Tag Archives: Greece

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: 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)

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.

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.

Other review
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.

Buy the book

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.

The Oracle by D.J. Niko

The Oracle | D.J. Niko | 2015 | Medallion Press | 362p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Oracle by D.J. NikoIt is AD 393 and time has run out for the pagan gods of Greece. The new god’s priests and agents are ready to pursue the followers of the old faiths to the end of the earth, particularly determined to destroy forever the centre of the ancient world – Delphi and its Oracle of Apollo. The last priestess of Delphi, Aristea, brutalised and desperate, is on the run, having escaped from her captors. Her goal is a cave tucked away in the mountains above Delphi. The cave is opened and closed using a locking mechanism triggered by a brass stake or obelisk. Hidden inside the cave are the wonders of the temple, including something especially precious and important, an object that men will kill to obtain. It is there that Aristea believes she will be safe.

Many lifetimes later, in the present day, English archaeologist Sarah Weston and her American partner Daniel Madigan are excavating a Mycenaean tomb near Delphi. The local archaeological museum is full of fabulous artefacts but, when thieves break in one night, they ignore all of this, instead ransacking the case in which a brass obelisk is kept. Just as well, then, that the object is currently backstage undergoing study. A guard is killed that night. The thieves are ruthless. Sarah and Daniel are not intimidated. They’ve been in dangerous situations before. And so, following the clues, especially the obelisk, they uncover a trail that leads to the cave and beyond, across Greece and further afield. As Sarah and Daniel slowly learn what it is they’re searching for, they realise that they could be out of their depth. The ancient gods might not be dead at all. Someone, it seems, is determined to bring them back to life in all their vengeful glory.

The Oracle is the third of D.J. Niko’s Sarah Weston Chronicles. As soon as I finished the first, The Tenth Saint, I read the second, and I knew that this is a series I’ll follow. It’s been quite a long wait but it’s been well worth it. The Oracle demonstrates yet again that D.J. Niko very definitely knows her stuff. She is able to draw on detailed and illuminating research to add an authenticity to her thrillers that makes them very rewarding to read, at no cost to their thrills. D.J. Niko doesn’t just know her history, she also knows her locations inside out. As Sarah and Daniel scour the hillsides around Delphi, you can almost imagine yourself with them. The descriptions of the archaeological sites ring true and the explanation and discussion of old artefacts, religions or philosophies is done in such a clever way that you’re gripped. Back that up with some dramatic chases across Greece and beyond, and throw into the mix some deliciously bad baddies – as well as heroic goodies – and it’s clear that D.J. Niko has discovered the key for writing clever archaeological mysteries that entertain and conscientiously inform at the same time. No mean feat.

Perhaps the only slight issue I have with the series is its ongoing saga of Sarah and Daniel’s relationship. As in previous books, there is plenty of distrust between the two, as well as misunderstandings and bad communication. I hope that these problems have now been resolved and, in future books, they can move on. Far more interesting is the relationship between Sarah and her father, which is barely touched upon here but is very intriguing. I was rather surprised, though, by the rather brusque treatment of the relationship between Daniel and his father. But these are incidental concerns. The emphasis throughout, at least in the reader’s mind, is the mystery and danger at hand and in this nothing disappoints.

Story lines alternate throughout, bringing to the fore the lost pagan world of Aristea. I loved these chapters. They strongly evoke a long gone time and place, that must have seemed old even during the late 4th century AD when the scenes are set. Aristea’s story is every bit as exciting as Sarah and Daniel’s. I also enjoyed the fact that very little is clear cut. Paganism and Christianity aren’t treated as being either good or bad, just as not all of the baddies were always bad. As for the mystery itself, I was kept guessing. It is so good to read an archaeological thriller series as intelligent and well-researched as this one. Throughout it all, our heroine Sarah Weston knows exactly what the most important thing is – the archaeology. I like that.

Other reviews
The Tenth Saint
An interview with D.J. Niko