Archive for ‘books’

July 21, 2017

Mini-Reviews #3

Torn from TroyPatrick Bowman: Torn from Troy

YA Novel
Pages: 199
First Published: 2011

My Thoughts: Torn from Troy, the first book in the Odyssey of a Slave trilogy, tells the story of Alexi, a poor Trojan orphan. When Troy falls, Alexi is taken as a slave, accompanying Odysseus and his crew through the events of the Odyssey.

The main thing that stood out to me when I read this book was Bowman’s depiction of Troy at war. Not only is this book not at all about the Trojan royal family (only Cassandra – here called “Cassie” for some reason – puts in a brief appearance), but Bowman commits to writing his protagonist as a poor boy who’s lived nearly his whole life in a city under siege. The casual tone Alexi uses to talk about the terrible things he’s witnessed makes sense for the character in a way that I was absolutely not expecting from a book I found in the children’s section, so praise for that. The bruality of Alexi’s world continues after he’s taken as a slave by Odysseus – here called “Lopex” for some reason – although apart from that, there aren’t too many surprises in the narrative.

When I finished Torn from Troy, I figured I would continue with the trilogy, and so I read the first several chapters of the second book, Cursed by the Sea God. Unfortunately, this is where the trilogy fell apart for me. I have a pretty strong dislike for stories where the characters travel from one place to another, only spending enough time to get a superficial understanding of each one-dimensional place before moving on. (Is there a name for this kind of story? Let me know because I have no idea what to call it.) The story of Odysseus’s return home does more or less fit into this category, but the Odyssey plays enough with its structure and has enough other things going on that I think it’s one of the best examples of it.

In the first few chapters of Cursed by the Sea God, however, Bowman’s Odyssey retelling becomes everything I dislike about these travel stories. The characters arrive on Aeolia, an island with a dangerous secret! Well don’t worry, because it only takes Alexi about fifteen minutes to discover the secret and solve the problem. The solution is extremely simple and one of the first things you would think to try, and yet the people of Aeolia have suffered from this problem for years. Thank goodness Alexi came along and was able to solve it with the information he spent five minutes gathering.

This kind of story can work when you’re talking about heroes in mythology, but as a section in a trilogy that until that point had made an effort to be a realistic portrayal of the life of a slave in antiquity, it was very disappointing. There was no depth or complexity to the Aeolia chapters and it took me out of the story completely. But if you’re a fan of this kind of travel story – or if you’re in this trilogy’s target demographic – you’ll probably enjoy Odyssey of a Slave more than I did.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

~*~

Shin Toroia MonogatariTakashi Atoda: Shin Toroia Monogatari

Novel
Japanese Title: 新トロイア物語
Pages: 689
First Published: 1997

My Thoughts: (I admit it’s a bit weird to post about a Japanese novel on an English language blog when that novel has not been translated into English. Read on if you’d like a glimpse inside this retelling from another part of the world …)

Shin Toroia Monogatari – the title can be parsed as either The New Story of Troy or The Story of New Troy – follows Aeneas from his childhood to his death, covering both the events of the Trojan War and the quest to build a new Troy. For the longest time, the uninspired cover image, the dry lecture of an opening paragraph, and my mistaken belief that Atoda usually wrote non-fiction had me believing that this novel would be little more than a by-the-book retelling of the Trojan War myth. Now that I’ve finally gotten my Japanese to a level where I was able to read the whole thing (with a dictionary to help me here and there), I was happy to discover how wrong I was. Atoda plays with the story plenty, and for the most part this book was a really surprising, really interesting read.

There are light SPOILERS in the paragraphs below!

My favourite thing about this book, believe it or not, is its Paris. Paris is not usually one of my favourite characters, but I loved him here. His decade-long absence from Troy is made into something of a mystery – did Priam send him away as punishment for something, or did he leave because he wanted to? – so that you’re not quite sure what to make of him when he reappears. And he’s a bit of a jerk at first, flat-out telling a young Aeneas that Aphrodite has only been declared Aeneas’s mother because Aeneas’s father paid the oracle to say so. But as soon as I got to the brutally honest ramble in which he lists all his flaws and compares them to Hector’s virtues, making Aeneas promise that he’ll choose Hector if he ever has to choose between the two of them, I was sold. This Paris is just as imperfect as he usually is, but just having him be aware of it and honest about it really endeared me to him.

