City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Pages: 400
Year: 2014 (2 October)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson BennettReview
For centuries, the people of Saypur were dominated, enslaved, by Bulikov, a monumental city built by gods and men. But, finally, the Kaj, the finest Saypuri warrior, fought back, slaying the divinities who, as they fell, dismantled the great city of Bulikov with their dying thoughts, reducing it to little more than an unhappy outpost of Saypur. Now, talk of the gods is forbidden in Bulikov, their miracles are unmentionable, their relics locked away in secret immense warehouses that no-one can enter. Until Dr Efrem Pangyui, a Saypuri scholar arrives. Determined to unravel the secrets of the gods, Pangyui arouses the hatred of the Bulikov citizens who are denied the knowledge he seeks. Pangyui is murdered, a crime that shocks the Saypuri overlords. Shara Komayd, an unimportant Saypuri cultural ambassador is despatched to investigate the crime. But Shara is not as lowly as she appears. She is a descendant of the Kaj, proud and capable, and she is set on continuing Pangyui’s hunt. As she chases his clues into the heart of the disfigured city of Bulikov, the evidence suggests that not all of the divinities were slain and they might be about to wake from their sleep.

City of Stairs has been described as an epic fantasy but for me it has a much stronger feel of urban fantasy about it. It seems to be set in a recent past that is recognisable while its inhabitants, the Saypuri and the Continentals, the people of Bulikov, are strongly reminiscent of Asian and Russian populations. The centuries of oppression that the Saypuri endured has now rebounded on the Continentals and it is every bit as horrible and demeaning. Shara is enlightened and wise and through her eyes we see the cruelty of the Saypuri overlords, right down to the inflammatory art on the walls of public buildings and the corruption of their officials. We hear hints of the deprivation that the Continentals endure, physical as well as spiritual, while there are reminders of the days when the Continentals with their capricious gods were the masters. The murder of Pangyui is just a symptom of the hatred between the two peoples but it also serves as a catalyst.

The worldbuilding in City of Stairs is superb. The city of Bulikov with all its eccentricities and wonders, now hugely diminished, comes alive as we tour its streets with Shara. This is matched by the strong history and magical past and culture that the author evokes. Likewise, the characters are outstanding. Shara is fascinating and complex, containing a little bit of the forbidden magic within herself, and there are some entertaining exchanges between herself and her fellow Saypuri, both in Bulikov and at home. Her servant Sigrud is a wonderful creation. He is a giant from the cold northern lands with so much of the Viking about him – in appearance and in behaviour. I also enjoyed the rather jaded governor Turyin Mulaghesh who just wants a quiet life. And then there are the worshipers of each of the divinities. Throughout we meet the different groups, each distinct and exotic, not to mention disturbing.

The book is full of wonders, especially, for me, as Shara begins to discover the secrets of the hidden warehouses. This is a world in which miracles can happen and sometimes they’re there, right in the corner of your eye as you watch this fabulous city try to resurrect itself.

There are big themes here – this is not an easy world. Both ‘sides’ have inflicted great damage on the other. People starve, are tortured and labour until they die. There is nothing noble in either side and the true extent of the horror is only revealed piece by piece. The role – and character – of the gods in all this is also ambiguous. Religion is a dangerous thing not least because on this world you can touch it and faith can be a dangerous force. But Shara is a figure of hope, however much she works to keep close her own secrets.

Well-written throughout and deeply evocative, City of Stairs is an intriguing and clever fantasy adventure. Beginning as a murder mystery, it expands into a novel with as many layers as can be found within the towers and stairwells of Bukilov.

Details here of a competition that Jo Fetcher Books are running to celebrate the publication of City of Stairs.

Brothers in Blood by Simon Scarrow

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 384
Year: 2014 (9 October)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Brothers in Blood by Simon ScarrowReview
In the mid 1st century AD, Roman rule in Britannia has one last hurdle to overcome – Caratacus, King of the Catuvellauni and leader of the resistance. Prefect Cato and his one time commander and now subordinate Centurion Macro are thrown back into the fray. Their mission is to capture Caratacus, bring glory to the emperor Claudius and resolution to the British problem. But there is far more to it than that. Claudius’ government is controlled by two men, Narcissus and Pallas, spy masters who are at war. Pallas has despatched an agent to Britannia to halt Claudius’s conquest of the islands and, while they’re about it, to kill Cato and Macro. In response, Narcissus sends his own agent, none less than his son, to warn the two soldiers and help them drive Caratacus and his men into the ground.

