Ashes of Olympus: The epic illustrations

Salvete, readers!

I was really grateful that I could include illustrations in The Way Home, as Greek mythology lends itself to visual story-telling. The nine lavish illustrations enrich the story and give the book a unique character. I’m telling a tale of gods and monsters and magic… Why would I not want to see that fill the page? It’s the next best thing to having my book adapted for film. And given that The Way Home is intended for both YA and adult readers, it also felt right to include illustrations. In the age of the graphic novel, visual literacy is more important than ever. I didn’t want the illustrations to simply complement the story, but to be an essential part of it.

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Every illustration functions like a panel from a comic book. Some things are better conveyed visually than through prose, which meant that I could be sparer with exposition. For example, I felt more comfortable leaping into the action with the fall of Troy because this was the first thing readers saw:

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The image of the Trojan horse at night, wreathed in flames, instantly tells readers everything they need to know about where we are in the story. I didn’t need to tell the reader about the horse because it was all there to see. At my editor’s suggestion, I even ended up changing the first chapter because the illustration made some of the description redundant.

One of the most powerful images in the story is actually from a moment which isn’t conveyed through prose at all, but occurs between chapters.

The illustrator Matt Wolf is an old friend of mine, a Queensland-based artist. What I love about his work is that it evokes the numinous, the mysterious and the epic. Check out Matt’s Instagram here! He has a great ability to conjure other worlds with his artwork, and when I discovered that I would be able to include illustrations in the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, I instantly knew he was the one for the project. Matt took the idea of handling it like a comic book with gusto, creating vivid, dramatic and startling images which bring the story to life.

It was a pleasure to collaborate with Matt, who was easy going, professional, and transparent in his communications. I suspect I was more involved in the process of creating the illustrations than most authors. Initially I gave him the synopsis along with a set of extracts from scenes which I thought would make for good illustrations. I also provided notes on character appearances and photographic reference materials for him to use as a starting point.

In choosing the reference materials, I decided to go with artefacts from the Hellenistic or Classical ages of Greece, rather than stick too closely to the bronze age. Not historically accurate, perhaps, but instantly recognisable. If readers can recognise certain icons, it makes the story that much more relatable. However, I tried to do so in a manner sympathetic to the past. For example, in the illustration below the warriors are kitted out in hoplite armour with Corinthian helmets, but their swords are taken straight from the Myceneans. A case of gleeful anachronism! You can get away with these things when you are writing fantasy.

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Aeneas’s appearance is modelled upon that of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s look brings to mind the idea of kingship in antiquity, partly because so many subsequent monarchs emulated him. But given that Alexander so consciously styled himself to look like a Homeric hero, I thought it was acceptable.

From there, I was happy to let Matt run with it. I made the conscious decision to give him the space to make his own decisions. It isn’t easy to hand over the story to another creative person and let them play, but its worthwhile. Matt did consult me and provided me with running updates, but for the most part I let him tell the story his own way. Sometimes his interpretation does differ from the way I picture things, and that is a good thing. Sometimes when you let other people into your world, the result is better than you could have possibly imagined. The illustrations turned out so well, in fact, that my publisher printed the book on white paper rather than cream to maximise their effect.

Matt, mate, if you’re reading this (and I know you are!!) I just want you to know from the bottom of my heart how grateful I am for all of your efforts. You helped to define the book and it stands out from the crowd because of you.

And if you would like Matt to illustrate your work, he is available for commissions.

The Way Home is available via the online store of your choice!

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a free short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your copy! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

The Way Home: Chapter 1

Salvete, readers!

I thought I would share the first chapter from my debut novel, The Way Home, Book I of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy. I hope you enjoy it!

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Illustration by Matt Wolf

Chapter 1

‘Aeneas, for the love of the gods, open up!’ cried Sergestos, pounding on the front door.

