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First Page: “The Amulet of Isis”, Middle Grade Fantasy Adventure

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Traveling the world and exploring ancient wonders may sound fantastic, but trust me, it’s not. It’s hot. It’s dusty. It’s bor-ing. Everywhere we go, it’s the same deal—don’t do anything, don’t touch anything, don’t talk to anybody.

Well, not this time.

“Hey, Ethan, now’s our chance.” My best friend, Garrett, grinned from his camel. “Let’s see what these babies can do.”

Taking off in the middle of our guided tour? Mom would freak. But it was totally worth it. Anything to scrape out a little fun in the middle of this snoozefest.

My heart pounded as I checked to make sure no one was watching. They were all busy helping a Japanese lady who’d fallen off her camel while twisting to get a picture of the pyramids. Perfect opportunity for a little joyride.

“Okay, time to move now, camel. Niiiice camel. Come on.” My friend looked at me in confusion. “How do I make it go?”

“I dunno.” I shrugged. “Same as a horse, I guess.”

I leaned as far as I could, but my fingers barely brushed the rein the driver had left hanging. Man, I hated being short. Just one more inch and I’d have it. I tried again, leaning so far I nearly fell—and, victory!

I wrapped my fingers around the rough leather and gave the rein a snap. My camel took off like a jet-powered roller coaster.

“Whoa!” I clasped a handful of blanket fringe to keep from tumbling to the sand. A few yards later, my camel stopped and shook his furry head.

“Nice move, dude. Very smooth.” Garrett laughed.

Before I could retort, the driver ran toward us, his long white robe billowing around his sandaled feet.

“Bidi widi nila wila,” the man yelled.

Or at least, that’s what I heard. I’m sure he was telling us to stop messing with his camels, but since I didn’t speak Arabic, it was gibberish to me.

Any other day, I would have fallen back in line like the obedient schoolboy I was.

Not today.

“Come on.” I jammed my heels into the animal’s sides, causing it to bleat in protest.

It lurched forward again, veering past the screaming driver toward the dunes of the open desert. The saddle slammed against me with each jarring bounce until I found the rhythm and began to move with the rolling gait.

“Yeehaw!” Garrett’s lame cowboy impression made me laugh, and I tilted my head back, enjoying the breeze.

And the freedom.

Garrett led us between two massive pyramids. The jagged surface of the Great Pyramid of Khufu towered on our right, surrounded by more tourists and Egyptians hawking cheap trinkets. I wondered if Mom was still inside, getting her special tour with the Egyptian Director of Antiquities.

So far, Dr. Bakhoum was the only cool thing about Egypt. He wasn’t like the stuffy archaeologists Mom usually interviewed for her magazine articles. For starters, he was absolutely huge. That could’ve been intimidating, except he always had a smile on his face, like an Egyptian Santa Claus . . . if Santa dug around in tombs and talked about dead people having their brains pulled out through their noses.

As we passed the pyramids, we had to slow down to weave through clumps of people. It was fun towering over everybody like a pharaoh making an appearance among the commoners. Very surprised commoners.

An Egyptian boy waved a handful of necklaces at us, shouting, “I give you good price!”

I was almost tempted. The shiny ankhs and tiny gods dangling on woven strings hinted at ancient mysteries. I was old enough to know they were just cheap junk, but it was fun to imagine they could be more.

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. SAO
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 06:03:09

    I don’t know about this. I did like the beginning, as my kids don’t appreciate the ancient monuments we drag them to. They thought the desert in Jordan was a lot more interesting than Petra, which was one of the more fascinating places I’ve been to. (I will note that the Jordanian desert is a lot more hospitable than the Egyptian desert.)

    But this just didn’t evoke Egypt or camels for me. When I went to Egypt, the vast emptiness of the desert was intimidating and the contrast between the settled areas and the desert so striking, that even middle schoolers could figure out that getting lost in it could be deadly. When you fly into Cairo, there vast nothingness of the desert is visible out the window.

    The pyramids are pretty far apart and it’s so hot that there aren’t a lot of tourists milling around outside. I wasn’t fixing on the museum of the boats, or the Sphinx, which is in front of, if I remember correctly, Cheops’s pyramid (which I think is Khufu). That said, when you take a camel to the pyramids, or at least when I did 16 years ago, you go right up to the entrance, to avoid hiking in the hot sun. So, they’d be hanging out in the shade of the pyramid and they’d be off the camels, which are neither nice nor comfortable.

    I think you could do more to describe the difference between a camel and a horse. I really don’t see camels doing what an inexperienced rider tells them to do. They are a lot more ornery than horses. Further, they are a lot higher up. Can you fall off a camel and not break something? People don’t mount and dismount camels from the ground without getting the camel to go down on its knees, front knees first, pitching you forward at 45 degrees.

    And lastly, the boys passed up the chance to go inside the pyramid to sit in the hot sun and wait? There’s not a hell of a lot to see inside the pyramids, so I have trouble imagining that they saw it all, then got back on their camels to wait for Mom.

