Fire and Hemlock – Diana Wynne-Jones

Nostalgia time!

So I have three favourite books by Diana Wynne-Jones, HexwoodThe Merlin Conspiracy and Fire and Hemlock, though all for different reasons. Hexwood confused child-me (in a good way), and even though I reread it later and found it not at all that challenging, it still pleased me from having had that impression… probably because it was the first non-chronological book I ever read. The Merlin Conspiracy is probably her longest novel, and I read it at a time when “length of book” was one of the most important criteria I had for judging quality… it also introduced me to some Welsh mythology and names (albeit briefly) and some fun magic, driven by a smart little girl. But Fire and Hemlock was one I never really understood why I loved it, I just did. I read it several times over – because child me read a lot more than adult me does, and so ran out of books very quickly – and never really got why it just clicked.

To be honest, I still don’t, but I still love it. I can point to individual cool things it does and say that they are cool, but something about the whole is still captivating to me, and I’m buggered if I can tell you why. Such is life.

I suppose, like The Merlin Conspiracy, this introduced me to some different folklore that I’d not come across before… it was probably my first experience of literature drawing on the evil fairies stealing men sort of tropes, and it specifically draws on two literary sources – The Ballad of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – to paint this picture. This is a trope I’ve liked every time I’ve encountered it subsequently, though I think in nearly everything I’ve read that covers it, it’s done less well… I’m thinking here things like Tithe by Holly Black, and the Dresden Files series, though it does also crop up in A Foxglove Summer, done rather better. And I don’t just mean any fairies in modern literature, I’m specifically talking about a particular strand of that (because there are plenty of fun modern fairies, like in Mike Shevdon’s works)… and I’m honestly struggling to come up with anything I’ve read that handles it better or more interestingly.

What Jones does is thread the two ballads together, drawing elements from both (but keeping their traditions very strongly visible), while at the same time telling a story that is both very her and very not. It’s definitely aimed higher than most of her work, it’s certainly YA rather than children’s, and while it is full of stylistic points that are very her, it’s also dealing with much more complex and mature topics than is often the case, even in her book about sex terrorists. Which is unique in my DWJ reading too.

I suppose this is what it is, it’s one of her books most grounded in something that exists in the world, and the one with the most mature outlook toward life, and particularly interpersonal relationships. The relationships the main character has with everyone, her parents, her friends, her grandmother, and the strange man she meets at a funeral in her childhood, are all fraught in some way with problems, and we watch someone grow from childhood navigating difficult relationships. Sometimes she fails, but she fails in ways that endear her to us all the more, because she’s ultimately both kind and clever, and tries her best to do what she can with both of those. She sees the flaws in people, even her mother, and tries to work to support the gaps that exist, without ever denying that they’re there. There’s also quite a lot of unresolved sadness in those relationships, so you end up caring terribly what happens to her, because life has thrown a lot her way, and she’s not quite dealt with it all exactly right. But there are two relationships that, for all their troubles, seem actually to be worthwhile for her, and both are interesting to read in their own ways.

Polly and her grandmother is just… comforting. Her grandmother is the sort of character DWJ writes quite well, the ageing but powerful woman who will get her way goddamnit and is ultimately a force for good. There’s one in The Merlin Conspiracy too and I love her. She’s the one who rescues Polly when her parents fail her completely, and she’s the one who provide solidity and sense and logic, while trying to scare off the demons around them both. What’s interesting about the relationship is that the book only reveals a lot of what the grandmother has done rather late on, and so you end up looking backwards and rethinking much of what you’ve seen.

The other relationship is one I shouldn’t spoil, but is between Polly and the mysterious stranger she meets at a funeral. It’s the strongest thread throughout the book, and the most interesting, because it’s so hard to define what they are to one another. It’s not a childish friendship, but nor is it quite familial either, nor again the mentor/pupil one often finds in fantasy novels. It’s somehow all of these and none, and several other things besides. And it’s not without problems – which are acknowledged both by the author and the characters – so we know not to take it always as the best thing it could be, but it looks those problems squarely in the face, and I think handles them in a far more adult way than most YA novels manage.

