Beyond the Farthest Galaxy

PROM-006 - The spaceship Prometheus makes its way to a distant planet.

 

Beyond the Farthest Galaxy or The Search for Valhalla, are working titles for a science fiction novel that I would like to finish one day.  To share some of my writing with my readers, I am posting the first chapter below.

In truth, I am not a scientific person.  I’ve never been a big fan of Star Trek (I know, sacrilege) and thought the last three Star Wars movies were laughably awful.

That said, for years I’ve been tinkering with my own science fiction story.  What I like about the genre is that it’s so creative.  Like what Tolkien did with Middle Earth, it allows you to create your own world, your own creatures, planets, life forms, society, religion, etc.

The basis for the plot of Beyond the Farthest Galaxy is the classic Robert Lewis Stevenson novel Treasure Island.  No, my story is not a re-hash of Stevenson’s, I mention this only to give you a rough idea of the plot line for the story.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a pile of notes, character sketches and outlines for Beyond the Farthest Galaxy, but have not actually written much more than the first chapter.  I present it here to give people something to read.

Will be curious to hear what people think of Will and the planet Eden.

* * * * * *

1.  William Pendleton

Like two dancers moving together, Will and Rafe pulled their longbows to their ears.  Their ox horn bows creaked as they took aim at a 5’ tall, two hundred pound, bipedal striped fox.

Will’s grandfather told him the striped fox had been named after a small animal native to a planet called Earth in the innermost systems.  They both had red fur, a long snout, pointy ears and sharp fangs, though from the pictures Will had seen of Earth’s fox, it was not as big and dangerous as the one he was looking at down the length of his stone-tipped arrow.   Their striped fox used its red fur and black stripes to blend in with the Oryo bushes that grew in the forests of Eden.  Many an early settler had tried going for a leisurely stroll through what looked to them like beautiful gardens, only to have a striped fox leap out from hiding to tear out their throat.

“Now,” Rafe whispered and the two let loose their bow strings.  The arrows whistled through the air as they sped toward their target; Will’s red-fletched bolt striking the beast clean through the throat, a kill shot, while Rafe’s white-fletched shaft passed harmlessly through the Oryo bushes to thud into a tall Moroso tree.

As the beast fell, Rafe cursed under his breath.  Months ago, when Rafe had convinced Will to go hunting with him, it had been his idea to award their kills to whomever made the better shot.  Rafe had made this arrangement because he thought he was the better shot, and it irritated him to learn that although his school friend couldn’t memorize and recite the names of the twenty-two inner star systems like Rafe could, Will had better eyesight and a steadier hand.

Lowering his longbow, Will commented, “You missed, again.”

Their companion, Keeta, a little humanoid creature bigger than a chimpanzee screeched in glee as she scampered through the tall grass to plunge a crude stone knife into the striped fox’s throat to make sure it was dead.  Keeta belonged to a sentient tribe called Namba that lived in the Moroso forests of Eden.  Namba weren’t as intelligent as humans, but they had their own language, had developed crude Stone Age tools and lived in the giant Moroso trees in herds of one hundred or more, mostly eating the fruit that grew wild in the forests.

Rafe considered Keeta and the Namba ‘idiots.’ In fact, he considered most humans idiots too, but Will couldn’t help admire Keeta’s skill with her crude, razor sharp knife.  The Namba had six fingers on their hands and feet and their extra digits made them extremely dexterous at things like peeling back the hide from a dead fox.

After Rafe pulled his errant arrow from the Moroso tree, he raised his hand as if to strike the Namba.  “I told you not to let her touch them.  She’s done it again.  She’s bloodied the fur.  It’s no good.”

Will caught Rafe’s wrist and stopped him from striking Keeta.  “You can have the hide.  Just don’t hit her.”

“You sure?” Rafe said slyly.  “I took the last four.  You only got one.”

“It’s all right.  Take it.”

Rafe smiled, “If you insist.”

Rafe and Will had met in the little one-room school house on the island of Ithaca.  Their parents were members of an organization called the Anti-Technology Foundation.  Will and Rafe’s grandfather’s had both served on the first starship, the Republic Colony Ship R.C.S. Compass, to enter the Gaia Galaxy.  After they’d arrived, they’d found the planet, #R492, which system probe readings had determined contained the elements necessary to sustain human life, and they’d been sent to colonize,   The crew of the R.C.S Compass found five planets in the system, one of which was Earth-size, predominantly covered by water, and crawling with flora and fauna.  It looked so green from orbit they’d named it after the Garden of Eden.  The world contained two continents, Capri and Iberia and a small island they named Ithaca after the home of the ancient mariner Odysseus.  It wasn’t until they began exploring the surface and trying to set up a base that they learned Eden’s animal life, though not as advanced as humans, could be every bit as dangerous.

After the Republic colony Avalon was established on Capri and a wormhole generator constructed, starships began to pour into Gaia exploring the neighboring planets and setting up additional outposts on Capri and Iberia.   Disgusted by the way the newcomers cut down the Moroso forests and exterminated creatures like the striped fox, a group led by the R.C.S. Compass’ original crew, including Will and Rafe’s families, informed the government officials at Avalon they were going to set up their own settlement on Ithaca called Independence, and they wanted to be left alone.

Calling themselves the Anti-Technology Foundation, or Anti-Tech’s, the group published a manifesto stating that they blamed society’s ills on the scientific advancements that had polluted the inner systems.  Though they were laughed at and ridiculed in the press, the Anti-Tech’s said they intended on showing the universe it was possible to live a good, productive life by leaving their electronic gadgetry behind and living off the land.  While the robotic farms built on Capri and Iberia produced enough food to feed a dozen planets, since Will and Rafe had been born eighteen years ago, the Anti-Tech’s on Ithaca, though happy, struggled just to feed themselves.

As Rafe stuffed the striped-fox pelt into his backpack, Will spotted a long, dark shadow as big as a cloud moving quickly across the grass.  Without a sound Keeta used her tail to scramble up a Moroso tree and hide among the giant leaves.

“Get down you big dummy!” Rafe yelled diving behind a striped Oryo bush.

The shadow passed over Will, blocking out the sun.  He gazed up at the largest creature he’d ever seen, bigger even than the atmospheric craft that buzzed over Ithaca on their way to Avalon’s starport.  People called them Eden dragons, but they weren’t real dragons, not like the ones Will had seen in the picture books at school.  Eden’s dragons weren’t lizards with scales and didn’t breathe fire.  They had feathers like a bird, talons long as a tractor blade and a beak so sharp it could bite a man in half, and sometimes did, if you got caught out in an open field and weren’t paying careful attention.  On a clear day it was difficult to spot them against the sky because of their light blue underbelly, but today was partly overcast and the giant bird easily discernable against the dark clouds rumbling across Ithaca toward the island’s central mountain, the Twin Peaks.

Squinting, Will tried to figure out what it was carrying in its talons.  “It’s caught something,” Will said, shielding his eyes with a big hand.  “Something shiny.”

Keeta poked her head out from among leaves bigger than she was, and Rafe came out from hiding among the bushes.  “It’s picked up a shuttle.”

Will had never been on a public shuttle, but each year one visited from Avalon carrying officials from the Republic.  According to Will’s grandfather, they came to try cheating the Anti-Techs out of their land.  Republic orbital surveyors had scanned valuable mineral deposits on Ithaca and wanted to buy it from the Anti-Tech’s, but Independence’s city council refused to sell.  As Will recalled, a shuttle could hover over land or water and held about twenty passengers.  The dragon carried the heavy, titanium steel vehicle as easily as a cat carrying a mouse.

“Where you figure the shuttle came from?” Will asked.

“Avalon, you idiot.  Where else?  You don’t see any shuttles in Independence do you?  We’re still back in the twentieth century.  We ride horses and plow with oxen while the rest of the universe flies space ships and manufacturers its food in factories.”

“Seem’s like a mite far to fly.  I wonder if anyone onboard is still alive.”

“Why else would it pick the damn thing up,” Rafe said watching the creature disappear behind a cloud.  “Eden dragons don’t eat metal.  They’re carnivores.  It’s flying to the Twin Peaks.  She’s going to feed the survivors to her young.”

Will didn’t understand big words like ‘carnivores,’ but figured it meant dragons liked to snack on humans, which Will already knew.

