The view outside my office window.
The view outside my office window.
The Tattered Banner by Duncan M. Hamilton is not your typical rags-to-riches fantasy story, but it does start out as one.
The hero, Soren, is plucked from a starving street urchin’s life by a famous nobleman to attend Ostia’s prestigious Academy of Swordsmanship. Magic is outlawed in Ostia, so the Duchy’s best and brightest become master swordsmen to move up in society.
It’s an opportunity that’s too good to be true, and Soren recognizes this. He becomes the hardest working student at the Academy because he knows that one failure could throw him back on the streets; something his rich, noble classmates don’t have to worry about. It soon becomes clear that Soren has a magical “Gift” with a blade that enables him to defeat almost anyone he faces despite his limited training.
That’s where the story turns away from the typical hero’s journey.
The Tattered Banner is not about undertaking quests or vanquishing dark lords, but how one young man survives from day to day with only his wits and his Gift. Soren’s journey throughout the book is like a series of random encounters—something happens to him, he makes a choice, and then he blasts off into a totally new direction. His adventures are certainly thrilling and had me turning the pages. I suppose random encounters are what real life is like.
Which leads to my one criticism. The Tattered Banner is well told, but I felt like there was something missing: an overall goal for Soren to work towards that ties everything together. Soren simply tries to survive from one unrelated situation to the next. He has an intriguing magical skill with the sword, but that doesn’t seem to be at the top of his “to do list” to investigate. I was hoping the book would make that Soren’s overall goal, and show how it conflicted with Ostia’s anti-magic laws. But it never happened.
Though Soren makes some poor decisions, I still rooted for him, nonetheless. He never forgets that he was once a starving orphan on the streets, which makes you understand his actions when he does things that are, at best, morally questionable.
The Tattered Banner is book one of a series, so I hope future volumes will explore the mystery of Soren’s magical Gift with the sword. I did enjoy the book very much because of its action and interesting characters, despite my reservations about the plot structure.
MUSES OF ROMA was recently in the Spotlight on DaveBrendon’s Fantasy & Sci-Fi Weblog. He asked me to write about where I got the “Big Idea” for the book. Short answer: Harry Turtledove. And the Muppets.
Now that MUSES OF ROMA (book one of my new sci-fi/alt-history series on the Roman Empire) is released into the wild, I’m free to post the Prologue and Chapter One here. If you like what you see, please check out the purchase info at the bottom of this post.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Third year of the reign of Imperator Octavian Caesar Augustus
Marcus Antonius sat atop his horse outside Roma watching the smoke rise into the twilight sky above the Forum and the docks along the Tiber. Musket fire echoed throughout the city; fire engulfed the Senate House and the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill. His new senses brought him the screams of citizens as his legions entered the city. The equestrian villas on the Aventine Hill lay in blackened ruins, pillaged by his men for every valuable they contained—artwork, gold, jewels, slaves.
The gods gave him the ability to take it all in, to sear it into his memory. To be sure, he knew he was allowing a blasphemy on the Eternal City. But that was the old order. Antonius would bring a new order, and he would rebuild Roma.
A rider charged out the Porta Capena less than a half-mile away, swerving around the crush of refugees exiting the gate. When he reached Antonius, he pulled in his reigns and reported to General Lucius at Antonius’s side.
“We have him, sir,” the rider said, breathless. “We captured him in his residence. He offered no resistance.”
Lucius sighed, then looked to Antonius with a smile. “It’s over, my lord.”
“Very good,” Antonius said, staring at Roma. “I want to enter my city now. I want to see Octavian.”
Lucius hesitated. “My lord, we may have Octavian, but the city is far from secure. Octavian’s men may still hide in pockets throughout Roma. We could have him brought out.”
“Lucius, old friend,” Antonius said, “you forget who I am now.” He turned to Lucius. “The gods have made me their Vessel. They have great plans for me and for Roma. They will not allow any harm to come to me.”
Lucius nodded slowly. “Of course, my lord.”
Antonius spurred his horse forward before Lucius could order his men to follow. The mounted protective cohort rushed up to Antonius and surrounded him, each with one hand on his reins and the other on the stock of his musket holstered on the side of his horse.
Refugees flooded the Via Appia on the city’s southeast corner. Some pulled carts while most carried nothing but their children and a sack thrown over their shoulders. Women, children, and the elderly—the younger men had mounted a futile defense of Roma’s walls during the attack—gave him hollow stares, each one too exhausted to cry out to him. Such a crowd suggested Antonius’s surprise attack had worked better than even he imagined.
Not my plans, he thought humbly. This is the work of the gods.
While Antonius’s cohort eyed the refugees, Antonius looked on them with pity. He could not explain to them now why they should stay, that they should watch him make Roma greater than any king or dictator could.
Especially that whelp Octavian. Excuse me, he thought, they call him Augustus now. He glanced at the rubble of the great Roman walls blasted to gravel by his cannons. I wonder how august they think their tyrant is now?
The gods whispered to him, calmed his thoughts, and told him to focus on the tasks ahead. The citizens who fled today would return once they saw the first fruits of his plans, how he rebuilt the city with methods and materials with which the brilliant architects of Roma or Greece never dreamed. He would build monuments to shame the Great Pyramids of Egypt. The gods would show him how to create indestructible roads and magical carts able to run by themselves. And one day, when humanity was worthy, machines that flew faster than an eagle would take Romans to the firmament above, where they could bow before the gods themselves.
