Posts tagged ‘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)

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.”

My Thoughts: 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.

My Spoiler-Free Thoughts: 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.

My SPOILERIFFIC!! Thoughts: 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.’

My Thoughts: 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.’

My Thoughts: 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.’

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?”

My Thoughts: 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.”

September 28, 2012

Josephine Angelini: “Dreamless”

Dreamless  Dreamless

“Want to fight me, foolish Sky Hunter? Caution! I invented war. War, little beauties, I invented it.”

YA Novel
Pages: 496
First Published: 2012

Synopsis: Can true love be forgotten?

As the only Scion who can descend into the Underworld, Helen Hamilton has been given a nearly impossible task. By night she wanders through Hades, trying to stop the endless cycle of revenge that has cursed her family. By day she struggles to overcome the fatigue that is rapidly eroding her sanity. Without Lucas by her side, Helen is not sure she has the strength to go on.

Just as Helen is pushed to her breaking point, a mysterious new Scion comes to her rescue. Funny and brave, Orion shields her from the dangers of the Underworld. But time is running out – a ruthless foe plots against them, and the Furies’ cry for blood is growing louder.

As the ancient Greek world collides with the mortal one, Helen’s sheltered life on Nantucket descends into chaos. But the hardest task of all will be forgetting Lucas Delos.

Josephine Angelini’s compelling saga becomes ever more intricate and spellbinding as an unforgettable love triangle emerges and the eternal cycle of revenge intensifies. Eagerly awaited, this sequel to the internationally bestselling Starcrossed delivers a gritty, action-packed love story that exceeds all expectations.

My Thoughts: So I hope you guys aren’t trying to avoid reading spoilers for this book, because this entry is full of them.

To start, I liked Dreamless rather better than Starcrossed. Helen’s nightmare trips to the Underworld were my favourite parts of the first book, and I was stoked to see them featured prominently in the sequel. Angelini’s writing is never beautiful, but it’s much better in the Underworld sequences than anywhere else, and her creativity is put to better use. There’s an early scene I enjoyed where Helen finds herself trapped in a dusty old house with no exit, and it was good and creepy. Another thing that was expanded to good effect here is the fighting between Lucas and Hector; it was also given more emotional weight. And I can even say that I liked most of the new characters, the easily likeable Orion and the sadistic and creepy Ares especially. The sequence that features Ares’ first appearance is easily my favourite of the series so far.

But.

Dreamless has fewer similarities with Twilight than its predecessor, but it is still most definitely this series’ New Moon, in that the super perfect love interest breaks up with the protagonist and a new guy steps in to start a poorly handled love triangle. Is it weird that I feel I have to give Dreamless some sort of credit for allowing its protagonist to continue on with her life instead of sinking into a horrible, months-long depression upon learning that it’s over? Unfortunately, New Moon might still win this round, because where Edward gives a reason for the break-up, Lucas just starts yelling at Helen (at what must seem to her like) out of the blue. They still have to see each other to discuss Helen’s quest, so he spends most of the book trying to push her away by doing such things as knocking her (and his cousins) off a bench and onto the floor, screaming at her that she doesn’t “have the RIGHT to sit next to” him, hitting his father and injuring his mother in front of her, using his demigod power of flight to carry her up so high above the earth that she can barely breathe, and throwing her to the ground so hard that “she cried out as she twisted her wrist.” Oh, and he’s still following her and sneaking into her house at night without her knowledge. The entire time, the audience is told that he loves her and is acting this way for her supposed benefit, but if you think that makes it okay I am going to have to strongly disagree. NONE OF THIS BEHAVIOUR IS OKAY. The fact that Helen unquestioningly takes him back without ever even commenting on his actions is, to put it mildly, extremely frustrating. That the third book will undoubtedly feature a love triangle is absurd. Still, I will be surprised if the story isn’t set up so that Helen has to make a choice between Lucas, who’s hurt her – on purpose – both physically and emotionally, and Orion, who … has not. And, with Lucas as the Paris character and Orion as the Aeneas character, I will also be surprised if she doesn’t choose Lucas, although it will be AWFUL when she does.