“I’ll bet you there’s all kind of gear on that shuttle,” Rafe said.  “If we could find the wreck, there’s no telling what might be onboard.  Computers, helmets, maybe even a pistol or a decent rifle.  Here we are, living in the Space Age, hunting with bows and arrows.  I was born in the wrong place.”

“If there are any survivors, maybe we could help them,” Will replied.

Rafe laughed.  “With what?  These?” he said shaking his bow.  “By the time we climb up the Twin Peaks, there won’t be any survivors.  You coming?”

Rafe had a nose like a hunting dog when it came to smelling a profit.  Though it was illegal on Ithaca to own any of the high tech devices made on Capri, all Rafe ever talked about was getting to Avalon where he wanted to gouge himself on video games, moving picture stories, and little boxes that magically played music.  Rafe’s goal was to make enough credits selling striped fox furs to bribe a shuttle pilot from Avalon to stow him onboard.  His dream in life was to get off Ithaca and go to work for one of the interstellar corporations surveying the star systems around Gaia.  According to Rafe, you could get rich if you discovered some new mineral, gas or plant, that the corporations could turn into some fancy new consumer good and sell for a fortune to the ‘idiots’ back in the inner systems.

“I’m not a farmer,” Rafe told him again and again.  “I’m an entrepreneur.”

When Rafe asked Will if he wanted to come with him to Avalon, Will shrugged and said he’d think about it.  In truth, he hadn’t thought about it much.  Will liked Ithaca.  He liked the slow pace of life.  He enjoyed walking behind his father’s plow.  Though Rafe hated it, Will enjoyed getting up at sunrise and feeding the animals in the barn.  When everyone got together to help a neighbor build a new barn, and afterwards threw a picnic with fried brownie steaks and nectar juice, Will got a nice warm feeling inside.  He loved farm life, nor could he understand why Rafe was in such a hurry to leave it all behind.

“Come on,” Rafe said.  “We got to make it to the base of the Twin Peaks before it gets dark.  You can help me carry whatever we find.  That shuttle is going to pay for my ticket off this chicken shit island.”

The two young men walked all afternoon across a vast plain of dark green sawgrass.  Sawgrass looked pleasant enough from a distance, but if you examined it closely you could see each blade was made up of teeth-like saws that could tear through cloth pants, which is why both young men wore tough, knee-high leather boots tanned from the hides of Eden’s domesticated cows called brownies that provided their beef.

With Keeta perched on Will’s shoulder, the two young men trudged across the broad empty plain keeping a close eye on the purple clouds blanketing the afternoon sky.

“What if Montana comes back?” Will asked.  The old timers that had crewed the R.C.S Compass called the two last remaining Eden dragons Montana and Nebraska, because they said they were as ‘big as the states of Montana and Nebraska.’  Though Will had no idea what a ‘state’ was, he figured they must have about the size of John Franklin’s barn, which was about the biggest thing Will had ever seen.

“Montana’s going to be busy for a while,” Rafe said urging Will to pick up the pace.  “It’s Nebraska I’m worried about.  Don’t look at me you idiot, keep your eyes on the sky.”

They trekked across the field without any trouble and made their way over the Oryo covered foothills to the base of the Twin Peaks.  It was too late in the day to make it up to Montana’s nest on the snow-capped northern peak, but by nightfall they were able to make it half way up the mountain to the place where the air became too cold for trees and bushes to grow and they were forced to camp out in one of the many caves that dotted the eastern face.

“I know what you’re thinking before you even open your mouth,” Rafe said as they chewed on the tough, cured beef sticks they carried in their packs.  “No, we ain’t making a fire and cooking up some of that ceva meat.”

Ceva were a stork-like bird that lived in the Moroso trees, famed for the brightly colored red, orange and gold tail feathers.  The humans on Capri had hunted out all of the ceva for their feathers which they sold to the inner systems for ladies’ hats.  Rafe had taken to shooting the birds with his bow just to scalp off the feathers, making Will suspect he had a secret contact in Avalon.  What birds had survived on Capri and Iberia had flown to Ithaca where the Anti-Techs placed them on their endangered species list and protected them under their animal rights’ laws.  That didn’t stop Rafe.  He wasn’t against breaking the rules when there were credits to be made.  None of which Will understood.  The universal monetary system was made up of invisible things called credits you couldn’t carry in your pocket.  They lived in something Will’s grandfather called a ‘system,’ only it wasn’t a star system.  On the contrary, from what Will could figure out, this kind of system was so small, you couldn’t even see it.  Nor did he see the sense of trying to store up something you couldn’t hold in your hands.

Will refused to shoot birds just for their feathers, something Rafe dubbed ‘idiotic.’  He hated to see their carcasses go to waste, so when Rafe killed one of them, he had taken to wrapping up the ceva meat to cook.  He would have liked to have brought some home to his family as it tasted like chicken, but Rafe said he’d only get arrested for poaching, so instead he cooked the breasts and thighs for Rafe and Keeta.

“No fires,” Rafe glared at him.  “Go to sleep.”

Using a rock for a pillow, Will wished he’d thought to pack a blanket.  Keeta curled up into a ball beside him, providing some warmth, but not enough to keep his teeth from chattering after the sun went down.

They rose early and began to climb the rocky east face keeping a close eye out for Nebraska who was known to live on the southern peak.  Like the ceva, the humans on Capri had shot up all their dragons, leaving only Montana and Nebraska.  Every year when the shuttle from Avalon arrived in Independence, one of the subjects the government and Anti-Techs liked to argue over was the fate of the two remaining giant birds.  The Republic’s officials claimed the dragons were a nuisance that mistook their robotic farming machinery for brownies, which cost them a fortune every year in lost equipment.  The city council at Independence refused the Republican Guard’s planetary fighters permission to fly across their air space, saying the dragons had  been on Eden first and had as much right to be there as humans, a position Rafe considered ‘moronic.’

Will sweated as he climbed, even after snow began to appear among the rocks.  He was beginning to agree with Rafe that maybe the Republic was right for once, and maybe the city council was foolish for letting the last of Eden’s dragons live, especially when Montana and Nebraska might make a meal out of him at any moment.

Using whatever cover they could find, which wasn’t much, as no fauna grew this high on the Twin Peaks, the two young men made their way slowly through knee-deep snow.  It was getting so cold, Will’s hands had turned red as a tomato making him try to remember what he’d learned in school about frostbite.  While he fretted over such things, Keeta began to jabber excitedly in his ear.

Rafe hid behind a large outcropping of rock and motioned for Will to join him.   “Your little pet…”

“Don’t call her that.”  Like the ceva and the dragons, the humans on Capri had been merciless to the Namba, selling their populations to the inner systems as pets that they advertised as ‘smarter and easier to train than dogs.’

“All right then, your girlfriend then.  I was only trying to give her credit for spotting it first.  Look up there,” Rafe said pointing at a mangled piece of wreckage that had once been a titanium steel hovercraft.  With the roof smashed in, it looked like a burned out shell of a building.

Keeta chattered in alarm and together the two young men ducked behind the rock as a large dark cloud drifted lazily across the snow.  They watched as Montana returned to alight on the shuttle.  Like a farmer opening the double doors of a barn, the dragon used its long talons to pry open what was left of the shuttle.  The bird lifted its cruel red eyes to the sky, opened its curved beak and thrust its head downward as rapidly as a striking snake.  Montana tore a row of blue cushioned seating from the craft and tossed it aside.  Eventually it found what it was looking for.  Rafe gasped as they watched the giant bird snatch up a lifeless human from the wreck, lift its head and swallow the body whole.  Flapping its wings excitedly, she rummaged with her beak in the shuttle coming away with another human, this one alive—though not for long.  The man got off three shots from an energy pistol before Montana ripped him in two with her talons as easily as Will might snap a breadstick in half at Sunday supper.  With a high pitched screech of triumph, the dragon launched itself off the shuttle.  With a piece of what had been a man in each of its claws, the giant bird soared over their hiding place, banked between the Twin Peaks and flapped its way to the top of the northern peak where it fed the bloody remains to a single blue-feathered hatchling.

“Come on.  Now’s our chance,” Rafe whispered.

His throat dry and his knees wobbly, Will followed Rafe as he struggled through the deep snow.  Will was plenty scared, but determined to see if they there were any survivors left that might need their help.  What they found reminded Will of the time a transport ship carrying colonists from the inner systems had crash landed on Ithaca not far from Independence.  His grandfather had told him to close his eyes, but Will had to look, and had been horrified at the sight of dozens of human bodies dangling from the Moroso trees like the blood red flowers that bloomed on them in Spring.