These were the plans the gods showed him every day since they blessed him in that crumbling Egyptian temple ten years ago.
Antonius and his cohort passed through the Porta Capena. The refugees still poured from the city, most too shocked to give him more than a glance. The further Antonius rode into Roma, however, the fewer refugees he saw. The areas nearer the gates were packed with plebian tenements that Antonius’s legions looted first. Bodies lay crumpled on the ground, some shot, but most run through with the gladius Antonius’s men still insisted on carrying. Antonius smiled at his men’s preference for traditional tools over a superior weapon like the musket. They even insisted on wearing their armor, though the enemy had barely touched them since they started using the cannons and muskets.
On his left, the merchant class shops and tenements on the Aventine Hill were quiet. But on his right, the Caelian Hill was awash in screams, musket fire, and the crackle of burning buildings. Many of the city’s richest patricians had villas on the Caelian. Antonius felt no mercy for the patrician nobles who lived there, for most had denounced him in the Forum and Senate, questioning his “moral character” for living in Alexandria with Cleopatra. Culling Roma’s patrician class would be a bloody task, but a necessity for Antonius to establish his new order. By the time Antonius’s men were through with them, the Caelian would look on the Suburba’s slums with envy.
Six city defenders burst from an alley in front of Antonius. Three held swords, and all bore wounds and blood on their tunics, limbs, and faces. They stared at Antonius and his cohort, stunned to see him. Antonius’s cohort was prepared. They raised their muskets as one and fired at the six men. Two defender heads exploded. Two more defenders took shots to the chests and fell to the cobblestones, while the other two escaped harm. With nothing left to lose, the two men screamed defiance and jumped toward Antonius.
Having fired their single shots, the cohort dropped their muskets to reach for their swords. But they would not intercept the enraged men before they reached Antonius. Antonius pulled his sword, ready to meet the two defenders, his heart quickening. He would finally join the battle. The gods could not hold him back now.
Shots rang out from the alley, and the two defenders fell before they could reach Antonius. Seven of Antonius’s men emerged from the alley, looked at the fallen defenders, then up at him.
Antonius glared at the squad’s centurion. “Well done, Servius Minicius.”
Antonius knew every man’s name in his legions. He met them all during the year-long march to Roma. His memory was another ability that made his men believe Antonius himself was a god.
Minicius stepped forward and bowed his head. “Thank you, sir. Sorry they surprised you, sir.”
Antonius frowned a moment longer, then sighed and re-sheathed his sword. “Not your fault. Although you did deny me the chance to bloody my sword. Haven’t had to pull it since Actium. Damned shame.”
Minicius grinned. “My apologies, sir.”
“Carry on.” Antonius spurred his horse forward. “I expect you to clear the city of this sort by nightfall tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” Minicius called out.
As Antonius advanced further into the city, the scent of blood and smoke increased. He passed the Circus Maximus on his left; its large walls were pockmarked with musket shots. Antonius marveled at the marble columns and arches Octavian had recently installed along the walls of the huge rectangular racetrack. It had been years since Antonius last rode through Roma, and the new construction on the Circus was inspiring.
But the Circus was no more than a cheap bauble compared to what the gods had planned for Roma.
Several companies of Greek draftees formed battle lines outside the Circus, their muskets on their shoulders. When the Roman commander saw Antonius, he rushed over and saluted. “My lord, we weren’t expecting you so—”
“What is happening here, Leget Durmius? I assume there are no chariot races today?”
“Hah, no, my lord. We got some defenders holed up in there. They barricaded the entrances, but they won’t hold once we storm them. We’re about to start if you want to watch, my lord.”
“I have pressing matters with the city’s former rulers,” Antonius said. “I have every confidence you will accomplish your task, Leget.”
Durmius saluted again as Antonius rode on.
Octavian lived in a modest two-story villa on the Palatine Hill overlooking the Circus Maximus. New walls surrounded the home. Antonius chuckled when he noticed a partially constructed corridor connecting the villa to the Circus Maximus. The great Augustus is too much like a god to walk among the citizens of Roma, eh? Antonius could not wait to show Octavian what real gods could do.
When Antonius approached Octavian’s open gates, he spurred his horse into a trot and charged into the courtyard, surprising the centurions and soldiers who stood about inside. He stepped down from his saddle, and a centurion—Numerius Albius—ran over and saluted.
“My lord, we weren’t expecting—”
“I know. Is he here?”
“Yes, my lord. He’s in the atrium with his wife and daughter. Some Senators and the Pontifex Maximus are with them.”
“Good,” Antonius said, striding past the centurion.
He entered the house through the remains of the double wooden doors, which had been shot up and then battered with a ram. In the entryway, several wax busts of Octavian’s ancestors stared at Antonius. He stopped at the last bust, Gaius Julius Caesar remarkably well rendered. It was the Caesar that Antonius remembered in Gaul, when he had watched the Gallic king Vercingetorix throw down his axe in surrender at Caesar’s feet. Forty-nine years old, yet youthful, full of confidence and ready to conquer Roma.
Things didn’t turn out like you expected, did they, you old dog? It could have been you in my place. Fortunate for me the gods and your “friend” Brutus felt otherwise.