I also really liked this book’s version of the death of Achilles. Achilles is killed in the night, and Aeneas has every reason to believe that Paris did it as revenge for Hector’s death. But when Aeneas goes to ask Paris about it, Paris laughs it off as the work of the gods. His refusal to take credit for the best thing he ever does for his city – for the brother he knew was the better person – is excellent, I love it. New favourite Paris.

My second favourite thing about this book will come as no surprise: I really enjoyed the scene where Aeneas visits Helenus and Andromache after the war. The way their excitement at seeing each other again transitions into tension between Aeneas, who believes Helenus is duty-bound to go with him to rebuild Troy, and Helenus, who has put Troy behind him and started a new life, is fantastic. I love how Aeneas seems to think that “You’re a prince of Troy” is the only reason Helenus should need for joining Aeneas on his journey, and how he never seems to fully understand why Helenus turns him down.

Unfortunately, after Aeneas and Helenus parted ways, my enjoyment of the book slowly but steadily declined, to the point where I had to force myself through the last hundred pages. I think the main reason for this is that Atoda’s Aeneas is a pretty empty character. He is “pious Aeneas” but not much else. During the first half of the book, where he acts as our viewpoint character for the events in Troy, he reacts so little to what happens around him that I often forgot he was there. On top of that, it really feels like all of the potentially interesting challenges Aeneas encounters are quickly wrapped up with an “Ah well, I’m sure I did the right thing.” As the story goes on and the more interesting characters are left behind, we enter Atoda’s version of the Latium conflict, where all of the new characters are either completely good or completely evil. It doesn’t help that everyone in this section speaks in such overly polite language that the scene in which Aeneas confesses his love to Lavinia felt to me like some kind of parody. I’ve read a few Japanese reviews of this book and none of them have mentioned this section at all, so it may very well be that it didn’t work for me because I’m not a member of the culture that it was written for – in the author’s note, Atoda does admit that he feels his Aeneas is a modern Japanese man dropped into the ancient world – but I found it pretty tough to get through. (Not that that stopped me from tearing up a little when the last pages of the book started echoing the first pages of the book …)

Although the last hundred pages did diminish my enthusiasm for Shin Toroia Monogatari, overall I did really enjoy it and all the surprises it offered. So far it’s the only Japanese retelling of the Trojan War I’ve found that allows its author some creative license. I’ll keep my eye out for another.

Buy it at: Amazon.co.jp, BookLive (where you can also preview the first fourteen pages in your browser)

Advertisements
November 20, 2014

Mini-Reviews #1

All three of the books in this post are worthy of having a big long rambling post to themselves. Alas, I have been terrible at staying on top of my reviews this year, with the result that I have forgotten much of what I wanted to ramble about! So, with apologies to my readers and to the authors below, I present my first (hopefully of very few) post of mini-reviews.

~*~

Cassandra Princess of TroyHilary Bailey: Cassandra, Princess of Troy

Novel
Pages: 325
First Published: 1993

My Thoughts: I reread this book in January and put off posting about it forever because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to properly express how much I love it. The first time I read it, I declared it to be my favourite Trojan War novel. Now I would perhaps say it is my second favourite (after The Song of Achilles, which chewed up my emotions and spat them back out), but it is a very close second.

The novel is narrated by Cassandra, who has survived the war and is living in Greece. The chapters alternate between her present life and her memories of the war, although later in the book there are also chapters from Clytemnestra’s point of view. Occasionally, there are also one-shot chapters narrated by other characters, which actually might be my least favourite part of the book because it’s never explained how these chapters ended up in what is supposed to be Cassandra’s memoir.

Ignoring those questionable one-shot chapters, one of the things I love most about this book is how realistic it feels. Bailey’s Troy is smaller and less imposing than it’s usually portrayed, the lives of the princes not as glamorous (Hector works on a farm!), and the focus on the royal family not as tight. Regular citizens are mentioned frequently, which helps the city feel more populated and alive. Some of the novel’s most haunting images are of regular people struggling to survive a war. Bailey’s depiction of the city under siege is fantastic – she considers even the smallest details and uses them to ground her story in reality. We see characters going hungry, turning on each other, facing danger every time they leave the city. I also like how committed Bailey is to keeping Cassandra’s viewpoint realistic. Well that probably doesn’t at all say what I want it to, but what I mean is I really like how some of the most famous events of the Trojan War are described in just one sentence, because Cassandra wasn’t there to witness them.

