"Far from the Spaceports" among Abbott's best

FarfromthespaceportsProfessionals in the traditional publishing business advise that authors should stick with the same literary genre in order to maximize their name recognition. If your debut novel is science fiction, then your tenth novel (and all the ones in between) should be as well.

I've never liked this stipulation. I've always thought that fans will follow a good author wherever he goes, if that author stays faithful to what makes his books good.

Which is why I'm pleased to report that Richard Abbott's Far from the Spaceports is vintage Richard Abbott, a splendid good read, even if it is science rather than historical fiction, the genre of his three previous novels.

Abbott's work has a characteristic flavor profile: less emphasis on plot, more on character and world development. The action is satisfying enough, but it is never earth-shaking. Abbott does not send his characters off on impossible missions that require multiple dei ex machinibus for the resolution to take place.

This is particularly gratifying for me as someone who last delved into the science fiction genre by way of the movie "Interstellar." Ugh.

The plot of FFTS orbits around a kind of interplanetary economic fraud case somewhere in the future (AD 2100? No year is given), investigated by the one and only Mitnash Thakur, a swashbuckling coding genius who works for the Economic Crime Review Board, an agency I can only hope will be created by a future, benevolent technocratic government.

Sound underwhelming? Well, maybe. It's not going to involve a lot of laser cannons, tempting fembots, and journeys to the center of a black hole.

Instead, you have Mit, who uses computer programming the way Indiana Jones uses his whip. You also have Mitnash's "persona," Slate, a fascinating AI computer who (have to use that pronoun, it's really not an it) combines some of the aspects of the HAL "2001: A Space Odyssey" computer with what can only be termed sexy geek girl partner. Slate is linked with Mit through a neurotransmitter, so "she" can practically hear his thoughts. The result is quite an intimate portrait of hand-in-bot computer sleuthing and hacking.

The world Abbott creates is no less engaging: a set of asteroids in linked orbit called the Scilly Isles, remote outposts used as a base for miners. Think Antarctic Research Station, but without the penguins, or the oxygen. 

But the real star of the show may be the hyperauthentic codespeak, which is indicative of the kind of science fiction this novel represents: a reasonable, plausible future where computers and computer hacking are by an order of magnitude more important in everyone's day-to-day life than is now true.

Here's a quick sample from a Slate communication to Mit about an enemy persona: 

"Carreg's a very recent model Sarsen, with all upgrades to date, and some custom work done just a few weeks ago. Nothing unusual that I can see, but then I can't access most of the real content across the Pebble interface. Response time is quite a bit faster than I'd expect, but erratic. He's busy doing something else in the background, I guess. There's some kind of Dust code running some kind of daemon service, can't make out what it does. And there could be anything outside his public zone."

It gets more specialized than this, but as with Shakespeare (particularly Henry V, my favorite Kenneth Branagh movie, where you start out with an unintelligible prologue and end with the stirring "band of brothers" speech), the learning curve with the vocabulary smooths out by the end, and enhances the immersion in the world.

Add to this a number of well-drawn supporting characters (including the dashing South Asian spaceship captain Parvati and her partner Maureen, and Mrs. Riley, who is more than just an old lady B&B proprietress), a non-obvious economic mystery to unravel, and an ugly little persona that hacks in to Slate, and you have a nifty and entertaining short novel with much room for further adventures, possibly the best thing the author has done to date.

In short, another bottle of Richard Abbott, perhaps this time a Pinot Noir rather than a Cabernet, but all from the same winemaker and the same literary terroir.

Bottoms up.

Quail Ridge Books has The Master Mage of Rome series!

QuailridgebookslogoBook II of the Master Mage of Rome series, The Staff and the Shield, has released at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, NC. Quail Ridge is also carrying The Mirror and the Mage, the first book of the series.

Quail Ridge Books is one of the leading independent bookstores in the nation and regularly hosts events and readings with the most sought-after authors and national personalities-- people like President Jimmy Carter. Chelsea Clinton will be the next big name on Thursday, November 12.

QRB is also one of the best places to get lost in a very carefully curated selection of excellent books and music.