Keeta scampered back and forth across Will’s broad shoulders, chattering to herself nervously as Will fought back an urge to vomit up the brownie stick he’d eaten for breakfast.  Like the transport ship, the shuttle was torn and twisted beyond recognition.  Thankfully Will saw only six bodies.  The first four had no pulse, the fifth breathed, but bled from his abdomen and appeared unconscious.

The sixth was a woman hiding in the tail section under what remained of the single engine.  While Rafe looted the ship, giggling in girlish delight every time he found some new treasure, Will knelt in the snow beside a dark-haired woman only a few years older than himself. As he lifted the sheet of metal she’d been hiding under, his heart leapt into his throat.  The girl was prettier than a newborn colt or a field of sweet corn on a summer’s morning.  The sight of her face and fluttering eyelashes took his breath away.

“I-I didn’t think anyone would c-come,” she shivered, her breaths coming in smoky gasps.  “Who sent you?”

“I’m just here with Rafe,” Will said apologetically.  “Are you hurt?”

“My leg,” the woman said.  Her body convulsed from the pain and the cold.    “I think it’s broken.  If you could just…”

“Don’t go no where,” Will said.  With Keeta chattering in his ear, even though he didn’t understand Namba, somehow they both knew each other’s minds.  Keeta pointed toward what he was looking for.  In what used to be a storage bin, Will found a pile of blankets.  He took them back to the woman and wrapped her in them.

“Thank you,” the woman said trying to smile.  “My name is Joan.  My father is the director of the E.M.C.  If you can get me out of here, he’ll pay a rich reward.”

“Did I hear mention of a reward?” Rafe said joining them.  His backpack bulged with electronic goods and he carried an old projectile rifle over his shoulder.   “I was going to tell you to forget her and help me carry this heating unit down the mountain, but…  How much of a reward?”

The woman eyed Rafe like he one of those acid spitting plants that grew in the Moroso forests and it had wrapped its vines around her ankle.  “Not a hollow credit unless you drop what you are carrying and help Mr. Fairchild.  I believe he’s still alive.”

Rafe laughed.  “You’re in no position to bargain.  Come on Will, leave her, and help me carry this equipment.  With everything I’ve collected, we can not only book passage to Avalon, we’ll be able to live like senators.  I bet we don’t have to work for a year.”

Joan reached up and touched Will’s face, searching his eyes.  Her fingertips sent electric waves rippling up his spine like picture’s he’d seen of a science project called Jacob’s Ladder.  “Please help Mr. Fairchild.  Carry him here.  We’ll cover him in blankets and hide him.  I’ll send a rescue team.  We’ve got to try.”

Will nodded and found the man with the gut wound and was about to lift him, when Rafe got in the way.  “Hold on there hero.”  Going through the man’ pockets he found a picture I.D.  “Lieutenant Winston Fairchild, Eureka Mining Company, Navigator, E.M.S. Meridian,” Rafe read.  “Ooh.  Lieutenant.  I’m taking his boots.  They’re a good pair of synthetics.  Perfect for sawgrass.”  He pulled off the left boot, then the right, crying out in surprise as a pair of goggles fell to the ground.  “Looky here,” he said.  “Mr. Fairchild’s is hiding an optical headset in his boot.  Must be something worth hiding.  What could..?”

A black cloud covered them and a flap of giant wings knocked over both young men as Montana swooped down and snatched up Lieutenant Fairchild.  Will fell hard against a twisted bit of metal that used to be the main beam of the shuttle.  Gingerly he touched the bump rising on the back of his head.

Keeta keened in terror and clung to his neck as Will picked himself back up.  He looked up through the hole in the shuttle’s roof to watch the majestic blue bird bank between the twin peaks as she carried Fairchild to her nest.

“Sorry about your friend,” Will said.  Carefully he put his arms under the woman and lifted her off the ground.  With Rafe berating him, telling him to drop Joan and help him carry his loot, and Keeta screeching in his defense, Will started down the Twin Peaks.  Paying no attention to Rafe, Will hurried as fast as he could through the deep snow, carrying the woman as easily as a newborn lamb.

“Do you know what your Namba is saying?” Joan whispered weakly.

That surprised Will.  “You understand her?”

“Some.  Don’t you have an electronic translator?” the woman said and laughed lightly.  Just seeing the woman smile made Will’s heart beat faster.  “I forgot, you’re Anti-Tech.  Your Namba is saying that your companion is evil.  She keeps repeating it over and over, boka, boka, boka.  It usually means bad.  But in the pitch she’s using, it means evil.

Rafe had his rough edges, but Will never thought of him as any worse than anyone else on Ithaca.  “Rafe’s my friend,” he said defensively.  Come to think of it, Rafe was Will’s only friend.  The only one his age in the little school house they’d attended since they were boys.  One day on the playground Will found two of the older kids banging Rafe’s head against a tree, claiming he’d picked something out one of their pockets.  Will didn’t think it fair for two older boys to bloody Rafe’s face the way they were doing, so had pulled them off Rafe.  When they turned their rage on him, Will blackened one of the boy’s eyes and broke the other one’s nose before their school teacher Mr. Edwards happened along and made him stop banging their heads into the same tree they’d been using to punish Rafe.

Ever since that day he and Rafe had been friends.  He’d been overjoyed when Rafe asked him to join him hunting and fishing.  Even if Rafe usually found some clever way, like claiming Keeta bloodied the pelts, to keep most of their catch, it was good to have a buddy.  Even if Rafe called him a ‘big dummy’ more than he liked, that didn’t make him evil.  Did it?

“Your friend is not a friend,” the woman said pulling her blankets closer around her.  “You’re freezing.  Take one of these blankets.”

“Thank you m’am, but that would mean stopping and I ain’t about to stop here in the middle of this open ground.  Not with Montana roosting close by.”

By midday they’d left the snow behind and began their way down the rocky slope.  Will found a cave that provided shelter against the wind and set the woman down inside.

“We’ll rest a few minutes,” Will said.  “You hungry?”

“Starving.”

Will broke his last beef stick into three equal pieces and shared it with Joan and Keeta.  “Should have thought to shove some snow in my pack,” Will said ruefully.  “It would have melted by now and we’d have something to drink.”

The woman looked at him gratefully as she chewed.  “I can’t figure out what someone like you is doing with someone like him.”

“Oh, Rafe’s not that bad.

“No, he’s worse.”

As Will chewed thoughtfully, Rafe caught up with them.  Scowling, Rafe unhooked his heavy pack and set it down gently, so as not to break any of the electronic gadgets he’d found.  Wordlessly, Joan and Rafe glared at each other.

“Come here dummy.”  Taking Will’s elbow, Rafe led him outside and showed him the goggles he’d found in Lieutenant Fairchild’s boot.  “She didn’t care about him.  She wanted this.”  He flipped open the glasses and fit them on Will’s head.  Tapping a button on the frame, Rafe said, “Go to files.  Search for Valhalla.”

Will blinked as the clear glass of the goggles snapped on and a series of lines, words and planetary maps flashed before his eyes.  The images moved so fast Will began to feel dizzy.  He pulled the goggles from his face and handed them back to Rafe.  “Makes my head hurt.”

“Yeah, well, that goes away,” Rafe said.  “It’s an old optical headset.  I don’t think the data is stored on the glasses, it’s probably saved on a secure server somewhere, this is just a link.  But you can use it to access Fairchild’s personal credit account, read the intergalactic news, talk to a friend, watch a movie.  Short of wiping your ass, this little baby will do just about anything.  But the really important stuff, I found in a folder he had labeled ‘top secret.’  I don’t understand it all.  It has to do with planet named Valhalla.  And if it’s top secret, it’s worth a lot of credits to someone.  This thing is as good as a treasure map.  I sell this to the right buyer, the two of us can get away from cow town and live like emperors.  The only thing you need to do is—dump the dame.  You don’t have to cut her throat, just leave her here.  With that leg of hers, she’ll never make down the mountain.  Both of our hands will be clean.”

“Now Rafe, you know I can’t do that.”

“Of course you can.  If you don’t, you’ll force me to put a bullet in her.”  Lowering his voice, Rafe added.  “We bring her back, she’s going to rat me out to the city council.  All our plans will be ruined.  I’m doing this for your own good, Will.  You’re the only friend I got here.  All you gotta do is walk away.  Go on.  Start down the hill.”

