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First Page: Aquila Historical Fiction; YA

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“Buck up, Hercules!” I shout, striking him across his rump with my stave. “What’s got into you? You can do much better than this. We’ll never get anywhere at this rate! You, too, Crispus, come on with you!”

Slowly – ever so slowly – we trudge on up the steep hillside, winding from terrace to dilapidated terrace, all of us heavily laden, dripping with sweat. Crispus is no problem; he’s a follower. But Hercules doesn’t like not having Dad to lead him. Perhaps he’s right to object. Why did Dad send me anyway? It’s a man’s job. And me all alone! It’s not fair of him, giving me on this job at my age. Two weeks away! Will I cope? What if something goes wrong? What if I twist an ankle, or get lost, or robbed. Why didn’t I take Ceasar along to protect us? And now Hercules is being awkward. “Come on, keep going! You had a drink five minutes ago.” I think he hates me. Sometimes I feel nobody really loves me.

It wasn’t like this four years ago, the first time I went with Dad. He was my hero in those days. He’d look after us all, whatever happened. He was taking me to to the big, exciting port I’d heard so much about: crowds, huge ships, the bustling market, taverns, no end of surprises.

But that was then. Don’t I love him any more? Why am I now so reluctant? Each year the expedition has become harder for me. Why didn’t Rufus – big bold Rufus – come with me, or quick-witted Pontus? Oh, how I miss them already. It’s tough at the best of times – exhausting, dirty, dangerous – and often not profitable.

What’s that? A frantic rustle and scraping in the undergrowth, the drumming of hard hooves on rock. I catch a glimpse of a huge, dark form, clumsily stampeding off to safety. A magnificent old boar; probably snoozing and startled by our approach. Pity I didn’t have my bow and arrows. But what would I have done with a dead boar? I’ve already got more than enough to carry.

On we plod, the sun climbing steadily higher, cruelly beating down on us as we leave the shade of the oak trees. Here’s our waterfall, where the lads and I spent many a summer afternoon, swinging from creepers, then dropping into the clear water. I take off my backpack, bend down and bathe my face in the pool, gulping in long draughts of cool fresh water. It’s more difficult for Hercules and Crispus to stoop down because of their loads. But I’m not about to unload anything and struggle to strap it on again a few minutes later; they’ll manage. I fill up my skin bottle, because there won’t always be a brook nearby when we’re thirsty, and stuff it into my bag. Then off we go again, climbing, climbing. Each step seems higher than the one before; I’m even beginning to gasp for breath.

“Look out, Hercules!” I scream, as he stumbles. Thank Aquila, he didn’t lose his balance and fall. I find my fingers furtively feeling for the eagle talisman Ceres makes me wear. If he’d fallen over, the amphorae would certainly have shattered and he would probably have hurt himself – a catastrophe. But it’s mule terrain. And Hercules is sure-footed. Crispus isn’t quite so strong, but he’s easy-going and his load isn’t so heavy.

Why did I grab the talisman and call on Aquila? Was I really expecting him to help? Most likely it was he who made Hercules slip in the first place. He’s got something against me, I’m sure. I really don’t know what to make of Ceres’ gods. They’re more of a threat than a comfort.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

10 Comments

  1. Kate Sherwood
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 07:17:49

    I’m not sure about this one. It could be an interesting, unique voice, or it could just be annoying.

    A few little things – a lot of names, here, for no apparent reason. I guess trying to establish setting? But then at least the names should be spelled correctly (Caesar, not Ceasar). And I assume we’re being deliberately misled/uninformed about the nature of the pack creatures? I guess they’re mules, but it’s not exactly clear. Either way, I’m not a fan of the MC for worrying about his/her thirst while leaving the pack creatures to do the best they can to drink. And some of your rhetorical questions are lacking question marks. Also some unclear antecedents. And the MC screaming when the mule (or whatever) trips is a stupid way to behave around animals, which I assume the MC should know? And I’m not a boar hunting expert, but I’m pretty sure a bow and arrow would just piss them off – I think they were usually hunted by packs of men carrying spears, and even then it was dangerous for the men.

