Archive for ‘2000s’

March 4, 2014

Eric Shanower: “Age of Bronze: Sacrifice”

Age of Bronze: Sacrifice

Graphic Novel
Pages: 223
First Published: 2004

Synopsis: Twice winner of the Eisner Award for Best Writer/Artist, Eric Shanower presents Sacrifice, the second of seven volumes telling the complete story of the Trojan War.

Helen’s dreams come true when she arrives with Paris in the powerful city of Troy. But her triumphant entry is marred by Kassandra’s wild predictions of Troy’s doom. No one believes such ravings, but nevertheless, doom is on its way. From across the sea a massive army of ships and men approaches, seeking war with Troy.

But the army has its own troubles. A disastrous battle brings death to innocents, while the young warrior Achilles forges a bond that will shape his destiny. Odysseus longs for home in Ithaka, but finds himself drawn ever deeper into High King Agamemnon’s dark plots. And a prophecy of the Trojan priest Kalchas forces Agamemnon to choose between betraying the army or sacrificing his daughter’s life.

Drawn from the myths and legends of centuries, Sacrifice continues the tapestry of drama and action known as the Trojan War. Eric Shanower’s historically accurate illustrations and compelling dialogue propel this greatest of Greek epics into the twenty-first century.

Note: I am reviewing this book, Volume 2 in the series, because the artist sent me a free copy of Volume 3B. I am starting with the second book because my local library mysteriously doesn’t have the first. They also mysteriously seem to have decided that Sacrifice, which includes scenes of pedophilia, rape and incest, should be shelved in the children’s section. “It has pictures, therefore it’s for kids” seems to be the clueless line of reasoning there …

Review: The last thing I expected when I started this blog was that it would play a role in breaking down various preconceptions that I was not even aware I had. First Helen’s Daughter showed me that self-published books can be amazing; now Age of Bronze seems primed to teach me that I should not be so quick to dismiss American style graphic novels. Because, to be brutally honest, I did not expect to like this book. A quick flip through the pages showed me stilted dialogue and an art style that reminded me of the emotionless comic book versions of famous literature that were in my high school library. But when I finally sat down to read it, it only took about thirty pages for me to realize I was hooked. It’s been a while since a Trojan War book has sucked me in so thoroughly; I was extremely reluctant to put it down even when I realized it was two in the morning. Let’s explore why by devolving into point form and developing an overreliance on the word “impressed” …

· According to the back flap, Shanower has set for himself the goal of “combining the myriad versions of the Greek myth with the archaeological record to dramatically and visually present the complete story in authentic historical detail.” That is an intense goal and I was pretty skeptical about it at first. How can you possibly give enough attention to all of the material? To each storyline? To all of the necessary characters? How can you “combine the myriad versions” when they tend to contradict each other? I think this volume gave me a taste of how Shanower has been dealing with these issues and I am impressed so far with the balance he’s been able to bring to all the different elements of the story. I also noticed him taking the care to set up a few things for future storylines, which I definitely appreciate. The question of how one can claim “authentic historical detail” when dealing with the 3,000-year-old, quasi-mythological world of the Trojan War is not one I can answer, but, for what it’s worth, I was impressed by the sheer length of the bibliographies in the backs of these books. And, while I must admit I don’t know if this is historically accurate or not, I noticed that the Trojans are depicted quite differently in dress, hair and facial features than they usually are in modern visual representations. I very much enjoyed seeing Paris wear his Iliadic leopard skin. Seriously, no one ever lets him wear it!

· On a similar topic, there is one panel that has to be a reference to the famous vase painting of Achilles tending Patroclus’ wounds, and that is seriously awesome.

· The above panel occurs in one of the many scenes in this book that stars Telephus. Talk about characters you never see!!! I think it’s fantastic that he was included and even more fantastic that he was given enough screentime to become a really sympathetic character.

· Maybe this is a strange thing to comment on, but oh my goodness the transitions between scenes (or even different parts of scenes) are fantastic. They’re the sort of effortlessness that probably actually takes a lot of effort to achieve. There’s one scene early on where all the Trojan nobles have gathered to celebrate Helen and Paris’ wedding, and the reader is taken around the room to listen to the conversations of different groups and it all happens so smoothly and naturally that I didn’t even notice it was happening until the end of the scene. Like I said, maybe a strange thing to comment on, but I was really impressed by it.

