Review– Troy: Fall of a City

Salvete, readers!

I finally finished the Netflix/BBC retelling of the Trojan War. It has taken me a while as I like to take my time when I’m watching a show I find interesting. ‘Interesting’ is probably the word for Troy: Fall of a City, in a good way for the most part. It’s a rich, complex adaptation with some amazing production values. It takes its time to convey the plot, but the characterisation has the chilliness of a Greek tragedy. Which makes sense, because that’s precisely what it’s meant to be.

Mild spoilers below.

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I was amazed by the sheer scope of the show’s storytelling, and was surprised that it drew not only upon the Iliad but also the Odyssey and Aeneid, as well as Sophocles and Euripides. I get the sense that the show-runners wanted to convey the full sweep of the Trojan War and approach it from as many angles as possible. This ambition is simultaneously the show’s strength and its weakness. Though the cast is enormous and the story is rich with intrigue and tension, we never really spend enough time with any of the characters to become overly invested. I seldom had the sense that it was anybody’s story in particular, or a sense of the characters’ development or growth. The difference between this story and HBO’s Rome is striking. I think casual audiences would prefer to cheer on a likeable viewpoint character whom they could follow through this sea of names and faces. Troy: Fall of a City really needed an everyman character like Lucius Vorenus or Titus Pullo to work as a straightforward heroic narrative.

That said, the show plays with a lot of the tropes of Greek myth in a really clever way which absolutely drips with irony. A good example is a scene where Achilles slices an enemy’s Achilles tendons before he kills him. Another is where Hector declares that he would rather a short life with his family than a long one alone– a brilliant inversion of Achilles’ choice to have a short life as a warrior than a long one as a family man. The show also manages not to make the Trojans look like idiots for bringing the horse into the city, and that is actually quite a feat. The writers included gods in the story and succeeded in invoking a sense of the numinous rather than high camp. I’ve never seen that before.

Troy: Fall of a City differs greatly from the 2004 film Troy in that it doesn’t glorify war, and perhaps you’re not really meant to like any of the characters. There’s no honour or love to be won on this battlefield. Instead, the show captures the brutality and pathos of a Greek tragedy. It doesn’t have any of the warmth or human moments which fill Homer. One of my favourite scenes in the Iliad is from Book 6, where little Astynax interrupts an argument between his parents by crying at the sight of his father in a crested war-helmet. Andromache laughs and sniffles at the same time as Hector whips the helmet off and cuddles his son to calm him. It’s a tender scene, simultaneously sad and funny. You won’t find many such moments in Troy: Fall of a City. It’s mostly bluster and blood.

There’s no talking horses, either. But whatever.

It isn’t meant to be Homer, but a tragedy staged for the screen. It differs from most sword and sandal epics in that it’s a meditation on the horrors of war, told in a thoughtful and unrushed manner. The characters could be more approachable, but then, you don’t necessarily  go see a Greek tragedy because you want to cheer on the heroes as they rush toward their doom.

Until next time,

Valete

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Supanova Gold Coast, 2018

Salvete, readers!

A couple of weeks ago I attended Supanova Comic Con and Gaming on the Gold Coast. This is one of the biggest pop culture events in Australia. My publisher, Odyssey Books, very kindly provided me with a ticket so that I could promote my upcoming novel The Way Home, the first instalment of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy. The novel will be available at all good online retailers on 31 July, 2018. Supanova GC was actually my very first convention, and I’ve been reflecting on it as a learning experience.

 

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At the Odyssey table

I have never really felt the urge to attend these events up until this point, for a few reasons. Besides the fact I have never really had that much in the way of disposable income, crowds aren’t really my thing. And yet it was more than that. Though I’ve always adored pretty much any story which featured spaceships or dragons or robots or magic swords, I’ve always shied away from the social aspects of pop culture. I was always happy to enjoy the genre stuff in the comfort of my armchair, perhaps quietly geeking out with a handful of friends online. Doing it face-to-face always felt weird. Besides the fact I tend to be an introvert, I always worried I was doing it wrong.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been surrounded by nerds berating me for not liking the right things, or liking the wrong things, or still being into the thing they’ve now decided was uncool. Or I quite like something but am a complete novice and therefore unworthy. So I guess I approached this event with a certain amount of trepidation—what if I was doing it wrong, not just with the stories I like, but with a story I had created?