I suppose that’s my main and abiding praise – it’s a book with such a sensible and mature outlook… it avoids the sop and romance that I find in a lot of YA, and which often has questionable morality… but without avoiding the sentiments underneath.

That makes it sound rather dull, but I think the mood I’m in today is one that cares deeply about how the book deals with people. On another day, I’d focus my praise on the way it twines the fantastic into reality so seamlessly, so it’s plausible without being mundane, and manages to handle magic and memory in a very skilful way.

I think I’m happy to say that I’d count this as DWJ’s best book. It’s the one I’d most likely recommend to an adult who’d never read any of her work before, though I’m sufficiently full of nostalgia that I don’t know how well that would work. I’d hope well, though. DWJ gets a lot of love she thoroughly deserves, and I’ve read very little by her that I haven’t enjoyed, but this is so wonderful in its own little way that I think it deserves more appreciation than I’ve ever really seen it get. I will no doubt continue to reread it periodically, and I don’t think I’m ever going to stop loving it, while at the same time I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand that love either. I guess that mystery is probably a considerable part of the charm.

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Zoo City – Lauren Beukes

I’ve reviewed this before here, so I won’t say much. I don’t much disagree with what I said the first time, though I think my views are a touch more emphatic, since they’ve come up against disagreement. It’s one of those book where I didn’t realise how much I really loved it until someone told me they thought one aspect or another of it was badly done. Then suddenly SURGE OF CARING. Because I am very strongly of the opinion that this book is an excellent book, but more important than that, whether you like it or not, I think it is very clear that this book has been skilfully written. And I suppose that’s always the hill I’m willing to die on… people can have opinions that differ than mine – of the “I like this/I don’t like that” flavour – but as soon as they start treating it like something is objectively bad… nope.

Not that I’ve spoken to anyone who hated or vilified this book anywhere near that much. It just struck me as interesting how minor criticism prodded my opinions right in the soft spot I didn’t know they had.

What I most have to add on my previous post is how much I love the world of this book. In the last few years I’ve read some more urban fantasy, and I think enough of it to have some strong opinions on what I think works and doesn’t… this definitely falling into the former category. Beukes has done what the best of them do and made the unreal feel astonishingly grounded and plausible. Most of that is achieved by situating it firmly into a real city… which in most cases is London but here… her picture of Johannesburg, to my very little knowledge, feels utterly plausible and entirely… “real” is the wrong word. It’s not ethereal or narrative-powered, like so many novels. It feels like her book could actually take a real, unexpected turn, because the people in it are actual people, behaving in real ways, not bound by the strictures of “well now is the bit where the hero does this”. But they obviously are. There are points I can pick where that’s definitely true. But her skill is in building us a world of magic that feels not only real in the sense of the magic being plausible, but real in the sense of the actions and choices of the people in it feeling totally real. It’s very much the shining light of what she does, for me.

Besides that, she remains just an excellent writer of characters. I still love Zinzi’s character arc, and the sympathy tinged with distaste we get for her way of life and her choices. She’s done bad things, and we don’t excuse them, but we can’t help but sympathise with the person she is now, and want her to pull herself out of her post-addiction, post-prison hole, and start living beyond the next moment.

I also didn’t stress in my previous post how much I enjoy her prose and general construction ability. She doesn’t write like a genre-fiction writer, and for all that I love genre-fiction, here that’s a good thing. It feeds that plausibility, and manages to cover dark and awful topics without feeling like it’s being deliberately “gritty”. There’s no sense of “oh I’d best make this dark” in an almost voyeuristic way, which I’ve definitely experienced elsewhere. It’s far more matter of fact, accepting that this darkness is a day to day reality for some people in some places, whether that’s the guilt or the drugs or the crime or the poverty or the squalor, and by glorying in it, by using it as a tool to make another, cheaper point, you undermine how actually awful it is. She’s not done that, and so she’s not taken the teeth out of it. And I suppose that too is part of what pushes it into the realms of the realistic.

So, after this, I want very badly to read more urban fantasy non-London. This drives home that point very much indeed. A book drawing on a magic tradition that isn’t the same old fare you get in every London-based urban fantasy is just so refreshing, and either there should be more of it or I should be more aware of it… or both. So if anyone has any recommendations, I would be very keen to hear them.

