Black Ships by Jo Graham

In a time of war and doubt, Gull is an oracle. Daughter of a slave taken from fallen Troy, chosen at the age of seven to be the voice of the Lady of the Dead, she is destined to counsel kings.

When nine black ships appear, captained by an exiled Trojan prince, Gull must decide between the life she was born for and a most perilous adventure – to join the remnant of her mother’s people in their desperate flight. From the doomed bastions of the City of Pirates to the temples of Byblos, from the intrigues of the Egyptian court to the haunted caves beneath Mount Vesuvius, only Gull can guide Prince Aeneas on his quest, and only she can dare the gate of the Underworld to lead him to his destiny.

In the last shadowed days of the Age of Bronze, one woman dreams of the world beginning anew. This is her story.

Just as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon breathed new life into Arthurian legend, BLACK SHIPS evokes the world of ancient Greece with beautiful, haunting prose, extraordinary imagination, and a profoundly moving story.

Going into this book, I wasn’t aware that this was a retelling of the Aneid, told from the viewpoint of the Sybil who accompanied Aeneus on his journey. Once I realized this, I was intrigued, having only just read the Aneid two years ago. For a number of reasons though, the book never managed to truly click with me. On the plus side, this is an ambitious, detailed retelling of the Aeneid and the amount of research the author put into making this book shows. Each location has its own identity and character, be it in the religion, social customs, or government. In terms of creating a sense of place and history, Jo Graham definitely succeeds.

My main problem was with Gull herself. After losing almost all mobility in one of her feet due to an accident, her mother gives her over to the current Pythia to serve as an acolyte and eventually take over as priestess. Quite early on, Gull swears that she will forsake anything to do with life (since Pythia’s realm is that of death) and won’t take any lover (even though she’s allowed to, it’s only marriage that’s forbidden). Unfortunately, from a narrative perspective it meant that she felt so removed and withdrawn to the point that she almost didn’t feel human. I never really understood why she felt she needed to do this, which made me less than sympathetic towards her when she was angsting over whether to sleep with Xandros. It was entirely her choice to take her vows to the extreme and I didn’t get why she even did that in the first place. I know that Gull’s struggle in the book is to balance her affinity and devotion to the Lady of Death with her own humanity and desire to live amongst people and love them, but I never cared. It was almost as though she was so ensconsed in her role as Pythia that whenever she acted more human, it rang false.

Overall, there was a definite lack of urgency from Gull’s POV. In writing this, I’m trying to decide whether Gull’s story was even necessary when the true story is about Aenaeus and it’s through her eyes that we see Aeneus’ journey, his duty to his people, his fear of the fate of his people, and growing to be the ruler his people need him to be now rather than the ones of the past. Gull does have her own story, sort of, what with falling in love with Xandros and searching for the answer of how to save the cities from the dark age that’s falling over them due to the curse from Agamemnon’s blasphemy. However, those concerns always feel ancillary to Aeneus’ story and those struggles never gave me a real sense of who she was as a person. Again, she was far too removed for me to care about her.

The last problem I have is of a different nature and is related more to the Aeneid than the others. In Virgil’s version, Aeneus and his people reside in Carthage for a number of months where he falls in love with Queen Dido, who asks him to be her consort. He refuses and leaves, and Dido commits suicide. When I read the Aeneid in my freshman humanities class, we talked about how Dido was a stand-in for Cleopatra VII, the last ruler of Egypt before the Romans conquered the country and added it to the empire, and as such, Dido resembled the typical Roman depiction of Cleopatra as a sexual, unnaturally powerful woman who would bring men to their ruin. In Black Ships, Aeneus and his people travel to Egypt (since Carthage didn’t actually exist at the time of the fall of Troy) and Aeneus gets into a relationship with Bastemon, one of Pharaoh’s sisters who acts as his voice when he’s unavailable. I was disappointed that Bastemon’s portrayal remained similar to Dido’s – her sexuality and emotions are demonstrated as dangerous and out of control and her character was coded as an enemy to be subjugated for daring to ensnare and steal Aeneus from his people.

I had high hopes for Black Ships largely due to reading a number of good things about Jo Graham’s writing and because ancient Greek history and mythology is fun to read about. The book definitely didn’t live up to my expectations and I’m now thinking twice as to whether I’ll eventually read her other books.

Disclosure – bought