The Sequel Is Here: Spartans at the Gates

Spartans_cover

I just got the advance reader copies (ARCs) of the sequel to Sons of Zeus and they look great. The book is called Spartans at the Gates and it starts up a day after the first book ends, with my hero Nikias heading off on a desperate mission to Athens from his home–the independent city-state of Plataea.

One of the hardest things to get for a book before it is published is a blurb from another writer, especially for a new series like this one. Historical fiction authors are notorious for not helping each other out. Why? Because the historical fiction market is the hardest to break into of any genre, and I suppose authors who finally make it are stingy about offering a leg up to somebody who hasn’t slogged through the mud and blood first.

But not Angus Donald. He’s the author of the Outlaw Chronicles–a rousing series about Robin Hood set during the 12th century. Angus gave me a blurb for Spartans at the Gates that is just incredible. I’ve never met Angus, so it’s inspiring to get this kind of response from a stranger, especially a writer of his ilk. He  compared me to the great Mary Renault. The first historical fiction book that I ever read (The Persian Boy) was written by Renault. Here’s Angus’s blurb for Spartans at the Gates that will grace the dust jacket of the hardcover that comes out June 24th.

Angus Donald blurb

Right now I’m working on finishing up book 3 of my trilogy: Sword of Apollo. I have to turn in the first draft on May 1st. While the second book in the series takes place mostly in Athens (check out my Tumblr photos of my trip there last summer), Sword of Apollo heads to the seas with Nikias and his friends aboard a trireme (triple-decked warship). Spartans at the Gates hits the few bookstores that are left (but mostly Amazon) on June 24th. Sword of Apollo will arrive a year later in the summer of 2015.

Come back soon for a link to a goodreads giveaway for Spartans at the Gates ARCs that will go live this week (for US residents only). And check out my interview with American Athenaeum Magazine where I talk about the Warrior Trilogy, Tolkien and what influenced me to become a writer.

EXCERPT FROM American Athenaeum interview.

Your most recent published novel, Sons of Zeus, tackles the ancient world of Greece, and follows a young Greek warrior, Nikias, who “dreams of glory in the Olympic games as he trains for the pankration—the no-holds-barred ultimate fighting of the era.” His training is cut short when the city is attacked, in a type of “Pearl Harbor” way, which sends Nikias and his neighbors to war. The book is quite an accomplishment in how it recreates the past in such a lively and innovative way, one that contemporary readers can easily connect, with. How long did it take to write the book? What type of research did you do for the novel?

Sons of Zeus took me ten years to write. A lot of people wonder how a Tolkien-freak like me could have written this book. What’s interesting is that Tolkien inspired me to start reading the ancient Greeks. I read in one of his letters that his introduction to the classics was Homer. So I went from reading The Lord of the Rings to The Iliad and The Odyssey. In college we had these core classes. Mine was Great Books. In that class we read every extant play from Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus. I fell in love with the Greeks after that. So about ten years ago I was working as a documentary film producer, and we started a project about 5th BCE Athens—the “Golden” age of Greece. During my research I came across the story of the sneak-attack on the democratic independent city-state of Plataea: a tale that I had glossed over the first time that I read Thucydides. I couldn’t believe that this epic story of courage and survival had never been the subject of a novel. The character of a young Olympic fighter-in-training who must save his city, family and beloved from genocidal invaders just came to me in a vision.

 

 

Got My Copies of ΟΙ ΓΙΟΙ ΤΟΥ ΔΙA (Sons of Zeus)!

Zeus_Greek

My Greek publisher, Psichogios, sent me two copies of the translated version of Sons of Zeus. They got here today and I was blown away by what I saw when I tore open the package. This edition is stunning! In Europe they don’t publish many hardcovers. They mostly print what’s called a “brochure” style: it’s a paperback, but both ends of the cover fold over just like the dust jacket of a hardback.

Sons_cover 2They also did this really cool thing with drop caps to start all of the chapters. It looks great and shows the effort by the publisher to make a really awesome book.

Sons_dropcap

The Greek edition also includes the map from the US version (with place names in Greek). And the cover image of the hoplite is embossed, which makes it stand out on a shelf. I look forward to hearing what readers in Greece think about my book!

Greek version_Sons

Order Sons of Zeus now:

In the US: hardback, ebook, audiobook via Amazon (in English)

The Greek translation (eBook) on iTunes (in the US)

In Greece

 

I love Greece! Αγαπώ την Ελλάδα!

