Shadows of Athens

While the subgenre of mysteries set in ancient Rome already has a number of talented practitioners, ancient Greece is a largely unexplored territory, which makes J. M. Alvey’s Shadows of Athens a special treat. In this book we follow an Athenian playwright, Philocles, whose preparations for presenting a new comedy are interrupted when a dead body turns up on his doorstep. From there the action unfolds both in the theatre—for the show must go on—and in the streets of Athens as Philocles, aided by his family and patron, investigates a shadowy conspiracy that somehow seems bent on both starting a war in the Aegean and cornering the market for leather.

Shadows of Athens is a skillfully handled mystery whose various threads are deftly woven together. The stories of Philocles’ play, his family’s leather business, and the geopolitics of the Delian League all come together in a satisfying conclusion. Along the way, we get some wonderful treats including a fully-staged Greek comedy, a sloshy symposium, and Philocles’ views of both the bustle of the Athenian street and everyday family life. Alvey’s ancient Athens is alive, full of both joy and trouble, and Philocles is a companionable guide to its twisting streets, even as he pieces together the conspiracy that left a dead body in front of his house.

For myself, as a historian, Alvey’s work is a particular treat to read. The book captures the richness and complexity of Athenian life in a specific moment—a generation after the Greco-Persian Wars, as the empires of Athens and Sparta were beginning to tilt toward war—with a liveliness that no textbook or scholarly history can match but with exacting attention to historical detail. It was delightful to be able to pick out details and know which primary sources Alvey was reading (and to recognize a cameo appearance by my dear old friend Herodotus).

I thoroughly enjoyed Shadows of Athens and eagerly recommend it to anyone with a taste for historical mystery looking for something new to pick up.

Image by Erik Jensen

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

SFFnal Book Classics: Redemption in Indigo

Redemption in Indigo was Karen Lord’s first published novel. It won a number of awards and nominations, including the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature.

Current Reading Redemption in Indigo

The description from Lord’s website reads:

“Paama’s husband is a fool and a glutton. Bad enough that he followed her to her parents’ home in the village of Makendha, now he’s disgraced himself by murdering livestock and stealing corn. When Paama leaves him for good, she attracts the attention of the undying ones—the djombi—who present her with a gift: the Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world. Unfortunately, a wrathful djombi with indigo skin believes this power should be his and his alone.”

Redemption in Indigo has been called a contemporary fairy tale, a mix of Caribbean and Senegalese influences (chapters 1-3 are based on the latter), and a story of adventure, magic, and the power of the human spirit, complete with trickster spiders.

I found Redemption in Indigo intriguing and refreshing. Since it pulls from such different traditions than my native northern Finnish ones, I did occasionally have to consciously stop and adjust my expectations (like I did when I was reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death).

Anyway. Paama’s humor was a delight, slightly sarcastic at times, and I’m definitely a fan of well-crafted sarcasm (like Jane Austen’s). Her bit-of-a-dumbo husband Ansige cannot control his appetite, with consequences bordering the ridiculous. Lord also made some interesting structural choices which nod towards oral storytelling traditions.

The most enjoyable feature of the novel, however, was how seemingly small scale beginnings (a wife walking out on her husband) actually turned into life and death siatuations, and, yet, that wasn’t turned into a DRAMATIC OMG IT’S THE END OF THE KINGDOM / EMPIRE / WORLD (again)TM story like so many western fantasy novels tend to be. Lord’s subtle telling just rolls smoothly on, forcing the reader to pay attention. I had more than one “Wait, what?” moment… Which, to be explicit, is a good thing!

Dr. Lord is a Barbadian ownvoices author, editor, and research consultant. Visit Lord’s website for more.

Image by Eppu Jensen

ICBIHRTB—pronounced ICK-bert-bee—is short for ‘I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Read This Before’. It’s an occasional feature for book classics that have for some reason escaped our notice thus far.

