After eighteen long months I finally made it back to London. I love staying in the City, I tend to stay in the actual City of London, the Square Mile, heart of the financial centre of London and a very quiet section of the metropolis. It’s normally quiet at the best of times, low on tourists, low on residents but this time it was also low on workforce. So much of the City is still working from home and it was evident in all the closed and boarded up coffee shops and bistros. The knock-ons of this pandemic go on and on.
Anyway, I went to London to celebrate the launch of The Missing Codex and to keep my eyes open to new ideas for book four, you never know when something will jump out at you. I was also there to visit the Nero exhibition.
Was it worth it?
No. Honestly, I thought the exhibition was overpriced and underwhelming. Thank god I didn’t also have to put up with crowds. Sometimes special exhibitions are stunning, sometimes they are just blah. I thought this one was blah. Your standard statues and artefacts and a range of information boards. I don’t know, I just thought that for such a dramatic history we might have had a more dramatic presentation of the evidence.
What was worth it was a trip to the Mithraeum. This is an underground Roman temple, free to visit, located under the Blomberg building. It was first discovered after the Blitz and has since been preserved and moved twice. it now sits near to its original site and has been vary carefully preserved. There’s not a lot to see, just stone and brick foundations, but through the clever use of smoke and lights and sounds effects you can see the walls and columns and hear the chanting. Very smart. Upstairs there’s a fascinating finds board of all the artefacts found, and these are really cool. I loved the glass vials and the shoes. So human reaching down the millennia.
Museum of London and Postman’s Park
I also visited these for the first time. The museum is excellent and I played silly buggers dressing up in stuff as my husband wandered past telling me that’s how people got the plague. And as we had just passed the plague section I had a small shudder. This museum is much more interested in the lives of Londoners through the centuries and is a good way of understanding history. Especially interesting for a writer 😀
Just outside the museum in a small park in a corner, is a wall of tributes to heroic self sacrifice. It’s incredibly poignant and a reminder of how anyone is capable of being a hero. Also, that being a hero rarely ends well.
Bang up to date
As well as playing around in the past I visited some of London’s newest buildings and wine bars. (Research – honest) The view from the Sky Garden, the “walkie-talkie” building is amazing and is another attraction that is free to visit. Well worth it, and it is so stunning to look down on the city and just wonder at how bloody impressive it is.
So, did I get any inspiration for book four? Yes. But I’m not going to say what. As Song says, Spoilers!
I am thriller to reveal the cover for the third book in the Quantum Curators series. Once again, I am bowled over by how good this cover is from Stuart Bache at Books Covered. I thought you might like a sneak peak into the symbols in the atom as well as the blurb.
A cover and a blurb work hand in hand to deliver a promise of the story inside. Fingers crossed, you’ll like what is on offer.
The gods don’t exist but who’s going to tell them?
Something is rotten in the heart of Alexandria and Julius Strathclyde is in trouble. He appears to have summoned the gods, which is driving his partner, Neith Salah, insane. Not to mention all the other ultra-rational citizens of Alpha earth.
It gets worse.
The gods set a challenge that can’t be refused. The race is on to find the lost blueprints for the Quantum Stepper. Whoever possesses them will be able to unlock the stepper’s true potential.
The game is afoot and the outcome is terrifying. All of time and space will be under the control of the victors; to protect, or to plunder. Can Julius and Neith get to the plans before their rivals?
If they lose, Julius’ earth is doomed, but if they win, Neith’s earth will continue to disintegrate.
Can they find a third way? Or will the gods win out?
For lovers of fast-paced, witty novels. The Quantum Curators go from strength to strength
Eagle eyed readers have already spotted that this is the famous Brunelleschi Dome, which can only mean one thing. We’re off to our Florence. There are a lot of rules regulating the curators getting anywhere near Leonardo da Vinci. How many do you think the curators break.
Well, this is at the heart of the book but honestly, there’s a very good reason it’s been hidden for centuries. Neith, Julius, step away!
He is one of my favourite gods just because he’s such fun. Anansi is a well known trickster god of Caribbean and African origin. He’s a mythological character and god of stories. He’s witty, cunning and funny. Sometimes he’s cruel. And occasionally, he’s terrifying.
