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Customer Review

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a stand-out debut with a real sense of history, 1 July 2008
This review is from: Black Ships (Paperback)
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.
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