Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

New Review of "Leonidas: A Boy of the Agoge"


Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge
Helena P. Schrader
Wheatmark (2010)
ISBN 9781604944747

Reviewed by Richard R. Blake for Reader Views (10/10)

Helena P. Schrader introduces the reader to a sweeping bold view of a period in Spartan history that has long been a subject of debate, speculation, and misinformation. “Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge” is the first novel in a planned trilogy based on the biography of a legendary hero. The first book describes his childhood in the Spartan agoge. The second will focus on his years as a citizen, and the third will describe his reign and death.

Leonidas and his twin brother, Cleombrotus, were enrolled in the Agoge at age seven. The program designed to prepare Spartan youth for citizenship focuses on endurance through hardship. Although the boys are members of the king’s family they are subjected to the same harsh “upbringing” of ordinary Spartan youth as boys of the Agoge and have to prove themselves worthy of Spartan citizenship. Completion was often difficult for Leonidas; however, his personal goal was to become the “paragon of perfection.”

Schrader is meticulous in her research. She has done a careful analysis of ancient sources and the works of Nigel Kennel to develop her work. Her literary style, superb character development, and creative imagination combine to draw the reader into this compelling story. I especially valued her ability to convey growth in maturity in Leonidas and his friend Alkander as they dealt with the pathos of the death within the family, and the inequity and injustice of politics and society. A third member of this tight group, Prokles, chose to express himself through a spirit of cockiness demonstrated by disrespect, disruptive conduct, and irresponsible verbal attacks.

The elements of surprise, an ongoing cycle of conflict and resolution, and stimulating dialog blend together to move the plot forward. A large cast of characters, historical and fictional, with names unique to the period, as well as references using unfamiliar words to describe common dwelling places, and titles slowed down my reading. However, these elements add to the validity of Schrader’s competency as a writer.

Helena P. Schrader’s writing in “Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge” is informative, entertaining, and enjoyable, leaving the reader eager for more.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fire on Kythera

On my most recent trip to Kythera fire broke out in the mountains behind the airport. My husband and I were on our way to the port to return to the mainland after a very short holiday on the island. As we approached the airport, I noted smoke smearing the cloudless, blue sky. Moments later we rounded a bend in the road and saw the entire hillside aflame.
It was August in Greece, and this was a barren mountainside covered with thorn and other scrub-growth – all of it tinder-dry. A line of orange flames stretched across a hundred yards belching black smoke. It crackled its way forward toward the road, driven by a brisk breeze off the ocean. A handful of abandoned cars cowered beside the road, and two men officiously waved traffic through the smoke sinking onto the road. That was reassuring. The fire had been noticed, and, one presumed, the fire department was already on its way.

My husband accelerated, thinking of the ferry. I thought of the fires that had ravaged Greece three years earlier. Then, flames had overtaken whole families as they tried to flee in their cars. Rescuers found the bodies of grandmothers and infants incinerated in their homes. The fires had threatened the ancient site of Olympia, breathing black ashes upon the white ruins and obliterating the surrounding vegetation. The authorities ordered the evacuation of the suburbs of Athens. When the rains finally came, vast stretches of countryside had been charred. The blackened corpses of entire olive orchards and forests scar the countryside even today.

At the café in front of the ticket office at the port, we watched the smoke billowing up from the far side of the mountain. The ferry arrived on schedule and backed up to the quay. Scores of cars bounced off the ship onto the quay and we clanged our way up the ramp to be directed to a spot on the deck. Only after we’d left the car and taken our seats, did we look again at the mountains. The smoke was thicker and more ominous than ever.

With considerable excitement, the other passengers pointed to an approaching helicopter. A large container was slung below its belly. It dumped the liquid contents of the container onto the flames and then swung out over the bay. Slowly and loudly it settled itself down almost to the surface of the water. The wind from the propellers flattened the sea and sent spume in all directions. The container scooped up sea water and then the helicopter strained to lift it. Water splashed over the sides of giant bucket as the chopper heeled over and turned away in a wide arc. Meanwhile two fixed-wing aircraft joined the fight. Yet the fire raged on unimpressed.

Without warning, the ferry raised its ramps and departed. It nosed out into the Gulf of Laconia. Off our bows all was serene, Mediterranean beauty – bright blue seas occasionally crested by brilliant white, waves. On the opposite shore, white villages nestled in the contours of the distant hills barely discernable through the summer haze. Behind us, the smoke had transformed the entire island into the image of an active volcano: huge clouds of smoke rolled upwards to be torn away by the wind in a long, untidy plume. By the time we reached Neapoli it was impossible to distinguish smoke from haze, and on the evening news it was reported that man and his machines had contained the fire.