    I don’t know about this one. I’d probably read on, for another couple pages, just to figure out what the hell’s going on. But the book would be on thin ice.

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  2. Carolyne
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 08:40:30

    My first comment vanished when I clicked “post comment.” I’m severely grumpy about having to write it over again, because it was rather long and detailed. I’ll try to reconstruct it, but I’ve used up my leisurely morning downtime on it, and I was hoping it was still lurking somewhere mysterious and would show up spontaneously.

    It didn’t, so here’s the reconstruction:

    I was just talking on Jessewave’s site about wanting to see more ancient world settings. I’ll read this setting in any genre (mystery, fantasy, romance, erotica).

    Protagonist sounds young. The language plus Roman-sounding setting made me wonder if it’s a male as young as 12.

    The language can bolster the setting. The title and the names suggest ancient world or a fantasy version thereof. “Dad” sounds modern, whereas “Papa” or “Da” or “Father” a similar choice would help reader take a step back. Also “weeks” and “minutes” take me into the modern world.

    I got at once that the other characters were animals. Their names, all the names so far in fact, reinforce the idea that this is for readers younger than YA (middle grade) because they are names younger readers are more likely to have heard (Hercules, Ceres, Caesar). The choice of names for the mules might tell us something about the family–Caesar could be a simple joke or could be intentionally mocking.

    I second about the treatment of the animals, unless we’re supposed to think of the protagonist as careless, not ready for this trip, not used to taking care of animals (maybe the servants always take care of them). I was wondering if there’d be consequences.

    I second about the boar. Boars are dangerous and brutal and hunting them was sometimes lethal. This could also be telling us something about the character, but I’d want it to be more explicit: “The men always took spears to hunt down a delicious boar, but this one looked like a coward. Pity I didn’t have my bow and arrows. I could have brought it down myself.” And then assumptions like these might come back later literally to bite the protagonist.

    More minor details would make the setting more real, even the smallest little ground information. Scratching under an itchy tunic is a chance to mention clothing, fabric, colours, underwear; scraping a pebble off a shoe a chance to say what kind of shoe. I wondered what else was in that bag that the protagonist stuff a full water skin into–food, spare clothing, weapons, coins, flint. It needn’t be an inventory, but a few hints would build the world, especially if it’s a fantasy world (a coin with an unknown ruler on it).

    I’m intrigued as to why the father has sent the protagonist off into potentially dangerous territory along for 14 days. She/he doesn’t seem ready for the responsibility and seems headed into trouble. Is it a test? Is there something unusual in those amphorae? What does the protag assume is in them, and what should the reader assume? If the amphorae smash, what does the protag think will be scattered on the ground? In our world, they were used to transport more than wine.

    I’d read on. After you’ve had more feedback on the opening page, I’d love to see a blurb on what the story is about. The broad ingredients are there–but the spices will make this a great story.

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  3. Grey
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 09:00:23

    I agree, Kate, the many names seem superfluous and confusing. And there’s neither any blood nor a hint of sex – how boring!

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  4. Carol McKenzie
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 09:16:39

    Thanks for sharing your work.

    I’m confused as to what this is and I’m not sure I’d read further unless I knew what kind of story I was reading. YA usually isn’t my genre, but I will read just about anything that grabs my interest, if it’s intriguing and well-written.

    The voice is unusual and I don’t know if I’d want to read an entire story in this voice. It shifts between intriguing and irritating. And I’m not sure who’s speaking…boy, girl…age…where they are. Place and time are missing for me.

    “Dad” took me right out of the story, as did the name Aquila. As far as I know, Aquila isn’t a Roman god but the word for eagle and a symbol that was used on military standards. So it’s not a “he/she” but an “it”. It was an important “it” but I’m not sure it embodies the characterization of a god someone would carry a talisman for a thing and call it a god. Also, not sure if Ceres is a place (as it is IRL….a dwarf planet) or a civilization, such as Roman.

