Wednesday, November 09, 2005

David Gemmell's Troy reviewed [Edited 05/11/07: This is now a dead link.]

David Gemmell has apparently wanted to retell the story of Troy for a long time. Now, finally, he has got his wish, and has begun a three-volume epic. Lord of the Silver Bow is the scene-setter, describing the escalating tensions between Greeks and Trojans that will lead to the catastrophic Trojan War. It is not a tale any ancient Greek would have attempted in this form. To them, the Trojan War was not a story in its own right, but, as the Second World War is to us today, a background against which to set smaller tales - there is a reason Homer sings of the wrath of Achilles and not of the war at Troy.

But the compression caused by the passing millennia makes the task seem less daunting. First things first. Gemmell's Troy is not, at least on the evidence of the first volume, a fantasy novel such as one might have expected from the author, but quite unequivocally historical fiction, merely set in a period that predates the recording of history. There are no gods in Lord of the Silver Bow (which is in fact the usual approach of moderns retelling the ancient stories), no magic, and no monsters (save in the tall tales spun by Odysseus). The closest one gets to a fantastical element is the fact that some characters (most notably Cassandra) have accurate premonitions of the future. But this is a device historical fiction has employed many a time, from Shakespeare onwards, and does not in itself a fantasy make.

The second point is that this is far from being a standard retelling of the Homeric legends, fleshed out with further details from later sources. Some of what Gemmell does has been seen in recent adaptations. As in Wolfgang Petersen's film Troy, the root cause of conflict between Greeks and Trojans, is not the abduction of a queen, but the ambitions for power of King Agamemnon of Mykene and his desire for control of the lucrative trade routes through the Hellespont. As in Eric Shanower's graphic novel Age of Bronze, the story is placed in the context of the political geography of the Eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age, a political geography absent from Homer. Priam's Troy is a vassal of the Hittite empire. This also couches the war in terms of an east-west conflict, something also not to be found in Homer, but which colours classical Greek and subsequent versions, and may have some foundation in historical events of the time. (Though the shadow of modern politics lies over much of Gemmell's narrative.) Gemmell even manages to get in the battle of Kadesh, the great clash between the Egyptians and the Hittites.

But if you thought Petersen's Troy took liberties with the original myths, you may be shocked when you see what Gemmell has done. From the very beginning he twists ands turns the mythological material, fictionalizing with the sort of gay abandon employed by the creators of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. The individuals named on the dust flap, Helikaon, Andromache and Argurios, are hardly those an audience would expect to lead them through a Trojan epic. The last seems to be entirely Gemmell's own invention (it's a common modern Greek name, but seems not to crop up in myth). The central character, the heroic Helikaon, is a very minor figure in the Trojan myth cycle, though one whom Odysseus saves in the sack of Troy, a scene that one suspects will recur, given the friendship shown between the two in this novel. But then Gemmell reveals that Helikaon is actually someone more familiar. Individuals who in legend survived past the end of the Trojan War are already dead before Gemmell's novel opens. Odysseus recounts around a fire the story of the Cyclops and other mariner's tales that The Odyssey places after the war. The 'Trojan Horse' is the name of Priam's elite cavalry.

An example of what Gemmell does can be seen in his treatment of Laodike. In myth the most beautiful daughter of Priam, she falls in love with Akamas, a Greek herald sent to demand the return of Helen; later she is married to Helikaon. In Lord of the Silver Bow she is plain, but with a winning smile, carries a torch for Helikaon, and then falls for the Mykene warrior Argurios.

On the whole, Gemmell's attitude to his mythological material, that he considers it a source of elements to be used in a tapestry of his own design, is a good thing. These myths were never immutable, right from the first retelling, and Gemmell's imaginative approach appeals as much as, if not more than, the highly reverential take of Shanower. After all, the true historical events that lie behind the Trojan War are all-but irrecoverable now, and Gemmell cannot be shown to contradict what actually happened. As long as he does not miss the point of the original stories and characters, or makes a convincing case for changing the point, it is churlish to object.

So what is Gemmell's point? Pretty much that war corrupts, and that total war corrupts totally. Helikaon is essentially virtuous and wants to live in peace, as long as his people are protected. But as a warning to his Mykene enemies, he allegedly commits what is perceived by them as an atrocity, one he certainly does not deny, though the reader is only given other people's reports of what happened. This leads to acts of revenge on the Mykene's part, which ignite an ever-growing cycle of retaliation, with worse and worse atrocities on both sides. Gemmell's novel catches the sense of inescapable doom that characterizes a Greek tragedy. This is a tale of well-intentioned individuals who weave their destructions through their own errors (hamartia is Aristotle's term for this). This Greekness of Gemmell's text is complemented by John Bolton's part-title illustrations, that echo classical vase paintings.

