There are plenty of novels out there concerning Troy and the men and women whose lives were changed forever by the war fought outside its gates - so many books in fact, that it is difficult to find one that doesn't feel predictable (after all, no author can really make shocking twists and turns in a war whose outcome is already known). Like books concerning the King Arthur legends, the Trojan War as a subject for a book is rapidly becoming ho-hum.
So it is refreshing to find a book that deals with this subject which feels fresh and suspenseful. Such is Caroline B. Cooney's "On the Seas to Troy", also published as Goddess of Yesterday. Although all of the details and events surrounding the Trojan War remain relatively faithful, the author brings new personalities to well-known characters, thoughtful insights on blasphemy and the nature of gods, and a likeable young heroine that blends so easily into the events leading up to the War that one might be surprised not to find her mentioned in ancient sources!
Anaxandra is the beloved daughter of a chieftain father on a small rocky isle, taken away from her home and family as a tribute/hostage of King Nicander, who places her in his own household as a companion to his own crippled daughter Princess Callisto. Despite homesickness, Anaxandra adjusts to her new life, only to have it shattered once more by pirates who plunder Siphnos. Thanks to an ingenious disguise, Anaxandra is the sole survivor, and when the ship bearing King Menelaus pulls in to investigate, she lies to ensure her future: telling the King of Sparta that she is the Princess Callisto.
Under this new identity, she is taken to Sparta where she mingles with the family of the king: his beautiful but dangerous wife Helen, his cheerful daughter Hermione, his two elder sons, and baby Pleisthenes. It is there of course, that the inevitable happens: Prince Paris of Troy arrives in Sparta, and when Menelaus is called away to his grandfather's funeral, Paris and Helen set sail once more for Troy...taking baby Pleisthenes and Anaxandra (again under a false identity in a bid to save Hermione's life) with them.
When retelling such a well-known story, it is impossible to change the most important events in the tale, but the personalities of the people involved are always up for grabs. Cooney comes up with an interesting portrayal of Helen: a painfully beautiful demi-goddess, utterly cruel, cold, manipulating, and revelling in the blood of the soldiers who die for her sake. It's a shocking change from the usual somewhat reluctant follower of Paris, who would walk the walls in agony over the deaths below her. Hector and Andromache's characterisations I am less fond of: he's too heavy-set and gruff, and she's too frivolous and giggly. Cassandra, however is captured perfectly as the beloved-but-hysterical princess in the tower, and Cooney instigates a very clever plot-twist in the clause of her curse (that her prophecies are never believed) that took me by surprise.
There are a few plot threads left dangling - does Anaxandra meet up with Euneas again? Cassandra hints that her parents are still looking for her - so does she ever meet them again? Does she have her revenge on the pirates of the twisted fish? And any reader who knows absolutely nothing about the Trojan War will be left with absolutely no clue on what happens to any of the characters - Cooney ends the book, so to speak, just when it seems like it's beginning. An epilogue fills in these blanks, but I would have liked to hear it from Anaxandra's point of view (plus Cooney forgets to mentions that Aretha is eventually rescued by her grandsons after the sack of Troy).
But all in all, Caroline B. Cooney has written a clear, beautifully descriptive story of an engaging young woman caught up in events much larger than herself, as well as a reworking of the traditional myths, and a reasonably accurate depiction of ancient Greek life. In terms of novel in the Trojan sub-genre, this one is one of the best.