Spoiler alert. I’m not going to tell you about the swallows. You’re just going to have to read the book yourself!
The Future is getting closer – artificial intelligence and audio books
Audio books are becoming an increasingly popular way for people to consume their books and are now the fastest growth area in the book world. Digital books, once the new kid on the block, are now an established format. Now it is the turn of the audiobook, but where a digital book was quick and cheap to produce, an audio book is a very different beast.
The cost of an audio book
Having written and edited the words on a page, you now need it to be spoken. This costs. This costs a lot. I’ve had quotes for $6000.00; they wern’t considered extortionate. Then of course, those files need to be checked both for quality and mistakes. Then the sound files need to be processed and accepted on the platform’s distribution outlet. This can take months.
So, an audio book costs time and money and as I’ve said, a lot of money.
Is it worth it?
Well, audio is a booming market, but an audio book is expensive for the consumer to buy. Troy by Stephen Fry, costs £22.00, however lots of people choose to stream at a margin of the cost. With the publisher only receiving a pound or two per stream, and often less, it takes a hell of a long time to recoup the initial outlay of thousands of pounds. This is why lots of new authors don’t get an audio deal until their publisher is confident that they can make a profit.
A new solution
In a fast changing market, the COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted technical technologies and one of these have been GPT3, a natural language processing tool. Soon an author will be able to synthesise their own voice or use an existing artificial voice to read their book. A job that would take a human many days, can be done glitch free in minutes. I’ve listened to the latest voices and they aren’t bad at all. In another year, they may be indistinguishable to the casual listener. As the time to record speeds up, so too does the speed of editing and processing, so everything gets cheaper.
Pros and Cons
Well for voice artists, this will become an issue. They won’t be able to compete on price, but as technologies improve, they will be able to reduce their time and fees. Where they will remain strong, however, is their humanity. Those with real talent will continue to shine and remain in demand. Nothing, after all, beats the real thing. Quality will always outshine quantity.
the author/publisher, they will now be able to enter the audio book market without too great a financial risk.
the reader they will hear the book however they want.
For example, they can pay a premium price to listen to the real Stephen Fry read a book. Or they can pay slightly less for a synthesised licenced voice. Imagine if Stephen Fry licensed his voice? Producers could then hire that voice to read the book.
For an even cheaper product, they could just listen to a generic synthetic reader, and this is where the flexibility of new technologies will explode. Imagine now, as the listener, you could listen to a voice of your choice. Male, female, young, old, Kenyan, Polish, English, American and so on. I don’t know about you, but it jars when the voice reading a book completely fails to sync with the voice in my head or the “voice” of the author.
In the future, I could just log into Spotify or Audible, select a book and then choose the narrator. If I wanted a human, I’d pay more, if I simply wanted a voice that chimed with my own, I could flick though a library of synthetics and proceed with the download. I reckon this will be with us within five years.
In The Quantum Curators and the Fabergé Egg, the hunt is on for a Russian doll, could it be hiding a priceless treasure? The section from below is from the book, I hope you enjoy it. To read more about the dolls follow the links at the end…
‘I need to pick your brains about matryoshka dolls.’
‘Cakes and dolls. What a lovely way to start the day. Excellent. What do you need to know?’
Julius explained that he was trying to track down the lost casing of an outer doll. He hadn’t seen the inner dolls, and had just had them described to him. All he hoped for was an idea to the size of the outer casing and maybe the subject matter.
They were seated in two comfortable armchairs and had a coffee table between them. Now Marsha wandered around her rooms, returning with doll sets until the table was covered in them.
‘Okay. Matryoshka or Russian dolls are a nested set of wooden canisters. Each canister opens at the middle, revealing a smaller unit within. These reduce in size until you get to the smallest solid doll in the centre. You can have any number, but the preference is for around five or seven. The cluster of dolls is also thematic. Family members, politicians, et cetera. The inner doll is the smallest or least important, the outer doll is the most important. Another cake?’
Julius leant forward gratefully, and having put the cake on his plate, picked up one of the doll sets. Opening up the first doll, he looked inside.
‘That set you’re holding has a political theme. It’s quite a modern set and made for the tourist market. Russians are more careful about political statements. Unless the statement is, “We support our current leader”. In Russia, you know, we are famous for our freedom of speech. But those freedoms only last as long as the speech itself. I have a joke that will help you understand.’
