on 3 June 2012
I know Ben Bova best as a science fiction author and was intrigued when I discovered that Bova would be releasing an historical fiction novel. I noticed instantly from the get-go the difference in writing style and the fact that The Hittite is much shorter than Bova's sci-fi novels. Bova's sci-fi novels are lengthy affairs, yet punchy in their delivery, packed chock full to the brim of action, plot, and character insight, all rolled into one big rollercoaster of a sci-fi thriller. They're full of technical and scientific details, and you really feel it, yet the mystery elements in the story ensure that they are deeply engrossing.
The Hittite is different. In stark contrast, the writing style here is sparse, the book is short, the chapters only a few pages each. That's not a complaint as such - just an observation - but it's certainly surprising given Bova's usual style. In a way there is a slight feeling of disappointment, because I expected an historical fiction epic just as packed and action-filled as Bova's sci-fi novels. This new style has both advantages and shortcomings. On one hand, the sparse style is judicious, offering us carefully considered snippets of information without becoming meandering or overwhelming. However, on the other hand, I almost felt like I didn't get to know the characters that well, beyond an intriguing but frustratingly elusive rough sketch of some interesting personalities. In regards to pacing, this style of writing quality at once made the story feel like it fairly clipped along and that a lot happened despite the sparseness of the writing. Yet strangely at the very same time I also got the strange sense that events were progressing so quickly that not enough time was spent into really going into each one in more depth. As a result I both liked and found problems with this different style that Bova utilises in The Hittite.
In terms of plot, it wasn't what I expected. I scrupulously avoided any hint of spoilers ahead of time, so I cracked open the book expecting a novel set in the Hittite empire and found instead a new retelling of The Iliad. I love the story of The Iliad, it's a timeless tale, but the problem with historical fiction set in the Trojan War is that it's one of these that has absolutely been done to death. It can be very difficult to get a new angle on it and make it fresh and exciting, something that people want to read. Even for a Trojan War lover, how many times do I really want to read the same story? Bova's angle is to tell the story from the perspective of Lukka, an outsider from the Hittite empire, who gets involved with both Trojans and Mycenaeans. Okay, that's a different premise. And Bova does change events up a little. But it's not enough. If an author's going to do the Trojan War, by this stage I think they have to put a whole new angle on it or stay faithful and write it really well. Bova's angle isn't different enough - too much is still predictable, despite the scattering of new material he throws in, and the sparse writing style can't make up for it by at least creating a richly absorbing retelling. This was frustrating as I'm familiar with Bova's usual packed-to-the-brim writing style, which is quite the engrossing read, and we just don't get it here.
Which brings me to Lukka. Like I said, interesting premise to bring the Hittites in on the Trojan War. But I had issues with Lukka. Not glaring issues that ruined my enjoyment of the book, but just the kind of slightly irritating peripheral issues that mean you didn't quite enjoy it as much as you might have. As Lukka tells us this tale, and we as readers see events through his eyes, it'd be pretty boring if he just sat by the sidelines the entire time and didn't play an important role. However, I felt that Lukka veered just a little too much towards "Mary Sue" territory. I'm sure that Bova didn't intend to write it that way, but when an original character is brought into established canon - especially canon as established as Homer's Iliad - and is presented as an important contributor and gets mixed up in all the key events... it reminded me of fan fiction Mary Sue characters who get just that sort of treatment - waltz on in to established canon of a book series and are miraculously involved in every important event and become themselves a crucial character - when in the original canon they didn't exist and weren't needed at all for events to play out.
Bova is a good writer, and I had hopes for this book, but it just doesn't hit the mark. It's a bit dull and predictable and the writing style is so different from his usual signature style. It's a reasonably enjoyable read but that's it, there's nothing more to really engage or excite. It's just "okay". Mildly enjoyable, but just too mediocre. Not fresh or in depth enough, and the main character whilst likable is unmemorable.