Will took a few steps back toward the cave.  “I’m sorry.”

The woman had been right.  Rafe was evil.  He watched his friend unsling the rifle from over his shoulder and point it at him.

“Now, I’ve never had any practice with one of these.  But at this range, even I can’t miss, you idi…”

Rafe never finished his sentence.  His first glimpse of the giant winged bird was reflected in Will’s eyes.  They’d finally found Nebraska.  Or rather, Nebraska found them.  Will ran for the cave, never taking his eyes from the creature.  It was huge, even bigger than Montana, and easily recognizable by the scar that ran from under its right eye down its throat and through the white feathers on its chest.  Its wingspan wider than John Franklin’s barn, the dragon swooped in out of the sun.  Too late Rafe turned and tried to fire, but in his terror he fumbled with the gun, dropping it before he could get off a shot.  Nebraska landed on him like a hawk on a rabbit, covering Rafe with his talons, but not squashing him under his weight.  The dragon screeched and rolled Rafe over with a single talon like a cat toying with a mouse.

Will stumbled into the cave and snatched up his bow and quiver.

“Don’t!  He’s not worth it!  He was going to kill us both,” Joan yelled.  She wore an optical headset similar to the one Rafe had taken from Fairchild.  “I’ve got a signal.  Don’t go…”

Notching an arrow in his bow, Will ran back outside, Keeta alongside him.  The first missile stuck the bird in the chest.  It was like trying to bring down a starship with a pointy stick.  Shouting and waving his arms he tried to get the creature’s attention.  If he distracted the beast, Rafe might be able to roll to safety.  Nebraska glanced over at him like he was an annoying fly.  The giant bird reared up and flapped its wings, throwing a cloud of rocks and dirt at him, driving Will back a step.  Wiping the dust from his eyes, he aimed his second arrow at the bird’s face and let fly.

Keeta hopped up and down in glee.  An eye shot!  White fluid oozed from the red orb and the beast screamed in pain and rage.  Now Will had his full attention.  Deciding it had had enough fun with Rafe, the dragon raked its sharp talons over him, slicing Will’s school pal up like a loaf of bread.  Rafe screamed in agony, his dismembered arms and legs flopping on the rocky ground the same way a ceva’s body twitched after you cut off the head.

Will placed a third arrow in the dragon’s throat and was reaching into his quiver again when Nebraska reared back his head, aiming to spear Will with its beak.  Only Keeta ran out in front of him, drawing the bird’s attention, diverting his aim.  The beak struck with cobra-like quickness—snatching up the little Namba.  Keeta wailed as Nebraska lifted its head to the sky and opened its jaws wide.  With a single gulp the dragon swallowed Keeta whole.  A bulge that had once been Will’s friend slid down the bird’s long neck and disappeared.

More angry now than afraid, Will put a fourth arrow into the bird’s throat, which in its hurry to get at Will trampled on what remained of Rafe’s body.  The young man’s head and chest splattered against the hard ground the same way an overripe plum exploded when you threw it against a wall.

As the dragon reared back its head, knowing he was about to die, Will let fly a fifth arrow.  It flew straight and true right inside the beast’s open beak.  As the arrow pierced Nebraska’s pink tongue, out of the corner of his eye Will detected an arrow of another kind speeding at the dragon’s back.  Something long and white as snow struck the creature from behind.  The next thing Will knew, Nebraska was enveloped in a wall of flame.  The white missile had been fired by a robotic system fighter that soared high overhead, doing a victory roll between the Twin Peaks.  Will was knocked off his feet by the concussion.  Nebraska tried to spread its wings and fly, but its feathers lit up faster than dried hay in a brush fire.

Joan had managed to crawl from the cave where she lay on the ground watching.  With Nebraska filling the mountain air with black smoke and screeching out its death knell, Will picked up the woman and carried her back inside lest they both end up trampled underfoot.

“Are they both gone?”

“Yes,” Will said.  “You did that?”

“If you have the credits, in a matter of minutes you can have an X-11 shoot down anything on Eden.  I may go to jail for breaking about a dozen of your laws, but you were worth saving.  I can’t believe I watched you stand up against a dragon with only a primitive bow.  That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Keeta was the brave one,” Will said.  I’m just a big dummy, he thought.  Will glanced at Rafe’s backpack and considered opening it to see what Rafe traded his life for, but left it alone.  He needed to get Joan to a doctor.

Nebraska finally ceased its cries and fell, landing so hard it shook the ground.

“Wait here.  I’ll be back,” Will said, intent on making sure Montana was not hovering overhead.  Nebraska sizzled like a steak on a grill at a picnic on Foundation Day.  The air smelled like burnt ceva.  Like he’d been drawn to the colony transport crash site, Will could not help but stare at Rafe’s body.  It looked as smashed, broken and bloody as one of Eden’s oversized mosquito’s that Rafe had liked to squash with a hammer.

Not far from Rafe’s remains his rifle lay on the ground.  Will considered picking it up, but what was the point?  The Anti-Techs would only take it from him.  The sun broke through the clouds and glittered on something lying next to the gun.  It was the goggles Rafe had found on Lieutenant Fairchild.  Will put them on, but grew frustrated and took them off when he was unable to figure out how to make the pretty pictures flash before his eyes.

Rafe had called it a treasure map to a planet called Valhalla.  Will had never heard of the place, but the idea of owning something ‘secret’ lifted goose bumps on his arms.  Like Joan, he would break the law too.  He shoved the glasses into his pocket and went to tell her it was safe to move.

The Good, the Bad, the Mediocre: Amazon Reviews

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Good Reviews: The Bubbles in the Champagne

Since publishing The Wandering King in April of 2013, approximately 2,000 copies have been distributed through various booksellers.

Ninety-seven percent of the sales have been e-books rather than hard copies, and 99% have been through Amazon. A distant second is Barnes & Noble (20 sales), and behind them is Apple iBookstore (2 sales). Dead last is Smashwords (1 sale).

The success The Wandering King has received on Amazon has been largely due to the reviews.  The average rating of your combined reviews gives your book a ranking under the ‘top rated’ listing and a special spot on Amazon’s web page.  This ranking has placed my book in the #1 to #3 spot under the Ancient Greek History category for the last 9 months.

To date, the book has received 40 reviews on Amazon.  Here is a breakdown of the number of 5-star through 1-star reviews:

                (28) 5 stars
                (9) 4 stars
                (2) 3 stars
                (1) 1 star

It has been a delight to read reviews such as:

  • Turning the last page of a good book, ending a good read, is like saying goodbye to a dear friend. One relishes the experience of both and longs for more time together…                    

                                       Dianne Smith

  • Many thanks to the guy who wrote this book. Really enjoyed it and have recommended it to all my friends. The book is something special, great character development; this man can really write.  

                                      Steve Fowler

  • Well-crafted historical fiction both educates and entertains the reader. Stephen Marte’s ‘The Wandering King’ achieves those goals. I’m looking forward to reading more of his story…

                                      Gregory Stoltz

  • Fantastic story, absolutely loved this. It is the story of a young Spartan growing from boyhood to manhood. The author portrays a character raised in a harsh world, but who still dares to defy tradition and what is expected of him. Brilliant, I cannot wait for the sequel…

                                      Tomas

A heart-felt thank you to everyone who has taken the time to write a review.  You have greatly contributed to the success of The Wandering King.

I do not know Dianne, Steve, Greg or Tomas, or the vast majority of my reviewers, which makes reading their reviews immensely gratifying.  Knowing people you’ve never met in Pittsburgh, Dallas or Portland enjoyed the story so much they can’t wait to read more, is music to any writer’s ears.

Admittedly, I do know four of my reviewers. My mom, my brother and two friends have reviewed The Wandering King, but they all read the book and enjoyed it, so their reviews are legitimate. Knowing Amazon will delete your book and toss you off their site if you try planting fake reviews, is all the motivation any author should need to play it honest.

I wish I could get more of my family, friends and co-workers to post reviews. When someone tells me they’ve read the book and loved it, my stock response is: “Put it in writing. Post a review.” Unfortunately, the majority of people who have told me they’ve read the book, never post anything.