· Most of my time spent with the Trojan War story is spent reading novels, so it was kind of exciting for me to see this book doing things that maybe only graphic novels can do. For example, the useless wind at Aulis is depicted with a constant “shshshsh” written underneath the panels that take place there – an immediate and constant reminder of the army’s plight. I was also impressed with the page in which all the nightmarish crimes of the House of Atreus are depicted as being tangled in Agamemnon’s hair, a really strong visual representation of his frustration with being unable to escape his family’s past. I am really looking forward to the other scenes like this that I am hoping will pop up in future volumes.

· Although I’m still not in love with the style of the art, it’s impressive how many distinct faces Shanower has been able to come up with, and I actually really like Agamemnon’s character design – the sharp lines of his face work especially well in the darkly lit scenes at Aulis. I also felt that the style of the dialogue improved as the book went on – either that or I simply got used to it. Either way, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed Sacrifice and will be reading the next volume as soon as I finish all the work I neglected because I didn’t want to stop reading this one …

Official Web Site: Age of Bronze
Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

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January 27, 2014

Scott Huler: “No-Man’s Lands”

No-Man's Lands

At the first stop the air was chilly, and the bus driver and I shared a smile. Perhaps I was in the care of Hermes, god of travelers. How would I know if Hermes had taken human form as a bus driver? What characteristics would the perfect bus driver have?

Non-fiction
Full Title: No-Man’s Lands: One Man’s Odyssey Through the Odyssey
Pages: 274
First Published: 2008

Synopsis: When NPR contributor Scott Huler made one more attempt to get through James Joyce’s Ulysses, he had no idea it would launch an obsession with the book’s inspiration: the ancient Greek epic the Odyssey and the lonely homebound journey of its Everyman hero, Odysseus.

No-Man’s Lands is Huler’s funny and touching exploration of the life lessons embedded within the Odyssey, a legendary tale of wandering and longing that could be read as a veritable guidebook for middle-aged men everywhere. At age forty-four, with his first child on the way, Huler felt an instant bond with Odysseus, who fought for some twenty years against formidable difficulties to return home to his beloved wife and son. In reading the Odyssey, Huler saw the chance to experience a great vicarious adventure as well as the opportunity to assess the man he had become and embrace the imminent arrival of both middle age and parenthood.

But Huler realized that it wasn’t enough to simply read the words on the page – he needed to live Odysseus’s odyssey, to visit the exotic destinations that make Homer’s story so timeless. And so an ambitious pilgrimage was born … traveling the entire length of Odysseus’s two-decade journey. In six months.

Huler doggedly retraced Odysseus’s every step, from the ancient ruins of Troy to his ultimate destination in Ithaca. On the way, he discovers the Cyclops’s Sicilian cave, visits the land of the dead in Italy, ponders the lotus from a Tunisian resort, and paddles a rented kayak between Scylla and Charybdis and lives to tell the tale. He writes of how and why the lessons of the Odyssey – the perils of ambition, the emptiness of glory, the value of love and family – continue to resonate so deeply with readers thousands of years later. And as he finally closes in on Odysseus’s final destination, he learns to fully appreciate what Homer has been saying all along: the greatest adventures of all are the ones that bring us home to those we love.

Part travelogue, part memoir, and part critical reading of the greatest adventure epic ever written, No-Man’s Lands is an extraordinary description of two journeys – one ancient, one contemporary – and reveals what the Odyssey can teach us about being better bosses, better teachers, better parents, and better people.

No shortage of places for the Odyssey pilgrim to visit, and once you’re on Ithaca, you can find them all. In fact, you can find each of them several different places and on several different islands. What, you thought that just because Odysseus lived on a Greek island called Ithaca and there’s still a Greek island called Ithaca that the search was over? Have you been paying no attention at all?

Review: I think my favourite thing about the above summary is how it tries to impress us with Huler’s plan to fit twenty years of travel into six months, conveniently forgetting to mention that for at least eighteen of those twenty years, Odysseus wasn’t moving.

