12 October 2005

Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow by David Gemmell

Below is a guest review by Justine Musk, whose first novel, BloodAngel, has just been released by ROC/Penguin.


David Gemmell's Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow is a novel as well-choreographed as its fight scenes. The first of a projected trilogy, it retells the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of Aeneas, also known as The Golden One, also known as the Lord of the book's title. But mostly we know him as Helikaon.

With the deft touch of a storyteller who's been doing this a long time, Gemmell builds his storyworld through a minimum of physical description and a maximum of character. The first 33 pages alone feature six different perspectives from major and minor characters alike. These multiple angles on Helikaon -- as well as the multiple names that he goes by -- establish him as both a legend in his own time (we first see him through the eyes of small Phia, who mistakes him for a god) and a flawed individual at war with his own fear and rage who suffered at the hands of his father. He also has a keen understanding of public relations. As Helikaon observes his men about to embark on a frightening sea journey, he knows what they are thinking: "The Golden One, blessed by the gods, was sailing with them. No harm would befall them. Such belief in him was vital... The greatest danger, he knew, would come if he ever started believing it himself."

Splintering the narrative among so many characters makes for a slow pace at first – as soon as one storyline gains momentum we're yanked away from it and dropped off somewhere new, where Gemmell has to establish character and place all over again -- and requires the kind of attentive reading that make English teachers proud. Minor people have a way of appearing and disappearing and reappearing down the line as unexpectedly significant: a soldier is a famed assassin in disguise, a castaway and sailor-for-hire an exiled Egyptian prince. Gemmell layers in the characters until he accumulates a kind of cross-section of his invented society: we view the action from the perspectives of royalty and the people who serve them: kings and queens and soldiers and shipbuilders and whores and the children of whores. Most of the characters speak in a high-toned style of complete, grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs, which gives most of the dialogue a sameness of rhythm, so that the speech of an underprivileged little kid -- "My mother is ill, and I have no offerings…But if you heal her, I will work and work and will bring you many gifts" -- sounds much like the speech of a cosmopolitan king: "Everything sounds ugly when it comes from your mouth. Your sisters will find joy in their children and the wealth of their husbands." Yet the dialogue, as corny as it tends to get at times ("Fear is...like a small fire burning.... Panic comes when the fire is out of control, consuming all courage and pride") manages to convey a world very other than our own, a fantasy of an ancient place where epic heroics unfold and prose that shades towards the dangerously purplish is actually more of a hardboiled norm.

It is also the kind of ancient world where characters are marked out as admirable by their decidedly modern sensibilities. Khalkeus engineers the most impressive ship ever built by pooh-poohing the ineffective, ship-building methods of the day. Onaicus explains to a boy that the future will be forged through trade and commerce, not war, and condemns a legendary figure like Herakles as just another butcher not worthy of young boys' idolatry. Kolanos and Agamemnon are fingered as villains not simply because they are murderous, but because they are obstacles to true progress who will (explains Onaicus) prevent the world from achieving "great things". Helikaon, established as a successful merchant and trader as well as a warrior, can bridge the present to a new and better future. He is a killer, yes -- a key scene has him setting fire to a chained enemy crew as their countrymen watch helplessly from shore -- but, while his enemies raid and plunder, Helikaon demonstrates a fine understanding of capitalism as well as compassion and self-restraint.

Another sign of Helikaon's superiority is that he can recognize the beauty of Andromache. Ahead of her time -- as Kolanos and Agamemnon fall behind the times --she is perceived as 'plain' by men who don't know what to make of her intelligence, forceful nature and athletic ability. Andromache stands up to her less-than-desirable future father-in-law, King Priam, fights for the rights of her abused servant and, in true Buffy fashion, downs the spoiled malicious princess with a punch to the jaw. Recognizing an equal when he sees one, Helikaon falls in love at first sight, despite the fact that she is betrothed to his good friend Hektor and bad things must certainly ensue.

The reader, of course, has a pretty good idea of what's to come, and part of the fun of the novel is how Gemmell manipulates the baggage of expectations any reader brings to such a wellworn tale. Some of it gets tweaked. Paris, for example, is revealed as a graceless scholar with rounded shoulders and the "plain, thickset" woman by his side is none other than Helen herself. Still, his fervor for her is unquestioned ("She is everything to me!") and the politics that trouble their relationship -- Helen's Spartan father must side with the vile king Agamemnon or be killed -- sound yet another drum of approaching doom for reasons that have nothing to do with beauty contests and pagan gods on high. Actions of greed, vengeance and conquest lend Lord of the Silver Bow a 'behind the story' aura of historical accuracy that is itself artificial; Gemmell is taking apart an imaginary tale in order to tell an equally imaginary tale, but one that seems more authentic for being more realist.

Gemmell does employ magical prophecy. The reader might know what's to come, but so do a series of powerless and marginalized characters who appear throughout the novel -- the dying prophet whom Agamemnon consults and derides; the fey child Kassandra who warns of blood and warfare and is condescended to even by the wise Andromache; the traumatized queen who recognizes her visions as prophecy but is too locked in pain and grief to do anything about them. Gemmell turns the reader's expectations into another layer of foreshadowing and suspense; the reader is sidelined with the women and children and old men, where knowledge is acknowledged yet rendered impotent.

The fate of Troy is not in question, the fate of Helikaon's soul a bit less certain. Whether the mounting damage to Helikaon's psyche -- his loved ones have the unfortunate tendency to die in horrible ways -- will leave him as just another violent tormented warrior, or a leader capable of true wisdom and compassion, leading his people from the burning wreckage of Troy and into a new land, is a key dramatic question (or at least pretends to be), in what promises to be an intelligent and absorbing trilogy from a consummate storyteller of the genre.

4 comments:

  1. Most excellent and thoughtful review !!!!!!!!!!!

    To the poing that I shall look around for this lady's book. Thank you for posting this :)

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  2. Niamh dear the author is a male

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  3. This is a good book for anyone interested in history combined with myth and legend. I enjoyed reading it very much.

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  4. This is a great series, it is sad that David Gemmel has passed away he was truely a great author. A fact which I think is put on displayed in this series. Read all three, I promise you will enjoy them.

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