I’ve spoken before about attention to detail. There are a number of small points that spoil this very good opening for me, but another agent might well ask to see the entire manuscript. There’s an element of subjectivity that creeps in with any critique, and this author might feel that they can submit as is.
Title: Lost Scrolls of Archimedes
Language: US English
Synopsis: Stolen Archimedean scrolls hold power to win wars and change the world. Young savant, Marcus, with dreams of the scholarly life, comes to possess the scrolls, bringing tragedy, torment, and love into his life. A race against oncoming war, Alexandria’s destruction, and exploitation of the scrolls’ awesome powers is on!
Ephesus, August 5, 38 BC
Marcus Bassus’s hands gripped the side of the skiff as he stared at the murky river. Its placid surface reflected the light of a half-moon while masking the river’s turbulent undercurrents. The shore beyond beckoned with shadows and danger.
“We must jump now, Marcus.” Hippolytus’s tone was intense, so unlike his typical manner.
Marcus shivered in the warm summer air. Fear, repressed for days, ran rampant through his mind. Could he do this? He was a scholar, not a bandit.
No, I’m not ready for this.
Marcus took a deep breath, fighting his apprehension, and glanced over at his mentor standing in the bow, fingering the silver Oracle medallion that hung from his neck. Like Marcus, Hippolytus had stripped to his loincloth, his skin blackened with ashes and pig fat.
For the third time, the small boat neared the dark eastern shore of the Cayster River just north of the city of Ephesus. At the previous locations, rocks, fallen trees and tricky currents had made the approach too dangerous. Based on the stars, they were behind schedule.
The sound of a splash spun Marcus around to see Julianus working the oars, keeping the bow pointed into the swift current. The same medallion peeked above his tunic. Marcus had met him only yesterday. He was muscular and had dark, cropped hair and a crooked nose. Except for reporting the local conditions, Julianus said little. Hippolytus said the man was a mystery even for an Oracle.
“Come on, boy,” Julianus said. “This is damn work.”
Marcus turned to the murky water. Would he survive the night or drown in the muddy river? Maybe run through by a soldier?
In Alexandria, Hippolytus had explained the mission would help the Oracles, a secret organization that Hippolytus vowed followed the path to true knowledge. On the voyage to Ephesus, Marcus learned the venture involved stealing scrolls containing powerful knowledge written and encrypted by Archimedes. His mentor’s refusal to say more about the scrolls frustrated him.
He tried to calm his fearful thoughts. He wouldn’t drown, since he was a capable swimmer, but the unknowns beyond the river fueled his apprehension.
“Did you hear me? It’s time.” Hippolytus hissed the words through clenched teeth, his tone almost menacing.
Though stealing from a temple was against his upbringing, Hippolytus had threatened to quit as his mentor if Marcus refused tonight’s mission. That was unnerving, but Marcus knew the real reason that drove him to this lawbreaking—his unquenchable thirst, his passion for the hidden knowledge of the ancient Greeks.
Pulse racing, Marcus scooped a leather bag off the bottom boards and flung it over his back before slipping over the boat’s side. He gasped as the icy water shocked his body. His skin blended into the dark river, and he swam against the current until Hippolytus joined him. Julianus then pointed the skiff downstream and rowed toward Ephesus’s harbor.
With long, silent frog strokes, Marcus swam alongside Hippolytus toward the ominous shore. He feared soldiers awaited, ready to hack him to pieces. His feet soon scraped the river bottom, and the two invaders crawled through the shallows until reaching a narrow beach.
Once on the beach, he scurried across the sand towards the shadows of the muddy bank. With each step, he expected an arrow from an Amazon huntress, the sworn protectors of the goddess Artemis. His pounding heart thumped in his ears, drowning out the river’s soft moan. Marcus reached the bank and surveyed the gloomy landscape. His heart quieted as he realized they were alone.
Though the moon’s cool light glowed overhead, Marcus sensed a deeper shade of darkness hanging over the river and land. Ahead, through a reedy marsh dried to a few scattered mud pools, lay the path to the target—the Temple of Artemis, the Artemision, destination for thousands of religious pilgrims. To the right, a mere mile away, the lights of Ephesus shimmered.