Aeneas ran to the door and wrenched it open. ‘Stop yelling, would you? My father will flay me if you wake him.’ He stopped short as he realised Sergestos’s round face was covered in soot and reeked of smoke. The scholar wore a studded baldric over his tunic. ‘What’s happened?’

‘It’s the Greeks, they’re here.’

Aeneas swore. ‘Let me get my gear. I’ll be at the main gate in—’

Sergestos shook his head. ‘Aeneas, they’re here. Inside the walls.’

Aeneas staggered. The sea god had built the walls himself. They stood over forty cubits tall. No mortal power could break them.

‘What? How can that be? They sailed home yesterday.’

Sergestos shrugged. ‘Something to do with that horse. Point is, half the city’s in flames.’

Aeneas rushed upstairs to see for himself, and Sergestos followed.

Fire.

All his life Aeneas had loved to look down upon the city, to gaze at the twinkling lanterns in the streets. Now thatched rooftops were alight, the flames glaring like eyes in the night. The fire was spreading from the outer city, where the peasants lived. The screaming echoed heavenward. He blinked sweat out of his eyes, straining to peer past the flames. Far off, the city gate gaped like an open wound. Column after column of Greek warriors passed through, hungry to pillage the defenceless Troy. They were making a beeline toward the palace, marching up the main road. The bronze of their helmets and armour glistened in the burning.

What in Hades was going on? Somebody should have rung the warning bell. This wasn’t a battle. It was defeat, the end of everything. The thought twisted in his belly like a knife.

‘Daddy?’ Little Julos waddled out of his bedchamber at the foot of the stair, rubbing his eyes. His curls were tousled with sleep.

‘Hey, little man,’ said Aeneas. ‘Where’s Mummy?’

‘I’m here,’ said Kreusa. ‘Has something happened?’ She emerged from the bedchamber opposite Julos’s, tying her hair back with one hand. Looking up, she saw the embers spiralling into the sky. ‘The city,’ she breathed.

Sergestos swallowed. ‘Gods help us, our training never prepared us for this. Troy has fallen.’

Aeneas shook his head and jutted his jaw. ‘Not yet. Not if we save the king.’

Sergestos glanced from Kreusa to Aeneas. ‘Right. See you shortly, then.’ He clapped Aeneas on the shoulder and bolted down the stairs past Julos and out the door.

Tightening her lips, Kreusa beckoned Aeneas downstairs and into their bedchamber. ‘Julos, wait in your bedchamber, please. I won’t be long.’

‘But I’m—’

‘It’ll be fine, son,’ said Aeneas.

Kreusa passed Aeneas his sword belt, her hands steady.

He buckled it to his side, put on his leather jerkin. Aeneas glanced up at his polished helmet and breastplate mounted on the wall. Father had given them to him for his eighteenth birthday last year. No self-respecting warrior would go into a fight without full armour, but there was no time.

Father gave a snore from down the hall.

‘I’ll get him up,’ Kreusa said, reading Aeneas’s mind. Julos padded into their bedchamber, slurping on his fingers, and she scooped him into her arms. ‘Go on. We’ll be fine.’ Kreusa looked him in the eye, resolute.

Aeneas had always loved Kreusa for her ability to take charge, right from their betrothal day. He reached for her and Julos.

Kreusa kissed him once, hard, on the mouth. Then she pushed him away gently. ‘There’ll be time later. You need to go,’ she whispered. ‘Please, love. Just go. And if you run into enemy gods, stay out of their way.’ Kreusa turned, but it didn’t hide the tear streaking down her cheek. She swept out of the chamber, holding their son tight. Julos peeked over her shoulder at Aeneas, eyes wide and green as his father’s.

Aeneas stared after them for a moment, then shook himself. Kreusa was right, he’d wasted enough time already. He snatched up his gear on his way out, found the weight of his spear a familiar comfort. The leathery smell of his ox-hide shield reassured him it was ready to protect.

Taking a deep breath, he passed over his doorstep.

