Second historical fiction blog hop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing and reviews

This week I got back to some writing – specifically some more work on a short story, of which more below – and also had the opportunity to catch up on reviewing the next two episodes in Petteri Hannila’s Fargoer series. This brings me to numbers 5 and 6 in the series, and brings the central character Vierra well on her way back towards her homeland – though not there yet. The reviews can be found on Goodreads (http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/8796846-richard-abbott) or Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/pdp/profile/A2BRVREN5PWOZW) so I do not propose repeating them here! Suffice it to say that I am most thoroughly enjoying them, am happy to give 5* reviews, and am greatly looking forward to further instalments.

The short story I mentioned – The Lady of the Lions is the working title at present – is based around a real letter preserved in Egypt that was written by a woman who may have lived in what I call the four towns. Naturally I am slightly bending the details in my favour to assert that she actually lived in Kephrath, but it is a reasonable possibility. This letter was briefly referred to in a conversation between Damariel and his younger brother Baruk in In a Milk and Honeyed Land, and was a request for help from the Egyptian authorities. There are two of these letters, and the first reads (approximately) as follows:

A message for my lord the king, my god, who is my Sun:
This is a message from Belita-Labiya your maid-servant, who is like the dirt on which you tread. I prostrate myself at the feet of my lord the king, seven times twice over.
May my lord the king save all the land which is his from the power of lawless men, or else it will be lost. Sapuna has been taken. May my lord the king be aware of all these things.

The name Belita-Labiy is a rough translation into Canaanite of the name she gives herself in the letter, Nin-Ur-Maḥ-Meš, or in English ‘The Lady of the Lions’. The story is set something like 150 years before In a Milk and Honeyed Land, so none of the same characters overlap. In historical terms we know nothing about what happened after this letter (and another of broadly similar content) was written. We do know, however, that the land was not lost to the Egyptians at this stage, not until several decades after Damariel’s lifetime, so presumably at some stage there was a response. The story explores how the provincial governor and his army officers might have done acted. More will, of course, be revealed in time…

First historical fiction blog hop

This post is in response to Jessica Knauss’ “Historical Blog Hop” – ten sentences from In a Milk and Honeyed Land.

The setting here is that Damariel, village priest of the town of Kephrath, has just got back from a journey to be told by his friend Kothar that his wife Qetirah has died during his absence. He had departed after an argument and had stayed away longer than he had originally intended.

The two men embraced again, clung to each other for a long heartbeat, and then Kothar set off down the track to Shaharti’s house and the almond tree around the door. Damariel, left on his own, sat in the porch under his vine for a long time, looking across the stones of the high place, before gathering the torn halves of his kef and walking the slow path to the tomb of Kinreth’s family. Sitting in front of her resting place he took the knife he used for sacrifices and cut two long gashes down his arms and another across his chest.

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

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

The next part of the book deals with the life changes Damariel has to make to adjust to his changed situation, and his responses to the person he considers responsible. Thanks, Jessica, for the opportunity of doing this!

Sabiya Seega released

Well, last week saw the release of my new game-app Sabiya Seega, out to various app stores for both Android and Apple phones and tablets. While I can’t say that it has taken the world by storm yet, I have been delighted by a quick response, especially at the iStore and Barnes & Noble. Perhaps people really have been waiting anxiously for this game to appear on their mobile devices! So I thought I’d say a bit more about it here.

Seega icon
Like most board games from the ancient world, we cannot be certain of the rules, and it is a fair guess that there were many local variations rather than a single universally agreed form. Seega boards are nowhere near so commonly found as Senet or Aseb (the Royal Game of Ur), although it has successfully retained a following in parts of Africa through all the years until today. Although the Greeks said they had learned the game in Egypt, direct evidence for this is lacking. Where we do have possible remains of boards – such as in Petra – these are not unambiguous, and might have been used for a different purpose altogether.

Seega screenshot
What we do know is that the principles of Seega became popular in a range of games across Europe. In particular, the capture method of sandwiching the target counter between two of your own counters appears in games spreading all through the Greek and Roman worlds up eventually to the Vikings.

The original game seems to have been played on several different sized boards – all of odd numbers of cells on a side, so that there is a central cell which in the early stages must be left blank. The first release of Sabiya Seega only allows 5×5 boards, with 12 pieces on each side, but future releases will be more flexible about this.

Something that fascinates me is what role games were thought to have in ancient cultures. Senet, for example, seems to have been strongly linked with religious and spiritual issues, and many of the pictures we have show a tomb occupant engaged in play. Was this just a picture of elite relaxation, or was a direct link seen between the game stages and the progress of the player through the afterlife? Some modern writers think so, suggesting that the game was played by different people with very different aims in mind, from fun or gambling through to religious symbolism and engagement with the other world.

