A quick update

I am on the move with only intermittent internet connection at present, so this is just a quick note. The gap has meant I have been able to have something of a read-fest so expect a little flurry of reviews before long.

I have also made great strides with the last parts of Scenes from a Life – the penultimate chapter is done, final chapter is now over half complete, and there are only a few odd bits here and there in earlier ones. I am almost at the stage of having a complete draft…

Meanwhile, here is a link to an animation of the contents of the British Museum Nebamun gallery – http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/galleries/ancient_egypt/room_61_tomb-chapel_nebamun/nebamun_animation.aspx – Nebamun’s tomb dates from several generations before Scenes is set, but the content serves to inspire one of the central characters in his own work.

Review – ‘Across the Waters of Time: Pliny Remembered’

Cover: Across the Waters of Time I came away from Ken Parejko’s Across the Waters of Time: Pliny Remembered with very mixed feelings. On the plus side – and these are very large plus features – this is a beautifully conceived book, with a powerful and compelling imaginative sweep and some marvellously lyrical passages of writing. The presentation of Pliny’s interior thought-world, and its evolution through his lifetime, is splendid, and the historical events Ken chooses to illuminate this come over as pivotal to Pliny, and in some cases centrally important to the entire first century AD. It is a book which can be highly recommended in these grounds alone.

I had not realised before – having given up Latin studies too early to get beyond Julius Caesar’s wars in France and Britain – just how close Pliny had been to the key figures of his age. He counted among his friends the emperor Vespasian, the Jewish author Josephus, and a wide circle of other political and intellectual people.

But the book ultimately is more concerned with the interior world than the exterior. Pliny’s approach to history, and most especially to the natural world, have become foundation stones in our own systems of evaluation and classification. We follow how these ideas slowly crystallised in his mind, triggered by external events, and coloured always by his advancing age and frailty. By coincidence, if there is such a thing, I started reading this just after visiting the British Museum’s superb exhibition on the Vesuvius eruption which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum – and killed Pliny along with many others. So I had a very clear idea of the material world in which Pliny lived, which gave an extra dimension to my reading.

Sadly, though, the book has been finished very carelessly. There are a great many spelling and grammar errors, accidental use of similar words (swapping her for here, and such like), and problems of formatting. There is even an email address at one point in my version, presumably dumped in by an auto-correction feature of the software Ken used. I can easily live with a few of these kinds of slips, but there were so many that they became a serious impediment.

I also did not like the way Ken substituted modern place names and modern turns of phrase. In the early parts of the book these are largely absent. So the chapter set in Germany by and large uses the contemporary Roman names for towns and other places. The reader is immersed in Pliny’s world, and must make the personal effort to cross the waters of time and find out what they mean in modern terms. But increasingly we find modern place names used, and so are pulled away from the ancient world. Likewise the word “ok” (or variant spellings) appears with increasing frequency as the book proceeds. I’m sure the Romans had an equivalent for this slang phase, but this word grated on me. Again, on a purely technical level this time, the Kindle text is missing the standard navigation aids such as table of contents, and the ability to jump to and fro between chapter headings.

All these things, especially given they occurred more and more frequently as the book proceeded, suggested to me an air of neglect. Ken has conceived what I believe to be an important and beautiful book, but he has neglected to care for it enough to finish off the details. Even a small amount of extra time spent on the presentation and preparation, or another round of proof-reading, would have eliminated a large number of these mistakes. It is very unfortunate that this kind of nurturing care did not take place. There is a character in the book called Aulus, who because of birth deformities is exposed in the countryside and left to die. A very moving passage relates the different reactions of people caught up in this event. It is an experience which continues to haunt Pliny throughout his life. Sadly, Aulus’ story is rather mirrored by that of the text itself.

For depth and sweep of ideas, and for the way in which Ken has captured the inner world of a great and influential thinker, Across the Waters of Time deserves five stars. But the faults of execution, and the sad neglect of what could have been a beautiful text, mean that I can only give it four. Readers who are willing to live with the flaws will, I believe, discover a fascinating tale here.

The review will be posted to Amazon and Goodreads shortly.

Author interview – Marian Allen

Picture - Marian Allen You will no doubt remember that about a week ago I posted a review of Marian Allen’s Sage I – The Fall of Onagros. This is part of the August spotlight on Marian; see also the Readers meet Authors and Bloggers Spotlight group or http://www.kephrath.com/BookReviewGroup.aspx for some details and a rafflecopter giveaway.

