Black Ships by Jo Graham, New York: Orbit, 2008
Black Ships is a retelling of the Aeneid (the journey of a prince of the destroyed city of Troy, and his eventual founding of the Roman Empire) from the point of view of a young priestess, Gull, who guides and advises him on his journey.
The book is interesting from a historical perspective, Graham has clearly done her research, and she’s tied in historical facts and theories to the narrative structure of the Aeneid to create a very believable portrait of a unique period of history. Layered over the historical details is Gull’s spiritual perspective, her supernatural gift of prophecy, and her beliefs in the different gods and mythologies she comes across. Together, there are plenty of fascinating tidbits to please fans of historical novels or world-building aficionados, which for me was a major plus.
While several of the characters are somewhat lighthearted, most of them, and Gull in particular, are over-serious, which is partly a consequence of the situation they are in, but also something of a narrative flaw, as it makes it harder to grab onto and enjoy the characters as real people, instead of stiff, gloomy cutouts. In addition, the romance plots were wooden, all tell and no show, with Gull outlining her feelings practically in bullet points:
- I love Aeneas
- But he’s a prince, so it could never be
- Thankfully, there’s this other guy who I’d kind of like
- But he is dating someone else who is better looking than me
So a lot of the emotion of the book fell a bit flat for me. It was a valid stylistic choice for Graham to make, and fit very well with the narrative style of the period, but I really didn’t end up connecting with the characters on a deep level. Which ended up being a good thing for me, because, without spoiling anything, I think the author subscribes to the theory that a good ending should have a bit of tragedy to balance out the happy. And I am definitely not a fan of the last-minute-tragedy ending (does anyone remember City of Angels?) so I was happy I could brush it off without too much angst.
On the other hand, the action of the plot was very absorbing and intense, and definitely made up for the flatness of the characters’ relationships. The Aeneid is a classic adventure story, and Graham doesn’t miss a beat with her pacing of the action – even with most of the fights coming from the perspective of a non-combatant.
Overall, I highly recommend the book to fans of literary or historical fiction, but romance fans might want to take a pass on this one.
Dea’s Random Awesomeness Count:
References to Olives: 1 million