Here’s a Book Thing: Madeline Miller’s Greek Myth novels

I wept when I finished Circe earlier today.

Crying isn’t uncommon for me. I’ve always been a bit of a sentimentalist, but something changed in me when my father passed away, a decade past; the tears flow more now, brought on by concern or relief or love or drama. I recently brought this up with my mother, in passing, and she mentioned that she, too, noticed this change in herself, the ease with which emotion can well up within us.

And Circe is about emotion: love and hate, anger and resolve. It is about a woman who is sidelined by capital-F Fate and the uncaring gods and who refuses to succumb to that lowercase-f fate, to be nothing more than a footnote in history, lost to time and dust. She is a witch, yes, but most importantly she is a person, with agency and purpose and desires and dreams and fears.

This strikes at something that I have always found frustrating in ancient mythology. The gods are capricious, of course, horrible and random and merciless, but the explanation there is in their nature: they are without, not within, and not bound to the strictures of sensibility with which us mere mortals wish to bind our tales. First this, then that. This because of that, so obviously the other. But mortals, too, fall prey in the telling of ancient tales to whim and irrationality, betraying what we believe their true selves because the story demands the mad stroke, the ironic twist, the glorious death.

When Aphrodite spirits Paris away to the safety of Troy right as Menelaus is about to land that killing blow, we shrug: deus ex machina, the immortal saving the favored on a whim, what can we flesh and blood do but accept that breaking of the rules? But when Patroclus, calm compatriot of Achilles, tries to scale the walls of Troy in his lover’s armor, we blink and ask: why?

(Yes, I know that both of those bits come from the Iliad, not the Odyssey. We’ll get there.)

The glib answer is that it makes for an interesting story, characters acting mad when the tale needs a twist, a shock delivered to the audience huddled around a campfire or in a dining hall, to elicit that unbidden gasp, the lean forward that says: pray, dear poet, tell us more! The smarmy answer is that it’s lazy storytelling, forcing round pegs into square holes so that the outcome, the Moral of the Tale, can be reached even when the personalities involved begin to run in another direction altogether.

The sharper answer: perhaps the motivation was there all along, just waiting to be uncovered.

Madeline Miller has published two books so far. The first is The Song of Achilles, a telling of Achilles’ upbringing, rise to become the Best of the Greeks, and downfall at the hands of Paris and Apollo as told in the Iliad. Instead of telling that tale from the viewpoint of the hero, though, the book takes a much more interesting approach; we hear the tale from the mouth of Patroclus, a noble cast out from his family by an over-proud father, who comes to live with Achilles and eventually becomes his boon companion.

And lover. That their relationship is more than mere friendship is subtext-and-then-some in the Iliad, and Miller makes a smart choice here of going all in on the romance. It acts as the key to understanding much of Achilles’ behavior over the course of the story, indeed the structure of the myth itself. Why do the Greeks lay siege to the Trojans for ten years, an honestly ludicrous amount of time? Well, Achilles wants to spend more time with his lover, to spend more time living, because he knows what fate has in store for him. And when the worm turns and that love turns to ash, his madness and grief are his downfall in a way that is real and poetic and utterly devastating. I wept at the end of The Song of Achilles, too, and my heart aches just thinking about it now.

Circe does something that in some ways is even more interesting: it takes a character who exists on the edge of many myths, key to the Odyssey, of course, but also the Metamorphoses and other ancient tales, and provides her a true grounding. Rather than being an agent of Fate–which, in myth, is the same as being an agent of the storyteller–it contextualizes her existence as a woman in ancient Greece, thought of as lesser because of her nature and her meager powers but also because she committed that crime of simply being not male. Odysseus shows up, as he must, but their relationship in Circe is much more one of individuals who understand who they are and what what they should and shouldn’t do–and then do it anyway–than the necessary plot shenanigans to prepare our Stalwart Hero for the next set of horrible events that the storyteller planned to throw in his path.

