Black Ships: Cross the wine-dark sea with Gull — you won’t regret it

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Jo Graham Black ShipsBlack Ships by Jo Graham

There’s nothing I love so much as sinking into a big fat book that combines the sweep of history with a dash of magic. This book is an adaptation of The Aeneid, from the point of view of the Sybil who, in the poem, guides Aeneas through the underworld.

She’s a lot more fleshed out here. Her name is Gull, later known as Linnea and as Pythia, and jumps off the page from the very beginning of chapter one with a self-introduction that reminded me a bit of Phèdre’s at the beginning of Kushiel’s Dart. The wording and the voice are different, but it’s the same sort of introduction: This is me. This is who I am. Take me or leave me — and if you take me, I’ve got a damn good story to tell you.

Gull is the daughter of a Trojan slave. When she is crippled in an accident, her mother realizes she’ll be seen as a useless mouth to King Nestor. She takes the girl to be apprenticed to Pythia, an oracle and priestess of Persephone, the Lady of the Dead. In time Gull succeeds to the role of Pythia herself, and it seems that she will spend the rest of her life prophesying from her remote cave. Fate, however, has other plans.

Aeneas and his ragged band of refugees from Troy arrive to raid Nestor’s palace, and Gull’s life is forever changed.
(Oh, I should explain that Jo Graham posits two separate Trojan Wars in this tale. Gull’s mother was abducted in the first; Aeneas fled the city in the second.)
The novel follows Aeneas, Gull, and Aeneas’s courageous and sexy captain, Xandros, as they search for a place to call home.

To me, one of the major themes of Black Ships is being human in a world that calls for larger-than-life gods and heroes. You see it with Gull, who operates within a strict set of rules as a priestess, and then throughout the story breaks most of them when the will of the Goddess or the needs of her people demand flexibility. You see it with Neas, whose father is constantly exhorting him to act in a more regal fashion. One of my favorite bits is when Gull is examining the cave near Vesuvius that she will use for the ritual of descent into the underworld, musing about how much work it will take to prepare it — and yet, though she works hard to ready the cave, when the ritual occurs it is governed by forces beyond her human control. I liked the contrast between the human and divine here.

The other major theme is love, and how these three flawed and scarred people find it with each other. I love that you can’t clearly say “this character is gay, that one is straight.” What it really comes down to is that these three people have a bond that transcends all categories. They’re just… well, when reading this book I just can’t imagine any of them without the other two.

Black Ships is a beautiful book, and I loved every minute of it. I just wish it had been longer.

(And, y’know, I really ought to go read The Aeneid. I never did read the whole thing, though I was supposed to for class once, and Jo Graham has made me more intrigued by it.)

~Kelly Lasiter


book review Jo Graham Black ShipsAfter hearing so many of my fellow FanLit reviewers sing the praises of Jo Graham’s debut novel Black Ships, and getting similarly glowing reviews from my sister, I borrowed her copy and settled down to see what all the fuss was about. I don’t have anything new to say about the plot that hasn’t been summarized in the other reviews, so instead I’ll focus on my reaction to this novel.

I have to say: this book was not oversold. The story lived and breathed, bringing the last days of the Age of Bronze into full vibrant detail. Graham has a real gift for writing descriptive prose. She manages to bring Greece and Egypt to life again. I could smell the sea salt, and feel the warmth of the Mediterranean sun baking into my bones. Graham did copious amounts of research for this book, and it shows because the cultures feel right down to the detail level. It was jarring to me when I realized how young the main character, Gull, is through most of the story, but the hefty responsibilities she shouldered would have been realistic for the society in which she lived.

I got Black Ships from my sister right before I started getting a steady stream of ARCs in the mail. I would end up reading a few pages in between the other ARCs. Unlike most books that you read in bits and pieces, I never had to go back and reread a section to catch up. Black Ships is so memorable that returning to it was like stepping back into another world and having it pick up right where you left off.

I can highly recommend Black Ships, and am looking forward to the other books following the stories of Gull through other lifetimes. Probably even more importantly, I am going to pick up a copy of the Aeneid and read the classic poem that Graham used as inspiration, something my history professor never managed to get me to do.

~Ruth Arnell


Black Ships by Jo Graham fantasy book reviewsVirgil’s Aeneid has had new life breathed into it by a number of authors and translators of late. First, Robert Fagles offered his new translation in 2006, to much acclaim. Then, Ursula K. LeGuin and Jo Graham offered their fictional renderings of different portions of Aeneas’s life almost simultaneously. In Black Ships, Jo Graham writes of the hero Aeneas’s search for a new home for his people, the survivors of the fall of Troy; and Ursula K. LeGuin takes up almost exactly where Graham leaves off in Lavinia, written from the perspective of Aeneas’s new wife in his new home.

Black Ships is told from the perspective of someone we first meet as a girl named Gull, the daughter of a woman stolen from Troy when it fell and made a slave by the Achaians. She is born from a rape, but her mother loves her no less for that. Still, her mother is unable to save her when a chariot passes through, running over Gull’s leg and crippling her, making her unfit to work the flax fields. Gull’s mother therefore dedicates her to Pythia, the goddess of the dead, and it quickly becomes apparent that Gull does, in fact, have the gift of prophecy.

Gull becomes Linnea, apprenticed to the woman who then serves as Pythia and learning the ways of the goddess. It is a quiet life until the day the nine black ships arrive, a day that changes everything. Linnea meets Aeneas and becomes his Sybil, guiding him through angry seas, unknown islands, difficult diplomacy, war, and a doomed love affair. Only a girl herself, she nonetheless finds her own way, her own strength, and her own love.

Black Ships is painstakingly researched and thoroughly thought out, with some details from The Aeneid changed in order to make historical sense. I enjoyed reading about historical bits and pieces such as what the characters ate, how warfare was actually waged, how ships worked and what ancient religions were actually like. The characters are reasonably well-drawn, if perhaps almost universally too good to be true. One does wonder why Aeneas is always willing to drop everything and mobilize an army on the word of an 18-year-old girl, but after Aeneas has a bit of experience with Sybil’s power, it only makes sense to listen to her. The picture of Sybil’s own love affair with her chosen mate is drawn well enough that it brought me close to tears at the end of the book. As to the inevitable comparison with LeGuin: LeGuin is a master craftswoman, who has been writing for decades. Lavinia is a beautiful book, telling an altogether different story. Read it, too.

~Terry Weyna

Black Ships — (2008) Publisher: The world is ending. One by one the mighty cities are falling, to earthquakes, to flood, to raiders on both land and sea. In a time of war and doubt, Gull is an oracle. Daughter of a slave taken from fallen Troy, chosen at the age of seven to be the voice of the Lady of the Dead, it is her destiny to counsel kings. When nine black ships appear, captained by an exiled Trojan prince, Gull must decide between the life she has been destined for and the most perilous adventure — to join the remnant of her mother’s people in their desperate flight. From the doomed bastions of the City of Pirates to the temples of Byblos, from the intrigues of the Egyptian court to the haunted caves beneath Mount Vesuvius, only Gull can guide Prince Aeneas on his quest, and only she can dare the gates of the Underworld itself to lead him to his destiny. In the last shadowed days of the Age of Bronze, one woman dreams of the world beginning anew. This is her story.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit’s staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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2 comments

  1. This sounds interesting! Putting it on my ever-growing list of “books I plan to check out if I ever get through my TBR stacks”

  2. Glad you liked it. It was slower paced than Hands, but they were both worth the reading time. I’m looking forward to the next one.

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