Posts tagged ‘novel’

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)

March 23, 2013

Elizabeth Cook: “Achilles”

Achilles

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

Novel
Pages: 107
First Published: 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

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

January 10, 2013

Adèle Geras: “Troy”

Troy

When Hector died, Andromache thought, I didn’t know there could be a greater pain, but now I know why the Gods made him suffer like that, and made me suffer for him. It was a rehearsal.

YA Novel
Pages: 358
First Published: 2000

Synopsis: The grimmest of wars is about to get worse.

The siege of Troy has lasted almost ten years.

Inside the walled city, food is scarce and death is common. From the heights of Mount Olympus, the Gods keep watch.

But Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, is bored with the endless, dreary war, and so she turns her attention to two sisters: Marpessa, who serves as handmaiden to Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world; and Xanthe, who tends the wounded soldiers in the Blood Room. When Eros fits an arrow to his silver-lit bow and lets it fly, neither sister will escape its power.

Agamemnon, commander of all the Greeks, watched his army scattering through the streets of Troy like cockroaches overrunning a house, scuttling into corners and hiding in the crevices of the stones. He made his way up the hill, toward Pallas Athene’s temple, and as he went, the tall black figure of Ares, the God of War, walked in his footsteps. Many saw him and not one of them realized who it was they were looking at. He moved through the city like a shadow among many shadows. He was everywhere, standing behind every man who carried a weapon in his hand.

My Thoughts: Two things: 1) This book has nothing to do with the 2004 movie Troy. 2) I have no idea why this is considered a YA novel.

I’m going to start with my criticisms of the book, which unfortunately are many.

· I will totally admit that I am super picky about dialogue. If I think a novel’s dialogue is unrealistic, it will drive me crazy the entire way through. And wow is Troy’s dialogue unrealistic. Characters often speak in full paragraphs that don’t even flow logically. Their emotions jump around from one line to the next. They clumsily deliver information that has nothing to do with what they’re talking about and should either have been provided by the narration or left out entirely. Achilles’ death scene reads like a joke, and part of the reason is that his dialogue in it is a disaster:

“Can you see me, Trojan Paris?” Achilles shouted. “Apollo’s rays are blinding you, that’s clear. I’m not hanging around down here for prophecies to come true, either. What chance do you reckon you’ve got of hitting a moving target? No chance at all. And even if you do hit me, don’t you know I’m protected?”

Yep, that’s an entire paragraph that Achilles shouts up to the top of the walls. While his chariot is moving.

Not a page later, we get:

“Bastard!” Achilles’ dying cry bubbled from his mouth as his body twisted itself into a knot of pain. “You have fulfilled the prophecy and killed me, but I can still …”

Seriously. What.

It could totally be that Geras was going for some stylistic characters-speak-in-paragraphs-and-tell-you-when-they’ve-been-slain thing that’s gone over my head, but until I find an interview in which she says as much, I’m afraid I just have to label this as terrible dialogue.

· One of the main characters is named Polyxena. When we first meet her, she complains about having the same name as one of the princesses of Troy, which seems like an odd thing to complain about when you finish the book and realize that, in its world, the princess Polyxena doesn’t actually seem to exist; the only daughter of Priam who appears in this book is Cassandra. Now, there are two events in the myth of the Trojan War that (potentially) involve the princess Polyxena. Occasionally, she is involved in the plot to kill Achilles. More often, she is killed during the fall of Troy. At both of these points in the novel, Geras gives herself an opening to do something interesting – some sort of plot twist in which the Polyxena involved in these events is not the princess, but this original character. Neither time does she take it. I don’t even know why Geras has her Polyxena accompany Priam to Achilles’ tent if she wasn’t going to do anything with it.

· Geras’ gods had so much potential. Their sudden appearances in dark corners of rooms, their no-nonsense attitudes, the way they disappear into mist, and the way the mortals who see them immediately forget them – these traits are really cool and a little creepy. Unfortunately, the effect is lost as soon as they open their mouths. Poseidon appears just to tell us that the man wearing Achilles’ armour isn’t Achilles. Apollo appears just to tell us that the Greeks haven’t actually left. As the gods’ words have no effect on the actions of the mortal characters – who never even remember them – it’s like the only purpose of the gods’ dialogue is to rob the following scenes of any suspense they might have had for the reader.

· We are told many times that Troy is in a desperate situation, that the city is running out of food and that its people are dying both in the city and on the battlefield, but this often contradicts what we are actually shown. It seems like everyone in the city has a secret stash of food and drink and no one who lives outside the walls seems to be suffering at all. Meanwhile, both Paris and boring love interest Alastor are able to avoid combat for little reason and without comment. Which I guess makes sense when you realize that apparently so few soldiers are being wounded that only one room is needed to tend to them. Then, less than a day after the Trojans discover the Greek ships have gone, they’re able to go out and gather enough food for a royal feast. The beginning of this book had me looking forward to an intense depiction of a city on the brink of starvation, of young characters who had spent almost their entire lives with enemy soldiers trapping them inside their walls. But the farther into the book I got, the less desperate the whole situation felt.

