Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sean Barrs
Reviewed by Sean Barrs
Summary: Sutcliff provides a fast and compelling overview of Homer's Iliad, appropriate for young readers or those who want an introduction to Homer's vast epic.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 128 Date: June 2017
Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children's Books
ISBN: 978-1847809957

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This is the perfect book for those that want a taste of Homer's Iliad before attempting the full work. Although aimed at a younger reading audience, Sutcliff's writing is concise and gripping; thus, this will be as equally beneficial to adults. This, when brought together with the excellent artistic skills of Allan Lee, makes for a lavish retelling of the Iliad.

The story begins with two lovers, a Trojan Prince (Paris) and the wife of Menelaus King of Sparta (Helen). Helen's beauty captured the heart of Paris, and as Christopher Marlowe famously said Helen was the face that launched a thousand ships. This was followed by a very long war, death and lots of blood resulting in a long drawn out siege that would continue for many years. Fabled heroes clashed spear against spear, shield against shield and the war waged on and on. Many would become immortalised in the action. Hector, Ajax and Odysseus to name a few; however, none more so than the mighty Achilles himself.

And this is where the illustrations and the writing excelled. In the images Achilles foregrounds all the other warriors, naturally, his presence demands attention. In Sutcliff's prose his presence was powerful and fear-inducing to his enemies. His anger, when roused, was terrible to behold. Few could stand against it and none of them for very long. When Patroclus fell, as Homer's narrative dictates, he was near unstoppable. The blame lay at the feet of Prince Hector, mightiest of the Trojans, and even he faltered at the sight of the golden haired warrior's wrath.

Unlike other modern adaptations, Sutcliff does not solely focus on the story of Achilles. The Iliad does not follow one central character, after all, but instead breaks off into parts each telling the story of one particular character and his/her actions through the siege. Sutcliff jumps between the intertwining plots with dexterity. The story of Ajax's shame and dishonouring is told against the tales of Odysseus' ingenuity. Odysseus is, arguably, the most important character in the original work, so it was great to see him have a lot of page time despite the fact that his actions are not quite as dramatic as those of other characters.

Alan Lee has illustrated many special editions of Tolkien's writing. His work captures a sense of the epic within such settings. And it was great to see it here too. Sutcliff's writing is good, but it is the work of Alan Lee alongside it that makes this book truly remarkable. The images captured the sheer scale of the fighting and the urgency Agamemnon had for total victory, though it wasn't him that, ultimately, won the war. It was the soldiers, the heroes. It was those who fought for glory, rather than any particular political motivation or advancement, and it is those which history will remember most strongly.

So this book will be great for young readers hearing the story of Troy for the first time, but it also provides an excellent plot overview for those who want to read Homer's work in full at a later date. It's almost like an introduction, concise and explanatory, appropriate for children and adults like all great books that fall into the children's literature category should be. If you like the sound of this, then these two books also retell ancient Greek Myths for young readers Greek Myths: Stories of Sun, Stone and Sea by Sally Pomme Clayton and Greek Myths by Ann Turnbull and Sarah Young.

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