Black Ships is a retelling of the Aeneid. Jo Graham writes it from the point of view of the Sybil, a girl named Gull. The author takes a few liberties, creating a version based more on historical facts than Virgil’s. For instance, instead of Aeneas getting caught up in an affair with Dido, the Carthaginian queen, he ends up staying a few years in Egypt for a dalliance with Pharaoh’s sister, Basetamon. As Graham explains in the afterword, Carthage was founded hundreds of years after the fall of Troy and so it simply didn’t make sense to keep this part if she was going to remain historically accurate. Egypt, on the other hand, did make sense, with it being an important center in those days.
Historical accuracy, however, doesn’t matter much when you have an oracle speaking with the Lady of the Dead, telling futures, and people walking into the Underworld. So, really, I don’t see why she couldn’t have just stayed with Dido. In any case, this didn’t really bother me much, as I find the Aeneid to be a puffed up creation of the Romans who wanted nothing better than to have a heroic myth to compete with the Iliad. It was entertaining, at the very least. This book, however, wasn’t as entertaining as it could have been.
It starts with Gull as a child. She is the daughter of a Wilusan slave (Trojan). Pythia recognizes the powers in the girl and takes her in as acolyte. Years later, Pythia dies and Gull takes over the job. Then one day, ships sail in and attack. But really, all they wanted was to rescue their enslaved people, for leading those ships is Prince Aeneas and Wilusa has been sacked again, probably for the last time. Gull steps in and stops any bloodshed and then leaves with Aeneas and company on a journey to find their place in the world.
The journey takes long. They are hounded by Neoptolemos, the Achaian leader, throughout the seas, but he never really materializes as a credible threat. Shelter is hard to come by. Storms ravage their fleet. Battles whittle their numbers. But still, Gull gives Aeneas counsel. She has a love interest, one of the captains, Xandros. The Wilusans spend a lot of time in Egypt. Gull is tempted to stay there but she knows that is not their destiny. And they leave, eventually.
By the time they get to Italy, I’m a little underwhelmed. I know where the story is going but I find it hard to care at this point. Their journey seems like it should be more dangerous than it is but I never get that feeling of fear for the characters. Maybe this is simply because I know the myth. But I can’t help feeling that part of it is Gull herself. She seems unable to do any wrong. Aeneas too, for that matter. And it’s just not as entertaining as it could be.
All in all, it was an okay read. I just can’t help feeling it could have been a lot better.
My rating: 3/5