Next up, I reread Fire and Hemlock in a whirl, because I wanted comforting nostalgia, and I hadn’t read it in forever.

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A Piece of Justice – Jill Paton Walsh

In response to him reading my last post and being somewhat smug, I am dedicating this ‘blog post to my flatmate. I dislike him intensely. He is a terrible person. No thanks should ever be accorded to him in any matter. There. You happy?

So I read this all in one evening on Wednesday, because crime drama is very comforting, and it was nice to curl up in my chair in my room with a cup of tea and a block of chocolate. It was a good evening.

This was incredibly enjoyable, in many of the same ways as the first. It’s a good, solid detective story, with a really endearing protagonist, set in somewhere for which I have a lot of nostalgia. Once again, we have the main mystery plot and an apparently unrelated subplot which, shocker, links into the main one later on. In this one, the subplot is quilting. I’m sorry, but it’s just so twee and adorable and soothing. It’s exactly the sort of crime drama I want in my life… the combination of actually clever, proper stakes, complex plot but which you nevertheless feel like you could have solved yourself (even though you didn’t) and yet light-heartedness.

I’ll end there for the spoiler-safe version. The rest of my enjoyment can only really be conveyed with some spoiling.

So the thing that ties everything all together in this one is actually maths. And specifically, the end conclusion is that the great mathematical discovery of their time was made by a woman in Wales denied a full degree by Cambridge because they didn’t award them to women in those days. She’d found a piece of cool geometry, which she’d worked into the pattern of a quilt which was accidentally seen by an academic mathematician on holiday, who stole the idea and published it, getting famous off the back of her work. As well as this being the obvious tie-in to quilting, the early parts of the story are also full of stuff linking in to women’s work and the difference between art and craft (someone suggests crafts are art just done by women, for instance) and how women’s endeavours are viewed by others and by themselves. It’s not at all trite, and covers some very valuable ground without being patronising or didactic.

Even more than the first, this book is the story of women and what they do, both visibly and quietly in the background, and it is just… really satisfying to read. The balance between Fran the outspoken academic, working in what is perceived as a male field, and Imogen, quietly in the background in her nursing capacity, alongside wives and mistresses and widows and farmers and quilters and all sorts of different women in different roles at different ages… it manages to cover a much larger breadth of the female existence (though not all of it, as you never could), and think about it, without ever pulling you away from the plot, since it is a murder-mystery and all.

The author basically seems to have a knack of picking something I’ll be interested in – libraries, sewing – and making it the subplot to a really solid murder mystery, with just enough twee to make me feel cosy. I’m definitely going to keep reading her work, and I’m sad about how little of it there seems to be, at least of the Imogen Quy mysteries.

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The Return of the King – J.R.R. Tolkien

And concluding my ever-surprising Lord of the Rings reread, a final surprise: The Return of the King is my favourite book of the three, by simultaneously a clear and rather close margin, actually.

For the first half of the book, it is far and away the best. It has some brilliant, beautiful scenes, wonderfully described, and just some of the best happenings of the story. All the setup work has been done in The Two Towers, and so we can get some resolution and plot just… getting on with it. We lead in with one of my favourite scenes from the films – the warning beacons of Gondor, which is… less dramatic in the book but still a beautiful image. And then it just keeps getting better. We have the Battle of Pelennor Fields… which would have been pretty brilliant just on paper, and then I have the images from the film… but, much like I’ve said of the other two books, my knowledge/memory of the film is all over this, and if anything more so here. Every time someone said something that had been quoted in the film, I could only hear it in the voice of the actor… which is pretty bad for Aragorn speaking when the armies mass in front of Gondor, because it’s the bit of the film where Viggo Mortensen does a really strange accent that I find pretty funny every time I hear it. Gravitas entirely undermined. It does sadden me that I have the films down in my brain as the default versions, but then again, they are such good films…

Anyway.

