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review 2020-04-06 22:23
A Thousand Ships
A Thousand Ships - Natalie Haynes

Calliope

 

Sing, Muse, he said, and I have sung.

I have sung of armies and I have sung of men.

I have sung of gods and monsters, I have sung of stories and lies.

I have sung of death and of life, of joy and of pain.

I have sung of life after death.

And I have sung of the women, the women in the shadows.

I have sung of the forgotten, the ignored, the untold.

I have picked up the old stories and I have shaken them until the hidden women appear in plain sight.

I have celebrated them in song because they have waited long enough.

Just as I promised him: this was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them. A war does not ignore half the people whose lives it touches. So why do we? They have waited to have their story told, and I will make them wait no longer. If the poet refuses the song I have offered him, I will take it away and leave him silent. He has sung before: he may not want it and does not need it. But the story will be told. Their story will be told, no matter how long it takes. I am ageless, undying: time does not matter to me.

All that matters is the telling.

Sing, Muse, he said.

Well, do you hear me?

I have sung.

Well, this was utterly fantastic.

Stomach-turning, bloody, violent, cruel, disgusting, and utterly fantastic.

 

Yes, this is a retelling of the story of the fall of Troy, but it is also a lot more. A Thousand Ships does not focus on the siege and the battles and the heroes. The story and what happens after the fall of Troy is told through the points of view of the women of Troy, who lost all, the mothers of the "heroes", the wives, the daughters. 

Some deeds cast long shadows, and here we have shadows dancing like the Furies, engulfed in black flames, destroying everything in their quest for vengeance.  

 

Oh, and there are bickering gods and goddesses, too, just for some light relief.

 

What I would be interested to know is how this all works for readers who are not familiar with the underlying stories. I mean I found it gripping, and I know the characters. I would love to know what others make of this book. 

 

Also, this is my second book by Haynes. I picked up her The Amber Fury a few months ago on a whim, and acquired her other books after reading it because I was stunned. I am now a confirmed fan of the author.

She can write, absolutely, but I am also impressed by her attention to detail, research efforts, and general handling of the source material.

 

There is an enlightening Afterword to this book that is as relevant and worth reading as the stories told in A Thousand Ships themselves.

"I hope that at the end of this book, my attempt to write an epic, readers might feel that heroism is something that can reside in all of us, particularly if circumstances push it to the fore. It doesn’t belong to men, any more than the tragic consequences of war belong to women. Survivors, victims, perpetrators: these roles are not always separate. People can be wounded and wounding at the same time, or at different times in the same life."

 

Previous Reading Updates:

Reading progress update: I've read 90%.

Reading progress update: I've read 66%.

Reading progress update: I've read 47%.

Reading progress update: I've read 33%.

Reading progress update: I've read 32%.

Next in the Ides of March ... and all of April Project

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text 2020-04-06 21:43
Reading progress update: I've read 90%.
A Thousand Ships - Natalie Haynes

Up on the palace roof, the Furies ceased their dance. They looked at one another, nodding excitedly. Their work was done; their will had been carried out at last. It was the longest they had ever waited anywhere, dancing through the halls and across the warm stone floors, warming their bare feet and their cool snakes as they went. But after a year or two they had grown bored. They had clambered onto the roof to try and spot the guilty man returning, so they could scream into his ears as he woke or tried to sleep, and drive him from his senses. They had waited and waited and waited for his return. They did not speak of all the other guilty men who had gone unpunished in the years that they had spent on the roof of the palace of Mycenae. The Furies would catch up with them soon enough. In this moment, they felt nothing but exuberance at the final settling of matters here.

And yet – one of them turned her head, as if she had just caught the edge of a sound but wasn’t quite sure. The snakes paused their writhing and the flames shrank away. A second sound, and then a third. The Furies said nothing, but they began to climb down from the roof, all vipers and fire and elbows and knees.

Damn. This is gut-wrenching, but it is also really thrilling even tho I know how the main stories will end. 

I had not planned on finishing this book tonight, but there is no chance I will set this down now.

 

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text 2020-04-06 19:54
Reading progress update: I've read 66%.
A Thousand Ships - Natalie Haynes

Damn.

