Lavinia (2008): Ursula Le Guin

★★★½

As a child, I read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, which I loved for its wizards and fantasy (I hope to reread it soon). In my early twenties, I read her Left Hand of Darkness, which was one of the first books that made me think seriously about gender. And now I’ve turned to what I thought would be a comparatively straightforward historical novel: her book about Lavinia, princess of Latium, who becomes the wife of Aeneas. But Le Guin is never simple. Her Lavinia is a bright, demanding person: full of questions. She probes at the limitations of the way she has been preserved for posterity, rebelling against the strictures of a poem in which she doesn’t even get to speak. Playful, intelligent and just a little bit angry, this novel reimagines one of the great epics of the Western tradition. Le Guin, and Lavinia, take Virgil to task for his omissions but this isn’t just a scolding. It’s also a great love letter from one author to another: a tribute to the power of story-telling, which can give the figures of the past a voice.

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The Goddess Chronicle (2008): Natsuo Kirino

★★★½

Back when the Canongate Myths series was introduced in 2005, I bought the first three in a boxed set and swore I’d read all of them as they were published. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. And so, when I realised that Natsuo Kirino (whose Grotesque I admired) had contributed a story to the series, it was a welcome chance to catch up. Retelling the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanaki, this is an eerie tale of joy and sorrow, light and darkness, love and vengeance.

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House of Names (2017): Colm Tóibín

★★★

I had high expectations for Colm Tóibín’s new novel. His Testament of Mary was so powerful, so raw in its evocation of a mother’s grief, that I thought his treatment of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon would be equally striking. And the opening line seemed to bear that promise out: ‘I have been acquainted,’ muses Clytemnestra, with the smell of death’. Unfortunately, however, the book has a strangely detached quality, as if all the emotion of this shocking story has been cauterised out of the characters.

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The Just City: Jo Walton

★★★★

Thessaly: Book I

In his book The Republic, Plato dreamed of a just society in which the pursuit of knowledge and excellence would be the highest goal. It was a daring dream, the first utopia: an elaborate thought-experiment which has captivated the imagination of thinkers through the ages. But could it actually work? Athena is determined to find out. Gathering together those who, throughout history, have read Republic and prayed to her that it might be possible to live in such a place, she prepares the groundwork for the realisation of the greatest political fantasy ever imagined.

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The Gospel of Loki: Joanne M. Harris

★★★½

I’ve only ever read one book by Joanne Harris and that (predictably) was Chocolat, many moons ago. As a result, I was intrigued when huge posters appeared all over the Underground advertising her most recent novel, her first foray into what the publicists call ‘fantasy’ but which is actually revisionist mythology. Naturally there was no way I could resist it. I’ve always loved clever, creative, not-entirely-trustworthy heroes and it’s a given that the devil always gets the best lines. Moreover, with the Vikings exhibition looming at the British Museum it seemed the perfect moment to brush up on my Norse mythology. And, although Harris would (apparently) prefer us not to mention it / him and simply to judge the book against the myths themselves, there’s always that pop-culture elephant lurking in the corner of the room. Loki is very much the man of the moment.

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The Bull from the Sea: Mary Renault

½

Published four years after The King Must Die, this book picks up the thread of Theseus’ story once again. Having brought down the ancient Cretan house of Minos, he comes home to Athens flushed with glory, accompanied by his loyal team of bull-leapers, the Cranes. But the joy fades quickly: Theseus is greeted by news of his father’s premature death; and, for all the Cranes, the Athens they return to seems smaller and more provincial than the city they left.

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The King Must Die: Mary Renault

★★★★★

Although I’m only posting about it now, I finished The King Must Die before embarking on Gates of Fire. My planned project this year is a reread of Mary Renault’s classical history novels, which had such a huge impact on me as an impressionable teenager. Two books stood out particularly strongly in my memory: The King Must Die and Fire From Heaven, and I was delighted to hear that Heloise was also keen to read the former. Our very informal joint reading was punctuated by excited whittering about myths (from me) and fascinating comments about narrative patterns and the question of consent in sacrifice (from her). I’m pleased to report that I’ve infected her with my Renault enthusiasm and in fact she’s already finished the sequel, The Bull From The Sea.

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Helen of Troy: Margaret George

★★

Although I bought this more than a year ago, I’ve only just got round to reading it, mainly because Helen recently reviewed another of Margaret George’s books, Elizabeth I. Remembering that I had this novel on my shelf, I decided it was time to take the plunge (at 747 pages long, it’s quite a commitment). It’s the first of George’s books that I’ve read, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t quite match up to Helen’s report on Elizabeth. While I could see that a lot of research had gone into it, it never developed the alluring sparkle and epic grandeur that I’d hoped for from the woman whose face launched a thousand ships.

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Lancelot du Lac

Lancelot du Lac

★★

(directed by Robert Bresson, 1974)

LoveFilm strikes again with this 1974 film, which has been on my Amazon wishlist for almost ten years, ever since I first heard about it at university. As a slice of Arthurian legend, I thought it sounded rather wonderful and yet, for one reason or another, I haven’t got round to watching it until now. With the weight of ten years’ expectations behind it, I regret to say the film disappointed me even more than it might otherwise have done.

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