So for today’s post I asked Marian to be interviewed so we can get a bit more insight into her as a person and as a writer. Here we are…

So, Marian, when and how did you start to write for an audience?
I think I was in elementary school. I tried writing poetry, with my mother as my target audience. Everything I wrote, she said was “cute”. She said it with love, but I meant it to be deeply moving. I think that was when I began to think I should either add a touch of humor to my writing or, at least, PRETEND I was adding a touch of humor.

Tell us a bit about where you live now. Does the scenery feature in any of your books? After there any particular places you have loved or visited which have heavily influenced your writing?
I live in the woods, just outside a small town, not far from a city, so that pretty much covers all the bases. I set a lot of my stories in southern Indiana or in Kentucky because those are most of the folks I know.

Me: At this point I had to turn to the internet to get an idea what they look like – the only thing I could recall about Kentucky was that it has blue grass. But it seems that Indiana borders onto the Great Lakes and has lots of farmland, and Kentucky has lots of natural splendours that tourists might visit (as well as blue grass). They both have a lot of water and a relatively long and rather unsettled history, particularly during the early European settlement period and the American Civil war.

OK. Suppose that you are about to go on a long journey and can pack one book (not your own!). What would it be and why?
It would be Jerome K. Jerome’s THREE MEN IN A BOAT, TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG. That’s my #1 go-to book when I want a book to take me away from it all. It’s funny, it’s moving, it’s packed with history and travelogue. Wonderful Victorian book that was meant to be non-fiction, but Jerome couldn’t resist wandering off topic and making stuff up for fun.

Me: The first time I read this I was completely paralytic with laughter. It never had quite the same effect on subsequent reads but very nearly. When I was in school the ‘how do we open the tin’ passage was a routine part of the syllabus. Great stuff.

Tell us about one character from a book or film that you wish you had invented, or else would like to invite as a guest for a while.
I wish I had invented Steerpike from Mervyn Peake’s GORMENGHAST trilogy. I would most assuredly NOT want Steerpike as a guest, because he’s one of the worst people EVER! What a terrific character!

Me: I have never got around to reading Gormenghast but have been meaning to for ages.

You write in several genres (fantasy, science fiction and YA, I think), something that I would find really difficult. Do you have a favourite? Is it easy keeping them separate as you write about them? Is there one that you want to revisit in another book sometime?
It’s easy keeping genres separate, because I don’t really write in genres, unless I’m writing for a specific publication. For the most part, I write the story, and it is what it is.

Thinking specifically about Sage I: The Fall of Onagros now… did you imagine the world all at once or have you filled in details as you have gone along? Is there some part of the world that you want to write some more about one day? Who is your favourite character and why?
I imagined certain things about the world before I began writing, and “learned” more about it as I went along. I’d like to write about the lands outside Layounna, particularly Nishi, where Salali comes from. My favorite character … Tartarus was the most fun to write because he’s so awful, but Brady and Nerissa were fun, too, because they know who they are inside. And Florian of the Traveling Players, because he’s such an ACTOR.

Me: As I mentioned in my review, one of the many things I loved about the book was the breadth of imagination, and the way in which we are introduced to the world through many different people’s perspectives.

Can you tell us a little about your current work in progress?
I’m currently in edits on a YA paranormal, A DEAD GUY AT THE SUMMERHOUSE. An orphan approaching his 18th birthday is happy to be hired as companion/dogkeeper by a sweet little old lady until he meets her family. The last young man she hired ended up dead, and at least one person seems to think he’s carrying the dead man’s spirit around inside him.

Cover image - Sage I: The Fall of Onagros Sounds great – and very different to the Sage trilogy, or the other books of yours that I have come across. Thanks Marian, for the interview, and I hope things go well for you in the future.

To buy Sage I: The Fall of Onagros, check out http://bookshow.me/B00AYF6546 (kindle edition) or http://bookshow.me/0615774474 (print edition).

For a rafflecopter giveaway navigate over to the Readers meet Authors and Bloggers Spotlight group or http://www.kephrath.com/BookReviewGroup.aspx.

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 http://youtu.be/JcuvhxPazMs).