Last year I read The Blood Crows, the twelfth in Simon Scarrow’s Cato and Macro series but my first. I loved it and so I have been counting the days to its follow up, Brothers in Blood, especially as I knew that it too would be set during this most fascinating of events, the conquest of Britannia. Cato and Macro have history in the islands, all of which I’m not familiar with as I’ve not followed the series from the beginning but my lack of knowledge didn’t matter. Scarrow drops hints and clues to what has gone before. If you’ve read The Blood Crows, though, then Brothers in Blood makes for an excellent successor following directly on its heels and taking Cato and Macro further into Britannia on the heels of Caratacus.

There are two strands to Brothers in Blood. One puts us on military campaign along with Cato, Macro, their general Ostorious and tribune Otho, a man whose match is more than met by his wife Poppaea, who is determined to accompany her husband into the field no matter what the cost. The other reminds the familiar reader of the deep friendship and trust between Cato and Macro – Cato the young officer, newly wed, who has genuine strategic skill and cunning to match his courage and Macro who is a force of nature in the battlefield, already the killer of one of Caratacus’s brothers and now intent on more. Both Cato and Macro are battle scarred and under no illusion about the men who might lead them, though fully confident in their own soldiers, including the now famous blood crows. These are two men who always want to lead from the front, they never tire, they never give in. They might banter and bicker but they are a united front. Cato has been placed as leader of the army’s baggage train, an insult, but this isn’t going to get in the way of a good fight.

For much of the novel the adventure follows the army in Britannia on the trail of Caratacus – a mission that goes better than planned but everything goes to pot when Caratacus manages to pull a miraculous victory out of defeat, and heads off to the land of the Brigantes to stir up trouble in the lands of Rome’s ally Queen Cartimandua. From this point on, Brothers in Blood comes alive and culminates in an exhilarating and thoroughly entertaining hill fort battle. This to me really brought the period alive, the conflict between Celt and Roman, and I was completely gripped.

There is much to enjoy here – the battles, the banter and the subterfuge. I particularly enjoyed the moments when Roman met Celt in the great halls of these Britannia tribes. But I didn’t find Brothers in Blood as satisfying as its predecessor The Blood Crows – I found its mystery unconvincing and unsubstantiated and much of the book jogs along at an undemanding pace. All in all not many challenges are made on the author or reader. But the final third compensates for this to a large degree, also hinting at future troubles in the making, and, as a result, my interest is kept alive for the fourteenth in the series.

Other review
The Blood Crows

Plague Land by S.D. Sykes

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 352
Year: 2014 (25 September)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Plague Land by S.D. SykesReview
When the Black Death had finally eaten its full in 1350, the communities that had survived were left in turmoil, the strings holding society together on the verge of snapping. Oswald de Lacy had been destined for a monastic life, having been sent to the monastery at a tender age, but after his father and two elder brothers were despatched in short measure by the plague, Oswald was recalled by his mother and sister and he assumed, while not yet twenty, the title of lord of Somerhill Manor. The Kent village of Somerhill is a shadow of its former self, many of its occupants, all valuable workers on the Somerhill farm, are dead and several of the survivors have succumbed to superstition and fear. When the body of a young girl is found, her throat torn, the villagers believe the local priest Cornwall when he tells them that she was murdered by no mortal hand but by devil’s beasts, humans with the heads of dogs.

As lord of the manor Oswald feels obliged to investigate the girl’s murder, not least to stamp out the dangerous beliefs being spread by the illiterate and ignorant priest. Oswald considers himself a man of science, having been trained in the monastery’s medical practices, learning from Brother Peter who had left the monastery by his side. When he locks away Joan, the village whore, Oswald is confident that he has solved the case and dispersed the mystery, explaining it away as nothing but a domestic fight. But a second girl has disappeared and it becomes increasingly likely that there are other forces at play here, perhaps not supernatural, but dark and foul nonetheless.

