Ancient Gods, the Devil, and Very Smart Spiders

From a strongly feminist re-telling of Greek myth and legend to a tale of humans becoming gods to another species.

Issue #55, Sunday 24 December 2023

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Five books to discuss! That’s a better rate of reading than I’ve had for months.

House of Odysseus by Claire North

This is the second book in a trilogy by Claire North with an overall title of "The Songs of Penelope". I reviewed the first book, Ithaca, in October last year, and enthused about how much I enjoyed this feminist re-telling of Greek myth and legend.

Each book in the trilogy is narrated in the first person by a different Greek goddess. In Ithaca it was the goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus. In the second book the narrator is the goddess Aphrodite, goddess of love. However, the books focus primarily on the character of Penelope, Odysseus' wife, left behind on Ithaca when her husband sailed off to Troy with the other Greek kings. They did so to fulfil an oath made to Menelaus, King of Sparta, to help him recover his beautiful wife Helen, taken to Troy by young Paris, a prince of that city. That was twenty years before this book begins, and the war has now been over for ten years, but Odysseus has not returned to Ithaca and is now widely presumed to be dead.

In his absence, his queen Penelope has been ably looking after her people on Ithaca while having to fend off a host of suitors for her hand in marriage, but who are more like parasites on her hospitality. Though she is not certain that Odysseus is alive, she refuses all their claims.

Life on Ithaca is not simple, however. Almost all of the island's adult men sailed with Odysseus to Troy and none returned. The island is therefore populated by old men and by fatherless youths only now reaching adulthood. And, of course, it is mostly populated by the women. Women who, strong and capable to begin with, have only become even stronger and more capable as time has passed.

In the first book, Penelope had to deal with pirates pillaging the towns of Ithaca. To counter these raids, Penelope secretly organised an army of women, armed largely with bows and knives, weapons easily explained away as just everyday tools for hunting and preparing meals.

Part-way through the first book, life for Penelope was severely disrupted by the arrival of Orestes and his sister Elektra, the children of King Agamemnon of Mycenae. Agamemnon was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra not long after he returned from Troy, and Orestes and Elektra come to Ithaca believing, correctly, that their mother fled to the island where her cousin Penelope reigns. Towards the end of the first book, Orestes kills his mother at the urging of Elektra, a killing in which Penelope is at least partially complicit.

As House of Odysseus opens, two years have passed, and Elektra returns in secret to Ithaca, in charge of her brother, who appears to have been driven mad by his act of matricide and because he is spiritually being hounded by the Furies, three ancient deities of vengeance. Orestes, of course, is now King of Mycenae, but is in no fit state to be seen or to rule. In desperation to keep his condition secret, Elektra has taken him on what is claimed to be a pious pilgrimage to shrines and temples.

Then Menelaus, King of Sparta, arrives in pomp at Ithaca's port with a large contingent of Spartan soldiers. Though he puts on a great show of bonhomie and professes nothing but friendship and assistance to Penelope, he essentially takes over the island. He's in search of Orestes because if he can take charge of him, Menelaus will declare Orestes incompetent, act as his regent, and in practice become King of all Greece. Though Penelope makes a determined effort to hide Orestes and Elektra, it's not long before the Spartans find them and bring them to the palace.

Along with Menelaus and all his soldiers, of course, also comes the wife of Menelaus—Helen of Troy, now twenty years older than when she was taken to Troy, but still the most beautiful of women. Her behaviour, though, is that of an empty-headed bimbo, often drunk, treated contemptuously by her husband. But, as we eventually discover, there are depths to her.

Penelope, too, has depths to her. She is very clever, and she is determined to out-manoeuvre Menelaus. And she has her secret army of women to help her.

I really liked all of this, it's a very engaging story and by concentrating on the largely-ignored women of the ancient tales, the author gives a fascinating and very fresh look at those old stories. There's some lovely pieces of writing, too, such as Penelope's bracing, unsympathetic monologue delivered to Orestes when he is whimpering for forgiveness:

You want forgiveness, Orestes? It will never come. So either crawl into your hole and shrivel now, die now, or seek repentance for doing the needful thing. Make your repentance your strength. Build life over the ashes of your butcher father, your murdered mother. Where Agamemnon slaughtered Iphigenia, raise a shrine for unmarried girls, a place of safety in her name. Where Clytemnestra slew Agamemnon, set up courts of justice to bring back harmony to your land. Where you slew Clytemnestra, cast libations into the sand and make upon those shores treaties of peace, an end to bloodshed. Someone must end this story. It may as well be you.

