Archive for ‘fiction’

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

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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)

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

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.”

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. Morpehus’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 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.’

January 16, 2014

Colleen McCullough: “The Song of Troy”

The Song of Troy

He looked at me long and steadily. ‘Have you a heart, Odysseus? I fancied it’s only mind you possess.’
Something stung momentarily at the back of my eyes: I thought, Penelope, and then her image faded. I gave him back his stare. ‘No, I have no heart. Why should a man need one? A heart is a severe liability.’
‘Then what men say of you is true.’

Novel
Pages: 483
First Published: 1998

Synopsis: The story of Troy is one of the greatest ever told – a three thousand year old saga of love and hate, vengeance and betrayal.

In The Song of Troy, the bestselling author of The Thorn Birds recounts the tale of Helen and Paris, the immortal lovers who doomed two great nations to a terrible war. It is told through the eyes of its main characters: the sensuous and self-indulgent Helen; the subtle and brilliant Odysseus; the sad old man Priam, King of Troy; the tormented warrior prince, Achilles; and Agamemnon, King of Kings, who consents to the unspeakable in order to launch his thousand ships. This is an unputdownable tale of love, ambition, delusion, honour and consuming passion.

‘Believe me, Paris, you are important,’ he said in a tired voice, then got up abruptly. ‘I must find Kassandra. Quite often we see the same things, even when we are not together.’
But I too felt a little of that dark, webbed Presence, and shook my head. ‘No. Kassandra will destroy it.’

Review: Truth be told, I finished this book in October and am only now sitting down to write about it. All apologies if this post is of an even lower quality than my usual low quality.

The Song of Troy was one of the first Trojan War books I read when I first became interested in the myth as a teenager, and I liked it a lot – enough that I was hesitant to revisit it, fearing it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered. While it’s true that the scenes I had remembered as being mindblowingly amazing weren’t quite the same the second time around, there are plenty of great scenes I had completely forgotten about, and on the whole I am happy to report that the book definitely holds up. Devolving into point form as usual …

· Perhaps this book’s most noticeable feature is that it’s narrated in the first person by a variety of different characters. This could potentially allow the author to explore quite a wide range of viewpoints on the events of the story, so I admit I was disappointed when I counted up the chapters and realized the narrators are not as diverse as I had remembered. Of the seventeen total narrators, twelve of them are Greek or with the Greeks, while only five are in Troy. Fifteen narrators are men and only two are women; out of thirty-three chapters, these two women narrate only five. Maybe it’s not fair to bring this up when I don’t have any real criticism of it as it relates to the story, but it would have been nice to see this narrative strategy used to give a few more characters a bit of extra attention.

· One of my favourite things about this book is how it plays with the idea that these events will become myths. Things like Achilles’ talking horses or the creation of his weak heel are given rational explanations, but are still presented in such a way that you can easily see how they would gain their supernatural trappings and become legend. Similarly, I love how we often witness a perfectly realistic event only to later hear a character describing it in mythological terms. Of course I don’t think the myth of the Trojan War is as closely related to historical fact as this might lead a reader to believe, but I still love that McCullough hints at the process of fact becoming fiction. Also, it would seem that I was lying when I said that Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles was the only novel I’d read in which Achilles fights the river.

· Related to the above point: the chapter in which Iphigenia appears was one of the parts that blew me away the first time I read the book, and I still love the way it plays with the reader’s expectations about what is going to happen while also showing how a myth might come into being.

· Odysseus in this book is pretty fantastic. I feel like Trojan War adaptations often don’t use Odysseus to his full potential. He usually gets to recruit Achilles at the beginning and he usually gets to think up the Horse at the end, but in between he’s too often restricted to providing some sort of comic relief in the form of clever one-liners. So I was really impressed by how Song of Troy shows Odysseus using his intelligence throughout the war. His constant insistence that the Greek army use strategies that are less humane but more effective was also really in-character and makes a lot of sense. I was really happy to see Odysseus doing so much during the war and I am probably going to be frustrated now when other novels don’t let him.

