she bear the cost of finding freedom? And what will
her people do, when they finally come face to face with a lady of legend who is not at all what they have imagined?
A retelling – and metamorphosis – of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott.
And to celebrate the release, I am running an Amazon reduced price offer on all my previous books, science fiction and historical fiction alike, timed to start on May 1st and run until May 8th. So you can stock up for the reduced cot of 99p / 99c for all of these. Links are:
I was nearly set up to start a series of blogs on Kindle formatting, having been reading a lot about that recently. But those aren’t quite ready yet, so instead I am just advertising that a Kindle Countdown offer is now running on my historical fiction series.
So all this week, up until Monday 12th, you will find the following books at reduced price on the Amazon UK and US stores;
Well, Timing, the sequel to Far from the Spaceports, is now available on preorder from Amazon stores worldwide. Release day is October 14th so there’s not long to wait. Paperback copies will be available at round about the same time but I don’t have an exact date yet.
It’s set about a year on from the end of Spaceports, and begins out at the group of asteroids called the Scilly Isles. But there’s more solar system travel this time around including, as the cover would suggest, a trip to Mars and the larger of its two moons, Phobos.
To celebrate this release, all my previous novels are going on Amazon countdown offer from 14th. The length of time varies for each depending on Amazon’s rules for such things – but on 14th you can get not only Far from the Spaceports, but also the historical novels In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes from a Life, and The Flame Before Us all at reduced prices.
Meanwhile, here are links to an author reading on YouTube (and Daily Motion in case the You Tube one has not yet distributed). It’s the same reading at both sites but more will be uploaded before too long…
A slightly different angle on basic elements today, partly inspired by the fact that it was Valentine’s Day last weekend.
But before that, quick mention of a fine review that appeared for Far from the Spaceports this week: “lots of believable futuristic technology… a futuristic crime thriller. A science fiction whodunnit if you will… Mitnash and Slate are developed into characters you really care for – and want to learn more about… I can’t wait for the next one in the series…”
Back to basic elements. Up until now, the series has focused on some of the physical necessities of life. But as human beings, we need more than the physical to sustain us. We need the metaphysical as well, in order to give lives meaning as well as substance. So for today we are going to look at celebrations – special times and seasons around which we drape our lives.
To set some basis for this, here is a diagram of Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of needs’, which he published in 1943 under the title ‘A theory of Human Motivation’. In his scheme, a person could not effectively progress to higher levels of the pyramid, until the lower ones were secure. Now, this scheme can seem artificial, in that people have been known to be highly creative in the most unpromising situations,but broadly speaking it makes sense. According to this, a sense of belonging ranks only just above provision of food, water, and a safe place.
People have throughout history made space for celebrations. As far back as we can tell in the past, there have been events commemorating the natural cycle of the planet – seedtime and harvest, summer and winter. There have also been religious and spiritual special days – fasts and feasts, times to express hope or gratitude, days to commemorate the departed dead or those who lived exemplary lives. Very often we have combined the natural and the sacred together.
My historical writings often feature festival days, particularly In a Milk and Honeyed Land, where events such as the feast of New Wine (in the autumn, marking the start of the new year), midsummer and midwinter ceremonies, and so on, structure the plot. I see them as blending everyday fun with religious devotion, with no particular contradiction between them. The devotions are to the Canaanite pantheon, especially Taliy, who has a high profile in the Four Towns. They are solemn occasions, but they are also (mostly) a lot of fun. They can also be, as such events still are today, a cause for conflict and jealousy.
Today, we have tended to split religious and secular aspects of festivals. Christmas is still a meaningful spiritual event, but for many people the family and friendship aspects of the event have eclipsed any religious meaning. There are, no doubt, people who honour Valentine as a martyred saint, but on the whole his day provides a convenient time for declarations of love, desire and passion… both required and unrequited.
These things are worth commemorating at some point in our lives. For many people, the religious times that are remembered are those connected to fun and enjoyment – a secular society is not so eager to remember fasts and times of denial, however meaningful these still are spiritually.
Looking into the future, my belief is that we will continue to need events and occasions which symbolise meaning. A calendar is not just a succession of days, nor an endless loop of time passing. Rather, it is strung between the key days which impart meaning. About two weeks ago, on January 28th, a great many people around the world remembered the 1986 disaster when the Challenger shuttle blew up – not just a tragedy for the families concerned, but a major setback for the chances of civilians going into space. Positive first events such as the moon landing are also recalled each year – becoming more poignant year by year as the number of living astronauts who have ever walked on another world diminishes.