My only reservation with this book, as it was with the first in the trilogy, is that I'm not sure that the narration by the various goddesses is really convincing. Here, particularly at the start of the book, I wasn't sure that the narration by the goddess Aphrodite worked well, though it does allow her to tell, from her point of view, the story of the Judgement of Paris, which ends up with Aphrodite promising to give Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, which of course turns out to be Helen “the face that launched a thousand ships”, and which precipitates the "breaking of the world" when the Trojan War ensues.

Despite that small reservation, I'm greatly looking forward to the third and final book in the trilogy, The Last Song of Penelope, in which Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca. I’m thinking he’s not going to be received with open arms by Penelope, no matter what the legend may say.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann

I talked about another book by David Grann called The Wager a few issues ago. David Grann was, probably still is, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, and he's brilliant at writing really engaging, thoroughly researched, non-fiction pieces.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes is a collection of his shorter pieces, most of them written for The New Yorker, one for The Atlantic, and a couple for other outlets. The title of the book is rather deliberately sensationalist, and I'll bet it was the choice of the publisher rather than of Grann himself. I could be wrong, of course.

There's only one story involving Sherlock Holmes. But the Holmes story, which is the first in the collection, is a very interesting one. It's really the story of Richard Lancelyn Green, an obsessive Sherlock Holmes scholar. Green's father, also named Richard Lancelyn Green, had been a writer and a close friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The younger Green discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories before he turned eleven, and was quickly obsessed, going on to become a prominent member of Sherlockian societies, and wrote a number of serious papers about the character. In his mature years, he was intent on writing a definitive biography of Holmes' creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and was trying to track down an archive of letters, diary entries and manuscripts apparently in the possession of one of Doyle's surviving children. Though she had promised to donate the archive to the British Library, after her death it turned up for auction. I won't describe all the ins and outs of Green's quest for this archive, it makes interesting reading. Suffice it to say that Green made enemies, and one day was found dead in his home, apparently after being garrotted. No one was ever identified as the murderer. So we have a classic Holmesian mystery about this most obsessive of Holmes fans. Fascinating stuff.

There are twelve stories in total in this collection, and each one of them is individual, interesting and very well written.

It's clear that David Grann spares no effort in researching his articles and books: he goes far underground beneath New York to write about the vast construction project to provide the city with drinking water; he voyages in a leaky boat through treacherous seas to research a story about one man's obsessive quest to study the giant squid and perhaps capture and raise some of its young; he goes into a federal prison to talk to an old man who made a life-long career of robbing banks and escaping from imprisonment; back into prison again to study a violent gang within the prison itself; to Haiti to attend the trial in absentia of Toto Constant, a man called 'the devil' by those who suffered from his violent extremism. It's also remarkable how many of those involved in these stories Grann has been able to track down and interview in person.

All of these stories are well worth reading, and they all just convince me to keep tracking down the other books written by this author. Indeed, I am waiting my turn at the local library to get hold of a couple of others of his which I've already put on reserve. Great stuff!

Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd

There’s a bit of a story about how I came to read this book. It’s part of a series featuring the “thief-taker” (read “detective”) Charles Maddox in the early to mid-1800s. My wife read and enjoyed the second book in the series, The Man in Black, which apparently plays around with the characters of Dickens’ Bleak House. There are apparently a couple more in the series, one to do with Mary Shelley and her novel Frankenstein, and one featuring the characters of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. They are thus what you would call “pastiches”, works which imitate the style or contents of previous books. I guess you could call them a form of fan fiction. These can be fun, if you don’t take them too seriously.

Anyway, my wife was trying to get hold of the first book in the Charles Maddox series, which she wanted in the form of an audiobook, as that’s how she does most of her reading. But for some reason, probably to do with copyright restrictions, it wasn’t available in that format in Australia. Nor was a hardcopy version readily available. Eventually she was able to track it down as a large print book in our library system, and we used it as our bedtime read-aloud reading (something we’ve been doing for years).

Though the story is interesting enough once the murder indicated by the title actually happens, we both agree that the start of the book, in fact almost up to the mid-way point, apes the style of Jane Austen at her most tedious rather than at her most interesting.

The other thing to say is that if you are going to take another author’s work as the basis for your own, you need to treat it with respect, which unfortunately Lynn Shepherd hasn’t done here. She’s swapped characters around in a cavalier fashion, giving them different relationships than in Austen’s original, and completely changed some of their personalties. I don’t think this is playing fair. Fanny Price, the protagonist of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, is a retiring, timid young woman taken in by the Bertram family because her own is too poor to keep her at home. But here she is transformed into an arrogant, sneering snob with a substantial fortune of her own. So unpleasant is she that by the middle of the book my wife and I were looking forward to her eventual demise! From there on, it did become more interesting and the author sustains the suspense of “who-done-it” pretty well until the eventual revelation.