Plague Land is an extraordinary debut novel – confident and clever, bringing the reader so close to the history it evokes. It’s difficult to imagine a bleaker period in English social history than the mid 14th century. Its onslaught of plague (and grief), famine and war would have affected all levels of society but for the peasantry it would have been devastating. It’s so horrendous that it’s difficult to imagine how people would have felt at the time, how they would have coped and how they endured. But S.D. Sykes manages to make it real. Somerhill is a small village but before the Black Death it had been prosperous. With a depleted workforce and an inexperienced lord at the helm, the future does not look good, especially when neighbouring lords have the money to tempt peasants to work their fields instead. But Sykes also shows us in a very effective manner the workings of medieval feudalism – the homeless, peasants, monks, minor lords and earls all play a part here and we see all types of labour, from pigfarming to healing to the dispensation of justice. And it’s not just men, either. Sykes makes the role of women clear, as victims, as mothers, as workers and as wives, and, with the exception of Oswald, women are among the strongest of all the characters.

The events of the novel are narrated by Oswald himself and he is a most entertaining young man to spend time with. Despite the terrible circumstances that have made him lord, Oswald retains a sense of humour and a sincere desire to do well, for others and for himself. He tries to fit in philosophical reading, he wants to be enlightened and so he is personally affronted by the superstitious nonsense of the priest Cornwall. By contrast, he feels a great deal of warmth and affection for Brother Peter, despite Peter’s love of the ale barrel, but Peter’s religion is a very different kind to that of Cornwall. The affection between Oswald and Peter, his long suffering but genuine care for his mother and sister and the warmth that he feels for some of the villages as he gets to know them (even those who have been murdered), stands in stark contrast to the horror of the times and the extreme brutality of the murders. It’s surprising, perhaps, how many times this novel made me laugh. The dialogue is superb.

Aside from Oswald, to whom I grew very attached, there are some great characters in Plague Land and chief among them are Oswald’s really rather odd mother and sister, either of whom would be enough to drive anyone mad while, at the same time, thoroughly entertaining the reader. Some of Oswald’s responses to them are priceless. But I was always aware, as is Oswald, that they deserve our sympathy, as does the woman Joan.

The mystery at the heart of Plague Land is fabulous. I worked out some of it but certainly not all of it and it kept me on tenterhooks to the last page. I really wanted to know. In fact, I found everything about Plague Land unputdownable as it immersed me so fully in the mid 14th century, carried along as I was by these excellent characters as well as by S.D. Sykes’ wonderful writing. There is a lot going on in this book, all of it fully engaging – S.D. Sykes is to be congratulated. One of my top books of 2014 without doubt.

The Royalist by S.J. Deas

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 320
Year: 2014 (25 September)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Royalist by S.J. DeasReview
William Falkland waits in Newgate for the guard to fetch him for the hangman’s noose. So many have already been taken, hopelessly leaving their farewell messages with Falkland. But when Falkland is finally collected from the muck and filth, a cloth sack thrown over his head, it’s not to the gallows he’s taken but to a carriage that drives him and his sickly-breathed guard to Westminster. And there Falkland comes face to face with Oliver Cromwell, a man charged by Parliament with putting an end to the war. It is the winter of 1645. The English Civil War has endured for over three years but now Cromwell believes he has the means at hand to drive the King to terms – his New Model Army, a paid, trained and disciplined army, the first of its kind. But all is not perfect. There have been suicides in the New Model Army winter camp. Cromwell needs a spy, someone who won’t be afraid. He believes William Falkland is his man, a Royalist but a man who has not been afraid to stand up to the King and has a knack for finding out the truth. So into the lion’s den, Falkland must go.

The Royalist is a deliciously atmospheric read and it immerses us, and Falkland, in the merciless chill of this cold and dark winter. Following a long and mutually suspicious journey, Falkland and his reluctant companion Warbeck arrive in the army camp, its soldiers dispirited and freezing, their commanders standing up to eat as their chairs are burnt for warmth. The army’s leader is Fairfax, appropriately known as Black Tom, but even he, despite the nickname, seems eager to discover the reasons for the spate of suicides of young soldiers, no more than boys, all found hanging from, or blown up under, a witching tree.