***

I hope you enjoyed Chapter 1. In the meantime, The Way Home is available via the online store of your choice!

Until next time,

Valete

 

 

Releasing my debut novel: The first week

Salvete, readers!

My debut novel The Way Home has finally been released worldwide and is available in a variety of online stores as both an e-book and paperback. Cue the confetti and balloons! Nothing can beat the chemical high of knowing that after months and years of hard work, the story is finally out there for the public to read. This is a moment which I have looked forward to since I was a teenager and decided I wanted to be a writer. And after working on the manuscript so long, it is surreal to know that there is literally nothing I can do to make the book better. It’s out there now. However, I also know I would never have made it this far without the amazing support of many people. A great big gigantic thank-you for sticking with me, everybody. Your marvellous support and encouragement makes all the difference to me.

The paperback actually snuck onto Amazon a little early, which was a nice surprise. To my amazement, it actually started to attract sales before the official release date! But I decided not to announce it was ‘officially’ available until both the e-book and paperback were released, hoping that this would attract a rush of sales which would be looked upon favourably by the gods of the algorithm. To my delight (and relief) it paid off. I was watching anxiously—after all this preparation and planning, what if the whole thing flopped? So much of this industry depends on luck. However, it didn’t take long for the novel to reach the number one spot in its little niche on Amazon Australia. The highlight came last weekend, when my little book reached the top 50 books selling on Amazon overall. Not just in its niche, but for the store overall. I documented its steady rise through the charts the only way I knew how… with terrible cartoons I drew using Paint!

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Just assume that cartoon-me has feinted in that last pic and is thus out of shot.

It was such an honour to see my book ranked alongside those of Rick Riordan, even for a moment. For me, as an unknown Australian author published by a small press, that was the best feeling in the world.

I was overwhelmed by the amount of support I received via social media during the release week—I had to switch off my phone at work because it kept pinging through the day. People liked, shared, retweeted, and declared they had bought the book. I was taken aback by the warmth shown by not only friends and family, but also the classics community, fellow Australian authors, teachers and librarians. And, of course, listeners of The Bestseller Experiment! I have done a few podcasts with them over the last few months, and I’m profusely grateful for the way listeners took the book into their hearts. One of my goals throughout this process has always been to reach a community of readers, and I’m glad to have achieved it.

Then came the big moment when my copies (30 of them!) arrived. Believe it or not, this was the first time I had held the book in my hands. It’s a scintillating sensation—seeing the cover on the screen of my laptop could never convey the richness of the red and gold cover. And I cannot get over how handsome the illustrations are by artist Matt Wolf!

And so, what started as my nerdy little ambition to adapt an ancient epic has turned out to be one of the greatest moments of my life. And I’m so very grateful. It’s time to get cracking on the next book, of course, and I have a few other projects in the pipeline. I shall admit that I’m tired and could probably use a rest. But still elated and so ready for the next step. As always, I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

If you haven’t bought The Way Home already, it is available via the online store of your choice!

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a preview and a special short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your free copy to read on a Kindle or any other e-reader! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

The Way Home: Origins of the novel

Salvete, readers!

My debut novel The Way Home officially launches in just a few days. The pre-order also has found its way to Amazon early, both for the paperback and the e-book. It’s actually doing pretty well already, given that I haven’t officially announced that it is available! It is a little bit surreal, seeing it in the top ten of its little niche, alongside Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. It’ll be properly available next week, and you can bet I’ll let you know when it’s out. In the meantime, a few people have asked me where I got the idea to write the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, a YA adaptation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

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Check out some of the amazing illustrations from Matt Wolf!