I also really like Paris in this book, which is something I rarely get to say! I think Bailey builds him up just enough as a good older brother in the beginning that I was able to feel sympathy for him later.

Cassandra, Princess of Troy is a book I recommend without reserve.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

~*~

How to Stage Greek Tragedy TodaySimon Goldhill: How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today

Non-fiction
Pages: 248
First Published: 2007

My Thoughts: The title of this book might lead you to think it’s a strict step-by-step guide, but it isn’t at all. The book is divided into six chapters, each covering a major issue that must be considered by anyone staging a modern production of a Greek tragedy. As listed on the back of the book, these six issues are: “the staging space and concept of the play; the use of the chorus; the actor’s role in an unfamiliar style of performance; the place of politics in tragedy; the question of translation; and the treatment of gods, monsters, and other strange characters of the ancient world.” Goldhill discusses how each of these would have been handled in their original context, then analyzes the approaches taken by a variety of recent productions in the U.S. and western Europe. He pretty plainly states which productions he thinks were successful and which he thinks failed, but I really liked reading about all of them – it definitely made me want to watch more Greek tragedy!

This book’s writing style is a bit of an odd mix of ~fairly casual~ and ~so academic I had to put effort into understanding it~, but it still grabbed me enough that I finished it in a weekend. Goldhill brings up a lot of points that I had never considered before, and I think I learned just as much about how Greek tragedy was originally performed as I did about how it might be performed today. The chapter that surprised me the most was the one about translation; I had never even realized that a translation style might be chosen based on the director’s overall goals for the production. Goldhill shows us three different translations of Cassandra’s speech from Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon,” and I was kind of fascinated by the three completely different styles. I never thought there could be so many different possibilities in the translation alone!

I also liked that Goldhill interviewed people who have been involved in modern productions of Greek tragedy. He quotes two different actresses talking about how sick they were after finishing a run as the title character in Sophocles’ “Electra”! Another thing I never realized is how intense that role must be.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

~*~

David A. Traill: Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit

Non-fiction
Pages: 365
First Published: 1995

My Thoughts: This is a biography of Heinrich Schliemann, and somehow I think it’s the first proper Schliemann biography I’ve actually read?! How did that happen??

I would not be surprised if this book is a controversial one, seeing as how it takes one of the most famous archaeologists in history and shows him in a less than flattering light. Having said that, however, I really think Traill is careful to treat Schliemann as fairly as possible, and I don’t think his goal in writing this book was to tarnish Schliemann’s name. He provides sources for everything he says, most of them from Schliemann’s own writings. One thing I really liked about this book is how frequently Traill quotes primary sources. He is constantly examining and comparing Schliemann’s diary, his letters, his published books, and the writings of his friends, family, and colleagues in an attempt to figure out where Schliemann was telling the truth and where he was fudging or fabricating. The book includes large portions of these primary sources so readers can examine them as well. I can’t claim to be an expert on Schliemann, but I found Traill’s interpretations very thorough and convincing. I can’t recommend this book if you want to like Schliemann, but I got a lot out of it and enjoyed reading it.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

September 15, 2014

Margalit Fox: “The Riddle of the Labyrinth”

The Riddle of the Labyrinth

Non-fiction
Full Title: The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
Pages: 346
First Published: 2013

Synopsis: In 1900, while excavating on Crete, the charismatic Victorian archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed inscribed clay tablets amid the ruins of a lavish Bronze Age palace. Written by palace scribes circa 1450 B.C., the script they displayed – featuring outline drawings of swords, chariots, and horses’ heads, as well as other tiny pictograms – resembled no alphabet ever seen. Evans named the script Linear B, and from the start it posed a deep mystery. No one knew what language Linear B recorded, much less what the curious inscriptions meant. If the tablets could be deciphered, they would open a portal onto a refined, wealthy, and literate society that had flourished in Greek lands three thousand years earlier, a full millennium before the glories of the Classical Age.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth is the true story of the quest to solve one of the most mesmerizing riddles in history – Linear B – and of the three brilliant, obsessed, and ultimately doomed investigators whose combined work would eventually crack the code. […] Following the three investigators as they hunt down, analyze, and interpret a series of linguistic clues hidden within the script itself, The Riddle of the Labyrinth offers the first complete account of one of the most fascinating conundrums of all time.