Gemmell's authorial sympathies are with the Trojans, as is common (see Petersen's Troy again). Nevertheless, the Mykene are not portrayed as blacker than black villains. The best of them have a warrior code they live by, and the worst of them, though they commit morally reprehensible acts, are portrayed by Gemmell in such a way that the reader can understand what motivates them, why they believe that they are doing the right, or at least the necessary, thing, and how they live with their consciences. This is not a morally black-and-white story; Gemmell seems to be asking if it is truly more morally acceptable to be vicious and sadistic towards those who deserve it, because of their own sadistic actions, than to treat innocents in such a way.

I must confess that I had come to this novel with no direct experience of Gemmell's writing, but expecting turgid fantasy-novel prose. Instead I found that, whilst Gemmell is no great stylist, he is certainly readable, and pulls the reader in as the story progresses. What he is particularly good at is populating his world; this is not a dry Bronze Age of scanty historical facts, but a lived-in Mycenaean age that the reader can connect with.

This is not to say that Lord of the Silver Bow is free of cliche. Early on in the novel a new crewman on Helikaon's ship says some frank things about his captain without realizing that it is Helikaon to whom he is speaking. Helikaon's oarsman Epeus is a typical doomsayer, who always assumes that his leader's plans will go wrong. Helikaon's ship-designer, Kalkheus, doesn't like being called 'the madman of Miletos', because ... he's not from Miletos.

To counter what is now perceived as the sexist treatment of women in myth, there is the usual strong fighting woman making her way in a male-dominated society. In this case, Andromache is made into an ersatz Amazon and a dab hand with a bow (this reminds me of the transformation wrought upon Guinevere in the 2004 film King Arthur). Now it is true that women in Greek myth have little to do other than be wives, mothers or whores. But is anachronistic to try to pretend that it was otherwise. (It also provides Gemmell an opportunity for some unnecessary - and coy - lesbianism.)

One might also question some of Gemmell's odd linguistic formulations. Why 'Egypte' instead of the more recognizable 'Egypt' or the correct Greek 'Aigyptos'? Why 'Kretos' rather than 'Krete' or 'Kreta'? Why 'Kios' in place of 'Khios'? His fictional characters often have slightly odd names. One is called Skyros, actually the name of an island, and another is Xander, a modern diminutive of the more ancient 'Alexander', another name for the Trojan prince Paris (indeed I thought this might be Paris until Gemmell introduced the latter).

Nevertheless, I find myself wanting to know what Gemmell will do in the next two novels. Given what he has done in Lord of the Silver Bow, nothing can be taken for granted. Clearly the destruction of Troy will feature, but the consequences are likely to be catastrophic for all concerned. I would guess that Aeneas and his band of refugees will escape to Italy. I would not be surprised if Gemmell ties the fall of Troy in with the collapse of the Bronze Age societies that seems to have followed within a generation of the Trojan War's traditional date. But Gemmell's willingness to make changes provides one of the more interesting retellings of the myth. Not a great novel, but by no means a bad one either.


Michael Briggs said...

Very informative review. Thank-you for going to the trouble of writing it and sharing it to the world. Very interesting sounding book. A type of book that I might be interested in, but, alas, I do not see it yet over here. After reading your review, I've made a note to look for this book, thanks!

Carla said...

I second that comment - thank you for this detailed and informative review. I wouldn't normally read something by David Gemmell because I didn't like his fantasy novels, but I will go and read this one.

What did you think of Colleen McCullough's 'The Song of Troy'?

Tony Keen said...

I must confess I haven't read any of McCullogh's work. Though I did have breakfast with her once.

Carla said...

There's a claim to fame :-)

I liked both 'Song of Troy' and her 'First Man in Rome' series, but I'm no expert on the classical world so I have no idea how accurate her portrayal is. It feels very convincing to me as a reader.

Tony Keen said...

I should point out that there were several other people at the breakfast table.

McCullough certainly does her research well, or at least consults proper academics to ensure that she gets her details right.

Anonymous said...

david gemmell rocks, good review but i would have to say he is very stylish

Anonymous said...

How can this would-be trilogy be completed when Gemmell past away July 2006? Leaving us with only two of his works?

Hanna said...

Wow that was a great review. =) They're my favourite books and you wrote about them perfectly.

Hanna said...

oh by the way- the Trilogy was completed by his wife, Stella