Falkland is our narrator but he’s not necessarily the most reliable of witnesses or, at least, he doesn’t see fit to tell us too much about that past that brought him to the attention of Cromwell. But, through Falkland and through his discoveries, we are given the harshest of glimpses into the hard lives of these soldiers as well as the lives of the poor villagers who have been displaced, dehumanised and even killed by this mass of men. One woman, the innkeeper Kate Cain, has been left behind. Falkland lodges with her – slowly and carefully they begin to dance around one another. Both, though, have so much to hide. As for Falkland, he has been deeply damaged by years of service to the King. Both sides are far from admirable.

The portrait of the army is compelling. Its ranks comprise young boys, often pressganged from Royalist captured forces. They are superstitious, frightened, releasing tension through violence and rough sports. This is an army at war with itself. S.J. Deas has no need in this novel to describe battles, skirmishes and marches – this wintering army, oppressively non-moving, trapped by snow and ice, contains more than enough drama and action to fill a whole series of books. It is a fine setting for an atmospheric, frosty historical mystery.

The Royalist is a short novel but it is a full one. In fact, my only issue with the novel is that it is partly a victim of its own success – its portrait of the army and of life in England during these terrible years is so evocative, and its narrator and other characters so fascinating, that the mystery itself seems secondary and not as intriguing as I would have hoped. Nevertheless, The Royalist is a fine novel, immersing us so deeply into the dark and dirty world of Cromwell’s Model Army during one particularly cold and chilling winter. This is the first in a series to feature William Falkland and I look forward enormously to the next.

Firefall by Peter Watts Part 1: Blindsight

Publisher: Head of Zeus
Pages: 761 (inc. 51 pages of notes and references; Blindsight: 362 pages)
Year: 2014 (25 September)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Firefall by Peter WattsFirefall presents, in one rather splendid and substantial volume, two science fiction novels by Peter Watts – Blindsight (first published in 2006) and Echopraxia (published just this year in the US). As I’m new to both, I thought I’d treat each novel separately, although both are related, and so here is the review of Blindsight. The review of Echopraxia will follow next month (I’m on holiday backpacking round southern Spain next week and it’s playing havoc with my reading schedule…).

Late into the 21st century, Earth is showered by tens of thousands of bright fireflies, a shower of shooting stars, except there is nothing natural about these objects, their grid pattern suggesting that they are performing a comprehensive survey of the planet. But for what purpose? The objects burn to ash in the atmosphere and then Earth must endure years of uneasy silence. Nothing happens. A first contact that leads to nowhere. But years later, grabbing the initiative, Earth launches Theseus to investigate the source of the objects in the distant Kuiper Belt. And there they find Rorschach, an extraordinary alien vessel, hidden from view but ready to be found and attempting to communicate. But whatever lies on this alien vessel cannot be any stranger than the crew aboard Theseus. The years of fear and uncertainty have wrought a change in the development and evolution of humanity. There is horror here but it is debatable how much of it has been brought from Earth and how much lies in wait in this dark ship, full of alien shadows.

At its heart, Blindsight is a deeply psychological novel, making efforts to explore and understand the human occupants of Theseus every bit as much as the inhabitants of Rorschach. The captain of Theseus is an artificial intelligence but it is bound body and mind to Sarasti who speaks and acts for the ship. But Sarasti is no mere mortal. He is a vampire, part of a species brought back to life as part of the redevelopment of humanity to cope with an unspecifie alien threat. But although we’re talking vampires, Sarasti is no typical vampire He is the epitome of menace and yet all aboard must serve him, like obedient chunks of meat. He is a horrifying presence aboard the ship but he is fascinating.