Well, I had to get over it fast, because the doors were opening and literally thousands of people were pouring into the convention centre. The cosplay was amazing and colourful. I’m astounded and impressed by the effort people put into celebrating the things they love, but I must admit I felt a little surge of adrenaline as a legion of superheroes, anime characters, zombies, and Vikings came rushing in…

Well, the good news is that nobody told me I’m doing it wrong. In retrospect, I don’t think I needed to worry.

Lots of people stopped by the table for a chat. I swallowed my nervousness, pressed my promotional postcards into their hands and gave them my elevator pitch. To my amazement, most people seemed genuinely interested in the story and impressed by the artwork on the postcards. A lot of people said they’ll look out for the book when it’s available. Some wanted advice on how to start writing or get published, and I was more than happy to share my experiences. I got to share my enthusiasm about some of the books on the Odyssey table and managed to sell a few books by my friends—I love having the opportunity to help fellow authors out. I also went wandering and met some local indie authors, bought a few books, and had a merry chat about the industry and where it’s going. I even had the chance to meet Terry Brooks, creator of The Shannara Chronicles, and he gave me some awesome advice—but that story is probably worthy of its own blog post!

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Here’s a promotional postcard!

By the end of the day, I had found my tribe—the folks I met that day are genuine, friendly people who adore stories just as much as I do, and aren’t afraid to show it. Turns out I do have a place in this world, after all.

Of course, that was only the trial run. The real test will be at Supanova in Brisbane later in the year, when I’m promoting my actual book.

I hope I see you there!

Until next time,

Valete

P.S. Sign up to my free monthly newsletter for news and previews, as well as an exclusive prologue chapter to the Ashes of Olympus series!

A brief message for every writer working today

There’s something you need to remember, no matter how tough things get.

You are lucky.

Published or not.

Indie or trad.

Full-time or otherwise.

Pantser or plotter.

Whether you write for yourself or others.

Even if you just keep a journal.

Lucky.

You’re lucky because you have a story worth telling.

You have the education and the means by which to tell it.

Compared to the totality of human history, you’re a long way ahead of the curve.

 

Cover Reveal! Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home

Salvete, readers!

As promised, I’m absolutely thrilled to unveil the cover and blurb for my upcoming novel, Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home, coming July 2018 from Odyssey Books. It’s a YA historical fantasy based upon Greek mythology, in which a band of refugees must face the wrath of the gods to find a way home.

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I’m absolutely in love with the cover, and I am so grateful to my editor and the graphic designer for coming up with such a wonderful image. But what’s it all about? Read on for the blurb…

The gods betray you.
The winds are hunting.
Nowhere is safe.
The journey begins…

The war of the gods has left Aeneas’s country in flames. Though he is little more than a youth, Aeneas must gather the survivors and lead them to a new homeland across the roaring waves. Confronted by twisted prophecies, Aeneas faces the wrath of the immortals to find his own path.

First in a trilogy based on Virgil’s epic poetry, ASHES OF OLYMPUS: THE WAY HOME is a tale of love and vengeance in an age of bronze swords and ox-hide shields.

The novel will be released both as an ebook and in print, July 2018.

Until next time,

Valete

 

P.S. Sign up to my free monthly newsletter for news and previews, as well as an exclusive prologue chapter to the Ashes of Olympus series! Over the next couple of months I’ll be giving readers an exclusive sneak preview of the amazing interior artwork in the book.

 

If fonts were high school kids

The various Arials are the self-designated ‘popular kids.’ Times New Roman is the studious nerd, dull but destined for success. Lucinda is pretty, but mean. The Bookman fonts are the Christian kids who have lunchtime prayer sessions. Courier New is an under-achiever and proud of it, while Comic Sans MS is the class clown whose presence everyone tolerates. Jokerman is out to prove he’s got nothing to prove. The Copperplate Gothics are of course the rich snobby kids who complain about the riff-raff who get into the school. The teachers don’t ‘get’ Wingdings, who scratches graffiti into desks and plays with his lighter a lot.

