After my post on The Odyssey last Friday, I’m staying with an Ancient Greece theme again this week – but in the form of historical fiction this time.
Beginning with his childhood in Troizen, The King Must Die tells the story of Theseus, a story which I’m sure will already be familiar to many readers. Theseus lives with his mother but has never known the true identity of his father, believing him to be the god Poseidon. When he succeeds in raising a boulder to reveal his father’s sword, Theseus learns that he is actually the son of Aigeus, the King of Athens, and sets off for Athens to find him. After an eventful journey during which Theseus becomes King of Eleusis, he arrives in Athens and meets his father at last. But when King Minos of Crete demands that fourteen young people are sent to him to train as bull-dancers, Theseus makes the decision to become one of the fourteen…and finds himself facing the Minotaur in the Labyrinth of the Palace of Knossos.
Mary Renault is an author I’ve been wanting to read for a long time and I became even more interested when I noticed that on the back covers of my Vintage editions of the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, it says that Dunnett’s writing ‘inspires comparisons with Mary Renault and Patrick O’Brian’. I’ve now read some of Patrick O’Brian’s books and enjoyed them (though not as much as Dunnett) so it seemed a good idea to try Mary Renault too. However, I’ve been hesitant because, as I explained in my Odyssey post, mythology and Ancient Greece are not subjects that really appeal to me. It was finally making it to the end of The Odyssey a few weeks ago that gave me the motivation to pick up The King Must Die at last.
I was curious to see how this book could be described as historical fiction, as a story with a plot involving Poseidon and the Minotaur sounded more like mythology to me. Having read the novel, I now understand that The King Must Die is not simply a re-telling of the Theseus myth but a more realistic recreation of his life, portraying Theseus as a real human being rather than a character from Greek mythology. Most of the essential elements of the myth are here, but they are cleverly incorporated into the historical setting and given logical, plausible explanations.
My favourite part of the book was the section describing Theseus’s adventures in Knossos as a bull-dancer, learning new skills and techniques, and bonding with the other members of his team. I also enjoyed learning about the different customs and rituals of the various cultures and communities Theseus visits on his journey, including the Hellenes, the Minyans and the Cretans. There’s a fascinating author’s note at the end of the book in which Mary Renault explains how she was able to link parts of the Theseus legend to historical fact.
While I did enjoy this book, I do feel disappointed that I didn’t love it as much as I had hoped to. There was nothing specific that I disliked about the book or that I could say didn’t work for me; I certainly couldn’t fault the quality of the writing or the amount of research that must have gone into recreating Theseus’s world. It’s probably just that, as I’ve mentioned, I’m not particularly drawn to this subject or setting. I do still want to read the second half of Theseus’s story in the sequel, The Bull from the Sea!
Ten years have passed since the Trojan War ended but Odysseus has still not returned home, having been held captive by the nymph Calypso, who has fallen in love with him. At home in Ithaca, his wife, Penelope, has found herself besieged by a large group of suitors who are hoping to persuade her to marry one of them. The suitors have taken over Odysseus’s palace and are helping themselves to his food and drink; his son, Telemachus, is desperate for them to leave but doesn’t have the courage to throw them out.
The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus and his journey home to Ithaca – a journey involving encounters with the one-eyed Cyclops, the witch Circe, the sea monster Scylla, and the tempting music of the Sirens. But it’s also the story of Telemachus and his quest to find out what has happened to his father; of Penelope, faithfully waiting for her husband to return; and of the Greek gods and goddesses who try to help or hinder Odysseus on his travels.
I’m so happy to have finally read The Odyssey as it was one of the least appealing books on my Classics Club list, not necessarily because I was intimidated by it (well, maybe a little bit) but because I’m just not very interested in mythology. I can’t really explain why I’m not a fan; I did enjoy reading Greek myths as a child, but since then my reading has taken me in other directions. I know that probably puts me in a minority as most people seem to love mythology and have a lot more knowledge of the subject than I do!
I’ve started to read The Odyssey before but didn’t finish it so this is the first time I’ve actually read it from beginning to end. I did already know most of the story, partly from school and partly because this is the sort of story that I think many people will have at least some familiarity with even if they’ve never read it in its entirety. There were some things I wasn’t aware of, though – for example, I was surprised by how little time is actually devoted to Odysseus’s journey. This section of the epic, in which Odysseus describes his adventures and the monsters and mythical beings he outwits, is by far the most well-known section, but it actually only takes up four of the twenty-four books that make up The Odyssey. The rest of the time is spent on the suitors, Telemachus and Penelope, and what Odysseus does after he eventually returns to Ithaca.
