Once upon a time, I wrote a heartbreaking little tale that got lost in the shuffle of my writing career. Even as I juggled bigger projects, I never stopped thinking about this story—which explores many of my own trademark themes about sacrifice, and the tensions between duty, womanhood and family loyalty. Sadly, the time never seemed right to pursue this re-told historical legend. But then I had an idea that appealed to me very much; instead of publishing it, I would make it available as a gift to my readers.
Thus, came about The Gingerbread Princess.
This is a short story—or, more properly given it’s length, a novelette—set in a quasi-historical kingdom in the tradition of Guy Guvriel Kay. I chose not to name an actual historical kingdom because I wished to explore the idea of patriotism in a time when the idea of nation states was a bit dicey to non-existent. Patriotism would not, of course, have been so foreign—in concept at least—to the ancients, and that’s where I cut my teeth as a writer.
In any event, I offer this to you as a sample of both my writing, and my approach to historical fiction in general. I like to delve behind the stories that we think we know to imagine other ways in which it might have happened.
And I hope you enjoy this dark little morsel…
My mother’s eyes were calm, but her voice quavered. “You children must go to Rome, but I’ll be going somewhere else. Without me, Octavian will have less reason to kill you. Without me, he’ll need you.”
The dread that had coiled in my arms as I held the basket now slithered up my spine. I understood, for the first time, that my mother meant to die.
Also, while I have your attention, I should note that you can pick up THE PRINCESS OF EGYPT MUST DIE, my story tells a tragic love story and explains just how Queen Arsinoe II of Egypt came to be the first Ptolemaic female pharaoh and the most notorious survivor of the ancient world. It’s free now as part of the ETERNAL SPRINGS Young Adult anthology on Smashwords and also available at Amazon and B&N for the Nook.
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Hello folks! Every year I participate in the Summer Reading Trail, which is a collection of stories from every genre. They might be short stories, deleted scenes, excerpts or novels. The one thing they all have in common is that they are all completely free. This is a place where readers can find their next favorite story and authors can connect with new readers. Pick your favorite path and mosey on down it. Your next favorite author is waiting for you.
To that end, I have excerpted THE PRINCESS OF EGYPT MUST DIE here, and provided links where the complete historical novelette can be found FREE in the Eternal Spring Anthology along with twelve other free YA stories. You can download the rest of this story for FREE as part of the ETERNAL SPRING anthology on Amazon.com on B&N for your Nook and on Smashwords in any format you like. If, however, you’re only interested in reading this story, it’s linked below as a PDF.
THE PRINCESS OF EGYPT MUST DIEbyStephanie Dray“Remember always that you’re a royal princess of Egypt,” my mother says, wiping tears from my cheeks.“But I’m not the only one.” There is also Lysandra, my half-sister. The source of my tears.My mother uses clean linen strips to bandage my bleeding knees, both of which were scraped raw when Lysandra nearly trampled me beneath the hooves of her horse. “You mustn’t let Lysandra bully you.”“She’s never punished for it,” I complain. “She knows she can do as she pleases just because she is the daughter of the king’s chief wife.”“Not for long,” my mother vows. “Soon, I will be first wife here.”“You and Lysandra are not sisters,” my mother hisses. “You’re rivals. Never forget it.”
My father’s harem is filled with women who wait upon his every whim. He has wives and concubines and even hetaeras like Thais, who sells her favor to the king. But my mother, Berenice, is fast becoming the king’s favorite wife.She is young and clever, making herself available to hear the grievances of the Macedonian lords who have been snubbed by Queen Eurydice. My mother has allies, beauty, and a keen mind for intrigue. “I swear, Arsinoë, one day I will be the king’s first wife. When that happens, I will see that Lysandra is punished for her cruelty. Until then, you must stand up for yourself.”“How can I? Lysandra is taller than me. She’s prettier than me. The king notices her; he gives her a horse just for learning to play the lyre, but I can’t have one until I copy all of Plato’s writings onto papyrus scrolls.”“That may be true, but Lysandra isn’t smarter than you are,” my mother says. “You must outsmart her. You must make the price for hurting you so steep that she won’t want to pay it. You must teach her to expect revenge.”I bite my lower lip, sniffling all the while. “I don’t want revenge.”“Then what is it that you want, my soft-hearted little fool of a daughter?”“I only want us to be sisters,” I cry, the sting in my heart sharper than the sting of my bleeding knees. I remember a happier time when Lysandra and I were very little and shared the same nursemaid and we didn’t know we had different mothers…
“You and Lysandra are not sisters,” my mother hisses. “You’re rivals. Never forget it.”
If you enjoyed this novelette or any of my work, please consider giving it an honest review!
I was asked to participate in a young adult anthology this year with twelve other great authors including luminaries like Diana Peterfreund. My contribution to the anthology certainly stands out because while most of the other stories in the collection are paranormal or contemporaries, mine is pure historical fiction with a bleak style. It stars one of Cleopatra Selene’s ancestral heroines, Queen Arsinoe II, one of history’s most notorious survivors.