· One criticism I had of Adèle Geras’ Troy was that it kept introducing plotlines but never doing anything with them. It seemed to me that Geras wanted to include as much of the Trojan War mythology as possible, but didn’t actually want to make use of a lot of it. Song of Troy also seems to want to include as much of the mythology as it can, but I think it takes a better approach: instead of introducing a minor plot once and then forgetting about it entirely, Song of Troy will introduce it, leave it alone for a while, and then return to it to show us why it’s important. (See its treatment of Philoctetes for an example.) This way, the stories don’t take up much time, but they can still be completed, have a proper effect on the rest of the novel, and give us a sense of the world beyond the characters that are being focused on.

· I really liked this book’s portrayal of Aineas and his rivalry with his Trojan relatives. For whatever reason, I found the constant murmurs about his desire for the throne and whether or not he will be heir to be really compelling. I also really enjoyed the scene where the Trojans set the Greek ships on fire and was especially impressed with the endless wait inside the Horse. McCullough is really good at creating intense and desperate situations, which is perhaps why I so enjoyed the strong sense of time apparent throughout the novel. It really feels like you’re reading about people who have been in a terrible situation for a decade and now every step they take is a step closer to their breaking point. My only complaint about this is that I think the last few lines of the novel would have more impact had they been given to a different character; other than that it was fantastic.

· As well as creating a strong sense of passing time, McCullough also creates a strong sense of geography, including a lot of details that really help to make the world the characters inhabit feel as real as possible. She provides a lot of details about the armies as well – I was really impressed by how frequently concrete figures are provided when characters are discussing things like the number of soldiers on the field. I’m not in love with the book’s narrative style (people keep “propping” and I’m not sure what that means?), but everything else that I liked more than made up for that.

· As I’ve said before, I am 100% okay with authors changing parts of the myths to suit their purpose, but in this instance I was confused by details that were changed without having an effect on anything. Why is Iphigenia the youngest child in her family? We never see her siblings, so what does this affect? And why make Paris older than Hektor if Hektor is still the heir? I was also thrown off by important scenes being much shorter than they usually are – blink and you’ll miss the ransom of Hektor – although that’s more of an observation than a criticism.

· (Minor spoilers!!) Achilles in this novel suffers from seizures. I thought this was a really interesting idea and kept waiting for McCullough to really do something with it; unfortunately she never did. But augh, an Achilles who’s not physically perfect – whose body sometimes acts against him – but is still the best of the Greek warriors? I would love to read a book that takes that idea and runs with it.

· Not to repeat myself in what is already a too-long entry, but: this is a really solid take on the Trojan War that features some great scenes and some great details and I definitely recommend it.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

‘So I handed Priam the red tablet with the symbol of Ares on it and he stared at it as if he had never seen anything like it. His hand shook so much that he dropped it on the floor. It broke. Everyone jumped. Then Hektor picked it up and took it away.’

October 6, 2013

Jennifer South: “Andromache: Stealing Tomorrow”

Andromache: Stealing Tomorrow

“I think you are as brave as any man that I fight next to on the battlefield. Every thread of courage snaps at some point though. For every one of us. There is no shame in running. Only in not stopping and turning to face your fear when you know it’s time.”

Novel
Full Title: Andromache: Stealing Tomorrow: A Novel of the Trojan Empire
Pages: 572
First Published: 2012

Synopsis: She was born into her world a non-entity. It was the late Bronze Age, the time of the Trojan Empire, a time ruled by warlords and warriors. The daughter of a minor king was a throw away item, a bargaining chip at best. In her world, a woman only held as much power as the beauty of her face or her worth on the marriage market and Andromache had neither. She seemed destined to be forgotten.

It was also the final Age of Heroes though and in it a man, or woman, of determination and steel could make their own destiny – if they were brave enough. In the end, Andromache would have to choose. Would she let the world decide who she was? Or would she make a path of her own and become the woman of legend she was meant to be?

