This month’s TBR Challenge theme was much-hyped books; this doesn’t really qualify, except in a personal sense. I loved meeting Carrie Vaughn at RomCon in the summer of 2010, and finding out that she had written a book with its roots in the Trojan War was exciting. When I got one of the free copies, and a had a minute while getting it signed to hear some of the author’s enthusiasm, I couldn’t wait to get it home and read it. But it turned out to be the wrong time for me to read this book, despite the fact that it hits so many of my “yes, please!” buttons. And so it has sat for more than three years, until I decided that I’d challenge myself to read it in place of the “hyped” books that I don’t appear to have sitting in my TBR pile.
Evie Walker has come home to Fort Collins, Colorado, because her father is dying. He has metastasized prostate cancer (the disease that killed my own father in February of 2010; hence my inability to read this book for so long). He is refusing any treatment other than pain medication, which means that he probably won’t live very much longer. Evie wants to help him, even though she is unhappy with him for not seeking more aggressive treatment; he wants her there not only because he loves her and wants to spend time with her before he dies, but also because she has a strange but important inheritance awaiting her.
For many generations, a member of Evie’s family has been the guardian of a storehouse of mythic treasures: the Golden Fleece, Persephone’s uneaten pomegranate seeds, Cinderella’s glass slippers, and many more. Including the ones most important in this book: the apple of Discord (which basically started the Trojan War) and Excalibur. People come looking for these treasures, and sometimes it is right to hand them over, and sometimes NOT. Keeping them safe and releasing them to the right people is Evie’s father’s job; when he dies, it will be hers. Whether she wants it or not.
Evie is a comic book writer; she writes about a kick-ass bunch of special forces agents. The book is set in a near future that’s kind of frighteningly believable — terrorism in the US has led to the rise of local militias that turn large urban areas into domestic war zones and make people in more rural areas suspicious of travelers and strangers. The world is on the brink of nuclear war, with allegiances shifting in response to acts of terror around the globe. In short, there’s a lot of discord, with the potential for global destruction; setting the apple loose in the world would almost certainly result in destruction on an even larger scale than Troy.
Into Evie and her father’s world come some characters out of myth: Hera, the Greek goddess, wife of Zeus; Merlin and Arthur, who has been brought back to meet Britain’s great peril; and some others. There’s also Alex, an ancient, mysterious (at first) stranger, to whom Evie is attracted, whose story I won’t spoil with any more details. Through flashbacks, we learn more about Alex, about the history of the Walker family, and about how those tie in with huge events that have shaped the world. Meanwhile in the main “present day” timeline, Evie, her father, and Alex, eventually aided by Merlin and Arthur, work to stop Hera and her various minions from taking the apple and creating even more discord in the world. The ending is one I didn’t see coming in many ways, but it absolutely makes sense and feels satisfying.
So what did I love about this book? First and foremost, GREEK MYTHS! I’ve been a student of ancient Greek mythology since the fourth grade (that’s age 10), because that’s when I had a school textbook for literature class that explored them. (It also tied into a science class where we looked at constellations — great integration!) I am fascinated by the Greek notion of gods as no more noble than humans, just more powerful, and of course the Trojan War saga is at the heart of all of that. There was more explanation of who’s who and what’s what in the book than I needed, but I didn’t mind it — it was entertaining, and worked into the story well enough. I think there was enough there for a reader without much beyond general awareness of the Olympic pantheon and the basic idea of the Trojan War to appreciate the story, but of course I can’t be sure.
Add Arthur to this mix and I’m done for, even though this is Arthur away from the other aspects of his story. Arthurian retellings are another passion of mine, and this one is bit more fun and light-hearted than most, since it’s after all the Morte d’Arthur stuff. And for all that this book explores serious themes and puts the characters in difficult, threatening situations, it does maintain that layer of enjoyable entertainment. A lot like one of Evie’s comics would, or at least that’s the experience I have when I read action comics. Vaughn’s other books are a pair of superhero novels (that I am definitely going to read) and a lengthy urban fantasy series about Kitty Norville, a werewolf late night disc jockey. Knowing that made me expect a lighter tone going into this book, and that’s what I found. There are life-and-death events, and decisions and challenges on a world-saving scale, but while there are sad, tender, suspenseful and sexy moments, it somehow never stops being fun.
I love books that connect myths and legends from different traditions into one big story. A tapestry, if you will. A Twitter conversation while I was working on this review had me explaining my love for Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy of books that does a similar thing, albeit in many more serious, lyrical, complex pages. I’m not saying that this book is a “Fionavar Lite,” but both books are written in the tradition of connecting our present to our past and our varying pasts to each other for a worldview that unites normally disparate elements of human history and belief.
Also, amazingly, this is a stand-alone novel of fewer than 400 pages — not an epic, not part of a trilogy or series. In my recent fantasy reading, that’s worth remarking on.
**In the interest of full disclosure: Ms Vaughn and I are alumni of the same undergraduate institution, albeit more than a dozen years apart. Other than meeting her for a panel at RomCon as described above, and writing her a quick note4 about this book which she graciously acknowledged, I have not interacted with her. I don’t follow her on Twitter and we aren’t Facebook friends.