In truth I don’t have much to say about No-Man’s Lands, but perhaps a shorter post once in a while isn’t a bad thing. Basically: I really, really enjoyed this book. It’s funny, intelligent and readable and I whipped through it in three days. I don’t always love modern travel literature, but happily this book avoided most of the annoyances I have with the genre. As a foreign language major, I am most excited to report that after only a few instances of “I went to a foreign country of my own volition and now I’m going to complain about not being able to read anything,” Huler made a good effort to speak to the locals in their own languages.

While I might not completely agree with Huler’s interpretations of Homer (e.g. I’m not entirely convinced that the Odyssey was intended to be a collection of lessons), I really enjoyed reading them. I liked his musings on why the Odyssey is still relevant, especially the passages where he compares it to various pop culture phenomena, and I got a kick out of his attempts to craft a Homeric epithet for himself.

Sprinkled throughout the book are summaries of the work that’s been done in an attempt to figure out where, exactly, Odysseus went. I find all of it really interesting but I can also appreciate Huler’s somewhat casual approach to the task of deciding which line of argument he should follow when choosing his destinations. After all, as he argues, perhaps it’s just not possible to figure out where a man who may or may not have existed may or may not have traveled, especially when we’re talking about a poem that includes a trip to the Underworld. Having said that, though, my favourite part of this book was learning a bit about how Odysseus has (or has not) made a mark on the areas he’s said to have passed through, and whether or not he’s still present in the minds of the people who live there.

Unfortunately, I do have a few complaints. I know that keeping Huler’s trip connected to the Odyssey is the point of the book, but there were definitely parts where it felt like a stretch to say “This reminded me of that part in the Odyssey when …” I would have been more than okay if Huler had written about his experiences without feeling required to compare every single one of them to the poem. I was also thrown off by a couple of his odder musings, most notably the one in which he claims that the reason men fight is because they can’t give birth. Because … that’s ridiculous.

I also felt that not including photos in this book was an odd choice. The edition I read included a few small (uncaptioned) photos on the title page; after that, Huler talked about taking pictures but none were included and there wasn’t even a note to encourage readers to check out the photo album on the book’s web site. I don’t know why the photos were left out of the book but I definitely missed them.

Even with those criticisms, I did really enjoy No-Man’s Lands, and it ended on a great line that still makes me smile when I think of it. My first thought when I finished reading the book was “I look forward to rereading that someday.” Whether or not I actually will is another question entirely, but still, I think that’s pretty high praise.

Also: the title is a pun. I mention this because I was halfway through the book before I realized it, and would like to save you from the same embarrassment.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Queen Anne’s lace grew in the weedy places, and the blossoms bob and twirl in the wind. For ten years that wind would have been the constant companion of Odysseus as he racked his brain to solve the impenetrable riddle of the conflict. Whether those ten years were fictional or real seemed utterly beside the point: The wind was real – eternal and real.

June 8, 2013

Fear Before the March of Flames: “Taking Cassandra to the End of the World Party”


Released: 2006
Album: The Always Open Mouth

Today’s musical interlude, “Taking Cassandra to the End of the World Party,” comes from experimental rock band Fear Before the March of Flames. As with many works based on the story of Cassandra, this song focuses on her inability to convince people that the future she sees will happen. I’ve listened to this song several times over the past year and I have never been able to decide what I think of it. The section that stands out to me the most begins at 1:10 and represents the other Trojans hurling insults and threats at Cassandra – an interesting idea although I don’t find it particularly pleasant to listen to. Perhaps this simply isn’t my kind of music? I actually think I like the unusual mixture of imagery found in the music video more than I like the actual song. I have a bit of a weakness for scenes in movies or music videos where the music builds behind images of characters moving or reacting slowly, so I really like the part at 1:47 where the song bursts out of the bridge accompanied by the simple image of Cassandra pouring a libation.

I have noticed a trend in which my fondness for these Trojan War-based songs grows about three sizes once I have written about them here, so perhaps by this time next week I will be in love with this one too. In the meantime, feel free to let me know what you think of it!

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

March 26, 2013

WarCry: “El guardián de Troya”


Released: 2004
Album: Alea Jacta Est

I really don’t remember how I found out about “El guardián de Troya,” a song by Spanish power metal band WarCry, but I’m glad I did because I quite like it! The lyrics are a little hokey, but if I want to listen to songs about the Trojan War I think I will just have to get used to that. I like everything else about the song and I especially enjoy the moody guitar at the beginning.