If you're local, take a visit and support a local business that matters to all of us.

The Staff and the Shield releasing soon

The-Staff-and-the-Shield-800 Cover reveal and PromotionalWe are proud to announce the upcoming release of the second book in the Master Mage of Rome series, The Staff and the Shield.

The short tease:

In 500 BC, the dream of Rome is small enough to fit in the heart one youth: Lucius Junius Brutus, Master Mage of Rome. But that dream is in jeopardy. Etruscans have stolen the sacred symbols that guarantee Rome's greatness, and only a Master Mage can get them back. But the greatest challenge of all may be saving Demetria, Lucius' best friend, from an arranged marriage!

If you've already read The Mirror and the Mage, you're familiar with Lucius and Demetria and their adventures with the mysterious scrolls of Numa Pompilius and the power of the Latin language that they encode. The Staff and the Shield picks up where the first book left off, and there will be plenty of twists and turns on the way.

This historical fantasy is appropriate for 10-13 year olds and anyone who wonders about the history and mythology of the ancient Roman and Etruscan peoples.


The Flame Before Us: ambitious but not grand

FlamebeforeusThe Flame Before Us is Richard Abbott's third and most ambitious historical novel concerning the Bronze Age Near East.

Previously he treated Canaan (In a Milk and Honeyed Land), then Egypt (Scenes from a Life), to which culture he has a particular sensitivity. The Flame Before Us concerns a wider swath of country and peoples, including Egypt, Canaan, west Syria, and Greece.

The time is 1200 BC, and the situation is dire for the established civilizations on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. A large group of marauders invades from the west, destroying Ugarit, the west Syrian metropolis, and threatening the Nile Delta itself, as well as Egyptian vassals in Canaan, including the cities of Gedjet (Gaza) and Shalem (Jerusalem).

These invaders are dubbed the "Sea Peoples" because of their preference for using ships as a means of transportation. Scholars have been divided as to where they come from, but Abbott settles on the hypothesis that they are Greeks. He goes one step farther as well and takes them for the Greeks who attacked and destroyed the legendary city of Troy, along with wagonloads of their dependents.

So, ambitious this book is, but in characteristic fashion, Abbott focuses less on sea captains with wind whipping their hair than on what we have come to know after Iraq as "collateral damage:" the ordinary people affected by these events.

To be sure, Abbott can't resist a scholar's interest in the Sea Peoples' ability to defeat conventional chariot-centered warfare. But there are actually zero eye-witness descriptions of large battles. Instead, the on-stage violence, so to speak, is always personal and jarring.

Several threads of characters, two from the sacked city of Ugarit, two from Egypt, two from Canaan, one from Greece, and one of the Ibryhim (Hebrews) form the material for Abbott's tapestry; there are so many characters, in fact, and the historical situation is so complex, that Abbott helpfully includes extensive explanatory notes at the end of the book.

But despite their number and diversity, each set of personages is distinct and vivid in its own way, and helps to create a full picture of what life must have been like in the uncertain times at the end of the Bronze Age. A surprising tenderness in the face of grief, loss, and displacement is the emotion that underpins the action.

I found myself most drawn to Hekanefer, an Egyptian scribe who is attached to a brigade of the Pharoah's provincial peacekeepers. Through vivid, often humorous letters home to his family, he confesses his thoughts about his less-than-desirable fiancĂ©e, his deployment to Canaan, and the ability of the army to deal with the invaders. Later, we see him in person, acting as a diplomat to the king of Shalem. He comes off much less the conquering colonial than a rank-and-file (if proud) Egyptian who is trying to make his way in difficult circumstances. Egypt, in Abbott's view, was never the hard-hearted place that the Israelites fled with God's help, but a civilized, tolerant country trying to head off others' political immaturity. 

Abbott's treatment of the Greek side of things is less convincing for me. His explanation that a single, charismatic war leader (named Akamunas, Agamemnon for the Iliad fans out there) was able to unite Greece and not only go after Troy, but continue on east along with large wagon trains of women and children seems unlikely to me. Even less plausible is the idea that certain of these wagon trains would "go rogue," so to speak, and take up with the conquered of Ugarit, as one of these does in this book.