And, vitally, the story is not just about Circe’s relationships with men, her intersections with those ur-myths that underlie modern Western civilizations. She is a mother, a lover, a witch, a minor goddess, and all of these are important to the tale. But she is a person, with failings and hopes and all the rest, even as the gods try to push her around on the draughts board of life. That is a part that most Greek tales reserved for men and men alone, and Miller reclaims it here.

I’ve never been able to make it all the way through either the Iliad or the Odyssey, but one of the advantages of being brought up in this modern Western era is that it’s hardly necessary. Reading this pair of books will bring you to many moments of almost forehead-slapping ah, yes, of course! obviousness when a tale ties back to a thing you knew and half forgot. The Minotaur and Daedalus and his son Icarus. Helen of Troy and Odysseus and Ariadne and Athena. The Golden Fleece, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, Jason and Medea. If the characters and references spark remembrance, then good; if not, fear not, because the tales are told well enough that it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to be a Classics major to enjoy these tales about the fundamentals of what it means to be human.

And it spoils nothing to say: love, of course. Not lust, like Zeus for every beautiful thing on the planet, but love, that of a mother for their child or a young man for his best friend and lover. And that is what these tales remind us of, filled with tragedy though they are: love is what makes us who we are, and it is what endures.

And it is love–of people, of words, of the world–that makes us weep.

Footnote: I wanted, somewhere in here, to draw a parallel between these books and Tim Powers’ “hidden histories,” in that Miller’s novels act as–if you’ll forgive the punning–hidden mythstories, wrapping the somewhat ludicrous tales of the ancient gods and heroes in the format of a modern novel that makes it all feel a lot more sensible. But the write-up turned to a more lyrical and less literal bent, and it felt too jarring to throw that comparison in there. So I cheat, and hide it here at the bottom. I’m no Alexander, and this no Gordian knot, but I know a good conceit when I see it. And thus: the point made, the flow unmarred. So the story flows.

Here’s a book thing: The Eternal Sky series by Elizabeth Bear

I find most fantasy novels tiresome. They rely on a well-worn set of tropes: the plucky village kid that’s secretly the savior of the world, the mysterious wizards making use of ill-explained magic to worm the author out of whatever poorly-written corner they get stuck in, the portents and prophecies and projections of way-too-stable fallen empires that somehow come perfectly true at just the right moment.

And yet.

I think a lot of that exhaustion comes from the repeated returns to an over-dipped well, that of traditional Western Europe. There’s only so many times that you can read about another not-quite-Arthur or almost-Jeanne d’Arc before it all becomes something of a blur. There’s quite literally a whole world of mythopoeia out there, and yet the vast majority of the stuff available in the English language leans on a tiny subset of story and culture.

In many ways, Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky series is very traditional fantasy. The first book, Range of Ghosts, starts with a young man surviving a battle he should not have survived, and if you don’t think that he’s destined to become a key figure in the battles to come you definitely haven’t read (or watched) very many things. The villain of the work all but strokes his mustache in his very first scene. And there is magic galore, dragons and rings and ancient battlefields and dark portals to lands unknown.

And yet.

Part of the series’ appeal, at least to me, is its mining of a completely different vein of mythic substrate. Ra Temur comes from a culture based on the Mongols, not the English or the French, and his obsessions are those that make sense for a child of the steppe: horses, bows, travel, clans. Other characters hail from analogues of Tibet, China, and a fascinating alternate-universe Middle East that I wish had been afforded even more detail over the relatively slim1 trilogy.

The worldbuilding is strong, evocative, and detailed in the right ways; it leaves you wanting more but mostly satisfied with the glimpses you get of this other world 2. The metaphysics is quirky–there’s a thing going on with the skies of the various nations that, honestly, turned me away from the books the first time I tried to read them, several years ago–but impressively consistent, in a manner that makes one thing of science fiction or the more rigorous works of Sanderson than the traditional high fantasy “anything goes” style.