The cherry on the top of all this is the reason why Lucas pushes Helen away. In Starcrossed, we are told that Lucas and Helen can’t be together because it would unite their demigod families, thus breaking a truce with the gods and starting a new Trojan War. Okay, cool. That’s a pretty good reason to avoid a relationship. Later in the book we learn that this doesn’t apply to their current situation, BUT they still can’t be together because Helen has been told that Lucas’ uncle Ajax is her real father, making them first cousins, and the children born to demigod cousins always go insane. (The example given for this is “Oedipus’s daughter, Electra,” leading me to believe that the characters are lying every time they claim to have read the Oresteia.) The huge problem I have with this is that the audience knows that it’s a lie. It is mentioned multiple times throughout Starcrossed that Helen is seventeen and her supposed father died nineteen years ago. And just in case you didn’t realize for yourself that Ajax can’t be Helen’s father, a character says it out loud. And just in case you missed it there, in Dreamless Helen’s mother tells us again. A full half of the plot of this book is based on a lie that the audience knows is a lie, and the only thing stopping the characters from figuring out that it’s a lie is that, despite all the angsting they do over Helen and Lucas being cousins, not a single one of them has taken a second to subtract seventeen from nineteen. It’s completely ridiculous, and the idea that anyone involved with this series could think it makes for suspenseful reading actually makes me a little angry.

And now, a selection of passages I hated.

Claire … undid the misaligned buttons on Helen’s pesky jacket and then redid them correctly. “You look like a dyslexic five-year-old.”

Apparently dyslexia affects your ability to dress yourself now?

For the first time Helen could remember, Castor used an English curse word, and a foul one at that …

“Foul curse” is what Angelini uses in place of anything more offensive than “damn.” Every time someone swears in this series I feel like they’re putting a hex on someone.

“Claire and I didn’t join PETA’s most wanted list for nothing, you know.”

A Myrmidon is stalking Helen. They refer to it as her “ant problem.” And … PETA keeps a list of people who have killed ants?? Get it???

“And we should know [the number of people who’ve walked on the moon]! We’re Americans!”
“Well, officially I’m Canadian.”
“Close enough!” Helen said, waving an enthusiastic hand in the air.

Orion is Canadian and this Canadian blogger was down with that until this happened. HELEN HAMILTON CARES NOT ABOUT YOUR ACTUAL NATIONALITY

“You know what, Matt? You’re becoming quite a badass.”

You keep using that word.

Pumpkin pancakes were a favorite of Jerry’s and Helen’s, but around Halloween, which was only about a week and a half away, anything with pumpkin in it was on the menu. It was sort of a competition between the two of them. It started with roasted pumpkin seeds and went all the way to soups and gnocchi. Whoever found a way to sneak pumpkin into a dish without getting caught was the winner.
The whole pumpkin thing had started when Helen was a little girl. One October she’d complained to her dad that pumpkins only got used as decoration, and although she loved jack-o’-lanterns, it was still a big waste of food. Jerry had agreed, and the two of them resolved to start eating pumpkins instead of just carving them up and then throwing them out.
Unfortunately, they found that pumpkins on their own are so bland they’re practically inedible. If they hadn’t gotten creative with the cooking, they would have given up on their Save the Pumpkins crusade after the first year.
There were a lot of nauseating creations, of which the pumpkin popsicles were by far the worst, but the pancakes stood out as the biggest success. They instantly became as large a part of the Hamilton family tradition in October as turkey was on Thanksgiving.

WE GET IT ANGELINI YOU LIKE PUMPKINS

There is more that I might say about this book, but it’s easier for me just to tell you that I don’t recommend it.

And now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go find a book that recognizes the value of a beautiful line of prose.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Hell didn’t need lakes of fire to torment.
Time and solitude were enough.

