This week I’m recommending a gripping Historical Fantasy based on Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. “Black Ships” by American author, Jo Graham, was first published in 2008 and is still easy to find in paperback or ebook editions. This novel is the first in the `Numinous World’ series, which currently runs to six books, but it can be read as an entirely self-contained story following the life-history of a woman called Gull.
“Black Ships” is set around 1200 BCE. After the brutal conquest of the great city of Wilusa (Troy), many of its women were taken to Greece as slaves. Gull was born to one such slave in Pylos. She was crippled in an accident when she was only six years old, but Gull’s gift for seeing visions causes her to be adopted by the Pythia, the priestess of the Lady of the Dead. Gull’s first vision is of black ships and a burning city. As she is taught the mysteries of the goddess, Gull learns that the Greek lands are under a curse because of an unforgivable murder.
In time, Gull becomes the new Pythia but she fears that the goddess will never speak through her. One morning Gull notices nine black ships heading towards Pylos. Most of the men are away raiding so the city is almost defenceless. Gull is inspired to intervene and discovers that the attackers are men from Wilusa who have come “for the captives, for our wives and children taken in slavery”. The small fleet is all that is left of the people of Wilusa. Its reluctant leader is Prince Neas (Aeneas). He is the last of King Priam’s royal line and has the special favour of the Sea Goddess. Gull knows that she must go with Prince Neas to serve as his Sibyl but she only has glimpses of their journey’s end.
The search for a new home leads the exiled Wilusans to many different places at a time when all the countries around the eastern Mediterranean are in turmoil. Neas and his closest comrade, Captain Xandros, are both men who have suffered terrible losses but now they face fresh dangers and difficult decisions. The Wilusans endure storms, sea-battles and a relentless pursuit by the cruel son of Achilles. The wealthy and civilized kingdom of Egypt seems to offer a safe haven but at what price? Can Gull help Neas to become the great leader his people need and guide him to fulfil his destiny in Italy?
I decided to read this book after noticing that the dedication mentioned one of my favourite novels – Mary Renault’s “The Last of the Wine”. Graham cites Renault’s Greek-based Historical novels as one of her formative influences. I wouldn’t claim that “Black Ships” is as profound as the greatest of Renault’s novels but the two authors do have some qualities in common. Both are skilful story-tellers with the gift of writing deceptively simple prose. “Black Ships” is most similar to the “The King Must Die”, the first of two novels in which Renault retold the myth of Theseus. These books both treat a legendary hero as an historical figure, living in an era when religions centred on goddess-worship are waning. Renault stripped the story of Theseus of all its supernatural elements. Graham rationalizes aspects of the Aeneas myth – making him the son of a priestess of Aphrodite rather than a direct child of the goddess – but gives Gull genuine prophetic powers and a close if intermittant connection with the goddess she serves. Gull longs for divine guidance but most of the time she has to rely on her own wisdom.
Some readers have complained that “Black Ships” ought to be categorized as Historical Fiction rather than Fantasy. If you are expecting sea monsters and fighting skeletons you will be disappointed but the deities and divine realms of the late Bronze Age seem as real as the people who believe in them. To me, that is what makes a good Historical Fantasy. There are a few drawbacks to basing a novel on Virgil’s “Aeneid”. Many people have never heard of this epic while plenty who have hate it after being forced to translate the dull bits during Latin lessons. The poem is full of historical inaccuracies and, worst of all, features one of the least appealing of all ancient heroes. Aeneas is best known for abandoning women – his first wife after the fall of Troy and lovelorn Queen Dido in Carthage. It’s not surprising that Fantasy novels based on “The Aeneid” are rare – though Ursula le Guin’s “Lavinia” came out in the same year that “Black Ships” was published.
Graham tackles the problems with her source material by telling the story of the Trojans who became the legendary founders of Rome from an anti-heroic, female point of view and by making the background more consistent with history. Her biggest change is to substitute New Kingdom Egypt for Carthage and an imperious Egyptian princess for the wronged Queen Dido. The princess is turned into a largely unsympathetic character so that Aeneas doesn’t seem such a jerk for leaving her. In my view, this is the weakest point in the plot. What does work well is linking the epic journey of the Wilusan survivors with the migrations of the “Sea Peoples”. This was a mass movement of groups from Asia desperate to settle in Mediterranean lands. It is easy to see parallels between the ancient Sea Peoples and today’s migrants and refugees who are struggling to make new lives for themselves in Europe. Graham writes with great compassion about displaced people who have been traumatized by the horrors of war.
Gull is quite a cool and detached character but I found her narrative voice compelling. She is a child of rape who was still much loved by her mother. Her story is full of examples of women facing grim circumstances with courage and resilience but most of the male characters are sympathetically treated too. This version of Aeneas is implausibly nice but he’s given enough guilt and self-doubt to make him interesting. An important element of the plot is the unusual love triangle that develops between Gull, Aeneas and Captain Xandros – a man with a complicated emotional history. Like Renault before her, Graham writes movingly about gender-blind forms of love which blurr the boundaries between friendship and passion. If you like the main characters in “Black Ships” you can meet them again in the other `Numinous World’ novels when they are reborn as “Companion Souls” into other historical periods. Until next time…