Cassandra took in jagged breaths, desperate to remain calm. She closed her eyes and then opened them again in the present, to see her mother, her sister, her sister-in-law, all sitting beside her on the rocks, just as they had been before she followed her mother to Thrace. But then the scene began to play out from the beginning once more. It was no less horrifying to see it again. More so, in fact, now she had seen so much of what was to come. But still, one detail was missing, right at the beginning when Hecabe first stepped onto Odysseus’ ship. She, Cassandra, was standing there on the sands of Troy, watching her mother leave. She could sense that Andromache had already gone. She could see other women – cousins and neighbours – heading off with different warriors to disparate kingdoms. She had accounted for all of them. All except one. Where was Polyxena? The answer came to her in a rush. And this time she could do nothing to prevent the sickness overwhelming her.

I mentioned before that this is in parts difficult to read. It's is no surprise that there is a lot of violence and bloodshed in this book, which are not something I read willingly. However, the story is told so well. I feel for Cassandra, she's guiding us through parts of the story, while we know that she's showing us what is to come, it increases the tragedy of the story and the characters when we see the other characters ignore Cassandra's warnings. 

 

I've always liked Cassandra in the myths/legends, and it is really good to see Haynes giving her such a meaningful part in this book. 

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text 2020-04-06 14:15
Reading progress update: I've read 47%.
A Thousand Ships - Natalie Haynes

Hahaha. The Gods and Goddesses are not spared in this book either:

"For Athene, arriving late behind Aphrodite, weddings were always a source of irritation. The grey-eyed goddess was not as tall as Hera, but she usually wore a helmet tilted back on her head to give her the height she did not possess. Athene loathed standing close to Aphrodite, who made her feel like she was nothing but elbows and knees."

[...]

"The distaste was largely mutual: for her part, Thetis would have preferred none of them be present. She would have preferred not to be marrying Peleus at all, but he had struck some bargain with Zeus, and the sea-nymph knew better than to issue a flat refusal in this situation. She would take advantage of Zeus’ guilt (for surely the god must feel something like remorse, pairing her with this clod of a man) in the future, when she needed something. She would not forget. But if she had to marry today, she could have done without the glowering face of Hera, who would look so much better if she would simply erase the perpetual expression of disapproval from her face. She could have been perfectly happy if Athene – accompanied everywhere by some squawking owl, as though she lived in some oversized nest – had chosen to absent herself. And no woman, immortal or not, wanted the sulking, pouting Aphrodite at her wedding."

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text 2020-04-05 23:47
Reading progress update: I've read 33%.
A Thousand Ships - Natalie Haynes

I promise not to spam everyone's dashboard with quotes from every page of this book, but I had to share this one, too, because it shows how Haynes balances the storytelling from a very somber tone with this - it's Calliope complaining about Homer: 

"If he tells me to sing one more time, I think I might bite him.

The presumption of these men is extraordinary. Does he believe I have nothing else to do with my time than sit around being his muse? His.

When did poets forget that they serve the muses, and not the other way around? And if he can remember new lines of verse during his recitations, why can’t he remember to say please?

Does everyone have to die, he asks, plaintive like a child. Perhaps he thought he was writing about one of those other wars. Devastation is what happens in war: it is its nature. I murmur to him in his dreams sometimes (I do have other things to do, but I like how he looks when he sleeps): you knew Achilles would die. You knew Hector would die before him. You knew Patroclus would die. You’ve told their stories before. If you didn’t want to think of men cut down in battle, then why would you want to compose epic verse?

Ah, but now I see the problem. It’s not their deaths he’s upset about. It’s that he knows what’s coming and he’s worrying it will be more tragedy than epic. I watch his chest rising and falling as he grabs a fitful rest. Men’s deaths are epic, women’s deaths are tragic: is that it? He has misunderstood the very nature of conflict. Epic is countless tragedies, woven together.

Heroes don’t become heroes without carnage, and carnage has both causes and consequences. And those don’t begin and end on a battlefield.

If he truly wants to understand the nature of the epic story I am letting him compose, he needs to accept that the casualties of war aren’t just the ones who die. And that a death off the battlefield can be more noble (more heroic, if he prefers it that way) than one in the midst of fighting. But it hurts, he said when Creusa died. He would rather her story had been snuffed out like a spark failing to catch damp kindling. It does hurt, I whispered. It should hurt. She isn’t a footnote, she’s a person. And she – all the Trojan women – should be memorialized as much as any other person. Their Greek counterparts too. War is not a sport, to be decided in a quick bout on a strip of contested land. It is a web which stretches out to the furthest parts of the world, drawing everyone into itself.

I will teach him this before he leaves my temple. Or he will have no poem at all."

 

It's still somber, of course, that is the point of the book, but Calliope is also playful. 

 

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