My only problem with The Return of the King is the second half of the book. Well, it’s two problems really. Firstly – too much Sam and Frodo. Less so than the film, actually, where I tend to fast forward those bits, but it’s still the bit of the story I find the least enthralling, and it remains so in print. I didn’t ever consider skipping, and I never stopped enjoying reading the book… but it’s just not as good. And then the story just doesn’t know when to stop. I have mixed feelings about the Scouring of the Shire, too. It’s a fun bit, and I enjoyed reading it, but I do feel it mucks up any sense of solemnity the end of the book might have had. The piling on of one ending after another gives it more a sense of fizzling out than a grand or dramatic close, which is I think what I would have wanted, and what reading the rest of the books feel it demands.

But these are mild criticisms at most. They are firmly in “I didn’t enjoy it as much as the rest“, which is rather different from not enjoying at all.

On the positive side, I don’t have much to say that I’ve not already said for The Two Towers. It is beautifully written, Tolkien does have a wonderful knack for world-building, and he ties everything together so well with the style he’s writing. It’s not hugely character driven, but that feels ok because of the style it’s invoking, and even when not being, he manages to bring me characters I love anyway. I adore Faramir and can’t help but like Legolas and Elrond… though I don’t like Eowyn as much as I feel I ought to. Merry and Pippin too remain favourites. And for all that I do think the ending peters out gently, it’s not really a bad ending. It cares about tying up all the loose ends, and I do care about that too. I want to know what happens to everyone and who rules where, and did they ever find Saruman and so on. Maybe I’d have preferred it in appendices (I’ll admit, I’m still reading those), but it’s not so bad in the story format either, so I’m not really going to complain.

Unlike every other genre-defining book I’ve read, I think, I now fully see why Tolkien holds the place in the canon that he does. I honestly don’t think I’ve read anything newer that does what he does better, in a way I don’t think is true of things like Dune or Neuromancer or any of the other older classics. They all stand as the originators (or near as) upon which others have improved. Tolkien is the archetype to which everything else tries to live up. I mean, that’s not to say this is my favourite series ever – I have other books I dearly love – but of the epic fantasy genre, I don’t know that I can think of anything that really comes close to Tolkien.

I could go into the reasons for that, because I do have some thoughts on why it is, but then this post would end up even longer than the one about the Trojan War book, and I think I should mostly avoid that. Besides, I’m fairly sure anyone reading this already has their own opinions on Tolkien. So instead I’ll point out that the abiding thing that has been sticking with me from reading these is that I really really want to learn one of his constructed languages, because of the worldbuilding of the books. And I hate conlangs*. But I’m so sucked into the world he’s built I want to engage with it more, not just in story form, but in all the ways it is available to me. Yes, I want to read The Hobbit and The Silmarillion and everything else there is to read… but I also want to go read trivia and appendices and backstory and conlangs and just… submerge myself in the world he’s created because it is so successful. And I think that’s about as much as I’m ever going to get from a fantasy novel. Though I’ll recant that if one ever drives me to write fanfiction (spoilers: not gonna happen).

As I have said before, past-me was a fool, and I’m very glad to have reread LotR and had a chance to see how my changed tastes have moved on and can enjoy them. They’ll never be my favourite, because I don’t and never will have the nostalgia for them that many do, but I can see myself continuing to engage with them, both in terms of reading more, reading about… and just reading again at some future time. So they’re definitely up there in the list, even if not at the very top. I’m happy with this**.

Next up, briefly back to comforting crime drama, then a reread of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes for bookclub.

 

* No really, I do. They annoy the hell out of me. Esperanto can go… do an impolite thing I probably shouldn’t attach my name to in a public space.
** I should probably be grateful to flatmate about all this, as it’s ultimately his fault that I ended up rereading them. Not saying I am… but I probably should be.

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The Wyndham Case – Jill Paton Walsh

I’ve not been very well the last few days, so I decided to read something comforting and cheering… so of course what does one pick but “murders”? I do find detective fiction very relaxing though, it has to be said. I suppose I don’t get as invested in it as I do SFF. Anyway. I’d been lent the Imogen Quy Mysteries, of which this is the first, on the promise they were good, backed up by the discovery that the author finished off the incomplete Peter Wimsy novel after Dorothy L. Sayers passed away… and well, if she was good enough for that… Pleasingly, she was very much in that tone, and exactly the sort of thing to read on the sofa under a blanket.