Bad Reviews: The Worm in the Apple

The Wandering King has received only one bad review. After a year of nothing but good reviews, I received this in May 2014:

  • This is one I put down early. I’ve read Herodotus a number of times and have wondered what Doreius [sic] and His [sic] adventures to the lotus eaters could have looked like. The author tells his story rather than shows. The writing lacks even basic description. I do not have any idea where the other reviewers gave this book even a score higher than 2. It’s that briutal [sic].

                                    Sparta Fan

If Sparta Fan had an axe to grind with me, he succeeded.  His 1-star review succeeded in knocking The Wandering King off its perch as the #1 top-rated Ancient Greek History book on Amazon.  Seems hard to believe one review could knock me out of the top seat, but it did, which has adversely affected book sales.

As a professional writer who has spent a lifetime researching The Wandering King and three years writing and polishing his work, it is distressing to read, “the author tells his story rather than shows” and “the writing lacks even basic description.”

I refer Sparta Fan to the first chapter of the book, which appears here in my blog, The Planistai. To quote a sample of showing versus telling:

  • While we waited, I noticed Gorgo was trembling beside me. “Are you all right?”
    She looked at me wide-eyed. “I am so excited!”

If I wanted to tell the reader how Gorgo was feeling, all I had to do was say, “Gorgo was excited.”  Instead, these two lines show her trembling and wide-eyed.

Also in the same chapter appears:

  • “No girl is going to tell me what to do,” my cousin Pausanias snorted. Especially not the daughter of Cleomenes. Pausanias was a husky boy, with a thick neck, gloomy, deep-set dark eyes, a face full of pimples and a broad, pug nose that had always made me think of him as a wart hog.

If I wanted to tell the reader Pausanias did not like Gorgo, all I had to say was, “Pausanias did not like Gorgo.” Instead you see how Pausanias feels through his dialogue. Also in the paragraph is a brief description of Pausanias’ appearance. Why Sparta Fan would state the book “lacks even basic description” makes me wonder if he even read it.

Rather than continue to quote additional excerpts from The Wandering King, if you want to make up your own mind on the matter, please read the sample chapter on this site: The Planistai. It’s free.

I apologize if I sound defensive. I am. Writing is an intensely personal experience. Your books are like your children. Insult my son and like any good parent, my reaction is to leap to his defense.

A friend who read Sparta Fan’s review called it a ‘hatchet job.’ In looking over the other books Sparta Fan’s has reviewed on Amazon, I see he’s highly rated a number of books by British author David Gemmell. I’ve tried to read Gemmell’s work, but I don’t care for his style. I would describe his writing as, ‘historical fantasy,’ which doesn’t interest me. To be fair to Sparta Fan, I am guessing he was expecting historical fantasy like Gemmell’s work and instead got historical fiction. 

In the end, what I’ve learned from reading Sparta Fan’s review is that everyone has different preferences, and you can’t expect to please everyone.  It’s like looking at a painting by Picasso. One person sees an odd collection of blocks and colors that remind them of fingerpainting, while another person sees a woman weeping that is so evocative the viewer is moved to tears.

I suppose all I can do is be thankful that the majority of my readers appear to enjoy my writing.  On the flip side, I’ve learned that reading negative reviews can destroy your motivation.  Who wants to spend all of the time and energy required to write a book if some stranger with an axe to grind is going to piss all over your work?

Mediocre Reviews: The Flavorless, Chewy Steak

The Wandering King has only received two 3-star reviews. In one, the reviewer had nothing but good things to say about the book.

  • The Wandering King is an entertaining read that paints a different picture of the principal families of Sparta than other books of the same genre. Interesting stories, good detail, and enough action to keep the pages turning.

                                          David Nolletti    

David appears to have enjoyed the story.  Why he gave it an average rating is a mystery.  Perhaps to him a 3-star rating means it met his expectations or maybe some people are just tough reviewers.

The only other 3-star review commented that the book was “entertaining” but he found it troublesome that I used some modern language that he did not feel was appropriate to ancient Greece. Wish he had given some examples. If he had, I would have corrected them.

* * * * *

Where initially I loved seeing a new book review appear, I am now a lot more tentative about reading them.  It’s tempting not to look them at all lest it sap my energy to keep writing.  That said, I have no intentions of quitting.  Yes, I write so others will read what I’ve written, but first and foremost, I write to create something I would enjoy reading, and that feeling is not likely to go away.

If others have had similar experiences or advice regarding book reviews, would be curious to hear them.

Stealing Helen

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Co-Authoring a Work of Fiction

In March, I placed a new short story titled, Stealing Helen, for sale on Amazon.  It was co-authored with my cousin Richard LaVerghetta.  I wrote about growing up with Rich in my blog post, The Calling.  Rich’s mother and my mother are identical twins, so Rich and I spent a lot of time together when we were young.  In the process we developed some similar interests, such as our love of ancient history.

One night while Rich and I were watching the movie Troy, we spent the majority of the time groaning at all of the movie’s errors.  For instance, in one scene the Greek city of Sparta appears on the coast.  In actuality, Sparta is inland, about 30 miles from the sea.

Sad to say, Troy is about as accurate as Sarah Palin’s 2011 comment that during the Revolutionary War, Paul Revere rode to warn the British, not the American colonists.  While laughing at the movie’s many gaffs, we wondered if the film had a historical consultant (it doesn’t).  If it had, we postulated that the poor fellow probably demanded his name be deleted from the credits as it would serve as a black mark on his career.

Thus the idea for Stealing Helen was born.  It’s main character, Donald, is a fictional history professor at Princeton University, and the historical consultant on the film.  Most of the characters are based on real people involved with the film, including; Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Peter O’Toole, Diane Kruger and the director Wolfgang Peterson.

To let people know this is not journalism, this is farce, we added a sub-title on the cover, “A satire about the movie Troy,” and we added a disclaimer on the copyright page stating, “This is a work of satire.  All characters and events in this story, including those based on real people, are entirely fictional.”

To write the story, Rich and adopted a technique we used when we were teenagers.  I wrote a scene of the story, sent it to Rich, who wrote the next scene, and so forth.

What began as a project to poke fun at Troy, became something else as the story progressed.  I’m not sure how it happened, but as we were writing we began drawing parallels between what was going on in ancient Troy and what was going on in Donald’s personal life.

The end result, particularly the ending of the story, was a surprise to Rich and I, as it concluded with a scene we had not foreseen when we initiated the project.  Chalk it up to the magic of writing.   Sometimes delightful things happen that you hadn’t anticipated.   What started out as comedy, ends with something poignant to say about relationships.

Decision to Place only on Amazon

The story appears only on Amazon.  At this point, I see no reason to place it on Barnes & Nobles or Smashwords, as neither book seller yields anywhere near the number of readers as Amazon.  From what I’ve noted over the past year, Amazon truly is king.

One additional note.  It appears that Amazon’s ‘free book’ promotion is drying up.  It’s no where near as effective as it was a year ago.  In April 2013, when I offered The Wandering King for free for five days it yielded approximately 900 downloads.  When I did similar with the short story Inherit the Flames early in 2014, it yielded about 150 downloads.  Stealing Helen yielded only 75.

From what I’ve read, Amazon has woken up to the fact that they don’t make any money by offering free content.  So it seems they’ve changed their mysterious algorithms related to book rankings yet once again.  Where in the past, after offering your book for free it ended up placed high in its book category, now there is no lift at all after the book’s free promotion is concluded.  Which gives authors one less reason to give their book away.

What Amazon is now pushing is their new ‘countdown deal’ promotion.  Instead of offering your book for free, this new deal enables you to lower the price of your book for 5 days.

I imagine these changes will help Amazon accomplish its goal of eliminating the mountains of free content on their site, and make them more money.

My apologies for not posting something here in my blog to let people know when Stealing Helen was free.  If you are interested in reading an amusing short story, the good news is that it’s only .99 cents.  That’s a bargain in any historical epoch.

Inherit the Flames

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In an author’s blog, I recently found a comment that after she had written three books she noticed a dramatic increase in sales.  She now has 12 books out, but it was after her third book hit the shelves that she felt she gained more reader attention and things began to take off.

It is going to be several months before I finish the second book in The Wandering King series, and possibly another few years before the third book in the trilogy appears. 

So I began wondering how I might be able to get a few more content on Amazon without taking too much time away from working on my Greek story. 

Don’t know if it’ll make a difference or not, but I’ve decided to publish a few short stories on Amazon.  The first of these is titled Inherit the Flames.

