A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

“Just as I promised him: this was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them. A war does not ignore half the people whose lives it touches. So why do we?”

This is the book I had expected Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls to be. A retelling of the events surrounding the Trojan War written from the perspective of not just one or two but many of the women who had a role to play in the war and its aftermath – and going beyond the Iliad, the Aeneid and the Oresteia to tell the stories the men didn’t tell.

From Penthesilea, the Amazon queen, to Cassandra the prophet; from Thetis, the sea nymph and mother of Achilles, to Gaia, the personification of Mother Earth; from Iphigenia, cruelly sacrificed on what should have been her wedding day, to Creusa, who wakes in the night to find the city of Troy in flames – just think of a woman from Greek mythology and she is probably here, in this book!

The stories of some of the women are told quite briefly, while others are given more time and attention; some appear only once but others recur again and again throughout the novel. Interspersed between these stories are a series of letters from Penelope to her absent husband, Odysseus, the tone growing increasingly hurt and frustrated as tales of his heroic escapades begin to reach her while the man himself appears to be in no hurry to return home to his wife. And holding all the other threads of the novel together are short sections of commentary by Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, who is providing guidance to a blind poet who wants to tell the story of Troy:

Men’s deaths are epic, women’s deaths are tragic: is that it? He has misunderstood the very nature of conflict. Epic is countless tragedies, woven together. Heroes don’t become heroes without carnage, and carnage has both causes and consequences. And those don’t begin and end on a battlefield.

This is an ambitious novel but, for me, it mostly works. I say mostly because there were times when I found the structure confusing – the stories are not presented in chronological order and jump around in time so that a chapter set after the fall of Troy is followed by a chapter set at the beginning of the war – but I’m happy to admit that I am in no way an expert on Greek mythology and readers with more knowledge probably wouldn’t have a problem. I’m not really sure of the reason for the non-linear structure, though – obviously the stories must have been carefully arranged in a certain order but to me they felt very random. Also, because there are so many different narrators, many of whom made their voices heard only for a few pages before disappearing from the novel completely, it was difficult to form any kind of emotional connection with them. Still, there are some I found more memorable than others: Cassandra, doomed to constantly ‘watch the shock on people’s faces, when precisely what she had predicted – and they had ignored – came true’; Hera, Athene and Aphrodite fighting over the golden apple inscribed with the words ‘For the most beautiful’; and the sad story of Laodamia, devoted to a bronze statue of her lost husband.

Although A Thousand Ships felt more like a collection of short stories than a novel, I enjoyed reading it and am now wondering whether I should try Natalie Haynes’ previous Greek retelling, The Children of Jocasta.

Thanks to Mantle for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault

Published in 1962, this is the second of Mary Renault’s two novels telling the story of Theseus. It’s been a few years since I read the first book, The King Must Die, and I was worried that I’d waited too long to read this one, but actually, although it does pick up where the first book left off, it wasn’t necessary to remember every little detail because The Bull from the Sea also works as a complete novel in its own right.

It begins with Theseus and his fellow bull-dancers returning to Athens from Crete, having defeated the Minotaur. Mistakenly believing Theseus to be dead, his father Aegeus has committed suicide, leaving Theseus to become the new king of Athens in his place. After his eventful time in Crete, Theseus finds it difficult to settle back into daily life, even with his new duties as king to occupy him. His restlessness soon leads him into a series of adventures with his friend Pirithoos, the pirate king of the Lapiths, and one of these journeys ends in a meeting with Hippolyta, the Amazon queen.

Theseus falls in love with Hippolyta and after challenging her to single combat and winning, he takes her back with him to Athens. A close and loving relationship develops between them, but Hippolyta can never become his wife – his people would not accept her as their queen, but in any case he is already promised in marriage to Phaedra, a princess of Crete. The fates of Hippolyta, Phaedra and the sons they bear Theseus are played out over the remainder of the novel.