Otherwise amongst the crew, we have the Gang – one character split into four separate and co-operative identities, there is a reconstructed biologist – more technology than human, an enigmatic and traumatised warrior, and our main voice, Siri Keaton. Siri is a man with half a brain, the other half removed when a child to cure his extreme epilepsy. As a result, Siri is now the perfect observer. More zombie than human, Siri is unable to feel and yet, as he and we explore further into the expanding walls and tunnels of Rorschach, Siri is beginning to learn a lesson about himself.

Blindsight is much more than a First Contact novel. The alien vessel and the creatures aboard are deeply disturbing but throughout everything has the feel about it of a psychological experiment, rats trapped in a game, observing while being observed, altered humans trying to understand the aliens travelling beside them in the distant reaches of the solar system. Moving from communication to physical interaction and then violence and torture, it all feels like a clinical test, albeit one that has a habit of going wrong. And it’s all the more sinister for that. Heightening the effect is Siri. Throughout the novel, in a series of asides, our observer thinks back on his life and his relationships with his parents and his damaged marriage. Everything affects the present. And then there are the aliens…

I was fascinated and chilled by Blindsight in equal measure. This is a frightening, menacing novel, reminiscent of Aliens, Event Horizon and other tales of horror in space. Yet, because the novel feels so much like an experiment in danger of going wrong, it is difficult to draw close to the characters and Siri, by his very nature, manages to keep us at a distance. It’s fair to say that I wasn’t as engaged with Blindsight as much as I had hoped but, nevertheless, it has some moments and characters that made me catch my breath, not least the terrifying Sarasti and the times through the novel when a crew member captures a glimpse of something in the corner of his or her (or their) eye that just shouldn’t be there.

Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett

Publisher: Macmillan
Pages: 1003
Year: 2014 (16 September)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Edge of Eternity by Ken FollettEdge of Eternity concludes Ken Follett’s epic Century trilogy, which begins with Fall of Giants and continues with Winter of the World – I would most definitely advise that you read and savour the three novels in sequence.

After four years, three books and nearly 3,000 pages, Ken Follett’s engrossing and epic journey through the key events and social upheavals of the 20th century comes to a close with Edge of Eternity, an enormous novel that covers the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Follett takes us back into the lives of these American, Russian, German and English families, each interconnected, and it feels as if we’ve never been away. Having survived (or not), the First World War and revolution in Fall of Giants and the rise of the Nazis and World War Two in Winter of the World, it is now time for the sons and daughters and grandchildren to endure and overcome the Cold War, the struggle for racial equality, Vietnam, the social transformation of the 1960s and the oppression of the Iron Curtain. Beginning with the erection of the Berlin Wall in the dead of night in 1961, Edge of Eternity vividly depicts the devastating effect this physical and cultural barrier had on families while, in the US, black men and women risked their lives to bring equality to the free world.

A trilogy that covers a century moves through the generations but if, like me, you had fears that too long has passed to remember all the back histories of these familes, then you needn’t worry. We are aided by family trees and dramatis personae but mostly by the clues that litter the text. The previous two novels, especially Fall of Giants, are so memorable, it all comes flooding back. Now, though, we are largely concerned with the original characters’ grandchildren, those who grow to young adulthood in one of the liveliest decades of the century, the Sixties.

Key among them is George Jakes, a black lawyer who knows exactly what he wants to do with his life after he is attacked on one of the Civil Rights Movement’s Freedom buses in Alabama. Through George and his colleagues we enter the White House and Justice Department of the Kennedy brothers. In Russia, we have a set of twins, a brother and sister, one trying to salvage the Communism his grandfather fought for while the other seeks to subvert it, piece by piece. In the UK, two young siblings whose grandmother helped to change the social order of WW1 Britain make waves in their own way, though music and acting. Finally, in what is arguably the most powerful of the novel’s threads, we have the Berlin family that, having survived and fought the Nazis, is now split in two by a Wall and an ideology that has vengeance on its mind.

Edge of Eternity is an extraordinary novel, truly an epic and engrossing from its very beginning, its appeal intensified because we now know these families so well and Follett has placed them at the very heart of world affairs. I could not put the book down, despite the damage caused by carrying around a hardback with this many pages in it (this is a very heavy book!). But, despite this, reading Edge of Eternity was not all plain sailing. I had issues with it and at times it made me frustrated and cross. But before I get to that, here are some reasons why I am so glad I read it.