Also appealing is the fact that these books are decidedly modern, even if the characters within are often constrained by the cultures and customs in which they find themselves trapped. It has characters and tropes that almost certainly would bring accusations of “virtue signalling” and “social justice” out the mouths of a particular class of reader… if that class of reader’s worldview could handle well-conceived stories written by gasp a woman in the first place. It also manages to swerve aggressively around several weary genre standards, even as parts of it come off as nothing but traditional; I particularly like its treatment of a One Ring-like plot device, and appreciated the pointed jabs at just how convenient it is to talk shit about empires from the enlightened distance of our egalitarian, there-are-no-problems-with-modern-democracy future.

Plus, you know, they were just flat-out solid reads, with interesting characters, complex (but not too complex) politics, and a deep sense of the right amount of mystery to both reveal and conceal. Upon finishing the third book, I was both glad of the end and left wanting more. And in this world of crappy endings, what more can you ask for?

[If you’d like a peek into the world, Strange Horizons has a short story available, set (and written) slightly earlier than the novels themselves; you can read “Love among the Talus” here.]

Here’s a book thing: “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson

I had never heard of Adam Johnson before.  The local library had a display of short story collections, as part of their year-long reading challenge that I somehow missed signing up for; I had already grabbed Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman, but something about the cover of Fortune Smiles appealed to me.  It seemed pop-art-y, for some reason evoking my memory of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay even though they don’t look very similar at all.

I liked Fortune Smiles

From that, I learned that the book that put Adam Johnson on the map was all about North Korea.  I put it on hold and added it to the enormous pile of library books that are currently sitting on my couch; I’m tearing through them as quickly as possible in anticipation of NaNo, knocking out all the novels before I dive into the dauntingly-huge short story collections that remain.

Come Sunday evening, it was The Orphan Master’s Son

The book is dark, depressing, haunting.  It paints a vision of the DPRK that is unrelentingly awful.  My understanding is that it was painstakingly researched, that life there is really just as terrible as the book shows, and even if it’s only a tenth as bad as the book makes it out to be, the North Korean regime’s iron grip on its populace is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.  This is something I knew in the abstract, of course, but reading about it–even in fictional form–makes it much more visceral, much more real despite the irreality of a story.

And, more than anything else, this is a book about stories.  The DPRK is a place where everyone lies as a matter of course, from morning until night when the power goes out, because to tell the truth is to implicate yourself in doings which officially never happen, even though they absolutely do.  The ability to lie on demand, to concoct a tale that cloaks events in such a way as to satisfy your interrogators, is just as critical a survival tactic as knowing which flowers are edible, or how to set a snare to capture a swallow and eat it.  (Both of these acts are illegal, of course.  Everything is, other than worship of the Dear Leader.)

The Orphan Master’s Son questions the meaning of identity, both personal and national, when survival requires that identity to be made of lies.  It does not look away from horror, from the everyday evils of a brutal despotic regime that starves an entire nation to death while convincing them that their demise is righteous and just.  It had passages that actually forced me to look away from the book for a bit, utterly defeated by the hopelessness and depravity.  And it also finds hope buried deep within that unblinking despair.

Like the stories that the characters have to tell in order to survive another day, the story of The Orphan Master’s Son has holes, problems, issues.  And like those stories, it is not about being true, it is about being convincing.

I am not sure I have ever been so convinced.

Here’s a book thing: The Bill Hodges trilogy by Stephen King

As mentioned in my first Stephen King review, it became clear to me while reading The Outsider that one of the characters was from a previous work.  That work turned out to be an entire trilogy of gritty crime novels.  I snagged them from the library last week, and have spent much of the intervening time reading them.

Conclusion: they’re good.  Also, large print books are awesome for my aging, failing eyes, and I’ll be on the lookout for large print editions when possible in the future.

The first two novels in the series, Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, are straight-up mystery/crime books with no supernatural elements.  Mr. Mercedes is the better book, I think, but that’s at least partly because Finders Keepers involves a J.D. Salinger-type writer and I am really tired of Stephen King having stories revolve around writers.  You’re a writer, bub.  I get it.  We all get it.  We got it in The Dark Half, and Bag of Bones, and Duma Key, and… yeah.  We get it.  I actually stopped reading King for a while because he seemed to be in a rut where every main character was a middle-aged writer.  I mean, sure, write what you know, but… c’mon.