There are lots of different themes and ideas contained in The Odyssey – storytelling, disguise and deception, temptation, and the relationship between mortals and gods are a few that I noted and I’m sure there are others that I missed. There is also a lot of focus on hospitality. It seemed a weary traveller would be made welcome wherever they went, offered food, a bath and a bed for the night.
There are many different editions and translations of The Odyssey, some in verse and some in prose, but the book I read was the Wordsworth Classics edition pictured above from 1992 with a 1932 prose translation by T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). There was no special reason why I decided to read this version, other than that I happened to have it on my shelf (I can’t remember where I got it from). I’m not sure if you can even still buy this particular translation in this edition anymore. However, this turned out to be a perfect translation for me. I know I’ve probably missed out on a lot of the beauty of The Odyssey by reading a prose version, but I don’t get on very well with narrative poems – apart from The Epic of Gilgamesh which I loved in verse form – so reading it in prose was probably a much better choice for me personally.
I have no idea how technically accurate Lawrence’s translation might be, but all I was really hoping for was something enjoyable and reasonably easy to read, and that’s what I got. I was surprised by how exciting and readable it actually was; I wonder if the fact that Lawrence himself had such an eventful life was an influence here in helping him to convey the drama of Odysseus’s adventures in such a compelling way.
I’m sorry about the lack of insight and analysis in this post. It doesn’t seem right to just ‘review’ an epic like The Odyssey as I would any other book, but that’s what I’ve had to do as I really don’t feel that there’s much I can add to everything that’s already been said about it over the centuries. It’s actually been a lot harder to write about The Odyssey than it was to read it!
Have you read The Odyssey? If I read it again, is there a translation you would recommend?
When King Edward VI dies unmarried and childless in 1553, there are several claimants to the throne. One of these is Lady Jane Grey, who has Tudor blood through her mother, Frances Brandon, a niece of Henry VIII’s. Finding herself at the centre of a plot by her parents and the Duke of Northumberland (the father of her husband, Guildford Dudley), Jane becomes Queen of England…but only for nine days. Deposed by Edward’s Catholic half-sister, Queen Mary, Jane is imprisoned in the Tower of London and eventually beheaded. The story of Jane’s short reign and tragic fate forms part of this historical fiction novel by Ella March Chase, but this is not just Jane’s story – it’s also the story of her two younger sisters, Katherine and Mary.
On the same day that Jane married Guildford Dudley, Katherine was married to Henry Herbert, son of the Earl of Pembroke, but after Jane’s downfall the Herberts want to break their ties with the Grey family, so Katherine and Henry’s marriage is annulled. Later, Katherine falls in love with Edward Seymour but their secret romance incurs the wrath of the new queen, Elizabeth I, and Katherine finds that her own life could be in danger. Although the youngest Grey sister, Mary, is not such a central part of her parents’ plotting (possibly because she suffers from what sounds like a severe form of spinal curvature), she is still affected by Jane’s death and Katherine’s misfortunes. This fictional account of the Grey sisters is a great introduction to Mary and Katherine for those of us who know very little about them!
I had a good idea of what I could expect from The Nine Day Queen, having read another book last year by this author, The Virgin Queen’s Daughter, which I enjoyed. I knew it wouldn’t be a particularly ‘literary’ historical novel (you can probably guess that from the cover, though it’s not always fair to make assumptions) but not as light and fluffy as some. I can’t really say much about the accuracy of the book as I’ve only read one other novel about Lady Jane Grey (Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir) and no non-fiction beyond the few brief paragraphs she is usually given in books about the Tudors. As far as I could tell the story does stick to the basic facts, with some obvious inventions, as you would expect in a book that is fiction rather than non-fiction – and the author does use her Author’s Note at the end to explain where she has deviated away from the known facts.
The sisters are given such different personalities – Jane is sensible, studious and a devout Protestant, Katherine warm, compassionate and pretty, and Mary outspoken and impulsive – and with each girl narrating her own chapters of the book, the opportunity was there for the author to develop a different narrative voice and style for each of them. I was disappointed that she didn’t make the most of this opportunity and the voices of the three girls were very similar, so much so that there were times when I found it hard to tell who was narrating the chapter I was reading and had to look back at the chapter heading to remind myself.
I did like the fact that the story was told from the perspective of all three Grey sisters, though, and I was surprised to find that Jane’s death comes not near the end of the book as you might expect, but in the middle. The focus is then on Katherine and Mary for the remainder of the novel and I thought this was good because while Jane’s story is well known, the other two sisters have been largely forgotten by history and it was nice to have an opportunity to learn more about them both. Another thing that was surprising was the portrayal of the two queens, Mary I and Elizabeth I. In a reversal of what you would usually expect, Mary is portrayed as kind and considerate whereas Elizabeth comes across as spiteful and vindictive. They both felt more like caricatures than realistic characters to me, but it was interesting to see such a different perspective!
