Category Archives: Greece

Protector by Conn Iggulden

Michael Joseph | 2021 (13 May) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Protector by Conn IgguldenIt is 480 BC and the mighty Xerxes, King of Persia, has won a historic victory over the heroes of Greece and Sparta at the Battle of Thermopylae. Now he stands in Athens and watches the city burn to the ground. Athens is largely empty, its citizens have been evacuated, an epic undertaking, to the nearby island of Salamis and now the generals and leaders of Athens – Themistocles, Xanthippus and Cimon chief among them – must defend each and everyone of them in a sea battle. The Battle of Salamis lasts for days and the Greeks must use cunning every bit as much as its ships, oarsmen and warriors to take on Persia. But this won’t end it. The enemies will meet in battle again as Pericles, the son of Xanthippus, grows to manhood surrounded by war, death and a hunger for vengeance.

Conn Iggulden is one of the finest writers of historical fiction that you can read. He particularly excels when he takes on the great wars of the ancient and medieval worlds – the scramble for power after the assassination of Caesar, the Wars of the Roses – and Protector is the second novel in a series that covers the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC. It follows directly on from The Gates of Athens and builds on our investment in the people of Athens and Sparta, an uneasy but vital alliance, as they strive to fight off a relentless enemy whose army greatly outnumbers their own. We’ve watched them win and lose famous battles. Themistocles and Xanthippus are not friends – there is more hatred than liking between them, they are political rivals – but they have come together and the prickly relationship between them, and between them and the Spartans, has been absolutely fascinating to follow. There has also been the more human and emotional side of spending time with Xanthippus’s wife Agariste and their children, including Pericles. It is the families, after all, who would endure slavery or death if their warrior husbands and fathers fail and it is the women who would kill their own children if it came to it.

It is for this reason that I think you should read The Gate of Athens first. Protector is a fine novel but there is too much going on for there to be time to form an attachment to its characters. The reader will bring that from the former novel.

Conn Iggulden is second to none when it comes to battle scenes and the depiction of the sea battle of Salamis is absolutely brilliant. He perfectly captures the confusion, the mighty effort, the heroism and brutality, the pure horror and fear of it all, especially for the rowers. As the oarsmen literally row themselves to death, Greek warriors take their place. We also see the strategy of the battle and watch Themistocles emerge as Athens’ great hero. And this isn’t the only battle in the novel, which also features the famous land battle at Plataea. The pages fly by as the author catches up the reader in these exhilarating events.

Themistocles is an extraordinary character. He does his best to be very difficult to like but he is such an interesting man. There is a sense, though, that Xanthippus is the true hero in Iggulden’s mind and it’s Xanthippus and his family who receive the warmest treatment. I really enjoyed reading about Pericles and his relationship with his siblings. I knew a little about Pericles the famous statesman but I had no idea about his childhood in war and it’s extremely involving.

If I had an issue with Protector, it would be its similarities to The Gates of Athens. There is almost a repetition, with the same characters – Athenian heroes – squabbling amongst themselves while uniting against mighty Persia in another round of battles. But there is a development in Pericles, who I suspect might be the main figure for the series as a whole, and he promises much for the third novel. But the highlight of Protector is an outstanding one, among the very best in all of the author’s novels – the Battle of Salamis.

This conflict took place about 2,500 years ago, such a long time ago, and yet it is well-known to history – the underdog Greeks fighting for survival against overwhelming odds. The battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea continue to resonate but Conn Iggulden brings new life to them and the men who fought them and the depth of his knowledge into the period as well as ancient warfare is resounding. The author has a gift of making each historical period he touches fascinating to the reader and this new Athenian series is no different. He is a great storyteller.

Other reviews
The Blood of Gods (Emperor V)
Stormbird (Wars of the Roses I)
Trinity (Wars of the Roses II)
Bloodline (Wars of the Roses III)
Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors (Wars of the Roses IV)
Dunstan
The Falcon of Sparta

The Gates of Athens

The Return by Harry Sidebottom

Zaffre | 2020 (ebook: 11 June, Hardback: 1 October) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Return by Harry SidebottomIt is 145 BC and Roman soldier Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home to his farm in Calabria, south of Rome, after two years of fighting to protect and extend the empire’s growing borders. But Paullus has returned alone. His childhood friend Alcimus was killed in action and now Paullus must face his friend’s grieving father. The matter is complicated by the fact that Paullus was awarded the civic crown for his bravery in battle. This now places him equal to any man in his community, even his elders. It benefits people to befriend him as he becomes a pawn in their petty games but most of all it means he must endure the scrutiny of everyone who wonders why, if he was so brave, he didn’t bring his friend back home safely to his family.

