THE ORACLES OF TROY by Glyn Iliffe (Review)

Oracles of Troy_ecover_kindleIn my review of the first book in this series, King of Ithaca, I noted that it was very much a biographical novel, the story of Odysseus, rather than the retelling of the seige of Troy which the reader might have expected. After all, Odysseus is as closely linked in our minds with the fall of the ancient city as Helen herself is. But that was just the first book, which is set wholly in the period before the marriage of Helen and Menelaus and the coming of Paris to Sparta. Now, however, when The Oracles of Troy, the fourth book in the series, opens, Odysseus and his comrades have spent ten years camped on the plain between the Aegean Sea and those impregnable walls, and the story of Odysseus and the story of Troy have become one. And that story, the story of Odysseus and Troy is fast reaching its climax, for even the thick-skulled Agamemnon, Nestor, Menelaus and Little Ajax have finally grasped the fact that they are never going to win by brute force. Only the good will of the gods, assisted by native cunning, can get them into Troy.

Odysseus’ name, even in his own lifetime, was synonymous with native cunning.

First, they must retrieve Philoctetes from the island of Lemnos where he was marooned by the Greek army after he had been wounded and the wound refused to heal, continuing to fester and give off a disgusting smell. For one of the oracles says that without Philoctetes, who has the bow and arrows of Heracles, the Greeks cannot win. But will he agree to help the kings and men who treated him so appallingly?

Odysseus is sent to persuade him.

Of course, the story of Philoctetes was told by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and like the rest of the great saga, by Homer himself in The Iliad.

Philoctetes by Jean Germain Drouais
Philoctetes by Jean Germain Drouais

But this whole story had been written even earlier, and in advance, by the gods themselves.

When an historical novel recounts an episode from history, there is no escaping the dramatic irony of the audience knowing exactly what will happen while the characters on stage – on the page – do not, have no clue, but in the story of the Trojan War, we really do seem to be watching the participants swept blindly on through the sea of time.

There is an overwhelming sense of inevitability about the whole thing.

If  Odysseus had not gone to Lemnos, indeed if he had not been with the Greek army outside Troy, the great city would never have fallen. But he did and he was.

Cassandra, too, was there, within the walls, the princess and seer who knew how and when Troy would fall. But of course nobody would believe her. They couldn’t.

In the wrong hands, of course, this can get boring. But Glyn Iliffe’s are not the wrong hands. Although we know what what will happen the tension builds and we have to keep reading. In part, he does this by giving one of the leading roles to a fictitious character, Eperitus. As he says himself,

You will not find Eperitus in any of the myths. He, his love affair with Astynome (who appears in The Iliad as Chryseis) and his feud with his father are all inventions of my imagination. I wanted at least one major character whose fate, unlike those of Odysseus and the others, is entirely in my own hands!

We have no idea what is going to happen to him – and we care! As the book draws to a close, we are on the  edge of our seats.

This is fine. I wasn’t so happy though with the one or two changes Iliffe made to the story as written not just by Homer but by the gods themselves. I won’t detail them here, because these changes help build up the suspense and I don’t want to spoil the story. I enjoyed it immensely and I want you to enjoy it too.

Just a note now on the female characters. I always identify with one or more of the women in a story and in this case it was easy for I had already identified with Helen and Clytemnestra and Cassandra individually in other books (and plays and films!) (I’ll mention some of them in another post) and in this book the point of view changes sufficiently often to that of Helen or Cassandra to keep me happy. Cassandra is beautifully drawn for us, but there were one or two aspects of the portrayal of Helen that didn’t ring true, like her lying to Menelaus at the end of the story. Surely the daughter of Zeus – and in this series the gods do play a part and she is the daughter of Zeus – should be above that, and anyway she should be able to rely on her divine beauty and charm to twist him round her little finger.

All in all though, this continues to be a great retelling of one of the greatest stories ever told.

KING OF ITHACA by Glyn Iliffe (Review)

When I picked up this book, I assumed I was getting yet another take on Troy. No, I don’t mean “yet another”; I have always enjoyed books that tell the tale of the seige of Troy and its aftermath, be it from Helen’s point of view, or Clytemnestra’s, or Cassandra’s. (I must get some of these others onto this site!)

(I enjoy watching the films, too, sometimes. I loved John Kent Harrison’s Helen of Troy, with Sienna Guillory as Helen – I’ll do something on that tomorrow. Time I mentioned a film or to, and slipped in a few links to YouTube to liven up the site.)

But this is not that story, not at all. And strangely, I didn’t even realise until I was half way through the book. I had been hooked since the opening scenes on Mount Parnassus and in the Cave of Pythia, the Oracle, and was reading on happily when suddenly I though I ought to make a note to the effect that it was taking an awful long time to build up to the climax. (Yes, I do make notes when I plan to write some kind of review; I should make a lot more.) In fact it was taking too long. So I cheated. I glanced at the end of the book – and it finishes with Odysseus marrying Penelope and becoming King of Ithaca. Hardly a hint of the coming war. Except that Helen has just married Menelaus, and it doesn’t take the most percipient man in Greece to see that he is in for an “interesting” life!

So. Odysseus’ early years. And wonderful, in the sense that you are there with him, seeing it all, experiencing it.

Of course, I would rather have had a little more of Helen and/or Penelope. But I wasn’t left without a character who was me. The Clytemnestra in this version of the events leading up to the war is perfect.

Read it. Afterwards, when you come across Odysseus again in other books or films, you will know him as very few of those around him do.

You become part of his world, and he becomes part of yours.

I’ve never written those words before in a review, but they apply to all the best historical fiction. And probably to all the best fiction.

Later: I have now discovered that there are three sequels to this book already in existence – and more coming! I’ll keep reading; you keep reading, too. And visiting this site. Only poets write “for themselves alone”. No, it wasn’t the poet, it was God – only God could love Helen for herself alone and not her yellow hair. That was Yeats. And I am rambling today.