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Black Ships by Jo Graham

Book Review by Ursus

Jo Graham delivers an interesting blend of historical fiction, adventure and romance, and pagan fantasy in this retelling of The Aeneid. Quick prose, interesting characters and ancient locales combine to good effect. With a little suspension of disbelief, the reader will be transported into a page turning delight as the sails of Black Ships ferry them to a time of clashing Bronze Age Mediterranean cultures.

Author Jo Graham developed a facility with classical culture from a fairly early age, having read The Aeneid in Latin back in her high school days. As she relates in the author's notes, she became fascinated with the wider scope of Mediterranean conflict that transpired around 1200 BCE. The historical conflict that became known as The Trojan War seems to have inaugurated an era of decline as various cultures collapsed from wars of piracy and other factors. Among the victims was Mycenean Greece, home of Homer's warriors. Only Egypt's New Kingdom survived intact.

Using archaeological research, the author splits the Trojan War into two phases: an initial conflagration that crippled the famous city-state, and a skirmish set a generation later that ravaged the remains of Troy. The main character is Gull, a female born to a Trojan slave woman captured from the first conflict. Due to various plot developments, she becomes an oracle of Persephone. In the course of a generation she grows into a young, responsible woman with a connection to the divine. Meanwhile, Prince Aeneas, or Neas as he is called, flees the second destruction of Troy and recaptures some of the prisoners of war from the first conflict. Gull becomes friend and advisor to Neas, and eventually the reader realizes that Gull is the Sybil who leads Aeneas into the Underworld.

Neas and his ragtag crew of Trojan refugees contend with various needs: recapturing other members of their culture that have been sold into slavery all over the Eastern Mediterranean; the constant search for food, money and supplies; and escape from the ever pursuing forces of Mycenean Greece. Eventually they land in Egypt, where Neas is forced to romance the Egyptian princess. As the author explains, Carthage was founded some four centuries after the Trojan War; thus there is no way Aeneas could have met Queen Dido of Carthage, despite what Virgil tells you. Substituting the land of the Nile for Carthage in this time period makes a lot of sense.

From there our intrepid heroes soon find themselves sailing into the west until they discover Italy and its primitive collection of hilltop Bronze Age tribes. Aeneas and his followers find the town of Latium, its population decimated by local conflicts. In exchange for the continued defense of the city, the Trojan refugees are granted citizenship. Aeneas becomes king, and providence leads him to a land of seven hills not far from Latium, where he decides to found a city ruled over by a descendant ...

The historical reinterpretation of the myth is cleverly done and supported with archaeological insights. There are two other strands to the novel. The first is the religious angle. The forces of classical divinity exist, though they reveal themselves only to those specially inclined to communicate with them. The main character of Gull has the gift of prophecy and becomes an oracle of the underworld from an early age. Through Gull, divinity helps guide Aeneas and his crew. Generally this is done very well, with the divine beings speaking to Gull through trance like possessions and dream like states.

However, there are two instances when Gull actually sees and interacts with a god - a winged Phoenician servant of Baal named Mik-el who wants to champion the worthy. I'm not exactly sure what the point of this was. Does Mik-el eventually become the archangel Michael? We are not told definitively. In any event, my only real criticism of the novel is that these face-to-face encounters with a non-classical deity seemed awkward and probably could have been safely omitted.

The other strand of the novel is action and romance. It is true we know the ultimate fate of Aeneas, and thus we know he cannot die before he fulfills his destiny. But how he gets there through all the twists and turns is engrossing. We see the plot through the eyes of Gull, as she struggles with her own destiny. A child of rape and war, she knows only her calling as an oracle and her duty to the remnants of her people. But life becomes complicated when she develops romantic feelings for a Trojan officer. She furthermore finds a life of leisure and intellectualism in the Egyptian court that seems more attractive than a career of advising a refugee prince. Gull is a sympathetic character; a victim of the times who manages to rise to her calling through a sense of destiny.

What weaves all these strands together is the author's prose. She knows how to move characters and plot along without becoming lost in too much detail. The prose is actually simple enough that a young adult could enjoy it, and yet polished enough to interest full grown adults. I found myself turning page after page, and I am otherwise not one disposed to fiction.

The book comes with a glossary of terms, an interview with the author, and reading questions directed at young adults. I enjoyed Black Ships greatly. If you're interested in a clever retelling of the Aeneas myth, this book may be for you.

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