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The Flame Before Us Paperback – March 30, 2015
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About the Author
Richard Abbott lives in London, England. He writes about the ancient middle east - Egypt, Canaan and Israel - and has also contributed to the lively academic debate about these times.
He also writes science fiction set in the near future of our solar system. He has a keen interest in exploring how human and artificially intelligent individuals will combine and relate to each other.
His first book, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200BC. It follows the life, loves, and struggles of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath.
A follow-up novel entitled Scenes from a Life begins in Egypt. It follows the journey of a scribe as he travels to discover his origins. down the Nile from Luxor and finally out into Canaan.
A third book, The Flame Before Us, is set in the middle of calamity. New settlers are arriving from the north, sacking cities and disrupting the established ways of life as they come. This story follows several different groups each trying to adjust to the new situation.
Richard Abbott works professionally in IT quality assurance. When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.
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Previously he treated Canaan (In a Milk and Honeyed Land), then Egypt (Scenes from a Life), to which culture he has a particular sensitivity. The Flame Before Us concerns a wider swath of country and peoples, including Egypt, Canaan, west Syria, and Greece.
The time is 1200 BC, and the situation is dire for the established civilizations on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. A large group of marauders invades from the west, destroying Ugarit, the west Syrian metropolis, and threatening the Nile Delta itself, as well as Egyptian vassals in Canaan, including the cities of Gedjet (Gaza) and Shalem (Jerusalem).
These invaders are dubbed the "Sea Peoples" because of their preference for using ships as a means of transportation. Scholars have been divided as to where they come from, but Abbott settles on the hypothesis that they are Greeks. He goes one step farther as well and takes them for the Greeks who attacked and destroyed the legendary city of Troy.
So, ambitious this book is, but in characteristic fashion, Abbott focuses less on sea captains with wind whipping their hair than on what we have come to know after Iraq as "collateral damage:" the ordinary people affected by these events.
To be sure, Abbott can't resist a scholar's interest in the Sea Peoples' ability to defeat conventional chariot-centered warfare. But there are actually zero eye-witness descriptions of large battles. Instead, the on-stage violence, so to speak, is always personal and jarring.
Several threads of characters, two from the sacked city of Ugarit, two from Egypt, two from Canaan, one from Greece, and one of the Ibryhim (Hebrews) form the material for Abbott's tapestry; there are so many characters, in fact, and the historical situation is so complex, that Abbott helpfully includes extensive explanatory notes at the end of the book.
But despite their number and diversity, each set of personages is distinct and vivid in its own way, and helps to create a full picture of what life must have been like in the uncertain times at the end of the Bronze Age. A surprising tenderness in the face of grief, loss, and displacement is the emotion that underpins the action.
I found myself most drawn to Hekanefer, an Egyptian scribe who is attached to a brigade of the Pharoah's provincial peacekeepers. Through vivid, often humorous letters, he comes off much less the conquering colonial than a rank-and-file (if proud) Egyptian who is trying to make his way in difficult circumstances. Later, when we see him in person, he becomes even more vulnerable and real.
Abbott's treatment of the Greek side of things is less convincing for me. His explanation that a single, charismatic war leader (named Akamunas, Agamemnon for the Iliad fans out there) was able to unite Greece and not only go after Troy, but continue on east along with large wagon trains of women and children seems unlikely to me.
But regardless of the true situation, history tells us that the strange and unpredictable routinely happens, and the interplay between the clan of "Sherden" Sea People wagon drivers and a brother and sister fleeing Ugarit makes for an absorbing read. Fiction explores where history might dare not to venture.
One last thing about this excellent effort (a pristinely formatted e-book), which Abbott may take as a suggestion for the future: spend more time on material culture.
It is always a historical novelist's dilemma to figure out the level of detail at which food, clothing, tools, and the rest is described.
Abbott's practice is to go light on technical vocabulary, not to examine too closely the kind of chair someone sits in, or the cold meat he or she consumes. This might be because Abbott is interested in keeping the narrative moving. But in a novel like this one, where the scope is necessarily large, the reader will tolerate, and I think, welcome more detail where possible. Abbott's next is rumored to be a sea-faring story-- a perfect opportunity to describe ancient gunwales and forestays, if there were such things back then.
In other words, Richard Abbott, more, more! Your public clamors for it.