Then the bodies begin to appear. Other farmers are murdered and their bodies horrifically mutilated. Rumours begin that an old demon has returned to haunt the woods and fields. Paullus isn’t so sure. He suspects a human hand has done this evil work and he sets out to discover the killer before he too is either blamed for the murders or killed himself. And all the time he is haunted by the events of the last two years. Carthage had only just been taken in an absolute bloodbath but Paullus had faced his own hell on earth, in the destruction of Corinth in Greece. Paullus now realises he may have brought death back home with him.

Harry Sidebottom is a well-known and fantastic writer of Roman historical military fiction and is particularly well-known for his Warrior of Rome series. In recent books, though, the author has been trying something different while keeping his writing feet firmly in the world of ancient Rome. In The Last Hour we were given an excellent Roman thriller, which took place over the course of one day. This was followed by the fabulous The Lost Ten, which tells the story of a rescue mission deep into enemy territory. The Return gives us something different again – a stand alone murder mystery featuring a detective who has been traumatised by war and is desperate to find peace and can only achieve that by defeating evil.

The period of Roman history is also different. The centuries are turned back and we’re now in the mid 2nd century BC, to the Roman Republic, which is most certainly unknown territory for this reader at least. It feels different. People seem to be more superstitious – gods and demons lurk everywhere, watching everything. Society is more rural and farm-based, at least in Calabria where this novel is set, and soldiers are picked from that society to fight for Rome, in this case to fight the league of Greek cities which are attempting one final time to defeat their conquerors. There is plenty of military action in The Return and there aren’t many authors who can write about Roman warfare with such knowledge and insight as Harry Sidebottom. These scenes are tense, violent, exhilarating and realistic. Paullus knows better than anyone how horrific it was, how absolutely appallingly the people of Corinth suffered. He sees it every time he closes his eyes.

The novel moves back and forwards as Paullus continues to remember what he’s trying to forget. These memories interrupt the present where he faces a different kind of enemy. I really enjoyed the depictions of this Roman rural society, with its rules, superstitions and codes. It is all absolutely fascinating and described with such colour and atmosphere. It is a very immersive read.

This was my first read of the Lockdown (the publication was delayed, as with so many books), when I was finding it extremely difficult to settle on a book to read. I was very fortunate that this book arrived at just the right time and allowed me to escape back into the Roman past. The Roman period is my favourite for historical fiction (and for history, generally) and so at the moment I can’t get enough of it. The Return is such a fine example and shows yet again why Harry Sidebottom is one of my very favourite authors. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of Harry’s books before then The Return would make an excellent introduction.

Other reviews
Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East
Iron and Rust: Throne of the Caesars I
Blood and Steel: Throne of the Caesars II
Fire and Sword: Throne of the Caesars III
The Last Hour
The Lost Ten

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden

Michael Joseph | 2020 (6 August) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Gates of Athens by Conn IgguldenIt is 490 BC and King Darius of Persia wants nothing more than to bring the Greek states within his empire, whether they like it or not. Athens is a very different place, with no kings but an Assembly which allows every free man a voice and a vote, deciding how the city will be run. And now it must defend itself. Athen’s most respected and admired citizens now pick up their spears and shields and march to Marathon. Among them is Xanthippus, father to a small boy called Pericles. Marathon is just the beginning of the Persian Wars. Almost ten years later the Greek states, uneasily united, march and sail into battle once more, clashing against Persian forces on sea and on land, at a place called Thermopylae. All those left behind in Athens must wait to discover their fate.

Conn Iggulden is a phenomenal writer. His historical fiction is outstanding. It doesn’t matter what period of history he writes about, he brings it to life and makes the events and people of the past real, exciting and vital. This time the author takes us to a tumultuous period in ancient history, the Persian Wars. The novel is framed by well-known and familiar battles, of Marathon and Thermopylae, but they are given fresh treatment here because Conn Iggulden takes his time to make us really care about these people while also making us fascinated by their society and culture.

We spend time in Persia and with the Persian army, and it’s a world away from Greece in so many ways. It is exotic and dangerous with an incredibly powerful fleet and army. But most of the novel is spent in Athens, particularly with Xanthippus, an honourable man, a loving family man, a hero, but he also has his flaws and must suffer the whims and political games and rivalries of the Assembly. I found this absolutely engrossing. The political system of the Assembly seems chaotic and harsh. And we’re reminded that this political ‘freedom’ was only for male citizens, who were vastly outnumbered by women, children and slaves. It all becomes even more intriguing when Sparta joins the mix and we watch Athenian and Spartan men assess each other, sum each other up, and try and find ways to work together in war against a common enemy. The tension is there throughout as Persia builds its army and navy, ready to take its vengeance on Athens.