A search for this song on YouTube brings up several fanmade music videos that combine it with clips from Troy. I will link you to my two favourites: this one, which has the lyrics onscreen, and this one, which also includes audio from the movie’s Spanish dub.

I haven’t been able to find an English translation of the lyrics online, so if any of you would like me to whip one up just let me know in a comment. My Spanish is nothing extraordinary, but for my birthday I did receive a Siglo de Oro play that I intend to read for funsies. (Just in case you were afraid that Greek mythology was my only nerdy hobby.)

Buy it at: iTunes

March 23, 2013

Elizabeth Cook: “Achilles”

Achilles

Listen. Achilles never wanted to die.
Don’t think because Patroclus is dead he wants to die.

Novel
Pages: 107
First Published: 2001

Synopsis: Born of god and king and hidden as a girl until Odysseus discovers him, Achilles becomes the Greeks’ greatest warrior at Troy. Into his story comes a cast of fascinating characters—among them Hector, Helen, Penthiseleia the Amazon Queen, and the centaur Chiron; and finally John Keats, whose writings form the basis of a meditation on the nature of identity and shared experience. Achilles is an affirmation of the story’s enduring power to reach across centuries and cultures to the core of our imagination.

This armour fits three men and no one else:
Achilles, for whom it was made; Patroclus (who nevertheless cannot lift the great ash spear that goes with it) and … who else? What did you say?
WHO?

Review: I enjoyed this book quite a bit when I read it for the first time in 2009. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much the second time around. This could be because since then I have started this blog and thus started reading Trojan War-related works with a slightly more critical eye; it could also be because since then I have read The Song of Achilles, which covers roughly the same story but produced a much stronger emotional response from me. Achilles is a bit of an odd book; more a long prose poem than a short novel, and not so much about Achilles as the title would have you believe. Hopefully it is not too much of a spoiler to say that the last Achilles-focused chapter ends on page 70; following that is a chapter about Helen, a chapter about Chiron, and a chapter about … John Keats?? Allow me to devolve into point form and come back to that particular point later.

· I call Achilles a prose poem because of the structure of the book, but also because of the poetic style of the writing. I will confess that I’m not much for poetry and occasionally I find this kind of style grating, so most of my favourite passages are the less poetic ones. However, I did enjoy the connections that Cook’s more metaphoric language allowed her to make, and I also found it interesting when she broke away from conventional narrative writing (as in the short passage quoted above), so while I am glad I don’t have to read it all the time, I can’t say I dislike Cook’s style.

· It seems Cook expects her readers to already have a fairly solid knowledge of the Trojan War. While certain characters get a proper introduction, others do not, even in cases where a knowledge of their background is necessary to understand their actions. The book does include a Glossary of Classical Names, but it’s difficult for me to imagine anyone enjoying having to flip to it, especially when it sometimes only repeats the information already provided by the text. For example, the entry for Antielus reads: A Greek; one of those in the wooden horse. His only scene shows him inside the horse, so this is not exactly a surprise. Cook also occasionally mentions mythology that she doesn’t explain; for example, in describing Penthiseleia: Two breasts – the rumours aren’t true … This is a reference to the idea that the Amazons cut off their right breasts to allow their fighting arms a wider range of motion. Maybe this idea is better-known than I think it is, but either way it’s the sort of thing that Cook lets pass without explanation. As a result of all this, I find it difficult to recommend this book to people who don’t already know the story fairly well.

· Speaking of Penthiseleia (which I’m going to spell as Cook does for simplicity’s sake). I decided not to talk about her in my post on Olympos because in that book she was just one more example of the author treating his female characters terribly. But now please allow me to state for the record that I find the whole Achilles-falling-in-love-with-Penthiseleia-as-he-kills-her (or after-he’s-killed-her) thing really disturbing in a way that is not at all pleasant. I have no interest in reading a scene where a man admires a woman’s beauty as he takes her life and I really hope I don’t have to explain why. I know it’s a part of the mythology, and I think I could accept it if it were presented as evidence of how far gone Achilles is – if it’s told as part of the story of the undoing of Achilles’ good character – but I have yet to see it presented as such. So it does affect my opinion of this book that this scene is included but not treated as the completely messed up situation that it is.