It started when I was an undergraduate in Latin class. My lecturer’s enthusiasm for the Aeneid was infectious, and I was not immune. Just about every lesson he would put a passage from Virgil on the board for us to decipher with the air of Santa Claus pulling a toy from his sack. Determined to know more of the story, I picked up a translation of the Aeneid and read it cover to cover. I had encountered Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey before, but the plight of the Trojan prince Aeneas spoke to me on a level I had not really expected. Perhaps the desire for a place to belong spoke to me in my late teens. On a more superficial level, I loved the sense of adventure. I had always been a reader of fantasy and historical thrillers, and here was a classic quest with monsters, gods, and epic battles. More than that, I adored the sensitivity of Virgil’s characterisation, particularly of Dido. Though I sometimes found the character Aeneas difficult, it helped me to understand that when we are reading classics we are dealing with the ideals of another age. Discovering the joys of Latin scansion helped me to find the music in Virgil and gave me an appreciation of poetic language which I had never really found before. Every time I returned to the poem, the same thought would occur to me: this would make such a great novel!

Later in my degree, when I came to translate the poem itself, I decided to translate it into the prose of an adventure novel whose language echoed the historical thrillers I had always enjoyed. Something along the lines of Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Conn Iggulden, or Bernard Cornwell. There was just one problem: the translation was awful! For some reason, dactylic hexameters didn’t gel with the direct language of a thriller or fantasy. I hated what I had written, and so would anybody with sense, so I shelved it and moved on.

Several years passed. I wrote a lot of terrible stories which will never see the light of day. I married and became a young dad. I did a postgrad research degree, worked for a museum, and immersed myself deeper into the classical world than is healthy. Eventually I went to present a paper at the Classical Association conference at the University of Reading. This was the first time I had travelled overseas on my own, and I felt very far from home. It was worth it though. One of the themes of the conference was the reception of Greek and Roman culture in children’s and young adult novels. There were a lot of great panels on Caroline Lawrence and Rosemary Sutcliffe. But the key moment didn’t come until I was on my way home.

At Heathrow I met a young woman who was struggling with her luggage. I offered to help, and we got chatting, and I casually asked where she was from. At this point she started crying—she was from Bosnia, but she was effectively homeless, a citizen of nowhere. Neither side of the civil war wanted anything to do with her. One side rejected her because of her heritage, and the other side because of her father’s religion. The war had been over for years, but she was still a refugee. She had endured horrors as a child which no human being should have to go through. I was sitting on the plane home, reflecting on what she had said. And that’s when it hit me: the Aeneid is in its essence a refugee’s tale from a world of gods and magic. It’s a tale for anybody who has felt there’s no place in this world for them. A theme which, two thousand years after the Aeneid was written, is still sadly relevant. And somehow this idea connected with the panels on YA literature I had seen. By the time I got off the plane, a plan was forming.

I wasn’t going to translate the Aeneid. I was going to adapt it, tell the story in my voice. I wasn’t going to put Virgil up on a pedestal. Instead, I would write an original work which captured something of what made the story significant to me. It would still be a rip-roaring adventure for young readers. Yet it would focus on the deeper theme of the refugee crisis. My goal was to make it a great story in its own right, not edutainment. And I would infuse it with something of my own experiences, make it personal. And you know what? This last part was actually really scary. But for the first time, I felt like the writing worked. It was real.

Five years and many drafts later, here we are. The book will be in readers’ hands very shortly. I’ve done all I can to make it the best story possible.

I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a preview and a special short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your free copy to read on a Kindle or any other e-reader! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

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Free short story!

Salvete, readers!

Publication day for The Way Home, Book I of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy is just a few short weeks away. In the meantime, I’ve written a short prequel, which I’m giving away to newsletter subscribers for free!

Betrothal introduces the characters of Aeneas and Kreusa, whom we here meet as children. The story takes place ten years before the events of Ashes of Olympus. On the eve of the Trojan War, a young girl must find her voice to stand before the gods… As an added bonus, you’ll also get a first look at the first three chapters of The Way Home.

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I’m offering the e-book exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your free copy to read on a Kindle or any other e-reader! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

This was an absolute blast to write and I’d love to hear your feedback!

Until next time,

Valete

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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!

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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

 

 

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