Book One of The Troy Game
Tor Books hardcover - copyright 2003
cover art by Luis Royo (left)
Book read in February 2003
Rating: 7/10 (Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
Interview with author Sara Douglass
For over a generation, the fantasy genre was dominated by Tolkien imitators, throwing an easily recognizable cast of characters into the same medieval setting. The fantasy field, which should allow authors the greatest freedom of any genre, has for some time felt cramped and worn. A gifted prose stylist like George R.R. Martin can still find a compelling epic story to tell with dragons and warriors in a medieval setting, but for mere mortals this "high fantasy" mode is mined out.
Thankfully, modern fantasists are growing out of the Tolkienesque high fantasy mold. One alternative has been to set fantasy stories in the present day (uniformly referred to as "urban fantasies", even when they take place in the middle of a big ol' forest), but it is difficult for the modern world to be the stage for the kind of sweeping, epic struggles that so many readers love. Instead, fantasy writers are increasingly turning to settings inspired by periods of history other than the medieval era Tolkien invoked.
With Hades' Daughter, Sara Douglass - who is just beginning to make her mark in the U.S. market after enjoying huge success in her native Australia - carries this trend one better, embarking on a projected four-volume fantasy series that is to be set throughout history.
The premise of The Troy Game series is that the Labyrinth of the Theseus myth was not unique. Other Aegean cities were also built upon labyrinths. A labyrinth functions as the playing field for an elaborate "Game" that, if played correctly, can imprison evil and allow the city around it to thrive. The original labyrinths were destroyed, but another was constructed long ago at the site that would become London. The Troy Game follows a millennia-long Game over this, the last of the labyrinths.
This is a way-cool idea, and the perfect framework for a story spanning the length of recorded history, following the players in the Game as they engage each other in various guises from ancient Crete to Twentieth Century London.
Hades' Daughter, the first installment of The Troy Game, is an historical fantasy/romance novel set in ancient Greece and pre-Roman Celtic Britain, some one hundred years after the fall of Troy. Most of the action of Hades' Daughter takes place in the span of just two years, but Douglass interjects several short passages set in 1939, to let us know that the events of this book are only the initial steps in a dance that will continue for thousands of years. We don't know for certain what other historical settings The Troy Game will encompass, but Douglass hints that there will be an important encounter in the Seventeenth Century, and that the Game will culminate in World War II.
Sara Douglass uses the myth of Theseus' escape from the Labyrinth as the springboard for Hades' Daughter. In the traditional tale, the Mistress of the Labyrinth, Ariadne, helps Theseus to defeat and kill her brother Asterion, the Minotaur. Instead of rewarding Ariadne, Theseus abandons her on the way home from Crete. Sara Douglass takes the story from there, showing us that a Mistress of the Labyrinth is not so lightly cast aside. Enraged by her treatment, Ariadne recalls Asterion from Hades and, with his help, destroys the Greek labyrinths, leaving the Aegean civilization devastated for centuries to come (consistent with the actual archeological record) and all but wiping out the Greek gods. She then flees to Albion (Britain).
Five generations later, Ariadne's devious and ambitious descendant Genvissa thinks the time has come to complete Ariadne's plan by rebuilding the labyrinth and using it to gain power and immortality. She believes she can accomplish this even over the possible resistance of Asterion, the remnants of the Greek gods, and Albion's native gods Og and Mag, whom Genvissa and her foremothers have managed to weaken greatly.
To complete her labyrinth, Genvissa will need the assistance of a kingman. The only candidate is Brutus, the last heir of Troy. Brutus is as ambitious as Genvissa, but it is not clear whether he is also as wicked, or rather motivated by a genuine desire to lift the Trojan people back to prosperity.
Brutus receives a supernatural visitation, in which he is instructed to travel to Albion. He stops at the Greek city of Mesopotama (not to be confused with Mesopotamia, which would have required a much longer detour), where his band of Trojan warriors attempt to free the thousands of resident Trojan slaves. While there, Brutus gets it in his head to wed Cornelia, the young heir of Mesopotama.
The main part of the story centers on the love-hate relationship between Brutus and Cornelia as they travel to Albion, and on Genvissa's machinations to complete her labyrinth and to claim Brutus for herself.
Douglass' writing style is rather wordy to my tastes and, especially in the early sections of the novel, the narrative is burdened with wooden dialogue between easily overwrought characters (although there is also plenty of graphic sex and violence, to be sure). But things begin to move along more smoothly and the story gathers inertia once Brutus and Cornelia set off for Albion. I might have preferred Douglass to start us further into the story, but then I find most of today's fat fantasy novels in need of trimming.
One reason things pick up once we get to Albion is that Douglass admirably integrates the powerful but tangible gods of Greek mythology with the mysticism and spirituality of the Celtic tradition. There is similarly an interesting contrast between the Trojans' warrior mentality and Albion's matriarchal culture.
The intrigues and power struggles centering on the Game are endlessly fascinating. Scarcely anything occurs that is not part of some grand subterfuge, and one can never be quite sure who is deceiving whom. This volume shows us only the players' initial moves in the Game, yet Douglass manages to give the book a satisfying partial resolution.
The Game itself is a nice metaphor for modern technology. Douglass shows us that the ancient Aegean civilization prospered by harvesting negative energies in their labyrinths, but with the countervailing danger that the cities could be destroyed if those dark forces were released. It is telling that the first city so destroyed is consumed in a blinding flash of light followed by a mushroom cloud.
Much of this novel focuses on the main characters' romantic involvements, particularly the love triangle between Brutus, Cornelia, and Genvissa. Thankfully, the romance is seamlessly integrated into the fantasy adventure. Douglass carries the love story off far better than other recent science fiction and fantasy romances I have read, including last year's Nebula Award winner, Catherine Asaro's The Quantum Rose.
The romance is more intricate than your typical love triangle. That familiar but charming courtship between the ideal man and the perfect woman, well, it's nowhere to be found in here. Brutus leaves much to be desired as a leading man. He softens as the book progresses, but he has a lot to make up for, having started out by brutally and needlessly murdering Cornelia's boyfriend and then forcibly raping her. Cornelia is no prize herself at the outset, but over the course of the book she matures from her initial self-absorbed outlook. First-person sequences from Cornelia's point of view nicely underscore the growth of her character, even as she continues to make foolish decisions.For much of the book, I thought Douglass had made a mistake by making Brutus too contemptible for the reader to want to see Cornelia win his affection. Finally it dawned on me that maybe we're not supposed to. Hades' Daughter is not a simple love story where we know the hero and leading lady will eventually fall madly in love and live happily ever after. No, the central question in this love story is: Will the leading lady realize that the hero ain't good enough for her?
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Australian book cover of Hades' Daughter (right)