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The King Must Die: A Novel

1 rating: 1.0
A book by Mary Renault

The story of the mythical hero Theseus, slayer of monsters, abductor of princesses and king of Athens. He emerges from these pages as a clearly defined personality; brave, aggressive and quick. The core of the story is Theseus' Cretan adventure.

Tags: Cafe Libri
Author: Mary Renault
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Vintage
1 review about The King Must Die: A Novel

Critically acclaimed when it appeared, but doesn't hold up.

  • Jul 6, 1997
When I went back to re-read this book after several years, so I could do this review, I couldn't understand why I didn't remember much about it. After finishing it for the second time, I now see why: despite a skillful command of the language and her material, Mary Renault's efforts here fall well short of the positive critical reception with which this book was received when it was initially published. Working with recently developed theories, based on modern archaelogical discoveries which reveal a labrynthine palatial structure in ancient Crete, along with a tradition of sacred "bull dancing" (which may be the historical precursor of the Spanish tradition of bull fighting and of bull running in Pamplona), Renault here crafts a modern re-telling of the Theseus legend -- the boy hero of Athens condemned as a sacrifice to the Cretan minotaur in Cnossos, who dwelt within a mysterious labarynth from which no one who entered could ever find his or her way out again. In the legendary tale, Theseus wins the love of Ariadne, the princess of Crete, and she tells him how to find his way through to the monster and safely out again (using a string to trace his way through the maze). In the end the hero kills the monster and steals away with the princess, though he subsequently abandons her on one of the islands south of the Greek mainland. Modern archaelogy certainly appears to confirm the existence of many of the elements found in the legend and Renault wove these together into her narrative to make a quick-reading, modern tale (which is still true to its legendary antecedents). But, despite the author's obvious erudition, the tale never leaps to life and the reconstruction of the ancient Minyan, Achaian and Cretan cultures, while intelligently done, never fulfills its promise. It's hard to care very much about these people and you never quite feel the reality of the cultures in which the tale is told. The love scenes are "tastefully" cryptic, in keeping with the mores of the time and milieu in which the book was presented, but there is an overly intellectual quality here, a distance and abstract coolness which never quite seizes the reader to make the book live. So, while the book reads well, for the most part, and is professionally executed, it doesn't achieve the highest levels of literary accomplishment to which a good novel (historical or otherwise) should aspire. Robert Graves did the Greek thing much better in his "Hercules, My Shipmate" (though that book is, perhaps, a bit more esoteric and therefore less accessible to the average reader) and Hope Muntz did it best of all, for historical novels in general, with her "The Golden Warrior" about the epic struggle for power and England, between Harold and William, in 1066. Mary Renault, despite the kindness of reviewers at the time, just doesn't approach them with this book. -- Stuart W. Mirsky (swmirsky@usa.net

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