Coming 2019: Tooth and Blade

Salvete, readers!

I am thrilled to announce that in addition to the second Ashes of Olympus, next year I will release three novellas in a series based on Norse mythology. The title of the series is TOOTH AND BLADE.

For now, here are the cover and the blurb!

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They call me Peace-weaver. Warmaker. Beast.

My name is Dóta, and I am alone among my clan. The blood runs hot through my veins, though my mother’s touch gives me shivers. The gods of Asgard whisper to me in the night. I am a child of men, a monster unto monsters.

Sixteen years I have dwelled in the shadows beneath the earth. To discover my heritage, I must take up my bone knife and step into the light above. Secrets await me there—beauty, terror, the truth of who I am. Soon I must make an impossible choice, or the nine worlds will be devoured in fire and war.

A monster sheds no tears.

Norse mythology meets historical fantasy in the first novella of the TOOTH AND BLADE series. Step into a realm of haunted meres, iron and magic.

I hope you’ll join me for the journey. Part One of the series will land on Kindle in April 2019. I will eventually have a wider release for the box set of the series later in the year.
Until next time,
Valete

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

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!

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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

 

 

Book review! Runestone: Book One of Viking Magic

Salvete, readers!

This week I’m reviewing the first book of the Viking Magic series by Anna Cidor, Runestone. It’s a middle grade historical fantasy based on Norse mythology, so it’s kind of my thing.

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Historical fantasy occupies a unique space in the world of genre fiction. You’ve got to deal with the unreal world of the supernatural, but within the constraints of historical authenticity. Writing for children brings its own set of challenges. Where do child protagonists fit in a world whose concept of childhood was so different from our own? How do you forge a connection between past and present? And if you’re writing about Northern Europe of the Middle Ages, you’ve got to deal with the Tolkien factor as well—so many features of the Norse sagas have become fantasy tropes via The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Anna Cidor deals with these challenges well by side-stepping many of the clichés about Viking society.

The newborn Thora’s father has no interest in raising a daughter. He wants a strong young boy to help him out on the family farm. Oddo, meanwhile, is born into a family whose children learn magic before they can walk. To save Thora from being abandoned in the woods, the village midwife switches them at birth. Years later, Oddo shows no aptitude for farming, but constantly has to suppress his talent for magic. Thora loves working with her hands and making things grow, but has no magical ability whatsoever. When their paths meet, Thora and Oddo embark upon a journey to discover where they fit into this world.

It’s a simple story, well told. Oddo and Thora are charming characters who inhabit a world rich in detail. In the construction of her setting, Cidor pays as much attention to the natural world as the artificial, from the soapstone crockery to the alder wood trees. Her research into Norse social history really shows. The rhythm of the characters’ lives is determined by the seasons, as it should be for an agrarian culture. The characters live on the land and occasionally play at being warriors, not the other way around. If you wanted a story of axe-wielding sea-raiders or horned helmets, you’ve come to the wrong place. The system of magic is thoroughly embedded in medieval folklore and thus integrates nicely into the setting. I can’t fault Cidor’s research or her dedication to world-building.

That said, I question a few of the decisions in terms of authenticity. At times, the dialogue jars as it veers from the quaint to the modern. On the one hand, I think it makes sense for the dialogue to be idiomatic and casual. There’s nothing worse than highfaluting old-timey speak in historical fiction. On the other hand, well, the word ‘okay’ in a medieval setting just doesn’t feel right. While I appreciate that this world is essentially the author’s own, I never really got a sense of the geography or historical period. We get a fairly generic Northern European landscape, and the characters don’t seem to identify with any particular clan group. Anything resembling organised religion is notable by its absence. We get a kind of paganism minus gods—not one of the Asgardians rates a mention. This seems particularly odd when the story is about Viking magic. Surely Odin should at least be referred to, given that he was so closely associated with magic? I think adding a further layer of historical detail would have helped the story to feel less like a medieval fantasy and more like a fantasy novel which happens to be set in the middle ages.

Yet for every quibble there’s a stroke of genius. For instance, I love the use of ‘seethe’ as a verb for using a spell, rather than the more usual ‘casting.’ I’m guessing this is a transliteration of an Old Norse word for sorcery, seidr. If I’m right, this simple word-choice shows real sympathy for the historical past. Touches like this outweigh any drawbacks. With its likeable protagonists and compelling narrative, Runestone is an excellent first volume of what promises to be a thrilling series for children.

