In 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
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.