But, I wondered, what would it have been like in ancient times? – without the help of machines? If the fires even today can so easily run wild, what terror they must have wrought when there were no pump trucks, no helicopters and no aircraft. The climate was the same and the dried vegetation just as vulnerable to ignition, but there were no mobile phones or radios to get word to the authorities – whoever they were. And if even automobiles cannot outrun these fires when they are running, how could people on foot, cart and horse hope to outrun them? No wonder, fire was one of the four horses of the apocalypse. Something worth noting for future books on this part of the world….

Saturday, October 16, 2010

First Review of Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge

First, I'd like to thank all of you who took part in my pole on titles.  Your cumulative responses have been very helpful.  I hope my future titles will be better, reflecting your collective wisdom. 

Despite your poor rating for  "Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge" as a title, the first review of this first part of the Leonidas Trilogy is quite good. I attach it below and hope it will encourage you to read the book and judge for yourself.

New and provocative look at Sparta, October 9, 2010

By Brenda Miller (North Carolina)
(REAL NAME)

Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge (Paperback)

Helena Schrader has in this book fulfilled her introductory promise to look at Spartan life from a completely different position. She clearly has done her research on a relatively little-known but frequently maligned aspect of ancient Sparta; its education system, or "agoge". Instead of the to-be-expected detailed examination of brutality and pedophilia, Ms Schrader describes, through the character of young King Leonidas, what to my mind is a far more likely youth training system. Certainly it was tough and certainly the objective of producing hard and disciplined soldiers for Sparta was never lost sight of (think of a life-long Marine boot camp). But we know that Spartans were in reality far from being a mob of unthinking automatons capable of functioning only under orders and in fear of draconian punishment. There was music, poetry, art, and actual thought in archaic and classic Sparta and Ms Schrader brings all this out beautifully. Desite the difference of some 2500 years, as a former career Army officer I could readily relate to Leonidas' struggles and to the overall training effort as well. Ms Shrader has succeeded with this book and I hope that we will have the opportunity soon to read her works on the rest of Leonidas' life.

I should also add that this work is perfectly suitable for older teen-age readers as well as for adults.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Healing Power of Horses

The positive impact that certain animals can have upon humans is a recognized fact. Go to any “baby zoo” and observe the fascination animals have for toddlers. The fact that people keep pets of any kind is a tribute to the fact that these animals contribute to our mental health. Dogs have long been known as “man’s best friend,” and cats were important enough companions to be mummified in ancient Egypt. Horses too, although traditionally beasts of burden who are often badly abused in places where they are not the treasured toys of the rich but instead means of power and transport to the poor, have the power to heal. Indeed, the therapeutic aspects of letting handicapped children ride, for example, have been increasingly recognized.

Personally, my love of horses started very young, riding with my father on rental hacks in Brazil. As a teenager I worked at a stables in Sussex, while training as a riding instructor, something I then did for a summer in Maine. I hot-walked race horses at Keeneland track in Lexington, Kentucky to earn extra money while in graduate school, and owned my first mare at that time. Later, I kept up my riding skills to the best of my ability with school horses or the horses of friends, until I could again afford a horse of my own while working and living in Berlin. Altogether, I was privileged to own three horses and hope to own at least one more before I am too old to ride competently.

It was this lifetime with horses, particularly the time working at the race track, that inspired an important component of my novel The Olympic Charioteer. The war between Sparta and Tegea interested me because, first, the Spartans were mauled during their initial invasion attempt and many Spartans were enslaved. That contradicts the conventional wisdom about the “invincibility” of the Spartan army and also contradicts the ethos of “never surrender,” “do or die” that is associated with Sparta because of Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae and the commonly quoted admonishment of a (anonymous!) Spartan mother to her son to return with his shield or upon it. I felt, as a historian and novelist, that it would be good to show that Spartan were not as mindless or inflexible as popular literature makes them out to be. Spartan history is littered with defeats, and in more than one recorded incident the response of the Spartan state was not condemnation of those individuals who were involved in the debacle, but rather a revision of Spartan foreign policy. One such incident was the defeat of Sparta at the hands of Tegea in the middle of the 6th Century BC.

So, I knew I wanted to write about this historical incident, specifically about a Spartan enslaved after the defeat of the Spartan army. I knew too that I wanted to show how this defeat induced Sparta to end its policy of aggression toward its neighbor and to instead to pursue hegemony on the Peloponnese through diplomatic means. But it wasn’t until I read that in the ancient Olympics the drivers of the chariots in the prestigious chariot races were often slaves that I had the igniting idea for a novel.