The battle sequences are spectacular. Conn Iggulden knows his stuff and his knowledge shows throughout but he also knows how to write thrilling battle scenes. The naval battles are fantastic and so too are the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae. So much is at stake.

The Gates of Athens isn’t just about battles and the men who fight them. Conn Iggulden doesn’t neglect the other half of society. I was really intrigued by our glimpses into the homelife of Xanthippus and his wife Agariste. While there is much that seems familiar and timeless about their relationship, there is much that is very different. Their home is strange, with slaves living in a chamber dug into the earth under the house. Xanthippus sleeps apart from his wife. Slaves are trained to kill to protect their mistress and Agariste is prepared to kill her own children if the Persians come. I found it completely fascinating.

Athens itself dominates the novel. It is more than a city, it is an entity, beloved by its founding goddess Athena, and it is also an ideal. Its laws and codes, the rights of its free men, are all religiously pursued and defended, in its courts, Assembly and on the battlefield. Conn Iggulden examines all of the various aspects of Athens, and Sparta, and shows both its strengths and its failings. Excellent!

The Gates of Athens begins a new series and I can’t wait to read more of it. Whereas Xanthippus (and Athens itself) is the central figure of this first book, it seems likely that his son Pericles will become increasingly significant and I am fascinated to read more about the origins and development of Athen’s most famous statesman. His remarkable story is in such safe hands.

Other reviews
The Blood of Gods (Emperor V)
Stormbird (Wars of the Roses I)
Trinity (Wars of the Roses II)
Bloodline (Wars of the Roses III)
Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors (Wars of the Roses IV)
Dunstan
The Falcon of Sparta

Shadows of Athens by J.M. Alvey

Orion | 2019 (7 March) | 376p | Review copy | Buy the book

Shadows of Athens by JM AlveyIt is 443 BC and Athens is at peace after decades of war with Persia. The city is being rebuilt in marble and its wealth is matched by its culture, which flourishes. Athens is also in a good mood. The Dionysia festival is shortly to begin which means five days of holidays as actors and singers compete in the city’s beautiful theatre to win glory for their patrons. The playwright Philocles is trying to focus on the job in hand, which is to win the comedy prize for the wealthy and powerful Aristarchos. It’s a stressful business, making sure that actors are prepared, with costumes and masks delivered, while fighting off the insults of rivals and appeasing the gods with frequent rituals.

The last thing Philocles expects is to find a man with his throat cut outside his front gate. His valuables, including a fine pair of boots, are untouched so this was no robbery. Philocles soon learns that the murdered man had been seeking him out, that the crime is part of something much bigger with significance for Athens. Philocles finds himself becoming the reluctant detective, working for Aristarchos to discover the truth. And he still has that play to present…

Shadows of Athens is the debut novel by J.M. Alvey and is, I suspect, the start of a new series of historical murder mysteries set in the relatively unfamiliar territory (compared to Rome) of ancient Athens. The historical setting is marvellous and the novel really succeeds in depicting a place and time that actually feels, at least to me, almost unknowable. It is so different, despite the patterns of human behaviour that repeat themselves, whatever the period of history, sometimes leading to murder.

The festival of Dionysus dominates Shadows of Athens and it is fascinating, as people travel from all over the Hellenistic world to enjoy the cultural displays. And yet it’s not that straightforward. Athens and its dominions are at peace but it comes at quite a financial cost. Dependent states and cities pay vast contributions to Athens to keep them safe when, for all the world, it looks as if this money is being turned into marble temples. There’s a rumbling of discontent and this adds another layer to the novel.

And then there’s the social history element of the book, which I found particularly strong. Philocles is in a relationship with a woman he loves but is most definitely not acceptable at his family’s dinner table. This is a world dominated by its social codes and religious rituals, challenges to these aren’t acceptable. And so women, foreigners (even people from the next city along the coast), and slaves do not enjoy the same privileges as the male citizens of Athens. Philocles’ household, though, shows a slightly different reality. He has a slave but this man is almost a member of his family, he fought alongside Philocles’ brothers in war. Philocles’ partner is a foreign woman, her skin is dark, she doesn’t hide it from the sun as Athenian women do. She stands out. It’s so interesting seeing the contrast between Philocles’ family and those of his brothers and his patron. Although the slaves in Aristarchos’ household play a similarly ambiguous role. Every male citizen is aware, though, that in order for a slave’s testimony in court to be permissible that slave must first be tortured. That’s the law but it’s not necessarily what one would ever want to happen.

