Posts tagged ‘helen of troy’

January 1, 2019

“Helena. Der Untergang Trojas” (1924)

Helena

Silent Movie
Directed by: Manfred Noa
Run Time: 219 minutes (Der Raub der Helena is 100 minutes and Die Zerstörung Trojas is 119 minutes)
Starring: Edy Darclea (Helen), Vladimir Gajdarov (Paris), Albert Steinrück (Priam)

Synopsis: Helena. Der Untergang Trojas – titled Helen of Troy in English although the German title translates to Helen: The Fall of Troy – is made up of two movies, originally released separately: Der Raub der Helena (The Abduction of Helen) and Die Zerstörung Trojas (The Destruction of Troy). As described on the DVD cover, the film is “an unjustly forgotten classic epic of the German silent cinema in a newly reconstructed and meticulously restored version. Shooting in Munich and its surroundings with an international cast, director Manfred Noa told the story of Helen of Troy and the decade-long war between the Greeks and the Trojans.”

My Thoughts: Finally, my silent movie obsession makes an appearance on this blog!

I get the impression that most people today have little experience with silent film beyond perhaps having watched one or two poorly preserved comedy shorts played at the wrong speed to mismatched music. Odds are those comedy shorts didn’t look or sound like that when they were originally released, and Helena. Der Untergang Trojas doesn’t look or sound like that either. It’s a big-budget, three-and-a-half hour serious epic with a cast of thousands. For some years, it was believed to be lost, as too many silent films have been, but I’m thrilled that it was found, reconstructed, restored, and provided with a new musical score. Since its 2016 DVD release, I’ve watched it four times.

My favourite thing about this movie is how it looks. Every costume, prop, and set is so detailed, and every frame makes such good use of foreground, midground, and background, that the resulting world feels populated and real. Although silent film is usually accompanied by music, it’s primarily a visual medium, and this movie demonstrates that extremely well. It’s full of gorgeous and moving shots like Hector approaching a hilltop altar against a background of decorated trees while Paris, who Hector thinks is dead, offers thanks to Aphrodite unseen on the other side, or Achilles praying desperately for Patroclus’s safety at a small shrine while women go about their daily chores behind him, or Priam ordering a huge crowd out of the throne room only to remain there alone, a small, helpless figure dwarfed by the room’s oversized architecture.

Helena also makes use of special effects to represent visions or nightmares. The bold use of light and shadow in the Judgement of Paris sequence or the scene where Helen and Paris first meet is reminiscent of more famous German Expressionist films. There are also some small moments taken straight from the Iliad, such as when Achilles pours dirt over his head at the news of Patroclus’s death. Viewers hoping for details accurate to the archaeological record may be disappointed – this movie moves both the Knossos throne and Mycenae’s Lion Gate to Troy – but I’m happy just enjoying the sheer visual richness on display. I suspect I could watch this movie twenty more times and still notice new things going on in the background.

Although Helena generally follows the usual story of the Trojan War, a decent amount of creative license is taken with the lead-up to the war and the relationships between the characters. I really enjoy the different dynamic that’s created by having Helen and Paris meet in a mysterious and isolated temple before either knows who the other is, and by having them arrive in Troy before Paris knows he’s a prince. I also think the way the Trojan royal family breaks apart as the end of the movie approaches is really interesting – Helen is torn between the Greeks and the Trojans, Paris is torn between Helen and Priam, and Priam loses his grip on his sanity as he’s forced to face the fact that his decisions have brought about the destruction of his city. The result is a series of dark and hopeless scenes that somehow makes the destruction of Troy feel even more final than usual.

The majority of the expected scenes are also executed well, but if I have one criticism of this movie it’s its portrayal of Achilles. Helena‘s Achilles constantly gets angry at the smallest insults. His motivations throughout the movie are his crush on Helen and the wreath he won in a chariot race that for some reason she still has eight years later. He agrees to return Hector’s body not because he and Priam reach a shared understanding, but because he wants to exchange it for the wreath. Achilles in this movie just comes off as so petty and petulant, which is not my preferred reading of the character.

The only other criticism I have is less a criticism and more a daydream. The musical accompaniment on the DVD is provided by a piano and a percussion section. This score is never bad or distracting, and in some places it’s quite good – I like the drums that accompany the Paris vs. Menelaus fight and the marimba (I think it’s a marimba?) that accompanies the more supernatural sequences like Priam’s nightmare. But surely an epic of this scale would be best accompanied by a full orchestral arrangement? I would absolutely love to see that someday.

