Monday, August 8, 2011

Voyages and Ancient Battles: My Review of Jo Graham's "Black Ships"

The old woman looked at me sharply. “The Kings used to have some respect for us. They used to bring us fat goats and fresh fish. They used to bring us the best fruits of the vine. Now we are lucky if the country people bring us apples or meal in thank offerings.”
Black Ships Jo Graham pp. 5

The world is ending. One by one the mighty cities are falling, to earthquakes, to flood, to raiders on both land and sea.

In a time of war and doubt, Gull is an oracle. Daughter of a slave taken from fallen Troy, chosen at the age of seven to be the voice of the Lady of the Dead, it is her destiny to counsel kings.

When nine black ships appear, captained by an exiled Trojan prince, Gull must decide between the life she has been destined for and the most perilous adventure -- to join the remnant of her mother's people in their desperate flight. From the doomed bastions of the City of Pirates to the temples of Byblos, from the intrigues of the Egyptian court to the haunted caves beneath Mount Vesuvius, only Gull can guide Prince Aeneas on his quest, and only she can dare the gates of the Underworld itself to lead him to his destiny.

In the last shadowed days of the Age of Bronze, one woman dreams of the world beginning anew. This is her story.
                You remember  in high school you had to read The Illiad and The Odyssey and your teacher mentioned off-handedly that the Romans felt left out and made their own Trojan story, the Aeneid that focused on the foundation of Rome and the beginning of a feud with Carthage? No? Education these days ... 

              Well it happened - the stories not the actual events ... well, we aren't actually sure and ... oh never mind. The point is that Black Ships is a retelling of The Aeneid. A brutal and historically sound (with some suspended disbelief) retelling of it. From a woman's perspective.
              Can I tell you how much I love re-tellings? Stories are cultural inheritance and as such, they are to be put on a pedestal and examined, retold and adapted to make more stories with similar themes or new morals based on similar characters. We have all seen and an recognize the multitude of re-tellings of Romeo & Juliet, The Odyssey (Almost every Sci-Fi fantasy out there, people!) and so on. But rarely do we get the woman's perspective - rarely is the main character one of the women who only served as a side character in what we think of as the original work.

              The first real time i encountered this type of shift was Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad. Now, say what you want about Atwood - though lately thanks to my poor city (Toronto)'s idiot mayor (who is trying to shut down all the libraries here) I am a fan of hers - she is quite the writer. Her books seek out the heart of you, the very part of you that can shift and see the world differently, and moves it. She is a very talented woman and a great Canadian - even if I find her analogies of copyright a bit unsettled. Anyways, I picked up The Penelopiad thinking it was a quick read for the subway to school. I ended it thinking that there had been an axis I shifted around while I read. I am as guilty as the others - I never really thought about Penelope as more then this strange woman who was willing to be faithful to her jerk of a husband who was trapezing around the Mediterranean sleeping with whatever he could get to stay still long enough. But with Atwood's story, she as fleshed out, her story was told, and the re-imagined world came together in a different way - a way that could not be expressed in all my history and classics classes at university.

            Jo Graham does to The Aeneid, what Atwood did to The Odyssey. She takes a female character - in this case one of the unnumbered and unnamed female slave victims at the sack of Troy, and connects her to another character - the mentioned-only-by-title Pythia who was said to have travelled with Aeneas to what would be Rome.

            Pythia - or Gull, as it is her Trojan name - is the result of the gang-rape of her mother by Greek warriors after the sack of Troy - this is a point that is brought up several times in the book, and never in a euphemistic way - the violence is numbing with its intensity. Women were treated like cattle - like spoils of war, like trinkets to be bought and sold and used. And the beauty of this is that all this is through the female perspective - it is Gull and her female companions who discuss what their captivity, their imprisonment means to the wider world - it is their acceptance of reality and fight for freedom that forces their male relatives and love interests to understand and accept the reality. The women of this world are the cornerstones of all civilization.

        Gull is the narrator and the soul of the book - her connection to the Gods is a simpler form then that of the traditional epics - she feels the Gods, sees them, converses with them - in much the same way as Shadow from American Gods (Neil Gaiman). It is an organic relationship that grows from her own faith and fidelity and is never forced from her. The complexity of religions and languages and customs is also dealt with in bite-sized portions, the story at turns acknowledging and examining differences with the critical eye of one who is beloved by the Gods.

          I enjoyed this story a lot - both as a retelling of The Aeneid, and as an improvement thereof, and an examination, not only of the time period, but of how we perceive the truth of the time period. Gull's quick mind serves as the examining table from which we can understand the complexities and nuances of such a climactic time in the Mediterranean - not only for Gender Relations, which is arguably the focus, but also the relationship between different regions, where religion, culture and languages clashed. This was a meticulously researched book and very well written - even if the characters sometimes sounded a tad modern, throwing in some slang words here and there.

           In general - a great read. And do I recommend it?

            Hell to the yes!
Read if you liked: 
  • The Red Tent by Anita Diamant 
  • The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Next to Review: White Cat and Red Glove by Holly Black

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