Much of what’s being done here is pretty stock detective fiction; there’s nothing really I haven’t seen before. But it’s been very well put together, and despite being not exactly innovative, it is rather clever. It manages to achieve what a good mystery should, which is the feeling at the end that you should have been able to work it out yourself from the clues you got along the way… but didn’t. I got part of the way there, of which I’m quite proud, but I didn’t manage to tie in the other half of the mystery, alas. It also manages to give you a rather complex problem and solution but without it feeling laboured, forced or contrived to get you there. Yes, there are a lot of strands to the problem, but they’re all handled with care and precision so it never feels like an impenetrable muddle, either to the main character or to the reader.

Particularly well done is the way the two halves of the mystery are dealt with. Of course, you as the reader know they will eventually come together, because you’ve read a detective story ever before and you know how these things work. But I kept on not seeing how they were going to fit together until I started to wonder that maybe they wouldn’t… and then of course they did. And that moment of doubt was lovely, because I don’t necessarily want complete, comforting certainty… there has to be a bit of a mystery. And there was.

Add to this that Imogen Quy is just a really enjoyable detective. Of course I was always going to like her – no-nonsense, red-headed, determinedly independent and based in Cambridge in the mid-twentieth century – but it’s nice to have a character doing the mixture of common sense smartness and intellectual smartness and doing so well. There are a few contrived moments where the police disdain the latter and the university people the former, but in Imogen at least they seem well balanced.

The background/supporting characters are a little less successful, especially with her police contact/friend being the sort of corner-cutting semi-maverick (think DS Bacchus in early Inspector George Gently) that I don’t get on with… but they are all rather pushed into the background by Imogen. What few there are do at least get a good, solid cast of interesting women, from the worried but good-hearted student Fran to the forceful personality of the master’s wife, Lady B, and it does feel like both of these at least might get more of a showing in later novels. Though I suspect they will always pale in comparison to Imogen, and this sort of detective fiction isn’t always big on putting a lot of time into character development anyway.

But I don’t really mind. It’s part of the genre, really. And The Wyndham Case is a thoroughly excellent example of the genre, in a lovely setting (that admittedly appeals to me specifically, being a Cambridge college and all) which it knows and handles very well indeed. It does what it sets out to do very well, and it was exactly what I expected and wanted it to be.

The books are all short, which is a little of a shame, but I think at least in this one the brisk pace and general lightness are a plus, so perhaps a longer novel would undermine the neatness of the story.

Overall, it definitely occupies the niche I want in my detective fiction, about which I may be a touch on the picky side. But this, the Peter Wimsy novels and the Sidney Chambers mysteries are absolutely it, and I shall definitely continue reading.

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Sex Criminals Volume Two: Two Worlds, One Cop – Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky

IT ENDED ON A CLIFFHANGER, THE BASTARDS.

Ahem.

So I continue to really enjoy Sex Criminals. I still don’t love it, I think… but I’m definitely invested in the story and the characters. I definitely care what happens to everyone and how the story goes. Enough that ending on a cliffhanger is a DICK MOVE, guys. Especially since the way the story moves is to advance, then wander into an explanation of how that advance happened, then creep forward a little more, then do the same, and so on, so you get really quite invested in each forward move because they’re so precious. I’m not saying the backwards parts aren’t really interesting – they are, and the story would be so much less without them – but it makes you really keen to see how things are going each time you get back to the forwards. It’s the same structure as the first volume, and I still really enjoy it. It’s being well executed, and each section is pretty much the right length to keep you sucked in. Which of course means that a cliffhanger ending is really very frustrating… especially since the last quite a few pages are bonus art/alternate covers/info/etc. and so you think you have more story left to go than you do.

I think at this point my main criticism is that this felt so much shorter than most graphic novels I read. Much like Lazarus, though it filled the same space it just felt… less. In the case of Lazarus, I think this is just because the story is told in big, wide frames with very small bits of text, so of course the pace slows a little. With this… I’m less sure. I think it may be partly a product of the structure, since it means you don’t move that much forward through the plot for the amount of pages you have, since you’re spending so much time meandering backwards, but I don’t think it’s just that. I guess maybe because they also spend a lot of time with the characters focussing inward? That does hold back the plot progress too.

