Sunday, 19 February 2012

Review: Troy Trilogy by David and Stella Gemmell

A very good, very brave friend of mine recommended these books to me. He's brave because the poor lad, as a fresh-faced, first year undergrad of Accounting and Economics, foolishly sat down to watch Wolfgang Petersen's Troy with me, a fresh-faced, first year undergrad of Classical Studies. What ensued was around two and a half hours of me obnoxiously interrupting every few minutes to explain why it was all wrong, that Achilles/Brad Pitt should be dead by this point and that the whole thing was pointless without including the gods. Needless to say he hasn't watched it with me again, so it was with a courageous heart that he suggested I read these books, already a favourite with him, although he was hasty to clarify that it wasn't anything like the film Troy.

The basic premise, as you can probably guess, is The Iliad, the epic poem by Homer. Told from the point of view of several characters closely linked to the legend - Andromache, wife of Hector; Odysseus, the infamous storyteller and strategos; and Aeneas, the future founder of Rome - the tale begins long before the war, in a time when relations between Agamemnon and Priam - the respective kings of Mycenae and Troy - were, if not good, apparently more... cordial, shall we say, than they end up. The novels progress to show a fairly believable breakdown of that cordiality between the kingdoms, and how this impacts on the lives of the central characters.

What I enjoyed most about reading these books was that they were, actually, kind of believable, and gave plausible suggestions for certain aspects of the Trojan legend. For example, there is a relatively unique interpretation for the birth of the Trojan Horse, which both sticks closely to the story we know, but also seems almost realistic. I don't want to give anything away, but I've got to say it's a feasible explanation, and demonstrates perfectly how, as time moved on and the story was re-told by bards, it could've taken on the form that we know - a great wooden horse, with the enemy in the belly.

There are, of course, many recognisable characters from the myth - as well as Andromache, Aeneas, Priam, Agamemnon and Odysseus, there's also Hekabe, Kassandra, Penelope and Menelaus - all the familar names. There's even - if you've a knowledge of the Old Testament - a little side-story involving a very familiar prophet of Judaism and Christianity, which not only gives one particular character a decent vehicle, but also very nicely gives you a timeline for when the Trojan War occurred (of course, we can't be very sure when the War really happened - our best sources, ancient historians such as Herodotus, place the war at anything between the 12th and 14th centuries BC - hardly a narrow window.) But there are also several original characters, who allow the story to travel outside the confines of the myth, as opposed to the well-known characters, who are tied tightly to the events of the legend and so cannot stray too far from the original story. This is an effective tool, as it not only widens the scope of the War and it's impact, but also allows the Gemmells to explore different aspects of the myth - such as the impact on the soldiers, on citizens of Troy and on those who live far from the city where the War takes place.

I do want to make one thing clear; these are not, by any stretch of the imagination, anything but 'popcorn literature' pieces. There's the usual gratuitous sex scenes, and the dialogue between some of the characters is pretty cringeworthy at times. And as for characterisation - well, they're hardly complex; tortured hero with a secret past; rejected lover who can't let go; warrior woman who doesn't stand for any trouble from any man;  happy-go-lucky soldier who loves a battle and a drink...  Pretty standard. The battle scenes are interesting, though - and they'd have to be, as this is, after all, a story about a war. And whilst there's some really original interpretations in there, they are just historical novels and not anyhing to set any store by. But I'll tell you what else they are; immensely enjoyable, exceedingly difficult to put down, and they do inspire interest in the original legend; I've now started re-reading my copy of The Iliad. I must admit that, if I'd found these on my own, I probably would've shied away, maybe even sneered a bit. I would've missed out on a really fun read, and what's more, I know I'll read them again and again, because they tell one of my favourite stories in a way I've never heard it, and one that I think I prefer above all other interpretations I've heard.

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