"Troy meant one thing only to the men gathered here, as it did to their commanders. Troy was a dream of wealth; and if the wind continued the dream would crumble." As the harsh wind holds the Greek fleet trapped in the straits at Aulis, frustration and political impotence turn into a desire for the blood of a young and innocent woman--blood that will appease the gods and allow the troops to set sail. And when Iphigeneia, Agamemnon's beloved daughter, is brought to the coast under false pretences, and when a knife is fashioned out of the finest and most precious of materials, it looks as if the ships will soon be on their way. But can a father really go to these lengths to secure political victory, and can a daughter willingly give up her life for the worldly ambitions of her father?Throwing off the heroic values we expect of them, Barry Unsworth's mythic characters embrace the political ethos of the twenty-first century and speak in words we recognize as our own. The blowhard Odysseus warns the men to not "marginalize" Agamemnon and to "strike while the bronze is hot." High-sounding principles clash with private motives, and dark comedy ensues. Here is a novel that stands the world on its head.
But once I put all that baggage aside and got on with the story, I enjoyed it quite a lot! The Songs of the Kings isn't about the Trojan War as such, but the bit where the fleet is trapped because of bad winds for ages and they decided to kill Iphigenia to get things underway again. Everyone is going a little stir-crazy with all the wind, and the narrative jumps between a number of different characters, showing us the events from a wide variety of perspectives. Probably my favorite viewpoint character was Odysseus, who is very smart (but thinks he's even smarter) yet makes himself seem foolish in his speech. Calchas, the not-well-favored seer, was another good one, and the stuff from the perspective of Iphigenia herself was great. My favorite side characters were Ajax the Greater and Ajax the Lesser, the double-act of the mentally stunted and the verbally course, who invent the idea of sports competitions with amusing results.
The book, like Morality Play, is preoccupied with storytelling; in this case, it's the kind of stories we tell others and ourselves to justify what we "need" to do. It's impossible to ignore the connections to the war in Afghanistan in a novel released in 2002, but as the book itself demonstrates, they're also timeless concerns. Who controls stories is of the utmost concerns-- there are several scenes of the blind storyteller in the Greek camp, who everyone wants to endorse their perspectives with his stories, and he pushes back as much as he can. (But sometimes, you know, you need to eat.) Ultimately, careful application of storytelling changes the course of the war, as well as several people's lives, in fashions both expected and unexpected. As Iphigenia says, "We are all the victims of stories in one way or another... even if we are not in them, even if we are not born yet."