Antonius made his way through the entryway and into the villa’s atrium. Six soldiers stood nearby, and they snapped to attention when Antonius entered the room. Antonius ignored them, focused instead on the seven figures huddled on benches in front of the impluvium pool at the atrium’s center. Ruddy sunlight fell through the open atrium, illuminating the figures with a bloody tint. Antonius had no trouble recognizing them.
Octavian stood up, his purple toga arranged precisely. Octavian’s wife Livia and his fifteen-year-old daughter Julia sat behind him. Three of Octavian’s most loyal Senators sat on either side of him. The Pontifex Maximus sat on a bench by himself, his black robes torn. The Pontifex whirled around and stared at Antonius with panicked eyes. A large bruise had spread across his mostly bald head, and his long gray beard hung in strings.
Antonius turned his gaze back to Octavian. The boy—Antonius would always consider Octavian a boy despite his forty-one years—stared at Antonius with the same arrogance he had the whole time they shared power as Triumvirs four years ago. Antonius glanced at the painted walls.
“I love the frescoes,” Antonius said. “Perhaps I will make this house my own.” He strolled past the walls, hands behind his back. He stopped before a painting of Gaius Julius Caesar standing at the right hand of Jupiter. “I hear they call you Augustus now, ‘son of a god.’”
“It is true,” Octavian said, voice steady. “The Senate declared Caesar divine. Caesar adopted me as his son, therefore I am also divine.”
“‘Divine.’” Antonius grunted. “You know nothing of the divine.”
“I suppose you do. How else could you create these wondrous weapons? Wooden sticks that spit fire, smoke, and metal. Iron tubes that destroy stone walls. What did your Egyptian whore’s priests teach you?”
Antonius smiled. “They did not teach me anything. They showed me a temple where I found…well, it’s a long story. Suffice it to say the gods have blessed me with knowledge you cannot imagine. These weapons, they are only the beginning. I will remake Roma. Conquering the known world is nothing. I will conquer lands no Roman has ever seen. I will bring Roma’s light to every barbarian that toils and dies in meaningless darkness.”
Octavian laughed. “Come now, Marcus, this is me. The Marcus Antonius I knew was happiest carousing in the whorehouses and drinking with his soldiers until he passed out. That man was no philosopher. He was no ruler. Now here you are claiming the divine legacy of Caesar? You will never be a Caesar. We both know it.”
Antonius rushed forward, grabbed Octavian’s throat, and slammed him against a wood pillar. The boy’s eyes bulged at the move’s speed and violence.
“You’re right,” Antonius whispered into Octavian’s ear, “I will never be a Caesar. I will be so much more.”
Antonius clenched his fist, crushing Octavian’s throat and the vertebrae in his neck. He let Octavian fall to the floor. Roma’s former ruler gasped for air, face as purple as his toga. Then his struggles stopped and he stared with lifeless eyes up at the red sky through the open atrium.
Livia and Julia cried out and went to Octavian, wailing over his body. Antonius ignored them and then motioned to the centurion nearby.
“Your squad can have the women for your entertainment,” Antonius said, “but only after you do a few things first.”
When he told the centurion his task, the three Senators sobbed in outrage and fear. The centurion nodded grimly, gave Livia and Julia an appraising glance, then told his men to take the Senators outside.
Antonius turned to the Pontifex Maximus. The portly old man stared at Antonius with wide eyes and a gray face. Antonius put his hands on the quivering Pontifex’s head and drew him close. “I am willing to overlook your support for Octavian. You were in a delicate position. You had no choice but to give his illegitimate rule the gods’ blessing—”
“You’re right, my lord,” the man cried. “I had no choice. He would have killed my family if I had not gone along with—”
Antonius gave the man’s head a gentle squeeze. He gasped, and his lips quivered.
“Do not interrupt me again.”
The Pontifex nodded. Antonius smelled urine pooling around the man’s feet.
“Now then. You had no choice but to give Octavian’s illegitimacy your blessing. You could not have known it was wrong because the gods have never talked to you.”
The Pontifex stared at him. “I am the Pontifex Maxi—”
“I know what you are. I know you think you heard the gods and could decipher their will by inspecting dog entrails. But you never really did, did you?”
The Pontifex’s mouth opened and closed.
“It’s all right,” Antonius said soothingly. He watched two flamens dressed as Egyptian priests enter the room. One held a bronze bowl and the other a large bronze knife.
He looked back to the Pontifex. “Soon you will hear the true gods.”
Antonius stood on the balcony on the second floor of Octavian’s house, the racing fields of the Circus Maximus spread before him. Over three hundred crosses lined the field in neat rows, each holding the body of a Senator, patrician, or state official who had vocally opposed him. Antonius’s spies in Roma had spent years keeping track of those who spread vicious lies about him. Those people now hung on crosses below and screamed for the mercy of a single spear thrust to the heart. He would not give them such mercy. The crows would take them first.
The Pontifex Maximus stood beside him, regarding the Circus in the morning light. Antonius looked at the man, noticed the gods had remade him. The sniveling coward he’d been three days ago was gone. The Pontifex looked on the Circus with the eyes of someone who knew why Antonius had ordered this.
The Pontifex turned to Antonius. “Brother,” he said, “this world is ours.”