    Dad was far too modern a term, as was the bit about the lads swinging from creepers. The voice drifted from Rome (or the story’s setting) to England for a moment in my mind.

    I’m also baffled why this young person was sent on such a potentially dangerous journey, when s/he is clearly unprepared, and seems unwilling, to be there.

    And quite possibly, this story begins elsewhere…at the end of this journey, perhaps, with the retelling of the trials woven into the story later on.

    I’d be interested in reading a blurb as well, just to get my bearings.

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  5. Carolyne
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 09:18:35

    My reconstructed comment probably sounds more negative than the original version. That was a side effect of trying to remember all the salient points.

    I would read on if some of the language were reworked so that I can settle more securely into this world and get a sense that the protagonist’s actions are part of who she/he is, not a lapse in the worldbuilding. I’m curious about the protagonist and what’s really going on with this trip.

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  6. theo
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 09:56:44

    I’m not your target audience for this and I’ll tell you why. I have a 24 year old daughter who most days is just as whiny as all but two of the paragraphs of your story. I have no idea if YA readers like whiny protagonists, but it’s too much for me.

    And I, like the other commenters here, also wonder why ‘dad’ (bad choice of title) would send a kid on a mission like this with only a bunch of animals. And that’s another thing. I’m guessing they’re animals, but it could be she’s referring to slaves. I have no real grounding here. You allude to her age, but don’t tell us. You talk about a waterfall where her and the ‘lads’ played but if the trek is that bad, would young kids really go through that just to get to the water?

    Carolyne might be a bit grumpy this morning, but I do agree with her concerns as well.

    Also, careful with your illiteration: I find my fingers furtively feeling. “I feel” would be just as effective. Sometimes less is more.

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  7. DS
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 11:09:38

    As someone who has some slight experience with mules, I’m not sure how being heavily laden would stop one from drinking from a pool. I also wondered about transporting amphora by mule back. Leather containers of whatever it is would be more reasonable given the difference in weight between a skin bag and a ceramic jar. especially if you had to consider loading and unloading the mules every day.

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  8. SAO
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 13:02:57

    Your MC was too whiney for me. I’d expect that either s/he had to go, was young, but the trip needed to be made and she was the only one to make it, in which case the MC might have the weight of responsibility. Or otherwise, Dad thought she was ready, in which case, the whining is out of place.

    I also felt the “what if I got robbed, etc ” was an authorial interjection designed to make a fairly mundane plod along the trail more dangerous. Why didn’t Rufus come along? I don’t know, I can’t know. I don’t even know if Rufus is a person, horse or dog. I might be interested in facts, as in, “Why didn’t Rufus come along. Ever since (event), (things) had been different.”

    But I really can’t read much more of an MC who second guesses every one of his/her own moves. Why did she grab the talisman? By asking me, you’re just reinforcing the fact that I don’t know this MC.

    You might have a great book here, but show us the MC, don’t have the MC standing around wondering why she did what she did. I’m wondering why I should care.

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  9. SAO
    Sep 22, 2013 @ 23:13:10

    I wanted to add that you turned me off at the first sentence. “Striking” is a pretty forceful word and “Stave” is a pretty big stick. I’d have been okay with a light slap, but as it is, it looks like he/she is hitting the horse quite hard with a big stick.

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  10. Vince
    Sep 26, 2013 @ 07:08:27

    I’m the author. I’m really grateful for all your critical comments – much more helpful than “Great start. Keep at it.” I’m learning.
    @Carolyne, @Carol: The MC, Silvanus, is a boy of 12, living on the island of Elba in the 6th century. Hercules and Crispus are mules. Caesar is a big dog; Rufus an older friend; Ceres, Silvanus’ aunt, a pagan priestess. Silvanus has to do his Dad’s job of taking their produce across the island to market in order to buy much needed supplies, because his Dad is badly injured. He’s not very kind to the mules because he’s ratty about being sent on this difficult venture. If anyone is interested, there’s a bit more background info on my blog: http://www.aquilaelba.info

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