· For me, Paris was one of the highlights of this book, because he was a rare example of Geras getting creative with an aspect of the Trojan War myth. A Paris who is not entirely satisfied with his marriage to Helen – that’s awesome! I’d never seen him portrayed like that before! And when characters started mentioning Oenone, I got rather excited. Oenone is rarely used in Trojan War novels, but I find her story really interesting and I think there are a lot of things an author can do with it. Unfortunately I HATE how Geras handled it. It begins in the usual fashion, with whispers that Paris had a wife whom he abandoned when he met Helen. On page 211, the son of Paris and Oenone appears (and asks to see Helen only to tell her he actually wants to see Paris, seriously Geras get your dialogue under control) and doesn’t last two pages before Paris kills him. Fifteen pages later, a dying Paris is taken to Oenone, who refuses to heal him. Aphrodite fills us in:

“I was there, you know. When they carried Paris up the mountain to her cave, or grotto, or whatever she calls it. He was half dead. She came out looking smug, and what did she say? I’ll tell you. She said: You left me for Helen, even though I loved you. Now go to your Helen, and see how much use she is to you. I won’t save you. What a bitch! She could have brought him back to life and chose not to.”

Okay, wait. What is even happening here? Does Oenone not know that Paris killed her son?? What was the point of the son’s appearance in the story if it didn’t affect anything that happened afterward? How could it possibly not even be mentioned in this scene?! Why does Oenone say “I won’t heal you because you left me for Helen” and not “I won’t heal you because you killed my son”?? And on top of all that, where does Aphrodite get off dismissing Oenone as “a bitch” when Paris’s leaving her was Aphrodite’s fault??? Did Dan Simmons write that line? Geras takes a character who I think adds a really interesting layer to the myth, strips her storyline down to its bare minimum, never allows her onscreen, introduces her son, immediately forgets about him, and then has both Aphrodite and Helen label her a “bitch.” I have so many problems with this I can’t even wrap my brain around it.

· The above point, the novel’s less than subtle pro-life messages and the way that every male character who cries is referred to as “womanish” make me really confused as to why this Publisher’s Weekly review claims that Geras “recreates the saga of the Trojan War from a feminist perspective.” From a woman’s perspective, perhaps, but not so much from a feminist perspective. Seriously, this is a myth that begins with a queen sending her newborn son away to be killed, apparently without any sort of criticism. So why would a citizen of that queen’s city believe that the gods will punish her if she has an abortion?

· You perhaps have already gathered that a major problem I had with this book is that it presents so few new ideas. I love the Trojan War myth to death, obviously, but the reason I read novels based on it is because I want to see new takes on it. I want to see characters reimagined, I want to see events from different perspectives. With the exception of Paris, in Troy I didn’t feel that any of the myth’s characters had been changed or added to. They all hit their marks exactly as they do in the mythology, with no new insight into their actions. I would be completely fine with this if Geras’ original characters were interesting enough to compensate, but they’re not. They seem like perfectly nice people, but not exactly compelling. By the way, not gonna lie, I would love to read a Trojan War novel told from the point of view of regular Trojan citizens who have nothing to do with the royal family. Too bad for me, Troy is not that novel.

· Another recurring issue I had is the way that Geras introduces characters or storylines that she never returns to. One example is Oenone’s son; another is the Luck of Troy. In a conversation about how the statue has been stolen, the characters speculate that Helen has a romantic relationship with Odysseus that would lead her to help him steal it. Is it true? I don’t know! None of this is mentioned again. I got the feeling that Geras wanted to include as many aspects of the mythology as she could, but couldn’t or didn’t want to actually flesh them out into something that would be interesting and have an effect on the rest of the story. What especially frustrated me about the Luck of Troy example is that the “the Luck has been stolen from the temple, perhaps with Helen’s help” conversation comes directly after a scene in which a character who works for Helen is seen running away from the temple. But of course, those two scenes have nothing to do with each other. Geras constantly comes so, so, so close to doing something interesting with the story, and for whatever reason she just … doesn’t.

· Things I liked: Paris (before Oenone). The gods (when not speaking). The relationships between Helen and the other royal women. The relationships between the royal women and their servants. The line “Polyxena had sat in King Priam’s halls long enough to recognize adoration when she saw it.” The brief but hopeful scenes where the people of Troy are able to walk across the plain to the sea for the first time in ten years. Helen’s lack of fear during the city’s fall. The portrayal of Andromache’s grief often felt like too much to me, especially in a book where the reader only gets three scenes’ worth of Hector, but her subtler moments were pretty heartbreaking. The descriptions of the burning city were well done (… pun?) and I enjoyed the way it took characters longer to notice the fire depending on where they were and what they were doing – a nice change of pace from the tired ~everyone notices the fire at once~ montage. Boros has a shift in his character near the end which could have been quite interesting had we seen more of it. Astyanax … oh my goodness. His final scenes were heartwrenching. Easily the most emotional scene of the book is the one in which we see a Greek soldier’s immediate reaction to the baby’s death. And Xanthe’s reaction was stylistically the most interesting page.

I have probably made Troy sound like the worst novel ever. It isn’t. But it is far from the best, and the story of the Trojan War deserves better. To be completely honest, I was actually frustrated to learn that Geras has also written an Odyssey-inspired Ithaka and an Aeneid-inspired Dido. While I can’t say I’ll never read them, you won’t see me rushing out to get them.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Helen continued. “I don’t really care anymore. Isn’t that dreadful? My love, this love that has nearly drowned the city in blood, is fading. It’s nearly gone. There are times when he sets my flesh on fire … Forgive me for speaking so frankly … And then it’s like it was at the beginning, but more and more often I look at him and think: Is this what I left my country for?”