Sunday, September 25, 2011

And The Legend Lives On

When I first returned to London a few weeks back, I was wandering through one of the endless corridors of the Underground when I was hit by a wave of delight. …this isn’t really usual, for the Tube, and it was actually nothing to do with the system itself. It’s more that I suddenly remembered something that had always charmed me deeply about the UK’s public transport systems the last I lived here – the fact that they advertise books.

I’ve never been a Londoner – I used to live in Sheffield and then Oxfordshire – but I was a Yorkshire commuter and I loved walking through Sheffield’s train station and seeing the posters proclaiming the latest novel release. Even though these posters were always cheek by jowl with the usual suspects of movies, albums and West End shows, I’ve just never noticed this anywhere else. And in a lovely bit of coincidence, one of the first posters I noticed was for a novel by the name of The Song of Achilles. So, to end my little foray into SpecFicNZ’s blogging week, I thought I might go for a little bit of a review.

The urge to read this novel struck me so hard for a couple of reasons, but basically? I was just ripe for it. A couple of years back I really became fascinated by the history and legend of Alexander the Great, and ended up reading a lot about him. In the course of my reading I naturally ended up with The Iliad in hand because Alexander was reputed to adore the story, and being a science major both late high school and at university left a rather large gap in my classical history education. Not to mention a day or so before seeing this poster I was reading The Persian Boy, which was entirely thanks to the fact I found myself at Troy a couple of weeks ago.

Of course, I was part of a very…unique…tour group, and it was at Troy that our poor guide realised that we didn’t really understand the dark depths of history. Or the legend of Hector.


But whatever the reason, I felt a compulsion to obtain and read this book, and after the Waterstones at Trafalgar Square failed me dreadfully I picked up a copy from WHSmiths at Hammersmith. I then toddled off for another round at the Natural History Museum, where I settled in at the restaurant for the reading of the first few chapters over lunch.

I’ve got an odd relationship with historical novels. I claimed to hate them for the longest time, and the only time I did bother with them was through Danielle Steel and other authors of bodice rippers and/or family saga epics when I was thirteen, because somehow that made it all right. I think it was because the history was really a convenient backdrop and the ephemeral nature of that background didn’t really make me feel stupid for not knowing the details myself. Not that they dealt a lot in that sort of detail. But when I was working in Doncaster I was looking for a book to read one lunchtime, and I noticed that The Other Boleyn Girl was on sale. Being that I was already embarrassed about not knowing so much as a jot about anyone buried in Westminster, I thought “What the hell” and read it. And to my surprise, I enjoyed it. I have to admit I’ve not enjoyed a single Phillipa Gregory as much as that one ever again, but it opened my eyes quite a bit. It also set a few standards for me, although they’d already been helped along in development by my first reading in 2005 or so of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.

But yes, my personal criteria for any historical novel is that it must make the world real and accessible to me. If it feels like a cardboard cut-out Hollywood set piece, I’m out. I got enough of that as a kid and it’s just not enough now. I’m curious and I’m cranky and I have developed a love for history that I’m still too lazy to indulge by actually reading a history text. I want to learn through story. Which is why the story, obviously, has to be fascinating. But the easiest way to my heart is through the characters.

Reading about Alexander the Great involved a fair bit of fiction, for me – and I found some very terrible books along the way. Mary Renault is basically the gold standard of Alexander fiction, but I also really enjoyed Judith Tarr’s Lord of Two Lands. And I think it’s due to many of the same reasons I ended up enjoying The Song of Achilles – both novels had strong first person narration, and neither lead character was the charismatic half-divine hero of the true story. I think, personally, that it’s very difficult to write a story about characters like Achilles or Alexander, real people or not. They were legendary even in their own time, and expecting the average reader to feel close to them, to emphasise with their thought processes and emotions and actions…it’s a huge ask, for both writer and reader. I won’t say it’s impossible. But the fact remains, they were extraordinary individuals who became mythical and legendary because they were so unlike those around them. It’s far easier to get to know them through the eyes of those around them (which is why I personally enjoy The Persian Boy and Funeral Games more than Fire From Heaven, when it comes to Renault’s trilogy).

Patrocles is the POV character in Song of Achilles, and he’s very imperfect – very mortal, in fact. I wondered a little about how very human he was, because it wasn’t just in contrast to Achilles. He was clumsy and “worthless” in the eyes of everyone. I didn’t think that was quite necessary, as I seem to recall Patrocles being a decent enough warrior in his own right, but it did end up putting Patrocles in an interesting position in Achilles’ life and legend. We’re all told from childhood that Achilles’ sole vulnerability was in his heel, but this novel teaches us that it was truly Patrocles. And the emotion woven into every word Patrocles gives us every reason why he deserves to be. It’s never going to be one of my favourite books, I don’t think. I don’t feel the urge to read it to shreds the way I do with other stories. But it’s very beautiful, and I was moved by the ending which dealt with the way Achilles commanded his ashes be mingled with those of Patrocles and that they be buried together. But their tomb only bore Achilles’ name, leaving Patrocles in limbo. And you know, I’m writing this entry in Word…a programme whose spellcheck recognises the name Achilles without issue yet gives Patrocles an ugly red squiggle. I think that says it all, really.

So, that’s the end of blogging week. I’m off to Egypt on Tuesday, but this little blogging exercise has brought up even more thoughts about my future and I have a little plot brewing in my head. I just have to work out how many universities I am still enrolled at. (…) I’m also flailing my hands fangirl-style because I discovered a fresh extract from The Scottish Prisoner over at CompuServe earlier this afternoon, and…wow. I’ve said before that it’s the characters who keep me reading, and Diana Gabaldon has just reminded me with an anvil to the head of how very, very much I adore both Lord John and Jamie Fraser and the intricacies of their very complicated friendship. I can’t wait for this book. God, I love reading. God, I love writing. And when I was staring through glass this afternoon at nineteenth century books in the endless corridor of the Enlightenment Galleries at the British Museum all I could think of was Belle’s delight when the Beast gave her the library as a gift. I wish I had a bison-man hybrid to do that for me. But then again, maybe my gift is that I get to have a library all of my own right here, in my head.

Now, if only I could get it all out to share… ^__^


  1. Wow, Egypt? Hope you have a great time!
    I don't really enjoy Gregory's writing so much. Not half as much as Diana's - I never stop learning from her!

  2. Egypt should be interesting, that's for sure -- I've wanted to go since I was tiny! And I get all overwhelmed just at the British Museum's collection...not sure what's going to happen when I finally see Abu Simbel in person...!

    Gregory is...interesting, I think. I always feel kind of let down by her because "The Other Boleyn Girl" is the best of her work that I've read, and it's unfortunately also the *first*. I actually abandoned one of her books in a hotel room in Japan; I forced myself to finish it first, but there was no way I was carrying around that nonsense for another week when I had much better things to stuff my backpack with. XD