September 17, 2012

Josephine Angelini: “Starcrossed”

Starcrossed  Starcrossed

Cassandra’s demeanor suddenly changed. She went from being the dark, fiery messenger of the Fates to being a very vulnerable teenager.
“I saw something, Helen,” she said desperately. “Then I saw it again, and again. I’ve been so ashamed and frightened that I haven’t told anyone else what I saw. And I am so sorry if I’m wrong – for all of our sakes. But I have to do this … because … this is what comes next.”

YA Novel
Pages: 488
First Published: 2011

Synopsis: How do you defy destiny?

Helen Hamilton has spent her entire sixteen years trying to hide how different she is — no easy task on an island as small and sheltered as Nantucket. And it’s getting harder. Nightmares of a desperate desert journey have Helen waking parched, only to find her sheets damaged by dirt and dust. At school she’s haunted by hallucinations of three women weeping tears of blood … and when Helen first crosses paths with Lucas Delos, she has no way of knowing they’re destined to play the leading roles in a tragedy the Fates insist on repeating throughout history.

As Helen unlocks the secrets of her ancestry, she realizes that some myths are more than just legend. But even demigod powers might not be enough to defy the forces that are both drawing her and Lucas together — and trying to tear them apart.

“Of course I care for you,” he said intently. “The only thing I wouldn’t do to be with you is cause innocent people to die. And that’s pretty much it.” He moved on to his back again, jabbing a hand in his hair. “But apparently that’s enough.”

My Thoughts: First, I should probably note that this is a Trojan War novel in pretty much the same way that Harry Potter bringing back Cedric’s body in Goblet of Fire is a reference to the ransom of Hector, but the only reason I forced my way through this book was so I could review it and so review it I shall.

Second, I know I already talk about Twilight too much on this blog, and I’m sure that I’m far from the first person to notice this, but oh my goodness is Starcrossed basically Twilight. Look at how absurdly easy it is to write a summary of both books at once (with a little bit of New Moon and Breaking Dawn thrown in for good measure):

A socially awkward American high schooler living with her single dad becomes suspicious of the ridiculously wealthy and ridiculously good looking family that has moved to her small town. Soon after going online to research their connection to mythology, she discovers the new residents are impossibly strong and impossibly fast supernatural beings who also have individual powers such as the ability to see the future or the ability to detect lies. Following a number of arguments, the main character falls in love with the most ridiculously good looking son, though he refuses to sleep with her because of his supernatural-ness. There is a larger group of supernatural beings – based in Europe – with whom the family has a bloody disagreement on an issue fundamental to their supernatural-ness, and the family must protect the girl from them even as they must resist the urge to kill her themselves. When the girl gains access to supernatural powers of her own, everyone is shocked by how powerful she is, and she soon becomes the bestest best supernatural creature that ever did supernatural creature.

Oh, and members of the family go to her house and listen to her sleep without her knowledge. Dear YA fantasy novels: I don’t think this means what you think it means.

Another thing Starcrossed has in common with Twilight is its horrendous writing, which features awkward phrasing, unrealistically verbose characters, no sense of suspense, no attempt to show instead of tell, exposition dumps all over the place, and an obsession with the word “gestured.” I think what I found most irritating, though, was how so much of this book was overexplained. Every action comes with an adverb or a phrase to explain how or why the character performed that action, even when it is perfectly obvious. This book would have been vastly improved (and at least a hundred pages shorter) if someone had realized that these all desperatedly needed to be cut.

And now, a selection of passages I hated.

Claire Aoki, aka Giggles, was a badass.

… what.

“You certainly do heal fast. But you’ll still have some impressive bruises, so if I were you I’d avoid your father for the rest of the night.”
“I’ll just tell him you abuse me,” Helen said with a shrug. She jumped off the examining table.
“And I’ll tell him you like it,” he teased back, his voice rich and slow.

Oh yes, this is exactly the sort of dialogue I want to hear in an otherwise unquestioned ~*~GREATEST LOVE STORY EVER TOLD~*~ relationship. Allow me to spare you the passage where a woman the antagonist murders is described as “lovely in terror” and “waiting to be kissed.” The dead women are beautiful and sexually available trope, my least favourite trope of all!