Antonius smiled. “Why stop at this world?”
Marcia Licinius Ocella pulled the boy through the teeming Forum Romanum. She squeezed through the crowds and merchants as she scanned those same crowds for the men chasing them.
She ducked beneath a red and gold banner hanging from a street lamp. It proclaimed the coming millennial celebrations for the Antonii Ascension. In a month, Roma would be filled with dignitaries and citizens from Terra and every other Republic world. Even kings, consuls, and princes from many Lost Worlds and the Zhonguo Sphere would attend.
All to celebrate a lie.
“You are hurting my arm,” the boy said.
Ocella stopped and looked at him. She’d been squeezing him tight enough to leave red marks on his bare forearm. She eased her grip but did not let go.
“Sorry. You have to keep up with me.” Ocella scanned the crowds behind them again.
“I am trying,” he said, moving closer to her side.
The boy wore a common sleeveless shirt. Though the day was hot and humid, he wore the shirt’s cowl over his head, a trend among plebian children. Ocella was glad Roman fashion allowed for a way to hide the boy’s face.
“How much further?” he asked.
“It’s on the Aventine. A ways yet.”
“How far is the Aventine?”
“We’re in the Forum, it’s just—”
She glanced down at him. He had spent his life in a single house on a single hill, so he would not know the streets and landmarks most normal Romans knew from birth. She would have to be patient with him. The boy was not a normal Roman.
“We’ll be there soon,” she finished.
Her Umbra training made her hyper-aware of how to spot a tail, but the Forum crowds strained even her skills. Plainclothes agents needed minimal competence to hide among this human crush. She gave up on mentally recording every face, and concentrated on just getting through the Forum without losing the boy. They would never make it out if she kept running into merchant stalls or tripping over garbage on the ground.
Once they emerged from the Forum, they had to contend with crossing the Appian Highway. Ground carts zipped by at dangerous speeds on the city’s main north-south highway, and there were no crosswalks or pedestrian bridges nearby. Ocella glanced up the street, saw a bus idling a dozen paces away.
When she turned to the boy, a glint caught her eye. Two lictors approached from behind, their silver helmets shining in the setting sun.
“Come on.” She grabbed the boy’s arm and pulled him toward the bus. She tried to act as if she was late for the bus rather than fleeing the lictors. She didn’t know if the lictors were walking their beat or looking for her. She didn’t want to take the chance.
Ocella pushed the boy on to the bus, deposited her sesterces in the coin box, and moved the boy to the back. They sat in an empty seat, and she glanced outside at the lictors. They continued to walk past the bus, locked in conversation.
They may not want to scare us, she thought. They’ve already commed in a report and a Praetorian squad is waiting at the next stop—
She took a deep breath. Her heart had been racing for the last hour. She had to calm down. Remember your training, she thought. Panic kills.
“Is it much farther, nanny?” the boy asked. “I’m hungry.” He had the expression of any twelve-year-old boy running errands with his caretaker. Bored and hungry.
He raised an eyebrow, and she almost laughed. She was the experienced Umbra Ancile, yet he did a better job maintaining their cover than her nervous actions thus far. Nearby passengers read paper copies of the Daily Acts or stared out the windows. The bus was not as crowded as the Forum, but anyone could be a Praetorian. She had to play the part: an ethnically Indian nanny slave taking her Roman dominar’s child on an outing.
“Not far, Lucius,” she said with an affectionate smile. “I’m sure your Uncle Titus will have a large dinner ready for us when we get there.”
“You think he’ll have that garum from Pompeii he always talks about? I want to try it.”
“He said he would. Your Uncle Titus doesn’t make idle promises.”
They bantered for the ten minutes it took to reach their stop on the Aventine. Partly to throw off eavesdroppers, but mostly to calm their own nerves. While the boy’s speech tended to slip into a noble accent at times, he impressed Ocella with his knowledge of plebeian slang.
On the Aventine Hill, they exited the bus and walked through a run-down neighborhood. All apartment tenements and homes on the Aventine were no more than four stories. The Collegia Pontificis forbade any Roman building to rise above the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline. Trash heaped in alleys and alcoves. Obscene graffiti on the walls depicted the local aediles and quaestors having sex with various farm animals. No graffiti showed Senators, the Collegia Pontificis, or the Consular family. No one would dare.
Ocella found the house on a quiet street in the Aventine’s southeast corner. She tapped on the door politely with her foot, waited a few seconds, then tapped again.
“Maybe he is not home,” the boy said.
“He’s here. He better be…”
She raised her knuckles to rap on the door, but then it opened. The grizzled face of Numerius Aurelius Scaurus peered at her from the entry’s shadows.
“You weren’t followed?”
He sighed, then noticed the boy standing behind her. His eyes widened.
“Blessed Juno, you got him out. Get in before someone sees you. Hurry!”
Ocella and the boy entered the house. Scaurus slammed the door and barred it. He punched in a code on the pad beside the door, and it emitted a chirp as more locks slid into place.
Like most Roman patricians, Scaurus displayed wax busts on the shelves next to the door. Ocella was surprised to see only two: Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Tullius Cicero. As far as Ocella knew, Scaurus was related to neither man.