SONSOFZEUS

The Greek translation of Sons of Zeus is now available in print and ebook in Europe! I am blown away by this cover. It totally rocks. (I first got to see the cover design when I was in Athens last June visiting my Greek publisher Psichogios.) I can’t wait to get a copy of the printed book. The title in Greek is ΟΙ ΓΙΟΙ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑ. You can read about my trip to the place that was the inspiration for my trilogy here.

 

Find and Replace At Your Peril

Leonidas

The other day I got an email from the Greek translator of my novel Sons of Zeus that made me sick to my stomach. The translator, a wonderful woman named Eleni, told me (in a very polite way) that I had given the wrong name to a famous historical personage—the warrior-king who led the 300 Spartans at a place called Thermopylae (The Gates of Fire) and stalled the Persian advance into Greece.

Now anyone who knows even a little about ancient Greek history (or has seen the movie 300!) knows that this king was named Leonidas. I first learned the significance of his name when I read Steven Pressfield’s book Gates of Fire when it came out fifteen years ago. It’s a great name and I wanted to use it as a character in my book when I first started writing Sons of Zeus ten years ago. I ended up giving the name Leonidas to the brother of my hero’s love interest.

This brother, Leonidas, was a prick of a character. A total bastard. And the more I thought about him I just couldn’t see him having this cool and heroic-sounding name. So I decided to change his name to Lysander, which is kind of a jerky sounding name, at least in English. It brings to mind the word “lie.” Lysander was a scoundrel and he got a scoundrel’s name (my apologies to any Lysanders out there).

So right before I sent in the first draft of Sons of Zeus to my publisher, I changed the name of Leonidas to the less appealing Lysander. And I did this using the Find and Replace function in Microsoft Word.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten that I had used the name Leonidas in the book in a totally different context.

You see, one of the main characters, a man named Menesarkus, has a flashback to his youth when he journeyed to Sparta soon after the Persian Wars and took part in the Funeral Games of Leonidas—in honor of that aforementioned Spartan king who sacrificed his life to save Greece. Find and Replace does not have a brain. And sometimes the human using this function doesn’t either. So the reference to the Funeral Games of Leonidas got changed to the Funeral Games of Lysander throughout the book.

Holy crap.

Somehow I failed to notice this mistake. And neither did any of the people who read the first three drafts (and there were a lot of readers). The copy-editor, who thoroughly researched all the names in the book as well as historical references, missed it too. And so now, in the hardcover of my book (and on the unabridged audio recording, and all of the ebook versions) this paragraph reads:

He had been chosen to go along with a contingent of Plataean warriors, invited as honored guests of one of the royal families to participate in funeral games for Lysander, leader of the “Three Hundred” who had held off the passes of Thermopylae. . . .

Now believe me. I pored over the proofs of Sons of Zeus with a fine tooth comb. I nearly went blind looking for typos and mistakes. But somehow, this Leonidas/Lysander blunder kept slipping by me. My brain just glided over it every time I saw it. For a historical fiction writer like me who prides himself on being totally accurate, this mistake was devastating. It would be like a guy who fancies himself a Shakespeare scholar referring to King Lear as King Larry…or King Lysander!

Happily the Greek version will not have this mistake, thanks to the eagle eye of Eleni the translator. I don’t think that Greek readers would have forgiven me for making this epic blunder in the Greek version of my novel. The first thing that I’ll correct for the US paperback will be to restore King Leonidas to his rightful place of honor in Sons of Zeus.

Use Find and Replace at your peril, dear authors. Otherwise you might make the same stupid mistake that I did. Technology eventually makes fools of us all.

Work In Progress: Spartans at the Gates


I’m just about done with the second draft of the sequel to Sons of Zeus. It’s called Spartans at the Gates and the action starts the day after Sons of Zeus ends. The story is about how the hero of the first book, the young warrior Nikias, rides off to Athens on a foolhardy quest: To try and raise an army of mercenaries to come back to his city of Plataea and help defend it from the Spartans. These terrifying invaders showed up in the Oxlands hard on the heels of the defeated Thebans. (Read Book 1 for more details!)

Needless to say things don’t go as Nikias plans. Along the way he must fight mountain marauders and urbane spies, escape from kidnappers who want to take him to Sparta and survive a bloody battle on the sea, only to come face to face with his most hated enemy: the Persian-trained assassin Eurymakus–the man responsible for the death of Nikias’s mother and many of his friends.

For Spartans at the Gates I got some great feedback and suggestions from my editor, Peter Joseph, at Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. One of the best things about having a publisher is working with a thoroughly competent, imaginative and friendly editor like Peter. He helped turn Sons of Zeus into a better book, and he’s doing the same thing with Spartans at the Gates.