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:

  • http://youtu.be/7ZoC7WilOzQ – Damariel takes part in the burial of his two brothers. His relationship with Qetirah is just beginning.
  • http://youtu.be/0JRwBu7XKdE – Damariel returns home from a pilgrimage trip to Hatsor, expecting to find Qetirah waiting for him. Instead…
  • http://youtu.be/FezHgAxggp4 – 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.

Spotlight review reminder

Picture - Marian Allen Later this week I shall be posting an author interview with Marian Allen (Sage I: The Fall of Onagros) which I reviewed a few days ago. This post is just a quick reminder of the various other activities going on around this book during August.

Cover image - Sage I: The Fall of Onagros You can also check out Readers meet Authors and Bloggers Spotlight group or http://www.kephrath.com/BookReviewGroup.aspx for some details and a rafflecopter giveaway. Marian’s own blog and web site is well worth looking at, as is Michelle Ray’s “1 Book Lover’s Opinion” blog. And a previous author interview with Marian can be found at The Bookworm’s Fancy blog.

I hope that there will also be some other news about mobile apps and epub books later in the week, but that depends on the speed of approval across the various app stores…

Review – Sage I: The Fall of Onagros

This review is part of the Readers meet Authors and Bloggers Spotlight group (which is quite a mouthful really). See also http://www.kephrath.com/BookReviewGroup.aspx for some details and a rafflecopter giveaway.

Picture - Marian Allen

During the month of August we are looking collectively at Marian Allen’s fantasy book Sage I: The Fall of Onagros. Today I am giving a review of the book, and towards the end of next week I will be hosting an interview with Marian. Other people in the group will be posting their own contributions as time goes by. Check out my Spotlight Group page for links to as many such events as I notice.

My review of Sage I: The Fall of Onagros
I finished reading this splendid book a few days ago now, but wanted to wait for a while before writing this review. The book benefits from, and deserves, a period of reflection when you finish it so that the richness of the different layers sinks in.

It is also quite some time since I read any fantasy (though at one time I was very steeped in the genre) and so it took me a little while to get back into the style and form that Marian has chosen. I expect that other readers would be able to jump straight in and appreciate it. Having said that, this is not the kind of fantasy book that leans heavily on sword and sorcery heroes battling mythical beasts in search of vast treasure. There are swords, and there is some sorcery – there are even some mythical beasts – but the world, its characters and the activities that engages in are completely credible. It is a place where ordinary people can live.

Cover image - Sage I: The Fall of OnagrosIndeed, in many places the book comes over more as history than fantasy, and you might find yourself, like me, trying to puzzle out where and when the story is set. The basic “feel” is, I suppose, European rather than Asian or African, but with its own inventive and unique features. Family lineage, and personal names, are identified through maternal rather than paternal links, a feature that I found particularly interesting because of similar choices I make in my own, explicitly historical writing.

The story is told through multiple viewpoints, some of which are quite ignorant of one another. So from time to time you suddenly realise that you are revisiting a situation that you have seen before, but through a completely different person’s eyes. This takes a certain amount of attention to follow so as not to get confused, but I loved it. Different chapters show you different facets of the world, which is a rich and diverse place, ranging from opulent and expansive to brutal and narrow depending who is the focus of attention. The same geographical place might be familiar and next-door to one person, but far-away and legendary to another. An island in a river might be simply that, but it might also be an eerie and liminal zone that arouses awe, or even a metaphor of an infant in the womb. The imagery is vivid and varied.

There are a few things to be aware of. My kindle copy had a very small font size – easily overcome by expanding it towards the maximum size, but a minor annoyance which then had to be reversed for other books. Switching temporarily to geek mode, I suspect that a fixed point size had been specified in the style declaration, rather than letting the device sort itself out. Whether this is also true of the published version I could not say.

Also, the book is only the first portion of a trilogy. It is not self-contained, and readers will find that the end of this part arrives all too quickly. Of course, this is no secret, and I should have been prepared for this. Inevitably, though, I was hoping that the plotline would get past the problem faced by the characters at the end of this volume. It did not: my kindle progress bar reached 100% and there was no negotiating with that! Only one answer, I suppose… get the next book in the series, Sage II: Bargain with Fate.

Five stars, from me, for imagination, variety, and a fascinating fusion of different points of view.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Apparently I write like…

I discovered via Google+ the writing analysis web site I Write Like and thought for a bit of fun I would have a go. Basically as a user all you do is type in a few paragraphs of your writing and click the Analyse button. A few seconds later back comes your result. For the geeks among us, the underlying algorithm has been trained on a lot of data from well-known authors, and has been coded in a language called Racket (loosely related to LISP, which itself has been extensively used in AI and language processing). You don’t have to know that to use the site, nor download the Racket code from their online repository, but I found it intriguing.