Suppose in time we are able to colonise the asteroid belt, Mars and its moons, and so on. My guess is that as and when this happens, we will continue to have particular times and seasons which are remembered. Whether or not these are considered religious or social – and I am inclined to think that both will continue hand in hand – seems to me less important than the fact that we need meaning to shape our time-keeping, not just succession.
Now, our calendars will become considerably more complicated at this point, with each planet having its own ‘year’, not to mention the vast variety in orbital patterns of the moons around the planets. Will we adopt a Star-Trek style “star date” to enforce uniformity on the system as a whole, or will we need to keep track of any number of local clocks?
Far from the Spaceports did not include any specific festival days, though readers will no doubt remember the concert scene at Frag Rockers Bar. “Special Night” was a regular event there. The in-progress By Default, however, will have some kind of commemorative event – watch this space.
It’s right to finish with a couple of extracts from Buzz Aldrin’s Encounter with Tiber – one of my favourite science fiction books.
[At the first wedding on Mars, on serving a cake made from soya oil and potato flour, decorated with blue dye] “Something we did today, out of expediency, is going to be fundamental to Martian weddings from now on”… I don’t know if I believed him at the time or not. But twenty years later… that awful cake of Doc C’s has been at every wedding. You can’t get married without having your tongue turn blue…
[Right at the end] This first day on Tiber was more symbol than science, and rightly so, Clio thought. It’s the symbols that we live by.
Over the last few weeks I have been working to get all my books into a place where free sample downloads are available in a variety of formats. So for downloads of all different kinds you can check out the downloads area of the Kephrath site, or Goodreads, or Leanpub, or Kobo books – everything on Kobo is at 50% off until Jan 31st, so long as you use the discount code JAN1650, which in my case includes In a Milk and Honeyed Land and The Flame Before Us – or Google Play, or the iBook store. To read online check out my Issuu listings – also there are links to the individual publications from several of the pages on this blog or the Kephrath web site. All in all, I have put out sample material in a lot of different places and formats!
Along with that, I have widened the distribution of The Flame Before Us to include several ebook stores as well as just Amazon, and for simplicity am in the process of making the Kindle and ePub price of all of my historical fiction books the same. That is not quite finished yet, but will be before too long.
Finally, I have released In a Milk and Honeyed Land under the Matteh Publications banner now, so after a suitable pause you can expect to see the listings change slightly at various online bookshops.
This coming Saturday, June 13th, I shall be taking part in a literary festival at The Bookshop, East Grinstead, along with a bunch of other authors from various parts of England, mostly though not entirely the south. The Facebook listing for the event is https://www.facebook.com/events/1573685189577242/.
I guess many readers of this will be way too far away from East Grinstead to get there, but it would be wonderful to meet up with anyone who is able to make the journey. It is rare in these internet-enabled days to get to actually encounter a person with whom one has enjoyed chat and correspondence for a long time. I shall be there with copies of each of In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes from a Life, and The Flame Before Us, and it looks as though there will be book readings from each of the various authors. Sounds great!
Fundamentally this works in exactly the same way as the third party pages, but of course I now have much more direct control over the content and appearance. Basically the source data is supplied in a format called JSON – easy to grasp and prepare, but rather strict and unforgiving about the details of formatting. The JSON data includes not only the events themselves – dates and descriptions – but also the details about colours and layout.
The latest version of Google maps allows you to remove modern artifacts such as roads, country names, and the like, so is ideally suited for me. Or indeed many of my historical fiction co-authors who write about various times in the past.
So far, key events are in place for In a Milk and Honeyed Land, and Scenes from a Life. I am currently in the process of entering the additional data for The Flame Before Us – this book covers only a few months of time, unlike the two earlier books which spanned a considerable number of years. So the dates will be rather squashed together. But of course the beauty of the system is that as I write more books, the new fictional history – and any relevant actual historical events surrounding it – can simply be added in.
So far as we can tell, the place of women in ancient Near Eastern culture shifted rapidly between the second and first millennia BC. At the start of that time, say around 1400BC during the Late Bronze Age, it was possible in some places for women to own and manage property, hold positions of considerable social rank, be literate, and so on. By the middle of the first millennium, say around 600 or 700 BC, just before the Babylonian armies conquered most of the Levant, women had a distinctly subordinate role, defined by the status of their father or husband.
We understand this partly through the written word, and partly through artefact. Some Egyptian letters written by or for women document their business transactions, for example. Or in other cases letters written by a husband show that his wife was trusted with the business while he was away. The Hebrew Bible describes women in the pre-monarchy era who were recognised as owners of land and leaders of the people.