“I have no notable ancestors,” Scaurus said, standing next to Ocella. “So I choose to display dead Romans I admire. The Julii, though social outcasts these days, have long been friends of my family.” Scaurus stared at her meaningfully. “Caesar reminds me of Roma’s excess. Cicero reminds me to laugh.”
Ocella wondered at such a strange statement. Before she could comment, Scaurus asked, “How did you do it?”
Ocella opened her mouth, but he cut her off. “Wait, we need to get rid of your Umbra implant.”
“Gifts from more friends of the family. Come with me.”
Light from the setting sun shone through the skylight above the atrium garden in the house’s center. Small trees and plants cast shadows on the frescoes and paintings on the walls. The shadows seemed to grasp at Ocella with clawed fingers.
Scaurus took them through the kitchen, where a single house slave prepared dinner. The dark-haired young man ignored them. Ocella was somewhat startled that the slave was a real human and not a golem. Most Romans used golems these days since they were cheap to maintain. She didn’t think Scaurus was wealthy enough to own a human slave.
One more thing you never knew about Scaurus, she thought. Are you surprised?
The boy stared at the olives and breads sitting on the counter, and the lamprey strips sizzling on the grill-stove. Ocella’s own stomach rumbled as she realized she had not eaten in almost twelve hours.
Scaurus opened the pantry and waved his hand before the light pad. A warm glow from the ceiling lit the shelves filled with dry foods. He reached behind some pickled herring jars, his whole arm extended.
“This house has been in my family for almost two hundred years,” he said while reaching to the back wall. “My Saturnist ancestors recognized the need to accommodate guests such as yourselves.”
Ocella heard a click, then stone moving against stone as the shelved wall pushed back four feet. There was little room to squeeze through the opening, but Scaurus managed it and motioned them to follow.
“Cleon,” Scaurus called, “shut the pantry behind us?”
“Yes, master,” the slave said from the kitchen.
Ocella and the boy entered the space behind the pantry. They stood at the top of a staircase descending into darkness. Scaurus waved his hand before a light pad, and small globe lights on the ceiling revealed the stairs and the landing at the bottom. Scaurus hurried down.
The boy looked up at Ocella, and she said, “It’s all right. He’s going to help us.”
The boy was still uncertain, but turned and followed the retired Praetorian Guardsman down to the cellar. The pantry door scraped shut behind them. Ocella flinched.
At the bottom, Scaurus turned on more lights. Ocella blinked at the suddenly illuminated room. It matched the dimensions of the house above. Four rows of bookshelves stood to her right, each filled with old-fashioned scrolls and bound books. To her left, sat a desk with a tabulari projecting a holographic spinning Terra above the keyboard. At the room’s far end, four single-sized beds, a dining area with couches, and a visum globe in the center.
“If you have to hide,” Scaurus said, “there’s no use hiding like barbarians.”
Ocella glanced back up the stairs. “Is that the only way out?”
“Of course not. Wouldn’t do to have a safe house without an escape hatch.”
“Where is it?”
“I’ll tell you after the procedure.”
Ocella nodded. “How did you get a Liberti tabulari?”
“It wasn’t easy,” Scaurus said. He went to the tabulari desk and searched through the drawers. “Even the former Praefectus of the Praetorian Guard has trouble getting the, er, finer things from our friends on Libertus. The embargo on Liberti items hasn’t removed them from Roman homes. Just made them more expensive.”
“Are these from the Ascension?” the boy asked, studying the scrolls on the shelves.
“Yes, sire,” Scaurus said. “Birth records for everyone in the Antonii family after the Ascension. Your lineage.”
The boy looked at him. “They would kill you if they found these.”
Scaurus grunted. “Better than crucifixion. Now you know why my ancestors built that pantry door.”
Scaurus found what he wanted in the drawers. He unraveled a hairnet with small clear beads, similar to what fashionable Roman women wore over their long braided hair.
“The Praetorians will dissect your former associates down to the atom,” Scaurus said, walking to Ocella. “Once they figure out how the implants work, they will detect the signals. When that happens…”
“They will find me,” Ocella said. “And him.” She watched the boy search the scrolls and books. Now and then his mouth formed a wondrous ‘O’ when he found something interesting. “I can’t hide him forever.”
“Bah! I thought you Umbra Ancilia were invincible, immortal, or whatever the superstitions say you are. You haven’t left Terra yet and you’re already despairing. If you were still a Praetorian I’d clap you in the ears right now for such talk. Now let me put this on you.”
Ocella asked, “You sure it’s safe? The Umbra implant works with my higher brain functions. I can’t protect Cordus if I’m brain dead.”
Scaurus put the net over Ocella’s head, adjusting it so it fit over her scalp and ears. “Well, granted, it’s never been used this way. We’ve only used it on retired Umbra Ancilia whose implants were already deactivated. But it should work on your live implant…in theory.”
“How could we test it? One, a live Ancile would never submit to it. Two, there’s never been anyone like Cordus in human history who could use it this way.” Scaurus gazed at the boy. “A new age for humanity begins with him, a new hope for—”
“I know, Scaurus, but like I said, I can’t protect him if I’m brain dead.”
“If you don’t neutralize this implant, you’ll be dead anyway.”
Once again, no choices. Only the single, dark path filled with anguished screams.
“Let’s get this over with.”
Scaurus nodded. “Sire, a moment please.”
