In recent years, the retelling has become big. It is one of the things that I am innately grumpy about, much as I might try to mask it behind “none of this matters all that much, ignorance is an option, and you should pursue your happiness”.
Why? I do like my old myths after all, like to see them still given respect. And I like new works that nod to and riff on them. But the retelling exists in an uncanny valley to me. It’s not the tale I know, it’s not something new and interesting, its something with the disadvantages of both; no major surprises or plot twists to wow, but always the risk there’ll be a decision I don’t like. It can work – I adore Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Trilogy – but the odds are not in its favour here.
So none of you will be surprised to learn this retelling of the Trojan War isn’t my favourite Gemmell (unless, I guess, you didn’t know what it was just from the title). But the main reason isn’t that it’s a retelling. In fact, at this stage, this is more a prologue to what may be a retelling anyway.
It’s all about the hero of the piece.
David Gemmell had a number of favourite archetypes for protagonists. The young man with romantic notions who comes through violence to maturity a sadder, often better man. The weary veteran. One of them is the heart-wounded paragon – a man of immense and varied talents who nevertheless, daunted by early trauma, struggles to open up to people and occasionally lashes out with great violence. It just so happens to be my least favourite among them. A very interesting stage for one of the above to go through, but lacking something as a starting point. Maybe I need to do an essay on why but for now, that’s all you need to know, I think.
Well, Heliakon – also known as Aeneas, as in yes that Aeneas – is one of those heroes. And while the story isn’t entirely about him, enough of it is that I just kind of shrug a lot of the time. It’s why I didn’t finish this book long ago.
It is, for all my grousing, a good book. If you do not share my position, it’s a very well done mix of action, intrigue, and introspection. I was talking the other day with someone on twitter who said this was her favourite series. I understand why. I’m just unlikely to share the sentiment just yet.
Lets talk about the good. The interpretation of Kassandra and Odysseus were particularly enjoyable ones. Some of the ruses were highly entertaining, particularly when manipulating custom and public perception to place characters in certain situations. There was definitely a sense that here was an ancient Mediterranean where everyone had different codes and beliefs, and that these mattered to them, which I hugely appreciated. The world feels vivid throughout, but the sense of reality to the worldbuilding in terms of social mores was the best part. The action scenes are as good as ever. The arc of Argurios, a Mykene warrior who finds his code diverging from his people’s direction of travel, was the best and a good example of Gemmell at his finest and most inspiring. The courage to face certain loss in the name of what we believe is right is rare, for good reason, but important; it was something Gemmell always portrayed very well.
None of that outweighs my slightly detached feeling of interest in the main plot and arc. This is a high quality story, but it’s not one that makes me heart sing.