(Of course, there is always the question of how much should an author change a myth in order to suit current ideas. I am usually very interested in discussing this topic, but the story of Achilles and Penthiseleia creeps me out so bad that in this case I don’t think I can.)

· Achilles fights the river Scamander in this book, which I mention just because this might be the only novel I’ve read where it happens. I mean, the scene is fine and all, but mainly I just love that it exists.

· This might be a spoiler so I’ll put it in white and you can highlight to read it: The fall of Troy is told mostly from Helen’s point of view, and interspersed with scenes from Theseus’s visit to Sparta. In this way, two major traumas from Helen’s life are told to us simultaneously. Cook’s language is poetic, but here it is also quite explicit, and uses unsettling metaphors to tie the two events together. While the nature of the events don’t exactly make for a pleasant read, I was really impressed by the way Cook connected them, and used them to portray Helen in a new light. This time around, this was my favourite section of the book.

· So the last chapter is about the poet John Keats, and I will confess right now that I don’t understand why. This chapter, which comes complete with quotes from Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” Chapman’s translation of the Iliad, and Keats’ own poetry, discusses the act of reading and what it is that connects us to the characters we read about. The ideas are interesting enough but the jump from Chiron’s chapter to Keats’ is such a jarring transition and I don’t know why Cook didn’t present these ideas through someone a little closer to Achilles. Does anyone want to read a book where the last chapter introduces an entirely new cast of characters? Maybe I expect this book to act more like a novel than Cook meant it to, or maybe my almost non-existent knowledge of Keats is preventing me from seeing an obvious reason for his inclusion, but as it is it’s difficult for me to see this chapter as anything other than an unrelated and disappointing end to the book.

· All in all, I’m not sure whether I recommend this book or not; the aspects I like are pretty evenly balanced out by the aspects I don’t like. I suppose that if it sounds like you’ll enjoy it, you should give it a try.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Always, throughout his life, bright faces moving away, disappearing behind curtains: his mother taken back in a curtain of water, Iphigeneia wrapped in flames, Patroclus’ face as it speaks to him these nights, folded in darkness. When Polyxena’s form is swallowed by the curtain at the entrance to the temple, he must go after. Layer on layer are here. Following this girl he follows them all – his mother, Iphigeneia, Penthiseleia, Patroclus – yes, and Hector too. He will pursue them all to the vanishing point but he must not lose sight of her.

January 10, 2013

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?”

May 6, 2012

Bettany Hughes: “Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore”

Helen of Troy  Helen of Troy

Exhibit no. 13396 in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens is a slightly larger-than-life-size statue of Paris, frozen at the moment the Trojan prince stretches out to offer the golden apple to Aphrodite. Even in the bustle of Athens’ busiest museum the Trojan prince commands attention. He challenges one to stop; a proud expression, perfect features. When I have been in the museum before opening hours, cleaners, fags dangling, who have swept past Paris at 5:00 a.m. for years, still pay him their respects with a nod and a sigh.

Non-fiction
Pages: 343
First Published: 2005

Synopsis: As soon as men began to write, they made Helen of Troy their subject; for close on three thousand years she has been both the embodiment of absolute female beauty and a reminder of the terrible power that beauty can wield. Because of her double marriage to the Greek King Menelaus and the Trojan Prince Paris, Helen was held responsible for an enduring enmity between East and West. For millennia she has been viewed as an exquisite agent of extermination. But who was she?

Helen exists in many guises: a matriarch from the Age of Heroes who ruled over one of the most fertile areas of the Mycenaean world; Helen of Sparta, the focus of a cult which conflated Helen the heroine with a pre-Greek fertility goddess; the home-wrecker of the Iliad; the bitch-whore of Greek tragedy; the pin-up of Romantic artists.

Focusing on the “real” Helen – a flesh-and-blood aristocrat from the Greek Bronze Age – acclaimed historian Bettany Hughes reconstructs the context of life for this elusive pre-historic princess. Through the eyes of a young Mycenaean woman, Hughes examines the physical, historical and cultural traces that Helen has left on locations in Greece, North Africa and Asia Minor. Vivid and compelling, this remarkable book brilliantly unpacks the facts and myths surrounding one of the most enigmatic and notorious figures of all time.

