Monday, May 12, 2014

The wanderings of Alexi

Last October, I mentioned the problem I was having: a big hole in the third book. The original Odyssey, after all, is about this guy named Odysseus, who wanders the seas for ten years, trying to get home. Of those ten years, he spends seven on the island of Calypso the nymph. And therein lay my problem. And as I mentioned in that post, although my purpose was to re-tell the Odyssey, I knew Alexi couldn't spend seven years on the same island with only Odysseus and Calypso. Now that would be boring!

What to do? Separate him from Odysseus, obviously, and give him some other adventures, until the time comes for him to arrive back on Odysseus's home island of Ithaca just in time to see Odysseus arrive, and all the events that come from that. But that's awkward too. I'm trying to re-tell the Odyssey, and jamming in other, unrelated stories might feel contrived. After discussing it with my sister (Laurel Bowman, professor of classics at the University of Victoria and my personal story consultant), I settled on making him encounter some of the other famous characters from the Trojan war and share in their adventures. These adventures are described in the Nostoi, a long-lost collection of stories about the other Greek heroes of the Trojan war and what happened to them when they went home. Eventually, Alexi encounters Odysseus's son Telemachus and hitches a ride with him to Ithaca, not knowing that all hell is about to break lose as Odysseus himself gets home.

Many reviewers and teachers - these books have turned out to be quite popular in classrooms, a mixed compliment if I ever saw one - will know some of these stories, but others won't. So I've decided to draw back the curtain a bit here and talk about some of Alexi's adventures in the third book, and how they tie in with the Greek legends that triggered the war. This post will be a multi-parter. Tonight I'll talk about the adventure on the island of Helios, the sun god.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read Arrow through the Axes yet, what I'm about to write will give away some of the plot. It's fine by me if you want to keep reading, and in fact it will help you appreciate some of the subtleties when you do read it; just don't be surprised later when you're, er, not surprised.

Okay, for those of you still with me, on we go. After the shipwreck, Alexi finds himself back on the island of Helios. The Greeks aren't there any more, thanks to that same shipwreck, so it's just him and his rescuer, Phaethusia (which conveniently shrinks to "Phaith"). In the original, she and her sister Lampethie (which I wrote as Lampethia) live on the island looking after the cattle of their father Helios, the sun god. Why does a sun god need cattle? Beats me. Even today, in primitive societies a man is known by the cattle he keeps, and bronze age Greeks were pretty primitive. Anyhow, cows.

Alexi is kept as a semi-prisoner by Phaethusia, who is hoping he will come around and see the benefits of staying with her. After all, she's trapped on the island herself by her father, with nothing but cattle and her sister for company. A cute boy of about her age? Woo-hoo!

Eventually, her sister shows up and helps Alexi escape. He catches a ride with another Greek ship that has landed on the island, strenuously persuading them not to kill any of the cattle, and gets transported to the centre of bronze age culture, Mycenae.

The big point here is that this chapter closely parallels what is happening to Odysseus at just the same time. After the shipwreck, Odysseus is washed up on an island and rescued by Calypso the nymph, also a powerful sorceress, who is going stir-crazy for lack of company, especially male company. She keeps him a prisoner on the island for seven years. Eventually, Athena leans on Zeus to force Calypso to set him free. He builds a raft and escapes.

In both cases, the hero is washed up on or rescued back to an island by a lonely young woman with powerful magic, who exerts her influence to keep him there for her benefit. (In the Odyssey, not surprisingly, things get a lot hotter and heavier between the two. But I'm writing YA fiction, which means that bloodshed is fine, but sex is right out. Go figure.) Eventually, another member of the extended family shows up and helps the hero escape by sea. I could have made the parallels a lot tighter - having Alexi build a raft to escape, for instance - but I thought the desperation of  persuading the Greek sailors to leave before sunup, when Helios will spot them there, was a lot more compelling. So we have, in that chapter, a little recreation of almost exactly what is happening in the Odyssey at the very same time. I'm kind of proud of that.

Next installment: the encounter with Orestes, son of the dreaded king Agamemnon who started the war.

Friday, April 4, 2014

How dare you!