Marcus extracted a rope from his bag and handed it to Hippolytus, who coiled it around his shoulder, careful to avoid the sharp hooks of the grapnel tied to it. They headed eastward into the tall marsh reeds.
Julianus’s earlier scouting report showed a hundred priests and servants slept in the building, while hordes of guards watched day and night over its vast riches of art, gold and sacred writings. The only number he cared about was its sixty-foot height, his tutor’s limit for tossing the grappling hook.
Shifting his vision to the southeast, Marcus noticed lights burning at a few houses crowding the slopes of Mount Pion. Atop the mountain, the city walls began, though at this distance, they were invisible to the soldiers walking their rounds on the massive fortification.
“Let’s go,” said Hippolytus. Crouching, he stepped off into the marsh.
As Marcus slipped through the tall reeds behind his mentor, he thanked the gods the outlying homes edging the marsh were dark. Beyond, he glimpsed the silhouette of the looming, but empty, stadium standing midway between the swamp and Ephesus. Julianus reported that in April, the holy month of Artemision, the stadium and city had teemed with people.
Halfway across the field, Hippolytus mouthed a fierce whisper. “Get down. Horse patrol.”
They dove into the mud. The thudding of hoofbeats on the soft ground reached Marcus, and as they grew louder and closer, he soon smelled horseflesh. Mud slipped between his lips as he pressed his body deeper into the wet earth.
The silence was palatable, and time slowed to a crawl.
The horse snorted, and the clopping of hooves resumed. They soon receded into the night.
Several minutes passed before Hippolytus whispered new orders. “We need to skirt the edge of the marsh.”
Marcus clawed the bitter mud from his mouth. “That will take more time. How about those nearby houses?”
“It’s either that or failure,” Hippolytus started off into the reeds.
He moved in behind his tutor, and they crept south aiming for the marsh edge.
Editorial comment: I like this suspenseful opening, but there were a number of small details that pulled me out of the story, subjective points that you could argue another agent might ignore completely.
Rather than outright reject, or ask for “a full” (ie ask to see the entire MS), sometimes agents might actually write a “real” note back to an author who has submitted, saying that their opening was very good, but certain things need attention and, if the author can fix these satisfactorily, then they are invited to resubmit. This kind of note is extremely rare, almost as rare as an acceptance, so you are entitled to feel excited if you get one.
The points that I felt let this opening down:
I was with you with the description of “the murky river” until the next sentence explains that it’s the middle of the night. In this case, I think the description of a river as murky is a bit superfluous.
“The shore beyond beckoned with shadows and danger” is pure telling, and is far more adequately shown in subsequent paragraphs.
I tripped over “shivered in the warm summer air.” Since, again, it’s at night, it seems odd to refer to “summer” air and not night air.
“Could he do this?” is a narrated viewpoint, as is the subsequent sentence, “He was a scholar, not a bandit.” It’s slightly jarring then to suddenly zoom in to a very close PoV and direct thought, “No, I’m not ready for this.” There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but I feel like they should be consistent, so, “Can I do this? I’m a scholar, not a bandit. I’m not ready.”
From the next sentence it’s ambiguous as to whether it’s Marcus or Hippolytus who is fingering the medallion around their neck … and so on.
None of these points are particularly significant alone, but all put together, there’s something about nearly every sentence in the first hundred words or so that gives me pause. That’s hard to ignore and I find it difficult to get in to the story as a result. It might just be a style that I don’t gel with (hence the “subjectivity” of the title, and why I qualified the critique in my opening remarks). However, I can only be true to my own instincts. However, the writing is good, the historical setting appealing. What I might have said to the author, were I a real agent, is to go away and look at this again in some depth and do some tidying. I may have given a few examples, like above, of what I thought needed fixing. It’s then down to the author to either try and tweak what the agent is highlighting as a problem or, and this is always an option, just try a different agent. The very fact that it is not being rejected outright ought to give the author some confidence.
Thanks for posting.