With Seega we cannot be sure, as visual images are scarce. Something that might have made a key difference here is that Seega involves no chance element. Unlike Senet or the Royal Game of Ur, where skill and chance are combined and so even the best of players might suffer ill-fortune, the moves in Seega are completely under the players’ control. Perhaps this set a trend for a mental attitude that inclined towards the military rather than the religious?

So such is unknown about this game, and I have tried to reflect that by providing multiple game options. Players can tweak the settings how they please between games to give themselves different experiences of play.

I hope you enjoy playing Seega – it is available for both Android and Apple phones and tablets from the major app stores. There are even other board or pencil-and-paper versions you might play! Open up your favourite app store and search for Sabiya Seega (or DataScenes Development) and see what you think. For more information navigate to http://apps.datascenesdev.com and follow the links there.

Back to writing – or maybe reviewing – next week!

A digression into the Kalevala 2: differences

Last time I explored ways in which the ancient Finnish poetic tradition presented in the Kalevala was similar to ancient Middle Eastern material. Today it is time for some differences.

The main way that it differs is in genre. Early Israel and Egypt did not use poetry for epic mythic purposes – or if they did, it has not survived – but instead developed a prose narrative tradition for that. The poetry that has come down to us is in the form of fairly short pieces, nothing like the long series of interlinked tales of the Kalevala. Think for example of the biblical psalms, together with their parallels from other nations. The closest analogy to the Kalevala from the ancient Middle East is the mythic material from Ugarit. The episodes in both of these cycles share a great deal – a few characters turn up several times in different contexts, usually so as to contrast loyalty and rivalry – although the Kalevala is very much longer. You even get the same sorts of formal declarations when characters speak to each other – rather than the plain “so-and-so said” you get a couple of lines of introduction to set the scene –

well, such-and-such a person
uttered a word and spoke thus

– even if you have just had a very similar opening a few lines above!

There are other differences too – for example the Kalevala has a great many of what one can call stock phrases – short descriptions of a character or an action which are reused in different places as the need arises. So in one sequence we read many times over of

steady old Vainamoinen

and

Louhi, mistress of Northland,
the gap-toothed hag of the North

This is a feature shared with Homer’s Iliad, and with the Balkan poets whose work was studied by Milman Parry some years ago. Such stock phrases are extremely rare in Hebrew and Egyptian.

Now, it is unlikely in the extreme that the Finnish bards and poets had direct contact with the Homeric or Egyptian traditions, let alone Ugaritic, though biblical influence cannot be ruled out. So why is it that this sense of familiarity constantly pervades the Kalevala? I suppose one reason could be the logic of oral tradition. The Finnish poets behind the Kalevala material recited their work orally to live audiences, just like bards in other cultures have done. Parry’s study in the Balkans showed that such performances displayed great flexibility and innovation. They combined older material in new ways by bridging together familiar scenes, characters and episodes with original links and connections. Depending on the occasion and audience, the same basic story could be expanded or contracted to fit the need. Stock phrases and patterned scenes help the poet in this task.

The Egyptian and early Hebrew material that has survived is a few steps on from this. Most likely there were such oral poets in those nations at the time. What we have now, though, is not a direct record of their performances. It is a variation that was committed to writing, reworked to be successful in new written traditions. The epic cycles from Ugarit are quite raw and fresh, closer to their oral or ceremonial roots – had Ugarit survived longer it would have been fascinating to see how this material evolved. What we have in the Kalevala is, perhaps, an insight into how oral traditions themselves can begin and be sustained as a living art form, whether in northern Europe or the eastern Mediterranean. As well as a whole lot of material which is riveting in its own right!

Finally, I mentioned last time about a promotional slideshow / video. Well, that is now finished and can be found on YouTube at http://youtu.be/JcuvhxPazMs, and also at http://www.kephrath.com/. Enjoy!

A digression into the Kalevala 1: similarities

Regular blog readers will know that I have been enthusiastically reading, and posting reviews about, Petteri Hannila’s Fargoer series – see for example my Goodreads review at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/446063028 for the first in the series. Well, intrigued by the mythic background to this, I ordered a copy of the major Finnish epic The Kalevala, which duly arrived just before the weekend. Naturally I devoured the translator’s notes first off, and was both thrilled and fascinated to discover that many of the poetic devices in the old FInnish tradition are shared with the ancient Middle Eastern works that I normally read.