Ken Follett makes us a witness to events, whether it’s the assassination of a president, an escape over the Berlin Wall, or a visit to a rigidly hostile Siberia. The prose races along, we’re caught up in the adventure, and the pace is relentless. Whether the event is something on the magnitude of the Cuban missile crisis or something like a pop concert held against the Wall so that those on the unfree side can listen in, or Watergate or the rise of Solidarity in Poland or a raid in Vietnam or a much respected old lady taking her seat in the House of Lords, it’s impossible not to care and not to be swept along by history. The chapters flit between the key characters, accelerating the pace even further. Follett does a great job of reproducing the staging and dialogue of landmark moments in the century, mixing so well fictional characters with historic figures.

It’s difficult not to be moved by watching familiar events unfold. I shed tears on more than one occasion. But just as much poignancy comes from watching the fictional lives develop and run their course. I cared deeply for some of these characters, most especially those in Germany, while others, such as George in Washington DC, fascinated me. Throughout this long novel, it is always a pleasure to return to each of the characters. I had such a hunger to know how everything would turn out and, as it happened, I was content.

Now to the downside.

During my review of Winter of the World, I noted that I wasn’t happy with the way that the novel’s female characters were sexualised to what I thought was an excessive degree. I was disappointed to discover that in Edge of Eternity, this is taken to an more obsessive level. There are a number of women with key roles in the novel but their value is repeatedly degraded – there isn’t a male character in the novel who doesn’t look at women with a predatory eye. First and foremost, women are depicted as sexual objects. In the midst of the most traumatic or significant event, a male character will still take time to assess the breasts of the woman next to him. Women without children at 40 are looking for substitutes for their maternal love and mature powerful women in Washington government and intelligence strip off in a changing room together to compare their breasts while still discussing the illegal actions of the President in Beirut. When one of the women meets another who is heroically helping to change the shape of Polish politics, she takes a moment to reflect that if she were a lesbian she would fancy her. I lost count of the number of times a character came home only to surprise his or her partner in bed with someone else. There is not a single female figure in Edge of Eternity with emotional authenticity, which is quite unlike their depiction in Fall of Giants. In Winter of the Worlds this obsession with sex and women as sex objects was an irritation but in Edge of Eternity it presented a real hindrance to my appreciation of both its male and female characters and to my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Despite my frustration with Follett’s depiction of women, I was still glued to Edge of Eternity. In a way, the fact that it made me feel so strongly shows me how close to the story I have become. I had been worried that this final book could not live up to the drama of the previous novels’ World Wars but, aside from the rather tedious story strand of a 1960s’ Beatle-esque band, it delivered. I was fascinated by the insight given into the workings of the Politburo and the Oval Office and the struggles of families to survive in the American South, in Siberia and in East Berlin. Being able to remember so well some of the events, notably the fall of the Iron Curtain, certainly added to the novel’s emotional impact. Conflicts rise but in Edge of Eternity, there is a driving movement towards peace, justice and equality, giving its families, who have survived and done so much, cause to hope. When I finished it, I wanted to go straight back to the beginning and read the trilogy all over again.

Other review
Winter of the World

Guest post: Troy – History or Myth? by Judith Starkston, author of Hand of Fire

Hand of FireMany years ago, during my archaeology days, I was fortunate enough to visit Troy, a site that still today resonates with history and myth (despite the large wooden horse in the car park). This month, Judith Starkston’s novel Hand of Fire is published, a novel that presents the Trojan War through the eyes of a woman – Briseis, a princess captured during the siege of Troy who was to become the source of the the great conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. I am delighted to host here a guest post by Judith in which she discusses the archaeological and historical evidence for Homer’s Troy and for the characters who play out their lives and deaths in Hand of Fire.

Troy – History or Myth?

In Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, about the Trojan War, the bard gave only a few lines to Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. She’s central to the plot but remains an enigma. In my novel Hand of Fire, I gave her a long overdue voice and story.