    Given the ease of getting a camel trip to the Pyramids, I don’t see why the crowds are surprised.

    There’s nothing wrong with your writing, but this didn’t jibe with any of my memories of taking a camel to the pyramids of Giza. Or of what Egypt actually looked like. If you’ve been there, dig deeper into your sensory memories. If you haven’t, do more research.

    If you get the real feel of a camel and the pyramids, this will be a great start.

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  2. Kate Sherwood
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 07:06:49

    I’m an adult, so obviously not your audience, but I wasn’t impressed with the main character at ALL. Being bored isn’t an excuse for mayhem, or for cruelty to animals (how would YOU like to be kicked in the ribs for no reason? And I’m not sure what ‘snapping’ the reins means, but if he’s used to doing that to make horses move, he has a history of being cruel to horses, too). And being in an unfamiliar country should help a kid develop respect for other cultures, surely, rather than prompt him to call the country’s language “gibberish”. (And I strongly recommend against including your version of what the words sound like – didn’t feel respectful at all).

    The writing was good (although I wasn’t sure why “Not this day” got singled out – we haven’t seen anything so far to understand why this day is special, have we?) and I think the premise is interesting. Right now, though, this feels like something that would have been written fifty years ago, reflecting attitudes of that day (right down to the professional woman who’s so focused on her job that she neglects her son, as if a woman can’t be professional AND a good mother.)

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  3. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 08:19:30

    I’m not sure this is the right forum for this excerpt. The people who come here are steeped in the romance genre – its expectations, its conventions and so on, so a middle grade (not sure what age that is, but I’m guessing around 13?) fantasy story probably has different conventions that we’re not experts in.
    Having said that, I’m not sure I’d have liked a selfish, introverted central character with no sense of adventure at 13. Definitely not now. And the cruelty to the poor camels, the implied racism with the “stupid” camel tender – no. Big journey ahead, I’m guessing.
    Kate’s right, it does sound like something that might have been written 50 years ago. And two children in the Middle East effectively on their own – do you know what’s going on in Egypt right now? Crowds are protesting, people are being killed in front of the main museum – the staff are going armed. Security on tourists and foreigners is heavy, especially at this time. There are warnings on every travel website about going to Egypt and governments are strongly advising their citizens not to visit.

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  4. Carol McKenzie
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 08:26:31

    I left the story at the ‘gibberish’ sentence. Not interested in a character who has that much disrespect for a different culture and language, especially one who already seems world-weary from exploring ancient ruins. I can understand not understanding, and the character can say that, but in a much better way. I would also have thought your MC might have picked up a word or two of Arabic along the way.

    I also think maybe in present-day Egypt, you’d have an English-speaking guide, but now I’m nit picking.

    But before that I lost the ability to suspend my disbelief in the camel scene. I truly doubt those camels, who would make this trek on a daily basis, would have reins that a tourist could reach. They’d have lead ropes that the drivers, or handlers, would control by tying one came to the next. There would be no leather reins for a tourist to grab, just the handles on the saddle to keep from falling off.

    Second, I can’t see a camel, again, who does this on a daily basis, responding to a tourist’s unskilled attempts to make it do anything. Camels are smart and ornery and not given to doing much they don’t want to. I would imagine they’d be so used to carrying people who were unskilled they’d be immune to any kind of attempts at a hijack.

    The writing is smooth and I can’t fault that. Fixing plot lines or story issues is far easier than trying to fix problems with the actual writing.

    I’d even be interested in reading further in an MG story about kids and what could be a good mystery or suspense. But not with issues like an insensitive child and runaway camels.

    Thanks for sharing your work. It’s hard, but hearing other opinions helps us see our work from a new perspective. And that’s usually a good thing :)

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  5. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 08:40:15

    Just checked – the government warning against visiting Egypt is on the UK site at Expedia but not the US one:
    http://support.expedia.co.uk/app/answers/detail/a_id/9437
    Just in case you can’t reach it (it’s an FCO warning), here’s an extract:

    “There have been violent clashes since July 2013 resulting in a large number of deaths. Most of the clashes have taken place in Cairo, Alexandria and Mansoura. There have been demonstrations in other parts of Egypt, including Hurghada and Luxor, some of which have turned violent. Further demonstrations are likely and could take place in any part of the country. Army and security forces have been deployed in anticipation of further protests and rallies. A national state of emergency was declared in Egypt for a period of 1 month on 14 August. It was extended for a further 2 months on 12 September. Train services across Egypt are suspended.
    You are strongly advised to avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings. If you become aware of any nearby protests, leave the area immediately. Don’t attempt to cross road blocks erected by the security forces or protesters.
    There is a serious risk of violence and sexual assault at demonstrations. NGOs report more than 100 rapes and sexual assaults against women in demonstrations since 30 June. Foreign and Egyptian women have been attacked.”

    The advice is not to go. Your central characters would be smothered with security staff if they were there at all.

    And do I see a tribute to Dr. Zahi Hawass?

