The Amelia Peabody series from Elizabeth Peters has always been favorite, but I hadn’t read one in a while. This one was the last one published by Peters (Barbara Mertz) while she was still living. The final book in the series (The Painted Queen) was finished by Joan Hess after Peters’ death in 2013.
For more introduction to this series, see here:
3. First book in the series: Crocodile on the Sandbank
You can read a preview of A River in the Sky by clicking below the cover here.
I want to look at the four perspectives on writing that I’ve covered in the past: setting, plot, character and emotional center.
Setting: Unlike most of the other titles in the Amelia Peabody series, this one is set not in Egypt but in Palestine. I was surprised to see that Peters was quite thin on describing this new locale, especially in Jerusalem, where there is a natural abundance of cultural, religious and historical context to draw on. Especially since this locale represents a significant departure from her other work, it was a perfect opportunity to draw her readership into a whole new set of unfamiliar sights, sounds and aromas.
For me, this is a reminder to look at each scene in my current book manuscript for ways to make the setting come alive for my readers. Even though I may ‘see’ it clearly myself, unless I describe it, no one else will see it, and the scene will just be ungrounded dialogue and action. This is an exercise in disciplined editing, to make sure everything is as fleshed out as possible.
Plot: One should be able to step back from a book after finishing it and summarize the plot in two or three sentences. In a mystery, one might not know how it ends until the very last minute, but the whole thing should make coherent sense after the last page is turned. There should be a moment of “ah-ha, now I see how all this hangs together.” Unfortunately, I never had that moment with A River in the Sky. The potentially enticing plot elements – a kidnapping, suspected German spies, searching for the Ark of the Covenant – weren’t given enough depth and dimension to grab me, make me want to keep turning the pages. There was little that qualified it as a mystery. Even among Peters’ loyal fans, there was much consensus in the reviews that this offering was not her strongest.
For me, this means making sure I understand what the story is that I’m trying to tell. The arc of the story has to be compelling, has to have continual forward movement and propulsion, has to carefully peel away the mystery layers so that the reader really wants to know, on each page, what happens next.
Characters: Well-loved series characters don’t need to be completely re-drawn with each entry, and, here, I think Peters does a good job of giving us enough of a taste of Peabody and Emerson that we recognize them but not so much that it drags down the pace. The parallel story of their son Ramses and his friend David, told in Manuscript H, likewise gives us enough of their personalities to make them recognizable, but without starting from scratch. Reviewers have criticized Peters for not fleshing out some of the other recurring characters, but I didn’t find that to be a problem.
This issue is tricky, how to present series characters in sufficient detail to make them “live” for a new reader while not boring the reader who already knows the series. I’m working on this subject now with my mentor, as I re-draw the recurring characters (like Father Ambrose, Sheriff Charlie Cormley, and Mother Francine) for the next book.
Emotional Center: I had some difficulty finding a character to follow emotionally in A River in the Sky. Amelia, being the mother of children in danger, is the natural locus of this role, but most of the emphasis is on her organizational abilities and simple marital bickering with her husband. The closest I could come to really caring about characters’ feelings was in Manuscript H, where Ramses and David are protective of each other and (justifiably) on edge while imprisoned.
I’m beginning to realize how very important it is to engage the reader’s emotions and create a story and characters that develop and sustain that bond. This is especially key in a series, where continuing readers will come back to find the people they’ve already come to care about. This second book in the Father Ambrose series will seek to round him out more and trace an emotional arc for him through the story.
Leave me your comments below or write me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Next month, I’ll be looking at Ann Cleeves’ recent entry in the Shetland series, Cold Earth. Hopefully, it’ll whet your appetite for the last book in the series, due out in September.
See you then!