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Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Trojan War - A Reinterpretation: "The Troy Trilogy" by David and Stella Gemmell (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu and Mihir Wanchoo)

David Gemmell at Wikipedia
Order Lord of the Silver Bow (HERE)
Order Shield of Thunder (HERE)
Order Fall of Kings (HERE)

INTRODUCTION: Recently there has been the sad anniversary of David Gemmell passing three years ago, while his memory has been honored by the institution of the David Gemmell Award which turned out to be an unbelievable success in its first year attracting a very large number of participants and showing that core fantasy has been due for a major award the way it is snubbed in the traditional awards. Mihir is a big fan of the author and the Troy trilogy is one of his all time favorite series, so I was persuaded by him to give it a try and I liked it a lot too. The discussion that follows is a joint take on the books by the two of us, where as usual we mark the contributions by initials (LS and MW respectively).

(LS) Everyone knows the story of Troy and its aftermath as told originally by Homer in a work that echoed through the ages. Usually blamed on the Gods' meddling - "The Judgment of Paris", the famous love story that moved fleets is still probably the best known one in Western culture. And then the larger than life characters, their epic battles, Achilles against Hector, Ajax and Diomedes, Agamemnon the arrogant and Menelaus the "husband", and of course Ulysses/Odysseus who was so impressive a character and his role so decisive that he got an entire epic to himself...

On the Trojan side, the grief of Priam, the death of Hector, the treachery of Paris, the tragic Andromache and her doomed little son, the unheeded prophecies of Cassandra and the valiant Aeneas are again names and events so familiar that they seem "more real" than today's headlines. And of course later came Rome and the legend of its Trojan origins from Aeneas and his refugee crew another epic immortalized this time by Virgil in the famous Aeneid.

When I started reading the Gemmell take on the classical story, I was impressed by how well the author took the ingredients above and re-mixed and re-interpreted them in surprising ways.
In the short overview of each book below you will see some of that but when you read the novels be prepared to be surprised.

While as befitting an epic there are many characters, most legendary ones and some author additions there are five on which the series depends and I will discuss them in what follows.

The heroes of the trilogy:

Helikaon aka Aeneas, lord of the sea, Dardanian prince, raised by Odysseus who saved him from certain death several times, though once with very unintended consequences.
His feminine counterpart, Andromache raised as an Artemis priestess on the women-only island of Thera, intended bride to Hektor when her sister dies.
Odysseus, king of Ithaca, master storyteller, former pirate and current trader that tries to stay on everyone's good side; as long as that is possible of course.

These three are the characters on which the series stands and they are just brilliant; I would not want to spoil more but they became some of my favorite fictional characters of all time - actually Aeneas and Odysseus have always been favorite characters but the Gemmell take which is quite original and both similar and different compared with the classic story, took them to another level.

The movers and shakers:

Agamemnon, High King, inherits the strongest, most warlike Greek state, Mykene and has great plans; the gilded city of Troy stands in the way, so treachery is first attempted. The ultimate villain of the piece and the one un-redeemable character whose ambition and greed will end a golden age of peace and throw the Mediterranean world into chaos. Strong arm tactics, the greed of some of his fellow Greek leaders, happenstance that throws into his camp some unexpected people and ultimately the "you are with me or you are against me" effect, all conspire to turn his plots into reality.

Priam, King of Troy, a very unpleasant man whose greed is legendary as is his snubbing or favoring at different times his numerous brood and closest advisers; helped by his Queen Hecuba who is as skilled with poison as Priam is with intrigue and by his son Hektor, the one "shining knight" everyone loves and respects who leads the unparalleled Trojan Horse cavalry that made Troy unbeatable, Priam built a commercial empire based on his city and presided over 40 years of peace and prosperity.

Hated, despised and feared yes, but his achievement is still monumental. He now needs the last piece in place to guarantee that Troy will stand for 1000 years and be remembered forever, the woman known as "Shield of Thunder" as a bride for Hektor and mother for the "golden son" of prophecy of his line. His mentally ill daughter Kassandra has other prophecies of course but nobody pays attention; in hindsight we know how the 1000 year prophecy will become true.

The setting and geopolitical situation is reasonably close to the classical one, the most notable difference being the Island of Thera and the Artemis cult there which plays a very important role. There is also a surprise character of Egyptian origins though after a while I kind of guessed who he will turn out to be.

Intrigues, battles, individual duels, love stories, sea faring, tragedy and happiness, the series has everything; add to that a superb writing style that will hook you from the first page and keep you turning page after page until the end of the third volume. The transition from volume two to volume three is smooth and unless previously known you would not guess that Ms. Gemmell wrote it and completed her husband's magnificent trilogy after his untimely death.
After my general overview of the series, Mihir is presenting a short take of each volume:

(MW) The first book
“Lord of the Silver Bow” opens with prince Helikaon/Aeneas who begins his journey on his new big ship. Unknown to him the Mykene King Agammenon put a huge bounty on his head for his killing of Alektruon, a famous Mykene warrior/pirate.