“When you marry,” Bithia supplied. “Your husband will take you to live with his family. They will look for weapons to use against you, for ways to control you and through you, your husband. Every thing you say will be measured and weighed and given sharp edges so that it can be turned back on you. You must learn to measure what you say, half the response you would give and then cover the true meaning with rose oil so that it cannot be found.”

Review: So I have been reading about the characters of the Trojan War for over a decade now without attempting to keep any sort of academic distance from them, and as a result I absolutely bring a certain amount of emotional investment to any new Trojan War-related book that I read. I’m sure this affects every review I’ve posted or will post on this blog, but in the case of Stealing Tomorrow I feel like it’s playing an even bigger role than usual. Because … there really isn’t that much to this book. There really isn’t 572 pages worth of conflict here. A large section of this novel consists of little more than Hector and Andromache angsting at each other. And yet, as someone who has been in love with these characters since middle school, I found reading about Hector and Andromache angsting at each other to be the perfect way to spend a lazy weekend afternoon.

Unfortunately, the lack of conflict isn’t the only criticism I have to mention before I can start fangirling; the writing style is another major problem. South does a great job of creating a strong sense of character and I really enjoyed some of the imagery she uses. Other than that, this book reads like the Starcrossed series: awkward phrasing, telling instead of showing, overexplaining every line of dialogue. It’s also desperately in need of a basic proofreading, because I have never before seen so many typos and run-on sentences in a finished book. Sometimes the typos were bad enough that I found myself rereading sentences in an attempt to figure out what they were supposed to say. I also noticed two scenes where a character who was there at the beginning was not there at the end, with no reason or explanation given. And I got tired of Hector being described with the same words every time we saw him; forty-four uses of the phrase “dark eyes” is at least thirty-four uses too many.

But there were indeed things I liked:

· Female friendships are not something you see often in Trojan War novels, so I really enjoyed the strong female friendships Andromache has in this book, both with characters who are already familiar as well as with an original character, Bithia. I actually like Bithia enough that I felt a little sad when I remembered she won’t be in any books I read in the future.

· There’s not much about the Trojan War that I find boring, but my goodness do I find it difficult to feign interest in the Palladium. So I am pretty happy to report that South’s Palladium is splendidly creepy. Can all future Trojan War authors follow her lead and work with this thing to make it a little more interesting, thanks I would love that.

· Also awesomely creepy were Andromache’s lessons with her mother. I loved how we get more details about them as the book goes on, but they’re never explained completely – a great use of the way what we don’t see is often scarier than what we do see. Actually, I really liked getting to know Andromache’s family, as this was my first time reading a book where they were more than an entry in the list of people Achilles kills offscreen. I never even considered the idea that Andromache might come from a dysfunctional family but I think it really works here. Her struggles to realize and then overcome this part of her past were both realistic and compelling.

· I enjoyed the brief appearances of Achilles’ family, though that’s mainly because I am fascinated by the way Andromache’s life so often intertwines with theirs. It was great to see new additions to this tragic and complicated relationship.

· I kind of hate to admit it, but it turns out I love a good romantic scene, and a little angst doesn’t hurt either. I loved seeing a Hector who is deeply affected by the pressure that’s been on him all his life and is determined to act in his own interests for once. Embarrassing truth be told, I’m pretty sure I could have read a hundred more pages of Hector and Andromache talking about their feelings. I even kind of loved the scene where all they were doing was playing a board game. If you don’t come to this book already in love with these characters I have no idea if any of this will be appealing or not, but I once got actually upset when I saw a Hector/Helen fanfic because HOW DARE YOU WHAT ABOUT ANDROMACHE, so in this respect at least I guess I am this book’s perfect audience. (Hector/Andromache OTP!)

