A thousand ships by Nathalie Haynes

The war that launched a thousand ships has come to an end. Troy has been burned by the Greeks. Thousands of men lost their lives, but even more women lost everything. From the Trojan queen Hecabe and her daughters, the Greek women Penelope and Laodamia awaiting their husband’s fate, the nymph Oenone who was abandoned by Paris to the fighting Hera, Aphrodite and Athene. This is the Trojan war trough the eyes of the women, girls and goddesses who lost everything. Their home, their family and their body.

It’s no secret that I love Greek retellings, especially of the Trojan war. In recent years, I read a few books who offer a female perspective on those events. Both ‘The silence of the girls‘ and ‘The song of Achilles‘ heavily focus on the relationship between Briseis, Achilles and Patroclus. ‘A thousand ships‘ has a more ambitious premise and wants to give more women a voice.

The books opens with the Trojan Creusa waking up in the dead of the night of a fire. Troy is burning. Odysseus’ list with the wooden horse has worked. A few of the coming chapters are set on the Trojan beach after the war, when the royal woman of Troy, all except Cassandra who already sees what will happen, are awaiting their fate. But we also discover what happened during the war and go back to the events that caused it in the first place. Was it really all about Paris and Helen falling in love? Or were there greater forces at play?

From the mount Olympus, where in one of my favourite chapters three goddesses are fighting for a golden apple, to the battlefield where the Amazon princess Penthesilea is fighting Achilles, the same Achilles Menelaus’ daughter Iphigenia thought she was going to wed on the last day of her life. Haynes writes a clever novel about so many women, even some lesser known such as Laodamia or Chryseis. The main perspective is that of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry who hears a calling from Homer to write this story.

Where Miller really followed the classic interpretation of Homer, Haynes uses a lot of ancients texts and plays to tell this story. So it’s no direct interpretation of the Iliad. This makes for a more modern feeling and some twists that were new to me. But it is such a gripping and entertaining novel at the same time. The chapters are short, and sometimes you wish you can get to know the woman a bit better before moving on to the next one, but all together this is a great introduction to the ancient story. For both newcomers and fans.

Some people are disappointed in her use of different classical texts, others had hoped the story would be even more feministic. The focus is on the story of the women but of course men are still prominent. Penelope is waiting for her beloved husband Odysseus (who is just not a worthy man, can we agree on that?), Klythemnestra is full of hatred and revenge for Agamemnom (I didn’t like the Klythemnestra in this book, I preferred ‘Daughters of Sparta‘ and ‘The house of names’) and Paris chooses Aphrodite because he’s promised the most beautiful princess of Greece (leaving his first wife Oenone and his son behind, Oenone’s chapter was also one of my favourites).

As Haynes tells us in her afterword that Cassandra is her favourite, I’m waiting for her (or another author) to give that girl her own novel. She definitely deserves that. If you like Greek retellings or you want to give this ‘genre’ a try, then I highly recommend to start with ‘A thousand ships’.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Have you read this one? What’s your favourite Greek myth retelling?

Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood

Helen and Klythemnestra are the daughters of the Spartan king Tyndareos and his wife queen Leda. When rumours start to circulate around Helen’s birth Klythemnestra, although being the eldest, is forced to marry king Agamemnon of Mycenae. Helen becomes the heir of Sparta and her father receives all the kings of Greece to compete for her hand. The choice falls upon Menelaos, Agamemnon’s brother. Neither marriage will be happy and both sisters will be drawn into the huge conflict of the Trojan War.

I love Greek myth retellings, that’s no secret. Having already read Colm Toibin’s ‘House of Names’ where Klythemnestra and her children appear as main characters, I was curious to see how Heywood would tell her story. Both Helen and Klythemnestra are demonized women. One being the girl that launched a thousand ships and caused the destruction of Troy, the other a husband killer.

Daughters of Sparta‘ tells the story of the sisters from their youth as happy princesses in their fathers palace until right after the siege of Troy. I’m in general no fan of the Helen and Paris storyline. But Heywood manages to create some sympathy for Helen, at least until Paris arrives. Then it goes all so fast and her decision is made as quickly as the choice of how she will dress.

Klythemnestra’s story takes us to the Greek shores where she tries to stop her husband killing her daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice for the Gods. Still, Heywood tries to create a woman who is in pain but not full of revenge. This works to a certain extend, but I missed the fury and hate I imagine when thinking about Klythemnestra.