Odysseus, warrior king of Ithaka, is famed across the great green for ability as a tale spinner & few others remember him as warrior to be afraid of as well, while Andromache is the Theban princess who is going to Troy to be married to Hektor. Argurios another famous Mykene warrior who is traveling to Troy on a mission of his own gets entangled with plots to destroy the city . Kassandra is also present & her prophecies have been conveniently added to the story in a fashion which makes sense in the world written by Gemmell.

David Gemmell was probably the finest writer of Heroic Fantasy and he excels in his task of retelling the story of Troy without the Gods & magic involved. It simply becomes a story of characters whose lives become entangled with each other either comradely or antagonistically. In this book he lays bare the geopolitical reasons for the happening of the war of Troy.

Both King Priam & Agammenon are rulers with a cruel streak & Machiavellian wiles. Neither is liked by their subjects & the readers will, I suspect feel the same. Famous persons missing in this first installment are Hektor & Achilles, however they are alluded to & believe me with characters such as Gershorm, Argurious, Andromache, Helikaon & Odysseus their absence is hardly felt.

In the second book
“Shield of Thunder” the reasons for Andromache’s betrothal to Hektor are laid bare & they are not what the reader will expect. In this earlier 1/3rd of the book we are introduced to 2 minor characters from the end of the 1st book namely Kalliades & Banokles who after the events in the climax of “LOTSB” have been left bereft. While traveling as pirates they come across a girl named Piria who wants to travel to Troy for reasons unknown. Their path converges with Odysseus in a strange way & later lead on to Troy where the great games are on as a part of Hektor’s marriage to Andromache.

We are also reintroduced to Helikaon who is now married but has been befallen by a great calamity thanks to a certain character from the previous book. We are also given a glimpse of Achilles & David Gemmell has written a rather different first meet between Hektor & Achilles & whilst traditionalists might not be pleased, readers will enjoy the encounter. We also get to see Paris & Helen albeit quite differently from what we expect, both being minor characters .

Gershorm also has to face his past to save the life of his friend. The second book in a trilogy is often the hardest to write and least liked book in a trilogy, however
SOT manages to heighten the stakes as set by LOTSB with the introduction of new POV characters & gives us a rather excellent reason for why the Trojan War will be fought. Somehow David Gemmell manages to outshine his previous effort & set the stage for the final book where we know what’s going to happen but yet the reader will be curious to see how it all pans out & of course see the epic battle between Achilles & Hektor as well.

Sadly the world was poorer when David Gemmell passed away on 26th July 2006, condolence messages started pouring in & before anyone could speculate about what would happen to the third book, Stella Gemmell took it upon herself to complete her husband’s vision of Troy. She has assisted him in his previous books by doing research work & in the Troy trilogy specifically focused her abilities on all the background material required for the preparation in making of the books. Also David had managed to write 60,000-70,000 words before Stella thought of debuting. Though she had no previous writing experience she did soldier on & based on David’s notes for the entire series & the last book. She finished the book on time & it was set for publication.

The 3rd book Fall of Kings was coauthored by both the Gemmells’ & the beauty of it was that you could not differentiate between their voices. The story flowed smoothly beginning with the events set after fall of Thraki & the beginning of the invasion of Troy by Agamemnon as he has coerced & coaxed all of his allies into joining the attack on Troy.

All the previous POV characters are back in this one and with the addition of a few new POVs such as Achilles, Xander, Skorpius, etc. I won’t like to specify what exactly happens as almost all of us have a general idea how this is going to end. The beauty of the Gemmellian plotting makes the read worthwhile & manages to surprise the readers along the way with their twist on the myths of Troy.

The ending while heartbreaking is a testimonial to Homer’s Troy with some cool alterations and the addition of Gershorm’s sub-plot makes it pretty intriguing as well. The epilogue is one of the best I have ever read & can stand as a epithet to David, his talents & his way of thinking & is written emphatically by Stella Gemmell.

Even though the trilogy ends with this book, the story & characters will stay with you for a long time as its said
“Storytellers never die, they live on in their stories”. We have been indeed fortunate to read David’s stories for nearly a quarter of a century. I can only imagine what could have been, if not for the tragic early demise. David Gemmell was one of the most inspirational writers ever to grace the world & will always continue to enthrall readers eternally with his ideals, thoughts & books.


Ross stewart said...

I had to leave a comment because what you wrote was brilliant and it made me really happy to read :)

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