Not that I’m complaining about that. The best bit about this story is the characters, and their internal development is part of the charm.

Again, I’m going to go on and on about the need for engaging characters (or rather I won’t, because I’ve done it a lot before so just assume I have… ok? Good…), but this really fills that. And one of the things that really makes them work is the faces. They’re really expressive with how they’re drawn, which of course is great, but also most of the main characters have quite unusual faces anyway. Some of them are just pretty/handsome, which is fine, but a lot of them aren’t, exactly. They’re weird or distinctive in some way… and it makes them charming. I still like Jonathan a lot, and his slightly odd face is just a part of that. It’s… just that bit more real.

In much the same way, there’s a pleasing mundanity to the character interactions that counterbalances the weirdness of the sex-fuelled superpowers. They laugh at stupid things and fail and fuck up and struggle, and for all that I’m reading for the time-stopping-superpowers, I think it’s this that’s keeping me reading. It feels… normal, even when it’s being really, really not.

Speaking of which, the weirdnesses of this volume: there’s a WicDiv porn parody (presumably since they share an author) and a random digression into education about female contraception options. Because… obviously? Neither of them exactly flow seamlessly into the plot, because I did have to break to go “wtf?” quietly to myself, but nor do they really break things with the weirdness either. I mean, realistically, they’re no more weird than “we can stop time when we have sex”. And it also means you get a page of porn parody titles, which is always fun. Because puns. Always more puns.

Where the first book is about characters, sex and growing up, this one is about characters, sex and how to relationship like an adult… but somehow it’s much less didactic and patronising than that sounds and it’s really great. I will definitely keep reading, even having been told there’s some sort of dildo-monster in the next volume (no, I have no idea either). They continue to excel at holding you on with the structure of the narrative and the quality of the characters and interaction, which somehow puts a definitely excellent plot into the back seat. Which is somehow an achievement I’m praising, but sure, whatever. It’s keeping on doing what it was doing in volume one, and keeping on doing it just as well. The plot does move forward fairly slowly, and it doesn’t feel like you get a lot in each volume, but what you do get is still worth it enough for me to keep being invested in the series. So no complaints here… other than that I don’t have immediate access to volume three…

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The Song of Troy – Colleen McCullough

Minor warning here, it’s a novel set during the Iliad. I have a lot of opinions about it. This post is going to run long. I’m very sorry.

I’d had one of McCullough’s books – First Man in Rome – on my shelf for years before I got round to reading it about six months ago. I’d known nothing about it or her, save the title and the fact that it had a man in a toga on the front. I’d had a vague thought it might have been about Cicero, though it wasn’t. Having enjoyed it and the sequel – The Grass Crown – so immensely for their intensive focus on the intricate details of late Republican Roman politics, when I found out she had a book about Troy too, I thought that of course I had to read it. Alas, clearly the late republic is her pet era, because she’s nothing like so enjoyable here. What had really captivated me with her Roman books (and I definitely intend to keep reading that series) was how she managed to spend so long getting into the nitty-gritty and hyperactively fact-conscious details of the lives of various politicians, while at the same time bringing these people – many of whom I had only ever really thought about as historical facts, not human beings – to real life, gifting them with definite and captivating personalities. Sure, I disagree sometimes with her choice of favourites, especially her adoration of Sulla, but it was still really gripping reading. Unfortunately with The Song of Troy, she’s taken something with less historical accuracy to bind her, and somehow managed, within this broader freedom, to write less convincing people. It’s counter-intuitive and peculiar, but there you go.