It’s a modern re-telling of the Biblical Cain and Abel story about a good brother and a bad brother.  Bad brothers tend to get into more trouble, so there is more opportunity for conflict, so the story follows one day in the life of Cain’s modern day counterpart, Conor. 

Both 18-year old Conor and his 21-year old brother Aidan are equally intelligent and talented, but each have chosen a different path in life; Conor to become a rock guitarist and Aidan to go to med school.  Take a guess at which one their religious parents favor and which is the outcast? 

The story is set in and around Atlantic City in 1978.  I lived in that area when I was young and as this was the year before gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, it provides a gritty backdrop to the story.  In those days my friends referred to Atlantic City as ‘Sin City’ as it was overrun with drugs, prostitution and racial strife. This is the enviroment that Conor is trying to esacpe and he’s got one day to do it. Will he succeed?  That question propels the plot forward.

Juxtaposed against Conor and Aidan are two female characters, Miriam and Alyssa, one from the wrong side of the tracks and one from a wealthy family that has given her everything. I’ve included them to add depth to the central theme of the story: do we inherit the sins of our fathers?  Are Conor and Miriam doomed simply because their fathers were evil men? Or will they escape their fate?

Though the short story only costs .99 cents on Amazon, if you’re reading this blog and tempted to buy it, wait till March 1.  I’ll be offering it for free through Kindle Select from March 1 through March 5.

With This Shield

spartan shieldOne of the most gratifying things about reading the reviews on Amazon for The Wandering King are the comments from people that are looking forward to reading the second book in the series.  Therefore I wanted give my small band of followers a sneak preview as to where I am going with book two, titled:  With This Shield.

The title comes from a famous rite of passage in Spartan culture.  When a young man graduated from the agoge and was about to take his place in the army, his closest female relative, usually his mother, presented him with his shield, with these words:

“Return with this shield,
or carried home dead upon it.”

Victory or death.  Come home a winner or don’t come back alive.  That may sound like harsh advice, particularly from your mother, but the Spartans were so out-numbered by their helot serfs, their very survival depended entirely on military superiority.  In fact, after just one catastrophic loss on the battlefield, at Leuctra in 371 B.C., the entire Spartan system collapsed and never recovered.

Magna Graecia

Book one in The Wandering King series, Summer, Harvest, War, was divided into three sections:  Libya, Corinth and Delphi, and followed the main character Euryanax’s adventures in those three places.  All of which gave me a chance to introduce readers to the Spartan way of life; Euryanax’s father Dorieus’ rivalary with his half-brother Cleomenes; and Dorieus’ initial attempts to build a Spartan colony overseas.

With This Shield is divided into two sections: Magna Graecia and Attica.

The first section follows Dorieus, Euryanax and their army to southern Italy and Sicily, which in ancient times were known collectively as Magna Graecia.  During the Archaic Period of Greek history (750 – 480 B.C.), the Greeks colonized so much of southern Italy and Sicily they considered it an extension of Greece, and because the land was so rich compared to the motherland, it became known as Magna Graecia, which is Latin for ‘Greater Greece.’

The War Between Sybaris and Croton

In this section of the book, Euryanax recounts the war between the Greek colonies of Sybaris and Croton, which according to Herodotus, Dorieus may have taken part in.  Not all the ancient sources agree as to whether or not Dorieus and his band of Spartans actually took part in this war, but as it took place at the same time Dorieus would have been passing by on his way to Sicily, I can’t help but think, what Spartan general would have been able to resist getting involved in a war with the wealthiest city in the world, particularly when Dorieus needed money to finance his colony?

Among the few ancient authors to comment on the war between Sybaris and Croton was a Greek named Athenaeus living in Egypt in 200 A.D.  Athenaeus wrote a book called the Deipnosophistae, or The Banquet of the Learned, in which he discusses food, wine, luxury, music, art, sexual habits and literary gossip.  The Deipnosophistae is primarily important to us today for its references to hundreds of earlier Greek writers, most of whose work have been lost over time.  Some of the passages Athenaeus quotes are the only extant references we have for some of the missing works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Heraclides.

Athenaeus is important to me, because he is one of the few sources of information on the fabled city of Sybaris, which was legendary in ancient times as the wealthiest, most luxurious city of the age; sort of the Sodom & Gomorrah of its time.  As the story goes, Sybaris controlled one of the largest tracts of fertile farmland in southern Italy and was the leader of an alliance of 25 cities.  Dorieus and Euryanax were passing by on their way to Sicily, when Sybaris came into conflict with its neighbor Croton, and the Spartans became embroiled in this little known war.

The Philosopher Pythagoras

What interested the ancient Greeks about this particular conflict was Sybaris’ reputation for wealth and excess, and Croton’s reputation for its number of Olympic champions, good health and dutiful wives.  Croton owed much of its reputation to the philosopher Pythagoras.  Everyone has heard of the Pythagorean Theorem, but oddly enough, the mathematical equation attributed to Pythagoras has little basis in reality.  Historians agree that the theorem (that the square of the hypotenuse on a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides), was in use by the Babylonians, Egyptians and Indians hundreds of years before Pythagoras was born.  It is possible Pythagoras learned about the theorem during his travels to the Far East and brought it to the Greek world, but it’s not the most interesting thing we know about the man that is credited with inventing the word ‘philosophy,’ love of wisdom.

Pythagoras was famous in the ancient world for his teachings on science, music, medicine, astronomy, politics, math, religion and everyday life.  He preached equality for women, was a vegetarian and believed in reincarnation.  He had a great influence on later philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and started his own religion.  During his lifetime his followers were called Cenobites, which meant, ‘the common life,’ but later they became known as the Pythagoreans, and greatly influenced the ancient world for hundreds of years after Pythagoras’ death.

Although Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, he left during the turmoil caused by the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, ventured to Egypt and Babylon, eventually settling in Italy at Croton where he was responsible for writing their code of laws.  In some sense, Pythagoras is a mythical, somewhat Christ-like figure, as his views differed radically from what most Greeks believed, his teachings inspired a religious cult, and he came to a tragic end.

Though Herodotus never mentions a meeting between Pythagoras, Dorieus or Euryanax, there is no question that the famous philosopher was living in Croton at the same time my heroes stopped in southern Italy on their way to Sicily.  Were Euryanax and the Spartans attracted to Pythagoras’ teachings?  No one knows.  All we know is that according to Herodotus, Sybaris’ army amounted to over 300,000 men.  Herodotus does not give us a figure for the army fielded by Croton and Dorieus’ Spartans, but it was miniscule in comparison.  To the Greeks, the war between Sybaris and Croton was remembered as a clash between the forces of excess and the forces of discipline.

A Failed Attempt at Democracy

I’m not going to tell you what happened during the war, except to say that one of the additional causes, beyond Sybaris and Croton’s obvious differences in lifestyle, was a difference in political philosophy.  Sybaris was ruled by a tyrant named Telys.  Croton was ruled by an oligarchy called the Thousand.  The ancient sources such as Strabo and Diodorus hint that Croton was among the first cities in the ancient world to flirt with the idea of democracy.  Unquestionably it was a failed attempt, possibly led by Pythagoras and his followers.

What is fascinating to me about what was going on in southern Italy is that my hero Euryanax got to witness these political struggles between tyranny, oligarchy and democracy, and this struggle provides the backdrop for what occurs in the first section of With This Shield.

I cannot reveal what happens to Euryanax in Italy and Sicily, but a reading of Herodotus will let you know that the Spartans didn’t stay in Magna Graecia.  Euryanax eventually returned to Sparta, where in the second section of With This Shield, he is sent with an expedition of Lacedaemonians to free the Athenians from the oppressive rule of the tyrant Hippias.

The Democratic Revolution at Athens

The second section of the book is titled ‘Attica,’ which is the name of the Greek province where the city of Athens is located.  Why not call it ‘Athens?’  Because the action takes place in the city of Athens along with several additional locations in Attica, such as the plain of Phalerum, the villages of Braunon and Piraeus, and by the Cephissus River.

I’ve always been amazed that there aren’t dozens of books on the market regarding how the world’s first democracy was formed at Athens.  History books touch on the subject, but there’s never been a novel depicting the revolution that occurred in Athens around approximately 508 B.C., a revolution triggered according to Herodotus, by a small Spartan expeditionary force that was sent by Euryanax’s uncle King Cleomenes to overthrow Athens’ tyrant Hippias.

