Adèle Geras: “Troy”

Troy

When Hector died, Andromache thought, I didn’t know there could be a greater pain, but now I know why the Gods made him suffer like that, and made me suffer for him. It was a rehearsal.

YA Novel
Pages: 358
First Published: 2000

Synopsis: The grimmest of wars is about to get worse.

The siege of Troy has lasted almost ten years.

Inside the walled city, food is scarce and death is common. From the heights of Mount Olympus, the Gods keep watch.

But Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, is bored with the endless, dreary war, and so she turns her attention to two sisters: Marpessa, who serves as handmaiden to Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world; and Xanthe, who tends the wounded soldiers in the Blood Room. When Eros fits an arrow to his silver-lit bow and lets it fly, neither sister will escape its power.

Agamemnon, commander of all the Greeks, watched his army scattering through the streets of Troy like cockroaches overrunning a house, scuttling into corners and hiding in the crevices of the stones. He made his way up the hill, toward Pallas Athene’s temple, and as he went, the tall black figure of Ares, the God of War, walked in his footsteps. Many saw him and not one of them realized who it was they were looking at. He moved through the city like a shadow among many shadows. He was everywhere, standing behind every man who carried a weapon in his hand.

Review: Two things: 1) This book has nothing to do with the 2004 movie Troy. 2) I have no idea why this is considered a YA novel.

I’m going to start with my criticisms of the book, which unfortunately are many.

· I will totally admit that I am super picky about dialogue. If I think a novel’s dialogue is unrealistic, it will drive me crazy the entire way through. And wow is Troy’s dialogue unrealistic. Characters often speak in full paragraphs that don’t even flow logically. Their emotions jump around from one line to the next. They clumsily deliver information that has nothing to do with what they’re talking about and should either have been provided by the narration or left out entirely. Achilles’ death scene reads like a joke, and part of the reason is that his dialogue in it is a disaster:

“Can you see me, Trojan Paris?” Achilles shouted. “Apollo’s rays are blinding you, that’s clear. I’m not hanging around down here for prophecies to come true, either. What chance do you reckon you’ve got of hitting a moving target? No chance at all. And even if you do hit me, don’t you know I’m protected?”

Yep, that’s an entire paragraph that Achilles shouts up to the top of the walls. While his chariot is moving.

Not a page later, we get:

“Bastard!” Achilles’ dying cry bubbled from his mouth as his body twisted itself into a knot of pain. “You have fulfilled the prophecy and killed me, but I can still …”

Seriously. What.

It could totally be that Geras was going for some stylistic characters-speak-in-paragraphs-and-tell-you-when-they’ve-been-slain thing that’s gone over my head, but until I find an interview in which she says as much, I’m afraid I just have to label this as terrible dialogue.

· One of the main characters is named Polyxena. When we first meet her, she complains about having the same name as one of the princesses of Troy, which seems like an odd thing to complain about when you finish the book and realize that, in its world, the princess Polyxena doesn’t actually seem to exist; the only daughter of Priam who appears in this book is Cassandra. Now, there are two events in the myth of the Trojan War that (potentially) involve the princess Polyxena. Occasionally, she is involved in the plot to kill Achilles. More often, she is killed during the fall of Troy. At both of these points in the novel, Geras gives herself an opening to do something interesting – some sort of plot twist in which the Polyxena involved in these events is not the princess, but this original character. Neither time does she take it. I don’t even know why Geras has her Polyxena accompany Priam to Achilles’ tent if she wasn’t going to do anything with it.

· Geras’ gods had so much potential. Their sudden appearances in dark corners of rooms, their no-nonsense attitudes, the way they disappear into mist, and the way the mortals who see them immediately forget them – these traits are really cool and a little creepy. Unfortunately, the effect is lost as soon as they open their mouths. Poseidon appears just to tell us that the man wearing Achilles’ armour isn’t Achilles. Apollo appears just to tell us that the Greeks haven’t actually left. As the gods’ words have no effect on the actions of the mortal characters – who never even remember them – it’s like the only purpose of the gods’ dialogue is to rob the following scenes of any suspense they might have had for the reader.