The role of outsiders in Athens is a central theme of the novel. Despite the displays of civilisation, sophistication and culture, we’re made well aware that this is founded on success in war. Military triumph is equated with moral virtue and divine favour. This attitude is very hard for outsiders to come up against. Athenian citizens might be cultured and athletic but they’re also trained killing machines. This undercurrent of violence, which can be expressed in riot or murder, lurks in shadows throughout the novel. Philocles gets a battering more than once.

As we move around the glorious streets of Athens, there is so much to enjoy in this rich and vibrant depiction of ancient Athens and its festivals. This is fine worldbuilding and I think that the murder mystery itself is rather overshadowed by its setting. I also found it a little difficult to keep track of individuals through the pages. However, I liked Philocles and his household very much and I really enjoyed the scenes where we follow him in his day job as dramatist. There is a sense that Shadows of Athens lays the ground for future books and it does that job very well. I look forward to seeing Philocles again.

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster below.

Shadows of Athens blog tour

Clash of Empires by Ben Kane

Orion | 2018 (17 May) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

Clash of Empires by Ben KaneIt is 202 BC and Rome’s legions are about to defeat the Carthaginians once at for all at the Battle of Zuma in North Africa. Facing Hannibal’s formidable elephants and army, it’s a chance for reputations to be made, but a handful of Roman soldiers are about to land in a whole heap of trouble. Legionary Felix has not been particularly well named. As for Rome itself, its senators and generals might have thought that they could enjoy the benefits of peace for a while after such a long, bloody war. But King Philip of Macedon has other ideas. Determined to reclaim lands once conquered by his ancestor, the father of the great Alexander, he is stirring up Greece, as well as the cities and tribes of the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean who look to Rome for help against Philip. The wily Senator Flamininus sees an opportunity. If he can lead the Roman army to victory over Philip, there will be no end to his power and influence. Unfortunately, not everyone in Rome agrees with his ambition.

This is Greece’s last chance to put upstart Republican Rome in its place. But Rome is determined to rise and conquer Philip just as it did Hannibal. As the old and new world clash, it’s the ordinary soldiers on both sides who must win the victory, suffer the defeat and pay the price.

Clash of Empires is the first novel in Ben Kane’s new series, which takes us back to a critical time in Rome’s history, to a war that has been overshadowed by the Punic Wars, just as Philip of Macedon has been overshadowed by his illustrious ancestors. A new book by Ben Kane is always cause for celebration and I loved the premise of Clash of Empires. The idea of these two cultures taking each other on, one with a glorious past against the other with a spectacular future ahead, in a great epic showdown is so appealing. This is a period of Roman history that I know very little about and I welcomed the chance to have my eyes opened.

Clash of Empires is a fantastic book. There’s so much going on and nothing in this war is going to be easy. I love the way that the action shifts as we move between ordinary soldiers on both sides as well as between the major players – Flamininus, and his colleagues in the Senate, and King Philip. Flamininus in particular has long-term goals. He’s a strategist, working out the best way in which to achieve them. Soldiers like the Roman Felix and the Macedonian Demetrios have more immediate concerns – when they’ll be able to get some sleep, more food, how not to be afraid, how not to be killed. We’re given reasons to like both men and therefore both sides. I particularly enjoyed being shown how the Greek phalanx worked, their use of the spear, their formation and so on. There are some brilliant fight scenes in Clash of Empires. Ben Kane knows his subject inside out and we’re informed as well as entertained.

There are sequences here that are so exhilarating and thrilling, when our two sides come together, man against man. This is exciting stuff. There are other moments of incredible brutality, particularly in the Roman army. There is one moment in particular that is shocking. Ben Kane writes graphically, we’re not spared the details, and it is all the more compelling and immersive for it. Sometimes we see the same scene from different Greek and Roman perspectives as these two cultures come face to face.

The character of Flamininus is fascinating and through him we’re given an intriguing glimpse into the politics of Republican Rome. I really liked this mix of power politics with the nitty gritty of life and death on the frontline of war.

Clash of Empires is the first in a series and we’re left wanting more. Expect no resolution here. Instead we’re immersed in the beginnings of the final struggle between those two great powers of ancient Europe – Greece and Rome – and it is bloody, with disasters and very few triumphs on both sides. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Ben Kane’s last series, which began with Eagles at War, is superb and a very hard act to follow. Clash of Empires does the job brilliantly.