While my purpose in writing Hand of Fire was to tell a compelling tale, I also wanted to reflect accurately the history of this time and place. Which begs the question: Is Troy the stuff of mythology or does it have a basis in history? There are actually several layers to that question. For now, I will focus on the actual city of Troy itself. That’s the clearest piece of the puzzle. Elsewhere along my virtual book tour I talk about whether the Trojan War actually happened which is kind of the second step in the question.

Can we say with reasonable certainty that we know where the real city of Troy is located and what life was like there during the period of a possible Trojan War, that is, the Late Bronze Age?

Sophia Schliemann, wearing gold jewellery dug from the site and illegally removed from Turkey (public domain)

Sophia Schliemann, wearing gold jewellery dug from the site and illegally removed from Turkey (public domain)

In the late 1800s, a determined, if sometimes dishonest, German named Schliemann used his private fortune to pursue his dream to find Troy. We do owe him thanks for finding the place that would gradually be confirmed as Troy, although since Frank Calvert was the one who pointed out the location, but didn’t have the money to dig it, this ‘discovery’ was probably just a matter of time. The idea was already afloat. Given all the overly enthusiastic, highly destructive digging Schliemann did, his contribution to establishing the historical foundation of Troy is a bit of a mixed blessing.

The main objection to Schliemann’s identification of the mound he dug up as Troy was that the city he uncovered was too small. If it were really the major city that controlled the wealth and trade moving through the straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, known to the Greeks as the Hellespont, what Schliemann showed the world seemed pretty puny. There were believers and many skeptics.

One other inheritance from Schliemann was his assumption that the culture of Troy was Greek and akin to the Mycenaean sites in Greece that he and others were uncovering at this time. He never imagined that any ancient culture in Turkey could possibly be grand enough for his beloved Homer. He was prejudiced, pure and simple, but it is true no grand archaeological sites of the correct period had been discovered in Turkey yet, so his bias had no sites to act as counterweight.

Flash forward past some interim digging by two different archaeologists who both helped and hurt. The story of Troy resumes with Manfred Korfmann, who in 1988 until his death in 2005 (after which work at Troy has continued), gave the site of Troy a modern makeover. Some of his best finds, by the way, came from Schliemann’s dump pile.

Most important, Korfmann used contemporary tools like satellites and geophysical prospection to “look” beneath the ground and discover, without digging, the overall layout of the walls of the elusive lower city. With the pictures revealing the pattern of walls and thus demonstrating an overall size consistent with an important trade center, the problem of Troy being too small was solved. Korfmann demonstrated that up to now only Troy’s citadel had been excavated, which represented only a small portion of the city, as you would expect.

Archaeological site of Troy (photo by J. Starkston)

Archaeological site of Troy (photo by J. Starkston)

Among the many other things this modern dig has shown about Troy, the point of greatest importance to me is that Troy was an Anatolian city not a Greek one. Ancient Anatolia (modern Turkey more or less) stretched from the west coast along the Aegean into Syria to the east. In the Late Bronze Age, Anatolia was dominated by the Hittite Empire, and Troy was an allied, often vassal, state to the Hittites. Modern archaeology had in the intervening years uncovered a grander world than Schliemann would ever have attributed to Turkish soil—an empire that rivaled Egypt and Assyria and that left behind giant archives. In those clay tablet archives are treaties and letters pertaining to Troy (which the Hittites called Wilusa, a version of Ilion, the other Greek name for Troy). Now we can not only be certain this site is Troy, we can also surmise a great deal about this city’s daily life, religion, politics and intrigue because Troy and the rest of Anatolia shared a common cultural tradition. The tablets are full of details of treaties, rituals, and daily life. I used that information to create a historically accurate Briseis, even if, as I must admit, she herself may have originally been the figment of the bard’s imagination. Now she’s a flesh and blood woman with a dramatic life in a region that is to us both exotic and marvelous.

Judith StarkstonIn writing this post I pulled evidence from three works: The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction by Eric Cline (highly recommended), Was There a Trojan War? by Manfred Korfmann and
Troia in Light of New Research, a lecture by Manfred Korfmann.

Hand of Fire on Amazon UK and Amazon US.
Judith’s website, Facebook and Twitter.
Hand of Fire tour