Saturday, 15 May 2021

Mother of Words


I mentioned last week that I had been shortlisted for the inaugural Bet Tuppi’s Ancient Near Eastern Historical Fiction Prize.

Well - I won.

Read The Mother of Words

The story was selected from ten amazing shortlisted stories, all of which you can read here

Public feedback:

We love the unique take on Enheduanna, the first named poet. The story really encapsulates the essence of Mesopotamia, which is known not only for its empires and violence, but also as the birthplace of writing and literature.

Notification feedback from judge 
Matthew Parkes, MPhil in Assyriology at the University of Cambridge:

We specifically loved how you drew upon the source material. For instance, considering the namelessness of many of Mesopotamia's authors whilst also exploring the power that writing brought to these early civilisations. It was truly a pleasure to read your story!

I just want to take a moment to explain why this means so much. 

As regular readers will know, I have been writing a novel about the Akkadian Empire for the past year. It's very nearly coming to a close. The story began as the telling of Enheduanna, but, in order to get there, I needed to retell The Legend of Sargon, her father. What was supposed to be a background chapter soon ballooned to over 100,000 words and became a full-blown novel of its own.

I've been working closely with Leif Inselmann, a wonderful research scholar at the University of Göttingen. Leif also happens to be a German author and you can find his books here. He has been incredible in helping to clarify things and preventing me from wandering into the absurd. Although, he didn't proof the story I submitted to the competition, which is why there was a slight metallurgical historical slip-up in there. I wrote it late at night and in a hurry to hit the deadline.

But, just pause for a moment and consider what it was like, having been completely obsessed with the Akkadian Empire and ancient Sumer for over a year, to suddenly see a writing competition specifically asking for Sumerian, Akkadian and Assyrian historical fiction? I mean - what were the chances? I almost didn't enter because I thought, how gutting would that be if I didn't even get placed? 

Well, I'm glad I did enter, and I'm absolutely blown away and very thankful to have impressed the judges. I do occasionally think that Enheduanna glances over the shoulder of every writer from time to time. We've swapped clay and stylus for paper and pen, but we're all just continuing her 4,000-year tradition of writing down our thoughts. 

I'll sign off now, but it's always an incredible boost when a story you write connects with its readers. As writers, we're used to rejection and it's easy to feel overlooked and to doubt ourselves, but one win wipes away all of that. If you're a creator, keep creating. Keep putting yourself out there. Keep spinning stories and breathing life into them. Eventually you'll catch a little luck in your web. 

Sinjye wahera hahera Enheduanna.

Friday, 14 May 2021

Francis Cameron

Just saw the sad news that the wonderful Mr. Francis Cameron has passed on. A talented, well-travelled and wonderful man, and a respected member of the British Pagan community. 

I have exceedingly fond memories of the PF Conference in Tintagel years ago, of wandering the lanes of Oxford and stopping for tea and cake, and the time he officiated at a friend's handfasting. He was an accomplished pipe organ player who spent time on walkabout down under in his youth. A truly lovely and beloved individual. 

He kept a blog from 2007-2017, which you can find here.

Merry meet, merry part, and - I am certain - merry meet again.

I'm sure we'll share a cup again someday. 

Thursday, 13 May 2021

The Untamed

Behold, the Tortoise of Slaughter!

I am totally and completely smitten by this. I've taken a detour away from Korean films and found my way to C-drama. The Untamed is basically what would happen if Hogwarts, Game of Thrones and live-action Spirited Away collided - in Chinese. It's flipping fabulous. The costumes, the characters, an epic musical score, and the hair - oh, the hair!

Ziyi Meng as Lady Wen

There's also a small splash of Jim Hensonesque puppetry going on. It's a bit mad in that respect. Korean dramas are smooth as they come, all super-slick CGI, but this one flicks between CGI and the occasional random giant puppet wolf or Tortoise of Slaughter. It's quite fascinating and absolutely adorable. And I don't mean that in a disparaging way - it really is utterly charming. It's like a hybrid between 21st century and 1980's FX. I completely love it. You feel there was probably more planning, skill and effort involved in the puppet characters than the computer stuff. 

I have to admit, I didn't really understand what was going on until the middle of episode three, when they arrive at Cloud Recesses. Give it until at least then. I also know I spoke before about how Korean soaps are epic in length compared to British ones, either in the number of episodes or in the length of the episodes, which regularly run to one-and-a-half hours. The Untamed also adheres to this trend. The episodes are only an hour long, but there's fifty of them. I know that sounds a lot, but I'm already past halfway and rationing my daily allowance because I don't want it to end. I watched a Neil Gaiman interview recently in which he talked about the way people are starting to 'treat television novelistically,' where we're consuming visual stories like we would the chapters of a book. I think this is a prime example. Each episode is like a chapter in an epic fantasy story. It's so much fun.

I'm watching it on Netflix, but someone's also put the whole thing on YouTube, here with English captions. I have to say, I do wish Netflix would rework the timing of their subtitles. I find that the subtitling on many of their Asian series go by way too fast in places, but it's worth the slight inconvenience of sitting with your finger on the pause button.