In the ancient games, it was the owner of the chariot, not the driver, who was credited with the victory in the chariot races. The owners were recognized for breeding and training horses, not “merely” driving them. There are several monuments at Olympia dedicated by Spartan victors in the chariot racing, the most famous being the one dedicated by Kynisca, a Spartan woman of royal blood, who boasted she was the first woman to win an Olympic victory. But that was centuries after the conflict with Tegea. On the other hand, while the names of the horses were affectionately listed on some monuments, the names of the drivers were not necessarily mentioned.

The idea for a novel about a charioteer/slave took root and slowly the plot took shape in my mind. A proud young man, enslaved and abused, seeking death at each opportunity, is purchased out of pity by a wealthy Tegean horse breeder. The slave’s work with the gentle (if temperamental) race horses restores his desire to live. While the horses heal the slave’s bitterness, his new owner, a politician as well as a horse breeder, is losing his own sense of purpose as Tegea slides toward tyranny and he finds himself unable to overcome his grief at the loss of his only son. Only when he discovers in his new slave the driver he has been lacking to make his team ready for the competition at Olympia, do the horses start to work their magic on him as well. They bring the two men, master and slave, together in their love of horses and their work toward the common goal of an Olympia victory – a journey that soon sets in train a diplomatic initiative to end the war with Sparta as well.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Trouble with Titles

Titles are almost as troublesome – and important – as covers. I’ve been told that for some readers the title is even more important than the cover. A good title is by definition intriguing, catchy, evocative, memorable and raises more questions than it answers. They don’t, however, at least in theory, have to be all that closely related to the subject of the book. I frequently hear phrases and think, “That would be a great title!” without even a ghost of a story in my head.

For example, when living in Nigeria I travelled with our regional medical officer, Dr. Jan, to visit an island just opposite Lagos and the busy port of Apapa on which, we were told, 50,000 people lived without medical facilities. When anyone on the island was seriously ill either a traditional herbalist was consulted or the patient had to be put in an open boat and transported across to Lagos or Apapa. While this was bad enough, the island was the suspected lair of local pirates that preyed upon the busy shipping lanes into Lagos/Apapa and especially those ships awaiting a berth at anchor off-shore. Since Nigeria is second only to Somalia in terms of the number of piracy incidents and 80% of the armed attacks on ships in Nigerian waters occur in or around Lagos, these pirates had to be taken seriously. The Regional Security Officer was understandably reluctant to let Dr. Jan and I take a small power boat across to the island for our visit with the traditional ruler and his council.

Eventually he approved and we set out with two Nigerian policemen armed with AK47s as escort/protection. We were landed next to a massive, wooden canoe into which we had to clamber and then walk to the bows to jump off onto the sandy, litter-strewn shore (no such thing as a dock or pier in this village). We walked between the one-story, plastered houses with tin or palm roofs and open doors and windows, scattering the chickens and goats. We passed the school where the children sat in open rooms on wooden benches facing greying chalkboards wearing neat, clean uniforms. Finally, at the Traditional Ruler’s house, we left our security escort outside to sit on mismatching old sofas in front of his armchair raised on a wooden pallet and listen to the Traditional Ruler relate the woes of his community with respect to medical care. Then we traipsed back the way we’d come and climbed again over the canoe to our boat to return to modern, bustling Lagos. And what does all this have to do with titles? Well, the name of the island was Tomaro, so we had just literally taken “The Boat to Tomorrow.” The perfect title! In fact, I proposed it as the title for a book about Dr. Jan and all the work she has done in communities like this. She certainly should write about her life, but she is too busy bringing medical care and education to those who need it most to write a book. So the title is just going to waste….

And then there is the whole issue of mindless search engines. Nowadays, so many books are sold on line, that titles really have to be related enough to the topic to enable search engines to find them by subject. If a reader has just read a great book on the American Civil War, example, and wants to find another, he/she is most likely to go to amazon.com and search by topic, typing in phrases such as “Civil War,” “Confederacy,” “War Between the States,” etc. Gone with the Wind would probably never get a hit – if it wasn’t already so famous that someone has manually put in a tag for it.

But tags can be tricky. That’s why publishers now suggest a catchy title followed by a descriptive subtitle, but search engines can be very finicky and I’m not sure the subtitle option works as well as descriptive titles.

To help me understand reader perspectives on titles, I’d like to hear your opinion of my titles. Please rate the titles below on a scale of 1 (bad/dislike) to 10 (super! I’d pick up a book with this title even if I knew nothing else about it). A score of 5 should indicate absolutely no feelings one way or the other. Thanks for your help!