Are there any other books anyone can recommend on Lady Jane Grey and her sisters, either fiction or non-fiction? I’ve just received a copy of the new Elizabeth Fremantle novel, Sisters of Treason, from Netgalley so will be interested to see how that one compares.
Note: This book has also been published under the title Three Maids for a Crown.
Speaking from Among the Bones is Alan Bradley’s fifth novel featuring the wonderful Flavia de Luce. Flavia’s intelligence, her passion for chemistry (particularly poisons), and the fact that she is still only eleven years old makes her one of the most fascinating and unusual detectives in fiction. The series is set in the 1950s in the small English village of Bishop’s Lacey where Flavia lives with her father and two sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, at the family’s ancestral home, Buckshaw. In each book Flavia investigates a murder mystery, torments (and is tormented by) her sisters, conducts experiments in her chemical laboratory, and desperately searches for information about the mother she has never known.
Flavia’s fifth adventure begins as she excitedly awaits the removal of St Tancred’s bones from his tomb in the church crypt to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of his death. She is hoping to be the first person in Bishop’s Lacey to see the saint’s bones, but what she eventually discovers when the tomb is opened is something quite different: the body of the church organist, Mr Collicutt, who had disappeared a few weeks earlier. Who murdered him and what was their motive? And why is he wearing a gas mask? These are the questions Flavia must try to answer – hopefully before Inspector Hewitt solves the mystery first! Accompanied by her trusty old bicycle, Gladys, Flavia begins to search for clues, but as well as making some discoveries regarding the organist’s death and the possible identity of his killer, she also starts to uncover some of the secrets of her mother’s past.
I’ve enjoyed every book in the series so far, but I think this one might be my favourite (either this or the Christmas-themed one, I am Half-Sick of Shadows). As I’ve mentioned in my previous Flavia reviews, I love this series because I love Flavia, the supporting characters, and the setting of Bishop’s Lacey. The actual murder mysteries are not usually very complex or difficult to solve and are not the attraction of these books for me, but I thought this was an improvement on the previous ones. It was tightly plotted with lots of clues, suspects and red herrings and during her investigations Flavia finds herself crawling through underground tunnels, entering secret locked rooms, encountering a wooden effigy that appears to have started weeping blood in the church, and discovering that she is not the only amateur detective in Bishop’s Lacey!
While Flavia is still just eleven and has only aged slightly over the course of the series, I do think we’ve seen her grow up and mature since the first book. There has been development with some of the other characters too, particularly Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy), Flavia’s two sisters, who are not quite as horrible to Flavia in this book as they have been previously – or maybe Flavia is just learning to deal with them better. Also in this book, their father is continuing to have financial difficulties, forcing him to consider putting Buckshaw up for sale and this shared trauma helps to bring the whole family together for once. By ‘family’ I’m including the servants, Mrs Mullet and Dogger. Dogger is a great character and a true friend to Flavia – I like him more and more with every book!
If you’re new to this series, beginning with book five probably wouldn’t be a problem, but if possible I would recommend starting with the first one, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and enjoying all of Flavia’s adventures in order. This is the only one to finish with a cliffhanger ending, which means I now can’t wait to read the sixth book, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches!
Elizabeth of York’s story is a fascinating one. As the eldest daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville (the alternate spelling of Wydeville is used in this book), Elizabeth lived during one of the most turbulent periods of English history, the Wars of the Roses. She was the sister of the two young princes who it is believed may have been murdered in the Tower of London, she married the first Tudor king, Henry VII, who defeated her uncle Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, and she was also mother to another king, Henry VIII. Despite all of this, Elizabeth is not usually given as much attention as other figures of the period. This new biography, Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World, explores Elizabeth’s life and her historical significance.
Alison Weir is an author of both historical fiction and non-fiction. Although I have read one of her novels, Innocent Traitor, this is the first of her biographies I’ve read and I was very impressed. The book is written in a style that I found engaging and easy to read but it’s also a very thorough, long and detailed account of Elizabeth’s life. An incredible amount of research must have gone into the writing of this book and it contains an absolute wealth of information…I read it on my Kindle and was constantly bookmarking interesting facts and passages.