Herodotus is among our few sources for what happened at Athens, and he is maddeningly vague about the details.  All of which allows me to create my own plot based on the details we do know.  Suffice it to say, it makes for a good story.

Like the first book in the series, With This Shield is first and foremost an adventure story that describes Euryanax’s wanderings around the ancient world during a pivotal period of  history.  On a deeper level, With This Shield is about the end of the Age of Tyrants and the emergence of democracy on the world stage.

While we take things like freedom of speech and democracy for granted today, they were prized commodities in the ancient world, things people fought and died for.  One of the things that may surprise you about the original democracy at Athens is how many people, Socrates and Plato among them, distrusted ‘rule by the people.’  To them, it meant rule by the uneducated, unwashed masses.

As of December 2013, I’m approximately 3/4’s of the way through writing With This Shield.  I hesitate to promise an exact date as to when it will be available, but will say that it’s my goal to have it completed in 2014.  Stay tuned…

Market Your eBook: Ereader News Today

entThis week I opted to try promoting my book through Ereader News Today.  They send out a daily email to their 400,000 members advertising 1-3 ebooks and provide a link to your book on Amazon.  Their service is strictly for Kindle users.

To get promoted in one of ENT’s emails you have to agree to two things:  lower the price of your book so that their members are receiving a deep discount and pay ENT 25% of whatever sales you make that day.

For me, that meant lowering the ebook price of The Wandering King from $3.99 to .99 cents.  Not sure yet what they will charge me, but I can see that over their one-day promotion I received approximately 270 ebook sales.  I’m guessing I’ll owe ENT something like:  270 x .99 = $267 x 30% Amazon royalty rate = $80 x 25% fee = $20.  Twenty dollars is a negligable price to pay for getting my book into 270 additional readers’ hands.  Plus, their fee is coming out of new sales, so it’s not really costing me a dime.

ENT also has a Facebook page where they encourage authors to interact with their members.  By doing so, ENT claims it helps get your book noticed.  I posted 2 messages there.  Whether it helped increase sales, I have no way of knowing, but I figure it didn’t hoit.

All in all, I’ve been quite happy with ENT’s service, and have noticed that even after I raised the price back up to $3.99, I continued to get a spike in sales, possibly from their members who spotted the email after the promotion.

If your primary goal is to make money, ENT may not be the way to go.  But if your goal is to get read,  ENT can help immensely.  I also have 270 additional word-of-mouth advertisers out there promoting my book and 270 potential reviewers that I may never have found otherwise.

bookbubThere is similar service called BookBub.   Like ENT, they offer to send out an email promoting your book to their subscribers.  What’s different is that:  (1) they’ll provide links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords, (2) you don’t have to discount your book price, and (3) you do have to pay a fee for their service.

The price BookBub charges is based on the number of subscribers they have in your book category and the price of your book.  For instance, they have 430,000 historical fiction subscribers.  If your book is free they charge $200, less than $1 they charge $400, $1-$2 they charge $600 and over $2 they charge $1,000.

If I were to keep the price at $3.99 and to receive a similar number of sales that I got through ENT, I would spend $1,000 and end up making $800.  Odds are, at $3.99 instead of .99 cents, I’ll get less sales, so it could end up costing a pretty penny.  Even if I were to lower the price to .99 cents, and even if I received 270 sales, it would end up costing over $300.

Might sound foolish, but I am determined not to spend money marketing my book.  So for me, I don’t see where BookBub makes sense.  If others have tried it, I would love to hear about your experience.

Sword & Sandal Movie Reviews

When I was doing my student teaching, my 9th graders’ mantra was, “Why do we have to learn how to read?  Can’t we just watch the video?”

As you are reading this blog, I take it for granted that you enjoy reading, but like my 9th graders, you probably enjoy watching a good flick too.  The following, in no particular order, are some of my favorite picks and pans for films dealing with ancient history.

The links on the movie titles will take you to the movie reviews found on Rotten Tomatoes.  If you’ve never been to the site, it gives you access to all the top critics’ reviews.  Below the link are the number of critics that reviewed the movie, their average rating (out of 100), the number of moviegoers that rated the movie, and their rating, followed by my grade.

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Gladiator (2000)
166 critics 77%
34M moviegoers 85%
me 90%

One of the best movies about the ancient world of all time.  I give it credit for starting a renaissance in movies about ancient Greece and Rome.  Though I enjoyed the film, my only real problem with it, was where it deviated from history.  Emperor Marcus Aurelius was not murdered by his son Commodus, but died of an illness in Vienna at age 58.  He had made Commodus his co-emperor three years before his death.  He also had 13 children, five of whom out-lived him.  Commodus was known for his love of the gladitorial games, where he would do things like shoot hundreds of animals with his bow from the safety of his box seat in the coliseum (on one such occasion he shot 100 lions) or he would have groups of sick citizens chained together and club them to death himself (or he would collect his own wounded soldiers and slay them with a sword).  Commodus was not killed by the fictional Maximus, but was assassinated by his own officers.  They tried poisoning him, but after Commodus vomited the food, they strangled him to death.  Despite these inaccuracies, you can’t beat the movie’s opening battle scene or the gladitorial scenes.


300a300
(2006)
226 critics 60%
1.4M moviegoers 88%
me 40%

Though I enjoyed parts of this movie, I spent the vast majority of my time in the theater groaning.  What does one expect from a movie based on a comic book?  For example, the Spartans did not go bare-chested into battle.  They wouldn’t have lasted long if they had.  Too, Xerxes did not shave his head, wear nose-rings or a loin cloth.  Take a look at a piece of ancient artwork that depicts the Persians and you’ll see that they wore long beards and pants.  The thing that I found most disappointing was how they depicted the ancient phalanx.  In the battle scenes they started formed up in a shieldwall, but as soon as the fight would begin, the Spartans would break ranks and devolve into a Matrix-like slow motion, hack ‘n slash fest.  What made the Spartans invincible was their training, heavy armor, and their ability to fight in an impenatrable, close order, shoulder to shoulder formation.  It’s diappointing that in Hollywood it’s more important to show comic book blood spraying across the screen than an actual phalanx in action.

300

The 300 Spartans (1962)
N/R critics
55K moviegoers 72%
me 95%

According to Frank Miller, who wrote the comic book that was the basis for the movie ‘300,’ he was inspired by a film he’d seen as a young boy, ‘The 300 Spartans.’  Like Miller, I’d seen the same film as a kid and loved it.  All of which makes me wonder why Miller injected charging rhinos, dual sword wielding ninjas and an oversized giant, as they weren’t anywhere to be found in the original.  I suppose that’s what’s known as creative license.  The sad thing is, today’s young people, whose knowledge of ancient events may come from the movies, are going to have a horribly distorted view of actual events.  Though the 1962 version of ‘The 300 Spartans’ has no special effects, and was done on a low budget, it’s a fairly accurate depiction of what happened at Thermopylae.  Richard Egan, though not as muscled as Gerard Butler, is a better actor, and the film includes Sir Ralph Richardson as Themistocles (a crucial character the Frank Miller version leaves out), and David Farrar as a very convincing Xerxes.  I can do without ‘300s’ pumped up pecs and digital effects.  I’ll take a more historically accurate film any day.

troy

Troy (2004)
221 critics 54%
819K 72%
me 40%

As The Iliad is one of my favorite pieces of literature, when the movie ‘Troy’ came out, I rushed to the movie theater, where I was promptly disappointed.  In the credits they state the movie is ‘based on The Iliad.’  A better description would have been, ‘loosely based.’  The producers took so many liberties with the Trojan War, that anyone that loves Homer’s epic poems will hardly recognize the story.  For one, Brad Pitt is no Achilles.  He’s too small.  The very sight of Achilles struck fear into the hearts of his enemies.  Probably the only hysteria Brad Pitt inspired during the shooting of ‘Troy’ is when the filmmakers saw the size of his bar tab.  Sure, they got right the part about Paris stealing Helen, but they botched what happens to each.  In the original, Paris dies and Helen is reclaimed by her husband Menelaus and the two of them live a long happy life together.  In the movie, Menelaus dies and Paris and Helen run off together.  In the ancient Greek version, marriage is sacosant.  You steal someone’s wife, you are doomed.  In Hollywood, you steal someone’s wife you ride off into the sunset together.  I could go on and on about all of the things ‘Troy’ gets wrong, but reliving it is just too depressing.  Even though The Iliad has been a classic for 3,000 years, the filmmakers seemed to think they could improve on the original.  They didn’t.