 

That is all.

What I strive for as an author

Salvete, readers!

As publication day of Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home draws closer, I find myself reflecting on what I’m aiming for in terms of my career as an author. I’ve had a few folks tell me I’m going to be the next J.K. Rowling, and they are looking forward to the (hypothetical) movie of The Way Home. While I recognise and appreciate the compliment, it always makes me a little uncomfortable. I love the Harry Potter books and admire J.K. Rowling, but I don’t want to be her. It’s much better to be me. At this point in my career, I don’t think it’s realistic to aspire to be a bestseller like Rowling. Very few authors become superstars like that. And to be honest, I can’t think of anything worse than having that level of ubiquity.

So what am I striving for, at this point? Much simpler, more achievable things.

I want to reach a community of readers who find something to enjoy with my work. There is great satisfaction in cheering somebody up who is having a bad day, and I think novels are the perfect form of escapism. And if readers get something more out of it, I’m glad.

I want to be part of a community of writers. Acceptance by peers and being able to give back something in return means the world to me. I cherish my friendships with fellow writers, published and not. These people make me a better writer. Functional creative relationships are precious gems.

I strive to be professional. I want to develop a reputation in the industry as a versatile, disciplined author who meets deadlines and works well with others. Professionalism is an under-valued attribute among aspiring authors. Admittedly I’m still learning the ropes as an early-career author, but one day I’d like to reach a level of mastery where I can pass on what I’ve learned.

And finally, I’m working hard to make a living as an author. Yes, I know, this is going to be the toughest of the lot. However, I made the decision long ago to adopt the mindset of a small business owner rather than a hobbyist. Making the business profitable will be a multi-phase project which may take years. That’s okay. I’m in it for the long haul. For the time being, any money I make from The Way Home will be invested in the next book, growing the business until it becomes a reliable supplement to my day job. Then eventually my writing will become the main source of income. I still aim to be a hybrid author with a foot in both the indie and the trad camps.

If I can achieve these things, I’ll be satisfied. However, all of these goals are contingent upon me being prolific, so I’d better get back to it.

Oh, and big news! Next week I’m going to share the cover of Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home. I’m sharing it first with my newsletter subscribers. If you’d like a sneak peek, then please feel free to subscribe.

Until next time,

Valete

Fantasy Maps

Salvete readers and happy Easter!

I’ve been in a very visual space this week. Along with my publisher, I’ve been looking at concepts for the cover of my upcoming novel, Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home. It should be finalised very shortly and I can’t wait to share it. All I can really tell you for now is that the cover will be red and gold, Gryffindor colours! Just as exciting, The Way Home will feature nine internal illustrations as well as an incredible map. I’ll share more on the internal illustrations as we get closer to release– here’s a teaser if you can’t wait! But for today’s blog post let’s focus on the map and the thinking that went into it.

I love maps in books. Done properly, they can evoke a sense of space and place, making the story that much more real to readers. It’s great fun to follow your heroes’ journey on the map, and sometimes it can enrich the experience of the author’s world. A map can convey a sense of politics far more effectively than mounds of exposition. The most effective maps, I think, are those which are created to be in-world, because they become a form of world-building. A good map draws you into the story before you’ve even read a word.

However, I’ve also read many fantasy novels where the map actually detracted from the experience of the story. I think if your reader can’t make sense of the story without the map, something has gone terribly wrong. And there are times when the map is included seemingly out of a sense of obligation. They’ve become a staple of fantasy. If you’ve got a map for the sake of having a map, it becomes grating. There are times also when they are nothing but a gigantic spoiler. If every place your characters visit is included on the map, it destroys a sense of discovery. Even worse, if they feel like something out of our world, maps can yank the reader out of the story before you’ve even started. Maps rendered on a computer are too painstakingly accurate for a medieval fantasy, for example. And having a scale in modern miles or kilometres is equally problematic– leaving aside the fact these measures might not exist in your world, the last thing you want is to take away a sense of wonder by having everything precisely quantified. The key is to create the map in a very deliberate way, keeping in mind that it’s a form of story-telling too.

