14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 1 July 2008
This is Jo Graham's first published novel, and the start of a projected series to be known (I believe) as the Numinous World. Black Ships begins in King Nestor's city of Pylos, after the fall of Troy (or Wilusa, as the refugees call it), and follows the protagonist, a Trojan-descended priestess named Gull, from there to the founding of the new city of Rome by Prince Aeneas and his band of followers. As this suggests, it's heavily based on the Iliad and the Aeneid, but the story becomes far more than a simple retelling. Graham produces a narrative that combines the traditional epics with the known archaeology and history of the Bronze-Age Mediterranean, evoking time and place with a sure hand.
I love all the settings in this; it's a world in flux, changing around the characters. They start from Troy and Pylos, travel to Miletus and Byblos, and to Egypt (in the biggest change from the original sources; Graham points out that Carthage wasn't founded until around four hundred years after the fall of Aeneas' Troy) before finally establishing a new home in Italy. Graham shows the reader all the diverse societies, especially that of Egypt, where the Wilusans spend some time; each society is different, but we also see how they interact in the Mediterranean world. Graham uses the complex history excavated at Hisarlik to expand the story; Gull's mother and the other slaves from Pylos are taken at the fall of the city, but the main plot of the book comes nearly a generation later, as Neas and his comrades escape the destruction of the remnants of Wilusa-that-was by an expedition led by Achilles' son Neoptolemus. Pursued by Neoptolemus and his allies, Neas leads the black ships to Egypt, where Neoptolemus is finally defeated, eventually finding a place to settle in Latium.
The story turns around three main characters; Gull, the narrator; Neas, the leader of the Wilusans; and Xandros, captain of one of Neas' ships. Gull is the priestess of Pythia, the Lady of Death, a some-time prophet born of a linen slave in Pylos and sent to the temple after she is crippled in an accident; she is both strong-willed and sensible, travelling under the hand of her goddess and one of Neas' main councillors. Neas is a warrior and a captain, trying to hold his people together, but also familiar with the gods; as the only remaining descendant (with his son) of Priam's dynasty, he is expected to rule his own people, but he also displays an strong awareness of the broader political situation in the Mediterranean. Xandros, on the other hand, is a commoner by birth, and even his position as captain is more than he ever expected; he's a long-term ally of Neas', however, and far smarter than he believes. Xandros is an explorer, a questioner, and a vital support to both the others. Their complex relationships echo through the books, as they confront the challenges facing their people, and try to find a measure of happiness for themselves)
There's also a detailed cast of secondary characters, however; I particularly like Neas' father Anchises, who is a stubborn, opinionated pain in the neck, and entirely believable. Graham does a great job of showing the generational conflict, and the ways in which the different backgrounds of the characters shape their opinions; Anchises is still a man of Troy-that-was, one who remembers the glory of the city that fell, and he has very strong ideas about who and what "Prince Aeneas" should be. Gull, on the other hand, is rather more pragmatic, and interested in the current situation. Neas himself is delicately balanced between the two, agreeing with Gull that they need to look first at the situation they're in rather than holding to traditional protocols, but also understanding (as Gull doesn't always, entirely) the importance of maintaining the identity of the People and of his ceremonial status as leader beyond his regular temporal power. The vindictive Neoptolemus, Gull's younger half-brother Aren, the princess Bastemon in Egypt, even Gull's teacher Pythia - the characters have so much life, even beyond their roles in the main story. It's a rich tapestry.
There are a few touches of the broader Numinous World series appearing here, most obviously in the mysterious Mik-El, who Gull encounters on her journey. He seems to be a messenger, something more than human but less than a god, and definitely a character I wanted to see more of! There are other echoes, particularly in certain of Gull's conversations with Neas and Xandros, but they don't interfere with the flow of the book.