Review: So you may have guessed that this book is not very much about the story of the Trojan War! But it’s about a Bronze Age script and it mentions the war enough that I feel justified posting about it, although in a rather shorter post than usual.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth tells the story of the decipherment of Linear B by following its three major players: archaeologist Arthur Evans, professor Alice Kober, and architect Michael Ventris. According to its introduction, this book is “the first complete account of the decipherment,” filling in what was previously unknown about Alice Kober’s years of work on the script. All three sections of the book are interesting, but I especially enjoyed reading about Kober and how dedicated she was to the decipherment at a time when it surely couldn’t have been easy to be a female scholar. I really appreciated how Fox handles this section, especially the way in which she only briefly mentions Kober’s apparent lack of interest in traditionally “feminine” goals, doesn’t disparage her for it, and then never brings it up again. Awesome!!

Before reading this book, I glanced at a couple reviews that suggested that a background in Linguistics would help readers to understand the discussions of the decipherment. I happen to have such a background, but I think what was more helpful was my familiarity with Japanese, a language that uses syllabic writing systems similar to the syllabic writing system Linear B turned out to be (spoiler?). But this book is definitely written for the general reader, and Fox includes enough explanation that I don’t think there’s any reason to worry. I suspect that anyone who’s interested in reading this book will have little problem understanding it.

As a big fan of Bronze Age Greece and an even bigger fan of languages, I super enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about how one goes about deciphering an ancient script and it was fascinating to read about the kind of perseverance the process requires. I even nerdily enjoyed reading the correspondence between scholars discussing their theories about Linear B. If any of the above appeals to you, I suspect Riddle of the Labyrinth will be as unputdownable for you as it was for me.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

August 4, 2014

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.”

July 24, 2014

Eric Shanower: “Age of Bronze: Betrayal, Part Two”

Age of Bronze: Betrayal, Part Two

Graphic Novel
Pages: 175
First Published: 2013

Synopsis: Winner of five Eisner Awards, including Best Writer/Artist in both 2001 and 2003, and the Gran Guinigi for Best Serial Comic 2006, Eric Shanower presents part two of Betrayal, the third of seven volumes telling the complete story of the Trojan War.

Ships hit the beach. Battle cries ring out. Warriors leap ashore to meet the chariots of the mighty Trojan army. Achilles and his cousin Ajax clash with the Trojan prince Hektor and his ally, King Sarpedon of Lykia. Dust rises as men fall dead, all for the sake of one woman, Helen, who watches the Trojan War from high on the walls of Troy, safe for the present.

Within the walls, conniving Pandarus hopes to avoid paying for his brother’s betrayal of the Trojans. But how? Perhaps Pandarus can gain royal protection by persuading his niece Cressida to accept the love of the Trojan prince Troilus. But she’s reluctant.

The war waits for no one. Its bloody claws close tight around both Troilus and Cressida, forcing each of them to face choices neither would have imagined before the Trojan War began. Troilus’s understanding of existence cracks open, while Cressida must choose whose bed she’ll share.

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

Note: I am reviewing this book because the artist sent me a free copy.

Review: I really enjoyed Sacrifice and Betrayal, Part One, two of the previous volumes in the Age of Bronze series, so I was looking forward to reading Betrayal, Part Two. Unfortunately, I don’t think it lives up to the level of its predecessors.

The most prominent storyline in this volume is that of Troilus and Cressida. A lot of space is devoted to it and it progresses much farther than I would have expected. I feel a little odd criticizing this without having any idea how the story is going to unfold in later volumes, but I would have preferred to spend less time with them. This is the book where the Trojan War really starts, but so little time is spent on the war that it loses a lot of its impact. I might not have minded this so much except that the time that might have been spent on the war is instead spent on two characters I don’t really care about. Troilus has very little personality besides his constant pining and Cressida, although the more interesting of the two, has a literal change of heart that completely changes her motivations within the space of a few pages. This made it difficult for me to empathize with either of them. I will admit, though, that I was really glad that Cressida’s motivations were made clear and I was glad that she has an actual reaction to the Greek kings when she arrives in the camp; Shakespeare leaves both of those areas pretty vague, and with appropriate embarrassment I must admit that, apart from Age of Bronze, Shakespeare’s is the only version of the Troilus and Cressida story that I’ve read so far.