Physical artefacts such as amulets or official seals from the earlier period show roughly equal numbers of male and female figures – usually, though not always, gods and goddesses. Later ones showing figures are heavily skewed towards male subjects, and where a scene would previously have called for a woman to be shown, an abstract representative symbol such as a star or tree often appears.
What these sources do not tell us is what social or cultural impulse was behind these changes of representation, and the shifts of attitude they reveal. Certainly, the region had become a more dangerous place. The Bronze Age great kings with their extensive vassal territories had been swept away, replaced by small localised kingdoms in permanent strife. Life, and travel, had become hazardous. So did the place of women change because of the widespread unrest? Did communities feel a need to protect their women, or less positively simply want to assert ownership over a valuable resource?
In fiction, I have chosen to present this change in several ways. The Four Towns, including Kephrath, are traditionally arranged matrilocally… a man moves into the household of his new wife, rather than bringing her into his family home. Descent and property is reckoned through daughters rather than sons. This is the world of In a Milk and Honeyed Land. There is no solid evidence this was done in Canaan, but the Hebrew Bible records traces of such traditions in Mesopotamia.
In my fictional world, the advent of the Sea Peoples signals the change. The ancient world cataclysm is described in The Flame Before Us. Greek women were, at least in classical times, strictly subordinate to men. I have assumed that this also applied to their Mycenaean precursors, who carried this cultural habit with them as they moved through the Levant. So the social disruption brought about by so many newcomers – whether for war or peace – changed the nature of the existing culture as it absorbed them.
The exact historical cause is unknown, and will probably remain so. However, it seemed to me that the interaction of European and Middle Eastern cultures at this early date might well lead to some unexpected results. Perhaps this was one of them.
I spent part of the holiday season exploring a few online tools for visualising the time and/or space of books. There are plenty of these that allow you to hook up a web page to some sort of data source – Google spreadsheets or direct data entry are the favourites – behind the scenes this gets turned into something called JSON which works beautifully with web page displays, but is not very readable… as a user you don’t really care about that though.
For the more technically minded of us, there are freely available code libraries that you can incorporate into your own website (but not into most blogs because of the restrictions that most apply regarding scripts). I will probably look into these sometime as – perhaps inevitably – none of the already-prepared ones quite does what I want. To remind myself, if nobody else, one such library is https://code.google.com/p/timemap/. But more of that another time.
There were two variations I looked at – simple timelines, and timelines which also display related map data for a combined time + space representation. I only considered ones which allowed BC dates since otherwise they would have been entirely useless to me.
Yes I know it is a silly domain name, but that’s what you sometimes get online!
The colour scheme is highly configurable
You can set up different “categories” and use these to colour code the entries – in my case the colour coding is mainly by book, but also with separate colours for historical and biographical notes
There are options to change the way the events are displayed – separate stripes per category, different numbers of vertical bands, etc – even a sort of pseudo 3d display
It is free – at least for a single timeline, though you have to pay if you want to set up multiple timelines
They don’t let you embed the result in your own web page (unless you pay)
The display always opens at the first event, which in my case is well before the events that I want people to start with
There are still things you cannot configure (like text colour)
Data entry gets progressively more frustrating the more entries you set up (since it is all typed directly into text boxes and the like), and I’m not sure there is an easy way to set up a real data source
This gets closer to what I wanted, but is still not perfect.
The map resizes itself automatically to fit your geographic needs
The integration between timeline and map is pretty good, and you can load the screen at any event you choose
Data entry scales well since it is based on a Google spreadsheet rather than manual entry
It is free
There is an easy way to embed the result into your own web page
There are very few configurable colour options, and in particular all map pointers are the same colour so you cannot discriminate easily between threads
The map itself cannot be configured to show less information, so in particular you cannot hide modern placenames
The problem of modern names, boundaries, etc was one which I faced some years ago with a mobile app to explore early alphabetic developments, and found at the time that ESRI maps, unlike Google, can be configured to show only geographic features rather than human infrastructure. This is where the Google timemap library would come in handy… among other things it allows you to switch between different map providers. And I am sure that you can configure the look just however you want. This can be a project for when The Flame Before Us is finished!
Now those of my friends who write historical fiction could quite easily do something similar here – any date range from remote past into the future can be accessed, and the geography of the planet has – for the most part – not changed so very much over the range most of us write about.
And writers of science fiction or fantasy could fairly easily make use of the timeline aspects of this, though I do not yet know if timeline dates can be configured to say something like “Star Date 12345”. However, the map aspect might be a problem. Some books make use of non-standard geography, like erratically appearing islands (such as Borschland) which, as yet, Google and the other map providers have overlooked.