Fortunately, the writer is offed in the opening.  This is a crime novel, after all.

By the end of the second book, there are a whole lot of pointers to the fact that the third one (End of Watch) is going to be more supernatural in nature, even if you weren’t already aware of that due to mentions in The Outsider.  And that turns out to, indeed, be the case; what was impressive was that the book still managed to be a solid mystery/crime novel despite the supernatural elements.

That said, I feel that the series had a pretty linear decline in quality.  They were all good, but Mr. Mercedes was the best, with the most captivating villain and the best “oh, if only!” moments.  That’s actually kinda nice, to be honest; if you only have time for one of them, you can read the first and be pretty content.

Are they better than The Outsider, you ask?  I think I enjoyed that book more, because the back half of it was a more traditional King novel, with the dreamlike logic those books contain.  But that book is also a very, well, King-ian work, with weird horrible magical things happening and massive confusion reigning.  I like that sort of thing, but totally understand why some people don’t.

On the other hand, Mr. Mercedes presents a perfectly human villain that does things almost as awful.  Isn’t that worse, really?

Here’s a book thing: “The Outsider” by Stephen King

[Extremely minimal spoilers ahead.  Basically, if you’ve ever read… well, anything by Stephen King, it’s spoiler-free.]

I wended my way through Stephen King’s latest novel last night, finishing it up around one in the morning.  Now, I wake up to an alarm at 0500 every Monday morning for stupid reasons involving a video game, so I should have been in bed around 9pm or so… but I just couldn’t pull myself away from the book.

It’s good.  Real good.

I used to be an enormous Stephen King fan.  My mom let me join the Stephen King Book Club when I was eleven or so; the first book I got was Needful Things, which had just come out.  (To those of you concerned about a kid reading Stephen King, let’s just say that I could handle it, and my mother was well aware of that.)  It was painfully clear to me that there was a lot more to this Castle Rock business, even before I could look up the details easily on Wikipedia, and over the next few years more and more of his earlier books would trickle into my possession from the Book Club.  I can’t remember exactly when we stopped the subscription; I think it was sometime after Dolores Claiborne and before Insomnia, but I’m not entirely sure.

Anyhow, while I was a huge King fan for years, his grasp on my imagination slackened considerably once he entered that period where it felt like every book he wrote involved a New England author having a mid-life crisis, oh and also some spooky stuff happened or whatever.  I felt like he was treading the same water over and over.  His ending to the Dark Tower series also left… a lot to be desired.  I figured I’d still read him every now and then, but my days of following every new Stephen King novel were over.

This proved to be true; I picked up the interquel Dark Tower book and Duma Key from the library at different times over the last few years, and they were pretty much precisely what I expected: a disappointment and a book about an author having a mid-life crisis, oh and also some spooky stuff happened, in that order.

I read a snippet of a review of the brand-new King novel, The Outsider, and it mentioned that the book was a “return to form.”  I figured, what the hell? and put it on hold at the local library.  Apparently I was one of the very first to do that, because I got it in my hot little hands immediately after it entered circulation.

Conclusion: It’s good.  Real good.  It is, indeed, something of a return to form.  The novel starts off like a police procedural, but things get weirder and weirder as it goes, and by the end it is definitely a Stephen King novel.  As someone who is strongly spoiler-averse I won’t go further than to say that I felt it fit together better than a lot of his later work.

A note that I would have appreciated before reading it: one of the main characters of the novel is apparently from King’s earlier crime trilogy that starts with Mr. Mercedes, a fact I didn’t know but started to suspect as I read.  The Outsider spoils the events of those novels pretty heavily, so be forewarned that if you don’t want those spoilers, you should read those books first.

That said, the book stands alone just fine.  Duma Key was something of a mediocre read, and the less said about The Wind in the Keyhole the better, but if this is how he writes nowadays, I’m ready to become a fan again.