Quotes: Lords of Creation Don’t Take Advise

I’m (re)reading some things from my childhood, except in English instead of a Finnish translation. This paragraph made me gawk:

“Amy’s lecture did Laurie good, though, of course, he did not own it till long afterward; men seldom do, for when women are the advisers, the lords of creation don’t take the advise till they have persuaded themselves that it is just what they intended to do; then they act upon it, and, if it succeeds, they give the weaker vessel half the credit of it; if it fails, they generously give her the whole.”

– Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Whoa! Little Women isn’t really the kind of book where you’d expect to see sarcasm this sharp; it sounds more like Jane Austen.

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. New York: Puffin Books, 1997 [reissued; published by Puffin 1953; first published 1868], p. 571.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Deleted Scenes: Greeks and Romans

In the spirit of deleted scenes from movies, here are a few more snippets from Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World that didn’t make it to the final draft. Today’s selections concern the relationship between Greek culture and Roman culture, and the formation of the cultural fusion we know as Greco-Roman.

On the Etruscans as early mediators between Greece and Rome:

The fact that Greek culture first came to the Romans second-hand through the Etruscans explains some oddities in things like the spelling of names. It is easier to see how the name of the Greek hero Heracles became Hercules in Roman mouths, for instance, when we know that in between he was the the Etruscans’ Herkle. In the same way, Greek Persephone became Etruscan Persipnei, who in turn became Roman Proserpina.

 

On the dynamics of power and culture:

While Rome’s military supremacy only grew over time, the power to confer cultural legitimacy within the larger Mediterranean political and diplomatic sphere remained for a long time the property of the Greeks. The narrative that power lay in Rome but culture in Greece could be tuned to either side’s advantage: it flattered Roman vanity while giving Greeks a claim to special status under Roman rule.

 

On the similarities between Greece and Rome:

Greek and Roman cultures were compatible in many ways. Both were grounded in the geography of the Mediterranean, tied to its networks of trade and travel, and dependent on the “Mediterranean triad” of wheat, olives, and grapes. The climate and the demands of agriculture imposed regular annual rhythms that structured much of economic and social life. Both were, at least in their formative centuries, city-state societies whose politics revolved around balancing the ambitions of the rich and powerful against agitation from the less well-off. In their early years, their military power depended on unpaid citizen armies. Their economies depended on large slave populations. These fundamental similarities helped bridge the many differences between the two cultures.

 

On the uses of Greco-Roman culture:

There was no denying the imbalance of power between Greeks and Romans. Greco-Roman culture was not a collaboration of equal partners but a common ground on which relations of political power and cultural authority could be negotiated.

All of these passages got cut for various reasons—because the sections they were in got reworked, because I found a better way to express the same idea, or just for space, but it is nice to bring them out into the light again.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Some “Deleted Scenes” from Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World

They say good writing is good rewriting. They also say to kill your darlings. Both are good pieces of advice. The process of writing involves a lot of false starts, changes, and reworkings. Sometimes it means having to let go of something you worked hard on, that you like, but that just doesn’t serve the needs of your project.

In writing my book Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, I had to kill a lot of darlings. A lot of text just got deleted and rewritten, but sometimes I had to cut out things I liked and was happy with, but that just didn’t belong in the book as written or that I had found better ways to express. In those cases, rather than delete the the text entirely, I cut and pasted it into a separate file to save just in case I decided to put it back in future revisions, or maybe to some day develop into its own project. That file ended up being longer than any of the actual chapters in the book.

In the spirit of DVDs with deleted scenes from movies, I present to you a few choice bits that didn’t make it into Barbarians, but that I still think are worthwhile on their own.

On the significance of the Greco-Persian Wars in later Greek culture:

The Athenian playwright Aeschylus was a giant of classical literature. He was the first author to put multiple characters on the stage at once, thus introducing conflict and inventing Greek drama as we know it. He won the Athenian dramatic competition thirteen times and was praised for his compositions by both contemporaries and later generations. But when he died his epitaph celebrated only one achievement: he fought at Marathon. Such was the importance of the wars against Persia in the later history of Greece.