Other books are set on different planets altogether. I guess a truly dedicated writer with the necessary technical skills could write their own map tile server which would define the necessary worlds (rather like Google have done with their Moon and Mars variants of Google Earth).
So where am I going to take this? Well, I think it is a good way to present something about the book. I will be adding in new bits and pieces as they become available and time permits. And later this year I intend putting in the work to customise the map, colours and so on.
But I also think it needs a bit more than just the raw data. Some photos of relevant places would be nice, or maybe links to book extracts or character studies. The timeline, even when enhanced by the map, is only a first step into a visual exploration of the books.
One of the more obscure pieces of historical reconstruction of the Israelite settlement of the Canaanite hill country concerns the capture of Jerusalem. Part of the difficulty is that the traces of early accounts have been reworked and integrated into larger narratives by later scribes, for whom the city was profoundly important. They were keen, therefore, to present a national story in which Jerusalem was a major target right from the start. However, the archaeological record of population growth indicates that the central hill country around Shechem was the starting point, with expansion north, west and south from that core. Jerusalem was not central to the early settlers.
The raw textual material in the Hebrew Bible bearing on Jerusalem is as follows. Judges chapter 1 has two references. In verse 8 we read
Then the people of Judah fought against Jerusalem and took it. They put it to the sword and set the city on fire.
Thus sounds quite straightforward. But then in verse 21 we find
But the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjaminites to this day.
So a different tribe, and a report of failure rather than success. Joshua 15, while listing the territorial boundaries of the various tribes, has the following in verse 62
But the people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day.
So it’s failure again, this time linked specifically to Judah. The uncertainty about these two tribes is logical, since the city was on the border between the lands claimed by them.
Back in Joshua 10 we find a battle record in which the king of Jerusalem was one of several who were defeated in the open field. This chapter – seen predominantly from the perspective of the town of Kephrath, originally on the Canaanite side – forms the background to part of the novel In a Milk and Honeyed Land. The book, however, scales the battle down to a size more typical of Late Bronze encounters than Iron Age ones, and we have representatives of the kings present rather than the kings themselves.
In Joshua 12 we are reminded that the king of Jerusalem was one of many who had been defeated. It is worth remembering as we read this list that the typical city-state ruler of this time would command at most tens of troops, and Egyptian garrisons could effectively control the region with a handful of men. The real issue was not numbers, but military technology and the circumstances of the battle.
After these texts, all from the early days after the Israelite arrival, there is almost nothing until David captures it considerably later, in the book of Samuel. In between we have scant mention of the city, and that purely as a geographical reference point.
What are we to make of this? It seems clear that there was no successful early capture of Jerusalem, despite the upbeat message of Judges 1:8. If there were real attempts to capture the city this early on, they were failures. But should they even be seen as real attempts? Archaeologically, the early Israelite settlement was in small villages scattered in the central hill country. It is not at all clear that the settlers had any interest in cities, except as landmarks to describe regions of control. Only later did the relative strengths of Israelite villager and Canaanite city dweller change sufficiently to make an assault possible. Encounters in the open field, especially when circumstances favoured an ambush or other ruse, were one thing: direct attacks on cities were another.
Archaeological exploration of Jerusalem has been very limited over the years. Clearly it would be highly desirable to know more, but this is almost impossible because of the continuous occupation of the city, and the huge complications arising from the sensibilities of three major religions. So reconstruction relies heavily on textual information, including the rather earlier letters written by Abdi-Heba, king of Jerusalem, to the Egyptian pharaoh.
We have no independent witness to the accounts in the Hebrew Bible that might help reconcile this, so are forced back onto weighing probabilities. My own suspicion is that there was neither the intention nor the ability on the Israelite part to capture Jerusalem early on. The fringes of the city – or perhaps the outlying daughter villages – might well have been raided. Perhaps some houses or storage areas were set alight in anger or frustration, but a serious assault was out of the question. Not only was Jerusalem too powerful for this to be realistically considered, but the Israelites, with small scattered settlements close to the city on almost every side, could not afford to begin hostilities they could not end. Jerusalem would remain solidly Canaanite for a long time. Later scribes, with a different agenda, retold these early skirmishes as though they were larger and more significant, but were clearly unwilling to gloss them completely into overwhelming victories.
The Flame Before Us is set in this period of uncertainty. The cities are, by and large, too strong for the Israelites to face head on. A serious external threat, or the muscle-flexing of one of the regions many city rulers, is altogether too much to be confronted. It is better to avoid conflict rather than face it, unless a way can be found to turn some feature of the ground or the circumstances into advantage.