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Black Ships
Jo Graham
Orbit, 411 pages

Black Ships
Jo Graham
Jo Graham lives in Maryland with her family, and has worked in politics for many years. Black Ships is her debut novel.

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A review by Dustin Kenall

Arma virumque cano ("I sing of arms and a man") begins Virgil's Aeneid, the epic tale of Rome's founding (ab urbe condita). Composed at the birth of the Golden Age under Emperor Octavian Augustus when the Eagle's banner soared over not only the Mediterranean but wide swathes of Western Europe, the Levant, North Africa, and the Balkans, the epic verse poem sought to remind cynical, cosmopolitan citizens of Imperial Rome's mythical genesis in the devastation of Troy and flight of its everyday exiles to Latium -- an exodus story accomplished not through heroic Homeric valor but the simple Republican virtues of piety to the gods, fidelity to ancestors, perseverance, and honor. The Aeneid is the rare instance of an author's shameless political pandering producing pure art: a masterwork mentioned in the same breath as Milton's Paradise Lost, Dante's Divine Comedy, and Homer's Illiad and Odyssey. Read it in the original Latin if you can or as rendered into English by Robert Fagles in his exquisite translation.

You can also, now, read a prose reinterpretation of the myth in Jo Graham's new evocatively titled, debut novel Black Ships. As seen through the eyes of Gull, a seer or Pythia of the Lady of Death, the story of Prince Aeneas of Troy (son of Aphrodite, "Pious Aeneas" to Virgil, familiarly "Neas" to Graham) unfolds in accessible prose that is a model of clarity and swift pacing. In the opening lines of the book, Gull instructs us: "You must know that, despite all else I am, I am of the People." This deftly sets the focus of the book. Whereas the Aeneid takes the perspective of a single individual, Black Ships zooms out to encompass the wider Mediterranean world at the end of the Bronze Age when some cataclysm (volcano, earthquake, mass immigration, technological change) shook the Ancient Classical world to its roots, inaugurating a mini-Dark Age of piracy, dislocation, and the eclipse of trade and learning. This is not the age of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus but the twilight times of which they wrote in their tragedies of regicide, incest, matricide, and madness, when the Mycenaean civilization so triumphant in the Trojan war returned home to discover all the bounties of war tasting like so much ash in their mouths.

Graham neatly suffuses her tale of the Trojan exiles with this Weltschmerz. In a trance possessed by the Goddess, Gull cries out the sin of Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia and the subsequent curse of the house of Atreus: "Black Ships. Fire. I have traveled before, from the islands and the lands that lie beneath the waves. I will not stay here, for darkness is upon the land and the blood of the young doe cries out against the hands of her father, slain to raise the wind!" Throughout, Gull is distressed by the culture of piracy in which one people would "trade our lamentations for theirs, and other women would weep, other cities burn, other parents seek their children in vain. And so it goes on, spiraling downward into the dark, deeper with every year." In a sense, Graham's story of the founding of Rome, then, mirrors that of the founding of America. A new people setting out to create a new world, based on plenty rather than privation, hope not predation.

At its most basic, Black Ships is a travelogue. We begin with Gull in the Island of Pylos, her mother raped and enslaved by the conquering Greeks, apportioned to the King of Pylos to serve as a flax gatherer. After a cart lames her, Gull is apprenticed to the Pythia, a seer who lives in a cave and serves the Lady of the Underworld. After a dawn raid, Gull joins with the Battlestar Galactica-esque remnant of the nation of Troy, seven ships and a few hundred souls, searching for a new home. They stop in a mercantile city-state to perform escort service for some cash, visit Byblos a great city of Lebanon, and tarry in the Black Land, Egypt of Rameses III, where Neas must conquer his own Circe, an Egyptian princess with severe bipolar disorder.

Graham peppers her characters' journey with little hidden historical references, creation stories if you will, about Roman military practice, Pompeii, Romulus and Remus. The characterization is not as supple as it could be: those who should be noble are (and made more so by their self-doubt) and those who should be loyal remain so. Graham's prose could benefit from more attention to the varieties of style and tone. One purpose of a historical fiction epic or fantasy is to juxtapose gritty realist depictions of past lives with sublime landscapes of human and natural myth and meaning but Graham maintains a fairly monotonous posture throughout. A story about deeds performed over 3000 years ago should feel more alien, or at least be bereft of such banal declarations as "Great Lady, protect these men I love."

On the margins, however, one sees promise: what few lyrical passages there are, are not overwritten but just right ("The soldiers took her in the front room of the house while her father's body cooled in the street outside." ). Also, some side characters are left intriguingly underdeveloped (Ashterah, the Egyptian boy-girl priest who a captain falls in love with; Neoptolemos, an Achaian raider who here plays the villain but in a story told from the Greek's side, might be the tragic hero of his times; and Gull's Pythia mentor, a dry-witted, austere former princess). Additionally, the opening scenes of Gull's life with her mother as a slave in a flax plantation are simultaneously bucolic and terrible, allusive of a contemporary analogue in the South's own peculiar institution, just like good historical fiction should be. The empathetic detail is reminiscent of Pearl Buck (an avowed influence of Graham). One wonders if this grand adventure in nation building was a distraction from a more intimate story that followed the lives of commoners instead of kings, a Trojan Pig Earth.

But none of these defects should overshadow the simple (pious?) virtue of a novel that reworks one of the grandest tales of antiquity for a modern, general audience. If one out of five people who read Black Ships goes on to read or re-read The Aeneid, then Graham will be more responsible for the promotion of high culture than many the scribblings of the average dusty academic.

Copyright © 2009 Dustin Kenall

Dustin Kenall is a lawyer working and blogging in DC. Accordingly, if at any given moment he's not reading or writing, it's probably because he's unconscious. His blog,, is always wide awake, though.

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