Abbott anticipates this objection and gives his rationale in the notes, including ingenious interpretation of archeological finds. My own study of local peoples suggests to me that local peoples stay where they are unless some catastrophic event forces them to do so. Abbott is content to let Akamunas be the motivation.

But regardless of the true situation, history tells us that the strange and unpredictable routinely happens, and the interplay between the clan of "Sherden" Sea People wagon drivers and a brother and sister fleeing Ugarit makes for an absorbing read. Fiction explores where history might dare not to venture. 

One last thing about this excellent effort (pristinely published as an e-book, by the way), which Abbott may take as a suggestion for the future: spend more time on material culture. 

It is always a historical novelist's dilemma to figure out the level of detail at which food, clothing, tools, and the rest is described. Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, the movie version of which I reviewed here, is a Civil War novel that goes whole hog: every little tiny piece of anything is named and (sometimes) described. This practice creates a genuine feeling of alienation in the reader-- a distance that says, "You are seeing this story through a telescope."

Abbott's practice is to go light on technical vocabulary, not to examine too closely the kind of chair someone sits in, or the cold meat he or she consumes. This might be because Abbott is interested in keeping the narrative moving. But in a novel like this one, where the scope is necessarily large, the reader will tolerate, and I think, welcome more detail where possible. Abbott's next is rumored to be a sea-faring story-- a perfect opportunity to describe ancient gunwales and forestays, if there were such things back then.

In other words, Richard Abbott, more, more! Your public clamors for it.

The Mirror and the Mage

The-Mirror-and-the-Mage-800 Cover reveal and PromotionalI was pleased to spend a Saturday with the North Carolina Junior Classical League, giving a workshop on Archaic Latin and introducing Breakfast with Pandora Books' newest release, The Mirror and the Mage.

The Mirror and the Mage follows 14-year old Lucius Junius Brutus, who will one day becoming the liberator of Rome and the founder of the Roman Republic.

On the cusp of adulthood, Lucius longs to follow his brother into the army of King Tarquin the Proud, but his father sends him to the remote shrine of Numa Pompilius to be a priest.

Lucius thinks he will spend his life guarding dusty sacred scrolls, but he soon finds out that the scrolls have power-- and powerful enemies. To save the city, Lucius must become a magus magister-- a mage with mastery over spells that work only if the Latin grammar in them is correct.

Standing in his way are the Etruscan haruspices, seers and soothsayers who practice their own brand of magic using mysterious hand mirrors.

In addition to the e-book and paperback edition of the book, there is a beta version of a Roman magic game that you might want to check out here. You can try your hand at "perfecting grammar" (casting spells) and defeating opponents of various kinds.

If you want to be kept abreast of all the news and receive special offers for the book, email teenage underscore heroes atsign yahoo dot com and ask to be put on the mailing list. Or simply click on the "Join Our Mailing List" button at the side of this post.

Valete, omnes! Take care, everyone!

An opening loss with heads held high

1915hockeypostcardBorschland is participating in the XXIV NationStates.net World Cup of Hockey...

Special to the Borscher Sportteelegraaf
by Kadmus Greningen

The good news is that Borschland tallied four goals in its inaugural World Cup of Hockey game, a respectable number. 

The bad? Our opponents scored six, the last being an empty-netter. 

And although the fortress that is Heiko Moordfors was touched for five of the goals, Borschland should be proud of this effort, that with less than a minute to go in the last period, we were within a tally of the champions of the world. 

I expect that newspapers all over Borschland and the Continent have been tempering expectations for this game, proud as we are of our hockey. But we should hold our heads high, and ready ourselves for the next game versus Semarland, for our effort never flagged. The men of Gyatso-Kai were stalwart when they needed to be, playing a game at times of almost praeternatural precision. At other times, they seemed to lose focus, knowing that this is the first in a long set of matches. 