Now, out of interest I pasted in the first few paragraphs of Scenes From a Life to see what would turn up, and this was the result…

I write like
Ursula K. Le Guin

I Write Like. Analyze your writing!

Seeing as how Ursula LeGuin is a firm favourite of mine, and a major reason for my enthusiasm for both science fiction and fantasy, you can imagine that this made my day!

Here, for the curious, are the paragraphs that were analysed:

How should the pattern be finished? Makty-Rasut leaned back against the tomb wall, rough and unsmoothed as yet, and nowhere near the full length it would extend out to. The courtyard designs were all complete, but the details for the transverse corridor had only been recently agreed with the senior priest whose eternal home it would be. Only a few of the key highlights of the main approach had been roughed out. In any case, these were just designs at this stage. They had not been called out of their potential to be created in sculpture and paint.

The man had insisted on one of the less common variations of the scene where his heart was being weighed. He had good reasons from his own religious experience, and Makty-Rasut had readily agreed once the request had been made. But in other things the old man was willing to be flexible. They had sat together on several occasions while the priest told him something of his life’s endeavours, and they worked together on the ideas that emerged.

Makty-Rasut marked two deep parallel lines on the pottery sherd he had brought, to represent the walls of the corridor. He had sent the rest of the team home early. It was a festival day tomorrow anyway, and he wanted the time to himself to think, alone in the tomb. It was easier. He wanted to have some ideas to show the priest when they next met, and he could not think clearly when the area was full of his team working and jibing.

Dreams had steered much of the old man’s life. From what he had said, a dream had sent him out, years ago now, into the provinces. Gedjet mainly, with a short spell up in Bayth Shean at one point, and other brief sojourns elsewhere. Another dream had called him back to Waset. Other dreams, too, at different times, held less profound significance but were still vivid in the priest’s memory. So dreams should figure prominently on the chamber walls. The journey out to Gedjet was a focal point. It could blend several traditional elements with some unique ones. That should please the old man, whose words often betrayed the same mix of past and future, convention and innovation.

All being well, I am hopeful of getting the book out later on this year…

Tasty Summer Reads Blog Hop

Something of a departure for me here – Jessica Knauss invited me to participate in the Tasty Summer Reads blog hop, so here I am thinking about blending food and historical fiction.

Here is the blog hop general blurb:

Welcome to the Tasty Summer Reads Blog Hop! Each participant invites a number of others to answer five questions about a recent or forthcoming release, and a recipe that fits with it. Links to the participants I have invited may be found in a while, just above the extract and recipe. Their contributions should be in place soon after this, so check out their blogs over the next few days.

Now, in one way the subject matter is pretty easy for me – it became something of a standing joke as family members were reading the later drafts of In a Milk and Honeyed Land that the inhabitants of Kephrath did a lot of eating.
Wine-making cellars at Gibeon, c. 750BC
But actually we know from archaeological excavations in Gibeon (which I call Giybon) that they did indeed produce a great deal of wine. Here are some of the wine-making cellars at Gibeon, which date from around c.750BC (picture hosted at the BiblePlaces.com web site)

This of course is about 500 years after Damariel and his generation, but it seems altogether likely to me that the wine industry flourished those few centuries earlier at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

A modern wine press in the region of the four towns
Wine-making continues there today – I took this picture a few years ago at a modern kibbutz pretty much on the site of biblical Kiriath Jearim (Jarrar’s Town or Woodlands of the stories). Here we have a modern mechanical wine press and the storage cisterns linked to it. There were also vine trellises, and flat areas for manual grape treading, but these were always full of people and I did not take a clean picture of these.

I use food in books a lot as a signal of social connection or disjunction. As an example, I have included an extract below from In a Milk and Honeyed Land. Here, and also in the (work-in-progress) Scenes from a Life, food is sometimes shared across social classes, and questions of who is allowed to eat what and when are used a signal of social division or unity.

Meanwhile, part of the deal with the blog hop is that I have to answer a few standard questions posed by the originator…

1) When writing are you a snacker? If so sweet or salty?
No, I tend to get lost in the process and forget about food for a while. Even when writing about food I don’t get tempted to wander downstairs and eat something. Right now I am overdue for lunch… When I do get to eat then my preference is for something constructed rather than just grabbed from a packet. I would be very much at home with the kind of eastern Mediterranean diet my protagonists enjoy!

