If a diversity-bringing, often raunchy, always nuanced, new take on an old tale sounds like a good read to you, then pick up this “novel-in-parts.” Retelling the Trojan War, from its early causes to its tragic but still hope-infused end, is a big project, but this talented group of authors divided up the wealth. The result is outstanding and entirely enjoyable. Many conversations and debates among the authors brought about a consistent “take” on the characters and selection from the myriad ways the plot could have gone. (Yes, Troy burns, but other than that, this is one wide-open tradition as to what really happened.) I did enjoy the shifts of style as I moved from one “Song” to another, but that’s probably more my writer-self over thinking as I read. Quite possibly most readers wouldn’t notice those shifts, because this big group did a remarkable job of working to a well-filled-out consensus.
Reaching their view of each of these iconic characters—Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Helen, Briseis, etc.—must have involved some very fun conversations among the authors. Since I’ve written all these mythic/legendary folk myself, I particularly love meeting new understandings.
In this read, Agamemnon—always pretty villainous in any version—finds a useful shred of redemption in the reader’s eyes. This saving grace comes from the guilt he’s consumed by because he killed his daughter to speed along the war expedition. The depiction of that guilt is deliciously vivid, the moment of stabbing and Agamemnon’s visceral love for his daughter, so we understand why he’s sunk into drunken debauchery and cruel, cynical leadership. His wild sex with Chryseis and her willingness to use him for her own purposes, both sexual and political, also bring enriching layers of nuance. We don’t much care for Chryseis, but she is no wilting woman, even if she’s nominally a slave. Agamenon’s choices as a leader also make their own kind of sense in this version, which helps the reader find something to sympathize with even while we’re cringing at the king’s dark view of mankind.
Gender bending and blending also contribute in this version of the tradition. For any writer of the Trojan War, there’s the problem of how Briseis and Achilles get along so well. On the surface they ought to hate each other, but they don’t. In the Achilles’ legend, there’s a strand wherein his divine mother hides him disguised as a girl among other girls so the recruiters for the Trojan War won’t find him and bring about his early death. These authors extended that strand to encompass most of Achilles’childhood. So he’s definitely in touch with his feminine side, despite being a monster on the battlefield. When I wrote Briseis, I put a sword in her hand, so I have no trouble seeing her trained in her childhood by a father who kind of wanted a son. I can’t quite put my finger on what in the tradition pushes various of us toward this gender-role busting with Briseis, but it’s there. What this presentation of Achilles and Briseis does is provide a commonality and an innate understanding that doesn’t have to get fully articulated between Briseis and Achilles, but we don’t question her ability to get through to Achilles when no one else can. That’s a big hurdle to get over when writing Achilles and I like this way of accomplishing that essential leap.
I’ve talked with some of the authors in a different context about the “white” view of myth that most of us got imbued with growing up, so I know they are thinking about this issue in smart ways. In fact, unlike the lily-white version planted in our imaginations, the ancient Near East and larger Mediterranean, including the Greeks, was a mishmash of cultures and colors. These authors put that historical reality to good use. Race combined with the lower status of concubines explains the “outsider” status of Helenus (the Trojan royal son no one quite admires as much as the others) and Cassandra (the prophetic girl whom no one believes). Here they are twins born of a Nubian concubine rather than Queen Hecuba. Their dark skin sets them apart from the rest of the Trojans. Their status as children of the “other” woman makes Hecuba dislike them and she flavors the whole family’s view of these tightly-bound twins. It’s an adept blending of causes and reactions. Helenus takes on a major role in this telling, and his expanded part needs the depth and richness of his newly enhanced back-story.
This novel-in-parts is full of well-done moments, sentences to savor and juicy parts. I’ll quote one example that captures its tone and feel. Here are Briseis’s thoughts as she watches Hector and Achilles in that final confrontation, which, by the way, holds you to the page even though you are almost certainly aware of how it ends:
“Achilles turned. The Trojans were shouting from the wall like jackals, and the Achaeans shouted from behind us like hyenas, and in that moment, my contempt rose to choke me like a cloud of smoke when a man pisses on a fire. I was running with the lions. The other animals looked very low.”
By swooping into the obscene language (modernly put) and bawdy activities of soldiers, the authors gave this rendition an earthy power and a rawness that exists in the Homeric original. By building resonance into each character in ways that are fresh and much-needed reworkings of how the ancient world gets told, the authors gave this rendition a compelling depth that will make you savor the old tradition with some new spice on your tongue. I don’t think any modern writer expects their version of the Troy tradition to match the majesty and humanity of Homer—that would be inexcusable hubris—but then this tale doesn’t need a literature professor to help you along. I highly recommend this Song of War. It’s a grand adventure.