It was very important for me that the Ashes of Olympus trilogy have a map, for a number of reasons. It’s an historical fantasy which uses ancient Greek place names, eg Sikilia for Sicily and Hesperia for Italy. It helps readers connect more if have that visual link between past and present. And to evoke the sense of the past, I wanted it in an antiquarian style, with ships and sea monsters in the water. I did make a couple of concessions to anachronism in drawing up the brief. It wasn’t entirely possible to have the map come from within the universe because the majority of my readers probably don’t read Greek. And I thought it would be confusing to present the slightly jumbled geography we find in Homer and Virgil. Artist Linc Morse rose to the occasion with an exquisitely crafted design. Check it out below!

Map of Middle Sea

 

I particularly love the little Scylla! Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home will be available in July 2018. Sign up to my free monthly newsletter for news and previews, as well as an exclusive prologue chapter to the Ashes of Olympus series!

Until next time,

Valete

 

 

Free short story: The Electric Touch

Salvete, readers!

I have been hard at work for a few weeks on a short story, a prequel to Ashes of Olympus, my historical fantasy novel which comes out in July. I finished the draft this very morning and will send it to my publisher soon. Working on the short story got me looking through my old files in which I dabbled with the genre, and I was startled to discover a YA science fiction story I had completely forgotten. I thought I would share it here. If you enjoy the work, please consider signing up to my newsletter. 

THE ELECTRIC TOUCH

You never forget your first love.

She was called Maya—naming your children after American provinces was fashionable, once upon a time. She had freckles on her nose, wore a beret sometimes, and would whistle a tune as we walked hand-in-hand. I suppose it’s Maya’s eyes I remember most. They would glow like St. Elmo’s fire when she smiled. They were meant to do that, of course. She’d designed them herself.

In my day, they still called people like Maya cyborgs. Such a cold, clinical name for something so beautiful! And people like me? My parents took me to a psychiatrist, and ze diagnosed me as a bionsexual. It’s strange to think the word doesn’t carry a stigma any more, but it had them worried. They weren’t the only ones. Somehow it was everyone’s business that the organic-looking kid wanted to be with the ‘borg. To most people, me and Maya were just a dirty pair of sparkers.

Maya didn’t care; her parents were OK with it. Mine weren’t.

Dad almost had a fit when I first brought Maya to our place for afternoon tea. He stormed out, gnashing his teeth. Tata, who was so much gentler, ran after him. That night, after Maya had gone home, I tried to talk about it with them.

‘Dad, it’s no different from when you met Tata—G’pa didn’t like that, either. But you showed him—you’re married now and everything!’

But that didn’t help. Dad didn’t much like talking about his father.

‘The Church forbids it, I tell you! The Imperatrix Sacra will never, ever forgive you!’ he said.

As I sobbed into my pillow, Tata stroked my hair.

‘Why is Dad so angry?’ I asked.

‘That girl has corrupted her flesh into the likeness of a man-made object,’ said Tata.

‘But Tata, I love her.’

‘I know you think you love her. And I’m sure she’s a very nice girl, underneath all the tech. But her very soul is corrupted, my honey. Your daddy’s right to be upset.’

‘But… I don’t see how someone like Maya—’

‘It’s complicated. You’ll understand when you’re older. Anyway, there’s still plenty of time for love. You’re barely seventeen after all. Don’t be so quick to decide. After all, this could just be a phase. A lot of kids go through a curious stage. You’ll grow out of this someday, you’ll see.’

But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

I wanted to be what my parents wanted me to be. It would have saved me a lot of mobbing on the cybernet. Great G’ma would just tut and tell me not to worry about ‘trolls,’ whatever that meant. But it’s hard not to worry when shimmering holographic avatars mob you as soon as you log into school.

