Friday, 27 September 2013

David Gemmell's Troy

I love mythology and ancient history, and so perhaps it is no coincidence that some of my all time favourite books feature both. I love these books, I re-read them at least once a year, and whilst the ending is slightly off, for reasons that will become apparent, I still love the characters, the world, and the writing. 
I'm talking about David Gemmell's Troy. 

There are three books, the last co-authored by Gemmell's wife as he sadly died before he finished it. They are all loosely based on the Illiad and the battle of Troy, and when I first heard what Gemmell (pretty much my all time favourite author) was writing about I did groan a bit; another retelling of the Illiad. Original. But... I do love ancient history, and battles, and mythology, and well, it was David Gemmell after all. So, I gave them a shot, and I am so, so glad that I did. 
The trilogy begins with one of the best opening lines I have ever read. 

To sleep is to die.

It's sharp, it's punchy, it grabs you right from the get-go. And the following lines do not disappoint. 

So he clung to the driftwood as the raging seas hurled him high, then plunged him deep into the storm-dark valleys between the waves. Lightening flashed, followed by deafening thunderclaps. Another wave lashed him, spinning the driftwood, almost tearing him clear. Sharp splinters pierced his bleeding hands as he tightened his grip. Salt spray stung his swollen eyes.

This is our introduction to the trilogy, and one of the main characters, Gershom, the lone survivor of a shipwreck in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. Gershom is one of a whole host of important characters in the books, and that is perhaps one of the hallmarks of Gemmell's work, that the world is fully populated with interesting characters who are all richly developed. Troy is no exception to this, but as always there needs to be a primary character, the protagonist if not the hero, and in these books that character is Prince Aeneas... more commonly known as Helikaon. The other main character is his love interest, Andromache. 

The 'real' Helikaon, the 'historical/mythological' Aeneas, is barely in the Illiad, I believe he is briefly mentioned, simply as a warrior fighting on the side of the Trojans. However, the Aeneid tells of how Aeneas was believed to have escaped the sacking of Troy, along with his father and young son. He led them and other survivors across the Mediterranean, where he founded a new civilization, which became Rome. 

A couple of years ago I was reading these books and just happened to pay a visit to the British Museum, where we listened in to one of the guided talks on Ancient Rome, and when the guide mentioned Aeneas, I was delighted and fascinated, always fun to learn the 'truth' behind a character. 
Andromache, the secondary character, has more of a mention in the Illiad, though not a major role. She is the wife of the Trojan prince Hector, the man fated to meet his death fighting against the Greek hero, the infamous Achilles. 
What fascinates me about these books is that I know the story of the Illiad, I know the story of the Trojan horse, the fate of most of the characters, the way they are classically portrayed. And this story turns everything on it's head completely, and does it so brilliantly that it works without ever being twee or cliched. Vain, arrogant, selfish Paris becomes quiet, shy and scholarly. Helen, the renowned beauty, the 'face that launched a thousand ships', is plain, plump and sweet. 
And Aeneas, the hero who perhaps went on to found Rome, is the unhinged and deadly Helikaon, a man of contradictions; good, kind and chivalrous, but also capable of acts of incredible cruelty. It makes him a fascinating character, and I love the concept of his ship, the Xanthos; the biggest vessel on the 'Great Green', known to other sailors as the Death Ship, both because of it's size, which they believe will anger Poseidon, and because of the terrifying reputation of it's captain.

It's hard to say more without giving away any spoilers, but there are so many great characters in this book. I love the way Hektor (with a 'k' in the book) and Achilles are set up as equals and opposites. Odysseus is incredibly well written, sly as a fox and a renowned storyteller. Andromache is head strong and powerful, not about to let anyone push her around, and the doomed attraction between her and Helikaon is one of the main threads of the story. 
Troy takes a little bit of getting into, it took me a few chapters before I was completely immersed in the world, but its definitely worth the effort once you get sucked in. The ending is a little bit fluffier that I've come to expect from Gemmell's novels, as it was written by his wife, but that's not to say the ending is bad, or that it's cloying; not everyone survives. People die, differently to how they do in the Illiad, there are epic battles, and a few surprises along the way. Anyone interested in Troy, ancient history or heroic fiction I highly recommend this series. I have an entire shelf of Gemmell books, I'll probably mention my favourite - 'The Swords of Night and Day' soon - if there is a character who is cooler than Helikaon, it has to be Skilgannon.

Given the ending I give it nine Greek warriors out of ten.

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