2) Are you an outliner or someone who writes by the seat of their pants? And are they real pants or jammies?
Outline, definitely. Most definitely. The structure of writing is really important to me, both at the large scale of how the whole narrative is shaped and the details of each scene. If I do write a chunk all in a spontaneous rush I edit it a lot to make sure it actually does what I want it to.

3) When cooking, do you follow a recipe or do you wing it?
Same answer, really – I have to be pretty organised here so as things turn out well rather than badly. On the other hand, I get very impatient with long or elaborate recipes – what I am looking for is the right proportions of things to put together (ironically, the recipe I have added is very casual about such things).

4) What is next for you after this book?
Hm, well, just now my main target is finishing Scenes from a Life in 2013. I don’t yet have any specific thoughts for another novel, but there are some short stories that I would like to write. However, I completely expect at some stage to find another novel set in and around Kephrath in roughly the same era – I love exploring that setting and there is no shortage of material. I have alluded in a few places to a migration down from the north which Damariel’s ancestors carried out (there is a small amount of vague and inconclusive archeological evidence to support such an idea) and it might be good to look into that some more. I have a feeling that is short-story length rather than novel-length, though. More likely for a novel would be to move a few years ahead again. In terms of the Hebrew Bible, we move increasingly into the Judges era, which was a very turbulent and fascinating time, not at all like the relatively placid times before.

5) Last question…on a level of one being slightly naughty and ten being whoo hoo steamy, how would you rate your book?
Well, like other bloggers in this hop I find that a little hard to answer. Definitely not at the “whoo hoo steamy” end of the spectrum, but I wouldn’t use the word “naughty” either. My characters are very serious about love and sex, and quite involved with it, but as a normal and perfectly acceptable dimension of relationship. Their intimacies do (occasionally) find their way onto the pages, but anyone on a search for erotica would probably be disappointed! Canaanite religion was more overtly sexualised than perhaps the average European is accustomed to, but I have deliberately avoided the rather dull, and in my view bigoted, trope of portraying Canaanites as engaging in brutal and depraved sex and sacrifice at every opportunity. In In a Milk and Honeyed Land, sex can be delightful, abusive or just everyday, but it is not institutionally depraved.

I have invited the following people to participate in the blog hop, though time and holiday constraints mean that their contributions may well be a little delayed. If you find that they have not yet sorted out a post, please be patient and revisit in a while.

===== An extract from In a Milk and Honeyed Land ======

Damariel, a village priest, has just met Nepheret, who at the time is a slave in Gedjet (modern Gaza). Her master has ordered her to provide food and entertainment for him, and she has just finished her first song. Damariel is uncomfortable at the one-sided nature of the relationship, as his village culture is unused to slaves.

“Nepheret, look, there’s far too much food just for me. Here’s a thought. When you sing, I will eat and drink something, and when I sing, you eat and drink.”
She thought about it for a moment, and looked again, hesitantly, at the door before nodding. “But I must sing again first, then you.”
Damariel nodded, and bowed with his hands held together as he might after agreeing a transaction with a trader in his own town, before lifting the cloth away from over the food. The first thing that caught his eye were some figs, each wrapped in a thin strip of some meat and stuffed with cheese. He put two onto a plate, picked up his beer, and ate and drank as she sang another song, this time without using any of the instruments. When she stopped he got up and went to stand where she had been. She moved to stand behind the table, but did not touch anything on it. He sighed, put one of the fig parcels on another plate and pushed it and the second beer towards her.
“How can I sing if you won’t sit down?”
She perched slightly awkwardly on the stool, and picked up the food.
“This is a song we sing when the olive harvest is in, when the first wine is just ready, and before we start digging the ground for the vegetables, the beans and so on.”
She listened acutely, the fingers on her left hand tapping against the table with the cadence of his voice as he recited the lines. When he stopped he came to the table and picked up his beaker of beer. They both drank. He noticed that she was still looking thoughtful and, more surprisingly, was still sitting.
“Sir, look, you make your songs differently.” He looked quizzically at her. “I don’t mean the words, of course yours are Kinahny, mine are Mitsriy. But that is not what I mean. But when you have two lines together, they are the same length.” She held her hands a short distance apart, fingers pointing up, palms parallel with each other. “No difference. But listen.”
She repeated two lines of the poem to Tefnut and spread her hands open so the fingers were further apart than her wrists. “You see, sir, they are long then short, not equal.”
He put the beaker down, intrigued.
“But why? Why not the same.”
“Oh, sir, but the lines are a heartbeat, there is a long one and a short one that join to make us live. Or they are the red hills either side of the black land, one higher and one lower, that look at each other across the great River. Or they are the two parts of the land, one long and one broad, that join at Men-Nefer. Or they are a man and a woman, they are a different shape and join together in union. Why ever make them the same?”