I have one more criticism of the Troilus and Cressida storyline that might not be valid, but that bothered me enough that I have to mention it. The back flap of this book tells us that Age of Bronze is Shanower’s attempt to tell the story of the Trojan War “in authentic historical detail.” Yet there’s a scene that’s a recreation of the part in Shakespeare where Troilus, Cressida and Pandarus talk about how future generations will remember their names. Of course, telling the story of the Trojan War as it authentically, historically happened is basically impossible, and perhaps the “authentic historical detail” is only meant to refer to the visuals. But it seems odd to me to make a claim like that and then lift a scene from a relatively recent playwright who is not exactly known for his historical accuracy. I would be ready to just shrug this off except that the scene ends with Pandarus’s line: “All those who selflessly exhaust themselves by going between should be called Pandars.” As far as I can tell, this is a wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort of line that only works if your audience is made up of speakers of modern English, and so perhaps not something that a historical Pandarus might have actually said. This is absolutely a nitpick but, to be fair, I did predict that as I continued to review Age of Bronze I would start nitpicking …

Now for what I liked!

I really have to praise the character designs in Age of Bronze. There’s a ton of characters but somehow they manage to be pretty distinct. I read this volume a couple months after I read the previous volume, but even so, the number of characters I recognized right away far outnumbered those I didn’t. I also continue to be impressed with the transitions between scenes; my favourite in this volume smoothly takes us from nighttime in Troy to morning in the Greek camp. It’s followed by several pages where the panels on the left are scenes on the battlefield and the panels on the right are other scenes. I really love how this alternating pattern not only shows the passing of time but also moves the various storylines forward really efficiently.

Unrelated to the story, this cover is my favourite of the volumes so far, and I also really like how two pages at the back of the book are dedicated to encouraging readers to help preserve the archaeological sites.

Even though I didn’t love Betrayal, Part Two, I didn’t dislike it, and I have no reason to doubt that future volumes will return to the high standard set by Sacrifice and Betrayal, Part One. If you’re interested in reading a graphic novel retelling of the Trojan War (and don’t mind a bit of a wait till future issues), I definitely recommend Age of Bronze.

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

June 8, 2014

Josephine Angelini: “Goddess”

Goddess  Goddess

YA Novel
Pages: 421
First Published: 2013

Synopsis: Can you change your fate?

The gods’ thirst for war already has a body count – and Helen is plagued with visions of destruction. She must find a way to imprison them once again, or risk unleashing immeasurable chaos.

Her powers are increasing – and so is the distance between Helen and her mortal friends. Uncertain whether to fear or revere her, the once-solid group divides.

To make matters worse, the Oracle reveals that a dangerous Tyrant is lurking among them … and all fingers point to Orion. Still unsure whether she loves him or Lucas, Helen is forced to make a terrifying decision, for an all-out war is coming to her shores.

Starcrossed and Dreamless are international bestsellers. Now Josephine Angelini delivers a thrilling conclusion to this epic trilogy of love, hate, revenge, and fate. With worlds built just as quickly as they crumble, a goddess must rise above it all in a final battle to change a destiny written in the stars.

Spoiler-Free Review: Goddess is the third novel in the Starcrossed trilogy, which I’ve been reviewing here because it kind of sort of uses the story of the Trojan War as a base from which to launch its own story. When I read Starcrossed, the first book, I was baffled by its popularity but kind of amused by all its blatant similarities to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. I thought the second book, Dreamless, was more original and more interesting, but I was frustrated by Lucas’s violent treatment of Helen as well as by the fact that most of the story only happens because of a lie that the readers know is a lie. Reading Goddess, I think I passed through bafflement and frustration and reached a point where this series genuinely makes me angry. Because … it’s terrible.

As usual, I must confess that there were a few things I liked, and here they are: Matt’s first few scenes. Morpheus’s two appearances. Some of the more fantastical settings that ensure that, if the rumoured movies do get made, they should at least be nice to look at. And … that’s about it.

This book reads like a hastily written first draft. Every action and every line of dialogue is overexplained; like both books before it, cutting out all the unnecessary exposition would make the book at least a hundred pages shorter. Plot threads are left half-finished. The main characters are unlikeable. There are too many characters who contribute nothing to the plot. Important scenes focus on characters the readers barely know and don’t care about. None of the main characters ever face any real risk or consequence. The original mythology is simultaneously vague and overcomplicated. The Greek mythology is changed so much that I’m not sure why it was used. The tone and register are all over the place. Characters frequently do things they were adamantly opposed to doing no more than a chapter before, with no reason given as to why they changed their mind. Characters develop powers out of the blue and then never use them. The narration awkwardly jumps from the mind of one character to the mind of another for no good reason. And – my least favourite point of all – an abusive relationship is portrayed as the truest of true loves.