Cordus put down the book he’d been studying and walked over.
“Ocella, sit in this chair. Sire, if you would stand in front of Ocella.”
Once Scaurus positioned them correctly, he said, “Do you know what you need to do, sire?”
Cordus shook his head. “I have never done this before.”
“I know. But have the “gods” done it?”
Cordus’s eyes went blank. He stared past Ocella as if looking through the walls and at the horizon. He blinked, then nodded.
“They have ideas on how to disable it.” He frowned. “They need to test some things first. It may hurt a bit.”
Ocella swallowed. “Go ahead, Cordus. I trust you.”
He smiled weakly, then his gaze turned blank again.
Ocella’s scalp tickled as the device activated whatever energy Cordus’s “gods” used. Someone whispered in her right ear. She half turned, but Scaurus stood on her left. The whispers grew louder, though not in a language she understood.
Cordus’s brow furrowed, and he blinked again.
“That was not the right path,” he said. “They need to try another.”
Ocella inhaled and nodded. Cordus stared at her head with that blank gaze.
White light exploded before her eyes. She gasped and heaved backward in the chair.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” Scaurus said as he grabbed her arms.
“I can’t see anything,” Ocella yelled.
“I think I have it,” Cordus said.
The light exploded into millions of flashing images—her past sins and sins she had yet to commit.
I Am John, I Am Paul by Mark Tedesco follows the lives of two real-life Roman soldiers in the fourth century, Ioannes (John) Fulvius Marcus Romanus and Paulus. John and Paul form a strong bond of friendship during their days fighting on the German frontier, a bond that is never broken even when John is sent away to Alexandria by a sadistic centurion.
John spends years in Alexandria longing for home and corresponding with his family and Paul in Rome. While in Alexandria, John is initiated into the Mithraic religion, but his faith in Mithras doesn’t seem to give him the peace he thought it would.
Political upheavals enable John to return to Rome, his family, and Paul. John and Paul resume their duties in the Legion, and even volunteer to rescue a close family member of Emperor Constantine, who was kidnapped by a rival Roman general. The mission succeeds, and the Emperor is so grateful that he gives them both farm lands and a house in Rome, ensuring they and their families will never again know poverty.
While in Rome, John and Paul discover the ‘Way,’ the nascent Christian movement that threatens the old Roman gods. In the Way, John discovers the faith he always hoped would fill his heart, which strengthens both men when they suffer the inevitable persecution.
I’m a huge ancient Rome geek, so there were many things I liked about this book.
For one, it was well researched. The author knew his history and provided illuminating details of the lives of average ancient Romans. Tedesco had a clear understanding of Roman religions, including Roman pagan rituals, Mithraism, and the practices of the ‘christus followers’. The book was beautifully written in a first-person narrative told primarily by John, with dialogue that had an ancient, almost biblical feel.
Now I offer the following as an observation and not a criticism, as it is more a warning about the book’s style.
I felt like I was reading John’s personal journal. And like the journals of real-life people, you won’t find the standard fiction novel plot twists and character conflicts. For the most part, things just happened to John—he doesn’t really do much (besides plan and execute the rescue mission, which was the best part of the book for me). Most of the conflict is internal, with John searching for spiritual meaning in Alexandria and Rome. Tension between characters was minimal.
In other words, read this book for the thoughtful writing about a man searching for his spiritual home, or to experience the lives of everyday Romans during the fourth century. But skip it if you’re seeking a page-turning adventure story set on an ancient Roman battlefield.
I Am John, I Am Paul is available on Amazon.
Cross-posted on New Podler Review of Books.
In Apple Blossom Time by Robert Wack starts with an interesting Prologue—a time traveler jumps back and forth in time between different locations in World War II Europe tracking another man important to the time traveler’s mysterious mission. It’s a violent struggle, as the traveler sometimes kills his quarry and then sometimes loses him.
The Prologue promised a novel filled with paradoxes and alternate timelines. In my opinion, however, the novel did not deliver on that promise.
Dr. Willem von Stockum is an American mathematician who abandons a lucrative academic career to join the British Royal Air Force prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. He’s disgusted with America’s indifference to Nazi oppression in Europe and wants to do what he can to free his Dutch homeland from the Nazi invaders.
When his bomber is shot down over Normandy during the D-Day invasion, a group of lost American paratroopers rescue him from the wreckage. They hide from the German army in a French home with members of the French Resistance and two strangers who tell peculiar stories about the fantastical theories von Stockum will one day develop. Von Stockum ultimately has to choose between believing the absurd stories of these strangers, or doing the right thing in the here and now.
There were quite a few good things about this book that kept me reading.
The author knew his material; details of the Normandy invasion and the mathematics of quantum physics and the Theory of Relativity were all authentically presented within the narrative.
The dialogue was spot-on for the era and expertly rendered; whether it was Americans or British or even the French speaking, I could hear their accents without the author resorting to phonetically spelling them out (e.g., “ve have vays of making you talk!”).
What bothered me, however, was that the book felt like the author expanded a beautiful short story into novel length by adding flashbacks, reveries, and information dumps. The first third of the book was filled with von Stockum thinking about his past, reminiscing with fellow pilots, or reading letters from home. He didn’t do much. I found myself skipping pages of von Stockum reveries just so I could get back to the American paratrooper story lines, which were quite exciting.