Homer’s poetry roars and whispers. He talks of passion and revenge and duty and disloyalty, of loss and love … At its most complex, [the Iliad] is an exploration of the relationship between gods and mortals, women and men, sex and violence, duty and desire, delight and death. It asks why humanity chooses paths it knows to be destructive; why we desire what we do not have.

Review: · According to the huge number of overwhelmingly positive reviews quoted on the cover of my copy of this book, more than a few people felt they knew Helen better after reading it. My experience was the opposite: after reading this book, I felt I knew Helen less. But I also think maybe that’s closer to the book’s point. If its focus were actually the Helen who might have existed in ancient Greece, as the synopsis above claims, then why would Hughes talk about any of the fictional Helens who were created long after she was gone? To me, this book was much more about exploring the way the Helen character has been portrayed across time, cultures, and media. I finished this book after a full evening of reading, and spent the rest of the night feeling as though all of these Helens who had been created truly existed, and all of them were the real one.

· I’m actually surprised I wasn’t left with that haunting impression more often, as I basically binge-read my way through this book. It’s clear that Hughes has spent years and years thoroughly researching this topic, but the result is that there is SO MUCH information on every page that I found it easier to keep reading than to stop and try to remember everything that had happened for when I picked the book up again later. The amount of knowledge on display here is impressive but for me personally it made for a tough reading experience. I often felt that the book moved on too quickly — before I’d had time to digest a point or figure out how it tied into everything else (or, on occasion, what it had to do with Helen at all), we were already on to something else. The short chapters in this book make for quick reading but I would not have minded at all if they had been longer, allowing more time for their arguments to develop.

· It isn’t until almost the very end of the book that Hughes clarifies her position on Homer. I wish she had done this much earlier, as I spent most of the book getting the vibe that she believed Homer to be the ~one true bard~ with an intimate knowledge of the real Helen and if only he’d written a little more about her we would be able to understand her completely.

· The book begins with the Minoans and ends in the Elizabethan Era. Two more modern interpretations of Helen — The Private Life of Helen of Troy and Troy — are mentioned, but only in the footnotes, and while the first receives vague praise the second is simply brushed off. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not about to claim that Troy is a cinematic masterpiece. But in ignoring the majority of the Helens created after 1700, Hughes seems to agree with a sentiment that I absolutely can’t agree with: that modern media is unworthy of serious study. Now, I admit that I might be reading something into this book that isn’t there at all, but as Hughes’ decision to end her book where she did goes unexplained it leaves me wondering. Why is every Helen up to a certain year worth exploring, but after that they’re not? Why are modern versions of Helen less valid or worthy of comment than the Helens of the past?

· Now that I’ve got my criticisms out, let’s round up what I enjoyed. I loved that Hermione got an entire chapter to herself, as did the portrayals of Helen in Elizabethan theatre. And Paris’s hotness got itself at least two pages, which was amazing. I very much enjoyed Hughes’ descriptions of her visits to the sites she mentions, as well as the museums where certain artifacts are kept. If she ever put out an entire book of these travel journal-type sections, I would definitely read it. I don’t really mean to be so negative about this book; I enjoyed it enough that one night I stayed up till four a.m. reading it. If you’re at all interested in Helen of Troy and the different ways she’s been portrayed throughout the centuries, you should definitely seek this book out.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

So Helen in her lifetime could well have walked the earth, light-footed. And after her death, memories and tales of this incandescent creature kept her spirit alive. Now that she is established as an immortal in the popular imagination, though, she becomes many things in the minds of men – a princess, a queen, a wife, a lover, a whore, a heroine, a star, a goddess of sex. And whatever her guises there is one constant – she is for ever Helen – ‘Eleni,’ the shining one.

April 22, 2012

Loreena McKennitt: “Penelope’s Song”


Released: 2006
Album: An Ancient Muse

I’ve been a fan of Loreena McKennitt since I was ten and have seen her in concert twice, but somehow it was only within the past month that I realized she has a song based on the events of the Odyssey. I think almost as soon as this song starts playing you can guess what you’re in for: a slower song in which the Penelope character sings about waiting for Odysseus. (See this page for the lyrics and a comment about the creation of the song.) To be honest, I think it’s pretty but it’s far from my favourite Loreena McKennitt song – and if you’re equally unimpressed, I feel compelled to point you towards “The Bonny Swans,” which is my favourite Loreena McKennitt song.

