For the Most Beautiful | Emily Hauser | 2016 | Doubleday | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
Mortals hardly stood a chance. When Paris, a prince of Troy, was asked to choose between the beauty of three great goddesses, by choosing Aphrodite he effectively sealed the fate of Troy. The gods of Olympus are capricious, vain and lethal. Humans are their playthings – beautiful women are there to be taken, punished cruelly if they resist, men have little control over their own destiny on the battlefield. Paris’s prize for choosing Aphrodite is the most beautiful woman in the world – Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus of Mycenae, and now, stolen by Paris, Helen of Troy. The great armies of Greece, led by King Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus, arrive at Troy’s shores in thousands of ships. Among the Greeks is the greatest warrior of them all, Achilles – son of a goddess, near invincible and unconquerable, and yet, despite it all, as much a toy in the hands of the gods as any other man or woman who walked these ancient lands of Greece and Troy.
While the Trojan War might have been fought by men, women had just as much to lose and it is into their lives that Emily Hauser takes us in For the Most Beautiful. The story moves between two great beauties – Krisayis, daughter of the Trojans’ High Priest and lover of one of the city’s princes, and Briseis, a princess of Pedasus, a city neighbouring Troy, and a woman doomed by prophecy never to find love but who managed to find it nonetheless. Both women are captured by the Greeks and both have it within their power to help Troy’s cause.
Through these two young women, Emily Hauser enables us to see both sides of this titanic war. We witness the peaceful court of Priam of Troy, contrasting with the angry military counsels of Agamemnon and his men, as well as the few private moments enjoyed by the charismatic and blistering force that is Achilles. The human stories of these two women, abused and victimised and yet always defiant, are set within the golden frame of an ancient world that is more myth than history. Interspersed throughout are chapters spent in the company of the gods, surely the original model for dysfunction in the family. The tempestuous marriage of Zeus and Hera sets the tone for the other relationships, their deceit and whimsical cruelty. The chief villain is arguably Apollo, the god to whom Krisayis was to have been dedicated and in no way worthy of her.
The scenes with the gods are very different to the rest of the novel and I’m in two minds as to their success. The cruel banter between the gods certainly provides light relief at times when the events described in the novel most need it. The story of the Trojan War is well known and its tragedy and brutality was are at times quite overwhelming. Or, more accurately, the sense of fate is quite overwhelming. The scenes with the gods distracts us from this for a few moments at a time while reminding us of the futility of man’s struggle. The language is also different in these chapters, much more modern and knowing. This does mean that we are regularly removed from a novel that is a captivating and rich work of historical fiction stroke fantasy and taken into the less comfortable realms of a modern, almost comic fantasy. Emily Hauser is a classical scholar, her research and feel for the period and subject are well demonstrated, in her use of words and in her inclusion of the fractious gods. There is also an intriguing mention of a blind poet. However, it’s arguable that the gods might have been better left in the wings. Having said all that, they did make me laugh. They also made me quite cross. Many of these humans, especially Krisayis and Briseis, deserve better.
I thoroughly enjoyed For the Most Beautiful. I read it in one day. I wanted to do nothing but read it. Krisayis and Briseis are wonderfully and individually brought to life while Achilles has a presence all of his own. Emily Hauser writes beautifully. She fills the pages with the colours of this lost, exotic world, so lethally dangerous and yet so awed by beauty. Feminine beauty and masculine martial prowess compete for our attention (and that of the gods), willing us to choose between them. For the Most Beautiful is a bewitchingly enchanting novel, warmly inviting us to re-enter a world that refuses to grow old.