Most of the comments I get are from people who have enjoyed the series and are pleased to see it re-interpreted for a new generation. Occasionally, though, I'll get a blast from someone who feels that changing the Odyssey is as blasphemous as changing the bible. (Never mind that there are at least fifty English language versions of the bible out there.) Consider this comment:
"How dare you? I bought your book for my son. I was going to introduce him to Greek mythology, but you broke it. I don't remember half that stuff in the Odyssey. Just glad I didn't buy the other two books."
 I could be jumping to conclusions, but I don't think he (or she) liked it very much. Actually, I'm glad to have gotten this email, because it gives me a chance to make a point: I haven't changed the Odyssey. Or at least, very little. Truth is, I've taken great pains not to change the stuff that's already there. And believe me, it wasn't easy! What I have done, cheerfully and without apology, is add new stuff woven around the original. Eurylochus, for example, who we know as Ury, is there in the original, but he's a drab sort of fellow, not at all the brute that he comes across as in OOAS (that's Odyssey of a Slave, but acronyms look way cooler). For that matter, in the original, Odysseus doesn't have a nickname. But then, the original is told by Odysseus, and he wouldn't use a nickname to talk about himself. (Only "The Donald" can do that.)
There are other, bigger differences, but if you think about them, they're not. For example, something bad happens to Elpenor in the second book. I won't say what, in case you haven't read that far. Well, something bad happens to him in the Odyssey, too, but it's slightly different. Isn't that a contradiction? Not really. The original story is told directly by Odysseus as he understands it to be. But what commander in history has ever known everything that's going on with his troops? So when Odysseus says, as he tells the story later, that "X happened to Elpenor, the youngest of our company," he's describing the story as he it has come to him. Alexi knows the truth, but has invented a different version to spare Elpenor's reputation.
Okay, so maybe there are a few bits that directly contradict the Odyssey. (Minor spoiler alert.) For example, when they encounter Scylla in the original, each of her six heads snatches up a sailor from the deck. In Cursed by the Sea God, she nabs five and is going for Odysseus, but Alexi jams an oar down her sixth throat. Similarly, when Odysseus finally makes it home to Ithaca, Athena disguises him as an old man so he can get into his castle as a beggar without alarming the horde of men who are hanging around hoping to marry his wife Penelope. That felt pretty lame, so I made him disguise himself with a beggar's cloak and hood, a long beard, and a pronounced old man's stoop, no gods need apply.
And, okay, there are bits where I take the crumbs that Homer has tossed us and try to bake a whole pie from them. For example, on the island of Helios, after they slaughter the cattle, Homer mentions the flesh "crawling on the spits". For whatever reason, this is enough to freak the Greeks out. I would've just figured it needed more time on the barbeque. Anyway, their reaction seemed a bit over the top for the stimulus, so I juiced the action up quite a bit. The flesh still crawls on the spits, but there's some other action too. Not contradicting the Odyssey, you understand ... just extending it.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Arrow is through the Axes

Phew! I've just finished reviewing the ARC ("Advance Reading Copy", the tiny print run that a publisher does just to make sure the book is okay before releasing it for real) of my third book, Arrow Through the Axes, concluding the Odyssey of a Slave trilogy. You know what? I'm pretty pleased with it!

There were the usual last-minute tussles with my publisher about phrasing, in which I found him to be ludicrously literal and he found me to be fatuously figurative (and perhaps awkwardly alliterative), but that's all sorted out now. The book is being printed and will be in stores in a few weeks. This time I tried using text-to-speech software to read the text of the Word document to me as I followed along in the book, and it's surprising how many missing, doubled, or misplaced words pop up, even after I and my publisher had been through it carefully.

I'm pleased to say that the Resource Links in Canada and VOYA in the US, two influential YA journals, have both endorsed the second book in the trilogy, Cursed by the Sea God. Resource Links has placed it on its Best Books for 2013 list for the Grade 7-12 fiction category, and VOYA magazine has selected it for its Top Shelf for Middle School Readers list.

If you're at all familiar with Homer's Odyssey, of which the Odyssey of a Slave trilogy is a modern re-telling, you'll recognize where the title comes from. If you're not, it refers to the contest that Penelope, Odysseus's wife, organizes. After some twenty years, she has finally concluded that her husband is dead, and is besieged by suitors trying to persuade her to remarry. (Apparently, despite the passage of twenty years and one son, she remains quite the hottie, and then there's all that land and the palace).

Our hero Alexi, meanwhile, has been searching mainland Greece for his sister, and arrives on Ithaca just in time to witness the arrival of a mysterious beggar. Soon afterwards, the lid comes off.

What happens? Well, there's one way to find out.