‘Hey, lover-borg,’ they’d hoot as my avatar entered the library-space. Sometimes they’d scrawl the words ‘sparker slut’ on Maya’s Socialspace Wall when the administrative mainframe wasn’t looking. No-one was ever as brave as Maya.

To this day, I still don’t understand why they were so afraid of us: for some people like Dad and Tata, it was a religious thing. That, I could get, sort of. But the other kids? Maybe they were just repeating what their parents told them. Maybe they were just weirded out because a bionsexual connects to the conscience and not to the body. I dunno, I got my contracep on my eleventh birthday like everybody else: Dad and Tata said to go nuts. And I could have, I suppose. But I just sort of… forgot.

I wished I could like organics, wanted to be like everyone else. I didn’t have anything against organics and I still don’t. It’s not like I hate people or anything. Or at least, I hope not. When I was little, some of my best friends were organics. By the time I was a teenager, there was a kind of distance there, but I still cared for them. It was weird. I could love an organic like they were my own family but not in any other way. Even then, I could not deny the allure of the synthetic. I could not resist the electric touch of Maya’s hand stroking my face, or the way the sunlight would catch in the golden wire of her hair.

I decided I didn’t care what Dad or the Imperatrix Sacra said after we had interfaced for the first time. We made sure we had the house to ourselves. It was important that we were connected face-to-face. It wasn’t safe to interface over the cyberweb. You never knew what pervs were watching and recording: this way, our brainwaves were our own. We were careful, we were cautious. We used a firewall. At school they had warned us of spontaneous virus transfer.

She brushed her fingertips against my temples: a slight tingling. I stared deep into her eyes and our breathing synchronised. The world fell away in ripples of colour and light, and we let go of all but each other.

I could feel anxiety emanating from her like ink-drops in water. In her eyes I saw mine widen in surprise. I don’t know why, but I hadn’t realised this was her first time too. Breathe. Just breathe. The tendrils receded. Reach. Touch. Never moving, we caressed in the twilight. Slowly, hesitantly, our very selves merged. This was communication beyond words, beyond skin on skin. We walked together in a dream, flew together over the Advanced Nations and joined the stars. Our consciences crackled and then roared as euphoric fusion. I lost myself in her, and she in me.

And then the greatest shock of all: to see myself as she saw me. Not with her eyes, but with her heart. How could I be so lovable?

At last we withdrew back into ourselves. Maya wiped my eyes. The decoupling was gentle, but it almost seemed the connection was lost before I knew it. Holding her against me, I understood. I had Maya, and she had me.

The rest was up to God.

 

© Julian Barr, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Julian Barr and jbarrauthor.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Murder in the Mail

Salvete, readers!

Guess what? An interactive fiction project I wrote for a while ago has launched on Kickstarter! Check it out here.

When Felicity Banks, the editor of the project, approached me to work on it, I knew I had to take part. I had read and enjoyed her novel Heart of Brass, as well as her previous interactive fiction projects. I appreciate Felicity’s deep characterisation and attention to detail in constructing settings. When I read her work, I’m in the company of interesting characters, all with their own voices and personalities. More than that, though, her books are great fun, with a keen sense of adventure.

Murder in the Mail is an innovative way to tell a story. Basically, the story goes that a teenage girl is murdered at her own birthday party. One of her artist friends is the killer. Sounds like a typical Agatha Christie style murder mystery, right? The awesome part is the way the story is told. You get to play the role in the story as characters post things to you. Over the course of 8 weeks, subscribers receive letters, postcards and artworks in the mail from the characters, all of which contain clues to unlock the identity of Naomi’s killer. Each character’s letters are written by a different author, ensuring that the character voices remain distinct. And each character’s artwork is created by a different artist. It’s a great showcase of Australian talent.

My character? Oh, I write as Naomi, the girl who is murdered. I had a choice of parts, but I leapt at this one because I wanted to step outside my comfort zone and write in a voice totally different from anything I’ve tried before. I can’t say I’ve ever taken on the persona of a teenage girl. I had to dig deep to write for Naomi. It is one of the most emotionally raw things I’ve ever written. Here’s a portrait of Naomi by artist Shauna O’Meara. It was specifically commissioned for the project.