Until next time,

Valete

Review– Roman Empire: Reign of Blood

Salvete, readers!

In my last post, I mentioned that I finally cracked and got Netflix. What did I watch first, you ask? Did I go to Stranger Things? The Crown? The Expanse? A Series of Unfortunate Events? Daredevil? Jessica Jones? One of the many shows which demonstrate we are living in the golden age of television? Oh my, no. Me being me, I typed ‘Roman’ into the search box, and this led me straight to Roman Empire: Reign of Blood. Ooh, I think, Netflix takes a shot at Roman historical drama! Netflix has a Midas-like effect on TV shows, right? They can tell any story they want, free from the constraints of network television. Surely this was going to be a different take on Commodus’s story? They wouldn’t just repeat a bunch of lazy Hollywood tropes, would they?

Heh, heh, heh. Silly Past Julian.

Basically, Roman Empire: Reign of Blood follows the Roman emperor Commodus from his boozy adolescence to his rise to power. Comparisons to Gladiator are inevitable; it features many of the same historical characters. The show is a ‘docudrama,’ alternating between scenes of fictional dramatization, interviews with various talking heads, and sequences in which vast swathes of story are narrated by the venerable Sean Bean. Given that Sean Bean dies in every movie, I can only assume the narrator was crushed by a vending machine on his way out of the studio. It’s an interesting idea to merge documentary and drama, but by trying to appeal to fans of both genres it fails to please either.

The problem is that by relying on narration and interviews to carry so much of the story, the viewer never really gets the chance to get to know the characters. The series doesn’t show us who these people are so much as it tells us. We’re told in the narration, for example, that Marcus Aurelius is a great philosopher. But we never see this—not in the pilot at least. As a piece of historical fiction, I have my issues with Gladiator, but the way the writers worked lines from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations into his dialogue was a clever way of telling us he was a philosopher. Here we’ve just got to take Ned Stark’s word for it. The drama scenes feel unfinished. Just when we might get sucked in, it cuts away to somebody talking at us. It would have been far more effective to do either a documentary or a drama, but not both simultaneously. Of course, I’m not sure they had the budget to tell the story as a drama. I can’t help but admire the tenacity of the film-makers as they to make everything look bigger than Ben-Hur, but there’s no getting around the fact that the sets are tiny. Seriously, don’t try to tell me that Commodus is fighting in the Colosseum when it looks smaller than a college amphitheatre.

Any shortcomings in the production values would have been overcome by deep characterisation. I, Claudius had a budget not much greater than old-school Doctor Who, but still was absolutely riveting. Roman Empire is content with sword-and-sandals clichés. We’ve seen this story a million times. It’s basically a bargain basement version Fall of the Roman Empire, with gratuitous sex and violence thrown in for fans of HBO’s Rome. You know what made HBO’s Rome great? It wasn’t the boobs or the blood. The show worked because it subverted stereotypical portrayals of the Romans and invested so heavily in the characterisation. You won’t find that here.

It might seem like I’m venting my spleen at the show, and that’s probably because I am. As a classicist invested in historical fiction, I get frustrated when the same stories get trotted out over and over. Greco-Roman antiquity is such a vast, rich, fertile place for the imagination. There’s a world of stories out there. Did you know that the Roman empire gave us the first romance novels in history? There’s got to be more to historical epics set in antiquity than a bunch of sweaty dudes shouting and swiping at each other with sharp bits of iron. There’s got to be more to Roman female characters than maternal figures and scheming manipulators, more to their sexuality than simply performing for the male gaze. I love Agora not because it’s particularly faithful to the primary sources—it’s not—but as an intellectual character study of Hypatia. I love Centurion because it’s a survival thriller that just happens to be set in antiquity. Novelists have done so many interesting things with the Roman world—detective novels like those Lindsey Davis, children’s adventures such as Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries. Tansy Rayner Roberts goes so far as to invent a whole new subgenre in Love and Romanpunk.

By and large, TV and movies just haven’t caught up yet. This is a crying shame. I would argue that Greco-Roman antiquity is uniquely suited to long-form story-telling, as it allows writers the time and energy it takes to get readers to invest in what is essentially an alien world.

To put it bluntly, we don’t need another Gladiator rerun.

So there.

Until next time,

Valete