Review: A Song of War, A Novel of Troy

July 16, 2018

As my readers know, I have participated in a number of collaborative historical novels, so I know what goes into making them, and that gave me a deep appreciation of the artistry of this latest offering from the H-Team, featuring Kate Quinn, Stephanie Thornton, Russell Whitfield, Christian Cameron, Libbie Hawker, Vicky Alvear Shecter and SJA Turney.

This is not properly thought of as an anthology. It’s a continuity novel, and it’s one of the best I’ve read. Each story can be read individually, but together they make up a complete picture of the Trojan War, re-telling Homer’s tale in a way that honors both the legends and the history.

The novel starts off with Kate Quinn’s portrayal of the wedding of Odysseus and Penelope. This is great fun because, with her trademark humor, she introduces us to many of the players in the story to come. And her portrayal of Helen–contemptuous of the men who have traumatized and traded her, a shrewd judge of character, and the ultimate hard, gritty survivor–is a breathtakingly fresh new take on the woman whose face allegedly launched a thousand ships. It’s the reader’s first clue that this book is not going to take the Iliad at face value, but is going to force you to grapple with it as a human story.

We’re next introduced by an even darker character. Stephanie Thornton’s Cassandra. There is a truly delicious pleasure of an unreliable and unrelatable heroine who, nevertheless, touches your heart. With lovely prose, and some truly hair-raising moments, Thornton pulls off quite a trick here with the daughter of Priam who is cursed to see the future but never be believed.

By this point in the story, the high king of the Greeks has sacrificed his beloved daughter, supposedly at the command of the gods, so that he can set sail to make war on Troy. Agamemnon is a hard, horrible man in the Iliad. And he is no less so in Russ Whitfield’s story. But what Whitfield does is something extraordinary. His is a story about a bad man who wonders if he can be redeemed; a man who has committed an unspeakably evil act who seeks an answer to the question if that one act will define him. And the inevitable answer, of course, made me weep. Because it did, this was my favorite story in the collection, which is saying quite a bit because these stories were all so good that it was stiff competition.

Christian Cameron follows next with a story of Achilles. Well, more properly, a story of Briseis. And it’s another surprise that defies expectations. Achilles is hard to love; in truth, he’s hard to even understand as a human being. Through the eyes of a war prize, this story makes a feint at understanding the man who sulks in his tent, and Cameron does it in Homeric style.

Libbie Hawker takes the enviable slot of killing off both Achilles and Paris. Spoiler! Her story takes us a bit away from the central cast of characters, and perhaps stands out a little because of this, but was deeply satisfying.

Then, in the penultimate story, we have Vicky Alvear Shecter’s story of Odysseus. We’ve already met him, of course, in other stories. And throughout the book, the dialog and drama sparkles whenever the king of Ithaca is on the page. As war-weary as he is clever, Odysseus is a more modern hero–one who often works as a stand-in for the reader, now heartily tired of all the battle and gore. Odysseus is sick of it too. He wants to go home and he’s willing to think outside the box to make that happen. Whether that means an honorable settlement, or a dishonorable trick, Odysseus doesn’t care. He’s done. And it’s in that crucible that he actually finds his own personal glory–and an idea that changes the world. Shecter is brilliant in this concise and telling little story!

SJA Turney has the unenviable task of ending the song of utter destruction and mayhem on a hopeful note. For this, like Virgil, he chooses Aeneas as his avatar, and it works perfectly. Aeneas is no ordinary Trojan. He’s stolid and boring and dutiful and just the sort of person who actually can be trusted to govern a new civilization.

I very much enjoyed this book. I read it late into the night. With pleasure and delight. It will give you a new window into the Trojan War, and one of mankind’s oldest stories.