Being a great editor isn’t just about finding typos. It’s about shining a light on plot holes that the author has dug himself into, and questioning dialogue that rings false, or action that comes across as illogical. It’s also about asking the author to expand on something that they might take for granted. For example, one of the characters in Spartans at the Gates (and Sons of Zeus) is a badass assassin named Eurymakus. He uses a dagger (kept in a stone sheath) that is tainted with one of the most toxic poisons in the world. A single scrape brings nearly instant and horribly painful death. This poison is based on real poisons used in the ancient world. It would actually make your eyeballs bleed. In my original text I simply wrote:

The sheath was filled with the deadliest poison known to Persian whisperers. The slightest scratch from the tainted blade caused an excruciating and nearly instant death.

Now in his notes to my first draft, Peter suggested that I go into more description about this poison (since it plays such a crucial part in the plot). So I came up with this rewrite:

The sheath was filled with the deadliest poison known to Persian whisperers: “Dragon Blood” it was called. The slightest scratch from the tainted blade caused an excruciating and nearly instant death. Eurymakus had learned to make the concoction in Persia, mixing the powerful venom of scaled vipers along with the juices of wolf’s bane, oleander and hemlock, and then brewing this noxious potion for several months in a sheep’s bladder. He had brought the scaled vipers with him to Thebes from Persia, and he’d bred the snakes for years in the undercroft beneath his slaves’ quarters. He grew all of the poisonous plants in the courtyard of his house—his garden of death.

Now the second passage tells us so much more about the character of Eurymakus, his poisonous blade (and the threat of that blade) than the first version. It also gives us some insight into this freaky dude. He has some of the most poisonous snakes in the world (the scaled viper) in his basement. He grows deadly poisonous plants in his garden. He. Is. Scary.

Peter has also been weaning me of using too many adverbs. I suggest to all of you writers out there: Kill your adverbs. They really do a terribly horribly awfully sucky job of making your book betterly. (And I know “betterly” isn’t a real word, but it makes a wonderfully shitty adverb.)

Next week I will turn in this second draft of Spartans at the Gates, and then it will go to the line editor who will (hopefully) find every mistake that Peter and I have missed. The book will hit the shelves in hardcover in June, 2014.

Book 3 of The Warrior Trilogy, Sword of Apollo, is in the works.

To order Sons of Zeus click here.

Greeks and Geeks

My GeekDad.com interview with the modern geek warrior Ethan Gilsdorf, author of the gutsy, poignant and hilarious memoir Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. We talk about my new novel Sons of Zeus, Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons! Oh, yeah! Go to GeekDad.com.

To Ancient Greece (and Back Again)

My video interview with the fantasy/sci-fi site Legendarium. We talk about the strange and violent Spartans, the ancient martial art called the pankration, and Greek warfare. No bones were broken in this interview.

The Place Behind The Story

I just flew back from Greece and my wax and feather wings are toast! (I’ve been waiting to do that Icarus joke for quite a while!)

I went to Greece to meet with the Greek publisher of Sons of Zeus and to finish up research for my series the Warrior Trilogy (Thomas Dunne Books). The trilogy is set in the independent city-state of Plataea, a place that was renowned in the ancient world as the site of the glorious defeat of the Persian invaders in 479 BC by the allied Greek armies. But all that’s left of this once proud citadel are ruins marked by an unassuming and generic sign.

What happened to the people of Plataea? In their heyday their city walls were over two miles in circumference, twenty feet tall and guarded by dozens of strong towers. I’ve walked the entire circuit of these crumbling bastions several times and you can’t help but be awed by the area that was encompassed by the place, as well as the beauty of its location at the base of the majestic Kithaeron Mountains. The citadel itself was filled with temples and public buildings, and you can still see the foundations of these buildings amongst the weeds.Today the land around Plataea is fertile and rich with olive trees and vineyards, just like it was 2,500 years ago.

The Plataeans were fiercely independent and controlled the pasture and farmlands in this region north of Athens called Boeotia (the Oxlands). They were also extremely loyal to the Athenians. This loyalty incurred the wrath of the brutal and tyrannical Spartans who were vying with the Athenian Empire for the control of Greece. And so Plataea became trapped–like an olive crushed in the disks of two huge grinding stones– between the two superpowers of the ancient world: Athens and Sparta.

One of the most remarkable things about the site of Plataea today is that nobody ever goes there. Not even Greeks. It is barely mentioned in guidebooks. There is no museum or tourist shop. It’s just a barren field filled with the ruins of walls and guard towers, columns hidden in weeds, and a cemetery with crumbling 2,500-year-old sarcophagi.