The second thing that bothered me was that the time travel element was not as important to the story as I had hoped. The paratroopers and von Stockum simply thought of the time traveling strangers as either German spies or lunatics, and the strangers didn’t seem to impact the decisions of the main characters in any significant way; if they did, it was way too subtle for a promised ‘time travel’ novel.
Still, if most of von Stockum’s ruminations were cut out and a more impactful role given the time travelers, I think In Apple Blossom Time would have made a marvelous short story or novella. But as a novel, I can only give it 3 of 5 stars.
In Apple Blossom Time is available on Amazon.
Cross-posted on New Podler Review of Books.
Black Book, Volume 1, has the first three episodes of the genre-bending Black Book series. It’s a story that mixes Western, science fiction, and fantasy into a quest that spans centuries.
In Part 1: The Devil’s Blood, we find Sheriff Jack trying to keep the peace in a small, American West town during the 1860s. But Jack is no ordinary Sheriff. He has almost supernatural skills that help him survive a bloody encounter with bandits that shoot up his town and kill many of its citizens. He’s quick on the draw, knows how to use his fists…and can time-travel out of town when a powerful adversary leaves him no choice but to retreat.
In Part 2: Out of Time, we meet Benjamin Freeman, President of the United States in the year 2308. Ben has directed his time-travel corps to locate Jack, an old military comrade who has gone missing in the distant past. When Ben personally oversees the operation, he walks into a trap orchestrated by a deadly faction that also wants to find Jack for its own ruthless purposes.
In Part 3: The Wall, Jack arrives in 1862 California. He meets up with a six-year-old boy and his guardian, a mysterious old man who has met Jack before, though Jack has no recollection. The old man guides Jack to a hidden object that Jack knows will change his life and the course of humanity.
First the good:
Jones’ scenes in the Wild West were so awesome that I thought I was reading a Zane Grey novel. In Part 1, I could taste the dust on my lips and smell the body odor of the gamblers in the saloon. The Western dialogue was spot-on and I could feel the bullets zip past my ear during the gunfights.
Sheriff Jack is an interesting character because he understands the stakes of his mission, yet cannot help himself when he goes out of his way to protect the innocent, even if it threatens the success of his mission.
Most of Volume 1 was about Jack, but Ben Freeman, who appears in Part 2, proved to be an interesting character as well. Through him, we get a glimpse of the 24th century and how time travel becomes a truly devastating weapon. Volume 1 only hints at Ben’s military background and his relationship with Jack, so there is still plenty of ground to cover there in future volumes.
And in the Black Book world, lets just say time travel is not for those who fear pain or swimming.
Now for the warning:
I went into Black Book, Volume 1, thinking I’d get three episodes of good serial fiction. What I got instead were three chapters of a great novel.
Let me explain.
A single episode of serial fiction should be like an hour-long episode of a TV drama — the characters encounter a situation that they take action to resolve within that one hour. While there may be an over-arching storyline that ties the episodes together, each one should have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
For me, the three episodes of Black Book, Volume 1, did not have that clear beginning, middle, and end. They had scenes that felt like set-up for a coming situation…but that situation never materialized, which made the scenes feel pointless within that episode.
But Volume 1’s three episodes were what I’d expect from the opening chapters of an exciting sci-fi novel with an intriguing mystery. Those “pointless” scenes would work well in a complete novel that is a single story with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
The Black Book series promises to be a wonderfully engaging story that I look forward to reading and buying. I highly recommend it for the storytelling, world building, and quality of writing.
I’m just going to wait for the omnibus version so I can read it all at once.
Black Book, Volume 1, is available on Amazon.
Cross-posted on New Podler Review of Books.
As the father of a 7-year-old, I can relate to many of the short stories in David Drazul’s sci-fi/horror collection, We’ll Watch the Sunrise from the Bottom of the Sea. The overarching theme to this collection is that parents are often clueless when it comes to raising their kids. Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we fail miserably. But we always try to do the right thing.
We start with “Emily’s Star.” While little Emily’s parents are renovating her room, they discover a strange point of light hovering near her ceiling. Her dad George decides to tinker with it, unleashing a sinister force none of them could imagine. I found the role reversal in this one humorous because the parents do exactly what most children would do if they found something strange in their room–they poke at it.
“Collection Notice” is part science-fiction, part political satire. A man from the future visits Senator Bartleby demanding payback for all the money Bartleby’s generation borrowed from the future. Drazul’s biting critique of both major political parties in the US–how neither one seems serious about America’s out-of-control debt–is timely, and I enjoyed this one a lot (of course, you may not like it if you disagree with Drazul). It conformed to the theme of trying to do the right thing, but failing miserably. I’m an optimist, so I like to think Republicans and Democrats thought they were helping people when they ran up the debt; the hard part now is to fix this mistake before it crushes us.
“Tile” is straight-up horror with no parenting theme. Silvio Gisardi is a tile-maker hired by a wealthy, eccentric, old man to tile a bathtub with the image of an ancient Illyrian lake god. “The Tile” is a clear homage to Lovecraft, with its evil gods and creepy mansions. My take-away? Never take a job from a wealthy, eccentric, old man who’s into ancient lake gods.
