"Troy meant one thing only to the men gathered here, as it did to their commanders. Troy was a dream of wealth; and if the wind continued the dream would crumble." As the harsh wind holds the Greek fleet trapped in the straits at Aulis, frustration and political impotence turn into a desire for the blood of a young and innocent woman - blood that will appease the gods and allow the troops to set sail. And when Iphigeneia, Agamemnon's beloved daughter, is brought to the coast under false pretences, and when a knife is fashioned out of the finest and most precious of materials, it looks as if the ships will soon be on their way. But can a father really go to these lengths to secure political victory, and can a daughter willingly give up her life for the worldly ambitions of her father? Throwing off the heroic values we expect of them, Barry Unsworth's mythic characters embrace the political ethos of the twenty-first century and speak in words we recognize as our own.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Provocative and subversive, Unsworth's new novel rewrites ancient history to show how a wily, ambitious and power-hungry man can distort the truth, convince the masses to support him and incite his country to wage war. It's an audacious blending of myth with sharp contemporary resonance. The setting is Aulis in 1260 B.C., where unfavorable winds are keeping the fleet of the Greek expeditionary force (actually a motley assemblage of hostile and predatory tribes loosely united under Agamemnon) from setting out to capture Troy. The pretext is revenge for the "rape" of Helen by Paris, but Agamemnon and such tribal leaders as Achilles and Odysseus are, in fact, lusting for the fabled treasures of Troy, spoils of war that each man, down to the most common soldier, yearns to possess. Unsworth (Sacred Hunger) reveals this complex intrigue slowly as he explores the critical situation on which the narrative hinges: the omens that explain Zeus's wrath and the prophecy that only the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigeneia, will reverse the contrary winds. We know of this event from Homer, of course, and he appears here as the Singer, a far from noble figure who is influenced by the conspirators to fashion the version fed to him by Odysseus. It is the hero of The Odyssey who gradually emerges as the chief villain, cynically manipulating his cohorts as he exploits the prophecy to serve his own ends. And it is Iphigeneia, lured to Aulis by false promises, who shows more moral courage than the king, his enemies or any of the court sycophants who seek only their own advantage. Unsworth's narrative method is as daring as his message; his prose is a mixture of classic cadences and contemporary vernacular, animated by beautifully descriptive vignettes and bawdy humor. He uses a minor figure, Calchas the diviner, as the means through which the reader understands the political machinations that create the illusion of a just war. "People intent on war always need a story, and the singers always provide one.... What [this] is really about is gold and copper and cinnamon and jade and slaves and timber," Calchas says. "It is the stories told by the strong, the songs of kings, that are believed in the end..-- is really about is gold and copper and cinnamon and jade and slaves and timber," Calchas says. "It is the stories told by the strong, the songs of kings, that are believed in the end."
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1 . boring
Posted March 28, 2009 by George , NJI thought this book was boring, not worth the read. If you want to read a great book with most of these same characters get the Troy series by David Gemmell
Nan A. Talese
March 17, 2003
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Excerpt from The Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth
This was the sixth night. He had lain awake through most of it, listening to the wind, the body of the sleeping boy beside him, beset by fear at still not knowing the sender, fear of other failures that might follow from this. The strands of the wind he knew by this time; tensed in concentration, he imagined he could hold them apart, the shrilling high up among the bare rocks, the softer combing in the shrub lower down, the ripple of loose canvas from the tents. Even the very smallest sounds he strained to hear, random sobs and whispers, stirring of grasses, the faint scrape of displaced pebbles along the shore. A wind from the northeast, unheard of at this season, keeping the fleet trapped in these straits at Aulis, and the army with it, waking the men every morning to the unhappy knowledge of some god's displeasure. It came from the direction of Troy, where lay their dreams of conquest. Six days and six nights with no sign of relenting, though the voices varied. The wind itself seemed to suffer in all its moods, even in its rages pleading to be quieted, to be soothed.
Then, early in the morning of the seventh day, came the summons from Agamemnon. He noted the time just as in those days of his power he noted all such things. Just before sunrise, the wind still there but quieter now, as if for the while exhausted after its riots in the dark. A time disputed between Hecate and Helius, when the world is between states. He was between states himself, as he also noted: neither inside the tent nor out of it, but cross-legged on a cushion at the threshold, watching his acolyte Poimenos, who was still half asleep, fumbling together a fire for the infusion of mint and honey he had been schooled to prepare. And he was neither clothed nor naked, being dressed only in a loincloth, with a piece of cotton over his shoulder as a shawl. These were things important to remember and interpret; not mortals but gods chose the times.
It was the chief scribe Chasimenos that brought the message, approaching from the rear, appearing suddenly, flanked by soldiers from the King's Guard. At midday, after the fight, Agamemnon would require the presence in his tent of Kalunas, I beg your pardon, Calchas, priest of Apollo.
He smiled saying this, glancing away with eyes so pale as to seem almost colorless in the narrow, bearded face. Calchas read the usual veiled contempt in voice and smile, the elaborate politeness, the stress upon the name, not his own, bestowed on him by the Greeks. Contempt too for his shaven face, his plaited hair, the smudges of kohl that would be still on his eyelids, the amulets worn as a bracelet, contrary to Greek custom. Asian priest of an Asian god without even a cult center yet established here.
All this was in the looks and the words--Calchas was practiced in reading such marks. But there was also the fact that this upstart diviner had been granted a shelter of canvas when most of the army spent the nights in the open, finding what cover they could; that he had a boy to share his tent and see to his needs; that he slept on a woolen mat, thickly woven; that he need not reply promptly to a messenger, even one of high rank. It was common knowledge that the King would make no decision, take no step, before Calchas had first scanned the auguries.
Chasimenos stood there waiting in his long-sleeved tunic of a palace bureaucrat. His smile had withered at the delay. "The King requires the presence of his seer," he repeated. The soldiers stood on either side of him, their long spears grounded, their faces heavy with ill humor at being given escort duties at such an hour, not much after dawn. It was early for the King to send; he would have had another bad night. Chasimenos had no need of an escort for such a small thing as this. But the habit of armed guards had grown in the days they had been there, waiting on the wind. Agamemnon himself never appeared without at least six. The diviner said, "Calchas will be honored beyond honor to kneel at the King's feet. May he live forever."
As he spoke he heard the small crackle of the fire, saw the smoke rise straight up in a thin plume. He felt a slight shudder within him, premonition of ill. These calms were dangerous, always brief, cheating the army with hope. There was some quality of danger too in this dawn summons to a meeting he had not been consulted about. Nothing of this showed on his face. He had known how to wait before answering, just as he knew now how to appear unaffected.