Other reviews
Hannibal: Enemy of Rome
Hannibal: Fields of Blood
Hannibal: Clouds of War
Spartacus
Spartacus: Rebellion
Eagles at War
Hunting the Eagles
Eagles in the Storm
(with others) A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii

The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden

Michael Joseph | 2018 (3 May) | 433p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Falcon of Sparta by Conn IgguldenIt is 401 BC. Darius, the King of Kings of Persia is dead, succeeded by his son Artaxerxes, who rules an empire that stretches from the Aegean to North India. He has kings and their armies in his power. He is king of over fifty million subjects. Every person brought into his presence must prostrate themselves before him, their faces in the dust. But there is one man who stands in Artaxerxes’ way – his younger brother Cyrus, the commander of their father’s armies. Cyrus only just escaped execution on Artaxerxes’ command when Darius was on his deathbed. Cyrus is now determined to make Artaxerxes pay. He will seize the throne and he will do it at the head of a mercenary army of 10,000 Greeks, at the core of which will be his Spartans, the most feared and resolute of all warriors.

After several books in which Conn Iggulden brought the Middle Ages and the Anglo-Saxon world to life, with his brilliant Wars of the Roses series followed by a novel on Saint Dunstan, this superb author now returns to the ancient world. For his inspiration he has taken Xenophon’s Anabasis, otherwise known as The Persian Expedition, which tells the extraordinary tale of the march of the ten thousand, one of whom was the Greek, Xenophon, who plays a critical role in The Falcon of Sparta.

The Falcon of Sparta is a triumph. I can even go so far as to say that it is the finest book that Conn Iggulden has written, which is quite a thing to say considering the quality of the books that he has given us over the years. Ancient Greek history isn’t my favourite topic for historical fiction but I put all of that to one side because this is a Conn Iggulden novel and I was gripped by the quality of the prose and the tension of an extraordinary opening scene between Darius and his young son Artaxerxes – I was hooked by the end of the very first page and that’s no exaggeration.

This is beautiful, descriptive writing and it’s supported by the author’s incredible insight, not only into the period but also into the motives of these historical figures. He understands what drives them. It’s an interpretation, after all so little is known about most of the characters in the novel, but it is wholly believable and consistent. I’m always amazed at how Conn Iggulden can do this with such a broad range of historical periods and figures. He takes us to the heart of the matter and wraps it up in tension, drama and the fiercest of action. He is a master storyteller and we see this at its very best in The Falcon of Sparta.

I’m reluctant to give anything away about what happens in The Falcon of Sparta beyond the bare bones of the opening paragraph of this review. This is because so much happens that is shocking and so engrossing. I’d even recommend that you don’t read the inside sleeve of the book. If you go into it not knowing what happens then you will be all the more spellbound by it. So much is invested in these characters, especially Prince Cyrus, his Spartan general Clearchus, and Tissaphernes. What these characters all go through is incredible. The nobility of the Spartans is actually quite frightening in its ruthlessness but Clearchus in particular is almost superhuman in his dedication to what drives him on.

The depiction of the Persian empire and its customs is riveting, especially the way in which tyranny and abuse is passed down through the levels of society. There are times when Cyrus wants nothing more than the simple if extreme life of a Spartan warrior but there’s no escape from his heritage and he, too, can be every bit as harsh as Artaxerxes and their father Darius. This is a throne built upon fratricide after all.

The descriptions of life on the march, especially over mountains controlled by lawless and brutal tribes, are fascinating and so well drawn. The battle scenes are thrilling, intensified by the author’s detailed knowledge about all aspects of warfare around the year 400 BC. The Falcon of Sparta is certainly informative but it is also extremely exciting.

I struggle to find the words to describe how magnificent this new standalone novel by Conn Iggulden is. The March of the Ten Thousand is an extraordinary tale from history, the perfect subject for a novel, and Iggulden breathes life into every step of it.

Other reviews
The Blood of Gods (Emperor V)
Stormbird (Wars of the Roses I)
Trinity (Wars of the Roses II)
Bloodline (Wars of the Roses III)
Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors (Wars of the Roses IV)
Dunstan

The Real Wonder Woman – guest post by Emily Hauser, author of For the Winner

Last month, Transworld published For the Winner by Emily Hauser. This is a fabulous novel – an interpretation of the Jason and the Golden Fleece myth that focuses on the extraordinary and unusual story of Atalanta, a female Argonaut. I’m delighted to host a guest post by Emily on an irresistible subject – ‘The Real Wonder Woman’.

For the Winner by Emily HausnerThe Real Wonder Woman

I went to see Wonder Woman in the cinema a few weeks ago. I loved it. It was brilliant. But as I watched the astonishing feats of the Amazons – named after a mythical tribe of warrior women first mentioned in an ancient Greek epic over 2,500 years ago – I thought that the fantasy powers granted to them in the film paled into insignificance when compared to the achievements of the real Amazons, the real Wonder Women of the ancient world.

As a scholar of the ancient world and an author of historical fiction, it’s my job to bring those real, powerful ancient women back into the foreground.