Oh, also, by the way, unrelated, here is my brand new ~Works Based on the Trojan War Drinking Game~!!

1) Take a drink every time you read/hear “wine-dark sea.”

… Yep, that’s pretty much it.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, iTunes, iTunes Canada

April 20, 2012

Blind Guardian: “And Then There Was Silence”


Released: 2002
Album: A Night at the Opera

I have a friend who is a huge fan of the power metal band Blind Guardian, and a few years ago she was kind enough to alert me to the fact that their song “And Then There Was Silence” is about the Trojan War. The song’s fourteen-minute running time and my general disinterest in metal meant that it took me an embarrassingly long time to listen to the whole thing, but now it has really grown on me. Some of the lyrics are a bit heavy-handed, but I think I’m just going to have to accept that as being typical of songs based on mythology – especially songs that are at least partly from the point of view of Cassandra! Anyway, my favourite lyrics of the song come from the sequence (that seems to be) describing the events leading up to Hector’s death:

We don’t regret it
So many men have failed but now he’s gone
Go out and get it
The madman’s head it shall be thine
We don’t regret it
That someone else dies hidden in disguise
Go out and get it
Orion’s hound shines bright

As you will see as this blog progresses, I can be very forgiving of a work’s other flaws if I like the way it handles Hector’s death, and I do like the way this song handles Hector’s death. I also quite like the closest thing the song has to a chorus (the bit that starts with “Misty tales and poems lost”), and the way the lyrics aren’t afraid to jump around in time. If you’re a bit confused by that last feature, then allow me to link you to a forum’s interpretation of the lyrics and a fan site’s interpretation. And if you happen to disagree with one or both of those, then leave me a comment because I’d love to know what others think of these lyrics!

Buy it at: Amazon.com

July 7, 2011

Dan Simmons: “Olympos”

Olympos  Olympos

Odysseus, son of Laertes, father of Telemachus, beloved of Penelope, favorite of Athena, clenches his fists and teeth against his fury and continues to pace the metal tunnels of this shell, this hell.
The artifices have told him that he is in a metal ship sailing the black sea of the
kosmos, but they lie. They have told him that they took him from the battlefield on the day the Hole collapsed because they seek to help him find his way home to his wife and son, but they lie. They have told him that they are thinking objects – like men – with souls and hearts like men, but they lie.

Sci-Fi Novel
Pages: 690
First Published: 2005

Synopsis: Beneath the gaze of the gods, the mighty armies of Greece and Troy met in fierce and glorious combat, scrupulously following the text set forth in Homer’s timeless narrative. But that was before one observer – Twenty-first Century scholar Thomas Hockenberry – stirred the bloody brew; before an enraged Achilles joined forces with his archenemy Hector; and before the fleet-footed mankiller turned his murderous wrath on Zeus, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, Apollo, and the entire pantheon of divine manipulators.

Now, all bets are off.

Dan Simmons, the multiple-award-winning author of the Hyperion Cantos, returns with the eagerly anticipated conclusion to his critically acclaimed, Hugo Award-nominated science fiction epic Ilium. A novel breathtaking in its scope and conception, Olympos ingeniously imagines a catastrophic future where immortal “post-humans” high atop the real Olympos Mons on Mars restage the Trojan War for their own amusement even while the sad remnants of mortal humankind are forced to confront their ultimate annihilation.

For untold centuries, those few old-style humans remaining on Earth have never known strife, toil, or responsibility, each content to live his or her allocated hundred years of life in unquestioning leisure. But virtually overnight and for reasons beyond their comprehension, the world around them has changed forever. The voynix – terrible and swift creatures that once catered to their every need – are now massing in the millions with but one terrifying purpose: the total extermination of the human race.

Having traveled farther and learned more of the wondrous and terrible truth of their world than any others of their kind, Ada and Daeman – with the aid of the crafty and mysterious warrior once called Odysseus, now called Noman – must marshal the pathetic defenses of Ardis Hall in anticipation of the onslaught of the muderous voynix. And they must do so without Harman, Ada’s lover and the father of her unborn child, who wanders the Earth on a great odyssey of his own. Harman seeks nothing less than the limitless knowledge necessary to defeat Setebos, an unspeakable, otherwordly monster who feeds on horror, and whose arrival heralds the end of all things.

