Clemence McLaren: “Inside the Walls of Troy”

Inside the Walls of Troy  Inside the Walls of Troy

We had accumulated six years of memories, Helen and I – of teaching each other our languages and laughing at the mistakes, of sharing patterns at the loom and and playing knucklebones with Laodice and Polyxena during the long afternoons. I still found such women’s games pointless. But I loved to listen to Helen’s stories, to hear her laughter. Even as angry as I was, I knew how I would miss her.

YA Novel
Pages: 199
First Published: 1996

Synopsis: Helen is renowned as the most beautiful woman in the world. Her divine beauty will lead her to a lifetime of adventure – from being kidnapped at age twelve, through her arranged marriage, to a passionate affair that will ultimately bring about the Trojan War.

Cassandra, the sister of Helen’s true love, has the gift, or curse, of predicting the future. When she foresees the ruin of her family and city, caused by Helen’s arrival in Troy, she is outraged. Yet Cassandra cannot help being drawn to Helen, and as the war rages around them, the two young women develop a deep friendship.

Through their eyes, the classic tale of the Trojan War and its mythic cast of heroes is romantically, grippingly told.

“Crazy woman!” he screamed. “How long must we endure your ravings? You would destroy a gift from the immortals?”
“You’re eating your last food!” I shouted back. “You’re already starting down a road used by ghosts.”

Review: Here it is, my friends. The entire reason I am a Trojan War fangirl. I bought this book when I was thirteen because I was surprised to see a novel about something we’d (briefly) talked about in my seventh grade social studies class. I read it in one day while I was home sick from school, and then I was awake half the night just thinking about it. Within a year, I had read at least four more books about the Trojan War and was pretty well hooked.

Fourteen years have passed since then, and while this book has always had pride of place as the book that started my interest in the Trojan War (and Greek mythology in general), I had never reread it. Now that I’m trying to (re)read and post about all of the Trojan War books I own (instead of buying new ones all the time as is my wont), I decided that it was time.

I guess it’s probably a good thing that my tastes have changed since I was thirteen, is the roundabout way I will begin this review. Let’s start with the positives. I like that it passes the Bechdel Test within the first two pages. I like its portrayal of Theseus, although he’s very much the sort of Theseus that could only exist in YA. This might be the only novel I’ve read so far where Polyxena and Helenus get to fulfill their roles as major influences on the course of the war, which is awesome, although I didn’t love how those storylines were handled. And in retrospect, I’m glad that the first Trojan War novel I read follows the mythology and the Iliad so closely; in that way at least, it’s a good introduction to the story.

Unfortunately, although all the important parts of the story are there, the novel suffers quite a bit from being so short. It covers thirteen years in less than two hundred pages, and only eighty of those pages are dedicated to the war from the arrival of the Greeks to the fall. The narration rushes from one event to the next and even major characters feel underdeveloped. My biggest complaint is about Paris. The book is narrated in the first person, with Helen narrating the first sixty-five pages and Cassandra the rest. Unfortunately, we barely see Paris from Helen’s point of view before we spend the rest of the book seeing him from Cassandra’s. Cassandra openly dislikes him, disapproves of his actions, and refers to him as “mean-spirited.” It’s frustrating to me that the book’s first narrator falls in love with someone we only see in a negative light. Even Helen speaks ill of him, as she does in the Iliad, and worse than that, she’s “afraid to be alone with him”! But we’re supposed to believe they’re in love? The only reasons given for their being together are a) Aphrodite decided they would be (but whether this book considers the gods to exist or not is unclear), and b) they look alike (I’m not joking). Maybe I wouldn’t be so bothered by all of this except that I’m tired of YA novels that try to convince us that their terrible relationships are beautiful and romantic.

Perhaps also due to the short length of the book, the worldbuilding is very sparse. The author’s note seems to indicate that McLaren did her research, but all that shows on the page is what the average person might know about the ancient world. Wine! Kohl! Spears! The geography is also very vague and there are whole scenes where we aren’t told where the characters are, which makes things hard to picture.

Another thing that struck me as weird comes when (SPOILERS??) Cassandra learns that Agamemnon has claimed her as his war prize:

“You’ve never even noticed him fighting his duels right below the gate where you stood,” Helenus was saying … “He’s been trying to get your attention for years.”

McLaren has just reduced the horror of Agamemnon taking Cassandra as his slave to Agamemnon trying out for the football team so that Cassandra will notice him.

So clearly I’m no longer as completely taken with Inside the Walls of Troy as I was when I was thirteen, but I think I’m okay with that. I will forever be grateful to this book for introducing me to the Trojan War, and I’ll be happy to pass it on in the hope that it will have a similar effect on another reader’s life.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

“Listen, girl, Menelaus will be an impeccable husband. He’s a good man, if somewhat lacking in imagination, and he loves you more than he should.” Theseus reached for my hands. “Here is the last piece of advice I’ll ever give you: Be satisfied with what you’ve got.”

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