THE GRYPHON'S SKULL
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Gryphon’s Skull is the second historical novel from the pen of H.N. Turteltaub to deal with the merchant cousins Menedemos and Sostratos from fourth century Rhodes. While Over the Wind-Dark Sea saw the cousins trying their luck with exotic cargo in distant Italia, Gryphon’s Skull is a tour of the Aegean as the clouds of war threaten to arise between Alexander the Great’s successors, Ptolemaios and Antigonos. Despite their best endeavors to avoid the war, the two traders find themselves drawn into it in ways they hope they can turn to their advantage.
The book’s title comes from a skull Sostratos, the more intellectual cousin, purchases which he believes to be the remains of an actual gryphon. His goal throughout the book, and much to the consternation of Menedemos, is to travel to Athens to present the skull to the philosophers of either the Lykeion or the Academy. His plans are constantly sidelined, however, by the more prosaic decisions made by Menedemos as captain of the Aphrodite.
As with Over the Wine-Dark Sea, Gryphon’s Skull is more an episodic novel than a plotted one, with the two traders dealing with merchants in a variety of Grecian settings and pirates and other hazards of sea travel. While Turteltaub placed them in a war situation in Syracuse and Pompeii in the earlier novel, this time he allows them to interact with some of the primary historical characters of the time, most notably Ptolemaios, who is settled on Kos, where they spend more time than they would like.
One of the strengths of Gryphon’s Skull is the depiction it provides of the post-Alexandrine period in the region, notably how quickly the empire Alexander managed to conquer collapsed. The cousins must be careful about where they travel in the relatively close confines of the Aegean, especially after they encounter Ptolomaios on Kos. The shifting political alliances mean that they have to worry about how various locals and rulers will view them. This further underscores the fact that in this age long before instantaneous communications, rumor and news were still able to circulate quite effectively.
The characters and their relationships to each other and better drawn in Gryphon’s Skull than in Over the Wine-Dark Sea, although at times they still appear rather more distant than, perhaps, they should. In fact, despite the weeks that Sostratos and Menedemos spend in each others company on their trade missions, the relationships that ring most true are between each of the traders and their fathers, whether it is the turbulence of Menedemos’ relationship with Philodemos or Sostratos’ more tranquil one with Lysistratos. Interestingly, these portions of the novel only form the beginning and ending chapters of the book.
Despite their encounters with pirates and politicians as well as storms, there is a notable lack of tension in the novel. The reader never really has any doubt that Sostratos and Menedemos will survive their adventures and the team will show a profit and deliver Sostratos’ cherished gryphon’s skull to Athens. Whether or not these expectations come to fruition is not important since the reader never really doubts they will happen. In the end, Turteltaub provides the reader with enough twists that expectations in future volumes, which are set up at the end of Gryphon’s Skull may lead to an heightened tension about the duo’s success.
The lack of plot in Gryphon’s Skull is not as much of a problem as it might have been in other novels. Both Sostratos and Menedemos are provided with specific goals to accomplish, as well as responsibilities whether for maintaining the accounts or deciding the best route to take. While each episode can stand on its own, taken with the episodes which precede them, they do build to a greater understanding of the characters and the cultural situation of ancient Greece.
Gryphon’s Skull is an enjoyable look at a period which is frequently ignored for the flashier time it succeeded. Turteltaub breathes life into both the period and the people who populated it, from the powerful Ptolemaios down to the hermit-like resident of Patmos. The dichotomy between Menedemos and Sostratos means that every reader should be able to sympathize with one of the other as they receive a painless lesson in history.
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