- The Persian Boy told from the point of view of the Eunuch who becomes the lover of Alexander the Great: an absolutely outstanding read.
- The Last of the Wine (reviewed in this blog) narrated by a young man growing up in the war-torn Athens of Socrates and Alcibiades: another brilliant book.
A little princeling grows up in a court on the Isle of Pelops in Ancient Greece. He is quite naughty, taming wild stallions, mucking about with bulls, fighting other lads and impregnating girls. Then he discovers that his father is a king in Athens. He must travel to find him. On the way across the Isthmus he has to slay a famous robber. He then fights a sacred king in Eleusis, kills him and takes his place, to enjoy night after night with the Priestess, but doomed to be killed after a year in his turn.
This is the story of Theseus.
After Athens he is part of the 7 boys and 7 girls sent as tribute to the court of King Minos in the Labyrinth in Crete where he has to learn and perform the bull dance with his team. He meets the Minotaur and Ariadne and Phaedra. But can he escape? The collection of the tribute (by lot, but Theseus then volunteers) reminded me strongly of the scene in The Hunger Games when the heroine does exactly the same, volunteering to take part in deadly games on behalf of someone who has been chosen by lot.
There is a moment where Theseus, meeting his father for the first time and simultaneously escaping being poisoned, a moment of the highest drama, looks out of the windows. This is a masterclass for writers. At the very moment when everything is keyed up to the highest point, describe the scenery in detail. Keep the reader waiting. Don't waste drama.
There are two fundamental problems with this book. The first is that I know the legend of Theseus (more or less). I never thought the hero was going to die or be captured and spend the rest of his days as a slave or mouldering in some foreign gaol. So the only mystery was in seeing how Renault could translate the mythic elements of the tale into historical reality. The second problem was that Theseus had little psychological growth. There were man management problems he had to master, being a very young man pretending to be a King. But he is a hero. This meant that he was (a) a king (b) handsome (c) a phenomenal lover (d) a great athlete (e)m a wonderful warrior. There was very little self doubt. There were no problems he had to overcome. So while the story was fun the central character never grew.
- "All Triozen to a mouldy fig, I got this the way he hid it! At that I laughed. But it was angry laughter." (p 52)
- "My anger twisted, like a caught beast in a cage." (p 53)
- "Your mouth is robbing your ears. Be quiet ... and attend to what I am saying." (p 56)
- "I rose at daybreak ... and washed in the stream; a thing my hosts beheld with wonder, having had their last bath at the midwife's hands." (p 75)
- Man "grows up and seeds like grass, and falls into the furrow." (p 77)
- "Clothed in their expectation, I felt not myself but what they called me to be." (p 77)
- "A look of hate strikes cold when one is naked." (p 112)
- "A boy is youngest when he thinks himself a man." (p 113)
- "For a moment the laughter slipped from his face, like a mask when the string is broken." (p 223)
- "Your own bull will always have you, he is born knowing your name." (p 241)
- "A slave made my garment; but All-Knowing Zeus made me. Shall I be ashamed [to be naked]?" (283)
- "She was like a young salamander meeting flame; afraid at first, and only ewhen flung in knowing its own element." (p 295)
- "Love is like a barbed arrow that cannot be pulled out. When you try, you drive it deeper." (p 296)
- "No woman likes to hear you hold forth about another." (p 318)
- "There is truth and truth. ... It is true after its kind." (p 388)
- "A bound is set to our knowing, and wisdom is not to search beyond it. Men are only men." (Last two sentences; p 391)
The labyrinth must be solved, the Minotaur slain. This is a very clever 'historical' interpretation of myth with lots of colour and lots of action and a fair amount of subtly written sex but in the end Theseus was too good to be true.
April 2017; 391 pages