One of these Wonder Women of antiquity was Atalanta, an extraordinary woman and a warrior who lived over three thousand years ago in ancient Greece, not far from modern-day Thessaloniki. She was a self-taught warrior, the fastest runner in the world, one of the best archers of her time, and the only woman, according to history, to accompany Jason and the Argonauts on the legendary voyage of the Golden Fleece. And it’s the story of this extraordinary warrior – a Wonder Woman before her time – that I set out to tell in the second novel of the Golden Apple trilogy, For the Winner (Transworld 2017).

Atalanta is in many ways a forerunner of the character of Diana in DC Comics’ Wonder Woman. She was a formidable fighter, one of the greatest heroes of her generation, and yet she struggled to gain recognition and credibility as a woman. She was abandoned by her father, who (in Atalanta’s case) cast her out on a mountain to die because he had wanted a son and heir. She was a devotee of the goddess Artemis – the Greek goddess of the hunt who later, in the Roman world, would be called Diana.

But what I love most about Atalanta is that, in contrast to today’s Wonder Woman, she is entirely human. She does not need to rely on superpowers or her birthright as the daughter of a god to vanquish her enemies. Her strength comes from her own determination, her own training, her own will to survive. She fights in battles alongside heroes like Hercules and Theseus. She earns her place on the voyage with Jason and the Argonauts and travels to the ends of the earth, disguised as a man – and when she is discovered and exiled in the wildnerness, she refuses to give up. When she returns to Greece and her father – having recognised her at last – wants to force her to marry, she will only do so on her own terms. She demands that the man she will wed should outrun her in a footrace – which she believes will be impossible, until she makes a fatal mistake… And as Atalanta is forced to make a choice during that final footrace that will change her life forever, we see not only her strength, but also her courage as she faces all the odds and… you’ll have to read For the Winner to find out what happens next!

Wonder Woman is, without a doubt, a brilliant and necessary demonstration of the power of a female lead who does not need a man to survive; a woman who can fight as well as – if not better than – a man.

But the ancient Greeks got there first.

Reviews
For the Winner
For the Most Beautiful

For the Most Beautiful by Emily HauserGiveaway!
The giveaway has now closed and the winners have been contacted.

The publisher has kindly given me signed copies of For the Winner and its predecessor For the Most Beautiful to give away here and/or on Twitter. If you’d like to go into the hat, just let me know which you’d like in the comments below or retweet the post on Twitter, again saying which you’d like to go for. The deadline is this Friday (7 July) at 4pm (UK and Ireland entries only – sorry about that.).

For the Winner by Emily Hauser

Doubleday | 2017 (15 June) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

For the Winner by Emily HausnerWhen King Iasus of Pagasae ordered his newborn daughter to be exposed on the frozen rocks of Mount Pelion, he set in motion a series of events that not only threatened his own kingdom’s future but also the peace and order of the gods themselves. The baby, with only a medallion around her neck to hint at her true heritage, was rescued and adopted by a woodcutting man and his wife but, as the girl grew into a woman, it became increasingly clear to the family that loved her that Atalanta was destined for a great future. On learning the truth, having committed an extraordinary feat of daring and skill, Atalanta is determined to prove herself to the father who discarded her like rubbish on the mountainside.

Atalanta learns that King Iasus has sent his nephew Jason on a formidable yet glorious mission – to sail with a band of Greek heroes aboard the Argo to claim the legendary Golden Fleece from the distant land of Colchis. His reward will be the kingdom of Pagasae. But Atalanta is determined to win that throne for herself. And to do that this formidable young woman must earn a place among the Argonauts and steal the Golden Fleece for herself. But this is no mortals’ game. The gods watch the affairs of men from the blissful gardens and pools of Olympus and they are more than ready to take sides. Each of them has a favourite; the rest must suffer the tempests of divine disfavour. But even the gods can’t have everything their own way. For the winner, the stakes will be very high indeed.

In For the Winner, Emily Hausner once again returns to the pre-classical world of Greek myth and legend. This is the age of heroes and mighty quests, when gods walked the earth and meddled in the affairs of men, and centaurs and other strange creatures did their bidding. In her last novel For the Most Beautiful, Emily Hausner portrayed the Trojan War, focusing on the women, both divine and mortal, who steered its course. In For the Winner it’s the story of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest to steal the Golden Fleece. But once again, Hausner examines a well-known legend from an unusual and female perspective, this time focusing on Atalanta, one of the lesser known Argonauts but an extraordinary woman of her time.

