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Favorites from the Archives: Jo Graham – Black Ships

November 12, 2012

So this week got unexpectedly busy, with the upshot that last weekend was spent alternately frantically working and nursing a cold, instead of relaxing and reading and writing blog posts for this week. Instead I’m going to re-post some older reviews from my archives. I’m picking books that I loved, but that aren’t as well known as I think they should be.

18. Black Ships by Jo Graham (2008)

Length: 448 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction; Fantasy (so says the cover, but apart from some religious mysticism, it’s not really what I’d call fantasy)

Started: 06 February 2008
Finished: 09 February 2008
The original post is here.

“The world has ended. And I don’t know why I yet live.”
“You live… because the world ends and then begins.”

Summary: The Trojan war marked the beginning of a time of great upheaval, with the great cities falling, vast numbers of people either killed or dispossessed and homeless, and the old world going up in the smoke of raiders’ fires. Into this world is born Gull, the daughter of a Trojan woman brought to Greece as a slave. When she is young, she becomes an acolyte to Pythia, the handmaiden of the Lady of the Dead. On her sixteenth birthday, Gull sees black ships sail into the harbor – Prince Aeneas and his warships, the people of her blood, come to wreak revenge and reclaim their kinsmen from slavery. She makes her choice and leaves with them, where she – and her Lady – must help to guide the straggling remnants of a people across the sea, to Byblos, Egypt, and beyond, through a world that is failing around them, struggling to find a future and a home.

Review: I’m having a hard time finding words that can do justice to how much I enjoyed this book. I’ve never read the Aeneid, which is this book’s inspiration, but taking the story of Black Ships on its own merits, it’s wonderful. To see how people react to the world almost literally falling apart around them… it’s an incredible period of history, this turning point, the falling into a Dark Age, and it’s one I’d never considered before. Guiding us through this world is Gull, whose voice is strong and beautiful, but still recognizable and immediate – the motivations of all of the characters are familiar and believable, and they are relatable as young people doing their best to find a future in an uncertain world. I thought the religious aspects added a complex touch as well, bringing in the mysticism that we associate with that time period, without overplaying it or stretching credibility too far.

However, as much as I loved the characters and the story, what tipped this book into five-star territory for me was the writing. It’s deceptively simple and unobtrusive, but at the same time, I found it achingly beautiful and incredibly haunting. I can’t describe it any better than to say that it was the kind of writing that seemed to expand inside my chest, grabbing my heart and making it hard to breathe, even at parts that wouldn’t ordinarily be particularly emotionally stirring. The writing fit the subject and the narrator perfectly, and vice versa. It’s not a match that comes along often, and to find it in a debut novel blew me away. 5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Highly recommended. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure, but anyone with even a vague interest in historical fiction, Mists of Avalon-type fantasy, or the ancient world should definitely seek this one out.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Back to Books, Fantasy Cafe, The Literary Omnivore and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: You must know that, despite all else I am, I am of the People.


  • p. 111: “There were Kretan ships, many oared and swift, Achaian ships from half a dozen places, the swift dark ships of the ilsanders from Lazba with the eyes painted upon their prow that were like to the Wilusan ships, braod-beamed Tyrian merchant ships with two sails, and even the slender Egyptian ships, their lanteen sails looking odd to me.” – a triangular sail set on a long yard mounted at an angle on the mast, and running in a fore-and-aft direction
  • p. 136: “The effigy was carbed of fine stone and stood nearly twice a woman’s height, with painted staring eyes looking toward the sea. Her arms were raised stiffly, one holding a sistrum and the other a sheaf of grain, for in Byblos she reigns over more than the sea.” – an ancient Egyptian percussion instrument consisting of a looped metal frame set in a handle and fitted with loose crossbars that rattle when shaken.
  • p. 183: “Yellow hills rose gently, and beyond some little way what appeared to be the shadow of three perfectly even mountains, all beneath a sky of such piercing blue that I knew what the artists were thinking of when they colored blue faience.” – glazed earthenware or pottery, esp. a fine variety with highly colored designs.
  • p. 207: “I saw the sun flash on the golden serpent he wore bound to his brow, the uraeus, the symbol of kingship.” – the sacred asp as represented upon the headdress of divinities and royal personages of ancient Egypt.
  • p. 229: “I was served stuffed duckling with tender hearts of palm, seared fish upon a bed of melokhia greens, olives from Achaia, and mussels from the deeps of the sea.” – leaves of a plant from the Corchorus genus, which also produces jute fibers
  • p. 280: “‘But now I cannot eat and I am beautiful. And I cannot sleep, and my eyes are bister. I am holy and wondrous.’” – A grayish to yellowish brown.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2012 3:29 pm

    I still haven’t read the sequel to this book. I have an ARC of it and everything! Slacker…

    • November 19, 2012 8:25 am

      Kailana – Well, the good news is that it isn’t a direct sequel, but you should still read it; it’s (also) really good!

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