And meanwhile, back on Mars …

The vengeful rebellion of Achilles – and the intervention of sentient robots from Jovian space, determined to prevent a potentially universe-obliterating quantum catastrophe – has set immortal against immortal, igniting a civil war among Olympian gods that may send all things in Heaven and Earth and everywhere in between plummeting straight to Hell.

A monumental work that blurs the often arbitrary line between great science fiction and serious literature, Dan Simmons’s Olympos – together with its extraordinary predecessor, Ilium – sets new standards for the genre, confirming his reputation as one of the most original authors currently working in the field of speculative fiction.

Don’t call me husband, damn you!”
Helen lifts her face. Her dark eyes are precisely the eyes Menelaus has dreamt of for more than ten years. “You are my husband. You always were. My only husband.”
He almost kills her then, so painful are these words.

My Thoughts: I finished reading Olympos in late October, but put off posting about it because I wasn’t sure what to say. Nine months later and I’ve forgotten large chunks of what happens in the book, so this might be an unusually short review.

When I came to the end of Ilium, I was so into the story that I started reading the sequel the very next day. I really enjoyed the first third or so of the book – one sequence especially, shown from Daeman’s point of view, is deliciously terrifying. (I’m actually surprised that I never had a nightmare about these books, because they definitely have their fair share of nightmare fuel.) And Oenone and Helenus, two oft-ignored characters whom I find fascinating, both make appearances, however brief. But the farther I got into Olympos, the less I liked it, and it wasn’t just the continuing abundance of typos that bothered me. Let’s devolve into point form and I’ll tell you what I didn’t like:

· Can I be bold and call it Simmons’ latent misogyny? Perhaps that’s going too far, but this book definitely features a male gaze that hates to be ignored and so forces its way into every scene it possibly can. Every time a new female character is introduced, she is accompanied by a description of her breasts. Sooner or later one of the male characters will call her a bitch, even in cases when she hasn’t even had a chance to do anything yet. This book features a scene in which a main character has to rape an unconscious stranger because the plot will come to a standstill if he doesn’t. Once conscious, the stranger is not bothered by this at all. Ada is the novel’s only female viewpoint character, but I guess I should be grateful even for that. My mind was blown when I realized that this novel passes the Bechdel Test – but it does so only because one female character begs another not to kill her, so really I’m not sure that even counts.

Oh, and don’t even ask me how I feel about Olympos’ treatment of Penthesilea.

· Simmons’ Zeus is perhaps my least favourite character ever, and so of course his scenes are the ones I most clearly remember. At least one of his scenes was so disgusting it has me wishing that brain bleach was an actual thing.

· Even more than the above complaints, I guess what really sealed my dislike of this novel is the way it fizzles out at the end. I didn’t even realize that the climax of the book was the climax of the book until suddenly I had reached the end and was looking back going, “Wait, that’s it?” Most annoying to me is that one storyline that seems like it’s gearing up for something big is left hanging as a really weak cliffhanger. I think this is one of those instances where I can kind of see what the author was trying to do in going with a quieter ending than I had been expecting, but I’m not convinced that he did it very well.

I should also mention, because after all this is a Trojan War blog, that while Olympos features characters from the Trojan War, very little in this novel has to do with the story of the Trojan War as it is usually told. I don’t consider this a criticism of the book because retelling the Trojan War by route was clearly not one of Simmons’ priorities. That’s totally fine, and there’s still a solid number of scenes in his version that offer interesting new possibilities or insights into the characters. It’s just that, as someone who only read these two books because of their connection to the War, I guess I wish the story hadn’t veered quite so far from the traditional version. Or I at least wish there’d been more Hockenberry, because in most of his scenes he was pretty awesome.

I will end this review by noting that Patroclus did not, in fact, swim across the Atlantic in order to get back to Troy, and that is a damn shame.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

“You goad me as if I have the power of a god, Pallas Athena,” whispers Achilles.
“You have always had the power of a god, son of Peleus,” says the goddess.