Much of the novel follows Atalanta on her adventures with the Argonauts and it’s an astonishing tale of larger-than-life heroes and their mighty ambition. The ultimate affront is a woman daring to pretend to be a man to sail with them. Their outrage can be nothing but calamitous. But Atalanta is a woman set on her course, in pursuit of justice and vengeance, and she will endure whatever obstacles the gods put in her path. And there are plenty of those. Throughout the novel are chapters which take us to the playworld of the gods and what a capricious bunch of gods they are. But in this novel, their scheming is held in check by the influence of Iris, one of the ‘lesser’ yet undoubtedly powerful gods, who also has her eye on Atalanta.

I wasn’t sure about how well the gods worked as a device in the previous novel For the Most Beautiful. But I have no such concerns with For the Winner, possibly due to the extremely successful and calming influence of Iris, who serves as an effective bridge between the mortal and the divine. They still have comic value but it’s not overpowering and I thoroughly enjoyed these diversions – I particularly liked Zeus. King of the gods he might be, but somebody needs to tell the other gods.

For the Winner isn’t a novel about Jason and the Golden Fleece, it’s about Atalanta. I enjoyed the glimpses we’re given of Jason’s cruel character and I was gripped by the scenes aboard the Argo (and did wish that we saw something of Medea), but our attention stays with Atalanta and she deserves it. She’s a woman of her age, fighting against it, but she’s also easy for us to empathise with. But it’s wonderful how Emily Hauser brings alive this Bronze Age world of ancient Greece, with its walled towns and rural settlements, its sea passages and its fundamental beliefs in the gods and fates. Women, obviously, don’t fare too well, barely treated better than slaves, and so Atalanta’s story is all the more extraordinary and powerful. We’re behind her on every stage of her perilous journey.

Emily Hausner is a classics scholar and clearly knows her subject, bringing the time and its people and places to life, but she also writes beautifully. This is immersive writing, marvellously descriptive and evocative, and the voyage itself is thrilling from the outset. The dialogue and narrative feels natural yet reminiscent in some ways of the great classics, particularly Homer, but it isn’t laboured. It feels right. I enjoyed For the Most Beautiful but For the Winner is a great step forward – an elegant, exciting and in some ways moving story of Atalanta’s adventure to steal back her fate from man and gods.

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For the Most Beautiful

For the Most Beautiful – an interview with author Emily Hauser

For the Most Beautiful by Emily HauserThis week, Doubleday publishes the really rather gorgeous debut novel by Emily Hauser, For the Most Beautiful – a memorable account of the Trojan War, written from the point of view of not only some of the leading women caught in the conflict but also of the gods themselves. You can read my review here. I was delighted to be asked to take part in the blog tour to celebrate the publication, which gave me the perfect excuse to put some questions to Emily. Here Emily talks about her inspiration for the novel, her different take on the Trojan War, the role of the gods in this human story, the challenges of writing historical fiction and the writers that have influenced her. Thanks so much to Emily for taking the time to answer my questions.

Congratulations on For the Most Beautiful, I read it in a single day – a captivating read! What inspired you to write about the legend of Troy and, out of all the characters available, why did you choose to focus on the two women, Krisayis and Briseis?

Thank you so much! The inspiration for For the Most Beautiful came during a class at Yale, when we were asked to read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, a re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, and I thought, “Why has nobody done this for the Iliad?” I was instantly drawn to re-telling the story of Troy from the female perspective because it’s a story we so often associate with men – Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, and all the other heroes of Homer’s Iliad – and I wanted to change that, to bring the women to the fore. Few people actually realise that there are in fact two women who are absolutely crucial to the action: Briseis, princess of Pedasus, and Krisayis (spelled Chryseis in the Iliad), daughter of the High Priest of Troy. Their capture, and the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon that erupts over their return, sets off the entire chain of events that becomes the Iliad of Homer. I wanted to show that there is more to this legendary war than just the battle exploits of the male heroes – that, in fact, these two women were at the very heart of the action, and that it was their choices and their intrigues and relationships that really brought about the siege and fall of Troy.

The fall of Troy is a well-known story. How did you make your version of it feel fresh and different?

I think the fact that so few people are aware of the stories of Briseis and Krisayis meant that I could bring a very new perspective to the age-old story of Troy. I really focused in my retelling on exploring the inner lives of my characters – I have endless character sheets, sketches and maps of their story arcs – so that, hopefully, the two women really leap off the page, and readers can really identify with them and their stories. I wanted to bring them alive, to show that people in Bronze Age Troy really weren’t as different from us as we think they were. I believe that there are traits we share, as human beings, across time – love, passion, violence, the search for meaning – and it is these timeless themes that I tried to bring to life through my characters as I wrote.