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It contains several clues and Easter Eggs which become apparent as you read through the story. And, um, if you look closely at the bookcase, you may spot a copy of my upcoming novel, Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home.

If you’d like to subscribe, the best way to do it is via the Kickstarter. The crowd-funding campaign will end in 26 days. If you pledge to the project, you will be supporting the work of numerous Australian artists and writers. Any amount is gratefully appreciated!

Until next time,

Valete

Writing lessons from the Epic of Gilgamesh

Salvete, readers!

I recently finished the first draft of The Black Unicorn, a middle-grade fantasy. The first draft will be up on Wattpad until the end of March, 2018. At this point, I’ll take it down and give it a good polish before I start submitting to publishers. In the meantime, I thought I’d let you in on a little secret. Though the story is heavily influenced by medieval and classical traditions, I actually went a lot further back for inspiration—all the way to ancient Sumer. In this blog post, I share how studying The Epic of Gilgamesh helped me to develop as a fantasy writer.

For a fantastic overview of the ancient poem and its relevance for modern readers, check out Louise Pryke’s excellent essay on The Conversation.

The Black Unicorn is the fifth book I’ve written, but only the second since completing Book 1 of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, which is scheduled for publication in July. Writing a middle grade novel was simultaneously easier and more difficult. On the one hand, I feel a lot more confident in my craft and I think I have a stronger grasp on structure, dialogue, and world-building. I’m a lot more conscious about how and when to use different techniques. On the other hand, this was my first attempt at a heroic fantasy for middle grade readers, and that brought its own challenges. When you write middle grade fiction, you have only the most primal elements of story-telling in your tool kit. You don’t have the space to gloss any shortcomings of substance with style. I decided to embrace the primal elements of story-telling in The Black Unicorn by going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh for inspiration regarding the themes.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first recorded story in human history, so I figured it was a good blueprint for an archetypal narrative. The themes of the epic are as relevant today as they were millennia ago—relationships between humanity and the divine, the nature of mortality, the tension between nature and civilisation, and above all friendship. These themes pervade all my stories, but in The Black Unicorn I wanted to explore them through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl. I see no reason the heroic archetype of the youthful warrior can’t be made to fit a female character, and honestly, I think we need more heroines in the world. At the heart of my story, as in Gilgamesh, is a relationship between two characters who start out as rivals and through a series of shared trials become friends. Though it takes place against a backdrop with a massive scope, that’s the essence of the novel.

Brevity is another virtue of Gilgamesh. The poem comprises only about 60 pages in the Penguin translation. But in that space our heroes travel across the world and learn lessons about life and death. Likewise, middle grade books are short. The Black Unicorn is only about 40,000 words. There’s no time for navel-gazing. The characters develop through actions and reactions to changes in their situation. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for character development of course. Heck, I would argue that growth and development are integral to any narrative focused on children. It just means there is very little time for introspection or excessive narration. The characters show us who they are and who they are becoming through their decisions. Dynamism is the key.

The Epic of Gilgamesh also embodies one of the core principles of world-building: show, don’t tell. If you read it, you’re plonked into another universe. Though it’s easy to sympathise with the characters, there is no point denying that the poem is the product of an alien world. It’s a dark, frightening place where existence is precarious and world-ending catastrophes are always just around the corner. But the text never stops to explain how its world works. The narrator takes it as a given that readers can pick up the story and run with it. Four thousand years ago, the reader needed no more explanation of the mechanics of sacrifice than we do on how to send a text message. For modern readers, though, the trick is to immerse yourself in the world and drink it in. And once you get the hang of the internal logic, the story makes perfect sense. This is an excellent principle, I think, for writing fantasy, particularly in a middle-grade novel where there is little room to pause for info-dump.

There’s a lot more I could say, and I’d love to revisit the question of what story-tellers can learn from the classics. But for now, my kids are tugging on my sleeve demanding I take them to the library.

Until next time,

Valete