It might have been easy for the Flying Bison to ease up on the throttle after going up 3-0 in the first period on goals by Ishii, the veteran Tao, and Skirata. The Swans of Borschland were in their first match in this ultra-modern nation. They might in turn be forgiven for being blinded by the bright lights and deafening recorded music of the Sundari Times Forum. Or by the roar of 20,000 fans chanting their motto, "Vode An!" ("Brothers All!") over and over again. 

But Chrojstenkaamps and Lindemoor, inspirers of the first order, must have worked some magic, for at the end of the second period, here we were, tiny Borschland, trailing 3-2 and looking like going for more. The goals were not pretty. In general, the play was muddled, as neither team played consistently. 

Our first came on a rebound; Tjard Meern found himself in front of the goal when a six-player scrum allowed him to stuff the puck under Avatarian netminder Hotaka Zhao's skate. A general uproar indicated the opponents thought Meern had kicked the puck into the net. A video recording of the play (amazing invention, though not in my opinion a better witness than a human being) indicated Meern's trusty twig had indeed put the plug home. 

The second goal was Ganesmund's, a wrist shot from the right point, and a prettier arrow never pierced the hide of a Flying Bison. The last period was see-saw, hotly contested though again not uniformly elegant. After Ishida scored with Ishii's assitance to make it 4-2, here was Joris Sudmaas cherry-picking in front of the goal and deflecting a cannon shot from Reinhardt over Zhao's glove. Not the way we usually play hockey in Borschland, but the rink was confining to say the least. 

The defender Hiteki scored on a power play for Gyatso-Kai to put the home team up two goals with four minutes to play. And then Habel Baarda was tripped on a breakaway and awarded a penalty shot, which he converted with a typical Borschic feint and backhand flip. 

5-4 with three minutes to go, then two, then one, then Moordfors was taken out when we won a faceoff in their zone. That is when Ito, their most skilled defender in my opinion, simply took matters into his own hands. When Ishii won the faceoff, Ito received the puck, sidestepped two Borschlanders and launched it spindling down-ice. It hit the post and went in. 

In every way a game of ice hockey about which each team can be proud, and yet unsatisfied. The young goalie of Gyatso-Kai, Zhao, was never unsure, but perhaps a bit distracted. Yet he was brilliant at times and outplayed our Moordfors. 

Reinhardt, for his part, got only one assist on his deflected his shot. Afterwards, he said that the arena and the ambience reminded him of what had been his dream, to play in the North American NHL. "I'm priviliged to play on this team and in a country that loves its hockey so much," he said. 

We will go back to Borschland with a loss, but perhaps with a bit of respect on the world stage. The next game will be at our hallowed Te Rujnk in Staff Borsch, against Semarland. You may be sure the nation will all be there.

Off to Not-Borschland

The Borschland Hockey League is participating in the first Alternate Universe World Cup of Hockey. Here is Sherm Reinhardt's take on the team's historic first trip off-Continent for a truly global ice hockey competition.

So it wasn't a normal road trip.

I mean, I'm not even used to plane rides, and I'm American. Back in Minnesota, the only plane I ever took was one to St. Louis to visit my aunt Trudy and uncle Carl, and that was after Dad passed.

But the guys? That was another kettle of fish, as Dad used to say. Most or all had been on airships in their lives, but those things stayed close to the ground. An airplane was science fiction to them.

When the roster came out for Game 1, and the destination, this super-nation called Gyatso-Kai that was like a conglomeration of China and Japan and the kitchen sink, Chrujstoff Anselm and Hauke Sybrandy and the rest of the selectees from the Te Staff team plus Habel Baarda from Tarlunz got together at a very low-key bar to basically write our last wills and testaments.

"An airplane is not much different from an airship, yes?" Baarda said. He was a family man, five kids. A lock for the Hall of Fame.

"You have to like honey," I said. Bear Air was the carrier, and when I came to Borschland the furry flight crew gave me the full Winnie-the-Pooh routine.

Chrujstoff knocked back a Celtlands whiskey and wiped his sleeve. "Anyway," he said, "if there is a phase shift and we are stuck in Not-Borschland, I hear they have a big hockey league. We could all get a job, maybe."

"There isn't going to be a phase shift," I said. "That's why we entered the Cup."

