Black Ships, a retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid from the perspective of a priestess, is a debut novel written by Jo Graham. Graham has since then written a loosely connected novel set in Egypt called Hand of Isis, and she has another related novel about a soldier serving Alexander the Great called Stealing Fire coming out in May 2010. After reading Black Ships, I’m very much looking forward to reading both of these books.
This novel is the story of the Trojan people’s journey once their home is destroyed, but it begins with the life of a young girl named Gull. Gull’s mother lived in Troy until she was taken to be one of the many slaves of the king of Pylos. When she is still a child, Gull’s leg is run over by a chariot and her foot is permanently twisted, making it impossible for her to do the same manual labor as her mother. A slave who cannot work is a slave who will not eat, so Gull’s mother takes her to Pythia, the oracle of the Lady of the Dead, in hopes that she will have some work for her. Pythia keeps Gull overnight to test her, and Gull has a vision of a battle involving black ships, earning her a place at the shrine where she begins training to become the next Pythia.
When Linnea (as Gull is renamed by Pythia) is in her teens, Pythia dies and Linnea takes her place. For a while Linnea is restless and feels that the Lady of the Dead is waiting to speak to her. One morning she awakens and feels that she must get to the turn of the road quickly. When she does, she finds the nine black ships from her vision she had years ago. The Trojans, lead by the prince Aeneas, have come to take back their own. They have no home to go back to since Troy was burned and most of its people killed and do not know where they will go next. Linnea comes to the realization that the Lady of the Dead means for her to accompany them on this journey and leaves with them to serve as oracle to those of her people who remain.
Since I’ve never read The Aeneid, I cannot say how Black Ships compares to it. What I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed this story since it’s the type of book I tend to really like – slower paced with emphasis on characters and their quest, some mythological basis and a strong narrative voice with some memorable passages. Even toward the beginning when it did not seem as though much was happening other than explaining Linnea’s early life and how she came to be Pythia (her actual name for most of the story, but to cut down on the confusion I will continue to refer to her as Linnea), I found myself immediately immersed in this book. I’d been in one of those reading slumps where I tried a couple of books and wasn’t getting into them, and then I picked up this one and found it was just what I had been looking for.
This novel feels more historical than fantasy, but there are elements that make it more than a realistic fiction tale of ancient Greece. There is the involvement of the gods and the prophecies made by Linnea. The people’s actions are influenced by the oracle’s communion with her goddess and The Lady of the Dead does not mislead them. In spite of this, not every choice is made by reliance on the gods and I liked that sometimes the goddess left her priestess to her own devices. As a young acolyte Linnea learned from Pythia that sometimes she is on her own and is expected to use her own skills as an observer to make the right choice without the aid of Persephone’s guiding voice.
Although Linnea is a solid character, I felt that we never really saw the depths of her soul despite the entire book being told in the first person perspective from her point of view. Perhaps this is because she did have to push so much of herself aside due to her role as oracle, but many events seemed to lack the emotional pull I would have expected them to have (not all, though – there were some parts that were properly tragic, especially toward the end when I did feel for her a lot). Her romantic relationship didn’t have quite the sentimentality I would have liked, but this may also have been my own fault since I was rooting for the other man in the love triangle even though I suspected it was a hopeless cause. The other characters were likable, but I did think that they could have been fleshed out a bit more.
Black Ships is an excellent debut, and I very much enjoyed reading this retelling of The Aeneid from the perspective of a woman who played a significant part in the prince’s quest. Even though I thought the characters could have had a bit more spark, Linnea’s narrative was engrossing and I’ll definitely be reading more by Jo Graham.
Where I got my reading copy: I bought it.