Arsinoe II, not Cleopatra, was the first female pharaoh of the dynasty. She was also an Olympic gold medalist, the Queen of Thrace, a living goddess, and the reason for incestuous brother-sister marriage in the Ptolemaic royal family. She was known for being extremely clever and manipulative, good to her friends, ruthless to her enemies.
I wanted to know how she got that way, so I penned the story THE PRINCESS OF EGYPT MUST DIE and now you can grab it free in the ETERNAL SPRING anthology on Amazon for your kindle or on Smashwords in any format you like for any reader. The print version will still cost you, but the e-book is free. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
I write books set in the early Roman empire, a time during which a lot of horrible things were accepted as commonplace. Slavery was a normal part of life. Social class was enshrined into law. Women were sexual chattel, often without a say in their own lives and without representation in government. Human beings were forced to battle to the death in an arena for the entertainment of others.
In spite of this, people in the early Roman empire weren’t all that different than we are. Their aims for their lives have remarkable resonance with our own. They wanted to honor their forefathers. They wanted greater security and prosperity for their children. They were patriots. They believed in some forms of social mobility. They built beautiful things that are still a wonder to our eyes. They created governmental and public programs that worked more smoothly in some cases than our own. In short, they tried to instill a sense of order into the chaos of the world around them. They survived and thrived and bequeathed to us a wealth of knowledge without which we would be much poorer as a civilization.
So how to handle their portrayal in a fictional novel? Does one make the Romans out to be fascist monsters? (Certainly, that’s how my heroine sees them at first.) Does one take a stance of moral relativism and present them without censure and perhaps with a glow of rosy admiration? (Colleen McCoullough seems to take this approach.) Does one use humor to deflect readers’ discomfort in reading about such a ruthless way of life? (John Maddox Roberts seems to have gone this route.)
Or does one simply trust the reader to know that a portrayal of history is not an endorsement of it?
Until recently, I’d have thought it was understood that just because an author writes about something horrible doesn’t mean he or she is encouraging it. We do all understand that horror and thriller writers aren’t advocating murdering people, right? But it seems as if historical fiction and fantasy writers aren’t always given the same benefit of the doubt.
I’ve seen a bizarre slew of criticism lately, ranging from one author being accused of bigotry for writing from the viewpoint of a character with a documented distaste for Jews to another author being panned for her ancient heroine being insufficiently appalled by the institution of slavery.
Now, I’m all about reading the subtext and thinking critically about what a book’s true message is. I understand that an author can inadvertently write a body of work, the underlying theme of which makes you question the author’s values. (The combination of Frank Miller’s Sin City and 300 comes to mind.)
That said, some genuine effort at giving a fair reading to the author’s motives ought to be made before announcing, say, that George R. R. Martin is creepy. (I know. Martin isn’t a historical fiction novelist, but his fantasy is loosely based on the historical War of the Roses, so the reaction to his work is still relevant here.)
So why do historical fiction writers choose to revisit the past when it was a nearly unrelenting march of injustice, sexism, racism, and just about every other bad -ism you can think of?
My own primary motivation in writing historical fiction is to use it as a mirror to hold up against contemporary society. I want my readers to look at the ancient world and compare it to the world in which we live today. I want my readers to realize how far we have come. I also want my readers to realize that the progress of women’s liberation is not a straight line. There have been setbacks in the ancient past and there will likely be setbacks in the future against which we ought to be wary. I want my readers to compare the political propaganda we hear in the news today to the kind that was spewed by Augustus.
This is my intent. And yet, I realize that sometimes my intent is not conveyed. This may be because I’m not talented enough. It may also be because every reader carries their own baggage. Every reader’s experience of my novel is going to be unique to them. They are going to tend to see in it things that conform to their own world view.
But if their world view is that writers never write about the depravity of history unless it’s out of a creepy sense of wish-fulfillment, then their world view is spectacularly ill-informed.
Oh, I’m sure there are Civil War writers who really wish that slavery had never been abolished. (Newt Gingrich comes to mind.) I’m sure there are horror writers who use the therapy of putting pen to paper to keep them from sacrificing babies to Satan. I’m sure of it because given a large enough population of people, you will always find some percentage of sociopaths and freaks. However, since it’s very clear that those people are a deviation from the norm, why don’t we just assume that writers of fiction have some other more benevolent reason for writing about evil?
(Also, isn’t it worse to air-brush over the horrors of the past as if the world was so much better back then?)
Some authors write historical fiction for the same reason I do. Others write it because they have an obsession with documenting little known facts. Still others wish to put a human face onto an obscure time period. So they write about all the awful things people did back then. They don’t generally write about it because they want their audience members to pine longingly for the day when kings ruled absolutely and could behead their wives.
I’ve heard it argued that some readers do romanticize that past and wish to return to the glory days when women, peasants and other minorities knew their place. This is horrifying, but the fact that lunatics and losers might read the wrong thing into a fictional novel has never been, to my mind, any real criticism against that novel.