"You never know," said Oovie, Uwe Sipken. Normally he did nothing but clown people. Pranks, stunts, April Fool's Jokes, that was Uwe's specialty, besides putting the puck on your stick like a gift from God.

But now Oovie was staring down an airplane ride.

"We will not get a job playing hockey in their league," said Rogijr Kelmenstremmer, one of the best defensemen I've ever seen. You couldn't shoot past him. Nothing got to the goalie if he was between goal and the shooter. "We might be able to carry their pisspots."

Baarda glared at Kelmenstremmer and said, "You have to wonder why we are going, if we are such a bad team."

"Oh, it's political," Hauke Sybrandy said. Professorial type, and a deadly finisher. "You don't think this is the Expansiveists showing Borschland how much better it is to be open to the world? You know they control the government. It's just a matter of time before we are exporting our peat to every land you can shift to, and we'll have none for ourselves, but the Expansiveists will be rich and living in Australia."

"That's bunk," said Oovie, and that was the end of the conspiracy theories-- for the moment.

The day we left, the scene at the airship base was utter chaos. Lots of women crying, lots of men crying, lots of kids crying. Very traumatic. Rachael, my wife, was pregnant with our first, and she nearly had the baby right then and there.

No one said anything on the airship ride, and the takeoff from Waterbrownbear in the airplane involved lots of white knuckles. But once the plane was at cruising altitude and we got our first Foster's under our belts-- the bears laid in a supply, they love to host parties-- we had a team meeting.

There was a lot of gallows humor to start. Then Tjard Meern stood up. Besides Sikke Pfelward, he was the oldest guy on the team, the best and biggest defenseman, and maybe the best passer on the team. Meern is one of those mutton-chop types who never backs down and never says anything, just gives you that look.

This time, he talked.

"Reinhardt, you're captain and you deserve it, I'll not argue that," he said. "And you know a bit more about the outside world than we do. So we want to learn from you, Sherm, and good luck to us."

A little quiet laughter, but then dead silence.

"A lot of things have changed since you got here. This is the next. We have to get used to it. We're not just Borschland by ourselves anymore.

"But boys, hockey is hockey. We know how to play. All of us. That's why we were chosen.

"So no matter what happens, whether it's bears or unicorns or magic or any other nonsense that can happen in God's good world, there is no way we are going to do anything on the ice but tear the other team's hearts out.

"When we step off the ice at the end of the third, win or lose, we need to leave them wondering if life is worth living anymore.

"Then we can go out and buy them a drink and say, allesgeet ergut, my friend. All's well. Drink up. You just played Borschland."

No one said anything more. The meeting was over. And no one said anything for the rest of the plane ride, until we touched down in Gyatso-Kai, and the guys picked up their equipment bags, and after that it was nothing but hockey talk. 

Because we were on the job.

An exciting new venture: Roman Magic

VanthDo you like fantasy? Do you like Rome? Do you like the Latin language?

If you answered yes to any of these, sign up for the Roman Magic e-newsletter and play the Roman Magic game.

I have never published a novel for a young readership, but I have for a long time had in mind a book that fuses my fascination with the Latin language and my love of fantasy novels.

The result of my work I'm calling Roman Magic at the moment. The title may change as we near publication time, September or October 2014.

The book is aimed at young YA readers, 10-13 years old, the same as the middle school students I teach every day.

Roman Magic tells the story of Lucius Junius Brutus, 14-year old apprentice spellcaster who becomes the guardian of the ancient lore of Numa Pompilius, and uses it to battle rival mages such as the seers of Etruria, who use bronze mirrors to reflect spells back on their opponents.

The lore of Numa gains its power from the Thirty Five, the basic "words of power" that, combined with the charged "grammarstones" from a quarry near Rome with a portal to other worlds, allow the spellcaster to do nearly anything-- which is both an opportunity and a problem. Lucius' greatest opponent may be his own desire for power.

Just as exciting, I am with the help of author and tech expert Richard Abbott developing an interactive spellcasting game that will be available online and on mobile phones, hopefully this summer.

Students of Latin should find this game familiar, as it is based on Latin grammar. It is not a grammar drill, however, but a look into the mysterious roots of Latin.