There are some good ideas buried below all the first draftiness of this book, and a ruthless edit and rewrite could have improved it immensely. I have no idea why this series didn’t receive that treatment – surely this book had an editor, right? what did she even do? fix typos?? – but the fact seems to be that it didn’t. As it is, then, I don’t recommend Goddess or either of its predecessors at all.

SPOILERIFFIC!! Review: Let’s explore some of my above criticisms through examples from the text.

read more »

May 7, 2014

Jon Solomon: “The Ancient World in the Cinema”

The Ancient World in the Cinema

Non-fiction
Pages: 326
First Published: 2001 (revised and expanded edition)

Synopsis: This entertaining and useful book provides a comprehensive survey of films about the ancient world, from The Last Days of Pompeii to Gladiator. Jon Solomon catalogues, describes, and evaluates films set in ancient Greece and Rome, films about Greek and Roman history and mythology, films of the Old and New Testaments, films set in ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, films of ancient tragedies, comic films set in the ancient world, and more. The book has been updated to include feature films and made-for-television movies produced in the past two decades. More than two hundred photographs illustrate both the films themselves and the ancient sources from which their imagery derives.

Review: As the synopsis says, this book sets out to catalogue, describe and evaluate every non-documentary film that fits into one of its chapters: Greek and Roman History; Greek and Roman Mythology; the Old Testament; the New Testament; Babylon, Egypt, Persia, and the Ancient Orient; Ancient Tragedy and The Satyricon; Ancient Comedy and Satirized Ancients; and the Muscleman Epics. This includes films silent and sound, American and overseas, Hollywood and made-for-TV. Although it’s a little out of date now (the most recent movie it mentions is 2000’s Gladiator), the book’s large scope ensures that it remains a fantastic resource for anyone interested in the genre.

I do want to mention that this is not a book I recommend reading cover-to-cover unless you feel particularly inclined to do so. Before I started reading it, I expected it to be a book of film analysis, but it really isn’t. The closest it comes to analysis is in the muscleman chapter, where Solomon attempts to describe the plot of every muscleman film in one go. The rest of the time, depending on how much he has to say about a particular film, he’ll introduce it, talk a bit about what went on behind the scenes, describe the plot and any scenes he finds especially important, comment on how the film compares with what we know of the history it’s based on, and then give his evaluation. (If you want to skip all that, you can flip to the list of film titles, ordered by subject, in the back of the book.) Absolutely this book is a great resource, but it makes for dry reading if you try to read it all the way through. I also think that the fact that Solomon started this book in the 1970s really shows in the way he describes the films. Now that it’s easy to watch movies at home, it isn’t necessary for an author to devote three pages to a thorough description of the chariot race from Ben-Hur. If Solomon decides to release a third edition, I think it would make sense to shorten the scene summaries for movies that are widely available.

One thing I do really like about this book, however, is Solomon’s stance that “historical accuracy and artistic necessity belong to different families.” He has no problem praising a historically inaccurate film if he feels it’s successful as a film – a breath of fresh air when so many people seem to believe that “this movie deviates from its source” is the exact same thing as “this is a bad movie.”

Since this is a Trojan War blog, I should perhaps mention that pages 103 to 111 and 263 to 268 are the pages to check out for movies about the Trojan War and its aftermath. I was surprised to learn that there are a few I haven’t seen yet! I’m really looking forward to watching them, as well as more than a few other movies introduced to me by this book, which I definitely recommend as a solid reference book for anyone interested in movies about the parts of the ancient world that it covers.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

May 4, 2014

Valerio Massimo Manfredi: “Heroes”

Heroes The Talisman of Troy

He walked away, and Telemachus scampered after him. ‘Tell me,’ the boy said, ‘have you seen him of late? What does he look like? What does my father look like?’
Diomedes stopped for a moment. ‘He looks like you imagine him. When you see him, you’ll recognize him.’