Helen’s vision stabilized again, and she watched his bare back moving away from her. The last cobwebs clearing from her eyes, she decided that if Lucas was gay then she was going to have to get a sex change operation. He would be so worth it.

According to my Kindle copy, those last two lines have been highlighted by 46 different people, and I am hoping against hope that it’s because they all reacted with a “WTF?!?” I mean, I’ve heard tell that sex change operations are long and stressful and unpleasant processes and when people decide to undergo them they usually have rather stronger reasons than an attractive classmate …

Yet another way Starcrossed bothered me is by having its characters constantly misremember what happens in the Iliad, even as they believe it to be historical fact of the utmost importance. An especially frustrating passage comes when Helen decides to read “as much as she could” of the Iliad. The narration continues on to tell us “how much she disliked Helen of Troy,” unable to “understand why she didn’t just go back to her husband. People were dying.” Helen of Troy’s role in the war is first brought up in Book II, and her first appearance comes with the first battle scene (the first scene where people die for reasons other than plague) in Book III, so I figured Helen Hamilton would have read the first couple Books at least, but then we get: “She was up to the part where Achilles … started sulking in his tent over a girl.” Soooooo not even to the end of Book I? How does that make any sense??

I shall now reluctantly admit that this book was not entirely horrible. Helen’s nightmares were well-written, and the Furies were properly creepy. There were a couple funny lines. Once I got through the first few chapters, which were especially terrible, I found the story at least compelling enough to finish the novel. But I cannot overstate how awful the writing is, and how baffled I am by the number of positive reviews this book is getting – not to mention how confused I was to find that it inspired a song and a music video. I’m genuinely embarrassed to say I’m tempted to read the sequel, even if it’s just to see how long it takes Helen and Lucas to realize that the only thing keeping them apart is their inability to do basic math.

BUT THERE HAD BETTER BE SOME VAMPIRE SCION BASEBALL, because I mean seriously. At least Twilight is entertaining in its awfulness.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

As she searched, she looked down at the fallen architecture and read the names graffitied on its sides. … For what seemed like days she ran her fingers over the names carved into the fragmented bones of ruined loves, stepping around the broken pillars of unkept vows and dusting the headstones in the graveyard of love with her hands. Every kind of death had a resting place in the dry lands.
She walked until her feet bled.

August 24, 2012

Shana Norris: “Overtime: A Novella”

Overtime: A Novella

YA Novel
Pages: 103
First Published: 2012

Synopsis: Five months ago, the epic rivalry between the Trojans and Spartans ended in flames. Now the two schools exist in an uneasy ceasefire as a community event threatens to push them over the edge.

Cassie Prince just wants to focus on her new relationship. But is happiness possible in a place where loyalties run deep?

The Trojans and Spartans return in this ebook sequel novella to the YA novel Troy High.

My Thoughts: As you know if you’ve read my ridiculous review, Shana Norris’ Troy High brought me an absurd amount of joy. It’s just so earnestly committed to telling the story of the Trojan War via a series of silly scenes set in a modern day high school. It certainly has its faults, but not half enough to stop me from loving it unashamedly. Unfortunately, as I really should have seen coming, remove the Trojan War from the story and what remains isn’t enough to hold my interest. As explained in the author’s note, Overtime does include a few nods towards the myths (most obviously in the addition of Nessa, the Clytemnestra character), but its focus is on a high schooler who is planning a beach clean-up while simultaneously taking the worst approach ever to dealing with a boyfriend she suspects is cheating. If that sounds like your thing, don’t let me stop you from checking it out, but I admit I was disappointed to find this book lacking in Troy High-level awesomeness.

Helen does get angry with Paris for texting instead of paying attention to her, though. I guess that’s kind of amusing. ~*~GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD~*~

Buy it at: Amazon.com

In the front row, Elena nudged Perry hard in the ribs. A moment later, my brother stood in his seat and yelled out, “Shut up or get out!”
The room fell silent. Señor McIntyre looked up from his book long enough to say, “Feet off the chair, Mr. Prince.”