On the connections between Persia and Macedonia:

Alexander trod the path that had been laid down by Cyrus the Younger generations before. He had grown up in a Macedonian court that hosted Greek intellectuals and Persian exiles. The similarities between Cyrus and Alexander’s campaigns are hardly accidental. Both were efforts from the edge of the Persian world to capture the center. Alexander may have started his campaign farther away from that center than Cyrus did, but the ties of politics, diplomacy, and personal relationships that connected Macedonia to Persia were just as strong as those to ran through Anatolia and Greece.

On the shifting definitions of Greekness:

In other words, although both ideas always had some currency, in earlier times it was more common to argue that Greeks were Greeks because they were descended from Greeks, while by the later fourth century it was more common to argue that Greeks were Greeks because they acted like Greeks.

On the political ramifications of culture in the Hellenistic world:

Behind all of these complicated relationships was a fundamental political fact: Macedonian kings now ruled most of the territory of the old Persian empire. These kings and their supporters in the ruling class had chosen to identify themselves with Greek culture. In the past, some Greeks had exercised power over non-Greek populations—particularly in major colonial cities like Syracuse and Massilia—but never on this scale. Now vast new populations had to come to terms with the linking of political power and Greek culture. Their responses ranged from resistance to collaboration to indifference. The Greeks in these kingdoms also had to come to terms with new ways of being Greek.

None of these cultural innovations could erase the boundaries of status and privilege that the Greco-Macedonian ruling class had erected between itself and the peoples over whom it ruled. As in many more recent colonial contexts, the rigid enforcement of cultural lines may itself have given impetus to the reinvention of the cultures of both the rulers and the ruled. When being “Greek” was the key to social and political advancement, it is no surprise that some people looked for novel ways of being Greek while others strove to reassert the value of not being Greek.

All of these selections got cut for good reasons, but it’s a pleasure to be able to share them with you now.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Quotes: You Can Be Warm and Vulnerable with People You Trust

Some power reading on gender and power, especially at Anglo-American financial companies:

“My Kleiner colleagues said that I sucked the air out of the room, that I ‘wasn’t the warmest person.’ Now [after leaving] I’m told the opposite. I’ve thought a lot about how I was accused of being cold and unlikeable at Kleiner. Looking back, maybe I was. But it wasn’t because I’m a cold person. It was because I needed to have my guard up all the time. You can be warm and vulnerable with people you trust, not with those who you know are trying to keep you down.”

– Ellen Pao

Current Reading Reset

I can attest from personal experience, even if not in the same environment.

Pao, Ellen. Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change. New York: Spegel & Grau, 2017, p. 259.

Image by Eppu Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Spring 2019: Tolkien Exhibition at The Morgan in NYC

The Morgan Library and Museum is going to have a Tolkien exhibition.

Morgan Library The Hobbit Tolkien Exhibition 2019

From the exhibit description:

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth celebrates the man and his creation. The exhibition will be the most extensive public display of original Tolkien material for several generations. Drawn from the collections of the Tolkien Archive at the Bodleian Library (Oxford), Marquette University Libraries (Milwaukee), the Morgan, and private lenders, the exhibition will include family photographs and memorabilia, Tolkien’s original illustrations, maps, draft manuscripts, and designs related to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.”

They’ve also made an introductory video:

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth by The Morgan Library & Museum on YouTube

Related program includes a lecture, gallery talks, workshops, and family programming, among others. The exihibit is open January 25 through May 12, 2019. More information at The Morgan website.

Found via Locus.

Image cropped from the cover illustration for The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, via The Morgan

Quotes: If Anyone Hated Me and I Hated Them

As you may know, speakers of Modern English are struggling to find a non-clunky and commonly accepted gender-neutral third person singular pronoun to replace the generic use of he or she.