That said, and for all that is my main realistic criticism of the book (on which I’ll go into more detail shortly), the thing that stood out to me, and made me start grumbling aloud to my flatmates, was her shocking disregard for fact-checking, especially in contrast to her other series. As well as the much-known characters of the Iliad, McCullough also drops in a few historical names, and specifically drops them in as being currently living contemporaries of Priam in Troy. Only… the three specific ones I noticed were none of them contemporaries with one another (whether or not contemporaries of Troy, depending on when you think the Trojan War was, or even if it really happened). The names she lists which twigged my annoyance here are Nebuchadnezzar, Hattusili and Tiglath-Pileser. I’m going to assume here that each of these is the most famous of that name (so Nebuchadnezzar II, Hattusili III and Tiglath-Pileser III) as she didn’t mention any specifics about any of them. Their regnal dates are:

Nebuchadnezzar: c.605-562BCE
Hattusili: c.1267-1237BCE
Tiglath-Pileser: c.745-727BCE

Those are… not close gaps. Now, if we’re really generous and assume she meant the three kings of those names who were the closest together in reign (Nebuchadnezzar I, Hattusili III and Tiglath-Pileser I), then firstly she probably should have mentioned that it was Hattusili the third, and secondly, they still weren’t contemporary. Nebuchadnezzar ruled 1125-1104, and Tiglath-Pileser ruled around 1114-1076 and Hattusili… 1267-1237… So yeah, this still isn’t working. Especially since the Hittites sort of stopped being around after Suppiluliuma II, who ruled until around 1178BCE… so before the reigns of either of the generous assumptions of Nebuchadnezzar or Tiglath-Pileser.

What I’m taking rather too many words to say here is that she’s failed the very simple fact-check of JUST GOOGLING IT. And all three of the name drops of these were completely unnecessary for the story. They added nothing much, other than some historicity (and she is trying in this to build a feeling of reality and dispel the more mythic elements of the Trojan War narrative), and at the cost of undermining said historicity if the reader knows anything about the history of the region*. For all that I know I get funny about accuracy sometimes, occasionally, there’s a time and place where it’s relevant and legitimate. This is it.

What I won’t do is pick her up on her departures from the text of the Iliad – which are many – because at least there I’m happy to accept that she’s making legitimate choices and pushing it in a particular direction in order to achieve something. She wants to pull her story of Troy away from the myths, from the acts of the gods coming down and interacting with the world, and bring it into the realms of real men and women acting on realistic impulses and plans.

That said, I don’t particularly like that decision.

The key point she makes is to have Agamemnon using Helen’s decision to go to Troy with Paris (and yes, she has Helen as a willing agent in this, whatever your feelings are on that) simply as a pretext for a war he’d wanted to fight on economic grounds for years, but couldn’t guarantee the force of men and arms to wage it successfully. The Oath of Tyndareus was a way out of Helen’s father’s dilemma that Odysseus cooked up for him, clearly seeing it as a way in the future to draw the kings of Greece together to fight against the Trojans, who are blocking their access to trading in the Euxine, and preventing them thus being able to trade for tin to make bronze and thus expand militarily. There’s some more scene-setting and explanation of a history of bad blood between Greece and Troy, but essentially she’s made the war one of economics, and had it not been for those factors, no one but Menelaus would have gone after a woman who left of her own free will. I quite like this bit of realism, myself, but what I don’t like is a lot of what it relies on to see it through. You need an Odysseus who sees so far into the likely events of the future that he knows Helen is going to run off to Troy one day, a Menelaus so chronically stupid and cowed that he can’t see the political situation around him and the real cause of the war right up until they’ve been in Troy for years already and a lot of other leaders who just have to be… kind of daft in specific ways that don’t really make sense. If she’d set it up differently to how she did, it would have worked beautifully, and I love it as an idea, but I don’t think it’s carried through very well.

Add to this the fact that she doesn’t fully divorce herself from myth. She still has the prophecies which run through the Iliad, and a few more besides she’s thrown in (some from non-Iliad epic tradition and a couple I’m pretty sure she just made up for plot expedience), and because they come true, because they are treated in the book’s world, not just by the characters, as real things that really work, she can never hope to realise her realistic-Iliad. She’s gone for an awkward middle ground, which is never a good idea. If she’d committed either way, I think it could have worked, but she really hasn’t.