Helena. Der Untergang Trojas is a fascinating, visually stunning adaptation of the Trojan War story and I absolutely recommend it. While of course I would love to see it grow in popularity among fans of Greek mythology on film, I especially hope that, now that it’s easily available, it will grow in popularity among silent film fans. I would love to one day hear it mentioned in the same breath as more famous German silent films like Metropolis (1927) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). I may be biased, since Helena is a retelling of my favourite story, but I daresay it can stand alongside them.

Watch it: At the time of this posting, Helena can be watched in full on YouTube, although with no subtitles available for the German intertitles.

Buy it: Helena is available on a two-disc DVD set from Edition Filmmuseum Shop or Amazon.de. The intertitles are in German; subtitles are available in English and French. This is one of the best physical releases I’ve seen for a silent film outside of the Criterion Collection – it comes with a 20-page booklet (only a few pages of which are in English, but you can still enjoy the pictures), digital images of pamphlets from the 1920s when the film was released throughout Europe, and over an hour of alternate takes and different cuts of the same scenes. It seems Helena followed the silent film trend in that different versions of the movie were released in different international markets – and some of the versions are really different! I really enjoyed checking out all of these DVD extras.

Please note that the DVDs, although region-free, are PAL format. I couldn’t get them to work in my North American DVD player, but I was able to watch them on my North American laptop with VLC Media Player.

Screencaps: Below are five screencaps from the movie that I took to give you a small taste of what it looks like.

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April 15, 2018

“Troy: Fall of a City” (2018)

Troy: Fall of a City

Miniseries
Run Time: Eight one-hour episodes
Starring: Louis Hunter (Paris), Bella Dayne (Helen), Jonas Armstrong (Menelaus), Joseph Mawle (Odysseus)

Watch: the trailer
Watch it on: Netflix, BBC iPlayer (region-locked and for a limited time)

Synopsis: Searching for the woman promised to him by Aphrodite, herdsman Paris learns his true identity and falls for Helen of Sparta, igniting the Trojan War. (Source: Netflix)

My Spoiler-Free Thoughts: It has been pointed out that movies about the ancient world tend to be released in batches following some kind of change or technological innovation in the movie industry. Trojan War screen adaptations fit quite neatly into this pattern, and the adaptation for the current age of big-budget, on-demand TV shows is Netflix and the BBC’s Troy: Fall of a City. The series’ eight-hour run time allows for the inclusion of characters and events that are often cut from Trojan War movies, but don’t look here for a straight adaptation of the mythology. The show provides a fresh look at several characters, a new take on some of the main events, and an entirely new subplot. All this — plus the show’s focus on the characters instead of the battles — makes Troy: Fall of a City feel very different from previous Trojan War screen versions, and I absolutely loved it. It’s not perfect — sometimes plot elements are forgotten about from one episode to the next, the story stumbles a bit near the end, and I’m a little iffy on the new subplot — but the music is great, the acting is solid, the sets and locations and costumes are beautiful, the last episode holds nothing back, and overall I just really enjoyed seeing such a fresh take on my favourite story and the characters who inhabit it. It’s been fourteen years since the last big-budget Trojan War screen adaptation, and, for me at least, Troy: Fall of a City was worth the wait.

My Thoughts WITH SPOILERS!: Apparently this is the year I learn to love Paris because, as with Shin Toroia Monogatari, my favourite thing about Troy: Fall of a City is its Paris.

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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.

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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.

September 1, 2012

Icehouse: “Trojan Blue”


Released: 1982
Album: Primitive Man

I spent some time the other night hunting around the Internet for Trojan War songs to add to my pitiful collection, and I think this one, Icehouse’s “Trojan Blue,” is my favourite of the bunch. This is partly because it’s synthpop, which is a genre I enjoy much more than any type of metal (apparently there are A LOT of metal songs about the Trojan War), but mostly because its lyrics are a lot more subtle than those of the other songs I came across. You might not agree with me, but after listening to so many songs in a row that were all “War! Flames! Prophecy! Tears!! Disaster!! DEATH!!!!,” finding this one was definitely a relief. I mean, check out the lyrics to the chorus:

The finest treasures of kings, all of those precious things
They never tempted you
So as you stood in the ruins, how could you dare to look on
As they burned for you?
The broken pieces of clay and the palest eyes, painted in Trojan blue

He’s singing about pottery, you guys. New favourite Trojan War song, right here.

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

May 6, 2012

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

Helen of Troy  Helen of Troy

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

Non-fiction
Pages: 343
First Published: 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

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