First and foremost, this is a cracking good story. I found it compelling reading, and I got invested in both Gull's personal story and in the broader political tensions the Wilusans have to navigate. Xandros is unquestionably my favourite, but I loved all of the major characters, and the whole thing just *works* for me. The historical background and the detail that Graham puts in is marvellous, but in a sense it's just the icing on a thoroughly satisfying cake *g*. For a first novel, this is deeply impressive, and I'm looking forward to more stories in this Numinous World sequence.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 25 July 2008
Gull, the central character of Black Ships is something special. She's firmly of her time and conveys a vivid sense of what it might have been like to live in an age when gods spoke, cities rose and fell, freedom was a fragile privilege, and the cutting edge of technology was a new type of sword. But she's also an outsider in her own time, able to step back and view a bigger picture; to ask the questions about history, values, and decisions that I'd want to ask ancient people if I could meet them. For all her perceptiveness, she never comes across as one of those anachronistic point-of-view characters, but as a living individual.
Her role of sibyl allows her to have one foot in the world of men with its power struggles, politics, and action. The other foot stays firmly in the world of women, where she deals matter-of-factly with rape, childbirth, slavery, bereavement, and the practicalities of day-to-day survival. Then there's the world of the gods, specifically Death, whom Gull serves with awe, and an oddly life-affirming devotion. Gull herself never doubts that supernatural forces intervene in her life, but Jo Graham's sensitive portrayal leaves space for both Gull's faith and modern readers' doubts to fit comfortably inside her story.
This is an author who knows the ancient world, from the details of everyday life to the shifting fortunes empires, and she's secure enough in her knowledge that she's not afraid to interpret and invent within the framework it offers.
Gull and the others, especially Aeneas and Xandros, thread their way from Troy and Greece to the founding of Rome via the destruction of Thera, the piracy of Miletus, the politics of Lebannon, and the magnificence of Egypt. It could feel like a whirlwind tour of the ancient Mediterranean, and it does have some of the joys of a tourist trip, but there's so much more. Underneath the delights of historical sightseeing, the individual dramas, tragedies, and romances (which are often captivating) there's an undercurrent of historical crisis, of the story of civilisation working out its course. The characters of Black Ships inhabit a world in which peace and war, order and chaos, power and freedom, prosperity and famine, are balanced on a knife-edge: their dilemmas are fascinatingly alien, and sometimes shockingly familiar.
I came away from Black Ships with new appreciation for a story I thought I'd studied and become bored with at school. I feel I've been given back the world of the Trojan War and the founding of Rome thanks to a wonderfully fresh perspective that's neither ancient nor modern, but the voice of a compellingly real individual: Gull.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 17 July 2008
'Black Ships' is Jo Graham's debut, a sparse and haunting retelling of Virgil's Aeneid, following the journey of the remnants of Troy around the Mediterranean in search of somewhere to build a new life, as the great Bronze Age civilisations begin to crumble.
But this is not simply an outing for fans of Virgil or those steeped in ancient history; Graham's graceful touch and beautiful characterisations breath life into a world known only through ruins and artefacts. Her characters struggle with politics, love, religion and conflict just as much as any today, and the reader is made inextricably a part of this world that seems so distant.
I had not read two chapters of 'Black Ships' before I was utterly hooked, and kept reading for hours just to see this incredible story through to its end. I will be eagerly awaiting Graham's next book!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 29 June 2008
"Black Ships" is the first volume in a historical cycle spanning centuries. (Jo Graham's next book will apparently be about Egypt under Cleopatra and Caesar.) Here we meet Gull, a Trojan priestess who joins her people's survivors in a voyage across the Mediterranean to unknown shores. This is of course a retelling of Virgil's Aeneid, the founding of Rome, by the vanquished of the Trojan war. Virgil meshed the tales of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and "Black Ships" is an adventurous odyssey which takes us across the sea to many places including Carthage, future foe of the future Rome. It's a terrific book, meshing the Ancients' belief in the supernatural with a feel for Bronze Age history: as in Mary Renault's books, the past is another country; you get a feeling of a different world and a different worldview. I could believe in Gull and her visions, and can't wait for her next incarnation.