· This book starts with Hector and Andromache’s first meeting and ends shortly after their wedding. There’s enough foreshadowing (see Hector’s lines at the top of this entry for a heartwrenching example) that I was surprised that the book ends before the war even starts. I have no idea if South has plans for a sequel or not, but I am secretly hoping she does because the events in this book would lead easily to new and potentially quite interesting reasons for the war, and I would love to see how this version of Andromache makes it through. Stealing Tomorrow’s writing style and lack of conflict are big enough issues that I find it difficult to recommend, but what I can tell you is that I also found it absurdly difficult to put down and I would buy a sequel in a second.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Herbs were no longer the herbs I had thought they were and words were no longer the words I had been familiar with when I was in my mother’s dark rooms. It frightened me. For there was power in my mother’s lessons and they woke something in my blood that was hungry, always, for more.

June 10, 2013

Laura Gill: “Helen’s Daughter”

Helen's Daughter

“You shouldn’t spend so much time in the sun,” Helen advised. “Use the Syrian cream I gave you. It’s made with crushed pearls, to keep your skin white and soft. We used it all the time in … ” She caught herself before she could tell me where.
I ventured a guess. “In Troy?”
Her needle-thin eyebrows drew together. I could almost see the regret on her face. “Yes,” she said shakily. “It was very windy.”

Novel
Pages: 330
First Published: 2011

Synopsis: When the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen of Sparta, she left behind a nine-year-old daughter, Hermione.

Now, years later, the Trojan War is over. Nineteen-year-old Hermione eagerly awaits her father’s return, but remains ambivalent toward her mother, even as her world is once again turned upside-down. Can Hermione survive the trials that await, or will she become another victim of the curse that haunts her family?

“Eat something. I expect to bring home a queen, not a sickly waif. I want everyone who looks at you to know you’re Helen’s daughter.”
“Stop calling me that.”
Neoptolemus knelt down across from me and braced a hand on the rocking deck. “Anyone who knows who you are will call you that, whether you like it or not. Do you think it’s any different for the son of Achilles?”

Review: As far as I can tell, Helen’s Daughter is self-published and only available in e-book formats, two factors that in the past, I confess, would have led me to pass over it. However, at the moment I’m living in a small town in Japan with a significant dearth of English language Trojan War novels, so when I saw that this book could be purchased for less than five dollars, I decided to give it a try. I am extraordinarily glad that I did. Like, to the point that it’s taken me a month to write this entry because I’m scared I won’t be able to convey exactly how much I enjoyed this book.

· How is this my first time posting about a book based on the returns from Troy when I am almost as fascinated by the returns as I am by the war itself?! I mean, if you like myths about dysfunctional, murderous families, I don’t know of any better than the House of Atreus, which of course is the basis for a major section of this novel. Neoptolemus also puts in an appearance, as do Nestor (and sons) and Telemachus. The post-war interactions of the royal families of Greece are really interesting to me, and this book provides plenty.
     … but I must confess I was even more stoked when both Andromache and the too-often underused Helenus showed up. STOKED. Post-war Helenus and Andromache are so fascinating to me I can’t even tell you. And Gill’s Helenus is almost exactly as I picture him, trapped in a position where he holds a certain amount of power within a Greek palace but is constantly reminded of and disrespected for his tragic Trojan past. It took me a bit longer to get used to Gill’s Andromache, but by the end of her appearance I absolutely loved her. (I was really pleased by Gill’s use of certain elements and rejection of certain other elements from Euripides’ “Andromache.”) I also really love the idea that the names we know the Trojan characters by were not their real names, but taunting names given to them by their Greek captors. The way that Gill differentiates Trojan culture and Greek culture is really interesting. My one complaint about the appearance of Helenus and Andromache in this novel is that I kept waiting to hear what Helenus was doing in the days leading up to the fall of Troy, and such an explanation never came. I suppose I shall have to settle for the theory I dutifully created based on the few hints in the text.

