I picked this one up w/some trepidation as the blurb on the back and a quick scan of the pages within suggested a bodice-ripper built on the foundation stones of that most revered of all things Greek -- The Iliad. I was pleased to see I was wrong. This is a tale of the Trojan War from a woman's perspective, particularly from the point of view of Briseis, the slave girl and victory prize of Achilles, over whom all the sturm und drang of that marvelous tale is raised. And it's a good one.
For those who don't know the tale, it essentially recounts what happens to the Greek and Trojan armies in the final year of the bitter Trojan siege, when the Greek over-king, Agamemnon, forced to give up his own victory prize, the girl Chryseis because of a god's anger, seizes the slave girl of his greatest hero and war-leader, Achilles, as a consolation prize. The resultant pique of the proud Achilles leaves the Greeks without a champion and gives the Trojans a chance to reclaim the initiative on the battlefield. Not promising for a tale told entirely from a woman's perspective. And yet, the use of Briseis as witness and recounter of events is inspired. In fact, the author has succeeded admirably. The prose is brilliantly evocative of the times and ancient tale it has to tell, without being stale or hackneyed. Never once are we troubled with the "wine-dark sea" (an Homeric catch phrase, much overused these days), although the prose still manages to conjure up the land and climate of the country in which this all presumably occurred...as well as the culture of the people among whom the tale is set.
The "voice" is mostly right, too. A woman's voice, begun as an old crone recounting her life to a wandering stranger, shifting quickly to a flashback of the seminal event of the tale beneath the Trojan walls, shifting again to this woman's emergence into young womanhood in her home city of Lyrnessos, a minor town within the Trojan orbit, only to take us back to the events under Troy's walls . . . the story we hear moves quickly and does not, for the most part, prove jarring or inconsistent with the times and events it has to tell of. The story of the Iliad is here portrayed as an almost conventional love story between Briseis and the mighty Achilles, but it works, as well, on the level of the original tale, the tragic encounter with violence and death which bring all men, as well as women, down in the end to the place of destruction and dissolution.
There are a few weak moments unfortunately: when Chryseis, in the early part of the tale, observing Briseis in one of those Cretan gowns which exposes a woman's breasts, remarks that "you seem to be bursting out of your dress, darling" -- I thought I'd strayed into a Beverly Hills dinner party, or something worse. But for the most part, these odd moments do not detract overmuch from the tale.
If I had one real complaint it is that the first half of the book is really much better than the second, perhaps because the slave-girl's perspective necessarily excludes Briseis from so much of the action, causing the events of the war to be told, in large part, via second hand accounts. The best parts of the book are certainly when we see Briseis' life through her own first hand experiences and encounter the world of the eastern Mediterranean as retold in the first half of the book, all so freshly brought to life via this author's vivid and poetic prose.
Perhaps another reason for the weakening of the book in its second half is the large role Briseis' sexual adventures seem to play in the tale. Rather explicity recounted and certainly interesting, I came to conclude, in the second half, that too much of Briseis' recollections revolved around the copulations she recalls and the men who "have entered" her. It may have been likely that a slave girl and war prize would have had these sorts of experiences as a central part of her world, rather than the great battles beneath the besieged city's walls or the deliberations of the men who were prosecuting the dreadful war, but it seemed, ultimately, to trivialize the tale, making the great events mere reflections of the greater sex Briseis has with her hero Achilles, who killed her husband (a rather unpleasant fellow, by the way), her beloved brothers, and sacked and detroyed her native city. One would have thought that Briseis had reason to dwell on other things besides the size of Achilles' back and arms and other appurtenances, in light of the losses she has suffered. And Achillles sometimes seems to be nothing more than a Fabio look-alike, some woman's idea of the ideal sex object -- able to go on all night, providing both mount and rider, on demand, to his discriminating and lustful female partner, depending on her preferences and mood.
At the risk of turning a good review bad, however, let me stress that the story is well-told although it weakens substantially at the end for the reasons I've cited. But this is a tough one to tell, given that Homer and the other ancient Greek bards have all done it so well before. I think the author has here done a better job than some "contemporaries", certainly vividly and realistically capturing the feel of the ancient cults of the old proto-Greeks (better than Mary Renault, it seems to me, in The King Must Die, and nearly as good as Robert Graves did it in Hercules, My Shipmate) . . . and offered a highly literate and compelling modern narrative window into the great story of The Iliad, besides. If the sex seemed a bit much, well, perhaps that is a necessary concession to draw in today's reader (or at least to convince a publisher that this will occur) -- though I'd have been a bit more conservative in that regard if I'd have had the skill and inspiration to pen such a well-told tale myself.
SWM author of The King of Vinland's Saga
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About the reviewer
Stuart W. Mirsky (swmirsky)
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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Since the writings of Homer, humankind has been fascinated by the tales of the great heroes of ancient Greece. In her debut novel, Franklin takes us to the walls of Troy and presents to us the men and women behind the myths. In this rich and tightly woven tapestry of story and history, we witness the grandeur and the destruction of Troy through the eyes of Briseis, once queen of Lyrnessos and now the captive and consort of Achilles. Briseis is bound to Achilles by more than just her chains, but when she catches the eye of Agamemnon, trouble starts brewing in the Greek camp. Maps and a list of the characters help guide readers through the text. Well recommended for all lovers of historical fiction.?Jane Baird, Anchorage Municipal Libs., AK Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.