Marsha cleared her throat. ‘A frightened man came to the KGB. “My talking parrot has disappeared”, she said in a gruff voice and then changed her pitch to reply as the KGB officer.
‘“That’s not the kind of case we handle. Go to the criminal police”. “Excuse me, of course I know that I must go to them. I am here just to tell you officially that I disagree with the parrot”.’
Marsha laughed and slapped her leg. ‘See! We are not idiots. Russian politics is for tourists.’
Julius laughed along with her as he stacked the dolls back together. His attention now taken with something more folk like.
Marsha pointed to the old, faded doll he was holding. ‘Now that one is the oldest in my collection and sounds like your doll. You see she is not as garish as these two?’ said Marsha, pointing to two very pretty and slightly gaudy dolls. ‘This one represents the seasons, that one is supposed to represent a traditional doll, but look at the two of them side by side.’
Julius looked at the modern doll, painted in a bright and traditional style. The face of the doll was blank and characterless. The older doll, however, was completely different. The paint was probably never quite so lurid, but more importantly, the face on the doll was realistic. This was a portrait. Julius felt certain that if he met the person in the flesh, he would recognise her. He opened the whole doll set and could see a family resemblance running through the dolls, from the outer matriarch to the little girl.
‘Would an old one always be a woman on the outer casing?’
Marsha thought about it. ‘I have seen male ones, but they were called matryoshka for a reason. If your outer casing is male and old, it would be quite collectable. However, you will be able to tell if it matches your set because the artistry between the dolls will be by the same hand. The inner dolls you have described sound as though they were not Soviet mass-produced items.’
The pair chatted on until a clock chimed and Marsha apologised, saying that she needed to go and teach. I have to work so that they will pay me. It’s not like in the good old days when workers pretended to work, and bosses pretended to pay them. But this is progress!’
Kissing her on the cheeks, he set off.
Some of my own Russian Dolls. See, they are perfect for hiding things in.
The Imperial Easter Eggs of Carl Fabergé by Toby Faber*
“Between 1885 and 1916, Carl Fabergé made fifty jewelled eggs . These were Easter presents from Russia’s last two emperors to their wives. What happened to them is a fascinating story which combines unique decorative art, contemporary culture, history and the murder of the Romanovs with the excitement of a crime novel.”
(These are my notes from a recent Art Society talk. Really loved this one but then who doesn’t love jewels and revolution?)
The timeline of the Fabergé eggs follows a sad and bloody path. The brighter and more wonderfully the eggs shone the greater the contrast to the world that was falling around the Romanov’s ears.
Following the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, his son Alexander became Tzar Alexander III. He was 36 and instantly began to undo the reforms that his father had instigated. Given that his father had been killed for his troubles, it is understandable that his son was leery of proceeding along a similar path.
Alexander III had married the Princess Maria Feodorovna of Denmark, a beautiful woman who loved court life and social occasions. Despite being a foreigner, she was adored by the Russian people; she in turn embraced Russia learning the language and the customs of her new homeland. Following her father-in-law’s assassination, her husband moved his family to Gatchina Palace, twenty miles away from St Petersburg. It was more secure, almost an armed fortress but certainly less entertaining. Possibly, in an attempt to cheer his wife up, he commissioned the first Faberge egg in 1885.
A Husband’s Gift
From a letter dated March 21 (OS), 1885, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich advises Alexander III that:
“In my opinion, the article is a complete success and can even be said to be praise-worthy for its fine and intricate workmanship. In accordance with your wishes, the ring was replaced by an expensive ruby pendant egg, the stone of impeccable quality. If Minny (Editor’s note: Tsarina Maria Feodorovna) should wish to wear the little egg separately . . . the case contains a thin chain for this purpose.”
The letter goes on to describe in detail how the egg and its various surprises should be correctly opened. Alexander III replied the same day from Gatchina Palace:
“I am grateful to you, dear Vladimir, for the trouble you have taken in placing the order and for the execution of the order itself, which could not have been more successful: The workmanship is really very fine and exquisite. Your instructions for the delicate handling of the object are so explicit that I was able to carry them out easily and with complete success. I do hope the egg will have the desired effect on its future owner (Maria Feodorovna).”
