Given that this author generally does fantasy, and I'm not much into that, I didn't expect a lot from the book. And for the most part, in the early going, I was not surprised. The characters struck me as the typical adolescent fantasy sort, at least fantasy of the post-Tolkien variety, with not much depth, the heroes and other sympathetic characters all being much alike and, in many ways like ourselves albeit in costume.
The story, itself, was rich in detail as it credibly created the ancient world of the Iliad, offering an unusual interpretation of events, even while it painstakingly built upon modern archeological supposition concerning the world of the Sea Peoples at the end of the Bronze Age. Here are the Myceanaen pirates of the Aegean (Gemmel calls them Mykene) and the myriad kingdoms of western Anatolia on the edge of the declining Hittite empire. Here is the fabled city of Troy, built of gold-roofed towers and great walls and peopled by a variety of nations, impregnable and prone to court intrigue and violence. And, of course, the great empires of the Egyptians and Hittites contending, as contemporary archeology tells us, in the background.
The story itself is a bit of a slog in the beginning, despite all this, as Aeneas, the central character of this tale, demonstrates his great prowess in warfare again and again, his soul tortured by a brutal childhood, the intrigues of Agammemnon of the Mykene and Priam of Troy in the background. And there are love stories as well, as the priestess and princess Andromache finds her way to Troy for an arranged marriage with the missing, heroic Hektor and Hektor's sister finds love in a most unexpected place.
There's plenty of fighting, to be sure, as Aeneas struggles to avoid hired assassins who want him dead for a reason that is not entirely clear and at least one of the assassins struggles with himself over his calling, while stolid Mykene heroes pursue battle, while waging a war of divided loyalties in their own hearts. This is all offered in anticipation of subsequent books in which, presumably, the events of the Iliad will work themselves out as ancient Greeks batter themselves against the impervious battlements of Troy and the whole ancient world goes up in fire and smoke, just as archeology tells us happened in that era.
Two thirds of the way, despite all the usual stereotypes and such, the book caught fire for me and the characters began to hold my attention, as did the intriguing way Gemmel has put his own gloss on the events that led to the famed Dark Age before the rising of the later Greek city states and the Persian Empire that we know from Classical Greek writing.
What is known to historians, through the archeologists,is that the old Bronze Age world of the eastern Mediterranean collapsed and historical records become woefully scarce for several hundred years. Fortresses are abandoned, wealth disappears in the tombs, the kingdoms of the era seem to have been destroyed as great migrations of warlike peoples that changed the face of the area in many ways began in a transition that led into the early Iron Age (when iron replaced bronze as the metal of choice).
Gemmel gives us this world as it might have been and does not tie himself down to the record of the Iliad which, of course, was put in written form much later and no doubt included many anachronisms and much misinformation. Gemmel uses what we now know to reinterpret the era and, I have to admit, he does it in the end with flair. His descriptions of violence and battles are marvelously handled. They are always vivid, compelling and, in the end, convincing, particularly his descriptions of the military strategies involved. In fact, his writing when it comes to these scenes is quite good. I was particularly taken by his very first scene of the drowning man who, it turns out, is another well known personage from that era, albeit not one we'd expect to find in a tale of ancient Greeks and Trojans. But his presence is a nice touch.
I suspect I will be reading the sequels despite myself.
author of The King of Vinland's Saga