· We are told many times that Troy is in a desperate situation, that the city is running out of food and that its people are dying both in the city and on the battlefield, but this often contradicts what we are actually shown. It seems like everyone in the city has a secret stash of food and drink and no one who lives outside the walls seems to be suffering at all. Meanwhile, both Paris and boring love interest Alastor are able to avoid combat for little reason and without comment. Which I guess makes sense when you realize that apparently so few soldiers are being wounded that only one room is needed to tend to them. Then, less than a day after the Trojans discover the Greek ships have gone, they’re able to go out and gather enough food for a royal feast. The beginning of this book had me looking forward to an intense depiction of a city on the brink of starvation, of young characters who had spent almost their entire lives with enemy soldiers trapping them inside their walls. But the farther into the book I got, the less desperate the whole situation felt.

· For me, Paris was one of the highlights of this book, because he was a rare example of Geras getting creative with an aspect of the Trojan War myth. A Paris who is not entirely satisfied with his marriage to Helen – that’s awesome! I’d never seen him portrayed like that before! And when characters started mentioning Oenone, I got rather excited. Oenone is rarely used in Trojan War novels, but I find her story really interesting and I think there are a lot of things an author can do with it. Unfortunately I HATE how Geras handled it. It begins in the usual fashion, with whispers that Paris had a wife whom he abandoned when he met Helen. On page 211, the son of Paris and Oenone appears (and asks to see Helen only to tell her he actually wants to see Paris, seriously Geras get your dialogue under control) and doesn’t last two pages before Paris kills him. Fifteen pages later, a dying Paris is taken to Oenone, who refuses to heal him. Aphrodite fills us in:

“I was there, you know. When they carried Paris up the mountain to her cave, or grotto, or whatever she calls it. He was half dead. She came out looking smug, and what did she say? I’ll tell you. She said: You left me for Helen, even though I loved you. Now go to your Helen, and see how much use she is to you. I won’t save you. What a bitch! She could have brought him back to life and chose not to.”

Okay, wait. What is even happening here? Does Oenone not know that Paris killed her son?? What was the point of the son’s appearance in the story if it didn’t affect anything that happened afterward? How could it possibly not even be mentioned in this scene?! Why does Oenone say “I won’t heal you because you left me for Helen” and not “I won’t heal you because you killed my son”?? And on top of all that, where does Aphrodite get off dismissing Oenone as “a bitch” when Paris’s leaving her was Aphrodite’s fault??? Did Dan Simmons write that line? Geras takes a character who I think adds a really interesting layer to the myth, strips her storyline down to its bare minimum, never allows her onscreen, introduces her son, immediately forgets about him, and then has both Aphrodite and Helen label her a “bitch.” I have so many problems with this I can’t even wrap my brain around it.

· The above point, the novel’s less than subtle pro-life messages and the way that every male character who cries is referred to as “womanish” make me really confused as to why this Publisher’s Weekly review claims that Geras “recreates the saga of the Trojan War from a feminist perspective.” From a woman’s perspective, perhaps, but not so much from a feminist perspective. Seriously, this is a myth that begins with a queen sending her newborn son away to be killed, apparently without any sort of criticism. So why would a citizen of that queen’s city believe that the gods will punish her if she has an abortion?

· You perhaps have already gathered that a major problem I had with this book is that it presents so few new ideas. I love the Trojan War myth to death, obviously, but the reason I read novels based on it is because I want to see new takes on it. I want to see characters reimagined, I want to see events from different perspectives. With the exception of Paris, in Troy I didn’t feel that any of the myth’s characters had been changed or added to. They all hit their marks exactly as they do in the mythology, with no new insight into their actions. I would be completely fine with this if Geras’ original characters were interesting enough to compensate, but they’re not. They seem like perfectly nice people, but not exactly compelling. By the way, not gonna lie, I would love to read a Trojan War novel told from the point of view of regular Trojan citizens who have nothing to do with the royal family. Too bad for me, Troy is not that novel.