The issue’s been periodically debated for decades, really, but lately the calls seem to have gained more urgency. There are many contenders, among them e / em / eir and ze / hir / hir.

Singular they may be gaining some ground, or at least growing in popularity here in the U.S. I’ve seen references to a long history of using they in that manner, but these references usually give no examples. (Maybe I just haven’t been reading the better articles? Also, one sometimes wonders why the British use of one has fallen out in other world Englishes.)

In any case, as an Anglo-Saxonist, it’s beyond my era and/or expertise. Nevertheless, I’m curious about any early examples. Here’s the oldest I’ve noticed so far, from a 1938 Hercule Poirot novel:

“Pilar said gravely: ‘If I had an enemy—if anyone hated me and I hated them—then I would cut my enemy’s throat like this….’”

– Agatha Christie: Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, p. 18 (original emphasis)

This example is great, because it’s clear and unquestionable. I’m pretty sure there are a few singular theys in Jane Austen’s novels, but I can’t remember where. Maybe it’s the perfect time for a re-read. 🙂

Christie, Agatha. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. New York, NY: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1938.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

“At Least It Made You Feel Something”

I have a rant.

There is one phrase I hate to hear more than any other from authors, scriptwriters, game designers, and other creative people: “At least it made you feel something.” It is a phrase that is sometimes trotted out when audiences voice hurt, anger, or annoyance over how a story that they were emotionally invested in turned out, and it is a load of crap.

We all understand that no story is going to satisfy all audiences. Good stories move us, and sometimes they move us to tears or to rage. Some people want stories to leave them angry or sad, and that’s as legitimate as wanting a story to leave you smiling. But a good story should not leave you hurt or annoyed.

There are good ways for creators to respond to upset audiences (which, I note, is not the same as responding to trolls—that’s a different game altogether). They can say: “I’m sorry, I’ll try to learn from this experience and do a better job in the future.” They can say: “This was the story I wanted to tell, but clearly it wasn’t the story you wanted to hear, so you should find a different story.” They can say: “I think this story matters and I don’t care that you didn’t like it.” All of these are appropriate responses. They are honest and respect the validity of peoples’ feelings, even the ones we don’t share. Even no response at all is perfectly acceptable; no creator owes their audience any engagement they don’t feel like giving.

But if a creator does choose to respond to criticism, “At least it made you feel something” is no kind of response at all. What’s wrong with it?

It sets the bar absurdly low

Good stories make us feel things, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter what a story makes us feel as long as it makes us feel something. To put it another way: if I kicked you in the shins, it would definitely make you feel something, but you would be perfectly justified in saying that that wasn’t the feeling you wanted.

It dismisses criticism

Criticism is legitimate. People have a right to have opinions about your story, whether you agree with them or not. Simply dismissing all criticism with “It made you feel something” denies that what your audience feels is just as relevant as how strongly they feel it.

It is self-congratulatory at best, selfish at worst

Reacting to an audience’s complaints with “It made you feel something” is a reach-around self-compliment. Even worse is if you actually take satisfaction in your ability to make others feel bad.

It betrays a lack of belief in the merits of the story

“It made you feel something” is close kin to “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” In a social media world, creators may think that making their audience angry enough post online tirades about their work is the cheapest advertising they can get, but it is also a signal to the audience that the creators don’t care enough about their work or don’t have enough confidence in it to sell it on its own merits.

Stories often make us feel things. That is a huge part of why we read, watch, and play them. To open a book, watch a movie, or play a game is to entrust your feelings to another person for a time, and we have every right to speak up when we feel that our trust has been abused.

If what I feel about your story is hurt that you killed my favorite character, frustrated by the direction of the plot, or annoyed that you railroaded me into playing a villain, you don’t have to agree with me. You don’t have to take any account of my feelings at all if you don’t want to. But don’t waste my time with: “At least it made you feel something.”

Here endeth the rant.

Here there be opinions!