As well as taking us, in chronological order, through Elizabeth’s entire life from her birth to her death and its aftermath, we are also given lots of details on the social history of the period and what life was like for people who lived during that time: what they ate and drank, the clothes they wore, and the way children were treated and expected to behave. There are lists of dishes served at banquets, descriptions of the duties of ladies-in-waiting and even an appendix giving a full description of every known portrait of Elizabeth. Sometimes there’s too much detail (I didn’t really feel the need to know the names of the nurses of each of Elizabeth’s younger sisters, for example, and the lists of her privy purse expenses and all the gifts she bought and received were a bit overwhelming) but it all helps to build up a full and vivid picture of Elizabeth’s world.
Less is known about Elizabeth than other Tudor figures, so there are times when the focus of the book switches to important political events, conspiracies and other things taking place in the wider world, rather than on Elizabeth herself. The only drawback here is that with so few primary sources remaining to give us information on Elizabeth’s life, Weir can only assume what Elizabeth may have thought or how she felt. This is not really the author’s fault but it would have been interesting to know Elizabeth’s true thoughts on some of these issues, such as the pretenders to the throne who appeared during Henry VII’s reign claiming to be Elizabeth’s lost brothers.
Much as I enjoyed this book, I did have a problem with the portrayal of Richard III. I was aware before I started reading that Alison Weir has a negative opinion of Richard and believes him guilty of all the crimes that he has been accused of, but I still thought there was too much speculation and personal bias in her discussions of him. In the absence of any real evidence, we are told that ‘maybe Elizabeth hated him’ and ‘maybe Cecily was furious with him’, for example. These are not really historical facts, are they? The opinions of other authors and historians who take a more sympathetic view of Richard are dismissed as ‘wishful theories evolved by revisionists’. Anyway, this is just a small criticism of what is otherwise a wonderfully entertaining and informative book. For anyone interested in learning more about this important but often forgotten Tudor queen and her world, I would highly recommend reading Elizabeth of York. It really is a fascinating period of history and Elizabeth deserves to be remembered!
I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley.
This week has been devoted to reading my Classics Club Spin book, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I admit that when my spin book was revealed on Monday, I didn’t feel very enthusiastic about it but decided to start reading it immediately as I anticipated it taking a long time to read. It actually took less than a week and I finished it last night! I’ve had mixed experiences with Dickens in the past…there have been some of his books that I’ve enjoyed and some that I struggled with, but this is the first one I’ve really loved and have found truly ‘unputdownable’. Definitely one of my books of the year!
Also this week I’ve been reading Quicksilver, the first in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, a historical fiction series set in the 17th and 18th centuries. I’ve been curious about this book for a while but have been putting off reading it because of the length. I’m enjoying it so far (despite not having understood half of what I’ve read) but at nearly 1,000 pages it’s going to be a long and challenging read and I’m hoping it will be worth it in the end.
With no other reading commitments at the moment (until Wilkie in Winter in the middle of December), I’ve taken this opportunity to start a re-read of the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. It’s been nearly two years since I first read The Game of Kings and I know that if it wasn’t for blogging throwing other tempting books in my way I would probably have re-read the whole series as soon as I finished it. There was so much I missed on my first read and this time I’m armed with the Dorothy Dunnett Companions I and II and the new book by Laura Caine Ramsey, The Ultimate Guide to The Game of Kings, which will hopefully enhance the experience. I probably won’t post ‘reviews’ again as I did review them all in 2012, but I’ll give you an update in another Sunday post in a few week’s time.
Also this week, I’ve signed up for a reading challenge for next year: the What’s In A Name? challenge. This has been hosted for the last few years by Beth Fish Reads but has now been taken over by Charlie at The Worm Hole. I don’t sign up for many challenges anymore but I wanted to support Charlie’s first year of hosting and this is a fun challenge which I’ve taken part in once before. The idea is to read five books, each with a title that fits one of the five categories below:
I already have one or two books in mind for each category, but the challenge doesn’t start until January so I have plenty of time to think about what to read. To find out more please visit The Worm Hole!
Something else I’m looking forward to is starting my first course with FutureLearn tomorrow. The course is called England in the time of King Richard III, which, as followers of my blog will know, is a period of history I’m particularly interested in. FutureLearn is a new UK-based company offering free online courses from a selection of universities; this will be the first of their courses I’ve tried, so I’m not sure what to expect. I’ll let you know how I get on!
This is a tale of tragedy, this tale of Melniboné, the Dragon Isle. This is a tale of monstrous emotions and high ambitions. This is a tale of sorceries and treacheries and worthy ideals, of agonies and fearful pleasures, of bitter love and sweet hatred. This is the tale of Elric of Melniboné. Much of it Elric himself was to remember only in his nightmares.