Clearly, the Tzar was offering a gift to his wife that he hoped to impress or please her, or simply to say sorry.
The exquisite egg was clearly well received. Every Easter afterwards Alexander presented an egg to Maria. The House of Faberge would create a fabulous egg with some hidden treasure inside. Various artists would work on the piece, Faberge himself was simply the overseer of the creation, rather that the sole creator. Such efforts meant it could often take more than a year to create.
The House of Faberge. The Finest Jewels and Metals
The Faberge Easter Eggs were made of the finest materials; gold, platinum, rare minerals, diamonds, rubies, pearls and intricate enamelling and tooling. They contained hidden surprises, hidden knobs on the egg could be turned and a picture would pop up, or the egg would open to reveal a clockwork train set. These treats were all crafted in precious metals and gems. And all in miniature! Most of the eggs are only a few inches tall, the size of a goose egg.
Maria loved them and Faberge cleared enjoyed making eggs for her. Tragically, Alexander II became ill and died in 1894 at the age of 49 having only ruled for 13 years. Now his eldest son came to the throne, the ill-fated Nicholas II. Nicholas was 26 when he became Tzar and it’s fair to say he was hopeless. He wasn’t ready, his father dying at 49 was unexpected and he was an indulged and unseasoned young man. Uncertain of how to rule he tried to follow his father’s course and listened to the advice of his uncles. None of which were paying a close eye on the growing proletariat and the country’s desire for a constitutional monarchy as opposed to a totalitarian one.
Happily, one of the ways that Nicholas decided to follow in his father’s footsteps was in commissioning an egg from Faberge for his mother and one for his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna. So now there were two imperial eggs each year. The eggs for Maria continued to be playful and beautiful, but those for the new Tzarina were a little more formal. Alexandra was a quiet, reserved woman and harder to know. Faberge had no relationship with her and the eggs seem a little more remote. She probably loved them, who wouldn’t, but maybe when she saw her second egg she winced. It was the Coronation Egg, a breathtakingly beautiful egg, with incredible enamelling. Within was the Imperial carriage that had brought her to the coronation.
A Bloody Start
The problem was that it was celebrating an event that turned out to be truly horrific. Shortly after the coronation, crowds had gathered, as was traditional, to greet their new Tzar. The crowd was larger than anticipated and the Imperial guard were unable to marshal them properly. There was a stampeded and between 1000 (official sources) and 4000 (unofficial sources) people were killed. If that wasn’t bad enough, on hearing of the disaster, the newly crowned Tzar and Tzarina, instead of heading to the tragedy, went to a ball. This was widely reported and Nicholas never shook the impression of being uncaring. It wasn’t a great omen for the rest of his reign.
As an adoring mother, Alexander loved the 1898 Lilies of the Valley egg. Hidden inside was a set of miniature portraits; her husband and her two daughters. However, that was a sore point. Daughters were not the blessings that a son would be, in fact they were a problem as Nicholas had no heir. Paul I had hated his mother Catherine the Great so much that he had changed the Russian law so that no women could ever rule again. So there were no more eggs featuring the children until a son was born.
No eggs were presented during 1904/05 as Russia was at war with Japan, a war that Russia had been confident of winning and comprehensively messed up. Nicholas felt it was inappropriate to give eggs during a time of upheaval. However, by the first world war the eggs were presented throughout, maybe Nicholas had stopped caring about how it looked?
In 1917 two eggs were in production but were never presented; following the Russian revolution and assassination of the Tzar, Tzarina and all their children, and then there were no more Imperial eggs.
The Greatest Egg Hunt
To this day, several of these eggs are missing and it is unknown if those in production were ever completed. Given that when these eggs come to the market they sell for many millions, they have become the greatest Easter Egg hunt in the world. Most recently one was bought in a flea market, for around £13k, this was its scrap metal value. It was reportedly sold a short while later for over £20 million, when it was discovered what it actually was.
Toby has written two works of narrative history, Stradivarius and Fabergé’s Eggs, published by Macmillan and Random House, and given lectures associated with these two subjects at venues in Britain and the USA. His career began with Natural Sciences at Cambridge and has worked in investment banking, management consulting and five years as managing director of the publishing company founded by his grandfather, Faber and Faber.