Book Review - The Flame Before Us by Richard Abbott


The Flame Before Us by Richard Abbott, 2015, 374pp
I've been meaning to read this book since it was published and am finally doing do, now. I had previously enjoyed his earlier book, Scenes From a Life, which is a related but independent book. @RichardAbbott was writing The Flame at the time I first met him on G+ and I remember him posting excerpts, so I was curious even then. The novel distills the events of a little understood but very widely known event in history - the Bronze Age Collapse and arrival of the Sea Peoples - into an intricately woven narrative involving several families of different backgrounds. Here we follow refugees from the city of Ugarit as they flee southward, a family of Sherden (Sea People) migrants, some local settled Abrahamites, and an Egyptian scribe who travels about with the Egyptian Army trying to manage what is clearly an evolving situation.

For most of the book, these various groups are travelling separately through the countryside and getting bits of news from various sources. This leant the book a fascinating (and convincing, I thought) fog-of-war atmosphere. In the last part, all the parties come together in audience with the king of the minor city of Shalem, (i.e. Jerusalem, which at this time is just another Canaanite city state and far from being a religious and cultural icon), and all the loose ends are nicely tied up.

As Richard himself admits on the afterward, it's all a bit fanciful in distilling events that likely evolved over decades if not centuries into the lives of single individuals, but I found it all works well. We don't know a lot about the period, so any novel set here would need to be highly speculative, and this one is - but it's informed speculation. Richard certainly knows his stuff, and gives a brief afterward with historical notes. I was, myself, very interested to see how he brought various cultural details to life, such as discussions of combat tactics, betrothals, tribal politics, and even how he conducted the audience with the king. I've thought of how to do many of these things myself while running games in Ancient History, and it was nice to see Richard's take, and be exposed to things I had never previously thought of.

My one criticism of the novel is that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish the various groups and characters from one another. There are a lot of named characters, which can be hard to keep track of at the best of times in any novel. And many of them are similar in their role - being a head of a clan, or the head of a clan's wife, or daughter, or a guard. There isn't a lot of guidance to help you distinguish these, and if you lose your way in a moment of early distraction, it can be hard to find it again. Eventually, I clued into the fact that the sections of the book featuring these groups had different graphical dinkuses framing them - for example, the Ugarit family sections are headed and footed by some cuneiform-type characters, and the Sherden sections by little stick-like bonfires, and the Egyptian (who mainly comes to us via his written letters) by shrubbery. However, I didn't clue into the fact that these various dinkuses had some meaning until I was well into the second part of the book. Once you understand the structure (which I thought was effective and clever) I was able to follow, but it wasn't immediately obvious. There is a short section of dramatic personae at the end of the book which handily lists the characters in each group, but I also didn't discover this until later, and it doesn't always tell you the role of the person in the story. For example, it tells us the Murtilis is one of the Sherden, and marries Arkelawos during the story. But it doesn't specify that Murtilis is a daughter of Nikleos, or even that she's a female, or that Nikleos is the head of the family. I think if this guide provided a little more context and had been at the beginning of the book instead of at the end, it would have helped a lot with getting into the early part of the book.

My overall rating 4 out of 5, though I have to admit this is in part because I love reading about the time period and really enjoyed the historical/cultural detail, which others may not. Nobody else is going get the same level of excitement out of seeing that one of the characters is named Abdi-Teshup, for example, and realizing that's a Hurrian name, then seeing in the afterword that Richard intentionally included a Hurrian element to emphasize the multicultural nature of the setting and thinking 'yeah, nice'.

Now, since I can, some history geek questions/comments for @RichardAbbott .
1. One of the characters speculates that 'Arkon' sounded like a made-up title? Did you make it up? Why not stick with Wanax as a title for the Sherden head?
2. What is the Land of Fenku? Who are the Fenku? Is this an Egyptian name?
3. For the purposes of immersion, you chose to use User-Ma'at-Re-Mery-Imun as the name for the Egyptian king when you could have used the more accessible (to the reader) 'Ramesses' . Can you comment on that tension as an author? Paul and I mostly did the same with Mythic Babylon, but kept certain names we felt were iconic - like 'Tigris River' instead of 'Idiqlat', 'Euphrates' instead of 'Purattu', and 'Babylon' instead of 'Babili' - to make the book more accessible.
4. I loved how you described a town that had a gate in the middle of nowhere - despite the fact that it didn't have a city wall - because gates were important places of law and commerce. The book is full of nice little touches like this.