I have my father to thank for introducing me, as a teenager, to Elric of Melniboné. I would almost certainly never have thought about reading these books otherwise and probably wouldn’t have even heard of them, as I’ve never had a lot of interest in reading fantasy, especially of the ‘swords and sorcery’ type. Michael Moorcock’s Elric books (and to a lesser extent, his Corum series) are among the small number of fantasy novels I’ve actually read and enjoyed. I hadn’t thought about them for years but when I was tidying my shelves one day a couple of weeks ago I came across my old copies (or rather, my dad’s old copies, some of which I’ve pictured above) and decided it might be fun to re-read them.
I only meant to re-read the first one but couldn’t resist reading most of the series again. This is not such an impressive feat as it sounds – there are six core books in the series, if you don’t count the sequels published later, and most of them are less than 200 pages long. Because they are so short (and some of them are collections of short stories rather than full-length novels) the pace is quick – there’s always something happening and the plot moves forward with every page. There seems to be some debate over the correct reading order for the series but as a general guide, Elric of Melniboné should be read first, followed by The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, The Weird of the White Wolf, The Sleeping Sorceress, The Bane of the Black Sword and finally, Stormbringer. Some of the individual stories in these books are also collected together in different orders in other volumes such as The Stealer of Souls.
The series follows the story of Elric of Melniboné, the four hundred and twenty-eighth Emperor to sit upon the Ruby Throne. Melniboné, or the Dragon Isle, is an island nation of sorcerers who once ruled the world but have seen their power gradually diminished as their human neighbours from the Young Kingdoms grow stronger and the gods of Law and Chaos battle for supremacy over the world. Some of the Melniboneans, including Elric’s ambitious cousin Yrykoon, believe Elric is not strong enough to rule as Emperor and to restore Melniboné to its former glory – because Elric is an albino, born with a deficiency of the blood which forces him to rely on magic potions to maintain his strength and prevent him from becoming weak and lethargic. When Yrykoon attempts to kill him and take both the throne and Elric’s lover, Cymoril, for himself, Elric enters into a bargain with Arioch, the Lord of Chaos. Arioch will come to his assistance whenever possible, but in return Elric will be bound to the enchanted black sword, Stormbringer, which steals the souls of its victims and often seems to have a mind of its own.
Although Elric is the character around whom the whole series revolves, his actions are not always very heroic and in fact, he is much more of an anti-hero than a hero. He is not evil, but not ‘good’ either and it is often unclear whether he is fighting on the side of Chaos or of Law. I think the reason I found Elric so appealing when I was younger was because, not having read a lot of adult fiction at that time, I’d rarely encountered a fictional character with so much darkness and complexity and who didn’t always do what the reader wanted or expected him to do. From what I’ve read, Moorcock was trying to create an antithesis to other more traditional fantasy heroes such as Conan the Barbarian and so, rather than succeeding through physical power, Elric is brooding and melancholy, relying on sorcery rather than strength. Other characters come and go throughout the series – enemies such as Jagreen Lern, the Theocrat of Pan Tang, and the sorcerer, Theleb K’aarna, and friends including Rackhir the Red Archer, Dyvim Slorm, the Dragon Master, and my favourite, Moonglum of Elwher.
I’ll admit that you probably couldn’t describe these books as great literature, but they are not badly written and are very entertaining – and for such short books, the level of world building is very impressive. Moorcock’s style is not overly descriptive, but he manages to paint vivid images in only a few words: gold-plated battle-barges negotiating the rocks and grottos of the Melnibonean sea-maze; the underwater kingdom of Straasha and his water elementals; the dragons slumbering in their caves below the Dreaming City of Imrryr. Reading these books again, as an adult, I found that the quality of the writing seems to vary quite a lot from book to book, possibly because their chronological order is not the same as the order in which they were written and published. Elric of Melniboné and Stormbringer, in my opinion deserve to be considered classics of the fantasy genre, but some of the stories in between are much less satisfying.
The Elric series is part of a much larger cycle of books known as The Eternal Champion, the idea being that Elric is just one incarnation of a hero who has existed in many different times and on different planes. There are other books and series featuring other incarnations of the Eternal Champion and at times their stories cross or intersect – for example, in the second Elric book, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, Elric briefly meets three of his other selves, Corum, Erekose and Hawkmoon. I have read a few of the books featuring these other characters, but the only ones I enjoyed were the Corum books – a more straightforward fantasy series than Elric, but with a less interesting protagonist.
If I’ve convinced anyone to give Michael Moorcock a try (and I know these are entirely different from the books I usually write about on this blog) Elric of Melniboné, in my opinion, is the best place to start!