A review of The Ionia Sanction from Alun Salt

Alun Salt's written a review of The Ionia Sanction, which you will find here at his web site.

By trade Alun is an archaeoastronomer, which is about as rare a profession as you're likely to come across, and fascinating if you happen to be into both astronomy and ancient history.

Sisyphus has the ultimate hard day at the office

You all know of Sisyphus as the guy who had to roll a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back down again.  He was doomed to do this pointless activity over and over, for all eternity.  He gets a lot of sympathy from modern office workers.

What's less well known is that Sisyphus got what was coming to him.  His famous fate was an addendum to what, to the Greeks, was a much more important story.

The original Sisyphus of legend was the first king of Corinth, and he was a nasty and sneaky individual.  He used to murder people who passed through his land, just for the lulz.

Sisyphus hated his brother Salmoneus.   Sisyphus was told by an oracle that if he had children by the daughter of Salmoneus, a woman named Tyro, then the children would grow to kill their grandfather.  So Sisyphus seduced his niece (this while he was married, mind you).  But Tyro learned of the oracle and killed her own children to prevent them killing her father.

While this was seriously antisocial, what eventually got Sisyphus into major trouble was when he divulged some of Zeus's more embarrassing indiscretions to the world at large.

The king of the gods was not amused.  He sent Thanatos, the god of death, to cart Sisyphus off to Hades.  (There are different versions of this story.  In some, it's Hades himself who turns up to snaffle Sisyphus.  Thanatos was a minor god who doesn't usually get much airplay.)

Thanatos duly arrived to collect his victim, bearing with him chains in which to wrap Sisyphus.  Sisyphus expressed great interest in how the chains worked and asked for a demonstration.  Thanatos obliged, using himself as the subject.  Sisyphus instantly caught up the chained Thanatos and threw him in the palace cupboard.  Sisyphus then carried on in the living world for some years.  Meanwhile Thanatos was stuck in the cupboard, no doubt doing multiple facepalms.

But with Thanatos out of business no one ever died, which upset the balance of the world.  Eventually Ares the god of war got sick of battles in which no one died, no matter how often they were skewered with spears.  Ares went to free Thanatos, and Sisyphus was sent to Hades.

It doesn't end there.  Sisyphus sweet-talked the goddess Persephone, queen of the dead, into letting him back up again.  There are multiple versions of how he did this, but the usual is he ordered his wife not to give him a proper burial, then convinced Persephone he had to return to the world to arrange his own funeral.

So Sisyphus returned to the world and carried on with riotous living.  Leaving Persephone to wait for Sisyphus to return to Hades, and she waited a long time, no doubt doing multiple facepalms.

Zeus eventually realized that if you want something done right, then you have to do it yourself.  He carried Sisyphus off to Hades and set up the boulder scheme.

And that's why Sisyphus is still down there, pushing that boulder uphill.

Mind-reading from a distance: a desirable skill for authors

I hope Editor Extraordinary Juliet Grames will forgive me for stealing off facebook her photo of a certain book on the new fiction shelves at Barnes & Noble.

Writing is a weird business.  That book is sitting on shelves all over the place, and I have no idea who's picking it up to leaf through it.  Then, when some lovely person reads it, I'll never know what they thought of my handiwork.

This is why authors love people who write reviews and send fan mail.  It's not so much the word of mouth, though that's nice too, but it's our chance to see what you thought of something we spent a long time making. And believe me, every one of us is dying of curiosity.

Out to Lunch - back in a week

We're away for the next week, so if you make a comment and I don't reply, it's because I'm hanging out on an island on the Great Barrier Reef.

If any burglars are thinking of breaking into the house while we're gone, be warned the grounds are patrolled by attack guinea pigs.  They're vicious and trained to kill.

New edition of The Pericles Commission comes to the US

The Pericles Commission is being released by Soho Press in the US in trade paperback.  That's the large size mass market format.  And to my surprise, they're using the Australian cover!

Pericles Commission releases in paperback in the US in only two days' time, on January 15 2013.  Then on 19th March they're releasing a paperback edition of The Ionia Sanction:

The coin used on the cover of this edition of Pericles Commission has a very interesting history, which I previously wrote about in this post.

Sacred Games: the cover!

The third book of the Athenian Mysteries is...

This one's a race against time.  Here's the jacket copy:

It's the Olympics of 460 BC. Nico's best friend, Timodemus, is a competitor in the pankration, the deadly martial art of ancient Greece. Timo is hot favorite to win. His only serious rival is Arakos from Sparta. When Arakos is found beaten to death, it's obvious Timodemus must be the killer. Who else could have killed the second-best fighter in all Hellas but the very best? The Judges of the Games sentence Timodemus to be executed in four days' time, as soon as the Sacred Games have finished.