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    Many thanks for this @Apocryphal and I'm glad you liked the book. To give some wider context for others, Flame is the third in a series of linked but separate books set at the cusp between Late Bronze and Iron ages, a time characterised by the disintegration of long-standing political and social structures. I have a fourth book outlined in my head (so to speak) which in intended touch upon the tin trade and by implication, long-distance connections between social and ethnic groups. But I have not yet actually written more than a few pages of that, and like so many other writing ideas it is waiting for that mythical moment when I have lots of spare time...

    Most of all thanks for your detailed comments which I found very helpful, especially the thoughts about the list of people and their names.

    In passing, the "graphical dinkuses" are actually all forms of writing, characters in a writing-set if you like, each being suitable for the different people-groups involved. So the Ugarit refugee ones are based on Ugaritic alphabetic letters, the Sherden are based (perhaps fancifully) on archaic Greek forms of writing, the Abrahamite group on proto-Semitic as used in the Levant in about the right era, and the Egyptian ones are hieroglyphs.

    I tend (as a recurrent habit, and perhaps a fault) in all my books to build them round a particular structure which is meaningful to me but, so far as I can tell, often unnoticed by others. I am delighted that in the case of the graphics you noticed them and found them useful as a guide.

    Some of the geek answers follow, others I'll pick up tomorrow...

    1) I'll look up my thinking about this

    2) Fenku = Phoenicians (Greek Phoinike), and yes it's the Egyptian word for these people.

    3) From memory, it's only the Egyptian scribe Hekanefer who uses the name User-Ma'at-Re-Mery-Imun, and I figured that as a scribe (and, at the start of the story at least, a rather pompous and self-important one) he would use the most elaborate designation rather than a shorter form. He is also careful to add the honorific "who lives in prosperity and health" (three hieroglyphic symbols appended to the kings name typically rendered in academic translations as LPH ("life, prosperity, health). Other people, so far as I remember, just say something like "the great king". So you could say that I was more interested in giving readers insight into the character of Hekanefer than into the name of the Pharaoh (hence also the character of the letters he writes to his brother differ markedly from those to his parents).

    4) Thanks! Egypt was pretty strict about most towns not having walls, but the social commitment to a gate as a civic centre was hugely strong and, I believe, would not be easily discarded. From memory (and I'd have to check this) there are archaeological sites with just this setup - gate but no wall - during the period of Egyptian occupation.

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    Returning now to this...

    @Apocryphal said:
    1. One of the characters speculates that 'Arkon' sounded like a made-up title? Did you make it up? Why not stick with Wanax as a title for the Sherden head?

    I looked up my notes and such like and I had a slightly lengthy chain of reasoning as below. But also there was the rather prosaic thought that wanax doesn't sound (at least in UK English) a particularly impressive title, and could easily be mispronounced into something rather insulting. (I tend to try to use names which are easily recognised and pronounced in English, for example avoiding consonants such as gutturals like 'ayin which don't easily transliterate).

    More historically, my reading is that wanax was used more of Great Kings (ie kings over other lesser kings in the standard Late Bronze Age pattern), rather than leaders in general. So for example the Iliad uses wanax for Agamemnon and Priam, but not (so far as I know) for the tribal leaders that they in turn commanded. if that distinction is valid, then wanax would not be suitable for a clan chief such as Antos.

    So instead I turned to arkon (=archon), which we know was used of leaders in Athens from soon after 1100. I have assumed that the title appeared in a formal context well after it was being used more generally. Etymologically, "anarchy" derives from "a time of no archon", so it has a wider field of meaning than just a formal title for an Athenian. Hence, although not a made up word, I have arguably stretched its area of application to suit my own ends.

    Now, you are right that Hekanefer, the Egyptian scribe, "had not heard the title arkon before, but it sounded like the kind of invented rank that a migrant group would fashion to suit their own sense of aggrandisement." Again, this is Hekanefer's - perhaps Egypt's - sense of superiority over other groups emerging. He is, basically, a snob, although by this stage of the book quite a lot of the rough edges have been rubbed away and there is hope that he might completely change as time goes by.

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    Interesting, and well reasoned as always! Thanks so much. Looking forward to the next instalment, whenever that may be.
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    No problem!

    It might be a while before I get back to this series - my current next project (unless other things intervene) goes further back into the Neolithic, based around the Langdale Axe factory just down the road from me. But I've had no time to write anything these last few months so it's all speculative just now.

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