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Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow by David GemmellUK edition4.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsLondoner David Gemmell became one of the most popular and prolific writers of heroic fantasy. And here I am, shamefacedly admitting that Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow is the first of his over-two-dozen books I’ve read. So while I’m not yet in a position to tell you how well this novel stacks up against the rest of Gemmell’s bibliography, I will say this. It’s a magnificent alternate history (or should that be alternate mythology, as I don’t know what historians actually say about how much fact lies within Homer), Lord of the Silver Bow combines crisp, unpretentious storytelling with attentive character development that draws a nearly seamless balance between acknowledging its heroes’ roles as mythic archetypes, and humanizing them in a way that avoids banality. (The latter of those is where the 2004 movie Troy fell embarrassingly short.) Gemmell’s novel strips the saga of most of its fantasy elements — like the gods, for one — and treats it as a straightforward historical. The only overt fantastical element involves one minor character’s precognitive talents. Still, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Gemmell's fan base not only won’t care, but may well go into dopamine overload. This is a spectacular, wholly satisfying epic adventure that deserves to be a major bestseller. 

Lord of the Silver Bow is set in the years just preceding the Trojan War of Homeric fame. Our hero is Aeneas, here known by his childhood name of Helakion. A man of honor in a barbaric world, Helakion lives peacefully on Cyprus, where he has earned his wealth building and captaining a fleet of ships that trade all throughout the Mediterranean. When we first meet him, Gemmell goes a bit arch on us, trumpeting Helakion’s humane goodness through the ostentatious act of taking in a street urchin and her sick prostitute of a mother. But before long, he settles into a more believable and relatable hero, a man who has earned the respect of his friends and crewmates through generosity tempered with strength and an unwillingness to suffer fools gladly.

Or enemies, for that matter. The megalomanical Greek king Agamemnon has put an enormous bounty on Helakion’s life, as a seer has foretold Agamemnon’s doom at his hands. When Helakion’s crew puts in at a popular merchant’s port for a little R&R after having weathered a terrific storm at sea, the treacherous king of the port, in league with several Greek crews, tries to murder Helakion and succeeds in torturing and killing his most beloved shipmate. When Helakion defeats the Greeks in a pitched sea battle, he tows the remaining vessel filled with Greek survivors back into the port and burns it in full view of everyone. 

This “fuck around and find out” object lesson horrifies even Helakion’s own men. Only one understands his actions, an Egyptian named Gershom rescued at sea. In a world like this, the man who is 100% evil or 100% merciful will fall by their inflexibility. Sometimes you have to speak softly and carry a big stick. But Helakion’s flexibility regarding honor, mercy, and vengeance will be put to an extraordinary test when he lands at Troy and finds the city on the cusp of civil war. 

Also figuring in this saga are the blustery, self-mythologizing Odysseus (a very different character here than appears in Dan Simmons’ Ilium); Argurios, a Greek warrior of unwavering and often stubborn integrity whose loyalty to Agamemnon is repaid with vicious betrayal; and Andromache, the betrothed of Trojan prince Hektor. Again rather archly, Helakion feels an immediate attraction to her when he sees her briefly the night before the battle with the Greek ships. And we know immediately the two are destined for an ill-fated love, the only love mythic heroes can really have. A seer foretells that Andromache’s true love will be a man with one sandal, and from then it’s just a matter of waiting until Helakion loses one of his.

Yes, in most cases, when an author megaphones his plot points to the cheap seats so brazenly, it’s patronizing to readers in a way that I would ordinarily criticize harshly. But here, I think, Gemmell is offering a respectful nod to the mythic roots of the tale he is telling. In classical mythology, this is simply how things get done, with little subtlety, the most insignificant actions having the most ominous portent. In a classic myth, when an old coot with a scraggly beard who’s blind in one eye tells you that a hawk circling your head three times means you will enjoy great wealth and a kingdom but a son who will betray and murder you, you can pretty much put it in the bank. Gemmell shows real flair for staying loyal to the tropes of these ancient myths while making them accessible to modern sensibilities. But I couldn’t help thinking how anachronistic Andromache’s character felt much of the time. She’s kind to slaves to the point of saintliness, orders around warriors and royalty with ease, and cold-cocks bitchy princesses. While Gemmell’s archetypal approach to the male heroes rings true in the context of the story’s period and setting, his approach to Andromache feels a bit too try-hardy in appealing to more modern sensibilities. 

The rest of the cast, however, ably compensates. Well-drawn supporting players bring humanity to the kind of story that often relies too much on superficial spectacle. Young Xander, a boy who learns a thing or two about Becoming a Man; Karpophorus, a reluctant assassin who finds himself wrestling with the respect he has come to feel for his intended victim; plain and lonely Laodike, daughter of Priam — these and more put Gemmell’s book several rungs above many of its mile-wide-inch-deep sword-and-sandal brethren. 

What’s not to like? Nothing, really. Lord of the Silver Bow is about as good as this kind of high adventure talespinning gets. It’s rich in detail and yet not cluttered by it, with enough action, violence, lust, warmth and humanity for any five novels. Gemmell keeps the story impressively fat-free. There’s nary a moment where the narrative creaks along under an excess of exposition, tiresome backstory or minutiae-obsessed world building. At under 500 pages, the story does exactly what this kind of escapism is supposed to do: sweep you up into another time and place, into a world you won’t want to leave. The climax is as white-knuckle thrilling in its way as the final battle in A Clash of Kings, and the resolution leaves you looking forward eagerly to the rest of the trilogy. Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow will own Gemmell’s current fans and is certain to win him new ones. It won me.

Followed by Shield of Thunder.