For example, parallel couplets are a dominant feature in both – you can find them on pretty much any Kalevala page you turn to and opening at random we have:

Let a shrewd man tell a tale
a bench-sitter sing a song

interestingly, these Finnish poets seem to have also taken delight in a device which is quite rare in Hebrew poetry but much more prominent in Egyptian, where instead of just a pair of lines being in parallel, a whole series keeps the chain going for some time, such as:

before the day breaks
and the dawn god dawns
and the sun comes up
and the cockcrow sounds

Chiasmus makes an occasional appearance, often to culminate a set of parallel pairs. Since I do not have the original text (nor indeed the knowledge of Finnish to work with it) I am not sure how frequently chiasmus is actually used. Modern translators often swap it back into simple parallelism for any of several reasons including an expectation that modern readers will not respond to it (see the analysis in my thesis Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian). Keith Bosley (the translator) says that parallelism is “often inverted into chiasmus”. An example that has been left in, showing the concluding role of chiasmus, is

he’d sing the seas to honey
the sea sands to peas
the sea’s soil to malt
and to salt the sea’s gravel.

The Kalevala poets also delighted in a series of longer repetitions – often though not always a series of instructions passed from person to person, and sometimes climaxed by a failure to make an exact copy. One series, describing attempts to find a good recipe for making beer, has three near-repetitions describing how a young woman picks something up from the floor, takes it to an older woman who turns it into a living creature and then dispatches it on a quest. This feature also turns up in Ugaritic material, for example in the Legend of Keret where part of the plot hinges on Keret’s failure to comply with the words of a specific promise. That kind of departure, and the serious consequences of it, would have been easily recognised by the Kalevala bards.

That’s it for today’s post – I had planned to do both similarities and differences in one go, but the tale rapidly grew in the telling! Next time I’ll look at some of the differences, and tie the whole thing up.

Meanwhile, nearer to home, I am in the last stages of preparing a promotional slide-show / video for In a Milk and Honeyed Land – look out for it soon at http://www.kephrath.com and also on You Tube!

Ancient world board games and phone apps

These last few days have seen me try to get a bit ahead with my other writing activity, namely mobile apps for Android or Apple mobile phones or tablets. So not too much on the word front this week. I did add a couple of reviews for numbers 3 and 4 in the excellent Fargoer series by Petteri Hanukkah (on Goodreads: Fargoer 3 – Of Fire and Stone and Fargoer 4 – The Roots of Evil, and also on Amazon.co.uk with Amazon.com pending) but otherwise it has been time spent in code development.

Coding is a funny thing, and shares a lot of oddities with writing. In both, you can sometimes see very clearly what you want to do, but actually doing it is a different story (ha ha). For reasons unexplained, the supposedly inanimate compiler or word processor seems to thwart you at every turn, twisting your fine and apparently clear intentions into a confusing mess! And it always takes longer than you expect…

Anyway, the next app target is a game which seems to have been popular across several parts of the ancient near east and elsewhere. There are rough outlines of what might be boards for the game in the city of Petra. The Greeks said they had learned it in Egypt, and passed it on to the Romans, and it eventually made it all the way north to Viking lands. It changed its name and some of the rules as it migrated, but the one I will release in a few weeks is called Seega. It’s a little bit like draughts in that pieces can only move one place at a time. However, you capture not by leaping over an enemy, but by sandwiching an enemy piece between two of your own. Also, the board starts out empty, and the first stage of the game is to take turns placing pieces into the empty squares. The later variations in other counties used different size boards, and different original layout positions, so you can expect to see other games in the same family come out through the rest of 2013.

To check Seega out (when it’s released) go to the major app stores – iStore, Google Play, Amazon Appstore, or Barnes and Noble – and search for DataScenes Development. More details and links will follow before too long. RIght now there are just two games in the stable – Senet and Aseb (also known as the Royal Game of Ur) but one of my goals for this year is to at least double the count. Senet is always the most popular across all of those app stores, presumably because more people know the name.

I have really enjoyed getting to grips with these ancient world board games for several reasons. Firstly, we do not have clearly defined rules for any of them, and we suspect that there would have been local variations or house rules in different places anyway. So part of the task has been to piece together several different opinions about the rules, and provide several play options so that people can experiment. Some are more interesting and challenging than others! Then there are problems of putting together some simple visuals and creating a reasonably strong AI strategy.

For the most part these games have not retained favour in the way that Chess or Go have done, but they have some really interesting features of game play and, at least in my opinion, deserve another airing. Enjoy!

Festivals

For me, no doubt like many others, today meant going back to work after the holiday period – though the comparative emptiness of the underground train made me wonder how many people are staying away until next Monday!

So this naturally made me think about festivals, and the various ones I have written into In a Milk and Honeyed Land. In historical terms we know only a little about what festivals actually were celebrated in Canaan, and still less about the details of the celebrations themselves.

We are pretty sure that there were spring and autumn feasts, and it is highly likely that there were also particular days used to honour one or other deity. We do have written records of similar events further east, in Mesopotamia, and it is likely that the various religious ceremonies recorded in the Hebrew Bible owe their timing at least in part to these earlier traditional festivals. The timing is logical given the agricultural base of the culture – seedtime and harvest, winter and summer are good times to look forward with anticipation or backward with gratitude.

