David Gemmell shines when he writes warriors, no two ways about it. Lord of the Silver Bow is an adventure story set in and around Troy, before the Trojan war. Our protagonist is called Heliakon, a merchant (he doesn’t like his first name, Aeneas), and we follow him through his life, often filled with hardship and hope and principles and dirty tricks. I liked this book a lot – its deviations from the Iliad are many, and they are fluent and consistent and fun.
There are many different parts to my enjoyment:
There’s politics. We see kings fail and falter, from Priam being a devious bastard keeping his many children in check, to Agamemnon with his irrational insecurities leading up to a war (completely independent from any kidnappings), to Troy’s status as a vassal to the Hittite emperor, and their conflict (ethical and practical) with Mykene.
Then there’s humanity. We see Helikaon as an unwanted young prince, we see him growing into a brave man, and we see him broken by fate and love. (Thankfully with a fair amount of flashbacks, this isn’t a biography, after all). We see Odysseus as a boastful storyteller, who gets one of the best introductions ever, and also as a man of unexpected kindness. We see slaves, assassins, lords and foot soldiers, and everybody is treated with empathy - not the first trait you’d expect from a Swords & Sandals adventure book, but very in line with Gemmell’s other work.
Then, of course, there’s the drama: I found myself rooting for Odysseus, Helikaon, Kassandra, Hekabe, Hektor, and of course the brilliantly painted Andromache (who had been serving at the wild, women-only temple on Thera). I always feel that takes on Troy that ignore Andromache are missing out. The core drama was nothing exciting, ill-fated love blah blah, but it didn’t take up too much room, and it was plausible enough to not put me off. Had the primary conflict been a bit better, this would have been a five-star book.
And there’s wisdom. I found an unexpected amount of quotable lines that spoke to me. No novel insights, but just … firmly grounded words that made me think and feel better. Not a Pratchett, but still very welcome.
And there’s writing – really, really solid writing. The pacing is solid, the characters are vivid, and the mix of storytelling, humour, heartbreak, worldbuilding, intrigue and (surprisingly little) fighting is just right. Bonus points for feeling like a complete book despite being the first in a trilogy.