Unlike The King Must Die which focused on only a few years in Theseus’ life, The Bull from the Sea covers a much longer period and as it’s not a particularly thick book, this means that several of the episodes in Theseus’ story are not explored in as much detail. His role in taming the bull of Marathon, for example, is dealt with relatively quickly without going into a lot of depth. Much more time is spent on his relationships with Hippolyta and Phaedra and their sons Hippolytos and Akamas, which was good because this was the part of the novel I found the most interesting. Having recently read For the Immortal by Emily Hauser which tells Hippolyta’s story from a feminine perspective, Mary Renault’s portrayal of her relationship with Theseus couldn’t be more different!

It’s the fact that different authors can take such different approaches to the same myths and legends that makes Ancient Greece so fascinating to read about. There is never just one version that everyone agrees on; so much is left open to interpretation. Mary Renault gives logical, realistic explanations for the various aspects of the myths rather than fantastical ones. I was intrigued by her representation of the Kentaurs (centaurs), for example, not as the half human/half horse creatures we would normally think of, but as a sort of ancient and primitive community of people who live in the wild and form close bonds with their horses.

It seems that most people prefer The King Must Die to this book, but I think I actually enjoyed this one more. This is probably because when I read the first novel in 2013 I had previously read very little about Ancient Greece and didn’t find the subject particularly appealing. Since then I’ve been dipping into the period more and more often and becoming more familiar with some of the myths, which could be why I found this book easier to get into and follow. I will be reading more by Mary Renault and am looking forward to starting her Alexander trilogy soon. I already have the first two books, Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy, ready and waiting on my shelf.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

There have been a number of novels published recently which look at Greek myths and legends from a feminine perspective. In the last few months I have enjoyed reading Circe by Madeline Miller, which tells the story of the witch Circe from the Odyssey, and For the Immortal by Emily Hauser, the story of Hippolyta the Amazon queen. Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls is another, this time bringing to life the character of Briseis and the events of Homer’s Iliad.

When the city of Lyrnessus falls to the Greeks during the Trojan War, Briseis loses her husband, King Mynes, and her father and brothers. The surviving women are shared out amongst the Greek conquerors as prizes of war and Briseis finds that she is given to the great warrior Achilles as a slave. The events which follow, such as the quarrel which breaks out between Achilles and Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, over the possession of Briseis, and the fate of Patroclus when he impersonates Achilles on the battlefield, will already be known to anyone familiar with the Iliad. If all of this is new to you, though, don’t worry – no knowledge of Homer’s epic is necessary and Pat Barker makes it very easy to follow what is happening.

Most of the novel is narrated by Briseis herself and I found her a very engaging narrator. The nature of her story and the ordeals she faces make her an easy character to sympathise with; I was given a good understanding of how she felt about losing her freedom, becoming a slave and being at the mercy of the men responsible for murdering her family and destroying her city. This is quite a dark novel and Barker doesn’t hold back when describing the brutality of the men in the Greek army, both on and off the battlefield.

I was surprised to find that there are also some chapters written from the perspective of Achilles, who is very much the villain of the book. Although seeing Achilles’ side of the story certainly didn’t make me warm to him at all, it was good to get a different point of view, especially as it allowed us to see scenes and hear conversations that took place when Briseis was not present. However, because of the title of the book, I think it would have been nice if more female characters had been given a voice so that the silence of more than just one girl could be broken. We do meet some of the other women in the Greek camp, but only through Briseis’ eyes and Briseis is the only one we get to know in any depth.

I did really enjoy this book, though. It’s well written, very readable, and a fascinating portrayal of Ancient Greek society. If you’re interested in reading more about Briseis, you could try Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston and For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser. She also appears in Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which will give you a very different view of Achilles as well!