The book’s title story, “We’ll Watch the Sunrise from the Bottom of the Sea,” gets back to the parenting theme. While visiting an exotic hotel built forty feet beneath the South Pacific, Bryce and his wife Stephanie discover the true nature of Bryce’s family. He tries to avoid becoming like them, but the story implies that parental ties and traditions–even the ones we disagree with–are sometimes too strong to resist.
“The Recruiter” demonstrates a parental nightmare. A young teenaged boy buys a slick recruiter’s promises of glory and runs away from home to join a Holy War on Earth. While most parents don’t have to deal with their children becoming suicide bombers, the story made me ponder how I’d react if my daughter engaged in more mundane teen behavior that I knew to be self-destructive.
For me, “Maybe the Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” was the most gut-wrenching. In a dystopian world where winter has mysteriously lingered, a father is forced to take his young daughter into a deserted town to scavenge for food and supplies. But his one moment of selfishness puts his daughter in terrible danger. Drazul comments in the story’s afterwords that he had originally written it with a more paranormal villan, rather than the natural threat he ended up writing. I think natural threats are more plausible and therefore more fearsome, so the story would’ve been much less powerful if Drazul had gone paranormal.
“She Cries at Midnight” combines parental instinct with a dash of horror and a whole lot of science-fiction. A mother is awakened every night when her twenty-month-old daughter cries out at exactly midnight. When the mother and father discover the truth, their attempts to protect their daughter cause a terrible misunderstanding with interstellar implications. This story was compelling because it showed what all parents would do in that situation, which makes the events all the more inevitable and tragic.
The final story, “Neptune’s Diamonds,” was about three friends who win a stake in an abandoned diamond mine in Neptune’s atmosphere. They think it’s an easy pay-day, but retrieving the diamonds turns out to be more difficult than they thought. This was the weakest of the collection for me because it was more predictable than the others; but I can still recommend it because it taught me a few things about Neptune that I never knew. And ultimately, learning something knew is why I read science-fiction.
Overall, We’ll Watch the Sunrise from the Bottom of the Sea was a strong collection of sci-fi/horror short stories that packs an emotional punch with deeply affecting parental themes. Highly recommended.
We’ll Watch the Sunrise from the Bottom of the Sea is available on Amazon. Learn more about David Drazul at DEDzone.net.
Worldbuilding is the process of creating a novel’s exotic setting — its history, geography, cultures, religions, etc. For the purposes of this post, I’m referring to made-up worlds in science-fiction and fantasy novels.
So which is better to create first: the world or the story? Well it’s different for every writer and every story.
For me, it started with the world.
“What if the Roman Empire had interstellar travel?” That was the germ of the idea that became MUSES OF ROMA. I wrote down most of my ideas in long brainstorming sessions–and created a 50-page encyclopedia–before I ever decided on a particular story or set of characters. So in my case, the worldbuilding came first, and then the story.
Except that’s not exactly accurate.
I did a lot of brainstorming on where we are, but not so much on how we got there. How did the Romans establish interstellar colonies? What was the one event in Roman history that diverged from our timeline and enabled such an outlandish, science-fictional situation to occur? I wanted that “terrifying secret” to be the core of my novel.
That’s when my story began building my world. I updated some of my initial worldbuilding so that my universe conformed to the event that changed Roman history. I abandoned most of my brainstorming because my story was more important than adhering to my original encyclopedia.
Once I settled on the “terrifying secret” my heroes had to discover, I began adding more nooks and crannies to my world that I had not thought of during my initial brainstorming. What were the implications of this secret? How would real people–specifically ancient Romans–accept it, and then how would their culture evolve because of it?
Even while writing the first draft, when I thought I had all the big questions answered, the story forced me to ask more and more questions, which only added to the richness of the MUSES universe. At that point, the story was in firm control of my worldbuilding.
Whether you build your world and then write your story, or vice versa, always ask, “How?” Every bit of history, culture, religion, etc., has to be a logical progression of what came before it. This is what I call giving my world the Third Degree–I must be able to answer the how at least three questions deep before a piece of worldbuilding goes into my novel.
For example, the Romans in my universe have interstellar colonies, so my Degree questions would go:
First Degree: How do they travel to those colonies?
Answer: They use wormholes that they call “waylines.”
Second Degree: How did they discover the “waylines?”
Answer: The gods told them.
Third Degree: How did the gods tell them?
Answer: The gods talk to the priests and College of Pontiffs, who relay the information to the people.
Leave the questioning to three degrees unless more questions/answers will impact the story; otherwise, if you’re like me, you’ll end up with a 50-page encyclopedia loaded with info you’ll never use!
I once read a fantasy novel where the heroes encountered a group of nomads “famous for their winemaking.” But the author never explained how these nomads made their wine. I was left to wonder if the nomads stored their vineyards and fermentation barrels in their horse-drawn wagons. 😉
So the author’s winemaking nomads failed the First Degree of questioning–how do nomads make wine? If he had asked at least that question, he would have noticed the problem and solved it by offering a plausible explanation for the nomads’ winemaking fame (or would’ve removed the reference altogether).
It’s very tempting to lose yourself in worldbuilding and research (“Hello, my name is Rob, and I’m a chronic worldbuilder….”), especially when it’s a topic you love. Remember that the story is the most important thing–build your world until it passes that Third Degree of questioning. After that, let it go and move on.