Further, and this one was… weird… she has some very odd ideas about religion in the Ancient World. She draws a sharp line between “The Old Religion” and “The New Religion” and the shape of society under both of them, the former being harshly matriarchal, with all-powerful priest-queens to whom the lives of men meant little, and who would happily sacrifice their kings to the Mother-Goddess Kubaba at every little mishap and disaster that befell their kingdoms, while also worshipping the Titans (Thetis being a follower of the Old Religion and priestess of Nereus) in an unspecified manner and being a bit nasty and human-sacrificey and unspecifiedly not good. The New Religion is the religion of Classical Greece, more or less, which is off-handedly mentioned to have allowed the men into power and got rid of this nasty human sacrifice business, but with no explanation of the how, though clearly it was recent history. Klytemnestra and Helen are said to come from somewhere it’s still going strong, and Klytemnestra at least is supposedly likely to bring it all back at the drop of a hat if she can get away with it, and kill off Agamemnon quite cheerfully (and this is before the business with Iphigenia), showing herself to be a bit on the evil side. Leaving aside the sexist undertones, which are quite uncomfortable to say the least, this is just a bit weird. It casts the men of the Iliad as a recently enfranchised oppressed group (what), which very much is how they talk about themselves when they discuss religion, while in nearly the same breath talking about the great kings and heroes of the previous ages and how they ruled their lands and did great deeds (Herakles specifically coming up a lot, but not him exclusively). Again, it feels like she’s had an idea but not committed, because she’s not been willing to step that little bit further away from the canon to back up her own setting, but still wanting to do an imaginative retelling that deviates from the canon. It creates inconsistencies in the text that are jarring, and which at times did forcibly drag me out of immersion to start wondering what the hell she was on about. Not great.

Even if you abandon picking apart the context and historicity, there are problems.

As I said before, she’s managed, in the freer bounds of an already mythical canon to somehow create less personable and plausible characters than in a very constricted setting. None of her people really feel real. They are all tied up to one or two traits they are traditionally known for, then blown out of proportion… or she’s abandoned their tradition altogether and struck out alone… while not abandoning the plot points where their character is what decides how the story goes. So we have an Odysseus who is somehow even more schemey and plotty than Odyssey Odysseus (which I scarcely believed possible), a Menelaus so in the shadow of his brother that he’s reduced to being a bumbling idiot who can’t see things right in front of his face, a Big Ajax who is just… a bear of little brain… you see where I’m going here. And then you have an Achilles who claims not to be an angry person. I’m sorry, but… μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος… HIS WRATH IS LITERALLY THE FIRST LINE. IT IS HIS THING. IT IS PRETTY MUCH HIS USP. And while I support moving away from the original text to do interesting and exciting things… at the point when you’re explicitly denying something that is the basis of the entire story… I think we’ve gone a bit past the point then. Her Achilles is empty and lifeless and not the  captivating – if easy to dislike – Achilles of myth. I do wonder if, because late republic Rome is such her pet era, she just doesn’t love the Iliad as much and doesn’t have feelings about what they were like as people… and so doesn’t have that emotional attachment that she so clearly does in her other books. It would certainly explain a lot.

What she clearly does have an attachment to, however, is battle scenes. Slightly weirdly eroticised battle scenes. I get bored of the damn things anyway, Iliad  or otherwise, but when it’s all suddenly a bit… he is me and I am him and he is my better self and I love him in a way I can never love another man or woman but also *stab* *hack* *kill*… I’m not really sure what’s going on anymore. I just don’t understand, if I’m honest.

Basically, she’s taken something I love and tinkered with it. She’s not tinkered successfully, or committed fully to her tinkering, and she clearly doesn’t love it as much as she loves her other era, and so what you get is some strange, half-formed thing that doesn’t know what it’s trying to be and isn’t succeeding very well at it. I am glad I read it, because knowing it existed I was always going to have to, but it’s not a good book, and I much look forward to going back to something I know McCullough excels at. She has a real knack with Roman history of making the people seem really real, and it’s a shame it hasn’t worked out here. That said, I’ve really enjoyed writing this long rant, so some good has come of it.

 

*Of course I accept that not every reader has either got a degree in Classics or spent a year studying the Hittites. And of course you write for the general reader, not the obsessive fact-checker. But there’s a difference between not getting too caught up in historicity and basic date-checking. Five minutes Googling would have shown her this was wrong (I checked). And it would have cost her nothing to fix it, nor lost her anything in the eyes of any reader not likely to fuss. When you think this is a woman who wrote books discussing the details of, for instance, Roman legionary equipment reform… it just seems sloppy.

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