However, I don’t think I’ll be following up on the other books in the series in a hurry.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time is the first book in a trilogy of the same name by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2016, and the trilogy was awarded the Hugo for Best Series in 2023.

I really enjoyed this novel, which is cleverly done on several levels, tackling some big themes including the future of humanity, god-like technology, and xenophobia.

We start with the point of view of Dr. Avrana Kern, whose personality at the start of the novel seems based on someone like Margaret Thatcher, arrogantly certain that her view of the world is the correct one.

In the far future humanity has developed the ability to travel between stars (though at less than light-speed) and to terraform planets to make them suitable for human habitation. The expedition led by Avrana Kern, however, has a more ambitious project: to raise up another species to sentience. The planet she egotistically dubs "Kern's World" has already been successfully terraformed and seeded with a wide variety of Earth plants and lifeforms. Now the plan is to introduce a large contingent of monkeys, alongside a virus which should speed up their evolutionary development. Freed from the historical baggage of humans on Earth, what kind of being and society will develop here?

Alas for Dr. Kern, her mission is sabotaged and her starship destroyed by a radical group fighting against the idea of interfering with the evolution of other species. Kern alone manages to escape into an orbiting satellite. Unknown to her, the landing craft containing her "barrel of monkeys" burns up in the atmosphere and all the monkeys are killed.

However, the capsule containing the evolutionary virus does make it down to the surface. The virus was tailored so as not to affect other mammals which might compete with the monkeys. In their absence, however, it finds receptive non-mammalian hosts. One of these is a species of jumping spider, Portia labiata, and the virus begins its slow work.

The story then splits into two parallel streams. One of these streams deals with the slow evolutionary development of the spiders, which become larger and more intelligent as time passes, to the point where they have a recognisable civilisation. Some wonderful world- and culture-building here, with the spider society based on webs and the control of other species such as ant colonies.

The other stream deals with the remnants of humanity, in desperate search for a new home. Many thousands of years after Kern's experiment goes astray, an ark-ship, the Gilgamesh, leaves a ravaged Earth carrying all that is left of humanity. They are delighted to find a green world apparently perfectly designed for them. Alas, they are to be disappointed.

In both streams of the story we are introduced to interesting characters (though admittedly none of them have any great depth). In the spider stream we have characters who the narrator dubs as "Portia", "Bianca", "Viola" and "Fabian" though of course these are not their real names. These notional names are re-used as the generations pass, and serve to give us a feeling of continuity, although the individuals involved differ. In the human stream the most important characters are Holsten Mason, a "classicist" who has studied the ancient culture from which Dr. Kern came, and can help translate; and Issa Lain, the female Chief Engineer of the Gilgamesh.

Each of the narrative streams is full of interest in its own right, and I certainly won't attempt to try to detail all of what happens in the novel.

Let me just say that it’s a testament to Tchaikovsky's skill as a writer that when the inevitable, existential conflict occurs between the spiders and humanity, I found myself wanting to cheer on the side of the spiders.

I though this was a terrific work of hard science fiction, a really engaging and often very thoughtful story with many interesting twists and turns (I particularly liked the fight for gender equality in the spider civilisation). Yes, you could claim there's not a lot of character development or depth, but even on that front it compares pretty well with most works of hard SF.

I'll certainly be going on to read the rest of this series, and I'll also be checking out some other books by Tchaikovsky.

Note: I listened to this as an audiobook, and as it’s fairly long (16 hours 31 minutes in the Audible edition), it took me quite a while to get through. When you are listening to an audiobook, the quality of the narrator is very important, and here I thought the narration by Mel Hudson was very good. She reads the other two books in the trilogy, too.

Everyone Here is Lying by Shari Lapena

I’m running short of time, and I don’t have a great deal to say about this book, though I enjoyed it. An engaging, page-turner thriller set in suburban America when a nine-year-old girl goes missing one day.

Currently Reading

Reading three books at once isn’t too hard if the books are all quite distinct, which these are. And they are in three different formats: ebook, audiobook, and hardcopy.

Waiting on the Shelf

Not sure what I’ll read after finishing the above. It might depend on what I get for Christmas!

And that’s your lot this time around. If you would like to support my efforts, please feel free to buy me a coffee.

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