And yet this spot is one of the most beautiful and historically important in all of Greece. Here King Xerxes and his massive invasion force were obliterated on the Plataean fields, thus securing the rise of the Athenian democracy, which in turn brought about so many of the ideas and innovations that we in the Western World hold dear. The Parthenon was built post-Persian invasion.

The playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes virtually invented drama during this time. Socrates and Plato were alive during this period too, as were the historians Herodotus and Thucydides. And some of the greatest sculptors and artists the world has ever known flourished in the so-called Golden Age. (Click here for my blog about J.R.R. Tolkien and the influence of the ancient Greeks on his writing.)

The Plataeans and their city-state were partially responsible for the remarkable freedom that came after the defeat of the Persians. And for decades their city (and the battlefields in front of their walls) were one of the places that ancient Greeks would visit with awe and reverence, just like we modern people visit sites like Gettysburg and Normandy.

But then something disastrous happened to the Plataeans. First a traitor betrayed the city and opened the gates to their most hated enemy, the Thebans (the events described in Sons of Zeus). The way that the Plataeans survived this attack and withstood the ensuing Spartan siege became the stuff of legends.

Sons of Zeus, an action/adventure set in ancient Greece, is published by Thomas Dunne Books. It follows the young hero Nikias of Plataea as he tries to save his family, city and the woman he loves from genocidal invaders.

You can order it now from Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble as well as independent booksellers (hardcover and ebook). The unabridged audiobook recording is done by Blackstone Audio. Sons of Zeus will be published in Greek this October from Psichogios Publications and in Portuguese from Novo Conceito.

(Relief sculpture made circa 430 BC of a young horseman, found near the city of Plataea. National Museum of Archaeology, Athens. All photographs copyright 2013 by Noble Smith)

 

Find Those Typoes…err…Typos!

Sons of Zeus, the first episode in my epic trilogy about the bloody onset of the Peloponnesian War, is coming this June 14th in hardcover. This week I will receive the first pass pages in the mail. This is a nearly 500 page (printout) of the manuscript that has been amended with all of the copyeditor’s corrections, as well as my additions and corrections. I will sit down at my desk for three days and pore over this version, comparing it to the previous printout in my possession, making certain that all of the changes were implemented correctly by the person doing the digital typeset version of the book. This should take me about 24 hours of work if I can check 1 page every 2.5 minutes! What’s fascinating is that it’s an old school process at this point: paper and pencil marks and no computers.

Here’s what I think about copyeditors: they are indispensable. But here’s a warning for all authors who have never had a pro copyeditor go over your manuscript. The first time you get a copyedited version of your book back from the publisher, and you see all of the red pencil marks on the pages, you will feel like an illiterate hillbilly and question whether or not you should even be writing a book at all, let alone a trilogy! Almost every author I know has had this experience. The great Patrick O’Brian (author of the Aubrey/Maturin Series) was an aberration. One of O’Brian’s editors told a story about how O’Brian got back the copyedited version of a manuscript for one of his books, and the prickly author was enraged to find that the dastardly copyeditor had altered one thing: he’d changed a semicolon into a comma! (O’Brian promptly changed it back.)

The galleys (the advance press paperback copies) will be printed based on the first pass pages of Sons of Zeus, and these paperback versions of the book will start going out to reviewers at the end of February (and they will contain, no doubt, several typos). I will get to look at the manuscript one more time before it finally goes to the printers. There should be 0 typos in the final version. I hope.

It’s a nerve wracking process, to say the least. I’m always finding typos in books. Now I know why. It’s damned hard to get a perfectly clean copy of a novel. Especially one as long as this one is (over 125k words). My cousin recently read the manuscript and found a typo that had existed in all 20 or so versions of the manuscript: it had existed for about 8 years! Dozens of people have read the book, and nobody had caught it until my cousin (a linguist) saw it. And the typo was on the first page of Chapter 1. Here it is:

Nikias, in stark contract to his grandfather, had altered much over the last decade.

Did you see the typo?  The word I had messed up was contrast. I had accidentally typed contract instead. When everyone read the sentence, their brains (and mine) just changed the c to an s to have it make sense.

I’ve put a massive number of man hours into Sons of Zeus. Not just in the editing process, but also in the research. I read over 100 books about ancient Greece, and even taught myself to read the ancient Greek language. I first started writing the book ten years ago while I was working a feature documentary film about the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. (That film eventually became Jessica Yu’s award-winning Protagonist, which I co-executive produced. Protagonist is one of the few films ever made, outside of Greece, that has spoken dialogue in ancient Greek.)