It's just wonderful, and surprising, and full of glowy goodness, mythology and tears. 

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Akkad at 100k

So, yeah... made it to 100,000 on the WIP yesterday.

Thought I'd post this for kicks.

About 500 of those 100,000 do involve baby Sargon high on ganzigunnu (ganja).

Thinking I might be in a little bit of trouble. I've still got quite a way to go with this one. I reckon it'll come in somewhere around 140k.

Writing a book this length is honestly like drawing one of those concertina pictures, where you can see the face really clearly - the first few chapters - because you're constantly editing them, and you can see the boots - the last chapter you just wrote - but everything in between is folded out of sight and you have no clear memory of what it contains. I'm excited to finish and dive into those forgotten parts. 

I've put aside the next few weeks to just write and I'm feeling really good in myself. I haven't left the country in three years, and was just about to book a holiday home to see the folks when the pandemic hit, so, if I can't physically go anywhere, at least I get to go to ancient Sumer every day and take a cup of coffee with me.

Although I have the whole day to write, I don't push myself too hard. I get up late, write for a bit, watch Netflix (I'm currently obsessed with The Untamed - more on that soon), do a bit more writing, make some food. I try to aim for a word count rather than keep writing until I die. I like to be able to end on a scene I'm excited about, so I can come back to carry on the next day. 

Little by little, we get there.

Today I'm hoping for between 2,500-3,000. 

Just about to head into battle with the Sumerian forces of Lugal Zage-Si. 

Time to strap on my armour.

Monday, 10 May 2021

The Redemption of Althalus


Picked this up because I liked the cover colours and I was in the mood for epic fantasy:

It would be sheer folly to try to conceal the true nature of Althalus, for his flaws are the stuff of legend. He is, as all men know, a thief, a liar, an occasional murderer, an outrageous braggart, and a man devoid of even the slightest hint of honor.

Yet of all the men in the world, it is Althalus, unrepentant rogue and scoundrel, who will become the champion of humanity in its desperate struggle against the forces of an ancient god determined to return the universe to nothingness. On his way to steal The Book from the House at the End of the World, Althalus is confronted by a cat - a cat with eyes like emeralds, the voice of a woman, and the powers of a goddess. She is Dweia, sister to The Gods and a greater thief even than Althalus. She must be: for in no time at all, she has stolen his heart. And more. She has stolen time itself. For when Althalus leaves the House at the End of the World, much wiser but not a day older than when he'd first entered it, thousands of years have gone by.

But Dweia is not the only one able to manipulate time. Her evil brother shares the power, and while Dweia has been teaching Althalus the secrets of The Book, the ancient God has been using the dark magic of his own Book to rewrite history. Yet all is not lost. But only if Althalus, still a thief at heart, can bring together a ragtag group of men, women, and children with no reason to trust him or each other. Boldly written and brilliantly imagined, The Redemption of Althalus is an epic fantasy to be savored in the listening and returned to again and again for the wisdom, excitement, and humor that only the Eddingses can provide.


People talk really highly about David Eddings's earlier work, especially the Belgariad series, but this is the first of his that I've picked up and it didn't really chime with me. I found myself rather agreeing with this Goodreads reviewer:

I like the evil side to be just as intelligent as the good side; an even match so you question the ending... The "bad guys" as they so often refer to them are, well, stupid. They're incompetent bumbling fools held together by an evil god who never makes an appearance. - Adam Reinwald


I suppose the best way to describe the book is 'jaunty.' Everything's very upbeat, the main characters face few real challenges, their success is never in question and, as Reinwald put it, the bad guys are stupid. There's nothing about them to fear. All of that probably wouldn't be so bad if the book wasn't twenty-seven-and-a-half hours long. That feels like a lot of time when there is little happening. The characters spend most of it discussing battle tactics and talking about what they are going to do, and far less time actually doing what they've just said they're going to do. It's a lot of tell with little show. 

There was also quite a bit of roll-your-eyes-aren't-women-funny moments, where the lead character addresses the all-powerful female goddess (in the non-threatening form of a cat) as 'yes, dear,' repeatedly and makes uncomfortably too much out of one young female character having 'daddy issues' and calling him 'daddy' all the time. That was just weird. Neither the baddies nor the female characters seem to have much substance. It's all just very jolly. 

I did think the opening couple of chapters were excellent, but, like The Hummingbird’s Tear, it just didn't maintain that level after the initial opener. People who have read more of his work say that the characters in this story are diluted versions of characters from his earlier books, so perhaps he got caught in a trope and couldn't shake it off. That happens sometimes.

I very rarely speed up a reading, because I feel guilty for all the work that's gone into it, and the narrator, Dennis Holland, did a really great job, but it just wasn't what I was looking for in high fantasy, though plenty of other people loved it.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Introduction to Literary Perspective

A beginner's introduction to literary perspective. I'm putting some of my old lectures online on my website. You can find the rest of the Literary Perspective unit here, and more writing units here.