July 27, 2012

Madeline Miller: “The Song of Achilles”

The Song of Achilles  The Song of Achilles

‘You have eked out ten more years of life, and I am glad for you. But the rest of us–‘ his mouth twists. ‘The rest of us are forced to wait for your leisure. You are holding us here, Achilles. You were given a choice and you chose. You must live by it now.’

Novel
Pages: 352
First Published: 2011

Synopsis: Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

‘May I give you some advice? If you are truly his friend you will help him leave this soft heart behind. He’s going to Troy to kill men, not rescue them.’ His dark eyes held me like swift-running current. ‘He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.’

My Thoughts: My copy of this book is so coated in quotes from gushing reviews that my first impression was “There’s no way this book is going to live up to all this.” And for the first few chapters, I continued to believe that. But once the story got going, it turned into a book that I stayed up too late reading, and picked up again as soon as I got home from work. While you won’t hear me say that this book is perfect, I am definitely willing to say that I loved it. More specific comments in point form:

· If I’m to be totally honest, I have to say I’m not a fan of Miller’s writing style, but it’s difficult for me to pinpoint why. Perhaps because it’s a little too vague sometimes, or the descriptions are a little too over-the-top sometimes, or perhaps it just annoyed me that I only saw one contraction in the entire book. I also couldn’t figure out why, when most of the scenes were written in past tense, there would occasionally be a scene written in present tense. But at the same time, almost every chapter had at least one paragraph that was written so beautifully I had to reread it once or twice before moving on, and I also really loved the way she wrote the battle scenes — like every fight was just a mess of people running around and crashing into each other on the field. So in the end I guess I feel like my comments on Miller’s style all cancel each other out.

· This book fails the Bechdel test, which is interesting to me because the reason it fails is not because it doesn’t have female characters speaking about things other than men — it fails because not enough of those women have names.

· Let’s talk about a scene that really bothered me! Potential spoiler, so I’ll put it in white and you can highlight to read it: Achilles is unable to prevent Iphigenia’s death even though he is standing right there, and even though in every other scene where speed is required of him he responds by being, as usual, impossibly fast. Miller goes to great pains to have both Odysseus and the narrative explain why Achilles wasn’t able to react in time, but it all boils down to “he wasn’t fast enough,” a reason I find hard to accept when in the rest of the novel it is made perfectly clear that Achilles is never not fast enough. In a similar vein, I’m pretty sure the scene where Patroclus pulls a Bella Swan and spends a month doing nothing but being miserable was only necessary because the story’s timeline wouldn’t have worked out otherwise. So that was a little annoying.

· I’ve never been a fan of Achilles and Briseis being in love, so I really liked their relationship here. I actually really enjoyed how the characters in this novel seem at times to be at odds with the way they are usually portrayed. I was constantly thinking, “Wait — Character A just said he believes X, even though in the Iliad he says he believes Y, and follows through on it when he does Z. How is Z going to happen if he believes X instead???” I was happily surprised by the way Miller gets her revamped characters to hit their marks. With the exclusion of the scene I mentioned above, it never felt forced in any way, and in fact I often felt like the new character motivations allowed me to see the events of the war through a new perspective. Maybe it was because of this that, as I read this novel, I felt like I was rediscovering why I love the Trojan War story so much. So … that was awesome.

· Another relationship I enjoyed was that between Odysseus and Diomedes. Frustrating that they were only allowed like three scenes of banter!!

· This is a pretty nerdy thing to get so excited about, but I don’t care; I LOVED the foreshadowing in this book. If I have one complaint about Trojan War novels in general, it’s that their foreshadowing is usually ramped up to DEAFENING; usually Cassandra or a prophecy is put in charge of telling us exactly what’s going to happen, and that’s that. Of course there is a certain amount of pathos in watching characters stumble towards a fate they are aware of but are still unable to avoid, but I think I prefer foreshadowing that at least attempts to be subtle. Yes, prophecies abound in The Song of Achilles, but there is a bonus layer of foreshadowing on top of them that is subtle, clever, and heartwrenching — the kind that twists the knife if you already know how the story goes. It was so good I don’t even want to talk about it anymore, lest I ruin it for someone who hasn’t read the novel yet.