Novel
Original Title: Le Paludi di Hesperia
Alternate Title: The Talisman of Troy
Pages: 275
First Published: 1994 (in Italian), 2004 (in English)

Synopsis: A castaway tossed onto a deserted beach is the last survivor of a world that no longer exists. He has a terrible, fascinating story to tell – the true reason for which the Trojan War was fought … The protagonist of this tale is Diomedes, the last of the great ancient Greek Homeric heroes, who seeks to return to his beloved homeland after years of war against Troy. But destiny has other plans for him. Betrayed by his wife, who plots to murder him, and persecuted by hostile gods, he has no choice but to turn his sails west, towards Hesperia, the mysterious mist-shrouded land that will one day be called Italy. He ventures boldly into this new world, for he carries with him the magic Talisman of Troy, a mysterious, powerful idol that can make the nation that possesses it invincible …

‘A goddess once mounted my chariot and fought at my side,’ he said. ‘Do you believe me?’
The girl came closer. ‘If you believe it then I believe you,’ she said.
‘No, you don’t believe me,’ said Diomedes. ‘For the man you see before you is not the same, and this land is not the same and not even the sky is the same.’

Review: The above is a bit of an odd summary in that it ignores the novel’s entire second storyline. I feel I should at least let you know that Clytemnestra, Menelaus, Orestes and Pyrrhus have important roles in this book, and Helen and Aeneas also make decently sized appearances.

· First, my compliments to the translator, Christine Feddersen-Manfredi. The style of this book is solid and includes some really beautiful lines. If I hadn’t already known it was a translation, I don’t think I ever would have guessed.

· I can be really picky about dialogue, and when I first started this book I was a little irritated by how characters often said more at once than is realistic. It took me longer than it should have to realize that Manfredi, in these longer speeches, is imitating Homeric dialogue. And then I realized that he actually does it quite well! Again, the style of this book is pretty great.

· There’s a number of scenes near the beginning of the book that include strong supernatural elements, many of which are pretty creepy. It’s been a while since I read a Trojan War novel with such overt fantasy in it and I enjoyed these scenes. Unfortunately, they show up less and less as the story progresses – which would be fine, except for all the unanswered questions this leaves. One supernatural event that I thought was going to drive the plot was instead just abandoned without explanation.

· I really liked this book’s discussions of how the world around these characters is changing and how sharply their current way of life contrasts with the way they lived in the past. There’s a great scene where Diomedes is excited to run into a Trojan because he’s been longing to find someone who’ll follow the rules of the world he used to inhabit, the rules that make sense to him. As someone with an interest in culture shock, I found this fascinating. There are also hints here and there that, as the years pass, the characters begin to feel like nothing they did at Troy ever even happened. That was also really interesting.

· So Penelope is introduced with the line “her breasts were high and firm like all the women of Sparta.” Yes, unfortunately this is another book where female characters are rarely introduced without a description of their breasts. Anyway, if this ~all Spartan women have the same breast shape and placement~ thing is a part of the mythology of Sparta that I just haven’t heard of till now, I’m okay with ignoring it, but if this is Manfredi’s invention then I wonder why he picked a body part notorious for changing size and shape due to age, menstruation, pregnancy, nursing, exercise, clothing, and basically everything ever.

· This book begins with Aigialeia betraying Diomedes and Clytemnestra killing Agamemnon; they then team up and try to convince other queens to turn against their kings. I don’t have a problem with this storyline in theory but I’m not a fan of the way this book handles it. There’s no real exploration of these characters’ motivations, no real insight into their thoughts or actions. They’re little more than one-dimensional villains. This also sets up a bit of a dynamic where female characters who follow and obey male characters are portrayed as good and sympathetic and female characters who don’t are portrayed as evil. The only female character who does her own thing and isn’t vilified for it doesn’t even get a name. I would have appreciated a slightly more nuanced approach to the women in this novel.

· There are two revelations, both related to the aforementioned “true reason for which the Trojan War was fought,” that come near the end of the book. I could tell that the novel was leading up to them for a while and so I expected them to have a major impact on the plot. But … they didn’t. They were mentioned, accepted, and forgotten about and I’m not sure what the point of either of them was.

· I don’t want to be too hard on this book because I don’t think it’s that bad and I can see someone enjoying it. But it just really wasn’t my kind of book. It took me a long time to get interested in the story because so much of the first half featured Diomedes wandering around aimlessly, which is not a type of story that I really enjoy. I started to get into it in the second half, when more was happening and more characters were involved, but the closer I got to the end the more rushed everything became and the more unanswered questions I realized I was going to be left with. I suspect the final scene was supposed to be solemn and moving but I found myself laughing while reading it because it happened so quickly and, to be brutally honest, it made me wonder what the point of the novel was. Like, I’m not sure what the point of reading so many pages of aimless wandering was if that was going to be the conclusion. I didn’t hate this book but I didn’t love it, either. It was neither a joy nor a slog to read. I think in the end I just feel indifferent towards it.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Diomedes hid his face in his cloak. ‘Oh great Atreid!’ he murmured to himself. ‘Watch your back! We are no longer beside you, we are no longer … we are no longer.’