In keeping with the general theme of the book, I have written these as low-key events – plenty of food, wine, singing and dancing for the townspeople to share with one another, a ritual sacrifice of a locally caught animal, and so on. They are community-scale events, repeated dozens of times across the area in individual towns and villages, rather than great assemblies or pilgrimages involving the region as a whole. I have assumed that, human nature being what it is, these were times when normal social conventions and constraints were loosened, resulting in a whole mixture of personal delights and indiscretions. Writing about these events, and seeking to imaginatively fill in the gaps in our knowledge, was a lot of fun!

Other news – In a Milk and Honeyed Land is now listed at the excellent book promotion site askdavid.com, a splendid resource for writers and readers. So here’s looking forward to a productive and satisfying year!

A happy recapture of the past!

I treated myself for Christmas to a very old copy of Star Rangers by Andre Norton. This was first published in 1953, though I came across it in the early 1970s, in the science fiction section of Godalming town library (a place where I spent many happy hours and borrowed many exciting books). My “new” copy is in the old style of s-f novels – the cover is in garish colours and has almost nothing to do with the plot, and the title is picked out in rather psychedelic colours.

Cover image 'Star Rangers'

So why write about this book? Well, Star Rangers was the first book that I read that made me want to write. As a young teenager, I even got so far as writing out in pen and ink – real ink, albeit in cartridges rather than from a bottle – the first page or two of a sequel. This draft is long since lost, which is probably just as well all things considered, but I can still remember the excitement of reading this book and feeling the desire to do something creative in response. Even now, one way I decide how much I like a book is the extent to which it makes me want to write – if it doesn’t trigger an impulse towards creativity in me, I don’t include it in my top shelf of books!

So, how was it to re-read the book? By way of explanation, I re-read some others of Andre Norton’s books (Judgement on Janus and Victory on Janus) earlier in the year, and found them heavy going. Those particular books, which I had enjoyed so much in my teens, had dated rather poorly. So it was with some trepidation that I approached Star Rangers. Happily, this book has aged extremely well. The storyline is still engaging, many of the issues have contemporary echoes (prejudice, illness brought accidentally to indigenous populations, social disintegration, etc). Alien species, unusually for that time, are treated sympathetically and creatively. Both physical and mental combat are handled well. There’s not a huge amount of character development, but the main individuals have to constantly adjust to changing situations which make their course of action increasingly constrained. The final discovery – which tact forbids I reveal in detail – still gave me a thrill of excitement when I read it yesterday, just as it did all those years ago. Great stuff.

That’s it for now… back to writing soon…

Progress on ‘Scenes from a Life’

This week has been a good writing week! Specifically, I have now got Scenes from a Life to about the 2/3 point… barring editing and such like which will mean going over those chapters several times in ruthless fashion. But in unpolished form at least, chapters 1 to 5 are complete, 7 is well on the way, 8 is fragmentary, and 9 has the basic shape laid out. 6 does not exist at all, though I have a reasonable sense what will be in it!

The story is set something like twenty years after In a Milk and Honeyed Land and, although it probably will not seem like it at first sight, aims to tie up some loose ends left unresolved in that novel. It starts in Egypt, well down the Nile near the town we now call Luxor – Waset at the time the story is set. The main character, Makty-rasut, is a scribe who works to create tombs – eternal houses – for the nobility of the region. We follow his story through a series of scenes both in the present time and as flashbacks to earlier formative events.

I find the scribal culture that Makty inhabits a fascinating one. He and others like him interacted with the elite of their day. Some of them moved up into those rarified ranks, while others remained at a level very roughly corresponding to what we would now call a professional middle class. A great deal of what we know of ancient Egypt and the surrounding lands was presented through their eyes, and therefore seen according to the presuppositions and ambitions of their class. Arguably, their culture also shaped the making of the religious literature that has come down to us in the Bible, since the evidence of archaeology and text is that Egyptian scribes found employment in the various Levantine states – including Israel – which emerged after the Egyptian empire in those regions collapsed.

I work in a very similar environment in today’s London, and anyone who has worked in IT will recognise many familiar features in the book. The way I write it, “agile methodologies” are not a modern creation at all, but a common and logical solution to the problem of directing the creative effort of a small team of talented but often opinionated workers. I hasten to add that although the attitudes and lifestyle I write about can frequently be seen around me, the individual people in the book are not modelled on individuals I know. Anyone who reads the book hoping to recognise one or other of my fellow workers will probably be disappointed! But maybe they will find some aspects of the professional life familiar.

Although the book starts in Egypt, it does eventually link up with the town of Kephrath. How and why it does is a matter for another day.

I’m hoping that Scenes from a Life will make it into print during 2013, and I will continue talking about its progress from time to time. Meanwhile, check out In a Milk and Honeyed Land for the background situation out in the Egyptian province of Canaan – http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx

Writing, ancient and modern