Wednesday, May 15, 2013

May Secret Agent #40

TITLE: Artashad
GENRE: Historical Fiction

Tiridates used to play dice with this old legionnaire in Rome, a real bastard who'd distract you with stories of the good old days so you wouldn't notice him gradually winning over the contents of your purse. He claimed to have been in Antioch when they crushed the warrior queen. The way he told it, life in the legions was all thrills and glory and pretty local girls eager to lift their skirts for a share in a soldier's wages.

That old fox was obviously not a cavalryman, for Tiridates' two-year drag in the military has been few thrills and no glory at all. As for women, Tiridates hasn't even seen one in weeks, and that kind of deprivation has its effects. It's not all bad though. Hunting duty he enjoys, scouting is tolerable, but this siege business is not to be borne.

There's a reason, after all, cavalry helmets are called furnusi—ovens. For the Praetorian cavalry, a siege means sitting atop a horse in tight rows behind the emperor, stagnating in the blasted summer heat and watching other men risk their lives. Tiridates cannot drink enough to match his sweat. There is no wind, not a single cloud, and all about him the earth is cracked, literally baked in the afternoon sun.

No sane commander would keep his men out this time of day. Unfortunately, Emperor Carus has become obsessed; he's resolved to cure his youngest son's affinity for poetry and philosophy by forcibly exposing him to the awesome spectacle of war.


  1. Very strong descriptions and thoughts. Really fits the MC I think. Great opener. Not my usual cup of tea but drew me right in. Good luck!

  2. Lot's of description but I don't feel grounded. I'm don't know who the narrator is or what Tiridates is doing now.

  3. There are some great historical details in this, and I like the touch of sarcasm in Tiridates' voice.

    Echoing Rob's comment, I would have liked to have the scene set before you recounted the anecdote about the old legionnaire. You might consider leading with your third paragraph, so we know where we are and who the MC is.

    Also, there is something odd, for me, about using present tense in historical fiction, especially a story set in ancient times. I find it hard to let go of the knowledge that the events being described occurred 2000 years ago. Past tense would feel more natural.

  4. At the opening, I thought someone gambling with Tiridates was the narrator, then it seemed to shift to Tiridates in 3rd person narrative POV. Interesting detail. But I need to be grounded in the MC first. Even if its a shifting POV throughout the book, I need to know who's eyes I'm looking through before I would read on.

  5. I really enjoy ancient history being brought to life like this and love the details of the siege and the protagonist's boredom wtih it.

    The third paragraph's last sentence could be its first though, to give it continuity from the preceding paragraph. I agree that this paragraph might be an immediate scene-setter and could open the story well, but I do also like the legionnaire. Nonetheless, because he is gambling with the legionnaire, the main character seems to me to be older, but then in the last paragraph, I am guessing that Tiridates is the emperor's son.

    Although I think perhaps as some above have mentioned, a little rearranging of information could be done, but I really love the tone, voice and scene set here. I'd definitely read on.

  6. The voice is strong, and the writing good. What confused me is who the narrator first I thought Tiridates was some other person the narrator used to know...but toward the end I realized Tiridates is the Tiridates the emperor's son, or is Tiridates there because of the emperor's son? I think I would read on.

  7. Sounds like an awesome time in history to leap into! I'd like to see more of the stakes here for the main character, though.

    I also agree that starting with the old legionnaire might not be the best to start with. Show us how miserable T's time is and then you can tell us about the old legionnaire.

    The tense was a little off to me, too, because the first paragraph was in past, and then we switch to present.

    "Siege business" seems a little out of the voice, which was more formal up to that point. Still, it's good to show his irritation.

    "For the Praetorian cavalry" takes us a little away from T's POV.

    I'm also confused in the last paragraph. Is T the son?

    I'd also make sure that your sentences don't get too long. Ones that stand out to me: The first sentence, the second sentence in the third paragraph, and the last sentence. Do the read aloud breathing trick--are you running out of breath? If so, cut the sentence down.

  8. I was a distracted by the present tense switch in the second sentence. First I thought it was a mistake, but upon reviewing, I assume you've written the story in present tense. The problem is that your entire first paragraph is in past tense, so making the switch is awkward.

    I would suggest establishing your present tense before swapping to past tense, though I'm not certain what present tense adds to a historical fiction. (Not my genre, though, so perhaps it's the norm.)

    You established place and character well with your descriptions!

  9. This was well-written. I’m almost sweating buckets myself! Roman history’s not my thing, but I enjoy learning new things—like about the furnusi—when they’re seamlessly embedded into a story. Suggestions:

    Find a substitute for one of the “olds” in the first sentence and delete “over”. Consider “full of pretty girls” instead of just “pretty girls.”

    Second paragraph: The tense switch bothered me. I think if you say “That old fox HAD obviously not BEEN a cavalryman” and then go into present tense, it might work better. Maybe add “so far” at the end of that sentence to put us firmly in the moment.

    You could delete “and that kind of deprivation has its effects.” I didn’t care for the sentence reversal: “Hunting duty he enjoys” and would make three sentences: “Hunting is enjoyable. Scouting is tolerable. But this siege business is not to be borne.”

    In the next paragraph, I’d delete “after all.” I’d specify the rank of the “other men” and mention how they’re risking their lives while this bunch just sits there. (I wondered.) Delete “There is” and tighten the rest in a new paragraph: No wind. Not a single cloud. And nothing to see but cracked earth baking in the afternoon sun.”

    Last paragraph: Consider saying “insanely obsessed” to match the sentiment in the first line. Replace the semi-colon with a comma and delete “he’s.” It’s not clear whether Tiridates is the actual son or not. If so, you could just add “his father” in front of “Emperor Carus.” If not, say who the MC is relative to the son.

    Overall, nice job!

  10. I'd recommend establishing Tiridates as your MC and the setting before you reminisce about his dice-playing days with the old legionnaire. It's a wonderful side moment, but as an opening it's distracting--especially because of the abrupt shift from past tense to present, just as we're beginning the story.

    Establishing character and place will also help break up the exposition, which, while crucial, is dragging on a bit because the story isn't going anywhere yet. Try to intersperse the two some more.

    On the other hand, Tiridates' world-weary cynicism makes more a fun POV, and with a more dynamic opening I'll be curious to see where this current adventure leads him.