· … Some of you might be interested to know that I very nearly typed The Song that Killed Achilles in the above paragraph. TWO GREAT BOOKS THAT TASTE GREAT TOGETHER?!

· I love how this book doesn’t steer away from the questions raised by its story, but deals with them head-on. Who is more important, a friend or a stranger? What, if anything, is worth trading your life for? Is fame worth fighting for, even if you’ll be remembered as a villain? There was a lot more discussion in this book than I expected, and I really enjoyed it.

· I also enjoyed the parts where Miller made certain ancient Greek words a part of the story, but I found Patroclus’ explanations of them confusing. Who is he explaining them for? Who is he telling the story to? I was willing to ignore this until the end of the book left me even more confused about it. At the same time, though, I’m not sure how else she could have gotten away with using Greek words, and I do like that she used them.

· I think I’m a little picky about how the gods are portrayed in Trojan War retellings. I mention this only to say that I loved the way the gods are portrayed in this book. Apollo is much creepier here than I’d ever seen him before, but it works perfectly. I loved all his scenes, and the way the plague was described in order to clue you into his involvement was fantastic.

· If the summary didn’t give it away, the focus of The Song of Achilles is the romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Everything I’ve read about sexuality in ancient Greece (admittedly not much) has suggested that the ancient Greeks didn’t categorise sexuality the way we do now, and that it was pretty common for an adult man to have slept with both men and women. In The Song of Achilles, however, it’s made quite clear that both Achilles and Patroclus are gay in the twenty-first century sense of the word. It is also made clear that they feel the need to be careful about who they reveal their relationship to. As a result, it was difficult for me not to feel that a modern interpretation of sexuality was being applied to a story that was otherwise very carefully set in the Bronze Age. The reasons for Achilles and Patroclus to hide their relationship are mentioned a few times — several people mention that Patroclus would not be seen as being good enough for Achilles, and Odysseus says that it’s common for boys to sleep with each other only until they reach a certain age — but I still feel unsure as to whether the novel’s portrayal is accurate to what we know of Bronze Age society. Maybe I just have to read up on this a bit more. Either way, I guess it’s kind of neat that here’s a book whose title character is gay and spends several chapters dressed as a woman … but could still kill you just by looking at you.

· This book is narrated in the first person by Patroclus, which made me wonder how the last few chapters of the book would be handled. In the hope of avoiding spoilers, I will just say that they were done better than I anticipated. I was also very surprised by how strongly they affected me. I seriously tear up at everything, so if I had just teared up at the end of this book I wouldn’t even be mentioning it. Fair warning, friends: I cried off and on through the last four chapters, and then bawled for ten minutes straight after reading the last page. I genuinely think the last time I reacted to a book this way was when I read Inside the Walls of Troy … when I was thirteen. I wish I could say why this book affected me so strongly. Because I somehow managed to forget just how dark Achilles’ story gets? The last few chapters were so raw and intense and lonely, the last few pages such a heartbreaking mess of despair and hope. If you’ve made it through the almost 2,000(!!) words of this post you know that I have a few criticisms of this book, but they are not half enough to stop me from recommending it. Unbelievably, the gushing reviews of this book did not build it up too much; The Song of Achilles is easily my favourite of the Trojan War novels that I’ve blogged about so far.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Achilles turns to me. He is breathing quickly, the tips of his ears pinking with excitement. He seizes my hand, and crows to me of the day’s events, of how his name was on everyone’s lips, of the power of his absence, big as a Cyclops, walking heavily amongst the soldiers. The excitement of the day has flared through him, like flame in dry grass. For the first time, he dreams of killing: the stroke of glory, his inevitable spear through Hector’s heart. My skin prickles to hear him say so.
‘Do you see?’ he says. ‘It is the beginning!’
I cannot escape the feeling that, below the surface, something is breaking.