Alexander

Alexander (2004)
194 critics 16%
236K moviegoers 39%
me 70%

I’m not a big fan of Alexander the Great, but I’ve read enough about him to know that Oliver Stone did a wonderful job of researching his story and for the most part stuck to the actual historical facts.  Where the movie goes horribly awry is the casting of Colin Farrell as Alexander.  It’s one of the worst acting performances I’ve ever seen.  Remember George C. Scott in the movie ‘Patton’?  Now there was a general.  You can understand why his soldiers followed him across Europe.  I couldn’t imagine a poodle following Colin Farrell even if he was loaded up with doggie treats, much less the Macedonian army following him across 16 countries.  If you manage to block out Colin Farrell, the rest of the movie isn’t bad.  Oliver Stone pays a great deal of attention to Alexander’s generals, troops like the Silver Shields, and correctly arms the phalanx with the Macedonian’s long spears called the sarissa.  The depiction of Babylon, though probably computer generated, is awe-inspiring, as is the Battle of Gaugamela, that is if you delete Colin Farrell’s less-than-inspiring speech.  Farrell spends so much time weeping in the film, instead marching his army back to Greece, he could have sailed them back on all his tears.

Alexander Burton

Alexander the Great (1956)
6 critics 35%
5,325 moviegoers 56%
me 75%

Though somewhat old, this is a much better movie about Alexander the Great, for one big reason:  it has the British actor Richard Burton playing the leading role.  It lacks today’s special effects, it’s not a 3 hour Oliver Stone extravaganza, and it only touches on some of Alexander’s life, but it does have one great scene.  When Alexander was in Asia Minor at a city called Gordium, he encountered something known as the famous ‘Gordian Knot.’  As the story goes, whoever could untie this huge, tangled mess of ropes, would conquer all of Asia.  Richard Burton looks at the knot, draws his sword, and in one swing cuts the knot in two.  Not a word spoken, but a brilliant scene.

I, Claudius (1976)
133 reviews on Amazon (105 gave it 5-stars)I Claudius
me:  95%

I, Claudius is a made-for-TV, BBC mini-series, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Graves.  I, Claudius is one of the best programs about ancient Rome ever produced.  If you’re looking for a Gladiator-like action movie, pass I, Claudius by. If you’re looking for an intelligent, Masterpiece Theater-like inside look at the palace intrigue, murder, and back-stabbing that went on in the Imperial Roman family during the reign of Augustus Caesar, then this show was made for you.  The members of the royal family stop at nothing, including poisoning their own relatives, to jockey for position in the royal line of succession.  Augustus’ wife Livia, played marvelously by Sian Phillips, is the most fiendish of the bunch.  I lost track of all of the people she murdered to ensure her son Tiberius was selected as the next emperor.  What’s sad about all of this is that some extremely worthy, noble, talented people like Germanicus end up getting knocked off in the mad grab for power.  Ironically, Claudius survives all of this mayhem because he’s lame and he has a stutter.  Livia and the rest of the royal family consider him an idiot, so after the family does each other in, the only one left with royal blood to claim the throne is Claudius, played to perfection by British actor Derek Jacobi.  If you’ve heard about the antics of people like Caligula, Messalina and Nero and want to find out why they are so infamous, I, Claudius gives you the inside track.  While the program is not on Rotton Tomatoes, the link above is to its page on Amazon.  Amazon Prime owners can watch it for free.

Agora1Agora (2009)
89 critics 53%
21,100 moviegoers 64%
me 85%

This movie did not do well with critics, but I came away thinking it was an enjoyable film about a period of ancient history I knew nothing about.  It follows the life of a Greek philosopher, astronomer and mathematican named Hypatia played by Rachel Weisz.  The story takes place in the city of Alexandria in Egypt and has a great deal to do with the emergence of Christianity and the Christians persecution of the pagan religions.  From what I’ve read by people who know more than I do about the 4th century A.D., the movie is a bit heavy handed when it comes to the Christians, who appear more like modern day Taliban, and it seems the Library of Alexandria and lighthouse were already destroyed.  As I was ignorant of those facts, I found Hypatia’s story interesting and the depiction of Alexandria quite fascinating.

Jason

Jason and the Argonauts  (1963)
35 critics 94%
22,100 moviegoers 72%
me 90%

As a young person this was one of my favorite movies of all time.  Nice to see it received a good response by the critics, and somewhat surprising audiences did not appreciate it as well.  Though the special effects of the titan Talos, the harpies and the ‘children of the hydra’s teeth’ look rather dated now, at the time, they were the work of the master of stop motion animation, Ray Harryhausen.  There are no actors in the film you’ve ever heard of, nor is the acting anything special, it’s just a fun adventure story.

ulyssesdouglasUlysses (1954)
N/R critics
1,710 moviegoers 46%
me 95%

This is an oldie but goodie, starring Kirk Douglas as Ulysses.  Similar to other films done during the period, they look faded now, but the producers made a strong attempt to stick to the original story from Homer’s Odyssey.  The scenes where Ulysses and his crew are captured by the cyclops, when he listens to the song of the Sirens, and when he finally returns home to slay the suitors are classics.

The Odyssey (1997)
N/R critics
7,630 moviegoers 60%
me 60%

This was a made-for-television miniseries starring Armand Assanti as Odysseus (Ulysses).  It seemed to go on longer than Odysseus’ ten-year voyage home.  Though not as lavish, nor did it include Vanessa Williams, Isabella Rossellini or Bernadette Peters, I much preferred the original with Kirk Douglas.

Spartacus  (1960)spartacus1
49 critics 96%
75,700 moviegoers 79%
me 90%

This is another golden oldie starring Kirk Douglas, this time as the gladiator turned rebel leader, Spartacus.  He is supported by a great cast including Sir Laurence Olivier and Jean Simmons and benefits from the directorial talents of Stanley Kubrick.  There’s plenty of sword play and battle scenes that include a cast of thousands, but my favorite moment in the film comes when Spartacus is training to be a gladiator.  As Jean Simmons, playing a slave named Varinia, is pouring wine for Spartacus, as he takes the cup, he gently caresses her hand.  It’s an extremely small, tender moment in a 3-hour spectacle, but it’s that sort of attention to detail about the characters that make it a great film.

Clash of the Titans (1981)
38 critics 66%
55,900 moviegoers 68%
me 40%

This is a horrible movie about the mythical hero Perseus starring Harry Hamlin.  What a great actor like Sir Laurence Olivier is doing in this film, I have no clue.  It also includes the stop motion animation by Ray Harryhausen, but in this film, it’s pretty lackluster stuff.

Clash of the Titans (2010)
238 critics 28%
280K moviegoers 43%
me 30%

Why anyone would want to re-make a bad movie is a mystery.  The only good thing I can say about this film is that Wrath of the Titans (2012) and Immortals (2011) are worse.

Ben Hur (1959)ben_hur
36 critics 89%
103K moviegoers 81%
me 95%

What list of films about the ancient world would be complete without mentioning Ben Hur.  The chariot race is probably one of the most famous scenes in movie history.  Am just glad Charlton Heston was not toting a rifle throughout the film.

The Ten Commandments (1956)
32 critics 91%
58K moviegoers 83%
me 95%

Another great Charlton Heston film, this time about Moses.  When I first saw it as a young person, I could not help but think Moses was an idiot for abandoning the war-loving Egyptians in favor of the poor Judeans.  I must not have been paying enough attention in church.

Julius Caesar (1970)
N/R critics
2,660 moviegoers 40%
me 80%

Yet another Heston film, this time in the role of Mark Anthony in the Shakespearan version of Julis Caesar.  It’s not bad if you can sit through the old English.  The 1953 version starring Marlon Brando, Sir John Gielgud and James Mason received vastly better reviews.

Cleopatra (1963)Cleopatra 2
26 critics 46%
20,000 moviegoers 70%
me 70%

I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to sit through this 3-hour epic starring Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Richard Burton as Mark Antony.  The climactic sea battle between Antony and Octavian is obviously between toy models and so bad it’s almost comical.  As I recall, the love affair that erupted during the filming between Taylor and Burton (both were married to other people) and resulting scandal eclipsed interest in the actual movie.  It’s $44M cost ($300M today) made it the most expensive movie ever made.