· Every time I write a post on this blog that criticizes a book’s portrayal of its female characters, I spend the rest of the day fighting with myself about the extent to which one should expect a book set in the past to reflect ideas of today. I bring this up so I can tell you that I think Helen’s Daughter does a great job not only of presenting a realistic portrayal of ancient Greece, but also of creating realistic female characters to inhabit it. It’s been too long since I’ve read a Trojan War-related novel that treated its female characters as people, so excuse me while I get excited about this. Hermione is a great character and also the novel’s first-person narrator, so we have a front row seat to her thoughts about what happens to and around her. She plays a major role in several different women’s rituals, the sort I’ve read about in non-fiction books like Bettany Hughes’ Helen of Troy but hadn’t seen before in fiction. I think I was especially happy with the way Gill portrays Hermione’s relationships with other women – believable relationships that subtly develop over time. I really appreciated the careful handling of the relationship between Helen and Hermione. Even Clytaemnestra, though treated as a villain, is given several moments that humanize her. That life would have been difficult for these women is absolutely not brushed over, and many terrible things happen to them that they are unable to prevent, but I call this novel a feminist novel because we see these characters dealing with their problems – sometimes with strength and sometimes with weakness, but always in ways that are true to both the world they live in and to the fact that they are three-dimensional people.
     Ugh that paragraph took me forever to write and I’m still not sure it says what I want it to. To sum up: this may well be the most feminist Trojan War novel I’ve ever read, and I absolutely love it for that.

· I also loved how this book presents menstruation as a totally normal part of life. As a regular annoyance that just has to be dealt with. Because, I mean, for a pretty decent number of people that’s what it is, right? I loved that there were scenes where Hermione was like “ugh I’m cramping and don’t feel like doing anything.” That is my experience exactly, har har. I’m sure there are people who would prefer not to read about this stuff at all, but for me these details made the book more realistic and I love that they’re there.

· (Skip this point for spoilers or if you don’t want to read about portrayals of rape in fiction.) Early on in the novel, Hermione is raped – and it affects her. Frequently. For years afterwards. And we see her being affected by it. The reason I feel the need to praise Helen’s Daughter for this is that I am 95% sure that this is the first Trojan War-related novel I’ve read where this happens. Way more frequent is the Greek mythology trope in which a character is raped, gives birth to the resulting child, and then is never mentioned again. (Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles takes that route about three times before the one passage where it hints at the effects of rape.) It’s interesting to me to compare the section of the book where Hermione is worried that she’s pregnant with the similar section in Adèle Geras’ Troy. Both characters take a powder to end the pregnancy – in Troy, the character travels by herself to a sketchy part of the city, buys the powder from a woman who frightens her, and takes it while alone and fearing the gods’ vengeance. In Helen’s Daughter, Hermione receives the powder as a gift from a woman who offers her assistance and sympathy and takes it – without fear of the gods – while surrounded by women she trusts. I would argue that these scenes reflect the general attitudes of the books they feature in, and I much prefer the latter.

· Once again I must confess to a preconceived bias against self-published books; I honestly expected that there wouldn’t be very much research behind Helen’s Daughter. But, as her blog makes clear, Gill has a strong interest in Mycenaean Greece and it definitely comes through in this book. I loved how many times a description of an object or a piece of jewelry had me thinking “I’ve seen pictures of that!” While there is a bit of creative license taken here and there, overall the level of attention to historical detail is really fantastic.

· Truth be told, I only have one real criticism of this book. The writing style is very calm and matter-of-fact, which overall I enjoyed, but because it’s always calm and matter-of-fact it sometimes seems at odds with what the characters are feeling or experiencing. I think a slight shift in style might have helped me to connect better with the emotions in the more intense scenes.

· This book doesn’t have one straightforward plot so much as it is the telling of an event-filled decade in Hermione’s life, but it was a great read and when I reached the end I found myself wishing it were double the length. Consider the negative ideas I had about self-published books completely shattered. I was thrilled to learn that Gill has e-published three books about Orestes, and I will definitely be reading them. With any luck, they’ll meet the high expectations that Helen’s Daughter has given me.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Smashwords

Helenus’s face remained impassive except for the faint twitch of his eyebrows. “Your mother kept her true feelings hidden.” A pause. “You are nothing at all like her.”

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?”