The Songs of the Kings


Barry Unsworth


Fiction / Literature


Date Reviewed:

April 28, 2004

read Sacred Hunger by Unsworth, and I thought it was terrific. I read Morality Play by him, and really enjoyed it also. So I had high expectations for The Songs of the Kings. But I found this book to be unimpressive. I thought it would be a story of the Trojan War, and indeed all the big names show up: Agamemnon, Ajax (both of them), Achilles, Odysseus and even Homer. But the war never occurs - the entire novel takes place upon the shore of the sea, where a strong wind blowing from the unexpectedly wrong direction has prevented the Greek fleet from sailing across the sea to attack Troy.

The book jacket implies that this novel is a rewrite of one of Shakespeare's plays (but does not mention which one), and indeed the action has the feel of a play - all the action takes place at only a few locations, basically, upon the shore. (Action is used loosely in the previous sentence, most of the story consists of the characters talking and talking and talking.)

The story begins with Chalcas, the chief diviner of Agamemnon. The first third of the story is told from his vantage point, but the conspirators manage to isolate him, and he pretty much disappears from the rest of the narrative.

Wily Odysseus (portrayed here as a cunning villain who tells lies for the sheer joy of it) has convinced the Greeks that the strong wind that pins their fleet to the shore is due to the anger of Zeus, and only a proper sacrifice will cause the wind to cease. And the only proper sacrifice is Iphigeneia - the daughter of Agamemnon. But why does Odysseus so desire the her death? Is it just out of sheer villany? If there was an explanation, I missed it.

Iphigeneia is lured to the Greek camp with the story that Achilles has offered to marry her. When instead she finds that she is to be sacrificed instead, her slave girl offers to switch places and die in her stead (That sure sounds like Shakespeare, isn't switching places and mistaken identity one of his favorite plot twists?) However, the words of Odysseus have convinced Iphigeneia that she is fated to die a noble death, and so she goes willingly, nobly to her doom.

Not that we see the doom. I anticipated that the big sacrifice seen would the climax of the story, with each character emotional response on display (what does Agamemnon think of slaying his daughter? Does Odysseus feel any remorse?) But the sacrifice scene occurs offstage (the slave girl hears a shout go up from the camp) and suddenly the whole story is over.

Quite disappointing. This is not a story of heroic Greeks. This is a story of chuckleheads and villains. Why does Unsworth choose to cast all the Greek legendary heroes as such buffoons?

This book receives only 2 stars. Skip this book, and you will miss nothing. I recently went to see the movie Troy starring Brad Pitt - that is more entertaining than this dry text.