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  6. Carol McKenzie
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 08:45:27

    And in light of Lynne’s second post, it’s not necessary to scrap the entire story…unless it’s imperative it be set in present-day Egypt. You can choose a time that makes more sense for them to be there and give us a sense of that time early in the story.

    But as her post points out, it’s extremely important to research everything and anything in your story. Readers will pick up on all of these things in a heartbeat and if it’s inaccurate or doesn’t ring true, you risk losing them.

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  7. SAO
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 09:35:59

    Another note about camels, they need to kneel so that you can dismount. Ethan had to have observed that the camel waits for the camel driver to tell it to get up and that Mom had to wait until her camel driver told her camel to kneel. Camels are balky, so they don’t always obey on the first command. I can’t see running into the desert on an animal you can’t control and you can’t get off.

    As a side note, officially accredited tour guides have a college degree in ancient Egyptian history and can read hieroglyphics, so you can spend hours trooping over ancient sites with a tour guide explaining a ton of history, but not at the Pyramids, where there isn’t that much to see and no paintings or text. The boat is pretty fascinating, though. I think we spent more time at the boat than in the pyramids.

    Egypt is a very big country with a huge tourist industry. The Director of Antiquities is very important and wouldn’t take anyone not at a very high level on a personal tour.

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  8. Janine
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 10:09:15

    This has some promise. The writing style is clear and the story moves along at a nice clip. The combination of the setting and the mischievous boys reminded me a bit of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer Abroad, a book I loved as a child but haven’t reread since (so I can’t vouch for it now). I did have some issues, though.

    Since no one has mentioned it, I’ll say that I found the title too similar to that of Jonathan Stroud’s youngish YA, The Amulet of Samarkand.

    I also agree with Carol McKenzie that the “gibberish” comment was disrespectful. For me the fake Arabic was even more so.

    Just in general, I would advise you to make your main character a touch more sympathetic by revealing some empathy on his part or a vulnerability of his. You don’t want your protagonist to be obnoxious to such a degree that he turns readers off in the first few pages.

    I’ve never been to Egypt (unless you count the Sinai peninsula in the days when it was under Israeli control — I think we visited there once when I was a very young child). But I have lived in Israel, and your depiction didn’t feel like the Middle East to me. Where was the heat, the intense sunlight, the need to stay hydrated, etc. I wanted to feel more grounded in the setting.

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  9. wikkidsexycool
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 10:45:23

    Hello Author,

    I’m thinking the camel race was a set up to get young male readers hooked into the first page, so I get it (I also write middle-grade, with a male protagonist who’s a Katrina survivor and a boy djinn).

    Something about the narrator’s opening snarkiness reminded me style wise of the MG novel Diary of a Wimpy Kid (book 1) with the references to his mother and his viewpoint on people. I think in the case of your work, more needs to be done so that readers bond with your main character, like making him a little less judgmental. Also, forgive me but I got the impression that different cultures weren’t included for the sake of diversity. They were just being culturally name dropped to set up scenes where the reader could laugh. But in the short scenarios written for them, they were either doing or reciting dialogue that made me cringe, because it could possibly be viewed as stereotypical. Two of note, are the Japanese tourist who almost fell off her camel while taking a photo, and the boy shouting “I give you good price!”

    I think you’re proficient enough as a writer to come up with a more riveting opening scene, and one that appeals to middle graders without the above. With this genre, parents tend to also check to see what their kids are reading, so I’m pointing this out because that’s how it came across to me. Another reader may feel or read it differently.

    Even the narrator and his friend read like tropes of American kids, with how self centered they spoke and behaved. Maybe less is more in the case of your opening. If you’re going to dive right into the action, why not have them enter the pyramid, or at least establish a set up to the Amulet of Isis sooner? It took courage to submit your first page here, and I commend you for that. I wish you all the best with your writing, and this novel.

    ETA: Just so you know you’re not alone in this, I’m constantly going over my MG book to make sure I’m striking the right balance between having my main character enter the world of the Djinn without being too flippant, while also respecting the other cultures I’ve included. Research, and also letting middle graders beta read helps.

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  10. Patricia
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 21:45:46

    As the parent of several middle-grades readers, I may be the kind of person most likely to decide to buy — or not — your book. Honestly, this story would have gone back on the shelf as fast as possible as soon as I scanned the faux-Arabic gibberish. It reads as frankly racist. Even if you mean for the main character to grow and become more culturally aware over the course of the story, the first page is probably not the best place to introduce that trait. It’s very off-putting, to say the least.

    Your tone and voice, however, seem spot-on for the middle-grades genre. I can easily see my kids reading a book like this and enjoying it.

    I did wonder why the main character’s best friend is with him on holiday. As a parent I would be reluctant to take someone else’s child on an overseas trip both because it is an enormous responsibility and because it is, well, expensive. For this mother to take another child abroad and then leave him essentially unattended in a dangerous and unfamiliar place boggles me. My kids, however, would probably not question that.

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