Why indeed? In a Milk and Honeyed Land does not delve too far into the great adventure of ancient poetry, but differences in music and song can separate cultures or bring them together, just as food can.

The recipe:
Find some fresh figs, one per person unless you are very hungry. Here in the UK they are usually called green figs to distinguish them from the dried variety which will not work so well. Stand in some water, bring to the boil and simmer for a short time to soften the middles. Let them cool.
Meanwhile, pick the cold meat of your choice – something that is thin and wraps well is ideal, but this still gives lots of choice. Get a small tub of soft cheese. Cut off the top of the fig, scoop out the middle (carefully – the skins are not that strong) and squadge it together with the cheese. Add some herbs of your choice. Put the mixture back in the fig cases – you’ll almost certainly have some mixture left over to serve alongside. Wrap a strip of the meat around each fig, placing them in turn in a baking tray so that the ends of the meat strips are held in place. Bake in a moderate over until they are hot – they don’t really need cooking as such, this stage is just to get the flavours mixed. Eat while hot as a starter, snack or as part of a mezze dish.
(Family debts happily acknowledged for the original recipe)

A final picture, with an Egyptian theme – here is a wine-making scene from the tomb of Nakht, c. 1400BC (picture hosted on Osiris.net):
Egyptian wine-making from the tomb of Nakht, c. 1400BC

Here is the list of people who have participated to date, so far as I am aware:

Slaves In Egypt? – a contribution

This post was inspired by reading a fascinating and provocative blog article by Brian Rush (http://brianrushwriter.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/slaves-in-egypt/).
Israelites leaving Egypt - credited to Wikipedia by BrianI would recommend this article to others and do not disagree with some of the positions Brian is presenting. In particular (perhaps to reassure him and others) I completely agree with him that sacred traditions in general, and the Hebrew Bible in particular, contain mythic and spiritual elements and are best not absorbed simplistically or with a naive literalism. But… I think Brian significantly over-stated some issues of historical evidence, and as a result was rather too dismissive of the possibility of a historical root event to the Exodus tradition. I did put this into a response to the blog itself, but I suspect its excessive length tripped some kind of cut-off! The comment never made it to the blog.

Basically, I am suggesting that there are good reasons for supposing a historical basis for the narrative (and also that elements of that basis go back to the 2nd millennium BCE, but that is too long a subject for just now). To avoid getting ridiculously long I want to pick out a few of his statements and suggest that he was being a little too dogmatic about them. Essentially, I am arguing for a moderate position, rather than a dogmatic one in any direction. Each bullet point is taken directly from Brian’s article.

1. “an entire ethnic group, consisting of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of individuals, were enslaved, men, women, and children, for over four centuries in a small (by modern standards) agricultural civilization on the Nile River”
Well, the claim is actually that a small family group went down to Egypt from Canaan – there is ample archaeological/textual evidence for such traffic – and were later enslaved as their numbers grew. The period of time is variously estimated in the Hebrew Bible from as little as 4 generations upwards, with “over four centuries” as the maximal estimate. There are two census figures at the exit given in Numbers, but these are open to several interpretations and should not be used in isolation for discarding the whole tradition.

2. “we should find in the Egyptian records plenty of evidence for the existence of an ethnic community of slaves … Egypt was not a major slave-owning nation until Alexandrian times. The great temples and monuments appear to have been built not by slaves but by free laborers. …something would have recorded regarding who owned all these slaves …In all the archaeological evidence unearthed to date, however, there is not even a mention of an ethnic group thousands of individuals strong kept in the country in bondage for centuries.”
Well, actually we do have such records for specific periods of time in the Middle and New Kingdoms (both 2nd mill BCE). There are lengthy lists of how many slaves were owned by whom and for what purpose, in many cases listing both their original and Egyptian names. As a single example, the vizier Rekhmire (c.1450BCE) depicted large numbers of foreign slaves (chiefly Semitic or Nubian) making bricks for a temple of Amun, watched by overseers. One overseer even complains that there is no straw to be had! Several NK pharaohs recorded hundreds or thousands of captives brought back – eg Amenhotep II claimed on one campaign to have returned with 89,600 captives… quite probably an inflated figure, but it gives some context.