If you would like to sign up for an email newsletter with news about the book and opportunities to play the beta version of the game, read the book before it's published, and participate in the final stages of shaping and polishing, send an email to teenage underscore heroes at sign yahoo dot com, or sign up via the sidebar to your right.

Photo: A gorgeous interpretation of a Roman demon. Enlarge photo to see archaic-style inscriptions.

A new review of Skater in a Strange Land

Picture 1This one is from Mark Lee of the book review site The Masquerade Crew; he gives it the equivalent of 3 stars out of 5, and I appreciate his honesty.

(Image: Screenshot of TMC website. You like book reviews? Visit the site; lots there)

I love that Mark thinks Skater is "unique" and "a nice story underneath the rough exterior." He's less happy about the writing, calling it "sloppy" in places and that "the grammar/punctuation... could have used sprucing up in some places." (Ouch! Would love to hear some specific examples, and how far it goes beyond typos.)

Mark also thinks our hero Sherm should've reacted more strongly to the talking bears. That is a great point and really important for the book. To get into the book, you do have to get over the talking bears-- and the parallel universe, and the fact that no one has heard of Borschland, and...

I think if I were the hero of the book I might have reacted more strongly, but when I try to find a parallel, I go back to my first experience in a foreign country where they didn't speak English-- France. That might have been the most hair-raising experience of my young life (I was twenty at the time). I had studied French, but the reality of hearing it in "real time" was terrifying. Still, I got on the train to Paris and I did what I needed to do. You pretty much have to go with the flow when you're in a foreign country.

The bears, at least, speak perfect English.

Now, Sherm, he's naturally a go-with-the-flow guy-- he doesn't get excited about a whole lot, and I think that's one reason he's able to play a game where there is always a chance of getting your jugular sliced by a stray skate blade.

And anyway, he had nothing to lose, and had been flying for about 20 hours at that point.

But I'm really pleased Mark stuck with the thing and read closely enough to have specific opinions. That's an honor in itself.

Kudos also to the Masquerade retweet crew. Within hours of the review going live, there were bunches of retweets. 

The Borschland national flag

World-building is a huge amount of fun for a fantasy author, and even more fun when others join in.

My son started a Borschland fan-nation on the delightfully loopy site NationStates.net, and you need a flag as part of the profile, so I designed one for him. Here it is:


*Dutch readers may possibly see a similarity between this flag and a flag they have seen in the Netherlands. Let me know if you do.

I have known for a while that Borschland's national colors are gold, white, and black. In The Skater and the Saint (p. 147), a Borschland Navy airship is described as having a "gold and black chevron" on the side of its balloon.

The castle inside the triangle represents the old (17th c.) city of Staff Borsch, which was walled against Loflin and Foxian invaders. Its circuit is now followed by a loop subway line, and in most places it is still extant.

The flower inside the triangle represents a flower from the Bloomentwejg, the national relic of Borschland. The Bloomentwejg, or Flowering Branch, blooms every 300 years with flowers that confer immortality.

The colors of Borschland represent light (gold) and shadow (black), which must co-exist for the world to be stable. Saint Willem van Noos puts it this way in The Skater and the Saint (pp. 33-34):

Borschland, through its history has kept a balance of Shadow Saints and Saints of Light...It's not Darkness and Light. It's that light, when it falls on the world, creates shadow, and there is no light without shadow, and by the same token there is no shadow without light.

The white band between the gold and black represents the phase shift, the periodic phenomenon that takes Borschland and its continent into or out of a parallel universe. Note that white is not considered a color of purity in Borschland, but of void, liminality, purgatory, or limbo. This symbolism follows the native Loflin idea that the place of purification for souls after death is the threshold of the phase shift, a place of undifferentiated ice and fog.

The castle and flower in the "shadow" portion of the flag represents Borschland as a nation that, even when "unseen" or "in shadow" (i.e. phase-shifted to the parallel universe), remains vigilant (castle) and full of hope and integrity (flower).

There are other flags of Borschland. Ask if you want to know more about anything Borschic.