April 28, 2014

Eric Shanower: “Age of Bronze: Betrayal, Part One”

Age of Bronze: Betrayal, Part One

Graphic Novel
Pages: 175
First Published: 2008

Synopsis: Winner of two Eisner Awards (Best Writer/Artist 2001 and 2003) and the Gran Guinigi (Best Serial Comic 2006), Eric Shanower presents part one of Betrayal, the third of seven volumes telling the complete story of the Trojan War.

High King Agamemnon is bent on conquering Troy and recovering his brother’s beautiful wife, Helen. But first, Agamemnon’s army must pass the island of Tenedos. Spears fly and men die. When the dust settles, the young warrior Achilles finds himself another step closer to his tragic fate.

During the feast of victory, a snake bites Philoktetes on the foot. His cries of pain are so loud and long that the army can’t stand having him around. Leave it to Odysseus to find a solution to the problem, a solution that satisfies the army but doesn’t sit quite so well with Philoktetes.

Meanwhile, the Trojans muster their strength. Happy events such as Hektor’s marriage to Andromache merely mask the fear growing behind Troy’s walls. Can a peace embassy from Agamemnon’s army hold out any hope? Even Helen dreads to face what lies ahead.

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

Note: I am reviewing this book, Volume 3A in the series, because the artist sent me a free copy of Volume 3B. You may or may not be interested to know that, while my local library decided to shelve the previous volume in the children’s section, this one they shelved in the teen section. I think that’s a much better fit for the series as a whole but I have no idea why the difference. Because this volume has swearing in it … ???

Review: Age of Bronze in its entirety is projected to be seven volumes long, which makes me worry that I am going to run out of things to say about it. I have a terrible vision of my review of Volume 7 being nothing but critiques of how a character’s eyebrows are drawn. My general comments about this volume are basically the same as my comments about Sacrifice – I am still impressed by the research and intrigued by the depictions of the characters, and although neither the writing nor the art are that appealing to me on their own, combined they somehow created a book that I couldn’t put down.

· American comic books don’t have the best reputation when it comes to their portrayals of female characters and I admit that I was nervous about that when I began reading this series. I am happy to say that I have been pleasantly surprised. A decent number of female characters – including Thetis, Cressida, Andromache, and Hecuba – look like they’ll be getting larger roles than usual, and characters like Helen and Cassandra who usually get a decent amount of screen time look like they’ll be keeping it. (I’m curious to see how Thetis being in the Greek camp the whole time plays out.) This volume also passes the Bechdel Test pretty cleanly, and features at least as much male nudity as female nudity, sorry if that’s an odd thing to point out!

· Some of the more comic moments are awesome – for instance, I cracked up when Agamemnon got irritated at Palamedes for closing the door properly – but some feel out of place. Possible spoiler!! There’s a moment where Achilles steals a rock from a woman he’s chasing and it reads a bit like slapstick, but on the very next page the woman falls down a hole and dies, which is decidedly not slapstick. The different tones in this scene don’t fit well together and just felt awkward to me. Happily, I’ve only noticed this sort of thing a couple times.

· Polyxena and Troilus have a scene together and the two Ajaxes have a scene together. I mention these only because it’s neat to see characters who are usually pretty minor getting scenes to themselves.

· There are two things in this volume that I suspect might make more sense to me if I had read Volume 1. The first is the scene in which Agamemnon just plain forgets to invite Achilles to the feast that all the other Greeks are attending. He forgot Achilles? How do you forget the best warrior in your army? The second is that I can see Shanower trying to give Helen some angst about the war, but it doesn’t feel very organic to the character. Maybe there’s some information in earlier scenes that would fix these issues for me.

· Possible spoiler!!? So Akamas finds himself in a strange room in the depths of enemy territory with a woman who won’t answer his questions. He responds to this situation by having sex with her and then falling asleep. Dude, I do not think this is the best strategy if you want to make it to the end of this war.

· If I sound less than enthusiastic today, it’s only because I am a terrible reviewer who is writing this entry several weeks after actually reading the book. But in all honesty, I enjoyed this volume even more than the previous one. I read it in one sitting and loved its super creepy cliffhanger! Now that the war is fully about to begin, I’m really excited to read the next volume.

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

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