Sometimes research can mess you up, however. If you become too married to details, your historical fiction (or even fantasy) story can become really boring. The first version of my book was wildly different from the one that is going to be published this June. That first book was, in fact, quite dull. It was like something written by a stuffy college professor. Too full of factoids and digressions where I felt compelled to explain commonplace objects or social customs (or even the details of architecture). I basically threw away that first manuscript of the book and started over from scratch. And then I threw that second version away too. So I’ve actually written about 1,500 pages to get 500 pages.

Once I started on that third version of the book it really came to life. I had done all of the research and I’d finally come up with a voice that was my own. The world that I had been inhabiting in my imagination for so many years had finally gelled. Now I’m 3/4 of the way done with the sequel (Spartans at the Gates) and I can’t seem to type fast enough to keep up with the story that’s pouring out of my brain. I even wrote a five thousand word short story (a prequel to Sons of Zeus) that will be put out as an ebook teaser by my publisher (Thomas Dunne Books) two months before the publication of Sons of Zeus.

This ebook short story is called The One-armed Warrior (see image above) and it’s about how the protagonist of Sons of Zeus makes a very dangerous enemy of an older warrior a year before the action of Sons of Zeus begins. What’s so cool about ebooks is that you can release these short stories, or prequels, or even spinoff tales without the hassle or expense of printing them as a physical book and shipping them off to bookstores. The way publishers are adding ebook bonus materials to their traditionally printed book catalogues is in its infancy. But I think it’s going to be an exciting amalgam of old school and new technology. Someday I hope to have an enhanced ebook version of my trilogy with all of the short stories/supplementary material combined with the three novels.

Just imagine what J.R.R. Tolkien could have done with this technology? He had all of the supplementary materials (his backstory The Silmarillion, his languages, his poems and unfinished tales and appendices). But he had to type everything out by hand on a manual typewriter.* It’s a remarkably tedious process if you’ve ever tried to write a book that way. I learned to type on a manuel typewriter. It’s physically exhausting. Tolkien used to dream that someday he would be wealthy enough from his writing to have a special custom typewriter made that would allow him to type in Elvish script. Alas, he never got to experience the pleasure of creating stories with high-tech typewriters (aka computers), nor did he get to see all of the cool fonts based on the languages of Middle-earth. He would have loved them!

If you are interested in reading The One-armed Warrior, click here to “Like” it. It will be available in a couple of months on Nook, Kobo and Kindle. And I hope you don’t find any typos. Sons of Zeus will be available in print and ebook June 14th in the United States, Brazil and Greece.

*By the way, Christopher Tolkien still owns and works on his father’s typewriter; and he used it to type out the manuscripts for The Silmarillion and the 12-volume History of Middle Earth.

The Ultimate Fighting of the Ancient World

Warriors of the ancient world invented the sport we know of as ultimate fighting. Twenty-five hundred years ago this kind of no-holds-barred contest was called the pankration—a word that translates as “all strengths.” And in the year 500 BC this brutal sport had already been around for centuries.

The pankration was a combination of boxing and wrestling and taught warriors all of the skills they needed to know to stay alive in the crush and chaos of a battle, when sometimes—their spears shattered and their shield walls broken—men had to rely on their hands and feet for survival despite their protective armor.

But pankrators were unarmed and wore no bronze. And they did not use padded gloves when they fought. This was a bloody bare-knuckles brawl with chokeholds, grappling, finger breaking, hair pulling and kicking. The most primal kind of fight. Face-to-face. Mano a mano. In many parts of Greece there were only two rules in pankration bouts: no biting and no eye gouging.

The brutal Spartans, however, tossed all rules aside in their matches, and one can imagine many a maimed Spartan pankrator missing an eye, an ear, or even the tip of a nose. (In martial Sparta, even women were allowed to compete in wrestling matches.) Bouts sometimes ended in death which counted as a victory for the fighter still standing.

Some pankrators protected their teeth with a big gob of tree resin called mastik (from a Greek word meaning to chew—the root of the English “masticate”). The gold colored sap was the world’s first chewing gum. It kept a pankrator’s teeth from smashing together if he received an uppercut to the jaw, and served like a modern-day football player’s mouth guard.

To understand ancient Greek society it helps to have knowledge of the pankration and its importance in their world. The Greeks were lovers of democracy, art, science, philosophy, music and theater. But one of their favorite athletic events was arguably one of the most ferocious and barbaric contests ever invented.

My novel, Sons of Zeus, is the story of a young fighter-in-training who must use all of his skills learned in the pankration to defeat an invasion force bent on destroying everything he knows. It arrives in bookstores and online June 4th, 2013.