Rocky Start To A Re-telling Of Odysseus's Life, But It Improves Greatly By The Big Finish
Mar 12, 2014
For as long as I can recall, I’ve been fascinated by the trials of Odysseus. I can remember being introduced to the character all the way back in the fifth grade when one of my history teachers brought in to class a series of filmstrips (you kids can Google that) depicting his adventures in the Trojan War and throughout the resulting epic, THE ODYSSEY. His was a grand adventure, one fraught with all measure of hardship, sacrifice, and derring-do.
My interest in THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY took me into one or two courses on mythology back in my college days, and, after graduating, I even picked up a fresh copy (I think it was a Penguin Classics’ edition) of both to read. One afternoon, I sat in an allergist’s office reading a copy when I was called back for the initial examination. While waiting in the exam room, I kept reading. Eventually, the physician walked in and did his job, but, not quite finished with me, he asked why I was reading THE ILIAD. (He thought it was part of some continuing education program.) I told him that I loved the story, that I’d read it twice before, and I simply wanted to read it again. He shared with me that, back in his college days, he loved it, too; and he commended me for simply having the guts and tenacity to rid it for nothing more than the pleasure of doing so.
I still have those other copies in my library in the other room, but, about a week ago, I happened across the works of Glyn Iliffe and his “Adventures of Odysseus” series. Still being smitten with the story, I couldn’t resist; I purchased KING OF ITHACA right away, and I just finished it a few moments ago.
My impression changed as I read further into this first (of four, so far) novels. Initially, I have to confess that I wasn’t all that impressed with what he’d done. Granted, it’s no small thing to adapt epic poetry into something a bit more contemporary; however, I’d honestly expected it to be done with greater passion, perhaps greater reverence for the material. Throughout much of the first half, the novel feels relatively ‘routine’ – our narrator is a young warrior named Eperitus who falls under Odysseus’s good graces; they travel back to Ithaca, only to have news of the contest to find a suitor for Helen to call them away; etc. So much of these early moments happen with very little emotion and/or driving motivation that it ends up being a bit too mechanical.
As the book progresses, though, Iliffe’s prose strengthens, and that’s largely because there’s more villainy at play. Let’s face facts: it’s hard to serve up riveting prose when there’s no antagonist posing some clear and present danger. To make matters worse, the challenges set out before Prince Odysseus (he’s not yet king) are fairly specifically defined by the gods to him and the reader; so there’s a persistent lack of tension in the early going.
In the latter half, the stakes are raised – Odysseus breaks Spartan law to be with Penelope; Eperitus claims it was he who stole the woman’s honor; etc. – and Iliffe sets a vastly more effective pace for this first tale. The characters really start to take on those dimensions they have in mythology, and everything plays out as though there’s greater significance to all of it. When Odysseus and his men return to Ithaca knowing full well an all-out war waits for them, Iliffe ratchets up the tension to great heights, and the last quarter of the book is vastly more intriguing, exciting, and satisfying narrative than anything that comes before it.
Some of this may not be so much the author’s fault as it is some guilt of the reader: being familiar with this story as strongly as I am, I’d confess that it’s hard for me to feel as if certain of these players are in any legitimate danger in this particular time and this particular place. When you know THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY or if you’re only even circumstantially familiar with elements of the two stories, then you know that Odysseus isn’t in any grave danger at this moment in his life because the real adventure hasn’t even yet begun. Knowing what I know, there’s no author who could make me sense doom where it couldn’t logically be, so I’ll give Iliffe a pass in that regards.
However, I look forward to the next book – where it appears the narrative shifts to the events of the Trojan War – and go into it full well that certain events will not mean ‘the end’ of life as we know it for many of these characters. That way, I can appreciate what this particular writer really seeks to do here, and that is to make these wonderfully descriptive myths more accessible to mainstream readers. As an added bonus, maybe it’ll even inspire some young fifth grader of today to go out and pick up the original, finding a love of great literature like I did four decades ago.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. To know the adventures of Odysseus is to love the adventures of Odysseus. Iliffe’s prose isn’t as polished and/or intoxicating from the start as I would’ve liked, but all of it definitely builds to several terrific re-imaginations of one of the greatest tales known to man.
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About the reviewer
What? You don't know enough about me from the picture? Get a clue! I'm a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks! You can find me around the web as "Trekscribbler" or "Manchops". … more