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Monday, March 10, 2008

"Black Ships" by Jo Graham

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According to the author’s note located at the back of the book, Jo Graham’s debut novel “Black Ships” is largely influenced by Virgil’s epic poem “The Aeneid” and chronicles the tale from the end of the Trojan War to how Aeneas, the son of the goddess Aphrodite and the last prince of Troy, led his people—known as Wilusans in the book—on an incredible journey in search of a new land and destiny—some legends consider Aeneas the founder of the Romans—aided throughout by the guidance of Gull, an acolyte and oracle of Persephone, the Lady of the Dead…

Now I’ve never read “The Aeneid” or studied Greek history/literature, but I am a huge fan of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey and Greek mythology in general, so I was really looking forward to reading “Black Ships”, especially because I thought it was going to be more of a fantastical tale. It’s not. Even though Pythia—the title that Gull assumes when she is dedicated to the Lady—can see visions of the future in flames, is a vessel for the Lady’s words, and can lead men across the River Styx to converse with the dead, “Black Ships” is really just a historical fiction novel that tries to capture the emotional & spiritual journey of a people displaced. In other words, the book is mainly a human drama that features more romance than action, and only a smattering of the supernatural.

Now don’t get me wrong, period dramas can be great—some of my favorite movies (Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Braveheart, Cleopatra, etc.) fall in that category—but “Black Ships” just didn’t do it for me. For starters, I found the prose underwhelming. Written in the first-person, Gull’s narrative is clean, concise and offers glimpses of poetic elegance, but at the same time she has a tendency of using modern terminology—northbound traffic, nursing, the f-word—that doesn’t gel with the time period, writes some childish banter, and can be a bit too sparse in her descriptions. And stacked up against someone like Jacqueline Carey—who I think would be perfect for this type of story—Jo Graham’s prose just pales in comparison.

As far as the narrative, I really wish there would have been several different point-of-views rather than just the one. Not to take anything away from Gull who is a pretty interesting character, but her viewpoint was just too limited in my opinion, especially when it came to the numerous battles that were fought where the reader only got a secondhand account. Plus, I didn’t think Gull was the most fascinating character in the book ;) That honor goes to Aeneas and Xandros, both of whom dealt with intense inner struggles—Aeneas’ duty to his people, his destiny as king; Xandros’ love for Aeneas, the loss of his family, his ‘curse’, et cetera—that would have made for some captivating reading. Additionally, it would have been nice to see through the eyes of the mad Egyptian princess Basetamon and Achilles’ son Neoptolemos—the novel’s only real villain—who was nothing more than a footnote.

Finally, for a single-volume story that is basically recounting the entire life of a woman—from birth to old age—“Black Ships” is surprisingly succinct at only 400 pages and goes by even quicker than that. Now I’m not saying that Ms. Graham should have written a seven-book epic, each at a thousand pages or more—which is one problem I have with historical fiction novels along with how academic some of them can be—but a little more time spent detailing ancient Greece, Egypt and its peoples; fleshing out the characters; and expanding various subplots would have greatly benefited the book, especially when I never got that sense of being transported to another time period.

In the end, “Black Ships” was a disappointment, partly because it wasn’t the kind of novel that I was expecting—I admit that I was envisioning 300 and God of War before starting the book ;)—partly because I never connected with the author’s writing style, and partly because I thought "Black Ships" could have been much better. Of course it is what it is, and while Jo Graham’s book wasn’t for me, that doesn’t mean other readers won’t be able to enjoy “Black Ships”. After all, a lot of the other reviews I’ve looked at have been quite positive, and “Black Ships” does possess a certain sensibility and user-friendliness that can be appealing to the right person. So my best recommendation is to make sure you know what kind of book you’re getting if you do decide to give “Black Ships” a chance…


Angela/SciFiChick said...

I'm about halfway through and struggling to finish... Does it pick up at all?

Robert said...

Angela, tempo-wise? Not really. It stays about the same throughout, although there is a nice scene towards the end that involves the River Styx, and emotionally, things do pick up. I'm interested to see your final thoughts :)

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Damn, damn, double-damn, and a pint of damn for the weekend!

I also love Greek mythology (who doesn't?!) and I was hoping this would be good, but I had a nagging suspicion it wouldn't be quite what I thought.

Good review, though! :)

The Book Swede

Robert said...

Well you never know Chris, you might actually like it :) I'd give it a shot!

Wendy said...

I like Greek Mythology too and I was looking forward to reading this one but now? Not so much.

Great review, though!

Darren T said...

<shakes head sadly, mutters darkly about yankee philistines...> ;)

Anonymous said...

I actually loved it. It is a first novel but I put alongside of Mary Renault's Theseus novels or MZB's Avalon series. I think if you enjoyed those you will enjoy this.

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