Friday, 7 May 2021

Sex at Dawn

I picked this up because it sounded interesting:

Since Darwin's day, we've been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. Mainstream science - as well as religious and cultural institutions - has maintained that men and women evolved in families in which a man's possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman's fertility and fidelity. But this narrative is collapsing. Fewer and fewer couples are getting married, and divorce rates keep climbing as adultery and flagging libido drag down even seemingly solid marriages.

How can reality be reconciled with the accepted narrative? It can't be, according to renegade thinkers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. While debunking almost everything we "know" about sex, they offer a bold alternative explanation in this provocative and brilliant book.

Ryan and Jetha's central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners. Weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is. Human beings everywhere and in every era have confronted the same familiar, intimate situations in surprisingly different ways. The authors expose the ancient roots of human sexuality while pointing toward a more optimistic future illuminated by our innate capacities for love, cooperation, and generosity.

A very enlightening read. I certainly wouldn't say I'm surprised by the findings, but there were some really interesting facts in there that I'd never heard before. I particularly liked the look at other, non-monogamous cultures in the world, which is something never discussed during sex-ed at school. There was one culture in China, the Mosuo, where women have their own bedrooms with a door onto the street and they can invite any man in that they choose, provided he is gone by morning. Any children conceived are brought up in the woman's household, removing male rivalry over lineage. It sounds like a very nice idea, and a peaceful way of life. 

There's a tribe in South America which believes the more sperm a woman receives whilst pregnant, the more skills and strengths a child will develop from each of the men. There's the first father, who plants the seed, and the other fathers who contribute to stirring the pot. In tribal cultures, children raised in non-monogamous families, where many men, rather than one, have a vested interest in the child's wellbeing and growth, have better survival odds than when only one man is there (or not) to help raise the child.

"Yes, but we're living in the modern world," you might say, "not in a tribe!" Well, we might think we are, but our physiology says something very different. From the size and shape of our genitals, through to why women are louder than men during sex, it all points to our biology being more closely matched with non-monogamous primates than monogamous ones. Far more similar to the bonobo than the gibbon.

Something else that was fascinating - and tragic - was the effect of the contraceptive pill on women's sense of smell. I remember watching Dr. Winston perform the T-shirt test on TV when I was in my teens. This is where he sniffs a bunch of T-shirts that women have been wearing, and orders them by the smell he most prefers. At the end, it's revealed that ranking them by smell also ranks them, almost exactly, as the most genetically compatible for producing a healthy baby.

Women have the same ability to sniff out a genetically compatible mate - unless they're on the pill. Then, apparently, it reverses the attraction. It's one theory for why so many women go off their husbands after childbirth. Whilst on the pill and looking to get laid, they like the smell of him, but once they come off the pill to get pregnant, the reality hits their nostrils. As the book asks: how many women have only just realised they're not compatible with their partner once it's too late? That's quite something to think about.

Anyway, a really interesting read, which makes a lot of logical connections when it comes to male infidelity, mid-life crises, female attraction and sexuality, and a host of other important points. Definitely worth a look. Though, if you're in a relationship, it might not make for easy reading.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Akkad at 90k

I'm taking a couple of weeks off work to focus entirely on writing.

Just taken Akkad over the 90,000 mark. That, to me, is the baseline for a solid novel. I can now call it 'my novel.' However, there's still a substantial way to go. I sensed this would be a long one when I started. I began playing with the idea almost two years ago, but didn't start writing seriously until October last year. It's come a long way since then, although progress has been slow as I've been fitting it in around work. 

As with any work in progress (WIP), I know the first three chapters really well, and the last couple of days, but, over the span of six months, I've forgotten most of what happens in the middle, so I'm excited to start the edit and remind myself. 

The longest novel I've ever written was Children of Lir, which is about 120,000 words. I reckon this will be similar or a little longer. For those who know Sumerian history, I'm building up to the final showdown between Sargon and Lugal Zage-Si. Sargon is widely known as the first man in history to found an empire, but he did that by defeating another man, Zage-Si, who was already well on his way to doing the same thing. The records don't really explain why Sargon and Zage-Si fell out, so I'm having fun inventing that bit. 

On with the writing...

Monday, 3 May 2021

Ancient Near Eastern Historical Fiction Prize Shortlist


I received the lovely news the other day that I've been a little bit shortlisted for the first ever Near Eastern Historical Fiction Prize:

Congratulations, your entry has been shortlisted... We had a large amount of submissions for our inaugural competition (we have spent the last month reading countless stories) so this is a real achievement, well done!

I'm having a lovely time reading the other entries, which have been published on their website. Love Roxanne Gregory's futuristic evolution of Google and Wikipedia merging into Ooogle-iki. That needs to be a thing.

Now the hardest part of all, trying to put this out of my mind until the winner is announced later in the month.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

Descriptive Writing

A little lecture I gave on descriptive writing. If you'd like to take the whole descriptive writing unit and do the exercise that goes with it, head over to my website. I'm putting a few of my creative writing units from the university online under the WRITING101 heading.