Black Ships by Jo Graham

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Black Ships by Jo Graham

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A young female oracle is trapped in a journey both of the heart, and of her few surviving kinsmen as they journey the Mediterranean in ancient times. The mix of historical fantasy with spiritual romance might not appeal to some, but to me at least it provided a compellingly novel combination.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: July 2008
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-1841496993

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A young girl is born in ancient Greece to a slave woman, by an unknown father. Hobbled, and therefore unable to fully earn her keep, she is gifted to a local oracle, where her innate ability to see the future is honed. That is, until the Trojans who she deems her ancestors arrive, to take revenge for a second raid on their peoples, and cause her to join them on a journey into the great unknown.

That unknown also includes, in a way that almost unbalances the book too far towards the feminine, the feelings she finds for two of the sailors, as she learns to care for them in ways her soothsaying career never taught her.

What we have then is a feminised, romanticised retelling of Virgil's Aeneid, and one can get through the entire four hundred pages to the author's note and not realise this – whether that is a good thing or not, I have no idea.

In fact, despite this being a highly readable book, it remains one very awkward to write about. There is such a mood to the piece, welcome as it was, that almost unnerved me when I had to pin down what I liked and disliked about it. The mix of the fantasy with the historical setting, the mystical oracle side of her upbringing, with what must be invented rites, routines and ceremonies, compared to the nitty-gritty of these people shepherding the remnants of their civilisation to and fro along the Mediterranean coast…

Similarly the qualities of the book are bordering on a mish-mash in my mind. The style was fine, apart from a few scenes where the glossary of dates, and place and people names at the back was needed too much for my liking. The chapters didn't so much as end with cliff-hangers as with pauses, on a downward slant – oh, that's another upset, another quandary, a further challenge for the protagonists. This never made me feel like not reading, but stepping back it and defining it bluntly it sounds depressing, and it most certainly wasn't.

There was a strong drive to the travails and travels – avoiding this enemy, giving succour to those who first sheltered them, aiding and abetting others when the same accursed enemy prove a bit too resilient for many peoples' liking. All is nicely told by a narration equally concerned with the inner workings of the Sybil's mind – this earthly representative of the Goddess of Death, who will remain a young woman for the majority of this book, yet revered to some great extent by the people she voyages with.

Unless of course I was misreading it, and it really was intended to be the other way round – a most historical chick-lit, with the woman trapped in a shell of a proud religious tradition and unable to connect utterly to a grounded living, and the man that might provide for her. I would suggest though that anyone wishing for one of the other – either a fully feminine novel or a hard-on historical realist tale, would be disappointed, and that I am correct – the merging of the two, as indefinable as it might be when looking back on it, does provide for quite a novel story.

There might be some who would rankle about such intimate sensibilities being put on figures perhaps recalled from one's classical education. The story has been doctored to remove at least one major impossible conjunction of people and place, and possibly too much surmising added. The rites have been recreated, our author admits in her endnotes, and in guessing what future historians might make of the twentieth century's events, shows she has taken the original with a dollop of salt as regards complete veracity.

What remains then is a need in the reader for the character of Gull/Sybil/Pythia to be well considered, and realistic, and I think she is. Forever a conduit from the underworld, a token from a god on earth, working for a spiritual entity she never asked to be in contact with, she is at the fore of the telling, and I did find myself engaged with her as a being – less so perhaps than the men around her. Certainly there is some artistic licence in getting into the mind of the oracle as our author does, and indeed in including her, while never at the forethrust of the battles, in all the action herein.

To conclude, Black Ships was certainly not a style of book I had ever chosen for myself, and even though the reviewing gods were behind it this time I was never unhappy with the result. It certainly struck me as a melange of very varied tastes of fiction, put together quite nicely. While never setting the world alight, I would hope there was a place for books like this in the market, and wish it success. I can't recommend it as of earth-shattering brilliance, but the intriguing historical romance/nautical military/spiritual fantasy balance was done nicely enough to earn four strong Bookbag stars. At the same time, I can see the results being quite divisive – for once I will admit my rating might be as much as a whole star off for the potential audience – either one star too much, or, in a happy world, one star too few.

I would like to thank Orbit for giving the Bookbag a review copy.

If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Ice Land by Betsy Tobin.

Buy Black Ships by Jo Graham at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Black Ships by Jo Graham at

Buy Black Ships by Jo Graham at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Black Ships by Jo Graham at


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