The novel contains an intriguing mix of ancient history and fantasy. How difficult was it to make this world feel real while still keeping its almost magical air of mystery and myth?

Interestingly, it was only at the moments of intersection and cross-over between the mortal and immortal worlds that this became a challenge. Originally I intended the gods and the humans to stay quite separate, so that the realm of the gods on Mount Olympus, with its fantastical cloud-palaces and ambrosia-eating divinities, could exist quite happily apart from the real, bloody, war-torn humans of the Trojan plain. But as the novel progressed I could see the mortals and the gods coming closer and closer together, and I knew that eventually they would have to meet. The challenge was simultaneously to bring alive for the reader that ancient unquestioning belief in the gods that the Trojans would have felt, as almost a permanent, geological part of the landscape, at the same time as conveying the sense of shock and disjunction which the characters must have naturally felt when those two worlds collide. For me, it was the small markers of human physicality which were useful for making this separation: on Olympus, for example – as in Homer – the gods cannot eat human food. Back on the mortal plane, I tried to give as much detailing of physical objects as I could – clay pots, lamps, bronze cauldrons, woollen skirts – to create a sharp and tangible contrast with the sheer, cloud-like immateriality of the Olympian realm.

The novel doesn’t just focus on mortals, but also on the gods. Why did you choose to include the gods as characters?

You know, the gods weren’t originally a part of the book, but after writing a few chapters I realised that they had to be there. The first reason is a very simple one – that they’re a major part of Homer’s epic, and, more importantly, of his world. Although many modern authors who have reworked the Iliad have chosen to omit the gods – Simon Armitage’s The Last Days of Troy is a notable exception – I felt that the gods were so central to Homer, as well as to the Greeks and Trojans and their view of their world, that to omit them would be to miss half of what the legend of the Trojan War is about.

Then, of course, there are the reasons which critics and scholars often cite with reference to the Iliad: first, the contrast between the mortal and immortal planes; and, second, the necessary relief which the scenes on Olympus provide. In a story filled with war, death and loss, in which my protagonists suffered terrible traumas from witnessing their husbands killed before their eyes to being faced with near-rape, I found that the gods provided an important break in the relentless narrative march towards the inevitable sack of Troy. Moreover, the contrast between their frivolous immortal existence on Olympus and the deep emotions and attachments forged by their human counterparts serves – at least I hope it does – to throw the fears and losses endured by mortals into a sharper and more poignant relief. The immortals play their trivial games with human fate, but they never quite understand the importance of mortality and a sense of urgency of being alive – all these things that lead us to have passions, emotions, love – that make life worth living.

Considering how the gods misused humans, could Paris have made any other choice?

That’s a really interesting and important question. It is, in fact, something which lies at the heart of my second book, For the Winner, so I won’t say too much – except that I think that it depends on if you think the gods are able to understand human desires…

Would you like to write more novels set in ancient Greek legend and/or history?

Yes, absolutely! For the Most Beautiful is the first in a series called the Golden Apple trilogy, all centred around retelling the legends of the mythical golden apples. The second book, For the Winner, is set around twenty years before the time of the Trojan War and retells the legendary myth of Atalanta – a young woman and a warrior, who set out along with Jason and the Argonauts on the legendary voyage to capture the Golden Fleece.

Is there another historical period that appeals to you?

I love ancient Rome (if it’s not cheating too much to choose another period within classical antiquity!). There’s something about the urbanity of imperial Rome, its sex, its vices, its intrigues, that is wonderfully compelling. I was fortunate enough to participate in an archaeological dig a few years ago in Pompeii and I adored wandering through the ruins of the ancient city in the morning before the tourists arrived, imagining the early morning salutatio, the clients outside the doors, the slaves running to and fro from the public fountains… But who knows, maybe I’ll come across a fascinating story from another time period just waiting to be told!

Which authors have inspired you to write?

Robert Graves was probably my first inspiration. I was given I, Claudius when I was about ten and read and re-read it incessantly – it was from around then that I think I decided that I wanted to write something like it, something that could bring the classical past alive. Philippa Gregory was also a very formative influence for me, with her ability to retell history from a female perspective: reading her books, particularly The Constant Princess, I began to see that there was a different history, a different story just waiting to be told.

What’s your favourite novel of 2015?

Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling. I found Kelsea Glynn, the protagonist, to be refreshingly spunky and down-to-earth, and I enjoyed following her progression through the novel from insecure girl to fully-fledged queen.

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Thanks so much to Emily! For further stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below, a thing of beauty in itself.

For the Most Beautiful Blog Tour

For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser

For the Most Beautiful | Emily Hauser | 2016 | Doubleday | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

For the Most Beautiful by Emily HauserMortals 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.