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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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

 

 

Newsletter adventures

Salvete, readers!

Wow, it has been a little while since I last posted, hasn’t it? I’ve hit 2018 running, as ever. Guess what, though? I’ve got something exciting to share… I set up a free monthly newsletter for followers!

I’m really excited about this. The newsletter will be a great way to keep in touch and share cool free stuff with like-minded people. I can interact with readers in a more meaningful way via correspondence than social media. And I’ll be honest, the recent changes to the Facebook algorithm gave me the kick in the pants I needed to start a mailing list. There’s never any guarantee with Facebook that your posts will ever find your followers. Unless you pay a small fortune, of course. Likewise, interactions on Twitter are fun but fleeting. The good old-fashioned mailing list remains the most reliable and cost-effective way to get messages out to readers.

Right now, if you subscribe, you will get an exclusive prologue chapter for the Ashes of Olympus series, my upcoming historical fantasy based on Virgil’s Aeneid. This chapter won’t be included in the book. It’s an exclusive free gift to followers. You’ll also get a special glimpse at the blurb for the first Ashes of Olympus book! Huzzah! Over the coming months, I’ll give subscribers the first look at the development of the book. You’ll get the sneak peek at the cover and read the first extract before they’re released to the wilds of the internet. Over the next few months, I’m going to share with my subscribers the early sketches for some illustrations I’ve commissioned for the book, so you’ll also receive original artwork based on Virgil’s Aeneid. In the long term, I am going to update the newsletter about once a month with my writerly updates. It’ll be a hoot!

What you won’t get is spam. I might send out an announcement about releases of my books. But I won’t clog up your inbox with advertising. Nor will I give anybody your email address. That would be an awful thing to do, quite simply.

I hope you’ll join me in this wild ride up to launch day!

Here is the sign-up page!

Until next time,

Valete

PS. Don’t worry! I’ll still keep up the blog. Regular posts resume now.

Some very good news!

Salvete, readers!

As you may have seen on Facebook and Twitter, I have just signed a publishing contract for my debut novel with Odyssey Books. The Ashes of Olympus trilogy kicks off in 2018, both digitally and in print. It’s a YA historical fantasy based on Greek mythology, in which a band of refugees must face the wrath of the gods to find a way home.

I want to convey how thrilled I am to share this news, but words just won’t cut it. Instead, I’ll let my good friend Snoopy do the talking.

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This isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to publication, but still, it’s my debut novel. Academic publishing and commercial fiction are universes apart, and you can bet I’m going to make the most of the experience. Publishing fiction has been a dream of mine since the first grade, when I wrote a story about a boy who was transformed into a koala.

I look forward to sharing the adventure with you over the coming months. As we get closer to publication day, I’ll share the cover with you and tell you more about the story and what went into it.

I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

Until next time,

Valete

Depictions of Troy in Historical Fiction

Salvete, readers!

After a couple of weeks of posts concerned with WWI, we now return to our regular programming to discuss historical fiction. Anachronism can be a dirty word when it comes to evaluating historical fiction. By and large, I would agree that blatant anachronism can be dangerous when it undermines the story. However, I would also argue that when used carefully there is a place for anachronism in historical story-telling. I’ve written previously about how complaining about anachronism sucks the fun out of everything. But anachronism can also be put to good use, if used in a conscientious way. I’m going to use examples from the Trojan War, simply because it’s a topic in which I’ve researched pretty thoroughly.

Numerous novels set in the Trojan war run with the Homeric tradition that the Trojans were more or less the same as the Greeks, eg. Colleen McCollough’s Song of Troy and David Malouf’s Ransom. In these stories, Greeks and Trojans speak the same language, worship the same gods, and share the same material culture. The power structures in Greek and Trojan society are organised in more or less the same manner. The idea that the Troy was a mirror image of Greece is in no way historically probable, and if we are trying to understand the novel using the restrictive framework of accuracy, it will fail dismally.

In fact, the historical Troy was in all likelihood a Hittite colony. Eric Shanower picked up this idea and ran with it to great effect in his magnificent Age of Bronze comic book series. His depiction of Troy was hugely effective in that it subverted the reader’s expectations. Another great example of a novel which honours the historical Troy’s Hittite origins is Judith Starkson’s Hand of Fire. Shanower and Starkson deserve kudos for their detailed research and the dense, richly layered depiction of Hittite culture.

However, even as I acknowledge the power of historical verisimilitude in these narratives, I would argue that the traditional depiction of Troy as a kind of Greek polis still honours the story’s historical roots in that it reflects the cultural milieu which produced the Iliad and Odyssey, the primary textual sources for the Trojan War. In this context it can be very effective for the historical fiction author to evoke a sense of time and place rather than to rigidly adhere to the facts, archaeological or otherwise.

Sometimes we imagine that archaeology is an impartial science which provides unquestionable fact. Problem is, there’s no such thing. Archaeology is just as much influenced by the vicissitudes of historical circumstance as any other discipline. Here I think it’s useful to consider the thoughts of classical archaeologist (and spy!) Jerome Sperling is illustrative. When he wasn’t relaying information to the allies, Sperling participated in Carl Blegen’s pivotal excavations at Troy. Blegen’s interpretations of the site were strongly criticised by later archaeologists, who argued that he allowed his experiences of seeing cities levelled by enemy bombing in WWII to influence his interpretation of the destruction of Troy. Questioned about it decades later on Michael Wood’s documentary series In Search of the Trojan War, Sperling responded:

To me it doesn’t have any great significance, this criticism, because everybody’s Troy is different from everybody else’s Troy. It depends on what blend you make of the poetry you’ve read or how much of the archaeology and you care about it, and how much you use your own imagination… I don’t see the need for identifying Agamemnon, say, as being the person there at the end of Troy VIIA. I mean I’m thrilled by, I’m overpowered by Homeric poetry, and I think everyone is who reads it carefully. It’s an over-powering experience. But that doesn’t make it, doesn’t have to make it historical, because you see poetic truth comes in the people that he talks about, their hopes and despair and problems and conflict. That’s where the truth of it is.

So there you have it. I think that if a renowned archaeologist (and puncher of Nazis) can recognise that the power of the Troy lies as much in story-telling as historical veracity, then surely novelists can too.

Until next time,

Valete