Category Archives: The Flame Before Us

Back from the HNS London conference

This weekend the Historical Novel Society London 2014 conference took place, in a university building conveniently close to Baker Street. I was there for Friday evening and all day Saturday, and had a great time enjoying the mixture of planned presentations, workshops, and free time mingling with other delegates. It was especially fun meeting face to face with people I have chatted with online, and having time to find out more about them than just a shared interest in fiction! Unlike me, who had at most a 3/4 hour journey on the London Underground to get there, many people had travelled from different parts of Europe, the USA and Australasia to be there. I’m sure that the continuation of these conversations, as well as following up the various bits and pieces I collected, will take some time.

Cover idea, The Flame Before Us
Meanwhile, I participated today in a “Game of 7’s” chain post on Google+. Rather like a similar thing a few week back, you had to post 7 lines from the 7th line of the 7th page of your current WIP. Inevitably I interpreted this a little loosely and came up with the following extract from The Flame Before Us:

It had been a long journey for them all, south and east after the great city of Wilios had fallen. That siege, and the sack which followed, had been a moment of concerted initiative for them, a beginning of something new. Afterwards, a few of the smaller clans had returned across the sea to their former homes, but most of them had carried on travelling, lured on by the thought of other rich prizes scattered up and down the land.

That was a great many months ago, however. Nikleos’s clan, and its leader Antos, had started to grow weary of the endless, relentless movement onward. Over the months they had lost friends and kinfolk: a few from sickness, but the larger part in war. It might well be a good way to die for those concerned, but for the ones who were still alive, every loss left the remaining families a little less able to manage. Before too long they would need to settle for a while and recover.

The heady unity of the original impetus was ebbing away.

Cover developments

The next stage in the cover design for The Flame Before Us is taking shape, in the form of the following clay lamp, using olive oil to produce its rather attractive flame. The final version will be much higher quality.

Oil lamp

On the writing front, I have started now collating the first part into something approaching its final form… though there is a lot more work to do yet.

Also for today here are a few thoughts on A Journey in Other Worlds, by John Jacob Astor. This is a science fiction book published in 1894 and available these days in Kindle format, and describes a space journey taking place in the year 2000. I came across it through a Google+ post by a friend.

It is definitely of the old science fiction school in which the appeal of the book was reckoned to be in the lavish detail supplied of future inventions and society. I realised that EE “Doc” Smith (writing from around 1920 onwards) was following in the same pattern. They share the same tendency for male protagonists, supported by supremely beautiful and talented women who remain faithfully at home while their men go out and face danger. They also both posit a world where white American society (and to a lesser degree English culture) have dominated the world and other races and ethnicities have been absorbed or marginalised.

Astor, an extremely rich man who died on the Titanic, was himself something of an inventor, and clearly took great delight in long descriptions of the engineering feats of the future. One of the spaceship’s crew of three is on a well-earned rest after co-ordinating a global project to straighten the earth’s axis so that it is perpendicular to the orbital plane, in order to remove seasonal extremes. This feat is described in considerable length for those who want to put it into practice today – though in fact it would be as out of reach today as it was in Astor’s day.

Modern readers will probably be impatient with what comes over as great naivety about the role of science (an unmitigated boon and triumph of human ingenuity) and of politics (the right way to run the world is so abundantly obvious that there is no real opposition of any kind). And many modern readers, both religious and otherwise, will find difficulties with his methodology for fusing scientific and biblical statements. However, his ability to imaginatively project the knowledge of his time, and his recognition of the limits of knowledge, are both striking and appealing.

The book is divided into three parts: an initial review of life on planet earth, followed by extended descriptions of the explorers’ visits to Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter is basically an extended big game hunt, together with musings on the ease with which parts of Jupiter could be appropriated for colonisation from earth. Not sharing the 19th century desire to hunt anything large enough to be shot at, I did not find this especially moving. The characters come over as unconsciously arrogant and parochial.

The Saturn trip, however, brings out a very different side to the crew. Anxieties and fears surface in them, along with existential fears that their lives are not, after all, up to the quality that they had imagined for themselves. As a result, this section of the book was much more engaging for me.

I found A Journey in Other Worlds to be an interesting book – significantly more modern in outlook than parts of Jules Verne, and with a clear line of descent through Smith to more recent writers. Not everybody will like the book, either for its writing style or the ideas expressed in it, but I am glad to have read it. It seems slightly churlish to rate a book of this kind, but for consistency with other books I would give four stars.

Blog hop – Game of Seven

I was recently tagged by Antoine Vanner on his Facebook page ( in an ongoing blog series called “Game of Seven“. The rules are that you turn to page 7 or 77 of your current work in progress, count down 7 lines, then post the next 7 sentences, interpreting the last two instructions a bit liberally so that the whole thing makes sense.

First off, the extract. A brother and sister who have escaped the fall of Ugarit and have fled to the south are talking, while trying to decide on a course of action:

He waited, watching the dappled light and shade play across her face. She continued.

“I miss the sun rising over the hills ahead of us, and setting into the open sea behind. I miss our house, and our garden. I miss our mother and father terribly. I miss the singing from the temples and the ceremony of the royal processions. I miss the ships coming in to the docks, and the endless flocks of wading birds around the bay to the north. I even miss the fish we used to eat four days out of five, and I never thought I would say that.”

Prototype cover image, The Flame Before Us
Now, whoever made up the rules for this blog hop obviously works in a word processor (which has paged output) rather than straight to Kindle as I do (which is a continuous stream like a web page). So for me, trying to work out where on earth page 77 might be was something of a guess, not to mention the fact that the sequence will almost certainly be chopped and changed before release. But it’s a nice piece of fun and one that I am very happy to have joined in. The above is an educated guess where the extract might live.

Going forward, I asked Teresa Thomlinson ( if she was happy to be tagged next, so look out for her contribution. I have emailed a couple of other people and am waiting to see if they want to join in as well. Links will get posted when available.

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.

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.