3. “If the ancient Israelites had recreated and revived Hebrew to be their language, as the modern Israelis have done, there should be a tremendous linguistic influence from Egyptian on ancient Hebrew”
Ancient Hebrew was for some while almost indistinguishable from Canaanite and Phoenician, and there are a fair number of loan words from Egyptian – arguable though this could be a simple consequence of proximity. I personally find more compelling the fact that some of the literary forms of the oldest strata of the Hebrew Bible reflect Egyptian forms much more closely than Levantine or Mesopotamian. The literary forms do show “tremendous influence from Egyptian” on the oldest layers of text in the Hebrew Bible (I wrote a whole PhD on this topic! – see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Triumphal-accounts-Hebrew-Egyptian-ebook/dp/B009UETQD4/).

4. “Ancient Hebrew is linguistically related to other Semitic languages of the time, especially those of Canaan, Akkad, Babylon, and Phoenicia. It is not related in any significant way to Egyptian. As a written language, ancient Hebrew used an alphabet, while ancient Egyptian used ideograms and pictograms initially and evolved this system into a syllabary over time”
Actually there is a growing recognition that the proto-Canaanite alphabet originally derived from Egyptian signs (see for example Hamilton, The Origin of the West Semitic Alphabet). From earliest days the Egyptian sign list contained single-consonant signs which could have been (and in some cases were) used as an alphabet, but Egypt persistently rejected this possibility, preferring (I think) the greater metaphoric possibilities of the full sign list. Now I do agree that ancient Hebrew is more closely related to some of the languages you list, though actually the link to Akkadian is more tenuous. Ancient Egyptian is reckoned to be an Afro-Asiatic language, hence a cousin if you like. But purely in terms of signs the Phoenician alphabet, and so ultimately the English alphabet I am using here, was most likely derived from Egyptian signs.

5. “The political and religious traditions and institutions of ancient Israel were radically different from those of Egypt as well.”
I have already vastly exceeded a reasonable length of reply, but oddly enough I would argue the opposite, that both Judaism and Christianity owe a considerable, and often unacknowledged, debt to Egyptian religion. Yes, the pharaoh was perceived as related to the divine – and it is a fascinating study to see how equivalent phrases are used in the early Hebrew Bible about the god Yahweh, and in Egyptian writing about the pharaoh. But outside of the Amarna period, there was a general concept of personal access of ordinary to the gods without the need of an intermediary – a theme which is very prominent in both Judaism and Christianity. Ironically, Akhenaten’s religious reforms, whilst on a simplistic level looking like monotheism, actually tried to tie the people into a rigid form of worship in which deity was inaccessible except via the ruler.

Now, as I mentioned, I am not arguing that each and every word in the Exodus narrative should be taken at face value. The original text, and the sundry textual changes that happened over the centuries since then, were intended to serve many purposes other than a naive record of some cool events. But contra Brian, I think we do have grounds for suspecting a real, 2nd millennium root event which one might say seeded the tradition in the first place.

Triumphal Accuonts in Hebrew and Egyptian

Back on the ePub trail…

This is something of a perennial topic for me, but I keep discovering new wrinkles in the ePub drama. This time it was the realisation that some vendors will accept ePub files with minor errors and some will not. In fact most will not, even if the errors are minor. So having got all excited a week or two ago and talked about how Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian was going live… well, it only went live at a limited number of places. I finally tracked the problem down to some errors in the ePub source files which had evaded my notice… but not the detailed scrutiny of the extremely useful epubcheck tool supplied by Google. So… problem fixed, uploads in order, and everyone seems to have accepted the file this time around. Though of course acceptance and distribution takes time so at this point only LeanPub and Smashwords have the thesis live and on sale. Google and iTunes will follow shortly…

I also had a great review of The Man in the Cistern on the Breakfast with Pandora blog – well worth a read.

Lots of other activities in the offing so watch this space next week…

Writing, ancient and modern