Complicating everything is the fact that Athens and Sparta are already at each other's throats, in the opening stages of a power struggle for control of Hellas. If an Athenian is found to have cheated at the Games by murdering a Spartan, it will be everything the hawks in Sparta need to declare open war the moment the Sacred Truce is over. And that's a war Athens cannot hope to win.

Nico and his partner in sleuthing, the annoyingly clever priestess Diotima, have four days to save their friend and avert a war that would tear their world apart.

How to sign a contract when you're in Australia and your publisher is in New York

Australia, like any civilized country, uses metric paper sizes.  The US still uses mediaeval letter-sized paper measured in inches.  All they need is the last page printed and signed.  All I need is one letter-sized page.  Here's how you do it:

  1. Go insane trying to find letter-sized paper in Australia.
  2. Send wife out to find letter-sized paper.
  3. Give up.
  4. Buy some A3 sketching paper.
  5. Get the last contract, which is printed on letter-size.
  6. Trace around the old contract onto the A3.
  7. Cut out the tracing with scissors.
  8. Place custom-built page into home printer paper tray that's designed for A4.
  9. Print and send.
  10. Resolve to buy sheaf of letter paper next time I'm in the US.
That contract takes me out to Book 4, with an option on Book 5, so the tale of Nico and Diotima continues.

Book 4's working title is The Marathon Conspiracy.  Working titles almost never survive, so it might appear next year under a different name.  I don't yet have a stable working title for Book 5.  I normally cycle through a few before I find something that feels right.  

But the next book of course is Book 3, and that's on sale in May.  It's called Sacred Games.

Ancient Greek toilets

There was no such thing as a flushing toilet in Ancient Greece.  Remarkably, there was a flushing toilet 1,200 years before that, at the Palace of Knossos, in Minoan times, and it's the oldest known flushing toilet in Europe.  It probably worked by having a slave pour buckets of water into the drain.

But in Classical times, when Nico and Diotima are at work, they had no plumbing into the home.  All water was carried in from public fountains, and that was intended for drinking and washing.  If you needed to go to the toilet, well, that was what the chamber pot was for.

If you lived in the city, then the bad news was that there was no garbage collection service.  There was however a drain that ran down the middle of every street.  That's where the contents of the chamber pot went.  I've made use of this fun fact without any mercy for Nico.  Whenever he gets knocked down in a street fight, he invariably goes straight into that drain.

In fact we can be quite certain that's where the waste went, because eventually the Athenians passed a law forbidding citizens to dump their waste in the street.  The same law created the world's first public landfill site outside the city walls (another first for Athens!) and required all rubbish to be dumped no closer than that.  However this all happened in 400BC, sixty years too late to save Nico from going into the poo.

Now as to the delicate problem of a world without toilet paper...you won't be surprised to hear that this is not a well-documented subject.  The Romans famously used a sponge tied to the end of a stick.  The Greeks might have used a sponge too, when one came to hand.  But there's evidence to suggest that a handful of clay was more common.   An interesting alternative was the leaves of vegetables such as leeks.

I must mention in passing that in the absence of washing powder, the next best thing to keep your clothes clean is urine.  (It's acidic.)  They actually had collection jars to store it in.


Welcome to 2013!   It's the first year to consist of four digits that can be arranged consecutively (0,1,2,3), since the year 1432!

We live at a privileged time, because like the people in the 1400s, we'll see this unusual phenomenon twice.  Next stop: 2031.

Modern Greek toilets

So with all of us recovering from excessive New Year partying, I think it's time to talk about going to the toilet.

Let me start with some modern travel advice:  it's a little known but quaint custom of modern Greece that you do not put the used paper in the toilet and flush it.  This is because Greek sewerage pipes are half the width of pipes anywhere else on the planet, and if you flush the paper, then the drain will block and that with which you thought you were permanently parted will make an unwelcome return.

Modern Greek toilets have a bin next to the bowl.  The paper goes in there, and is disposed with the other trash.  I mention this little detail because many tourists find it impossible to believe, despite the numerous signs put up by the locals begging people not to flush the paper.  (Recent buildings don't have this problem...sometimes.)

Another interesting custom is the bathroom attendant, who is to be found at many conveniences throughout the eastern Mediterranean.  Bathroom attendants have approximately the worst job in the world.  You pay this nice person a small sum at the entrance, in return for which you are given the toilet paper which you otherwise will not find within.  Tourists who don't know the system will sometimes be heard from within toilet stalls, calling plaintively for help after it's too late.

Of course, the attendant system leaves the question of how much paper you get for your money.  I recall this being a particular problem in Yugoslavia in the years before that sad country imploded.  It was quite normal to hand over your cash and receive three thin squares of forlorn paper that weren't going to stretch the distance, so to speak.  The value of the dinar was in free-fall at the time due to hyperinflation.  For the cost of the toilet paper, we calculated that it was cheaper to cut out the middleman and just use your paper money.

This is why backpacker guides sometimes advise you to carry your own rolls of paper, which then become the target of desperate thieves.