· Another recurring issue I had is the way that Geras introduces characters or storylines that she never returns to. One example is Oenone’s son; another is the Luck of Troy. In a conversation about how the statue has been stolen, the characters speculate that Helen has a romantic relationship with Odysseus that would lead her to help him steal it. Is it true? I don’t know! None of this is mentioned again. I got the feeling that Geras wanted to include as many aspects of the mythology as she could, but couldn’t or didn’t want to actually flesh them out into something that would be interesting and have an effect on the rest of the story. What especially frustrated me about the Luck of Troy example is that the “the Luck has been stolen from the temple, perhaps with Helen’s help” conversation comes directly after a scene in which a character who works for Helen is seen running away from the temple. But of course, those two scenes have nothing to do with each other. Geras constantly comes so, so, so close to doing something interesting with the story, and for whatever reason she just … doesn’t.

· Things I liked: Paris (before Oenone). The gods (when not speaking). The relationships between Helen and the other royal women. The relationships between the royal women and their servants. The line “Polyxena had sat in King Priam’s halls long enough to recognize adoration when she saw it.” The brief but hopeful scenes where the people of Troy are able to walk across the plain to the sea for the first time in ten years. Helen’s lack of fear during the city’s fall. The portrayal of Andromache’s grief often felt like too much to me, especially in a book where the reader only gets three scenes’ worth of Hector, but her subtler moments were pretty heartbreaking. The descriptions of the burning city were well done (… pun?) and I enjoyed the way it took characters longer to notice the fire depending on where they were and what they were doing – a nice change of pace from the tired ~everyone notices the fire at once~ montage. Boros has a shift in his character near the end which could have been quite interesting had we seen more of it. Astyanax … oh my goodness. His final scenes were heartwrenching. Easily the most emotional scene of the book is the one in which we see a Greek soldier’s immediate reaction to the baby’s death. And Xanthe’s reaction was stylistically the most interesting page.

I have probably made Troy sound like the worst novel ever. It isn’t. But it is far from the best, and the story of the Trojan War deserves better. To be completely honest, I was actually frustrated to learn that Geras has also written an Odyssey-inspired Ithaka and an Aeneid-inspired Dido. While I can’t say I’ll never read them, you won’t see me rushing out to get them.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Helen continued. “I don’t really care anymore. Isn’t that dreadful? My love, this love that has nearly drowned the city in blood, is fading. It’s nearly gone. There are times when he sets my flesh on fire … Forgive me for speaking so frankly … And then it’s like it was at the beginning, but more and more often I look at him and think: Is this what I left my country for?”

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4 Responses to “Adèle Geras: “Troy””

  1. Life did you a disservice when it failed to give you a friend who is as interested in Troy as you are.

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    Obviously you are just going to have to be the one to write this! But yeah, I love that – what does it mean for a nation when an entire generation’s experiences have been fostered under occupation, or under threat of seige? What does that mean for their civilization? Their birth rate is probably dropping like crazy, their culture is atrophying, their gods seem to have abandoned them – that’s FASCINATING.

    And the Oenone stuff … ugh. I hate it when a writer / team of writers seems to have amnesia. Like, this is important, guys. It just happened. WE JUST READ IT. The characters could not have forgotten about this.

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    I’m kind of weirded out about Aphrodite calling her a bitch, period. From the bits you’ve sampled, it seems like Geras is mixing modern and old-timey cadences of speech, and in none of the samples did I like it. I know that “bitch” isn’t a modern word, but it reads as modern, and mixing modern and old is always really sketchy unless it’s done in a way that’s clever and self-aware. And this just sounds messy.

    I mean, also the hypocrisy, yes.

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    Ew.

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    Ew.

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    I really, really, really, REALLY like this observation. Like, wow.

    Also, cultural standards change. The idea of a pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy makes very little sense for almost every society our planet has known. Rampant infant mortality and a lack of reliable family planning probably had a very real impact on how women viewed their pregnancies.

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    DO EEEEEEET!

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