This is book 12/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

For the Winner by Emily Hauser

I mentioned recently that I wanted to read more fiction set in Ancient Greece and, having already read Emily Hauser’s first novel, For the Most Beautiful, I was sure that her second, For the Winner, would be a good choice! Hauser’s two books retell stories from Greek mythology from a female perspective – in For the Most Beautiful we see the events of the Trojan War unfold through the eyes of Krisayis and Briseis; For the Winner reimagines the story of Jason and the Argonauts with a focus on Atalanta, another lesser-known woman of the time. The books are part of a planned trilogy – the Golden Apple trilogy – but can be read in any order.

Abandoned on a mountain as a baby, Atalanta is rescued by a peasant and his wife who raise her as their own child. Growing up unaware of her true parentage, there are hints that Atalanta is destined for something special: by the time she is a teenager she has taught herself to hunt, to run with extraordinary speed and to use a bow and arrow with breathtaking skill. And then, one day, she learns the truth: the father who had left her to die on Mount Pelion was King Iasus of Pagasae.

To prove herself to her father, Atalanta decides to join the group of Greek heroes who are preparing for a voyage to the faraway land of Colchis in search of the legendary Golden Fleece. The quest will be led by the King’s nephew, Jason, whose reward for returning with the Fleece will be the kingdom of Pagasae itself – the kingdom Atalanta believes is rightfully hers. Can she win a place on board the Argo and find the Golden Fleece before Jason does?

I loved For the Winner. For the Most Beautiful was an enjoyable read too, but I thought this one was better – there were none of the little problems I remember experiencing with the other book. The biggest improvement was with the scenes depicting the Greek gods and goddesses looking down on the world from Mount Olympus, interfering and intervening in human affairs and arguing amongst themselves. With Zeus taking Atalanta’s side and Hera doing whatever she can to help Jason, I was particularly interested in the role of Iris, whose feelings and motives are less clear. The gods really added something special to the story this time and I looked forward to their appearances rather than finding them irritating as I did in the previous novel.

Although, as I’ve admitted before, my knowledge of Greek myth is quite limited, I was already familiar with the story of Jason and the Argonauts (and also have vague memories of watching the 1963 film version, years ago). However, the story told in this novel is very different, bringing in other characters and elements and mixing them together to create something new and original. Choosing to write from Atalanta’s perspective was a great decision because she is such a wonderful character. I loved following her adventures, but I don’t want to say too much more about her or give away too many details of her story! There were other characters I came to care about too, particularly Atalanta’s friend Myrtessa – and one of the men from the Argo who becomes the novel’s love interest. Jason, on the other hand, is portrayed as cruel, arrogant and completely unlikeable, but his rivalry with our heroine is what drives the plot forward.

I think what I appreciated most about For the Winner, though, was the way it explores the question of choice and free will – and how each of us has the power to defy fate and control our own destiny. Now I’m looking forward to the third book in the trilogy and am curious to see which Greek myth Emily Hauser tackles next.

Thanks to Doubleday for providing a copy of this book for review.

This is Book 5/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge. (I’m actually doing better with this challenge than it appears – I have another two books waiting to be reviewed and am in the middle of reading two more!)

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

After talking recently about my desire to read more fiction set in Ancient Greece, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read Colm Tóibín’s new novel House of Names. It retells the tragic story of the House of Atreus, described in Aeschylus’ famous trilogy, the Oresteia. Not being very familiar with this story, I had no problem following the plot of the novel, but couldn’t help wondering how different my experience would have been if I was already more well-versed in the Greek classics.

House of Names begins in dramatic style with Agamemnon sacrificing his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. In return the gods will bring about a change in the wind which will allow his army to sail to Troy. Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, is forced to witness the terrible scene – made even worse by the fact that she had believed she was coming to watch her daughter’s wedding, not her murder. The first section of the novel is narrated by Clytemnestra and I thought it was wonderful, vividly describing the moment of the sacrifice and perfectly capturing the agony and heartbreak of a mother at the loss of her child and the bitter fury of a wife at the treachery of her husband. Angry and grieving, Clytemnestra returns to Mycenae to await her husband’s return from Troy and her chance to take revenge:

Her screams as they murdered her were replaced by silence and by scheming when Agamemnon, her father, returned and I fooled him into thinking that I would not retaliate. I waited and I watched for signs, and smiled and opened my arms to him, and I had a table here prepared with food. Food for the fool! I was wearing the special scent that excited him. Scent for the fool!

