Books I’ve Read This Week: The Ancient World in Historical Fiction

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 41: The Ancient World in Historical Fiction In between books about history and royalty this past month, I have read some historical fiction set in the classical world. The novels include an epic saga of Israel’s history from the stone age to the 1960s, the fictional autobiography of a Roman Emperor, the perspectives of Cleopatra VII’s little known sisters and three novels inspired by characters in the The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Here are this week’s reviews:

#281 of 365 The Source by James Michener

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 54 hours and 32 minutes

Dates Listened: September 24-October 4, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review:  An epic historical novel that follows the history of Israel from prehistoric times until the 1960s. The structure of the novel follows the fourteen layers of an archeological dig and the stories behind the artifacts found there. The role of Judaism in structuring society over the centuries and the successive waves of military conflict and displacement in the region are dramatized in detail. While the setting comes alive in the novel, the characterization is sometimes repetitive. The novel contains many examples of men who do not feel that they fit into their society and their long suffering but loyal wives. Since the book was published in 1965, some material and perspectives are rather dated. The audiobook narrator reads very slowly and clearly and it’s therefore possible to listen at 1.25 times the usual audiobook speed and still enjoy the story at a reasonable pace.

#282 of 365 The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 8-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 11 hours and 15 minutes

Review:  A beautiful and moving Iliad inspired novel from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’s closest companion. The love story in the midst of the Trojan war is well developed. The characters are engaging including the clever Odysseus and the resourceful Briseis, who develops a close friendship with Patroclus. There is a good balance between myth and magical realism with goddesses and centaurs woven into the fabric of everyday life in Greece and Troy. The audiobook is well read, especially the rasping voice of Achilles’s mother. Highly recommended!

#283 of 365 I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 9-13, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 47 minutes

Review: Classic historical fiction written in the form of Emperor Claudius’s memoirs of his path to the throne. Claudius is a charming, engaging narrator, conscious that he is writing for posterity. His childhood health problems, including a limp and speech impediment, result in him being underestimated by his family, especially his formidable grandmother Livia. Claudius receives advice that the perception that he is not a viable potential Emperor might keep him safe during periods of palace intrigue and he carefully navigates the conflicts within his extended family.

In contrast to his ambitious relatives, Claudius is more interested in scholarly pursuits such researching and writing history even in face of scepticism about his abilities and doubts that his work will ever be read. This historical perspective allows more background information about Claudius’s extended family that would be expected in a straightforward fictional memoir. I, Claudius is best enjoyed with Claudius’s family tree close at hand as there is an enormous cast of characters connected to one another through complicated geneologies and marriages.

#284 of 365 The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: October 18, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 199 pages

Review: The first page or two of this novel were underwhelming for me. I could not imagine Penelope using the word “factoids” or explaining her life story after her death, thousands of years after the events of The Odyssey. Once I finished the first chapter, however, I found the book difficult to put down. Atwood’s retelling of the life of Penelope and her twelve doomed maids is original, tragic and darkly funny. The characters come to life including Helen of Troy (“Why is it that really beautiful people think everyone else in the world exists merely for their amusement?”) and Telemachus (“I’m sorry to say he was quite spoiled.”) I also liked the blend of different writing styles that brought the maids to life before their untimely deaths. Highly recommended.

#285 of 365 Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: October 17-22, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 342 pages

Review:  An absorbing novel about Queen Cleopatra VII’s little known sisters Berenice and Arsinoe and the decline of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. The perspective alternates between Berenice, who supplants her father as ruler and is determined to maintain Egypt’s independence from Rome, and her half sister Arsinoe who is the overlooked middle child, ignored during the struggles for power within her family. There is a strong focus on the challenges faced by women of all social backgrounds at the time, including queens. The novel ends fairly abruptly and I look forward to reading the next book in the Fall of Egypt series, The Drowning King.

#286 of 365 Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: October 24, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 279 pages

Review: A historical novel inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid told from the perspective of Lavinia, the last wife of Aeneas and ancestor of the Romans. In the Aeneid, Lavinia is barely mentioned and is certainly overshadowed by other female characters such as Queen Dido of Carthage. In Le Guin’s novel, Lavinia is depicted as both a fully realized figure of great political significance in the prehistoric world of “the Latins” and a literary creation who speaks with the spectre of the future poet Virgil. Lavinia believes that the Aeneid ended too abruptly and that if Virgil had lived longer and continued the epic, her true deeds and character would have become well known. Lavinia is an engaging narrator and the writing is richly detailed but the plot sometimes moves slowly. Well written but not necessarily a page turner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.