I think the main problem with this novel is maybe that Heywood tries to paint their lives as them being just normal women. She also focuses on their unhappy relationship with their husbands. This implies that she omits certain things from the classic story, especially once we are in Troy. No Achilles, almost no Hector, no Apollo and a Cassandra that doesn’t speak out about her visions.

But still the fall of Troy took my breath away. I always hope this story will end differently, but of course it never does. The cruel fate of the women is again described vividly and gave me goosebumps (and reminded me of Pat Barker’s ‘Silence of the girls’).

Maybe, this isn’t the best retelling. But Heywood writes straightforward and can set a small foot next to Miller and Barker in my opinion. Daughters of Sparta takes a moderate approach towards two sisters whose stories have never been told that way.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher to provide me with a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

This is book 5 for #20booksofsummer

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Protector by Conn Iggulden

The battle of Salamis. Athens is burning and its inhabitants have taken refuge at the island of Salamis. At the head of a large fleet Themistocles, Cimon and Xantippus are still trying to get the odds in their favour and defeat the Persian king Xerxes. Themistocles’ wits and some luck do the trick, but a large number of Persians move inward. Athens is rebuilding from the ashes but they will need the help of the Spartans to survive. And after the death of their battle king Leonidas, it’s unsure whether they will stand with them or not.

This is the second novel in the Athenian series of Conn Iggulden, telling the tale of the Persians Wars and the Peloponnesian War. I did enjoy ‘the gates of Athens‘ that ends with the fantastic first part of the battle of Salamis. Protector continues the story of this battle and I was immediately drawn into the action.

I had some trouble with getting to know the different characters during the first novel, but this second part felt like a happy reunion with some favourite characters. I definitely prefer Protector over Gates of Athens because it offers more direct action and some interesting character building.

I also liked how the first novel offered insight into the democracy in Athens, whereas this one learns you more about Sparta. You can feel the differences between both realms that will bring them to the other side of the battlefield in the future (I believe the Peloponnesian War will be the topic of the next book in this series?).

The battle of Plataeae is the ‘piece the resistance’ of the novel. My favourite character is Aristides and I loved to experience the battle from his perspective. I also enjoyed the ending, it offers already some closure. There is a new generation coming up for the next book(s). The characterization of Pericles is promising.

I never thought I would find these ancient Greek wars so immersive, but Iggulden has a talent for writing battle scenes and political intriges that will get you on the edge of your seat.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher to provide me with a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite novel set in ancient times?

The gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden

490 B.C. The Persian army is ready to invade Greece. In Athens, they won’t welcome another dictator as they have beaten the last one decades ago with Sparta’s help. Now every free man has a vote in their democratic political system. Xanthippus, Aristides, Miltiades and Themistocles are all ‘strategos’ who will lead their people to war. They send word to Sparta and the other Greek cities for help. The two armies will meet at the battle of Marathon. It’s the start of a war between two kingdoms and a power struggle between Athens and Sparta that will have a mark on Greece for years to come.

I loved Iggulden’s Emperor series about Caesar and Brutus so much that I definitely want to reread it someday. But strangely, I haven’t picked up any other book from this author until now. Not even his books about the Wars of the Roses.

The gates of Athens is the first part in a new series about the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, although in this book the focus is on the war with king Darius and his son Xerxes of Persia. I’m not quite familiar with this history and haven’t studied Greek in high school (only Latin). So it took me some time to get to know all the names and the setting.

The story focuses on two great battles, and thus reminded me of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series. The battle of Marathon is the big event during the first 100 pages. After the battle, we go back to Athens and the story starts focusing on the lives of the main characters and the political intriges in the city. This was the part I enjoyed most as I learned a lot about how the democracy in Athens worked. I found the voting system, where every free man could write a name on a piece of broken pottery to banish him for 10 years, especially interesting.

The story is a bit slow and I read this one in a week that I couldn’t really focus on anything, so I couldn’t give it all the attention it deserved. But that isn’t Iggulden’s fault. He’s a great storyteller. His battle scenes are epic and his character development is terrific.

No doubt, I’ll pick up the next book in the series, but in the meantime I might finally start with Stormbird, his first book about the Wars of the Roses.

Rating: 4 out of 5.