But what effect will Clytemnestra’s next actions have on her two remaining children, Orestes and Electra? We don’t have to wait long to find out as sections written from the perspective of each of those characters follow. Orestes’ is told in the third person and describes his kidnapping from the palace of Mycenae and his later escape with the help of two other boys, Leander and Mitros. Together, far from home and away from their families, Orestes and his friends must find a way to survive into adulthood. His sister Electra, meanwhile, pushed aside after Iphigenia’s death, watches Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus and begins to plot a revenge of her own…

This has been a difficult review for me to write as I still can’t quite decide what I thought of House of Names! I loved the powerful opening section of this novel but, two weeks after finishing the book, that’s the only part that has really stayed with me. The Orestes and Electra sections, although I found them interesting at the time, felt strangely detached and emotionless. The writing style helped to create an eerie, otherworldly feel at times, but it came at the expense of the passion and intensity I would have preferred from a story like this.

I do think that my lack of knowledge of the Oresteia and the fate of the House of Atreus could have been an advantage rather than a disadvantage as far as this book is concerned. I’ve read several other reviews that mention being confused by Tóibín’s decision to change so many details of the story, such as the use of the character of Leander to fill the role of Pylades, but not being familiar with the original I didn’t even notice things like this. Maybe I should have an attempt at reading the Oresteia itself one day. Does anyone know of a good translation to read?

As for Colm Tóibín, I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. Brooklyn is the only other one of his novels that I’ve read and the two couldn’t be more different. Which of his books do you think I should try next?

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Historical Musings #25: Ancient Greece

Historical Musings As discussed in a previous Historical Musings post, despite my love of historical fiction I have never really felt drawn to novels set in the ancient world. I’m not sure why this should be, but I have certainly read very few books set in Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt or other ancient cultures, and feel much more comfortable with settings from the medieval period onwards. Since that previous post, when I specifically asked for suggestions of Roman novels to try, I have read Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy (which I loved and can’t recommend highly enough), Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero, and my current read, I, Claudius by Robert Graves, so I think I’m over my aversion to Ancient Rome! Now I need some help with Ancient Greece…

Thinking about books I’ve already read that are set in Ancient Greece, there are some but not many. I have read Homer’s Odyssey (in a translation by TE Lawrence), though not the Iliad yet – it’s debatable whether you would consider those to be historical fiction, I suppose, but they’re obviously a good starting point for exploring Greek history and myth.

Based, like the Iliad, on the Trojan War, there’s The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which tells the story from the perspective of Patroclus, and Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston, this time retelling events through the eyes of Briseis. Briseis is also one of the main characters – the other is Chryseis – in Emily Hauser’s For the Most Beautiful, which I read last year and enjoyed. I’ve recently received a review copy of the next book in the series, For the Winner, a book about Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece.

The books I’ve mentioned so far are all inspired by Greek mythology, some of them including appearances by gods or other mythological beings. Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart is a bit different, concentrating on the life of Sappho, the Greek lyric poet from the island of Lesbos.

Finally, I must mention Mary Renault, a beloved author of many readers when it comes to historical novels set in Ancient Greece. So far I have only read The King Must Die, the first of her two novels telling the story of Theseus in a way which gives plausible explanations for elements of the Theseus myth. I enjoyed it, but didn’t fall in love with it the way I’d hoped to, and still need to read the sequel, The Bull from the Sea.

What are your favourite books set in Ancient Greece? Have you read any that I’ve mentioned here?

Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart

burning-sappho There are some historical women whose lives have been written about in fiction many times but I think it’s safe to say that Sappho, the Greek lyric poet, doesn’t seem to be one of them. This novel, first published in 1974, is the first I’ve come across that tells her story and much as I do enjoy reading about Tudor queens and medieval princesses, it’s always refreshing to have the opportunity to read about somebody different!

Very little is known for certain about Sappho’s life. We do know that she was born on the Greek island of Lesbos, possibly between 630 and 612BC, and grew up in the port town of Mitylene. We know the probable names of some of her family members and we know that she was exiled from Mitylene twice. Beyond this, most of the information we have about Sappho is unreliable or based on the remaining fragments of her poetry, which may or may not have been autobiographical. It’s enough to build a novel around, though, and in Burning Sappho Martha Rofheart uses the known facts as a starting point to give a possible interpretation of what Sappho’s life could have been like.

We don’t have much factual information about the other characters who appear in the novel either – and I have to admit, I hadn’t even heard of most of them and didn’t know whether they were real or fictional, so Google proved very useful there! Some of the most notable characters include Gorgo, a girl from Sparta who angers Sappho by befriending Andromeda, the Nubian slave purchased by Sappho’s father; Alkaios, a fellow poet and the man Sappho loves; Pittakos, who rules Mitylene after the downfall of the Tyrant, Melanchros; and the famous courtesan Doricha, known as Rhodopis. I was also pleased to see Aesop make a few appearances – one character I had at least heard of!

The novel is divided into five sections; there are two narrated by Sappho herself and one each from the points of view of Alkaios, Doricha/Rhodopis and the sea trader, Kerkylas of Andros. There’s not a lot of difference between the voices of the narrators so it took a while to adjust to each change of perspective, but otherwise I thought the structure worked well. I preferred Sappho’s own narration, but hearing from other people who were close to her helped me to form a more balanced view of her as a person. There seems to be a lot of debate surrounding Sappho’s sexuality (the word lesbian is derived from the name of Sappho’s home, Lesbos), but Rofheart portrays her as having relationships with both men and women. In particular, she is shown to be in love with a girl called Atthis, whose name is mentioned in some of her love poetry.

I always admire people who write fiction set in ancient periods; I think it must be very difficult, when we have such limited knowledge of how people lived in those times. On reading Martha Rofheart’s Author’s Note and list of acknowledgments at the end of the book, I can appreciate the efforts she went to in researching her novel – for example, she states that as the geographical landscape has changed so much over the centuries, she has based her descriptions of the Greek islands on how they appeared in ancient writings rather than modern day ones. However, I still felt that there was something a little bit too ‘modern’ about this book – maybe it was the attitudes of some of the characters and the language they used. It wasn’t a huge problem, but the best way I can explain it is that I was always conscious that I was reading a story written in the 1970s, rather than being completely swept away to another time and place.

Still, I thought this was a fascinating novel and an educational one too. I knew absolutely nothing about this period before I started to read so I don’t feel qualified to comment on the historical accuracy or the choices Rofheart makes, but even if not everything happened as she describes it, I feel that I’ve learned a lot about the history of Lesbos. Although the focus is usually on Sappho and her music, she lived through a time of political turmoil; one of the most memorable scenes in the book describes the overthrow of Melanchros the Tyrant (which is sparked, in Rofheart’s version of events, by Sappho’s performance of a song she has written in protest against the custom of child sacrifice).

Burning Sappho (also published as My Name is Sappho) was an enjoyable read. Although it wasn’t quite as immersive as I would have liked, I thought it was much better than Lionheart, the other Martha Rofheart book I’ve read. She has written several other historical novels, all set in different periods, and I’m looking forward to working my way through them. As for Sappho, I can only find details of one or two other novels about her, but there seems to be plenty of non-fiction, including collections of her surviving writings. Now that I’ve been introduced to this fascinating woman, I’m interested in reading more about her!

Note: The spellings of names and places used in this review are as they appear in the novel and may vary between different sources.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.